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

March 14, 2004

WOODPECKER MEETS FLYING SQUIRREL
Near the woodland pond a Red-bellied Woodpecker (one of which you can see at www.fence.org/images/Birds/FenceBirds/redbellwdpkr.JPG) was pecking at something inside a hole in a dead snag about 30 feet up a Water Oak. I thought he might be cleaning out the hole to make a nest, but he wasn't removing debris so I couldn't figure out what he was doing. And then it became clear.

Suddenly his wings flashed and he jumped back as a Southern Flying Squirrel, GLAUCOMYS VOLANS, shot from the hole and scrambled down the trunk with the quickness of a mouse streaking across a floor. He moved so fast that I hardly saw more than his size and color, and a goodly amount of loose skin rippling along his sides. A very nice, big-eyed picture of just such a flying squirrel can be viewed at http://www2.ic.edu/beal/flySouthernFlyingSquirrelLAT.jpg

Within a second or two the squirrel had disappeared. The woodpecker hung around for a minute or two and then flew off not to return while I was watching. My impression was that getting the squirrel out of the hole had been his whole mission, and I can only guess that he simply didn't want any potential woodpecker nesting hole in his home range claimed by anyone, whether another woodpecker or a rodent.

Because Flying squirrels are nocturnal, I never see them unless one of them has bad luck. In towns, cats often bring them in. At my previous location they lived inside the walls of an old building, and at night orchestrated a wonderful noise. The people there occasionally managed to trap one, but always others remained to thump and scrape all through the night. Here on summer nights I often hear sounds in the trees which I suppose to be made by them, especially when it's acorn-eating time.

The University of Georgia's page for this species is at http://museum.nhm.uga.edu/gawildlife/mammals/rodentia/sciuridae/gvolans.html

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MUD TURTLES IN THE WOODLAND POND
Around here if you see a turtle in a typical farm pond, usually it's the Red-eared Turtle, the kind sold in pet stores, with yellow stripes along its head and neck, and bright red spots where its ears might be. Sometimes it'll be a snapping turtle. In fact, anytime you spot a turtle that's NOT a Red-eared or a snapper, you have something really interesting.

Our little woodland pond has Mud Turtles, KINOSTERNON SUBRUBRUM, and lately they've been sunning themselves on logs. Mud Turtles are found throughout the Southeast, and if there's anything special about their general appearance it's that their top shells, their carapaces, are higher than most pond turtles, though not as high as a dry-land box turtle's. Mud Turtles are smallish, their shells seldom more than 4 inches long (10 cm). Otherwise Mud Turtles are fairly unspectacular, being olive to dark brown, with little ornamentation other than some yellow around the shell's sides, and some vague, yellowish speckles on the head. You can see one with more yellow on the head than ours at www.chelonia.org/KsubrubrumJHs1SC.jpg

Mud Turtles eat crayfish, insects, mollusks, amphibians, aquatic vegetation and other things, as they walk along the bottom of a pond, swamp or stream. Their main enemies are raccoons, crows and humans

Mud Turtles are represented by three subspecies and my fieldguides indicate that here we should have the one known as the Mississippi Mud Turtle, K. s. hippocrepis, with yellow stripes along the head. However, ours are clearly the Eastern subspecies, K. s. subrubrum, so someone needs to tell the fieldguide writers about that.

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SYRPHID FLIES
This week I finally got around to constructing a tin roof over my campfire. Working up a modest sweat sawing and hammering, I became a great attraction to a hoard of little yellow and black, bee-like flies who couldn't resist sopping up my sweat with their spongelike mouthparts, tickling my back, arms and legs in the process. My father called these insects Steady Bees because they tend to hover in one place for a few seconds before landing. I've also heard them called Sweat Bees, but at least my father used that name for a smaller, black bee that would sting you. They also are called Hover Flies, Flower Flies and a host of other names. Books generally label them Syrphid Flies. Many Syrphid Fly species exist and I'm not sure which was tickling me the other day. The Common Syrphid Fly, which ours looks like, is ALLOGRAPTA OBLIQUE. You can see what a typical Syrphid Fly looks like at www.shout.net/~kirkwood/Syrphidfly.htm

Syrphid Flies are flies, not bees, despite their definite beelike appearance. Though I've seen people get upset when a Syrphid Fly landed on them, the worst a Syrphid Fly can do is to tickle, for they have no stingers or piercing mouthparts. They are among the most harmless of insects, which is exactly why Mother Nature made them look so dangerous. Their yellow and black, hornet-look is pure bluffery. These insects are so docile that when they're busy drinking sweat, if you're slow enough, you can actually pick them up by their wings.

Syrphid Flies are so beneficial that they should be forgiven for all the tickling they do. The larvae of many species feed on aphids and mealy bugs, and nearly all species pollinate flowers. When their larval populations are numerous they can eat from 70 to 100% of a garden's aphids. You can see what the aphid- eating larva of one species looks like at http://woodypest.ifas.ufl.edu/244.htm.

More about their life history at http://creatures.ifas.ufl.edu/beneficial/hover_fly.htm

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MEXICAN PLUM FLOWERING
Ever since last fall I've been waiting for a certain wild plum tree near the barn to flower because last fall when I had its fruits I identified it as the Mexican Plum, PRUNUS MEXICANA. However, according to my old books, that tree didn't grow in Mississippi. The closest occurrence was in West Feliciana Parish, Louisiana, down at St. Francisville. Had I discovered an isolated, "disjunct" community of this interesting species?

This week the tree flowered and, this time using blossom structure, once again I identified it as the Mexican Plum. It looks a lot like the Chickasaw Plum I told you about last week, especially since its white blossoms appear before its leaves. However it doesn't form thickets, the flowers are much larger (1 inch across, 2.5 cm), and instead of its smaller branches being "half twig, half spine," as was the case with the Chickasaw Plum, this one's smaller twigs are "three-quarters twig, one-quarter spine." Also, the tree is larger, ±15-20 feet tall. The plums it bore last fall were dark purple-red ones a little over an inch thick, with thick, sweet flesh.

So, have I discovered a disjunct community of Mexican Plum? On the Internet I found a wonderful new service provided by the USGS where you simply click on the name of a North American tree, and then a computer at the other end draws you a detailed map of the tree's distribution, in PDF format. It actually draws the map, not just downloads a map image. If you're on a modem it can take several minutes for the map to appear but if you want to know exactly what your tree's distribution is, it's worth waiting for. To see the Mexican Plum's distribution map go to http://climchange.cr.usgs.gov/data/atlas/little/prunmexi.pdf

If your computer can't read PDF files, download a free copy of Acrobat Reader, which displays PDF files, at www.adobe.com/prodindex/acrobat/readstep.html

The page with links to all the tree maps is at http://climchange.cr.usgs.gov/data/atlas/little/

On the USGS Mexican Plum distribution map I see that, much in conflict with my tree books, Mexican Plums are indeed native to our area, as well as much of the rest of the US Southeast. The deal is that, since my old fieldguides were published, specialists have decided that what earlier was considered to be a variety of the American Plum (Prunus americana var. lanata) now should be classified as Mexican Plum, and P. americana var. lanata has always been known to occur here.

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HUBBLE'S NEWEST MASTERPIECE
I've said how each morning I begin my computer work by first going to NASA's "Astronomy Picture of the Day" at http://antwrp.gsfc.nasa.gov/apod/astropix.html, where each day a new image of the Cosmos is presented. The cumulative affect of viewing these images is to help me keep things in perspective, to ground me in a continuing spirituality, and to keep reminding me of the beauty of the All, even when what's near may be disheartening.

This week a million-second-long photographic exposure made by the orbiting Hubble telescope was released. It provides the deepest look into the Universe ever seen by humans. The view is of a tiny spot near or in the constellation Orion. "It's like looking at a tiny, tiny section of the night sky through a straw," a certain radio announcer said.

Despite showing such a limited portion of the night sky, the image displays untold numbers of galaxies. Remember that galaxies, like our own Milky Way Galaxy, consist of billions of stars, and that many or maybe most stars have their own planets orbiting around them. Now more than ever we can glimpse the enormity, complexity and beauty of the Creation.

One place to see this soul-stirring image is at http://imgsrc.hubblesite.org/hu/db/2004/07/images/a/formats/web_print.jpg

A much larger, more detailed and slower downloading image is at http://imgsrc.hubblesite.org/hu/db/2004/07/images/a/formats/print.jpg

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THIS WEEK'S MIGRATING BIRDS
Each spring since this Newsletter began, every Friday morning during bird-migrating season I've taken the same bird-walk, then listed the migrating birds I'd seen in the next Newsletter. The first migrating birds have begun filtering through so this Friday, March 12th, I made my first spring-migration walk at this new Sandy Creek location.

In this and subsequent spring-migration lists, to keep the lists at a manageable size, I won't include non- migratory species -- the Cardinals, Carolina Wrens, Red-bellied Woodpeckers, Tufted Titmice. I'll just list migrants, and I'll divide the migrants into four groups:

Here's this week's list, for Friday, March 12th:

WINTER RESIDENTS PREPARING TO LEAVE

1 Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
2 Ruby-crowned Kinglet
3 Solitary Vireo
7 Yellow-rumped Warbler
1 Swamp Sparrow
4 White-throated Sparrow

SUMMER RESIDENTS JUST ARRIVED

1 Northern Parula
2 Black-and-white Warbler

TRANSIENTS (just passing through)

none

PERMANENT RESIDENTS (individual birds may migrate)

2 Wood Duck
3 Turkey Vulture
1 Red-shouldered Hawk
1 Red-tailed Hawk
2 Eastern Bluebird
5 Eastern Towhee
1 Brown-headed Cowbird

Last year at my previous location, during my first spring walk on March 14th, I listed 15 migrant species. This year, listing two days earlier, once again I listed 15. However, eight of that number, or over half of the species, were different from the ones listed this time last year. This shows how bird populations can shift drastically one season to another, and one place to another.

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WOOD DUCKS
During Friday's walk one highlight was coming upon a flock of eight Wild Turkey hens in the woods. However, the best moment of all came when I was resting beside the woodland pond and suddenly a male and female Wood Duck descended through the trees and landed right in the pond's middle, not 20 feet from me. Prepared for just such a happening, already I held my binoculars near my face, with my elbows on my knees. Very slowly I brought the binoculars up, and then for about 20 minutes I was able to watch the birds without my arms getting tired holding up the binoculars.

Surely no bird in our area comes close to being as colorful and elegant as the male Wood Duck. If you want to see nearly exactly what I saw -- a close-up of a male and female afloat on a woodland pond -- go to www.pinebarrensphoto.com/Male-and-female-wood-ducks-scS.jpg

Though I remained perfectly still, an awareness seemed to grow in both birds that something about my presence wasn't right. They stared and stared right at me. After about five minutes the male began preening, though the female never did. The male nervously watched me as he curved his neck, swam through shadows and sunbeams, sloshed water and stretched his wings and legs, displaying his prettiness like a model on a stage.

The greenness of his crown shimmered with iridescence. The satiny blackness on his cheeks was outlined exquisitely by fingers of snowy whiteness, and in the center of this excellent Harlequiny sat his blood-red eye, always focused right on me. His warm, deep- chestnut-colored breast when seen in sunlight revealed itself as finely speckled, like a knight's coat of mail. And all this, as well as other colors and designs too numerous to list, were reflected in the pond's black water. What a display!

Though I never moved a hair, gradually in both ducks the conviction seemed to gather that I was more than an inert bump. The male began opening and closing his beak as if quacking. Though I could hear nothing, surely the female could. Then the male swam to the pond's bank and climbed upslope a few feet, constantly keeping me in view, and the female followed. This better view unsettled them even more. Maybe you recall how last year I enjoyed a similar experience watching a Pileated Woodpecker, who just never caught on that I was something special. These ducks, I believe, were smarter. Something in their brains was perking, enabling them to interpret images at a higher level than is possible for a simple, grub-gulping woodpecker.

Both birds then positioned their bodies behind different trees, with their heads poked around from behind, looking squarely at me. I didn't move. But finally their concern crystallized, and both rose into the air and flew away.

*****

THOUGHTS ON ANIMAL RIGHTS
The other day Newsletter subscriber Marian in Nevada wrote asking if she could quote me on her Animal Rights Forum. That got me to thinking about what I believe on the matter, and why. Marian's forum is at www.bellaonline.com/forum/ultimatebb.cgi?ubb=forum;f=197

To decide any complex, important question, we need to root our thinking in some kind of belief system -- such as religion, a society's codes of ethics, scientific data, or legal systems. On the question of animal rights I define my own belief system as "The way the Creator appears to have put the Universe together." In other words, "Nature is Bible." Here's how that can work:

In Nature, things aren't wasted, but are recycled, so for me it becomes a "sacred duty" to practice strict economy in my own life. Wastefulness is "bad." Similarly, in Nature it's clear that life evolved from one or a very few simple, isolated, living things to untold numbers of complex, interacting and mutually dependent beings. Therefore, in my own life I must struggle toward ever more sophisticated, multi-faceted insights and modes of behavior, and be communicative with and helpful to the communities of which I am part. Laziness, self indulgence and an acceptance of mediocrity are "sinful."

In terms of animal rights, it strikes me that on Earth the Creator's crowning achievement is the Web of Life, or the Earth ecosphere. In the Web of Life, no group of organisms is more highly developed than animals, and the most highly developed animal is the human.

What do I FEEL when I reflect on the subject of animals in this context? The insight that moves me most profoundly is that we animals are very beautiful creations. Beholding such beauty and realizing that I am part of it, my feelings blossom into the domain of spirituality. Therefore, my awe for animals is rooted in the realms of esthetics and spirituality.

In that context, my feeling for animal life only can be described as reverential. Irreverently treating animal life "goes against God's will."

Everyone has his or her own choice about which belief system or systems are appropriate for thinking about animal life, and the same is true for drawing conclusions based on those systems. Still, it seems to me that the first important step for anyone considering "animal rights" should be to become crystal clear about which belief system is being used, and to ask himself or herself whether that system is appropriate.