from the woods near Natchez, Mississippi, USA
May 30, 2004
TRACKS ALONG SANDY CREEK
When the flooding ended a couple of weeks ago Sandy Creek quickly returned to its banks leaving its sandy flats and muddy banks pristinely smooth. It was a good time to look for animal tracks, and that's exactly what I've been doing.
Of all the times when I feel inadequate as a naturalist, one of the worst is when I'm walking along creek banks looking at tracks. It isn't so much that I can't identify what's there, though often that's the case. The bad part is finding tracks of common critters behaving inexplicably.
For example, this week along Sandy Creek I found coyote prints indicating that the animal had sat on his rear and scooted forward for about ten feet. I've seen dogs do this on hard ground, maybe because they had worms, but why would a coyote scoot his rear end through soft sand? In several places a large number of crows had gathered and absolutely trampled the sand. It was clear that a meeting had taken place (a murder of crows), the purpose of which I can't imagine. In one place it looked as if a gigantic turtle had dragged its two-foot-wide shell from the woods into the water, though I couldn't believe that such a large turtle existed there.
Actually I did figure out what caused the two-foot- wide dragging signs. Following the trail into the woods, I found where a beaver had cut a willow trunk, then dragged it to the stream. The dragged stem had destroyed all signs of the beaver's own tracks. There are no beaver dams or lodges along this part of Sandy Creek, so apparently the stem was destined for a bank burrow with an underwater entrance, where the stem's bark could be gnawed at leisure.
Farther down the creek I did find beaver tracks, and they were impressive for their size, those of its hind feet spreading more than 5 inches wide (13 cm). In the mud you could see the webbing between the toes. Usually it's hard to find well-preserved beaver tracks because the big, flat tail dragged behind obliterates them.
If you'd like to learn some common tracks, a good website to help you begin is provided by the Missouri Department of Conservation to aid its biologists during yearly wildlife surveys. It's at www.conservation.state.mo.us/nathis/mammals/autogrph/
If you'd like more than a cursory introduction, you need a fieldguide -- a book to carry into the field filled with drawings and information about each animal's tracks. I provide a page listing a number of such books available at Amazon.com at www.backyardnature.net/amazon/tracks~.htm
YELLOWTHROAT ACROSS THE FIELD
If you walk past a large field with a bushy fencerow or blackberry thicket nearby, you'll hear one of the purest, most appealing sounds of summer, a ringing, uncomplicated wichity, wichity, wichity... And if you watch closely as you approach the calling, you might spot the little bird making the big sound, and you'll see its bright yellow underparts, yellow-brown top, and its very conspicuous, black bandit-mask across its face. It's the Yellowthroat, GEOTHLYPIS TRICHAS, a common summer resident throughout most of North America. Few sounds are more evocative of heat- stunned, humid, broad-skied summer days. You can see a beautiful picture of this bird at www.greglasley.net/comyelthrt.html and hear the way it sounds from far across a field at www.mbr-pwrc.usgs.gov/id/framlst/Song/h6810so.wav
The Yellowthroat's name is descriptive, if not distinctive. For beginners the name is too similar to others -- Yellow-throated Warbler, Yellow-throated Vireo, Yellow-breasted Chat, Yellow Warbler... And it's true that in the birdworld, especially the insect-eating part, plenty of species possess yellow throats and chests.
The reason for this is easy to figure out. Imagine being a bug or earthworm in the grass when a bird suddenly appears above you. If the bird's throat is pale -- yellow or white -- the bird's form will show up against the bright sky much less than if it were dark.
The Yellowthroat's yellow throat must help it a good deal because the species is very successful, being distributed not only from coast-to-coast in North America, but through the West Indies and as far south as Colombia and Venezuela. As often happens with species occupying such large distributions, it's evolving several subspecies, which eventually may become full-fledged species. What a pleasure to hear this bird's regional "accents."
CAESAR'S MUSHROOMS UP
Those recent rains have brought fourth a number of handsome mushrooms, and one of the prettiest and best tasting is the Caesar's Mushroom, probably AMANITA UMBONATA, formerly known as A. caesarea. You can see the large, red-topped mushroom and read why I write "probably" before its Latin name at http://botit.botany.wisc.edu/toms_fungi/mar2002.html
Caesar's Mushrooms are absolutely delicious. They've provided some of the best eating that Julius Caesar and I have ever experienced. However, unless I find a patch large enough to warrant making some test- nibblings before I prepare a banquet with them, I leave them alone. That's because Caesar's Mushrooms are members of the genus Amanita, which includes the most deadly of all mushrooms. It doesn't help that the genus's taxonomy is a mess, so it's a challenge to be absolutely sure that you're eating the harmless species. Eating an Amanita is like marrying into a family of moonshiners: You can hardly enjoy the experience because of thinking about the relations.
MAGNOLIA FLOWER STRUCTURE
This week I've added a new "Magnolia Blossom Page" to my website at www.backyardnature.net/fl_magno.htm. If you're unsure where a magnolia flower's stamens, stigmas and other parts are, you might take a look, for they are labeled. As I scanned the blossom, it filled the whole room with a fresh, lemony odor. Magnolia blossoms by themselves are enough to convince me that the Creator's general intentions are benevolent.
LARGE CLUSTERS OF LITTLE WHITE FLOWERS
The landscape's unending greenness is wonderful. It's such a restful thing to see. Still, I can imagine that such uniform greenness can make it difficult for pollinators to find their flowers. Looking at this problem from the point of view of a plant flowering now, and not in spring or fall when the greenness is less uniform, you can see that there are two solutions.
You can produce very large, white and therefore easy to spot blossoms, as magnolias do, or else you can display a large collection of closely packed, tiny, white flowers, the large gathering showing up as well as a single large blossom.
Single, large, white flowers have the disadvantage that if the blossom is destroyed, all is lost, while if you have a cluster of flowers, losing a few of them will only provide more sustenance for the remaining ones. Mother Nature seems to be in the process of choosing the latter strategy, for many of the oldest fossils of flowers are of the magnolia type, while the species nowadays showing off large blobs of little white flowers are of more modern taxa.
Among the latter kind flowering now are the Elderberry, Possumhaw Viburnum, Roughleaf Dogwood, Common Hydrangea, and Oak-leaved Hydrangea.
That's the name my father used for a certain aggravating grass that's thick here and there in and around my garden right now. It's AGROSTIS HYEMALIS, and it's aggravating because of its very diffuse clusters of flowers -- its inflorescences. The grass body is a small thing consisting of blades mostly less than two inches long (5 cm). The flower clusters, or spikelets, are only about 1/16th inch long (1.7 mm), but they're arrayed at the ends of long, extremely slender stalks, or pedicels. The plant's inflorescences, a thousand times lighter and airier than a heap of cotton candy, average about a foot long and nearly as broad. You can see a drawing of it at http://spuds.agron.ksu.edu/ksgrasskey/images/Agrostishyemalis.htm
When you walk through a patch of these inflorescences, they accumulate around your ankles so that before long it's as if your feet were balled up like the roots of a garden center's fruit trees. If you're wearing trousers, the scratchy inflorescences insinuate themselves between your leg and the pants, and each step you take "crawl" upward, thus my father's name for the grass.
Other names include Hair Grass, Tickle Grass and Fly-away Grass. That last name is especially appropriate because the inflorescences are so light that when a good breeze comes along the whole flowering structure breaks from the grass's stem, rolls across the ground like a tumbleweed or, if the wind is stiff enough, lifts into the air and flies away. On windy days I've seen them sailing high in the sky, and sometimes when the wind calms down there's a steady rain of falling Crawlgrass inflorescences. Of course, this tumbling and flying constitutes a wonderful mechanism for disseminating seeds, so it all makes sense.
NO CICADAS HERE
Lately the hits at my nature site have soared to record numbers. I'd expected a drop-off these days because schools are letting out, and students use my pages more than anyone. When I analyzed my site statistics I found that one thing is responsible for the site's unexpected popularity: cicadas.
On the US East Coast for the last couple of weeks "Brood Ten" of the seventeen-year periodical cicada has been emerging. In places trees, bushes and everything else have been covered with newly emerged cicada nymphs and their discarded shells, or exoskeletons. Backyards have been awash with the loud droanings of male cicadas calling for mates. It's all been an enormous media event there, though here so far this year I haven't heard a single cicada calling.
J. A. Pyle in Beltsville, Maryland sent me some pictures of cicada nymphs climbing a Red Maple in his backyard, plus a fine shot of an adult cicada emerging from its nymphal exoskeleton. If you'd like to see these and some of my own shots from an earlier emergence that took place here, go to www.backyardnature.net/metamorf.htm
The very first sentence in the very first Natchez Naturalist Newsletter, dated June 10, 2001, was this: "This last week the periodical cicadas fell from the trees."
We had our last major outbreak of periodical cicadas here in May and June of 2001. In fact, experiencing that dramatic explosion of life was very much behind why I began this newsletter. I'd been so impressed by the outbreak that I'd regretted having no one to tell about it.
It's not surprising that such an outbreak is occurring on the East Coast while here we have nothing. Different species are involved. Moreover, the Northeast's periodical cicadas are on a 17-year cycle while ours are on a 13-year one. Even if no periodical cicadas happen to emerge here this year, I know I'll eventually hear cicadas, for annual cicadas, happily, are on a one-year cycle. They're the "dog-days cicadas," and they'll be coming along directly.
ON THE PLEASURES OF LEAVING ANIMALS ALONE
On Wednesday morning while preparing breakfast, an adult bluebird arrived with a new fledgling. Their nestbox lies across a wide field so I wondered why the parent would bring the young bird to perch on the solar cooker not ten feet from me. While the fledgling perched there, the parent flew around catching bugs and bringing them to the big-eyed youngster.
In a similar vein, earlier I put up a nice box for the resident Carolina Wrens, but instead of using my box, which was at the barn's edge, they chose a little covey-hole not far above the entrance to the room where I do my computering. It was as if they wanted to be near me. Now the wrens' first brood is raised and they've established their second nest in a box of nails in the tool room across from where I work. Sometimes as I work, a wren hops into my room and just looks at me.
Even the Green Anoles, skinks and Fence Lizards seem to regard me as perfectly harmless, maybe even as a desirable companion. This means that if I'm not careful I'll step on them, for often they won't get out of my way as I walk toward them. A certain large Fence Lizard likes to sun on a post right at the barn's door and doesn't move when I pass just inches from him. At dusk, rabbits wander around right outside my door, Bobwhites visit my garden, and deer stand in the field gawking at me.
I had the same thing at my previous location. Early readers of this Newsletter will recall the bats and Chimney Swifts in the well beneath my outside-kitchen roof (I have bats here, too), and how Prothonotary Warblers nested in the kitchen's hollow bamboo stems.
It's clear that if we leave animals alone, they are willing, sometimes even eager, to coexist with us. In doing so they enrich our lives. I'd much rather be part of a community with my wild animals, than to have a dog to bark at them, or a cat that would eat them.
EVOLVING, COALESCING SOCIAL CONSCIOUSNESS
This week I received a book from Newsletter subscriber Margaret Gee in Australia. Margaret was the book's editor. The book is a collection of thoughts, feelings and philosophies from celebrities and ordinary people worldwide.
In the book, writer Jeffrey Masson tells how he has discovered that many animals appear to have access to certain deep feelings, and that to him those emotions are pure and intense. Dan Millman, former world trampoline champion, says that the four purposes of life are: to learn; to serve; to mature, and; to live moment-to-moment. Author Naomi Wolf recalls the Buddhist saying that everyone we meet is, in his or her own way, "fighting a mighty battle."
Receiving the book was special not only because it was a gift from a stranger on the opposite side of the Earth, but also because it was an example of something that must happen if we are to stop destroying the Earth and its living things. What happened was that Margaret recognized the beauty and worth of diverse honest insights. Her recognition was itself an insight, so she became part of the insight network. She shared her insight with me, so I became part of it, too. Now I share them with you, and you become part of it.
The problem is that the world is full of people claiming to have insights. George Bush's insight is that America must make war in Iraq and, as our social networks decay, reduce taxes for the rich.
The beauty of insights, however, is that the Creator has set within each of us a bit of elemental wisdom harmonizing with the whole manner in which the Universe is structured. This is why it's necessary for us to stay sensitized to nature's paradigms -- the Nature-Bible. Above, when you read that the feelings of animals are pure and intense, that we must keep learning and to serve others, and that we are all fighting our own mighty battles, didn't the elemental bit of wisdom inside you glow and sing a soft song, letting you know that what was said was true?
In contrast, when false doctrines are expressed -- even if one's unrestrained hungers and addictions require paying lip-service to them -- one feels a shameful turning-away inside. The elemental bit of wisdom inside each of us dampens in the presence of dishonesty and ignorance, and we can feel that.
With communications so easy nowadays, we can share our insights quicker and easier than ever before. The elemental bit of wisdom inside each of us now connects along threads of mutual recognition in cyberspace and elsewhere with other elemental bits of wisdom crystallizing in amazing places worldwide, causing a whole new protective fabric of social consciousness to coalesce and evolve.
Maybe, after all, we shall be able to stop ourselves from destroying Life on Earth.