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

May 2, 2004

A TERMITE BLIZZARD
At the woods' edge suddenly I noticed that the air was sparkling. I'd been looking for mushrooms and just hadn't noticed that around me thousands of small insects with fluttering wings glistening in the sunlight were gathering. It was the biggest swarm of this type I'd ever seen.

The first thing to do when coming upon such a swarm is to figure out whether they are termites or winged ants. This was easy because dozens were entangled in the hairs on my arms and naturally I was carrying my handlens. A quick glance at one, which had just left its wings suspended in my arm hairs and was ticklingly climbing toward my hand, confirmed its termiteness. Winged ants have "wasp waists" -- very narrow constrictions in the middle of their bodies -- and bent antennae, while termites are about the same width their entire length, and their antennae are straight. You can see these differences in a side-by-side comparison at www.permatreat.com/difference.html

What a perfect snowstorm of termites! Green Anoles in the trees ran from one meal to the next hardly paying attention to my presence. Carolina Chickadees continually laughed their nasal calls while darting from branch to branch snatching all they could. A Squirrel Treefrog gave the impression of having eaten so much that his stomach hurt. He curled onto his side making a comma-shape, squinted his eyes and gaped, but when a termite landed right before his nose he lunged at it and swallowed it in a flash. Spiders scrambled about carrying termites mummified in silk cocoons, or squirming in their fangs.

When the termites landed, their wings came off and they ran away looking like black ants. No small number took the chance to mate, so it was normal to see couples stuck together by their rear ends, one pulling the other along. In places the ground was silvery with discarded wings.

After the deluge of termite fallout subsided, a breeze came along making brief whirlwinds of silvery, broken- off termite wings. Spiderwebs, so covered with sparkling wings that they drooped, looked like sequined necklaces.

There's plenty about termite life history at http://creatures.ifas.ufl.edu/urban/termites/native_subterraneans.htm

*****

PARTRIDGE BERRIES FLOWERING
Since last fall one of the most eye-catching presences in the woods, especially on banks where bare earth was exposed, has been the explosively red, pea-size fruits of the ground-hugging little plant known as Partridge Berry, MITCHELLA REPENS. You can see a fruiting plant at http://inspirezone.org/hiking/partridgeberry.jpg

Now Partridge Berries are flowering, as are the ones at www.blupete.com/Nature/Wildflowers/Partridge.htm

If you run across a Partridge Berry, be sure to take a look at the flowers, for there's something very unusual about them. Blossoms appear in pairs, but the remarkable thing is that the two corollas' ovaries (the future fruits) are joined like Siamese twins. Typically there are two perfectly distinct white corollas, each with four lobes, and each corolla subtended by a distinct calyx in the normal way but, then, the ovaries below the calices are fused. Rarely you can find plants where even the corollas have merged into a single 10-lobed corolla. Even more curious is that in some flowers the stamens emerge beyond the corolla's throat while in others the style emerges. This is one plant that just doesn't follow rules.

During all the cold months when you're seeing those little red fruits you wonder why, since they're so conspicuous, they haven't been eaten by someone. They are too small and unpleasant tasting for humans, but apparently there's something about them causing even birds and other critters usually to pass them by. Still, by spring, the fruits are gone. Wild Turkey, Bobwhite, Red Foxes, skunks and White-footed Mice are known to eat them, if not with relish.

Maybe Partrige Berry specializes in being an emergency food. Maybe creatures who eat it only during hard times tend to be traveling greater distances during their food searches, and thus are more likely to spread the Partridge Berry's seed into new habitats. That's just a wild hypothesis on my part.

*****

MUSHROOM SPORE PRINTS
Last weekend's 2.5 inches of rain brought out a nice flush of mushrooms. In the woods there's a dun-colored Lactarius that "bleeds" a dingy "milk" when damaged, and a woodland Agaricus with pink gills and a flaring, skirtlike "ring" on its stem. In my compost bin, each morning handsome clusters of Inky Caps, or Coprinus, emerge from the straw, their caps deliquescing into black goo by noon. I've eaten none of these mushrooms because each has something about it making me nervous. For one thing, I can identify them to genus level, but not to species. Within a genus, one species can be poisonous while another is highly edible. We just don't have a good, comprehensive guide to Mississippi mushrooms to help with this problem.

Still, it's fun to know the genus -- to have a general idea of what it is.

Beyond the basic features of mushroom structure, size and habitat, the most important characteristic of a mushroom to know for its identification is its spore color. Moreover, making a "spore print" for determining spore color is something fun and interesting to do with a kid.

In most mushroom fieldguides the species are arranged by spore color. All species in a genus usually have the same spore color. My woodland Agaricus with its flaring skirt looks like a deadly Amanita, but its spores are dark purplish brown, while Amanita spores are white.

To make a spore print, find a mushroom that is neither too old nor too young, for mushrooms in either state may not be dropping spores. Usually too-old mushrooms are faded and bug-eaten, and their caps are the largest in a cluster. Too-young mushrooms not only have the smallest caps, but their caps may not be fully open.

Once you have a good mushroom cap, remove the stem and put the cap on paper with its gills facing downward. Serious mushroom pickers buy special spore-print paper squares that are white on one side and black on the other. This is so spores will show up even if they are black or white.

At www.backyardnature.net/f/mushroom.htm you can see one of my own spore prints, near the bottom of the page. That page also provides a general introduction to mushrooms. My introduction to the world of fungi is at www.backyardnature.net/f/2fungi.htm

*****

ORCHARD ORIOLE NESTING
For the last two or three weeks my days have been graced with untold hours of singing by an Orchard Oriole. You can hear his complex, bubbly, fluty call at www.mbr-pwrc.usgs.gov/id/htmwav/h5060so.wav

It seems that most people in our area identify any orange-and-black bird as a Baltimore Oriole. During my eight or so years in Mississippi I can recall seeing that species here only once, during spring migration. However, I've seen hundreds of Orchard Orioles. The summer distribution maps of the two species show why: At www.mbr-pwrc.usgs.gov/bbs/htm96/map617/ra5070.html you can see that we're on the southern edge of the Baltimore's summer distribution but, as the summer distribution map for the Orchard Oriole shows at www.mbr-pwrc.usgs.gov/bbs/htm96/map617/ra5060.html, we're deep inside their summer homelands.

You can see an Orchard Oriole with nestlings at www.ronausting.com/orchard.htm, and a Baltimore Oriole -- now often known as Northern Oriole -- at www.ronausting.com/nororiol.htm. The main differences between the two species are that the Orchard's orange hue is much darker than the Baltimore's, and the Orchard's tail is completely black while the Baltimore's is conspicuously edged with orange.

Early Wednesday morning I saw that my male Orchard Oriole had gotten himself a female, and that they were hanging about the top of a 30-ft-high Sweetgum next to the barn. With binoculars I watched as the female began building a nest. Throughout the day most of the time she worked alone but once she was visited not only by the male but also two other orioles -- females and/or immatures -- issuing happy-sounding chortles.

The nest occupies a densely leafed spot near the tree's top, in the fork of two slender branches. With the slightest breeze the whole bough sways and its leaves flutter energetically. In this highly animated theater the female worked all day Wednesday, carrying in green grass stems with the inflorescences still attached. Though she spent a lot of time fiddling with the stems, I couldn't see that she made much progress. On Thursday morning when she arrived with a long grass stem, several of the previous day's stems fell from their places. I began thinking that I might be seeing a young female struggling with her first nest.'

By Friday morning she had built a definite straw platform without sides. Friday's weather was fitful with showers coming and going, but she worked most of the day anyway. By Saturday morning she had a nest with walls so that when she sat in it her tail pointed straight up. However, the walls were so thin I could see daylight through them. Rains came and went all day Saturday, with a 2.4-inch downpour in the afternoon, so she had to take several breaks.

This Sunday morning it's unusually breezy and the leaves are wet after a brief shower. But she's at it again. Occasionally I see straw dislodge and fall away from her creation, and the nest is still so flimsy that daylight passes through it. I admire this bird's determination so much.

*****

THIS WEEK'S MIGRATING BIRDS
Here's this week's list, compiled on Friday, April 30th, on an overcast, muggy spring morning with thunderstorms darkening the horizon:

WINTER RESIDENTS PREPARING TO LEAVE

none

SUMMER RESIDENTS JUST ARRIVED

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

TRANSIENTS (just passing through)

1 Veery

PERMANENT RESIDENTS (individual birds may migrate)

2 Wood Duck
1 Turkey Vulture
1 Mourning Dove
2 Eastern Bluebird
1 Red-winged Blackbird
2 Brown-headed Cowbird
6 Eastern Towhee

The nicest spotting was the Veery, the only species noted so far this spring that is purely transient -- wintering in South and Central America, and during summers nesting no closer to us than the southern Appalachians. Thrushes appear to suffer especially from habitat destruction, and Veerys are thrushes, so that's another reason to be glad to see them. The Veery's hauntingly beautiful call consists of a rolling series of flute-like notes descending the scale (www.mbr-pwrc.usgs.gov/id/htmwav/h7560so.wav).

This is also the first week this spring when not a single winter resident was observed. All the White- throated Sparrows and Yellow-rumped Warblers, absolutely abundant since last fall, are simple gone.

*****

THE MIDDLE PATH
I have grown accustomed to people referring to my views as extreme. They assume that even I accept that I am an extremist. However, I think of myself as a true disciple of the Middle Path.

It is a matter of perspective. I am taking the long view.

Humans have been around for 5-7 million years. Until only about 300 years ago when the Industrial Revolution began, people were NOT spending most of their waking hours doing repetitive, often unfulfilling jobs for businesses and institutions. The manner of life we now accept as normal and inevitable has occupied us during only about 1/500,000ths of our existence. Our society's priorities of attaining mostly unnecessary material wealth, and our obsessions with individual personal liberty and self gratification instead of the maintenance of a healthy and just society, constitute a very recent phenomenon.

Our society's present consumption-oriented manner of living must be and will be replaced by a different system, if only because it is unsustainable. The most obvious reason it is unsustainable is because maintaining the kind of lifestyle we live consumes resources faster than they can be replaced, if they can be replaced at all. Unsustainable behaviors either change or go extinct. To my mind, to persist in indulging in unsustainable living patterns is extreme. It is not extreme to try to live sustainably.

Moreover, the life I live is hardly an extreme case of "going back to nature." I buy cornmeal and wheat flour milled from grain grown in other states, wear clothing sewed together on the opposite side of the planet, ride a bicycle that is a marvel of engineering, and use very sophisticated technology to learn about the world and keep in touch with others. I take what I need from the outside world and in the process produce more pollution as a consequence of my purchasing than I like. Very much of what enriches and gladdens my life comes from far beyond the gardens, forests and fields around me. If anything, in seeking the Middle Path I err too much toward consumerism myself.

In my view, average US consumers are extremists. As they gather so much needless clutter around them and focus on their own hungers, their own comfort and their own status in an unsustainable social system, they are abandoning sustainable living patterns pioneered by many kinds of living organisms during 3.5 billion years of life on Earth.

In contrast to this extreme behavior, I am truly the most mild-mannered, hard-nosedly conservative, middle- of-the-road person I know. Moreover, for the future I aspire to orient myself even more directly upon the sustainable Middle Path.