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

June 5, 2005

FOXGLOVE IN A SHAFT OF LIGHT
The other day I was exploring a logging road deep in a moist, shadowy, steep-walled valley in nearby El Dorado National Forest. At the head of the valley next to a stream in a deeply shaded glen there stood in a shaft of brilliant light a yard-high plant as vividly on display as any I have ever seen. It was a biennial with a vigorous leafy spike of drooping, ghostly, white, cigar-stub-size flowers arising from an ample rosette of last year's outward-arching basal leaves.

The effect was like something from a Wagnerian opera, like finding a Parsifalian arm thrust skyward from a nest of oversized laurel leaves, the tender fist grasping a radiantly white, blossoming sword.

On the one hand I knew I'd never seen a plant exactly like this, yet, on the other, something about it was profoundly familiar. Once I began analyzing the flower structure I knew why: During my years of heavy-duty backpacking in the mountains of southern Germany and Austria I lumbered by untold hundreds of thousands of this species. It was the "Fingerhut," in English known as Foxglove, DIGITALIS PURPUREA. In German forests, at least in the mountainous south, Foxglove is abundant in moist soil along forest roads and in mountain meadows. It's like lupines here and magnolias in Mississippi: To me, Foxgloves simply mean German woods-wandering.

Wild, natural Foxgloves in Europe bear purplish flowers, not white. However, Foxgloves make fine garden plantings so horticulturalists have developed any number of curious and beautiful strains, including a white-flowered form such as the one at http://hiking.adampaul.com/gallery/alamere03/image38.html.

A picture showing the more typical purplish blossoms is at a website about North America's invasive weeds at http://www.invasive.org/images/768x512/1261101.jpg.

That day it was impossible for me to regard that gorgeous, spooky plant as just another weed. Its perfect placement in a shaft of light at the valley head was uncanny. Its dignified presence and unrestrained robustness gave me the sensation of being in the presence of a superior being. And then, of course, there was the matter of the plant's medicinal value.

For, extract from second-year growth of Foxglove has long been known as powerful medicine. When people with arrhythmic heartbeats "take their digitalis," they're taking the stuff of Foxglove. Digitalis medicine goes by such names as digitoxin or digoxin, or by brand names such as Lanoxin and Purgoxin. Since one side-effect of taking digitalis is loss of appetite, some people have abused the drug for weight-loss purposes. Knowing how digitalis affects the heart, that seems like a pretty reckless weight- loss strategy.

In fact, most modern herbalists steer away from using Foxglove extract because it's too hard to judge how much active ingredient is present in herbal preparations. Foxglove is too powerful to fool with.

I think I would have come to the same conclusion not even knowing about its medicinal value -- just by seeing the plant so self-possessed there in the dazzling beam of light in the shadowy mountain glen that day.

******

WINTER WRENS
Down in the deepest part of the valley where gigantic trunks of Douglas-fir lay moss-covered on ferny slopes, time and again I heard what may be the most complex and beautiful song of any North American bird. It was the Winter Wren, which back East I've seen only during the cold months. Unlike the East's abundant Carolina Wrens, which bear striking, white stripes right above their eyes and possess fair-sized tails, Winter Wrens have no white eye-stripe and their tails are practically just nubs. To see this bird and to click on an audio box to hear it, and read more about the species, go to http://www.birds.cornell.edu/BOW/WINWRE/.

Often you hear Winter Wrens but don't see them, and that was the case the other day. I passed by several and never saw one. Surely they were singing from beneath cascading fern fronds or from behind those big trunks. This did not diminish, however, the effect of the song, a rapid succession of very high, clear notes and trills lasting about five seconds, with the song being repeated four to six times each minute.

To see the Winter Wren's summer distribution map -- its BBS (Breeding Bird Survey map) -- go to http://www.nenature.com/WinterWrenBreedingMap.htm.

*****

DISAPPEARING WOOD THRUSHES
Speaking of the BBS, or Breeding Bird Survey, my friend Jarvis in North Carolina is an official BBS survey taker and he writes that:

I have finished my two Breeding Survey routes for this year in southeastern N.C. For the first time ever, I found no Wood Thrushes on my route that begins in Pender Co. The average number of Wood Thrushes on that route for the first 12 years I ran it was 4.9. I found 3 Wood Thrushes on my route that begins in Columbus Co. but that's a lot less than the average number of 7.7 during the first 12 years. The number of Wood Thrushes on those routes has been substantially lower in recent years than it was earlier. The amount of good Wood Thrush Habitat on those routes seems to be about the same as it was back in the early 80's.

Jarvis's observations confirm other reports. Even during my ten years in southwestern Mississippi I noticed diminishing Wood Thrush numbers. You can read more about the Wood Thrush's decline at http://audubon2.org/webapp/watchlist/viewSpecies.jsp?id=222.

You can hear its beautiful, disappearing song at www.on.ec.gc.ca/wildlife/wildspace/media/sounds/woth.wav.

The Breeding Bird Survey is something special and if you want to know what's happening to birds in North America today there's no better place to go to than the BBS on the Internet.

At http://www.mbr-pwrc.usgs.gov/bbs/ there are "learning tool" links for teachers and home-schoolers wanting to learn about birds, plus results from past surveys, and information on bird population trends.

At http://www.pwrc.usgs.gov/bbs/ you can see the "raw data" from years of survey taking, and find out how to participate yourself. I wanted to be a BBS survey taker while in Mississippi but to be certified you must be trained by qualified individuals, and I couldn't get to the training sites on my bike.

Jarvis also writes:

The numbers of Indigo Buntings have also gone way down on those routes. I found 10 on my Columbus Co. route, which was a record low number for 25 years. I also found 10 on the Pender Co. route this year. Their numbers have not been much higher than that in the last few years but for the first 12 years the average for Columbus Co. was 27.8 and for Pender it was 31.2.

Most non-migratory species seem to be doing well. On the Pender Co. route there was a record high number of Mourning Doves (44). On the Columbus Co. route there was a record high number of Red-bellied Woodpeckers (18) and Cardinals (27).

*****

BIRDS OF PANTEPEC
Speaking of neotropical migrants, you'll remember that this February in Mexico I spent a couple of weeks near the cloudforest town of Pantepec, Chiapas. Finally I've posted the birds seen there at www.backyardnature.net/travel/ch-birds.htm.

There's also an illustrated page describing nature- study workshops I'm prepared to offer in Chiapas, at www.backyardnature.net/travel/ch-intro.htm.

I still plan to spend the cold months in the Yucatan as naturalist-in residence at Hacienda San Juan (map at www.backyardnature.net/travel/how2go.htm ), and you can read about that and see pictures of San Juan at www.backyardnature.net/travel/sj.htm.

*****

SEVEN SQUIRRELS
Biking back from my hike in El Dorado National Forest, on a small, paved road along which homes clustered about as densely as possible without being referred to as an urban zone, I came upon seven gray squirrels bounding up the middle of the road, one after the other. At first my approach on the bike didn't seem to register to them. Finally when I was about ten feet away the lead squirrel stood up and stared at me, looked confused, then scurried to the side of the road, with the others following and showing just as much indecision.

Well, I don't understand this whole event. Field guides speak of Western Gray Squirrel litter size as being 3-5, and of populations varying from two squirrels per acre to one squirrel for ten acres, so seven squirrels in the middle of a road makes no sense. I've heard of mass migrations of Eastern Gray Squirrels, so there's clearly repertory in the squirrel-behavior closet field guides and websites don't refer to.

In fact, I'm not absolutely certain that they were Western Gray Squirrels. They struck me as a bit larger than Eastern Gray Squirrels, and the Western species is indeed larger than its Eastern cousin, but sizes are hard to determine, especially while riding a bike. The problem is that Eastern Gray Squirrels have been introduced in certain places in California, as well as Eastern Fox Squirrels. The fox squirrels I've seen back East were reddish in color, but gray forms do exist and if these were fox squirrels they might have been of that gray form.

You might be interested in a website in Washington State profiling several western squirrels, including introduced species, and showing their pictures, at http://wdfw.wa.gov/wlm/diversty/soc/wgraysquirrels/.

The Washington-State site focuses on the decline of the Western Gray Squirrel. Though that species looks very much like the Eastern one, Western Gray Squirrels produce just one litter a year, while the Eastern produces two. Also our Western species seems to be more retiring and more strictly arboreal, and thus less adaptable to human changes in the environment. During the 1920s Western Grays were one of the most abundant mammals in the Northwest, but during the 1930s an epidemic of mange caused a tremendous die-off.

If anyone out there has an idea about what was going on with those seven gray squirrels that day, I'd like to hear from you.

*****

PINEAPPLE WEED
In the worn-smooth dirt exactly at the entrance to the garden a number of stunted, frequently trampled, inch-high weeds has sprung up. Their leaves are like those of milfoil so when I plucked a plant to see if it smelled as pungent as milfoil, I discovered the sleepy fragrance of chamomile.

At least two different plants are known by the name of Chamomile. One is "English Chamomile," CHAMAEMELUM NOBILE, and the other is "German Chamomile," MATRICARIA RECUTITA. German Chamomile is the one usually dried for chamomile tea, while the English one is preferred for use in potpourri mixtures. Other closely related species can have odors similar to "real chamomile," and the species beside my garden gate was one of those relations.

My garden-gate plant often goes by the name of Pineapple Weed. It was MATRICARIA DISCOIDEA, thus belonging to one of the genera of the "real chamomiles." You can see Pineapple Weed here.

*****

CLOUDS OF DESERT BUTTERFLIES
Often while I've been here I've sat surrounded by untold numbers of lupines, vetches, clovers, star- tulips, brodiaeas and the like and wondered this: Where are all the bees and butterflies? Certainly there are a few, but nothing like the abundance I've experienced in Mississippi, and recall from my childhood in Kentucky. Either out here there's a whole different dynamic between wildflowers and the bees and butterflies who pollinate them than back East, or the pollinators here have suffered a drastic decline. Since our prevailing winds come right from the smoggy lands of San Francisco and Sacramento, maybe that's enough of an answer there. I don't know.

Though each day I see several small species, especially on wet clods after I've watered the plants, here I have yet to spot a single butterfly as large and bodacious as our Monarchs, Viceroys and various swallowtails. My memories of Mississippi's morning-glory fence-wall animated with many kinds of large butterflies last summer seem like they come from another world.

This Thursday my friends returned from a visit in Utah and their van front was spattered with smashed butterflies. They said the desert in Nevada was green and that in some places they had to drive through veritable clouds of butterflies.

All the bodies on the radiator grill belonged to the same species. They were Painted Ladies, VANESSA CARDUS, which my Audubon Guide says "is perhaps the most widespread butterfly in the world, found throughout Africa, Europe, Asia and many islands, as well as in North America."

It's an amazing species. Unable to overwinter in any stage, including as eggs, in most of North America between the first heavy frost of fall and the onset of spring there are no Painted Ladies. During North America's winters Painted ladies survive only in the Southwest's Sonoran Desert and maybe some other hot spots in the neighborhood.

Thus the butterfly clouds my friends passed through were migrating from the desert Southwest toward the North and East. Each year the migration begins in February and March, then by late spring the species has recolonized the continent.

The Painted Lady's migration is very different from the Monarchs' in that Monarchs make round trips between their overwintering grounds in Mexico and their summer grounds in North America, while the trips of Painted Ladies are one way.

See a lot of Painted Lady pictures and more info here.

*****

99.97% AND A QUESTION
The other day a scientist being interviewed on National Public Radio made the point that all humans on Earth share about 99.97% of their genetic makeup. Even some 98% of our genes are the same as those found in chimpanzees.

These numbers are profoundly important, and I think every schoolchild should be encouraged to think about their implications.

Technically, the concept is pretty simple. Our genetic makeup consists of encoded information. The encoded information is a set of instructions on how to put chemicals together to keep life going.

The reason we humans share so much of our genetic code with one another and other living beings is that our different bodies use the same biochemical processes to stay alive. Both toads and humans breathe, and most of the genetic instructions for using the oxygen we inhale is the same for both toads and humans. Both humans and elm trees respire, and many of the chemical pathways accomplishing this are identical for trees and man. When this how-to information was encoded in the genes of the earliest, very simple life forms, it was passed on in the genes to subsequent generations who built upon the information as they evolved into new, more complex species.

One consequence of accepting these facts is that it's easy to conceive of the Creator as being very engaged in formulating the code of life as it evolves and becomes more sophisticated through time.

Another consequence of thinking like this is the notion that -- because the Creator has been working so hard on Earth-life's genetic heritage for at least 3.85 billion years -- the genetic code is worthy to be regarded by us humans as "sacred."

Moreover, why shouldn't we rejoice at discovering that the Creator has placed each of us in a huge family of mutually dependent members of a rainbow of races and species, all sharing a huge percentage of the same life processes, feelings, potentials and aspirations? And why shouldn't the most holy act of all be that of loving and respecting all forms of life so intensely that you can't stand the idea of destroying them needlessly?

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim

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