JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER
issued from the woods edge near Natchez, Mississippi, USA,
June 9, 2008

NEW CAMERA
The breakdown of my last camera catalyzed my return to the US a couple of weeks ago. Just two days after I reached Natchez my nature-photographer friend Jerry from Jackson came down so we could camp overnight at Pipes Lake in nearby Homochitto National Forest. Before visiting the Forest we went to Wal-Mart to buy me a new camera. This Jerry and another Jerry in Hawaii, both Newsletter subscribers, generously bought the camera for me, so if during this and upcoming Newsletters you enjoy the pictures you see you have those two Jerrys to thank.

After buying a Canon PowerShot SX 100 IS ($235) from the Natchez Wal-Mart we headed to Pipes Lake. In the campground's parking lot, right at my feet when I opened Jerry's car door, a wildflower was blooming. It was a Flowering Spurge, with little white flowers only about 1/5th of an inch across (5 mm). I snapped a flower's picture and the moment I saw the resulting image in the viewfinder I knew I had a fine camera. See http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080609eu.jpg.

Amazing. Seeing that tiny blossom so vividly in focus, like a wax sculpture in a beam of light, I caught my breath just imagining all the future images and new views of things this little camera from the two Jerrys makes possible.

*****

FLOWERING SPURGES
While we have that Flowering Spurge blossom before us (remember, it's just 1/5th of an inch across) you may want to recall that when I was at Yerba Buena in the Chiapas highlands I described the Poinsettia's strange flower anatomy. That essay is still online at http://www.backyardnature.net/chiapas/poinsett.htm

I'm evoking the Poinsettia because its Latin name is Euphorbia pulcherima, while our Pipes Lake Flowering Spurge is another Euphorbia species, probably pubentissima. This means that though the two plants are profoundly different in their overall aspects, their blossoms share the basic Euphorbia structure.

On the Poinsettia page linked to above the second picture from the top shows what's unusual about Euphorbia flowers. That is, the cuplike, pea-sized things that at first glance look like flowers aren't flowers at all. They're "cyathia." The actual flowers, which are unisexual, arise inside the cyathia. Moreover, female pistillate flowers, which develop into seed-bearing fruits, are too big to fit inside the cyathia, so they're set upon a stem and relegated to outside the cyathia. At the above Poinsettia link the pistillate flower hanging outside its cyathium is clearly labeled.

The Pipes Lake Flowering Spurge's flower does the same thing. In the Poinsettia page's bottommost picture yellow glands are affixed to the Poinsettia's cyathia. Our Pipes Lake Flowering Spurge's cyathia also has glands, five of them, which manifest themselves as green, flat, waxy things at the base of the white "petals," clustered near the cyathium's center. The white "petals" are actually gland appendages, one petal-like appendage per gland. Actual tiny Euphorbia blossoms don't have petals.

In our Pipes Lakes picture the green, three-lobed item dangling from the cyathium is the female flower's ovary, which will mature into a fruit inside which three seeds will mature.

The little matchstick-like affairs clustered around the base of the stem of the dangling ovary at the cyathium's center are stamens. The brown, roundish knobs at the stamens' tops are anthers that open to release pollen. Since the Euphorbias' male, or staminate, flowers consist of just a single stamen, we can see that each Flowering Spurge cyathium bears several male flowers, but only one female flower.

*****

SOURWOODS FLOWERING
Probably the most interesting and conspicuously flowering tree at Pipes Lake was the Sourwood, OXYDENDRUM ARBOREUM, a member of the Heath or Azalea Family, the Ericaceae. You can see a 30-ft-tall Sourwood's drooping bough prettily adorned with little white flowers arranged in drooping terminal panicles at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080609ox.jpg.

The leaves at first glance are nondescript, like peach or tupelo leaves. However, they have two distinctive features making them easy to identify. First, the yellowish midrib on the leaf's lower surface is equipped with stiffly erect, slender, sharp, scattered but easily seen hairs. Leaf-hairs on most other leaves are softer and shorter, and lean against the leaf surface. Second, if you chew the leaves, they'll be sour! They taste like wood sorrel or Oxalis, so they must contain oxalic acid.

The Sourwood's 1/3-inch-long flowers are elegant little upside-down goblet-like things, as you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080609oy.jpg.

