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

June 30, 2008

TREEFROG DAYS
During most of last week each afternoon our very hot, humid air grew so unstable that thunderstorms broke out all around us. If you were in a car you'd travel into and out of brief downpours while most of the landscape never got a drop. During the whole week we just received one good rain at my camp.

With all this storm activity the treefrogs around my porch next to the woods were in their element. Often during the day for no apparent reason a chorus of them would break out calling. Other times they'd be set off by sudden claps of thunder, or even by my scraping the chair on my floor as I got up from the computer. Once I even set off a chorus by issuing a healthy hermit fart.

Basically I live on my open porch, using my attached smaller trailer just as a library. I haven't bothered removing the trailer's window coverings, which can be tilted up to make simple awnings. In the dark, moist spaces beneath those coverings, that's where treefrogs like to hold out during the day between rains. You can see a frog photographed when I lifted a covering up at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080630sq.jpg.

You know that that individual is a treefrog because it's so small, about an inch, and because its toes end with largish, round tips, which are sticky adhesive pads enabling him to climb walls and not fall out of trees. In the above picture at the upper right there's a close-up of the frog's toe pads.

Treefrogs belong to the Treefrog Family, the Hylidae. In this area we have five frog families represented: the "true frogs"; toads; narrow-mouthed frogs; spadefoot toads, and; treefrogs. With us the Treefrog Family provides the greatest number of frog species.

Identifying the treefrog in the picture wasn't as easy as you might think. The Audubon field guide shows three almost-all-green treefrogs for our area -- the Barking, Green and Squirrel -- and each of those species is variably colored. Using the Internet to view a variety of pictures, I decided I probably had a Squirrel Treefrog, HYLA SQUIRELLA, which is distributed in the US Deep South on the Coastal Plain. I became confident in my identification only when I found the Smithsonian's online recording of the Squirrel Treefrog's mating call. If JAVA is enabled on your computer you can probably hear it at http://www.smithsonianglobalsound.org/trackdetail.aspx?itemid=35134.

*****

A RACER UP CLOSE
The other day Karen once again let out her there's-a- snake whoop and once again I grabbed my camera and went running. This time it was a Southern Black Racer, COLUBER CONSTRICTOR ssp. PRIAPUS, with his head held high. I got onto my elbows and knees and inched closer and closer until I got the head-shot shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080630xx.jpg.

This time before identifying it I paid special attention to those facial scales. A fine webpage on "Snake Faces" produced by the University of Texas helped me here. You can see for yourself how snake facial scales vary from genus to genus at http://www.sbs.utexas.edu/halldw/Bio455L/Files/SnakeFaces.html.

Our Southern subspecies is similar to the Northern subspecies, the main difference being that the Northern's upper lip scales are black, with white being restricted to its chin. As you can see, the upper lip scales of ours bear a lot of white. My Audubon field guide reports the Northern's eye iris as being brown, while irises of our Southern subspecies are usually red or orange. I'm not sure how I'd call the iris of the snake in my picture. On the University of Texas page the Eastern Yellow-bellied Racer subspecies is represented, which is light gray above and yellow below. The Audubon guide describes eleven Racer subspecies for North America.

An interesting feature of my photo is that it appears to show two elongate pouches below the snake's mouth where fangs might rest when the snake's mouth is closed. You can almost make out the fangs pressing against the throat's floor. The problem with that is that colubrids such as racers don't have long fangs. They have teeth but nothing like a rattler's long fangs.

*****

AN EASY-GOING RATTLER
Friday morning Karen let out her whoop yet again and this time it was a young, 2.5-ft-long Timber Rattlesnake, CROTALUS HORRIDUS, calmly stretched out in the middle of her parking area. You can see it at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080630cr.jpg.

"Get the dogs up," was her first thought. Then I coaxed the snake into a cooler and we carried it to an unpopulated forest area up the road. The Audubon field guide says that the species remains motionless when approached, and that's exactly what happened with this one. He never struck, never shook his rattles, and always moved slowly and deliberately.

Timber Rattlesnakes are distributed throughout most of the eastern US's forest area but the species hasn't fractured into as many definable subspecies as the Racer has. Still, two intergrading forms are recognized, a northern and a southern one, based on color variations. In the old days populations around here were separated out as Canebrake Rattlesnakes, but now that variation is just lumped into the southern variation.

*****

JOHNSON GRASS
When I was growing up on the farm in Kentucky the weeds that cut our soybean yields most were cocklebur, foxtail grass, and Johnson Grass. The first two weeds are written in small case because several species of cocklebur and foxtail exist, so they're generic names. But Johnson Grass is a particular species, SORGHUM HALEPENSE, an invasive species originally from Eurasia.

Around here where creek banks adjoin field edges the moist, sun-drenched soil often is populated with extensive seven-ft-tall thickets of Johnson Grass. On hot summer afternoons the grass is so coarse and luxuriant, so aggressively dominant, that it's hard not to admire its vitality. Surely this species will survive the planetary mass extinction now underway. You can see intensely photosynthesizing Johnson Grass at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080630jg.jpg.

Up close, Johnson Grass's flowers are elegant and being much larger than most grass flowers -- (1/5 inch, 5 mm long) -- the elegance is easy to see. Look at the handsome, brown, pollen-releasing anthers dangling on white, slender filaments, and the cream- colored, fuzzy stigmas issuing from flowers at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080630ji.jpg.

Most Johnson Grass plants here flowered weeks ago, so most flowers have long lost their stamens and stigmas, and now are plumb and dark, their ovaries having matured into hard, blackish grains, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080630jh.jpg.

You can imagine how sparrows, finches and other seed- eating birds gravitate to these thickets, relishing the seeds. Johnson Grass is in the same genus, Sorghum, as the grain crop Milo, which often turns up in commercial birdfeeder seed mixes. I suspect that deer must eat the plant, too, since livestock readily eat Johnson Grass as a pasture grass and in hay.

*****

BUTTERFLY-WEED ABLAZE
Several plants go by the name of Butterfly-weed but probably the most famous and most deserving is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080630aa.jpg.

That's ASCLEPIAS TUBEROSA, one of the milkweeds, and it also goes by such English names as Orange Milkweed, Pleurisy-root and Chigger-flower. A flower close-up is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080630ab.jpg.

In the close-up you can see that the flowers have a very unusual shape, though their form is typical of the milkweeds. You might enjoy looking over my Milkweed Flower Structure page at http://www.backyardnature.net/fl_milkw.htm.

When I was a kid this species was much more commonly seen along roadsides than now. The two main reasons are: 1) people digging up the plants to replant around their own homes, where they nearly always die, and; 2) habitat destruction such as mowing and herbicide use along roadsides. The species specializes in dry soil in open places, and is distributed from Florida to Arizona north to Colorado and southern Ontario.

After being for so long among people who every day take advantage of plant medicinal uses, when I saw this beautiful population my first impulse was to ask around to see what people used it for. But of course no one here uses medicinal plants and the best I could do was to look it up on the Internet.

There I find that in the U. S. Pharmacopeia of the 1800s Butterfly-root's root was reported as widely used for lung problems such as asthma and bronchitis, made into a tea or sometimes eaten raw. Large doses of the root were sometimes used as a purgative and sometimes the root was applied to sores. Also there was a warning that the plant contains cardiac glycosides that are toxic in large amounts.

What a thing that our culture has lost so much of this information, yet what luck that the information still exists and is easily accessible. The main problem is that many sources tell us that Butterfly-weed can be used for asthma and bronchitis, but hardly anywhere is there generally accessible information on how the plant is to be prepared, what it should be combined with for best effect, and what concentration of the end product is safe and efficacious. Probably more than anything the lawsuit-mad feature of our society precludes such information being made generally available.

POSTSCRIPT: A few days after I took the picture, someone dug up the whole population and by now surely is dead. It's amazing that this gorgeous, generous, free-to-look-at roadside population lasted as long as it did.

*****

TENTING ON A LEAF
I'm not the only one camping out, sleeping in a tent these days. You can see somebody else's tent at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080630tt.jpg.

In that picture the tent consists of a folded-over flap of leaf. If you peep beneath the tent, putting your eye up next to the leaf's edge, you can see inside the structure a green, bean-shaped thing that clearly is an insect pupa, suspended between the two leaf surfaces by a maze of zigzagging silk threads.

On the pupa I could see vague suggestions of the insect's future body sections, legs, and wings. It looked a little like a froghopper, but it wasn't a froghopper pupa because froghoppers belong to the Homoptera, along with cicadas and aphids, which undergo simple metamorphosis, diagramed as egg--> nymph--> adult, with the nymph being similar to the adult, but smaller and wingless. There's no pupa state in that diagram. Complete metamorphosis found in other insect orders is egg --> larva --> pupa--> adult.

You can see a list of insect orders undergoing complete metamorphosis at the bottom of http://www.backyardnature.net/metacomp.htm.

Beetles, butterflies and moths, flies, and ants are the most commonly encountered insect groups undergoing pupa-producing complete metamorphosis. Since moths are known to produce silk, I'm guessing that the tent occupant in the picture someday will emerge as a moth.

*****

OILY SPOTS ALONG SHORE
Sometimes along creeks where water quietly pools next to the waterline you see what appears to be a film of oil forming a rainbow-colored sheen spreading from the bank. Seeing how frequently oil pipelines break around here, polluting streams, my first impulse when seeing such oily spots is to assume that I'm seeing oozing oil from an old spill.

That's often the case, but sometimes the oily sheen appears to be leaking from orange-brown, gelatinous- looking masses at the water's edge, such as is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080630ao.jpg.

Doing some creative search-engine work on the keywords "water surface oil alga," I quickly came up with a page produced by the University of Maine rhetorically asking "What's that floating on the water surface?" I clicked on the link "oily sheen," and there was just what I've been seeing, despite it having nothing to do with algae.

"Some bacteria (Leptothrix discophora) that live in waterlogged places," it explained, "get their energy from iron and manganese, and as these harmless bacteria grow and decompose, the iron may appear oily or form red or orange films, fluffs, and coatings. Leptothrix can also excrete manganese, which looks like black slime."

That page has a picture looking pretty much like mine, and even explains how to tell the difference between oily sheens produced by oil spills, and sheens created by natural oil. What you do is to poke the sheen with a stick. If a poked-clear spot in the sheen closes up immediately after being poked, it's petroleum, but if the sheen breaks up and doesn't flow back together, it's from bacteria or some other natural source.

The page gives other fine links dealing with the matter, and discusses other kinds of "stuff that floats on stream surfaces." It's a fine page. It's at http://www.umaine.edu/waterresearch/FieldGuide/inthewater.htm

*****

DRYING IN THE SUN
Saturday when I biked into Homochitto National Forest to camp overnight the usual afternoon storm arrived a little early and I got drenched before my tent was set up. That night the humidity was so high that raindrops beaded on the tent's fly never evaporated and everything I had stayed damp. Sunday morning, as soon as the first sunbeams hit the ground I found an open spot, sat down and basked in the sunlight, to dry out. There were no sounds of people, just wind in the tall trees, and my own body's rustling and breathing sounds.

After awhile several butterflies joined me in the same splash of sunlight, some quite close, since I sat unmoving. It was a good time, nurturing, rooting, beautiful.

It occurred to me that nowadays most people seem to have organized such moments out of their lives, and I don't know why. It even seems that parents are programming their kids to always be programmed, so that they never have undemanding, open-ended moments like this, just sitting in the sun drying out. Activities must have a goal, an offering of positive feedback at the end. Who teaches nowadays that certain slow-paced, unglamorous processes are gratifying and important in themselves?

It's too bad more kids don't do my kind of camping, where sometimes you just have to sit doing nothing as a rain passes, or sit a long time in sunlight to dry out our warm up.

Sunday morning, when I finally moved on, I was dry, but something unnamed also had happened to me that was of even greater value than being dry.

*****

UNCLE BEAR'S RABBITS
The other day Uncle Bear, a frequent forum visitor to our Backyard Nature Forum, wrote that on his lawn in North Carolina he'd spotted a rabbit. Uncle Bear is going from my Bug-Eaten Leaf Award, as outlined at http://www.backyardnature.net/awards/.

