Sunday, November 28, 2010

sandhill hunting in Tennessee?


I ask you: What's wrong with this photo? Study it closely.

Well, for starters, the beautiful powder-gray sandhill crane is dead!

And somehow, a dead sandhill is much less precious than a live one, because its life is what we celebrate. In many parts of the world cranes are revered as "Birds from Heaven." Killing one is a dishonor, a harbinger of ill fortune. Peter Matthiessen writes, "Outside the Hall of Supreme Harmony, two noble bronze cranes awaited me on the high terrace; the most famous crane statues in the world, they originally stood guard on either side of the emperor's throne in the imperial palace as symbols of long life and good fortune, and like most creatures depicted in Chinese art, they are beautiful."

North America has two species of cranes: the large white five-foot-tall whooping crane and the smaller, four-foot-tall, sandhill. I've written about sandhill cranes before. Historically, there once was a large population that migrated from breeding grounds in the north (primarily Wisconsin) to wintering grounds (wetlands and marshes) in the south. During the spring and fall they passed through Tennessee. But that population was overhunted. By the 1930s, only 25 breeding pairs were recorded in Wisconsin. Seeing one pass through the Volunteer State was a rare occurrence.

Through "compassionate" conservation efforts—saying "no, no" to hunters and creating wildlife refuges—the eastern migratory flock has slowly rebounded. But it's taken 70 years: one man's lifetime.

Hurray for our side! We can do the right thing! Right a wrong! Save the day!

East Tennessee got into the act in the late 1980s by planting up to 750-acres of corn annually at Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge in Meigs County. The sandhills stopped and liked the buffet to such an extent that thousands of them decided to spend the winter. That's good old Tennessee hospitality, never let a stranger pass without offering him a meal. Our man-made bounty was so plentiful, the cranes had no need to fly farther south. Over the years the sandhill numbers grew. Life was good. It was such a wondrous sight that watching them became an attractant to birdwatchers, curiosity-seekers and passing tourists. A sandhill crane festival was created, and the event became a high point of every cold, dreary February. (Birding festivals across the country draw thousands of visitors. Thousands.) I attended the sandhill festival at Hiwassee many times and enjoyed every one.

But wait. The growing sandhill crane population has been deemed a problem. The festival terminated. And the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA)—the governing body for all wildlife in our state—is being pressured to open a hunting season on the cranes.

Say what?

We plant corn. We thrill at the sight of thousands of cranes eating that corn, we turn it into a tourist attraction and now we want to hide in the tall grass and shoot them. (The cranes, not the tourists.)

True they are large birds, easy targets for even novice marksmen but where is the sport? Wouldn't it be better to stop planting the corn and let the sandhills migrate farther south as they once did? Most of them would end up in Florida, a state that understands tourism and gladly accepts the dollars it generates. (Florida already hosts 18 birding festivals a year—see the list below—and would probably savor another one honoring our sandhills. They could call it the "Tennessee Doesn't Want You, but We Do Festival.")

If our state wants something for target practice, wouldn't it be better to shoot European starlings? There are thousands of them. They are a true nuisance. And there would be real sport in shooting one of the agile little buggers. Or if that's a bit too tricky, how about Canada geese? They are also big bulls eyes and even a problem in many urban areas and there's already a hunting season in Tennessee for the fat and sassy grass-eaters.

TWRA has been put in a awkward position: part of their supporters are hunters, part are outdoor enthusiasts like birdwatchers; but the latter faction needs to stand up and be heard.

If sandhill crane hunting in Tennessee does not make sense to you, write a letter to voice your opposition. I MEAN it! Do not put this off, or the photo at the top of this page will become a reality.

Here are the addresses:

Michael Chase, TWRC Chairperson/PO Box 50370/Knoxville, TN 37950 email:

James Fyke, Commissioner, TDEC/21st Floor, L&C Tower/401 Church St./Nashville, TN 37243

Dr. Jeff McMillan/1705 Edgemont Ave./Bristol, TN 37620 email:

Mr. Terry Oliver, Commissioner, TN Dept. of Agriculture/Ellington Agricultural Center/PO Box 40627/Nashville, TN 37204

Eric Wright/1587 Highway 91/Elizabethton, TN 37643 email:

Annual Florida Birding Festivals:

1. Everglades Birdfest: Everglades National Park: January

2. Big “O” Birding Festival: Glades and Hendry Counties: January, three day event

3. Southwest Florida Birding Festival: Rookery Bay, Naples: January

4. Space Coast Birding & Wildlife Festival: Titusville: January, five day event

5. Burrowing Owl Festival: Cape Coral: February

6. Orlando Wetlands Park Festival: Christmas, FL: February

7. Suwannee River Valley Birding Festival: White Springs: March

8. Pelican Island Wildlife Festival: Sebastian, FL: March

9. Goby Fest: St. Sebastian River Preserve State Park, Fellsmere: April

10. Wakulla Wildlife Festival: Wakulla Springs: April

11. Welcome Back Songbirds Festival: Titusville: April

12. Welcome Back Songbirds Festival: Brooksville: April

13. Pinewoods Bird Festival: Pebble Hill Plantation: April

14. Florida’s First Coast Birding and Nature Festival: St. Augustine: April

15. Nature Coast Birding and Wildlife Experience: Cedar Key: September

16. Florida Keys Birding & Wildlife Festival: Marathon, FL: September

17. “Ding” Darling Days: Sanibel Island: October

18. Florida Panhandle Birding and Wildflower Festival: Port St. Joe: October

Thursday, November 25, 2010

i thank

i thank You God for most this amazing
day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky;and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

happy thanksgiving

lines of poetry by e.e. cummings

painting by karen sue webster

thanks shared by those smart enough to be thankful
for what they have

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

late orb

Another late-season find: an orb-weaver's woven orb. Let's hope it catches a meal after all this work but if it does, it could be one of its last. Most adult spiders die before winter arrives.

It is estimated that there are over 10,000 species of orb-weaving spiders worldwide. Just think about it Rikki, ten thousand creatures that can create these beautiful macramé nets that, in truth, only last but a few hours. Strong yet ethereal. Most of these eight-legged, eight-eyed weavers eat their webs at the end of day—it's pure protein, so why not?— and then reweave another one in usually the same location. That is, we assume, if it proved to be an opportunistic site.

By redoing it every day, the web stays free of detritus and the sticky strands stay tacky. To quote the Bard, it’s almost, “Too flattering-sweet to be substantial,” as light and airy as Romeo’s nighttime dream. Yet for a flying insect, it's a viscous nightmare.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

late-season flutter-by

What a wonderful mild day. I encountered a late-season butterfly—the common buckeye (Junonia coenia)—on a walk at Mead's Quarry. Buckeyes prefer broad open spaces and are generally found on the ground or low growing plants.

In the deep South—Florida and along the Gulf Coast, plus in the Caribbean—buckeyes are active all year. During the warm months they can migrate north as far as southern Canada.

Monday, November 22, 2010

where are my books?

Being an author is an odd odd sort of avocation. You spend years and years, working in private: researching, reading, thinking, scribbling, marking through and scribbling yet again. Staring into space. Scratching your head. Beating your head against the wall. And then, some how, your babies are born. You often find yourself wondering: Where do they go? Have they found a good home? Or are they languishing in a used bookstore? Or, God forbid, a remainder bin. (An author's nightmare.)

To that end, if you have a copy of one of my books, send me a photo and sate my curiosity.

Here's one that found its way to the Savannah in Tennessee.

Mike Martin from Savannah is a professional forester and has been a member of the Society of American Foresters since 1967. He worked with Dr. Geoff Hill as an information systems coordinator at the Choctawhatchee ivory-bill site and has also visited with Gene Sparling in Arkansas at the scene of the Gallagher/Harrison sighting.

Thanks, Mike.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

how did I get here?

Perhaps this is not germane to the holiday weekend, but then again, maybe it’s spot on.

Our life flows like a stream and on any ordinary day we are faced with choices that affect the course of our life. Where we are at any given point is the cumulative effect of years of such minor, even mundane decisions. Or as the Talking Heads once put it:

“And you may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile

And you may Find Yourself In A Beautiful House,
With A Beautiful Wife

And You May Ask Yourself: Well...How Did I Get Here?

Letting The Days Go By
Let The Water Hold Me Down

Letting The Days Go By
Water Flowing Underground

Into The Blue Again
After The Money’s Gone

Once In A Lifetime
Water Flowing Underground.”

Forgive me. I have to go now and make some small decision that will effect the rest of my life. No pressure

- Lyrics from “Once in a Lifetime” by the Talking Heads (1984)

- Photo of Baskins Creek. I've spent many hours of my life watching it flow past me.

Saturday, November 20, 2010


My book Ghost Birds is about the ivory-billed woodpecker, a species that we hope is not extinct. But what about the Labrador duck pictured above?

I am often asked about birds that have become extinct in our part of the world. Here is a list that have vanished in North America in the past 500 years, but keep in mind that others may have blinked out by manmade causes—principally habitat loss—even before modern science knew they existed. For instance, the
Gould’s Emerald hummingbird (Chlorostilbon elegans) is known purely by one collected specimen of unknown origin although it is conjectured that it came from Jamaica or the Bahamas.

The first one on the list was a flightless owl that lived on Andros Island, the largest island of the Bahamas. Being flightless bird on an island is often a species headed down a cul-de-sac, just ask the dodo.

The species highlighted in red were once found in the Unites States. The dates are when they went extinct.

North American Birds: Recent extinctions
(1500 AD to present)

1. Bahaman barn owl, (16th Century) (Caribbean)

2. Bermuda night heron (1600s) (Caribbean)

3. Lesser Antillean macaw, (1760) (Caribbean)

4. Guadeloupe burrowing owl, (Little is known) (Caribbean)

5. Guadeloupe parakeet, (Little is known) (Caribbean)

6. Martinique Amazon, a parrot, (Last seen: 1772) (Endemic to Martinique, Caribbean)

7. Guadeloupe Amazon, a parrot, (1779) (Endemic to Guadeloupe, Caribbean)

8. Great auk (Last record: 3 June 1844) (North Atlantic south to New England)

9. Spectacled cormorant, (Last record: About 1850) (Bering Sea)

10. Brace’s emerald hummingbird (Last record: 13 July 1877) (Bahamas)

11. Cuban red macaw (Last record: 1884) (Cuba, Caribbean)

12. Martinique house wren, (Little is known) (Caribbean)

13. Gould’s emerald hummingbird (One specimen, 1860) (Jamaica, Bahamas)

14. Labrador duck (Last record: Fall 1875) (Labrador south to New York)

15. Mauge’s parakeet, (Last seen 1882) (Caribbean)

16. Virgin Islands screech-owl (Little is known) (Caribbean)

17. Guadalupe caracara (Last record: 1 December 1900) (Caribbean)

18. Slender-billed grackle, (Little is known. Last record: About 1910) (Mexico)

19. Guadalupe storm-petrel (Last record: 1911) (Guadalupe Island off Baja California)

20. Grand Cayman thrush (Last record: 1911) (Cayman Islands)

21. Passenger pigeon (Last record: 1 September 1914) (U.S.)

22. Carolina parakeet (Last record: 21 February 1918) (U.S.)

23. Heath hen (Last confirmed record: 11 March 1932) (Martha's Vineyard, U.S.)

24. Dusky seaside sparrow (Last record: 16 June 1987) (U.S., endemic to Florida)

25. Atitlán Grebe (1989) (Guatemala, Central America)

To this list you should probably-maybe add the Bachman's warbler from the American south (the last confirmed sighting was in South Carolina in 1988); imperial woodpecker from Mexico; Jamaica petrel; Eskimo curlew of Canada and Alaska; and Semper's warbler, endemic to Saint Lucia, an island I have visited.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

where's Hiwassee?

I've had several queries about the sandhill cranes at Hiwassee and two questions in particular:

1) When do the sandhills start to arrive at the refuge?

2) How do I get there to see them?

They generally start to arrive in November and leave around March, with a peak in population in mid-winter.

From Knoxville to Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge

1) Leaving Knoxville take I-75/40 South.

2) At the I-75/40 Split take I-75 (left lanes).

3) After split, drive 36 miles to Exit 49 (Athens/Decatur). Take exit and at top of ramp, turn right towards Decatur on Hwy 30.

4) Drive just over 9 miles to Decatur. At traffic light turn left onto Hwy 58 South.

5) Drive approximately 14.5 miles to Blythe Ferry Road on right.

