from the woods near Natchez, Mississippi, USA
September 14, 2003
RIBBON SNAKE IN THE ELEPHANT EARS
As soon as I moved to my new location, below the barn's eaves on the south side I planted Elephant Ears and cannas, and now their large, glossy, tropical- looking leaves stand shoulder high. They like the moist soil where rain cascades off the roof, and each morning dew from the barn's overhanging tin roof drips, moistening the ground.
All summer, Squirrel Treefrogs have lived among those plants. Sometimes even at midday you can spot one or more on the underside of a big Elephant Ear, or inside the coil of an emerging canna leaf. That must be why last Sunday afternoon an Eastern Ribbon Snake, THAMNOPHIS SAURITUS SAURITUS, draped its slender body along an Elephant Ear's slanting petiole, then lay for a long time excitedly flicking the tips of its forked tongue exactly onto the spot where a certain treefrog hangs out when it rains.
That forked tongue flicking the exact treefrog spot was a thing to see, for I knew that with each flick the snake was "smelling" a molecule or two of the long-absent treefrog. A snake's forked tongue is used both for feeling what lies ahead (useful in totally dark burrows), and for smelling. When the tongue is withdrawn into the mouth, the tip is projected into a specialized part of the nasal cavity called the Jacobson's organ. That organ gathers molecules sticking to the tongue and informs the brain what the tongue is smelling.
The plants' broad, shiny, brilliantly green leaves were resplendent and translucent in the dazzling sunlight. I got my small, close-focusing binoculars to watch the snake better, but before long I found myself panning the glowing leaves, not the snake, simply drinking in the plants' graceful forms and luscious green hues, a whole overlooked world of harmonious leaf-curve, elegant venation, smooth glossiness, shocking red and yellow splashes of leafspot-fungus...
The snake was beautiful, too. It was a small one, only about 30 inches long (76 cm), slender, and finely streamlined with three well-defined light stripes along its entire length. It could not have draped its little body more gracefully upon the nodding Elephant Ear leaf. Only its constantly flicking forked tongue distracted my eye from its pretty presentation.
At first I had thought the snake was North America's most widely distributed snake species, the very closely related and similar Garter Snake. The Garter Snake resides in the same genus as the Ribbon Snake, and, also like it, eat lots of frogs. However, the sharp eye can distinguish the two species. Ribbon Snakes are a little more streamlined and their stripes are a little better defined than Garter Snakes. You can compare their pictures. There's a ribbon snake at http://animaldiversity.ummz.umich.edu/media/herp/11.herp.jpg and a Garter Snake at http://animaldiversity.ummz.umich.edu/media/herp/13.herp.jpg
After surveying every corner of the big Elephant Ear, the Ribbon Snake tried to go onto a nearby canna, but it misjudged its hold on the Elephant Ear and unceremoniously slid off with a thud. Instantly it disappeared beneath a board and was not seen again. Friday night and Saturday morning we got 2-1/2 inches of rain (6.4 cm) here, and for the first time in weeks it rained without a Squirrel Treefrog calling among my Elephant Ears and cannas. I felt sure my treefrogs had ended up inside the snake.
However, on this Sunday morning I saw the unmistakable silhouette of a little frog on the other side of a wet, glossy canna leaf, so it seems that treefrogs have their defenses against snakes with flicking tongues and Jacobson's organs.
WOOD STORKS & ROSEATE SPOONBILLS
On Wednesday morning neighbor Karen Wise and I went in a pickup truck to get a load of sawdust to use as mulch on our gardens. The sawmill was a few miles north of Natchez so while we were up there Karen took me to see Thornbury Lake in the bottoms along the Mississippi River's eastern bank. Before arriving at the lake we passed by a small slough with knee-deep water emerald green with duckweed and algae. Baldcypress and cypress knees rose picturesquely from the water, Spanish moss heavily festooned trees surrounding the slough, and there must have been a hundred herons and egrets wading in the shallow waters, mostly Great Egrets, Little Blues and other common species.
I was also thrilled to see about five Wood Storks, also known as Wood Ibises, MYCTERIA AMERICANA, who rose from the water and circled looking down on us. When wading, they're white birds with long blackish legs and a head that's blackish, featherless and scaly-looking. The dark beak is huge and curved downward at the tip. When the bird takes to the air, its tail feathers and wings' primary feathers turn out to be black so, from below, with its 5.5-ft wingspread (1.7m), this black-and-white bird makes quite an impression against the blue sky. When you take a close look at the scaly head, you can easily believe that this is a dinosaur descendent. You can see what I mean at www.texasbirding.net/gifs/wodstork.jpg
Even more spectacular and surprising was that over at the slough's left stood about four Roseate Spoonbills, AJAIA AJAJA, unmistakable because they were nearly as large as the Wood Ibises, but whitish with a definite pink tinge. Also, the tips of their enormous beaks, instead of coming to a sharp point, flared into a round, flat shape, making their beaks like thick- handled tennis rackets. The utility of such beaks becomes clear when you see a bird slicing its beak sideways in long arcs through the water, like slightly open hands, ready to snap shut on small fish, crayfish, and whatever else it encompasses. You can see Roseate Spoonbills at www.nestbox.com/sections/galleries/florida/rosp.jpg
I have often observed these two species much farther south, from Mexico to South America. I had no idea that they ranged this far north.
In fact, when I checked distribution maps on the Internet, I found that neither the Wood Ibis (map at www.mbr-pwrc.usgs.gov/bbs/htm96/map617/ra1880.html) nor the Roseate Spoonbill (www.mbr-pwrc.usgs.gov/bbs/htm96/map617/ra1830.html) is known to nest in our area. However, from my own experience with other cranes and herons, I know that often in late summer and early fall certain species wander beyond their nesting grounds, and I suppose that that was the case here.
AUDUBON'S BIRD NOTES
While Googling the question of whether Roseate Spoonbills have been seen in the vicinity of Natchez, I came upon this quotation from the great bird-artist and naturalist John James Audubon, who particularly from 1823 to 1828 painted birds in Louisiana and southern Mississippi. On the web at www.audubon.org/bird/BoA/F37_G3a.html I found the following of his remarks about Roseate Spoonbills:
"A specimen sent to WILSON at Philadelphia from the neighbourhood of the city of Natchez, in the State of Mississippi, appears to have lost itself, as during my stay in that section of the country I never heard of another; nor have I ever met with one of these birds farther up the Mississippi than about thirty miles from its mouths."
Thus on Wednesday Karen and I managed to accomplish something that Audubon had not -- seeing a Roseate Spoonbill at Natchez.
The above-mentioned Web site is worth exploring. If you go to that page you can read a good bit of interesting information not only about spoonbills but also about this country back during pioneer days. Many stories found there don't deal with birds at all. If on that page at www.audubon.org/bird/BoA/F37_G3a.html you click on NEXT and keep clicking on NEXT, you will be taken to a series of pages holding Audubon's bird paintings, and each painting is accompanied by his colorful remarks. Some of the stories reveal that this man for whom a great conservation society has been named was rather a fanatic about shooting whatever wildlife came before him, often for what appears to be no other reason than the pure pleasure of killing.
OSAGE ORANGE FRUITS DROPPING
During our pickup-truck trip to Thornbury Lake, Karen and I came upon some green balls the size of large grapefruits lying on the road. Recognizing them as fruits of the Osage-orange tree, MACLURA POMIFERA, we pulled off the road and gathered ourselves a bucket. You can see what these fruits look like at www.uwo.ca/arboretum/newarb/indexpages/whatsnew/osage%20fruit.gif
I was glad to collect these fruits because I want to experiment with "natural hedges," and Osage Orange has been much used for that purpose. In fact, another name for the tree is Hedgeapple. The tree's twigs are often thorny, and I hope that the twigs will be thorny enough and grow so entangled with one another that a garden encirclement of them will keep deer out.
I wasn't sure how to manage the fruits to get seedlings next spring so I Googled up a Web site devoted entirely to Osage Orange, at www.hedgeapple.com/
At that site I learned how one old-timer had got his seeds to sprout. He'd dumped his fruits into a barrel and let them sit over the winter allowing them to freeze and thaw until spring, when they had grown soft. He'd kept the fruits moist during the winter, letting about two inches of water stand in the barrel's bottom. If fruits are kept submerged for an extended length of time, the seeds won't sprout. In the spring, he'd mashed the fruits, added water and poured the slurry into a plowed furrow, and covered it with an inch or two of soil. Then up came his hedgerow.
Lacking a barrel, I suspect that I'll just "stratify" the fruits -- bury them through the winter between layers of moist sand, and cover with leaves.
The www.hedgeapple.com/ site overflows with information about Osage Orange. I had known that American Indians once used its wood for making bows, and I'd seen cut slices of the fruits dried and used as Christmas decorations (instructions at www.crafts.rootsweb.com/~seasonal-crafts/baskets.html), but I hadn't known that when Lewis and Clark set off to explore the Louisiana Territory, the first tree they sent back East from St. Louis was the Osage- orange. The species is native to a relatively small area in eastern Oklahoma and portions of Missouri, Texas, and Arkansas, so it's been introduced wherever else it's found today, including here.
The Osage Orange's root bark produces a dye with colors ranging from tan to olive green, depending on the mordant. This dye was widely used during the First World War for dyeing khaki military uniforms.
Finally, I read with some skepticism that the crushed fruits may be useful for attracting and killing cockroaches. You can read some remarks about this in the guestbook at www.hedgeapple.com/survey.html.
BRACONID WASP ADULTS ESCAPE FROM COCOONS
Last week I told you about the braconid wasp cocoons hanging on the Tobacco Hornworms on my tomato vines. On this Sunday morning the hornworms are still hanging there, but only empty cocoons adorn their bodies. I know the cocoons are empty because the cocoons' ends opposite the point of attachment with the hornworms' bodies have been slit open from within, and now the cocoon tips are thrown back like the lids of pots with hinged tops. I got a fine scanning of several empty cocoons, clearing showing their thrown-back tops. You can see both last week's picture and this one at the bottom of my Hymenoptera page at www.backyardnature.net/hymenopt.htm
Though my hornworms have been covered with braconid wasp cocoons for at least a couple of weeks now, the hornworms themselves are still alive. I don't believe they have moved at all during the last week, but if you touch them they still have the strength to draw up their heads a little.
SPHINX MOTHS LAYING EGGS
This week at dusk when it was getting so dark you could hardly see anything I saw Tobacco Hornworm Sphinx Moths laying eggs on my tomato vines. Thus while one generation of Tobacco Hornworm appears to have been wiped out by braconid wasps, the hummingbird-like sphinx moths so attentive to my Moonflowers and Four O'clocks are busily setting the stage for the next generation. (In case you missed it, sphinx moths are the adult stage into which Tobacco Hornworms metamorphose.)
Recent rains have brought forth a bounty of mushroom kinds. The variety of shapes, forms, colors, odors and living strategies is simply mind-boggling. For me it's also a little frustrating because I simply can't identify a lot of them.
One reason it's so hard to identify mushrooms in our area is that most mushroom-identification books for the US are strongly biased toward showing species found in the North and along the eastern and western coasts. Another reason is that there's a large number of mushroom species, and their relationships with one another are often poorly understood even by the experts. I have seen a book on Mississippi fungi (pronounced FUN-jai), but even that infrequently provided solid identifications.
Of course you don't need a name to enjoy looking at mushrooms, but I like to pick and eat them, and for that I need to know exactly what I'm picking. Still, these mushrooms are fascinating and worth looking for. Here are a couple of facts to pique your interest:
First, mushrooms are just the reproductive structures of certain kinds of fungi. The working part of the fungus lives below the mushroom, usually in leaf litter, soil or wood, looking like much-branching, white thread. These cobwebby strands are known as hyphae and you can see some on my page at www.backyardnature.net/f/funghyph.htm. When conditions are just right the hyphae bud and produce mushrooms, which in turn release spores, from which new hyphae germinate.
Second, recent DNA analysis indicates that fungi are closer related to animals than to plants. Fungi are so peculiar that they are regarded as neither plant nor animal, but rather their own thing. The divergence of animals and fungi has been estimated as taking place some 965 millions of years ago. You can read more about fungus evolution at www.oldkingdom.org/UG_projects/Jon_Dixon/fungi_origin.htm
If you'd like a general introduction to the world of fungi you can visit my own fungus pages at www.backyardnature.net/2fungi.htm
HUMMINGBIRD FAMILY PICTURES
Newsletter subscriber Becky S. in Nashville, Tennessee directs us to a nice series of photos documenting the nesting season of a certain backyard hummingbird -- from the half-constructed nest, through egg-laying and hatching, to the eventual nest-leaving of the nestling. The photos are available at http://community-2.webtv.net/hotmail.com/verle33/HummingBirdNest/
These pictures were taken on the coast of central California, so the hummingbird species shown would not be our Ruby-throated Hummingbird. That part of California is home to five or six hummingbird species (we have only one).I think that the species shown is the Anna's Hummingbird, which I saw there in a friend's garden during a visit in 1984. The main identification feature of the nesting female is the patch of red on her throat. Our Ruby-throated females don't have such a patch.
NEWSLETTER DISCUSSION FORUM
During this newsletter's first year of issuance I provided a Yahoo discussion forum where anyone interested in commenting on what I write here could do so. Though a number of people subscribed to it, few posted remarks, and then the spammers and porn purveyors found it, so I removed it.
Since then the subscription list has grown a lot, and recently subscriber Marian someplace in Cyberspace suggested that I try again.
Therefore, the new Natchez Naturalist Newsletter Forum is open. To subscribe, send an empty email to email@example.com. To post a comment, send a regular email to firstname.lastname@example.org
The forum is configured so that I must preview each posting, and of course I will zap all spam and porn. When you post a message, the posting will be sent to all forum subscribers, so please don't carry on private chats via the forum. When you subscribe you must give an email address. I suspect that this will generate a little spam to that address, but my experience with Yahoo is that it's not a terrible lot.
I'm amazed to learn where many subscribers live, so, when you sign your posting, it would be interesting if you let us know where you're located.
OK, let's see who is out there burning to comment on something touched on in these Newsletters...