Friday, February 27, 2015

live long and prosper

"Once you have eliminated the impossible, 
whatever remains, 
however improbable, must be the truth."

Rest in peace, Mr. Spock.

(Never enough Vulcan in me to do the proper goodbye
without a piece of tape.)

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

snow monkeys?

Heated Birdbath

When the weather turns wintry, a must for your yard is a heated birdbath. It can be harder for your backyard birds to find water than food when the temperature doesn't climb above freezing for days. The water is only warmed enough not to freeze so it's not like Myrtle Beach. 

Perhaps, it's cabin fever but I keep looking out expecting to see Japanese macaque. The famous ones that bath in the hot springs near Nagano. The so called snow monkeys "live in areas where snow covers the ground for months each year – no other non-human primate is more northern-living, nor lives in a colder climate."

If our new Ice Age continues, I also expect to see a wholly mammoth pass the house on its way to Florida.

If I see either, it would be a lifer. I'll keep you posted.

Cabin fever is a funny thing.

You got any salsa in there?

Monday, February 23, 2015

Hawks of the Smokies

"The native Cherokee have a legend of a great mythic hawk: the Tl’nuw’, a blue-gray bird of prey as large as a wild turkey. It flew high above a flock of passenger pigeons in flight, eyeing them. The lordly bird would swoop down from overhead and snatch a victim from the flock, a quick strike, instant death with a puff of scattered feathers that would slowly pirouette to the ground like falling maple samara, its seeds.

"The Cherokee’s great hawk would then eat its meal on the wing without having to land. Such agility and power had to be eulogized. Although rarely seen this far south, the story loosely fits today’s northern goshawk, from the Old English gsheafoc or "goose-hawk." If I could time-travel, and go back to the late 1800s to visit my great grandfather Jim Bales, whose home site is today preserved upstream from his brother Ephraim’s on the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail..."

For the rest of my article "Free and Easy: Hawks of the Great Smoky Mountains" check out Smokies Life magazine, Volume 8, Number 2. 

Special thanks to The Great Smoky Mountains Association, Contributing Editor Steve Kemp and the others that put together this wonderful, wonderful magazine of my ancestral homeland.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

a beech's toffee

If you could be any tree, which would it be?

I've asked this question before, mostly of myself. Today, after six days of below freezing temperatures and alternating ice, snow, ice, snow, ice over that time frame, I ask it again. 

Cabin fever has me feeling fanciful. 

So my answer is the American beech because of its resilience, its tenacity. Fagus grandifolia, from the Latin Fagus for "beech," grandi meaning "great" and folia for "leaves." And there they stand still clinging on to those dead dried leaves long after others have dropped theirs. But why? I simply cannot fathom. But assuredly there has to be a practical reason. Somehow it benefits the tree.

The beeches behind my house stand stoic, sober in the snow. Still decked out. 

The soft brown leaves, the color of toffee, are beautiful today. Simply beautiful on a day I'm craving a little color and perhaps a little toffee. 

Friday, February 20, 2015

can't beat a redhead

Call me old-fashioned, call me old-school, but you really can't beat a redhead. They're just so striking, real head-turners. 

Ooh là là! (In French, it actually means, "oh dear, oh my, oh no.")

Floating out in the middle of a pond, you cannot help but notice. Jason Dykes recently visited the Alcoa Duck Pond at Springbrook, and boom, there they were.

Redheads are diving ducks, not dabblers, that only migrate through East Tennessee, generally they do not stay long. Their breeding grounds are north and northwest. Not here.

When it comes to ducks, you really can't beat a redhead (Aythya americana). Although somewhat troubling, many (but not all) of the females have the tawdry habit of not building their own nests, choosing rather to lay their eggs in other ducks' nests forcing some to cry fowl. (Sorry. Been waiting 20 years to use that line.) I must assume that the redheads raised by non-redheads soon depart to seek out the company of other true redheads or how else would they know how to be redheads? I must assume. 

Redheads. They're not gadwalls, you simply cannot misidentify one, at least the males. Female redheads are trickier, more complicated. But isn't it always the way? 

Thanks, Jason.  

Monday, February 16, 2015

maryville's twice rescued owlet

Orphaned owlet alone back in nest.
Photo: Janet McKnight
Perhaps all great horned owlets look like they need rescuing. They do resemble stuffed animals at a county fair. This owlet was saved twice. 

After the first premature rescue, wildlife officials returned the owlet to its nest in the hopes its parents would return. 

After all, the best parents for a baby bird is its real parents.

By law it had to sit there 36 hours with no sign of either parent attending it before it could be truly rescued. It was a tense 36 hours. I kept in touch with people on the scene. A wildlife official watched from a truck parked nearby.

The tension ramped up when the temperature dipped into the mid-20s last Thursday evening—its last night on the nest. Would it survive until Friday the 13th, traditionally feared as an unlucky day? Many worried it would freeze to death or starve even though the same wildlife officials had placed proper food in the nest for it. 

I feared the worst, my thoughts were with it. I felt the shiver. Janet McKnight sent me a photo oozing with pathos. Stoic little thing. Now all alone on the nest braving the cold. Three weeks old and all alone.   

Did its parents stay in the area, even though their nest had been emptied two days earlier? Would they come back one last time to check?

In the end, 36 hours passed and no parent returned. The wildlife official climbed back up the tree and, this time, rescued the owlet for real. 

It was taken to a local rehabber to care for. They will keep human contact to a minimum. But can it be habituated to return to the wild? Maybe, but it is not easy with no real avian parents to tutor it on the ways of the world. More than likely it will spend the rest of its healthy life in a cage. Perhaps we should name it "Pathos." 

Thanks to all who kept me informed. 

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Follow-up: great horned owlet

Wiki: "The eyes of great horned owls are amongst the largest and most
powerfully acute in the animal kingdom." They see everything moving
around them. 
Photo: US Fish & Wildlife.

Folks that know me know that I am very easy-going, amiable. But this story has really piqued my ire. And I understand that everyone involved is big-hearted including me.

I have been in the “bird” business a long time. I’m so lucky to work at Ijams Nature Center and not only conduct classes in birds of all kinds but help care for six injured birds of prey. We do not do rehab, but we are licensed by TWRA to accept birds that have gone through rehab and deemed unreleasable back into the wild.

Lucky me. Best job in Knoxville.

Since I am an interpretive naturalist (and by creed have to interpret) here are a few additional thoughts on the topic of the Maryville great horned owl nest:

Around the world animal populations are in trouble especially many species of birds.

But not in this country. Yes, populations of bobwhites, whip-poor-wills, cerulean warblers and a modest list of others are on the decline. And if I were to go outside today and see a flock of evening grosbeaks in my woods, I’d have a coronary, but not before I’d send out an alarm to come see them.

While, Bachman’s warbler, Eskimo curlew and maybe even my beloved ivory-billed woodpecker may all be now extinct.

But as a whole, in America, our birds are doing well. Why? Because we have a 100 plus year history of conservation and strong laws to protect birds.

The law: Nesting birds are federally protected. It is illegal to take any baby bird from its nest, away from its parents unless you are 100 percent sure the parents are gone for at least 36 hours. Then that bird has to go to a licensed rehabber. To my knowledge, the only species not covered by this edict is the European starling, so if you want a pet captive bird there you go. The composer Mozart reportedly had a pet starling and loved it.

Abandonment: It is my experience that very, very few parent birds abandon their nestlings. Other than cowbirds, bird parents are great parents. They may grow to hate their choice of a nest site, but they hang in there until the entire family can fly away. I’m not saying it never happens, but I’m saying it rarely happens.

Mated pairs: In a few species, ruby-throated hummingbirds to name one, the female does all the work but in most species the male and female work together to feed the young. Sometimes one is killed, but the sole remaining parent raises the young alone.

Neglect: First-time parents may be a bit inexperienced at raising babies, they may choose a poor nest site but they somehow muddle through. They get better as time goes on. My Mom says she was better with my younger sister because she made all the mistakes on me.

Sitting on the nest: When nestlings get older, the parents/parent does not always sit on the nest with them. It can get crowded, plus Mom needs a break. She’s nearby watching.

Nest failure: It happens. Not all nests survive; a lot do not. I recently read that up to 40 percent of all robins’ nests fail, yet robins have one of the fastest growing populations in the country. Why? The increase in suburban lawns.

Habitat: Great horned owl (From the Cornell website) “The broad range of habitats they use includes deciduous and evergreen forests, swamps, desert, tundra edges, and tropical rainforest, as well as cities, orchards, suburbs and parks.” Notice three of the last four and those are full of people.

The Maryville great horned pair chose that site perhaps because all other suitable habitat was taken. It tells me that the great horned owl population around Maryville is thriving or why else would it choose there? If the nest is successful, in the future, there may be other great horned owl nests up and down the greenway. Wouldn’t that be grand?

As a general rule, many species of animals and birds are moving into the cities because the country is crowded because we have great conservation laws in this country.

Diet: Owls are nocturnal; they hunt primarily at night, that’s also when the small mammals are out foraging. Great horned owls are noted for killing skunks at night. (They have a poor sense of smell.) They doze during the day and may look “neglectful.”

But, “Scarcely anything that moves is safe from this owl. It will eat prey as small as insects and scorpions or as large as domestic cats, woodchucks, geese and great blue herons. This owl's diverse diet may include small mammals to rabbits, birds and reptiles to fish and amphibians. It will take carrion when the weather is bad. It regularly preys on smaller owls and has been reported to attack and kill even red-tailed hawks. It has no predators and will eat anything from crayfish to young foxes.” Great horned owls rarely starve.

People: Will the many on-lookers cause a nest to fail? Maybe, but I doubt it. People have been respectful and kept a safe distance. Read my last post about Pale Male in New York City. And it’s the “City that never sleeps.” Everyone I have spoken to says the parent looks pretty nonchalant about the folks watching.

The Rescue: You simply do not rescue a baby bird with its parent/parents watching. That's kidnapping. The dad was probably dozing somewhere waiting for nightfall and the hunt to begin. 

The Maryville owlet: Eye witnesses tell me that the owlet was fat and chunky, appeared healthy and cared for and even was still clutching the remains of its last meal in its talons. (It appeared to be a towhee.) As I understand it, US Fish & Wildlife officials have placed it back on the nest. Pray for it. Let’s hope its parents have not fled the area because someone kidnapped their baby. Would you hang around a crime scene?

But make no mistake, the best parent for a baby bird is its parent.

As I understand it, if the parents do not reappear in 36 hours, the owlet will be rescued for real, and have to spend the rest of its life in a cage. And that’s a shame considering it’s totally healthy. A rescued baby would have a very low survival rate in the wild as an adult. It did not have its parents to teach it the necessary survival skills.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

urban birds of prey

Maryville great horned owl. Photo by Jason Dykes.

A few thoughts on the great horned owls nesting in downtown Maryville and birds of prey that choose to live in the city.

Sometimes parent birds choose poor nest sites because there's no more suitable nesting territories available, or, perhaps, they are young parents that make a poor choice. If so, they learn their lesson. 

Predators like coyotes, foxes and raccoons have become very common in our cities. Why? There's food available: mice, rats, pigeons, chunky sweet starlings, to name a few.

And, with greater frequency, birds of prey are choosing to live in cities also. Peregrine falcons can be found in several large U.S. cities, many also have very popular peregrine cams watching their nesting activities. 

New York City's Pale Male
The most famous urban-dwelling bird of prey in the world is Pale Male, a red-tailed hawk hatched in 1990, that took up residence on ritzy Fifth Avenue across from Central Park in New York City in 1991. The next year, he found a mate and they successfully raised a clutch, feeding the young nestlings city pigeons and rats, with hundreds of people watching from the park.

Pale Male became famous, raising the awareness of raptors and their role in the environment. He became a goodwill ambassador for all hawkdom. A fan club grew around him. There was a book written about him: "Red-tails in Love" (1998) by Marie Winn, which I have read. There was also a PBS Nature documentary, "Pale Male" (2004) which I have seen multiple times.

Guess what? Pale Male is still there at 927 Fifth Avenue, in the heart of one of the world's largest cities, with hundreds of people watching and taking photos for over two decades. He is the most documented red-tailed hawk in history with oodles of photos online. The most recent photo I could find was taken eight days ago: click February 2, 2015

Audubon magazine: March-April 2005
Since 1992, he and his mates have raised dozens of young redtails with hundreds of people watching his activities every day. Although he has had several mates over the years, 25-year-old Pale Male thrives in "The city that never sleeps." Perhaps he knows that a Fifth Avenue aerie is pretty posh digs, apartments there rent for millions. 

Who, could have predicted his success? No one. But it's not for us to prophesy the future. Nature itself makes these choices.

Today there are several redtails living in and around Central Park in the Big Apple. Pale Male was a pioneer.  

Perhaps I am comparing apples to oranges, but I don't think so; more like Winesaps to Granny Smiths. Great horned owls are not red-tailed hawks, but Maryville is not New York City.

If you truly, truly, truly know the nest has been abandoned, then you attempt a rescue. But you simply cannot under any circumstances assume the nest will fail and do a rescue. That is kidnapping. It's cruel and illegal even if it is done with some witnesses applauding.  

Can birds of prey survive in cities with people watching? Yes. Should people tamper with their nests, i.e. Mother Nature? No. 

Besides, their nests are federally protected. It's against the law to tamper.

Thank you, Janet Lee.

For more recent photos click Pale Male


Monday, February 9, 2015

specialized shovels

Northern shoveler. Photos by Jason Dykes

The great thing about local duck ponds in winter is that you never know what you are apt to find.

I visited the Alcoa Duck Pond at Springbrook last week and saw mallards, coots and ring-billed gulls. But Jason and Charlotte Dykes visited over the weekend and found Northern Shovelers.

And a Northern Shoveler is one handsome duck, just take a look at that
 bill. As Sibley says, "strikingly long spatulate bill." 

"Their wide-flat bill is equipped with well-developed lamellae—small, comb-like structures on the edge of the bill that act like sieves, allowing the birds to skim crustaceans and plankton from the water's surface," notes wiki. So even though they can be found with other dabbling ducks like mallards, their specialized bills allow them to find food the others miss. That's their niche. 

Shovelers are widespread, nesting in the northern climes of North America, Europe and Asia and wintering farther south, in this case, Tennessee.

Thanks, Jason.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

blessed event

Spring is the time of renewal. But some do not wait until March to get started.

Great horned owls are the first bird to nest during a calendar year in East Tennessee usually in early January. Burrrr.

Perhaps they start early because there is less competition for the available food. And raising young, vulnerable owls this size would take a lot of prey, and pray.

This year there's a very public nest in downtown Maryville that's been getting a lot of attention. Jason Dykes visited the location several times over the weekend and was finally rewarded with a glimpse of a nestling. First of 2015!

Congratulations, Mom and Dad, it's a girl! Or boy! Hard to say. At least it's a fluffy white thing sitting in its lofty perch surveying the seat of government in Blount County.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology states,"The development of young Great Horned Owls is prolonged over many months... Although the nestlings are unable to fly for ten to twelve weeks, they begin venturing out onto nearby branches after about six weeks. Because fledglings remain dependent on their parents for food until fall, their harsh begging calls may be heard throughout the summer."

 Thanks, Jason!