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

November 24, 2002

METEOR STATIC
Monday night the sky was opaque with a light overcast, and the brilliant moon charged that overcast with dazzling luminescence. I could barely make out about half a dozen of the brightest stars, so this year's Leonid Meteor Shower was something of a bust, and I just went to bed.

Before dozing off, however, on the radio's FM band I tuned to the side of a station around 100 mhz, to where I could just barely hear a little splatter from the station, and then I listened to the static. The idea is that when a meteor streaks overhead, for a moment its trail of particles tumbling toward earth reflects radio signals, causing the station's signal to suddenly increase in strength, then slowly diminish. In this way you can "hear" meteors passing. This really works, but, in my experience, only with fair-sized meteors. I like this trick because when I was 15 years old in 1963 I got my ham radio license (WA4PGA), and radio has remained a source of fascination for me.

Monday night I didn't hear much of anything. Nonetheless as I lay there in the darkness listening to the static I was reminded of one of my favorite quotations, something George Washington Carver wrote:

"I love to think of nature as an unlimited broadcasting station through which God speaks to us every hour, if we will only tune in."

*****

WINTER WREN ANNOUNCES HIMSELF
I am still getting used to the waist-high, Hurricane-Lili-caused, gray and brown tangle of shattered Pecan-tree limbs carpeting the area where once the 30-foot-high wall of young Sweetgums stood. Not only do I have a more open, morning-sunlight- filled view, but also now during my breakfasts different birds show up -- species naturally attracted to thickets and brush piles.

The Carolina Wrens who have claimed my camp all along love the new jungle and can't seem to get enough of exploring it. Same for the resident Cardinals, towhees, titmice and chickadees. Throughout each day a pair of Ruby-crowned Kinglets and some White-throated Sparrows gravitate to it, both species having just arrived from Canada.

A couple of weeks ago I began glimpsing a very secretive visitor who just didn't want to be seen. For two weeks I've kept my binoculars handy during breakfasts but, each time I'd spot the "mystery bird," by the time I could swing the binoculars into action it would be gone.

From the glimpses I was granted, I was pretty sure it was a wren, but I couldn't see which species. The following wren species overwinter in our area: Carolina Wren, Bewick's Wren, Long-billed Marsh Wren, House Wren, and Winter Wren.

The Carolina, Bewick's and Long-billed Marsh Wrens all bear striking white eye stripes, and earlier this week when I finally saw that my mystery bird lacked that, I knew that either I had a House Wren or a Winter Wren. Either species would have been a welcome visitor. I haven't seen a House Wren for years, though when I was a kid they were fairly common. They are drawn to orchards, and pesticides used there have been hard on them. Winter Wrens are less uncommon, but I seldom see them, either. At a distance, the easiest way to tell the two species apart is that the Winter Wren has an hilariously short tail. Up close there are other small differences but if you can see that short tail you don't need any other field mark.

Then on Thursday morning my mystery bird decided to announce himself. Instead of furtively slinking from shadow to shadow, of all things now here he was on my dishpan not ten feet away (3 m) staring right at me. He flew to a nearby post and for a minute or so cocked his head as if listening to Morning Edition on Public Radio. He flitted to the top of the bat cistern beneath my kitchen's tin roof, then explored every feature of my bicycle not 4 feet (1.2 m) behind me. This bird was equipped with an incredibly short tail, so it was indeed a Winter Wren, TROGLODYTES TROGLODYTES, an illustration of which resides at http://birds.cornell.edu/BOW/WINWRE/images/mcqwinwren.gif

This seems to be a spunky little bird, and maybe that explains a curious fact. That is, of the 59 wren species in the world today, all live in the New World (I've identified about a dozen species just in Mexico). However, there's one wren species among them that some two million years ago, according to recent genetic studies, crossed the Bering Sea land bridge from Alaska into Asia, and then spread across Eurasia all the way to England. That exploration-ready, flinty-eyed, really short-tailed little species was our Winter Wren. In Europe it behaves much less secretively than here. Many times during my European wanderings I've smiled to see this good old American bird making it big over there. In Germany it's called the Zaunkönig ("fence king"); in Spain it's the Chochín, and in France Troglodyte (from the Greek, "one who creeps in holes").

In early spring how wonderful it will be to hear this bird's warbling, bubbling melody, which more than makes up for its dull colors and lack of distinguishing features other than its laughable little tail. If your computer can digest WAV audio files, you can hear the song at http://birds.cornell.edu/BOW/WINWRE/WinterWren_b.wav

By the way, you can understand why the tail is so stubby when you see the bird slinking through the brush. As the bird insinuates itself into the curl of every dried-out leaf, and enters every crevice and hole, a longer tail would only get in the way.

*****

BLACK VULTURES IN THE MIST
Dawn Wednesday morning was so foggy that I could hardly see the tops of nearby trees. After jogging, as I prepared breakfast over my campfire, a commotion in the big Pecan tree above me drew my attention to about a dozen Black Vultures, CORAGYPS ATRATUS, landing there. They were about as clumsy as I would be trying to find stable perches among the Pecan's slender branches. I've been seeing more than the usual number of Black Vultures lately. Usually they are thought of as permanent residents where they occur.

We have two abundant vulture species here, and one is about as common as the other. It was different when I was a kid in Kentucky. There Turkey Vultures were abundant but I can't recall having ever seen a Black Vulture there. They are easily distinguished. The undersurfaces of the Black Vultures' wing bear white patches toward the wingtips, while Turkey Vultures are completely black, except for their red heads. The Turkey Vulture has a much longer, narrower tail, and appears to fly with much less effort than the Black Vulture. You can see a Black Vulture with the white "windows" on its wings at www.forestry.auburn.edu/mirarchi/black%20vulture%202.jpg

A couple of interesting facts about American vultures have come to light since I was a kid. First, though a vulture's main food is stinking carrion, it seems to prefer freshly killed prey. Vultures (which I was taught to call "buzzards" by my family) are most often spotted feeding on rotting carcasses only because it's easier to find decaying bodies because of their odor.

The second discovery is that Turkey Vultures do have a wonderful ability to find carrion by the odor, but Black Vultures, like the vast majority of other bird species, can't smell particulary well. In fact, Black Vultures depend a great deal on Turkey Vultures to find their meals for them. You often see Turkey Vultures sailing right above the treetops trying to locate food by odor. Black Vultures more typically circle higher in the sky, not only looking for carrion but also watching the Turkey Vultures. If a Black Vulture see a Turkey Vulture descending, it'll immediately go see what the Turkey Vulture has found, and more often than not may chase away the Turkey Vulture!

My old field guide to the birds lists vultures along with hawks and falcons -- considers them to belong to the order Falconiformes. In 1994, however, results from DNA analysis and other studies caused ornithologists to reclassify American vultures as being more closely related to storks in the order known as the Ciconiiformes.

*****

PARTRIDGE BERRY
With some trees losing leaves and the remaining tree leaves growing more tattered, now more light is flooding onto the forest floor highlighting certain citizens living there. One such forest-floor inhabitant is the Partridge Berry, MITCHELLA REPENS, belonging to the same mostly-tropical family as coffee. The trailing plant's small, dark green, evergreen leaves hug the ground sometimes forming a kind of carpet, and bearing bright red fruits about 0.5 inch across (13 mm), as shown on the plant at http://inspirezone.org/hiking/partridgeberry.jpg

Though the plant's white flowers generally appear in late spring or early summer, a few plants are flowering now. Occasionally spring-flowering plants blossom in the fall when day-lengths are close to what they are during their spring flowering time. Maybe it's "confusion," or maybe there's a reason we don't know about.

Partridge Berries aren't the only plants with their "phenology" seemingly screwed up these days. Along the road leading into the plantation manager's home the Paper-white Narcissuses are flowering just as if it were February, and other narcissi are sending up leaves all around my trailer, along with the garlic. These leaves were emerging long before last weekend's "cold treatment" so I'm guessing that the recent rains triggered their emergence.

Though edible, the Partridge Berry's bright fruits are too small to think about eating. However, the whole plant has fame as being medicinal. It's supposed to aid contraction of the womb during childbirth, as well as helping "other painful conditions of the female reproductive tract." Native American women were known to use this herb during the last weeks of pregnancy in preparation for childbirth.

I never know what to think when I read about such medicinal uses of plants. During my years of being with "Indians" in Mexico, Central and South America, I often asked about the uses of plants in their villages. I remember one Nahuatl-speaking man in central Mexico telling me that a certain shrub was good for spina bifida, where a baby is born with a split spine. It was hard to imagine that this illiterate man had even heard of spina bifida, much less that he knew how to medicate it. Yet there was surely some kind of connection between the plant and the disease... But then later in the day he showed me another plant which he assured me would cure cancer.

One just doesn't know. My impression is that there are indeed many plants with wonderful medicinal properties, but there's even more silliness and misinformation surrounding the issue.

****

FLOWERING ELEPHANT'S EARS
Earlier I told you about the volunteer Elephant's Ears, COLOCASIA ESCULENTA var. ANTIQUORUM, which came up in my garden, growing 7 feet high (2.1 m). Happily, last Sunday's frost didn't hurt my garden at all, and now my largest Elephant's Ears is flowering. I've scanned the flowering structure and added it to the bottom of my "Blossom Arrangement" page at www.earthfoot.org/inflorsc.html

I write "structure" and not "flower" because the two-foot-long (60 cm) object arising from the center of the plant is actually something inside which hundreds, even thousands, of tiny actual flowers are found. You have a greenish, leafy object shaped into a cylinder, called a spathe. Inside the spathe there's a pencil-like item known as a spadix, and on this spadix are found the actual flowers. Female flowers cluster at the spadix's bottom while male flowers cluster at the top. You can see all this on my Web page.

Elephant's Ears belongs to the Arum Family, which also includes Jack-in-the-pulpit, Philodendron, Anthurium, Caladium and a lot more mostly tropical species. If you know the Jack-in-the-pulpit, which is a wildflower here, you'll recognize that "Jack" is a flower- incrusted spadix and his "pulpit" is a spathe.

Notice the "esculenta" in the Elephant's Ears' Latin name. It means "edible," and it refers to the fact that the plant produces large, starchy, good-tasting, edible tubers. In fact, the Elephant's Ears we grow because of their pretty leaves is just a variety of the plant known as Taro, grown worldwide in the tropics as a rootcrop. If you decide to try eating an Elephant's Ear's root, be careful. It's poisonous until properly cooked.

*****

THE SIX MIRACLES OF NATURE
While reading Bill Broder's The Sacred Hoop I was surprised to see his reference to Earth's "three miracles." Those miracles were:

  • that things exist at all
  • that life came out of things
  • that life became conscious of itself

My surprise is that I had believed that I had thought up "The Six Miracles of Nature" all by myself, yet his three miracles were included in my six. Well, more than once in my life what I thought were original ideas (even original tunes) turned out to be old hat.

Here are "my" Six Miracles of Nature:

When something came out of nothing, the Universe could have remained an infinite volume of hydrogen atoms equidistantly suspended in space, but it didn't. Miraculously, matter began coagulating, changing its nature in many ways, engendering stars and planets, antimatter, black holes and all the rest.

Similarly, when life arose it could have remained like a virus, simply replicating itself for eternity. Instead, something charged the spirit of life with the capacity to evolve, so that now we have amphibians, birds, mammals, and whatever may emerge later.

And when life became conscious of itself, it could have remained concerned merely with the pleasures and pains of the body, and it could have restricted its thoughts to the brain's genetically fixed patterns. Instead, now, at least briefly, some of us can sometimes rejoice in the abstract patterns of music and art, we can laugh at the good joke that we are ourselves spiritual beings stuck in animal bodies, and on occasion we can even glimpse the unity of all things.

Maybe the Creator's crowning achievement on Earth so far is that some of us sometimes reflect back on the Creative Force out of which everything has sprung so rambunctiously and elegantly, recognize the beauty in it all, and feel awe and honor to be part of it.

Astronomers, geologists and biologists can tell us approximately how long ago each of the first five miracles occurred. The First Miracle came about approximately 4.8 billion years ago, if I remember correctly the last figures I saw, and the Third maybe 4.3 billion, and then, if self consciousness arose with the first hominids, the Fifth Miracle ignited possibly 35 million years ago.

I think that The Sixth Miracle is occurring just now -- "now" being the last few millennia. This blossoming is taking place as a greater and greater percentage of us Homo sapiens at least sometimes, at least briefly, project our minds beyond thoughts dealing with the daily maintenance and navigation of our bodies -- the hurting feet, the mechanics of acquiring mates, power and status, etc.

The Sixth Miracle flashes into being whenever any one of us reflects on the Cosmos, the selfless and beautiful abstract patterns in music and art, the pale-orange broomsedge field lightly touched with frost at dawn as the White-throated Sparrow sings its "I'm here" song... and is moved to emotion.