from the woods near Natchez, Mississippi, USA
July 22, 2001
752 BATS (SOUTHEASTERN MYOTIS)
One reason I find myself at this precise spot in the forest at Laurel Hill Plantation is that there's an old cistern here. It's like a 20-foot-deep, 10-foot-wide Grecian urn buried in the ground, with its 4-foot-wide and 3-foot-high neck sticking above the ground's surface. I would not be surprised to learn that the cistern was placed here during slave days, to provide for a cluster of slave homes.
This cistern was supposed to provide me with water. I built my outside kitchen so that water from its tin roof would drain into the cistern. You can barely see the cement-plastered neck right behind my back in the picture of me in my outside kitchen pictured at http://www.earthfoot.org/jimscamp.jpg
Just days after I arrived and cleared the thicket of honeysuckle overgrowing the cistern's neck, both bats and Chimney Swifts moved into the cistern. They are still there. At first light each morning the bats flutter into the cistern after their night of feeding, then a while later Chimney Swifts streak out of it. Then at dusk the operation is reversed.
Of course this situation presented me with three choices: 1) drink water filled with bat and bird doo; 2) cover the cistern and keep the critters out, or: 3) turn the cistern over to the critters and get my water elsewhere.
Naturally I chose the last alternative, and I consider it an honor to share my space with these interesting and beautiful beings.
I've learned a good deal from the bats, which the books name Southeastern Myotis (sometimes Mississippi Myotis), and whose Latin name is Myotis austroriparius.
First of all, I've learned to not leave buckets next to the cistern, because twice I've found dead bats in the buckets' bottoms. Bats use a sophisticated form of echolocation -- bouncing high-frequency sounds off objects to figure out where things are -- and clearly to bat SONAR an empty bucket looks a lot like a cistern's entry hole.
I've also learned that bats can do mysterious things. Last fall I was sleeping outside beneath the mosquito net on my 4-foot-high sleeping platform when I was awakened by a bat inside my net, fluttering back and forth the net's length. The bat must have pushed its way beneath the netting, which was draped onto the plywood surface heavily enough to keep all mosquitoes out. That night with a flashlight I was able to take a long look at my captive from six inches away as it hung on the inside of my netting. It's an amazing looking thing. Of course as soon as I lifted one side of the netting the bat nonchalantly flew out and immediately began darting among flying bugs. You can see a picture of a Southeastern Myotis and read some extra information about them at http://www.nsrl.ttu.edu/tmot1/myotaust.htm
I'm thinking about bats nowadays because for the last week each dawn I have seen more bats fluttering inside my outside kitchen than ever before. Their many wings cause a considerable whir in the morning air and though several may dart between my legs as I'm conducting my stretching exercises before jogging, they never touch my skin. They do often touch my beard, however, but that's because bat SONAR doesn't register a hermit's beard-hairs.
This Sunday Morning, the moment the first Cardinal sang and I couldn't even see that the western horizon was lighting up yet, I slipped from beneath the mosquito net and took a seat next to my cistern's neck, with my face about two feet away. It wasn't five minutes before the first bat entered. Ultimately I counted 752.
Two different forms were clearly present, a small, black one and a larger, paler one. However, I don't know whether this means that I have two different species, or whether there are just larger older ones and smaller young ones. I suspect that it's the latter. That's because several bats missed the basketball-size hole in the metal plate covering my cistern, and fluttered around on the cover for a second or two before regaining enough composure to dive through the hole, and all of the hole-missers were the small, black kind. According to the Web site mentioned above, at this time of year juvenile Southeastern Myotises should be for the first time joining their elders on foraging expeditions, so those small black ones may be inexperienced young.
In nature there's a general rule that the more sophisticated an animal species is, the fewer offspring it produces. Couples of most Myotis species produce only one young per year, but Southeastern Myotises typically give birth to twins. I suppose that this means that my bats are among the less sophisticated species in the large, smart family of Myotis bats. Still, the general low bat reproduction rate hints at the truth: That all bats are extremely complicated, highly evolved, marvelous beings. Also, that bats are very vulnerable to man's predations, because after any disaster affecting their numbers bats will need a long time to recoup their numbers.
Yes, I am very proud of my 752 bat neighbors.
Early Friday morning I was biking to the plantation center to put in 2 hours of fig picking and as I rounded a certain bend in the road I surprised two half-grown Coyotes. At first I didn't know what I was seeing. They were so long-legged and scrawny looking that I thought that they might be very hungry jackrabbits, but then I remembered that we don't have jackrabbits here (just lower-hung Eastern Cottontails and Swamp Rabbits), and then I realized that they were young Coyotes. I often spot Coyote tracks and at certain seasons Coyotes put on hysterical serenades at night, so really it's surprising they don't reveal themselves more often.
A map showing the Coyote's distribution in North America at http://dnr.state.il.us/lands/education/mammals/coyote.htm indicates that Coyotes occur in all of the western US, nearly all of the central states, but not in the US Southeast -- except for extreme western portions of Mississippi, Tennessee and Kentucky. The above Web site describes them as "feeding mostly on animals: cottontails, mice, deer, raccoons, various birds, crayfish, grasshoppers."
It can be hard to tell the difference between a Coyote's paw print and the print of certain dog races. Basically, a Coyote's print shows more empty space between the back pad and the four front toes than domestic dogs, plus, the Coyote's back pad is proportionally smaller. The Coyote's print suggests an animal walking on tip-toe, while the domestic dog's print is flatter, sloppier looking. If you happen to find prints on firm mud or light snow, the back pad of the Coyote's rear foot is also much more slender than a dog's. I compare the two different prints at http://www.backyardnature.net/mammals.htm
At this time of year the most common bird species around my spot in the woods is certainly the White-eyed Vireo. Deeper in the forest where the canopy is more closed than here, the most abundant bird is the Red-eyed Vireo. You can see a picture of the White-eyed Vireo at http://losbird.org/labirds/wevi.htm
It's to be expected that these two vireo species are so common here. My bird fieldguide says that White-eyed Vireos are "common in dense moist deciduous thickets, wood margins, and hedgerows." A better description of the mosquito-breeding tall grasses and bushes immediately around my camp in a semi-open place in the woods could not be written. Similarly my fieldguide says that Red-eyed Vireos are "the most abundant bird in eastern deciduous forests."
However, I'll bet that there's not one in a hundred persons passionately interested in his or her backyard hummingbirds and thistle-seed-eating finches who can identify either of these Verios. Verios are simply "wilder" birds than those frequenting suburban and urban bird feeders. You might be interested in my essay "Why are robins so common in the suburbs" at http://www.backyardnature.net/ecorobin.htm
THE WRENS' SECOND BROOD
Each summer a pair of Carolina Wrens (picture at http://echotourism.com/birding/carowren.htm ) nests near my trailer. Usually during the days leading up to their building their nest I must constantly be shooing them away from leaving straw in my fireplace, my laundry bag, my popcorn bag hanging from the ceiling, the pockets of my hung-up coat, etc. This year I nailed a small, overturned bucket near a corner and eventually they raised their first brood of the year in it.
Some weeks ago I discovered them nesting in my open-walled toilet, in a cardboard-cylinder-thing I'd mounted on the wall, in which to store my toilet paper so the White-footed Mice wouldn't carry all my paper away to their nests. I didn't like this choice, but what can you do? Each morning lately I would peep into the nest and see the mother Carolina Wren patiently brooding.
Today the wrens are out foraging and there's no sign of the young. I assume that this is the consequence of a certain handsome, red-blotched Corn Snake, called Chicken Snake by some folks, that habitually drapes itself here and there in and around the toilet during my presence. I'm glad for the snake to be there, for it works hard to keep down the mouse population -- which carry ticks, which carry Lyme Disease, which we have here. And it's true that a Corn Snake will eat a nestling or two if it's handy.
Well, if all Carolina Wren nestlings lived, soon we'd be overflowing with them. Besides, the first brood seems to have survived, and the parents are already exploring my fireplace, popcorn bag and coat pockets for Brood #3.
THE LOESS HILL PROJECT
On Tuesday a writer by the name of Keith Pandolfi drove up from New Orleans to do a story about one of my projects. He's working for Country Roads Magazine, a popular publication within its described readership area of "Natchez to New Orleans." I'm told that in September Country Roads will produce a "spread" on the project, which I call the "Loess Hills of the Lower Mississippi Valley" project. (I pronounce loess like "lerss" but others pronounce it "LOW-ess.") You can see what the project is all about at http://www.earthfoot.org/loess/welcome.html
I initiated that project about 2 years ago but after a spectacular failure to interest local people, since then the project has been "dead in the water," often with absolutely no one visiting the site for long weeks. Therefore it's gratifying that Country Roads finds the concept interesting, and maybe now this will stir up curiosity in what I regard as one of the most striking natural features of this part of the world. Let's just see what comes out in September...
Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,