from the woods near Natchez, Mississippi, USA
June 2, 2002
BATHING BIRDS AT THE GATE POND
Sometimes I visit the pond near the gate, and sit in the deep shadows beneath a large Black Willow overhanging the pond's edge. I like this spot because it's a cool place offering a good view of the pond, and because animals in the bright sunlight have a hard time seeing me.
Near that spot there's a place where another Black Willow has toppled into the water, creating a confusion of shattered, brittle twigs. The birds love this spot for bathing, for there's always a twig here or there poking from the water just right for perching on while building up courage to hop into the shallow water.
One day this week, first came a mousy-gray Tufted Titmouse, its tiny black beak wide open as it panted in the heavy heat. This bird looked right and left, turned its head sideways glancing up and down, then right and left again, around and around, and finally he jumped into the water for half a second, then flitted right back to his twig to make sure nothing had gone wrong. But nothing had gone wrong, so he jumped back in, and this in-and-out cycle continued for a minute or so before he decided that all was safe and then he enjoyed an absolute paroxysm of fluttering and splashing lasting about a minute.
This titmouse flew away and another took his place, going through the entire routine just as the first one had. Even before the second titmouse finished, a female Cardinal arrived. Apparently she'd watched the titmice long enough to know that it was safe, for she hopped right into the pool and splashed with even more abandon. After the Cardinal came a Red-eyed Vireo with its snazzy white eye-stripes and red eyes who plunged into the water for half a second, then raced to a safe twig and shuttered as if thrilled by the wetness. While the vireo was dive-bombing, a yellow-and-black Kentucky Warbler came perching, watched a while, but in the end just flew away. Instantly upon that departure, however, a Prothonotary Warbler with its bright orangish head came to the same twig, hopped into the water and fluttered like the titmice.
On a bright summer day, the deep green of the trees and the water, the heavy shadows, and this little train of birds all sharing in the innocent pleasures of cooling off with a bit of splashing... deep within the willow's shadows I myself felt like a placid pond being splashed in by a rainbow of perfect birds.
The green, too-low water in the Gate Pond was strewn all across with cottony fuzz. The fuzz-curdles atop the water consisted of an abundance of white- parachuted seeds fallen from Black Willows all around the pond's edges. As I spied on the bathing birds, fingernail-sized starlets of white, sun-glowing fuzz constantly drifted across my binoculars' field of vision. Willow fuzz flew just everywhere.
Of course, only the female willows were releasing fuzz. Black Willows, SALIX NIGRA, come in male trees and female trees, as do all the members of the Willow Family, which includes over a hundred willow species in North America, as well as the poplars and cottonwoods. At my nature site I present a nice picture showing two Black Willow branches, one male and one female, next to one another. You can view that at www.backyardnature.net/fl_varia.htm
I never see drifting willow fuzz without recalling a certain day some years ago when my friend Sigrid and I visited Augsburg in southern Germany. This town was founded by Augustus in 15 BC, so you might guess that it has magnificent historical sites. However, all I can remember from that visit is how that day the whole town of Augsburg was flooded with willow fuzz floating in brilliant sunlight, on breezes blowing in from the Lech River to the west. The sky was crystalline and shadows were black, so the fuzz exploded in sunlight as it drifted before dark Horsechestnut trees and buildings' deep shades. On the Lech, in 1632 during the Thirty Years War, the Protestant king of Sweden, Gustavus II, defeated Catholic Tilly. In the end, all the killing was for naught, for today that part of southern Germany remains firmly Catholic. And the killings affected not at all the fact that during my visit the little Lech's banks absolutely bristled with miles and miles of fuzz-making willows, as surely it had for millennia.
What lasts is not the doings of kings and generals but rather such as a spring's breezes capable of laughing with willow fuzz.
THE WRENS' SECOND BROOD
Last Sunday the four eggs in this year's second nest of the Carolina Wrens who claim my camp all hatched just when they should have. The first brood, you will recall, was laid in my toilet.
Last Sunday I was astonished to see that as the parents brought this second brood their food, three fledglings of the first brood were still following the parents around. The fledglings weren't exactly begging for the insects the parents brought the new nestlings, but they certainly looked at their parents with wide-eyed expectation.
