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

July 13, 2006

SNAPPING TURTLE EATING ALGAE
Below the spring, years ago they threw an earthen dam across a small valley, but a decent pond never did develop. Presently there's a pool of water about the size of a house, seldom more than three or four inches deep. Wildlife trails lead to it through tall weeds and sometimes a Mallard or heron visits there.

The water stays so stirred up that no aquatic plants float atop it. Best I can tell, it's kept muddy by turtles. On Sunday I saw five large ones there, far too many for such a small, shallow pool. They were Snapping Turtles, CHELYDRA SERPENTINA, and Red-eared Turtles, CHRYSEMYS SCRIPTA.

The pool's banks slope so shallowly that weeds, especially smartweed, extend into the water. At the water's edge one snapper worked his way alongshore methodically sticking his head in among the weeds' bases, withdrawing into deeper water, dunking his head beneath the water, and forcing water and bubbles to gush from his mouth. This procedure was repeated again and again.

The shadowy water below the weeds was green with half- floating, half-draping-on-weed-stems, mushy, algal mats, and the snapper seemed to be harvesting the alga one mouthful at a time.

I'm unsure why he always dipped his head underwater to expel the water and bubbles. Also, the quantity of water and bubbles expelled seemed far greater than a mere mouthful. I wonder if snappers have a way of gorging their stomachs and/or the esophagi in those super-long necks with water and aquatic plants, then expelling just water and air?

On the Internet I read that courting snappers gulp in water then violently expel it through their nostrils. Also, certain turtles of other species have been seen discharging water through their mouths after grabbing fish.

Whatever the case, it's hard to imagine that the poor snapper derived much nourishment from the limited amount of watery, bubbly alga along the pond's margin. That pond, like Earth with its humans, just has too many turtles.

A couple of weeks ago I was at Ruth's computering when a Snapper dragged himself up the middle of the asphalt lane leading to her house, passed right in front of me, entered the hayfield and continued toward the top of the hill. I read that snappers displaced two miles have returned to their capture sites within several hours, so apparently this species gets to know its neighborhood. The pond's close-packed turtles probably know that in this area -- unless they can get down the Kentucky River's high, vertical, limestone cliffs surrounding us -- they're not going to find anything better than what they already have.

You can see a Snapping Turtle at http://www.carolinanature.com/herps/snappingturtle.html.

*****

BUTTERFLIES OF POLLY'S BEND
About this time a year ago on a hike up Slate Mountain in California's Sierra Nevadas I listed nine butterfly species in the Douglas-fir/ Sugar Pine forest between 3200 and 4100 feet (975-1250 meters) in elevation. This year I have a completely different environment, at around 850 feet in elevation (260 m), and there's a completely different set of butterflies. In the recently clipped hayfields, fencerows and abandoned fields around the old farmhouse, here are the seven butterfly species I've identified this week:

Cabbage White Butterfly, ARTOGEIA RAPAE
- small, the open, white wings with 3 dark smudgy spots
- abundant in all open, weedy areas
- introduced from Europe into Quebec in 1860, now probably North America's most commonly seen species; the caterpillar eats many members of the Mustard Family; I see the adults taking nectar mostly from clover and Chicory flowers http://perso.orange.fr/felixthecatalog.tim/small_white.htm.

Eastern Black Swallowtail, PAPILIO POLYXENES
- large, wings black, with lines of yellow-cream spots and at base of open wings 2 orange eyespots
- common species in many habitats
- caterpillars eat members of the Parsley Family, of which our super-abundant Poison Hemlock is one http://hartmanprehistoricgarden.com/sa-papilio_pol.html

Pearly Crescentspot, PHYCIODES THAROS
- small, orange wings with wide, black margin and other heavy black markings
- our second-most common species in fields, roadsides, lawns
- caterpillars eat asters
http://www.holoweb.com/nature/butterflies/Phyciodes_tharos.htm  

Monarch, DANAUS PLEXIPPUS
- large, unmistakably orange with black markings
- occasional in fields and gardens
- caterpillars eat milkweeds and Dogbane Hemp http://insects.tamu.edu/extension/youth/bug/bug124.html

