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

May 24, 2009

VARMINT CALLER
Last Sundnympay Bob from northern California came up to see who'd been writing the Newsletters he'd been reading for several years. He also wanted to give me some extra planting potatoes he had, and to bring me up to date on "varmint calling."

Bob got lost finding the place so by the time we reached the field for a bit of calling it was midday, plus we were talking, so I didn't figure we'd call up anything, and Bob wasn't too hopeful himself. Still, he brought out something looking like a powerful, black flashlight, but with a speaker where the lamp ought to be, hung it on a pine limb, turned it on, and as the sound of a terrified, squealing rabbit issued across the valley, came back to sit with me several feet away.

After about fifteen minutes of squealing we were ready to give up but then a small raptor came out of nowhere, got almost to the machine, then saw us and disappeared as quickly as it had come. I'm guessing it was a Sharp-shinned Hawk, but my brain was too slow to register it.

"I have just as much luck using mouth calls," Bob said, turning the thing off. "The only advantage to this is that you can hang it on a tree, then go hide yourself, have your camera on a tripod, and when something comes, be ready to snap a picture."

Bob carried a variety of mouth-blown animal callers producing all kinds of shrieking, whining, yelping sounds meant to call critters near. You can see some at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090524vv.jpg.

"They're looking for protein," Bob says. "If they think a critter is having problems, they'll come looking."

Bob regaled me with stories of calling Mountain Lions and Coyotes, showed me just how to do it, and even gave me a call to blow on. I was glad to learn from a master and to hear the stories, but, to tell the truth, most of the time I'd rather do without a picture than to put up with all that squealing, plus I don't feel right calling critters away from their jobs just so I can look at them.

*****

ELEVEN DUCKLINGS
Tuesday morning a mother Mallard duck, ANAS PLATYRHYNCHOS, appeared at the pond right above my trailer followed by eleven attentive little puffballs not much larger than the eggs they'd just hatched from. You can see the whole family at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090524mm.jpg.

When I first visited the pond back in mid April I saw the male and female half-hidden in tall grass at the pond's edge, stretching their necks high watching me, then when I got too close they exploded into the air. Since then I've heard them more than seen them, especially quacking at dusk. I've consciously avoided visiting where I suspected their nest to be, and I've been waiting for exactly what I saw Tuesday morning.

Eleven ducklings: That's a little larger family than normal. At the wonderful Birds-by-Bent Mallard page at http://www.birdsbybent.com/ch1-10/mallard.htm I read that Mallards normally lay eight to twelve eggs, sometimes as many as 15, and that incubation, which is performed wholly by the female, lasts from 23 to 29 days, usually 26.

My first thought seeing the ducklings was, "How many will survive?" Obviously Mallard duckling mortality rate is high, else average clutch size wouldn't be so large. The pond holds only small fish but there are many turtles and very large bullfrogs. By the way, those bullfrogs right now are harumping at their loudest all through the day. Can you imagine being a tiny duckling in a brave new world of water, mud and tall grass, with those bellowing harumps exploding all around you as you struggle to keep up with Mama? No wonder each duckling in the picture looks so wide-eyed and alert.

Thursday morning while getting my campfire going I heard the mama duck quacking continuously and I could tell that something was wrong. It wasn't that I understand duck language; there's simply a continuum of emotionality and perception modes spanning the spectrum of higher living animals, and there's much that all us animals share in common. I found the mama alone in the middle of the pond, quacking exactly as I would quack if I had to express a great personal tragedy in terms of quacks.

Fresh fox poop lay in the center of the road alongside the pond, but also there are housecats in the area. Quacking pitifully the mama duck paddled along the banks searching intently the tall grass.

In mid morning suddenly the quacking became much louder and changed in emotional content. I found her being very closely followed by a single earnest-looking little. By mid-afternoon that duckling had disappeared again, and no further duckling ever turned up.

I read that while female Mallards tend to their one brood of the year the drakes gather in small flocks, molt into eclipse plumage and hide among the rushes in sloughs where they spend the summer in seclusion. However, it must be more complex than that. Thursday afternoon the drake suddenly reappeared accompanying the female as she continued working the pond's banks looking into the grass, and he's still with her today, Sunday, though they've both stopped searching the tall grass.

*****

PERCEPTIVE MOCKINGBIRDS
Hillary in Mississippi tells me about an article on the Science Daily website documenting how mockingbirds can recognize differences among humans. Despite the conclusion being something that a lot of us could have told the researchers, the study is being heralded as the first published research demonstrating that wild animals living in their natural environment recognize individuals of other species. The study is at http://www.sciencedaily.com//releases/2009/05/090518172437.htm.

Eventually humanity will realize that higher animals are profoundly more intelligent, perceptive and feeling than we give them credit for.

*****

A TOUGH OLD BULLFROG
I still go sit among the cattails sometimes, just sit quietly for the pure pleasure of being there. The other day a big Bullfrog settled in next to me, since I was "invisible" by not moving. Slowly I got my camera in position and took a shot, which you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090524bf.jpg.

He's an old, scarred-up one. I know he's a "he" because of the large, circular tympanum covering the ear area behind his eyes. Tympani of females are only slightly larger than the eyes, while this one's are much larger. I was looking right at this frog when a blue damselfly glided near, he lunged and gobbled it down and swallowed it, all in three to five seconds. Then back to his position for a long time, nothing moving but the thin, white skin beneath his mouth as he breathed.

*****

OREGON'S VERSION OF THE RINGNECK SNAKE
Bob and my friends drove me up to Onion Mountain 17 miles away, we had a picnic with a great view, and they left me there, to camp overnight and walk back the next day. During my descent, on the narrow gravel road just as it was warming up, I encountered the first snake I've seen since being here, which you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090524rn.jpg.

That's a Ringneck Snake, DIADOPHIS PUNCTATUS, and if you don't live around here and have Ringnecks in your area you may see certain ways this Ringneck differs from yours. Ringneck Snakes occur from southeastern Canada through most of the US into Mexico, fracturing along the way into about fourteen different-looking subspecies. Our subspecies is Diadophis punctatus ssp. occidentalis, the "Northwestern Ringneck," distributed mostly from southwestern Washington through extreme western Oregon, to Sonoma County, California. Our subspecies differs from others by having an especially wide neck ring and an orange belly that is lightly spotted. The bellies of other subspecies range from yellow to cream to red, and are unspotted or heavily spotted.

Ringneck Snakes only reach about 14 inches long. Their mouths are so small they couldn't bite a finger if they tried. They live under rotting logs, wood, and rocks and often are seen on roads and paths. They eat insects, frogs and salamanders, other small snakes, lizards, and newborn rodents.

*****

COLD SCORPION
The other day Anita was checking on the pipes bringing water down from the spring when she noticed a little scorpion atop a pipe joint's cover-box. It was a cold morning and the scorpion was very slow to move so it was short work for Anita to pick it up in a napkin and bring it to my door. You can see the resulting photo at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090524sc.jpg.

This is a Northwest Forest Scorpion, UROCTONUS MORDAX. At about 1.5 inches long, websites describe it as a medium-size, communal, rather shy and slow-to-act scorpion, preferring to play dead or hide rather than sting, though it'll readily sting prey too big to subdue simply by biting. The species is distributed in moist, heavily forested areas west of the Cascade Mountains from northern California into Washington state.

I'm accustomed to seeing scorpions in hotter, drier areas than here so I was a little surprised with Anita's find. Where else besides the Desert Southwest might scorpions be found in the US? A webpage entitled Scorpions of The USA Checklists by State supplied the answer. It turns out that, yes, scorpions are mostly found in the US's hotter, drier states (52 species and several subspecies are listed just for California) but also here in chilly Oregon and Washington States we have five species, and various species occur as far east as Virginia, though not in the north-central and northeastern states. Growing up in Kentucky I never saw one but one is even listed for there. You can check out this interesting list at http://www.angelfire.com/tx4/scorpiones/states.html.

*****

GRASSHOPPER NYMPH
Something was tickling the hairs on my arm. I thought it was an ant and started to brush it off, but then I saw that it wasn't moving like an ant. My hand lens revealed that it was a grasshopper nymph, with an oversized head and about as small as a grasshopper can be, surely just out of an egg. You can what I saw at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090524ny.jpg.

All insects don't produce small forms like this. Beetles, butterflies and moths, flies, ants, wasps, bees and other important groups undergo complete metamorphosis, so their life cycle is:

egg --> larva --> pupa --> adult.

In other words, a finished adult insect emerges from its pupal stage pretty much the size it'll always be.

However, insects groups such as dragonflies, cicadas, termites, "true bugs" and grasshoppers undergo incomplete metamorphosis, with this life cycle:

egg --> nymph --> adult

And that nymphal stage starts out small, molts through successive "skins," and with each molt becomes larger until reaching full adult size.

*****

YEW FLOWERS
Usually we think of yews as evergreen bushes around suburban houses trimmed into square-cornered forms. Out here the Pacific or Western Yew, TAXUS BREVIFOLIA, is a good-size tree and along a stream in the valley below it's flowering now. Take a look at a branch with its inch-long needles held in a flat plane at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090524tx.jpg.

Yews are gymnosperms so they're not angiosperms, which are known as the flowering plants, yet yews do have clusters of sexual parts traditionally referred to as flowers. You can see male "flowers" or stamen clusters at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090524ty.jpg.

Yews are typically dioecious (separate male and female trees). A "flower" from a female tree, consisting of a single naked ovule subtended by several bracts, is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090524tz.jpg.

The male "flowers" fall off as soon as their anthers shed their pollen. The female "flowers" will slowly grow until late summer when they'll develop into a greenish seed almost entirely surrounded by a bright red, gelatinous cup, or "aril," you've probably seen on yew shrubs.

In the forest, Pacific Yews are easily distinguished from other evergreen trees by the green sprouts arising from their trunks. This seems to be a good field mark for yew trees in general. Long-time readers will remember the Mexican Yews I profiled. A picture showing a trunk heavy with green sprouts still resides at http://www.backyardnature.net/q/mex-yew.htm.

*****

FAIRY SLIPPERS
My backpacking trip took me to the top of Onion Mountain, which tops out at 4439 feet (1353 m). On the north slope not far below the peak I passed through a cold, shadowy, moist, very quiet forest whose mossy floor in places was populated with what's shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090524ca.jpg.

That's the Fairy Slipper, an orchid, CALYPSO BULBOSA. Two plants are pictured, each with a single leaf and flower. The tallest plant stands about seven inches high. Fairy Orchids are widely distributed in cold, shadowy, moist, undisturbed habitats such as the one atop Onion Mountain. The species has a "circumboreal" distribution, which means that it's found in northern climes in Eurasia as well as the Americas. It occurs all through Canada and in the northernmost US states.

However, the species is very susceptible to being disturbed. It's listed as threatened in Michigan, Vermont and Wisconsin, and endangered in New Hampshire and New York. It doesn't transplant well to gardens because in Nature it depends on a mycorrhizal relationship with specific soil fungi. The Thompson Indians of British Columbia used it traditionally as a treatment for epilepsy. It practices "pollination by deception," since it attracts insects who receive nothing in return.

*****

VIOLETS AT THE TIPTOP
At the rocky, windswept, sun-dazed, very peak of Onion Mountain a healthy colony of yellow violets was in full bloom. You can see a pretty tuft of them at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090524vi.jpg.

A close-up looking right down the flower's throat, showing hairs on the side petals (wings) and dark purple nectar guides leading into the throat, is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090524vj.jpg.

It was such a raw, austere habitat that I thought maybe I'd found a rare and/or endemic species, but it turned out to be the Goosefoot Violet, VIOLA PURPUREA, a species widely distributed through most western US states and British Columbia. However, eight subspecies are recognized and some of those subspecies are found only in a couple of states, though none is listed as threatened or endangered. Apparently it lives in environments so severe that they offer little competition for soil with human industry.

*****

WOOLLYHEAD CLOVER
At the edge of a certain serpentine bald I saw a species of clover new to me and not occurring outside the bald area. Since environmental conditions on these serpentine balds are so extreme that often rare and endemic plants turn up there, I knew I needed to photograph and identify it. The plant is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090524cl.jpg.

A striking feature of this clover is how all its flowers nod downward instead of pointing in all directions, making spherical heads like our best-known clover species. Also, leaflets of its trifoliate leaves are narrow, not oval like those of many clover species. Up close the flowers show another striking, distinguishing feature, which you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090524cm.jpg.

The flower-head stem, or peduncle, and the calyx of each long, slender corolla bear hairs so long and soft that they can only be described as woolly. In fact, a name for this clover is Woollyhead Clover. It's TRIFOLIUM ERIOCEPHALUM.

So, did the species turn out to be rare and/or endemic? It's a situation like we saw above with the Goosefoot Violet: The species is widely distributed through several northwestern states so as a species its distribution is too large to be thought of as endemic. However, six subspecies are recognized, and some of those are endemic. Trifolium eriocephalum ssp. cascadense, for example, the "Cascade Clover," is found only in a handful of Oregon counties, including ours. None of the subspecies is regarded as endangered. I can't find literature enabling me to differentiate the various subspecies.

*****

CURLED PONDWEED
When I arrived here a little over a month ago, in the fairly clear waters of the little pond above my trailer, I saw ribbons of an aquatic plant rising toward the water's surface with distinctive, wavy- margined leaves. Over the weeks I've watched the ribbons rapidly grow longer until now they've reached the water's surface and form a thick tangle of ropy stems just below the surface. You can see some sprigs at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090524cp.jpg.

This is Curled Pondweed, POTAMOGETON CRISPUS. I read that Curled Pondweed rarely propagates with seeds. Mostly it reproduces by stem fragmentation and by the production of hard, burr-like items called "turions." In the last picture a turion lies atop my middle fingers, above the sprig lying across my hand. Basically turions are compacted, hardened stem-tips. A close-up of one can be seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090524cr.jpg .

When Curled Pondweeds finish flowering and producing turions in late spring and early summer the plants disintegrate -- rot away -- leaving only fruits and turions. The turions germinate in late summer or fall, the plants overwinter as small plants just a few inches long, even under ice, and then growth continues when the water warms in spring.

Despite many plants producing turions now, currently many plants also are issuing slender, whitish, inch- long flower spikes above the water. A close-up showing a spike with four or five blossoms can be seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090524cq.jpg.

In that picture each globular mass is a flower. The calyx and corolla, or perianth, have been reduced to one or two brown scales arising beneath each blossom. The whitish objects are anthers filled with pollen. Four two-celled anthers crowd around each ovary, the future fruit, so you can't see the ovary, but the pink styles and stigmas atop the ovaries are clearly visible.

Curled Pondweed is an invasive plant introduced from Eurasia in the mid 1800s and now found all across North America as well as other parts of the world. Often the species causes serious problems clogging waterways. In our pond, however, little fish looking for shelter from big fish love it, and big bullfrog tadpoles can be seen resting suspended in its tangles just below the water's surface.

*****

ANITA'S PERSIMMON PUDDING
You'll see why I'm thinking about persimmon pudding in the next section, and you can see what it looks like at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090524pu.jpg.

Cream together: Add:
  • 2 eggs
  • ¼ tsp salt
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 2 tsp soda in...
  • 2 tsp warm water
  • 1 cup flour
  • ¼ tsp nutmeg
  • 1 cup mashed persimmon
  • 1 cup raisins
  • ½ cup chopped walnuts
  •  

    Mix well. Put in bowl holding 6 cups. Place bowl in larger pan, half fill the outer pan with water. Steam 3 hours.

    You can juggle the ingredients. Instead of persimmons you can add pears, peaches or even applesauce. The recipe started out as plum pudding in the Northeast, maybe brought over from England. This is a basic pudding recipe and as in most of life success arises less from slavishly following instructions than grasping the basic principle, then winging it with what you have or what you like better.

    *****

    PERSIMMON PUDDING & MY BIG GAMBLE
    About thirty years ago I saw that I couldn't live the life I wanted while at the same time paying for health insurance. The choice was clear: Abandon my path or do without health insurance.

    I didn't take the gamble lightly. I'd traveled enough to have seen what it was like in countries where no one had health insurance. There were many more blind people in the streets, more people with missing or useless limbs, and more in bed with ailments that probably could have been cured if they'd had medical attention.

    During last weekend's backpacking trip from Onion Mountain I got to thinking about all this because before my friends left me there Anita had given me to carry along some persimmon pudding and a bottle of grape juice. The pudding had been made from fresh California persimmons and Anita had squeezed and canned the juice from her own grapes. Monday morning descending the slope I'd waited until I was a little tired, hot and really hungry to bring it out and then, with a broad view of a beautiful valley below me, the moist freshness of a perfect morning lingering in the air, with juncos trilling in the pines and a sky about as blue as possible, I ate that persimmon pudding and washed it down with big swigs of grape juice and I don't believe I've ever enjoyed a meal more.

    For some reason, after thirty years, I decided that that persimmon-pudding moment finally carried me across the threshold beyond which I knew without a doubt that now I've won my gamble doing without health insurance. For, if tomorrow I'd learn that I have a cancer that could have been detected and cured if sometime during the last thirty years I'd have had a physical check-up of the kind insurance pays for, but now I have just two weeks to live, I'll still have won my gamble. These last thirty years I've seen and experienced much more than I ever dreamed possible and I've enjoyed innumerable moments like that meal of persimmon pudding and grape juice. If thirty years ago I'd upgraded my job to one enabling me to pay for health insurance, my life wouldn't have been graced with nearly the number of transcendent moments I've experienced without insurance.

    There's even been an unforeseen benefit arising from living without health insurance. For, the very moment I irrevocably made the decision to live without it, something flipped in my brain. From that moment through thirty years until now I've regarded every literal and figurative bend around the corner as a potential life-altering risk. No emergency room for me if I fall from that ladder. No heart bypass if I have a heart attack.

    Thus, during these last thirty years I've been on high alert, paying attention and watching out. This has imparted to my life an intensity and a focus I think is largely missing in lives of people who at least think they're secure, that "things are taken care of." Also, by eating and drinking properly, and exercising and avoiding self-destructive habits, I've ended up with a body that even now, approaching age 62, thrills with the pure pleasure of breathing fresh air, of hiking and climbing and carrying a backpack mile after mile, and my digestive tract can still absolutely annihilate a gummy, black, shining-in-mountain- sunlight persimmon pudding washed down with sparkling grape juice.

    I'm not suggesting that others follow my example. It was a real gamble, and I just got lucky. I know several people smarter and more talented than I who gambled but lost.

    It's just that as I was licking the last brown smears of persimmon pudding from my fingers and smacking my lips, it occurred to me that someone out there might benefit from being reminded that sometimes the gamble pays off. And if you find yourself facing the choice I did thirty years ago, and you feel strong, you know what you want to do and you can't do it while paying for health insurance, you know you have the self discipline needed to pull off the whole thing, feel a little lucky, and haven't yet made your welfare critical to the lives of someone else... remember me on that high mountain perch last Monday morning with persimmon pudding crumbs in my beard and grape juice glistening on my lips, and do what feels right to you.

    *****

    Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

    Jim

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