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

June 14, 2009

CHERRY-PICKING SAPSUCKER
From my friends' elevated porch you look right into the big cherry tree's upper branches and nowadays that's a fine thing to do because the tree is full of ripening cherries. Hardly ever does a cherry reach real ripeness, however, because the birds eat them. The tree is too big and irregularly formed to spread a net over. "We just get one or two cherries when we can," Anita says with pitiful resignation.

The other day I was on the porch with my friends conferring about repairs to the springhouse when a sharp mewing erupted from just below us. It sounded like a catbird but catbirds aren't found here so I thought maybe it really was a cat. Then I saw it and my heart skipped a beat, for I'd been stalking it for weeks, and here it was just a few feet away in the cherry tree. You can see the resulting pretty picture at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090614ss.jpg.

That's a sapsucker, a Red-breasted Sapsucker, SPHYRAPICUS RUBER, looking just like the East's Yellow-bellied Sapsucker but with that splash of crimson on the throat and chest, as if he'd just gashed his throat and was bleeding profusely from the wound. There's a Red-naped Sapsucker east of here, with a red back-of-the-head. My old field guide lumps Red-naped and Red-breasted Sapsuckers with the much more widely distributed Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, but newer field guides assign them to different species.

Whatever the deal, I could look at that picture all day, imagining how it must feel to be a woodpecker with a sweet tooth and to be hanging there in the cherry tree with the leaves glowing so radiantly in morning sunlight and those cherries so sweet and moist and still cold from the early morning chill. The bloody-looking throat feathers inject poetic pathos into the moment. Like meeting a beautiful woman in Vienna or Buenos Aires, but there's something crazy about her, and you know that it'll all end disastrously, but right now there are those cherries, so sweet and moist and bound to warm with the morning sun.

*****

TORTOISESHELL IN SHARP SUNLIGHT
I know what it's like back in Mississippi nowadays, so much heat and humidity, the mosquitoes and ticks. I remember my hermit days there when sweat dripped from my elbows the whole day during June, my books mildewed right before my eyes and ants built in my computer. Here it's been chilly all week with showers unusual for this time of year, but some afternoons where resplendent with sunlight as sharp and clear as the mountain air was fresh, and electric with life.

One sunny afternoon I got drowsy, found an unvegetated serpentine outcrop where there wouldn't be ticks atop grassblades, lay on the warm stone almost naked, and took a catnap in the sun. When I awoke maybe ten minutes later a butterfly of a type I hadn't seen was enjoying the sweat in my socks lying next to my head.

For a long time I just watched, savoring the sunlight working in the butterfly's rich wing-colors. The wings slowly pumped, the proboscis probed and the antennae quivered, and I don't think I've ever seen a butterfly so alive, that sunlight translucing through the wings leaving me breathless. I knew that no camera could capture that moment so that I could share it, but maybe if I told you about it and showed you the picture, maybe the two things together could help you see and feel a little of what I saw and felt. It's at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090614bu.jpg.

Really it's irrelevant what species the butterfly was, that butterfly who flew away the very moment the picture was snapped. However, if you're curious, it matches the Milbert's Tortoiseshell, AGLAIS MILBERTI, in my field guide. They say it inhabits "cold desert to rain forest and city lot to alpine summit" throughout Canada, including the Far North, south to southern California, Oklahoma and West Virginia. Its caterpillars eat nettles.

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NORTHWEST RINGLET
A few minutes later yet another butterfly species I'd not seen fluttered by. Its manner of landing seemed to be to haphazardly plunge onto any kind of spot, then hang there any way other than straight. Once he crashed into some grass blades and just hung suspended at an odd angle for half a minute or so. He acted drunk or confused, but butterfly brains aren't complex enough to get drunk or confused the way we think of it, and I don't know whether this was typical behavior. You can see this curious being at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090614nr.jpg.

The picture answers to my field guide's illustration of the Northwest Ringlet, COENONYMPHA AMPELOS, found in many kinds of grassy habitats, from mountain forests to vacant lots, for its caterpillar eats grasses. The species is distributed from British Columbia to here and northern Nevada.

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A LONGHORN BEETLE'S SPECTACULAR AEDAEGUS
Once again I didn't know I'd taken a great picture until after it came onto my computer screen. See if you notice what's so spectacular about it at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090614lh.jpg.

Look at what's issuing from the top beetle's rear end. When I saw that my first thought was that I hadn't known that beetles have penises. But, can that really be a penis?

