Thursday, February 28, 2013

early nester

File this one under: Early signs of spring.

Last Friday, I watched a Carolina wren gather nesting material and carry it to a box on my front porch. It was February 22.

Carolina wrens will nest practically anywhere: a box on the wall, only four feet from my front door, is always used by these strident singers with the white racing stripe. Our comings and goings do not deter them one iota. They're in your face. It's their house—Damn it! Damn it! Damn it!

They are the least shy nester we have in the Tennessee Valley, not afraid of people and their noisy lifestyles and 30-year mortgages. These wrens nest on our porches, windowsills, mailboxes, bluebird boxes, our parked trucks, why if you leave your garage door open for 48-hours they nest in there as well. They love that old blue Maxwell House coffee can on the top shelf half-full of nuts and bolts. That’s just perfect. Good to the last drop. 

Both the male and female build the nest, quickly, an elaborate fluffy affair made out of scrapes of leaves and moss. 

It's also generally believed that this species mate for life with the coupled pair remaining near each other all year, a very unusual behavior for a small songbird. 

The return of winter we are feeling this weekend may slow them down, but probably not for long.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

flesh and blood

COMPLETELY UNRELATED: "Beside a singin' mountain stream, Where the willow grew, Where the silver leaf of maple, Sparkled in the mornin' dew, I braided twigs of willows, Made a string of buckeye beads; But flesh and blood need flesh and blood, And you're the one I need, Flesh and blood need flesh and blood, And you're the one I need."

The late, great Johnny Cash was born on this date: 26 February 1932. Here's a link: Flesh and Blood.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

image of perfection

It's hard to think of a bird from our part of the world more beautiful than the cedar waxwing. And when you look at this photo by Deb Green recently sent to me of a waxwing in an American beech, you must surely agree. Her image has a lovely, soft painterly quality, like a Japanese watercolor.

This warms my heart. I haven't seen a waxwing in awhile, but that's the way it is with the species: they come and go. Nomads, that fly in and spend the day on a tree, eating all of its berries and then they move on. Within their range, they can appear anywhere there are ripe fruits, and if it happens to be too ripe and starting to ferment, waxwings can eat themselves drunk. I've never seen an inebriated waxwing but one boon of the species, you really never just see one, it would be a drunken party like college kids on spring break at Daytona Beach. 

The golden birds travel in small groups enjoying the company of other waxwings. Collectively, a flock is known as a "museum of waxwings." (A group of crows is called a murder, hummingbirds come in a charm, and a flock of retail shops is called a mall.)

The intensity of a waxwing's yellows and reds depends on what fruits they ate the season before. The quality of their intoxication depends on the berries' alcohol content.

Thanks, Deb for sharing your image of perfection.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Rose Glen 2013

The fourth annual Rose Glen Literary Festival is tomorrow 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 meet-and-greet runs from 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.

Special projects facilitator, Carroll McMahan with the Sevier Chamber of Commerce is the event creator and organizer.
This year, Ijams' own Paul James and I will speak at 10 a.m. about nature writing. Dr. Bill Bass is the keynote speaker at the luncheon. And, of course, everyone will be selling and signing their books.
Join us.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

powerful visions

Jimson weed seedpods, a.k.a. thornapples

Even in winter, there's mischief about. File this one under "witches' weeds."

Admittedly, these ripening seedpods, know as thornapples, look dangerously foreboding. Darn-it-all scary, if you ask me. But, they come in handy if you want to go on a trip but cannot afford an airline ticket.

Consider this a WARNING!! Watch out for the genus Datura, i.e. "could kill you." Most parts of the plants in this group contain toxic hallucinogens, and have a long history of use for causing delirious states and death. 

For centuries, Jimson weed (Datura stramonium) has been used as "a mystical sacrament which brings about powerful visions—lasting for days—and opens the user to communication with spirit world." 

Hello Jimmy Hoffa, just where are you?

The ancient inhabitants of what is today central and southern California "used to ingest the small black seeds of datura to commune with deities through visions." 

We're talking the portal of Gozer kind of paranormal and "Who ya goin' call?" The Ghostbusters have retired. 

Across the Americas, other indigenous peoples including the Tennessee/Carolina Cherokee "also utilized this plant in sacred ceremonies for its hallucinogenic properties."

But seriously, don't try this at home. Buy the plane ticket!

Jimson Weed

Monday, February 18, 2013

The Bluebird Effect

The Bluebird Effect: Uncommon Bonds with Common Birds by Julie Zickerfoose is a jewel. There is a lot about this book that I admire.

A) The author's artwork! Zickefoose's sketches, illustrations and paintings of birds are remarkable. If it were just a book of art, we'd be richly rewarded.

B) Her writing style is personable, she leads with her heart, her stories flow like friends sitting around a front porch swapping their bird remembrances.

