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

August 21, 2005

BLACK BEAR IN MID STRIDE
This week I saw my Black Bear, URSUS AMERICANUS. In El Dorado National Forest I was following a narrow four-wheeler trail down a wooded slope when the bear and I met at a curve about 25 feet apart. Both the bear and I froze in mid stride and I was gratified when he remained frozen as I raised my binoculars and had a good look. He was all black except for a cinnamon chest, and not quite fully grown. We stared at one another for about 15 seconds and then he turned and waddled off in the opposite direction. I continued my walk past where he'd been and followed his tracks on the dusty trail for a good distance before they led into the brush.

This was in the same general area where earlier I had seen bear tracks. Those prints had been 7.5 and 7 inches long, not counting claws, and this one's prints were 6.5 inches long, so now I know that at least three bears inhabit that vicinity.

Earlier I wrote that surely bears at this season are having a hard time finding enough food to survive because it's too early for acorns, blackberries and other such fruits. However, this bear looked well fed and healthy, and now that I've looked more into bear food I can see why. Bears are much more vegetarian than I'd believed, at this time of year mainly eating miscellaneous herbage and even grasses, until berries and nuts ripen later.

I was curious about the bear's cinnamon-colored chest. I read that about 95% of Black Bears in the Sierra Nevadas are some shade of brown and only about 5% are truely black, but I can't find mention of black bears with large brownish spots.

There's a very informative website dealing specifically with bears in the Sierra Nevadas at http://www.sierrawildbear.net/

*****

WOLF MOSS
The most conspicuous lichen in these parts is certainly a yellow-orange, fruticose species going by the English name of Wolf Moss (though lichens aren't related to mosses at all). It's LETHARIA VULPINA, with pictures at http://bio.research.ucsc.edu/people/goff/Letharia%20pictures.htm

If you need a refresher course on the three main kinds of lichen (crustose, foliose and fruticose), go to www.backyardnature.net/lichens.htm

Atop Slate Mountain where gnarly, knee-high manzanita gives way to barren slate debris, bright yellow Wolf Moss grows on the manzanitas' smooth, reddish stems. It also grows on naked rocks, on tree trunks, and the other day at an opening in the forest I came upon an old, abandoned horse-loading ramp whose wood was decaying and falling apart, and absolutely overgrown with garish Wolf Moss.

Like a number of plants and fungi reproducing with spores capable of traveling long distances on the wind, Wolf Moss also occurs in Europe. The story goes that it was there where our barbarian ancestors gave the lichen its name. It happens that Wolf Moss produces a toxic chemical, vulpinic acid, so our ancestors would mix the lichen with ground glass and meat and leave it in the woods so wolves would eat it and die. Apparently the glass would puncture the gut making it easier for the vulpinic acid to do its dirty work. Wolf Moss's toxicity didn't go unnoticed by native Americans, either. Northern California's Achomawi people poisoned arrowheads with it.

Wolf Moss has a brighter side. Native Americans boiled it, either alone or with grape bark, to produce a bright yellow dye for decorating baskets. Also, often poisons taken in weak dosages serve medicinal purposes, and that's the case with Wolf Moss's vulpinic acid. In dilute solutions it was used to wash external sores and wounds. The Okanagan- Colville people made a weak tea of it to treat internal problems, and it was a Blackfoot remedy for stomach disorders.

This pretty, strange-looking organism must have been regarded as mysterious and powerful by those who once used it. I can just imagine the shamans, herbalists and basket makers among the native people of these parts occasionally climbing up to Slate Mountain, maybe along the same trails I sometimes use, to gather it.

Nowadays nearly everyone passes by Wolf Moss not knowing anything about its powers and gifts, not even knowing its name. I just wonder if ever the time will return when people will look upon it and cold shivers will run through their bodies as they think about its dangerousness, or, making dye from it, they get the dye on their hands and look at the rich golden hue and feel good about having conjured such a pretty color from simple wads of lichen gathered from Slate Mountain's gnarly manazanita.

*****

DWARF-MISTLETOE
Wolf Moss wasn't the only mysterious-looking plant seen on this week's walk. At about eye level on the straight, ten-inch-across trunks of a couple of widely separated young Ponderosa Pines, arising from between bark scales were clumps of slender-stemmed, jointed, forked items looking like scrawny juniperus stems dyed yellow. Having no green to them it was clear that they were parasitic.

The only other things I've seen growing like this were fungi, which are never jointed the way this was, and mistletoe, which bears conspicuous green leaves. However, mistletoe is only half parasitic -- "hemiparasitic," as they say in botany class. Mistletoe steals water and nutrients from its host tree but then photosynthesizes its carbohydrates with its own green leaves, and this item on the pine trunks bore no leaves at all.

The deal is that in western and northern North America there's a genus in the Mistletoe Family that has gone all the way into parasitism, not just halfway, and I had found it. It was Western Dwarf-mistletoe, ARCEUTHOBIUM CAMPYLOPODUM, shown on a pine branch here.

A distribution map showing the western and northern distribution of the GENUS, with its center of species diversity (twelve species) here in California is here.

Being flowering plants, dwarf-mistletoe produces flowers and fruits, and the fruits are amazing things. Mainly, unlike regular mistletoe, whose seeds are dispersed by birds who eat the waxy fruits, dwarf-mistletoe fruits are explosive.

Hydrostatic pressure in the ripening fruit builds to such a point that eventually the slightest touch dislodges the rubbery fruit from its pedicel, and then the seed is shot from an opening at a velocity of 89 feet per second!

You can read a very detailed account of dwarf- mistletoe's life cycle and see many pictures associated with each stage at http://www.science.siu.edu/parasitic-plants/Viscaceae/cycle.html

*****

EARLESS SCREECH-OWL
Late in the afternoon I was trudging along a dusty trail across a wooded slope when on the ground before me the shadow of a robin-size bird moved among the shadows of tree-top limbs. The bird itself was perched right between the sun and me so he was hard to spot, but when I did see him it was a dramatic view. It was a small owl almost grown but with juvenile down-feathers sprouting all over his body. Sunlight exploding inside the fluffy down feathers created a blazing halo around the otherwise mostly silhouetted owl.

At first I wasn't sure what kind of owl he was. The size suggested a Screech Owl but Screech Owls bear conspicuous "ears" of feather tufts, and this owl's head was as smoothly round as mine.

Finally I remembered that young Screech Owls don't have ear tufts. Those special feathers must grow there over time, and this young owl clearly hadn't had time enough.

Still, my uncertainty caused me to look at the owls in my field guide. Maybe I'd discovered one of those famously rare and earless Spotted Owls that has stopped logging in certain tracts of the Pacific Northwest, but no such luck. Spotted Owls are twice as large as Screech Owls, and their breasts don't bear the bold vertical striping my Screech Owl showed.

I haven't heard a Screech Owl since I've been here but I'm glad to see they're among us producing nice, round- headed babies.

*****

GARTER & RINGNECK SNAKES OF A DIFFERENT STYLE
Most of us who wander around looking at the ground a lot get to see plenty of garter and ringneck snakes, both of which are common, peaceful and widely distributed species. This week I've run into both species as they crossed logging roads, and neither looked quite the way I'm used to them looking.

That wasn't a big surprise, however, because I figured that here we must have different subspecies from what I usually see in the Southeast. In fact, both Common Garter Snakes and Ringneck Snakes are distributed over such large areas that each has fractured into about a dozen subspecies in North America.

The garter snake subspecies I saw was one sometimes called the Valley Garter Snake, THAMNOPHIS SIRTALIS ssp FITCHI, with a satiny black head and lines, hardly any speckling and no red scales. I'm used to less vivid blackness, more speckling and occasional red scales. You can see if he looks like your local garter snake at http://www.californiaherps.com/snakes/pages/t.s.fitchi.html

The Ringneck subspecies I saw was the Coral-bellied Ringneck Snake, DIADOPHIS PUNCTATUS ssp PULCHELLUS, with a broad neck-ring and few or no belly spots. I'm used to seeing a narrower neck-ring and spots on the belly. Compare this species with your local one at http://www.californiaherps.com/snakes/pages/d.p.pulchellus.html

Both of the links mentioned above are part of the California Reptiles and Amphibians site at  http://www.california herps.com, which is a pleasure to browse. Someday there'll be such locally based sites for all the major kinds of plants and animals, and that will make backyard naturalizing even more fun than it is now.

*****

ONLINE COUNTRY BIRDING FORUM
Bob in Tennessee has set up a new online forum called "Country Birding (Come sit a spell, and tell us your tales... )." It has topic areas like "General Birding," "Hummingbirds," "Injured/Abandoned Animals," and "Those Darn Squirrels." Registration is free and easy. If you'd like to participate and help the forum get off the ground, go to http://birdmaven.proboards59.com/

*****

SPRAYING FOR MOSQUITOES
Lately West Nile Disease has been showing up in the Central Valley below and they're doing aerial spraying for mosquitoes. The experts and officials say the spraying "does no harm" and they point to the fact that "crickets, goldfish, pill bugs and other insects set out overnight in Sacramento's mosquito-spray zones survived." The insecticide being used is "Evergreen Crop Protection EC 60-6," which is 6% pyrethrum, and pyrethrum is a natural poison made from African Chrysanthemum flowers, CHRYSANTHEMUM CINERARIAEFOLIUM. Pyrethrum compounds are broken down in water to non- toxic products.

Still, pyrethrum is being used because it kills things. On a website selling pyrethrum it's claimed that "Pyrethrum Powder is toxic to fleas, roaches, ants, silverfish and many other insects." Keeping straight the differences between pyrethrins, which are natural, and pyrethroids, which are synthetic, you might look at technical information on pyrethrum provided at http://www.nccnsw.org.au/member/tec/projects/tcye/tox/Pyrethrum.html

While pyrethrum-based insecticides are much better than the hard stuff that once was sprayed, it's wrong for our experts and officials habitually to say that spraying "does no harm." Pyrethrum-based insecticides do not just kill mosquito larvae. If you're an animal and you get this stuff inside you, there will be effects, whether it kills you are not. Pyrethrum-based insecticides work by attacking the nervous system, causing paralysis. Often an insect is immobilized but not killed. Pyrethrum is extremely toxic to fish, toxic to bees and slightly toxic to birds. Since humans and insects share a large percentage of genetic information, it's rational to assume that pyrethrum- based insecticides may be doing something bad to us, even if it's not outright killing those crickets, goldfish and pill bugs someone set out overnight.

Of course, our experts and politicians know these details. It's just that they make the decision for us that the health benefits of spraying against disease- carrying mosquitoes outweigh the damage aerial spraying does to the ecosystem.

And "ecosystem" is the right word. Many times in this Newsletter I've described complex webs of life in such obscure places as inside magnolia blossoms, drops of birdbath water, on the "bare" surfaces of rocks, etc. No one I have ever heard saying how harmless aerial sprayings of pyrethrum are refers to these life forms, even though all ecologists know that such living things form the base of a kind of pyramid with energy- flow and nutrient-flow dynamics, and threads of mutual dependencies, that are vital to us all. When those smallest and most obscure of life forms are harmed, the base of the Pyramid of Life is made less secure.

For my part, instead of having politicians and experts decide for me, I'd much rather make my own decision about whether I want to have pyrethrum or anything else sprayed from an airplane onto me and the ecosystem around me, or whether I'll just put on repellent, wear long sleeves, stay indoors at dusk, or take a chance with West Nile.

There's a page on the Internet more or less living up to its title of "A Sensible Approach to Insect Control." It even begins a section with the statement, "The first place to start is with yourself. You may need an attitude adjustment... " It's at http://www.bmi.net/roseguy/scinsect.html

*****

THE MAIDU
Back to that Wolf Moss. I know a little about the native people who may have journeyed from here up to Slate Mountain to gather Wolf Moss. I was introduced to them the day I wondered about the name of the first very steep, narrow, paved road I use when I hike upslope to my backpacking area. It's Maidu Drive, and Google showed me that Maidu is the name of the native people who occupied this land before white people arrived. First were the Spanish, then later came American settlers, then finally the Gold Rush did the Maidu in. The story is so sordid and predictable that there's no point in retelling it here. There are still Maidu people, but they have lost their homeland and traditional ways.

At http://thefirstamericans.homestead.com/Maidu.html there's a page describing the ancient Maidu, along with drawings of their traditional homes and dress. The Maidu depended a lot on acorns, and I've seen several deep holes in the local granite rock, usually next to streams, where the Maidu ground their acorns. The page at the above link also displays some Maidu baskets and I wonder if the rich golden color of those baskets comes from Wolf Moss dye, and I wonder by what name of their own the Maidu called Wolf Moss.

Sometimes I feel especially bad about the way my ancestors destroyed so many indigenous cultures, then occupied their land, and finally made property laws as if the land were really theirs.

A while back I met a lady who practiced the hobby of trying to figure out the ethnic origins of people she met. She looked at my tallness, my round head instead of the long head most tall people have, my blue eyes, my broad chest but slender arms and legs, and told me that surely my ancestors were Scandinavians -- Vikings -- who invaded Germany, assimilated, and then centuries later, thinking of themselves as Germans, came to America. I don't know if there's anything to that story but it's plausible.

The story reminds us that humans always have been invading one another's territories, just as we are today, and the way Robins try to do every spring. History shows that genocide and other atrocities practiced on other peoples are normal behaviors for humans, possibly being impulses dictated by our genes.

That's not to say that genocide is right, even if it is natural. I believe that when a sentient being reaches a certain stage of self-awareness and has access to a certain amount of information, then it dishonors The Evolving Power not to rise above genetic and social imperatives such as genocide, rapacity and willing ignorance, and live idealistically.

To honor The Evolving Force and to be something new and beautiful upon the face of the Earth, we must try to live according to what we feel is right, and not simply pass our days doing what those around us are doing, and indulging our gross innate appetites.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim

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