from the woods near Natchez, Mississippi, USA
March 16, 2003
Last Sunday with the temperature nudging 80° (27°C) I sat beside a woodland pond wondering what amazing thing would happen. I didn't have long to wait.
Just off the pond's bank where the clear water was about 6 inches deep (15 cm), right below the surface, swam a fleet of three dark-brown, spidery insects about 2 inches long (50 mm). They looked very much like underwater Walking Sticks except that long, slender tubes were attached to their rear ends. They were Waterscorpions, completely unrelated to real scorpions, insects of the "true bug order," the Hemiptera, genus RANATRA. You can see one at http://galeon.hispavista.com/sloren/ranatra2.jpg
Slowly and deliberately they sailed through the water paddling with their hind four legs while holding their two front legs before them like Praying Mantises. Every few seconds they'd pause and the tip of their rear-end tubes would tilt up to the water's surface to take in air.
After the three creatures had passed I looked around for more. About a dozen could be seen here and there, some of them hardly ever sending up their tubes for air, others never withdrawing them from the surface for more than a second or two. Some came into shallow water where the Mosquitofish swam away from them, for Waterscorpions can eat small fish.
Then I saw that on a nearby, partially submerged log, about twenty had completely emerged from the pond, climbed to the log's highest knot, and in two clusters had all oriented themselves toward the sun, posing their dark, stiff, gangling bodies at 45° angles. It was a strange and spooky sight. They looked like a fleet of Darth Vader's Death-Jets poised for take-off.
As I watched, other Waterscorpions emerged from the water, pulled themselves onto the log and joined the groups. The strange thing was that they didn't emerge from nymphal husks at the water's edge the way dragonflies or damselflies do when they metamorphose from their aquatic stages to their adult free-air stages. En masse these beings were simply pulling themselves from their underwater lives, becoming dry- land creatures and eerily gazing toward the sun.
As the insects dried they turned gray-brown. One by one an individual would suddenly flutter its wings which until then had lain concealed along the slender back, and then in a minute or so it would in a surprising whirr lift itself into the air. One by one they drifted sunward, the light catching in their wings transforming them into dazzling flares before vanishing into the forest's shadows.
What a magnificent emergence this was! I think I just happened to be in the right place at the right time to witness something majestic, for the next day I went back and found nothing of the like.
GIANT WATERBUG IN A BUCKET
The day after my Waterscorpion experience, Karen Wise of Kingston, near Natchez, sent me a picture of a Giant Waterbug. She'd tipped over a bucket with water and mud in it, and the big black bug, about 2.5 inches long (65 mm), had been in the mud. You can see this critter at the top of my Hemiptera Page at www.backyardnature.net/hemipter.htm.
It may be more than a coincidence that Karen and I both had aquatic-bug experiences around the same time. If you look at these insects' pictures, you'll notice that both carry their prey-grabbing front legs before them. In fact, they belong to closely related families. Notice that the Giant Waterbug also bears a pointed projection at its rear end, like the Waterscorpion. Maybe the urge to emerge at this certain time of the year is an instinct that arose in a distant ancestor of both families.
Giant Waterbugs also tend to leave the water and fly about. In fact, sometimes at night they are attracted to backyard lights, and then you find them fluttering on the ground after bumping into a bulb.
I told Karen that she was lucky her bug didn't bite her, for they are good at that. "I was glad, too," she replied, "but it sure wasn't because he didn't try... He was not a happy bug." After he was photographed, Karen kindly released him back into his native mud.
On the steep, mossy slopes of gullies eroding into Laurel Hill's forested uplands, right now there's a delicate little fern unfurling. It's the Blunt-lobed Woodsia, WOODSIA OBTUSA, sometimes called Blunt-lobed Cliff-fern. You can see one at www.mobot.org/gardeninghelp/plantfinder/photom/M890.jpg
It's unfurling in the usual fern way, with "fiddleheads" uncoiling from base to tip, like one of those curled-up paper things kids blow on at parties, and shaped like the knobby head of a fiddle. Christmas Fern fiddleheads are also uncoiling right now, but they're much larger. Deer love to eat Christmas Fern fiddleheads and they can be boiled and eaten like asparagus, but the Woodsia's fiddleheads are far too small to bother with. The mature Woodsia frond stands only about 6 inches high (15 cm).
The nice thing about these Woodsias is that they look so perfectly at home where they are. Their little yellow-green fronds are among the most fragile-looking and frilly-looking of all ferns, and somehow their delicate appearance matches perfectly the environments in which they grow. They unfurl on slopes encrusted with green tussocks of soft moss and threads and ribbons of scrambling liverworts. Here and there a slug's glistening slime-trail crosses the greenness like a fairy's trail through an enchanted woods. Simply sitting and gazing at this peaceful community fills one with admiration and peace. The mossy embankments are communities of beings perfectly in harmony with one another, and with their time and place.
FIRST NORTHERN PARULA WARBLERS
Last Sunday right after I sent out my Newsletter I heard this season's first Northern Parula Warblers, PARULA AMERICANA. Around my trailer they're the most common summer warbler and sometimes in the spring it's hilarious hearing so many singing at the same time. You can see this pretty bird at www.birdsofoklahoma.net/images/Northernparula02.jpg
In the above picture you can see that the Northern Parula's main fieldmarks are its bright yellow throat, bluish back with a yellowish patch, white eye rings and its white wingbars. Mature males also have the darkish necklace shown in the picture. Their song is a rising, buzzy trill, often dropping abruptly at the end.
Parulas are attracted to places with Spanish Moss, so that explains their abundance around my trailer. It's true that when I think "Parula Warbler," I visualize them endlessly flitting into and out of the big gray strands of moss dangling from the Pecan trees all around me.
One reason Parulas arrive earlier than other warbler species is that they don't have as far to go as most migrating species. They overwinter as far north as Florida and sometimes along the Gulf Coast, then further south they're also found in Mexico, central America and the West Indies.
It's funny, but this year I'd not planned to do my usual spring counts because they take so much time and my new backyard nature site is keeping me very busy. However, the very instant I heard that first Parula Warbler last Sunday, something in me sprang to life and instantly I knew that not making the counts was unthinkable!
THIS WEEK'S MIGRATING BIRDS
Therefore, I am beginning my third year of gathering data on migratory birds passing through Laurel Hill. For the next few weeks, each Friday I'll make a walk of three or four hours -- the same walk each time -- actually counting individual migratory birds. After each walk I'll upload my numbers to a site on the Internet sponsored by the Gulf Coast Bird Observatory at Lake Jackson, Texas, where specialists will have access to them. The Observatory's Web site is at www.gcbo.org/
During the next few weeks I'll also be posting my lists here because it's such a pleasure to pay attention to the waves of migrants as they come through, passing up the Mississippi Flyway.
I won't list the non-migratory species -- the Cardinals, Carolina Wrens, Red-bellied Woodpeckers -- though I'll see many of them. I'll just list migrants, and I'll be recognizing four kinds of them:
This Friday, March 14, I did my first count, and here's what I spotted at this early stage of migration:
WINTER RESIDENTS PREPARING TO LEAVE
9 Cedar Waxwings
6 Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
1 Eastern Phoebe
1 Ruby-crowned Kinglet
65 White-throated Sparrow
SUMMER RESIDENTS JUST ARRIVED
1 Purple Martin
1 Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
6 Northern Parula
1 Yellow-throated Warbler
TRANSIENTS (just passing through)
PERMANENT RESIDENTS (individual birds may migrate)
3 Wood Duck
2 Red-shouldered Hawk
1 Sharp-shinned Hawk
2 Northern Flicker
5 Brown Thrasher
1 American Robin
I don't remember ever counting so many White-throated Sparrows. They were in five separate flocks. The highlight of the count was when I was watching a bunch of sparrows foraging on the forest floor, one of them gave the alarm call, and they all instantly fled into a dense, thorny copse of Trifoliate Orange just as a Sharp-shinned Hawk streaked overhead. The hawk landed in a big Black Oak near me and I had good look at this bird, which is so impressive with its noble bearing.
Today, Sunday the 16th, I did some fieldwork with nature photographer Jerry Litton of Jackson, and I heard Black-and-white Warblers, Hooded Warblers and Solitary Vireos. They weren't here Friday, but they're here today... The migrant flood is beginning!
Back to those Woodsias. On the day I hiked through the woods after admiring the Woodsias I experienced this train of recollections and thoughts:
The notion that the Woodsias had looked "so perfectly at home where they are" took me back to my early traveling days, to a delicious summer morning in Vienna, Austria in the 1970s, when I was visiting my friend Dieter. We were in the vast gardens of the old Summer Palace of Schönbrunn, where I had never seen so many roses, row after row of them, of perfectly trimmed hedges, and of acres of geometrically arranged curlicue-bedded tulips and irises and other bright blossoms. The Schönbrunn garden Web site with pictures giving an idea of what I saw is at www.federal-gardens.at/frames/schoenbrunn_f.htm
"I never dreamed a place could be so pretty," I gushed to Dieter.
Dieter, one of the most dignified and refined individuals I've ever met, glanced at me with pity in his eyes. Art history was a passion with him, and to him Schönbrunn's gardens fell within that domain.
"You can think about it in evolutionary terms," he said, more or less. "Maria Teresa laid out the garden's plans in the early 1700s. Just a few years before that, there'd been a real question as to whether Vienna could survive the starvation brought on by a siege mounted by the Turks. In a real way, then, glittery, ostentatious Schönbrunn with its regimented flower beds and eternally clipped hedges can be seen as a reaction to those earlier times, a statement confirming Western man's newly acquired dominance over his environment."
"These gardens are bright and totally controlled like an infant's playroom," Dieter continued. "There's an obsession here with bright color, ignoring more complex possibilities such as the mingling of leaf textures or the interplay of form and shadows. There's a single-minded fixation on simple geometric precision while ignoring harmony with the landscape, for example, and local folk traditions. This garden is an effort by Maria Teresa and the people of her time to convince themselves that with militarism and science they could overcome what they regarded as the chaos of nature. When I walk in these gardens, yes, the bright colors are nice the way children's bright balloons are nice, but, on a higher level, I am oppressed by the garden design's total lack of mature spontaneity, and by its insensitivity to its natural and cultural context. It's almost as bad as your mowed lawns in America where esthetics among the masses also remains at an immature stage of development... "
The shock of having such a fully formed thought pregnant with so many alien assumptions laid before me left me speechless. Instantly I recognized veins of truth in his argument. All I could do was to sniff a rose and grin.
In later years I learned how plantings could be arranged so that, for instance, gatherings of leaves complemented certain blossoms. There have even been times in this life when I also felt oppressed by naked, straight lines of tulips marching across mowed American lawns, no matter how bright the tulips' reds and yellows were.
But, now in my graybeard days, somehow I feel as if I'm wandered through and then out of the whole discussion, and when I see a tulip wherever it is I just feel like dropping to my knees and poking my nose into its brightness.
Still, I'd like to visit Dieter again, to see how his ideas have evolved. I'm sure that, as always, his insights will have developed beyond mine. I would like to broach with him this idea:
From what I've seen, the most sophisticated gardens are those aspiring to look natural. Therefore, might not the final stage of esthetic development be when one loves best what is indeed natural -- the wild forest, the marsh, the meadow?
I would like to ask Dieter if any garden he can imagine could equal the loveliness of the embankment I visited this week, where the native Blunt-lobed Woodsias unfurled so graciously among their homey little moss and liverwort companions.