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

July 6, 2006

EASTERN PONDHAWKS AT THE WATER TANK
Below the springhouse where the rectangular, cinderblock, alga- and duckweed-choked water tank stands surrounded by a house-size thicket of waist- high Spearmint, what catches your eye is the dozen or so darting-about Eastern Pondhawks, ERYTHEMIS SIMPLICICOLLIS. Pondhawks are dragonflies, seen at http://www.stephencresswell.com/d/simplicicollis.html.

In late afternoon I sit on the tank's edge smelling the mint I just crushed with my bare feet mingling with the smell of squished-up mud and the oily sweetness of my own back-skin sizzling in the prickly sunlight.

All the pondhawks are blue until a copulating couple lands right beside my feet and one of them is blue while the other is green. Therefore, all the ones darting around me are of one sex. Still, I'm not sure which sex is which color because the mating couple's bodies are coupled with the rear end of one caught at the back of the head of the other, whose rear end curves beneath the first one to meet its body from below -- so that the joined pair forms a heart-shape. As such, it's not clear who is doing what to whom. At the bottom of the page linked to above there's a picture showing such a mating pair of Eastern Pondhawks.

The pair finally uncouples with the green one staying at my feet for maybe half a minute before zipping down to the water's surface and laying eggs -- so now I know the blue ones are males. Hoovering just above the water's surface this female taps her tail onto the water every second or two. I can't see eggs being deposited, but I know what she's doing. While she lays her eggs the dozen males around us continue aggressively darting around crackling their wings and flying close to my head.

Back at the house I read in my fieldguide that Eastern Pondhawks are "One of our most ferocious dragonflies, attacking even each other. They hunt from the ground or low perches, often using a person or other large animal to flush game, and destroy great numbers of agricultural pests."

It also describes the "contests" with which males engage one another. One male who is following another flies under the first and comes up in front of him, then the new follower repeats the maneuver, and so forth, up to a dozen times.

At the tank many beginnings of such flights took place, but maybe that spot was too small and too overpopulated with dragonflies for the classical contest to take place. And no wonder the watering tank is overrun with Eastern Pondhawks, for the species' habitat is described as "quiet waters... usually associated with mats of alga, duckweed... or other floating plants." Among these hills with limestone bedrock where water flows underground, such habitats are very rare. In fact, I haven' seen a single other body of quiet water similarly choked with algae and duckweed in all of Polly's Bend.

I have heard advice to clean the alga from this tank, apparently because it's the duty of a good farmer to clean things out, but I hope that doesn't happen. For, that floating mat of alga and the duckweeds is exactly what's needed for these beautiful, green and blue, hard-driving, sunlight-glisten-on-wings pondhawks.

*****

COMMON MILKWEED
Here and there along roads, in abandoned fields and along the fencerow behind the old farmhouse where I stay, Common Milkweeds, ASCLEPIAS SYRIACA, are flowering. Though "syriaca" in the name means "from Syria," this is one of not many native plants that grow like weeds here. Linnaeus just got his geographical notes mixed up when he named it. You can see the plants' smooth-margined, herring-bone-veined, fig-tree-like leaves and the unusual shapes of their pink blossoms arranged in two-inch-wide pompoms at http://www.ct-botanical-society.org/galleries/asclepiassyri.html.

Though my old Gray's Manual lists 25 milkweed species -- 25 species of the genus Asclepias -- just for the northeastern quarter of the US -- Asclepias syriaca is the only species listed as the "Common Milkweed." Along the Gulf Coast several milkweed species are present but not the Common, so this is another case where Northeastern specialists have established awkward English names we all have to live with.

However, here in Kentucky the Common Milkweed really is the common one. It's our weedy species, and usually you don't see just one. Typically there's a dozen or more -- sometimes 500 or more -- in an oblong cluster all standing together like a platoon of knee-high soldiers. You can imagine how such an oblong grouping came about. In the fall the tear-shaped, inch-thick pods split open releasing many white-parachuted seeds, the sunlight exploding in their parachute fuzz. Most seeds land nearby, distributing themselves in an oblong mess from the base of the milkweed to 20 feet or more away. Then the next year an oblong cluster of soldiers stands there. Milkweeds are perennials, so over the years substantial colonies can develop, often with their oblong distribution aligned with the wind's prevailing direction.

