Monday, February 28, 2011

bird's eye view

I’ll be leading an “Ijams Walk•About” to River Bluff on Saturday, March 5, at 3 p.m.

It’s an easy walk up a gravel road. The 70-acre parcel is still in the hands of the Legacy Parks Foundation, but in time it will become a city park that offers a bird’s eye view of downtown Knoxville, UT and the river.

The walk is free for Ijams members, $5 for non-members. Parking is limited. To register call Sheila at 577-4717 ext. 10. For more info or directions contact me.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

love of the land

"The passing of winter and the slow growth of early spring had its usual effect on Jeeter. The warm late February days had kindled in him once more the desire to farm the land...There was an inherited love of the land in Jeeter that all his disastrous experiences with farming had failed to take away."

- From "Tobacco Road" by Erskine Caldwell published in 1932.

The warm weather of the past couple of days has me, like Jeeter, panting for the land. And even though I've never been a farmer, still I pant.

Friday, February 25, 2011

so this is Utah?

Rhonda Cook Davis, an old friend, contacted me two days ago to wish me a happy birthday. It had been awhile since we had chatted, actually quite awhile because I learned she no longer lived in Texas but now lives in Midway, Utah with her husband and three children.

To underscore her change in latitude and climate, Rhonda sent a couple of photos she had just taken outside her house. Wow. Rhonda is right. She no longer lives in Texas.

Midway is somewhat midway between Provo and Salt Lake City although there appears to be a rather dramatic mountain range in between. And a lot of snow.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

burn the witch

"What's in a name? That which we call a stinkhorn by any other name would still smell as rank." To paraphrase the Bard.

This living thing — and fungi are neither plant nor animal — has been around for thousands of years. Then someone came along and gave it a dubious Latin name and its troubles began.

I received another nature curiosity from Amy Barton, who had to apologize in advance for the unfortunate connotation that some would attach to its Latin name: Phallus impudicus, a.k.a. "stinkhorn."

Amy found the curious fungi growing in her backyard last October. It "hadn't reached full 'stinkiness.' They smelled like a roasted portobello mushroom."

Because of the name we had giving it, parts of proper society wanted to irradiate it from the English countryside. Amy also sent her most favorite tidbit: the musing of Charles Darwin's granddaughter.

Writing about life in Victorian Cambridge, Gwen Raverat (granddaughter of Charles Darwin) describes the "sport" of stinkhorn hunting:

"In our native woods there grows a kind of toadstool, called in the vernacular The Stinkhorn, though in Latin it bears a grosser name. The name is justified, for the fungus can be hunted by the scent alone; and this was Aunt Etty's great invention. Armed with a basket and a pointed stick, and wearing special hunting cloak and gloves, she would sniff her way round the wood, pausing here and there, her nostrils twitching, when she caught a whiff of her prey; then at last, with a deadly pounce, she would fall upon her victim, and poke his putrid carcass into her basket. At the end of the day's sport, the catch was brought back and burnt in the deepest secrecy on the drawing-room fire, with the door locked; because of the morals of the maids."

Let's burn the witch, even if it's not a witch.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

easy riding

YIKES! It's my birthday. Did I say "yikes"?

Somewhere Peter Fonda is having a drink. It's the easy rider's birthday too. I'm younger, so he might be having a bigger drink. He may need some consoling. You better call him.

Or better yet, let's celebrate by going on a ride

And it's a singalong: "Oh I'd rather go and journey where the diamond crest is flowing and run across the valley beneath the sacred mountain and wander through the forest where the trees have leaves of prisms and break the light in colors that no one knows the names of."

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

so stop me if you've heard this

An ibis goes into a bar and orders a beer, and the bartender asks:
"So why the long face?"

Ba dum chhh!

(Perhaps it read yesterday's post.)

- Photograph of the American white ibis (Eudocimus albus)
and supportive humor by my friend Wayne Mallinger.

second Rose Glen

The second annual Rose Glen Literary Festival is will be held at Walters State Community College in Sevierville this Saturday, February 26. Special projects facilitator, Carroll McMahan with the Sevier Chamber of Commerce is the event creator and organizer.

All of the authors attending the 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. festival are either from Sevier County or have written books about or that take place there. I will be one of the authors on hand. Local author Fred Brown is the keynote speaker at the luncheon. Having been born in Sevierville and raised in Gatlinburg, I certainly qualify as a hometown boy.

- Photo of Walter State Community College in Sevierville

Monday, February 21, 2011

end of the line

Incas, the last known Carolina parakeet, died at the Cincinnati Zoo on this date: February 21, 1918.

Arguably the most colorful avian species to ever live America, the Carolina parakeet was not formally declared extinct until 1939.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

second witch

At Ijams Nature Center

Albeit seems late in the season—since they normally bloom in November, the last plant to flower during the growing season—the witch hazel planted near the Plaza Pond in front of the Visitor Center was beautiful in yellow fringe on Saturday.

Apparently, there are two species of the witch: Hamamelis virginiana and H. vernalis in my area, and my sources tell me the latter blooms later, and I've been looking forward to writing a sentence where I could use a phrase that included both latter and later. So, there you go.

Rather than being an early sign of spring, it's a late sign of winter.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

wormy tip

Another bird feeding tip from Amy Barton. She emails, "These photos were taken this morning. I place the meal worms in plastic cups held by flower gathering ring supports (found at Mayo's Garden Center). No other birds visit them as they do not resemble any typical bird feeder. I will never purchase a standard meal worm feeder - meal worms are far too expensive!"

Friday, February 18, 2011

the weather

“There are seven or eight categories of phenomena in the world that are worth talking about, and one of them is the weather. Any time you care to get in your car and drive across the country and over the mountains, come into our valley, cross Tinker Creek, drive up the road to the house, walk across the yard, knock on the door and ask to come in and talk about the weather, you’d be welcome.”

From the Pulitzer Prize winning "Pilgrim at Tinker Creek," 1974, by Annie Dillard

Indeed Annie, even perfect strangers with little more in common than the air they jointly breathe can and will openly discuss the weather.

I’d talk weather with you anytime Annie. The warm February afternoons of the past few days have given us all spring fever. Isn’t that delicious?

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Raven dynamics: truth in poop

Being a couple is less stressful
unless you forget your anniversary.

“Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.”

We all remember from high school the opening lines of the Edger Allen Poe poem. It presents a picture of ravens as being rather solemn, solitary creatures. Foreboding midnight visitors. Loners clothed in darkness. Well, maybe it was only a metaphor. But a new study conducted by Dr. Nuria Selva and fellow researchers in Poland’s Bialowieza Forest sheds new light onto raven behavior. And the insight comes from, of all places, their poo. Yes, the white messy blotches they leave behind. Science works in mysterious ways.

Young ravens are far from solitary, they hang out in small flocks called congresses. It’s easier to find food if you are in a group. But it’s also stressful. Like a gang of human teenagers, there’s competition and squabbling, fighting for dominance. Disputes often flare at a moments notice.

As they mature, the individual ravens drift away from the congress to seek out a mate and a small territory to defend and call home.

Sound vaguely human?

It’s handier to find food with two pairs of searching eyes than only one. And it’s less stressful being in the company of one partner than 20 or 30 bickering partners.

And how do we know this?

The researchers examined raven droppings and found much lower levels of the hormone corticosterone in the paired individuals. Like other creatures on our planet, corticosterone regulates the stress level of ravens. The higher concentrations found in the flocked birds in a congress meant the younger ravens are dealing with serious stress within the group, while the paired adults lived and worked harmoniously. (Perhaps, our own human congress needs to avoid legislating as a group. No, wait a minute, I think they already do that.)

In my part of the world, ravens are found at the higher elevations of the Great Smoky Mountains. The next time I’m up there, I’ll watch to see if the ebony birds are in pairs or flocks. And emphasize with the ones still dealing with the group dynamics of being in a gang. But, I think I'll avoid the poo.

- Thanks, Karen.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

bath time

If an upside-down suet feeder is a luxury in your backyard then a heated birdbath is a must. This has been a very cold snowy winter. When it's below freezing, birds can have a hard time finding water.

A simple heated bath will attract a wide range of visitors. The water isn't heated as much as a pool at a Myrtle Beach motel, just warm enough to keep it from turning to ice. Peanut's Woodstock skates on his frozen birdbath, but most birds do not.

In half an hour one morning, while I was having my early coffee, there was a continuous flow of passerines—goldfinches, chickadees, titmice, nuthatches, bluebirds, robins, both house and purple finches, and a hermit thrush—at my bath, wanting a drink, or in the case of the wren, a splashy dunk.

Notice the goldfinch is starting to get his breeding plumage. A sure sign that spring is on the way.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Sunday, February 13, 2011

bottom feeders

I recently heard from Amy Barton.

Amy told me that they had had luck attracting a winter wren to
a suet feeder.

"How did you do that?" I asked.

"Oh, we built an upside-down feeder."

And, I had never heard of such a thing.

On-line they can be expensive, but they are fairly easy to build in your garage for only about eight dollars. Amy's husband Larry built two of them. Because birds have to approach from the bottom, most cannot get to the suet, but winter wrens have no trouble.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

smoking duck?

Wigeon. Say the word. WIDGE-un. Isn't it fun just to say it.

Wigeon is one of my favorite names in all of bird-dom. Its origin is something of a mystery. One of my sources says that it comes from the French vigeon, vingeon or gingeon. But even that's uncertain. Apparently, at some point in time in the Old World, someone saw a dabbling duck on a fresh-water lake and said, "Oh my gosh. It's a wigeon." And it stuck. When I was born my Mom looked at me and said, "Oh my gosh. It's a Stephen Lyn." And it stuck as well. If I had been a dabbling duck, things would have gone differently.

Once upon a time, the duck in the photo was called a baldpate or smoking duck (not to be confused with smoked duck) because of the white spot on its forehead. But then someone decided it was related to the Eurasian wigeon, so our duck's name was changed to the American wigeon.

They migrate through the Tennessee Valley in late fall and early spring. Occasionally they will turn up in the local Christmas Bird Count, but not often or in great numbers. If you see one, please let me know.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

black beetle

The big game has come and gone. Ijams education director Jennifer Roder's Packers won. Congrats. Even I became a cheese-head for the night.

This week, everyone seems to be talking about their favorite Super Bowl commercial. This naturalist liked the turbo charged, buggy one. But you better get out of its way.

Whoa. Black Betty. Bam-a-Lam.

Do any of my coleopterist friends know which species of beetle is black with two white racing stripes? Black beetle.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

found foxy

In "Look Homeward, Angel" Thomas Wolfe writes, "A stone, a leaf, an unfound door; of a stone, a leaf, a door. And all the forgotten faces." The novel's young protagonist, Eugene Gant, was seeking happiness and looking everywhere he could—behind every leaf, stone, etc.—to find it.

Me? I was seeking a little brown bird. Finding it represented a different form of happiness.

Three weeks ago I was looking for a fox sparrow, a forgotten face I hadn't seen in awhile. Like Wolfe I searched, but found none.

Last week the lost face presented itself to me, just outside my office window in the leafless shrubs behind a large stone. There's was no unfound door or my analogy would be perfect.

Ijams vet Dr. Louise Conrad noticed it and pointed out the gray and reddish-brown bird to me. Fox sparrows are only found here in the valley in winter, but not in great numbers. To find one, you often have to look behind every rock, leaf and lost door.

Or just wait until one presents itself outside your window.

Monday, February 7, 2011

ghostly evening

Ghost bird appears at Ijams Nature Center!

The highly acclaimed documentary Ghost Bird will be shown at Ijams Nature Center on Saturday, February 12 at 4 p.m.

Filmmaker Scott Crocker has turned the saga of the ivory-billed woodpecker into witty, wistful story that is fascinating to practically everyone. It’s been called a “cosmic lament for the forest primeval and man’s search for environmental redemption.

Is the Ghost Bird extinct or not? That is the question that remains unanswered.

I will also on hand with Nancy Tanner selling and signing copies of our book “Ghost Birds: Jim Tanner and the Quest for the Ivory-bill.”

I'll briefly discuss the differences between our book Ghost Birds (plural) and the film Ghost Bird (singular), similar names but each represent a different part of the ivory-bill story.

Admission for the movie is $5, but seating is limited, to reserve a chair (white with blue cushion) call 577-4717, ext. 10.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

odorous and spotted

This one surprised me. I thought spotted skunks lived much farther south and that all we had in our region were striped skunks, Mephitis mephitis, which translates to foul-smelling, foul-smelling, so I guess they must smell bad. Call it a hunch.

But a check with Pam Petko-Seus, the wildlife biologist at Ijams, proved I was wrong. As if to underscore my mistake, Ijams member Sharon Burnett sent me a photo she took last December. Voila: no stripes but indeed, spots.

Sharon wrote, "Here is the picture of the spotted skunk we saw on the North Carolina border in the Nantahala." Minus the snowball that conceals the aromatic-mammal's front half, it's still an definative photograph of an animal I didn't even know lived here.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

where are my books?

Being an author is an 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.

A second book has ended up in Louisiana, albeit may just be passing through. It's in the hands of Dan and Laurie Mooney, fellow KTOSers now traveling across the country, footloose and free of fancy.

Dan writes: "This historical marker is in Addis, La. Addis is just north of Plaquemine on LA 1 and is the plantation where my mother was raised. Her father was the 'overseer' for St. Delphine around 1915. He later became a game warden and was a game warden in the area in the late 1930s when Tanner came through looking for Ivorybills. Do Tanner's notes mention who he talked to at Piere Part? My maternal grandfather's name was Levert Henry Bird but he was called Pete. Just curious."

I'm not sure about an answer to Dan's question, I'll have to dig into Tanner's journal. But here are the Mooneys in Louisiana.

Friday, February 4, 2011

show your rump

While I was at Hugh Morgan’s observing the summer tanager I got to mark another thing off my “to do” list. A photograph of a yellow-rumped warbler’s yellow rump.

Even in drab winter plumage, the only warbler that spends the cold weather months in the Tennessee Valley still has the bright dandelion-colored field marking on its backside above the tail.

Rump. Tush. Tochus. Derriére. Duff. Bum. Whatever you want to call the spot, it’s spectacular.

Such a sight.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

summer remains part 3

Such a sight. I rarely get this good of a look at a female summer tanager even in the summer. Of course, in summer with all the leaves on the trees, she blends in better. In the gray of winter, she's as pronounced as a pet shop canary.

I spent a pleasant afternoon at Hugh Morgan's watching the tanager come and go from his backyard. Yes, a summer in winter. She seemed to have a patten. First, she'd appear in a high perch, watchful. Surveying the scene perhaps watching for signs of a Cooper's hawk.

Then she would move into a low azalea to the right of Hugh's suet and seed feeders. Still she was weary and careful, moving in slowly, hidden from view.

As Hugh had already observed, she appeared to be aware of when a downy woodpecker came and went from the suet because whenever it left the golden passerine hopped to the ground to clean up the fatty detritus the petite woodpecker had dropped.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011


As a post script to my last scripted post. Even though it was about spider sex—an amusing topic to ponder on a cold winter's evening—it may have given you the willies.

According to another essay by David Quammen from the same aforementioned collection of such, you may have arachnophobia. It seems that some people are born with an innate fear of spiders, while others may have a fear of snakes (ophidiophobia), while others are born with neither. But curiosiously, we humans are not born with a fear of both groups. It's either or neither but not both. It's genetic. You cannot help it.

So, if you are arachnophobic, and even the topic of spider copulation creeps you out, here's a bit of adult snake-logy that you might enjoy instead. Once again, it comes from Quammen:

"A male snake has two penises, which the experts call hemipenes, one for left-sided mating and one for right."

Talk about being ambidextrous.

-Quote from "The Boilerplate Rhino" by David Quammen