from the woods near Natchez, Mississippi, USA
June 9, 2002
PINE WOODS TREEFROG
Last Sunday at the edge of a soybean field a Chipping Sparrow with its handsome rusty cap and neat white eye stripe landed in a large Loblolly Pine. Bearing a beakful of insects she worked her way to the limb's end, glancing at me constantly, until she stopped at a small nest of straw wedged into a fork in the limb. Three tiny, bobbing heads with yellow-rimmed beaks and skinny necks shot up, the meal was deposited to the highest-reaching mouth, and the mother flew away for another load.
Beneath the old pine stood one of the hunters' blinds. It was a fancy, store-bought thing on shiny aluminum legs about 15 feet high. The blind itself was made of a molded black plastic material. A blind window opened right onto the nest so I climbed up for a better view.
As I cracked the blind's door, something inside jumped onto a wall and clung there. It was a species of treefrog I'd never seen before, one with smooth, gray-mottled skin and a thin, dark ridge running from its eyes to along its sides. It was the Pine Woods Treefrog, HYLA FEMORALIS. I'm sure I've heard it before -- my Audubon fieldguide says it sounds like "the tapping together of wooden dowels" -- but this species is nocturnal and it tends to stay in treetops, so it's rarely seen. It's a Coastal Plain species, in Mississippi hardly making it as far north as Jackson. You can see and hear it at www.naturesound.com/frogs/pages/pinwds.html
This just made my day.
For, every species of living thing is a kind of song. The Pine-Woods-Treefrog-song rhapsodizes on life at night high in a pine tree. Its very skin matches in tone and texture old pine-bark flaked with lichen. The frog-song's voice of tapping wooden dowels bespeaks being inside a pine tree on a rainy night, needing a mate. There are bugs in the old Loblolly, so this frog is there to eat them, and its mouth is wide, its tongue quick, long and sticky, and its brain is all fixed for bug-eating.
Whenever a species is extirpated or extinguished, a song is lost, and the music of life is diminished. What an honor for me to be here where and when I am, with life still lusty with its singing.
WOLF SPIDER WITH EGG BAG
I'm "solarizing" part of my organic gardens now -- I've spread black plastic sheeting over a section, sealed the edges with dirt, and now I hope that the sun's built-up midday heat beneath the plastic will kill the soil's pathogenic viruses, fungi and bacteria there. These gardens have been in use for over a hundred years and diseases have accumulated badly.
After a recent night-shower, one morning this week a female Wolf Spider lay drowned in a shallow pool atop the plastic, an egg sac attached to her rear end. Since Wolf Spiders have no webs and range across the ground hunting like wolves, the mother carries her egg sac with her. As young spiderlings hatch from the sac they climb onto their mother, where they ride on her back. The mother brushes them away from her eyes when they wander there. If somehow the egg sac comes undone the mother just reattaches it to her rear end with silk. If she can't locate the lost sac, in her confusion she may instead attach something else, such as a snail shell.
Of course I couldn't let such an interesting creature get away without scanning it. My scannings turned out fine. You can view them at www.backyardnature.net/spiders.htm
OVERLAPPING WREN BROODS
Last week I described how the Carolina-Wren fledglings of a previous nesting were following around their parents as their parents fed a newly hatched second brood. I asked if any Newsletter subscriber had seen such a thing. My good friend Denise Goodfellow, a part-Aboriginal naturalist in Darwin, Australia replied:
"Many Australian birds are cooperative breeding, meaning that fledglings stay around and actually help the new parents. They may help construct a nest, or incubate, and many feed the young. Sometimes, as in the case of the Varied Sittella, they line up along a branch to patiently wait their turn. And it's often the young males who stay around. I think this is one of the most fascinating features of Australian birds, and certainly something humans could learn from. I believe that perhaps a third of our songbirds are cooperative breeders."
FIRE ANT WARS
In response to my remarks last week about fire ants, Newsletter subscriber Marc Blackwood in Natchez wrote:
"Years ago I read that ant mounds in close proximity can be killed by throwing a shovel full from each mound onto the other mound. They say that the two mounds will go to war against each other and fight to the death. It actually seems to work."
If anyone tests this technique, let me know how it turns out.
The other day Kathy the plantation manager hired Charles, a local day-worker, to come sweep out the Chapel. Charles and I have been buddies for years so when trouble arose he came to me at the garden.
"What's that sound down in the Chapel?" he asked, and I replied that it should be quiet there.
"It sounds like people singing in a choir," he insisted, and this was so unlikely that I just laughed, figured he'd heard echoes of birdcalls, and suggested "Must be ghosts... "
A very worried look spread across Charles's face. He said he wasn't going back there unless I went with him. When I got there I found that Kathy had placed a high-frequency "squeaker" in the chapel, one of those things supposed to clear out rodents by hurting their ears.
After we'd shared a good laugh I got back to my work and began thinking about what different worlds people must live in, depending on whether they can or cannot believe in ghosts.
When I lived in Belize most of my friends closed their windows at dusk, despite the heat and humidity, because they believed that malignant spirits entered on the night air. (Probably the belief arose to explain the effects of malaria-bearing mosquitoes entering windows at dusk.) The cook at the jungle lodge where I worked swore that once he had met "duendes," a Belizean kind of spirit without thumbs, who simply vanished as he passed them on an isolated road at night.
When I was a child, I was a believer. My parents told me how a swampy woods in view of our western Kentucky farm was so big that it connected with "Black Lake Bottoms," which everyone knew as a place in which hunters had disappeared, a swamp so vast that it was actually part of all other of the Earth's combined wildernesses. I heard from my mother about shimmering, pale Swamp Angles there who with their very long fingernails hovered above the moldering ground, ready to tear out the eyes of anyone who entered at night. I remember as a child lying in bed quivering as the owls in that woods hooted, and the hoots echoed off the swamp's big trees.
In the 70s when the price of soybeans soared, the vast swamps of my childhood were converted into soybean fields. Maybe this occasioned the biggest psychological shift of my whole life. The day they bulldozed and burned the last big forest near our farm and I saw that where owls had hooted among Swamp Angels there was just mud and weeds, my relationship with the metaphysical world was changed forever.
But, the question remains: Is it more beautiful for the mind to project Swamp Angels into a forest and to thrill at the prospect of meeting them there, or to know what's "really" in that forest, and to find that now your thrills are of a subtler, more lonely kind?