Saturday, October 31, 2015

Happy Halloween!

If you stop by Ijams Nature Center today, you'll discover that the normal Saturday staff has been ousted by an even odder group. 

All in good fun, there's Rex the pirate; the one, the only, Dr. Peg Quackenbush; Louise the hairy-footed Hobbit; a very sleepy Bruce Wayne (he was out fighting crime all night); while not to be outdone by DC, there's Marvel's Captain Lauren America and finally tattooed-knuckle biker chick Sharon. The part of the large purple spider is being played by a large purple spider, while out working the leaves on the plaza is Overly Cautious Man: Luke.

All Points Bulletin: the Gotham police department is offering a reward for any information about that odd guy impersonating Bruce Wayne. 

Trick or treat?

Thursday, October 29, 2015

solitary, the thrush

"In the swamp,
in secluded recesses,
A shy and hidden bird is warbling a song.

Solitary, the thrush,
The hermit, withdrawn to himself, avoiding the settlements,
Sings by himself a song.

Song of the bleeding throat!
Death’s outlet song of life—(for well, dear brother, I know
If thou wast not gifted to sing, thou would’st surely die.)”

- From When Lilacs Last in the Door-yard Bloom’d
an elegy written by Walt Whitman
shortly after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln in 1865.

Poet Whitman knew this species. Heard it sing its warbling song, shy and hidden.

Sadly, at this time of the year on its winter range here in the South, the hermit thrush does not sing. There's no need. No territory to defend. No female to woo. No dead president to mourn.

Cornell describes it as, "An unassuming bird with a lovely, melancholy song." And that's pretty much spot on. Unassuming.

I first took the above photograph and posted it, four years ago. I'm pleased to say the hermits are back. I saw one quietly, and indeed, unassuming, hoping around my home in the woods near my studio last Tuesday morning.

Lucky me.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

zombified? congress

Only a few days after I wrote about angel's trumpet—the zombie plant— frequent Ijams visitor Kim Pieratt sent me a photo of one she found at the United States Botanic Garden in Washington D.C.

The botanical conservatory is located on the Mall within a stone's throw of our country's Capital, the home of that august body of lawmakers that seem idle-minded and somewhat senseless for the past few years. One side simply does not want to work with the other.

My friend Charlie suggested they were all "brain-dead" or zombified.

Do you think the nearness of this giant plant might explain it?

Thursday, October 22, 2015

angelic hummer

Photo by Kathy Townsend

Just when we thought the last ruby-throated hummingbird story of the season had crossed our desk, boom, we get another one that's angelic.

A pure white hummer with albinism turned up at the home of Kathy Townsend in Roane County.

Albinism is a congenital disorder that affects the production of melanin, or the natural pigments that give hair, feathers and eyes their color. 

Our friends Lee Ann Bowman and Emily Stroud at WBIR-10 created a segment for Live@5@4.

Here's a link: A hummer named Angel.

Thank you, Kathy for sharing your story.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Return visit to Roberts' class

Powell High School AP Environmental Science class fall 2015
Yesterday, I once again visited with the AP Environmental Science class taught by Will Roberts at Powell High School, a.k.a. Panther Nation. For me, it's become a biannual tradition.

Freshwater jellyfish swimming in a cup of water.
This is Roberts biggest class ever: 25 students! We talked about conservation, 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 and ask questions about what they had read.

Topics we visited included bald eagles and osprey, wild turkeys, periodical cicadas, the biology of freshwater jellyfish and the best trails in the Great Smoky Mountains.

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

Click these links for a look back at past visits:

Spring 2015

Fall 2014

Friday, October 16, 2015

Owl-ology 101

Join me Sunday, October 18, 3 p.m. 
for Owl-ology 101 at Ijams

Lynne McCoy and Sugar
(All Ages) Learn all about the owls that call East Tennessee home. 

We’ll have a guest appearance from wildlife rehabilitator Lynne McCoy and her snow white, albino barred owl. Attendees will also meet a screech owl, share some mousy (cheesy) treats provided by volunteer naturalist Laura Twilley and then go to the woods to search for an owl with Ijams’ own owl-whisperer Rex McDaniel. If there’s an owl out in the daytime, Rex can find it. Bring your camera. 

Fee: $3 for members and $6 for non-members. Pre-registration is required; please call (865) 577-4717, ext. 110 to register. REGISTRATION IS FULL. CHECK THE IJAMS WEBSITE FOR OTHER FUN PROGRAMS.

Owl cupcakes made by Ijams volunteer naturalist Laura Twilley. Almost too cute to eat, you'll want to take one home and give it your guest room.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

zombie juice

Angel's trumpet

Continuing our impromptu series on plants to avoid, this one may not drop you dead in your tracks but it could render you senseless: out-of-it, zombie-fied.

Often found on lists of the world's Ten Most Dangerous Plants, angel's trumpet is no heavenly agent.

To paraphrase the Popular Mechanics website, the droopy, gorgeous angel trumpet (genus: Brugmansia, multiple species), native to regions of South America, packs a powerful punch of toxins containing atropine, hyoscyamine and scopolamine, [yielding a potent cocktail] that leaves victims unaware of what they are doing but entirely conscious. (I haven't been in such a state since college.) 

Scopolamine can be absorbed through the skin and mucous membranes, allowing evil-doers to simply blow the powdered plant into a victim's face. There is apparently one documented account of a zombie-fied man moving all of his possessions out of his apartment (and into the hands of his robbers) without remembering any of it. Does that make him an accomplice to the crime? Let's ask Judge Judy. 

Yep. It's zombie juice. Stay away! 

- Photo taken at an undisclosed location for fear zombies may overrun my part of town and what with the baseball playoffs, I really don't want to deal with it. Can you believe the Cubs!


Sunday, October 11, 2015

mind-altering collectible

One last note on the long, storied history of mind-altering plants. (It seems that as soon as we came to the notion that we were human, self-aware and special, we have been looking for ways to alter that reality.) 

Recently, I was looking through Karen Sue's collection of books and I came across the Golden Guide for "Hallucinogenic Plants." It still had the price—$1.39— she paid for it at a local used book store. She bought it because it "looked interesting," a folk history of mushrooms and plants used to alter reality. Originally, it had sold for $1.95 in the 1970s.

I grew up with the Golden Guides, the books were my first field guides and I still have a good collection, but not this one.


It's probably the most valuable; they're really hard to find. Parents complained. Even though it was the heady days of the 1960s and '70s, producing a guide for younger readers of hallucinogenic plants was not a good idea and the publisher soon pulled it from the market. There are just not that many copies in circulation.

Today, if you find one in hardcover, the pocket-sized field book sells for between $200 and $300 or even more. It's become quite a collectible, if you can get your head around that.

Monday, October 5, 2015

lucky shot

Ruby-throated hummingbirds cannot exist on nectar, sugar-water alone. Like you and I, they need fats and protein. Sugary soft drinks may give us a boost, but in the end, we need that ham and cheese sandwich or we crash and burn, an unfortunate turn of phrase for a hummingbird soon to be flying across the Gulf of Mexico to Central America.

In truth, hummers eat a lot of insects, lots, umpteens, beaucoups, oodles and oodles. Up to a 1/4 of their own body weight every day. (That's like me eating 50 pounds of prime rib daily.) And as the weather chills and the insects disappear, hummingbirds, the smallest of the warm-blooded animals, have to fly south for their munchies.

My friend Wayne Mallinger did not see the insect when he first snapped the photo of the young migrating male ruby-throat a few years ago. It was only later when he reviewed his images did the wonder of the photo present itself.

This one could be captioned:

"Oh boy. A snack!"

Amazing, amazing photo by Wayne Mallinger.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Common buckeye? Hardly

I always somewhat cringe when the word "common" is used in the common name of a living thing: common milkweed, common loon, common smartweed common sandpiper (well, hardly in East Tennessee!), common cold. Such is the case with the Common Buckeye, a rather spectacular butterfly we found on our "Butter-FlyAway" last Sunday.

We didn't see a lot of plantain or snapdragons, their host plants, but we did find one, and only one, buckeye. It was simply feeding on the blooming sedum by the Ijams greenhouse. 

Common it isn't. Buckeyes exhibit seasonal polyphenism

Polyphenism is the phenomenon where two or more distinct phenotypes (observable features: eye color, leg length, face shape, etc.) are produced by the same set of genes. In other words, there are portions of genotype that produce two different colors in succeeding generations. Different pigmentation patterns can provide appropriate camouflage throughout the changing seasons, as well as alter heat retention as temperatures change. In birds, the tundra-living willow ptarmigan is chestnut brown in summer, white in winter, all to blend into its environs.

In the case of the buckeye butterflies, the underside of their wings change a bit in color from the summer brood to the fall brood, from yellow to a rosy pink. But unlike the ptarmigan, it's in alternating generations. Summer parent yellow, autumn offspring pink, next summer's first brood, yellow again.

Why would this be? Probably to better blend into the two seasonal environments. Yellow in summer, pink in autumn. Or, do the fall tones simply hold in more heat on cooler days?

Now, what is common about any of this?

Of course, when you look at it, you don't readily notice its clever genetic switcheroo, but it's that same set of genes that do code for the wonderful eye spots this species is known for. That we do notice.

For a look at our Butter-FlyAway at Ijams, click: Buttery. 

Butter FlyAwayers in search of butterflies