JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER
Issued from Polly's Bend, Garrard County,
in Kentucky's Bluegrass Region, USA

June 1, 2006

RACER IN A MOLE TUNNEL
This is turning into a pretty good place for snakes. Sunday afternoon I stepped from the porch and not ten feet away lay a six-foot, black, slender snake. It was a Racer, sometimes called Black Racer, COLUBER CONSTRICTOR. I was surprised both that he was lying still in such an exposed spot, and that he hadn't streaked away when I'd appeared. Then I saw that the snake's vision had been blocked from seeing me by a curled leaf on the ground.

Now he began circling in a ten-ft-wide part of the lawn, occasionally lifting his front end while keeping his head horizontal, cobra-like. Sometimes when Racers travel with their heads raised like this, with grass hiding their bodies so you just see what looks like an upside-down L moving past, it's kind of spooky.

From time to time the circling snake would more or less point his head into the dirt, screw it around as if he were trying to force his way into the ground, and then he'd move elsewhere. After about five minutes of such maneuvering I was astonished to see that now he really did enter the soil. I moved near him and saw that the ground he'd entered was crumbly and mounded up. He'd found a mole's tunnel and now was entering it. After a minute or so the snake disappeared completely underground. I went and sat cross-legged about a yard away.

About five minutes later he began backing out, tail first. I couldn't see a bulge in his materializing body signifying a swallowed mole, so his hunt must have been unsuccessful.

Outside the tunnel the snake raised his head to that upside-down L and began moving right at me. I wanted to remain invisible to him, so I didn't move at all. His head got to about six inches from my knee and he stopped, flicking his tongue smelling the air, seeming to be gathering the impression that something was amiss, but apparently not dangerous. He looked right at my knee for a good 30 seconds before turning around and slowly making his way into the weeds.

It's surprising how impressive a six-ft-long snake is when his head is six inches from your knee. Of course Racers aren't venomous, but they are known to be good biters if cornered. The thought crossed my mind that it would be nice if lately I hadn't been kneeling atop a mole tunnel, giving my knee a rodent odor.

*****

CORN SNAKE IN THE GARAGE
A couple of days later I almost stepped on a 2-ft-long Corn Snake, ELAPHE GUTTATA, as he was wandering across the pavement into a garage up at Ruth's. My Audubon field guide says that Corn Snakes are mostly nocturnal, but this one was in broad daylight at 9:30 AM, in an exposed area. Though Corn Snakes are so boldly colored and patterned that they are almost threatening looking, they are about the most peaceful snakes you can imagine.

It's really true that some snakes are "peaceful" while others aren't. I walked up to this snake, picked him up, and he behaved as if he were a pet, making no effort to bite at all, though he was large enough to have sunk his teeth into my hand. If I'd have tried to pick up the Racer spoken of above, I'm pretty sure I'd have been bitten ferociously, for Racers are known as biters. Their bites are non-venomous, of course, but no one likes to be bitten, and even non-venomous bites can become infected, and hurt.

There's a lot of geographic variation in the Corn Snake's appearance. You can see a page showing four very different Corn-Snake color variations at  http://www.mun.ca/biology/scarr/Fig4-16_cornsnake_variants.gif.

On the above page, the variation seen Tuesday was the first one, the one with rusty-red blotches. The Audubon guide suggests that the name Corn Snake probably derives from "the similarity of the belly markings to the checkered patterns of kernels on Indian corn."

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HOUSE FINCHES & PAPER MULBERRY FIBER
Behind the old farmhouse I'm in there's a fencerow overgrown with Paper Mulberry, BROUSSONETIA PAPYRIFERA, an invasive tree from Asia. You can see it at http://www.duke.edu/~cwcook/trees/brpa.html.

Ruth suggested that I clear the trees away because they stand between me and a fine view across rolling hills to the cliffs along the Kentucky River to our west. I can't stand that idea, though, because all kinds of critters use that habitat. There's too much to SEE in that hedgerow to cut it down just so you can see...

Nowadays one species using the mulberries a lot is the House Finch, many of whom are building their season's second nest. Each morning I see them inside the mulberry thicket tugging at something. The binoculars show that they're pulling fibers from mulberry stems. The fibers look just like the sisal or henequen fibers we had in the Yucatan. You can walk out to the trees, with your thumbnail dig into a young stem, and pull out such fibers yourself. They're strong, as are the fibers of our native mulberry species.

It's interesting that both the Paper Mulberries and the House Finches are alien here. The House Finches are originally from western North America. My old birding field guide, copyrighted in 1966, doesn't even show them for Kentucky or anyplace in the Southeast. Since 1966, however, House Finches have become abundant here, and at this place they're one of the most conspicuous bird species. The males are brightly colored, they sing a lot, and aren't shy at all. You can see a male in full, raspberry plumage at http://www.birdsofoklahoma.net/HouseFinch001.htm.

That website is in Oklahoma and on it I read that that state's "population is descended from cage birds released in the 1940s, competes with House Sparrow for nest sites."

When I was a kid in Kentucky, before House Finches arrived, I often saw Purple Finches, which are very closely related and look very similar. Purple Finches, however, visited only during the winters. We still have them but not in the numbers I remember. House Finches have become year-round residents.

It's not surprising that outside my window there are invasive birds using fibers from invasive trees. Except on the steepest slopes next to the river, the ecology of this landscape has been devastated from years of farming, cattle-raising and logging. Soil structure has been destroyed and many native species have been extirpated. I'm just tickled that Paper Mulberries and House Finches can make a go of it at all, and do it so prettily.

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SQUAWROOT
Last Sunday morning I wandered in the woods near here at a spot owned by the Nature Conservancy, consisting mostly of almost-vertical limestone cliffs along the Kentucky River. A bit away from the cliffs, in a shadowy part of the woods with big trees and rich soil, I found several large populations of Squawroot, sometimes called Cancer Root or Broomrape. It was CONOPHOLIS AMERICANA of the Broomrape Family, the Orobanchaceae. You can see a picture of it at http://asm.wku.edu/pix/plants/squawroot.jpg.

The above link shows that Squawroots look a little like six-inch-high pinecones rising in clustered groups from the ground. When they first emerge from the soil they're cream colored, even though they are flowering, vascular plants. They have no chlorophyll because Squawroots steal their nutrients from oak roots -- they're parasitic. They don't kill the oaks because they don't take much and usually there aren't many of them. The ones I saw Sunday were past their flowering stage and were fruiting and turning dark brown.

In the old days people used Squawroot medicinally. They're "astringent," which means that the juice from them is bitterly puckery. If you steep a few plants in boiling water you get a decoction that, if you put it on your hemorrhoids, will pucker the skin, shrinking them. The same principle seems to work on female uteruses. The name Squawroot apparently comes from the use by indigenous American women to relieve menopause symptoms.

The Squawroot's genome has been sequenced, so now it's known that all the species' genes are consistent with those of closely related flowering plants (mainly in the Figwort Family, the Scrophulariaceae), except that the genes responsible for synthesizing photosynthesis proteins are simply missing.

*****

WOOL-SOWER GALLS
When Karen and I were coming north on the Natchez Trace Parkway a few weeks back we stopped at a pull- off beside a small cave in northwestern Mississippi. Around the cave's mouth grew several White Oaks with their expanding leaves about half grown, and some of the oaks bore several fuzzy galls, which were white with red spots. I'd often seen such galls but I'd never figured out what their name was or who made them. Karen took a picture and this week I finally Googled up their identity. You can see Karen's picture at http://www.backyardnature.net/pix/gallwool.jpg.

They were Wool-sower Galls, made by black, shiny, thick-set wasps with humps on their backs, and less than ΒΌ-inch long. The wasps are CALLIRHYTIS SEMINATOR, members of the Cynipid Wasp Family. Another member of that family is probably more famous because it makes the smooth, spherical, egglike Oak Apple Galls we've all seen on oak leaves.

In fact, the Cynipid Wasp Family is home to many gall-producing wasps, each wasp making a particular kind of gall on a particular part of a particular plant. Typically people notice the galls more than the wasps.

In general the idea behind galls is that an insect, mite or other type of organism lays one or more eggs on a plant, the tissue around the eggs begins growing tumor-like, and then when the eggs hatch the larvae eat the gall tissue or drink from it as they live inside it, maturing. Often when the larva is ready to metamorphose it burrows to the gall's surface, changes to the adult stage, and flies away.

This is a good time of year to be looking for galls. Right beside the house here some Hackberry trees bear many leaves with Hackberry Nipple Galls. You might enjoy looking at a variety of galls at http://www.backyardnature.net/galls.htm.

*****

DEER MICE & HANTA VIRUS
Last week I mentioned having Deer Mice in this house. Pat in Colorado wrote telling me that Deer Mice are vectors for Hanta Virus. I didn't know much about Hanta Virus, so I went a-Googling.

Hanta Virus causes flu-like symptoms. The lungs get so clogged with fluid that about half the people who get the disease die. Hanta Virus is more common out West. Probably it's been killing people for many years, but it was only identified in 1993 when an outbreak occurred on an Indian reservation in the Four Corners area out West. Only about 100 cases have been diagnosed. Most people appear to get infected from rodent droppings -- Deer Mouse droppings -- in their homes. There's a Hanta FAQ at http://www.cdc.gov/ncidod/diseases/hanta/hps/noframes/FAQ.htm.

The little Deer Mice don't get sick. They just carry the disease.

It makes you wonder what the benefit was to the Hanta Virus for it to evolve so that it gets into humans only rarely, yet, when it does, the humans often die.

I suspect that it was purely incidental. Humans and mice share a lot of genetic information, so it's no surprise that viruses can be transmitted between us. Maybe when the Hanta Virus issues an innocuous command meant for a mouse's cell, but somehow that virus has gotten into a human cell, it's like a computer program with one or a few letters typed wrong: The human system crashes, just like a computer would crash using a program with a bug in it.

Many major scientists define viruses as nonliving entities. They are just complex molecules carrying information meaningful to our bodies.

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GEOGRAPHICAL REGIONS
Though Kentucky is the state of my birth and entire childhood, I'm about 150 air-miles east of where I grew up in western Kentucky. Things here FEEL more different from western Kentucky than southern Mississippi did during my years of living in the woods there. My childhood home in western Kentucky was in agricultural bottomlands not far from big, slow-moving rivers, and maybe that's why I felt so at home in the woods near the big Mississippi not far from Natchez.

In my part of western Kentucky the bedrock is mostly sandstone with a lot of coal in it. Here the bedrock is limestone. This difference in bedrock, I think, is the main reason my home area feels so different from here.

For instance, having that coal in western Kentucky colored our lives in at least two big ways. First, it meant that lots of people in the area were coalminers, or at least once had been miners, before machines took their place. Our local culture reflected the boom-and- bust economy typical of coal-producing areas. Second, having that coal meant that vast acreages were -- and still are being -- destroyed by strip mining.

In this central Kentucky limestone area there hasn't been any of that. Plus, in limestone areas most water usually runs underground. That may account for the fact that the Kentucky River looping around us here, in terms of amount of flowing water, is little more than a creek or stream in western Kentucky terms.

When I'm traveling I get a kick from keeping track of how I'm moving from geographic region to geographic region. Very often the landscape is a mosaic with each patch of the mosaic showing remarkably different features.

Just here in little Kentucky we have seven recognized regions and for the most part when you travel from one region to another, if you're paying attention, it's very obvious. Kentucky's regions are mainly based on geology. Back in western Kentucky I grew up in the "Western Coal Fields" coincident with a large outcropping of Carboniferous sandstone, while here at Polly's Bend I'm in the "Bluegrass Region," coincident with a large outcropping of Ordovician limestone.

You might be interested in the online "Wikipedia List of Regions of the United States," found at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_regions_of_the_United_States .

That page lists regions of different kinds. For instance, the Bureau of Reclamation recognizes one set of regions while the Census Bureau recognizes a different set. There's even a list of "unofficial regions" such as Dixie and the High Plains.

I like the "Intrastate Regions," which are the ones inside states. That's where you find Kentucky's Bluegrass Region and Western Coal Fields listed. You can see a list of your own state's regions at the "Intrastate Region Index" half down the above page, at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_regions_of_the_United_States#Intrastate_regions.

At the above link if you click on a state, then click on a region of that state, usually you'll get a description and maybe some pictures of the region. This may help you get a better feeling for the amazing diversity of geographic regions in your own part of the country.

*****

COME STUDY WITH ME
We're finally to the point where I can formally invite visitors to come study nature with me at Polly's Bend -- or "Polly's Bend Nature Study Retreat," as we are now calling it. The whole concept is presented at http://www.backyardnature.net/simple/.

*****

WORKING WITH LUCIAN
On Tuesday a local carpenter, Lucian, came to do some odd jobs, and I helped as well as I could. It was such a pleasure watching someone who was good at what he did, even when he was just driving nails. In fact, I enjoy watching anyone do anything well. Among other things I love seeing work accomplished with an economy of movement, which only long practice can bring about.

I've been expert in only a handful of things during my life -- I got awfully good at Morse Code when I was a teenager -- but that was enough for me to realize that being good at something is its own reward. I think that a person who has an expertise is somehow more rooted in life, more awake to life's possibilities than others -- maybe just plain happier, too.

I'm bringing this up because my impression is that today a lot of people in our culture, especially young ones, have dabbled and superficially indulged in so many disparate activities that in the end they're not much good at anything. There's a lot of bored, discontented, disoriented people out there.

If you run into someone who might benefit from applying themselves to a doable, long-term project and eventually becoming very good at something, I hope you'll remember to mention the goal of becoming an expert backyard naturalist. My nature-study website was designed just to help people do this. The site is at http://www.backyardnature.net.

To help folks further organize their thoughts about why nature study might actually be desirable I've set up a page called "Why Bother with Nature?" It's at http://www.backyardnature.net/why.htm.

Here's a good summer project guaranteed to bestow onto anyone a great sense of satisfaction: Fulfill the requirements for earning my "Bug-Eaten Leaf Award." To do that one must identify plants and animals in one's own backyard -- 33 species for the Bronze Award, 66 for the Silver, and 100 for the Gold Award. Read about the awards at http://www.backyardnature.net/awards/.

By the way, my Natchez friend Karen recently achieved the Gold Award. You can admire her list of more than 100 Mississippi plants and animals, see a picture of Karen with Cody the Dog, and read what Karen says she learned from making the list at http://www.backyardnature.net/awards/g-ms-001.htm.

Earning the Bug-Eaten Leaf award won't automatically make any basically unhappy person into a happy one. However, it will indeed introduce one to nature study, and I am convinced that the experience of nature study is therapeutic in many magical ways.

*****

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