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

September 11, 2005

CALIFORNIA GROUND SQUIRRELS
At about 4300 feet in elevation I took a rest, perching on a stump atop a steep slope below which nothing remained of the clearcut forest other than rotting stumps, eroding dirt and brush piles. The glare and afternoon heat were bad but I'd spotted movement down below and I wanted to know what critter could possibly call such a raw, broken landscape home. Eventually he appeared, sprinting from beneath a log to grab something in the open, maybe a beetle, and quickly return to his hiding.

He looked a like a chickaree -- which looks like a small gray squirrel -- but I'd never seen a chickaree far from a standing tree.

The binoculars explained it. Here was something different, something gray with a broad, pale splotch on each side along the neck and above the shoulders. He was a California Ground Squirrel, CITELLUS BEECHEYI. You can see him, but with the starkly white patches I saw hardly showing at all, at http://www.death-valley.us/article22.html.

During the rest of the hike I spotted quite a few California Ground Squirrels, though never in the forest, just in open and semi-open areas. Though this preference for the ground set him apart from chickarees and tree squirrels, his outward similarity to those animals got me to wondering just what was the difference between them.

My field guide wasn't much help. In fact, it added marmots, woodchucks and prairie dogs to the mix, because those animals are members of the Squirrel Family, the Sciuridae, just like tree squirrels, chipmunks and these ground squirrels. Thumbing through the field guide's illustrations of the various Squirrel Family members I decided that just from outward appearances the various groupings more or less blend into one another. If all you know is the Eastern Chipmunk and the Eastern Gray Squirrel there's a world of difference between those two things, but consider all the other species in the family and it becomes hard to draw lines between major groupings, at least by outward appearances alone.

Ground squirrels and chipmunks do possess thin inner cheek pouches for carrying food or nest material, but tree squirrels, including the Chickaree, don't. This is a big anatomical difference but you can't see it from the outside. Also there are striking differences of behavior, but a picture doesn't show that, either. The ground-dwelling species even have the nice habit of rearing up on haunches and looking around, just like tree squirrels on a limb.

The Sierra Nevada Natural History handbook says that at one time California Ground Squirrels were "enormously abundant," even in the Central Valley below. However, these rodents dig tunnels that can break a cow's leg and they relish the irrigated crops grown down there, so the species has been exterminated over large tracts. Still, here and there in the Sierras they are represented "scatteringly well," as the handbook says.

*****

WHITE-HEADED WOODPECKER
Eventually this week I hiked high enough, to around 4300 feet, to see a new woodpecker, one specializing on foraging on the trunks of pines and firs. He was the White-headed Woodpecker, MELANERPES ALBOLARVATUS, and he really did have a white head, as well as a broad, white streak on his wing. You can see him at http://www.mbr-pwrc.usgs.gov/id/framlst/i3990id.html. At that address if you click on "BBS Map" over at the left you'll see that he has a rather limited distribution in the western mountains, and that we're in one of his two small centers of distribution.

This bird, a bit smaller than a robin, seems to have some character. I read that it can land on a tree trunk sideways or even upside down, like a nuthatch. The field guide says he likes to perch in plain view and this was the case with mine, for as soon as I started watching he landed on a snag in full sunlight, preened, gawked around, and generally displayed himself.

That day he was also flying about in a small flock slowly drifting across the slope. His companions were a Flicker (western red-shafted form) and two Hairy Woodpeckers. Though I've often seen mixed-species flocks sticking together like this I don't recall seeing three woodpecker species comprising a flock.

White-headed Woodpeckers are especially valuable citizens of the forest ecosystem because of their nest building. They excavate cavities in upright stubs of dead trees that are hard on the outside but soft inside. Their dens are only three or four inches across but a foot or more deep. When they are abandoned, other creatures unable to dig their own holes move in, especially chickadees, nuthatches and flying squirrels.

*****

WHITE FIRS
One reason the White-headed Woodpecker appeared at around 4300 feet was that he likes pines and firs, and at that elevation the White Firs, ABIES CONCOLOR, began showing up. What a pleasure seeing those trees' slender, sharp-topped forms, their smooth, grayish bark from a distance looking almost white, and their neat but gummy cones picturesquely standing upright at limb ends like dark, stubby candles on a Christmas tree's boughs. You can see its cones and a branch at http://www.science.siu.edu/landplants/Coniferophyta/images/Abies.con.JPEG.

We also have Red Firs in the area, but they come in about 2000 feet higher.

At our base 2600-ft elevation we do have Douglas-firs but Douglas-firs are not firs. In other words, they're not members of the genus Abies, and don't even produce upright cones like real firs. This is a case of the English-speaking people who named our trees slopping the name "fir" onto a species with vaguely similar needles but different in very many other respects. Poor Douglas-fir's Latin name is hardly even its own. Douglas-firs are members of the genus Pseudotsuga, with Tsuga being the Latin name for hemlocks, so the Douglas-Fir's Latin name just says that it's a "false hemlock."

*****

THISTLEDOWN AND SPACE CRICKETS
The summer air at our 2600-ft elevation, relative to what we had in southern Mississippi, is exceedingly dry, so even when it's in the 90s a breeze beneath a shady tree can almost feel cool. Add in the perpetual cloudless sky and dazzling sunlight and it feels, relative to summery Mississippi, invigorating and pleasant to the point of being playful. People here are talking about the hot summer we've had, but they just don't know...

Climb up to the fir zone at 4300 feet and the feeling sharpens. The world is contrasty with black, perfectly defined shadows, and glare on pine needles and granite rock is like visual crushed glass. Breathing in the tangy, resiny, chill air and squinting into too much to see, the senses get juiced up. On this week's hike I carried a loaf of garlic and cheese bread and some sweet apples, and around noon I sat on a stump next to a clearcut slope eating them.

Imagine that mingling of tastes, the odors, the sounds of wind in pines and firs... Sunlight burned my skin but the back of my shirt, wet with sweat where the backpack had been, got so cold it almost hurt. The sweetness of the apples also almost hurt, and all that light, but the odor of the bread and its garlic and cheese mellowed things out and I wished for more and more of it all, just wanting to eat it all in, and bigger lungs to breathe in more air.

In clearcuts at that elevation the main weed to come in is a thistle, genus CARDUUS. You can see a thistle, gloriously spiny and with some heads with purple flowers and others fruiting, the stage ours is in, at http://herbarium.biology.colostate.edu/slides/carduus_nutans.html.

Down below me as I ate on that stump the early afternoon dry heat caused thistle heads to open up to release their seeds attached to silver-dollar-size puff-parachutes of thistledown. Breezes caught in the parachutes and the seeds attached to the down launched into the air. Since black forest stood in the background and the tawny thistledown exploded in sunlight, every airborne seed was exquisitely visible, every seed had a vivid identity, a remarkable presence.

When a breeze came along the thistledown bubbles circled and sailed erratically but when there was no breeze at all the bubbles rose straight up, a strange sight and surprising to see, just hundreds of thousands of brilliant points of light like bright bubbles in black Champaign.

Later as I hiked along the road great clumps of thistledown lay caught in weeds and spider webs, but not a parachute had a seed attached to it. I wondered if birds and rodents had eaten the seeds soon after they'd landed. Maybe that explains why so many millions of seeds could be issued by a single field in a single day, but only a few thousand plants would appear there the next year.

When I got back home I had an email from Jerry in Pelahatchie, Mississippi. He described his experiences with Hurricane Katrina, sitting in his office watching things fly by, watching wind eddies form and points of pressure explode. The experience touched in him something similar to what the swirling thistledown had touched in me. Still with his senses knocked cockeyed he wrote:

"I can imagine solar storms, black holes and space crickets, sky rocketing toward earth meteoroids, and unknown forces of more incredible energy, all relieving their forces, equally amazing."

How wonderful that space crickets can come out of a storm, that thistledown is like Champaign, and that an old hermit can perch on an afternoon stump and feel so alive and hungry with his bread and apples!

*****

INHALING GNATS
For the most part insects here are only fractionally as pestiferous as they were in Mississippi. Still, for the last couple of weeks we've been visited with a tiny black fly, a gnat, that I'd rather do without.

When Diana takes her walks she plugs her ears with cotton because those gnats dive into one's ears and bounce about. When Bonnie the dog returns from accompanying Diana on the walks her lower eye-rim looks as if it has a false eyelash plastered to it, but that eyelash is a line of gnats supping her eyeball fluids. Sometimes on my hikes I must put a bandana over my nose and mouth or at least filter my inhalations through mustache whiskers, and even still I manage to inhale a gnat about once a day. When I wave my hand to knock them away from before my face I feel the fly-body resistance as my hand moves through the air. One day, before I figured out a little about them, I had such a dark, swirling cloud of gnats about me and I was so hot and tired that the thought crossed my mind that maybe I'd just fall down and drown in inhaled gnat bodies.

But, then I discovered that all you have to do is to sit down, stop moving, and they'll go away. That suggests that they're less attracted by carbon dioxide and/or heat than by slow movement and/or moisture.

When these creatures land on the binoculars hanging vertically on my chest they instantly start climbing upwards. When they reach the top of the binoculars' body there's a crack between the body and the oculars, and the flies begin aggressively probing into that crack exactly as when they reach Bonnie-the-dog's lower eyelid, where eyeball fluid awaits. I think these flies are programmed to locate a slowly moving mammal, land on it, and climb upwards until they reach a moist eye, nose, mouth or ear. They cluster around my raw leg scratches, too.

After hours of studying their wing venation and head- bristle disposition I've decided that they're probably called -- get this -- Eye Gnats. They're probably members of the Frit Fly Family (not Fruit Fly), the CHLOROPIDAE. My Peterson field guide says the larvae of this large family often live in grass stems or decaying materials, while adults of a few species are "attracted to the eyes or to sores."

If you have a good hand lens or a dissecting scope, I recommend to your attention gnat identification. It's amazing how many species of small fly and gnat there are, and how they can be separated into a surprising number of insect families based on the patterns of veins in their wings and the location and orientation of bristles on the fly's head and body. There's such unexpected and elegant order in these features that it's like discovering that snowflakes have a crystalline structure and that, though every flake is different, they are all based upon certain simple and elemental geometric principles. You can see a page showing close-ups of these features on a Chloropidae at http://www.hadleyweb.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk/Chloropidae/6/chloropidae_6.htm.

When I'm gagging over an inhaled gnat, however, it's hard to think of gnats in terms of snowflake classiness. Still, the point is that many things reveal unexpected beauty if you just make the effort to look at them closely.

*****

VENOMOUS SNAKES & MULCH
Last week when I invited you to see Andre Sage's nice rattlesnake picture on my main snake page at http://www.backyardnature.net/snakes.htm Twana in Tennessee, a police sergeant, did just that. She also read my comments that in most of our backyards we won't find venomous snakes. Twana, who has removed large timber rattlers (each nearly six feet long) from town and who frequently gets calls about copperheads around apartment complexes, wrote:

"We get many more calls about snakes in populated areas than we once did. The immediate reasoning given for this is that we are encroaching on snakes' territory. This is certainly true, but additionally I think we are attracting them. The increase in calls about snakes increased about the time that companies began using large piles of mulch around complexes. Mulch is, of course, warm, moist and can easily be burrowed. It seems to be the perfect habitat for snakes. I've caught several brown rat snakes by the tail as they fled into these burrows around buildings. So, I personally believe we're drawing the snakes into residential areas by piling up the perfect habitat for them."

I've added Sgt. Twana's comments to my snake page and I'm glad to learn about this new development. I suspect that, instead of directly attracting the snakes, the mulch is attracting rodents, who in turn attract the snakes. Anyway, it works out the same, with venomous snakes now moving into certain areas of high population density.

*****

I NEED A NATURE CLUB...
My websites are enjoying such success that I am beginning to worry about what will happen to them if something happens to me. As things stand now, if I disappear, the websites will disappear soon afterwards. My impression is that, in terms of furthering environmental education, the sites are doing too much good to be allowed to vanish.

Is anyone out there associated with a nature organization that might want to "adopt" my sites and stay ready to take them over in case I disappear from the scene? The sites are self-supporting -- they bring in just enough money from Amazon.com referral fees to pay the internet bills. However, someone needs to be around to change the debit-card expiration date when the bank sends a new card, update links that break on the pages, and add new material so the site doesn't grow stale.

If someone has some ideas, please write to me by going to http://www.backyardnature.net/j/writejim.htm.

*****

ON SELF DISCIPLINE & FREEDOM
Last week I made the point that an appropriate response to a world in which unrestrained human appetites make us all vulnerable to dangerous politicians and big business -- and the destruction of nature nearly always accompanying the abuse -- is to better manage our own appetites. Now I want to point out an elegant adjunct to that line of thought.

That is, to a certain point, it is always so that the more self discipline one exercises, the more freedom one enjoys. It is one of those lovely paradoxical symmetries that reveal themselves consistently throughout all of nature and life.

Consider the fact that few modes of expression are as evocative as haiku, yet few literary forms are more restrictive. The body for which food intake is strictly regulated ends up running faster, farther and feeling better than the body weighed down with the blubber of self indulgence. The mind that habitually exercises itself with challenging mental tasks ends up enjoying an agility and power of penetration that enables it to give wings to heavy thoughts.

I don't want to burden this splendid, life-saving and ecosystem-saving insight with any more talk, so I'll be blessedly brief this time...

*****

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