Wednesday, February 29, 2012

leaplings, it's your day!

29 February 2012. Dreary. Overcast. 

A portrait in brown and gray and cedar.

Although most years have 365 days, a complete revolution around the sun takes
365 days, 6 hours, 9 minutes and 9.76 seconds. And it's those extra 6 hours, 9 minutes and 9.76 seconds that's the bugaboo. Every four years, over 24 hours accumulate. If we left it alone, we'd eventually be celebrating New Years Day in the summer. So to adjust it, one day is added to keep the count coordinated with the sun's apparent position.

Why they choose to stick it at the end of February, I'm not sure. Perhaps, they felt sorry for the poor 28 day runt-of-the-litter month. But it's a little more complicated. 

"February 29, known as a leap day, is a date that occurs in most years that are evenly divisible by four, such as 2004, 2008, 2012 and 2016. Years that are evenly divisible by 100 do not contain a leap day, with the exception of years that are evenly divisible by 400, which do contain a leap day; thus 1900 did not contain a leap day while 2000 did. February 29 is the 60th day of the Gregorian calendar in such a year, with 306 days remaining until the end of that year," notes Wiki.

Anyone born on February 29 is called a "leapling" or a "leap year baby." In non-leap years, some leaplings celebrate their birthday on either February 28 or March 1, while others only observe birthdays on the authentic intercalary dates. So they have 75 percent fewer birthdays than you and me, which is a big deal if you are a teenager but not so much so post 30.

Happy birthday, leaplings!

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

idle amusement

"We do not live for idle amusement. I would not run round a corner to see the world blow up." 

— Henry David Thoreau

But, and I'm sure the Master of Walden would agree, I would walk to the other side of town to look for early signs of spring. 

Join me for the annual Ijams' Woodcock Hunt, (No guns, just wide-eyed wonderment, please) Saturday March 3. To register call (865) 577-4717, ext. 110.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

bucket list 1

Hildebrandt's Starling

OK. Let's start our bucket list, a.k.a. things we want to do before we kick the proverbial pail or the final to-do list. It's all the rage and you know how quick I am to jump on the bandwagon. Well no, not really, I usually run the other way. 

But, I simply must begin to save money for a trip to Kenya so that I can see a Hildebrandt's Starling, named in honor of Johannes Hildebrandt, a German explorer and collector who was the first European to obtain specimens of this brightly iridescent species.

The Hilderbrandt's eats fruit and insects and chortles a song that sounds like "ch-rak ch-rak chee-chee-wee chee-wee rak rak rak".

Airfares to Nairobi, Kenya are currently running just over $1400 with two stops and no peanuts, slightly more if I want to come back.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Rose Glen 2012

The third annual Rose Glen Literary Festival is today on the campus of Walters State Community College in Sevierville. Open to authors either from Sevier County or who have written about the county or the Great Smokies, the festival runs from 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.

This year, Ijams' own Paul James and I will speak at 10 a.m. about our books and nature writing. Heartland's Bill Landry and Michael Knight, author of The Typist, are the keynote speakers at the luncheon. And, of course, everyone will be selling and signing their books,
Join us.


Wednesday, February 22, 2012

incredible journey

Bobolink (Dolichonyx oryzivorus)
Bobolinks migrate from northern United States and Canada south to Argentina and back again in the spring.

"It would be ludicrous to ask a human teenager to go from a patch of meadow in Maine to an Argentinian marsh and back with no instructions, map, compass, or transportation. The bobolink, through, is far better equipped for the trip. In its genes, it carries all the instruction it needs. Weighing less than two ounces, its body includes a built-in magnetic compass, as well as the fuel and mechanics to power its journey [often over open ocean]. Its brain—about the size of an almond—contains everything it needs to know to navigate to its destination using magnetic fields, polarized light patterns, and stars."

- From Songbird Journeys by Miyoko Chu

Monday, February 20, 2012

oh, that Bonaparte!

