NATCHEZ NATURALIST
NEWSLETTER:
from the woods near Natchez, Mississippi, USA

February 17, 2002

FROST LOOKING
Earlier this week we had some mornings when every grassblade and every shrub and sapling was white with frost. At dawn before the sun had fully risen I was jogging on Lower Woodville Road, passing by a pasture with about twenty cattle, including several newborns. The pasture grass and trees around the pasture shimmered silver-white and crystalline, and the cattle were black silhouettes. Slow-billowing steam rose from a pond just behind the pasture and other clouds of steam puffed from the cattle's' nostrils. I ran along pat-pat-pat feeling hot, wet and rosy inside, wondering how those cows felt, wondering what they were thinking about and what their world felt like to them at that very moment.

During breakfast next to the campfire my tunnel-like view down the path through the woods to the overgrown field between here and the hunters' camp showed a field like an essay in hoarfrost and sunlight, and I went there to walk in it. I looked closely at things, with my hand lens saw perfect crystals encrusting brown goldenrod stems, I smelled the frost and listened closely as frost-rimed grassblades brushed my shoes, and I felt what it's like when white crystals were sprinkled at the corners of my eyes and meltwater ran down my cheeks. Most beautiful were the leafless Sweetgum saplings, their stiff, sunlight-exploding limbs white-lacy against obsidian-black forest beyond.

The German philosopher Frederich Nietzche said a lot of unpleasant and indigestible things during his life, yet he managed to pen one thought that has stayed with me. And that is, more or less, that "most people don't see something until it has a name" -- "Wie die Menschen gew├Ânlich sind, macht ihnen erst der Name ein Ding ├╝berhaupt sichtbar."

I think it's true that all of us tend to overlook and underestimate commonplace things unless some artist, visionary or insane person draws our attention to them. Therefore, let's say that this week has been a good one for "frost looking."

So, when you go walking just after dawn when there's sunlight but the frost isn't melting yet, consider consciously and intentionally "frost looking." "Looking" not only with my eyes, but with all your senses, making mental notes about everything, as if you were to return home and find someone really needing a report about the nature of your frost on that very morning.

"Frost looking." If this name encourages anyone out there to see frost more clearly than ever before, I should like to have a full report... I'm at jim@earthfoot.org

*****

SAPSUCKER STORY
My cousin Miles in Kentucky writes that he took a walk in the woods and saw "...where the woodpeckers had pecked holes in the trees behind Margaret's house. The sap was really coming out fast and it was sweet. I stuck my tongue to the tree. Everything is coming into bud around here, but it is really too early." (Do you notice family resemblances here... ?)

I'll bet that Miles's woodpecker holes were drilled by Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, SPHYRAPICUS VARIUS. This is one of the few species of woodpeckers who migrate, and is found both here and in Kentucky only during the winter. One is methodically tapping on a Pecan tree above my trailer as I type this. Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers are handsome birds, mostly black and white, with bold, white streaks on their wings, and the male has flashes of red on his head. You can see one at http://www.nps.gov/fiis/sftour/sapsucker.jpg  

I'll never forget my first meeting with this bird. I was in my teens and during about this time of year I was wandering a woods not far from the one Miles was visiting. I spotted a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker with his bill in one of his "wells" on the black trunk of a Sugar Maple so I drew up my binoculars and took a good look. I got pretty close, since he didn't seem at all concerned about me. I watched him sipping sap so long that my arms began aching. However, before I brought down my binoculars I saw something so surprising that the image remains fresh in my mind today.

That bird rose on tip-toe, poked his rear end high in the air, cocked his stiff, black tail skyward, and without further ceremony issued a sparklingly clear stream of liquid just as if someone inside him had turned on a hose. That's what comes from sucking so much sap.

Bird urine usually is excreted as white paste composed of tiny solid nodules of insoluble uric acid. Next time you see a bird-dropping, notice the white part, like whipped cream on chocolate pudding. The white part is uric acid -- bird pee. Anyway, obviously during sap sucking season sapsuckers suck such sap that sometimes they must relieve the pressure by depositing something other than white paste.

If you find holes drilled in orderly rows on a tree trunk, those are sapsucker holes. Other woodpeckers drill less methodically. Sapsucker holes are deep and if there are many of them they can hurt a tree by inviting entry of disease organisms. However a moderate number of holes won't hurt. Also, sapsuckers aren't the only ones to benefit from the holes they drill. At least 32 North American bird species have been seen partaking of sap bleeding from tree injuries. Also, a tree's bleeding sap attracts untold numbers of insects, which in turn provide snacks for insectivorous birds. In short, sapsuckers are responsible for a whole corner of every forest's "web of life."

By the way, Miles and I grew up calling woodpeckers "peckerwoods."

****

TOADSHADE/ TRILLIUM
Nearly a month ago Trillium leaves emerged from the forest floor's leafcover. Trilliums are native wildflowers with 3-part symmetry. Atop a slender stem there arise 3 broad leaves, 3 sepals, 3 petals and 3 stamens surrounding an ovary.

At first the blossom is contained inside a green flower-bud fixed where the 3 leaves came together atop the stem. I've been watching those buds for about 2 weeks, for I regarded the day of the first Trillium flower-bud burst as a day worth celebrating.

So, on Wednesday I celebrated by lying next to the first flowering trillium, just looking at it for a long time, admiring how sunlight glowed in its deep maroon petals. You can see this wonderful plant at http://rareplants.co.uk/trillium/sessile.jpg  

POSTSCRIPT: In 2004 I learn that this species is probably the Fetid Trillium, Trillium foetidissimum, a species endemic to only that part of Louisiana east of the Mississippi River and ten southern counties in Mississippi. It was recognized as a species in 1975. I am told that Trillium sessile, the Toadshade, does not exist in Mississipi.

There are several species of Trillium -- Radford's "Flora of the Carolinas" lists 10 species for there.  I think but I am not absolutely certain that our species is what the books call "Toadshade," TRILLIUM SESSILE.

I'm unsure because there is no good wildflower book for our area. Timme's "Wildflowers of Mississippi" is inadequate because if covers only a fraction of our wildflowers, and is very biased toward northeastern Mississippi. If this plant were in Kentucky I'd know that it is Trillium sessile, but maybe there's a very similar species here I don't know about.

Well, the naturalist in me needs to be sure about the species name, but in the end I know that all names for everything are false and misleading. It is really enough that this week the trilliums blossomed, and that they and I are together during this spring.

*****

"JAPANESE MAGNOLIAS" FLOWERING
Kathy Moody the plantation manager tells me that in town the "Japanese Magnolias" are flowering. Neither I nor my books have heard of "Japanese Magnolias" but I guess she is referring to what the books usually call "Saucer Magnolias," and what my family in Kentucky calls "Tulip Trees," MAGNOLIA X SOULANGANA. It's a pretty street tree typically putting on saucer-size flowers before it has leaves, then usually a late frost comes leaving the blossoms pitiful-lookingly limp and brown. Its pink and white, pre-frost flowers are shown at http://www.msue.msu.edu/msue/imp/mod03/visuals/magsoa3h.jpg

We have Saucer Magnolias here on the plantation but their flowers are still budded up. This is typical, for on those rare occasions when I visit Natchez it has been clear that spring comes much earlier there, though the town lies only 12 miles away. I suppose it is a simple matter of during the night the streets and brick buildings re-radiating heat they have soaked up during the day. Kathy says there are lots of things flowering there. Perhaps Azaleas, too, and people's garden flowers.

Here in the forest it's a different world.

*****

THE GREAT BACKYARD BIRD COUNT
On February 15-18 -- Friday through Monday -- the Audubon Society and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology are sponsoring the Great Backyard Bird Count. All of us who can identify birds are invited to make a census in our backyards and submit the information on the Web. The homepage for the project is at http://www.birdsource.org/gbbc/toc_page.html  

If you want to participate, once you are at the project homepage, click on "Preview Your Checklist" and go to http://www.birdsource.org/gbbc/checklistmap.html , where you can click on your state or Canadian province, and go to the data submission page.

This is a good project that keeps tabs on the rise and fall of our backyard bird populations. Of course, to do a really good job you should have binoculars and a field guide. Can you distinguish between a Purple Finch, a House Finch and a Goldfinch? How about between a Downy Woodpecker and a Hairy Woodpecker? The site accepts data even from observers who describe themselves as less-than-expert.

If you like the idea of participating in such censuses (there will be others later) but you feel uncertain about your ability to make good identifications, I hope that this spring you will acquire binoculars and a good field guide, and begin sharpening your skills. You can teach yourself to be an expert just like I did.

Here's my sitting-next-to-the-campfire breakfast list from this morning. Nothing spectacular, except perhaps for the small flock of vultures who had overnighted near my trailer, and once the sun had warmed things up a bit rose heavily as a flock and drifted in unsteady circles toward the south.

Cardinal (3)
Chickadee, Carolina (4)
Kinglet, Ruby-crowned (1)
Phoebe, Eastern (1)
Sapsucker, Yellow-bellied (2)
Thrush, Hermit (1)
Vulture, Turkey (6)
Warbler, Yellow-rumped (6)
Woodpecker, Red-bellied (2)
Wren, Carolina (2)