Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Albion College visit

Ijams would like to thank Dr. Doug White with the Center for Sustainability & the Environment at Albion College in southern Michigan for arranging their recent field trip to our nature center. White received his masters degree in ecology from the University of Tennessee in 1977. 

The group was interested in how a former industrial site, namely Ross Marble and Mead’s Quarries, could be reclaimed by nature and converted into a public use recreational hub.

I was happy to play host and tour guide. We visited all four former quarry pits, discussed the formation of the 400+ million year old limestone itself, the history of the quarrying in Knoxville and all that has been accomplished since Mead’s Quarry became part of Ijams in 2001. A lot!

From 1881 until 1978, this area was a heavily used, and no doubt loud, industrial complex. Over 30,000 cubic feet of industrial-grade limestone marketed as Tennessee Marble was being shipped by barge and railroad annually. Post 1945, the sites began producing agricultural lime with kilns being heated to 1000c. Now the location has reclaimed much of itself. Wildlife has returned.

The three-hour hike and tour included undergrad students “aiming towards a variety of environmentally-related careers, some perhaps in some sort of environmental education,” plus faculty members Dr. Doug White, Dr. Wes Dick, Dr. Sheila Lyons-Sobaski and Kim Jones.

Ijams hopes you had a safe trip home.

Monday, May 14, 2018

fuzzy baby owl pictures

We have cute baby pictures!

Ijams Nature Center is pleased to announce that the first photos of a young barred owl were captured by our own Rex McDaniel last Thursday.

The nest cavity is high in a tree on the Ijams Homesite near the Lotus Pond built by H.P. Ijams for his daughters to use in 1924.

Barred owls preferred habitat is woods near water. They feed their young a variety of cold-blooded animals like frogs, salamanders, crawdads and even fish (in this case, our unwanted goldfish) plus mice, moles and shrews.

At this point, the young are called branchies, because they are too big to remain in the nesthole and move out onto the tree's branches to await their next meal, and the next, and the next; well you get the idea. The parent owls even hunt during the day to feed their ravenous youngsters.

The TN Naturalist@Ijams bird class that I taught last Saturday afternoon was also able to see glimpses of the branchies in the high canopy on our walk in the woods.

Thank you, Rex who always has the patience it takes to get the perfect photo. We know birdman H. P. Ijams would be so proud to know he built a barred owl magnet pond nine decades ago.

TN Naturalist@Ijams bird class

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Annual visit to Tremont

Huge thanks to Tiffany Beachy, the Citizen Science Coordinator at the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont, and her green-cheeked conure Rico—who spent the last part of the class on my shoulder—for inviting me to speak at their gonzo bird class recently.

Our topic of the day was Secrets of Backyard Birds. We're talking cardinals, chickadees, titmice, robins, blue jays and their ilk. The goal of the discussion was to make the class aware that all birds have fascinating lives. Just because they are common doesn't mean they are dull. We discussed communication, courtship, mate selection, parental duties, the bright red color of male cardinals  and even bird divorce.

I also spoke briefly about my three books Natural Histories, Ghost Birds and Ephemeral by Nature, all published by the University of Tennessee Press.

The cover of the newest depicts a cerulean warbler and Tiffany even appears in the opening pages of that chapter. Her graduate thesis at UT was based on her studies of the sky blue wood warbler whose population is in decline.

Thanks, Tiffany!

Why am I so red?

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Ephemeral phantoms

Northern saw-whet owls 
Ephemeral phantoms of the high mountains

Sometimes, just knowing they are there is enough.

Yes. Northern saw-whet owls live and nest on the top of Old Smoky, but they are secretive and I had never been up there at the right season, or right time of the day or in the right conditions to hear one. So for that matter, they might as well nest on the moon.

Dr. Fred Alsop knows the issues. He spent weeks on the Appalachian Trail during grad school at the University of Tennessee under the tutelage of faculty advisor Dr. Jim Tanner.

“The peak of singing activity is from the first week of April through the third week of May,” Alsop writes in his small red treasure, “Birds of the Smokies.”

“Weather conditions seem to be a major factor influencing singing, with most vocalizations coming on clear nights with little or no wind. Rain, fog, low clouds, and other inclement conditions make the chances of hearing this owl almost zero.”

If you know the higher elevations of the Smokies, you know that inclement conditions are a daily occurrence; things change hourly, clouds move in, clouds move out. Perfect conditions are never a guarantee. Karen Webster had worked for a year at LeConte Lodge in...

