JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER
Issued from the Siskiyou Mountains west of
Grants Pass, Oregon, USA

April 26, 2009

RUFOUS HUMMINGBIRD FEISTINESS
My friends hang hummingbird feeders just outside their picture windows so when I arrived I asked which species occur here. "Mainly Anna's, who stay through the winter," they replied, "but during the warm months we also get a lot of Rufous Hummingbirds and occasionally a Calliope."

The hummers visiting those feeders are not at all shy. When a refilled feeder is being replaced a bird might start feeding before it's even hung. While I was photographing them it was nothing to have six or more buzzing within two or three feet of me. They're so fast, however, even having them so close I couldn't confirm which species they were. You can see a male with his red throat and invisible wings at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090426h3.jpg.

A female or immature is shown hovering at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090426h4.jpg.

Though I'd expected most if not all the birds in the 30 or so pictures I snapped that morning to be Anna's, every one turned out to be a Rufous Hummingbird, SELASPHORUS RUFUS. Where were the Anna's?

The hummingbirds visiting my friends' feeders throughout the winter are certainly Anna's, for other species possible for here all overwinter in Mexico. Also my friends say that Anna's had been visiting that morning before I got there. Maybe the Rufouses are less shy about being around humans? Or maybe that morning they were simply dominating the feeder, for Rufous Hummingbirds are a vigorous, aggressive species.

At http://www.hummingbirds.net/rufous.html I read that "This bird outflies all other species, and usually gets its way at feeders at the expense of slower, less-maneuverable hummers... The Rufous has the longest migration route of all US hummingbirds."

Also, the species is expanding its distribution greatly. My 1966-copyrighted field guide shows Rufouses restricted to the far west, mostly the US Pacific Northwest and coastal Canada and southern Alaska. The above website says that nowadays it's being "Observed in every state and province except Hawaii, Prince Edward Island, and Quebec. There was even one very unusual report from extreme eastern Siberia! The Rufous is the most widely-distributed hummingbird in North America."

The East's Ruby-throated Hummingbirds wear none of the rusty-red or "rufous" color seen on both sexes of the Rufous. If you're in North America and someday you see a hummingbird species other than what your field guide says ought to be in your area, check whether the bird has a lot of rusty-red feathers, for there's a good chance a Rufous Hummingbird will eventually move into your neighborhood!

*****

WIDE-EYED SQUIRREL
We have squirrels here looking a lot like the East's gray squirrels, but they strike me as a bit larger, more longer-limbed, and a good bit less trustful than those. You can see one on a pine limb very excited about my presence, glaring at me wide-eyed at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090426sq.jpg.

That's a Western Gray Squirrel, SCIURUS GRISEUS. Despite the Eastern and Western species being so similar, there are important differences between them. For one thing, the Eastern species has proven so adaptive to human-altered environments that it often thrives in parks and residential woodlots wherever in the temperate zone it's introduced into. Eastern Gray Squirrels are spreading throughout Europe and beyond, and even here.

Our Western Gray Squirrel is more retiring and more strictly arboreal than the Eastern species. In fact, many people in this area worry that the introduced Eastern species is displacing the native Western one. One advantage the Easterners may have is that Western Gray Squirrels produce just one litter a year while the Eastern produces two. During the 1920s Western Grays were one of the most abundant mammals in the Northwest, but during the 1930s an epidemic of mange caused a tremendous die-off.

*****

STATE MAMMAL LISTS
While browsing for information on Oregon's squirrels I came across the list of Oregon Mammals presented at http://www.mammalsociety.org/statelists/ormammals.html.

On that page, at the top, left, there's a link to lists for about half of the US's other states. You may be surprised to see how many mammals your state or a nearby one has, and what percentage of them are bats and rodents.

*****

BASKING FENCE LIZARDS
On warm, sunny days in certain open, rocky areas every few steps you hear rustling leaves and you spot a Western Fence Lizard, SCELOPORUS OCCIDENTALIS, scurrying to safety. You can see one basking on a rock at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090426fl.jpg.

Something not showing in that picture is the blue throat patches. Occasionally the individual on the rock would do a quick pushup revealing a flash of blue, either hoping to attract a female or else to drive off male intruders.

My friend Anita remembers these lizards from her childhood: "Flip them over and tickle their bellies and they just lie there like a big bullfrog! They seem to like it!"

In recent months we've seen lizards of the genus Sceloporus pretty often -- the Rosebellied and Spiny Lizards in Chiapas, the Mountain Spiny and Mesquite Lizards in Querétaro, the Yucatan Spiny Lizard in Yucatán, and the Eastern Fence Lizard in Mississippi. This latest Sceloporus species has the same general shape as the others, the same blue throat blotches and short snout. I've had a couple of lizard experts write to me asking for more information and pictures, for they're trying to figure out Sceloporus taxonomy. That isn't easy, though, because the various species are so variable. It's a huge genus lustily diversifying and making absolutely no effort to fit its creations into humanity's taxonmomic pigeonholes.

The individual in the above photo is much darker and its side stripe more pronounced than is shown in the Audubon field guide. That book recognizes six subspecies of Western Fence Lizard, of which ours must be S. o. occidentalis.

*****

FLOWERING CURRANT
On an overnight camping trip this week maybe the most unexpectedly pretty plant encountered was a diffuse bush with freshly emerged flowers and leaves about ten feet tall and growing in a deeply shaded, mossy-sloped moist ravine. As I approached its shadowy, sheltered cove, the bush rose in a shaft of sunlight surrounded by darkness. Its crimson racemes of inch-long flowers and veiny leaves were presented like a bouquet on display beneath a spotlight. You can see part of it at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090426ri.jpg.

It was the Flowering Currant, RIBES SANGUINEUM, a popular garden shrub in many parts of the world, but here growing wild, for its natural distribution is the coastal zone from central British Columbia to central California, so we're in the heart of its native land. Many cultivars have been developed, with flowers ranging from white to dark red.

For most flowers the corolla is the colorful part, but with this species the largest and most colorful segments are the sepals (calyx lobes) and the bracts. In the picture, notice that there's one bract, or modified leaf, at the base of each flower stem, or pedicel. The petal-like sepals are better seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090426rj.jpg.

In that picture the corollas of two flowers show up as pale, cylindrical structures arising from the center of the stars formed by the flaring, red sepals. Cream-colored anthers of four or five male stamens are visible at each corolla's mouth.

The genus Ribes is divided into two big groups, the gooseberries and the currants. Gooseberries and currants used to occupy different genera but now it's recognized that there's not really much difference between them. Most people think of gooseberry bushes as having spines while current bushes don't. Also, gooseberry bushes usually produce flower clusters, or inflorescences, of only one to three blossoms, while the inflorescences of currant species usually hold four or more blossoms. Our Flowering Currant produces a dark purple, edible fruit less than half an inch long, but it's fairly tasteless and people generally don't bother eating it.

When I was in the university they taught that Ribes belonged to the Saxifrage Family but now it's granted its own family, the Current or Gooseberry Family, the Grossulariaceae, which consists of just this one genus, Ribes. About 150 gooseberry and currant species are recognized in the genus Ribes, and the genus is restricted to temperate parts of the Northern Hemisphere.

Interestingly, some states prohibit growing Ribes species because they serve as an alternate host for the fungus causing White Pine Blister Rust.

*****

BIGLEAF MAPLE FLOWERING
Especially along streams one of the most conspicuously flowering plants nowadays is that of the Bigleaf Maple, ACER MACROPHYLLUM, whose emerging leaves and 5-inch long drooping racemes of yellow flowers are shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090426bm.jpg.

Easterners think of flowers of our native maples as being small, often unisexual and odorless, so the Bigleaf Maple's large, fragrant blossoms bearing both male and female parts may not seem like maple flowers at all. The fruits will turn out like "normal" maple samaras, however. You can see that the leaves are similar to maples back East -- except that they'll grow so large, averaging eight to twelve inches across, and some much larger. A flower close-up is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090426bn.jpg.

In that picture ten stamens with globular, pollen covered anthers emerge from the cuplike corolla. The racemes bear two kinds of flowers together, one flower type containing both male and female parts, the other only male stamens.

I grew up in western Kentucky with four maple species being very common in the area's woods. Here the Bigleaf, which grows 100 feet tall, is the only maple tree, though there's also a bushy Vine Maple I look forward to showing you. A website just on maples is at http://www.maple-trees.com/.

You can see that Bigleaf Maple leaves are similar to those of the East's Sugar Maples. The Bigleaf's sap contains about the same concentration of sugar as the Sugar Maple's, but it tastes different, and maple syrup is seldom made from it.

*****

A PINEAPPLE-SMELLING PINE
The main pine in the woods around us is the big Ponderosa Pine. During this week's hike when I came to ridges where the forest thinned out or opened into the Serpentine barrens I told you about a while back, a new pine appears. In appearance it's a lot like the Ponderosa, except that there's a shiny, grayish cast to its needles and its cones are larger. You can see this pine in a nearby ridge-top serpentine barren at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090426jp.jpg.

That's the Jeffrey Pine, PINUS JEFFREYI, distributed from here in southwest Oregon south through much of California, mainly in the Sierra Nevadas, to Baja California in Mexico. Over most of its distribution it's considered a high altitude species. Its Wikipedia page says that it grows from 1500-2000 meters (4900- 6600 feet) here in the northern part of its range, but the trees in the picture are growing at about 460 meters (1500 feet). The USDA Silvics Manual further reports the species at 183 m (600 ft) in Douglas County, Oregon.

At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090426jq.jpg you see one of its large cones. In the photograph's lower right corner you can see that each woody cone scale is tipped with an incurved prickle. Closely related Ponderosa Pine cone scales also bear prickles but they don't curve backward. The barks on mature trees of both Jeffrey and Ponderosa Pines are distinctive: Their bark exfoliates in scales fitting together like jigsaw-puzzle pieces. You can see the Jeffrey's bark at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090426jr.jpg.

When I checked out Jeffrey Pine on the Internet I found yet another difference between it and Ponderosa Pine: Ponderosas smell of pine resin the way a pine is supposed to, but Jeffrey Pines have a scent variously described as reminiscent of vanilla, lemon, pineapple, violets, or apples.

Taking the pictures I hadn't bothered to smell the tree but this note so intrigued me that the next day I hiked back upslope to take a whiff. Three feet from the tree's trunk I smelled it: Pineapple. Maybe it wouldn't have been so fragrant if beetles hadn't been burrowing into its trunk causing sap leakage, for when I smelled of the bark itself it just smelled like dry bark. The pineapple odor derives from a volatile (it evaporates) component in the resin mostly composed of a chemical called n-heptane, much used in the world's chemical laboratories because it is a "totally non-polar solvent." A main source of n-heptane is distilled from the resin of Jeffrey Pine.

Usually resin oozing from wounds in pine tree trunks harden into yellowish, pea-sized droplets. Backwoodsy folks in Mississippi have taught me to plop such "rosin pills" into my mouth from time to time because of their medicinal value as a general pepper-upper. I did that at the Jefferson Pine's trunk and was surprised that the pill hardly tasted of turpentine at all, but rather had a mild, fruity flavor. Even more surprising was how long the softened gum lasted, sticking to my teeth much more tenaciously than average pine resin. Even after a lot of picking and brushing of teeth the gum remained, and disappeared only the next morning, dissolved by breakfast's mugs of hot water.

*****

GROUNDCONES EMERGING
One of the most curious signs of spring here is shown breaking through very hard, gravelly soil alongside a road, and next to a California Black Oak leaf, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090426gc.jpg.

That's usually called the California Groundcone, or sometimes Broomrape. It's BOSCHNIAKIA STROBILACEA. The plants, not yet flowering, are quite common here. They're not green because they don't photosynthesize their own food; they steal their food, being parasitic on the roots of our abundant manzanitas and madrones. That's why they're all in a line, rising above the manzanita or madrone root they're tapped into with rootlike "haustoria." Later, flowers will emerge from between the plants' purple bracts.

These plants are so weird that they belong to their own family, the Broomrape Family, or Orobanchaceae. The genus Boschniakia is native to western North America and extreme northeastern Asia, which means they're not found in eastern North America. However, the East has somewhat similar plants in the same family but a different genus.

*****

OLD MAN'S BEARD
If I'm ever hiking in these mountains and somehow end up with an open wound I hope I have enough presence of mind to snatch a handful of Old Man's Beard off a nearby tree and stuff the wound with it. Old Man's Beard is one of several such names applied to a certain greenish-white, bushy, fruticose lichen growing abundantly here, dangling ten or more inches from tree branches, beardlike. You can see one at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090426us.jpg.

That's the genus USNEA, but the species situation is too confused for me to be certain which species it is. In fact, several lichen genera could be confused with Usnea, but there's a neat trick to know if you have a "real" Old Man's Beard, a species of Usnea. That is, you pull apart one of the lichen's thickest strands and see if there's a white cord inside, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090426ut.jpg.

It's like a cord wick running through a slender wax candle. Usnea has that cord while other look-alike lichen genera don't.

