Too Blue To Fly

As I greeted the rising moon before going to bed a few nights ago, I heard birdsong far off in the woods.  It triggered a distinct memory of sitting in a pickup truck on a red-dirt gravel road, late on a warm summer night. I was supposed to be snoozing while my Dad listened in vain for running foxhounds.  All I heard was the distant, rolling song of a whip-poor-will. 

A couple of nights later, the whip-poor-will’s repetitive cry had been supplanted by the closer and more staccato call of the Chuck-will’s-widow. 

Onomatopoetically-named, both the whip-poor-will and its larger cousin are member of a group of birds called nightjars (reportedly because their call at night is “jarring”).  As far back as ancient Greece, nightjars were called “goatsuckers” for the erroneous belief that they would sneak into barns and steal milk from the livestock.  An odd belief to be sure, but when one sees the small beak pop open to reveal a disproportionately large mouth, it might not be as far a stretch for an ancient pastoralist with a wild imagination. The myth may never be forgotten; the scientific Order of these birds, Caprimulgiformes, is from the Latin Caprimulgus, or “goat sucker”.

Nightjars don’t in fact drink milk.  Their diet consists of insects taken on the wing, supplemented with worms and other ground crawlies.  When swooping on a moth, the whip-poor-will’s deceptively minute beak snaps open, revealing a horror-show mouth that seems to split the bird’s skull wide.  Their maws are edged with whiskers that prompt the birds to snap their beaks shut when their prey brushes them.

Not that you are likely to see a nightjar.  From twilight until full dark – and longer if the moon cooperates – these birds haunt the woodlines and fields.  They are ground nesters, but with such complete camouflage that you are likely to pass right by the unassuming pile of leaves unless your light happens to catch the bright red reflection of their eyes.

Eastern whip-poor-wills lay their eggs in phase with the lunar cycle, so that they hatch, on average, 10 days before a full moon. Perhaps this allows them more hunting light to feed their chicks.

Folks have attached quite a bit of lore to the whip-poor-will.  To some, the monotonous call portended imminent death or approaching danger.  For others, it foretold marriage prospects.  Whip-poor-wills were nature spirits, ghosts of children, or the traveling form for shapeshifters.

Poets and singers laud or curse the calls, including Hank Williams: “Hear that lonesome whippoorwill/ he sounds too blue to fly. / The midnight train is whining low/ I’m so lonesome I could cry”

I’d be blue too if someone called me a goat sucker.

Such melancholy connotations are undeserved, as there is nothing mournful in the bird’s rapid flute-like tattoo.  I suspect all the feelings of sorrow and loneliness ascribed to these night birds are merely unhappy poets projecting their own misery onto unsuspecting avians.

 For many country folk, the distant lulling call is pleasant night music, while a nearby maddening shrilling banishes all hope of sleep.  However you perceive the songs of nightjars, you won’t hear them as frequently as in decades past.  We can probably lay the lion’s share of the blame for this on the alarming decline of insects over the last century. Less food means less night song.

 Last night, I heard the dueling calls of the nightjar cousins.  The whip-poor-will’s infinite loop swallowed up the Chuck-will’s-widow’s more discrete song, but with concentration I could just make out the larger bird’s contribution to the night sounds.  I hope I will never have a spring or summer without these two nightjars to accompany the evenings.

Additional Resources:

Whip-poor-will song

Chuck-will’s-widow song

Pages for the Eastern Whip-poor-will and Chuck-will’s-widow on the Cornell Lab’s All About Birds

Moon Rhythms 1: Why is a Month?

I committed a small paperwork error a couple of months ago.  Having neither looked at a paper calendar nor run through that old rhyme (you know, “Thirty days hath September…”), I scheduled a trip into the woods for a day when I should have been filling out timesheets.  No big deal.  But it did spur the question of why the months vary when the original astronomical timer – the lunar cycle – does not.

I quickly realized that the history of calendars is a rabbit hole I don’t wish to go too far down.  A couple of links led me to more queries, and more links.  Just going to the Wikipedia article on calendars showed a slew of hyperlinks waiting to keep me up until dawn.  But I’m not writing a book on the subject, so if I can provide enough information to whet your thirst for knowledge, that will suffice.

The lunar month, when measured from new moon to new moon, is around 29.5 days long (there are at least 4 other ways to measure a lunar month, but I think this is probably the most relevant for most people).  The cycle of moon phases as it waxes and wanes in the sky is both consistent and spans a useful length of time, making the cycle a natural point of reference for measuring time.  Not surprisingly, the word for “moon” and “month” are closely related or even identical in a number of language groups; in English, “month” derives from Old English monað, which is cognate to mōna, “moon.”

A lunar-based calendar has the benefit of being applicable to anybody with eyes—you see where you are in a cycle and know how long until you reach a different moon phase.  When measuring longer spans such as seasons or years, however, there are disparities.

The solar year…okay, there are a couple of different ways to measure this, too. You will likely be familiar with the Gregorian calendar – the modern western standard – which uses the tropical solar calendar.  By this measure, the solar year is roughly 365.24 days long.  Twelve lunar months fit within a solar year with 11 days to spare.  The discrepancy of a few days per year adds up, so that after a decade, a given lunar cycle in a 12-month year has crept into another season.  The lunar cycles and solar cycles take some 33 years to match up.

Natural cycles don’t care about conforming to our need for whole numbers. 

People across the world have developed different ways of organizing a year.  Going beyond the lunar calendar, we’ve developed several versions of a lunisolar calendar, which marries the lunar and solar timekeeping systems.  Months still follow the lunar cycle.  Generally speaking, some years have 12 months and others have 13. Determining when to apply these “leap months” requires some calculation to determine and a certain level of education to understand.   

Finally, the solar calendar follows the sun’s apparent cycle through the heavens with no concern for lunar position.  There are several, but the aforementioned Gregorian calendar should be most familiar to you. It still uses months, and the months are similar in length to a lunar month, but lunar cycles drift through our Gregorian months with no real connection.  Well, with one exception: Christian churches overlay a lunar algorithm to determine the dates of certain movable feasts – Easter chief among them.

 There are probably over a dozen calendars – solar, lunar, and lunisolar — in use today, and many, many more during the course of human history.  But I’d wager that the basis for each of them lay in one or both of our most prominent celestial bodies: the moon and the sun.

Lighter Wood

Lighter wood.  Fatwood.  Fat lighter’d.  Heart pine. The woodsman’s friend, a natural fire starter.  Burns hot, even when wet. 

What is it? 

There are a number of pine species under the umbrella of “southern yellow pine.”  They tend to be more resinous than other pines, and much more than most hardwoods.  This quality was of great value in the 18th-19th centuries and was used to produce oils, pitches, and resins for caulking planks and waterproofing ropes and canvas. So valuable were these products that they were termed “naval stores” and considered a strategic resource critical for maintaining ships of war in the Age of Sail. While wooden navies are a thing of the past, these pine-based compounds are still used in a variety of products from cleaning oils to varnish.

Log of solid fatwood

As pines grow, they add sapwood beneath the bark, expanding the girth of the tree.  The cells in the interior die, forming the heartwood of the tree.  In yellow pines, the heartwood is impregnated with the resin, making it very hard, rot-resistant, and highly flammable.  When a mature pine dies, the sapwood will decay over time, leaving the gray bones of the heartwood.  Often, the base of early limbs will remain as pine knots or “lighter knots.”  Slice open the scabrous surface, and you’ll see golds and reds of tree rings soaked in resin.  Smell the cut – that’s the scent of turpentine, and very distinctive.

Longleaf pine log– the darker wood is the heartwood

Here in Georgia, longleaf and slash pines were the best producers of lighter wood; they were largely found in the Coastal Plain.  In the Piedmont, shortleaf, while not as prolific of a sap producer, also creates fatwood.  And loblolly can now be found all over the state, although rarely is it left to grow long enough to develop lighter except in its stump.

Lighter log split into sticks

Fatwood burns hot — hot enough to set larger logs on fire.  That’s what makes it a prime kindling wood, even when damp. However, use it with caution and sparingly.  Shavings from a piece of lighter wood will be set alight by tinder and in turn burn other kindling. Larger pieces will light larger branches directly.  Fatwood is commercially available in small sticks, maybe ½” on a side.  You do not want to toss a large chunk on the fire.  You certainly don’t want to put large pieces in a wood stove – seriously, the intense heat could damage the stove.  Also, the pine resins exude thick, oily smoke when burned, so you don’t want to cook over a fire until all the lighter has burned away – unless you like using turpentine and soot for seasoning.

“Feathering” the wood to make it catch fire faster.

Lighter wood has been part of the fire kit since I was old enough to be trusted with matches.  But not everyone is familiar with it (otherwise, why would I write this?).  I’ll close out with a story from the time my Dad took some students on a field trip.  He asked one of them to find some lighter wood to start the fire.  The young man returned with an armload of punky old branches.  “Couldn’t you find any lighter wood?” he asked the student; newbie hefted the dry, rotten sticks and replied, “Well, I couldn’t find wood any lighter than this!”

Shortleaf stump

A Place for Fox, Hound, or Human Being

Development.  For some, the word promises increased opportunity and convenience – jobs at the new factory, or a new grocery store half the distance of the old one. For others, it signifies loss and an unwelcome change to the landscape. 

I grew up in a fairly rural area: a landscape of  pastures, cropfields, and pine plantations.  Great white oaks, red oaks, hickories and beeches mantled the hillsides and bottomlands where agriculture wasn’t practical. I know these forests were second-growth; most of the landscape was altered by land worked, paupered, and abandoned outside of living memory.  Small communities vanished over time, leaving fields to lie fallow and return to forest. Aerial photos attests that the woods I wandered in the 70’s and 80’s were open agricultural lands just a handful of decades prior.   Piles of bricks obscured by leaf mould, rusted wire curling off gnarled fenceposts, old wells capped by rotten boards, and fragments of barrels at forgotten still sites attest to homes and lives long vanished.

You may be familiar with the movie The Fox and the Hound.  In typical Disney fashion, the film has very little in common with the source material.  Written in the 1960s, the novel The Fox and the Hound illustrates the rise and eventual dominion of human development in a valley.  At the beginning of the novel, the valley contains quiet, bear-haunted woods, small farms, and a lone, empty highway.  As the story continues, the human population grows, fueling encroaching development in the story’s background. By novel’s end the forests are replaced by houses, motors have exiled the quiet, and the air is filled with the stench of factory smoke and diesel fumes.  The transformation is subtle and largely in the background, but in the final chapter the message comes to the fore. The heartbreaking book ends with the words, “…and in this miserable, fouled land there was no longer any place for fox, hound, or human being.”

A subdivision name or memorial to what was lost?

My own landscape’s change has been neither so rapid (the book encompasses the lifespan of an improbably venerable fox) nor so complete, but it is much altered from my childhood.  As a teen sitting in the deepest part of our woods on a cold November Saturday, I could guess if the university was playing a home game by the volume of traffic noise on the highway 1.5 miles away.  Traffic was barely audible most days, but pilgrims trekking to see the Bulldogs would raise the volume to a steady rumble.  The two-lane is now a four-lane, and the noise is both clear and constant regardless of the day.  Soybean fields that fattened our deer are now planted pines over-ripe for harvest.  Pastures on the hill have sprouted dozens of homes on turfgrassed acre-lots, and the formerly-graveled road fronting our land is both paved and lined with houses on twelve-acre wooded tracts.  

Near Watkinsville, 1955
Same, 1980. Fewer fields, a few more buildings
Same, 2021. Housing developments galore.

But the majority of people who live here now are “from somewhere else,” and neither know nor care about local history.  They are looking for land that is pretty, or at least pretty cheap compared to properties closer into town.  Their last names aren’t on the tombstones at the century-old Baptist church. My family only set down roots here in the 1960s, but with the county population quadrupling in that time, few could consider us newcomers.

I’ve never known bears on our land, but I remember where I saw my final covey of bobwhite quail on the farm.  I remember the deer stand where I encountered our last fox squirrel. Both encounters were over three decades ago, and I have no expectation of these critters ever returning.

It is not without a sense of irony and perhaps a touch of shame that I have cleared a patch of forest and planted a house in the heart of the family property, land which reclaimed the last homestead over a century ago. But I carved out one acre for a house to guard many acres immediately surrounding it. This is where I’ve always wanted to be, and here I hope to protect this patch of woods for as long as I can.

In his world of Middle Earth, J.R.R. Tolkien referred to “The Long Defeat,” where the world is in a gradual but inevitable decline; the slide towards ruin may be slowed but never arrested or reversed by the small victories that the heroes strive for.  To the ecologically-minded, it seems to be the path we chose as we struggle against the forces of hungry economies and burgeoning populations. To those who don’t want their corner of the world to alter from the memories of youth, every clearcut, new house site or NO TRESPASSING sign strikes a blow for the forces of progress as they march along the path of “The Long Defeat.”

Last month I saw a flash of movement beside the road — the first red fox I’ve seen on the farm in years. Encounters like this give me hope that we are not as far into decline as I feared.  A fool’s hope maybe, but I’ll take the small victory.


Tyranny of Small Decisions

The Fox and the Hound (Wikipedia)

The Greedy Weed

As we are a few days from Halloween and thus well into the Scary Season, I write of a vine of legendary horror.  No, it isn’t Audrey II, the alien plant that devours people, but it’s close.  It is kudzu, the Vine that Ate the South! <cue ominous chords>

Okay, that’s slightly overdramatic, but you can safely add it to the list of imports that “seemed like a good idea at the time.”  Like many inspired catastrophes of good intention, importing this rampant leguminous vine from Asia was intended to be an easy fix for another human-caused calamity, soil erosion.  And it certainly covers up the gullies and bare slopes like nobody’s business.  The problem is, kudzu isn’t that great at holding soil.  True, its vines lengthen at the stunning rate of a foot per day, but the thick taproots don’t spread wide and fine to hold soil as those of grass might.  Once rainwater collects under the vines, there is little to keep the soil from washing away. 

The climate in the South is substantially different than that of Japan, where shorter growing seasons and colder winters moderates the growth of the vine.   In the land of hot summers and mild winters, the plant turns invasive, flowing over fields, over trees, over buildings…anywhere a vine can go.  Kudzu crowding vines deprive everything beneath them of sunlight, killing forb, grass, shrub and tree.

Kudzu has been put to various uses in an effort to make a positive out of such an overwhelming negative.  The leaves make a highly digestible cattle forage.  Some people make compost; others craft baskets or wreaths from the vines.  But the usage of kudzu is negligible compared to the sheer productivity of the plants. This menace has covered millions of acres across the Southeast, and as far north as Nova Scotia and westward to the Pacific coast.

Apart from seeing blankets of the weed, covering field and forest, from the safety of the family truck, my first experience with kudzu came when I was eight or nine.  My Mom and I tramped through a pine stand one night, trying to connect with some foxhounds that had strayed from the pack.  We lit the forest floor with wheat lamps (a powerful light used by miners and coon hunters alike) to guard against entanglement or envenomation. As we progressed, I gradually noticed a change in the vegetation around me.  There were fewer briers, and most of the abundant saplings were dead and leafless. Then, our lights picked what appeared to be a fuzzy wall fifty yards ahead, stretching in either direction as far as our lights would shine.  We looked up and saw the unnerving ceiling of the same gray-brown material, held up by dead pine trees like tent poles. 

We reached the wall of vine and dead leaves, and I looked to Ma to see what to do.  The vine tangle stood between us and the truck, and there was no telling how far we’d have to follow this dead barrier before we struck another open trail.  Finally, she put down her light and reached into the wall, pushing the vines apart just enough to form a tunnel.  She directed me to climb up into it and continue to dig through.  I remember the dead mass supporting my weight and being thick enough that I was completely encased in dry leaves before reaching the first green ones.  I broke through to the open air and tumbled out the other side before turning and helping Ma crawl through.  With the green wall at our backs, we waded through a smothered field before reaching the dirt road. 

My encounter with the backside of kudzu occurred a couple of weeks ago when I visited a newly-purchased hunting property.  It had many of the common invasives – Chinaberry, stiltgrass, tree-of-heaven, sericea, and so on – but by far the most visible issues were the mounds of kudzu, topping the smaller trees and coiling upwards towards the tallest oaks. I think the landowner is aware that the land he bought is a “fixer-upper.”  I’ll tell him the options: burning or mowing to reclaim conquered territory, followed by herbicide to strike at the roots, the only way to permanently kill this scourge.  But I’ll warn him to be prepared for a multi-year campaign.  And I won’t say what I’m thinking: Better you than me.

The Cusp of Fall

Though I work in the outdoors at all times of the year, autumn is my favorite season; summer is my least.  After a week of mornings with doors open and air conditioning off, I believe we are at the turning of the temperature tide. Although the heat index briefly rallied a final time, the sun is in full retreat southward.

That’s not to say that summer is altogether evil!  As a season, it has much to offer.  But, having lived most of my adult life in the outdoor sauna that is southern Georgia, northern Florida, and Louisiana, I can be forgiven for thinking that one of autumn’s virtues is in succeeding summer, just as spring’s chief fault is in giving way to it.

I post this on the Autumnal Equinox, the official start of fall.  Having now gained elevation and latitude since the last time I discussed this date, I am pleased to be in a place where “First Day of Autumn” may mean something more than just a promise on a calendar.

In a week or two, leaves will begin to turn.  The air will grow crisp.  Old bucks will overindulge on hormones, losing their wits and their guile.  Some creatures will go to earth, others will take to the sky.  And I will quietly immerse myself in the season, and hope to use well the restless energy that always rises as the leaves fall.

When autumn came, he knew that part at least of his heart would think more kindly of journeying, as it always did at that season. – J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

Box Turtles: Shy Ambassadors

Eastern box turtles.

I’ve seen several of these unobtrusive critters in the past month, so I ought to spend a moment talking about them.  We’ve had quite a bit of rain here lately, and turtles move more after rain. 

Box turtles are easily identified by their high, domed carapace (top shell). The plastron (bottom shell) has a unique feature: a hinge.  When threatened, all terrestrial turtles can pull their limbs and head in to gain protection from their shells. But box turtles go a step further by raising the hinged portion of the plastron, completely enclosing the head and front legs.

The box turtle looks and acts like a land-dwelling tortoise but is more closely related to pond turtles. You might see them in puddles or shallow creeks on occasion, but box turtles aren’t swimmers and can drown if they go in over their heads.  

Box turtles are omnivores, eating grass, mushrooms, berries, earthworms, insects, slugs, and suchlike.  Immature turtles tend to be more carnivorous, as young creatures often are – it’s the best way to get the protein they need to grow.

It’s possible to tell the sex of a box turtle with some basic observation. The male generally sports a brighter coloration than the female, although there is enough individual variation to make this method of sex determination unreliable.  Male eyes tend to be red, while those of a female are brown; again, there is variation. 


A more reliable method is to look at the back of the shell.  The female’s shell is more domed and higher than the male’s.  This may require looking at a few shells to get the hang of it, but it is an accurate method. Finally, if you have the turtle in hand, you will see the plastron of the male is somewhat concave, rather than flat as with the female. 

Box turtles can breed anytime from late spring through early autumn. While there is courtship, they don’t bond, separating after mating. Most nests are produced in early summer.  A surprising fact is that females can store sperm for several years, waiting for favorable conditions before developing eggs.  When they are ready, the females dig shallow nests in the soil, deposit 1-8 eggs, and cover the nests in soil or leaves. They may lay more than one clutch in a season. Similar to other reptile species, temperature of the eggs determines the sex of the offspring.  After two to three months, the eggs hatch and the hatchlings, perhaps an inch or two long, make their way into the world.

That brings me to the little tyke I saw last week.  I noticed what looked like a dirt clod wobbling past my wheelbarrow.  It was too small to close its shell (which was too thin to give much protection anyway); for the first few years, not being seen it its best defense.   After inspecting it for a few minutes, I removed the wee thing from the wide open clay yard to the safety of the leaf mould just off in the woods. 

Will it make it through the winter?  Between predators, fire ants, and inclement weather, the first year’s odds are stacked against a young box turtle.  If it reaches maturity (5-10 years), the turtle is likely to keep going for decades with few worries outside human-related mortality.  I’ve seen turtles killed by plows, dogs, and cars; on hot summer days, it’s possible for a turtle to cook to death trying to cross an asphalt road.  But if it avoids the hazards and finds enough slugs and bugs, perhaps our paths will cross in a decade as it searches for a like-minded turtle to tryst with.

If you wander the hardwood forests, you may come across an empty box turtle carapace.  Perhaps, like this example, your shell is shedding its keratin and leaving only bone. Did the turtle leave its shell to grow a bigger one, like a snake shedding its skin? I’m afraid not. Look inside; you will see the structure of the backbone along the inside of the dome. 

The bones extending from this structure are the modified ribcage, fused together into a protective dome.  A turtle can no more leave its shell behind than you can pull loose from your skeleton! 

For budding naturalists, box turtles are excellent creatures to experience up close. Spiders and snakes can be off-putting; birds, rabbits, and deer only allow a distant viewing.  Even water turtles will slide off their logs when approached.  But a box turtle is pretty mellow.  It will sit, wary but confident of its defenses, while you observe.  I met an environmental educator this week who said she likes to show kids the box turtle because it is the animal they are most likely to encounter in their backyards.  “To these kids,” she said, “box turtles are nature.”

Preaching to Deniers

Back in college, I had a friend that would believe pretty much anything nature-related I told him. I was the biologist-in-training, after all (I didn’t abuse that trust.  Honest).  When he asked if male white-tailed deer grew a new tine on their antlers every year, I explained how the bone of antlers is covered in fine fur and vascularized, growing from nubbins to full size in the space of half a year.  At that point, the soft tissue dries and is rubbed off, leaving the hard bone.  The antlers don’t grow any more, but stay on the deer’s head until well into winter, when they fall off.  Then the cycle starts anew, and the buck, now a year older, may well grow a larger set of antlers.

Fast forward a decade or so.  I was a biologist at some expo or another; the table was decked with bones, tortoise shells, snake skins, and other bits of natural detritus with which to engage the public in conversations about how cool nature is. A woman came by, looking with mild distaste at my display.  At last, she pointed at the shed antler I’d picked up in the woods.  “Did you kill that deer?” she demanded.  I launched into my spiel on the antler growth cycle with the enthusiasm of a young professional naturalist.  I ended my micro lecture with a verbal coda indicating how interesting I found the whole process.

“Uh-huh.”  Not the reaction I was expecting.  She clearly didn’t buy a word that I said, because I was certainly lying to cover up evidence of my Bambicide.  Nonplused, I showed her the burr, running my finger over the rough transitional surface where the antler detached from the pedicle on the buck’s head; it was obviously not sawn off a dead deer.  Still didn’t matter.  I felt the weight of her judging gaze as she proceeded to visit another table featuring less unsavory characters than government biologists like me.

Earlier this week, I was talking with someone about one aspect of my job: advocating for certain suites of native plant species, a process that often involves removing non-natives as well as native species of a different seral community.  I went on to say that forest thinning and regular regimes of prescribed burning are standard management tools in the southeastern US. Foresters and wildlife biologists are trying to create openings in forests to bring back endangered animals, but ironically those plans are halted by lawsuits from well-intentioned “nature lovers” who think all forests should be climax forests, and that any tree cutting was only for the profit of the timber industry.

My correspondent suggested, “Maybe the scientists could do some educational outreach and turn the nature lovers into volunteers. When folks understand the science, they become great advocates.”

Oh, one would believe so.  And don’t think we don’t do outreach.  Here’s a secret about biologists: we are often very knowledgeable introverts.  One of the things that draws us to a career in the outdoors is limited contact with people.  Further, a biologist often knows that a casual question from a visitor at a booth will have an answer that encompasses an hour’s lecture of foundational background, examples, and counter-examples.  They must mentally distill this into a 20-second soundbite that still sounds convincing to the layman. 

And even if we were all ecological advocates with the eloquence of Carl Sagan, delivery of the message is only half the battle.  The receiver still must accept it, and there are several barriers to overcome.

Let’s start with the power of emotion.  Emotion is immediate and viscerally satisfying, while one must be patient and discerning with facts.  I can point to a browse line and explain why humans must cull a deer herd, but weighed against a photo of a hunter-killed deer I may well lose the argument.  My coworkers can list the plant and animal species endemic to a longleaf savanna ecosystem, but can that compete with the image of the charred, barren forest floor that is periodically  necessary to preserve those species?

The next hurdle is the cognitive bias. Certain members of the public dismiss our voices, particularly in the last couple of decades.  Is it because they’ve been lied to by dishonest authorities? Because they’ve been trained by fringe news sources to assume anyone coming out of a university has a hidden agenda?  We can’t be certain of the reason, but the result – skepticism veering into denial – is evident.

Finally, there is the willingness to change.  This seems to be the highest hurdle.  The ability to change one’s opinion when presented with new facts seems as rare and as valuable as any superpower.  The shed-denier at the beginning of this essay is but one of many I’ve encountered in person or via social media. “I’m entitled to my opinion” is acceptable in matters of personal taste, but too many in today’s society take it to mean, “My ignorance is as valid as your specialized knowledge.”

If you are reading this, likely you are part of the choir I’m preaching to; you’re nodding because you’ve probably had run-ins with the arrogantly ignorant folks who believe their emotional opinion overrules your fact-based assertion. But if I am fortunate enough to capture a pair of fresh eyes linked to an open mind, please believe that I am not getting paid under the table by Big Timber.  My interest in nature began with reading about dinosaurs as a toddler and has never waned.  If I tell you something about the natural world, it’s what I believe to be true.

I have been around long enough to know there are no simple solutions.  Improving habitat for one species may be detrimental for another. One of the more difficult parts of a biologist’s job is to condense this knowledge into an elevator pitch that will enlighten someone who may be happier in the dark.

The Dance of Lights

Is a picture worth a thousand words? 

Depends on the picture, and the quality of the words. 

I lack the picture, and am not confident that the words will be adequate.  Nevertheless, here goes.

My wife and I took a weekend getaway in the northeast corner of Georgia, nestled in a small rental in a cove framed on three sides by green-mantled mountains.  The little cabin shared a fenced-in field with a barn and a couple acres of unmowed grass. Beyond the fence were other fields and other houses, some abandoned but most with more permanent residents than the sort our getaway hosted.  It was a pleasure to hear chickens rather than sirens, and to let the dogs out into the yard without a leash, confident that the rabbits and whistlepigs (as my wife’s people called groundhogs) had the sense to clear out before the hounds noticed them.

The sun had dipped below the nearest hills when we sat on the patio and ruminated in the still, cooling air.  Turns out, we were waiting for a spectacle we weren’t even expecting. 

We spotted the first flash a few minutes after sundown – a silent greenish spark, twenty yards distant among the branches of a black walnut.   It was followed a minute or so later by another brief glow farther down the treeline.  I enjoy seeing lightning bugs on summer evenings, and noted these as a part of the background, along with distant treefrogs and the occasional flash of heat lightning. 

Why is it easy to dismiss such a natural wonder?  A beetle that mixes biochemicals to create visible light with almost no heat?  A beetle that uses this visible signal to alert potential mates?  A beetle which flashes its bioluminescent lantern in a particular pattern to distinguish itself from the dozens of other firefly species in Georgia? A beetle whose numbers, like those of many insects, have dwindled in recent decades?  Watching a biochemical flare popping over every five or ten seconds was notable back home, but it wouldn’t hold my attention long.

Yet fifteen minutes later, I noticed that these fireflies were uncommonly active.  As the treetop silhouettes faded against the dimming sky, the light show ramped up, drawing us into the field for a clearer look.  By full-dark, I could look in any direction and see ten to twenty flashes per second. In the trees and above the tall grass, a multitude greenish sparks floated in the darkness.

My wife was awed; she said she had not seen such an intense display since her childhood in western North Carolina, before developers transformed the fields and orchards.  We watched the green sparks, like embers from a faerie fire, appear and vanish the blink of an eye. From beside our heads to two hundred yards away, they flared silently.

For the next night – our final night at the cabin – we determined to make best use of the only cameras we had: our phones.  But despite fiddling with the exposures on photos and video, the devices let us down.  They just weren’t sensitive enough to register the brief pinpoints flaring in the otherwise complete darkness. Out of many attempts, the best I scored was one photo with a few blurred green spots.  There was also a video of the female lightning bug that I plucked from the grass at my feet.  It crawled across my arm to the top of my head, strobing like it was overcaffeinated, before dropping back on the ground.  But without a good way to visually document the spectacle, we were left no option but to capture the moment as we do so many of life’s stolen moments: with the mind’s eye.

After a long while bearing witness to the dance of lights, the promise of an early morning made us to reluctantly retreat indoors.  I wonder if anyone in that little valley was appreciating the natural spectacle.  How often did those spending nights at the cabin turn off the television long enough to notice the show outside their window? 

Looking back, I can confirm that my words were inadequate.  But perhaps they will be enough to encourage you to seek out this natural light show in your own forest, field, or back yard.

Additional Resources:

A firefly fact sheet (pdf) from the Georgia Extension Service. Conservation and research information.

Pitcher Plant Bog

It’s morning in late April, and spring is in full swing in the southwestern corner of Georgia. The air is warm without being oppressive, but summer is too impatient a season for that state to last long. 

You stand in a broad, open woodland of longleaf and slash pines; a little crowded to be a proper savanna, but open enough to allow a rich mix of groundcover species. This land was clearcut in the 1940s, but unlike most of the land around it, it wasn’t converted to agriculture.  In fact, roughly a square mile (barely a postage stamp on the greater landscape) around this spot is protected as a state wildlife management area.  This is fortunate, for you get to see a remnant of this vanishing ecosystem in a more or less functional state.

When nature-watching, careful attentiveness to your surroundings is key.  A quick sweep of this woodland, and the casual observer sees a broad expanse of grasses broken here and there by clumps of shrubs.  But standing within that groundcover forces a change of perspective. One reason, of course, is that some of the more mobile denizens of the forest don’t appreciate being stepped on and will tell you so, painfully.  Others, more vulnerable, are unable to defend against a boot but still worthy of recognition and protection.  

Without close attention, you would have missed the fingernail-sized puff of pink on the ground between the deerberry and the wiregrass clump.  The sensitive brier has bipinnately compound leaves snap shut and droop suddenly when touched.  Perhaps this serves to startle herbivores or shake off leaf-munching insects, but also entertains a youth with woodwise curiosity. 

The flowers rising between grass clumps host wild bees and bright butterflies as they make the rounds; less noticeable are the beetles, flies and wasps that also sip the nectar in exchange for pollen transport.

Toothache grass

The change in elevation is too slight for a Piedmont hill-dweller to notice, but a close eye on the vegetation reveals it.  Wiregrass gives way to dropseed and toothache grass, and then to rushes.  In a matter of inches of height, the upland has become bog, and a new suite of plants surrounds you.

Looking down, you spot tiny reddish spots the size of a quarter, obscured by pine needles.  These are sundews, which catch and digest insects on their sticky rosette leaves.  Your new vantage point as you squat down to observe these tiny herbaceous carnivores allows you to notice the glistening sand. You didn’t realize how wet the soil was, but now you see your last footprint is filling with water.  There is no water’s edge here, just a gradual gradient that dips and rises between “dry” land and standing water.  A fallen pine provides a precarious walkway for a few yards, yet you will get wet feet soon enough. 


Off to your left, you see what you came for: a cluster of meter-long yellow pitcher plants (aka Trumpets).  Like sundews, pitcher plants are carnivorous, digesting insects to supplement their nutritional needs on poor, wet soils.  Attracted by the scent of nectar,  bugs alight within the leaf tube, where the waxy surface and downward-facing hairs slide the victim deeper in.  Eventually, the insect falls into a pool of digestive fluid, where it drowns and dissolves.  You also see the less lethal flowers among the pitchers; they too lure pollinators in, but allows them to escape after being dusted with pollen.

Your old-timer guide tells you he remembers, back in the 80’s, driving down the interstate and seeing fields of pitcher plant trumpets for mile upon unbroken mile.  But agriculture, industrial logging, and other development made the land inhospitable for these persnickety plants.  These bogs feature shallow, consistent, year-round water supply, and even a tire rut (or repeated human traffic) can alter the hydrology enough to make a spot unsuitable.  This particular woodland is protected from development and burned periodically to keep it open. 

Management burn. Photo by Joe Burnam, Ga DNR

Managers ran a prescribed fire through this bog last June, and already some bays, gallberry, and other shrubs are making their presence known.  A few years without fire would change the plant makeup of this woodland and threaten pitcher plants, sundews, sunny bells, and most of the plant and animal diversity you find here today. 

Your guide says it’s time to head out.  Carefully picking your way to “higher” ground, you find a footpath and say good day to the pitcher plant bog.  As you reach the dirt road you drove in on, you see the highway.  Cars pass by, driven by people with no interest in places like a pitcher plant bog.  It’s sad because they can’t appreciate the intricate, rich, and delicate web of life that still exists.  But perhaps it is also fortunate, because places like these tend to suffer when they receive too much human attention.

Additional Resources:

Longleaf Pine Ecosystem from Wikipedia