Saturday, February 28, 2009


Much to the delight of cedar waxwings and mockingbirds, this has been a good year for berries. I've encountered several trees ripe and loaded of late. This holly is at Island Home Park on the river just upstream from downtown.

The waxwing flocks share and share alike, but a lone mockingbird will tenaciously guard its bounty, driving away all rivals.

The curious thing is that the two species employ a different strategy. With the waxwings, there’s safety in numbers. You really never see a lone waxwing. But the downside is that they must move from tree to tree, county to county, state to state to find enough food to feed the group. They are gypsies, always on the move.

The solo mockingbird can remain in one territory and conserve its energy, after all, it’s much easier to find food for just one. But at what price? What is the downside? Is it loneliness?

Thursday, February 26, 2009

baby bedding

Cattail? Perhaps, but, oh, you so look like a corndog to me. I can almost taste the mustard.

It’s a rather odd, wetland-loving plant. Cudgel shaped flower clusters. Native Americans used most parts of the plant; the starchy rhizomes are a nutritious and energy-rich food source. But today it really never ends up on our dinner plates. Perhaps, if the economy gets bad enough, that may change.

At this time of the year, the normally tight-fitting seed clusters are looking very disheveled, dispersing thousands and thousands of seeds. Native Americans used this downy plant fiber to pad their babies' cradle boards. Sounds comfortable. Many birds line their own cradles with it as well.

WARNING. Don't try this at home: I once created a dried arrangement of cattails indoors in the fall. In the spring the whole thing exploded, covering my apartment with a golden, puffy snow.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

our worth

"We have all played a role by belonging to a society that judges its worth by the quantity of what it consumes."

- From "Let the Mountains Talk, Let the Rivers Run," by David Brower

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

geese at sunset

Geese. Swimming away into a Tennessee Valley sunset. Ahhhh. Lovely. Tranquil.

It's a picturesque image albeit somewhat deceiving. They were actually paddling away as fast as they can from the telephoto lens-less man with the camera. I have a lot of photos of birds fleeing, including many pictures of empty branches two seconds after the songbird has flown. I'm thinking of publishing a book called "A Moment too Late."

Watch for it.

Monday, February 23, 2009

when dirt was new

Yikes! Another birthday.

Somewhere Peter Fonda is having a drink. It's his birthday too. I'm younger, so he must be really distressed. You better call him.

As my nephew Michael once said, he was born “once upon a time when dirt was new.” And since dirt, i.e. soil, is made by combining decaying organic material (humus) and broken down, eroded rock (clay, sand, etc.)— a process that goes on continually, day in and day out—his statement is altogether accurate.

Indeed, some dirt is older than other dirt and I know that I have dirt around the inside of my house that's much newer than me.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

snowed again?

It snowed again last night, another rather half-hearted attempt, hardly enough for a size nine-and-a-half to leave a print.

Shortly after refilling the heated birdbath with water, a female bluebird came to drink. Ahhhh! (Special note: the bluebird's snowy footprint was much smaller than the water boy's.)

As before, I turn to Thoreau’s journals. This entry dated March 12, 1853.

“Last night it snowed, a sleety snow again, and now the ground is whitened with it, and where are gone the bluebirds whose warble was wafted to me so lately like a blue wavelet through the air.”

Saturday, February 21, 2009

swallows first

Perhaps the Bard got it wrong. (See yesterday's post.) The daffodils did not beat the swallows this year.

My friend Ted Bays lives on the French Broad River with over 30 bluebird boxes in the fields around his home. He reports to me that the tree swallows were back flying around the nest boxes on February 10. That's before the daffodils showed their bright yellow faces.

Tree swallows are called such because they nest in hollow trees but they will readily use these boxes instead, in fact, Ted gets more nesting swallows than bluebirds.

Historically, they didn’t nest in East Tennessee and have only been doing so since the late 1960s. Like our economy, there’s an ebb and flow to nature and these metallic blue swallows are flowing: expanding their range into the Tennessee Valley. Their population here has been growing ever since the Beatles released "Sgt. Pepper's." (Could the two events somehow be connected?)

And with their return to the valley, can spring be far behind?

Friday, February 20, 2009


“Daffodils that come before the swallows dare and take the winds of March with beauty,” wrote William Shakespeare in his 1623 romantic comedy “The Winter’s Tale.” The Barb was correct: daffodils are defiant. Thank goodness!

This morning, it’s cool and crisp, 22 degrees. Although they are not native to the Tennessee Valley or any valley within 3,000 miles of where I now sit (More species are native to Spain than any other country), the daffodils I planted along the driveway are beginning to unfurl, bright and yellow. You have to admire their panache.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009


“It's not the destination that brings happiness, it's the journey.”

- Lesson from “The Way of the Peaceful Warrior” by Dan Millman

Monday, February 16, 2009

true charisma


Owls may be wise. Well, none that I have personally known have been all that wise. But vultures? That’s another story.

One look into their inquisitive brown eyes and you know there's a thinking brain inside that scruffy, bald noggin.

One of the perks of working at Ijams Nature Center is the turkey vulture we adopted. She was hit by a dump truck in western North Carolina and went through rehab at the American Eagle Foundation in Pigeon Forge. It took so long for her to heal that she became people friendly. Having lost her wildness and hunting skills, she imprinted on her human caregivers. Oh, she does not think that she's human or anything like that. She knows she's superior. We're her acolytes. She grunts her approval like a queen dowager when we bring her meals. Dead things. You really would not want to know the details.

She came to Ijams over three years ago. We’ll take care of her the rest of her life. But that's a privilege. She's clever and curious and courteous, dare I say, even charismatic. Yes, she has oodles of personality, nothing like an owl.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

winter ivy

In the winter, you look for color wherever you can find it.

English ivy is a introduced species much like ourselves. It can take over a plot of ground much like ourselves. It's tenacious. It's relentless. It dominates and eventually crowds out or kills the native plants including the trees. It takes no hostages. How friendly is that?

In the end, you are left with nothing but ivy, so goes the biodiversity, and the parcel that remains is known as an "ivy desert."

Thursday, February 12, 2009

200 years

Today is the 200th anniversary of both the birth of Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin. That's remarkable. The planets must have really been in alignment. I wonder who else was born on that day?

I’ve read several good articles of late about both men in magazines like Smithsonian and National Geographic.

It took twenty years of careful thought and observation before Darwin published "The Origin of Species." It anguished him because he knew the implications. Before devoting his life to the natural sciences, he was about to become a minister. His trip with FitzRoy on the HMS Beagle was to look for evidence of the biblical great flood, but what he found–especially the mammal fossils he discovered at Punta Alta on the east coast of South America–lead his thoughts in another direction. Darwin’s writings on evolution contained a lot of educated guesses; guesses that have stood the test of time. Genetics and the existence of DNA were unknown to him, but now that we know about each, modern research has determined just how insightful he truly was. He would have been delighted to be so vindicated.

One little tidbit that underscores his thoughts on the interrelatedness of all species found in the NG article “Modern Darwins”: geneticists have isolated one small gene they have labeled FOXP2 that is found in both humans and birds. It is critical to the development of both speech in our species and song in birds. Without it, birds have trouble singing and we talking.

So, in April, when I hear my first wood thrush of the season singing from the woods behind my house and I calmly say, "Oh, what perfection," I can quietly smile knowing that we owe both remarkable acts to good old FOXP2. Darwin would have been so pleased to know.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

unspoken hunger

“As we advance closer and closer, the anticipation of seeing a rhinoceros is like crossing the threshold of a dream. The haze lifts and there they are—two rhinos, male and female, placidly eating grass with prehensile lips…I catch the female’s eye. She does not waver. My vision blurs. Who would kill a rhinoceros? It seems clear that the true aphrodisiac is not found in their horns but in simply knowing they exist.”

- From “An Unspoken Hunger: Stories from the field,” by Terry Tempest Williams.

Thursday, February 5, 2009


Cold: 15 degrees last night. Even the birdbath is frozen solid. Luckily, I have a heated one on the deck. The titmice came to it early, even before my morning coffee.

For some reason, the cold turns me to Thoreau for comfort. I have a hardbound copy of his complete journals in two huge volumes: 1837-1861, a gift from Karen Sue. Here's an excerpt:

“January 2, 1853. 9 A.M. A clear day; a pure sky with cirrhi. In this clear air and bright sunlight, the ice-covered trees have a new beauty, especially the birches along the edge of Warren’s wood on each side of the railroad, bent quite to the ground in every kind of curve…The telegraph-wire is coated to ten times its size, and looks like a slight fence scalloping along at a distance. Is merged with nature.”

Yes, merged, solid, rock hard, lost its fluidity; everything is still: water, wind, even it seems, time itself; afraid to move for fear it might shatter in the cold. Everything except the titmice. How do they do it?

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Tanner talk

This Wednesday, February 4 at 7 p.m., I'll do a talk about "Jim Tanner and the ivory-billed woodpecker" for the Knoxville Chapter of the Tennessee Ornithological Society (KTOS) in Room 117 of the UT Veterinary Building. (Across the hall from Pendergrass Library).

The presentation is about Jim's life, particularly his three-year study of the South's legendary Ghost Bird while a PhD candidate at Cornell. His fieldwork and research funded by the first Audubon Research Fellowship, took place 1937 through '39. Tanner's findings were first published in 1942 in his "The Ivory-billed Woodpecker," a book that is still in print.

Dr. Tanner taught at the University of Tennessee for over 30 years. He was also a loyal member of KTOS. Nancy, his widow and my good friend, is still very active in the club.

Photo of ivory-bill nestling "Sonny Boy" on the head of J.J. Kuhn by Dr. James T. Tanner, courtesy of Nancy Tanner.