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

June 26, 2005

A BUTTERFLY HIKE
Again this week I hiked into the mountains of El Dorado National Forest, this time with my radar set to butterflies. Of course if I saw a bird or a wildflower putting on a show I'd look, but this was a specialty hike, not merely a walk-and-gawk one.

My goal was to list and become acquainted with all the species I could identify inside the national forest. I carried my blue National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Butterflies by R.M. Pyle, and I did exactly what I advise others to do at my www.backyardnature.net website. There I urge people to choose a corner of nature, such as birds, trees or butterflies, then take these three steps:

Step 1: Identify something
Step 2: Look up the thing's name and see what's interesting about it
Step 3: Organize the information you develop and for the rest of your life keep adding to it, and share it when you can

Of course the hardest step in the three-step process is the first, identification. However, that's fine, because that first step is also the most interesting, rewarding, even therapeutic.

For most of us the best way to identify the organisms around us is to use special illustration- rich books called field guides. You can read more about the field guide approach at www.backyardnature.net/fd_guide.htm

To explore a variety of field guides and review some, go to www.backyardnature.net/amazon/index.htm and click on a topic

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JUNE BUTTERFLIES ON AND AROUND SLATE MOUNTAIN
Below are the species I managed to identify in the Douglas-fir/ Sugar Pine forest between 3200 and 4100 feet (975-1250 meters) in elevation. I hope you can experience some of the pleasure I did when you view the images and see the rainbow of colors and elegant patterns:

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BUTTERFLY WATCHING LIKE BIRD WATCHING
My Audubon field guide says that about 700 butterfly species occur in North America north of Mexico. The guide illustrates 600 of those, and has notes on 70 others. My old bird guide says that about 645 bird species live in North America north of Mexico. Therefore, in North America we have about the same species of butterflies as birds.

That's not to say that butterflying is the same as birding.

For one thing, when we're birding we have both sight and song to help with our identifications, but butterflies don't sing. That's one reason why, in my experience, you get more uncertain identifications with butterflies than with birds.

Another reason is that among butterflies there appears to be more clusters of look-alike species than among birds. Birders know, for instance, that there's a whole cluster of species, the Empidonax Flycathers, who often can't be distinguished in the field unless they sing. Among the butterflies you get lots of Empidonax-like clusters and since they're not singing you're just left wondering who they are.

Still, equipped with no more than a good field guide and maybe some binoculars able to focus up close (lower powered ones are best) you can have a lot of fun identifying butterflies, listing them, and networking with other butterfly fanciers.

At www.monarchwatch.org, produced by the University of Kansas, you can join email lists, download classroom curricula, learn about butterfly gardening and join online forums. The USGA's Butterflies of America site helps with identification. It's at http://www.npwrc.usgs.gov/resource/distr/lepid/bflyusa/bflyusa.htm

One effect of butterflying is that you become super- sensitive to habitat changes. Tuesday morning as I descended the slope the difference between the mountain air higher up and the air here at 2600 feet was like the difference between lace and satin, or refined sugar and honey.

And during those last moments approaching the trailer butterfly species among the lupines, not seen above, articulated those differences their own way.

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IN PRAISE OF BLACKBERRY THICKETS
The highlight of the walk came Monday morning when a blackberry thicket appeared along the road. What a pretty collection of large, serrated, emerald-green leaves and innumerable clusters of white flowers! And what a diversity of different kinds of big and small bees, flies and butterflies! A boulder across the road lay in the shade of a large Douglas-fir so I climbed onto it and with the field guide open on my crossed legs focused my binoculars onto the thicket.

Surely 95% of the butterflies there were Buckeyes and Painted Ladies. However a single Pale Tiger Swallowtail worked from one end of the thicket to the other. Watching just with my eyes it seemed that the large butterfly was lazily drifting from blossom to blossom but the binoculars revealed that at every flower the swallowtail feverishly poked its strawlike proboscis among the flowers' anthers, not wasting a moment. Three Southern Duskywings, several California Sisters and a small, unidentified white species also where there.

Numerically there were many more bees and flies than butterflies, and more kinds of them, some with shapes and habits I've never seen. However, I couldn't name them, so their histories, importance and the interesting facts about them remain unknown to me. See, the name is the thing. Once you've identified something, you can look up it. A name is a magic key to a whole new world of understanding.

There were also birds. A Spotted Towhee wandered beneath the thicket, a clumsy kid in tow, learning the ins and outs of blackberry thicketry. A Western Fence Lizard sunned on an oak branch beside the thicket, awaiting whatever fly might rest there.

I'd almost walked past this thicket not even noticing how alive it was but now that I was paying attention I could see that it was a diversity magnet, like a coral reef in a tropical ocean, like a garden in a grassy lawn. Yet, even much more wildlife will benefit from the luscious berries that'll ripen in September.

Why are there no statues to blackberry thickets? Why do we celebrate Valentine's Day and Halloween, but no "Day of the Generous Blackberry Thicket?"

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BLACKBERRY INDECISION
The problem is that the blackberry species being praised above is an invasive -- a species from Europe growing as a weed in America's disturbed areas. Often it's known as the Himalayan Blackberry, despite its European ancestry. If you Google "Himalayan Blackberry" you'll find more websites describing techniques for removing it as a noxious weed than praising it. It's RUBUS DISCOLOR, seen at http://ww1.clunet.edu/wf/chap/flowers/fwr-989.htm

This is the same species I wrote about last September when I gushed "I have never enjoyed such wonderful blackberry picking!" And it's true: Its abundant berries are delicious.

The species is easily distinguishable from our natives in that usually its flowers and fruits number over ten per cluster (natives usually have less than ten), its canes scramble up to 40 feet over bushes and into trees (much longer than native canes), and the fruits ripen far later in the season than those of our native species.

The second-most commonly encountered blackberry species seen during my walk likewise was a European invasive, and likewise very different from our native species. Mainly, its leaves were twice-compound, not once-divided into three or five leaflets like our natives, plus the leaflets were deeply cut, or "lacerate," as the botanists say. One English name for it is Evergreen Blackberry. It's RUBUS LACINIATUS and you can see its unblackberrylike leaves at http://www.cnr.vt.edu/dendro/dendrology/syllabus/factsheet.cfm?ID=251  

The Evergreen Blackberry didn't seem to be doing anyone any good, but I'm still impressed with the Himalayan Blackberry. Could it be that sometimes, rarely, these invasives aren't so bad? If someone out there has further insight I'd be glad to hear from them.

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FOUR STRIPED SKUNKS
As I hiked through a cool Sugar Pine forest four Striped Skunks, MEPHITIS MEPHITIS, emerged from the shadows and, single file, lumbered down an embankment into a corrugated metal drainage pipe running beneath the road.

Striped Skunks are fairly common in all but the most northern and frigid sections of North America, but they are basically nocturnal. Surely I was seeing a mother with her half-grown kids in tow, and at this point in the kids' lives schooling was more important than keeping a low profile during the day.

In fact, one mammalogist writing about Striped Skunks at http://www.nsrl.ttu.edu/tmot1/mephmeph.htm says that in his whole life he's seen this species "abroad in midday only twice, and in each instance a female was trailing her family of third-grown youngsters in single file across a meadow to a patch of woodland beyond." If you visit that site, notice the data showing what a high percentage of its diet is composed of insects (mainly grubs) and arachnids (spiders).

I suppose most of us have good skunk stories. My best one about Striped Skunks is from the time when I lived in the eastern Kentucky mountains and one night the old hound dog came scratching and whining at the screen door. When I opened the door he ran inside, between my legs, before I could smell what the problem was. He'd been squirted, and now he proceeded to rub his body on every piece of furniture and every rug in the house.

That's when I learned that smelling skunk hour after hour, day after day, week after week, can actually make you sick. Tomato juice and diluted solutions of vinegar are noted deodorizers for skunk encounters, but there wasn't enough tomato juice or vinegar in the state of Kentucky to undo what that old hound did to our house that night.

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PUSSY PAWS ATOP SLATE MOUNTAIN
Along Slate Mountain's mostly barren backbone where it's too dry, sunny and windy for average plants to survive in the gritty sand and gravel accumulated in depressions of bare, outcropping granite, sometimes you come upon small groupings of small, very strange looking plants. From spoon-shaped (spatulate) leaves densely clustered in rosettes arise fuzzy-looking, pale-pink flower heads arranged like clusters of pompoms on slender sticks. Each tiny flower bears four pink petals. Each petal forms a cylinder around EITHER one of the three stamens, OR the single slender style. Two pink, papery sepals enclose each blossom like a cupcake cup.

If you're familiar with what "normal flowers" look like, you'll find this species with its four petals, three stamens and two sepals just outrageous. The books call the plant Pussy Paws. It's CALYPTRIDIUM UMBELLATUM of the Purslane Family -- in which you also find Rose-moss, Spring Beauty and Portulaca.

Well, maybe it's a law of nature that those of us ending up occupying non-standard niches evolve into strange, atypical beings. You can see Pussy Paws at www.appliedeco.org/FlowerFinders/benfield/Calyptridium_umbellatum_CB_flr.jpg  

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WHY BOTHER WITH BUTTERFLIES?
There are reasons for going butterflying beyond the mere fact that filling your head with butterfly colors and elaborate wing patterns, instead of the usual daily clutter, is pleasing, maybe even therapeutic. Let me tell you one reason why it's so important to me.

When I left the Kentucky farm for college in 1965, I almost flunked out my freshman year. Because of poor grades I was put on probation. One of my problems was that I spent so much time in the library studying issues important to me, not the mind- numbing stuff of my classes.

The two subjects I researched most were religion, because I wanted to know "which one was right," and the other was hypnotism, because nothing in the concept I had of humanity suggested any reason at all for the strange phenomenon of hypnotism to exist. What did it mean that humans were so suggestible?

You have seen that after a life of studying religion I currently aspire to being a deeply irreligious but spiritual person. My thoughts about hypnotism can't be expressed so succinctly.

Without going into details I'll just say that I'm convinced that all of us, most of the time -- maybe nearly all the time -- conduct our lives under the influence of any number of overlapping hypnotic suggestions. Many of the trances we stay in are helpful, even necessary, but many are destructive.

I regard "being in love" as a powerful hypnotic state. Next time you see two lovers gazing into one another's eyes, notice how they use on one another the same repetitive, rhythmic, soothing techniques practiced by stage hypnotists. Having religious faith is hypnotic, and remember how often preachers repeat the same simple messages. Feeling stylish, feeling community spirit, feeling patriotic, feeling sexy or useless or successful or awkward, accepting stereotypes and prejudices, succumbing to mob behavior or team spirit... All these human conditions can be regarded as workings-out of hypnotic suggestions directed toward us by society or our own genetic makeup.

If there is such a thing as free will among humans, I am convinced that it never occurs to most of us to try to practice it.

Here's how butterflies fit into this discussion:

If I am as vulnerable to hypnotic suggestion as everyone else -- and I am -- then I want as many as possible of the trances I'm in to be induced by the Creator speaking in terms of butterflies, and not by what other humans are saying and doing, who, after all, are only saying and doing what their own hypnotic trances permit them to.

So, after two days of wandering the mountains listening to the Creator's hypnotic butterfly-speak, what has been suggested to me?

The usual. That the creation is grand, to the point of being sacred; that life is beautiful, to the point of being worth living, and; that when a butterfly I'm watching lands atop my balding head, there's just nothing better to do than to laugh as gleefully as I will.

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Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim

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