Friday, December 30, 2011

whooper second fiddle? never


I never, never, never, never, never to the power of 10 never, thought I'd ever be at Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge and a whooping crane—yes Grus americana, world’s rarest crane, only 500 in existence—would be forced to play second fiddle, noticed, observed but not gawked at. And a first year whooper at that, still sporting some of its cinnamon colored plumage of youth, a direct release colt, a young whooper that found its way to Tennessee by following an adoptive parent figure. Brave little cuss.

But, that has been the case this week. The exotic hooded crane from Asia has been garnering all the oohs and ahhs.

Here's an amateur video shot through a spotting scope from the viewing gazebo. It's a bit shaky in the beginning but bear with it. It's a wonderful testament of this week at Hiwassee.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

lost Asian crane in Tennessee

Hooded crane at Hiwassee photo by John Kuehnel.

The rare Asian hooded crane first reported at Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge the Tuesday before Christmas was still there the Monday after. A short 90-mile car trip added it to our life lists, whether it's an ABA-approved listing or not can be sorted out later.

The TWRA managed, 10,000 plus acre refuge shared by Meigs and Rhea counties in southeast Tennessee is already home to thousands of wintering sandhill cranes, a few reintroduced wintering whooping cranes and at least for now, one solo, lost, confused hooded crane, a species listed as Asia and non-existent in the Americas. Non-existent in the wild except for this one. Do I hear the mournful strains of Roy Orbison's Only the Lonely?

Sandhill, whooping, hooded: three crane species at one time in North America. That's a day to remember! Historic.

Speculation and teeth chattered throughout Hiwassee's viewing gazebo and the Internet. 

Is it truly a far-flung wild hooded on the wrong continent or an escaped captive on a lark from an American zoo or mac-zillionaire's secret menagerie? The species has only been reported THREE times in North America, all recent: 1) in 2010 at Carey Lake, Idaho, 2) last spring in Nebraska, and now, 3) the Hiwassee refuge in Tennessee Christmas 2011. 

Could it be the same wayward crane going from place-to-place in the company of sandhills? Gallivanting like Gulliver. Meandering like Muir.

Backstory: The Hooded Crane (Grus monacha) is a small, dark crane with white head. It breeds in south-central and south-eastern Siberia and perhaps in Mongolia. (Yes. Siberia and Mongolia. So our Tennessee crane is perhaps most assuredly lost. The other side of the world lost, like me at Saks Fifth Avenue lost.) 

Over 80 percent of its population overwinters in Izumi in southern Japan. Considered as environmentally vulnerable, the major threats to the hooded crane's survival are wetland loss throughout its range and the degradation of its other wintering grounds in China and South Korea as a result of reclamation for development and dam building.

As I post this, John Vanderpoel is headed to Hiwassee in hope of seeing the wayward crane. Vanderpoel is working on a Big Year, trying to break the record of finding 745 species in North America set by Sandy Komito in 1998. Vanderpoel currently has 741 with time running out in the calendar year. For the record, he needs five more species in four days, but in that rarefied air of the 700 Club, even in a field of play that stretches from sea to shining sea, that's a Mt. Everest kind of climb. We're cheering for you John. 

For more details go to his blog: Big Year 2011.

Thanks Bill for giving me the heads up on the hooded at Hiwassee.

Sandhill cranes. Photo by Manjith Kainickara.

Monday, December 26, 2011

remember the Furbies?

Pygmy tarsier rediscovered on a mountain near Sulawesi, Indonesia 

Since I often write about species that are either very endangered or that have gone extinct, I've been asked are there any species once labeled extinct—either formally or informally—that have been rediscovered.

Yes, my book Ghost Birds is about one such species.

Although the list is short, here's a good article about seven or eight species that have been rediscovered. And just wouldn't you love to see a pygmy tarsier? It's a small, arboreal, nocturnal primate that looks a lot like the must have Christmas toy of the late 1990s: the Furby.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Merry Christmas

My friend Wayne Mallinger sends Christmas tidings.

And what better bird to convey the sentiments 
than the male cardinal. 
Always dressed for the season.

Photo by Wayne Mallinger.


Thursday, December 22, 2011

NS Birdlife review

"What an adventure. It started as a four-month, 15,000-mile road trip in 1935 to record bird songs. It led 20-year-old James T. Tanner, a graduate student at Cornell University at the time, on a multi-year quest to document the life history and habitat requirements of rare ivory-billed woodpeckers.

"Fortunately for the ornithological history of the ivory-bill — a species believed by many people to now be extinct — Jim Tanner kept meticulous scientific field notes. He also recorded his personal daily activities.

