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

June 7, 2009

SPOTTED TOWHEES
My old birding field guide illustrates the Rufous-sided Towhee distributed throughout the US and southern Canada, but admits that the species "varies geographically." Nowadays field guides usually break the old Rufous-sided species into the East's Eastern Towhee and the West's Spotted Towhee. It's Spotted Towhees, PIPILO MACULATUS, who come into my friends' backyard for the birdseed the Steller's Jays knock from the feeder onto the ground. A Spotted is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090607tw.jpg.

The Spotted Towhee looks and behaves almost exactly like the Eastern species, except that the Spotted bears those conspicuous, white spots on the back while the Eastern doesn't. Also, the Eastern often is heard calling a pure "drink-your-TEEEEEEEE." I've heard the Spotted call a more ragged "TEEEEEEE" and sometimes "d'-TEEEEEEEEE," but not the whole phrase, and its other calls seem a bit more varied and harsh than the Eastern's.

One feature common to the two species is that if you're next to a thicket or scrubby area and you hear unusual rustling in dry leaves it's a good chance that it'll be a towhee, for they forage on the ground scratching like chickens. They mainly eat insects, acorns, seeds and berries. I don't believe there's anyplace were towhees might turn up more than in blackberry thickets, where you'll hear them scratching on the ground before flying up into the upper canes to see who you are.

*****

EARTHWORM ESTIVATION
When the soil gets very cold, very hot, very wet or very dry, it's hard on an earthworm. Survival strategies vary from species to species. A typical behavior is to tunnel deeper into the soil to where conditions aren't so extreme. Some species, especially during hot, dry periods, do what's shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090607ea.jpg.

At a fair depth they roll themselves into balls and excrete mucous around themselves creating a kind of cocoon. In such a state their body functions slow down drastically. They go into a kind of suspended animation, waiting for soil conditions to improve.

When an animal enters such a state enabling it to survive summer's hot, dry conditions it's said that it estivates or "goes into estivation." This week I found the earthworm shown above as I worked in very dry, hard-caked garden soil. The earthworm lay inside a solid clod that broke apart like a brick. While the picture was being taken the worm began moving and I felt bad for having disturbed his dry-season repose.

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NELSON'S HAIRSTREAKS ON DEER BRUSH
This week the Deer Brushes flowered and they were just full of Nelson's Hairstreak butterflies, CALLOPHRYS NELSONI. You can see one sucking nectar through his slender, black, strawlike proboscis at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090607hs.jpg.

Other Deer Brushes were similarly thick with Neslon's Hairstreaks. I'd not noticed the species before, so maybe their appearance is coordinated with the Deer Brushes' flowering.

There's a whole group of small, mostly tropical butterfly species known as hairstreaks distributed through several genera in the Gossamer-Wing Butterfly Family, the Lycaenidae, the Hairstreak Subfamily, the Theclinae. Hairstreaks bear slender little "tails" at the bottoms of their hind wings. In the above photo the black and white tails appear at different levels because as the butterfly probed for nectar its hind wings constantly moved up and down relative to one another, like someone warming his hands.

I doubt there was much actual rubbing involved, though, else the wings' delicate scales would come off. I'm guessing that the black-and-white moving tails look enough like the butterfly's head with probing antennae to cause some predators to attack the wrong end. In fact, I saw several hairstreaks with deep gashes in their rear hind wings.

That's not the only way hairstreaks may defend themselves. In the Nelson's Hairstreak's family, the Lycaenidae, the chrysalises of most species produce faint sounds by flexing their bodies and rubbing together the membranes between their body segments. It's supposed that this sound helps ward off parasites and small predators.

Another English name for the Nelson's Hairstreak is Incense Cedar Hairstreak, for this species lays its eggs on Incense Cedar, probably the most common tree in our forest here.

The species is distributed from British Columbia to Mexico's Baja California, east into Idaho and western Nevada.

*****

DEER BRUSH AT ITS PEAK
With regard to the Deer Brush mentioned above, week before last they didn't call attention to themselves at all but this week as I backpacked through the mountains they were the most conspicuously, abundantly and fragrantly flowering plant all along my route. See one at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090607c2.jpg.

Deer Brush is CEANOTHUS INTEGERRIMUS of the Buckthorn Family, the Rhamnaceae, and if this seems like a repeat from a recent Newsletter it's because in the May 17th Newsletter we had Buckbrush, Ceanothus cuneatus, a similarly prolifically flowering bush of the same genus. I don't like to repeat myself but I want to emphasize how important this genus is in this part of the world. California's Jepson Manual lists about forty for that state, and many are common, woody, substantial bushes.

One reason Ceanothus species abound here is that they are adapted for surviving fires. Long summer droughts are normal here and forest fires are frequent. One Ceanothus adaptation to fire is the production of large numbers of seeds that remain viable up to 24 years or more. Their dormancy is broken by seed coat scarification by fire or physical disturbance. Most of my hike last weekend passed through forest with tree trunks still blackened by a recent fire. Most Ceanothus species resprout from the root after the crown has burned.

Deer Brush helps burnt forests regenerate not only by stabilizing newly exposed soil with its roots but also by providing nitrogen created by its root association with nitrogen-fixing bacteria. Deer eat the plant and quail eat the seeds. Indigenous Californians used Deer Brush branches in treating women after childbirth; California's Miwok Indians further used the branches in making baskets.

Flowers are white or blue. During my hike mostly I saw blue-flowered shrubs but white-flowered ones were common, and some plants displayed intermediate hues. Here and there the two forms mingled in equal numbers. I tried to make sense of the color variations but couldn't.

At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090607c3.jpg one of Deer Brush's tiny flowers displays five stamens arising opposite five slender petals, typical of its family. This species' triangular sepals rise above and almost enclose the ovary. You might enjoy seeing how the above flowers' sepal configuration differs from that of our May-flowering species, still shown online at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090517cg.jpg.

*****

POISON OAK FLOWERING
Poison Oak, TOXICODENDRON DIVERSILOBUM, is abundant here, forming dense thickets along roads and appearing more dispersed in the general forest. It's so common that if you're allergic to it you'll have a hard time being out much and staying away from it. You can see its flowers and glossy, trifoliate, compound leaves at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090607po.jpg.

This species, T. diversilobum, is more precisely referred to as the Western or Pacific Poison Oak in order to distinguish it from the Atlantic Poison Oak, T. pubescens. Our T. diversilobum occurs along western North America's Pacific coast and a bit inland, while the eastern species occurs all through the East and makes it as far west as Texas and Kansas.

Sometimes it can be tricky distinguishing the various poison ivies from the various poison oaks. In general the species of poison ivy are viny while the poison oaks are shrubby, and poison ivy leaves bear sharp-pointed lobes while poison oak's lobes are blunter, sometimes almost rounded, as in the photo. Most of our Western Poison Oaks are waist to chest high but sometimes you see one ten feet or more leaning against a tree trunk. You can almost see it thinking about being a poison ivy.

During the winter when leaves are off sometimes you find something and don't know whether it's a poison oak or ivy, or something else. A good field mark for poison oaks and ivies is that of whether its buds bear scales. Poison oak and ivy buds bear no scales, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090607pp.jpg.

That's one of our poison oaks' terminal buds. You're looking at two future compound leaves, one leaf forming the brown bud's left side, the other the right. Most of the bud's bottom parts are composed of the two leaves' petioles. If you look closely you can see the future leaflets at the buds' very top, heavily covered with protective hairs. If this were a more typical bud, of a maple or an oak, for instance, the leaves would be protected by overlapping, more or less triangular bud scales. The unscaled buds of poison oak and poison ivy are said to be "naked."

*****

COLUMBINES FLOWERING
Columbines here are similar to those ofn the East, though they're a different species. They're Western Columbines, AQUILEGIA FORMOSA, and you can see one along a mountain road, standing before a Swordfern, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090607co.jpg.

At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090607cp.jpg you see a single flower. Wildflower connoisseurs know that several blossom types bear petals equipped with hollow, nectar-secreting, backward-projecting spurs -- such as larkspurs, violets, touch-me-nots and nasturtiums. In the picture the slender, upward projecting, cone-shaped items are such spurs, well designed to entice nectar-searching hummingbirds, bees and butterflies. The actual flower petals associated with the spurs are much reduced, consisting of no more than the yellow projection at the base of each spur. The flower's horizontally spreading items, which at first we think might be petals, are actually the calyx's sepals doing the attention-catching job most flowers assign to their petals. Of course the downward-thrusting things looking like yellow-tipped matchsticks are the stamens.

In the common columbine of the East the flower's sepals project downward or at an angle instead of horizontally, plus they're shorter than the spurs, while you can see that our Western species' sepals are horizontal and about as long as the spurs.

Most columbines I've seen back East have been among mossy, rocky areas and in moist, protected valleys, but our Western Columbine shows up in relatively dry, weedy places, as well as moist, sheltered woodlands.

*****

BLUEGRASS COBWEBS & LIGULES
At the strawberry bed's edge a grass's panicle of flowers rose knee high on a slender stem, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090607bg.jpg.

I thought I recognized the grass as a bluegrass, genus Poa, but to be sure I broke apart a spikelet, lay some florets on the tip of my gardening-dirty fingertip, and what I saw convinced me that it was indeed a Poa. You can see the evidence yourself at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/0906607bh.jpg.

Those are the grass's tiny flowers, called florets. At the picture's right three florets are joined together; a single floret stands at the far left. Each floret is about 3mm long (±0.1 inch). To see how florets are joined into spikelets, check out my Grass Flower Page at http://www.backyardnature.net/fl_grass.htm.

Thing is, at the base of each floret in most Poa species there's a cobwebby tuft of hair, and that picture shows that the florets of this Poa bear a lot of cobwebby hair.

Though Kentucky calls itself the Bluegrass State, California's Jepson Manual refers to California as the evolutionary center for the genus Poa in North America, the main evidence being high species diversity here for the genus. About 33 species are listed. The species in the picture keys out to Howell's Bluegrass, POA HOWELLII, native from southwestern British Columbia south not far inland all the way to Mexico's Baja California.

While I was examining this grass I photographed another feature often used in grass identification, its ligule. Poa howellii's ligule is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090607bi.jpg.

In that picture I've tugged on the grass's blade at the right so that its base pulls away from the yellowish stem at the left, which normally the ligule lies flush against. The ligule is the pale, fingernail-like item projecting upward from the blade's base. Traditionally it's been surmised that grass ligules block rainwater, dust and spores from entering the blade's sheath below the ligule. Recent studies find that ligules may also secrete chemicals for one reason or another.

Ligules come in a world of shapes, sizes, textures and configurations, plus many grasses don't have them at all. They're of enormous help when identifying nonflowering grasses.

*****

STONECROPS FLOWERING
On a large serpentine boulder down in the moist, sheltered valley below where I'm staying the Broadleaf Stonecrop, SEDUM SPATHULIFOLIUM, is in flower. A picture of this pretty succulent is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090607cr.jpg.

You can understand why succulents often are found on boulders. When it rains, water runs off quickly and desert conditions on the boulder's surface return. Succulents soak up rainwater very fast and store it in their thick, succulent stems and leaves.

Similar stonecrop species occupy similar ecological niches in the East, but this is a different species, distributed in the mountains from British Columbia through the Pacific coast states to southern California.

*****

LUNGWORT
On the same boulder down in the moist, sheltered valley where the Broadleaf Stonecrop flowers there's a nice population of lungwort lichen, variously known as Tree Lungwort, Lung Lichen, Lung Moss, Oak Lung and Oak Lungwort. It's LOBARIA PULMONARIA, and you can see part of a large carpet of its human-ear-size flakes plastered across a serpentine boulder's surface at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090607lw.jpg.

This is a fascinating thing. We know that lichens are composite beings comprising two distinct forms a life, a fungus and an alga. However, lungworts, classified as foliose lichens, consist of an ascomycete fungus and an alga living in a symbiotic relationship with a cyanobacterium -- a symbiosis involving members of three KINGDOMS of living things! And the Plant Kingdom isn't included.

In this arrangement the fungus provides structure and handles reproduction; the alga and cyanobacterium photosynthesize food for the lichen, and the cyanobacterium further fixes atmospheric nitrogen for the organism.

