Tuesday, January 15, 2019

clean-up crew

There they were on duty at their recyclers perch on Old Maryville Pike, keeping watch over the highway for roadkill. When they pronounce a thing dead, it's dead.  

"Ni su'cuyi, gar kyr'adyc, ni partayli, gar darasuum," in the Mandalorian tongue of "Star Wars" speak, roughly, "I am still alive but you are dead."

Ever vigilant, they're drawn to death; have an eye for it. Yes, that's a black vulture. When a death occurs, they move in like a group of staid morticians, clothed in ebony. Solemn. Nodding their heads in agreement. It's time to do their job. Begin decomposition. Nature's clean up crew, patrolling the highways, removing roadkill. 

Some studies estimate up to one million animals are struck and killed every 24 hours in this country. Dogs. Cats. Raccoons. Opossums. Deers. Squirrels. Groundhogs. All are fair game, so to speak, if they inadvertently venture out onto the asphalt.

Thank goodness we have vultures, or it would get messy out there. 

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Ephemeral by Nature honored

The University of Tennessee Press received "word right before Christmas break that two of our titles had been selected as a CHOICE Outstanding Academic Title for 2018. 

Ephemeral by Nature was one of those! This year’s list included only 455 books of the over 4,800 titles they reviewed.

“These outstanding works have been selected for their excellence in scholarship and presentation, the significance of their contribution to the field, and their value as an important-often the first-treatment of their subject... Outstanding Academic Titles are truly the ‘best of the best.'"

The CHOICE Awards are chosen by the American Library Association. For more about being an Outstanding Academic Title, click: CHOICE

Linsey Sims Perry
Marketing Assistant
The University of Tennessee Press

To buy the book from UT Press go to: utpress.org/title/ephemeral-by-nature

Sunday, January 6, 2019

2018 Christmas Bird Count

The Knoxville Christmas Bird Count (CBC) was held yesterday. The count itself runs midnight to midnight, but we began at sunrise and at least part of us were still active at sunset. For the past 15 years I have overseen the bird tally of Area 12 North: Lakemoor Hills north to Cherokee Farm and kind of know what to expect.

The first CBC was held in 1900 and ever since has been held annually during the holiday season all across the country. One of the reasons is to not only count the number of species in a given area but to perhaps get a sense of shifts in the bird population and ranges.

And I have observed a few changes in recent years. Although, we didn't find a bald eagle this year, we have in several recent years. The presence of eagles is new. While this year Vickie Henderson saw and heard five fish crows which seem to now have a regular presence in this general section of town, most notably near Third Creek as observed by Sayge Smith and Nick Stahlman.

Rachael Barker was the first to find a red-headed woodpecker, a life-bird for her and a newbie to the county. Their numbers seem to be growing here. Dr. Cheryl Greenacre and Dr. Abby Duvall found and photographed a barred owl. It's always fun finding one of these during the day.

This year we tallied 50 species, 973 total birds. Perhaps the biggest surprise to me is that we were not able find any winter wrens, golden-crowned kinglets or brown creepers. Species that are here only in winter and usually findable.

A hugh thank you to all who helped search with me: Dr. Cheryl Greenacre, Dr. Abby Duvall, Nick Stahlman, Sayge Smith, Rachael Barker and Vickie Henderson. 

Friday, January 4, 2019

life finds a way

“It’s not possible. That is the one thing that the history of evolution has taught us, that life will not be contained, it breaks free, it expands into new territories, it crashes through barriers, painfully, maybe even dangerously, but...Well, there it is...Life, uh....finds a way, “ said Professor Ian Malcolm in the 1993 movie Jurassic Park.

Nature indeed finds a way. A way to recover, to move on, even after a wildfire that wipes everything out as we saw three days ago on sandy, shaley Piney Ridge in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. 

But, how? Table Mountain pines have serotinous pine cones. They are time capsules waiting for their time, whenever it comes. 

se·rot·i·nous [si-ROT-n-uh-s]

“Serotiny is an ecological adaptation exhibited by some seed plants, in which seed release occurs in response to an environmental trigger, rather than spontaneously at seed maturation.”

In the case of these pines, the trigger is fire. It takes high heat to melt the resin that holds the seeds in place and even if that fire only comes along once in the lifespan of a human, say, my lifespan. Nature finds a way to move on and generate new life. No matter what bad things we do to the planet...life will indeed find a way. Even if it has to leave us behind. 


Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Ancestral Headwaters

The quandary? What was the best way to end the old year and welcome in the new? What was the best leaf—or in this case—pine needle to turn over and move forward?

