Thursday, May 23, 2019

and speaking of miracles

Albert Einstein once said, “There are only two ways to live your life: as though nothing is a miracle, or as though everything is a miracle.”

A naturalist lives life as though there is a miracle happening every hour of every day. All you have to do is find it.

And speaking of miracles...Sixty-one minutes ago, I watched the above monarch butterfly emerge from her chrysalis. 

For those of you who were at Wilderness Wildlife Week and know the story, this butterfly is just one of 37 monarch caterpillars that Glenna Julian rescued after their host plants were cut down by a maintenance crew in Sevierville. 

This is what the monarch looked like two weeks ago. May 10.
The larval monarch was being held by one of my assistant naturalists. 

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

a towhee by any other name

Martha Brewer sent me a second photo and it's probably the best I have ever seen of a male Eastern Towhee. Just perfect right down to the color of the leaves. (If I have seen a better one...I do not remember it.)

I met Martha and her husband George at Wilderness Wildlife Week in Pigeon Forge two weeks ago. They are from north Georgia near Ellijay and they came to one of my presentations and visited with me at my Author's Table afterwards.

Now, some of you of a certain age might wonder, "Whatever happened to the rufous-sided towhee? Isn't that what I am looking at?"

After all, the rufous-sided was in my first bird book: the little Golden Nature Guide of Birds I had when I was 12-years-old. And in my first "grown-up" guide: A Field Guide to the Birds East of the Rockies by Roger Tory Peterson.

So what's the deal?

The deal is this. Science is not static and ornithology, like nature, is a work in progress.

If you look at the above range map from the Golden Guide you see that once upon a time the species known as the rufous-sided towhee ranged from the east coast to the west. But oddly, the western rufouses looked a bit different than the eastern. They had spots. After careful study, it was decided that the two populations only intermingled slightly in the middle of the country but were actually two different species. So in 1995, the American Ornithological Society (AOS) "split" the rufous-sided into two separate species. Out west, they are now known as spotted towhees and our eastern birds became the Eastern towhee. 

Any field guide published before 1995 has the rufous-sided but my Sibley's published in 2000 and my most recent Peterson's published in 2005 (see below) has them as two species but a rufous-sided by any other name would still sing, "drink your teeeeaaaaa." 

Once asked how many field guides do you need? I replied, "As many as you have time to peruse. But stay current." 


Sunday, May 19, 2019

metamorphosis magic

"It's no secret that kids are spending more time inside playing on screens and less time outside playing in the woods. One recent study in the United Kingdom found that the average child there spends less time outdoors than the average prisoner," writes Jamie González for Nature Conservancy magazine.

What are we doing to our youth? 

When I discovered that a lot of homeschool kids were visiting Wilderness Wildlife Week in Pigeon Forge with their parent/teachers, I made sure to have a bit of nature at my Author's Table for a hands-on Show & Tell. Most days it was monarch butterfly caterpillars and milkweed leaves provided by Clare Dattilo and Glenna Julian

Young naturalists are fascinated by the life cycle of a butterfly: egg to caterpillar to chrysalis to winged adult, i.e. metamorphosis. And that's a bit of real life magic you won't find online but outside in your own backyard. And it happens unheralded millions of times a year, but few of us take the time to notice.

Friday, May 17, 2019

stunning grosbeaks

Last Wednesday at Wilderness Wildlife Week in Pigeon Forge I met Martha and Gordon Brewer from north Georgia near Ellijay.   They came to one of my presentations and visited with me at my Author's Table afterwards.

I soon learned that Martha loves nature photography. 

"I do enjoy taking photos of nature and am always on the lookout for an interesting subject. Nature is fascinating, as you agree," she emailed.

Martha sent me the above stunning photograph of three male rose-breasted grosbeaks, all at their feeder at the same time. These grosbeaks are spring migrants. They spend their winters in Central and South America and return generally every April to nest farther to our north and in the higher elevations of the Cumberland Mountains in East Tennessee.  

Most birds migrant south for the winter because their diets are largely made up of insects. But the grosbeaks are related to cardinals and have those large seed-cracking bills so they can often be seen eating sunflower seeds at our feeders as they pass through the lowlands. 

BUT you rarely see three at the same feeder at the same time!

"Each spring and fall, the grosbeaks migrate through our area," emailed Martha. "They usually appear the last of April or first of May and then again in September, although the numbers are smaller then. The males normally show up first, and then the females arrive.  I miss them when they are gone (ephemeral!!)." 

Yes. It is all so ephemeral. 

Great photograph, Martha.

