from the woods near Natchez, Mississippi, USA
July 1, 2001
BIRDSONG SEQUENCE AT DAWN
Most of the year I sleep in the forest on a wooden platform built high enough to keep ticks from climbing the legs, and covered with mosquito netting. Nowadays at dusk the loudness of the high whine they make trying to get at me is almost intimidating. Yet, it's rather cozy inside the net, completely mosquito free. The trick is to sleep there all night without poking the butt against the netting...
Awakening there in the cool of the morning is wonderful. With just a hint of light toward the east, the Cardinals begin singing. Several call from scattered locations all around me, proclaiming their nesting territories. After they've called a while and the darkness has lifted more, then the Summer Tanagers join. Then the Indigo Buntings, then the Yellow-breasted Chats, and by the time the Towhees are calling I know it's light enough to get up and go jogging. During my stretching exercises, the next species to sing is the White-eyed Vireo, then the Crow, and when the Carolina Wrens join in I know that if I'm not on the road jogging I'm behind my usual schedule. Sometimes the sequence of species is different, but this is the usual one. Especially if it's cloudy the sequence can change a little.
One omission in the above list is the American Robin, which in most American suburbs may be the most common bird. For several weeks this spring I did a birdcount of migratory species for the Gulf Coast Bird Observatory and during all of spring until now I have not seen a single American Robin. I don't know why this is so. This is one of those little mysteries I'm working on. By the way, you may be interested in my Web page "Why are Robins So Common in The Suburbs:" at http://www.backyardnature.net/ecorobin.htm .
THE PARSNIP'S CATERPILLAR
This week I've enjoyed having my parsnips eaten by a certain worm.
Actually, the worm is an attractive caterpillar about the size of a man's middle finger. It is pale green with bold black bands on each segment, broken by red-orange spots. It's the larval stage of the Black Swallowtail Butterfly, a common mostly-black butterfly in these parts. You can see pictures of both butterfly and caterpillar at http://www.npwrc.usgs.gov/resource/DISTR/LEPID/BFLYUSA/TX/895.htm .
My parsnips are among the least bug-eaten plants in the garden, yet the caterpillar has chewed one knee-high leaf into oblivion. One reason the parsnips are mostly bug-free is that parsnips protect themselves against leaf-eaters by containing a potent poison, which itself is something special. The poison is "phototoxic" -- it doesn't become dangerous until activated by sunlight. Apparently this poison is hard for parsnip plants to create, for it's been shown that after a parsnip leaf is attacked by an insect and the plant is rushing to produce more phototoxic poison in its defense, most of its "breathing," its respiration, is in response to its effort to brew up more of the poison. Obviously, this phototoxin (called furanocourmarin, in case you want to look it up on the Internet) is very important to parsnip plants.
My Black Swallowtail caterpillar not only isn't bothered by this toxin, it seems to crave it. In fact, the reason it is so beautifully patterned is to warn birds that it should not be eaten, for it itself is filled with poisons. If you gently squeeze my caterpillar, something amazing happens: Two conspicuous orange "horns," called osmeteria, magically appear right above the caterpillar's head, and the caterpillar tries to rub goo from the horns onto your fingers. When this happens you can smell butyric acid in the stuff the horns secrete. If you don't bother the caterpillar for a few seconds, slowly the horns begin to deflate, then the caterpillar curves its front end in a curious fashion, and in an instant the horns are snapped into the body, leaving not a trace of them visible. What an splendid creature this caterpillar is!
I could sit beside parsnips and watch caterpillars munch, and reflect on their mortal warfare with one another and the world around them all day long.
The plantation's orchard is in bad shape. Most of its trees have died and been cleared away, leaving only three apple trees, a number of pear trees, and a grassy meadow. Diseases, the recent drought and general neglect have taken their toll. Nothing seems to kill the pear trees, however, and the three remaining apple trees produce more than we can eat, to the raccoons' advantage.
Saturday I went apple gathering. I tarried beneath a tree and while gazing across the meadow where once dozens of varieties of fruit trees flourished, chomped down on a tart but sublimely juicy and tasty specimen that was green, with just a touch of burgundy on its shoulders.
As I ate I couldn't avoid remembering something from the Real McCoys, a TV show I watched with my family back in the 60s. In that episode a "city slicker" visited the McCoy farm. He was the most handsome, rich, physically powerful and certainly the most sophisticated person any of the McCoys had ever seen. The whole show was about how the McCoy men-folk dealt with their jealousies. At the end of the show Luke, the family's father, in a gesture of goodwill, and perhaps surrender, offered the departing visitor an apple. The visitor grimaced and said that with all his cares his stomach couldn't take it.
The show ended with Luke thinking that maybe his life wasn't so bad after all, as he chomped into that apple with full abandon.
Today I'm being glad that at this age I've managed to come down on the Luke side.
You may enjoy reading a page of my "Walks with Red Dog" entitled June Apples. This page describes another of my June-apple memories. It's at http://www.earthfoot.org/reddog/reddog05.htm .
Also, you can guess that if I'd know what variety of apple I was eating I would have told you. However, identifying apple varieties is hard -- there are over 6,000 named apple varieties! If you are interested in the apple-variety-naming problem, check out the Web page at http://www.penpages.psu.edu/penpages_reference/29401/2940148.html .
MOSQUITOES & THEIR WIGGLETAILS
Last week I reported that Tropical Storm Alison had bestowed us with an appalling population of mosquitoes. This week they are as bad or worse. By wearing winter clothing, gloves and my beekeeper's hat with a veil I can do my morning cooking and a little gardening, but it's too hot to dress like that for long.
Last week one mosquito species was dominant, the Psorophora, but this week we have a rainbow of different kinds, some astonishingly large ones, a great many very tiny ones that get into my trailer, some boldly marked ones that hurt when they bite, and others that are just grayish and do nothing special other than pester. Worldwide there are over 2,500 species of mosquitoes, with about 150 species present in the U.S. and here in Mississippi we have some 60 species.
We learn in school that only the females suck blood - the males are nectar feeders. Females need the protein in blood to produce viable eggs. When eggs hatch, they produce aquatic larvae called "wiggletails." Wiggletails, though they live in water, actually breathe air. In my rainwater-catching buckets I watch them coming to the water's surface and sticking the snorkle tubes on their rear ends up to the air. Of course I try to keep mosquitoes from laying eggs in my buckets, but my lids just don't seem to work, and this is a mystery to me. sometimes I put a few drops of oil into the buckets. The oil covers the water's surface and when the wiggletails come to the top to breath, their snorkle tubes get clogged with oil...
In these parts, some folks don't take good care of their fences, so the other day I came across a neighbor's escaped horse in the woods. When I walked up to him to say hello he raised his head and I saw that the broad flat area between his eyes, clear down to his nose, was just black with blood-filled mosquitoes. Then it occurred to me how hard it must be for a horse or any large hoofed animal to protect that part of the head. When the horse ambled away, a black cloud followed it.
TRIP TO NATCHEZ
This Sunday morn, July 1, I mountain-biked the 12 miles (20 km) into town on my monthly trip to buy supplies -- mostly cornmeal, wheat flour and oatmeal. At dawn right at the pavement's edge on busy US 60 I saw a flock of turkeys consisting of 3 adults and about 20 young. In town the Crape Myrtles (Lagerstroemia) are blossoming prettily, but in the suburbs I saw a housecat torturing a chipmunk and my sadness about housecats roaming freely stays with me. How terrible housecats are for wildlife!
Before beginning my trip back I sat in a bench at the corner of the vast pavement of the local Walmart drinking cold buttermilk, and not a single mosquito visited me. Clearly, living surrounded by close, usually moist vegetation has its disadvantages, for mosquitoes like that. But, what a relief it was returning to my little camp, which greeted me with the odors of woodsmoke, mud, mildew and old sweat, and which was enshrined in the high whine of a million mosquitoes.
Last night we had a 4-inch rain (10 cm) so I do not expect the mosquitoes to soon leave. Having glimpsed again life "on the outside," nor is it likely that I shall leave, either.