Friday, September 30, 2011

good ruby year

Ruby-throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris)
From the heaviest bird routinely found in my area (see yesterday's post) to the lightest...

I have had several phone calls and e-mails this year about ruby-throated hummingbirds. Apparently, it's been a good year for them. Large flocks—called charms, isn't that wonderful?—are appearing in backyards on their migration to their winter range in Central and South America. It's a long way to fly if you only weigh three grams.
Beautiful, dynamic, Lilliputian creatures.
I especially like the e-mails that come with pictures. These two were taken by Tiffiny Hamlin, who has sent me photos before. 

Thanks, Tiffiny!

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Oh Canada

Canada Goose (Branta canadensis)
"'OH CANADA, WE STAND ON GUARD FOR THEE' offering a stranger a drink of water, and they never leave. It's fall and the pond is filling up with guests," writes my friend Wayne Mallinger.

Once upon a midnight dreary, Canada geese only passed through our state in the spring and fall migrating to warmer climes in the South to spend their winters. But, somewhere along the line they realized the middle latitudes were commodious year round. 

When I was a child, the first BIG book on birds we had in our home, Pearson's Birds of America originally published in 1917, states, "The great breeding grounds of this Goose are in the British provinces, few, if any, of the eastern flight pausing in spring south of the Canadian border." 

Today, they have become ubiquitous in Tennessee and we tend to look past them, but Wayne's photo shows how big and powerful they truly are.

Depending on which book you consult, there are six or seven separate sub-species or populations only varying in size and location. The ones farther north are bigger. Sibley lists six groups: Aleutian, Richardson's, cackling, lesser, dusky and the widespread "common." 

As Wayne's photo illustrates, they are so large, when they take off from land or water, Canada geese have to run a step or two before they can lift off. This makes them look like they are walking on water. Impressive either here or in Canada. 

- Photo by Wayne Mallinger

Monday, September 26, 2011

to just flutter by

Tiger swallowtail

Also, this time of the year, the tiger swallowtails start to look somewhat ragged. Scales thin, wings tattered, yellow faded. Such delicate creatures. Tissue paper origami braving the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. The rain. The sun. The hungry jays.

My God, what a scant existence.

But, yet, to be a butterfly for a week or even two, from blossom to blossom, sweet joy to sweet joy. Such pleasure. Such freedom. 

"Yet you do not know what your life will be like tomorrow. You are just a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away."

So, in the end, isn't all life fleeting on this rocky planet four billion years old? At least the happy moments, fleeting? The moments of pure, fervent joy? The moments we feel truly alive? So few and far between. So hard to hold onto, as vaporous as a flutter-bys life.

Isn't it all of life just a flutter-by?

Saturday, September 24, 2011

the torch doth burn

Margined soldier beetles (Chauliognathus marginatus)

Before the weather turns harsh, there seems to be a rush to mate, lay eggs and die. A scene fitting of Shakespeare, "Oh, happy dagger! This is thy sheath; there rust, and let me die!"

Everywhere I looked the other day, margined soldier beetles seemed to be coupling, especially on the blooming white frostweed.

Was it tawdry of me to take photos?

Well, yes, it probably was since I'm now posting their intimate moment for the world to see. 

So, forget you saw this and move on but remember "This is the place; there, where the torch doth burn."

And with this, Juliet dies. But she laid no eggs.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

fresh jellies

On an Ijams canoe trip on Mead's Quarry Lake that I led last Saturday we found an unexpected curiosity: ghostly freshwater jellyfish! (Craspedacusta sowerbyi)

First reported in the South Knoxville quarry lake in 1997, I didn't expect to find them so late in the season. I associate the coin-sized medusas (ma-DOO-zuhs, say it slow, don't you just love the sound of that word?) with the hot days of late summer. 

For the complete story go to: jellies.

Friday, September 16, 2011

horses beware

Margined blister beetle, Epicauta pestifera

Cantharidin. Can-thar-i-din. 

It's a poisonous chemical, a bitter crystalline compound that causes blistering of the skin and is often used medially to remove warts. Should you need to mix up a batch of the blistering agent in your basement, it's C10H12O4 or ten parts carbon, twelve parts hydrogen and four parts oxygen, hold the mayo. 

Naturally occurring, cantharidin is a toxic oily liquid secreted by blister beetles when they are threatened, picked up or forced to watch a movie like any of the Smokey and the Bandit offerings. Sally, what were you thinking?

There are approximately 7,500 known species worldwide, so there's a lot of blistering going on out there. The one I encountered and photographed was ash gray, but other species are brightly colored, announcing their toxicity to would-be predators.

The blister beetle genus Epicauta—and the one I found with Rikki Hall and a group from Ijams is perhaps Epicauta pestifera, the margined blister beetleis generally found in farm fields. Their larvae feed on the eggs of grasshoppers, which I would imagine are enormously hard to find but I'm not a blister beetle larva. I have trouble finding my keys every morning.

As adults, blister beetles are highly toxic to horses. A few consumed in a single feeding of alfalfa hay may be lethal. So if you follow this blog and are fond of eating alfalfa, beware.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

avocet spotting

Rankin Bottoms Wildlife Area

Word was out last Wednesday that a Hudsonian godwit had been found at Rankin Bottoms north of Knoxville. A rare bird for my part of the world. It was spotted again on Thursday by local birders but by the time we could get there late Friday afternoon it had apparently moved on.

A peregrine falcon cruising the mud flats had spooked a lot of birds, prompting them to relocate. Do you blame them?

Still, a marbled godwit, semipalmated plover, semipalmated sandpiper and red-necked phalarope were found and then much to the delight of all, an American avocet working its way through the water along a distant shoreline appeared in someone's spotting scope.

We were thrilled. The first time I'd seen one in Tennessee.

American avocet in winter plumage

Monday, September 12, 2011

Audubon book review

 The Long Goodbye
A new book traces one ornithologist's quixotic efforts to study and preserve the ivory-billed woodpecker

By Frank Graham Jr.

"They called and acted nervously when I approached," James Tanner writes of the ivory-billed woodpecker in his 400-plus-page travel journal in 1937. "Male whammed on stub two inches long, then flew a short distance, whammed and bammed. Female worked on a dead hackberry stub 25 feet high, 18 inches in diameter, mostly skinned and showed many [beetle] engraver burrows."

Tanner's journal is the chief source, the very substance, of the saddest book I have ever read about birds. Ghost Birds resembles the recollections and musings of a man at the bedside of a friend struggling against a fatal illness... fascinating in its detail of the day-to-day existence of the last known group of these magnificent birds, the book also records a dogged scientist's frustrating search through southern swamps for other ivory-bills."

For the rest of Frank Graham Jr.'s essay/review about my latest book Ghost Birds  that appears in the September/October issue of Audubon magazine click: Long Goodbye.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Ten years after

"I'd love to change the world, But
I don't know what to do"
- By Alvin Lee and Ten Years After, 1971

Photo by Wayne Mallinger

Saturday, September 10, 2011

perching hummer

Look left

Look right

Look up

Fluff up

And fly away.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

mystery yellow spider

Perfectly camouflaged and poised for a meal, this yellow crab spider sits and waits. Sits and waits. Pity the poor skipper that stops at this diner. This Bates Motel. This nightmare on Elm Street. What is one's bread and butter, is the other's bête noire.

The spider and the flower have evolved together. Be that as it may, I'm not sure what species it is. Rikki are you out there? What can you tell us?

The photo was taken by Julia C. White.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Tour de Fleur: Ross Marble

Ross Marble Tour de Fleurers

Special thanks to those who attended the Tour de Fleur to the Ross Marble Quarry Natural Area at Ijams 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: ironweed, frostweed, New England aster, Spanish needles, Pennsylvania smartweed, Virginia knotweed, Florida blue lettuce (that's a lot of state and regional proper names, too bad we did not find any Tennessee chickweed). And, of course, lots and lots of blooming ragweed, both giant and common.

Thanks, Kathleen and Ellen.

Kathleen Gibi and Ellen Blasius

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Martha's passing

Mark your calendar: 97 years ago today, on September 1, 1914 at 9:32 a.m. (Central Standard Time) the last known passenger pigeon on earth died at the Cincinnati Zoo. 

The bird's name was Martha.

It is estimated that at one time, one-quarter of all birds in North America were passenger pigeons. Today, they are extinct.

- I took this photograph of the preserved Martha at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington D.C. on a visit in 2005.