from the woods near Natchez, Mississippi, USA

November 2, 2003

It was chilly early this week but by Thursday it got into the 80s (+27°C). Dry warmth caused the cones of Loblolly Pines to open, and stiff breezes shook out the seeds. Sometimes so many straw-colored seeds swirled onto the barn's tin roof that it sounded like a shower beginning. As the seeds fell, they spun like maple fruits, the ones kids call "helicopters." You can see a Loblolly Pine cone and seeds on my page at

Loblolly seedlings in our Loblolly Field grow so fast, so promiscuously, and their wood is so soft that I think of Loblolly saplings almost as big weeds. When I clear garden spots I just walk up to a 15-ft-high Loblolly, bend it over with an arm, and two or three chops with my machete take it down. A thirty-year-old Loblolly, however, starts having a bit of character. Its thick, black limbs droop and grow gnarly, and its dark-brown bark fractures into irregular, scaly blocks. A large Loblolly is as impressive as its glossy, spindly saplings are unimpressive.

That word "Loblolly" is a good one, and etymologists have at least part of a good story for it. The "lob," they say, is "probably an onomatopoeia for the thick heavy bubbling of cooking porridge." "Lolly," they claim, is an old British dialect word for broth, soup, or any other food boiled in a pot. Thus originally the word was applied to a thick porridge. In the US Southeast, people began calling mudholes loblollies because of their messy stickiness. But at this point the story becomes uncertain as to how mudhole loblollies became associated with our Loblolly Pines, PINUS TAEDA. One etymological theory is that Loblolly Pines favor wet bottomlands or swamps where mudhole loblollies are apt to occur. However, you've seen that Loblollies are nowhere more at home than in our dry, upland abandoned fields.


Those chilly mornings earlier this week got me in the mood for some sumac tea, so I visited a thicket of sumac near the barn and snipped off a few clusters of fruits. Back at the camp I dropped the clusters into a pot of boiling water and after a while had some tea. It's sour stuff, made eminently better with the addition of sugar or honey, and milk or cream.

The acid taste comes from the bursting of tiny glands at the tips of very small, stiff hairs covering the fruits. When these glands burst they release acid into the hot water. When you collect the fruits you can clearly see the glands with a good handlens, and just barely see them with your naked eye. So many acid- filled, hair-top glands cover each fruit that the fruits look and feel a bit sticky.

I've been noticing sumacs for a few weeks. Among the very first harbingers of fall, they show up as random splashes of scarlet in the landscape. Now they are a little past their color peak and are losing leaves. Many of the remaining leaves are black, and the fruiting clusters are brown and drooping at the ends of branches.

The sumac we have here is the Winged Sumac, RHUS COPALLINA. You can see this plant in a greener stage, as it appeared about a month ago at

At the above site they call it Flameleaf Sumac, and many books refer to it as Shining Sumac. In fact, the English naming of this plant has always been a bit shaky. The dictionary accepts an alternative spelling of "sumac" as "sumach," plus they say it can be pronounced either "SHOO-mak" or "SOO-mak." The word "sumac" appears to have come into English from the Arabic "summaq" by way of Middle Latin and Old French, so there's no wonder its pronunciation is squishy by now.

Some people worry about making sumac tea because they've heard of Poison Sumac, Toxicodendron vernix. Poison Sumac does occur in southern Mississippi, but I've not seen it around here. It lives only in very moist spots such as bogs, pocosins, wet pine barrens and stream borders. Certainly it wouldn't be growing in our weedy, upland fields.

When gathering fruits for making tea it's easy to be sure you're not getting Poison Sumac fruits. Winged Sumac fruits are red while Poison Sumac fruits are white, like those of Poison Ivy. In fact Poison Sumac and Poison Ivy belong to the same genus, so they share lots of traits. Our Winged Sumac is in the same family as they -- along with the trees producing cashews, mangos, and pistachios.


On a particularly cold, windy morning early this week one of our most welcome bird winter residents made its first appearance of the season. It was the Marsh Hawk, CIRCUS CYANEUS. You recognize this hawk as much by its manner of flying low over flat fields, its steady gaze directed onto the ground just below, as by its looks. You can see a Marsh Hawk over such a field at

Another striking field mark is its conspicuously white rump -- the rump of a bird being the lower part of the back connecting with the base of the tail feathers. You can see a view showing the white rump at

The page linked to above calls this bird a Northern Harrier, which is the name preferred by those wishing to preserve names used in Europe. Other authors continue to call it Marsh Hawk, the name early American settlers gave it. I use the name Marsh Hawk because that's what I learned from my old Peterson Field Guide back in the 60s.

Marsh Hawks must be very successful at what they do because they enjoy one of the most extensive bird distributions I know of. They're found not only throughout nearly all of North America, to the southernmost tip of South America, but also throughout much of Europe and Asia. During my travels I've enjoyed learning its names in the various languages of its native countries. In England it was the Hen Harrier. In Spain the Aguilucho Pálido. In France the Busard Saint-Martin. In Germany the Kornweihe. In Italy the Albanella Reale, and in Portugal the Tartaranhão.

One reason I have a special feeling for Marsh Hawks is because of a certain memory. One very blustery, cold, windy winter day when I was a farmboy in Kentucky I was walking along our gravel road when I spotted a black cat silently slinking across a wide, flat, rain- soaked, brown field of soybean stubble. It was as forlorn a sight as you can imagine, the cat looking starved and emaciated, and the cold wind just howling beneath a brooding, stormy sky. Suddenly the cat crouched as a Marsh Hawk came sailing low toward it. The hawk circled, rose to get altitude, then dove. But the cat arched its back and raised a paw and the hawk broke off its dive just before striking.

For fifteen minutes the hawk circled and dove, again and again, and the cat kept hissing, spitting, arching and pawing at the air. Two great hungers and two great fears in conflict in so much cutting cold, such wind- thunder, such achingly broad horizons with fearfully curdled dark sky...

In such a conflict, which side do you support? Why is nature stuck together in such a way that there are predators and prey? Why is life possible only when others keep dying?

That day, the Marsh Hawk contributed greatly to insights into life that sustain me today.


Commenting on last week's remarks that it was hard to find Black Walnut trees, Newsletter subscriber Roger Bonds in Alpharetta, Georgia wrote to say that once his Kentuckian grandfather told him about a terrible tree disease that ravaged America's walnut trees in the early 1900s. I've been trying to find information about that epidemic but so far have only learned that Black Walnut is vulnerable to a whole host of leaf, stem and root diseases, mainly fungal in nature, and that the diseases come and go, sometimes devastating populations in certain areas.

While Googling the situation I found a page titled "Never Plant A Black Walnut." It was a mostly tongue- in-cheek piece written by a gardener who'd planted a walnut sapling only to see some of his favorite garden bushes near it die. It turns out that the roots of Black Walnut produce a substance known as juglone (5- hydroxy-alphanapthaquinone) which can kill tomato, potato, blackberry, blueberry, azalea, mountain laurel, rhododendron, red pine and apple trees growing in the vicinity.

Not all plants are vulnerable to Black Walnut juglone. You can read about the whole problem and see a list of plants NOT hurt by the proximity of Black Walnuts at  

In my reply to Roger in Alpharetta, I recalled how, when I was a grad student at the University of Kentucky, Black Walnut was one of the most common trees in the beautiful Bluegrass Region surrounding Lexington. The above page makes the point that Black Walnut actually seems to encourage the growth of Kentucky Bluegrass and other grasses -- though horses sometimes react when Black Walnut woodchips and sawdust are used as bedding material.

Of course it all makes sense. Black Walnuts evolved a chemical to help them compete for precious resources (water, nutrients, sunlight) by killing some of thse plants around them. The system only goes haywire when humans replace the forest with gardens or start grinding up trees.


"Sparkleberry" and "Farkleberry" is really what the books seem to think the thing is called, but I've never heard anyone actually use those names with a straight face. A better name would be "Blueberry Tree," since it belongs to the same genus as blueberries, though it becomes a small tree instead of remaining a bush. It is VACCINEUM ARBOREUM and right now it's producing fruits that are nothing less than tree-borne blueberries. It is very common in our woods, especially along streambanks, and I'll bet you woods- walkers will recognize it when you visit its page at

When you go to that page, notice that the fruits are black, shiny, spherical, and that they have a curious little ring or cap of scar tissue at the end opposite where the stem attaches. Also notice that the leaves are smallish and densely arranged on the branches. These features make "Farkleberries" easy to recognize.

Chipmunks and White-footed Mice really like blueberries, and back when Black Bear roamed the forests, they had a special passion for them.


Another small tree with black fruits in our woods right now is the much less common and less known Arrow-wood Viburnum, VIBURNUM DENTATUM var. SCABELLUM. If you see this tree's cluster of black, glossy, pea- size fruits, you might at first confuse it with a wild grape. Even the leaves are almost like grapevine leaves. However, up close you'll see that the fruits are on a small tree or large bush, not a vine, and that the tree's leaves are opposite (two leaves at a node), not alternate (one leaf), as in the case of wild grapes. If you're not sure about "opposite" and "alternate" leaves, it's explained at the bottom of my page at

A rather murky picture shows Arrow-wood Viburnum at That's the best picture I can find showing the special way the fruits cluster at the ends of slender branches, and how the large, roundish leaves arise in pairs. Another picture giving a much better idea of what individual fruits look like, and showing how the leaf margins are "dentate" with triangular teeth is at

This is a handsome species, worthy of being planted. In fact, some horticultural varieties are indeed sold on the basis that its a tough little plant able to stand some cold, plus its flowers, fruits and leaves are nice looking. I wouldn't be surprised if the Indians really used this tree's stems for arrows, for they often grow long, slender and straight.

The thin flesh covering the large seeds is too bitter to make a human snack, but material from this tree has been found in the stomachs of everything from deer, squirrels and skunks to turkeys, Cardinals and woodpeckers.


Newsletter subscriber Jarvis Hudson in North Carolina sends news of a new Web site about the "Singing Insects of North America." Mainly it deals with crickets, grasshoppers, katydids and cicadas. Here you can "key out" insects, often using some pretty technical details, and many species are illustrated. Best of all, audio files with the songs of many species are provided. The site is still under construction but it's a good one to browse and watch grow. It's at


Last week I invited an explanation of why Mississippi has hunting seasons for such animals as Bobcats and various bird species such as rails and gallinules. I pointed out that I and many other birders would be tickled to glimpse a rail or a gallinule.

Nathan Rebuck, Naturalist Supervisor at The Lodge on Little St. Simons Island, Coastal Georgia, favored me with a very thoughtful and friendly response. About Bobcats he wrote:

"Most bobcats are taken while trapping, along with other 'furbearers' such as mink, otter, weasel, opossum, and raccoon. These are taken not for sport, but for the profit (or use of hides) of selling the pelts of these animals. Although small, there is still a viable market in tanned hides and furs of these creatures."

He also wrote that "There is an extreme amount of debate about the morality of trapping, as most traps are leghold traps and the creature is captured alive until the trapper returns (often several days later)."

Nathan didn't make a judgment on the morality of trapping. However, if you want to look into the issue from the perspective of wildlife management, there's a very interesting page titled "Fur Trapping in Mississippi: Past, Present & Future," at

One point the above article makes is that "The number of licensed fur trappers in Mississippi has fallen from a high of around 5000 in 1977 to about 300 per year for the last few years. The loss of interest in fur trapping is due to declining fur prices amid falling demand for fur products."

Another view of the whole fur issue can be viewed on a Canadian page called "Fur - Is NOT Cool!" at

Though it pains me to think of animals remaining trapped in great pain for days, until they can be stomped or clubbed to death, I don't obsess on this disturbing issue. That's because, compared to the consequences of habitat loss, climate change, pollution, and other effects of mindless consumerism, the effects of trapping on wildlife and ecosystem dynamics are nearly negligible. One can wonder about the sensitivities of a person who traps animals, but in terms of "protecting nature," it's far more appropriate to turn down your own thermostat when it's cold than to curse a trapper.

Nathan also addressed the rail/ gallinule question. He points out that these migratory birds are managed by the USFWS, not individual states. Management practices are "based on survey data on breeding success, hatchling recruitment, and food supplies. For any species which has a 'down' year, the limits are rightfully reduced to increase survival and recruitment of the next year's young. In this manner, the entire population can be controlled and kept above a critical level."

With regard to my impression that rails, gallinules and the like are uncommon, he continues, "they may be rare to see in Mississippi but elsewhere in the country they are quite plentiful. In the morning and evening we are surrounded by thousands and king and clapper rails belting out their calls; similarly moorhens are plentiful in brakish impoundments and gallinulles are common inland with freshwater."


Last week's suggestion that more Newsletter readers subscribe to the Natchez Naturalist Forum, to pass along their own nature-oriented experiences, got three new members and no posts, so not much came of it.

However, Newsletter subscriber Greg Scott in Wisconsin wrote with an offer. He produces a free, nature- oriented forum to which you do NOT need to subscribe and divulge your email address, and he invites all Natchez Naturalist Newsletter readers to post their experiences there. Instead of sending and receiving emails, you just post your experience at his site, and when you want to read other people's experiences, you go to the same page. You'll understand the system when you see it.

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