Wednesday, January 29, 2014

doves attacked

Suspected gang leader: bad boy yellow-legged gull

Wanted for Questioning

Be on the lookout! Study the above surveillance photo carefully, and if you ask me, the suspect looks a bit hungover even for a gull.

Two overly aggressive bully-boy birds: a yellow-legged gull (Larus michahellis) and its partner, a hooded crow (Corvus cornix), are wanted for questioning in a brazen—in full-daylight—attack witnessed by thousands including Pope Francis in Vatican City on Sunday last.

Not since Scut and Grover bullied poor Ralphie has such a wanton act of intimidation been observed by so many. And this wasn't in some back alley. 

The Vatican victims were symbolic "peace doves," domestically bred to be saintly white to represent hope and a brighter tomorrow. They had just been released by the pontiff and two small children from his studio window overlooking St. Peter's Square before an audience of several thousand. In fact, it was standing room only. 

Pundits quickly seized on the inherit analogy of our modern world: peace and hope were quickly quashed by the dark lords of despair. 

Whereas any naturalist worth his weight in seasoned morels would point out that being snow white is not a good survival strategy in nature unless you live in the Arctic. North pole, yes; Central Italy, no. 

And any domesticated animal is helpless defending itself in the wild. This optimistic reporter, often accused of being something of a Pollyanna, believes the doves survived to represent peace and hope another day, although this could not be confirmed at post time. 

For the complete story, go to: Peace doves attacked.

Second suspect: bully boy Hooded crow

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Audubon's whooping crane

my favorite Audubon's:

Hooping Crane, (today, whooping crane)
Probably never very plentiful even in Audubon's day, whooping crane populations are making a slow comeback due to extensive conservation efforts. In the late 1940s, only about 20 still existed, today there's just over 500. In December, I saw one (a direct release juvenile) at Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge in Meigs County in East Tennessee. A coup. Audubon writes:

" While in the Floridas, I saw a few of these birds alive, but many which had been shot by the Spaniards and Indians, for the sake of their flesh and beautiful feathers, of which the latter they make fans and fly-brushes.”
By Audubon the naturalist, from his Ornithological Biography.

Yesterday, I spoke about Audubon's "Birds of America" at Wilderness Wildlife Week in Pigeon Forge. Why is Audubon relevant? Because in addition to his artistic talent, perseverance and derring-do, he was a darn good naturalist. A lot of what we know today about birds, the audacious, often farouche, John James Audubon was the first to put in print.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

wilderness week

LeConte Center at Pigeon Forge

New venue for WWW

The 24th Annual Wilderness Wildlife Week has moved to another venue: the beautiful new LeConte Center at Pigeon Forge. The yearly gathering features oodles of free activities and programs designed to connect visitors to nature.

Stop by and visit us at the Ijams booth! Also, this is my ninth year as a presenter, I will be doing five presentations:

Sat. Jan 25, 2:30 PM
TN Owls & Woodpeckers
Greenbrier Hall C

Mon. Jan 27, 1:30 PM
Audubon's "Birds of America"
South Room 1

Wed. Jan 29, 2:30 PM 
Secrets of Backyard Birds
South Room 3

Thurs, Jan 30, 3 PM
Ghost Birds: Tanner & the Ivorybill
South Room 2

Fri. Jan 31, 12:30 PM
IDing Local Birds of Prey
Greenbrier Hall A

Plus Paul James will be presenting:
Mon. Jan. 27, 11:30
Putting the Pigeon Back 
in Pigeon Forge
North Room 2


Friday, January 24, 2014

seeing red-shafted

Our last post that featured Joy Baker's photo of the undercarriage (unofficial avian nomenclature) of a Northern flicker reminded me of last year's Audubon (January February 2013) cover photo.

It was the grand prize winner in their 2012 photo contest, taken by Carol Cahil at Montaña de Ore State Park located in Los Osos, California. It shows a Northern flicker emerging from his nest hole.

And because it was in the west, it's  a "red-shafted" flicker not the "yellow-shafted" variety we have here in the east.

Love, love, love those salmon-colored feathers!

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

flicker caught flickering

Now, that's yellow.

When you think of yellow plumage, you think goldfinch or yellow warbler or maybe the vanishing evening grosbeak. You don't generally think woodpecker, after all, they are black and white and red, right?

That's why I love the above photo of a Northern flicker in flight recently sent to me by Joy Baker. 

A flickering fire of  Y - E - L - L - O - W  !   

Now you see it, now you don't.

That's because the modest yellowhammer of Alabama fame keeps its dazzling yellow, its flicker, hidden under a spotted tawny, beige wrap.

