Sunday, October 30, 2011

an imperial moment

Female imperial woodpecker and
Ijams executive director Paul James

And speaking of ghost birds, which I often do. Paul James and I visited the archives at the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History in 2005.

We were there to see their ivory-billed woodpecker and passenger pigeon specimens. Chilling sight, so many study skins lying in wooden trays, most collected in the late 1800s and early 1900s when everyone wanted to own something rarer than St. Elmo's fire. 

"Endangered species" wasn't a term in use yet, they were referred to as "vanishing species." They weren't endangered, they were disappearing, so let's get one. Wildlife conservation was decades away. And over the years the various collected dead things, preserved with toe tags, have been donated to the Smithsonian. There they lay in aeternum et semper.

Just before we left the archives, Paul asked curator James Dean, "Do you have an imperial woodpecker?"

"Sure," he said, "I'll go get it."

Native to the mountains of Mexico, the imperial (Campephilus imperialis) is closely related to the ivory-billed woodpecker (Campephilus principalis).

When Dean returned he had an amazing specimen of a female imperial mounted on a log.


And now a historic home movie taken in 1956 by William Rhein, a dentist from Pennsylvania, has been discovered and released by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Perhaps the last or one of the last sightings of the lordly species on its home range.

Did I say "Wow!"?

Go to: imperial

Friday, October 28, 2011

natural histories: feathers

"Her dark fingers worked nimbly with the innate accuracy that can only be achieved by doing the same highly skilled task over and over. Or perhaps it was cultural knowledge and her hands simply knew what to do. Beside her lay a pile of soft and wide contour feathers. A closer inspection of the heap would have also revealed a multitude of earth tones: bronze, gold, amber, rust, umber, copper, terra cotta; colors that looked good against the Native American’s burnt sienna skin.

Using strands of tree bark, she lashed the lower shaft of each feather—known as the calamus—to a network of plant fibers, an interwoven foundation that in itself took hours to weave…In the end, she stood up and wrapped her creation around her shoulders checking its length. She was pleased. "

Excerpt from Natural Histories published by the University of Tennessee Press

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

fiery palette

Every year there's a debate about which tree produces the best fall color: sweet gum, sumac, sassafras, etc.

Most seem to agree it's one the maples, and I concur, at least at this moment in time. If you ask me tomorrow, my answer may have changed.  

During yesterday's drive home, the sugar maples along Woodlawn Pike were awash with green to red to orange to gold to yellow, as the green chlorophylls begin to break down unveiling the carotenoid and anthocyanin pigments that lie hidden underneath. A fiery, impressionist palette. Painterly like the plein-air landscapes of Monet, too bold in color to be real. But real, indeed they are.

I wonder: Do sugar maples grow in Monet's Garden at Giverny in France? Should I send them one?

Monday, October 24, 2011


“I land at Pinxter Swamp. The leaves of the azaleas are falling, mostly fallen, and revealing the large blossom-buds, so prepared are they for another year. With man all is uncertainty. He does not confidently look forward to another spring. But examine the root of the savory-leaved aster, and you will find the new shoots, fair purple shoots, which are to curve upward and bear the next year’s flowers, already grown half an inch or more in earth. Nature is confident.”

Even if sometimes we are not.

- Henry David Thoreau, journal entry dated October 12, 1858

- Photo taken at Ijams Nature Center

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

home turf

Carolina wren

I poise this question: Is there anything harsher sounding and/or more fussy than a scolding Carolina wren? I have two—one on each side, in stereophonic sound—scolding me on MY front porch for being an intruder as I write this dispatch. 

They seem to think of it as their front porch, yet, I pay the mortgage. Of course, these may be two of the clutch that were hatched and raised in a nestbox on my front porch six feet from where I'm sitting.

You think they think of it as their front porch? Territory they want to defend. 

Sunday, October 16, 2011

trip to bountiful

Flowering dogwood gets a lot of attention around these parts every April. Heck, we even have an art festival named in its honor.

But, for my money, it’s the fall when these trees put on their grandest display.

Recently I watched a group of white-throated sparrows and a female Eastern towhee take particular delight in the bright red dogwood berries. Many of the trees I’ve encountered this fall have been loaded, it seems to be a good year for soft mast.

Friday, October 14, 2011


I just heard from Lynne Davis.

Get this: Her husband Bob found an abandoned orphan and just had to bring it home. We have all been in similar situations.

What was it? A potted prickly pear cactus, sitting by the side of the road, as lonesome and forlorn as Oliver Twist...Dickens writes, "even they, with the hand of death upon them, have been known to yearn at last for one short glimpse of Nature’s face, and, carried far from the scenes of their old pains and pleasures, have seemed to pass at once into a new state of being."  

Makes you wonder: Who would cast out a cactus? Deliver it to the hand of death? And take the time to drive somewhere else to do it like it's an unwanted bluetick. Granted a cacti doesn't have an agreeable temperament, they can be sort of prickly. 

Although there are several species of prickly pear, only one occurs naturally in my part of the world, the only native cactus in the Southeast: Eastern prickly pear, Opuntia humifusa. The red fruits, commonly called cactus figs, are edible although they have to be peeled carefully to remove the small spines on the outer skin before consumption.

Lynne also writes, "Yeah, we're big adopters of orphans. I have an asparagus fern I rescued from the church dumpster. The asparagus fern has survived several years now, and spent the summer on the back porch, where it bloomed and even set fruit, little pea-sized red berries."

Thanks, Lynne. 

Monday, October 10, 2011

Amphibians of Tennessee

Thursday, October 13

Ijams Nature Center and the University of Tennessee Press will host a book signing to celebrate the release of The Amphibians of Tennessee ($39.95, University of Tennessee Press). 

The book was written by University of Tennessee doctoral candidates Matthew Niemiller and R. Graham Reynolds.

The book signing and reception begins at 4 pm in the Ijams Visitor Center. For more information about the book go to:

Check out the book website at

Saturday, October 8, 2011

kitty mama

Young birds imprinting on other animals (even humans) and following them around as though they were their parents is a common story you often read about, but what about babies that imprint on other babies?

Debbie Cavanaugh's email read:

I had unexpected overnight guests last night:

At about 6:45 last night, an orange tabby kitten walked into my front yard, followed by...a duck! I know, I know, a cat, a duck and a rabbi walked into a.... no I'm getting sidetracked.

The little duck is imprinted on the cat and follows him everywhere. You should have seen it running across the yard with its little wing stubs flapping like mad, trying to catch up with the cat. It peeps like crazy if kitty isn't in sight and cleans him up after eating. 

Both are very friendly and enjoy being held and petted. Kitty is about four months old? Duck is of unknown parentage—but I have learned after talking to several wildlife people that it is wild. They enjoyed an evening in my garage. After a big plate of cat food, plus a cricket for the duck, they immediately fell asleep and slept all night. The duck peeps in his sleep (peep-snoring)! After breakfast this morning, they settled in again and were napping when I left the house.

I haven't found any "missing cat and duck" listings, and after many, many phone calls and web searches this morning, I found a home for the duck with a wildlife rehabilitator. She thinks ducky will be OK without the cat and she and her husband will love on it a lot tonight to make sure it doesn't pine for its companion. 

We'll keep in touch in case someone reports them missing. I'll keep the kitty for a while to make sure he isn't lost, [Debbie has named it Ginger Baker. Those alive in the '60s will understand the reference.] then I will vet him and find him a home. [I'm not sure if the original Ginger Baker received such kindnesses, although the cream of drummers is still very much alive so perhaps he did.]

I feel honored to have been their temporary guardian! 

Thanks, Debbie.


Thursday, October 6, 2011

Union Ave book signing

Help me celebrate being in Audubon magazine. (The same issue has an interview with Steve Martin. So perhaps the issue is laying on Steverino's coffee table right now.) What a thrill! Perhaps, he's even using it as a coaster. Nah. Steve doesn't seem to be the kind of guy who would tolerate unsightly rings on his magazine covers. (Stephen Glenn, Stephen Lyn. Notice the similarities? Two wild and crazy guys. Well, Steve is actually wild and crazy. I'm sort of mild and hazy like the weather forecast.) 

Join me at Union Ave Books. I'll be talking about Ghost Birds: Jim Tanner and the Ivorybill: the book about ghostly birds is a fitting topic for October—movie rights are still available Steve; Jim Tanner went prematurely gray as well—and other lost birds plus signing my books about such naturey things this Friday from 6 to 8 PM. Stop by and say hello. If Steve happens to be at your house, bring him along. 

Union Ave Books is located at 517 Union Avenue in downtown Knoxville. For more information, call 865-951-2180.

Thanks, Flossie!

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

potato time

Shan yao (Dioscorea oppositifolia)

I've blogged about air potato—a.k.a. Chinese yam, a.k.a. Shan yao, a.k.a tater vine—before, when the plants were just starting to leaf out: small, heart-shaped, full of youth and vigor.

Now, the leaves are beginning to fade, and it's air potato time; tiny, little tater time.The fruits are actually called bulbils. (Don't you love that word?) I wonder if you could make small potato chips from these pea-sized spuds.

-Photo taken along Will Skelton Greenway near the Tennessee River in Knoxville

Sunday, October 2, 2011

seen from above

"A dead beetle lies on the path through the field.
Three pairs of legs folded neatly on its belly.
Instead of death's confusion, tidiness and order.
The horror of this sight is moderate,
its scope is strictly local, from the wheat grass to the mint.
The grief is quarantined.
The sky is blue.

To preserve our peace of mind, animals die
more shallowly: they aren't deceased, they're dead.
They leave behind, we'd like to think, less feeling and less world,
departing, we suppose, from a stage less tragic.
Their meek souls never haunt us in the dark,
they know their place,
they show respect." 

I've posted from this poem once before, but added another verse, simply because all around me, I see the signs of the approaching winter. Death.  

- From the poem "Seen From Above" by Nobel Prize winning poet Wislawa Szymborska