from the woods near Natchez, Mississippi, USA
December 9, 2001
CEDAR WAXWINGS AT DAWN
Tuesday morning as I prepared my campfire breakfast the season's first flock of Cedar Waxwings glided into the top of the big Pecan tree above my camp. Even without binoculars I knew they were waxwings because their flock was so compact and the flight of each bird was so perfectly synchronized with all the others. Flocks of American Robins and Starlings are much looser -- informal you could say. But these little Cedar Waxwings were like petite soldiers positioning themselves in the Pecan with a focused, almost mechanical seriousness.
"Mechanical" is also a word coming to mind when viewing the birds with binoculars. Each buff-colored, jauntily crested adult bird wears a narrow, black mask with a neat, white border. There's a dainty dab of red at each wingtip and a dapper yellow band across each tail's tip. The prim little bird looks as if it's been concocted by a skilled German craftsman -- almost too composed, contrived, sleek and elegant to be real. You can see what I mean, and hear waxwing calls, at http://birds.cornell.edu/BOW/CEDWAX/
Tuesday morning about 120 waxwings adorned my big Pecan's topmost branches. At first they perched silently and unmoving about a foot apart, each bird positioned so that dawn's low-slanting sunlight struck its broad chest. Waxwings, while small, possess rounded chests, and now in the morning sunlight 120 little chests made soft, oval glowings within the big Pecan's black reticulation of naked branches.
I admired by guests awhile, then returned to tending my fire. In twenty minutes I scanned them again with my binoculars and now it was a different scene, for every bird had broken into a frenzy of feather-preening and stretching. I was glad to see that they had made themselves at home.
Except for those observed during my recent backpacking trip in the Smokeys, the last Cedar Waxwings I had seen before Tuesday were those here late last spring when they were among the last winter residents to leave for their summer breeding grounds up North. At that time they were obviously loath to abandon our cherry trees. Early each morning they would warm themselves as the sun rose, quietly perched in the top of a certain tall Baldcypress near the orchard. Then suddenly the entire flock would descend into a cherry tree en masse, and every bird would energetically gorge itself. Sometimes it appeared that the cherry tree was waving its arms in amazement, such was the bustle within its boughs.
During summers Cedar Waxwings are found in Canada and much of the northern US, as far south as the higher elevations of the southern Appalachians. In the winter they shift southward, as far south as Panama, but their northern distribution still includes part of New England and Montana.
It is worth thinking about the fact that around my camp there are several trees as tall as the Pecan above my trailer, yet the waxwings chose to gather right above me. I wonder if the reason they chose that particular tree was simply because they were curious about me.
Once in Guatemala's Quetzal Reserve near Purulhá I spent a whole day scrambling across a very steep, cloudforest-choked slope looking for Resplendent Quetzals, a very rare bird, and one of the most beautiful in the world. Though I went into the most isolated parts of the reserve, by day's end I'd seen no quetzals. At dusk, as I was walking along the busy paved road adjoining the reserve, dodging huge, extremely loud, black-smoke-belching diesel trucks chugging over the ridge, I saw my quetzals. They appeared to have gravitated to the loudest, most busy part of the whole region.
In the same way, Barred Owls seem to concentrate around my camp, hooting all through the night and sometimes as I jog at dawn one flies on before me, waiting for me to catch up with it. And the Carolina Wrens in my outside kitchen could certainly find less smoky, noisy corners in the forest in which to hang out, but year after year they choose my kitchen as their home base.
Of course, I can't prove that some birds are curios. I could come up with other explanations for this behavior. However, in everyday life living among the local birds, I find myself accepting that some of them certainly are.
EASTERN WOODRAT IN THE TOILET
My toilet is a simple outside affair, the walls of which after three years I've so far neglected to complete. Therefore my toilet is a small wooden platform over a hole, and above there's a small tin roof for rainy days, and I can look all around during my visits.
For a couple of weeks I've noticed that sticks and leaves have been making their way into the hole and on Tuesday I found the hole entirely filled. Using bamboo stems like giant chopsticks I began emptying the material. First out ran an Eastern Chipmunk, whom I didn't suspect of being responsible for the mess. Then when I got to the bottom out ran the true perpetrator, an Eastern Woodrat, NEOTOMA FLORIDANA.
Now, Woodrats are very different from "house rats," also called Norway Rats. House Rats are introduced species and probably my place is a bit too "natural" for their tastes. In contrast, woodrats are native American species who prefer the wild and semi-wild. Several woodrat species occur in the western US, where they are more often referred to as "packrats" or "traderats." These are the rats who in old TV Westerns were always "trading" acorns for Gabby's false teeth left overnight on the bedside table.
When my Tuesday woodrat escaped from the toilet it instantly took to the trees and ran along branches from one limb to another as nimbly as any squirrel. It paused on a certain branch, affording me a perfect view.
