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

September 18, 2005

FALL IN THE SIERRA NEVADAS
Monday morning when I set off hiking the temperature was 47° and the wind cut right through me. We seem to have gone from an atypically hot summer into an atypically chilly fall with little transition.

The things of Nature certainly know what's coming. Suddenly large, fully formed acorns crunch beneath my feet on the trail. I'm seeing a lot of bear prints in places they haven't been all summer so maybe bears are already moving into lower elevations. There's a lot of bear poop, too, remarkably large piles nearly entirely composed of blackberry seeds and pulp, so soupy that dark purple juice drains from every pile staining the ground downslope for a foot or two. Anita in Oregon wrote wondering what might be growling beneath her porch. The next day she answered her own question, reporting on her own enormous pile of fructiferous bear poop.

With regard to our bears' blackberry diet I'm used to blackberry-picking time being late spring or early summer but here the blackberries are right at their peak now and during my hike my hands stayed purple- stained.

A covey of 18 young California Quails scrambled across my trial, about two-thirds grown but already with the upside-down-teardrop topknot emerging from their crowns about half an inch high, looking like stiff little fingers poking up from their skulls.

I sat among cattails next to the pond and a bird came complaining, looking me over. He was a young, male Yellowthroat with his future black mask nothing but a dark smudge across his otherwise yellow face, a smudge just like a young man's first mustache.

The forest floor is crunchy with a litter of fallen leaves but those leaves are brown or tan with no bright color to them. They are the kind of leaves that fall when trees don't have enough water. The trees themselves are entirely dark green unless they're dropping those cardboard-colored drought-leaves and it looks strange to my eyes, there being no yellowing transition, and no splashes of color here and there.

It's a strange-feeling fall with some things like the crunching acorns and young birds evoking powerful associations with other falls I've relished, but it's hard to place those drought leaves, the blackberries ripening at the "wrong season" and all that purple bear poop. I can't say how much of this out-of-whackness felling is because it's an unusual fall, and how much is because I just don't know what fall in the Sierra Nevadas is supposed to be like.

*****

THE CANYON LIVE OAK'S ACORNS
The most common oak at the trailer's elevation is the California Black Oak, but in places the evergreen Canyon Live Oak, QUERCUS CHRYSOLEPIS, dominates, and when that tree's acorns lie on the trail it seems a shame to walk on them. That's because its acorns' cups are a beautifully bright, golden hue, as gold as the crown on a Walt Disney lion, unlike any acorn cup I've ever seen. Walking over ground covered with such pretty acorns you feel like you're in an enchanted grove. On the Internet I can't find pictures of cups as vibrantly golden as ours, so I wonder if ours are unusually bright. You can get a hint of what they look like at http://www.coestatepark.com/quercus_chrysolepis.htm.

Local native people used to eat Canyon Live Oak acorns despite their high tannin content. The traditional manner of removing the tannin was to bury the acorns in boggy ground over winter. The germinating seed were dug up in the spring after most of the astringency had been neutralized. Another approach was to put them in a stream and let running water leach out the tannin, a process that might take weeks. Once the tannin was removed, the acorns were dried and ground into a powder used as thickening in stews, and mixed with grains for making a heavy, scratchy bread. Roasted acorns could be ground and the resulting powder brewed to make a drink something like coffee.

One curious thing about these Canyon Live Oaks is that the leaves of young branches are small and spiny- margined like holly leaves, but on mature trees the spines are missing. On some branches you can find both leaf types. The leaves are so variable that often they are confused with those of other species. However, there's one feature that separates Canyon Live Oak leaves from all others in the area -- at least when young, blade surfaces are covered with "multiradiate trichomes," or star-shaped hairs.

In parts of El Dorado National Forest you're nearly always in sight of one or more pretty California Sister butterflies, ADELPHA BREDOWII. In this area the Canyon Live Oak is the main host for that butterfly's caterpillars. You can see pretty a California Sister at http://www.npwrc.usgs.gov/resource/distr/lepid/bflyusa/usa/2.htm.

Unfortunately this wonderful tree has a fairly limited distribution, mostly in California and part of Arizona. Its distribution map can be studied at http://www.efloras.org/object_page.aspx?object_id=6752&flora_id=1.

*****

NARROW-LEAVED CATTAILS
I almost didn't make it to the national forest this week because I got powerfully distracted at the Bullfrog Pond. As I was climbing upslope the low- slanting morning sunlight flooded through the cattails along the pond's banks so prettily that I just had to go sit there. The chilly wind was still pretty stiff so the vertical cattail blades shivered and twisted as the sunlight filtered through them. The stems and cinnamon- brown, frankfurter-like flowering heads created black silhouettes but the thin, twisting blades generated brilliant patterns of translucencies, bright yellow- green sun-splotches, and shadowy spots. Such animation, such kaleidoscopic light, and that chill in the wind, the odor of the mud, the waves on the pond... exactly the way a cattail thicket full of hidden bullfrogs and coots should be.

Those cattails were not like the cattails I grew up with in Kentucky or lived near in Mississippi. They were not "Common Cattails," TYPHA LATIFOLIA. The blades and stems around me were noticeably narrower than what I'm used to. In fact these were a different species, the "Narrow-leaved Cattail," TYPHA ANGUSTIFOLIA. To confirm this I checked the flowering heads, for there's a trick that definitely separates the two species, and that trick is shown very nicely in the image at http://www.ibiblio.org/herbmed/pictures/p14/pages/typha-angustifolia-3.htm.

What that picture shows is a Narrow-leaved Cattail's immature flowering head. To understand the identification "trick," however, you need to know some basic facts about a cattail's flowering spike.

Mainly, when a cattail's flowering head is immature it consists of two distinct flowering zones. Below is an area composed of thousands of close-packed female and sterile flowers. Above the female flowers appears a similar region of close-packed male flowers. Typically after pollination the male flowers fall off leaving just the slender, pointed, naked axis, while the female flowers below continue growing and maturing, eventually collectively forming the brown, frankfurter-like thing that flower arrangers dry and add to their floral compositions. At maturity the brown, frankfurter-like thing is a collection of thousands of tiny cattail seeds attached to fuzzy, wind-catching "parachutes." As the winds of late fall and winter buffet the heads they disintegrate and the parachuted seeds launch into the wind.

The identification "trick" is that on the axis of the Common Cattail's flowering spike there is no naked space between the zone of female flowers and the zone of male flowers, while with Narrow-leaved Cattails there is indeed a section of naked, flowerless stem ¼ to 2 inches long. The image linked to above clearly shows that gap.

In California we actually have three cattail species, but that third one isn't found here.

*****

GNAT-EATING ANNA'S HUMMINGBIRD
After the wind settled a bit, hoards of gnats began lifting from grass along the pond's banks, sunlight catching in their filmy wings. These were not the gnats I told you about last weekend, the ones that get into our eyes and ears, so I didn't pay much attention to them... until a hummingbird came and began snatching those gnats in mid-air.

Hummingbirds don't just eat flower nectar and sugar- water in people's feeders. If you think about it, it's easy to see why this true. Nectar contains relatively little protein and sugar-water offers none, and a hummingbird needs protein like any other animal. Gnats make a good source of protein to a hummingbird with such a tiny throat.

So, for a solid three minutes that hummingbird darted about inside the diffuse cloud of rising gnats, nabbing a gnat about every five to ten seconds. It was either a female or an immature male Anna's Hummingbird, CALYPTE ANNA, our most common species among the four species possibly found here. You can see it at http://www.briansmallphoto.com/gallery/anhu.html.

I've not spotted any of the other three species at this location, though they may have zipped by without my catching their distinguishing field marks. Anna's is the one that comes to the feeder and behaves pretty much like the hyperactive, fast-zipping, feeder-mobbing Eastern Rubythroat. In fact, it's just possible that this Anna's Hummingbird is even a bit more rambunctious and show-offy than the Rubythroat.

The Anna's looks very much like the Rubythroat, except that it's noticeably larger, and the red of the throat extends clear over the forehead. A Rubythroat's forehead is dark green. Also, a Rubythroat makes rapid, squeaky chipping sounds but has no real song, while it's not uncommon to find a male Anna's atop a branch actually singing. You can hear the Anna's soft, bubbly, squeaky very complex song at http://naturesongs.com/anhu5.wav.

Maybe the Anna's is more territorial than the Rubythroat, too. There's a certain dead tree snag between here and the mailbox on which many times this summer I've found a male Anna's singing his song in the exact same spot day after day. I've never seen a Rubythroat do that.

*****

YOUR HUMMINGBIRD FEEDER'S WATER/SUGAR RATIO
While satisfying my curiosity about how much protein flower nectar contains (not much) I found the site at http://www.hummingbirds.net/hainsworth.html.

There they raise the question of what a hummingbird feeder's water/sugar ratio should be. Most people seem to mix a 1:4 ratio -- one part sugar to four parts water -- because that's what the instructions with their hummingbird feeder says.

The investigators at the above site suggest that to make a feeder more attractive to hummers it's acceptable during the first two or three weeks after the hummingbirds' arrival to offer a fairly high- calorie mixture -- a 1:1 mixture, one part sugar to one part water. Since hummers prefer sweeter feed, they'll be more likely to hang around, plus it will provide the extra energy they need during their spring courtship times.

After the hummers are "hooked" on a certain feeder with super sweet nectar the researchers suggest that you may want to change your feeding psychology. That's because hummers know better than to take too many calories. If you provide super-sweet, high-calorie liquid they'll make brief visits, then go someplace and perch until they need more calories.

Therefore, if you want them to make frequent visits so you can see them, you might then shift to the traditional less sweet and less caloric 1:4 mixture -- one part sugar to four parts water. This provides enough energy to keep the hummers healthy but doesn't enable them to make it through the day with just a few quick snacks.

One point made by the researchers is that if you lower your feeder's sweetness but your neighbor doesn't, the birds will just go to your neighbor's because they really prefer the sweeter stuff. It's suggested that neighbors coordinate their efforts so that one household doesn't end up with all the hummers.

I'm not sure what I'd do if I had a window and a feeder. I worry about sugar-water not having any protein at all, nor other trace elements and minerals that natural nectar does. However, I've never seen bad effects on the birds resulting from intense summers of backyard feeder-supping, so maybe feeding them is OK, maybe even with the 1:1 ratio.

*****

YELLOW STARTHISTLES GALORE
If you want to see Fred zip his wheelchair across the garden all you need to do is to point out a Yellow Starthistle, CENTAUREA SOLSTITIALIS, and he'll rush at it to pull it out. Fred is a very mild-mannered, non-violent guy, but Yellow Starthistles just get his goat. If you ever grab one accidentally while pulling weeds, step on one barefooted, or even run your bicycle tire over one, you'll understand why. You can see what they look like at http://ww1.clunet.edu/wf/nca/common/nca-964.htm.

You might guess that starthistles are invasives. Their homeland is thought to be the Mediterranean region, and that might explain why they love this area's Mediterranean climate. The road I take upslope in one place crosses a meadow and next to the road Yellow Starthistles form a pure stand perhaps a quarter of an acre large. They're also pretty thick around the house of my friend Buck. I've sometimes wondered why he let them grow there because there's not a lazy bone in that man's body. After looking at starthistles awhile during my hike upslope this week maybe I found the reason: Honeybees just love starthistles, and Buck just loves his hives and honey.

As if the awful spines on this plant's flowering heads weren't enough, the plant's herbage is poisonous, at least to horses. It gives horses "chewing disease," the first signs of which are an inability to eat and drink because the face's muscles, lips and tongue become so stiff they can't be managed. The brain is damaged and the horse finally dies of thirst and starvation.

One good thing, though, is that, like so many weeds, starthistles seem to need humanity's disruptions to survive. It was striking that 30 feet from the road starthistles gave way to other plants and disappeared entirely. Only along the occasionally mowed, herbicide- sprayed road were they able to take over.

*****

NATCHEZ-HERMIT BOOK UPDATE
Months ago I told you that University Press of Mississippi had invited me to submit a manuscript for a book consisting of excerpts from this Newsletter, written during my years as a hermit in the forest outside Natchez. Last winter I put together some drawings for the book and this spring submitted it. This week I finally got the results of the long review process.

I am invited to resubmit the manuscript after removing statements relating to my political and spiritual beliefs.

I am NOT going to make those changes. Without reference to my political and spiritual beliefs my whole experience as a hermit and the way I am conducting my life right now becomes unintelligible, or else I must be seen as merely indulging my senses in Nature and lazily avoiding my responsibilities as an Earth citizen. It is my very strong belief that anyone with insights into the dangers facing Life on Earth, and human dignity itself, must not only change his or her manner of living, but also speak out.

(To see many documented examples of the Bush Administration's abuse and misrepresentation of scientific data and the misadministration of important agencies, particularly those relating to environmental protection, see the non-partisan Union of Concerned Scientists page here. A page respectful of religions and offering many links to help you understand where your religion comes from, who caused it to be as it is and what those people's motives may have been can be visited at  http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Forum/1699/. A respectful treatment of Christian history resides at http://www.religioustolerance.org/chr_ch.htm.)

Therefore I've decided to provide my Natchez Naturalist manuscript for free on the Internet. This way, not only do I avoid having to deal with publishing companies but also I find it very appealing that people can have the book without causing trees to be cut for the paper, and without all the other pollution and energy use resulting from the manufacturing and transportation of regular books. This concept pleases me so greatly, in fact, that I plan to make several books available, based on my various websites, all for free.

Already you can download the Natchez Naturalist book, without my drawings, at http://www.backyardnature.net/j/books/.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim