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

May 3, 2009

CASUAL JACKRABBIT
I'd heard about the big rabbit often seen patrolling the road and exploring the lawn, and who never seemed too concerned about humans and their cars. Wednesday as I was snipping manzanita twigs for firewood I looked up to see him about 15 feet from me watching me as casually as a rabbit can manage. He puttered around twitching his nose as I retrieved the camera from my pocket and took the picture shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090503jr.jpg.

He's a jackrabbit, not a cottontail, as his long ears and legs attest. Specifically he's a Black-tailed Jackrabbit, LEPUS CALIFORNICUS.

Oregon is home to seven members of the Rabbit Family, the Leporidae: the Pygmy and Brush Rabbits, Eastern and Mountain Cottontails, Snowshoe Hares, and Black- tailed and White-tailed Jackrabbits. Eastern Cottontails are introduced, invasive species occurring only here and there. Of the seven species, only the small Brush Rabbit, the Snowshoe Hare at higher elevations, and the Black-tailed Jackrabbit occur in southwestern Oregon. Rabbit-identifying around here is pretty easy.

Those black lines on our jackrabbit's face are normal for this species, constituting camouflage breaking up the face's contours.

Sometimes Black-tailed Jackrabbits are called Desert Hares, and that name is appropriate because the species is most abundantly found in desert, prairie and chaparral communities, and jackrabbits are considered to be hares. During my months of desert wandering in 1988 writing "Springs Comes to the Desert" probably the most commonly encountered sign of wildlife was Black-tailed Jackrabbit droppings. I wrote:

"In places their excreta lies as thick as chicken manure in a farmer's pen. Both jackrabbits and cottontails leave dry, spherical, pellet-like scats ("scats" is a general term for animal droppings) that look like marble-sized, dried-out balls of varnished, yellow sawdust. The handlens shows this 'sawdust' to be clippings of grass stems and leaves that are in such an undigested state that it's hard to see how the animals could have derived much nutrition from them. The only difference I find between jackrabbit and cottontail pellets is that the jackrabbits' are slightly larger, averaging about half an inch in diameter, while the cottontails' are only about 3/8 of an inch.

"Spring Comes to The Desert" is available online at http://www.backyardnature.net/desert/ and can be downloaded in book form, for free, at http://www.backyardnature.net/j/books/index.htm#desert.

*****

OREGON JUNCOS
Dark-eyed Juncos, small, dark gray, seed-eating birds with white bellies as if they've been snuggled in the snow, have been visiting birdfeeders across North America all this winter. By now many of them will have drifted off toward their northern breeding grounds, mainly in Canada.

The junco page of my 1966 copyrighted field guide doesn't mention Dark-eyed Juncos, but rather lists the Slate-colored, White-winged, Gray-headed, Oregon and Mexican Juncos. Nowadays all those juncos are regarded as interbreeding subspecies of the Dark-eyed Junco, except for the Mexican which, with its bright yellow eyes, is maintained apart as the Yellow-eyed Junco.

The Oregon Junco's black-hooded, rusty-red-sided plumage represents an extreme departure from the basic gray top, white bottom Dark-eyed Junco theme. You can see an Oregon perched on my friends' feeder at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090503ju.jpg.

And now after all that name shuffling I read that some experts insist that the Oregon Junco constitutes a distinct-enough, genetically-isolated-enough grouping to be returned to its former status as a full species under its former name of JUNCO OREGANUS.

Who knows? All I know is that, on the average, Juncos here look a lot different from those back East, and it's a treat to see them.

*****

CATESBY'S NATURE CLASSIC ONLINE
While studying the Oregon Junco situation I ran across a free, online version of one of the most interesting nature classics produced during the Americas' early exploration. It's Mark Catesby's 1731 The Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahamas at http://www.rarebookroom.org/Control/catthf/index.html.

*****

TURTLES ON THE BRIDGE
Unless someone has just walked by causing them to plop into the water, any sunny afternoon there's about a 90% chance that you'll find turtles basking on the wood bridge crossing the little pond just above my trailer. The bridge stands only about a foot above the water and the turtles surprisingly can climb up its sides.

As a kid in Kentucky half a century ago I remember seeing a variety of turtles in the ponds and drainage ditches around our bottomland farm. Then over the years bigger ditching machines and heavy pesticide use wiped them out. During recent years I've seen a few box turtles wandering dry land and in some places it's still easy to see turtles sun bathing on snags rising from water. However, nearly always those sun-bathing turtles turn out to be a single species: Red-eared Turtles, also called Pond Sliders, Chrysemys scripta. I may be wrong but my impression is that as the turtle population has plummeted in general, Red-eared Turtles have survived better than others, and managed to completely take over ecological niches formerly accommodating diverse turtle populations.

Therefore, I've been assuming that the turtles on the little bridge above my trailer were Red-eareds, and because they dove into the water as soon as they spotted me, I've not even tried to photograph them -- until the other day when for some reason one let me get into camera range. Then, just to have another Red-eared picture, I snapped the image shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090503tu.jpg.

When I enlarged the photo on my laptop screen, what a surprise to find no red "ears" or any other field marks of the Red-eared Turtle. It was the Western Pond Turtle, also called Pacific Pond Turtle, CLEMMYS MARMORATA, distributed from extreme southwestern British Columbia south through western Washington, Oregon and California to northwestern Baja in Mexico.

Despite the turtle in the picture not being as yellow-spotted as the one in the Audubon field guide, it was easy to identify, mostly because in western North America we have much fewer turtle species than in the rainier East. In western Kentucky where I grew up we could look for about 12 turtle species. Here in southwestern Oregon we're within the distribution area of only the Painted Turtle (maybe just outside its range), the Red-eared -- which has been introduced here -- and our Western Pond Turtle. The first two species both bear conspicuous, yellow "tiger stripes" along their necks, so that leaves us with the Western Pond Turtle.

Notice our turtle's white mouth area. The Audubon field guide observes that "One turtle may challenge another for a favored basking site by extending its neck, opening its mouth, and exposing its yellow-edged jaws and reddish interior."

A lot of info on the species is provided at http://www.tortoise.org/archives/pacpond.html. There the author further comments on this species' vigor. He writes, " ...continued watching will reveal Pacific pond turtles in aggressive behavior as the basking site becomes crowded. Turtles push and ram each other, threaten one another with open-mouthed gestures, and occasionally bite other turtles. They are feisty turtles and their antics provide excellent outdoor entertainment." Maybe this toughness explains why Red-eareds haven't overtaken this pond.

*****

CANYON LIVE-OAK'S TWO LEAF TYPES
On my first walk into the woods here a local person introduced me to "Oregon Holly," a low, woody shrub with leathery, evergreen leaves with prickly margins. You can see a branch of what I was showed at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090503cl.jpg.

I would have let the introduction pass except that I'd already met that species, back in 2005 during my summer with Fred and Diana in California's Sierra Nevadas, so now I felt compelled to add a piece of information:

"I understand why local folks may call this a holly," I said, "but would you believe that it isn't a holly at all? It's actually a young oak tree that eventually may reach 80 feet tall. As the tree grows, its leaves will stop being spiny edged and become smooth- margined, looking a little like bay leaves." My friend's face showed how fast I was losing credibility with him.

Still, the tree was the Canyon Live-oak, QUERCUS CHRYSOLEPIS, distributed from southwestern Oregon through California to northern Baja, Mexico. Nearby stood a mature specimen too tall to see the leaves, but beneath the tree lay the leaves and acorns seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090503cm.jpg.

Those old, faded acorn cups don't show a distinguishing feature they have when young, when they're covered with golden-yellow "wool." In fact, another common name for the tree is Golden Cup Oak.

In the old days Canyon Live-oak's wood was famed as the hardest of all West-Coast woods, and people sought it out when they needed to make maul handles and wagon spokes.

*****

CALIFORNIA-LAUREL LEAVES FOR STEWS
In mixed woods especially in valleys a conspicuously flowering tree this week has been the California-laurel, or Oregon-myrtle, UMBELLULARIA CALIFORNICA. See its shiny, evergreen leaves and yellow blossoms at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090503by.jpg.

Easterners might note the flowers' similarity to those of Sassafras, and there's a reason for that because they're in the same Family, the Laurel Family, or Lauraceae. The leaves' similarity to bay leaves used for seasoning also makes sense because the bay-leaf- producing tree similarly belongs to the Laurel Family. Likewise for the tropical Cinnamon-tree and Camphor-tree...

With such aromatic relatives it's not surprising that California-laurel leaves are very fragrant when you crush them, producing a pungent odor something like the mingling of the sweet-spicy smell of peppermint with menthol. In fact, when I first saw this tree I gathered a handful of leaves and seasoned my next morning campfire stew with them just as if they were store-bought bay leaves.

The resulting stew was delicious and the California-laurel's contribution was evident. However, it was funny: At first you think you're going to season all your stews with those leave but after one or two dishes you've had enough, and if you eat several servings you've had more than enough. Something in the leaves isn't conducive to repeated use. Though I still find the fresh leaves' odor delightful, I'm listening to my body on this and not cooking with them habitually as I might with real bay leaves.

*****

BALSAMROOT FLOWERING
Sunflower species and close relatives nearly always blossom in late summer and fall so I was surprised this week as I backpacked across a mountainside serpentine barren and saw the knee-high flowers seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090503ba.jpg.

Was this a serpentine-adapted sunflower? Turning the flower head over with my fingers I saw that this was no sunflower, as is made clear at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090503bb.jpg.

What you see there is two series of involucral bracts, or phyllaries, which no sunflower has. Remember that sunflower-type flowers are actually clusters of many flowers held in a flower-like head -- a composite flower. Typically each flower head is subtended by green, scale-like involucral bracts such as those shown on the underside of a chrysanthemum flower at http://www.backyardnature.net/pix/recep-br.jpg.

That chrysanthemum flower is equipped with just one kind of involucral bract, many of them overlapping one another in two or three series. That's typical of most composite flower heads. But that's not what our sunflower-like plant from the serpentine barren has. It possesses two completely unlike series of involucral bracts, the lower ones much larger than the top ones, and the lower ones point downward while the top ones stay directed upwardly. Little differences like this are profoundly important when distinguishing look-alike plants.

Our "serpentine sunflower" is the Deltoid Balsamroot, also called Puget Balsamroot, BALSAMORHIZA DELTOIDEA. It's fairly common on grassy slopes and in open forests and shrubby areas from British Columbia through our region and most of California. You can eat the sweet-tasting roots or cook them. Its seeds can be roasted, ground and used like coffee. Medicinally, a decoction of its split roots has been used for treating coughs and colds.

*****

BARREN-BLUSH
In our area certain entire mountain slopes support only a few widely scattered Jeffery Pines or are completely treeless, the thin, acidic soils developed atop the serpentine bedrock for various reasons being unable to support trees. Such a "serpentine barren" on a slope across the valley from my place can be seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090503vw.jpg.

Nowadays such barrens are blushing with pinkness, for there's a slender, six-inch-tall, pink-flowered herb flowering in mind-boggling abundance. Millions and millions of them. You can see a small gathering at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090503bl.jpg.

A close-up of their tiny, unusual blossoms is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090503bm.jpg.

With the plants' square-in-cross-section stems, their bilaterally symmetrical, or zygomorphic, corollas, and their flowers restricted to the stem's top like a lantana's, at first I thought the flower was a member of the lantana's family, the Verbena Family. However, then my handlens revealed that not only did each flower bear the unlikely number of three stamens per blossom, but also the ovaries were inferior -- corolla and sexual parts arising from atop the ovary, not below it, as in most plants.

The blushing plant is a member of the small, little- known Valerian Family, the Valerianaceae, genus Plectritis. In the Jepson Flora of California our plants key out to PLECTRITIS CONGESTA, but their leaves are much smaller and more erect than what's shown for that species on the Internet. I don't know whether I have something different, or maybe just the way P. congesta looks when it grows on a serpentine barren.

The common name for P. congesta is Sea Blush, for along rocky coasts sometimes it grows so abundantly that the whole coastline blushes with its pinkness. What a sight that must be. But it can't be any prettier than one of our mountain-slope serpentine barrens blushing on a dewy, sunny morning.

*****

SWORD FERNS
This spring in Mississippi I told you how abundant the Christmas Fern was in the woods around my camp. Nearly as common here is a fern strikingly similar to the Christmas Fern. In fact, it belongs to the same genus, Polystichum. The ferns here are known as sword ferns and you can see them below a nearby boulder at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090503sf.jpg.

Spore-producing fruit-dots, or sori, on the Christmas Fern occur just on leaflets, or pinnae, at the fronds' tips, and those fertile pinnae are abruptly smaller than the pinnae below them on the same frond. In contrast, sword fern sori occur on the undersides of normal-sized pinnae more generally distributed along the frond. You can see round sword-fern sori at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090503sg.jpg.

In that picture you can see that each round sorus is composed of dozens of spherical items. Those are not spores, but rather stalked, baglike sporangia filled with several spores. When the sporangia are ripe they burst, release the spores, and the wind carries the spores to new locations where, if environmental conditions are just right, they germinate to form fern prothalli, from which eventually new ferns will emerge.

Two sword-fern species live in our area, Polystichum munitum and P. imbricans. They're so similar and share so many overlapping features that imbricans has been considered a subspecies of munitum, plus they hybridize. The fern in the picture has more features of P. munitum than P. imbricans. P. munitum often is called the Western Sword Fern and occurs along the Pacific coast from southeast Alaska south to southern California, with isolated populations here and there farther inland.

In deep, heavily shaded ravines with white water gushing among boulders smothered beneath thick moss, sometimes sword ferns produce green cascades of dark green, leathery-evergreen, six-ft-long fronds. You can hardly imagine a greener, wetter, more temperate-rainforest setting and as soon as I can get into such a place with my camera properly protected from the humidity and with a tripod I'll show you what it looks like.

In garden shops the ferns sold in hanging baskets often are called sword ferns, but they are something different, usually the closely related Nephrolepis exaltata. That mostly tropical fern has mutated into many interesting forms, some of which are sterile and thus bearing no sori. Sterile ferns are usually sold because people often regard the sori as ugly disease spots.

*****

RESETTING THE BUTTON ON LIFE
This week some folks in Michigan wrote asking about my availability as a lunchtime keynote speaker at a teacher training conference sponsored by Weyerhaeuser. I replied that I didn't like flying on jets because of the pollution and energy costs and wasn't ready for another long bus ride, but I suggested that we think about teleconferencing. I figured that that would be a teaching experience in itself, as well as the most appropriate way of doing it. Their second letter excusing themselves from the invitation didn't even mention my counterproposal.

I understand the human resistance to changing behavior. I remember those years of attempting to lose weight, trying absolutely everything -- except eating less on a long-term basis. It was hard and painful to emerge from my rural, western Kentucky headset when I went into the world.

I am convinced that we humans spend most of our time in various hypnotic-like trances working out the predispositions of our genes, the expectations of society around us, and the suggestions of our story- telling left-brain hemisphere. The default assumption of all these agencies is that we must keep doing what we've always done and what everyone else is doing. You can see how this situation might have evolved as a useful behavioral adaptation: In the long term, most new ideas are faulty, or at least not as sound as what already exists, for what already exists at least has lasted until now.

Yet, in an inexorably evolving Universe, sometimes our brains tell us that we must change to survive -- especially nowadays when self-destructive practices such as overexploitation of natural resources constitute bedrock conservative principles upon which our society is based.

Pure will power hardly ever is enough to bring about major changes in our behaviors. For me the main "trick" enabling me to slim down after becoming a 340 pound teenager was leaving for college -- distancing myself from my mother's kitchen, the refrigerator, and the thousands of situations and things that cued me to eat, eat, eat. Changing the world around me magically made it much easier to change the world inside me.

Here's what this is leading to:

Assuming that concern over Swine Flu soon becomes a thing of the past, this winter, if I should set myself up in a small-town or rural part of Mexico, would you be interested in changing your world -- maybe as part of an effort to lose weight, stop smoking or start afresh in life -- by making an extended visit down there? Many North Americans have told me that it was cheaper for them to visit Mexico for a few weeks or months than to remain up north heating their homes and living the lives of regular North Americans, so even for folks with modest incomes this isn't an unreasonable idea.

You would pay your own costs as you went, and your lodging could be anything from a standard hotel or elegant hacienda bed-and-breakfast to the spare room of an old lady where chickens wander in and out. I'd help you get set up, do the Spanish for you if you need it, and you'd repay me however you felt, maybe things instead of money, maybe even nothing; It'd be up to you.

Think about it. This is just an idea and I'm not saying I'm going to do this. It's just testing the waters. You can write to me from the webpage at http://www.backyardnature.net/j/writejim.htm.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim

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