JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER
Issued from the woods near Natchez, Mississippi, USA

October 6, 2006

WALKING TO PIPES LAKE
In Homochitto National Forest there's a little lake, Pipes Lake, I've camped at in the past, about 15 miles southeast of here. Last Saturday morning I set off walking to it. Of course my friends offered to drive me, and I could have ridden my mountain bike, but I just wanted to walk, carrying my camping gear in my backpack. You see and feel things differently when you walk, experience an entirely different, richer, more peaceful world.

For example, if I hadn't been walking, I doubt that I'd have noticed the large numbers of Indigo Buntings busying themselves that day in weedy fields along my route. They were migrants, for Indigo Buntings are strictly summer visitors in North America. Though, you may recall that during last year's Christmas bird-walk at San Juan in the Yucatan I saw "five of them, chubby, brown and nervous like sparrows in tall grass, the males looking like they're breaking out in blue measles." This week, a typical migrating group consisted of 20-30 birds, most of them all brown, but with an occasional blue-spotted or even all-blue one. All summer I've been seeing them steadfastly perching each day lustily singing their stay-out-of-my- territory songs, but now they're just the opposite, nervous and slinky, just wanting to eat and eat and eat, and continue on southward as quietly as possible.

Though here we're about 500 miles farther south than Polly's Bend in central Kentucky, and Polly's Bend has been feeling fallish for weeks, here it LOOKS more like autumn than up there. That's because up there the summer has been relatively cool and moist, so plants have remained uncommonly lush and green. Up there you might see a few orange-red Virginia Creeper or Poison Ivy leaves inside shadowy trees, but that's all. Here, forests are definitely yellowing, and certain trees -- particularly the Sweetgums, Blackgums and Sourwoods -- are producing broad sprays of scarlet, orange and yellow leaves. A few leaves already are falling, less, I think, because it's so late, than because of hot, dry weather.

If I'd not walked, I might not have noticed that now many trees are loaded with fruits. Acorns, hickory nuts, pecans and walnuts are 80-90% mature, mostly still green, but about to reach full size. Devil's- walking-sticks bow beneath bushel-basket-size clusters of pea-size, glossy, purple-black fruits, and the Blackgums, or Tupelos, and grapevines bear glossy fruits of the same color. On Roughleaf Dogwoods there are pea-sized, white fruits with black dots, like old- time dolls'-eyes, and on Flowering Dogwoods there are yellow and orange fruits soon to be glossy and red.

About three weeks ago a Newsletter reader in Vermont wrote saying that her goldenrods had reached their peaks weeks earlier. She'd mentioned this because I'd written that our Kentucky goldenrods were just coming online. Down here goldenrods are where the Kentucky ones were two or three weeks ago. It's clear these goldenrods need time for their flowers to make fruits before the frosts begin, so it makes sense that Vermont goldenrods would flower long before our southern ones.

And maybe if I'd not walked I wouldn't even have noticed that in the mornings some birds are breaking out in song just as if it were spring and courtship time were about to begin. Sometimes the Mockingbirds are just glorious, and the White-eyed Vireos and Hooded Warblers... It's been shown that the photoperiod is causing this -- the relative lengths or shortnesses of days and nights. Right now the days are about the same length as in spring when birds are supposed to sing, so the birds' poor little gonads are swelling, secreting hormones, and the birds just have to sing. Sometimes House Sparrows even build nests at this time of year, though, if they could just think about it, they'd know they're not going to need a nest before the cold weather sets in.

And if I'd driven or ridden up to Pipes Lake and not walked, maybe I wouldn't have seen the four juvenile alligators swimming around like air-gulping catfish with their goggly, above-water frog-eyes.

Walking, walking, walking, these kinds of observations and thoughts wrapping around me like a gentle cocoon, and how glad I was that after 59 years my good old legs can still get me from Point A to Point B.

*****

SHARP-SHINNED HAWKS MIGRATING
All summer up in Kentucky I've been seeing a Sharp- shinned Hawk zoom through the neighborhood from time to time, often very close to the ground and sometimes perching in the old Blacklocust snag where in late summer juvenile Purple Martins stretched and preened. Now I'm seeing Sharp-shinneds down here, too, though during past summers in the Natchez area I never saw them. It all makes sense because in central Kentucky Sharp-shinned Hawks are found year-round, but down here they're just winter visitors. The ones I'm seeing now down here have just arrived for the winter. You can see a map showing the bird's seasonal presence here.

Sharp-shinned Hawks are fairly easy to identify because they are so small. Our only other commonly seen raptor of similar size is the Kestrel, or Sparrow Hawk. Both birds have approximately the same wingspread, about 21 inches. However, Kestrels are falcons with slender, pointed wings while Sharp- shinned Hawks are accipiters with short, rounded ones. Sharp-shinned Hawks look very much like Cooper's Hawks, but the Cooper's wingspread is about 28 inches. The smaller hawk flies in much smaller circles and is much more buoyant than the larger. Sharp-shinneds fly almost like model airplanes with high-performance engines.

Sharp-shinned Hawks are bird-eaters. Maybe 90-97% of their food consists of birds ranging in size from warblers to American Robins. Cornell University's page on the species provides a picture plus a lot of life- cycle information on the species at http://www.birds.cornell.edu/bfl/speciesaccts/shshaw.html.

*****

GOLDEN SILK SPIDER INVASION
In my September 1, 2002 Newsletter I wrote "I've encountered about ten webs of one of the most striking spiders we have here. It's the Golden Silk Spider, NEPHILA CLAVIPES, a species native throughout the American tropics and subtropics from Argentina and Peru north to the southeastern US. From the tip of its hind legs to the tip of its front legs it's about 3.75 inches long (9.5 cm). Besides its large size, the two striking things about its appearance are its yellowish, prettily patterned rear end (its abdomen), and the conspicuous tufts of long, black hairs at the 'elbows' on its eight legs."

You can see my picture of a Golden-silk Spider at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/06/061006a.jpg.

So, Golden Silk Spiders have been in this area for a while, but in 2002 I considered finding ten of their webs something special. Thing is, in the countryside I've walked through the last few days I've seen hundreds of them, if not thousands. I'm not alone in thinking that not long ago they were rare or absent, but now they're abundant. Karen says she often sees numerous webs side by side among overhead power lines. "If they'd been here years ago, I'm sure I'd remember something spectacular as that!" she says.

They do indeed place several webs together, with one, two or more spiders in each web. The second spider is usually the much smaller male, and if there's a third spider it may be a "kleptoparasitic" species -- one living on food collected in the web that's been discarded, overlooked or ignored by the larger spider.

The Golden Silk Spider's web silk is indeed golden colored, plus it's stronger than the silk of any web I've encountered in the US. It can certainly ensnare dragonflies and I wouldn't be surprised to find a hummingbird in a web someday. These spiders are larger and more robust-looking than the somewhat similar Garden Spider, or Argiope. In fact, it might be the largest orb-weaving spider in the US. Several times during my walk I saw webs stretched from tree to tree high across two-laned paved roads.

Since this is a mostly tropical or subtropical species it displays some interesting adaptations for dealing with strong sunlight. Its dominant pale yellow and white coloration help reflect sunlight, plus in the picture notice its abdomen's long, cylindrical shape. In bright sunlight it can point its abdomen toward the sun, thus drastically reducing the abdomen's surface area exposed to sunlight.

Is this Golden Silk Spider population explosion yet another indication of global warming -- of the tropics moving northward?

You can read a lot more about Golden Silk Spiders at http://creatures.ifas.ufl.edu/misc/golden_silk_spider.htm.

*****

JAPANESE CLIMBING FERNS ON THE MARCH
I have the same question with regard to Japanese Climbing Ferns, LYGODIUM JAPONICUM. They've been here for some years, but my impression is that their numbers now are drastically increasing.

You can see a roadcut passed by during my walk practically overgrown with Japanese Climbing Fern at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/06/061006b.jpg.

In that picture, for scale, notice the goldenrods and no-trespassing sign at the top.

You can see a close-up of the much-dissected frond at http://www.backyardnature.net/pix/fernjapc.jpg.

Japanese Climbing Ferns are an invasive species introduced from eastern Asia and Australia. If you view the above roadcut picture you'll have no trouble accepting that it can smother out native ground cover and tree seedlings.

Still, it's a fascinating plant. First, it is indeed a vine, and you know that ferns aren't generally vines. Second, as I wrote in my February 23rd, 2003 Newsletter, "its anatomy is simply outrageous. What looks like the vine's wiry stem is actually a single climbing, freely branching, leaf (frond) as much as 100 feet long (30 m). What appears to be fronds arising from the stem are actually subdivisions of a single super-long frond."

*****

KAREN'S PETRIFIED WOOD
One of my friend Karen's hobbies is exploring the gravel-bedded, deep, steep-walled ravines so common in this area. Mainly she likes to look for things in the gravel. Over the years she's accumulated hundreds of pounds of odd or pretty pebbles, Native American artifacts and fossils.

Among the most impressive of her fossil discoveries are various kinds of petrified wood. You can see a selection of her finds I photographed this week at http://www.backyardnature.net/g/petrwood.jpg.

In that image the largest chunk is a bit larger than a hand with outspread fingers. Notice the woods' range of colors and textures.

There's a page focusing on "Louisiana Petrified Wood," describing how wood becomes petrified, at http://www.intersurf.com/~chalcedony/Petwood.html.

A page describing the kinds of fossils that can be found in this area's gravel deposits can be accessed at http://www.intersurf.com/~chalcedony/gravel1.html.

You might enjoy looking at fossils collected by Lonnie and Freida Looper of Greenville, Mississippi, mostly on sand and gravel bars of the Mississippi River near Greenville, on my own page at http://www.backyardnature.net/loess/fossils.htm.

*****

A GIANT PUFFBALL
About a week before I left Polly's Bend in central Kentucky some friends from Oregon came for a visit. We took a walk through the secondary woods behind the old farmhouse in which I was staying and we came upon a Giant Puffball, CALVATIA GIGANTEA, which was about a foot across and pure white. One of my visitors, Christie, carried a digital camera. The image she took finally has made its way to me, so you can see it at http://www.backyardnature.net/f/puffbal2.jpg.

You'll see from the hand next to this puffball that this is a pretty substantial item. Though this one is about as large as any I've encountered in the wild, I've seen pictures of them much larger. It's not terribly uncommon for them to reach 18 inches across, and I've read reports of their growing to three feet and weighing 47 pounds.

An aggravating feature of our finding this mushroom was that it is considered "choice" in terms of edibility. If you find a big one and don't want to collect the whole thing you can even slice off what you need, the puffball stops growing but doesn't begin decaying or going bad, and you can keep slicing meals off it until you've had all you want!

What's aggravating is that we found this puffball fairly soon after I'd been poisoned by that Green-spored Parasol, and just thinking of eating another mushroom, even one definitely highly edible, tied my stomach in a knot. I let the puffball alone and suppose it grew even larger before its deliciously soft, dry interior -- its "spore mass" or "gleba" -- dried into inedible, powdery spores that escaped through its shattered walls.

In fact, all North American puffballs are considered edible, with the possible exception of one species, which produces a purple spore mass when young. Just don't eat any puffball whose spore mass isn't white and soft feeling.

Some poisonous mushrooms, such as the deadly amanitas, pass through an early "button stage," when they can look like puffballs. However, when such buttons are cut in half they reveal a typical mushroom shape inside, so that you know you don't have a real puffball.

*****

I HAVE A DIGITAL CAMERA
Jerry, the Mississippi nature-photographer with whom I traveled from Polly's Bend to Jackson last week, has generously given me a digital camera he wasn't using, one perfectly good for general snapshots. If I can manage to get it to my wintering grounds my upcoming Newsletters should be better illustrated than in the past. Thanks so much to Jerry!

*****

WALKING AS THERAPY
It just may be that there is no free, all-purpose therapy for bruised souls and/or neglected or abused bodies as effective and pleasurable as walking.

One thing about walking is that once you're into it you discover all kinds of conversations going on inside your head -- pent-up talks that should have been, or were and shouldn't have been, that might have been, that may be someday... Mostly rubbish that, once it's articulated inside your head, is easier to get rid of than if you just let it keep simmering unattended. The first good thing a long walk does for you, then, is to let you spew off stuff that's been building up inside. Since I'd had such a fine summer and no problems worth mentioning, I was surprised that even I had a bit of spewing to do, and now that it's taken care of, I feel even better than the good way I felt before!

I hiked my first ten miles before noticing that I'd grown hungry and thirsty, and that it was time for a rest. It was about 2 PM and the temperature was in the mid 80s, there was a bright blue sky with skin- tingling sunlight and a nice breeze carried a slight scent of rain across the pastures and fields and through the woodlots I'd been passing by. I sat in the shade of a big Water Oak next to a small church's cemetery and brought out my cornbread, a melted gob of Mexican-style Velveeta cheese, and some hard, green pears I'd brought down from Polly's Bend, and, to tell the truth, I don't think anything could have tasted better right then, right there. Even the water from the gallon vinegar jug slung on my backpack tasted sweet and sparkling. Good walks make food taste so good that that's enough reason in itself to take walks.

By the second and third day of my walk, which covered maybe 40 miles of backcountry, largely national-forest roads, my brain spewing was over, my body was on auto- pilot, and I could just lean back, back behind my eyeballs, and watch the country pass by as I cogitated on higher things.

In fact, once again I worked out the whole reasoning process behind my belief that living things are alive so that we can FEEL and EXPLORE the world the Creator has created, so the Creator can know better Herself what she's done, know the value of what she's created. And I confirmed once again the deduction that the best thing we living things can do with our time is just to live, to feel things exquisitely, and to struggle as hard as possible to know about the world around us, to be the most sensitive, alert nerve-endings achievable for the self-searching Creator.

Anyway, it was a fine walk. I think the body needs to be stressed from time to time, so I also got that done. I feel good knowing that my old body can still lug a heavy backpack for 40 miles. I'm glad I got some spewing done and that I've re-thought-out some of my basic beliefs.

How much is such an experience worth? Basically it only cost me wear and tear on my shoes and backpack, and the price of a package of Mexican-style Velveeta Cheese, which I'd bought just for the walk.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim

All previous Newsletters are archived at www.backyardnature.net/n/.

Visit Jim's backyard nature site at www.backyardnature.net