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

June 15, 2006

MAYFLY AT THE SPRING
What a pity so many people are afflicted with obsessions for cleanliness and neatness. I am convinced that nearly all of life's most pungent pleasures lie mired in messiness and disorder.

For example, approaching the yard high, rectangular, cement watering tank down below the spring, it was clear that to look closely into the algae-choked waters I'd need to wade through and kneel in mud, rest my naked chest on the muddy overflow wall, and hold my face so close to the water that I'd tangle algae in my beard.

It was late afternoon so sunlight slanted in from the side illuminating things in the water right beyond my nose, without my head's shadow interfering. Critters no larger than dust particles glowed resplendently against the tank's black depths. Green, hairlike algae formed mats photosynthesizing so lustily that the mats were filled with silvery bubbles of oxygen. With my handlens I saw sunlight exploding inside individual alga cells, and tiny, roundish beings, probably seed shrimps, navigating across the bubbles' dazzling surfaces stumbling over filaments of algae as if they were barbed wire fences.

Those seed shrimps, if that's what they were, were as tiny as chiggers or redbugs. They were almost spherical yet they shot through the water between bubbles and algal strands like demons on a rampage, traveling not jerkily like water fleas, but like rockets across the sky. I wondered how such un-aerodynamic beings could scoot through the water so fast and so gracefully. Clearly, physics as we humans experience it functions differently when you're so small in water. To read about seed shrimps and see some go to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ostracod

I was so singlmindedly absorbed with all the tank's sparklings, translucencies, glowings, bubblings and dartings-about that I got dizzy from holding my breath so long in concentration. Drawing my handlens away from the water's surface I was surprised to find two Water Boatmen upside down with their tails stuck to the water's surface right there where my whiskers had touched the water. How beautiful is a Water Boatman beneath the lens in full sunlight, golden green and with something accordianlike in his translucent abdomen , maybe close-packed gills. You can see a Water Boatman less glorious than what I saw at http://mamba.bio.uci.edu/~pjbryant/biodiv/hemipt/Corixid.htm

Bringing the handlens farther back now I discovered what I'd missed before, a white, crumpled Mayfly dead upon the water's surface, so ghostly and elegant against the luscious green algae and satiny, abysmal blackness below. I could see every cell in the creature's wings, count segments in the two hairlike filaments extending from its tail, and I could see the problem that surely accounted for its death: The poor creature's head bore no functional mouthparts.

But, that was natural, for Mayflies spend most of their lives as aquatic nymphs called naiads, and when they finally metamorphose into winged adults that fly in the air they are programmed only for sex. They need no mouth, for they take no food, Nature requiring of them only to focus on reproduction. After egg-laying, death is the only option. See a May Fly at http://www.une.edu.au/agronomy/insects/dave/ephem.htm

How beautiful was the dead Mayfly as it lay upon the sepulchral, crystalline water, which was so teeming and so urgently alive just below.

Backing away from the tank, like one who has entered a cathedral during a service and not wanting to profane the sanctity of what has just been glimpsed, mud squishing between my toes and butterflies ticklingly drinking sweat from my back and shoulders, how grateful I was that I consciously and with pride am one who noses, and always has nosed, into the messy side of things.

*****

CATALPA BOUQUET-TREE
As I reached the top of the hill just west of the house I could hardly believe my eyes. In the super-green valley below a medium-sized, round-topped tree was as white as a tree with big, heart-shaped, green leaves could be. I knew what it was because last week I saw that it was about to bloom but, still, I just hadn't expected such a display as this, like a huge, white bouquet in a green-valley vase.

It was the Catalpa tree, CATALPA SPECIOSA, a member of the Bignonia Family, as are the Trumpet-creeper vine and Cross-vine. The Bignonia Family is mostly tropical and mainly populated with woody vines, so our Catalpas are somewhat unusual for that family. There's a fine page showing and talking about the Catalpa at http://www.missouriplants.com/Whiteopp/Catalpa_speciosa_page.html.

Seeing this Catalpa just made my day -- not only because it was so pretty but also because on the farm where I grew up in western Kentucky we had a long row of them, maybe a quarter of a mile long, providing shade for a dirt trail to the back of the farm. Even as a child I was impressed when so many Catalpas were flowering.

Of course eventually my father decided that they all needed to be cut down in order to give more growing room to soybeans. The crooked feeling I got from that operation was one of the first hints I had that I was going to grow up with opinions and priorities a whole lot different from those around me.

We didn't call them Catalpas. For us they were "Patalfas," and we thought we were doing well calling them that because the old folks called them "Talfies" which we knew was a countrified name. We also knew that Catalpa wood wasn't good for much and that when the tree's white blossoms fell they turned brown and made a mushy mess on the ground. Still, most folks liked the tree. It grew fast, made shade quickly, and, most importantly, got infested with "Patalfa Worms," which made very good fish bait. The worms were hornworm caterpillars -- big, juicy caterpillars with single, sharp, slender spines on their rear ends. Eventually the caterpillars metamorphosed into sphinx moths.

Two native American Catalpa species are planted and often go wild far beyond their native lands. Our Catalpa speciosa is native from southern Indiana and Tennessee west to Texas and Iowa, so the ones on our farm in western Kentucky may have been native there, but here in central Kentucky they've been introduced. Another very similar species, CATALPA BIGNONIOIDES, bears smaller flowers and fruits and is native to a small portion of the extreme US Southeast. You can see what that species looks like at http://www.missouriplants.com/Whiteopp/Catalpa_bignonioides_page.html.

When I lived in Belgium, one day I visited friends in Brussels who were very proud of one of our Catalpa speciosas planted just outside the door of their home. There our Catalpas were considered gorgeous and very exotic. You can imagine how I felt seeing my old friend there.

*****

TALL FESCUE
This week and last farmers here have been cutting and baling their hay, leaving shoulder-high rolls of hay picturesquely scattered over our round-topped hills. I regretted seeing the many bird nests and rabbit forms destroyed, but I suppose growing hay on these hilltops is as un-destructive as a landowner can manage, without just abandoning the land to wildlife.

The hayfield next to the house was populated with a variety of plants, among them Orchard-grass, Timothy and Red Clover, but the main species -- one that numbered in many, many millions -- was Tall Fescue, FESTUCA ELATIOR. Back on the farm we used to call it "Kentucky 31 Fescue," and maybe farmers still do. Often it's included in lawngrass seed mixtures because it roots easily and is drought resistant. The grass was introduced from Europe in the late 1800s and now grows all across North America, both planted and as a weed. Along country roads in this area this is the most common grass species, mile after endless mile of it. I wouldn't be surprised to hear that in terms of individual plants this is the most numerous flowering plant in the state, maybe in eastern North Ameriuca. You can read more about it and see it at http://www.vnps.org/invasive/invfsfeel.htm.

When Tall Fescue gets established, the diversity of native species decreases. It forms dense clumps with thick, matted roots, and simply crowds out less aggressive plants. Also, Tall Fescue produces a toxin that inhibits the growth of neighboring species.

There's a trick for identifying Tall Fescue before it develops its flowers. Down where its leafblades attach to the stem, on each side of the leafblade bottom there are little earlike things called auricles, which reach around the stem and cross on the other side. You can see this surprising feature in a drawing at http://www.caf.wvu.edu/~forage/library/cangrass/page34.htm.

To see the auricles on real plants you must have young sprouts, for on plants old enough to be producing flowers usually the auricles are broken off. In early spring, however, when the stems are just beginning to elongate, they're something interesting to show your friends. Even in the hayfield next to this house, after looking around for some late-flowering plants I found some blades with their auricles still attached.

*****

GRACIOUS CLOVER HEADS
White Clover, TRIFOLIUM REPENS, is very common in the lawn around the house here, and this week I've added a White Clover page to the "Flower Types to Know" section of my nature site. You can see the new page at http://www.backyardnature.net/fl_clovr.htm.

On that page I point out that there are maybe 300 recognized species of clover, and one of the distinctive features of White Clover is that its stem runs along the ground, rooting at its nodes. Most clovers stand upright, or maybe lean or halfway lie down, but they don't develop roots on horizontal stems. In the top picture on the above page notice how white roots dangle from the horizontal stem.

The feature that caused me to set up a clover page, however, was this: Heads of clover are exceptionally gracious to their pollinators.

That story is told by a picture midway down my new page. It shows three White Clover flowering heads. The first head shows several white flowers pointing upwards. The middle head has its top, white flowers pointing upward but its lower, fading, brownish flowers are pointing downward. The last head consists of nothing but downward pointing, brown, withered blossoms. If you have a clover colony in your own backyard you can probably see flower heads in each of these three stages of development.

The deal is that the perky, bright flowers pointing upward are those awaiting a pollinator such as a small bee. Once a flower is pollinated, it wilts, turns brown and starts drooping downward, thus becoming much less attractive to pollinators. The flower head "wants" to focus all the pollinator's attention on flowers needing to be pollinated, and to not waste a pollinator's time and energy letting it visit already-pollinated flowers.

I'm tickled that the "Flower Types to Know" part of my website has become so popular. Last month 4232 people visited just my Day Lily page, and similar high numbers were logged for other flower pages. The Index Page with links to all the flower types I describe is at http://www.backyardnature.net/flowers.htm.

