Monday, March 19, 2018


Yesterday was the March gathering of the Ijams Hiking Club. Our goal is to hike all 47 miles of trails in the Knox Urban Wilderness South Loop in 2018 to earn the Legacy Parks Foundation Patch. 

This time we decided to explore the trails on the eastern edge of the old Ross Marble Quarry, a former industrial site with homesites for the quarrymen and their families. All is slowly returning to nature since the quarry stopped operation in the late 1970s. That being said, almost everywhere you look you see signs of civilization slowly deteriorating.

This one broken figurine caught my eye. I took it as a wood nymph bidding us safe passage and in my mind named her "Evangeline," in honor of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's famous 1847 poem. Did the families of the quarrymen read the poem by candlelight in their small cabins? The faded figurine would have been a luxury, It is emblematic of the home life of the quarrymen at the turn of the century.

Paraphrasing Longfellow, "Listen to the mournful tradition still sung by the pines of the forest; Listen to a Tale of Love in Acadie, home of the happy."

And as a group, we were all happy. We were outside.

Friday, March 16, 2018

what's newt with you

If you would like to become an expert on one group of living things in our state, pick newts. Although there are over 50 known species in the world, only one species is found in Tennessee: the Eastern red-spotted newt. A trained herpetologist would point out that there are actually two subspecies that look very much identical, but for the sake of brevity, let's just focus on the principle species of the red-spotted complex.

Newts are salamanders that have an extra life stage. As juveniles, they turn bright red orange, leave their watery home and roam through the forest, hiding under logs and leaves for up to seven years. Because of their color, they are called "red efts." After their terrestrial travels, they find a pond, morph into yellowish olive green adults and begin to reproduce.

The newts in our local ponds can live up to 15 years: egg to larva to juvenile to adult. And that's a pretty long life for an amphibian.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Mystery bug thingy

Spring IS coming. The first mystery bug of the year has turned up. Or at least, it was a mystery to me. It knew what it was all along. Ijams Naturalist Christie figured it out for me because she is buggier than I am. 

But don't freak, even though that long snout contracts and expands, pretty creepy X-Files thing, but truth is stranger than fiction. It's the larva that grows up to be something you actually like.

A firefly or lightning bug. 

Monday, March 5, 2018

screech-owl boxing day

Few things look as woeful as an Eastern screech-owl caught out in the rain. And we have had a lot of rain. They need a place to roost, a hidey-hole.

March is also time for nesting. Mourning doves and Carolina wrens probably already have started. But screech-owls will be raising a family soon.

That's why yesterday afternoon, we held our last nest box building workshop of the season at Ijams Nature Center. And these over-sized boxes are designed for Eastern screech-owls, our smallest woodland owl that are even smaller when drenched with water.

Box em'. Keep your screeches high and dry.

Thank you, Anne et al.

Monday, February 12, 2018

uber-petite & golden

This one is a winged miracle.

On our list of birds that only send their winters in the Tennessee Valley is the uber-petite golden-crowned kinglet. At only 5 grams (the weight of two pennies) they are the smallest perching songbird. The only thing smaller is a hummingbird which is not considered a songbird. They are a miracle unto themselves.

How golden-crowns even survive the winter is a mystery. Hummingbirds migrate to Central America: Costa Rica, Belize, Guatemala the
se kinds of tropical places. The tiny kinglet migrates but not that far. Many are here in the trees around us. And we have had two super Artic-like cold spells. It is estimated that up to 87 percent of all golden-crowned kinglets die each winter so there may be none left at the nature center to return north in spring.

It is simply too difficult for a bird this tiny to maintain internal body heat over a long cold night. So how does the golden-crowned kinglet even survive as a species with such a high winter time mortality rate?

Come spring, when they migrate back to their breeding grounds, they are baby makers. Petite little dynamos. Each mated pair can produce two broods of up to nine nestlings each, arranged in two layers in their small nests. Yes, perhaps raising as many as 18 young ones in only a few months.

Somewhat surprising to me. We found three at my Bird-About Birdwatching for Beginners program last Saturday morning. Tough little things.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Olivia got it wrong!

Gasp! The entire staff of Ijams is aghast. For the second year in a row, Olivia, our Super Bowl predicting pundit got it wrong! (See WBIR. The "one person's voice" is Jen. Click: Olivia's prediction.) Just like last year, her 2018 pick lost in the closing seconds. A shocked hush has fallen over the nature center. Of course, we are all at home watching the game.

