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

February 2,  2009

THE VILLAGE-MAYA VOGELFÄNGER
On Inauguration Day I began my return to the US by climbing into a bus in the Yucatán, southern Mexico. After three days and nights of taking one bus after another I arrived in Natchez, Mississippi on a warm, sunny, spring-feeling afternoon. My friend Karen carried me straight to my old hermit trailer parked next to the woods below her house, where I'll stay a few weeks.

On the day of my departure, walking through a north-Yucatán village for the last time, I saw something that got a train of thought going. You can see it at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090202ps.jpg.

The village wild-bird catcher, Vogelfänger in German, had temporarily stored a caged Northern Cardinal atop a stone wall along the road. In many small Maya villages the local bird catcher gives the impression of being the most motivated, efficient person in town because he keeps a definite schedule as he visits all his traps with his cages stacked high on his motorbike.

Of course in Mexico it's illegal to trap wild birds. On the radio during recent days frequent official announcement have asked people to not buy wild birds, adding that doing so harms the national patrimony. But there is no enforcement of this law, or many other similar laws that look good on paper. Wild-bird catching is so prevalent throughout the Yucatán that it's hard to see how Northern Cardinals, the Yucatán's bird-catching mainstay, continue to survive.

If you bring up the illegality and heartlessness of wild-bird catching, villagers usually say something like "so how is the birdcatcher to live if he doesn't make what effort he can? And, besides, think of all the pleasure the little birds' cheerful singing and bright color bring to families who may have nothing else so cheery in their lives? Are you saying that birds are more important than people?"

Above I evoke the German word Vogelfänger because nowadays German-speaking societies in general are very protective of their wildlife, yet even they once had their Vogelfänger. Remember from Mozart's opera "The Magic Flute" when Papageno introduces himself with the aria "Der Vogelfänger bin ich, ja," or, "Yep, I'm the birdcatcher."

Probably most if all not all major societies during their early evolutionary stages catch wild birds and impact their local environments in ways that appall later generations. It's a matter of maturing, of refining sensitivities, and gaining access to options other than preying on local songbirds.

And we mustn't lose sight of the fact that predation by the solitary Maya village Vogelfänger causes only a small fraction of the harm to local songbird populations compared to North America's roaming housecats.

Evolution is a never-ending process. In no society is there ever room for smugness. These are the thoughts with which I left the Yucatán.

*****

UPRISINGS AND DRUG BUSTS
I always think of these long bus rides as a chance to see what's happening in the real world. Here are the three most vivid impressions from last week's trip:

In southern Veracruz State just east of Acayucan my journey was interrupted for several hours when 800 campesinos, or rural people, blockaded the only Gulf- side highway connecting southern Mexico with the north. The campesinos were protesting, I was told, higher prices for nearly everything, especially diesel fuel. The army and local militias were called in and though I only saw blocked traffic, on the local radio I heard heads being cracked with police batons, and people screaming and choking on teargas.

I passed through many army checkpoints in Mexico, and many immigration and drug-searching checkpoints in both countries. At the tiny Greyhound station in St. Charles, Louisiana, luggage from the bus's baggage bay was piled onto the pavement right below my window and when a drug-sniffing dog sat down beside a certain suitcase looking at his handler with a smug look on his face, I knew he'd found something. Inside the suitcase a large bulk had been wrapped in several layers of black garbage bags. When nobody on the bus claimed the suitcase or had baggage-claim numbers adjacent to those on the baggage, it was confiscated. The agents acted as if such finds were no big deal, happening all the time.

In the waiting rooms of Greyhound stations in Houston and Baton Rouge where big-screen TVs again and again showed shots of Obama taking the presidential oath, black, brown and white folks stood enraptured by what they saw, many of them smiling. There was a kind of warm, sweet, friendly feeling in the air of those stations in which a certain seedy, cow-herding atmosphere is more typical, and I felt good being part of this new thing.

What is one to make of such disparate images from a single trip?

*****

NORTHERN CARDINALS AND A. C. BENT
My last bird picture taken in Mexico was of a caged male Northern Cardinal, CARDINALIS CARDINALIS, and my first bird picture in Mississippi was of the same, a young male with his immature plumage still showing in places. The Mississippi bird is shown outside my window at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090202cd.jpg.

What a pretty bird, and with its bright red color, black facemask and cocky crest, he may be the best known of all native North American songbirds. When I was a kid in Kentucky we just called him "Redbird."

Northern Cardinals occur in the US's eastern and most of its central regions and adjacent Canada, southward through Mexico to northern Guatemala and Belize. As you might expect, a species with such a large distribution is fragmenting into numerous subspecies. I find 19 subspecies mentioned.

Many websites offer info on bird life history but for me nothing matches the online edition of Arthur C. Bent's Life Histories of North American Birds series. As a kid each Christmas I asked for more editions of the 21-volume series, and I devoured each one. Bent's style is easygoing and folksy, his words redolent of the style of old-time naturalists who just loved talking about their subjects. Bent's works are often ignored today because he didn't stick to today's strict academic standards. For example, he begins his section on Cardinal courtship with "Evidence of affection between mated pairs and courtship to secure new mates may be observed before the end of winter."

Nowadays an ornithologist would lose all credibility suggesting that birds can be affectionate with one another. That's one reason I'm not an ornithologist.

Anyway, for a lot of good reading about the Northern Cardinal, check out Bent's Cardinal page at http://www.birdsbybent.com/ch31-40/cardinal.html.

The Index Page for species featured in the online book -- a good page to bookmark -- can be accessed at http://www.birdsbybent.com/indexa.html.

*****

CHIPPING SPARROWS IN NONBREEDING PLUMAGE
When Karen cleans her birdcages she tosses what's on the cage floors to a certain spot in her yard. Many seeds are in the mess, so wild birds come to forage there. That's what the above Cardinal was doing when I photographed him, and that what the Chipping Sparrows, SPIZELLA PASSERINA, are doing in the picture at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090202ch.jpg.

Chipping Sparrows occur here year round, though not necessarily the same individuals. The species is migratory, breeding in most of Canada and the US, except for parts of the US Deep South, and wintering from the southern US south through Mexico to Nicaragua.

Breeding adults are recognized by their bright, rusty- red or rufous crowns, white eyebrow, and black eye stripe. These features are much less sharply defined in the nonbreeding birds in the picture. The crown of the bird on the left even has a gray stripe down its middle, which is absent in breeding adults.

From past experience I know it won't be long until the Chipping Sparrow's dry, monotonal trill comes wafting through the Loblolly Pines on sunny afternoons. I don't hear them yet, but I'm waiting for it hard.

*****

A BUNCH-FLOWERED NARCISSUS WELCOME
I wasn't quite sure how wintry the Natchez area would be so as the bus rolled into town and I saw that in people's yards a few things were blooming I was very gratified: Spring really is in the air here.

Maybe the most conspicuous harbinger of spring here is the bunch-flowered narcissus shown in Karen's yard at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090202na.jpg.

Bunch-flowered narcissus isn't capitalized because that name applies to a large group of narcissuses, all considered as belonging to the same genus AND species -- NARCISSUS TAZETTA, a species originally from a large swath of the Old World extending from the Canary Islands to Japan. The species is so robust and pretty that horticulturalists have derived many, many ornamental varieties from it. You may recognize some of the varietal names: Paper White; Chinese Sacred Lily; Golden Dawn; Martha Washington; Odoratus; Soleil d'Or; Sugar Cup; White Pearl, and many others. I'm not sure which variety this one is. A web page showing 30 varieties -- several very similar to this one -- is at http://www.billthebulbbaron.com/Narcissus.html.

Narcissuses -- members of the genus Narcissus -- belong to the Amaryllis Family, and their floral anatomy is fairly representative of that family. You can see a cross section of one of the above flowers at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090202nb.jpg.

In that picture the broad, white, petal-like appendages are "tepals," which are segments of the calyx/corolla complex (the "perianth") in which calyx lobes (sepals) are indistinguishable from corolla lobes (petals). This is typical for the family.

If the white things are tepals, then what is the yellow structure in the middle? That's the crown, or corona, typical of a cluster of genera in the family, including Hymenocallis spider-lilies, Amazon-lilies, Lycoris spider-lilies and Star-Grass (Hypoxis). Crowns are structures completely absent in most flowers, and often derive evolutionarily from modified stamens, or staminodes.

