Tuesday, August 31, 2010

mystery solved

The answer to yesterday’s post came from Rikki Hall, as I knew it would.

“That’s definitely an orb weaver (family Araneidae), and I think it’s Eriophora ravilla. We’re at the northern edge of their range, so you don’t see them as often as other orb weavers.”

Rikki is a darn good naturalist and if you put him in the tall grass, he can talk for hours about the spiders and such he finds there.

To visit Rikki's blog go to: http://sourpersimmon.blogspot.com

Monday, August 30, 2010

mystery spider?

Sean Armbruster sent me this great spider photo, wondering if I knew what it is. And that, I do not.

Anyone else know? Rikki are you out there?

Sunday, August 29, 2010

swallowtail soiree

Were you invited?

In affect, I was. Paul James came into my office the other day and said, "You need to check this out." The service road leading into the new Ross Marble Natural Area was apparently holding a swallowtail soiree. Dozens were nectaring on the late-season wildflowers that are in bloom along the overgrown trail.

"You better take your camera," he added. As indeed I did.

The new Ross Marble Natural Area is slated to be opened to the public in early November. It will bring the total acreage of Ijams Nature Center to over 275 acres.

Friday, August 27, 2010

rare bird indeed

This month's issue of Smithsonian magazine has an article I penned about the day that Jim Tanner banded and photographed a young ivory-billed woodpecker. The only ivory-bill ever banded and the only juvenile ever photographed.

I write about that day in great length in my new book Ghost Birds published by UT Press. For more information about the Smithsonian article visit naturelovers.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

soul meets body

I want to live where soul meets body

And let the sun wrap its arms around me

And bathe my skin in water cool and cleansing

And feel, feel what its like to be new

Cause in my head there's a greyhound station

Where I send my thoughts to far off destinations

So they may have a chance of finding a place

where they're far more suited than here

-Lyrics from “Soul meets Body” by Death Cab for Cutie
-Photo: West Prong of the Little Pigeon River,
Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Monday, August 23, 2010

natural histories: river cane

"On a raw January morning 165 years later, I stood on the water’s edge at Blythe’s Ferry gazing across the river. It was bitterly cold perhaps a lot like that winter of 1838-39. A biting wind blew in from the west chapping my exposed face. Snow was forecast for later in the week. The remains of a campfire and broken beer bottles littered the shoreline. At this spot on the river the east shore is rocky; large limestone boulders garnished with spindly red cedars dominate the hilly location. A new Cherokee Removal Memorial Park to commemorate the dark episode is under construction; a park pavilion on the bluff among the cedars overlooks the river.

"At times like these, you pause to listen to the murmur filtering through the trees. It had been over a century and a half since the last of the valley’s original inhabitants had spent their waning days in their homeland. At the site, they had slept in guarded camps, not knowing what the next day would bring. In the end, as the drought of 1838 gave way to autumn and the late season rains, the last of the natives gathered their precious few belongings and turned west to ford the river beginning what was later called nu-no-du-na-tlo-hi-lu, literally “the trail where they cried.” The Cherokee way of life--river cane, locust posts and clay mud lodges--had come to an end in the Tennessee Valley."

Excerpt from Natural Histories published by the University of Tennessee Press

Sunday, August 22, 2010

insect romance

Sunday morning with Karen Sue:

August is a big month for singing insects. OK. When the boys meet the girls, what happens next?

For other nature tidbits visit naturelovers.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

junior devil is growing

I guess we can file this one under: A face only a mother could love

Our little baby is growing. The hickory horned devil I posted last week has molted into an entire new color, complete with devil red horns. This could be he/she/its final instar.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

what buzz is that?

With the help of the book "The Songs of Insects," Karen Sue and I have had great fun this summer identifying the different species of cicadas buzzing around our house.

For a sample, click below.

For other nature tidbits go to naturelovers.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

knotty-horn again

I had never seen this beetle until last summer. Its identity was a mystery to me until Karen Sue found the cloaked knotty-horn, a.k.a. elder borer in an Audubon field guide. It’s a long-horned beetle noted for its bright orange cloak, metallic-blue back and the enlarged knot-like knees at the antennal segments.

It was a pleasant surprise running into it again this summer along Clingman's Dome Road in the Smokies.

The knotty-horn lays its eggs in the ground near the base of an elderberry shrub. The larvae burrow into the stems of the plant (hence the second common name: elder borer). The small grubs then move down into the roots and pupate in the soil. The adults appear from June through September to start the process anew.

- Photo taken in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010


Pity the poor milkweed leaf in August. The caterpillars of the milkweed tussock moth (a.k.a. milkweed tiger moth) are ravenous. They're a common mid- to late-summer feeder on both milkweed and dogbane.

As Wiki reports, “Early instars appear slightly 'hairy' and gray. They skeletonize whole leaves gregariously, leaving a lacy remnant. They are gregarious until the third instar. Later instars sport tufts of black, white and orange (sometimes yellow) setae. The head capsule is black. The later instars wander much more, and may appear alone or in small clusters.”

I cringe anytime I hear the word “skeletonize.” Remember the basement acid scene in Vincent Price’s “House on Haunted Hill”? Reduced to a skeleton in a blink of an eye; not a pleasant way to go.

Dr. Louise was taking our albino turtle out for a little sun when she found the cluster of caterpillars clinging to the skeletal remains of a milkweed leaf.

- Photo taken at Ijams Nature Center

Monday, August 16, 2010

ghost birds: swampers

"From Louisiana to South Carolina, Jim had met dozens of swampers in the past year. They were good folks, resourceful and helpful if your car was stuck in the mud, but for them money was hard to come by. Mostly they earned a living by gleaning whatever they could from the watery woods. They farmed, hunted, fished, and even poached if they had to. Naturally, their curiosity about the big woodpeckers centered on monetary value."

Excerpt from Ghost Birds. 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, August 15, 2010

the show is over

Sunday with Karen Sue:

Since mid-April we've had the songs of wood thrushes coming from the woods behind our home, but now they have hushed. Many have already started their migration south to spend their winter in Central American countries including Belize, Colombia, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua and Panama.

Until next April, all we can do is reminisce.

For more nature chat go to: nature lovers.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

feeding goldfinch

I received another great photo from our friend Wayne Mallinger from Madisonville:

"Captured this moment the other day while photographing my sunflowers. Female goldfinch feeding on a half spent mammoth sunflower. It's worth the minimal time in the spring sowing and protecting young sunflower plants to keep birds happy in late summer."

Thanks, Wayne.

Friday, August 13, 2010

purple pods

Sheila’s green thumb is evident behind the Gift Shop at Ijams. One of the plants she is caring for produces bright purple seedpods.

The hyacinth bean is widespread as a food crop throughout the tropics, especially in Africa, India and Indonesia.

The plant grows as a vine, producing purple flowers and striking electric-purple colored seed pods. It’s a good choice for a quick screen on a trellis or fence. It grows fast, has beautiful, fragrant flowers that attract butterflies and hummingbirds, and it even produces edible leaves, flowers, pods, seeds and roots.

WARNING: The dried seeds are poisonous due to high concentrations of cyanogenic glucosides, and can only be eaten after prolonged boiling.

- Photo taken at Ijams Nature Center.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

junior devil

File this one under: What the heck?

This time of the year, you should always take your camera on your walks because you never know what you might bump into, but then you might find yourself asking, "What the heck is this?"

It looked something like a hickory horned devil, but it wasn't big enough or the right color. After perusing my caterpillar guides I still did not know what this sweet thing happened to be. It came fully loaded: about as long as an old fashioned Tootsie Roll, it had spikes and horns and spots and stripes. If you look closely enough, you might even see a cup holder.

Finally, I turned to the Internet and discovered that hickory horned devils—the caterpillar stage of the royal walnut moths—go through several instars where they split their old skins and emerge bigger. They also go through color changes black to brown to tan to green and what I had discovered was merely one of the intermediate stages, a devil junior, so to speak.

Royal walnut moth

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

a good day

Recently I heard from Larry Hendrix:

“I don't usually think of going to Oak Ridge for nature study, but I was at the marina yesterday and as I drove East on Melton Lake Drive I saw a ‘beautiful’ red fox run across the road not 20 feet in front of my car. I was aware that nobody was behind me, and I slowed both to give it an extra margin of safety and to see that wonderful tail! I like foxes, and have seen few of them in East Tennessee. I think the last one was in Townsend about 12 years ago. As I was thinking about how pretty the fox was, I saw a small fawn grazing not eight feet off the right side of the road. I considered that a good day to go to Oak Ridge.”

Monday, August 9, 2010

ghost birds: Santee Bottoms

Searching the Santee Bottoms:

“Most of the swamp was about ankle-deep,” Tanner wrote. “The deepest creek I waded was half-way up my thighs. None of the deeper creeks were long. Here and there were low and small ridges, carrying sweet gum, a little laurel oak, etc. Bird life was scarce.”

Excerpt from Ghost Birds to be published this month. 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, August 8, 2010

zombie bugs?

Sunday with Karen Sue: Brood X of the 17-year cicadas is not due to reappear until 2021, but that doesn't keep us from talking about them. (There's an entire chapter in my book "Natural Histories" dedicated to periodical cicadas.)

Saturday, August 7, 2010

natural histories: passionflower

"Farther up the two-lane road, there’s a section of river channel that widens, revealing a sizable portion of the underlying bedrock: near vertical layers of alternating argillite and metagraywacke, two metamorphic rocks created by heat and pressure deep underground. Water has worn these exposed layers smooth and rounded, suggesting an organic life within like sleeping whales or reclining nudes. It’s difficult not being anthropomorphic in describing these forms, for they resemble the eroded human shapes created by English sculptor Henry Moore. The rock also has the most marvelous rusty-orange patina, a stain that’s created by the constant bath of iron and pyrite that flows down the mountain.

"It’s at this spot, in a river bend, that the Ocoee Whitewater Center is located. It’s also where after several hours of searching, on the back stone terrace below a sandstone bench that I found Tennessee’s forgotten State Wildflower blooming alone and inconspicuous a mere fifteen feet from the water, its roaring namesake. My journey had come, as perhaps it should, to a quiet and inauspicious end."

Excerpt from Natural Histories published by the University of Tennessee Press

Friday, August 6, 2010

walk and read part 2

Special thanks to all who attended the Walk and Read Club bird walk at Seven Islands last Friday night.

And thank you Mary Pom with the Knox County Public Library for organizing the event and Annie Byrnes for reporting the outing for knoxnews.com.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

share the light

This falls under the category of communication between plants. Yes, plants. And I'm not speaking about talking to your house plants to make them grow more.

According to Smithsonian magazine, pale touch-me-not, Impatiens pallida, can tell with its roots whether a neighboring plant is its sibling.

"In the light: With unrelated neighbors, I. pallida grows short, leafy stalks. With sibling neighbors, it grows taller stalks with fewer leaves, thus sharing the sunlight, says a study from McMaster University in Ontario."

So, pale touch-me-not, and probably other plants, know if they are growing next to a close relative.

- Photo taken along Baskins Creek in Gatlinburg.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

bluebird memories

Recently I heard from Dottie O’Dare:

“I also remember the “Bluebird of Happiness” song from my high school years. At a friend's suggestion, I bought the 78-speed record, sung by Jan Peerce, an opera singer at the time (l950). I surprisingly remember the words—I must have played it so often that it remains embedded in my memory. Hopefully, the lyrics are still on your blog (they are) and I will make corrections if needed.

“I really enjoy reading your column. So much to learn, and it is eye-opening to discover what is so readily available in this area of the country. Being a ‘city girl’ all my life, it is refreshing to be in East Tennessee!

“Thanks for your informative and entertaining column!”

Dottie. You are welcome.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

what's the buzz?

The trees are louder now than any other time of the year. What's making all the racket?

Monday, August 2, 2010

ghost birds: Hunter's Bend

Searching Hunter’s Bend:

“In the afternoon, we walked over to Blue Lake,” wrote Tanner. “The cutover country is the darndest place to get thru, tree-tops in every direction, catroads [meandering trails] winding around, every depression full of water, and where a cat-road crossed water was a boggy trough.”

"Walking through this section was a slow, laborious trek. If an ivory-bill flew over, it would be nearly impossible to follow."

Excerpt from Ghost Birds to be published this month. 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, August 1, 2010

who cooks?

Sunday with Karen Sue:

We recently went searching for barred owls at the nature center. Our outing rekindled Karen Sue's interest in their calls. The Donald Kroodsma book she mentions is remarkable; we sell it in the Ijams gift shop.