Monday, May 31, 2010

vision quest

Salamanders are rather straightforward. They’re amphibians, living “two” lives. Born in water much like frogs, they breathe through gills, and as they age develop lungs, living their sodden adult lives in or near water or other damp environ.

And then there are the newts, types of salamanders that have an extra, third developmental stage. Called an eft, the juveniles change colors and live terrestrially. The young larvae are brown-green in color, as are the adults. But the juvenile red efts are orangish with darker red spots outlined in black. But you know how teenagers are, so eager to stand out and be independent.

Perhaps their terrestrial stage is similar to a Vision Quest, were they go to the desert to seek enlightenment—a forty-days, forty-nights sort of thing—realizing in the end, that the damp life is the best life.

As Dorothy learned, “There’s no place like home.” It’s a thought.

- Photo of Eastern newt, a.k.a. red-spotted newt, was taken at Ijams Nature Center. Thanks, Jennifer!

Sunday, May 30, 2010

like water

The best people are like water.

They benefit all things,

And do not compete with them.

They settle in low places,

One with Nature, one with Tao.

- Lao Tzu, ancient Chinese philosopher

And I should add that they understand
that oil and water just do not mix.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

proof pages

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, the famous remnant population of ivory-bills first rediscovered and photographed in 1935 on Cornell's Dr. Arthur Allen's expedition across the country with Peter Paul Kellogg and grad student Jim Tanner.

I hold in my hands the proof pages of “Ghost Birds: Jim Tanner and the Quest for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, 1935-1941.”

The proof pages are essentially the book in loose sheets. If I drop them on the floor, it'll be the devil putting the lot back in the proper order. I'm reading it for the last time and with the help of Karen Sue, preparing an index.

The book follows Tanner on his peregrinations through the South. Although the title is a long one, so was Tanner's search. Quest is the key word, the road miles, the swamp miles, the slogging through the mud miles. Over the course of his journey through eight southern states—South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, Arkansas, Texas—Jim used a 1931 Model A Ford, canoe, dugout "pirogue," rowboat, motorboat, kicker boat, rented airplane, horse, mule and, most importantly, his own two legs: on dry land, mud and ankle-, knee- and waist-deep water. At one point he jokingly said, "A pair of webbed feet would have been useful."

I've been working on Ghosts Birds for the past three years—about a hundred zillion hours, give or take a million or two—with Jim's widow Nancy, who only lives a few miles from my house. Her home became my home away from home.

"Ghost Birds: Jim Tanner and the Quest for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, 1935-1941" will be published in early fall by the University of Tennessee Press. It'll be available at Ijams Nature Center and other locations in the real and virtual marketplace.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

got milk?

Yesterday's beetle was green with white spots, today's red with black spots. Oh, the variety.

The milkweed beetle eats milkweed leaves, thus filling itself with toxic milky sap. The red color warns predator birds that it is unpalatable, so it has no need to hide itself away.

- Photos taken at Ijams Nature Center

Sunday, May 23, 2010

emerald tiger

Being a ten-year-old boy at heart, I always look forward to June and the appearance of the summertime insects.

This week, I got an early preview.

The metallic, emerald green, six-spotted tiger beetle is a tiny predator that lives up to its name: tiger. They eat small insects, spiders and snails. The males are also somewhat possessive of their females. It is reported that after they mate, the male rides on her back to keep other male six-spotted tiger beetles from entertaining her affections.

- Photo at Ijams Nature Center

Friday, May 21, 2010


God forbid, if I should ever post a photo simply because it was cute. God forbid.

Well, God forbid. Education director Jennifer Moore took our new baby opossum out for a stroll two days ago. And if you can get a sugar rush from eating too many sweets, is it possible to overdose on cute? Well then find me a place to come down from my drunkenness.

The baby opossum is the newest member of our education staff at the nature center. She has a vision problem in one eye and would not survive very long in the wild. Our wildlife biologist Pam and vet Dr. Louise worked out her transfer from UT Veterinary Teaching Hospital where the young marsupial was treated after being rescued from the wild.

- Photo taken at Ijams Nature Center.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

macho girl?

Boys will be boys, and girls will be girls.

Over the years I've heard from many people about male birds attacking windows. Recently, I received a call from someone about a female bird filled with the same sort of swaggering bravado.

For the rest of the story, visit this week's farragutpress.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

rah-coonus wet

Mid-morning and damp. Rain had fallen off and on all night. A last, slow drizzle was easing up and the clouds beginning to lift when I encountered the raccoon grooming her wet fur. Although she was 30 to 40 feet above the ground, I was upslope, which put us on the same level. Eye to eye, so to speak. But she paid me no mind and continued her morning cleanup.

As a general rule, raccoons are nocturnal. But having said that, you are apt to see them out and about during daylight in May and June.

Female raccoons birth their young in hollow trees high off the ground. At this time of the year they need extra nutrients and have to forage more often, even during the day, even in the rain with wet fur.

- Photo taken on mountain overlooking Gatlinburg, Tennessee

Monday, May 17, 2010


I suspect there may be more than one pair of blue-gray gnatcatchers nesting in the trees that surround the plaza in front of the Visitor Center at Ijams. Their lispy, high-pitched "zee-you, zee-you, zee-you" seems to be ubiquitous.

Naturalist Emily Boves finally located one of the small lichen covered nests in the top of a red maple by the front door.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

first berries

The mockingbirds already know this, but the serviceberries are ripe.

Known as "sarvis" by the old-time mountaineers, the modest-sized trees are the first to produce ripe berries during any calendar year.

And I might add that the berries are delicious.

- Photo taken at Ijams Nature Center

Friday, May 14, 2010

not a panda

“Can we find a panda bear?” the little girl in the second grade at Dandridge Elementary asked me.

I was leading her class on a guided nature walk at Ijams. The topic of the morning was animals and their habitats but finding a panda in South Knoxville was probably not going to happen.

On the River Trail east of the boardwalk we did encounter a prothonotary warbler working its way trough the understory above the Tennessee River. The class could tell we had found a wondrous thing by my excitement. I hopped up and down, “There’s a beautiful bird,” I exclaimed. “A prothonotary that likes to nest in a tree near the water.”

The bright lemon yellow and gray New World warblers often raise their families in abandoned downy woodpecker holes. And even though it was not a panda bear, I think they were excited as well, but second graders have trouble containing their everyday characteristic enthusiasm, so how could I tell?

Thursday, May 13, 2010

leave them be

At this time of the year, Sheila gets a lot of phone calls at the front desk. Many of the callers ask questions like:

“I found a baby bird, do you want it?” or “I’ve got a baby robin, it’s fallen out of its nest, how do I raise it?”

Last Saturday we arrived at work to find a basket with baby birds inside. No note. Nothing. A trio of orphans set adrift like Moses in the bulrushes times three. In this case, staff member Kara Remington played the role of the Pharaoh's daughter.

As Ijams veterinarian Dr. Louise Conrad says, “Unless you find the bloody dead parent, don’t assume it’s an orphan.”

Baby birds are fidgety; they often fall or get pushed from their nest. The parents are well aware of where they are but cannot retrieve them. But they continue to bring food to the nestlings. They’re good parents. When their wings develop, the young bird flies to rejoin its family.

Dr. Conrad says that research also shows that if something does happen to the parent birds and the young are truly orphaned, other parent birds of the same species will often bring food to the calling orphan. In other words, an adult robin may respond to the food call and bring food to an orphan of its own kind.

Baby birds need to be fed several times an hour. They grow very quickly. It’s a difficult task for a human; besides, we cannot teach a wild robin how to be a wild robin. It is also against state and federal laws to adopt a baby bird as a pet.

Wild animals need to remain wild. Nature finds a way. In this case, doing the right thing means leaving them alone.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010


In the Great Smokies, LeConte Creek begins high on the slope of its namesake mountain, flows north cascading in a fine spray 80-feet over Rainbow Falls and tumbles rapidedly downhill to pass Cherokee Orchard south of Gatlinburg.

Near the streambank at the onetime orchard is where we found the showy orchis (Galearis spectabilis, i.e. helmet spectacular) in bloom. The lilac tinted sepals and petals overlap, forming a hood or "helmet" over the white lower lip.

native stonecrop

Like an open star cluster swirling in deep space,

or mountain stonecrop (Sedum ternatum) is the most widespread native Sedum species in eastern North America. Generally found growing on rocks, as the one I recently photographed near LeConte Creek in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

This native stonecrop can be distinguished from other sedums, native and cultivated, which are commonly found in the U.S. by the white flowers with four (not five) petals—others are yellow or pink—and by the leaves in whorls of three.

- Photo taken in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Monday, May 10, 2010

mom day bear

Like most of you, I went to visit my mother on Mother’s Day. Well, I suppose you actually visited your own mothers, but if you visited mine, I’m sure she appreciated it.

My mother lives in Gatlinburg at the top of a long and steep paved driveway. Located next to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, just about everything in the mountain resort is built on an incline. If you ever fall down, you practically roll to the center of the town. I grew up on Baskins Creek, a name that evolved from the "bearskins" that were once dried along its streambanks.

A few years ago, we had just begun to settle down for a Mother's Day lunch when mom walked out on the deck.

“Come quick,” she shouted. “Bear. Bear.” And indeed, outside a Smoky Mountain black bear was galloping up the driveway. Was it on its way to visit my mother too?

When I arrived at the sliding glass door, the running Ursus americanus took notice and altered its course to enter the woods opposite the house; climbing the hillside quickly, it soon disappeared. It was a young bear, not a cub and certainly not full-grown, perhaps a yearling; lanky and long-legged without the waddlesome paunch you’d expect on a bear.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

they are as they are

“Well, look at an animal, a cat, a dog, or a bird, or one of those beautiful great beasts in the zoo, a puma or a giraffe. You can’t help seeing that all of them are right. They’re never in any embarrassment. They always know what to do and how to behave themselves. They don’t flatter and they don’t intrude. They don’t pretend. They are as they are, like stones or flowers or stars in the sky. Don’t you agree?”

They are what they are. Natural.

- From "Steppenwolf " by Hermann Hesse (1877-1962), German-born Swiss poet, novelist and painter. Won Nobel Prize for Literature in 1946.

Saturday, May 8, 2010


Do you ever feel like you're on a runaway train? Dashing from one stop to the next. Clickety-clack. Clickety-clack. Over scheduled? Over connected? Spread thin to the point of feeling veneered. Well he thinks his layers are coming unglued. Did he mix his metaphors? Refer to himself in the third person? Yet, another sign of a mind in disarray.

Of late, morning coffee is just something he guzzles on his way to work. This A.M., he put the brakes on and savored on the front porch, listening to the birdsong. The one that caught his ear above the others, was the ca-ca-ca-cough of the cuckoo. High overhead in the canopy where it likes to hang out.

Yellow-billed cuckoos eat insects, especially the tent caterpillars that are so abundant, crawling through the treetops at this time of the year. For a brief time late yesterday, Rachael became a cuckoo's bird feeder, if only it had taken the bait.

He wonders what the fuzzy little things taste like? Are they something to savor or guzzle? Dare he try one? Oops, yet another sign of a mind in disarray.

Friday, May 7, 2010

to dye for

Bob and Lynne Davis e-mailed last week. They had located, and Lynne identified, a colony of hoary puccoon, a.k.a. yellow puccoon, (Lithospermum canescens) growing off Kimberlin Heights and John Sevier Highway in South Knoxville.

The wildflower prefers full-sun and mesic (balanced supply of moisture) to dry conditions with soil that contains significant amounts of loam, gravel or sand.

“Puccoon” is an Algonquian word for a number of plants that were once used as sources of dyes. In this case, a reddish color used for pottery, basketry and personal ornamentation in various ceremonies.

Thursday, May 6, 2010


The next time you find yourself at a convention of dendrologists in Boise, here’s a way to slip into the conversation: mention Kentucky yellowwood. Just say you saw one in bloom at Ijams Nature Center and the tree folk will smile accordingly.

Modest-sized, yellowwoods are one of the rarest trees of eastern North America, principally found on the limestone cliffs of Kentucky, Tennessee and North Carolina. They do not bloom every year but when they do, it’s festive. The white flowers are fragrant and dangle in wisteria-like racemes.

Donald Culross Peattie writes, “An icy ran was falling—rain that presently turned to blinding snow—and the roaring creeks of Tennessee were rising fast, on the last day of February, 1796, when André Michaux stopped his horse, somewhere in the lonely woods twelve miles from Fort Blount, to examine a curious tree.” The famed French plantsman knew he was looking at a tree few white men had ever seen.

Currently there’s four in bloom near the parking lot at the nature center.

- Photos taken at Ijams Nature Center

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

my round home

Hello! Is there anyone out there?

I’ve always been a fan of architect Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic domes, but those had flat bottoms. How about a completely round home? No corners to lose things in.

Tree swallow nesting in the Tennessee Valley, and even our state, is a fairly recent occurrence.

According to Chuck Nicholson, author of the "Atlas of Breeding Bird of Tennessee," published by UT Press, the first recorded tree swallow nest in Tennessee was discovered in 1918 at Reelfoot Lake. It wasn’t until 1968 that other nests were documented, this time in Anderson and Maury Counties. After that, nests have been reported every year and since the late 1980s, the nesting population has increased dramatically. Today, they’re fairly common in throughout the state.

Tree swallows nest in empty cavities, hollow trees, bluebird boxes or even empty round gourds. Unlike their cousins, the colony-loving purple martins, the dark blue-green backed tree swallows prefer to build their nests isolated from other swallows.

- Photo taken at Ijams Nature Center

Monday, May 3, 2010

where's the orange?

"Our word for the color orange comes from the translated 'naranja,' the Spanish word for the citrus fruit introduced to the English-speaking world through the court of Henry VIII in 1512. Oranges are native to Southeast Asia and were once known as 'Chinese apples.' Before the fruit was introduced to Britain, the color was known in Old English as 'geoluhread,' which means yellow-red, a fitting descriptor because orange is the combination of those two primary colors.

Orange flowers get their color from carotene, the same biological pigment found in carrots. And although flowering plants are noted for their wide range of colors, there are pitifully few orange flowers. As it turns out, nature is rather parsimonious with the color.

The famous Peterson's Field Guide of Wildflowers first published in 1968, divides its contents by color. The book contains 1,293 wildflowers. There are 104 pages of yellow flowers, 100 pages of red ones, 96 of white and 50 of violet to blue. But, hold onto your hat, there’s only four pages of orange. Yes, four! There are more pages of green and brown flowers than orange. If you want to become an expert at flower identification, start with orange, there’s not that many to learn.

Why nature shuns the color is a mystery..."

For the rest of the article I penned about the scarcity of orange flowers check out the May/June 2010 issue of the Tennessee Conservationist now available.

Special thanks to editor Louise Zepp and to Kris Light for providing me with the cover photograph.