from the woods near Natchez, Mississippi, USA
June 15, 2003
CHIMNEY SWIFT NEST
On Wednesday, June 4th, I went for the last time to peep into the cistern at the corner of what remained of my outside kitchen, to see if the bats were chattering as usual. As I bent over, I heard them, but what really captured my attention was a loud crashing sound a little like that of stiff canvas flapping in strong wind. The noise came from the darkness inside the cistern.
As I peered into the cistern's opening, gradually my eyes became accustomed to the darkness, and I began making out five small, oval objects clustered at the edge of the cistern neck's wall. I bent closer to the opening and just as I realized I was seeing five eggs in a nest stuck on the wall, the flapping noise exploded even louder than before.
It took a while to realize that I had a Chimney Swift nest, and that the flapping noise was made by the mother swift clinging to the wall next to the nest, trying to scare me away with her racket. The cistern neck interior was surfaced with smooth concrete so not only was it hard to imagine how a nest could stick there, but also how the mother could hold on as she flapped her wings so violently against the wall. A Chimney Swift's wingspread is about 12.5 inches (32 cm), so for a little cigar-shaped bird only 5 inches long (13 cm), that's a lot of wing to be beating. You can see a Chimney Swift at her nest at http://220.127.116.11/birds/birds_m/BD0258_1m.jpg
So, after inhabiting that spot in the woods for about 6 years, I'd reached the point where I was sharing my kitchen with over 1,700 Southeastern Myotis bats, at least four species of skinks and lizards, and three bird species -- the birds being Carolina Wrens, Prothonotary Warblers, and now this Chimney Swift. I shall always regard this fact as an accomplishment. It just shows how enriching and accepting Mother Nature can be when you simply take what you really need from her, and leave the rest alone.
As is the case with enarly all neotropical migrant bird species, Chimney Swift populations are diminishing rapidly. The main reason is the same for all the species -- habitat destruction. You may be interested in the North American Chimney Swift Nest Site Research Project at www.concentric.net/~Dwa/page6.html
Another site provides instructions on how to construct a nest site Chimney Swifts will accept. I hope to build such a thing here before the next nesting season. The page on which nest-tower construction information is provided, along with a drawing, is at www.tpwd.state.tx.us/nature/birding/chimneyswift/chimneyswift-index.htm
Thanks to the generous help of Newsletter-subscriber friends Jackie & Karen Wise of Kingston, my move from Laurel Hill went very smoothly. You might remember Karen as the vulture-saving lady of a couple of Newsletters back. Karen's husband Jackie has a big truck he doesn't mind getting scratched, loaded with jacks and other tools, even an air compressor that can pump up trailer tires that go flat during transit. I couldn't have asked for more friendly, neighborly and professional help.
I was obliged to leave Laurel Hill several times prior the move, to make arrangements. Those brief trips off the plantation reminded me that seclusion of the kind I've experienced these years is good in some ways, but limiting in others.
Mainly, by staying secluded, I've exposed myself to a narrow slice of life. If I'd not moved, I might never have been reminded that sometimes spontaneous friendship and generosity blossom where least expected, as was the case with Jackie & Karen. There are other beguiling currents in humanity I might have forgotten, too.
For example, on the afternoon when Karen and I scouted the little gravel roads on which we planned to take the trailer, someone else making their own move pulled out in front of us. Some pretty wild and scrappy looking young men in an appropriately rusty and dented pickup truck were pulling a beat-up car on a flatbed trailer. The trailer bore neither license plate nor brake lights, and boys rode in the truck's back, all completely illegally. It was clear that they knew they'd catch hell if the cops saw them. They went fast, their trailer swerving all over the place throwing up clouds of dust and gravel, the boys in the back bent low with nervous but defiant looks on their faces.
I couldn't help but be delighted by all this. It was done in the spirit of backwoods customs I grew up with in Kentucky, where the vast potential of an old junk car could be appreciated, where the back of a pickup truck could be experienced as a good place to ride, and where authority was something to be honored and respected as long as it didn't get in your way and you weren't hurting anything.
I've heard all the statistics about riding without seatbelts and I know full well that the swerving trailer was a public menace. However, I can't believe that anything these young men did was as destructive as the wave of self-satisfied, consumption-oriented gentrification now sweeping our society. That day, I was glad to see someone cooling off by rolling down their truck window to let the air gush in. I was thrilled to see that there were still young people out there who could have that look on their faces the young men had as they watched for cops.
Maybe the reason I liked it so much was that I recognized that the careening truck and trailer constituted a rolling metaphor for what I myself was doing. I know that in the general public's eyes my quest for a spiritual life of simplicity and being close to nature is even more subversive than moving a wreck on a trailer with no license plate and no brake lights. Having no regular job and not even a credit card, the example of my behavior is more threatening to established public order than young men riding in the open back of a speeding pickup truck.
I can only hope that sometimes on my own face there glows that beautiful look of nervous defiance I saw on the faces of those young men in the back of the racing pickup truck.
But, back to this naturalizing business...
We have a beautiful little pond here, about the size of two houses. It's in the open and it's been there long enough to be home to interesting plants and animals, a whole little aquatic ecosystem needing appreciation and protection.
Right now the most eye-catching plant along its muddy banks is producing yellow blossoms about an inch across, with five petals. It's the Primrose-willow, JUSSIAEA REPENS, a member of the Evening Primrose Family. I've seen this same species in both tropical America and Africa, so the species gets around. We're near the northern edge of its pantropical distribution (reaches southern Indiana). When you see how tiny its abundant seeds are, you can easily imagine those seeds sticking to the muddy feet and bills of ducks and other aquatic birds, and being dispersed over a wide area. You can see exactly how the plant looks at www.missouriplants.com/Yellowalt/Jussiaea_repens_plant.jpg
ON THE PLEASURE OF MAKING LISTS
One of the most enjoyable tasks at my new home is to list all the species of trees I can find growing on the property. At Laurel Hill I found 62 tree species. I'm shooting for more than that here. At the moment I've only listed about 25, but each walk I take turns up something new, and that makes my exploring even more fun. Later I'll also make lists of birds, reptiles & amphibians, and other things.
Probably nothing helps us get to know an area better than making lists of what lives there. First the list impresses us with the basic character of the land, for plants and animals have very specific habitat requirements. If a land is low and swampy, many of the organisms listed will be different from if the land were high and dry. The same is true regarding whether the local bedrock is sandstone, limestone, or something else, or if you're listing on a hill's northern or southern slope.
Once you've listed all the common species, you begin looking for rare ones. This means that you seek out special niches -- maybe a spring or an especially deep ravine. If you find several extraordinary species in a special spot, then you cannot return there again without feeling a certain sense of enchantment, of awe and respect for the place.
Of course the whole problem about making lists is that first you must identify what you have, and the identification process takes time and know-how.
My backyard nature site at www.backyardnature.net was produced specifically with this challenge in mind. It helps you learn how to master the identification process when dealing with all the major kinds of plants and animals.
There's a special section on using field guides for identification at www.backyardnature.net/fd_guide.htm, another on using more technical identification "keys" at www.backyardnature.net/keys.htm, and another on using the Internet for identification purposes at www.backyardnature.net/internet.htm
SPIRIT OF THE YELLOW-BREASTED CHAT
To our south and east, it's forest. Lots of it, since Cooper Hill's property boundary adjoins Homochitto National Forest. To our north, across the highway, a neighbor has many acres of pasture, and west of our barn/office a large, abandoned field slopes down to Sandy Creek about half a mile away. This field is being taken over by Loblolly Pine saplings about 15 feet high and blackberry thickets. This vast tangle couldn't be better habitat for the Yellow-breasted Chat, ICTERIA VIRENS. You can see this handsome, Starling-size bird with its bright yellow breast, olive-green upper parts and white "spectacles" at http://friendsofsherwoodisland.org/Photos/Hand/AJH-chat.jpg
Though the Yellow-breasted Chat is by far the largest species of the Wood-warbler Family, surely the most extraordinary thing about the species is its song. Most woodwarblers produce short but highly distinctive and usually pretty songs. One source describes the chat's song as "an amazing assortment of croaks, chuckles, wheezes, whistles, caws and sometimes car horns."
In fact, I can't see a chat without remembering my first encounter with one as a boy on the Kentucky farm. I'd learned to recognize a few warblers and by then I thought I knew what to expect of them. Therefore, when I came upon this new bird seemingly far too large to be a warbler, and heard its unbelievable song, it never even occurred to me to look in the warbler section of my fieldguide. Again and again I thumbed through my fieldguide's pages, finding nothing like it as I consistently skipped the warbler pages. After a whole afternoon of studying the matter I was convinced I'd discovered an entirely new species the experts didn't know about. I could see the headlines already, "Jim Conrad discovers new bird species in Kentucky... "
But a few days later I stumbled onto the mystery bird's picture in the fieldguide's warbler section, along with the word description of it song -- "an amazing alternation of caws, whistles, grunts and rattles" -- and then I knew that my fame as a bird- discoverer would have to wait.
The Blackberry Field at Laurel Hill was large enough to accommodate one nesting pair of chats, but here there must be a dozen, and hearing several chats at one time "whistling, grunting and rattling" is almost comical.
There's something else special about the chat's singing, too: Often chats sing at night.
In fact, this week the moon has been bright and often I've awakened deep in the night and listened as several chats at different' parts of the big field sang, if singing is what you can call it. One night a mockingbird sang with them. All was silvery and still, and those calls perfectly complemented the icy moonlight etching every twig, spine and needle of the big field of pine and blackberry.
There's an audio WAV file with the Yellow-breasted Chat's call at www.ronausting.com/YellowBChat.wav
SEEING THE SKY
At Laurel Hill I could see a fair patch of sky above the Blackberry Field, but that was nothing compared to the vista available here. Wednesday a line of thunderheads with flaring white tops, billowy middles and brooding dark bases marched past. I could hardly take my eyes from them as they rumbled, grew sky-tall and spread their tops into classic anvil shapes. On Thursday a storm came with a white curtain of rain that moved toward me as I planted a Sweet Olive in the field. I could see and hear everything. The rain's white curtain inexorably coming at me was hypnotic. I just let the chilly drops splash onto me, totally drenching me. On Friday an even more magnificent storm came, and this time I squatted in the barn door experiencing it with the same mind that sometimes I use with Beethoven symphonies.
Most of the time, of course, in this sky there's just blue emptiness with a few vultures and hawks, and maybe some white cumulus clouds drifting northward. Sunlight from such a sky possesses a special cutting edge, like finely crushed glass. The moon in such a sky seems to converse with herself. All the time, beneath such a sky, you are aware of being a spectator. Sometimes when a very hot, dry, late- afternoon breeze stirs and the sunlight cuts into your skin, though you be rooted in a level field, you feel a certain precariousness, like being a dusty bottle about to tilt from a shelf in an abandoned shack.
Having hourly access to the broad sky changes you if for long you have grown accustomed to a burrowing style of life, burrowing through buildings, into computer screens and books, closing yourself up in imagined personal spaces. Being for long beneath the open sky is an act of decompression. Your psychology shifts from "burrower" to that of "bug on a table."
It's also a kind of coming to terms, for nothing reveals so elegantly the true nature of man's presence on Earth as a penetrating look into the broad open sky.