By Patricia Drackett, Director, The Crosby Arboretum/MSU Extension Service
The Picayune Item
PICAYUNE — The deck outside our Visitor Center has been the location for many wildlife sightings over the years. In addition to the regular scurrying of well-fed squirrels, we’ve encountered chickadees and woodpeckers, skinks with electric blue tails, newly emerged luna moths, and fledgling cardinals trying out their new wings and developing lungs. One summer, a green tree frog took up residence under the plastic sign taped on the front door of our gift shop. Although he would go out exploring in the mornings, every afternoon he would find his way up under the sign. He may have been hidden to the visitors approaching the front door, but he provided great entertainment to those of us on the inside, and we would marvel at his tiny feet and belly squished up against the door’s window glass. Outside my office window, a post and plank bird feeder provides a secluded location for piles of black oil sunflower seed that is quickly devoured by forest bird species such as the wood thrush nesting nearby. A few years ago, I glanced out the window to find a gray fox perched on a fallen pine tree (incidentally, right next to the bird feeder). A swift dash to grab my camera luckily froze this moment in time. The following year, a film crew shooting footage in the Gum Pond Exhibit captured a red fox bounding through the woods along the pond’s edge. Green anoles, the only anole species native to North American, are very common at the Arboretum. You might see one scampering along the deck rail, or creeping among the vines that cover the tree trunks along our pathways. Anoles are often called chameleons, but although they do resemble them, chameleons are not native to the Americas. Speaking of skinks and anoles, we have lizard’s tail (Saururus cernuus) blooming now in our Aquatic Exhibit, recently propagated by grounds manager Terry Johnson, part of the plants to be offered in our Aquatic Plant Sale to be held the first week of July. The sweet-smelling white bloom spikes of this plant are curved like the tails of a lizard. Lizard tail grows in wet areas such as marshes, and at the edges of ponds and streams. The plant is a food source for animal species, such as turtles, and it also provides cover for many water-loving wildlife species. On a walk from our Slough Exhibit north to the Gum Pond along the recently excavated 900 foot stream channel in the Swamp Forest Exhibit, we always see a variety of animal tracks in the soft mud. Deer, raccoons, opossums, and more obviously use the channel as a pathway and water source. Have you ever made a plaster casting of animal tracks? This is a fun project children will enjoy, especially if you make it a challenge to build a collection. Many sites on the Internet contain detailed instructions on how to make track casts, however, the method and materials needed if you are a craft-loving person: just a strip of cardboard, a paperclip, and plaster of Paris. Arrange the strip of cardboard in a circle around the desired track, press it into the soil to hold the shape and prevent the plaster leaking out, and use the paperclip to fasten the circle. Mix the plaster according to package directions. Tapping the container after mixing the plaster will reduce air bubbles, resulting in a smoother track cast. Write information on the back of your cast, such as the date, common and Latin name of the species, and where you found the track. Search the Web for handouts identifying common animal tracks, or visit your local library or bookstore for a field handbook on animal tracks. Thanks to volunteer Susan Epps, we now have a good start on a list of common bird species that have been seen at the Arboretum. On a visit to our site, perhaps you will see a ruby-crowned kinglet, an American goldfinch, or a ruby-throated hummingbird visiting the coral honeysuckle or coral bean in our Children’s Garden. Around the Pond Journey, you may spot a water bird or two, perhaps a goose, great blue heron, or white egret. Once, a green heron posed for photographs and earned the nickname “Elvis” from former Curator Melinda Lyman. She was fortunate to spot this short-necked bird that was sporting a fancy hairdo. I’ve not been as lucky! A quick trek through our grounds rarely goes without a wildlife encounter, flushing a group of yellow-rumped warblers, discover hundreds of writhing caterpillars on the trunk of a tree, or catch a glimpse of our elusive river otter, experienced by just about everyone but yours truly. Curator Richelle Stafne snapped some video footage of the otter cavorting in the pond near the Pinecote Pavilion one morning. Watching the video clip is almost as good as being there. Richelle is currently conducting a survey that seeks to determine the possible causes for reasons affecting visitation to the Crosby Arboretum. If you have not yet participated, please consider doing so. The link for the short survey can be found on our website’s homepage and will be available until mid-June. Join us this Friday, June 7, for an informative program all about passion flower vine (Passiflora) on Friday, from 11 a.m. to noon. Dr. Eric Stafne, MSU Associate Extension Research Professor, will discuss both the ornamental and edible uses of our native “maypops.” On Saturday, June 8, a gentle yoga class will be held in the beautiful natural setting of the Pinecote Pavilion from 9 to 10 a.m. by certified yoga instructor James Sones. Both programs are free to Arboretum members and $5 for non-members. For more information, or to sign up for a program, visit www.crosbyarboretum.msstate.edu or call (601) 799-2311. The Crosby Arboretum is located in Picayune, I-59 Exit 4, at 370 Ridge Road (south of Walmart and adjacent to I-59). For further exploration: Search the Web to find an educational website about birds to “listen and learn” the calls of common species. Visit the Crosby Arboretum’s YouTube site to see a short video of our river otter having fun in the pond.