Friday, April 30, 2010


Jewels. They're feathered jewels. Gold. Red. Orange. Blue. Even streaked in black-and-white.

They're there for all to see, and flash, like the ephemeral wildflowers, the feathered woodland sprites are gone. That's part of their beauty, their evanescence. Did I see it? Or did I not? Here one minute, gone the next. Dozens of migrating warblers are flitting through the valley.

"A black-and-white warbler marked with script flies down. Disappears. No warbler stays visible for long."

Indeed. They induce light-headedness but like the champagne's bubbles. Pop. Pop. Pop. They're gone. Gone. Gone.

-Quote from “The Inland Island” by Josephine Johnson

Thursday, April 29, 2010

like butter

Now that the leaves are on the trees, the surge to flower moves out into the open. The woodlands are dappled or deep in shade and the early ephemerals—bloodroot, corydalis, celandine poppies—have come and gone; the plants' remaining energy is used to produce fruit, pods, seeds. Their moment in the sun has passed.

This week, in addition to the phacelia in bloom on Dickinson Island, many of the open fields are glazed in the buttery gold of buttercups.

- Photo taken on River Divide Road in Sevier County

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

spotted field

Pilot and wildflower aficionado Bob Davis sent me this image of a field of Appalachian phacelia in bloom on Dickinson Island the site of the downtown airport.

Bob and his wife Lynne (also a pilot) are always on the lookout for wildflowers and wide open spaces...just in case.

Thanks, Bob

Tuesday, April 27, 2010


"Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you."

- Coen Brothers, albeit attributed to Rashi

I'm sure Joel and Ethan would appreciate this dark bit of irony. Just when I muse: Who could possibly kill a Chip or Dale? A dead Chip or Dale turns up in my front yard with the neighborhood cat lurking in the background. She had opportunity, but I'm fuzzy on her motive.

I did hear however that because we had two good fall mast crops in a row, the population of mice and chipmunks is high, so that maybe, nature is just finding an equilibrium. The cat was only playing her role in the dance

It's a thought.

Monday, April 26, 2010

life in the skies

To say Jonathan Rosen’s “The Life of the Skies: Birding at the End of Nature” is a book about birding is like saying the Queen Mary was a boat. Well yes it was, or is, but it is so much more.

At its core is the author’s newfound love of birding, which the New Yorker practices in Central Park. It’s a spiritual connection to birds and nature or as he cites famed biologist E.O. Wilson, a “biophilia,” the love of life.

Through the book’s series of connected essays, Rosen also manages to trace the history of our relationship to birds through the writings and lives of literary and historic figures: Audubon, Thoreau, Darwin, Wallace, Dickinson, Whitman, Faulkner, Theodore Roosevelt, to name a few.

But to balance these spiritually uplifting sentiments, Rosen weaves in a cloud of melancholy. The book begins and ends with the story of the ivory-billed woodpecker, a bird that he points out “does and does not exist.” Is it extinct or not? And if it is extinct, what does that say about us?

“The Life of the Skies” is a positive title, but his darker subhead “Birding at the End of Nature” is the real crux of his work or his woes. As anyone who loves birds already knows, species are disappearing all over the world. The author uses a line from poet Robert Frost to bring this point home: “What to make of a diminished thing.” Indeed. What do we make of a truly diminished natural world? The America of Audubon is gone. In the closing day's of Jim Tanner's search for the ivory-billed woodpecker, he too realized that their world—large tracts of old forested swamps in the South—were also almost gone.

How SHOULD we feel, loving a thing that does and does not exist?

Excellent book.

Sunday, April 25, 2010


Despite what we humans tend to do to ourselves, the simpleness of the act somehow helps to restore faith in the natural order. Quiet. Gentle. Divine. The maples that bloomed in late winter have completed the process. Yesterday, the slightest wind dislodged their ripe winged seeds called keys (or more formerly—samaras). Without fanfare, nature’s perfectly designed auto-rotating helicopters gently glided to the ground. The keys begin to twirl and ride the wind as soon as they are released from the branch.

When we were kids, we'd play with them endlessly. Toys were much cheaper back then. It’s a lovely thing to watch.

