from the woods near Natchez, Mississippi, USA
December 30, 2001
THE BIRDS OF CHRISTMAS
This week my early spring has gone into suspended animation. On most mornings ice formed in my rainwater buckets and on Tuesday, Christmas morning, it was, 26° (-3°C). This did not keep me from my favorite Christmas tradition, taking a birdwalk.
Among many birders the "Christmas Birdcount" is a cherished tradition, and data from many years of these counts provide a yearly snapshot of how winter- resident species are doing all across North America. I am not aware of anyone in this area conducting these counts, nor did I make my own. Walking in the woods here during hunting season is dangerous. You can see a wonderful Web site providing a digest of reports from past Christmas birdcounts at http://www.mbr-pwrc.usgs.gov/cbc/cbcnew.html
By the way, the selling of hunting rights provides this plantation's main income and I have no say at all in the matter.
Christmas morning here was not only cold but also overcast and somber, and the birds were much more subdued than usual. I followed a route our paying hunters and even the poachers generally avoid. Below I'm listing the species spotted, in the order seen. If you know these birds, there is a kind of music in the order in which they appear. In the mind's eye the melody speaks of passing through the forest, across a field, along the field's edge...
The star of the list is certainly the Cooper's Hawk, which has appeared here only a handful of times. The others are precisely what I would have guessed might be seen.
But, it is good to know who is where in your neighborhood, and for these neighbors to be where you expect them when you visit.
BRIGHT ORANGE MILLIPEDES
Friday I was looking for slime molds to scan for my nature-study site when under a rotting log I discovered two pretty, bright-orange millipedes, members of the Platydesmida order, and species of the genus BRACHYCYBE. Being millipedes and not centipedes, I can guess that they are mostly vegetarian and probably eat fungus and decaying plant tissue. You can see my scanning of this attractive species, which turned out quite nice, at http://www.backyardnature.net/2arthrop.htm
By the way, my main souvenir of that discovery is a new collection of itching fire-ant bites. Fire ants had moved into the millipedes' rotting log after the recent rains. Similarly, during my Christmas birdwalk as I watched the Red-tailed Hawk circle over the hay field I absentmindedly sat on a bale of hay, and of course that bale also was saturated with fire ants, which duly swarmed all over me bestowing their own Christmas tidings.
Nowadays my favorite moment in the garden is during my break when for a few minutes I sit in the sunshine and look around. Usually a certain butterfly is in the same area, doing the same thing. It's the Red Admiral, VANESSA ATALANTA, one of the toughest, most adaptable and widespread of all butterfly species. In fact it is found worldwide in north temperate regions. In North America it is distributed from central Canada into Mexico.
Each wing of this pretty creature bears a red band across it. As the butterfly perches, occasionally it folds its wings partly or entirely together, and if you are a butterfly-eating predator looking at it from above the red bands look just like red lips of a big mouth saying "just come a little closer and I will eat YOU... "
The Red Admiral visiting me these sunny but chilly mid-days is obviously an old warrior, for its wings are tattered around the edges and one wing bears a neat V-shaped gash just the size of a Flycatcher's beak. Also its red bands aren't really red, but now faded to orange.
Nonetheless his flits are jaunty and the instant he lights on a stem or curled leaf he orients himself squarely against the incoming sunlight, not willing to waste a photon of energy.
Sometimes I just chuckle, and feel like some kind of brother to this old-man butterfly.
There's a fine page on the Web with lots of information and pictures showing the Red Admiral's entire life cycle at http://www3.pei.sympatico.ca/~david.fraser/vatalant.htm