Nature Journal

Nature Journal


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Nature Journal by L. J. Davenport


Nature Journal is an innovative presentation of the best columns and photographs from L. J. Davenport’s popular column in Alabama Heritage magazine. Readers of the magazine have come to relish his artful and often witty descriptions of common species encountered in the Alabama outdoors. But Nature Journal is designed to be much more than a mere collection of entertaining essays; it is also an educational tool—a means of instructing and encouraging readers in the art of keeping a nature journal for themselves.

Each of the 25 chapters is a self-contained lesson in close observation of species morphology, behavior, and habitat; research in the literature; nondestructive capture of the subject by photography or drawing; and written description of the total observed natural phenomenon. At the end of each account, stimulating questions and gentle directives guide the reader into making his or her own observations and recordings.

This book is intended for broad nature-study use in Alabama and throughout the southeast by the general reader and nature enthusiast alike, as well as visitors to museums and outdoor centers, and students of nature and nature writing at the high school and college levels. Beautifully designed to look like a personal journal, it is a perfect gift and treasured keepsake for all lovers of the natural world.  

Publication supported in part by Samford University  

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780817355692
Publisher: University of Alabama Press
Publication date: 08/08/2010
Series: Gosse Nature Guides Series
Edition description: 1
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.20(h) x 0.90(d)
Age Range: 9 - 18 Years

About the Author

L. J. Davenport is Professor of Biology and Director of the Vulcan Materials Center for Environmental Stewardship and Education at Samford University, Birmingham, Alabama. In 2007, he was selected as the Carnegie Foundation Alabama Professor of the Year.

John C. Hall is Curator of the Black Belt Museum, University of West Alabama, Livingston, Alabama, and former Director of Interpretation at The University of Alabama Museum of Natural History. He is coauthor of Headwaters: A Journey on Alabama Rivers with Beth Maynor Young.

Read an Excerpt

Nature Journal

By L. J. Davenport

The University of Alabama Press

Copyright © 2010 L. J. Davenport
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8173-5569-2

Chapter One

Bioblitz The Walls of Jericho

A nature journal must be based on personal observations. And the simplest thing to do, once those observations are made, is to fuse them together to describe a place or tell a story. I wrote the following piece directly from notes scribbled during the Bioblitz, straying very little from the actual chronology of events. (Only the rattlesnake story got switched around a bit, just to increase the drama.) The trail in and out of the Walls of Jericho provides a convenient beginning and end, with Davy Crockett's spirit as an obvious theme. I also wrote this piece to commemorate the wonderful work of Forever Wild, on whose board I proudly sit.

Day one dawned cool and cloudy as I scrambled down the Red Trail from Highway 79 near Hytop in northeast Alabama. And "down" was definitely the operative word, my feet falling fast toward an unseen chasm, then catching themselves just in time to meander back and forth in a seemingly endless series of curves and spirals. Midway down the trail, sandstone gave way to limestone, layered like massive fortifications (against erosion) and pocketed with enormous sinkholes. To fortify myself during the two-mile trek, I whistled the "Davy Crockett" theme song. After all, this was Davy's country, the Hurricane Creek where he loved to hunt and the mysterious Walls of Jericho. Was it here that he "kilt him a b'ar, when he was only three"?

Following respectfully in Davy's footsteps, I hiked these hallowed hollers as part of the Walls of Jericho Bioblitz, an effort by the Alabama State Lands Division to "blitzkrieg" the biology of this Forever Wild tract: 12,510 Alabama acres adjoining 8,943 in Tennessee. (Established by an Alabama constitutional amendment in 1992, the Forever Wild Land Trust spends interest earned from offshore natural gas leases on significant land purchases. In this case, the tract's designated uses include hiking, horseback riding, and limited hunting.) So thirty of us biologists descended (quite literally) on this remote countryside, turning over logs and scrutinizing leaves in a systematic, three-day effort to determine what lives there.

After finally reaching base camp along Hurricane Creek that first day, I wandered up nearby Turkey Creek toward the Walls, a dark-green world broken by shafts of golden sunlight. The creek's ice-cold water cascaded and tumbled before completely disappearing underground, leaving only lonely boulders. I admired the innumerable trilliums and twinleafs, the elegant mix of mosses and succulent sedums, and the bizarre walking fern (whose drawn-out leaf tips take root, thus "walking" the host plant across the landscape). A summer storm struck without warning, thundering down upon me with ferocious splendor, and I wondered, "WWDD (What Would Davy Do)?" So I hunkered down under a convenient rocky overhang and contemplated life's great uncertainties while gnawing on a piece of jerky. Smugly dry, I returned to camp to find most of my belongings drenched due to a minor tent-raising miscalculation. Sorry, Davy!

After supper, the evening evolved into caterpillar hunting, as folks fanned out with flashlights to cautiously inspect the undersides of tree leaves for the often hairy and sometimes dangerous larvae. (During the weekend, the amazing total of over twenty species was secured by this communal effort.) We then fell asleep to the far-off calls of hoot owls and whippoorwills.

Day two dawned crisp and clear. (Later on, the hot sun graciously baked the dampness from my kit.) I sipped my (insipid) instant coffee while admiring a pair of red-shouldered hawks, soaring high above, crying forlornly to each other. Was it important conversation that they shared, or just the basic animal need for companionship?

Two snail experts slowly sifted through mounds of leaf litter, searching for tiny treasures. I opted, instead, to join Auburn University's Curtis Hansen on a return trip to the Walls. Hansen studies lichens, those strange amalgamations of algae and fungi that cling to tree bark and rocks. We followed the muddy, rain-slick trail, stopping frequently so that he might "kiss" those surfaces. (A most sexy lot, lichenologists inspect their intended prey so closely that they appear to be smooching.) Finally we reached the Walls themselves, smooth flat faces rising one hundred feet straight up. Hansen carefully scraped off lichen-encrusted pieces with his hammer before we skidded downslope to the creek. (In a most ignominious display of un-Davy-like grace, I slipped slap-down on my, uh, backside.) Here the creek fanned out into a broad series of pools and waterfalls. Continuing upstream and around a sharp bend, we suddenly entered an amphitheater-like bowl, the worn and etched limestone mottled with gray-pink lichens, the shallow solution cavities teeming with darting black tadpoles. Water gushed from caves along the bowl's edges, and Hansen pointed out the aquatic lichens clinging to the wet channels. (I never know'd of sech!) I left my companion kissing his new friends and climbed up and over the dry falls. A fearsome rustling spooked me. Was it some hideous, hungry varmint?! No, just another snail person gathering leaves.

That afternoon I joined a small party to wade across Hurricane Creek and explore Polly Anne Spring. Truly fetching and serene, the spring's cold, clear water shimmered over emerald green liverworts and moss-clad cobbles. But on the return trip we just about stepped on a rattlesnake-coiled but (gratefully) asleep. WWDD? While my comrades closely inspected the serpent, debated its taxonomy (Canebrake? Timber rattler?), and fabricated yarns about its length (Five feet? Six?), I skedaddled back to camp.

Then a most efficient crew of aquatic biologists marched in, donned their wetsuits, and scoured the creek bottom with snorkels and seines, finding six species of mussels. And the master list of critters swelled: thirty-one fishes, twenty-eight dragonflies and damselflies, twenty butterflies, fifty-one birds, more than one hundred mosses, more than eighty lichens, twenty-four amphibians and reptiles (including the rattlesnake).

Day three started too early, as I waked to the predawn avian chorus. (Songbirds sing in the dark when their predators can't see them.) I set out alone, except for a list of local plants, and checked off every species that I spied. ("Raised in the woods so's he knew every tree.") I smiled at the rat-a-tat-tat of two pileated woodpeckers signaling each other, slamming their beaks into dead tree limbs, then raising triumphant, raucous squawks. I played cat-and-mouse with a catbird, zeroing in on its mournful, mewing cry in a vain attempt to spot its blue-gray plumage. An indignant indigo bunting whizzed past my left ear, then irritably chirped from a nearby shrub. Had I ventured too close to his mate and nest?

That afternoon, I bid farewell to the snail people (still patiently sifting), the Walls, and Hurricane Creek, and trudged back up the Red Trail. (The reported "world record" for hiking out is twenty-four minutes, but I didn't bother to attempt it.) Two heart-pounding hours later, the highway sounds alerted me to the approaching trail's end, and I turned for one last glimpse of the forest primeval. Davy Crockett, the King of the Wild Frontier, would be proud. Not of me, but just knowing that we've preserved one of his favorite places, and all of its incredible diversity, forever. And wild.

Choose a path through the woods. As you slowly walk along, take careful notes on what you see and hear. What wildflowers appear? Is each one restricted to a single type of habitat? Describe one wildflower so completely that you can use that description to later identify it in a nature guide. What birds inhabit this area? Again, describe one so completely that you can later identify it. Can you differentiate one bird's song from another's? Describe a bird's song in such a way that you could teach it to someone else.

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Chapter Two

The Soldier Fish

W. Mike Howell and I were seining a small creek in Limestone County, Alabama, when up popped a soldier fish. And as we stood in our waders in the knee-deep water, Dr. Howell regaled me with the story of the naming of this fish. And I memorized that story on the spot, knowing that I had to tell it to my readers. I had some fun (and took some liberties) with the soldier motif, of course.

Legend has it that on the eve of a particular Civil War battle, one army stared nervously across a narrow creek at the other. Obviously, the morrow promised a cataclysmic confrontation, with many lives lost and, perhaps, the war's tide turning. Should they risk it all and attack? Would victory be assured? So, in the best time-honored fashion, the officers kneeled and prayed (very loudly and very long), invoking the Almighty to please show them a sign that they would, indeed, successfully smite their foes. Soon after, a private crept down to that creek and returned with a much-needed bucket of water. And in it wriggled the sign they had sought.

As Confederates told it, the bucket contained a single fish, just three inches long, but the likes of which no one had ever seen. Brilliant reds and blues splotched its body and head, with similarly hued bands on its dorsal fins. In addition, the blue-green anal fin sported a central red-orange star, while nine rectangular bars decorated its sides. To the prayerful army, the creature's Stars and Bars obviously predicted TOTAL TRIUMPH! (Of course, in the Yankee version of the story-which likewise ends victoriously-the fish exhibited only the Union red, white, and blue.)

Although brand-new to the above combatants, the "soldier fish" (now more commonly called a rainbow darter) is well known to ichthyologists. Like other darters, this species lacks an air bladder to aid flotation, so it scoots or darts along stream bottoms in short, erratic bursts, attacking and dispatching prey before encamping (albeit briefly) on the bottom again. But unlike other darters, which involve a few troops deployed to a single watershed, rainbows fan out broadly (and abundantly) in the Great Lakes and Mississippi and Tennessee river systems, ruthlessly driving out all competitors in pursuit of total Darter Domination.

Soldier fish typically command gravel- or cobble-bottomed streams with numerous riffles and runs. There, juveniles post a wary watch on their elders, with the latter bivouacking in deep, swift riffles while the former bunk in quieter areas near the margins of runs or pools. Rations include a variety of insect larvae, especially mayflies, blackflies, caddis flies, and midges. David Starr Jordan (1851-1931), the nestor of North American ichthyology (and former president of Stanford University), captured the habits and personality of this "gaudiest of all freshwater fishes" thusly: "The Rainbow Darter is a chubby little fish, as compared with other Darters. In its movement it is awkward and ungraceful, though swift and savage as a pike. One of the mildest of its tricks ... is this: It [will] gently put its head over a stone and catch a water boatman ['walking' on top of the water] by one of its swimming legs, release it, catch it again, and again release it, until at last the boatman, evidently much annoyed, [swims] away out of its reach."

Ah, fun with food!

Mating occurs from late spring to early summer. A male-resplendent in his best dress uniform-stakes out and defends his riffle against all invaders, threatening would-be rivals with vicious fin-to-fin combat. (And size does matter: the larger the male, the greater the intimidation.) A female-marked by drabber colors and a lascivious smile-cautiously approaches from downstream, then buries her ventral side in the substrate at the foot of that riffle, where her soldier suitor promptly fertilizes three to seven eggs. Forming a shifting, protective guard around his beloved, the male marches her a short distance upstream where she repeats her half self-burial. The happy couple continues this exhausting regimen over and over until about eight hundred eggs are deposited. (At ease! Take five! Smoke 'em if you got 'em!) The tiny, unprotected eggs hatch in ten to twelve days, while the larval stages last another fifty, by the end of which the juveniles have grown to fifteen millimeters long-that is, unless a marauding muskie or pernicious pike gobbles them up. And by their first anniversary of "enlistment," male recruits vigorously defend the breeding riffles, thrashing smaller comrades (and servicing any females) who dare to enter.

That's the story of the soldier fish. Now, I'm not sure which side prayed-and which side triumphed-in that legendary battle. But the fish remains, patrolling clear, gravelly streams of the Middle States and assaulting all intruders. Not just an omen of war-time victory, but a warrior all its own.

Join a nature walk led by experts. Listen as they describe the natural world and name the organisms that are seen. Choose an organism with a unique or intriguing name and research the history of that name. Does its name help to tell the organism's story?

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Chapter Three

Great Blues

I grew up in the Pacific Northwest, where the Native Americans are famous for their totem poles. And the idea of a totem animal-a creature to guide and assist you through life-has always been a powerful one for me. I wrote the following piece in homage to my own totem animal, the great blue heron. But I also wrote it to preserve a childhood memory and to capture my father's personality-a secondary task, but equally important.

Some childhood memories haunt us forever, evoking powerful feelings that refuse to dissipate with time. For me, one such memory involves a great blue heron.

Way back when, my family enjoyed a little cabin on a little lake near a little town in western Washington. Sharing it with us was a lone "great blue." Dapper as a Colonial colonel, he sported a gray-blue tailcoat with black epaulets, chestnut cravat and matching knickers, and plumed black-and-white hat. Four feet tall (towering over me at the time), he patiently patrolled the lily pads and reeds along the shore, dignified and unflappable-until disturbed by curious tykes, when he became quite flappable! Then, uttering an irritated "kraak" and utilizing all six feet of wingspan, he stroked slowly and powerfully to the opposite shore, legs hanging below like rudders, neck hunched back like a flying Ichabod (Heron) Crane.

The largest, most widespread, and best-known wetland birds of North America, great blues frequent fresh- and saltwater shorelines from southern Alaska to Mexico, coast to coast. (To celebrate this ubiquity, both parts of their scientific name, Ardea herodias, mean "heron": first in Latin and then in Greek.) Pacific Northwest populations never migrate, while the rest overwinter in such exotic locales as the Caribbean, Greater Antilles, and Venezuela. Supreme opportunists, they forage for fish, crayfish, snakes, frogs, salamanders, and anything else foolish enough to venture close. The primary hunting mode, Standing Still (not to be confused with the more energized secondary mode, Walking Slowly), requires the hunter to remain completely motionless, neck curled back in the same S-shape used in flying; while the head never moves, the eyes change focus constantly, backward and forward, left and right. Then, swiftly and violently, its neck straightens, hurling its head into the water, snatching up prey in a serrated, pincer-like bill. The hapless victim is perfunctorily tossed into the air and swallowed headfirst; the waiting game begins anew.

Solitary creatures, great blues congregate only for migration, mating, and raising their young. Males return first to the nesting sites, "heronries" or "rookeries" far from encroaching civilization-the edge of a lake or swamp, with a stagnant moat to thwart land-based predators. There, at the ends of stout branches, they weave together pencil-thin sticks to construct shallow platforms, each three feet across. Females soon follow and, after a short courtship marked by "frenzied exhibitionism" of their suitors, three to seven greenish-blue duck-sized eggs are laid. For the required thirty days of incubation and sixty days of feeding, the parents take turns at the nest, greeting each other with a guttural "ar-ar-ar." ("How ar-ar-ar you? Ar-ar-ar you mad that I was gone so long?") Despite the adults' diligence, only half of the initial eggs finally fledge; with staggered hatching, older nestlings grab the lion's share of the proffered food or push little brothers and sisters out and down to their demise. And only a third of all fledglings survive to reproduce; poor hunting skills doom most to starvation.


Excerpted from Nature Journal by L. J. Davenport Copyright © 2010 by L. J. Davenport. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


chapter one Bioblitz: The Walls of Jericho....................5
chapter two The Soldier Fish....................15
chapter three Great Blues....................23
chapter four Doodlebugs and Ant Lions....................31
chapter five Fence Lizards....................39
chapter six The Wheel of Life....................47
chapter seven Giant Swallowtails and Metamorphosis....................55
chapter eight Luna Moths and Pheromones....................63
chapter nine Bolas Spiders....................71
chapter ten Pink Moccasins....................79
chapter eleven Jack- (or Jill-) in-the-Pulpit....................87
chapter twelve Birding Dauphin Island....................95
chapter thirteen Shark's Tooth Creek....................103
chapter fourteen Sex and the Single Freshwater Mussel....................111
chapter fifteen Periodical Cicadas....................121
chapter sixteen Opossums....................129
chapter seventeen Brown Pelicans....................137
chapter eighteen Neither Spanish nor Moss....................145
chapter nineteen Flounders and Other Flatfishes....................153
chapter twenty Liverleaf and the Doctrine of Signatures....................161
chapter twenty-one Green Tree Frogs....................169
chapter twenty-two Cedar Apple Rust....................177
chapter twenty-three Gopher Tortoises....................185
chapter twenty-four The Siren's Song....................193
chapter twenty-five Lessons in Morelity....................201
Further Reading....................209

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