NATCHEZ NATURALIST NEWSLETTER:
November 11, 2001
SPARROW ANNOUNCES WINTER (WHITE-THROATED)
Though this week's brilliant sunlight and balmy temperatures have suggested September more
than November, Tuesday afternoon as I was hand-washing my clothes in a bucket I heard a
certain high-pitched, delicately-tremulous song from a nearby clump of bushes that spoke
very clearly of winter. It was the call of the White-throated Sparrow, ZONOTRICHIA
ALBICOLLIS. During summer members of this species rear their families in Canada and New
England, but in fall they migrate south into the southern third of the US and into
northern Mexico. Here, when you hear or see a White-throated Sparrow, you simply know that
winter is at hand.
If you don't know this species you should look at a very nice picture of one at http://www.naturesound.com/birds/pages/whtthrt.html
If you have "RealAudio" on your computer you can hear its song at http://www.naturesound.com/birds/audio/whtthrt.ram
Books typically claim that the call seems to say "Old Peabody, Sam, Peabody,
Peabody, Peabody" but I hope that expecting such a thing doesn't detract from your
hearing the sound's ethereal quality.
My bird fieldguide illustrates about 20 sparrow species for North America north of Mexico,
and the plumage of nearly every species is a variation on a brown-and-white theme. Many
backyard naturalists think of sparrows as mousy little beings not worth looking at, and
write them off as "LBJs," or "Little Brown Jobs." In fact sparrows are
among our most interesting birds (and House Sparrows or English Sparrows are introduced
weaver finches, not native American sparrows). Some sparrow species are rare and found
only in specific habitats, rather like orchids. For instance, during the winter the
Lincoln's Sparrow sticks pretty exclusively to Laurel Hill's brush piles and wood margins.
The male White-throated Sparrow is one of the prettiest of all sparrows. In spring and
summer he wears a white throat-patch, plus the top of his head is boldly marked with
handsome, alternating black and white stripes and, amazingly, there's a conspicuous
splotch of yellow between his eyes and his beak. White-throated Sparrows are abundant in
the countryside here, though much less common in town.
ARRIVAL OF FALL MIGRANT BIRDS
It's clear that fall migration has caused a major revolution here among the birds. You may
not even notice it unless you look with binoculars and discover that what you assume to be
the usual summery titmice, chickadees and wrens are instead species found here only during
Eastern Phoebes are absent here during the summer but now throughout the day I hear one
calling from the Pecan Trees its comically hoarse "FEE-be, FEE-be," and
sometimes I spot this plain-looking gray bird wagging its tail -- something it does and no
one knows why. Phoebes are insect eaters and often they dart from their perch to snap up a
winged creature, then fly back to the same perch to eat their catch.
Hermit Thrushes likewise are winter birds here and all week one has been flying around
making it's winter call, a single-note, very monotonous sort of nasal "meep."
However, for about 15 seconds on Friday morning it inexplicably broke into its spring
call, one of the prettiest of our birdcalls, a single high flute-like note followed by a
rapid series of rising and falling notes, a sort of fluty gurgling. If your computer can
deal with audio files in the WAV format you can hear a Hermit Thrush at http://birds.cornell.edu/bow/HERTHR/herthr.wav
All of our woodpeckers are permanent residents except one: The Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
migrates like the above birds, living mostly in Canada and the northern US during the
summer, down here in the winter. A pair has been chasing one another through my Pecan
trees as if it were spring and their hormones were getting the best of them.
Most of our warbler species spend summer here, then go to Latin America for their winter.
However, one species, the Yellow-rumped Warbler (called Myrtle Warbler in older
fieldguides) spends its summers in Canada and New England, and winters here. Now it's
wearing its drab, gray winter plumage but sometimes when it flits away it unexpectedly
flashes its yellow rump.
Even the Dark-eyed Juncos, once called Slate-colored Juncos and sometimes known as
Snowbirds, have arrived. This species hops about on the ground and when they fly away they
flash conspicuously white outer tail-feathers. If you're a hawk attacking them, maybe the
white tail-feathers will distract you and your talons will end up grasping tail-feathers
while the drabber, business part of the bird escapes.
Even a small flock of Brown-headed Cowbirds has discovered the pleasure of watching the
sun rise from the top of the big Pecan I look into as I prepare my campfire breakfast each
morning. Cowbirds remain in Mississippi year round, but they only come in flocks around my
camp in the winter. On the one hand they are a bit disagreeable because they are nest
parasites -- they lay eggs in the nests of other bird species, and then the parents of
those species raise young cowbirds, often to the detriment of the parents' actual
offspring. Cowbird nest-parasitism is very damaging to local small songbird populations.
On the other hand, since Brown-headed Cowbirds make no nests of their own and so have
plenty of time to do other things they are extremely social beings. In these morning
gatherings above me I watch them gesturing and displaying to one another in many subtle
and not-subtle ways, almost as expressively as flocks of parrots in the rainforest.
It is good to see these species who have been away all summer, but I regret that their
main message is that "it's going to get colder... "
There's an old field growing up in broomsedge and blackberry brambles edging against my
forest only about a stone's throw from my camp. My footpath leads directly there from my
outside kitchen so in the mornings as I'm cooking breakfast I can look down the trail and
see a small part of the field, as through a tunnel in the woods. A small Sweetgum tree in
the middle of the field rises right in my field of vision and on Saturday morning I
noticed how it was shining with dew in the brilliant sunlight slanting in from the east,
and also how this low-slanting sunlight suffused the very humid morning air with a
vibrant, golden hue. I trained my binoculars down my tunnel just for the pleasure of
beholding the glistening tree immersed in gold-buzz haze.
Several birds in the Sweetgum were making a commotion -- a Brown Thrasher, a Cardinal and
several Yellow-rumped Warblers. They flitted from branch to branch, sometimes crashing
through the leaves. They were "dew bathing." They were wetting themselves on the
Sweetgum's star-shaped, dew-soaked leaves. Sometimes the birds would pause on a limb,
ruffle their feathers and preen, and then plunge back into the wet leaves. Once they'd had
enough they'd fly away, then on some high perch bask and dry in the sunlight. The Brown
Thrasher chose the very tip-top of the Sweetgum and sat there for the longest time with
his rich reddish-brown plumage glowing amidst the dazzle.
Though on a typical day I see no one and say not a word, on Friday at noon as I worked in
the garden I noticed a woman sitting at the base of a nearby Pecan tree having a snack. It
was Rebecca, who'd come along to pick up pecans while her friend Master did some yardwork
for the plantation. I went over to say hello. Moving like a young girl but with a face
nearly as old as mine, she was tall and lanky and she rolled her thick white socks around
her ankles. She smiled wonderfully and her black skin glistened in the mid-day light.
As Rebecca and Master had been driving into the plantation she'd spotted some wild grapes
along the road, asked Master to stop, and she'd plucked several bunches, telling Master
and now me that her mother had always had a "deep passion" for them, so now she
couldn't just pass up such pretty clusters herself. She offered me some and they were
good, with a sort of bittersweet-musty tang, and bearing tiny, soft seeds which I chose to
chew and swallow though Rebecca spit them out.
The grape bunches were about the size of store-bought clusters, but the grapes themselves
were much more numerous and not much larger than BBs, and at this season they were
wrinkled and black. Their flesh was purple, however, and in the sun it glistened like
Rebecca called them Wild Grapes, but I suppose she calls all our grapes that, including
the Muscadines, which are much larger and mature earlier. About half a dozen species of
wild grape grow at Laurel Hill, plus there are other things that are almost grapes. The
books and various Web pages refer to Rebecca's grapes as Frost Grapes, Fox Grapes,
Riverside Grapes, and other names, but I prefer Frost Grapes, for I've been testing them
now and again the last few weeks, but only after last week's frost have they become good
to eat. The specialists seem undecided on Frost Grape's proper Latin name, calling it
either VITIS VULPINA or VITIS RIPARIA. I think the growing consensus is that they are
intergrading forms of the same thing.
Whatever the taxonomic situation, it did not keep Rebecca and me from being surprised by
just how good they taste when you're lolling at the base of an old Pecan tree on a sunny
Animals seem to fall into routines that last for varying lengths of time. Sometimes every
morning for maybe a couple of weeks I'll see a certain deer, a rabbit, some Wild Turkey or
something else, and then abruptly they'll disappear completely, apparently establishing a
similar routine someplace else. Right now immediately after each dusk a certain armadillo
comes rustling through the dry leaves around my trailer, noisily scrapes between some
corrugated tin sheets on one side of my trailer, and in the dust beneath my trailer grunts
and digs around for a few minutes before moving on. He's like clockwork and we'll see how
long this goes on. Before him a certain Opossum was exploring my woodpile at a certain
time each night, but he's gone now.
In my home area of Kentucky you can find lots of delicious persimmons after the recent
heavy frosts. Many have been the falls when I picked buckets of them for the making of
persimmon bread. Lately I've been seeing persimmon seeds in raccoon poop, despite the fact
that at Laurel Hill Persimmon trees are fairly rare. In fact, I don't know where a single
tree is right now so that I could go gathering them, though I recall seeing them someplace
in years past. But those raccoons know and their memories, or maybe their noses, are
better than mine.
THE FERN PROTHALLUS
This week I've added a picture of a fern prothallus to my nature-study page dealing with
ferns -- at http://www.backyardnature.net/ferns.htm
I consider that a coup, since finding fern prothalli in the wild is hard. Here's
what a prothallus is all about:
Ferns reproduce by spores, not seeds. When a fern spore germinates, a fern does NOT
result. Instead, you get a prothallus, which is like a tiny, green heart lying on the
ground. Tiny means maybe 1/8 of an inch across. This prothallus has male and female parts.
Sperm from the male part swim through water to fertilize an egg in the female part, the
resulting zygote then develops into an embryo, and that embryo develops into a fern frond,
which bears spores, and the life cycle begins all over again. Ideally sperm from one
prothallus fertilizes an egg on another prothallus.
Let that sink in: In a fern's life cycle, there are actually two independent,
self-supporting plant-forms alternating with one another. One plant-form is the tiny
prothallus, and the other is the thing we think of as the fern itself. Moreover, the
prothallus is actually the most complex member, since it is responsible for sex -- the
mingling of genetic material for the next generation.
If this reproduction strategy were adopted by humans, human females would give birth not
to human babies but rather to something completely different, perhaps something like a
tadpole. Then this tadpole would live its own independent life and upon its maturity it
would participate in a sexual encounter. Then a human baby would sprout from the tadpole,
the baby would grow up and at maturity give birth to another tadpole-thing, thus starting
the cycle over...
The reason for this amazing "alteration of generations," as botanists call it,
is that ferns are very primitive beings. They were among the first land plants to evolve
and as such they share a problem with amphibians, which were the first vertebrate animals
to evolve on dry land.
The problem these two very different but very primitive organism-types have in common is
that the male sperm must travel through water, the way it did for the ferns' and
amphibians' immediate ancestors, who lived in the sea. In other words, both ferns and
amphibians evolved so early in the history of life on earth that when they appeared nature
hadn't "figured out" a way for them to have sexual reproduction outside of
water. Consequently, even today frogs and other amphibians must return to water to mate,
and similarly fern prothalli must be wet for fertilization to take place. A tiny
prothallus growing flush with the ground in a shaded place is more likely to have a film
of moisture on its underside, where the sexual organs are located, than is a regular fern
frond, which must reach into the dry air during its search for sunlight.
Finding these prothalli has set my mind to reflecting all week on nature's general
blossoming toward ever greater sophistication, ever greater diversity, and ever greater
At least on Earth, our human ability to reflect on these beauties and to be struck with
awe as we behold what is around us is, in my opinion, the crowning achievement of
life-on-Earth's irrepressible evolution toward ever greater sophistication.