*****

CATBIRDS SINGING
All week a Catbird -- nowadays more officially known as the Gray Catbird -- has been singing outside my window. I'm not talking about the catlike waaaah call it sometimes makes, but the seemingly unending cascade of bubbly sounds it issues when defending its territory. You can hear a brief example of this at http://animaldiversity.ummz.umich.edu/site/resources/steve_pelikan/grca.wav.

You can see what a Catbird looks like at http://www.mbr-pwrc.usgs.gov/id/framlst/i7040id.html.

This is one instance when understanding a little about the taxonomic relationships of a species actually enhances my appreciation for the organism.

For, Catbirds belong to the same family, the Mimidae, as the Mockingbird and Brown Thrasher. In eastern North America we have only those three species belonging to the Mimidae, but out West there are several other thrasher species.

In the context of songs of the Mimidae, I think of eastern North America's Mockingbird, Brown Thrasher and Catbird as forming a kind of gradient. On one end of the gradient there's the Mockingbird who when singing usually repeats each phrase or sound three or more times, then issues another phrase or sound several times, then another, etc. Brown Thrashers sound a lot like Mockingbirds, except that typically they repeat their phrases or sounds only twice -- bleet-bleet, chow-chow, wa-wa... The Catbird is the least likely to repeat phrases or sounds. He rushes from one statement to another, occasionally repeating himself, but mostly just gushing forth one sound after another like a contented, babbling baby.

You might wonder why now they're calling Catbirds Gray Catbirds. It's to distinguish them from other catbird and catbird-like species in other parts of the world.

For example, in the Yucatan we had the Black Catbird. Moreover, when you look at illustrations of Mexico's 18 or so members of the Mimidae, you see that the distinctions between mockingbirds, catbirds and thrashers aren't nearly as clear as we northerners imagine.

*****

MAXINE THE SMELLY MALTESE
Maxine is Ruth's little, white, long-haired, Maltese lap-dog. Usually she runs around fluffy and clean with little hair-clasps keeping the hair from her face. She's the most dainty, girly kind of dog you can imagine.

Still, sometimes she halfway acts like a real dog. For example, the other day she found a newly hatched nestling who had fallen from its nest, died, and had lain in the sun long enough to be stinking. Maxine wallowed in it, pink hair-clasp and all. She did a good wallowing, too, luxuriating in it lying on her back, paws skyward, her head thrown back and wiggling her spine like a snake.

Maxine had just been washed and fluffed so Ruth wasn't tickled at all. I didn't think much about it, just assuming that dogs do it because they like the odor. However, Ruth was skeptical of the idea and for several days she thought on the matter. Finally she came up with this hypothesis:

Dog's wallow in carrion so that when they return to their dens the rest of the pack can smell exactly what's been discovered -- probably what kind of animal has died, how much of it there is, and certainly its stage of decomposition. With this information they can decide whether it's worth following the newly arrived smeller the next time he or she goes out.

Well, that sounds like good reasoning to me and I wonder why I haven't read it someplace before, and why I didn't think of it myself.

*****

WE HAVE US A MESSAGE BOARD!
If you have ideas like Ruth's or questions or observations about organisms in your own backyard, now you have a place where you're very welcome to share them with others.

Last week I asked if any Newsletter subscribers would be interested in moderating a backyard-nature messageboard if I'd set one up. The first to respond was Mark in South Carolina. Before long we got a good- looking messageboard set up and now you are welcome to visit it, browse it, register as a user and post your thoughts. To see it, even without registering, go to:

http://cybermessageboard.fatcow.com/backya2/  

Once you are there you'll see that Mark has set up several different forums, not just one. There's "The Naturalist's Corner" where you might describe the latest shenanigans of your backyard squirrel or chickadees or ask questions about same. There's a "Field Trips" section where you can share with us what you've seen on your outings. There's a "Tricks for Simple/Sustainable Living" forum others. In the "New Member Introduction" area I hope you'll introduce yourself, and be sure to tell us where you. Mark has even set up a "Species of the Week" area -- this week it's the Green Anole. Mark has done this much better than I ever would have. By the way, you can read Mark's introduction of himself at http://cybermessageboard.fatcow.com/backya2/viewtopic.php?t=6.

I see this message board as much more than merely fun, though of course it will surely be that. I truly believe that the planetary ecosystem is imperiled, and that the unsustainable, self-centered behavior of us humans is the main problem. I further believe that what we humans must do to rectify the situation is first to shake ourselves out of the non-feeling, non-thinking, non-empathizing trances and states of ignorance we're all in.

Among the most important ways to accomplish this is to struggle every day to understand the world around us better, to enhance our sensitivities (by learning more, paying more attention, getting enough sleep so our minds are clear, taking care of our bodies so we're not distracted by illnesses...), and by focusing on the awe-inspiring spiritual content of life.

Sharing our experiences, thoughts and feelings about the living things in our own neighborhoods, then, is one very tangible, real-world action we can take.

*****

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