from the woods near Natchez, Mississippi, USA
May 12, 2002
HORSE FLIES APPEAR
This week, so hot, humid and rainless that the summery feeling no longer is novel, was the week when horse flies got bad. In fact, around my camp they were more worrisome than mosquitoes. Once I read from a journal written by someone living at Laurel Hill during horse-and-buggy days. They described going to town one summer day, a trip taking the whole day, and of all the world's topics they could have commented on, mostly they complained how pestiferous the horse flies were.
I was looking on the Internet about horse flies and I came across a doctor's site where the possibility of AIDS being spread by horse flies was approached. The poor doctor wrote that there was no worry, since horse flies seldom bite humans. May the Creator bless and forgive our medical establishment. Horse flies bite humans with awful dedication, and often they leave blood streaming down a sweaty leg, and a sore that itches and runs for days.
Horse flies bite us and other animals for the same reason that mosquitoes do: The females need nutrients from our blood so they can successfully lay their eggs. Thus, as with mosquitoes, it's only the females who bite us.
"Bite" isn't technically the correct word, for a female horse fly's mouth has no jaws. It's equipped with something like a steak knife that macerates our flesh with a rapid series of stabs. The males are blameless nectar feeders.
About 3,000 kinds of horse flies are known worldwide, with about 350 in North America. Different species emerge at different times of the year, so we're not being attacked by the same species the whole year. Among most species the maggot stage is aquatic. You can see what a water-dwelling horsefly maggot looks like down the page at dermatology.cdlib.org/DOJvol5num2/centerfold/tabanids.html
I can throw my mind into a loopy space where horse flies can actually be appreciated. The beauty in their complex life cycle, their dive-bomb attacks like hard poetry from the perfect summer sky, the fact that here's a predator electing to feed on me as if I were any horse or deer, thus confirming my status as a useful element of the biosphere...
But, when the Mississippi heat is on and sweat burns my eyes, sometimes it's a bit much to add horse flies to the soup.
Earlier this week I was sitting invisibly (unmoving) next to a woods pond when a young squirrel came near, quite oblivious to me just 15 feet away. He was sniffing and test-biting all kinds of things, the way young squirrels do when learning how to survive. Don't forget that a first-year squirrel doesn't have pecan caches from last fall to dig up.
This squirrel seemed almost frantic in his efforts to find something. He'd take last year's Honeylocust pod in his mouth, black and crumbly, and appear to be eating it, but then before swallowing he'd let the pod fall from his mouth, and then you knew that there was more hope than food in that pod. Then he found a fallen log that was a little moist on top, and crumbly. He actually bit into the soft wood, seeming to gag sometimes, maybe hoping to expose a fungus or insect larvae. But I couldn't see that he got anything. He put all kinds of things into his mouth but eventually everything was dropped again, and nothing swallowed.
Gradually it dawned on me that this can be a hungry season for squirrels. Their nuts, acorns, maple samaras, hornbeam fruits and pine nuts belong to fall, not spring. Now those fruits are either sprouted and the sprouts are charged with bitter elements that keep animals from eating them, or else they're decayed. A squirrel can eat caterpillars, cocoons, beetles and even ants, birds' eggs and nestlings in this season, but these can be hard to catch.
In a way I was chastened by this insight. I like to think that I am in tune with the animals around me, but somehow I had forgotten that though this season is good for insect-eating warblers and mulberry eaters, if you are a creature specializing in nuts and the like, these are hungry times.
The squirrel found a mushroom, nibbled it, jumped backwards and froze staring at it. Then in aggravation he barked, stamped his feet and turned and ran away violently flicking its tail.
A BIG TIMBER RATTLER
Monday morning once again I almost biked over a Timber Rattlesnake, CROTALUS HORRIDUS, stretched across my path. I never report the vast majority of snakes I see but this one deserves special mention because it was a big one. It was 4-1/2 feet long (1.4m), the largest rattler I've seen here (Lots of racers and others exceed that, but this is big for a rattler). If I had been one of these fellows who stands next to his pickup truck holding a battered snake by his neck as it stretches from gravity and the photographer for the County News snaps a picture, it would have easily measured 6 feet.
But, this was a creature to admire. The smaller rattlers I've come across were of a different caliber, a different mood. This big fellow just lay there looking at me, not shaking his rattles (ten buttons) at all. He almost seemed to smile in a lazy way.
He was wonderfully camouflaged against the brown leaf-litter on which he rested. I wouldn't have spotted him if his tail hadn't been velvety black. A dark stripe ran from behind each eye downward over his jaw, like a racing stripe on a head that was so coppery it glowed in the dim forest light. Pronounced raised "eyebrow" ridges gave him the appearance of staring with unshakable concentration at me. If the wildest, most self-possessed Viking should be transmogrified into a snake, this would be that snake.
Timber rattlers roam during the day during mild weather, but once it gets really hot they tend to be nocturnal. For this reason when I jog in dawn's dim light, now I am paying special attention to where I step. The first morning after meeting this snake, exactly where earlier he had lain, as my foot was coming down, a toad managed to jump away right in time. You can imagine.
THIS WEEK'S MIGRATING BIRDS
Here are the migratory species I identified on Friday, May 10th:
WINTER RESIDENTS PREPARING TO LEAVE
SUMMER RESIDENTS JUST ARRIVED
1 Mississippi Kite
7 Yellow-billed Cuckoo
13 Chimney Swift
4 Great Crested Flycatcher
18 Acadian Flycatcher
4 Eastern Wood Pewee
1 Purple Martin
5 Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
3 Wood Thrush
33 Red-eyed Vireo
10 White-eyed Vireo
7 Yellow-throated Vireo
1 Black-and-white Warbler
8 Northern Parula
11 Hooded Warbler
2 Kentucky Warbler
2 Prothonotary Warbler
3 Yellow-throated Warbler
5 Yellow-breasted Chat
9 American Redstart
3 Orchard Oriole
9 Summer Tanager
7 Indigo Bunting
PERMANANT RESIDENTS WHO MIGRATE
1 Red-shouldered Hawk
3 Brown-headed Cowbird
Last week there were 58 Cedar Waxwings, and now there are none, and no further winter residents are left to leave. Even the transients seem to have passed through. Migration is coming to an end.
I've been hoping I would spot a Painted Bunting during my counts because I wanted to tell you about them. The mature males of this species are the most colorful of all US birds. They seem to have been painted brightly by children who don't know how "real birds" are colored. Red breast and rump, blue head, greenish back, a mixture of red, green and blue in the wings... The first time you see one, it seems artificial. Of course, being so beautiful, their song is just a weak warble with nothing notable distinguishing it. Painted Buntings don't occur as far north as Kentucky so I never saw one until I came here the first time during the early 80s.
The hippie community was still together then and I as a visiting writer gathering information for a story was in the old slave kitchen with Mark the gay cook, who wore a red bandana over his head. The kitchen smelled of woodsmoke, simmering tomato-based stew and basil. An August rainstorm was ending, the air was fresh and cool, and late-afternoon sunlight burst through the door with such unexpected sharpness and clarity that I looked outside to see what was going on.
The wet clematis vine out front was sparkling as if light were bursting from its leaves and stems, and a mature male Painted Bunting was perched inspecting a large blue flower. It was a moment of such exquisite beauty that if I should have to die now, that fleeting image is one of a handful from my whole life I'd want to recall. If you don't know this bird, go see it at www.thayerbirding.com/images/pb_logo.jpg
I have said "mature male" above when speaking of the rainbow-colored plumage. That's because some males don't get their brilliant colors until their third year, though by the second they can sing and acquire a mate. This is what I saw Friday, a male in his second year, looking like a drab, greenish-yellow female.
But that spotting was enough for me to tell you about him, and to recall that first sighting some twenty years ago here at Laurel Hill.