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

April 18, 2004

GREEN, BLUE & BLACK
These few days between too cold and too hot are the spring counterpoint to those brief October days of the same moderate sort. Then, the sky is intensely and sharply blue, the landscape is a contrasty mosaic of colors, and crystalline sunlight withdraws toward the winter solstice. During this counterpoint time the sky is also blue but it's a blueness soft with humid undertones. Now, instead of demure, ethereal sunlight, our sunshine grows in intensity day by day, absolutely gorged with moist potential. And now the landscape's mosaic is not of rainbow colors, but of all the lusty hues of green, from white-yellow-green down to green so heavy and subdued that it's just plain black.

Especially at dusk you see it. The Mockingbird and maybe a Mourning Dove or a Cardinal forage in the grass, vividly tiny in all the panoramic greenness. Movie-projector sunlight flames in low from the west onto the earnest little birds earthworming amidst millions and millions of grassblades. On-pouring sunlight stings cheeks and squints the eyes, the birds' shadows are black, and each grassblade's slender sliver of shadow is black, else there's just green beneath the blue sky and the birds' black shadows stretch across the green grass and the birds themselves are hardly there at all, hopping silently, alert and something dangerous for earthworms, but nothing more substantial than that, specks in an enormity of blue, green and black.

Those pictures of Earth suspended in empty black space show a sphere that is green and blue, with white clouds and brown deserts. No deserts here, so out with brown. No clouds here, so out with clouds. It's the blackness in the formulation that leaves one thinking, the blackness that makes edges, is either all or nothing, depending on which side of green and blue you stand.

How pretty is a bird at dusk in green grass, sunlight from the deep blue sky slanting in from the west, the bird casting long black shadows. Nothing can be more alive than this.

*****

PANSIES FLOWERING
In the woods Jack-in-the-pulpits are flowering in the bottoms of ravines and other moist places (http://www.cattail.nu/pictures/nature/jack.jpg). Tulip Poplar trees are producing gorgeous greenish- yellow and orange, two-inch-wide (5 cm) blossoms (http://www.ca.uky.edu/agc/pubs/for/for68/11.jpg). And around my trailer, the pansies are flowering (http://www.bellnursery.com/pansies.htm).

Back in late fall neighbor Karen Wise discovered several trays of pansies heaped in a pile outside a store. They'd not sold so they'd been thrown away, despite some of them still being green and alive. Karen rescued them and they spent the cold months in my coldframe. Most eventually died but a few survived. Books call pansies "annuals or short-lived perennials," and that's exactly the way it turned out.

The thing to know about pansies is that they are violets -- members of the genus Viola, of the Violet Family -- just like the "wild violets" I spoke of growing around my trailer a few newsletters back. About 300 violet species are recognized, but our common garden pansies are all or nearly all VIOLA X WITTROCKIANA, originally from Europe. When a scientific name has an X in it like that, it means it's a hybrid. Sometimes you run across "tufted pansies," which are VIOLA CORNUTA, originally from Spain and the Pyrenees.

To convince yourself that pansies are violets, notice that in both cases the blossoms have 5 petals, with the lowest petal modified into a kind of "spur" that projects behind the flower's face like a little finger. Both flowers also bear 5 short stamens, and the two lowest stamens bear appendages that project backwards into the spur, where they produce nectar for pollinators. You might find it interesting to slit open a pansy's spur, see the clear, glistening nectar stored there, and touch the tip of your tongue to it. It's sweet, just like real nectar ought to be.

Though pansies were among the first plants domesticated purely for their prettiness, nowadays new types never before seen on Earth are being marketed each year. On the pansy information page at www.sepro.com/horticulture/a_rest/rates/pansy.html, over 30 named pansy types are for sale. An aunt in Kentucky once sent me pictures of a new strain that was flowering in mid winter up there, with snow covering the ground around it!

I know that the science of gene manipulation is only in its infancy, but when I saw that photograph I shuttered. I'm not sure I want pansies to flower in the snow.

*****

DEERBERRIES FLOWERING
Along dry, sandy ridges in forested uplands nowadays you run into compact, much-branched, head-high bushes abundantly covered with small, whitish flowers. It's Deerberry, also known as Squaw Huckleberry and even Gooseberry, VACCINIUM STAMINEUM. It's in the same family as azaleas, the Heath Family, and the same genus as blueberries. In fact, Deerberries are blueberries. You can see some very nice photos of the bush at www.duke.edu/~cwcook/trees/vast.html

I'll bet that as you travel eastward from here and the loess mantling our landscape becomes thinner, Deerberry becomes more and more common. That's because, in common with many members of its family, it prefers well drained, acidic soil. Our loess tends toward being basic, so I was surprised to find Deerberry here. The species occurs from Maine to Missouri, south to our area. In the Appalachians along dry sandstone ridges I've seen this species forming dense thickets.

One book says it's called Deerberry because its fruits stay green and bitter, very unlike most other blueberries, and thus "only the deer will eat it."

*****

GRASSES & SEDGES
In this season it's hard to ignore how deep emerald green the landscape is. So let me analyze it a little more.

Very much of the green world around me is provided by grasses and grasslike plants. To most of us, being "grasslike" implies having tiny, chaffy flowers, and leaves that are long and slender, the veins of which are arrayed parallel to one another. If you haven't thought much about how most leaves of trees, bushes and wildflowers are "net veined," while blades of grass are "parallel veined," you can see the two different venation types on my page at www.backyardnature.net/mondiclf.htm

Most folks assume that nearly all plants with inconspicuous flowers and long, flat, parallel-veined leaves are grasses. Fact is, a large percentage of them are members of the Sedge Family.

For example, right now an abundant grasslike plant flowering around my trailer and the barn is the sedge known as CAREX RETROFLEXA. If it has an English name I can't find it. Despite people having paid so little attention to it that it doesn't even have a common name, I'll bet you'll remember seeing it if you check out a botanical illustration showing it at www.csdl.tamu.edu/FLORA/carex/carex025.htm It's just one of 100 Carex species listed on the "Mississippi Plants Checklist for Carex Species" at www.herbarium.olemiss.edu/echecklist.php?genus=Carex

At www.backyardnature.net/fl_grass.htm, on my Grass Flower page, I show the basic structure of typical grass flowers. At www.backyardnature.net/fl_caryx.htm I present pictures showing how to distinguish between grasses, sedges and some other grasslike plants. Now the question arises: How does one distinguish a non- flowering grass from a non-flowering sedge? Here's how:

When the slender blades of both grasses and sedges attach to the stem, they form a cylindrical "sheath." Among grasses the sheath is split down the side opposite the blade, while among sedges the sheath has no split. A picture showing exactly this, with an unsplit sedge sheath on the left and a split grass sheath on the right, is at www.backyardnature.net/2sheath.jpg

Also, sedge stems usually are triangular in cross- section, while grass stems are round.

*****

WREN DISASTER
The other day Melissa somewhere in Cyberspace wrote telling me that her Carolina Wrens had just produced their first batch of nestlings for the season but, two days after hatching, one of the parents got killed. Melissa wanted to know what she should do. How should orphaned wrens be fed?

Incidents like this always pull at the heart and maybe there are no good answers to what should be done. However, in this case I replied with my standard response. I told her she should just let nature take its course. Don't do anything.

I doubted that Melissa or nearly anyone else had the time to feed the nestlings as frequently as they needed to be fed, and even if she did I doubted that she'd feed them what they required nutritionally, thus predisposing them to weakness and disease. And even if she succeeded in feeding them all the appropriate food they needed, she would have raised some nestlings with the wrong opinions about humans, and that wrong opinion might have been passed on, causing problems for later generations of wrens.

If the remaining parent was unable to care for the nestlings alone, the best thing was to let the nestlings die, and then once the parent recuperates from the current stress, he or she will quickly find another mate and begin the whole cycle over again. The sooner that happens, the better for everyone.

Finally I noted that wrens produce many more nestlings than can be sustained by the ecosystem around them. This high rate of reproduction is hard-wired into their genetic makeup, to provide food for their predators, to help disperse nutrients and organic matter throughout the ecosystem.

