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

June 23, 2008

BROWN THRASHER SOLSTICE
Back in my hermit days not far from here I made a big deal of the solstices. Between the winter solstice and the summer one Nature rambunctiously "exhaled" flowers and birdsong, mosquitoes and thunderstorms, then between the summer solstice and winter, all things got "inhaled" to their source, crystallizing into acorns and mushrooms, coalescing into that poignant feeling of the first frost, of fading light, of hunkering down during the long cold.

I've returned to Mississippi exactly during the pause between exhalation and inhalation, when instead of movement, intensity of living is what one feels. Passing by a field of emerald green tasseling corn or a forest in all its green hues resplendent in midday sunlight, there's such intense and single-minded photosynthesizing that you almost hear Nature's engine humming, a deep-souled whirring, heat, humidity and sunlight refining itself into life and more life.

Each hot, hazy, partly-cloudy day is like the hot, hazy, partly-cloudy day before it and hot, hazy, partly-cloudy days to come, a gorgeous string of long summer days, repetitive but not tedious, with few novelties but satisfying, very satisfying, the kind of days during which one is nurtured merely by sitting on the porch gazing into shadows inside trees and into clouds, and in dazzling sunlight how prettily tall grass along roads sways gently, lazily in slight afternoon breezes.

In this setting, not far from my porch, a Brown Thrasher sings all through the day. At first hearing he sings like a Mockingbird but, no, notice how his musical phrases nearly always repeat twice, not three or more times as a Mockingbird would do, and not just once as with the Catbird. This is the Brown Thrasher, the two-phrasing bird, and if you don't believe it just watch the open space before my porch long enough and you'll see the lanky, rusty-brown bird sometimes alight in green grass for a meal, sometimes two of them, brief flashes of warm, bright russet in a hot, hazy and green, green, green summer day.

*****

GREENHEADS GALORE
Last weekend I biked to Pipes Lake in nearby Homochitto National Forest to test my new tent. As soon as I got there I was glad to have a tent that sealed up completely around me because horseflies were thick and eager to drill for blood, as you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080623hf.jpg.

"Drill" isn't the right word. Really what they do is to cut and slice into one's flesh until blood starts flowing, then they sop up the blood with their sucking mouthparts. You can see a horsefly's mouthparts at http://www.backyardnature.net/horsefl2.jpg.

In the lower, right corner of that picture locate the large, black, roundish object, and then notice right above it but below the eyes and antennae the stiff- looking, brownish items, which are sharp and bladelike. They work together with other bladelike items not visible in the picture to cut like scissors (not bite or chew) into an animal's skin and cause bleeding. Once blood is flowing the horsefly extends its black "labium," the black, roundish thing below the scissors-like appendages, to suck up the blood.

Horseflies suck blood for the same reasons mosquitoes do -- the females need the nutritious blood for their egg production. That means that only female horseflies bite us. Male horseflies peacefully feed on flowers. In the first horsefly picture above, notice that the two green compound eyes are completely separated from one another by a blackish band. If that were a male horsefly the eyes would touch at the front of the head, so that's how you tell a male from a female horsefly.

That horsefly's green eyes are typical of some horsefly species in the genus TABANUS and such species are commonly called greenheads. Most horseflies don't have green eyes. The green-eyed, golden-bodied one in the picture slicing into the calf of my leg is a particularly colorful one.

Last weekend at Pipes Lake the deerflies were bad, too. Sometimes they landed on my legs as I peddled mile after scorching mile down the one-lane gravel road, and fed on me as I peddled. Deerflies belong to the same family as horseflies, the Tabanidae, but they occupy a different genus. In general, deerflies are smaller than horseflies, and often their wings bear darkish zones, giving the wings a mottled effect.

Where I was, there wasn't a horse for miles around. I felt sorry for the deer and other mammals, such as myself, the horseflies and deerflies attacked.

*****

MUDDY NYMPH ON A LEAF
On vegetation arising from mud along Pipes Lake I found several bizarre-looking items, one being shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080623ny.jpg.

That's a dragonfly nymph's discarded exoskeleton. Dragonfly metamorphosis is simple, so the dragonfly's immature stage is somewhat anatomically similar to the adult dragonfly, only that it's smaller, wingless, and aquatic. Immature stages of insects with simple metamorphosis are referred to as nymphs.

Dragonfly nymphs breathe underwater with gills in their rectums. Moreover, a nymph can move about using jet propulsion. It draws water into its rectum through the anus, then expels it, the faster the water being expelled, the faster the nymph shoots forward.

When a dragonfly nymph is ready to metamorphose into a flying adult, it pulls itself from the water, climbs what usually turns out to be shoreline vegetation, holds on tight as its exterior skeleton, or exoskeleton, begins splitting, and finally the interior being emerges from its old "skin."

The nymph exoskeleton in the picture is encrusted with mud. Still, you can see the gaping hole in its back where the new winged dragonfly emerged. I've watched this process before and can tell you that the newly minted dragonfly is very vulnerable to predation at this moment. Its new exoskeleton is still soft, and at first its wings aren't completely unfurled. For awhile you have a soft, juicy dragonfly who can't fly away, often in plain view of predators such as bullfrogs.

Damselflies also produce aquatic nymphs, but they are more slender than dragonfly nymphs. In fact, horsefly and deerfly nymphs are aquatic, too, but they are legless, looking somewhat like slender, conspicuously segmented torpedoes tapering at both ends.

*****

BUTTONBUSHES BLOOMING
Also arising from the mud along Pipes Lake's shore, as well as out into the water itself, were head-tall bushes producing flower clusters such as those shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080623bb.jpg.

Those are Buttonbush flowers, Buttonbush being CEPHALANTHUS OCCIDENTALIS of the Coffee Family, the Rubiaceae. In fact, Buttonbush leaves have the same shape and general appearance of Coffee bushes. If you're in North America you probably know Buttonbushes because they're common in wetlands from southeastern Canada and California south to Honduras, sometimes forming nearly impenetrable thickets.

In the picture, each spherical item is a 1.3-inch wide cluster of many flowers. If you look closely at the white cluster you can see the individual flowers, which are white and very slender. Each tiny flower bears at its top four petal-like lobes (sometimes five), and four stamens (rarely five) protruding from the corollas. In the picture, the stamens are topped with very small, oval, brownish anthers, which open to release pollen. The stiff-looking, white, sticklike things below the anthers are the stamens' filaments.

Anatomically, most flowers are "superior," meaning that their sepals or calyx lobes, petals or corolla, and stamens all arise below the ovary. Flowers in the Coffee Family are "inferior," meaning that those flower parts arise above the ovary.

Once the flowers are pollinated they fall off, leaving the many closely packed ovaries forming small, green balls considerably smaller than the white balls in the picture. Eventually the spheroid of ovaries matures into a dark-reddish-brown cluster about 3/4-inch in diameter, the individual ovaries squeezed together so tightly that the cluster looks like just one brown fruit. However, as winter comes on and the balls dry out, they crumble into individual dry fruits.

Ducks eat these achenes and deer browse on Buttonbush's twigs and foliage, but, relative to the bush's abundance, not to any great extent.

*****

WILD PETUNIAS
During this in-between time between Nature's "exhalation" and Her "inhalation," spring wildflowers have faded but fall wildflowers haven't yet appeared. You may not notice the lack of colors other than green if you don't go into the forest, because many invasive weeds along roads and ornamental plants around homes are indeed flowering. However, those plants were evolved for other lands, or have had their genes screwed with my humans, so they're flowering out of synch with Nature.

In the native forest, however, there's every shade of green, but other colors are sparse. Compared to spring and fall, right now native wildflowers are keeping a low profile.

However, there are a few. Since by now it's too hot and buggy for most hikers to wander in the woods, names of these early-summer wildflowers are not well known, and the wildflowers themselves go underappreciated.

One of the most conspicuously flowering wildflowers of upland woods around here right now is the one shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080623ru.jpg.

That's the Wild Petunia, genus RUELLIA, probably Ruellia caroliniensis. Weakley's Flora of the Carolinas lists eight Ruellia species for the US Southeast. Up in Kentucky we had three species. All Ruellias produce 1.5-inch-long, purplish flowers from leaf axils, the blossoms consisting of slender corolla tubes that flair into five spreading lobes. At the flower's through you find four stamens. All Ruellias have opposite leaves with toothless margins.

Ruellia species are found in a number of distinct habitats. For instance Ruellia humilis perers dry, calcareous, rocky ground while Ruellia ciliosa likes sand hills, and Ruellia noctiflora goes for wet pinelands and savannas. Therefore, if you hike much at this time of year, there's a good chance you'll see Ruellias, no matter where you are in the Eastern Forest Biome.

Ruellias are members of the Acanthus Family, in which we also find the Water-willow and some other not-very- famous plants. They really have nothing to do with petunias other than their flowers being vaguely shaped like petunias, which are in the Nightshade or Tobacco Family.

*****

CURLYLEAF YUCCAS FLOWERING
Usually we think of yuccas as denizens of arid lands and in large measure that's true. Because the best- known yucca is the Joshua-tree we often visualize them as having trunks. However, nowadays around here the yuccas are flowering, they have no trunks, and they may be native. You can see a wild yucca at Pipes Lake at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080623yv.jpg.

That's YUCCA FILAMENTOSA, sometimes called Curlyleaf Yucca because of one of the species' most curious features: Its blade margins bear long, tough, pale, stringlike filaments, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080623yw.jpg.

Sometimes the species is also called the Spoonleaf Yucca because, as the photo shows, blade tips often curve concavely, spoon-like.

At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080623yu.jpg there's a close-up of a flower on which I've bent aside one of the petals to reveal the green ovary with its thick, white stigma hanging down, all surrounded by six white stamens with flattish, fuzzy filaments. My books claim that the species' flower stems are hairless (glabrous in botanist talk) but you can see that ours have hairy stems. Some botanists might make a different species based on such a difference.

Whatever it's taxonomic status, you can see that the blossoms are home to interesting bugs, and you should have seen how many resided there before I bent the petal aside! The flowers' sweet fragrance must attract a rainbow of pollinators. And how pleasant it is lying in a moonlight-glowing tent deep in a still, moist night, with yucca-flower perfume drifting through the netting.

Yucca filamentosa is native from southern New Jersey south to Georgia, then west to Mississippi. It's planted far beyond its native home, however. I first met it planted among tombstones in the hilltop cemetery back in Kentucky where my father is buried. Around here folks like to plant them beside their mail boxes.

Yuccas are now placed in the Agave Family, the Agavaceae. My old Gray's Manual put them in the Lily Family.

*****

CAT EARS
Here I coexist with five dogs and two cats. The other day one of the cats was rubbing against my leg when I noticed its peculiar ears, one of which is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080623ce.jpg.

Why do cat ears, and dogs as well for that matter, have those pockets toward the back? I spent some time on the Internet trying to learn the pockets' function. Browsing from cat-ear page to cat-ear page, I found a good bit of information. For example:

My browsings even turned up a webpage with pictures of four-eared cats. You can see that at http://www.messybeast.com/freak-ears.htm.

I never found a definitive statement about the function of those pockets, other than "probably help with hearing." However, since having input from two eyes enables the human brain to create binocular vision with depth perception, I can imagine that the pockets in our pets' ears serve as a second set of ears, possibly in the pets' brains creating a sensation like auditory depth perception, something poorly developed in humans. Maybe high-frequency, short- wavelength sounds bounce around in the pockets before being focused through the slit clearly visible in the picture, toward the eardrum. The difference in arrival times of sounds of different wavelengths at the eardrum could provide the basis of the sensation.

In the dog ears I've examined the pockets are less developed than in the photographed cat ear.

*****

LAZINESS & THE WATER SNAKE
That small snake that scared Karen last week and which I photographed -- I misidentified it. It was some kind of water snake, not a rat snake. Four readers pointed out my error, though none agreed on which water snake it was.

I want to describe the process of how I decided to deal with learning that I'd made a mistake for this reason: It's important to be clear that ethical questions, such as how to react when you find you've made a mistake, can be rooted in Nature's paradigms without reference to religions or what society says.

But first, why does such a small detail as a little snake's mistaken name really matter?

It matters because by giving us such big brains the Creator has clearly assigned us humans a job as a species. That job is to explore the Creation, learn about it, and feel for it as intensely as we can. And humankind's exploration of the Creation is rooted in the information-gathering experience.

Therefore, misinformation -- even if it's only the wrong name for a little snake beneath a pot -- distorts our concepts of reality. Misinformation slows or even sets back life's evolution toward ever higher levels of self-realization and perfection.

That explains why publishing the wrong name for a little snake is a big deal with me. But, there's more.

The misidentification was made because of my own intellectual laziness. The arrangement of scales on the snake's face clearly showed that it wasn't a rat snake. I assumed it was a rat snake because I'd just seen a larger, similar snake nearby that definitely had been a rat snake, and rat snakes were simply on my mind.

The intellectual laziness causing my mistake bothers me because of my personal belief that we living things are "nerve endings" of an ever evolving, self- monitoring Creator. If we humans exist in order to live, to experience, to feel and understand, then being intellectually lazy is like being a nerve ending choosing to be numb.

If there be "sin," then intellectual laziness in all its forms -- apathy, lack of curiosity, blind acceptance of dogma, and my lack of mental discipline -- is sin.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim

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