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

July 7, 2008

EGRETS & HERONS ON SANDY CREEK
The road into Homochitto National Forest, where I frequently camp overnight, traverses a one-lane wooden bridge over small, meandering, sandy-bottomed Sandy Creek. The bridge stands maybe 25 feet above the water so when I cross it I always lean my bike against the bridge's railings and sit with my legs dangling over the side, watching things upstream and down, and gazing into shoreline treetops at eye level. Few cars use the road. It's a good sitting spot.

Sunday morning a flock of seven white wading birds worked back and forth across the stream, which at this season is seldom over knee deep at any spot. It was a mixed flock, four Snowy Egrets with their black legs and yellow feet, three immature Little Blue Herons with uniformly dark legs and feet, and one Great Egret, much larger than the rest, with yellow beak but dark legs and feet.

Seeing mixed flocks isn't at all unusual and I always enjoy seeing how a flock's various species get along with one another. In this flock Snowy Egrets took the initiative moving to new places, the immature Little Blue Herons gradually following them, and finally the big Great Egret would lumber into their presence.

In 2006 when I was at Celestún in the Yucatan I wrote about a mixed flock in a mangrove swamp. In a group of some 20 birds about half were Snowy Egrets, 1/3 White Ibises, and the rest Tri-colored Herons, Little Blue Herons, Great Egrets and a Willet or two. That flock was led by White Ibises, the Snowy Egrets following them, stabbing at fish the ibises scared up with their constant probing into the mud for worms and the like. The other heron and egret species stayed on the fringes less engaged with the group.

At my new "Plants & Animals of Mexico" site at http://www.backyardnature.net/mexnat/ you can read about mixed flocks of upland birds I've met. Check out the "Mixed Flock" headings at the very bottom of the page at http://www.backyardnature.net/mexnat/birds.htm.  

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LILLIPUTIAN RAINBOW UNICORN
That's the name automatically coming to mind the other day when a tiny creature floated down through the air from a tree above me and settled onto my arm-hairs where it began tickling me as it wandered about. You can see what it was, with a close-up at the top right, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080707ny.jpg.

Except maybe among tropical coral reefs, have you ever seen such a colorful, delicate, retiring-looking little critter? Its body was maybe half an inch long. But, what was it?

With those long back legs obviously it was a grasshopper or something closely related. Notice that it bears no wings. Since species in the Grasshopper Order, the Orthoptera, undergo simple metamorphosis, the immature stage is referred to as a nymph, so this is clearly the nymphal stage of some orthopterous species.

In the end, with help from BugGuide.Net, I found that I had a Bush Katydid nymph, genus Scudderia. Probably it's the common SCUDDERIA FURCATA, the Fork-tailed Bush Katydid, distributed throughout most of the US wherever bushes and trees are found. You can see a mature female at http://bugguide.net/node/view/10184.

Bush Katydids eat leaves of trees and bushes and lay their eggs on or in plant tissue. Though it's probably too early to hear their songs now, if you computer eats WAV audio files, you can hear the very subtle, widely spaced "clicks" made by an adult by clicking on the speaker icons midway down the page at http://buzz.ifas.ufl.edu/063a.htm.

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USING BUGGUIDE.NET FOR IDENTIFICATIONS
Here's how I got help identifying my little nymph:

At http://www.bugguide.net I registered for free (link at top right), within seconds received a confirmation email providing my password, and then I clicked on the link in the menu bar at the top of the page called "ID Request."

Once registered I was able to upload my photo and within seconds my photo was inserted into the line of photos needing identification, as shown at http://bugguide.net/node/view/6/bgimage.

The process is simple and instructions are easy to understand. However, you need to know enough about your computer to be able to save your digital-camera image, with a suitable file name, someplace in a subdirectory or folder on your own computer where you can find it later.

Within three hours of uploading my image, John, a highschool math and physics teacher in Skokie, Illinois, had identified my little critter.

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BEAUTIFUL BITTERNUTS
In an overgrown, property-boundary-forming hedgerow near my camp a Bitternut, one of the pignut hickories, is bearing immature but already pretty nuts, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080707bh.jpg.

You can see a close-up of the nuts, as well as the unusual and distinctive, scurfy-yellow buds at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080707bi.jpg.

What a pleasure seeing such a noble tree as a hickory healthily producing fruits exactly as it should, and adhering to the fine points of its identify so closely that its nuts are perfect examples of what they are meant to be. See how the four nut-husk "ribs" -- where the husk eventually will split open -- extend only halfway to the fruit's base, exactly as it should! In a world where everything seems to be an exception or a record, a perversity or something never before witnessed, having before me just plain old Bitternut nuts imbues me with a sense of well being.

I said it was a kind of pignut. "Pignut" isn't a technical term. It's a name applied to any of several hickory species whose nuts are small, invested with thin husks, and the shells aren't too hard; the nuts are eligible for being easily devoured by pigs.

In even halfway intact woods, Bitternuts are common, and the species is distributed through most of eastern North America's forest biome. However, around here where clearcutting encourages even-aged pine plantations where mixed forests used to stand, slow- growing, wildlife-nourishing trees like the hickories are much rarer than they used to be.

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INTO A SPIDERWORT FLOWER
Along gravel roads inside Homochitto National Forest, which are not mowed or doused with herbicides like those outside, spiderworts are flowering, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080707sp.jpg.

Relative to most other wildflowers, spiderwort blossoms are unusual in that they bear three petals instead of the usual four, five, or multiples thereof. That's because spiderworts are monocots, not dicots. The vast majority of wildflowers are dicots. Most monocot flowers have parts in threes, or multiples of three. Monocots and dicots are explained on my page at http://www.backyardnature.net/monodico.htm.

Spiderworts belong to the Spiderwort Family, the Commelinaceae. The species in the picture is the Zigzag Spiderwort, TRADESCANTIA SUBASPERA, the "zigzag" in the English name denoting the form of the stems.

It's awfully pretty down in a spiderwort's flowers. At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080707sq.jpg you see a flower's six stamens rising above its single ovary, which is the pale, greenish, oval object down at the lower left. Each stamen consists of an orange-yellow anther at the top of a slender, purple filament. Anthers split open to release pollen. Though the filaments of some spiderwort species are hairless, the Zigzag Spiderwort's filaments are wooly with long, purple, segmented hairs. About 70 spiderwort species are recognized, all from the New World; Weakley's Flora of the Carolinas lists nine for the Southeast.

If you tear a spiderwort leaf or stem it bleeds a clear mucilage. Reading that the pioneers used the mucilage as glue, I tried it. Well, it does stick things together a little, but if the pioneers really used this as glue they must have been very hard up for sticky stuff.

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HERBALISM
Speaking of plant uses, Susan in Florida writes that in the US right now there's a resurgence in the practice of herbalism. Now more than in the recent past people are learning about and using herbs for medicinal and other purposes. Plenty of information about herbalism is available at the American Herbalists Guild website at http://www.americanherbalistsguild.com/.

Online schooling opportunities are offered at http://americanherbalistsguild.com/schools/distance.

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FLOATING PRIMROSE WILLOWS
Along nearby Sandy Creek an aquatic plant is flowering nowadays with attractive yellow blossoms, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080707lw.jpg.

The plant, known as Floating Primrose Willow, LUDWIGIA PEPLOIDES, of the Evening Primrose Family, produces stems eight feet long and longer that float atop the water, trailing downstream as it branches and holds its leaves, flowers and fruits above water. At the picture's top left you see a stem stranded atop a sandbar by dropping water. A flower close-up is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080707lx.jpg.

In the flower picture you see ten stamens of various lengths clustered around a columnar style topped by the blunt, pollen-receiving stigma. You don't see an ovary, which will ripen into a fruit, because the ovary lies below the parts visible in the picture, enclosed in the "calyx tube" below the petals This makes the ovary "inferior," which is nice to know because most flowers produce their ovaries above the petals and stamen point-of-insertion, and are "superior."

On the banks of Sandy Creek, Floating Primrose Willow presents itself as a pretty and interesting wildflower whose yellow blossoms stand out in early-summer's almost-monotonously green landscape. However, the species may have a questionable background. First, because it's distributed across the southern US clear to California, as well as throughout South America and Australia, it's unclear whether it's a native to here. But what is indeed clear is that in some places it's making a pest of itself by forming dense mats in lakes, ponds and canals, as shown at http://tncweeds.ucdavis.edu/photos/ludsp01.jpg.

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A CREPE MYRTLE'S NEW, REDDISH SPROUTS
A Crepe Myrtle near my trailer is issuing new sprouts, and they're deeply reddish colored, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080707cm.jpg.

In the photo you can see that the older, lower leaves are green, so why are the plant's new leaves reddish?

As leaves and stems emerge, their green chlorophyll and chloroplasts must be synthesized. During this process, developing chloroplasts can be damaged by the sun's ultraviolet radiation. Red pigment in the leaves provides a kind of sun screen for the more fragile green parts.

The red pigments in young shoots and leaves are the same anthocyanins that make fall's leaves red. When I was a student the role of red-pigment anthocyanins in plant tissue was little appreciated, but now it's understood that they play critical roles in a plant's life. Most of the anthocyanins' workings are so subtle and complex that they can only be explained in rather technical terms. A technical paper on the matter is at http://www.pubmedcentral.nih.gov/articlerender.fcgi?artid=1082902

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THE NEW SMITHSONIAN FIELD GUIDE TO BIRDS
The other day a publicity agent offered to send me the new Smithsonian Field Guide to the Birds of North America by Ted Floyd if I'd review it. I'm still using the 1966 Golden Press guide, so this sounded like a good deal to me. Here's the review:

The moment the UPS fellow handed me the package I knew that this new guide wasn't like all my others: It weighed a full pound more than my old book. My Peterson guides measure 4½ x 7½ x 1 inches; this new one is 5¾ x 8 x 1¼. Is such a large, heavy book still a field guide?

Instead of paintings, this guide uses pictures, which I've always found less useful in the field. Typically just one or two species are featured on a page, along with their color-coded distribution maps. The Red-tailed Hawk with its various plumages merits two whole pages all by itself. Still, notes on "similar species" aren't provided.

For me the book's most interesting feature is that many of its species' maps show distributions much different from what's in my 1966 guide. My old guide shows that if you're east of the Mississippi River and not in southern Florida, the only hummingbird you'll see is the Ruby-throated. This new guide indicates that in southern Mississippi we can look for eight or nine hummingbird species. Several species are fairly rapidly extending their distributions, probably mostly because of backyard nectar feeders.

This guide is accompanied by a DVD of birdsongs that can be downloaded into a computer or MP3 player. This means that you can carry a portable MP3 player into the field and have handy 587 vocalizations of 138 major species.

The Smithsonian Field Guide to the Birds of North America is two-thirds field guide, one-third coffee-table book. Beginning birders might get lost navigating all the plumages of warblers, sparrows and gulls spread over its many pages. Birders in the field will be pleased having so many plumages illustrated, and maybe the birdsongs on an MP3 player will be useful, but the book's weight and size will be a burden. For me, this book will be a stay-at-home supplement to the smaller guides I carry in my backpack.

The field guide's cover price is $24.96, though Amazon.Com sells it for $16.47. You can see the book via my Amazon.Com link at the page's top, right, at http://www.backyardnature.net/birds.htm.

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RIGHT BRAIN, LEFT BRAIN
The other day on Public Radio a brain specialist described her own experience with a stroke that left the entire left hemisphere of her brain nonfunctional. Though the stroke was a tragedy, it afforded the specialist an opportunity to study the right brain/ left brain situation.

The human brain's left side is logical, practical, and fact-oriented while the right hemisphere deals with feelings, beliefs, symbols and "the big picture." More information and a visual test to determine whether you're more right- or left-brained oriented, is at http://www.news.com.au/heraldsun/story/0,21985,22556281-661,00.html.

The brain specialist explained how our two brain hemispheres cooperate to produce "us." After listening to her I visualized each human personality as being like a 3-D image suspended in space where light-like beams from two different brain-projectors pass through one another. Turn off one projector, or remove one side of the brain, and the resulting projected image, or personality, changes dramatically.

Maybe the most interesting feature of the brain specialist's story was how she found being without a left brain an ecstatic experience. During the early days of her not having a functioning left hemisphere she lived in a world in which she couldn't speak, but she experienced the effects of colors, textures and shapes with profound intensity, very much like someone on LSD. Sometimes during her rehabilitation, as her left brain gradually came back online -- as she learned again the complex facts of life and began realizing how she fit into a large, often frustrating and threatening world -- she often asked herself if she really wanted that left hemisphere back in her life.

Stroke victims who lose the right side of their brain instead of the left, as did the specialist, undergo completely different experiences. Such folks often find themselves overwhelmed as their left-brain hemispheres obsess on the ordering and details of life's events while being unable to judge which details are more important than others, and what they all mean.

In the workings of the two-hemisphered human brain, then, we see that the Creator isn't content having us humans all the time sitting around admiring clouds and feeling good. Nor does She want us to behave like super-rational automatons. She wants emotions to color our rationality, and She wants us to concern ourselves with both the minutia of life as well as the big picture. To me, the two-hemisphered brain is no less than a spiritual imperative to follow The Middle Path.

Thinking like this, The Middle Path reveals itself to be very much more than a compromise between opposites, or the meeting place of extremes. The Middle Path is a miraculous state as charged with its own possibilities as a human personality is when it ignites into being as a right brain hemisphere and a left brain hemisphere focus their energies onto the same spot, and self-awareness erupts.

In everyday life, how does one find The Middle Path?

Of course I would say that the paradigms of Nature reveal The Middle Path. And, as always, Nature's most easy-to-identify paradigms are sustainability, recycling, and passion for diversity.

Practice these elemental principles and the fogs part to reveal The Middle Path in all its glory.

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Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim

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