from the woods near Natchez, Mississippi, USA
August 26, 2001
WRENS & DOODLEBUGS
The Carolina Wrens with whom I share my outside kitchen spend at least half an hour each day, mostly in the late afternoons, dust bathing beneath my kitchen's tin roof. Sometimes with my binoculars I watch them simply because it's a pleasure seeing them enjoy themselves so much.
They do every kind of fluttering and flopping, creating round-bottomed pits in their favorite spots, but their most spectacular movement is when they fluff their feathers and with their feet hidden beneath them scoot across the dust like mechanical mice with frantically wagging tails. They rub their cheeks in the dust and sometimes lie on their sides with their bottom wings held so that plenty of dust reaches the tender spots beneath the wings. They usually bathe together and often after particularly long bouts of bathing one suddenly stops, and then the other stops, and they look at one another (I see them both panting from their exertions) and I wonder what they are thinking as each gazes at the other absurdly fluffed-out, exhausted and dusty creature.
All this has been hard on my doodlebugs. Before the wrens discovered my dust, the dust was the sole domain of about 30 of these little creatures which the books prefer to call antlions. Doodlebugs, or antlions, are the larvae, or immature stages, of an insect something like damselflies or lacewings, which are slender flying insects with delicate wings. Doodlebugs dig conical pits in the dust and hide themselves beneath their pits so that their jaws are open, inside the dust, exactly at the pits' bottoms. When an ant or other small insect stumbles into a pit, the doodlebug clamps its jaws upon a meal.
I know why I've always had a special fondness for doodlebugs. It's because my father taught me something about them, and my father was not a good one for teaching. My father taught me that if you get onto your hands and knees and put your face up close to the doodlebug pit and say "Doodlebug, doodlebug, your house is on fire," the doodlebug will knock dust in your face.
It really does this. It's because your breath dislodges particles into the pit, and the doodlebug automatically knocks the debris back out.
I'm amazed that I take such pleasure in having a doodlebug knock dust in my face. Doodlebugs have caused me to reflect on how easy it is for a father to please his son with such modest investments of time and energy. Parents in the human species have enormous powers, and responsibilities.
Each morning as I'm awakening on my sleeping platform in the woods I hear water dropping all around me. Dew has condensed on the trees' leaves above me and when there's enough dew a drop falls. This has begun only recently. I don't know why it didn't happen in June and July. Sometimes a drop hits the mosquito net above my head and shatters into a fine spray. It is not unpleasant to awaken with a fine, cold mist showering your face. If there were several drops it might be messy, but, just one is more like the intellectual distillation of a kiss from a friend, and usually there is only one.
Saturday morning as I was baking my hermitbread over the campfire I spotted a patch of yellowness moving among the marble-size green fruits of the Toothache-tree next to my outdoor kitchen. The binoculars discovered a Blue-winged Warbler there. You can see nice pictures of this species, clearly showing the narrow "bandit's mask" and yellowish head making it easy to identify, at http://www.aves.net/birds-of-ohio/birdbwwa.htm
Blue-winged Warblers don't nest in this area; they are seen only during spring and fall migrations. In the summer the closest they can be found is northeastern Mississippi. They spend their winters mostly in the Central American tropics. You can see a map showing the Blue-winged Warbler's summer distribution at http://www.mbr-pwrc.usgs.gov/bbs/htm96/map617/ra6410.html This is the first fall-migrating species I've seen this year. Over the following months it'll be fascinating watching the migrants filtering southward to their winter homes. Spring and fall migrations are very different from one another! During the spring, waves of species arrive at pretty predictable times. One day there's nothing, then the next the trees are just bustling with a certain species that arrived during the night, and the individual birds in this wave will really be juiced up -- full of hormones causing them to sing, mate and cavort in a hundred ways. Their colors will be the brightest of the year. Spring migration, especially here in the heart of the Mississippi Flyway, is majestic.
In contrast, during fall migration the waves of different species are much more diffuse and occur over a longer period of time. Individual birds seem to be in no hurry. Since their spring hormones are spent and now they don't have to do anything until next spring except eat and stay alive, they seldom sing or pick fights with one another. Their fall plumages are often much more somber than their bright spring ones -- some species look like completely different birds! In the fall, migrant birds trickle through in an almost sneaky manner, and if you're not paying attention you can miss them completely.
But, I do pay attention, and this Blue-winged Warbler in my Toothache-tree is something worth celebrating.
I've been seeing them for several weeks, but this is the first week when their bushel-basket-size silk tents really make a mark on the landscape. I've also found colonies of similar fuzzy caterpillars that do not build silky tents. When the tentless species is bothered, all the caterpillars raise their front and rear ends, forming a wide U with their bodies. Probably this is meant to look threatening to predators. One morning this week during breakfast I watched a Tufted Titmouse fly into the center of a group of tentless ones, grab one, then fly nearby and eat it, and he did this several times. Therefore at least titmice don't seem to think that a U-shaped caterpillar is very threatening.
A couple of summers back in the Tyrolean Alps of northern Italy I was backpacking during an outbreak of similar tent caterpillars and a couple of times I got to see that species migrating. In one instance they formed a very long line along a sidewalk in a small town. Each caterpillar marched with its head more or less buried in a tuft of hairs on the rump of the caterpillar before it. It was an amazing thing to see, and it was stomach churning when the caterpillars marched onto a highway, eventually causing a large yellow smear. But they just kept coming.
Eastern Tent Caterpillars metamorphose into smallish, fuzzy, brownish, thick-bodied moths called Lappet Moths. You can see what one looks like by clicking "tent caterpillar" on the list at http://www.prairiefrontier.com/pages/butterflies/moths.html
SQUIRRELS & GREEN PECANS
Ten or so years ago the woods in which my trailer is parked was not a woods. There was an old grove of Pecan trees next to a sloping field. Now my trailer is parked beneath the remaining old Pecan trees and what earlier was a field now is occupied mostly by young Sweetgum trees 15-30 feet high. As I prepare breakfast each morning I constantly gaze into the big Pecans' limbs not only because I hope to spot interesting birds but also because the trees' spreading limbs heavy with green ferns and abundantly festooned with long gray strands of Spanish Moss are profoundly lovely to look at, especially when a breeze comes along.
Nowadays squirrels spend a lot of time high in these Pecan trees working on green pecans. Sometimes they gnaw off the nuts' green husks, causing a general rain of pecan-husk particles onto the ground below, then in their mouths the squirrels carry off the tan nut for later eating. Sometimes they appear to eat husk, shell and kernel right there in the tree. Often they drop whole nuts and I'm guessing that they do this when they pick a nut that's too hard for easy eating.
Day by day the squirrels lose their haggard summer appearance and before long they will be positively fat and glossy. And day by day the litter of green pecan particles on my trails becomes harder on my bare feet.
Today, Sunday morning, not far from camp I was gathering some of the last Pawpaws and came upon a lone Wild Boar not 30 feet away, completely oblivious to my presence. It seemed to be doing the same thing I was, snuffling for sweet Pawpaws and Muscadines, which both litter the floor now. Wild Boar are not native here, but have been introduced from Europe. A large number roam Laurel Hill and nearly every day I see where they've rooted in the soil. These are black, coarsely haired, fairly long-legged creatures with upward curving tusks.
Years ago when I worked as a naturalist on archeological expeditions in Guatemala's Petén Jungle an old Maya Indian hunter told me that of all the things worth fearing in the forest, the Peccary was the worst, and the Peccary is very closely related to our Wild Boars. These animals can be dangerous because they are unpredictable and can make deadly slashes with their tusks. But my Wild Boar today never knew I was there and I smiled to see his abstraction in the dark shadows below the Pawpaw trees.
GONE GARDEN SPIDER
The Garden Spider of my previous letters' wasp-eating and Dewdrop-Spider fame has this Sunday morning disappeared. A large hole occupies the web's center and I wonder whether a bat may not have gotten her in the night. I'll miss her. But that's the way
BLUSHERS & BIRDNESTS
With such heat combined with the recent rains, these are wonderful times for mushrooms. On a typical walk in the woods I can name every tree, bush, fern and wildflower I encounter, but nowadays it's nothing to spot species of mushroom I've never seen before.
I do know some of them, though. A second flush of chanterelles is just finishing up, plus there's one handsome, mostly cream-colored mushroom called "Blusher" because it bruises so easily when you touch it, staining reddish. The Latin name for this species is AMANITA RUBESCENS. If you know a little about mushrooms you may recognize "Amanita" as the genus name for the most famously poisonous group of all mushrooms. This is a case of there being a group of mushrooms in which some species are delicious, but some closely related species can kill you. Kathy Moody, Laurel Hill's manager, brought me a bucket of Blushers this week and I doubt I would have eaten them if she had not already consumed her share the night before, and lived to tell me about it. You can see some Blushers at http://nepenthes.lycaeum.org/Plants/Amanita/rubescens.html
You can also see one of the most curious fungi I've spotted this week at http://www.backyardnature.net/fungi.htm#b
This is a Bird's Nest fungus. I noticed it growing in the old wet ashes surrounding my woodfire as I was preparing breakfast one morning this week. Each "bird nest" is large enough to barely hold a BB. When it rains, raindrops splash the "eggs" from the "nest" and inside each egg there are spores which germinate and form new fungal bodies. If we were astronauts discovering lifeforms on Mars and we found something like this, we would swear that such incredible beings were too exotic and impossible to ever be found on Earth, yet here they are at my naked feet each morning at breakfast in the woods near Natchez, Mississippi.
May I never lose the sense of being a temporary passenger on a mind-boggling Spaceship Earth!