Monday, June 19, 2017

thank you my friends

Wild Birds Unlimited
My late mother was especially proud that she was the one who taught me how to talk. So in addition to thanking her posthumously, I need to thank the following groups who have invited me to speak in the past few weeks. 

To my friends at Wild Birds Unlimited for inviting me to speak about fatherhood in the bird world. Thank you.

To the good folks of the Tellico Village Garden Club thank you for asking me to speak about hawks and other diurnal birds of prey.

To the Author's Guild of Tennessee for inviting me to chat a bit about the authoring of my three books published by the University of Tennessee Press.

To my friends at the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont, thank you Tiffany for asking me to speak about the "Secrets of Backyard Birds."

And finally to Dana and Marti with the Great Smoky Mountains Association for asking me to talk about local owls. I even tried to call in a northern saw-whet owl but with the overcast skies and rapidly approaching storm, they were rather taciturn that evening.  

Tellico Village Garden Club
Author's Guild of Tennessee
Great Smoky Mountains Association members


Sunday, June 11, 2017

Wendy: rattlesnake whisperer

Traveling around the country, you meet a lot of interesting people, single-minded folks with convection. In April, I met Wendy Shaw, a passionate conservationist and self-confessed rattlesnake whisperer, i.e. protector and rescuer.

Yes, rattlesnakes. 

As her tagline states, "Rattlesnakes aren't really monsters. They just play monsters on TV." 

Wendy Shaw with night snake
This is the season in Washington state when snakes are on the move. Boy snakes looking for girl snakes, that sort of thing. 

Often at night they find themselves on darkened highways where their flattened scales do not find much traction and inevitably a car or truck comes barreling along. The thick, large scales on their bellies are called "scutes," and they are not particularly good at gripping asphalt. 

Western spadefoot toad
Let us hope that Wendy is behind the steering wheel of the oncoming car because she will kindly pull off the road and rescue the reptile (or even amphibians like spadefoots). Wendy will carry the herpetological creature out of harm's way, moving it as far from the thoroughfare as she is able. Wendy is not funded. Her mission is fueled by the goodness in her heart. She is just their sovereign protector like Wonder Woman.  


After a day's work, she is out until midnight or even into the wee hours, if it's a busy night, on snake patrol.

If there were a Nobel Prize for kindness, Wendy would get my nod.  

Click here and Wendy tells here own story, night patrol.  

For other posts on my trip to Yakima, click:

Friday, June 9, 2017


Feeling stressed and overwhelmed by your job? Or your life? Your place on the planet? Then turn off the news, the cell phone, the tablet, the kindle, the flatscreen. It's time to de-stress, slow down, relax and find inner peace. Time magazine just published an entire issue dedicated to the therapeutic benefits of Mindfulness. Ijams has been organizing Mindfulness Walks for two years. And they are so calming.  

If you have never been to an Ijams program
this may be the one for you.
I will be hosting two mindfulness activities in the next week.
Take some time to stop and smell the roses.
Sunday, June 11, 2 p.m. 
Mindfulness Nature Journaling  
(Ages 14 and up) Unplug from your cell phone and all electronics and join me for a no-talking nature journaling experience and record your inner peace. Bring a notebook or journal, pencil or pen and whether you draw, write prose or poetry, let nature be your inspiration. 

Saturday, June 17, 9 a.m. 
Mindfulness Walk
(Ages 14 and up) Mindfulness walks are calming strolls. Based on the therapeutic Japanese practice called Shinrin Yoku, or forest bathing, it’s a meditative, calming stroll, exploring the forest using all five senses. By removing distractions such as cell phones, cameras and even talking, participants are able to truly engage with their surroundings and experience the restorative properties of nature. 

For both we meet at historic High Ground Park
1000 Cherokee Trail, Knoxville, TN 37920. 

For more information or to register go online 

High Ground Park

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

look who's talkin'

Authors Guild of Tennessee Meeting: Thursday, June 8, 6 p.m. at the Farragut Library, 417 N. Campbell Station Road. The guest speaker is Stephen Lyn Bales (c'est moi), award-winning writer, photographer and senior naturalist at Ijams Nature Center. Published authors are invited to attend. 


Father Birds. Saturday, June 17, 1-2 p.m. Celebrate Father's Day with Wild Birds Unlimited, 7240 Kingston Pike, ste 164, and Ijams senior naturalist Stephen Lyn Bales (c'est moi encore une fois) for a lighthearted look at the bad dads and good fathers in the local bird world. Learn which species are paternal and which are no show papas.

Please RSVP to WBU at (865) 337-5990 so that we may allow for the appropriate amount of seating.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Yakima snake protector

Wendy Shaw with petite "night snake" and Mark Fuzie, English professor and poet at Yakima Valley College

To paraphrase a line from the original TV series Twin Peaks, "The snakes are not what they seem." And since I was in the Pacific Northwest at the time, borrowing from David Lynch & Mark Frost seems appropriate.

Snakes are not what they seem, since many many people seem to think they are sneaky demons. But they are much more cautious of us than we should be of them. And why not? We have been chopping off their heads with garden hoes for centuries. (Have garden hoes been around for centuries?  I must check that.)

They are predators. They eat mice, insects, lizards, fish, frogs, even other snakes. They're low to the ground. It's that simple.  

There's an absolute beauty to the way a snake moves, an economy of motion. Streamlined, without the benefit of legs which they evolved away from, they get along just fine. Their bodies are muscular and their ventral (belly) scales are large, oblong and especially low friction enabling the snake to grip the ground for traction, although they are not that good on asphalt. Crossing a road can be difficult.

So why all this about snakes? 

At the Yakima Valley College Earth Fest that I attended recently, I met Wendy Shaw a self-confessed snake protector and rescuer. She approached my naturalist table with a completely docile night snake (Hypsiglena torquata) and we talked all things snake especially the one she had weaving itself through and around her fingers.

"They have a unique defensive posture, which is pretty adorable," emailed Wendy. "They form a compact little coil rather like frosting on a cupcake. I caught one in the act last summer during a routine snake rescue patrol and snapped a couple of shots before scooping him off to safety."

Rescue patrol? Wendy's hobby/avocation/passion is saving snakes at night from the local roads before they become roadkill but more about that in an upcoming post.

Until then, attend my Snake-ology class at Ijams this Sunday, June 4 at 2 p.m. To preregister call 577-4717, ext. 110.

For other posts on my trip to Yakima, click:

Night snake cupcake, defensive posture

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

camera shy? Nope

Working with live animals on live TV is like a trapeze act without a net. You never know what's going to happen.

This afternoon for me it was a live interview with WBIR reporter Emily Stroud for their Live@5@4 hour from Ijams. The last time Emily and I worked together we were looking for a groundhog on Groundhog Day, easier said than done. This time we were talking about snakes and my Snake-ology class scheduled for Sunday, June 4 at 2 at the nature center. (I also host Duck-ology, Butterfly-ology, Spider-ology, Turtle-ology, Dragonfly-ology, Owl-ology, Lizard-ology, etc.)

Our plan: Emily and I were to start out holding the snake together then during the interview switch it all over to her. In this case, it was a captive-bred corn snake which was bred to have bright colors. A wild corn snake (Pantherophis guttatus) is much darker, more red-brown than orange.

Most snakes are wary of people. But this snake has been held all of its life, so it is friendly, even inquisitive. My only concern was keeping it relatively contained in the shot and somewhat facing the camera. Snakes often disappear into my shirt. It was a warm day and reptiles are more active when they heat up. But much to our surprise, and even glee, it was not camera shy but took a real interest in the camera lens. Longtime WBIR videographer Brian Holt got a great close-up.

- Photos by Ijams Education Director Jennifer Roder and Live@4@5 producer Lee Ann Bowman

- To see the complete WBIR interview, click: Emily talks snake.

- And last year's interview about Snake-ology, click: Black rat snake.

WBIR Live@5@4 reporter Emily Stroud with corn snake

Emily, it looks like our snake is disappearing into the camera.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

big bug news

Photo by Sofia Tomov

It's been a big bug news week at the nature center. Brood X of 17-year cicadas are emerging from the ground four years early. They are not due until 2021. Is it a sign the end of days is near or simply that the red-eyed, gold-winged hemipterans are confused.

Has anything else confusing happened in the past year?

For more of the Ijams story, click: Geeky Nature Nerd News. 

Thank you, Sofia for the wonderful photo!

Friday, May 12, 2017

Ijams Cicada news got bigger

Ijams Education Director Jen Roder examines the specimens collected 
in May 2004

It's a male, but is it M. cassini
or M. septendecula?
Our Big Bug news just got bigger. It got national. But the mystery deepens.

You do not want to miss this program. We are scrambling to pull it together. Because it's late, call me to register. The national cicada people are going to fly here next week to help us figure out what's going on at Ijams.

The 17-year cicadas that are climbing out of the ground are four years early. They are not due until 2021. Jen located the handful I collected in May 2004 and discovered that 13 years ago we had two different species emerging at the same time. News to me.

"In 2004, there was definitely Magicicada septendecium. It's the big one. The little one is either Magicicada cassini
or Magicicada septendecula. I'm leaning toward cassini, but it's hard to tell. The two species are significantly smaller," writes Jen. Their call is the defining identifier and the 2004 specimens are mute.

So what is happening at Ijams now, four years early? Is it one species or two like in 2004? So far it is mostly males emerging. Jen has heard one calling, by Sunday there should be a lot more out and calling.

Sign up for our Cicada-ology Pop-up Program and learn all about our annual cicadas and these 17 year ones in particular. After a short indoor program we will go on a great cicada hunt.

(865) 577-4717, ext. 119

Call and leave me a voicemail. Leave your name and the number of people with you. You can pay (Members $5, non-members $8) at the Ijams front desk on Sunday afternoon. Be a part of the cicada fun!

Help us solve the mystery. This is nature nerd cool stuff.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

cicadas appear when none should be

Fresh from the ground this morning. Photo by Jen Roder

Stop the presses! Nature is amazing!

Brood X emerging at Ijams...four years early!

Recently we have noticed a few small, black cicadas around Ijams. For those of you that know anything about cicadas, this might seem strange. Why, you ask? Because the small black cicadas are periodical cicadas that only emerge every 17 years here in Knoxville. We are in the range of Brood X, a population of cicadas that isn't due to emerge until 2021. 

But there is a known phenomenon of "straggler" populations that emerge early, depending on the weather and soil conditions. And that is happening now! As Ijams' favorite senior naturalist and self-confessed ten-year-old (c'est moi) just quipped, "this is so dang cool!"

I wrote an entire chapter about periodical cicadas and Brood X in Natural Histories, my first book published by the University of Tennessee Press. It's a topic I am pretty passionate about.

If you want to learn more, join me this Sunday, May 14 at 2 p.m. for a pop-up program that will teach you about cicadas and even take a walk to observe the periodical cicadas in action! I'm even going to serve ice-cold cicada-ade (made from limes) to refresh us. You won't want to miss this only happens once every 13-17 years and who knows if I will be around that much longer?

For program information and registration, click here:…/ijams-pop-up-program-brood-x-cicadas-at…/

Monday, May 8, 2017

Cowiche Canyon

I felt like a “Stranger in a Strange Land,” a hospitable land but still foreign to me. In this case, I borrow the analogy from the 1961 sci-fi novel by Robert Heinlein.

The protagonist in that story was Valentine Michael Smith, a human who comes to Earth in early adulthood after being born on the planet Mars and raised by Martians.

There is perhaps only a few times in your life when you are plopped down in a place as alien as Valentine was. My sensibilities of Mother Earth were shaped by the 400-plus million year old Ordovician limestone, sandstone and shale that serves as the bedrock of my East Tennessee home. All are sedimentary rocks formed at the bottom of a shallow antediluvian sea.
That's old Earth, the Age of Crinoids. So I have an ancient mooring.

But here I walked through Cowiche Canyon north of Yakima, Washington, a stranger in a sunny strange land. My gracious hosts and guides were Eric and Chandra Anderson and all around us were the sagebrush slopes of a high plateau made almost exclusively of basalt and andesite; two forms of igneous rock spewed from deep within the earth only 14 to 17 million years ago; babies really in geologic time. So comparatively speaking, it’s new Earth, post Jurassic, indeed Miocene, the Age of Horses. 

Here’s the interesting closure to my Heinlein opening. That mix of basalt and andesite is very close to the composition of the Martian surface, Valentine's home. It was perhaps as close to walking on Mars-like terrain as I well ever journey except here the sky was not pink, it was azure. And there was life everywhere around us. The first blush of spring was just beginning to present itself.

Cowiche Canyon was craved by the erosive action of Cowiche Creek and the morning we were there it was carving still, heavy flow with the melting snows of last winter in that part of the “Evergreen State.” In this section of Washington the towering firs and pines of the Cascade Mountains and Gifford Pinchot National Forest to the west give away to stubborn shrub-steppe, sagebrush slopes and jagged cliffs of weathering basalt columns.

There’s a stark beauty to this part of the country;
 a vastness to the Western landscape. You get a sense of the enormity of it all, a large snapshot of the planet itself revealed. There is really no other way to describe it. You look out, far and wide. 

To look out in the Appalachians you need to climb to the top of a mountain and if the Smokies are not smokey you can look out. But most of the time you are in a hollow between two ridges and you can only look up. The Smokies are more insular, to some even claustrophobic.

Cowiche also had a subtle nuance of color, earth tones because the new earth lies naked and exposed. From the gold lichen that adorns the rock to the sprinkle of yellow vernal wildflowers just beginning to sally forth, all seemed golden as such moments often do. The gnarled shrubs that cling to the land are probably as old as the towering Douglas firs I drove through on my way into Yakima Valley.

Memories are made from such sojourns. A network of
synapses formed in my brain labeled—if they had labels—"Morning walk in Cowiche Canyon, 22 April 2017."

Thank you for the memory, Eric and Chandra

For another post from my trip, click: Yakima Valley College.

YVC anthropology professor Eric Anderson

Chandra and Eric Anderson

Thursday, May 4, 2017

dented box turtle report

Dented box turtle was last seen hightailing it into these woods

“Nature seemed to be doing a pretty good job on her own,” said Ijams staff veterinarian Dr. Louise Conrad. 

As it turns out, the rescued injured box turtle I reported on a few days ago did NOT need to be rescued.

Visitors at the nature center found him on one of our trails with a dent in his carapace. That was alarming. Dr. Louise promptly took him to the University of Tennessee Veterinary Hospital for x-rays, blood work and observation. 

The blood tests turned up no infection or parasites; in fact, the results were that of a totally healthy box turtle. X-rays determined that the injury was an old one and the shell was well on the way to knitting itself back together. And there was no apparent penetration of the internal body cavity at the time of the injury.

The turtle will always have a dented shell, just like you if you broke your leg and did not go to a doctor to have it set properly, it would grow back crooked. That’s the way nature works.

Often animals that appear to be injured or orphaned simply do not need human interference. Baby birds that fall out of nests are found and fed by their parents, even on the ground. And a clutch of baby bunnies found in the tall grass simply needs to be left alone, mom is just away but she’ll be back. 

On the other hand, any obviously injured animal should to be taken directly to UT Vet Hospital on Neyland Drive. There are veterinarians there 24-hours a day, seven days a week. UT’s Wild Animal Rescue program is a free service, but it is costly. If you would like to donate money to help them defray costs, click: Wild Animal Medical Treatment

Ijams is not permitted to treat injured animals, but we are permitted by TWRA to adopt an animal that cannot heal well enough to be returned to the wild. We currently are caring for an opossum with a lame front leg, two half-blind owls, four other birds with wing injuries including a turkey vulture that was hit by a truck in North Carolina, plus many others including three box turtles. Their care is also expensive. If you would like to donate to our Animal Care Fund, click Ijams Donation and choose the “Donate Online” option. In the comment box write “Animal Care.”

Ijams has complete faith in the goodness of humanity. And the concern over this poor turtle underscores that faith. Our original post has garnered over 55,000 views and over 160 comments. Yes, some unknown person probably caused the turtle’s injury; but he/she represents a tiny minority. 

So, what about the dented box turtle? He has been returned to the woods, his home. Being in the hospital must have been scary. The last time we saw him he was “high-tailing” it—awkward for a critter whose tail is less than an inch off the ground—into the woods. (See above photo.)

Thank you for all your well wishes!

Sunday, April 30, 2017

senseless injury


I am senior naturalist at Ijams Nature Center, a nature/ environmental education center. But we have also been a wildlife sanctuary since the 1920s. It is their home and we protect it and them.

Yesterday morning we found in the woods one of our prized wild Eastern box turtles with a bashed in top shell (carapace). It appears to be caused by a rock or hammer. He is a wild animal that lives outside year-round in the vicinity of the Visitor Center.

We have seen him from time-to-time for years. His markings are very distinctive.

