Thursday, May 30, 2013

no longer a greenback

Herons lack the restlessness of most birds. They're patient, deliberate in their movements. Easy to observe.

Here in the Tennessee Valley, small green herons are a summer species that migrates to Central America in the winter.

The green heron was once collectively lumped with two other closely related species: the striated heron of the Old World tropics and South America and the lava heron (a.k.a. Galápagos heron) that’s endemic to the Galápagos Islands off Ecuador. All three fell under the collective term "green-backed heron,” formerly believed to make up a single species Butorides striatus. Today, they are considered three separate species. Score one for the spliters.

I suppose we should be glad we’ve cleared up the confusion, although I imagine that the three heron species knew the difference all along.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

field works

After two days of field work—in as much as we spent most of the time in two local fields several miles and over 2,000 feet in elevation apart—looking for the birds that inhabit the edges around them: chats, buntings, cardinals, towhees, warblers, grosbeaks.

Fields nurture the soul. They're open and spacious, good to holiday and laze around in. Think Monet, "Les Coquelicots à Argenteuil."

There's this lovely juxtaposition: this sense of vastness and intimacy. People are not suited for cages, we evolved in the open where we could hide in plain sight. See far and imagine plenty. Think Monet, "Woman with a Parasol."

You want to get naked, sloth off civilization, the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, and metaphorically you do. Fields are expansive. There's an observable sigh, a loss of tension.

Perhaps this is why we so admire the birds, they represent this untethered freedom, tied to nothing earthbound. Blue sky and slow moving clouds and birds. A hallelujah chorus with the choir in feathered robes.

One species very common and vocal in both fields we visited was the pink-billed field sparrow (Spizella pusilla).

No real surprise except they are listed as number 9 on Audubon's list of Top 20 Common North America Birds in Decline, having lost an estimated 68 percent of their overall population in the past 40 years due to habitat loss. We found them but they are disappearing from other places.

Perhaps we are turning our fields into something they shouldn't be...cages.


Monday, May 27, 2013

settle down and wait

“Happiness is a butterfly which, when pursued, is always beyond our grasp, but which, if you sit down quietly, may alight upon you.”

- Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864) American novelist, short story writer

Find a sit spot. Occupy it and enjoy the holiday, waiting for whatever life presents. If a butterfly and/or happiness lands on you, go with it. 

Sunday, May 26, 2013

scarlet treasure

Vickie's fast photo of the hide-away tanager

This outing was with a group from Ijams. We were walking along a new very forested section of the Knoxville Urban Wilderness South Loop. Our goal was to find and count as many birds as possible but were very soon completely captivated by one songster high in the canopy. One persistent singer.

It sounded like a scarlet tanager, but this late in the season? How could that be? These SCARLET RED and black neotropical migrants passed through last month when the leaves were not quite unfurled. I heard several weeks ago, and then they were gone.

I pondered: "What else sounds like a scarlet tanager? And would be in South Knoxville in late May?"

In time, we overruled my reluctance and decided that yes indeed it was a late-season tanager, a slow poke, a bringing up the rear, timid to move on yearling. Who knows?

Several in the group had never actually seen one and wanted us to find it but that can be a challenge when you're on the forest floor and the bird is high overhead in the canopy, you can't see the forest dweller for the forest trees.

After over an hour of listening, maneuvering and craning our necks, we finally located the tardy tanager briefing, eating caterpillars in a flowering walnut tree. It was brief, but all got a good look and my dear friend Vickie Henderson even managed to take a few very quick photos before the wayward neotrop disappeared once again.


If we all had magically been made 70 feet taller, whisked from the Lilliputian to the Brobdingnagian, this is what we would have seen at eye level. 


Saturday, May 25, 2013

it’s chemical

Goodness knows I’m not practical. 

If I were I’d find another job that paid more money and I’d eventually grow up.

I’d also stop staring off into space pondering this and that. But, I think, taking time to ponder things is a lost art. We just need to slow down, take a deep breath and ponder a bit. We're much too busy scurrying about like lemmings and, you know, I get the sense there's a cliff up ahead.

Precisely because our human world makes little sense, I’m in awe of the natural world because it does. Nature is remarkably practical. You ask a simple question and you get a simple answer.

An aside: A naturalist is someone who believes in the doctrine that the world can be understood in scientific terms or someone knowledgeable about natural history, especially botany and zoology. (A naturist is a person who practices nudity because they think it is healthy and a naturist naturalist is someone that ponders the world naked. But don't they get cold? And what about poison ivy?)

Three days ago I wondered why new leaves are a lighter, chartreuse green. (Thousands of people seem to be wondering why Lindsay Lohan can’t hold it together, and me, I’m pondering leaf color. Go figure.)

It turns out new leaf green is chemical. With plants, most things are. At first, leaves are yellow-green because they're filled with chlorophyll a, which is a lighter pigment and reflects more light. Later in the season these leaves create darker chlorophyll b. Darker colors absorb more light. When the canopy of leaves is finally complete, many of the little carbohydrate-making factories find themselves in the shade of other leaves, so they have to produce more chlorophyll b to turn darker, so that they can absorb more light to aid in photosynthesis.

On the same tree, the leaves in full sun at the top of the tree are lighter than the leaves in the shade at the bottom.

Now, I may have to climb a few trees to check this out but let's hear it for chlorophyll a! Lovely, chartreuse chlorophyll a.

Friday, May 24, 2013

true or false

Solomon's Plume
This magnificent woodland wildflower, Smilacina racemosa, (if you play the Latin version of Scrabble, these are two great words) I learned as False Solomon's Seal and it is closely related to Polygonatum biflorum or True Solomon's Seal. 

But who's say which one is true and which one is false, they both look straightforwardly true to me. And the one is not trying to imitate the other. So today most naturalists refer to this one as Solomon's Plume because it produces a plume/raceme of white flowers at the end of the stem. The other, known simply as Solomon's Seal, produces greenish-white tubular flowers arranged in pairs, dangling from the stem like Japanese lanterns.

But one is no less true than the other.

Solomon's Seal

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Ghost Birds reviewed

Vol. 81, #1, 2013

Alauda is the journal of the Société d'Études Ornithologiques de France published by the Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle.  

In their most recent issue they reviewed Ghost Birds. Here's an excerpt:

"Cet ouvrage est écrit dans un style très vivant.  Il relate avec moult détails la vic? quotidienne et la quête scientifique d'un ornithologue conscient des le début de son entreprise que l'espèce charismatique qu'il a choisi de connaitre est vouée a disparaitre sous ses yeux. 

Ses efforts pour alerter les autorities et tenter de sauver l'espèce n'ont pu aboutir dans le contexte difficile de la second querre mondiale et a un moment ou il etuit sans doute déjà trop tard. Voila un récit a lire et méditer sur l'itinéraire d'un ornithologue de XX siècle captive pur une espèce dont lu disparition récente témoigne de la brutalité avec laquelle notre propre espèce truite la nature." 

- Jean-Marc Pons

I am so honored. And my French teacher, Mr. Jones, back at good old Gatlinburg-Pittman High School would be so shocked. N'est-ce pas?

Thanks, Gene!

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

pleased t' METCHA

On this day, the smallness of a thing: a diminutive warbler five inches long, weighing .34 ounce, was almost overwhelmed by the bigness of the place. Almost.

It's easy to see that in a setting as dramatic as a high mountain meadow in a storm, the place could so overshadow its inhabitants, even when those that live there are dramatic in their own right. Flighty and energetic. Splashed with pure Crayola crayon color straight from the box.

As the clouds rushed past and settled into the valley below, we began hearing a wispy song, light and ephemeral like the misty fog itself.

"Pleased, pleased, pleased to METCHA"


It took quite awhile to pinpoint the song, and even then, it was hard to draw a bead on its source because it was constantly moving; here and there, there and here.

Chestnut-sided warblers nest in the high elevations of East Tennessee generally between 3,000 and 6,000 feet. They like being near heath balds or disturbed areas—openings in the forest caused by fire or blight or man-made cuts like high mountain meadows or clearings left by loggers.

Chestnut-sideds like to build their nests just a few feet off the ground in blackberry brambles, blueberry bushes or young tree saplings. 

They were quite suited for the edges of our lost ridgetop grassy bald, even in a storm and they are just so pleased to METCHA.


Monday, May 20, 2013

back of beyond

Eliot listening for warblers, redstarts

Birding the back of beyond—to borrow a phrase from Kephart himself—lost on a gravel road somewhere in the mountains, in the high elevations above 3,000 feet where the clouds go to scratch their bellies.

Misty and damp, rain fell everywhere but our lost ridgetop, perhaps we were above it all, perhaps we didn't care. We were lost on an afternoon of discovery.

And the birds, the high mountain nesters, did not disappoint.

Bali Hai, in the middle of a foggy sea

Lost road to nowhere important but everywhere sacrosanct
Karen Sue looking for roadside ginger

Pleased, pleased, pleased to MEETCHA, Mr. Chestnut-sided!

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Who was Cassin?

Rounding out the solitary vireo complex is the third species that is found in the far west: Pacific Northwest south to Mexico and Central America.

If you imagine the blue-headed vireo with yellowish-green flanks and then the plumbeous vireo without, then the intermediate form with just a little yellow on its sides is the Cassin's vireo.

But, this begs the question: Who was Cassin?

Most have heard of John James Audubon and many know the name Alexander Wilson. Both had similar goals: finding and drawing all the species of birds that live in this country. Wilson's nine-volume American Ornithology (1808–1814) contained 268 species of birds, 26 of which had not previously been described. Audubon's The Birds of America, (1827–1839), considered the finest ornithological work ever completed, had 497 bird species with Audubon identified 25 new species.

John Cassin
But neither man spent much time, or any time, west of the Rockies. That's where Cassin enters the picture. 

John Cassin (1813–1869) was America's first taxonomist, describing 198 birds not previously mentioned by either Wilson or Audubon. Cassin's widely distributed publications include Illustrations of the Birds of California, Texas, Oregon, British and Russian America (1856), a handsome octavo volume depicting 50 species not described by John James Audubon.

Cassin's vireo is named in his honor, as well as are Cassin's auklet, Cassin's sparrow, Cassin's kingbird and Cassin's finch. 


Friday, May 17, 2013


Plumbeous vireo (Vireo plumbeus) Photo by Jerry Friedman

As a footnote to yesterday's post: What does plumbeous mean? 

(PLUM-be-us): adj. having a dull gray color like that of lead, the color of lead. Blue-gray. 

And indeed, the plumbeous vireo, more or less, lacks the greenish-yellow flanks that are down the sides of the blue-headed vireo. So the two are similar but different enough genetically to now be classified as separate species. The plumbeous range is limited to the southern Rocky Mountains and Great Basin, consequently, I've never seen one. 

Of course, as Ben Nanny is quick to point out, I've never seen a painted bunting either (and he has). But that will come.

For more, go to: plumbeous vireo.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

solitary complex

Blue-headed Vireo (Vireo solitarius) Photo by Dominic Sherony

Not as flashy as the wood warblers, the vireos are often overlooked. And for them, it's not for the lack of trying; they sing constantly, over and over, all day long. Song phrase after phrase, "I'm up here. See me, see me. Can't you see? Take a look. Darn pretty am I."

Growing up, I learned this bird as the solitary vireo, but in 1997, the AAU rethought the sweet thing. Because of new molecular data, what once had been one species coast-to-coast was split into three seperate, now known as the Solitary Vireo Complex. (Solitary with a complex, sounds serious. When it comes to IDing a bird, the very word complex sends a shiver down my spinal column to my coccyx.)

But don't sweat telling the three apart, the one here in East Tennessee, blue-headed vireo, is also the one most common and widespread of the three. The other two are listed as uncommon and both occur out west: Cassin's vireo (Pacific Northwest) and plumbeous vireo (Rocky Mountains south).

The prominent field marking they all share is those great Elton John Goodbye-Yellow-Brick-Road spectacles circa 1973. 

Last Sunday, we (Karen Sue, Eliot, moi) found several blue-headeds along a gravel road high in the Cumberlands. Leaves were just unfurling at that elevation and the birds were setting up territories, we assume rather proud of their real estate.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

rescued frog eggs

Tiffany Beachy and Lee Bryant point to frog eggs in 
swallow dry depression that had once held water

Letting nature take its course is not always an easy thing to do. 

Especially when you find a mass of frog eggs drying out in the sun. The temporary vernal pool their mother had chosen had dried up and with no rain in the forecast, the eggs would have dried out soon as well.
Wood frog (Rana sylvatica)

So you ask yourself, "Do I leave them alone and let nature take it course? Or do I try to move them to a nearby pool of water that might last long enough for them to hatch."

Luckily, one of us had an empty Ziploc bag, so we relocated as many as it would hold to a wetter locale downslope.

Due to the size and location of the eggs and the coolness of the season at that high elevation, I suspected they were the eggs of a wood frog. But that's only an educated guess.

The species is noted for being an upland forest-dwelling amphibian that breeds primarily in ephemeral, freshwater wetlands and woodland vernal pools. They are also noted for being long-distance migrants.

Perhaps this one traveled a bit too far upslope. 

The moral of the story? Always carry an empty sandwich bag, you may need to save a couple hundred lives.

- Photos by Tiffany Beachy

The embryo tadpoles inside were still alive
Yet, another use for a Ziploc plastic bag.
Rescued eggs returned to water

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

space odyssey

When we were mere puppies, we saw Stanley Kubrick's futuristic 2001: A Space Odyssey in Cinerama on the big screen at the Capri 70 Theater on Kingston Pike.

And now, thank goodness I've lived long enough to see this, Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield aboard the International Space Station.

Open the pod bay doors, please HAL.

Monday, May 13, 2013

straight from the heart

Growing up in East Tennessee, WBIR-Channel 10 was always on in our house. My memories go back to Doc Johnston, Rex Rainey and then Carl Williams. They were the people that first brought us the local news and weather.

WBIR has been one constant in my life, in part, because more than just covering the region's newsmakers, Channel 10 has chosen to put considerable effort into shining the light on just regular folks: common people doing uncommon things, or uncommon people doing common things. Doesn't matter, if they are interesting. While others focus on the dark side, 'BIR shines light on the lighter.

Particularly since adopting the Straight from the Heart philosophy, WBIR has turned its cameras on its neighbors: first with Steve Dean's The Heartland Series and then Live at Five (now at Four) and Positively Schwall and today features like Your Stores, Homegrown and Namesake. Over the course of the past thirty years I feel I've gotten to know everyone that lives anywhere nearby. And they're good folks.

They are pros at Channel 10 at making ordinary people seem extraordinary. WBIR could do a segment on an old brown shoe and make it seem like the most interesting old brown shoe you'd ever seen. Last week, they made this one feel like a Birkenstock. 

A straight from the heartfelt thank you to reporter Abby Ham and photo-journalist Jerry Owen for their most recent  Your Story, well, really it's my story. 


Sunday, May 12, 2013

owl alert

Barred owls are seen frequently on the trails at Ijams Nature Center. They seem to have very little fear of the many visitors who are lucky enough to see them. This one was spotted by participants in a nature writing exercise yesterday afternoon. He did fly away, but I went back after 5:00 and he had returned to the same perch he occupied before.

The next nature writing workshop at Ijams will be Saturday, June 15 at 2 p.m.

- Story and photo by Rex McDaniel 

Friday, May 10, 2013

to be a dove

"Two mourning doves flew down. Indescribable softness of color, pink over grey; the shape of doves is maddeningly beautiful. Their feet were pink in the moss. They have tiny little heads. Their descent, awkward, nervous, twittering, is a disaster more than a descent. Their rising is labored and noisy. They are so slow only their extreme nervousness saves them. But beautiful—oh, beautiful—dove grey, dove rose, dove blue, and the exquisite lines of their stupid little heads."

– From "The Inland Island" published in 1969 by Josephine W. Johnson, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1935 at the age of 24 for her first novel, "Now in November."

Thursday, May 9, 2013

outrageous crows

American crows are clever. They're also opportunist omnivores. They'll eat anything. 

The ebony Heckle and Jeckles feed on invertebrates—insects and spiders—of all kinds, also carrion, garbage scraps, seeds, nuts, mice, frogs, etc, etc. Whatever is available. I've seen them fly from a robin's nest carrying a sky-blue egg. I've also watched them feed on orange, powdery cheese puffs by the side of the road and periodical cicadas by the belly full.
Finicky they are not. Crows are human-like in their appetites; they would eat escargot, calamari and/or pâté de foie gras marinated in Cognac, which is more than I could say for myself. 

The other day I saw a crow burst from a tree flying lickety-split with a limp, dusty gray nestling dangling from its bill. In hot pursuit was the parent mockingbird to no avail. The crow with its meal got away.

OUTRAGEOUS! Kill the monster! You say. But what if the crow only snatched the helpless nestling to feed its own helpless nestling?

Is the survival of one more important than the survival of the other? 

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

fetidly macabre

Pawpaw is also in bloom. Its blossoms have an odd color, one reminiscent of meat past its prime. But in this case, the tree's fetid flowers (also known as carrion flowers) have an odor to match. They smell foul, something like rotting meat. This is because pawpaws and other plants with such smelly blooms employ the malodorous strategy to attract a certain kind of discriminating insect. They are pollinated by blowflies or other scavenging flies and beetles.

Since pawpaws like to grow near water, I thought it might be appropriate to end with something from the Master of the Macabre himself:

“A sombre yet beautiful and peaceful gloom here pervaded all things ... the shade of the trees fell heavily upon the water, and seemed to bury itself therein, impregnating the depths of the element with darkness."

- From "The Island of the Fay” by Edgar Allen Poe. Photo taken at Forks of the River Wildlife Management Area.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

strong bonded

"One Native American story holds that if one cardinal dies, its mate isn't long for the world either, for their spirits are joined forever. They are two bodies but one spirit," writes Jon Young in his book What the Robin Knows.

Young says that their bond is so strong, a mated pair of Northern cardinals is rarely separated by more than 30 yards or so, "chipping" companion calls throughout the day, keeping in touch with each others movements within their claimed territory.

Karen Sue saw a male cardinal feeding a female at the feeder, perhaps sealing the deal on the pair's bond.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

hit the ground running

Hit the ground running, that describes a young killdeer.  

Leggy like their parents, killdeer hatchlings are precocial, able to see and forage and perhaps run a four minute mile soon after hatching. Once their feathers dry, they are good to go.

While at my bank yesterday, I noticed an adult killdeer scampering around the vacant lot next door. Once the home of a car wash nestled between two banks and a four-lane highway, today the building has been razed and all that's left is small chunks of concrete and broken bricks.

I thought it would be a great place to find a killdeer's nest. They are shorebirds that really don't need a shore, when heck, a flat roof top, gravel driveway or vacant lot will do. They are masters at improvising. The inland plovers are also minimal nest builders, just a shallow depression is all they need. But I was a little late. The nest site was empty and three young juveniles were scurrying about with their two parents.

Depression just below center produced three young killdeer.

Friday, May 3, 2013


Why a thing is how it is, is often a mystery.

And looks can be deceiving.

That's true with screech-owls (21 known species). They look how they look for good reason: camouflage. That's the goal. Blending into one's environment is a key to staying out of harm's way, which is why I look like a fading white leather sofa with matching beige afghan.

Thursday, May 2, 2013


The wild cherry trees are beginning to show their small leaves. And, in a wonderful display of synchronicity, the eastern tent caterpillars are showing themselves as well. Many of the cherry trees have at least one nest.

In early spring the tiny eggs hatch and the caterpillars begin spinning a small silken tent in the crotch of a tree where they live protected during the day. As the caterpillars grow, the size of the nest increases. Putting on the bulk they'll need as adult moths is their sole purpose in life. At night the caterpillars venture out to eat cherry leaves but they don’t always make it back to the safety of the nest.

People often panic when they see these tents in their trees. They want to douse them in kerosene and burn ‘em out. That’s a bit extreme! The nests are really just natural birdfeeders. Only a same percentage of the caterpillars survive, the birds eat most of them. The other day I watched a pair of blue jays in a nearby cherry gobbling down caterpillars as fast as they could.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

the silver bell

Wood Thrush. Photo by Steve Maslowski, US Fish and Wildlife Service

“The leaves through which the glad winds blew
Shared. The wild dance the waters knew;
And where the shadows deepest fell
The wood-thrush rang his silver bell.”

(From “The Seeking of the Waterfall” by John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-1892) Quaker poet and ardent advocate of the abolition of slavery. Whittier was one of the “Fireside Poets,” a group of New England poets that also included Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, William Cullen Bryant, James Russell Lowell and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. They were the first American poets whose popularity rivaled that of British poets on both sides of the Atlantic.)

Rejoice! Such absolute beauty. The “silver bell” of the wood thrush has returned to the woods behind my home. Although honestly, Mr. Greenleaf, their song sounds more like a feathered flute to me. Que sera, sera.