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

April 4, 2004

RED HONEYSUCKLES
This week the forest lost its diffused, ethereal feeling. Now dark green leaves are so large that heavy, placid shadows pool here and there looking summery, and I welcome the change.

If you walk around enough you're bound to spot sprinklings of red, slenderly cylindrical, 1.5-inch long (4 cm) flowers ornamenting this or that tree at the woods' edge, or maybe glorifying a fencepost. Most people call the vine bearing these pretty flowers Red Honeysuckle, though books usually apply other names, such as Coral Honeysuckle, or Trumpet Honeysuckle. It's LONICERA SEMPERVIRENS, and you can see it at www.mauney.com/bungalow/blooming/2003/apr30/lonicera-sempervirens.jpg

When I was a kid in Kentucky the women in my family got excited when they spotted Red Honeysuckle along the road. The idea was to dig it up and then someday the porch would be decked out with beautiful scarlet blossoms. Of course few of the transplanted vines survived and nowadays red-flowered honeysuckles aren't nearly as common as they used to be.

Red Honeysuckle is a native species, not a foreign ornamental that has escaped. Still, horticulturalists have been so impressed with it that they've fiddled with its genes, hybridizing it with other species, creating much larger blossoms, and flowers of different hues.

In my opinion, however, nothing can improve on this plant. It's just right, exactly as it is.

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SILVERBELLS
Red Honeysuckle is hard to overlook but if you're tramping through the woods not paying particular attention it's easy not to notice the Silverbells, HALESIA DIPTERA. That's because from a distance the large, white blossoms of this small tree in the forest's understory look like "just more dogwood flowers." However, fragile-looking silverbell blossoms aren't anything like dogwood flowers. They droop like white bells strung in clusters of two to five along limbs.

It's interesting that in the woods here silverbells are common in moist, rich soil, while at my previous location I never found a single one. I'm guessing it's because the loess was much thicker over there, and that kept the soil pH high. Silverbells as well as azaleas grow best in acidic soils. Wild Azaleas were absent on the thicker loess, too. Loess contains a fair amount of carbonate, so when Ice-Age winds deposited the loess it was almost like liming the landscape.

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SOUTHERN CRABAPPLE
Nowadays it pays to keep your eyes peeled for any unusual blossoms. The other day at the edge of the Loblolly Field a small tree showed up with reddish blossoms, and leaves and thorny branches that made it look like a red-flowered hawthorn. However, it was the Southern Crabapple, MALUS ANGUSTIFOLIA, shown at www.ag.auburn.edu/hf/landscape/dbpages/347.html

I was glad to see it. I plan to talk with the landowner about not bush-hogging it, and maybe I'll tie a red ribbon around it, and chop away the Loblollies crowding it now. I'll bet in the old days people welcomed this tree on their land just because its large, red blossoms were so pretty. Unfortunately its pale, yellow-green apples are only about an inch across and so hard and tart that you'd have to be starving to eat them. Still, this is a real apple, a close relative of the domesticated apple. They're in the same genus, so they're practically brothers.

Southern Crabapples mostly are found in the Deep South but disjunct populations of them are scattered over a larger area. Sometimes such distributions indicate that earlier the species was found over a wider area, but now it is withdrawing, leaving population islands in especially congenial places. Today this species is absent in the northwestern half of Mississippi and nearly all of Kentucky. Its distribution map is at www.fastestbows.com/images/articles/corrigan/soft_mast_opp9.jpg

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BUTTERCUPS
In lawns, along roadsides and in many other habitats, brightly yellow little blossoms between the size of a nickel and a quarter are showing up. They're flowers of buttercups of various kinds. Technically, a buttercup is a member of the genus RANUNCULUS, and the Mississippi Plants Checklist for the genus Ranunculus lists about 20 taxa! You can see that checklist at www.herbarium.olemiss.edu/echecklist.php?genus=Ranunculus. My own illustrated page on buttercup flower anatomy is at www.backyardnature.net/buttrcup.htm

I'm told that some folks around here use the name buttercup for a violet-colored flower that's probably a kind of primrose. Of course there's no accounting for the common names people use but in my mind calling a violet-blossomed flower a buttercup goes too far. The whole idea behind buttercups is that they are like "little cups of butter," which means flowers that are yellow to white.

On my buttercup page linked to above I show a certain trick that helps you figure out whether a flower is a real buttercup or not. On that page, notice the inset at the lower right of the picture. It shows the much magnified base of a single petal from a buttercup flower. A scale is attached to the petal, and between the scale and the petal there's a tiny droplet of nectar that attracts pollinators. That scale is peculiar to buttercups, so the next time you think you have a buttercup flower, pull off a petal and look for the scale -- the "nectariferous spot" -- at the petal's base.

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WANDERING TENT CATERPILLARS
Nowadays you can't take a rest sitting on a bucket without fuzzy caterpillars crawling up your legs. They're Eastern Tent Caterpillars, MALACOSOMA AMERICANUM, and a couple of weeks ago I began thinking that this might be a big year for them because, even before most leaves had emerged from buds, more white silken "tents" than usual were showing up in the crotches of tree limbs. Tent caterpillar populations fluctuate from year to year, with outbreaks occurring every few years.

