Wednesday, June 25, 2014

woolly bears & such

And speaking of woolly worms, when last we met, there's a large group of moth caterpillars collectively known as woolly worms or, as I prefer, woolly bears, that grow up to be rather spectacular moths; some even make long-range weather predictions.

Gretchen Kirkland sent me this photo of a giant—for obvious reasons—leopard moth (Hypercompe scribonia), found in her backyard. This striking creature had spent its wayward days of youth trundling about as a woolly bear caterpillar. 

Wiki media
This falls under the category of the weird wonderfulness of life: little creatures that amble about unnoticed with spikes, waxy filaments and/or bristles, a.k.a. setae, because it is to their evolutionary advantage to do so. It seems to me that wearing a coat of bristles that look like a black bottle brush would be cumbersome. But the protection that it affords gives it the opportunity to metamorphose into the above giant leopard moth in a coat that Cruella de Vil would kill for. 

Getting from point A to point B—caterpillar to moth—is nothing less than miraculous, when somewhere in between it breaks down its corporeal form into a Lepidopteran goo and rearranges itself, yet it happens everyday en plein air.

As a caterpillar they eat dandelions, broadleaf plantains and violets, as an adult there's no need for such.  

Thank you, Gretchen.   

Friday, June 20, 2014

mystery woolly worm

Strangest thing in a very long time!

I have been running around in the woods for a very, very, very (yes, three verys) long time and I had never seen anything like what I encountered yesterday.

At first glance, it simply looked like a bird's down feather, recently molted and clinging to a branch. But on closer inspection, there were more than one. And, they appeared to be crawling. Nature fact #207: Feathers don't crawl. 

They also had a penchant of "circling up," front end to back end, locomotive to caboose.

I tried to pick one up and the feathery filaments came off in my fingers like the white residue of a powered donut. 

D--- odd-looking caterpillar, but butterfly or moth? I knew not which.

It took awhile to ferret out their identity, Karen Sue helped, and the world wide web. According to Featured Creature Carly what I had encountered were "Butternut Woollyworms (Eriocampa juglandis) which are the larvae of a species of sawfly." Larvae that like to eat butternut leaves, perhaps walnut.

So they weren't caterpillars! O-D-D.

But it gets odder. Carly continues, "Unfortunately, they don’t stay so sweet and cuddly looking. They will eventually crawl down into the soil and form a pupa where they will silently wait until they transform into their adult fly versions. The white strings are waxy filaments that deter predators from making a quick meal out of the larvae."

Sawflies—really more wasp than fly—are members of the order Hymenoptera with broad connections between the head and thorax and caterpillar-like larva. The females use their saw-like ovipositors to cut into plant stems to lay their eggs.

Did I say, ODD?

Monday, June 16, 2014

wild turkey's strong numbers

There was a time—and it was not that long ago—when it was hard to find wild turkey in East Tennessee other than in a liquor store. Made in the Bluegrass State, some of it was 101 proof, but you had to be 21 years old to partake.

Forty years ago, you could almost reliably see a live wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) in the shadows around the edges of Cades Cove because in the national park, they were protected.

But today, turkeys have made a comeback with strong numbers. So much so that walking down a gravel road in the Knox Urban Wilderness, you might just pass by one. And if you're quick with your cell phone, get a photo.

I'm not sure which part of this is more remarkable. That turkeys are roaming the shadows of urban Knoxville again? Or taking a photo of one with a phone? Or that Kentucky bourbon today comes in 101 and even 108.2 proof?

What would Kentuckian Daniel Boone say, besides "what the heck is a phone?"

Sunday, June 15, 2014

in passing

The last known dusky seaside sparrow died 27 years ago today, in 1987. His coda, the last beat of his avian heart, came either late in the evening June 15 or early June 16. (Some accounts use June 17, but that was probably the day it was reported.)

The species or subspecies (Ammodramus maritimus nigrescens) was non-migratory with a small home range: the mashes dominated by broomgrass on Merritt Island and along the St. Johns, Banana and Indian rivers in Florida.

The last dusky, a male, was nicknamed "Orange" because of the band of that color it once wore. He lived out his final days in captivity, his last home was on Discovery Island at Disney World. Reclusive, he spent most of his time hidden in the tall grass at the bottom of his aviary. Alone, he rarely sang. To what purpose? There was no other dusky to serenade.

If you are it, the very last, the swan song and your species is about to vanish, what would you do?

For more info read, A Shadow and a Song by Mark Jerome Walters. An excellent account of the chain of events that led to population losses and the bungled attempts to save what was left of the dusky seaside sparrow.

Friday, June 13, 2014

cigar tree

Just a couple of weeks ago catalpas were in bloom and now they're producing their long, long bean pods.

A storm passed through this afternoon knocking this branch from the tree. The long pods led to another curious folk name: Indian cigar tree.

Rumor has it that the bean pods can be dried and smoked like cigars, but rumor also has it that someone tried to steal Lincoln's body. No, wait a minute. That last thing did happen. Perhaps these things are smokable.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

taking the high ground

Downtown Knoxville from River Bluff

Our next Discover the Urban Wilderness hike is this Saturday, June 14 (Flag Day). This time we'll explore another section of the South Loop. To sign up call, (865) 577-4717, ext. 110.

Here are photos from our last hike. Click High Ground.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

the Raven's schoolhouse


Thank you to my new friends at the Sam Houston Schoolhouse Day Camp.

Today, we talked about birds and raptors. But here I show the skeleton of a bat to illustrate just how truly delicate wings are—lots of tiny bones.

We were in a pavilion on the site of the Historic Sam Houston Schoolhouse located nearby.  

As their website notes, "At the age of 19, Houston decided to teach school...Sam had only spent six months in formal schooling, but, like his contemporary, Abe Lincoln, he taught himself, including reading Latin and Greek. He memorized much of the 24 books of the Iliad. You could say he was a self-motivated, classical scholar!"

"The one-room log schoolhouse, built in 1794, is named for Sam Houston, who was the schoolmaster there in 1812." 

Young Houston also spent his formative years with the Cherokee and became known as "Colonneh" (pronouned Ka-lanu'), the Raven.

Ergo, it was a pleasure talking about birds at the schoolhouse site of the Raven, 202 years after he did. 

Teacher's desk. Today's lesson: birds of prey

Monday, June 9, 2014

spiny baby

Nodding thistle (Carduus nutans): goldfinches love it but a lot of people dislike this spiny thing. It’s spiky, covered with sharp spines and thorns. Ouch! And it's not even native to North America.

But if you look past its sharp defenses, it’s just a beautiful plant. The nascent flowers, as they begin to open produce the most exquisite magenta to green pattern. Patterns within patterns. Fractals.

What’s not to admire? Just don’t try to pick it.

– Photo taken at Ijams Nature Center

Friday, June 6, 2014

what's in a name?

There’s an often-overlooked orange flower growing in local fields this time of the year that might be having an identity crisis. 

Locally it’s called butterfly weed but in various regions of North America it’s known as Canada root, chigger flower, Indian paintbrush, Indian posy, fluxroot, orange milkweed, orange swallow-wort, tuber root, pleurisy root, silky swallow-wort, yellow milkweed, white-root and windroot to name a few, or rather, to name a lot.

Botanists call the plant Asclepias tuberosa (uh-SKLEE-pea-us too-ber-ROW-suh). Asclepias comes from the name of the Greek god of medicine: Asklepios; and tuberosa, means “full of swellings or knobs,” referring to the enlarged root system. So in affect, it’s scientific name means “Greek god full of swelling”? Honestly, isn’t that a lot to lay on a poor plant?

Thursday, June 5, 2014

this IS problem solving

Dusty Walker sent me this link. It posits: Are crows the ultimate problem solvers?

Next year, I'm hiring a crow to do my taxes.

Thanks, Dusty.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Meads: from ugly duckling to...

A pat-on-the-back thank you goes out to everyone who joined me at Mead's for the first Ijams' Canoe Paddle-About of the season.

Once a man-made hole in the ground—a quarry pit, one hundred feet deep—today, it's a lovely, placid lake. Not very big, only 25-acres, but what Mead's Quarry Lake lacks in breadth, it makes up for in height and depth with the sheer beauty of a dramatic limestone cliff that rises 180 feet above the waterline.

The Ijams Paddle-Abouts are good outings for beginners or younger paddlers, even first-timers, just wanting to learn the basics of canoeing and spend some tranquil time on the water. It's a good confidence builder. And it is soooooo peaceful.

My next two Canoe Paddle-About at Mead's are early in the morning (before the heat of the day sets in) June 15 and June 21. To register call (865) 577-4717, ext. 119.

Thank you, Eliot for helping with the paddle-about.

Sunday, June 1, 2014


Polaroid made by Lance King

OK, Mr. Peabody. Let's hop into the Wayback Machine with Sherman and go back in time to one of my favorite decades: the 1960s. Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da. (I'm also fond of the 1850s.)

Lance with his Polaroid Land Camera
Local photographer Lance King stopped by the nature center yesterday. Around his neck was a Polaroid Land Camera 100, a model of the instant camera made between 1963-1966.

Note: One guy holding a hawk, the other a 50-year-old camera, great conversation starters.

I soon learned that yes, Mr. Peabody, you can still buy Fuji film packs for the wondrous picture-taking machine invented by Edwin Land in 1948. Essentially, it's a camera with built-in darkroom.

Digital photography may have it's advantages—heck, I took this photo of Lance with my cell phone—but with a Polaroid, you wait a minute and peal back the paper and BAM, you have a print in your hand, slowly drying like a newly hatched chicken.

Oh, what fun!

Go here for a look at some of his other photos: Lance King.

Thanks, Lance.