Inside the yellow crown you can see several yellow- orange, frankfurter-shaped, pollen-producing anthers, some held outside the floral tube and some closely packed right at the floral tube's throat. Below the anthers I've split upon the greenish, slender tube so you can see the straight, cream-colored style poking stiffly upward. At the style's tip you see a tiny bulge, and that's the stigma, where pollen is supposed to land, germinate, and send rootlike pollen tubes down through the style to the oval, green ovary below, just beyond my thumb-tip.

I've opened the ovary so you can see tiny, white, oval ovules stacked neatly inside it. Each ovule, once it's fertilized, will mature into a seed, and the green ovary itself will enlarge into a green fruit.

Because the floral parts arise above the ovary and not below it, this is a classic "inferior ovary." If the floral parts arose below the ovary, with the ovary sitting inside the flower like a cherry in a bowl, the ovary would be "superior." Most wildflower ovaries are superior, so having an inferior ovary like this is worthy of recognition.

Bunch-flowered Narcissuses are distinguished among the 50-100 Narcissus species by having four or more flowers arising from each flower stem and the crown being much less than half as long as the tepals, plus the crown isn't wrinkled or "crisped."

If by now you're excited about narcissuses, at http://www.backyardnature.net/fl_narci.htm, my Narcissus Flower Anatomy page, you can order new and used books on gardening with them, and even some bulbs, from Amazon.com.

*****

IVY-LEAVED SPEEDWELL FLOWERING
In the lawn around Karen's house the most conspicuous, wild flowering plant is the tiny, weak-stemmed, rambling Ivy-leaved Speedwell, VERONICA HEDERAEFOLIA, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090202ve.jpg.

Most folks wouldn't notice this little annual plant because it's so small -- the pale lilac flowers in the picture less than 1/10th inch wide -- and commonplace. At this time of year it peeps from beneath last year's leaves, which protect it from the cold during its germination stage. As spring progresses the sprawling stems will wander all over the place, eventually forming a luxuriant, bright yellow-green carpet, very pretty to see after a long winter.

At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090202vf.jpg you see a close-up of the Ivy-leaved Speedwell's neat little flower. This blossom's basic anatomy is good to know because there are lots of weedy speedwells -- about 35 species of the genus Veronica -- so later you may need to distinguish species by comparing their floral structure.

In the picture you see a corolla consisting of four pale-violet lobes barely attached at their bases. If you're very careful you can remove the four-lobed corolla in one piece. Note the two darker, petal-like items in the corolla's center. Species of the genus Veronica bear only two stamens (male parts), and that's what those are. The white, granular material at the sides of the incurving, violet-colored things is pollen.

Veronica flowers are slightly "irregular" -- they're not perfectly symmetrical. Notice that the topmost lobe is broader than the lowest lobe. In Veronica flowers the two stamens arise from the base of the topmost lobe. These features, especially because the flowers are so tiny, are very subtle, but in the world of botany they're important.

In the old days, Speedwells/Veronicas were placed in the big Figwort or Snapdragon Family, the Scrophulariaceae, but nowadays many specialists regard them as so unusual that they're put into their own family, the Speedwell Family, the Veroniceae.

The Ivy-leaved Speedwell in the picture is an invasive originally from Europe, but I hold no grudge against it. In these early spring days with their tender, yellow-green leaves and little bursts of blue in an otherwise brown and gray world, they are most welcome around my door.

By the way, with a name like speedwell you might reckon that Vernonicas are medicinal. In England our Ivy-leaved Speedwell has a history of being used against scurvy and "impurities of the blood." Its bruised herbage can be applied to burns, ulcers, whitlows and hemorrhoids." Whitlows are fingernail infections.

*****

MOSS PATCH ATOP A MOLE TUNNEL
In Karen's leaf-covered backyard lawn there's a network of mole tunnels where here and there the moles have pushed up mounds from below. These elevated rises of naked dirt constitute habitats for a certain kind of very pretty, interesting moss, the one shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090202bm.jpg.

That patch of mosses is about an inch across and each moss plant is some half an inch tall. The moss species forming the patch is one of the most abundant, easy- to-identify of all moss species, native to all continents except South America and Antarctica, and found in such frequent habitats as gardens, lawns, pastures and open woods, so it's a good species to know. It's the Common Bladder Moss, PHYSCOMITRIUM PYRIFORME. The species' size, leaf characters and capsule shape vary across its area of distribution, as well as within single populations.

Common Bladder Moss is distinguished by its nearly spherical capsules topped with long, slender "caps" typically set at angles. The green vegetative bodies consist of short, leafy stems growing so packed together that they form a mossy crust on the ground. This moss crust protects naked soil from erosion, so Common Bladder Moss is one of that special breed of organisms constituting "Nature's first responders." They move in first to stabilize disturbed soil.

Mosses are primitive plants that evolved before Nature came up with the idea of flowers, so they reproduce with spores instead of fruits and seeds. The spherical capsules shown in the picture are full of developing spores that will escape the capsule later, through a hole in the top. The moss reproductive structure is a complex, interesting thing and you might want to review how it's put together at my moss page at http://www.backyardnature.net/mosses.htm.

On that page you can also review several moss books available at Amazon.com.

My field guide, available at the above link, is How to Know the Mosses and Liverworts, and I've never had much luck with it. Nearly always as I'm keying out a new moss I end up needing a microscope to see leaf-cell shape and other details my powerful handlens can't make out. To identify our Common Bladder Moss I ended thumbing through the book matching what I had with illustrations, which is a real indignity to a key-using enthusiast like myself.

If you want to try your own hand at identifying a moss using technical keys, check out the "Key to the Moss Genera of North America North of Mexico" at http://www.mobot.org/plantscience/BFNA/V1/KeyToMosses_2.htm.

But don't bother if you can't handle terms like "protonemata," "papillose setae" and "filamentous Pseudoparaphyllia."

*****

OLD LEAVES ON BEECH TREES
When dazzling sunlight floods into the wintry woods it's pretty to see how it lights up old, parchment- colored leaves still hanging on the American Beeches, FAGUS GRANDIFOLIA. You can see such leaves at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090202fg.jpg.

Why do beech trees retain their leaves until late winter or early spring while most neighboring deciduous trees lose theirs in the fall?

From what I can read, the prime reason may be that by retaining leaves until early spring, beech trees then benefit from two leaf-falls: the fall of other trees in the autumn, and of their own in the spring. So what's the benefit of that? Having two falls instead of one represents a more continuous process of recycling nutrients, plus the latter fall takes place when spring roots are growing rapidly, most needing the nutrients carried in fall-falling leaves.

This points to Nature's obsession with recycling, and Her economy dealing with resources such as leaf nutrients.

And what a contrast this is with what we see in towns during fall, when people ship out their leaves in garbage bags, to be dumped in landfills!

For my part, I feel good living next to wintertime Fagus grandifolia, if only because its parchment-like leaves bespeak the species' sense of frugality, self reliance and generosity toward the rest of the community.

*****

WINGED ELMS FLOWERING
Already in the last week of January our Winged Elms, ULMUS ALATA, have been producing postage-stamp-size flower clusters, or inflorescences, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090202ua.jpg.

In that image a flower cluster emerges from a scale- covered, spherical bud at the left. Each cup-shaped blossom is smaller than a BB. The flowers have no corolla; the reddish, cuplike thing is the calyx and the calyx's brownish, petal-like lobes are sepals -- "petaloid" sepals, or sepals looking like petals.

In each blossom the red, frankfurter-like items peeping from the calyx cup are pollen-producing anthers. In the center of each flower the two white, fuzzy things are styles with hairy "stigmatic zones" along their inner edges. Remember that the female part of a flower, the pistil, typically consists of the stigma, style and ovary. Pollen germinates on the stigma, the male sex germ migrates in a pollen tube down through the slender, neck-like style, and unites with the female sex germ in an ovule inside the ovary. Ovules mature into seeds and ovaries into fruits bearing the seeds.

So, in elm flowers the stigmas and styles are merged, the "stigmatic surface" lining one side of the slender style. The inset at the lower right shows a flower's two fuzzy style arms.

Winged Elms are most easily identified by the tough, corky "wings" adorning their twigs, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090202ub.jpg.

However, stems on the tree whose flowers I photographed bore no corky wings at all, so how could I be certain that I wasn't photographing an American Elm or a Red Elm, which also are common here? Red Elm flowers have no or very short stems, or pedicles, while you can see that each Winged Elm flower arises from a slender pedicle. Pedicels of American Elm flowers all arise from one spot, like long-stemmed roses emerging from a narrow-necked vase. You can see that our Winged Elm's flower pedicles arise from along a slender central axis.

*****

WINTER ELM MEDITATION
During my morning campfires I enjoy a pretty view across an abandoned orchard into the wintry woods, and right in the middle of my view stands the tree shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090202dq.jpg.

That's an American Elm, ULMUS AMERICANA, and I love sitting next to my campfire gazing into that tree's branches.

For, the American Elm's graceful, ever-dividing manner of branching beautifully expresses the philosophy behind the evolution of life on Earth, and lots of other complex systems that evolve slowly and methodically. When we speak of the "Phylogenetic Tree of Life," we assume a single primal ancestor at the root, then through time that ancestor gave rise to new forms of life, then those forms produced yet new forms, on and on through time until at the wispy tips of the terminal branches there reside today's species.

There's a special word used for the branching system of trees such as the American Elm whose limbs so gracefully branch into numerous subdivisions, then those branch and those branch again, on and on. They're said to "deliquesce." An American Elm's branching pattern is "deliquescent."

In contrast, a tree such as a spruce with a single, undivided trunk with lateral branches jutting out from the trunk's side is said to display an "excurrent" branching pattern.

*****

GARLICKY STEWS
Back at my old hermit trailer it feels good on these mornings with the temperatures usually in the 30s or 40s sitting gazing into the campfire, my hands cradling a hot mug of tea, listening to Public Radio's Morning Edition on the radio. Not ten feet from my sitting spot a Carolina Wren lives in a box I mounted the last time I was here, and it tickles me the way he cocks his head and scolds me.

My view across the old orchard toward the woods is an essay in browns and grays, with blue sky on certain mornings, and those are restful, contemplative colors. I stare awhile into the campfire's orange embers, the embers' heat warm and friendly on my face, see and smell the white smoke curling upward, then gaze into the woods. We have plenty of knee-high garlic plants here so the stew I ladle out radiates a lusty, heady vapor.

An hour of this can pass in about ten minutes.

Sometimes I wonder why most of the world goes out of its way to avoid precisely the kind of experience that means so much to me here. Others trade their free time for money-making jobs, they trade their wildlife- harboring woodlots, hedgerows and weedy areas for monoculture lawns, and they trade the sensations provided by a good, garlicky, steamy stew on a cold morning next to the woods for something plastic- wrapped in a hermetic, thermostat-controlled environment.

Why do people clean, organize, sterilize, polish, deodorize, standardize, systematize, update, make fashionable and modernize their world until they create environments so monotonal, controlled and characterless that people like myself find them unbearable?

Actually, I think I know the reason. It's because humans are genetically hard-wired to do those things. During human evolution those who knocked gnawed-on bones out of their cave and went outside to relieve themselves got fewer diseases than those who didn't, thus lived longer and produced more offspring, who concentrated their cleanliness genes in later generations.

The implication is that sometimes, to reclaim an enriching environment and to live free, we may need to consciously resist our innate cleaning and ordering impulses.

This may be one of those symmetrical phenomena in life where on the one hand the domain of the sensory-rich campfire is that of the down-and-out homeless, but also of the enlightened esthete. Traveling from one point to the other carries one through a vast wasteland of discarded Lysol cans, gray work cubicles and painful neuroses, but at both ends of the process there's a friendly campfire and a lovely woods.

Whatever the deal, I'm glad to be back with my bubbling pots of garlic-rich stews, glad to hear spring's chorus frogs peeping when I fall asleep next to the trailer's open windows, glad just to be alive as hyacinths poke from the ground because a whole new spring is coming to Mississippi.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim