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

September 21, 2006

WILSON'S WARBLER AT THE WINDOW
All week I've been hearing a soft, almost wet-sounding TCHHHK, TCHHHK outside my window as I worked at the computer. The TCHHHKing was made by Wilson's Warblers now migrating from nesting grounds far north of here, north of Lake Superior in Canada, to wintering grounds far south of here, in Latin America. In Kentucky and most of the eastern US Wilson's Warblers are seen only during spring and fall migrations.

I almost didn't recognize my old friend. Mostly I know the Wilson's Warbler from humid, tropical Mexico, where he's abundant during North American winters. When he passes through here during the spring the male is a yellow bird with a striking, black crown, as seen here.

On the ones I'm seeing now the black cap is pea-green or smudgy black, exactly like the top picture at http://www.backyardbirdcam.com/gallery/warbler-wilsons.htm.

This is as it should be, for migrating fall warblers are usually very drab compared to their spring and summer plumages. Often fall juveniles and males are similar to the always-drab females. Most good field guides provide special pages displaying the special plumages of fall warblers.

I feel lucky to see these Wilson's Warblers because central Kentucky is not on a major migration route. To the west there's the Mississippi Flyway and to the east the Atlantic. The other major flyways across the US are the Central and Pacific, as indicated on the map midway down my Bird Migration Page at http://www.backyardnature.net/birdmgrt.htm.

Because fall-migrating birds are often so secretive drab, and quiet, some birders don't get nearly as excited about them as they do spring migrants. However, others may enjoy fall birds even more, if only because of the extra challenge of identification. You might enjoy sharing in the sense of excitement of fall-bird-migrant connoisseurs on display at the frequently updated, 2006-fall-migration online report of Ontario, Canada's Long Point Bird Observatory, at http://www.bsc-eoc.org/lpbo/sightings.html.

The Long Point birders registered their first migrants in mid-July. More recently they report

"Warbler diversity has been spectacular this past week. Magnolias have recently dominated but they are starting to be overtaken by Blackpolls and the odd rush of Yellow-rumpeds... The season's first Connecticut Warbler, a hatch-year female, was banded at Old Cut on the 5th."

To get an idea of arrival dates for a number of fall- migrating birds in the US, take a look at the page for the Fall, 2006 Migration at Kennesaw Mountain, Georgia at http://www.georgia-birding.com/KMT/fall06.htm.

*****

WINGSTEMS
One day this week it was chilly and drizzly until late afternoon. Then the clouds broke and deliciously warm sunlight slanted in from the west. I went to stand beside a kitchen-size patch of weeds that have survived because it was too rocky there for the bush-hogs to "clean them up."

The weed patch comprised a gracious mingling of two chest-high members of the Composite or Sunflower Family. One species, VERBESINA VIRGINICA, bore lots of smallish white blossoms while the other, VERBESINA ALTERNIFOLIA, displayed yellow, larger flowers (rays about an inch long). Note that both of these species belong to the genus Verbesina, so they are very closely related. About five Verbesina species are listed for North America's northeast quarter.

Each of our Verbesinas is known by several English names but I think of them as white-flowered and yellow-flowered "wingstems." That's because the stems of both species bear four fin-like ridges extending their lengths. You can best see these fins, or wings, in the second picture from the top at the first link given below.

To see our yellow-flowered wingstem go to http://www.missouriplants.com/Yellowalt/Verbesina_alternifolia_page.html.

You can see our white-flowered wingstem at http://www.missouriplants.com/Whitealt/Verbesina_virginica_page.html.

So, just imagine a perfect mingling of these two plants' yellow flowers and white ones, everything being lit from the side by the low, pre-dusk sun. The plants had been washed clean by the day's drizzle, and odors of fresh herbage and mud were being teased from the somber chill by warming sunlight.

Most transfixing, however, were the pollinators, ever so hungry after the day's inactivity enforced by chill and rain. A Monarch Butterfly skipped from flower to flower, taking in calories that'll be needed for the long migration soon to be made to Mexico. Many honeybees, carpenter bees and other kinds of wasps and bees I didn't know were busy. Orange-yellow Solder Beetles with a big, black spot on each wing wandered across the flowers feeding on pollen and nectar. I'd seldom seen so many creatures rushing to feed before the sun went down, and it was going down right then.

With sunlight warming one side of me I stood there visualizing the generous sun's radiant energy being captured through photosynthesis and stored among atomic bonds of wingstem carbohydrate, then that energy passing to the pollen- and nectar-eaters buzzing before me, then the pollinators going out and yielding up the energy in their bodies to birds who would eat them, to bacteria and fungi who would decompose their bodies, through arthropods and snails and slugs on down the line, out and out the energy flowing, being shared, fueling evolution, fueling untold numbers and forms of new life, new hope, new potentials, all blossoming from that very moment...

