Tuesday, June 18, 2019

fast friends

One of the good things about going out of town is that you make new friends.

So was the case when I journeyed to the Trails & Trilliums Festival in Monteagle to speak about birds at The Dubose.

There, I met and made friends with Dr. Jim Peters, Professor of Philosophy and Coordinator of Environmental Arts and Humanities at Sewanee: The University of the South. Jim and I talked for two hours, and although we became fast new friends, it was like I have known him for over 20 years, some sort of a karmic, past life connection. I know. Easy to write, hard to fathom. 

We bonded over birds and natural history. I write about and draw birds and Jim takes the most wonderful photographs of them, sometimes even catching them in mid-wingbeat. 

Once asked why I am so fond of birds? I answered it's simple, they are such splendid creatures. 

Jim sent me one of his recent prizes. A photo of a male pileated woodpecker tending to the young at the nest. At my "Bad Dads, Good Fathers" talk last Saturday at Wild Birds Unlimited7240 Kingston Pike, I shared that very same sentiment. 

Woodpeckers are EXCELLENT fathers! But don't stumble over the name. Pileated comes from the Latin "pileatus" and it means capped or crested. 

Keep up the splendid work. See you again soon, Jim!   

Friday, June 14, 2019

Trails & Trilliums

The Dubose, Monteagle, Tennessee

Special thanks to the Friends of South Cumberland State Park for inviting me to speak at their Trails & Trilliums Festival

Located on the edge of the Cumberland Plateau just west of the Sequatchie Valley, South Cumberland is the largest state park in Tennessee. It offers wondrous views of waterfalls and the valley below. 

The center of festivities was held at the The Dubose Conference Center in Monteagle. The Dubose was built in 1924 and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1980 and it is splendid. The mission of The DuBose is to “offer hospitality, programming, and sacred space to groups of all faiths and backgrounds for education, creativity, and renewal.”

The Dubose is simply grand. And my stay was indeed...renewing.

Thank you Margaret, my new buddy Bruce and Stephanie @ The Dubose for your hospitality and kindness.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

kestrel visits

The American kestrel is the smallest falcon native to the Americas. Weighing only four ounces, they are also the smallest raptor in our part of the world. They are generally found watching over meadows and other grasslands where they eat a wide range of prey animals including grasshoppers.  

Dox, or Doc's, the kestrel pictured above, is a non-flighted male that was brought into the University of Tennessee Veterinary Hospital last January. He had a badly broken and infected right wing and sadly, will never fly again. He was treated by Dr. Cheryl Greenacre and it was the Doc's good care that brought him to me after he spent time on antibiotics with local wildlife rehabilitator Lynne McCoy

Dox is now a wildlife ambassador for the State of Tennessee under my care and state education permit. He makes routine public appearances to raise awareness of kestrels and their current status in the wild. The kestrel subspecies (Falco sparverius paulus) found in the American Southeast has suffered a population decline of 83 percent since 1940 and no one is completely sure why.

Does Dox feel the pressure of representing kestrels everywhere? So far, he hasn't shown it.  

He recently made two visits to Wild Birds Unlimited7240 Kingston Pike.

Thank you to all who stopped by for a "Meet & Greet." And thank you to Liz and Tony Cutrone for all you do for the local wild birds and the rest of the WBU staff for making us feel welcome. 

And thank you to Vickie Henderson and Shirley Hamilton for the photos of Dox.

Tony and Liz Cutrone

Saturday, June 8, 2019

love nest

"Birds do it, bees do it
Even educated fleas do it
Let’s do it, let’s fall in love"

Sang Broadway composer and songwriter Cole Porter

The renowned French philosopher René Descartes believed that animals were “insensible, soulless machines” to be lorded over by humankind. They experience neither pleasure nor pain but are merely “animated mechanically, like clocks." Perhaps it is wrong to use the word "love" when talking about animals but that is precisely what is happening here and there when discussing non-human pair bonding.

I received this nature story from my naturalist friend Michelle Wilson. I first thought, "Is this for real?" Yep. It surely was.

Michelle emailed, “All of sudden in the tree behind my living room, all the birds were gathered and alarming. I knew something was up when my two cardinal guys were together and not fighting, and looked out to see some wrens mobbing a rat snake. We watched this snake for hours, up and down the tree it crawled. Waiting to see what it would find. But it got dark."  

"I got up this morning, and I looked out thinking, it surely had moved on, the birds are really on this," continued Michelle. "But I was, again, surprised. Now I seem to have an unexpected love nest. And I have a front row view. As far as I know there hasn’t been a bird nest in the top one, and the chickadees fledged two weeks ago.”  

And so for now it seems the two pair bonding snakes used the lofty hideaway for their tête-à-tête. 

So if you believe Descartes and that snakes do not feel pain when they are killed or comfort when they are bonding, then look at the inset photo to the left. I certainly think that they feel the solace of each other's company. Sorry René, but they sure look happy.

Thanks Michelle. And Happy Birthday in two days!

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

grand flora

Somehow, you know summer is almost here when the Southern magnolia begin to bloom.

In East Tennessee, we have seven species of magnolia: cucumber, umbrella, bigleaf, Fraser, sweetbay, Southern and tuliptee, but it’s the Southern magnolia with its enormous (up to 12 inches in diameter) citronella-scented white flowers that is so associated with the Deep South and sultry, hot afternoons; it's the polished, aristocrat of Southern trees. The evergreen with large glossy leaves was often planted near the house, where with a pitcher of fresh-squeezed lemonade, it could be admired from the shade of the front porch.

In 1703, Charles Plumier described a flowering tree from the island of Martinique. Plumier gave the species, known locally as “Talauma,” the genus name Magnolia, to honor renowned French botanist Pierre Magnol from Montpellier, thus establishing the generic name for the group.

Three decades later, in his “Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands,” published between 1731 and 1743, English naturalist Mark Catesby writes about a tree he found in his travels in the New World. He called the tree Magnolia virginiana. Today the Southern magnolia that grows from coastal Virginia to Florida and across the Gulf Coast states is known as Magnolia grandiflora, or "Magnolia with the large flowers." Simply put.

Indeed, no other tree in this region has a flower so enormous and satisfyingly grand.

Sunday, June 2, 2019

high hopes

High Hopes

"Just what makes that little old ant
Think he’ll move that rubber tree plant
Anyone knows an ant, can’t
Move a rubber tree plant
But he’s got high hopes, he’s got high hopes
He’s got high apple pie, in the sky hopes”

Sang Frank Sinatra in the 1959 movie A Hole in the Head

It seemed to me that the above box turtle had high hopes as he looked at the obstacle in front of him on Maryville Highway. Was there a female on the other side?  

May and June are when you are apt to see turtles trying to cross the road. It is breeding season and the females are looking for safe out-of-the-way places to dig a hole and bury their eggs. And the males are gallivanting for females. 

The Eastern box turtle is the only land-based turtle in my area. Simply put: they cannot swim. All the other species of East Tennessee turtles (Eastern musk, Eastern painted, common snapping, spiny softshell, river cooter, red-eared slider and Northern map) are aquatic but the females still have to leave the water to also find a safe place to dig a hole and lay their eggs. The ground incubates the clutches and the next three months are the hottest of the year. Young turtles tend to hatch September into October. 

Box turtles can live up to 150 years. Most of that time hidden away on their home woodland territory of perhaps only a few acres. But during mating season they may leave home and even get into harm's way to find a mate.  

The above box turtle was headed west-to-east but somehow he took a left-hand turn and went north for awhile onto a railroad overpass. He then became trapped between a pair of three feet high sold concrete walls on each side of the two-lane road. 

Seeing his predicament. I pulled over and moved him to safety where he maintained his high hopes, I would assume. 


Friday, May 31, 2019

do you have any grape jelly?

It is always a pleasure to hear from Betty Thompson in Kansas because there are usually photos with the email.

"I am attaching some photos of Baltimore orioles, which are quite abundant here. The grocery store shelves are often empty of grape jelly this time of year! I walk the local parks hoping my lens will capture a decent photo! The photo of the nest was taken in late March at Quivira Wildlife Refuge, aren’t they just a work of art? The orioles photos were taken at a local park here in Wichita," Betty emailed. 

We get these orange and black orioles passing through East Tennessee in the spring but not in huge numbers. Their time here is ephemeral. Their summer breeding range is to our north and west. Part of their diet includes fruit and can be fed in backyards with a variety of edibles including slices of oranges and apparently they have a fondness for grape jelly.

Thanks, Betty. 

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Tremont Road Scholars


Special thanks to Elizabeth for inviting me to speak to the spring Road Scholars class at the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont in April. 

Driving to Tremont anytime of the year is always a breath of fresh air.

The Road Scholar program is five days of hikes that explore the finest locations in the national park with meals and entertainment, Appalachian music, nature stories in the evenings.

The next Road Scholars week is in September. Click here for details: Road Scholars.

Monday, May 27, 2019

ciarra's miracle

This is perhaps our last monarch butterfly story for awhile and one that will wrap up our portion of the rescued caterpillars saga that were on display with me at Wilderness Wildlife Week in Pigeon Forge.