6) Follow Blythe Ferry Road 6 miles to Priddy Road on right. This is the entrance to Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge. Follow gravel road to it dead ends in public parking lot at gazebo

Reverse directions to get home.

1) At the end of Priddy Road (gravel) turn left onto Blythe Ferry Road and drive 6 miles to Hwy 58.

2) Turn left onto Hwy 58 and drive approximately 14.5 miles to Decatur.

3) Turn right at traffic light and Golden Gallon onto Hwy 30.

4) Drive 9 miles to I-75 Exit-49. Follow signs to I-75 North.

5) Take I-75 North and follow signs to Knoxville.

Thank you. Enjoy your day.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

a milkweed that climbs

Well it certainly looked like the exploding seeds pods for common milkweed, but then again it didn’t. You know how that goes? IDing sparrows is a cinch compared to some plants. Luckily, we had local wildflower expert Kris Light with us on our hike to the Ross Marble Natural Area.

It is in the milkweed family, a native perennial vine found in the southeast somewhat blessed with a plethora of common names: blue-vined milkweed, sandvine, honeyvine milkweed, climbing milkweed and/or smooth swallow-wort. But to any biologist, it’s simply Cynanchum laeve.

Monday, November 15, 2010

seasons change

Perhaps on schedule, perhaps not, but the seasons are changing.

I watched sycamore leaves slowly fall from their moorings on a warm afternoon and the next day a sudden cold front with a sprinkling of hail—or should I say hell—slapped us in the face.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Ross Marble Hike

Special thanks to everyone who went on my first guided hike to the Ross Marble Natural Area yesterday. The weather was wonderful, perhaps the last good weekend before winter.

The new 105-acre parcel was officially opened last week. With this addition, Ijams Nature Center is now 275 acres. And, of course, like the rest of the park, Ross Marble is open 365 days a year.

For more information go to Ross Marble.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

as goes the moths

If you have followed this blog, you know I have a fondness for moths. But some studies have shown that worldwide there's a drop in their numbers. If so, this would have an effect of the moth-eaters.

The European cuckoo (Cuculus canorus) is in decline on the other side of the Atlantic.

Environmental writer Michael McCarthy writes, “It is possible also that the cuckoo has been hit by a significant side effect of intensive farming; insect decline."

"With cuckoos—and with bats, many of which are also declining—the issue is moths."

"However, some of the moths whose caterpillars cuckoos take have dropped in numbers precipitously in Britain in recent decades. We know this from one of the biggest data sets on insect populations anywhere in the world, the records of the countrywide network of moth traps run since 1968 by the Rothamsted agricultural research station in Hertfordshire. When this data was analyzed in 2003, it was found that 226 out of the 337 moth species examined had decreased over the 35 years, many by alarming amounts: 75 species had decreased by more than 70 percent, another 57 species had decreased by more 50 percent, and a further 60 by over 25 percent.”

And as goes the caterpillars, so goes the caterpillar eaters.

-From "Say Goodbye to the Cuckoo: Migratory Birds and the Impending Ecological Catastrophe" by Michael McCarthy, 2010, Ivan R. Dee publisher, pages 236-37

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

festive silk

Most adult spiders die before winter, leaving behind their egg cases for next year. Yet, this one silk-spinner at Ijams seemed festive in its dying days, decorating a tall native grass for the upcoming holidays.

Spider silk is stronger than steel, yet flexible. Scientists have been trying to create fabric from the strands of silk but have largely failed until last year. In 2009, "Time" magazine reported that British textiles expert Simon Peers and American fashion designer Nicholas Godley have succeeded in weaving a 11-feet long stretch of remarkably strong cloth.

The down-side: it took 7o people in Madagascar collecting the silk from more than a million golden orb spiders. They worked for four years at a ultimate cost of half a million dollars, so the cloth is probably not for everyday use.

-Photo at Ijams Nature Center

-Thanks Karen Sue

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

where are my books?

Being an author is an odd odd sort of avocation. You spend years and years, working in private: researching, reading, thinking, scribbling, marking through and scribbling yet again. Comma in, comma out. Paragraph in, paragraph out.

Only your loved ones know the long hours of isolation And then, somehow, the gods smile on you and you finish and deliver your manuscript to the publisher. At that point, it no longer is a private affair, the pace quickens, there's editing, design, proof approvals, scheduling, deadlines, and before too long your books are out there, thousands of them, strewn about like autumn leaves in the wind.

