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

February 9,  2009

A WHITE-THROATED SPARROW ALL FLUFFED OUT
Nowadays around here temperatures bounce between extremes. This week during a couple of dawn breakfasts it was 25°F (-4°C) but on recent afternoons the thermometer showed 75°F (24°C) and now frogs are calling all night long. On one of our frosty mornings earlier this week a White-throated Sparrow, ZONOTRICHIA ALBICOLLIS, took up a perch beside my trailer as I built my campfire and for me his demeanor and fluffed-out feathers reflected the morning's hunkering-down-but-satisfied feeling, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090209zn.jpg.

White-throated Sparrows are strictly winter visitors here, during summers occupying mainly the forested zones of eastern and central Canada and the adjacent US. I'll bet that many of you in the US currently have little flocks of this sparrow gleaning seeds beneath your bird feeders.

As spring comes closer and birds begin taking on brighter colors, those of you with backyard White- throated Sparrows might want to familiarize yourselves with the species' "white-striped morph" and "tan-striped morph" situation. A "morph" is a distinct form of a single species, and among White-throated Sparrows the two morphs are both common, though they can be hard to distinguish when the species is in its dull winter plumage. I think but am not sure that my fluffed-out bird above is a white-striped morph. Sunday morning right before the sun came up some White-throated Sparrows and Dark-eyed Juncos were foraging around my campfire area and possibly the picture I took with a flash shows a "tan-striped" at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090209zo.jpg.

Notice the "tan-striped's" slightly tan eye-stripe and less pronounced yellow spot before the eye. If someone has more experience distinguishing these morphs let me know because I'd like to get this straight.

An interesting feature about the morphs is that “white-striped” females are more aggressive than tan- striped ones, and thus are preferred by males of both forms. "Tan-striped” males seem to be preferred as partners by females of both morphs however, so this leaves “white-striped” males and “tan-striped” females to pair with each other. The result in the whole population is that about 96% of all pairings are mixed-morph ones.

You can see the two morphs as well as its "first winter plumage," and read more about the morph situation (under "Cool Facts") at Cornell University's page here.

*****

A DOWNY WOODPECKER BEING CURIOUS
As I hiked through the woods noisily crunching dry leaves I heard a sharp PIK! then a little black and white woodpecker glided onto a young tree's trunk not 15 feet away. Usually birds scatter during such walks but this one clearly didn't mind being seen close up and even seemed a little curious about me. Who knows what was on that bird's mind? Whatever the deal was, I managed to get a decent picture, which you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090209dw.jpg.

Throughout most of forested North America birders would instantly know that this is either the Downy or the Hairy Woodpeckers. The two closely related species are very similar, differing most conspicuously in size and relative lengths of bill, but these features can be hard to diagnose in the field.

If the size of what I'm seeing isn't clear, usually a good feature is that the Downy's white outer tail feathers bear conspicuous black spots while the Hairy's doesn't. Well, I was pretty certain that the bird I photographed was small enough to be a Downy, but you can see that those black spots on the outer tail feathers were missing. Still, spots or not, I'm calling what I photographed is an adult female Downy, PICOIDES PUBESCENS. Interestingly, birds in eastern North America bear white spots on the upper wing area while western birds just have spots on the lower wing.

Cornell University provides a whole, well illustrated page helping us distinguish Downys from Hairys, here

*****

A BEAVER LODGE, HIGH & DRY
The other day in a swamp along the Mississippi River on the Louisiana side I visited the beaver lodge shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090209bv.jpg.

The lodge had been built atop a rise when the Mississippi's water was high, and now that the water is low you can see entrances to the lodge below the pile of sticks. The biggest entrance is in the photo's center, at the bottom. To the left of that entrance is another smaller one. The lodge had about eight entrances, most of them mere tunnels, unlike the big one in the center of the photo, which was more like a deep trench. I was told that when the lodge was built water reached the lodge's base, and the entrance holes were all underwater.

You can see a beaver dam, a diagram of a beaver tunnel, an excellent video of beavers working, and read a lot more about them at http://animals.howstuffworks.com/mammals/beaver-dam.htm.

*****

RED MAPLES FLOWERING
Especially with sunlight backlighting them one of the most gorgeous signs of spring in the woods right now is the flowering Red Maples, ACER RUBRUM, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090209ac.jpg.

Those are male flowers, for maple flowers are "polygamodioecious," which means that individual trees are polygamous but chiefly dioecious -- which means that trees can bear only male or only female flowers OR both male and female flowers can reside on the same tree, BUT the most common condition is for trees to have only all male OR all female flowers. It's hard to think of a word whose definition incorporates more ors or buts than "polygamodioecious."

If you're in a part of the world where lots of Red Maples line the streets as they do in much of the small-town eastern US, it's fun to look for this "polygamodioeciousness" -- some trees all male, some all female, but sometimes you see a tree that's mostly one way but with a branch or two of the opposite sex.

In the photo you see about half a dozen male flowers emerging from a recently opened flower bud on a leafless twig. The black, oval items at the ends of slender, white threadlike things are pollen producing anthers dangling on their filaments. The red, deeply lobed, cup-shaped structures are red calyxes, the darker, thicker sepals alternating with paler, more slender petals. If you need to review terms like sepals and calyxes, check out my flower-interpretation page at http://www.backyardnature.net/fl_stand.htm.

Six kinds of maples -- six species of the genus Acer - - are listed for Mississippi: the Red, Silver, Sugar, Southern Sugar and Chalk Maples, plus the Boxelder, which also is a maple. Different varieties of the Red Maple are recognized. The picture's flowers can be recognized as belonging to a Red Maple because: the stems are not green like a Boxelder's; the flowers are emerging well before the leaves, unlike those of Sugar, Southern Sugar and Chalk Maples, and; the flowers bear petals, unlike Silver Maple flowers.

*****

CHICKWEED FLOWERING
Last week I reported that the most conspicuously flowering plant in Karen's backyard was the Ivy-leaved Speedwell. Farther north in most suburban-type places I suspect that that honor will be claimed by the Common Chickweed, STELLARIA MEDIA, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090209ch.jpg.

Despite Common Chickweed being an invasive from Eurasia I'm especially fond of the species because of memories from my young-naturalist days back in Kentucky. In February or March, after a long winter aching to return to the flower-studying business, this modest little plant usually was the season's first offering. Typically flowering plants would show up at the base of buildings' south-facing walls and on sunny but probably still-cold days I'd go sit in the grass there, ceremoniously bring out my dog-eared Gray's Manual of Botany and, even though I already knew what it was, savor every dichotomy in the Manual's technical identification keys.

"Fruit a 1-seeded utricle" or "Fruit a several-many- seeded capsule," the key would ask. "Many-seeded capsule" I'd whisper to myself, and advance to the next question, marveling at how pretty and delicate a "many-seeded capsule" was glistening in brilliant winter sunlight.

At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090209ci.jpg you can see a close-up of a Common Chickweed flower about the width of a BB. The flower's design is very simple with the spherical, green ovary nestled in the blossom's center, topped by a white, Y-shaped style. Little stamens arise between white petals, the stamens' tiny, dark, oval, pollen-producing anthers barely visible atop their greenish filaments, and all this is subtended by the green, star-shaped calyx. This flower comes pretty close to the super-simple, super-average "Standard Blossom" used to teach flower anatomy at http://www.backyardnature.net/fl_stand.htm.

However, there's one spectacular difference: The blossom's five white petals are all so deeply cut down their middles that they're V-shaped. At first you think the flower bears ten petals but if you look closely you can see that each of the FIVE petals is deeply cut from the top, with each lobe barely connected at the base.

Deeply cut petals are typical features of the chickweed's family, the Caryophyllaceae, usually known as the Pink Family. In fact, the "Pink" in the family name instead of referring to a color refers to the root word in "pinking shears." Members of the Pink Family often have "pinked," or deeply cut, petals.

The old herbals speak of the Common Chickweed as having a lot of medicinal uses. It's "tonic, diuretic, demulcent, expectorant, and mildly laxative." If you have a cold you might brew up a greenish tea of it, making sure you're not picking any doused with pesticides or auto exhausts. Also it's reported to be good for skin problems. I find chickweed tea to be tolerable, at least if served hot. I've drunk a good bit of it without seeing any affects, good or bad, but I'm seldom sick so I'm not a good tester for it.

*****

SWEET OLIVE FLOWERING
Around Karen's house the most conspicuously flowering horticultural plant is the small tree the Sweet Olive, sometimes called Fragrant Olive, Tea Olive, Sweet Osmanthus and other names. It's OSMANTHUS FRAGRANS, a member of the Olive Family, the Oleaceae. You can see its flowers and evergreen leaves -- two just emerging -- at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090209so.jpg.

At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090209sp.jpg you see a close-up of a single pea-size flower showing features typical of the Olive Family: The corolla with four lobes (those in the picture turning brown in spots, apparently from frostbite), and; just two stamens. The brown, somewhat V-shaped items are the stamens' anthers. Each anther consists of two pollen- discharging "bags," or locules, separated by a broad- based connective.

The wonderful thing about getting close enough to take the last picture is that Sweet Olive flowers are as intensely, sweetly fragrant as any flower I know. I can't imagine blossoms being perfumier. In fact, lately I've been participating in the ancient Chinese practice of adding Sweet Olive flowers to my morning teas, creating the deliciously scented tea the Chinese call guì hua chá, meaning "cinnamon flower" or "cassia flower." The Chinese also make scented jams and sweetcakes with the blossoms.

It makes sense that the Chinese would know all these nifty uses for Sweet Olive because the species originally is from China's Himalaya region and Japan.

In the US Southeast, the Deep South, we have a "Wild Sweet Olive," also called Devilwood, Osmanthus americanus, which looks a lot like Sweet Olive. However, O. americanus's corolla lobes are much shorter and wider than those of the Sweet Olive.

*****

EATING CURLY DOCK
The other day on the grassy slopes of a big levee next to the Mississippi River I came across several plants consisting of dense tufts or rosettes of foot-long, rabbit-ear-shaped, curly-margined leaves, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090209dk.jpg.

Immediately I set to work getting what's pictured at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090209dl.jpg.

The plant often is called Curly or Yellow Dock. It's RUMEX CRISPUS, a well-established weed throughout most of North America, originally from Europe, and a member of the Buckwheat Family, the Polygonaceae.

I picked the leaves because lately I've developed a powerful hankering for greens, and Curly Dock's leaves cook up a lot like spinach, and even have a similar taste and texture. Back in Kentucky my grandparents on both sides of the family considered dock-gathering an early-spring tradition as important as Sassafras-root digging, for over the winter they developed a hunger for cooked greens just like I have. In Mexico I had all the bananas and oranges I could eat, but that didn't quieten my appetite for greens.

Fixing dock greens is very easy. Just put them in a pot with a little water in the bottom and cook them over your campfire a few minutes until they're soggy. I pour off the water, even press extra water out, then spritz the greens with vinegar. Eaten with hot cornbread and maybe toped with fresh onion, it's awfully good, and feeds the hunger in you that's beyond that for mere bulk and taste. The healthy body knows what nutrients it needs, and hungers for them whether the stomach is full or not.

Several dock species exist. Curly Dock is distinguished by its curly leaf margins, its long leaf petioles, and the reddish spots developing as the leaves age.

*****

MYSTERY PICTURE
What's http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090209cg.jpg showing?

Those are water droplets suspended benath a clear- plastic sheet, viewed from above. It's the plastic sheet over my coldframe. It's a lot warmer inside the coldframe than outside, so when chilly ambient air touches the plastic it cools it, then inside the coldframe when warm, humid air touches the cool plastic, condensation occurs and water droplets form.

Especially interesting is the brown-rimmed droplet at the upper, right. Notice the brown mass in the droplet's center. These are mineral particles settled to the droplet's bottom.

This reminds us that at microscopic and near-microscopic levels the laws of physics cause situations that seem bizarre to us living at our size- range. One would think that the mineral particles would fall out the bottom of the droplet, but instead they pool there, kept inside by the droplet's surface tension.

Surface tension occurs because molecules at the surface don't have other like molecules on all sides of them, so they create stronger bonds with those directly associated with them on the surface. This forms a surface film making it harder for objects like mineral particles to pass through the surface.

*****

A NEW COLDFRAME
Speaking of my new coldframe, you can see it at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090209cf.jpg.

Actually it looks more complicated than it is, for I built it inside one of Karen's old raised beds with a watering system around it. The coldframe uses none of that infrastructure. The coldframe itself is no more than a plastic sheet held up by planks atop cinderblocks, with the sheet held down at the edges by boards. I built the coldframe there hoping the raised beds and watering pipes would deter marauding deer and dogs.

At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090209ce.jpg you can see what's inside the coldframe as of yesterday, Sunday. Those are mustard greens seedlings which occupy half of the coldframe, with lettuce taking up the other half. The seedlings will be thinned as they grow; I begin eating the thinnings long before individual plants get large enough to be picked by themselves.

All this growth comes after only about ten days, and some of those days were pretty chilly. I think that most people underestimate both what a powerful phenomenon the greenhouse effect is and how complicated a coldframe needs to be.

In fact, one of my most successful coldframes was nothing but a sheet of plastic held up by a fallen tree-limb dragged over tilled and sowed soil, the sheet held down around the edges by handfuls of dirt. This simple structure provided wonderful crops of lettuce and greens long before anyone in the area was thinking of sowing anything in their regular gardens.

If I hadn't found an unused sheet of plastic, I'd have built a coldframe with some old windows that were lying around. A typical old-window coldframe is shown at http://www.doityourself.com/stry/oldwindowuses.

*****

SONGS WITHOUT WORDS
Last Tuesday, February 3rd, was not only my mother's birthday but also that of composer Felix Mendelssohn. To commemorate the day Public Radio highlighted Mendelssohn's music, and so it was that during my campfire breakfast I found myself listening to one of his most famous works, a piano piece called Lieder ohne Worte, or Songs without Words. Mendelssohn believed that music conveys feelings and sentiments more effectively than words, and here was his proof.

Morning sunlight dazzlingly slanted through the pines illuminating sharp, silvery ice crystals inside my water jugs. Great white clouds of steam billowed from my campfire stew and from inside me when I exhaled. A titmouse peter-peter-petered his spring song while crows cawed in the distance, all mingling seamlessly with "Songs without Words."

And I thought: All the world is a song without words. This blossoming of spring, this oncoming greening of the land, this gradual warming into summer, this bringing of myself into a whole new year, all is a song with innumerable tones, more intermingled melodies than I can discover, and more meaning than I can comprehend. And it is all expressed much more elegantly in terms of this ice, this fire, these birds, this stew and steam, than can be articulated in words.

Long I sat, well until after the music had stopped, the fragrance of a warming frosty morning, the sound of breezes stirring among cold-crisp pine needles, vagrant smoke from my dying campfire circling around a squirrel in an oak tree.

All songs, all songs, and I wondered what the use was to get up from my rocking chair and return to that world just beyond the heat of my campfire so fixated on words and, worse than words, numbers. Long I sat, feeling songs surging around me calling forth other songs from far away and from other times and dimensions.

But, in the end, I did get up and simply walk out of the song and all its evocations and echoes.

For, the effects of a song are one thing, and a song itself is quite another.

In my rocking chair I had been affected by songs without words. Now by walking into my own life -- of embarking into that morning of chainsawing firewood and planting narcissus bulbs for Karen, and later computering the whole day -- I was singing a wordless song of myself.

And by choosing what I did and how I did it, I was touching each of my moment-tones with color, texturing the composition I made of myself with what I did and how, and wherever the day ended there would end my own day's song without words.

If your computer eats MP3 audio files you can hear some of Mendelssohn's Songs without Words at http://www.emusic.com/album/10826/10826505.html.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim

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