Tuesday, October 28, 2014

B & B at Cove Lake

We had such a good time in late September at Look Rock watching for hawks, the Ijams Birding & Breakfast Club is meeting again, Saturday, December 13. This time we're going to Cove Lake to search for wintering ducks, coots and grebes. Oh my! Ijams provides the brunch and spotting scopes. You bring your cameras and binoculars. 

Fee: Ijams members, $15, non-members $20. Visit Ijams website for details or call (865) 577-4717, ext. 110 to sign up. 

Group photo by Jimmy Tucker.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

blending in

If form follows function, often so does color, it's so important as camouflage. Blending in is key like this yellow warbler pictured munching on American beautyberries. Where's Waldo?

Each and every day, small passerines have two overriding imperatives: 1) find enough food to survive another day, 2) stay hidden enough not to be eaten themselves, it's do or die as this wonderful photo so illustrates. 

Thank you, Jason Dykes for sending it to me.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

form follows function

The mole's front paws mirror my own hands.

In biology, form follows function. 

In the case of the eastern mole (Scalopus aquaticus), a medium-sized rodent-like mammal, its form is perfectly suited for life underground. Its front paws are enormous for digging tunnels in loose loamy soil. Its eyes are tiny, virtually nonexistent, because it senses its world in other ways, touch and scent. To that end, its nose is long and taped to sniff out earthworms and beetle grubs, the mole's plat préféré.

Linnaeus himself gave this species its scientific name: Scalopus, from two Greek words which mean "digging" and "foot," which is spot on but the specific name aquaticus misses the mark. There's a reason: The specimen Linnaeus reviewed was found floating dead in the water, so he assumed it was designed to swim, but a Michael Phelps it is not. 

We're captivated by mammals since we are one; so much like ourselves, yet so curiously different, especially the subterranean moles with eyes like Mr. Magoo and the hands of Van Cliburn. 

Ijams AmeriCorps educator Sammi Stoklosa recently found the dead one pictured above. It wasn't floating, just dead, perhaps killed and dropped by a great horned owl.

If so, did it die from natural causes?

Photo by Kenneth Catania, Vanderbilt University

Sunday, October 12, 2014

soft like an owl

The thing is, owls are soft. There's really no other way to describe them, especially great horned owls. 

Hawks are alert and intense, taunt as coiled springs waiting to snap. The faster they drop from the sky, the greater their kinetic energy. POW!

But owls are soft, silent fliers that pluck their prey. Big fluffy puff balls with feet and talons like bear traps. The shock is how hard they grasp, how sharp their talons, how much it hurts. Owls are wide-eyed and stoic, watchful. if that equates to wisdom, perhaps they are wise. Wisdom alone denotes a kind of softness.

When you hold a hawk you feel powerful like a Viking king; with an owl you feel calm like a Jedi knight cloaked in darkness, lightsabers tucked. 

If you are a mouse—and if you are one I must congratulate you for reading to the end of this post. Good job! Bravo! But, if you ARE a small furry rodent, don't stress. Either way, your death will be swift.


Friday, October 3, 2014

Hawks of the Smokies

The native Cherokee have a legend of a great mythic hawk: the Tl’nuw’, a blue-gray bird of prey as large as a wild turkey. It flew high above a flock of passenger pigeons in flight, eyeing them. The lordly bird would swoop down from overhead and snatch a victim from the flock, a quick strike, instant death with a puff of scattered feathers that would slowly pirouette to the ground like falling maple samara, its seeds.

The Cherokee’s great hawk would then eat its meal on the wing without having to land. Such agility and power had to be eulogized. Although rarely seen this far south, the story loosely fits today’s northern goshawk, from the Old English gsheafoc or "goose-hawk." If I could time-travel, and go back to the late 1800s to visit my great grandfather Jim Bales, whose home site is today preserved upstream from his brother Ephraim’s on the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail...

For the rest of my article "Free and Easy: Hawks of the Great Smoky Mountains" check out Smokies Life magazine, Volume 8, Number 2. 

Special thanks to The Great Smoky Mountains Association, Contributing Editor Steve Kemp and the others that put together this wonderful, wonderful magazine of my ancestral homeland.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

poo beetle dances


Humpback dung beetle. Photo by Sammi Stoklosa

"The richness of the biological world is the most wonderful feature of the biosphere, and every story is worth telling, no matter how humble, or indeed insular, is the organism concerned," writes author Richard Fortey.

Dr. Louise discovered this curious large black beetle with extra long back legs in the vulture enclosure at the nature center. AmeriCorps member Sammi Stoklosa pulled out the beetle book and quickly IDed the odd thing which brought to mind the importance of dung beetles. They help clean up the environment, carrying away the mess left behind by all sorts of creatures.

Does a bear poo in the woods?

Well, sure it does. So who cleans it up?

Ambling about in search of poo, a dung beetle finds its fecal treasure at night while we are asleep. The droppings are used as brood chambers and food for the beetle's developing young. To each its own, we all have a role to play. 

Mine is just a bit more refined.

Dung beetles eat poo, a good thing, because it keeps us from stepping in it. (One report states they prefer herbivore excrement to omnivore.)

Some dung beetles are known as tunnelers (they bury it on the spot), others are rollers. A third group actually live inside the scat, but we won't go there for now.

The rollers are interesting navigators. They roll the dung into a ball for the trip back to their homes, but how do they find their way? It's hard enough to push the lump, little on navigate, just how do they move it along on a true and proper course?

Well, it seems, it does a little orientation dance and consults the stars or position of the sun. What else can they do? There's no road maps that small. Video: beetle gets its bearings.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Hawk Watch Brunch

Look Rock in the Smokies. Photo by Jimmy Tucker

A special thank you to all who attended the Ijams Birding & Breakfast Club: Hawk Watch Brunch yesterday morning at Look Rock on Chilhowee Mountain. Beautiful day, excellent view, warm camaraderie, yet, more vultures than hawks, although we were serenaded by a sprightly pine warbler.

"If you could have been lucky enough to be at Look Rock with Barbara Stedman on September 19, 1981 you would have seen a tsunami of broad-wingeds riding the cold front winds southeast. Stedman tallied 5,632 in nine and a half hours. Her big day firmly set a record and established the Tennessee location as a go-to site to watch for hawks in late September." * 

Funny how nature has a mind of its own. 

* From my article "Free and Easy: Hawks of the Great Smoky Mountains" in Smokies Life magazine: Vol. 8, No. 2.

Hawk's eye view

Thursday, September 25, 2014

hummer of a moth

Larry Hendrix sent me some nice photos he took in his yard of a mysterious flying thing. Although it flew like a small hummingbird it more closely resembled a large bumblebee.

Larry had been watching the insect in his yard he had never seen before. It bewildered him, so he grabbed his camera.

“It hovered at the blossoms of my lantana bush and drank eagerly,” he e-mailed. “It has repeated these visits three or four times. I am attaching several pictures. Can you tell what it is?”

The wings of the mystery hoverer moved so fast, they were hard to see, and its behavior was much like a hummingbird, bobbing and weaving from flower to flower, but it was much too small to be a nectar-sipping bird.

Larry’s insect was a hummingbird in name only. There are roughly 17 species of hummingbird moths found around the world, but only four in the Americas. Larry’s is known as a snowberry clearwing, a pretty name for a very unusual creature. As Alice in Wonderland cried, it’s “curiouser and curiouser!”

Unlike most moths, the curiouser clearwings are active during the day but may also continue to fly into the evening, particularly if there’s a good source of nectar.

But like all moths, clearwings go through metamorphosis: egg to caterpillar to cocoon to adult. The caterpillars feed on plants that include honeysuckle, viburnum, hawthorn, snowberry (hence the name), cherry and plums. The adult, small chunky moths resemble bumblebees but are often mistaken for hummingbirds because of their erratic flight patterns.

Straight out of the cocoon, their forewings are covered with scales, but these are shed during their first flight, making the wings appear transparent. The moth’s antennae are strongly clubbed, with small, re-curved hooks at the end, and their abdomens have yellow and black segments much like those of a bumblebee, while their bristly caboose ends resemble lobsters’ tails. Yes, curiouser and curiouser!

Larry was correct to be bewildered. We are talking about one very odd, higgledy-piggledy little creature that seems to be straight out of Lewis Carroll’s fantasy wonderland. 

Sunday, September 21, 2014

a hard mast's a-gonna fall

I am sitting outside enjoying my morning coffee—somehow I made it just right today—reading a wonderful book about living fossils by British paleontologist Richard Fortey. As he writes in the prologue, "Evolution has not obliterated its tracks as more advanced animals and plants have appeared through geological time. There are, scattered over the globe, organisms and ecologies which still survive from earlier times." Fortey then travels around the world to find living examples of ancient creatures that still survive today.

So my mind is pondering deep time as I tempt my own time, i.e. fate.

The early morning sun is peeking in from the east, skies are clear but a hard rain is falling. So heavy, in fact, I hear each and every single raindrop crash and rip its way through the canopy as it drops to the ground with a thud. Occasionally, one hits nearby to ricochet "POW" off the wooden deck around me. The slightest breeze triggers a loud barrage like cannon fire at Shiloh. 

If I stop in mid-sentence...it only means that I have been ka-bonked on the head by one of these hefty raindrops. I should go inside to find my hardhat but I choose to toss caution to the morning wind like those base jumpers. We all have to push the envelope every now and then, besides a headline in the Knoxville News Sentinel that read Local naturalist KO'd by falling acorn might be amusing to some. 

This is going to be a good fall to be a squirrel. Bellies will be fat. Larders stuffed. Globular treasures hidden.

What did Dylan sing? "It's a hard, it's a hard, it's a hard mast's a-gonna fall."

Indeed. Like the Australian lungfish (Neoceratodus forsteri) Fortey writes about, this advanced boney head, squashy bodied animal has somehow survived another morning. 

I made it to the end of this post with my noggin intact.

Friday, September 19, 2014

yellow fuzzy

Looking at this fuzzy thing, you'd never suspect it would grow up to be called a dagger moth, so called because the adult moths have markings on their wings that look like tiny stilettos.

The caterpillars look more like one of those plush stuffed animals you win at the county fair ring-toss game, or try to win to impress a girl. (Yes, I've done it and never won or impressed.)

There are well over 100 species worldwide in this group. This fuzzy-wuzzy will spin a cocoon and emerge next spring as an American dagger moth, Acronicta americana.

- Photo taken at Ijams Nature Center

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

little shadow

What is life?

It is the flash of a firefly in the night,

It is the breath of a buffalo in the winter time.

It is the little shadow which runs across the grass

and loses itself in the sunset.

- Crowfoot, or Issapóómahksika, Native American, 
chief of the Siksika Nation

Thursday, September 11, 2014

bath time for screech

Truly, no one likes to be photographed as soon as they step out of the shower. Uncurried. Unfluffed. Unpreened.

The education birds at Ijams have places to perch to avoid getting wet when it rains but they often prefer to enjoy a refreshing shower. 

Also, the little red phase eastern screech-owl at the nature center has been a bit sickly, we've been giving her oral antibiotics for a few weeks, so she wasn't at her best.

She's improving. Thank you for asking. 

So, why did I whip out my cell phone and snap her photo? I couldn't help myself. She was so adorable like one of Jim Henson's creations.  

Monday, September 8, 2014

but one tree

If you could have but one tree in your yard near your home, but one tree to look at through the window when you were ill, but one tree to sit beside when your life is grand or not so, what would that one tree be?

Speak now. What would your tree be?

For me, it would be a Southern magnolia, green and beautiful 365 days, season to season to season. Voluptuous fecund blossoms in the spring. Crimson seeds in the fall. And at this of the year, the leaves develop the most lovely cinnamon-colored patina.

Goodness. But one tree.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Next Tuesday was today

OK. I read this last Tuesday on the NPR website: Has Next Tuesday Already Happened?

And wondered, is my life that predetermined? Birth, death and all the points in between. So I decided to mix things up and do something totally unexpected, unplanned, unscripted, unorganized, un-me. I was searching for spontaneity. Lightning in a bottle, once-in-a-lifetime-kind-of-things like a spectacular sunset or a regal mating in the woods, rare moments in nature, recherché and exquisite

But now I have to ask, Is this what I was predetermined to do all along on September 2, 2014?

Thursday, August 28, 2014

grin and tonic

The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge hit home this week, 
except with a twist of lime and Tanqueray, a jaunty blend 
of grain, juniper, coriander, angelica root and liquorice;
and then there's the tonic, H2O with a splash of quinine, 
to ward off malaria.
After all, no one said you have to use water.


Monday, August 25, 2014

passenger pigeon guy meets ivorybill guy

It was my great pleasure to meet naturalist and author Joel Greenberg this past weekend. He spoke at the fourth annual The Wonder of Hummingbird Festival held at Ijams Nature Center.

Greenberg, an engaging speaker and conversationalist, is the author of A Feathered River Across the Sky: The Passenger Pigeon's Flight to Extinction published this year by Bloomsbury. 

And, of course, I am the author of Ghost Birds: Jim Tanner and the Quest for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, 1935-1941 published by UT Press, just one of several books on the topic of the storied ghost bird of the South. 

So it was the author of a book about the extinct passenger pigeon chatting with the author of a book about a species that may or may not be extinct, a virtual feathered phantom of the Southern swamps. 

We swapped stories, books and thoughts on the perils of birds and of authoring, or was it the angst of authoritis?

Greenberg also spoke at the Sugarlands Visitor Center in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park with my friend Paul James and visited the restored home of my great-granddad, Jim Bales.  

Author Greenberg visits my ancestral homeland: the
Jim Bales cabin in the Great Smokies. Photo by Paul James.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

a voluptuous languor

Downtown Knoxville. 15 August 2014

"But when there comes a voluptuous languor,
Soft the sunshine, silent the air..."

- Walt Whitman

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

opening pandora's box?

As the Ancient Greeks would have us believe, out of simple curiosity Pandora opened a box and all the evils of humanity spilled out. Must have made quite a mess. That's a lot to lump on poor Pandora. I've perhaps opened thousands of boxes in my life and other than a few gasped expletives at odd Christmas presents I've not wreaked havoc on anyone.

Recently, Charlie Morgan found the above moth, dead, splayed out, a perfect specimen of a Pandora or Pandorus Sphinx Moth (Eumorpha pandorus).

A few days later, Ed and Luke were cutting back some Virginia creeper at the nature center and found an unknown chunky brown caterpillar with sizable spots that turned out to be the other end of this lovely Pandora's life cycle. No evils connected to this one.

When resting, sphinx moth caterpillars fold their front legs and head underneath giving themselves rather sizable front ends which reminded someone long ago of the Egyptian Sphinx, hence the name.

And if you know the Greek myth, once the evils were spilled upon the world the only thing left in Pandora's Box was hope. 


Something for your curiosity to ponder while the evils of the world grab all the international headlines. And curious camo green miracles wrapped in ponderous mythology are relegated to the fringes of the information age—obscure blogs.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

bee bars open on top of old Smoky

This time of the year, Indian Gap on the Smokies crest can be a very busy place, a regular honky-tonk district. Very close to where I once found a cloaked knotty-horn and often hear saw-whet owls in late May, the bee bars (or in this case wasp-bars) are opening for business.

Filmy angelica is a robust wildflower that grows at the high elevations of the national park in early August. Although angelicas are in the culinary herb parsley family, by contrast, they are dangerously poisonous. Despite the angelic name, they do not belong anywhere near your kitchen. 

Bees and wasps apparently become intoxicated after feeding on the toxic flowers. It is reported in “Wildflowers of the Smokies” that they have been observed behaving crazily after a visit to angelica.

The only odd insect behavior I usually see is lethargy but I don't get too close. I'm OK with bees, my Dad was a beekeeper, but wasps I avoid because could there be anything more agitating or agitated than a drunken yellow-jacket?

Could this be the origin of the term “getting a buzz on”?

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

royal encounter


It's been awhile since we visited with this wondrous thing.

We were exploring the Serendipity and Discovery Trails at Ijams with the camp kids two weeks ago. Both trails are aptly named; you almost always find something interesting. The forest at the Homesite is much older than the woods that surround the Visitor Center.

As we climbed the hill we spotted a regal moth, a.k.a. royal walnut moth (Citheronia regalis) clinging to a low stem, eye-level for the campers to study. Either name works, the colorful lepidopteran is rather regal. Yet, upon closer inspection, I realized it was two members of royalty, a prince and princess. Katie took a couple of photos and we moved on, telling the kids that "they were on a date and needed their privacy."

There's a general rule: if the moth is beautiful then the caterpillar is rather plain, or vice versa. Yet, the royal walnut is an exception, both ends of the life cycle are clad in spectacular attire. 

Once mated the female will spend the rest of her short life laying eggs that will soon hatch into the big-boys of the larval moth world. Host plants include hickories, pecan, butternut, black walnut, sweet gum, persimmon and sumacs, all are found at Ijams.

The last time we visited the caterpillar stage was a few years ago. Click: hickory horned devil.

- Photos by Katie Plank 

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

pirate grants safe passage

The story comes down like this.

Along the eastern border of Ijams proper there's a "crick." Most folks call it Toll Crick. But how did it get that name?

AS legend tells it, the stream is under the control of a crick pirate named Crawdad Willie, who one day found himself literally up the crick without a paddle. Now, he guards it. It's his muddy, wet home. Blimey! And to insure safe passage up or down Willie's crick, you have to pay the toll.

The toll for Toll is not huge. All you have to do is show Crawdad Willie proper respect and ask him politely if you can explore his crick. "Proper manners," sez Willie, "It be O-key to drown a few ants in your neighbor's bucket, sendin' 'em to Davy Jones' Locker, they be scurvy critters. 'N ye can look for crawdaddies and little fishy folks, but ye kent snack 'em. They belong to me, they be me bilge mates." 

Last week the camp kids — the second, third and fourth graders — attending the Monster! Monster! Nature Day Camp got to meet Willie to query him and ask for safe passage. And as the story goes, one first mate asked Willie why he wasn't on the high seas like the other pirates?

It's simple. You see, Willie be "afeared of the oshin," too many sharks and barracudii and electrified eels for him. Scary stuff out to sea, me bucko. 

But Toll Creek be safe. Go explore 'er. Arrrr! 

- Photos by Jill Sublett and Katie Plank.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

in search of lost time

GNI SPECIAL REPORT: Dateline Knoxville: Barcus, world renowned archaeologist and suspected tomb raider, i.e. dealer of lost artifacts, paid a visit to Ijams last week. 

The international bon vivant Barcus is secretive, little is known about him. It is believed he has a penchant for 10,000-page French novels about the utter meaninglessness of modern existence, thus his interest in the remembrance of things past, antiquities. At Ijams, Barcus quickly called for a closed door meeting with the second, third and fourth graders attending the Monster! Monster! Nature Day Camp at the South Knox nature center. 

Barcus shared a secret and none of the campers are talking. It's all very hush, hush.

Afterwards, the group slipped out of the building and quietly explored one of the iron-gated caves nearby in search of lost time. The hidden cavern is sealed-tight to protect the wildlife that lives inside: bats, salamanders and various cave-dwelling squiggles. 

The campers were surrounded by a sandy limestone formed during the Ordovician Period of geologic time, meaning that the young cave explorers were going back in time over 440 million years. The cave itself is thousands of years old, steeped in mystery but does it really hold a shadowy secret? The rusted heavy gate had not been opened in years. And we hear that another shrouded-in-intrigue conclave was held inside in the dark. Lips are sealed. Everything on the QT.

We're also in the dark on what to report, other than not everything in nature that seems like a monster, be it spider, snake, wolf, cave bat, hawk, crawdad, vulture or creepy, crawly millipede, is a monster. These animals are not pernicious, they have their role in the natural world. Ijams' Monster! Monster! Nature Day Camp is designed to separate the fact from the fiction and to have a little fun doing it.

- Photos by Jill Sublett and Katie Plank.

In search of lost time

Upon leaving the cave, everyone knew the secret

But they're not talking.