"Knoxville writer and naturalist Stephen Lyn Bales relied directly on Jim's field notes, diaries, and scientific publications along with the assistance and recollections of Jim's widow, Nancy Sheedy Tanner of Knoxville, to write "Ghost Birds: Jim Tanner and the Quest for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, 1935-1941" ( University of Tennessee Press). 

Marcia Davis
"Readers can curl up with Bales' book and get a true feel for Jim's daily life, his work, and his adventures as a woodpecker biologist searching remote southern swamps for signs and proof of ivory-bills." 

For the rest of the Knoxville News Sentinel review go to: Marcia Davis

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Sagan: in memoriam

The book The Monsters is about writer Mary Shelley and the creation of her novel Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus. Emphasis on the word modern. (What today seems Gothic and geriatric was then cutting-edge.)  

First published in 1818, Shelley was only 19 years old when she began the manuscript and the collecting of body parts was a ghoulish topic of the day, but reassembling them to create an entire new human was rather shocking, even blasphemous, posing the question, “Can science go too far?”

In the 1800s there was a mad rush to collect items of natural history, as though if one could assemble one of everything, like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, the mystery of life could be solved into one giant picture. “Viola! But of course, now it all makes sense.”

The museums around the world started collecting. Behind the brightly lit areas open to the public—their dark archives filled drawers, shelves and cabinets with bones, skulls and soft tissues floating in formaldehyde.

In Broca’s Brain Carl Sagan writes, “Deeper in the room were more macabre and more disturbing collections. Two shrunken heads reposing on a cabinet, sneering and grimacing, their leathery lips curled to reveal rows of sharp, tiny teeth. Jar upon jar of human embryos and fetuses, pale white, bathed in a murky greenish fluid, each jar completely labeled. Most specimens were normal, but occasionally an anomaly could be glimpsed, a disconcerting teratology—Siamese twins joined at the sternum, say, or a fetus with two heads, the four eyes tightly shut.”

“There was more.” Sagan continues, “An array of large cylindrical bottles containing, to my astonishment, perfectly preserved human heads. A red-mustachioed man, perhaps in his early twenties, originating, so the label said, from Nouvelle Calédonie…his head involuntarily drafted in the cause of science. Except he was not being studied; he was only being neglected, among the other severed heads…Men and women and children of both sexes and many races, decapitated, their heads shipped to France only to moulder—perhaps after some brief initial study—in the Musée de l’Homme.” [Museum of Man in Paris].

A man named Paul Broca, who became quite renowned in the study of the human brain, started the collection. (He had many human brains in jars of formalin, which is where Broca’s own brain ended up after he died in 1880.)

In the end, had science gone too far? Too Victor Frankenstein-ish? We might say no, the pursuit of knowledge knows no bounds; the family of the red-mustachioed man, whose head still floats in formalin, might disagree.

Sagan the scientist queried Sagan the humanitarian. “All inquiries carry with them some element of risk…The best way to avoid abuses is for the populace in general to be scientifically literate, to understand the implications of such investigations,” Sagan concludes. This and other musings are found in Broca’s Brain, a collection of essays on the “romance of science,” Carl Sagan’s follow-up to his 1978 Pulitzer Prize winning The Dragons of Eden. During his time on this Pale Blue Dot, perhaps no one did more to popularize science to the television-watching world than the Brooklyn-born, astronomy professor.

Sagan wrote over 600 scientific papers and was author, co-author or editor of twenty books. He died on this date, 20 December 1996, 15 years ago today.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

all girl lizards

A lizard previously unknown and undescribed by science was recently discovered in a restaurant in South Vietnam.

Where? On the menu. The common reptile is a popular Vietnamese entrée but apparently no biologist had ever tried to figure out what he or she was eating. (I normally do not take my field guides into restaurants either.)

But, wait, there's more. It gets even more curious.

Newly named Leiolepis ngovantrii (in the Vietnamese: Nhông cát trinh sản, meaning "parthenogenic sand iguana") is all female. The specific name honors Vietnamese herpetologist Ngo Van Tri. The all-girl lizard reproduces by cloning and do not need males. If this strategy spreads, my gender is in trouble. Better clean up your act boys!

But how can this be? 

In a paper titled "Who's your Mommy?" written by Jesse and Lee Grismer and published in the scientific journal Zootaxa, the Grismers speculate: "Two major pathways that have been proposed for the origin of this reproductive lifestyle within vertebrates are (1) a genetic mutation (usually within a single egg clutch) that creates individuals with the ability to clone themselves and (2) two species (either two sexual species or an asexual and a sexual species) hybridize to create a polyploidal [having more than twice the basic number of chromosomes], all-female population whose members have the ability to clone themselves." 

Just so you know. Every daughter and all of her sisters are a carbon copies of their mother. 

