Monday, August 31, 2015

mantid mating

Praying mantises are the largest insects found in the Tennessee Valley and this is their mating season. (They already know this; I'm just letting you in on their secret.)

Once mated, the females can lay as many as 400 eggs depending on the species, perhaps even more. Who has time to count things as small as mantid eggs? The hardened egg case is called an ootheca. (Great Scrabble word! Four vowels, use it sometime.)

Praying mantises are also predators. Sometime next spring, the eggs hatch and the tiny mantids begin to prey on whatever insects they can find including their brethren and sistren.

- Photo taken at Ijams Nature Center

Mantid ootheca

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Today: mindfulness

The Ijams Sanctuary Series is a new program at the nature center, designed to help visitors slow down and appreciate the beauty in their surroundings. 

"Shinrin-Yoku," or forest bathing, is the slow, meditative exploration of the forest using all five senses. Join me for some quiet time at 4 p.m. today. The fee for this program is $7 for Ijams members and $10 for non-members. Recommended for adults.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Beth & Russell

WBIR's Beth Haynes and Russell Biven. Photo by Eric Foxx.

For over 15 years, I've had regular chats with Beth Haynes and Russell Biven, co-hosts of WBIR's Live@5@4. Probably over 200 chats, all like any such chats between folks who have known each other that long, except our chats have been on live TV.

During that time I've brought along from Ijams, live owls, hawks, falcons, snakes, spiders, frogs, toads, opossums, beetles, spittle bugs, walkingstick bugs, caterpillars, turtles, bird nests and kids in bat suits. (Couldn't find a live bat.)

I've cooked bird suet in their kitchen. Dressed as a pirate squirrel for Halloween. Talked about feeding hummingbirds, chickadees, wrens on their porch. Once dragged on a recently de-decorated Christmas tree into the studio to talk about recycling used trees. I've chatted from a canoe, a cliff, a creek, a cave, a field, a forest, a lake. And, heck, one time we all even ate crunchy Peg cooked cicadas! (May 2004. Deep fried. It's in my first book, page 102.) 

But most of the time, we chatted in comfortable chairs in their studio living room and there is always something good to watch on the TV. It's all very homey except for the bright lights.

My first chat was in March 2000—we talked about Ijams river clean-up. This week we chatted about my Mindfulness Walk coming up this Sunday at Ijams. And the thing is, the warmth and friendliness you see on camera, is the same warmth and friendliness you feel off camera. They're like family.

Thank you producer Lee Ann Bowman for arranging all those chats and Eric Foxx for wiring me for sound and to perky reporter Emily Stroud for chatting with me on location now and again too.
Here's a link to our last chat: Mindfulness Walk.

Russell on set
With WBIR's Emily Stroud and owl

With Emily overlooking the city


And in two canoes that kept drifting off camera on Mead's Quarry Lake

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

strangling weed

Dodder. Could there be a spookier plant?

Also known as devil's guts, devil's hair, golden thread, hair weed, hellbine, strangleweed or witch's hair—now, there’s a collection of memorable names that H. P. Lovecraft would have loved—dodder is a parasitic plant. Its orange tendrils slowly reach out and attach themselves to healthy, green plants. At first, it's like a gentle caress.

But here’s what happens next. Are you sitting down?

After a dodder attaches itself to a plant, it wraps around it tighter and tighter. If the host contains food beneficial to the dodder, it produces haustoria (essentially roots) that insert themselves into the vascular system of the host. The original root of the dodder in the soil then dies. It’s no longer needed. The dodder can grow yards and yards long, latching itself onto even more plants. In this way, the dodder slowly spreads in all directions, feeding on the plants it has entwined.

Devil's guts! It's out there; creeping in all directions.

Wait a minute! Did I just hear something gently scratching on my window?

-Photo taken along Clingman’s Dome Road in the Great Smokies.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015


Perfect South Knoxville cuisine for August

Cicada-Tomat-Uh! Oh, yeah! 

What better way to celebrate the closing days of August than with an homage to cicadas and tomatoes?

Indoors, we sipped “green cicada juice” a.k.a. lemonade and enjoyed fresh tomato sandwiches—Sunbeam bread with Duke's mayonnaise—of course. (It was B.Y.O.B.—Bring your own bologna.) We also learned the different species of local cicada and their unique buzzy calls.  Then we went on a bug hunt.

For more info click cicada-tomat-uh!

Cicada/bug hunters 

Monday, August 24, 2015

hummer hoopla

Photo by Warren Hamlin

Thank you to all who attended the KTOS Wonder of Hummingbirds Festival held at Ijams last Saturday and to all who stopped by my author's table to say hello.

All that hoopla for such a tiny little thing as a bird that will easily fit into the palm of your hand.

For the complete story click: hummer fest.

He is so old school. He writes every book in longhand.
Photo by Susan Baumgardner

Saturday, August 22, 2015

thank you WBIR Channel 10

Hummingbird artwork by my friend Vickie Henderson

Did you know that a ruby-throated hummingbird only weighs...

3 grams?

WBIR morning news anchor, Katie Roach
Thank you WBIR Channel 10 producer Sarah Ferraro. Early this morning (6:40) I was on their Saturday morning show to talk with news anchor Katie Roach about today's KTOS Wonder of Hummingbirds Festival at Ijams.

And two hours later, we are welcoming hundreds of people. All to celebrate the absolute wonder of those tiny feathered miracles that only weigh 3 grams. That's the same as two dimes. And heart rates up to 1200 beats a minute.

Thank you my friend Billie Cantwell for your months of hard work as event planner and organizer.

Visitors in line to see a hummingbird up-close being banded

Friday, August 21, 2015

thank you WATE TV

Photo by Wayne Mallinger

WATE's Bo Williams
Thank you to local ABC affiliate WATE 6 and morning producer Shelby Miller for inviting me on this morning to talk with news anchor Bo Williams about hummingbirds and the KTOS Wonder of Hummingbird Festival at Ijams Nature Center. 

The festival runs from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. tomorrow (Saturday, August 22, bright and early so go to bed now!) with walks and talks and special close-up looks at those tiny dynamos: ruby-throated hummingbirds!

I will speak at 1 p.m. on the Secrets of Backyard Birds, all the juicy gossip about cardinals and their neighbors. 

And special thanks to my friend Billie Cantwell for the months of hard work organizing the event.

Love you Billie!

To view this morning's segment (7:20 a.m. Are my eyes even open?), click: WATE

The offices and studios of WATE 6 are located in Greystone, one of the grandest historic buildings in Knoxville. 

For more about the wonderful building, click Greystone

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

little cabin

Jackie and Mike Harbin are crafty. They lead a lot of the craft classes at Ijams plus the Family Drum Circle gatherings on some Sundays on the plaza.

One of Mike's specialties is making replicas of the Smoky Mountain historic cabins out of recycled items: Popsicle sticks, matches, cardboard, gravel. 

Recently he duplicated the Ephraim Bales cabin on the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail and gave it to me. Woohoo.

Ephraim was my great-great grand uncle. Granddad Homer Bales was born in Uncle Ephraim's cabin on January 5, 1899.

Many thanks, Mike. You've created a family heirloom I'll treasure forever.

- Photos by Rex McDaniel

Ephraim Bales home place

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

a mile a minute?

Often called the “vine that ate the South,” Kudzu (Pueraria lobata) is actually native to Japan. There it's call kuzu. In China, the fast-grower is called gé gēn. It's also widely eaten — roots, leaves, flowers — throughout both countries, so its zealous nature isn't a problem in that part of the world, it's a bonanza, a boon for anyone feeling a bit peckish. The more it grows, the bigger the buffet.

The ambitious plant was first introduced into this country in 1876 at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition. The fast, fast growing vine was promoted as a forage crop for livestock and an ornamental plant like wisteria for arbors. And it did just fine in controlled settings. Back when Atticus was every one's hero, Harper Lee mentions kudzu growing on an arbor in her novel “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

But, as we all know, kudzu's story didn’t end there. Neither did Atticus'. (Or is it Atticus's?)

The Soil Conservation Service encouraged farmers to plant kudzu to control soil erosion. And they did just that from 1935 to the early 1950s. By the time everyone realized that kudzu was taken over vast stretches of southern countryside, roadside, hillside, wayside, dare I say, committing botanical genocide, it was too late.

Despite this government-sanctioned misstep — and it’s really our fault, not the plant’s — kudzu does produce a rather lovely flower. It’s currently in bloom, vast, vast, vast stretches of it, in a field somewhere near you. And instead of eating it, we curse it. 

And so it goes. (Forgive me Linda Ellerbee.)

Monday, August 17, 2015

without mistakes

Turk's cap lily. Great Smoky Mountains

"No snowflake ever falls in the wrong place."

"The flower grows without mistakes.
A man must grow himself, until he understands 
the intelligence of the flower."

- Deborah Love. Annaghkeen. 1970

Sunday, August 16, 2015


Drop by Ijams today and say "Hello."

We'll be doing an animal presentation at 2 and 3 p.m., plus a "Mindfulness Walk" at 4 p.m.

Who knows, I may even pull a feather out of my head much to the delight of the redtail. 

"So, that's how it's done?" 

- Photos by Chuck Cooper

Friday, August 14, 2015


Recently, I learned a new word: “paracme.” It’s found in the Oxford English Dictionary and means “the point at which one is past one's prime.” 

Ouch! Someone had to put a label on it.

I spent a long time pondering: did the word apply to me? And finally decided that if I was pondering if the word applied to me it probably did apply to me. 

But, that wasn't necessarily a bad thing since my life has never been better, richer or more rewarding, albeit my heart is full of saddness because my mother just passed away. 

Pacacme brings wisdom and the understanding that each day is to be savored. It could be argued that you really do not start to live fully until you reach paracme; everything before that is preparation for the life you were destined to live.

So, having determined that, I breathed a sigh of relief.

And then I wondered if the term could also apply to flowers. If so, I just love purple coneflowers (a.k.a. Echinacea) in paracme, the time when their color begins to fade, their petals start to droop and their seedheads begin to swell.

The lavenderish flowers develop this lovely ballerina quality, as though they are taking their final bows after a fervent performance. A bit past prime, but still lovely nonetheless.

And speaking of living fully, I'm leading a mindfulness walk this Sunday at Ijams. Here are the details from our PR department...

Sunday, August 16, 4 p.m.
Mindfulness Walk at Ijams
(Recommended for adults) The Ijams Sanctuary Series is a new program designed to help visitors slow down and appreciate all the beauty in their surroundings. “Shinrin-Yoku,” or forest bathing, is the slow, meditative exploration of the forest using all five senses. By removing distractions such as cell phones, cameras and even talking, participants are able to truly engage with their surroundings and experience the restorative properties of nature. The fee for this program is $7 for Ijams members and $10 for non-members. Please call (865) 577-4717, ext. 110 to register.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

this 10 o'clock

A hardy thank you to the 10 o'clock Garden Club of West Knoxville.

I spoke to them this morning about "Creating a Bird Friendly Yard," one of the Living Clean & Green series of programs offered by Ijams Nature Center.

Yes, we make house calls. 

And, yes. The topic of hummingbirds did come up. 

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

hummingbird festival

Special thanks to my good friends—hosts Russell Biven and Beth Haynes, and producer Lee Ann Bowmanat WBIR's Live@5@4 for inviting me on today to talk about the upcoming KTOS Wonder of Hummingbird Festival at Ijams on Saturday, August 22, 8 a.m. to 2 p.m.

For a look at the interview, click: WBIR Channel 10 Live@5@4.

For event schedule, click: Hummer schedule.

Monday, August 10, 2015

one last summer camp

Such fun! I led one final great insect expedition with the summer camp kids from local Boys & Girls Clubs last Friday at Ijams. With area schools cranking up, it was the last summer camp of 2015. Alas, the insects of summer go away too.


For more photos go to: One Last Summer Camp.

Saturday, August 8, 2015


Swamp cicada

I   J   A   M   S       H   A   P   P   E   N   I   N   G

Sunday, August 9, 4 p.m. 

(Ages 5 and up) After spending a three years underground, the cicadas are out and about. Enjoy a summer afternoon with Ijams senior naturalist and storyteller Stephen Lyn Bales (that would be me) as he searches for buzzing dog-days cicadas, a.k.a. jarflies.

We’ll sip “cicada juice” and enjoy fresh tomato sandwiches—Sunbeam bread with Duke's mayonnaise. (B.Y.O.B. Bring your own bologna.) while learning the different species and each of their unique buzzy songs that are produced by vibrating their abdomens. 

Fee: $3 for members and $6 for non-members. Pre-registration is required; please call (865) 577-4717, ext. 110 to register.

The five common local annual species are:
1) Swamp cicada
(Neotibicen tibicen)

2) Scissor grinder cicada
(Neotibicen pruinosus pruninosus)

3) Robinson's cicada
(Neotibicen robinsoniaus)
4) Lyric cicada
(Neotibicen lyricen)
5) Linne's cicada
(Neotibicen linnei)  

And we'll look at katydids, those raucous nocturnal singers that hide in plain sight by mimicking leaves. 

Friday, August 7, 2015

Hummingbirds at Ijams

I   J   A   M   S       H   A   P   P   E   N   I   N   G

Saturday, August 8, 10 a.m. 
Birding & Brunch: Hummingbirds

(All Ages) Join Ijams naturalist Stephen Lyn Bales (That would be me) for this fun and light-hearted look into the world of ruby-throated hummingbirds. We’ll be showcasing the hummers of summer as you learn more about these fascinating little flyers through Lyn’s incomparable storytelling. Plus a look at the rufous hummingbird a rare visitor in winter.  

We’ll also enjoy a hearty continental breakfast. The fee for this program is $5 for Ijams members and $8 for non-members. Please call (865) 577-4717, ext. 110 to register.

-Above photo by Wayne Mallinger 

Rufous hummingbird

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

lucky shot

Sometimes, you just get lucky.

I was photographing wildflowers at Indian Gap on the Smokies crest when I noticed a brightly colored beetle land on a flower very near me.

I stepped closer, began to frame the image and almost at the same instant that I squeezed the shutter, the beetle opened its elytra and unfurled its wings. Click! And the magnificent bug had flown. Had I gotten the shot? One nanosecond later, I would have not.

I had never seen the beetle before, but I soon found the cloaked knotty-horn, a.k.a. elder borer in an Audubon field guide. It’s a long-horned beetle noted for its bright orange cloak, metallic-blue back and the enlarged knot-like knees at the antennal segments. (For some reason, my knotty-horn only has one antenna.)

The knotty-horn lays its eggs in the ground near the base of an elderberry shrub. (And there were plenty of elderberries growing near where we were.) The larvae burrow into the stems of the plant (hence the second common name: elder borer). The small grubs then move down into the roots and pupate in the soil. The adults appear from June through September to start the process anew.

Sunday, August 2, 2015


Scissor-tailed flycatcher. Photo by Jason Dykes

“Life is not about the breaths you take; 
it is about the moments 
that take your breath away”
Unknown author

It was a nondescript section of two-lane road north of Pikeville in the Sequatchie Valley. Nothing more, a rural road like any other in East Tennessee.

Yes, Sequatchie. It's a soothing word that happens to be Cherokee and may mean “beautiful valley,” as indeed it is.

We were searching for unusual birds with an unusual name—scissor-tailed flycatchers. Kingbirds far from their normal summer range of Texas and Oklahoma. 

Following the lead of Jason Dykes who followed the lead of Jason Sturner, we knew where to look. "On Highway 127 just before mile marker 20 going toward Pikeville. The birds were in the open sitting on wires above the road."  

That directive was two weeks old but it held true. Rachael Eliot and I found one just after mile marker 20 going away from Pikeville, but that's the same thing.

Scissor-tailed flycatchers are beautifully sculptured with enormously long black and white tails elongated much like the post High Renaissance painting style of Mannerism that featured lightened forms.

The males tails are longer than the female's but she birds choose their mates and the pick the males with the longest, most flashy tails. So female choice drives this affectation. Although the species also uses it's long tail to help it catch flying insects their "nourriture de choix."

Without the tail, they are plain gray flycatchers, that is until they lift their wings to reveal the flashes of salmon pink on their undercarriage.

Yes, salmon pink.

Our quarry was sitting on a power line very much like Jason's photo at the top. We pulled off the road and with binoculars raised, got a good long look as the marvelous creature preened and flew from its perch, using its wondrous tail to aid it in catching a snack.

Thousands of years of evolution have led to its exquisite form and color.  And there it was only a two-hour drive away.

Indeed, it was breathtaking.  

Having just seen a scissor-tailed, she smiles.