NATCHEZ NATURALIST NEWSLETTER:
November 18, 2001
LEONID METEOR SHOWER
Orion was sinking toward the western horizon, followed by his faithful hound, Canis Major, whose powerful chest was ornamented with the brightest of all stars, Sirius, the "Dog Star." Near Orion's upraised arm, high in the sky in my southern view, there were the Twins Castor and Pollux comprising the constellation Gemini, and at Pollux's belly-button there shined an ornament even more dazzling than Sirius, and that was the planet Jupiter. The night was so dark and so crystalline clear that with my binoculars I could easily see two of Jupiter's moons. Immediately before me hung the constellation Cancer with its smudge of tightly clustered stars, an asterism known as The Beehive, and then rising from the east and to my left, there came Leo the Lion, first the outstretched paws and then the mighty chest, this chest, too, decked with a jewel, the brilliant star Regulus.
In these moments of orientation I heard unseen deer stamping hoofs in the big field, while from the tall Pecan trees behind me there rained a regular shower of pecans and pecan parts into the dry leaves on the ground, and I suspected Flying Squirrels at work. The crazy calls of a pack of Coyotes suddenly erupted just west of me, but this lasted only about thirty seconds.
I took my time soaking up all this, for I knew there was show enough awaiting me. Within five seconds of the moment I'd set my foot outside the trailer a meteor had streaked directly overhead, skewering Pegasus right through the neck, and as I'd felt my way down the black path-tunnel through the woods, for an instant there had been a flash like someone taking a picture. This was going to be a spectacular shower.
In my field of view over the abandoned field meteors averaged coming about every ten seconds. Sometimes they were clustered with three or more visible at the same time, sometimes a whole minute passed with nothing. Most meteors were tiny and brief, perhaps a third left a glowing trail that persisted a second or so, and maybe every half hour there were fireballs that ignited like fireworks colored raspberry to metallic blue, and they left trails in the sky that persisted for a minute or so. In the binoculars I watched these luminous trails drift eastward with the high-elevation winds, the lower part of the trail, where the meteor had disappeared and where the atmosphere was thickest and more active, moving faster, so that eventually what began as a perfectly straight streak in the sky bent into something like a J.
Soon it became apparent that nearly all the meteors radiated from the constellation Leo. It was as if the great lion in his majestic journey across the sky emanated sparks. Of course this is why the shower bears Leo's name. It is a majestic working.
Jupiter with its elegant moons so clearly visible this morning averages being about 400 million miles away. I cannot really grasp what a million of anything is, so in my mind Jupiter simply swims in an unimaginably empty abyss too far away to relate to. Yet this distance is nothing compared to the distance of the next-brightest object in last night's sky, Sirius the Dog Star, which this morning stood not far from Jupiter. Sirius's distance from Earth is so great that light emanating from it takes 8.7 years to reach here.
Since a light-year bespeaks a distance of about 6,000,000,000,000 miles, Jupiter is only 0.00000145 of a light-year away. If my calculations are right, Jupiter averages only about 46 seconds away, traveling at the speed of light. Jupiter is 46 seconds. Sirius is 8.7 YEARS... Think of it. Meditate on it.
Yet, Sirius looks big to us mainly because it is so close. Betelgeuse, the bright star comprising Orion's right shoulder this morning, lies 300 light-years away. And there are many, many stars much farther away.
In fact, when I stepped into the field this morning and could see the constellation Andromeda a little to the north but otherwise right overhead, above my Pecan trees, there was a smudge plainly visible. This was the great Andromeda nebula, M31, and it was 1,500,000 light-years away...
This unthinkable distance is only possible because it lies outside our own galaxy. Our sun is just one of some 100,000,000,000 stars making up our own galaxy, which from the vicinity of M31 would appear as a tiny smudge in the sky. All the stars I saw this morning, except for those in M31, were members of our own galaxy, which is a little like a spiraling wheel. To see M31 I was looking through the clutter of our own galaxy, to see another galaxy, which was M31.
The first time I glimpsed the majesty in this arrangement, I no longer felt that any religion placing us humans at the center of the universe was appropriate. I lost all confidence in all religions, but at the same moment I gained by the same measure in the opposite direction an underpinning for an abiding spirituality. My awe in the Creator behind these workings only increases with every new discovery, every new return to a starry field.
However, here these flock visitations are something special. For, these are the first American Robins I have seen all year. Last spring I participated in a major migratory-birdcount lasting several months, during which time each Friday I counted every migratory bird I saw or heard. There was not a single American Robin among them. Nor have I seen one all summer. I'm really not sure why this is so. Though I haven't been in Natchez enough to know for sure, I suspect that American Robins are common there, at least during the summer.
These American Robins have profoundly split personalities. The sleek, nervous, gregarious birds in my Pecan trees are very different creatures from the round-chested, turf-hopping earthworm-pullers found in America's summery suburban lawns. During nesting time those summer birds defend lawn-and-hedge territories and fight epic battles with neighboring robins who venture too close to their claim. If you're lying in a lawn chair, an American Robin may fearlessly hop to within just a few feet of you, glaring at you as it pulls up earthworms.
But in the fall these birds become their opposites. They forsake their boundary fights and unite into the kinds of noisy, loose-knit flocks that now visit my Pecan trees. They grow skittish. This morning as they created a cacophony of busy chattering among themselves, when I snapped a small limb for firewood every bird escaped to other trees.
Their diet also changes. Their obsession for earthworms and other animals becomes an obsession for vegetarian fare. One study found that in the spring vegetable matter constitutes only 21% of their food, while during the fall it rises to 81%.
Sometimes I amuse myself with the thought that each year American Robins alternate between "extreme conservative" behavior, and "extreme liberal." In the summer each bird is the daring individualist defending his privately proclaimed plot of land, singing incessantly of home and family. They are true red-meat Republican birds. But then winter makes them all into shifty vegetarian communists who disdain personal property and spend their days flocking from one easy meal to the next. What this means to me is that Mother Nature finds that sometimes the right-wing approach works, other times the left-wing approach works. As is the case so often in nature, diveristy hand in hand with pragmatism equals survival.
Though in most of the US American Robins can always be found, they are migrators -- their Latin name is TURDUS MIGRATORIUS. During the summer they are distributed from northern Canada south to about here. Then during the winter their distribution shifts southward. Their northern boundary lies somewhat south of the US/Canada border, but their southern distribution extends as far as Guatemala. A summer robin in Natchez may become a winter robin in Quetzaltenango.
My bird fieldguide shows the American Robin's southern distribution line going right through the Natchez area. Maybe a local Newsletter reader will send me a mail saying whether Natchez lawns are graced with American Robins during our summers.
AMERICAN ROBINS, ROBINS & BLACKBIRDS
As I said, our American Robin is TURDUS MIGRITORIUS. England's Blackbird is TURDUS MERULA. "Turdus" is Latin for "thrush." In England there is indeed a bird called "Robin" but it is not closely related to either England's "Blackbird" or our American Robin -- it's not a Turdus. It simply has a reddish chest, and for America's early English settlers that was enough for our bird ro be called "Robin." Many a rainy day I have spent exiled in Germany, Belgium and other places yearning for wilderness, when the only active life around was a Blackbird/Amsel hopping in a soggy lawn while a real Robin sang hauntingly from beneath a dripping leaf.
In fact, our American Robin and England's Blackbird are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to birds in the genus Turdus. Here is the "Turdus/Robin section" of my own Life List of Identified Birds:
One of my books lists 64 Turdus species worldwide! Variations on the Turdus theme are wonderful to behold!
You can see our American Robin at my web page entitled "Why are Robins so Common in The Suburbs?" at http://www.backyardnature.net/ecorobin.htm
A picture of a European "Blackbird" is found at http://www.tljones.co.uk/blckbird.htm
A picture of a European "Robin" is found at http://www.rolyrobin.isfamous.com/
The term "beardgrass" is a general one more used by books than by real people. It's applied to a number of relatively tall, clump-making grasses of the genus ANDROPOGON. In most eastern North American farmlands the main beardgrass is Broomsedge, ANDROPOGON VIRGINICUS. The Andropogons we have here are similar to Broomsedge, but they are different species.
In Eastern North America beardgrasses mainly grow in abandoned fields. One comes to associate them with over-worked and abused soil, soil from which long ago the nutrients were lost through unwise cropping and soil erosion. Beardgrasses typically come to dominate a field in our area 3 or 4 years after the field is abandoned. Their extensive systems of fibrous roots stabilize the soil as clumps of beardgrasses completely take over the field, after frosts mantling the fields thickly with straw-colored stems. In 12 or more years the beardgrasses find themselves being shaded out as woody plants move in. Finally the beardgrasses disappear, having served their ecological purpose of stabilizing and rehabilitating the soil. They do their work, then graciously bow from the scene, leaving the stage to woody plants -- in our case mainly blackberry brambles and Sweetgum and Pecan trees. Pecan trees because our squirrels plant pecan caches all over the place, including my rain gutters.
One of our beardgrasses is Bushy Beardgrass, ANDROPOGON GLOMERATUS, with great, shaggy, sun-catching, feathery manes. The other is Little Bluestem, ANDROPOGON SCOPARIUS, with heads a bit less fuzzy. Bushy Beardgrass is mainly a tropical and subtropical species, distributed all the way into Central America. Little Bluestem was once one of the main grasses of the vast American prairies, but now it has adapted itself to old, run-down fields. Both of our species are larger than Broomsedge, growing 5 feet high or more (1.5 meters). Though the pictures hardly do justice to the spectacular way these species these days reradiate their snatched sunlight so beautifully, you can see a picture of Bushy Beardgrass at http://www.csdl.tamu.edu/FLORA/LCP/LCP40.JPG and a picture of Little Bluestem at http://www.hort.usu.edu/natives/grasses/scoparius.htm
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