House Rats are entirely grayish brown, have small ears, small, squinty eyes, and naked, scaly tails. My Eastern Woodrat had a white belly and feet, prominent ears and eyes, and its tail was a bit hairy. With the larger ears and eyes their faces look distinctly less "ratty" than "squirrely." House Rats look a bit sneaky and insidious, but woodrats, with their large, rounded ears, look a bit friendly, even goofy.
On the same day this happened in my toilet, on the gravel road to the plantation center I found a second Eastern Woodrat that had been squashed by a car -- the first such sighting I've made in the three or so years I've been at Laurel Hill. The next day for the first time I spotted a woodrat in the rafters of our tool shed. This causes me to think that right now something monumental is going on in Eastern Woodrat society. Woodrats are nocturnal, however, so I doubt that I'll discover what it is.
You can see this critter and read a good bit more about it at http://www.nsrl.ttu.edu/tmot1/neotflor.htm
FIRE ANTS AFTER THE RAIN
As reported in the September 9 Newsletter, fire ants can't handle wet soil. After last week's deluges, this week many fire ant colonies have shifted to higher ground, and some have moved into relatively dry, dead, crumbly tree stems and trunks, in which they have constructed tunnels and chambers just as they do in the soil. Thus twice this week while in the woods I have brushed against decaying stumps and snags with the result that hundreds or thousands of fire ants fell upon me, and then each ant began doing its best to inject its venom into my skin. On each occasion I had to undress completely and return home naked, once through blackberry brambles nearly as bad as the ants. It takes too long to pick each attacking ant from such ant-dusted clothing. It's best to just hang the clothing someplace and let the ants wander off after they've exhausted their biting impulses.
Several of this Newsletter's subscribers have Australian email addresses, and I know that recently fire ants were discovered becoming established in that country. I am sorry to say that if right now you in Australia could feel how my skin itches, and see the hundreds of white pustules erupted on my skin, you would glimpse your own future. I don't think you will have much luck stopping these ants' advancement across your land.
Not only are the narcissi blossoming but also the Forsythias, FORSYTHIA x INTERMEDIA. You can see this horticultural species at http://www.hort.net/gallery/view/ole/forin/ This blossoming is especially peculiar since some of the bushes retain most of their leaves.
PAPER-WHITE NARCISSUS AND BEYOND
The Narcissi reported last week to be flowering here are the "Paper-whites," NARCISSUS TAZETTA var. PAPYRACEUS. It took a while to figure that out, for this narcissus business is a bit complex.
As a kid in Kentucky my concepts were simple. The spring-blossoming yellow-flowered lily-like plants around our house were "Easter Flowers," which some fancy folks called "daffodils," and sometimes they were referred to as "jonquils," though no one knew why, and no one spoke at all of "narcissi." Now I know that hundreds of distinct "Easter-Flower-like things" exist. They all belong to the genus Narcissus, so they are all, technically, narcissi. "Jonquils" are something different from our "Easter Flowers," having smaller yellow flowers. Our oldtime "Easter Flowers" were properly to be called "daffodils," and more specifically they were "Large-cupped Daffodils." Well, the situation is actually even much more complex and interesting than that.
My "Bailey's Manual of Cultivated Plants" lists eleven species of Narcissus grown horticulturally. From each of these species, several to many and even very many varieties and forms have been developed, and each year the plant breeders come up with new, ever-more-spectacular ones.
The "Paper-whites" blossoming here now are known as a tough, old-time variety, one of the many "small-cupped narcissi." It is favored for forcing indoors. That is, after a proper cold treatment, if you keep the potted bulbs indoors and warm, soon they'll blossom and perfume your house in mid winter. This is clearly what has happened here, but outside: We had a spot of cold weather, now this long series of warm days has "forced" the bulbs to blossom in November and December.
You can read about forcing "Paper-whites" at http://www.bachmans.com/gardening/gt_tipsheets/fall/narcissus.cfm Also, at a site in the Netherlands you can see a large page displaying some of the many popular narcissi types. Use your "search tool" to find my Paper-whites by searching for the words "paper whites" on this large, slow-loading page. The site is at http://www.flowerbulbs.nl/narcissus.html
With leaves now fallen from many trees this is a good time to be noticing the world of galls. I've been searching for them to scan and add to my nature-study site. You may be interested in reading about the life histories of the insects causing three of our most common galls, the Hackberry Petiole Gall, the Dogwood Club Galls and the Horned Oak Gall, at http://www.backyardnature.net/galls.htm
In my newsletter of November 25 I told you about our Ginkgo trees. Anyone in North America wanting some Ginkgo seeds can have them by sending me a self-addressed and stamped envelope at:
1054-B Lower Woodville Road
Natchez, MS 39120
I'll fill the envelope with as many seeds as the stamps will oblige. The seeds are about 3/4 of an inch long and rounded. Be forewarned that though these trees are beautiful and scientifically very interesting, if a female tree develops and there is a male nearby, you may eventually find yourself presented with a yearly crop of very messy, smelly fruits.