Thursday, June 30, 2011

the worst of times?

To quote Creedence Clearwater Revival
here's what it looks like, "Lookin' out My Back Door."

Trees down everywhere. We have been pummeled by back to back to back storms. Electricity out for days. Still no phone, no air conditioning. Smashed car.

Bad times? The worst times?

"It is a form of vanity to imagine you are living in the worst of times—there have always been worse. In bad times and heavy seas, the natural fear is that things will get worse, and never better," writes essayist Lance Morrow in the June issue of Smithsonian. "Those who say the world has gone to hell may be right. It is also true that hell, contra Dante, may be temporary."

Charles Dickens begins A Tale of Two Cities with the memorable lines "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness. " He was writing in the mid-1800s about France in the late 1700s. Dickens was tapping into the to-hell-in-a-hand-basket mood of his nation; still somehow folks lived through it. 

Author Robert Sullivan writes, "The United States wasn't a young country anymore; it was a country that was middle-aged and facing market changes and societal changes that were causing people to fear they were losing control of their lives, or at least their lives as they had known them for a few generations...To many observers, the political system seemed incapable of handling the problems of the day...As the country reeled from market forces, as the gap between rich and poor widened, as people strained to make a living (whether they were successful or not) saw their social and family life begin to change as a result" Sullivan was describing America in the 1830s. 

To think that today we live in the worst of times negates the hardship of those that lived through the American Civil War or any civil war, the Black Death (roughly 100 million people died in two years) or any other pandemic and certainly people that lived during either or both of the great World Wars.

Why do I ponder such? Here's the nature part of this posting: seven trees, oaks and hickories, are down all around my home. Big trees; not babies. Trees that were there long before my little house in the woods was built. It'll take months to clear the mess. But it will be cleared. That's two damage-causing hail/thunderstorms in two months that have hit my house.

But in short, we have always lived during the worst of times, but things generally got better.

Around 1330, Japanese essayist Kenkō lamented that things 
were bad and only getting worse. 

For the the rest of Morrow's Smithsonian piece that uses 14th-century Japanese essayist Yoshida Kenkō as a springboard go to "Timeless Wisdom." Its wisdom is indeed timeless.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

the redder the better

House Finch (Carpodacus mexicanus)

Male house finches—once sold in pet stores as Hollywood finches—come in a variety of reds: from super intense New Jersey fire engine scarlet to a muted down and pale red-orange.

Studies have shown that if two males are together, a female will pick the male that is the most RED.

And the reason is fairly simple, the male that has eaten the best, most nutritious diet over the past year develops the reddest plumage. So the redder one is the healthiest and she wants a healthy father for her clutch.

This is another great photo from my friend Wayne Mallinger

Sunday, June 26, 2011

rock art

For over 30,000 years human hands have been picking up rocks to make art, or painting on cave walls. So art and people and rocks are a ternary that goes back longer than Uncle Ned whittled.

Early rock carvings were of voluptuous, fertile Venus figures; early cave paintings like at Chauvet in Southern France depict bears, horses, lions, panthers and other animals, but still it's artist and his media: rock.

If you want something to last—Parthenon, pyramids, Pietà—you make it out of rock.

Modern environmental artists like Andy Goldsworthy have simplified things, preferring to selectively stack stones in creative ways or places, but still it's art created by a human picking up a rock and rolling it around in his or her hands, considering the possibilities.

"Oh. What to do with this rock?"

Recently, we discovered a series of impromptu and impermanent rock sculptures in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in the river just off the Alum Cave Trail. These instant creations are more ephemeral. With the heavy rains that have passed through the past few days, there's no way they survived. The rocks would have been reshuffled into the deck.

But for that day, the unknown artist's handiwork seemed as eternal as La Grotte Chauvet itself.

Friday, June 24, 2011

WalkAbout: Carl Cowan Park

Special thanks to those that attended my recent Ijams WalkAbout at Carl Cowan park. Our topic was basic birdwatching 101.

Although the woodland passerines were fairly quiet, we did find several interesting lake-loving birds including a double-creasted cormorant swimming and diving in the water and an osprey that made several passes overhead. It's possible a bald eagle was spotted as well.

Every time I see an osprey, I'm reminded of Audubon's famous print of one carrying a recently caught fish. Both with mouths agape; one of exaltation, the other of asphyxiation. Pretty soon the two would have become one.

Ijams WalkAbouters at Carl Cowan Park

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

orange explosion


Butterfly weed, Asclepias tuberosa, a kind of milkweed, 

And then the explosion to flower.

Like a supernova, almost too intense to gaze upon it for long. 

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

the day before

One day before the orange explosion. Ripe with life.

Fourteenth century Japanese essayist and 
Buddhist monk Yoshida Kenkō
believed that perhaps 
the true beauty of a thing lies in the process not the arrival. 
The uncertainity of what's next, what's around the corner, up ahead.

The tingling thrill of the anticipation.

In Kenkō's Tsurezuregusa, "Essays of Idleness," he writes, 
"Are we to look at cherry blossoms only in full bloom, 
the moon only when it is cloudless?"


Monday, June 20, 2011

Indian pink and senna

Indian pink, Spigelica marilandica

Times have changed. Often a colorful history lies hidden underground.

It wasn't that long ago that Indian pink, Spigelica marilandica, was also known as wormroot or Carolina pinkroot. Its powdered roots were in much demand as a medicinal herb, a fixture in Native American medicine kits used as an anthelmintic—an agent that kills or expels parasitic intestinal worms, a good thing unless you are lonely and want the company. It's often used in combination with senna.

In the 1800s, parents would go to their local apothecary and ask for "pink and senna" to treat their children afflicted with "worms."

A short time after I took the above photo of Indian pink at Seven Islands Wildlife Refuge, I received a photo from Glenn Marshall. He has had great luck with one in his yard. Look for them at many local nurseries that specialize in native plants.


Saturday, June 18, 2011

pee ah-wee




The closing days of spring and the mad rush to nest, to family up, is winding down.

The lone bird singing above the house is the eastern wood pewee. 

Pee ah-wee. 

It probably has been here all along, but drowned out by more strident songsters. 

Wispy. Pee ah-weeeeeee. The books call it mournful.  Perhaps it is. But why so? 

Listed as common and widespread throughout eastern forests—oaks, hickories, maples, etc.—its population is believed to be in decline because of all things, the increased numbers of white-tailed deer that munch on the forests' understory, the pewee's preferred habitat. 

Perhaps that's the melancholia of its song, although I prefer to think of it as wistful. Me oh-myyyyy. Sliding wistfully into summer.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

a last sad note

A somber note from the Sunshine state. A lesson to be learned: species are not immutable; they come and go and sometimes we are the cause.

The last known dusky seaside sparrow died 24 years ago this week, in 1987. His coda—the concluding beat of his avian heart—came either late in the evening June 15 or early June 16. (Some accounts use June 17, but that was probably the day it was reported.)

The species or subspecies (Ammodramus maritimus nigrescens) was non-migratory with a small home range: the mashes dominated by broomgrass on Merritt Island and along the St. Johns, Banana and Indian rivers in Florida.

The final dusky, a male, was nicknamed "Orange" because of the band of that color it once wore. He lived out his final days in captivity, his last home was on Discovery Island at Disney World. Reclusive, he spent most of his time hidden in the tall grass at the bottom of his aviary. Alone, he rarely sang. To what purpose? There was no other dusky to serenade.

And. of course, if you are it, the very last, the swan song of your species about to vanish; finished, finito, would you really have anything to sing about?

For more info read, "A Shadow and a Song" by Mark Jerome Walters. An excellent account of the chain of events that led to population losses and the bungled attempts to save what was left of the dusky seaside sparrow.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

on top of old Smoky

Sometimes, just knowing they are there is enough.

Yes. I know Northern saw-whet owls live and nest on the top of Old Smoky, but they are secretive and I’ve never been up there at the right season, or right time of the day or in the right conditions to hear one. So for that matter, they might as well nest on the moon.

Dr. Fred Alsop knows the issues. He writes in his Birds of the Smokies, “The peak of singing activity is from the first week of April through the third week of May.”

“Weather conditions seem to be a major factor influencing singing, with most vocalizations coming on clear nights with little or no wind. Rain, fog, low clouds, and other inclement conditions make the chances of hearing this owl almost zero.”

If you know the higher elevations of the Smokies, you know that inclement conditions are a daily occurrence, things change hourly, clouds move in, clouds move out. Perfect conditions are never a guarantee. 

Alsop continues, “I have found from one to eleven birds singing in a single night between Newfound Gap and Clingmans Dome, although there have been many nights when I heard none, even though all the conditions seemed right.”

So, it’s a long way to drive with no guarantee of hearing a single saw-whet.

Still, here we were in Gatlinburg the last weekend in May with nothing on our day-planner. Should we roll the dice? Was a saw-whet in our future, waiting?

After watching the sunset from an overlook, we moved on to Indian Gap on the Clingmans Dome Road and waited in the grass, as the evening grew dark. Conditions seemed right.

Then it came from down the trail to the left of Mt. Collins: “whot-whot-whot-whot-whot.” Mechanical. Eerie. Monotonous. Otherworldly. Unmistakable. And the darker the night ebbed, the closer the little hooter moved up the mountain and our impromptu bivouac.

Yes. Sometimes, just knowing it’s there is enough, but sometimes it's not. 

On this night we got lucky. Sometimes you do.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

snappy green


Chrysochus auratus, or dogbane beetles

About 40 percent of all described insect species are beetles (about 400,000 species give or take a few thousand). If you want to become a beetle expert, you better get started. If you learn to identify one species a day, it'll take about 1096 years to master nature's oeuvre of Coleoptera.

Of these, roughly 10 percent are "leaf beetles" in the family Chrysomelidae. (Long word, you don't have to remember it.) Many of these are generally found on leaves munching away, like tour groups at a Shoney's salad bar. Other than the wanton destruction of plant cellulose, they are actually quite handsome.

These little guys look pretty snappy in their metallic green outfits like matching Colombian emeralds. Fond of milkweed, Indian hemp and dogbane, the dogbane leaf beetles give off a foul-smelling secretion when touched.

But go ahead and touch them, you know you can't help yourself.

Friday, June 10, 2011

odd man out

You look for the anomalies. The odd things that stand out.

When I first stepped out of the car, the bird was singing overhead. Finch like yet raspy. It was surprisingly easy to find, perched in the top of an oak, but what was it? Black throat, yellow but not oh-so-yellow breast.

At first glance, was it a warbler? A little too late for a migrant, but this bird was too robust, as large as a chat, or at least it seemed. Could it be a fledging? But no, the song. Too proficient to be just out of the nest. Learning to sing is like learning to talk, it takes time to master the vocal chords. 

Perplexed. I had seen this before. But what? Pulling my tattered and torn Peterson’s from my pants pocket, I perused. Minus its cover, warped and rain-damaged, lovingly aged like those boots you just cannot throw away, it’s the only field guide I actually carry in the field. The Sibley and Kaufman are too pristine to ever leave the house, like Mom's best crochet. What if I dropped it in the mud or marsh?

My Peterson can take it; it's the Navy Seal of field guides. 

I thumbed through the familiar pages quickly past the finches and wood warblers and there it was. An immature male orchard oriole, yet how remarkably he sang? And what an odd-man-out blackbird, Icterus spurious. The species name even means “illegitimate.” How strange.

The answer to the mysterious song came later, when I learned that this species does molt into its mature plumage, doesn’t reach sexual maturity until its second year. It was an adolescent, imitating Dad, but not ready to fill his shoes. 

That was the anomaly.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

like a rich jewel

"Like a rich jewel in an Ethiop's ear; 
Beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear!"

Shakespeare's peeping-tomish Romeo was speaking of his fair Juliet as he watched her on her bedroom balcony, but he perhaps—could he not—have been waxing poetically over an indigo bunting?

As Juliet's glow stood out in the night, even from a great distance, the deep blue indigo stands out like a rich jewel. Perched high on its own balcony.

And you do not have to be a voyeur to see it, but it helps. 

Monday, June 6, 2011

Bee eater

From a distance, Tiffiny Hamlin thought she was photographing a tree swallow. Later when she looked at the photos, she discovered the white on the tip of the tail feathers.

What had she taken pictures of?

Although both species eat flying insects, the white-tipped tail is the hallmark of the Eastern kingbird, perhaps most noted for eating stinging bees. This may lead to its scientific name: Tyrannus tyrannus.

Saturday, June 4, 2011


I've seen some little frogs in my life, but this one is petite, almost microscopic. Can you imagine the size of its itsy-bitsy beating heart inside its Lilliputian chest? But don't imagine a tiny ribcage, or for that matter a savory rack of barbecue frog-riblets because they do not have those protective bones. They're like SpongeBob...squishy.

Jonathan Davis found the weeny frog on our recent WalkAbout at Seven Islands and let me take its photo before he let it go. By the looks of the face marking, I think it's a green treefrog (Hyla cinerea). But a frog this teensy, it's a little hard to tell what it might become when it grows up. You know, the sky's the limit little frog. Go for it.  The 2012 election is around the corner, and you're an Anura with that whole Kermit "it's not easy being green" thing going for you. 

Thursday, June 2, 2011

WalkAbout: Seven Islands

Bald eagle photographed at Seven Islands Wildlife Refuge

Special thanks to all who recently attended my Ijams WalkAbout: Summer Birds at Seven Islands.

As a group leader, you always hope that you find at least one memorable bird. One moment to remember. Something to make Mayberry's Gomer Pyle say, "Well, Shazam!" 

Despite the plethora of indigo buntings, yellow-breasted chats, common yellowthroats and a pair of ospreys (from a great distance)...our bird to remember came late in the walk near the river and Steamboat Island, when someone looked up and said, "Hey, there's a bald eagle."

As there most certainly was. 

Statuesque. Noble. Perched on a broken dead tree, surveying the channel below like it owned the entire river. As indeed on that day it did.

Ijams WalkAbouters a short time before we found the eagle.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

reaching out

You have to admire the boardinghouse reach of your typical vine. They're opportunistic, sending out little green fingers in all directions just looking for a little support.

The twisting, turning, entwining tendrils are modified stems, leaves or branchlets that grow remarkablly fast in all directions, wrapping around anything possible to pull the parent plant along.

The curious growing patterns of vines so piqued the curiosity of Charles Darwin that he published a comprehensive monograph: "On the Movements and Habits of Climbing Plants" in 1865. 

They remind me of the old song by Levi Stubbs and the Four Tops, "Reach Out, I'll be There."