Lungworts reproduce both sexually and asexually. I read that sexual reproduction happens when the plant has been established for about 25 years. Then the fungal part of the species produces small discs known as apothecia, which contain asci, from which spores are ejected into the air. You can see a drawing of an apothecium, or "fruiting body," with its asci at http://www.backyardnature.net/f/funclass.htm#a.

The lungworts on the boulder down below must be at least 25 years old because they are producing many apothecia, as you can see in the close-up at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090607lx.jpg.

The black discs atop the white columns are the asci-containing apothecia. When they first form the discs are reddish-brown but with age they turn black.

Most lungwort reproduction seems to be asexual, however. Frilly edges of the sheets dry up and become brittle, crumble away, and the tiny fragments grow into new plants.

One reason the species bears so many common names is that it's distributed in many rainy places throughout North America, Eurasia and Africa. Back in Mississippi it grows on steep, north-facing, mossy walls of deep gullies in loess -- down in the bayous.

In many cultures lungwort has been used medicinally for lung ailments because the lichen looks like human lung tissue. The Doctrine of Signatures supposes that that if something looks like a part of the body, that's an indication that it's medicinal for that body part. Even though this doctrine is pure superstition, a hot-water extract brewed from it has been shown to have anti-inflammatory and ulcer-preventing activities.

It's also been used to produce an orange dye for wool, to tan leather, in the manufacture of perfumes and as an ingredient in brewing. A couple of times on extended backpacking hikes I've eaten it just to fill my stomach, but it was leathery, had a dank, fungusy taste and I don't think I got much nutrition from it.

You might guess that such a long-lived, complex organism might be having problems surviving. It's true that it's disappeared from certain areas, particularly those with high air pollution and acid rain, and where clearcutting has opened the forest to drying air and sunlight.

*****

CHERRY WISDOM
This week after a late-term abortion doctor in Kansas was murdered a person involved in the abortion debate was interviewed on National Public Radio.

"It's time for people to start speaking up," the person more or less said. "It's a responsibility to go on record as opposing this kind of thing."

I believe in "speaking up." Moreover, in the abortion issue my sentiments lie more with one side than the other. But, in a debate that has gone far beyond rational discussion, how do you speak up without merely inflaming the issue? For days I thought about this.

Then Wednesday afternoon as I worked outside I passed through the orchard, ducked my head beneath a cherry tree branch, and saw what you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090607rc.jpg.

A perfect red cherry hung nestled with two less mature brothers among summery green leaves, their serrated margins and herringbone venation esthetically harmonious with the cherries' glossy, red skin, sweet succulence, and spherical form.

Seeing this, a flash of insight ignited in my mind. For, here was a set of Nature's generous, sustainable and beautiful paradigms for how things are to be done. The tree worked quietly and efficiently producing oxygen and sweet fruit for the rest of the community; it was part of a recycling ecosystem capable of continuing until the sun ceases supplying its energy, and; beautiful were the colors, the textures, the tranquil, elegant manner by which very sophisticated and highly evolved photosynthetic chemical pathways crystallized into sweet cherries suspended among lovely, green leaves.

That cherry tree proposed a whole approach to life, a set of basic doctrines which, if practiced by anyone, leads to healthy fulfillment.

This flash of recognition and insight revealed to me how I needed to "speak out" with regard to the abortion issue. Here is what I say:

We must draw closer to Nature while reflecting profoundly on the implications of being sparks of divinity residing in biological bodies. Though most people no longer want to garden, camp, hike, study nature, or even sit quietly doing nothing in the fields, we must do more of exactly those things. Teachers, artists and other leaders are capable of creating psychic ambiances and physical environments in which people will return to those activities gladly.

For, Nature, if given a chance, crafts the human spirit, young ones and old ones, to higher states of perfection at which many problems simply don't arise.

Looking at a cherry won't neutralize a religious fanatic's venom. However, in any family or community adequately charmed by and imprinted with the influence of the beauty, meaning and promise of perfect cherries nestled among perfect green leaves, the tragedy of "the unwanted unborn" will never arise.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim

All previous Newsletters are archived at www.backyardnature.net/n/.

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