But, back to our hypothetical wound. For at least a thousand years indigenous Americans applied compresses of Usnea to severe wounds to prevent infection and gangrene. It was also taken internally to fight infections. It happens that Usnea contains the potent antibiotic Usnic Acid (C18H16O7) and is effective against all gram-positive and tuberculosis bacterial species.

I've seen Usnea species all across North America and Europe. It's especially conspicuous here because during much of the year the air is very humid. If there's a tree with dead limbs next to a pond, probably lots of Usnea will be dangling from it. This week I pegged my tent on a high ridge where moist wind from the Pacific filtered through the trees most of the time and the trees were absolutely cluttered with Usnea. Unfortunately, Usnea is sensitive to air pollution, especially sulfur dioxide, so downwind from cities, coal-fired power stations and the like, it largely or entirely disappears.

*****

WARMING IN INDIANA?
My old birding buddy Jarvis has been studying a forest plot in southern Indiana. He writes:

I calculated mean temperature for each month in each decade beginning in 1971. Compared with the decade of 1971-1980, the decade beginning 1981 was 0.7 degrees Fahrenheit warmer. The decade of 1991 was 0.8 degrees warmer, and the period of 2001-2008 was 1.3 degrees warmer. The temperatures are highly variable from year to year and decade to decade but these numbers seem to follow a trend. The warming has been much greater in winter months than summer months. In some decades, one or more summer months have had a cooler average than that of 1971-1980.

Of course this is just one tiny sample in one place, so the data prove nothing. However, they seem to jive with other findings showing the planet warming up faster than we'd thought it would, and at an increasing pace.

*****

RAISED GARDEN BEDS
This week I've helped my friends establish some raised garden beds and in the process I've set up a new web page describing the advantages of raised beds, giving some hints on putting them together, and illustrating the process. You can check out the new page at http://www.backyardnature.net/simple/raised-b.htm.

*****

ANITA'S TOFU PUDDING
Tofu, made from soybeans, is low calorie, contains no saturated fat, no cholesterol, no hormones, but has a good bit of necessary protein and iron. Unfortunately, it's a bit bland. Since it's much more Earth-friendly to eat foods like tofu made from plant material harvested directly from the land than from animals, here is a recipe for a tofu dish my friend Anita prepares, which I think is as good as ice cream.

INGREDIENTS:

PREPARATION:

It's delicious at room temperature, but if you're shooting for an ice cream substitute of course you need to refrigerate it.

*****

SELF DISCIPLINE & SIMPLIFICATION --> ENRICHMENT
Maybe one reason Anita's Tofu Pudding is so good is because it's simple. Humanity evolved eating uncomplicated foods, so maybe we're predisposed to prefer them.

I can see why one might disagree with that assessment, for nowadays the foods most people crave are anything but simple. However, reasons beyond good taste exist for "craving" complicated modern foods.

First, I suspect that more of our processed foods and drinks are addictive than is recognized. Also, remembering how my own taste buds awakened when I became a vegetarian some 40 years ago, I'm convinced that processed foods containing industrial-strength flavors and animal flesh and juices desensitize our taste buds. Once we deaden our mouths and become accustomed to overbearing industrial flavors, natural flavors hardly make an impression.

People generally prefer high-calorie food, too, because during most of humanity's evolutionary history it made sense to focus on foods high in energy. Thus, if we allow our animal natures to dominate our senses of proper proportion and appreciation of subtle, elegant sensations, we'll naturally crave whatever high-calorie foods we come across -- foods high in fat and carbohydrates -- instead of, say, the amazing taste of a really fresh carrot.

These insights complement what I learned overcoming my own obesity (As a Freshman in college I weighed about 340 pounds {154 kg}). I am convinced of the beauty and correctness of the following simple formula:

SELF DISCIPLINE & SIMPLIFICATION --> ENRICHMENT

I wish I could say that I discovered the above formula because I'm so smart and wise, but that isn't so. As a young person I began exercising self discipline mostly because I was emotionally and spiritual mixed up and wanted to punish myself with self denial. My early dedication to simplification mostly arose from my miserliness and not having much money to begin with. I blundered into the above formula, and often even fought against it. I am so healthy and happy today purely by accident. I am very much like the reformed alcoholic now preaching sobriety.

But, the above formula is true, even if I am an unworthy bearer of it. Having come upon it so serendipitously myself, here I pass it along to you freely:

Restrain your appetites, rid your life of excesses, cultivate your sensitivities to what is near at hand and free (especially natural things), and your life will become enriched, and you will grow happier.

Simple as that.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim

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