Thursday, April 30, 2015

dark energy??

Dark matter, represented by blue, pulled things together.

This blog focuses on nature's minutia, the small, trifling, yet, fascinating little things; the strands in the overall web.

But occasionally it's nice to look at the web itself and have our minds blown—a term originating in 1966 when a lot of minds were being blown. Let's spend a little time looking up at the big picture.

In the January issue of National Geographic, Timothy Ferris writes, "After decades of research involving new and better telescopes, light detectors, and computers, cosmologists can now state with some assurance that the universe was born 13 billion, 820 million years ago, most likely as a bubble of space smaller than an atom...

"But they have also concluded that all the stars and galaxies they see in the sky make up only 5 percent of the observable universe. The invisible majority consists of 27 percent dark matter and 68 percent dark energy. Both of them are mysteries." 

Dark matter is an unseeable force that pulls matter together through gravity into stars, galaxies, clusters. It slowed the initial expansion of the universe. Then roughly 9 billion years ago a force dubbed "dark energy" appeared, essentially anti-gravity, and the expansion accelerated again. So much so that in time, everything not in our own galaxy may be too distant to see, flying off into the darkness.

So, from a cosmologist's point of view, dark matter pulls bodies together, dark energy drives them apart. And where did the dark energy come from since it wasn't there in the beginning? 

Good question.

If I could answer that I'd win the Nobel Prize in Physics.

There are days that I feel like I am being controlled by dark energy and I am flying apart.

Listen carefully. KAPOW! 

That's the sound of my mind being blown. 

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

yes, we have da newts

Thank you to those who attended my nature walk last Saturday at 3 o'clock, part of Outdoor KnoxFest at Ijams. It was great fun. We searched for tadpoles, newts and owls, finding 2/3's of them.

I promised the kids beforehand that we'd find a newt, since they had never seen one. A real amphibious newt, not a political Newt. Yes, long before a Newt (real name: Newton Leroy) patrolled the halls of congress, spotted newts patrolled the ponds of Ijams.

We found several.  

But shucks, no snakes. Must be too early in the season.

Red-spotted newt

Saturday, April 25, 2015

hidden white-eyes

"A small and secretive bird of shrubby areas of the eastern and southern United States, the white-eyed Vireo is more noticeable for its explosive song than its looks," writes Cornell. 

They got that right.

This bird's white eyes and song mnemonic that describes its explosive song—"Quick with the beer check!"—are its most memorable features.

Take the time to learn it if you do not already know the song, it will serve you well anytime your near appropriate habitat.  

These sprites stay so sequestered in the shadowy shrubbery they do not even venture forth to bathe in open puddles and pools, instead preferring to rub themselves against damp foliage after a rain.

I heard the song this afternoon in dense shrubs near the river at the nature center's lower overlook. But actually seeing its white eyes? 

I didn't get close.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

taking w/ the red-eye

Red-eyed vireo photo by John Benson
We're old friends really. And even though you hardly ever see them or their tiny red eyes, you know they're there in the canopy endlessly singing...or chattering short phrases.

Walking out to the mailbox this morning I heard one over the driveway. Chattering. Back from its winter in South America. Back to my woods.

This olive drab passerine with grayish noggin may sing for long periods, endlessly repeating the same quandary, the same back and forth. A tireless songster, the red-eyed vireo holds the record for most songs given in a single day among bird species. More than 20,000 phrases in a day. Day after day after day. 140,000 in a week. For me the chatter began today:

"Look at me...I'm up here...Really I am...Way up high...Oh, see me...How can you not?...Give me a look." 

Monday, April 20, 2015

sneezy hooded

There it was. Passing through. On its way to nesting grounds farther to the north or in the Smokies, the hooded warbler or as the early French explorers would say, "Paruline à capuchon."

I didn't see it although I tried. It was tucked away in the understory of the neighbors bushes but I heard it singing ""ta-wit ta-wit ta-wit TEE-YO" which always reminds me of sneezing: "Ahcha-ahcha-ahcha-ACHOO!"

They like to stay hidden. In the Smokies they nest in rhododendron thickets but not here, not in the foothills. My sneezy bird was only passing through on a morning after a rain with everything sodden and dripping. Perhaps that's why it was sneezing. 

Thursday, April 16, 2015

a burst of winged sunshine


Prothonotary warbler

If you see but one bird. Yes, gaze upon just one bird over the next few weeks. Then truly you should make it a prothonotary warbler.

If you look up the word exquisite in the dictionary, I think there will be an illustration of a prothonotary beside the entry. Sunflower yellow, gray-green wings, it is indeed exquisite and blithe—a burst of winged sunshine.

The name "Prothonotary" honors the color of the bright yellow robes worn by the clerks in the Roman Catholic church.

They spend the bulk of the year like most warblers far to the south in the tropics: Central America and just a brush with the northern countries of South America, primarily Columbia, Venezuela, Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana.  

In late spring and summer, this wood-warbler haunts our wetlands, swamps and river shorelines and they nest in hollow tree cavities or even bluebird boxes near the water. To my ear, their high-pitched songs rotate like a squeaky wheel.

A good place to begin your search is along the River Trail at Ijams, but you have to stay sharp, they're lively splashes of yellow like a Van Gogh canvas dripping with saffron.

Monday, April 13, 2015

hummers back?

Red buckeye (Aesculus pavia)

Like most early spring bloomers, the red buckeye, a.k.a. firecracker plant is flowering. This means the hummers are probably back as well, although I have yet to see one but my feeders are out.

The ruby-throated hummingbird migration northward every spring follows the flowering of this native tree. And as you can see, they have red tubular blossoms to lure the fast-flying hummers. The flowers are narrow, their sweet nectar tucked away deep inside so that only the long-billed birds can partake. Zipping about—a sip here, a sip there—benefits the buckeyes by spreading the sticky pollen from tree-to-tree.

This relationship was forged long before man-made sugar-water feeders were invented. Could the hummers survive without the buckeyes? Probably, the ruby-throats would just migrate later when other plants with tubular flowers bloomed. Could the buckeyes exist without the hummers? Perhaps not. But yet, for the tiny birds, pollinating the plants with blossoms especially designed for their bills—form follows function after all—is their
raison d'être.

And we all need a reason to exist.

Friday, April 10, 2015

it has begun

Northern parula warbler

It's April and it has begun! The migratory birds are starting to arrive. The neotropical migrants that spent the last six months in Central and South America. 

Tuesday, on a walk to the mailbox after a rain, I heard a rose-breasted grosbeak and the first wood thrush in the woods that surround my house.

At Ijams, Sammi heard Northern parulas around the parking lot at the Visitor Center. There's also reports of a prothonotary warbler checking out a nest box and ruby-throated hummingbirds in the county, so get those feeders out.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Eighth trip to Panther Nation

Powell High School AP Environmental Science class spring 2015
Today, I once again visited with the AP Environmental Science class taught by Coach Will Roberts at Powell High School, a.k.a. Panther Nation. It's become a biannual tradition.

We talked about conservation, environmental studies, urban wildlife, book writing and my job at Ijams Nature Center
. Each student had been assigned to read a portion of my two books: Natural Histories and Ghost Birds.

Topics we visited included the biology of freshwater mussels, the Native American uses of passionflower, the marsupial opossum and the recovery of bald eagles. Also of interest were my love of hawks and the new hiking and biking trails in the Knoxville Urban Wilderness: South Loop adjacent to the nature center. Click here for: map.

Eastern coywolf
We also discussed the canids: dogs (Canis familiaris), coyotes (Canis latrans), gray wolves (Canis lupus) and the failed attempt to reintroduce red wolves (Canis rufus) into the Southeast. AND the surprising success of "Eastern" coyotes and their interbreeding with their once sworn enemies—gray wolves. A union that produces hybrids called coywolves (Canis anybody'sguessus)

Nature abhors a vacuum and rushes to fill it. Coywolves are becoming the midsized predator the east has lost through human persecution and a means for nature to control the soaring population of raccoons. 

Best of luck to all of you! Thanks, Coach Roberts. 

Thanks, Karen Suzy.

Click these links for a look back at past visits:

Fall 2014