It is a hard way to look at things, and if anyone out there has a further thought on the matter I'd be glad to hear it.

*****

THIS WEEK'S MIGRATING BIRDS
Here's this week's list, compiled on Friday, April 16th, on a clear, dewy, perfect spring morning:

WINTER RESIDENTS PREPARING TO LEAVE

3 Yellow-rumped Warlber
2 Swamp Sparrow

SUMMER RESIDENTS JUST ARRIVED

1 Mississippi Kite
1 Ruby-throated Hummingbird
4 Wood Thrush
3 Great Crested Flycatcher
1 Barn Swallow
4 Wood Thush
16 Red-eyed Vireo
12 White-eyed Vireo
2 Yellow-throated Vireo
1 Black-and-white Warbler
10 Hooded Warbler
1 Kentucky Warbler
2 Prairie Warbler
1 Louisiana Waterthrush
3 Northern Parula
3 Yellow-breasted Chat
5 Yellowthroat
4 Orchard Oriole
2 Blue Grosbeak
3 Summer Tanager

TRANSIENTS (just passing through)

none

PERMANENT RESIDENTS (individual birds may migrate)

1 Black Vulture
1 Turkey Vulture
1 Red-shouldered Hawk
1 Great Egret
1 Eastern Bluebird
1 Eastern Meadowlark
2 Brown-headed Cowbird
9 Eastern Towhee

*****

HUMMINGBIRD NEST
The highlight of Friday's birding walk came during my cornbread break at the Woodland Pond when I noticed a female Ruby-throated Hummingbird darting around. She was so fast it took me a while to catch on to what she was doing. She was building a nest.

Books tell us that only the female works on the nest, and it usually takes her 6-10 days. First she builds a flat base of thistle and dandelion down. Around here dandelions are fairly rare but thistles are frequent. This base is positioned on the upper side of a branch and attached with spider webbing. Nest walls are made with "white plant down," bud scales, spider webbing and sometimes pine resin. The exterior is decorated and camouflaged with lichen.

My hummingbird's nest was typically located. It was on a straight twig overhanging the pond, as thick as a ballpoint pen and descending at a 45° angle. The nest was about six feet above the pond's water and some 10 feet from the bank. The tree was a Red Maple and the nest, about the size of a walnut, was nearly completely hidden by a single maple leaf. The nest looked almost finished, for already it was adorned with gray lichen.

There's a lot more information about Ruby-throated Hummingbird life history at http://birds.cornell.edu/birdsofna/excerpts/rth.html

*****

FOCUSING
With so many things in nature going on right now, my mind tends toward diffusion. For example, my thoughts are snared by the fluty song of the Orchard Oriole, and then come reflections on how this bird has just arrived from tropical America, and then I remember all the habitat destruction there and here, and then the question arises as to who will eat the bugs who eat the plants around me now, if not the Orchard Oriole, and what that will mean for these forests and fields... And there are dozens of such birdsongs and other things snaring the mind all the time, hundreds of meditations and questions associated with each, and thousands of potential scenarios...

Something tells me it's not good to let the mind think diffusedly all the time, or even most of the time, so regularly I yank my mind out of that mode, and do focusing exercises.

For example, this morning with my binoculars I walked around focusing my lenses on individual things, just looking at them for a long time, as if I were standing before a piece of art on a museum wall, and I kept looking until I was satisfied that it had seen something important there.

I focused on a certain freshly emerged green oak leaf with sunlight rampaging through it. I don't believe there has ever been a design in all of Paris more expressive and perfect than the curl of that leaf just as it was during that particular moment of sunlit perfection. I focused on a feather with dew on it. I can't recall any painted picture in any museum anywhere evoking such pathos as that wrecked, wet feather. For long moments I beheld a yellow oxalis blossom all surrounded by green grass, and I saw -- really saw, saw as well as my mind could see at that time -- the grain in a weathered fence plank, and a cluster of pebbles in the sand at the creek's edge.