from the woods near Natchez, Mississippi, USA
August 4, 2002
GOLDENROD ANNOUNCES FALL'S COMMENCEMENT
In last year's Newsletter of August 5th I announced the first Goldenrods blossoming along my jogging paths and I explained how this appearance filled me with a fallish feeling. This year it is all the same, and I write to you now with an early sense of autumn. For so long everything has seemed so new and fresh. Now I am struck by how mature and mellow nature has grown, and now for a long time I shall explore aspects of this manner of being.
How perfect this goldenrod is for its fall-announcing task. It's the Giant Goldenrod, SOLIDAGO GIGANTEA. Most spring wildflowers tend to be smallish and glossy, succulent or waxy in some way, but this goldenrod is nothing like that. Its leaves are rough and scratchy, and the slender plant itself stands 8 or 9 feet (2.5m) high. It's very similar in appearance to the Canada Goldenrod, SOLIDAGO CANADENSIS, but the stem of the Canada Goldenrod is hairy, while our Giant Goldenrod's stem is smooth, even with a slight silvery sheen (glaucescence).
Giant Goldenrods are considered to possess medicinal properties. At the "Herbal Learning" page at http://tranquil_cheri.tripod.com/herbal/id17.html I read that it is "Most useful to counter kidney and bladder complaints, particularly kidney stones, fluid retention and bed wetting. Other uses include the treatment of excessive menstruation, internal haemorrhage, diarrhoea and even whooping cough... Prepare the tea as a hot infusion." I would not care to use it for much more than hot tea. I have indeed collected its brown leaves in late fall and from themI brewed a nicely brown tea, but the tea was a bit bitter. Milk and honey made it good, but I suppose milk and honey will improve the taste of anything.
You can see a Giant Goldenrod's flowering head at www.science.uwaterloo.ca/biology/jcsemple/sol_gig.jpg
THE CISTERN BATS, SUMMER 2002
As soon as a hint of dawn's first light appeared in the eastern sky, last year on Sunday, July 22, I hunched next to my cistern's head and counted 752 bats entering after their night of foraging. I'd identified the bats earlier as Southeastern Myotis, MYOTIS AUSTRORIPARIUS. You can read more about the background of my cistern and bats in the July 27, 2001 Newsletter archived at www.earthfoot.org/znatnat/010722.htm
This Sunday morning, August 4, I have repeated my census and once again I have simply been amazed. This time I counted 1,783!
Assuming that half of last's years 752 bats were female, and reading that a couple typically produces two offspring a year, that would yield an expected population this year of only 1,128, assuming no mortality. Apparently new bats have moved into the cistern from elsewhere. I had suspected that that might be the case as I counted them this morning, for this year some of the bats seemed larger than what I saw last year, and with reddish coloration, though in the dim light I could have been mistaken about this.
Whatever the case, I am thrilled with this new census, and glad that the population finds my companionship so congenial.
SPIDER LILY, SPIDER LILY
For the last two or three weeks two very pretty plant species emerging from underground bulbs have been issuing many large, showy blossoms atop slender stems. Though the flowers of one are white and of the other red, and they belong to entirely different plant families, both are known locally as Spider Lily.
The first Spider Lily, a white-flowered one, is HYMENOCALLIS OCCIDENTALIS, of the Lily Family, and despite the ones here all being planted, it is native to our area. It's a swamp and wet-woods species that in the past was much planted in the uplands, where it persists. Often I find it blossoming in upland forests in lines recalling long vanished trails or gardens. It appears here and there along the ridgetop gravel road leading into the plantation, despite the soil being very dry. I can't pass these flowers without reflecting on how the blossoms look so fresh and new, yet their bulbs are living relicts of plantings made long ago, and surely the people who planted them are long dead. Probably the bulbs were dug from the swamps to our west, below the loess bluffs. You can see this white-blossomed Spider Lily at www.biosurvey.ou.edu/okwild/images/spiderlily2.jpg
The second Spider Lily is a red-flowered one, LYCORIS RADIATA, in the Amaryllis Family, and originally from China and Japan. That word Lycoris derives from the name of the mistress of the Roman general Mark Antony. When I lived in Kentucky I never saw this species because it is vulnerable to the cold. Down here the plants thrive without protection, coming up year after year, and the bulbs divide each season until large colonies appear. On this plantation they are the most commonly appearing summer-blossoming plant arising from bulbs. You can see a picture of them at www.gardenadventures.com/lycorislg.jpg
Both of these bulb plants have an "old fashioned" feeling to them. They are tough, self-reliant little plants not at all like the too-large-blossomed, too-gorgeous, too-genetically-modified freaks being sold nowadays.
LAST HOURS OF AN IMPERIAL MOTH
Tuesday at dawn as I jogged through the woods I came upon a yellowish, 4-inch across moth (10 cm) lying on its back quivering, and it was clear that it was dying. It was the Imperial Moth, EACLES IMPERIALIS, and of course I scanned it and you can see it, including a wonderful close-up of its head with feathery antennae, at my new moth page at www.backyardnature.net/moths.htm
I wasn't able to identify it immediately. Three or four species of very large, spectacular moths occur here, maybe the most common being the Luna Moth, but this wasn't one I had seen. Because the species wasn't illustrated in my field guides I went onto the Internet to identify it and there I found a wonderful new Web site called "Moths of North America." It's at www.npwrc.usgs.gov/resource/distr/lepid/moths/mothsusa.htm
At this site the way I identified my Imperial Moth was by using the "Photo Thumbnails" feature, which is a little like flipping through a field guide and looking at the pictures. I guessed that my moth was in the "Giant Silkworm Moth Family," the Saturniidae, since that's what most of our big, fancy moths belong to. Sure enough, in that family I found my moth at www.npwrc.usgs.gov/resource/distr/lepid/moths/usa/974.htm
Another great thing about this site is that it lists moths by state. You can see a checklist of Mississippi's moths, with the names linked to species pages with photos and information, at the "Moths of Mississippi" page at www.npwrc.usgs.gov/resource/distr/lepid/moths/ms/toc.htm
This page tells us that the Imperial Moth's caterpillars eat the foliage of pines, oaks, Box Elder, maples, Sweet Gum and Sassafras -- all trees present in this area. The site's remark under "adult food" was a poignant one. It read "Adults do not feed."
In other words, this species spends nearly all of its life in the caterpillar stage. When it finally metamorphoses it lives for only a couple of days, during which time it must find a mate, copulate, and then the female must lay eggs. Once these tasks are finished, the adults simply die. They run out of energy. My moth quivered and twitched for about 3 hours, and then died atop my scanner.
That nature would create an adult stage for which the whole idea is just to procreate and then to quickly die, and for this adult stage to be so beautiful, is something worth thinking about, something perhaps a little scary.
You may have seen this species' strange-looking caterpillar, which is green and hairy, with its rear end designed to look like more like a head than the head does -- so that a predator might attack the critter's butt, not the head. One is shown at www.ag.auburn.edu/dept/ent/bulletins/imperialmoth/photo1.htm
TWO KINDS OF GRAY TREEFROG
Wednesday morning after my daily jog I splashed my face with water from my dishpan and suddenly realized that I'd plastered my face with frog eggs. I wasn't surprised. During the night seven or eight Gray Treefrogs had been calling after Tuesday afternoon's rain. Apparently the calling had paid off for at least the one that hung out around my dishpan.
During the night another frog had awakened me several times because he called from an open window about a foot from my head. Though with a flashlight I could see the window-sitter perfectly well, I simply could not decide what species he was. He was a Gray Treefrog, but there are two species of Gray Treefrog, the Common Gray Treefrog, HYLA VERSICOLOR, and the Cope's Gray Treefrog, HYLA CHRYSOSCELIS. And, as my Audubon field guide says, "The two species of Gray treefrog are identical in appearance, and since their ranges overlap extensively, they cannot be distinguished in the field." They also say that the Cope's has a faster trill than the Common, but that doesn't help me much.
The interesting thing is that the Common Gray has a normal assortment of chromosomes while the Copes is "tetraploid." Sometime perhaps thousands of years ago a mutation occurred so that suddenly an individual developed with twice the number of chromosomes of its parents. Thus the species known as Copes Gray Treefrog spontaneously and instantly arose from the Common Gray Treefrog. This event occurred so recently in evolutionary history that the two species have not had the time to evolve away from one another very far - just enough for their trills to occur at different speeds and perhaps some other things we don't notice.
Because of this difference in chromosome number the two species cannot mate with one another and produce offspring. Therefore you have to wonder who the first Copes Gray Treefrog mated with. The answer is that among Gray Treefrogs this special form of mutation seems to occur at a surprisingly regular rate, when members of the eastern and western populations of the Common Gray species mate. It's a good guess that one day the mutation just happened to occur twice in the same place, and one of the resulting mutants was a boy and the other was a girl. This form of species generation is certainly not the normal one. If you would like to study the phenomenon more, the technical name for this specific kind of polyploidy is "autopolyploidy," so you should Google the words "autopolyploidy frogs" or something like that.
You can see several Gray Treefrog pictures and read about them at www.npwrc.usgs.gov/narcam/idguide/hylavers.htm
WEST NILE DISEASE
It's hard to know what to do or to think about the news that 44 cases of West Nile Disease have been reported in Louisiana, with six deaths so far, and over 20 cases have been confirmed in Mississippi. Kathy tells me that dead Bluejays are being found locally. Many kinds of birds are affected by the disease, but members of the family Corvidae, the jays and crows, are the most vulnerable.
I know I receive between 30 and 50 mosquito bites a day, and the disease is spread by mosquitoes. Again and again I am sitting here thinking I've finally cleared all the mosquitoes from my trailer, but then I hear that insistent little whine made by a mosquito when as it escapes after a successful visit, look up, and see her blood-gorged body flying heavily toward the screen door.
To me even more worrisome than the idea of getting the disease myself is that I know that local authorities will react by dousing wetlands with insecticides. These insecticides affect much more than mosquitoes. They knock entire ecosystems out of whack by killing incredible numbers of many kinds of organisms. In the part of Kentucky where I grew up Salt-marsh Mosquitoes were very bad because of acid-water runoff from nearby coal stripmines. Each spring airplanes fogged the swamps with insecticides and I saw with my own eyes the devastating effect this had on populations of birds and other small wildlife, though of course local officials said they were just killing mosquitoes.
You can read all about West Nile Disease at www.odh.state.oh.us/odhprograms/zoodis/wnv/wnv1.htm
FEATHER FROM THE SKY
Tuesday morning we experienced a heavy fog, which was unusual for this time of year. On my way to the gardens I was biking across the broomsedge field admiring how the fog subdued all the colors and simplified the forms of things. The world was all gray, like a panorama of two-dimensional forms etched in silver, and the chill dew on the grassblades wetting my feet as I peddled through the tall grass was a delight to feel.
Then right before me on the left a Broad-winged Hawk broke from the woods, sailed on stubby wings across my path and silently disappeared into the mists at the right.
As he'd flown over, a large primary feather had come loose from his wing. I watched it slowly descend, zigzagging earthward, and it landed on the ground right beside me as I passed. It was a perfect feather broadly banded in brown and light gray, and it lay in the wet grass as if someone had spent a long time composing a perfect arrangement. If I had been a Natchez Indian I'm sure I would have regarded this as an omen and immediately sought out a shaman for interpretation, for the whole event seemed staged and surreal.
But I just continued on my way. After all, this is molting time for a lot of birds. Nowadays it's hard to spot a Turkey Vulture without a feather conspicuously missing in one or both wings. If you'll notice, the vultures' flight isn't quite as smooth and effortless as it has been the rest of the year. Most bird species keep their feathers for a year, with molting taking place in late summer, after nesting.
But, then again, maybe that feather was indeed a sign, one confirming what the goldenrods say -- that as of NOW, fall begins...