Bonaparte's gull (winter plumage)

And speaking of the more-like-a-tern, graceful-in-flight dainty Bonaparte’s gull (see last posting). 

Just so you know. They are not named in honor of the über famous French Emperor Napoleon, but rather his less famous zoologist nephew, Prince Charles Lucien Bonaparte, who traveled to America in the early 1800s and became a friend and early supporter of the then lightly regarded John James Audubon.

This Bonaparte discovered several new species unknown to science, studied birds in America, aided in revisions made to Wilson's American Ornithology and created the genus Zenaida—the Zenaida doves—named to honor of his wife Zénaïde Laetitia Julie Bonaparte. It's the grouping that includes the common Mourning Dove (Zenaida macroura)

In summer plumage, the Bonaparte's gull has an unmistakable black head, but in winter all that remains is the dark crescent behind the eye. The bill is also small and black. Very different from the herring and ring-billed gulls. 

Although gulls don't get much respect, this is a very beautiful bird. And don't forget the pink feet.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Bonaparte's gull?

Wintering gulls have been coming to the Tennessee Valley since the late 1950s, about the same time as the Robert Mitchum movie Thunder Road arrived here but there's no real connection.  At least, not to my knowledge.

Just about all of them are the medium-sized ring-billed gull (Larus delawarensisbut there are two non-ringbills.The larger herring gull and the smaller Bonaparte's gull can be found here at this time of the year, although not nearly as many of them.
Can you spot the one in the above photo taken on Melton Hill Lake that's the odd gull out? No ring on its bill.

(If you need a hint: look for the Bonaparte's pink feet.)

Wednesday, February 15, 2012


"The sun, with all those planets 
revolving around it and dependent on it, 
can still ripen a bunch of grapes as if it had nothing else 
in the universe to do."

Galileo Galilei, Italian physicist, mathematician,
astronomer and philosopher who played a major role in the Scientific Revolution,
was born on this date: February 15, 1564.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

the path

It is said that Thoreau carried two notebooks with him when he walked around his beloved New England. One notebook was to record things he saw in nature and the other for the poetry he was inspired to write. There were times when he encountered something that thrilled him so, he wouldn't know which notebook to record it in. In other words, nature itself is sheer poetry.

Flash forward 150 years to Chet Raymo, retired physics and astronomy professor at Stonehill College in Massachusetts. Born in my home state, in Chattanooga, he left Tennessee to peruse the universe. I first discovered him through his 1985 book Soul of the Night: An Astronomical Pilgrimage.

But Raymo is equally poetic and proficient and powerful in describing the universe inside us all.

“We have, it seems, a fierce attraction for spirits: auras, angels, poltergeists, disembodied souls, out-of-body experiences….If we want more than meets the eye, we should practice on this: the invisible flame of DNA.

“Even as I stand motionless and attentive at the edge of the water meadow, a flurry of activity is going on in every cell of my body. Tiny protein-based “motors” crawl along the stands of DNA, transcribing the code into single-strand RNA molecules, which in turn provide the templates for building the many proteins that are my body’s warp and weft. Other proteins help pack DNA neatly into the nuclei of cells and maintain the tidy chromosome structures. Still other protein-based motors are busily at work untying knots that form in DNA as it is unpacked in the nucleus of a cell and copied during cell division. Others are in charge of quality control, checking for accuracy and repairing errors. Working, spinning, weaving, winding, unwinding, patching, repairing—each cell is like a bustling factory of a thousand workers. A trillion cells in my body are humming with the business of life. And not just in my body. The frogs singing from their hiding places—their cells are in a flurry, too. The mallards paddle-wheeling through the flooded grass. The gelatinous scum of frog eggs at the water’s edge. All of it invisibly astir. The more one thinks about it, the more unbelievable it sounds.

"Oscar Wilde said “The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.” The smallest insect is more worthy of our astonishment than a thousand sprites or ghosts.

