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

May 10, 2009

QUAIL AT DAWN & DUSK
Each morning soon after dawn and each evening soon before dusk a male and female pair of California Quail, LOPHORTYX CALIFORNICUS, make their rounds visiting my friends' backyard and birdfeeder area. If you're outside, first you hear their expressive but tentative call, a second-long k-k-k-KOI, and then you wait until they come walking, never flying, pecking here and there, looking around, watching hard for the cat. If they see you moving about they'll run away -- again, never flying. These birds simply don't care to fly. Wednesday just before dusk I was waiting for them with my camera. They saw me but I didn't move a hair, and for this they granted me the picture at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090510qu.jpg.

Especially to Easterners whose only quail is the Bobwhite, the black plume atop the California Quail's head makes it a remarkable species. In western North America, however, four quail species sport some kind of topknot. Still, you just have to say that the California Quail is one of the handsomest birds you can ever hope to see. In the picture the male is in the lead while the female with her smaller plume follows.

Usually the pair finds three or four spots in the backyard especially worthy of spending extra time pecking in. Then the male mounts a nearby high spot, raises his head high and intently watches all around as the female takes her time feeding below. You can see a close-up of the intensely watchful male at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090510qv.jpg.

California Quail are distributed from southwestern British Columbia south through Washing, Oregon and California through Baja in Mexico, plus here and there a little farther west.

*****

BLACK-HEADED GROSBEAK
During much of the day you hear a sweet, rambling, continuous bird-calling from up in the pines a little like an American Robin's monotonous but melodious song. If you look for the singer he may be hard to spot because he's one of those birds who hides himself as he sings. However, he's not shy about appearing at my friends' birdfeeder, and there you can see how handsome the Black-headed Grosbeak, PHEUCTICUS MELANOCEPHALUS, is. His picture is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090510gr.jpg.

This is a species and a song I know well from Mexico, for Black-headed Grosbeaks are winter visitor or permanent residents over most of the country, except for the other side of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, so they're absent from the Yucatan and Chiapas. In Querétaro, though, whenever I walked along the reservoir I could count on hearing or seeing them. The eye-catching thing about any grosbeak is the massive, seed-crunching beak.

The Black-headed looks most like the Rose-breasted Grosbeak back East, and its song is similar. In fact, the two species are so closely related that sometimes they hybridize. This is a case where two species have diverged so recently in evolutionary history that there's still a little gene flow between them.

Black-headed Grosbeaks are only summer visitors here. To see the species' seasonal distribution map, read more about its life history and hear its songs, go to http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Black-headed_Grosbeak/id.

*****

A CATTAIL-FUZZ HUMMINGBIRD NEST
I show you only a tiny fraction of the pictures I take, or try to take. Especially with birds I'm just too slow. For instance, for the last month I've been trying to photograph hummingbirds removing fuzz from cattail spikes, a process I've witnessed dozens of times but never managed to get more than a blur with the camera. I haven't even been able to identify them with certainty.

The other day Anita brought me a hummingbird nest she'd found at the end of the last nesting season. The nest was made predominantly of cattail fuzz, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090510hn.jpg.

The hummingbird species nesting in this region are the Calliope, Anna's, Black-chinned and Rufous. I see the Rufous most commonly, but who knows whose nest that is?

*****

WESTERN FENCE LIZARD'S BLUE BOTTOM
Not long ago I introduced you to our Western Fence Lizard. You can see the picture with its entry at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/a/w-f-lizd.htm.

At that time I mentioned that the lizard bears blue throat blotches, but my picture didn't show them. Last Sunday it was so cold that my friends' cats carried two lethargic fence lizards into their kitchen. You can see the spectacular bottom of one of those at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090510fl.jpg.

*****

BANDED FOREST SNAIL
Accompanying the cold that brought the lizards inside was a lot of rain inducing more than the usual large number of Banded Forest Snails, MONADENIA FIDELIS, to appear. You can see one of those crossing my fingers at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090510sn.jpg.  

The snail in that picture was so cold and lethargic that it didn't pull in its head when I picked it up, so I got to photograph features that usually remain overlooked. For example, look at the breathing hole at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090510so.jpg.

At the hole's right you may notice a certain irregularity. That's the anus.

At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090510sp.jpg the snail is looking at us. The word "looking" is OK to use because snails more or less see -- at least see enough to recognize movement and shades of gray. Of the four tentacles projecting toward us, which are the eyes? You can barely make out dark "eye spots" at the tip of the top, longer tentacles, so the top tentacles se can be considered eye stalks. However, vision is more like an afterthought for the snail. The tentacles are most sensitive to touch. After that the bulbous structures at the tentacles' tips are primarily odor- sensing chemoreceptors.

By the way, aquatic snail species only bear one pair of tentacles while land snails like ours clearly have two.

Thanks to Karen in Mississippi, who has a book profiling the common snails and slugs, for IDing this snail for me.

*****

A REALLY BIG SLUG
Usually when Anita comes to my trailer bearing a container it contains something good to eat. However, Wednesday at dusk just after another rain what she had in her little bowl was something else, shown at At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090510lx.jpg.

That's a pretty big slug. At first I thought it was completely black but the next day in better light I saw traces of spotting on it, and I had to agree with Karen's assessment that it was the Great Gray Slug, LIMAX MAXIMUS. I've seen a lot of Limax maximus in rainy Europe. In England it's often called the Tiger Slug or Spotted Leopard Slug because usually it can be described as having a yellowish body heavily marked with black spots. Apparently ours is "melanistic," which means that it is so heavily pigmented that its spotting is obscured. In the picture you can see spots near the rear end.

If Superglue didn't already exist I'd suggest that someone look into the mucous created by this slug, for it stuck to my fingers more than any animal product I've ever experienced.

The picture shows very clearly a kind of sharp keel running along the critter's top. The family the genus Limax belongs to is the Limacidae, known as the Keeled Slug Family, so this is a good field mark for slugs in that family.

Limax maximus can grow up to eight inches (20 cm) long. Usually they're nocturnal, though when it's rainy they can appear almost anytime. They feed mostly on rotting plant material and fungi. There's a lot of information on this species' anatomy and reproduction at http://webs.lander.edu/rsfox/invertebrates/limax.html.

*****

THE KNOBCONE PINE'S KNOBBY CONES
Nowhere on Earth is home to a greater diversity of conifers than here, and the largest group of conifers we have is that of the pines. Therefore you might expect some interesting pine species. The Knobcone Pine, PINUS ATTENUATA, endemic to southwestern Oregon and parts of California, is one of those, and one of the most peculiar features of that pine is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090510kc.jpg.

There you see the Knobcone's cones. A curious thing about them is how they arise directly from the tree's trunk. Sometimes you see four cones arising at a single node on a trunk. Cones also can occur on branches, but they're always way back where the needles have fallen off, looking plain awkward stuck right on the twig like that instead of gracefully nestled among needles the way a decent pinecone should be.

Notice that these cones aren't open. Though they look mature, there's nowhere for seeds to fall out. That's something else remarkable about them: Not only may the cones stay stuck to the sides of the trunks and larger limbs for years (sometimes trunks grow around them so that later a sawmill operator might cut through a cone embedded in the wood) but also the cones may remain closed the whole time. These cones are designed to stay closed for 20 years or more until subjected to high heat. In other words, Knobcone Pines have evolved so that when forest fires sweep through an area they may have twenty or more years of viable seeds stored up they can release, and thus have a competitive advantage over other species in getting their seedlings established.

Nowadays you can find cones in their earliest stage of development, and they eye-catching thing, as seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090510kd.jpg.

It's unusual how the cones are held aloft on long, sturdy stems. Best I can tell, the pointy, red things will develop into the spines at the tip of the cone's fused scales.

At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090510ke.jpg you see more developed cones. Notice how these older cones are starting to bend downward. Eventually the trunk will grow around the long cone stems leaving the cones practically stemless. I think these may be last spring's egg-size cones, for Knobcone Pine cones need two years to mature.

Ecologically, Knobcone Pines grow on thin, problematic soils. If there's a slope that's been burned and the topsoil eroded away, Knobcones may dominate. You find them occupying eroded roadcuts beside long-established forest roads, and in the thin, acidic soil at the edge of serpentine barrens. Knobcones are a tough species, one with very sophisticated adaptations, and when I pass among them I give them a nod as a particularly highly developed species able to survive where other pines cannot.

*****

CAMASS LILIES GALORE
The most gloriously colorful and diverse wildflower meadows I've ever seen are those in August above the treeline in the Alps. At that altitude and longitude there's no spring and fall flora, for all flowering must be squeezed into the brief "summer," which is August.

Something similar is occurring here, now, for right now we're experiencing a brief window of combined adequate warmth and rainfall. Since about last October it's been too cold for much flowering; in about a month it'll be too dry for it. Consequently, right now our serpentine barrens and meadows are abloom with more wildflowers than I can keep up with. It's wonderful.

This week one of the most conspicuous flowerings -- with its blue flowers often painting broad splotches of diffuse azure blush across the green slopes -- has been the 15-inch-tall Camass, CAMASSIA LEICHTLINII, a few at a boulder's base seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090510ca.jpg.

These members of the Lily Family arise from bulbs, so once the dry season arrives and its seeds are sown, the aboveground parts will die back and the bulbs will lie dormant through the remaining hot dry season. When you see the plant's abundance here you can't help wondering whether all those bulbs might constitute a food source.

They do. They can be eaten raw or cooked, though the raw, starchy bulb has a slightly disagreeable gummy texture. The bulbs are best when slowly baked, developing a sweetness. Cooked bulbs also have been dried and ground to make a thickener for soups, and for mixing with flour when baking bread and cakes. Indigenous Americans once boiled down large quantities of bulbs to make a molasses. More information and documentation of this kind is available here.  

At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090510cb.jpg you can see what an elegant blossom the species produces. There you see six blue "tepals," which is what you call the segments of the "perianth," which is what you call the thing resulting with the calyx and corolla merge to form one corolla-like item. The oval, green ovary lies nested where the tepals come together and six stamens likewise arise from beneath the ovary. Rain has knocked off three of the stamens' anthers. A slender, pale, stiff, stigma-tipped style arises atop the ovary.

At first glance Camass looks a lot like the hyacinth, also in the Lily Family, so how are they different? The most obvious difference is that the hyacinth's perianth lobes unite into a cylinder surrounding and hiding the ovary, while in the picture you can see that the Camass's tepals are separate from one another all the way to their bases.

*****

ROCKBRAKES BELOW THE ROCKS
Out in the serpentine balds wherever rocks break the surface there's a very good chance that at the rock's very base a small, fragile-looking, frilly, green herbage will appear. You can see what it looks like at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090510rb.jpg.

That's a fern, the American Rockbrake or American Parsley Fern, CRYPTOGRAMMA ACROSTICHOIDES. Among ferns it's a bit unusual because of its small size and the manner in which it produces its spores.

You'll remember recent fern shots showing round, spore-producing sori occupying the undersides of fronds. In the genus Cryptogramma sori occur in a continuous line tucked into a fold created by the frond's margin curving under itself forming a long margin-flap on the frond's undersurface, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090510rc.jpg.

That picture shows the frond's underside. A cross section of a frond's leaflet, or pinna, would look like a C rotated clockwise 90 degrees and flattened a bit. The silvery, swollen zones along the pinnae's margins are the folded-under leaf margins, with sori hidden inside them. Spores will easily escape through the folds' midrib-facing slits.

This species lives in noncalcareous (not on limestone) cliff crevices, talus slopes and at rock bases. It's distributed fairly widely in mountainous western North America as far east as Michigan and New Mexico, plus in Asia. The word "American" appears in both its common names because the species is practically identical to one in Europe and for a long time ours was regarded as a subspecies of the European one. However, now it's known that our species has 60 chromosomes while the European one has 120. That means that the two populations can't interbreed, so by definition they are separate species no matter how much alike they look.

Rockbrakes produce two kinds of fronds: a narrow-leafleted, spore-producing type like the ones in my picture, and; a broad-leafleted form looking very much like parsley. The fronds in the first picture are all narrow-leafleted, spore-producing fronds. In that picture notice how last year's brown, dried-out fronds hang below the new fronds. I've been watching the new fronds unfurl during the last three weeks or so.

*****

ANITA'S SOY-CURL NOODLES
At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090510sy.jpg you can see a good-tasting, soul-pleasing dish Anita prepared the other day. It contains no cholesterol, little fat, but is surprisingly high in iron, fiber and complete protein. The noteworthy thing about it is that what looks like hunks of ham or chicken breast is a special kind of textured soy called Soy Curls. The dish is completely vegetarian, so no animals were killed to produce it, and no agricultural land was wasted producing grain to feed to animals.

The importance of that last point can be appreciated by reflecting on a sentence in Eugene Odem's classic textbook Fundamentals of Ecology where it's stated that during the course of a year 20,000,000 alfalfa plants weighing 17,850 pounds are needed to fuel 4.5 cows weighing 2,250 pounds to satisfy the energy needs of a single 105-pound boy. Taking your protein from soybeans is profoundly more Earth-friendly than getting it by eating animal flesh.

Here's Anita's recipe for the above dish:

INGREDIENTS:

PREPARATION:

The nutritional yeast adds important nutrients, especially the B Vitamins, and is important for the taste. If you don't have yeast, an egg might be substituted. Textured soy is pretty tasteless, so seasoning is important.

*****

SOY CURLS
Textured soy for recipes like the above can be bought in several forms at most large groceries. Usually the least expensive kind is desiccated soy sold in plastic bags. Dried, textured soy often has a bad name because some manufacturers use a sulfur-based process to remove fat from the soy, so it'll have a longer shelf-life.

It happens that one of our vegetarian friends operates a small factory here in Oregon producing what they call Soy Curls. Those are rehydrated Soy Curls in the noodle dish. They have the texture and taste of chicken breast marinated in its own juices. Soy Curls have had nothing removed from the soybean and the beans themselves are non-genetically-modified, grown without chemical pesticides and contain no preservatives or additives at all. Their taste and texture is far superior to textured soy produced by the sulfur process.

Desiccated textured soy approximately triples in weight when hydrated. That means that the 8-ounce package of Soy Curls Anita used for her noodle dish produced 1.5 pounds of soft, flavorful, chicken- breast-like textured soy.

Twelve pounds of Soy Curls (rehydrating to 36 pounds of tender soy) costs $47.95 + $10.00 shipping at http://www.butlerfoods.com/wheretobuy/orderonline.html.

More Soy Curl recipes are available at http://www.butlerfoods.com/recipes/recipes.html.

*****

THOUGHT TANGENT OF A RAINY DAY
With the temperature holding steadily around 50° F it rained all last weekend, through to Wednesday. Sunday morning even the electricity went out. It was a somber, cold, staring out-the-window time of a kind I hadn't experienced since my hermit days. My body got achy and a mood settled over me like the weather.

Yet, it wasn't a bad mood. It was a good time to think about where I am at this stage in my life, and what is to come.

It's funny, but each time I go through this big thinking-out process, the thought-path follows pretty much the same trajectory:

Starting with the world's conflicts, soon I admit that they are really quite natural. Evolution has always been fueled mostly through competition -- the stronger or lucky displacing the weaker or unlucky.

Similarly, environmental destruction taking place now is just like that of the past, as when the dinosaurs went extinct. From the ashes of each of the several identified mass extinctions always there arose whole new, more sophisticated communities of species, and things advanced incrementally.

Accepting that "everything today is as it always has been, and therefore 'natural,'" does that mean that a human today may simply acquiesce, accept things as they are and keep plodding on day after day doing the same as always, because that that's what people always have done, and somehow it's led to advancement?

No, because of The Sixth Miracle of Nature. The Earthly manifestation of that Miracle is that humans have evolved to the point where we can reflect on our position relative to the rest of the Universe. When the Sixth Miracle ignites in our lives we can willfully overcome our various hard-wired and social programming that in modern times are proving destructive and unsustainable. The Sixth Miracle releases us from the slavery of our programming, enabling us to behave rationally, and/or artistically, and/or in harmony with our spiritual insights, and maybe save Life on Earth in the process.

At this point in my big-thinking exercises my mind usually wanders a bit, and then I embark on the big question: Why are we here?

The only explanation I can come up with is that we living things are like "nerve endings" for the Creative Force. The phenomena of our experiences somehow "report back" to the Creator on how our part of the Universe is doing, just as a nerve at the tip of a finger lets us know that the finger exists and that things are happening to it. This is a quirky way of looking at it but I can't come up with anything better, and it really does supply the outline for some kind of answer that feels better than the usual explanations, or having no answer at all.

At day's end I stick my head from the trailer door, behold the gloom, and feel pretty good about it. "What a splendid thing," I think to myself, "that by sensitizing myself to the slugs and snails the rain brings out; by struggling to understand how this rain charges the ecosystem with life; by consciously making the effort to accept this moody instant as a necessary part of a beautiful annual cycle generating untold numbers of wildflowers, butterflies, birds and poetic impulses among all sentient beings -- I'm inviting the Sixth Miracle of Nature into my life, and fulfilling my duty as a nerve-ending to the Creator."

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim

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