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

June 21, 2009

TANAGER WITH A TASTE FOR CHERRIES
Of all the bird species ravaging the cherry trees the most brilliantly colored is the Western Tanager, PIRANGA LUDOVICIANA, shown atop a conquered cherry at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090621wt.jpg.

That bird eluded my camera for weeks, for he's a bit more nervous about being around humans than others. However, this week when I spent a lot of time in the orchard finally his passion for cherries overcame his caution, and he had to come close enough for his picture.

During most of the day he perches inside the Ponderosa Pines' dark shadows singing his sweet but somewhat monotonous, robinlike phrases with a slight hoarseness and a pause after each phrase. You can hear this by clicking the orange LISTEN icon at the upper left at http://www.enature.com/fieldguides/detail.asp?recNum=BD0349.

The female likes cherries as much as the male but while the male comes throughout the day her visits are more widely spaced, suggesting that most of the time she's incubating eggs. Her plumage lacks redness but her thick, pointed, whitish beak and dark wings and tail declare that she's this fellow's mate.

Western Tanagers are fairly common nesters throughout the western states and overwinter mostly from central Mexico to Costa Rica.

Traditionally the nine species of northern tanagers -- the genus Piranga which includes the Scarlet, Summer and Hepatic Tanagers -- have been placed in the Tanager Family, the Thraupidae. Genetic sequencing now suggests that they're much closer related to cardinals in the family Cardinalidae, so in future field guides probably they'll appear next to the Northern Cardinal. If this change is formalized it'll create the messy situation of having some famous northern tanagers not belonging to the Tanager Family. Some experts propose to call the shifted birds Pirangas instead of Tanagers.

Western Piranga... Scarlet Piranga... Summer Piranga... I could live with that.

*****

CHERRY LOVING CHAT
There's another bird species you don't think of as a fruit eater who's similarly passionate about our cherries nonetheless. You can see who I mean at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090621yb.jpg.

That's a Yellow-breasted Chat, ICTERIA VIRENS. Chats are very atypical members of the big Wood Warbler Family. For one thing, they're by far the largest of all warblers. Also, their thick, bent bills are very unlike those of other warblers, whose very slender beaks help them with their pecking at insects. To my mind, however, the most unwarbler thing about chats is their singing. My field guide describes the Yellow-breasted Chat's song as "an amazing alternation of caws, whistles, grunts and rattles, frequently given in flight and even at night." This week often in the deep of night I've heard the chat's racket. You can hear it, too, by clicking on the orange "Listen" icon at the upper, left corner of the page at http://www.enature.com/fieldguides/detail.asp?recNum=BD0370.

Here the chats' calls strike me as a little different from those back East. Certain grunts and whistles are lacking while others are new for me. My impression is that the Eastern chats' calls are more emphatic, more mechanical-sounding than ours though ours have those features as well. Our chats' calls seem a little more laid-back that the East's.

Yellow-breasted Chats fairly commonly show up in thickets all across the US, except in some of the northeastern states. Here they hang around our very luxuriant blackberry thickets.

Yellow-breasted Chats are unmistakable in the field with their bright yellow chests, olive-green upperparts, and the conspicuous white spectacles

*****

AND HOUSE FINCHES, TOO...
The cherries are running out fast so I've been taking advantage of them while they're available, snapping bird pictures. If you're interested in seeing a female House Finch, CARPODACUS MEXICANUS, with a very satisfied look on her face, you can do so at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090621hf.jpg.

*****

BIG BROWN BATS, AGAIN
Last July near Natchez I got a really fine picture of a Big Brown Bat, EPTESICUS FUSCUS, in a cranny of my friend Karen's house. That image is still online at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/a/brownbat.htm.

So this week when Anita shined a flashlight up into a crack between her house's gutter and eave facia I wasn't too surprised to see the fuzzy, reddish-brown, big-eared critters shown staring back at us at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090621bb.jpg.

There were nine of them and probably more live in the attic. My friends have erected a special roost just for bats, and a few were inside it, too, though more preferred the house. You can see the shelter, which is about 2½ feet high, hung beneath the workshop's eaves at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090621bc.jpg.

You can see how simple it is, with thin dividers inside forming three narrow, vertical compartments. Bats are wonderful organisms and their populations are plummeting. Building such a shelter and offering it would make a wonderful summer project.

*****

A FUZZY, MIDGET CICADA
For a couple of weeks I've been seeing small, dark cicadas climbing bushes here and there and I've been waiting for their shrill cries to begin, but so far they've remained silent. You can see one at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090621ci.jpg.

Its small size of about 25 mm (a little less than an inch), its long-hairy body and the chestnut-colored, spiny-bottomed section of its forelegs distinguish it from other cicadas I've seen. Bea in Ontario, who helps with my insect IDs because of my slow modem connection here, thinks it's probably PLATYPEDIA AREOLATA, and I suspect she's correct, for I find that species described as "the Orchard Cicada, the common cicada of the Pacific Northwest Region."

All cicada species have life cycles during which they spend from three to seventeen years as nymphs belowground feeding on tree roots before they emerge as adult cidadas like the one pictured. Once they emerge their adult lives are brief compared to their subterranean times. They just mate, lay eggs, and die.

Our Orchard Cicada is known to be a solitary species, so I'm not seeing the first of a massive emergence here. The species occurs on a four-year cycle.

While trying to identify my picture, Bea was astonished to learn that many cultures have eaten cicadas. Adults are collected during the first few hours after they've emerged from the ground, just after they've split through and abandoned their larva- stage exterior skins, or exoskeletons, and their new adult exoskeleton haven't yet hardened. I've known Asian students at universities to gather buckets of such soft-skinned adults during their rare emergences, then back home drop them into hot cooking oil so that they deep-fried like shrimp, and could be eaten like popcorn.

If I were forced to eat an animal, I'd much rather eat a cicada than the flesh of a much more sophisticated creature with more feelings and understandings, such as a pig or cow.

*****

A PALE TIGER SWALLOWTAIL
Blackberries are at their lovely peak of flowering here and butterflies just love them. This week I spotted what any butterfly fancier from the East might call a Zebra Swallowtail, but it was a bit different, so I figured I had its Western counterpart. The photo is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090621sw.jpg.

That's the Pale Tiger Swallowtail, PTEROURUS EURYMEDON. Tiger swallowtails -- genus Pterourus -- are generally yellow and black, so this black-and- white one is a bit anomalous. Zebra swallowtails are the ones supposed to be black and white.

Though my field guide says that this species is less numerous than other tigers, I understand why it's the main swallowtail around here: Its caterpillars' preferred food is the buckthorn bush, genus Ceanothus, which I've described several times as being absolutely abundant here.

Pale Tiger Swallowtails are distributed in mountainous and hilly country from British Columbia and Montana south to Mexico's Baja California.

*****

HAIRSTREAK DECODING
I know that in the June 7th Newsletter I already introduced you to a species of hairstreak butterfly, but I've run into another, and it's worth repeating in order to emphasize the enormous diversity found in this interesting little butterfly group. Look at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090621bh.jpg.

Bea in Ontario helped identify that as the Hedgerow Hairstreak, SATYRIUM SAEPIUM. You can see what qualifies it as a hairstreak: Its small size, gray- brown color, and those neat little "tails" on its lower hind wings, which it wiggles up and down simulating the head's probing antenna, with the consequence that predators might attack the wrong end and thus save the poor hairstreak.

About a thousand hairstreak species are recognized. Hedgerow Hairstreaks bear shorter "tails" than most, and differ from other hairstreak species by the patterns of spots and lines on their wings. In fact, when you're thumbing through the field guide's many pages of hairstreak species you feel like you're decoding a cryptic message because you have to pay attention to whether this little spot is inside or outside of that spot, this little line bending inward or outward, the relative position of this pattern is in the same place as that pattern...

It's amazing that a couple of little spots you wouldn't otherwise notice can mean a whole different species -- a whole different genetic heritage, set of habitat requirements, of distribution, of behavior, and more. If you enjoy Bach fugues, you'll love hairstreaks. You might enjoy comparing our Hedgerow Hairstreak picture with those of the Nelson's and Northern Hairstreaks linked to on our butterfly-index page at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/ins-butt.htm.

Caterpillars of Hedgerow Hairstreaks feed on the same buckthorn bushes, genus Ceanothus, as the above Pale Tiger Swallowtail, plus the two species occupy the same general mountain landscape and distribution, which is no coincidence; the two species are similarly dependent on Ceanothus bushes, and live wherever Ceanothus lives.

Hairstreaks are members of the Gossamerwing Family, the Lycaenidae, the Hairstreak Subfamily, the Theclinae. They're most abundant in tropical habitats.

*****

HEAL-ALL/ SELF-HEAL
Heal-all, also called Self-heal and a host of other names, PRUNELLA VULGARIS, is flowering now, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090621pr.jpg.

This is one of the best-known of all "weeds," not only because it's so common in disturbed, temperate habitats worldwide, including along sidewalks in cities, but also because of its memorable flowers, which are worth taking a close look at, as is done as http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090621ps.jpg.

There you have two flowers side-by-side. The flowers display bilateral symmetry, which is typical of the Mint Family in which they belong, but different from the radial symmetry most commonly seen in the flower world. On the flower at the left notice the fringed lower lip. Inside the flower at the right you can see how the blossom's four stamens and style arc beneath the curving canopy created by the upper lip. The white, ear-shaped things are the stamens' pollen-producing anthers.

The two inner stamens are shorter than the two outer ones, plus notice the two outer stamens' forked filaments, with only the inside branches bearing anthers. It looks like the outer branches might hold the anthers in place as the pollinator pushes its way into the flower's mouth, thus assuring that pollen is placed exactly where the next flower's stigmas will be waiting for it when the pollinator visits there.

So, does Heal-all really have medicinal qualities?

Yes. The little plant is unusually endowed with chemicals whose medical values have been well documented in respected research journals. Heal-all's constituents have been proven to be antibacterial, inhibiting the growth of pseudomonas, Bacillus typhi, E. coli, Mycobacterium tuberculi, and many other pathogens. Heal-all derivatives can be used internally and externally and are showing promise in research on cancer, AIDS, diabetes, and many other maladies. On the Internet it's marketed as especially effective against Herpes Simplex; many sites sell Heal-all pills and lotions at hefty prices. I even read that indigenous Americans used to make a tea from the root they'd drink in ceremonies before going hunting to sharpen their powers of observation.

What a wonderful little plant, and it's one people pull up just to throw away, because it's such a common, undesirable "weed."

*****

BREWER'S OAKS & THEIR APPLES
In the May 17th Newsletter I introduced you to our shrub-size Brewer's Oaks, Quercus garryana var. breweri. One of the strangest sights on the landscape right now is these shrubs' big red "apples," as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090621oa.jpg.

Brewer's Oaks are abundant here and they abundantly bear these apples: it's an amazing thing to see. Other oak species also bear them but they're most conspicuous on shrubby Brewer's Oaks. The apples are insect-caused galls created by the tiny wasp ANDRICUS CALIFORNICUS. Usually the galls are referred to as Oak Apple Galls, though that's also the name for a different large, spherical gall on oaks back East. Oregon's red galls look more apple-like than the East's. I read that these are the largest of all galls in California, so probably that's the same for Oregon and other western states.

An Andricus californicus wasp and a cross-section of its gall is shown at http://www.torreypine.org/animals/insects.html#california.

The gall shown at that link is tan, not red. Our red galls turn tan when mature. A few of last year's tan galls remain on branches but sometimes you find a dozen or so accumulated in ditches, and that's yet another curious thing to behold.

Galls form when an insect such as Andricus californicus lays its egg in a plant causing a tumor-like growth, the gall, to form around the egg. When the egg hatches the larva will find plenty of vegetative tissue to eat on. Though several to many eggs may reside in our Oak Apple Galls, the Andricus californicus wasp is so tiny -- only 4.5 mm (±1/5 inch) long -- that you wonder why the gall has to be so large.

At the Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve website linked to above I read that other micro-wasps lay their eggs in the Oak Apple Galls caused by Andricus californicus, and the larvae from those eggs compete with Andricus californicus's larvae for gall tissue. Not only that, but other kinds of insects, a beetle for example, lay they eggs in the galls and the larvae from those eggs then prey on the Andricus californicus larvae!

I'm guessing that during evolution as more and more insect species began using Andricus californicus's galls, predators had a harder time finding Andricus californicus larva in larger galls than small ones, plus, with larger galls, even if unwanted guests ate most of the tissue, there would be more of chance the Andricus californicus larvae might find some too. So, there was adaptive pressure for the galls to evolve larger and larger over time. But that's just my guess.