The caterpillars wandering around now have already done their leaf-eating damage, have grown as large as they can, and are looking for protected places in which to pupate. When they do find a protected spot they'll spin a cocoon. The cocoon will be about 1 inch long, made of closely woven white or yellowish silk, and attached to other objects by a few coarse threads. The adult moth will emerge from the cocoon about 3 weeks later. The moth will be reddish-brown with two pale stripes running diagonally across each forewing.

You can read all about this species and see photos of the tent, the caterpillar and the adult moth at www.uky.edu/Agriculture/Entomology/entfacts/trees/ef423.htm

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SQUIRREL TREEFROG FULL OF EGGS
The other day Hillary on the Mississippi Gulf Coast sent me an interesting picture of a Squirrel Treefrog. He'd taken his car to a car wash and this frog emerged from the vehicle, apparently enticed by the car wash's water. The frog's belly was absolutely stuffed with eggs, which you could plainly see through the frog's stretched belly skin! I was glad to place this fine picture on my Frog Reproduction page, where it appears about halfway down the page, at www.backyardnature.net/frogsex.htm

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RAINFOREST TO HAMBURGERS
Jarvis in North Carolina sends me an online-newspaper link relevant to my recent remarks about the tropical forests I have loved so much in southern Mexico and elsewhere being converted to ranchland for the production of cow flesh.

The article says that in 2001 and 2002, an area of Amazonian rainforest the size of Haiti was cut, and that during the last twelve months the rate of forest destruction has increased by 40%. The main cause of the destruction is people wanting to raise cattle, most of which is exported. Literally, rainforests are being converted to ground beef.

Because so many of our birds spend their winters in tropical America, the diminishment of the migrant population I have noticed is largely the consequence of our culture's unrestrained appetite for hamburgers.

If you can read Spanish, you can read the article at http://news.bbc.co.uk/hi/spanish/science/newsid_3592000/3592145.stm

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THIS WEEK'S MIGRATING BIRDS
Here's this week's list, compiled on Friday, April 2nd, on a chilly, overcast, rather somber  morning:

WINTER RESIDENTS PREPARING TO LEAVE

5 Ruby-crowned Kinglet
2 Swamp Sparrow
1 White-throated Sparrows

SUMMER RESIDENTS JUST ARRIVED

1 Ruby-throated Hummingbird
2 Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
1 Barn Swallow
3 Red-eyed Vireo
6 White-eyed Vireo
1 Yellow-throated Vireo
4 Northern Parula
2 Black-and-white Warbler
8 Hooded Warbler
6 Yellowthroat

TRANSIENTS (just passing through)

none

PERMANENT RESIDENTS (individual birds may migrate)

1 Wood Duck
3 Black Vulture
1 Turkey Vulture
2 Sharp-shinned Hawk
1 Eastern Bluebird
1 Eastern Meadowlark
1 Red-winged Blackbird
3 Field Sparrow
10 Eastern Towhee

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SONG OF THE FIELD SPARROW
The nicest moment of Friday's walk was when I heard the Field Sparrows sing. These birds have hung around all winter, often showing up on my walks as small flocks of nervous little brown and gray birds scattering into blackberry thickets the instant they glimpsed me. They are very plain birds with little more to call attention to their looks than some modest white wingbars and pinkish bills and legs. You know that Mother Nature generally bestows every species with at least one feature that captures the imagination, so when you see these retiring, plain little birds all winter you might wonder what special thing there can be about them.

When spring comes, you find out, for the Field Sparrow's song is pretty as can be. Adjectives coming to mind are plaintive, tender, ephemeral, wistful... Though the recording is surely of a Yankee Field Sparrow, because the song is faster and less expressive than what I heard Friday, you can hear a Field Sparrow calling at www.mbr-pwrc.usgs.gov/id/htmwav/h5630so.wav

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THINKING OF LONG MAN
In his book Another Country, Christopher Camuto speaks of the Cherokee concept of Long Man, "whose head was in the mountains and whose well-formed thoughts flowed, like water, to make the world habitable and interesting." To the Cherokee, Long Man was "constantly speaking to those who can understand the message."

I know the Smoky Mountain country of the Cherokee very well and I can easily imagine how one raised there and living a whole life among the mountains' mists, deep valleys and bounty of life could conceive of a presence in the land whose head lies in the mountains, and who emanates wise and generous thoughts in all directions, like water rushing downslope, maybe the water itself being Long Man's meditations.

If Long Man's head is in the mountains, then his feet lie in the Gulf of Mexico, for that's where the water ends up that flows from the Cherokee heartland. The water flows into the Little Tennessee, then the Tennessee, then the Ohio and finally the Mississippi before emptying into the Gulf of Mexico. Therefore, Long Man's well-formed thoughts flow near here. I fancy that the dusty loess mantling our landscape here is some kind of residuum or distillation of Long Man's cogitations.

But, of course, of what good are Long Man thoughts now? Traditional Cherokee culture already has gone the way the Amazon is going, and essentially for the same reasons. And the same Western cultural dynamics that destroyed the Cherokee way of life, and now converts Amazonia into hamburgers, today engenders a generation of young people unable to hear well-formed thoughts over the din of hip-hop.

Spring is here. I hear Field Sparrows plaintively singing and think of Long Man, his head in the mountains, constantly speaking to anyone who will listen.