Friday, December 31, 2010

good-bye 2010

We'll close out 2010 with a look at the bird that became the symbol of the biggest environmental story of the old year: the brown pelican.

The Gulf Oil Spill impacted hundreds of coastal species, but perhaps none more visible than this one. By mid-summer, 58 percent of all dead or injured birds collected by rescuers were brown pelicans, a bird that had just been removed from the federal endangered species list last year. Louisiana felt the greatest impact from the oil spill. Pre-disaster, the state played host to between 8,000 and 16,000 breeding pairs of these birds. How many will be there this spring?

Time will tell.

Last spring, Wayne Mallinger sent me this photo of an "oil-free" brown pelican he took in 2009 on a visit. No one knows if this bird is still alive.

Thanks for sharing, Wayne.

- Photo of oil-free brown pelican by Wayne Mallinger

Wednesday, December 29, 2010


Let's file this under "Shoot first; ask questions later." And it goes to illustrate just why visitors from other worlds—if they exist—do not present themselves readily, especially if they look a little different and happen to be hairless.

It has been reported that a Kentucky man recently killed a hairless unknown creature that happened to stumble out of the woods into his front yard. The mysterious creature was apparently gunned down because the homeowner "didn't know what it was."

Can someone call Scully and Mulder? As Fox was apt to say, "The truth is out there." Or in this case, "was out there." Now the truth is prostrate on a stainless steel autopsy table.

With a nod to Linda Ellerbee, "And so it goes."

For more information go to Chupacabra.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

natural histories: Sycamore Shoals

"While at the site I walked down to the river to see if there were still any sycamores at Sycamore Shoals. Like any other riverbank in the valley, there were several. The largest one I located couldn’t be measured because it leaned out over the water. From the two or three I was able to get a tape around, I’d estimate the big one to be over 12 feet in circumference. But, these trees are anonymous; they grow quietly along the shoreline out of the limelight. If you ask anyone that works or volunteers at the state park, they’ll tell you the most famous sycamore at the site is the 30-year-old “Moon Tree” planted inside the stockade.

Sycamores had long been rallying points. Before the American Revolution, colonial patriots designated a large tree in each colony as a 'Liberty Tree,' secret meeting places, to gather and plot against the British. Many of these special sites were sycamores because in those early days they were giants. Their massive girth made them the largest deciduous hardwoods in North America. In 1802, François Michaux found an aged sycamore on the bank of the Ohio River, 36 miles from Marietta, that measured an astonishing 47 feet in circumference. Michaux and his botanist father André traveled extensively throughout the east in the 1700s and early 1800s. They were studying and collected items of natural history, particularly trees."

Excerpt from Natural Histories published by the University of Tennessee Press

Monday, December 27, 2010

where are my books?

Just received word that Ghost Birds has made it half way around the world. At least I think the National Taiwan University Library is on the opposite side of the planet.

Sunday, December 26, 2010


The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree

Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I had rued.

- by poet Robert Frost.

It snowed in the valley yesterday.
A dusting of a white Christmas.

Friday, December 24, 2010

feliz navidad

Poinsettia native to Central America on a bed of yellowing ginko leaves native to China photographed in East Tennessee. Small world.

Feliz navidad.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

the hollies

(the trees not the British rock group from the '60s.)

European holly, Ilex aquifolium

American holly, Ilex opaca

Festive hollies have been a part of year-end celebrations and rituals for centuries.

For early Christians, the prickly leaves of Christmas holly were a symbol of the crown of thorns worn by Christ at the time of his crucifixion; the red berries represented the drops of blood shed for humanity’s salvation. It is believed by some that wood from a holly tree was used to make the cross. This is possible since European holly, Ilex aquifolium, is a species native to western and southern Europe, northwest Africa and southwest Asia. In fact, some scholars think that the word, “holly” is simply a corruption of “holy."

In the Old Country, the holly tree was once called the “holy tree.” The word holiday itself is apparently an Old English derivative of the term “holy day,” a day of religious festival that dates back to the 14th century.

When the Pilgrims landed in Massachusetts in late November 1620, they saw American holly growing in the nearby forest, and we assume were reminded of their own Old World holly. The two are closely related, although the Old World variety has more brilliant green leaves and redder fruit. (This is hard to believe.)

American holly, Ilex opac, is native along the East Coast from Massachusetts to northern Florida; consequently, all early settlers in their first century as “strangers in a strange land” were able to continue their Christmas holly tradition in their new home.

Happy Holly Days.

American holly range map

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

two finches

And neither one is named Atticus.

For the sake of comparison, on the left is the native to the east, purple finch, and for the sake of argument, let's call it raspberry. On the right, the native to the west but now transported across the country to be widespread, the boorish house finch, once sold in pet stores under the sobriquet of "Hollywood" finch. Wouldn't that make you want to buy one?

Note: on the house finch the cherry red is frontal appearing more on the face and the streaks on the flanks are dark; on the purple finch the color is more raspberry and spreads over the entire head and flows softly down the upper back; the streaks on the flanks, if present, are reddish.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

raspberry blush

Settling in, focusing on a chickadee on a nearby branch, Canon Rebel in hand, getting ready to fire off a few shots when I noticed through the viewfinder a red flash move into the background.

"My God. Could it be?" A purple finch, Carpodacus purpureus, well more raspberry than true purple, but definitely not the cherry red of a house finch and there are no streaks on its flanks. No boorishness. No attitude.

The purple finch population has declined in recent decades, displaced by the later day usurpers, imported house finches, insolent really, that were brought to the eastern U.S. from the western U.S. and sold as caged birds, that is up until the time it was made illegal in the 1940s.

I haven't seen a purple finch in awhile and never, no never, have I seen one with my camera poised and ready to go. If only it will hold still long enough.

Oh, yes, yes, show us that raspberry rump, that pink blush draped over your shoulders. Yes. Beautiful.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

ghost birds: out of cash

"Because he was running out of cash, Jim left the swamp and drove west to Fort Myers. During his entire three-year journey through the South, his Audubon grant money was wired to him periodically as he traveled from place to place. On this occasion, however, the money had not arrived at Fort Myers, and Tanner found himself almost broke. He took a part-time job helping refurbish a motor yacht, scrapping barnacles off the hull."

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

Thursday, December 16, 2010


Not to be outdone by the male, what a female cardinal lacks in dazzle, she makes up with style. Who needs dazzle when you have panache such as she?

- Photo taken at Ijams Nature Center

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

breath of a buffalo

What is life?

It is the flash of a firefly in the night,

It is the breath of a buffalo in the winter time.

It is the little shadow which runs across the grass

and loses itself in the sunset.

- Crowfoot, or Issapóómahksika, Native American, chief of the Siksika Nation

I've used this same quote, same place before.
There's something about that tree standing alone, watching, isolated against
whatever comes its way season after season.

Monday, December 13, 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. And then, somehow, 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, sold for 50 cents a pound. (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.

Recently I heard from noted wildlife photographer Roy Brown. Click here for his complete post.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

late bloomer

Now that cold weather has seized the valley, you might think the flowering season is over. Yet, there is one stubborn shrub found throughout the east that is a “late bloomer.” That tardy, tenacious plant is witch hazel or in some places it’s known as “winterbloom” for obvious reasons.

One of these delayed delights grows near my office at the nature center. I’ve been watching it closely for weeks, beginning in October and through November, as the leaves turned from green to yellow and then dropped off. During this time, the small flower buds slowly grew. December arrived and the bare shrub looked dormant, except for its embryonic blossoms. And then finally, the first flowers began to open.

The yellow spiderlike blossoms are sparse; each has only four twisted threadlike petals. They look something like a cheerleader’s pompom that has lost most of its pom. This meagerness has a purpose. There’s less surface area to lose water; a real concern of plants active in the dry humidity of winter. (Pine needles are thin for the same reason.) And by blooming now, witch hazel has no competition for the few flying insect pollinators that are out and about on a sunny winter’s day.

You might wonder: Where's the witch in witch hazel? Well its origin comes from the Middle English wiche rooted in the old English wice meaning "pliant" or "bendable." Its supple wood was once used for dowsing, i.e. looking for water hidden below ground with a flexible fork of wood, a bewitching process also know as water-witching.

