Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Gatlinburg fire storm

Alex Cole cabin at the Jim Bales homesite on Roaring Fork, Great Smoky Mountains N.P. Photo by Rex McDaniel

Gatlinburg is my hometown, Baskins Creek my natal waters. My heart hurts for family, friends that have lost so much. I lost nothing material but may have lost everything memorable. 

I went to Pi Beta Phi located beside Arrowmont. My boyhood home is a short walk from both of these and walk it I often did. I graduated from Gatlinburg-Pittman High School, lived in the fun, resort town for years, walked up and down the Parkway, Reagan Drive, Airport and River Roads more times than I could possible, possible estimate. Hiked the trails around and below in the foothills of LeConte and the creek that bears its name many, many times. My family's roots go back to the 1880s and the watersheds of Roaring Fork and Baskins. Ancestral cabins are maintained by the park service. Yesterday's fury of fire storms were reported in all of these places. At this point, no one quite knows what is left. 

Governor Haslam said it was the worst fire in Tennessee in the past 100 years. Did I just hear that or is it all a bad dream? What do you say when a piece of you is forcibly removed?  

My worries and heartfelt prayers to all of my family and friends that still live in my mountain home.

One man's life can last decades, but parts of it are oh so ephemeral. 

"Whereas ye know not what shall be on the morrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapour, that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away."—James 4:14

God bless you all.

- Photo by Rex McDaniel


Sunday, November 27, 2016

post Thanksgiving hike

Thank you to all who came on our Let's-walk-off-that-pumpkin-pie-hike yesterday at the nature center.

The Ijams Hiking Club meets once a month to hike somewhere at the nature center or on the 50-plus miles of trails that are part of the South Knoxville Urban Wilderness.

It's a fun, laid-back group of mixed ages who are not out to break any speed records. Our next hike is Saturday, December 17 at 2 o'clock. To register call 577-4717, ext. 110. Come join us. 

And thank you to this hike's volunteer leaders Amy Oakey and Eric Johnson.

Thank you Amy and Eric for planning our hike!

Friday, November 25, 2016

Thankfulus carolinensis

Granted this is odd.

But I was taught to be thankful for the small things and if you have enough small things to be thankful for they will outweigh the big bad things. 
Yesterday was Thanksgiving. That's when I found a Carolina wolf spider (Hogna carolinensis) in my shower. 

H. carolinensis is the largest wolf spider in North America and I have been looking for one to live in my basement to deal with the crickets that generally hang out down there. Not that I have anything against crickets but we all need a check and balance. As Lord Acton said, "Absolute power corrupts absolutely." That's the big bad thing I am worried about.  

Wolf spiders have pretty formidable faces with eight eyes. In the photo, one pair of eyes is hidden at the top of the head. I'm not sure if they eat the crickets or merely scare them into leaving. The jury is out on that one.  

Happy post Thanksgiving. 

Thursday, November 24, 2016

giving thanks

It's Thanksgiving. You've got your family and friends around you, and before you is a feast with more food than you can possibly eat at one sitting. In fact, it may take several. You've got turkey, dressing, cranberries, mashed potatoes, gravy, bread, yams and your Aunt Lena's pumpkin pie.

Well Aunt Lena was my aunt, but I'm sure you have a pie maker too.

Native to North America, pumpkins have always been a part of our Thanksgiving holiday. The first festival in 1621 brought together the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag, the Indian tribe who helped the Plymouth Colonists adapt to their harsh new land. The first feast was composed of fish, duck, geese, wild turkey, venison, cornbread with nuts, succotash—an Algonquian dish of shelled beans and green corn—and for dessert, pumpkin stewed in maple sap.

I once made this last dish, and it’s actually quite good.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Saturday, November 19, 2016

birding for homeschoolers

Hey, what are you guys looking at?

Was that a song sparrow? Or a Carolina wren? It was moving fast, what did you see? It was brownish, low to the ground, moving through the bushes.

Yesterday's topic was backyard birds for the Ed-Ventures @ Ijams homeschool class I hosted at the nature center. Ed-Ventures @ Ijams is a total of eight classes each based on one of the natural sciences. Last month it was entomology, i.e. insects. Yesterday it was ornithology, i.e. we went birdwatching. Next month's topic is geology. And we have a lot of rocks to look at with two abandoned quarries.

For more information call Lauren at 577-4717, ext. 135.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Arboretum Society thank you

A special thank you goes out to Lynda Haynes and the University of Tennessee Arboretum Society for inviting me to speak at their annual meeting. 

Arboretum folks love trees, so do woodpeckers. My topic was about our local woodpecker species in general and briefly about the very non-native species I spent three years of my life with: the ivory-billed woodpecker. Although I have never seen the legendary Ghost Bird, I did write a book about UT's own James T. Tanner and his search for ivorybills in the 1930s.

Penning the book with the help of his late wife Nancy was one of my life's most memorable events.

Miss you, Nancy! 

Sunday, November 13, 2016

twice baked pellets

Great horned owl pellet mostly made up of fur and bones

"Someone's in the kitchen with Dinah, Someone's in the kitchen I know oh-oh-oh."

Well, that's not true. It's just me, Dinah did not show oh-oh-oh. I think the baked goods on the agenda were a little too gro-oh-oss for her.

This morning, it's owl pellets being sterilized for this afternoon's Girl Scout Detective Badge workshop at the nature center. 

Whooo ya lookin' at?
Owls cannot chew their food, so they swallow it more or less whole, letting their stomachs squeeze out all the nutrients it contains. Roughly, eight hours after the meal, they regurgitate (upchuck) a pellet filled with all that could not be digested, mostly fur and bones. Then a smart young naturalist Girl Scout can dissect the mass and discover the bones of its last victim. Sort of like CSI forensic scientists.

And the owl pellet dissection is just one of the four activities we have planned. 

Sterilized Pellet Recipe: 
A) Find a regurgitated owl pellet 
B) Wrap the pellet in aluminum foil, place on cookie sheet 
C) Bake at 325 degrees for 40 minutes.

Since an owl pellet is essentially baked once in the bird's stomach, my oven baking was the second. Oddly, it made the house smell like roasted walnuts and burnt hair.

Hint: It's better to do your prep work outside on an old table.

For a look at our last Animal Detectives class click: workshop. 

Now we know the predator and the prey

Friday, November 11, 2016

it's time for winter birds

Do you know this bird?

If not, you should come to my class on winter birds, tomorrow at Ijams.  Here's the details.

Saturday, November 12, 10:30 a.m.
Birding and Brunch at Ijams

(All Ages) Join me for this fun and lighthearted look into the world of winter birds. Burr! I’ll discuss birds like the pied-billed grebe, hermit thrush, winter wren, yellow-bellied sapsucker, golden-crowned kinglet and many others that only send their winter months in the Tennessee Valley and where to find them. The bird pictured above likes to be low to the ground, forging in brush piles often near water.  

A light brunch will be provided. The fee for this program is $5 for Ijams members and $8 for non-members. Please call (865) 577-4717, ext. 110 to register.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

the ologies

Thank you, Shelley Wascom, Executive Director of the local Community Shares, for inviting me on your "Voices of Change" program on CTV to talk about the Ology classes I host at Ijams.

The Sunday afternoon Ologies often pair children with their parents, grandparents or guardians as we explore a natural science topic. In the past year we have covered Snake-ology, Spider-ology, Flutterby-ology, Duck-ology and many more. Generally we review basic material indoors (Just what is an arachnid?) with special themed-snacks like spider eggs, gummie worms, chocolate-covered frogs or owl-faced cupcakes, then we go exploring outside looking for our topic de jour. Finding a dragonfly at Ijams is easy during season. Uncovering a snake is a little more difficult. And, goodness, sometimes we even get eyeball to eyeball with a praying mantis. 

We have been known to scratch around in the leaves searching for millepedes or dig in the dirt for beetles, sometimes we dip-net for tadpoles and sometimes we dissect owl pellets looking for mouse skulls. Good, old school fun. 

Since 1968, Ijams Nature Center has been a safe place for urban kids to explore nature and separate the fact from the fiction. 

Shelley and I also talked about Richard Louv's book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. The author writes that, "Our children are the first generation to be raised without meaningful contact with the natural world."

Children today grow up confined indoors. Being cut-off from reality, young people are left isolated in the virtual world of the Internet and often violent video games. They lose the sense of freedom and the awareness that the world is explorable, knowable and infinitely fascinating.

My next Ijams Ology is Hawk-ology (hawks, falcons and eagles), Sunday, November 20 at 2 p.m. To register call 577-4717, ext. 110. And themed snacks are always welcomed. 

With Shelley Wascom host of Voices of Change on CTV

Mouse skull
Spider looking
Going on a snake hunt
Bird nest making


Friday, November 4, 2016

annual Panther trip

Last Monday, I returned to Panther Nation, paying a visit to Coach Will Roberts' AP Environmental Science class at Powell High School. It has become an annual tradition.

Each student had been assigned to read a portion of one of my first two books: Natural Histories or Ghost Birds and ask questions about what they had read. Plus we chatted a bit about my upcoming book Ephemeral by Nature to be published next year by UT Press. 

Topics we visited were some of my favorite parts of my first book including bald eagles, Osage oranges, pawpaws, cicada eating on live TV anda preview of coming attractions—the red pandas that will be featured in my upcoming book.

Ian asked me a question and I grappled with coming up with a concise answer: The difference between a poison and venom? Concisely, venom is a type of poison. Animals like bees, wasps, spiders, snakes, jellyfish produce venom, a poisonous substance that can be lethal to their prey and some venom can be lethal to humans. I am allergic to wasp venom. A good sting sends me to the doctor. A rattlesnake is venomous but not poisonous. Once you remove the head, we can eat them, but I'm not sure I would. The Japanese have a penchant for eating puffer fish, once its toxin glands are CAREFULLY removed. To humans, its tetrodotoxin is deadly, up to 1,200 times more poisonous than cyanide. There is enough toxin in one puffer fish to kill 30 adult humans. Scary. Some plants like belladonna also produce toxins that are poisonous.

After speaking to my Ijams supervisor Jennifer, she gave me a more concise answer: If you bite it and die, it is poisonous; if it bites you and you die, it is venomous. 'nuff said.

What to avoid! In this country annually, 58 people are killed by bees, wasps, and hornets, mostly due to anaphylactic shock after a sting; 28 are killed by dogs; 20 are killed by cows; 7 by spiders; 5.5 die from rattlesnake bites.

Class, just be careful out there and avoid all things toxic, venomous and poisonous, and no puffer fish! And if you see an ivory-billed woodpecker, let me know.   

Best of luck to all of you! Thanks, Will.

Puffer fish. Poisonous? Or venomous?
Lincoln. A red panda at the Knoxville Zoo. 

Click these links for a look back at past visits:

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Rosie, the TV star

Chilean rose tarantula (Grammostola rosea)
One more spider post:

Rosie, the Ijams' Chilean rose tarantula, made a guest appearance on WBIR's Live@5@4 for Halloween. I went along as her handler. Every star needs a personal assistant and spokesperson. And every Halloween show needs a really big big hairy spider.

Chilean rose tarantulas (Grammostola rosea) are not native to Tennessee and can only be found in pet stores. They are actually very laid-back and make easy-to-care-for low maintenance pets, just feed them crickets. G. rosea are usually skittish, running away from danger rather than acting defensively.

At the nature center Rosie is an education animal that makes numerous guest appearances to raise awareness of arachnids and dispel the unreasonable fear of spiders: arachnophobia. I could say they get into their pants just like you or I, one leg at a time, but with eight bristle-covered legs it's a little more arduous for them.

Surprisingly, a female G. rosea can live up to 20 years, and with eight eyes, eight legs, two body segments plus spinnerets, pedipalps and chelicerae, they make good conversation starters. Just ask Russell Biven and Beth Haynes.   

To see Rosie's interview click Live@5@4.

Thank you Lee Ann, Beth, Russell, Emily, Jerry and all the rest of the WBIR staff. 

The WBIR Live@5@4 crew are out standing in their field, producing five hours of live, entertaining television a week.