Friday, October 13, 2017

Leafing through Ijams

Extra! Extra! What were WBIR Channel 10 Live@5@4 host Beth Haynes and I talking about this afternoon?

Could it be the "Leafing through Ijams" program Sunday, October 15 at 1 p.m.? Yes. The trees are beginning to drop their leaves so they no longer need them. Well then let's start a colorful leaf collection.

It's part Easter egg hunt (without the bunny) and part scrapbooking plus your kids will begin to learn about the different types of trees at Ijams and around your yard.

(All ages but perfect for 5- through 9-year-olds) Join me for this Family Adventure Sunday program in the park. Bring scrapbooks or notebooks for each child and let’s go leafing through Ijams. The fee for this program is $8. Everyone over the age of two must have a ticket.

To register by phone, please call (865) 577-4717, ext. 110 or go online to register at

Thursday, October 12, 2017

a monarch passing

The journey magnífico!

You feel for them this time of the year. The monarch butterflies, little more than paper mache, on their long migration to mountain ranges in Mexico.

Do they even know their final destination? We think not. It is just somehow hard-wired into a brain as tiny as a grain of sand. The Mexican Sierra Madre Oriental Mountains are over 1600 miles away but that is by road. Monarchs take a more direct route over the Gulf of Mexico.

This one passed through the Garden Demonstration Site on the eminence above the Visitor Center at Ijams Nature Center Saturday afternoon before the heavy rains on Sunday. It just pausing long enough to seek food on a sprig of frostweed. And flippity-flap it moved on towards the southwest.

We are humbled by your nonchalance and courage.

Viaje seguro!

My new book has an entire chapter about them and their journey. And oh, how ephemeral they are. 

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Sneak Peek

Sneak Peek Book Signing 
 Saturday, November 4, 4 p.m. 

Wild Birds Unlimited, 7240 Kingston Pike

Join my friends at Wild Birds Unlimited for a "good-natured" discussion of my new book Ephemeral by Nature: Exploring the Exceptional with a Tennessee Naturalist published by the University of Tennessee Press.

I'll talk about some of the interesting birds—owls, hummingbirds, warblers and cranes—that appear in "Ephemeral" plus two non-feathered animals: freshwater jellyfish and Appalachian pandas. WBU will have my new book to buy and be signed. And remember, they make great Christmas gifts! UT's suggested retail price is $24.95 but WBU will be selling them for $22.50 but you MUST REGISTER IN ADVANCE so that they know how many books to have on hand.

Please contact WBU at (865) 337-5990 so that WBU may allow for appropriate seating.

Thank you Liz, Tony, Tiffiny and Warren.

Monday, October 2, 2017

star-crossed spiders

Argiope aurantia. Photos by Lynne Davis

After seeing wildflower devotees Lynne and Bob Davis at the nature center yesterday, I was reminded of the photos Lynne had recently sent me of writing spiders, a.k.a. garden spiders (Argiope aurantia). The photos capture the much smaller, more tentative male moving in to be near her.

"Found these 'lovers' outside the office at Eagleville Gliderport. Looks like the male is taking no chances - he's on the other side of the web," emailed Lynne.

"See, how she leans her cheek upon her hand! O, that I were a glove upon that hand, That I might touch that cheek!" sighed Shakespeare's Romeo.

But she's a Capulet! Will she eat me?

To borrow loosely from the Bard of Avon, calling the pair star-crossed lovers is fairly accurate. They do not have a fortuitous future together as Wiki succinctly states.

“Yellow garden spiders breed twice a year. The males roam in search of a female, building a small web near or actually in the female’s web, then court the females by plucking strands on her web. Often, when the male approaches the female, he has a safety drop line ready, in case she attacks him. The male uses the palpal bulbs on his pedipalps to transfer sperm to the female. After inserting the second palpal bulb, the male dies, and is sometimes then eaten by the female.”

There's a country song in this somewhere but George Jones is no longer with us to sing it.


Monday, September 25, 2017

inky cap?

Mycology Alert! 

It has only been a week since Ijams volunteer naturalist Nick Stahlman raised our M.A.Q. (Mushroom Awareness Quotient) and now that we are looking...look what we found under the solar panels by the greenhouse: a colony of Shaggy Mane Inky Caps (Coprinus comatus).

Visible mushrooms are the above ground fruiting bodies of the much larger fungi that lives below the surface.

