Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Book signing

As part of Educator Appreciation Week, I will be handing out information about Ijams Nature Center and signing copies of my book Natural Histories: Stories from the Tennessee Valley tomorrow: Thursday, May 1, 5:30 to 8 p.m. at Barnes & Noble Booksellers located at 8029 Kingston Pike

Please stop by and say hello.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008


Now that red buckeye’s flowering season is beginning to fade, another hummingbird favorite is starting to appear: crossvine, a native semi-evergreen, woody vine. It’s a climber generally found growing up a supportive tree.

Like most plants that use hummingbirds as pollinators, crossvine has tubular flowers that range from red to orange to tangerine in color. Also known as quartervine, the plant gets its name from its cross-shaped pith. If you cut a stem, you’ll discover it has four chambers that form an “x” pattern.

Crossvine flowers are noted for their curious fragrance, most often described as “mocha-like.” Growing up in Gatlinburg, I knew the smell was unique and would often give the flowers a hardy sniff, but since I had never heard of mocha, I had no point of reference. I couldn't compare it anything in this world. I'm still not even convinced that "mocha-like" is an accurate enough descriptor.

If you find some blooming along your favorite walking path, make sure to give it a sniff. Yesterday, I found this clump growing along the Will Skelton Greenway west of Ijams Nature Center.

Monday, April 28, 2008


It rained yesterday; not once but several times. As I sat on the front porch watching the first shower pass, two towhees, a robin and a wood thrush scurried about in the leaves. They were enjoying the rain as much as I.

The smell was glorious, or should I say the petrichor.

In 1964, two Australian researchers coined the term “petrichor” for an article they were writing for the journal “Nature.” The word comes from the Greek petros (stone) + ichor (the fluid that is supposed to flow in the veins of the gods in Greek mythology). They defined petrichor (pronounced PET-ri-kuhr) as the pleasant smell that accompanies the first rain after a dry spell.

Wiki states: “In the article, the authors describe how the smell derives from an oil exuded by certain plants during dry periods, whereupon it is adsorbed by clay-based soils and rocks. During rain, the oil is released into the air along with another compound, geosmin, producing the distinctive scent. In a follow-up paper, Bear and Thomas (1965) showed that the oil retards seed germination and early plant growth.”

If the oil is present in the soil, seeds will not sprout because conditions are too dry to support young life.

Nature's processes never cease to amaze.

Petrichor is generally described as pleasant and refreshing and is one of the most frequently cited "favorite smells.” As indeed it is.

- Thanks Kimberly!!

Sunday, April 27, 2008


Sometimes, I think, the only way to truly see something is to attempt to draw it. To do this, you have to focus all your resources, study its ins and outs; become lost in its form. Long before we invented writing, we humans have been drawing the world around us. Why? Perhaps to understand it, honor it, or maybe a little of both. You think of the famous aurochs painted by prehistoric peoples 30,000 years ago on the cave walls at Lascaux in France. Both those early humans and the aurochs are now long gone, but the cave paintings survive.

I have been working of late—or should I say, staying up late—completing a new series of pen and ink drawings for another set of notecards called “Lyn’s Flower Box.” The cards will be available in the gift shop at Ijams Nature Center, or directly from me.

Like my “Bird Box” and “Bug Box” this new set will contain eight different notecards, part of my Natural Histories line. I like to choose things that are not only fun (or challenging or impossible) to draw but also have interesting natural histories. Fuller’s teasel is an example. Goodness, it's spiky. Spiky. Spiky. It gets it's name because the dried seed heads were once used in the production of fabric, especially wool, to "tease" or raise the weave.

If one of my drawings is around 30,000 years from now, I guess I will have accomplished something.

Friday, April 25, 2008

mailbox moth

The tent caterpillars are beginning to leave the safety of their tents. (See April 23 posting) They are trundling about everywhere. The ones that survive the birds will find secret places to spin their cocoons. I found one cocoon in my mailbox. Talk about special delivery, but this may be against U.S. Post Office regulations, so mum’s the word. OK?

The adult small brown moth should emerge in about three weeks, about the time the next issue National Geographic arrives.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

bird fodder

The Eastern tent caterpillar is the larva stage of a rather nondescript small brown moth. (Trust me. It’s small and brown. You’d hardly notice it. Did I say nondescript?)

Early last summer, the female adult moths laid their varnish-coated egg masses—hundreds of eggs—in the crotches of trees. They were very particular. They only laid their eggs on the trees whose leaves their young would eat. Cherries, apples and crabapples are their most common host plants.

The eggs remain there for over nine months. In early spring the tiny larvae hatch and begin spinning a small silken tent where they live protected during the day. At night the caterpillars venture out to eat leaves; their sole purpose in life.

They return to their nests each morning and because they've grown—which tends to happen if you eat all night—they add to their nest to accommodate their new bulk.

People often panic when they see these tents in their trees. But relax. They are really just natural birdfeeders. Only a same percentage of these caterpillars survive, the birds eat most of them. The other day I watched a blue jay standing on top of one of the tents gobbling down caterpillars as fast as it could.

I wonder what they taste like? A bit hairy, I would imagine.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

cow slop

Virginia bluebells is the more generally used common name for this pale blue flower now in bloom in the Tennessee Valley. That’s fortunate because the lovely thing is also known as Virginia cowslip, a reference to the wet and muddy places that cows like to slop around in near water; literally cow+slip or cow+slop, i.e. cow dung. Water plus mud plus dung would create a rich place for a plant to grow but I could hardly think of a more unfortunate name to go by.

“Hello. I’m Virginia cow slop. How are you?”

Nevertheless, this delightful blue wildflower is often found in wet, damp lowlands near water. Just be careful where you step.

Monday, April 21, 2008


“I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.”

- from “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” by William Butler Yeats (1865-1939)

Saturday, April 19, 2008


It’s hard to imagine anything more beautiful, particularly on an off-and-on again kind of rainy day like today. But, you see, columbines are in bloom. Spectacular wild columbine.

The word comes from the Latin “columbīna” meaning dovelike. It was believed that the upside down flower looked like a dole of five doves clustered together. (Yes, a small flock of doves is known as a dole.) In this case, as you can see from the photo I took at Ijams Nature Center, the doves are vivid vermilion with dangling saffron yellow legs.

With columbine (and larkspur) the long upward turned spurs are called nectaries, in itself, another charming word. It's where nectar is secreted. Whisper it to yourself, "nectaries." See what I mean? Charming.

Friday, April 18, 2008


"When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it connected to the rest of the world."

- John Muir (1838-1914) American naturalist, writer

Thursday, April 17, 2008

downy nest VI

At first glance, all seems quiet around the downy woodpecker nest site, just a round hole in a tree. (See April 7 posting) But occasionally, if you are patient enough to wait, you notice a little woodpecker face peek out of the opening albeit briefly. The activity has become more secretive.

Gary Ritchison writes, “Typically, females lay one egg per day, early in the morning, and eggs in a clutch are laid on successive days. Complete clutches usually consist of five eggs but may contain from three to eight.” (Eight!! I hope the little male created a big enough nursery.)

“In some species, and perhaps in downy woodpeckers as well, female age also has an effect on clutch size, with younger females laying fewer eggs than older ones.” (Let’s hear it for the seniors!) “Although it is not always clear why older females produce larger clutches, one possibility is that older, more experienced females are better foragers and therefore are in better condition” i.e. healthier moms produce more eggs.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

bears out there

"There are bears out there. I can feel them. Asleep in the woods / bears curl, soft and dark."

As part of the Reading is Fundamental (RIF) program, this morning I read Bears Out There by Joanne Ryder to second graders at East Knox County Elementary School. It's a story of a little boy who dreams of bears. (Still a ten-year-old at heart, I'm very prone to dreaming; and growing up in the Great Smoky Mountains, I’m especially fond of Ursus americanus.) It's a wonderful, lyrical book; great for ages five through eight.

Special thanks to Jennifer and the teachers for inviting me.

Monday, April 14, 2008

hummer's arrive

Spring comes on like gangbusters. So much so that it’s hard to take note of it all. Sometime during the past few days while I was out of town, red buckeyes began to bloom in Knoxville. At the same time ruby-throated hummingbirds turned up as well. When I settled back into my home and looked out at the feeder—Saturday late—there perched a hummer. A coincidence? Dare I say not!

Studies have shown that the diminutive little birds weighing 1/10 of an ounce—about the same as two dimes—follow the blooming buckeyes north. As the native tree with red tubular flowers blooms in any given area, the hummingbirds soon appear.

It's a lovely piece of natural synchronicity.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

squirrel corn?

One of the great things about the early spring wildflowers is their creative monikers. These folk names that have survived over the years are not nearly as formalized–some might say starched–as bird common names.

In the next few weeks, be on the lookout for stinking Willie, wake robin, red dead-nettle, shooting star, lizard’s tail, bleeding heart, gill-over-the-ground and Dutchman’s breeches.

A wildflower that’s closely related to the last on this list gets its name not from what you see but from what you don’t see–under the ground.

Squirrel corn has yellow corms that look like kernels of Grandma Pearlie Mae's sweet corn. It’s reported that hungry squirrels are fond of digging up and eating these small underground bulbs.

Curious about the taste, I’ve asked several gray squirrels. All refused to commit even after generous bribes of toast and peanut butter. But that's just the way it is. If you want information, don't go to a squirrel; they'll look at you in dismay that you do not already know the answer.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

home again

Chimney swifts are built for flight. With wings several inches longer than their narrow, tapered bodies, they look like flying cigars; but they’re really incredible flying machines. The sooty gray birds have very small legs and feet; but that’s OK because they rarely use them. They spend most of their lives and certainly the majority of their waking hours, flying, foraging for insects.

Chimney swifts are also long distance migrants that winter in eastern Peru. They almost always return to the skies over my Chapman Ridge home on April 10 or 11, but I was out of town on the 10th and yesterday, the 11th, was very stormy, heavy rains fell throughout the state.

I woke up this morning wondering: are the swifts back? Peru is a long, long way away. It's time, or did the storms knock them off course? I had only been on the back deck a few minutes when I looked up and saw a group of five swifts flying over the house. After six months south of the border, they were back.

Now, I must get the chimney ready for their nesting.

- Chimney swift illustration by Stephen Lyn Bales

Thursday, April 10, 2008

we find comfort

“There will be little rubs and disappointments everywhere, and we are all apt to expect too much; but then, if one scheme of happiness fails, human nature turns to another; if the first calculation is wrong, we make a second better: we find comfort somewhere.”

- Jane Austen (1775 - 1817) “Mansfield Park”

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

sarvis time

Granddad Homer Bales grew up on the Roaring Fork side of Mt. LeConte in the Great Smoky Mountains. Some might have called him a hillbilly, but I prefer mountaineer. Because as we know from West Virginia’s state motto, “Montani semper liberi." Granddad did not know Latin but he certainly knew the meaning: “Mountaineers are always free.”

In early spring granddad spoke of “sarvis” berries. It’s one of the earliest blooming native trees in the Southern Appalachians. Today, we call it serviceberry.

The old folk name has an interesting pedigree. It shows that the mountain dialect was rooted in Old English. Tree chronicler Donald Culross Peattie writes that sarvis is a good Shakespearean English form of the word “sorbus,” a Roman name for the fruit of a similar looking European tree.

The spindly serviceberry behind the Visitor Center at Ijams is now in bloom. In June, the fruits will be sweet and ripe and would make a wonderful pie, that is if I don't eat them before I get to the kitchen.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

book discussion

I will be doing a discussion about writing and my book Natural Histories: Stories from the Tennessee Valley at Freed-Hardeman University in Henderson, Tennessee on Thursday, April 10 at 7 p.m.

Monday, April 7, 2008

downy nest V

Work on the downy woodpecker nest seems to be completed. (See April 3 posting.) The male did most of the excavation with the female making periodic inspections. She seemed more interested in his choice of location than the actual cavity itself. She often flies to the hole, perching just below it. She then looks around in all directions, carefully and, it seems, thoughtfully.

Once she commits and lays her eggs, there's no way to relocate.

The chickadees are still interested in the nest hole but they’re chased away if they get close. For the past two days the most noticeable behavior has been the downies' frequent mating. (Again, I would have averted my eyes to give them a private moment but it was hard not to notice their copulatory zeal.)

Downy expert Gary Ritchison reports that the repeated couplings strengthen the pair-bond and insures successful fertilization. Egg-laying can begin anytime from one to ten days after the nest cavity is completed.

Now we wait.

Sunday, April 6, 2008


As favored wildflowers go, this one has to be high on the list, in part, because it’s somewhat hard to find. Jeffersonia, a.k.a. twinleaf, is protected as a threatened or endangered plant in Georgia, Iowa, New York and New Jersey. In Tennessee, it’s a little easier to find, that is if you know where to look.

Jeffersonia was named in honor of Thomas Jefferson, by his contemporary Benjamin Smith Barton. It’s an uncommon spring wildflower that grows in limestone soils of rich woodlands.

I took this photo before the heavy rains of the past two days. I suspect the delicate blooms have been somewhat pummeled. But that’s what happens this time of the year. What did T.S. Eliot say in The Waste Land? “April is the cruelest month, breeding/Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing/Memory and desire, stirring/Dull roots with spring rain.”

And then the April storms hit and beat back the new life.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

peeper weather

Rain. Rain. And more rain. Bucketsful. Barrows full. Bathtubs full. The kind of weather only a frog could truly love and the spring peepers were doing just that at Ijams Nature Center. They were lovin' it. Peep. Peep. Peep.

This naturalist got soaked, but he didn't melt.

Peepers are brick reddish, sort of a dried leaf color. They are roughly an inch long, about the size as the end of your thumb, so we are taking SMALL. A male's most famous trait is his "peep," a single high-pitched note repeated every second or so. Peep. Peep. Peep. Most often heard at night, male peepers peep to advertise their locations and attract females. In turn, the females are lured to the male whose vocal quality has just the right tempo. Older peepers peep faster and are more desirable because they are proven survivors, perhaps a sign of genetic superiority.

How many peeps can a mature peeper peep? A single male may peep up to 4,500 peeps a night.

Now, that's up tempo! A lot of peeps from such a little package.

Friday, April 4, 2008


“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

- Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (January 15, 1929 – April 4, 1968)

Dr. King’s own life came to a tragic end 40 years ago today. He never stopped speaking out about things that mattered.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

downy nest IV

The male downy woodpecker continued work inside the nest cavity (See March 30 posting) but I didn’t see the female that often. According to Gary Ritchison, she may be away working on a second nest hole. Downy pairs are different. In some, the male does most of the hole excavation; in others, it’s the female. At times they work on separate sites and both try to persuade the other that theirs is the best location.

We know that my pair is committed to each other because they have been observed mating. (I would have averted my eyes, but it happened so fast, there was no time to avert.)

Ritchison reports in his book Downy Woodpecker (one of the Wild Bird Guide series) that if neither convinces the other that their nest cavity is superior, the couple may abandon both to prepare a third.

Time will tell. The chickadees are still lingering about watching the progress of his work and will quickly move in should there be an opportunity.