Eastern Tailed Blue Butterfly, EVERES COMYNTAS
- small, violet wings with tiny dark spots and orange, black-edged spots on hindwing above tail
- fairly common, especially on ground after the garden is watered
- caterpillars eat members of the Bean Family, especially clover, which is abundant here http://www.carolinanature.com/butterflies/etb.html

Sachem, ATALOPEDES CAMPESTRIS
- smallish, thick-bodied skipper with wings held at two different angles, like an F-22 Raptor fighter jet
- only one seen, resting on mint near spring
- caterpillars eat grasses
http://www.duke.edu/~jspippen/butterflies/sachem.htm

Tawny Emperor, ASTEROCAMPA CLYTON
- medium, thick bodied, brown wings with black and white markings
- only one seen, hanging around compost bin
- caterpillars eat Hackberry leaves http://www.carolinanature.com/butterflies/tawnyemperor.html

The above list represents several hours of wandering about, and dozens of ticks picked from my legs, for tick season is developing nicely here. I'm surprised that so few species turned up. Even in Ruth's flower gardens there's only a fraction of the species and numbers I'd expect. I also visited a woodlot but didn't see a single butterfly during an hour or so there.

I'm guessing that one reason butterfly diversity and density is so low here is that many adults lay eggs in the hayfields' lush clover and grasses, then the hay is cut, baled and stored so that when the eggs hatch the larvae are unable to develop. These frequently cropped fields are like giant, green sponges soaking up butterfly eggs from the Web of Life.

*****

SACHEM
That name Sachem for Atalopedes campestris in the list above aroused my curiosity. It's a Native American word, used among the Algonquian to signify the chief, and among the Iroquois Confederacy to refer to a member of the ruling council. Learning this, I got an unexpected glimpse into Native-American society.

For, the Atalopedes campestris I saw was a fast- flying, hard-driving little fellow who perched confidently in the open on a mint leaf seemingly absorbed in cleaning his antenna but when another butterfly came along needing chasing he pugnaciously zoomed off after it. His tawny-orange and brown body was very thick and fuzzy, seeming too heavy for such small wings. His self-confident mien, his abrupt movements and his massive body reminded me of savvy, thick-necked Chicago alderman working the streets.

And now I can guess that the Native Americans' chiefs and council members were sometimes like Chicago aldermen!

*****

PLUME MOTH
If the Sachem zoomed like an F-22 fighter jet, up at the house the thing that caught my eye was slow moving and, it would seem to me, aerodynamically unfeasible. When the fluttering blur landed on the bricks at the base of the chimney it formed nothing less than a capital letter T. You can see exactly what I saw here.

What's portrayed there is a Plume Moth of the lepidopterous family Pterophoridae. As the picture shows, Plume Moths are mind boggling because when they are at rest they hold their slender wings horizontally and at right angles to their body -- forming a T. I just can't imagine what evolutionary exigencies were responsible for such an unlikely moth design.

It must be an effective design, however, for over 150 Plume Moth species -- members of the Plume Moth Family -- are recognized living in North America north of Mexico. Amazingly there's a whole website dedicated to nothing but Plume Moths. If you want to see many variations on the Plume Moth theme, go to http://www.plumemoth.com/.

Beyond the adult's weird appearance, Plume Moth larvae are fairly standard affairs, boring through plant stems and rolling up the edges of leaves. A "Grape Plume Moth" gives headaches to grape growers.

*****

TEASELS FLOWERING
When I arrived here in late April the landscape had just turned vibrantly green, but here and there vestiges of winter hung on. One wintry thing was a nice population of 7-ft-tall, brown, dead Teasel skeletons from last year, on an old-field slope above the spring. How out of place those stiff, gaunt, spiny things looked all surrounded by lush spring greenness!

Our Teasel species is DIPSACUS SYLVESTRIS, an invasive from Europe. Teasel flowers show a lot of affinity for the blossoms of composites such as daisies and chrysanthemums, but they are in their own family, the Teasel Family, the Dipsacaceae.

I've been looking forward to Teasel-flowering time, and that time has come. It's not that Teasels are such gorgeous plants -- most people confuse them with thistles -- but rather they are unusual. You can see what I mean on my new teasel-flower-interpretation page at http://www.backyardnature.net/fl_teasl.htm.

When young Teasel plants began emerging in May they were pretty eye-catching. They consisted of a stiff, straight stem on which two large leaves arose at each connecting point, or node, and the leaf bases merged with one another so that a cuplike depression surounded the stem where the leaves arose. In fact, the leaf bases formed such a fine cup that when it rained a substantial quantity of water pooled there, staying for days at a time! Goldfinches and other small birds had plenty of water sources those days.

I don't see Teasels elsewhere at Polly's Bend so I'm guessing that someone here long ago cultivated them, and the ones beside the spring are escapees from those days. There's good reason why pioneers might have cultivated them. Once the flowers have set fruit and the flowering heads have dried out, the heads are so spiny and stiff that in the old days they were used as combs. The dried head of another Teasel species was even used in the textile industry to raise the nap on fabrics -- to tease the fibers to stand up.

In fact, "teasing fiber" accounts for the Teasel's name. Then you wonder where "tease" came from. Well, it's from the Old English "tæsan," meaning "pluck, or pull apart." Interestingly, according to the Etymology Online Dictionary (http://www.etymonline.com), the hairdresser's phrase "teasing hair" only arose around 1957. Can it be that when I was nine years old in 1956 if I'd asked my mother to tease my hair she wouldn't have understood?

You can see an entire Teasel plant and a dried "Teasel comb" at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dipsacus.

*****

BERGAMOT IN THE BLACKBERRY FIELD
Blackberry-picking time has come and maybe because of the unusually rainy, cool summer so far the berries are bigger, sweeter and juicer than I can remember seeing. Every two or three days I wade through tick- infested tall grass to get to the brambles, where there's enough berries for years and years of blackberry jam.

Here and there in the weedy fields -- abandoned for maybe 3-5 years -- stand some very striking, pink flowered, native wildflowers that need to be talked about. How unusual to have such a pretty native species holding its own with the European weeds, and to be flowering now when it's too late for spring flowers and too early for fall ones.

It's the Bergamot, MONARDA FISTULOSA, a very spicy- smelling member of the Mint Family. You can see it at http://www.missouriplants.com/Pinkopp/Monarda_fistulosa_page.html.

This is simply a marvelous plant and I'm glad people are starting to recognize its value. At the above site just see how pretty the flowers are and how stately the plant. The species is a favorite among butterfly gardeners, growing easily from seed. The leaves have been used traditionally as medicine and today are used in herbal teas. Savvy yuppies dress up their salads with a few pink Bergamot flowers.

Of course we can't let that interesting word Bergamot pass without wondering about it. Apparently it goes back to the town of Bergamo in northern Italy. However, Bergamo's Bergamot was a small citrus tree producing acidic, pear-shaped fruits, the rinds from which an oil was extracted for use in perfumery. People at that time spoke of bergamot oil. I would guess that someone eventually named our odoriferous wildflower after bergamot oil.

*****

CAREX FRANKII
Among these hundreds of hilly acres of grassy pastures and weedy hayfields there's one tiny spot where species diversity soars, where I can always find something unusual and fascinating: down at the spring at the quadrangular, cinderblock water-tank surrounded by powerfully aromatic, yard-high spearmint, flitted over by blue and green Eastern Pondhawk dragonflies, and choked with floating mats of alga and duckweed.

As you approach, one plant species immediately catches the eye, growing in mud right beside the tank. It's a waist-high, bushel-basket-size, dense tuft of leaves looking very much like stiff, overgrown, yellow-green grassblades. However, when you see the strange flowers you know that they are not grass flowers at al. You can see flowers from our very plant at http://www.backyardnature.net/pix/carex.jpg.

This is a sedge, CAREX FRANKII, of the Sedge Family, the Cyperaceae. The word sedge is a generic one, literally, meaning a member of the genus Carex. Moreover, knowing that a plant is a sedge is only the beginning: My old Gray's Manual of Botany describes 267 species of Carex just for northeastern North America.

sedges are worth looking at, too. Because many are restricted to specific habitats -- Carex frankii likes swampy bottoms -- they are often good habitat markers. When I did "The Flora of McLean County, Kentucky" for my Master's thesis, I identified 22 species just in my dinky little home county.

If you enjoy contemplating "variations on a theme," sedges are perfect, for they provide every permutation of basic sedge-flower anatomy imaginable. For example, Carex frankii's male flowers, labeled in the picture at the link given above, are located beneath the female flowers on the terminal spike. In other species they're above the female flowers on the terminal spike. In yet others they are on each spike and in others there's just one spike to begin with. In others the males are scattered among the females, whether on one spike or several. On and on the variations of everything go, like an endless Bach fugue...

What a pleasure meeting this handsome Carex frankii next to the spring tank, amidst all that sunlight, the blue dragonflies, and aromatic spearmint!

*****

GLOBAL WARMING WEBSITE
Jarvis in North Carolina tells us about a new website dealing with global warming. It does a good job reviewing the scientific data, plus it advises us on how to choose energy-efficient lightbulbs, drive smarter and make other changes. I like this site because it focuses on the real cause of the problem: human overconsumption of goods and services.

You can also calculate your own impact on the problem.

Check out http://www.fightglobalwarming.com/.

*****

BIOLOGY'S DANCES
I write for an online magazine in the Netherlands called GEOlution Magazine, at http://www.geolution.nl/.

Recently they published my essay "Biology's Dances," which I have placed at http://www.backyardnature.net/j/o/dancing.htm.

*****

BLACK COW, FOGGY DAWN
At dawn a few minutes before the sun's red orb rises over the grassy hillcrest to the east, I jog on the ridge road, passing by a black cow chewing her cud and standing in green grass. White fog in the valley beyond frames the cow, making her into a silhouette. Pat, pat, pat go my feet on yet another morning after so many hundreds of morning jogs just like this one.

When I run, my body goes onto autopilot. I just ride atop the body, almost detached, watching images pass by. Today I'm running wondering what that cow is thinking, feeling, being.

The other day on Public Radio a scientist spoke on new insights into the fact that higher animals may have emotions. How disheartening that this late in human social evolution we are still talking as if that were a revelation.

When I was a kid on the western Kentucky farm we had pigs, cattle, goats, chickens, ducks and other critters, and from the first it was clear to me that all our animals had feelings. I used to hide in the chickenfeed bin spying on the hens so even at ten years of age I knew that hens had individual personalities. With my own eyes I saw that there were flirtatious hens and no-nonsense ones, hens who took good care of their chicks and others who were more concerned with their own comfort and interests. There were nervous hens and mellow hens, lazy ones and hyper ones. When we had fried chicken for Sunday dinner I'd wonder, "Is it the flirty one, or the sneaky one? Who will be missing when I go spying next, and how will the community get along without her?"

In college I was assured that I was laughably anthropomorphic. Well, now I'm older than my professors at that time and I've certainly had more field experience than they, stuck in their offices and classrooms. Now in my white-bearded, bald-headed augustness I do hereby proclaim what I should have loved to hear any authoritative individual say back then: All higher animals have feelings, and often those feelings are as intense, meaningful and beautiful as human emotions.

Understanding this is important. It's important to know that humans and other animals are all members of the same evolutionary Tree of Life, all enmeshed inextricably in the same ecological Web of Life, all composed of the same chemicals, with neurons working the same way, the same laws of Nature applying to us all equally, all of us together feeling, thinking, evolving from the same ancestors toward the same destiny.

For, once we accept that other living things are of the same stuff as us, it becomes easier to see that what endangers them also endangers us. Not by diminishing humankind but by elevating other living things around us will it become clearer that all of us survive only as long as the biotic community of which we are part continues to function -- continues producing clean air, clean water, wholesome foods, open space... for us all.

Black cow in green grass with a silvery, shimmering fogbank behind you, chew your cud and wonder at me pat, pat, pat down the little road atop the ridge. I leave you with this thought: That the most graceful element of this whole scene is that you reflect on me as I reflect on you, and we leave one another in peace.

I direct you to the essay "Do Animals have Emotions?" by Dr. Susan B. Eirich, biologist and psychologist, at http://www.earthfireinstitute.org/Articles/animal_emotions.htm.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim