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

May 17, 2009

BEACH SQUIRREL
By scenic mountain roads the Pacific Ocean lies only a couple of hours west of here. Last weekend my friends took me there for a look, to Harris Beach State Park in Brookings four or five miles north of the California border. It was chilly and so foggy you couldn't see far offshore, but I was glad to be back on the ocean, to smell it, hear it, to be chased back and forth by its waves.

On a rocky cliff overlooking the sandy beach I spotted a small, squirrelly mammal emerging from its burrow and was tickled when I could sneak close enough for a picture. I clicked the shutter, then moved closer for another, and still my quarry didn't move. Fantastic! And then another, and a little closer and what a thrill to get fifteen feet away! Then Anita came up behind me and said, "It'll eat from your hand, you know... "

Well, the last time I saw this species, in the Sierra Nevadas back in 2005, I worked hard to get close enough to identify it with binoculars. So, no, I hadn't known it'd eat from your hand. Anita retrieved bread from the car, sat on a rock, held her hand toward our visitor, and as the critter snatched a crumb from her hand I snapped the picture at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090517sq.jpg.

That's a California Ground Squirrel, SPERMOPHILUS BEECHEYI, distributed from western Washington and Oregon through California to northern Baja, Mexico. Its spottiness, its silvery back, shoulders and side, its bushy tail, and its presence on the ground instead of a tree are good field marks. Oregon is home to eight ground-squirrel species (eight species of the genus Spermophilus) but this is the only one in the state's southwestern corner, the others residing at higher elevations farther east.

Before long four squirrels were eating from Anita's hand. They'd emerge from burrows in soft soil at a boulder's base, snatch the bread, chew on it briefly, store it in their cheek pouches, then with comically bulging cheeks rush back for more.

Rattlesnakes are the ground squirrels' arch enemy. Here's some interesting info about that found on the Internet:

First, some populations of California Ground Squirrels show varying levels of immunity to rattlesnake venom as adults. Female squirrels with pups may chew on shed rattlesnake skins, then lick themselves and their pups to disguise their scent. When they kick sand at a rattlesnake it provokes the snake to rattle its tail, and that helps the squirrel assess the snake's size and temperament, and maybe to distract it from a den with pups. A squirrel might also swish its tail so vigorously that the tail "super-heats." Since a rattlesnake finds its prey mainly by using infrared, heat-sensitive sensors in the pits between its eyes and nostrils, a squirrel's overheated tail suggests to a snake that the squirrel is much larger than it really is, so the snake may decide that attacking this critter is too dangerous.

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SEAGULL PUZZLE
An information board told us that on rocks in the fog offshore there were interesting birds like Pigeon Guillemots and Peregrine Falcons but around us on the beach birdlife was about 99% seagulls, the remaining 1% being a crow or two. But which gull was it? Here we could look for Western and California Gulls, which aren't found in the East, but I'd forgotten how to distinguish those gulls from the more wide-ranging species, especially Herring and Ring-billed Gulls. When Anita began sharing her bread with the gulls I snapped some pictures, figuring I'd sort out the ID later. You can see Anita with her gulls at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090517hg.jpg.

They turned out to be Herring Gulls, LARUS ARGENTATUS, a super-abundant species along both coasts, wintering on many rivers deep in the North American interior, and likely to be seen during migration nearly anyplace.

The main field marks distinguishing Herring Gulls from other possible gull species are: the mostly gray wings (all black for Western Gulls); our gulls' immatures have all-black beaks (bills of most other similar species' immatures are black only at their tips), and; our adults' legs are pinkish, not greenish yellow as in other species. Sometimes seawater leaves grayish grime on seagull legs so it's hard to see what color they are. A close-up of one of our adult gulls showing definitely pink legs can be seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090517hh.jpg.

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WESTERN FLYCATCHER
I've often mentioned the trouble birders have distinguishing flycatchers of the genus Empidonax, which are frustratingly similar in appearance and behavior. Their voices are distinctive but often they don't sing. Here Empidonax doesn't seem to be such a challenge as back East. The other day I surprised myself by identifying one fairly easily, even though he wasn't calling. You can see him at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090517wf.jpg.

He's a Western Flycatcher, EMPIDONAX DIFFICILIS. Despite the species name difficilis meaning "difficult," to identify this species all you have to remember is what my old field guide says: That the Western Flycatcher is "the only western Empidonax with a yellow throat." Others have white or dingy throats, but not a hint of yellow. What a treat to identify a non-singing Empidonax so easily.

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IN A REDWOOD GROVE
Just south of the beach and across the state line in California, on a slope above Crescent City we visited a grove of Redwoods, SEQUOIA SEMPERVIRENS. You can see me standing before one of the giants in the obligatory visit-to-the-Redwoods tourist photo at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090517rw.jpg.

In the picture I'm bundled up because it was cold. In fact, though the sun was shining there (the fog lay only over the beach all along the coast) the whole Redwood forest felt chill and somber. You can see a general shot showing many Redwood trunks and ferns at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090517rv.jpg.

During the entire visit I heard only one bird, a woodpecker. In some places Redwoods and Swordferns were the only conspicuous species, the Swordferns being the same species I profiled in the May 3rd Newsletter, Polystichum munitum. However, in some places other species did appear: Tanoak, Madrone, Big-leaf Maple, California Bay and Red Alder. Redwood Sorrel (Oxalis oregana) occasionally formed clover- like carpets. Rhododendrons (R. macrophyllum and R. occidentale) were readying to flower.

Two differences between the Redwood groves and tropical rainforests I've been in caught my attention. First, Redwood trunks were not at all buttressed -- didn't have widely flaring bases helping the trunks stay upright. This lack of buttressing surely was connected to the second difference: the trunks were amazingly close together. I'll bet that these two observations are linked. By being close together Redwoods protect one another from winds and in a way hold one another up so that buttresses aren't need.

Redwoods belong to the same family as the US Southeast's Baldcypresses, the Taxodiaceae. Giant Sequoias not only belong to the same family but also the same genus, the genus Sequoia. About 40 species of Sequoia flourished in the Northern Hemisphere some 60 million years ago but today only Redwoods and Giant Sequoias remain, in California and Oregon.

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REDWOOD BURLS
Many Redwood trunks bore large "burls," or gall-like growths the size of a car or larger. You can see Anita and a burl examining one another (as well as how a Redwood's trunk enters the soil with no buttresses) at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090517rx.jpg.

Technically burls are known as lignotubers. Burl tissue occurs naturally at the base of normal young Redwood trees. Buds form inside the burls but remain dormant until fire or physical damage stimulates them to grow. Then shoots arise from the burls and grow rapidly using carbohydrates stored in the burl. Most second- and third-growth Redwoods remaining today were generated vegetatively from burls after 19th and 20th century logging. If Redwood reproduction depended solely on seed germination, which in Nature is very low, Redwood numbers would be only a small fraction of what they are today.

Unfortunately, if you cut across a burl the exposed wood shows interesting and beautiful swirling designs, so burls are often hacked off trees for furniture making or simply as curiosities, severely hurting the trees. The black market for burl wood, or "sliced Redwood" as it's called, is strong and much of it sold in gift shops and roadside stands was obtained illegally.

Some people plant Redwood burls wanting to grow Redwoods in their backyards. Invariably they water the sprouts too much water or in some other manner mismanage it, and the sprouts die. That white spot on the burl in my picture appears to be where someone has hacked off a piece of burl.

People simply need to leave the Redwoods and their burls alone.

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THE COLD COAST
I've mentioned how chilly the wind off the ocean was, and you saw how I was so bundled up in the Redwood forest, which was just five or so miles inland from the coast. Those cold temperatures were typical, so why?

The California Current runs from north to south off the Oregon coast, bringing colder water down from the north. That's only part of the reason for Oregon's cold beaches, though. Water upwells from deep ocean right off the coast. That water not only is cold but also rich in nutrients that nourish a rainbow of microorganisms on which vast numbers of fish feed. The upwelling is caused by prevailing northwesterly winds driving surface water in such a way that cold water from deep below is drawn up to replace the wind- displaced top water.

Therefore, wind blowing ashore has been cooled by the cold water below it. Another reason it was cold was simply because we're so far north here. At about 42° north we're at a latitude similar to that of Boston, MA and Grand Rapids, MI.

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SEA PALMS
At Harris Beach State Park several remarkable kelp organisms were washed onto the beach, a colony shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090517sp.jpg.

These are Sea Palms, POSTELSIA PALMAEFORMIS, a kind of kelp, which means that Sea Palms are a brown alga. Among the algae Sea Palms are fairly unique, being the only species in their genus, and also one of few algae able to stand erect out of water. In fact, occupying the middle to upper intertidal zone, Sea Palms spend most of their lives out of water, standing erect on barnacle- or mussel-covered rocks submerged only when the tide is up.

The Sea Palms washed onto the beach were still "rooted" in rock-hard clusters of barnacles so it looked like someone with a hatchet or similar tool had hacked them off rocks. Later I learned that many people eat Sea Palms, raw or in Chinese dishes, so maybe someone had been harvesting them. It's illegal to harvest Sea Palms unless you have a commercial permit. It's estimated that in 2000 and 2001, two to three tons of Sea Palms were harvested commercially in California.

Sea Palms are distributed from Vancouver Island in the north to coastal south-central California. Wikipedia provides an especially informational page on them, including pictures of little forests of them standing erect like little palm trees on rocks at low tide, at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Postelsia.

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VINE MAPLES FLOWERING
One woody plant fairly common here and there in the Redwood forest was the Vine Maple, ACER CIRCINATUM, whose opposite, palmate-veined, five-inch-wide leaves and red and white flowers are shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090517vi.jpg.

If you regard a vine as strictly a plant that twines like a morning-glory or rambles like a Sweet Potato vine, Vine Maples aren't viny at all. They're shrubs or small trees up to 40 feet tall with very spindly stems that tend to lean onto or sprawl atop other vegetation if the stems grow long enough.

At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090517vj.jpg a close-up of the Vine Maple's pretty flower shows some interesting departures from the "Standard Blossom" I often refer to. First, the reddish, petal-like things aren't petals at all but rather calyx lobes, or sepals, which normally are green like the rest of the calyx, and hardly developed at all. The corolla's actual five white petals have the approximate shape of a scoop opening toward the flower's center. It's typical for a flower either to have a large number of stamens, or else five or multiples of five. In the Maple Family, in contrast, most species bear eight stamens, and that's the case with the flower.

Vine Maples are fairly common and occur from southern British Columbia south into northern California. On moist, sheltered, recently clearcut or burnt mountain slopes sometimes Vine Maples form impenetrable thickets. The species is a favorite browse for deer. In the fall its bright red leaves contribute a lot the scenic autumn landscape. In fact, Vine Maples are so pretty that sometimes they're planted as ornamentals. They are closely related to the frequently-planted Fullmoon and Korean Maples, both from Asia.

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BREWER'S OAKS
Weakley's Flora of the Carolinas lists 41 oak species for the region covered in that work. Since oaks tend to hybridize and the species are often very similar to one another, I've had my problems trying to name the Southeastern oaks. When I arrived here and saw that only four oak species were listed for Oregon, and that those species' leaves were easily distinguishable from one another, I thought I had it made in the oak business. And then I took my first long walk.

On certain slopes I found something that was obviously an oak, and obviously in the white oak group, but it was no more than a bush, usually little more than waist high. I've seen bushy oaks in Mexico so finding bushy oaks here was OK with me. But, why wasn't a bushy oak species mentioned in the various lists of Oregon's oak species?

Finally I've figured out that our bushy oak is the Brewer's Oak, QUERCUS GARRYANA var. BREWERI. It's a variety of the Oregon White Oak, Quercus garryana var. garryana, which indeed appears in all the lists. You can see leaves of the bushy Brewer's Oak at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090517ok.jpg.

Brewer's Oak leaves aren't as deeply lobed as those of typical Oregon White Oak trees. In fact, my impression is that the bush variety has almost evolved to full species status, for often Brewer's Oak bushes mingle with Oregon White Oak trees, and only occasionally do I find intermediate forms. I can't recall seeing a variety maintaining its identify so well while mingling promiscuously with so many of its parent species.

I have a wild theory about how that might be possible. In general aspect, Brewer's Oak bushes nowadays share an uncanny resemblance to leafing-out Poison Oak. At this season those two very unrelated species are about the same size, both are unfolding glossy, reddish-green leaves, and both bear dangling clusters of yellow, pollen-producing male flowers. Of course Poison Oak's leaves are trifoliate while Brewer's Oak's leaves are simple blades, so they're easy to tell apart if you look closely. However, if you're just walking by a thicket with both species, you'll think everything there is Poison Oak, which is by far the most common species. Could it be that the Brewer's Oak variety maintains its identity so well because the bush form for some reason benefits by being so similar to Poison Oak? Maybe deer avoid Poison Oak and consequently leave Brewer's Oak bushes alone as well? What a nice study this would make.

At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090517ol.jpg you see the Brewer's Oak's catkin-like aments of male flowers on the left and a cluster of female flowers in a leaf axil at the right. The three yellow things among the female flowers are a female flower's three stigma-tipped styles spread wide to receive pollen.

Though the Oregon White Oak parent species is distributed from southern British Columbia deep into California, the Brewer's Oak variety is endemic to our Siskiyou Mountains, possibly with an outlying population in the northern Sierra Nevadas of California.

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BUCKBRUSH
Several shrubs go by the name of Buckbrush. The one I've been watching began flowering over a month ago, then each week more flowers appeared, and this week it's been spectacular. You can see a waist-high one at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090517ce.jpg.

That's CEANOTHUS CUNEATUS, very common here along roads and on dry, open slopes. A closer view shows its small, evergreen, opposite leaves and stiff twigs arising at right angles to the main branches and ending in semi-sharp, spinelike tips at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090517cf.jpg.

At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090517cg.jpg you can see that its tiny blossoms are elegant enough to take a closer look at. The large, white, star-shaped feature is its five sepals, or calyx lobes, modified to do the attention-getting service done by the petals or corollas of most other flowers. You can make out the five matchstick-like stamens tipped with yellowish, pollen-holding anthers. Below each stamen arises a slender, reduced petal. Notice how the style arising from the disk-surrounded ovary below is 3- branched. It's a little unusual for petals to arise opposite stamens instead of alternating with them. Buckbrushes are members of the Buckthorn Family, the Rhamnaceae.

This Buckbrush species is distributed from Oregon south through California to northern Baja, Mexico. The leaves and flowers make an excellent tea when steeped in boiling water for about five minutes. A green dye can be obtained from the flowers, while the root produces a red dye. Its stems have been used as rods in basket making. All parts of the plant, rich in saponins, can be crushed and mixed with water to produce a soapy lather effective for washing dirt, though it doesn't cut oil and grease. If you pound fresh flowers in water you end up with a perfumed lather. Indigenous Americans formerly wove the branches together to form fish dams across streams.

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YELLOW MONKEYFLOWERS
If you pay attention to wildflowers in western North America you can't miss the monkeyflowers, by which is meant the genus Mimulus in the Snapdragon Family, the Scrophulariaceae. California's Jepson Manual profiles about 65 Mimulus species for that state, and they're all colorful, attention-getting wildflowers. A few monkeyflower species occur in the East, but nothing like here.

Like snapdragons, monkeyflower blossoms are bilaterally symmetrical and bugle-shaped. The Latin name Mimulus, applied to the genus by Linnaeus in 1753, derives from mimus, which means "buffoon," because of what Linnaeus considered the flowers' clownish bright colors, frequent spotting and irregular shapes.

In the very bottom of a shallow ditch along a road through the valley below us there's one spot about 20 feet long and two feet wide currently resplendently yellow with hundreds of slender, close-packed, yellow-blossomed monkeyflowers. You can see a small part at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090517mm.jpg.

At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090517mn.jpg there's a close-up of a single blossom, noteworthy features of which are: 1) how the floor of the flower's "throat" bulges upward forming a "palate" reducing entry into the corolla's interior; 2) the long, outward-pointing, soft hairs at the throat further restricting entry to small insects, and; 3) the five "pleats" or "wings" running longitudinally along the cylindrical calyx's sides.

If I had to name the plants in the picture I'd say that they're probably MIMULUS GUTTATUS. However, the very similar species Mimulus tilingii also occurs here. Plants in the ditch's moister, deeper soil in the very bottom were most like M. guttatus while those in drier, thinner soil around the edges answered more to M. tilingii. A fine page comparing and illustrating the two species, and remarking that some experts suspect that the two species are just one, is available here.

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"SALES ARE DOWN"
Public Radio reaches here so I hear the economic news. "Sales are down across the board" I heard Tuesday morning. Analysts suggest that "the American Age" is being replaced by "the Asian Age," that the dollar may become junk currency, and that nearly all kinds of power and prestige are flowing inexorably toward the Orient. Do these trends portend the failure of our society?

This is a failure only to those eager to return to the mindsets and behaviors prevalent during most of my lifetime. But those mindsets and behaviors were unsustainable as well as lethal to Life on Earth.

"Sales are down" is one of the most promising phrases I've heard in a long time. It's exactly like being grossly and dangerously overweight, and discovering that you've lost five pounds. Our intemperate consumption of natural resources has resulted in clear-cut rainforests needed for generating oxygen for us all to breathe; it's caused the toxic pollution and overfishing of our oceans; it's contributed to global warming... And now we hear that that process is slowing down.

It's not enough to simply abandon old ways. Something must replace what has been lost. Here's what should replace our old ways:

Where before the "successful citizen" was judged in terms of the amount of his or her wealth and property, now we must honor most those with lifestyles and jobs that protect the planetary ecosystem. Retraining bankers and investment fund managers to install insulation in old houses or set up backyard gardens or solar systems would be a good start.

This is exactly the time for our culture to rediscover how fulfilling it can be to have plenty of quality family time, to eat wholesome, locally produced food, and to repair things instead of buying new ones. We must consciously cultivate in ourselves refined thinking and self control, and give ourselves the chance to be nurtured by art and philosophy. Young people eager to contribute to the advancement of humanity should be encouraged to study ecology, history and engineering.

"Sales are down..." Future historians will record that as a feature of our failed society only if we continue defining our society as based on consumption and growth. If now we morph into a social order rooted in sustainable, ecological principles, once again history will recognize us as having seized the initiative during critical times, and provided enlightened leadership to the world.

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Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim