Monday, May 30, 2011


Conifers are not flowering plants, but they do produce male and female cones that exchange pleasantries, i.e. pollen, i.e. sperm cells in the spring. And because they are pollinated by the wind, the male cones have to produce copious amounts of pollen grains. Talk about casting your bread upon the waters.

Have you ever noticed that there is a lot of pleasantries being exchanged at this time of the year?

Saturday, May 28, 2011

soldier forth

Margined soldier beetle (Chauliognathus marginatus)

When you are an eight-year-old at heart, you cannot wait for warm weather because it brings out the insects.  Copious amounts of the six-legged creatures. 

I was just beginning to focus on this cluster of verdant, new leaves when a margined soldier beetle (Chauliognathus marginatus) trundled through the composition. Lucky me. Right?

There are many species of soldier beetle; the common name comes from one prevelant British species that is bright red like the coats the English army wore. Also known as leatherwings, as a group they are handy to have around your home because they feed on garden pests like aphids, caterpillars and grasshopper eggs. (I wonder how many grasshopper eggs you'd need to make an omelet?)

Thursday, May 26, 2011

mystery leaf roller

Glenn Marshall sent me this photo wondering what it might be. He writes they found it near the "falls in White Oak Sinks. We saw a number of these, mostly on ferns, where they could easily fold over the fronds."

I've seen these before and suspected it was the work of a moth or butterfly caterpillar, a little research leads me to believe it's the handiwork, i.e. the cocoon building savoir-faire of a leaftier moth caterpillar. (The frond certainly looks cinched and tied.) But as to a specific species, I'm unsure. Suffice it to say, there's a miracle at work inside that bundle of green. A change of life. Old school.

Think about it! How could you bind yourself up inside a leaf if you're on the inside?

That's savior-fare, know how.

Moths are one of nature's mysterious wonderments: active at night, mostly drab in color, half a bazillion species many unknown to science. What's not to pique your curiosity?  

Anyone else know what might be at work here?

Thanks, Glenn.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

bluer than blue

Things are not always as they appear. Sometimes, what is blue is black

A walk at Seven Islands Wildlife Refuge last Sunday morning turned up numerous indigo buntings. Beaucoups. Or in this case: bluecoups. And it's a luminous color like none other, but are the feathers really that blue? At times, these common songbirds seem to look black.

The feathers of indigo buntings are structured differently from other feathers. They refract light, splitting into color wavelengths like it has passed through a prism. The feather structure gleans out blue light and projects it outward.

In full sun, the feathers of the indigo bunting appear brilliant indigo, bluer than blue, but on cloudy days or if they're backlit, the feathers loose their color and appear to be a drab black.

Perhaps this is why male indigos prefer to perch on the tippy-top of a tree or shrub in full sun to sing for all to see. Hidden inside the foliage, they're as dark as the shadows around them.

- Photo by Dan Pancamo

Tuesday, May 24, 2011


Honeysuckle bloomin'

Well, my heart's in the highlands, gentle and fair
Honey suckle bloomin' in the wildwood air
Bluebells blazin' where the Aberdeen waters flow
Well, my heart's in the highlands, I'm gonna go there when
I feel good enough to go.

From "The Highlands" by Bob Dylan
who is celebrating his 70th birthday today.

As is my nephew Logan. Happy Birthday!

Sunday, May 22, 2011

to kill a Greek philosopher

Poison hemlock (Conium maculatum)

Let us suppose you have an ancient Greek philosopher to punish, how would you do it?

Oh dear. I’ve gotten ahead of myself. Let’s first talk about the crime.

According to Plato, Socrates was a gadfly, a person who rocked the status quo by asking upsetting questions. People in power do not like to be so queried. They are in charge and don’t want to be second-guessed or made to look foolish or unwise. But Socrates was quite good at posing questions difficult to answer. He was an irritant, who eventually got on someone’s nerves
. Finally Socrates was put on to trail for his life for spreading descent.

Naturally, the philosopher could not stop posing paradoxical statements:
"I am the wisest man alive, for I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing."

“If you kill a man like me, you will injure yourselves more than you will injure me,” opined Socrates, because he felt his role was, “to sting people and whip them into a fury, all in the service of truth.”

The philosopher was found guilty of corrupting the minds of the youth of Athens and perhaps unofficially of being a smarty pants, a royal pain in the a - -.

When asked what his punishment should be, he replied, “A wage paid by the government and free dinners for the rest of my life.” (That would have been my suggestion as well.)

The authorities were not amused. Instead, as legend has it, he was ordered to drink a potion mixed with poison hemlock and Socrates soon died.

I think of the dead Greek philosopher at this time of the year when poison hemlock is in bloom along our roadways, but I keep my
paradoxical questions to myself.

And believe me, there's enough poison hemlock blooming to despatch all the ancient Greek philosophers.

"The Death of Socrates" by David

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

most yellow yellow warbler

Although many species of warbler have some yellow, the aptly named yellow warbler has the most. It’s the only one that appears to be solid yellow from a distance. Perhaps it should have been called the “most yellow yellow warbler.”

When you happen to find it with your binoculars, you then notice the yellowish olive-green back and pale chestnut streaks on its breast. Fond of willows, mangroves, wetlands and streams, it has a fairly wide range. I saw one last week along the Ten Mile Creek Greenway in west Knoxville although it was only passing through.

If all chickadees look alike, the same cannot be said for this species:
Dendroica petechia. Instead of "Variations on a theme by Paganini," it's "Variations on a theme of petechia." Within its geographical range, there's considerable morphological variation. If nature loves variety, then he/she/it must love the yellow warbler.

Depending on which book you consult, there are multiple subspecies or separate distinct populations or races. Some references report as many as 35 subspecies. National Geographic states, “Northern races are greener above; southwest sonorana is pale with faint red streaks below; resident gundlachi of southernmost Florida is of the 'Golden' group of West Indian races...Resident subspecies in mangroves from Mexico south are known as ‘Mangrove Warbler’; adult males of most subspecies have chestnut heads; immatures of this and 'Golden' are dull.”

The subspecies gundlachi found in the Florida Keys and West Indies—the so called Golden or Caribbean group—is the most intensely yellow.

Got that?

Basically, this is all you need know: It's the most "yellow yellow warbler.”

Sunday, May 15, 2011

creeping horde

Such a lovely thing, such delicate flowers; and the smell: honeysuckle sweet. Ooh la la.

But don't be fooled! The creeping vine, Lonicera japonica, a.k.a. Japanese honeysuckle, is a highly invasive alien to many parts of the world, including mine. Native to east Asia, in Japan it's known as Suikazura, in China:
jīn yín huā where it is prized for its medicinal qualities, its antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties.

But in other countries—
Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Mexico, New Zealand, the United States including Hawaii and many Pacific and Caribbean islands—L. japonica has become naturalized and is slowly taking over large tracts of land, displacing native plants. And like kudzu, it is virtually impossible to eradicate.

New Zealand has classified it as an "unwanted organism." Shoot to kill.

In my country, it's absolutely banned in the state of New Hampshire. How they enforce this, I do not know. Border check points?

With each passing year, L. japonica is inching towards me from the vacant field to my east. I've set up breastworks around my home and I'm dug in, armed with a tempered steel Jamaican machete (the Rambo model with mother-of-pearl handle) and 25 gallons of industrial grade kerosene, military blend. So I'm ready to take it on mano-a-mano, or rather, mano-a-planto.

Should these posts from the front sudden stop, send reinforcements.

Over and out.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

mountain blood

If you are familiar with the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, you might recognize this cabin south of Gatlinburg in the foothills of Mt. LeConte. It's located on the Motor Nature Trail, a one-way road that winds through the mountains between Cherokee Orchard and Roaring Fork. The sign in front records it as the Jim Bales or James Bales home site. If you note the similarity between our last names you might think there was a connection.

Indeed, you would be right.

Jim Bales was my great grandfather. My grandfather Homer Daniel—born January 5, 1899—grew up at this site along the creek. He eventually married my grandmother Pearl and moved over the ridge to the Baskins Creek watershed. There they had four children, the last of which was my father Russell.

In 1929, the Bales family sold their 200 acres for $2,000 and the parcel became part of the new national park. Two thousand dollars was a lot of money for poor folks.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

golden rush

Even if you are having an unusually bad day. Not Old Testament bad, just Brave New World bad.

If you’re overworked, or under funded, or your home needs a major repair, or your car has been ruined by hail and buying a replacement is not an option, or your seasonal privet, honeysuckle allergies are kicking you in the head, making you muddle-headed, dizzy. You know, that kind of run-of-the-mill bad day.

Here’s the thing. The very tonic. The elixir. Somehow the simple act of seeing a prothonotary warbler can lift your foundation, make you feel less fouled, less put upon, less to-hell-in-a-hand-basket dire.

Just one spectacular golden-yellow passerine. The same color as a dandelion but more joyous.

If you need a lift, look for prothonotary warblers downstream from the River Boardwalk at Ijams. We found one on Sunday afternoon and the rest of the day had a golden glow.

How it works is a mystery to me, probably something to do with endorphins, i.e. endogenous opioid peptides that function as neurotransmitters, a chemical surge in the brain that produces a mental morphine-like rush. A natural high.

But that sounds so cerebral.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Tour de Fleur thank you

White-eyed vireo

Special thanks to those who attended the Tour de Fleur along Ten Mile Creek Greenway last Saturday. The walk was organized by Kathleen Gibi, with the city parks and rec, and Ellen Blasius with the county parks and rec.

Highlights were several small meadow wildflowers like field madder, gill, yellow lesser hop, Carolina cranebill and bird's eye speedwell. We also saw a wild turkey, yellow warbler and a red-shouldered hawk on her nest. Plus, it appears to be excellent habitat for white-eyed vireos, we heard and saw several.

This summer the Tour de Fleur will visit several city and county park/greenway locations.

Thanks, Kathleen and Ellen.

Red field madder

Sunday, May 8, 2011

float away

Worldwide there are over 280 species of stinging ant but the one that has my area most on edge is a species of fire ant, or more properly red imported fire ant (or RIFA), Solenopsis invicta.

Although most fire ant species do not bother people and are not problematic, RIFA is a different story. They bite your leg to get a grip and then deliver a painful sting like a bee. (Yes. Bite and sting at the same time. If they could fly a Blackhawk helicopter they'd be a serious threat to anyone in the world.) It has become a highly invasive pest in many areas of the world, notably the United States, Australia, the Philippines, China and Taiwan.

The RIFA was accidentally introduced into the U.S. aboard a South American cargo ship docked at Mobile, Alabama, in the 1930s. Now it infests the majority of the South and the American Southwest. And, I might add, moving closer to my home every day.

You might think with all the flooding in the South, that the pesky, biting ants would be drowned.

Not so.

My friend Lynne Davis sent me this story. Her nephew Tim Nowack, a student at Georgia Tech, has been helping with research that proves the feisty insects are very crafty in high water. They simply build a raft and float away. For the complete story go to float away.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

I beseech you!

On a walk at Seven Islands Wildlife Refuge the other day, the common yellowthroats were remarkably active, and vocal. Intensely vocal.

e males were establishing and contesting their territories at the wetland near Steamboat Island.

Male birds do not fight over females, they tussle over territory. It's the means to the end. Good real estate improves your chances with the ladies.

This concept was introduced into the science of ornithology by amateur birdwatcher Eliot Howard. He first writes about it in 1908, "Breeding territory is a matter of the greatest importance to the males, frequently leading to serious and protracted struggles when two of them are desirous of acquiring the same area." Howard later expanded his ideas in the 1920 landmark book "Territory in Bird Life."

For the yellowthroat, the most often used mnemonic to remember their song cadence is "wichety wichety wichety wich." But at one point in the 1800s he was known as the Maryland beseecher singing hotly, "I beseech you! I beseech you! I beseech you!" Which works perhaps even better since he seems to have something to emphatically proclaim. As if to say, “I beseech you! I beseech you! I beseech you! This is my place. Stay away! Go find your own.”

Friday, May 6, 2011

live your own life

“I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one. It is remarkable how easily and insensibly we fall into a particular route, and make a beaten track for ourselves...

I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavours to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him

- From the conclusion of Walden by Henry David Thoreau

“The conclusion of Walden is a call to everyone, whatever their present position, whether living alone or in crowds, in the woods or in the city, to have the courage to live a life according to the dictates of the imagination, to live the life one has dreamed.”

– From Henry Thoreau: A life of the Mind by Robert Richardson.

Thoreau died on this date 149 years ago: May 6, 1862 after living his life on his terms.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

billing and cooing

Barn swallows are active.

Like most swallows you rarely see them perched, they're built for flight. That's why I was somewhat surprised to find this pair planted on terra firma, chatting, getting to know one another. But, there's courtship going on here. Billing and cooing. There was perhaps an exchange of food. A pair bond is being formed.

Humans would call it love, a bonding of two souls. Lebanese poet Kahlil Gibran writes,
“Love one another, but make not a bond of love: Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.”

With barn swallows it's similar but somehow different. Perhaps more utilitarian but no less poetic.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011


Sunday, after the hailstorm on Wednesday, the woods around my home seemed quieter.

Was I imagining it?

Any songbird or nest hit by one of those hailstones could not have survived. Armageddon came quickly. What seemed to be a passing thunderstorm, was something more dramatic. I didn't see a hummingbird at the only surviving feeder for a long time, but then a male, and a short time later, a female stopped by for several long sips.

One bird that did pass through, on its way north, or perhaps to the Smokies where it nests, was a least one
hooded warbler. To me, their song always sounds like someone sneezing, "achoo-achoo- achoo- ACHOO," a common mnemonic is "The red. The red. The red. T-shirt".

Hoodeds nest and forage much lower to the ground than many of the other warblers. They like the belly of the forest, the understory.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

tornado in the woods

Somehow, you do not picture a tornado in the woods. Folk wisdom teaches us they prefer open, flat places like Dorothy Gale's farm.

However, in 1831, Thomas Cole—the American artist credited with founding the Hudson River School of Painting—did picture one in the woods and Cole never ventured to Kansas.

Cole's painting was recreated last week here in Knoxville. Some of the local roads were blocked for days but yesterday I ventured to Old Stage Trail and Lakemoor Drive where last Wednesday's South Knoxville twister touched down. It's a wooded, hilly neighborhood near my home that I visit once a year. It's in the portion of the Knoxville Christmas Bird Count circle that Patty Ford and I tally every January.

Wherever you drive in this part of town you find impromptu wood piles, blue-tampolined roofs and busted out back car windows, which I've started to call "South Knoxville sunroofs."

Old Stage Trail and Lakemoor Drive very close
to where the tornado touched down.

Now, I have my own South Knoxville sunroof.

Monday, May 2, 2011

ospreys impacted

How did the intense hailstorm impact wildlife?

Saturday, I spoke with Dr. Cheryl Greenacre, DVM, Associate Professor of Avian & Zoological Medicine at UT's Veterinary Teaching Hospital. She was on duty last Thursday at the hospital located on Neyland Drive near my home. After the hailstorm and tornado passed through South Knoxville, she had never dealt with so many injured wildlife in one day. It was like triage for a MASH unit.

Cheryl said the surprising thing was the number of ospreys they received and most had broken ulnas: the major bones on the back of their wings. It appeared they had been on their nests mantling their clutches: holding their wings open like umbrellas to shield the eggs, very much like the above photo.

I've watched ospreys many times do the same thing to shade their young on hot, sunny days.

A few of the ospreys UT received were coughing up blood and had to be put down but the ones with only broken wings might be saved.

A check of the two closest nests near my home and consequently closest to the path of the tornado/hail turned up parent ospreys at both. One appeared to have one incubating with no sign of its mate. The other, on the railroad trestle at UT near Neyland Stadium, had both parents. We saw one fly in to take over nesting duties from the other.

At this time of the year, both nests are probably late in the incubation period or there may be young ones to protect. Osprey incubation lasts between 34 and 40 days and the nestlings fledge eight to ten weeks after hatching.

I'll keep you posted.

Osprey nest on railroad trestle at the University of Tennessee
on Sunday after Wednesday's storms.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

hell on a Saturn

Forgive the delay. I've been in storm cleanup mode.

Wednesday, 27 April, 2011 will be talked about for years at local barbershops or at least it will be every time I go into one. NOAA estimates at least 173 tornadoes touched down in parts of the South including East Tennessee where I choose to abide.

The local CBS affiliate reports 25 tornadoes in the Volunteer State have been confirmed so far. (NOTE: The National Weather Service ultimately reported that 48 tornadoes touched down in Tennessee, breaking the previously one day total of 15.)

One twister in Knox County began "near the intersection of Old Settlers Trail and Lakemoor Drive and ended around the area of Wye Way Lane and River Oak Drive." It then climbed a ridge and bounced, hopping over my house like a Myotis out of hell. Pounding me with chunks of ice, i.e. hail, the other spelling of the word.

I've never been through such a load whacking. BAM! BAM! BAM! Pound, pound. Think of it as Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg. If you were in the line of fire, there was no place to hide.

Hailstones (somewhere between the size of a ping pong ball and an RC Cola bottle cap) ripped a bazillion new leaves, branches and branchlets from their moorings over my home creating a yellow-green blanket over everything. Surreal.

With over 300 dead and thousands left homeless across the South, my loses are light. Outdoor chairs, birdbath, hummingbird feeder. But the one that hurts the most: my classic—collector's item, made in Tennessee—19 year old Saturn SC with over 250,000 road miles took a direct hit. (Yes, a quarter of a million miles in one car. That's roughly the distance from the Earth to the Moon. Hello Houston, the Eagle has landed.) My beloved Saturn is now dimpled like a new Titlest Pro V1, the windshield spider cracked and the sunroof I always wanted is in the back.

BUT, despite all that, the GM darling is drivable and a lot more airy.