For the rest of the article I penned, check out the May/June issue of The Tennessee Conservationist magazine.

As always thank you Louise Zepp, editor.

Look for it at a Tennessee State Park near you!

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

17 years this time humming

Farragut Garden Club

Special thanks to the Farragut Garden Club for inviting me to speak to their group yesterday. The first time I did so was on September 11, 2001.

This time we talked about hummingbirds and the plants that lure them to your yard: red buckeye, coral honeysuckle, crossvine, trumpet vine, et al. The hummers are drawn to red tubular flowers because they coevolved together to serve each other's needs. The little pixies are so unique there's a chapter in my new book Ephemeral by Nature dedicated to their vaporous habits. 

Thank you again ladies.

Yes. That would be my thumb!
Coral honeysuckle
Red buckeye

Trumpet vine

Monday, May 7, 2018


Perhaps I am wrong, but I do not remember ever seeing a gray catbird around my home in the woods. I really have no shrub layer, no thicket, just high canopy. Anyway, this morning on my walk to the mailbox I heard the unmistakable phrase "meeeeowww." I paused to look, and at eye level to me, there the gray cat sat on a branch.

Like mockingbirds and thrashers, catbirds are open-ended learners, that learn to mimic other bird songs. Ultimately,their songs can last several minutes with many song phrases. But, wait for it, they will drop in "meeeeoww" ever so often. 

Saturday, May 5, 2018

Twenty times talking

My heartfelt thanks goes to my friends at the Tellico Village Garden Club. Last Thursday I spoke to their group for the 20th time. And to my recollection, I have never repeated a topic. Of course, most all were bird related. The secret about being a good presenter is to talk about something you love.

Much to my surprise, this year they presented me with a plaque depicting a wise old owl to honor the occasion. But more than just any old plaque, this one was hand-crafted by the woodworker in their midst, Rick. 

And I am going to keep speaking to their group until I get it right. Next year we talk about the "Birds of Summer." 

Thank you, Tim for arranging my visit.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Has my thrush returned?

Wood thrush returned today. I heard them in the dreary damp behind the house, maybe they were waiting for the sun to return and they just gave up. Now I wonder if the one that banged into my studio door will make it back. 

The wood thrush is my favorite songbird that lives in the dense woods behind my house but the songster is only here in summer. Last September I spooked this one thrush feeding along the driveway and it flushed straight into its collision with the glass. I picked it up to comfort it. 

My wounded thrush blinked and panted much like a running back hit by Green Bay linebacker Clay Matthews. Its feet clinched. A death grip? I hoped not. But wait, it moved its head right and left indicating its neck was not broken. It only needed another living being—that would be me—bringing aid and comfort, muttering "You're not alone." I have done this sort of thing before only to have the poor songbird die in my hand, but this care-giving act felt more positive. Its whacked senses slowly began to return.  

In time, it hopped up, standing on my outstretched palm, looked around as if to say, "I am thrush. I bid you adieu. I have miles to go before I sleep. Miles to go."

But I now wonder seven months later, did it return?


Wednesday, April 25, 2018

a sweet smell

Please forgive the vulgar nature of this post, but I am a third generation hillbilly well steeped in Smoky Mountain folklore, so I should know this, be it tawdry or otherwise.

Carolina sweet shrub, a.k.a. strawberry bush is in bloom behind my house. But to the mountaineers, it had a much racier name, one perhaps not used in mixed company, “boobie-bush.”

It seems, if a mountain woman wanted to freshen herself up a bit, she would sometimes pluck one of the red flowers and slip it into her cleavage. Exposed to the body heat of such tight quarters, the bloom would begin to release the sweet aroma of ripe strawberries. A most delightful fragrance for there or anywhere else, particularly for some male like me who has a penchant for the red fruits.

Monday, April 23, 2018


Many thanks to all who attended the Ijams hike early yesterday morning. Super job Amy Oakey for the planning and leading the way. Thanks Nick and Doug. 

Loved the improvised directional stick arrows pointing out the correct path that were fashioned by the lead group. Perfect pathfinder markers; so, so James Fenimore Cooper-ish. And for a time we felt so lost in the lushness, I thought I heard jungle drums. Or was it a pileated? And weren't we out of the continental U.S. for awhile? 

And once again we encountered the fairy wood nymph I named Evangeline last month (my nod to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow). 

Next month a new adventure.