Saturday, July 31, 2010

an important lesson

Vicki McKernan telephoned recently. She said she had a silly question.

The McKernans have a six-foot long black rat snake that lives on their property. Vicki occasionally sees it. She doesn't like snakes but she knows it's only doing its job catching and eating mice, moles, voles and shrews. Yum! And, indeed, they have not seen any small rodents around their home in a long time.

But her black lab is beginning to get curious about the snake and Vicki knows its a constrictor.

Vicki wondered: "Is there any danger of the snake trying to squeeze her dog to death?"

No. The snake only kills what it plans to eat in this manner and a black lab is far too big to consume or even to squeeze to death. If harassed, the snake will either try to move away quickly, rear up and head butt the dog or perhaps strike and bite it. The bite will hurt but not kill the curious lab. But, most importantly, it'll teach it a valuable lesson.

Thanks, Vicki.

Friday, July 30, 2010

ospreys three

I heard from Wayne Mallinger recently:

"I've seen several ospreys near Northshore Drive in Knoxville. Three on different occasions. Every time I pass Northshore exit if I have time I pull off and do a quick scan of the ponds for any birds in flight. I was lucky enough to capture a photo of one searching for an easy catch before he saw me and went to a tree and waited for me to leave so he could continue feeding."

"Also note: I read your post about the assassin bug. Thanks! A couple of weeks ago while I was mowing my yard I felt a burning sensation on my left wrist. I looked and saw what I described as a mosquito on steroids. I brushed it away as fast as I could but too took about 10 days for the redness and itching to go away....nasty bite. I now know what it was!"

Wayne is the local photographer who sent me the five great photos of Gulf Coast birds I posted in the middle of last month. Look for Gulf Tragedy 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5.

Thanks, Wayne.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

rescued kook

I recently heard from Phyllis Wilson:

"I had yellow-billed cuckoos in Texas. I lived on a large, wooded lot and they migrated in later than any other birds and hastily build their rickety nests. Their call is unmistakable. But, according to my bird ID book, they're not in this area. Which is why I could not explain why I thought I might be hearing them in the trees above where we live now. That is, until I read your blogs. Now I realize that they are indeed here, although I may never see them. Pretty cool.

I once 'rescued' a female who had crashed into my window while hunting for insects for her babies. Held her and fed her hummingbird food while she recovered."

I had a very different experience. I once saw a cuckoo fly into one of the windows at the Ijams gift shop. As I watched it on the ground, it twitched and died.

Thanks, Phyllis

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

walk and read

I will be leading a Walk and Read Club activity at Seven Islands Wildlife Refuge, Friday, July 30 at 7 p.m.

The Walk and Read Club is organized by the Knox County Public Library, Knox County Health Department, Knox County Parks & Rec and Knox County Mayor's Office. The club encourages two great habits at the same time: exercise and literacy! The Goal: walk 150 minutes a week (that's just 30 minutes 5 days a week) for 6 weeks. To make the time go faster and build your brain, listen to a book or podcast as you walk. Ijams Nature Center will be partnering with the group for this outing.

As we enjoy the remains of the day, we'll be looking for birds and talking fondly of books about birds, so it's a very birdie sort of soiree down a gated country road.

Species that you generally see and/or hear along this road are indigo bunting, yellow-breasted chat, field sparrow, eastern bluebird and tree swallow, but even spotting a bald eagle is possible. I'll also talk about some of my favorite books about birds including Chris Cokinos' "Hope is the Thing with Feathers," recently reprinted in paperback.

For more info on this Walk and Read event or to register go to:

Bring comfortable shoes, water and a pair of binoculars, if you have them.

Seven Islands Wildlife Refuge is a 360-acre Knox County park about 8.5 miles east of Knoxville. The refuge, on former farmland, includes the Kelly Bend peninsula along the French Broad River. Habitats include wooded hills, an intermittent stream, and several fields being restored to native warm-season grasses. A paved road extends over a mile into the property creating a prime birding route.


From Downtown Knoxville, take I-40 East to Exit #402, Midway Rd. Turn right on to Midway Road (toward Three Rivers Golf Course) and follow the signs. Seven Islands is 3.6 miles from I-40.

This will be fun. Thanks for asking Mary Pom.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010


Just in case this post becomes a Hollywood movie, let's call it "Cobblerless in Seattle." Of course, I've never been to that western city or have any idea even if they eat cobbler there. (I think they drink a lot of coffee while watching it rain. And rain, or the lack of such, is at the root of this entry.)

June was the hottest, and perhaps the driest on record. The weather affected this year's blackberry crop. The few scattered rains of July came too late, most of the berries that I've found the past four weeks have been small and non-juicy.

Blackberries—and I'm not talking about those devices you carry in your hand and text message your mom with—are odd sorts of plants. They fall in an in-between category botanists label as "brambles," being neither a shrub nor a herbaceous non-woody plant. There are also many different types of brambles. In 1960, UT's Dr. Aaron Sharp identified 30 species of blackberries, dewberries and raspberries found in the state of Tennessee alone.

Although the root is a perennial, the blackberry canes themselves last two years. The flowers and fruit grow on the second-year canes which die back in the fall. It has recently been discovered that blackberries are high in antioxidants, as well as being loaded with vitamins A and C.

But this year, they do not seem to be loaded with juicy flavor. I haven't found enough to make a descent cobbler, so if anyone has a spare cobbler they are not using, please let me know.

Until then, I remain cobberless.

- Photo taken at Forks of the River Wildlife Management Area.

Monday, July 26, 2010

ghost birds: sunshine

“The Ivory-bill has frequently been described as a dweller
in dark and gloomy swamps, has been associated with muck and murk, has been called a melancholy bird, but it is not that at all—the Ivory-bill is a dweller of the tree tops and sunshine; it lives in the surroundings as bright as its own plumage."

- James T. Tanner, 1939.

Excerpt from Ghost Birds to be published this fall. For more information go to:

Ghost Birds: Jim Tanner and the Quest for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, 1935-1941 Cover illustration by the author.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

one rose bud

Good morning.

Karen Sue reads a line or two by poet Mary Oliver

Saturday, July 24, 2010



Colors can make us blind!
Music can make us deaf!
Flavors can destroy our taste!
Possessions can close our options!
Racing can drive us mad
and its rewards obstruct our peace!

Thus, the wise
fill the inner gut
rather than the eyes,
always sacrificing the superficial
for the essential.

From Verse 12: Choices of "Tao Te Ching" by Lao Tzu (Old Master)
written around the 6th century BC

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

the splash


The Hopi Indian word for the "splash of rain on water."

Monday, July 19, 2010


Congratulations to UT Press, now celebrating their 70th anniversary! I'm honored to be included in their fall catalog.

Special thanks to all that helped make Ghost Birds possible and now that the new catalog is out, I must thank designer Jill Knight who took a small portion of my ivory-bill illustration and turned it into something festive for the catalog's cover.

For more information go to:

Ghost Birds: Jim Tanner and the Quest for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, 1935-1941 available this fall. Cover illustration by the author.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

she loves me?

I recently heard from Lynne Davis about her mother Evelyn Elliott who lives in Suwannee, GA.

"My mother told had a couple of pots of zinnias on her back porch that were going to seed. One morning, a goldfinch landed on the flowers and began picking out the seeds. When it came to a ray flower with a petal, it pulled that flower out, too. While she watched, the bird proceeded to deconstruct her flowers.

She said it was like the bird was doing "She loves me, she loves me not..."

Saturday, July 17, 2010

lethal beaked

It must be difficult to go through life with a name like "assassin bug." Most in that profession prefer to keep a low profile. Imagine being at a garden party and being introduced to a ladybug as an assassin. That would surely kill any chance of a meaningful relationship.

Members of the Hemiptera order of insects—the true bugs—assassin bugs lie in wait. "They use the long rostrum [beaklike extension] to inject a lethal saliva that liquefies the insides of the prey, which are then sucked out. The saliva is commonly effective at killing substantially larger prey than the bug itself."

Needless to say, I kept my distance.

- Photo taken at Forks of the River Wildlife Management Area

Thursday, July 15, 2010

shocking solution

Let's call this the "John Randle sure fire way of keeping raccoons and/or squirrels out of your birdfeeder"

John writes,"The raccoons were getting so bold as to tear the cardinal ring off the feeder when they would climb the shepherd's hook and pull the feeder to them. So, what you now see half way up the shepherd's hook is a 15-inch section of black hose that has been split length wise so that it would slide over the metal shepherd's hook.

"I then used black electrical tape to cover the slit and then proceeded to wrap a 12-inch x 6-inch section off aluminum window screen tightly around the rubber hose and then secured the top and bottom with metal hose clamps. So you might ask, how is a 12-inch section of window screen going to stop raccoons, etc. from climbing the pole?

"If you zoom in on the bottom clamp you will see an insulated black wire (14 gauge stranded) that runs up from the bottom of the pole and slips under the clamp. The other end of the wire is attached to my Fi-Shock electric fence controller. As the animal (squirrel or raccoon or possum) climbs up the bare metal pole (which is grounded) and the front legs make the transition from bare metal pole to the wire screen they receive a strong suggestion that they are in the wrong place at the wrong time. The device has no effect on birds that may land on the screen."

The photo above shows the obligatory TN OSHA warning ... it is a good thing that raccoons can't read (yet)!"

The raccoon gets a mild shock, certainly enough to make him want to leave the area and a foiled raccoon never looks happy.

For more about the problem with raccoons in our backyards visit the farragutpress.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

work in progress

Marvin Ward phoned the other day to report he had a juvenile peregrine falcon visiting his birdbath off Lovell Road.

At first I was a bit skeptical. Peregrines are here but not in great numbers. I thought that perhaps he was seeing a Cooper's hawk since we have far more of them and I often get phone calls about these gray lanky raptors visiting birdbaths.

But then Marvin started describing his bird in perfect, even minute detail, even noting that the young falcon was beginning to get its gray mustaches on the sides of its head. As it turns out, Marvin is a woodcarver who is used to looking at birds with a sharp eye. He even has a peregrine that he started several years ago that sits unfinished on a shelf in his workroom.

"Oh, a woodcarver is not much of a woodcarver if he doesn't have more projects started than he has finished," Marvin noted with a laugh.

Maybe now that he has been studying peregrines once again, he'll resume work on the one he has in progress.

Thanks, Marvin.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

inner peace

Here’s a tip for finding inner peace:

If I have had a bad day—and even a laid-back, Thoreau-quoting naturalist can have days that do not go well—I put on the second movement “Andante” to Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21 and hit the repeat button and just let it play over and over and over, sometimes for hours. The muted strings of the opening are said to be “dream-like” suggesting a night time canoe ride on a placid lake. But I’m not one of those that “sees” visual scenes when I listen to wordless music. Instead, I feel the emotion of the music and this piece feels placid. The solo piano that joins the strings and plays against them, repeating their melody lulls me into forgetting my troubles.

The other night while sitting on the back deck at dusk with the Mozart passage playing over and over to my left, a wood thrush started his early evening serenade to my right. It was as though the woodland bird felt the music and wanted to sing along. (A bittersweet moment since the thrushes will soon stop singing for the year.)

Now, that’s how to find inner peace!

Monday, July 12, 2010

purple fringed

To the orchid chasers: I found another summer orchid to add to our growing list.

The lesser purple fringed orchid was growing in a colony of ferns along the side the newly resurfaced Clingman's Dome Road in the national park.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

backyard coops

Recently I heard from Missy Steffey.

"I have a question concerning a Cooper’s hawk. We had a pair nest in our pine trees in back this spring and now have the parents and two baby hawks hunting our backyard. They love to perch on my daughters’ trampoline and occasionally dine there. I have so enjoyed watching the parents teach the babies to hunt and see them soar by our deck every morning and evening. My question: Do these hawks stay in the same area to nest year after year or will they be gone soon? I’m amazed that they are still here. The babies have been ‘out of the nest’ for over a month.”

In time, the young ones will draft away as they start feeling more independent. The parents may drift away as well because they no longer have a nest site to defend and may need to roam farther to find food. But, as a general rule, next nesting season the parents often come back to the same location and may even use the same nest with a little remodeling. The young ones will have to find a territory of their own to claim.

Thanks, Missy.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

ouch mom!

I feel badly about this.

On a walk down the street with my mother, I was admiring the stinging nettles in bloom along the roadside, while she was picking of cast-off aluminum cans to donate to the local Lion’s Club recycling bin. All of a sudden, she jumped back, remarking that she had just been stung by a bee.

“No Mom. You were stung by a plant; I should have warned you.”

“A stinging plant. I never heard of such a thing.”

The woman who brought me into the world had just been injected with several plant defensive chemicals including acetylcholine, histamine, serotonin, possibly formic acid and perhaps even some Drano. Ouch, Mom! Enough to give her a nasty but generally not long lasting painful burning sting.

Stinging nettles are not native to our part of the world. I guess they slipped over here on a boat. They're like "barbary" pirates with stems covered with tiny sharp barbs loaded with their toxic chemical soup. Oddly, in Britain I hear that a beer is made from the plants. I wonder: Does it sting or just slightly numb?

Thursday, July 8, 2010

ghost birds

"If you are in any way creative in your work, you know the feeling of having reached a certain point with a project, beyond which you can do no more without either going mad or running the risk of causing more harm than good by further tampering, ‘Here I stop,’ you say. With terribly mixed feelings—relief and regret, confidence and insecurity, self-satisfaction and self-disgust, among others—you turn in your work, and from that moment the work takes on a life of its own, separate from yours.”

- From “The Ninth: Beethoven and the World in 1824,” by Harvey Sachs

Ghost Birds: Jim Tanner and the Quest for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, 1935-1941 available this fall. Cover illustration by the author.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

last to lay

Now that the thistles are starting to produce their seeds, the American goldfinches can get down to nesting—or down "for" nesting—depending on how you want to phrase it. Its the last species in our area to nest in the calendar year, in part because they wait on such plant fibers to become available.

Although the flashy male may help a bit, it's a token effort; the real nest-building duties fall on the less-colorful but harder working female. Located in a deciduous tree up to about 30-feet above the ground, the outer shell is built of vines, bark, grass and weeds; the rim reinforced with spider and caterpillar silk and the cup is lined with the fluffy plant down from milkweed, thistle or cattails.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

mystery papillon

I heard from Ursula Foreman this week. She’s a member of the Tellico Village Garden Club in Loudon County and sent the above photo, wondering what kind of papillon was visiting her butterfly bush.

It’s a zebra swallowtail, for many the quintessential swallowtail, noted for its black and white stripes, rust-colored antennae, triangular wings and exceptionally long tails. It also indicates that somewhere nearby are pawpaw trees, its host plant where the females lay their eggs.

It is also the Tennessee State Butterfly. (The Tennessee State insect is the ladybug and the firefly. Apparently no one in the legislature could choose between the two. Admittedly it's a hard choice. I hear that Romalea guttata has been nominated to be the Tennessee State grasshopper. I'll keep you posted.)

Thanks, Ursula.

Monday, July 5, 2010


Forgive me.

I'm running behind, the past six months, concentrating on my family's needs, my job, finishing a book project, it's been somewhat overwhelming. (Sarah Brobst recently asked me: If you can be overwhelmed and underwhelmed, can you simply be whelmed? And, indeed, yes you can.)

There was a stack of forlorn mail that I haven't had time to sort, on the end of my desk, there in the breakfast nook, near the window with the hummingbird feeder, and tackling it recently, I soon uncovered this January/February issue of Audubon with their photography contest prize-winners.

The cover features the grand prize winner, a photo by Rob Palmer. Wow! Gosh! Outstanding! And whatever other superlative you care to use.

I'm sure I'm not the first to see it and think of Walt Whitman and his famous poem "The Dalliance of the Eagles." Dalliance means "amorous play," and please note like the extended play of eagles, the poem is one long extended sentence, a sort of word play, if you will...

Skirting the river road, (my forenoon walk, my rest,)

Skyward in air a sudden muffled sound, the dalliance of the eagles,

The rushing amorous contact high in space together,

The clinching interlocking claws, a living, fierce, gyrating wheel,

Four beating wings, two beaks, a swirling mass tight grappling,

In tumbling turning clustering loops, straight downward falling

Till o'er the river pois'd, the twain yet one, a moment's lull,

A motionless still balance in the air, then parting, talons loosing,

Upward again on slow-firm pinions slanting,
their separate diverse flight,

She hers, he his, pursuing.

Saturday, July 3, 2010


If flowers are a plant's sex parts, and my botany textbook says it's so, then bee balm has evolved to be in-you-face flamboyant. Notice me! Surrender! It's the Lady GaGa (please pardon the pop culture reference) of the angiosperm world. If I were a bee, a wasp, a fly, or God forbid, even an earwig, it would be easy for me to become so balmed.

This particular bee balm was growing along the Clingman's Dome Road in the Great Smokies.

Friday, July 2, 2010

sunny fields

Cindy Spangler e-mailed me. She wondered: were the fields of sunflowers blooming at Forks of the River Wildlife Management Area?

And, yes indeed, they are. TWRA didn't seem to plant as many fields as they have in the past. But the one beside the Will Skelton Greenway at mile marker 2.75 is just beginning to reach full flower.

I took the above photo Wednesday after work. I also heard one white-eyed vireo and a lone common yellowthroat, but the two species still singing often and loud were indigo buntings and field sparrows. Perhaps the latter simply enjoyed the sunflowers, and was simply singing an "Ode to Joy."

And who could blame it?

Thursday, July 1, 2010

a goodyera

Shortly after posting about Green Adder's Mouth, I heard from whimmydoddle:

"The dwarf rattlesnake plantain (Goodyera repens) is blooming in Unicoi County. There's a place near my home with a substantial population of this rare species."

Also know as lesser rattlesnake orchis, its Latin name honors English botanist and botanical writer John Goodyer (1592-1664); repens means "to creep." So a rough translation would be "creeping English botanist"?

Thanks, whimmy.

orchid chasers

I recently heard from my friends Bob and Lynne Davis, a.k.a. the orchid chasers.

"We went to the Obed Wild and Scenic River's Lilly Bluff Overlook Trail just off TN Hwy 62W and found three specimens of Green Adder's Mouth (malaxis unifolia)! Note: just after the flowers have reached their peak, they turn a pale yellow.

"Also in view were large lady slipper leaves, spotted wintergreen in bloom, checkerberry, rattlesnake plantain some with spikes but no blooms as yet, and a few Indian cucumber roots beneath the mixed forest with hemlocks that seem to be really dropping a lot of needles even though it rained there recently. Must be the adelgids.

"Alas, we did not bring the camera, but one compiler stated you would need a good bit of magnification to really show this flower spike with any detail. We weren't looking for these but were checking to see if the goodyera pubescens [rattlesnake plantain] were blooming yet. This makes one look low to the ground and at the trail edges.

"Lilly Bluff overlooks the intersection of Clear Creek and the Obed River."

Thanks, Bob and Lynne