Sunday, February 28, 2010


And not to be outdone, the Chimney Tops were left in the chapel dressed in white as well.

The two peaks on the left that make up the chimneys were called "Duniskwalgunyi," or "forked antler," by the native Cherokee. The aboriginal moniker referred to its resemblance to the antlers of a deer. In this case, those antlers are snow-covered.

- Photo of the Chimney Tops in the Great Smokies

dressed in white

After the clouds lifted, Mt. LeConte reappeared dressed in white.

What was that old song by the Outsiders? "Girl in love dressed in white, Crying crying on her wedding night, The gown of lace hung on the chair, The pretty gown she'll never wear, Never wear."

The song has nothing to do with the Smokies most beloved mountain, although I know several couples have been married on the top. Let's hope they are not still up there.

- Photo of Mt. LeConte in the Great Smokies

Friday, February 26, 2010

harsh winter

Picture yourself a bird of prey in winter. Food is scarce; you haven’t eaten in days. It’s cold and you’re burning precious energy just to stay warm. You're also young, an inexperienced hunter.

Suffice it to say, winter is the harshest time for raptors. Lillian Gerhardt, a licensed veterinary technician at UT’s Veterinary Teaching Hospital, estimates that up to 80 percent of juvenile birds of prey die their first winter. It’s the survival of the fittest played out with life and death consequences.

Recently, Ijams member, Jim Blackstock, found a raptor—a juvenile red-tailed hawk—on one of the trails at the nature center. It was very cold and the downed bird was puffed up like a Thanksgiving turkey, trying to keep warm. Ijams naturalist, Jennifer Moore and I rescued the listless bird. Wrapping it in a towel, we took it to the vet school hospital. A healthy red-tail weighs about three pounds; this one felt much less. But more than that, it offered no resistance, no fight as I picked it up. Its hawkness was gone.

The next day, Lillian reported that it was emaciated, probably had not had a meal in days and was too weak to eat. Hoping to rehydrate the docile Buteo, she gave it fluids, kept it warm and nursed it through the night, but the next morning it died in her arms.

Winter is harsh and unforgiving, especially if you are new to this world.

- Photo taken at Ijams Nature Center

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Rose Glen

The Rose Glen Literary Festival at Walters State Community College is this Saturday, February 27 in Sevierville. Special projects facilitator, Carroll McMahan with the Sevier Chamber of Commerce is the event creator and organizer.

All of the authors attending the 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. festival are either from Sevier County or have written books about or that take place there. I will be one of the authors on hand and the keynote speaker at the luncheon. Having been born in Sevierville and raised in Gatlinburg, I certainly qualify as a hometown boy. I've been asked to talk about writing and my book "Natural Histories."

For more information about the event go to: Author! Author! or about my book Keynote

- Photo of Walter State Community College in Sevierville

Tuesday, February 23, 2010


As famed photographer Ansel Adams once said, "If you're going to get old, get as old as you can get."

He was born on February 20 and I on the 23rd, albeit 49 years apart.

Indeed. For me, yet another birthday.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

goin' nowhere

“Clouds so swift, rain won't lift, Gate won't close, the railings froze.
Get your mind off wintertime, You ain't goin' nowhere.”

- From “You Ain't Goin' Nowhere” by Bob Dylan

- Photo of the LeConte Creek watershed near my boyhood home in Gatlinburg; old snowfall on the ground and a new one moving in. Mt. LeConte is in the photo but hidden, as it often is, by the low moving clouds. But that's just the way it is with that mountain.

Friday, February 19, 2010



Nature loves the color. Flowers. Birds. Butterflies. Chiggers. Blood. It's all over the place; it courses through our very bodies.

But, I defy you to name another red more eye-popping than a male cardinal in winter. Against a background of dull winter gray and brown, their color is vicious. It rips into the eye, paralyzing the optic nerve. You cannot help but stare. Speechless.

They are bodacious.

- Photo taken at Ijams Nature Center

Thursday, February 18, 2010


February's column is about local goshawks, go to this farragutpress web-page.

snowy evening

"Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow."

From "Stepping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening"

There's something comforting and small townish in Robert Frost.

- Photo taken in the woods behind my house, and yes, no one saw me stop there to watch it fill up with snow and the village is Knoxville, which is a little more than a village but I like to think of it as such since I generally stay in my part of the city which makes it village-like to me. Well, maybe more town-like but somewhat smaller and more intimate than the whole.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

out of the cradle

One of the highlights of winter are the visiting loners, the hermit thrushes.

In the north, where they nest, they're known for their melodious songs. Here they are generally mute, having nothing to really sing about; there's no pressure to claim territory or attract mates. The only pressure is to find food, conserve energy and survive. There's nothing to sing about there; there's no poetry.

Walt Whitman uses the hermit thrush as a symbol of the American voice: wild, free and poetic in his poem "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking."

From the memories of the bird that chanted to me"

Walking at Ijams the other day, I encountered one of the hermits in the trees near the main parking lot. Although they tend to be loners, they're rather salient, often remaining perched on a limb for awhile, giving you a good long look. And even though it was silent, it chanted me nonetheless.

-Photo taken at Ijams Nature Center

Monday, February 15, 2010

return to ice

Our month-long vacation to the Garden State is over. We return to the here and now; and what do my wondering eyes should appear, but a miniature sleigh and eight tiny reindeer.

Well, there's really no sleigh, but reindeer would not surprise me.

Yes, Mr. Groundhog, we have six more weeks of winter. Brrrr.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Avalon 17

Sun going down over the salt marsh, somewhere near Avalon.

In European mythology, Avalon, the “Isle of the Blessed,” is a legendary island featured in the Arthurian legend, the place where King Arthur's sword Excalibur was forged and later where Arthur is taken to recover from his wounds after the Battle of Camlann.

In the quest for Arthur's mythical capital Camelot, a large number of locations have been put forward as being the real “Avalon,” perhaps it was located on the coastline of New Jersey.

It is certainly a good place to go and heal.

Friday, February 12, 2010

great white

A sleek great white that's not a shark. But to a swallow-water fish, it's just as lethal. The great egret is a patient predator, like Uncle Buck, a skilled fisherman, hunting by quiet stealth. We quietly watched this one snatch its lunch: fish sticks without the breading.

The great egret is a large, all-white plumaged heron, but not to be confused with the white morph (some say separate species) of the great blue heron. The egret has a yellow bill and black legs; the white great blue has yellow legs.

Confused? Yes, so was I.

Worldwide there are about 63 species in the heron family, which include not only the herons but also egrets and bitterns. Egrets are types of herons that are generally snow white. They get their special name from the long nuptial plumes called "aigrettes" that are grown during the breeding season.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Avalon 16

Turquoise and purple berries, like shiny ceramic pearls fired with a translucent glaze.

There’s an ebb and flow to the natural world, but sometimes the flow becomes a tsunami. Last week I wrote about the phragmites, a.k.a. common reed grass that’s overwhelming the coastal northeast.

Porcelain berry, Ampelopsis brevipedunculata—now there’s a mouthful of Latin. You better sit down before you try and say it. Brevipedunculata means "having short peduncles."—is yet another non-native plant that’s invading the Mid-Atlantic natural areas. Originally from Asia: China, Korea, Japan and Russia, its colorful berries made them a favorite landscaping ornamental.

The trouble is, it’s a vine, and vines lack the fortitude, the gumption, it takes to stand alone as they grow towards the sun. Instead they take the easy way out and use a tree for support, often killing the very prop they depend on. It thrives in wetlands, along streams and rivers out-competing native plants.

The city of Milford, Delaware has created a Porcelain Berry Task Force to get control of the spread of the vine that has infested 200-acres in the Mispillion River watershed where the city is located.

There is some porcelain berry in the Tennessee Valley but it has yet to become a huge problem. We have our hands full with kudzu, privet and bush honeysuckle.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Avalon 15

Is that a clapper rail?

Karen Sue and I spent the closing hours of one afternoon last October at Jake's Landing, northwest of Avalon. We were looking for a clapper rail, a chicken-sized bird that rarely flies and generally stays hidden in the tall grasses. (This is why we spent the closing hours of one afternoon looking for it but not actually seeing it.)

They are birds of the marshlands, grayish brown with a pale chestnut breast and a noticeable white patch under the tail. But, my God, who gets a chance to see the tail?

Should you get a peek at its bill, you'd notice that it curves slightly downwards, a suitable tool for probing shallow mud and water for the crustaceans, aquatic insects and small fish it likes to eat. Sort of surf and turf without the turf.

We were told that Jake's Landing was a good place to search. We heard one—the call sounds like a clatter, or clapping—one time, but that was all. As you might or might not suspect, a group of clappers is called an applause. But, of course.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Avalon 14

Again the solo gull; alone on the intercoastal shoreline, patrolling. You cannot help but watch them, wondering what they were doing.

My general sense, laced with a bit of over-the-top imagination, was that they were keeping an eye on our comings and goings. It's as though this one was assigned the task of watching the boats in the inland channel.

- Photo taken at Avalon, New Jersey. October 2009.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Avalon 13

And we conclude our thoughts on evanescence with a third image. Seasons pass. Time fades. It's a theme I come back to time and time again because in nature, there's a daily transition. Even the evergreens are not quite ever green, in this case, they die leaving only their ripening fruit, the new generation.

(What looks like blue berries are actually blue cones.)

- Photo taken at Avalon, New Jersey. October 2009.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Avalon 12

Call it the evanescence of the moment. On an early morning walk, I found an evergreen cloaked in late-season spider silk. A woven net so fine that it had trapped only the overnight mist from the ocean. It shimmered with dew.

As the sun climbed to its zenith, the trapped mist faded away.

- Photo taken in Avalon, New Jersey. October 2009.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Avalon 11

Summer was over and we were two weeks into the fall but there was still some color left, albeit was fading.

I could wax poetic about "beauty is the fading flower," but I think you get the idea. Late in the season, we hold on to the things most precious until they are also gone.

- Avalon, New Jersey. October 2009.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Cape May 4

Extravagance has its price. Thoreau knew it. A monoculture—one plant dominating one environ—is not healthy; nature prefers a balance: a yin, yang.

Tall—up to ten feet—and leggy with billowy, plume-like flower heads, phragmites, a.k.a. common reed grass, is eye-catching. Swaying in the morning sun, it shimmers, softening the roadside ditches and low-lying moist places, but looks can be deceiving. To serve up a cliché like a leftover quiche, "all that shimmers is not gold."

Now found worldwide, the statuesque wetland grass is of little value to wildlife. Spreading not by seeds but by underground creeping rhizomes, it creates such a thick canopy that smaller native plants cannot survive in its shade. It's become the invasive kudzu of the coastal northeast.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Cape May 3

True monarchs of flight. When we were at Cape May last October, people with the Monarch Monitoring Project were netting the lithe little lepidopterans and tagged them with tiny numbered stickers. The project falls under the auspices of the Cape May Bird Observatory, a research wing of the New Jersey Audubon Society that also includes the Avalon Sea Watch and the Cape May Hawk Watch.

The butterfly count runs from September 1 until October 31, and since its inception in 1991, thousands of monarchs have been tagged. Dozens of these labeled Cape May monarchs have been found in Mexico.

When we were there, Louise Zemaitis and others with the monitoring program, were tagging the orange-and-black butterflies and letting others release them. The photo below shows a little girl named Honey giving a recently numbered monarch its freedom.

Its next stopover was Virginia, 140 miles across the Delaware Bay.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Cape May 2

Raptors were not the only thing migrating through Cape May in early October.

Something much more delicate was headed to warmer climes. Something not exactly designed for long-distance flight. If hawks are made of muscle and sinew, then butterflies are made of papier-mâché.

But somehow, every fall the fourth generation of adult monarch butterflies doesn’t, as Dylan Thomas would have said, "go gentle into that good night." Instead they fly south—a long way south. Two thousand miles south. For years no one knew where they went; they just disappeared. Not a single egg, larva, pupa or adult could be found in their summer time range. POOF! All vanished.

In 1937, Frederick Urquhart, a zoology professor at the University of Toronto, and his wife Norah decided they’d find out where the Monarchs go. They literally dedicated over 30 years of their lives to the project, and in the winter of 1974 they solved the mystery. The Monarchs, millions and millions of them, were found on some of the taller mountain peaks west of Mexico City. Today there are five official Monarch sanctuaries there: Cerro Altamirano, Sierra Chincua, Sierra El Campanario, Cerros Chivatí-Huacal and Cerro Pelón.

I remember first reading about where the monarchs went in National Geographic in 1976.

-Top photo taken at Cape May Point State Park, October 2009. Soon after this photo was taken, these two monarchs flew across Delaware Bay, but an even more formidable obstacle awaited them: the Gulf of Mexico.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Cape May

South of Avalon is Cape May Point State Park, a birding mecca, especially in the fall. From September to December, migratory birds pass over the narrow finger of land, the last piece of New Jersey shoreline before the Delaware Bay. If the conditions are not right the birds linger in the area before crossing the open water. Wouldn't you?

First warblers migrate through, then birds of prey and finally, late in the season, it's the ducks. In early October, it was raptors. There's a large, wooden birdwatching platform built between the lighthouse and pond where the Cape May Hawk Watch takes place. Most days it's crowded with people looking up or out or across, watching. The first day we were there was Accipiter day: 358 sharp-shinned and 455 Cooper's hawks were counted. There were also 97 kestrels and 205 broad-winged hawks.

Cooper's hawk. Note the rounded tail trimmed in white.