from the woods near Natchez, Mississippi, USA
May 26, 2002
NOVEMBER IN MAY
This has been a second much-cooler-than-normal week here. This time last year the heat and humidity were daunting, clouds of mosquitoes made outside life almost impossible, and a major emergence of periodical cicadas filled the forest with loud and perpetual droning.
But now there's seldom a cicada to hear, mosquitoes emerge only at dusk, and on some
recent mornings it's been so cold that steam formed from my breath. Monday at dawn the
thermometer in my Waxmyrtle tree read 46° (7.8°C). Apparently the previous lowest
temperature registered in Natchez on that date was 53° (11.7°C), with the average low
being 63.5° (17.5°C). I found these statistics at the Intellicast Natchez page, clicking
on "Click Here for Averages and Records" above each day's forecast. That Web
address is http://184.108.40.206/Local/USLocalStd.asp?loc=khez&seg=LocalWeather&prodgrp=
This weather felt good. It was like late October or early November, with chilly, toe-tingling mornings, brilliantly sunny, crisp afternoons perfect for gardening, low humidity... But it felt creepy. It was wrong, no matter how good it felt. I was thankful that this cold snap came in May and not in January, when I would have had to spend these days "hunkered down" in my sleeping bag.
In contrast to our local weather, on a global basis this last month was the warmest April in recorded history. This is more evidence that global warming is rapidly taking place.
Global warming doesn't mean that everyone feels a little warmer than usual. The main effects consist of changes in long-term weather patterns and more extreme weather conditions nearly everywhere -- more storms, more droughts, more floods, more temperature extremes.
I'm glad I didn't decide to keep up the family farm in Kentucky, for I expect agriculture in the US to become an ever more chancy undertaking. And it is painful to think of all the plants and animals that will now die if, as predicted by many, weather patterns in the US change so that our Southeastern forests revert to scrublands and grasslands, and wetlands dry up and burn. Elsewhere on Earth it is projected that certain dry zones now will begin receiving rain.
The hunters who lease hunting rights at Laurel Hill have planted about 20 acres of beans in the hope that deer will eat the plants and thrive. The other day deep inside one bean field I found a bird nest lying on the ground, surely blown there by last weekend's strong winds.
It was a beautiful little nest only 2.5 inches across at its widest (6.35 cm). Naturally I've scanned this nest and you can see it at www.backyardnature.net/birdnest.htm
On the page at the above address I tell all about the detective work done to figure out that the nest had been constructed by a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher. The main pieces of evidence were the nest's size, its globular shape, its being encrusted with flat flakes of gray foliose lichens, and the whole thing being stuck together with spider webs. At the above address you can also see how the webbing was incorporated into the nest.
Maybe the most striking part of the whole mystery-nest experience was that I learned that the Internet is even a more powerful information resource than I had imagined -- and I already had a profound respect for it. I'm particularly impressed by the process of "Googling," an information-gathering procedure available to anyone with a computer and access to the Internet.
I Googled my mystery nest by going to the Google search engine at www.google.com, and when the word box appeared typing in these words: BIRD NEST SPIDER WEB LICHEN GLOBULAR. That's not very grammatical, but search engines look for keywords, not good grammar.
Google came up with several pages about the Ruby-crowned Kinglet. The problem with this response was that Ruby-crowned Kinglets are in our area during the winter but not during late spring and summer, so they don't build nests here. Nonetheless, mention of the Ruby-crowned Kinglet was important, for we do have a small woodland bird here during the summer which belongs to the same family as the kinglets, the Blue-gray Gnatcatcher. And usually birds in the same family build similar nests.
Now I re-Googled my nest, this time using Google's "Images" feature, with the keywords BLUE-GRAY GNATCATCHER NEST. Now up came pictures of nests looking as much like the mystery nest as they possibly could. Therefore: Blue-gray Gnatcatcher!
What an amazing information resource this Internet is, if you just know how to use it! This experience reinforces my dedication to building my own Internet sites. At the moment on an average day around 1500 different people visit my sites and they download approximately 3600 pages. Most of the pages downloaded are from my nature study site. Therefore I feel like I'm doing a good bit of teaching on matters I feel passionately about.
I wish I could see the 1500 people who will visit my sites today -- see them standing in the broomsedge field near my trailer for just a second, so I could know what they look like and maybe figure out where they come from and what kind of people they are.
Otherwise I just content myself sitting here at the end of all these miles of corroded Mississippi copper wire running across fields and through the forest, generating words and thoughts and sending them out, never knowing where they go or what they accomplish beyond making statistics in my log files.
