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

June 19, 2005

HIKING TO SLATE MOUNTAIN
This week I strapped on the backpack, followed roads for a mile or so upslope and entered El Dorado National Forest. Though my main destination, Slate Mountain, lay only three miles to the northeast of my current home I did so much zigzagging and backtracking when wildlife trails petered out that I managed to keep walking for two days. I camped overnight in an isolated little glen next to a Douglas-fir four feet in diameter, confirming something I discovered many years ago -- that I sleep profoundly and contentedly when lying next to a big tree.

Slate Mountain is only 3892 feet high (1186 meters), so this was no alpine adventure. Mostly I hiked through forest dominated by Douglas-firs and California Black Oaks. However often I did glimpse the Sierra Nevada's higher peaks to the east, such as Pyramid Peak 30 miles distant at 10,020 feet (3054 meters). I was tickled to see more boulders and ridges poking through the snow than last time, so I'm still hoping to get up there later. On the other hand, more snow fell there on Friday.

I think I am never happier than when I have my backpack on wandering in new territory and not having the foggiest notion about what lies around the next bend. My most vivid memories of this hike surely will be passing through deeply shaded valleys populated with mossy-barked Douglas-firs 4-½ feet in diameter, and following Slate Mountain's mostly open, windswept, sun-stunned, jagged-slate ridge most of an afternoon, with the whole Central Valley spreading below me, and the Coast Range clearly visible a hundred miles to the west.

I'll also remember putting together my tent inside a cloud of hungry mosquitoes -- and how pleasant it was once the tent was zipped up and de-mosquitoed, and I could just sit there as the sun set, looking at a little stream being itself.

*****

TREES ON AND AROUND SLATE MOUNTAIN
Here are the trees I identified during the hike:

  1. Digger Pine/ Pinus sabiniana
  2. Ponderosa Pine/ Pinus ponderosa
  3. Sugar Pine/ Pinus lambertiana
  4. Douglas-fir/ Pseudotsuga menziesii
  5. Incense-cedar/ Libocedrus decurrens
  6. White Alder/ Alnus rhombifolia
  7. Tanoak/ Lithocarpus densiflorus
  8. California Hazel/ Corylus cornuta californica
  9. California Black Oak/ Quercus kelloggii
  10. Canyon Live Oak/ Quercus chrysolepis
  11. Bigleaf Maple/ Acer macrophyllum
  12. Pacific Dogwood/ Cornus nuttallii
  13. California Buckeye/ Aesculus californica
  14. Pacific Madrone/ Arbutus menziesii

It's interesting to compare this list with the one I made for my earlier home at Laurel Hill Plantation near Natchez. That list bore over 60 species -- nine just of oaks. Well, this much smaller number reflects two basic ecological generalisms when all other variables remain the same and no extremes are involved:

By the way, that tree list for Laurel Hill is at www.backyardnature.net/trees-lh.htm

*****

STREAM-MAYFLY NYMPHS
During the hike I passed by several rocky-bottomed little streams -- streams perfect for salamandering, it seemed. During my Appalachian days flipping rocks in such streams would have provided glimpses of any number of salamanders. However, this week I didn't find a single one, and maybe the reason isn't as insidious as you might imagine.

According to my books, only one salamander species is to be expected in our area, and it doesn't live beneath stream rocks. Apparently our dry seasons make it too hard for thin-skinned amphibians like salamanders to survive here.

I did find a number of flat creatures about the size of a thumbnail, looking like flattened crickets, and sticking to the bottoms of rocks. They bore six legs and the tops of their heads were equipped with conspicuous compound eyes, so it was easy to see that they were insects. They bore no wings or only nubs where wings would someday grow, and three hairlike tails arose from their rear ends. They were the nymphs, or the immature stages, of the Stream Mayfly Family of insects, the HEPTAGENIIDAE.

That word "nymph" is a special one used to denote the young of an insect that undergoes incomplete, or simple, metamorphosis, as opposed to complex metamorphosis. In other words, instead of being like a butterfly which goes through the EGG >> LARVA >> PUPA >> ADULT stages, mayflies pass through the stages EGG >> NYMPH >> ADULT. Nymphs usually look like adults, except that they are smaller and bear no wings. There's a lot more about insect metamorphosis under the metamorphosis heading at my Insects Page at www.backyardnature.net/2insect.htm

Google turned up many more pages about stream mayflies than I'd expected, and I wondered why. Then it became clear: Probably 85% of the pages dealt with fly fishing. The quintessential artificial fly tied by fishermen is one modeled after adult mayflies. You can see one such website with pictures of several mayfly species, for modeling purposes, at http://www.flyanglersonline.com/begin/101/part17.html

*****

WHITE MARIPOSA LILIES
With good competition from the Red Columbines, AQUILEGIA TRUNCATA, and scarlet-topped Paintbrushes, CASTILLEIA PINETORUM, probably the hike's most gorgeous wildflower was one growing like a weed along certain roads. It was the White Mariposa Lily, CALOCHORTUS VENUSTUS, and you can see one here.

White Mariposa Lilies are like large, white tulips with big, red-brown spots at the base of each of the three "petals." They're unlike tulips in that the "petals" are broad and outward-flaring, causing the plant sometimes to be known as globe-tulips and butterfly-lilies as well as mariposa-lilies (mariposa is Spanish for butterfly).

Mariposa lilies are members of the Lily Family. A few weeks ago I told you about the Yellow Star Tulip, CALOCHORTUS MONOPHYLLUS, of the same genus. Like the genus Brodiaea, Calochortus contains a lot of species and some are abundant and spectacular in the West. I can't think of similar genera back East, behaving and looking like gone-wild tulips. That name, Calochortus, is built from classical Greek words meaning "beautiful grass."

*****

BULLFROGS HARRUMPING
On my way back from the hike I took a rest next to a little pond along the road. It wasn't long before from out of the dense cattails along shore the unmistakable bass voice of a big Bullfrog, RANA CATESBEIANA, boomed across the water. This was answered by someone near me, and then someone else elsewhere. What a pleasure to sit cross-legged in tall grass next to an emerald-green pond hearing big Bullfrogs calling in the middle of a bright, summery day!

Then it occurred to me: I thought that Bullfrogs were Eastern...

It turns out that Bullfrogs were first introduced into California in 1895. Californians already had overharvested their native Red-legged Frogs, for eating, so Bullfrogs were meant to supplement the dwindling frog-leg supply. Today Bullfrogs are likely to occur in any California pond, lake or slow-moving stream below about 8000 feet.

As usually turns out when people introduce plants and animals where they shouldn't be, now Bullfrogs are endangering certain ecosystems. They diminish diversity by eating just about any animal that'll fit into their mouths -- including small snakes, turtles, birds, mammals and other frogs, even other Bullfrogs. In some areas where there's concern about disappearing frog and waterfowl species, Bullfrogs are eating both rare frogs and waterfowl chicks.

Bullfrogs are survivors, however. Their eggs are unpalatable to fish and their tadpoles stay inactive much of the time, making them less visible to predators.

And, if you've ever tried to sneak up on a bullfrog, you know that the adults are pretty sharp about protecting themselves, too.

*****

TANOAKS, NOT OAKS
Once you're familiar with a few oak species you start thinking that oaks with their unique-looking acorns and many-scaled buds clustered toward twig tips are so distinctive that you'd never confuse an oak with anything else. Well, during this week's hike I found a little valley full of trees that definitely were bearing acorns, but there was something about the trees that was unsettlingly un- oakish. Most obvious, their abundant clusters of male flowers -- their catkins -- were stiff and often stood erect instead of weakly dangling as with every other oak I've seen. Also, the leaves looked like something between a chestnut leaf and a succulent eucalyptus leaf.

All oaks are members of the genus Quercus. The erect-catkined, acorn-bearing species I found in the valley was a member of the genus Lithocarpus. It was the Tanoak, LITHOCARPUS DENSIFLORA, and though it wasn't a "real oak" itself, it was a member of the Oak Family, along with oaks, beech and chestnuts. While there doesn't seem to be any single feature keeping Lithocarpus from being lumped into Quercus, there are too many minor differences between tanoaks and "real oaks" -- such as the tanoak's perky, stiff catkins -- for specialists to admit them into the oak genus. You can see our Tanoak at http://www.mediterraneangardensociety.org/plants/Lithocarpus.densiflorus.html

Tanoaks can be regarded as representing an evolutionary transitional stage between chestnuts and oaks -- they're missing links that aren't missing. Tanoak acorns certainly look transitional. The typical oak acorn consists of a nut arising from a cup composed of tiny, triangular, overlapping scales, while a chestnut fruit consists of nuts surrounded by a spiny husk. Tanoak acorns arise from cups the way oak acorns do, but the scales end in long, slender tips that flair outward, approximating the chestnut's spines.

About 300 tanoak species exist, but all except ours live in Southeast Asia, Indonesia, and southern Japan. Our tanoak is limited to the Pacific coast from southwestern Oregon to central California, with a few isolated populations in our area. You can see our species' distribution map at http://bss.sfsu.edu/holzman/courses/Fall02%20projects/tanoak4.jpg

America's tanoak has a history of ups and downs. Originally in our area fires occurred much more frequently than now and that restricted tanoaks to fairly small numbers. Today's lack of fires give tanoaks an advantage over other species, and in many fire-free areas tanoaks are now often quite numerous -- as in the little valley I discovered during my walk.

But now there's something new in the equation. In 1995 in southern California, Sudden Oak Death disease, caused by a fungus-like organism (a water mold) was discovered, and now that disease has become the main cause of tanoak death. The disease can wipe out a healthy population in a year's time. So far Sudden Oak Death is staying in coastal counties but if it ever takes hold here it'll have little difficulty spreading from tree-to-tree wherever trees grow close together -- as they do in the little fire-protected cove I found them in near here.

*****

TANOAKS, MANZANITAS, GEORGE BUSH & THE POPE
When you believe in the Nature Bible as I do, taking a hike becomes an exercise in trying to read in Nature why life's events happen as they do, and why things in general are strung together as they are.

When I learn about Sudden Oak Death killing so many Tanoaks, it's like hearing a sermon. I visualize the Tanoaks rejoicing when humans began controlling fires, causing Tanoak numbers to shoot up. But now among Tanoaks this deadly disease spreads fastest where Tanoak numbers are high. Preacher Nature concludes, "You fiddle with the natural order of things and it may make you feel good at first but, in the long run, you'll meet a desperate end."

Atop Slate Mountain where near-vertical, jagged layers of slate jut from the ground like fish-fins from a pond, all along the ridge you see no woody plant other than waist-high, red-stemmed, gnarly manzanita of the Azalea Family. It's an amazing, hard-to-walk-through dwarf forest of just one species. And what will happen when a disease like Sudden Oak Death comes along killing manzanitas?

During my hike I thought a good deal about this: The main threat to Life on Earth is that Nature's diverse, recycling systems are being replaced by monoculture human populations consuming and spoiling too many irreplaceable resources. Yet the Earth's two most influential humans -- George Bush and the Pope -- preach the exact opposite to the rational responses to these threats. With Bush denying funds to many international organizations supporting family planning and the Pope maintaining the traditional view of birth control, both men encourage further overpopulation. George Bush is currently savaging this country's environmental protection framework, and the Papacy, while no friend to Western consumerism, offers precious little leadership with regard to shepherding humanity toward more sustainable living patterns.

(See more about the Bush Administration's attacks on the environment and misrepresentation of data at http://www.nrdc.org/bushrecord/ and http://www.bushgreenwatch.org/.)

From what I can see, whenever Mother Nature finds a monoculture that has spread too far, one way or the other, eventually, she wipes it out. When She sees an Earth overpopulated by humans She sends diseases, wars... and leaders who promote policies that will spell disaster to their constituency.

This week during my hike around Slate Mountain, the sermon I walked through said that George Bush and the Pope elegantly confirm that transcendent laws do exist, and that the Creator practices subtle and interesting manners of enforcing them.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim

All previous Newsletters are archived at www.backyardnature.net/n/.

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