Saturday, July 30, 2011

stay away!

Red milkweed beetle (Tetraopes tetrophthalmus)
And speaking of successful lifeforms, forget the composites, (see bull's eye) beetles are the true champions. Most sources estimate over 300,000 known species. That's a three, followed by five zeros. I've read it might go as high as 400,000 species. That's a four and five aughts.

If you go to South America, spend time in a tropical rainforest, look under a few rotting logs or turn over a leaf or two, you'll probably discover a new species yourself. You can name it after your mother (in my case Helen) or high school biology teacher (in my case Ruth).

One found on plants in the milkweed family is simply called red milkweed beetle. A herbivore, its body is full of the unpalatable toxins in intakes in milkweed sap, which looks like Elmer's glue. The insect’s red and black coloration is a warning to any would-be predators.

“I taste bad and will make you sick. Why don’t you eat a lovely green caterpillar instead?”

It’s an example of aposematism (from “apo” meaning away and “sematic” meaning sign), i.e. it’s a warning sign to stay away! I'll make you puke!

-Photo taken at Ijams Nature Center.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Thoreau's bath

Knee-deep in Walden Pond

Hot here. Ditto most places near here. Ditto most places not even close to here. The heat madness makes you want to jump into a pond, lake or neighbor's birdbath. Water is water.

In June, Paul James and I were in Concord, Massachusetts on business for the nature center. Of course, we visited Walden Pond. Had to; it drew us like a magnet. I enjoyed it so much I went back a second day. After visiting the original site of Henry David's famous cabin in the woods again, I walked down to the famous pond. Yes, I used famous twice in one sentence, but famous is famous.

It was a hot day there as well, so what the heck, I took my shoes off and went for a wade in the shade. The mud felt good between my toes.

In time, a fellow naturalist walked by, one who lived in the area, a Waldenian, and he remarked, "You know, this cove is where Thoreau took his morning baths."

"Oh, really?"

I've never stood in another man's bathtub, but I felt welcomed, even refreshed. It's been over 150 years since the Master of Walden last used it, so I'm sure the water has had time to refresh itself. That's what water does every time it rains.

And if not, well that's OK too.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Bartram's magnolia?

You can add this to our list of native magnolias. This one is deciduous. We found the young Fraser magnolia growing along the Groto Falls Trail in the Great Smokies.

According to Steve Kemp's "Trees of the Smokies," William Bartram actually discovered this species on his travels through the South but it is named in honor of Scottish botanist John Fraser (1750–1811), who collected extensively in the Appalachian Mountains in the late 1700s.

Go figure.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

mate for life

This is a bald eagle story that's sweeping through Internet as such stories often do. I first heard it when it originally aired on NPR's All Things Considered.

Although I have worked with several species of injured raptor, never a bald eagle. At least not yet. The story does underscore their loyalty: birds of prey mate for life

Friday, July 22, 2011

taste the fruits

"Live in each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruits, and resign yourself to the influences of each."

- By Henry David Thoreau

It's hot. It's summer. It's sultry. Resign yourself to its sensuality. Taste the fruits. Find some ripe, warm in the sun blackberries and eat them standing on the spot. Feel the sticky, sweet juices trickle down your stained fingers. 


Wednesday, July 20, 2011

white ibises reported

Immature American white ibises (Eudocimus albus) are reported to be in Tennessee at the Dandridge Golf Course. Although considered rare in our state, both adult and immatures are regularly sighted. Here's an eBird MAP of recent observations. A reader sent me the two attached photos.

White ibises are wading birds found along the coastal areas of the South. The adults are pure white but the immatures are mottled gray and black with only a modest amount of white.  

If you live in the area and get a chance to check it out, let me know. 



Monday, July 18, 2011

X-File solved

Remember the story that rippled through the World Wide Web six months ago about 5,000 red-winged blackbirds found dead in Windwood near Beebe, Arkansas? It happened on New Years Eve and had an eerie X-Files quality.

The truth is out there.

And Dr. Louise Conrad, veterinarian at Ijams Nature Center, found it. She pointed out an article in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association (JAVMA) that concluded the birds all died of blunt-force trauma, more than likely from flying into objects near the ground. Three independent laboratories ruled out bacteria, viruses, heavy metals, pesticides and avicides or anything else Fox Mulderish. 

The article states, "Blackbirds have poor night vision and typically do not fly after dusk. Wildlife officials theorize that fireworks [a display to celebrate the New Year] forced the startled birds to fly at a lower altitude than normal. Windwood residents did observe the birds flying at rooftop level, and flying into structures and other objects."

It's OK Fox, there's other cases to work on. 

Saturday, July 16, 2011

silvered wings

This is an aggressive little thing. A second dragonfly species has joined the blue dashers at the Plaza Pond at Ijams Nature Center.

The eastern pondhawk can and will catch and consume larger prey, sometimes even other pondhawks. If fences make good neighbors, then these guys need a fence or two. The females are green (as in photo) the males blue.

I think pilot John Gillespie Magee's poem is about flying a plane, but perhaps it can apply to being a dragonfly:

Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth,
And danced the skies on laughter silvered wings;
Sunward I've climbed and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of -- Wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov'ring there
I've chased the shouting wind along and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air.

- Photo taken at Ijams Nature Center

Thursday, July 14, 2011

snake: to drink there

Like today—a hot, sultry day in July—the black rat snake slowly worked its way down the slope, through the forest, over the rocks to drink from LeConte Creek south of Gatlinburg, my home town. Its movements were cautious, but deliberate.

I won't say slither, there was far too much grace in its movements.

Did it know the creek was there? Could it smell it? Sense it? Or was it doing it from memory? Or like any good outdoors-person, know that if you travel down hill, you eventually find water.

It prompted me to think of the 1923 poem by D. H. Lawrence. It also takes place in July, but on the other side of the world.

 I first read the poem in college, and perhaps, just perhaps, it was the first place I learned to truly respect, even admire snakes. After all, they were not here to harm me, but rather to peacefully coexist.

“A snake came to my water-trough
On a hot, hot day, and I in pyjamas for the heat,
To drink there.
In the deep, strange-scented shade of the great dark carob-tree
I came down the steps with my pitcher
And must wait, must stand and wait, for there he was at the trough before me."

In the deep, strange-scented shade. Wow. That's a poet.

-For the complete poem go to Snake.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

skippers galore

Silver-spotted Skipper (Epargyreus clarus)

Skippers are small, quick butterflies. And when it comes to skippers—Great Caesar's Ghost—there are a lot of them, more than 3500 recognized species worldwide, divided into five subfamilies. And because they are smallish and quick, they skip through our lives and you would hardly notice. So go take the time to notice.

I think this one is a silver-spotted skipper, one of the most robust and widespread–they are found throughout the U.S. and into Canada and Mexico. But it's not that important that you remember its official name, it's better to simply appreciate that they exist. They are not as glamorous as the swallowtails and fritillaries, but they are rather remarkable in their vitality. Here and there. Here and there, skipping about. Fast paced pollinators. What a life.

In the Tennessee Valley, silver-spotted skippers produce three broods a year. Since this is July, I suspect that this one is a second generation skipper but it didn't hang around long enough for me to ask. In fact, if I had paused one second, I wouldn't have gotten this photo.

- Photo taken at Ijams Nature Center.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Tour de Fleur: Forks of the River

July Tour de Fleurers

Special thanks to all the folks that attended this month's Tour de Fleur along the Will Skelton Greenway at Forks of the River WMA. The fields of sunflowers did not disappoint. Spectacular once again this year! Although you might think you are in the province of Provence in the south of France, a sunny location made famous by the sunflower paintings of Vincent van Gogh, you're here in East Tennessee. Giant sunflowers are actually native to America. 

Hats off to Kathleen Gibi, with the City of Knoxville parks and rec, and Ellen Blasius with Knox County parks and rec for organizing the outing.

Along the way we also heard common yellowthroats, yellow-breasted chats, field sparrows and indigo buntings singing, as well as Robinson's, swamp and scissor-grinder cicadas "zeering" their buzzy songs in the trees. 

Ahhhh summer!

Sunflower (Helianthus annuus)

Other wildflowers found along the way.

Common mullein

Sow thistle

Garden Coreopsis
Partridge pea
Horse nettle
Hedge nettle

Queen Anne's lace
White avens
Wood sorrel
St. John's wort
Asian dayflower

Kathleen Gibi and Ellen Blasius

Friday, July 8, 2011

Tour de Fleur: Sunflowers

Join Kathleen Gibi, with the City of Knoxville parks and rec, and Ellen Blasius with Knox County parks and rec and myself for this month's Tour de Fleur: Sunflower Walk along the Will Skeleton Greenway to Forks of the River Wildlife Management Area.

TWRA manages the 400+ acre parcel of land for wildlife. They have planted acres of sunflowers reminiscent of a canvas by Vincent van Gogh.  

We'll meet at Ijams Saturday morning, July 9 at 10 a.m. and ride a bus out to the location in South Knoxville on the French Broad River. 

Other July flowers of note blooming along the way are chicory, garden coreopsis, Queen Anne's lace, mullien and trumpet creeper, but it's the spectacular fields of sunflowers that will make the walk memorable. 

Birds we are likely to hear are common yellowthroat, yellow breasted chat and indigo bunting.

This is a great outing along an often overlooked greenway.

Kathleen Gibi and Ellen Blasius

Monday, July 4, 2011


Exact replica of Thoreau's cabin built near Walden Pond 
but not in the original location. 

"I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived,"  

Henry David Thoreau writes at the beginning of his most famous book Walden, or Life in the Woods.

On this date: July 4, 1845, 166 years ago, Thoreau declared his independence, moving into his cabin near Walden Pond. 

Only 10 feet by 15 feet it was small—more like an out-building you'd store your riding lawnmower in today—built on a recently purchased woodlot owned by Ralph Waldo Emerson. The original cabin was situated on a rise overlooking the pond. It was peaceful except for the sounds of trees being cut for firewood which happened routinely. The small structure behind Henry David's small house was his woodshed.

With me for scale
"He began building his house in March," writes author Robert Sullivan, "He called it a house. His family called it a hut. Emerson called it a hut. [Bronson] Alcott called it a hermitage, Ellery Channing called it a 'wooden inkstand,' on account of how much work Thoreau got done there. Thoreau referred to it variously as a lodge, a hut, an apartment, and a dwelling, but more often than not to him it was a house."

Inside he had a bed, writing desk, three chairs, a kettle, skillet and a frying pan. Initially, Thoreau cooked outside but in time, he added a fireplace, woodstove and brick chimney.

He lived simply with few material possessions, but that was the point. Happiness is found not in what we own, but in how we choose to live our days. 

Exact replica of the Thoreau cabin's interior.
- Photos taken on a recent visit to Walden with Paul James. 

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Audubon at McClung Museum

Scarlet Tanagers by John James Audubon

In 1826, rejected by publishers in this country, John James Audubon traveled to Great Britain hoping to find a more hospitable reception. He was 41 years old and virtually “penniless.” 

Hungry for natural history from the unknown wilderness of America, England welcomed the woodsman artist with open arms. 

Audubon soon met Robert Havell Jr. who agreed to print his “The Birds of America” in stages—five prints at a time—sold through subscriptions. 

Today it’s known as the Double Elephant Portfolio, because it was printed on the largest paper available measuring 28 by 39 inches, with each bird portrayed life-size. Ultimately the work contained 435 hand-colored prints engraved with aquatinting by Havell and hand-colored by his staff of colorists. It took eleven years to complete.

Towards the end of this massive undertaking, Audubon saw the need for a smaller, more affordable octavo edition. The term octavo refers to a printing process where 16 pages were printed on one large sheet of paper then folded three times and trimmed to ultimately yield eight leaves front and back. 

In Audubon’s day, typical octavo pages measured five by nine inches. But the enterprising artist, forever thinking big, wanted his to be 6.5 by 10.5 inches and perhaps because he had a flair for salesmanship, he called it the “Royal Octavo Edition.” He also chose the progressive new technique of hand-colored lithographic prints, a process that used a stone inside of a metal plate, because it was more durable and more pressings could be made.

For the rest of my sidebar piece that accompanies Louise Zepp's article about Audubon's Royal Octavo exhibit at McClung Museum on the UT campus read the July/August 2011 issue of The Tennessee Conservationist.