What fine members of the community are Verbesina virginica and Verbesina alternifolia, and how lucky we all felt that day that limestone rock had jutted from the ground nearby, keeping the bush-hog at bay.

*****

SOLDIER BEETLES
Goldenrods are just starting to emblazon hill slopes with broad splashes of yellow so this is a good time to take a closer look at the soldier beetles just noted scrambling across wingstem blossoms eating pollen and nectar. Even more than wingstems, soldier beetles love goldenrod flowers.

By "soldier beetle" I'm referring to any member of the Soldier Beetle Family, the Cantharidae. However, there's one species so commonly seen in eastern North America and so easy to recognize, especially when clambering over yellow goldenrod flowers, that most Easterners think of it as THE soldier beetle. It's CHAULIOGNATHUS PENNSYLVANICUS. You can see if you recognize it as it clambers on a goldenrod here.

The Soldier Beetle Family is very closely related to the Lightning Bug Family, the Lampyridae. You can compare the above image with a lightning bug shown here.

Notice how the lightning bug has a shield-like collar (a pronotum) extending over its head, hiding it. The soldier beetle's head with bulging compound eyes is clearly visible.

Soldier beetle larvae live under tree bark or on the ground, and feed on other insects. Organic gardeners honor them because the adults feed on grasshopper eggs, cucumber beetles and various caterpillars.

*****

SWEET WORMWOOD
A few weeks ago I told you about the bitter-tasting Wormseed, also called Mexican Tea and Epazote (Chenopodium ambrosioides), flowering here. Now there's another extremely pungent herb blossoming called Sweet Wormwood, ARTEMISIA ANNUA. Wormseed was a member of the Goosefoot Family, along with beet and spinach plants, while the present Sweet Wormwood is a member of the Composite Family, along with sunflowers and goldenrods. Both Wormseed and Sweet Wormwood are weedy invasives, but Wormseed is from tropical America while Sweet Wormwood is from Eurasia. Sweet Wormwood smells like Yarrow or Sneezeweed, but stronger. You can see Sweet Wormwood's prolific inflorescence at http://www.rbgkew.org.uk/plants/artemisia.html and a close-up of its ferny leaves at http://perso.orange.fr/pollens/lestroisa/popup22.htm.

You might recognize Sweet Wormwood's genus name, Artemisia, because it's the genus name of sagebrush, which mantles vast acreages of arid highlands in the western US. Blossoms of sagebrush and Sweet Wormwood are very similar, but sagebrush is woody while Sweet Wormwood is an herbaceous annual. The gardener's Dusty Miller is an Artemisia, as is the herb-user's Tarragon. About 200 Artemisia species are known, and most are fragrant to downright stinky, and their leaves are often silvery.

Some of my most memorable campfires have been experienced on cold mornings in the western highlands' Great Basin Desert where I burned sagebrush wood. Sagebrush makes a fragrant, gentle smoke. Here is something I wrote from beside such a campfire on the cold morning of April 5, 1988, 20 miles east of Kanab, Utah:

"The first thing upon arriving, then, was to build a fire. The smoke from sagebrush wood is wonderfully sweet, smelling like fine incense. Fresh from the laundrymat, I hung my wet bluejeans across sagebrush and my socks and underwear among juniper branches. An hour later, the sun and wind have dried them completely and the bluejeans smell of sagebrush and everything else smells cedary and pure."

When I've had winter homes in Sweet Wormwood territory I've loved pulling up entire plants at this time of year and hanging them inside where during part of each winter's day sunlight could bathe them. When sunlight warms the plants they exude a clean, sweet fragrance that suffuses the whole house. Several days ago here I placed a foot-long sprig of fresh Sweet Wormwood next to my computer and since then I've been working inside a bubble of Sweet Wormwood fragrance.

How good to have all these memories stored inside me, and to be able to walk the fields now and be reminded of them by Sweet Wormwood growing along the path.

During recent years Sweet Wormwood has earned fame because one of its chemical constituents, artemisinin, has proved to have powerful antimalarial effects, and is currently much used by the World Health Organization in a drug called Riamet.

*****

COCKLEBURS
Another weedy, invasive member of the Composite Family calling attention to itself now is the Common Cocklebur, XANTHIUM STRUMARIUM. If you have a field- roaming dog you may know cocklebur fruits as the finger-pricking items that get tangled in long dog- tail hairs and are very hard to remove. I've posted a much-enlarged image of a green, not-quite-mature cocklebur showing why cockleburs are so hard to remove at http://www.backyardnature.net/pix/xanthium.jpg.

That image shows that the many sharp spines mantling cockleburs bear tiny hooks. Each spine is almost like a fishhook. Of course the reason for the spines and hooks is that the pea-size cocklebur fruits contain seeds needing to be dispersed. The fruit latches onto moving animals who carry the seeds into territory where new cocklebur populations can then get started.

When I was a kid on the western Kentucky farm we were plagued by cocklebur plants. Sometimes parts of our soybean fields were so infested with cocklebur that the combine -- the machine harvesting the beans -- couldn't make it through them, so we simply lost money on that part of the field. Still, I almost have good feelings about cockleburs because of all the hours spent pulling the spiny fruits from my dogs' fur and my own breeches and socks after long walks in the fields.

I read that young cocklebur plants in the two-leaf stage are poisonous enough to kill pigs and other animals. As often is the case, what's poisonous in one instance can be medicinal in another. Cockleburs are still used in traditional Chinese medicine. At http://www.acupuncturetoday.com/herbcentral/xanthium.html   where they call cocklebur by its genus name Xanthium I read:

"... xanthium is associated with the Lung meridian, and is considered to have sweet, bitter and warm properties. It is used to dispel wind and damp, and is one of the most important herbs used for sinus congestion, chronic nasal obstructions and discharges, and respiratory allergies."

The spiny fruit is what's used. The above site also informs us "some evidence suggests the toxicity can be removed by washing the fruit in water, subjecting it to high heat, or stir-frying it."

Stir-fried cockleburs...

You can see a whole cocklebur plant at http://plants.usda.gov/java/profile?symbol=XAST&photoID=xast_002_ahp.tif.

*****

THE LITTLE PRINCE'S SCARF
At an earlier, quieter moment in life maybe you ran into "The Little Prince," a children's book by Antoine de Saint Exupéry. If so, you know that The Little Prince is more than a children's book. Maybe it's mostly for older people nostalgic for earlier times of simple idealism, or beliefs in simple truths, or maybe just for simple hope. The whole book is available online at http://www.angelfire.com/hi/littleprince/.

The author drew pictures of the Little Prince wearing a neck scarf that's always blowing to one side -- even when there's no wind at all. You can see this at http://www.angelfire.com/hi/littleprince/images/weeding.jpg.

I always wondered why the Little Prince's scarf was portrayed this way. During this last week at Polly's Bend I think I've begun understanding why. In fact, this whole week, it's seemed that I myself wore such a wind-hanging scarf.

For, even as my body stayed in one spot the rest of me felt on the move. With the scent of fall electrifying the air, inside me it was all migrating geese and trees ready to throw off their leaves. The air itself no longer is the languid, summery kind that all summer pooled around the mint-spring but rather now it's that itchy, kinky kind that whistles around jagged rocks, and rafters in abandoned barns. All week my scarf's loose end has flapped on a southerly breeze.

When last I visited my family in western Kentucky I saw my cousin George, who has farmed that area all his life. Like the rest of my family, he has deep roots there and -- something I admire and often have aspired to myself -- can hardly imagine any need to leave. One suspects that cousin George is delighted with his daily routines and the ordinariness of his life. He asked me where my home is now.

George isn't an Internet person but I tried to explain how people invite me places and I go there and study things and upload information onto the Internet, like being a telecommuting teacher, or a writer who gives away his words...

"You mean you're homeless!" he summed up, the exclamation point apparent.

Maybe. In fact, I've been thinking that maybe at a certain point it no longer matters whether there's a geographical entity answering to the definition of "home." Maybe as "Our use of knowledge progresses through successively higher levels of abstraction as we perfect civilization and draw nearer to the mentality of God... " (quote attributed to Leibniz by novelist Neal Stephenson) at some point the traditional concept of home becomes irrelevant. Maybe one becomes homeless during the natural course of things.

Or maybe wherever there are trees and a few birds, and there's a tent and a sleeping bag in my backpack, that's home...

Fact is, I'm unsure what to do or say or where I need to be to do my best to protect Life on Earth and human dignity for future generations. For a summer I've tried doing my thing here, but I can't see that any breakthroughs have been made. However, it's clear that winter is coming, and this old farmhouse is drafty, with no heat.

It's good how winter simplifies things.

So, right now I am all wild geese inside and my neck scarf hangs on a southerly breeze.

*****

THANKS TO RUTH
I want to thank Ruth, the landowner who invited me to stay here. I could not have felt more welcome, nor could I have enjoyed a more perfect summer, than I have had here at Polly's Bend. I am profoundly obliged.

*****

ONTO THE ROAD AGAIN
For a while my Newsletters may become intermittent, my thoughts more fractured than usual, and my words misspelled. If things go well, however, eventually I should end up someplace offering stories to tell, and the means to get the stories to you. Just hold on...

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim

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