With Bea in Ontario posting my picture on Bugguide.net where some experts helped out, I learned that the beetles are Dimorphic Flower Longhorns, ANASTRANGALIA LAETIFICA. With a little browsing I learned that the slender, cylindrical, wormy thing connecting the two beetles is an "aedeagus."

The aedeagus is a hardened, ringed sheath at the tip of which is a less hardened area, the "internal sac," which actually delivers sperm to the female. In the picture the internal sac is inside the female so all you're seeing is the aedeagus. When not copulating, the aedeagus and internal sac reside inside the male beetle but in preparation for sex the aedeagus "everts," or turns inside out, exiting the body to be what you see. Other insects possess aedeagi in different shapes and sizes; longhorn beetles in general have spectacular ones, and among the many species of longhorn beetles aedaegus sizes and shapes vary a lot.

But, is it a penis? Most specialists refrain from calling it that, but a few do. It depends on how you define what a penis is.

From the relative lack of information on Dimorphic Flower Longhorns and the few pictures of them on the Internet, I'd guess that they are relatively uncommon and of limited distribution.

*****

THE POND'S MAIN DAMSELFLY
The little pond above my trailer nowadays is busy with a dainty, blue damselfly a little different from those I've seen in the East. Bea in Ontario helped me identify it as the Pacific Forktail, ISCHNURA CERVULA. Bea helps because my modem connection here is so slow that I can't do much browsing of images. You can see our Pacific Forktails, male at the top, female below, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090614pf.jpg.

This species often is abundant in ponds and marshes all through the mountainous Pacific Northwest. You can see that the male and female are quite different. When I took the picture I only knew that they were the same species because I saw them mating. I read that females present several color variations. Apparently our picture shows an exceptionally pale immature female with an unusually thick abdomen.

I've observed these damselflies catching mosquitoes, for which I'm grateful, and I've seen the damselflies in turn being gulped down by the big Bullfrogs hiding in grass along the pond's banks. Since mosquitoes often feed on me, then, I can guess that a few molecules of myself have passed through mosquitoes and forktails to the bullfrogs. When the bullfrogs serenade me all night, in a real sense, thanks to mosquitoes and forktails, I'm hearing a song of myself.

*****

FLOATING PONDWEED AT ITS PRETTIEST
Last month I introduced you to the invasive aquatic plant called Curled Pondweed, Potamogeton crispus, mentioning that after its late-spring flowering the plant disintegrates. Now large parts of the pond that earlier were clogged with Curled Pondweed are open, just with a few short, mushy sprigs of the plant floating here and there, fish nibbling on the remains. The plant really did simply disintegrate once it had fruited and produced its vegetative buds, the turions I showed you. The Curled Pondweed page remains at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/h/pondwee2.htm.

Last month a second species of pondweed also was present but not growing so luxuriantly. That second species was the native Floating Pondweed, POTAMOGETON NATANS, whose broad, surface-floating leaves now are spreading slowly across the pond's surface, as seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090614po.jpg.

In that photo the slender, upward-pointing item in the center emerging from the water is the flowering spike. A close-up showing green, crammed-together, maturing ovaries topped with fuzzy, whitish stigma arms is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090614pp.jpg.

Once the ovaries mature into fruits the spikes fall over and become a squishy mess that provides a banquet for small wildlife such as ducks, coots and rails. You can see some fruits perfect for eating at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090614pq.jpg.

A shot showing how the floating leaves arise from long, underwater petioles attaching to the main stem is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090614pr.jpg.

Floating Pondweed occurs all across North America except in the Southeastern states.

What a pleasure to focus on pondweeds, or Potamogeton, of which about a hundred species are known, about 33 occurring in North America. Wherever they live, a complex aquatic ecosystem develops around them where earlier there was just open water and free-floating microscopic organisms. As I photographed, Pacific Forktail damselflies and dragonflies flitted all about, the forktail females on the pondweeds' floating leaves bending their abdomens over the blades' edges to insert eggs on the undersides. Tiny fish schooled inside the tangle of submerged pondweed stems and petioles, sheltering from bigger fish in the open water. Each submerged leaf surface and stem was encrusted with a soft, spongy layer of algae and other microorganisms. On some days I lie on the little bridge crossing the pond just watching the pondweed, knowing how it's so busily and generously photosynthesizing carbohydrate to share with the rest of the ecosystem, spewing out oxygen for me and everyone to breathe in the process.

Beyond the ecology, there's the pondweeds' sheer color and pleasing textures, the shiny, yellow-green leaf- ovals floating atop black water, the blades maturing toward a reddish blush, the chill water indenting at leaf edges, the water's reflections and three- dimensionality, patterns of cloud reflections mingling with stiff underwater stems, all this blossoming into the odor of rich mud, into birdsong and sunlight, and me there on the bridge watching, watching, watching.

Sometimes I dream of being a small fish silent but totally alive to pondweed blades translucing yellow- green sunlight above me.

*****

FOOL'S ONION
At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090614fo.jpg if you know your wildflowers you might guess that what you're seeing is one of the many "wild onion" species, genus Allium, especially if you crush a leaf and smell the distinct onion odor. That onion smell is convincing because closely related genera don't have it -- convincing even when you look closely into the flower and see its very unusual filaments -- the stamens' anther-bearing stems -- shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090614fp.jpg.

In that picture the green, spherical thing is the ovary, then right below the ovary arises a cup-like structure with six pointy teeth along its rim. The cup-like structure is composed of the six stamens' filaments. The points along the rim are small anthers, the baglike items that open to release pollen. A normal stamen's filament is slender and matchstick-like, but here the filaments flatten out and form a bowl or crown above the six white tepals making up the flower's white "corolla." Those filaments are really un-onion-like and in the online Flora of North America I couldn't find a single Allium species among the 96 species described with filaments like them. But, there was that odor of onion...

After an unconscionable amount of time trying to make what's in the picture into an onion, finally it dawned on me that on the morning I'd smelled the flower's oniony odor I'd made myself a good old onion sandwich, so of course my fingers had smelled of onion!

What's in the picture goes by such names as White Brodiaea, Hyacinth Brodiaea and Wild Hyacinth, but in my case the most appropriate common name is Fool's Onion. It's TRITELEIA HYACINTHINA, closely related to the onions, and rather commonly occurring in a variety of low, moist soils, even along roadsides, throughout the Western states.

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CATTAILS FLOWERING
Last April I described how the brown, wiener-shaped fruiting heads of the pond's cattails were beginning to break open, releasing puffs of white-parachuted, seed-like fruits into the air. A beautiful picture of the cattails during a heavy April snow is still online at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/h/cattail.htm.

Nowadays those handsome, brown fruiting heads are bleached gray and mostly fallen over, only a few still issuing parachuted fruits into the wind. However, the plants' submerged rootstocks have sprouted a luxuriant crowd of new green blades, and from many tufts of new blades arise this season's flowering heads -- the brown fruiting heads of the future.

At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090614ct.jpg at the photograph's left you see some flowering heads at their current stage. Note that the spikes in that picture at the left have upper, yellow-brown, irregular-surfaced parts and lower, green, smooth- surfaced parts, separated by narrow constrictions.

Cattail flowers are unisexual. The yellow-brown parts above the constrictions are composed of male flowers while the greener parts of the spikes below the constrictions bear female flowers. On the picture's right you see the constriction close-up, male flowers above (some removed so you can see male flowers from the side), and below the constriction you see the tops of close-packed female flowers.

Where the male-flower area is browner and rougher, the flowers are more mature and already releasing pollen. The lower, smoother part of the male-flower zone holds male flowers not yet producing pollen. Just before flowers in the male spikes begin producing pollen -- while they're still in the smooth-surface stage -- you can eat male flowers off the stalk like corn on the cob. It isn't very tasty but it's OK if you're hungry, and probably nutritional, since you're eating a lot of pollen. You can soak such male spikes in butter and fry them, but it tastes like cotton soaked in hot butter so there's not much use doing it unless you don't have anything else, and if you have butter in the first place, probably you do.

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AN ATYPICAL BLACKBERRY
Blackberries belong to the genus Rubus, in the Rose Family. Lots of blackberry species exist and after you become familiar with several of them you develop a notion of what they're like. A common blackberry species here is unlike any other I've ever seen, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090614ru.jpg.

That's the Cut-leaved Blackberry, RUBUS LACINIATUS, and though its spiny canes are very blackberryish, you can see that it has very unorthodox "cut leaves." Like a typical blackberry its large leaves are divided into three or, more usual, five leaflets, but then the leaflets themselves are cut into very jagged margins. Normal blackberry leaflets are more or less oval like grapevine leaves and their margins are saw-toothed, or serrate, like the teeth of a saw, not at all deeply cut like these.

Also notice that the petals likewise are "notched." The outer edges of petals of most blackberry species are rounded with no incisions.

The Cut-leaved Blackberry is an invasive species but it's unclear where it's from; some books say Europe. Nowadays they're found in every state and province in North America but I've seen a distribution map for it a few years old where it was reported only in northwestern and northeastern US states and absent all across the central and southern tier of states. That suggests that the species first got footholds in both the Northwest and Northeast US, and is spreading rapidly.

One reason for its rabid advanced across the continent is that it produces wonderful blackberries -- big, sweet, succulent, and its seeds aren't too large. In fact, horticulturists have developed several important pomological varieties from it, with names such as Atlantic, Black Diamond, Pan American, Starr and Wonder. The plant also is so floriferous that it's grown for decoration, and so vigorous that it's used to cover rough spots where other plants won't grow. During my recent summer in the Sierra Nevadas I saw that butterflies and bees benefit greatly from the flowers, and birds flock to eat the fruits.

As an invasive species, then, it's not altogether obnoxious. In fact, this may be one time when hosting an invasive turned out OK, though you'd have to know what native species were displaced to say that for sure.

*****

LADY'S TRESSES
Back East sometimes you run into lots of Ladies-Tresses Orchids so when I saw some here I didn't think much about it, just photographed one, which is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090614sp.jpg.

That's the Western or Creamy Lady's Tresses, SPIRANTHES PORRIFOLIA, standing about ten inches tall. It was easy to identify as a Spiranthes because the tiny flowers spiral around the very slender flower spike.

It turns out that this orchid may not be as common as I figured. In Washington State it's listed as "sensitive," just below "threatened." A Washington State publication says that there are fewer than 500 plants total at all the known sites. About half a dozen live along the gravel road right above my trailer.

California's Jepson Manual lists only two Spiranthes species for that state while Weakley's Flora of the Carolinas lists sixteen for its area. Spiranthes porrifolia is native to the US's five most western contiguous states.

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FLORA OF NORTH AMERICA MORE AND MORE USEFUL
If you understand basic taxonomy and can handle technical botanical "keys' for plant identification, don't overlook the Flora of North America Project, which is the last word on which plants live where in North America. The Project has been online for several years but most plant families weren't finished. Now maybe half the families are finished, the treatments of finished families including detailed technical descriptions and wonderful keys for identification.

I've created a subdirectory on my hard disk called FNA where I copy the treatments. Important families that have been finished include the Lily, Iris and Orchid Families, plus some big genera, such as the oaks, pines and onions. The ferns look finished completely and most or all of the Composite or Daisy Family, the Asteraceae, is done. Now no matter where I am in North America, if I have my computer with me, I can identify species in such major plant groups as the oaks and asters! During most of my life such comprehensive treatments published on paper were very expensive and hard to obtain but now they're free for the download.

The FNA page listing North America's plant families, with the names of finished families made into green- colored links, can be accessed at http://hua.huh.harvard.edu/FNA/families.shtml.

*****

SUNLIGHT IN A TORTOISESHELL'S WINGS
It's worth reflecting on the buzz I got seeing sunlight in a tortoiseshell butterfly's wings. After all, the image was no more than a novel blending of designs and colors, with sunlight-highlighted hues stimulating the eye's receptors more vigorously than usual.

What charmed me most was the butterfly's movements vividly seen in dazzling sunlight -- the twittering antenna, the probing proboscis, the twitching wings, the legs constantly testing for a securer foothold. Nothing could have been more alive than that butterfly.

Yet, everyday I see many insects and other creatures moving in similar ways. The difference is that at other times I'm not as focused as I was that day. I forget to look closely at things, even when I know that doing so makes me feel good. Human minds basically don't like to work too hard, plus they grow desensitized to any stimulus often repeated.

One insight flickering into my consciousness as I watched the tortoiseshell was that since it takes effort and a certain sense of self awareness to consciously slow down enough to really see, to remove oneself from distractions, and to focus intensely, at least a modest level of sophistication is required. Simple organisms and simple minds, or even sophisticated organisms and minds in communities not mature enough to offer its members the freedom to reflect in quiet moments, are too immersed in tasks of the moment to delight the way I did meditating on the tortoiseshell in brilliant sunlight.

Thus, delight of the kind I experienced with the tortoiseshell is reserved for evolutionarily advanced beings in mature community settings. This suggests that there is direction in our continuing evolution. And that direction is toward ever-greater sense of awe, understanding and sense of belonging -- of accepting full brotherhood with tortoiseshells aquiver in sparkling spring sunlight.

What a pleasure sensing that we are evolving toward that beautiful thing suggested by a butterfly being itself.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim