from the woods near Natchez, Mississippi, USA
April 28, 2002
SEVENTEEN YEARS AGO IN LUXEMBOURG
Seventeen years ago today, April 28, 1985, I left for Europe. Landing in the tiny country of Luxembourg I looked from the jet's window and knew instantly that my goose was cooked. Since I had to carry three months of clothing and a number of books and lots of photography equipment in my backpack, I had brought only light clothing and, outside, it was snowing like crazy. Just getting established as a freelance writer, I wasn't carrying money for hotels. For the next three months I would be camping and sleeping on trains with my Eurrail Pass.
Though for some years I had been traveling in Mediterranean countries during summers, this was my first time in Central Europe, and my first time in Europe so early in the year. I had chosen this date specifically because during my first month there I was planning to do nothing but birdwatch. The last two months I'd gather stories for magazines, to pay for my fun.
I'd chosen this time of year because in Kentucky, where I was based, now is the very peak of bird migration. I figured that it must be approximately the same in Europe, where Africa's abundant birdlife would be swarming northward across Germany into Scandinavia.
Not only did I learn the hard way that central Europe is a lot farther north than Kentucky, but also that Europe just doesn't have the kind of bird migration we do in the US. Luxembourg lies at a latitude of 50° North, which is farther north than the border between North Dakota and Canada. That explains the snow in Luxembourg at a time when Kentucky was riotously green and springy. Also, there's a general rule that on Earth, local desert conditions not withstanding, the farther one travels from the Equator, the less biological diversity is to be found. That partly explains why during the next weeks I didn't see nearly as many birds as I'd expected.
In fact, as spring slowly and painfully developed in Central Europe that year, I realized that not only were there not many kinds of birds, relatively speaking, but also not many kinds of wildflowers and trees. A forest would look good on the outside, but inside I would find the same few species appearing again and again. In all of Germany there are only two species of oak, and one of those is uncommon; in my little county in Kentucky I'd identified 14. Germany has one maple; my county has five. It's not just plants. More fish species are found in the Tennessee River, for example, than in all of Europe.
Eventually I learned that the Alps were partly responsible for this low species diversity in Central Europe. During the Ice Ages, ice sheets approaching from the north had pushed many species up against the Alps, and many of those species had simply gone extinct. And, as they say, "extinction is forever." What a blessing that in North America our mountain ridges run north and south, so as our Ice-Age glaciers approached from the north vegetation could migrate south past the great peaks. In Europe, the Alps run east and west like walls.
Every year at this time, as the world around me along the Mississippi Flyway explodes with life and diversity, I recall those days 17 years ago -- Germany's silent, gray and wet forests, and my brushes with hypothermia and attacks of arthritis. But it was all worth it to be able to see in perspective our springs' irrepressible swarms of winged things, calling things, garden-like forests and forest-like gardens.
I still have strong ties to central Europe. During recent years my "home town" there has become Bayreuth, Bavaria, Germany, where my friend Sigrid is the head of the Plant Systematics Department at the University. Most mornings nowadays I visit a livecam on the Web showing a certain street in Bayreuth near where I stay when I'm there. Right now the livecam images show how cold the Germans look, and how wintry the leafless trees are. If you'd like to see that page yourself, go to maxstrasse.tmt.de/ but visit in the mornings because later in the day it'll be night there and you'll just see darkness.
SNOUT BUTTERFLY EXPLOSIONS
Tuesday afternoon as I stepped from my trailer door I almost fell because on the ground exactly where I intended to place my foot there sat several Snout Butterflies, LIBYTHEANA BACHMANII. I managed to sort of leap over them, plus they scattered, so no one got hurt.
Of all the places they could have gathered, why had they chosen that specific spot? Then I noticed that half a dozen other Snout Butterflies were gathered on the rolled-up bandana I use each morning as a sweatband when I jog.
Of course, that was it. The Snout Butterflies wanted the salt from my sweat. When I rise from the computer after working I'm so close to the door that the first contact the sole of my left foot makes with anyplace is that precise spot on the ground outside my door. It's hot in my trailer and my feet sweat, so the butterflies get sweat-salts deposited by my left foot!
What a powerful need for salt we animals have. Hunters leave salt blocks all through the forest here for deer, and tracks show that the deer cherish them. Letters of early settlers describe enormous migrations of buffalo and other animals to places where salt was available -- to salt licks. Ancient humans, too, valued salt. In Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula for a long time people wondered why such a magnificent ruin as that at Chichén Itzá should be located where there's not enough rain to support decent agriculture. It's now becoming apparent that Chichén Itzá controlled the salt trade along the Yucatan coast. Inland Indian nations paid dearly for that salt. Salt to the Yucatan Maya was like oil to the Middle East's Arabs today. To much of nature, sweating humans are walking salt mines.
For, the salts lost in sweat contain mineral elements without which life can't exist -- sodium, potassium, magnesium, calcium, and more. Without sodium and potassium, nerve impulses would not travel through an animal's nervous system. An atom of magnesium resides in the heart of every atom of chlorophyll, so photosynthesis in green plants would not be possible without magnesium. Bones are impossible without calcium.
Yet the Earth ecosystem is organized so that these mineral elements, which are soluble in water, simply flow to the sea when not in use by an organism or when not locked in minerals or soil organic matter. Why must these necessary elements be so vulnerable to leaching from our soils? This is majestic irony built into the Earth ecosystem. It's one of those circumstances assuring that us living things always have something to do, continually trying to get and keep what we need. Maybe this is another of those God jokes.
I stood there looking at the Snout Butterflies on my sweatband and I was gratified to know that at least something of what I produce in this life makes a few butterflies happy before eventually, inevitably, it flows to the Great Beyond.
These Snout Butterflies are remarkable-looking creatures, with noses shaped like those of SST jets. Their larvae feed on Sugarberry trees in our area, Hackberries farther north. You can see one at www.floridata.com/tracks/butterfly/images/snout.jpg
TYRANNICAL EASTERN KINGBIRD
I always have to shake my head when I see a hawk streak zigzaggingly through the sky, chased by a Kingbird. Last Sunday afternoon I saw just that, a Broad-winged Hawk behaving as if a jet of the Mississippi State Airforce were after him, ducking and dodging in desperation. Yet the Eastern Kingbird is a good bit smaller than an American Robin and only a fraction of a hawk's size. It's just that Eastern Kingbirds are aggressive little birds. For good reason their Latin name is TYRANNUS TYRANNUS.
Kingbirds attack both hawks and crows. The assumption is that they evolved their behavior mainly because certain hawks prey on small birds, and crows are known to eat smaller birds' nestlings. This doesn't explain, however, why hawks and crows flee instead of fight. Why is this routine enacted again and again, century after century, the kingbirds chasing much larger crows and hawks? Maybe the answer will someday be presented in a precise mathematical equation. Yes, maybe this is yet another of those God jokes. I am finding more and more of them as time passes.
You can see an Eastern Kingbird showing the neat white band at the tip of its tail and dark upper parts at www.birdsofoklahoma.net/images/Eastking01.jpg
WANDERING EASTERN BOX TURTLES
Eastern Box Turtles are wandering the forest these days. One day this week I saw two, though often entire weeks and months pass without my seeing one. This morning, Sunday, I needed to bike to town for supplies and I saw three in different places beside US 61's pavement. When I was a child on the farm in Kentucky they were common there, but now they are rare. I am glad when I see them now, for their populations have plummeted everywhere.
Eastern Box Turtles are TERRAPENE CAROLINA, so are they properly called terrapins? Well, not really. They're "dry-land turtles." If you want to nail down the differences between turtles, tortoises and terrapins, I explain it on the Web at www.backyardnature.net/turtles.htm
The box turtles here don't look like the ones I knew in Kentucky. Up there their shells are patterned brightly with yellow and black, like the one pictured at jajhs.kana.k12.wv.us/vwv/animal/rep_amph/eboxturtle1.jpg. The ones down here bear olive-colored shells with hardly any pattern at all. The deal is that the species is fracturing into at least four different, sometimes intergrading subspecies. Ours comes closest to being the Three-toed subspecies, Terrapene carolina triunguis.
Whatever name they go by, there's just something good about seeing a clunky-looking old box turtle gamely clambering across the forest floor.
THIS WEEK'S MIGRATING BIRDS
Here are the migratory species I identified on Friday, April 26:
WINTER RESIDENTS PREPARING TO LEAVE
39 Cedar Waxwing
SUMMER RESIDENTS JUST ARRIVED
2 Mississippi Kite
3 Yellow-billed Cuckoo
10 Chimney Swift
1 Ruby-throated Hummingbird
3 Great Crested Flycatcher
1 Eastern Kingbird
11 Acadian Flycatcher
1 Eastern Wood Pewee
3 Barn Swallow
5 Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
3 Wood Thrush
23 Red-eyed Vireo
11 White-eyed Vireo
5 Yellow-throated Vireo
1 Black-and-white Warbler
12 Northern Parula
6 Hooded Warbler
2 Kentucky Warbler
1 Prothonotary Warbler
1 Yellow-throated Warbler
4 Yellow-breasted Chat
4 American Redstart
5 Orchard Oriole
10 Summer Tanager
7 Indigo Bunting
5 Tennessee Warbler
1 Rose-breasted Grosbeak
PERMANANT RESIDENTS WHO MIGRATE
1 Red-shouldered Hawk
8 Brown-headed Cowbird
Two weeks ago I counted 35 White-throated Sparrows, last week 5, and this week none. For the first time we have a couple of species who winter far to the south of here, and summer far to the north, so here they are seen only during spring and fall migration. They are the Tennessee Warbler and the Rose-breasted Grosbeak. These grosbeaks are splendid-looking birds and if you want to see one exactly as I saw him singing in a Pecan tree, go to www.naturesound.com/birds/pages/rbgroby.html