from the woods near Natchez, Mississippi, USA
August 29, 2004
THE BIRDS OF AUGUST
Most of the bird world is very quiet now. On muggy Tuesday morning I took a walk paying special attention to the matter, and it was clear that many birds who were here all summer now are absent and nearly all the rest have fallen silent.
That's not the case with everyone, of course. With thousands of Cypress Vine blossoms and other morning glory flowers gracing my garden fences, the hummingbirds make a continual circus -- not only taking nectar but also chasing one another. The other day I saw one performing a classic flight display, flying broad Us in the air, just the way males do to impress females in the spring. But this time there were no females to be courted, just a silly male feeling his oats before heading south for the cold months.
Crows call all year, especially at dawn. Every day a certain Red-headed Woodpecker makes his rounds flying from tree-top to tree-top, harshly kwrrrrking and accompanied by his kid, one with a brown head, not the Red-headed's splendid red. Occasionally a Blue Jay screams deep in the woods, and every day I see Mourning Doves streaking low overhead as if rushing in a straight line to work, their wings whistling sharply through the air.
During my walk sometimes I heard a Carolina Wren briefly complain about something, but not nearly as vociferously as usual. Deep inside a shadowy thicket of Winged Sumac a mere silhouette of a Catbird silently shifted from branch to branch. Here and there in the broomsedge a sparrow's solitary peep arose, and I heard single notes from Bobwhites running through the grass, but, really, there wasn't much more than that.
For one thing, a lot of birds are molting now. They don't look so good, plus they can't fly as well as they usually can, and they won't be able to until strong new primaries stiffen their wings. The lower the profile molting birds can keep, the better. Also there's the matter that breeding and nesting is simply finished for the year, so what's there really to do other than quietly eat and store up fat for the winter, and draw as little attention to yourself as possible?
Many species at this time of year get the flocking urge and my impression is that those flocks have chosen somewhere to be other than here.
So, the forests and fields are eerily quiet in terms of birdsong. However, insects are doing their best to fill the void.
A. C. BENT'S BIRD HISTORIES
When I was growing up in Kentucky if someone in the family asked me what I'd like for Christmas or a birthday usually I had a list of books ready to hand them. Over the years with that strategy I managed to acquire nearly all of Arthur C. Bent's "Life Histories of North American Birds" -- twenty-one volumes published between 1919 and 1968. For me there was hardly any more enjoyable reading.
Each book provided all kinds of information about each North American species. Many birding experts contributed their observations from all across North America, so there was a variety of writing styles, much local color, and every word reflected old-time enthusiasm and admiration for the bird species being considered. Most of the writings were from the early 1900s so often you felt as if you were at the feet of old masters.
Part of that magnificent series is now freely available on the Internet. If you'd like to read a great deal about any common North American bird, you can't do much better than go to this site. For example, when I took the birding walk mentioned above and began wondering what my newly absent bluebirds were up to, I went to Bent's Eastern Bluebird page and found the following, just one gracious paragraph among several touching on the Eastern Bluebird's fall behavior:
"In flight bluebirds are very charming at this time of year; a leisurely flip of the wing carries them along silently with just enough momentum to keep them afloat in the air, and they often sail for a long way, drifting along with open wings... We shall see few more bluebirds before winter comes. This little company is already on its way south, yet they seem in no hurry to leave New England. How leisurely the bluebirds are as they flit about in fall!"
This site worthy of being bookmarked is found at http://birdsbybent.com/index.html
OCTOPUS IN A CUP
For the second time this year my evening was interrupted by a pickup-truck's horn and once again it was my neighbor Karen, this time with hubby Jack, and once again she was holding something in a container she just couldn't wait to show me.
"It's an octopus!" she cried, and when I held the MacDonald's Coke cup with the thing in it up to the truck's headlights and looked inside I had to agree that it looked just like a thumbnail-size, brown, fuzzy octopus with curled, stubby, tentacles. "It was sticking to the side of the truck and we just had to bring it out here!"
You can see the exact little critter at www.backyardnature.net/pix/monkslug.jpg
This time Karen's discovery really stumped me at first. But then I remembered to look at nature systematically, so I set about analyzing the thing as if my mind were an identification key. I pried the creature loose from the cup's wall and saw that beneath its "tentacles" there arose little legs and a head just like a caterpillar's. Therefore, the "tentacles" were just distracting lobes of flesh atop a caterpillar's back.
It was a member of the butterfly/moth order, for that's where true caterpillars occur. So, which family of butterfly or moth was it? Well, noting the caterpillar's sharp, stiff hairs, the sluggish way it moved, and the way its feet stuck to smooth surfaces, the most similar thing I'd seen was the Saddleback Caterpillar I told you about in this year's July 4th Newsletter -- the very species Karen came with the last time!
On the Internet I did a Google image-search using the key word "Limacodidae," which, according to my old Peterson field guide, is the name of the family of the Saddleback Caterpillar. After viewing about a hundred thumbnail photos summoned by Google, finally there it was:
The caterpillar goes by the name of "Monkey Slug," and it's the larva of the very drab-looking Hag Moth, PHOBETRON PITHECIUM. One web site calls the Monkey Slug the "most distinctive caterpillar in eastern North America." I'm not sure it's the most distinctive, but I'd go along with its being the weirdest-looking.
The main thing this identification exercise shows is the incredible tool the Internet has become for backyard naturalists. Monkey Slugs are apparently too rare to be illustrated in any of my books, but Google eventually managed to pull up an image. All I needed was a little help from my dog-eared field guide and an educated guess of the insect's family name.
BUILDING FRUIT DEHYDRATORS
After reading last week's notes about my dehydrating pears on my satellite-TV-dish solar cooker, Anita in Oregon wrote telling me about another dehydrator design she'd picked up at a fair once attended in Spencer, Iowa.
On the Internet I've found a good diagram and instructions for what looks like Anita's dehydrator, at www.i4at.org/surv/soldehyd.htm
The diagram at the above site doesn't show the hole in the box's lower back, needed for the inflowing hot air to escape. Also, Anita's plan uses trays made from screen and wood, which the diagram doesn't show.
When I arrived here over a year ago grapevines covered about a third of the barn, growing over it as if the barn were nothing but a big log. Grapevines, under certain conditions, in terms of pure rankness and vigor, can out-Kudzu Kudzu.
I cleared away 90% of the vines but left some climbing into the Sweetgum trees at the barn's edge. Quickly the vines reached the Sweetgums' crowns and now they cascade over the trees' sides and dangle freely, and elegantly, beneath them. Now I can step right from my late-afternoon cooling session in the bathtub beneath the barn's eaves, and pluck wild grapes.
Usually I don't bother. Though the grapes are borne in handsome clusters of 35, 50 or more, the grapes themselves are only pea-size, and surely 95% of their interiors are filled with seeds. Only something like a hungry bird or raccoon would be attracted to them. Such creatures do eat them, however, for as soon as the grapes ripen most disappear. Lately I've seen a Mockingbird silently taking a few.
When I refer to grapevines, I'm meaning the woody, high-climbing vines of the genus VITIS of the Grape Family, the VITACEAE. In the US Southeast we have about ten species, depending on how you count them. The one offering itself next to my bathtub appears to be the Frost Grape, VITIS VULPINA. I say "appears to be" because the specialists haven't quite figured out the grapevines yet. Sometimes you just can't put a name on something with certainty. Nature doesn't feel the least compelled to always fit Her organisms into mankind's little pigeonholes, though usually she does a good job at it. Anyway, by early November my Frost Grapes -- if the Mockingbird leaves any -- will have dehydrated and become wrinkled, gummy, and sublimely sweet.
Walking through the woods right now you often find large woody grapevines draped over lower branches and trees, and issuing tough, rusty-red, spaghetti-size, branching aerial roots dangling toward the ground. Few roots reach the ground so they just hang there like much-shredded curtains, giving the forest a jungly feeling. These aerial roots belong to Muscadine grapevines, VITIS ROTUNDIFOLIA. Usually in late July and early August you find big, juicy Muscadine grapes fallen onto the forest floor, but I haven't seen many this year.
In southwestern Mississippi we have about half a dozen grapevine species. Each has its own season and kind of grape, and each species is important and noble in its own way.
Monday morning after my dawn jog, with my breakfast campfire flickering beneath the cornbread skillet and my mug filled with steamy peppermint tea, I sat down on a bucket next to the fire for the day's first moment of peace and there before me, unnoticed until that very moment, appeared one of the prettiest scenes I've beheld for a long time.
Since early spring I've been letting morning-glory vines twine up through a 40-foot length of chicken- wire deer-fence on one side of my nearest garden -- despite the tongue-in-cheek remark of a local fellow who dropped by one day to leave some pears that, "Jim, around here we call those things weeds and we pull them out." Now the fence is a green wall, a bit diffuse low down but so densely tangled at the top that you can't see through it.
Three members of the Morning Glory Family grow there. The vine on the right, a horticultural species, produced 15 three-inch-wide, deep-violet blossoms. On the left massed dozens of frilly-leaved Cypress Vines bearing hundreds if not thousands of scarlet, hummingbird-loved blossoms. And then, in the center, rising like a green ocean wave breaking over the fence with clouds of pale pink butterflies as froth, was IPOMOEA HEDERACEA, its blossoms 1.5 inches wide. There were 278 pale pink blossoms -- over twice that many later in the week! This species is often called Ivy- leafed Morning-glory, and it truly is a weed. It came up there with no encouragement from me, but no discouragement, either. This centerpiece of my gardening masterpiece was completely free, and unexpected. You can see this vine, showing a blue- flowered race instead of my pale-pink-flowered one, at www.missouriplants.com/Bluealt/Ipomoea_hederacea_page.html
All during breakfast I couldn't take my eyes from the perfection constituted of the vines' dew-wet, green leaves with their mingling of intensely deep-violet, pale-pink and scarlet blossoms. When the hummingbirds and bees and butterflies all came to sup in them, I could think of only one thing to do:
"Thanks, Creator," was my prayer.
ON LIVING GRACEFULLY
If I were less secure about my manner of living I might seek assurance from the outside world that I am not completely loony because of my enthusiasm for such things as three kinds of morning-glory vine mingling on a garden fence. If I were to seek that assurance, I might find it by recalling one of the most highly developed, sophisticated cultures humanity has ever produced -- that of Japan centuries ago. No culture has surpassed that one in terms of producing exquisite art, from literature and painting to stoneware and textiles.
The standard against which the ancient Japanese judged the grace and perfection of all things was, in full agreement with my own notions, nature.
On the Internet I have found a fine little book by Boyé Lafayette De Mente called "Japanese Secrets of Graceful Living." Accompanied by several woodcuts, the whole thing can be read in about half an hour. It's in PDF format and can be downloaded at www.japantravelbooks.com/GRACEFUL%20LIVING%20(WP).pdf
To read PDF documents you must have Adobe Acrobat installed. You can download a free copy of that at www.adobe.com/products/acrobat/readstep2.html
Here is a sample from the book, incidentally apropos of last week's thoughts on the sounds of insects:
The purpose of the insect-hearing ceremony was to exercise man's feeling of affinity with nature and renew his spirit of being. If the Westerner will reflect for a moment he may recall short periods in the past when the sudden sound of a bird or insect on an otherwise quiet summery day would invoke such a feeling of poignant tranquility and well-being that he almost cried out with the joy of being alive. The Japanese deliberately seek this experience for prolonged periods."
If I were to seek support for the idea that a garden fence weedily overgrown with three kinds of morning glory on a certain dewy morning might be worthy of the profound admiration with which I regarded it, maybe I could find it in this quote from that little book:
"... it is not surprising to find that there are no commonly known foundations for recognizing and appreciating beauty in the West. In Japan, on the other hand, the main threads of the cultural fabric are pure aesthetics. ... Their model and standard for beauty is that which is natural or suggested by nature even including what most Westerners would generally describe as ugly."
I personally could not have survived ancient Japanese society. I would have rebelled against the interminable, mindless rituals and the unquestioning yielding to authority. Still, there is much to be said for a society focusing on "graceful living" instead of gross consumption and other forms of destructive self indulgence. I do believe that the ancient Japanese might have shared my reverence for three mingled morning-glory vines on a garden fence.