I ended up making an emotional leap of faith and hiking into my ancestral headwaters: Baskins Creek in the Great Smoky Mountains NP, having avoided this area since the Firestorm of November 2016. It was just too difficult to think about. But time heals all wounds or that is the conventional wisdom. 

Parking at Cherokee Orchard, I hiked around the edge of Piney Ridge where the wildfire damage is still very obvious and down along Falls Branch to Baskins Creek and the tiered waterfall where Grandma Pearl Bales once took her daily shower. It is only two miles downstream from this location to where I grew up.  

As expected: Nature is reclaiming the ridge. Time does heal, although some wounds more slowly than others. Young table mountain pines grow as thick as grass at the base of their charred parent trees. The new growth was just beautiful. There is a metaphor there somewhere and it's not that difficult to find.

Happy 2019! Let's move forward.  

Thursday, December 6, 2018

rarely seen tiger

Tiger salamander. Photo by Susie Kapler

Here's a first. I do not typically write about or even think about salamanders in December.

That is until yesterday when I received an email with photos attached from my friend Susie Kapler. And what a salamander!

It was in her dog run on Monday, December 3 at 7:30 a.m. She knew it was a salamander but what kind? Susie called her friend Tristan Clark, a salamander expert, who identified the rather large amphibian as a tiger salamander AND the first one ever documented in Grainger County

Tigers are one of the largest salamanders in North America. This one is 8 inches long but they can grow to 14. They are mole salamanders that usually live up to two feet underground. Susie was lucky. They are rarely seen out in the open, as indeed, I have never seen one. 

Thank you, Susie!

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Lunch with the League

A warm thank you to Mary Ann Reeves with the League of Women Voters of Oak Ridge for inviting me to speak at their monthly "Lunch with the League" yesterday.

Our topic? Ephemerality in Nature with examples from all three of my UT Press books: from freshwater jellyfish to 17-year cicadas to endangered/extinct species. 

"What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes away," James 4.14. 

Be mindful. Every day is precious, enjoy each ephemeral moment!

Saturday, December 1, 2018

I the thrush

It's a seasonal thing.

Sitting on the end of my front porch yesterday, a hermit thrush sauntered up to greet me. It was in no real hurry, trotting along to give me a good look. Bobbing its tail. I was no threat and it knew that. 

"Solitary the thrush, The hermit withdrawn to himself, avoiding the settlements, Sings by himself a song," wrote Whitman. Yes, I the thrush. 

It brought to mind a day in September 2017 along the same driveway that another thrush centered story unfolded. One that could have had a tragic ending, yet it did not. 

Click: aid and comfort. 

Thursday, November 29, 2018

year of irruption

Red-breasted nuthatch. Wiki media.

If you have been paying any attention to your backyard bird-feeders, you already know that for whatever reason, this has been a good year for irruptive migrants.

As I first reported back in late October, Tiffiny & Warren Hamlin had red-breasted nuthatches and purple finches over a month ago. In time, they had pine siskins

I have had the first two, but not the third that I have noticed. To attract the irruptives, put out several feeders clustered together with different foods. Wild Birds Unlimited located at 7240 Kingston Pike can advise you on what works best. Several feeders will attract a host of birds and that camaraderie will garner the attention of the shy birds watching from nearby.

An irruptive migrant is a species that does not fly this far south every winter. A snowy owl is an irruptive migrant but do not get your hopes up. Irruptive migration is commonly caused by a lack of food in their normal wintering grounds. Also species that depend on certain tree seeds may venture south because these trees have produced poor crops farther to the north. 

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

hometown eagle

This could be historic.

Yesterday morning I received an email from fellow naturalist Shelley Conklin with a photo attached of an adult bald eagle. It was jaw-dropping. But it is the location that grabbed my attention...the once endangered species was iGatlinburg, my hometown. It COULD be the first documentation of a bald eagle in that mountainous location. Bald eagles are found near still-water lakes and coastlines. The Little Pigeon River that flows through the resort town is not exactly still water. 

Shelley was surprised too. She emailed, it was "right passed the bypass to the park along the river. I was shocked to see it. I was able to pull into the picnic area and get pictures."

I know this location. Know it well as do most long time Gatlinburgians, it was close to where Tinkers Body Shop once stood.

Forty years ago, there were no bald eagles in this part of the state. None. They were in West Tennessee but historically, the mountains were golden eagle country. And
 because of the use of the pesticide DDT, there were no successful bald eagles hatched in West Tennessee during the late 1970s. 

Here I will paraphrase from my first UT Press book: Natural Histories.

 "An active eagle reintroduction program began in Tennessee in 1980 with TWRA, TVA and the Tennessee Conservation League working together on the project. The following year, young eagles were released at Land Between the Lakes (LBL) in West Tennessee’s Stewart County and at Reelfoot Lake.  

"In 1983, a mated pair of unknown origin successfully nested and raised one eaglet at Cross Creek National Wildlife Refuge near Dover also in Stewart County, and an eagle hacked [released] at LBL successfully nested at a second location at Cross Creek the following year. Bald eagles were returning to Tennessee.

“Tennessee wasn’t the first to release young bald eagles,” related the late Bob Hatcher, “but it’s now reintroduced more than any other state.” Until he retired, Hatcher was a man who had dedicated a large portion of his career to the eagles’ recovery, he spoke with great pride about their successful return.

"Between 1980 and 2004, 294 eaglets have been hacked at seven locations in Tennessee. Three of these, Chickamauga, South Holston and Douglas Lakes, are in East Tennessee. Douglas Lake, south of Dandridge has led the way. American Eagle Foundation released 69 bald eagles at the TVA reservoir between 1992 and 2003. [And the AEF program continues today, 15 years later.] In 1994, bald eagles were down listed in Tennessee, moving from the endangered list to the threatened."

So I am pleased to know that at least one eagle has found my hometown!!

Photos by Shelley Conklin.

Thank you, Shelley. 

Monday, November 19, 2018

mindfulness moment 1

Just a reminder to always stop once a day to be mindful of the moment. There is beauty all around us. So pause, take a deep breath, feel at peace and be mindful. 

This moment presented itself to me at 3:01 this afternoon. The Japanese red maple in my neighbor's yard lit by the sun in the west as clouds were rolling in. The rains forecast for tonight may bring most of those scarlet leaves tumbling, tumbling down.

Ephemeral all. 

Saturday, November 17, 2018

first wintering hummer of season

Female rufous hummingbird banded by Mark Armstrong 
yesterday in Crossville

Right on schedule, the season for wintering hummingbirds has begun.

Licensed bander Mark Armstrong forwarded this photo of a female rufous hummingbird he banded yesterday at a home in Crossville.

The current recommended protocol is to keep at least one feeder out until Christmas just in case. Remember sugar water freezes at 27 degrees, so you have to make allowances for sudden drops in temperature. Positioning you feeder near a floodlight may be all it takes.

As of December 2017, a total of 238 wintering hummingbirds have been banded in Tennessee; six different western species: rufous, calliope, black-chinned, Anna’s, Allen’s and broad-tailed, plus our own ruby-throats that are caught after November 15. But by far, most of the wintering hummers have been rufouses.

For the complete history of wintering hummingbirds in our state look for my article in the current issue of The Tennessee Conservationist.

ALSO, be on the lookout for a buff-bellied hummingbird. They have been banded in the states around Tennessee, but never here.

If you have any hummingbird at your feeder, even a late-season rubythroat, please let me know through the comment section below and I will bounce your information on to Mark.

Be on the lookout for a buff-bellied hummingbird

Thursday, November 15, 2018

rufous hummingbirds

Rufous hummingbird

Today is November 15. Between today and March 15, any hummingbird that shows up at your feeder here in Tennessee is considered a "Wintering" hummingbird and should be banded with a tiny leg-band with a number for scientific research.

The most common wintering hummingbirds other than our own late season rubythroats are rufous hummingbirds. But other western species may show up at your feeders too. 

Locally, Mark Armstrong is a federally-licensed winter hummingbird bander. Mark says to keep your feeders out at least until Christmas. Sugar-water doesn't freeze until the temps get down to 27 degrees. On colder nights, bring it in or for extra warmth position the feeder near an outdoor floodlight.

And if you get a wintering hummingbird get in touch with me.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

hummingbirds in winter?

“There are only two ways to live your life,” wrote physicist Albert Einstein. “One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”

If you buy into the latter, then hummingbirds should be high on your list of wonderments.

We all know hummingbirds, the rubythroats, the three-gram pixies. They breeze into our state in early April, really a trickle of adult males early on. Most are just passing through on their way to claim territories farther north. They pause for a day or two to visit Red Buckeyes and our sugar-water feeders. The adult females follow the males, but always keep in mind that both genders have survived an incredible nighttime migration across the Gulf of Mexico. That’s an eight to 18-hour non-stop flight.