Curiously, not all flickers are yellow underneath. They occur in two distinct sub-species that intermingle and produce mixed clutches where their ranges overlap.

wiki media
The Yellow-shafted Flicker (Colaptes auratus auratus) resides in eastern North America: Texas and Great Plains east to Atlantic Coast. They are yellow under the tail and underwings (like Joy's photo) and have yellow shafts on their primaries. Colaptes comes from the Greek verb colapt, to peck. Auratus is from the Latin root aurat, meaning "gold" or "golden" and refers to the bird's underwing.

The Red-shafted Flicker (Colaptes auratus cafer) resides in western North America. They are red under the tail and underwings and have red shafts on their primaries. 

Thanks for the use of the top photo, Joy! 

Yellowhammer's yellow-shaft

Monday, January 20, 2014

Remembering Nancy

My Least Favorite Moment of 2013.

Before we move on, there was one deeply personally sad moment in 2013. The death of my long-time friend, Nancy Tanner. I wrote a book about her late husband Jim's search for the ivory-billed woodpecker in the late 1930s. 
I also wrote an article about Nancy and the last time she saw the fabled Ghost Birds for this month's issue of The Tennessee Conservationist. Here's an excerpt...

It was late December 1941. James T. “Jim” Tanner and his new bride Nancy were in the Singer Tract, a parcel of woodland that cradled the Tensas River in northeast Louisiana. 

The swampy, bottomland was familiar to ornithologist Jim, he had spent several years doing field research on the ivory-billed woodpecker while a doctorial candidate at Cornell University.

Only weeks after President Roosevelt proclaimed the “date that would live in infamy,” the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Jim wanted to see the elusive Ghost Birds one more time before entering the military. Nancy was with him and as it turned out, it would be the last time either Tanner saw an ivorybill, a bird that has been linked with the name Tanner ever since.

“Everybody has to be famous for something,” Nancy once told Knoxville News-Sentinel’s poplar columnist Sam Venable. Although at least three other people saw the same female ivorybill after Jim and Nancy did in late 1941, Nancy was the only one still living that could say I’ve seen the Ghost Bird, the only one with an universally accepted sighting...

For the rest of the article look for the January/February 2014 issue of The Tennessee Conservationist. 

For more about my remembrances, click Nancy.

For Sam Venable's remembrances, click You gotta to be famous for something.

Friday, January 17, 2014

#1 Back of Beyond

My Favorite Nature Moments of 2013.

Some afternoons are perfect, far from the madding crowd, the corporate, urban, twittering madding crowd.

On a high country backroad, birding the back of beyond with those closest to you, those that mean something, a graveled way but just barely, that fades to dirt then only a deer path, forest that opens to a meandering mountaintop meadow after a spring rain with the clouds still scratching their bellies on the ridges. Still dripping. 

The mating songs of male wood warblers and vireos and grosbeaks just back from the tropics. Expectant. The hoodeds, the chestnut-sideds, the redstarts.  A paradise for birds. The Tennessee tropics.

A day in May. Fresh. Vernal. Verdant. Supple, still new and moist. The gala premier. When the new year is finally unfurled. It speaks! I'm green. I'm lush. I'm brash. I'm in your face. I'm alive, sensual, still dripping. Still wet, still sodden, still soaked to the skin with the amniotic fluid of spring. 


Yes, some afternoons are perfect.

More? Click: Birding the back of beyond in May.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

#2 Ceruleans

Cerulean Warbler. Wiki photo by mdf

My Favorite Nature Moments of 2013.

Arguably, the most beautiful hard-to-find bird in my area is the cerulean warbler. They are not here in January, so don't go looking for them. All of the ceruleans in the entire universe—as we know it—are in the mountains of Venezuela and Columbia south to Ecuador and Peru and possibly into portions of Bolivia, i.e. the higher elevations of northern South America. They are all fattening up, waiting to return to the states in the spring as soon as these Arctic clippers cease and desist. And the yellow-green blush returns to the canopy.

The males ceruleans arrive first to claim territory and they like the high ridges in the Cumberlands. 

Last April, I accompanied Tiffany Beachy to Royal Blue, specifically to several plots she monitored from 2005 to '07, as part of her cerulean warbler field research under the tutelage of Dr. David Buehler with the University of Tennessee.

For more on that outing, click: Ceruleans in April.
This one's for you, Emily and Than. Thanks, Tiffany.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

#3 Hummingbirds

My Favorite Nature Moments of 2013.

I've held hawks. Intense, strong. I've held owls. Wide-eyed, soft. I've held feisty, screaming kestrels and a good list of chickadees, wrens and other small songbirds. But, holding a ruby-throated hummingbird is something all together different.

The three-ounce (the same weight as two dimes) nectar-loving feathered infinitesimals are virtually non-existent in your hand. It's like holding a hope, or a promise.  

They go limp. You have to take it on good faith they're alive and you aren't grasping too tightly.

Every summer, KTOS, the local bird club, and Ijams host a Hummingbird Festival in late August. Hummers are caught and banded by local licensed bander Mark Armstrong.

The one in my hand in these photos flew into our greenhouse a few days before the event and was unable to find its exit. After catching it in a large butterfly net, I carried the foundling outside, not knowing if the feathered mircle was still living and breathing. Opening my hand and giving it a nudge, I was relieved when it bolted to life and flew away. The evanescence—and in this case I'm using it as a noun—vanished like morning mist.

For more about last year's festival, click: Hummingbirds in August

-Photos by Rex McDaniel

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

#4 Creek Walk

My Favorite Nature Moments of 2013.

Ijams provides a safe place for urban kids to explore the outdoors. And the summer months at Ijams are for the camp kids. Eight weeks of activities, each week a different age group. Eight weeks of fun, learning, games, crafts, long hikes, exhaustion. 

We sincerely hope that the youngsters have as much fun as we oldsters. We all get camp names and shed our urban identities.

Most kids love the creek walks, it's part adventure, part scary, part exploration, part refreshing, especially on a hot July afternoon. (That's me in the rear carrying the crawdad bucket.) As Richard Louv pointed out in his book, "Last Child in the Woods," children today do not get to "explore" their world as our generation did. That's were Ijams plays an important role.

I grew up in Gatlinburg. Exploring Baskins Creek looking for crawdads was the way to escape the heat of a hot July afternoon.

This group of "creek-walkers" encountered a small northern brown watersnake sunning itself on a rock. 

"Let's just pass the snake quietly and slowly," I said. "Hopefully, it'll stay on its rock. Underwater, we have no idea where it's at." 

We all did that, and the snake proved much too comfortable to move. 

For more highlights, click: summer camp in July.

Monday, January 13, 2014

#5 Freshwater jellies

Freshwater jellyfish. Wiki commons

My Favorite Nature Moments of 2013.

This is a classic fish story, the one that got away story, although in this case the fish is a jellyfish, a small ephemeral beastie.

Eliot hunting jellies
Freshwater jellyfishCraspedacusta sowerbii, the medusa adult stage, appear ever so often in Mead's Quarry Lake at Ijams. In 2011, we located jellies several times and since they have a two-year lifecycle, I expected to find them again this past summer. They generally appear near the surface of the water during the heat of late summer: August through October.

We made several canoe trips during this timeframe last summer, searching methodically, but our buckets came up empty.

Jar of jelly
That is not to say, our summer was jellyless. 

Ijams member, Brian Bonnyman, located and was able to catch five in a lake in Blount County while kayaking. 

Brian gave them to me and for a week the little ghosts lived in a jar on the front desk at Ijams for all to see, until eventually they became real ghosts. (I'm still working on my jellyfish husbandry.)

Yet, suffice it to say, thanks to Brian, for a brief time I did hold lightning in a bottle.

Go here for photos and video: Brian's jellies. 

Brian Bonnyman

Saturday, January 11, 2014

#6 The Naturalists

On the River Trail at the geologic fold

My Favorite Nature Moments of 2013.

This remembrance of lost time is indeed moments. Plural. Months of moments engaged with a group of people: Bill, Cindy, Joe, Joel, Judy, Laura, Libby, Linda, Liz, Lucy, Mac, Mary, Rich, Shelley, Sue and Tammy. All enrolled in our first TN Naturalist program at Ijams. Sixteen classes that ran from April to December.  These are good people who took joy out of how nature stitches itself together.

Ijams education staff: Jen, Peg, Dr. Louise, Sabrina and I all taught portions of the wide curriculum.

Whenever possible, we went outside. And Ijams is now 300-acres, so why not?

Mine began in early May with a visit to a red-shouldered hawk's nest and a fly over by a bald eagle—I kid you not, I have 15 witnesses—while I just happened to be talking about raptors; and wrapped up with two cold geology walks, click: Naturalists in December.

We'll end this with Whitman...

"Now I see the secret of the making of the best persons
Is to grow in the open air, and to eat and sleep with the earth"

Friday, January 10, 2014

#7 Shrike

Loggerhead shrike. Photo wiki commons

My Favorite Nature Moments of 2013.

Study the above photo closely. Commit it to memory. Notice the intense stare, the black Zorro mask, the thorny branch the bird is perched on. Confident. Cocky. This is the mugshot of a cold-blooded serial killer; a songbird that thinks it's a raptor.

Eliot Shearwater turned Parulidae and I set out last February to find the loggerhead shrike that had been reported in New Market, much to the terror of the shrews that lived near the road. We didn't find the predator, but from the grisly evidence discovered, we didn't need the folks from CSI to know we were in the right place. 

For more from the crime scene, click: Shrikeless in February.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

#8 Monarch

My Favorite Nature Moments of 2013.

In October after an all day rain, a soaking rain, heavy long hours, followed by a slow clearing, I spotted this monarch butterfly caterpillar just as it was beginning to metamorphose into its chrysalis. 

Most caterpillars find an out-of-the-way place to rearrange their corporeal form. I know I would. Perhaps the rain prevented it. It's messy work, as close to an everyday miracle as we get to witness: from caterpillar to gelatinous goop to butterfly that has enough chutzpa to find and fly to Mexico.But oddly, this one chose a highly visible park bench, an unlikely place to go through the change of life.
Rex McDaniel managed to get a bit of video. Click: Monarch in October.

The story ended well, after about two weeks it reemerged and flew away.  

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

#9 Bobwhite

Northern bobwhite. Photo by Kristy Keel.

My Favorite Nature Moments of 2013.

When I'm pummeled by the wind of winter, away from my billet, cold and damp, I imagine a lush green woods in spring. Warm breeze. Fresh with new life. "Out of the cradle endlessly rocking." Yet, sometimes that new life is unexpected.

The 300-acres of Ijams is mostly wooded, the few open areas we have are small, so imagine my surprise when former AmeriCorps member Kristy Keel found a northern bobwhite 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.

No one on staff had ever seen a bobwhite quail at Ijams!

Bobwhites are not woodland birds, plus their population numbers have dramatically dropped in the past 40 years. Seeing one anywhere is special, especially eye-to-eye. 

For more of this quail story, click: Bobwhite in June.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

#10 Foggy morning

My Favorite Nature Moments of 2013.

What is that old saying? For each foggy morning canoe trip we have in the fall, there will be a polar vortex in the winter.

No, that doesn't sound quite right, not Poor Richard Almanacish enough. The sentence simply doesn't sing.

Must be a cabin fever flashback to that early morning, misty trip my group took on Mead's Quarry Lake. Couldn't see from one side of the lake to the other, and it's not that big. For more, click: Foggy morning in September.

Monday, January 6, 2014

#11 Sandhill cranes

Sandhill Cranes. Photo wiki media

My Favorite Nature Moments of 2013.

More cold weather coming. The media is calling it a Polar Vortex, giving this weather system its own name no less: "Ion."

I have it on good authority that we once called this sort of thing a "Cold Snap." But that's not intense enough. Ion. Sounds ominous.

Reminds me of another cold and snowy day last winter. Click: Sandhill watching in February

Postscript: Last year was not a good one for sandhill cranes in our state. In August, the Tennessee Fish and Wildlife Commission passed (much to the chagrin of 88 percent of the state's respondents) a limited hunting season on the beautiful birds.


Sunday, January 5, 2014

#12 Timberdoodles

American woodcock. Photo Wiki media

My Favorite Nature Moments from 2013.

Each year is marked by passages: first vine-ripened tomato, the return of chimney swifts to my chimney, the first blooming Mayapple, the last hummingbird at the feeder.

For me, a sure sign that winter is giving away to spring are the calling of toads and the search for displaying woodcocks, stocky camouflaged upland shorebirds that call "peeeeeent" to find a mate. 

Each year we search at twilight in big boggy fields. Here's a peek at last year's. Click: Woodcocks in March.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

#13 Sturgeon

Lake sturgeon photo courtesy of Thom Benson, 
The Tennessee Aquarium

Cold. A new year. Winter weather has arrived and decided to stay awhile. 

Hands shaking. Tiny beads of perspiration starting to trickle down my forehead. Lightheaded.

Cabin fever? Must be. 

Must think about something else, something pleasant. Something outside.

How about My Favorite Nature Moments from last year? That will take my mind off my entrapment.

Number 10. Click: Lake sturgeon release in October.

Friday, January 3, 2014


“I wished to acquire the simplicity, native feelings, and virtues of savage life; to divest myself of the factitious habits, prejudices and imperfections of civilization; to become a citizen of the world; and to find, amidst the solitude and grandeur of the western wilds, more correct views of human nature and of the true interests of man.”

– Estwick Evans (1787-1866) An attorney who walked, in the dead of an extreme winter, from his home in New Hampshire to Detroit dressed in buffalo skins. He wanted to experience the wilderness first hand.