Monday, March 31, 2014

A visit with Powell students

Powell High School AP Environmental Science class spring 2014

One week ago I visited with the AP Environmental Science class taught by Coach Will Roberts at Powell High School, a.k.a. Panther Nation.

We talked about conservation, environmental studies, book writing and my ancestral link
to the Great Smokies. Each student had been assigned to read a portion of my two books: Natural Histories and Ghost Birds.

Chapters we discussed included pawpaws, Osage orange and the recovery of the wild turkey. Also of interest were my favorite hiking trail in the national park: Mt. Cammerer and the new hiking and biking trails in the Knoxville Urban Wilderness: South Loop adjacent to Ijams. Click here for : map.

Best of luck to all of you!

Click these links for a look back at past visits:

Thursday, March 27, 2014


Study this photo closely. There is simply not another bird in this country hated as much as the European starling.

There are millions of them, millions, millions, millions, and we can blame the American Acclimatization Society and its president at the time, Eugene Schieffelin. The goal of the organization was to introduce into North America every bird species ever mentioned in the entire oeuvre of William Shakespeare.

We assume that perhaps the Bard would have been flattered. Perhaps. 

In 1890, after two failed attempts, Schieffelin released about 60 starlings into New York's Central Park, and the rest is history so to speak. 

Starlings have a post-Exxon Valdez oily look; they're also aggressive, noisy, messy, even mean. Most consider them a vile, spit on the ground, abomination, a Book of Job sorta pestilence.

But, of late, others are starting to see the beauty, the exquisite grace they achieve in vast flocks. In the case of starlings, there's artistry in numbers. Their aerial ballets performed at dusk are called murmurations. Each flying as one, yet in tune to the others, front and back, side to side, overhead and below. Flying as one.

Here's another video sent to me by a friend. As Winter says, their ability to dodge and weave and not crash into one another, to flow through the sky, to act as one even though they number in the thousands, is "almost inexplicable." Except it sounds so much better said with an English accent.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

nor'easter bomb?

Snow squall blowing into Knoxville

"The warmly cool, clear, ringing, perfumed, overflowing, redundant days, were as crystal goblets of Persian sherbet, heaped up—flaked up, with rose-water snow...But all the witcheries of that unwaning weather did not merely lend new spells and potencies to the outward world. Inward they turned upon the soul, especially when the still mild hours of eve came on; then, memory shot her crystals as the clear ice most forms of noiseless twilights. And all these subtle agencies, more and more they wrought on Ahab's texture." 

- From Moby Dick by Herman Melville

What again? Didn't spring arrive last week to much fanfare? Snow squalls passed through this afternoon, temps dropping to the low 20s tonight and a "nor'easter bomb" is predicted to hit the Northeast coast including Nantucket where Ismael and Queequeg set sail in the Pequod. 

Nor'easter bomb? 

We live in the Golden Age of Hyperbole or, at least, of robust monikers; the age of extreme sports like cliff jumping, ice climbing and bodyboarding. There's Old Spice Lionpride and Wolfthorn. The hockey team in Denver is the Avalanche. Dairy Queen has a Blizzard. Miami has the Hurricanes. There's energy drinks called Red Bull, Mad Dog, Monster Mean Bean and Black Mamba Venom and my Cracker Jacks are now Cracker Jack'd Buffalo Ranch. We're obsessed like Ahab with extreme nature. We put it in a can, splash it on our bodies.

Mamba venom? Smell like Lions? Drink a blizzard? Best not mess with nature or you get wrathful weather. While much to the chagrin of Captain Ahab, and much chagrined Old Testament Ahab—better not cross him or he'll kick you with his jawbone leg—that's why he chased his great white obsession, the original extreme sport. 

As for me? We can't seem to escape winter, it's cold in here and my feet hurt. More and more they all wrought my texture, but it probably needed wroughting.

Monday, March 24, 2014

thrasher buffet

Brown thrasher

When you and I think of "food," we think "kitchen." Or at least, that's what we've been taught since Mom took away the Gerber's and we became hunter/gatherers. 

Most of us are omnivores; we eat a range of things both plant and animal: fruits, nuts, chicken nuggets, gummy worms, Cheez-Doodles, whatever. We omnivores just aren't that picky when push comes to shove.

Brown thrashers are omnivores too. When they think "food," they think "straight down." They're ground foragers that use their long bills to rake leaves, flipping them over searching for fruits, nuts, chicken nuggets, gummy worms, Cheez-Doodles, whatever.

