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

May 31, 2009

STELLER'S JAY
Eastern North America has its Blue Jays and here in the West and in uplands all the way south through Mexico and Central America there are Steller's Jays. At mid-continent where the distributions of the two species meet sometimes birds hybridize, which shows how recently in evolutionary time they shared a common jay ancestor. They're members of the same genus. One of our Steller's Jays, CYANOCITTA STELLERI, is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090531jy.jpg.

If you're an Easterner familiar with the Blue Jay's flamboyant, raucous, nosy, mischievous behavior, you already know what the Steller's Jay is like, though the Steller's alarm call is a harsh, nasal "wah, wah, wah" lacking the Blue's shrillness. Lke the Blue, it issues a variety of calls and imitates hawk squeals when it wants to shoo other birds from feeding areas. They also practice similar diets, including pilfering the occasional egg or nestling from another songbird's nest. To hear the Steller's Jay, click on the orange "listen" icon at the left of the page when you go here.

The Steller's I'm most familiar with are those of the highlands of Mexico so when I got a good look at Oregon's I was surprised to see so much brownness suffused the otherwise black head. In fact, the north's blackish-brown-headed birds gradually become bluer-headed farther south.

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EDITH'S CHECKERSPOTS
When I got here about six weeks ago so many Painted Lady butterflies flitted among the flowering manzanitas that I figured I was in a wonderful place for butterfly watching. However, over the weeks the Painted Ladies have diminished in numbers dramatically and very few species have joined them.

Therefore, as I hiked up a gravel mountain road during last weekend's backpacking trip I was tickled when a butterfly completely new for me turned up, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090531bu.jpg.

That's the Edith's Checkerspot, EUPHYDRYAS EDITHA, and it wasn't the only one there; up ahead several of the same species fluttered about. I'd climbed into a whole zone of Edith's Checkespots. Apparently they didn't like the cool, conifer forest environment I'd been in so far, but this hot, sunny, gravel road traversing a mountain-ridge serpentine barren seemed to suite them just fine.

I'd never identified an Edith's Checkerspot, but their behavior was very familiar. They belong to the same Brush-footed Butterfly Family, the Nymphalidae, as Painted Ladies, and lots of species in that family are very fast fliers. The males perch someplace and dart out at nearly anything winging by, whether a female of the proper species or not, and that's exactly what the checkerspots were doing on the road that day.

The field guide says that among the species' most important host plants are Indian Paintbrushes of the genus Castilleja, and it's true that that scarlet-blossomed plant was flowering gloriously in the serpentine barren around us.

Edith's Checkerspots are distributed from southern British Columbia and Alberta south to Mexico's Baja California and southwestern Colorado. With such a large distribution they're evolving into local populations that even if they're not assigned subspecies status differ from one another in food choice, degree of mobility, and behavior such as where the females lay eggs.

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HONEYBEE CRISIS
We've all heard about the current honeybee crisis in North America, where entire hives suddenly turn up dead. I've had mixed feelings about that, so this week I was gratified when Buford in Florida sent me a link to an article he'd written. He pointed out that the dying bees are, after all, an alien, introduced species in competition with native pollinators.

It may be true that vast commercial acreages of certain crops will suffer because not enough hives with European bees in them are available, but what about the wisdom in the first place of cultivating large, monocultured acreages? The dying bees are confirming the wisdom seen in Nature at all levels that huge monocultures always are unstable and unsustainable -- whether they are monocultures of alfalfa, of bees, or humans. The ideal is the mosaic of cooperative, interdependent communities, each community largely self sufficient, but with its own identity and specialties which it shares with others.

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AZALEAS FLOWERING
The azalea/ rhododendron scene here in the West has an entirely different feeling from that of the East. First, keep in mind that the boundary between azaleas and rhododendrons isn't a sharp one. In general, azaleas bear deciduous leaves and their flowers possess 5-7 stamens, while rhododendrons produce evergreen leaves and their flowers have ten stamens. However, both azaleas and rhododendrons are members of the genus Rhododendron.

Weaklely's Flora of the Carolinas describes 19 species of Rhododendron for that region, of which 13 are listed as azaleas. Oregon is home to just two Rhododendron species: one rhododendron and one azalea. Our azalea is flowering now. You can see one at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090531az.jpg.

In the US Southeast azaleas are a varied, often hard-to-identify bunch, frequently rare and retiring. When flowering they can be like fabulous bouquets or big bowls of sherbet left in the forest. Oregon's azalea, the Western Azalea, RHODODENDRON OCCIDENTALE, is almost weedy by comparison. With smallish, white flowers, the plant grows ten feet high so vigorously that it forms thickets as if it were an invasive.

Still, it's an excellent species. Look at its flowers at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090531a_.jpg.

Though the flowers are only two inches across they're powerfully fragrant, and produced in such profusion that sometimes when you walk into their pooled fragrance it's like walking by a fence overgrown with Japanese Honeysuckle back East. Western Azaleas can occur in odoriferous abundance in sheltered coves in mountains and foothills, along seepages and creek sides, and they occur here and there in drier spots. They're distributed from southwestern Oregon to southern California.

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PACIFIC DOGWOODS FLOWERING
Pacific Dogwoods, CORNUS NUTTALLII, also are flowering now. They're similar to the East's Flowering Dogwoods but, as with the azalea situation, the Pacific species is larger and projects a more robust image. The East's Flowering Dogwoods grow to about 40 feet tall while Pacifics reach 60, and leaves and flower-heads are correspondingly larger in the Pacific species as well. The Flowering Dogwood's flower heads bear four petal-like, white bracts while the Pacific produces up to six. A Pacific Dogwood's flower head is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090531dw.jpg.

That flower head's white bracts are a little splotched because the trees have been blooming here for nearly a month. Thus the Pacific's flowering period is much longer than the East's as well.

So, azaleas and dogwoods out here are bigger, plus the West's Steller's Jay is eleven inches long compared to the eastern Blue Jay's ten, and the Steller's has a much more pronounced crest. Also I've mentioned that the West's gray squirrels are larger and "wilder" seeming than the East's. In fact, I myself feel a little more rambunctious here. Is it something in the air?

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NINELEAF BISCUITROOT
You can see one of the most common wildflowers here at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090531lo.jpg.

That's a Nineleaf Biscuitroot, LOMATIUM TRITERNATUM. The species has been flowering for about a month but fruits are only now beginning to form, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090531lp.jpg.

If you're familiar with plant families you'll instantly recognize that this species belongs to the Parsley Family, the Umbelliferae. It's clearly an Umbelliferae because of the disposition of flowers and fruits in the last photo in a special kind of flower-grouping or inflorescence known as an umbel. An umbel is an often flat-topped inflorescence whose flower stems, or pedicels, arise from a common point like the stays of an umbrella. Queen-Annes-Lace flowerheads are wonderful examples of umbels.

The "nineleaf" part of the plant's English name should be "nine-leaflet" to be accurate, for in the first picture you saw two compound leaves, each with about nine leaflets.

The "biscuitroot" part of the name cues us that its brown, finger-size taproots are starchy and edible. Native Americans once ate them cooked or dried and ground into flour. The flour could be used to make a kind of mush or shaped into cakes and stored for later use. The roots' flavor has been compared to celery or parsnips, two plants also in the Parsley Family.

If you Google the genus name Lomatium you'll find pages and pages relating to the medicinal uses of various Lomatium species, mainly as an anti-viral and anti-bacterial agent. It's claimed to be effective for respiratory and urinary infections, herpes simplex, sinusitis, chronic-fatigue syndrome and a lot more. One site sells ¼ pound for $8.64.

Nineleaf Biscuitroot grows throughout the western states, and numerous other biscuitroot species exist. California's Jepson Manual describes about 30 Lomatium species for that state, while Weakley's Flora of the Carolinas covering most of the Southeast lists none.

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MARIPOSA-LILIES
Mariposa-Lilies: That's another group of wildflowers frequent in the West but not in the East. A very common one that's been flowering here about a month is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090531ch.jpg.

A close-up showing the flower's fuzzy-topped petals is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090531ci.jpg.

The word mariposa is Spanish for "butterfly." Mariposa-Lilies belong to the genus Calochortus in the Lily Family. California's Jepson Manual describes about 40 Calochortus species for that state, while Weakley's Flora of the Carolinas, as with the above biscuitroots, lists none.

With available literature I can't decide whether what's in the photo is Calochortus elegans or C. tolmiei. An information board beside a local Forest Service botanical trail mentions only C. elegans, so maybe it's that one.

These species arise from bulbs that can be eaten raw or cooked. They can be baked or boiled like potatoes and have a sweet flavor.

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HARD TO BELIEVE IT'S AN....
Can you figure out what group of plants is represented at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090531on.jpg?

A view down into the flower's throat is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090531oo.jpg.

The first moment I saw this plant I knew it had to be special, for here it grows only in thin soil at serpentine outcrops and it's fairly uncommon. I'd never seen anything like it, yet something about it seemed familiar. So I did the botany: Flowers arranged in umbels atop a leafless stem; six stamens per flower; a leaf-like spathe arising below the umbel; plant arising from bulbs... When my brain digested these features awhile suddenly without thinking I reached out, pinched a leaf and smelled my fingertips: ONION!

It's one of several species of "flatstem onions," ALLIUM FALCIFOLIUM. Allium is the onion genus. The species is a "locally common broad endemic" found only in our Siskiyou Mountains of southwestern Oregon and northwestern California.

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LOOKING AT STRAWBERRY FLOWERS
Behind my friends' house there's a slope absolutely covered with flowering strawberry plants. A small section showing white flowers and trifoliate leaves is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090531sb.jpg.

Unfortunately, the abundant harvest the blossoms seem to promise never develops. The flowers simply dry up and fall off. The reason is that the plants haven't been cultivated for years, but a strawberry plant produces good fruit for only two or three years. New plants produced at the rooting tips of a mother plant's stolons can be transplanted and those daughter plants will produce large fruits if properly cultivated, but no matter how well the mother plant is taken care of, it loses its vigor once it's issued its share of stolons. We've transplanted lots of young plants to new beds so before long we should have plenty of fresh strawberries.

Strawberry "fruits" are bizarre things but they can be understood by looking at the flowers from which they come. In the world of flowers, the simplest blossoms are those containing a single pistil, comprising the stigma, style and ovary -- the female parts. You may want to review basic flower structure at http://www.backyardnature.net/fl_stand.htm.

Individual strawberry flowers depart from that basic one-pistil arrangement by bearing many pistils. A diagram showing the two different configurations -- a flower with one pistil and another with many -- is at http://www.backyardnature.net/pix/pistil.gif.

Take a look at the strawberry flower cross-section at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090531sc.jpg.

The tallest items topped by golden horseshoe thingies are pollen-producing male stamens. Notice how they arise around the female parts in the flower's center. So far that's like our Standard Blossom. Now notice that at the very center of the flower I've cut across a little hill composed of nothing but undifferentiated tissue, and covering the hillock are numerous oval, shiny things. Each shiny thing is topped by a slender, yellow, matchstick-like item. The shiny things are ovaries and the sticklike things are stigma-tipped styles -- in other words, the little hill is covered with many pistils. The hillock in the picture's center is called the receptacle.

So, here's the thing: Unlike our Standard Blossom, a single strawberry flower's receptacle bears many pistils.

In most flowers the pistil matures into the fruit. With strawberry flowers there's a whole different story. Look at the next close-up, which shows an older flower after the white petals have fallen off, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090531sd.jpg.

In that picture the receptacle is beginning to enlarge tremendously causing the pistils to become more and more separated from one another. The spongy-looking sphere is the receptacle. The pistils themselves are maturing into special kinds of fruits called achenes, which are dry, one-seeded fruits that don't split open upon maturity. The sunflower "seeds" we eat also are achenes. Each achene in the picture is accompanied by the brown, shriveling-up remains of its stigma-tipped style. At the bottom of the spongy receptacle you can see remains of shriveled stamens.

So, you can already guess that the green, spongy receptacle in the above picture is going to enlarge even much more, eventually will turn soft, juicy and red, and when we bite into that receptacle, the strawberry, the soft-gritty little things that may get stuck in our teeth are achenes, which are the actual strawberry fruits we'd sow if we wanted to grow strawberries from seed.

