Red Eft at Frozen Head



Little red efts were crawling the wet forest floor at Frozen Head State Park yesterday. They’re poisonous to eat but generally won’t bite. They live on the land but they’ve just left the water and will return again.
They’re really just another phase of newts, a flashy youthful stage in which they roam the land.

As I point out in my book they never know their parents, not even as babies.

This was in contrast to me, at age 31, living on my own but still enjoying some time with my parents on a hike at Frozen Head, joined admittedly by 21 people and two other naturalists. Dad, a plant ecologist by degree entertained the crowd by naming and providing facts about the natural world around us, such as the eft and the iris shown below. While at the time our book describes, I wanted to break free of Dad, I realize now, just how good I have it hiking with a Dad who knows so much.

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.”

Northern green frog (Lithobates clamatans)


You can sometimes see just the skipping of a frog-sized shape. Other times though you can find their big-eyed faces peaking up out of the water or the leaves. I count myself lucky when I catch them like that.
Yvonne stayed silent, wanting to conteplate nature in a respectful, worshipful way. Silent too, I crept slowly and silently too, but my approach was that of a hunter. I wanted to capture the big-eyed stair, the dull back, the bright green under them.
In my experience frogs are either still or hop or swim out of the way. Rarely have I ever seen one just leisurely stroll.
But I must have been doing something right. Only after quite a few pictures did this one jump out of the way.
Green frogs are not always green or in this case, not always all across their bodies. The main thing that separates them from bullfrogs is the fold that extends down their backs. They also lack the square or round spots of pickerel or leopard frogs. If all that came off as gibberish to you, and to you they’re all frogs, that was the same for me until I read up on these hopping adorables in The Amphibians of Tennessee, a book I recommend.
Their mating call, which they make at age two onward when seeking mates sounds like a banjo and you can hear it for half a mile.
I spotted this and another frog recently at the University of Tennessee Arboretum in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. The Arboretum is not, precisely, wilderness, but rather spot with various experimental and exhibit areas, among them “small wetlands” which are shallow ponds. These are the best spots, as you can imagine, for frogs.

Fence lizards and sex


I’ve touched on eastern fence lizards before in my book Wildly Strolling Along. I’ve seen them on the tops of the Cumberlands and more recently at the top of House Mountain in the summer. Oddly enough though not much on fences.

Fence Lizard
Blurry? You try getting a fence lizard to stay still to be in focus.

I have so much else to write about, between New York City, NY; and Rumney and Stinson Lake NH which I’ve done since the House Mountain trip that I don’t have time to give a full run through on everything about these animals. So instead, I’ll just focus on mating.

And indeed, male fence lizards do much to sell themselves to females. If you want an academic take, this might be up to your speed. To summarize, males show off their blue throats and do push-ups to attract mates. I can do neither. You’d be lucky to see five pushups in a row from me before I collapse, as my girlfriend can attest. And yet she’s stayed with me for five years.

Immediately after sex, fence lizards go their separate ways and then the males try to hook up with someone else, so comparing them to any long term romantic human relationship isn’t really helpful. That’s probably just as well. If you pick a long term husband based on how well he shows off his blue throat, I doubt it would work out.

Also, the mothers also bury their eggs rather than watching them. We can’t judge them by our standards.

Also according to the above link, fence lizards are “fully mature” after one year.

As a side note, it’s rather odd that we consistently refer to sexual passion as being “animal.” And yet many animals have a specific mating season and never do anything else about sex at any other time of the year.

 

 

 

Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies


Yvonne Jellyfish
Yvonne admires a jellyfish at Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies.

Landlocked folks love ocean stuff. People want something exotic, themed to something that isn’t nearby. It’s with all this in mind, I assume, that Ripley’s decided to make Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies.

It’s smaller than its nearby competitor the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga with far fewer fish and other creatures of the deep. I visited Tennessee Aquarium last year and will give a review here at some point.

In any case, Ripley’s has got some advantages that make it more geared toward children. With a playground in the center, two chances to touch sea creatures, a crawl-through tunnel that lets children be surrounded by penguins and various interactive exhibits, it makes for a very kid-friendly place. Also the smaller size makes it a great place to cool off in the air conditioning after a hot hike — which is what we did after climbing House Mountain -rather than spend all day.

Lionfish
A lionfish.

While the place doesn’t seem to trust the animals to carry the attraction, it does have some good ones. With giant crabs, graceful sharks, speedy rays, cute penguins, piranhas, mudskippers, jellyfish, eels, clownfish (kids know them as Nemo), blue tangs (kids know them as Dori) and lionfish among others, the place is full of some impressive creatures. The focus is on fun, but there’s nothing wrong with having some fun.

Nautilus
Nautilus.

Adults can visit too, although it is a bit pricey. But I can say Yvonne and I certainly had a good time.

Iguana
A sleepy iguana at Ripley’s Aquarium.

I visited Sat. June 7, with Yvonne, fairly late at night (from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. when the crowds had thinned out, letting us crawl through the children’s penguin tunnel to view the penguins. Don’t judge us.

The best part, as far as I’m concerned, is the shark lagoon tunnel, allowing you to see sharks swim above you as you move through a tunnel, along with a sawfish who likes to rest on the tunnel’s top. It’s best to visit this part when crowds have thinned because you can walk on the carpet rather than being stuck on the conveyor belt. The moving sidewalk has the advantage of speeding up some people while slowing down others.

The use of Pacobell’s cannon as background music there made Yvonne joke it sounded like the sharks were about to get diplomas. But the piece does its job in making people see the sharks as something other than scary.

Yvonne’s favorite part was getting a chance to touch moon jellies, a species with so little venom they’re harmless to touch (as a side note, that link’s to another aquarium, but I like to mix things up in terms of sources when it comes to learning about animals). The aquarium also lets visitors touch horseshoe crabs.

Horseshoe crabs
Visitors can touch these horseshoe crabs.

The weakest parts of the aquarium are in the special exhibits sections. The shipwrecks exhibit would be OK interactive fun due to its interactive archaeological activities and educational touch screens, but there’s something just annoying about hearing a repeated snippet of “The Wreck of the Edmond Fitzgerald” by Gordon Lightfoot over and over again. For some reason it’s not even the full song. It’s not a bad song, in fact it’s a good one, but for Yvonne especially, it just gets to be too much.

Since I don’t know how else to end this, here’s that song in its full version and only playing once.