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

June 27, 2009

BLUEBIRD NEST IN A SNAG
During last weekend's backpacking trip as I descended Onion Mountain with Shan Creek Valley opening beside me a certain blue speck streaked across my peripheral vision. The flight was so smooth, a gliding swoop, that without looking I knew it was a bluebird, but which one? Of North American bluebirds there are three: The Eastern, Western and Mountain. Out here we can look for Western and Mountain Bluebirds.

The bluebird landed about 20 feet up an old, weather- ravaged, Incense Cedar snag and since the slope between the snag and my trail descended at about 45°, the bird stood at eye level some 20 feet away. It was a male visiting his nest in an old woodpecker hole. Nestlings peeped loudly but papa didn't stay more than a couple of seconds. You can see his second visit, also lasting no more than two or three seconds, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090627bb.jpg.

He's a Western Bluebird, SIALIA MEXICANA. Westerns differ from Easterns in that the rusty color of the Westerns' bellies extends across their "shoulders" onto their upper back, while Easterns have all-blue backs. Also the male Western's throat is blue while the Eastern male's throat is rusty. Both Eastern and Western differ from Mountain Bluebirds by being darker blue than the Mountain.

Through several nest visits I admired the bird's diligence and dedication to the young, and ability to return with food so fast. A female flew by but didn't land; maybe she was more nervous about my presence than the male.

Also I reflected on the male's devotion in terms of recent genetic research that showed that 45% of Western Bluebird nests studied held nestlings that had not been fathered by the male attending the nest. Some 19% of all young in all nests had come from fathers other than the male defending the nest's territory. Since the mates of some species tend to be "true" to one another while pairs in other species are even more promiscuous, I deduce nothing here relevant to human behavior. It's simply that in the Western Bluebird's case the strategy is most adaptive, so it's practiced. Also, Nature loves diversity, and this is one manifestation of that.

I've read that sometimes Western Bluebirds have helpers at their nest, presumably older offspring whose own nests have failed. Western Bluebird nests have even been documented being defended and supplied with food by Violet-green Swallows, who belong to an entirely different bird family.

If you're particularly interested in birdnests you might enjoy visiting Cornell University's NestCam page at http://www.birds.cornell.edu/birdhouse/nestboxcam/.

There you can watch streaming video of nestlings being fed and cared for, and even help researchers by reviewing archived nestcam photos to see which in the huge archive need the specialists' attention.

*****

SWALLOW IN A BIRDBOX
At my friends' house about 2000 feet lower than the bluebird nest a wooden nesting box only about five feet high is attached to a post in the blackberry patch. Having seen no House Sparrows or wrens in the area, when I first noticed the box I wondered whether any bird would choose a nest box so close to the ground. I was surprised, then, when one morning I spotted a female Tree Swallow, TACHYCINETA BICOLOR, carrying straw into the box, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090627ts.jpg.

During several days of working near the nest in the orchard I never saw the male carrying straw but he was always there when the female did, perching on a wire right above the nest, issuing fervent streams of liquid chortles. You can see him intently watching at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090627tr.jpg.

At http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Tree_Swallow/id a map shows the Tree Swallow's summer and winter distributions, and by clicking on the triangle under "Typical Voice" at the page's lower left you can hear the musical call the male made as I snapped the above picture.

Another pair of Tree Swallows nests in a dead pine snag at the edge of the pond above my trailer. I'm not sure whether they have nestlings yet but frequently I do see adults glide to their hole, tarry some moments, then sail away, so maybe they do. When I see this I recall this description at the Birds by Bent webpage at http://www.birdsbybent.com/ch81-90/treeswallow.html.

The nestling tree swallow is an attractive little bird when, well grown, it comes to the doorway and peers about, watching for its parents to come through the air with food. As it waits at the entrance its low forehead and immaculate throat call to mind a little frog sitting there in the box. Its eyes shine eagerly, and when the parents come near it stretches out toward them, its throat gleaming white against the dark interior.

What grace these little birds add to a summery day and how content I am that they are among us.

*****

COWBIRD VILLAINY?
While so many other bird species are nesting, the Brown-headed Cowbirds, MOLOTHRUS ATER, have an easier time while diminishing the nestling survival rate of other songbird species. For, Brown-headed Cowbirds are nest parasites who lay their eggs in the nests of other birds, who then raise the cowbird young at the expense of their own offspring, as I've described at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/b/cowbird.htm.

Before Europeans arrived in North America, cowbirds followed enormous herds of buffalo as the buffalo constantly moved from one grazing ground to another. You can see how nest parasitism would develop in a bird species needing to be on the move all the time, and why cowbirds would choose host nests at forest edges, where they could have trees yet also be close to the buffalo. As cowbird nest parasitism evolved, the reproductive rates of other bird species gradually increased to compensate for their nesting losses.

However, once the great forests were broken into today's tiny woodlots, vast acreages became "forest edge" habitat very inviting to cowbirds. Now, cowbird nest parasitism affects a much greater percentage of songbird nests than in the past. My picture of a male displaying while issuing his upward swinging bubbling call before a female almost has a slightly degenerate, villainous feeling to it, as you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090627bh.jpg.

However, the effects of cowbird nest parasitism vary locally. A study in canyon woodlands around Fort Hood, Texas found that 90% of all Black-capped Vireo nests were parasitized, and that clearly was bad news for Black-capped Vireos. Yet in California's Sacramento River watershed where 83% of Lazuli Bunting nests were parasitized, the buntings' nests were no less successful than nonparasitized ones. Often parasitized nests are abandoned and renesting takes place. A well documented Audubon page discussing many sides of the issue is at http://www.audubon.org/bird/research/.

*****

MITES ON HUMMINGBIRD BEAKS
My friends went visiting a bit this week so I took over watering flowers and filling the hummingbird feeders. When Anita showed me her hummingbird-feeder filling procedure I was surprised to see her take a toothbrush and clean each hole in the center of each of the red feeders' yellow plastic flowers.

"Mites from the hummingbirds' beaks," she explained. With my handlens I looked at the dingy halo around each hole and by golly she was right. You can see them at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090627hm.jpg.

This set me to Googling and before long I had them figured out as flower mites. Judging from what I see in the above picture and from what I read on various web pages, there are indeed several kinds of flower mites, and they all do pretty much the same thing:

They go after flower nectar and use animals such as hummingbirds only for transportation to other flowers. Some flower mite species travel by butterflies, moths, honeybees, or other creatures, including hummingbirds. When a hummingbird-using mite is ready to leave a drying-up blossom and a hummingbird beak becomes available, it crawls onto the beak, possibly enters a nostril for the ride, and when it has a chance it disembarks inside another flower -- or maybe it mistakenly abandons ship for a plastic feeder, or gets wiped off there by a bird doing some beak-cleaning.

One day after a feeder's holes are toothbrushed clean, the same number of mites cluster around the holes, not more or less. This suggests that there's lots of mites traveling via hummingbird beaks, plus mites may be leaving the feeder holes just as earlier they left their flowers.

*****

EIGHT-SPOTTED SKIMMERS
At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090627-8.jpg you see the largest, most common dragonfly at the pond above my trailer, the Eight-spotted Simmer, LIBELLULA FORENSIS. If you live west of the Rockies and want to be able to recognize just one species, this is a good one to choose because of it's so eye-catching and common.

******

BEAR GRASS BLOSSOMING
In moist valleys at around 4000 feet the most eye- catching flowering plant these days is certainly the five-ft-high, yard-long-leafed "clumpgrass" shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090627xx.jpg.

Of course bearing such flowers it's not a grass at all but rather a species usually assigned to the Lily Family. It's XEROPHYLLUM TENAX, so impressive that it bears any number of English names, including Bear Grass, Squaw Grass, Soap Grass, Quip-Quip, Indian Basket Grass and Western Turkeybeard. A close-up showing its onion-flower-like blossoms is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090627xy.jpg.

Among the blossoms' distinguishing features are its six petal-like tepals, six stamens, the three curved styles atop the three-grooved ovary and the way the pollen-bearing, baglike anthers open away from the ovary (they're "extrorse" as opposed to "introrse"). The flower clusters' rounded heads are unusual, for usually such flower spikes are pointy at the top.

What an impression these large lilies make with their white flower heads hovering like ghosts in somber, misty valleys full of cold wind and with foggy showers sweeping through them!

To indigenous Americans of the past they must have been even more impressive, for they wove Bear Grass's fibrous leaves into mats and baskets. The leaves turn from green to white as they dry, are tough, durable, and easily dyed and manipulated into tight, waterproof weaves.

One feature accounting for the plant's success here is its set of adaptations for fire. After a fire it resprouts from rhizomes, often being the first plant to sprout in a scorched area.

Bear Grass is distributed from British Columbia south to California and east to Wyoming, in subalpine meadows and coastal mountains, and also at lower elevations in the California coastal fog belt.

*****

ROADSIDE ST. JOHN'S WORT
At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090627hy.jpg you see a plant that these days abundantly flowers along roadsides and in other disrupted habitats. It's THE St. John's Wort, HYPERICUM PERFORATUM, an invasive perennial herb from Europe listed as a noxious weed in more than twenty countries.