The image of knee-high milkweeds being like soldiers comes to mind not only because the plants are in competition with all other species for water, nutrients and sunlight, but also because somehow they always look out of place. The texture of abandoned fields and fencerows is imparted mainly by the cluttered verticality of grassblades, and the scrawny wiriness of tough-stemmed, small-leafed weeds. But these milkweeds are so gorged with white latex that they are almost succulent. Their large, glossy leaves glow in sunlight, dropping oversized, oval shadows on the ground. A platoon of milkweeds looks as if it doesn't care about local rules, the plants doing their own thing their own way, like soldiers -- like paratroopers who've parachuted there.

Moreover, the Milkweed Family is one of the most recently evolved of flowering plant families, so in a sense they are indeed invading a traditional landscape, bringing in new ways of being -- they're the vanguard of things to come, like soldiers.

You can see for yourself why milkweed flowers are so iconoclastic. Like orchid flowers, which also are very recently evolved, certain milkweed flower parts have fused into structures hard to interpret. Whole new ideas arise in milkweed flowers. To understand milkweed-flower anatomy you need to learn a new set of meanings for such words as hood, crown and horn, and there's at least one entirely new word, pollinarium. My page describing milkweed flower anatomy, using a blossom from the orange-flowered Butterfly-weed, which is indeed a true milkweed, is at http://www.backyardnature.net/fl_milkw.htm.

The soldier analogy also holds when we consider the milkweed's predilection for chemical warfare. The copious "milk" that oozes from their wounds is rich in poisonous chemicals called cardenolides, ready for enemy herbivores.

*****

RED MILKWEED BEETLES
Standing among hundreds of flowering milkweeds, as I did this week, a sweet perfume softens the air, and you should see the honeybees and other pollinators so busily at work! When I'm among Common Milkweeds I look for a certain beetle, the Red Milkweed Beetle, sometimes called the Four-eyed Milkweed Beetle, TETRAOPES TETRAOPHTHALMUS. See some nice pictures at http://www.cirrusimage.com/beetles_red_milkweed.htm.

These beetles are fun to look for because they are so limited to milkweed leaves, where they are often seen munching away or mating. Also, they are unique- looking, and easy to identify. They're interesting in a technical sense because of a curious anatomical feature: They have four eyes instead of two.

This species belongs to the Longhorn Beetle Family, the Cerambicidae. One feature of the Cerambicidae is that the members' exceptionally long antennae are inserted so close to the eyes that the eyes of most species are indented in order to make room for the antennae. Our Red Milkweed Beetle carries this to such an extreme that the antennae actually split each eye in two.

Of course another unusual feature of the Red Milkweed Beetle is that it eats milkweeds, which, we've seen, are full of latex that is poisonous to most species. Two other insect species that not only can eat milkweeds but actually are attracted to them are caterpillars of the Monarch Butterfly, and the Milkweed Leaf Beetle.

*****

MILKWEEDS AS FOOD AND MEDICINE
Despite the milkweed's poisonous latex, they can be eaten if properly prepared. You can cook very young milkweed sprouts the way you do Poke sprouts, pouring off at least the first water, and probably even the second, to get rid of the cardenolides.

When dozens of Common Milkweed sprouts arose behind the house a couple of months ago I was tempted to gather some for eating. However, the same notion as always kept me from it: Milkweeds are so pretty and useful to the local ecosystem that I'd rather have them as neighbors than to eat them. Besides, when milkweed sprouts first appear so many other highly edible greens populate the landscape -- dock, violet leaves, Dandelion -- that there's no need to molest milkweeds.

Native Americans and others used milkweed medicinally. In fact, the genus name honors the Greek God Asclepias, the God of Medicine.

Native Americans used Asclepias root for arthritis and several other ailments. It was considered especially effective for expelling gallstones. One book describes the manner of preparing milkweed root:

"Take equal parts of milkweed and Marshmallow (Althea), seep a teaspoonful in a cup of boiling water, take 3 cups daily, and one upon retiring."

The Marshmallow or Althea being mentioned is a close relative to the Hollyhock, not the pretty, small tree flowering now with rose-colored blossoms 2-3 inches across, known in some places as Rose-of-Sharon and others as Althea. The medicinal Althea is a European perennial herb sometimes found in gardens and as an escapee in North America. You can see it and read about it at http://indianspringherbs.com/Althea.htm.

