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

August 17, 2006

A STORM OF STARLINGS, AN ELEGANCE OF MARTINS
Last month when I conducted my traditional July 4th bird census Starlings were not among the 48 species listed. Still, this week one morning a whole cloud of Starlings flew past me as they skipped from hilltop pasture to hilltop pasture. When landing in the green grass the throng seemed to melt into the earth. But soon the whole ameba-like cloud with its well defined edges rose en masse again, expansively sky-stretching and folding upon itself and pirouetting, and then landing elsewhere, again being absorbed into the grass.

The Starling cloud wasn't black like those seen in soggy winter cornfields, but rather gray. In fact, at my distance the binoculars showed each bird to be so pale that for a moment I couldn't believe that they were Starlings. But then I confirmed the beak and body shape, saw how they walked instead of hopped, and I heard typical Starling snarls. And it is true: A juvenile Starling is gray and when its black feathers emerge they are tipped with white, causing the plumage to be strikingly speckled -- white dots on a field of black. A very interesting photo of a young starling with its head and chest retaining the pale juvenile plumage while the rest of the body is black with conspicuous white speckles can be seen at http://www.rivernen.ca/bird_19.htm.

"Post-juvenile" starlings of the kind that flew past me this week, no longer dependent on their parents, join into large, noisy flocks. The flocks disperse to places where inexperienced youngsters can easily feed, such as fallow fields, orchards, and our pastures. Flocking permits more efficient feeding, since each bird can be less vigilant, depending on the likelihood that if a predator should arrive at least someone in the great flock will notice it and sound the alarm.

You can see a cloud of winter Starlings -- darker and larger than what I saw this week -- and read all about Starling flocks and roosting at http://www.rspb.org.uk/birds/guide/s/starling/flocking_and_roosting.asp.

If the Starling cloud maneuvered like single-minded Fascists on a parade field, late that afternoon when I took my place on the porch to read as the sun went down the 51 post-juvenile Purple Martins I saw then behaved just the opposite. These birds were perching in the ugly Blacklocust snag I've told you about. All 51 birds wore pale breasts like adult females.

So unlike the intense, single-minded Starlings in their aggressive-behaving cloud, these birds stretched and preened, gawked around and chattered sociably with one another, except for an occasional squabble and pecking that was over in half a second. These birds were graceful individualists who went and came as they pleased, circling alone when they left, just staying in the general vicinity of their mates.

What a thing that Nature creates so many variations on Her general themes. On the one hand She produces Starlings, Germans, Beethoven and the laws of Newtonian physics, then on the other She expresses just as much genius producing Purple Martins, the French, Debussy and the laws of quantum mechanics.

And, continuing with Her dichotomies, She even creates me: A being inhabiting an animal body looking around and seeing how remarkable and unlikely it all is...

*****

AN ANNOYED HUMMINGBIRD
On that same porch and in that same rocking chair during another dusk this week I was drawn from my reading by a loud vibrating sound. The noise was so loud and deep-toned that the notion that it might be a hummingbird didn't occur to me. Yet, such was the case. Nearby a Ruby-throated Hummingbird was expressing himself to a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher cowering among some privet leaves.

The hummer emitted his buzz while pointing his beak directly at his enemy and performing quick U-shaped, pendulum-like flight-oscillations. During courtship, male Ruby-throats perform such "pendulum flights" on a larger scale, with the U's arms being several feet across, but these Us were only a few inches wide, each swing accomplished in only about a second.

How did such a little bird make such a big noise? I'd guess it was just by rearranging his feathers and beating his wings faster and/or harder, but I can hardly imagine his wings sustaining such abuse.

After about 7 seconds of being very loudly threatened the gnatcatcher flew to a nearby Rose-of-Sharon where the entire performance was repeated. The gnatcatcher lasted about 5 seconds there, and then flew to another bush, and when the hummer arrived there the gnatcatcher fled across the yard, leaving the area completely. Then the hummer immediately commenced visiting the Rose-of-Sharon, humming his usual way.

Though I've witnessed many hummingbird displays, this was my first time for this one. I can understand why a hummer wouldn't like a gnatcatcher because they both grab gnats from the air. But I would say that a hummer would have to consume a great many gnats to fuel the loud humming I heard that day.

*****

BROWN RECLUSES IN THE GARAGE
The other day I was sweeping leaves from an open-faced garage when I needed to move some cut limestone blocks left over from building Ruth's house. On the lower surface of one block I noticed a quarter-size, plump, brown spider, and I had a pretty good idea what species it was without looking closer. The habitat was perfect -- dry, dusty clutter where the rain seldom blew in -- and the spider had a peculiarly rounded, heavy look. I raised my glasses (I'm so nearsighted I see up close better without my glasses), nudged the spider into the palm of my hand and brought her to about three inches from my eye, and then I was sure. Atop the spider's cephalothorax -- the spider's fused head and back segments -- I saw the perfect, tiny, dainty, dark-brown silhouette of a violin.