I had never seen parents feeding one nest while fledglings from an earlier nest still followed them. Have any of you seen such a thing?
Tuesday afternoon as I worked at the computer suddenly I realized that small objects were dropping onto my bare shoulders. My ceiling was absolutely swarming with black masses of ants. Only a few were falling, but that was enough to cause a general drizzle of ants inside my trailer.
The first times this happened I did what I could to get the ants out -- put borax all over the place and sealed this and that -- but in the end the ants came and went when and where they wanted, and I've learned to live with them. Almost anytime on any day I can find a line of ants someplace in the trailer. But what happened Tuesday was no mere line-making, rather a mass migration, dark blotches of them moving en masse across the ceiling. This happens two or three times a year, usually lasts for an hour or so, and then they're gone.
When I was doing my book "On the Road to Tetlama," I lived with a family of Nauhatl-speaking Indians in central Mexico. Two or three times a year that family's hut was visited by legions of ants. However, those invasions were of an entirely different magnitude than my Tuesday experience. There, swarms of ants would sweep through entire small villages. The ants mostly ate small insects and animals they scared up as they marched, and the family I lived with actually welcomed their visits. When the ants came they'd simply move out of the hut for a few hours, then at dusk return to find their hut cleaned of cockroaches and scorpions.
Though so far I haven't noticed any benefit to me in having my own ant invasions, the skinks and anoles that claim my trailer's exterior certainly do enjoy them. During Tuesday's migration winged male ants were attracted to the cracks in my screen door. As they exited, the skinks and anoles where waiting, snatching up each one. I didn't see any winged male ants escape.
Of course ants are social insects with different castes. The queens and males are usually winged, but the workers are wingless. So how can you tell the difference between winged ants and termites? Well, winged ants have very constricted "waists" -- where the thorax connects with the abdomen -- but termites are thick-bodied throughout. Also, termites are usually pale colored, even white, while ants are darker. I think that a lot of "termite sightings" are actually ant sightings, and that's unfortunate because often, in the name of killing termites, these misidentifications result in a call to the exterminator, and awful chemicals are released into the local environment.
Ants and termites are compared on the Web at www.antcolony.org/carpenter_antsmain.htm
FIREANTS AFTER A RAIN
I can live in peace with the ants that swarmed on my ceiling last Tuesday, for they were a native, non-stinging species. I wage a continual battle, however, with fire ants. As explained in last year's September 9 Newsletter, fire ants were introduced into the US in 1918, and since then their distribution has expanded over a huge part of the country, driving out many native species, causing untold suffering to animals with their stings, and causing my ankles and wrists as I write this to be speckled with itching, whitehead-like pustules resulting from their stings.
Thursday afternoon a good storm came up so just as I was hearing the rain's roar coming through the woods I chopped open a fire ant nest next to my trailer, with the hope that the deluge would drown the colony. Soon a little torrent of runoff swept before me as I stood in the outdoor kitchen watching. Thousands of white fire ant pupae and larvae swept before me. When the rain ended and the water soaked into the ground, the high-water mark beside my kitchen was outlined with a rim of white ant-pupae bodies. I do not like hurting living things, but in this camp it's either them or me. During my first year here, they almost won.
At dusk two hours later I noticed that the ground had been cleared of white pupae and larvae. Looking closer in the twilight I saw slow-moving lines of fire ants, each ant carrying a pupa or larva, and the lines converged at the old nest where already fresh excavations were taking place.
Looking down at those ant lines I felt like a chastened god, a god who had wrecked havoc upon a nation with war and pestilence, and now, seeing the grim, heroic, single-minded determination of the trudging victims, felt obliged to grant them respect. I regretted that I had been the cause of their misery, which in the dark, mud-smelling wetness of that dusk was profound.
It is not the character of each ant that I admire, for I remember that an ant hasn't brains enough to possess much character at all. It is the essence of the life-struggle in us all to which I grant my awe and respect.
For, something out there is magnificently in love with life, and that Thing has built us an Earthly theater where the greatest tragedies and the most wondrous acts of heroism are played out, where the God-Thing's love is evinced by every ant, in every storm, and in the soul and mind of everyone who sees and feels.