Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Smokies Life: winter wren

In May and June, if you park your car along Newfound Gap Road at the Alum Cave Bluff trailhead and begin to climb the steep southern flank of Mt. LeConte, you pass through an old northern hardwood forest that features buckeye, beech and birch, towering giants still. If you listen closely above the roar of Walker Camp Prong that flows into the West Prong of the Little Pigeon River, you’ll hear an avian chorus that features the chit-chatty red-eyed vireos, flute-like wood thrushes, the hollow swirling song of veery and the high buzzy thin notes of blackburnian and black-throated blue warblers, zoo, zoo, zoo, zoo, zee. All add a lithe sweetness to the damp vernal air.

The understory here is thick, often sodden, with rosebay rhododendron, blooming dog-hobble, primordial looking ferns and moss. It’s lush with life; in the spring it’s wet and fecund.

Still you climb, past Arch Rock, past the rock hugging heath balds, past Alum Cave Bluffs and the screaming peregrine falcons, kak, kak, kak, that dominant the rocky spur, the Eye of the Needle, that points west to the cove hardwoods far below and Sugarland Mountain beyond. 

Yet, still you climb higher, passing through the zone of Eastern hemlocks and above 5,000 feet you’ll find a taste of the Canadian woodlands pushed south by the last Ice Age. You are now in remnants of spruce-fir forests long since left clinging to the tops of the Smokies like castaways on isolated isles.  

Here in the high country it gets quiet, almost spookily so. Yes, occasionally you hear the deep-voiced gurgling croak of a raven as it flies overhead and if your ears are so attuned they grasp the high-pitched whistled three-notes of the black-capped chickadee, hey, sweet-ee and the barely audible kinglets, tsee, tsee, tsee. But, beyond this, if you are lucky, you soon hear one of the longest, most melodious songs, as spiritual and zealous as any Gregorian chant ever quavered by any Benedictine monk. Yet the songs are not solemn or mournful, their joyousness is unmistakable. It’s life affirming and sweet. Dr. Fred Alsop calls it a “musical series of bubbling warbles and trills that may last five seconds or more.” You are in what Alsop calls “the dark haunts of the spruce-fir forests,” the high domain and lofty cathedral of the winter wren...

For the rest of my article about the winter wrens of the Smokies, check out the current issue of Smokies Life magazine. 

Thanks to editor Steve Kemp, Lisa Hortsman and all the rest!

Friday, May 22, 2015

Broadwing Farm

Broadwing Farm in Hot Springs, North Carolina

Just perfect.

A special thank you to Mary and Pete Dixon. We rented one of the cabins on their organic Broadwing Farm in Hot Springs, North Carolina the past several days and as the name suggests, it's a wonderful place to watch migrating broad-winged hawks pass on their spring and fall migrations, albeit we got there a little late this year.

Karen Sue and I enjoyed the quiet, solitude and peace of the most secluded cabin. A wonderful place to get away from it all and recharge, watching the clouds pass overhead. Last night we listened to the spring peepers by the pond and a lone enthusiastic whip-poor-will calling from the hillside.

Oh, did I mention every cabin comes with fresh produce from the garden, a dozen eggs from, well...the chickens, and a hot tub filled with 85-degree mineral water pumped straight from the ground. Hot water from the ground, imagine that.

Good luck with your purple martins, Pete!

5 Stars (Well, actually I counted more than that drift over the hot tub in the dark.)

Monday, May 18, 2015

attention span?

This story made the rounds last week. 

It seems that the average goldfish (Carassius auratus) a relatively small member of the carp family native to East Asia, has an attention span of 9 seconds. But a recent Microsoft survey discovered that because of smart phones, the Internet and other quick electronic ways of keeping in touch and informed, the average well-connected human's attention span has dropped to 8 seconds. 

This is such an insul 

(I've already moved on to something else.)

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Return to Tremont

Going to Tremont is like a trip back home.

For a time, my ancestors lived in the next watershed over at Elkmont on Jake's Creek. Heck, they lived with Jake. (Jacob Houser's second wife was my great, great, great grandmother Anna Bales who begot Caleb, who begot Jim, who begot Homer, who begot Russell, who begot me. That's a lot of begetting.)

Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont is so comfortable it IS like going home. Thank you, citizen science coordinator Tiffany Beachy for inviting me to speak to your birding class about the "Secrets of Backyard Birds." It's always great fun. Courtship, territory selection, choice of mate, divorce, all that avian amour (pair bonding), angst and aggression. Backyards can be lively places; sometimes even "Peyton Places." So, who knew? 

And yet, they still have time to make a lot of baby birds, multiple clutches even. That's a lot of begetting.

See you next year, Tremonsters!

Tiffany Beachy speaks to the group

Tremont is so cozy, even the speaker gets to go barefoot.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Birding & Brunch

Thanks to all who attended my May Birding & Brunch @ Ijams program this morning.

Eastern kingbird
This is a monthly series. Today's topic was Summer Birds or the birds found at the nature center and Knox County only from late spring through summer. 

They also nest here in local environs but choose to spend their winters farther south. Most are insectivores. The eastern kingbird specializes in eating bees. That's quite a niche. (Perhaps that's why their Latin name is Tyrannus tyrannus! Long live the king!)

Great crested flycatcher
The great crested flycatcher likes to decorate its nesting cavity with a shed snakeskin. A wood thrush sings with dual vocal cords. Other spectacular summer species we looked at were the indigo bunting, common yellowthroat, white-eyed vireo, green heron, yellow-breasted chat and the diminutive blue-gray gnatcatcher. 

Thanks Kodie, for preparing the brunch!

Thursday, May 7, 2015

barn as art

This reminded me of the work of British sculptor and environmental artist Andy Goldsworthy. You could call it, "Tennessee barn floating in yellow."

That's Bluff Mountain in the background.

- Photo taken in Sevier County

Sunday, May 3, 2015

place of peace

Ijams staff members Dr. Louise Conrad and Rex McDaniel

Thank you to all who joined me for a sunset picnic at Chota, the Cherokee Peace Town. The site is sacrosanct and spiritual. It remains as it was to the Native Americans so long ago, a place of peace.

We visited the Chota Memorial and paid our respects at the grave of Oconastota, the great Cherokee Warrior Chief who died of old age at Chota in 1783.

Our group also hoped to hear male Chuck-will's-widows and whip-poor-wills calling in the twilight. Both are possible. I write about it in my book Natural Histories.

In the end, we heard only Chucks, and ironically the closest was in the parking lot where our picnic began.

In the dark, Jason made an audio recording of that one greeting us as we arrived back at our cars guided by our flashlights. Click: Jason's chuck. 

Thank you, Amy and Jimmy for providing the picnic!

Thursday, April 30, 2015

dark energy??

Dark matter, represented by blue, pulled things together.

This blog focuses on nature's minutia, the small, trifling, yet, fascinating little things; the strands in the overall web.

But occasionally it's nice to look at the web itself and have our minds blown—a term originating in 1966 when a lot of minds were being blown. Let's spend a little time looking up at the big picture.

In the January issue of National Geographic, Timothy Ferris writes, "After decades of research involving new and better telescopes, light detectors, and computers, cosmologists can now state with some assurance that the universe was born 13 billion, 820 million years ago, most likely as a bubble of space smaller than an atom...

"But they have also concluded that all the stars and galaxies they see in the sky make up only 5 percent of the observable universe. The invisible majority consists of 27 percent dark matter and 68 percent dark energy. Both of them are mysteries." 

Dark matter is an unseeable force that pulls matter together through gravity into stars, galaxies, clusters. It slowed the initial expansion of the universe. Then roughly 9 billion years ago a force dubbed "dark energy" appeared, essentially anti-gravity, and the expansion accelerated again. So much so that in time, everything not in our own galaxy may be too distant to see, flying off into the darkness.

So, from a cosmologist's point of view, dark matter pulls bodies together, dark energy drives them apart. And where did the dark energy come from since it wasn't there in the beginning? 

Good question.

If I could answer that I'd win the Nobel Prize in Physics.

There are days that I feel like I am being controlled by dark energy and I am flying apart.

Listen carefully. KAPOW! 

That's the sound of my mind being blown. 

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

yes, we have da newts

Thank you to those who attended my nature walk last Saturday at 3 o'clock, part of Outdoor KnoxFest at Ijams. It was great fun. We searched for tadpoles, newts and owls, finding 2/3's of them.

I promised the kids beforehand that we'd find a newt, since they had never seen one. A real amphibious newt, not a political Newt. Yes, long before a Newt (real name: Newton Leroy) patrolled the halls of congress, spotted newts patrolled the ponds of Ijams.

We found several.  

But shucks, no snakes. Must be too early in the season.

Red-spotted newt

Saturday, April 25, 2015

hidden white-eyes

"A small and secretive bird of shrubby areas of the eastern and southern United States, the white-eyed Vireo is more noticeable for its explosive song than its looks," writes Cornell. 

They got that right.

This bird's white eyes and song mnemonic that describes its explosive song—"Quick with the beer check!"—are its most memorable features.

Take the time to learn it if you do not already know the song, it will serve you well anytime your near appropriate habitat.  

These sprites stay so sequestered in the shadowy shrubbery they do not even venture forth to bathe in open puddles and pools, instead preferring to rub themselves against damp foliage after a rain.

I heard the song this afternoon in dense shrubs near the river at the nature center's lower overlook. But actually seeing its white eyes? 

I didn't get close.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

taking w/ the red-eye

Red-eyed vireo photo by John Benson
We're old friends really. And even though you hardly ever see them or their tiny red eyes, you know they're there in the canopy endlessly singing...or chattering short phrases.

Walking out to the mailbox this morning I heard one over the driveway. Chattering. Back from its winter in South America. Back to my woods.

This olive drab passerine with grayish noggin may sing for long periods, endlessly repeating the same quandary, the same back and forth. A tireless songster, the red-eyed vireo holds the record for most songs given in a single day among bird species. More than 20,000 phrases in a day. Day after day after day. 140,000 in a week. For me the chatter began today:

"Look at me...I'm up here...Really I am...Way up high...Oh, see me...How can you not?...Give me a look." 

Monday, April 20, 2015

sneezy hooded

There it was. Passing through. On its way to nesting grounds farther to the north or in the Smokies, the hooded warbler or as the early French explorers would say, "Paruline à capuchon."

I didn't see it although I tried. It was tucked away in the understory of the neighbors bushes but I heard it singing ""ta-wit ta-wit ta-wit TEE-YO" which always reminds me of sneezing: "Ahcha-ahcha-ahcha-ACHOO!"

They like to stay hidden. In the Smokies they nest in rhododendron thickets but not here, not in the foothills. My sneezy bird was only passing through on a morning after a rain with everything sodden and dripping. Perhaps that's why it was sneezing. 

Thursday, April 16, 2015

a burst of winged sunshine


Prothonotary warbler

If you see but one bird. Yes, gaze upon just one bird over the next few weeks. Then truly you should make it a prothonotary warbler.

If you look up the word exquisite in the dictionary, I think there will be an illustration of a prothonotary beside the entry. Sunflower yellow, gray-green wings, it is indeed exquisite and blithe—a burst of winged sunshine.

The name "Prothonotary" honors the color of the bright yellow robes worn by the clerks in the Roman Catholic church.

They spend the bulk of the year like most warblers far to the south in the tropics: Central America and just a brush with the northern countries of South America, primarily Columbia, Venezuela, Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana.  

In late spring and summer, this wood-warbler haunts our wetlands, swamps and river shorelines and they nest in hollow tree cavities or even bluebird boxes near the water. To my ear, their high-pitched songs rotate like a squeaky wheel.

A good place to begin your search is along the River Trail at Ijams, but you have to stay sharp, they're lively splashes of yellow like a Van Gogh canvas dripping with saffron.

Monday, April 13, 2015

hummers back?

Red buckeye (Aesculus pavia)

Like most early spring bloomers, the red buckeye, a.k.a. firecracker plant is flowering. This means the hummers are probably back as well, although I have yet to see one but my feeders are out.

