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

November 4, 2001

PICKING UP PECANS
This beautiful Sunday morning I have biked a few miles to a certain spot I know along Second Creek west of here, where Pecan trees grow next to a small country road. Here I can pick up pecan nuts without trespassing on private property. We have many Pecan trees at Laurel Hill, but I like these bottomland nuts better and I enjoy the ride through the countryside. The ride there was a pleasure. Farmers have picked their cotton recently and now white fluff blown from wagons and trucks lies along the road looking like patches of snow.

I'm not sure how well known pecans are outside of the US, so those of you in other countries may like to see what the leaves, trees and nuts look like. This is possible at http://www.forestry.auburn.edu/samuelson/dendrology/juglandaceae_pg/pecan.htm.   Also you can read about the history of pecans at the "I Love Pecans" site at http://www.ilovepecans.org/history.html where you can learn such tidbits of information as the word "pecan" is a Native American term of Algonquin-Indian origin referring to all nuts requiring a stone to crack.

In fact, pecan nuts are big business around here. Lots of people have groves of them and sell them commercially. In town several stores have cardboard signs in their windows reading "We buy pecans." In the countryside sometimes you see whole Black families out picking them up to sell.

Last year the crop was poor because of the drought and I didn't get to send some to my grandmother in Kentucky until after Thanksgiving. This year the crop is bounteous. In this morning's fresh air and dazzling sunlight it was a pure pleasure to rummage among the dry brown leaves finding all the shiny nuts I wanted.

Around my trailer the squirrels are keeping busy eating and burying pecans. Yesterday I heard a squirrel making a funny noise next to my cistern head. He was trying to bury a pecan in the very thin soil atop the cistern's flaring underground concrete shoulder. With a pecan in his mouth this squirrel just kept scratching at the concrete until I felt sorry for him. Finally it gave a violent flick of its tail, issued what was surely a squirrel-cuss, and rushed away.

This morning during breakfast an Eastern Chipmunk scampered from beneath my trailer, put on his brakes just a couple of feet from me and for a couple of surprised seconds looked at me goggle- eyed with his cheek-pouches hilariously bulging with what surely was pecans.

Pecan trees are native to this area and I can hardly imagine how they must have been appreciated by the Natchez Indians. For, pecans can be kept for many months. If a family has a cache of them, there never deeds to be any worry about going hungry.

*****

FISH CROWS
The mostly wooded landscape between here and Second Creek is very pretty now. The forest is still mostly green with glossy- green Loblolly Pines and Water Oaks, a few yellowing Sweetgums and Hophornbeams, and here and there there's a brilliant splash of orange-red where Winged Sumach and Poison Ivy appears. The profoundly blue sky and not-hot sunlight made it all perfect.

One highlight of the ride was seeing a flock of 31 Fish Crows circling far overhead, drifting as a body toward the Mississippi. Here we have both Common Crows and Fish Crows, and they are hard to tell apart just by looking. Fish Crows are a bit smaller, but the main difference is that Common Crows "caw" while Fish Crows make a sort of nasal honk. The problem is that immature Common Crows occasionally sound a lot like Fish Crows. But today these 31 crows were all honking.

*****

BAT UPDATE
In my Newsletter of July 22 I reported counting 752 Southeastern Myotis bats entering my cistern at dawn one morning. This Sunday morning at the first hint of dawn I was at the cistern head again.

When I arrived there I was surprised to hear a good number of bats already inside the cistern, so my count was doomed to be an undercount. Nonetheless, this time I counted 715 entering as they returned from their night's foraging, so probably now there is about the same number as counted in July. Maybe the reason some bats entered so early was because of the almost-full moon's brightness, or maybe with the cooler weather there are fewer insects and the early returners just didn't think staying out late was worth the effort.

In July I noted that there appeared to be two kinds of bat entering -- a small, black one and a larger, paler one -- and I decided that the black ones must have been juveniles. Now they are all large and pale. However, a few still missed their hole and fluttered about on the metal plate covering the cistern neck, before composing themselves and diving inside.

*****

FERNS AROUND MY TRAILER
With a few trees losing some of their leaves, the forest floor is a bit better lighted now and maybe that's why this week I've been paying special attention to ferns. Ferns are abundant here, especially on the near-vertical walls where roads and gullies cut through thick loess.

In the woods around me, these are the most common ferns, listed approximately from the most common to the least:

    Christmas Fern, POLYSTICHUM ACROSTICHOIDES
    Southern Shield-fern, THELYPTERIS KUNTHII
    Ebony Spleenwort, ASPLENIUM PLATYNEURON
    Resurrection Fern, POLYPODIUM POLYPODIOIDES
    Lowland Fragile-fern, CYSTOPTERIS PROTRUSA
    Torres' Fern, THELYPTERIS TORRESIANA
    Japanese Climbing-fern, LYGODIUM JAPONICUM
    Japanese Holly-fern, CYRTOMIUM FALCATUM
    Oblique Grapefern, BOTRYCHIUM DISSECTUM
    Sensitive Fern, ONOCLEA SENSIBILIS
    Broad Beech-fern, PHEGOPERIS HEXAGONOPTERA
    Northern Maidenhair-fern, ADIANTUM PEDATUM

There are other species on the plantation but these are those near my trailer. If you'd like to see what five of the most common or interesting of the species listed look like, here are some Web address with pictures:

The Christmas Fern and the Ebony Spleenwort would appear at the top of a similar list for my home area of western Kentucky. In other words, these two species are extremely common through much of eastern North America. The Southern Shield-fern is tropical and semi-tropical, however, not making it to Kentucky, but ranging south all the way to Venezuela and Brazil.

Resurrection Ferns form dense mats on the spreading lower branches of large oaks, the ones usually heavily festooned with Spanish Moss. Most of the time this fern looks like dried-up, crinkled leaves, but when it rains the fronds quickly fill out and turn from brown and green, thus "resurrecting."

In the old days, plantation owners vied with one another to see who could import the most exotic and interesting plants. The Japanese Climbing-fern and Japanese Holly-fern are from those days, having escaped cultivation. Now they reproduce with spores just like our native species, and compete with them. The Climbing-fern is a vine.

*****

MORNING GLORY PROMINENT
Last week I told you about the beautifully camouflaged caterpillar I'd found on a Black Oak leaf near my trailer, a picture of which I placed on the Web at http://www.backyardnature.net/metamorf.htm#c . Since I couldn't identify the caterpillar I invited readers to help me come up with its name. Newsletter subscriber Greg Scott in Wisconsin invited Phil Pellitteri, extension entomologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, to view the picture, and Phil has identified the caterpillar. It's SHIZURA IPOMOEAE, the larval stage of the moth known as the Morning Glory Prominent.

You can see a picture of this not-so-spectacular moth at http://www.npwrc.usgs.gov/resource/distr/lepid/moths/usa/756.htm The distribution map accompanying the moth's picture shows that though the species is found throughout the US, it is unreported from Adams County, Mississippi. Therefore I've reported it to Mississippi's "State Butterfly Coordinator," who also deals with moths. At http://www.npwrc.usgs.gov/resource/distr/lepid/bflyusa/coord.htm our coordinator is listed as Harry Pavulaan at hpavulaan@aol.com  

My Peterson Field Guide to The Insects says of Prominent caterpillars that they "are usually gregarious. When disturbed they often freeze with ends of the body elevated. Larvae of most species feed on trees and shrubs."

Thanks for the identification, Greg and Phil.

*****

SADDLEBACK CATERPILLAR
As if the Morning Glory Prominent were not enough, Friday morning I found one of the most gorgeous of all caterpillars on a piece of kindling in my woodpile. I already knew this species' name, however, because when I was a kid in Kentucky once I managed to get one down my shirt and into my armpit, and it felt like I'd been stung by a dozen wasps. I added a picture of this critter, which has a purplish-brown body with a purplish saddle shape on a green back, right below the Morning Glory Prominent's picture at http://www.backyardnature.net/metamorf.htm#c . If you look at it you'll see that it is covered with sharp spines. Those spines convey poison from glands at the spines' bases into a victim's flesh. More information about this species is found at http://www.ext.vt.edu/departments/entomology/factsheets/saddle.html

In a way, the Morning Glory Prominent and the Saddleback Caterpillar employ opposite strategies for survival. The Prominent makes itself "invisible" with camouflage, while the Saddleback seeks with its bold colors and pattern to warn the world that it is not to be fooled with