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

May 9, 2004

BELTED KINGFISHER IN THE WILLOWS
About an hour before dusk on Tuesday I was sitting on my plank inside the multi-trunked Black Willow at the Field Pond when I heard the neighborhood Belted Kingfisher flying across the field callings its harsh clatter-rattle. You can hear such a call yourself at www.on.ec.gc.ca/wildlife/wildspace/media/sounds/beki.wav

When the bird arrived at the pond I already had my binoculars in place, for I didn't want movement to reveal my presence. My stillness worked, for the bird landed on a willow branch not 15 feet away (4.5m) and never did discover me.

It was a female, easy to know because she had two belts across her white chest, not one. A broad, blue- gray band runs across the upper chest of both males and females, but only females have a second band, a chestnut-colored one below the blue-gray one. You can see what I saw, a female in a willow tree, at www.mbr-pwrc.usgs.gov/id/framlst/Photo/Images/h3900pi.jpg

One difference between that photo and what I saw is that my bird was backlighted by intense, late- afternoon sunlight slanting in low from the west. Every few seconds this bird would pump her tail, fan her crest and call, and when her crest went up sunlight caught in her silhouetted feathers like fire in the night. As she eyed the pond's surface, she held her massive, black beak open and I could see her slender tongue stiff and weaving up and down with anticipation. The sharp rims of her beak were so thin that they glowed translucently. Around her the willow's slender leaves fluttered in the late afternoon breeze, translating the crystalline sunlight into animated, mellow, yellow-green twinkle-shimmer. The bird was theater in which light, movement, sound and the struggle for existence interplayed. I'd seldom seen a creature so totally alert and alive. This bird looked and acted hungry not only for fish but also for anything and everything the next moment might provide.

Twice during her 20-minute visit she dove toward the pond's surface but broke away before hitting the water. On the third attempt she kept going, for half a second completely disappearing beneath the surface, her splash like a slow-motion explosion of a crystal chandelier. She emerged with her beak open and empty. Then she flew into the air, gave a kind of shake that fireworkslike sent sparkling water droplets cascading to the pond's surface, and flew away.

*****

IN PRAISE OF SWISS CHARD
I am eating so much green stuff these days that what leaves me looks like it's from a caterpillar. I'm enjoying that clear-minded, firm-bodied feeling that comes when a vegetarian has and uses a good garden. You should see my 6-foot-high (2m) pea vines drooping with heavy pods, and the pretty beds of kale, mustard greens, green onions, garlic, and the rows of spreading cabbage and bulging kohlrabi. And nothing gets eaten more than the chard.

Every morning I fill a large bowl with shredded green stuff, usually chard. I chop in a large green onion, add some garlic, maybe 1/3 cup of cornmeal and 1/3 cup of wheat flour, two eggs, enough water to dissolve all the meal and flour, and then I bake-fry this in a large skillet. It's best slow-baked on the solar dish so that a hard crust forms without burning. If I want it a bit heavier and tastier, I double the cornmeal and wheat flour, leave out the eggs, snip in a cup of Velveeta Cheese, and solar-bake that. It's wonderful.

Thing is, the few locals I've spoken too, even those who have gardened all their lives, typically don't bother with chard, or don't even know about it. That's a shame because chard grows very well in our area. You can see what chard looks like growing at www.hort.purdue.edu/ext/senior/vegetabl/swisschard2.htm

Chard contains high levels of vitamin K, vitamin A, magnesium, vitamin C, biotin, potassium, iron, vitamin E, fiber, manganese and riboflavin. One cup of cooked Swiss Chard contains 390% of an average person's daily requirement of Vitamin K, and 137% of Vitamin A -- while having only 35 calories. You can read pages of further amazing nutritional facts about chard at www.whfoods.com/genpage.php?tname=foodspice&dbid=16

However, too much chard should NOT be eaten. Chard contains oxalates that can cause bladder and kidney problems. Oxalates can also interfere with absorption of calcium by the body, so anyone trying to keep up his or her calcium level should avoid chard. Were it not for this, I'd eat much more chard than I do.

