Tuesday, April 30, 2013

new wren time

Spring brings new life! And there are nascent wrens in the valley, flying about, learning how to be wrens.

Once known as "Troglodyte de Caroline" by the French in the New World, I watched the first fledged clutch move around my yard yesterday. A parent Carolina wren with at least three juveniles in tow, begging for food. 

With these ubiquitous wrens, it takes roughly four days for the male and female to build the nest, often near or on our houses. After the eggs are laid, both parents take turns incubating for 12 to 16 days, the nestling phase takes another 10 to 16 days. Once they fledge—fly away from the nest—the young ones follow mom and dad for several days learning how to be Carolina wrens: where to take a bath, roost, find food and what to be afraid of, although I'm not sure that these little dynamos are afraid of anything.

Locally, a pair of wrens may have three broods a year, which sounds exhausting, and probably is, but you would never know it because these smallish brown birds are high energy, always on the move. Always spunky. Always singing.

One researcher counted and a single herky-jerky Carolina wren sang its song 3,000 times in one day.

Ijams staff member Rex McDaniel, took the above photo of a wren that had nested next to his air conditioner window unit. 

Sunday, April 28, 2013

grosbeaks by the score


This has been a great year for rose-breasted grosbeaks passing through the valley to points farther north.

Every day for ten days they have been at my feeders. The first few days only males, sometimes three at a time, then females.

Wow! What a sight. Love those bleeding red bibs.

Henry David Thoreau wrote in his journal on May 24, 1855: “Hear a rose-breasted grosbeak. At first thought it a tanager, but soon I perceived its more clear and instrumental—should say whistle, if one could whistle like a flute; a noble singer, reminding me also of a robin; clear, loud and flute-like; on the oaks, hillside south of Great Falls.”

For more about their life history, go to: grosbeak.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

peaceful canoe outing

Mead's Quarry Lake at Ijams Nature Center

Thank you to all who joined me early last evening for a gentle paddle around Mead's Quarry Lake. The end of day tour of the 25-acre accidental lake—man made, a by-product of the quarrying operation that ended at the site in the late 1970s—was an Ijams Nature Center family program. For information about our May offerings and outings go to: Ijams events

Even though it was overcast, the conditions on the water were ideal. Placid and peaceful.

Here's a brief five-second video.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

royal cerulean blue

Cerulean Warbler. Wiki photo by mdf

The Royal Blue Unit of the North Cumberlands Wildlife Management Area is not named in honor of the cerulean warbler but it's appropriate to think so. It's one of the few places the sky-blue passerines still nest in North America. One of the very few.  

The cerulean is the fastest declining neotropical migrant songbird, with its overall population dropping quicker than any other warbler species in this country. Its population in 2006 was less than one-fifth of what it was 40 years before.

Monday, I accompanied Tiffany Beachy and Lee Bryant to Royal Blue, specifically to several plots she monitored from 2005 to '07, as part of her cerulean warbler field research under the tutelage of Dr. David Buehler with the University of Tennessee.

Beachy, the Citizen Science Coordinator at
the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont, is currently monitoring Louisiana waterthrush in Walker Valley as part of a citizen science project. She's a superb birder with an ear for nuance, the way a mother hears the sighs and moans of her infant in the crib two rooms away. Today, her field work on the cerulean is over but she still likes to keep in touch with the Royal Blue. You do not spend three years of your life with a living thing and not develop a strong bond. 

After Beachy, UT doctoral candidate Than Boves continued research in Royal Blue and elsewhere. For information on his work, go to Boves.  

Despite the scars from logging and coal mining, the Cumberlands are beautiful the way a rumpled unmade bed is beautiful and cozy. And the most beautiful things in the rolling mountains are the lively, colorful pixies: the redstarts, the ceruleans and the hoodeds, to name a few.

