Monday, July 30, 2012

frog for breakfast?

One advantage of working at a nature center is, well, the nature that greets you in the morning. Some times it's even a barred owl perched on a bridge railing watching the pond below. 

It may have been waxing poetic: enjoying the early morning mist as were all we, or, I suspect, it wanted to catch a last minute snack before its night of hunting ended. (I always like a glass of milk before I trundle off to bed. Amphibian flesh would be a bit exotic for my own personal taste, especially raw and still kicking. I suppose I might be open for frog fricassee, but the sauce would have to be right, nothing too heavy before bedtime.)

Barred owls are mostly nocturnal and crepuscular (active at twilight). Come to think of it, I'm a bit crepuscular myself.

They prefer woods near water and feed on a wide variety of prey, including mice, moles, voles, shrews, rats, squirrels, young rabbits, insects and aquatic creatures like small fish, turtles, frogs, snakes, lizards and crayfish.

The small pond the owl was watching is a great place to find frogs. And even though several of the nature center’s staff got photos of the early morning owl, it didn’t seem to mind posing. It's a lucky thing that we are not frogs.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

in plain sight

Ruby-throated hummingbirds are marvels of bioengineering.

The very fact that these little dynamos even exist and build nests and lay eggs and migrate to Central America like other birds is miraculous, but miracles can be small and capricious, even fanciful.

Hummingbirds tend to hide in plain sight. A mote of dust that pass before our eyes at speeds to swift to comprehend. People often ask, "How do I find one of their nests?" I answer, "It's not easy." You need luck and keen eyesight. The nests are small and the trees they blend into vast.

As an example, I received this remarkable series of photos from Tina Heath. Finding the nest in the first photo is not easy but it's there in plain sight.

Tina e-mailed, "My son and his friend discovered that we have a hummingbird nest in the tree behind our house. There was a nest in the same tree a couple years ago, but I never found one last year. They are so tiny and flit around so fast that I was amazed to catch this picture of it in flight. They always seem to build their nest in this tree which hangs out over the water, but not very high up in the tree. These pictures are misleading because they are blown up. The nest is really about the size of a walnut!"

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Bach aria

It's late. 

Long, long, lonnnnnnnnnnnnng day, so we'll close it out with a little Bach, aah there will always be Glenn Gould and Bach.


Wednesday, July 25, 2012

mannerist thrashers

I was on my way to a friend's house for my favorite: tofu and pesto, blue cheese and lettuce sandwiches—ooh là là—when a brown thrasher ran across the road in front of my car.

It didn't hop, or use its wings, it sprinted like a roadrunner. Quick and true. Straight and purposeful. I stopped to watch and realized how beautiful the brown and spotted birds are, long and lean to the point of being almost elongated like the paintings of the Mannerists—Raphael, Michelangelo—of the High Renaissance.

Thrashers generally stay hidden in the understory. Reclusive, though not taciturn. With the largest song repertoires of any North American bird, up to 2,000 phrases or "strophes," they do not get the credit they deserve; all the attention goes to their cousins the loud, boastful mockingbirds, the true mimic thrush braggadocios. (But don't tell them I said such.) 

- Recent thrasher photo by Wayne Mallinger. 


Friday, July 20, 2012

spy poison

Castor oil plant (Ricinus communis)

Recently I came across a list of the top ten poisonous plants and...YIKES!... number one on the list is a plant I sometimes see growing along our Tennessee roadsides. I found one a couple of weeks ago, stopped to photograph it and, quietly, quickly, respectfully, walked away. When it grows in a local meadow, farmers cut down the plant immediately to protect their livestock. (It's reported that
four seeds will kill a rabbit, five a sheep, six an ox or horse, seven a pig, eleven a dog but it takes 80 to kill a duck. Hardy little cusses aren't they.)

Castor oil plant is native to the Mediterranean Basin, Eastern Africa and India, but somehow it found its way across the Atlantic. 

The laxative castor oil is made from the beans (seeds really, they only look like beans) but production of the old-time medicinal is not without risk because the large seeds are so toxic. 

The toxicity of raw castor beans is due to the presence of ricin, a naturally occurring protein. It's lethal if ingested, inhaled or injected. A dose as small as a few grains of salt can kill an adult, although cases of humans being poisoned are relatively rare unless you are a spy (click Georgi Markov).

For more information, go to: top ten poison plants

Wednesday, July 18, 2012




Riddle me this: What has 36 legs and faints at the sign of trouble?

I like spiders and stinkbugs and lumpy-bumpy toads, but I do not have an aversion to cuteness. Case in point: My friend Sue Wagoner from Aurora, Illinois sent me this email with two delightful photos attached.

Sue writes, "One early morning as I was getting out of bed, I looked out my second story window and saw a 'possom in my neighbor's yard. Knowing where her den is (entrance to which is in my yard), I grabbed my camera, raced outdoors in my bare feet and nightgown and just as she was passing behind some wonderfully handy shrubbery, I positioned myself for when she emerged. To my surprise she had eight passengers, which I had not noticed before."

"It took two shots to see all the little guys hanging on for dear life, but if you count the pairs of ears in the shot (where you don't see mama's face) there are indeed eight! (She never noticed me.)"
I am in the midst of suburbia so I am hoping for the best for her and her babes in this rather indifferent (or worse) environment," Sue concluded.

Every time I begin to believe that I have it rough, I'm reminded that somewhere else, someone or something has a more difficult row to hoe than I, like having to carry eight babies on your back. 

Female 'possums have a life expectancy of about three years. During that short time on earth, starting when they are only six months old, they can have three litters a year. Do the math. 

Oy vey. Oh, the pain!

Monday, July 16, 2012

Ijams to host KTOS Hummer Fest

Hummingbird Fest

They are small, active and everyone’s favorite bird to watch in late July.

Join members of the Knoxville Chapter of the Tennessee Ornithological Society (KTOS: a local club that H.P. Ijams help establish in 1924) at the nature center for the second annual Hummingbird Festival, Sunday, July 29: 1 to 5 p.m.

There will be a hummingbird banding demonstration by bander Mark Armstrong, talks by hummingbird experts Bob and Martha Sargent about the tiny birds’ life history, and Chris Mahoney about favored backyard plants that hummers love.

Free admission to the vendor fair (arts, crafts, food, plants) and bargain barn (new or gently used bird and nature related items); $5 admission to the banding demonstration and indoor talks. 

Children under six free. All proceeds go to KTOS and the Ijams education department.

Sponsored by KTOS, Wild Birds Unlimited and Ijams Nature Center. 

To register call (865) 577-4717, ext. 119

Saturday, July 14, 2012

rollin' on the river

Star of Knoxville: paddlewheel

Two weeks ago, I posted a story sent by Bob and Lynne Davis about barn swallows flying around a moving riverboat—the Star of Knoxville—as though they had nests somewhere on board, below deck, hitching a ride.

Recently, Bob managed to work his way underneath, near the paddlewheel and found two nests. So, the parent swallows made multiple trips up and down the river over a two month period, staying in touch with their clutches.

Sing with me now: "But I never saw the good side of the city, 'Til I hitched a ride on the Star-of-Knox-Ville. Big wheel keep on turnin'. Proud Mary keep on burnin'. Rollin', rollin', rollin' on the river." 

Two swallow nests that moved hither and thither

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Pale Male

My friend Wayne is something of a bird whisperer. Whenever he's outside, especially with a camera, birds present themselves. Recently, he got this great shot of a red-tailed hawk in flight.

Red-tails mate for life, but will find a new partner should an old one die or goes missing.

How long do they live?

Perhaps the most famous red-tail in America is Pale Male that claimed Central Park in New York City in 1991. His mating history has been watched closely by dozens of birders for two decades. Pale Male has out-lived six different female hawks: First Love, Chocolate, Blue, Lola, Ginger and Lima. (Two have died from eating poisoned rats, one hit by a car, one disappeared after 9-11, the fate of the other two is unknown.)

In all, Pale Male has fathered and fed over 20 young hawks (known as eyasses), two last year. Today, remarkably, he is over 22 years old and, to my knowledge, is still in and around the Big Apple.

Can my New York friends verify this? 

- Photo by Wayne Mallinger

Tuesday, July 10, 2012


Morning coffee with an eastern towhee hopping through the yard, although I have him fooled. He keeps remarking "drink-your-teeeeeaaa." And we all know that we have not been big tea drinkers in this country since the Boston Tea Party. (The Continental Congress actually passed a resolution against the consumption of tea. "Tea must be universally renounced," wrote John Adams to his wife in 1774.)

So, as a nation, we've been coffee drinkers ever since. We might want to modify the towhee mnemonic to be "drink-caw-FEEEEEEE."

When I grew up, this bird was known as the rufous-sided towhee, but that changed in 1995 when it was split into two species. In my half of the country it became the eastern towhee; in the west, it's now known as the spotted towhee. The two ranges meet in the middle: Kansas, Nebraska, etc. where they can hybridize. Then are the hybrids "rufous-sided towhees"?

Be that as it may. In 1731, famed naturalist Mark Catesby encountered the bird on his historic trip through the Carolinas back before there were any Holiday Inns or Stuckey's. In fact, fast food was something you had to shoot, skin and fricassee. It took awhile. Catesby gave the bird the familiar name "towhee" honoring the its call note: a rather loud whistled, "TOW-heeeee."

Sunday, July 8, 2012

moth or beetle

"Endless forms most beautiful," wrote Charles Darwin. So much so that sometimes, one comes into being that looks very much like another.

What appears to my eye to be the orange and black 
end-band netwing beetle (Calopteron terminale) could be the moth, leaf skeletonizer (Pyromorpha dimidiata). 

Any help out there? 

Photo by Rex McDaniel. 

Friday, July 6, 2012

Owl and Woodpecker


This summer, the Frank H. McClung Museum, on the campus of the University of Tennessee, will be hosting a photo exhibit "The Owl and the Woodpecker" by wildlife photographer Paul Bannick.

Ijams Nature Center is partnering with McClung to present a series of programs that are owl and woodpecker related.

Join me on:

Saturday, July 7, 10 am: Creating a Bird-friendly Yard with owls and woodpeckers in mind

Sunday, July 8, 2 pm: Ghost Birds: Jim Tanner and the Ivory-billed Woodpecker presentation at McClung Museum

Saturday, July 14, 2 pm: WalkAbout: Searching for Woodpeckers along the Third Creek Greenway

Saturday, August 11, 10 am: Woodpeckers and Owls of Tennessee program at Ijams

Saturday, August 25, 9 pm: WalkAbout: Owls and Woodpeckers of Seven Islands Wildlife Refuge 
we'll meet at Seven Islands, but please register first.

To register for any program call 577-4717, ext. 110. No registration required for Ghost Birds talk at McClung Museum.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

last great auk pair


Great auk pair by John James Audubon

On this dubious date: July 3, 1844. 168 years ago today. The last recorded pair of great auks were strangled to death protecting their nest.

The last known colony of great auks lived on Geirfuglasker—the Great Auk Rock—off Iceland. This islet was a volcanic rock surrounded by cliffs which made it inaccessible to humans (that was a good thing), but in 1830 the islet submerged after a volcanic eruption, and the birds moved to Eldey, a nearby island, which was accessible from a single side. 

When the colony was initially discovered in 1835, nearly fifty birds were present. Museums and collectors, desiring the skins of the auk for preservation and display, quickly began collecting birds from the colony. 

The last pair, found incubating an egg, was killed there on July 3, 1844, with Jón Brandsson and Sigurður Ísleifsson strangling the adults and Ketill Ketilsson smashing the egg with his boot.

And that was it for the great auk.

Forgive me. This story is gosh awful!

Sunday, July 1, 2012


HOT. 105°. Highest temperature ever recorded in Knoxville and we hit it two days in a row. (Old record 104° set in July 1930.)

Too hot to think of anything clever, so we'll just listen to some music from Lady Ella with the three octave voice and artwork by contemporary American artist with an eye for the retro: Josh Agle, a.k.a. Shag.

Happy Birthday Sis. You had a hot one!