JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER
issued from the Sierra Nevada foothills
somewhat east of Placerville, Califnornia, USA

April 24, 2005

BUCK'S GOPHER SNAKE
Wednesday morning my upslope friend Buck came for a visit on his motorcycle. Buck is 84 years old and his motorcycle is a '67 Honda, and that day he was carrying a sack with a small snake in it.

Buck said he thought he had a gopher snake, but that the more he looked at it the more he saw a rattlesnake's pattern, and recently he'd confused a rattlesnake for a safe snake, but rattlesnakes have flat heads and this one didn't, but...

A look at the snake's head convinced me that it wasn't a rattler. The eyes of pit vipers have elliptic pupils (cat eyes, like the cross section of a convex lens standing on its edge), and this snake's pupils were round. Also there were no pits between the nostrils and the eyes (the pits are heat- sensitive, used for locating warm-blooded prey), and there were no bulging poison glands behind the eyes giving the head a triangular shape (or flat head, in Buck's terms) so there was no way for this to be a rattler or other pit viper.

It was indeed a gopher snake, the subspecies known as the Pacific Gopher Snake, PITUOPHIS MELANOLEUCUS ssp CATENIFER. Gopher snakes are famed for their rodent- eating talents and you can see for yourself how similar they are to rattlers. A gopher snake is at www.werc.usgs.gov/fieldguide/pime.htm ; a rattler at www.herpnet.net/Iowa-Herpetology/images/snakes/prairie_rattlesnake_babies.jpg

My Audubon field guide reports fifteen gopher-snake subspecies, and most of those subspecies at one time or another have been thought of as full species. Louisiana Pine Snakes, Bullsnakes, Great Basin Gopher Snakes and our Pacific Gopher Snake are all the same species, just different, interbreeding, blending together subspecies. In appearance they range from nearly entirely black ones to those striped like garter snakes, to gray-blotchy or brown-blotchy ones, to some that are white with dark red blotches! You can just imagine how many herpetological publications and symposia it took before they were all finally accepted as under one name.

It happens that I needed a picture of someone using a field guide making an identification, so Buck and my friend Fred took a neat picture of my hands holding our gopher snake right next to the field guide page bearing its picture. You can see that at www.backyardnature.net/fg-how.htm

*****

BULLOCK'S ORIOLES AND TAXONOMY'S SQUISHINESS
The common oriole around here, a summer resident, is the Bullock's Oriole, a mostly orange bird with a black back and top of the head, large white wing patches and yellow on its tail. You can see one at www.nps.gov/whsa/bird%20list/Bullock%92s%20Oriole.htm

In my old Peterson field guide, published in the '60s, the Bullock's is presented as a full species. However, during much of my birding life newer field guides have lumped the Bullock's, a western species, with the Baltimore Oriole, an eastern species, under the name of Northern Oriole. Well, recently they re-split the species, so we're back to having Bullock's and Baltimore Orioles again.

What happened is that in the old days when people began planting trees in the Plains States the two rather different-looking "species" come together and hybrid birds occurred with intermediate characteristics. "Species" are supposed to be genetically isolated entities, so Bullock's and Baltimores were lumped. However, lately it's been noted that, despite the hybrids, many birds in the overlapping areas choose their own kind to mate with, so now the common wisdom is that they're more distinct than they are the same.

Well, this just shows how slippery is the whole taxonomic concept of "species." Fact is, Mother Nature makes no effort at all to make Her creations fit the neat little pigeonholes we humans have thought up.

Moreover, when you top off the above insights with the fact that nowadays they're inserting pieces of genetic code from animals such as fish into the genetic makeup of certain plants, and those plants are doing just fine, just showing certain fishy traits, you realize that the taxonomy of nature is a bit more squishy than maybe we'd like to believe.

*****

FRAGRANCE OF THE CALIFORNIA LAUREL
Sometimes I think there is about as much difference between the plants and animals of here and eastern North America as there is between the East and Europe. Every walk I take turns up something I've never seen before.

All the discoveries are interesting, but eventually one grows accustomed to finding new things and it takes something extraordinary to get excited about. This week the exciting thing was the California Laurel and the exquisite fragrance of its crushed leaves and stems.

California Laurel, UMBELLALARIA CALIFORNICA, bears narrow, simple leaves rather like a willow's, except that their margins are smooth -- without teeth. The stems are green and very similar to those of the Sassafras. That's not surprising, since Sassafras and the California Laurel both belong to the Laurel Family, the Lauraceae, along with Cinnamon Trees, Camphor Trees, and Eastern North America's Spice Bushes

Our California Laurels are smallish, densely branching trees growing in moist soil near streams on the canyon wall below us. When my friends pointed out the tree to me they said that its leaves made beans taste good. When I crushed a leaf and smelled, I wasn't prepared for the intensely fresh, nose- ticklingly spicy odor, even more intense than Sassafras. How I wish I could provide a hot-link so you could smell it.

Around here the tree may be honored more for its wood than for its spicy leaves. The wood of mature trees, sold commercially as "myrtlewood," is fairly heavy, hard, fine-grained, rich yellowish-brown to light gray, and often beautifully mottled. It's often used for gunstocks, cabinets, furniture and fancy woodenware. Sometimes the trees produce burls, or large knots on their trunks, with such intricate and unusual grain that they are sought for wood carvings.

California Laurel's distribution is fairly limited to coastal California and the Sierra Nevada foothills, southwestern Oregon and a bit of northwestern Baja California.

You can see the tree and read about it at www.laspilitas.com/plants/682.htm

*****

A CALIFORNIA MOUSE
Yesterday while walking past the garage I found a dead mouse on the ground, clearly left there by one of my friends' housecats. At first I thought it was a White-footed Mouse like those with whom I coexisted more or less peacefully for years in Mississippi, but then I started noting some differences. It seemed a bit larger than those and -- though White-footed Mice have long-enough tails -- this one's tail was super long. I checked my mammal fieldguide and, sure enough, though White-footed Mice occur in about the eastern two-thirds of the US, they don't make it to here. What I had was a California Mouse, PEROMYSCUS CALIFORNICUS, a member of the same genus as White- footed Mice. You can see a California Mouse, see its limited distribution and read all about it at http://wotan.cse.sc.edu/perobase/systematics/p_calif.htm

Most people just don't know what an interesting world of native mice there is out there. House Mice have given our native mice a bad name. House Mice were introduced into the Americas at about the time of the American Revolution, from Eurasia, so they are the mammalian equivalent of crabgrass. Like crabgrass, they thrive where people concentrate making messes.

According to Burt & Grossenheider's A Field Guide to the Mammals, in North America north of Mexico there are about 16 species of regular mice, as well as 5 species of harvest mice, 2 of grasshopper mice, 21 of pocket mice, 2 kinds of kangaroo mice, 4 jumping mice, and then about 20 kinds of voles, which most people would think were mice if they saw them, and finally there are numerous native rat species, which are just as interesting and who also get bad press because of their introduced European cousins.

Our native mice are highly sophisticated beings with very complex social behavior and specific habitat requirements. The above site describes California Mice as "...generally slow and passive with a decreased tendency to bite. In addition, it has its long, dense, fine fur effective against cold, but ineffective in shedding water."

The page goes on to say that California Mice are good climbers and exceptional gnawers. Males fight one another displaying a lot of jumping and making a mewing call. Females are exceptionally attached to their nests and will defend it.

It happens that I find this cat-killed mouse during a week when there's a good bit of discussion about Wisconsin's idea of offering a hunting season on feral cats, in order to cut down on their destruction of wildlife. There's a good bit of information about the effects of wandering housecats on wildlife at www.owra.org/cateffect.htm

One study reviewed at that site came to the conclusion that each year a typical domestic cat kills on the average at least 26 birds in urban areas or 83 in rural areas. Just in the state of Virginia that comes to over 26,000,000 housecat-killed birds.

I've heard a lot of people say that cats don't kill wildlife when they're well fed.

That's wrong.

*****

JUICERS AND THE GREEN DRINK
Sometimes gadgets can make life simpler, more enriching, and even help us make less impact on the environment. In my opinion, that's the case with effectively and frequently used vegetable-juicers.

Juicers can simplify life by enabling us to convert inexpensive or self-grown, commonly available vegetables and fruits, which we may not have the time or disposition to make meals of, to good-tasting, easy-to-deal-with drinks. This can save us lots of money, and you know how that can simplify life.

Juicers can enrich us because juice derived from leafy green vegetables, fresh fruits, carrots, sprouts and the like generally possess amazing concentrations of vitamins, healthy enzymes and other nutrients. When you habitually drink these juices instead of sodas and other junk drinks, you feel better, enjoy life more, you're sick less, and therefore you save even more money, and feel like doing more interesting things... "Enriching"...

