Monday, August 29, 2016

unusual traveling companions

Photo by the Randle's neighbor: Alla Wardell

The email came with the subject line, "Unusual Traveling Companions."

I have been writing about backyard birds for 17 years and John and Anita Randle have been readers of mine for a long time. But, the photo attached to John's communiqué was quite an odd couple, perhaps even odder than Neil Simon's Oscar and Felix.

A flashy peacock and rough-hewn wild turkey, well maybe in a zoo, but in someone's backyard? Just wandering through?

Birds often form loose flocks for protection, so that they can watch each others' back. Or maybe they just like hanging out together. John says that they have named the peacock, Piper, and that he is "quite the conversationalist."

My friend David Piper says they are, "Birds of a feather. They are both gallinaceous. [That is ground-feeding, fowl-like or chicken-like.] Sort of like the family reunion you are glad to be away from."

Unless they are the main course. 

Thursday, August 25, 2016

six-legged dragons

Insect whisperer Jackson

Kids and bugs. What better way to spend a summer afternoon? Yes, I know. It's old school and kids aren't entertained by real bugs, only virtual bugs. But, surprise, surprise.

Sunday's Dragon Quest at Ijams unfolded on an ideal afternoon to study the carnivorous order of insects: Odonata—the toothed ones. We had beautiful weather to search for dragons and even damsels.

We managed to catch and release and/or photograph three species of dragonfly: Slaty Skimmer (Libellula incesta), Blue Dasher (Pachydiplax longipennis) and Eastern Pondhawk (Erythemis simplicicollis). Plus one species, as yet unknown, of damselfly; best guess eastern red damsel (Amphiagrion saucium).

Thanks to all dragon-ologist and to Jason Dykes for his steady hand with the camera and to Kim, Nick and Clare for helping.

Next up: Flutterby-ology in September!

A pair of dragons. Photos by John Goodall
Blue dasher dragonfly Photo by Jason Dykes
Eastern pondhawk dragonfly Photo by Jason Dykes
Slaty Skimmer dragonfly Photo by Jason Dykes
Perhaps eastern red damsel??  Photo by Clare Dattilo

A dragonfly nymph's shed exoskeleton is called an exuviae. Isn't that a fun word? Photo by Clare Dattilo
Ijams Dragon-ologists

Sunday, August 21, 2016

big day for Sophia

Friday was a big day for Sophia. It was her first day of school. That's life-changing. AND she acquired the oddest creature she had ever seen. It was a buggy beast straight out of Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are

Photo by Shirley Andrews
But what was it?

Her grandmother and my dear friend Linda knew where to get the answer. 

What "Soph" had in her possession on her big big day was the biggest, boldest caterpillar in North America, as long as a hot dog without the relish. A spiky flamboyant thing loaded with color and panache...a hickory horned devil that will pupate, dramatically rearrange every fiber of its being and emerge from its underground earthen chamber as a beautiful royal walnut moth, a.k.a. regal moth (Citheronia regalis). 

Does it get odder than this?

As a caterpillar it eats hickory, persimmon and walnut leaves, as an adult it dazzles with its six-inch wingspan beauty. 

Congratulations, Sophia.

Thank you too, Mom Karen.  

Hickory horned devil
Regal moth

Thursday, August 18, 2016

dazed and confused

Many birds fly into windows. CRASH! 

Sometimes it breaks their necks, but sometimes it just leaves them dazed and confused, like a football player after a rough hit.

Colliding into windows is the number two cause of bird deaths. Outside cats kill an estimated 1.4 to 3.7 billion birds each year, while flying into windows causes 365 to 988 million bird deaths.

Last Sunday, August 14, I was checking the 30 hummingbird feeders we have around the Visitor Center when I found a male ruby-throated hummingbird on a bench below a window. It was moving but not much, naturally I feared the worse. 

Cradling the injured foundling gently in my hands I watched it, speaking to it in soft tones. He wiggled a bit, twisting his head back and forth, blinked bleary eyed, asking itself the obvious questions: "Where am I? Who am I?"

Hummingbirds are incredible light: only three grams, roughly the same as two dimes. Having one in your hand is like holding a hope and a promise. An official badminton shuttlecock weighs twice as much but only has 16 feathers.

Opening my fingers, it didn't fly, but hopped onto my thumb. Good sign! Yet, still he didn't want to fly. Had he forgotten how? A nearby visitor brought me a sugar-water feeder. 

The hummer seemed to slowly come to its senses, recognizing the world and the meaning of the feeder. Self awareness was creeping in.

It drank.

Swoosh! Like a swift running back, it saw its opening and bolted away. 

All photos by Rex McDaniel 

The Wonder of Hummingbirds Festival is this Saturday at Ijams. Great fun.

One of the most remarkable photos you'll ever see. Thank you, Rex.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

they're back!

If they appear at all, look for freshwater jellyfish during the hottest part of late summer in local stillwater quarries and lakes.

The freshwater jellyfish (Craspedacusta sowerbii) are back in Mead's Quarry Lake at Ijams. Most years we do not see them, or find them. But, every so often, this time of the year during the high heat of August and early September, I'm carrying a Mason jar with three or four in it. 

For a look back, click: jellies adieu, Ephemeral treasure and  Jelly-fishin'.

The best way to see them "au natural" is to rent a canoe, kayak or paddleboard from RiverSports at Meads and go jellyfishin' on your own. (The jellies in the buff, not you. There are laws of common decency.)

Photo by Chuck Cooper

Friday, August 12, 2016

eagle released

Photo by Bruce McCamish

Yesterday morning, the American Eagle Foundation (AEF) returned a once injured bald eagle to the wild at Ijams.

The eagle, now named Summitt in honor the late head coach of the Lady Vols, had been found in a leg trap near Huffaker Ferry upstream from Ijams. TWRA officer Roy Smith, who was in attendance for the release, rescued the downed eagle last March.

Ijams was honored to be chosen, since H.P. Ijams first began calling the area along the Tennessee River a "bird sanctuary" in the 1920s.

AEF's famous education eagle Challenger also was on hand for the release.

Ijams thanks Al, Julia and Laura with AEF and all the people who attended. And thank you Bruce and Chuck for sharing your photos.

- Stephen Lyn Bales

Al Cecere releases Summitt. Photo by Chuck Cooper

Summitt flies free. Photo by Chuck Cooper
Photo by Chuck Cooper
Photo by Chuck Cooper

With Laura, Julia and Challenger of AEF. Photo by Chuck Cooper

Eagle watchers

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Fabergé nest?

Nest of a ruby-throated hummingbird in a sycamore tree.

Ruby-throated hummingbird nests are exquisitely crafted, as delicate and finely detailed as the Fabergé eggs once produced for the Emperors of Russia. Oddly, the tsars have not survived but many of the fragile eggs have, which brings to mind the question: What is more enduring, politics or art? (I've always put my energies into the latter. Few remember the polices of President Eisenhower or Adlai Stevenson but the work of their contemporaries, 1950s artists Jackson Pollock and Robert Motherwell, live on.)

Back to the birds: To build a nest, ruby-throats use spider silk and plant fibers, decorating the finished assemblages with flakes of lichen. Sometimes you need an extra pair or two of sharp eyes to locate a hummer's nest, as we had on an Ijams canoe trip a few years ago on Mead's Quarry Lake. Click: hummer nest.

Rose Trellis egg 
created by jeweler
Peter Carl Fabergé in 1907
for Tsar Nicholas II


Saturday, August 6, 2016

his imperialness

As is usual for this time of the year, another Saturniidae moth has appeared in my life. The Saturniidae family includes the giant silk moths, royal moths and emperor moths.

Recently, I found a very large
imperial moth—yellow and muted purple like an old bruise—resting near my front porch. This is one species in which the male and female look very different: males are slightly smaller and have more purple on their wings. The one that visited me was a male. 

Found throughout the east, imperial moths are on the decline in the northern part of their range. No one knows why, since their caterpillars feed on a wide variety of trees: oak, maple, pine, sycamore, sweet gum and sassafras. All of these are readily available.

Imperial moths are featured in naturalist Gene Stratton-Porter's "Girl of the Limberlost.” First published in 1909, the novel takes place in Limberlost Swamp in Indiana and centers on a poor girl who collects Saturniidae moths and other things from the swamp to sell for much-needed money. Stratton-Porter’s "Moths of the Limberlost,” published in 1912, is a non-fiction chronicle of the giant silk moth and the childhood discovery of nature.

Despite the gray in my hair, it's quite obvious to anyone who knows me, I’m still well immersed in the childhood discovery of nature.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

on being awestruck

Call me a Pantheist, but isn’t arguing over religion just a question of semantics? When the miracle of the universe so obviously exists and we are so obviously a part of it.

Roll the video: Being Awestruck