The ruby-throated hummingbird migration northward every spring follows the flowering of this native tree. And as you can see, they have red tubular blossoms to lure the fast-flying hummers. The flowers are narrow, their sweet nectar tucked away deep inside so that only the long-billed birds can partake. Zipping about—a sip here, a sip there—benefits the buckeyes by spreading the sticky pollen from tree-to-tree.

This relationship was forged long before man-made sugar-water feeders were invented. Could the hummers survive without the buckeyes? Probably, the ruby-throats would just migrate later when other plants with tubular flowers bloomed. Could the buckeyes exist without the hummers? Perhaps not. But yet, for the tiny birds, pollinating the plants with blossoms especially designed for their bills—form follows function after all—is their
raison d'être.

And we all need a reason to exist.

Friday, April 10, 2015

it has begun

Northern parula warbler

It's April and it has begun! The migratory birds are starting to arrive. The neotropical migrants that spent the last six months in Central and South America. 

Tuesday, on a walk to the mailbox after a rain, I heard a rose-breasted grosbeak and the first wood thrush in the woods that surround my house.

At Ijams, Sammi heard Northern parulas around the parking lot at the Visitor Center. There's also reports of a prothonotary warbler checking out a nest box and ruby-throated hummingbirds in the county, so get those feeders out.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Eighth trip to Panther Nation

Powell High School AP Environmental Science class spring 2015
Today, I once again visited with the AP Environmental Science class taught by Coach Will Roberts at Powell High School, a.k.a. Panther Nation. It's become a biannual tradition.

We talked about conservation, environmental studies, urban wildlife, book writing and my job at Ijams Nature Center
. Each student had been assigned to read a portion of my two books: Natural Histories and Ghost Birds.

Topics we visited included the biology of freshwater mussels, the Native American uses of passionflower, the marsupial opossum and the recovery of bald eagles. Also of interest were my love of hawks and the new hiking and biking trails in the Knoxville Urban Wilderness: South Loop adjacent to the nature center. Click here for: map.

Eastern coywolf
We also discussed the canids: dogs (Canis familiaris), coyotes (Canis latrans), gray wolves (Canis lupus) and the failed attempt to reintroduce red wolves (Canis rufus) into the Southeast. AND the surprising success of "Eastern" coyotes and their interbreeding with their once sworn enemies—gray wolves. A union that produces hybrids called coywolves (Canis anybody'sguessus)

Nature abhors a vacuum and rushes to fill it. Coywolves are becoming the midsized predator the east has lost through human persecution and a means for nature to control the soaring population of raccoons. 

Best of luck to all of you! Thanks, Coach Roberts. 

Thanks, Karen Suzy.

Click these links for a look back at past visits:

Fall 2014

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Birding & Breakfast

Blackburnian Warbler

 It's time for another Birding & Breakfast at Ijams. 

Saturday, April 4, 9 a.m.

This time the topic is Migratory Birds: vireos, tanagers, thrushes and warblers. Join me for this indoor program (rain is predicted) about the birds that migrate through the valley in April. Many of them will pause for a day or two in your neighborhood, so be on the lookout.

Migration is an exhaustive process. Migrants can lose over one third of their body weight. Most ultimately fly farther north. The Tennessee warbler practically leaves the country. But many remain in the Volunteer State to nest in the Cumberland and Smoky Mountains. 

Plus, as always for our B&B, Peg will be serving a traditional breakfast. Fee: Ijams members $7, non members $12. But register soon. Space is limited to first 20 people. Call (865) 577-4717, ext. 110 to register.

Baltimore Oriole
Cerulean Warbler
Rose-breasted Grosbeak
Northern Parula Warbler
Yellow Warbler
Chestnut-sided Warbler

Monday, March 30, 2015

ants in the plants

ahhhh. It's spring and a young man's fancy turns to thoughts of germination. The woodland wildflowers are punching their way to the surface, but some need a little help finding a location.

Wherever you find bloodroot blooming, you know there's been ants in the plants. Yes, ants. This forest perennial's seeds are collected and spread by ants through a process called myrmecochory (mùrmekō káwree). Was that really any help?

The insects carry the fleshy seeds back to their nests, eat the nutritious portion called the elaiosome (another good Scrabble word: six vowels, wow) and discard the seeds in their nest debris where the following year they germinate into new plants. And since they are perennials, they'll be there for years to come.

Yes, the unseen ants. Deus ex machina.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Mindfulness Walk

WBIR Live@5@4 reporter Emily Stroud

Join me for a Mindfulness Walk tomorrow at Ijams at 1 PM. No talking. No cellphones. No cameras. No stressful distractions of any kind. We will simply be in-the-moment, at peace in the woods, practicing the health enhancing Eastern disciple of Shinrin-yoku, Japanese for "forest bathing," just like WBIR Live@5@4 reporter Emily Stroud and I were discussing Wednesday. 

But wait a minute! Is that someone's cellphone ringing? Watch the interview for the perfectly timed, albeit unplanned mindfulness-busting ring. Click: ring-a-ding.  

To register, call Ijams, (865) 577-4717, ext. 110, but leave your cellphone at home.

"Each time you take a mindful step, you are back in the arms of your Mother Earth and reminded of your true sweet home in the here and now," writes Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk Thích Nhất Hạnh.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Why we remember Rafinesque

Imagine that you find yourself in a new world, brimming with life. Others may have explored it, but you bring a pair of fresh, learned eyes; you bring an attention to detail like none other.

You are a naturalist, thrilled by everything you see and virtually everywhere you look, you discover something you have never seen before. Dare I say, a plant or animal that’s new to science.

While at the same time, the scientific community itself is experiencing something of an overhaul. Swedish botanist and zoologist Carolus Linnaeus had adopted a new system of naming all plants and animals. Prior to him, the names of species were wordy polynomials, i.e. long descriptive paragraphs. Linnaeus’ Systema Naturae published in the late 1700s provided a new, simpler method. Known then as Linnaean taxonomy, today we call it binomial nomenclature or simply binomials. Hence fore, every living thing was given a unique two-part scientific name generally in Latin. The first word designated its genus, the second its species.

The Southern red oak in your front yard became Quercus falcate, while the related, but different chestnut oak beside it became Quercus prinus. The family dog was designated as
Canis familiaris, while you and I are Homo sapiens. Often the original describer would be honored in the binomial itself as is Linnaeus in the red maple, Acer rubrum L or Tennessee’s own State Tree, the tulip tree, Liriodendron tulipifera L.

Into this world entered Rafinesque...

For the rest of my article about early American naturalist Constantine Samuel Rafinesque-Schmaltz, check out the current issue of The Tennessee Conservationist.

Thank you, editor Louise Zepp! 

Sunday, March 22, 2015

quest completed


Ijams American woodcock searchers and soup-eaters enjoyed Peg's belly-warming soup then completed their quest, finding the elusive squat, upland shorebirds just before darkness fell last night.

American woodcocks are migrating through the county on their way to their breeding grounds to the north. A few nest in East Tennessee, we are at the southern edge of their range but who the heck could find a nest. It's hard enough to locate the re-peenting displaying males.

"Superbly camouflaged against the leaf litter, the brown-mottled American Woodcock walks slowly along the forest floor, probing the soil with its long bill in search of earthworms. Unlike its coastal relatives, this plump little shorebird lives in young forests and shrubby old fields across eastern North America. Its cryptic plumage and low-profile behavior make it hard to find except in the springtime at dawn or dusk, when the males show off for females by giving loud, nasal peent calls and performing dazzling aerial displays," states the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website.

Superbly camouflaged, indeed. And finding them in the twilight is always a challenge. This is an annual pre-spring ritual at the nature center.

Special thanks to all who accompanied me out into the mud.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Lynns in conjunction

We had a very rare “planetary alignment” of three of the four "Lynns" that routinely work or volunteer at Ijams Nature Center this morning.  And oddly, each spells their name a bit differently.

Flanking this Stephen Lyn is volunteer naturalist Lynne Davis on the left and on the right is Ijams children's story time reader Lynn Keffer. If only wildlife rehabilitator Lynne McCoy had been there, it would have been all four Lynns in conjunction.

Photo taken by Lynn's son.