from the woods near Natchez, Mississippi, USA
March 17, 2002
This week has brought some of the most perfect days imaginable -- up around 80° (27°C), fresh breezes smelling soft and perfumed, sunlight that didn't burn, and few mosquitoes until dusk. On Thursday afternoon I just had to abandon my work and sneak up to the pond near the gate.
I say "sneak" because I wanted to see what kinds of turtles were basking there, and if you don't sneak up on them, those turtles will plop into the water as soon as they glimpse you. This time I approached them crouching through thick bamboo, inch by inch... but they still plopped before I could see them. However, the day was so pleasant that I decided to just sit at the water's edge.
Before long heads began poking above the water's surface, and eventually big critters with blackish shells and spraddled legs began pulling themselves onto shore.
Identification of pond turtles can be pretty hard. In books the various species look easy to distinguish because their shells bear all kinds of characteristic designs and colors. However, in the field those shells typically are mantled with mud and/or algae.
Nonetheless, I could see that these were Red-eared Turtles, CHRYSEMYS SCRIPTA ELEGANS, which are relatively easy to identify because they bear red splotches on their heads where you'd expect ears to appear. These are the same species commonly sold in pet stores. As one book says, "Millions are sold, but few reach adulthood." You can see a nice head-picture showing a Red-eared at www.valleylandfund.com/2000winners/images/4a1.jpg
I sat there until 18 Red-eareds lined up along shore beside me (Sitting still, I was invisible... ). Red-eared young eat water insects, snails, tadpoles and the like but larger ones are mainly vegetarian. Probably digestion in the turtles' intestines proceeds faster when sunlight's warmth helps it along.
As I sat there basking with the turtles I tried to imagine how pleasant it must be when a turtle emerges from chilly water, then feels himself gradually warmed and energized not only by the sun above, but also from inside as the sun's warmth stirs digestion into gear, sending a flush of food energy through the body. It must be a kind of awakening a human can hardly imagine.
4 SQUIRRELS RACING
While sitting there silently and invisibly four Eastern Gray Squirrels appeared right across the pond from me, three males chasing a female. Making much more noise than usual these squirrels seemed intoxicated by their chase, hardly paying attention to where they went, and sometimes they even misjudged their leaps. But then suddenly the female stopped, all three males behind her also paused, and during the ensuing rest period a couple of the males actually looked bored. However, the lead male sniffed the branch over which the female had just passed, and his attention didn't diminish at all. He glared and flitted his tail at the female on the next branch. After about three minutes the female took off again, two males continued after her, but the last male in the group wandered away as if he couldn't care less.
Seeing this gratified me enormously. Online I present a short story called "Mistletoe: One Year in the Life of An Eastern Gray Squirrel." Before writing that story I read a lot so that the behavior of my heroine would be as close to that of a real squirrel in nature as possible. "Chapter 2, February" is subtitled "The Chase," and it describes precisely the kind of chase witnessed at the turtle pond.
Sometimes these chases go on for most of a day, and often many more males than three go after a female. Apparently such chases provide a way for females to judge which male has the most stamina, plus the chase itself appears to put unreceptive females into more romantic moods. If you'd like to read "The Chase," go to www.backyardnature.net/squirrel.htm and click on February.
On Saturday morning during breakfast I watched another squirrel make several trips up the big Pecan tree above my trailer, carrying mouthfuls of Spanish Moss for a nest.
This is the time to take Violet Walks -- to go see which species of violet we have here, and to focus on what is beautiful about each one. In the forest around my trailer I find four species. These are:
Most common are the Common Blues. Often growing among them are a few Missouri Violets, and most people wouldn't notice that they are different species. Arrow-leaved Violets occur in sandy soil on eroded bayou walls and the Prostrate Blue Violet sticks to moist, shaded areas of deep bayous and protected woods areas.
As part of my Master's thesis in Botany at the Univeristy of Kentucky back in the early 1970s I listed all the flowering plants I could find in my little home county, McLean County, in western Kentucky. I listed nine violet species and I probably missed a few. Among them were blue-, white-, yellow- and green-flowered species. However, all of the four species around my trailer are small, blue-flowered ones, looking pretty much alike.
This reflects a general difference between the spring wildflower flora of here, and of my old Kentucky stomping grounds. That is, here the spring wildflower flora is much, much less diverse than in Kentucky. I'm not sure why this is so. The root of the phenomenon may be that in Kentucky I was much closer to the ancient Appalachian Mountains, which is now known to have been a center of evolution for much of the Eastern North America flora.
If you'd like to see the four species listed above, the Common Blue is at www.csdl.tamu.edu/FLORA/mi15/mi15059.jpg The Missouri Violet is at www.esb.utexas.edu/philjs/stengl/images/viola.jpg The Arrow-leaved Violet appears at www.ct-botanical-society.org/galleries/finished_plants /violasagi.jpg and the Prostrate Blue Violet is shown at www.plantatlas.usf.edu/plantimage/Viola_walteri.jpg
YELLOW JESSAMINE ON DISPLAY
Even before last Christmas the Yellow Jessamine was blossoming. These slender, high-climbing vines with fragrant, yellow flowers drop their blossoms onto the forest floor. All winter, whenever several warm days in a row came along, a few dropped flowers would inevitably appear alongside my forest trails.
Now Yellow Jessamine is in its glory. Sometimes you see absolutely spectacular displays and if the background is the blue sky or the forest's black shadow, and the yellow flowers are in direct sunlight, you just have to stand and look.
I can't find a picture on the Internet showing exactly what I'm talking about, but if you'd like to see how bright and flowery this native vine can be on a telephone pole in Florida, go to www.streetside.com/plants/floridata/ref/g/images/gelsi m1.jpg
"HUMMINGBIRD VINE" SEEDS
Each year I plant dozens of IPOMEA QUAMOCLITS along the deer fences around the gardens, and most of the summer these slender vines put on a show. Not only are their dark green, feathery leaves and lipstick-red flowers pretty to look at, but the hummingbirds gorge themselves on the flowers' nectar. Usually the vicinity of these vines is nothing less than a hummingbird air-show. On my fences the vines grow 15 feet high, then dangle as if they could grow another 15 feet.
If you love hummingbirds and have a spot in full sunlight you can water regularly, you should plant this vine. My kinfolk in Kentucky call the plant Hummingbird Vine, but around here the main name is Cypress Vine, because their leaves do look like the feathery leaves of Baldcypress.
If you'd like a few seeds from my last year's plants, send me a self-addressed and stamped envelope. I'm Jim Conrad/ 1054-B Lower Woodville Road/ Natchez, MS 39120. I've already sowed some in flats, but I expect to have to bring them inside several times before setting them out for the summer. They just can't stand frost at all.
You can see a herbarium sheet showing this plant at www.murrayhudson.com/09810p.jpg7
Lots of scats -- animal poop -- are appearing along my paths these days. Fox scats are among the most interesting.
I know they are fox scats and not those of a small dog because the individual turds taper at both ends. Foxes eat small mammals so a lot of hair passes through their bodies. These hairs account for the tapered turd-ends. If a fox should be given a diet of dog food, its scats would look like those of a dog.
It would be hard, maybe impossible, to distinguish between a fox scat and that of a small coyote also eating small mammals. The only way I know that what I'm seeing is fox scat and not that of coyote is that fox footprints are present.
Tuesday morning I was awakened by thunder and soon rain pummeled my little trailer's roof. Outside I found the dawn sky dominated by a special kind of cloud you only see associated with rough weather. The dark gray cloud-cover bottom above was punctuated by what reminded me of nothing else than huge human breasts dangling from the sky, long rows of them, horizon to horizon. They hung there about half an hour, then broke up.
On the Internet I found that these are called "mammatus clouds" -- as in mammary glands. That was relief, since it suggested that you don't have to be a hermit to think of women's breasts when you see them. You can decide what you think by viewing some at http://vortex.plymouth.edu/mammatus.jpg
There's a brief explanation about mammatus clouds at www.usatoday.com/weather/tg/wmamatus/wmamatus.htm One thing this site says is that "the sinking air required to make these clouds actually indicates weakening of the storm associated with them." That seemed to be the case with mine, since within an hour of the last mammati disappearing, the sky cleared.
BLACK-AND-WHITE & PARULA WARBLERS
Bird migration is one of the most majestic events of spring, and one of the most spectacular parts of bird migration in the US is the passage of the warblers. Warblers are smaller than average bird-feeder visitors, mostly eat insects, and their colors and songs are among the most pretty and complex of all birds.
Here the Northern Parula and Pine Warblers are singing as if spring were long underway. The Pine Warbler is a winter resident here but the Northern Parula winters in Mexico, Central America, the West Indies, and southern Florida. It's the season's first migrating warbler here, and this week they've arrived here in huge numbers, singing their heads off!
Black-and-white Warblers have also arrived, but only a few of them, and they are keeping fairly quiet.
I would like to show you these birds but as I write this on Sunday morning the Internet part of my local server is down. You can look the birds up by using a search engine such as Google at www.google.com Notice that Google has a special "image search" function.