You often find yourself wondering: Where do they go? Have they found a good home? Are they languishing in a used bookstore? (An author's nightmare.)

To that end, if you have a copy of one of my books, send me a photo and sate my curiosity. Here's one that found its way to the Big Apple, the city that never sleeps.

Bill Benish at the subway station very close to his apartment in uptown New York City. (This is very appropriate since in my book, Jim and Nancy Tanner saw the beginning of 1941 come in at Times Square watching the ball drop.)

Thanks, Bill.

Monday, November 8, 2010

fishing buddies

This one comes from Linda Claussen.

She routinely sees otters swimming along the river near her home upstream from the nature center. Recently Linda noticed a great blue heron walking through the water following an otter presumably taking advantage of whatever small tasty morsels were churned up in its wake.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

ghost birds: East Carroll Parish

In Louisiana, north of the Singer Tract: 1938

"After his meal, it began to look like rain, so Jim hustled out to find his car not wanting to get it stuck in the mud yet again. He had just reached the road and the cabin of Fred Williams, when a heavy rain began to fall. Williams invited Tanner into his home until the shower passed, where Jim learned that the old-timer had not seen an ivory-bill in the area in 10 years. His story and the amount of cut over acreage confirmed what Jim was already sensing: if the upper reaches of the Tensas bottomland had once been home to the storied woodpeckers, they were now all gone. "

Excerpt from Ghost Birds: Jim Tanner and the Quest for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, 1931-1941

Friday, November 5, 2010

last train

This foggy morning scene near the nature center reminded me of the old song "Last Train to Clarksville" by The Monkees, which topped the Billboard chart 44 years ago today (November 5, 1966). The song was written by Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart and was to believed to be a protest song against the Vietnam War. The train's destination suggested Clarksville, Tennessee near Fort Campbell, Kentucky home of the 101st Airborne Division—the Screaming Eagles—of the US Army.

"Take the last train to Clarksville, Now I must hang up the phone, I can't hear you in this noisy railroad station, All alone, I'm feeling low. Oh, no, no, no, Oh, no, no, no, And I don't know if I'm ever coming home."

And yes, I'm obviously old enough to remember all of this. Although, on second thought, this section of track is headed east away from Clarksville. The city in Middle Tennessee is located in the opposite direction.

Thursday, November 4, 2010


If last week’s post was reminiscent of Claude Monet and the impressionists, today’s seems more in the line with Jackson Pollock and abstract expressionism. POW! It's bold, in your face.

A black gum located at Ijams seemed to be splashed, dripping with color.

In fact, exuberant, brash color is exploding everywhere around me.

"Alchemy" by Jackson Pollock, 1947
(Imagine this in red and orange.)

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

thank you

Special thanks to Cindy Kendrick, Ann Strange, Jim Kohl and the rest of the ORNL Community Shares Campaign Team. As part of this year's kick-off event and ORNL's Sustainable Campus Initiative, I spoke on "Creating a Bird Friendly Yard," one of the Living Clean & Green! earth-friendly programs offered by Ijams.

Ijams Nature Center is a Community Shares member agency. ORNL employees who choose to donate to Community Shares can designate that part or all of their donations go to Ijams.

For this, we thank you.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

autumal palette

Wayne Mallinger writes,

"Nature's well worn palette...I've spent the last two weeks enjoying the fall colors at all levels, the heights of the mountains, to the floor of the forests as they slowly make their way down to the valley.....Bald River Falls in the Cherokee National Forest late Monday afternoon served up an eyeful (as always). Wind & rains on Tuesday accelerated the fall process."

Indeed. The leaves seem to be morphing overnight, showing their true colors.

Thanks, Wayne!

Monday, November 1, 2010

coppery cypress

I spent so much time while writing the book Ghost Birds mentally in the great cypress swamps of the South, I gained a revised affection for the wonderful trees that like to keep their feet wet. (You'd think they would catch the devil of a cold.)

I often find myself staring at the two bald cypresses in front of the Visitor Center at Ijams. The past week they have been slowly changing from green to a coppery cinnamon, dropping their feathery-fine leaves—borne on deciduous branchlets—into the Plaza Pond.