Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

April 7, 2013

A Tennessee Waltz

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 3:00 pm

Although there were other more important, and religiously topical, reasons for heading south over the Easter weekend one minor cause involved Spring chasing. The season advances northward about 15 miles a day – or so they say.  So, like an excited dog greeting his master’s car at the end of a long driveway we were able to meet spring at its current position and hurry back home to await its coming. We met the front lines at Knoxville, Tennessee. There, even though the weather was cool, things were pushing up and out.

For a northern Naturalist this was a great treat and I trust you southern types will excuse me for fawning over common stuff. Ya’ll come up here sometime and you’d do the same. Believe it or not I even spotted a pair of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers, a Passenger Pigeon, and a single large Easter Bunny. No matter where you are from these are rare sights (explanation to follow).Ijams Nature Center (pronounced “eyems in northern speak) provided the primary opportunity to ramble in a piece of wild land along the Tennessee River.

The Cutleaf Toothwort and Bloodroot of Ijams were already past their peak. The delicate white petals of the Bloodroots lay scattered on the forest floor as a result of some bad treatment by a heavy rainstorm. Perhaps the most prominent wildflowers of the day were the showy triplicate leaves of the Yellow Wakerobin – an Appalachian representative of the Trillium clan sometimes called the Toadshade. Out of some 38 species of Trillium in North America, the Wakerobins offer most of their beauty in the mottled appearance of their leaves. The flowers are slender and reduced when compared to other Trilliums, but the leaves rival those of the Trout lilies in décor.


Tree lichens sprouted in little puffs here and there. One species, called Bushy Beards (I name which I especially lichen!) is fond of maple trees. Flat-topped structures – called Apothecia” – are spore-producing devices. Neither straight plant nor pure fungi, lichens are the result of a joint effort joining the two worlds. In this case the co-operation of an algae and a fungus creates an out-of-this-world look that is very much of part this world.

As if to invoke a previous season, clusters of Mistletoe can be seen along the entire Kentucky/Tennessee route. These are parasitic plants which root into the fiber of large trees. Because they are evergreens they stand out in the stark leafless world of the early spring treetops. Few sprouts are visible low to the ground and must be “picked” via a long lens. The fleshy sprouts and their winter berries are a Christmas favorite. Because this is not Christmas and we are trying to move on to the next season, I will quickly move on to more seasonal concerns.

A lone Hermit Thrush hung around long enough to allow its portrait. Unlike the Mistletoe these reclusive birds rarely venture more than a dozen feet from the ground and restrict their feeding activity to the forest floor. Quite a few Hermit Thrushes overwinter in the north, so this one can’t necessarily be labeled a spring migrant but it could be and that’s enough for a winter-wearied soul. In a nice accident of historic timing, we were able to match this bird to an early portrait of the same species done by pioneering naturalist Mark Catesby in the early 18th century (see lower right). Original plates from his Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahamas published between 1729 and 1747 were on display at the University of Tennessee’s McClung Museum. These are among the first published images of New World life for a hemisphere-wearied European population.


As part of another accident of place, we discovered that the Ijames Nature Center displays several unique and treasured specimens of wildlife now long gone from the scene. Their female Passenger Pigeon was a nice example but their pair of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers was simply spectacular. One rarely sees specimens of this extinct bird (believed extinct by most sane folks). As a matter of fact when these birds were offered to the center by a local estate they came out of virtual obscurity. Their existence was unknown to the scientific community until quite recently. It was, therefore, both a treat and a trick to see them because they invoked dual feelings of wonder and sadness.


Quite the opposite of the rarity of the dead Ivory-bills and Passenger Pigeons, live Northern Mockingbirds were ever-present throughout the region. One bird paraded just outside our hotel window and split his time between the shrubbery and the road sign next door. In the bush it was easy to see the relationship of this bird to the Catbird. Atop a stop sign, its display of ample tail-hood marked it quite distinctive from any catbird you’ll ever see.

I will normally go through a decade of existence before seeing one of these southern birds in Michigan but down here they are as flies on a roadkill. They are a constant part of the soundscape as well – repeating all local bird calls as if on a recorder. It is no wonder that in the southern literature and song these birds are also everpresent – as in “to Kill a…” and “Momma’s gonna buy you a …”

Alas, the Mockingbirds will not follow us north to Michigan, but that Tennessee spring season should be here any minute now…any minute. The Easter Bunny, of course, was everywhere at once and miraculously the very same bunny I photographed at Ijams was simultaneously knocking at our door back in Michigan.

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