Thursday, October 31, 2013

home invasion

Are you afraid of snakes? 

You really do not need to be, they are just here to help keep a balance.

I am posting this late, it happened in June, but it has a scary quality fitting for the week of Halloween. Scary that is if you are a wren.

Suzy and I were aware of a pair of Carolina wrens tending a second or third brood in a nest box off the second floor deck on the side of the house 15 FEET off the ground. Yes, 15 feet up. 

All seemed to be going well until one day, when the pair became highly agitated, fussing, alarm call after alarm call. AND, and this is a big AND, neither were going near their brood, their raison d'être. 

Leaning out with a long stick, I opened the box, and viola, soon discovered the the cause of alarm. A smallish black rat snake had climbed the 15 feet and entered the box.

Using the stick to slowly clear out the nesting material I found no eggs, no nestlings, only the snake.

Such things happen. That's why birds often have a second or third brood. 

But, if you feel uneasy in your cozy nest. You better peek under your mossy bed.   

Sunday, October 27, 2013

dogwood spring?

"To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, a time to reap that which is planted" sang the folk-rock group The Byrds in 1965. Of course, they borrowed it from Pete Seeger of the late 1950s who borrowed it heavily from Solomon and the King James version of Ecclesiastes 3:1. No copyright protection there.

Point is, everything has a season, or once upon a time it did. Now it seems one season doesn't blend into another, it's all become a curious farrago of highs and lows and wets and dries. Topsy-turvy, in your face climate change.

Here in the valley, it April-showered into July, then the tap was turned off. Summer lingered to October, then we had frost followed this upcoming week by four days of spring ending in thunderstorms. 

One of my rhododendrons started to bloom six months early then changed its mind and ordered a pizza instead.

Charlie Morgan sent me these two above photos of the same dogwood in her yard that has fall colors and fruits AND spring flowers.

I read it's supposed to be a pretty horrid winter. But don't "they" say that every year?

So is it a time to be born or die?

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Return to Panther Nation

It was time this week for my annual visit with the AP Environmental Science class taught by Will Roberts at Powell High School, a.k.a. Panther Nation.

We talked about conservation, environmental studies, the creation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and my ancestral link, plus my two books: Natural Histories and Ghost Birds.

Also of interest were freshwater jellyfish and mussels, the decline in amphibian populations, the medicinal properties of passionflower, the recovery of the whooping crane, wild turkey and bald eagle and many other topics of local interest.

Click these links for a look back at past visits:

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

hiding in plain sight

Giant Walkingstick (Megaphasma dentricus)

And speaking of phantoms at Halloween. We were talking about phantoms weren't we? 

Few things thrill me like finding walkingsticks, insects in the order Phasmatodea, derived from the Greek "phasm" meaning phantom.


They indeed are phantoms, because they are darn hard to find. Their number one line of defense is blending in, camouflage by mimicking branches. On a tree or shrub they are impossibly impossible to see. But if you happen to find one splayed out on one of your car's tires. 

Viola! There it is!

Walkingsticks, and there are hundreds of species worldwide, are known for effectively replicating the forms of sticks and leaves. Some species have the ability to change color as their surroundings shift. A number of species perform a rocking motion where the body is swayed from side to side; this is thought to mimic the movement of leaves or twigs swaying in the breeze. Another method by which stick insects avoid predation and resemble twigs is by feigning death, where the insect enters a motionless state that can be maintained for a long period. 

The one motionless on my tire was there for hours until I had to move it.

Walkingsticks are herbivores. They do not eat other insects. Most captive-reared species eat bramble leaves, privet, oak, ivy and rose.

In 1987, I spent one night on the island of Barbados in the Caribbean. (Why only one night in paradise? Long story.)

There walkingsticks are called God-Horses by the locals because it is believed that God often rides around the island hidden on the back of one, making him next to invisible.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

fly bubbles?

I often say that nature is not always pretty, but it's always interesting.

The more time I spend looking into its processes, the more I'm amazed. After a lifetime of marvels, I'm still marveled almost daily.

My friend Rex McDaniel always finds the most interesting things as well. In this case, he sent me the above photo and asked, "Why do flies blow bubbles?" 

I had no idea they were so talented. Isn't flying alone enough?

As it turns out they blow clear or even opaque bubbles. I knew that some flies had an interesting way of eating. Digestion takes place externally. When they find food—say a bread crumb—they regurgitate essentially stomach acids on the morsel. It's then broken down into a liquid and the fly sucks it up like a bread crumb milkshake. (Flavor of the month at your local Tastee Dog.)

One theory has it that flies blow bubbles to eliminate some of the liquid in the pre-digested food, while holding onto the nutrients it contained. I assume it's too hard to fly so bulked up by extra fluid. For a fly to fly, even a teardrop would weigh too much.

Not pretty, but certainly interesting.

Thanks, Rex!

Friday, October 18, 2013

I go Pogo

Walt Kelly, creator of the comic strip Pogo, died on this date 18 October, 1973. 40 years ago. 

Above is the Earth Day poster Kelly drew in 1971.

Monday, October 14, 2013

scent spots

Monarch butterflies are still passing through the valley. 

Here's the way to tell the males from the females: look at the hind wings. And here's another interesting nature word: androconium, pronounced [an-druh-KOH-nee-uhm]. They are scent scales on male butterflies. The dark spots 
(plural-androconia) on the top photo are the male's scent glands. The bottom photo is a female. Her hind wings have thicker veins but lack the dark spots of the androconium. 

Now you know.


Tuesday, October 8, 2013

independence ink

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

A remarkable declaration of independence that was first recorded with fermented berries.

Plump and red, filled with juice. The berries of pokeweed a.k.a. poke are ripening in the Tennessee Valley. Although they are toxic and inedible, we have found other uses for the juicy red fruits.

Collected and mashed, they yield a red ink or dye that was once used by Native Americans to decorate their horses.

But, as it so happens, another folk name for the plant is "inkberry." In 1776, the framers of the American Declaration of Independence—Mr. Jefferson, et al—used a small pot of fermented pokeberry juice to draft the document. It must have originally appeared as though it was scribed in blood, as did many letters written home by soldiers in the field during the American Civil War. After it ages, pokeberry ink turns a lovely shade of brown.

Now that I have ripe poke berries all around me, do I have anything important to declare? Any pursuit of happiness that needs announcing?

Thursday, October 3, 2013


OK. Perhaps we all should stop watching television and go outside for a walk. The news from Washington is starting to scare me.  Trouble tends to trickle down.

I’m a writer/naturalist, which means I already live pretty close to the bone. (I actually think we stewed the bone and served it with rice last week.)

You might think that during nervous times nature would become a bit more parsimonious, hunker down and produce less fruit. Nay, nature don't read the news.

Yet, one remarkable thing of note, a Carolina buckthorn at Ijams Nature Center is loaded with fruit. Also known as Indian cherry, these small fruits that will turn dark purplish-black when ripe, are highly prized by berry-eating birds, so at least the mockingbirds will eat well if even we do not.