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

July 4, 2004

PAINFULLY PRETTY
Late Wednesday as the afternoon storm rained itself out I heard a car-horn tooting and here came my neighbor Karen slipping and sliding through the mud. She carried a shoebox and wore a flustered expression. While mowing beneath a pear tree she'd brushed against some low-hanging limbs and something had stung her. Now her aching arm bore large, red wheals, her mouth had a cottony feeling and maybe she was even getting dizzy. The culprit was in the shoebox and she wanted to know what it was.

I knew the villain at first glimpse, for back in the 70s one day I'd brushed beneath an apple tree in Kentucky, got stung the same way, and once you undergo that experience you're not likely to forget the perpetrator. Boldly marked with a broad, dayglow-green design outlined in white on a dark brown body, and absolutely bristling with sharp hairs, it was a Saddleback Caterpillar, SIBINE STIMULEA, a member of the Slug Caterpillar family of moths, the Limacodidae. You can see my scanning of this very pretty insect larva at www.backyardnature.net/pix/saddleb7.jpg

Saddleback Caterpillars are fairly common at forest edges, in orchards and in vegetable gardens throughout most of the eastern US. Their hairs are like hypodermic needles that can inject poison into one's skin. The irritation can last for a day or two and might be accompanied by nausea during the first few hours. Anyone getting stung should wash the affected area, then apply an ice pack to reduce swelling. Creams and lotions containing steroids lessen the pain. If you're particularly sensitive to insect stings you should get a doctor's advice.

If you view my picture, notice that one end of the caterpillar features two bright yellow spots. If a predator such as a bird isn't deterred by the stinging hairs and wants to disable the caterpillar by attacking its head, probably it'll be attracted to the end bearing the yellow spots. If that happens, it'll be the wrong end, for the spots are on the rear. Therefore this caterpillar not only has bright colors and bold markings to warn predators away, as well as all those stinging hairs, but also a "decoy head." This is one caterpillar that Mother Nature really wanted to survive!

*****

RIVER-OTTER PRINTS
Wandering along Sandy Creek I came upon tracks of the River Otter. At first I'd dismissed them as just more raccoon tracks, but then I noticed that the prints were distributed in clusters about 20 inches apart, indicating a long body that "dives" forward with it front feet, then arches its spine as the animal brings its rear paws up next to his front paws, and then launches forward again with its front paws to repeat the cycle. Raccoons usually but not always saunter in a roly-poly manner, leaving more evenly distributed tracks.

Also, a raccoon's toes are somewhat narrow, almost like a human's fingers, but the toes before me now were roundish. The clincher, though, was that I could barely make out a web on one of the feet. About the only other mammal around with webbing is the beaver, but that print almost looks like a duck's, and also has slender toes. You can see almost exactly what I saw, the rounded toes with a hint of webbing between them, at http://dirttime.ws/Photos/IM000285.jpg

The main help in identifying tracks is knowing which species are to be expected in your area. I doubt I could tell the difference between a River Otter track not showing the web and Wolverine tracks. However, the nearest wild Wolverines are in northern Ontario.

*****

COOTER
During my sandbar-walking along Sandy Creek I came upon a turtle just inches from the water's edge. With a low-slung shell about eight inches long (20 cm) her dark face and neck were ornamented with narrow, yellow stripes, and her shell bore an intricate pattern of dark yellow markings on a blackish background. I call her a "her" because her tail was kinked in a funny manner and her rear end appeared to be swollen. I had the distinct impression that she was in egg-laying mood, and I was sorry for having disturbed her.

She was a Cooter, also known as a Missouri Slider, PSEUDEMYS FLORIDANA HOYI, nicely shown at www.stetson.edu/~pmay/woodruff/coolay.jpg

If you view that picture, notice that in the middle of the top shell, or carapace, there's a long, vertical streak of yellow running from top to bottom, with a sort of backward-pointing hook at the top. That conspicuous yellow streak with its top hook is an important fieldmark for the species, the best way to distinguish it from Red-eared Turtles, the most abundant turtle species we have. Red-eared Turtles don't always have red "ears" and they don't have that bold, vertical, hooked, yellow stripe.

*****

COOTERS AND TALLYWHACKERS
That word "cooter" is a good one. If you Google it you'll be surprised how many males out there go by that name, and what they look like. The word has always been of special interest to me because as a small child on our Kentucky farm my parents taught me to call my little penis a cooter. That's what I called it until I reached about seven years of age, when my Uncle Hugh, a full year older than I, taught me that its real name was tallywacker.

Most online etymology sites claim that the word cooter is of African origin, the term "kuta" in the Bambara and Malinke languages signifying "turtle." However, there's an entry at www.etymonline.com pointing out that the base-word "coot" is "Apparently unrelated to an obsolete verb meaning 'to copulate' (1667), which is, however, the source of cooter (1835), name of a type of Southern U.S. turtle that is said to copulate for two weeks at a stretch."

That last reference, though biologically silly, rather interestingly intersects with my childhood penis. Did our English-speaking forbearers bring over this word only for it to go extinct in England while surviving in backwoods Kentucky?

The word tallywacker is just as interesting. The etymology sites I find claim that tallywacker is a slang word from the 1970s used in southeastern England. But we've seen that I learned the word from my uncle in Kentucky during the early 1950s. I think that maybe we have here a couple of words that have been lurking deep in English's belly for a long time, peeping out unexpectedly, just like cooters are liable to do.

*****

SWAMP RABBIT?
Once I realized that my Sandy Creek cooter might be engaged in laying eggs, I withdrew for a good distance and began watching her through binoculars. Before long I was astonished to see, just a few feet beyond the cooter, a large, brown rabbit who nonchalantly walked up to the water's edge, waded into the stream and then very expertly swam about 20 feet to the other side, keeping his head and back well above the water's surface. Reaching the other bank he emerged from the water and unhurriedly continued his travel as if the stream had been no more than a silvery streak on the ground.

Now, Cottontail Rabbits are very similar and I know they can swim when they need to. However, I've never seen or heard of one swimming unless there was an emergency. The rabbit I saw swimming Sandy Creek acted as if he had all the time in the world. I just bet that I saw a Swamp Rabbit, SYLVILAGUS AQUATICUS (Eastern Cottontails are Sylvilagus floridanus). Since Swamp Rabbits and cottontails are so similar and often occur together, I'm mainly basing my claim of probably having seen a Swamp Rabbit on a remark about the Swamp Rabbit at "The Mammals of Texas Website" that " ...it crosses rivers and streams on its own initiative, a habit usually not found in other rabbits in Texas."

Swamp Rabbits occupy swamps, marshes and wet bottomlands such as those alongside Sandy Creek where I was, and they are distributed from eastern Texas to Georgia, north to southern Indiana. You can see a picture of a Swamp Rabbit and read all about it at www.nsrl.ttu.edu/tmot1/sylvaqua.htm

The rabbit world includes a lot more than just the jackrabbits out West, our Eastern Cottontails and this Swamp Rabbit. In the East there are also the Marsh Rabbit and New England Cottontail, and out West there are several species such as Pygmy Rabbits, Brush Rabbits and Desert Cottontails. Still, when most of us in the East see a rabbit in our backyards, it's an Eastern Cottontail, and I'm just tickled to have seen, probably, a Swamp Rabbit crossing Sandy Creek.

*****

POISON IVY & VIRGINIA CREEPER
Jim in New York wrote me with this interesting question about Virginia Creepers and Poison Ivy:

"Some sites say that they share the same habitat and are found together and others say that one drives the other out. Do you have any good info on them? I don't recall seeing them growing together myself."

I'd never heard such a thing so the next morning when I went picking mushrooms I paid attention to the matter. From what I see here, the two species mingle indifferently. The ones I found were young vines and it's possible that if the two species compete with one another for many years in a single tree, eventually one will outcompete the other. In fact, there's an ecological rule that when two species compete for the same ecological niche, with time one will eventually dominate the other.

I wonder if anyone else out there has information about this? Don't confuse Virginia Creeper with Trumpet Creeper. Trumpet Creepers are vines currently flowering with large, orange blossoms, and with pinnately compound leaves. Virginia Creepers have tiny flowers and their leaves are digitally compound, with 3 or more leaflets joining at their bases like fingers (digits) on a hand.

