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

June 29, 2006

ROADSIDE WEEDS
What a pleasure to bike this area's backroads, if only to see the weeds. Weeds are reaching a flowering peak right now. There's both Yellow and White Sweetclover, white-flowered Queen-Anne's Lace, Yarrow, Poison Hemlock and Indian Hemp, yellow-flowered Mullein, Black Medick, Wood Sorrel, and Dandelion, there's White Clover and Red Clover, pink-flowered Common Milkweed, Nodding Thistle and Deptford Pink, blue Chicory...

On and on one pedals, after a while the body accomplishing a contented state that's half glad tiredness and half exultation to be breathing fresh, sweet air so deeply. The unending gladness of roadside weed-flowers embedded in lush and frilly greenness becomes like light classical music on the radio: Nothing bombastic, and too pretty to be monotonous, just sweet gracefulness continuing on and on.

This is much in contrast to the situation in our intact forests, where it's too late for spring flowers and too early for fall flowers. Tree leaves are fully expanded now, yet they haven't begun yellowing, and they're not tattered yet from storms and bug eatings, so right now is when the forest is at its greenest, its most shadowy and sheltering. In recent years the summer forests I've been in have contained lots of pines, but here there are no pines. Pines give a forest an airy, open feeling. Walking through our forests is almost like being a fish swimming from one moist, shadowy hiding place to the next.

Why should our roadsides be so floriferous while our forests have so few flowers? Part of the answer surely is that nearly all our roadside weeds are invasive plants from Europe, while the vast majority of wildflowers in intact forests are native.

During my European years each summer I was reminded that there the summer growing season is too short to accommodate distinct spring flowerings and fall flowerings. Though there were indeed species who blossomed early and others who blossomed late, in general the flora rushed to a spectacular flowering peak around August, then the plants hurried to form fruits before the first frost. We Americans often forget how far north Europe is, and how brief their summers are. My last "hometown" in Germany, Bayreuth in Bavaria, lay near 50°N latitude, and that was considered southern Germany. Yet North American towns near 50°N include Winnipeg, Moose Jaw and Medicine Hat, all in Canada. No part of the lower 48 states extends beyond 50°N.

So, our roadside weeds, mostly genetically programmed for seasons at latitudes above 50°N, are thinking it's the middle of a very brief summer, not the start of a long one. They're hoping they can set fruits before the first frost, which, in their calculations, will come along in two or three months -- when it's August or September here.

Having their fruits ready too early doesn't seem to harm their reproductive capacity, though.

*****

EATING DAYLILY FLOWERS
So far spring and the first days of summer in central Kentucky have been cooler and rainier than normal. A few days ago as I was biking back from Ruth's in a chilly drizzle, as I approached the old farmhouse in which I stay I couldn't help noticing how pretty the daylilies were blossoming. You can see my Daylily page at http://www.backyardnature.net/fl_dayli.htm.

The daylilies' large, orange blossoms glowed in the super-green, rain-gorged lawn and maybe because I was so chilly and the daylilies' glow seemed so warm I couldn't suppress the notion that here was a good time to go eat some daylily flowers.

These were old-time daylilies, not the new double- flowered kinds, and I plucked about 20 of them. Usually I strip the flowers of their stiff stamens and pistils, but this time it occurred to me that I only do that because once I read that you need to, so maybe I needed to confirm that information. I did break off the hard, green flower bases where the pedicles attached, but this time I would simply eat the stamens, and the pistils' stigmas, styles and ovaries.

Into a bowl I snipped the flowers into bite-size pieces, added maybe a quarter of a cup of cornmeal and as much self-rising flour, snipped in some onions for the fun of it, and added two eggs. A mug with some mint tea left over from breakfast sat beside my bowl so I added enough of that to make a nice, loose batter. Then over a campfire I fried it all.

It turned out to be pretty good, and adding my mint tea to the batter might have been a stroke of genius. However, the flowers themselves contributed hardly any flavor. I've eaten daylilies with a slightly lemon- meringue taste, and that was great. But I think that this time I overpowered the flowers' taste with onions and too much cornmeal and flour. If I'd wanted the lemon-meringue taste I should have dipped the blossoms in a much thinner batter made just of flour, and not added onions or mint tea.

The resulting omelet was pretty, however, and the stamens and pistils had softened so that they were unnoticeable. The texture was good, the bulk felt good going down, and probably the flowers contained some vitamins.

Still, probably an omelet made with shredded collards, cabbage or other such makings from the garden would have been just as good or better. The most appealing aspect of eating such a daylily omelet as this is in taking into your body something cheerfully orange on a somber, drizzly day.

*****

PEARLY CRESCENTSPOTS
The farmhouse I'm in is a dignified presence with a distinguished history, but in recent years occupants have abused it. Of the many windows I haven't found a single one that doesn't have one or more panes cracked or completely missing, or else the window is painted stuck.

This means that critters come and go through the missing panes. At least once a day a certain Carolina Wren enters the kitchen, then sends his warning call echoing throughout the unfurnished house. It's nothing to be sitting at the computer when Barn Swallows enter the room, circle my head, then disappear. Lots of insects enter, then are attracted by light through the windows, and spend the rest of the day banging against window glass. I spend a lot of time offering shuttle service.

Among butterflies, probably our most common window- knocking species is the Pearly Crescentspot, PHYCIODES THAROS. This is a smallish, orange butterfly heavily patterned with black splotches and wide, black wing- margins. You can see a Pearly Crescentspot at http://www.carolinanature.com/butterflies/pc.html.

My field guide says that this is one of our most common meadow butterflies, and that it "flies low over the grasses with alternating flaps and glides." It's distributed from the Yukon and Newfoundland to southern Mexico. It lays its eggs on aster leaves, which its caterpillars later eat. Its main habitats are moist meadows, fields, roadsides, streamsides and "open places." Thus our hayfield-occupied hilltops couldn't be more congenial to them and there's no wonder they are so common.

The field guide also describes Pearly Crescentspots as "highly pugnacious, the males dart out from perches, or break their flight pattern to investigate any passing form -- butterfly, bird, or human." I've had them flit around me, but I never thought of it as being pugnacious. They were just gathering information, I thought -- butterfly curiosity.

In fact, when I shuttle Pearly Crescentspots, often I just put a finger before them and more than likely they'll stick out their proboscis, discover how nicely salty my fingertip is, climb onto it as they sup, and ride it as I walk outside.

*****

COTTONTAIL LIPS
When I have a book to read, late each afternoon either I settle in the swing beneath Ruth's big Sugar Maple or else at the picnic table beneath the big American Elm beside the old house, and read. While I'm reading I remain so quiet and still that birds and cottontails often draw near.

One afternoon this week a cottontail hopped leisurely to just a few feet away, nibbling weeds. I had a good view but, still, when he approached a Chicory stem, sniffed it, and got the stem into his mouth, it was like magic. Snipping the stem and working it around so that the stem's base stuck into his mouth happened so quickly that my mind simply didn't register it. One moment the stem was standing being sniffed, then almost instantly it was in the rabbit's mouth being nibbled as the whole stem, flower-buds and all, disappeared into the rabbit, bottom first. Then the rabbit hopped up to another Chicory stem and the entire procedure was repeated.

Maybe a younger person with a quicker mind would have seen the labial manipulation that got that stem into the rabbit's mouth. As far as I was concerned, however, the cottontails' prehensile lips had committed nothing less than legerdemain.

"Prehensile" means "Adapted for seizing, grasping, or holding, especially by wrapping around an object." Monkeys and Opossums have prehensile tails, and rabbits have prehensile lips. On the Internet I read that rabbits can survive when their incisors are missing because their lips can pull food into their mouths even when it's not been clipped.

Seeing the rabbit's prehensile lips in action wasn't the only remarkable thing beheld that day. The other was the shear quantity of vegetable matter the critter put into his gut.

But, we shouldn't judge a rabbit's eating capacity by comparing the rabbit's size to our own, then extrapolating the amount we eat to what the rabbit must eat. That's because rabbit digestion depends very much on the phenomenon of "hind gut fermentation."

In other words, rabbits come out at dawn and dusk (they're "crepuscular") and eat huge quantities of high-fiber vegetation, then go someplace and basically hide for the rest of the day or night while bacteria in their hind gut digest the food. Bacterial digestion in the gut also happens in humans, but not nearly to the same extent. However, at one time the human digestive tract was more rabbitlike than now, the human appendix being an evolutionary relict from those times. Now our appendixes are useless but in earlier evolutionary times they served our intestines the way a rabbit's cecum (SEE-kum) still serves the rabbit.

The rabbit's cecum is a sort of large bag into which recently chewed vegetable matter is temporarily stored for bacterial fementation. In the cecum, indigestible fiber is converted into nutrients.

The cecum is much more than just a bag, however. At certain times of the day the cecum sends a signal to the rabbit's brain that it's about to expel through the rabbit's tail-hole the nutrient-rich remains of the cecum-bacteria's hours of work. The remains are packaged into small, round, moist, green-to-brown, mucous-coated pellets called "cecotropes." When the cecotropes emerge, the rabbit is usually waiting. He's bent around making us think that he's grooming his rear end but, actually, he's gobbling up those nutritious cecotropes which, this time passing through the digestive system, won't be shunted into the cecum.

A lot of people who raise rabbits in cages don't even know about cecotropes because nearly always the cecotropes are eaten before anyone sees them. Sometimes one or two are spotted on the cage floor, and then the owner thinks maybe the rabbit is sick.

If you have the stomach for it you can actually see a dissected rabbit's cecum (the first three thumbnails) and other features of a real rabbit's interior at http://redbaron.bishops.k12.nf.ca/wells/verts/rabbit/thumbs/thumbs.htm.

*****

CHIMNEY SWIFT IN THE BASEMENT
The other day while preparing my campfire breakfast I heard a knocking at the old house's basement window. It was a Chimney Swift banging into the glass again and again. I was amazed, for the only way I can see that the bird got into the basement of this two-story house was to come down the chimney. And the chimney is so clogged that smoke from any fire in any fireplace in the house goes everyplace except up the chimney.

When I got to the basement the bird was clinging to a cinderblock wall. It let me place my hand over him without much fuss.

When I had him outside I took a good look at him. In the sky, Chimney Swifts look like black cigars on very slender, black, swooped-back, fluttering wings. In my hand the bird seemed all wings. The beak was tiny but the mouth was wide. This bird showed none of that quality that makes a heron graceful or a duck friendly looking. It didn't seem to have much of a personality at all, just brittle-feeling wings on a body so light I could hardly feel it, and a no-nonsense mouth meant to catch insects in flight. There was something almost grumpy-looking about it. I opened my hands and off the bird flew, disappearing over the next valley.

For the last couple of weeks I've been noticing three Chimney Swifts who appear to be making this old, hilltop house the center of their flying-about. Actually several swifts often can be seen at any one time, but just these three circle the house closely, repeatedly. All through the day the three fly in close formation around and around the house, sometimes going elsewhere for a while, but always returning.

They chortle as they fly, seeming to be in perpetual conversation, chipping rapidly, excitedly, unendingly. It's hard to reconcile the airy, ebullient wingings and chippings with the hard-faced little being I held in my hands a while back.

But, I also am someone who habitually has a serious, even hard look on my face, despite my heart and mind very often taking flights of fancy you might not be able to imagine.

So, these days I find myself empathizing with Chimney Swifts as they circle and circle around the old farmhouse, chortling and flitting. I sit here maybe looking hard-faced in my concentration and seriousness, but I count the chortles and flittings as laughter, and in my own way I am laughing with them.

The Chimney Swifts.Org web site is at http://www.chimneyswifts.org/.

There you can learn a lot about swifts, find plans for making a chimney tower they can nest in, and there's even a web cam inside a nesting tower focused on a nest that had hungry nestlings in it when I last looked.

*****

DADDY LONGLEGS TO PONDEROSA PINES
At our new messageboard, this week Mark's "Species of the Week" is the Ponderosa Pine, illustrated with colorful photos. Snuffy in North Carolina reports on seeing and smelling a mink. Carey in the Texas Hill Country asked about Daddy Longlegs and got a fine response, with pictures, from Wren in Louisiana. Ecocyclist in Pennsylvania described "rodent scrimmage" between a groundhog and two squirrels competing for the same territory. I posted a letter sent to me from Srdjan in Serbia, requesting feathers for his collection!

This message board is living up to its potential. At the moment we have 28 users and over 200 posts. If you're not sure how to use it, just go to http://cybermessageboard.fatcow.com/backya2/ and while you're on that page bookmark the address so you can find it later. When you're at that page, click on "Register" in the upper, right corner. After agreeing to the terms (no spam, no porn, etc), you will be asked to choose a user name and a password. Write these down so you won't forget, then hit submit.

Then you may want to return to the first page you saw. You will see several forums listed, such as "The Naturalist's Corner" and "Field Trips." I suggest that you first click on "New Member Introduction" toward the bottom of the page. There you can see how others have introduced themselves by clicking on the titles of their entries. For example, near the top right now is "Never too old to learn." Just click on those words and you can read what "Snuffy" has written.

To add your own introduction, click on "New Topic" at the top, left of the message board. Then just fill in the spaces and post your remarks.

You don't have to register to view remarks, but you do to post.

*****

A SONG IN EVERY TREE
Several of my books and other works can be downloaded. You can see the titles and download them yourself at http://www.backyardnature.net/j/books/.

The other day Alex somewhere in cyberspace wrote with regard to my short book "One Year in the Life of a House Sparrow." He said that having had House Sparrows brought to his attention, "... all of a sudden there is 'a bird on every corner, a song in every tree.' If you don't allow for it, your mind doesn't register. People don't expect sparrows to be fascinating, and thus ignore them."

Alex has discovered something important: Human minds are wired so that we grow blind to everyday things. Maybe it's an evolutionary defense against the fact that if we could see plainly how many things can go wrong with our bodies, how tenuously society is held together, and how fragile the planetary ecosystem is, we'd all go berserk.

The resulting desensitization, though maybe useful, produces a sad effect, because as we habituate and grow blind to the world's novelties and awe-inspiring features, apathy and detachment set in. Moreover, there's a positive feedback mechanism: As one thing after another drops from our radars, life grows less inspiring, and we see less reason to make efforts to know and care about the world around us. And when we just don't care, then we're more likely to live in ways that threaten and destroy Life on Earth -- which is the profoundly dangerous situation that has developed now.

Several times in my life I've drifted into the no- seeing mode myself. Sometimes it was because I was trying too hard to achieve something -- maybe to succeed in a job or maintain a relationship with a woman -- and sometimes it was because of my obsessive personality, which can give me tunnel vision as I drive things into the ground, if I don't watch. So far I've always been able to shake myself out of these ruts. I'd consciously and ceremoniously take a few days of walking around reexamining my priorities and reshuffling my strategies for life. Then I'd forgive myself for having been so dumb and unfeeling, and make a new start.

Here's an important point: Each time I've made a new start, nothing harmonized with and encouraged my rebirth more than paying attention to Nature. When I paid attention, Nature was always there advising me: Simplify; don't waste resources; take care of your body; keep growing...

These profoundly important teachings are best taught by Nature Herself. The process works like this: You make yourself available, and then Nature takes over, first slowly healing, then slowly pleasing, and finally slowly bringing you into new awarenesses and more sophisticated manners of being. And that process is pleasurable, and makes you happy.

If you are completely at a loss as to how to make an initial contact with Nature, one approach might be to look over my "101 Nature-Oriented Things to Do This Summer" webpage at http://www.backyardnature.net/101/summer.htm.

For example, you might begin the process by taking my Suggestion #27, which is: "List all the birds in your neighborhood" -- I show you how to get started -- then let Nature take over as you begin paying attention, making your lists, and finding a song in every tree.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim