from the woods near Natchez, Mississippi, USA
November 16, 2003
At this time of year unseasonably warm weather usually precedes a cold wave. That was the case this week: Wednesday afternoon it was 80° (27°C), but Friday morning at dawn my thermometer read 37° (3°C). I doubt that I'm the only one around here who on those warm afternoons earlier this week saw a lot of ladybugs.
On those warm afternoons the west side of our barn was a gathering place for ladybugs looking for places in which to overwinter. The cinderblock walls there in some places are overlapped by wooden siding, and the narrow spaces between the blocks and the wood must be heaven to hibernating ladybugs. I have heard of inch- deep masses of ladybugs gathered in attics and inside walls. We had nothing like that, but there were thousands nonetheless.
Fence Lizards and Green Anoles also like our western wall on sunny, warm afternoons and when the ladybugs are swarming the reptiles look disoriented, as if they want to eat ladybugs, but don't dare to. I've seen anoles and lizards gorge themselves when they came upon swarming winged ants and termites so I wondered why they weren't eating the ladybugs. Then one afternoon I breathed in a ladybug. It stuck for a while in my throat as I hacked and coughed, and by the time I got it spit out, I knew why they weren't being eaten. Though I hadn't crunched the ladybug, my mouth was filled with an oily bitterness that almost made me sick and kept me coughing a long time. Ladybugs seem to have a chemical weapon in their defensive arsenal.
The best I can tell, most of our ladybugs are "Asian Lady Beetles," HARMONIA AXYRIDIS. This is not the same species I knew so well on the farm in Kentucky. This one is lighter in color, usually yellowish or orange, and has more spots, sometimes as many as 19. You can read about "Asian Lady Beetles" and see them at www.dnr.state.oh.us/dnap/publications/newsletter/fall2002/beetles.htm
One explanation of why I didn't see this species as a child is that they were introduced, both intentionally and unintentionally, during the 1980s. Now they are established in every state east of the Mississippi, and in a good bit of land west of the river.
At first glance, the arrival of this ladybug on our shores might not seem to constitute the kind of environmental disaster that typically accompanies most introductions of alien species. These ladybugs feed on aphids, whiteflies and thrips, so they help protect our gardens and trees. However, there's growing evidence that, crabgrass-like, they're displacing our 450 species of native ladybugs.
I think that on any given warm day, two or three ladybug species can be seen on our barn's west side, with the Asian species contributing about 95% of the bodies. "Asian Lady Beetles" are so variable not only in coloration and spotting, but also in size, that it takes a while to realize that you don't have a lot of species.
You can see a whole page of different ladybug species native to Canada at www.cnf.ca/beetle/guide.html and there's a nice page on ladybug life history at www.ars.usda.gov/is/AR/archive/mar95/001030.beetlemagstory.htm
I read that it's believed someplace in Europe that the number of spots on certain lady beetle species can predict the coming harvest: fewer spots are good, too many spots are bad. Since "Asian Lady Beetles" have more spots than any species I know, so I hope the spots aren't auguring ill for the ecosystem they are now flooding into.
THE LOBLOLLY FIELD AT SUMMER'S END
Since I arrived here in early June the Loblolly Field on the slope between the barn and Sandy Creek about half a mile to the west has exhibited at least three states of perfection. Walking across it during my July 4th bird count its perfection was one of unrestrained, hot and humid greenness. I remember such steaminess that sometimes it was hard to breathe, and by mid-day, every day, tall cumulus clouds coalesced into rumbling, black-bottomed storms that came and went like slow-play nightmares during sweaty, lightening-bugged, black nights.
Then about three weeks ago the goldenrods made a broad perfection of yellow field beneath blue sky, embellished in detail with bees, beetles, moths and butterflies fervently at work among flowers.
Now the field offers a third perfection. One way it's perfect is that finally you can enter it without getting covered with ticks and redbugs (chiggers). These critters are still with us, but not in such awful numbers. In fact, as soon as I realized that they were diminished, I scythed a path a hundred yards into the field, to an old cemetery I'd known all along was there, clearly signaled by the only mature Loblolly rising above the sea of goldenrods and saplings. There are at least five burials beneath the big pine, all dating from the 1800s, and now I've spent some time sitting there visiting both them and the pine.
More at the heart of the field's new state of perfection is that now each of the millions of goldenrod heads burgeons with thousands of tiny parachuted fruits. We have an ocean of fruiting goldenrod. Instead of being bright yellow as it was a few weeks ago, now it's complexioned dingy white or gray, randomly and incongruously punctuated with glossy-green islands of Loblolly saplings.
Each fruit in those goldenrod heads is no larger than a grain of sand, and from atop each fruit arises a Lilliputian tuft of white hairs. These hairs make parachutes. When the slightest breeze stirs, the fruits lift into the air and drift away in perfect serenity. If you face the sun during the afternoon and the fall air is populated with sailing goldenrod fruits, it is a striking thing to see. One feels honored to be present as so many potential wildflower souls embark for unknown destinations.
Fall's brilliant sunlight, the field's muted predominance of browns, grays, yellows, bronzes, and ochers, the sunlight fluff spiking the air with dazzling driftings, the occasional spider gossamer, and the insect sounds, timid now as winter approaches -- the crickets, the cone-headed grasshoppers and all the kinds of katydid...
All this brilliant sky-fluff mingled with residual chiming and the muted hues of fall make a kind of unity, and that unity is perfect unto itself. When I walk down my new path through the field toward the cemetery I just wonder what perfections may crystallize here next, and what the ones were like that I missed.
One thing I left out of the above description of the Loblolly Field is this: If we should speak just in terms of individual plant stems, surely the most abundant inhabitant of the Loblolly Field would be neither goldenrods nor Loblolly saplings, but, rather, the head-high bunchgrass known as Little Bluestem, SCHIZACHYRIUM SCOPARIUM. This is an important player in the theater described above, for nowadays Little Bluestem also is releasing its abundant fruits. Like goldenrod fruits, Little Bluestem's fruits also are small and parachuted, and the fruits' tufts of white hairs similarly catch the sunlight and glow in the blue sky like tiny flares. You can see pretty much what the plants look like when backlighted with sunlight so that the hairy fruits show up brightly at www.lib.ksu.edu/wildflower/littlebluestem.html
When I studied ecology in college, Little Bluestem captured my imagination. Mainly, when the settlers entered the prairie region stretching from the base of the Rocky Mountains to the forests of the East, Little Bluestem was often the main grass present, especially in the eastern prairies. The grass grew "as high as the shoulders of a man on horseback," and the soil beneath the species was black, crumbly and rich. When I was learning my plants and I'd find Little Bluestem, I'd think about the prairies, the wind there, the broad skies, the buffalo and the Indians...
In Kentucky, in most places Little Bluestem is rare or absent. Up there, if you have an abandoned field like our Loblolly Field, it'll be taken over by Broomsedge, Andropogon virginicus, which looks a lot like Little Bluestem. Up there, if you see a field of Broomsedge, you know it's been abandoned 2-5 years, and that the soil beneath it is poor. You can see Broomsedge at http://tncweeds.ucdavis.edu/photos/andvi03.jpg
Though Broomsedge is distributed as far south as Mexico and Central America, our Loblolly field has no Broomsedge. Yet Little Bluestem is as abundant in it as any such patch of land in Iowa, and I'm not sure why. If I had to guess I'd say it's because the soil that derives from our loess, which contains a fair amount of carbonate, is just too rich in nutrients for Broomsedge, so cousin Little Bluestem takes its place.
At this time of year both Broomsedge and Little Bluestem add a fine touch of grace to the landscape, intensely dun-colored/gray/orangish as they are, their slender stems undulating expressively in the wind, those little fruits parachuting into the air on sunny afternoons. Broomsedge and Little Bluestem both cast a mood onto the land, a little somber, but really too pretty to be sad.
YANKEE TURKEY VULTURES EVERYWHERE
Turkey Vultures, CATHARTES AURA, are found year round, but lately the species has been more conspicuous than usual. That's to be expected because what we're seeing now are yankee "snowbirds" who've just come south for the winter. Like the humans of that kind, during our winters they tend to show up in odd places doing things in ways that seem a bit unusual to local folks.
In our new NatNat Forum, where some dandy postings have appeared this week, SueNell in Louisiana wrote: "I've spent the afternoon beneath the skylight on the sunporch watching the migrant group of Turkey Vultures as they've wheeled overhead before going to their roost for the night. They are roosting right in the middle of town - behind the football field in a small strip of pine trees. Hardly anyone knows they are there but we've watched them for the last 5 years. We know they are a group of migrants because they are only here from September until about mid-February. They've chosen this spot to roost because the grocery store parking lot is just next door to their roost and it is on top of a hill so the thermals form early which enables them to leave the roost early."
Becky in Colorado replied that she only has Turkey Vultures during the summer and that "...the buzzards return every year, right around the 15th of March, I think, and they likewise leave about the same time every autumn. The friends who harbor them every summer were quite honored at first, but then they realized the downside of keeping vultures - 'You know what they eat, don't you? And what gets eaten, gets pooped!'"
The USGS has a fine page on Turkey Vultures showing not only a picture but also a film of them. It's at www.mbr-pwrc.usgs.gov/id/framlst/i3250id.html The link "BBS Map" shows their summer distribution extending deep into Canada, and the link "CBC Map" shows how during the winter they withdraw mostly into the US Southeast and California.
Be sure that you know the difference between Turkey Vultures and Black Vultures, both species of which are abundant here. The most striking difference is that Black Vultures have a large patch of white on each wing's underside, while Turkey Vulture plumages are all black, though the wings' primary feathers sometimes show a hint of silveryness. Turkey Vulture tails are relatively long and slender while Black Vulture tails are short and broad. And as SueNell wrote, "Turkey vultures can soar for hours and black vultures have to flap their wings about every 3 minutes or so."
A TIME CAPSULE FOR CITIZENS OF THE TWO LAKE COMMUNITY
The following paragraph constitutes a time capsule for future citizens of the Two Lake Community in Jackson, Mississippi, to be found upon the occasion of the inevitable flooding of their homes.
Let it be known that even when John McGowan's cynically named "Two Lakes flood control plan" was funded in November of 2003, resulting in the building of homes in the Pearl River Floodplain in Jackson, it was common knowledge among many at that time that the flooding that now has destroyed those homes was inevitable. Ken Morgan, president of the Marion County chapter of the Pearl River Land Conservation Association, had said well before the funding, "It's not really a flood control project. This McGowan plan, the best I can see, is just a real estate deal." Naturalist Jerry Litton, who canoed the Pearl from its origin to its mouth, enraged at the destruction of the aquatic communities it supported and knowing the effects of narrowing a floodplain, then building on the fill, wrote this of the people responsible for the plan: They "...should be required to live there with their families and back it up with a warranty ... to cover losses..."
This "time capsule" is being placed in the public domain in the hope that upon the occasion of this flooding, it will be of value to those who wish to sue the responsible parties.