from the woods near Natchez, Mississippi, USA

March 16, 2003

My Kingston neighbor Karen Wise sent me an image of a moth to identify. It was a big one, about two inches long (5 cm), with intricate gray and brown patterns, found in her backyard surrounded by woods. Its picture didn't appear in any of my books so to identify it I went to the USGS "Moths of North America" site at I knew the moth was a member of the Sphinx Moth Family (the Sphingidae) so at that site I reviewed the more than a hundred thumbnail images of various species of that family. The address of that thumbnail page is

The moth-identification process was a lot of fun and it's something anyone can do. It's a challenge to finally come up with a solid identification and then to read about what you have. In this case the mystery moth turned out to be the Waved Sphinx, CERATOMIA UNDULOSA. You can compare Karen's image of it at with the "Moths of North America" picture at

At that page we read that Waved Sphinx caterpillars pupate underground, that they eat ash, privet, oak and hawthorn, that adults probably don't eat at all (just live long enough to mate and for the female to produce eggs), and that the Nature Conservancy considers the species to be secure globally, though it may be rare in parts of its range, especially at the periphery.

The distribution map on the Waved Sphinx page shows that that species hasn't been recorded in our Adams County, so I attached the picture to an email and sent it to the Lepidopterists' Society, whose Web site is at Thanks to Karen's picture, maybe before long Adams County will show up as red on the distribution map.

Anybody can do this. If you find something nice and report it, let me know.


For a year or so I've been watching a couple of swellings halfway up the 20-ft high (6 m) Loblolly Pine right behind my trailer. This week the growths developed strikingly orange-yellow blisters. Since my Loblolly is in a bad place and it'll probably die anyway, I cut an infected branch bearing an infection, scanned it, and you can see that image at

The infection is known as Fusiform Rust and it's caused by the fungus CRONARTIUM QUERCUUM. It's a serious disease for Loblolly and Slash Pines in the US Southeast. Infections occurring on the main stem within a tree's first 5 years normally cause the tree to die. My Loblolly Pine is about five years old. Infections occurring on older trees cause weakened stems and trunks that often snap during storms.

This is a fascinating disease, especially because during its life cycle it bounces between pines and oaks. Right now when you knock against my Loblolly's trunk a cloud of orange powder is released from the blisters. This powder is composed of tiny aeciospores. These aeciospores land on oak leaves and later in spring pustules known as uredia will appear on the oak leaves' undersurfaces. During late spring or early summer, brown, hairlike structures called telia will form on the oak leaves. These telia will produce teliospores which will germinate into basidiospores, which will infect a pine and cause a new infection like the one behind my trailer.


Wednesday morning a large, reddish ant floated dead in one of my water buckets, so naturally I identified it, scanned it, and you can see its very fine picture at

It was a carpenter ant, genus CAMPONOTUS. One reason I knew it was a carpenter ant and not, say, a fire ant, harvester ant, mound-building ant, or field ant, was because of its relatively large size -- one-third of an inch long (9 mm). Also, you can see in its picture that there's a single "node" or bump on the slender "waist" connecting the ant's thorax and abdomen. Many ant-types have two bumps, most notably in our area the fire ants. Also, the ant's "back," the top of its thorax, is smoothly curved, making it look humpbacked. You might be interested in the University of California's "Illustrated Key to Identifying Common Household Ants" found on the Internet at

Carpenter ants dig tunnels in wood for their nests. Often around camp I locate their nests because as they excavate they pile their sawdust-like frass near their tunnels' entrances. Of course this weakens wooden structures, so some homeowners buy chemicals to get rid of them. These ants don't eat wood, however. Their diet consists of dead and living insects, aphid and scale honeydew, and juices of ripe fruit, especially sweet juice.


Ever since I have been at Laurel Hill I have wondered about something regarding the loess mantling the entire plantation at depths of maybe 30 to 50 feet (9 to 15 m). That is, gullying in this loess goes on at an astonishing rate. Right now a ravine is eating beneath the fence of one of my gardens and in other places similar ravines are cutting through the woods and into the fields.

On my page at I explain that our loess was deposited 10 to 12 thousand years ago. Well, if the rate of erosion we see today had been proceeding for at least 10,000 years, it's hard to imagine how there could be any loess uplands left at all. This is where Warren Grabau's beaver dams come in.

Wildlife photographer Jerry Litton and I are involved in a project for which we've been in contact with Mr. Grabau, a geographer in his 80s in Vicksburg, and the author of the excellent Civil War book "Ninety-eight Days: A Geographer's View of the Vicksburg Campaign", Univ. of Tenn. Press, Knoxville. 2000. Mr. Grabau has supplied us with some of his essays, and one of them addresses the loess mystery I've just described. I don't know if the material has been published.

Mr. Grabau suggests that during most of the millennia since the loess was deposited, beaver dams may have converted the Loess Zone's waterways into a series of placid dammed pools, and these pools kept erosion in the zone at a minimum. If this is true, the deep, steep-walled ravines that characterize the zone now may be fairly recent phenomena. Our zone, which stretches along the Mississippi's eastern shore from central Louisiana to western Kentucky and beyond, for most of its existence may have been a gently rolling, unbroken upland. This all may have changed when the Europeans began arriving en masse in the early 1700s, with their insatiable appetite for beaver pelts.

Beaver populations were exterminated. Dams washed out. And then the gullying we see today began.

As you wander our loess uplands, you often notice that in places the slopes leading into bayou bottoms are not continuous, but rather broken into a series of terraces. Might not each terrace represent the destruction of yet another major beaver colony?


Last weekend wildlife photographer Jerry Litton and I did some fieldwork in Homochitto National Forest in the eastern part of our county. We were walking up a medium-size, sandy-bottomed stream when a few feet onto a sandbar and about a foot above the water level we found two sets of toad eggs. BB-size black embryos were developing suspended in double strands of clear, gelatinous matrix.

In general true frogs lay eggs in masses, usually in water, and often attached to vegetation, while toad eggs are usually deposited as strings, and don't always need to be in water.

One strand of the eggs we found zigzagged about and was tangled among clods, but the other set was deposited in a fairly straight line about 12 feet long (3.6 m). In each case two gelatinous strings of eggs were stuck together for their entire length. You can get something of an idea of this double-strandedness by viewing the image at

To be honest, this discovery flabbergasted me. I can't imagine any of our smallish toads being able to deposit 12 feet of gelatinous strands about as thick as a yellow pencil, plus I'm surprised the eggs were out in the sun a foot above water and several feet from the water's edge.

In our area, according to my "Audubon Reptiles & Amphibians" field guide, we may or may not have American Toads, Gulf Coast Toads and Southern Toads (the distribution maps show us just beyond their known distributions), but we certainly should have Oak Toads and Woodhouse's Toads. Woodhouse's Toads are what I mostly see here.

But I've never seen one that I could imagine capable of laying a 12-foot double strand of eggs...


On this week when the blackberries began flowering, this Friday, March 21, I spotted the following migratory birds:

6 Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
2 Hermit Thrush
5 Ruby-crowned Kinglet
8 solitary Vireo
13 Yellow-rumped Warbler
30 White-throated Sparrow

1 Purple Martin
3 Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
1 White-eyed Vireo
1 Yellow-throated Vireo
16 Northern Parula
2 Yellow-throated Warbler
3 Hooded Warbler

TRANSIENTS (just passing through)


PERMANENT RESIDENTS (individual birds may migrate)
2 Wood Duck
1 Northern Flicker
5 Brown Thrasher
5 Eastern Towhee
40 Brown-headed Cowbird


This count's birding highlight wasn't a migrant at all, but rather a common permanent resident changing his behavior a bit. During recent days I've noted that Barred Owls have been hooting more lustily than usual, plus frequently during the day I've been seeing them as I jog at dawn, during my walks in the woods, and hanging around camp. Friday as I crossed the orchard a Barred Owl swooped into a small apple tree and for a couple of minutes perched in full view looking around, not seeming to mind me about 20 feet away (6 m).

I assume that nowadays there are owlets with healthy appetites, so the parents have to "sunlight" as an overtaxed human parent might have to "moonlight." Each night and often during the day I hear owls hooting and whooping in some of the most expressive tones imaginable. You can see a Barred Owl at and if your computer eats MP3 audio files you can hear one at


Wednesday the Mayapple researchers from Mississippi State University in Starkville returned to look at their plots here at Laurel Hill. I told about their research in the March 31, 2002 Newsletter. One of the Ph.D. researchers is Pakistani and a devout Muslim so perhaps it was inevitable that the matter of War in Iraq arose. They were surprised that a hermit in the woods near Natchez would post an anti-war banner on his international ecotourism site at

As the researchers left, I gazed at a Hophornbeam leaf emerging from its bud. Sunlight flooded through its yellow-green matter as I viewed it from the leaf's shadow side and I felt completely at peace seeing nature's work being carried out so beautifully. This, despite the overwhelming sadness I felt about the inevitable consequences of this war.

Energy leaping from the sun, flowing across 93 million miles of dead space, cascading onto the living blue and green Earth, charging this Hophornbeam leaf with photosynthesizing energy, all perfect, all beautiful, on these days of war.

There is no answer and no moral to this juxtoposition of images and feelings. The Zen masters might say that in this picture there are both silence and laughter.