Tuesday, June 29, 2010

such a moth

I managed to get another photo of the ermine moth known as the Ailanthus webworm.
As a general rule, moths are nocturnal and drab. The males and females find each other in the dark of the night by scent or that certain je ne sais quoi. When it's right, it's right, you just know it.

But this ermine is anything but drab. It's actually rather flashy. Something I didn't notice before: the white markings on the legs. This is one fancy lepidopteran, and it's only about three-quarters of an inch long! The closer you look at nature, the closer you want to look. It's infinitely more fascinating than anything you can find on the Internet, so turn your computer off and go outside.


Monday, June 28, 2010

Chota with the boys

Whip-or-wills on Mother’s Day

“I was reading Natural Histories by Stephen Lyn Bales. And as good timing would have it, I read the chapter on Whip-or-wills on Mother’s Day in May. The story of the Cherokee Chief Oconastota was weaved into this chapter, and the place of his burial happens to be the best place in our area to hear Whip-or-wills. I was very moved by the whole chapter, and the exquisite way the author connected our history to this elusive bird. I made an impromptu decision and said to my two sons, “Let’s get in the car boys, we’re going to Chota.”

“At an hour before sunset, we headed down the trail to Chota monument. Just like the author described, we saw Orchard Orioles and Indigo Buntings as we walked. Once there, we visited the grave of Oconastota, and my boys thought it fitting to put some stones and wildflowers on his grave marker. In the center of the pillar monument was a rectangular stone slab with
a bathtub-shaped indentation. The three of us lay down in the center of the stone slab and felt the warmth of the sun still in the rock. Each boy was cradled in each arm, and we looked up at the sky and waited for the first Chuck-wills-widows to start their songs. The light faded to nothing; the Chucks were whistling their songs, and the 6-year-old boy was getting spooked by the Indian Spirits he was sure he was seeing. Then we heard the Whip-or-will. I stood by the waters edge, and cupped one hand at an ear towards the Chucks, and cupped the other ear towards the Whips, and stood in sheer joy to hear both birds at once, in such
a beautiful, sacred place.

“On the way out of the parking lot, I saw eye-shine in the road. I knew it was one of our singers, a Chuck or a Whip, which one I will never know, but a first sighting for me either way. I slowly
drove closer, and the bird flew low over the car before disappearing in the dark. I was so happy to see the bird, and so happy to end the day so beautifully. My boys will always remember how a
bird can thrill their mother.

“And from now on, I will go to Chota at sunset on Mother’s Day, hopefully with my sons. A wonderful book spawned a wonderful new tradition for a nature-loving mother and her two precious boys.”

- By Janet Lee McKnight

Respectfully reprinted from the June 2010 issue of “through the BiKNOXulars,” the newsletter for the Knoxville Chapter of the Tennessee Ornithological Society.

Natural Histories published by UT Press.

Thanks, Janet.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Amy's happiness II

A follow-up to last week's bluebird post:

Amy Barton writes, "I cannot thank you enough for the wonderful articles you wrote about my bluebirds. The female laid her second clutch of eggs a couple days ago. Both she and her mate have been getting a steady diet of meal worms. I bought another 1000 a week ago after they both sat on the roof of their house and kept staring at me while I worked outside. I always call to them at mealtime and they have learned that when I say 'bluebirds, here's your worms, come and get them! It's time to eat.' Thanks again for all your advice and remembrance of my Grandmother's love of bluebirds."

And then a second e-mail from Amy a few days later:

"Well I am certain the eggs are laid. The female stays in the box most of the time. I feed about 16 meal worms twice a day and they always share them. One will land on the container first (sometimes the female, sometimes the male) and eat a few worms while its mate waits patiently on top of the box. Then they will switch positions and the other bird gets to eat worms also. When the female begins to gather worms in her beak and take them to her nest, then the eggs have hatched. For now, they eat worms one at a time.

Sometimes the male seems to get a particularly wiggly worm and he flies over to the driveway and repositions it on the cement before eating. 'Guess he doesn't want to risk having to look for it in grass should he drop it!"

Thanks, Amy.

Friday, June 25, 2010

wauchula connection

Enthralling. Disturbing. Up-lifting.

Yes, somehow author Charles Siebert manages a hat trick.

The central narrative in the book The Wauchula Woods Accord, is the surprising connection, i.e. relationship that spontaneously happens between the author and Roger, a “humanzee”: a chimpanzee that has spent his entire life living with humans, now being forced to retire in the company of other chimps. Roger must somehow find his inner chimp relinquishing his humanity. But is that even possible? Can his human/chimp psyche even be stretched that far? Isn’t it too much to ask of him emotionally? And just where is the line between humanity and "chimpanity"?

Even though Roger’s great ape retirement village is idyllic, he sits alone, plagued by insomnia, self-isolated from the other members of his species.

As the book progresses, Siebert dismantles the notion of anthropomorphism: the projection of human behaviors and emotions onto animals. He writes about other very “human-like” qualities found in mammals—great apes, elephants, whales, dolphins—completely dispelling the myth that only people have personalities, emotions, remembrances.

Siebert writes, “And yet it makes no difference any longer that we can’t, as the standard warning against anthropomorphizing goes, possibly know what Roger is thinking. Or what a Roger day is like, or a whale’s, or an elephant’s, or a parrot’s.

“That is one of the peculiar things about this moment we’ve arrived at with the animals. We’ve come to know enough now about the shared biological underpinnings of so many of those brains in Dr. Hof’s cooler that somehow the question of what Roger’s or another animal’s day might be like has become wholly incidental to the fact that they clearly have days, too, and deeply wounded ones.

“Science has obviated anthropomorphism—the crime of projecting our stories upon the animals—by, of all things, repeatedly pointing out to us just how uncomfortably close to our stories so many aspects of theirs actually are."

Along the way, many of Siebert’s side trips are disturbing as he details some of the anguish our kind has wrought upon the world of their kind, but in the final pages he restores our humanity, or at least the sense that it IS possible to heal a wounded psyche. And in the end we come to realize that our species is not alone, only disturbingly self-isolated like Roger.

This book is profound; its implications far-reaching. Why look to outer space for other intelligent life when it surrounds us here on earth.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

crowing for rain

Most birds have gotten rather taciturn now that the heat of summer has settled into the valley. But yesterday afternoon, I heard the rhythmic kha - - kha - - kha - - kha - - kha of a yellow-billed cuckoo in the treetops behind the Visitor Center.

The call always sounds like it's coming from a great distance away. My late grandmother Mary Jane called these birds "rain crows." I'm not sure if their woefully unmelodic calling supposedly foretold of an approaching storm, or the hope of one to cool things off, but yesterday, either would have been fine.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

natal and new

It's still hot. Summer. Heat index: 90s. 100s. Who knows were it'll go.

Spring is over and most of the trees have stopped producing leaves. In fact, some of the foliage is already starting you look a bit wilted and ragged.

Yet, many of the redbuds are still optimist. Still foliating. Still sallying forth. Delicate, red, heart-shaped leaves. Natal and new. But the cool breezes of April are long gone, and goodness, did they pick a sultry—Tennessee Williams: Cat-on-a-Hot-Tin-Roof kind of world to be born into.

How about a glass of ice-cold lemonade?

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

simply dashing

It's official! Summer is here. The heat. The humidity. The dashers. And it all seems to come packaged with a neat little blue bow. That would be the dashers. But how can they be so lively in such hot weather?

The cattails by the pond in front of the Visitor Center have been abuzz this week with the aerial acrobats of the powdery Columbian blue dragonflies known simply as blue dashers, at least the males are that color. (Scientific name: Pachydiplax longipennis, thus proving that entomologists, or perhaps in this case odonatists, have a sense of humor. It actually means "long wings.")

Blue dasher females are not really blue but have yellow spots and red eyes. The males patrol a given area, chasing away all rivals. But if you are patient, each will land long enough on his favorite perch within his territory for you to get a quick photo.

Blue dasher female

Recommended reference "Dragonflies and Damselflies of Georgia and the Southeast" by Giff Beaton.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

what's human?

Can our reasoning mind be purged of coercion,
allowing our heart its unfettered joy?

Can we act like every other species,
seeking no reward,
taking no pride,
guiding without enslaving?

From Verse 10 of "Tao Te Ching" by Lao Tzu (Old Master)
written around the 6th century BC

Twenty-six hundred years later: Perhaps the Gulf Oil Spill has me thinking about our species.

There is a dense concentration of oddly shaped, highly specialized neurons known as “spindle cells" located in the very evolved right frontal cortex of our brains. They are often referred to as the brain cells that “make us human.”

Charles Siebert writes, “In recent imaging tests, spindle cells have been shown to light up in our skulls like summer evening fireflies in response to a variety of different emotional and social stimuli: the picture of a loved one: scenes of others suffering; feelings of personal embarrassment, or guilt, or self-consciousness.”

"Chimps recognize themselves in mirrors, as we know dolphins and elephants do...chimps—like us and elephants and dolphins and who knows how many other species—feel remorse and sorrow, mourning the deaths of relatives and friends."

How human is that?

Spindle cells have also been found in chimpanzees and other primates, and in the brains of dolphins and whales, yet those species do not seem to be fouling their own nest. Perhaps what they do lack is the spindle cell that controls greed.

- Source quoted:
“The Wauchula Accord: Toward a New Understanding of Animals”
published in 2009 by Charles Siebert

Friday, June 18, 2010

a Dubuffet?

High on my "to-do" list was getting a photo of an ermine moth—specifically the Ailanthus webworm—because the boldly patterned, black, white and orange insects remind me of one of my favorite artists, French painter and sculptor Jean Dubuffet. Although I do not remember the color orange as being part of Dubuffet's pallette.

As the names suggests, the moths are generally found on their host plant ailanthus, an introduced tree also known as "Tree of Heaven." The webworm moths are native to the tropics and south Florida but have expanded their range north as the alien trees became widespread.

Nature is in a constant state of flux. Give and take. Yin and Yang.

Although linked to the ailanthus, this week I located several of the short (slightly less than an inch in length) moths on common milkweed at Ijams Nature Center.

Outdoor sculpture
Monument with
Standing Beast

by Jean Dubuffet
located in Chicago.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Amy's happiness

As Monty Python was apt to say, "And now for something completely different."

Recently Amy Barton of Hardin Valley helped a pair of Eastern bluebirds raise their family. The experience kindled the memory of a song her grandmother used to sing to her. For Amy's complete story go to this week's farragutpress.

The "Bluebird of Happiness" composed by Sandor Harmati and Edward Heyman in 1934.

Are only different in name
For they are treated just the same by Fate.
Today a smile and tomorrow a tear
We're never sure what's in store
So learn your lesson before it is too late.
So be like I
Hold your head up high
Till you find the bluebird of happiness.
You will find
Greater peace of mind
Knowing there's a bluebird of happiness.
And when she sings to you
Though you're deep in blue
You will see a ray of light creep through.
And so, remember this
Life is no abyss
Somewhere there's a bluebird of happiness.
The poet with his pen
The peasant with his plow
It makes no difference who you are
It's all the same somehow.
The king upon his throne
The jester at his feet
The artist, the actress
The man on the street.
It's a life of smiles
And a life of tears
It's a life of hope
And a life of fears.
A blinding torrent of rain
And a brilliant burst of sun,
A biting, tearing pain
And bubbling, sparkling fun.
And no matter what you have
Don't envy those you meet,
It's all the same, it's in the game
The bitter and the sweet.
And if things don't look so cheerful
Just show a little fight,
For every bit of darkness
There's a little bit of light.
For every bit of hatred
There's a little bit of love.
For every cloudy morning
There's a midnight moon above.
So don't you forget
You must search
Till you find the bluebird.
You will find peace
And contentment forever
If you will . . .
Be like I
Hold your head up high
Till you find the bluebird of happiness.
You will find
Greater peace of mind
Knowing there's a bluebird of happiness.
And when she sings to you
Though you're deep in blue
You will see a ray of light creep through.
And so remember this
Life is no abyss
Somewhere there's a bluebird of happiness.
Thanks, Amy.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Gulf tragedy 5

Do you want to be frightened yet again? Google "nightmare well" and learn just how the Deepwater Horizon became a nightmare well.

It remains to be seen, but if the oil washing ashore along the Gulf Coast works its way inland into freshwater lagoons, estuaries, marshes, rivers and lakes, then birds like the fish-eating anhinga, or snake bird, will sooner or later be impacted.

Above is a 2009 photo of an oil-free anhinga taken by Wayne Mallinger.

Thanks again for sharing, Wayne.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Gulf tragedy 4

Brown pelicans are not the only bird species being impacted by the Gulf oil spill, although they may be the most photogenic. Tern, gull and skimmer populations are also threatened.

Birder's World Magazine reports that "Sandbars, barrier islands, and marshes along the entire Louisiana coast shelter sizable portions of the U.S. populations of Sandwich Terns (77%), Black Skimmer (44%), and Forster's Tern (52%), as well as large breeding colonies of Brown Pelicans."

The magazine also states that 23 species of seabird and shorebird use Breton National Wildlife Refuge (the Chandeleur Islands, located in the direct line of flow) frequently, and 13 species nest there. "The most abundant nesters are Brown Pelicans, Laughing Gulls, and Royal, Caspian, and Sandwich Terns. Together, they form the largest tern colony in North America -- as many as 60,000 birds at one time"

Above is a 2009 photo of an oil-free royal tern (I think, due to the color and hunkiness of the bill) taken by Wayne Mallinger.

Thanks again for sharing, Wayne.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Gulf tragedy 3

This adorable creature seems to come straight from Jim Henson's muppet babies, but it's very much a living bird. Let's hope it stays that way.

OK. You want to be frightened? Google the term "unchecked gusher."

The current issue of Newsweek notes that if the oil spill is not stopped until August, a total of 94.2 million gallons of oil will have gushed into the Gulf of Mexico. The report's estimate is sourced to NOAA. This would make it nine times bigger than the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989.

What happens if the spill cannot be stopped? Does that mean that the above brown pelican Wayne Mallinger photographed last year in Florida stands a good chance of also becoming oil-soaked?

Again, thanks for sharing, Wayne.

- Photo of 2009 oil-free brown pelican by Wayne Mallinger.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Gulf tragedy 2

Yesterday we learned that A) more oil is gushing from the gulf drill site than we were originally led to believe—the current revised estimate is 25,000 to 30,000 barrels a day, with 50,000 barrels a day being used by some media outlets—and b) photographers were only being given limited access to affected marsh and shorelines for fear (we assume) that the Internet would be flooded with photos of dead or oil-soaked wildlife.

What did Jack Nicholson say in the movie A Few Good Men? Something like, "Truth? You can't handle the truth! Son, we live in a world that has walls. And those walls have to be guarded by men with guns."

Local photographer Wayne Mallinger, a native of Florida, wanted to travel south with his camera, but learned his movements might be restricted.

In lieu of such, above is another one of Wayne's brown pelican pictures from last year. Like yesterday's, this bird is oil-free, drying itself in the sun.

Thanks for sharing, Wayne.

- Photo of oil-free brown pelican by Wayne Mallinger.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Gulf tragedy 1

It's hard here in East Tennessee, living in our lush green state not to feel shock and sadness by the oil spill affecting the Gulf Coast States. We are more than just neighbors, we're all citizens of the world, a world becoming ever more fragile with each passing day. For Wayne Mallinger from Madisonville in Monroe County, it's especially heartbreaking. Wayne spent the first 40 years of his life in Florida, usually within five miles of a beach and still routinely visits his mother near Fort Lauderdale.

Wayne has sent me a series of photos including several of "oil-free" brown pelicans he took last year on a visit. This is one of the avian species we have now all seen on the news of late drenched in oil. Tragic.

Thanks for sharing, Wayne.

- Photo of oil-free brown pelican by Wayne Mallinger

Thursday, June 10, 2010

born to froth

In his 1990 children’s book, “The Very Quiet Cricket,” author Eric Carle writes that a spittlebug lives “slurping in a sea of froth.” That’s just perfect!

Spittlebugs overwinter as eggs. In spring, they hatch and begin to secrete a frothy substance to hide inside. It’s like a cocoon but it never hardens. The frothy dollops are sometimes called cuckoo spit or snake spit. (I don’t think either animal could work up enough saliva to create noticeable spittle.)

The spittle gives the insect a protective place to hide and not dry out. Inside their frothy world, spittlebugs pierce the plant and suck on its juices. The foamy froth is created from excess plant juices mixed with air that pass through the insect’s body. It is not secreted from their mouths, but rather from their caboose ends, so technically, it’s not actually spit, but something altogether different.

Over time, the nymphs slowly grow, molting regularly into larger and larger forms until their last winged adult stage. Then they are able to jump away (although they have wings, they tend to hop instead) and no longer need the spittle for protection.

Recently I was leading a group of third graders on one of the trails at the nature center and I decided to show the kids a nymph by brushing away some of its spittle. One blond-headed boy at the front quickly remarked, "Careful Dude. I gag easily."

-Photo taken at Ijams Nature Center shows four spittlebug cocoons.

Monday, June 7, 2010

clear and sweet

If you can indulge me with a little more "good-natured" Whitman...

"Clear and sweet is my soul....and clear and sweet
is all that is not my soul."

- From "Song of Myself" by Walt Whitman. Photo of West Prong of the Little Pigeon River a few miles downstream from my hometown, Gatlinburg, Tennessee.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

a short bee's life

If we get to come back after we die, let me return as a simple bee so that I might spend my short insect life lost in the sumptuous, sensual folds of this hospitable lily, becoming intoxicated in toto by the buttery color of yellow.

What could be more satisfying? N'est-ce pas.

(Can you tell that I've been reading a lot of Walt—enjoy your life, drink deep its pleasures—Whitman of late.)

Saturday, June 5, 2010

open road

This dovetails nicely into yesterday's nature walk, which left me reaching for my Whitman.

“Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.

Henceforth I ask not good-fortune, I myself am good-fortune,
Henceforth I whimper no more, postpone no more, need nothing,
Done with indoor complaints, libraries, querulous criticisms,
Strong and content I travel the open road….”

“The efflux of the soul is happiness, here is happiness,
I think it pervades the open air, waiting at all times,
Now it flows unto us, we are rightly charged.”

- From “Song of the Open Road” by Walt Whitman (1819-1892)

Friday, June 4, 2010

live healthier

Let's go for a walk. It's healthy.

Yesterday, a group of Mercy GOLD members spent the morning at the nature center. The program, orchestrated by Mercy Health Partners, is for folks 50 and older and designed to help its members lead healthy and fulfilling lives. One way to live healthier is to take long, peaceful walks in the woods, which I was happy to lead.

The longer, more peaceful the better. Leave the stress behind!

- Photo taken at Ijams Nature Center.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

dinner roll?

Is there a mycologist out there? I need a little help on this one. It’s a shelf-like mushroom growing from the side of a sawed-off stump. The tree had probably fallen across the trail and had to be cut up to clear the path.

Perhaps it's a polypore? I think I’d call it “crescent dinner-roll fresh-from-the-oven polypore,” but that’s open for debate.

We found it in the Great Smokies growing near LeConte Creek.

- Photo taken in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park