Our in-house veterinarian, Dr. Louise Conrad, hopes the shell will heal. It's like a broken bone but like any injury, infection can set in.

Dr. Louise took him to the University of Tennessee Veterinary Hospital. X-rays will determine if there is any internal damage. I will keep you posted.

Thousands of people visit Ijams every year. We love that. Rarely do we find one of our wild animals injured. Over the years we have found a couple of our wild snakes bludgeoned to death. Senseless.

Remember, Ijams is their home. Please respect them. Look but don't touch. And certainly don't bash one with a rock.

Who would do such a thing?

Saturday, April 29, 2017

froggy welcome home

Such a pleasure being back and helping Ijams new naturalist/educator Christie Collins host a Family Froggy Night Hike.

The smallest tadpoles—and they were tiny—were probably the Cope's gray treefrogs we netted in the Secret Pond, while the largest tadpole found was probably a bullfrog netted in the Reflecting Pool. It was just beginning to go through metamorphosis. It had short back legs.  

Spring Peeper
In all we visited six ponds. We spotted very young bullfrogs in the Plaza Pond plus we heard Cope's and green frogs calling near the Lotus Pond and the first wood thrush singing in 2017. Half the group even saw a barred owl. Yet, even though it was hot today and late in the season for them, the spring peepers stole the evening. They were calling everywhere, mostly from the trees above our heads.

Great family nocturnal fun! 

Click your ruby slippers together. There's no place like home.

Cope's gray treefrog

Friday, April 28, 2017

Yakima Valley College

Yakima Valley with Antanum Ridge in background. Wiki media

Lewis and Clark were the first non-natives to visit the Yakima Valley in 1805. Their Corps of Discovery was searching for easy passage to the Pacific Ocean (it doesn't exist) and perhaps a living Jefferson giant ground sloth (they only found fossils). What they did find at this high mountain plateau was rich fertile basaltic soil and the Yakama people. 

The valley itself marks the beginning of arid flatland formed 14 to 17 million years ago by continuous lava flows from the Columbia River Basalt Group of volcanoes that make up the Cascade Mountains to the west. Basalt is a key word here, practically everywhere you look you find the aged volcanic rock still erect in columns, crumbling or weathered into soil.

Almost 212 years after Lewis and Clark, I had been invited to Yakima Valley College (founded in 1928 as Yakima Valley Community College) to present a series of lectures and talks about writing, nature journaling and natural history wonders shared by both Washington state and Tennessee. I also spoke of my second book Ghost Birds and its creation which is more than a book about a single endangered species. 

Ghost Birds captures an era, the 1930s, when the conservation paradigm was changing. The overriding question of the day: If we can save a vanishing species, shouldn't we? My visit was part of their YVC Reads celebration of Aldo Leopold and his seminal work: A Sand County Almanac and the college's Earth Day observance.

The student body at YVC is widely diverse, something I relished. My one-on-one conversations at their Earth Fest were heartwarming given the political climate we find ourselves in today. In the parlance of a paleontologist, as the modern day Age of pallid male Dinosaurs gives way to the Age of Mammals. In nature, change, growth and evolution are the natural order. You can resist and deny it but you simply cannot stop it. Roadblocks can be erected or threatened, but like the Berlin Wall, they cannot be sustained. Humanity is a molten entity. Just ask anthropology professor Eric Anderson who invited me in the first place.

Yakima Valley College is going through something of a rebirth itself. Many of the art-laden buildings are new. They surround a nascent circular courtyard or commons where I often sat during breaks to watch birds.

While in Yakima, I was the house guest of Anderson and his teacher wife Chandra. They were exceedingly gracious. Early every morning I had my coffee gazing through a wall of glass across the valley at Antanum Ridge and sometimes, if it chose to present itself, 12,276 foot tall snow-capped Mt. Adams (known by Native Americans as Pahto). Mount Ranier (Tacoma) and what's left of Mt. Saint Helens (Lawetlat'la) are within the same general vicinity.

In addition to the Andersons, I also thank the other professors I met who welcomed me warmly: Mark Fuzie, Dr. Heidi Shaw, Dr. Meghan Fitzgerald and Dr. Ken Zontek. 

And thank you Wilma Dulin and Amber Cliett for the behind the scenes arraignments that made my trip possible.

Peace to you, Yakima.