My friends here get along with far fewer gadgets and toys than average Americans, yet they do have a juicer. They use it quite a lot, drink what comes from it, and as a consequence they don't get as sick as average folks.

One drink they make regularly is called The Green Drink, and this week I put together a fully illustrated page showing how the drink is made. On that page you can also see a breakdown of the nutrients the drink provides.

Among other things, a single cup of this juice provides 23% of one's minimum daily requirement for fiber, 586% of a day's Vitamin A, 27% of Vitamin B6, 51% of Vitamin C, 24% of Potassium and even 9% of protein -- and 0% of cholesterol and only 1% of saturated fat. You can see my new page -- and note that The Green Drink is about as brown as green -- at www.backyardnature.net/simple/green-j.htm

The particular recipe on that page includes clippings of wheat grass -- you'll see my friend Diana clipping grassblades into a saucer. On the one hand, the drink still has a lot of kick if you leave out the grass but, on the other, wheat grass contains some important nutrients. If you believe that it's not wise to be overly dependent on this country's infrastructure, you may be gratified to learn just how valuable grass can be as a food. Take a look at www.wheatgrass.com/introtowg/faqs.html#7

To be honest, the Green Drink can be a bit bitter to most people. If you think you need to tiptoe into the territory of drinking juice with grass in it, you might add some fruit concentrate.

You can read more about the health benefits of juicing at www.grainsandgreens.com/juicing.html

There's a lot of info about juicing in general at www.homesteadharvest.com/juicing101.htm

*****

BACK TO THE YUCATAN THIS FALL
Unless something unexpected comes up I plan to return to the Yucatan when the cold months arrive. I'll be at a different place this year -- at Hacienda San Juan near Telchac Pueblo about an hour northeast of Mérida. You may recall that I visited there briefly before going to Chiapas this March.

I'm mentioning this now in case you might like to plan a winter visit to San Juan during my stay. If you visit my web page describing the setting and showing several pictures of the hacienda you'll see that San Juan offers some very fine lodging options.

For instance, there's Casa Chi'ich, equipped with a large kitchen, and three rooms plus a bathroom and a laundry room with a washer and dryer. It can be rented for two weeks for US $300 -- $550 a month. For such a small amount I don't think you'll find anything nicer in all the Yucatan -- and if you stay there each day you'll get to do some nature-snooping with me, to boot.

Because of San Juan's location in the countryside, visitors should either plan on renting a car or using local buses. The later option can be hit-or-miss but it's a real alternative if you're staying a while and want to experience "the real Mexico." It would be helpful to have at least a few phrases of Spanish.

You can see my San Juan page at www.backyardnature.net/travel/sj.htm

*****

SPIRITUAL SYNESTHESIA
Monday morning National Public Radio presented a segment on pianist Laura Rosser in Nashville who sees colors when she hears musical tones. This is an abnormal mental state known as synesthesia. You can read about Laura and the musical colors she sees at www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4602748

It appears that the brains of synesthetes are wired so that signals from one sense trigger brain circuits usually associated with another sense. When I heard that various forms of synesthesia exist and often have nothing to do with music or colors my first reaction was that surely I am subject to the same condition. However, instead of having musical synesthesia maybe mine is spiritual synesthesia.

When Laura hears a chord played in a certain key she sees a particular color -- "periwinkle" for D-flat, for example. In the same manner, sometimes when I see a rock, a wildflower or a human child, I can be utterly transfixed by the insight that the Creation is great, and that it is appropriate to regard with reverence the Creator's will as expressed in nature. There's no rational connection there. It must be synesthesia.

Discordant tones and clashing color mixtures bother Laura a great deal. She can't help it. Maybe that's like my reaction to how these right-wing religionists are getting into politics nowadays. It just grates on me terribly, and I can't help it.

When Laura was playing for NPR, she was in a church and often as she played she looked up at the light filtering through stained-glass windows. She couldn't get enough of music and colors, and I know exactly how she felt. When I walk in the fields and woods it's like walking through a prayer, like being the prayer myself, and I can't get enough of it.

Laura's thing was tones and colors, and mine is the stuff of nature and spirituality. The Creator clearly laughs in tones of diversity, and I find that very pretty, too.

*****

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