I say "THE" St. John's Wort because several species go by that name, but this is the one that so much fuss has been made about because of its fame as an herbal treatment for depression. It's so established as a medicinal herb that in some countries, like Ireland, a prescription is required to buy its extracts in tablet or capsule form. It's also sold in teabags and in tinctures. As I began writing this, I stripped some leaves from a plant near the trailer, steeped them for five minutes in hot water, and the resulting tea had a slightly medicinal but wholesome taste, neither good nor bad, just its own distinctive flavor. Don't crush the green leaves or your tea will taste a bit grassy.

You can see the source of St. John's Wort's medicine at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090627h~.jpg.

There a St. John's Wort leaf is being held against the sun. The pale spotting explains the plant's species name, perforatum, for they seem "perforated," plus they show the source of the medicine, the "glandular dots" filled with fragrant oils and other chemical compounds. Black dots adorn both the leaves' and the petals' margins. If you pinch a petal's black-dotted margins it stains your fingers purplish as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090627h_.jpg. This plant is just chocked full of interesting chemicals!

You can see St. John's Wort's distinctive flower at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090627hz.jpg.

Characteristic of Hypericum flowers are the five yellow petals, the many stamens, and three to five styles (three in this species). Notice the black dots around the petals' margins, which not all Hypericum species have.

So, do extracts from this species really have medicinal value? An analysis of 29 clinical trials with more than 5000 patients concluded that St. John's Wort extracts were superior to placebos in patients with major depression. St. John's Wort was rated as just as effective as standard antidepressants prescribed by regular doctors. Moreover, side effects were half those resulting from the use of newer serotonin reuptake inhibitor antidepressants and one-fifth that of older tricyclic antidepressants. If you Google "St. John's Wort medicinal" you'll find many pages suggesting uses of the plant for ailments ranging from alcoholism to serving as an antibacterial agent against gram-negative bacteria, plus there'll be innumerable pages eager to sell you St. John's Wort products.

Once again, here is an abundant roadside weed free for the taking.

*****

LILY AMONG THE HORSETAILS
In a ditch running with cold water near here there's a patch of horsetails inside which some lilies grow. The other morning as I passed by, a ray of sunlight lit the plant's three open flowers like a spotlight. Look: http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090627li.jpg.

That's the Panther or Leopard Lily, LILIUM PARDALINUM, a very handsome, robust (to over seven feet tall) native wildflower. The interesting Field Horsetails forming a backdrop are Equisetum arvense -- much used herbally for kidney and bladder ailments. A close-up of the Panther Lily's three-inch-wide flower is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090627lj.jpg.

In that picture the six down-curving items with little frankfurters dangling at their ends are the male stamens, the stamens' white stems being filaments and the frankfurters being anthers. The mustard-like streaks on the frankfurters are slits opening where pollen is about to be released. Among the six stamens is one stemlike thing curved a bit more than the others and not bearing an anther. The three-lobed, orange tip of that thing is the pollen-receiving stigma, the pale stem below the stigma is the style, and the style leads to the top of the ovary hidden deep inside the corolla.

The Panther Lily in the ditch below us is so pretty and so easily seen from the road that I'm sure soon someone will dig it up, promptly killing it. The species is known to transplant poorly, but that seldom stops digger-uppers.

Horticulturalists have created domesticated forms of this species such as the Sunset Lily, which is a supposed eight-ft-tall hybrid between our Lilium pardalinum and L. humboldtii.

*****

GRAPE JUICE CRYSTAL-FLOWERS
My friends grow a lot of their own food and preserve much of it. In fact, they've canned so much for so many years that some of it is getting old, "needs to be eaten," and I benefit from that. For example, there are some jars of grape juice so old that sediment has formed in the jar's bottom. Sometimes what's in the jars' bottoms goes beyond mere sediment. Take a look at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090627gc.jpg.

That's an assortment of what we're calling "crystal flowers" found at the bottom of some old jars of canned grape juice. The flowers vary according the variety of grape and how the grapes were processed during juicing. A close-up of some "flowers" is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090627gd.jpg.

I'm guessing that these are glorified potassium bitartrate crystals, KC4H5O6, the "sediment" that sometimes precipitates in old bottles of wine. Grapes naturally contain fair amounts of both tartaric acid and potassium. When these two things bind together under chilly conditions they form potassium bitartrate crystals which settle to the bottom. The crystals are completely harmless and quite natural, though their crunchiness can be a bit disconcerting when you're not expecting it.

But, really, we don't know that our crystal flowers are potassium bitartrate. If someone out there has a better idea, drop me a line.

*****

ANITA'S "TUNA" SALAD
When I returned from my backpacking hike I was hot, tired and hungry, and Anita kindly had waiting for me in the trailer a delicious-looking cold dish. It looked like tuna salad, even smelled like it, but my friends are vegetarians also, so I dove into it. It tasted so like tuna salad that I began feeling woozy thinking that maybe I'd suddenly got myself into the position of sharing responsibility for killing fish. I put it aside until Anita assured me that it was all vegetarian, based on the soy curls I introduced you to at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/x/noodles.htm.

Topped with garden lettuce and spread thickly on whole-wheat bread, it's great stuff! Here's the recipe:

# For 5 minutes simmer 1 cup crumbled Soy Curls seasoned with vegetarian, chicken-style flavoring

# Add:

# How to make Anita's "mayonnaise"

*****

WANDER BIRDS
During my Germany years I made a point of learning about a very interesting moment in Germany history. The Wandervögel movement from 1896 onward involved German youth groups in a culture of hiking, adventure and nature-based romanticism. Wikipedia describes the movement and movements arising from it at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wandervogel

The term Wandervögel (VAHN-der-FEUWG-gull, more or less) can be interpreted as "migratory birds," since "wander" means the same in English and a "Vogel" is a bird (Vögel is plural). However, the verb "wandern" also means "to hike." Calling someone a Wandervögel is sort of humorous and cute, especially applied to young people, so I think of the term as meaning "someone wide-eyed, especially someone young or thinking young, on a hike or at least moving about exploring things, feeling good, hungry for new experiences, having a really good time and thinking about the meanings of things" -- a wander-bird.

The movement was very influential for a time and what fascinated me was how an entire culture -- not just youth groups -- could get excited about such things as being outdoors, hiking, eating nourishing foods, and getting involved with nature-rooted spirituality. Tragically, Hitler's propagandists hijacked many of the movement's methods and symbols, morphed it into the Hitler Youth, and outlawed the Wandervögel movement itself.

One offshoot of the historic Wandervögel movement and movements arising from it is that today Germany is crisscrossed by an amazing network of bike and hiking trails. You can go wherever you want on a bike or on hiking trails that take you through woods, along fields and through towns. Hiking trails are formalized as historical, cultural treasures and when using them there's no problem about trespassing on private property. The biking/hiking infrastructure includes fabulously detailed guidebooks and maps. Hikers often proudly bear passport-like booklets adorned with stamps documenting that they have finished certain well-known hikes. Trails are well marked with their own symbols and hikers' walking sticks often are plastered with little metal souvenir plates from past hikes.

Among the many trails I've hiked (twice) is the Westweg, a 260-km (160 mile) trail from Pforzheim in the north, through the Schwarzwald (Black Forest) to Basel in Switzerland, always following red-diamond markers tacked onto trees along the way, even on the sides of buildings when the trail passes through small villages and farmers' backyards. A wonderful system of rustic huts, farmers' bed-and-breakfasts and small, hiker-oriented hotels provides overnight accommodation, though during all my years there I just tented wherever I found myself at day's end.

What a wonderful thing if something like the Wandervögel Movement should arise in our culture today. Conditions will never be more propitious favorable.

Some would say that the Boy and Girl Scouts provide what I'm suggesting. These organizations are too blindly nationalistic (German history informs us on that matter, as well), too religious in a world needing honest spirituality, and too conservative and exclusive on cultural issues. The whole idea of the Wandervögel is to be curious, to explore, enjoy the shared natural world and to grow stronger, smarter and more feeling during the process.

If you're intrigued with the idea of helping something like the Wandervögel movement take root in our own society, review the German phenomenon (you can start with the above Wikipedia link) and begin organizing hikes and programs in your own area. The Wandervögel movement continues in Europe today, though it's hardly a shadow of what it used to be. It's very decentralized and informal, so if you start thinking and behaving like a "Wander-Bird," you can simply start calling yourself one.

If anyone would like to help me develop material and maybe shepherd an online forum to help things get organized in North America, I can open up a new Wander-Bird section on my backyard nature website.

Here is a translation from the German of an old Wandervögel hiking-song by Otto Roquette:

You wandering birds in the air,
in the ether-shine,
in the sun-aroma, in blue sky-waves,
I greet you as journeymen!
Also I am a wandering bird,
and my gift of song
is my dearest possession.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim

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

Visit Jim's backyard nature site at www.backyardnature.net