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

September 4, 2005

A WESTERN RATTLESNAKE
At about 4000 feet, beautifully camouflaged with brown splotches upon a gray background, the young rattler stretched atop a litter of dried, curled-up Madrone leaves. If he'd been coiled or curved I think his bold disruptive patterning would have disguised him and maybe I'd have walked right over him, but he lay there fairly straight and the unbroken line of the top of his form caught my eye so without knowing exactly why I froze in my steps even before I knew he was a rattler.

We looked at one another awhile, then he turned tail and fled, holding his tail high and rattling it, sounding very much like the small cicadas we have here, not the larger, very loudly droning cicadas of the East.

What a difference between this excitable, fast-moving Western Rattlesnake, CROTALUS OREGANUS, and the Timber Rattlers, CROTALUS HORRIDUS, I've met so often in the East! I'm used to Timber Rattlers lethargically lying quietly, even when they know they're discovered. Though I've relocated quite a number so people wouldn't hurt them, most of the time they've never even rattled. But this snake was a fast mover and he shook his tail as if his life depended on it.

Another difference between Timber Rattlers and Western Rattlers is that no subspecies of Timber Rattlers are recognized, while Western Rattlesnakes have fractured into eight subspecies in North America. When you consider the West's much more diverse landscape, that's understandable. Among the Western Rattlesnake's subspecies are the Prairie of the great grasslands, the Hopi of desert northeastern Arizona, and the high- elevation Great Basin Western Rattlers.

Here we're located on the boundary between two subspecies, with the Great Basin subspecies mostly higher up and the Northern Pacific subspecies mostly lower down, and my rattler moved so fast I couldn't figure out which subspecies he was.

One of the most striking pictures of a Western Rattler I've seen on the Internet is at my own backyard nature site. It's a picture taken by Andre Sage, who visited here a few weeks ago. That picture resides at www.backyardnature.net/snakes.htm.

*****

OREGON JUNCOS
At this time of year I seldom see juncos at this elevation. Juncos are those dark-gray-backed, white- bottomed, small, seed-eating birds who during the summer live mostly in Canada and Alaska, but overwinter in the US. My parents called them snowbirds and were sure that snowbirds came only during our uncommon Kentucky snows. Now I know they were present all winter, just that when we had snow the birds' dark upper parts showed up better beneath our birdfeeder pecking at seeds the more sloppy birds knocked out.

Here when I backpack to around 3500 feet juncos start showing up, even in mid summer. They're permanent residents in western North America's mountains, as well as the East's higher Appalachians and New England.

However, the high-elevation juncos I see here are very different from the ones back East. The ones here have dark gray heads and upper chests and white bellies just like the eastern birds but their backs and wings are pale brown. They look like brown birds who have had their heads dipped into dark gray paint. You can see them at http://www.roysephotos.com/DarkEyedJunco2.html.

When I was a kid these brown-backed juncos were regarded as a different species from the eastern birds. The books called the eastern juncos Slate-colored Juncos, and the brown-backed western species Oregon Juncos. There were other juncos, too, such as the White-winged, Gray-headed and Guadalupe Juncos. A map showing the summer distribution of "Oregon Juncos" at http://www.mbr-pwrc.usgs.gov/id/framlst/BBSMap/ra5679.gif.

Now all those different junco types, including our "Oregon Junco," are lumped into one big coast-to-coast taxon known as the Dark-eyed Junco. In areas where the various subspecies' distributions overlap there is just too much interbreeding and intergrading for the different populations to be maintained as distinct species.

By the way, you'd understand the Dark-eyed Junco's name if you saw the bright YELLOW eyes of the Mexican Junco so common in Mexico above about 5000 feet.

*****

BUSH CHINQUAPINS
The most surprising discovery of my latest backpacking trip was what looked like a knee-high tangle of shrubs bearing clusters of fruits looking just like 1.5-inch wide, yellow-green, sublimely spiny sea urchins. They were obviously chestnuts but the bush's leaves weren't like chestnut leaves at all, more like smallish, unlobed, evergreen Live Oak leaves. This was the Bush Chinquapin, CASTANOPSIS SEMPERVIRENS, which you can see at http://waynesword.palomar.edu/images/chinqu1b.jpg.

The "Sierra Nevada Natural History" field guide says that Bush Chinquapins reach eight feet high and are found mainly above 6000 feet. I suspect that my knee- high plants were stunted because they grew on the fringe of their habitat, only at 4500 feet, and had to settle for a roadcut instead of their preferred rocky ridge. The book says the spiny bur encloses one to three bitter-tasting nuts. There's a tree-size member of this same genus, the Golden Chinquapin, along the coast from Washington State through central California, and its nuts are described as edible.

In this year's June 19th Newsletter I described our Tanoaks, which struck me as being "missing links" between oaks and chestnuts. Tanoak leaves are more like chestnut than oak leaves, but the trees bear fruits that are very definitely acorns, though the scales on the acorns' cups are so long-pointed that the cups are spiny, like chestnut husks.

Well, these Bush Chinquapins seemed to me to be another "missing link" between oaks and chestnuts. This time the fruits look completely like chestnut fruits, while the vegetative parts look like nothing but oak.

Tanoaks, chinquapins, chestnuts, oaks and beech are all members of the same family, the FAGACEAE, but they are different genera -- LITHOCARPUS, CASTANOPSIS, CASTANEA, QUERCUS and FAGUS, respectively. Now that I'm familiar with all of them, it's very satisfying to visualize the genera arising from their common ancestor, each retaining its particular assemblage of ancestral features, abandoning others, and acquiring some evolutionary innovations of their own. I am struck by how elegant and perfect all the parts fit together.

What a world it is that can have tanoaks and chinquapins, as well as great masses of humanity who believe they'll go right to Hell if they recognize the majestic evolutionary process that has wrought us all!

*****

BLACK TWINBERRY
Another striking bush met in a shadowy forest at about 4500 feet caught my attention not because of its flowers but because of its fruits. Two shiny-black, globose, juicy, pea-size but bad-tasting berries always appeared together side by side at the tip of a slender branch, each fruit pair subtended by a single dark purple, flaring, collar-like bract. The purple bracts caught one's attention, then the black fruits' presence surprised you, being so black in the dark forest that they were invisible but for the shine on them. You can see all this at http://www.paghat.com/berries16.html.

It took me a while to realize that this exotic-looking plant was a bush honeysuckle -- LONICERA INVOLUCRATA, graced with the appropriate English name of Black Twinberry. It's a native, mostly northern species, distributed from Quebec to Alaska, south in the mountains to Mexico.

I think most of us underappreciate honeysuckle diversity. About 180 species of the genus Lonicera are known, many are ornamental, and many are very different from the heavenly smelling but ubiquitous and invasive weed Japanese Honeysuckle, Lonicera japonica.

In the East we have the red-blossomed Red Honeysuckle or Trumpet Honeysuckle, Lonicera sempervirens, which you can see here.

On that vine a few red blossoms cluster toward the stem tip, with the stem's last two leaves before reaching the flowers usually but not always growing together at their bases, making it look like the stem passes through the center of a single rounded leaf. The Black Twinberry's collar-like bract is an evolutionary step beyond those two leaves growing together.

In fact, at the California Honeysuckles page at http://www.laspilitas.com/groups/lonicera/California_honeysuckle.htm you can see a good variety of California Honeysuckles, and it's interesting to observe how in some species the bases of the last two stem leaves before the flowers are completely grown together, only partly so on some species, and not at all on others. There seems to have been a definite evolutionary impulse among the honeysuckles to have those last two leaves joined, with the Black Twinberry representing an ultimate perfection.

If you could have seen how pretty the Black Twinberry's fruiting clusters were there in the cool, dark, high- elevation coniferous forest, you might have come up with that notion yourself.

*****

PACIFIC TREEFROG IN A BOAT
Some years ago Daniel, the son of Fred & Diana and now off at pilot school, put an old rowboat next to the trailer I'm staying in now, filled it with water, rocks, cattails, pickerelweeds and fish, and made himself a boat pond. A few weeks ago both Daniel and his friend Andre were here (the same Andre who took the rattler photograph linked to above) and one day while they were exploring the old boat's ecology Diana snapped a picture of them, which I really like, so you can see the old boat, Daniel and Andre (pink cap) at http://www.backyardnature.net/ecology.htm.

Daniel and Andre moved on weeks ago but the old boat has remained, slowly leaking, being refilled every now and then and -- here's the thing -- its ecology has blossomed beautifully. Any time you can sit beside it watching mosquitofish, water striders and lots of other tiny critters. Right now the pickerelweeds bear pretty, blue flowers, and if you search among the broad, glossy pickerelweed leaves closely, usually you can find a little treefrog hunkered down waiting for the rains and a good time to call. With a very conspicuous black stripe through his eye, he's a Pacific Treefrog, HYLA REGILLA. My picture of him can be seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/pix/treefrg3.jpg.