Zickefoose writes, "In the early 1980s, I spent six weeks in Newfoundland, and I hiked its cool, rocky paths on what passed for summer days—in the fifties, with a fine rain falling. The heady scent of balsam rose around me whenever the sun dared peer out. The wistful songs of white-throated sparrows—stronger now, not wavering, since the birds were on breeding grounds—seemed the perfect aural embodiment of the aroma of fir: sweet, elusive, nostalgic, and intoxicating." 

And finally, C) The uncommon bonds. And this probably goes to the heart of what it is to be a birder. As an avocation, birding is a lifelong passion. A lifetime of garnering information, little clues. You can read all the books, attend classes and workshops but ultimately each birder spends long solitary hours in the field with heightened senses, pulling together the pieces, the sounds, the flashs of color, the awareness of surroundings, the Thoreauvian attentiveness, the sensitivity to the season.  

As Zickefoose's writes, "Learning about birds, for me, like piecing together a puzzle that lasts a lifetime. I chase down their songs, one by one, spurning audio recordings in favor of hearing that song coming from an open bill. I pick up and store random fragments of information: bits of songs and calls, foraging and breeding behavior, flight style, bathing behavior. I piece them together in memory until I begin to see the bird take form. I may never be granted an entire image, but occasionally I have an interaction with an individual that grants an unusual and unexpected insight, a glimpse into the imponderable."

Birding is a lifetime of private epiphanies spent out-of-doors, far from the madding crowd. And what better place to be? Hours and hours and hours and a thousand a-ha moments. 

In a word, birds are wondrous: they fly, sing and come in a Crayola Crayon boxful of colors. They can be found any and everywhere. Any day is a good day to go birding, a good day to refine your awareness, tweak your radar. 

But, here is the extra verve Zickefoose brings to the table. As a licensed bird rehabilitator, a self-confessed "compulsive nurturer," her firsthand observances are far more intimate than ours can ever be. The birds we see in the bush, she has seen in her hand, often sick or wounded, at their most vulnerable. When they let down their guard. 

Having nursed numerous individual birds back to health and raised many, many more nestlings to their fledging into the wild, Zickefoose has gotten to know individual personalities, create uncommon bonds. This is some of what she shares with us: her 15 year relationship with a broken savannah sparrow that refused to give up his wildness; a limp-winged orchard oriole that still longed to migrate throwing itself against the bars of its cage; a white turkey vulture totem; and a one-on-one bond with a wild ruffed grouse that followed her like a spaniel on her walks through the woods, plus there's her long hours of being an avian mama: her playing parent to orphan teenie-weenie-weenie hummingbirds and chimney swifts. (Is this even humanly possible?) 

"I live for the moment," writes Zickefoose, "when my gaze meet's a bird's—that exchange of awareness of the 'who' in each of us, the spark of understanding leaping from the bright bead of its eye to mine."

This is why I admire this book so. Because of the life that Zickerfoose has lived, she's talked-the-talk and walked-the-walk and—thank goodness—through the pages of this book, shared the stories. Bravo!

Thank you, Janet Lee for your gift. As usual, you were spot on!

Friday, February 15, 2013

House & Garden Show

Join us at the Dogwood Arts House & Garden Show at the Knoxville Convention Center:

Friday, February 15, 11 a.m. 
Urban Gardening: No Space too Small to Grow
Want to have a garden but have limited space? So, you don't have an acre for a garden, well, guess what? You don't need it. Join Ijams green thumb Peg Beute at the Home & Garden Show for this program filled with creative ideas for gardening with minimal space. How to take advantage of your porch, railing, condo space or apartment window and grow some herbs, veggies or flowering beauties year around! No registration necessary.

Saturday, February 16, 4 p.m.   
20 Common (But Interesting) Backyard Birds 
There may be many more birds in your backyard than you realize. Join Ijams naturalist Stephen Lyn Bales at the Home & Garden Show for a look at 20 common species, where to look for them, how to ID them, attract them and provide for their basic needs. No registration necessary.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

why birds?

"Any given day, up to four hundred billion 
individual birds may be found 
flying, soaring, swimming, hopping, or 
otherwise flitting about the earth. 
That's more than fifty birds for every human being, 
one thousand birds per dog, and at least a 
half-million birds for every living elephant. 
It's more than four times the number of 
McDonald's hamburgers than have ever been sold."

- from Feathers by Thor Hanson

And indeed, that's a lot of birds, 
roughly 10,000 species worldwide,
out there, each and every day 
for us to watch, take solace in, be enamored by,
and there is perhaps nothing more emblematic 
of the absolute joy of being alive than a bird.

Oh, to be in the rainforests of New Guinea
to see this superb one dance!

Friday, February 8, 2013

clean-up crew

When they pronounce a thing dead, it's dead.  

"Ni su'cuyi, gar kyr'adyc, ni partayli, gar darasuum," in the Mandalorian tongue of "Star Wars" speak.

Ever vigilant, they're drawn to death; have an eye for it. Yes, that's a vulture. When a death occurs, they move in like a group of staid morticians, clothed in ebony. Solemn. Nodding their heads in agreement. It's time to do their job. Begin decomposition. Nature's clean up crew, patrolling the highways, removing roadkill. 

Some studies estimate up to one million animals are struck and killed every 24 hours in this country. Dogs. Cats. Raccoons. Opossums. Deers. Squirrels. Groundhogs. All are fair game, so to speak, if they inadvertently venture out onto the asphalt.

Driving back from Hiwassee, Shearwater and I encountered a procession of black vultures strolling across Blythe Ferry Road. We stopped the car and paid our respects. Dearly beloved. This time it was a big job, a white-tailed deer. Going to take awhile. Don't mind us.

Thank goodness we have vultures, or it would get messy out there. 

NOT FOR THE SQUEAMISH! Recently, Ijams volunteer Rex McDaniel caught a black vulture just doing its job: cleaning up the road. (If you are an opossum, this could be kin.)

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

white-headed what?

You might think that mature bald eagles were the only white-headed birds in East Tennessee.

But Sarah Risdahl from Morristown has one. She sent me this photo of this odd, mystery bird coming to her bird feeder. Blackish body, white head. Definitely not in any of her field guides. No, sir. Not there.

But if you take out your imaginary terra cotta (number PC944) Prismacolor pencil and color in the white head, voila, you get a brown-headed cowbird.

In birds, albinism is somewhat rare, perhaps only one in 1800 individuals. Some are solid white but the most common form is termed partial albinism, only part of the bird's body, such as certain feathers, are lacking the pigment melanin. I once wrote about a crow that had a single white feather on one wing.

An albino snowy egret would be difficult to discern, yet I suppose it is possible.  

Monday, February 4, 2013

grisly death scene discovered

Imagine you are a least shrew scampering through the curried remains of last year's hayfield. Nonchalant. Minding your little rodent business, out for a lark. Your golden fur helps you blend into the dried grass.

Now imagine, if you will, a songbird that thinks it's a raptor, with all the inherent intenseness of the skilled hunter, a blood-thirsty carnivore looking for fresh meat.

The two will soon meet. One will die. It's kismet. 

The bird resembles a mockingbird, just not as sleek, not as musical, larger-headed with a short hooked bill to rip apart flesh and shrew sinew. It even has similar mockingbird coloration except it sports a black mask like a bandit or Zorro or the Dread Pirate Roberts.

Grisly death scene at New Market
But, the odd thing, the Hannibal Lecter thing, that separates it from other native raptors besides its small size is that this songbird does not always eat its kill but rather has the macabre behavior of storing away its overage by impaling it on tree thorns or the sharp barbs of a barbwire fence. 

Then that's the scene. You've just imagined the world of loggerhead shrike

Last week, Shearwater and I went searching for the shrike that had been reported along US-11E in New Market. And after awhile, realizing we were not going to find it, decided to search for any sign that it had been there. 

"Vlad the impaler has been here," said Shearwater.

Within a minute, we began to find the impaled corpses of small rodents along the fence row; the grisly larder of a very interesting songbird. Treat it with respect. 

ATTENTION!! If you are a quarter-ounce least shrew (Cryptotis parva), study this video by Argent Savannah very carefully. This is what to watch out for. Be forewarned!

Saturday, February 2, 2013

what shadow?

(File photo: Are you kidding? Real groundhogs are hibernating
underground at this time of the year!)

7:44 a.m. Overcast. 21 degrees. No shadows. Forecast calls for rain, freezing rain, snow, sleet, light mix hold the olives. 
Groundhog Day! The one and only holiday dedicated to a rodent, that is unless you count the Old World "Bludgeon a Rat Day" but there was a plague going on.

All eyes turn to
Punxsutawney, PA, or rather nearby Gobbler's Knob. Never in the history of humankind has such a shy, reclusive beastie been pushed into the national spotlight. And we all know the truth: Groundhogs don’t show themselves this early in the season. Especially in PA. Especially when it's snowing. It’s too cold. 

Would you leave your warm den unless you were yanked out of it?

Free Punxsutawney Phil! He’s a reluctant hero, drafted into duty. It’s reminiscent of General William Tecumseh Sherman, who so famously said when he was asked to run for president in 1884, “I will not accept if nominated, and will not serve if elected.” 

As Dirty Harry once said, “It’s a wise man, who knows his own limitations.” Sherman did. Most men don’t, they blunder through life until someone tells them the game is over. Turn in your keys. Go somewhere and hibernate, which brings us back to the topic du jour.

End the charade. Give
Punxsutawney Phil a break. Let him sleep in. Spring is six weeks away, period.

In truth, in my part of the world, the groundhog is the biggest sciurid (I didn't make that up—it's the large rodent family that includes prairie dogs, marmots and squirrels). The bashful groundhog—also known as a woodchuck—hibernates through the winter. It's safe. It's warm. It's protected. Some do start stirring from their slumber in late February but it’s not to make a long-range weather forecast. Mostly it’s the solitary males looking for female groundhogs receptive to visitation and c

Cherchez la femme, pardieu! Cherchez la femme!

It's been an odd, whirling-dervish kind of winter and we are only halfway through it. And we all could use a little companionship.