from the woods near Natchez, Mississippi, USA
October 12, 2003
EVENING GROSBEAK IN A TREETOP
On foggy, chilly Tuesday morning, just moments before a drenching rain began, a chunky songbird dropped from the sky and landed at the tiptop of the tallest tree in the area, a Black Oak between the forest and the Loblolly Field. I was walking there looking for fall migrants so when the visitor materialized from the mists exactly from the north, I felt sure I was seeing one. At the top of the tree the bird's spread-legged, jerky, looking-around body language indicated that he was really juiced up, on full alert, a true transient. In fact, just seconds after his landing the rain began and he took wing again, flying hard exactly southward, quickly vanishing into the morning's mist.
It had been an Evening Grosbeak, COCCOTHRAUSTES VESPERTINUS, easy to identify because of its very thick, white beak, yellow body and black wings, each wing with a large white spot. You can see one at www.assateague.com/data-bird/grosbeak-evening.jpg
I was surprised by this sighting because my field guides clearly show that Natchez lies far south of this species' southernmost winter distribution. Of course as soon as I got onto the Internet I Googled up another winter distribution map for the Evening Grosbeak. In contrast to my books, that map showed that in places this bird winters as far south as the Gulf Coast. The deal is that my dog-eared field guides are decades old, and the Evening Grosbeak's distribution has changed radically during recent years.
Not only that, but its overall numbers appear to be declining except in some areas where the bird seems to be becoming more common. Probably backyard feeding has something to do with this, since this bird with its powerful seed-cracking beak is a frequent bird-feeder visitor. There's an interesting discussion about "The Ups and Downs of the Evening Grosbeak" at http://birds.cornell.edu/publications/birdscope/Summer2002/Ups_Downs_Grosbeak.html
You can see maps showing this species' summer distribution at www.mbr-pwrc.usgs.gov/bbs/htm96/trn626/tr5140.html and its winter distributuion at www.mbr-pwrc.usgs.gov/bbs/htm96/cbc622/ra5140.html
FALL MIGRATION OF BIRDS
If you're in the eastern US you might be interested in the "Nutty Birdwatcher" site at www.birdnature.com. This site lists arrival and departure dates for both spring and fall migrating birds. It's not as comprehensive as some databases but it's easy to access and you can see dates for various counties in your eastern state.
For example, to see fall arrival dates for several species in various Mississippi counties, go to www.birdnature.com/fallms.html
There we see that White-throated Sparrows make it to Bolivar County around November 3, and that American Restarts LEAVE Gulfport in Harrison County around September 20. The dates show that right now we are in the midst of fall migration. We don't notice it as much as we do spring migration because in general fall migrants are quiet, secretive, and often wearing a drab winter plumage.
To see migration records for states other than Mississippi, go to the bottom of the page at www.birdnature.com/timetable.html, choose your state and then click on either spring or fall migration.
Speaking of migration, Newsletter subscriber Lonnie Looper up in Greenville, MS reports that he saw "two hummingbirds copulating on the ground about two weeks ago after a midair mating ritual." So you tell me how that fits into Mama Nature's neat schedules!
This week we've seen the absolute peak of the show that goldenrods put on for us each year. Neighbor Karen Wise dropped by on Monday and took a picture of me standing in the Loblolly Field surrounded by goldenrods, and you can see that at www.backyardnature.net/fl_gdnrd.htm
Our goldenrod-yellow fields must present a pretty patchwork when seen from the sky. One of Natchez's largest, brightest fields is right across US 61 from Wal-Mart. I'll bet that a lot of Wal-Mart visitors blame their sneezing fits on such fields. If they do, they are mistaken, for goldenrods produce especially large, sticky pollen grains meant to adhere to the bodies of pollinating insects, not float in the air. It would take nothing short of a tornado to transport heavy goldenrod pollen through the air to our noses. If you are sneezing these days, maybe ragweed is the main culprit.
The "Vascular Flora of the Southeastern United States" lists 53 goldenrod species for the US Southeast. Of these, 15 to 20 species look like they could be found in southwestern Mississippi. Several weeks ago I mentioned that goldenrods were flowering in our Loblolly Field. The ones flowering then were Giant Goldenrods, SOLIDAGO GIGANTIA. The ones putting on such a show right now are "members of the Solidago canadensis Polyploid Complex," as one goldenrod-oriented site calls them. Goldenrod taxonomy can get pretty messy. For our purposes we can just call them Canada Goldenrods, SOLIDAGO CANADENSIS, though I THINK they are most accurately "hexaploid populations of Solidago altissima." If you want an overview of this hard-to-figure-out complex, go to www.facstaff.bucknell.edu/abrahmsn/solidago/plantid.html
The important point is that a few weeks ago one kind of goldenrod blossomed in our abandoned fields, and now an even more impressive second flush has come on, thanks to a second species. If you look at that picture of me surrounded by goldenrods, notice that immediately to the left of me stands a taller, darker, more diffuse plant. That's the older Giant Goldenrod, now past its flowering glory and producing seeds. The abundant yellow ones are "Canada Goldenrods."
Giant and "Canada Goldenrods" aren't the only species in our immediate neighborhood. On dry, semi-open ridges a few minutes walk from here the Rough-leaf Goldenrod, SOLIDAGO RUGOSA, is common. Unlike the robust, weedy, head-high species making the Loblolly Field pretty, this species is only knee high, fairly solitary, and a real forest wildflower. You can see it at www.delawarewildflowers.org/solidago_rugosa.html
Flat-topped Goldenrod, sometimes called Bushy Goldentop, or EUTHAMIA LEPTOCEPHALA, frequently shows up at woods edges and also on semi-open ridge tops. To me the flowers of this species smell just like rich honey, and if you hold the leaves up to the sky you can see that they are densely spotted with tiny, translucent dots, which are glands producing a strong- smelling, resin-like substance. This makes the leaves bitter, which is probably why in some Texas counties the plant is becoming a serious rangeland pest -- cows won't eat it, so it has a competitive advantage over other plants in pastures. This species is shown at http://plants.usda.gov/cgi_bin/plant_profile.cgi?symbol=EULE4
GOLDENROD STEM GALLS
One of the first things I said upon arriving at my new location this summer was that "Sometime this fall this field will be beautiful with all those goldenrods coming on... " So, the question arises as to how I knew that all those green, leafy "weeds" were goldenrods, not horseweed, fleabane or a host of other plants with very similar stems and leaves.
My main cue was that so many of the stems bore Goldenrod Stem Galls caused by the small fly known as EUROSTA SOLIDAGINIS. These galls are golf-ball size and shape, and occur about midway on goldenrod stems. I'm told that in the old days little boys in Mississippi sometimes broke off goldenrod stems bearing these galls so that the galls were positioned at the ends of stem sections, then the "arrows" were shot from bows. You could also hit your friend over the head with such stem-borne galls, in which case they were called "noggin knockers," and other such names. You can see my scanning of a galled goldenrod stem at www.backyardnature.net/pix/gallsoli.jpg
In the spring, male and female Eurosta solidaginis flies mate, the female lays her egg on a young goldenrod, the egg hatches and the larva tunnels into the stem. Something the larva does causes tissue surrounding it to begin growing like crazy, tumor- like. The larva then eats the tissue inside the gall. In my scanning you can see an escape hole excavated by the grub. The grub did not leave its gall upon making that hole, but rather returned to the gall's interior and will spend the winter inside the gall. Next spring when the grub metamorphoses into its adult form and flies away, all its eating will come in handy, because the adult never eats! It just searches for a mate, has sex, and the female sets the stage for the next generation by laying eggs on more young goldenrods, and then they die.
You can see and read a great deal more about the fly, the grub, the gall and the host goldenrods at www.facstaff.bucknell.edu/abrahmsn/solidago/eurosta.html
BETTY MCKAY'S FOSSIL TEETH
Mrs. Betty McKay just north of Natchez invited me to visit her and dig up sprouts spreading into her yard from rankly growing Butterfly Bushes, fig trees, Flowering Quinces, and the like, for transplanting here. Therefore, on Monday her daughter Karen Wise picked me up and we headed there with shovels and buckets.
Mrs. McKay has a long history of wandering local bayous, especially St. Catherine Creek, in search of pretty rocks, Indian artifacts and fossils, so today her collection is massive and impressive. Karen took pictures of two of her most interesting fossil finds, which you can see at the bottom of the page at www.earthfoot.org/loess/curious.htm
The bottom-most picture there shows the upper cheek tooth of a large Ice-Age horse known as Equus complicatus. By large I mean the size of a big draft horse of today, like a Budweiser Clydesdale.
The picture above the horse tooth shows a very worn upper molar of the elephant-like mastodon, Mammut americanum. These finds were identified by my paleontologist friend Earl Manning at Tulane.
Of course many other kinds of Ice-Age animals have been found in our area besides horses and mastodons. On my page at www.earthfoot.org/loess/fossils.htm you can see a number of fossils found by Lonnie and Freida Looper of Greenville. There's Llama, tapir, peccary, mammoth, moose, manatee, musk ox and more.
Last week I opined that I missed Kentucky's more solid and more ancient geology. Now I must admit that in terms of fossils it's more interesting here than there. With the bedrock in my home area being around 300,000,000 years old, any fossil found in bedrock there would have been deposited long before higher kinds of plants and animals evolved. Up there you mainly find seed ferns, scale trees, horsetails, and cordaites (which became coal), and rarely something really interesting like a primitive form of reptile or an insect. Up there the rocks were deposited long before any kind of mammal or even a dinosaur trod the Earth.
Therefore, whenever I walk in a bayou or ravine down here, I keep my eyes peeled for spectacular fossils. Still, though I've spent hundreds of hours looking, I've never found anything as exciting as what I saw at Mrs. McKay's. Just imagine the number of happy hours she's spent wandering our bayous, in order to have found so much!
ON THE GENTEEL ART OF PEEING SUSTAINABLY
During my recent bus trip to Kentucky the most vivid reminder that I had stepped from my usual life came the first time during the trip when I had to pee. In the men's room of the Memphis Greyhound Station watching my pee drain through the hole at the bottom of the urinal, I was swept with a sense of squandering a profoundly important resource.
For, in my usual life I recycle the nutrients that pass through my body. For a long time I have known the value of human urine. For instance, on the Web there's this:
"Studies indicate that each person's waste fluids can provide enough nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium to grow a year's supply of wheat and maize for that person. According to some studies, human waste can be an even more effective fertilizer than animal manure. Urine ... can be applied to field crops without treatment because it is generally sterile. By the way 'fresh urine' does not contain any bacteria, unless the person has a urinary tract infection, so you could even use it to wash out wounds without causing any infections."
You can read this and more about the uses of urine at www.geocities.com/impatients63/FreeUreaBasedFertilizer.htm
Despite my being a urine disciple, for a long time I've hesitated to discuss this in the Newsletter, for I know how squeamish people in our culture are about these things. However, now the time has come, for these reasons:
I have set up two simple and effective peeing systems, one for myself and another for visitors. Visitors pee in a 5-gallon bucket, the bottom of which is covered with sawdust, and the top of which is equipped with a regular commode seat. When sawdust in the bucket is peed into, fresh sawdust from a companion bucket is spread over it. When the pee bucket fills, the contents are dumped onto the compost heap and a layer of organic material, usually straw, is strewn over that. As long as fresh sawdust and fresh straw are used effectively, little odor results in either the bucket or the compost heap.
The second system, which I use, is this: I pee directly onto the compost heap. I start out with a layer of straw, or whatever organic material may be at hand, and when the layer darkens and begins to smell, I cover it with a fresh layer of organic material. Pee-saturated straw composts wonderfully. When straw that has composted two or three months is dug out, it is black, crumbly, and pleasantly earthy-smelling.
I don't mean to imply that these systems stay sweet- smelling all the time. Sometimes when the top is lifted from the 5-gallon bucket the odor is powerful. This is a sign that more sawdust should have been added the last time, or that the bucket needs to be emptied. Similarly, in the middle of a calm, hot day when sun shines on the compost heap, if you put your face right over it and breathe deeply, it might curl your toes.
However, I judge these mild affronts to our senses as appropriate trade-offs for being able to avoid the waste and pollution typical of our society's approach. Also, this occasional smell of ammonia reminds us of our real position in the ever-recycling, self- sustaining Web of Life, which has value in itself. Finally, I end up with some really great compost.
The logical next question is, "Where does my manure go?" I'll address that in next week's Newsletter.