Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

April 13, 2007

Still Life

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:38 pm

April 13, 2007

  The frosty spring weather this year has everyone talking.  In the big scheme of things it is neither record setting or unheard of.  Such an event makes the daily news because it has an economic impact.  Commercial fruit crops, for instance, are threatened throughout the country. The Deep South was hit hard by a twenty something freeze earlier in the week and Georgia farmers watched helplessly as their dime sized peachlets withered and turned black. One Zebulon Georgia peach farmer, faced with the loss of his entire harvest, was philosophical about it when interviewed on National Public Radio. “I guess I’ll have to get a job at Walmart,” he says. “You just cain’t buck Mother Nature.”

  The ecological impact of a spring like this is minimal.  Animals and plants are incredibly unconcerned about “what is supposed to happen” – preferring the “what could happen scenario” and adapting to it. Nature is durable. The honeysuckle leaves that looked like freezer burned lettuce a few days ago are now perky green and the vanished Leopard Frogs are re-appearing to resume their serenade (although still moving very very slowly).  Mother Nature, however, can be a stern disciplinarian.  Like the tender little peachets, there are many that will not survive her moods.

  I found the small defeated body of a Purple Martin the other day.  It was the first of its kind that I saw this season, but unfortunately it was dead. As I reached down to pick it up, the iridescent purple body feathers (the mark of a male bird) glinted in the sunlight. The limp wings were long and pointed – about 14 inches from tip to tip and the deceptively tiny bill was tightly closed.  In life, this bird is the largest of our local swallows and they have a huge gaping mouth for catching insects on the fly. Like all swallows, it had tiny feet. It is a bird of the air that is nearly helpless on terra firma.

  I could feel the leading edge of his keel bone protruding out from the soft chest feathers and realized that it was starvation that brought this bird to earth. Here in my hand was a still life painted by a brutal spring. 

  My bird in hand was a scout – one of the vanguards that make their way north well ahead of the rest of the flock. Their return journey originates in Brazil and they manage to make the Gulf States by early January.  This one might have even passed over that Zebulon Georgia peach orchard on his continuing journey north.  In an average year, these hardy pioneers reach our latitude during the first half of April. In an average year, this would allow the birds to expand into new areas and explore new nest sites.  This is not an average year. 

  It is well known that the bubbly Martins are champion insect eaters.  They basically follow the hatch of flying insects on their way north and continue to snag daytime flying insects throughout their summer stay with us. There are usually plenty of insects available in early spring. The explosion of dancing midge flies this time of year can be remarkable in their abundance. I’d eat ‘em if it was legal (it’s not illegal, but…). During cold snaps, the insects secret themselves into nooks and crannies and wait it out. Purple Martins, like our scout, can’t afford to wait for them too long before starvation threatens.

  According to a Purple Martin web site which tracks the arrival of these scouts, at least one other bird was spotted near Carleton on April 6. It is feasible that was “my” bird, but many other scouts were seen around the state as well.  Some will make it, while some will not.  The rest of the flock will follow within the month.

 At least this one still Martin provided us a lesson in the “caints” of Mother Nature. He never would have fit in at Wal-Mart, anyway.

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