Thank you for sharing.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

northern harriers

Male Northern harrier. Photo by Fred Bowman

At this time last week I spoke about birds-of-prey at this year's Wilderness Wildlife Week in Pigeon Forge. Afterwards, I chatted with Fred Bowman from Knoxville at my Author's Table.

In our area, there is slight plumage difference between the male and female of just about all the species of raptors. Two exceptions are the American kestrel and the northern harrier

Harriers are only in East Tennessee during the winter months. The females are brownish overall and the males are a rather striking pale gray. In fact, they are known as Gray Ghosts and watching them cruise low to the ground over the fields in Cades Cove in the winter, it is easy to see why.

Fred sent me his photographs of both a male and female harrier, so you can quickly see the difference.

Thanks, Fred.

Female Northern harrier. Photo by Fred Bowman.

Monday, May 13, 2019

turtle rescue?


Perhaps the best part of Wilderness Wildlife Week in Pigeon Forge is all the wonderful people you meet from around the country. Many of them had a nature story to share. For Diane Valen the story happened just last week in the river along the greenway near the LeConte Convention Center. Since retiring from Geauga Park District in NE Ohio, Diane has been living in Oakdale, Minnesota. 

"Here are the photos of the critters some of the Wilderness Wildlife Week birdwatchers attempted to rescue during the May 8 Bird Walk led by photographer Clay Thurston," emailed Diane.

"At first glance it appeared as though a turtle was stuck upside down in the river near LeConte Center."

"However, when a sandal-footed birder waded in to try to flip it over, much to everyone’s surprise, she discovered a second head attached to a second shell at which time grins broke out on everyone’s faces."

Yes, indeed. May is the beginning of turtle nesting season. But all turtles, even aquatic snapping turtles, dig a hole and lay their eggs on dry land. 

Thanks, Diane.


Sunday, May 12, 2019

Thank you, WWW

Thank you. Thank you to all who attended one of my presentations at this year's Wilderness Wildlife Week in Pigeon Forge. And to all who stopped by my author's table to chat about birds, butterflies or books. 

And thank you Butch Helton and Brandon Barnes for asking me to speak at the noon luncheon of the Pigeon Forge Hospitality and Tourism Association

I lived in Pigeon Forge from 1974 until 1983 and it was good to be back for a great five days!!  

See you next year.

Monday, May 6, 2019

Wilderness Wildlife Week 2019

This is the 29th year of Wilderness Wildlife Week at the LeConte Center in Pigeon Forge. The event runs from Tuesday, May 7 through Saturday, May 11. 

Seven eleven, that's easy to remember.

My speaking schedule is:

Tuesday, May 7: Noon
Secrets of Backyard Birds

Wednesday, May 8: 4 p.m.
Identifying Local Birds of Prey

Friday, May 10: 4:30 P.m.
Ephemeral by Nature

Saturday, May 11: 10 a.m.
Ephemeral by Nature

Saturday, May 11: 2:30 p.m.
Jim Tanner and the 
Search for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker

LeConte Center in Pigeon Forge

Saturday, May 4, 2019

stinkbug eggs?

Who needs TV or cable news?

You find your happy wherever you can and if you are a nature nerd (NN) like myself—you find it in the smallest of things in the unlikeliest of places, albeit generally outside.

Most curious. A recent text from my good friend and fellow NN Christie Collins had this wonderful photo attached. So what the heck is it? Well, as Christie informed me, it is a cluster of stinkbug eggs she found in her garden. 

Oh, wow!

Stinkbugs are in the insect order Hemiptera and get their unkind name from their defense mechanism. If you pick one up it releases "a pungent unpleasant odor from a glandular substance released from pores in the thorax." 

Well, if threatened, wouldn't you?

Christie now works as a naturalist in a strange land called southern Florida but I had the good fortune of working with her for a year at the local nature center and I found her great joy in all things in the natural world—even if it was a bit stinky—an absolute delight.

Good to hear from you, Christie. Happy Birthday.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

A visit with Tellico Birders

Song sparrow - Wiki Media

A songful thank you to club president Claire Manzo for inviting me to speak at the April meeting of the Tellico Village Bird Club and to bluebird aficionado Chuck Cruickshank for serving as host. 

Our topic de jour was "Bird Vocalization as Language." We listened to various songs, calls, chip notes and fussy alarms as true forms of backyard bird communication. 

Being vocal is energy draining and reveals their location to possible predators. If we hear it, a Cooper's hawk hears it too. Every time a bird sings or calls, it is putting itself in harms way. So why do it? Because the need to keep in touch with its mate and with other birds nearby is too great to remain silent. 

Monday, April 29, 2019

owl whisperer

My friend Rex McDaniel likes to stroll, camera in hand. (Click: flâneur)

Rex is also something of an owl whisperer. If there's an owl in the woods up in the canopy, he patiently looks for it until he finds it. He has this inner sense of knowing where owls like to be. Perhaps Rex is part owl; perhaps they're his totem. We are all more than we think we are. We just have to find our collective unconscious. 

Life is a long journey of pulling together our true selves. And what better thing to have within you than an owl?  

Lately, Rex has been watching a barred owl nest hole at the nature center and recently spotted a fledging owlet looking out at the world. It was fresh and new and wondered what life had in store for it. 

Wonderful photo, Rex. Thank you.  

Here's Rex's first photo of one of last year's owlets. Click: 2018

Saturday, April 27, 2019

yellow-headed life bird

Life Bird! Life Bird! Life Bird!

Whenever you find a species of bird that you have never seen before it becomes a "Life Bird," and you add it to your list. And since there are roughly 10,000 species on Earth, the list can grow rather long.

"Aren’t they just beautiful? I never even heard of one until a few days ago," emailed Betty Thompson. "I took this photo at Quivira Wildlife Refuge about 1 1/2 hours northwest of Wichita. I hope they put a smile on your face today." As indeed they did.

A yellow-headed blackbird would be a Life Bird for me. You do not always think of a blackbird as being beautiful, but these two certainly are.


Monday, April 22, 2019

A visit with the Panthers...again

This has become one of my favorite traditions: an annual visit to Will Roberts' AP Environmental Science classes at Powell High School.

Each student had been assigned to read a portion of one of my three books: Natural Histories, Ghost Birds or Ephemeral by Nature and be ready to ask questions about what they had read. I like the format because it is free-wheeling. We go where the students want us to go.

I write about natural history—what is and has been and often touch on ephemerality, i.e. short-livedness. Species come and go. And the topic came up several times as when we visited Jim Tanner and the ivory-billed woodpecker, the so-called Ghost Bird. Are they extinct, or not? Plus we took an unusual turn toward botany with discussions about Osage orange, ginko and Franklinia. (My late UT botany professor: Dr. Aaron Sharp would have been pleased.) 

Named in honor American polymath Benjamin Franklin, Franklinia was a native flowering shrub discovered by William Bartram along the Altamaha River in Georgia. Bartram collected seeds to cultivate in the 1770s but the species has completely vanished from the wild ever since. It, in effect, is a Ghost Plant. 

Species do come and go. Most we never see and some we only get a fleeting glimpse before they perish. Another example: the last credited sighting of a Bachman's warbler came in South Carolina in 1962. Today it is gone or very well hidden, a second ghost bird.  

We also talked about one of my favorite animals: a non-releasable, non-flighted American Kestrel named Docs that turned up at UT Veterinary Medical Center this past January with a badly injured right wing. It will never fly again. Kestrels are an anomaly. They are feisty little birds of prey that eat a variety of prey. They are the most widespread falcon, yet they are on the decline. Even after the banning of DDT in the early 1970s, the kestrel population has continued to decrease, down 66 percent since 1966. Why? Is it habitat loss or some other factor?

It's a mystery, as so much of life truly is. 

Best of luck to all of you! Thanks, Will. See you on 2020.

Nestling Ghost Bird      Photo by James T. Tanner 1938
Osage Orange

Click these links for a look back at past visits:

Fall 2017

Saturday, April 20, 2019

cricket curiosity

"I’m never at a loss for things to study or topics to write about: everything in the natural world is fair game. If I’m not intrigued and excited every time I step outside, it just means I’m not paying attention." 

I have used this quote often. It is from the book "Feathers" by Thor Hanson, and it is so true. 

There is the newly created virtual world, then there's the good old real world that has been around three to four billion years. I find my solace in the latter because it is infinitely more fascinating. And Hanson is correct, you really do not have to go that far to find a curiosity. And if you can be entertained by a simple house cricket, then your entertainment comes cheap. Naturalists are cheap dates. The world is our Cineplex. 

I didn't even have to go outside to find today's novelty. As I stepped out of my morning shower, I noticed this oddity clinging to my bathroom curtain. A house cricket (Acheta domesticus) had just molted from its last shed exoskeleton and was in the process of eating it. This sort of thing goes on billions of times every day, but I had never witnessed it. Why eat your old skin? Because it is made of chitin and full of nutrients. So why waste it? 

Nature doesn't discard it's carbon. It recycles it. There's also a soupçon of grossness to this story which adds to its entertainment value. 

N'est-ce pas?

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

wood thrush return

Finally, this morning a wood thrush has returned to the woods behind my deck. For thirty-one years in a row I have had wood thrush to serenade me with their flutelike song. In late April, I cannot imagine life in a hammock without it. And I wonder, oh I wonder, if the thrush I provided aid and comfort for in September 2017 has come back to its summer home?

Wood thrush spend their winters in Central America and their summers in the eastern U.S. into southern Canada. But the news is not good. They have experienced a 50 percent population decline since 1966.

Yet, birds are site loyal. They return to their own chosen nesting grounds if they are able. Could it be?

Click: Aid and Comfort

Saturday, April 13, 2019

Garden Club honors first "First Lady"

A floral thank you to the Martha Dandridge Garden Club for inviting me to speak recently about monarch butterflies, a chapter in my third book: Ephemeral by Nature

The club was organized in 1927 and honors Martha Dandridge Washington, our very first "First Lady." The garden club is probably the longest running civic group in Jefferson County and currently has 88 paid members. 

Settled in 1783 and named county seat in 1793, Dandridge is the second oldest town in Tennessee (founded in 1779, Jonesborough is the oldest) and the only town in the USA named for George Washington's wife. Her maiden name was Dandridge.  

The club is active with many civic projects including the restoration of the courthouse grounds and maintaining the old cemetery where early settlers and patriots of the Revolutionary War are buried.

And what about the monarch butterflies? They are now migrating back north after overwintering in the mountains of Mexico. As the Journey North map below shows, as of April 11, at least one has been seen as far north as Johnson City.  

For the Standard Banner Article, Click: April 4, 2019

Thank you, President Kathleen Holmes and 
Vice President Angela Curry.

Journey North migrating monarch map: April 11, 2019

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

a cloister of munks

Photos by Vickie Henderson

Squirrels can be divided into two basic groups: tree squirrels and ground squirrels. They are easy to tell apart by their behavior. When frightened, a tree squirrel climbs up a tree and a ground squirrel runs into a hole.

If you travel farther west than East Tennessee, ground squirrel identification gets a little more complicated. There are 25 species of chipmunk in the world and 24 of them live in North America but most live out west. Some occupy very limited ranges. The Charleston Mountain chipmunk is only found in the mountains of the same name in Nevada and the Sonoma chipmunk lives in northwestern California. Unless one gets on a bus to go visit the other, their paths never cross.

Our only local species is the Eastern chipmunk (Tamias striatus). Although they are good climbers, they prefer to stay on the ground and live in extensive burrows they dig under stumps, logs, rock piles or stone walls. Like most mammals that sleep in very hidden places, it has been estimated that chipmunks sleep up to 15 hours a day. Mammals that sleep in more exposed places or drive cars and work 9-to-5 jobs get much less sleep. Chipmunks primarily eat acorns, nuts, berries and seeds and are blessed with fairly large cheek pouches for carrying their provisions from place to place. 

Generally when you see a chipmunk it is scurrying about, quickly. You get a brief glimpse. That's why local artist Vickie Henderson was surprised to look through her window and see a cloister of munks, probably a Mom bringing her litter out to get a peek of the above ground world. 

I did not used the phrase, "soooooo cute," but if you want to you can.

Thanks, Vickie. 

Monday, April 8, 2019

modified bird hotel

We had great fun building the nest box at West View Elementary School last week. But once you put up a box, the fun doesn't end.

Betty Thompson noticed that the opening of her box was being modified by a red-bellied woodpecker and with a little patience, got the above photo.

"It took me three days to get this! Note the big hole that was not there when I bought it," emailed Betty. "He didn’t stay long, maybe a week. It was a bird hotel to say the least. They would check in and check out! Very entertaining!"

But the red-bellied wasn't the only species to show an interest.

Thanks, Betty.

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Bluebird Day at West View

A big avian thank you to teacher Tim McGrath and his after-hours Environmental Club at West View Elementary School for inviting me to be a part of their Bluebird Day.

We learned all about Eastern bluebirds, colored a worksheet and built a bluebird nest box with each student getting to drive at least one nail. Many of the young builders had NEVER used a hammer. Time to learn and be empowered! And to remember which nail each hammerer hammered they wrote their name or initial beside it.

Then we found a place to hang the box out on the playground with the hope that a pair of bluebirds would find it.

TVA biologists that included Ben Jaco and Dick Fitz were the first to set up bluebird boxes in our area. In fact, they set out a pick-up truck full of boxes below Norris Dam in 1968 and again in ‘69. (That was 50 years ago this spring!) 

Thank you Tim, Amber and the students for helping get West View's bluebird trail started.