Wednesday, August 31, 2011

A Week

Concord River at the site of the Old North Bridge
“It required some rudeness to disturb with our boat the mirror-like surface of the water, in which every twig and blade of grass was so faithfully reflected… 

On this date in history:

“At length, on Saturday, the last day of August 1839, we two, brothers, and natives of Concord, weighed anchor in this river port; for Concord, too, lies under the sun, a port of entry and departure for the bodies as well as the souls of men; one shore at least exempted from all duties but such as an honest man will gladly discharge,” writes Henry David Thoreau to begin his book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. 

It was his first of only two books published in his lifetime (the other being Walden). 

Originally self-published, A Week... was considered a failure at the time. Over 700 of the 1,000 copies printed were returned to Thoreau unsold. 

The framework of the book follows a seven-day boat trip Henry David took with his brother John (the actual trip took 13 days). Today, it’s considered a bit of a mishmash: a travelogue, a collection of philosophic musings, bits of poetry, passages of poetic prose, pastoral descriptions of a lost America, the forerunner to many such books that followed. It's also a tribute to his late brother John who died shortly after the trip was made.

But suffice it to say, reprinted after his death as his reputation began to grow, A Week is still in print, and still has wonderful passages from Thoreau, the poet naturalist. 

“The stillness was intense and almost conscious, as if it were a natural Sabbath. The air was so elastic and crystalline that it had the same effect on the landscape that a glass has on a picture, to give it an ideal remoteness and perfection.”


Monday, August 22, 2011

Hastie WalkAbout

Thank you to all who attended the tree identification Ijams WalkAbout at William Hastie Natural Area in South Knoxville last Saturday.

And special thanks to Lynne Davis for leading the walk and her husband Bob for helping pull together the inventory of trees.

The tree list for William Hastie is a work in progress. To see what's been IDed so far go to: tree list.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Keeping house

House wren (Troglodytes aedon)

When we think of nesting wrens in our state, we think of Carolina wrens. (OK, this is not Carolina but the entire state of Tennessee before 1796 was part of the Tarheel State, so it once was Carolina.)

Carolina wrens nest any and everywhere around our homes, carports, garages, decks, mailboxes, vacant cars, porch swings, etc. etc. They are abundant and widespread and not particularly shy. They'll nest in your lunchbox if you leave it open long enough, so diner beware.

On the other hand, the smaller house wren tends to migrate through our area. They can be found year round in large parts of South America but another population migrates north as far as Canada in the northern summer. This means the perky petite passerines can be found nesting from southern Chile to mid-Canada. That's a large range for a perky petite passerine that's roughly four inches long and weighs 11 grams, the equivalent of two U.S. quarters. 

The nesting that does occur locally is concentrated in the Tri-cities, the northeast corner of the state. But nature is exuberant with "exceptions to the rule." A few house wrens do nest here and there in the Tennessee Valley, but not in great numbers. It's more higgledy-piggledy. When they nest it tends to be near our homes in suburban settings with shade trees and lawns. They'll use nest boxes and have been known to add spider egg sacs to the nesting materials, so that the resulting spider hatchlings can control any outbreak of nest mites. Natural pest control.

My photographer friend Wayne
Mallinger sent me these two beautiful photos he took this past nesting season in Madisonville.

Thanks, Wayne.

Photos by Wayne Mallinger

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

drunk bee!

I return once again to the bee bars at Indian Gap. Happy Hour begins at dusk and like Hotel California, you might check in but you may never leave.

The bee in the center of this Smoky Mountain wildflower: filmy angelica (Angelica triquinata) is drunk. Shamelessly. Or at least, I think it was. I didn't ask it to fly in a straight line but I did stroke it a couple of times and it didn't want to move. It wiggled, perhaps even cooed. (Do bees coo?) Sober bees do not let you stroke them, although they may have a temper, bees are by nature temperate.  

So, this bee was alive, just out of it. Inebriated. Loaded. Plastered. Smashed. Something more than just a buzz. It wasn't a sloppy drunk or a mean drunk, but rather, more of a sleepy, Auntie Edna kind of drunk.

Pam Petko-Seus, the wildlife biologist at Ijams Nature Center, did black bear research on the top of the Smoky Mountains in the early 1980s. She told me they often saw drunk bees on angelica that "didn't seem to know their way home. They just spent the night clinging to the flowers, and in the morning they were covered with dew."

That's intoxicated!

Sunday, August 14, 2011

super bum?

The scientific name for the Turk’s cap lily is an odd one: Lilium superbum, or lily superbum.

Super bum? That hardly seems like a worthy descriptor for such a spectacular, six-foot-tall wildflower. But there's more to it. Actually, the species name comes from the Latin “superbus” meaning proud, magnificent, splendid or, in the case of this Smoky Mountain native lily, superb.

Think of it as superb-um.

And it is indeed just that. Certainly worth of a drive to the top of Old Smoky to find them. So what are you waiting for?

Friday, August 12, 2011

buzzy boy

Swamp cicada (Tibicen chloromera) on the 
finger of a human (Homo sapien)

The dog days of late summer wouldn't be complete without the buzzy drone of the annual cicadas. As best as I can tell, we have five different species in my area that sing at different times of the day, although there is a fair amount of overlap. Each look slightly different and each has a unique raspy song, so like with birds, picking out the individual arias is the key to identification.

The black-bodied one I'm holding is swamp cicada, so named because of their apparent fondness for low-lying wetlands but I seem to hear them all over: wetland or ridgetop. (As I write this, there is one chortling away overhead.)

Elliott and Hershberger describes their call as "Begins with soft buzz that gradually changes into a pulsating drone that increase in volume to a crescendo, and then gradually tapers off before ending abruptly." The song lasts between ten and fifteen seconds.

For the winged adults, time is short, they do not eat or have need to or have want to, reproduction is the only thing they have on their modest little circadian minds, which they do quite successfully in a cacophonous, hot frenzy every August and all the Augusts for millennia. 

Recommended reading: "The Songs of Insects" by Lang Elliot and Will Hershberger. BUY this book! You'll love it!


Wednesday, August 10, 2011

evolving...but aren't we all

On a recent walk, I noticed this young fence lizard, a medium sized species found along forest edges, rock piles and rotting logs or stumps.

Eastern fence lizards can grow to be 7.25 inches long, but this young one was hardly bigger than half a Tootsie-Roll.

Farther south, fence lizards are evolving quickly because of attacks by introduced fire ants. The tenacious ants try to lift up the scales on the soft underbelly of the lizard and inject a toxic neuromuscular venom that can kill the reptile in under a minute. In turn, the besieged lizards are adapting through the rapid evolution of longer legs to escape the ants. 

Evolution is driven by environmental changes. Lizards with slightly longer legs survive the ant attacks at a higher rate thus living longer and producing more offspring that also have the advantageous leggy tract.

Fire ants are not a real problem in my region, (at least yet) so our fence lizards still have short legs. In time, will we see them separate into two species: long-legged fence lizard and short-legged fence lizard. Perhaps, that's how speciation works with the ultimate range of the fire ants being the determinate factor.  

Monday, August 8, 2011

Thanks Tour de Fleurers

Wildflower hunters with 
thin-leaf coneflower in background

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 oddities: Florida blue lettuce, fogfruit, green passionflower, heal-all, Virginia buttonweed and boneset.

The summer cicadas were singing and Kathleen managed to catch a small treefrog for all to see. 

Thanks, Kathleen and Ellen.

Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum)

Cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis)

Florida blue lettuce (Lactuca floridana)

Heal-All (Prunella vulgaris)

Green Passionflower (Passiflora tenuiloba)

Fogfruit, a.k.a frogfruit (Phyla lanceolata)

Mistflower (Conoclinium coelestinum)

Kathleen holding small treefrog

Saturday, August 6, 2011

cutting-edge fruits

American hornbeam, a.k.a. ironwood (Carpinus caroliniana)
American hornbeam, usually called ironwood in my part of the world—is a fairly common understory tree found mostly along streambanks. 

At this time of the year, it's in fruit: clusters of involucres, hanging from the ends of leafy branches. You'd hardly notice them, they're green and dangle below the branches like Japanese lanterns.

Swedish halberd

The curious word here is involucre, from the Latin involūcrum meaning cover or covering and each involucre  does slightly enclose a small oval nut. 

The involucres are short stalked, usually three-lobed like a leaf; halberd-shaped, coarsely serrated on one margin or entire. Another curious word: halberd, meaning a 16th century shafted weapon with an ax-like cutting blade. Think Conan the Barbarian, or better still, French duke Charles the Bold and the Burgundian Wars, which ended quickly when a Swiss peasant lopped off Charles' head during the Battle of Nancy (not the battle for "Nancy," that's a different story) on 5 January 1477.  

So the fruit of a hornbeam tree is like a green stack of primitive serrated ax-like cutting weapons protecting a small cluster of nutlets. 

Isn't scientific nomenclature fun!

Friday, August 5, 2011

Tour de Fleur: Ten Mile Creek

Ten Mile Creek Greenway in West Knoxville

Join Kathleen Gibi, with the City of Knoxville parks and rec, and Ellen Blasius with Knox County parks and rec and me for this month's Tour Knoxville on Saturday morning, August 6 at 10 a.m. and walk along the Ten Mile Creek Greenway west towards Windsong.

Some of the wildflowers we expect to find are thin-leaved coneflower, green passionflower, Joe Pye weed, jewelweed, goldenrod and the eye-popping cardinal flower.

This is a great outing along an often overlooked greenway. Wear comfortable shoes and bring water.

Kathleen Gibi and Ellen Blasius

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Thanks Art Circle

Ijams summer out-reach at Art Circle Library

Special thanks to my friends Susie, James, Patty and the rest of the staff of the Art Circle Library for arraigning last week's nature programs for local kids.
Located in downtown Crossville, the new—opened in 2010—Art Circle Library is a thriving center of the community where you can check out a book, read a current periodical, cruise the Internet, attend an educational program or buy a sandwich at the "Food for Thought Cafe." One of the great libraries in our state, it's bustling with activity most hours of the day.

My two talks were about different kinds of animals: birds, reptiles, amphibians, insects, etc. and what distinguishes each group.

The highlight of the two programs? I'm sure most of the kids, especially the ones on the front row, would agree it was when the box turtle wizzed on me. But nature is not static, it's a dynamic process, ever-changing; it flows. And sometimes it flows all over your hands.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011


Regal moth, a.k.a royal walnut moth (Citheronia regalis)
One of the great things about summer are the visitors that show up on your backporch attracted by the bright lights at night.

It would be tempting to think that this royal walnut moth is the adult version of the caterpillar I found and blogged about last August: junior devil. It's probably not, odds are overwhelming against such an occurrence, but it's fun to imagine that I could be so lucky to be visited twice by the same creature in two different forms, although in this case the incredible green hulk morphed into handsome physicist Dr. Bruce Banner, although I don't remember him being a redhead.  

The adult royals have the largest body (not the greatest wingspan) of any moth that's found north of Mexico. The caterpillars ARE incredible hulks—the legendary, green and over-sized hickory horned devils.