When we're hunger we generally don't look to the attic; we don't look up, we rummage through the kitchen looking for those gummy worms we bought last Halloween. Although brown thrashers are apt to visit a low-to-the-ground platform feeder, they generally don't go much higher. I said generally, there are no real absolutes in nature other than the speed of light and now we know that even that's relative to the observer. 

This is why I enjoyed the photos Tiffiny Hamlin sent me: a thrasher visiting the attic for food, i.e. her feeder loaded with a "bug, nuts, and berries cylinder." Now, that's a buffet that would attract the eye of a thrasher, and prompt a trip above ground.

Thanks, Tiffiny.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

rare grebes

Red-necked grebe
My friend Jason Sturner reports:

"Wanted to let you know about a rare bird sighting at Ijams. Yesterday morning I saw a red-necked grebe (and two horned grebes) at Forks of the River WMA [upstream from Ijams]. I came back in the evening, and the red-necked was near the boardwalk (the horned grebes were still in the Forks area)."

"Anyway, there's an irruption of water birds this year due to the extreme cold up north, where much of the Great Lakes froze over. Species have been on the move to find open water, including the red-necked grebe." 

Details about this irruption can be found here:

Thanks, Jason!

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

copper beeches?

"Immense, entirely itself, it wore that yard like a dress," writes contemporary poet Marie Howe in her poem "The Copper Beech."

All winter the local beeches have been clothed in shimmering copper. But why? This one has always baffled me knowing that everything in nature happens for a reason. Nothing is random. Nature has a fierce practicality about her.

Other trees cast off their leaves in autumn. They fall like confetti at a hero's parade. Why do beech trees hold onto their dead copper leaves all winter? They cling tight through wind, rain and sleet, only to be cast off at the slightest breeze in spring. But why?

Does the copper dress somehow protect the tree? 

If you know, please share the answer, otherwise I may not sleep.

Sunday, March 16, 2014


Red-tailed hawk
Photographer Chuck Cooper stopped by Ijams yesterday. The weather was balmy, so there were a lot of people on the plaza when I brought out the red-tailed hawk for her usual 3 o'clock walkabout.

Although I've been showing hawks at Ijams for almost 16 years, I've never really written about it. Few things in my life almost daily humble me or fill me with awe more. The feeling is one of power, not me but the hawk. I'm a mere mushy-around-the-edges human like an Oreo cookie inside out.

Owls are soft and even gentle. They can hurt you quickly, but they often like to be petted like cats. 

Not hawks. They're different. They can hurt you without even meaning to like chainsaws. They're wound tight. Hawk-eyed. Watchful with attentive stares like palace guards; their talons like Mughal daggers. Hawks draw blood with ease. Sheer power reverberates through them like an accelerating Harley on an open road. Redtails are the linebackers of the local hawk world with Ray Lewis strength. They hit and hit hard; striking from the air feet first. Without a heavy leather glove, a handler's hand would be quickly diced.

You have to be totally in the moment with such intensity perched on your arm; knowing that you are the weaker of the two. Indeed.

Thanks, Chuck!

Friday, March 14, 2014

short-eared revisited

Cades Cove off Hyatt Lane. Harrier and short-eared habitat

And a bit of old business: the short-eared owls that spent their winter in Cades Cove.

I didn't get to go see them so I asked my friend Laura Twilley to send me a report.

"It was a cold, cloudy, February 8th afternoon," emailed Laura.
"My husband Robert and I made the last minute decision to go see if we could find the owls.  We followed the directions found in various KNS articles, went to the second Cades Cove crossroad, parked and walked the road.  (Which, in and of itself, was a really nice walk.  We felt like the only people in the Cove.)

We didn't see anything for a long time and were about to give up, when Robert saw movement along the tree line. 
Like all other accounts, we saw them playing and flying about like moths.  It was fun to watch, but not close enough to photograph.

On our way back to the car, when we were given a show by a northern harrier, one of the owls decided it wanted to be seen up close and landed in a nearby tree.

Score!  But then...

And, that, was the day I got to see a short-eared owl.
Thanks, Laura!

Sunday, March 9, 2014

uncontained beauty

Cedar Glade: Forks-of-the-River

Yesterday, trail scout Eric Johnson and I led a Piece-by-Piece hike for Ijams in the Knoxville Urban Wilderness: South. We spent the afternoon on state-owned land, the eastern portion of Forks-of-the-River WMA, a cedar glade, admiring the terrain, hiking the bluff along the French Broad River. Decades ago the parcel almost became an industrial park, but public outcry saved it.

For most of our modern existence, nature has been viewed as a commodity to be harvested and expropriated. That began to change in the early 1800s and Emerson's essay simply titled "Nature" fired the first salvo for the new paradigm: nature as a paradise to be savored and protected. A spiritual sanctuary. Sanctum sanctorum. After Emerson came Thoreau, Burroughs, Muir and many, many others.

Here's an excerpt:

"I am the lover of uncontained and immortal beauty. In the wilderness, I find something more dear and connate than in streets or villages. In the tranquil landscape, and especially in the distant line of the horizon, man beholds somewhat as beautiful as his own nature.

The greatest delight which the fields and woods minister, is the suggestion of an occult relation between man and the vegetable. I am not alone and unacknowledged. They nod to me, and I to them. The waving of the boughs in the storm, is new to me and old. It takes me by surprise, and yet is not unknown. Its effect is like that of a higher thought or a better emotion coming over me, when I deemed I was thinking justly or doing right."

- From "Nature" by Ralph Waldo Emerson, first published in 1836

Bluff Trail: Knoxville Urban Wilderness

Thursday, March 6, 2014

100 year milestone

Special note:

On this date, March 6, 1914, Dr. James T., Jim Tanner, the protagonist in my book Ghost Birds, was born.

Also on this date, 24 years later: March 6, 1938, Jim took the famous photographs of the nestling ivory-bill perched on the head of game warden J. J. Kuhn's head.

This famous series of photos are the only ones known to exist of a NESTLING ivory-billed woodpecker.

For more information about that day in 1938, go to my article I penned in 2010, click: Smithsonian magazine

Wednesday, March 5, 2014


What is this? 

A forecast of sunny skies with highs in the 60s for Saturday? 

Can it be Ismael?

Join me for another Ijams "Piece-by-Piece" hike in the Knoxville Urban Wilderness: South.

Our goal is to hike all 40-plus miles. And if you are late getting started, or miss a piece, don't worry, we'll going to do them all again soon as we finish the first pass. You do not have to be an experienced hiker, most aren't. You just need a desire to get out and hike with friendly folks.

This month's hike is Saturday, March 8 at 1 p.m. To sign up call 577-4717, ext. 110.

See you there!

Sunday, March 2, 2014

la mer

Perhaps it's the unrelenting winter that won't let go; Monday's forecast: icy rain, temperatures in high-20s.

Perhaps it's because I am reading Moby Dick and just learned that the more distant part of the sea seen from the shore, beyond the anchoring ground is called the "offings." I didn't know that and have only been beyond the offings—out to sea—three times in my life: off Cape Cod to Nantucket, off Ocracoke Island and the Outer Banks, off Maui. Yes, Maui.

But, I have been thinking of the ocean for a while, or at least walking along a beach to gaze at the offings. It's been years for me.

But one thing leads to another and then another. There's a Hardee's commercial airing lately of a scantily clad beauty in a bikini walking out of the surf only to sit in the sand and very seductively start eating a fish sandwich almost as big as the great white whale. Now if I were a 20-year-old male, this would work for me. I'd eat fish with mucho tartar.

But, at my age the song playing in the background is more appealing: Bobby Darin's 1959 "Beyond the Sea." Its airiness makes it one of my favorites.

Now, if you know the song, you may not know that it's an English version of the older French song, "La Mer." Same tune, but totally different lyrics. As legend goes, Charles Trenet wrote the original French version in 1946 on toilet paper while traveling along the Mediterranean Sea. Great inspiration: the sea not the paper. His lyrics are more about the moods of the sea, while the American version is about finding love beyond the sea, or love unattainable with your feet rooted on solid ground.

Here we go back to Melville’s Ismael. In the opening chapter of the outcast's story, we learn the narrator suffers from melancholy and longs for the sea as a cure and perhaps romance: man and the sea, not man and woman. There's no women in Moby Dick, which is perhaps why everything is so dark and laced with melancholia. Truthfully, I am not a big fan of books or movies that are all male because there's usually a lot of violence and fighting or everyone dying in pursuit of a great white whale.

Ismael notes, “Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet…then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship."

Was Ismael as weary of winter as I? Was his sea, our spring?

Perhaps Ismael had Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) and didn't need to go to sea at all. He just needed the bright sunlight of the Carolina coast. Of course, the whole story of the Pequod, Queequeg and Ahab's obsession would have been lost.

Not wanting to end all damp and drizzly, here’s a real treat, “La Mer” in the original French.