Uncle Bear wanted to double check his identification before adding the rabbit to his list and sending it to me, and in so doing he discovered that North Carolina is home to FOUR species of wild rabbit -- Eastern Cottontails, Appalachian Cottontails, Marsh Rabbits and Swamp Rabbits.

This information set Uncle Bear to studying the situation. He didn't have Appalachian Cottontails, he decided, because they're found only above 2500 feet. Not Marsh Rabbits either because they only occupy wet habitats farther east than he was. They weren't Swamp Rabbits because they need wetter habitats. This left only the Eastern Cottontail as a possibility for hopping onto Uncle Bear's lawn, and he added that name to his list.

The neat thing is that while doing his research Uncle Bear also learned such interesting facts as that, for instance, those Swamp Rabbits can run up to 45 mph in zigzag patterns, and are great swimmers.

Uncle Bear wrote: "But, more important than that, in the last 45 minutes, I've learned a great deal. This makes life worth while for me."

You're welcome to go for that Bug-Eaten Leaf Award, too. Just check out the above link, browse through some of the lists already online, and set about learning surprising things about your own environment.

*****

MYSTERY PICTURE
On a partially submerged log in a local creek I sat vacantly scanning the water running below me when some abstract art floated across my field of vision. See it at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080630bf.jpg.

There you're seeing just a tiny part of what I saw. The whole canvas, though, wasn't larger than a postage stamp.

The thing floating beneath me that day was part of a butterfly wing, a piece that looked like it had been shorn from a butterfly's body by a bird unwilling to swallow wings. But what butterfly species was it?

It was from a Spicebush Swallowtail, PTEROURUS TROILUS. In the picture the tiny, fingerlike or stringlike things are elongate scales. Colors on butterfly wings are provided by millions of overlapping, shinglelike scales. My Audubon Field Guide explains that solid colors derive from pigmented scales, while metallic, iridescent hues such as the metallic blues of the Spicebush Swallowtail are provided by faceted scales that refract light. Apparently the long, pale scales at the picture's left, which produce a metallic-blue effect when seen from a distance, are shaped somewhat like little prisms.

Around here the plant Spicebush is found only rarely, usually on moist, shaded, loess-gully slopes. However, Spicebush Swallowtail caterpillars also eat Sassafras leaves, of which we have plenty.

*****

HUMAN EVOLUTION NEEDED BONEHEADS
The Butterfly Weed spoken of above occupied the very top of a high roadcut. Because the population was so healthy, I wondered why there weren't other bunches, either on the roadcut below or farther up and down the highway. As I was photographing the plant an old fellow came down the highway on his tractor and when he got even with me he provided my answer. With a resounding whoosh he let loose a powerful burst of herbicide spray dousing the entire opposite roadside, and he kept spraying until he was out of sight.

Especially because the fellow had returned my nod and smile with a scowl and no greeting, I suspect that this spraying was more a socio-political statement than a reflection of the man's need to kill roadside plants. I'm well acquainted with a certain opinion around here, at least among some older white people, that any bearded man in shorts and riding a bike while wearing a backpack must be a godless communist threat to Western civilization needing to be harassed any way possible.

Later as I biked down the highway I thought a good bit about why Nature would evolve humanity of this ilk. By the time I'd reached my camp I'd come up with a surprising notion. The way I figure it, during the course of human evolution this kind of bonehead was needed, and today the human species remains genetically programmed to keep producing a certain number of them.

Such ethnocentric, socially conservative folks as this man were necessary during human evolution because humans as a group are always coming up with good- sounding ideas that cause enormous trouble if they're really implemented. At least in the past, most new ideas probably were bad ones, else they'd already have been implemented. Humanity has needed people who automatically opposed everything new or different without at least a lot of debate on the subject.

But, thing is, life is very different now from the way it was during those millions of years during which humanity evolved. Now conditions for Life on Earth are evolving so rapidly that unthinking resistance to all forms of change and otherness may have reached a tipping point where it's more of a negative influence on the possibility of long-term survival than a positive one.

Taking all this into consideration, my personal opinion is that conservative boneheads should be given free reign to go on talk radio and to drive their families and neighbors nuts, but something should be done to keep them away from herbicides and other ecosystem-destroying agents.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim

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