Monday, April 30, 2012

the fringe

Graybeard? Yes, I can relate.

There are some pretty spectacle trees in full bloom. Some are common; some more hard to find. One native small tree in full flower at the nature center looks like it's suddenly grown grandpa Caleb's billowy white beard; some of the regional names for the tree are old man's beard, Grancy graybeard and granddaddy's graybeard. OK. The flowers are white not gray, but they are beard-like. (I wonder who was Grancy?)

Today, the more accepted name is white fringe tree. That's a shame. I rather like all those references to grandpa's beard. I'm not a grandfather, heck, I’m not even paterfamilias, but I do have a beard that is rapidly turning gray. Yet, comparing the flamboyant tree to something as banal as a scratchy old beard does do it an injustice. Its generic name Chionanthus comes from the Greek words meaning "snow flower." Yes, that's better.

Fringe tree is dioecious, meaning that there are both male and female trees. (Let's hope they live near one another.) The males are flashier when in bloom due to their longer petals. In early May, panicles of creamy white fragrant flowers dangle from the tree's branches, giving them a fringy, fluffy appearance. In late summer, the female fringes are covered with dark blue berries, so somewhere along the line the genders are able to do more than trade faraway looks.

- Photo taken at Ijams Nature Center

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Thoreau's bluebirds


 Henry David Thoreau was this country’s first and, perhaps, foremost nature writer. He rigorously kept a journal, recording the happenings around his home in Concord, Massachusetts. On April 26, 1838 he scribed a poem that began, “In the midst of the poplar that stands by our door, We planted a bluebird box, And we hoped before summer was o’er, A transient pair to coax.”

Thoreau ended the long entry with the lines, “The bluebird had come from the distant South, To his box in the poplar tree, And he opened wide his slender mouth, On purpose to sing to me.”

It’s now been 174 years since the master of Walden wrote poetically about Eastern bluebirds, but his words seem just as appropriate today as they were then because people still love the birds that “carry the sky on their backs” and a song in their hearts.

- Photo by Sandy

Thursday, April 26, 2012

rarely seen

Kentucky Yellowwood (Cladrastis kentukea)
In honor of Arbor Day gatherings around the country, we look at one of the rarest trees found in eastern North America; principally located on the limestone cliffs of North Carolina, Kentucky and Tennessee.

Donald Culross Peattie writes, “An icy ran was falling—rain that presently turned to blinding snow—and the roaring creeks of Tennessee were rising fast, on the last day of February, 1796, when André Michaux stopped his horse, somewhere in the lonely woods twelve miles from Fort Blount, to examine a curious tree.” The famed French plantsman knew he was looking at a tree few white men had ever seen.

Panicles that hang like Parisian chandleries
This week the hot question at Ijams Nature Center was: "What are those trees blooming by the parking lot?"

"They’re called Kentucky yellowwoods," I'd answer. (Or as the botanists say "Cladrastis kentukea.") The common name comes from the color of the heartwood. Their amazing flowers are celebrations borne in drooping terminal white panicles twelve to fourteen inches long, five to six inches broad. They are like a display of fireworks without the noise, soft explosions. The three growing at Ijams are the only ones I have knowingly seen.

Today, the bees were loving the fragrant panicles, and luckily for them, the nature center has plenty of limestone bedrock, so the trees should do very well for many years to come.

Plant a tree! Arbor Day celebrated at Ijams. 

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Plant Sale

Wild geranium (Geranium maculatum)

I'll be at the Ijams Spring Plant Sale this Saturday selling books and artwork. Proceeds go the the Ijams education department.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

tricky ID

This is a tough one to ID.  

Orange-crowned warblers migrate through our area but so do Tennessee warblers and the latter is far more common than the former. The two species look very similar—fairly nondescript—but Eliot knew the telling diagnostic field mark.

Eliot is young and talented, blessed with a remarkable acumen for birding: eye for detail, ear for nuance and an ability to develop encyclopedic knowledge of any subject that interests her, in this case birding. And most importantly, she has the capacity to get excited to the point of becoming overjoyed about a pretty plain-Jane songbird. But treasure is treasure.

Also like any good birder, she had the patience to wait it out until the austere passerine she found in the trees above the apartment she shares with her mother, revealed its titillating secrets, which warblers do with great reticence. Eliot watched long enough to clearly see that the undertail coverts were yellow (as are the orange-crowned) and not white (as is the undercarriage of the Tennessee.)

And in case you are wondering, the orange patch on the noggin is not easy to see; it's really only obvious if you are holding the bird in your hand.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

think green

In 1970, Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson, believing that few U.S. leaders were paying attention to public concern about the environment, announced a series of teach-ins across the country on April 22. Twenty million people came to these first "Earth Day" celebrations.

Forty-two years later, Earth Day is still being honored.

Thanks, Wayne. 

Friday, April 20, 2012

home again

Hooded warbler (Wilsonia citrina)

Ijams volunteer Cathy Nipper reports she saw a prairie and hooded warbler at Freel’s Bend on the Three Bend Scenic and Wildlife Refuge in Oak Ridge.  

Cathy is taking a class in Ecology and Management of Wild Birds at UT and was there Wednesday morning identifying birds for a field lab.  Dr. David Buehler is the course instructor, and they were led on the field trip by Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency wildlife manager Jim Evans. 

There are a total of 53 wood warbler species found in North America, well 52 if you leave out Bachman's warbler, which is probably extinct. Of the 52, 14 are western species and 38 are eastern. Most do not raise their families in the Volunteer State, just migrate through, but the prairie and hooded both nest in the mountains of East Tennessee.


Wednesday, April 18, 2012

upland oddity

American Woodcock
Correct me if I am wrong, but aren't American woodcocks the oddest looking bird in our part of the world?

I'm pretty odd looking myself, so I really have no room to talk, and truthfully, I love the chunky, little upland shorebirds that are more related to sandpipers and plovers than they are to grouse, so odd they are.

Woodcocks are so well camouflaged to hide in the leaves that you rarely see them.

Gretchen Kirkland was recently out bushwhacking when she startled one. Luckily, she was able to snap its photo before it trundled away.

Thanks for sharing, Gretchen. 

Monday, April 16, 2012


Blue-winged warbler (Vermivora cyanoptera)

Jason Sturner, a regular visitor to Ijams, told me he heard and saw a blue-winged warbler at William Hastie Natural Area near the nature center a couple of days ago.

Their call has been likened to a buzzy rendition of their names: BLUUUUUEEEE-winggggg or a raspy "beeeeeee-buzzzzzzz."

The funny thing about American warblers is that most New World warblers do not warble. They are not particularly good singers but rather produce a vocalization described as a "lisp, buzz, hiss, chip, rollick or zip" or various combinations of those wispy sounds.

Like the blue-wing often they are high-pitched, raspy buzzes. Think of the Northern parula, "buzz-buzzz-buzzzz, zippppppa." Or the black-throated green warbler's strident "zoo-zee-zoo-zoo-zee" or the black-throated blue's upwardly slurred, "beer-beeer-beeeer, beeeeee."

Buzzy. Buzzy. Buzzy.

Truth is, they are not actually warblers in the sense that Old World warblers are, they were misnamed by early American explorers, but the name stuck. (The American robin is not a true robin, it's a thrush. But that moniker stuck as well.) To somewhat correct it, the name of the American group was changed to Wood Warbler because most but not all are found in the woods. They just do not truly warbler.

Although, they may not be the best avian singers, they ARE undeniably beautiful: small, colorful and active to the point of being fidgety.

Seeing one always makes your day.

Thanks, Jason.

- Photo by Wolfgang Wander

Saturday, April 14, 2012

watery musing

What did Ishmael say in Melville's Moby Dick

Something like, "Take almost any path you please, and ten to one it carries you down in a dale, and leaves you there by a pool in the stream. There is magic in it. Let the most absent-minded of men be plunged in his deepest reveries—stand that man on his legs, set his feet a-going, and he will infallibly lead you to water, if water there be in all that region...Yes, as every one knows, meditation and water are wedded for ever." 

Ishmael was longing for the long soul-searching meditation found on the open ocean, for me it's often the restorative property of a babbling mountain stream. 

My friend Tamera from Mast General Store sent me this short video. Her pondering? What bird can be heard singing in the background? 

After my meditation, although it is faint—and we'll let the watery environs near Citico be a clue—methinks it's the longings of a Louisiana waterthrush.

Friday, April 13, 2012

23rd Annual River Rescue

Volunteer Alma Holland and her haul along the shoreline at Marine Park. 

Thanks to all 900 plus people who helped with River Rescue!

nature unveiling herself

On this date—April 13, 1841—French sculptor Louis-Ernest Barrias was born.

One of his most famous works that is so apropos to this blog,
La Nature se dévoilant à la Science or "Nature Unveiling Herself Before Science" is an allegorical work created in 1899 (the same year my grandfather Homer was born and a time when science was just beginning to go boldly where it had never gone before). 

The sculpture depicts nature personified as a woman removing a veil to reveal her face and bare breasts. Underneath the veil, Nature wears a gown held up by a scarab beetle made of malachite. Nature herself is made of marble, while her gown is made of Algerian onyx!

Science author and Chattanooga native Chet Raymo writes, "There she stands, on her pedestal in the Musee d'Orsay, taunting our curiosity—bare breasts, a glimpse of toes—still, after millennia of scientific discovery, wrapped in mystery. She does indeed love to hide, this enigmatic goddess who provoked Heraclitus, and I suspect that another two-and-a-half millennia from now we'll still be wondering what she has to reveal.



Thursday, April 12, 2012

lil' Sweet Betsy


Forgive me. Yet, another posting about a trillium, but goodness, I work at a nature center, they are everywhere. Dozens of them, all around me. It’s hard not to notice.

Although in some quarters this one is known as “bloody butcher,” for perhaps obvious reasons. Yuck! 

Bloody butcher is actually another red trillium also known as prairie trillium. (They both can be found at Ijams.)  This red one goes another, more gentle folk name: "Little Sweet Betsy.”

Unlike other red trilliums, Little Sweet Betsy actually has a pleasant odor: something like the faint scent of artificial banana. If you find one, don't pick it, for the flower it's a death sentence. But it's OK to give it a sniff.

Photo taken at Ijams Nature Center

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

three not two

Nodding trillium in the Great Smokies

If you want to see a wildflower aficionado wax poetic and get all misty-eyed, all you have to say is one word: “trillium.” That will do it. It’s best if you whisper it low and rumbling the way Orson Welles said “Rosebud” in Citizen Kane.


The body plans of most multicellular organisms have parts organized in twos, often exhibiting bilateral symmetry: a left half reflected by a right. (Go look at yourself in the mirror. We have two ears, two eyes, two arms, two hands, two legs and two feet, each a mirror reflection of its partner. Luckily, we only have one mouth. Two would be too weird, but we could at least talk and eat at the same time.)

Trilliums dare to be different: their body plans are based on an odd number. The word trillium comes from the Latin "tres" meaning three. And even though we have around twelve different kinds of trillium growing in our Southern Mountains, they nearly always arrange their body parts in increments of that number: three leaves, three green sepals and three petals on the flower itself.

The petals can be white, yellow, purplish or even maroon.

Yellow trillium is one of the more common species. It can be found at Ijams Nature Center and is a real crowd pleaser, in part because it has a soft lemony scent.

Yellow trillium at Ijams Nature Center

Sunday, April 8, 2012

dove foot red

Mourning doves have such pretty feet. What color is that? The field guides say they have reddish-pink feet but as an artist I wasn't quite satisfied with that descriptor. If I were to paint a mourning dove, what color would I choose? It's not a Barbie or even a Pepto-Bismol pink. What is it?

I went on-line and did some research. I think the shade of red that is the closest match is alizarin crimson. What do you think?

The ancient Egyptians once fabricated the color by crushing the root of a rose madder plant. They used the resulting powder in paints and textiles dyes. If the pyramid-builders revered the color, I can only assume they would have liked mourning doves as well, or at least, their pretty feet.

Alizarin crimson

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

mystery moth

Polyphemus moth (Antheraea polyphemus)

Giant silk moths are a natural wonderment. As a group they include the largest moths found in North America. We're talking as big as my hand.

Yesterday, I met Janie Harville at Ijams Nature Center. She was with a group of second-graders from Farragut Primary. AND, she had just taken a photo with her phone (we live in the age of wonders) of a rather large moth last weekend in Maggie Valley. She wondered what it was. Indeed.

Jane's treasure is a polyphemus moth named in honor of the one-eyed giant cyclops Polyphemus of Greek mythology. (Note the large eye spot on each hindwing.) The word polyphemus means "much spoken of" or "famous" and the one-eyed cyclops was made famous in Homer's epic Greek poem The Odyssey. He ate four of Odysseus' men, two for breakfast.

Polyphemus moths are one of the giant silk moths that as caterpillars feed on the leaves of deciduous trees such as oaks, willows, hickories and maples. It is estimated that a single polyphemus caterpillar can eat 86,000 times its own body weight in the two months it takes it to mature and spin a cocoon.

That would be like me eating 8,385 tons of leaves. And if I did that, it would take a lot of ranch dressing.

- Photo by Janie Harville.

Monday, April 2, 2012

mellow yellow

Field mustard, a.k.a turnip mustard, is cultivated in many parts of the world as a source of oilseed used to make a type of canola vegetable oil. Originally cultivated for oil production in Canada, the word canola comes from CANada Oil, Low Acid.  

Wild mustard in bloom has a way of simply flowing over a field, turning it awash in bright yellow, something of a mellow yellow as it sways back and forth in the breeze before a storm.

Is this what Donovan Leitch was singing about in the '60s? He was from Scotland. Is there field mustard on the Scottish hillsides? Help me out here; I've never been across the big pond.

- Photo taken in Hardin Valley