These flowers are somewhat similar to blueberry flowers, which is OK, since they're in the same family. However, genetic sequencing indicates that within the Heath Family the Sourwood genus Oxydendrum has no close relatives. In fact, Oxydendrum is "monotypic," which means that it's a genus containing just one species, our Sourwood.

Back in Kentucky I usually found Sourwood on thin, acidic soil, especially atop sandstone ledges. At Pipes Lake it grows in thick loess (ice-age, wind-deposited dust) which is somewhat calcareous in nature and thus not acidic. Is this possibly a different subspecies, or are there connections between the two soil types I don't know about?

Sourwoods are mostly southeastern trees, occurring from Pennsylvania to western Kentucky, south to Louisiana and western Florida.

*****

BABY WHITE-OAK ACORNS
At Pipes Lake the White Oaks, QUERCUS ALBA, flowered weeks ago and the dangling, yellow, wormlike catkins of male flowers have long fallen off. However, very immature White Oak acorns already can be seen if you look for them. They're smaller than BBs and each acorn consists only of a tiny scaled cup from which the old stigma and style project, with the nut itself not yet visible. You can see some baby White Oak acorns at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080609ok.jpg.

*****

SILVERINESS IN CHERRYBARK OAK LEAVES
Back at my camp near Natchez sitting on my new porch while gazing into the woods is a very satisfying experience. After all those sizzling, dry-season months in Chiapas, Mississippi's green lushness amounts to first-aid for the soul.

Late afternoon sunlight slanting in from the west very prettily lights up trees directly before my porch. One feature of the view likely to catch anyone's attention is that some trees are emerald green while others are silvery green, as you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080609ss.jpg.

That picture looks like I've used PhotoShop to accentuate the green tree's greenness, but that's just the effect of late-afternoon sunlight. The green tree on the left is a big American Elm miraculously still unaffected by Dutch Elm Disease. The silvery-leafed tree at the right is a Cherrybark Oak, QUERCUS PAGODA.

I got curious about what was behind the Cherrybark's silveriness so I went and looked. The silveriness appears to be caused by abundant, minute, silvery hairs of a special kind mantling the leaves. Books refer to these special hairs, so thick on the leaves' undersurfaces that the undersurfaces have a velvety feeling, as "stellate." "Stellate" means "star-like," and the Cherrybark's hairs are star-like because they often consist of several sharp hairs arising from a single point on the leaf-blade surface, like the rays of light that supposedly emanate from stars.

The Cherrybark Oak's stellate hairs are so tiny that with naked eyes they're hardly visible. Therefore, I decided to put the new camera to a test. Could this little camera bought off the shelf at Wal-Mart make out those stellate hairs? The answer is provided at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080609st.jpg.

The yellowish ridge at the photo's top is a Cherrybark Oak leaf's midrib.

Bea in Ontario has a new digital camera, too. She writes:

"I discovered the magnifying feature it has and WOW! You can see more with the pictures from that camera than you can with the naked eye! I can zoom in so close I can see little hairs on flowers and stems or insects, insects on flowers I didn’t even know were there when I took the picture."

Yep, digital cameras have extended our senses and opened up whole new worlds to us. I recommend them to your attention. You can review a variety of digital cameras available through Amazon.com at http://www.backyardnature.net/digi-cam.htm.

*****

A BLUEJAY NESTLING
Thursday morning during my breakfast campfire Maggie the dog carried something from beneath a nearby trailer. It was a Bluejay nestling.

Philosophically when I'm confronted with truly homeless nestlings my attitude is pretty cold: Without its parents' support the nestling is doomed, and even if I could nurse it until it could fly away, it would probably starve since it wouldn't have been taught what to eat. Plus it would carry some dangerous assumptions with it, namely, that humans are to be trusted.

Therefore, in most cases, it's just best to not intervene, unless you recognize that the main beneficiary would be you, not the bird, for interacting with small animals can come to mean a lot to a human.

But Thursday morning I hadn't thought through any of that before I'd rushed over and extricated the nestling from Maggie's mouth. The only damage seemed to be a single dislodged wing-feather.

Now what?

Happily, my host Karen has a long history of saving abandoned critters, especially birds, so I turned the problem over to her. She already had special store-bought formula for feeding baby birds on hand so before I knew it she'd warmed up a pasty gruel rich in the vitamins growing birds need, and was feeding the bird with a medicine dropper.

You can see the nestling perched on Karen's finger at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080609bj.jpg.

An interesting feature of the nestling was that its plumage consisted of both fuzzy down feathers typical of baby birds, and sprouting "contour feathers," which are the stiff, often colorful feathers covering mature birds.

At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080609bk.jpg you can see a close-up of the beginnings of the nestling's tail. Note how the feathers emerge from hard, plastic, hollow, strawlike things. The "straws" are anchored in the nestling's body and constitute the feathers' future quills.

*****

NORTHERN HAIRSTREAK ON GARLIC FLOWERS
Several years ago during an earlier visit with Jacky and Karen I planted a 20-ft row of garlic bulbs along the edge of their garden fence. The garden and its fence are long gone but the garlic plants keep coming back year after year. Right now their leaves are brown and dying, but each four-ft-high stem is topped with a pink, softball-size inflorescence of densely packed garlic flowers. These flowers attract butterflies and other nectar-seeking insects.

Still testing my new camera I visited the line of garlic flowers. The resulting image is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080609nh.jpg.

That's a Northern Hairstreak, EURISTRYMON ONTARIO. Not only was I once again impressed by the camera's macro capabilities, but also after such frustration being unable to identify so many organisms in Chiapas, it was a treat to come up with this critter's name so easily. I downloaded the image from the camera into the computer, got the image onto the laptop's screen, then in The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Butterflies I simply matched the image on the screen with pictures in the field guide, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080609ni.jpg.

The field guide told me a lot about this species. Its caterpillars eat oak laves, so that explains why Northern Hairstreaks are so common here among our Cherrybark Oaks. The butterfly's chrysalises are found suspended in loose nets constructed in leaf trash below trees. The species is distributed from southern Ontario and Massachusetts south to Georgia, then west to Texas, Colorado and western Arizona. If you live north of us, your Northern Hairstreaks may show less orange in their wings than ours. The field guide says "The bright orange so characteristic of the southern populations is gradually lost through Missouri and Arkansas, becoming absent in the North."

Like so many species we've seen distributed over large areas, the Northern Hairstreak species presents geographical variations that eventually might coalesce into subspecies, which could conceivably eventually evolve into whole new species.

The technique of getting a digital-camera image onto the screen, then identifying the image with a field guide, opens up plant and animal identification to non-specialists in a way never possible before. If you try it, let me know what new things you learn!

*****

JERRY'S CAMERA-IN-AN-AQUARIUM
Jerry has taken some interesting pictures with his homemade camera-in-an-aquarium setup, which he used last weekend at Pipes Lake. You can see Jerry photographing a water spider close-up at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080609jl.jpg.

He focuses the camera at a certain distance before placing it into the aquarium and then he guesses at the distance between the lens and the thing being photographed.

*****

WAITING FOR THE LIGHT
Late last Saturday afternoon at Pipes Lake I came upon Jerry gazing expectantly across the lake, his camera fixed on a tripod and aimed where he was looking, into the setting sun. You can see that pretty moment at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080609wl.jpg.

"I'm just waiting to see what happens with the sunlight," he hollered back to me, hardly willing to take his eyes off the slowly evolving scene before him. "Before long the lake will be a mirror, and who knows what things will look like then?"

I sat behind Jerry admiring his intense appreciation of light, and how it interacts with form, texture and meaning. I've seen Jerry almost reach a stage of hyperventilation as he waited for perfect moments, almost overwhelmed as the various esthetic and mystical machinations before him mingled synergistically, even though before the same scene a normal person might see only a leaf in sunshine, a beetle with iridescent wing-covers, or nothing but a glistening rock.

As Jerry gazed across Pipes Lake I knew he was monitoring how the setting sun caused tree leaves to grow more yellow than green, how silvery, concentric rings of waves expanding from whirligig gyrations formed sharp glistens where they intersected linear wave-lines originating from the nose of a juvenile alligator drifting lazily across the lake. Treefrogs croaking, mosquitoes buzzing, black tree-trunk silhouetting, heavy humidity smelling of pine resin and magnolia blossoms, fluty Wood Thrush calls emanating from deep, shadowy gullies... The question was how to recognize the precise moment during all these evolving processes, all these comings and goings, when Yin and Yang were at equilibrium, and the shutter might be snapped...

"There is a lucky man," I thought. "How I wish that everyone knew this thing that Jerry knows, which is how to passionately care for a world just being itself, how to covet things that are free and soul- nourishing, and offered without strings attached."

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim

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