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

August 14, 2005

LONG-EARED CHIPMUNK
On the list of mammals potentially seen in this area one impressive feature is the presence of six species of chipmunk. There's only one chipmunk species in the East, except for a small portion of the north-central states. Appropriately enough the East's main chipmunk is known as the Eastern Chipmunk.

I've not seen a single chipmunk at our 2600-ft elevation but whenever I backpack to over 4000 feet I hear a variety of whistles and barks I suspect to be chipmunk in origin. The whistlers and barkers habitually escape into the underbrush before I spot them but finally this week at about 4300 feet I got to see where one went. He disappeared into an old tree stump, into a crack between the bark and the shriveling wood. I took a seat about 30 feet away, focused my binoculars on the stump, and in about ten minutes the little critter popped onto the stump's platform and afforded me a full side view.

The Eastern Chipmunk with its small size, short ears, short snout, rounded head and pudgy body looks like it was designed to be cute. My stump chipmunk's long snout and long ears gave it a foxy look. It bore both a very well delineated white eyebrow streak and a white cheek streak, plus the cheek streak expanded into a conspicuous zone of white fur behind its perked-up ears. This chipmunk with racing stripes was streamlined and rangy, a no-nonsense chipmunk clearly not interested in cuddling.

It was the Long-eared Chipmunk, TAMIAS QUADRIMACULATUS, a species endemic to California's Sierra Nevadas and a sliver of western Nevada. What a treat to see this creature. You can read about it, see a map showing its limited area of distribution, and see a drawing that makes it look not quite as lean and foxy as the one I saw at http://www.sibr.com/mammals/M062.html

I think of chipmunks as favoring rocky places, but this Long-eared species specializes in brushy areas, where logs lie on the ground, and open forest. They seldom climb high into trees as some species do. The long ears and the large white patches behind the ears are distinguishing features.

Last weekend Fred and Diana attended a church meeting in a big tent in the high sierras near Tahoe and during the service chipmunk-like critters scurried around the speaker's platform. Diana got a picture of one, and it turned out to be the Golden-mantled Squirrel, CITELLUS LATERALIS, which my mammal book calls "a chipmunk-like ground squirrel." Ground squirrels are yet another rodent type we have here, and we may have three species of them. This place is heaven for rodents! You can see Diana's picture of their Golden-mantled Squirrel at http://www.backyardnature.net/pix/gr-squrl.jpg.

Fred tells the story of what happened at a previous tent service at the same location a while back. During church several "chipmunks," probably Golden-mantled Squirrels, were hanging around the speaker's platform. One of them suddenly broke away and ran right at a pious old lady who promptly screamed, threw her Bible at it, and became so hysterical she had to be taken outside. I told Fred he should send that story to Garrison Koehler as a skit for Lake Woebegone, but he showed me that the skit has already been incorporated into the world of art.

If you have fast broadband Internet connection and want a good laugh, listen to "Mississippi Squirrel Revival" at http://susie1114.com/MississippiSquirrelRevival.html.

*****

PINEDROPS
After you've been paying attention to wildflowers for a while you recognize that there's a whole subset of parasitic and saprophytic wildflower species containing no chlorophyll and thus are not green and bear no normal leaes. Beechdrops, Squawroot, Indian Pipe, Coralroot, Broom-rape... Besides the lack of greenness and normal leaves, another feature common to all those species is their low stature, seldom over a foot high.

Upslope in deep pine forest there's a leafless, brown wildflower blooming now that breaks the not-over-a- foot generality. It's Pinedrops, PTEROSPORA ANDROMEDEA, a member of the Heath or Azalea Family. I've been finding their lusty, slender flower spikes up to four feet tall. You can see such a spike here.

Many books state that Pinedrops are saprophytes -- plants deriving their nutrients from decaying organic matter. Recent studies indicate that Pinedrops are actually special kinds of parasites requiring the presence of three distinct species. First there's the Pinedrops. Second is a "host" plant photosynthesizing its food the usual way. Often the host is a conifer or popular tree. Most Pinedrops I find here grow beneath Pondorosa Pines. The third species required for the Pinedrops' special situation is a mycorrhizal fungus, probably of the genus RHIZOPOGON, which connects the roots of the two previous species providing a means by which photosynthesized material from the host is transferred to the Pinedrops. Since Pinedrops survive on food photosynthesized by a pine who doesn't appear to benefit from the association, Pinedrops are parasites, not saprophytes. This special form of parasitism is often referred to as ectoparasitism.

When you find such complex relationships among organisms you're struck by how fragile ecosystems can be. Most mycorrhizal fungi are rather fastidious about the kind of soil they grow in so if the soil isn't just right there's no mycorrhizal fungus and therefore no Pinedrops. I don't find Pinedrops in areas that have been clear-cut with resulting extensive soil erosion, and now it's clear why this is the case.

When some people see the even-aged, monocultured pine plantations growing where forest used to be they claim that they are seeing forests returning after clear- cutting. They are simply ignoring all evidence beyond the fact that at least one species of pine can survive on that abused soil. As I wrote earlier, ecologically, the even-aged forest returning to these clear-cut areas has more in common with desert-like cornfields than healthy forests.

And they sure don't have Pinedrops.

*****

UMBRELLA PLANT/ INDIAN RHUBARB
One of the most eye-catching of all the plants in the Sierra Nevada foothills is four or five feet tall and umbrella-shaped, grows in and immediately along small streams, and is found naturally only in northern California and southern Oregon. Going by the names of Umbrella Plant and Indian Rhubarb, it's DARMERA PELTATA, a member of the Saxifrage Family, in which you also find hydrangeas and gooseberries. The plant produces small clusters of pink to white blossoms in April. You can see a cluster of these plants in a garden at http://www.inagarden.com/gallery_13.shtml.

When you come upon a little stream with water rushing over rounded boulders and with banks mantled with cascades of long, frilly fern fronds, the presence of these dignified, exotic-feeling plants is esthetically very pleasing. Such stretches of stream are so picturesque that they'd look at home in the most elegant Japanese garden.

With regard to the rhubarb part of one of its names, I've not tried it yet but I read that the fleshy leafstalk can be peeled and eaten raw or put into a salad, though cooking seems to destroy its flavor. I regard the plant as far too pretty to destroy just for the fun of seeing if its petioles can be digested.

*****

PINE RESIN
On the trunks of pines around my trailer and in the forest often I see large plugs or nodules of grayish white, hardened resin, with resin drippings below the plug looking like dripped candle wax. Often the plugs are midway in an otherwise perfectly healthy looking trunk. You can see such plugs, referred to as pitch tubes, at http://www.env.duke.edu/forest/mgmt3.htm.

Seeing so many large gobs of hardened resin, it's easy to guess that they have a purpose. After Googling the issue I've found that not only does the resin "bleeding" from wound clean it, and the hardened resin plug it, but also the resin itself is toxic to some kinds of bark beetles and fungal pathogens.

However, in nature nothing is ever simple. Remember how milkweeds came up with the defense of producing milk (latex) containing alkaloids toxic to most leaf-chewing insects, but then eventually an insect species evolved that thrived on, even needed, the alkaloid itself -- the caterpillar of the Monarch Butterfly. The same thing has happened with pine resin. There's actually a Pitch Nodule Moth, PETROVA SABINIANA, which pupates within the resin plugs!

*****

LOUISIANA "SAND SHARKS"
Alison in Louisiana writes that for a long time her sportsman father has been catching and eating "Sand Sharks" from the Gulf's bayous and marshes. When Alison complained that he shouldn't be eating sharks, he said that they were abundant. Alison, suspicious that this wasn't the whole story, identified the shark from her father's trophy pictures, looked up the name, "and now here's THE REST OF THE STORY... "

Alison writes that the sharks were, "male, black tip sharks born this spring. I also found that there are sharp state limits on sharks in Louisiana, which my father violated, and that most of the 42 species of shark in the Gulf are under intense fishing pressure. After informing my father of these details, and giving him many ways to KNOW these baby sharks he caught (male, born this spring, often hunting with spinning leaps out of water, and ICUN listed as 'vulnerable, mothers bear live young after 12 mo. gestation') he decided he would no longer land sharks and would spread the word among his misinformed fishing buddies not to do so either."

What a fine example of the "Three Steps to Learning about Nature" outlined at www.backyardnature.net/listopen.htm:

  1. identify something
  2. look up the name
  3. keep gathering info on it

The end result being CARING about the thing you learn about, and then life can go on...

This is also another good example of how hunters and fishermen are often much more sensitive to nature than those who simply defrost their meals or open cans without ever thinking where their food comes from.

And what a fine example of one person, Alison, making important changes.

You can see and read about Blacktip Sharks, which technically are known as CARCHARHINUS LIMBATUS, here.

*****

STUMPY MEADOWS
An hour of hiking narrow, steep, picturesque roads brings me to the border of El Dorado National Forest, then in another hour I can be atop Slate Mountain. Beyond Slate Mountain you see toward the east a vast region of hills and steep-banked valleys. On the average, the whole landscape tilts upward toward the east, but the tilt is so slight that it's imperceptible -- except that 30 miles away the peaks are so high that they're barren and even at this time of year are graced with great long streaks of snow.

Slate Mountain peaks at 3892 feet. The next peak eastward is Big X Mountain at 4202 feet, then Chaix Mountain at 4935, then Deer Knob at 5621, then Two Peaks at 7576, then there's a whole range of peaks, the Sierra Madre backbone, which includes Mt. Tallac at 9735 feet (I reported on climbing this one last October) and the highest in the area, Pyramid Peak, at 10,020 feet. To put things in perspective, the highest peak in the East is North Carolina's Mt. Mitchell at 6684 feet. Mt. Whitney 200 miles south of here, the highest peak in the lower 48 states, rises to 14,496 feet.

Step by step since arriving here I've been penetrating this vast region, most camps a little higher and a little farther from home than the last one. Lately I've been mountain-biking to my last-reached most-distant point, then backpacking into the new territory, even if it looks bikable.

For a long time I've been eyeing Stumpy Meadows Reservoir, at 4262 feet, made by damming Pilot Creek. Since I've been assuming that the area beyond Slate Mountain is all wild forest attainable only by logging roads and trails, I've visualized Stumpy Meadows as an isolated wetland with lots of cattails, ducks, beaver, etc.

This week, about half a mile before reaching the lake, I stumbled from the woods onto a paved road. Lots of cars, the odor of exhaust fumes and suntan lotion... Descending to the lake, the waters were perfectly blue and thick with boats and people floating on inner tubes and, beyond them, rising above the bluish-green forest, were those massive, gray peaks with broad streaks of snow, like a postcard, a perfect, glossy, overpopulated postcard.

I hadn't known a paved road cut into the area, much less that a lot of people used it. In a flash, my whole feeling about the region changed.

Of all my thoughts during my hike back downslope, I'll mention only one. That is, for progressing through Life in General I think my slow, detail-savoring, sweat- making, tired-muscle-causing, often unpredictable and uncomfortable approach for getting from Point A to Point B deserves at least a little consideration -- even when there are easier and faster ways of doing things. I'm sure that by avoiding the main roads I've received something intangible and good from this landscape those highway-users will never experience, and probably could benefit from.

Maybe my experience getting to Stumpy Meadows relates to stories told us by old folks who lived through the Depression. Most Depression stories I've heard include the remark, "We were awfully poor and suffered many hardships, but, you know, we were HAPPY... " And often these stories have been told to people who had very easy lives, more possessions than they could manage or remember, and they were not happy at all.

Maybe it's also relevant to point out that my way of getting to Stumpy Meadows was basically free and healthy, but the other people I saw up there had spent a good deal of money on transportation and "watersport paraphernalia," and most looked painfully out of shape.

I think this may be one of those cases where an answer to many of our problems is staring us all in the face, but somehow very few of us are seeing it, or believing it, or acting on what we see.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim

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