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

April 25, 2004

DUSK FROM INSIDE A BLACK WILLOW
Several Black Willows about 15 feet high (4.5m) grow around the Field Pond. Inside one multi-trunked tree I've placed a board so I can sit about half a foot above the water. From among the trunks I have a good view of the whole area and when I'm quiet wildlife doesn't seem to see me at all.

It's especially nice as the sun goes down. If it's been a warm day and the evening sky is clear, in the twilight at dusk the temperature drops very fast and curls of mist rise from the water's surface. Sometimes half the pond's face is animated with knee-high fog- curls all silently drifting in one direction. In a few minutes they all drift the other way. Meanwhile, it grows darker and darker.

It's a paradox of dusk that details of relative distance emerge as the fog gathers. The distant line of trees grows pale because of mists rising over the field, while things closer, being seen through less mist, are darker and better defined. In full sunlight, things look flatter.

Then the deer come out with their huge ears twisting in all directions, their black noses and eyes the only hard points in the gauzy scene. As the deer graze nervously in open areas, all around me the pond scintillates with the shrill, measured clicking calls of Northern Cricket Frogs, ACRIS CREPITANS (hear them at www.state.tn.us/environment/nh/ncktfrg.au), and the sound of continual, random splashing. The splashing is caused by fish and frogs jumping for certain mosquitolike insects laying eggs on the water's surface.

The mosquitolike insects try hard to avoid their predators, zigzagging and hovering about six inches above the water. Regularly they dip to the water's surface and with the tips of their abdomens lay eggs there, the whole egg-laying process taking only a fraction of a second. Yet this is time enough to attract a jumping fish or frog. Usually the insects escape, but sometimes they simply disappear from view in an instant too brief for my mind to register the details.

Then night sets in. I stand wondering how many snakes lie in the shadowy tangle of Japanese Honeysuckle I must wade through to get to my bike, and realize that I'm wet with cold fog. The delicious chill felt as I pick my way through the thicket comes from both the night air and from within.

*****

AN ADVANCING WAVE OF STORIES
Carol in Tennessee writes to me about the morning she noticed that her newly hatched bluebird nestlings weren't being fed as usual: "... I took a kitchen stool, and still in my nightgown, traipsed barefooted out to the nestbox, accompanied by my large troop of canine friends. I wiggled the stool around in the grass to find a level spot, climbed up on the swaying stool, and put my eye right up to the hole. Just on the other side of the hole, looking right back at me, was a snake... I went over like a shot. Flat on my back in the grass, I was helpless under the onslaught of solicitous dogs, pinned to the ground by their many feet on my nightgown."

This is a good time for snake stories, for snakes are everywhere, and nowadays if you talk to any outdoorsy person the latest snake story is sure to emerge. Judging from the statistics for my nature site on the Internet, the most frequented section right now is the snake pages at www.backyardnature.net/snakes.htm As spring drifts northward, I visualize a broad wave of snake stories advancing more or less coincident with the local flowerings of Crimson Clover in fields and along roadsides.

Carol's story nudged me into action. Despite the fact that on my Bluebird-Nestbox page on the Internet I've advised others to place a "predator guard" around the pole holding up their bluebird boxes, from sheer laziness and forgetfulness I've neglected to do the same for my own boxes. Right after reading Carol's letter I cut out some sheets of aluminum flashing, gathered up some large wood-screws and a screwdriver, and headed for my boxes.

At the first box I was afraid that the disturbance made by attaching the predator guard might cause the incubating mother to abandon her nest and not return. In fact, as soon as I'd formed the thin sheet of aluminum into a cone flaring at the bottom, with the top tightly hugging the post, the mother flew out. I went ahead and screwed the guard in place, then went a distance from the box to watch.

From there I could see the mother flying about eyeing the area. Happily, in about ten minutes she returned to the nest, and soon thereafter the male lit atop the box with his chest puffed out and looking in all directions as if he just dared me to make another visit.

*****

A REASON TO SAVE A BIRD
Last week I mentioned Melissa's "Wren Disaster," and said that my usual advice is to let nature take its course when disaster strikes a nest. A couple of Newsletter readers reminded me of a good reason to go against that advice. It is: "The experience of saving a bird or any wild creature can be enormously rewarding to the person who cares for it."

Carol in Tennessee wrote that "I think sometimes the joy it brings may be worth it," and she told me about a man who nursed baby birds to health, and today can call his healed wards from the woods and they still feed from his hands. The effect is "magical."

Leona in Missouri told about reviving a "dead" robin her daughter Grace had brought home, and how the robin learned to peck at the house's window for worms. Leona writes "I would say that the exercise of saving the bird made an impression on Grace," who now is a pediatrician working with Native Americans and others "bucking the toughest of situations, who seem to be glad that somebody cares to at least try to help."

Also, I don't forget that many do not need a reason to try to save a bird. Neighbor Karen Wise, who, you may recall, saved a vulture not long ago and her van still stinks from the exercise, simply can't keep herself from trying to help, even when her brain tells her it's pointless.

*****

CHINABERRIES DROPPING FLOWERS
Forest edges here are ornamented with abundant blossoms and heavy fragrances of non-native, seriously invasive Japanese Honeysuckle vines, Chinese Privet bushes and Chinaberry trees. The Chinaberries, MELIA AZEDARACH, produce basketball-size masses of penny- size, violet-hued blossoms, and often these flowers sprinkle the ground beneath the trees. Most flowers in a Chinaberry inflorescence drop off without producing fruit.

If you find some Chinaberry flowers, notice what's special about them. Chinaberries belong to an exotic plant family, the Mahogany Family, and except for a small tree in southern Florida I can't think of another native US plant belonging to it. The family is mainly tropical, consisting of trees and shrubs with hard, scented wood. Among the most famous of its members are the important, tropical-American wood- producing trees Mahogany and Spanish Cedar. Chinaberry itself originated in southwestern Asia. You can view a large close-up of its interesting blossom at http://uvalde.tamu.edu/herbarium/final/meaz_fl.jpg

In that picture you can see one of the strange features of Chinaberry flowers. Each blossom has 5-6 petals, which is normal, but the stamens are united into a dark-purple tube projecting from the flower like a daffodil's corona. Anthers, which split open to release pollen, are held inside the tube, pressing against the stubby female style. If you have forgotten the function of items like stamens and styles you may want to refer to my flower-structure page at www.backyardnature.net/fl_stand.htm

While you're holding the Chinaberry flower, don't forget to smell it, and to thank it for its perfume.

*****

FIG TWIG CUTTING UPDATE
You may recall that last fall we cut over a hundred fig twigs from an old, abandoned fig tree, applied powdery rooting-auxin to the cut and stuck the twigs into the ground.

The results of that experiment are that about a third of the twigs rooted and currently are sprouting shoots and leaves. I think that most of the twigs were killed by the cold. I'd also planted some well rooted fig saplings in more exposed areas and they all died from what appears to be freezing. If I were to conduct this experiment again, I'd cover the twig bed with straw mulch.

Seeing how easy it is to acquire fig saplings, I just don't understand why every empty corner of our landscape, especially people's backyards, isn't graced with this wonderful plant.

*****

OUR FORESTS' FUTURE
Because of intense clearcutting, huge swaths of Homochitto National Forest, which adjoins this property, consist of no more than weeds, briars and Loblolly Pine saplings growing too densely together. This may constitute deer and Wild Turkey heaven but it's hardly healthy forest. Last year International Paper Company closed its mill in Natchez and when you see the shape our region's forests are in you know why: There's not enough intact forest left to feed a large operation like IP.

Oldtimers around here recall how not long ago our forests were mostly hardwood -- oaks, hickories, ash and maple, and a few pines here and there. The trees returning after clearcutting are predominantly fast- growing, soft-wooded Loblolly Pine, and in certain large areas nearly nothing but Loblolly saplings are returning. Moreover, those saplings grow so closely together that no individual tree gets the space, water and nutrients it needs.

Clearcutting-induced, too-close Loblolly saplings grow up spindly and weak. The weak trees have diminished resistance to diseases and insects. Already bark- beetle outbreaks are occurring and such outbreaks will increase. With global warming, we will see horrendous droughts during which fires will rage through vast acreages of spindly, beetle-killed, dried-out pines. With such hot fires, mainly weeds will grow back to protect our erosion-prone loess soil.

You might be surprised by what is revealed in a chapter called "Forests and Deforestation" in the book by Peter J. Bryant called "Biodiversity and Conservation." It's available online at http://darwin.bio.uci.edu/~sustain/bio65/lec10/b65lec10.htm

Of special interest in that chapter is documentation showing that under current laws the US Forest Service has been obliged to sell much of our best forest at an economic loss. "According to the government's General Accounting Office [the US] Forest Service lost over $2.1 billion from 1992 through 1997 on its logging program." Also read how further vast acreages of mature forest with low fire hazard potential are to be logged under the guise of Bush-administration-pushed "salvage logging," ostensibly to prevent fire hazard.

*****

THIS WEEK'S MIGRATING BIRDS
Here's this week's list, compiled on Friday, April 23th, on a cloudy, warm, muggy spring morning:

WINTER RESIDENTS PREPARING TO LEAVE

3 White-throated Sparrow

SUMMER RESIDENTS JUST ARRIVED

1 Mississippi Kite
4 Wood Thrush
8 Acadian Flycatcher
4 Great Crested Flycatcher
1 Barn Swallow
4 Brown Thrasher
4 Wood Thush
17 Red-eyed Vireo
13 White-eyed Vireo
2 Black-and-white Warbler
15 Hooded Warbler
1 Kentucky Warbler
1 Prairie Warbler
1 Louisiana Waterthrush
3 Northern Parula
9 Yellow-breasted Chat
5 Yellowthroat
7 Orchard Oriole
10 Indigo Bunting
2 Blue Grosbeak
4 Summer Tanager

TRANSIENTS (just passing through)

none

PERMANENT RESIDENTS (individual birds may migrate)

1 Turkey Vulture
1 Red-shouldered Hawk
1 Mourning Dove
2 Eastern Bluebird
1 Eastern Meadowlark
1 Field Sparrow
2 Brown-headed Cowbird
9 Eastern Towhee

*****

A PROFOUNDLY ENCOURAGING THOUGHT
The best moment of Friday's birdwalk came toward the end when for the first time during the walk I entered a broad open area, the Loblolly Field. During the whole walk I'd not heard or seen either a Field Sparrow or a Prairie Warbler, but as soon as I was in the field I heard them both, within seconds of one another.

Anyone familiar with the calls of our birds knows that the songs of these two species are similar in that both calls ascend the musical scale while accelerating in tempo, like a dropped penny circling on a tabletop. Their main difference is that the warbler's call is buzzy, while the sparrow's is crystal clear. You can compare them for yourself. The Prairie Warbler's call is at www.ronausting.com/PrairieWarb.wav, and the Field Sparrow's call is at www.mbr-pwrc.usgs.gov/id/htmwav/h5630so.wav

So, of all the birdcalls I heard Friday, why did these two species occupying the center of a large field possess such similar, ascending, ethereal calls? And why do these birds' calls approximate what I myself would compose if I were asked to create a short musical phrase conveying the feeling of being a small thing earthbound, looking into the open sky with its expressive clouds, light-charged blue spaces, and its profound openness?

On Friday as I walked across the big field the notion occurred to me that maybe the big field had a message, and that the species known as Field Sparrows and Prairie Warblers -- birds as unrelated to one another as rabbits from mice -- were both evolving toward expressing it. Both species were in the process of reaching for the ultimate perfect timbre and phraseology for expressing the field's message, and already they had evolved to the point where their expressions were similar.

In fact, maybe every spot on Earth has a certain mood, or states a certain truth, and if you are a species evolving there, or if you're a human sensitive to what is going on there, what eventually, inevitably results is a glad, simple, songlike expression conveying that feeling or insight, passing it on to others.

Gloomy, shadowy forest brings forth haunting, fluty thrush calls. The break of dawn on foggy mornings erupts in good-natured turkey gobbling. The perspective of high perches watching over lower worlds is the hawk's cry. Absolute freedom of movement inside the open sky itself is Chimney-Swift twitter, and the sound of being earthbound looking into the open sky -- that's the upward sweeping, tempo-increasing call discovered independently by both the Field Sparrow and Prairie Warbler, in an occasion of convergent spiritual evolution.

If such is the case, it can be important, for it suggests that when finally all our forests, fields and marshes are destroyed, if just one sprig of crabgrass remains on an eroded knoll, and there comes to this place just one child to behold what is there, think about it, love it, and hear what it has to say, then wisdom and hope can be reborn again.