from the woods near Natchez, Mississippi, USA
January 4, 2004
SUNLIGHT IN THE LOBLOLLY FIELD
On chilly, sunny days such as we had earlier this week, I like to sit in the Loblolly Field. There, sunlight is the thing.
For example, down inside a dense, shoulder-high thicket of brown, frost-killed goldenrod there'll be a clump of scarlet blackberry leaves. I'll set down next to them, being sure to position the red leaves between the sun and me. When my eye is about rabbit-nose high, looking up at the blackberry leaves with the sunlight on the other side, I think that no one on Earth must be seeing anything as red as I am.
If I get into position fast enough, and I always do, during the first few seconds of looking at those red blackberry leaves I am showered with thousands of tawny goldenrod fruits knocked from the goldenrods' fruiting heads as I went down. As the goldenrods' fruits fall, sunlight ignites inside their fuzz parachutes.
Backlighted, the stiff, slender goldenrod-stems show up as silhouettes, some vertical, others diagonal. On one side of each black stem there's etched a thin glaze of sun-sheen like luminous ice. Atop the silhouetted stems sunlight charges each goldenrod's pyramidal fruiting head of thousands of fuzz- parachuted fruits with radiant translucency. Sunlight also etches a narrow but intense fire-rim around each head. Then, beyond the fuzz-blaze there's the blue sky, translucent itself as only the blue sky gorged with sunlight can be.
It's misleading just to say that a sunlit blackberry leaf is red, for the leaf is mainly an intricacy in which each vein and veinlet is delineated as with black ink, every fungal infection causes a splash of urgent yellow or brown, and every bug-munching forms a lacy fringe. Viewing a red blackberry leaf with sunlight pouring through it, there are cell structures to see, systematically spaced stomata, and textures and contrasts beyond words.
Moreover, if you enter the Loblolly Field not in the middle of a sunny afternoon, but rather right after dawn as the first sunlight pours in, and there's heavy white frost encrusting the goldenrods' pyramidal fruiting heads and the bluestems' curling brown leaves, and you keep all this between you and the sun so that a frost-white world glistens as you move through it toward the sun, and sparrows and towhees rise from amidst it all shaking white frost crystals into powdery snows, and here and there intensely green and blue and pink dew-sparkle-beacons flash on and off, and you stand there breathing out great clouds of steam, so vividly aware of your own wet breathing, cold air rushing in and out of warm, pink lungs, pink mouth and nose-holes and curling face-hair, and then there's the sky so blue, and you look and look...
PINE WARBLERS TRILLING
One of the nicest signs of spring right now is the nearly daily morning trilling of the Pine Warbler, DENDROICA PINUS. He does this while foraging among the black limbs and glossy-green needles of big Loblolly Pines around camp. When this warbler trills and the titmouse peter-peters, which often happens, you can't avoid feeling springy. You can see Pine Warblers and click on their summer distribution map (BBS map) and winter distribution map (CBC map) at www.mbr-pwrc.usgs.gov/id/framlst/i6710id.html
Pine Warblers can be hard to spot because they like staying high in the pines. The easiest way to identify them is by their song, which is a musical trill. Chipping Sparrows also trill and often call early in the year, so you might want to make a special effort to distinguish these calls.
You can hear the Pine Warbler's call at www.mbr-pwrc.usgs.gov/id/htmwav/h6710s2.wav and the Chipping Sparrow's call at www.mbr-pwrc.usgs.gov/id/htmwav/h5600so.wav
Notice that the Pine Warbler's trill is slower than the Chipping Sparrow's. Also, the Chipping Sparrow's trill is a mechanical-sounding, monotonic rattle, while each note in the Pine Warbler's slower trill has a certain lilt or bounce, and the notes bend a little so that they're less mechanical than musical. You'll hear it all in the audio files.
PEENTING THE LOCAL TIMBERDOODLE
After last week's mention of the American Woodcock currently at home in our Loblolly Field, Cheryl up in Michigan wrote telling me how a naturalist she had known coaxed woodcocks into flight. It's done with the "Timberdoodle dance." "Timberdoodle" is another name for the American Woodcock, at least up there. The bird also goes by the names of Pepperdoodle, Bog Sucker and Big Eye.
The dance consists of first pinching your nostrels shut with your fingers, then calling "peent." Cheryl further writes, "As you make the 'peent' sound you bend your knees, which lowers your body 1-2 feet. Then you straighten back up, rotate your body ¼ turn and repeat the 'call and dip,' allowing 10-20 seconds between each 'peent.'... After each 'peent' rotate ¼ turn before 'calling and dipping.'"
On Tuesday night, at about 5:30, just as the sky was visible but everything else lay deep in shadows, I went near where I'd seen our woodcock and "peented." I didn't bother with bending my knees, but I did pinch my nose and rotate my body somewhat between each call. After several series of calls it got so dark that I figured that any nocturnal bird by then would be busy at work, and started my return walk to camp.
But then all in less than a second I heard heavy flapping attended by a sharp whistling sound, and I looked up just in time to see an absurdly chunky- looking little being with stubby rounded wings and a long, needle-like beak, zooming past me, exactly at the level of my nose. If I had enjoyed more sense of presence than to jump backwards, throw out my arms and yell "Jeeze!" I might have been able to reach out and grab me a Timberdoodle.
I had assumed that the idea behind peenting was to encourage the courtship display, which is very complex and interesting, and which I've seen in Kentucky but not here. However, maybe you peent just to attract the bird. If that's the case, I'm not sure I'll be peenting much, at least not wearing a helmet.
If your computer can digest MP3 audio files, you can hear a real woodcock peenting at www.uwgb.edu/birds/wbba/species/audios/WOODCOCK__AMERICAN.MP3
LEAPORD FROGS CALLING
The fields down by the Field Pond actually seem a better habitat for woodcocks than near the barn, which is where I did my peenting, so the next night I went there to call. However, that night no woodcocks appeared, just a few large bats. Still, I was delighted to hear several Southern Leopard Frogs, RANA SPHENOCEPHALA, a common species throughout the US Southeast. You can see several nice photos, a distribution map, and read about them at www.npwrc.usgs.gov/narcam/idguide/ranaut.htm
I love this frog's call. It sounds about as friendly and uninhibited as you can imagine. Usually you hear two distinct kinds of calling at the same time, one a series of short, throaty croaks, almost sounding like pig-grunts, and the other a kind of indescribable, twangy chortle. The chortle is similar to what you might hear if you quickly ran your finger back and forth across a banjo's loose string. You can hear it, with a few pig-grunt croaks thrown in, at http://allaboutfrogs.org/files/sounds/sleaprd.wav
By the way, if you want to identify this spring's frogs by their calls, you may want to bookmark the above "All About Frogs" page because about halfway down it there are links to audio files for some of our more common frog calls. It's at http://allaboutfrogs.org/weird/general/songs.html
We still have plenty of greenness in the forest here. Of course our abundant Loblolly Pines, Southern Magnolias, holly and mistletoe are evergreen, plus several evergreen vines climb into trees. Down low, Japanese Honeysuckle clambers over everything, but other evergreen vines climb clear to the forest's canopy. The most common evergreen vines doing this locally are Yellow Jessamine and the greenbriars.
In southwestern Mississippi we can expect to find about eight greenbriar species, so we can consider ourselves greenbriar rich. By "eight greenbriars," I mean "eight species of the genus Smilax." Greenbriars are members of the Lily Family.
During a five-minute walk from the barn into the woods I find three evergreen greenbriar species, all with leathery, green leaves, and semi-woody, usually spiny, rambling to twining stems. There's SMILAX SMALLII, SMILAX GLAUCA and SMILAX BONA-NOX, and I've seen other species here, too. The formal English names for greenbriars vary from book to book and region to region. They're also called catbriers, bullbriers, sawbriars, bamboo, bamboo-vines and more. If you're ever walking through the woods in sandals and you scrape the spiny stem of one of these across the top of your foot, you'll appreciate the name sawbriar.
It's easy to pull up or shovel up the knotty, fairly hard tubers from which most greenbriars arise. The size and edibility of these tubers vary from species to species, but at least one species, SMILAX TAMNOIDES, found as far north as southern Ontario and South Dakota, was famous among the Indians and early pioneers for its large, edible tubers. This greenbriar was also known by the names China-root and Hellfetter.
The tubers seem to me too hard to be cooked and eaten like potatoes, but I've read that they can be dried, chopped, pounded and strained, and then the resulting powdery sediment can be dried in the open air and ground into a fine, reddish flour. An "unleavened bread" can be made with the flour, or mixed with hot water and sweetened, to be served as a drink. When the drink cools, it forms a nourishing and good-tasting jelly.
Greenbriar plants are either male or female, so naturally only the females bear fruits. Their genus name "Smilax" is an ancient Greek name for an evergreen oak.
There's a page with photo-links to all the greenbriars mentioned here at www.csdl.tamu.edu/FLORA/imaxxsml.htm
DISCOVERIES IN SPACE & TIME
Last year was a good one for making discoveries about the Universe. Thanks to a satellite named "the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe," now for the first time we know that the Universe is 13.7 billion years old. We've known for some time that the Earth itself is only about 4.5 billion years old.
New data also support evidence that 73% of the Universe is composed of "dark energy," 23% of it is "dark matter," and only the remaining 4% is composed of matter made of atoms and molecules -- the building blocks of things we humans can see, and which in the old days we assumed constituted the entire Universe. Of the 4% of the Universe's atom-composed matter -- the stuff we humans can relate to -- the heavy elements comprising the Earth account for only a tiny 0.03%. Most of what remains is clouds of free hydrogen and helium floating in space and forming stars. You can read more about this and see a more detailed breakdown of the "composition of the cosmos" at www.space.com/scienceastronomy/astronomy/cosmic_darknrg_020115-1.html
The year 2003 also gave us a better fix on the time- frame of the history of evolving life on Earth. Now we know that the earliest forms of life on Earth appeared about 3.5 to 3.8 billion years ago -- about as soon as the Earth had cooled enough to support life. Some 2 billion years ago the first organisms composed of cells with nuclei appeared. Many, if not most, evolutionary biologists now believe that the first cell with a nucleus was formed when two or more very primitive, distinct species that had lived for a long time in an intimate, mutually beneficial, symbiotic relationship merged into just one species. One fact supporting this is that cellular mitochondria has its own DNA. Many biologists believe that chloroplasts in higher plants were once free-living, single-celled plants. The idea about simple organisms merging to form the first cell with a nucleus is referred to as the "Endosymbiotic Theory" and was first proposed by Lynn Margulis, a biologist at Boston Univeristy. There's a semi-technical piece about her theory at http://dekalb.dc.peachnet.edu/~pgore/students/w96/joshbond/symb.htm
So, 96% of the Universe is of unknown matter that so far can't even be directly detected by humans, and distinct lifeforms appear able to merge into one thing. Last year's discoveries add to the evidence already at hand that we sentient beings on our little planet have every right to be struck with awe before the mysterious majesty of the Creative Force -- or Creator -- and to spend our days being transfixed by, and falling in love with, the robustly evolving, infinitely beautiful creation.