Wednesday, April 25, 2018

a sweet smell

Please forgive the vulgar nature of this post, but I am a third generation hillbilly well steeped in Smoky Mountain folklore, so I should know this, be it tawdry or otherwise.

Carolina sweet shrub, a.k.a. strawberry bush is in bloom behind my house. But to the mountaineers, it had a much racier name, one perhaps not used in mixed company, “boobie-bush.”

It seems, if a mountain woman wanted to freshen herself up a bit, she would sometimes pluck one of the red flowers and slip it into her cleavage. Exposed to the body heat of such tight quarters, the bloom would begin to release the sweet aroma of ripe strawberries. A most delightful fragrance for there or anywhere else, particularly for some male like me who has a penchant for the red fruits.

Monday, April 23, 2018


Many thanks to all who attended the Ijams hike early yesterday morning. Super job Amy Oakey for the planning and leading the way. Thanks Nick and Doug. 

Loved the improvised directional stick arrows pointing out the correct path that were fashioned by the lead group. Perfect pathfinder markers; so, so James Fenimore Cooper-ish. And for a time we felt so lost in the lushness, I thought I heard jungle drums. Or was it a pileated? And weren't we out of the continental U.S. for awhile? 

And once again we encountered the fairy wood nymph I named Evangeline last month (my nod to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow). 

Next month a new adventure.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

indigo buntings do not grovel

Tell me it isn't so.

Indigo buntings are royalty. They sing their proud territorial songs from the uppermost branches of trees. The tip top. Regal. They do not hide in the canopy like cuckoos, they are perched high, displaying their rich indigo color in full sun for all to see, otherwise it wouldn't be seen. And they eat insects, fresh spring caterpillars. But where are the canopy leaves this mid-April day? And the bugs that eat them? 

Yet, I have had two indigo buntings groveling for castoff seeds on the floor of my second floor deck, there among the commoners, the sparrows and mourning doves, for four days.


Please tell me this is not yet another sign we are in the last days. Too dramatic? Perhaps. Time will tell, but things aren't right. Yesterday's Enterprise. Tasha Yar should not be here. And indigo buntings should be on the zenith of the canopy.

(Forgive the poor photo. It was taken with a cell phone through a window.)

Saturday, March 31, 2018

ants in the plants?

Trout lily (Erythronium americanum) is an early blooming perennial, a woodland wildflower that is on display now. It gets its odd name because the leaves are mottled and to some look like the sides of a brook trout.

But the cool thing is trout lilies grow in colonies and are examples of myrmecochory meaning that their seeds are dispersed and planted by ants, yes ants, like many of the other spring ephemerals. Needless to say, the ants do not move the seeds too far.

But why? 
The ants are only interested in the elaiosomes, the edible parts that are rich in lipids, amino acid and other nutrients. Then they toss the true seed aside underground. Win-win.

Monday, March 19, 2018


Yesterday was the March gathering of the Ijams Hiking Club. Our goal is to hike all 47 miles of trails in the Knox Urban Wilderness South Loop in 2018 to earn the Legacy Parks Foundation Patch. 

This time we decided to explore the trails on the eastern edge of the old Ross Marble Quarry, a former industrial site with homesites for the quarrymen and their families. All is slowly returning to nature since the quarry stopped operation in the late 1970s. That being said, almost everywhere you look you see signs of civilization slowly deteriorating.

This one broken figurine caught my eye. I took it as a wood nymph bidding us safe passage and in my mind named her "Evangeline," in honor of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's famous 1847 poem. Did the families of the quarrymen read the poem by candlelight in their small cabins? The faded figurine would have been a luxury, It is emblematic of the home life of the quarrymen at the turn of the century.

Paraphrasing Longfellow, "Listen to the mournful tradition still sung by the pines of the forest; Listen to a Tale of Love in Acadie, home of the happy."

And as a group, we were all happy. We were outside.

Friday, March 16, 2018

what's newt with you

If you would like to become an expert on one group of living things in our state, pick newts. Although there are over 50 known species in the world, only one species is found in Tennessee: the Eastern red-spotted newt. A trained herpetologist would point out that there are actually two subspecies that look very much identical, but for the sake of brevity, let's just focus on the principle species of the red-spotted complex.

Newts are salamanders that have an extra life stage. As juveniles, they turn bright red orange, leave their watery home and roam through the forest, hiding under logs and leaves for up to seven years. Because of their color, they are called "red efts." After their terrestrial travels, they find a pond, morph into yellowish olive green adults and begin to reproduce.

The newts in our local ponds can live up to 15 years: egg to larva to juvenile to adult. And that's a pretty long life for an amphibian.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Mystery bug thingy

Spring IS coming. The first mystery bug of the year has turned up. Or at least, it was a mystery to me. It knew what it was all along. Ijams Naturalist Christie figured it out for me because she is buggier than I am. 

But don't freak, even though that long snout contracts and expands, pretty creepy X-Files thing, but truth is stranger than fiction. It's the larva that grows up to be something you actually like.

A firefly or lightning bug. 

Monday, March 5, 2018

screech-owl boxing day

Few things look as woeful as an Eastern screech-owl caught out in the rain. And we have had a lot of rain. They need a place to roost, a hidey-hole.

March is also time for nesting. Mourning doves and Carolina wrens probably already have started. But screech-owls will be raising a family soon.

That's why yesterday afternoon, we held our last nest box building workshop of the season at Ijams Nature Center. And these over-sized boxes are designed for Eastern screech-owls, our smallest woodland owl that are even smaller when drenched with water.

Box em'. Keep your screeches high and dry.

Thank you, Anne et al.

Monday, February 12, 2018

uber-petite & golden

This one is a winged miracle.

On our list of birds that only send their winters in the Tennessee Valley is the uber-petite golden-crowned kinglet. At only 5 grams (the weight of two pennies) they are the smallest perching songbird. The only thing smaller is a hummingbird which is not considered a songbird. They are a miracle unto themselves.

How golden-crowns even survive the winter is a mystery. Hummingbirds migrate to Central America: Costa Rica, Belize, Guatemala the
se kinds of tropical places. The tiny kinglet migrates but not that far. Many are here in the trees around us. And we have had two super Artic-like cold spells. It is estimated that up to 87 percent of all golden-crowned kinglets die each winter so there may be none left at the nature center to return north in spring.

It is simply too difficult for a bird this tiny to maintain internal body heat over a long cold night. So how does the golden-crowned kinglet even survive as a species with such a high winter time mortality rate?

Come spring, when they migrate back to their breeding grounds, they are baby makers. Petite little dynamos. Each mated pair can produce two broods of up to nine nestlings each, arranged in two layers in their small nests. Yes, perhaps raising as many as 18 young ones in only a few months.

Somewhat surprising to me. We found three at my Bird-About Birdwatching for Beginners program last Saturday morning. Tough little things.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Olivia got it wrong!

Gasp! The entire staff of Ijams is aghast. For the second year in a row, Olivia, our Super Bowl predicting pundit got it wrong! (See WBIR. The "one person's voice" is Jen. Click: Olivia's prediction.) Just like last year, her 2018 pick lost in the closing seconds. A shocked hush has fallen over the nature center. Of course, we are all at home watching the game.

When reached for comment, Jen Roder, the Ijams Education Director and Olivia's football consultant said, "I don't know what the fuss is about. She is only a possum. Clearly we got some work to do, she still doesn't understand RPO. And who on Earth understands the catch rule? How do I explain that to her? In truth, she is really only good at picking the best grape."

Perhaps Ijams Park Manager Ben Nanny said it best, "it was a heck of a game. Opossums don’t really know that much about football."

Friday, February 2, 2018

I the thrush

It's a seasonal thing.

Walking to the mailbox just now, there was a hermit thrush to greet me and lead the way. It was in no real hurry, trotting along to give me a good look. Bobbing its tail. 

"Solitary the thrush, The hermit withdrawn to himself, avoiding the settlements, Sings by himself a song," wrote Whitman. Yes, I the thrush. 

It brought to mind a day last September along the same drive that another thrush centric story unfolded. One that could have had a tragic ending, yet it did not. 

Click: aid and comfort. 

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

year of the bird

"One reason that wild birds matter—ought to matter—is that they are our last, best connection to a natural world that is otherwise receding...The radical otherness of birds is integral to their beauty and their value," writes acclaimed novelist Jonathan Franzen in his cover story for the January National Geographic. Franzen is also an avid birder.

National Geographic has declared 2018 the year of the bird to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. In part to raise awareness to the plight of birds around the world as did the bird treaty act did a century ago. 

Yet, before you think this is an ode to birds, it is not, it is a celebration. Yes, many species are in danger, too many. (Read my UT Press books Ghost Birds and Ephemeral by Nature.) Birds are indeed fragile and struggling primarily due to habitat loss. But let me remind you that they are also smart, adaptable and tenacious. Birds are not descended from dinosaurs. They are cousins with most of today's bird groups sharing the planet with dinosaurs all those years ago. Imagine a nuthatch-like bird hopping around on the leg of a brachiosaurus! But the last great extinction event of 86± million years ago that did in the dinos, did not whip out the birds. They figured out a way to carry on.

To join in the celebration I will be doing more birding programs this year than ever before. Here are the next two.

Saturday, February 3, 10 a.m. to noon
Birds and Biscuits: Bird Song at Ijams

(Recommended for ages 8 and up) They’re colorful. They’re musical. They are present year-round. It’s no wonder that birds have fascinated people for generations. Learn some of the songs and calls you hear in your yard and what they mean, from chickadee chatter to meadowlark melodies to cardinal chips. Ijams provides a morning snack of warm biscuits, jam and honey. The fee for this program is $10 per person. Call 577-4717, ext. 110 or go online to

Sunday, February 4, 1 to 4 p.m.
Winter Waterfowl at Cove Lake with Ijams

(Recommended for Ages 8 and up) Join me for a beginner’s birding workshop at Cove Lake State Park. The lake serves as a magnet for migrating birds, including hundreds of geese and other waterfowl. I will give you the tips of the trade as you learn the basics of bird identification. Please bring binoculars and a blanket or lawn chair. Meet at Ijams. Spaces are very limited, so register today. The fee for this program is $8 per person. Call 577-4717, ext. 110 or go online to

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Whoooo Dat?

Look at that sweeeet face!

This is an one-eyed eastern screech-owl that is cared for by Ijams Nature Center. I call her Eunice because she has uni-vision, not a good thing if you are a nocturnal predator. 

She will be one of my guest owls at tomorrow's Whoooo Dat? owl program, a Family Adventure Sunday offering. We will meet two live owls, learn the calls of local owls, dissect large owl pellets (Click: Lynne's great horned owls) and go on a walk searching for barred owls in the wetland behind the Visitor Center.

Today, Eunice paid a visit to Beth and Russell on WBIR's Live@5@4

She was stoic as usual, watching everything we odd humans do for entertainment. Wonder what she thought?

To see the interview with Beth, Russell and Eunice click, Whoooo Dat?

WBIR's Beth Haynes, Russell Biven with Eunice and that owl guy

Friday, January 26, 2018

big hearted

If hearts were measured by surveyors, Lynne McCoy's heart would be tallied in acres. Lynne is a licensed wildlife rehabilitor and over the years she has cared for thousands of injured or orphaned animals—both with two legs and with four. Lynne is not funded, she does this out of the kindness in her heart and with donations made by people like you and I.  

Her goal is always to get the animal healthy and old enough or strong enough to return to the wild. Most do. But a few of them never recover, so she has quite a menagerie that she takes care of daily. 

Lynne has appeared in two of my books: in the opossum chapter in Natural Histories and in the owl chapter in Ephemeral by Nature. Today, I visited Lynne for some barter. I traded a signed copy of Ephemeral for 25 choice owl pellets regurgitated by her two non-releasable great horned owls. The pellets are big and full of fur and bones.

At my Family Adventure Sunday Whoooo Dat? owl program, we will learn about local owls, their distinctive calls, meet a couple of live owls and dissect the pellets I bartered for today. Some may be lucky enough to find complete rodent skulls!

Nature is not always pretty, but it is always pretty interesting. 

To sign up for this Family Adventure Sunday, go online to: Whoooo Dat?  

Lynne's great horned owls cough up large pellets

Wednesday, January 24, 2018


One interesting bird to look for this time of the year is the yellow-rumped warbler, a.k.a. myrtle warbler (long story, come to one of my Birds & Biscuits at Ijams and I will explain).

The photo is one in its drab winter plumage, but they retain the bright yellow rump which leads to the sobriquet, "old butter butt."

This warbler is only here in winter and will come to your suet feeder but I have yet to sneak close enough to get a photo. I did catch one with a titmouse at my heated bird bath with my cell phone camera, see below. Forgive the quality but it IS a phone after all. Maybe Nikon should start added a way to make calls on their 35mm cameras to get even. 

Soon yellow-rumps will molt into their much more striking breeding plumage and migrate north to their nesting grounds primarily in Canada.

Monday, January 22, 2018

return to Hiwassee

Yesterday's cabin fever buster, Ijams Bird-About was great fun. The road trip to Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge that I hosted is an annual family birding adventure. And it didn't hurt that the weather moderated with sunny skies, so we all could recover from being so cooped up indoors.

Birds of interest that we saw were thousands of sandhill cranes, two bald eagles (thanks Kim for spotting them), plus great blue herons, bufflehead, pintail and gadwall ducks, ring-billed gulls, grebes, red-tailed hawk, bluebirds, yellow-rumped warbler and the very non-bird white-tailed deer. But as always, the sandhills are the feature attraction.

Thank you Ijams ambassadors Rex, Kristy and Nick.

Additional photos supplied by Rex McDaniel.

Our next Bird-About will be to Cove Lake on Sunday, February 4. To sign up go online to…/beginner-birding-winter-ducks-at-cove-l…/