*****

MEXICAN BIRDS #3
I'm really enjoying gathering the notes and drawings from my 1996 birding trip through Mexico. This week I've posted notes from my descent of the altiplano's western slope, a brief visit to the beach at Mazatlán, then over to a peak of the eastern Sierra Madres, and finally on a volcano hiking as high as 15,016 feet. You can access this material at www.backyardnature.net/mexbirds/index.htm

A lot of the notes concern matters other than birds. What follows is an entry that really brought back some memories, from a camp high in the Eastern Sierra Madres just east of San Luis PotosĂ­:

Dried-out cow pads strew the ground all around camp so I'm not surprised when right at dusk my descent into sleep is interrupted by snapping twigs and heavy footsteps. I ignore my visitor until deep-breathing sounds gravitate to right outside my tent door, and hot, clammy, grassy-odored breath fogs through the door's mosquito netting into my face. Very slowly I turn over and look outside. Not an arm's length away stands a bull with a massive head and horns as wide as my whole tent.

The bull stretches his long neck around and nibbles a bush with meaty, muscular lips and black, wet, phallic tongue. His flat-topped, green-stained teeth are the size of golfballs and his eating is accompanied by inordinate sounds of crunching, grinding, and swallowing. Sometimes he pulls up whole tufts of grass, dirt gets into nose and he snorts, shooting black gum and wet breath all over the tent. Then his left flank itches and he throws back his head, almost catching the tent on his horn, and he grunts and groans, scratching his itchy place with his left horn, and lets green spume-slobber dribble between his half- smiling lips.

He's a black bull with a white forehead and underparts and the brand seared onto his left hip is an 8 on its side, the "Lazy 8." His entire muzzle is black and his nostrils are wet and caked with filth. Though he's not a full-blood Brahma, his back rises into a hump, and dozens of inert flies ride this hump. When he chews, his lower jaw grinds crookedly and his black tongue lolls back and forth. His eyes are dull and stupid looking. A dewlap swings below his neck making flopping sounds when he shakes his head, and his heavy scrotum dangles between his back legs.

I roll onto my back, close my eyes, and just listen to the sloppy sounds, and inhale the powerful odors. In human life such displays of being alive are rare and I feel as honored to experience this one as disgusted.

*****

ME AND THE RUSSIAN REVOLUTION
I love this kind of weather. For weeks it's been so humid that morning haze and afternoon cloudiness have kept it cooler than if the sun had shined all the time, and if it does get very hot then you can bet that a storm will soon come up cooling things off. On the Internet if you watch the regional radar in the afternoons you'll see storms popping up all over like mushrooms. They're quick and violent, and then they're gone, and mostly they miss you. Hearing the thunder through the afternoons as the storms come and go is very satisfying. I'm getting deaf. Birdcalls and cricket sounds are drifting away from me, but I can hear that thunder all through my body.

Sometimes I take up my hoe or scythe and go work in mid afternoon heat, exactly when it's hardest to breathe and keep going. But I like feeling all that weather-power around me, to experience my body sweating and tingling with edgy just-surviving. When a little breeze comes along, the coolness rippling across my back and legs is one of the most pure, uncomplicated pleasures a human can enjoy. The other day I heard a Johnny Cash ballad in which he sang something like "I hurt myself just to see if I could still feel." That's not me, but Johnny and I are exploring similar corners of the human condition.

When I'm working and there's a storm brewing nearby, and from the corner of my eye I'm watching flashes in the slaty darkness to my side, sometimes I feel like I'm on a powerfully dramatic stage. Maybe I'm just a tall, balding hermit dressed less elegantly than some would like, but when I'm out there with the looming storm it's like being in the old classic movie Dr. Zhivago. For, maybe my dedication to sustainable living in a small way can be compared to the sacrifices of those nearly a century ago who worked and died for the Russian Revolution. The great storm rearing next to me is the Revolution itself with its flashing cannons and mindless destruction, and the heat and humidity in which the scene is cast accomplish the same poetic resonance as the cold and snow did for Dr. Zhivago.

How beautiful to work beneath a sky that's so heavy, dense and potentially dangerous, while silently within I'm harboring this unshakable dedication to something grander, as the great revolution comes, comes, comes...