- Photo taken at Ijams Nature Center

Saturday, December 11, 2010

natural histories: West Nile virus


Early in my book Natural Histories, I report on West Nile virus. In fact, I close the chickadee chapter by saying, “At this point, no one knows what the long-term affect of West Nile virus will be on chickadees or other birds. Recent loses may just be a temporary blip on the radar. It may be commonplace for their population to fluctuate.”

I wrote that in 2003. Seven years later we can breathe a collective sigh of relief. The avian epidemic—it can also infect horses and humans—has slowly lost its punch.

The most recent issue of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s BirdScope reports that “West Nile virus hit American crows particularly hard. When the disease first appeared in New York City, in summer 1999, nearly 5,500 crows died in four months. Tests suggested the disease was 100 percent fatal to crows. Many other species, from jays and magpies to gulls and chickadees, also proved susceptible. Millions of birds died as West Nile swept across the continent in just five years.”

Ten years later: “In a new analysis of the virus’s effects on American crows, Cornell Lab researches learned that West Nile virus became less virulent as it raced westward across North America. They also found that crows in diverse habitats were less likely to come down with the disease than crows in species-poor areas.”

This suggests that habitats with a high bio-diversity are better able to mitigate the pathogen’s effects, diluting it so to speak.

From the point of view of the virus—and admittedly, that's a narrow point of view—it's not advantageous if your host dies. Host dies, virus dies. It's counterproductive, particularly if the infected host dies so quickly that the pathogen has not had time to jump to a new one. It's better if the sickened carrier lives and moves about so that the virus can spread and spread and spread, to an increasing number of new hosts.

Crows breathe sigh of relief: their populations are
recovering from affects of West Nile virus.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

cerulean blues

Exquisitely blue. Some might say "heavenly," as perhaps should I.

If you are one of those reading Jonathan Franzen's new book Freedom—and it seems like many of the people I know are or have already read it—then this is the marvelous species at the center of environmentalist Walter's concerns.

Rightly so.

The cerulean warbler is declining faster than any other warbler species in the United States; some report that its population is only one-fifth of what it was just 40 years ago, that is everywhere except in the Cumberland Mountains of East Tennessee. There, the diminutive songbird seems to be holding its own, at least for now.

What is going right there, that's going wrong elsewhere?

I proudly work with naturalist Emily Boves at Ijams Nature Center. Emily has assisted her husband Than with a cerulean warbler study the past six years. Dennis McCarthy (yet another friend of Ijams) recently penned an article in UT's Quest magazine about the declining warbler and some of Than Boves' findings. For the link, go here: cerulean.

Friday, December 3, 2010

number one

Somehow, in gray winter, male cardinals perch above it all. A shock to the senses. Their red startles, transcending the drabness. Better still, they defy it. And despite their obviousness, their in-your-faceness, they thrive.

Karen Sue located the most recent numbers for Cornell's Project Feederwatch: Southeast region. The Northern Cardinal was the most tallied species in last year's count occurring at 96 percent of the reporting sites.

Here's the complete Top Ten for this region which includes Tennessee.

1. Northern Cardinal
2. Mourning Dove
3. Carolina Chickadee
4. American Goldfinch
5. Blue Jay
6. Tufted Titmouse
7. Carolina Wren
8. Red-bellied Woodpecker
9. House Finch
10. American Robin

The above photo comes from my friend Wayne Mallinger, who is at home recovering from surgery. Thankfully, there's enough happening just outside at his feeders that prevents him from having to put his camera away.

Thanks, Wayne. Get well soon.

Thursday, December 2, 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. 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, sold for 50 cents a pound. (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 Beaver Creek located in Amherst, Ohio (The Beaver Creek Watershed is the largest watershed located entirely within Lorain County, Ohio and actually flows directly into Lake Erie).

This copy of Ghost Birds is owned by Matt Nahorn.

Thanks, Matt. Love. Love. Love this photo!

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

females are confusing

Yes, females can be confusing. Looking through my photos of the past few months I discovered this one from September.

It appears to be two different species of swallowtail but looks can be deceiving. Female eastern tiger swallowtails can either be blue or yellow. Why is this? Are they mimicking the unpalatable spicebush swallowtails. The above photo is either a male and a female or two females. The key to identification of the yellow females is the presence of blue on the hind wings.

Male eastern tiger swallowtail

Female eastern tiger swallowtail
(yellow form: note blue on hind wings)

Female eastern tiger swallowtail (blue form)