*****

LITTLE PRINCE'S PINE
Last weekend after a tiring hike along a narrow mountain ridge I found a nice spot for my tent in a clearing surrounded by pines, pegged my tent and crawled in as the mosquitoes began clouding around me. Resting lying on my belly looking through the tent's screen door, the first thing my eyes focused on, in deep shade just a few feet away, was a plant about eight inches high holding aloft two pale pink blossoms almost too elegant to be real, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090621pp.jpg.

I'd never seen this exact species but in moist, shaded spots in the East's Appalachian Mountains I'd often encountered a species in the same genus. The Eastern plant is called Pipsissawa. Sometimes our Oregon plant also is called Pipsissawa, but it seems that more commonly it's referred to as Little Prince's Pine. Of course it not a pine at all. It's CHIMAPHILA MENZIESII, a member of the Heath or Azalea Family, distributed from southwestern Canada south to Mexico's Baja California.

At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090621pq.jpg you see a close-up of the amazing blossom. The camera had to be placed beneath the flower and shot upward, since the flower nods, perhaps to keep its sexual parts dry during rains.

In that picture the flower's corolla comprises five pink petals in the normal fashion. At the petals' bases ten stamens arise, their stemlike filaments unusually broadening at their bases but narrowing and becoming hooked above before ending in baglike anthers. The anthers dispense their load of pollen not through slits the normal way, but through tiny pores, clearly seen in the picture at the tips of each anther's two crests.

The large, brownish, oval thing below is the ovary, which will mature into the fruit, and that green disc at the image's bottom is the grossly oversized (relative to other flower-types) stigma. One wonders at this blossom's parsimoniousness with regard to providing its male pollen such tiny escape holes in the anthers, but remarkable lavishness in providing a landing pad for that pollen, which is what the stigma does.

*****

BUR-REED
At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090621sp.jpg you can see an interesting, elegant aquatic plant flowering in the pond above my trailer these days. One of its many common names is European bur-reed; it's SPARGANIUM EMERSUM. It bears so many English names because of its distribution over a large area in North America, Eurasia and elsewhere. It's unclear where its native land is. The USDA Plants Database lists it as native to Canada but invasive in the US. It's found all through the US except in the Southeast.

You can see that it emerges from standing, shallow water and produces spherical flower heads arranged in a distinctive zigzag fashion. The lower flower clusters are composed of strictly female flowers while the upper ones bear strictly male flowers. You can see a lower female cluster consisting of dozens of crammed-together, green ovaries connected to their white stigmas by slender, green styles at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090621sq.jpg.

Pollen grains will germinate on the white stigmas, send their rootlike pollen tubes bearing the male sex germs down through the styles to the female ovules deep inside the ovaries, then later the ovaries will develop into fruits, and the ovules into seeds inside the fruits. You can see a head of male flowers at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090621sr.jpg.

That's a collection of nothing but hundreds of stamens, each stamen composed of a slender, white filament atop which stands a small, brown, baglike anther that splits open to release pollen. From what I can see the female flowers below mature before the male flowers do, thus diminishing or precluding the possibility that a plant's male flowers will pollinate its own female flowers.

*****

A SUMMER PROJECT PROPOSAL
How about a summer project that can be fun, where you can learn something, and share what you do with the whole world? I'm talking about making an online insect collection -- posting pictures of identified insects you run into this summer, pictures taken either with a digital camera or an optical scanner.

Bea in Ontario has updated my Online Insect Collection page, showing how to take advantage of Bugguide.net, Yahoo's Flickr, bravenet.com and other new resources to help you get your bug pictures online for free. The page is at http://www.backyardnature.net/ins-coll.htm.

If you get hooked on identifying insects, don't forget my Bug-Eaten Award page for those identifying certain numbers of plants and animals in their own communities, at http://www.backyardnature.net/awards/.

Remember that I provide a page on using digital cameras at http://www.backyardnature.net/digi-cam.htm and another page on using an optical scanner to capture images of insects and other things at http://www.backyardnature.net/scanning.htm.

*****

THREE WEBSITES
If I were to dwell much on the devastation and irreparable loss caused by clearcutting of forests not only here but all across the world, I'd just go nuts. However, this week Susan in California sent me the addresses of three websites dealing with the matter and I pass them on here:

*****

THINNING APPLES
My most pleasant task this week was to thin apples in my friends' little orchard. Often apple trees produce so many close-together apples that general wisdom insists that some of the apples should be thinned out, else a crop of many tiny, knobby apples will result.

