Tuesday, October 27, 2009

feathered power

And speaking of ospreys! And sheer feathered power! Feathers? Power? It's difficult to imagine something as light and wispy as a feather and brute force in the same package, but in an osprey they coalesce beautifully.

Ker-splash! The white and brown bird-of-prey dives into the ocean surf disappearing completely under the water then fights its way above the surface and flies to a nearby tree carrying a chunky, struggling fish that can weight almost as much as the bird. Such raw power.

One of Audubon's most dramatic prints is that of the coastal "fishing hawk" carrying away its catch: a weakfish. (The origin of its name is based on the weakness of the mouth muscles, which often cause a hook to tear free, allowing the fish to get away. Escaping an osprey's strong talons would be another matter.)

Karen Sue and I recently saw several ospreys at Cape May. One afternoon, while I was lying in the grass, one flew low over my head, against an azure sky, past the famous red and white lighthouse. The fierce hunter was carrying a rather large fish just the way Audubon portrayed the species. He was a keen-eyed observer. I whooped and hollered with each heavy wing beat.

Oh, to be alive at such a place and time!

Monday, October 26, 2009


On the surface, David Gessner’s wonderful book, “Return of the Osprey” is about just that: the return of a thriving, sustainable population of osprey, once known as “fish hawks,” to the Atlantic coastline.

The author digs in and watches a season of osprey nestings and the raising of their families on Cape Cod.

“A new clarity illuminates the days. Honeysuckle sweetens the air and the post oak’s leaves wave big and waxy, no longer mere drooping half leaves. We approach the solstice, the annual climax of light, the days when we see longest and clearest. The other night a luminescent apple core, cleanly split in half, stood in for the moon, and later fireflies sparkled. I sleep rocked by a larger rhythm, the ocean breathing in and out. It doesn’t take much imagination to understand why ospreys choose to live near water. On some nights I walk down to watch the world’s eye sink: the sun drops into the water of the bay, staining the sky with pinks, yellows, and oranges,” writes Gessner.

And there it hangs. Any great book is about more than it purports to be, and Gessner’s is about slowing down and actually seeing: longest and clearest. Seeing with the heighten eyesight of a raptor.

“An osprey’s vision is almost eight times greater than a human being’s but that only hints at their acuity,” he reports. Call it awareness, totally in tune with their natural world.

As Gessner ensconces to watch ospreys and the marshland around them he writes, “That’s the central paradox of slowing down: it leads to excitement that is often dazzling. What, after all, surprises and delights us? Speed. Growth. Quantity. Vibrancy. Variety. These are the qualities the natural world presents if we simply sit still and open our eyes.”

To seal the deal, Gessner goes to Harvard’s rare book collection at Houghton Library and visits some of the handwritten journals of the master of transcendence Ralph Waldo Emerson, who viewed the world with a “transparent eye.” Emerson is noted for being the cool analytic, free of emotion, but Gessner notes that the handwriting of the master of the well-measured sentence becomes “less legible when he grew excited and rushed.” We sense the pounding, enthralled heart of the engaged Ralph Waldo and then Gessner and, now, even myself.

Published in 2001, “Return of the Osprey” is a superb, textured read.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

on their way

Sue Wagoner sent me this photo from Illinois. The hermit thrush was passing through headed south for the winter.

One place they overwinter is here in the Tennessee Valley and at Ijams Nature Center, although I have yet to spot one along one of our trails. As the name suggests, they are loners but are NOT shy and will often give you a good look.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

fire engine red

Truth is, before I started this blog I believed that sweet gums or oaks were my favorite trees but the group that I keep coming back to time and time again are the magnolias. The ancient magnolias that have been around longer than bees, which is why they are pollinated by beetles. (Some plants in the Magnoliaceae family go back perhaps as much as 95 million years.)

Most species native to our area are deciduous but not all. I've posted about the evergreen Southern magnolia before, now they are producing seeds. Fire engine red seeds! Wow.

-Photo taken at Ijams Nature Center.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

a warning

The fifth morning in a row for heavy fog and oddly-shaped trees.

Is it an omen, a warning?

Yes. Probably for oddly-shaped trees: Do not grow near a power line or the utility company will prune you into some grotesque towering topiary. I think the tree on the left is supposed to look like a macerated Godzilla.

If you happen to be a tree. Beware where you set your roots!

-Photo taken in South Knoxville near my home.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

have not lived

“I went to the woods because I wanted to live deliberately, I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, To put to rout all that was not life and not when I had come to die Discover that I had not lived.”

Passage from "Walden: or, Life in the Woods," first published in 1854.

Monday, October 19, 2009


I first introduced fothergilla to this blog in a post last April.

In addition to having a remarkable flower, this native shrub's autumnal leaves can be spectacular.

-Photo taken at Ijams Nature Center.

Sunday, October 18, 2009


I didn't take this wonderful photo of a sharp-shinned hawk; Dario Sanches took it. I do not have a crisp telephoto lens, so unless I can get only a few feet away, most birds elude me.

The photo does show the bird's namesake, its flattened, thin "shin" or shank.

I’ve been thinking a lot about sharp-shinned hawks the past week because Karen Sue and I have seen several. The photo also shows how difficult it is to tell a sharpy from a Cooper’s hawk, from most angles, they can look identical. Most guides list one of the defining field marks is that a sharp-shinned has a blunt, or "squared" tail and a Cooper’s tail is rounded. But in this photo, the tail appears to be rounded.

Saturday, October 17, 2009


The adult leaves of pines are called needles, perhaps for obvious reasons. Depending on the species, needles can live from 1.5 to 40 years, which make them evergreen, almost. But it does pose the question: Just how ever is evergreen?

Because they tend to be ever green, you seem to notice when they are not. I encountered this branch of golden dead needles on a short walk at Fall Creek Falls State Park.

“Green pine, unchanging as the days go by,
Thou art thyself beneath whatever sky”

- From a poem by Augusta Davies Webster, although as I found out, sometimes green pines do change.

Friday, October 16, 2009

book talk

Special thanks to Lisa Phipps and the Tennessee Federation of Garden Clubs. (Fun group!) I did a presentation about my book "Natural Histories" at their 56th annual Conservation Camp held this week.

Their meeting was at the Inn at Fall Creek Falls State Park in Van Buren and Bledsoe counties in Middle Tennessee.

The park surrounds the upper Cane Creek Gorge, an area known for its unique geological formations and scenic waterfalls. The Cane Creek Gorge is a large tree-lined gash in the western edge of the Cumberland Plateau, stretching for some 15 miles from the Cane Creek Cascades to Cane Creek's mouth along the Caney Fork River.

The park's namesake is the 256-foot Fall Creek Falls.

- Photo of Cane Creek at Fall Creek Falls State Park.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

hummingbird home?

Such a curious thing. Oh my.

John Randle, a reader of this blog, wondered if these hummingbird platforms actually worked. I have never seen one, but it certainly looks hummingbird friendly.

Has anyone ever tried one? If so, please let me know the results, or it will remain a mystery to me. Although the hummers have by and large left for the season, they'll be back next April looking for a handy place to build a nest and this artificial branch certainly looks handy.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009


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

- Charles Darwin (1809-1882) English naturalist, father of modern biology

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

on a mission

A box turtle trundled by the Visitor Center at Ijams the other day. It seemed somewhat purposeful, as to its mission, I know not what. It kept its cards close to its chest, although in this case, I think they are called the pectoral scutes.

The temperatures are dropping, it certainly feels like autumn. The nights are colder.

Eastern box turtles are the only land-based turtle in our valley. By winter, they will find places under a log or a pile of leaves to spend the cold weather months.

Winter will pass for them as though they were in a dream.

Sunday, October 11, 2009


I lurked in the bushes and snapped this photo behind enemy lines. It's a blatant attempt of invasive kudzu trying to bring down our lines of communication.

This is getting serious.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

prairie bug

This one fascinates me. I really did not know that prairies had trees or even crickets on them having never seen one but the world is rich and textured.

I miss identified this photo sent by Sue Wagoner a few weeks ago.

As she later learned, it's a prairie tree cricket and as the name suggests, they are found in prairies, old fields and in crops. Most curious, I must go find one.

Thanks, Sue.

Friday, October 9, 2009

bone breaker

How’s your head bone?

The genus “Eupatorium” contains between 36 to 60 species depending on who does the classifying. Native to temperate regions of the Northern Hemisphere, the flowering plants are commonly called bonesets, thoroughworts or snakeroots.

Boneset is the painful one because the plants were once used to treat “bonebreaker” fever. Also known as Dengue fever, the illness is transmitted by Aedes mosquitoes and causes a fever and headache that feels like the skull is going to break apart.


- Photo taken in South Knoxville

Thursday, October 8, 2009

pluck it


"Pluck this little flower and take it, delay not! I fear lest it
droop and drop into the dust.

"I may not find a place in thy garland, but honour it with a touch of
pain from thy hand and pluck it. I fear lest the day end before I am
aware, and the time of offering go by.

"Though its colour be not deep and its smell be faint, use this flower
in thy service and pluck it while there is time."

Although I cannot be sure what Tagore was thinking when he wrote the above lines, but I take the flower as a metaphor for your life, as in: Seize your life, even if it causes a little pain. Take control—pluck it—before your days end.

- from a poem by Rabindranath Tagore, (1861-1941) Bengali poet, novelist, musician, and playwright

Wednesday, October 7, 2009


It seemed like everywhere I looked on a recent walk at the nature center, I found coupled insects. Coupled. Coupled. Coupled. In this case, it was a pair of soldier beetles (Chauliognathus pennsylvanicus), at least I think because there are roughly 455 species of soldier beetles in North America. Nature loves diversity.

Soldier beetles are generally brightly colored.
As defense, when molested, they emit droplets of white viscous fluid from pores along their sides. Yuck! Studies have shown they are consistently rejected as prey by birds, mice, other beetles, mantids, assassin bugs and centipedes.

Needless to say, I did not molest them. Obviously, it's their mating season. And the rush is on before the coming cold weather shuts it all down.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009


Nature loves diversity, just look at goldenrod.

"Wildflowers of the Southern Mountains," by Richard Smith is a comprehensive guide of our area. Published by The University of Tennessee Press this book describes over 1,200 flowering plants, with color photos of 600.

As Smith admits, "Without a doubt, the goldenrods are the most difficult" to identify. His book lists 25 separate species of the gold-topped wildflower. Most are very similar, with small yellow-gold flowers arranged in clusters at the tops of tall stems. The differences are in the types of clusters and shapes of the leaves. Yes, nature loves diversity.

The species names are confusing as well. There's tall goldenrod, mountain goldenrod, hairy goldenrod, slender goldenrod, early goldenrod, late goldenrod, showy goldenrod, stout goldenrod, sweet goldenrod, skunk goldenrod and false goldenrod. The list goes on. It's easy to get bogged down in the names. In truth, there is even a bog goldenrod.

But what’s in a name? As Romeo's Juliet might have said, "What's in a name? A goldenrod by any other name would smell as sweet ... or be as confusing."

Saturday, October 3, 2009

strange unknown

"...of wandering forever and the earth again...of seed-time, bloom, and the mellow-dropping harvest. And of the big flowers, the rich flowers, the strange unknown flowers."

Was North Carolinian Thomas Wolfe thinking of this strange unknown flower when he wrote the above line in “Of Time and the River”?

I do not know. I also do not know what the strange and unknown flower truly is?

Friday, October 2, 2009

four wings

The Carolina silverbell is one of those somewhat hard to find trees that grow in our area. The name comes from their home range — although they can be located in a few more places other than just the Carolinas — and their clustered blossoms that dangle from the branches like pearly white bells in the spring.

Carolina silverbells are often found growing deep in the Smoky Mountain "hollars" around my hometown, Gatlinburg.

This time of the year, the silverbell produces a “four-winged” fruit that is unique, often compared to a deflated punching bag. The unusual design begs the question, “Why four wings?” It must somehow help with seed dispersal. Since the trees are often found near a waterway (as was the one I photographed along the shoreline of the Tennessee River) I suspect the four wings help the fruit float downstream to a new home. But that’s only a guess.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

a beauty

Many people have a thing about snakes. Yikes! They almost bolt from the room when the topic is even broached.

I’m not so sure the late Crocodile Hunter did them a service: yanking them out of holes and rolling around on the ground with the poor minding-their-own-business kind of creatures. It was dramatic and theatrical but not to the reptiles best interest. Most snakes are shy and retiring, avoiding us as though we have the plague. To them, perhaps we do. Finding a snake in the wild is more of an exception than a rule. They know how and why they should hide, since we have the propensity to chop them to pieces with our garden hoes.

Snakes are marvelous designs of simplicity, perfectly suited to go down into rodent holes to ferret out food. If you have no mice around your home, they will not stay. If you do, they'll stay long enough to eliminate the pests and then they'll move on. Quietly. No fuss.

The one snake I have had the longest personal relationship with is a corn snake we have on display at nature center. She has a remarkably gentle disposition, docile even, an excellent companion, easy to care for and always ready to go on a ride.

She also recently shed her old skin and is looking very colorful just in time for October.

She’s a beauty. Don't you think?

- Photo by my friend, the late Jim Logan.