NATCHEZ NATURALIST
NEWSLETTER:
from the woods near Natchez, Mississippi, USA

December 28, 2003

FALL FLOWERS, SPRING FLOWERS
I know it's too early to sense the lengthening days, but since the Winter Solstice last Monday it's seemed to me that the whole world is in a springy mood. Monday itself was so springlike that in the afternoon I went about in shorts, and even managed to be attacked by fireants, whose bites still itch as I type this.

With regard to Nature "breathing out" spring, then "breathing in" fall, a few days occupy the space between exhalation and inhalation during which neither season prevails. We're in such a time right now, and the wildflowers confirm it.

For instance, on the weedy bank of a little pond near the barn there's a fall wildflower still blossoming, despite several recent mornings of hard frost. It's the Frost Aster, ASTER PILOSUS, which you can view at http://webdogam.com/pic/pic2945(9-24)usa.jpg.

Yet, in the moist, exposed soil of one of my gardens the white, 6-lobed, dime-size blossoms of False Garlic, NOTHOSCORDUM BIVALVE, are appearing. This spring-flowering member of the Lily Family can be seen at www.renyswildflowers.com/allfiles/990329.html.

What a contrast we see between these two species. The aster is tough, tightly composed, covered with rough hairs like the wrinkled chin of a very old person, while the False Garlic is an essay of smooth, waxy-glossy, youthful freshness. Sometimes I walk back and forth between these two plants admiring how the two seasons' disparate spirits can be so concisely and elegantly stated in terms of wildflowers.

*****

THE BIRDS OF CHRISTMAS DAY
Taking a birding walk on Christmas Day is a long- established tradition with me, so this Thursday I compiled the list presented below. It was a fair, not really good, day for birding. At dawn the temperature beneath a curdled, overcast sky was 30° (-1°C), but by noon it had brightened a little and the temperature had risen to 52 (11°C). Birds in the following list appear in the order in which I saw them, so you can visualize the music of the walk as it evolved. Of course I always hope that someone will take his or her own fieldguide and look up the birds as they appear in the list, just glorying in their colors, patterns, shapes, and unique features the way I do while spotting them in the field. I especially like the sparrows' browns, russets, and grays.

*** Seen during breakfast ***

1) AMERICAN CROW - ±30, raucous in pecan trees
2) BLUE JAY - ±10, gorging a Water Oak's small acorns
3) CAROLINA WREN - calling from hedgerow
4) CARDINAL - calling from hedgerow
5) MOURNING DOVE - 1 flying fast overhead
6) TUFTED TITMOUSE - 2 fussing at me from a Persimmon
7) EASTERN BOBWHITE - "chucking" in Loblolly Field
8) YELLOW-RUMPED WARBLER - 2 watching from a Sweetgum

*** Seen during walk between woods & field ***

9) TOWHEE - calling from beneath blackberry thicket
10) EASTERN BLUEBIRD - quavering song from high in sky
11) BROWN THRASHER - warning churrrr call from pines
12) WHITE-THROATED SPARROW - ± 5 eating privet fruits
13) SWAMP SPARROW - nervously chipping in Broomsedge
14) PILEATED WOODPECKER - pounding tree trunk
15) RUBY-CROWNED KINGLET - comes close to look at me
16) SONG SPARROW - several in blackberry thicket
17) RED-BELLIED WOODPECKER - high in Water Oak
18) FIELD SPARROW - preening in sun, in Broomsedge
19) MOCKINGBIRD - silently watching me from atop pine
20) AMERICAN ROBIN - ±20 in fruiting Chinese Privet
21) BLACK VULTURE - 2 flying low, down Sandy Creek
22) TURKEY VULTURE - 1 circling low over woods
23) BELTED KINGFISHER - working along Sandy Creek
24) YELLOW-BELLIED SAPSUCKER - high on Water Oak limbs
25) DOWNY WOODPECKER - high on Water Oak limbs
26) AMERICAN GOLDFINCH - eating Sweetgum-ball seeds
27) CAROLINA CHICKADEE - complaining inside hedgerow
28) AMERICAN WOODCOCK - explodes from blackberry thicket

The star of the above list is the very last one, the American Woodcock. At walk's end I was approaching camp, a bit tired and woolgathering, when suddenly this bird exploded from inside a blackberry thicket right beside me. Woodcocks are medium-sized, heavy- bodied, long-billed, and short-legged, and their furiously beating, rounded wings create a whistling, twittering sound as they fly. It's always heart- stopping when these birds explode from almost beneath you. They are mostly nocturnal, so during the day they usually sit on the ground dozing, relying on their wonderful camouflage for safety. You can see what mine must have looked like the second before taking wing at www.startribune.com/images/ss/635_1.html  

Woodcocks have long bills mostly used for probing the ground for earthworms. They are found around here only during the winter. You may find it interesting to compare their summer distribution map found at www.mbr-pwrc.usgs.gov/id/framlst/BBSMap/ra2280.gif with their winter distribution map located at www.mbr-pwrc.usgs.gov/id/framlst/CBCMap/ra2280.gif

*****

CROW TALK
It's easy to pick from the above list the bird most conspicuously in my life these days, and well as during most of the year. It's the American Crow, CORVUS BRACHYRHYNCHOS. Each morning as I'm preparing breakfast between 30 and 50 individuals cavort in the big, now-leafless Black Walnut tree upslope and across the Garden Field, exactly in front of me as I tend the campfire. These crows are usually about as raucous as possible. Their noisy, very highly inflected rantings remind me of nothing less than a convocation of backwoods folk, good-natured and half drunk, at a cock fight.

I've spent some time in my life trying to interpret crow-talk. For example, anyone can sometimes hear a crow far in one direction emit three or four sharp caws, then another crow far in the other direction replies, and the exchange may be repeated several times. The impression is of guards along a perimeter formally and crisply reporting their status. Other times the gurgly, twangy vocalizations sound so uninhibited that you feel sure the crows must be poetizing, or at lease cursing. Today I'm as much in the dark about "crow talk" as I was as a kid.

Others have enjoyed more success figuring out crow language. Here is a listing of some of the kinds of crow calls reported in scientific literature:

  • Assembly Call Ordinary
  • Cawing Distress Call
  • Modified Scolding Call
  • Adult Food Call Simple
  • Scolding Call Contact Call
  • Dispersal or Alarm Call
  • Duet Notes
  • Pre-mortality or Death Call
  • Juvenile Notes Defensive
  • Threat Calls Rattling Notes
  • Frustration Notes
  • Wow-Wow Notes
  • Immature Feeding Call
  • Carr-Carr Notes
  • Mimicry Whisper Notes
  • Courtship Vocalizations
  • Coo Notes
  • Announcement Call
  • Organ Notes
  • Alert or Warning Call
  • Woo-ah Notes
  • Contentment Notes
  • My roost of 30-50 individuals doesn't seem to be anything special. During fall and winter, crows tend to gather in numbers of several hundred to many thousands, with roosts as large as 200,000 being reported. Crows leave their roosts in the morning, then around an hour before dusk begin returning. Instead of flying directly to their roosts, they often gather in "staging areas" first, perhaps gradually coalescing into a series of ever-larger staging areas as they approach the main roost. There's a fine page describing crow roosting behavior at www.crows.net/roosts.html

    In fact, anyone interested in crows should visit the above site, www.crows.net, for not only is a great deal of information found there, but you are invited to watch crows and report on their behavior by filling out the "Observation Log Form" provided online at www.crows.net/crowlogs.html

    You might also be interested in the site's audio files of several crow calls, at www.crows.net/analysis.html To whet your appetite, you can listen to expressive "juvenile notes" at www.crows.net/8crows1.wav

    *****

    MULTICOLOR ASIAN LADYBEETLES (LADYBUGS)
    Just last month in the November 16th Newsletter I mentioned the amazing numbers of ladybugs that gathered on the barn's sunny west side on warm afternoons. I figured that as soon as it got a little colder the whole ladybug scene would quite down. Let it be known that one particular species of ladybug, the non-native, introduced beetles now found coast-to-coast in the US and formally known as Multicolor Asian Ladybeetles, HARMONIA AXYRIDIS, are still with me, in plaguy abundance. There's an excellent page showing the amazing range of variations of this insect's appearance at www.ent.orst.edu/urban/Harmonia.html The variations portrayed in the top two lines at this link account for nearly all of the ones seen here, though some of ours have no spots at all, and that variation isn't shown. Our spotless ones are pale yellowish orange.

    During the coldest times they're quiet, but as soon as the temperature rises over about 50° (10°C), they come out crawling and buzzing about, and when it gets into the 70s, as it was Monday, they are distracting, at least. They must be attracted to the relative paleness of my skin, for when I remove my shirt to work in the garden they land all over me. They get into my beard and stick to my sweaty skin. When I put the shirt back on, they're inside the shirt and they tickle me until they tumble from the sleeves. When I'm cooking and pour oil into my skillet they fly into the hot oil, and when I put down a pan, unless I remember to brush off the pan's bottom, I squash ladybugs. My habitual paths on the barn's concrete floor are orange-speckled with ladybug smushings.

    I don't remember the native ladybugs I knew as a child in Kentucky emitting an odor. These Asian ones stink. When I brush one from my beard, my fingers then have that odor. It's not a terrible odor, just a weak, bitter one, but it's one of those scents that, if you smell it all the time, finally it just gets you. This odor arises from an orange-colored fluid the beetle issues when upset. In fancier lodging than my own, that fluid can spot and stain walls, curtains, carpeting, and other surfaces. I read that if you try to sweep them out, they'll stain your floor. The most effective removal is accomplished by vacuuming, they say. My approach is to leave them alone and hope they stay out of my computer.

    These critters were intentionally introduced several times into the US, including here in Mississippi. The idea was to have them eat agricultural pests, because in their natural homeland in eastern Asia they prey on scale and aphid pests on trees. The first collections of them in natural areas in the US were made in Louisiana in 1988, but already by 1992 they were being found in Kentucky. Now they're in all states.

    You can read about them, with special reference to dealing with them inside human structures, at www.uky.edu/Agriculture/Entomology/entfacts/trees/ef416.htm

    A page dealing more with their natural history is at http://creatures.ifas.ufl.edu/beneficial/lady_beetles.htm

    Now about the words "ladybug" and "ladybird." Our "ladybug" is the supposedly inelegant corruption of "ladybird," so the main question deals with the etymology of "ladybird." "Ladybird" is itself a sort of corruption of the term "Our Lady's Bird," with "Our Lady" being understood to be the Virgin Mary. The idea apparently is that ladybugs are so pretty that they're worthy of being associated with The Virgin. This notion flows through other cultures as well. The French call ladybugs "les betes du bon Dieu," or "creatures of the good God," and "les vaches de la Vierge," or "cows of the Virgin." The Germans call them "Marienkäfer," or "Mary's beetles."

    Whatever they're called, I wish they didn't tickle so much, didn't stink so much, and I wish they would eat some of the aphids currently infesting my cabbages.

    *****

    CORNBREAD & TANGERINE
    Seeing the woodcock was great, but I have to admit that the highlight of my Christmas Day was purely gustatory.

    Earlier, friend Karen Wise had dropped by, leaving a tangerine specifically to be eaten on Christmas Day. Therefore, when I packed my bird-walk knapsack with fieldguide, notebook and cornbread, that tangerine went along.

    After several hours of hiking I deposited my pleasantly weary body next to the black-watered Forest Pond. The air was still chilly but the sky was lighting up and I was downright hungry. The cornbread was as good as ever, its wholesome, baked-odor goodness intensified by the crisp, fresh air, and my hunger. While eating the cornbread I noticed that I'd forgotten about the tangerine, so absent-mindedly I peeled the fruit and began eating tangerine sections along with the cornbread.

    The cornbread's homey, earthy mellowness perfectly complemented the tangerine's sweet, juicy, exotic, celestialness. The simple meal struck me as perfect for that time and place. In a quiet, uncomplicated manner, the pleasure of that moment was simply transcendent. Imagining what the animals around me must have thought when my odor of tangerine floated to them on the morning's sun-calmed air, I just had to laugh, and finding laughter mingling with sunlight and cool, fresh air, I had to laugh some more.

    Unwilling to let go of the moment, once the cornbread and tangerine were gone, I retrieved the tangerine's peelings and ate them, too, their perfumy bitterness expressing haiku-like what it was like being a hermit in chilly sunlight, hunkered next to black pond-water speckled with green duckweed, on Christmas Day.