Some "shrooms" are remarkably ephemeral by nature. (Shameless book plug.) In less than 24 hours this cluster of inky caps has gone through their above ground maturation which ends with the mushroom's gills dripping liquid black spores that look like ink. Hence the name.

Nick is currently working on an Ijams mushroom checklist for us. He is a 2016 graduate of the TN Naturalist@Ijams program that we teach: 40 hours of classes, 40 hours of volunteering.

Interested in next year's series? Call Lauren about the 2018 class at 577-4717, ext. 135.

Nick Stahlman photo by Kristy Keel-Blackmon 

All that was left is an inky black spot. 

Thursday, September 21, 2017

last crawdad quest of season?

The forecast is for the high 80s this Sunday afternoon. Join me for one last creek wade before the cool weather sends us scampering indoors?

Sunday, September 24, 2 p.m.

Crawdad Quest at Ijams

It's Family Adventure Sunday (Ages 6 and up) Bring the family to a creek wade in shallow water as we look for crawfish, dace, darters, shiners, stone-rollers, jewelwings and other aquatic creatures in Ijams’ Toll Creek. Participants should be prepared to get wet and muddy and must wear closed-toe shoes. (Old tennis shoes work best.) No one under the age of six allowed due to the depth of the creek. Meet at the Visitor Center. A change of clothes is highly recommended. The fee for this program is $8, members get a discount. Go online to register at ijams/events or by phone: 577-4717, ext. 110.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Big Bug Safari

Millipedes are harmless vegetarians that eat dead leaves. And sometimes appear on TV.

For three minutes yesterday, Millie, a yellow flat-backed millipede (Cherokia georgiana) was the most famous arthropod in town. Just ask Russell Biven

She and her spokesman appeared on WBIR’s Live@5@4. For the first time in the 19 year history of the program, a millipede was a featured guest. And why not? Without millipedes and their ilk, we would be buried in dead leaves in a matter of years.

Millie was there to promote Ijams' end of summer Big Bug Safari tomorrow at 2 p.m. part of the nature center's Family Adventure Sunday series. Each kid gets a swept net and plastic containers and we’ll roundup as many bugs—insects, spiders, millipedes and centipedes—as possible. Yee-haw! 

This is old school. Ijams has been connecting kids to nature since 1923.

For more information or to sign up call 577-4717, ext. 110 or go online to…

Thursday, September 14, 2017

thrush aid and comfort

For a naturalist, spending time indoors can be tantamount to torture. Because we know that just outside our brick and mortar something wondrous, tragic or perhaps even miraculous is happening. That is what drives us to be on the road less taken. We have no virtual world, our world is real. 

An hour ago I was outside helping my neighbor Dr. Gary move large chunks of a chestnut oak that did not survive the remnants of Hurricane Irma that passed through Monday night. The tree was old and huge, standing strong through dozens of storms but this one was its Waterloo. It is fortunate for us that his grown son Adam is a professional competitive lumberjack.

Returning home, walking up the driveway, I spooked a wood thrush that was forging the damp detritus to my right. It flew in front of me but smacked into my glass studio doors. Only a glancing blow yet still it fell to the asphalt before me twitching. 

I have picked up many birds after ramming into windows. I curse the glass and our need for it. Sometimes the damaged passerines are merely knocked loopy, sometimes they have broken necks. I always fear the latter but pray for the former as I hoped for this bird, giving it comfort and whispering sweet affirmations."You're OK, baby," "All is well," "I'm here for you." Things like that as I gently stroked its spotted breast. Its hard breathing and heartbeat clearly noticeable. 

The wood thrush is my favorite songbird that lives in the dense woods behind my house but the songster is only here in summer. Migration is well underway and I am somewhat surprised that this one is still even here. They spend their winters in lowland tropical forests in Central America but sadly, their population is on the decline so we can ill afford to lose even one. 

My wounded thrush blinked and panted much like a running back hit by Green Bay linebacker Clay Matthews. Its feet glitched. A death grip? Let's hope not. But wait, it moved its head right and left indicating its neck was not broken. It only needed another living being—that would be me—bringing aid and comfort, muttering "You're not alone." I have done this sort of thing before only to have the poor songbird die in my hand, but this care-giving act felt more positive. Its whacked senses slowly began to return.  

In time, it hopped up, standing on my outstretched palm, looked around as if to say, "I am thrush. I bid you adieu. I have miles to go before I sleep. Miles to go."


Monday, September 11, 2017

Lynne's itsy-bitsy treefrog

Frogs need water. They need to stay dampish plus that is where they reproduce. As the great Cole Porter wrote, "Birds do it, bees do it, even educated little fleas do it." But treefrogs really do not need that much water to do it.

Small backyard ponds work just fine but in lieu of that, Lynne Davis has found that her rain barrel can be a hotbed of activity. The above foursome took place in late summer 2016. And the photo below of the teenie-weenie, itsy-bitsy treefrog she took only recently 

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Jamey's cow killer

Velvet ant. Photo by James (Jamey) McDaniel

"In case you were wondering, there is in fact an ant with an inch-long stinger that can cause 30 minutes of life-changing, pray-for-death pain," writes G. Clay Whittaker. The velvet ant is no fuzzy sweet thing and it's not an ant. It is in the same insect order Hymenoptera, but instead, it's a wingless wasp.

Rex McDaniel adds, my son, James, agrees. Here's what he said, and his photo is above.

"This is nicknamed a "Cow Killer." Way before digital cameras 35mm film use to come in little canisters, that is what my Dad would put his bugs in so he could take pictures of them when he changed film. One day last year I found one of these in the yard and picked him up with my bare hands. Let me say the name fits, it was like 20 wasps stung me in the same place. And I was down for a minute. Although the pain didn't last long I will never pick one up again."

This is one insect to avoid. And tell your cows the same.

Monday, August 21, 2017

eclipse of the sun

Solar eclipse 21 August 2017. Wiki media

A week ago the plan was simple enough: get up early, drive south on Hwy 411 to Vonore, find a place to park and wait. It was only 33 miles, we could make it in roughly 40 minutes.

Then we were given a spoonful of castor oil called reality. Thousands of out-of-state travelers were here to do much the same thing. I guess a once-in-a-lifetime total eclipse of the sun belongs to everyone. It wasn't just our eclipse or a time to be exclusionary and provincial. There's enough of that going on in the nation's capital.

This morning we quickly had to reconnoiter and devise a new plan. Returning to the totality map we realized Maryville would give us a good enough show. But could we even get there? 

Rachael Eliot and I joined the slow flow of traffic on Alcoa Highway and aimed for Foothills Mall. Instead of waiting in the hot car for hours, we did what the other half of all Americans were doing, we went shopping. Perhaps we needed more red in our wardrobe.

We arrived early enough to park in the partial shade of a chinkapin oak and met people from Alabama, Pennsylvania and even Poland around us.

The big totality show started right on time—2:33 pm—and isn't it a beautiful piece of symmetry that the moon is exactly the right size at exactly the right distance from Mother Earth to exactly snuff out the light of the sun albeit briefly. And I know using the word "exactly" three times in one sentence is a writer's no-no, but it is exactly true.

We live in a chaotic yet orderly universe: black holes and a clockwork solar system. A loving populace with hate-filled leadership. At totality, all went dark, the crowd oohed and aahed, birds started to coo and roost, scissor-grinder cicadas began to buzz. My friend John Goodall and his family saw bats at their Maryville location. Probably anything crepuscular became active. Heck, it sure looked like twilight to me. 

As the sun returned, undulating shadow bands raced across the asphalt of the parking lot, and for one brief moment the world did not seem so wackadoo but in perfect alignment. Peace and joy throughout the land. "Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew ya. Hallelujah. Hallelujah.

But nature and science have always made so much more sense to me than the rest of the so called civilized world. 

Tiny holes in the tree canopy overhead created pinhole cameras.
turned to twilight
turned to joy at the sun's return.
as ephemeral as the chalk that documented the site
And 21 August 2017 ended on yet another bit of immaculateness.

Monday, August 14, 2017

kudzu cunning

There's a scourge in the South. It's clandestine and creepy. It's kudzu.

It works quietly among honest, moral folks. Unnoticed. Secretive.

Our friends north of the Mason-Dixon probably think it's much ado about nothing, after all, it's only a plant in the pea family. But it is wily.

Kudzu's threat is insidious, slowly blanketing acre upon acre, its goal is to turn everything into a monoculture, discouraging biodiversity and exclusion is never a good thing. All one color is not the way the natural world works. Nature thrives on diversity, even here in the South.