This was the Brown Recluse, also known as the Violin or Fiddleback Spider, LOXOSCELES RECLUSA. Along with Black Widows, Brown Recluses are considered to be North America's most dangerous spiders. You can see a Brown Recluse's violin and a map showing its species distribution, mostly in the south-central US, at http://www.uky.edu/Ag/Entomology/entfacts/struct/ef631.htm.

I didn't regard myself as being reckless by holding this spider because when I was a kid on the western Kentucky farm the most common, absolutely abundant spider in our various sheds, barns and outhouses was the Brown Recluse. I didn't learn that recluses were dangerous until long after I'd spent an entire childhood playing among them, taking naps among them, and generally peacefully coexisting with them. I knew it was hard to get them to bite. Basically you need to hold them against your skin and press on them. They just won't bite being held peacefully in a hand. But also I knew that a farmer near our place had been diagnosed as having died from a Brown Recluse bite. Apparently he'd rolled over in bed on one, and it bit him exactly over a kidney. Sometimes bites turn out to be perfectly harmless, other times limited swelling and small ulcers form, and sometimes very serious lesions occur.

Brown Recluses don't build webs. At night they roam about searching for insects, like little tigers. However, they do line their daytime retreats with irregular webbing. When I looked at the rough limestone block beneath the one on which I'd found the recluse I saw such a silky retreat set snugly in a depression in the rock. In the retreat's center lay an off-white, silken egg sac about 1/3-inch across.

The egg sac must have just recently hatched, for around it maybe 30 tiny, almost translucent spiderlings wandered about.

There's lots of information about Brown Recluses and their bites at the above link.

*****

WORMSEED
An annual weed starting to flower nowadays is one most people never notice until they walk through some. Then what catches their attention is the powerful odor from its crushed leaves, a sharply medicinal smell maybe like the mingled scents of pine resin and Listerine. The plant's very inconspicuous flowers are tiny with no corollas at all, with green calyxes blending with the herbage. Usually you notice the flowers only when their anthers are producing brightly yellow pollen. Right now our plants are about knee high and flowering but when they fruit in the fall they may reach shoulder-high. The plant is Wormseed, also called Mexican Tea, CHENOPODIUM AMBROSIOIDES. It's shown at http://www.missouriplants.com/Greenalt/Chenopodium_ambrosioides_page.html.

As a non-native invasive, Wormseed is unusual in that instead of originating from Eurasia it's from Central and South America. That accounts for its name "Mexican Tea." In traditional Mexican markets you can always buy Wormseed not for making tea but for seasoning beans and soups. In Mexico it's known as Epazote. One reason it's so commonly used in beans is that it's famous for controlling flatulence.

Is Wormseed really an antiflatulent? I haven't proved its effectiveness myself, but Ruth tells a story about a Mexican friend who wouldn't let her cook beans without it precisely because the friend didn't want her US amiga to end up farting so much.

Herbals list many medicinal uses for Wormseed, from calming the nerves to killing cancer cells, and nearly every indigenous culture honors it for cleaning out intestinal worms. A typical herbalist recommendation is to drink ½ cup of a standard leaf decoction each morning on an empty stomach for three days in a row. On the fourth day take a mild laxative to flush dead and dying parasites from the bowls. This should be repeated two weeks later to deal with worm eggs that may have survived and hatched.

There's much more about Wormseed's medicinal uses at a site calling the plant by its Mexican name, Epazote, at http://www.rain-tree.com/epazote.htm.

When I run across Wormseed I usually collect some for making a hot tea. It's a bitter brew, but I find that occasionally my body gets an oily, loose feeling inside, and a good bitter Wormseed brew seems to "tighten things up inside" -- impart a crisper, cleaner sensation. I'm being very vague and imprecise here but maybe you can relate.

*****

YEW "FRUITS"
This week I've been clipping Ruth's yew hedges. Here and there red, juicy yew "fruits" appeared among the dark-green herbage. You can see some "fruits" on my new Yew Page at http://www.backyardnature.net/yew.htm.

I'm putting quotation marks around "fruits" because technically yew "fruits" aren't really fruits. If you recall some of your botany you'll realize why.

Regular flowers, like bean flowers, magnolia flowers and roses, are all angiosperms. In angiosperm flowers the ovaries mature into fruits while the ovules inside the ovaries mature into seeds. When you eat an apple you're eating matured ovary material and the apple seeds are what became of the flower ovary's ovules.

Gymnosperms like yew plants, in contrast, at flowering time produce naked ovules -- ovules not surrounded by anything and especially not surrounded by ovary material.

In the picture linked to above the hard, dark things almost surrounded by red, juicy material are seeds. The red, juicy items almost surrounding the seeds are arils. Arils are a special kind of fleshy covering developing on the seeds of certain kinds of plants. Arils have nothing to do with ovaries, but rather are derived from the funiculus, which is like the seed's umbilical cord attaching the seed with its parent plant. The aril is regarded as a much modified cone scale.

Why bother getting all these details straight?

