Monday, February 8, 2016

Thank you

Thanks to all who attended my Owl-ology class yesterday at Ijams. It was the fourth and last one of the season.

Next up? Woody-ology 101, all about the seven species of woodpecker that can be found in our area. Great family fun on a Sunday afternoon! February 28 at 2 p.m. with woodpecker themed snacks. Seating is limited. The fee for this program is $5 for Ijams members and $8 for non-members. To register, please call (865) 577-4717, ext. 110.
Spoiler: There may even be a Woody Woodpecker featurette to kick off the class. (Did you know Woody's hysterical laugh is based on our own pileated woodpecker's call? What else about the 1940's cartoon character is based on reality?)

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Owl-ology is Sunday

"Sugar" albino barred owl cared for by Lynne McCoy. Photo by Sammi Stoklosa

Sunday, February 7, 2 p.m.
Owl-ology 101 at Ijams

Join local wildlife rehabilitator Lynne McCoy and me for our last look at owls this winter. We’ll review the six owl species that can be found in East Tennessee, dissect an owl pellet and meet an extraordinary snow white guest owl named Sugar. Great family fun on a Sunday afternoon! Seating is limited. The fee for this program is $5 for Ijams members and $8 for non-members. To register, please call (865) 577-4717, ext. 110.

For the WBIR Live@5@4 report click:  Owl-ology

Sunday, January 31, 2016

today's sunset

Knoxville sunset 31 Jan 2016

Clouds come floating into my life, no longer to carry rain or usher a storm, but to add color to my sunset sky.
Ravīndranātha Thākura, Bengali polymath, (1861-1941) 

Saturday, January 23, 2016

purples today

Raspberry butt?

The ice and snow of the past four days have left the nature center closed and opened and then closed again. And me somewhat housebound to write and do what I have done since I was 8- or 9-years-old, load up the seed feeders and sit back and watch. It's 1 p.m. and 23 degrees outside, what else can I do? The milk sitting in the refrigerator is warmer.

I've had the normal cadre of backyard birds: chickadees, titmice, nuthatches, cardinals, jays, downies, red-bellies, white throats, juncos, doves and, surprisingly, more towhees than I expected, which leads me to believe that a lot more is going on in the bushes than I realize. 

Eventually, I just started throwing the mixed seed out on the deck itself, turning it into one giant platform feeder. Pow! That worked. It's now like Cracker Barrel when the tour buses stop.

And, I have been hoping that all the bird activity would catch the attention of one of my favorite winter visitors: purple finches. I do not see them that often; it has been at least two years.

Initially, I got oodles of goldfinches and several house finches, but late this morning a few purples found my buffet. If I had been in charge of their naming, I would have opted for raspberry butt.

I keep hearing that the erratic pine siskins are also in the area, but they have yet to find me. Perhaps, I need a neon sign.

And, if I could lure in a fox sparrow, my work here would be done.

Oh, the joy!

Male cardinals get all the attention but the females have panache.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

the Bales' cabins

The creation of national parks in the west was a boon. Yellowstone was the first, established in 1872. Oddly, the law that established it didn’t call it a national park, but rather a “public park or pleasure-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.” And the people enjoyed the new pleasure-ground, so much so that other lands were soon so designated: Yosemite (1890), Mount Rainier (1899), Glacier (1910), Rocky Mountain (1915) and the Grand Canyon (1919). All, more or less, coalesced around federal, untouched lands.

But what about the east? Shouldn’t there be pleasure-grounds for the people near where most of them lived? 

The principal problems were that there were no large blocks of federal land and the region was certainly not untouched, much of it had been timbered or cleared for farming. Creating a national park in the east meant that businesses and individual property owners had to be bought out and homesteaders would have to pack up and move. In a sense, evicted for the common good.

For the Great Smokies to become a park, hundreds of these small home sites had to be purchased and families uprooted. But would their existence be lost forever? 

For the rest of the story, look for my article in the Jan/Feb 2016 issue of The Tennessee Conservationist. 

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Coooooold Lake thank you

Thanks to all who bundled and fleeced up to join me this morning to look for ducks, coots, grebes and mergansers on cold, cold, cold Cove Lake near Caryville. There were oodles of coots; a smidgen of everything else. Birding in January may seem daft but there's often a lot of very interesting migrants spending their winters in East Tennessee like the Teddy Bear chunky American coot pictured here. The coots proved to be amiable; the mergansers and gadwalls kept their distance.

Yet, all great fun.

And thanks to Deb and Joe for bringing the muffins. Deb for baking them and Joe for carrying them to the car.

Someone scored a cup of hot cocoa.
Deb's homemade muffins.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Cove Lake B&B

Hooded merganser, a duck with teeth

Let's go ducking.

Join me tomorrow morning for an Ijams Not-So-Far-Afield road trip, a Birding & Brunch outing to Cove Lake in search of wintering ducks and other waterfowl: coots, grebes, mergansers. 

Ijams will provide hot cocoa (We're going to need it) and brunch. You bring binoculars and dress for wintry weather. Fee: Ijams members $15, non-members $20.

To register call (865) 577-4717, ext. 110.

For more information, click: WBIR's Live@5@4

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

a birthday twofer

Quick, Watson. The game is afoot.

For her 24th birthday, I decided to give Rachael Eliot a twofer: two Life Birds in one afternoon; two species she had never seen before. But their reported locations were miles apart. We'd have to get lucky. The clock was against us.

The Merlin (Falco columbarius), a medium sized falcon, at Lakeshore Park in West Knoxville presented itself fairly quickly, perched on a bare branch in the sun, a bit of good fortune that gave us extra time to skedaddle to Cades Cove and Hyatt Lane in the Great Smokies.

The day before I had heard from Jimmy Tucker that short-eared owls (Asio flammeus) were wintering there, which they periodically do. (Short-eareds primarily nest in Canada, venturing south this time of the year, but not always as far as Tennessee.) I also knew they begin to feed in low light, the afterglow of a dying day.

We were in position by 4:30, patrolling the dirt road on foot, 50 to 100 yards apart in the cold, watching both sides, the wide meadows tawny with native grasses and windblown. There was a beauty to the starkness, the isolation, the long shadows, the fading sunlight, the close of day. For over an hour we watched and waited, waited and watched. Northern harriers presented themselves as did a lone kestrel, all hunting for that one final meal before a frozen nightfall. 

The eager anticipation of the hunt that had kept us warm in the 20 degree afternoon began to ebb away replaced by numbing cold.

At last, through my binoculars I found two moving shapes in the twilight, but the distance was great and details scant. They looked right in their circular movements low over the ground, wings rounded, light underneath, but yet too far away to be absolute sure and only I saw them. If you're searching for a Life Bird you want a satisfying look, not a fleeting glimpse. By the time we were back together, darkness had set in and the shadowy phantoms had vanished. We had been tantalizingly close, but that didn't count.

The short-eared owls will have to wait until another day but we had created a memory which would last far longer than any dime store bric-à-brac.

Happy Birthday, Ellie.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Do owls get cold too?

Do owls get cold too? Do androids dream of electric sheep? (Blade Runner reference, not relevant. Back to topic.)

Thanks to all who attended my January Owl-ology 101 class yesterday afternoon at Ijams despite the cold. And, burrrrr, did it get cold. (Notice the youngest bundled member of our group to my right, your left.)  

All the owls we saw were indoors not out.

Don't forget Quack-ology 101 coming Sunday, January 31 weather permitting. Ducks don't mind the cold, but we do. Call (865) 577-4717, ext. 110 to register.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Owl-ology was a hoot

Lynne McCoy and Sugar. Photo by Rex McDaniel

My December Owl-logy 101 class at Ijams proved to be great fun. So much so, that we scheduled another for Sunday, February 7. Like before, local wildlife rehabilitator Lynne McCoy will bring along her rescued albino barred owl named Sugar.

For a look at the December offering, click: Owl-ology 101

Thursday, January 7, 2016

2015: saddest moment

A little late with this one, but it's now been exactly six months. The saddest moment of last year and any of my years was Tuesday, July 7, the day my mother, Mary Helen Bales (a Latham at birth), died.

And we had the same nose
If you have a good father you're lucky; a great father, then you're blessed. But the bond with your Mom is something different. Perhaps it's the pain of childbirth you both shared that forms an unshakable natal memory deep in you both. 

Mom would say that "The pain of childbirth is the most severe you'll ever feel, but the quickest one forgotten." But the pain of losing her still lingers and I'm not sure it will ever be forgotten. The pain is still there, you just learn to stop talking about it.

She taught me to walk and talk and my love of birds. And in the end, what more did I need?

My tribute at the time: Mom 

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

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: Last Saturday was the Audubon Christmas Bird Count in Knoxville. My group only counts a small portion of the 15-mile diameter count circle. Yet, my group of six counters—Patty Ford, Eddy Whitson, Jimmy Tucker, Cheryl Greenacre, Rachael Eliot, moi—tallied a total of 270 robins. It was the most numerous species. (We only found 124 starlings.) 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.

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.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Knox CBC kicks off new year

Sunrise: 2 January 2016. Cold: 27º
Well chilled at dawn: 
Rachael Eliot, Dr. Cheryl Greenacre, Eddy Whitson, Patty Ford 

What's the best way to break out of the sugar laden holidays and step briskly into the New Year? The key word here is "briskly."

How about getting up before sunrise on a cold January morning (27°) and count birds. Its all a part of the annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count (CBC), the oldest citizen science project in the world. 

The first CBC in the country was held in 1900; the first in Tennessee came two years later in Knoxville. According to the late J. B. Owen, on December 1, 1902, the state's first bird count was made by Magnolia Woodward who tallied birds around her home near Park Avenue (later changed to Magnolia Avenue).

Flash forward 113 years: The CBC count circles are 15 miles in diameter. There are four circles in this general area: Norris, Cades Cove, Great Smokies and the one here in this more urban location. Knoxville's circle is centered on Ebenezer Road on the west side of the city. (See map below.) 

The 2015 Knoxville CBC was held a couple days past: Saturday, January 2, 2016.  

And Jimmy Tucker
My group always counts the northern portion of Area #12 off Alcoa Highway, the Lakemore Hills peninsula out to the Tennessee River at Peter Blow Bend and north to Looney Island and Cherokee Farm. (See map below.) Our chilled cadre was only one of dozens of similar die-hard, frozen fingered birders who counted in other areas in Knox County. (Again, see map below.) And did I mention it was cold. We were bundled, but heated by the thrill of the hunt. After six hours we had tallied 54 species, a total 1454 birds. 

And fancy chapeaux!
Thanks to my group: Patty, Eddy, Dr. Cheryl, Jimmy and Rachael! Now, it's time to thaw out. 

Here's our stats: Canada Goose 230, Mallard 4, Great Blue Heron 8, Black Vulture 1, Turkey Vulture 1, Bald Eagle 1, Sharp-shinned Hawk 2, Red-shouldered Hawk 1, Red-tailed Hawk 2, Killdeer 1, Ring-billed Gull 38, Rock Pigeon 4, Mourning Dove 20, Belted Kingfisher 3, Red-headed Woodpecker 2, Red-bellied Woodpecker 19, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker 6, Downy Woodpecker 19, Hairy Woodpecker 1, Northern Flicker 3, Pileated Woodpecker 1, Eastern Phoebe 3, Blue Jay 54, American Crow 36, Carolina Chickadee 84, Tufted Titmouse 52, Red-breasted Nuthatch 2, White-breasted Nuthatch 4, Brown-headed Nuthatch 2, Carolina Wren 17, Golden-crowned Kinglet 5, Ruby-crowned Kinglet 9, Eastern Bluebird 17, Hermit Thrush 3, American Robin 270, Northern Mockingbird 39, Brown Thrasher 3, European Starling 124, Cedar Waxwing 64, Yellow-rumped Warbler 21, Palm Warbler 1, Eastern Towhee 31, Field Sparrow 4, Savannah Sparrow 5, Song Sparrow 71, Swamp Sparrow 1, White-throated Sparrow 29, Dark-eyed Junco 3, Northern Cardinal 71, Eastern Meadowlark 2, Common Grackle 6, House Finch 12, Pine Siskin 1, American Goldfinch 41

Sunrise: Maxey Boat Dock
 And two of the 1454 birds. Photos by Jimmy Tucker.

Eastern Bluebird by Jimmy Tucker
Eastern Meadowlark by Jimmy Tucker

Thursday, December 31, 2015

2015: most dang coolest nature story of the year (and it actually made it to TV)

Hardly bigger than the tips of my fingers, the jelly swims in a cup of water.

2015: The Best & Worst! This is the time of the year when writers coast. They dream up their totally subjective best and worse lists for the year that's rapidly coming to a close. Why? So they can focus on the important things...the holidays. So with that in mind:

For me, the coolest, most fascinating nature story of 2015 came in late August. 

It began when I received a phone call from WBIR-Channel 10 TV journalist Jim Matheny. He had questions about a bloom of freshwater jellyfish (Craspedacusta sowerbii) he had discovered in Mead's Quarry Lake @ Ijams the day before.

Yes, jellyfish that actually live in freshwater. But they have a two year life cycle and only appear as transparent medusas near the surface briefly in the heat of late summer.

That led us on a most excellent adventure in search the tiny jellies with Matheny's video camera in times quite literally in tow. AND, the appearance of the ephemeral jellies even made the local news.

For the complete story, click: Jim Matheny. 

And for the jellyfish goodbye party we had Labor Day weekend, click: adieu!

So long, 2015. Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

2015: rarest bird encounter

Lynne McCoy and Sugar
In October, wildlife rehabilitator Lynne McCoy and her snow white, albino barred owl named Sugar came to my Owlology 101 class at Ijams.

Unable to fly, Sugar had been rescued from a murder of crows that was harassing it with, dare I say, murderous intent.

Animals with albinism—"Congenital absence of any pigmentation or coloration in a person, animal or plant," states Wiki—rarely survive in the wild because they lack any natural camouflage and tend to have weak immune systems. Without the goodness of Lynne, Sugar would have never survived.   

In addition to Sugar, Owlologists-to-be also met a screech owl, shared chocolate owl cupcakes (click: Favorite Surprise Food) provided by volunteer naturalist Laura Twilley and then went into the woods to search for an owl with Ijams’ own owl-whisperer Rex McDaniel.

It was all great fun!

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

2015: most perfect holiday breakfast

2015: The Best & Worst! This is the time of the year when writers coast. They dream up their totally subjective best and worse lists for the year that's rapidly coming to a close. Why? So they can focus on the important things...the holidays. So with that in mind:

Best or Worst, you be the judge. The year can slowly slip away now. I have found my most perfect holiday breakfast. 

Limited Edition, Gluten Free, pumpkin flavored Puffins Cereal, made from "real pumpkin" (Cucurbita pepo) but, let us hope, not real puffins (Fratercula arctica). It's vegan, so there can truly be no puffin haunches. It's also Non-GMO. But, candidly, it's a cereal made from corn/rice/oats named after an aquatic seabird that tastes like pumpkin. Sounds something like a train wreak at a genetics lab.

And lucky me, I got my box in the manager's discount bin for only $1.29. Plus there's a coupon on the back to save $1 on my next box, so that one will only cost 29¢.

Win. Win. Win. 


Monday, December 28, 2015

2015: favorite dream-come-true moment

2015: The Best & Worst! This is the time of the year when writers coast. They dream up their totally subjective best and worse lists for the year that's rapidly coming to a close. Why? So they can focus on the important things...the holidays. So with that in mind:

My favorite dream-come-true moment came during Tall Tale Week @ Ijams in late June. When Tennessee Jones (the older brother of Indiana Jones) and his sassy girlfriend Marion visited the summer camp kids at the nature center.

Unlike Indy, who searches for lost "human-made" antiquities, Tennessee's raison d'être is dino fossils, the truly old old old stuff. Everything in your house will some day be an antiquity, if it's not already. So what's the big deal?

What did the kids unearth?? To find out, click: Tennessee Jones

Sunday, December 27, 2015

2015: best addition to Life List

Scissor-tailed flycatcher. Photo by Jason Dykes

Birders keep a Life List made up of when and where they see each new species. After awhile, you get to a point where you have to venture away from your home area to find new ones.

The best addition to my Life List came in July. Rachael Eliot and I had to travel to Pikeville in the Sequatchie Valley and turn right. It was a two and a half hour drive. My Ijams' friend Jason Dykes had given us good directions, he and his Mom had seen it there a full two weeks earlier, yet in the end the bird was sitting on a powerline exactly as predicted.

My first scissor-tailed flycather! And the first for Ellie.

For more details, click: scissor-tailed.

Thanks, Jason!

Having just seen a scissor-tailed, Rachael Eliot smiles.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

2015: favorite moment as village outcast

 2015: The Best & Worst! This is the time of the year when writers coast. They dream up their totally subjective best and worse lists for the year that's rapidly coming to a close. Why? So they can focus on the important things...the holidays. So with that in mind:

"The world to me was a secret, which I desired to discover," wrote Mary Shelley in her classic 1816 novel Frankenstein. She was voicing the thoughts of her cobbled together protagonist.

Ijams' very own Frankenstein stopped by Monster! Monster! Nature Day Camp in June. And as it turned out, he was only looking for a friend and, of course, acceptance of who he was—a big green-faced lug, fully formed yet new to all around him.  After all, we all just want to be accepted for who we are. Don't we?

The day-campers decided to befriend him and gave the poor thing a more user-friendly sobriquet than "Frankenstein's monster." They called him "Bob," and promptly took him exploring on a nature walk, showing him some of the things they had learned about...dragonflies, milkweed, metamorphosis.

For more info, click: Village pariah 

Friday, December 25, 2015

2015: favorite unexpected Christmas gift

2015: The Best & Worst! This is the time of the year when writers coast. They dream up their totally subjective best and worse lists for the year that's rapidly coming to a close. Why? So they can focus on the important things...the holidays. So with that in mind:

My favorite unexpected Christmas present came from my Ijams friends Lynne and Bob Davis.  

Latin for Bird Lovers by Roger Lederer & Carol Burr has over 3,000 scientific bird names explained. (And it has a fair amount of Greek ones in it as well.) Every bird has a common name and a scientific two-part name or its binomial nomenclature (binomial for short) which denotes its genus and species. 

We do too. We are Homo sapiens, or wise humans. And let us hope we live up to that appellation.

Back to the gift: In addition to having the meaning behind the obscure scientific names explained, it's also a very beautiful book. 

The beauty you have to take my word on. But here are a few examples of the former.

Sometimes the scientific name is quite literal, as in American crow, Corvus brachyrhynchos (COR-vus bra-kee-RAM-os), which translates in Latin to "crow with a short bill." Or, Wild turkey, Meleagris gallopavo (mel-ee-AH-gris gal-lo-PA-vo), which translates to "guinea fowl peacock like."

The common song sparrow, Melospiza melodia (mel-o-SPY-za mel-O-dee-a), simply means "song finch melodious."

Sometimes the binomial denotes a bird's behavior. The now extinct passenger pigeon, noted for always "passing" through an area, is remembered as Ectopistes migratorius (ek-toe-PIS-teez my-gra-TOR-ee-us) or "wanderer moving." While the American robin is Turdus migratorius (TURD-us my-gra-TOR-ee-us). The generic name gets plenty of snickers. Get past that. It's Latin for thrush, which a robin truly is one. While the complete name translates roughly "thrush on the move." And to somewhat confuse things the angelic voiced wood thrush is not a Turdus, but rather Hylocichla mustelina (hy-lo-SICK-la mus-tel-EE-a), meaning "woods thrush weasel-like in color," which they are but the songster deserves a better descriptor.

If you are determined to snicker there's Falco longipennis (FAL-ko lon-ji-PEN-nis) which basically means "curved blade long feather," a reference to their long wings since penna means feather. It's the binomial for the Australian hobby, a small falcon. The inside joke is that the vast majority of male birds do not even have one, either long or short.  

Like New York, New York, some birds are so nice, they name them twice, like Cardinalis cardinalis (kar-di-NAL-is kar-di-NAL-is) or Northern cardinal. It means "principal principal." And then there's  Tyrannus tyrannus, (ti-RAN-nus ti-RAN-nus), "Tyrant tyrant" or the Eastern kingbird. 

And, sometimes the scientific name honors a person, often more obscure than the name itself, as in Zenaida macroura (zen-EH-da mak-ROO-ra), or mourning dove. The generic name honors Princess Zenaide Bonaparte, the wife of French ornithologist Charles Lucien Bonaparte. Macroura is Greek for long tail, so I guess this name means long-tailed princess?

Go figure.

Many thanks, Lynne and Bob. The book is great fun.

Merry Christmas

Thursday, December 24, 2015

2015: favorite Christmas carol anniversity

Hark! The Herald Angels Sing as sung by the Peanuts kids, celebrated its 50th rendition in December (1965-2015). Wow! That's close to half a century. Tempus fugit. 

Merry Christmas.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

2015: favorite group birding trip

Ijams staff members Dr. Louise Conrad and Rex McDaniel

2015: The Best & Worst! This is the time of the year when writers coast. They dream up their totally subjective best and worse lists for the year that's rapidly coming to a close. Why? So they can focus on the important things...the holidays. So with that in mind:

My favorite group birding trip came in May. We ventured at Sunset to Chota, the site of the legendary Cherokee town of peace. We had a picnic in the grass and listened for Chuck-will's-widows (Antrostomus carolinensis) and whip-poor-wills (Antrostomus vociferus).

We heard Chuck's at twilight, but no whips.

Click here for more details: Chota. 

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

2015: proudest moment

Leighanna Brett flanked by brothers Michael and Logan
With Mom and Dad: Darlene and David

2015: The Best & Worst! This is the time of the year when writers coast. They dream up their totally subjective best and worse lists for the year that's rapidly coming to a close. Why? So they can focus on the important things...the holidays. So with that in mind:

My friend Marielle says that if you actually think about how fast your children grow up, it'll break your heart. She now has two grown daughters and one grandson.

Wasn't it only yesterday when my niece Leighanna was flying around her neighborhood in her bright red firetruck?


It was over twenty years ago. 

Whish. That's the sound of time passing. 

My proudest moment of 2015 came on December 12 in Greeneville when our little fireman Leighanna Bales Brett graduated from Tusculum College with a Bachelor of Arts in Interdisciplinary Studies: Elementary K-6.

She hopes to be a second or third grade teacher, so she has figured it out. If every year she is mentoring a new group of 8- and 9-year-olds, her young charges never grow up. A new group replaces the old. So there's none of that inevitable heartache.

Proud of you Leighanna! Hug you.