When reached for comment, Jen Roder, the Ijams Education Director and Olivia's football consultant said, "I don't know what the fuss is about. She is only a possum. Clearly we got some work to do, she still doesn't understand RPO. And who on Earth understands the catch rule? How do I explain that to her? In truth, she is really only good at picking the best grape."

Perhaps Ijams Park Manager Ben Nanny said it best, "it was a heck of a game. Opossums don’t really know that much about football."

Friday, February 2, 2018

I the thrush

It's a seasonal thing.

Walking to the mailbox just now, there was a hermit thrush to greet me and lead the way. It was in no real hurry, trotting along to give me a good look. Bobbing its tail. 

"Solitary the thrush, The hermit withdrawn to himself, avoiding the settlements, Sings by himself a song," wrote Whitman. Yes, I the thrush. 

It brought to mind a day last September along the same drive that another thrush centric story unfolded. One that could have had a tragic ending, yet it did not. 

Click: aid and comfort. 

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

year of the bird

"One reason that wild birds matter—ought to matter—is that they are our last, best connection to a natural world that is otherwise receding...The radical otherness of birds is integral to their beauty and their value," writes acclaimed novelist Jonathan Franzen in his cover story for the January National Geographic. Franzen is also an avid birder.

National Geographic has declared 2018 the year of the bird to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. In part to raise awareness to the plight of birds around the world as did the bird treaty act did a century ago. 

Yet, before you think this is an ode to birds, it is not, it is a celebration. Yes, many species are in danger, too many. (Read my UT Press books Ghost Birds and Ephemeral by Nature.) Birds are indeed fragile and struggling primarily due to habitat loss. But let me remind you that they are also smart, adaptable and tenacious. Birds are not descended from dinosaurs. They are cousins with most of today's bird groups sharing the planet with dinosaurs all those years ago. Imagine a nuthatch-like bird hopping around on the leg of a brachiosaurus! But the last great extinction event of 86± million years ago that did in the dinos, did not whip out the birds. They figured out a way to carry on.

To join in the celebration I will be doing more birding programs this year than ever before. Here are the next two.

Saturday, February 3, 10 a.m. to noon
Birds and Biscuits: Bird Song at Ijams

(Recommended for ages 8 and up) They’re colorful. They’re musical. They are present year-round. It’s no wonder that birds have fascinated people for generations. Learn some of the songs and calls you hear in your yard and what they mean, from chickadee chatter to meadowlark melodies to cardinal chips. Ijams provides a morning snack of warm biscuits, jam and honey. The fee for this program is $10 per person. Call 577-4717, ext. 110 or go online to

Sunday, February 4, 1 to 4 p.m.
Winter Waterfowl at Cove Lake with Ijams

(Recommended for Ages 8 and up) Join me for a beginner’s birding workshop at Cove Lake State Park. The lake serves as a magnet for migrating birds, including hundreds of geese and other waterfowl. I will give you the tips of the trade as you learn the basics of bird identification. Please bring binoculars and a blanket or lawn chair. Meet at Ijams. Spaces are very limited, so register today. The fee for this program is $8 per person. Call 577-4717, ext. 110 or go online to

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Whoooo Dat?

Look at that sweeeet face!

This is an one-eyed eastern screech-owl that is cared for by Ijams Nature Center. I call her Eunice because she has uni-vision, not a good thing if you are a nocturnal predator. 

She will be one of my guest owls at tomorrow's Whoooo Dat? owl program, a Family Adventure Sunday offering. We will meet two live owls, learn the calls of local owls, dissect large owl pellets (Click: Lynne's great horned owls) and go on a walk searching for barred owls in the wetland behind the Visitor Center.

Today, Eunice paid a visit to Beth and Russell on WBIR's Live@5@4

She was stoic as usual, watching everything we odd humans do for entertainment. Wonder what she thought?

To see the interview with Beth, Russell and Eunice click, Whoooo Dat?

WBIR's Beth Haynes, Russell Biven with Eunice and that owl guy

Friday, January 26, 2018

big hearted

If hearts were measured by surveyors, Lynne McCoy's heart would be tallied in acres. Lynne is a licensed wildlife rehabilitor and over the years she has cared for thousands of injured or orphaned animals—both with two legs and with four. Lynne is not funded, she does this out of the kindness in her heart and with donations made by people like you and I.  