"To say that it is all chemistry doesn’t demean the dignity of life; rather, it suggests that the most elemental fabric of the world is charged with potentialities of a most spectacular sort. We have perhaps an infinite amount yet to learn about the molecular chemistry of life, but what we have already learned stands as one of the grandest and most dignified achievements of human curiosity. Forget all the other stuff—the spooks, the auras, the disembodied souls; embodied soul is what really matters. As I stand by the water meadow, I try to refocus my attention away from the ducks and geese and trees and frogs (and human observer), and attend instead to the thing I cannot see but know to be there, the endlessly active, architecturally simple unity of life—the meadow aflame, burning, burning.”

- Indeed, the meadow aflame, burning, burning. From Raymo's The Path published in 2003.

Friday, February 10, 2012

woodland raptors

I've watched Cooper's hawks flying in the forest, bobbing and weaving through the network of branches as adroitly as Michael Jordan handled a 1-3-1 or the classic, tight-on-the-bucket, 3-2 zone defense, somehow finding the gaps in coverage however small. The narrow lanes to the goal. Although a Bull for most of his career, the intense, competitive Jordan, "His Airness," would have made an excellent accipiter.

Here's a BBC video of a goshawk showing just how skilled these woodland raptors truly are. 


BBC's: Goshawk.

Photo by Steve Garvie

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Szymborska: in memoriam


I’d have to be really quick

to describe clouds -
a split second’s enough
for them to start being something else.

Their trademark:
they don’t repeat a single
shape, shade, pose, arrangement.

Let people exist if they want,

and then die, one after another:
clouds simply don't care
what they're up to
down there.

Sadly, the world lost Polish poet and 1996 Nobel Prize Winner

Wisława Szymborska one week ago today: 1 February 2012.

She "died peacefully" in her sleep at 88 years of age.  

Here's more of her poetry I posted last fall: seen from above.

Monday, February 6, 2012

song sparrow?

A friend's phone call reminded me of this one:

You see a sparrow feeding in the grass. It has a large spot in the center of its chest surrounded by other smaller spots and you think "just a common song sparrow" and look past it. I'm sure, I have often done the same.

But look closer, my friend Bunky did. It's smaller than a song sparrow and not quite the right shape; its tail is also shorter.

It's actually a savannah sparrow. They spend their winters in my part of the world, choosing to nest farther north.

The common name honors Savannah, Georgia, where Alexander Wilson first discovered one in 1811.  

Size difference. Savannah: smaller: 5.5 inches with short tail (left) And song sparrow: larger 6.25 inches with long tail (right). Plus, in my part of the world, Savannahs are only here in the winter or migrate through spring and fall.  

Saturday, February 4, 2012

book nominated

Ghost Birds: Jim Tanner and the Quest for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, 1935 - 1941 has been nominated for the Deep South Book Prize presented by the Frances S. Summersell Center for the Study of the South at the University of Alabama.

Ghost Birds is available in the gift shop at Ijams Nature Center or online at sites listed on the left. 

Thursday, February 2, 2012

hey snowy: come on down

Oh my gosh. They are so otherworldly, so beautiful! 

Look at those fluffy feet! Are those house slippers?

It's not every day that owls make national news, pontificating politicians seem to have a lock on the spotlight and the millions and millions and millions of dollars they are spending. But keeping it real, this has been a big winter for snowy white owls in the lower 48, so much so that their soirée south of the Arctic made NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams. (He's got a soft spot for animals; he just loves a good whale story.)

Many snowy owls have been seen across the upper tier and as far south as Missouri, but none so far in Tennessee.

So this is an informal invitation (a formal one would have to come from the governor's office). The Volunteer State is warm and inviting, lots of juicy mice and voles but, sad to say, no lemmings. I hear they taste about the same, but a good Appalachian vole has a hickory root piquant you just don't find in those tundra fed lemmings.

An "irruption" of this many snowy owls seems to happen about once every ten years No one really seems to know exactly why it happens. 

There might even be a few groundhogs since it is their day.

NBC snowy owl report