You never know everything about anything. Probably a thousand times in my life I've been with people when a bee or wasp began buzzing around us, apparently looking for something sweet or wet. Often the other person would begin swatting at the creature and I'd say "Just be still, it won't sting you if you're still, but your swatting will make it think it's under attack and then it may indeed sting you... "
But the other day I was sitting perfectly still and had been still for several minutes, a wasp began buzzing around my head, I paid no attention, and then the thing stung me right on the forehead! It was a hard sting, too, staying sore for a couple of days.
Never in my life have I heard of anyone being stung who was sitting perfectly still. This just boggles my mind.
It was one of those amber-colored or orange wasps so common around buildings around here, but never found in the fields or woods. I've written here before that these are the most aggressive wasps I've ever known, a species I never saw when I lived in Kentucky, and Jarvis, my naturalist friend in North Carolina, says he doesn't know about them there. However, here they're likely to place their paper nests under the eaves of almost any building, and if you pass by their nest within ten feet, there's a good chance they'll sting you. But NEVER, I always thought, would they sting if you were sitting still.
I wish I knew what species this is. I've looked all over the Internet to no avail. If anyone even has a common name for these hostile, hair-triggered, bright-orange wasps I'd appreciate having it. I still have faith that other species will leave you alone if you don't antagonize them, but now I know that this orange species is something special...
LARGE CARPENTER BEES CARRYING POLLEN
Large Carpenter Bees, XYLOCOPA VIRGINIA, have been busy around my camp, despite the chilly weather. Actually, it's kind of funny. Last week I told about the blown-over toilet I've been dismantling, keeping part as building material and burning the rest. For this reason several boards are leaning against this or that corner of my outside kitchen as I decide what to do with them. Well, if a piece of lumber leans someplace for long, it'll acquire a nest of carpenter bees, and then I feel bad about moving it, so it just stays there!
For the last couple of weeks little piles of sawdust have been appearing below everything wooden -- below the scrap-lumber frame of my kitchen, below my fireplace elevated on wooden planks, and below all the toilet planks. That's because carpenter bees have been excavating their tunnels. When female bees are building their nests they chew holes in the wood about 0.6 inch (15mm) across, and in a day of chewing their holes grow about the same distance deeper, a bit deeper if chewing "with the grain." The tunnels I've seen are mostly about 5 inches long (13 cm) but they can be much longer.
These days mother bees enter their tunnels with large daubs of pale yellow pollen collected on their legs. The mothers mix this pollen with regurgitated nectar and place the resulting paste at the tunnel end, lays an egg, then constructs a cap of chewed wood pulp over the egg to form a chamber, then repeats the whole process until six to eight chambers are in position one after the other. When the eggs hatch the larvae will eat the pollen-nectar paste, they will metamorphose into bees and emerge in late summer, and overwinter as adults. You can read all about carpenter-bee life history at creatures.ifas.ufl.edu/misc/bees/xylocopa.htm
In Kentucky the very similar Bumble Bee was much more common than Large Carpenter Bees, but here I seldom see Bumble Bees. Bumble Bees have yellow "shoulders" plus a broad yellow, woolly rear end. In contrast, Large Carpenter Bees have completely black rear ends, but their "shoulders" are yellow, and there's a black spot in the middle of the back. You can see one of my scannings of a Large Carpenter Bee at www.backyardnature.net/names.htm
Here Large Carpenter Bees are abundant. The males, I assume they are, have the curious habit of spending hours each day loudly buzzing as they hoover above special chosen spots -- such as the open space immediately before my trailer door. The buzzer gives immediate chase to anything that flies by, such as a dragonfly or a wind-blown leaf, or another Carpenter Bee. Sometimes the bee catches another bee with whom it engages in a lot of fast-moving, loud action my sluggish human brain can't really follow, and I assume that this is a case of boy meeting girl.
Carpenter bees are nearly as entertaining as the Green Anoles.
ENVIRONMENTAL INFORMATION FROM THE UNITED NATIONS
Those Newsletter subscribers who are teachers may be interested in an excellent new resource detailing the state of the Earth's natural environment, produced by the United Nations, entitled "GEO: Global Environment Outlook 3." It has been published only this month. Its various chapters are available on the Internet for free at grid2.cr.usgs.gov/geo/geo3/index.htm
The chapters are downloaded in PDF format. That means that to read them you must have "Adobe Acrobat Reader" installed on your computer. You can download a free copy of this reader at www.adobe.com/products/acrobat/readstep.html
Among the information in this huge document is this: Almost a quarter of the world's mammal species face extinction within the next 30 years. Scientists have identified 11,046 species of plants and animals that are known to be endangered. This includes 1,130 mammal species - 24% of the total - and 12% of 1,183 species of birds. Humans are responsible for most of the pending extinctions.
I think about this, too, when I am hoeing in my garden on these eerie, beautiful days that feel more like October or November than May.