from the woods near Natchez, Mississippi, USA
December 15, 2002
Mornings like this one, beginning clear and frosty, then warming up fast with brilliant sunlight, are a delight. After breakfast I walk through the blackberry field as curls of dense fog rise off the broomsedge and brambles. Sunlight flooding in from the east causes the fog to glow like neon in a florescent tube. White-throated Sparrows, Towhees and Cardinals friskily flit about as if they know they inhabit a wonderland, and they mean to explore every corner.
By about 10 AM the fog is gone, the sky is deep blue and the air is perfectly fresh and pure. Now the world is young and hopeful and I stand peering into brambles and bushes as the sunlight warms my back and legs.
Though the Winter Solstice hasn't arrived yet, often bird pairs cavort in chases as if it were spring courtship time. Occasionally a White-throated Sparrow erupts with his springy "Old Sam Peabody Peabody Peabody" call. What a pleasure to be next to a sunny blackberry bramble when that sweet, liquid call cuts through the morning air.
Few material things enrich my life as much as my binoculars. For example, on Wednesday morning I spotted a tiny bird in a Black Oak tree busily examining the undersides of leaves. At my distance the bird could have been any number of small species and I assumed that it was the usual chickadee or titmouse. However, up went the binoculars and instantly I saw what had been invisible just moments ago: The bird wore a broad, yellow cap atop its head. It was a Golden-crowned Kinglet, REGULUS SATRAPA.
Thus the binoculars granted me the pleasure of seeing a very pretty bird, plus they revealed that I was in the presence of someone who in these parts is fairly uncommon. Golden-crowned Kinglets are found in Mississippi only during the winter, and even then they are uncommon. You can see a couple of kinglets at www.enderby.com/birds/photos/pictures/pict5.jpeg
In the summer I love to focus my binoculars to as close as possible, then just sit scanning grassblades, weeds, leafy tree branches right above my head and, especially, the banks of ponds and streams. A good, slow, up-close scanning of such places always reveals a snail on a grass stem, a spider stalking a bug, a tiny mushroom...
Of course, you could always get onto your stomach, poke your nose into the herbage, and accomplish the same thing. Around here if you do that you'll instantly be infested with fire ants and chiggers.
My binoculars' main job, however, is to provide good views of individual birds leading their normal lives. Long ago I discovered that nothing fills me with admiration and calms my spirit more than simply having a good view of a bird being itself.
You might be interested in my Web page on binocular basics at www.backyardnature.net/binocs.htm
On Wednesday my binoculars were focused on a Mockingbird in a sugarberry tree, CELTIS LAEVIGATA. Sugarberries are members of the Elm Family and they are closely related to Hackberries found farther north. This time of year mature trees bear thousands of pea-sized fruits and after frosts the flesh of those fruits are indeed sugary. Unfortunately, the flesh is so thin around the very hard seed that lots of seeds must be eaten to acquire just a little nourishment.
However, in nature good food is usually hard to come by for most creatures, so many birds relish Sugarberry fruits. My Wednesday Mockingbird would perch for a few minutes, then abruptly flit into the Sugarberry and gulp down one fruit after another until you'd think his gut would split. Then he'd fly off to another perch and sit quietly again, digesting.
He had swallowed the fruits whole so I knew that if I watched long enough I'd see something interesting. All at once he'd appear to burp, he'd gape his beak wide, and out would tumble one or more Sugarberry seeds stripped of their flesh. Lots of bird species do this. When swallowed, instead of heading directly for the bird's stomach, the seeds are stored in the baglike crop between their mouths and stomachs. There the seeds' skins are softened, removed and passed on through the digestive system to the stomach, but the seeds themselves are regurgitated.
If you live in the Southeast you should know Sugarberries because they are very common, their fruits are important to many creatures, and their identification is easy.
Sugarberry bark is smooth but warty, and gray. The degree of wartiness varies tremendously. Some trunks look like very smooth elephant skin but other trunks are nearly entirely covered by warts. You can see a trunk tending toward the warty end of the scale at www.floridata.com/ref/c/images/celt_l3.jpg
Sugarberry leaves also are distinctive, having roundish bases with one side drooped lower than the other, and with leaf margins being smooth -- bearing no teeth or lobes. The leaf tip is longish and sharp. You can see such leaves along with fruit at www.uark.edu/campus-resources/cotinus/plants4_html/cela3.jpg
CHIPMUNKS BUSY DIGGING
The one-lane gravel road into the bayou between here and the gardens cuts through loess and passes between near-vertical walls encrusted with mosses, liverworts and ferns. Trees with Spanish Moss overhang the little trail and each day I feel lucky to "go to work" through such an idyllic tunnel.
Many Eastern Chipmunks, TAMIAS STRIATUS, have their own tunnels in the loess banks along the road and I hardly ever fail to see one or more. Now that acorns are falling they are especially busy. When collecting food for their storage burrows they work obsessively, continually running back and forth between the food source and the burrow. Over three days someone watched a chipmunk store a bushel of chestnuts, hickory nuts and corn kernels.
Here and there along the loess banks chipmunks have created nearly straight, horizontal runways ten feet (3 m) long and longer. Sometimes you'll hear a sharp whistle of someone you've sneaked up on and then you'll see them high-tailing down these runways toward their burrows, zipping beneath fern fronds and tree roots at amazing speeds. Most runways are built just beneath the overhanging sod formed by the forest floor above, so most runways remain dry. They are like tunnels open to view on one side. Sometimes I imagine being a chipmunk hustling down a runway beneath roots, overarching fern fronds, the wall below richly green with moss and liverwort... as on an enchanted Hobbit trail.
Lately I've been seeing freshly dug dirt scattered over large areas of moss, liverworts and ferns, so apparently some chipmunks are "digging in for the winter." Much of the digging takes place beneath tree roots at the top of the banks, and I fear that this causes many trees, over time, to lean inexorably over the road. During heavy rains often one or more of these trees fall, and this doesn't endear chipmunks to the plantation manager.
In fact, around the manager's house a general war with the chipmunks has been going on for years. Chipmunks are accused of gnawing insulation off the vehicles' engine wires and of devouring precious flower tubers and rhizomes. I have kept quiet about the fact that during the winter they enter my coldframe and eat seeds I've planted. Also, this summer they invaded the garden area I'd protected from burrowing Pine Voles by sinking corrugated tin sheets all around, and eaten nearly my entire crop of Jerusalem Artichoke tubers!
This summer a chipmunk lived beneath my trailer. Often as I prepared breakfast he'd run out, see me, come to a screeching stop, look at me full in the face, then either streak back beneath the trailer or shoot past my legs into the woodpile. I knew it was always the same chipmunk because half of his tail had been chewed off.
I haven't seen this chipmunk for a while and I suspect that he has become someone's meal. I'll never forget the look on his face when one day he came from beneath the trailer with his cheek pouches absolutely gorged with something, then saw me and put on his brakes so fast that his rear end raised from the ground. You can see a chipmunk with similar stuffed cheek-pouches and look on his face at www.backyardhabitats.net/images/Hoover.JPG
SPANISH MOSS FRUITING
During my October trip to Kentucky I found the forests along the way looking a little drab. I missed the Spanish Moss, TILLANDSIA USNEOIDES, which festoons all the big trees and many of the smaller ones around me here. Spanish Moss adds an element of grace to a forest nothing else can match.
Nowadays brown, capsular fruits appear on individual strands of Spanish Moss. These fruits are about an inch long (2.5 cm) and 1/16th of an inch wide (1 mm). When they split lengthwise they release several tiny seeds equipped with "parachutes" -- white fuzz that catches on the wind and bears the seed to new places. Spanish Moss seeds are a little like Dandelion seeds, but much smaller. If you live where Spanish Moss isn't known, you can see a couple of pictures of it at www.floridata.com/ref/t/till_usn.cfm
Books say that Spanish Moss spreads when its seeds lodge in tree bark, plus birds and wind carry moss fragments to new locations, and then those fragments develop into entirely new plants. From what I've seen, wind distribution of Spanish Moss fragments is by far the species' main means of propagation.
Regularly I am called upon to climb onto the roof of the beautiful little chapel here at Laurel Hill, to clean out the gutters. (The chapel is shown at www.earthfoot.org/places/usms01a.htm.) Often more Spanish Moss clogs the gutters than leaves, despite the roof being above most of the nearby moss-covered trees. In fact, I have sat atop the chapel watching rising wind currents drop pieces of Spanish Moss into the gutters, and the currents weren't really all that strong. A typical moss fragment would be about two inches long. One would think that such large pieces would require a strong wind to be carried aloft, but when Spanish Moss is dry, it's astonishingly light.
I've been calling it "moss" because in this area that's what everyone calls it. However, it is of course not a real moss. A true moss is a tiny green plant reproducing with spores, not with flowers, fruits and seeds.
Spanish Moss is actually a member of the Pineapple Family, the only member of that huge, mainly tropical family in our area. Both Spanish Moss and Pineapples are atypical members of the Pineapple Family. The average Pineapple Family member is a "bromeliad," a tough, tufted plant living on tree branches in the American tropics. In tropical rainforests, bromeliads come in so many sizes, shapes and colors that they are one of the most spectacular features of "jungle life." There are some 1500 bromeliad species! You can see some horticulturally grown, potted bromeliads at www.hort.wisc.edu/mastergardener/img/bromeliads.jpg, and some wild bromeliads growing naturally on a tree at www.ee.princeton.edu/~vivek/bromeliads.gif
So, Pineapples are atypical bromeliads because they grow on the ground, not in trees, and Spanish Moss is atypical because individual plants are connected into long strands that dangle from trees.
Our species of Spanish Moss ranges all through the Americas from here to Argentina. In many countries I have seen it growing on electrical wires. This shows that Spanish Moss does not parasitize the trees they live on. They take all their moisture and nutrients from the rain, the wind, and whatever non-living debris may reside on whatever they are growing upon.
Usually trees are not hurt at all by the presence of Spanish Moss. However, here on the plantation for some reason they just overwhelm the big Crepe Myrtles, keeping sunlight from entering the tree's interiors, and blocking breezes. The Crepe Myrtles don't seem to die because of this, but they do look a bit scraggly. I think that sometimes when there's a combination of the moss being wet and heavy, and a stiff wind coming along, the host branch may snap.
LAST FULL WEEK OF THE YEAR
This is the last week of the year. Of course I am referring to the natural year, not the made-up one recognized by Christians and those who don't mind the arbitrary inconsistencies of the Western calendar.
Next Saturday, December 21, at 7:14 p.m. CST (01:14 December 22, UTC), Planet Earth will reach that majestic point during its orbit when, for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, days will stop getting shorter, and begin growing longer. The present trend toward ever more darkness and cold will end, and in its place will blossom a new trend, one pointing toward ever more life-giving light and warmth. It will be the Winter Solstice, and in my book this will be the most important day of the year, the most worthy of all days of celebration.
What an irony that on the day most appropriate for reflecting on the beauty of the Earth, the miracle of rebirth, and our responsibilities to this little island of evolving life suspended in icy, dead space... that on this very day, for the average American, it's "the last Saturday before Christmas" and so the most hectic, loudest, most consumption- oriented, most grossly superficial day of the year.
But that is "out there," and I am "here" among my Pecan and Sweetgum trees, with forests and fields beyond. What an honor that in my life I have been able to experience 55 season rebirths, and that at least during the recent ones I have been alert to them, and have experienced them as vividly as I could manage.