*****

HARD TIMES FOR SLIPPERY ELM
In nearby Daniel Boone National Forest just to the east, in the Appalachian Mountains, they're raising an alarm about Slippery Elm, ULMUS RUBRA. People are stripping bark from the trees, and of course this promptly kills them.

This is happening because Slippery Elm bark is being rediscovered as a medicine. As they say at http://www.herbalextractsplus.com/slippery-elm.cfm, "Its high level of mucilage helps to soothe a sore throat, ease indigestion and lubricate the bowel, which has made Slippery Elm Bark useful for easing Crohn's disease, colitis and irritable bowel disease."

The above site sells 30 capsules of bark for $7.69, which explains why people are killing trees in the national forest to get bark.

Slippery Elm is fairly common in much of eastern North America, but absent in most of the Deep South. It looks a lot like American Elm, but its larger leaves' surfaces are rougher, almost sandpapery, and its buds are plumper. I haven't seen many on this Bluegrass limestone but back in western Kentucky it was very common, sometimes almost weedy in fencerows.

People go for the soft, pale inner bark, not the dark, woody outer bark. When I was a kid I'd gouge out a strip of inner bark and chew it until it got soft and slimy -- gummy-mucilaginous. It'd at least give the illusion of slacking your thirst.

You can see Slippery Elm at http://www.biosurvey.ou.edu/shrub/ulru.htm and read about its biology and see its national distribution at http://www.na.fs.fed.us/spfo/pubs/silvics_manual/volume_2/ulmus/rubra.htm.

*****

HUMMINGBIRD EGGSHELL
Ruby-throated Hummingbird nests I've seen have all been on down-pointing tree limbs over water. Therefore I was surprised the other day when I was passing before Ruth's garage on my way to connect to the Internet and half of a hummingbird's eggshell fell onto the pavement at my feet. You can see that very shell next to a dime for size comparison at http://www.backyardnature.net/pix/humm-egg.jpg.

The above image shows only half of a shell. You can clearly see the jagged cut made by the hatchling inside the shell as it twisted around, ripping at the egg's equator. Typically a baby bird is equipped with a sharp "egg tooth" atop its beak with which it cuts its way from inside the egg. Upon hatching, the egg tooth falls off.

Once I thought about it, I realized that the nest's location wasn't as unusual as it might seem. In this land of karst topography with precious little standing water, in every way the hummer had stuck to the standard concept of what makes a good hummingbird nesting site -- except that flat-surfaced water had been exchanged for flat-surfaced asphalt!

It was interesting that the eggshell had been discarded so near the nest, for I've seen birds carry shells far away. Birds remove empty shells from their nests so that the shells won't attract predators. This fact was proved in a series of classical experiments conducted by pioneer ethologist Niko Tinbergen, who worked largely with gulls. You can read about it at http://www.stanford.edu/group/stanfordbirds/text/essays/Empty_Shells.html.

*****

THE BIRDS OF INDEPENDENCE DAY
I like making birdlists on Independence Day because the species noted at this time of year are those most at home in the landscape. A bird seen on July 4th will not be a migrant just passing through, not a winter visitor, but rather a species that chooses to rears its family here, one deliciously in tune with the local environment.

Also, on Independence Day there's a full-summer feeling in the air, hot and humid, sublimely green, everything vigorously growing, and full of life. What a pleasure this Tuesday morning to walk into the fields, crickets stereophonically tintinnabulating, the dew cool and fresh on my legs...

Here I list the species in the order seen, so you can share in experiencing the landscape mood changing as I walk along, and delight as I did finding these species exactly where they should be, doing exactly what's right for them:

Before a hint of dawn light appears I hear this:

1: YELLOW-BREASTED CHAT singing in the field at night

As light slowly brings on dawn, these birds compose a morning chorus:

2: CAROLINA WREN
3: INDIGO BUNTING
4: SONG SPARROW
5: CARDINAL
6: GREAT HORNED OWL, a single hooting

Now walking across abandoned weedy field, 8 AM, 75°

7: MOCKINGBIRD, an immature one hopping on the road
8: RED-WINGED BLACKBIRD, on fence chowk-calling
9: TOWHEE, 2 immatures playing in weedy fencerow
10: PURPLE MARTIN,3 in dead tree snag top chortling
11: CROW, cawing sharply from across field
12: FIELD SPARROW, entering nest in bush in field
13: EASTERN WOOD PEWEE, sun bathing in high tree snag
14: AMERICAN ROBIN, sun bathing in high tree snag
15: RUBY-THROATED HUMMINGBIRD, at blue Chicory flowers
16: BROWN-HEADED COWBIRD, 3 flying overhead chortling
17: CHIMNEY SWIFT, 3 twittering, circling over field
18: BLUE JAY, alarm call from group of trees
19: YELLOWTHROAT, calling from thicket
20: GOLDFINCH, male preening beside Nodding Thistles
21: YELLOW-BILLED CUCKOO, calling from woods
22: BOBWHITE, come-together call from thicket
23: WHITE-EYED VIREO, calling from blackberry thicket

Entering fairly young upland woods:

24: RED-EYED VIREO, calling from canopy
25: ACADIAN FLYCATCHER, calling from deep forest
26: WHITE-BREASTED NUTHATCH, nasal call from treetrunk

Atop vertical limestone cliff overlooking the shallow, green, hardly moving Kentucky River:

27: BELTED KINGFISHER, flying across river
28: CAROLINA CHICKADEE, fussing in tree right below me
29: SCARLET TANAGER, prettily preening in ash-tree top
30: NORTHERN CATBIRD, calling from shadowy riverbanks
31: WOODTHRUSH, calling from woods across river
32: TUFTED TITMOUSE, in tree, caterpillar in beak
33: GREAT-CRESTED FLYCATCHER, loudly calling below
34: PILEATED WOODPECKER, calling as crosses river
35: WOOD DUCK, calling from upriver
36: SUMMER TANAGER, robinlike song from tree snag

Now back at house

37: ORCHARD ORIOLE, chasing a Mockingbird
38: BROWN THRASHER, worm-catching on lawn
39: HOUSE FINCH, raspberry-colored male singing
40: BARN SWALLOW, 41 communing on power line
41: CEDAR WAXWING, high-pitched call from treetop
42: PHOEBE, calling from yard tree
43: EASTERN MEADOWLARK, calling from nearby hayfield
44: CHIPPING SPARROW, catching bug in lawn grass

Now biking Polly's Bend single, ridgetop, asphalt road

45: TURKEY VULTURE, 3 over hayfield
46: EASTERN KINGBIRD, wind-harassed on barbed wire
47: EASTERN BLUEBIRD, singing from hedgerow
48: HOUSE SPARROW, calling from farmer's feeding lot

*****

DUMB LOVE AND PATRIOTISM
When I left the farm for college in 1965 already it was occurring to me that maybe life wasn't as black and white as I'd thought.

For instance, my parents were very loving, and my mother expressed a lot of that love in the form of rich and abundant food. Thus I grew up feeling wanted and cared for -- something that has given me a sense of worth and stability my whole life -- but already in 1965 I weighed over 300 pounds, and I got up to 340 before finally I took control.

Therefore, are all forms of selfless, well-meaning love unqualifiedly good? Having emerged from love- inspired fatness with hypertension, hemorrhoids, flat feet and hypoglycemia, I'd say that even selfless, well-meaning love can have a dark side.

Though I would never qualify my parents' love as anything less than perfect, my childhood experience suggests that love comes in dumb and smart forms. Dumb love is expressed without consideration for the consequences, while smart love takes into account more than the moment's hankerings.

Patriotism is a form of selfless, well-meaning love, and as such there are dumb and smart forms of it.

Dumb patriotism appears whenever the flag is followed no matter who is carrying it, and wherever it is going. Smart patriotism considers the who and where of flag-following.

Today in America most people are indulging in dumb patriotism. Dumb patriotism has caused us to stand by while being led into an unwise, unjust and horrific war. It has caused us to accept bankrupting spending policies that have weakened us as a nation, and it has created an environment in which atrocities are committed in our name.

Though decades ago I took responsibility for my body, to this day I must deal with the hypertension and hemorrhoids of my childhood brush with dumb love. In the same way, future generations will find democracy and freedom much harder to nurture because of scores being settled after America's current indulgence in dumb patriotism.

How does all this fit into a naturalist's newsletter?

It is because I am in love with the living things of this planet. The things I love are being destroyed, and they are being destroyed at an accelerating pace. Here are the prime destructive agents:

1): Unrestrained consumerism, which is a subset of dumb love, the love of granting one another and oneself instant gratification

2): War making, which is fueled largely by dumb patriotism in many countries

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim

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