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

September 25, 2005

LUMBAGO AND THE SACROILIAC
My Papaw Conrad used to complain of lumbago, which in his case entailed lower back pain extending down a leg, and a lot of stiffness and hobbling about. During the early 1900s lumbago was the most common diagnosis for lower back pain. It was regarded as a problem of the sacroiliac joint, which is one of two joints connecting the tailbone and the pelvis.

When ruptured discs were discovered in 1932 doctors began blaming most lower back pain on them. "Lumbago" went the way of "rheumatism" as an out-of-date, too- vaguely defined infirmity. However, since the late 1980s physicians have been rediscovering the sacroiliac joint as a trouble maker and, according to my own diagnosis, this week while I was digging up a leaking pipe in the garden my 1947-issue sacroiliac went out. This week, instead of hiking into the higher elevations, I entertained Papaw Conrad's lumbago, stiffly dragging around my leg just like he used to.

Well, I'd had it before, knew it would soon pass, and actually an occasional touch of lumbago has its salubrious effects.

For one thing, it sets one to thinking about the bones, cartilage, muscles and nerves a body is made of. It reminds us that no matter what ethereal notions the mind and spirit may fancy, we're still riding around inside of and imprisoned in a machinelike body that's vulnerable to all kinds of jolts, shocks and general wear and tear. The same way that deciding that your car's transmission is about to go causes you to start paying more attention to your car's maintenance, this week my lumbago has focused my attention on my body's maintenance -- mainly causing me to plan to eat and drink even more healthily, and get even more exercise.

This week my inflamed sacroiliac succeeded in grounding me more ways than one. A nice illustration of the whole pelvis/sacroiliac/spine structure and a detailed description of the old lumbago problem is at http://www.spineuniversity.com/public/spinesub.asp?id=89.

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BIRDS AT DUSK
About an hour before dusk this week I've been sitting quietly watching the birds. Birding now is a lot different from just a couple of weeks ago because fall migration is taking place all across North America.

During the days, except for the habitual vultures and woodpeckers and an occasional flock of migrating honkers too high to see, birds have been very quiet and secretive. However, an hour before dusk golden sunlight sweeps in over the canyon to the west illuminating the tall Ponderosa Pines around the house. These pines bear big, straight trunks with gnarly, down-pointing lower limbs and the side- lighted trees are widely spaced so it's easy to see birds among them. Having such easy access to so many perfect perches at so many levels seems to make the birds show off, to flit and glide and generally play around with a bit more élan than usual.

An hour before dusk I can't imagine how many Yellow- rumped Warblers might be in the neighborhood. They hop on the ground pecking at this and that, even ants, they work through tree limbs just a few feet off the ground, fly about the garden, and even fill the pines' middle and upper levels -- this after being uncommon or absent at this elevation all summer.

They're in their fall plumage now, which is a lot drabber than their spring and summer outfit. You might enjoy comparing how colorful the male is in spring at http://www.pikespeakphoto.com/warbler.html with how drab the same male looks nowadays at http://www.ventanaws.org/BSOLPhotoPages/phAudubonsWarbler.htm.

Of course the deal is that in spring the male needs to look flashy and sing a vibrant song so he can catch himself a female, but during the fall the main goal for both sexes as they head south is just to eat, keep a low profile and stay out of trouble. Despite these birds' mousy brown and gray, indistinct fall markings, at certain moments when they land with their wings spread out just right, their brightly yellow rumps flash into view for a fraction of a second, and then there's no doubt at all that they're really Yellow-rumped Warblers.

These particular Yellow-rumped Warblers are what old field guides called Audubon's Warblers. Some years ago when it was realized that Audubon's Warblers were freely mating with and hybridizing with the very similar Myrtle Warblers the two species were "lumped" into one taxon and renamed the Yellow-rumped Warbler. It's been hard for me to stop calling our eastern birds "Myrtle Warblers" but after a few decades I've more or less made the change.

During that hour before dusk you can also count on small flocks of bluebirds gliding in from time to time, but they are different from the Eastern Bluebirds for which I built nesting boxes back in Mississippi. These are Western Bluebirds -- SIALIA MEXICANA instead of the East's SIALIA SIALIS. Western Bluebirds are permanent residents here but, still, I haven't seen them this summer, only now. At this time of year there's not much blue to them. Like the warblers, they are drab with indistinct, brownish gray markings.

Woodpeckers also put on a good show each dusk. Most common are the abundant Acorn Woodpeckers with their harlequin face designs, but also there are Yellow- bellied Sapsuckers and one species I almost didn't look at assuming it was the Hairy Woodpecker also present back East. However, this bird had a "ladder design" of slender, alternating black-and-white stripes across its back, where Hairys are white. It was the Nuttall's Woodpecker, PICOIDES NUTTALLII, a specialist of arid to semiarid open woods, and mostly restricted to California and Mexico's northern Baja Peninsula. You can see this bird as well as its map at http://www.birdsource.org/features/nutwoo/.

What a fine time for this daily performance to be taking place, when a fellow with a touch of lumbago can sit quietly and watch.

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PAVEMENT ANTS AND THE INTERNET
I mentioned the Yellow-rump Warblers sometimes pecking at ants. Actually ants have been putting on a show nearly as interesting as the birds'.

Sunday afternoon Fred called me to come look at the Pavement Ants I told you about a few Newsletters back, back when they were being eaten by yellowjackets. The ants are members of the Myrmicinae, probably TETRAMORIUM CAESPITUM.

This time the ants were forming an enormous column averaging about ten ants wide and marching along the sidewalk and through the grass for about 70 feet before entering a single hole in the lawn just wide enough to poke a finger into. Many of the ants heading toward the hole were carrying white pupae and a few ants were winged. About a quarter of the ants were returning from the hole to which the others were heading, but none of those carried pupae. The migration went on until darkness fell, and maybe into the night.

The next afternoon a more diffuse march took place with about half the participants, but this time equal numbers going both ways, and no white pupae were in view. On the third afternoon all was quiet.

From information garnered on the Internet I find that colonies of these ants usually support several queens, and when a colony grows large it may split, so apparently this is what we saw.

Also I found a scientific abstract on research done on this ant's navigation system. They wondered how a wandering, foraging Pavement Ant, upon finding food, can make a straight line for its nest, not having to follow its scent trail backwards. They found that Pavement Ants could do this whether the day was sunny or cloudy. However, if they displaced the ant a certain distance, the ant would make a straight line toward the nest without taking the displacement into consideration. Therefore it was concluded that Pavement Ants use dead reckoning -- can somehow take into account all the rights and lefts they've taken during their wanderings, and maybe the time they've traveled, and in the end just know where home is.

Finding this information so easily reinforced my appreciation of the internet. What really blew me away, however, was this: When I went Googling using the keywords "Myrmicinae Tetramorium California," my own page consisting of the archived August 28,2005 Newsletter -- where I reported on yellowjackets preying on this species -- appeared on the very first page of results!

Nowadays nature-watchers like ourselves genuinely can contribute to the body of anecdotal information about the world's plants and animals. Once my archived newsletters are cataloged by search engines they become available to a whole world of nature lovers who may really value such information as Fred and I have been developing -- that sometimes yellowjackets eat Pavement Ants, and that sometimes they do whatever they did this week.

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OAK MISTLETOE
The other day Fred and I went out to bring in some firewood and we passed by a big oak with some low- hanging mistletoe. If only because it formed such a large, drooping clump, it was clear that this was a species different from what I knew from the East. This was Oak Mistletoe, PHORADENDRON VILLOSUM. You can see a picture with Fred below the plant for scale at http://www.backyardnature.net/sierras/mist-oak.jpg.

By the way, the above picture also shows how parched the landscape here looks now, wildflowers and grass dun colored and trees having a silvery cast to them very unlike the deep greens of the rainier East. You don't see mountains in that view because we're looking westward, across the canyon toward the Central Valley below. And if you wonder how a fellow in a wheelchair can go for firewood, check out Fred's own homepage, which has some pictures of me, too, at http://webs.directcon.net/adams/fun_in_the_forest.htm.

Oak Mistletoes are flowering now. I snapped sprigs off the two plants above Fred in the picture and on both found stubby little green spikes about half an inch long, each spike equipped with 15-25 tiny, very simple female flowers. Each flower consisted of nothing but an egglike, green pistil subtended by three green, triangular, hairy sepals, and the flowers were sunken into the spike's axis. The other mistletoe plants were too high for me to see if any male plants were there, but I knew that if I'd found one each male flower would have borne three stamens. In the world of dicots, it's a little unusual to find flowers with parts arranged in threes.

A US Forest Service page showing mistletoe flower spikes as well as distribution maps for several Phoradendron species, including our P. villosum, is at http://www.fs.fed.us/r6/nr/fid/fidls/147.htm.

Actually, though I value their information, that page almost rubs me the wrong way with the manner by which it claims that "The damage caused by mistletoes in most cases outweighs their economic values." This economic calculation doesn't take into account the mistletoe's value to the ecosystem, which in the long term also has economic value. Mistletoes produce fruits much relished by many kinds of birds. In the dry, airy space inside their host trees they produce relatively lush, shaded microhabitats for many kinds of arboreal invertebrates, which then serve as food sources for birds and other creatures. Also, mistletoes have value just being themselves, by adding diversity and a pleasing esthetic element to the landscape. From what I've seen it's very seldom that their parasitism really hurts a tree, though I'm sure that sometimes that happens.

At least at a site produced by Southern Illinois University some un-named person wrote this:

"As a plant biologist interested in parasitic plants, when I look at a tree heavily infested with Phoradendron, I say 'Wow, look at that wonderful population of Phoradendron!' When others look at it, they may say 'Oh, that poor tree!' It's a mindset thing. I know that there is not much one can do about a tree with all that mistletoe, so I try to appreciate the marvelous coevolutionary relationship that is taking place."

In California we have two other mistletoe genera, and in the present genus Phoradendron we have seven species. The various Phoradendron species are particular about whom they parasitize. For example, P. californicum restricts its hosts to members of the Bean Family, such as acacias and mesquite. P. juniperinum sticks to junipers. P. pauciflorum grows on White Fir. Our P. villosum is a little less persnickety, parisitizing many oak species as well as manzanita, sumac and a few other woody dicots.

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POMEGRANATES IN THE GARDEN
The garden orchard here mostly contains the usual apple, pear, peach and cherry trees, but there is one deciduous tree with dark green, shining, densely- packed, willow-like leaves providing a decidedly exotic flavor, and that's the Pomegranate tree, PUNICA GRANATUM. There's a page with pictures showing this plant's flowers and fruits, and providing nutritional information for the fruits, at http://www.uga.edu/fruit/pomegran.htm.

Our fruits, still immature, already are about the size of large apples, but of course inside they bear no resemblance to apples at all. For one thing, each fruit bears a nose-like projection, which is the flower's persistent sepals. The fruit's leathery covering surrounds numerous, fairly soft seeds embedded in juicy, red or pink, somewhat acidy pulp.

I've seen pomegranates in US supermarkets but I don't know how people up here eat them, and I wonder if people chew up the soft seeds and swallow them, or spit them out. Probably the most elegant way to deal with them is to squeeze the juice out and sweeten it. That makes a fine drink very popular in Mexico.

When I studied botany pomegranate fruits and flowers were regarded as so weird that pomegranate species were assigned to their own family, the Pomegranate Family. However, recent studies place them into the Loosestrife Family, the Lythraceae, the most famous member of which is the Crape Myrtle.

When I was a kid reading the Bible I always wondered about frankincense, myrrh and pomegranates. I wasn't even too sure about dates and figs. The mention of these things imbued Bible reading with an otherworldly aspect. Now every time I pass by our pomegranates I'm reminded that I'm still a bit fuzzy about that frankincense and myrrh, and for about half a millisecond I am cast into a genuine biblical mood.

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THE WORD POMEGRANATE
At first glance the word pomegranate looks completely alien, but once you study it you see some familiar concepts emerging.

First, the word "pome" is right there at the front, and you might remember that a pome is the kind of fruit an apple, pear or quince tree produces.

The "granate" part looks suspiciously like "grenade," so a good first guess might be that "pomegranate" means "an apple that can be thrown like a grenade."

Actually the words seems to have come into English by way of the Old French "pome grenate," which came from the Middle Latin "pomum granatum," literally meaning "apple with many seeds." In Spanish pomegranates are called "granadas.

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WALDSTERBEN IN THE FOOTHILLS?
Back in the 80s I did several feature stories for American Forests Magazine on Waldsterben. That German word literally translates to "forest death." Back then the world was just learning about acid rain and how it was killing vast tracts of forest. Much of the pioneer work on the subject was being done in Germany and at that time I was traveling a great deal there, particularly in the Schwarzwald, or Black Forest, of southwestern Germany where Waldsterben was taking place.

Nowadays it seems out of fashion to speak of "forest death," though research continues and in a few places some attention is being given it. You can read a very thoughtful analysis of the situation in Maine at http://www.powerlink.net/fen/tree_death.html and the "Air Pollution & Forest Death" page is at http://www.eco-systems.org/air_pollution_and_dying_forests.htm.

Back in Germany I photographed and reported on lots of dying and unhealthy forests. Often in those forests seemingly healthy trees toppled over during modest storms revealing very underdeveloped root systems. Bark-beetle infestations blighted large areas. Many trees died from no apparent cause.

Nowadays it's accepted by most serious researchers that acid rain and cycles of clearcutting stress forest ecosystems, causing the immune systems of forest trees to weaken to the point that they can no longer ward off insects and pathogens, especially fungi, which during earlier times would have given few problems.

Often on my hikes here I find sections of the forest looking suspiciously like Waldsterben. Especially pines and madrones are dying, with occasional oaks. Bark beetles are killing many pines, several cankers affect the madrones, and I fear that Sudden Oak Death may be appearing here. All this certainly looks like what I saw in the Black Forest.

Often I stand with a slope occupied by several dying trees on one side and on the other side there's a view of the Central Valley down below. Of course usually it's a hazy view with air pollution, or smog, completely hiding the towns, lakes and highways I know to be there.

To my mind, Waldsterben on these slopes is one very tangible expense not properly factored in when the costs of indulging in a car-based society are reckoned. When people pay for their gas at the pump nowadays they think they pay far too much, yet no one has even considered paying for the long-term environmental damage the car-using lifestyle is causing.

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Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim