Pileated woodpecker

The pileated woodpecker (dryocopus pileatus) is one of the most impressive birds in the forest. Crows may be slightly larger, and eagles may look more imposing, but nothing thrills me more than the cry of a pileated woodpecker. To me, they symbolize wild nature more than just about anything else in our woods.

Pileated woodpeckers are hard to see in the forest, but it’s not so much because they’re shy as the fact that they seem entirely uninterested in anything human. They mind their own business, and that rarely has anything to do with people.

According to various sites, they feed largely on carpenter ants, which they usually find in standing or fallen dead trees. That means they need a mature forest that isn’t cut or managed to eliminate dead trees. That tends keep them away from large population centers, since most people don’t want dead trees nearby. Despite this limitation, their range is large. Here’s the US Geological Survey map showing their range.

US Geological Survey figure

US Geological Survey figure

According to the USGS website, the pileated woodpecker averages about 15 inches long. It has a prominent red crest and a white throat. It’s almost entirely black, with white on the under side of its wings. But if you’re looking for a pileated woodpecker, I don’t think you will have any problems identifying it. Here’s what the USGS says: “No other living woodpecker could be confused with the Pileated.”

The best view I ever had of a pileated woodpecker was many years ago at my parents’ house. My father had cut a small pine and laid the trunk along the edge of a terrace in the back yard. After it had dried and started to decay, a pileated woodpecker lit on it and started pecking at the bark. When a pileated woodpecker pecks, it hits like a hammer. This bird means business when it feeds.

They are not rare in the woods around the mountain. I hear their call quite often, but although I have looked for an opportunity to photograph one, I haven’t been able to do it. I see them at a distance, too far to photograph, or maybe flying over the road, there and gone before I can even think of getting my camera or phone out.

Since I don’t have one of my own photographs, here’s one from online:

"Pileated Woodpecker male" by D. Gordon E. Robertson

“Pileated Woodpecker male” by D. Gordon E. Robertson

Wednesday I was able to get a poor quality recording of the “wuk” call, along with dark and shaky video of some trees where the bird seemed to be perched. I was with the dogs, and I kept walking while videoing, hoping the bird would fly. I was holding the phone vertically because I wasn’t sure where the bird was and I wanted to catch it if it flew. That’s why there are black bars on either side of the image.

I normalized the volume of the clip, which brings out the call, but unfortunately, it also brings out the jingle of the tags. Sorry about that.

Cornell University has a website with good examples of pileated woodpecker calls. If you have never heard a pileated woodpecker, go listen there and imagine yourself deep in the woods.

Climbing the walls

We get a lot of bugs climbing the walls of our house. This is probably the most common sight.

grasshopper

I think this is a carolina grasshopper, but I’m not sure. I’m pretty sure it would make a tasty treat for this wall climber.

mantis

The praying mantis is one of my favorites. I like they way they turn their heads to follow you, maybe trying to decide if they could take you down.

I saw this little green anole on the wall outside the front door.

greenanole

These little lizards are not as common here as the blue-tailed skink, and neither is as common as they were before the cat population boomed. This one will be safe as long as he stays on the wall.

I saw a walking stick but I didn’t get a photo of it. It wasn’t the cool blue of the one Pablo saw.

 

 

A bug policy change

I have a live-and-let-live attitude towards most living things around the house. There are a few things I kill any time I see them, like fleas, ticks, roaches, mosquitos and flies. If I find a big spider in the house, I catch it and release it outside. If it’s a small spider, I generally pretend I didn’t see it. I sometimes catch moths, or centipedes or beetles and release them. I have caught scorpions in the house and released them outside, usually with a stern warning not to come back. In the past we would see scorpions inside maybe once or twice a year. In the last two days we have seen three. Now I kill all the scorpions I find inside and even those I find outside within a few feet of the house.

I am not particularly happy about that situation, but somewhere between one or two scorpions a year and three scorpions in two days, the scorpion population in the house crossed a line. I doubt that my new policy will make a noticeable difference in the scorpion population outside or inside the house, but that’s now the rule.

The late, last scorpion, pre-mortem

The late, last scorpion, pre-mortem

And now the wasps.

I usually ignore wasp nests, unless they post a danger of a sting. I had to spray a nest that was on the under side of the front walk handrail after Leah was stung, but I have left a large nest in the shed where I keep the lawn mower. The door slides up very close to the nest, but they haven’t seemed to pay any attention to it.

A few days ago a wasp stung me for no apparent reason as I came in from the deck into the bedroom we use as an office. I slapped it off my upper arm and stepped on it. I went inside prepared to put an ice cube on it, but it didn’t really hurt. I was not happy about being stung, but I know it happens. A wasp lights on your arm and then your sleeve presses on it and it stings. That’s just the way it goes.

The next day I was on the lower deck starting some nails in some wood blocks I needed to screw up on the upper deck ledger board. A wasp came up and bumped into the ladder, and then flew at me. It stung me on the forehead and then, after I swatted at it, on my right ear. I think I have mentioned in the past that I can no longer run because my knees are worn out. It turns out that if a wasp is stinging my ear, I can still run. I ran across the deck, up the stairs and into the office, where I struggled to get my shoes off before running into the kitchen to get an ice cube.

The sting in my arm the previous day didn’t really hurt, but the sting on my ear hurt. A lot. It hurt so bad that my stomach started hurting. It felt like I had swallowed the damned wasp. I sat at the dining room table, held an ice cube on my ear and tried to calm down. I melted two ice cubes against my ear. By that time my stomach was OK and my ear wasn’t hurting too much. As I write this, two days later, my ear is red, and itchy but the pain is gone.

I had seen wasps on the lower deck earlier so I had tried unsuccessfully to find a nest. Night before last I sprayed some wasp killer blindly into a crevice under the deck and a few wasps fell to the ground. Last night, armed with a fresh can of Rain wasp and hornet spray, I thoroughly doused the nest.

After an ear sting, I’m afraid wasps are now going to have to get the same treatment as scorpions.

Now and then

When I worked in Huntsville, Al, I occasionally had to fly on business. That almost always meant flying out of the Huntsville airport to Atlanta. I usually tried to get an aisle seat, but on the short flight to Atlanta I liked to sit by a window and stare down at the passing scenery, since we flew over northwest Georgia where we live.

On one such flight I noticed a distinctive mountain formation. There were two ridges that formed an almost completely enclosed valley, and in the middle of the valley there was an oval mountain. I thought that was odd, because it looked so much like the ridges that form Big Texas Valley and Little Texas Valley. I thought that type of formation couldn’t be all that common in northwest Georgia. And then I realized that it actually was our mountains. I looked more carefully and actually saw our house. This image is from Google Earth. When zoomed, out house is very obvious because of the light blue roof.

texas valley

Lavender Mountain, our mountain, forms the southern boundary of Little Texas Valley. Simms Mountain forms the northern boundary of Big Texas Valley. Rocky Mountain sits in the middle, separating the two valleys (which I usually just lump together as Texas Valley). Lavender Mountain has a fishhook extension that turns north towards Simms Mountain and almost closes the gap. A separate mountain extends along the main ridge of Lavender Mountain. That’s Turnip Mountain.

There is another pocket formed by a fishhook mountain near us actually named The Pocket. Here is another Google Earth view.

the pocket

It turns out that this sort of formation is not uncommon in the Valley and Ridge province of northwest Georgia where we live. This region was formed by folding of strata, with the erosion-resistant sandstone forming ridges and the more-easily-eroded limestone forming the valleys. If you think about an irregularly folded sheet, it’s not hard to imagine how pockets and gaps could form.

Not far from The Pocket there is a little community my father told me about. He said that many years ago when the community was looking for a name for itself, they asked a local doctor to name it, with the provision that he not name it after himself. So Dr. Underwood named it Subligna.

Topo maps often show a lot of towns that don’t exist any more. In the days prior to automobiles and good roads, there were lots of small towns and communities with their own business districts and their own, distinct personalities serving people who didn’t have time for a long trip by wagon to a bigger town. When the automobile became common, most of them disappeared as actual towns. It’s hard to imagine how isolated people were 100 years ago if they didn’t live in a big city, and even Rome didn’t qualify as a big city.

Armuchee, a few miles north of Rome on the way to The Pocket, had its own post office, businesses and a railroad line to connect it with Rome. Maps show a community named Fouche in Big Texas Valley, which had a post office. There was a community named Lavender somewhere on the southern edge of Lavender Mountain that also had a post office and railroad service to connect it with the big city of Rome. Some of Armuchee’s buildings still exist, but today the name just refers to an area with indistinct boundaries miles away from “downtown Armuchee”.

I don’t know whether Lavender ever had its own businesses or even a building for its stop, but as far as I can tell, nothing exists to mark it other than an abandoned railroad right of way.

In searching around for information on our area, I also found the nearby communities of Poetry and Sprite. Like Lavender and Fouche, both of these exist today only as names on topographic maps, or maybe in the memory of someone older than me.

Projectile points

Finding an Indian arrowhead in this part of Georgia is exciting but not particularly unusual. According to the archeologists, Indians have lived in this part of Georgia for more than 10,000 years and they were making stone implements for essentially all that time. For most of those thousands of years, the stone implements were spear points, axes, scrapers, knives and maybe other things, but not arrowheads. Arrowheads appeared only around 2,000 years ago.

Here is an arrowhead fragment I found around here a couple of years ago along with a complete arrowhead that Leah found when her parents were building their house in the early ‘60’s. I outlined the complete point and laid the fragment in it.

two points compared

It seems clear to me that the fragment is part of a full point that would be very similar to the complete point. I’m going to call the point I found an “arrowhead” because it seems to be the right size and shape, but it might, in fact, be something else. I suspect that an expert would be able to identify the marks that the maker left when the point was chipped from the original source stone. But to me the shape in general is enough to convince me that it really is part of an arrowhead.

Here the fragment is in my hand to give an idea of the size.

point in hand

The fragment appears to be made from chert. One Web site says that brown chert is common in southern Georgia, while gray or black chert is common in northwestern Georgia. The same site says that brown chert turns reddish when heated. The fact that Leah’s arrowhead is black is consistent with where she found it, but what about the reddish color of the fragment I found? Was it obtained in trade with Indians living further south?

I don’t know how many Indians lived around the Rome area through those thousands of years, but if you assume that as few as a couple of people who made or used projectile points lost or broke a couple each year, that would mean there were tens of thousands of projectile points scattered in the area. Maybe not as many arrowheads, but I’m going to make an uneducated guess that Indians might have lost or broken arrowheads at a higher rate than other stone implements. My guess is based on the relatively small size and the fact that arrowheads are shot from bows in ways that might make them hard to find if they missed their target. Even if that assumption is not true, if you assume a couple of lost or broken arrowheads every year from a given small population, there should still be at least a couple of thousand points in the area where that small population lived.

They would have to have been lost mainly in areas where they were made or used, so they are probably concentrated in some areas and scarce in others. The Rome area should be such a point. We know for sure that there was a reasonably large population not far from Rome, up the Etowah River near Cartersville, because they built large earth mounds there somewhere around 1,500 years ago. We also know that Indians caught fish in the rivers around here, because of the fishing weirs that still exist in the Oostanaula and Etowah rivers. It seems reasonable that the two rivers that meet in Rome would have provided a constant, reliable source of water for human and animal needs. Today there is a lot of game around our mountain, deer, squirrel, rabbit and turkey at least. I assume, maybe wrongly, that the same types of animals would have been here for thousands of years. There seems to be good reason for Indians to have uses their stone implements in this area, so, in my view, it’s not surprising that I found a projectile point. And the simple fact is that I did.

That leaves only the question of how I found it.

I was looking down as I walked. The arrowhead was lying on the ground surrounded by pieces of rock about the same size and color. If you had been trying to find a good place to hide an arrowhead in plain sight, it would have been a good choice. But my eye was drawn to it, and when I saw it I knew immediately what it was, despite the fact that it was not even a complete arrowhead.

I know in general how I did it. Humans have a remarkable ability to recognize patterns. The human visual system – the eye and brain – do this job so well that we seem to be forced to find patterns even when there are none. For example, constellations and images of Jesus on a piece of toast. But still, finding it was an amazing feat, even if I do say so myself.

I didn’t have a camera with me when I found the fragment, but I went back some time later and put it down in an area similar to where I found it. After putting it down I’m not sure that I could have found the fragment if I had walked away and come back the next day, even though I knew where I put it.

hidden point Here it is with a cheater arrow.

hidden point pointed out

Here it is with a few rocks chosen from the area in the photograph.

point with rocks

It’s still kind of hard to see it, but you do the same thing pretty much every day. If you have ever become interested in something, say nice, round rocks, or box turtles, you are probably familiar with the way it seems like you start seeing them everywhere. They were always there, but your pattern recognition system has been trained to see them. Unconsciously you have identified some features of the thing you’re interested in, and your visual system automatically, with no conscious effort on your part, uses those features to discriminate between your object of interest, and everything else in the world.

I was not looking for anything in particular, much less arrowheads. And besides, it wasn’t even a whole arrowhead. Leah remains unsure that it is an arrowhead fragment. I understand pattern recognition, but I still don’t know how I recognized it so quickly and easily.

I do know that if you could turn what I did into a computer program, you could probably get a job in the field I used to work in (missile defense).