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

May 1, 2005

FRED'S CLOVERS
Around my friends' house the clovers are something to see. I don't know why so many species should grow there so lustily. My friend Fred says nothing was done to get clover there. They just cleared a spot for the house and when the house was put up the clovers came on their own.

There's White Clover, TRIFOLIUM REPENS, with white globes of flowers 1¼ inch wide atop foot-long, arcing peduncles, the stems snaking through the grass sprouting 2½-inch broad, trifoliate leaves on wiry petioles 8 inches long. Each of the three leaflets is ornamented with a silvery V, the V's open top directed inward, toward the petiole. You can see White Clover and how that silvery V looks at www.ppdl.purdue.edu/ppdl/images/trifolium-repens.jpg

Maybe the most common species is Small-head Clover, TRIFOLIUM MICROCEPHALUM, with a rambling body like White Clover but half the size, plus their leaflets lack the silvery V. This clover's flowering heads are so tiny, only about half an inch across, that you hesitate to call it a clover. You can see it at http://ghs.gresham.k12.or.us/science/ps/nature/gorge/5petal/pea/smallhead.htm

There's also Crimson Clover, TRIFOLIUM INCARNATUM, whose flowers arranged in oblong, pedunculate, spicate heads ignite as searing red flames in placid pools of emerald-green leaves. See this at www.missouriplants.com/Redalt/Trifolium_incarnatum_page.html

Then there's the strangest-looking clover I've ever seen, one I couldn't believe was a clover until I'd worked on it a few days. Its pink flowers are set as flat clusters with a wheel-like circle of connected bracts subtending them, and the leaflets are too slender, one thinks, for a clover. It's White-tipped Clover, TRIFOLIUM VARIEGATUM, and I put a picture of it at www.backyardnature.net/sierras/tri-vari.jpg Then add to that casual groupings of Yellow Trefoil, MEDICAGO LUPULINA, with pea-sized, cloverlike heads (http://hortiplex.gardenweb.com/plants/jour/p/58/gw1025358/168464992890272.jpeg) and finally there's Spring Vetch, VICIA SATIVA, with penny-size, purplish pink blossoms and feathery leaves with curling tendrils at their tips. See it at www.coepark.org/wildflowers/purple/vicia-sativa.html

All these clovers, the trefoil and the vetch are members of the Bean Family, all generously fixing atmospheric nitrogen so other plants can use it. What a lush, friendly, charming community of house- side neighbors these species are.

My friend Fred travels in a wheelchair. There's a sidewalk encircling the house where he exercises and as he wheels himself along I see him looking deep into the rankness of his leguminaceous friends, drinking in the White Clover's robustness, the Crimson Clover's shocking vivaciousness, the yellow Trefoil's modest but intense detonations of yellow, and I do believe that no one on Earth admires and appreciates what he sees more than Fred.

*****

STANDING, LOOKING FOX
Friday afternoon I was exploring the scrubby slope below when suddenly I saw an adult Gray Fox, UROCYON CINEREOARGENTEUS, not more than 30 feet downslope, standing looking at me. I froze, knowing the moment I'd move he'd rush away. So we stood looking at one another for a minute or so. Finally I decided that this wasn't getting us anywhere, so I might as well bring up my binoculars and maybe at least get a glimpse of him running away. Up came the binoculars and to my surprise the fox just kept standing there staring at me.

For about three minutes I studied him, and with good binoculars you can see every hair on a fox just 30 feet away. He was gray except for his underparts and a collar around his neck including his ears, which were rusty red. I say "he" but I have no idea what sex he was. I just don't like the idea of using "it" for any intensely alive, aware being. Calling a creature an "it" is like calling flesh "meat." It depersonalizes, desensitizes, creates a lie about the thing being considered.

Anyway, this animal's attention began to wander and it was clear that he wasn't really that interested in me. He looked around and studied the ground. Then he wheeled around and took some steps toward me. The thought occurred to me that maybe this was a hydrophobic fox and that I should get away fast. But he was only coming toward me because that's where his lying-down spot was, in a snug depression beneath an overhanging manzanita bush. Reaching his spot he made a circle and lay down, just like a dog next to a fireplace.

For a long time I watched him, watched flies buzzing his ears, and he'd twitch one ear, then the other. Sometimes I'd shift position and my tiniest sound would cause him to jerk his head around in a flash and look at me. But that's all he did, just look, and then he'd lay his snout back into his fuzzy tail. When I finally walked away he was looking at me again, and he watched me disappear into the scrub.

I can't explain this fox's behavior. Maybe he was half blind and thought I was a deer. However, his coat was splendid and he didn't seem underfed. Well, maybe if he's a good hunter with his nose he doesn't need sharp eyesight.

Another explanation is that he was actually unconcerned about me. My friends say that the other day a fox walked up to the house and looked through their glass door.

So, in this area a Mountain Lion has let me see him on my jogging road, a Wild Turkey has let me walk right past him, and this fox just didn't seem to care about me. Maybe some animals here are just growing accustomed to humans.

*****

BIRDS SEEN AT THE PEAK OF MIGRATION
I think we must be at the peak of bird migration for this latitude. Therefore, yesterday I went birding, to see what kind of list I could come up with. Here it is, with the names in the order I listed them:

1: Spotted Towhee -- calling beneath Deer Brush
2: Red-breasted Nuthatch -- nasal beep from pine
3: American Robin -- flying overhead
4: Nashville Warbler --flock de-caterpillaring oak
5: Least Goldfinch -- heard up in a pine
6: Turkey Vulture -- soaring over canyon
7: Black-throated Gray Warbler -- singing in bush
8: Acorn Woodpecker -- sunning at tiptop of pine
9: Black-headed Grosbeak -- calling near birdfeeder
10: Western Tanager -- foraging in big oak
11: Audubon's Warbler -- warbling in a pine
12: Mourning Dove -- flushing from roadside
13: Wilson's Warbler -- de-caterpillaring an oak
14: Orange-crowned Warbler -- de-caterpillaring oak
15: Brown Towhee -- spooked to top of manzanita bush
16: Ruby-crowned Kinglet-- singing inside manzanita
17: Bushtit -- gleaning bugs from oak catkins
18: Least Goldfinch -- just passing through
19: Anna's Hummingbird -- courtship flight
20: Steller's Jay -- slinking through underbrush

This is a sparse list for the peak of migration and I think it shows what happens when you're not on a major migration flyway.

Still, taking the walk was a deep-immersion experience in song and color. Easterners will be surprised to see how pretty the Western Tanager is -- a yellow bird with black wings and red head. It's at http://thebirdguide.com/digiscoping/photos/western_ta nager.htm

*****

DEER BRUSH FLOWERING
I can visualize what the landscape around my old homes back East are like now, especially when I review my earlier Newsletters. In my May 4, 2003 Newsletter I wrote how pretty the Chinese Privet was -- dense, dark green bushes heavy with big, pyramidal inflorescences of tiny, white, almost-too-fragrant flowers in an almost-too-green landscape.

As if some agency were at work expressing the same necessity of esthetics here as there, I'm glad to say that we enjoy the same lovely effect. Moreover, here, instead of the bush being an ecosystem-threatening invasive, which was the case with Chinese Privet in Mississippi, our dense, dark-green bushes burgeoning with big, pyramidal inflorescences of tiny, white, almost-too-fragrant flowers are native, completely at equilibrium with their environment. Called Deer Brush by most books and Wild Lilacs by some of the locals, it's CEANOTHUS INTEGERRIMUS, a member of the Buckthorn Family, the Rhamnaceae. A plant Easterners might know in the genus Ceanothus is the low bush called New Jersey Tea. You can see Deer Brush at www.calflora.net/bloomingplants/deerbrush.html

In this area the genus Ceanothus just goes crazy with speciation. We have over 40 species and several are common here in the Sierra Nevada foothills. One unusual feature of the Buckthorn Family's flowers is that the stamens are opposite the petals, not alternating with them. The vast majority of other kinds of flowers have their stamens and petals alternating.

With those names Deer Brush, Buck Brush and Buckthorn, you might guess that deer like to browse members of the genus. From what I can see outside my window, that's exactly the case.

*****

NASHVILLE WARBLERS
Around the trailer the most commonly heard song of a migrating or recently arrived bird is that of the Nashville Warbler. The song is two-parted, the first half a high, thin, up-and-down whistle, the last half a somewhat lower, slow trill. There's hardly a spot on this slope where you can't hear the birds, but they're not easy to see. When you do spot them, like most warblers, they're obsessively working along twigs and among leaves foraging for caterpillars and other small prey.

I never saw many Nashvilles back East. In both Kentucky and Mississippi the species only passes through during spring and fall migration, nesting in the northern states and Canada. I hadn't realized they'd be out here, much less so abundant.

If you thumb through your field guide's distribution maps for all the warblers you'll see that only Nashville Warblers have both eastern and western populations, while at the same time being absent from most of the mountainous West. As they migrate northward through Mexico their advancing wave splits into eastern and western factions and I just wonder why.

Nashville Warblers are the only North American warbler with a gray head, white eye ring, yellow throat, and no wingbars. You can read about them, see photos (click to enlarge), see distribution maps (on the left, BBS Map for summer map) and hear them at www.mbr-pwrc.usgs.gov/id/framlst/i6450id.html

*****

MUSHROOMS ON THE HORSE-MANURE PILE
This week 30 to 50 mushrooms as tall as five inches have occupied the pile of horse manure Buck and I deposited in the garden a few weeks back. It's a black-spored species with a slender stem and a fairly narrowly dome-shaped, cream-colored cap that when moist becomes sticky with a clear slime. I think it's PANAEOLUS SEMIOVATUS, but won't swear by the name. If it has a common name I can't find it. It ought to be called horse-manure mushroom because it's certainly a manure-lover, and it prefers what issues from horses above all other animals. You can see the species at www.mykoweb.com/CAF/species/Panaeolus_semiovatus.html

There's enough of these mushrooms populating our heap to make a decent mess for eating, but I'm letting that meal pass. Sources disagree on whether the species is edible. Most discourage trying it and some say it's poisonous with hallucinogenic effects. It grows along my garden rows where I've strewn horse manure as a side-dressing. Its mycelium is working to break down the manure into nutrients usable by my crops, so I'm grateful for that help and don't mind overlooking its offer of an altered state of awareness, and maybe a busted liver.

California mushroom lovers are lucky to have the "Mushrooms of California" Web site, describing 437 species and with over 1800 photos. Since fungal spores travel long distances, even people far from California can find this site useful. There's a "simple key" for mushroom identification linked to from the sidebar on the left of the homepage at www.mykoweb.com/CAF/index.html

*****

GRANITE
During my years in Mississippi I often bemoaned not having decent rocks nearby. Our geology at Natchez, lying deep within the Coastal Plain Province, was just too young to have produced real rocks, and even those piddling, rock-like strata resulting from the chemical cementation of silica leached from ancient volcanic ash eruptions during the Rockies' rising were smothered beneath substantial layers of dusty Ice-Age loess. A native Kentuckian needs a few rocks in the neighborhood to feel at ease.

We have plenty of rocks here, and they're doozies. As I type these words I look out the window and see white, rounded boulders the size of wash tubs appearing to graze the green open spaces. Walking downslope to a ledge just below the house I can find outcroppings over which to hang my legs. Often those rocks are mantled with dark green mosses, lichens and ferns. Sometimes you see blackish rocks but the handlens shows that the blackness is black crustose lichen encrusting white rock. Way, way below, the river courses through a disorienting jumble of white, house-size boulders and so far I haven't found a way to get to the water's edge without scooting down the sides of those tilting-toward-the-river boulders a good distance on my butt, all the while wondering if I'll be able to get back up.

These rocks are classic granite and you can't get a much more serious rock than a granite one.

Whenever I sit for a rest and there's a granite rock nearby with a freshly broken face, I like to use my handlens to see the rock's crystalline structure. It's easy to identify the quartz, feldspar, mica and other minerals comprising the rock.

Individual quartz crystals are hexagonal and transparent. You can see a nice one my Natchez friend Karen found in an Arkansas mine at the top of the page at www.backyardnature.net/g/minerals.htm . In granite rocks usually quartz shows up as a flat, shiny surface of clear, glasslike substance. The flat surface is a crystalline face. In some granites the face might be as large as a thumbnail or larger. Orthoclase feldspar appears as an opaque, white mass. If you see tiny, very thin, black layers like black book-pages stuck together, it's biotite mica. Identifying the other black minerals is harder. You can see a close-up of a granite rock at the bottom of my page at www.backyardnature.net/g/rox-ign.htm

Granite is considered an "intrusive igneous rock." That means that once it was molten magma deep within the earth, but it never erupted to be lava. By definition, magma becomes lava when it's erupted. When magma or lava cool, the minerals making up the molten soup begin crystallizing. The slower a magma cools, the larger its crystals grow. Thus when you see a granite with relatively small "grain" you know that it cooled fairly fast. It must have been a thin layer intruded between colder strata, or close to the earth's surface. Granite with very large crystal faces and bodies of feldspar were surely formed deep within the earth where it took millions of years to cool off.

The name for very coarse-grained granite is pegmatite. Some pegmatites may have grains several feet across. The granite around the house is fairly fine grained.

The Sierra Nevadas display some magnificent granitic domes of a type seldom found elsewhere in the world. I hope to be writing about them later when the snowfields above us melt and I can strap on my backpack and wander a while.

*****

WAVE OF LUSHNESS
The green grass, green herbs and weeds like wild geranium, bedstraw, chickweed, Miner's Lettuce, and then the broad purple clouds of lupine, the yellow- green oaks in their new leaves, the Deer Brush and all that glossy-green poison oak, the pines a darker green... I sense we are at the peak of something, the crest of a lush wave of greenness, of succulence, of things bursting forth.

Back in Mississippi we had slowly breaking spring and fall waves, but they were different from the wave of lushness I'm experiencing here. Mississippi's waves were long, low ones. With forsythias blooming at Christmas the waves melted into one another in a genteel, languid, lazy manner; the seasons smiled one into the another.

My friends in the Yucatan write that the unusually hot, dry season I left back in February has only intensified in every respect. Now even the natives are suffering, everyone fantasizing about the first storm of the wet season still a few weeks away. Down there the waves of the seasons are like banana- republic revolutions and the alternating governments arising from them -- the dry seasons dragging on and on killing with their parsimony and then when the rains finally come it's with a violent storm and the whole wet season is passed with you wondering if that next hurricane working its way across the Atlantic will hit home this time, and kill and kill.

This wave I'm riding here is a third kind, a kind of hybrid between Mississippi's and the Yucatan's. It's a wave with a crest curling forward about to break. For, very soon the dry season begins here. Fred says that possibly this week's little showers will prove to be the last rains we'll have here until next October or November. Last year it didn't rain for six months -- seven if you discount some negligible showers.

In late afternoons I take walks. The wind is calm then and the greenness around me is as green as any Irish pasture. But there's a kind of tension in the landscape. The herb layer is unrestrained in its spring exuberance, yet the very structure of the long-lived forest -- the trees' gnarly stems and heavy bark, the understory's hard-bitten tendency toward scrubbiness -- belies the herb layer, refers to it as superficial and ephemeral.

The vetch, the lupines and clovers laugh with wet glee, but the forest in general shakes its head with practiced, restrained aridness.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim

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