Saturday, April 30, 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, aremainder 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.

To that end: one of my books has made it across the big pond to the UK!

Recently I heard from Ed Smith. He sent me a photo of his sister Dn Beverly Smith Dougall who lives in London, England.

Ghost Birds interested both of them. Ed and Dn Beverly actually grew up in the Tensas region of northeast Louisiana where much of the story takes place.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Lenton roses

At Ijams Nature Center, there’s a hillside on the original homesite property that is covered with an escapee. It’s an early-blooming perennial with long-lasting burgundy, pink or yellow flowers.

Probably planted originally by Alice Ijams, who lived at the location from 1910 to 1964, the plant is known as
Lenten rose because it blooms in winter between Christmas and Lent. On a gray winter’s day, it would have been a cheery sight to Alice.

And it still is today.

Not native to North America, the shade-loving perennial with deeply lobed leaves is an invited guest from the Old Country. Although the flower resembles a wild rose, it’s actually a hellebore. The genus in the buttercup family is native to much of Europe from western Great Britain east into Romania and Ukraine.

From the mountains of the Ukraine to the mountains of East Tennessee, that's a long way to travel for something that doesn't have any legs or feet. Perhaps it had help.

There will be lenten roses—offspring of Alice's original plantings—available for sale at the Spring Plant Sale tomorrow Saturday, April 30: 8:30 AM to 1:30 PM.

I will also be there selling books and artwork. Stop by and say hello!

Thursday, April 28, 2011

hypnotic display

Although I have read about it, I have never witnessed a male ruby-throated hummingbird's display flight to impress a female hummer, that is until the other day.

With the female perched below, the male flew in a back-and-forth, rocking "U" flight just above her head. Very rhythmic, to the point of being almost hypnotic. I do not know if it impressed her—perhaps it did and she was playing hard to get—but it certainly began to work its magic on me.

But you know me. I'm so impressible.

- Photo by Joe Schneid

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

termite heist

“As eusocial insects, termites live in colonies that, at maturity, number from several hundred to several million individuals. Colonies use a decentralized, self-organized systems of activity guided by swarm intelligence to exploit food sources and environments that could not be available to any single insect acting alone.”

Indeed! Like the environment inside a bank vault.

This just in: Termites have broken into a steel chest stored at a bank in Lucknow, India and eaten 10 million rupees, roughly $222,000 in U.S. currency. How they got into the steel chest is a mystery but I’m thinking they used their swarm intelligence to pull off a team heist like in the 1960 movie “Ocean’s 11” or in this case it would be “Ocean’s 1,000,000.”

That’s a lot to be in on a bank job without word getting out to the authorities but if they have actually eaten the money, there will be no evidence of a robbery.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Audubon's birthday

Naturalist, artist, explorer John James Audubon was born on this date in 1785.

His monumental opus, Birds of America, contained 437 hand-colored engravings printed on sheets of paper measuring 39.5 inches X 28.5 inches wide. His goal was to depict every bird found in America life size: hummingbirds small, whooping cranes five feet tall.

It took Audubon 13 years to complete during which time subscribers regularly received deliveries of five prints every few months—ultimately, 87 sets of five. Because of that, not that many complete sets are in existence. Once completed, buyers either kept their sheets loose stored in boxes or had them leather-bound into books.

Last December in London a complete set sold for over $10.3 million at Sotheby's auction house to an unknown buyer.

I should be so lucky.

Monday, April 25, 2011

walkabout: William Hastie

Round-lobed hepatica

Mountain stonecrop

Special thanks to the 34 people who attended the wildflower Ijams Walk•About at William Hastie Natural Area in South Knoxville last Saturday afternoon. Lynne and Bob Davis did a wonderful job leading the two-hour stroll along a meandering trail botanizing as we went

In addition to the more readily abundant and widely known wild phlox, foamflower, yellow trillium, mayapple, crossvine, Solomon's seal and wild geranium that were present, some of the less well known and curious wildflowers Lynne and Bob found (and not all were in bloom) were Cumberland spurge, kidney-leaf buttercup, Southern chervil, crane-fly orchid, round-lobed hepatica, sweet cicely, little brown jug, Carolina cranesbill, violet wood sorrel, mountain stonecrop and rattlesnake plantain.

For Bob's complete list go to William Hastie Wildflowers.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

snake up a tree

Kimberly Womack sent me this photo of a black rat snake climbing a tree to get at the nest of a pair of red-bellied woodpeckers.

Her questions (and I do not know the answers, so if you do let me know and I'll pass it along):

How does the snake know that there's a nest hole high up in the tree? Vibrations? Or does it just climb trees at random, which seems unlikely.

And why did it pass a nest hole that was lower on the trunk to get to one that's higher?

Rikki? Are you out there?

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Devil's apple?

Simply known today as mayapple, or in older parlance: "Indian apple," this woodland wildflower perhaps is best noted for its large leaves that open like umbrellas to cover the single white flower and "apple" like fruit that eventually forms below in the crotch of the plant.

The small green fruit is toxic, only becoming barely edible when it ripens to a pale yellow-green which led to an alternate folk name, "wild lemon." But watch it! Here's the caveat: Ingested in large amounts, even the ripe fruit can be poisonous. So it's better to appreciate this forest perennial from afar.

All parts of mayapple contain podophyllotoxin, a plant chemical sold under the trade name Condylox, a topical gel used to treat genital warts—an embarrassment for both us and the plant alike—and something we learned about from the Native Americans.

Can you imagine that shame-faced conversation: "I know I'm new to your country and plan to take it away from you but I have genital warts, can you help me?"

Not a pleasant thought. But it also explains yet another folk name for the plant, "Devils apple," as in "Give the devil his due."

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Walk•About: William Hastie

Wild geranium (Geranium maculatum)

Botanizing was a popular hobby in the mid-1800s. Henry David Thoreau did it as did thousands others. And with over 1,000 flowering plants in Tennessee, there's a lot out there to find in our state alone.

This Saturday, April 23, join me and guest wildflower aficionados Lynne and Bob Davis for an afternoon wildflower search at William Hastie Natural Area in South Knoxville near Ijams.

Free to Ijams members. $5 for non-members. Call 577-4717, ext. 10 to register.

Great fun!

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

oily anniversary

One year ago today, April 20, 2010, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded at 9:45 p.m. CDT. Eleven workers were killed in the blast and the resulting oil spill took three months to stop. It was the largest marine oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry. Oil tar balls still wash ashore along the Gulf.

How much crude oil was spilled? USA Today reports, "Federal officials estimated the amount at more than 200 million gallons of crude, while acknowledging the estimate could be off by plus or minus 20 million gallons." The mystery is: Where did it all go? Apparently, most of it did not reach the surface. A sizable amount, a cloudy dark mass, is drifting below the surface. The seabed around the site is also a dead zone. The long term affect is unknown.

One year ago, the oil that surfaced impacted thousands of species, but perhaps none more than the brown pelican. Will their population recover?

Here are two more pelican photos by my friend Wayne Mallinger.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Sunday best

Although I'm used to seeing yellow-rumped warblers during the cold months in their drab winter plumage, I don't often get a good look at them in breeding plumage before they migrate north to their summer nesting range.

Two days ago I did. The trees above my deck seemed filled with the little sprites. The males strikingly dressed; the females less so, but still vibrant. It's nice to see old friends in their Sunday best, although the encounter made bittersweet by knowing they soon would be gone.

Monday, April 18, 2011

thanks Tour de Fleur

Purple phacelia

Special thanks goes to those that attended the first of several wildflower walks organized by Kathleen Gibi, with the city parks and rec, and Ellen Blasius with the county parks and rec.

Despite the cool winds and mucky mud we had a wonderful turnout.

The Tour de Fleur will visit several city and county locations over the next few months.

On Saturday, we walked along the Will Skelton Greenway in South Knoxville and the River Trail at Ijams looking for seasonal wildflowers. One of the most beautiful was the purple phacelia, a.k.a fern-leaf phacelia that's blooming near the Ijams boardwalk above the Tennessee River.

Thanks, Kathleen and Ellen.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

muck for the poet

"A man's health requires as many acres of meadow to his prospect as his farm does loads of muck. There are the strong meats on which he feeds. A town is saved, not more by the righteous men in it than by the woods and swamps that surround it. A township where one primitive forest waves above while another primitive forest rots below,— such a town is fitted to raise not only corn and potatoes, but poets and philosophers for the coming ages."

- From the essay "Walking" by Henry David Thoreau

In the foothills of East Tennessee, the meadows are often rolling and rich with muck, cattle have to develop a good set of brakes and watch their step. At this time of the year, the farmlands develop a yellow frosting of buttercups. When I stopped to take the above photo, I spoke to the farmer who owned the land.

"Oh, it's pretty alright. But I'll be glad when it's gone. My cows won't eat it at all."

Color enough to inspire the poet, but of little interest to the bovines. No wonder you rarely see a good poem written by a cow. Or perhaps they keep it to themselves they are after all, great ruminators.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Earth Day 2011

Wayne Mallinger sends along this picture post card to all my readers.

In 1970, Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson, believing that few U.S. leaders were paying attention to public concern about the environment, announced a series of teach-ins across the country on April 22. Twenty million people came to these first "Earth Day" celebrations.

The national spotlight on environmental issues worked. President Richard Nixon soon signed a series of unprecedented laws establishing national limits for air and water pollutants, creating the Environmental Protection Agency and requiring environmental impact assessments before federally funded projects could begin. The Endangered Species Act followed in 1973.

Locally, EarthFest will be celebrated today at Pellissippi State Community College’s Hardin Valley campus.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Tour de Fleur

The City of Knoxville and Knox County's Parks and Recreation Departments are offering a new program beginning this weekend that combines walking with an opportunity to learn more about wildflowers.

The walks are organized by Kathleen Gibi, Public Affairs Specialist with the City of Knoxville Parks & Rec.

The Tour de Fleur, a monthly wildflower walking series is set to begin at 11 a.m., Saturday, April 16 at Ijams Nature Center. The series will continue through the first weekend in September.

Kathleen and I will be leading this first walk along the Will Skelton Greenway from Ijams and venture out onto the breathtaking boardwalk that hangs out over the Tennessee River for a good view of the wildflowers growing along the Bluff.

All Tour de Fleur walks will be on Saturdays and led by a nature guide. Walks will either be on Will Skelton Greenway or the Ten Mile Creek Greenway, developed by both the city and county, in West Knoxville.

- Pictured above: yellow trillium at Ijams Nature Center

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Walk•About: Sharp's Ridge

This Saturday, April 16, join Ijams naturalist Emily Boves and her ornithologist husband and cerulean warbler expert Than Boves for an early morning (7:30 AM) bird walk along Sharp's Ridge off Broadway (Ludlow Road).

Early migratory birds are passing through. Expect to see several warblers, vireos and other colorful delights such as the blackburnian warbler pictured above. Such a sprightly thing makes you want to sing!

Free to Ijams members. $5 for non-members. Call 577-4717, ext. 10 to register.

Great fun!

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

rare spleenwort

Lynne and Bod Davis have a nose for odd plants. And this one is a beauty. Last Saturday they went with me on my Ijams Walk•About to River Bluff and found this oddity, a fern: Wall-rue spleenwort.

Lynne emailed, "On page 67 of Ferns of the Smokies author Murray Evans says, 'Status and Habitat: Rare, at low elevations, on shaded limestone ledges and crevices. The Mountain Spleenwort is the common spleenwort of this pair in the Smokies, so the wall-rue would be a special find in a special place.'

"I think, for this book, the status is specific to the Smokies, so it might not be considered a rare plant in general. I noticed that a number of the references I got from my Internet search were from Europe, so it might be fairly widespread, but just rare in the Smokies, perhaps because of its preference for limestone.

"But enough dithering! It was a cool plant and I had never seen it before."


Thanks, Lynne

Walkabouters who attended last Saturday's
Ijams Walk•About to River Bluff

View from River Bluff

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

sumac red

Crimson is a shocking color. The color of birth and violent death.

The sumacs explode to life like a super nova: blood red, rich with the plant pigment anthocyanin. As the leaves unfurl they're pumped full of photosynthesizing green pigments: chlorophylls a and b. But early on, the newborn leaves are crimson with purple undertones like beets.

Anthocyanin also accounts for the red found in fruits and flowers.

Its basic chemical structure can be diagrammed like this. Looks simple enough if you are a chemist but does this rob anthocyanin of its impact?

Once we learned the mystery of the stars, did we stop looking up?

Attending a lecture on the science of stars, poet Walt Whitman walked out in disgust. He, for one, preferred to keep the mystery.

Perhaps he was right.

Monday, April 11, 2011

wrinkled peach

I have a friend, who shall remain nameless, who once told me he didn't think fungi, i.e. mushrooms and the lot, were very interesting.

Say, what?

Although I should have turned him over to my mycologist friends to be sautéed with a nice portabella, instead I let it pass.

But, needless to say, he was wrong.

Case in point: The above photo taken by Dan Molter of the "wrinkled peach" fungus, a.k.a. Rhodotus palmatus. I've never seen one, but I daresay, I'd queue up to do it. To borrow from Prince Hamlet and make it my own, "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, More things of great beauty, Than can be dreamt of by one fool such as I."

Wrinkled peach fungus grows on dead hardwoods: basswood, maple and especially elm. The spread of Dutch elm disease and the subsequent large numbers of dead elm trees may have made R. palmatus more prevalent in my part of the world.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Dixon snowy

The second rare visitor to delight Sue Wagoner and her fellow Illinoisans was this snowy owl that hung around Dixon all winter. (Must be a good place to pass the time. With all the harsh weather, the snow white owl must felt at home.)

Tundra dwellers in summer, they do venture into the U.S. occasionally in winter, primarily along the Northern Tier. Occasionally a snowy will migrate as far south in winter as the Volunteer State, one made it to Tennessee in January 2009, but I didn't get a chance to see it.

Thanks again, Sue.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

almost a seasoning

Recently I heard from my friend Sue Wagoner who lives near the Mason-Dixon Line (in this case, Mason and Dixon, Illinois) in Aurora. She sent me two photos of different rare birds she had encountered this past winter.

The first (I'll post the second tomorrow) is a western species of duck that rarely turns up in the east but the above cinnamon teal spent quite a bit of time 0n a pond in Lincoln Park in the middle of the Windy City, much to the delight of bird-loving Chicagoans, Sue and other wildlife photographers who kept plying it corn to entice it to stay, which of course it did.

Fame and notoriety, plus free eats. Why go anywhere else?

There was only the lone teal, had there been more I would have reveled in posting that a group of cinnamon teals is known as a "seasoning" of teals.


Thanks, Sue.

Friday, April 8, 2011

fitting memorial

There’s an aging propane barbecue grill sitting on my mother’s deck. It belonged to my father Russell but since he passed away awhile ago the Charbroil hasn’t seen a sirloin in years. It stands alone as a stoic shrine to my dad; a monument: black, corroding, beloved for what it reminds us of but—and this is perhaps the bone at the center of this posting's drumstick—not altogether lifeless.

Every spring, Carolina wrens find it hospitable enough to build a nest under its domed lid, bringing a sense of vitality to this relic of my family's salad days. Apparently the soot and smell of molding hamburger grease aren’t enough of a deterrent to keep the birds away.

With Carolina wrens, both the female and male work on the nests made of twigs, bark strips, shredded leaves and dried grass. They usually choose a natural hole, cavity or tucked away depression. And an aged grill serves them well enough.

Their typical clutch size is five eggs that the female incubates. The brood hatches in about two weeks, and both the male and female feed the young that fly away in another two weeks. So, the entire process lasts about a month, excluding the time it takes to actually build the nest.

I’m sure my father would be glad to know that his grill is being used.

It’s a fitting memorial.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

lonely cloud

"I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze."

- Opening to the poem "I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud"
a.k.a. "Daffodils" by William Wordsworth,
English poet born on this date: April 7, 1770.

- Photo by Wayne Mallinger

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

the wasteland

"April is the cruelest month, breeding lilacs out of the dead land," wrote T.S. Eliot in his 1922 poem "The Waste Land."

But then a quick passing thunderstorm nipped the budding branches of the maples and oaks and, perhaps even the lilacs as well. Snapping off nascent green growth, sending it crashing to the ground to wither and die long before the summer suns.

April is the cruelest month.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

hickory scented?

"As I walked, I was intoxicated with the slight spicy odor of the hickory buds and the bruised bark of the black birch," wrote Henry David Thoreau in the spring of 1850.

When I found the hickory leaves budding out near the river, I thought of the Thoreau quote and leaned over to crimp a leaf and sniff.

Hickory? Something wasn't right. I sniffed again and realized it wasn't hickory scented at all. I was wrong. But what else has compound leaves?

I remembered Dr. Jack Sharp's advice. When trying to ID a tree, search the ground below it for clues. Scouring the site, I soon found a couple of last year's decaying black husked fruits on the ground nearby.

Ahh. It smelled like walnut. Dark. Earthy. Finger staining black walnut.

But of course. Walnut.

Monday, April 4, 2011

thanks, Will

Special thanks to Will Roberts and his AP environmental science class at Powell High School.

The students read my books "Natural Histories" and "Ghost Birds" over the past few weeks and invited me to their classroom this morning to discuss them and writing in general.

I enjoyed my visit. To the seniors in the class: Congratulations, you'll soon graduate and the world and all of its wonders will be in reach. To the juniors: You have to wait one more year.

If you look at the photo closely, you'll realize that Barney Fife was in attendance.

Thanks, Will. I'll see you again next year!

Saturday, April 2, 2011

buckeye on schedule

After I cleaned and hung my hummingbird feeder in its customary location yesterday, I checked the two red buckeyes planted in my yard. And as I suspected would be true, they were both blooming.

The ruby-throated hummingbird migration northward every spring follows the flowering of this native tree. And as you can see, they have red tubular blossoms to lure the fast-flying hummers. The flowers are narrow, their sweet nectar tucked away deep inside so that only the long-billed birds can partake. Zipping about—a sip here, a sip there—benefits the buckeyes by spreading the sticky pollen from tree to tree.

This relationship was forged long before man-made sugar-water feeders were invented. Could the hummers survive without the buckeyes? Probably, the ruby-throats would just migrate later when other plants with tubular flowers bloomed. Could the buckeyes exist without the hummers? Perhaps not. But yet, for the tiny birds, pollinating the plants with blossoms especially designed for their bills, is their
raison d'être.

And we all need a reason to exist.

Friday, April 1, 2011

feeding hummingbirds

Hummingbird feeders? It's that time.

The rule of thumb in our area is to keep your hummingbird feeders out: crazy day to crazy day, i.e. April Fools Day to Halloween.

Mix your sugar water: 4 parts water, 1 part sugar. It does not have to have any red dye in it, nectar is colorless.

And today is April Fools Day. So no fooling, it's time to put out your feeders.

- Photo by Wayne Mallinger