Saturday, September 28, 2013

reinventing oneself

Data fata secutus. 

Reinventing oneself can happen almost any time, almost any place. Only the reinventor knows the when and where, even a park bench after a heavy rain will suffice if the time is right.

You may have to turn yourself upside down, inside out; and mind you, the process is arduous as Rex McDaniel's video recorded soon after the above photo.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

man eater

Oh là là, cherchez la femme
She's a man-eater!

"If you're in it for love, you ain't gonna get too far, Oh-oh, here she comes. Watch out boy she'll chew you up. Oh-oh, here she comes. She's a mantid-eater," sang Hall & Oakes in 1982. 

Could they have been singing about this lovely creature?

Praying mantises! This is their mating season and the large predator insects are looking for mates. If you have any single, unattached mantids in your yard call me, perhaps I can play matchmaker. But, keep in mind that the female often eats the male after they have coupled, so it may be a death sentence for him. (Studies have shown that she is less likely to consume her mate if she has recently eaten, so perhaps he needs to take her out to dinner before any amorous overtures are made.)

Monday, September 23, 2013

man up mallards!

Female mallard watching over eleven ducklings,

When most people think “duck,” they think mallard

They are found in the temperate zone north of the equator in North America, Europe, Asia and North Africa. Most varieties of domesticated ducks are descended from mallards. So it is safe to say they are successful.

The breeding male (called a drake) is unmistakable: green iridescent head, white ring around neck, black rear and yellow bill tipped in black. Female mallards (called hens) are camouflaged light brown with streaked feathers.

In late fall, mallards form flocks made up of both sexes. In these flocks the drakes exhibit elaborate and complicated display behavior. (They’re showing off to impress the ladies.) 

There’s considerable preening, splashing, shaking, tail wagging, quacking, it’s all a well-planned, highly choreographed performance on the part of the drakes. Human males do similar things but it is not well planned or highly choreographed; it’s mostly goofy. Go to any local nightclub where young males flock together and you’ll see.

A female mallard tends to choose a mate that does more than an average number of displays. They like the best performers, the show boaters. Pair formation occurs in the fall with courtship rituals lasting throughout the winter. The mated pair will spend weeks together, swimming about as a couple. During this time the male is highly territorial and protective of his mate. After a courtship that lasts several months, nesting begins as soon as late February. 

Mallard mating is a bit tough to watch. A bit brutal. It appears he's attacking and trying to drown her, biting the back of her neck.

After the ordeal, she fashions a nest somewhere hidden along the shoreline and over the course of several days she can lay half her body weight in eggs, up to fourteen.

Coming soon.
By now she is exhausted, you might think that at least the papa drake is there to help, continue his protection. Watch over his progeny. Help raise a dozen little ones. In today's parlance, "man up." But, no.

As a committed father, he's a drop out.

The male’s attentiveness fades and he joins flocks of other males, abandoning the female when she starts to incubate. She alone cares for the ducklings, also rather exhausting. 

The pair is considered seasonally monogamous but the male is lackadaisically lazy, choosing to hang out with the boys.

Should a rain/high water event or marauding raccoon wipe out the clutch, then the drake will rush in to re-mate with the hen. More torture. And she may produce a second brood to care for and raise.

And even though the green-headed, grandiose males get all the attention, get their portraits on the Duck Stamps, the females do all the work. This species is successful because of the mamas.

Friday, September 20, 2013

flies make good decisions

E = mc squared? OK. Maybe that's not what I am thinking
about but I am still quick witted.

"Flies might not be deep thinkers, but they can make good decisions very quickly," says Professor Graeme Ruxton at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

If you and I were to get together over coffee and jot down every sentence that we would NEVER expect to see in a science article, the above statement would have to rank pretty high on our collective list.

So imagine my surprise when I read it.

It seems that the common housefly (Musca domestica) sees time pass much slower than you and I. And when time moves slower, better decisions are made. (I don't think I would have bought that plaid sports jacket if I'd had more time to think about it.) 

Flies may not be pondering the meaning of life or parallel universes or even where's Waldo, but when it comes to making a quick decision that will save their lives, they are greased lightning.

For the rest of the article that appeared in The Guardian online, go to: What's time to a fly.

Thanks, Suzy.

Monday, September 16, 2013


A chimera is a mythical creature made up of two or more disparate parts of different animals: head of a lion, body of a goat, that sort of thing; or part animal, part human: centaurs, mermaids, NFL linemen. 

Me? I'm part sleepy dog, part Japanese macaque sitting in hot water with snow falling around me.

The ancient Egyptians were noted for slicing and dicing their deities: Anubis, Sphinx, Horus—jackal/human, human/lion, falcon/human respectively.   

In the avian lexicon we have bull-bats, the local folk name for nighthawks, which suggests the head of a bull and the body of a bat, yet it's really neither of those. Surprised? 

A nighthawk does bring to mind a fusion, but not of a hawk but a falcon/whip-poor-will bit of stitchery, a swift, agile flying insectivore with the buzzy "peent" of a woodcock and the large eyes, short neck of an owl. A bit of a Frankenstein's monster, but it all somehow works better than Mary Shelley's assembled short-lived creature.

I ponder such mélange because a flock of bull-bats flew over the other night at twilight, which is their wont, headed to South America for the winter, which is their custom. 

Saturday, September 14, 2013

good luck?

Not as towering or dominant as yellow buckeye, the red buckeye is a small tree that likes limy soil, often near water. The leathery fruits are thin-walled capsules containing one to three poisonous seeds that look very much like chestnuts, shiny and mahogany-like. They look much like the fruit of yellow buckeyes, shiny and hard, the size of chocolate-covered cherries.

