Saturday, March 31, 2012

the dream of warblers

Black-throated green warbler (Photo by Dan Pancamo)

We dreamed of warblers all winter, in our beds silently waiting. 

Now, the early migrants, the woodland sprites, are starting to pass through our valley on their way farther north. I've received word from my KTOS friend Robin that she saw a black-and-white warbler near her house and from youth-filled Eliot, wide-eyed and talented, just beginning her life in the solace of birds. She had a black-throated green (zoo-zee, zoo-zoo-zee) and a yellow-throated warbler in the yard she shares with her mother.

Listen and watch for these splashes of spring. But they are flighty, like fleeting notions to do something frivolous. 

They do beseech thee, these dreams of warblers. What did Romeo say? "Too flattering sweet to be substantial."

But these, kind readers, are more than mere wisps of the imagination. 

Friday, March 30, 2012

thanks, students of Powell

Special thanks to Coach Will Roberts and his AP environmental science class at Powell High School.

Over the past few weeks, the students read my books "Natural Histories" and "Ghost Birds" and invited me to their classroom last Monday to discuss them and other environmental topics like the irruption of snowy owls this past winter.

I always enjoy my visit to Powell. To the seniors in the class: Congratulations, you'll soon graduate and the world and all of its wonders will be in your reach. To the juniors: You have one more year to wait.

If you look at the photo closely, you'll realize that the wise and all-knowing Deputy Fife was in attendance. Nip it! Nip it!

Thanks, Will. I'll see you again next year!

- Photo by Coach Roberts

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

osprey nesting

Once again, osprey are nesting near the Neyland Greenway on the Norfolk & Southern railroad bridge upstream from Thompson-Boling Arena on the campus of the University of Tennessee.

This is the second of three nests between the South Knoxville Bridge and Looney Island near Sequoyah Hills Park, roughly two river miles.

This is significant. Fifty years ago there were NO osprey nests in the Tennessee Valley. Historically, they just were not here. The magnificent species was first introduced on the Tennessee River near Chattanooga in the early 1980s. From that humble beginning, they have spread upriver to Knoxville and beyond.

By June, the activity inside the nest will get lively. It's like three gangly teenagers pushing and shoving, anxious to fly away and be adults, anxious to be free from the bonds of a small bedroom. 

The action will look something like this: OSPREY NEST.   

Monday, March 26, 2012

here and gone

"Like clockwork," my friend Wayne Mallinger emails, "On the first day of spring comes the attack of the cedar waxwings. A large flock (about 100) strips my large holly tree of every single red berry in two days time before moving on. This year my resident mockingbird slowed the waxwings feeding frenzy by defending the tree temporarily, but he soon got outnumbered..."

Cedar waxwings are colorful nomads. Like primitive hunter-gatherers they move from place to place, food source to food source, covering many miles within their overall range. They only settle down long enough to nest and raise a family before they move on, always in flocks, always on the go. If they spend the day in your holly tree, tomorrow they may be on the other side of the county.

Thanks, Wayne. 

Saturday, March 24, 2012

wisteria? now?

OK. You've got to be kidding?

I'm really not a gardener. I'm more in tune with the birds; their comings and goings, their cries and whispers, that sort of thing. And when it comes to native wildflowers, I know a thing or two, but cultivated flowers? Yikes! Well, I live in the woods. Oaks and hickories and 'possums. That's what I know.

But, I ask you: Should wisteria be blooming the third week of March? Doesn't it normally bloom in May? Have I misremembered? Isn't it an arbor vine imported from Asia and doesn't it like those warm days before Memorial Day weekend.

It seems like everything that normally blooms from late March to late May is all in flower at once. The pollen count must be off the chart. No wonder my head is pounding. But, at least, I have something pretty to look at.

At this rate, we'll be picking ripe apples in late June and celebrating Thanksgiving—the bounty of the harvest—sometime before Labor Day.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

owl strike captured

This is one of those videos that's pinballing its way around the Internet.

It shows an Asian eagle-owl, in the genus Bubo closely related to our own great horned owl, making a strike, in slow motion, the equivalent of 1,000 frames a second.

Silent wing beats. Talons raised. Fixed stare. Oh, those yellow-orange eyes. The color of fire. Fierce.

I've been grabbed by a great horned owl. Intense. Painful. But of course, I lived to tell about it. If I were a mouse, I'd be in rodent heaven, which is somewhere near cat heaven but don't tell your tabby.

Click here for video: Owl strike.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

a fresh bed for spring

"Now I see the secret of the making of the best persons. It is to grow in the open air and to eat and sleep with the earth."

- Walt Whitman from "Song of the Open Road"

Ahh, the first day of spring! Let me sleep in the open air or at least with the good earth somewhere beneath me.

Speaking of which, it’s time to freshen up our mattresses, the cleavers are up. Also known as goosegrass, stickywilly, catchweed or simply bedstraw, this gangly, long stemmed climbing plant sprawls over the ground and whatever else happens to get in their way. Both the leaves and stems have fine hairs tipped with tiny hooks, making them cling to clothes and fur much like Velcro.

Our mountaineer ancestors gathered cleavers to re-stuff their mattresses in the spring. Because of the hooky hairs, the lumps of cleavers clump together and retain their plumpish mattress shape.

They also brought a much needed freshness to the cabin.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

waterthrush return

Louisiana Waterthrush (Parkesia motacilla)
Reports are that Louisiana waterthrushes are back in Tennessee, which certainly means they're back home in the Bayou State as well.

These secretive creek-loving passerines winter in Mexico, Central America, Cuba and the Caribbean, plus as far south as northern Colombia and Venezuela. They're preferred habitat is forested streams and there must be lots of those in the tropics.

We owe their beautiful name to American-Frenchman/artist John James Audubon, before he changed it to honor his favorite state
État de Louisiane—the species was known as an aquatic wagtail. (Yes, they love water and, yes, they have the nervous habit of bobbing their tails.)

Although the waterthrush may look like a thrush or even a stylized sparrow, they are, indeed, wood warblers.

A good place to find one as it migrants through is the stream that drains the Homesite pond at Ijams Nature Center. Naturalist Emily Boves found one there last spring.

Friday, March 16, 2012

stoic heron

Great blue herons, did I say stoic? If you need a fill-in to guard the Tomb of the Unknown Solider, here's your man.  I couldn't locate this photo a couple of weeks ago when I posted about male herons steadfastly claiming a nest site as early as January, weeks before it's actually needed.

But, it's the early bird that garners the best nest! Even if it's a used one he did not build. What do the Realtors say? It's all about location. Location. Location. And if you see a chance to trade up by just investing a little extra time, well wouldn't you?

A male great blue may stand in his chosen nest for weeks waiting on his mate to join him. Well, at least it's a wait with a view.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

osprey are back

Osprey are back home in the Volunteer State. I saw two on Saturday, both perched on nest sites near the Tennessee River.

You have to admire these hunters, they spend their winters as far south as northern Argentina and Uruguay, so neotropical they are not, wintering well below the tropics, terrorizing South American fish.

And look at those feet, those formidable meat hooks that would impress even a Mafioso hit man should there be such a thing. Sharp, strong talons, the bête noire, the dark beast that haunts the dreams of any large bass that knows enough to know enough. Do you think they know enough?

Osprey nest up and down the valley, most often on man-made structures, so local fish this is a heads-up. Or better still, don't get your head anywhere near up or you'll loose it!

- Photo by Mike Baird

Monday, March 12, 2012


Lesser celandine (Ranunculus ficaria)

Pansies, Lilies, Kingcups, Daisies,
Let them live upon their praises;
Long as there's a sun that sets
Primroses will have their glory;
Long as there are Violets,
They will have a place in story:
There's a flower that shall be mine,
'Tis the little Celandine.

- From To The Small Celandine by William Wordsworth, 1802 

Lesser celandine (Ranunculus ficaria) is now blooming by the Ijams Homesite pond, where the spring peepers are peeping and the chorus frogs chorusing. 

Celandine comes from the Latin "chelidonia" meaning swallow. It is said the yellow flowers bloom to welcome home the swallows, and, indeed, I saw three tree swallows flying around the plaza last Saturday.

Spring peeper
The flower's genus name Ranunculus is Latin for "little frog" from rana "frog" plus a diminutive ending signifying small. When the lesser celandine blooms, the lesser frogs are generally nearby crooning, if you want to call it that.

This celandine and frog go hand-in-hand, petal-in-paw. (Well OK, frogs do not have paws, they have hands and feet, but a writer cannot avoid the obvious alliteration.) 

Saturday, March 10, 2012



It's German: Zug (move) and Unruhe (anxiety).

Ornithologists know its meaning. Roughly translated: migratory restlessness.

Throughout the tropics, millions of birds are starting to feel the need to move on. Fly north. Claim territory and raise a family.

The desire is strong, genetically encoded. Capture a wintering redstart in Venezuela and put it in a cage. It will in time begin to hammer itself into the north side of the bars. Crash. Flutter. Crassssh. Set it free and it'll fly across the Gulf of Mexico towards North America. It knows the way home.

Day length, photoperiod, is the key, the trigger. The crack of the starter's pistol. Bam. And the days are most assuredly getting longer.

In North America, over 500 species migrate, go somewhere. West to east, north to south, high elevation to low. Or simply moving around within their range.

To date, swallows, martins and osprey are all reported to be back home in Tennessee. The rest of the migrants will soon follow.

That's zugunruhe!

Thursday, March 8, 2012

early herons claim best nests

Great blue herons spend most of their lives as solitary hunters quietly fishing local shorelines, battleship-gray loners the same color as fresh-set cement. Rock solid. Steely-eyed. Rapier-billed. Each heron seems to have a favorite fishing hole. But, mum's the word.

Everything changes at breeding time; there's safety in numbers. They all come together as colonial nesters, creating rookeries, filling the trees with large stick condos like high-rises on Miami Beach. A single tall sycamore can have multiple nurseries, precariously placed on the uppermost branches. The nests are so well built, they can be used year after year.

In late January, male great blues begin to arrive at the rookery to stake their claims. They don’t necessarily use the same nests they used the year before. If they arrive early enough to claim a better-located one, they will. 

What determines a better site? Only a heron knows and they are remarkably tight-billed on the subject. Perhaps it's the scenery. Wanted: river-front condo with view of sunset. Or maybe it's accessibility. Great blues are hopelessly lankly, those long legs, bills and wings make pinpoint landing on a branch problematic. 

If they arrive at the rookery too late, they may have to build a nest from scratch. It’s first come, first served. This declaration-of-site marks the beginning of courtship. By early March, most nests have already been claimed and the females are beginning to join their mates. 

There's a family to raise.

Photos by Wayne Mallinger

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

giant insect saved

Lord Howe Island Stick Insect (Dryococelus australis)

Lord Howe Island Stick Insects (Dryococelus australis) had not been seen for over 80 years and were believed to be extinct. Just another very large bug, come and gone. (At 4.72 inches long, it's the heaviest flightless stick insect in the world.) Early explorers called them "tree lobsters" for obvious reasons.

But the six-legged behemoths had found an unlikely place to hide. Minding their own business, just getting by, albeit precariously, but getting by nevertheless.

That is until they were rediscovered

Part of their success is a very unusual insect behavior. For the sake of giving it a name, let's call it canoodling

"Lord Howe Island walking sticks seem to pair off and sleep at night, in pairs, the male with three of his legs protectively over the female beside him," reports NPR's Robert Krulwich.

Key to survival tip #1: protect the baby-makers. 

Great story. 

Rikki, this one's for you.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

tree swallows return

Tree swallows mark the change of the seasons. One of the first signs of the approaching spring and its shimmering vitality, is the arrival of these swallows to the Tennessee Valley. 

These metallic blue swallows spend their winters along the Gulf Coast, Florida, Cuba and the Caribbean Islands and in Central America as far south as Panama although I suspect our Tennessee population vacates near Tampa and Treasure Island.

My friend Ted loves watching their aerobatics, their exuberance. He and his wife Geniece have over 30 bluebird boxes in the fields around their home on the French Board River. Tree swallows are called such because they nest in hollow trees but they will readily use these boxes instead, in fact, Ted gets more nesting swallows than bluebirds. 

Historically, these insect-eating birds didn’t nest in East Tennessee and have only been doing so since the late 1960s. There’s an ebb and flowing to nature and tree swallows are expanding their range, flowing into our valley. Their population here has been growing ever since. 

Ted reports that he saw swallows flying around their property last week on February 23. 

Soon the swallows will be claiming nest boxes and searching for discarded feathers their favorite nesting material.  

Can spring be far behind?

Friday, March 2, 2012

peenting time

With timberdoodles, it's a matter of being in the right place at the right time. And at this particular time of the year, at twilight, the male woodcocks, a.k.a. “bogsuckers"—as the species was called during Audubon’s day—begin their courtship displays and "peent" calls. (If you are a female woodcock, it speaks to you. Trust me.)

Tomorrow evening, join me for a muddy walk to Forks of the River Wildlife Management Area to search for American woodcocks. In years past, we have been able to slowly creep through the dry grasses to be within only a few feet of the ardent crooners. We could see them flying, although with the fading light not that clearly. It's remarkable how they practically disappeared, right before your very eyes. Poof!

This bird is quirky!

Audubon wrote that American woodcocks favored “Rivulets that run through thickets, and of which the margins are muddy or composed of oozy ground.”
Ooozy ground, indeed! Seeing such an odd little bird in such an out of the way location makes you wonder: Just what else is out there peenting in the night?

To sign up for our end-of-day adventure, call (865) 577-4717, ext. 110. Dress for muddy conditions! And keep your fingers crossed that we can find one of these odd things in the half-light of a dying day.

- American woodcock by John James Audubon, "The Birds of America" Plate #268