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

July 27, 2006

PURPLE MARTINS IN THE BLACKLOCUST TREE
Next to the old farmhouse there's a fair-sized Blacklocust tree with a dead top. Its upper third is a splintered, asymmetrical, zigzagging confusion, very much in aesthetic conflict with the surrounding rolling green hilltops and wooded valleys.

The nice thing is that this monstrosity makes a fine perch each day for 15-25 Purple Martins, mostly young ones with pale breasts. On hot, sunny, muggy afternoons they lounge up there stretching and preening as their parents fly around catching food and carrying it to them. I haven't seen any martin boxes around here and I think they must come from several miles away where some boxes stand next to a pond.

When they first got here the young would stay on their perch and quiver their wings as the adult approached, often with a large dragonfly clearly visible in its beak. Nowadays the young are showing more enthusiasm, often flying to meet the adults when they see them coming. When this happens the adult is likely to lead the kid on a little chase, obliging them to try those wings and learn some aerial acrobatics. Other times the parent flies past the approaching young and carries food to the shyer one staying on the limb but probably just as hungry.

When the adults fly away for food, often they go so far that I lose their images in my binoculars, so these foraging trips are not mere strolls around the tree, but major expeditions. Everyone talks about Purple Martins eating mosquitoes, and I suppose they do, but from what I see they really prefer bigger prey, especially dragonflies, butterflies and moths.

Often an adult returns from a trip with no food. They land on the perch, one or more young hop near begging, and the adult opens its mouth and issues a rough aaaaaaah! call, easy enough to interpret as "Let me alone!"

I'll bet that within a week the young will be spending most of their time soaring for their own food. Their numbers are dwindling each day even now.

In fact, sometimes flocks of 15 or so martins arrive above the hayfield, all circling the way martins do, but the flocks have two special features. One, nearly all of them are immatures. Two, there is one adult among them calling very loudly, harshly, so that one thinks of a sergeant barking commands at raw recruits, though maybe it's only an adult keeping the flock together by presenting a sound all the young ones can cluster around.

I hope no one cuts the top of that Blacklocust tree. For the whole next year it'll rise dark and disconcerting above the tree but this time next year, once again, it'll be just the perfect place for another generation of hungry, pretty martins. I wish everyone saw such limbs not as eyesores but as monuments to hope for another season of stretching and preening.

There's a lot of information about Purple Martins at http://www.purplemartin.org.

*****

STRETCHING AND PREENING
Fledgling Purple Martins aren't the only ones spending time stretching and preening in conspicuous places these days. It's the time of year when thin-necked fledglings -- the teenagers of birds -- hang about everywhere gawking, hungry and sort of lazy and clumsy in a beautiful way. Late each afternoon I'm especially fond of watching young Mockingbirds, Brown Thrashers and House Finches explore their brave new worlds. Watched over by their parents they still get into messes no adult ever would. Just watch that young Mockingbird tackle his first big hornworm caterpillar, so juicy, so wiggly, and really too big to swallow.

This new society of young birds hanging about adds a certain feeling to the landscape. Add to that the inescapable recognition that already the days are growing shorter, that now tree leaves are storm- tattered and worm-eaten, that spring's intense, urgent greenness now is suffusing with mellow yellowness, that the air is less moist now, the sunlight starting to granulate like aging honey...

In short, even before I got a good handle on spring, already fall is creeping into the air. Approaching August, the august feeling emerges, the out-flowing tide now begins to return.

How did this happen so fast? Why wasn't I paying more attention to all those nests with their perfects eggs, the gape-mouthed nestlings and all those secret feedings? How did so many stretching, preening young birds come about so suddenly?

At the rate this season is passing we shall all be migrating before we have fully understood where we are right now.

*****

BOBWHITES CALLING, & CATS
I've been painting Ruth's house this week. In the mornings a Bobwhite calls from the hayfield across the road. On summery mornings with blue sky, the landscape fresh and green, the air pure and a light breeze blowing through the grass, there's no prettier sound than the crystalline call of a Bobwhite. If your computer can eat MP3 files, you can hear a Bobwhite at http://www.mbr-pwrc.usgs.gov/id/htmwav/h2890so.mp3.

You can read a lot about Bobwhite natural history at http://www.realindy.com/bobwhite.htm.

One morning as the Bobwhite sang I came upon a pile of feathers -- the remainder of a cat-eaten Robin fledgling. This reminded me that house cats are often listed as one of the reasons Bobwhite populations are collapsing. Especially in areas like this where people build houses where they "can be close to nature" nearly every corner of the landscape is somebody's backyard, and there's one or more cats killing the wildlife there. Referring to the approximately 90 million house cats in the US, the American Bird Conservancy says:

"...scientists now list invasive species, including cats, as the second most serious threat to bird populations worldwide. Habitat fragmentation provides cats and other predators easier access to wildlife forced to live on smaller tracts of land. Rather than havens for wildlife, these areas can be death traps."

