Wednesday, March 31, 2010


The warm weather and spring rains have brought out the herps.

Ijams outreach educator Emily Boves and her husband Than recently found an Eastern zigzag salamander (Plethodon dorsalis) at the nature center. The amphibian gets its common name from the “zigzag” stripe on its back.

This salamander is considered common in hardwood forests with rocky substrates like Ijams, but it is reported that the zigzag’s populations are affected by deforestation and forest conversion. This is one species that does not survive well on agricultural or urban lands.

The Eastern zigzag is generally found in or near rocky habitats often with abundant limestone bedrock, caves or rock crevices (a perfect description of Ijams). They retreat underground in the heat of summer and in the cold of winter.

Even though the zigzag is considered common within its range, it's a new salamander to the nature center’s species list. Emily and Than, good find!

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Bayou DeView

I recently heard from Ethan Duke, who worked part time for Ijams Nature Center a year ago. Ethan's passion is the feathered ones.

"I'm living in the swamps of Arkansas...spending a lot of time in Bayou De View and the White River Wildlife Management Area. I'm studying pileated woodpeckers. We have five birds on-the-air and 15 re-sights of past years' birds. The swamp is a magical, magical place my friend. I'll be here through the end of June. You are welcome to visit anytime. Bring waders and a love of big trees."

As indeed I should. And I do own waders. Must put this on my to-do list, since I do love big trees and Bayou De View was the place that several people spotted an ivory-billed woodpecker a few years ago.

I'm also just finishing a book about Jim Tanner and the historic ivory-bill of the 1930s to be published by UT Press this fall.

Monday, March 29, 2010

over exposed

Until the leaves return to the trees, the barred owls at Ijams are a little easier to see.

Although this one tried to blend into the invasive ivy along the Universal Trail, it was still remarkably easy to locate.

- Photo taken at Ijams Nature Center

Sunday, March 28, 2010

show & tell

Yesterday was Show & Tell Saturday at the nature center.

At 11 a.m., I led a group, the Weekend Academy (pictured above), on a spring wildflower walk. At 1 p.m. part-time vet Dr Louise Conrad unveiled our newest education animal, a baby albino box turtle (pictured below); and at 3 p.m. wildlife biologist Pam Petko-Seus, fed the snapping turtle in the exhibit hall for all to see.

A beautiful day to be at Ijams. A good time was had by all.

Saturday, March 27, 2010


It's spring. Bloodroot, one of the early woodland ephemerals, is blooming at the nature center. But it won't last long, such is the nature of being ephemeral, evanescent. Your moment in the sun is brief, a mere cat's whisper.

Its name comes from the color of sap stored in its root or rhizome. As time passes, the rhizome grows just under the surface and creates a colony of the early wildflower. Native Americans used this blood red sap as a dye and body paint and called the plant "puccoon."

Friday, March 26, 2010

and to the north

“A wonderful bird is a pelican,
His bill will hold more than his belican.
He can take in his beak
Food enough for a week;
But I'm damned if I see how the helican.”

"The Pelican" (1910) by Dixon Lanire Merrith (often misattributed to Ogden Nash)

Once again I've heard from my friend Sue Wagoner from Aurora, Illinois, and she sent photos. My goodness, don't you just love that tuft of feathers at the top of this pelican's head.

Sue writes, "The American white pelicans start coming at the middle to end of March. Flying in, circling slowly as they descend on Nelson Lake Marsh. Every year the numbers have increased—last year the highest count was over 300.

Word spreads fast among birders and non-birders alike and the parking lot overflows. It is a good teaching time as we explain to newcomers that these are not tropical birds like the brown pelican, they nest in Canada and northern states; that they fish by ducking their heads under water to scoop up the fish, often in unison; that they are very social and swim together in lines and even form circles to trap the fish. Both males and females have an upper mandible plate during breeding season; it later falls off.

These birds are huge—about 5 feet long with a nine-foot wingspan—but they are unbelievably graceful in their flight. They fly smoothly over the water seemingly just to exercise. When it is time to move on, they leave in groups, slowly circling and soaring upward on the thermal air. It is sad to see them go."

Wow! Thanks Sue.

- Photos by Sue Wagoner, Aurora, Illinois

Thursday, March 25, 2010

it survived

This chickadee survived the winter. And it was a particularly cold and deary one here in the Tennessee Valley.

"Chickadees have a body temperature of 107° F and because many members of the family do not migrate, northerly breeders risk freezing to death during winter. In contrast to human babies and bears, birds have no brown (heat-generating) fat. So, somewhat like adult humans, their only method of generating heat is to burn fat, which they do by using their muscles. When their body temperature starts to drop below 70° F, chickadees must generate heat themselves, and to do this they need to expend energy. We can jump up and down, but what can birds do? The answer is that chickadees shake in their sleep during the winter, shivering to keep their bodies warm.

Ninety-eight percent of the energy of a small bird is used for heat regulation and for basic metabolism, leaving 2 percent for foraging. Shouldn't the bird keep still and save that 2 percent for heating? The scenario is horrifying: On a cold winter's day two million chickadees out there would have to choose between freezing or starving to death.

It is not as bad as that. It isn't actually possible for a bird to save energy by being inactive instead of foraging, because its alternative would be to sit still and shiver to keep warm, thereby expending the same amount of energy. In contrast, using muscle power when foraging generates 'bonus' heat."

- From the wonderful book: "Between the Wingtips: The Secret Life of Birds" by Östling and Ullman available in the Ijams gift shop

- Photo taken at Ijams Nature Center

-Thanks Karen Sue

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Alice's roses

At the nature center, there’s a hillside on the original Ijams’ homesite that is covered with an escapee. It’s an early-blooming perennial with long-lasting burgundy, pink or yellow flowers.

Probably planted originally by Alice Ijams, who lived at the location from 1910 to 1964, the plant is known as Lenten rose because it blooms in winter between Christmas and Lent. On a gray winter’s day, it would have been a cheery sight to Alice. It still is today.

Not native to North America, the shade-loving perennial with deeply lobed leaves is an invited guest from the Old Country. Although the flower resembles a wild rose, it’s actually a hellebore. The genus in the buttercup family is native to much of Europe from western Great Britain east into Romania and Ukraine. From the mountains of the Ukraine to the mountains of East Tennessee, that's a long way to travel for something that doesn't have any legs or feet. Perhaps it had help.

- Photo taken at Ijams Nature Center

Monday, March 22, 2010

downy dive

Sometimes, the second shot proves to be most interesting.

A split instant after I took the first exposure of the downy woodpecker, I squeezed off another just as the small bird leaped from its perch, diving to another tree. Head first. Wings tucked. Like Olympian Greg Louganis, diving into open air off a ten meter tower.

Even though his dive took him out of my photographic depth of field, it still shows his perfect form. I'll give him at 10.

Oh to be a bird.

- Photo taken at Ijams Nature Center

Sunday, March 21, 2010

clouds moving in

A week ago, I led a group of people on a bird walk at Seven Islands Wildlife Refuge. We were looking for bald eagles but the day turned dark and nasty, the last gasp of winter? Perhaps. That's what it felt like.

Gretchen Kaplan sent me this wonderful photo she took that day. It certainly captures the time and place.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

sandhill calling

"I thought you might enjoy what our spring looks like up here—at least our nearby forest preserve and marsh. The sandhill cranes migrate over us in droves. We see them and hear them—their graceful soaring and distinctive wing-flaps, and their unmistakable loud rattling calls.

We usually have a few that stay the summer and fall, and rarely, the winter, and sometimes they nest and produce young. This little guy (?) was all alone and calling for his brethren (only far-away calls in return)... and so absorbed in his calling he hardly noticed me snapping away. Happy spring-to-be to you too!"

One of the most rewarding things about working at the nature center is that you meet people from different parts of the country. I first met Sue Wagner on a bird walk last summer. She was in town on a visit but soon returned to her home in Illinois. From time to time, she sends me photos of what's happening in her little corner of the world.

- Photos by Sue Wagoner, Aurora, Illinois

Friday, March 19, 2010

reveille to spring

"Passing through the woods on some clear, still morning in March, while the metallic ring and tension of winter are still in the earth and air, the silence is suddenly broken by long, resonant hammering upon a dry limb or stub. It is a Downy beating a reveille to spring. In the utter stillness and amid the rigid forms we listen with pleasure; and, as it comes to my ear oftener at this season than at any other, I freely exonerate the author of it from the imputation of any gastronomic motives, and credit him with a genuine musical performance."

Tomorrow is the first day of spring, oh my.

- From "Wake-Robin" first published in 1871 by John Burroughs

- Photo taken at Ijams Nature Center

Thursday, March 18, 2010

local howlin'

Are there coyotes in the Tennessee Valley? Just ask Emily and Than Boves. In this case, one photo is worth a thousand words.

For the complete story go to my article howlin' coyotes in the farragutpress.

- Photo by Than Boves


Wednesday, March 17, 2010

beautiful and uncut

“A child said What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands,
How could I answer the child? I do not know what it is any more than he...

“And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.
Tenderly will I use you curling grass”

Yesterday's dead nurture today's living. You can only guess just what type of native warm season grass Whitman was thinking of when he wrote the above lines, but I’m sure it wasn’t a wimpy, creeping fescue. Perhaps it was a hardy broom sage—golden, uncut and beautiful.

- From “Leaves of Grass” by Walt Whitman

- Photo taken at Seven Islands Wildlife Refuge

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

leaf death

Senescence is a collective term for the processes that lead to the aging and ultimate death of a leaf.

In the fall, it happens quickly. In a matter of days, all the deciduous trees drop their leaves. They're green, they turn bright colors, they die. But, oddly, a few trees hang onto some of them even though they are no longer viable, wearing them like a protective coat all winter. They endure storm after storm after storm.

This time of the year, these leaves become as thin and fragile as tissue paper, but tattered and torn they still hang on. Why?

- Photo taken at Ijams Nature Center

Monday, March 15, 2010

yello rumpus

This time of the year, yellow-rumped warblers are still dressed in their drab winter plumage; they're rather nondescript. But, if you watch long enough, they'll eventually present that which they are most famous: that flashy yellow rump.

They are the only warbler that spends the winter in the Tennessee Valley.

- Photos taken at Seven Islands Wildlife Refuge

Sunday, March 14, 2010


Special thanks to all the daring folks who attended yesterday's eagle program at Ijams. The walk afterwards at Seven Islands Wildlife Refuge was dampened by cold wind and a driving off-and-on drizzle. While we were on our outing, dreary winter seemed to slip back into the valley. Like a playground bully, surly, gray clouds moved in from the southwest. Hot chocolate and a warm fire were needed by day's end.

No eagle presented itself, but the eaglers managed to see numerous vultures, a red-tailed hawk, American kestrel and several lovely barns.

Friday, March 12, 2010

eagles return

Bald eagles
in eastern North America were once on the endangered species list but they have returned to our skies. On Saturday, March 13, at 1 p.m., I’ll revisit the last chapter in my book Natural Histories that deals with the recovery of our National Symbol. The program includes a short talk and slide show at the Visitor Center, followed by a carpool trip to Seven Islands Wildlife Refuge and the site of the first documented successful bald eagle nesting in Knox County in 2004. We may actually see an eagle on the outing! Fee: $10 for non-members, free for Ijams members. To pre-register call Sheila at 577-4717, ext. 10.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

in motion

Perhaps the reason we love birds so much is because they're not tethered to terra firma the way we poor Homo sapiens are. We came down from the trees, put on pants and never went back. (OK, part of us put on hoop skirts, but you get my drift.) If we had remained arboreal, maybe we would have grown wings out of sheer mad longing to remain free.

Even on a cold day, birds are active in three dimensions. In the beat of a heart, they're off in any direction.

Such freedom!

