Thursday, April 30, 2009

caterpillar eater

It’s called a teachable moment. I was leading a group of first graders along a woodland trail at the nature center and we were talking about habitat, in this case: forest.

A habitat provides food, water, shelter and space for an animal to live. Every animal has its own habitat requirements; a place for everything and everything in its place. (Personally, I would not survive very long in a desert, but some things do quite well. And caves give me the willies.)

On our walk, the seven-year-olds and I had found several hairy tent caterpillars (see April 12 posting) trundling along the ground, lots of leaf damage caused by the little eating machines and copious amounts of caterpillar frass, i.e. poop, on the tops of the leaves. They were eating; they were eliminating waste; they were putting on bulk. They were busy being caterpillars.

You would think that with all the moth-wannabes there would be something in the woods that fed on them. And indeed, we had paused to listen to the sounds of the forest when the unmistakable coughing-call of a yellow-billed cuckoo came from the canopy above our heads.

“That’s a cuckoo,” I said. “Do you know what it eats?”

Yep. That's it. “They love caterpillars, especially hairy tent caterpillars.”

Monday, April 27, 2009

pause and sip?

Two days ago, I playfully blogged about hummingbirds pausing and sipping at a trumpet honeysuckle at Ijams. (See April 25 posting.) Pause and sip. Pause and sip. The tiny birds do this all day long.

But why?

The flowers that produce nectar for the hummers do not do it for free. They do it because they need the sipping birds to carry their pollen from place to place. It’s an example of mutualism: both the hummingbird and the flower benefit from the interaction. The word nectar is derived from the Greek “néktar” meaning “drink of the gods.” It is produced in glands called nectaries and is rich with natural sugars: sucrose, glucose, fructose and of trace minerals. Ahhhh! Drink of the gods, indeed.

But, it is to the benefit of the flowers that the hummingbird visits as many plants as possible during the day to spread the pollen over a wide area, so the nectaries only produce nectar a tiny sip at a time.

If the hummers want a nice long drink, they must visit your sugar water feeder.

Photo taken at Ijams Nature Center by my friend the late, great Jim Logan.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

not easy being green

If you have ever wondered what happens to all of those ducklings dyed green for Easter, it seems some of them are adopted by very protective parent geese. Oh, Canada!

I wonder: Does the duckling grow up to be completely confused? As Kermit said, "It's not easy being green."

- Photo sent to me by Joy McCabe

Saturday, April 25, 2009



Much to the delight of the local ruby-throated hummingbirds, the trumpet honeysuckle, a.k.a. coral honeysuckle, growing near the Visitor Center at Ijams is loaded with flowers this spring. Loaded. A dizzying number of portals for a busy hummer to pause and sip, pause and sip, pause and sip. All day long.

Although it looks tropical, this is a native vine. The tiny shimmering, emerald green hummingbirds (they only weigh the equivalent of two dimes) also have a torrid, exotic nature as witnessed by Henry David himself:

"There, along with me in the deep, wild swamp, above the andromeda, amid the spruce. Its hum was heard afar at first, like that of a large bee, bringing a larger summer. This sight and sound would make me think I was in the tropics." [I this case, Thoreau is referring to andromeda the plant, not the galaxy.]

- Henry David Thoreau, journal entry dated: 17 May 1856.

Friday, April 24, 2009

I am air

“I copy out mountains, rivers, clouds.
I take my pen from pocket. I note down
a bird in its rising
or a spider in its little silkworks.
Nothing else crosses my mind. I am air,
clear air, where the wheat is waving,
where a bird's flight moves me, the uncertain
fall of a leaf, the globular
eye of a fish unmoving in the lake,
the statues sailing in the clouds,
the intricate variations of the rain.

Nothing else crosses my mind except
the transparency of summer. I sing only of the wind,
and history passes in its carriage,
collecting its shrouds and medals,
and passes, and all I feel is rivers.
I stay alone with the spring.”

-From “Pastoral” by Nobel Prize winning Chilean poet Pablo Neruda (1904-1973)

Thank you, Karen Suzy

Photo taken at Forks of the River Wildlife Management Area

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

live in the moment

“Man postpones or remembers; he does not live in the present, but with reverted eye laments the past, or, heedless of the riches that surround him, stands on tiptoe to foresee the future. He cannot be happy and strong until he too lives with nature in the present, above time.”

Emerson goes on to say that the roses growing in his garden do not lament that the roses that grew in seasons past had a higher quality of life, or that the roses in the future might fair better as well. Instead, they live purely in the moment, their season in the sun. This is your day. There is no yesterday and no tomorrow, only today. Enjoy.

- From “Self-Reliance” by Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803 - 1882) American essayist, philosopher and poet, best remembered for leading the transcendentalist movement of the early 19th century.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

What's in a name?

As the Bard of Avon might have written for his Juliet, “What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, and fothergilla would, were fothergilla not call'd, retain that dear perfection without any other title.”

Fothergilla? Perhaps I've bent the Bard a bit too much. But I’m sure he wouldn’t mind; he also borrowed heavily from the classic Greek and Roman tragedies. He had to. But here’s my naturalist's query: What in the world is fothergilla? And to whom does it owe its name? And would it retain its dear perfection without such a fancy title?

Fothergillas are shrubs native to the American Southeast that are grown as ornamental plants for their puffy-white flowers in spring and bright color of their fall foliage. (There are several in bloom near the Visitor Center at Ijams.)

John Fothergill (1712-1780) was an English physician, plant collector and philanthropist. As a physician in London, Fothergill had an extensive practice noted for successfully treating patients during the epidemics of influenza in 1775 and 1776. Fothergill’s hobby was botany. At Upton, near Stratford—hence my earlier reference to Shakespeare—Dr. Fothergill had an extensive botanical garden (today known as West Ham Park) with many rare plants collected from various parts of the world. Dr. Fothergill also helped finance the travels of American naturalist William Bartram, who collected plants from the Southeast to be shipped back to England.

Fothergillas, the shrubs collected in America, are named for the English physician. We all should be so honored.

Friday, April 17, 2009

azalea red

From the Greek “azaléos” meaning dry, azaleas are generally found in dry soil. A shrub often linked to the Old South, North America actually has 16 species of native azaleas found coast-to-coast. Often they are divided into three groups: the whites, the pinks and the reds-to-orange.

But azaleas are also found, even revered around the world. In China, the azalea is known as "thinking of home bush" (xiangsi shu), while the flowering shrubs are often immortalized in Chinese, Japanese and Korean poetry.

I took the above photo at Island Home Park on the Tennessee River.

And now a bit of homespun haiku:

“Azalea flower
explode the red in my heart.
Springtime's passion.”

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

leave the trail

“Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803 - 1882) American essayist, philosopher and poet, best remembered for leading the transcendentalist movement of the early 19th century.

Of course, if you do this you may sometimes find yourself lost, but some of life's most interesting discoveries happen when you are lost. No pain, no gain. Better take a granola bar just to be safe.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009


The American green frogs (Rana clamitans), also known as bronze frogs in some locales, (green to bronze to brown, their color really varies) are beginning to make their presence known in the Ijams’ Plaza Pond. Their call has been likened to the plucking of a loose banjo string: "boooonk."

A single female (the one in my photo is a male) can produce between 1000 and 7000 eggs. Can you imagine that? If they all survived, the pond would be hip-deep in green frogs. But, like yesterday's tent caterpillars, only enough survive to maintain a healthy population. The rest are gobbled up by hungry mouths.

And, there's a lot of hungry mouths out there.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

where's the dog?

Well, I understand the wood part, the tree is made of it, but what do they have to do with dogs? Although, this photo was taken next to the place where I buried my lethargic, old dog: Dewayne. The two are not related.

There are several species of dogwood in my area: alternate leaf dogwood, rough leaf dogwood, stiff dogwood, silky dogwood, red-osier dogwood and the most famous around here because we named an entire festival after it: flowering dogwood.

Actually, the word dogwood itself is derived from “dagwood.” The wood is very hard and the slender stems were once used to make “dags” or daggers and skewers. So, the next time you have something that needs skewering or someone to stab. (Not recommended by this blog. We advocate non-violence) look no farther than your front yard.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Quaker ladies?

Ahhh! Spring slowly returns. Although, I suspect, the Quaker ladies knew it would.

Bluets, another low-to-the-ground wildflower that grows in the front of my house, survived last night’s freezing temperatures. It greeted this morning's sunrise with a defiant yellow eye.

This commonplace plant is also known as Quaker-ladies, a colorful old folk name that despite a good search, I do not know its origin. If you have information on such, please send me a comment. I suspect it has something to do with the bonnets the Quaker women wore. Perhaps, their chapeaux were also a pale blue?

Thoreau noted a cluster of bluets in his journal on May 5, 1860: “I sit down by one dense bed of them to examine them. It’s about three feet long and two or more wide. The flowers not only crowd one another, but are in several tiers, one above another, and completely hid the ground,—a mass of white. Counting those in a small place, I find that there are about three thousand flowers in a square foot. They are all turned a little toward the sun, and emit a refreshing odor.”

