Eastern bluebird


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Here in East Tennessee, winter means bluebirds (Sialia sialis). Just steps below Alex Haley’s statue at Morningside Park, I saw their bright blue feathers and orangish chests in the bare treetops.

Cornell Ornithology Lab reports they live in Tennessee all year round. But winter is when I usually see them.

Males attract their mates by choosing a hole often an old woodpecker hole, or, sometimes nowadays a bird box someone’s built. But then they show off by showing their mate all the nest materials.

According to Cornell, which remains my one-stop shop for bird trivia, the female birds do all the actual nest making though. Apparently the males’ contribution is just showing off what they can find to make the nest out of. And that “meet cute while holding grass and pine needles” is enough to keep a pair together for at least a few seasons.

 

 

 

 

You can swim at Fort Dickerson Quarry!


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I remember back when the quarry was illegal for swimming. Nobody cared though. The area down below was full of college kids hanging out, dipping in the water and drinking beers and the cliffs drew in the odd cliff jumper ignoring every sign and grim reports of death from local media.

But now it’s different, kinda. I arrived at Fort Dickerson Park, famous for being the site of earthen Civil War earthworks. But the real attraction, beneath the shrubs that appeared golden in sunset light was the Augusta Quarry, known as Fort Dickerson Quarry by most people I know.

More and better established trails greet visitors to the park nowadays allowing visitors to climb down from this overlook to the pool itself. Fences with warning guard the cliffs from jumpers nowadays, but the deep quarry pool itself now has an official swimming area that visitors can enjoy, legally, though at their own risk. Before the city had discouraged swimming altogether. But now they’ve resigned to it being something people will do. And regardless, I will continue to do it.

I hope at some point to explore the other trails, but just wanted to let visitors know a bit more about all that’s happened at what they’re now calling Battlefield Loop.

Here are a few more related links:

A biological inventory of plants and animals.

The urban wilderness as a whole

The city’s official link.

Coverage by Knoxville Mercury

A runthrough of future plans

 

 

Looking down at Gatlinburg


The last detail, I wish to share of my Blue Ridge Parkway travels in early June (which I’ve told out of order and interrupted by other posts) didn’t take place on the Blue Ridge Parkway. It took place on the Gatlinburg bypass.

The Gatlinburg bypass is a way to avoid having to pass through Gatlinburg for people going through the Great Smoky Mountains. As such, it appeals to people who probably find all the candy stores, corn liquor and goofy Ripley’s attractions too commercialized.

But of course, you do wind up seeing Gatlinburg from above on it. And from above it looks quite different. The resorts, hardly the most eye catching part of town from the ground become what you spot first. And you really see how what from below is an oddly magical to people who know it collection of log cabin kitch, from above is far overshadowed by the folds of mountains that give it its reason for existing.

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Zoo Knoxville at 70ish


Zoo Knoxville through its promotions is considering this its 70th anniversary. That’s a little debatable, even by its own website. The News Sentinel, a local paper did, in 1948 launch an effort to start a zoo, which included various animals starting with an alligator, although the zoo’s own website dates the “modern zoo” to 1971.

That modern zoo, however was not the same as the present one. I know because I have been coming at different times throughout my life. The zoo has recently added playgrounds to make itself more exciting to children and sometimes even they’re related to exhibits, like monkey bars near gibbons.

The zoo is more or less divided by continent now as far as its major areas. Asia Trek is the zoo’s new showcase exhibit, showing off tigers …

gibbons …

langurs …

And red pandas who did not feel like posing for me, even though those racoon-like critters are a distinctive feature of the zoo. Don’t expect them to be bear sized.

Elsewhere the zoo boasts exotic beasts like giraffes and rhinos along with local favorites like otters.

Happy Thanksgiving. Here’s a Turkey … Vulture


Ijams Nature Center turkey vulture
Happy Thanksgiving! Zoe, a turkey vulture at Ijams Nature Center.

So we’re between Halloween and Thanksgiving.

What better way to celebrate that spot between creepy stuff and turkey stuff than with a turkey … vulture.

This one, Zoe, lives at Ijams Nature Center.

Ijams Nature Center in South Knoxville is not a zoo, per se. The center features a quarry swimming area, boat rentals, trails along the river, a challenge course and outdoor movies.

But if you’re visiting Ijams, you will see some local animals for free at the main visitors’ center. Turtles and fish swim in tanks inside. Outside you’ll find a few birds in enclosures. Among them is Zoe.

Zoe is a turkey vulture, which is a kind of vulture, not a kind of turkey. You can find out more about them on the Cornell Ornithology Lab’s excellent page. Unlike black vultures, who have dark grey heads, turkey vultures have pinkish heads, kind of like turkeys.

Vultures are underrated, to say the least. But I enjoy spotting them both up close and soaring overhead. I would rather live in a world of vultures than one of rotting carcasses everywhere.

While birds of prey specialize in sight, turkey vultures have a keen sense of smell, which they use to spot their (to us) smelly meals.

They have standards though, even if you can’t call them food snobs by our standards. They prefer more recently dead critters to longer rotting ones. Also, they refuse to eat skunks’ scent glands.

Since this is a family time of the year, it’s worth noting that like many birds, turkey vultures feed their children, by throwing-up. They also defend their children … by throwing-up. And in both cases, it’s vomited carrion. Ok, so they’re gross. But it’s striking they’re two bird households, with both parents feeding their young.

Zoe’s a little tamer than her high flying brothers and sisters, as you can see in this picture, although she’s not a bird you can pet or hold without experience. She’s usually behind glass. Say hi to her the next time you stop by.

Both my Dad and I write about turkey vultures and a few other birds, along with other family relations among animals, plants and each other in our book, “Wildly Strolling Along.”

Clingman’s Dome, Great Smoky Mountains


Ah, Clingman’s Dome, highest point in Tennessee! Climb the tower’s spiraling path above the spruce trees, up to the deck where you can see an amazing view of …

Foggy view from Clingman's dome
… nothing.

Clingman's Dome in the fog
This picture was in color. I swear.

But then, just as we were about to leave a wind whooshed away those clouds giving us this:

 

Sunset at Clingman's Dome, Great Smokey Mountains
This speaks for itself.

 

Clingman’s Dome is a rather odd place. It’s at the crossroads of the Appalachian Trail and a rather uphill but paved path leading up from an overcrowded parking lot. A spiraling path leads to the top of a viewing tower.

Indeed between its benches, its gift shop with cute stuffed foxes, bears and forest critters, and its interpretive signs it’s hard to think of a place less like the wild, narrow and uninterpreted AT.

The signs are unique in that they are bilingual, in English and Cherokee, using the syllable alphabet Sequoyah developed. As they explain the Cherokee found the spot to be a sacred place. Indeed the spot emphasizes the multiple traditions: scientific, Biblical and Cherokee describing the formation of the mountains.

The Cherokee tradition, as I explain in my book Wildly Strolling Along is as follows: a giant vulture shaped the land into mountains and valleys by accident through the force of his wings, feeling very sorry afterward. There’s a certain beauty to that — unintelligent design.