It's because being able to keep all this stuff straight is a buzz. It's good knowing that fruits develop from ovaries, and seeds from ovules. Then you come across a gymnosperm yew that seems to have "fruits" even though gymnosperm flowers don't have ovaries, and it messes with your belief system. Knowing all the above, about modified funicului and such, you're able to maintain your belief system, and then the buzz you feel gets better.

You can't talk about yews without mentioning that they are poisonous. You can read that yew "fruit" and seeds are the most poisonous part of the plant at http://www.botanical.com/botanical/mgmh/y/yew---08.html.

*****

WINDWORD'S NATURE JOURNALS
One of the most popular discussions on our Backyard Messageboard these days focuses on "Windword's" suggestions for keeping a nature journal. Windword, who lives in Colorado, teaches classes and workshops on nature journals.

Windword writes that "there is something absolutely intriguing and exciting about looking at a recorded entry in a journal that includes sketching and writing. It's as if the essence of that subject passes through the hand of the person recording it. It's so personal, so human, and in today's world, which is so technologically dominated, we lack that kind of experience. It's an analogue style in a digital world. But keeping a journal by hand forces you to slow down and really see things... "

She suggests the following approach to beginning an entry in your journal:

--Close your eyes and listen to sounds. After a minute or two, quickly list all of the sounds you hear at any spot on the page.

--Follow a suggested entry routine: Write the date, time, place, weather, temperature, sensory impressions, skyscapes. This really gets you going.

--Do a quick, 3-level observation intake:

--Do an elemental landscape line-drawing sketch-- reduce it to simple shapes and label them (types of trees, prairie, pond, geological formations, etc.)

Windword also covers such matters as whether to use lined or unlined paper, what kind of pens, etc.

I can't agree more with Windword. Obviously this Newsletter is my own nature journal. Windword has a lot more to say on the matter, and others have asked good questions and added their own thoughts. You can review all the exchanges by going to http://cybermessageboard.fatcow.com/backya2/viewtopic.php?t=99.

*****

POKEWEED ESTHETICS
One late afternoon this week as I sat on the porch at cottontail-coming-out time I gradually grew aware of something beside me needing attention. It was the 5- ft-high Pokeweed that this spring I'd neglected to cut from among the Yews, knowing just how pretty a Pokeweed could become, and remembering how certain birds love its glossy, black-purple fruits.

And, it was true. Elegantly the simple, yellow-green leaves arced from pink lower stems transitioning to green outer ones, and perfect were the many long racemes of immature, green fruits. Each fruit arose on a pink pedicel issuing perpendicularly from the inflorescences' vertical axis. Each fruiting inflorescence bore larger fruits at its top, the fruits grew smaller toward the bottom, and then at the very tip tiny white, glossy, symmetrical flowers appeared. Long I sat admiring Pokeweed structure, color, texture, symmetry, worthiness and meaning, until darkness closed around us.

More than one person this summer, seeing the Pokeweed growing where it was, has pointed out to me that Pokeweeds are not typically left standing next to one's porch.

Last week, telling about my friend Jarvis's refusal to eat a hamburger made from a soybean-fed cow I touched on the matter of ethics. This week the Pokeweed has me focusing on esthetics. I regard ethics and esthetics as profoundly important in the struggle to protect and conserve life on Earth.

For, lately I have seen a large field of clover bush- hogged "just to clean it up." No hay was made from the clippings. I won't remark on the loss to pollinators and other wildlife, and to one who loved how the wind made waves in the clover, just because of another person's ideas about "cleaning things up." Some years ago an old farmer in my home area bulldozed a bottomland forest I treasured, burned it without selling the logs, and let the land lay unfarmed "just to have it cleaned up."

The point is that the term "clean" as used here so violently and destructively depends hugely on one's ethical and esthetical frame of reference. Any ethical or esthetical framework not taking into account the needs and beauties of the surrounding ecosystem and other living things is unsustainable and dangerous. "Ugly," I would say.

Yet, who is to say that one person's ethics and sense of esthetics is preferable to another's?

To me, that question evokes the current debate as to whether smoking is to be allowed in public places. Gradually the consensus is building that with regard to secondhand smoke the public good must be defended at the cost of individual freedoms. How strange, I think, that we should not already have had such a discussion, and come to a similar consensus, with regard to the preservation of the ecosystems that sustain us all as biological beings. Slowly it's becoming "ugly" to stand around with a white cigarette dangling from one's mouth. Why hasn't it become ugly to "clean out" a wildlife-sustaining hedgerow, or put a lawn where a garden or woodlot could be?

My own first introduction to the concept of beauty as a topic that could be thought about came with my out- of-school reading of Emerson's essay on Beauty, today found at http://www.emersoncentral.com/beauty.htm.

"There is no object so foul that intense light will not make beautiful. And the stimulus it affords to the sense, and a sort of infinitude which it hath, like space and time, make all matter gay," Emerson wrote, and I find his point as well taken today as when I was a teenager.

In an earlier essay I described one of my own moments of enlightenment with regard to the matter of beauty, which took place one day when I visited the famous gardens of Schönbrunn Summer Palace in Vienna, Austria, with my friend Dieter. You can read that at http://www.backyardnature.net/j/o/dieter.htm.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim

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