Monday, January 31, 2011

missing spiders

Spending a quiet evening at home in the middle of winter, reading my favorite writer of natural history—David Quammen, who manages to serve up curious observations with a garish of good humor—I'm reminded how much I miss spiders mostly because they are fun to watch and contemplate and imagine their eight-eyed, eight-legged world. Isn't it so Rikki?

Here's what Quammen writes about spider sex:

"Spiders do their mating with pedipalps, another form of modified leg, to which sperm is applied from a separate male orifice, like guacamole on a chip, before insertion. The male of the black widow spider bears on its pedipalp a fine, pointy structure called an embolus, the tip of which breaks off inside the female (bad enough in itself, but portending an even worse fate in store for the poor little dude)."

-Quote from "The Boilerplate Rhino" by David Quammen

Indeed. The Southern black widow, Latrodectus mactans, practices sexual cannibalism, defined as when a "female organism kills and consumes her mate before, during or after copulation." (Talk about a bad first date! For goodness sake, wouldn't eating your mate before copulation be counter productive?)

So the poor little black widow dude deserves our empathy. Forget his pointy, fine embolus, the female often (but not always) eats the much smaller male after they mate. I guess if you got to go, dying after sex is better than choking on a peanut butter sandwich.

Speaking of which, I think I'm out of milk. I'd better go to the store.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

kinglet smudge

No this is not modern art. No Motherwell. No Frankenthaler. No Rothko. No Kline. No de Kooning. Or any of the so called gestural abstractionists splashing paint across the canvas. Capturing the artist's energy in one quick smear of color. Splasssssssshhhhhh.

Label it if you will: The one that got away, an almost photo of a golden-crowned kinglet. The smudge in the lower left is the kinglet exiting my hurriedly framed composition, in motion.

But aren't they always in motion? Fleeting blurs of vitality. A metaphor for life itself.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

summer remains part 2

The female summer tanager is still visiting the feeders at Hugh Morgan’s house here in Knoxville. It was there for the local Christmas Bird Count and has remained despite cold weather and a couple of snowfalls. Here’s his latest communiqué.

“The tanager has formed a bit of dependence on the woodpeckers.

Sometimes the tanager sits in a hemlock tree and watches the suet. When a woodpecker goes to the suet the tanager will go to the ground beneath the feeder and eat the pieces of suet that the woodpecker drops or knocks to the ground.

The tanager also likes little tomatoes.

Back when a few inches of snow was on the ground I threw some small grape size tomatoes on the snow thinking the birds might like them.

They were not touched for a couple of weeks. Now the tanager is eating them.

Yesterday I put a slice of mango in the yard but she has not been to it.”

Hugh has also observed the tanager eating berries off the holly bush in his back yard. Maybe the holly bush also helps keep her in the area.

Heather Crawley was also able to send a couple more photos (at the top and bottom of this post) of the bird that’s been around for weeks.

Friday, January 28, 2011

is that a downy?


I'm often asked, "How do you tell a downy woodpecker from a hairy?"

It's tricky. The hairy is overall larger but unless they are side by side, size is hard to judge from a distance.

The petite downy is also more people friendly, more often seen in suburbia and backyards; they seem to come to the feeders more readily. I see hairy woodpeckers more often in the woods.

But the real field marking to look for is bill length: the downy's is dainty, the hairy's heavy and it's as long as its head is wide.

In these two photos, can you tell which is which?

My question is: Since they both can occur in the same forest, each must have a special niche. How do they coexist?

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

out foxed

Many people refer to sparrows as LBJs, i.e. little brown jobs as though they were not all that pretty or interesting or worth a second look. But note this fox sparrow. It's really rather handsome.

They also have an extraordinary life history. They nest far to the north: Alaska east to Newfoundland and migrate south in the winter. That's not all that unusual, right?

But the largish streaky sparrows are highly variable, divided into four distinct groups or populations, some even list them as four separate subspecies, but there is apparently intermingling where there borders overlap. (You know these things happen. Heck, it's not like they have chaperons to watch over them.)

The four groups—David Allen Sibley lists them as: thick-billed (California), slate-colored (interior west), sooty (Pacific coast) and red (most of the east)—all look different. They range from a lot of gray with a little red, to a lot of red with a little gray. And then there's the odd man out, the sooty that looks, well sooty. Chimney sweep Dick Van Dyke in "Mary Poppins" sooty. This group actually has two subgroups: sooty light and sooty dark.

In my part of the world, we have the red morph, but only in the winter and not in great numbers and they're hard to find even when they are here. I haven't seen one in since I don't remember when despite a conscious effort.

So far, it has out red foxed me, but winter isn't over yet.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

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.

So much of my book takes place in Louisiana, it's nice to know that one of them will be living there. It's owned by Violet R., who lives in Avoyelles Parish, south of the old Singer Tract.

Monday, January 24, 2011

hermit found

Alone the hermit, songster from the north.

For a naturalist/educator, it's always nice to find a reclusive bird for your students. I had just finished my Winter Birds Class indoors, showing photos of the birds that spend their winters at the nature center, when as a group, we walked outside and soon found one of our target species. The shy hermit himself.

The two hermit thrush photos were taken by Warren Hamlin, who attended my class at Ijams with his wife. We found the thrush near the parking lot. The solitary bird was mute, but it gave us a wonderfully long look.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

animals today

I will be interviewed live on the national radio program Animals Today Sunday, January 23 at 5 p.m. eastern. Broadcast on AM stations around the country, the program originates in Southern California. It is also streamed on their website.

The topic will be my book Ghost Birds, Jim Tanner, the ivory-billed woodpecker and animal extinction.

If you miss the show, the interview will be archived on the Animals Today website a few days after the broadcast.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Tanner: memoriam

Special note:

Dr. James T. Tanner, Jim, the protagonist in my book Ghost Birds, passed away on this date 20 years ago:

January 21, 1991.

Jim is still sadly missed, but by none more so than his wife Nancy.

The photo to the left was taken in 1937, in the Singer Tract while Jim was conducted his Cornell/Audubon field research of the ivory-billed woodpecker.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

winter birds

Pied-billed grebe

Cabin fever?

SPECIAL NOTE: Saturday, January 22, at 9 a.m.

I'll be teaching a class on the Winter Birds of Ijams—all the species that can only be found at the nature center at this time of the year.

The list includes such species as the hermit thrush, winter wren, pied-billed grebe, American coot, yellow-bellied sapsucker, white-throated sparrow, pine siskin, purple finch and those hyper, hard to ID, kinglets.

After our indoor review, we'll go outside for a walk to see what we can find. Bring binoculars if you have them, or if not, we have loaner pairs. FEE: Free for Ijams members, $10 for non-members. To sign up call Sheila at (865) 577-4717, ext. 10.

White-throated sparrow

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

beauty lost


They say you cannot sing the blues unless you have actually lived them. Is the same true for awareness of the beauty around you? Do you have to live awhile to truly appreciate it?

In his book “The Architecture of Happiness,” Swiss writer Alain de Botton writes, “We may need to have made an indelible mark on our lives, to have married the wrong person, pursued an unfulfilling career into middle age or lost a loved one before architecture can begin to have any perceptible impact on us, for when we speak of being ‘moved’ by a building, we allude to a bitter-sweet feeling of contrast between the noble qualities written into a structure and the sadder wider reality within which we know them to exist...

It is in dialogue with pain that many beautiful things acquire their value.”

Let me repeat that, "It is in dialogue with pain that many beautiful things acquire their value."

De Botton was speaking of architecture but the same holds true for the natural world. At its heart, architecture imitates the noble aesthetics—balance, grace, form—found in nature.

At a time when dead black birds are falling from the sky for unknown reasons—the sadder wider reality of our degraded environment—my home state of Tennessee is considering opening a hunting season on sandhill cranes.

How unfortunate.

Recently I received the above wonderful photo from Gretchen Kaplan. She captured the image of sandhill cranes in flight at Bosque del apache, New Mexico last year. She is concerned that a hunter in our state, in a moment of confusion, might shoot at a sandhill and accidentally kill an even rarer thing, an endangered whooping crane. Indeed.

In the context of the sadder wider reality, any beauty lost is one small piece we will never get back.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

flick of gold

Vickie Henderson is a good friend of mine. And why not? She's an artist, photographer, writer, and dare we say, passionate about nature. Note the similarity.

Recently she posted this wonderful photo she took of a yellow shafted Northern flicker, known as the yellowhammer in Alabama, or Pique bois jaune by the early French settlers in Louisiana.

I love the action, the bold color of Vickie's photo. But the complete flicker story she posted is just as striking.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

near trees sparrow

What did Simon & Garfunkel sing? Something like, "All come looking for America" tree sparrow.

The American tree sparrow (Spizella arborea: means "finch pertaining to the trees") actually spends little time in trees, preferring to be near trees not necessarily in them. It also nests on or near the ground in a natural depression far north near the tundra and spends most of its year in Canada, so a better common name might be North American near trees sparrow. But that's a bit lengthy.

Their winter range dips down into Kentucky and northwest Tennessee. Wandering small winter flocks are often seen scattering over snow-swept weedy fields and marshes. Has anyone in these areas seen one this winter?

Friday, January 14, 2011

summer remains

I spoke with Ijams' member Hugh Morgan again. The female summer tanager has been visiting his backyard everyday for at least the past two weeks.

You have to think that if she is still here, through all the snows and cold weather, she'll remain until spring.

Hugh sent two more photos taken by Heather Crawley on January 12.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

in memoriam

Dear Stephen.

My 86 year young mother passed on January 3.

She so loved your blog and how you published my photos and stories....she had you on her “favorites."

My love for birds, animals and Mother Earth all were passed to me from her at my birth. I don’t have access to my computer but I found that she had “saved” every e-mail I had sent with a picture attached. Oh, how she loved the seabirds (all animals).

I hope to return to Tennessee soon, don’t know how much longer I can stand the weather here in Ft. Lauderdale...77 & sunny every day :)

Wayne Mallinger

Hello Wayne. I’m sorry to learn of your mother’s passing. Thanks for the gull photo. I’ll post it in honor of your mother.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

summer in winter

And here’s a bit of summer found unexpectedly in winter. Recently I received an e-mail and some photos from Ijams' member Hugh Morgan.

“I have seen this type of bird so many times over the years and have suspected that they are tanagers.

"The bird was here last week and maybe even the week before. I had friends over last Thursday to watch the Army – SMU Football Game. They noticed the bird and commented that it was a pretty goldfinch and we had a friendly discussion about its species.

It was around on and off all day last Friday.

Heather Crawley and I watched the bird for a long time on Saturday January 1, made notes about the birds size, color, etc., and kept looking at various birds in "The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America." She brought her camera over and made the photos on Sunday, January 2 so we could send them to you. The bird was here on Monday, January 3.”

As fate would have it, Sunday, January 2 was the day of the local Christmas Bird Count (CBC) and Hugh lives within the count circle.

Dean Edwards, the count's compiler adds, "That will be the only second record of summer tanager on the Knoxville CBC (the other was in 1969). There were two in the circle in December a few years ago but they disappeared before the count."

Monday, January 10, 2011

seed swaps

Be sure to check out the article about the long tradition of Seed Swaps in the new issue of The Tennessee Conservationist.

Ijams educator and resident green thumb Peg Beute penned the piece and I provided the photographs.

Here is some of what Peg wrote,

"Ijams Nature Center held its first Seed Swap in 1995. On a Saturday in April we invited members, friends and visitors to bring their favorite seeds, cuttings or bulbs to share with others. We discovered it was a chance to share not only plants, but also gardening lore, growing experiences and family stories.

The history of seed sharing is told not only in diaries and journals, but also in letters and oral histories from many of our ancestors. A seed swap was one of the ways our forbearers found out about different successful varieties of plants. We continue that tradition at Ijams, a 275-acre environmental education center minutes from downtown Knoxville, where our Seed Swap has become a rich and rewarding experience over the past 15 years. It is a kind of family reunion where organized chaos reigns. New and old gardeners bring in seeds, cuttings, bulbs and sprouts—anything they have that they want to share."

The rest of the article is in the magazine.

- Special thanks to the statewide magazine's editor Louise Zepp.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

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 Tracey Everson Muise. She received a copy of Ghost Birds for Christmas from her husband Charlie, so this one will be living in Georgia.

Charlie and Tracey served as president and vice-president of the local chapter of the Tennessee Ornithological Society for several years here in Knoxville before they moved to the Peach State. Their leadership and enthusiasm for birding are continually missed by club members.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

wilderness wildlife week

Wilderness Wildlife Week begins today in Pigeon Forge at the Music Road Hotel Convention Center. There will be more presentations than ever.

On Monday, January 10, 11 a.m. until noon, join Ijams Executive Director Paul James for a program titled The Ijams Family Legacy in the Smokies.

Paul’s book is a look into the Ijams family’s role in the Smoky Mountains, including hiking, bird watching, camping on Mt. LeConte, the creation of Camp Margaret Townsend for Girl Scouts, and H.P. Ijams’ role promoting the new national park in the 1930s. Also featured is an account of H.P. Ijams’ famous passenger pigeon and the extinction of this once prevalent species.

Tuesday, January 11, 9 until 10:30 a.m., I’ll be speaking about Ghost Birds: Jim Tanner and the Ivorybill. The legendary ghost bird of the South, the ivory-billed woodpecker has been popping in and out of existence for the past century. Is the species extinct or not? It’s a question that remains unanswered. However, in the late 1930s, the species was very much alive and photographed. For three years, Jim Tanner studied the most documented population in northeast Louisiana. What did he learn?

Is that soaring bird a hawk, vulture or eagle? Which owls do we hear hooting in the night? On Thursday, January 13, Noon-1:30 p.m., I’ll speak on Identifying Local Birds of Prey providing quick tips on how to identify the various species of falcons, hawks, eagles, owls and vultures found in the Tennessee Valley.

For a complete listing of all WWW programs go to: schedule.

Please join us.

Friday, January 7, 2011

mystery, yet another

Okay. This is getting spooky. 2011.

Last week, I half-heartedly called on Scully and Mulder to come out of retirement to investigate a strange, hairless animal shot in Kentucky. Somehow I felt safer when the pair of pariah FBI agents were sleuthing into all those things that go bump in the night. Didn't you?

Now, red-winged blackbirds have dropped from the sky by the thousands in Arkansas and, days later, in Louisiana. "Residents there had reported stumbling upon the bodies littering the ground and even being hit by them as they fell," one report states.

Yet, another posting reads, "Preliminary tests in Arkansas revealed the birds deaths were a result of massive trauma. Experts believe that fireworks are to blame for deaths, claiming that the sudden lights and sounds likely frightened the birds. The official cause of death for the tested birds was acute physical trauma leading to internal hemorrhage. Dr. George Bradley did note in an interview with NBC that the birds did not die on impact but died while still in mid-air."

Yes, mid-air.

When you rule out the probable and possible, you are left with the improbable. Is it therefore possible that the 5,000 blackbirds flew into a hovering saucer-shaped object in the dead of night?

Kentucky, Arkansas, Louisiana. My part of the planet. We need Fox to reopen the X-Files.

For more information go to: X-File.

Thursday, January 6, 2011


"In his essay 'On Transience' (1916) Sigmund Freud recalled a walk he took in the Dolomite Mountains with the poet Ranier Maria Rilke. It was an exquisite summer's day; the flowers were in bloom and brightly coloured butterflies danced above the meadows. The psychoanalyst was glad to be outdoors (it had been raining all week), but his companion walked with his head bowed, his eyes fixed on the ground, and remained taciturn throughout the excursion. It wasn't that Rilke was oblivious to the beauty around him, he simply could not overlook how impermanent everything was. In Freud's words, he was unable to forget 'that all this beauty was fated to extinction, that it would vanish when winter came, like all human beauty and all the beauty that men have created or may create.'"

"Freud was unsympathetic, for him, the capacity to love anything attractive, however fragile it might be, was a hallmark of psychological health. But Rilke's stance, though inconvenient, helpfully emphasises how it can be those most in thrall to beauty who will be especially aware of, and saddened by, its ephemeral character."

- From "The Architecture of Happiness" by Alain de Botton

And yesterday, we were reminded that even winter can be beautiful, although just as ephemeral.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

hidden resolved

Here's the answer to yesterday's query.

The red-shouldered hawk is perched low-to-the-ground in a beech.

(Click the photo to make it bigger.)

Tuesday, January 4, 2011


I ask you: Is this fair? Can you spot the bird of prey?

Talk about camouflage, if you were a mouse crawling through the leaves how could you possibly see this red-shouldered hawk perched above you?

I'm surprised I spotted it, my eyes are not that much better than a mouse's. They are bigger but they're older. I just happened to notice the brick-red Buteo fly into the trees. I also know that red-shoulders like to frequent woods near water and there was a small creek flowing below the perched raptor.

For more information about hawks, I'll be teaching a workshop on "Identifying Birds of Prey" next week on Thursday, January 13 (Noon to 1:30 p.m.) at Wilderness Wildlife Week in Pigeon Forge. The program is free.

Monday, January 3, 2011

moving a plague

Grackle wrangler. I’ve done odder things.

Common grackles, Quiscalus quiscula, are just that, common, but they don’t always turn up within the count circle for the local Christmas Bird Count. I was on my way to join Patty Ford in Lakemoor Hills, our designated area to tally in Zone 12 when I encountered a large flock of grackles on the ground, splayed across two front yards and overflowing out into the road. It was eerily like a scene from Albert Hitchcock’s The Birds, but I’m no Rod Taylor.

Also, somewhat eerily, a large flock of grackles is called a plague.

I slowed, rolled down the windows and started waving my arms. Yelling “Move on,” I attempted to herd the iridescence, ebony plague west down the road. We were only about half a mile from being within the official count circle established locally in the late 1950s.

Could I inch the free-flowing bird mass in the right direction?

Briefly, it seemed to be working, but plagues are somewhat unpredictable. Like mercury crawling across a lab table, or Mrs. Butterworth’s over a stack of steaming, hot Aunt Jemimas. In an instant, the entire flock bolted, broke into two mini plagues and flew back, behind the car to reassemble on the ground in their original location.

So much for herding free-flowing bird masses.

To my great delight, thirty minutes later, I was counting a small flock of cedar waxwings about a mile to the west, when the free-flowing plague of grackles flew over me. This time they were well within the count circle.

At least 200, of the sleek as coal—glistening with blues, greens and purples—large icterids tallied for the bird count.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

hummer of a mystery

We begin the New Year with an unsolved and perhaps unsolvable mystery: hummingbirds overwintering in the Southeast. Is this a fairly recent phenomenon? Is it a sign of climate change? Or have they been here in winter all along and we just failed to notice?

Conventional wisdom seems to dictate that hummingbirds are far too dainty and nectar dependent to ever survive our cold days and nights, and supposedly, all spend their winters in the milder climes of Central and South America. Yet, many hummingbird species that nest in the west having been observed in recent years in the Southeast in winter. Species like the rufous, calliope, black-chinned, buff-bellied, Anna's, Allen's, Costa's and broad-billed have been reported.

The first rufous hummingbird east of the Mississippi River was collected in 1904, but since that time, any stray winter hummer was simply dismissed as a poor lost westerner, doomed to die. But, just perhaps, this isn't so. Westerner, yes; doomed to die, no. Wintertime hummers are not here in great numbers, but for some reason, a small number do migrate not south but southeast.

And even our own ruby-throated hummingbirds do not all leave; they are also being seen in chilly places. Patty Ford and I tallied a lone female ruby-throat visiting a feeder in South Knoxville near the lake in January 2009 during the Christmas Bird Count. We had been alerted by local bird bander Mark Armstrong who had already managed to catch and band her.

And in recent years, both calliope and rufous hummingbirds have been seen and banded in my area in winter.

Again: Is this a recent phenomenon? Or have they been here in winter all along?

For more information about hummingbirds in winter visit: National Wildlife Federation.

- Photo of rufous hummingbird by Ryan Bushby