On Monday, getting to the preferred habitat of the enigmatic canopy-loving warbler was an adventure in itself. The old logging roads in the tract are only roads in name only. They're more like bumpy, rutted washouts eroded from years of rain and big wheels, with exposed rocks as large as mama sows laying in mud. And just as obstinate. We bounced up slope in a beast of a truck of our own. It's the only way unless you are prepared to walk all the way to the crest.

Large-flowered bellwort, blue cohosh plus yellow, white and red flowered trillium were just beginning to open their blossoms along the way.  

With the zany yellow-green of spring of the valley left behind, we soon found that the ridge tops still looked more like winter. Bare branched. 

"Yes! You are so beautiful!" Beachy exclaimed when she heard her first cerulean sing its buzzy song.The first she had heard in months.

She was pleased to find three male ceruleans claiming various portions of one special ridge in Plot 3 as their territory. The female ceruleans will have to make choices of their own as soon as they return.

Oh, the wonder of it all!

For more about the cerulean warbler, look for my upcoming new UT Press book:  
Ephemeral by Nature

Primo territory already claimed by one male cerulean
on top of ridge before leaves appear
Watching a cerulean warbler from rock outcropping
Old logging road that is only a road in the most general
bumpy, rutty sense of the word.
Lee Bryant and Tiffany Beachy

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

finding frog eggs 101

Looking for frog eggs with young Burke.

Thank you to those who attended our Frog Walk last Saturday night. We found eggs, tadpoles and adult frogs. And heard half a zillion—more or less—spring peepers peeping.

It must be spring.

     Frogs and toads found at Ijams Nature Center throughout the year.

      American Toad (Bufo americanus
      Cope's Gray Treefrog (Hyla chrysoscelis)
      Spring Peeper (Pseudacris crucifer)
      Western Chorus Frog  (Pseudacris triseriata)
      Bullfrog (Rana catesbeiana)
      Green Frog (Rana clamitans)
      Pickerel Frog (Rana palustris)
      Southern Leopard Frog (Lithobates sphenocephalus)
      Eastern Narrowmouth Toad (Gastrophryne carolinensis)

-Photo by Vickles Pickles

Monday, April 22, 2013

Thank you, Herndon

Visitor Center at Tipton-Haynes

Special thanks to the good folks with the Herndon Chapter of the Tennessee Ornithological Society (TOS) in the Tri-Cities. Last Friday evening, I spoke about my book Ghost Birds, the story of Jim Tanner and his search for ivory-billed woodpecker in the late 1930s. 

Jim Tanner, 1937
After his Cornell/Audubon field research through the Southern swamps 1937-39 and the completion of his dissertation at Cornell, Tanner accepted a teaching position at East Tennessee State University (then known as the Tennessee State Teachers College) in Johnson City only a few miles from where I spoke. Tanner soon became a member of TOS, joining the Herndon Chapter in 1941. After his time in the US Navy during World War II, Tanner began his teaching career at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.

Our evening meeting was held in the Visitor Center at the Tipton-Haynes State Historic Site in Johnson City, Tennessee.

Thank you, Roy, Rick and Dr. Fred.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Outdoor Knoxfest 2013

Outdoor Knoxfest hikers. Mead's Quarry in background.
Photo by Elle Colquitt

Thank you to all who joined me yesterday morning for the nature hike at the Ijams quarries—Mead's and Ross Marble—looking for birds, blooming wildflowers as well as the unique geology of the area. 

We visited both quarry pits and discussed the quarrying operations that occurred there between the late 1800s and 1970s. Both locations are now part of Ijams' 300-plus acres and are located on the Knoxville Urban Wilderness South Loop.

The mid-morning hike was part of this year's Outdoor Knoxfest 2013. For a list of today's activities go to: Outdoor Knoxfest.

For more information about the Knoxville Urban Wilderness South Loop go to: Map.

OKF hikers at the bottom of Ross Marble quarry pit.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

thinking of home

Ahhh, spring and the return of oceans of luxurious color. The azaleas are beginning to bloom.

From the Greek “azaléos” meaning dry, azaleas are generally found in dry soil. A shrub often linked to the Old South, North America actually has at least 16 species of native azaleas found coast-to-coast. Often they are divided into three groups: the whites, the pinks and the reds-to-orange.

But azaleas are also found, even revered around the world. In China, the azalea is known as "thinking of home bush" (xiangsi shu), while the flowering shrubs are often immortalized in Chinese, Japanese and Korean poetry.

And now a bit of homespun haiku:

Azalea flower
explode the red in my heart.
Springtime's passion.

Friday, April 19, 2013

most perfect refreshment

"To sit in the shade on a fine day and look upon the verdant green hills is the most perfect refreshment."

- Jane Austen (1775-1817) English novelist

All of the trees in the Tennessee Valley seem to have unfurled their new leaves at the same time; the lovely fresh yellow-green of spring is everywhere you happen to look or sit.

Indeed, the most perfect refreshment for my tired winter-gray eyes, which brings to mind another woman of literature. Like the Baby Suggs character in Toni Morrison's novel Beloved, my eyes were hunger for color. The past two days, I've been drinking so much of it, I'm now drunk with color. 

Oh, the bliss.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

proud fathers

Rose-breasted Grosbeak (Pheucticus ludovicianus)

File this under "Good Fathers" as opposed to the "Bad Dads" that I blogged about two weeks ago.

Rose-breasted grosbeaks are passing through the valley, visiting our birdfeeders. Tired from their long flight across the Gulf of Mexico, they pause to refuel on their way to their breeding grounds to the north and in the highest elevations of the Great Smokies and Cumberland Mountains of East Tennessee. 

Their name obviously comes from the red "bleeding" bib of the males. The females are streaky brown but here's the odd thing. The exception to the rule. 

As a general guideline in the bird world, if the male is a bright color and the female more subdued, then she is camouflaged to sit on the eggs and he avoids the nest not wanting to draw attention to the hidden clutch. 

Coming soon! My new book.
But oddly, according to the folks at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, for several hours during the day, the male rose-breasted takes a turn incubating the eggs. That's proper paternity. The female incubates the rest of the day and all night. Both male and female sing quietly to each other when they exchange places on the nest. That's harmony. And even more surprisingly, perhaps proud to be a papa and risking detection by the local Cooper's hawk, the male sometimes sings his normal song at full volume on the nest. And grosbeaks are robust singers, not wispy like warblers.

Perhaps I am being a bit anthropomorphic, but such concerns are becoming passé since there are clear connections between us and all the rest. The line between human nature and animal nature is proving to be artificial, i.e. man made, a way to separate ourselves from the natural world we feel too superior to be a part of, yet pride cometh before the fall. And in this case, the fall is inevitable.

Be that as it may, isn't the following a good description of proper fathering skills? And how many human fathers do you know that simply do much less and leave their young ones to fend for themselves.   

Not the male grosbeaks.

They help feed the young after they hatch, after which, the mated pair often have a second brood. If so, mom builds the new nest while papa tends the young from the first brood preparing them for independence singing all the while.

That's a proud papa.

And his song? It's often described as robin-like but more intense.

Monday, April 15, 2013

heft a gill for luck

It seems that everywhere you happen to look there is something historic in bloom. Ahhh, but that’s spring.

Glechoma is a low-growing, creeping ground cover in the mint family. I took the photo at Ijams Nature Center of it growing along the Universal Trail.

Native to Europe and southwestern Asia but introduced to North America, glechoma has now become common in most regions other than the Rockies. Its regional folk names include creeping Charlie, catsfoot, field balm, run-away-robin, ground ivy, and, perhaps the most widely used and my personal favorite, "gill-over-the-ground." But again a natural historian's query: What’s a gill?

Here’s one for my friends in the UK. The term can be traced back to the Saxons. They used the plant in brewing beer as flavoring, clarification and preservative, before the introduction of hops for the same purposes; thus the brewing-related name “gill-o'-the-ground.”

A gill was an unit of measurement as indicated by the chorus from the very old drinking song, “The Barley Mow,”

“Oh the quart pot, pint pot, half a pint, gill pot, half a gill, quarter gill, nipperkin and the brown bowl. Here's good luck, good luck, to the barley mow.“

That’s just great. But what’s a nipperkin?

Sunday, April 14, 2013

order from chaos

"Seeing clearly in a chaotic situation is the means by which an artist becomes a participant and gains control. It is the difference between a ship sinking or sailing in rough seas. I cannot change the force, but I can be witness to it. The intention is not to tame the chaos but to tap its energy," writes British environmental artist Andy Goldsworthy in his book “Stone.”

All of our lives fall into chaos from time to time, our workplaces become unbearable, loved ones become ill, but somehow we endure holding tight to the tiller.

In the case of the ethereal work pictured above, Goldsworthy looked at a section of the forest floor in the autumn, saw the haphazard, higgledy-piggledy disarray of the fallen elm leaves and rearranged them, creating something of amazing cosmic beauty.

Thus poising the proverbial question: Do we live in a random, chaotic universe or one of truly sublime order?

Friday, April 12, 2013

got sass?

Sassafras is in bloom but the flowers hardly garner a second look. It’s the other parts of the tree that get all the attention.

The roots are steeped to make sassafras tea and, once upon a time, they were used in the flavoring of root beer that is until the FDA banned the practice because lab tests with animals seemed to indicate large doses of the active ingredient safrole could damage the liver or cause certain kinds of cancer. I assume today, root beer gets its flavor from artificial sass.

Does anyone know a lab rat I can ask "Where do you get your sass?"

The dried and ground leaves of a sassafras tree are used to make filé powder, a spice used in some types of gumbo, Creole and Cajun soup/stew.

But the flowers? Well, they come in handy for making other sassafrases.

- Photo taken in Hardin Valley.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

coated in pollen

Scanning electron microscope image of various grains of pollen

Pollen. Pollen. Pollen.

Don't you just love it? Hard yellowish grains—so tiny you need a scanning electron microscope to see them—often covered with barbs or spikes or hooks or razor wire or shards of glass, that's pollen. They look like the morning star flails the medieval knights used and the hard prickly cover helps the pollen stick wherever it lands. It also protects the sperm cell hidden inside. 

It’s estimated that 35.9 million Americans have pollen allergies, so I’m not alone. Every spring we get together and have a party in the antihistamine aisle of our local pharmacy.

Plants have a big problem when it comes to reproduction: the males and females cannot cozy up to one another. Cozying leads to canoodling which makes reproduction easier. Perhaps you've already noticed. But since plants are stationary, how do the male pollen grains and the female egg cells get together? 

There's a serious lack of canoodling in the plant world. Somehow they need help. Basically, either a creature like an insect carries the pollen from male part to female part or the wind transports the pollen.

If a tree has a showy flower, like a dogwood or apple, then they rely on insects. 

Generally, this pollen doesn’t bother most allergy sufferers because it’s heavy and sticky in order to bond itself to the insects’ bodies. It doesn’t float around freely for us humans to inhale.

The trees that rely on the wind for pollination, like the maples, birches, cedars, hickories, oaks and pines, do not have showy flowers. They don’t need them. These trees have to produce tons of tiny, lightweight, barb-covered pollen grains because the wind is a sloppy messenger. It’s actually quite messy.

It is estimated that a single male flower—called a catkin—on a birch can produce 5.5 million grains of pollen. And, there can be thousands of male catkins on a single tree. If you do the math, that's roughly a double quad-zillion grains of pollen per tree with a zillion being defined as an extremely large, indeterminate amount. Most of the pollen seems to find either my car, turning it yellow, or my sinuses, turning them achy.

Or perhaps locally they land in Norris Lake to float harmlessly downstream to the Mississippi.

A yellow wave of pollen on Norris Lake.  Photo by Don Bickers.

Thanks, Lynne, Don.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

thank you, Tremont

Special thanks to the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont, a great, great, great environmental education center with a long, rich history.

Last evening I spoke to an adult group there about Ghost Birds: Jim Tanner and the search for the ivory-billed woodpecker in the 1930s. A bird of the southern swamps in the shadows of the Smokies. My two worlds collide.

Thank you, Jeremy, Mary, Tiffany, Lee and Casey for making me feel so welcome.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

to the power of three

A slow-growing perennial, lemon scented
yellow trillium (Trillium luteum)
create colonies that increase 
in size over the years and decades. 
This colony is growing along the Universal Trail at Ijams.

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 with a sense of longing the way Orson Welles says “Roooooosebudddddd” in the closing scene of 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—
white, yellow, purplish or even maroon—on the flower itself.

Friday, April 5, 2013

deadbeat dads

Interesting ceramic figurine, but bad natural history.
Only the male ruby-throated hummingbirds
have ruby throats,
but no male ever, ever, ever cares for the young.
The females do all the work

With April finally here—and maybe even spring—the migrating pixies, ruby-throated hummingbirds, will soon return to our yards. Some will stay and nest, but most will move on to breeding grounds farther north.

The three-gram, little dynamos are remarkable, amazing, miraculous ... whatever descriptor you want to use, pile them on like whipped cream on pumpkin pie. Most folks love the iridescent ruby red throat feathers. But only the males are so flashy, the white-throated females get much less attention.

This is an injustice because the females do all the work. 

Forgive me for what I am about to report.

You can read every book available on these feathered jewels and there is one word you simply will not find on any of the pages. Fatherhood.

Ruled by their own self-interest, the blustering ruby-throated males are bad fathers. When it comes to being there, when the young hummers truly need them, they are "in absentia."

The females alone build the complicated nests—chiefly out of spider silk, plant fibers and lichen. The females also lay the eggs (generally always two), do all the incubation, feeding, and after the young fledge, it's the moms that care for the young hummers and teach them how to survive the perils of life. The fathers are, once again, in absentia.

Often the females go through this difficult family-rearing process twice a season, raising two broods alone because, you guessed it, the fathers are A.W.O.L.

Without the hard work of Mom, the family, population, species would go extinct. Dad's contribution to the survival of the species is so small—a single cell—it takes a microscope to see it.

And just what are the bellicose fathers doing all this time? 

Self-absorbed, their gorgets flaring, they defend a perceived rich source of nectar, chasing away all other males and females. Occasionally, they leave their home turf attempting to mate with as many females as possible, but are generally shunned by most they approach. Old fools. The females are too busy being mothers.

However, nature has a sense of justice. In humans, narcissism comes at a cost. You die alone. 

Reveling in his overinflated, self-importance, ultimately the haggard red-throated male finds himself all by himself, bedraggled. The older, alpha male falls from power. According to hummingbird expert Bob Sargent, "By the end of the breeding season, the males are ragged and undernourished. It is no accident that, on average, females tend to live one or two years longer than males."

Paterfamilias? Not here. Not the ruby-throats. They ducked out the backdoor like most other deadbeat dads.

Fatherhood is a responsibility, not a convenience.

For more galling stories of poor paternity skills, look for my upcoming new book titled Bad Dads: Deadbeat Daddies in the Animal Kingdom

Shame on you guys. The world doesn't revolve around you! 

Cover photo by Kabir Bakie.    

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

the night shadows

Shouted secrets.

And now that spring-like weather is returning, 
so is the sound of spring peepers.
Oh, the secrets of the ponds,
 though all of them are not whispered, some are shouted.
Peepers are small, the size of the end of your thumb,
but their peeps are loud and large, like a riot.
 They're primordial, from a time when all life was 
wet and new and secret, hidden in the shadows.

But it's a tale of two worlds, one wet and one dry.
And how can we know their secrets, 
when we do not even know our own.
"A wonderful fact to reflect upon, that every 
human creature is constituted to be that 
profound secret and mystery to every other,"
writes Charles Dickens in 
A Tale of Two Cities.