The list of frogs and toads potentially found around Natchez, Mississippi, where I lived in recent years, bore ten treefrog species, and often identifying the treefrogs I ran across was a real challenge. Here treefrog identification is a cinch because there's only one member of the Treefrog Family, and that's the Pacific Treefrog.

One claim to fame for the Pacific Treefrog is that he is the commonly heard frog around Hollywood south of here. When Hollywood moviemakers need an authentic outdoor nighttime sound, often it's this frog that gets recorded, and thus its voice has been heard around the world. You can see if you recognize it at http://www.naturewatch.ca/databases/frogs/audio/hyla_regilla.wav.

*****

MONOCOTS & DICOTS
You may recall from biology class that flowering plants, or angiosperms, fall into two great groupings, the monocots and dicots. In general, monocot flowers have parts in 3s or multiples of 3, while dicots flowers have parts in 4s or 5s, or multiples thereof. Also, monocots, like grasses, have parallel veins while dicots, like maple leaves, are net veined.

You might guess that since they've begun sequencing genes, they've found that the situation isn't as simple as they'd believed. The angiosperm branch of the Tree of Life is like all other branches, with some parts evolving faster and more prolifically than others, the end result being anything but a neat branching into monocots and dicots.

I've added a new page at my nature site showing the main current concept of the angiosperm branch of the Tree of Life, and providing links where you can find much more detailed and technical information. The new page is at http://www.backyardnature.net/amborell.htm

While putting the above page together I came upon some of the newest numbers relating to the Earth's plant species:

*****

PRAYING MANTIS EATS HUMMINGBIRD
Fred has brought to my attention some photos that boggle my mind: A Praying Mantis with a captured hummingbird dangling from his grabbing arm.

You can also marvel at this picture by clicking here.

*****

PROBLEMS SENDING THIS NEWSLETTER
My impression is that last week most subscribers did not receive their Newsletter. Issuing the Newsletter has always been a challenge, and it's getting harder all the time.

The main problem is that many servers are implementing spam filters that block all mail generated in batches, including my Newsletters. Another problem is that my server's computers are often erratic and simply mess up. Finally, the Newsletter's subscription list has grown so large that the bare-bones freeware program I use to send the Newsletters en masse sometimes gets choked on all the addresses.

I'll continue issuing the Newsletter, however, even if the mailings stop working altogether. Most people read the archived editions, anyway. I place a copy of the Newsletter in the archives as soon as I send out the email edition.

Therefore, whenever you miss receiving your copy, just go to the archives and, if the Newsletter has been issued, it'll be there.

This Newsletter and all previous ones -- all the way back to June 10, 2001 -- can be accessed at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/.

*****

HURRICANE KATRINA
I've spent each of my last ten or so summers in the woods outside Natchez, Mississippi. If I had stayed there this summer today's Newsletter wouldn't have been issued, for there'd be no electricity to power the computer and maybe no phone.

My heart goes out to everyone whose lives were upset by Hurricane Katrina, and I know that a goodly number of Newsletter readers find themselves in that group.

I think that this is a good time in which to reflect on that feature of human nature which made this disaster worse than it had to be. This is an important subject because the same tendencies are directing us all toward even greater disasters.

When New Orleans was founded in 1718 by Sieur de Bienville, engineers on the scene said from the very beginning that it was a bad location. It was a classic case of science being overruled by politics and big business.

Today science points to water tables already too low in places where politicians encourage more growth and big business builds new homes. Science shows that wetlands are vital to Earth's Web of Life, but politicians and big business drain swamps and pave them over. Science says that global warming will cause catastrophic consequences for the entire Earth, but the President says that dealing with it would be bad for American business.

At some point we must begin respecting the fact that when it comes to something as important as the continuation of Life on Earth, the ephemeral concerns of politics and big business should not be allowed to trump the hard-won, eternal facts of science.

The thinking process must not stop there, however. The next insight to face is this: Politicians and big business are doing no more than providing the goods and services demanded by the general public.

At the root of the current disaster, and most of the catastrophes soon to beset us, lies undisciplined consumerism by the great majority of US, the people. It is WE who require that the holy facts of science be denied in order for politicians and big business to accommodate the demands of our own intemperate appetites.

If any one of us is asking what we can do to turn things around -- even if we believe that our efforts will be futile -- surely the best answer is for each of us to exercise more self discipline, deny our appetites at least a little, simplify our lives, become more self sufficient, and sensitize ourselves to the spiritual aspect of being a biological being profoundly enmeshed in and depending on a gorgeous Earthly ecosystem.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim

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

Visit Jim's backyard nature site at www.backyardnature.net