from the woods near Natchez, Mississippi, USA
February 9, 2003
FIRST YELLOW JESSAMINE FLOWERS
The high-climbing, yellow-flowered Yellow Jessamine, GELSEMIUM SEMPERVIRENS, has spoken. On a sunny, balmy morning last Monday as I returned from the gardens the vine's first bright yellow flower of the year appeared on the forest floor before me. The flower was about 1.5 inch long (35 mm), shaped like a megaphone, and its brightness on the somber forest floor was as surprising as ever. You can see a nice close-up of such a flower at www.unc.edu/~jannis/yelljess.jpg
Seeing the blossom embarrassed me a little. What it meant was that the flower before me already had spent its allotted time projecting into the cold spring air and sunlight, already had accomplished its job of attracting a pollinator, and already had been discarded, leaving an ovary to mature into a fruit. This, despite the fact that with my binoculars I've been scanning Yellow Jessamine vines in treetops since the Solstice.
This fallen blossom was like the calling card left by a friend who, because of an unanswered tap at a window deep in the night, steals away giggling, knowing how you'll bite your lip when you realize how once again you've missed the fragrance she might have been willing to share.
PURPLE MARTINS ARRIVING
Newsletter subscriber Larry Butts sends a clipping from the Clarion-Ledger newspaper in Vicksburg announcing the sighting of Purple Martins up there. I'll bet that if I were in Bluff Park in Natchez overlooking the Mississippi, each day I'd see or hear several martins flying upstream. It's the time of year for them, too.
Don't forget about www.purplemartin.org, where reports are posted showing the martins' northward progress. At www.purplemartin.org/scoutreport/2003/scout.html a map midway down the page shows average arrival times for male scouts. It shows that at Natchez our first birds usually arrive around February 1, by March 1 they are just getting into extreme southwestern Kentucky, by April 1 they will be reaching extreme southwestern Michigan, and they won't appear at their northernmost location in central Alberta until around May 1.
You can report your own first observation at www.purplemartin.org/scoutreport/scoutform.html, and you can hear the Purple Martin's call at www.purplemartin.org/main/Vocalization.html
Last Sunday I passed by a woodland pond and figured I'd better see how the Globular Springtails I told you about a couple of weeks ago were doing. Down on my belly I went with the handlens and there they were, a different species this time, slate-gray instead of cream-gray, but there were just as many, thousands and thousands.
As I followed one springtail's progress across the water's surface I noticed motion in the water below him. I focused downward until my handlens touched the water on one side and suddenly a vast migrating cloud of beings even smaller than the springtails came into focus. They were pale cream animals with single black eyes and forked antennae jerkily paddling through the water. It was a tiny form of crustacean (like crayfish and shrimp) called a copepod. In fact, it was one of the few copepods I could identify, because of its single eye and curious antennae. It was a Cyclopoid Copepod. You can see a drawing of one at www.hood.edu/coastal/copepod.gif, though mine didn't bear the little grapelike clusters of eggs at the rear end as shown on the drawing.
Yes, a cloud of them, millions and millions surely, completely invisible until I got close enough for my nose to touch the cold water, a cream-colored cloud streaming along the bank about an inch below the water's surface. Long I watched, sometimes so attentively that I forgot to breathe. A kind of Cyclopoid Copepod reverie came over me so that it became as if I myself were in that cloud, my brothers and sisters all around me as far as could be seen, flowing, flowing, flowing, suspended inside a three- dimensional universe of algae cells glowing yellow green in sunlight flooding through crystalline water.
Abruptly a creature shot onto the scene shaped like a T, a fast-moving, streamlined thing ten times larger than my little Cyclopes, its long, stiff antennae bright red and its transparent body boldly splotched green as if in places it photosynthesized (and maybe it DID). This rambunctious creature, another form a copepod, careened among my Cyclopes so fast I couldn't see what it was doing but I could guess that it was preying upon my flock. I felt as if I were witnessing an outrageous slaughter of innocents, yet I was fixed in another dimension of reality and could do nothing about it. Something similar to this invader is shown at www.oar.noaa.gov/spotlite/archive/images/tumor_female.jpg
To calm myself I rose from the water's edge, caught my breath and looked into the silent woods awhile. I brought out my little "Golden Nature Guide" called POND LIFE and read about Cyclopoid Copepods. "They seize and bite their small prey," the book said.
So while the big T-shaped copepod ate them, they themselves had been preying on clouds of grazing beings even smaller than they...
Then the big tree trunks around me echoed my cackling, for what other response is there when we glimpse how this world really is put together?
PHOEBE EATS GROUND SKINK
During the winter it's common to see Eastern Phoebes, SAYORNIS PHOEBE, perched on low branches near open fields. Occasionally the bird swoops into the field to nab a bug, then flies back to another low perch and continues looking around for another meal. Phoebes are medium-size, plain-looking, slate-gray birds with pale breasts. They're flycatchers similar in appearance to five other flycatcher species that occur here, but phoebes are the only of the group present during winter, so right now their identification is no problem. You can see what they look like at www.nenature.com/Images/EasternPhoebeMD.jpg
Even when other flycatchers are present, phoebes are easy to identify if they are singing because their voice is unique. They have a rather hoarse, almost funny-sounding call that monotonously says "FEE-bee, FEE-bee... " 20-40 times a minute. Sometimes when they're really going you just want to tell them to hush.
So I was walking along the woods and spotted a phoebe on a low branch jerking in an odd way. The binoculars instantly showed that the bird had in his beak a very squirmy Ground Skink, SCINCELLA LATERALIS, our most common species of lizard. When I garden, Ground Skinks constantly flush from the leaf mulch I stir up. They appear year round, except on the very coldest days. Since they breed from January to August and produce up to five clutches a season of one to seven eggs, they are pretty prolific. They eat insects and spiders, mostly, and you can see one at audubon.wku.edu/daviess/ew.groundskink1.jpg
Now, from tip of beak to tip of tail, a Phoebe is about 5.75 inch long (15 cm). Most Ground Skinks I see are about 3.5 inches long (10 cm). Therefore, one wonders how the gut of a 15 cm bird can accommodate a 10 cm skink. Moreover, this skink definitely didn't want to be swallowed. Three times I saw him escape from the phoebe's beak, but each time the bird dove and snapped him from mid-air as he fell, his beak rapidly clicking behind the falling quarry. Just imagine how that bird's brain must be wired to enable such fast response!
Again and again the phoebe repositioned the skink in his mouth, rather like a Robin might flip an earthworm around and around until it goes limber. However, this skink never stopped fighting so eventually the bird threw back his head, in went the skink's front end, and the bird swallowed... and gaped, and swallowed, and jerked his head, and swallowed, and gaped... for a couple of minutes... until the skink's tail vanished into the bird's gullet.
The phoebe then went through a series of jerks and bumps and grinds of the kind you might expect of a bird who had just swallowed something squirmy nearly as long as he was. I also was jerking, bumping and grinding, just thinking of what it must feel like.
But before long the bird flew to a low perch and began nonchalantly wiping his bill on a twig, and looking around as if he wanted a bug dessert.
FOSSILS FROM ST. CATHERINE CREEK
Last weekend Newsletter subscriber Karen Wise of Kingston, near Natchez, discovered a large, heavy, strange-looking item in the bed of St. Catherine Creek near her home. She sent a picture to me and we both thought it looked a lot like part of a petrified mastodon tusk. I forwarded the picture to my friend Earl Manning, who teaches paleontology at Tulane.
He decided that it wasn't a fossil at all, but rather "a large septarian concretion." This was a little disappointing, but still it was an amazing find, a real geological curiosity. You can see Karen's concretion at www.earthfoot.org/temp/cncrtion.jpg, and view a page explaining them and showing cross sections of some at www.arizonarockshops.com/sept.htm
Earl's willingness to look at photos encouraged Karen to send him more of things she'd found locally. She was especially interested in a large petrified jawbone with some teeth showing. This you can see at www.earthfoot.org/temp/jawbone.jpg
Earl replied that this was the "left anterior part (including part of the symphysis) of the lower jaw of the mastodon Mammut americanum... It's likely derived from the Peoria Loess at Natchez, Adams Co., SW Miss., of Rancholabrean Land Mammal Age (probably about 15,000 yrs. old). Mastodon remains are fairly common along St. Catherine's Crk. They were browsing animals, living in the forests along the Mississippi River."
There's a nice painting of a mastodon at www.sdnhm.org/fieldguide/fossils/images/mastodon-melli.jpg
Then Karen sent photos of shark teeth she'd found in the same area. Earl actually seemed more excited about these than the mastodon jawbone. Shark teeth are commonly found up around Vicksburg, but not in the Natchez area. "I've never heard of any Vicksburg Group fossils washing all the way down to Natchez, and the equivalent-aged rock is deep below Natchez. Very interesting," he wrote.
He identified the shark producing Karen's teeth as a Sand Tiger Shark of the genus Odontaspis, often known as Carcharias. After conferring with David Dockery at the Mississippi Office of Geology in Jackson, they decided that a good guess was that Indians carried them here from the Vicksburg area. You can see some of Karen's tooth-finds at www.earthfoot.org/temp/sharktth.jpg, and a picture of a modern Sand Tiger shark at www.oceanicresearch.org/jpegs/sandtiger5.jpg
Karen also sent photos of other things she'd found and among Earl's identifications were Ice-Age White-tail Deer, American Alligator, Black Bear, Beaver and the extinct horse Equus complicatus. The latter reminds us that horses evolved in the Americas but went extinct soon after the Ice Age. Some specialists think they may have been hunted to extinction by the first Americans.
According to the Google search engine, one of the most popular spots on the Web to view fossil remains of Rancholabrean land mammals such as the above is my own page showing Lonnie Looper's fossils found on gravel bars in the Mississippi River near Greenville, at www.earthfoot.org/loess/fossils.htm
ON BEING TURNED ON
Karen's enthusiasm for fossils, rocks and crystals is wonderful to behold. It's fun to reflect on how we humans are sorted out so that each of us by nature is turned on by something that most others ignore. You can see why this feature of the human condition has evolved. If a primitive tribal community were to be composed of nothing but soldier types, or nothing but music lovers, you can imagine the problems. Every healthy community needs a diversity of personalities exactly as every healthy ecosystem needs a diversity of life forms.
For my part, I can't recall when I was not turned on by the mysteries of nature, particularly of trees. If I had been born into a Paleolithic tribe, surely I would have been a medicine man or a shaman wandering about with my bag of herbs and dried leaves, working all kinds of voodoo and magical cures, and I would have worshiped alone in the forest.
In a primitive society maybe rock-loving Karen would have been honored as one who during droughts could be counted on to locate hidden springs, or maybe with her sensitivity to the majesty of time, she would have been needed to express the long view when communal strategies for survival were being debated.
If all our Newsletter subscribers were to come together, I'm sure that most would admit that from their earliest days they have been inexplicably drawn to one particular thing or another. Maybe the pleasures of gardening, the dignity of teaching young people, the beauty of caring for horses, the nurturing of children, the challenge of the hunt... on and on until we'd recognize among us individuals who felt passionately about wanting to fill each of society's necessary roles.
Someday we shall knock down for good the false gods of commerce, consumerism and self gratification, and we shall renounce our allegiance to the regimentation, uniformity and mediocrity those gods require of us. When that day arrives, we shall come again to the times when we shall wait with great expectation to discover what passion each new child brings into our community. And once we see what this child's natural inclinations are, then all our community's energies will be mobilized to cultivate and encourage this new citizen to realize his or her full potential.