Sunday, January 31, 2010

Avalon watch

Who watches the watchers? It's the ever present gulls; they keep track of what's going on. Nothing passes their attention. (See yesterday's post.) Perhaps they count the counters.

The men in the photo are part of the Avalon Sea Watch, a count of migrating seabirds at an observation point overlooking the ocean at the north end of Avalon, New Jersey. This location extends a mile farther out into the ocean than the coastline to the north.

Southbound seabirds that are following the shoreline pass very close to this beachfront. Birds are counted seven days a week, from dawn to dusk, rain or shine, cold weather or even colder weather, from September 22 to December 22. An average of almost 800,000 seabirds are counted at the Avalon Sea Watch annually. Sometimes as many as one million.

When we were there in early October, over 8,000 double-crested cormorants had already been tallied. All under the watchful eyes of the gulls.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Avalon 9

You see these guys everywhere. Watching. Taking it all in.

If you walk down the beach, they're there. Go to the market, ditto.

We have all seen the Hitchcock movie. We know what happened in Bodego Bay, to Suzanne Pleshette, the school teacher, still tortured by her love for Mitch. But he only had eyes for Tippi, the icy-cool, fur-wearing blonde carrying a bird in a gilded cage.

Tired of being tamed, benign nature turned on them, became malevolent. It had had enough meddling. Short sightedness. Abuse.

I think that's a Bonaparte's gull—winter plumage, named in honor of an emperor, a conqueror—in the photo, watching us.

Avalon was like Bodego Bay: serene, comfortable. A faraway retreat to get away from it all. We were on vacation, relaxing. We needed the peace and quiet. But I knew we were under surveillance. I made sure we stayed between the lines. I smiled at the birds, even waved, but I slept with the lights on, just in case.

(Actually, Bonaparte's gull was named after a nephew of Napoleon, Charles Lucien Bonaparte, who was a leading ornithologist in the 1800s in America and Europe, but that does not fit the tension in the story.)

Friday, January 29, 2010

Avalon 8

Farther along, another snowy egret—a male or a female, I'm not sure, they are not as forthcoming as cardinals.

Sleek. Statuesque. Vigilant. Something in the distance has caught its attention.

At this time of the year, it's probably not looking at a potential mate. The area of the upper bill, in front of the eyes, is yellow indicating it’s non-breeding season. When it’s time to mate the facial patch turns red—perhaps blushing by what's on its mind—and it'll grow long shaggy nuptial plumes, like baby's breath or snow or Gandalf's beard.

- Photo taken near Stone Harbor in October.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Avalon 7

Sitting crossed-legged beside a gravel road, watching a snowy egret slowly high-step-it through swaying marsh grasses, is the way to spend a morning. In truth, at that moment, it seemed like the only way to spend a morning.

Black legs and, oh, those lemon-yellow feet!

The egret was methodical. Each move deliberate. Each step measured. One never knows when a quick meal will present itself. That’s true for egrets and egret-watchers alike. Although, I don't know how I feel about raw fish, even if you wrap it in cold sticky rice.

- Photo taken at the Wetlands Institute, Stone Harbor, NJ

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Avalon 6

South of Avalon is the Wetlands Institute at Stone Harbor. It's a non-profit organization dedicated to education and research founded in 1969 by the president of the World Wildlife Fund, Herbert Mills.

The protected 6,000 acres of coastal marsh and wetland are inland from the ocean. Its visitor center appears to float on a sea of golden salt-tolerant marsh grasses, principally saltmarsh cordgrass (Spartina alterniflora).

Cordgrass is an environmental engineer of sorts. As it grows out of the water, sediments accumulate around its base that, in time, are added to the land mass.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Avalon 5

AVALON in October: We spent one morning watching herring gulls catch sand crabs in the surf.

With their hapless prey in tow, the birds flew over the beach and dropped them. Kerplunk! The fall probably befuddled the startled crustaceans. (Can a crab be addled? I know I can, especially if dropped from a great enough height.)

The gulls then landed and pecked at the beleaguered things, ripping away leg after leg. (I've seen much the same thing happen at Uncle Buck's Seafood Shack, except there is usually a dish of melted butter nearby. Word has it that crabs and lobsters feel no pain. They just slip effortlessly from the world of the living into the afterlife. Although, being drawn and quartered hardly seems effortless.)

The aquatic arthropods tried to defend themselves with their pincers but to no avail. The gulls were unrelenting. It wasn't a fair fight. Pretty brutal, if you happen to be one of the crabs. Braveheart kind of stuff.

After wards, somewhat sated, the gulls returned to the hunt.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Avalon 4

AVALON in October: Another piece in the kaleidoscope that was similar but different: seaside goldenrod.

There are a blue-dozen (not an official term) species of goldenrod. This one has adapted to living in the salty air of oceanfront property. Good move.

"Solidago sempervirens" is a maritime wildflower found along the Atlantic seaboard. As you might suspect, it’s highly tolerant of both saline soils and salt spray, and as we found out, is usually found growing on coastal dunes and in salt marshes.