Already the trees had partially thinned themselves without anyone's help, littering the grass below them with small, ill-formed, puckered fruits. I've heard of this "June drop" and here it was happening exactly when it should. Still, all the trees needed further thinning. For example, look at the cluster at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090621ta.jpg.

Thing is, everyone has his or her own philosophy for how many apples need to be thinned out. On an Internet blog an unnamed apple-thinner says that at first he didn't thin his trees at all, figuring that a lot of small apples was just as good as a few big ones, but after a few years he realized that "... whenever a tree would produce an especially heavy crop of apples, it would exhaust itself ripening them and next year there would usually be no crop at all."

Here is this person's advice: "When I’m sure they’ve all dropped all the fruit they’re going to, then I have to go in with a pair of scissors and snip stems until they’re down to one or two apples per spur. Purists say that you should have four to six inches between apples, but I’ll leave them a little closer if it looks like they’re not going to crowd each other too much."

Most professionals seem to shoot for just one apple per spur and they want remaining apples to be about a hand-width apart. My approach is "one apple per spur" and if the branch looks really healthy and gets lots of sun, I'll leave them maybe four inches apart, but in less ideal parts of the tree not closer than a hand-width.

If you're not sure what a spur is, in the photo's bottom, left corner three apples arise from one short stem. That short stem is a spur. I removed two of those three apples, the least robust, healthy ones. At the picture's center-top there's another cluster of three, and that was reduced to one apple, too. At the lower right, there's a cluster of 2, and I removed the smaller one. So, what was eight crowded apples I converted to three.

Some apple varieties tend to bear every other year. Sometimes hand thinning breaks this biennial cycle, resulting in larger, better shaped fruit each year.

All the horticultural stuff aside, what a pleasure being on a ladder inside a super-green tree with little red globes suspended all around, the fresh air, birds coming and going, sunlight, the odor of crushed leaves, the pleasant tiredness after you've been at it for awhile, lying in the grass resting, looking up at what you've done, thinking of those big, beautiful apples to come...

*****

APPLE TREE HAIKU
Working inside those apple trees was like being in a big Haiku poem. Haikus express much in only seventeen syllables in 5:7:5 form. The most cherished Haiku capture a complex emotion or circumstance in elegant, crisp understatement.

So, there I was suspended among solar receptors, the leaves, my whole world bedazzled with green and yellow light translucing through and being reflected by leaves, all that well functioning and beautiful machinery grinding toward the output of perfect apples.

In a few graceful utterances of leaf, stem, shadow, glow and essence, those Haiku-apple-trees spoke profoundly on the fundamental condition of Life on Earth, which is that sunlight fuels the ecosystem in which living things, including us, are enmeshed. And that the whole thing considered together is unutterably beautiful.

An unspoken dynamic of apple trees being Haikus is the implication that the poet is the Universal Creative Force, and you know that I regard myself as a nerve ending of The Force, my experiences as a living creature letting the Force know how things are going in this part of Her Creation.

It may be worth digressing here:

For, there remains in me enough of my history as a Kentucky farmboy rooted in traditional, conservative ways of doing things, thinking about the world and articulating myself to feel rather flaky when I express myself the way I just have. I am vividly aware of how people such as those I am from view such sacrilegious, air-headed (they would call it) and probably unpatriotic or even subversive chatter.

Yet, one insight my 61 years on Earth have imparted to me is that certain of the more important and interesting realms of reality are so abstract and complex that everyday words and everyday ways of expressing oneself about them are inadequate. To articulate about universal, profoundly meaningful and spiritual matters, one must resort to metaphor, allegory, and symbolism of the most varied kind, in the most artful manner. Especially now when the planetary biosphere is collapsing as a consequence of unenlightened human activity, one must speak up in ways that penetrate crusts of insensitivity, ignorance and inappropriate programming. So...

Any creature with a reptilian brain-root can be content on a warm rock looking around, but you need to take advantage of the Sixth Miracle of Nature and the primate corner of the mammalian brain to rejoice in being inside an apple-tree poem, to consciously resonate with that poem, and seek to carry the poem's mystical imagery and energy forward:

The apple tree sings
with me wide-eyed inside it:
Yo! Sun! Here we are!

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim

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