Tuesday, July 30, 2013

summer camp adieu

And one last group of camp kids out for a hike at Ijams. This time the young ones.

Ohhhh, what a summer!

Saturday, July 27, 2013

paddle on

Beautiful morning for a canoe paddle around Mead's Quarry Lake. Thanks to all who joined me!

Thursday, July 25, 2013

survival of the fittest

Brown-headed cowbird photo by Rex McDaniel.

Behold! One of the fittest species I know. 

OK. This is one we love to hate, but if fecundity (From the Latin fēcunditās meaning fruitfulness) is the measure of a successful species, if survival of the fittest is about successfully producing the most young thus passing on the most genetic material—your unique genetic blueprint—then brown-headed cowbirds have it figured out.

They're resourceful parents. When it comes to parenting, they are no-shows. As parents go, they truly go. No cowbird ever builds a nest or raises its own babies. They don’t even know how. 

They’re clueless parents, so they let some other bird do the nest building and incubating and nurturing. No male brown-headed cowbird ever gets a Father's Day card; no female a Mother's Day card. They do not deserve it.

Each spring, mated female cowbirds slip around the neighborhood, laying their eggs in other bird’s nests. And because they don’t have to do the work, a female cowbird may lay up to 40 eggs over the course of several weeks. 

The sneaky mother may also remove one of the natural eggs from the nest so that the host mother does not notice the subterfuge. Over 100 different species of birds have been known to raise cowbird babies. And in many cases, the foster parents are smaller and probably exhausted by the time the nesting season is over.

Cowbirds are native to North America. As a species they have a good survival strategy, but as parents they're eye-rollingly skanky, letting someone else raise your offspring. What personal satisfaction do you glean from it?

Wednesday, July 24, 2013



If you are out and about, there’s a large field of sunflowers, or as the French say "la tournesol," although the meadow loving flowers are decidedly American, growing at Forks of the River Wildlife Management Area one mile east of Ijams Nature Center in South Knoxville. If it's out of your way, it's worth the trip.

The bright yellow flowers are at their peak. They’re tall, some would say stately, meeting you eye-to-eye with their unabashed brilliance. Thousands of sunny faces. TWRA planted the field to provide food for wildlife, especially doves. The sustenance the sunflowers provide we humans is more ethereal, nourishment for the soul, not the belly.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Cicadas are buzzing

Four? of the five species of cicada found at Ijams.

Hosting my first mini Cicada-Fest at Ijams Nature Center was a buzzing good time. And we had cookies!!

The five species active in my area are: swamp, Robinson's, scissor-grinder, lyric and Linne's cicada. 

For more info, go to Cicada-A-Raid-A.

Friday, July 19, 2013

oooooh, summer camp

And a big special thank you to all who joined my Junior Audubon Explorers camp this week at the nature center!

Ijams provides a safe place for youngsters to experience nature and experience it we did.

We explored an overgrown meadow, waded a creek, canoed a lake, dipped a pond, hiked a forest, entered a quarry pit, watched a river and ran through the grass looking for any and everything including insects, spiders, salamanders, frogs, birds, snakes, crawdads, snails, turtles and lizards. On Tuesday, we set a new Ijams' record of finding 143 spiders on our spider walk.

Just like explorers in a new world, at the end of each day, each camper had to create a "newly discovered" species and draw it, name it, describe its habitat plus what it ate and present their findings to a jury of their peers. 

Great group of energetic explorers! Thank you, Bear, Orca, Sponge, Ice, Sky, Grizzly, Drago, Coyote, Fern, Ivy, River, Tiger, Sassafras, Copperhead, Rocky, Shamrock, Turtle T and Ruddy Duck! 

Thursday, July 18, 2013

odd foundling

"While trimming some day lilies I found a most unusual caterpillar. I think it may be a red-spotted purple caterpillar (Limenitis arthemis). The tiny little spots were almost a fluorescent turquoise blue," wrote Amy Barton.

 The red-spotted purple is a North American brush-footed butterfly, a mimic of the poisonous pipevine swallowtail (Battus philenor). It's typically found in open woodlands and along forest edges.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Camp explorers

That would be me, surrounded by the unperturbable, unflappable, go anywhere, Audubon Junior Explorers—this week's summer day-camp kids at Ijams. 

Today's topic? Spider finders.

On display will be a humongous wolf spider recently photographed sucking the life out of a cricket. Nature is not always pretty; but it's always interesting! 

Photo by Ijams' Rex McDaniel!

Sunday, July 14, 2013


Male mourning dove and two nestlings. 
Photo by Andrew Atzert. 


It means different things to different creatures.

Take mourning doves. They are monogamous and form strong pair bonds, generally mating for life. They are one of the most family oriented species I know, prolific breeders. In my region, these birds may raise up to six broods in a season. 

But oddly, only two young at a time, so each nestling gets intense parental care.

Both male and female share in incubating and feeding their young called squabs. It's a partnership. The keeping-the-eggs-warm stage lasts 14 to 15 days, two weeks. 

After hatching, young mourning doves are fed regurgitated food by both parents. For the first three to four days the young are fed only crop milk, an energy rich substance that is produced in the crops of both male and female parent. After that, parents begin to add more seeds to the regurgitated food until they are fed only regurgitated seeds by the time the young leave the nest. 

My new book. Coming soon!
Mother doves feed the young most of the time during the first 15 days but after that the fathers take over the responsibility. 

Fledging, flying away from the nest, takes place in about 11–15 days, before the squabs are fully grown but after they are capable of digesting adult food.

But just because they can leave the nest, they are not adults, not yet ready to be left alone.

The young doves stay near the nest site, fed by their father for up to two weeks after fledging. He also teaches them what they need to know: how to remain safe, where to hide, what to be afraid of, where to sleep, where to take a bath, where to find food, how to be brave when all looks dark, etc., all the life skills they will need to be truly independent.

Much of this is true for our species, except the tutorial period—from adolescence to independence—is much longer. Sadly, we live in an age when some fathers think that fatherhood comes with an escape clause. They disappear at the most critical time in a child's life. In today's parlance: wuss out.

Fledgling doves and humans need encouragement and support, the world can be a scary place. Can be. But with proper guidance, it's a world of opportunity. Our future is in their hands.

Brilliance needs to be nurtured; epiphanies applauded.

As a recent text about happiness from the fledgling read: "Ahhhhh, that beautiful moment when you hear the sentence "atp hydrolysis moves the nucleosomes in chromatin remodelling" and you know what it means..."

What it means? An indecipherable text filled with scientific nomenclature means that truly, they are moving on.  

Proud day: Rachael, who just got a 95 on this week's "computational molecular 
evolution exercise." She had to evaluate evolutionary relationships using nucleotide sequences and parsimony.
Me? All I had to do was figure out which shirt to wear. 

Saturday, July 13, 2013

toxic name

Over the years, ornithologists have cleaned up, organized and standardized common bird names.

It’s a shame. Gone are such colorful folk names as rain crow, timberdoodle and water witch. (Yellow-billed cuckoo, American woodcock and pied-billed grebe, respectively.) Timberdoodle is such a great name, how could we get rid of it?

Luckily, botanists have sought no such sterilization in common wildflower names and many of the folk monikers persist, much to the delight of natural historians such as moi.

On a hike in the high mountains of central Virginia, I came across a wildflower I did not know. Its cluster of small flowers is borne in a tapering raceme that expands bottom to top as the blooms open. They look like baby bottle brushes. Follow-up research uncovered a most curious name: fly poison.

The plant’s botanical nomenclature is “Amianthium muscitoxicum.” That's a mouthful, but apparently, fly poison is the English translation of the Latin "muscitoxicum,” the name given to this species by Thomas Walter who published “Flora Caroliniana” in 1788.

His name is appropriate because all parts of the plant are considered highly poisonous (don’t worry, I did not try to eat it) with the bulb being especially toxic. It is recorded that early American colonists used the crushed bulb mixed with sugar to kill flies.

All that rich history in just a simple name.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Anne's lace

Queen Anne's Lace (Daucus carota) Photo Christian Fischer.

Also known as “wild carrot,” — and how plain a name is that? thank goodness someone came up with an alternative — Queen Anne's lace was imported into this country from Europe. 

If its hardiness was shared by the queen, she must have had a tough constitution. The plant will grow in poor soils, often being found in ditches, dry fields and empty open areas. In the Tennessee Valley it’s widespread.

But which Queen Anne? Are we talking Anne Boleyn? Surely not, she wasn't really around that long. 

Anne of Denmark. WikiCommons
As legend has it, the plant gets its name from Anne of Denmark (1574-1619), the queen consort of King James I. Anne was the second daughter of King Frederick II of Denmark. She married King James I of England (a.k.a. King James VI of Scotland and King James I of Ireland) in 1589 when she was only 14 years old. (Yes, 14 years old, the t-shirt I am currently wearing is older than that.) They had three children who survived into adulthood including the future king, Charles I.

Queen Anne was an expert lace-maker. As the story goes the nimble-fingered queen challenged the ladies of the court to create a pattern of lace as fine and beautiful as the flower. Yet, no one could match her own needlework. Queen Anne won the contest but pricked her finger at the end, thereby giving the flower the touch of red that often appears.

Queen Anne did not know of the honor bestowed on her. The name “Queen Anne’s lace” didn’t appear in print until 1895, a full 276 years after she died. 

That's a shame.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

strolling about

My friend Rex McDaniel is something of a flâneur. He works part time with me at Ijams Nature Center and when we lock the doors of the Visitor Center at 5 o’clock, more often than not, Rex grabs his camera and goes for a stroll.

The vocation comes from the French masculine noun flâneur and basically means a “stroller,” Henry David Thoreau seemed to prefer “saunterer,” while poet Walt Whitman leaned toward “loafer,” yet all go back to the French verb flâner, which means “to stroll.”

In this case, the stroll is not made quickly from point A to point B, it’s not hurried, but rather to walk with the senses open to experience just what life presents, to experience beauty.

The concept itself, that of being a flâneur, goes back to French poet, essayist Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867). Noted for a blended style of writing, part prose, part poetry, his most famous work "Les Fleurs du mal" (The Flowers of Evil) expressed the changing nature of beauty in then modern, 19th century industrializing Paris. For Baudelaire, a flâneur strolled to see and be seen, a bit of a dandy, who found the overall beauty in chaotic Paris.

I am something of a flâneur myself but like Rex, a saunterer more in the vain of Thoureau, with the object of NOT being seen, of blending in, for peaceful exploration. And as practiced by Rex and me, the stroll is made with a camera, yet the goal is the same: to find the beauty in nature in and around the third largest city in Tennessee.

The beauty is there, as stated by Ralph Waldo Emerson himself, “To the attentive eye, each moment of the year has its own beauty, and in the same fields, it beholds, every hour, a picture which was never seen before, and which shall never be seen again.”

Rex McDaniel
I love getting e-mails from Rex. They generally arrive with the subject line: A picture for you. I know before I clink it, something beautiful awaits. A few days ago, I received the above wonderful photo of two zebra swallowtails mating, symbolizing new life, or life goes on, or beauty survives, as indeed, it always does.

Zebra swallowtails are the State Insect of Tennessee, although widespread, they are not that common, and most often associated with streambanks and pawpaws, their host plant.

Venture here Seven Islands to see other photos that Rex the flâneur found that day.  

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Venable remembers Nancy

Columnist Sam Venable

The first time Knoxville Sentinel columnist Sam Venable was in the home of Jim and Nancy Tanner in South Knoxville, the longtime local favorite storyteller/author was only 10-years-old working on his merit badge for birds. 

Nancy loved to laugh, loved a good story and read Sam since he began to appear in print. And since she lived 96 years, she more or less read every column he ever wrote. 

In today's column, Sam remembers Nancy who died one week ago today: You gotta be famous for 'something'

And, indeed you do.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

heavy hearted

Nancy Tanner and me, 2010.

A personal remembrance:

I first met Nancy Tanner in the early 1990s. We were both members of the local bird club: the Knoxville Chapter of the Tennessee Ornithological Society (KTOS). She was also a regular at Ijams Nature Center where I work. 

In time, I became an invited guest for lunches at her home in South Knoxville. Nancy's nimble mind needed to be exercised. A thoroughbred has to run. She loved to converse, tell stories, jokes, unleash a sharp repartee, a give and take à la Noël Coward. We'd talk birds, nature, books, magazine articles, current events and sports. She loved tennis and the Olympics. And, of course, we'd talk about her Jim.

Her home had not really changed one iota since he passed away in 1991. 

It was at one of those lunches in October of 2005 that a topic for a book came up. I was just finishing the manuscript for my first book "Natural Histories" published by the University of Tennessee Press. We were talking, as we often did, about Jim and his Cornell fieldwork in the 1930s on the ivory-billed woodpecker, when I said, "Someone needs to write a book." And after a short pause, I said, "That someone should be me." 

Thus a project was born.

Nancy was the last living person to have a universally accepted sighting of an ivory-billed woodpecker. That happened in December 1941. She was with her late husband Jim (James T. Tanner) in the Singer Tract in northeast Louisiana.

Over the past six years, Nancy and I became good friends. For most of that time, I would see or at least talk to her almost weekly.

The first three years: 2006-09, we met to discuss and assembly the piles of reference I needed to copy, absorb. Over time, I assembled three-ring binders of material, not knowing exacting what I would need when I actually sat down to write. Pulling together a book is like putting together a jigsaw puzzle except all the pieces do not come in one box. They are scattered helter-skelter. But, in time, the pieces just slowly fall into place.

Ghost Birds: Jim Tanner and the Quest for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, 1935-1941 was published by UT in the fall of 2010. It was followed by an article in Smithsonian magazine about our research which I penned. Nancy turns up in the book, near the end after she and Jim both moved to Tennessee (separately) to take new teaching positions at E.T.S.U. in Johnson City. That's where they first met.

For the next two years after the book's publication, Nancy and I worked to promote Ghost Birds locally, doing numerous talks and book signings.

We developed a playful banter, because she loved to laugh and make me laugh.

She called me her "young friend" and never wanted to talk about health, aches and pains or even aging in general. Those topics were for old people. When you were with Nancy, you were in a match of playful minds. And she used wit the way a fencer uses a foil. En garde. Prêt. Allez. Oh, yes. So true. Touché. Or the way Oscar Wilde used a well turned phrase like a craving knife: "Always forgive your enemies, nothing annoys them more." At times we both were laughing so hard, all conversation ceased. I always left her feeling better than before I arrived, her vitality and good humor were so contagious.

Her beloved Jim passed away 22 years ago. She couldn't understand divorce because losing her husband had been so painful. Nancy once told me that for five years after he died, she wanted to die too, but when she didn't, she decided she might as well go on living. 

That she did, to the fullest, ten decades of indomitable determination to live each day as a quest. Like the Energizer bunny, she just kept going and going and going.

But in time, Nancy's body began to waver, then falter, then fail; even a lionheart loses its roar. 

A week ago, I visited her in a local hospice facility. Nancy's frail body was betraying her strong will. She still smiled, laughed, but her quick wit was dimming. She signed one last book during our final lunchtime visit. As I got up to leave, I reached out. She took my hand and clasping it with both of hers, looked deep into my eyes. And with a tone as tender as the moment behooved, she said, "Goodbye, love." 

We both knew it was just that. Goodbye.

To paraphrase the Belle of Amherst, "Because she did not stop for death, it kindly stopped for her, the carriage held but the two, and immortality." 

After a short illness, Nancy died last Sunday, June 30 just sixteen days after her 96th birthday. That's over 35,000 days on this earth and the people she touched are better for experience. (KTOS celebrated her birthday at Ijams just four weeks ago.)   

As a writer, you're taught to avoid clichés, nothing slows down a narrative like a worn out phrase. It's like the gritty build-up on the bottom of a snow ski. But in this case, I hope you forgive me. When God made Nancy, he broke the mold. 

I will miss, miss, miss her dearly.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

burnt orange & blackbirds

Orchard oriole photo by Warren Hamlin

Not all blackbirds are black birds.

Orioles are closely related to grackles and other blackbirds. All are in the bird family Icteridae. What really sets the orioles apart are the bright colors. In North America, ten bird species bear the name. All are very striking in color: black and white with orange or yellow, or yellowish orange.

Only two species are found in Tennessee. The more famous is the Baltimore oriole, known for a time as the northern oriole. They are black and bright orange, 
we’re talking explosive, knock your socks off orange, like UT's Neyland Stadium on game day. Many believe they are this country’s most beautiful birds. They are common during migration season but are considered uncommon summer residents, primarily nesting north of the Volunteer State. Above the Mason-Dixon Line, they are routinely seen at backyard feeders this time of the year. 

Warren Hamlin sent me the above photo. His wife Tiffiny "spotted this orchard oriole along Melton Lake Drive."  

The black and Texas Longhorn burnt orange orchard oriole is considered a fairly common albeit declining summer resident in Tennessee, but as the name implies, they tend to nest in open country with pastures, farms and orchards. Rural Tennesseans, especially in the middle and western parts of the state, see them more often than we do in the Tennessee Valley.