from the woods near Natchez, Mississippi, USA
September 15, 2002
Now that the mosquitoes have calmed down I've returned to my old habit of late each afternoon biking over to the hunters' camp, sitting on their porch, and reading. One day this week while absorbed in "To Kill a Mockingbird" I heard a racket in the Pecan tree above me and looked up just in time to see two Red-bellied Woodpeckers (MELANERPES CAROLINUS) all in a wad, each with a bit of the other in its beak, clawing and beating wings against one another. They tumbled 20 feet, thudded onto the ground next to me, and I thought that surely they'd both be crippled.
But they just fought a little longer, then one flew off horizontally and the other vertically. I guess the one who went vertically was the winner.
Both in my home area in Kentucky and here, in upland situations Red-bellied Woodpeckers are the most common woodpecker species, and for that reason alone usually I don't get too excited about seeing one. However, over the years I've experienced a sort of creeping admiration for the species.
First of all, when I began traveling in the American tropics I came to realize that our Red-bellied species was just the local expression of a complex of very similar species distributed all the way into South America. In northern Mexico's mesquite plains the Golden-fronted Woodpecker is everyplace, and looks and sounds almost like our Red-bellied, just a little rangier. In pine forests farther south the Golden- cheeked Woodpecker looks almost the same, but with black spectacles. The Yucatan Woodpecker also looks almost the same, but it's a pygmy version. And on it goes. What a pleasure to behold variations on a theme you grew up with, thinking that that theme could be sung only one way.
Once this spring as I lay atop my trailer one Saturday morning listening to the radio a Red-bellied was excavating his nest in a Pecan tree's nearly horizontal limb about 30 feet above me. His hole entered from the limb's bottom surface so as he dug inside the limb sawdust tumbled through the hole in his floor behind him and rained onto my camp. About every minute he'd poke his head from this hole with his beak so wide open that you could see his long tongue as he gasped for breath. Well, if you're inside a limb chipping at wood, there are no windows, your body is blocking air coming into the hole behind you, so it must get awfully stuffy.
He looked funny the way his head poked from the bottom of that limb, with his beak wide open and his tongue lolling all around. But instead of laughing I was struck with the realization that here was just another regular good schnook doing his best at a rough job. He was like all of us facing tasks that leave us a bit washed-out and silly feeling. Nowadays when I'm almost feeling sorry for myself after computering all day, my back muscles burning, and I'm a bit groggy, I just remember that fellow with his tongue hanging out.
You can see a Red-bellied Woodpecker (usually they only have red bellies during the spring; most of the red is on their head, but the "Red-headed" name is taken by a species with even more red there) at www.sccf.org/Birds/red-bellied%20woodpecker.JPG
Despite there having been no wind, this Wednesday morning I had to move a sizable limb off the gravel road across the bayou. It had snapped off because it bore such an enormous cluster of black, shiny, juicy, pea-size fruits. You can see such a fruit cluster, along with part of the gigantic, "odd-bipinnately compound" leaf of the tree at www.floridata.com/ref/A/images/aral_sp3.jpg
The broken limb came from one of our most distinctive trees, the Devil's-walkingstick, ARALIA SPINOSA, of the Ginseng or Aralia Family. I remember vividly the day I was introduced to this species. I was a teenager in Kentucky climbing a steep forest slope during the winter and I started slipping atop the dry, smooth leaves. Automatically I reached out to grab something, and in half a second I was sliding downslope looking at a slightly mangled hand. I had grabbed the trunk of a Devil's-walkingstick, which didn't earn that name by having smooth bark. You can see a close-up of this species's spiny stem at www.csdl.tamu.edu/FLORA/dcs420/a/hdw05030047s.jpg
The offending tree stood only about 6 feet high so I dug it up, carried it home, and planted it. The next spring I was amazed to see the leaves that emerged. Being "odd-bipinnately compound," each leaf was divided into leaflets, each of those leaflets was divided into further leaflets, and one small leaflet served as the leaf's tip. Each day the compound leaf grew until eventually it was nearly four feet long (1.2 m) and three feet wide (0.9 m).