But this makes photographing them most difficult. A split instant after I snapped the photo of the white-throated sparrow, it bolted, making the second exposure a pleasing blur. A portrait of motion itself.

Now, that's vitality.

- Photo taken at Ijams Nature Center

Monday, March 8, 2010

squirrel diner

One good way of keeping squirrels out of your birdfeeder is giving them one of their own. They are also very good at cleaning out the last of the peanut butter left in the jar.

Sometimes I also toss in a few sunflower seeds to make it even more interesting.

After they finish removing the old peanut butter, the jar is ready to be recycled. (If it is made out of plastic, is it still called a jar, or does it become merely a container?)

Sunday, March 7, 2010

singing ground?

A sure sign that spring is on the way: when the birds get frisky. But their hormones often put them in harm's way.

American woodcocks
are shy worm-eating birds that hide on the ground. They're short, chunky woodland sandpipers with enormously long bills for probing the mud. But despite the odd appearance, it's practically impossible to find one. Their camouflage is too perfect. The problem is: how do the male woodcocks find the females and vice-versa.

At this time of the year, at twilight, the males perform an elaborate display to draw attention to themselves. The display lasts about 20 minutes, and their stage is called a "singing ground." But if the female woodcocks can find them, so can predators. And even curious humans.

Last night, we led a group of Ijams visitors in search of a male woodcock at the 400-acre Forks of the River Wildlife Management Area. The trick is being in the right place at the right time. But where? Four hundred acres is a sizable search site.

Woodcocks like old clearings, former farmland that's becoming wooded once again. Ten years ago we discovered a nondescript singing ground, and for the tenth year in a row it proved to be spot on. At 6:54 p.m., with the sun vanquished below the horizon and darkness slipping into our location, we were hidden in the bushes, roughly fifteen feet from where the chunky ground-bird began its performance. "Peent. Peent. Peent. Peent."

Thanks to all. The annual Ijams' Woodcock Walk is my unofficial kickoff to spring. We'll do it again. Same time, same place next year.

Group in search of a singing ground.

Saturday, March 6, 2010


James T. Tanner was born in this house on North Main Street in Homer, New York on March 6, 1914.

His father C.J. owned a dry goods store a few blocks south in the center of town.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

River of Doubt

“The River of Doubt, moreover, was one of the worst places on earth to be sick. Unless they were too weak to walk, the men had no choice but to work in order to keep the expedition moving. Shaking and sweating, they carried baggage, lowered canoes through rapids and cut away underbrush to set up camp. The alternating intense heat and pounding rains added to their misery, as did their festering wounds, which made them even more susceptible to disease. From the insects that fed from their bloodstreams to the parasites that teemed in their food, the rain forests was filled with creatures that had evolved to exploit every weakness or vulnerability that the men might suffer. “The very pathetic myth of “beneficent nature,” Roosevelt wrote “could not deceive even the least wise being if he once saw for himself the iron cruelty of life in the tropics,” writes Candice Millard.

Wow. What a story. What an adventure. Teddy Roosevelt, after his political career was over, led a trip down an uncharted, unknown river in South America, through the jungle, through malaria country, through rapids, around waterfalls, watched all the while by hostile Indians who had never seen a white man or even a canoe, who could kill with poison-tipped arrows, silently, at night. Intense. The expedition almost killed the Bull Moose Teddy; he was far too old to take on such a challenge. It did kill other, younger men. Did I say “wow.”

I had never heard of this story until I discovered Millard’s “The River of Doubt.” That was my misfortune.

What a superb page turning, thrill ride. And it's all true.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

iron wall

“The only time there is a suggestion of an iron wall in front of me is in winter, when ice and snow have blotted out the landscape, and I find that it is in this season that my mind dwells most fondly upon my favorite themes. Winter drives a man back upon himself, and tests his powers of self-entertainment.”

- From “Wake-Robin” first published in 1871 by John Burroughs

- Photo taken at Ijams Nature Center

Monday, March 1, 2010


- Photo: ridge line leading to Mt. Mingus in the Great Smokies