Saturday, June 29, 2013

wayward white

Wayward Bobwhite. Photo by Kristy Keel.

If you grew up on a farm or spent lazy Sunday afternoons visiting your grandparents on theirs, you know the sound.

It springs from the fields: a sharply whistled, "bob, bob, whiiiiitttttteeeee."

The song of a Northern bobwhite quail is a part of our collective memory, what the French philosopher Maurice Halbwachs termed "la mémoire collective." Along with the taste of fresh lemonade and newly ripened watermelon warm from the garden, many of us seem to share this memory, or something like it.

We also seem to remember the bobwhite's exuberant call, but few of us have ever actually seen one. 

And, its getting harder to do just that! In 2007, the Audubon Society released a list of the 20 Common Bird Species in Decline. Complied from 40 years of data, the number one bird on the list was the bobwhite. The meadow loving gamebird has suffered a shocking 82 percent decline in overall population in the past four decades.


As the Audubon article penned by Greg Butcher states,"The loss of suitable bobwhite habitat—from large-scale agriculture, intensive pine-plantation forestry, and development—is the most dominant threat to the long-term survival of these common grassland birds. Losses to nest predators, and even fire ants—competing for food, attacking nests, and prompting humans to spray pesticides—also seem to be contributing to the bobwhite's decline."

Documenting the documentor:
Kristy photographing 
the bobwhite
Imagine then the surprise when Saturday, June 15, former Ijams' AmeriCorps member Kristy Keel found a bobwhite at the nature center (to my knowledge a first, since we do not have proper habitat.) Ijams is mostly wooded with no sprawling meadows.

But there it was, wayward, at the Lower Overlook on the Homesite; more or less at the edge of the forest walking along a trail just like any other Saturday afternoon visitor.

Way to go Kristy for having the acumen to know that it was a very odd bird way out of place! 

- Photos by Kristy Keel. 

Friday, June 28, 2013

intense stink bug

As a general rule, stink bugs are vegetarians, ravenous plant-eaters, many even damage agricultural crops. Stink bugs are in the insect order Hemiptera, which also includes cicadas, leafhoppers, aphids and planthoppers. Most all have extended mouthparts to pierce and suck plant juices like slurping up a green milkshake through a straw.

But the Florida predatory stink bug, Euthyrhynchus floridanus, is a carnivore! It's considered a beneficial insect because it attacks, pierces and sucks the juices out of other insects, most of its prey consists of plant-damaging bugs, beetles and caterpillars. And these metallic green and orange-red bugs often attack in packs like wolves.


Ed Yost found the above Florida predatory stink bug at Ijams Nature Center. It's an early instar and won't morph into its final adult form until later in the season.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

fly for your life

Northern goshawk. Photo by Steve Garvie. 
If you are a mourning dove, blue jay or cardinal being chased by a Cooper's hawk or goshawk be forewarned: You are indeed in a world of hurt. You are being chased by a formidable hunter. 

Work it, work it, work it, bob and weave as best you can but don't look back.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

rockened robin

"He woke up the room was bare

He didn't see her anywhere
He told himself he didn't care 

pushed the window open wide
Felt an emptiness inside 

to which he just could not relate
Brought on by a simple twist of fate."

"Simple Twist of Fate" by Bob Dylan

One minute, you are high in a tree, gazing out at the canopy from a cozy stick nest, your birthplace. Life is good. You are new to the world, three weeks old, splotched and mottled, growing fast, fed every 20 minutes by one parent or the other.

And then.

You lean over a bit too far, or a sibling gives you a nudge, or a sudden storm whips up with high winds that tousle you around. And plop. You're on the ground, in this case, a mountain road, looking up at where you were born.

You can walk, but not yet fly. 

Your parents know that you are there, they continue to feed you but getting you back to the safety of the nest is impossible. All you have to do is survive long enough on the ground for your wing feathers to grow. But watch out, there are predators...everywhere.

As if being cursed with the scientific name Turdus migratorius isn't bad enough, now you're grounded, flightless. Before you've learned to fear predators or even learned fear itself you must get by, surviving somehow until it's time to fly, robin, fly.

Monday, June 24, 2013

ISS, the wonder of it all

If you spend a lot of time watching the news, you can become mired down by the badness of it all; nobody seems to be getting along with anyone else, everyone spying on everyone else. Spy here, spy there, everywhere a spy, spy. But, all is not in discord, there is harmony just 255 miles overhead.

Six human beings—Pavel Vinogradov, Aleksandr Misurkin, Chris Cassidy, Karen Nyberg, Fyodor Yurchikhin and Luca Parmitano—are circling the planet ever 92 minutes, 50 seconds. And they will continue until September when another international crew arrives to replace them.

The International Space Station (ISS) flew over my home last night. Slightly bigger than a football field, it took three minutes—horizon to horizon, west by northwest to south by southeast—for the man-made heavenly body to pass overhead. The ISS was the brightest object in the sky (the full moon was hidden behind a cloud). 

Oh, the wonder. Seeing it pass in the night at 17,239 miles per hour.

Here is a sense of what the crew sees.

Saturday, June 22, 2013


Carina Nebula. Photo taken by the Hubble Space Telescope in 2010.

“Whatever else is in the character of nature, 
as we see it 
unfolding into ever more abundant vistas 
before our patent inquiry, 
we find that it does not economize 
on its size and richness.”

- Alan MacRobert, editor “Sky & Telescope” magazine

Friday, June 21, 2013

there's no place like home

Salamanders are rather straightforward. They’re amphibians, living “two” lives. Born in water much like frogs and as they age live their sodden adult lives in or near water or other damp environ.

And then there are the newts, types of salamanders that have an extra, third developmental stage. Called an eft, the juveniles change colors and live terrestrially. The young larvae are brown-green in color, as are the adults. But the juvenile red efts are orangish with darker red spots outlined in black. But you know how teenagers are, so eager to stand out and be independent.

Perhaps their terrestrial stage is similar to a Vision Quest, were they go to the desert to seek enlightenment—a forty-days, forty-nights sort of thing—although the eft stage can last for years until, realizing in the end, that the damp life is the best life. You are a salamander after all.

As Dorothy Gale learned, “There’s no place like home.” 

It’s a thought.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

a milky weed

If you are a monarch butterfly—and I envy you if you are—but be forewarned, life is beautiful and short. But if you are a monarch, (Danaus plexippus), you probably already know this: common milkweed is in bloom. 

Milkweed is a robust perennial that can grow up to six feet tall, so it’s no shrinking violet, it’s a rather “in your face” kind of wildflower.

When broken the hairy stems produce a milky, white latex that looks like Elmer’s glue and tastes like my homemade gravy.

Monarch butterflies are foul-tasting, even toxic. (I have never worked up the courage to eat a monarch butterfly to test this, maybe someday I will.)

Monarch caterpillars eat milkweed leaves which renders them unpalatable, much like my gravy. Blue jays know this and avoid the bright orange and black lepidopterans like they were bad restaurants on the wrong side of town. The kind of places you used to frequent at 3 a.m. when you were in college because you were still up at that hour and hunger.

The insect’s toxicity is due to the presence of “cardenolide aglycones” in their bodies, which the caterpillars ingest as they feed on the plants.

Milkweed likes to grow in sandy soils, basking in full sun.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

munks a plenty

Is it me? Or are you seeing more chipmunks scurrying about this summer? They are all around my house. Scamper. Scamper. Scamper. 

It seems to me that this has been a good year for chipmunk making. Way to go Chip N' Dale!

If you travel to the west, ground squirrel identification gets complicated. In that part of the country, there are at least 16 species called ground squirrels and roughly 15 species labeled chipmunks, far too many for me to list here.

As a general rule, chipmunks have stripes, ground squirrels do not, but there are exceptions. (The thirteen-lined ground squirrel native to the Great Plains and eastern side of the Rockies has, well, 13 whitish lines running down its sides and back.) In truth, they are all ground squirrels because they all spend most of their lives on terra firma.

Some are found only in very limited ranges. The Charleston Mountain chipmunk is only found in the mountains of the same name in Nevada. The Sonoma chipmunk lives in northwestern California and the Mohave ground squirrel is endemic to the Mohave Desert also located in the Golden State. Unless one gets on a bus to go visit the other, their paths never cross. They are as isolated from one another as I am from the president.

Here in the Tennessee Valley we have only one species of ground squirrel: the Eastern chipmunk. Yes, only one; for some reason ground squirrels prefer the ground in the west. 

The word chipmunk was originally spelled "chitmunk," "chipmuck" or "chipminck. Take your pick, the rules of spelling were more relaxed back then, in fact, you spelled things the way you wanted to, freestyle. Some believe chipmunk is a very loose translation of the Ojibwe word for red squirrel, "ajidamoo." Yes, loose translation, very loose.

(I took the above photo in the Shenandoah Mountains of Virginia.)

Sunday, June 16, 2013

spoonbill fathers

Spoon-billed sandpiper wintering in Thailand. Photo by J. J. Harrison

Summers are short in Siberia. 

Wildlife that reproduce there have to work fast. Right about now, late May and early June, spoon-billed sandpiper males have arrived on their breeding grounds on coastal tundra along the Bering Sea from Russia’s Chukotsk peninsula south to the Kamchatka peninsula due west of Alaska.

Because of their spatulate bill, spoon-billed sandpipers are unique among shorebirds. So unique, they're in their own genus, Eurynorhynchus, which basically means "widened-beak."

The males arrive early and immediately begin courtship flights that circle favored habitat—coastal tundra, most often near large lagoons or bays—to define their territory and attract a mate. Once a male and female have paired they select a nest site among crowberry plants on sparsely vegetated gravel spits or other vegetated lowland tundra. Soon the female begins laying a clutch, generally four eggs, in a shallow depression very much like the killdeer, upland shorebirds of East Tennessee.

Once the eggs are laid, both adults incubate, usually on shifts lasting half a day each. By late June, days reach their longest. While not incubating, the parents-to-be feed along lake shores, shallow ponds and in wet tundra meadows. The brood hatches in 19 to 23 days, roughly three weeks. These are the idyllic hours of summer, but the days are already getting shorter.

After hatching, the young leave the nest within a day and immediately begin feeding themselves. The female soon departs and begins the roughly 7,000 mile migration south. 

Coming soon! My new book.
The male stays behind. The good father, leads his young "peeps" away from the nest site and attends to them, protects them, keeping them from harm's way. There are arctic foxes about. For the next 20 days, more or less, the young ones trundle about the ground under father's watchful eye until they too are able to fly. During this time the youngsters follow their dad's lead and learn the ways of a spoonbill. 

After the chicks reach fledging age the male too begins his long-distance trip south. The chicks remain on the tundra to bulk up but soon follow their fathers, beginning their own migration south before the isolated location becomes too inhospitable for shorebirds of any kind.

Spoon-billed sandpipers migrate down the Pacific coast of Russia, Japan, North and South Korea and China to their main wintering grounds in Southeast Asia. Today, critically endangered because of habitat loss along their migration route, most spoonbills winter in coastal Myanmar and Bangladesh.

The juveniles that survive the long flights south, owe their learned survival skills to their fathers. He was there when his progeny needed him. 

Happy Father's Day to my late father Russell who was always, always, always there for me.


Friday, June 14, 2013

goose-steppin' lark

I guess, if you spend a lot of time walking through the grass, you need to develop a high-stepping gate.

Found in meadows as the name suggests, an Eastern meadowlark sings a song often described as bittersweet. If that is so, perhaps it knows that the species is listed as number 6 on Audubon's list of Common Birds in Decline. In the past 40 years, their population has dropped 72 percent. 

The reason: Habitat loss. Meadows being converted to subdivisions or cornfields and the ones kept in grasses are often mowed too early in the season.

Audubon magazine writes, "Like many grassland birds, meadowlarks are threatened by changes in farming. With the recent push for ethanol and other biofuels, there is a real danger that many acres currently being protected under the farm bill's Conservation Reserve Program will be converted from the meadowlark's prairie habitat to cornfields."

Other species in decline I've blogged about:


- Top photo by Jason Dykes. Thanks, Jason.

Thursday, June 13, 2013


Spectacular lepidopteran!

On a visit to Ijams, Johanna Neubrander from Greeneville found a female cecropia moth on the pavement near the parking lot. The moth was alive but seemed near death, perhaps exhausted.

One of the giant silk moths, the cecropia is the largest moth found in North America. Females have a wingspan of over five inches; that's as big as your outstretched hand!

The adults do not live long, days really. Their sole purpose is to mate and lay eggs. Johanna’s foundling had probably already accomplished her mission.

When walking, Johanna always looks for one unique thing to give the outing special meaning. On this day, it was the cecropia.

Seeing something this exquisitely beautiful will certainly make one's day.

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." 

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

well traveled

Although many people hate this tree because it is not native to North America, I can think of few other transplants with a more rich history than the South's mimosa or "silk tree."

Its botanical name, Albizia julibrissin, is a reflection of that storied past. Native to southern and eastern Asia, from Iran east to China and Korea, the tree was introduced to Europe in the mid-1700s by Italian nobleman Filippo del Albizzi. The plant's generic name honors his contribution. The specific name julibrissin is a corruption of the Persian word "gul-i abrisham," which means "silk flower"

Mimosas (along with ginkgos and crape myrtles) were first introduced into the United States in Charleston, South Carolina in 1745 by French plantsman André Michaux, who was in the New World to collect plants for his benefactor France's King Louis VI. The king, who lost his head in the French Revolution, sent the trees as gifts to the colonies.

Known in some locales as the Persian silk tree, mimosas did quite well, spreading across the south.

So from the former Persian Empire to Europe with the help of an Italian, and from Paris to Charleston with the help of a Frenchman and a soon to be dethroned monarch, it’s a living, breathing travelogue, but you don't have to travel nearly that far to enjoy their pink powder puff blossoms. They are in bloom now around the Tennessee Valley.

Monday, June 10, 2013

snowy white, a bit slimy

Nature is beautifully interesting. And this photo, sent to me by Rex McDaniel and taken by his son James, illustrates that premise. 

Three, maybe four, slugs together. The centerpiece is a beautiful snow white slug. 

Is this even possible?

Slugs are mollusks like snails except their shells, if they have one, are generally internal. The non-native, invasive giant gray slugs (Limax maximus) most of us have around our homes and flower pots trace their lineage back to Europe and were first documented in this country in cellars in Philadelphia in 1867. And giant gray slugs do occur in a snow white variety: Limax maximus var. candida.

Who knew? 

This reminds me of the mysterious yellow slug I blogged about last year. 

Diagram from Monograph of the land & freshwater 
Mollusca of the British isles by J.W. Taylor, 1894

Sunday, June 9, 2013



“He who knows sweets and virtues are in the ground, the water, the plants, the heavens, and how to come at these enchantments, is the rich and royal man.”

- By Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882) American essayist, philosopher, poet and 
early leader of the Transcendentalist movement

For me? It's just a matter of getting in the car 
and driving in any direction.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

to be a vulture


Owls may be wise. Well, none that I have personally known have been all that wise. But vultures? That’s another story.

Look into their inquisitive brown eyes and you know there's a thinking brain inside that scruffy, bald noggin.

One of the perks of working at the nature center is the turkey vulture I get to care for. She's noble.  

Zoe was hit by a truck in western North Carolina and went through rehab at the American Eagle Foundation in Pigeon Forge. It took so long for her to heal that she became people friendly, tame. Having lost her wildness and hunting skills, she imprinted on her human caregivers. 

Oh, she does not think that she is human or anything like that. She knows she's superior. We're her acolytes. She grunts her approval like a queen dowager when we bring her meals. Dead things—you really don't want to know the details.

Zoe came to Ijams over seven years ago. We’ll take care of her the rest of her life. But that's a privilege. She's clever and curious and courteous, dare I say, even charismatic. Yes, she has oodles of personality, nothing like an owl.

Fellow blogger/writer Young Okazaki is also charismatic and clever enough to know what she wants to be when she returns in another form, reaching a new level of enlightenment. Which begs the question: Is it better to be a partially enlightened human or a fully enlightened vulture (click)?

Friday, June 7, 2013

sweet cedar

Known as Chansha or "redwood" by the Native American Lakota, it’s pretty hard to go anywhere in the Tennessee Valley and not encounter an eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana).

In the Great Smokies, where the soil is acidic, cedars are virtually nonexistent. But here in the valley where the limestone bedrock weathers to yield sweet, alkaline soil, cedars are ubiquitous.

Cedars thrive in that limey sweetness. As the great tree chronicler Donald Culross Peattie once wrote, “No stone-walled hilltop too bleak, no abandoned field too thin of soil but that the dark and resolute figure of a Red Cedar may take its stand there, enduring, with luck, perhaps three centuries.”

Indeed. Often overlooked because they are so banal, don’t let that commonness dull your senses. They are simply grand, aromatic trees. 

At this time of the year, the female cedars develop a lovely glaucous hue from their tiny bluish "berries," a favorite food of birds such as cedar waxwings, hence their name. The fruits are not true berries but rather coniferous seed cones with unusually fleshy and merged scales, which give it a berry-like appearance.

Cedars can be found along the eastern border of Ijams Nature Center and at Mead's Quarry where the soil is crumbly sweet.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

treefrog soliloquy

Cope's gray treefrog. Photo taken at Ijams Nature Center

This I know and dearly love to my core: As May fades into June and cool evenings give way to sultry ones, male gray treefrogs creep from the shadows to pine for females. The urge is primal, the call guttural, argent, full of longing. 

In late spring, the temperature warms, the chorus frogs of February and March go mute and fade into the background. On damp muggy evenings here in East Tennessee, especially after a heavy rain, male Cope’s gray treefrogs make their presence known. 

These small (1.25 to 2 inches long) frogs are gray-to-green and covered with splotches for camouflage. They look like lumpy hunks of tree bark and like to hide in the shrubbery amongst the leaves and branches, often it seems a long way from water. Once the male and female bond, all they really need is a little rain and a shallow temporary pool to reproduce. It's just that simple, but finding each other is the bugaboo. All it takes is a Tom Waits like vocal.

The male’s soliloquy is a short raspy trill. EErrrrrrrrrrrrr! If it’s warm enough, you can hear these isolated crooners March through October, but the calls generally peak May through July.

Cope’s gray treefrogs are quite common in a wide variety of wooded habitats, even suburban settings with plenty of trees and shrubs for cover.

Monday, June 3, 2013

an indigo bath

Look up the word "panache" in the dictionary. Chances are the definition will be accompanied by an illustration of an indigo bunting.

Few birds dazzle the way these songbirds do. Feathered in velvet, they scream the color royal blue. And they prefer to do their dazzling—and cheerful chortle—from the top of a tree or other prominent perch in full sun for all to see. No shrinking violet here, buntings play the swagger card using only the short wavelengths of the spectrum. Concise and in your face. 

Last Saturday was hot, muggy. Rains earlier in the week had left behind many temporary pools, perfect respites to splash about in and take a cooling bath.

Rex McDaniel discovered one such active pool at Forks of the River WMA east of Ijams, proving that buntings even bathe with panache.

Thanks, Rex. 

- Top photo by Kevin Bolton

Sunday, June 2, 2013

"sarvis" berry

This one is for Discover Life in America's Todd Witcher.  I know he is fond of this tree.

Speaking of early ripe berries, in some quarters, this one is known as Juneberry. And it's right in schedule.

Granddad Homer Bales grew up on the Roaring Fork side of Mt. LeConte in the Great Smoky Mountains. Some might have called him a hillbilly, but I prefer mountaineer. Because as we know from West Virginia’s state motto, “Montani semper liberi." My taciturn Granddad did not know Latin but he certainly knew the slogan's meaning: “Mountaineers are always free.”

In early spring granddad spoke of “sarvis” berries. It’s one of the earliest blooming native trees in the Southern Appalachians. Today, we've morphed the moniker to serviceberry.

The old folk name has an interesting pedigree. It shows that the mountain dialect was rooted in Old English. Tree chronicler Donald Culross Peattie writes that sarvis is a good Shakespearean English form of the word “sorbus,” a Roman name for the fruit of a similar looking European tree.

The serviceberry near the Visitor Center parking lot at Ijams is now loaded. The fruits are sweet and ripe and would make a wonderful pie that is if the fat-bellied mockingbirds do not eat them all first.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

oodles of drupes


The first berry crops of the year are ripening. The mockingbirds (a.k.a. foolish for ripe fruit) must be going crazy, as are robins, bluebirds and cedar waxwings. And the ones that manage to fall to the ground are gobbled by opossums, raccoons, etc. etc. 

Mulberries—from the Old English mōrberie—are ripe and the few trees I’ve seen are loaded with berries this year, oodles of fruit, although, not a true berry, the fruits are really clusters of luscious drupes, each containing a small seed.

There are several red mulberry trees growing at Forks of the River WMA and birds are not the only two-legged chordate feasting on the blackberry-like morsels. I’ve seen a few people, including my birding companion, eating them as well. Did I say they were luscious? They'll also stain your hands bright red, but you can lick the juice off your fingers. It's okay to be a kid, no one is watching.

Mulberry trees do not produce such huge crops every year; it would be too taxing. Generally they only oodle up every two or three springs. But this apparently is a big year, so go out and find a handful before the mockingbirds eat them all.