In a couple of years the thing managed to amaze me again, this time by issuing a bunch of tiny white flowers in a cluster nearly four feet high. With this plant everything was all out of proportion. The woody part was actually scrawny, not more than about fifteen feet tall (4.5 m), but its leaves and flower cluster were larger than I'd ever observed on any tree. All summer I waited to see what kind of fruits would develop. Of course the bounteous crop of black, shiny items you saw at the above address didn't disappoint me.
Devil's-walkingstick is neither common nor rare here or in my home area of western Kentucky. However in the Appalachian Mountains they are more common and grow larger, up to 30 feet tall (9 m). When Sigrid and I backpacked there last September we admired them greatly.
A few Lovebugs, PLECIA NEARCTICA, are out now, and if you live in this area you know that when I write "a few," it's significant.
During a couple of summers since I've been here we experienced an absolute surfeit of Lovebugs. The moment I'd step outside they'd get tangled in my hair and clothing, and when I sweated they'd stick to my skin. If I breathed hard through my mouth I'd inhale them. During one such Lovebug outbreak I traveled by Greyhound to New York, and the bus driver said that in Louisiana he'd had to stop several times between stations to clean his windshields -- couldn't see a thing. Anyone who has never experienced a Lovebug outbreak probably can't imagine so much biomass suspended in the air. You can see a good close-up of a couple of Lovebugs on some goldenrod flowers, one of their favorite meeting places, at http://creatures.ifas.ufl.edu/misc/lovebug_photo4.jpg
People who try to keep their cars shiny dislike Lovebugs not only because they spatter all over any car that moves through a cloud of them, but also because Lovebug spatter-juice actually can hurt a car's finish. Lovebug body fluids are slightly acid and if a smushed pair is allowed to remain on the car for several days, bacterial action increases the acidity and etches the paint.
I write "pair" because you hardly ever see them except in stuck-together pairs -- male and female mating. Thus the name. Just why Lovebugs were created with such a necessity for long-term copulation is a mystery. It is known, however, that females live only for about 65 to 90 hours after mating. Therefore, most of a Lovebug's life cycle is spent in a maggot-like larval stage feeding on roots and decaying vegetation.
Each year two generations of Lovebugs appear, one in May and the other in September, and it seems that their populations explode only erratically. This year, at least at Laurel Hill, their numbers aren't great at all. Amazingly, researchers have concluded that the heat, vapors of gasoline and diesel, and the vibrations of automobiles actually attract Lovebugs to highways. Lovebugs are found from Costa Rica north to the US Gulf States. I never saw the species in Kentucky.
There's more information about Lovebugs than you'll probably ever want to know at http://creatures.ifas.ufl.edu/misc/lovebug.htm
One of the most abundant, striking weeds in my garden, around my trailer and along the gravel road is the Beefsteak Plant, PERILLA FRUTESCENS, a highly odoriferous member of the Mint Family. In the eastern US it's found as far north as New York, Indiana and Kansas. You can see a nice botanical illustration at www.itmonline.org/image/mentha4.jpg
These are large mints with purple-tinted leaves, often standing 4 feet high (1.2 m). Their strong odor is definitely minty, but there's such a musky component that you'd hesitate to brew tea with the leaves. I always let the species grow unless it's absolutely in the way. First, its tiny flowers are much visited by a variety of bees, so the plants definitely contribute to local ecosystem dynamics. Second, it's always fun to accidentally brush against a plant and be instantly enveloped in a cloud of its intense minty odor.
This is an introduced species from eastern Asia, where it enjoys some fame as a spice. You sometimes see it marketed under its Japanese name, Shiso. Some horticultural forms have been produced with deep purple leaves, and these are sold as ornamentals. Their odor and taste depend on variety, local soil and climate.
In the forest around here sometimes you come upon semi-open spots where wild boar have rooted large areas, and wallowed. For some reason, Beefsteak Plants are the main herbs to become reestablished in such spots, forming dense, pure stands. Sometimes boar return to these spots and root and wallow in the night. The next morning the odor of this mint, moist earth and pig manure is very strong. I like to stand in this odor-soup imagining what it must be like to be a wild boar deep in the night wallowing in moist earth and smelling all that musky mint. A boar's most sensitive sense organ is its nose, so you know it must be a heady experience for them.
Especially along roadsides and at woods edges nowadays you see a vine member of the Composite Family with white flowers. It's Climbing Hempweed, MIKANIA SCANDENS. The fact that it's a vine Composite in itself makes it a little unusual, since the vast majority of Composites, such as sunflowers, daisies and dandelions, are herbs. You can see this plant at www.hear.org/pier3/images/miscap1.jpg
I always give Climbing Hempweed a second look because in our area there's a second, closely related species called Florida Keys Hempvine, MIKANIA CORDIFOLIA, which is very rare. Basically it's just like M. scandens, except that it's larger and hairier. This second species is common throughout the American tropics, but we are at the absolute northernmost point of its distribution. Whenever an environmental impact statement is conducted for our area, if this species is found, it's listed as being of special interest, though not rare and endangered.
MISSISSIPPI MUSEUM OF NATURAL SCIENCES
While checking into the official status of Mikania cordifolia mentioned above, I found the site of the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science, at www.mdwfp.com/museum/default.asp
Here you can download lists of species that are rare and/or endangered, or at least of "special interest," for the entire state and for each individual county. To see a list for your own Mississippi county, go to www.mdwfp.com/museum/html/heritage/search_plants.asp To download a list of these species statewide, go to www.mdwfp.com/museum/html/heritage/tandelist.pdf
The downloaded lists are transferred to your computer in the PDF format, so you must have an Adobe Acrobat Reader installed on your computer to read the files. If you don't have Reader, you can download a free copy. Just Google "Adobe Acrobat Reader free download."
RARE, ENDANGERED AND SPECIAL-INTEREST SPECIES
On the lists generated at the above site for Adams County, where Natchez is located, the following plants were mentioned:
ANTENNARIA SOLITARIA/ Single-headed Pussytoes
CAREX DECOMPOSITA/ Cypress-knee Sedge
CELASTRUS SCANDENS/ Climbing Bittersweet
DRYOPTERIS X AUSTRALIS/ Southern Wood fern hybrid
ERYTHRODES QUERCETICOLA/ Low Erythrodes
HERBERTIA LAHUE SSP/ Caerulea Herbertia
MIKANIA CORDIFOLIA/ Florida Keys Hempvine
PACHYSANDRA PROCUMBENS/ Allegheny-spurge
PHACELIA DUBIA/ Small-flower Scorpionweed
PLATANTHERA CRISTATA/ Crested Fringed Orchid
SCHISANDRA GLABRA/ Scarlet Woodbine
STEWARTIA MALACODENDRON/Silky Camellia
TRILLIUM FOETIDISSIMUM/ Fetid Trillium
The following animals were listed:
CYPRINELLA WHIPPLEI/ Steelcolor Shiner
GRAPTEMYS OUACHITENSIS/ Ouachita Map Turtle
PARAVITREA SIGNIFICANS/ Domed Supercoil
POTAMILUS CAPAX/ Fat Pocketbook
Remarks about dogwoods in last week's Newsletter caused Leon Felkins up near Yokena to write that the Flowering Dogwoods around his home are diseased, and that "It is a bad malady, I can tell you. Last year in summer, we saw so many dead trees in the woods (they seem to do better on the edges where there is lots of sunlight) that we thought they were all dying. The dead ones make nice firewood, just the right size and hard, so I cut up many for the wood stove. But this last spring, we saw lots of white in the woods so many did survive. Hopefully, they will develop immunity."
Leon and I, after looking at images on the Internet, are pretty sure the disease is Dogwood Anthracnose, which during recent years has been spreading through the Southeast fast, from a base in the southern Appalachians. Flowering Dogwoods here at the plantation are also diseased. I've scanned some leaves and you can see the disease's symptoms, which at this time of year show up as yellow or red splotches with dark brown centers on the leaves, at www.backyardnature.net/fungsac.htm, under the heading "Anthracnose Disease."
One of the best places on the Web to read all about the disease, its causes, its diagnosis and its prognosis, is at http://pr.tennessee.edu/ut2kids/dogwood/identify.html