- Photo Ijams Nature Center

Saturday, April 24, 2010


On a recent visit from Chicago, Harald Schmidt had a good morning. Last Sunday, he was on the river at Alcoa Highway and Topside Road.

Harald e-mails, “At one point I could hear some birds making a lot of noise in a nearby tree. While walking closer, I saw this very large bird sitting in the tree. When he saw me he took off and I was only to get one photo.”

In addition to the bald eagle, Harald also got photos of an osprey, red-tailed hawk, turkey vulture and finally a great blue heron.

There was a lot of airborne traffic that morning.

Thanks, Harald.

- Photos by Harald Schmidt

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

catch & hold

Wayne Mallinger from Madisonville in Monroe County, East Tennessee sent me this remarkable series of photos: a Cooper's hawk in Wayne's backyard. The raptor had just caught a mourning dove.

Wayne e-mailed, "I believe it was a dove. It was still flopping around when the hawk was trying to pin it down (photo 1). I took the photos from about 75 feet away. I was shaking, shocked at what I was witnessing."


Thanks, Wayne.

- Photos by Wayne Mallinger

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

field of blue

Bob and Lynne Davis visited William Hastie Park (off old Sevierville Pike in South Knoxville) on its recent Dedication Day.

Bob emailed, "Last night we discovered a whole drainage area filled with what seemed like millions of flowering blue phlox!"

They were located off the View Park Trail going up the hill from the central picnic area near the pond.

Thanks, Bob.

-Photo by Bob Davis.

Monday, April 19, 2010

hummer time

Now that red buckeye is blooming, the hummingbirds should be back. Has anyone seen one?

Sunday, April 18, 2010


Staff naturalist Emily Boves heard a yellow-throated vireo, an early migrant, working its way through the shumard oaks on the plaza in front of the Visitor Center at Ijams three days ago.

As with vireos, the phrases are rhythmic and well spaced with dramatic pauses in between. The numeric mnemonic to remember the yellow-throat's song is "three-EIGHT ...... three-EIGHT ...... three-EIGHT ...... three-EIGHT."

The shumard oaks are also the area we tend to see and hear blue-gray gnatcatchers.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

we need slop

It looks like we may get a little rain today. And we need rain to create a little slop; the sloppier the better, perfect growing conditions for Virginia bluebells, a.k.a. cowslip.

This second commonly used name comes from the Anglo-Saxon word “cuslyppe,” or cow slop. Now, how aromatic sounding is that? Brings back memories of life on the farm. I’ve trudged through these kinds of places and as you might guess: you have to watch your step.

Bluebells flourish in low-lying damp locations and the well-fertilized soil of sloppy cow pastures.

This brings to mind an Ancient Greek axiom: "beauty can grow from a lowly root, fed by unpleasing things." Squalor. Or to modernize the notion: beauty is often found in the most unlikely places, all you have to do is be receptive. Or in this case, slop through the mud to find it.

- Photo taken at Ijams Nature Center

Friday, April 16, 2010

lush green earth

Sally Judiscak and I will be at the Ijams Nature Center booth at this year's EarthFest tomorrow at Pellissippi State's main campus off Hardin Valley Road.

Please stop by and say hello. And celebrate our lush green Earth.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

mystery nester?

Hugh Willett found a mystery nest on top of his truck's engine. But what built it?

For the complete story read the farragutpress.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

sing along

"Barred owl sitting in a redbud tree" (Best if sung to the tune of "Blackbird" by Lennon and McCartney, although I think Paul actually wrote it, not edgy enough for the walrus. Goo goo g'joob. )

Redbud is in bloom at the nature center. How do I know? The barred owl told me.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

nature most fluid

One of the things I learned in my botany classes at UT: species names and even their dividing lines are ever so fluid, especially among plants. And my Peterson's Field Guide is from 1968. After Rikki Hall's comment yesterday, I visited Dr. Wofford's UT Herbarium's website. (A marvelous resource!)

Indeed, Dr. Wofford only lists two species of Corydalis in Tennessee. The one we have in bloom at Ijams Nature Center is C. flavula; C. sempervirens is listed as endangered in the state.

Thanks, Rikki.

Monday, April 12, 2010

crested corydalis

It's hard not to notice the spring ephemerals, they're popping up daily. And then they're gone. POP! POOF! The bloodroot I blogged last week is already past flower.

Another yellow wildflower is blooming. This one is a bit challenging to ID. You can tell by the leaves that it's related to squirrel corn and Dutchman's breeches, but the flowers are much smaller and yellow.

According to my Peterson's Wildflower Field Guide (Roger Tory co-authored with Margaret McKenny. He did the illustrations.) there are three species of corydalis: C. flavula, C. aurea and C. micrantha. The differences are in the shape of the small flowers themselves. C. flavula (yellow corydalis) has a toothed crest on the upper petal; C. aurea (golden corydalis) does not; and C. micrantha (slender corydalis) has a straight or upturned spur, slight crest, no teeth.

Got that?

Any who. The one in the photo, the one growing along the North Cove Trail at Ijams, is yellow corydalis. It has a toothed crest.

Now you know in case it turns up on Alex Trebek's Jeopardy! under the heading "Almost Totally Too Much Information" for $1,000.

mourning has broken

For this Lepidopteran, morning has truly broken. (A slightly veiled reference to Cat Stevens.)

I saw my first butterfly of the season—a mourning cloak—last week along the North Cove Trail at the nature center. It was a sunny day and the winged adult was taken full advantage of the pleasant conditions.

In this country, the butterfly owes its folk name to our early Scandinavian settlers, it comes from their Swedish moniker "sorgmantel," which literally translates to "mourning cloak."

Mourning cloaks are butterflies of the woodlands. They overwinter as adults, finding a safe place to tuck themselves away, having to hide to go unmolested. Doug Collicut writes, "They spend the winter frozen in "cryo-preservation,” frozen alive in tree cavities, beneath loose tree bark or in unheated buildings. Virtually anywhere they can fit into, to protect them from winter winds and keep them out of the view of birds and squirrels, will do as a hibernaculum (an overwintering den).”

And after enduring the long, dark cold weather months. They'll flutter free, find a mate, reproduce and soon die.

Doesn't hardly seem fair, does it?

Sunday, April 11, 2010

rainy day hikers

"Rain, rain, go away, Thursday Hiker’s need to play. No matter, despite the drizzly weather, we played on. I’m sure we all watched the weather forecast before leaving home, and it didn’t look too promising. Just as we arrived in the Ijams parking lot the rain started, then the skies darkened, then it lightened, then we scampered to the shelter of the visitor center porch to wait it out," emailed group member Bill Little.

Despite the heavy, heavy rains last Thursday the group had a good, albeit soggy hike around the trails at the nature center. The Thursday Hikers are from all over: Kingston, Morristown, Gatlinburg, Maryville, Knoxville. Bill says that on average 35 hikers take part in the Thursday outings.

Come back again. Ijams is even prettier when the sun is shining.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

ivory-bill talk

Join us at Ijams Nature Center for this month's Science Café: Thurs., April 15, 5:30 p.m.

I'll hold an informal chat about the behind-the-scenes research for my upcoming book “Ghost Birds: Jim Tanner and the Ivory-bill, 1935-1941.”

My second book for UT Press will detail the story of Dr. James T. Tanner and his study of the historic ivory-billed woodpecker of the 1930s. It's the famous small population of ivory-bills first rediscovered and photographed in the "Singer Tract" by Cornell's Dr. Arthur Allen on his 1935 expedition across the country with Peter Paul Kellogg and grad student Jim Tanner.

My book follows Tanner on his peregrinations through the South. What did he learn? What did I learn? Attend this month’s Science Café for a sneak peak and find out. Nancy Tanner and I have worked on the book the past three years. Nancy, who last saw an ivory-bill in December 1941, will also be present for the talk.

To register call Sheila at (865) 577-4717, ext. 10.

"Ghost Birds: Jim Tanner and the Ivory-bill, 1935-1941" will be published this fall by UT Press.

Friday, April 9, 2010

squirrel corn?

Love these names.

The next few weeks, be on the lookout for stinking Willie, wake robin, red dead-nettle, shooting star, lizard’s tail, gill-over-the-ground, toad shade, bleeding heart and Dutchman’s breeches. Many of these are in bloom at the nature center.

A wildflower that’s closely related to the last two on this list gets its name not from what you see but from what you don’t see–under the ground.

Squirrel corn has yellow corms that look like kernels of Grandma Pearlie Mae's sweet corn. It’s reported that hungry squirrels are fond of digging up and eating these small underground bulbs.

Curious about the taste, I’ve asked several gray squirrels. All refused to commit even after generous bribes of toast and peanut butter. But that's just the way it is. If you want information, don't go to a squirrel; they are notoriously parsimonious with what they are willing to share.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

celandine time

Celandine, as in celandine poppy, comes from the Greek: chelīdónion, a derivative of chelīdṓn or swallow—the bird, not the act of guzzling.

The poppy is called celandine because it is said that the yellow woodland ephemeral blooms when the swallows return in the spring. Although tree swallows have been back for several weeks, I've yet to see a rough-winged or barn swallow, but that doesn't mean they are not here.

- Photo taken on River Trail at Ijams Nature Center

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

froggy weather

The spring peepers and chorus frogs have been crooning at the nature center for several weeks, but yesterday's mild temperatures brought out some of the larger herps: green frogs and bullfrogs. (The one in the photo is very young. I think I can make out slight dorsal ridges, so I suspect it's an immature green frog.)

Neither are calling yet. But that's just only a matter of time.

- Photo taken at Ijams Nature Center

wildflower couches

"Spring has returned and has begun to unfold her beautiful array, to throw herself on wild-flower couches, to walk around on the hills and summon her songsters to do her sweet homage."

- From the journal of Ralph Waldo Emerson

- Violets blooming along South Haven in Knoxville.

Monday, April 5, 2010

new leaf

It seems that everywhere I look, we're turning over a new leaf. (In this case, it's a red maple.) And it's happened in a matter of hours. After our long dreary gray winter, we're morphing into something fresher.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

deleted scenes

Thank you for reading my book about Jim Tanner and the ivory-billed woodpecker. I could have easily written 500 or 600 pages on the topic, but books have to be contained.

Like a two-and-a-half rough-cut movie that has to be trimmed down to two hours, the last two months of editing were all about nipping scenes and background information. At times I felt like I was lopping off my fingers and toes. (Don't worry fans of the Coen Brothers' "The Big Lebowski," I'm still intact: all ten digits are accounted for.)

So keeping with the movie analogy, this is the special features section my DVD. From time to time, I'll add deleted scenes and other background information that I collected but was unable to include in the final product.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

no sting

To someone, dead-nettle looked like a nettle but it didn't sting like a nettle so it became known as dead-nettle.

But red dead-nettle, a.k.a. purple dead-nettle, (it's really a red-purple, with purplish leaves, red pollen and lavender flowers) isn't a nettle at all, it's a mint. Actually the low-growing weed is a highly invasive alien to my part of the world; it's originally from Europe and Asia but now blooms profusely in lawns and meadows and other open cultivated places early in the season. By summer, it'll be gone.

Friday, April 2, 2010

book update

An update on “Ghost Birds: Jim Tanner and the Ivory-bill, 1935-1941”:

Writing a book is like running a marathon. Not one of those modern 26-mile marathons; one more like the original ran by Pheidippides, the Athenian herald, who ran 150 miles (240 km) in two days. He then ran an additional 25 miles (40 km) from the battlefield near the town of Marathon (hence the name) to Athens to announce the Greek victory over Persia in the Battle of Marathon (490 BC). Newspapers hadn't been invented yet.

That’s what writing a book is like. Just when you think you are finished, there’s little more to do. Has anyone seen my sneakers? The book has been through the capable hands of Gene Adair, the manuscript editor at UT Press. Gene continued the process of tightening the work. Much like a film director’s rough-cut movie that must be trimmed from a running time of two-and-a-half hours down to two-hours, “Ghost Birds” is being trimmed, scenes shortened or deleted. (If there’s a DVD produced, I’ll consider including the deleted scenes.)

Currently, the manuscript is back in my lap for my last nips and tucks. Nancy Tanner and I are both rereading it.

I’ll keep you posted.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

eagle spotting

Bob Davis, a pilot that flies out of Island Airport located within a mile of downtown Knoxville, reported seeing a bald eagle recently.

Bob e-mailed, "Today, while towing the two-seat glider over Williams Golf Course [east of the city], I flew by one mature bald eagle that was soaring under the clouds."