Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Land Trust Day

In honor of Land Trust Day, Foothills Land Conservancy and Mast General Store are partnering with an in-store fundraiser on June 1-2. 

Land Trust Day is a friend-raising event coinciding with National Trails Day that encourages new memberships in local land trusts. It’s an educational opportunity for store patrons to learn how land trusts serve the community—working to preserve a region’s rural character and assisting in the protection of valuable wildlife habitat and open lands. Jim Richards, Mast General Store’s General Manager in Knoxville, says by partnering together both groups hope to “raise public awareness about land protection and what’s being done at the local level.”

Land Trust Day Kick Off!
Friday, June 1 at Mast General Store (6-8 p.m.) Coinciding with Knoxville’s "First Friday" festivities, I will speak about the ivory-billed woodpecker and what habitat loss meant to this endangered species. Copies of my book Ghost Birds: Jim Tanner and the Quest for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, 1935-1941, donated by UT Press, will be available for sale with ALL the proceeds going to the Foothills Land Conservancy.


Monday, May 28, 2012

civilized pigeons

Rock pigeons (Columba livia, Latin for pigeon/dove, blue-gray), once known as rock doves in the field guides, have been living either feral and domesticated in cages with humans for over 5,000 years. (They are found on Egyptian hieroglyphs.) Consequentially, they are really quite at home in the company of our species, be we be physician, pharmacist, philanderer or Pharaoh.

As something of a post script to my last entry. While in the Big Apple recently, my friend Wayne also discovered that the pigeons—be they be gray, white or cocoa brown—are very civil. 

They stop for red lights.

Thanks, Wayne.

- Photo by Wayne Mallinger.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

yearning to breathe free

What does the grand green gulled lady with the oh-so-fine patina famously proclaim?

"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she with silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, your herring gulls, your black-backed gulls and, yes, your Bonaparte's too (after all, she is French) all yearning to breathe free"

The great copper statue dedicated to liberty (
La Liberté éclairant le monde, or Liberty Enlightening the Worldgreets all to America since 1886, and as my friend Wayne discovered on a recent visit to the "City that never sleeps," sometimes she has a gull helping her welcome the huddled masses.

The female figure, cloaked in green robes, represents Libertas the Roman goddess of freedom.

What a view! What a country. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, oh my! 

To that end: Happy Memorial Day weekend.

Thanks, Wayne.

- Photos by Wayne Mallinger.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

yellow mystery

Sometimes, it's the little things, the odd things that jiggle our day. Spark our curiosity.

"I saw this yellow slug on the Third Creek Greenway this morning and I wondered if you could tell me anything about it," emailed Karen Bishop, "I never knew they came in any color but gray. It was curious and lively and I moved it to the grass. In it's own way it was really beautiful."

Karen sent me the photo she had just taken on the paved greenway with the simple discovery. It had rained heavily that morning and Third Creek and the floodplain were well saturated. The little banana-colored mystery—
about the size of Karen's pinkie finger—was simply moving to higher ground. 

I, not being a gastropod mollusk expert, didn't know we had yellow slugs in Tennessee either. So I had to do a little sleuthing online. The other odd thing about this curious creature is the partial shell it carries on its back. A remnant of its evolutionary past?

Ultimately, I came to believe that the mysterious yellow slug was
Testacella haliotidea, or "earshell slug," a shelled slug that's an air-breathing, carnivorous land slug (They live underground and eat earthworms). T. haliotidea is native to the Atlantic Coast of Europe and Great Britain and the western Mediterranean, imported into this country accidentally, or we assume it was an accident.

Online I have found it mentioned only in California, Oregon and Pennsylvania. But perhaps it's here in the Volunteer State as well.

Does anyone know? Do we have any mollusk experts out there?

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Crossville Library

Thank you to my good friends at the 
Crossville Art Circle Public Library!

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

eaglets fledge

Tony King's eagle nest: 17 March 2012

"The bald eagles of Lenoir City fledged three good looking juveniles on Mother's Day (of course) May 13, 2012," writes KTOS's Tony King. "They are still flying to and from the nest tree after resting in between flights. Their parents have successfully raised 15 eaglets in the seven years we [Tony and Denise] have known them."

I first visited the nest in early March with Tony and again a week later with a group from Ijams. That's when the above photo was taken, three fuzzy, gray nestlings laying in a pile in the center of the nest after a rainy Saturday morning. They were huddled together to stay warm.

In early May, Eliot and I went back again to see the nest and discovered an almost full-grown trio ready and eager for their first flight.

Historically, bald eagles were not in the Tennessee Valley, they lived in West Tennessee: Reelfoot Lake, Land Between the Lakes, etc. But, starting in the 1980s, young eagles have been released every year on this side of the state. Now, there's successful nests on all the lakes and many of the rivers. 

A young eagle spends its first four or five years roaming, seeing the country fancy-free, but when it becomes sexually mature and molts into its adult plumage, it usually returns to within 75 miles of its first flight to find a mate and claim a nesting site.

For the complete story of bald eagles in Tennessee, look for my book Natural Histories.

Thanks, Tony for all your updates!

Three eaglets watching for their parents. 7 May 2012.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

summer arrives

Summer tanager! This is one bird well named. The only species in North America that is entirely RED—the color of fire engines, Santa Claus, valentines, cinnamon Red Hots—and, indeed, they are here in the summer.

In my state, they're more common in the western half but some nesting does occur in East Tennessee. Mostly in open woodlands of varying types.

Last week, they were in the oaks and hickories around my house. They're call is very similar to the scarlet tanager but to my ear, louder and harsher, usually including one phase that sounds like "peanut butter."

And I love peanut butter. So what's not to like about this bird?

Here's another wonderful Lang Elliott video. The first two scenes are mostly the intense agitated "pik-i-tuk-i-tuk" calls. But hang in there. The third scene has the song with the "peanut butter" phrase:

Wednesday, May 16, 2012


What is the number one killer of birds in this country? Is it hunters? Or perhaps cats?

Well, actually it’s neither.

It’s estimated that hunters kill roughly 15 million waterfowl a year. Hunting season is carefully managed and it is only legal to kill game birds in season.

Cars may kill 60 million birds annually. 

Collisions with high-tension lines may kill up to 174 million birds per year. And it’s estimated that domestic and feral cats may kill as many as 500 million birds per year.

BUT, the number one killer of birds is the seemingly benign panes of glass we all have in our homes and office buildings. Yes, glass. It’s estimated that window strikes perhaps kill as many as 976 million birds a year. That’s almost one billion!

A bird doesn’t see the glass but rather the reflection of the sky. It flies into an illusion (I think many of us are guilty of that) but for a bird, it often breaks its neck.

What can you do? Place decals, tape strips of ribbon, dark paper hawk silhouettes or some other object on the surface to let a bird know that there is something more there than meets the eye.

The above photo is of an indigo bunting that flew into a window and paid for the mistake with its life. Holding and seeing the deep blue bird up close made its death all the more tragic.

Do you have a problematic window? If you would like a couple of hawk silhouettes to tape to the glass, send me a S.A.S.E. (business size) to 2915 Island home Avenue, Knoxville, TN 37920.

Monday, May 14, 2012

a magnolia that's not Southern

A rather haughty
Alexander Wilson

Magnolia warblers are another oddly named species. With an appellation like Magnolia, you'd expect them to be rooted in the Old South, land of live oaks and Spanish moss; red clay and cotton; creasy greens and collards, but actually they spend their winters in the Caribbean and Central America and their summers in New England and Northern Canada. That is where they raise their families, most often in dense stands of conifers. (Spruce warbler would have probably been a better name.)

They do migrate through the environs of See Rock City barns twice a year, but their time here is brief, like a mote of dust floating through a sunbeam. Seeing one is memorable; the males are especially striking. Their songs on the other hand are weak and wispy, often I'm sure I do not even hear them. The mnemonic to remember their song is "weta, weta, weta, WETA" but that really should be written
"weta, weta, weta, WETA."

And the odd name? We can blame the so-called Father of American Ornithology, Alexander Wilson himself. He shot one in a magnolia tree in Mississippi in the early 1800s and named it after its last known address.

I guess we are lucky it wasn't standing on the top of one of our fine old southern 19th century outhouses, or the name might have been something completely different.

Eliot phoned again the other night to let me know she had seen her first male Magnolia in the trees around their apartment and was quite pleased she knew what it was. "It looked like happiness," she said.

Here's another excellent video by Garth McElroy that shows happiness passerinified:

Sunday, May 13, 2012


For Mother's Day, when I was around ten-years-old, I picked my Mom a bouquet of oxeye daises. She oohed and aahed and I got major pointage. Thus, a family tradition was born.

And almost every year since, I've taken her more daises, fistfuls, jars full, by now, probably several thousand oxeyes have graced the table by the picture window in the livingroom of the house I grew up in, the house she still lives in, the house that holds all my childhood memories that go back to Kennedy's Camelot. 

At some point, after completing college and getting a real job, daises seemed too cheap a gift, so they were replaced with a dozen pink roses.

"Where are my daises?" She queried, almost incensed!

"Oh, Mom, it just didn't seem right to just bring flowers I collected along the roadside. A little too Tom Sawyerish. You deserve more," I returned. "You're my Mom. I've grown up."

"But, I liked knowing you had made the effort; cut 'em yourself," she replied. "I like the hand-picked ones."

"OK. I understand, I'm not THAT grown up. It's the thought that counts and all that."

And the tradition continued as one decade gave way to another to another. In this, I remained a ten-year-old.

Some years, it was a real scramble because oxeye daises were only beginning to bloom by mid-May. But this year, probably yet another sign of climate change, the yellow-centered composites—the "he loves me, he loves me not flower"—began blooming three weeks ago and most have already come and gone. But, not all.

This morning, in the rain, along John Sevier Highway, I found enough fresh ones to make a modest, albeit damp, bouquet. The tradition lives on and another fistful was successfully delivered.

Happy Mother's Day to all Moms, especially you Mary Helen.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

to the moon and back, Alice!

Apollo Moon Tree grows at 
Sycamore Shoals

In the summer of 1953, Stuart Roosa took a job as a smokejumper fighting wildfires in Oregon with the U.S. Forest Service. In addition to an affinity for heights, he soon developed a love of trees. Roosa’s courage eventually led him to become an Air Force test pilot, which caught the attention of NASA. In 1966, Roosa became an astronaut, a job that would take him farther away from terra firma than a smokejumper ever gets.

On January 31, 1971, Roosa along with Alan Shepard and Ed Mitchell were aboard Apollo 14 when it launched from Cape Kennedy on its way to the moon. Tensions were high. It was the first mission since the near disaster of Apollo 13 the previous April, but this time, all went flawlessly.

In those days, each astronaut was allowed to take along a few personal items affectionately known as PPKs (Personal Preference Kits). Usually they were small mementos: stamps, coins, family photos. On this flight, Shepard took two famous golf balls that he smacked around the lunar surface with a makeshift six-iron. 

Because of Roosa’s love of trees he took a small metal canister filled with hundreds of tree seeds. Working with the U.S. Forest Service’s Stan Krugman, their crude experiment was simple enough: Would seeds taken to the moon sprout back on earth? Would the weightless journey alter them or would they germinate and grow normally?

Krugman, staff director for forest genetics research in 1971, chose the seeds: redwood, loblolly pine, Douglas fir, sweetgum and sycamore.

Apollo 14 launched 31 January 1971
In space, the seeds stayed with Rossa while he piloted the command module Kitty Hawk around the moon 34 times. Shepard and Mitchell took the lunar lander Antares down to the surface on February 5 spending 33 hours on the moon collecting 94 pounds of rocks.

Back on Earth, the Roosa’s tree seeds were sent to forestry labs in Mississippi and California, where much to the delight of everyone involved, most of them germinated. 

One of the seedlings, a sycamore, made its way to Elizabethton in Carter County where today it grows, safe and protected, inside one of the region's oldest forts....

For the rest of my article about the Moon Tree at Sycamore Shoals look for the May/June 2012 issue of The Tennessee Conservationist.

(For the complete story of the Apollo 14 moon tree, Sycamore Shoals and sycamore trees themselves look for my first book Natural Histories.)

Friday, May 11, 2012

3 blooming at Ijams

Carolina spider lily (Hymenocallis caroliniana)

Three curious wildflowers now at Ijams: spiders and pears.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

rosie passing through

Rose-breasted grosbeak. Photo by John Harrison.
I received three or four phone calls at the end of last week about these curious black, white and red birds being seen in the callers' yards. Unlike warblers, these birds were chunky and not fidgety. They'll let you have a good long look.

One call was from Nancy Tanner, who is noted for once seeing another black, white and red bird: the ivory-billed woodpecker, back in December 1941. Nancy knew what she was looking at 70 years ago in the Singer Tract, and she knew exactly what this modern day backyard visitor was as well. 

"A rose-breasted grosbeak spent ten minutes at my feeder," she said, still ecstatic by the visit. "What a perfectly lovely bird!"

Indeed. Here's a bit of birdsong captured by the master of such capturing, Lang Elliott.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

a sad rumpus

As the famous cover suggests, there's a monstrous sadness in our hearts today.

Maurice Sendak, writer and illustrator of children's books, passed away yesterday. He was 83 years old. Born in Brooklyn, New York in 1928, his perennial classic  Where the Wild Things Are won the 1964 Caldecott Medal as the "Most Distinguished Picture Book of the Year," but it goes way beyond that honor. The tale has firmly established itself as a great American classic.

It was one of the first children’s books to deal with a child’s dark emotions. Max (King of the Wild Things) is sent to his room without his supper for behaving wildly—he chased the dog with a fork while in a wolf suit. (Max was in the suit, not the dog.)

In his room is where the mischievousness really started. 

“And now,” cried Max, "Let the wild rumpus start!" But for the first time, we have to put on our wolf suits and do the wild rumpus without Maurice. 

His work will live on. 

In the fall, if I encounter a hickory horned devil 
in the woods of East Tennessee, 
I always think of Sendak. I don't know why.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012


Northern parula, photo by by Dan Pancamo

Eliot phoned last night to report that a wave of Northern parulas were in the trees around their apartment yesterday afternoon.

Parula simply means a member of the family Parulidae, (par-you-LIE-dee), i.e. New World wood warbler, an American group that is not related to either the Old World warblers or the Australian warblers. Fact is, someone got it wrong, they are not warblers at all. Go figure.

On an artist's palette, parula blue is a grayish blue that is redder and paler than electric blue, greener and paler than Copenhagen blue.

Its Latin name, Parula americana, was given to it by Linnaeus himself in 1758.

Even though they do not warbler, Northern parulas do have an interesting song, it's something like a clicking trill that ends with a definitive zipppppp-pa!

Here's a snippet of video taken by Garth McElroy:



Sunday, May 6, 2012

Thoreau's passing

Henry David Thoreau's grave, I visited last June

150 years ago today:

Henry David Thoreau, naturalist, author, Master of Walden, died on this date: 6 May 1862. He was only 44-years-old.

At the time The New York Times reported, "He was on talking terms with the oaks. The aspen forgot to tremble in his presence, the mimosa to shrink at his approach."

Emerson said "Never saw a man dying with so much pleasure and peace." 

To be on Henry's side of Walden Pond, is to be at peace. His famous cabin was located nearby. Click Thoreau's Cabin. 

That would be me, knee-deep in Walden Pond

Friday, May 4, 2012

out my window

Just outside my office window at Ijams, there’s a sweetbay magnolia (Magnolia virginiana, if you are into the Latinized appellation). It's now in bloom, wonderful perfect blooms like the creamy calcite alabaster prized by the Ancient Egyptians, luxurious and fragrant. Yet another reason I should take the time to look out of the window more often.

The sweetbay was the first magnolia scientifically described. (Not the tree outside my window, but another one much older.) It was the first species assigned to the genus Magnolia named in honor of French botanist Pierre Magnol. That first sweetbay was found by missionaries sent to North America in the 1680s, of course, the Native Americans knew of the trees long before that, they just did not see the need to shackle the poor thing with such a cumbersome moniker.

It’s also a tree with a bit of an identity crisis, is it deciduous or evergreen? Actually, it’s both depending on where it grows. It’s evergreen in areas with mild winters in the south, and it's semi-evergreen or deciduous further north.

- Photo taken just outside my window at Ijams Nature Center

Thursday, May 3, 2012

passing scarlet

Yesterday, I was working on my car in the driveway when I heard it in the canopy of oaks high overhead.

It was the unmistakable raspy voice—as raspy as Kim Carnes singing "Bette Davis Eyes"—of a scarlet tanager. They do not stay in my valley long, but just pass through like a brightly-dressed troupe of performers on the road to another venue higher up in the mountains.

And in this case, "Frankly Scarlet, we do give a damn."

- Video by Lang Elliott.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Tennessee Moth Enthusiasts

Cecropia Moth (Hyalophora cecropia)

Thoreau wrote, "There is elevation in every hour, as no part of the Earth is so low that the heavens may not be seen from it."  

Even if that hour is in the early a.m.

And in this case, I am thinking about those spectacular nocturnal lepidopteran...the moths!

Butterflies get all of the attention. They're colorful, active during the day and often seen against a backdrop of flowers. They just flutter-by giving us a brief look, a brief ooh and aah.

On the other hand, moths are active at night, often small dressed in earth tones but as the FaceBook group the Tennessee Moth Enthusiasts is documenting, they are uniquely spectacular in the own right. Here's an album put togther by my friend from Oak Ridge, Kris Light. Go to: 

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

first of May

The dappled sunlight of an early morning. Leaves dancing. Fluttering. Waking up to greet the new day as the world begins to rub the sleep out of its eyes. Just one of ten thousand thousand days. No two alike. The primordial pageant.

The child within, living in the moment, that sacrosanct point in space and time, as Peter Matthiessen tells it:

“In his first summers, forsaking all his toys, my son would stand rapt for near an hour in his sandbox in the orchard, as doves and redwings came and went on the warm wind, the leaves dancing, the clouds flying, birdsong and sweet smell of privet and rose. The child was not observing, he was at rest in the very center of the universe, a part of things, unaware of endings and beginnings, still in unison with the primordial nature of creation, letting all light and phenomena pour through. Ecstasy is identity with all existence…”

Happy First of May. Enjoy the day.

- Quote from "The Snow Leopard" by Peter Matthiessen