Her goal is always to get the animal healthy and old enough or strong enough to return to the wild. Most do. But a few of them never recover, so she has quite a menagerie that she takes care of daily. 

Lynne has appeared in two of my books: in the opossum chapter in Natural Histories and in the owl chapter in Ephemeral by Nature. Today, I visited Lynne for some barter. I traded a signed copy of Ephemeral for 25 choice owl pellets regurgitated by her two non-releasable great horned owls. The pellets are big and full of fur and bones.

At my Family Adventure Sunday Whoooo Dat? owl program, we will learn about local owls, their distinctive calls, meet a couple of live owls and dissect the pellets I bartered for today. Some may be lucky enough to find complete rodent skulls!

Nature is not always pretty, but it is always pretty interesting. 

To sign up for this Family Adventure Sunday, go online to: Whoooo Dat?  

Lynne's great horned owls cough up large pellets

Wednesday, January 24, 2018


One interesting bird to look for this time of the year is the yellow-rumped warbler, a.k.a. myrtle warbler (long story, come to one of my Birds & Biscuits at Ijams and I will explain).

The photo is one in its drab winter plumage, but they retain the bright yellow rump which leads to the sobriquet, "old butter butt."

This warbler is only here in winter and will come to your suet feeder but I have yet to sneak close enough to get a photo. I did catch one with a titmouse at my heated bird bath with my cell phone camera, see below. Forgive the quality but it IS a phone after all. Maybe Nikon should start added a way to make calls on their 35mm cameras to get even. 

Soon yellow-rumps will molt into their much more striking breeding plumage and migrate north to their nesting grounds primarily in Canada.

Monday, January 22, 2018

return to Hiwassee

Yesterday's cabin fever buster, Ijams Bird-About was great fun. The road trip to Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge that I hosted is an annual family birding adventure. And it didn't hurt that the weather moderated with sunny skies, so we all could recover from being so cooped up indoors.

Birds of interest that we saw were thousands of sandhill cranes, two bald eagles (thanks Kim for spotting them), plus great blue herons, bufflehead, pintail and gadwall ducks, ring-billed gulls, grebes, red-tailed hawk, bluebirds, yellow-rumped warbler and the very non-bird white-tailed deer. But as always, the sandhills are the feature attraction.

Thank you Ijams ambassadors Rex, Kristy and Nick.

Additional photos supplied by Rex McDaniel.

Our next Bird-About will be to Cove Lake on Sunday, February 4. To sign up go online to…/beginner-birding-winter-ducks-at-cove-l…/

Thursday, January 18, 2018

at home with a falcon

With the return of warmer weather this weekend, the Ijams' American kestrel and the other two small birds of prey will be going back to the nature center tomorrow. They are on a cozy, warm sabbatical at my house.

You can see in the photo why the little falcon will live at Ijams the rest of her life. See how her left wing hangs damaged to her side? She can no longer fly, but she's a really good runner.

If you also own a conure, you might notice a similarity. Although once called sparrow-hawks, recent DNA studies have shown that falcons are more closely related to the parrot family than to the true hawks.

How do small birds like the kestrel (she weighs roughly 5 to 6 ounces) survive outside when the temperature is as low as 9 degrees? During the day they eat as much food as they can find. And mice do not venture above ground that often when it is cold. At night they find a safe place to roost, fluff up their insulating feathers and then they shiver. Roughly 25 percent of a bird's weight is their flight muscles. By shivering these muscles internal heat is produced to warm their blood. But without enough food, they simply do not make it through such bitter cold weather.

If you would like to help Ijams care for these birds, send a donation earmarked "animal care."

Monday, January 15, 2018

house guests again

A forecast of 9 degrees for Wednesday morning chills us all. And remember, small birds have a harder time retaining their body heat than larger ones.

"Small animals cool rapidly because they have proportionally much more body surface than body volume," writes David Haskell in his "The Forest Unseen."

Just in case you are worried, the three small injured birds-of-prey we care for at the nature center are back at my house for a few days. The forecast looks Arctic. 