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CHIMERAL VARIEGATION IN A MAPLE LEAF
At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090531mp.jpg there's a Bigleaf Maple leaf about a foot across showing a kind of localized albinism I don't recall seeing. It's caused by a lack of chlorophyll production in the white part of the leaf. Plants bearing various kinds of albino areas are said to be chimeras. Usually such variegation is manifested as stripes, splotches, fringes and such caused by a virus, genetic mutation, shading or nutrient deficiency.

But how might an otherwise healthy leaf develop such a well defined spot of albinism? I'm guessing that during the very earliest stage of that leaf's formation, when it was no more than a microscopic grouping of embryonic cells inside the leaf bud, a mutation occurred in a mother cell disenabling the cell's production of chlorophyll and that mutation was passed on to other cells splitting from it as the leaf continued to develop inside the bud.

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BIRDING MEMORIES
My old birding buddy Jarvis in North Carolina was telling me about bird-population data he'd been gathering from various surveys. I told him that my memories from back in the 60s when I was birding in western Kentucky are that bird migration then was much more spectacular than now -- more species to be seen on a given day and many more individual birds. Nowadays I just don't see trees buzzing with activity the way I remember, and I asked Jarvis if he has similar memories.

Jarvis is a real scientist and after remarks about how memories can be very faulty and shouldn't be trusted, he admitted that also he seems to remember more migrants back then. Of course bird-census data shows that there's every reason for these memories to be true, for most migrant populations have greatly diminished in recent years.

But, has the collapse in migrant bird populations really been so bad that the memories of people like Jarvis and me tell the real story? If so, how profoundly sad, for it means that today's young people will never be inspired by awesome waves of migrants singing and flitting about in spring, arriving like clockwork, the way we were. Emotionally and philosophically I'm rooted in such gorgeous, bountiful, promising events. How will humanity change if it no longer produces people with this kind of psychic rooting?

If you're an old codger with vivid memories about migration I'd be interested in reading them. How about posting them at the Backyard Nature Google-Forum at http://groups.google.com/group/backyard-nature/?

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A GOOD USE FOR PHILOSOPHERS
Last week I described how my decision thirty years ago to live an enriched life without health insurance was a gamble that paid off. Now I address a feature of my next thirty years, and I remind you that I'm approaching age 62.

People like myself still enjoy independence, still think clearly, and still can feel that we are contributing to society, friends and family. However, it's clear that our independence, our ability to think and act, and to contribute, are soon to diminish drastically.

Society offers inadequate end-of-life options for people like me. The only options available are to watch our powers and dignity gradually vanish, unless the degeneration process is interrupted by a crisis such as a heart attack, or else commit suicide, which society makes difficult and messy. Even broaching the subject of ending one's life before it has to end causes people to assume that you are depressed, fearful of something or in some other way mentally or emotionally unbalanced. But, a rainbow of reasons exist for at least thinking about that possibility.

In Oregon and Washington if doctors certify that a person has less than six months to live, and quality of life during those six months will be unbearable, that person can end his or her life legally with assistance.

To feel comfortable growing older in the US I would need something similar, except that instead of a physician certifying my medical qualification for dying with medical assistance, I would ask for a philosopher to certify that I am qualified for dieing when I want, in any unobtrusive way I wish.

That philosopher would certify that I grasp society's generally accepted pros and cons concerning living and dying, and that I recognize ethical and moral frameworks at least as valid as society-in-general's hodgepodge of notions on the matter. The philosopher would take into account how utterly offensive I would find it to lose my powers of thought, the input of my senses, no longer being able to contribute, and the feeling that I no longer fulfill my sacred duty of living lustily and with an intense sense of purpose as "a nerve ending for the self-monitoring Universal Creative Force."

There's another dimension to the discussion, too. For, among the world's most celebrated thinkers on matters of the human condition, it's commonly agreed that the extinction of one's personal identity from the face of the Earth represents no great loss, for it is pure illusion that we ever had an identify separate from that of the Great Unity in the first place.

I'm not depressed, not sick, not angry about anything, not being harassed by the tax or repossession people, and actually may be the most contented person I know. However, with a kindly philosopher's certification that I qualify as someone who before any court of law and the court of public opinion should have the right to quietly, calmly and with dignity exit this life whenever I'm ready, with ceremony or lack of ceremony befitting ME, I would feel much better right now as I survey these last years before me.

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Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim