NATCHEZ NATURALIST NEWSLETTER:

May 4, 2003

PILEATED WOODPECKER ON A ROTTEN LOG
Sometimes I use my binoculars as a sense-focuser. It's like when you're sitting with your eyes closed and listen to the sounds you normally ignore. You find that you've been ignoring whole rainbows of overlapping sound-textures, playful harmonic interplays, subtle and interesting modulations and resonances, crescendos and decrescendos...

Reality is usually like that: When you focus narrowly on something, instead of finding less, there's more, and it's finer and richer stuff than what you're used to, no matter what you're dealing with.

So, I was sitting beside a forest pool scanning the opposite bank with my binoculars, mostly watching dragonfly-wing sun-glitter slitting the deep shadows across from me, and brown Mosquitofish hovering near the water's surface, their fins fanning calmly like the tails of contented grazing cattle. But then a crow-size Pileated Woodpecker rampaged right into my field of vision, not 20 feet from me, and plopped onto the trunk of a large tree that long ago fell from the bank into the water, and now lay there rotting.

It just happened that at that moment my elbows rested nicely on my knees, so didn't need to readjust my position to keep my arms from getting tired holding the binoculars. For half an hour I watched that woodpecker, never moving a hair, and he never knew that I was there.

In my sense-focused mode I tingled with pleasure when the big bird's bright red crest for a moment traversed a ray of brilliant sunlight. I watched him awkwardly hop backwards as he worked along the fallen trunk, and I laughed at the surprised look on his face when he disturbed a large centipede that ran toward him, causing him to jump upward and flutter his wings like a kid who almost steps on a gartersnake. I laughed again when a chipmunk emerged from under his log and he jumped and fluttered the same way again. I saw him go to the pond's edge, daintily douse his gangly body with water, then fly onto a nearby trunk and preen himself luxuriously.

He pecked and chiseled back and forth atop the fallen log and along its sides for a long time, finally settling on one spot where he began pecking with obvious concentration. Within five minutes he withdrew from his hole a white grub the size of which made me gasp, one as large as my whole thumb. He set the grub on the trunk and beat it with his bill until it stopped squirming. It was a succulent grub, so its body fluids splattered through rays of sunlight. Then the bird took up the grub, positioned it just right in his beak, and made several attempts before finally gulping it down. I hadn't been sure he could do that, for the grub was longer than his entire beak, and thicker, too.

The woodpecker then flew away, leaving in my field of vision dragonfly-wing sun-glitter and hovering Mosquitofish.

I went to see the hole from which the grub had been be extracted. It was a typical Pileated-Woodpecker hole, rectangular, about two inches long and an inch wide, and some two inches deep. A spot next to the hole was greasy, where the grub had been worked over prior to being swallowed. A dozen or so very small black ants fed in the greasy spot, and I marveled that they had found the spot so quickly, and that they so attentively gathered up whatever of the undone grub they could find, even if it was only pulpy wood soaked in the grub's nutrient-rich juices.

A beetle grub, a Pileated Woodpecker, a tribe of ants, and me, all feeding in our various ways on a rotting log next to a seldom visited forest pond...

*****

DAHOON
High bluffs abruptly rising at the very edge of the eastern border of the Mississippi River floodplain run through Laurel Hill Plantation's western end. Gullies, or bayous as they're known locally, dissecting this bluff are so deep and narrow that in their shaded depths plants and animals appear you might not expect.

This week along the moist, shaded slope of one such bayou I found a new tree not earlier listed for Laurel Hill, species #60. You can see my list of Laurel Hill trees at www.backyardnature.net/trees-lh.htm

The newly discovered species was adorned with small, white flowers. They were holly flowers, and the tree in every respect resembled our common American Holly, ILEX OPACA, except that its leaves weren't as leathery and spiny-margined as in that species. Only an occasional leaf bore a single sharp point along its margin. The new tree was the Dahoon, ILEX CASSINE, and it was the third species of holly, or ILEX, I've found here. You can see a leafy Dahoon twig at home.earthlink.net/~chouder/ilecas.JPEG  

Dahoon occurs along the US Coastal Plain from South Carolina, across Florida, to western Louisiana. We're exactly on its northern boundary in Mississippi. Dahoon likes moist soil, so it was at home in our shadowy bayou bottom.

That word "Dahoon" sent me to etymology pages on the Web, for I figured there was a good story behind it. Unfortunately, all the pages I found classified its etymology as "origin unknown."

The word sounds African to me and I'll just bet that long ago some African shaman saw its red fruits and tropical-looking, evergreen leaves, and thought it looked enough like something from "back home" to be called by a name he or she remembered. So, that name, like the shaman, may have survived passage in a stinking, anguish-filled hold of a slave ship crossing the Atlantic.

"Dahoon," I said to myself when I figured out what tree this was, and I nodded in respect to feelings and thoughts the word evoked when I heard it spoken there in the bayou's deep shadows.

*****

CHINESE PRIVET
One of the prettiest sights on the plantation these days is a 15-foot-high Chinese Privet, LIGUSTRUM SINENSE, near the hunters' camp. A member of the Olive Family, this tree with densely packed, small, dark green leaves is absolutely covered with hand-size, pyramidal clusters of small white flowers. Especially on mornings when its leaves are glossy-wet with dew and the flowers are as fragrant as the morning's wetness, it's just a joy to pass by this tree. You can see a close-up of part of a privet at www.forestryimages.org/browse/detail.cfm?imgnum=0016061

Besides being pretty and smelling good, during the day lots of honeybees buzz among the privet's branches, and in late fall and winter birds eat its dark purple fruits. However, despite all these wonderful attributes, this species is featured at http://msucares.com/pubs/misc/m1194.html on a page titled "Mississippi's 10 Worst Invasive Weeds." In fact, the beautiful tree at the hunters' camp is just one of thousands growing wild on the plantation.

Chinese Privets were introduced from China. They are considered bad invasive weeds because they crowd out native plants and trees, especially hardwoods. It's true that when individual trees grow alone they produce attractive plants, but it's also true that sometimes you find them forming thickets of pure privet. The ground in such places is deeply shaded and often the soil is so choked with privet roots that it's dust dry. Not only young trees of other species can't live there, but also not wildflowers, ferns or even weeds. When they grow so densely, their own flowering and fruiting also diminishes drastically. They create genuine ecological deserts.

It's one of those cases of something beautiful and fundamentally good being in the wrong place, doing the wrong thing.

*****

ROSY WOLFSNAILS
These early mornings when the grass is still wet from dew, along my paths through the fields I've been spotting an occasional very pretty snail with a pinkish and almost translucent shell. It's the Rosy Wolfsnail, also called the Cannibal Snail, EUGLANDINA ROSEA. Though the Web pages I find say it gets to three inches long (7 cm), the ones I'm finding are just over an inch (3 cm). You can see several pictures of the species at www.jaxshells.org/eraj.htm

Though Rosy Wolfsnails are native of the US Southeast, from the Carolinas, along the Gulf Coast to Texas, and thus are natural here, lots of Internet Web pages are dedicated to the species because, as one page says, "According to the Global Invasive Species Database, E. rosea is considered one of the world's 100 worst invaders. The presence of E. rosea has been strongly linked to the extinction and decline of numerous snail species in every area where it has been introduced."

So here's an example of one of our native species being introduced elsewhere, causing untold ecosystem damage there. It's what Asia's Chinese Privet has done to us, except in reverse. In Hawaii and French Polynesia conservationists build barriers in an effort to guard native tree snails from our Rosy Wolfsnails.

Rosy Wolfsnails deserve their English names. When young Wolfsnails hatch, they may eat those of their fellow siblings who get in their way, and their cannibal habits continue into adulthood. They usually eat other slug and snail species, and are so aggressive that they've been seen going underwater searching for prey.

Once again I want to say how great the Google search engine is for my kind of naturalizing. To identify this species I went to the Google image-search page at www.google.com/imghp?hl=en&tab=wi&ie=UTF-8&oe=UTF-8&q=   and typed in "snail mississippi" and then merely scanned the thumbnail images that resulted. Finding a match, I went to the Web page holding the picture, got the snail's name, and then went to the regular Google search-page (www.google.com), Googled the name, and came up with basic facts about it.

*****

SCARY FEMALE BROAD-HEADED SKINK
In the humid heat of Saturday afternoon (86 in my Waxmyrtle, or 30C), there sat outside my screendoor a Broad-headed Skink, EUMECES LATICEPS. The books say this species only gets 12-3/4 inch long (32.4cm) but surely this one exceeded 13 inches. It moved slowly and deliberately, was thick and glossy, and its oversized, orange, triangular head glistened in the sunlight. You can see approximately what I saw at www.nsm.iup.edu/pha/photos/lizards/Elaticeps_large.jpg

I've been watching this critter for some time, watching its orange head grow more orange and thicker as the days passed, and I assumed it was a male manifesting his hormones. Saturday I watched as this individual did something new: It curiously arched its neck so that its head bent downward like a threatening Billy goat. The reason why immediately became clear.

A considerably smaller skink, one with only a slightly orange head that wasn't at all triangular, emerged from under my door. This smaller skink approached the big skink with its neck much more arched and skewed to one side. The small one got to about a foot within the big one, then began circling to the left and, to my astonishment, proceeded to mount the big one, and the big one didn't resist. So the big one was female!

Up on top, the little male suddenly seemed to lose his train of thought. He tumbled off no more elegantly than a dropped wiener, and as soon as he got his legs working together he stampeded ingloriously into the grass.

The big female turned and gazed in his direction with the benign air of a ruminating cow looking at a fencepost. Then she languidly continued her progress to beneath my trailer.

*****

THIS WEEK'S MIGRATING BIRDS
In this week when the Chinese Privet was so pretty and the mulberries ripened (and the Cedar Waxwings descended on them and ate them soon as they ripened) on Friday, May 2, I spotted the following migratory birds:

WINTER RESIDENTS PREPARING TO LEAVE

24 Cedar Waxwing

SUMMER RESIDENTS JUST ARRIVED

1 Mississippi Kite
4 Yellow-billed Cuckoo
2 Chimney Swift
9 Great-crested Flycatcher
14 Acadian Flycatcher
4 Eastern Wood Pewee
10 Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
24 Red-eyed Vireo
13 White-eyed Vireo
3 Yellow-throated Vireo
14 Northern Parula
6 American Redstart
1 Black-and-white Warbler
5 Hooded Warbler
1 Kentucky Warbler
2 Prothonotary Warbler
7 Tennessee Warbler
2 Yellow-throated Warbler
3 Yellow-breasted Chat
6 Yellowthroat
3 Orchard Oriole
13 Summer Tanager
11 Indigo Bunting

TRANSIENTS (just passing through)

none

PERMANENT RESIDENTS (individual birds may migrate)

1 Turkey Vulture
1 Red-shouldered Hawk
2 Brown Thrasher
3 Catbird
7 Eastern Towhee
3 Brown-headed Cowbird

This week's list hints that, in terms of gross numbers, the crest of the migration has passed. Last week was evidently the peak -- though very many late migrants still are yet to arrive. I'm concerned that Friday I saw no thrushes at all. I've read that Wood Thrush populations are vanishing fast. So far this season I've seen no Baltimore Orioles, no Scarlet Tanagers, no Blue Grosbeaks, no Loggerhead Shrikes -- not even any Bluebirds for several weeks.

*****

STUMBLING
Friday-walk's most pregnant moment came when I stumbled on a tree root. When I tried to catch myself my other foot also got caught, so I ended up flailing my arms wildly, sending binoculars, fieldguide and cornbread everywhere, and landing about as ungracefully as possible.

At age 55 I'm in inordinately good shape, yet, still, my reactions are clearly slowing down. Each year the hearing goes a bit, and now when with my right eye I watch a bird that's just a tiny speck in the sky... that speck disappears and reappears as a dirty spot flutters exactly where I try to focus. The old body is giving way. The senses are dulling. The face of the future grins at me plainly.

Yet, I wouldn't want to return to my earlier years. Maturing (as opposed to merely growing old) has its compensations equaling and possibly surpassing the delights of simply being young and healthy.

For example, sometimes during my birding walks I recall how my birding technique has changed over the years. When I was younger, before I was sure of an identification, I had to check each bird's fieldmarks as cataloged in my fieldguide. I had to see the White- eyed Vireo's white iris, and the Yellow-rumped Warbler's yellow rump and white throat. Now I know my birds by clusters of characters, seldom even needing to use binoculars. I know birds by their silhouettes, by the way they move, by what habitat or niche they occupy, and by their songs and warning calls. Friday I listed 24 Red-eyed Vireos but I never got a good view of a single one.

Thus, with my maturity as a birder, acuity of mind has displaced most need to physically track down each bird and confirm its fieldmarks. With time, I have become more effective as a birder by learning to rely on experience, practiced judgment, and maybe something extra that accrues to any spirit that evolves and grows.

Such seems to be the case in all aspects of my life. I have no doubt that as years pass my body and senses will deteriorate at an accelerating rate. However, I am also sure that while this happens, as long as my mind remains intact, intangible, maybe even mystical, benefits of a maturing, evolving spirit will more than compensate for those physical losses.

Friday, I stumbled. As I flailed my arms, looking perfectly ridiculous, the entire train of thought outlined above flashed through my mind in an instant. By the time I hit the ground already I was beginning to laugh, so delighted that in this blur of a life I've just lived I've had the chance to observe myself evolving from being a sensory-intoxicated and physical-world-enslaved infant to the kind of seeing-and-hearing-OK-without-good-eyes-and-ears, balding and gray-bearded stumbler I am now.

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