Monday, March 31, 2008

book signing

As part of the “First Friday” series, I will be signing and selling my book, Natural Histories: Stories from the Tennessee Valley and "Natural Histories" note cards at Mast General Store located on Gay Street in downtown Knoxville, Friday, April 4, 6 to 9 p.m. and Saturday, April 5, Noon to 3 p.m.

Please, drop by and say hello.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

downy nest III

At first, the downy woodpecker excavation site seemed abandoned. (See postings dated March 25 and 21.) Could yesterday’s rain have scared the nesters away? No downies. No chickadees. Just a hole in a tree about 20-feet above the ground. But then I noticed a soft, muffled tapping.

Tappy, tap, tap. Tappy, tap, tap.

When the tapping stopped, the male downy’s head popped up out of the hole. He had been completely hidden inside the tree cavity. Working.

He looked around for a long time and when he realized there was no danger about, he started to lift debris out of his work site. Only his head appeared, sticking out of the hole, bill full of wood. He’d shake and the shavings and sawdust would fly out of his mouth to float away in the breeze. After which, he’d disappear back into the tree's interior.

Tappy, tap, tap. Tappy, tap, tap. He continued his work.

Friday, March 28, 2008

unexamined life

"The unexamined life is not worth living."

Socrates (469-399 BC) Classical Greek philosopher

It’s going to be a pretty weekend, so get out and examine it. You never know what you might discover.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

what's in a name?

The bloodroot of three days ago (See March 23 posting) has a neighbor. Trout lilies are beginning to show themselves adding their golden yellow, five-petal flowers to the woodlands. Trout lilies prefer dampish hillsides, generally near a steam or pond. Their leaves are smooth, leathery and have greenish brown blotches that resemble the mottled coloration of trout hence their most generally accepted common name.

Admittedly, it's a rather odd name. Yet, as a testament to our poetic nature, trout lilies have not always been called such, it’s just the folk name that has somehow survived. At various times and in various places the same plant has been called fawn lily, adder's tongue, rattlesnake violet, snakeleaf, lamb's tongue, Easter lily, lillette, amberbell, adderleaf and deer's tongue.

“But what’s in a name?” As Shakespeare's Juliet pondered: “that which we call a rose, By any other name would smell as sweet.” And trout lily would if trout lily were not called retain its dear perfection.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

downy nest II

The activity at the downy woodpecker nest excavation site has continued. (See March 21 posting) For the past two days, a female downy has taken turns with the male to work on increasing the depth of the cavity. It’s slow work; they remove wood bits, one bill full at a time and unlike other woodpeckers, downies have rather small bills. (Most woodpecker species have prodigious bills, that’s what puts the peck, peck, peck, in woodpecker.)

But the action doesn’t stop there. In real estate, a good location is hard to find. Ever so often, both downies disappear, perhaps they are working on a second, back-up nest hole elsewhere. When they are gone, a pair of Carolina chickadees slip in to work on the hole for themselves. They also carry out bits of wood in their bills, and chickadees have even smaller bills. The chickadee will hop to a nearby branch, shake its head and sawdust will fly out. The tediousness of this work is worth noting; mind-boggling tediousness!

When one of the downies returns, the chickadees are chased away. This HAS gotten interesting.

Monday, March 24, 2008

rear windowed

There’s a scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 movie Rear Window where photojournalist L.B. Jefferies (Jimmy Stewart) is peering through the viewfinder of his camera across the courtyard at his neighbor Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr). Jefferies suspects that Thorwald has murdered his wife. Suddenly, Thorwald looks through the window and catches Jefferies watching him. Busted! The voyeur is discovered.

The other day, I was creeping up on a bullfrog at Ijams Nature Center to take his picture, and just as I began to frame him in my viewfinder he whirled around to look straight at me. Now, I know just how Jefferies must have felt. The peeping Tom becomes peeped upon. I have no idea if the pea-green amphibian had murdered his wife but bullfrogs have been known to eat other bullfrogs.

Sunday, March 23, 2008


It’s somehow surprising that a spring ephemeral as white and delicate as this should have such a startling name. Bloodroot!

Its name comes from the color of sap stored in its root or rhizome. As time passes, the rhizome grows just under the surface and creates a colony of the remarkable wildflower. Native Americans used this blood red sap as a dye and body paint and called the plant "puccoon."

The seeds of bloodroot are spread by ants, an example of myrmecochory, a botanical term that means “seed dispersal by ants.” It’s a very difficult word to drop into conversation. You might try something like: Are you aware that bloodroot is a myrmecochorous plant? Granted, it’s awkward. You may need to practice it alone, while driving around in your car. Dogs also make very good practice conversation partners. They also seem to hang on our every word and are eager for knowledge.

Many of the delicate woodland spring wildflowers are spread this way. The ants carry the tiny fruits back to their underground tunnels, eat the fleshy parts and then discard the seeds, which eventually germinate.

Friday, March 21, 2008

downy nest

It’s difficult for me to imagine digging a hole in the side of a tree with my mouth. I have enough trouble dissecting an ear of corn, but to drill a perfectly round hole just big enough to slip my entire body into, that’s a remarkable feat.

A male downy woodpecker spent several hours today working on a nest hole very close to my suet feeder. He’s setting up a territory; and after the excavation of the nest cavity, he’ll attempt to attract the attention of a female. He’ll drum, call, fluff up his feathers, that sort of thing; strut his stuff. You know how guys are. If a female notices the suet feeder, she may realize he has also chosen an excellent piece of real estate.

It’s hard to determine if this is a first-time nester or an older bird. This early in the season is an indication that it’s an older male. (Older downies nest earlier.) If it is an older male, he will more than likely renew his pair-bond with last year’s mate, providing she survived the winter. They have a shared history, a familiarity that will prove beneficial in raising a family. It's a long process that requires teamwork, at least with downies. (Female hummingbirds raise their broods alone.)

If the male downy attracts a mate, this could get interesting.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

book discussion

I'll be discussing my book Natural Stories: Stories from the Tennessee Valley at the next meeting of the Open Door Book Club at the Fountain City Branch Library, 5300 Stanton Road, on Thursday, March 27 at 10:30 a.m.

Please drop by and say hello.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008


“I am more and more convinced that our happiness or unhappiness depends more on the way we meet the events of life than on the nature of those events themselves.”

- Friedrich Wilhelm Heinrich Alexander Freiherr von Humboldt (1769–1859)

With a name that long, you would expect he had something to say.

Humboldt was a Prussian naturalist and explorer whose quantitative work on botanical geography was foundational to the field of biogeography—the study of the distribution of biodiversity over space and time. Between 1799 and 1804, Humboldt traveled in Latin America, exploring and describing it from a scientific point of view for the first time. His description of the journey was published in an enormous set of volumes over 21 years. He was one of the first to propose that the lands bordering the east and west sides of the Atlantic Ocean were once joined. Humboldt was such a busy man, it's something of a surprise that he had time to think about happiness. But he did.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008


They’re on their way! After spending the winter in Central America, the first migrating ruby-throated hummingbirds have been sighted as far north as Macon, Georgia.

Depending on flying conditions, research has shown that the dynamic little birds advance roughly 70 miles a day. Studies also suggest that the small hummers follow the emergence of red buckeye. As soon as this native tree blooms in any given locale, the ruby-throats appear. The adult males are generally the first to arrive. It’s a lovely sort of natural synchronicity.

Sunday, March 16, 2008


Not to be outdone by the turtle, the first bullfrog of the season appeared at Ijams Nature Center three days ago as well. Shelia spotted it tucked away by the plaza pond soaking up some sun.

Being ectothermic has its advantages. WE warm-blooded mammals must find food often just to keep our body temperatures constant. The ambient air temperature controls the body temperature of reptiles, amphibians and insects, so they do not need to eat nearly as much. They don't even have to eat daily.

If we were cold-blooded, we'd sleep through winter and most restaurants would have to go out of business. If you own an eatery, you should post a sign in your window declaring it “Warm-bloodedness Appreciation Day."

Saturday, March 15, 2008

March winds

“The traditional March winds have been around for several months, but now they come again, leaf lifting, tree shaking. It is terrifying to see a huge tree move and shake clear to its roots. Or does it only seem to move? The branches whip and bend, they strain, and the roar of the wind strikes terror to our hearts and we think the tree has moved from bud to root. The wind is glorious and pagan. It blows the dust of our lives a thousand miles. We read the dust. If there’s a deadly message in it, that’s for us to know. The wind comes bearing things with it, lifting up, sweeping on. The great invisible river that has no need or knowledge of us.”

- from “The Inland Island,” a book of essays published in 1969 by Josephine Johnson (1910-1990). Johnson won the Pulitzer Prize for her first book, a novel, “Now in November” in 1935. She was only 24-years-old at the time.

Friday, March 14, 2008

dark and stormy

“March weather, like crows, is not to be trusted.”

- from “Wintering” 1979, by Diana Kappel-Smith

I recently read that crows are so mischievous because they are bored being crows. The ebony black birds are very intelligent. They’re like gifted kids caught in grade levels that are beneath them but what can they do about it? Perhaps, the next time you see a crow, you should invite it in for a cup of tea and a stimulating chat.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008


Is it me? Or do you also wonder why there are not more mycologists in the world? Everyone is out chasing birds but as a group the fungi are pretty darn interesting. Like birds they come in an array of colors, shapes and sizes. They also can be found anywhere, any season, but, unlike birds, the fungi hold still long enough for you to admire them. Here’s a perfectly lovely unknown species of shelf-like polypore, a bracket fungi, on the Third Creek Greenway. Like this one, most polypores are fleshy-tough, leathery to woody; and many can survive frost and cold weather.

To look at something as curious as this, like the ruffles on a French shirt, and realize that it too is alive, was born and someday will die. Growing on a log. That's where it will live its entire life, sensing the world as the world goes scampering past. I mean: What could we possibly know about the fullness of being until we have lived part of our life as a ruffle? Oh, if it were only possible.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008


Beavers were virtually eliminated from our country by the end of the 19th Century. Since the 1700s, beaver garments had been the fashion rage in Europe. The well-dressed man couldn't be well-dressed without a top hat made from beaver pelts. Trapping was unregulated. Warner Shedd reports that the Hudson's Bay Company alone sold over three million beaver pelts in a twenty-five year period in the late 1800s. One hundred years ago beavers were considered essentially extinct in Tennessee but they have made a remarkable comeback; so much so that finding beaver sign—gnawed branches and tree trunks or tracks in the mud—even in urban settings, has become commonplace.

As a rule, beavers build dams that turn slow moving creeks into ponds where they can assemble their lodges. But some beavers live in the deep water of lakes and rivers and construct their lodges along the shore, underground.

A walk on the greenway at Holston River Park on Sunday turned up fresh beaver sign along the shoreline. And then last night, at twilight, a very large adult beaver swam under the Neyland Drive Greenway into the mouth of Third Creek on UT’s Ag Campus. It eventually came ashore and disappeared into the darkness.

Illustration by Stephen Lyn Bales

Monday, March 10, 2008

one's own nature

“The aim of life is self-development. To realize one's nature perfectly—that is what each of us is here for.”

- Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) Irish playwright, novelist, poet

The photograph of Oscar Wilde was made in New York by Napoleon Sarony, a popular portrait photographer best known for his portraits of American theater stars of late 1800s. Taken in 1882, it is said to be of Wilde wearing his favorite coat, and I must say, it is a wonderful portrait of the razor-witted Wilde. Everyone should have a photograph taken of themselves wearing their favorite coat.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

life's balance

The curious thing is life’s precarious balance; on one side there’s a “here one minute gone the next” frailty and on the other, a “never say die” will to live, call it stubborn tenacity.

A tufted titmouse flew into a window at Ijams Nature Center. Kimberly brought it to my attention. Many of the glass panes have reflective tape that warns skittery birds to stay clear. Yet, this little Paridae chose to fly in the direction of a window with no such alert. The slate gray passerine crashed, betrayed by the reflection of blue sky. It didn’t hit hard, a glancing blow, but still it flopped to the ground stunned. Stooping down, I picked it up and held the trembling sprite in my hand. Dazed, it twitched, blinking its obsidian eyes, shaking its fluffy gray head. The dizzy creature gasped. Its last breath? If so, at least it wasn’t alone. One foot was outstretched, trembling, useless. Its warm feathered body felt weightless–a puff, a whisper, a wisp of sinew that held a tiny beating heart.

The concept of what it was had gone missing, after all: what truly is titmouse? Only a titmouse knows for sure and its little brain seemed too fuzzy to recall. I held the faintest of lives by a gossamer thread. Sometimes, all it takes is holding the bird; the warmth of your hand prevents it from going into shock. I knew it could live or die, one way or the other, at any second; I’ve seen both outcomes from such crashes but which would it be? Usually, mercifully, death comes quickly. The scale tottered back and forth, until finally, it tipped. Tenacity won and the stunned tufted-one hopped up and flew away. The grim reaper had come to the door, but the bell went unanswered.

Friday, March 7, 2008

we're not alone

“Nothing exists for itself alone, but only in relation to other forms of life.”

- Charles Darwin (1809-1882) English naturalist

There’s something about creeping through new mud to find a bird calling for a mate at twilight, hearing chorus frogs do the same from a nearby wetland, smelling fresh cedar, touching and tasting watery sap flow from a red maple that makes you feel completely alive and a part of the whole. It is all sublimely connected. One does not exist without the other. Yes, Mr. Darwin, we are not alone.

Thursday, March 6, 2008


A return to the woodcock’s display ground, a cedar glade at Forks of the River, found a male “peenting” from the same location. (It was probably the same bird as last Saturday evening. See March 3 posting.) Albeit, after the heavy rains of yesterday, his stage was soppier. And our return slog through the wetland was sloppier—soak through your boots to your socks kind of sloppy.

With woodcocks, it's a matter of being in the right place at the right time. This twilight, the “bogsucker,” as the species was called during Audubon’s day, began his peent call at 6:54 p.m. and we were able to slowly creep through the dry grasses to be within only a few feet of the ardent crooner. We could see him on the ground, although with the fading light not that clearly. It's remarkable how he practically disappeared, right before our very eyes. Poof!

Audubon wrote that American woodcocks favored “Rivulets that run through thickets, and of which the margins are muddy or composed of oozy ground.” Ooozy ground, indeed! Seeing such an odd little bird in such an out of the way location makes you wonder: Just what else is out there peenting in the night?

- American woodcock by John James Audubon, "The Birds of America" Plate #268

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

trickling sap

“I have seen the signs of spring. I have seen a frog swiftly sinking in a pool, or where he dimpled the surface as he leapt in. I have seen the brilliant spotted tortoises stirring at the bottom of the ditches. I have seen the clear sap trickling from the red maple.”

- From Thoreau's Journal dated February 23, 1857.

The trickle of sap has come to the valley. Recently, a maple on the Third Creek Greenway was oozing clear, watery sap from a series of sapsucker wells. As is their yellow-bellied way, the holes were drilled with a machinist's precision in a neat little row. The sap was sticky to the touch but surprisingly had little taste.

Photo: the lower row of sapsucker wells is fresh and trickling sap

Tuesday, March 4, 2008


Looney Island, pt. 3

A quick check of the great blue heron rookery on Looney Island found several of the old nests now being occupied by mated pairs. The activity level has increased, herons were coming and going, with males bringing offerings of food to their new mates. (Nothin’ says lovin’ like a regurgitated fish!)

It’s somehow comforting to know that the patience, or tenacity, of the males that claimed their sites early has paid off. (See February 18 and 19 postings.) Observing their nesting activities will become more difficult, if not impossible, as soon as the leaves return to the trees in a few weeks.

Photo: After a foraging trip, the mated pair of herons are reunited at the nest.

Monday, March 3, 2008

twilight a calling

The scene had a dreamlike quality. Twenty-five people standing in a grove of cedars at twilight, all being as still and quiet as their collective human natures would allow. Meeting at Ijams Nature Center, they had traveled to a nearby wildlife area and slogged through a muddy wetland to get there. The expectant group was assembled in the hope of hearing, perhaps even seeing, a secretive chunky ground bird with a long, probing bill; an odd little thing really, not sleek and sculpted like most birds, but squat like a toad.

To their left and right were open soppy spaces. If they had guessed a correct location, a male American woodcock might call for a mate from one of the bare spots of damp terrain. Woodcocks are chubby members of the sandpiper family with camouflaged plumage to blend into the dead leaves and thick grasses of forest edges. But their camo works so well, how do they find each other during mating season? It’s simply, the male must call out and advertise his location, in the hopes that a female will take note and come visit. But it’s a dangerous affair with foxes about, so he only sings for about 20 minutes at dusk, when there’s just enough light to be seen, but only barely. On this night, the group of clustered humans was lucky. At exactly 6:47 p.m., shortly after sunset, a male began to pelt out his “peent” song for all to hear.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

those who wander

“All that is gold does not glitter, Not all those who wander are lost."

- “The Fellowship of the Ring” by John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (1892-1973)


Saturday, March 1, 2008

hint of spring


That’s it. That’s the color of the forest canopy in winter. 

I don’t want to use the word drab, but if it was the color of a Crayola crayon, it would go unused there in the back of the box, pristine and factory-fresh. 

But wait a minute; do I see a color? Yes! There’s a hint creeping over some of the local trees. From a distance, it’s a pale wash of red, no more than a subtle blush. Yet, it’s there. I see it. Long before the leaves appear, red maples sneak into bloom. And sneak is a good word. The flowers are small, more like a red fringe borne in racemes. They're not bodacious like those flowering dogwoods that flaunt their alabaster petals like debutants at a summer cotillion. A red maple's flowers are understated, like you would expect from such a refined tree. Here in the valley, one day we have snow and the next voilà! A splash of spring. It must be March; true spring—glorious, luscious, voluptuous spring—is only three weeks away.