NATCHEZ NATURALIST
NEWSLETTER:
from the woods near Natchez, Mississippi, USA

October 13, 2002

RAINBOW OF MUSHROOMS
Until now mushrooms at Laurel Hill haven't put on much of a show. However, now the rains of Hurricanes Isidore and Lili have brought forth a flush of mushrooms, a veritable rainbow of them, that's a joy to see.

One day this week during a walk in the forest, in a spot no larger than a car, I found a large, blue Indigo Lactarius, a yellow-and-red Boletus, an unknown dwarf species with a waxy-red body glowing in the forest's deep shade, and a mostly black, shaggy Old Man of the Woods. Usually I don't pick mushrooms because I feel bad about interrupting their life cycles, but this collection was so pretty that I did pick them, then made an arrangement of them atop my scanner, and scanned them. You can view that image at the top of my main mushroom page at www.backyardnature.net/mushroom.htm

The next morning I made a fine omelet of the collection. The Indigo Lactarius was so turgid with inky latex that the whole omelet turned blue. It was like eating those wonderful tortillas you get in some parts of Mexico made from blue corn. It's as if you shouldn't be eating anything so blue but, if you just close your eyes, the taste is down-home satisfying.

Much of eastern North America also must be enjoying good mushroom times because many people are visiting my mushroom pages. The page titled "Eating Mushrooms Without Killing Yourself" at www.backyardnature.net/eat_mush.htm is especially popular.

By the way, I did a detailed analysis of my log files for Wednesday. On that day 1802 people visited my sites, downloading 3522 pages. Seeing this, I feel that my behind-the-computer days in isolation here in the woods are not being wasted.

*****

CARDINAL ANTING OR APHIDING
While my breakfast baked over the campfire I vacantly eyed a male Cardinal on a limb inside the nearby Waxmyrtle tree. The bird seemed to know exactly where he wanted to go. When he got there he immediately bent over the branch's side, with his beak quickly picked something from the branch's bottom bark, opened one wing and appeared to smear in a single, jerky movement whatever he had removed from below the branch under his wing! I couldn't tell if he was rubbing the wing's inner surface or the tender part of his body usually covered by the wing. This whole process took only three or four seconds, then immediately he repeated the entire process, this time beneath the other wing. During a minute or so he alternated between wings maybe ten times.

When he left I went into the Waxmyrtle to look at the spot where he had been. I found a densely populated colony of perhaps a hundred giant aphids, some of them the size of BBs, others tiny. Had the Cardinal been preening beneath his wings with the juices of smashed aphids? Certainly these aphids were turgid with sweet sap sucked from the Waxmyrtle's limb, but I've never heard of birds smearing sugar-water over their feathers.

Later in the day I returned to the same spot. This time only half a dozen aphids were present, but now so were several very large, slow-moving ants of a kind I don't recall seeing here. Ants are known to move about colonies of aphids they milk for honeydew.

In bird literature there's a phenomenon known as "anting," where birds have been observed placing ants on their bodies for unknown purposes. A good guess is that formic acid from the ants' crushed bodies repel external parasites.

I'll bet that I'd witnessed the Cardinal "anting" with ants tending the aphid colony. I think I almost made a splendid observation, but I was unable to see the whole thing.

There's a page about bird anting (and smoking) at birds.ecoport.org/Behaviour/EBanting.htm

*****

ORCHID #4
So far in these Newsletters I've told you about three small species of orchid found at Laurel Hill. Their Newsletter dates and the species were:

  • Oct 28, 2001: Nodding Ladies'-tresses
  • Mar 10, 2002: Southern Twayblade
  • Aug 11, 2002: Crane-fly Orchid

For a couple of weeks I've been seeing what I assumed was the reappearance of Nodding Ladies'-tresses but gradually it began dawning on me that what I was seeing was appearing too early, plus the flower clusters didn't look quite right. So I got my books and, sure enough, it's a second species of Ladies'- tresses, this one often called by the books Oval Ladies'-tresses, SPIRANTHES OVALIS. You can see a close-up of its flower cluster, or inflorescence, at www.em.robins.af.mil/conserve/natural/photos/sovalis2.jpe

The most obvious differences between this and the Nodding Ladies'-tresses is that the inflorescence of this species is usually shorter, giving the cluster an oval shape instead of a long slender one, as is the case with the Nodding species. Also this species's flowers are smaller.

Though Oval Ladies'-tresses are considered uncommon, it's not surprising that they are found here. They like rich woods on calcium-rich soil. Our loess is relatively calcareous. Here the species mainly grows on steep loess walls of bayous. What a pleasure to find a fourth orchid species here!

*****

CATERPILLAR LEGS
Pecan tree branches are a bit brittle so Hurricane Lili did a pruning job on our Pecans. On one snapped-off branch I found the large, thick, greenish caterpillar of a Luna Moth. The caterpillar was hardly moving and I think it was on the verge of forming a cocoon. I scanned him and you can see him, the second picture from the top, at www.backyardnature.net/caterpil.htm

The next picture down on that page is an amazing scanned image showing "hooklets" at the end of the caterpillar's middle legs (called prolegs). If you've ever pulled a caterpillar off your clothing and as the caterpillar's legs came undone it felt as if you were yanking off something stuck with Velcro, that picture will explain what was happening. You'll see that the bottoms of a caterpillar's prolegs really are like Velcro. I am continually amazed at what a scanner can portray if you fiddle with it enough.

*****

SOUTHERN SHIELD-FERN
Of all the weeks of the year, maybe this has been the one during which the Southern Shield-fern, THELYPTERIS KUNTHII, has been the prettiest. This fern dies back after frost so it's not present during the winter, and during spring it takes a while to unfurl all its new fiddleheads. Then through summer it generally grows retiringly in deep shadows. However, now, with clear October sunlight filtering down through the forest canopy, and that canopy admitting more and more sunlight every day because of caterpillars eating the leaves, and leaves falling during storms, or because fall is approaching and certain leaves are drying up and falling even though it rains a good deal -- now the forest on sunny days almost glows inside, and this special, transient light highlights especially the forest's Southern Shield-ferns.

Nowhere is the species more spectacular than on the broad, soaring, almost vertical walls of our deep bayous where Southern Shield-ferns display themselves in unbroken, cascading masses. Imagine a high wall totally mantled with large, tightly packed, frilly fern fronds arching outward and downward like green, gushing water. The sun shines on this as a light breeze blows, so that the fronds admit both the blackest shadows, the deepest greens, and scintillating patches of light so intense that they are more yellow or white than green, and the whole thing is sparkling-moist.

Southern Shield-ferns also appear here and there throughout the heavily shaded forest, often mingling with Christmas Ferns. It's a robust species with fronds 20 inches long (50 cm), a little hairy, and arising from wiry rhizomes a quarter of an inch thick (5 mm). This fern is so abundant at Laurel Hill that one would guess that it's common all through eastern North America. However, the species makes it no farther north than central Mississippi, though southward it extends all the way to Brazil.

You can see a Southern Shield-fern at www.csdl.tamu.edu/FLORA/mi14/mi14032.jpg

*****

BROWN THRASHERS IN A WAVE
Fall migration of birds is going on right now, and it's amazingly different from spring migration. This spring, migrants wore bright spring plumage and they sang with abandon. Now they are mostly somber-colored, usually quiet or silent, and mostly make an effort to pass unseen. It would be easy not to notice the passage, but each day there are certain hints of what's going on. Hoeing in the garden I hear a single chip-sound from a Rose-breasted Grosbeak. Deep in the night from high in the black sky I hear a single lonely skronk from some kind of crane or large heron. A brief cheep in the bushes pinpoints an American Redstart snapping gnats among the shadows.

Often waves of migrants arrive on weather fronts. This Tuesday, I think it was, a cold front (into the 60s) just reached us and stalled out, and it brought with it a hilarious number of Brown Thrashers. We have Brown Thrashers year round, so these new ones hailed from farther north. During the winter in the Mississippi Valley Brown Thrashers are found no farther north than southern Kentucky, approximately.

I took a walk on the day the big wave of Brown Thrashers came in. With the cold front stalled atop us, it was drizzly and chilly -- somber. But there were so many Brown Thrashers I had to laugh. It seemed every big tree, every fencerow, every brushpile, every blackberry bramble had its Brown Thrasher, and they weren't silent, either. Brown Thrashers, being in the same family as Mockingbirds and Catbirds, are brilliant singers, but now in this broody chill they issued a growly churrrr call, the warning many birds make to announce a snake in the vicinity. Sometimes they also issued a liquid smacking sound. Nothing of music here, just these strange, almost unsettling calls emanating from every shadow and every form on the landscape.

Because they prefer semi-open areas instead of thick forest, I've seldom seen them around my camp. However, now that Hurricane Lili brought down the big Pecan that flattened all those 30-ft-tall Sweetgums next to my trailer, the heap of snapped twigs, splintered limbs and tattered leaves seems to be of the birds' liking, and some have been hanging around my camp.

Making up for that day's melancholy churrrrs and liquid smackings, on Thursday afternoon the sun came out brilliantly and as I sat working at my computer a Brown Thrasher hopped past just outside my door. How vibrant and warm his rusty-colored back was in the sunshine, and how striking were his piercing, yellow-orange eyes. He was a proud-looking, self-assured bird, and for a moment I think he paused and cocked his head to listen to the Bach fugues filtering through my screen door.

Who would have thought that such a pleasing moment might blossom from the hurricane-inspired demise of an old Pecan tree?

You can see a Brown Thrasher at www.fence.org/images/Birds/FenceBirds/brwnthrash.JPG

*****

ASTRONOMY PICTURE OF THE DAY
Newsletter subscriber Ana María Palos has written to me about a Web site that each day presents a new astronomy picture. One day it's a strange feature on Venus looking exactly like the ruins of a city; another day it's a close-up of the asteroid belt; on the day I write this, it's the galactic dust surrounding the star Eta Carinae.

Each day when I sign onto the Internet I visit this site. It helps put things into perspective before I begin the day's work. It reminds me how tiny my sphere of influence is relative to the Universe at large, and somehow this helps me focus every moment on the random majesty around me. It causes me to reflect on how awesome the Creative Force is that has put the Universe together, and keeps it going. Also it reminds me of how vulnerable our little Spaceship Earth is, suspended in an ocean of cold, sterile emptiness, and that gives meaning to my work in environmental education. The site is at antwrp.gsfc.nasa.gov/apod/astropix.html

Thanks Ana María.

*****

I'LL BE AWAY A WHILE
If everything goes according to plans, this week I'll head north for my yearly visit with my family in Kentucky. Two or three weekends may pass without your hearing from me. I should have some interesting notes when I return.