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

July 17, 2005

THE CHICKAREES OF PINO GRANDE
This week I biked with my backpack up to an old lumber camp called Pino Grande in El Dorado National Forest at about 4200-ft in elevation. From 1900 to 1950 the Pino Grande operation deforested the slopes for many miles around. Back then they paid little or no attention to the principles of sustainable forestry or the effects of deforestation on soil erosion.

Now the area is forested again, though it's easy to see that species diversity there is a fraction of what it should be. Most of the land around Pino Grande is in private hands, not managed by the NFS. Patches of same-aged, evenly spaced, single-species pine mantle thousands of steeply sloped acres. Ecologically what you see has more in common with a cornfield than a healthy mountain forest.

Still, nowadays they don't cut trees right next to streams, so when I arrived at Pino Grande in late afternoon and saw a little stream with a grassy spot beneath tall Incense-cedars, I figured I couldn't have a better camping spot. I threw the tent, entered before the mosquitoes got bad, leaned against my backpack so I could admire the stream through my tent door-screen... and then it began:

A high-pitched, rapid Ee-ee-ee-ee-ee-ee-ee!

Nervous-sounding bursts of 4-5 notes per second, again and again. I tried to think what bird might make a warning call like that but couldn't imagine. I had to go out into the mosquitoes and see who it was.

It looked like a house-rat-size gray squirrel, except that its tail was too scrawny and the white on its belly was bordered with a thin dark line between it and the gray fur above.

It was a Chickaree, TAMIASCIURUS DOUGLASI, a creature so similar anatomically to the North's Red Squirrel that it's in the same genus, Tamiasciurus (Gray squirrels are in the genus Sciurus.) Chickarees occur only in southwestern British Columbia, western Washington and Oregon, and the coniferous forests of northern California. I've not seen them at Fred & Diana's, probably because it's too low there for them. The Sierra Nevada Natural History fieldguide says they're found mainly from 5000 to 11,000 feet so in this protected little valley at 4200 feet they were fairly low.

The fieldguide writer when describing Chickarees couldn't restrain himself from using the adjectives "sprightly" and "talkative," and it was true that these Chickarees put on a show until it got too dark. One squirrel chased another round and round the tree trunk, up and down, occasionally pausing for the chaser to Ee-ee-ee-ee-ee-ee-ee! while shaking his tail and glaring at me. Once during a particularly unrestrained moment the chaser lost his footing, tumbled fifteen feet to the ground, and I do believe he didn't even notice his setback, such was his ferocious attention to the chase.

The curious thing is that they had a cavity nest right there in the trunk of the big Sugar Pine where the chase was taking place. Nobody seemed interested in getting far from that nest. Young Chickarees in the Sierras are born in June and July so it didn't seem a good time for courtship shenanigans. It really looked like those two critters were having a chase just for the fun of it.

You can see what a Chickaree looks like at http://www.blevinsphoto.com/dougsquirrel.htm

*****

AZALEAS TO MAKE THE HEAD SPIN
Something else beside the setting next to the stream beneath those big Incense-cedars and the companionship of two frisky Chickarees made my camping spot almost perfect. All around the grassy area (kept mowed by six black cows who come to drink at dusk, clanging their tin bells) grew dozens of shoulder-high Western Azaleas, RHODODENDRON OCCIDENTALE.

Azaleas here aren't as conspicuous in the forest understory as in much of the US Southeast. Just in Mississippi we had five species, some of them really spectacular. In much larger California we have just two species, and I only see this one occasionally, along streams and on moist slopes. The species is deciduous and produces bell-shaped flowers nearly 2 inches long, with the 5 stamens and the slender style protruding far beyond the corolla. Though I read that pinkish blossoms sometimes appear I've only seen white ones, and every white blossom, on its upper lobe, bears a conspicuous yellow splotch. You can see all this in the image at www.gartendatenbank.de/pflanzen/rhododendron/100.htm

The page linked to above is a German one, which shows that this species is attractive enough to be special even to foreigners.

What the pretty picture at that site in Germany can't portray, however, is the heavenly fragrance dozens of Western Azaleas in full bloom emit along a quiet little mountain stream at dusk on an evening such as that. After I'd visited my Chickarees and crawled back into the tent I just lay there in the growing darkness getting dizzy on azalea perfume.

*****

A MOUNTAIN QUAIL MAMA
On my way back I managed to approach to a distance of about three feet a mama Mountain Quail, OREORTYX PICTA, who was surrounded by at least a dozen tiny, spherical, highly animated, feathery balls. The moment I was noticed the mother gave her danger call ca-ca-ca-ca-ca and all the chicks ran after the mother like ping-pong balls on matchstick legs.

The mother ran for about twenty feet looking this way and that at her wards and continuing her calling, then she mounted a knee-high stump and issued a sharp new call that made all the ping-pong balls crouch motionless, suddenly becoming invisible. Mama posed there in full view looking squarely at me as I viewed her through my binoculars, and I do think I've never seen a more beautiful bird -- a slender, black plume atop her head, her throat and the side of her head chestnut-colored, white eye stripe, head, upper back and breast bluish gray, rest of back, tail and wings brown, sides chestnut with white and black bars and a whitish belly...

You can see all this in a beautiful photograph at http://www.briansmallphoto.com/gallery/moqu.html and you can read about Mountain Quails at http://audubon2.org/webapp/watchlist/viewSpecies.jsp?id=140

This was the first Mountain Quail I'd seen. Down below at Fred & Diana's house we have plenty of California Quails, notable for the black, jaunty "upside-down teardrop" arcing forward from atop their heads. California Quails are at low elevations, however, and Mountain Quail take over at higher ones.

A Mountain Quail also has a black plume atop its head, but that plume is straight and slender, not like a bent, upside-down teardrop. My mama quail's plume was not standard. Instead of a single one, she had two forming a conspicuous black V atop her head. I read that two feathers generally constitute the plume, so apparently the mama's two feathers had separated. Well, with all those little ping-pong balls running around, one can forgive a mama's negligence to her coiffure.

*****

AN ECOLOGY OF CRAP
When I'm out wandering with a backpack I look forward to several little routines, almost amounting to ceremonies, that are inevitably pleasurable. Having the first meal as the sun comes up is one and combing my fingers between my toes after a long day of hiking is another. Crap time is yet another.

What I like is taking a seat next to what I produce, upwind of it of course, and watching the ecosystem enthusiastically and efficiently embrace my steamy little gift to it.

Often even before I've taken my seat flies come out of nowhere like dive bombers, buzz my creation for about five seconds to locate the exact point of emanations, and then they plop onto it and just sit there feeding, as contented looking as cows in an alpine meadow. Beings attracted to dung are said to be "coprophilous."

Usually several species of flies arrive, and that's not surprising since the fly world is enormous, with untold numbers of species exquisitely adapted for the most obscure and narrow of niches. In the insect world flies are among the most recently evolved and sophisticated. There are kinds of flies normal people never hear of -- marsh flies, seaweed flies, rust flies, cactus flies, stalk-eyed flies, small dung flies, heleomyzid flies, trixoscelidid flies... These are all distinct families of fly, and most families embrace many species.

Of course flies aren't alone in their coprophilosity. Crap attracts a rainbow of fauna and flora consisting of bacteria, fungi, protozoa, flatworms, nematodes, annelids, and arthropods other than flies. Moreover, there's a definite succession of plants and animals occupying a pile as it ages. There's much more information on this matter in an essay entitled "Be It Ever So Humble, There's No Place Like Dung," at http://www.accessexcellence.org/RC/CT/no_place_like_dung.html

At a site offering study projects for home and school there's a page describing "dung jar experiments" at http://www.disknet.com/indiana_biolab/kids102.htm

Sometimes I see this: A fly lands on the pile and very soon begins walking across it, every second or so dipping the tip of her abdomen to the surface, with each dip plopping out a tiny white maggot. Well, actually it looks like she lays eggs, but the eggs hatch almost instantly, and the maggots squirm from their filmy egg-case, and immediately tunnel into their medium. I can't find experts confirming this but that's what it looks like. Whatever the case, just think: Maybe three or four minutes ago the nutrients in that stuff were part of me, and now suddenly they are already being recycled into other living organisms.

Moreover, in a surprisingly brief time those little maggots will metamorphose, fly off and some will surely end up in the bellies of flycatchers, who in turn will relieve themselves in various green spots where my glorious nutrients will continue to spread and cycle through all kinds of plants, animals, fungi... When I see the irrepressible vigor with which flies so quickly populate my poop with veritable cities of maggots I am filled with an enormously satisfying sense that "all's right with the world." Everything is working exactly as it's supposed to.

On my last crap-sitting I noticed several smaller flies, one at a time, suddenly rise off the pile and in half a second land on a big blow fly's back. In a flash they appeared to insert the tips of their abdomens beneath one of the blow fly's wings. I think I was seeing a case of one fly species parasitizing another. I'll bet that eventually eggs hatch beneath the blow fly's wings, larvae burrow into the big fly's body, and kill it as they tunnel through it, eating as they go.

*****

ETYMOLOGY OF THE WORD "DUNG"
That word "dung" struck me as a bit curious-looking so I sought it at http://www.etymonline.com. What aroused my curiosity about the word is that it is monosyllabic like a good Anglo-Saxon term, yet it is graced with no fricatives, explosive sounds or violent stops the way many Germanic words are.

Turns out that its roots go back as far as 5,500 years, to the hypothetical reconstructed language of Proto-Indo-European, where it was "dhengh," which meant "covering." Apparently the Germanic peoples through which much of English evolved survived Europe's awful winters by digging underground shelters which they COVERED with dung for warmth. This practice is reported by no less an authority than Tacitus.

*****

JERUSALEM CRICKET = POTATO BUG
Friday I was raking up recently cut grass to place as mulch in the garden when beneath a big pile I uncovered one of the strangest looking insects I've ever seen. It was nearly two inches long, brownish, thick bodied, wingless, and I'd simply never seen such a thing before. I often find tiny flies or mites that are new to me, but hardly ever does something this large and unknown come along.

It almost looked like a cricket so I went to the cricket pages of my old Peterson fieldguide and there it was: It was a Jerusalem Cricket of the Camel Cricket Family, the Gryllacrididae. That's a different family from the one to which house crickets and field crickets belong, the Gryllidae. Knowing that, I was further able to identify it on the Internet as STENOPELMATUS FUSCUS, My picture of this cricket and a close-up of its spiny back leg (adapted for digging) sit atop my Orthoptera Page at www.backyardnature.net/orthopte.htm

Jerusalem Crickets are nocturnal and their big heads bear powerful mandibles that not only serve them as they prey on spiders and many kinds of insects, but also for biting fingers!

I went to show Fred and Diana my discovery and of course they'd seen them before. In North America Jerusalem crickets are western, occurring chiefly along the Pacific Coast, so no wonder they were new to me.

Fred said he'd always called them Potato Bugs, maybe because they're brown and so plump. I like the Spanish name better, NiƱa de la Tierra, meaning "Little Girl of the Earth," probably because of the cricket's oversized head and rounded body.

When I told my friend Buck about finding a Potato Bug he said I should see how much fun chickens have with them. They just love those big, juicy morsels, but sometimes a Potato Bug gets its claws around the hen's beak, and Buck demonstrated how the hen would run around shaking her head back and forth trying to sling that insect off.

*****

NEW DIGITAL PHOTOGRAPHY PAGE
If you look at my image of the above Jerusalem Cricket you'll see that it is accompanied by a close-up of the spines on the insect's hind tibia. I continue to be astonished at what wonderful pictures a good digital camera can produce.

In fact, digital photography is opening up a whole new field of nature study. Now people can collect images of the plants and animals they encounter and share them with others without having to kill the organisms and deal with the messiness of real collections.

For this reason I've set up a new page on digital photography at www.backyardnature.net/digi-cam.htm. I still don't have a digital camera myself, but Fred and Diana graciously let me use theirs.

If you enjoy taking insect pictures you also might be interested in my page "Make an Online Insect Collection" at www.backyardnature.net/ins-coll.htm

*****

ON THE BEAUTY OF RELATIVISM
I think my above-described relationship with crap indicates that I am a relativist -- one of those people against whom fundamentalists like to preach.

For, I was brought up by a squeaky-clean mother very steeped in the 50s mindset, cultural icons of which included frequent Pinesol moppings of the linoleum kitchen floor, Listerine garglings, crisply ironed handkerchiefs and spritzings of Old Spice throughout the day. Getting cozy with crap has required of me a good bit of mental gymnastics, for I am profoundly programmed to be revolted by it.

So, which of the two attitudes I have entertained toward crap is right? I think you can see that each attitude has had its place, depending on my context.

The quality of crap that makes it eligible for such conflicting opinions is that crap is complex stuff that works at many levels of reality.

If you can agree with that, then I ask you: Just what in this Universe is so simple and one-dimensional that it is not eligible for the same kind of conflicting notions? In my opinion, everything that IS, is so complex and mind-bogglingly interconnected with everything else that nothing is immune from our having two or more minds about it, depending on which way we're looking at it.

Moreover, just what is one to expect in a universe in which everything is always evolving, where we ourselves change so drastically as we gain new experiences and mature, where new things and new situations around us arise all the time, forever transmogrifying and adapting to everything else, surging forward and outward, all the time, all the time... ? In a Universe of perpetually, lustily, joyously evolving perspectives, how can anyone claim that anything has just one absolutely restricted meaning and value?

How are such thoughts as these appropriate for a naturalist's newsletter? It is because the thing I love most, Life on Earth, is being threatened by inappropriate human thought patterns and consequent behavior. In my opinion, as a species we will never gain the insights needed to change ourselves if we continue indulging in belief systems based on concepts thousands of years old, the sacred scriptures of which arose long before it occurred to anyone that good people -- just because there are too many of us wanting too much -- can destroy the planetary ecosystem that sustains all life.

Relativistic thinking at least gives us the mental flexibility and the spiritual grounding needed for us to begin formulating ideas about what we need to do now.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim

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

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