Thursday, July 30, 2009

royal blue

Okay. File this one under "Great Job!"

Ijams naturalist Emily Boves reports that the 2009 cerulean warbler research season was recently completed.

Emily assists her husband Than, who is a part of the Cerulean Warbler Technical Group. The field-research project is studying the response of cerulean warbler populations to experimental timber management throughout the species’ breeding range.

Than Boves, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Tennessee in natural resources, is in charge of two study sites in the Cumberland Mountains of Eastern Tennessee: Royal Blue Wildlife Management Area and Sundquist Wildlife Management Area. Because land will continue to be developed, the group is trying to figure how to best manage for cerulean warblers. Their numbers have been steadily declining over the last 20 years and 80 percent of their remaining population now breeds in the Appalachian Mountains. Many believe that the cerulean warbler population has declined more in recent history than any other species of woodland bird.

Than just completed his second field season on July 15. His crew found over 70 nests between the two sites. Sharp-eyed Emily worked for Than both seasons and found 46 nests this year and 35 last year. The nest success rate was over 50 percent both seasons.

Than and Emily, great job!

For more background on the cerulean warbler go to my column on the farragutpress web site.

- Pictured is Emily Boves with a cerulean warbler. Photo by Than Boves

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

albino visits

Charles and Janet Dempster sent this photo to me by way Patrick Hurst. I spoke to them recently about the albino tufted titmouse that had been visiting their bird feeder.

Albinism is a genetic condition caused by the emergence of a recessive gene. Albinos have missing color pigments. If a bird has it, it can be solid white or only partially so. Sometimes, a bird may have only one white feather. Several years ago, I had a Carolina chickadee coming to my feeder that had a white head. The rest of it appeared normally pigmented.

Also, note the homemade squirrel baffle that Charles made. He said it works great at keeping gray squirrels out of his feeder, but not so good on raccoons.

Monday, July 27, 2009

hummers banded

Special thanks to everyone that attended the Hummingbird program at Ijams Nature Center two weeks ago. The program was organized by the Knoxville Chapter of the Tennessee Ornithological Society (KTOS) and sponsored by Ijams and Wild Birds Unlimited.

Ruby-throated hummingbird experts Bob and Martha Sargent were the guest speakers. They have been banding hummingbirds for over 20 years.

Additionally, a hummingbird banding demonstration was conducted in the Wildlife Viewing Area next to the Ijams Visitor Center.

Mark Armstrong, Curator of Birds at the Knoxville Zoo and incoming president of KTOS, is a local licensed bird bander.

Before the bird is banded, it is weighed, measured and the gender is determined.

How big is a band that fits on a hummingbirds leg? Eighteen of the tiny metal rings will fit on one side of a small safety pin.

The first hummingbird caught and banded was a male.

- Photos by Ijams member and nature photographer Linda McGill. Thanks, Linda!

Saturday, July 25, 2009

what's up, tiger lily?

For those of us that grew up in the 1950s and ‘60s, we know that “Tiger Lily” is the Native American princess from the Piccaninny tribe, who lived on the island of Neverland. (We’re talking J. M. Barrie's "Peter Pan" here, not Michael Jackson.)

Tiger Lily was almost killed by Captain Hook when she was caught boarding the Jolly Roger with a knife. She remained silent, refusing to betray Peter Pan's location until the "boy that wouldn't grow up" eventually rescued her. Both Wendy and Tinker Bell become somewhat jealous of her affection for Peter.

But, to be fair and inclusive, tiger lily (Lilium lancifolium) is also the common name of a spectacular orange and black lily originally from Asia, now widely grown in this country. Calling the flower "tiger" is somewhat curious because although edible by humans (most of the plant, but don't try this at home), all parts of the plant are toxic to cats, resulting in kidney failure in a few days after eating it.

Kitty beware! There's pirates about!

- Photo taken in South Knoxville.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

hide and seek

This one was sent to me by Jennifer Moore, a naturalist at Ijams Nature Center. It falls under the category, the closer you look at nature, the more fascinating it becomes.

Jennifer writes:

“I remember playing hide-and-seek as a child—mainly because I was always one of the first people found. My brother, on the other hand, had an uncanny knack for hiding amongst the flotsam and jetsam of the small natural area where we played. I think Chad might be impressed with this little caterpillar that exhibits the same propensity for blending in.

“This master camouflage artist is a white-lined emerald caterpillar. They are most often found on flowers in the aster/daisy family and they actually attach flower debris to their backs in an effort to hide from potential predators. It’s a good strategy because I would have never noticed this little inchworm except for the fact that I happened to notice that the center of the black-eyed Susan appeared to be moving. As anyone will tell you, movement is a sure way to be found during hide-and-seek.”

Jennifer then moved the caterpillar—flower and all—indoors to study its behavior more closely. She concludes:

“After munching contentedly for days on fresh flowers that I placed dutifully in the terrarium, the caterpillar has now pupated. Continuing with its camouflage skills, the caterpillar shredded leaf parts and attached them to the outside of its chrysalis. At this point, I’ve been ‘it’ for almost a week, searching and trying to find the well-hidden critter in my terrarium. I’m anxiously awaiting emergence of the adult because I think it should now be ‘it.’”

Thanks, Jennifer.

- Photos taken by Jennifer Moore at Ijams Nature Center

Sunday, July 19, 2009

another snake story

My surprising black snake story of three days ago prompted me to think of the 1923 poem by D. H. Lawrence. It also takes place in July, but on the other side of the world.

I first read the poem in college, and perhaps, just perhaps, it was the first place I learned to truly respect, even admire snakes. After all, they were not here to harm me, but rather to peacefully coexist.

“A snake came to my water-trough
On a hot, hot day, and I in pyjamas for the heat,
To drink there.
In the deep, strange-scented shade of the great dark carob-tree
I came down the steps with my pitcher
And must wait, must stand and wait, for there he was at the trough before me."

-For the complete poem go to Snake.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

bloomin' berry

Where do beautyberries common from? As it turns out, before the colorful magenta berries appear in the fall, the shrubs produce rather small pink flowers that often go unnoticed.

Well, go notice them! The American beautyberries are now in bloom at the nature center.

Friday, July 17, 2009

native herbal

Although this is not a tubular flower, ruby-throated hummingbirds are very fond of it, as are bees.

In the genus Monarda—named for Nicolás Monardes, who wrote a book in 1574 describing plants found in the New World—bee balm has a curious cultural history.

There are roughly 16 species found in our part of the world, several of which were used extensively by the Native Americans. Although bitter, due to the thymol in the leaves and buds, the plant tastes like a mix of spearmint and peppermint with oregano, an herb that it is closely related.

Various Indian tribes traditionally used bee balm as a seasoning for wild game, particularly birds. Also, the Blackfoot, Menominee, Ojibwa, Winnebago and other tribes, have a long history of using the annual wildflower as a medicinal plant.

- This photo was taken along Spring Creek in South Knoxville.

Thursday, July 16, 2009


This is about a snake.

Yes, a snake, so please don't go running and screaming from the room. Don't get creeped out or the heebie-geebies.

Snakes are okay. Really. They have an unique niche in the natural world.

They are like lizards except they do not have legs and you can tolerate lizards can't you?

At the nature center, we have a female black rat snake that was once an illegal pet. We acquired her through Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency.

On a recent Saturday, she surprised us by laying a clutch of 18 eggs. It took most of the day and we were amazed because she does not have a mate, which means the eggs had not been fertilized.

She stayed with her brood until she had laid the last oblong egg and then, as in nature, she moved away, presumably exhausted. This allowed Pam and Louise to remove the eggs that would never hatch.

Laid end-to-end, the 18 eggs seem to just about equal her overall body length. Oh, the labor!

How did she do it? Or, better still, why did she do it? What a waste of precious energy. Such work for no return.

For another amazing black rat snake story, visit high wire act on the farragutpress web site.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

capturing Sonny Boy

For me, a postscript to the Sonny Boy story came on Friday, July 3, 2009. Books such as Ghost Birds are assembled from thousands of shards and pieces, like an explosion in reverse. I had gotten a phone call from Nancy Tanner two days earlier. She had located an envelope of old ivory-bill prints and negatives she did not know she still had in her home. Jim had donated almost all of the original material to Cornell or the Tensas River National Wildlife Refuge—those items are now archived at LSU—in the late 1980s.

Nancy and I agreed to one of our customary lunches, which she prepared for me. With a Wimbledon semifinal match on in the background (American Andy Roddick beat Britain’s own Andy Murray, 6-4, 4-6, 7-6, 7-6), we discussed a wide range of topics. (If there’s anything Nancy loves more than discussing a wide range of topics, it’s tennis.) After our lunch, we cleared the dining-room table and I began to sort through the material. I soon came across the first precious slice of history, one of the original negatives of J.J. Kuhn and the young ivory-bill, and then another and another. But the thing is, they were images I had never seen!

My heart began to pound. The exact whereabouts of the original negatives had been a mystery.

“Goodness, Nancy do you know what these are?”

By the time I worked my way through the stack of material, we learned that Jim had actually taken at least fourteen photos that day. Yes, fourteen! I said to Nancy, “Does anyone in the world know this?” And at that moment, we both realized that perhaps we were the only two people who did.

On his 24th birthday: March 6, 1938, after he calmed his jitters and “buck fever,” Jim had been able to reel off over a dozen black-and-white photos, some of the most memorable photographs in the annuals of natural history; a series of indelible images that show the frenzied nestling close up, outside the safety of its nest hole. An excited young male Campephilus principalis that in a matter of minutes had climbed all over woodsmen Kuhn, like a hyper cat on a scratching post. Be still my beating heart!

(At this point Jim had not given the bird the nickname Sonny Boy because it was too early to be sure of its gender.)

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

phoebes fledge

At the nature center, the two phoebe nestlings have fledged.

Ijams' educator Emily Boves was the first to notice the nest at the pavilion near the Plaza Pond. She has been monitoring its progress for the past few weeks.

I took this photo about one week ago and the two chicks had already just about outgrown their crib. They were patiently waiting for their wings to develop. (Sort of "waiting da go," as opposed to "Waiting for Godot," the play by Samuel Beckett.)

The eastern phoebe is the one species of flycatcher that remains in the Tennessee Valley all year.

In classic Greek mythology, “golden-wreathed” Phoebe was one of the original Titans, daughter of Uranus (Father Sky) and Gaia (Mother Earth). That's quite a pedigree.

Monday, July 13, 2009

what is it?

"A curious thing, Dr. Watson," a chagrinned Sherlock Holmes might say. "Most curious."

Hugh Morgan sent me the above photo. He and his grandson found the critter—measuring about 1.5 inches long—on Roaring Fork Motor Trail in The Great Smoky Mountains National Park near Gatlinburg.

He wondered, “Do you have any idea what it might be?”

My best guess is that it’s the caterpillar of a tiger swallowtail, although all the ones I have seen have been green, but here is a description I found on the Internet:

“The caterpillar of this species changes dramatically as it goes through its various molts. In the first two instars (those periods between molts) it looks just like a bird dropping. It then changes to be predominantly green with two large eyespots near the front end. Just before pupating, the larva turns dark reddish brown.”

Does anyone else have a better idea?

- Photo by Hugh Morgan

Sunday, July 12, 2009

a true monarch

I would be remiss if I did not mention the most famous practitioner of aposematism. (See stay away!) Volumes have been written about this milkweed sap imbiber. It is a true monarch, a long distance migrate that for thousands of years disappeared to the south every fall, only to return the next spring.

But where they went was a mystery for centuries.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

bull's eye

At first glance, you look at purple coneflower and think, “Oh goodness, another composite.”

And rightly so, the composite or Asteraceae family is one of the most successful lifeform groups on earth—daisies, asters, sunflowers, et cetera—the list is a long one. According to the Royal Botanic Gardens of Kew, the botanical family comprises more than 1,600 genera and 23,000 species. Many look alike. Jeez, do they look alike, a circular disk of sex organs surrounded by a ring of showy petals. For an incoming pollinator, it's a bull's eye.

Composites are so common, and in many cases, so hard to identify, why bother? But purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) is an exception. The flowers themselves are large and magnificent. As the seed head begins to swell, the petals slowly lose their color and droop, forming an umbrella shape, past their prime.

Echinacea purpurea has long been a component of an herbal doctor’s medicine bag, commonly believed to stimulate the immune system.

The flower is now in bloom at Ijams Nature Center and the UT Gardens.

-Photo taken at UT Gardens.