For a Show & Tell item at my Author's Table I had six monarch butterfly caterpillars munching away on milkweed leaves.  One had been given to me by my monarch friend naturalist Clare Dattilo and five were part of 37 rescued by Glenna Julian

Of the six, one shriveled up as a caterpillar and died of unknown causes, while four were raised by me through the process of metamorphosis and then released to fly away. 

I gave the sixth to young Ciarra who had milkweed growing at her home. She watched over it until it competed the process. 

Of the five that survived, three were male and two were female. Ciarra's was the third male from the group. 

Thank you, Ciarra and to your Mom Jaime for sending me the below photos.

Saturday, May 25, 2019

a second miracle

And, can a miracle happen a second time? It can if you are watching carefully and you are living in the moment. 

Yes, a second miracle in the early morning hours...or in this case, in the early morning seconds. At 7:26 a.m. this morning, a second monarch butterfly emerged from his chrysalis to begin his ephemeral life as a winged, reproductive adult butterfly. But his time is short, days to weeks.

This is from one of the monarch butterfly larvae I had on display as part of my Show & Tell at Wilderness Wildlife Week in Pigeon Forge two weeks ago. 

The caterpillar was given to me by Clare Dattilo and I fed it about equal parts common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) and swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata). It seemed to have no preference. 

Thank you, Clare. 

10:07 a.m. 

Yes, he is starting to move around, trying out his wings.

He was released at Cherokee Farms off Alcoa Highway this afternoon. 


Thursday, May 23, 2019

and speaking of miracles

Albert Einstein once said, “There are only two ways to live your life: as though nothing is a miracle, or as though everything is a miracle.”

A naturalist lives life as though there is a miracle happening every hour of every day. All you have to do is find it.

And speaking of miracles...Sixty-one minutes ago, I watched the above monarch butterfly emerge from her chrysalis. 

For those of you who were at Wilderness Wildlife Week and know the story, this butterfly is just one of 37 monarch caterpillars that Glenna Julian rescued after their host plants were cut down by a maintenance crew in Sevierville. 

This is what the monarch looked like two weeks ago. May 10.
The larval monarch was being held by one of my assistant naturalists. 

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

a towhee by any other name

Martha Brewer sent me a second photo and it's probably the best I have ever seen of a male Eastern Towhee. Just perfect right down to the color of the leaves. (If I have seen a better one...I do not remember it.)

I met Martha and her husband George at Wilderness Wildlife Week in Pigeon Forge two weeks ago. They are from north Georgia near Ellijay and they came to one of my presentations and visited with me at my Author's Table afterwards.

Now, some of you of a certain age might wonder, "Whatever happened to the rufous-sided towhee? Isn't that what I am looking at?"

After all, the rufous-sided was in my first bird book: the little Golden Nature Guide of Birds I had when I was 12-years-old. And in my first "grown-up" guide: A Field Guide to the Birds East of the Rockies by Roger Tory Peterson.

So what's the deal?

The deal is this. Science is not static and ornithology, like nature, is a work in progress.

If you look at the above range map from the Golden Guide you see that once upon a time the species known as the rufous-sided towhee ranged from the east coast to the west. But oddly, the western rufouses looked a bit different than the eastern. They had spots. After careful study, it was decided that the two populations only intermingled slightly in the middle of the country but were actually two different species. So in 1995, the American Ornithological Society (AOS) "split" the rufous-sided into two separate species. Out west, they are now known as spotted towhees and our eastern birds became the Eastern towhee. 

Any field guide published before 1995 has the rufous-sided but my Sibley's published in 2000 and my most recent Peterson's published in 2005 (see below) has them as two species but a rufous-sided by any other name would still sing, "drink your teeeeaaaaa." 

Once asked how many field guides do you need? I replied, "As many as you have time to peruse. But stay current." 


Sunday, May 19, 2019

metamorphosis magic

"It's no secret that kids are spending more time inside playing on screens and less time outside playing in the woods. One recent study in the United Kingdom found that the average child there spends less time outdoors than the average prisoner," writes Jamie González for Nature Conservancy magazine.

What are we doing to our youth? 

When I discovered that a lot of homeschool kids were visiting Wilderness Wildlife Week in Pigeon Forge with their parent/teachers, I made sure to have a bit of nature at my Author's Table for a hands-on Show & Tell. Most days it was monarch butterfly caterpillars and milkweed leaves provided by Clare Dattilo and Glenna Julian

Young naturalists are fascinated by the life cycle of a butterfly: egg to caterpillar to chrysalis to winged adult, i.e. metamorphosis. And that's a bit of real life magic you won't find online but outside in your own backyard. And it happens unheralded millions of times a year, but few of us take the time to notice.