Thursday, March 23, 2017

talkin' owls

with great horned owl

Special thanks to the Norris Woman's Club for inviting me to talk about one of my favorite topics in our universe, and maybe any other universe. But like my hero Carl Sagan, this is the only one I know.

with barred owl
I love owls! We have four species that live in my portion of the Pale Blue Dot, the Tennessee Valley: screech, barred, great horned, barn; and one that nests on the top of Old Smoky: northern saw-whet; plus two species that sometimes visit us during the winter: short-eared and long-eared. Once you know these, their preferred habitats (the short-eared is a grassland hunter, the barred likes woods near water) and their unique hooting calls you know your local owls.

with eastern screech-owl, gray phase
With proper habitat around your home, you can maybe attract two of the species—screech or barred—by simply putting up an appropriate size nest box in the woods behind your house. And, if you live in a more bucolic area and have a barn, good for you! Look for barn owls in the rafters.

My new book Ephemeral by Nature: Exploring the Exceptional with a Tennessee Naturalist, due to be published this summer by the University of Tennessee Press, begins with a chapter that might as well be titled "My life with owls." 

I have been working with the injured non-releasable nocturnal hunters at Ijams Nature Center for 19 years. And somewhere over the past two decades, I became a gray-phase human.

- Owl photos by Chuck Cooper, Shelley Conklin and Pam Petko-Seus

- Thank you Loretta for arranging the details of my visit to Norris

Norris Woman's Club (and a few guys) 

Thursday, March 16, 2017


My "ology" classes at Ijams are for kids, young families and the young-at-heart. Last Sunday it was Cloud-ology 101. We learned ten different cloud types and how they got their names, created a cloudy rainstorm in a jar and on a perfectly cloudless day assumed the guise of a cloud and went outside to fly balsa airplanes.

Old School fun? You bet, and we have been doing it since the 1920s. At Ijams kids get to unplug and be kids. We even give adults license to be 8-year-olds again.

We specialize in empowering young girls (and boys), encouraging their science-loving minds. H.P. and Alice Ijams raised four daughters on the site in the 1920s - '40s long before we were a nature center. And they taught Elizabeth, Jo, Mary and Martha to love nature.

My next ology is Froggy-ology 101 on Sunday, April 9 at 2 o'clock. And our ponds should be full of frogs, tadpoles and newts. To register call 577-4717, ext. 110.

Cumulus cloud roots on her old-school airplane
Did funnel cloud's plane do a loop-the-loop?
It's beginning to rain in my jar

Sunday, March 12, 2017

kestrel visits WBU

Spitfire, the Ijams adopted American kestrel with the very injured left wing, made a special guest appearance yesterday afternoon at Wild Birds Unlimited

She was accompanied by the nature center's senior naturalist she kept tethered to her leg so that he would behave. The smallest bird of prey found in the Tennessee Valley was part of a program about secondary cavity nesters, or birds that will use a nest box.

Only weighing roughly four ounces, kestrels are petite falcons that prey on mice in the winter and large meadow insects like grasshoppers in the summer.

Ijams has been doing outreach programs about nature and the environment since at least the 1970s. The senior naturalist has been with Ijams for 17 years, the longest period of time that he has been able to hold a job.

Wild Birds Unlimited, located in the Gallery Shopping Center at 7240 Kingston Pike, is the primary sponsor of the nature center's Wonder of Hummingbirds Festival.

Thank you to Liz, Tony, Tiffiny and Warren of Wild Birds. 

Supplied photos by Warren Hamlin.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Thank you ZooKnoxville

Thank you to John Buchanan, coordinator and host of the Animal Talk series of lectures at ZooKnoxville for inviting me to speak tonight. The talks are held monthly for the zoo's volunteers. 

My topic was UT's own Dr. James T. Tanner (Jim) and his research into the then vanishing ivory-billed woodpecker in the late 1930s.

With the funding and support of the National Audubon Society and Arthur Allen's Cornell Lab of Ornithology, doctoral candidate Jim Tanner spent six years tracking down the Ghost Bird of the South. Jim's adventures were the topic of my second published book for the University of Tennessee Press: Ghost Birds: Jim Tanner and the Quest for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, 1935-1941. 

The book is available at Ijams Nature Center, from UT Press, Amazon or from the author: c'est moi.   

- And thank you John Mayer for suggesting me.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Rose Glen 2017

The eighth annual Rose Glen Literary Festival was held last Saturday in Sevierville at the Convention Center on Gists Creek Road off Hwy 66.

Rose Glen is designed as a vehicle for local authors to come together once a year and talk about and sell their books. The fest also features lectures, workshops and book signings by authors from the Smoky Mountains and Appalachian region. I've been a part of Rose Glen since the beginning, even serving as the initial keynote speaker at the luncheon. 

This year’s featured authors were Dr. Bill Bass and Jon Jefferson, June Hall McCash and Jim Stokely who discovered an unpublished manuscript after the death of his mother, author Wilma Dykeman, entitled Family of Earth: A Southern Mountain Childhood which has since been published. 

Ben Montgomery who wrote Grandma Gatewood’s Walk: The Inspiring Story of the Woman Who Saved the Appalachian Trail, which won the 2014 National Outdoor Book Award for History/Biography served as the keynote speaker.

After the luncheon, Dr. Lin Stepp, Bill Landry, Sam Venable and I took part in a panel discussion on the topic "The Ups and Downs of an East Tennessee Author." Knoxville native and WVLT-TV news anchor Alan Williams served as moderator. 

For me, Rose Glen is a homecoming. I was born in Sevierville about four miles from the convention center and grew up in Gatlinburg. I enjoy seeing all my friends—both young and older—every year at Rose Glen. 

Special thanks to Carroll McMahan, Amanda Marr, Chad Branton, director Brenda McCroskey and the rest of the staff of the Sevierville Chamber of Commerce for organizing Rose Glen.

Excellent job!

J.L. and Dr. Lin Stepp
Author Shawne Cline
Three of my newer friends: Luke Copas, the youngest author at Rose Glen, and his sisters, 2014 and 2017
Author and publishing guru Betty Shreffler
Artist and now biology major in college Jordan Roberts, 2014 and 2017
Photo by Betty Powell
Alan Williams, Dr. Lin Stepp, moi, Bill Landry and Sam Venable. 

I wonder how many words these four local authors and WVLT anchor Williams (who is also a Knoxville native and writes his broadcast stories) have put to paper? Is a zillion a real number? 

And perhaps the real surprise, surprise: three of these notables went to Mooreland Heights Elementary and another one only lives 3.1 road miles from the same 
South Knoxville school. 
Can you guess which have the Mooreland connections?

Thursday, February 23, 2017

home-schooled geology

February was geology month at the nature center for the Ed-Ventures@Ijams home-schooled students. Bright, bright, wonderful young minds! 

We held three sessions last week, learning the difference between rocks and minerals, the three basic kinds of rocks and the lay of the land in the Tennessee Valley indoors, then took a long outdoor adventure hike with the students and their parents/homeroom teachers.

Ijams has been connecting children with nature since the 1920s. Old school? Yep. And we are proud of it!

For more info, click: Ijams homeschool.

- Photos by teacher/moms Hope Turner and Linda Knott

This is a rock! (Yep. We covered the basics.)

Friday, February 17, 2017

thank you Dr. Littmann

Thank you Dr. Mark Littmann for inviting me to chat with the students taking your environmental science writing class at the University of Tennessee. And there has never been a time more needful than today for science writers. We live in an era in which scientists are announcing new discoveries daily, yet our country's leaders deny the validity of science. AND science is the one thing that is real because it is peer reviewed and testable.

We discussed the writing process, where ideas come from plus the importance of reading good science writing. Whatever you put into your brain, is what your mind thinks about, so be good stewards and feed your brain the best!

Turn off that TV and read a good science book. My personal bellwether moment came with "Pilgrim at Tinker Creek," by Annie Dillard. Sorry John le Carré, spy novels are summer reading. If you want to be a good writer, dedicate yourself to your craft and learn from the best. A good writer can make the "History of Tarpaper" compelling to read. 

We also talked about the creation of my UT Press book Ghost Birds and ivory-billed woodpeckers in general. Are they extinct or not? Ghost Birds is set in the 1930s when the conservation movement was just beginning in this country and the question of the day was: Should we try to save a vanishing species or not?

Luckily, the answer then was "YES!"

Great discussion.  

As always, thank you Rachael Eliot!

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Possible NEW ivorybill footage

"Sonny Boy," nestling ivory-billed woodpecker on the arm of J.J. Kuhn, 1938.  Photo by James T. Tanner. Used by permission of his estate.

Ghosts. They come and they go. The eerie thing about said phantoms is that they are capricious. Such is true with the legendary Ghost Bird of the South—the ivory-billed woodpecker. Is it still with us? Or is it extinct? The jury has been out on that conundrum since the 1980s. And it's going to stay out because every few years a new sighting is announced by a totally reliable source.

Photo to the right is of ivory-billed woodpecker specimens located at Ijams Nature Center.

The problem with identifying an ivorybill is that it looks a lot like a pileated woodpecker, especially from a distance. And the two species can both be found in the same swampy environs of the Gulf Coast. But anyone trained, who knows the field markings to look for and their very different vocalizations, can tell the difference between the two species. 

Ivorybills are birds of the swamps that prefer the lofty canopy, nesting and roosting as high as 80 to 100 feet off the ground. Like with any ghost, any sighting is usually quick and fleeting. And you simply cannot chase them swiftly in the swamp. Pileateds occur over a much wider range. I have them in my backyard in the mountains of East Tennessee, but I live hundreds of miles from any possible ivorybill location.

Three weeks ago, Audubon and other media outlets announced that Michael Collins had been searching for the elusive ivorybill in ideal habitat for years and had made several sightings. It was reported that Collins is "an intrepid birder and a mathematician and acoustics researcher with the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory." He is thorough, detail oriented and knows what he is looking for, so his account cannot be brushed aside lightly. And as Audubon also reported that, "after 500 visits and 1,500 total hours of observation, Collins produced two videos from the Pearl River in 2006 and 2008, and a third from 2007 in the Choctawhatchee River swamp in Florida." We have to applaud Collins for his single-minded dedication. 

In 2010, the University of Tennessee Press published my second book: Ghost Birds: Jim Tanner and the Quest for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker 1935-1941. It detailed the ivorybill research of another dedicated scientist, Dr. James T. Tanner who also spent long hours in the southern swamps for three years under the guidance of his mentor Arthur Allen, the founder of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. The Audubon Society funded Jim Tanner's fieldwork from 1937-1940. It took me three years to write the book with the help of Tanner's handwritten journals, papers, photographs and his widow Nancy who last saw ivorybills with Jim in December 1941 in the Singer Tract in Louisiana. 

Smithsonian magazine also published an article I penned that same year about Tanner and a nestling ivorybill he banded and named "Sonny Boy." For the Smithsonian article, click: A Close Encounter. 

For Audubon's review of my book, click: The Long Goodbye. 

For last week's Audubon report about the new research by Michael Collins, click: New ivorybill sightings.

Speaking of the capriciousness of the natural world, watch for my new UT Press book, Ephemeral by Nature scheduled to be published later this year.

And as the X-Files' Fox Mulder was apt to say, "The truth is out there."

Thank you Karen Suzy, Mac and Donna R. for bringing the new Audubon report to my attention. 

Monday, February 13, 2017

thank you Beta Sigma Phi

Special thanks to Susie Treis for inviting me to be the luncheon speaker at the Beta Sigma Phi annual meeting at the Jubilee Banquet Hall on Callahan Road last Saturday.

Being so close to Valentine's Day our topic was Bird Romance: courtship, pair bonding, nest building and raising a family. We chatted about several common backyard species with each having different life histories and since I looked out on a sea of crimson, I naturally began the talk with our own redbird, the Northern cardinal.

Female birds choose their mates. Each species has different criteria. Plumage color, song quality, claimed territory and attentiveness all come into play. In the photo above right, the male cardinal offers food to the female as if to say, I'll provide for you when you are nest bound with our clutch. And he does because if he doesn't she will not stick around for a second brood.

Thank you to all.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Myth Buster #1: Robins

American Robin. Photo Wiki by Dakota Lynch

Every year, usually in late February or early March, I get a phone call or two about robins. The caller says "Spring is coming soon, the robins are back."

Myth: Robins are the harbinger of spring.

Truth is: We have American robins (Turdus migratorius) year round. Some of our nesting robins may migrate a little to the south and are replaced by more northern robins that migrate here. But we have them all the time and their population is booming because, it is assumed, we keep making short grassed lawns for them to feed in.

Case in point: The Audubon Christmas Bird Count in Knoxville was held the last day of 2016. My group only counts a small portion of the 15-mile diameter count circle. Yet, my group of six counters—Patty Ford, Eddy Whitson, Vickie Henderson, Cheryl Greenacre, Rachael Eliot, moi—tallied a total of 130 robins. It was the third most numerous species behind ring-billed gulls and crows. It was a big day for crows. And I would strongly suspect that we under-counted robins because they are very active in loose flocks. Truthfully, at one point I grew tired of counting robins and longed for a single diminutive winter wren, which sadly we did not find.

So. We have robins all winter. 

Bonus myth buster: American robins are not true robins. They were mislabeled centuries ago. They are actually thrushes, in the genus Turdus, Latin for thrush. A better name would have been rust-breasted thrush, but it's too late for that.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Groundhog day?

WBIR Live@5@4 roving reporter Emily Stroud
Groundhogs (Marmota monax) are rather chunky large rodents, actually grouped with the ground squirrels like chipmunks and prairie dogs. They live underground in burrows where they hibernate during the winter. Mostly the nearsighted mammals are herbivorous primarily eating wild grasses and other vegetation, including berries and agricultural crops. 

Locally they eat oodles of kudzu. That's a good thing because we have more than enough of the highly invasive non-native plant that takes over entire fields, abandoned cars and buildings, even roadsigns. I think we once had a Blue Circle Drive-in here on Chapman Highway and now it's completely gone. The vine grows faster than groundhogs can really eat it, so we could use an army of robust kudzu-ivores.

But do East Tennessee groundhogs really poke their heads out of their burrows on this day to prognosticate the weather? Really? Isn't that meteorologist Todd Howell's job? WBIR reporter Emily Stroud and videographer Tim Dale came to the nature center today to check on our resident marmota. 

Did they find a groundhog? Did it see its shadow? Ask Emily.

Or go online to her report: Groundhog Day with Emily  

Friday, January 27, 2017

Remembrance of Things Past: Gatlinburg #16

Davy Crockett Shop in Gatlinburg next to the Sky Lift

In the 1950s, Tennessee was cool. 

Patty Page welcomed in the decade with the number one song, "Tennessee Waltz," while Pete Seeger and the Weavers version of "On Top of Old Smokey" reached the charts that same year. Later in the decade, Tennessee Ernie Ford added "Sixteen Tons" a Billboard number one about how hard it was to work in a coal mine. Born in Bristol, Ernest even got his own TV variety show on NBC beginning in 1956 called The Tennessee Ernie Ford Show. 

And at the movies, Robert Mitchum spawned a film noir tale called Thunder Road based on a factual event about an East Tennessee moonshine runner killed in a roadblock on Bearden Hill in Knoxville about eight miles from where I currently live. Mitchum's Luke Doolin drove a '57 Ford Fairlane just like my Dad and "thunder was his engine, white lightning was his load." We knew every line of "The Ballad of Thunder Road." The movie became a cult classic playing a drive-in theaters every summer for years. We thought the raffish moonshiner was our kin, our story, although none of us knew a lick about making shine but it was in our DNA, but of course we were kids. What did we know about our bloodline?

But, none of these had the pop culture POW of the state's number one favorite son, Davy Crockett or at least the Walt Disney version played by coonskin cap wearing Fess Parker. First it was a TV miniseries that aired in five installments on Disney's anthology series called "Disneyland" on ABC from December 1954 to December 1955. It was so hugely popular, the TV chapters were edited together and released as a wide screen feature film for the theater: Davy Crockett: King of the Wild Frontier. Wow. Davy in Technicolor! We had only seen him on a small Sylvania black & white set.

March 24, 1952
And speaking of color, back then, Tennessee was not a "Red State" but rather "the greenest state in the land of the free." 

Everyone knew by heart "The Ballad of Davy Crockett." And even our beloved U.S. Senator Estes Kefauver who was running for vice president at the time, was pictured on the cover of Time magazine wearing a coonskin cap. Although Kefauver's Time cover presided Disney's Davy by two years, it set the mark. Cool Tennesseans wore coonskin. I still have one, albeit a bit too small for my adult noggin. Kefauver was a senator in the days when people were elected to go to Washington to actually find solutions to the people's problems.

The country went crazy over Disney's Davy, "born on a mountain top in Tennessee." The original episodes were filmed in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park on the North Carolina side, and even though the real David Crockett was born in 1786 near the Nolichucky River in Limestone, Tennessee in Greene County, i.e. bottomland, to the world Davy was born on a mountain top and that summit had to be on top of old Smoky and what a better invitation to go visit a mountain top in Tennessee and come to Gatlinburg along the way. No modern day national ad agency could have created such a buzz. 

We kids were energized, captivated, enthralled. We all wanted to be Crockett. But how could Davy have "killed him a bear when he was only three"? Being only four-years-old at the time, I felt markedly lacking, mystified. All I had was a rubber knife.

Gatlinburg had a Davy Crockett Theatre next to the bus station and a Davy Crockett Shop specializing in all things Davy next to the Sky Lift, both on the Parkway.     

Brother & sister in Davy Crockett t-shirts, 1956
Davy was the first mass marketed merchandising phenomena much like Star Wars is today with items that included t-shirts, glasses, cups, puzzles, games, lunch boxes, clothing, trading cards, plastic weaponry, even lamps. (Darlene and I are wearing Davy Crockett t-shirts in the photo to the right.) And I still have a kid-sized Davy Crockett "TV chair" to sit on after a long day looking for bears on the wild frontier. 

Davy Crockett TV chair
Davy was everywhere in all the stores nationwide. By the end of 1955, Americans had purchased over $300 million worth of Davy Crockett merchandise and a lot of that was bought in Gatlinburg while on vacation. 

We were proud to be from "the greenest state in the land of the free" because that is where our Davy was from.

My Gatlinburg friend Emily reminded me of a Tennessee Ernie 1949 hit. To hear the "Ol' Pea-Picker" click: Smokey Mountain Boogie. 

©2017 — From the upcoming book, 
"Vintage Gatlinburg: 
The Transformation of a Small Timber Town to Mountain Resort
 Family Remembrances 1899-1969
by University of Tennessee Press author and native son
Stephen Lyn Bales 

Davy Crockett Theatre next to the bus station

For links to other Gatlinburg history posts click:

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Owl-ology, merci

In nature, form follows function. I have two arms because it makes t-shirts fit better. Owls have the most splendor faces, actually designed for sensory input, round like satellite dishes with huge eyes. They have excellent hearing and eyesight. If you are a mouse moving in the forest detritus in the dark, it's hard to go undetected. Just sayin'

Thank you to all who attended my Owl-ology 101 class at Ijams last Sunday afternoon. We learned all about the local species of owls, enjoyed some owl-licious snacks and dissected owl pellets provided by StayPuff our adopted barred owl. And yes, some mouse skulls were found!

The photo at the top and to the right is of a red phase eastern screech-owl, the first bird I worked with at Ijams in 1998. We did hundreds of programs together, she was a real show-stopper.

And the photo to the right is an elderly great horned owl. As a group, they all seem to be born mad and stay mad. They're intense enough to even kill and eat a skunk. But not this one, his advanced years made him gentle. And the bottom photo is a barred owl with those large black Muscle Shoals bluesman eyes. I handled the flightless wonder for a number of years. All of these three have since passed away. Heartbreak!

There is a chapter in my upcoming University of Tennessee Press book, Ephemeral by Nature, about owls and my relationship with them at the nature center. 

Young naturalists have been coming to Ijams to learn about birds since the 1920s and they love owls. I am but a link in the chain.