Migration essentially ends by mid-May, so if you have hummers visiting your feeders then through July those are your ruby-throats, probably nesting in the trees nearby.

Activity at the feeders picks up in late July and lasts until October. The mothers teach their young ones the importance of feeders. Plus thousands of migrants begin in July to journey southward, back across the gulf to Southern Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras and other tropical locations. By the end of October they are all gone, a whirling dervish of activity then poof, it is over. Well, that was what we once believed.

But nature is no stranger to change. No one is quite sure when a different species of hummingbird started spending its winters, at least in part, in the Southeast including Tennessee....

For the rest of my article read the November/December issue of The Tennessee Conservationist.

By definition, any hummingbird that shows up at your home between November 15 and March 15 is a "wintering" hummingbird. If this happens, get in touch with me and I will let Mark Armstrong know. 

Thank you, Louise Zepp, the editor of the Tennessee Conservationist.

Sunday, November 11, 2018


I would be remiss this Veterans Day not to salute the serviceman nearest and dearest to my own heart: my late father Russell Bales, part of what journalist Tom Brokaw calls "The Greatest Generation." And who would argue with him?

Near the end of World War II, Dad served in the U.S. Navy in the Pacific on the USS Yuma, an ocean-going tug.

The Yuma went to sea to tow damaged ships back to port that could not return under their own power. As my friend Dr. Guy Smoak points out, still a dangerous mission since Japanese submarines patrolled the Pacific as witnessed by the USS Indianapolis.

Dad was 16-years-old when this photo was taken; too young for service, too young for battle, too young to be so far from home. But wars are ignited by old men yet fought by the young. 

And for that, we salute all vets on this holiday that commemorates their courage and sacrifice.

Sunday, November 4, 2018

the raspberry finches are here

I had been alerted! 

First, a text from fellow naturalist Nick Stahlman about purple finches at his feeder on the east side of town. And then an email from Tiffiny Hamlin with photos taken by her husband Warren on the west side.

And then this morning a purple finch showed up at my southside location. Could it be?

Often confused with house finches that are common and here year-round, purple finches are only here some winters and in much smaller numbers. In winter plumage, both species are duller in color than in spring breeding plumage. 

How do you tell them apart? One key is the shade of red. A male house finch is cherry red and the color is frontal as if a cherry pie blew up in his face. A purple finch is not Minnesota Viking purple. A better name would have been raspberry finch. And the color appears all over the top half of the body as if you had dunked the bird in a jar of Smucker's Red Raspberry Preserves. And with a name like Smucker's, it has to be good. Also look at Warren's photos and compare the purple finch's red to the cardinal's cherry red.

Also look at the streaks down the flanks under the folded wings. For a house finch these are brown, for the purple finch they are raspberry.

How do you attract them? Warren's photos hold the key. Several types of feeders offering several types of food. In winter, birds like the safety of being with other birds. So a migrant purple finch would see the activity from a distance and feel comfortable enough to fly in to eat. We always stop at the diner with the most cars parked in front. 

Why safety in numbers? Look at the photos again. There is always at least one bird on guard, watching for trouble.

To make your yard more bird-friendly, visit Wild Birds Unlimited, 7240 Kingston Pike, and they can help. 

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

goodbye chlorophyll

In spring and summer, leaves are green because of the pigment chlorophyll, but it doesn’t last. C
hlorophyll also absorbs light energy from the sun and through a magical process called photosynthesis converts it to stored chemical energy.  

In deciduous trees it is seasonal, mirroring the major league baseball season. The green of chlorophyll also masks the orange and yellow pigments, carotenes and xanthophyll, that lie underneath in each leaf all along. 

Carotene is an orange-to-red pigment and xanthophyll is a yellow-to-brown pigment that occurs widely in nature. Carotene is also what gives carrots their color while beta-carotene gives many plants their health benefits.

Here in the temperate zone it's more efficient for broad-leafed trees to shut down photosynthesis in the winter to avoid freezing and moisture loss through the leaves. As October flows into November, chlorophyll breaks down revealing the brighter pigments beneath. That’s what we see in the leaves as they reach senescence and fall from the trees.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

big day at Wild Birds

Wild Birds Unlimited would like to thank everyone who stopped by last Saturday to learn about the species of birds that only spend their winters here in the Tennessee Valley.

Species that will be showing up soon like winter wren, hermit thrush, yellow-bellied sapsucker, golden-crowned kinglet, dark-eyed junco, white-throated sparrow and red-breasted nuthatch. The group also learned about the different things you can do to attract these shy birds to your backyard: heated birdbath and Bark Butter are at the top of that “let’s get ready for winter” list.

Wild Birds is one of the sponsors of the Hummingbird Festival at Ijams Nature Center every August.

And as if on cue, a red-breasted nuthatch showed up at the home feeders of Wild Birds Assistant Manager Tiffiny Hamlin the very next day. Plus what appears to be a late-season migrant, a young Cape May Warbler in winter plumage.

What a day, Tiffiny! A backyard two-fer!

Ijams thanks Liz & Tony Cutrone for inviting us. 

Monday, October 22, 2018

one tough towhee


There it lay. In the road, flailing about. 

I slowed to look, stopped and got out of the car to see what was going on. An adult male eastern towhee had been hit and lay there panting. Birds pant when they are hurt or stressed or scared.

Picking it up, I soon realized this was not its first brush with trouble. The towhee was missing his left foot. An old wound, the leg had healed. But now it had a new trauma. 

Sitting him on the passenger seat I drove home hoping to assess the damage. Still its mouth was agape. Still it panted, looking around.  I spoke to it softly. 

“That a boy. You’ll be OK.” 

What was he thinking as he surveyed the inside of my car?

“Is this guy Charon? Ferrying me across the River Styx?” 

Do birds think such thoughts? Does Charon drive a Ford?

Parking in my driveway, I opened my door and reached for the towhee. But he would have none of that. The towhee had returned to his senses. He started flying around the inside of my car, finally landing in my lap. Then hopped to the floorboard between my legs and swish, he was out my open door. 

Now. I am looking out for a one-footed male towhee. I hope he likes his new home. 


Thursday, October 18, 2018

shower mate

Generally, I expect to take my morning shower alone...well, who are we kidding? I always expect to take my morning shower alone. 

Yet, this morning after I stepped in and began to adjust the shower head I noticed I was indeed not alone. First glance, with water streaming down my face, I thought it was some sort of pale green moth. But as I reached for it, it hopped away. Moths don't hope, they fly.

Therefore, this morning I took my shower with a Cope's gray tree frog (Hyla chrysoscelis) named in 1880 by its discoverer Edward Drinker Cope. 
And this year's model did not seem the least bit interested in me but I suspect it enjoyed the misty shower environment. 

But, oh, did I marvel at it. First thing you will notice is that this gray tree frog is not gray. But they can modify their colors a bit to better blend into their surroundings and luckily my bathroom is painted a pleasing shade of fern green, a hue my bathing buddy seemed to like.

After our shower ended, I caught Copey to move her outside where she belonged.

Best guess. Copey found her way inside recently through an open bedroom window. It was storming that night and I wanted to hear and smell the rain.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Natural Histories: osage orange

This time of the year, the hedge apples are falling. 

UT Press writes, Natural Histories "illuminates in surprising ways the complicated and often vexed relationships between humans and their neighbors in the natural world."

Perhaps the most vexing encounter in the book between humans and the natural world occurred when the boys in gray engaged a simple hedge planted due west of the Harpeth River n Middle Tennessee.

On November 30, 1864—153 years ago this month—the horrific Battle of Franklin was fought south of Nashville. An osage orange hedge row played a key role in the outcome stopping one division of the advancing Southern army "dead" in their tracks. When the smoke cleared, the Confederate Army of Tennessee had lost almost 7,000 men in just five hours. (The Union army's dead and wounded numbered significantly less: only 2,326.) Here's a snippet from my book:

"The almost forgotten Battle of Franklin was a death knell. “This is where the Old South died,” says activist Robert Hicks, “and we were reborn as a nation.”

I visited the site on this date in 2004. It was a rainy day much like today. Here's another passage from the book:

"Leaving Lewisburg Pike, I walked along the rain soaked streets and soon found the two aged osage orange trees still growing in the vicinity of the railroad line. Historian Cartwright had told me about the old trees just an hour before. Both were perhaps descendants of the hedgerow that stopped Loring and, as such, were living monuments. It was a circuitous chain of events that moved osage orange from its native Red River home to this historic point of all out chaos; turn back the clock and replay the era, day by day, and it would not have unfolded in exactly the same way. I paused just long enough to admire the towering presence of the elderly trees; and as the rain began to fall heavy once again, I zipped up my coat, turned and walked away."

Excerpts from my book Natural Histories published by the University of Tennessee Press.

The fruit of an osage orange looks like a green brain
and probably tastes like one too,
although, I must admit, I've sampled neither.