Thursday, August 25, 2016

six-legged dragons

Insect whisperer Jackson

Kids and bugs. What better way to spend a summer afternoon? Yes, I know. It's old school and kids aren't entertained by real bugs, only virtual bugs. But, surprise, surprise.

Sunday's Dragon Quest at Ijams unfolded on an ideal afternoon to study the carnivorous order of insects: Odonata—the toothed ones. We had beautiful weather to search for dragons and even damsels.

We managed to catch and release and/or photograph three species of dragonfly: Slaty Skimmer (Libellula incesta), Blue Dasher (Pachydiplax longipennis) and Eastern Pondhawk (Erythemis simplicicollis). Plus one species, as yet unknown, of broadwinged damselfly. 

Thanks to all dragon-ologist and to Jason Dykes for his steady hand with the camera and to Kim, Nick and Clare for helping.

Next up: Flutterby-ology in September!

A pair of dragons. Photos by John Goodall
Blue dasher dragonfly Photo by Jason Dykes
Eastern pondhawk dragonfly Photo by Jason Dykes
Slaty Skimmer dragonfly Photo by Jason Dykes
Broadwinged damselfly,species unknown  Photo by Clare Dattilo

A dragonfly nymph's shed exoskeleton is called an exuviae. Isn't that a fun word? Photo by Clare Dattilo
Ijams Dragon-ologists

Sunday, August 21, 2016

big day for Sophia

Friday was a big day for Sophia. It was her first day of school. That's life-changing. AND she acquired the oddest creature she had ever seen. It was a buggy beast straight out of Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are

Photo by Shirley Andrews
But what was it?

Her grandmother and my dear friend Linda knew where to get the answer. 

What "Soph" had in her possession on her big big day was the biggest, boldest caterpillar in North America, as long as a hot dog without the relish. A spiky flamboyant thing loaded with color and panache...a hickory horned devil that will pupate, dramatically rearrange every fiber of its being and emerge from its underground earthen chamber as a beautiful royal walnut moth, a.k.a. regal moth (Citheronia regalis). 

Does it get odder than this?

As a caterpillar it eats hickory, persimmon and walnut leaves, as an adult it dazzles with its six-inch wingspan beauty. 

Congratulations, Sophia.

Thank you too, Mom Karen. 

Hickory horned devil
Regal moth

Thursday, August 18, 2016

dazed and confused

Many birds fly into windows. CRASH! 

Sometimes it breaks their necks, but sometimes it just leaves them dazed and confused, like a football player after a rough hit.

Colliding into windows is the number two cause of bird deaths. Outside cats kill an estimated 1.4 to 3.7 billion birds each year, while flying into windows causes 365 to 988 million bird deaths.

Last Sunday, August 14, I was checking the 30 hummingbird feeders we have around the Visitor Center when I found a male ruby-throated hummingbird on a bench below a window. It was moving but not much, naturally I feared the worse. 

Cradling the injured foundling gently in my hands I watched it, speaking to it in soft tones. He wiggled a bit, twisting his head back and forth, blinked bleary eyed, asking itself the obvious questions: "Where am I? Who am I?"

Hummingbirds are incredible light: only three grams, roughly the same as two dimes. Having one in your hand is like holding a hope and a promise. An official badminton shuttlecock weighs twice as much but only has 16 feathers.

Opening my fingers, it didn't fly, but hopped onto my thumb. Good sign! Yet, still he didn't want to fly. Had he forgotten how? A nearby visitor brought me a sugar-water feeder. 

The hummer seemed to slowly come to its senses, recognizing the world and the meaning of the feeder. Self awareness was creeping in.

It drank.

Swoosh! Like a swift running back, it saw its opening and bolted away. 

All photos by Rex McDaniel 

The Wonder of Hummingbirds Festival is this Saturday at Ijams. Great fun.

One of the most remarkable photos you'll ever see. Thank you, Rex.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

they're back!