Photo by the paper's co-author Lee Grismer. 

Friday, December 16, 2011

my mountain, no really

Mt. LeConte

" One of the deeply satisfying things about a mountain—
almost any mountain—is the way it can at the same time 
belong exclusively to so many people."

- From "A Thousand Mile Summer" by Colin Fletcher

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

it likes to watch

Brown-marmorated stink bug (Halyomorpha halys)

Stink bugs invade county!

“The brown-marmorated stink bug is a native of Asia and was first collected in the United States in 1998 in Pennsylvania, according to Penn State University. It has caused severe damage to fruit crops like apples and peaches,” reported Rebecca Williams on knoxNews last year.

“But now the bugs are hitting hard in the suburbs of Knoxville, [Neal] Denton said. They have reproduced vigorously during the warm summer and are now looking for warm places to stay as the weather cools, including homes, garages and campers.”

Well they're back.

Now that the weather has turned colder, I’ve had a marmorated (it means having a marbled or streaked appearance) stink bug loitering about my bathroom sink this week. It watches me brush my teeth, dry my hair, trim my graying beard. Like Being There's Chance the gardener, "It likes to watch." A rather nonthreatening voyeur, that seems inordinately interested in me. Are they government drones, should I be paranoid? Although honestly, it's kind of nice having something that actually wants to share my morning curry. It's been rather lonely up to this point.

I wonder if it will be with me all winter?

Monday, December 12, 2011

last Labrador duck

Pair of Labrador ducks:
painting by John Gerrand Keulemans 

The Labrador duck (Camptorhynchus labradorius), was a black and white eider-like sea duck that was probably never common (a recipe for disaster). The rather handsome waterfowl is believed to be the first bird to become extinct in North America after 1500. 

Since the duck itself was considered "bad tasting,"—a pretty good trait to have if you are an easy-to-shoot duck—it is believed that its eggs were over-harvested, which led to its ultimate demise. No eggs, no ducks to make more eggs.

On this dubious date: December 12, 133 years ago today, the last Labrador duck is believed to have been seen at Elmira, New York in 1878; the last preserved specimen was shot in 1875 on Long Island. It was thought to breed in Labrador, although no nests were ever described, and it wintered from Nova Scotia to as far south as Chesapeake Bay.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

a birthday remembered

Poems first edition
published posthumously in 1890

(note the Indian pipe
on the cover)

"I hope you love birds too. 
It is economical. 
It saves going to heaven."

The Belle of Amherst,  
American poet Emily Dickinson,
was born on this date 
December 10, 1830

Thursday, December 8, 2011

turkeys do fly

Driving home the other day, three large, dark birds flew low over the road—hillside to hillside—in front of my car. What the heck? I first thought vultures but the girth wasn't right. Too chunky, too heavy in the stern. Their flight was labored, like me flapping my arms trying to get airborne. 
As I passed the site, I discovered three wild turkeys strutting up the hill away from the road. 
Yes, Virginia, not only is there a Santa Claus, but turkeys indeed do fly, at least the wild ones, the domesticated gobblers can barely even walk, too heavy in the bulbous bow.

- Photo by Cody Pope

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

stone or water

"It is the nature of stone
to be satisfied.
It is the nature of water
to want to be somewhere else."

- From "The Leaf and the Cloud" by poet Mary Oliver

This begs the question: Are you made of stone or water?

-Photo taken in the West Prong of the Little Pigeon River in the Sugarlands. Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Smoky Mountain Living: Animal Abodes

Animal Abodes: Bedding Down in the Wilds of the Mountains

By Don Hendershot

There's a host of furry, feathery, slinky, slimy, big and tiny creatures making their homes in the mountains and with which we share the landscape...

The Smokies are home to a number of wonderful nature centers that showcase native flora and fauna. At Ijams Nature Center in Knoxville, Tenn., "bird guy" Stephen Lyn Bales is senior naturalist and author of two books Natural Histories and Ghost Birds. Bales notes that different species of birds nest at different elevations throughout the Smokies. Two of his favorite high-elevation nesters are the Northern saw-whet owl and the winter wren.

"The owl can be found in the forests along the Smokies' crest," Bales says...

For the rest of the article look for the December2011/January2012 issue of Smoky Mountain Living

Friday, December 2, 2011

sketches for sale

While working on the illustration that became the cover for my book Ghost Birds, I produced several sketches of a male ivory-bill. There's really no need for me to keep all of them, so if you'd like to buy one please contact me.

These are not color copies but real pen and ink drawings. I did a series of rough drafts in order to capture just the right Campephilus principalis expression. Intense and statuesque. Character studies, if you will. Not an easy thing to do since I have never seen a live one.