NATCHEZ NATURALIST
NEWSLETTER:
from the woods near Natchez, Mississippi, USA

July 8, 2001

NATURE IN MID-BREATH
In our area most plants either flower in the spring or the fall. Right now few species are blossoming so the forest is about as uniformly green as you will ever see it. It's too late to see blossoms of spring's violets, trilliums, the Mayapple and Pawpaw, but too early for fall's asters, goldenrods, thistles and eupatoriums.

This almost-blossomless time coincides naturally with the midway point of the seasonal cycle. The Summer Solstice was just a couple of weeks ago. Now the days are beginning to shorten, and they will continue to shorten until the Winter Solstice on December 21. For me, the Winter Solstice is the most significant date of the whole year, for that's when a whole new seasonal cycle will begin. For us in the Northern Hemisphere, the Winter Solstice brings the promise of rebirth. The Summer Solstice is the second-most important date on the calendar.

One way to think of it is that right now nature has just stopped exhaling spring's voluptuous diversity, and now is about to inhale that rainbow of seeds, spores and fresh, strong and hungry young males and females of every species, all which will set the stage for nature's next exhalation.

This subtle natural interlude between exhaling and inhaling is not so noticeable outside the forest. In town the Crape Myrtles and Walmart-everflowering-suburban-garden-species blossom everywhere. Also, in disturbed areas certain weeds opportunistically react to current conditions such as rain and temperature, instead of the more profound stimulus of photoperiod, or day/night-length. Just the native forest-plants around me who have evolved for this precise, relatively stable ecosystem manifest the wisdom of the current summertime mid-breath.

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PASSIONFLOWERS
In weedy areas there are indeed a few blossoming species, but not many. While biking from the organic gardens across the bayou I spotted a Passionflower blossom in the weeds beside the road. I've been looking for exactly this, for at my nature-study Web site (http://www.backyardnature.net) I have a section on flower structure, and I've wanted to show how even such an exotic-looking blossom as the Passionflower's is fundamentally like most other blossoms. I scanned the blossom, wrote a bit about it, and you can see this at http://www.backyardnature.net/fl_test.htm

Two other species flowering now while most of the rest of nature holds her mid-summer breath are the Day Flower and the Ruellia, which you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/monodico.htm . On that page the Day Flower is at the top, the Ruellia is at the bottom.

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WHITE-FOOTED MOUSE
It's too bad that when most people think of mice they visualize a House Mouse. The House Mouse is just one mouse species among many, plus it's an introduced species from Europe. Really, it is a "weed species" among a rainbow of wonderful native rodents.

I'm thinking about mice now because for the last couple of weeks my trailer has hosted the most recent of a long series of White-footed Mice, and this one I have not been able to trap. Of course I didn't want to hurt him or her so I tried all of my usual live-trapping methods. But this was a smart mouse and simply refused to enter the various one-way doors and snares I contrived. TWICE I cornered the critter and both times as I was driving him toward the open door in a flash he turned toward me and either ran between my legs or jumped onto me, then onto the floor behind me.

Finally this week as I worked at the computer I heard the little intruder inside the toolbox beneath my sleeping platform. I sneaked over, closed the box, took the box outside, opened it, and there was my guest looking with its enormous eyes right into my eyes -- for about half a second, before it turned, leaped a good four feet onto my elevated fireplace, and disappeared.

White-footed Mice are amazing jumpers -- can jump right out of a large bucket. Also they are handsomely rusty-gray above and white below, with huge eyes and ears -- very unlike the squinty-eyed, gray House Mouse. You can see a picture I've drawn of a White-footed Mouse at http://www.backyardnature.net/rats.htm On that page I also describe three of the livetrap strategies I use to try to catch them.

White-footed Mice are abundant here, in every brushpile, every outhouse, all through the woods and fields. The species is native over a vast region of the eastern and central US, deep into Mexico. It eats mainly seeds, nuts and insects, and each individual has a home range of from a half to 1.5 acres, with 4-12 individuals occurring per acre.

The unfortunate thing is that they also carry ticks infected with Lyme Disease, and we live in a hot-spot for that. Both Kathy Moody, the plantation manager, and myself contracted Lyme Disease a couple of springs ago when ticks were especially bad.

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MOSQUITOES & NO-SEE-EMS
This week the mosquitoes were not as bad as last week, though I still must prepare breakfast in my outside kitchen wearing winter clothing and a beekeeper's hat with veil.

As the mosquitoes diminish in numbers, the no-see-ems increase. Of course no-see-ems are those biting gnats you can barely see, who can pass right through a trailer's screen-wire windows and doors, and whose bite hurts worse than a mosquito's. The reason no-see-ems are so common now is that their larvae develop in water, mud and decaying vegetation, and during this last rainy week that's exactly what has been around my forest home. I'm curious as to how their bites can hurt more than a mosquito's, though they are a small fraction of a mosquito's size

The experts give this advice for dealing with no-see-ems: "Avoidance, habitat modification, chemical control, personal protection." In other words, either stay away from them or nuke them. My strategy is a compromise: Around dusk when they are so bad I wear long-sleeved shirts and trousers, and just put up with a few bites. You can see a highly magnified picture of a no-see-em at http://www.public-health.uiowa.edu/fuortes/63111/ARTHROP/sld042.htm

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BROKEN TWIGS
Nearly every mature tree around me bears a few conspicuous clusters of brown, dried-up leaves. This is the result of the Periodical Cicada invasion we had a month ago. Female cicadas slit open branches and lay eggs inside the twigs, creating a structurally weak spot in that twig. Now whenever there's a good breeze some of the twigs snap, and usually the broken twigs with their brown leaves hang on the trees a few days before falling to the ground.

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VISITING DEER & RABBITS
Nearly each afternoon around 5 PM a doe with two half-grown fawns come browsing at my camp, orbiting about 20 feet around my trailer. Even as I walk around, the deer just look at me. Many mornings a very large Eastern Cottontail accompanies me at breakfast. It hunches in the grass also about 20 feet from where I sit while tending the fire, listening to National Public Radio's Morning Edition, and watching the birds.

Sometimes I think these creatures visit the camp knowing that they are safer here than farther away. The deer have seen me chase away the neighbors' dogs, who hound the deer all through the night, leaving them exhausted and terror-stricken by morning. The rabbit's favorite resting spot appears to be exactly where occasionally I pee.

Of course, this is also where the grass is greenest...

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Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,