If they appear at all, look for freshwater jellyfish during the hottest part of late summer in local stillwater quarries and lakes.

The freshwater jellyfish (Craspedacusta sowerbii) are back in Mead's Quarry Lake at Ijams. Most years we do not see them, or find them. But, every so often, this time of the year during the high heat of August and early September, I'm carrying a Mason jar with three or four in it. 

For a look back, click: jellies adieu, Ephemeral treasure and  Jelly-fishin'.

The best way to see them "au natural" is to rent a canoe, kayak or paddleboard from RiverSports at Meads and go jellyfishin' on your own. (The jellies in the buff, not you. There are laws of common decency.)

Photo by Chuck Cooper

Friday, August 12, 2016

eagle released

Photo by Bruce McCamish

Yesterday morning, the American Eagle Foundation (AEF) returned a once injured bald eagle to the wild at Ijams.

The eagle, now named Summitt in honor the late head coach of the Lady Vols, had been found in a leg trap near Huffaker Ferry upstream from Ijams. TWRA officer Roy Smith, who was in attendance for the release, rescued the downed eagle last March.

Ijams was honored to be chosen, since H.P. Ijams first began calling the area along the Tennessee River a "bird sanctuary" in the 1920s.

AEF's famous education eagle Challenger also was on hand for the release.

Ijams thanks Al, Julia and Laura with AEF and all the people who attended. And thank you Bruce and Chuck for sharing your photos.

- Stephen Lyn Bales

Al Cecere releases Summitt. Photo by Chuck Cooper

Summitt flies free. Photo by Chuck Cooper
Photo by Chuck Cooper
Photo by Chuck Cooper
With AEF's Laura Sterbens and Challenger
Eagle watchers

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Fabergé nest?

Nest of a ruby-throated hummingbird in a sycamore tree.

Ruby-throated hummingbird nests are exquisitely crafted, as delicate and finely detailed as the Fabergé eggs once produced for the Emperors of Russia. Oddly, the tsars have not survived but many of the fragile eggs have, which brings to mind the question: What is more enduring, politics or art? (I've always put my energies into the latter. Few remember the polices of President Eisenhower or Adlai Stevenson but the work of their contemporaries, 1950s artists Jackson Pollock and Robert Motherwell, live on.)

Back to the birds: To build a nest, ruby-throats use spider silk and plant fibers, decorating the finished assemblages with flakes of lichen. Sometimes you need an extra pair or two of sharp eyes to locate a hummer's nest, as we had on an Ijams canoe trip a few years ago on Mead's Quarry Lake. Click: hummer nest.

Rose Trellis egg 
created by jeweler
Peter Carl Fabergé in 1907
for Tsar Nicholas II


Saturday, August 6, 2016

his imperialness

As is usual for this time of the year, another Saturniidae moth has appeared in my life. The Saturniidae family includes the giant silk moths, royal moths and emperor moths.

Recently, I found a very large
imperial moth—yellow and muted purple like an old bruise—resting near my front porch. This is one species in which the male and female look very different: males are slightly smaller and have more purple on their wings. The one that visited me was a male. 

Found throughout the east, imperial moths are on the decline in the northern part of their range. No one knows why, since their caterpillars feed on a wide variety of trees: oak, maple, pine, sycamore, sweet gum and sassafras. All of these are readily available.

Imperial moths are featured in naturalist Gene Stratton-Porter's "Girl of the Limberlost.” First published in 1909, the novel takes place in Limberlost Swamp in Indiana and centers on a poor girl who collects Saturniidae moths and other things from the swamp to sell for much-needed money. Stratton-Porter’s "Moths of the Limberlost,” published in 1912, is a non-fiction chronicle of the giant silk moth and the childhood discovery of nature.

Despite the gray in my hair, it's quite obvious to anyone who knows me, I’m still well immersed in the childhood discovery of nature.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

on being awestruck

Call me a Pantheist, but isn’t arguing over religion just a question of semantics? When the miracle of the universe so obviously exists and we are so obviously a part of it.

Roll the video: Being Awestruck 

Sunday, July 31, 2016

milkweed suckers

Monarch butterflies are the beloved insects that rely on milkweed but another reddish-orange and black bug is equally dependent on the plant. 

The milkweed in front of the nature center has been active for weeks, mostly with milkweed bugs (Oncopeltus fasciatus). Each bug has a long proboscis and is a piercing sucking insect that feeds on the seeds, leaves and stems of milkweed. Each plant can host a village of these bright medium-sized hemipterans (true bugs). They produce several generations during the season. The reddish young ones are called nymphs.

Their eggs are laid in milkweed seed pods or in crevices between pods. About 30 eggs are laid a day or about 2,000 over a female's lifespan of about a month during the summer. One to three generations per year depending on the climate.

I'm reminded yet again of what Thor Hanson writes in his book Feathers, "I'm never at a loss for things to study or topics to write about: everything in the natural world is fair game. If I'm not intrigued and excited every time I step outside, it just means I'm not paying attention."

Adult with two young nymphs

Saturday, July 30, 2016

early morning paddle

The best way to start a Saturday morning? 

Go on an early canoe paddle up the river with a group of Boy Scouts. Just saying. 

Friday, July 29, 2016

turk's cap

I’m working on completing my collection of photos of orange-flowers. Why? It’s such a finite set; there are so very few of them.

To locate the native orange lily, you have to drive up into the mountains. (I’ve already posted on two non-native imports: tiger lily and orange daylily.) Although it looks something like a tiger lily, the Turk's cap lily has been here all along, it's not an import. It predates even my hillbilly ancestry and grows in the higher elevations of the national park in mid-summer, essentially on top of Old Smoky.

The petals of this statuesque wildflower curve sharply backward on themselves. This once gave someone the impression of the caps worn historically by the Turks, hence the name.

For some reason, in the floral world, nature eschews the color orange. 

Even UT orange was originally picked because of the center color of the ox-eye daisies that grew on the Hill (that's where I took my science courses). And if you know your flowers, that's more of a Pittsburgh Steelers golden-yellow than orange. 

From the UT Traditions website, "The school colors of orange & white date to April 12, 1889, when Charles Moore, president of the University's athletic association, chose the colors for the first field day. His inspiration came from the orange and white daisies which grew profusely on the Hill. In 1891, students again wore orange and white to the Sewanee football game. In 1892, students endorsed the colors at a special meeting called for the purpose, but two years later were dissatisfied with the choice and voted to drop the colors. After a heated one-day debate no other colors proved satisfactory, so the students returned to orange and white."

Ox-eye daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare). There were no "orange" flowers growing on the hill when UT picked out their uniform colors.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

spider 101

Photo by Shirley Andrews

The best way to teach basic spider anatomy—pedipalps, carapace, cephalothorax, chelicera, abdomen, spinnerets, etc and don't forget, most of them have eight eyes—is with a large living spider, in this case a Chilean rose hair tarantula.

This was so at last Saturday's Creepy Crawly: Insect and Spider class for this year's group of TN Naturalists @ Ijams.

We also ventured outside in the heat to sweep net insects in the meadow. 

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

big weekend, big bug

We have two big programs planned for this weekend at the nature center.

First: Our first ever Scout Weekend open to both Girl and Boy Scouts, ages 8 to 12, or even non-scouts that age. The activities planned—canoeing, rock-climbing, team building, etc—fit badge requirements, yet even non-scouts will love them. Two days plus an overnight camp out. To register call 577-4717, ext. 116.

Second: Our annual Bug Night. Bring plastic containers and we'll catch insects at various locations around the park and come inside after dark to have a Bug Beauty (or Ugly) Contest. To register call 577-4717, ext. 110. 

To promote the events, our Giant Stag Beetle made a guest appearance on WBIR's Live@5@4 yesterday. For three minutes, it was the most famous beetle in town.
To see the interview with Beth Haynes, click: Big Weekend.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

it's what I do

Photo by Karen Claussen

Some people race cars or repair cars or build skyscrapers or sell apples or put out fires or work in banks or hospitals.

I'm a naturalist. And some days I show snakes to kids and tell them about their life histories and what to be wary of and what not to worry about. Like most of us, snakes need something to eat, a safe place to sleep and ultimately, they want to be left alone.

In this case, today it was an albino rat snake that had been found locally in someone's basement. It now lives at the nature center where we feed it, give it a safe place to sleep and, generally, we leave it alone.

It's what I do.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

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”?

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Chinese students visit

Local fitness expert Missy Kane led a group of visiting Chinese college students to Ijams last week.

The students from Shanghai University of Sport (SUS) were in this country taking classes at the English Language Institute (ELI). The group is hosted in Knoxville by UT professor Rob Hardin. His department (Kinesiology, Recreation and Sport Studies) is providing a Sports Studies Seminar for the 14 students and 2 faculty.

One of the classes was outdoor recreation. They visited with me at Ijams and met two of our educational animals then Missy led the group on a hike to the sunflower fields at Forks-of-the-River WMA.

Welcome to Ijams and Tennessee! 

Tuesday, July 12, 2016


 Sunday, July 17, 2 p.m.
Cicad-Academy at Ijams

Join me for this fun and lighthearted look at some of the creepy crawlies that live in East Tennessee. These programs are great for families and the young-at-heart. This month we’ll take a special look at the noisier buzzy-bugs like katydids, crickets and cicadas. We’ll venture into the meadows to see which bugs can be found and learn more about our talkative buggy buddies. If you’ve been to our “ology” programs before, you know there will also be some fun, bug-themed food. Feel free to bring something to share, or just come partake in our creepy crawly snacks! The fee for this program is $5 for Ijams members and $8 for non-members $8 (Children under 3 are free). Space is limited; to register call (865) 577-4717, ext. 110.

Here's the Live@5@4 report, click: Sunflowers and Cicadas

Friday, July 8, 2016

visiting royalty

Regal moths, a.k.a royal walnut moths (Citheronia regalis)
One of the great things about summer are the visitors that show up on your backporch at night, attracted by the bright lights. Two weeks ago it was a giant stag beetle.

This morning, I had a twofer. 

It would be tempting to think that these royal walnut moths are the adult version, several generations removed, of the caterpillar I found and blogged about in August 2010: junior devil. It's probably not, odds are overwhelming against such an occurrence, but it's fun to imagine that I could be so lucky to be visited twice by the same creature in two different forms, although in this case the incredible green hulk morphed into handsome physicist Dr. Bruce Banner, although I don't remember him being a redhead.  

The adult royals have the largest body (not the greatest wingspan) of any moth that's found north of Mexico. The caterpillars ARE incredible hulks—the legendary, green and over-sized hickory horned devils.

Hickory Horned Devil

Thursday, July 7, 2016

You go girl!


Congratulations, Starbuck! You slew the beast!

Rachael Eliot, you just finished Differential Equations, or “equations that involve derivatives of a function.” Don’t ask me, it’s advanced, advanced math that doesn’t use numbers but only Native American petroglyphs or Egyptian hieroglyphs, or something like that

This wraps up your sophomore year at UT. You be a junior now! You go girl!

To celebrate, we went to Forks of the River WMA to look for meadow birds: chats, blue grosbeaks, yellow-throats, indigo buntings and field sparrows. But the oceans and oceans of planted sunflowers overwhelmed our sensory inputs. We were bedazzled.

It was a day to be heady with golden achievement. 

Monday, July 4, 2016

raptor anniversary

I was just a puppy when it all began.  

Happy anniversary! Today, celebrating 18 years of working with the birds of prey at Ijams Nature Center. A major milestone and great turning point, one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.

Thank you my friend, Pam Petko-Seus!