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

seasons mix

Is this winter’s last gasp? Big, luscious snowflakes fell briefly this morning. They fluttered past me like cabbage whites. The seasons mix. And I had already pronounced winter dead and gone. She knew better. She always does. Snow often falls on the earliest spring wildflowers, that’s the risk they must take.

In 1908, naturalist John Burroughs wrote, “One may brush away the April snow and find this finer snow beneath it. Oh, the arbutus days, what memories and longings they awaken!...Trailing, creeping over the ground, hiding its beauty under withered leaves, stiff and hard in foliage, but in flower like the cheek of a maiden.”

Burroughs' "finer snow," the white-flowered trailing arbutus he refers to grows low to the ground from Florida to the northern reaches of Quebec. Consequentially, it must be prepared for a little late snow.

Monday, April 6, 2009

a cold wind

“APRIL is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers,”

writes T. S. Eliot in his modernist 1922 poem, “The Waste Land.”

Just when everything outside was springing to life, winter returns. A cold wind blows. The leaf buds go back to sleep; the lilacs say "mañana," the tent caterpillars huddle together in a hairy little mass and dream caterpillar dreams. Can the forecast be true: below freezing tonight? And again tomorrow? This must be dogwood winter. You better throw another quilt on the bed.

If not cruel, April, at the very least, can be egregiously fickle, a jokester.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

dabs of green

It's spring! She creeps in on little cat feet, leaving her tiny chartreuse paw prints scattered about.

When I look at the ridges near my home I think of French painter and Neo-impressionist Georges-Pierre Seurat. The great dabber. One of the chief practitioners of pointillism, Seurat’s canvases were made up of small distinct points of primary colors. Dabs, dabs, dabs of paint, tediously applied, one at a time, with the patience of Job. No bold, emotional brush stokes here. He was meticulous. A Seurat canvas didn't explode into existence, it tiptoed.

If Seurat had painted the hillside behind my house, he would have relied heavily on yellow and green, the two colors that are creeping over the landscape. The tuliptrees are the first to green up. Day by day. Hour by hour. Green returns after its five month hiatus.

Maybe we should have a "Welcome Home" party. I'll start working on the guest list. Could someone bake a cake?

Saturday, April 4, 2009

fresh start

"A single gentle rain makes the grass many shades greener. So our prospects brighten on the influx of better thoughts. We should be blessed if we lived in the present always…In a pleasant spring morning all men's sins are forgiven."

From "Walden; or, Life in the Woods" by Henry David Thoreau

I feel like a fresh start, because it IS a wonderful spring morning. Many of the fields are bright yellow with field mustard, which is exactly where you would expect to find such. All things feel new, green and forgiven for winter's harsh treatment.

Friday, April 3, 2009

a frog's tale

More rain. It must be spring: frog weather. A newly emerged young bullfrog appeared on the Plaza Pond at Ijams. Just a few weeks ago it was a tadpole living completely under the surface but it was time to move on—it happens to us all—and sample life above the water.

But before it could do that, it had to grow four legs, develop lungs and lose its tail. That’s a lot. The tail does not just simply fall off, that would be a waste. Instead, the young frog absorbed its tail, as the days passed, it grew shorter and shorter until, poof, the tail was gone.

Human embryos have a tail that measures about one-sixth of the size of the embryo itself. As the embryo develops into a fetus, the tail is also absorbed by the growing body. The developmental tail is thus a human vestigial structure; no longer needed. Called a coccyx the human tailbone is attached to the pelvis, in the same place which other mammals have tails. (I glance down at the dog; her tail seems to be always wagging. It's a convenient way to judge her mood.)

I wonder if the frog misses its tail. I miss mine; it would be so handy for carrying in the groceries.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009


It's April Fool's Day! Here in the Tennessee Valley, it's time to put out the hummingbird feeders. The ruby-throats are returning.

According to my friend Chris Mahoney, the basic rule of thumb for maintaining your nectar feeders is "crazy day to crazy day" or April Fool's Day to Halloween. Chris lives in Chattanooga and will often see her first ruby-throated hummingbird of the season this early. I think the earliest I have seen one in my yard is the second week of April, but Knoxville is farther north and they certainly can be around my county days before I happen to spy one.

The thing to watch is red buckeye, a good tree to plant in your yard because of the hummer's affinity for it. The tiny birds seem to follow the blooming of this native tree north every spring.

(The photo shows a female but the adult males are the first to arrive.)