Tuesday, September 27, 2016

who's got your back?

She's a man-eater!

"If you're in it for love, you ain't gonna get too far, Oh-oh, here she comes. Watch out boy she'll chew you up. Oh-oh, here she comes. She's a mantid-eater," sang Hall & Oakes in 1982. 

Well, not quite, I inserted the word "mantid," but you get the idea. 

Praying mantises! This is their mating season and the large predator insects are looking for mates. If you have any single, unattached male mantids in your yard call me, perhaps I can play matchmaker. This one watching over me has been hanging around the Plaza Pond in front of the Ijams Visitor Center. 

But, keep in mind that the female often eats the male after they have coupled, so it may be a death sentence for him. (Studies have shown that she is less likely to consume her mate if she has recently eaten, so perhaps he needs to take her out to dinner before any amorous overtures are made.)

Saturday, September 24, 2016

blue morpho

Beautiful Morpho Phia-ides in center. Photo by Linda Knott.

We had a rare visit from a blue morpho butterfly (Morpho peleides) last Sunday afternoon at my Flutterby-ology class at Ijams. Considered one of the most spectacular butterflies on the planet, the blue morpho can have a wingspan of from 5 to 8 inches. The dorsal side of the wings are made up of tiny iridescent and metallic blue scales and the forewings are quite elongated. Normally, they are found only in in the tropical forests from Mexico to Colombia.

For a look at the rest of the class click: Flutterby-ology.

Thank you Phia for being so creative!

Giant blue morpho. Wiki commons.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

canoodling wrens

As far as we know, Carolina wrens mate for life and spend 365 days a year close to one another foraging for insects, spiders, sunflower seeds, whatnot

When nesting season is over—and they can have up to three broods year—they travel around our houses, watching each others back, ever mindful. If something seems harmful, they send out an alarm call.

They also roost near each other at night. Tiffiny and Warren Hamlin noticed their pair were spending the night in separate ends of blinds they have on their screened-in porch, but as Tiffiny emailed, they recently "caught them canoodling in the same blind." After being discovered, "They quickly split up and went to their respective blinds."

Don't you just love the word canoodling?  

The Hamlins are assistant managers at Wild Birds Unlimited on Kingston Pike. 

Monday, September 19, 2016

soldier fly: well, I never

Soldier fly
Hold on to your accent Sir David Attenborough, the most beautifully odd lifeform we found Friday with the Ed-Ventures @ Ijams homeschool class on aquatic macroinvertebrates was a soldier fly larva, a common and widespread fly of the family Stratiomyidae. Unlike many other fly species neither the larvae nor adults are considered pests or vectors. They exist pretty much unbeknowst to us.

And I had never seen one of the juvenile form before. 

Shown at top resting on my thumb, the creepy larva is essentially an aquatic "maggot"—little more than a wriggling, writhing digestive canal: a head and mouth, a long intestine and an anus, with no walking legs whatsoever.

Ed-Ventures @ Ijams Homeschoolers

Friday, September 16, 2016

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.

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

At the nature center, Jen Roder found a chunky brown caterpillar with sizable spots that's the other end of 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.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

stalking invertebrates

Josie and the Chilopoda

Centipedes are in the invertebrate class Chilopoda. They are carnivores. They bite with a pair of modified front legs called forcipules. It feels like a bee sting, so we avoid the real ones. That's why Josie is getting up-close to an oversized centipede made out of plastic. 

We had a great time recently stalking invertebrates with the Family Nature Club @ Ijams.

For more details on the club's outing, click: bugs

The centipede most often encountered indoors is Scutigera coleoptrata, or more simply "House Centipede."

Monday, September 12, 2016

work of art

Ermine moth (Ailanthus webworm)

TN Naturalist @ Ijams student Kathy Reilly has been seeing a small insect with odd coloration. I knew what it was, her description brought to mind a story I posted four years ago...

High on my "to-do" list was getting a photo of an ermine moth—specifically the Ailanthus webworm—because the boldly patterned, black, white and orange insects remind me of one of my favorite artists, French painter and sculptor Jean Dubuffet. Although I do not remember the color orange as being part of Dubuffet's pallette.

As their scientific name suggests, the moths are generally found on their host plant ailanthus, an introduced tree also known as "Tree of Heaven." The webworm moths are native to the tropics and south Florida but have expanded their range north as the alien trees became widespread.

Nature is in a constant state of flux. Give and take. Yin and Yang.

Although linked to the ailanthus, this week I located several of the short (slightly less than an inch in length) moths on common milkweed at Ijams.

Outdoor sculpture
Monument with
Standing Beast

by Jean Dubuffet
located in Chicago.

Friday, September 9, 2016

powder white sprite

Warren and Tiffiny Hamlin can be found at Wild Birds Unlimited Nature Shop on Kingston Pike. They love birds. And if you love birds you tend to watch a lot of birds. And, as this thread of logic goes, if you watch a lot of birds every so often you see something wondrous. 

Nature has a way of revealing its moments of awe when you least expect it.

The Hamlins had just gotten home from a vacation and were tending to the hummingbird feeders in their backyard when voilà they DID see something wondrous: a powder white sprite, a leucistic hummingbird had stopped by for a visit.

Similar to albinism, leucism is a genetic disorder resulting in "white, pale or patchy coloration of the skin, hair, feathers, scales or cuticle, but not the eyes" as in a true albino. Unlike albinism it is caused by a reduction in multiple types of pigment, not just melanin as in albinism.

But that's a lot of nuts-and-bolts science talk when the end result is something very rare and very beautiful: a pallid pixie like Tinkerbell. And it underscores the importance of being awestruck every now and then. It rocks your world. 

We are at the peak of fall hummingbird migration. Keep your feeders out and clean and fresh. Let's hope the powder white survives the fall migration and comes back next year.

Thank you, Warren for sending me the beautiful photographs. 

Monday, September 5, 2016

miracle of life

Hickory horned devil

In a natural world full of miracles, this may be one of the most profound. A moth or butterfly caterpillar spins a cocoon, creates a chrysalis or, in the case of the above hickory horned devil, burrows underground to form an earthen chamber. Then it pupates. The cellular organization that was once its worm-like body breaks down into a rich goo and then rearranges itself into a winged creature. This wondrous transformation is yet to be fully understood by biologists but it is one of the most sacrosanct undertakings in all of nature.

(The Cubs winning the World Series would be a miracle of equal amazement, but we'll wait and see about that.)

Two weeks ago was Sophia's first day of school. That's life-changing. AND to complete the analogy, she also acquired the oddest creature she had ever seen. It too would soon be going through something life-changing.

Metamorphosis: [met-uh-mawr-fuh-sis] noun. Biology. a profound change in form from one stage to the next in the life history of an organism.

Photo by Shirley Andrews
Both "Soph" and her hickory horned devil caterpillar were about to go through metamorphosis. Sophia was becoming a student and the large green spiky lepidopteran larva would transform into a royal walnut moth, a.k.a. regal moth (Citheronia regalis). 

Wow! The miracles in our lives.

To prolong the enchantment, I created a terrarium with appropriate tasty leaves for the devil, but it soon eschewed the edibles to burrow underground below the dirt and detritus. It was its time. After a few days, I gently moved the material aside and found the pupa: a shiny dark capsule that held a miracle in the making.  

Good luck in school this fall, Sophia. Good luck with the transformation of your own. 

Thank you, Grandmother Linda and Mom Karen. 

For the initial post, click: big day for Sophia.

Sophia with her foundling caterpillar as long as my opposable digit!
The horned devil/regal moth pupa hidden under leaves.
Regal moth: What the horned devil will look like after metamorphosis

Friday, September 2, 2016

Balsam Mountain visit

Don't you just love owls! Naturalist Jen Knight with barn owl, Luna.

Coming in 2017
Last evening, I spoke to a group at Balsam Mountain Preserve in Sylva, North Carolina about my first two books and my upcoming third: Ephemeral by Nature due in 2017.

I also got to visit with old friend and former Ijams' AmeriCorps member Jen Knight, who is an educator/naturalist at the nature center located there.

Thank you, Jen and Michael Skinner, Executive Director, Balsam Mountain Trust for inviting me.


Monday, August 29, 2016

unusual traveling companions

Photo by the Randle's neighbor: Alla Wardell

The email came with the subject line, "Unusual Traveling Companions."

I have been writing about backyard birds for 17 years and John and Anita Randle have been readers of mine for a long time. But, the photo attached to John's communiqué was quite an odd couple, perhaps even odder than Neil Simon's Oscar and Felix.

A flashy peacock and rough-hewn wild turkey, well maybe in a zoo, but in someone's backyard? Just wandering through?

Birds often form loose flocks for protection, so that they can watch each others' back. Or maybe they just like hanging out together. John says that they have named the peacock, Piper, and that he is "quite the conversationalist."

My friend David Piper says they are, "Birds of a feather. They are both gallinaceous. [That is ground-feeding, fowl-like or chicken-like.] Sort of like the family reunion you are glad to be away from."

Unless they are the main course. 

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 damselfly; best guess eastern red damsel (Amphiagrion saucium).

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
Perhaps eastern red damsel??  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 Laura, Julia and Challenger of AEF. Photo by Chuck Cooper

Eagle watchers