from the woods near Natchez, Mississippi, USA
January 19, 2003
Each morning as I prepare my campfire breakfast, a Hermit Thrush, CATHARUS GUTTATUS, comes visiting. He seldom gets closer than about six feet (1.8 m), but he definitely likes to watch me from not far away. More than once he's landed on a water bucket and cocked his head sideways so that one eye seemed to look directly into my own eyes. Saturday morning he briefly landed on the table less than a yard (meter) from me as I breakfasted.
Hermit Thrushes belong to the same bird family as the American Robin, so they about a robin's size and shape (a little smaller), hop on the ground like a robin, and share with robins that curious ability to appear to hold their bodies in one place while, in a flash, their two legs below scratch the ground in tandem, stirring up insects and disconcerting earthworms. Unlike robins, Hermit Thrushes are fairly drab birds, mostly rusty-gray on their backs, with a few modest speckles on their pale breasts. You can see pictures at www.mbr-pwrc.usgs.gov/id/framlst/i7590id.html
That page is a fine one. If you visit it, notice that you can click on SONG to hear a Hermit Thrush sing (Mine is silent now). If you click on BBS MAP you'll see the species' summer breeding territory, while clicking on CBC MAP will display their winter distribution. These maps show that with us Hermit Thrushes are winter residents, with an especially high concentration in a small area centered exactly here, but they spend their summers far from us.
Thrushes and thrashers should not be confused. Brown Thrashers, found here year round, are of a similar color and also bear speckled breasts, but they are in the same family as Mockingbirds and Catbirds, so they are larger birds, with much longer tails. Several thrush species visit our area, but only the Hermit Thrush is a winter resident. During summers our common thrush is the Wood Thrush, plus during migration we commonly see Swainsons and Gray-cheeked Thrushes, as well as a few Veerys, which also are thrushes.
During migration, unless you hear their songs, it can be hard to distinguish the various thrush species. The main visual fieldmark of the Hermit Thrush is its reddish tail and rump -- the rump being that part of the back right above the tail. A picture at the above address shows this feature beautifully.
Of course I do not overlook the point that I am a genuine hermit each morning being visited by a genuine Hermit Thrush. Nor do I ignore Walt Whitman's lines:
Solitary, the thrush,
The hermit, withdrawn to himself,
avoiding the settlements,
Sings by himself a song.
JANUARY'S FOREST GREEN
This week I discovered a new Webcam showing frequently updated views of the Green River and surrounding hills and forest in Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky. I grew up near the Green River about 50 miles (80 kms) northwest of Mammoth Cave, so when I sit in my trailer viewing the Webcam images I feel the nostalgia of the exiled. You can view Mammoth Cave's Webcam at www2.nature.nps.gov/ard/parks/maca/macacam/macacam.htm
I've been away for so long that now the wintry Kentucky forest begins looking odd. I miss seeing Spanish Moss in the trees there, and the relative lack of greenness in the forest is striking. Here, though the forest also is mostly brown and gray, there's ample greenness to please the eye. Right now I'm taking a five-minute walk in the woods, and here are the main green things I notice:
The greenness being talked about here is a dark, bronzy, tattered and diffuse one. This greenness is so different from spring's rambunctious, sunlight-charged yellow-greenness. Our current greenness is a placid, almost somberly mature color, a dark, residual hue full of the sense of biding its time during this season of waiting.
The two main species providing our January forest- greenness are the Water Oak, and Cane. Water Oak, our most common forest tree, slowly loses leaves throughout the winter. When spring's new leaves begin emerging, some of last year's green leaves will still be present. Cane, a native bamboo averaging 8-12 feet high (2.5-3.5 m) but sometimes much taller, in places forms "brakes" so dense you can hardly shoulder your way through them.
The Kentucky Webcam forest is an essay in cold- enforced, buttoned-down browns and grays. In contrast, the diffuse greenness here is like a friend's smile whenever I step outside my door, and during my walks the occasional concentrations of greenness offered by the Magnolias, Christmas Ferns or treetop-perched bunches of Mistletoe are something like quiet chuckles.
Mistletoe, PHORADENDRON SEROTINUM, not only lends its nice touch of compact, dark greenness here and there but also if you look with binoculars at large bunches of it you might see one loaded with hundreds of pea- sized white fruits. Not all mature Mistletoe plants bear fruits because male and female flowers occur on separate plants, and of course only female plants produce fruits.
You can see a close-up of a fruiting Mistletoe branch at www.clunet.edu/wf/des/flowers/picts/des-342.jpg and a view of a tree populated with many Mistletoe plants (we have some trees here with nearly as many) at www.science.siu.edu/parasitic-plants/Viscaceae/images/Phor.ser.host.JPEG
Two things come to mind when we think of Mistletoe in biological terms. First, the plants are semiparasitic. They are only "semi" because they bear green leaves containing chlorophyll, and thus photosynthesize their own food from sunlight, water and air. They only rob sap from their tree hosts. A "true parasite" would take all of its nutrients from the host and would not photosynthesize its own food.
The other thing we remember is that Mistletoe fruits are poisonous. The fruits contain an amine producing stomach and intestinal irritation with diarrhea, lowered blood pressure, and slow pulse. However, you need to eat such a large quantity of fruits to get sick that it's hard to imagine anyone becoming ill from them. This amine doesn't seem to bother fruit- eating birds. Saturday morning I watched several Cedar Waxwings gorging themselves on the waxy fruits.
INDIAN STRAWBERRY FLOWERING & FRUITING
One abundant "weed" flowering and fruiting in my gardens right now is the Indian Strawberry, DUCHESNEA INDICA. It has pretty little yellow flowers like a cinquefoil, and a vibrantly red fruit looking very much like a miniature strawberry. The distinctive thing about both flowers and fruits is that they are subtended by five green, leafy "bracts," as well as the usual five green sepals. The bracts bear three to five "teeth" You can see this interesting arrangement at www.delawarewildflowers.org/duchesnea_indica.jpg
The strawberrylike fruits are edible but so small that there's not much eating to them. My books say that they have little taste, but I like to plop one into my mouth as I work in the garden. Like regular strawberry plants, to which it is somewhat related, it lustily spreads with stolons, so I don't have to worry about this naturalized citizen from Asia disappearing from my gardens.
MISSISSIPPI MUSEUM OF NATURAL SCIENCE
Newsletter subscriber Laquita Neill in northern Mississippi's Carroll County was kind enough to send me a copy of the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science's "Natural Newsline" winter newsletter. The museum is in Jackson, and I am glad to see that our state has such a fine institution and that it conducts some worthy programs.
For example, on February 1, they provide orientation for those interested in volunteering for the "Backyard Bird Count Program." On February 15, a special program on mammals is presented. On March 1, Screech Owls are the focus. Many programs are offered especially for teachers. They also present lectures. On February 4, Dr. Prentiss Cox speaks on the importance of Rachel Carson's writings to the environmental movement.
Their Web site announcing all activities and programs is available at www.mdwfp.com/museum/default.asp
FROGWATCH USA NEEDS YOU...
A few years ago I became a registered volunteer frogwatcher with the Frogwatch USA program. I haven't been a good frogwatcher because I've had trouble identifying my frogs, plus the pond I'd signed up to watch went dry.
My main problem with identifying frogs has been that the easiest way to recognize them is to know their calls. Unfortunately, I have no frog-call tapes, plus my home-made computer contains no sound card, so I can't hear frog-call audio files. Many have been the nights finding me standing in ponds, flashlight and fieldguide in hand, trying to identify frogs spotted visually, and I can tell you that that's a clumsy business.
If your computer has sound capabilities you should know that when the new Frogwatch USA site is launched in February they will have a section called "Field Guide with Frog and Toad Calls Online." In other words, you'll be able to identify your frogs by matching their calls with what you can hear over your computer.
In preparation for that, you might want to sign up as a frogwatcher. You'll need to have a particular pond for watching in mind, and be willing to visit it at different times throughout the year. All this information is available at www.nwf.org/keepthewildalive/frogwatch-app/index.htm
One nice feature of the Frogwatcher site as it exists now is that you go to a certain page, click on your state, and you'll be presented with a list of the frogs in that state. The page is at www.nwf.org/keepthewildalive/frogwatch-app/How/Learn/Anurans/anurans.htm
MY NEWSWEEK PHOTO
My cousin Eva Garst in Semiway, Kentucky has emailed to me the picture of me appearing on page 50 of the December 16th, 2002 issue of Newsweek. I'd not seen it previously. It shows me sitting exactly where I'm sitting now typing this. You can view it at www.earthfoot.org/temp/newsweek.jpg
I have mixed feelings about this picture. I fear it may reinforce stereotypes some people have about redneck Mississippi trailer people.
However, when the Newsweek editor called me, I felt compelled to lend my face to the concept of living a full, productive and happy life in a non-standard way. In fact, I was happy to thumb my nose in this way at those consumption-oriented, herd-instinctive, unsustainable attitudes and practices which I believe now threaten life on Earth.
"HOW PRETTY HE WAS... "
My cousin Miles Carroll just down the hill from cousin Eva in Kentucky writes that "This week I found a crippled finch. I put him on top of my shed and watched him. By the afternoon he was dead, and I sure hated to see him go after holding him and seeing how pretty he was."
That reminds me of once when I had access to a microscope and I spent a whole morning gazing into a single drop of pond water. I watched one-celled Amoebas and Paramecia migrating majestically through transparent, sunlight-charged water. I watched Hydras somersaulting across the slide surface, and there were wiggling green Euglenas with whiplike tails, and long strands of Spirogyra alga inside which strands of chloroplasts elegantly spiraled.
At the end of the session I straightened up my creaky spine, withdrew the slide from beneath the microscope and... then what?
I had become an admirer of the myriad little beings in that drop of water. Could I just wipe the slide on my sleeve and ignore the consequent genocide? I ended up carrying the droplet back to the pond from which it came, the theory being that my heart having been opened to these little beings counted for something.
When I read Miles's letter I also remembered a quotation from my Favorite Quotations Page at www.earthfoot.org/quotes.htm. It's one from a book by Charles de Lint:
"... he had understood, better than anyone ... the beauty that grew out of the simple knowledge that everything, no matter how small or large it might be, was a perfect example of what it was."
How wonderful it would be if every day each of us could open our hearts to at least one newly met thing.