Monday, July 6, 2009

backyard tip 1

Empty plastic peanut butter jars are recyclable but not easy to clean.

Karen Sue figured out that our backyard squirrels would probably love the opportunity to help with the chore. So all she had to do was poke a hole in the bottom of the jar, tie a cord to it and leave it on the back deck.

The squirrels do the rest. Maybe next we should try the supper dishes.

Sunday, July 5, 2009


And now a short post to go with yesterday's ramble, an explosion of natural fireworks to celebrate the holiday weekend.

This one is for Kim from North Carolina. She was walking her three black dogs at Forks of the River. I encountered her near one of the bright yellow fields of sunflowers and she said, "They're beautiful. I wish I had a camera."

"Well I do," I replied. "I'll take a photo for you."

And here it is.

Every year the TWRA personnel that manage the 400-acre site in South Knoxville plant the fields of sunflowers for wildlife, but it's okay if we enjoy them too.

Saturday, July 4, 2009


Forgive me.

But I feel like waxing philosophic when I should probably be waxing the kitchen floor. But it is a holiday! And this is about catching your breath, becoming aware of your surroundings and taking the time to appreciate life, what we have, the natural world around us, even in the city. Especially in the city.

It's about stopping to smell the metaphorical roses, or better still, the real roses. I post a lot about flowers because I am constantly taken aback by their beauty and variety of form. Their sculpture, even knowing that their form follows function, i.e. to attract pollinators. They are not here for us to appreciate; they're here to be alluring to bugs. We're a nonstarter, a flash in the pan.

Flowering plants have been on this earth for at least 125 million years. (We've only been around about two million and most of that we were not even wearing pants.) Estimates vary but there are between 250,000 and 400,000 species of flowering plants around the planet. Seeing them all would take multiple lifetimes, which we do not have. We only have one, so we need to pack as much awareness into it as we possibly can.

Of late I have been paying particular attention to nascent flowers. Newbies. Infants. Like a new father standing in the maternity ward of a hospital, made goggle-eyed by the newborn babies lying in clusters just beyond the protective glass, I have been cooing natal blooms, flowers just beginning to unfurl. And what I have discovered is, yet more beauty: softness, texture, intricacy, complexity, pattern, color, grace.

Now, here we have a holiday. Independence Day. So be independent. Why don't you forgo the crowd, the loud, smoky fireworks. Instead, turn on the stereo, put in the Peer Gynt Suite by Edvard Grieg, listen to the opening movement and then go outside and enjoy a "kablooming" flower instead?

Happy holiday. Peace be with you.

For other floral newbies go to: queen and spiny.

- Photo of a newborn sunflower taken at Forks of the River Wildlife Management Area

Thursday, July 2, 2009


The single most important thing a mother turtle can do for her offspring is to find some out-of-the-way place to bury her clutch of eggs. Therefore, hiding the nest is essential.

Using only their hind legs and feet, female box turtles take hours digging a nest hole for their eggs.

Shortly after arriving at work, Sarah Brobst, an educator at Ijams Nature Center, discovered a soon-to-be-mother at work just outside her office window. She was hidden from the world by rocks and shrubs; little did she know there was a window behind her. Observing such natural events is rare. Kara Remington and other staff members took turns on the vigil. It was an all day affair and it was laborious!

How many eggs did she ultimately lay? For the complete story go to box turtle digs on the farragutpress web site.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009


Spangle: to sprinkle or stud with small, bright pieces, objects, spots, etc.

It's July. It's spangled!

The great spangled fritillary (love that name) is a common butterfly throughout its range. It’s also one of the largest of the greater fritillaries—as opposed to being one of the smallest of the lesser fritillaries. The lesser fritillaries are found much farther north: the colder climes of the Canadian provinces. (I wonder what it would feel like to be designated the least of the lessers?)

The greater fritillaries are creatures of the summer sun. Although most common in July, we have been seeing these orange butterflies with black and sparkling white spots at Ijams Nature Center since May. They are often seen at nectar sources such as common milkweed, thistles or Joe Pye weed in open fields or woodland edges. They are also known as "silvered" butterflies because the white spots on the back of their wings look metallic; they glisten in the sunlight.

- Photo taken at Ijams Nature Center on the Universal Trail