Oh to be so lucky to live in sight of the ocean!

- Photo taken in Avalon, New Jersey.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Avalon 3

“When beholding the tranquil beauty and brilliancy of the ocean's skin, one forgets the tiger heart that pants beneath it; and would not willingly remember that this velvet paw but conceals a remorseless fang.”

- From “Moby Dick” by Herman Melville, US novelist and sailor (1819 - 1891)

AVALON in October: There’s a curious phenomenon that occurs when you are sitting on a beach. Despite the enormity of it all, it’s actually very calming; that is until you begin to ponder what lies just out beyond the surf, underneath the surface. Then it all becomes quite alien, quite unknown and scary. The peaceful afternoon I took this photo, the ocean seemed rather tame: Melville's "velvet paw."

- Photo of Avalon Beach in New Jersey

Saturday, January 23, 2010

hermit times 3

"Widely hailed as the most gifted songster in all of North America, the hermit thrush is the inspiration of countless poets—and words like serene and ethereal only begin to convey the magic of his song," writes Donald Kroodsma.

We had an enjoyable workshop at the nature center this morning about winter birds: the species that spend their winters in the Tennessee Valley.

On a walk after wards, the most memorable thing we found were three hermit thrushes together. Unfortunately, they weren't singing. The small thrushes only spend their winters here. They are not looking for mates or defining territory. There's no need to sing. That's our lose.

We did notice that there was some sort of scuffle; a confrontation over something unknown. Perhaps it was a trio of hormonal teenagers, full of spit and vinegar (not official terminology, birds contain 0 percent vinegar).

You generally see only one hermit thrush, hence the name—hermit, i.e. loner. Three together was unusual, thrilling.

Special thanks to all that attending the class.

Friday, January 22, 2010

winter birds

“This pert little winter wren, for instance, darting in and out the fence, diving under the rubbish here and coming up yards away, — how does he manage with those little circular wings to compass degrees and zones, and arrive always in the nick of time?”

The little busybody “does he travel by easy stages from bush to bush and from wood to wood? Or has that compact little body force and courage to brave the night and upper air, and so achieve leagues at one pull?”

Asked John Burroughs in his 1871 book "Wake-Robin."

And speaking of winter wrens. I'll be presenting a workshop on Winter Birds (the species that only spend their winters in the Tennessee Valley) at Ijams Nature Center, Saturday, January 23 at 9 a.m. It's free to Ijams members, $10 for non-members.

To sign up call 577-4717, ext. 10 or e-mail me. Or stop by the morning of the program.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Avalon 2

Repeating yesterday's refrain, naturalist Terry Tempest Williams writes:

“Traveling, for a naturalist, into unfamiliar territory is like turning a kaleidoscope ninety degrees. Suddenly the colors and pieces of glass find a new arrangement. The light shifts, and you enter a new landscape in search of the order you know to be there.”

A stranger in a strange land, a.k.a. a mountaineer on the beach.

The first morning on the Avalon jetty, a fisherman in search of bass kept catching skates instead. He patiently removed the hooks and threw them back into the surf.

Skates are cartilaginous fish with skeletons made of cartilage rather than bone. They are related to sharks and rays, and as you might suspect are not anything like the fish we have in the Smokies.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010


Ice. Two weeks ago, ice was everywhere. I was reminded of Ernest Shackleton’s ill-fated “Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition,” 1914–17.

His goal was to be the first to cross Antarctic from sea-to-sea via the South Pole.

On this date: January 19, 1915, their ship, “Endurance,” became trapped in pack ice and slowly crushed before the shore parties even landed on the continent. The crew eventually made it back to England with no lives lost but it took years and, in the meantime, they saw a lot of ice.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Audubon in Tennessee

"There is a gray and black historical marker in Tom Lee Park in Memphis. According to the Tennessee Historical Commission it reads, “John James Audubon. On Friday, Dec. 1, 1820, this naturalist and artist landed nearby, on his way by flatboat from Cincinnati to New Orleans. He kept a diary and sketched animals and birds seen en route. Near here, he saw gulls, cormorants, “white-headed eagles,” grackles, purple finches, teal, parakeets, sandhill cranes, and numerous types of geese. These sketches helped form the basis for parts of his monumental book of engravings, Birds of America, published 1826-38.”

If only the rest of Audubon’s time in the Volunteer State could be so measured, so clear and concise, so documented. Truth is, America’s foremost painter of birds was prolific, a creative maelstrom, whose energies seemed as boundless as the aboriginal America he loved. The buckskin-clad, longhaired backwoodsman made thousands of sketches, drawings and paintings (he preferred watercolor) of the flora and fauna he found in his adopted homeland. He also wrote page after page in his journals about his travels, describing what he saw and where he saw it. But, his actual peregrinations in Tennessee are something of a mystery.

“Very little is known about Audubon’s time in Tennessee,” reports Alan Gehret, Museum Curator of the John James Audubon State Park and Museum in Henderson, Kentucky. He notes that there are gaps in the record because the original journals were burned by Audubon’s granddaughter, Maria Audubon. Gehret believes she may have simply edited down the sprawling journals for clarity when she prepared them for publishing in 1897, excising the less important, sprawling details, making sure that she included only the “energy and highlights so it would not be a boring ever day travelogue.” He notes that today, of course, we would be interested in those details. Or, he speculates, the editing may have been a matter of family privacy. Says Gehret, “There may have been some things she might not want the world to know about grandpa.” The burned journals, along with the fact that Audubon was never shy about reporting his exploits have led to some speculation, but scholars will probably never know the entire story.

The missing detail of the artist’s travels may have included a lot of what he did in the Volunteer State. “She conveniently threw them (the journals) into the fire and burned them.” To the Audubon scholar who has dedicated more than 20 years to the study of the museum’s namesake, it is most frustrating because he was such an accomplished raconteur."

What do we really know about John James Audubon's time in Tennessee? Turns out, the answer may surprise you. Check out the rest of article I wrote in the January/February issue of "The Tennessee Conservationist."

- Special thanks to editor Louise Zepp and for Karen Sue.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

frozen rainbow

Question: Can a rainbow ever freeze? Answer: You betcha.

Tony Gehl sent me these photos. He and his wife Ann hiked to Rainbow Falls in the Smokies last week and it was frozen solid. That doesn't happen that often.

Because the Cherokee Orchard Loop Road was closed, they had to hike an extra 1.5 miles in the snow to reach the trailhead.

- Photos by Ann and Tony Gehl.

Friday, January 15, 2010

is that snow?

Yes, Virginia, it does snow in Tennessee, especially if you're on the top of the mountains.

- Photo on Newfound Gap Road, Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Thursday, January 14, 2010

frozen in 2010

If yesterday's photo taken in December wasn't enough to frost your cake, here's a couple from last week in Gatlinburg. Both were taken in Baskins Creek near my boyhood home.

What's going on? The first two weeks of the New Year and the temperature never rose above freezing? Aren't you glad you're indoors where hot cocoa is always an option?

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

last look back

I need to let go of 2009 and stop the "looking backs" now that we are a fortnight into 2010. But let's add one more to my ten (plus six) favorite photos of the old year, this one—perhaps my favorite of them all—was taken on a frozen day in December.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

looking back 15

Ten plus five from 2009: In November the last of the sweet gum leaves began to fall.

Monday, January 11, 2010

looking back 14

Ten favorite photos of 2009 in chronological order, number 14:

The fothergilla near the Visitor Center at Ijams goes through an amazing array of color in the fall: green to red to gold to yellow. Here it was during the green to red stage.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

looking back 13

Ten favorite photos from 2009 in chronological order, number 13:

From late August, the captive barred owl at the nature center looked at me with big soulful eyes.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

deep south blog

If you're iced in like I am—burrrrr—you might want to visit Mark Bailey's "Hog Foot Holler," a back roads, backwoods blog that's located a little farther south than I am where hopefully it's warmer.

looking back 12

Ten favorite photos from 2009 in chronological order, number 12:

The ladies'-tresses that appeared near the nature center could be easily overlooked, luckily for me Lynne and Bob Davis let me know where to find them.

Friday, January 8, 2010

looking back 11

I guess I'm not ready to give up the old year. There's a few more to add to my ten favorite photos of 2009. In chronological order, here's number 11:

The complete post about drunk bees, or in this case wasps, on filmy angelica is worth repeating.

Thursday, January 7, 2010


Special thanks to the Tellico Village Garden Club. I spoke to them today about "Winter Birds"—the birds that spend their winters in the Tennessee Valley—and somewhat apropos to the topic, drove back to the nature center in the snow.

I speak to the group every January; it's a tradition. See you again in 2011.

-Photo of a purple finch

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

looking back 10

Ten favorite photos of 2009 in chronological order, number 10:

An instant later, I would have missed this shot of the cloaked knotty-horn beetle in early August.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

looking back 9

Ten favorite photos of 2009 in chronological order, number 9:

A memorable end to a memorable day, Karen Sue and I watched the sunset from the top of the Smoky Mountains in August. Shortly after the sun slipped below the horizon, an almost full moon rose in the opposite direction.

Monday, January 4, 2010

looking back 8

Ten favorite photos from 2009 in chronological order, number 8:

Another red and black insect. The milkweed in front of the nature center was active for months, mostly with milkweed bugs. They produced several generations.

Here's a photo from early August.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

looking back 7

Ten favorite photos of 2009 in chronological order, number 7:

The sunflowers at Forks of the River Wildlife Management Area were a highlight of June and July. I took lots of photos but this wilting one came near the end of their run.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

looking back 6

Favorite photos of 2009 in chronological order, number 6:

A female cecropia moth turned up at the nature center in late June, albeit she appeared as exhausted. It was hot and her time was done.

Friday, January 1, 2010

looking back 5

Ten favorite photos of 2009 number 5: box elder bugs gathered for some kind of social mixer in May.

I wonder what they were discussing. Perhaps they were making their plans for the New Year.

Happy. Happy.