from the woods near Natchez, Mississippi, USA
February 23, 2003
A FLUTING OF RED-WINGED BLACKBIRDS
This week's warm, moist air flowing across chilled ground has given us some fine fogs. On Thursday morning as I fixed breakfast the tops of the big Pecan trees above me were hardly visible, just dim witch- finger silhouettes of branches reaching upward through fog billowing from the south. The ghostly feeling was suddenly changed when about 50 Red-winged Blackbirds, AGELAIUS POENICEUS, flew into the big Pecan's top branches.
The English language has wonderful terms describing gatherings of certain creatures. You know that you can speak of a "covey" of quail and a "gaggle" of geese. It's also accurate to speak of a "cast" of hawks, a "charm" of goldfinches, a "congregation" of plovers, an "exaltation" of larks, a "murder" of crows, a "muster" of peacocks, a "nide" of pheasants, a "sedge" or "siege" of cranes, a "skein" of geese, a "spring" of teals and a "watch" of nightingales. I wonder if there's also a special name for a gathering of Red- winged Blackbirds, for sometimes when they're in flocks they do something amazing.
The birds up in my Pecan hopped from branch to branch fluffing their feathers and shimmying exactly as birds do when bathing. Sometimes birds take "dew baths" by rubbing themselves against dew-wet leaves, but these blackbirds weren't rubbing against anything. My impression was that the fog was so thick that just by fluffing their feathers they permitted enough wetness to enter their plumage to feel as if they were bathing.
The most extraordinary aspect of the gathering was the sound they made. You're probably familiar with the pretty call a Red-winged gives in a springtime cattail marsh. When doing so it arches its body forward as it spreads its wings to the side, exposing beautiful red epaulets on its wings. Usually its strange and wonderful song is given as a lady is being courted, or territory is being defended. That wasn't the case Thursday, yet the sound was a little similar -- the same OOKALEEEEEEE call but then with a long-drawled woody rattle trailing off. And this being done by about 50 birds! The effect was something like a bunch of flutists jamming with a few snare drummers playing the rims. Well, not really; there is no good comparison, for the effect was unique.
At www.majestyofbirds.com/w_redwngblkbrd_lrg.jpg you can see a pretty picture of a singing Red-winged Blackbird and if your computer can handle WAV audio files you can hear a singing bird at http://birds.cornell.edu/BOW/REWBLA/rewbla.wav.
Friday on National Public Radio they presented a segment on vast clouds of blackbirds that had descended on Clarksdale, Mississippi, in the northern Delta. I'll bet those folks heard some fancy fluting, too.
ROBINS EATING CHINABERRY FRUITS
Blackbirds weren't the only birds flocking through the forest this week. I was wandering the forest looking for interesting fungi when something small but heavy began thumping into the leaf litter all around me, then something marble-size and whitish bounced off my shoulder. Directly above me were about 20 American Robins gorging themselves on Chinaberry fruits.
Chinaberry, MELIA AZEDARACH, is another introduced plant abundant at Laurel Hill, and especially conspicuous at this time of year. Now the short-lived trees are leafless but among their upper limbs they bear basketball-size, diffuse clusters of whitish fruits. Friday's robins made a racket issuing nasal tik-calls as the feasted upon the fruits. While calling they would stretch from their perches to reach the fruits or else fly up to a fruit, nab it in midair, then instantly returning to their perch.
The birds were pretty persnickety about what they collected, for about half the time, after they had held the fruit in their beaks for about a second, they would simply drop their prize onto the forest floor and choose another. If the fruit was OK, the bird snapped back his head and gulped down the fruit whole, which was something to see, for one wouldn't think a robin could swallow such a relatively large fruit. You can see a late-summer Chinaberry branch with large, bipinnately compound leaves and green fruits, at www.caf.wvu.edu/~forage/library/poisonous/images/chinaberry.jpg
The above image resides at a web site dealing with poisonous plants. It's reported that if we brew a tea of Chinaberry fruits or leaves we should expect "stomach irritation, vomiting, bloody diarrhea, paralysis, irregular breathing, and respiratory distress." The toxins involved are tetranortriterpene neurotoxins, so they affect the nerves. However, Chinaberry is toxic only if a large quantity is eaten, and it's hard to imagine anyone doing that. To me the fruits seem entirely too pithy and stinky to consider even nibbling. Clearly, robins have another opinion.
A local fellow, a carpenter who used to do some work on the plantation, once told me that if you mash green Chinaberry leaves on your skin the mosquitoes won't bother you so much. I've experimented a few times and think there may be something to it, though probably it's not as effective as dousing yourself with a mixture of citronella-based "lemon-fresh" dishwashing detergent.
The bat researchers returned here early this week. We were lucky enough to catch, measure, weigh and determine the sex of over twenty Southeastern Myotises as they fluttered inside my outside kitchen over the cistern hole, plus in a nearby culvert we accomplished the same thing with an Eastern Pipistrel and a Big-eared or Rafinesque's Bat. Since this area is so batty, our bats are being incorporated into a long- term study; the researchers will be coming back on a regular basis.
For me the most interesting moment of the visit came when one bat turned out to be infested with several external parasites, or "ectoparasites." They looked like small ticks and fleas, plus there was a mite half the size of a housefly, looking a bit like a spider, and it quickly emerged from a certain spot in the fur, skittered across the bat's back, then burrowed back into the fur, all in less than a second. That was a spooky sight.
Ever since seeing that I've been imagining what it must be like to be a bat with all these creatures stuck to me and being unable to scratch. Also, just imagine being that fast-moving critter snug in the bat's fur, riding through the night air -- the flutter of wings, the bat's high-pitched squeaks, and then later, back in the cistern, feeling your host wedging into the mass of fellow-bat bodies, and then being able to run across the entire heap of them, sniffing out the most inviting host for the next flight.
Just what does it mean that the Creator has come up with all these manners of being -- with amazing, very complex lives that are lived completely beyond the notice of us humans? Maybe the great Hebrew scholar Maimonides, who lived between 1135 and 1204, had asked himself the same question when he came up with this opinion:
"It should not be believed that all beings exist for the sake of the existence of man. On the contrary, all the other beings too have been intended for their own sakes and not for the sake of anything else. "
At a woodland pond once again I put my handlens down to the water to check on the Globular Springtails and Cyclopoid Copepods I told you about earlier. They were still there. This time the Cyclopoid Copepods carried egg sacs, so they've been busy these last two weeks.
Water Striders, GERRIS REMIGIS, have been active on warm days all winter and right now plenty of them skate across the ponds' surfaces. I've read that in some places they're called Jesus Bugs because they walk on water. I think I was taught to call them Water Spiders, though they are six-legged insects, not eight-legged spiders.
The books say that courtship and mating involve potential partners communicating by ripples on the water's surface film. That sounds as if receptive females reply to potential mates by stomping on the water with their feet, sending out romantic ripples that say "I'm ready." I've been looking hard for this behavior but I can't see it.
I do see occasional hyperactive individuals rushing around pouncing on just about any other strider standing still. Sometimes the underling shakes off the suitor but sometimes they stick together for a few seconds. I can't imagine water ripples playing any part in this but maybe my human nervous system is so sluggish relative to an insect's that I'm just not seeing what's going on. There's a very pretty picture of a couple of mating Water Striders at http://vivaldi.zool.gu.se/Ekologi/personal/Ingela/gerrisstor.jpg
Insects are divided into 25-35 orders, depending on which specialist is counting them. There's the beetle order, the dragonfly order, the moth and butterfly order, etc. Water Striders belong to the "true bug order," which includes leaf bugs, assassin bugs and chinch bugs. The strider's front two legs are adapted to help seize and manipulate prey, while the back four legs are very long, with lots of leg touching the water's surface but not entering it.
Water Striders are found throughout North America. They eat aquatic insects, including mosquito larvae coming to the surface for air, and terrestrial insects that drop into the water. I've been looking for their cylindrical eggs, which are laid in parallel rows on an object at the water's edge. Nymphs hatching from the eggs mature in about 5 weeks, then the adults live for many months. During cold weather they take cover beneath fallen leaves on land near the water.
JAPANESE CLIMBING FERN
Nowadays Japanese Climbing Fern, LYGODIUM JAPONICUM, is conspicuous in fencerows, along roads, the weedy areas next to bridges and streams, etc., forming messy, tangled, straw-colored masses. Most of the year the green plant blends with the greenness around it, but if there's a hard freeze the fronds die back. Ours remained green until the 15° (-9.4°C) morning of January 24th. Now they are completely bleached out, and that's what makes them so conspicuous. New fronds will uncurl from the underground rhizomes in a few weeks. You can view a good botanical illustration of this fern at www.itmonline.org/image/gall9.jpg
Three interesting points come to mind about this fern.
First, it's unlike the vast majority of other ferns in that it is indeed a vine. No other fern in our area climbs over vegetation, sometimes even overtopping small trees and shading them out. Farther north there's a similar vine species, a native one, Lygodium palmatum, but it doesn't reach this far south.
Second, this is an "invasive" species originally from the tropical and subtropical regions of eastern Asia and Australia, and it's often hard on our native plants. It's especially bad about smothering ground cover and tree seedlings.
Third, its anatomy is simply outrageous. What looks like the vine's wiry stem is actually a single climbing, freely branching, leaf (frond) as much as 100 feet long (30 m). What appears to be fronds arising from the stem are actually subdivisions of a single super-long frond.
ONLINE FIELD GUIDE FOR RARE FLORIDA SPECIES
Newsletter Subscriber Karla Brandt near Tallahassee sends me a note about the new "Field Guide to the Rare Plants and Animals of Florida" at www.fnai.org/fieldguide/
This a wonderful site and it points to the future when us backyard naturalists will be able to identify and gather interesting information about any plant or animal we find. The site describes a number of organisms also found in Mississippi. If you find what you think might be a rare organism and know that, for instance, it's in the lily family, at this site you can browse among the lily-family pages and maybe find a match and get its name. Then once you have a name, you can Google that name and find out all kinds of stuff about it.
One of my all-time favorite quotations is one by Friedrich Nietzsche. In general I regard the thrust of Nietzsche's thoughts as being a bit unsavory and small spirited. Still, he did make this point:
"Most people don't really see something until it has a name" -- "Wie die Menschen gewönlich sind, macht ihnen erst der Name ein Ding überhaupt sichtbar."
With that insight in mind, I just want to place before Newsletter readers the following "name" of a concept I think needs more consideration, and that is "voluntary simplicity."
If you have some time this week to reflect upon life and the state of the world, I hope you will remember to conjure up that term and spend some time turning it over in your mind as if it were a mantra that could possibly open doors to new levels of happiness and fulfillment.
Several sites on the Web deal with voluntary simplicity. You might Google the term and let destiny lead you forward at your own pace. But be wary of sites trying to sell you things to simplify your life.
Simplicity is free.