Friday, June 15, 2018

For Goodness Snakes!

The young girl in black at WBIR with absolutely no fear of snakes 
wanted her photo taken with our cornsnake, so we obliged.

Join me at Ijams Nature Center on Father's Day at 2 p.m. for another Family Adventure Sunday and learn the truth about the roughly 15 species of snake that live in East Tennessee. There's really nothing to be afraid of unless you are a mouse or mole.

We have no water moccasins in our waters. None. None. None. It's a myth. But we do have a brown water snake that eats small fish and tadpoles and both a kingsnake (eats other snakes) and a queensnake (eats aquatic life).

Snakes are all a part of nature's balance. They are benevolent creatures that simple want to be left alone to do their job. 

On Sunday, we'll meet a few of the snakes that the education department care for and go on a nature walk to the Homesite and along the river to look for any signs of the snakes that live in our 317-acre nature center.

For more information on For Goodness Snakes or to register click...

Sunday, June 10, 2018

a pond evacuation adventure

The evacuation: the beginning of the pond restoration.

As sad as it is for Ijams to admit or accept, but our beautiful Plaza Pond in front of the Visitor Center has developed a leak or leaks and is not holding water. It has to be dredged down to its 8-inch-thick, circa 1998, concrete liner and repaired. 

We have no idea how long it will take until we locate the problem.

We began the process yesterday when a group of courageous volunteers—the A Team of critter catchers—joined me to rescue and evacuate all the aquatic life we could catch and move them to a second pond. It was hot mucky work. 

Our team also conducted a biological inventory of all we found: hundreds of tadpoles, plus frogs, newts, turtles and numerous aquatic invertebrates including two leeches and two hellgrammites! But oddly, no snakes.

A huge thank you goes out to Annabel, Oliver, Abby, Jacob, Linda, Tess, Bruce, Gloria and Evelyn.

Supplied photos by Linda Knott, Clare Datillo and Jack Gress. 

Don't try this at home. Snapping turtles will bite and won't let go. 

The A Team of muckrakers, plus Tess and Bruce.

Monday, June 4, 2018

What the rain crow knows

A memorial visit to sacrosanct Chota.

What can you say about an Ijams Bird-About that begins with a rainbow and ends with an intense thunderstorm? Dramatic! 

Our group had ventured to the Chota Memorial on Tellico Lake to hopefully hear one of the local nightjars calling just after sunset. Either a whip-poor-will or chuck-will's-widow, or perhaps both if we were lucky.

To some degree, I was recreating a trip I made to Chota and wrote about in my first UT Press book, Natural Histories.

First we paid our respects to the Eastern Band of Cherokee at the site of their former Chota council house and then laid small stones on the tombstone of Oconastota, their great war chief. Chota was the legendary Cherokee peace town, you couldn't live there if there was anger in your heart. Why was a great war chief buried there? In the 1780s, Oconastota was elderly and at peace in his heart and wanted to die at peace in Chota. His wishes were granted.

Birding-wise we heard or saw yellow-billed cuckoo, common yellowthroat, blue-gray gnatcatcher, red-winged blackbird, yellow-breasted chat and an osprey. We heard the cuckoo as soon as we got out of the cars, and if you know your bird folklore, locals called it the "rain crow." If you heard one, it would soon rain! But the clouds seemed to be breaking up as we awaited sunset, the time the chucks or whips would start to call.

But then things got interesting. Quickly. Standing in the grass just outside the council circle on the narrow peninsula we suddenly took note of a dark gray wall of storm clouds rapidly approaching from the south. Scurrying back to the parking lot, we began to hear chuck-will's-widows calling from the woods around us.

"Chip-fell-from-white-oak. Chip-fell-from-white-oak." And Jan from Georgia got to hear what she traveled so far the hear: a memory from her childhood.

"Nature is awesome!" Shouted the one among us who was descended from the Eastern Band of Cherokee as the storm wall closed in on us.

We stood in the gathering darkness listening to chucks as long as we dared.

But alas, with thunder and lightning popping all around plus heavy rain beginning in torrents, the group hopped into our cars and slowly drove away.

A visit to Chota, a Memorial Weekend outing worth remembering.

Supplied photos from Jason Dykes, Lo Kressin and Wiki media.

The rain crow knew something we did not.

Site of council house at Chota

Peaceful sunset

Chuck's begin to call just after sunset.

Then the grand finale began

Jason's cell phone said, "The rain begins in one minute." And it did.

Monday, May 28, 2018

troll cat vomit

Do you want to hear something gross but really is quite remarkable?

I often ask that question of 7-year-olds and always get a resounding, "YES!"

Imagine then if you will, a lifeform here on planet Earth that is neither plant, animal nor fungi but rather exists outside those known worlds. Yet, it is common place, found around the globe and really is quite harmless and ephemeral. It has no brain nor legs yet moves about freely and in laboratory settings can find food even navigate a maze, with remarkable efficiency.  

In its basic form it is a single amoeba-like cell that is haploid, meaning it only has half its compliment of chromosomes (like egg and sperm: Biology 101). Without a mouth, it eats bacteria and other microorganisms found on rotting logs, yet if need be, can pool its resources and join with other amoeba-like cells like itself to form a mass that works for the common good. In this form, it moves or oozes along as a mass mob.

I was so pleased to arrive home two weeks ago and find such a mass mob, collectively known as dog vomit slime mold (Fuligo septica) on a stump beside my driveway. Naturalists are thrilled by such a thing, so I was thrilled. And forgive the common name, that's the gross part. Naturalists are also thrilled by such crudeness. 

As a haploid amoeba-like cell it reproduces asexually but if it encounters a proper "mating-type" they can indeed mate and produce diploid (having a full compliment of chromosomes) zygotes. These then grow into plasmodia that contain many nuclei not divided by cellular walls that can spread to become several feet in size although the one I found was about the length of my hand. Without the proper mating-type the colony of asexually produced clones are pretty much confined to their rotten wood location.   

Yet, as Wiki relates, when and if a "sexually" produced "mass is formed, the cells reconfigure, changing their shape and function to form stalks, which produce bulbs called fruiting bodies. The fruiting bodies contain millions of spores, which get picked up and transported by the wind, a passing insect or an animal. There, they start the process again as single-celled haploid organisms. Meanwhile, the cells that formed the stalks die, sacrificing themselves."

Dog vomit slime mold is found all around the planet where there is rotting wood. In the Scandinavian countries, it is known as troll cat vomit. And in case you do not know as I did not, a troll cat is either in the shape of a cat or a ball. Troll cats suck milk from cows and spit it out into a witch's milk pail, and they sometimes go into homes to lick up cream which I do not have, but apparently, their upchuck is yellow like butter.

Thank you, Nick for introducing me to the wondrous world of slime molds.

Friday, May 25, 2018

cicadas: coming attractions

I shan't let this one get past us.

In the middle of last week, Ijams education director Jen Roder was leaving work when she heard the unmistakable drone of a male cicada in the trees around the parking lot.

But the only cicadas that emerge from the ground in May are the 17-year periodical cicadas yet our Brood X is not due until 2021. So these stragglers or eager beavers were three years too early. Climate change? Or sloppy timekeeping? How do they even know the passage of time deep underground anyway?

I write at great length about these natural wonders, ephemeral as well every 17 years, in my first UT Press book Natural Histories.

Then last Sunday I found one lone golden-winged, red-eyed beauty on the Universal Trail near the solar panels.

Gorgeous true bug in the insect order Hemiptera. Bug season is here!

The last emergence at the nature center was May 2004, so we cannot wait until May 2021 when there will be thousands dripping from the trees, droning around the plaza. 

Pandemonium. Or should we say Cicademoniom.

Mark your calendars.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Being a Good Shepherd

Good Shepherd Episcopal Church

My warmest heartfelt thanks go to the friendly folks at the local Good Shepherd Episcopal Church in Fountain City. And to Ruth Anne Hanahan for inviting me to be the Good Shepherd & the World last speaker of the season. 

My talk was about ephemerality—"For what is your life? It is even a vapour, that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away"—and my new book Ephemeral by Nature published by the University of Tennessee. 

"Everyone loved it, especially the information about the fresh water jellyfish. I didn't know they existed! And, I learned not to put them in my mouth..." emailed Harry Wade.

Yes, indeed. The freshwater jellies come and vanisheth away in a matter of days. The penny-sized Cnidarians are virtually harmless but they can sting your tongue, if you give them the chance!

Freshwater jellyfish (Craspedacusta sowerbii) 

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Albion College visit

Ijams would like to thank Dr. Doug White with the Center for Sustainability & the Environment at Albion College in southern Michigan for arranging their recent field trip to our nature center. White received his masters degree in ecology from the University of Tennessee in 1977. 

The group was interested in how a former industrial site, namely Ross Marble and Mead’s Quarries, could be reclaimed by nature and converted into a public use recreational hub.

I was happy to play host and tour guide. We visited all four former quarry pits, discussed the formation of the 400+ million year old limestone itself, the history of the quarrying in Knoxville and all that has been accomplished since Mead’s Quarry became part of Ijams in 2001. A lot!

From 1881 until 1978, this area was a heavily used, and no doubt loud, industrial complex. Over 30,000 cubic feet of industrial-grade limestone marketed as Tennessee Marble was being shipped by barge and railroad annually. Post 1945, the sites began producing agricultural lime with kilns being heated to 1000c. Now the location has reclaimed much of itself. Wildlife has returned.

The three-hour hike and tour included undergrad students “aiming towards a variety of environmentally-related careers, some perhaps in some sort of environmental education,” plus faculty members Dr. Doug White, Dr. Wes Dick, Dr. Sheila Lyons-Sobaski and Kim Jones.

Ijams hopes you had a safe trip home.