Also:

"Wildlife rehabilitation centers report that most small animals injured by cats die. Cats carry many types of bacteria and viruses in their mouths, some of which can be transmitted to their victims. Even if treatment is administered immediately, only about 20% of these patients survive the ordeal."

You can download the study "Domestic Cat Predation on Birds and Other Wildlife" in PDF format at http://www.abcbirds.org/cats/factsheets/predation.pdf.

This is another of those issues that reveals so much to me about human nature, and makes me doubt that humanity will ever change its behavior enough to turn around the ongoing collapse of the biosphere. I have known many people who became very emotional when a small bird or even insect got into trouble, yet they let their cats run wild knowing that every day each cat killed and maimed the very creatures they seemed to care so much about.

As far as I'm concerned, when a house cat kills or maims an animal, it is the house-cat owner doing it. The cat owner bears 100% of the responsibility.

*****

BEE FLIES
Last week I told you about a moth that looked like a Bumble Bee, the Hummingbird Clear-winged Moth. This week down at the spring I saw a FLY looking like a Bumble Bee pollinating the Spearmints' jillions of slender, lavender flower-spikes. Many harmless critters bluff their enemies by looking like dangerous species, and the world seems to be full of Bumble-Bee look- alikes.

In fact, in the Fly Order, the Diptera, which supplies over 16,000 species just in North America, there's an entire family of flies known as the Bee Fly Family, the Bombiliidae, and the species I saw pollinating the Spearmint was one of those.

Larvae of bee flies don't have such benign lifecycles as their flower-visiting adults. The larvae are parasites on other insects, mostly feeding on the immature stages of beetles, bees, wasps, butterflies, moths, and grasshopper eggs.

You can see a variety of bee flies at http://bugguide.net/node/view/185.

The one I saw looked a lot like the third from the right, the big, dark, shaggy one.

*****

SILVER-SPOTTED SKIPPERS #2
Just two weeks ago I presented a list of all the butterflies seen during the week, and that list did not mention the Silver-spotted Skipper, EPARGYREUS CLARUS. Now suddenly Silver-spotted Skippers are very common here. Each day when I return from my morning's work at Ruth's there's always one or more banging against the old farmhouse's windows trying to get out, after wandering in through a broken-out pane.

Three years ago in my July 13th, 2003 Newsletter I wrote about the hoards of Silver-spotted Skippers at my camp near Natchez in Mississippi. I wrote:

"I can't sit down without a Silver-spotted Skipper landing on my sweating body and ticklingly imbibing my sweat. If one lands on a spot of my body not adequately wet, it curls its abdomen beneath it and with its rear end deposits a droplet onto my skin, then with its straw-like proboscis sucks the droplet back up."

Up here it's been so relatively cool that I haven't noticed the sweat-drinking behavior. What I notice here is the males perching on conspicuous leaves or snags, and when any other small creature flies by the male zips off after it. I assume he's waiting for females, or maybe he's defending a territory. His flight is so rapid that my mind and eyes can't follow.

My butterfly field guide says that the Silver-spotted Skipper occupies one of the most extensive ranges of any North American butterfly, and that it's often found in suburbs and parks as well as natural areas. It's distributed from British Columbia east to Quebec, south to Baja California, Florida and northern Mexico.

This is such a conspicuous, common species that you should know it. You can see fine pictures of adults and of its caterpillar in a leafcurl-cocoon here.

*****

COTTONTAIL CHARCOAL
Right before dusk, Cottontails are thick around here. They're the same ones every night. I know because I've learned the notches in their ears, and their scars. Each Cottontail has his or her own personality and they feel like family.

One spot they return to again and again is my campfire fireplace where they gnaw on charcoal from my morning fires. I've never read or heard about rabbit affinities for charcoal, so this is something that surprises me.

I'm guessing that they simply have a taste for charcoal, even though charcoal doesn't have much nutritional value.

One thing charcoal does have, however, is medicinal value, and I just wonder if maybe Cottontails have evolved predispositions for giving themselves occasional good charcoal treatments?

Medicinally, charcoal functions as an adsorbent of particles and gasses in the body's digestive system. Note that the word is "adsorbent" and not "absorbent." "Adsorption" refers to a "sticking-to" of molecules of gases, dissolved substances or liquids to the charcoal, as opposed to "absorption," which implies a kind of assimilation. Charcoal's adsorption of bodily toxins and ingested poisons was known by the ancients, forgotten, and then fairly recently rediscovered, so that now selling "activated charcoal" in tablets is big business.

In fact, I believe in charcoal, too. More than once I've felt my stomach getting woozy after eating something shady, I'd go scrape some powdery charcoal from charred wood, pour it into a cup of water, and drink it.

There's a lot more about charcoal's medicinal value at http://www.healthatoz.com/healthatoz/Atoz/ency/charcoal_activated.jsp.

So, do Cottontails with their complex hind gut fermentation, which produces so many gasses and fermentation byproducts, know to nibble on charcoal to keep their guts in shape?

Maybe.

*****

RED CLOVER TEA
The big hayfields next to the house didn't stop growing when in June their knee-high fescue, timothy, clover and other species were cut, field-dried, bailed and the bales tractored into barns. Now the fields are thick in Johnson Grass and large patches of flowering Red Clover.

Next to the old farmhouse the Red Clover is especially thick and pretty. Red Clover is TRIFOLIUM PRATENSE, a naturalized citizen from Europe, and it's very different from the Crimson Clover I spoke of as flowering so brilliantly along the highways when I came north in April. You can see Red Clover heads at http://www.missouriplants.com/Pinkalt/Trifolium_pratense_page.html.

I've never had access to so many Red Clover flower heads at their peak of flowering so naturally this week I decided to see what Red-Clover-flower tea tastes like.

I plucked about 200 heads, poured enough water into the pot to almost cover the blossoms, then smushed all the heads into the water, and put a fire beneath them. For my first tea I let the water get hot but not to the boiling point. After the heads had soaked in the hot water a few minutes I poured my first quart of tea and drank it as the remaining brew heated to the boiling point.

This first tea had a subtle honey taste but with no hint of sweetness. The water tasted more of woodsmoke than clover. It was nice, but no great shakes.

The second tea resulted from the flowers having been briefly in boiling water, and then steeped for a few minutes, so that now both the flowers and tea had turned brown. The tea's flavor reminded me a little of the greenbean taste. Since greenbean-tasting tea doesn't appeal to me more than plain water I decided that I'd not make such a tea again.

Pages on the Internet and various books speak of Red Clover's medicinal value. "Alterative, sedative, deobstruent," one source claims rather muddily. Another reports that Red Clover has been "long and successfully used in the form of a salve for the removal of external cancer and indolent ulcers."

Long ago I stopped getting excited about such claims. My impression is that book-writing herbalists have copied "cures" from one another over so many centuries, adding new cures faster than useless ones were weeded out, so that what's accumulated now is practically useless, a white noise of remedies.

*****

ON THE WHITE NOISE OF LIFE
The medicinal value of Red Clover is not the only issue muddied by there being too much uncritical information available about it. So much information, often contradictory, gathers around any important issue that it is like white noise. Too much half- heartedly confirmed information equals no information at all.

When I left the farm in 1965 and gained access to a university library and people with new kinds of thoughts I found that many of my assumptions about life and my place in it were suspect or outright wrong. In those days my white noise consisted of rural Kentuckian beliefs echoing among verses from the Tao Te Ching, TV scenes from Vietnam while learning flower anatomy, Blacks being beaten in Selma as I read Mahatma Gandhi's autobiography, all the while dealing with my own soup of teenage hormones, and ignorance. I almost didn't make it through that blizzard of irreconcilable images.

However, I did find a way through my time of disorientation, and now I want to describe that path in case someday someone else wants to try it.

The path consisted of identifying certain basic paradigms of Nature, and trying to live in harmony with them.

By "paradigm of Nature" I mean any motif -- any theme or dominant pattern -- in Nature that repeats again and again in different contexts. As an hypotheses confirmed by experiments matures into a theory, a pattern exhibiting itself very frequently in many situations grows into a paradigm.

For me, a natural paradigm's importance lies in this thought: That if the Universal Creative Force displays a certain way of getting things done again and again in many disparate contexts -- frequently enough for a paradigm to be recognized -- then there's a good chance that that paradigm displays a pattern worth considering for my own problems.

Here are three of Nature's most obvious paradigms, which I try to live by:

Other paradigms are sometimes glimpsed, and certainly other people are programmed to glimpse other paradigms besides these, but in my case just trying to honor the above three has been enough to structure the life I am living. Striving to live in harmony with them has bestowed on me a peacefulness and sense of meaning adequate for a whole lifetime.

With natural paradigms there is no white noise, for they become visible spontaneously and fully formed to anyone who seeks them. One gives himself or herself time to think in a peaceful setting where Nature expresses Herself, and the insights blossom clear and distinct. No white noise at all...

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim

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