In the 1770s, naturalist and writer William Bartram noted red buckeye as one of the trees he discovered on his four-year journey through the south.

The native Cherokee once carried the seeds for good luck, although considering the tragic events that lead up to and included the infamous Trail of Tears, their powers to bring good fortune is much overrated.

Friday, September 13, 2013

what's in your attic?

Forget what's in your wallet. What's in your attic?

"Sunset at Montmajour," painted by Vincent van Gogh on July 4, 1888, but, and this is a big but, was recently discovered tucked away in an attic in Norway, part of the estate of Norwegian industrialist Christian Nicolai Mustad, who died thinking he had bought a fake in 1908.

A fake it is not.

No one could paint the outdoors with such intensity. No one could feel nature with such vibrant emotion.

I do not have an attic, so I've been rummaging around my basement looking for a long, lost masterpiece. So far? Just a lot of old clothes, Christmas decorations and crickets.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

oh pooh!

Bird droppings! Oh pooh, poo. It makes a very unappealing topic for a post. 

But, what if it weren't fecal material, but rather a caterpillar of a pretty spectacular butterfly. A true UGLY duckling that turns into a swan. More interesting? Right?

Somewhere down through the millennia, the larval stage of the giant swallowtail (Papilio cresphontes) has evolved to look like bird droppings on a shingle. Yes, poo. It probably took a few thousand years to perfect that certain je ne sais quoi of avian excrement, the caterpillars that looked most like it survived in greater and greater numbers, etc. etc. But once it perfected "the look," no predator would fool with it. Peugh. Blue jays look the other way. The cuckoos say, "No way." That is unless the bird happens to see the poo crawl away. As a general rule, poo doesn't crawl.

A perfect disguise. This caterpillar can hide in plain sight and eat and grow and eat and grow. After a few days, and a few molts, it only looks like an even bigger pile of bird droppings.  

Call it guano-camo.

Monday, September 9, 2013

hearts a-bustin

The common name of this shrub refers to the plant's seed pods which are now ripe and a-bustin'. Once the seeds have matured, the red capsules burst, scattering the orange seeds up to 15 feet. Bam!

Known in the Smoky Mountains by the folk name hearts a-bustin', Euonymus americanus is now doing just that: bustin'. A quick shower this week only added to the plant's apparent pathos.

If you know anything about the lives of the mountaineers who lived in the hollows of the Great Smokies before the coming of the national park, you know their hearts were often broken, mostly by the early deaths of loved ones. Their lives were hard, insular; their cemeteries are filled with tombstones of people who died much too young. Mourning was a routine facet of their lives. They wore black. They grieved. They buried their dead. Finding a photograph of one of them smiling is impossible. 

But who hasn't felt such heartbreak? Such a-bustin'?

I know of their hardships. The cemeteries at the foot of Mt. LeConte are filled with my ancestors. One, near the Rolling Fork Motor Nature Trail, is actually named the Bales Cemetery. I had an uncle named Maferd I never met who is buried there. He died the same day he was born: November 22, 1923. 

Short life, but at least his hardship was brief. Broke his parents hearts. Homer and Pearl. Their first child.  But they were not alone.

You can bet that any child who died in September, their graves would have been decorated with bouquets of heart a-bustin'.

Yes, hearts a-bustin'.

- photo taken about twelve feet from my front porch.

Friday, September 6, 2013

why do writing spiders write?

"I found this pretty spider this morning. We always called them 'writing' spiders. I was wondering what function does it help for them to 'write'?" e-mailed Tamera Partin, my friend with Mast General Store.

Writing spiders, a.k.a. garden spiders, or to spiderologists, Argiope aurantia, are one species that everyone seems to like or at least tolerate because the striking yellow and black arachnids often set up shop in the garden where they eat garden pests. 

The reason for the silk zig-zag "writing," known as a stabilimentum, or web decoration, is debated, but the one theory that makes the most sense to me is that it makes the web visible to birds so they do not fly through it, which would damage the web, forcing the spider spinner to have to re-spin it.

An old folk tale says that if you find your name written in the web, you only have a short time to live. I've checked a lot of spider scribbling in my life, and if your name is WWWWWWWWWWWW, then you better watch your step, avoid lightning, steel rigging, rock climbing, coal mining, fast cars, tsunamis, poorly maintained airplanes and unsinkable ships in the North Atlantic. Just a thought. 

Thanks, Tamera for the photo and query. 

Tuesday, September 3, 2013



Locally, the yellowing foxtail grass is an early prelude to autumn. There are many species in the genus Alopecurus, which literally means “foxtail," so it’s hard to tell one from the other.

The tall grass grows in tufts and produces green flowers in dense tubular panicles that mellow to golden maize in color, its seeds waiting to be spread. One of the dried flowers looks all the world like the last part of the fox as it disappears into its den.

Grass seeds are dispersed in a variety of ways, often they hitchhike as Tom Joad noted in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. (As you may recall, the novel begins with Joad hitchhiking back to his boyhood home.)

“The concrete highway was edged with a mat of tangled, broken, dry grass, and the grass heads were heavy with oat beards to catch on a dog’s coat, and foxtails to tangle in a horse’s fetlocks, and clover burrs to fasten in sheep’s wool; sleeping life waiting to be spread and dispersed.”

Joad's life had been asleep as well, but that was about to change as his family was about to be dispersed cross country.