from the woods near Natchez, Mississippi, USA
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 the winter.
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's skin.
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 day.
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 beauty.
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.