Wednesday, November 25, 2009

lost species

Yesterday Kathleen asked about a "beautiful book with paintings of extinct birds."

My favorite is A Gap in Nature: Discovering the World's Extinct Animals by Tim Flannery and Peter Schouten. It really has more in it than birds, there are a few mammals and reptiles, but the lost feathered ones are well represented, the dodo on the cover is a fine example. Flannery wrote the tragic story of each extinct species and Schouten did the wonderful illustrations.

The book was published in 2001, so it might be a little hard to find but we still have a few copies in the Ijams gift shop.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

knock out

I have owned a copy of “The Song of the Dodo” for several years but at 625 pages, 178 chapters it seemed a bit daunting to dive into. There never seemed to be enough hours in the day. But after reading Quammen’s ”The Reluctant Mr. Darwin,” I felt it was time to give it a go. And go I did.

I think a good editor could have probably cut this tome down to 623 pages, which is my backhanded way of saying that "TSOTD" is a monumental book on natural history, well worth the time you need to invest into all 178 chapters. You'll never look at the natural world in the same way again.

Quammen does a skillful job of balancing scientific chapters with his worldly travels and adventures, taking us to exotic places around the globe with historical or environmental significance. But the real power in the book is his exploration into the development of ecology, basically beginning when the science found its chops, i.e. the data it had been collecting was actually put to use.

After finishing “The Song of the Dodo,” I feel that I have earned the equivalent of a PhD in island biogeography. (I wonder if I can use this on my résumé?) If I had read this book 25 years ago, I would have found my way to an ecology department at some university.

Early in the book the author describes the stack of photocopies of scientific papers “weighing eighteen pounds including the staples,” he has on his desk. By his own admission, he could have used the assemblage in the back of his truck to provide extra weight on icy roads in winter but instead, Quammen chose to read them and synthesize the information for us; presenting them in layman’s terms, explaining the jargon: minimum viable population, area-species relationships, equilibrium theory, inbreeding depression, et cetera. Lucky for us he did.

By the end of the book we have a real sense of just how endangered endangered species really are. The dodo was only one of the first to go.

Powerful book. David Quammen can write compelling science with a sense of humor.

In a five star world, this is a six star book.

Monday, November 16, 2009


With a common name suggestive of July—summersweet, i.e. Clethra alnifolia—today we find it bridging the gap between two other seasons. Still wearing the autumnal ambers, the seed sprays are beginning to anticipate the coming new year and spring.

-Photo taken at Ijams Nature Center.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

great catch

And speaking of fish-eating birds of prey, recently I posted about watching an osprey flying overhead with its lunch at Cape May.

Sue Wagoner sent me the above photos she took around the same time at Folly Beach in South Carolina. She was lucky enough to catch the bird fighting its way out of the surf and just after it had lifted off carrying its meal. I've seen osprey plunge into the water in one of our placid East Tennessee lakes, but taking on the ocean surf adds an extra layer of danger. Several years ago I saw the same display of strength several times just off Cherry Grove Beach north of Folly.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

boldly ambitious

A bold, even ambitious climber, the vine Virginia creeper can reach heights of 20 to 30 feet. It’s taking over one side of my house but I really do not mind, in part because of the fall color.

The plant is native to central and eastern North America. In Canada it’s known as "Engelmann's Ivy” named in honor of George Engelmann (1809 – 1884) a German-American botanist instrumental in describing the flora found in western of North America.

Friday, November 13, 2009


Bob Davis stopped by the nature center the other day. He reports seeing two adult bald eagles—perhaps a mated pair, perhaps even the pair that nest upstream on the French Broad or Holston rivers—soaring over Island Airport on Sunday, October 25. The airport that opened n 1930 is located within a mile of downtown Knoxville.

The eagles were at play, leisurely enjoying the afternoon. After awhile, they were joined by a couple of red-tailed hawks. Bob is a pilot, quite comfortable in the same sort of thermals that the birds of prey were taking advantage of that day.

Thursday, November 12, 2009


Yes, even evergreens drop some of their leaves at this time of the year. Nothing lasts forever.

In this case, it's a white pine, the only conifer in the U.S. east of the Rocky Mountains with five needles in a bundle. One needle per letter in its name: w-h-i-t-e.

Yet, in nature, where there is death, there's often renewal. The four seeds in the photo waiting to germinate next spring are from a tuliptree.

Let's wish them good luck.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009


Recently, I posted about praying mantises; it was their mating season.

Once mated, the females can lay as many as 400 eggs depending on the species. Eggs are deposited in a frothy mass--much like meringue but not as tasty--that is produced by glands in the abdomen. The froth hardens to a consistency something like that of Styrofoam, creating a protective casing. The resulting egg mass is called an ootheca."

The other day I found my first ootheca (Great Scrabble word: four vowels) in an ironweed going to seed at the nature center.

- Photo taken at Ijams Nature Center

Monday, November 9, 2009

local young eagle

Wow!! Local photographer Bob Howdeshell posted this wonderful photo of a juvenile bald eagle he found recently at Kyker Bottoms in Blount County near my home.

As Bob noted, "The crows were mobbing something so I headed in that direction only to be surprised as a young eagle flew by! I was fortunate that it landed in a tree that was close and I was able to get a few photos."

For more of his photos, visit Bob's online gallery.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

golden days

His drive home was uneventful but golden. He caught himself singing "Golden Years" by David Bowie...

"Don’t let me hear you say life's taking you nowhere, angel. Come get up my baby, Look at the skies, life's begun, Nights are warm and the days are young, Come get up my baby."

Obviously, life was taking me somewhere, up a mountain road into the setting sun, so the day wasn't young, and the night was actually going to be rather chilly, but you get the idea. It was golden.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

one week later

Well, I think the flu is over and I can return to work. One week, start to finish. Like a mini-vacation without any of the thrills. After being in bed for seven days, I wonder: Why am I so tired?

Didn't French novelist Marcel Proust write most of "In Search of Lost Time"—seven volumes, 3,200 pages and more than 2,000 characters—while he was sick in bed. How did he do that?

After seven days, more or less, out of it, I feel like I need to go in search of some lost time myself.

At least there is still some autumn left to enjoy.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

ill, part 3

Another day ill, H1N1 has me flat of my back.

The upside? This is the view out our bedroom window. I watched hundreds, even thousands of leaves flutter and fall to the ground. Have I mentioned we're surrounded by woods.

The downside? Somebody is going to have to rake them up and chuck 'em into a compost pile someday soon. And that someone is the sick boy in the bed.

If you dance all night, you pay the piper in the morning.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

ill, part 2

If this is H1N1 that has me flat of my back, then NyQuil Cold&Flu is doing a good job alleviating the symptoms and knocking me out. I think I’ve slept 50-hours in the past three days.

What day is it?

Monday, November 2, 2009


I'm at home today ill with symptoms that suggest H1N1. It started Saturday with a slight tickle in the back of my throat and within a few hours I felt like I had fallen off the back of the potato truck and some of the spuds rolled off with me, leaving me achy, coughy, fevery, sneezy, dopey and a few of the other Seven Dwarfs that I never met.

They say it's "going around." Well, to paraphrase Harry Truman, "the bug stopped here."

So the next few days I'll be blogging from memory and antihistamine-lightheadedness.

Sunday, November 1, 2009


Day to day, you never quite know what to expect, this change of seasons: the foggy mornings and golden afternoons. If you follow this journal daily, you know that change is the order of things. All you have to do is go outside and look.

“The best remedy for those who are afraid, lonely or unhappy is to go outside.”

- Anne Frank (1929-1942) German-born Jewish author, died in Bergen-Belsen, a Nazi concentration camp