I sow chard seeds in flats around Christmas, then watch them grow in my coldframe until the heavy frosts are past. They can withstand a little frost. They germinate and transplant easily, and grow fast if there's plenty of moisture in the soil.

Botanically, chard is a member of the Goosefoot Family, along with spinach and beets. In fact, chard is merely a variety of beet -- a cultigen that puts its energy into its leaves, not its root. Chard is BETA VULGARIS var.CICLA. That word "cicla" is a latinized word connected to Sicily, one of its original homes.

*****

PATH RUSH
At all times, but especially now when I am eating so much oxilate-rich chard, I make an effort to drink plenty of water. Consequently the grassy path between the barn office and the compost bin, where several times a day I discharge my nitrogen-rich bounty, is well worn. The middle of the path is practically bare, but alongside the bare soil stand rugged plants able to withstand frequent trampling. Among the rugged plants is one flowering right now, the Path Rush, JUNCUS TENUIS. Standing about a foot tall, it forms battered-looking little tussocks. You can see a nice portrait of such a wiry looking plant at http://linnaeus.nrm.se/flora/mono/junca/juncu/juncten1.jpg

The above link leads to a site in Sweden. That's not surprising because Path Rush, though a native American species, has gone against the tide of European and Asian weeds invading the Americas, and is becoming a weed now in other countries. We get their crabgrass and they get our Path Rush. Path Rush is as aggressive here as it is abroad: Go to any city park or nature reserve with a frequented trail running through it, and I'll bet you find Path Rush.

Rushes constitute one of those grasslike non-grasses I mentioned a while back. They have their own family, the Rush Family (Juncaceae), quite apart from the Grass Family. The Path Rush's flowers are only about 1/6th of an inch high (4 mm). The capsular fruits look like tiny, greenish, thin-shelled eggs. As the fruits mature they turn straw-colored. Crush one between your fingers and you'll find it filled with dozens of almost-microscopic, brownish, gritty seeds.

You can easily imagine a muddy-soled shoe crushing such a fruit, seeds sticking to the shoe, and being carried up the path a good distance before falling off, germinating and starting a new colony. The ability of this plant to appear along newly established paths is almost magical.

At least one plant-oriented Web site in England is little impressed with our American weed. They call it "Poverty Rush" and say "We rate it 1 out of 5 for usefulness." Still, it's reported that an infusion of the plant has been given to babies to prevent lameness, and also used as a wash on babies to strengthen them. I suspect that this use arises from the disreputable "Doctrine of Signatures": Since the plant is associated with paths, it might convey powers of walking.

According to one anthropological study made among native Americans, a string made from the plant has been used to bind up dough in oak leaves for cooking bread.

*****

ROSE PETAL-STAMEN
Wild, native roses bear just five colorful petals. However, if you have roses blooming in your backyard, you'll see that probably each flower possesses many more than five petals. It happens that the genetic information that makes pollen-producing stamens is somehow closely associated with that which produces petals. The proof of that is that sometimes in rose flowers you can find stamens with certain features of petals, and petals with certain features of stamens.

This week I added a new Rose Page to my nature site. As I was dissecting a blossom for scanning, I happened to find a stamen that was just beginning to develop petal features. One side of the yellow anther had developed a broadly flaring appendage of the same red color and texture as the flower's petals.

At www.backyardnature.net/fl_roses.htm you can read about rose-blossom anatomy, and at the bottom of that page see my amazing petal-stamen.

*****

ORCHARD ORIOLE NEST #2
Last week I reported on a female Orchard Oriole building her nest, starting on Wednesday morning, April 28, and still working on it when I issued the Newsletter last Sunday morning. She was still adding to the nest this morning, eleven days after beginning it.

This week she's worked less diligently than before, often taking long breaks. On Wednesday she began adding white, downy material, so I knew she was growing satisfied with the main nest body, and now was lining the cavity in which she will lay her eggs. For several days the percentage of down over grass stems being brought in has increased. The down is being collected from a thistle, CIRSIUM HORRIDULUM, standing in plain view from the nest, about 70 yards away. Conveniently, the thistle is producing great, shaggy heads of dingy white, parachuted seeds, the seeds' "parachutes" being the down.

Even now sometimes when she adds a new grass stem to the nest, one or more stems she'd already placed there fall away. All along I've had the feeling that this bird has been having problems with her nest, "learning as she goes."

Several times I've seen other orioles hanging around the nest. Sometimes a first-year male comes within a couple of feet of her nest and appears to pay the greatest attention to the building operation, and sometimes the female chases him away. Other times females and young birds have visited just for a quick look. My impression is that there's an extended community of orioles in this area and that they know about this new nest and are interested in it. During the last couple of days the first-year male has begun singing from near the nest, so he seems to be "the father."

Different from most species, first-year male Orchard Orioles wear plumages different from both older males and females. The first-year male's plumage is like the greenish-yellow female's, except that it includes a conspicuous black bib beneath the beak. This more complex plumage regimen as well as the occasional visits by other Orchard Orioles reinforces my suspicion that social organization among Orchard Orioles is more sophisticated than among most birds.

*****

EATING SPITTLEBUGS
Last week a very conspicuous feature around my trailer was that the too-closely growing, young Loblolly Pines were heavily infested with spittlebugs. Spittlebugs are the nymphs, or immature stage, of an insect called the froghopper. Spittlebugs are soft-bodied creatures who avoid their predators by creating around themselves a white, frothy mass of bubbles that looks very much like a gob of soapsuds maybe an inch across. Hundreds of such masses showed up very well along the dark wall formed by the pines around my trailer. You can see a spittlebug mass on a pine at http://ctrees.cas.psu.edu/insects/paxit69_large.jpg

NOTE: In November, 2010 Vinton Thompson wrote that "...the spittlebug species had to have been Aphrophora cribrata, which is the only pine spittlebug in the Southeast that has nymphs on pines (there are others that have adults on pines).

One day this week I observed the Orchard Orioles going from one spittlebug mass of foam to another, inserting their long beaks, possibly eating the spittlebugs. Also one afternoon I saw a Red-bellied Woodpecker very purposefully fly from the woods into the young pines and go directly to a foamy mass, insert his bill, and very quickly fly away. He seemed to know exactly what he wanted. Moreover, as he did this, the first-year male Orchard Oriole watched him with the same stretched-out-neck, sideways look earlier I had seen him use while studying the nest. Though I may be anthropomorphizing, it looked very much like the young oriole was studying the woodpecker's spittlebug collecting technique. When the woodpecker flew away, the young oriole immediately went to a mass of foam and inserted his beak in the same manner.

Today I don't see a single spittlebug mass remaining around the barn. However, walk about ten minutes away and the masses begin appearing again, just as numerous as they were here last week. It sure looks like the orioles and woodpeckers have cleaned the spittlebugs from around the barn.

*****

THIS WEEK'S MIGRATING BIRDS
Here's this week's list, my last this season, compiled on Friday, May 7th, on a calm, partly cloudy spring morning:

WINTER RESIDENTS PREPARING TO LEAVE

none

SUMMER RESIDENTS JUST ARRIVED

1 Green-backed Heron
1 Yellow-billed Cuckoo
3 Ruby-throated Hummingbird
8 Acadian Flycatcher
3 Great Crested Flycatcher
3 Brown Thrasher
4 Wood Thush
10 Red-eyed Vireo
11 White-eyed Vireo
3 Yellow-throated Vireo
2 Black-and-white Warbler
7 Hooded Warbler
1 Kentucky Warbler
2 Prairie Warbler
3 Yellowthroat
3 Northern Parula
8 Yellow-breasted Chat
6 Orchard Oriole
5 Summer Tanager
3 Indigo Bunting
2 Blue Grosbeak

TRANSIENTS (just passing through)

1 Veery

PERMANENT RESIDENTS (individual birds may migrate)

1 Turkey Vulture
1 Red-shouldered Hawk
1 Red-tailed Hawk
2 Mourning Dove
1 Belted Kingfisher
3 Eastern Bluebird
1 Red-winged Blackbird
2 Brown-headed Cowbird
8 Eastern Towhee

*****

BIRDS MUGGING ONE ANOTHER
The most interesting observation made during Friday's walk was at the very end, as I approached the barn. The female bluebird who has succeeded in hatching her eggs in the second nest box I put up was on the telephone wire looking hard into the grassy path leading to the barn. She spotted something, dropped from the wire, and the very moment she began tugging at her prey in the grass, presumably an earthworm, a much larger Blue Jay, with a startling flurry of wings, descended almost atop her, driving her off. The jay then began pecking furiously where the bluebird had been pulling on her worm, but got nothing.

This Sunday morning I was watching two Brown Thrashers foraging in the same area, and when one began pecking at something, once again the Blue Jay flew at them, driving them away, and once again the Blue Jay pecked where the thrasher had been pecking, but to no avail. A few minutes later I noticed a Yellow-breasted Chat uncharacteristically drop onto something in the grass, but before he could wrest it from the ground, this time one of the Brown Thrashers flew at him, driving him away. Neither did the thrasher get what the chat had been tugging on.

Blue Jays have more than one way to cause mischief, too. On Friday in the forest I spotted a jay carrying something in its beak, landing on a tree branch, positioning the object between its feet, and then pounding ib it with its beak. The binoculars showed the object to be an egg. The jay had just robbed a nest, now was breaking the egg, and gulping down what didn't drip to the forest floor. The egg was rather large, and later I heard a crow in the vicinity piteously issuing its distress call, so I'll bet the jay had robbed a crow's nest. The crow's crying was tremendously expressive and heartrending.

Also on Friday, Paty in Connecticut informed me that English Sparrows were stealing nesting material from her American Robins' nest!

*****

WHY DESTRUCTION MIGHT BE SO MUCH FUN
The neighbor continues "neatening up the landscape." Day after day the bulldozer has its way and during each morning jog I see the consequences. One day a line of trees is vanished, the next a hedgerow. It's especially painful now when so many creatures are nesting. On the other hand, maybe it's best to destroy the nests and kill the young now, for without habitat there will be nothing to sustain them later.

One unsettling thing about jogging by a spot where a hedgerow or large tree stood before, but now there's nothing but flat, bare dirt, is that nothing is left screaming about what is missing. It's not like the empty feeling left by an extracted molar, where you can insert the tip of your tongue and feel the weirdness of the tooth's absence, the unnaturalness of it, the awful loss. You just jog by and wonder if maybe you were wrong about that hedgerow or tree having been there in the first place. In the morning fog, the emptiness looks perfectly natural, totally at ease with itself.

This phenomenon of natural things going missing, and their absence not being a screaming affair, fits neatly with similar situations. How simple it is to walk up to a wildflower that has been developing for months, and stomp it in a second. How easy to drain and fill a wetland that has needed centuries to develop.

It seems that reality is structured so that destruction is quick and easy, while creation is always a painful and difficult thing. The only reason I can figure out that the Creator would fix things this way is that She so much enjoys the process of creation. After all, a glimpse into the Universe shows that everything is evolving, so surely creation is the Creator's main passion. With such an obsession with the process of change, and with eternity and the whole Universe as the context, why should the Creator be especially fond of what we think of as static, stable ecosystems, ephemeral as they are on our relatively evanescent Earth?

How else can it be explained that in this culture the extermination of those little islands of life is adjudged appropriate and good, while my wish that they would be left alone has no standing at all, in fact is generally regarded as the quirky whims of a crank?

Surely with each shove of the bulldozer's blade, the Creator smiles anticipating the fun eventually She'll have starting over, blossoming life and order where the bulldozer today destroys it.