Ijams does not have a permit to be wildlife rehabilitators. When we take one in it has been determined to be non-releasable. We care for it the rest of its life. A one-eyed owl would not survive very long in the wild.

The one-eyed screech-owl is looking forward to watching the David Attenborough episode about "small rodents." She says it's like looking at a menu from a "fancy" restaurant.

Ijams is a non-profit. A gift of $50 marked "animal care" will buy 50 mice. A bargain really. 

Friday, January 12, 2018

ephemerality on TV

Visited with my good friends both in front of the camera and behind at WBIR's Live@5@4 today to talk about my new book. 

Dare I say the title again... Ephemeral by Nature with stories about freshwater jellyfish, monarch butterflies, hummingbirds, Appalachian pandas and, yes, eastern coyotes. In all, 12 chapters that examine a variety of flora and fauna that in one way or another can be described as “ephemeral”—that is, fleeting, short-lived, or transient.

For interview, click: Beth and Russell

Thank you. Lee Ann.

And they were also celebrating behind-the-scenes Eric Fox's birthday.

Friday, January 5, 2018

special suet cakes

Living in the woods, I really do not get bluebirds. They eschew everything my forest has to offer, well not exactly everything. 

In November with the help of some of the homeschool kids that come to the nature center, we made special suet cakes with vegetable shortening, peanut butter, oats, corn meal, sunflower seeds and berries gathered around the Visitor Center.

I like to use recycled yogurt containers. It makes the whole process tidier and it's easy to store them with lids on in the bottom of the fridge until they are needed. And with the temperate below freezing for yet another day, they are the spécialité du jour, visited routinely by bluebirds and the other traditional backyard feeder birds, even yellow-rumped warblers.

I also maintain a heated birdbath from Wild Birds Unlimited. That, probably more than the suet is an attraction as big as Disney. Where else are the birds going to find water when it is 20 degrees outside?

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

house guests

We are all getting a sense of what it must be like to be a TV dinner or a half gallon of Mayfield Pistachio Almond ice cream. 

Since it is not expected to be above freezing for several days, we have decided that it may be too extreme for the three small captive, injured birds at Ijams. Their room-temperature mice soon freeze solid as does their water dishes. We have decided to let them go on a sabbatical to my house. 

The two screech-owls and kestrel stay in their travel boxes most of the time and I take them out occasionally for a tour of the house. 

Although they stay in the music room, they are particularly fond of the conservatory and library. 

Sunday, December 31, 2017

2017: favorite nature moments #1

A once in a lifetime moment is just that. And I have waited a lifetime.

A total eclipse of the sun, Monday, August 21, and we only had to drive 15 miles for totality, to soak in the sun and then the lack of it. It was bumper to bumper traffic to get there, so it wasn't exactly a chip shot. Our 21st century brains knew what was going on, we learned about it in elementary school. But our Neanderthal DNA quaked at the eerie sight, making us want to sacrifice a goat. But no one seemed to have a goat. 

Click: once in a lifetime.

And now it is on to 2018, the 50th anniversary of the Fab Four singing "Ob-la-di, ob-la-da, life goes on, bra. La-la, how the life goes on." 

As indeed it does. 

Saturday, December 30, 2017

2017: favorite nature moments #2

Last April, I was invited to speak at Yakima Valley College by anthropologist Eric Anderson. In three days, I presented four talks about my book Ghost Birds, writing and publishing, practicing mindfulness plus a preview of my new book Ephemeral by Nature, at the time still six months away. 

I also participated in the college's Earth Day observance, getting to speak to many students one-on-one, so they met a real Tennessean, not a red one but a green-blue one. I think you call that teal. 

I made new friends including Wendy, click: rattlesnake rescuer and got to see a bevy of...darn, I am a writer, I cannot use the cliché word, adorable...but what works? oh heck, adorable...California quails trundle along on their merry way. Did I say adorable?  

I got to reacquaint myself with one of my favorite Corvids, the Steller's jay, named to honor German naturalist Georg Wilhelm Steller. I haven' seen one since June 1988. Look at that boss crest! Also while sitting on campus, I watched a pair of introduced so not exactly beloved Eurasian collared doves court, and dare I say, mate. (If you are going to do it balanced on top of a light pole, don't expect folks not to watch.)

Yet, it is hard to condense six days into on a few favorite moments, but here is an overview. 

Click: YVC.