Friday, May 30, 2014

talking Audubon

Yellow-billed cuckoo and pawpaws, Number 1 Plate 2. 1827.

Special thanks to Dusty Walker and the Friends of the King Family Library in Sevierville. Last night, I was invited to speak about one of my favorite topics: John James Audubon and the creation of his "Birds of America" in the early 1800s. It was a monumental undertaking in art, printmaking and publishing, a good subject for a friendly library group.

Carolina parakeet. No. 6. Pl. 26. 1829
Audubon's original Double Elephant Folio with 435 hand-colored prints took 12 years to produce in England. It showcases not only the work of Audubon and his assistant artists but also the remarkable engraving skills of Robert Havell Jr. and his team of colorists. Yes, it took a village. 

Today, only 120 complete sets still survive, either as loose sheets or in leather-bound volumes.

To view the first volume in an eight volume collection belonging to the University of Pittsburgh (some collections are bound into four volumes), go to the University of Michigan on-line library: Audubon: Volume 1.  

Outgoing president Kate Carlyle addresses the group

Incoming officers: Chuck Flammang, Dusty Walker, moi, Sharon Duff, 
Cathy Dronen and Diane Johnson.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

on the bluff with WBIR's Emily

Ijams Nature Center kicks off it's summer hiking program with its best hike! Saturday, May 31, 10 a.m.

Join me for a walk at High Ground Park and Fort Higley, plus a short hike to the best view of Knoxville from above the Tennessee River at River Bluff. In a word: it's spectacular! (OK. That's two words and one of them is a contraction, so that's really like three words crammed together.)

This walkabout program is free for Ijams members and $5 for non-members. We'll meet at the Visitor Center and caravan to the trailhead. Please call 577-4717, ext. 110 to register. 

Today, I gave WBIR's Live@5@4 reporter Emily Stroud and videographer Jerry Owens a preview: River Bluff with Emily.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

grand flora

Somehow, you know summer is almost here when the Southern magnolia begin to bloom.

In East Tennessee, we have seven species of magnolia: cucumber, umbrella, bigleaf, Fraser, sweetbay, Southern and tuliptee, but it’s the Southern magnolia with its enormous (up to 12 inches in diameter) citronella-scented white flowers that is so associated with the Deep South and sultry, hot afternoons; it's the polished, aristocrat of Southern trees. The evergreen with large glossy leaves was often planted near the house, where with a pitcher of fresh-squeezed lemonade, it could be admired from the shade of the front porch.

In 1703, Charles Plumier described a flowering tree from the island of Martinique. Plumier gave the species, known locally as “Talauma,” the genus name Magnolia, to honor renowned French botanist Pierre Magnol from Montpellier, thus establishing the generic name for the group.

Three decades later, in his “Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands,” published between 1731 and 1743, English naturalist Mark Catesby writes about a tree he found in his travels in the New World. He called the tree Magnolia virginiana. Today the Southern magnolia that grows from coastal Virginia to Florida and across the Gulf Coast states is known as Magnolia grandiflora, or "Magnolia with the large flowers." Simply put.

Indeed, no other tree in this region has a flower so enormous and satisfyingly grand.

- Photo taken at Ijams Nature Center

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

on the lake with WBIR's Emily

WBIR Channel 10's Live@5@4 reporter Emily Stroud had never been in a canoe, but that was about to change.

It can change for you too. Join me this Saturday, May 24, 8 a.m. for an Ijams Paddle-About (Ages 5 and up)  

Mead’s Quarry Lake is one of the most dramatic small lakes in the area, and early in the morning is the best time to explore it. These trips are perfect for families and new paddlers. Both canoes and kayaks are available. Space is limited. Please call (865) 577-4717, ext. 119 to register.

Click here to see how Emily does: First time in a canoe.

Monday, May 19, 2014

oodles of drupes

The mockingbirds (a.k.a. foolish for fruit) must be going crazy.

Mulberries—from the Old English mōrberie—are ripe and the few trees I’ve seen are loaded with berries this year, oodles of fruit, although, not a true berry, the fruits are really clusters of luscious drupes, each containing a small seed.

There are several red mulberry trees growing at Forks-of-the-River near Ijams and birds are not the only two-legged chordate feasting on the blackberry-like morsels. I’ve seen a few people eating them as well. 

Did I say they were luscious? 

They'll also stain your hands bright red, but you can lick the juice off your fingers. It's okay to be a kid, no one is watching.

Mulberry trees do not produce such huge crops every year; it would be too taxing. Generally they only oodle up every two or three springs. But this apparently is a big year, so go out and find a handful before the mockingbirds eat them all.

Friday, May 16, 2014

best job, yes me

Last February, I heard keynote speaker, Knoxville News-Sentinel columnist Sam Venable, at the Rose Glen Literary Festival in Sevierville. Sam told the luncheoneers a few of the humorous stories he had written about over the past 40 years. (My favorite: an entire funeral procession in cars that took the time to go through a KFC drive thru for chicken dinners here in East Tennessee. I'm sure the deceased would have wanted everyone to have lunch.) Sam also announced that he had the "best job in Knoxville."

Now, I like Sam, read Sam all the time and love his off-beat stories which he swears he never makes up, because truth is stranger than fiction. I agree. But Sam got one thing wrong. I have the "best job" in Knoxville: a senior naturalist at Ijams Nature Center.

Every week I get to walk and talk about nature here in the Tennessee Valley. Some days it's lively kindergarten kids, some days its precocious third-graders and some days it's completely grown-up kids with cars and mortgages and garages that need to be cleaned out...some day.

Today, it was my demographic: the lively, precocious, completely grown-up over 50 AARP crowd at the Seniors Outdoors Urban Wilderness event held at Mead's Quarry at Ijams. There were multiple hikes and walks and speakers and a little bit of lingering rain with surprisingly cool temperatures for May. But all went well and lunch was provided! I led two quarry history/natural history walkabouts along the east flank of Mead's, a former working quarry pit that's now a beautiful 25-acre lake.

Special thanks to the event's organizers and sponsors: Tennova, CAC Office on Aging, City of Knoxville, Legacy Parks Foundation, Local 8: WLVT, Happy Hikers and Ijams Nature Center!

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

yellow, I'd swim across

Oh, the buttercups! Fields and fields of yellowy buttercups. It’s as though some master cake baker frothed the valley with lemon frosting.
If it weren’t for the barbed wire fences, I’d park my car and swim through the thigh-deep saffron. (Yet, another reason I don’t like barbed wire. Yes, Monsieur Jannin, I’ve torn many pairs of jeans on your “fil de fer barbelé.)
I'm reminded of the song "Yellow" by Coldplay: "I swam across, I jumped across for you, Oh what a thing to do. Cos you were all yellow, I drew a line, I drew a line for you, Oh what a thing to do, And it was all yellow."
I really never understood the lyrics until I saw the fields of buttercups. Yes, a sea of yellow to swim, if I can only jump across the fence.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Dawn Chorus

"...and that is how all my best days begin."

My friend Jason Sturner recently had one of his poems read in the U.K. on Open Mike, a radio program.

This is how the poem begins,

               In spring, they sing:
          warblers, all.
          An earthly opus
          sprung wide and free
          through dawn.

To hear the rest, click: Dawn Chorus
Congratulations, Jason!

Saturday, May 10, 2014

the sad, gory news

Sit down. Pour yourself the beverage of your choice.

Here's the sad news. Not all baby birds survive. Not all clutches make it.

It's a rough world for a baby bird. Sometimes their parents choose a poor site for a nest. There are also heavy spring storms, strong winds. There are predators looking for a quick meal: Cooper's hawks, crows, raccoons, black rat snakes, etc. etc.

American robins can produce three broods a year but it is estimated that only 40 percent are successful. Yet, most avian species are doing well however, even growing in population (particularly robins) because they do manage to produce oodles of young.

Mourning doves can produce six broods a year and they are still classified as a game-bird so there is dove hunting in the fall. It is estimated that up to 20 million doves are shot by hunters. Yet, the species thrives.

Most young birds in our area are raised by male and female partnerships working together. They form pair bonds.  

The above photo I took on Wednesday shows a Canada goose family doing well. Mom and dad watching the brood.

The bottom photo I took last week shows a Carolina wren clutch that didn't survive, probably the victim of a marauding raccoon that for some reason left one of the lifeless nestlings hanging from the box. Gory! Gory! Crime scene photo! I suspect mom and dad chased it away but too late to save this clutch.

But don't worry, they'll start over. The season is still young, but let's hope they choose a better nest box. 

Crime scene photo

Friday, May 9, 2014

why yellow-green early?

Early spring leaves are so beautiful.

But, I need help.

I’m having trouble remembering this one. I’ve put so much stuff in my brain, I think some of it is oozing out of my ears. I tend to wear my hair long to hide the leakage.

Why are new spring leaves yellow-green? But by summer, these same leaves have turned to a darker blue-green?

As I recall it has something to do with spring leaves having more cholorophyll A, which is a yellow-green pigment. Later on, the leaves produce more cholorophyll B, which is a blue-green pigment.

But, if this is true, why? Is there a practical reason that cholorophyll A emerges first?  

I even dug out my botany textbook from college but couldn't find an answer.

Is there a botanist out there?

Thursday, May 8, 2014

on the trail with WBIR's JJ

Special thanks to WBIR reporter JJ Jones for stopping by Ijams yesterday for a visit. What did we do? Go for a walk, of course.

Click: On the trail.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

third-grade owlogy

What is more fun than a third-grader? 

How about two, three or even rooms full of third-graders!

Yesterday, I visited the 162 third-graders at Brickey McCloud Elementary and we talked food chain, herbivores, insectivores, omnivores, carnivores and especially the local mouse-eating owls. By the time the day was over we were all experts in owlogy!

Lesson learned: regurgitated owl pellets is not a popular topic with everyone.

That would be moi in the middle!

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

a different drummer

Henry David Thoreau's grave, I visited in June 2012

"If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away."

As indeed, he did.

Passage from "Walden: or, Life in the Woods," first published in 1854. Henry David died 152 years ago today.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

social mixers


They’re congregating again; holding their conventions. Swapping stories, gossip, smells, locations of succulent trees, who knows what?

Box elder bugs.

They gather this way winter through spring: large masses of the striking red and black insects. They’re true bugs along with cicadas, leafhoppers, spittlebugs and aphids in the order Hemiptera: from the Greek hemi (half) and pteron (wing). This refers to the forewings of many hemipterans which are hardened near the base, but membranous at the ends.

Why box elder bugs gather is something of a mystery to me. Often it's on the side of a building where there is no food. They seem to be just hanging out.

The red and black hemis feed on the softer plant tissues: leaves, flowers and new twigs of female box elder trees, shunning the male trees (another mystery to me). They also dine on other types of maples and ashes but cause little damage to the trees.

One source noted that after the gatherings, the mated pairs leave the groups to mate. The females then disperse to lay their eggs in the trees, so perhaps these clusterings are like social mixers where unattached males and females can meet and get to know each other. (Pure speculation. If there's an entomologist out there, I could use a little guidance.)

I took this photo near the Visitor Center at Ijams after a rain. It looks like a pomegranate exploded. It appears to be mostly immature nymphs (the solid red ones) in various stages of development. The few adults in the picture (there's one in the upper right hand corner) have blackish wings.

-Photo taken at Ijams Nature Center.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

the light


Crossvine photo. 

It's soft. 

So soft it looks like a painting.
You can almost smell its mocha scent. Almost see the hummingbird waiting nearby.

It just happened. 

Sitting in my office the other morning, I noticed the light. It was cloudy, the light diffused. There was no wind. A gentle kind of morning, the light was perfect for a good photograph. 

Grabbing my camera, I trotted outside for a ten minute break. 

"Do you see something?" Asked Jennifer as I passed. 

"No." I said. "Not yet. But it's the light." Ansel Adams taught me that many years ago. And now, I've been taking photos long enough to know that it's always the light. In the right light, there's a good photo waiting. It's out there. 

All you have to do is find it.

Friday, May 2, 2014

happy crickets

"I just can't get enough, enough, enough of you!"


Remember the term. You may be hearing it soon on late-night infomercials about a revolutionary new product that will put the spring back into your step. That is if only they can get it to work on people the way it affects crickets.

Iridovirus is a group of viruses that can produce a contagious aphrodisiac that makes crickets want to mate and mate and mate, thus moving the iridovirus from host to host through contact. 

Post doc researcher Shelley Adamo and her team at Dalhousie University in Halifax discovered the Valentine Bug but they'll have to work out a few...well, bugs...before it can go commercial, nasty side affects: the crickets become sterile, their guts turn bright blue and they die in a few weeks. It's a lot like going on your honeymoon to an exotic island and not coming back, alive.

(Quandary: Is it better to die happy with a blue belly in the arms of Aphrodite or alone in a cold, damp basement?)

For the complete THIS IS REAL story go to NPR Happy Crickets.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

passing bliss

Rose-breasted grosbeaks have been passing through the Tennessee Valley migrating north to their breeding grounds. Much to my good fortune, several have stopped by my feeder in the past few days.

John James Audubon wrote about an encounter he had with one at night while camping on the Mohawk River in the early 1800s.

“The evening was calm and beautiful, the sky sparkled with stars, which were reflected by the smooth waters, and the deep shade of the rocks and trees of the opposite shore fell on the bosom of the stream…

“I closed my eyes, and was passing away into the world of dreaming existence, when suddenly there burst on my soul the serenade of the Rose-breasted bird, so rich, so mellow, so loud in the stillness of the night, that sleep fled from my eyelids. Never did I enjoy music more: it thrilled through my heart, and surrounded me with an atmosphere of bliss.”

-Photo by John Harrison