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

March 30,  2009

A BROAD-BANDED WATER SNAKE SUNNING
Karen is an exceptional snake spotter so the other day when I came in from hiking down a levee in St. Catharine NWR I wasn't surprised that she had a pretty one waiting for me, stretched out atop a windrowed heap of duckweed at the water's edge as seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090330ws.jpg.

In that picture note the bulge at mid body, which probably is a frog meal being digested. The snake is a Broad-banded Water Snake, NERODIA FASCIATA CONFLUENS, whose favorite foods are listed as frogs, tadpoles and fish, in that order. This individual was a small one, about two feet long. A head close-up is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090330wt.jpg.

The field guide says that this species is often killed by people thinking it's a venomous Cottonmouth, but you can see in the above picture that the snake's pupil is round, while in all pit-vipers (Cottonmouths, rattlesnakes, copperheads... ) the pupil is elliptic, or "cat-eyed," plus there's no pit between the eye and nostril, which all pit-vipers have.

The individual in the picture was very accommodating, staying still as we took pictures. When I got too close, like lightning he dove into the duckweed carpet completely disappearing, but quickly poked his head up again at the carpet's edge. One reason he may have afforded such a close look is that in Nature such stark banding often is interpreted as warning patterning, as among bees, plus the species itself has a reputation for very vigorously defending itself if fooled with, so it might "want" a distinctive appearance.

This snake's taxonomy has shifted a lot during recent years. Currently the species N. fasciata is regarded as the "Southern Water Snake" but each of its three subspecies, of which our ssp. confluens is one, bears its own English Name, N.f. confluens's being "Broad- banded Water Snake." Some experts lump subspecies of N. clarkii here, which also have their own names.

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BLACK VULTURES & A NEWBORN CALF
Returning from the Refuge we passed a pasture where a certain spot was thick with perching Black Vultures. "I bet a cow has just had a baby," Karen said. When we got closer, the baby calf, still wet, lay on the ground beside the mother, vultures surrounding them so closely that from time to time the mother swung her head at them. You can see the whole situation at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090330vu.jpg.

Before I said a word Karen had stopped the car, run up to the fence with some rocks scooped from along the highway and with her first throw connected with a vulture's rear end so soundly that I could hear the hollow thud. Last year Karen had found a newborn colt in the same circumstances and gone into the pasture to personally shoo the vultures away until the colt could stand.

Karen isn't the only one knowing that Black Vultures will attack newborn critters and maim or even kill them. Take a look at the online article at http://www.countryworldnews.com/news/SCTX/2005/sc0512vultures.php.

The several websites I consulted on the matter all agreed that in North America only Black Vultures, Coragyps atratus, mostly of the US Southeast and southward, attack newborn livestock. Turkey Vultures, Cathartes aura, the red-headed ones who nest throughout the US and southern Canada, do not attack newborns.

Karen scattered the 30 or so vultures in the area. Most of them circled awhile before drifting southward. The mother kept nudging the calf to stand up but she seemed nervous about our presence. We figured the crisis was over and we didn't want to distract the mother from her job anymore, so we left, confident that with the calf's growing activity the danger has passed.

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7,605 GREEN-WINGED TEAL
An informal message board beside the door at St. Catharine NWR's office invites visitors to list their wildlife observations. You may enjoy seeing the impressive list of mostly waterfowl and shorebirds someone saw there a few weeks ago. The list includes 7,605 Green-winged Teal, 400 White-fronted Geese and a Golden Eagle. Part of the board is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090330bb.jpg.

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STATE OF THE BIRDS WEBSITE
Jarvis in North Carolina tells me about the new State of the Birds site at http://www.stateofthebirds.org/.

There you can find plenty of hard-hitting, to-the- point information such as: "Of 310 forest-breeding birds nationwide, 22% are species of conservation concern, including 11 federally listed as endangered or threatened. Roughly one-third of all forest-breeding species have declined."

You can download this year's full report in PDF at http://www.stateofthebirds.org/pdf_files/State_of_the_Birds_2009.pdf.

*****

MATING SATYRS IN THE GRASS
Satyrs are usually thought of as male woodland creatures with pointed ears, the legs and short horns of a goat, and a fondness for unrestrained revelry. As such, the above title can evoke some provocative mental images, probably unlike the mating satyrs shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090330sy.jpg.

As you can see, satyrs also are butterflies of the family Satyridae, distinguished by their brown wings ornamented with eyelike spots. The species in the picture, abundant in Karen's yard, is the Carolina Satyr, HERMEUPTYCHIA SOSYBIUS.

The Audubon field guide presents several pages of images of satyr butterfly species who are all brown with eyelike spots. Other species display larger and smaller spots alternating along the margins like ours but the larger spots, the "eyes," occupy different positions among the smaller spots. Determining the species is mostly a matter of noting where the big spots lie relative to the small spots, and it's interesting to reflect on these tiny-brained creatures paying such attention to something like relative eye-spot positions.

Don't confuse satyrs with hairstreaks and blues, which are other kinds of small butterflies. Hairstreaks and blues are similar-looking, common, widely distributed butterfly types but they don't bear round spots exactly like satyrs.

Carolina Satyrs are abundant in the US Southeast and extend deep into Mexico. You can read a lot about the species and see its distribution map at http://www.butterfliesandmoths.org/species?l=1847.

Adult Carolina Satyrs eat sap and rotting fruit, while its caterpillars feed on various grasses.

*****

ROVING TIGER BEETLES
On warm, sunny days down in the bayou you're likely to see a very distinctive, memorable beetle. About half an inch long, what's striking is its shining, metallic green color and the way it zooms out of nowhere, lands on an unvegetated sandbar, then rushes around on long legs looking for prey. Its movements are so fast and aggressive that it gives the impression of being a maniacal little hunting machine. One is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090330tb.jpg.

It seems that such a distinctive looking creature would be easy to identify but I'm only fairly certain that it's the Six-spotted Tiger Beetle, CICINDELA SEXGUTTATA. You can see that my individual has no spots, and that's why I'm uncertain, though I read that unspotted ones have been seen. Nearly 2,000 species of tiger beetles are recognized worldwide, with 120 in North America, so ours might be another species.

Whatever the species, beetles of the genus Cicindela are known as tiger beetles, and tiger beetles are famous for their hunting prowess. They eat other beetles, flies, caterpillars, ants, grasshoppers, spiders and other invertebrates, but they're also fed upon by spiders, robber flies, dragonflies, toads, lizards, birds, and more. In other words, they're fully engaged members of the community.

As a group, tiger beetle anatomy is distinguished by the slender area between the head and wings -- the "narrow pronotum."

*****

EASTERN LEAF-FOOTED BUG
In the abandoned orchard area several thistles are flowering. Usually you can find crawling around the flowers of most of the plants the bug shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090330lf.jpg.

That's the Eastern Leaf-footed Bug, LEPTOGLOSSUS PHYLLOPUS. Other bugs, especially "stink bugs," share the species' general shape and large size, about 3/4- inch long, but only leaf-footed bugs possess the fanlike wings on the hindlegs' tibias. Among several species of leaf-footed bugs, only the Eastern Leaf-footed wears such a white bar across the back.

And thistles are considered the Eastern Leaf-footed Bug's prime natural host plant. However, the species has proven flexible enough to move onto many human-cultivated plants where sometimes it causes lots of damage -- on fruit and seeds of cotton, peaches, and tomatoes, beans, black-eyed peas, and sorghum, stems and tender leaves of plants such as potatoes, and more.

Often the wingless immature or nymphal stages are more noticeable than the adults are now. You may recognize the long-snouted, black and orange nymph shown at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:LeptoglossusPhyllopus-nymph.jpg.

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BULL THISTLES
The thistles spoken of above as infested with leaf- footed bugs is the Bull Thistle, also called Purple Thistle, CIRSIUM HORRIDULUM. You can see one at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090330th.jpg.

That specimen is about knee high but it's still growing. The purplish thing at its top is a flower head comprising maybe 50 individual flowers, for thistles are members of the Composite Family, and that's a composite flower structure.

The plant in the picture is able to be so large and robust this early in the season because Bull Thistles are biennials. During their first year they remain a low-lying cluster of radiating, stemless leaves -- a rosette -- storing photosynthesized energy in a big taproot. When spring of the following year arrives they "bolt," drawing energy from their taproot to fuel a spurt of growth that no annual depending solely on currently photosynthesized energy can match.

The humongous number of spines on that plant are hard and sharp. Each morning when I pass among the plants to dig the daily garlic for my breakfast stew, I walk gingerly indeed. Of course a grazing cow getting a tongue wrapped around a Bull Thistle leaf is in a mess. Note the species name, horridulum.

Unlike most pasture and roadside weeds, this species is native American, originally growing in meadows, woods borders and shores along the Coastal Plain. They're very common around here, each plant producing hundreds of windborne seeds, so the species spreads rapidly, despite some people chopping down every one they see.

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DOGWOODS FLOWERING
Redbuds faded last week but the Flowering Dogwoods, CORNUS FLORIDA, reached their peak this week -- just in time to be battered by nightly storms, sometimes with hail. You can see some dogwood "flowers" at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090330dw.jpg.

The word "flowers" sets within quotation marks because the pretty, white things in the above picture are CLUSTERS of flowers, not flowers themselves. Each cluster's four or five "petals" aren't petals, but rather bracts, or leaves modified to look like petals. The actual dogwood flowers are the BB-size objects clustered in the white-objects' centers, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090330dx.jpg.

There you can pick out the actual corollas, which are yellowish with four curved-back lobes. Between each pair of lobes a male stamen arises. In the picture, behind the two open, yellow flowers, other flowers already have been pollinated and have lost their corollas, leaving only green, stigma-topped, stick- like styles rising from female ovaries situated below their green, crown-like calyxes, each calyx with four blunt sepals. Later the ovaries will develop into the red fruits that will adorn branches so prettily next winter. You'll remember that a dogwood's fruits are clustered, and that's because at this time of year the flowers are clustered as shown in the picture.

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RED MULBERRIES FLOWERING
At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090330mm.jpg you see leaves and long flower clusters, or aments, of our native, wild-growing Red Mulberry, MORUS RUBRA. You also see why Karen complains that this tree near her house never produces mulberries, despite each year at this time being full of flowers. All the flowers are male. They're male because the matchstick-like things on the dangling aments are classic male stamens consisting of slender white filaments atop of which baglike anthers are opening, releasing grainy pollen.

Red Mulberry trees don't always come in strictly male or female trees, however. Sometimes you can find both male and female flowers on the same tree, as with Red Maples.

It's too bad Karen's mulberries are male, for mulberry fruits produced around here are the best tasting I've ever encountered. I've often wondered if the area's previous occupants, the Natchez Indians, might not have developed an especially tasty mulberry race that later went wild, for it's know that the Natchez had a great regard for mulberries. In the Natchez Indians' annual cycle of 13 months the sixth month was "Mulberry Month," between "Peach Month" and "Great Corn Month." You can see all the Natchez's months at http://www.native-languages.org/natchez-months.htm.

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RAMPANT CHEROKEE ROSES
This has been the week when the forest turned dark green. Redbuds are past but dogwoods were at their peak and the azaleas were simply intoxicating with their colors. Northern Parulas, Hooded Warblers and White-eyed and Yellow-throated Vireos are calling. Spring is rampaging.

A plant rampantly in full bloom now is the Cherokee Rose, ROSA LAEVIGATA, seen along highways, around older homes and out in the woods climbing thirty feet and more into trees, then cascading down with shiny, evergreen leaves and white roses over three inches across. See a little one down in the bayou at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090330cr.jpg.

The vine in that picture clambering over a decaying tree trunk fallen across the bayou couldn't seem more like a natural part of the vegetation, right? The funny thing is -- even though the first Cherokee Roses known to science were collected here and described as American plants -- the species is native to China and Japan. It was brought to the US Southeast so early in history that it has settled in like a native.

At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090330cs.jpg you see inside a Cherokee Rose blossom -- male, yellow stamens surrounding a much paler, cauliflower-like thing in the center. The cauliflower-thing becomes more understandable when you see the cross section at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090330ct.jpg.

In recent newsletters we've referred to the cuplike hypanthium typical of many Rose Family blossoms. Calyx sepals, corolla petals and male stamens arise from the lip of the cuplike hypanthium, while the female pistil or pistils nestle in the hypanthium's bottom.

Remember that plums are members of the Rose Family and we've seen that their flowers also have hypanthia. A huge difference between a plum flower and rose flower, however, is that plum flowers have just one pistil (comprising the stigma, style and ovary) while inside the hypanthium of each rose flower several pistils arise. In the above picture you can see several oval ovaries at the hypanthium's bottom. Atop each ovary a silvery, threadlike style grows upward, passes through a constriction where the hypanthium's rim is almost closed, and then each style's terminal stigma is packed with other stigmas at the opening, together looking like a stopper or a little cauliflower. Rose blossom anatomy is described in more detail on my rose page at http://www.backyardnature.net/fl_roses.htm.

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MAYAPPLES FLOWERING
Any wildflower book featuring the best known and prettiest of North American wildflowers will include the Mayapple, PODOPHYLLUM PELTATUM, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090330po.jpg.

Mayapples also are among the easiest to identify of all wildflowers, with their white, waxy-petaled, single, two-inch broad flowers nodding from the branching points of Y-shaped stems.

At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090330pp.jpg a close-up of a flower shows the stamens' banana-like, yellow anthers releasing pollen, the stamen number being twice that of the number of petals. Inside the anther cluster you see the female green ovary topped with a cauliflower-like stigma, the stigma being where pollen grains germinate. A few weeks from now the ovary will have matured into a pleasant tasting yellow fruit, but usually animals eat them before they're ripe enough to entice humans.

Another name for Mayapples is Mandrake, and with a name like that you might expect it to have some medicinal uses. When I was hermiting near here, each spring researchers from Ol' Miss interested in Mayapple's medicinal value came to study a population near my camp. Especially the root contains powerful chemicals that can give you dermatitis if you get root juice on you. One chemical in Mayapple root, podophyllin, is much studied as a cancer medicine because it interferes with cell division.

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HORNWORTS DOWN IN THE BAYOU
On a near-vertical clay wall down in the bayou among the usual mosses and ferns I spotted an area about the size of my hand looking like a dense tuft of freshly sprouted grass a couple inches high... whose blade tops had been singed black by fire. In a not-so-pretty but interesting photo you can see what I saw at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090330ho.jpg.

When I followed the "singed" sprouts to their bases, it was clear what I had. You can see new "sprouts" emerging from green blades about half an inch across at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090330hp.jpg.

These were hornworts. The "sprouts" were reproductive structures and the blackness was made by masses of black spores being released into the wind. Best I can determine, the hornwort species is ANTHOCEROS PUNCTATUS, of worldwide distribution, but not common. It's been a long time since I saw this species, and that was on a volcano in Mexico.

Hornworts are bryophytes. The three kinds of bryophytes are mosses, liverworts and hornworts. As such they are very primitive, spore-producing plants, on the Tree of Life at the very base of the branch holding land plants. In other words, during Earth's evolutionary history, bryophytes were THE first plants to successfully move onto land. As an article in the American Journal of Botany puts it, "These small, inconspicuous plants have existed for several hundreds of millions of years and have played a prominent role in shaping atmospheric and edaphic change and the subsequent evolution of all forms of plant life on land." That long, technical article is online at http://www.amjbot.org/cgi/content/full/91/10/1557.

Well, this was a great find and the pictures placed here are bound to make a specialist somewhere, someday, very happy to see. Enjoy, specialist, and use the pictures as you wish.

*****

WHITE CLOVER
Along roads, in pastures and in people's yards, White Clover, TRIFOLIUM REPENS, produces homey-feeling, diffuse, white smudges in green grass, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090330wc.jpg.

Of course the little white balls are clusters or heads of flowers, a close-up of a single head being shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090330wd.jpg.

In that picture notice how the upper flowers bend upward and are pure white while lower flowers nod downward and are turning pinkish. This is to help pollinators. The upper, brighter and therefore more conspicuous blossoms need pollination while the drooping flowers, their red hue looking dark in the bees' infrared-seeing eyes, are less noticeable.

Clovers are members of the big Bean Family and clover flowers are "papilionaceous" like the flowers of most Bean Family members. By "papilionaceous" is meant that they are "butterfly-like," the five petals configured in a special way, usually with the flaring "standard" held above, two "wings" on each side, and the two lower petals joined along their common margins into a scoop-like "keel." There's more about papilionaceous flowers at http://www.backyardnature.net/fl_beans.htm.

There are lots of clover species -- about 300 in the genus Trifolium. Several, such as the Buffalo-Clovers, are native American, but most clovers seen in pastures and along roads have been introduced from Eurasia. To be sure you have a White Clover and not a look-alike species, such as the white-flowered Alsike Clover, notice that White Clover's flower heads arise on long stems, or peduncles, attached to stems creeping closely atop the ground, instead of rising vertically or just leaning onto other vegetation. Also the calyx's sepals are shorter than the calyx tube below the sepals, as you can see in the head picture.

This is one invasive species, originally from Eurasia and northern Africa, that I'm glad made it to the Americas. Everyone knows how grazing animals thrive eating it, how it supplies honeybees with copious nectar, and how its roots, equipped with mycorrhiza-bearing nodules, fix nitrogen, thus enriching the soil and contributing fertilizer to surrounding organisms. White Clover is good citizen, though it's been known to out-compete rarer plants, especially in fertile soils.

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STANDING UP FOR CLOVER
When I took the clover pictures for the above section the sun was shining, the odor of crushed herbage on a warm, moist spring day blossomed around me, soft grass and clover tickled my feet, and the white, breeze-jiggled clover heads in their green ocean were simply beautiful. I just had to lie a spell in the clover letting all my senses be massaged as by a loving friend.

Yet, also last weekend was the very weekend in the Natchez area when most people mowed their lawns for the first time this year. Saturday the whole landscape vibrated with lawnmower sounds and... one lawn after another graced with beautiful sprays of bee- and butterfly-visited White Clover was reduced to manicured, monoculture, sterile grass lawns.

Of course I understand the cultural imperative behind mowed lawns. If you don't keep your lawn mowed, neighbors think you're lazy. Also, many people -- most in this middle-American culture -- actually believe that mowed, monoculture lawns are pretty.

Referring to the kinds of oversized lawns so typical around here, let it be known that at least in the eyes of this one person, me, large, mowed lawns around houses are ugly and profane. Again, I'm referring to large lawns, not lawn spaces immediately around a house needed for air circulation, as a fire barrier, keeping down mosquitoes, or as a romping space for kids and pets.

Excessively large lawns are cultural relicts of an outdated headset in which Nature is regarded as the enemy to be dominated and controlled. By occupying space that could be left wooded or allowed to revert to woods, or converted to garden, large lawns document people's gross insensitivity and irreverence toward Life on Earth. Large lawns maintained with fertilizers and pesticides are malignant, running sores in an ecosystem trying to support us. Because large lawns gather heat where a forest or garden could cool, and mowers spew noxious clouds of carbon dioxide and particulate matter where growing trees and gardens could convert carbon dioxide to life-giving oxygen and clean the air, in these days when educated people recognize the dangers of global warming and the need for clean air, large lawns are shameful symbols of intellectual laziness, apathy and wrongheadedness.

The same is to be said of those who design and build highways with large, grassy medians separating lanes, and developers who automatically scalp areas before building homes.

Someday people will rejoice when clover, dandelions, oxalis, chickweed, henbit, blue violets and all the rest migrate into small grassy spaces around their homes. Someday these plants when they come into our yards will be universally welcomed not only for their blossoms' cheerful colors and sweet scents, but also for how they rehabilitate and enrich the soil.

Someday a critical mass of people will finally get the points that -- especially in our own living spaces -- diversity is sacred; that the Web of Life is beautiful, and; that no Community of Living Things should ever be mindlessly, unfeelingly destroyed just because "everyone else is doing it" or because of an unconscionably outdated esthetic sense.

Long live clover in shaggy spring lawns!

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim

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