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

August 23, 2009

GREAT BLUE HERON IN WANDER TIME
This is wander time for a lot of birds. Even among permanent residents you're apt to see species suddenly appear where they haven't been all summer. Often their plumages are different from either their summer or their winter ones -- the ones illustrated in field guides. Lots of these wanderers are young birds so sometimes you also see them doing things a well adjusted adult wouldn't -- such as fly onto a limb and lose his balance, or let a housecat get too close.

Up at the pond this week a juvenile Great Blue Heron, ARDEA HERODIAS, has been letting me get closer than he should. You can see him about to jab at something at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090823gb.jpg.

I've mentioned how these days most of the pond is clogged with Jointed Rush, the stuff in the above picture emerging from the water like grass. Not long ago fish in the pond swam around in conspicuous schools near the water's surface but since the heron's arrival the fish have been hiding in that rush. Well, also this week a Belted Kingfisher has been taking his toll, so really those fish are cowering in any dark, deep place they can find, hardly ever showing themselves. You just see big bullfrog tadpoles darting to the surface, gulping mouthfuls of air, and skedaddling back onto the mud floor. I'll bet the heron is eating more tadpoles than fish.

Watching the heron puts me in a certain mood. He's always there, usually elegantly posed with a fish-staring tension similar to how he is in the photo. He doesn't move much but his moves are meaningful, and beautiful to behold, redolent of Chinese-landscape-watercolors, end-of-summer, slightly sad, Augusty feelings.

On the Great Blue Heron's wonderful "Birds by Bent" page at http://www.birdsbybent.com/ch1-10/gbh.htm the old-timey naturalist talk there says of the juvenile's plumage that "the upper parts, back, and wing coverts are plain gray, 'deep mouse gray' to 'deep Quaker drab,' without any signs of plumes anywhere."

Wouldn't it be neat to live in a time when people could speak of "deep Quaker drab" with the expectation that others would understand?

*****

X-RATED BEETLE JUICE
The other day Chris in California wrote to tell me what was happening to him after he'd captured some large Blister Beetles for use as fishing bait. Blister Beetles excrete a colorless substance as a defense against being manhandled, and that's where his story began:

"I got the stuff all over my fingers, getting them out and putting them on the hook, not knowing what could happen because the stuff is invisible. Well, I am a nurse practitioner and when I saw my condition emerge I had concerns about painless genital swelling. The potential list of disease conditions was frightening. ... later, I got the idea that just maybe my condition had something to do with the bugs I caught."

Christ identified his bait-beetles as a kind of a blister beetle, read that blister beetles excrete a defensive substance known as Cantharidin, he Googled Cantharidin, and here's what he learned:

Male blister beetles transfer Cantharidin to females during mating. Cantharidin is toxic to many species so females cover their eggs with it as a defense against predators. And here's the part on Cantharidin's Wikipedia page that really got Chris's attention:

"If Cantharidin is ingested, it severely irritates the urinary tract as it is excreted, causing swelling of the genitalia. This can cause a harmful condition known as priapism in men, where an erection lasts more than about four hours."

Some men pay for Chris's symptoms, but I guess if you don't know why the symptoms are happening to you it can be pretty scary! There's more about Cantharidin at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cantharidin

Wikipedia's Blister Beetle Page is at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blister_beetle

*****

PORT-ORFORD-CEDARS
The other day when my friend Romain drove me home from the Red Butte backpacking trip he spotted some Port-Orford-Cedars, CHAMAECYPARIS LAWSONIANA, along a stream in the little valley right below my current home base. I thought I'd familiarized myself with all the trees and bushes in that valley but here I'd been overlooking what may be the most interesting species of all. For, Port-Orford-Cedars are narrowly endemic just to southwestern Oregon and far northwestern California. I'd been assuming that they were Incense-Cedars, which are abundant here, but Romain pointed out subtle differences. From a distance, Port-Orford-Cedars are darker, denser and more slender-topped than Incense-Cedars.

None of our trees stands apart enough to provide a good picture of its form, but you can compare the Incense-Cedar's broad, flat branches at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/w/inc-cedr.htm with the Port-Orford-Cedar's slender, drooping ones at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090823cd.jpg.

At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090823ce.jpg the Port-Orford-Cedar's scaly branches are shown close-up on the left, while the Incense-Cedar's analogous branchlets appear on the right. You can see that the Incense-Cedar's scale bases are much longer than the Port-Orford-Cedar's.

One interesting little fieldmark for Port-Orford-Cedars is what my field guide refers to as "conspicuous silvery X's" on the foliage. You can see what they're talking about at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090823cf.jpg.

"Cedar" is a name given to any number of species in various genera scattered through several families. Port-Orford-"Cedar" and Incense "Cedar," while both belong to the Cedar or Cypress Family, the Cupressaceae, belong to entirely different genera and bear very different fruits. Neither is closely related to the East's Redcedars, which are junipers. Port- Orford-Cedars are more cypress than cedar. Some authorities now place it in the genus Cupressus.

In the wild the species is seriously threatened by a root disease caused by the introduced fungus Phytophthora lateralis. The disease is mainly spread in soil brought in by logging trucks and off-road vehicles, so here's hoping they don't log our little valley below or put ORV trails through it.

The city of Port Orford, by the way, is the oldest and most westerly town on the Oregon coast. I think we must be at the very edge of the species' eastern distribution.

*****

FLOWERING CURRANT FRUITING
Back in April I introduced you to this area's beautifully flowering Flowering Currant, RIBES SANGUINEUM, whose flowers you can still see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/w/currant.htm.

Now our Flowering Currants bear the fruits shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090823ri.jpg.

To see the fruits' special features, take a look at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090823rj.jpg.

The fruit, a many-seeded berry, is covered with short, glandular hairs. Sticky glands might dissuade insects from wandering across the fruit's surface, eating it or laying eggs in it. Also notice how the old flower's corolla tube, or hypanthium, has remained atop the ovary as it enlarged and matured, and now is fairly permanently stuck to the fruit. Who knows why currants think they need to do this?

The base color of the pea-size berries is dark blue-black. That's the color you get if you rub the fruit's surface with a finger, for the pale, silveriness wipes off. Many fruits and leaves are covered with such a "bloom" that can be wiped off. Technically the pale bloom is referred to as glaucousness.

The fruits are edible but not so flavorful. Birds appreciate them much more than humans.

*****

POISON OAK'S RED LEAVES
Somehow the feeling here, at least for me, quickly has gone directly from "springy" to "fallish." Back East one of fall's first signs is when a few leaves of Poison Ivy that's climbed high into a tree turn red. Here something similar happens with Poison Oak, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090823po.jpg.

Most Poison Oak shrubs still are green. The Poison Oaks that are turning red occur mostly in very dry spots, as on ridge crests and cliff edges.

You can see that Poison Oak's drupe-like fruits are a bit larger than those of Poison Ivy, and shaped more like irregular pumpkins than Poison Ivy's round tennis balls. As with Poison Ivy, Poison Oak fruits are much eaten by birds. Moreover, studies show that in some areas Poison Oak foliage, despite causing such a problem for certain people, is the most important browse for Black-tailed Deer.

Some people believe that drinking the milk of Poison-Oak-fed goats bolsters the immune system against Poison Oak because the poison is present in the milk in trace amounts. Analysis of milk from goat-does fed a straight poison-oak diet for three days showed no trace of the compound causing Poison Oak's irritation, which is called urushiol. Some urushiol was present in the does' urine, though.

*****

BIGLEAF MAPLES FRUITING
Back in April I introduced you to our Bigleaf Maples, ACER MACROPHYLLUM, whose leaves and flowers are shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/w/acer-mac.htm.

Now those handsome trees are fruiting. The fruits are unmistakably maple fruits, which means that they are "samaras (SAM-er-uhs)," which are winged fruits that don't split to release their seed when they're mature. If you're only familiar with samaras produced by maples back East, you'll find the Bigleaf's samaras a bit unusual. Take a look at a joined couple at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090823bl.jpg.

Pretty hairy around the seedcase, right? I'll bet that that keeps a few critters from eating them.

*****

IDAHO FESCUE
Trees here are green but the forest's herbaceous understory is the color of old, dry hay, crisp and brittle. It's the late dry season so this is the way it's supposed to be. Sometimes when I see all the dry, curled-up grass in large serpentine barrens as I pass by I can't help but think that if someone down in the valley should set a match to it I'd be in a heap of trouble.

On many dry slopes about the only plant species in evidence is the straw-colored bunchgrass shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090823fq.jpg.

That's Idaho Fescue, also called Blue Bunchgrass, FESTUCA IDAHOENSIS, a super-abundant and very important bunchgrass throughout most of western North America south of Alaska. Often it's described as typical of America's short-grass prairie but around here it's found in just about any dry, open, fairly natural environment. The clump in the picture has ridden downslope atop a mudslide at a roadcut; where it came from the ground was level and populated with hardly anything except more Idaho Fescue, acres and acres of it.

Lot of websites on the Internet sell Idaho Fescue because it's so drought tolerant and can be mowed. It's even pretty planted in a pot, where it's a lot lusher than the wild ones in the picture. A typical suggestion for its use describes "a xeriscape design along with Buffalo Grass and Blue Grama. Adding junipers, Rabbit Brush and Sage enhances such a design without compromising low maintenance." This is found at http://www.bluestem.ca/festuca-idahoensis.htm.

At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090823fr.jpg a close-up shows its 2/3-inch long (15 mm) spikelets.

What a pleasure identifying this species, sitting in the mountain sunlight cross-legged thrusting my mind into the flowers' geometry, their proportions, textures and designs. For example, a very closely related fescue also common in this area is the California Fescue, but its needle-like "awns" aren't nearly as long as shown here. Also, with a little imagination, at the base of the awns in the picture you can just barely see a roughness -- a "scabrosity," a botanists would be pleased to say. California Fescue lacks scabrosity there. With my handlens the scabrosity is clearly visible. Also, California Fescue's flower cluster, or inflorescence, is more open than Idaho's.

By the way, a clump of bunchgrass such as that in the picture can be called a "genet," a term used for any clonal colony -- where all the seeming individuals share the same genetic makeup because they derive from the same mother cell.

*****

RATTLESNAKE PLANTAIN
Few wildflowers are flowering nowadays. See one that is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090823gy.jpg.

That's an orchid, and orchids often are difficult to identify because of their large number of species, typically small flowers, and unusual flower anatomy. However, when you see a spike of orchid flowers arising from a basal rosette of several dark-green, evergreen leaves heavily spotted with white, the first genus to pop into your mind ought to be Goodyera -- the genus of the rattlesnake plantains.

In the photo you can see another good field mark for flowers in the orchid genus Goodyera: Each blossom's side or lateral sepals spread out like ears or wings.

Rattlesnake plantain flowers are said to be "protogynous," which means that the female stigma becomes receptive before pollen is released, making self-pollination very unlikely.

Back east there are three similar rattlesnake plantain species -- members of the genus Goodyera -- but in Oregon there's just the species shown in the picture, the Western Rattlesnake Plantain, GOODYERA OBLONGIFOLIA. This species is distributed throughout western North America and large portions of eastern Canada and some adjacent northeastern states.

******

SILTSTONE
Marble is metamorphosed limestone, as quartzite is metamorphosed sandstone. If you metamorphose shale, you get slate. Sedimentary rocks like limestone, sandstone and shale metamorphose when they're under lots of pressure for millions of years, or when they're heated, as when molten magma from deep within the Earth comes into contact with them.

Many rocks don't fall neatly into the sedimentary and metamorphic pigeonholes. Maybe they weren't under enough intense pressure for long enough, or got hot, but not hot enough.

Similarly, shale is rock composed of particles of a particular very small size -- the size of dust or the particles of smooth mud. Sandstone is the same thing, except that its particles are much larger -- the size of sand grains. Once again, many rocks of the shale/sandstone kind are composed of particles too large for the rock to be considered "classic shale," yet the particles are too small for the rock to be "classic sandstone." You can speak of "shaley sandstone" or "sandy shale."

On a ridge crest near here you can see what's shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090823mu.jpg.

That rock is too hard and brittle to be either classic shale or sandstone, but too soft to be metamorphic quartzite or slate, plus its particle size is in- between that of shale and sandstone, and there might be a good bit of carbonate in it, too, giving it a touch of limestone/marble.

What do you call rock like that?

Until someone corrects me I'm calling it siltstone. It looks layered so I'm tempted to call it limy, shaley slate, but notice how it fractures in at least two directions, so the layering may be more a feature of partial metamorphosis than because originally it was deposited in layers. Also, it looks like much of the siltstone shown in Googled-up pictures. Does anyone have a different opinion?

The smooth, flat rocks below the outcrop are about the size of a hand.

*****

BIRD FLOCKS, BREAST MILK & TRUST
This week in an article at ScienceDaily.com, accessed through my daily-updated "Online Nature News Page" at http://www.backyardnature.net/i-rss.htm, I read about something connecting bird flocking behavior, breast milk and the feeling of trust between humans.

Neurobiologists at Indiana University showed that in the brains of certain flocking birds a neurochemical called mesoticin determines whether the birds spend more time with familiar individuals or unfamiliar ones. It happens that there's a virtually identical neurochemical in mammal brains, known as oxytocin, which affects female reproductive functions such as pair bonding with males, providing maternal care and producing milk for infants. Around 450 million years ago the precursor of mesoticin and oxytocin appears to have arisen in the common ancestor shared by all birds and all mammals, which was a jawless fish. Also about 450 million years ago jaws arose in our common ancestor.

So, bird flocking behavior, human breast milk production and bonding feelings are all connected in the same way that bird jaws and human jaws are: 450 million years ago these things arose in our common ancestor. You can read the whole report yourself at http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/08/090813142144.htm.

This new insight is beautiful. Visualizing the Creator as a musician, and the Creation as Her music, we can say that 450 million years ago a certain impulse or theme began expressing itself on Earth in the form of a chemical affecting bonding emotions. Since then multitudes of variations on that melodic theme have been expressed as new species arose bearing the neurochemical and its derivatives. Each new species expressed the theme in its own musical key, with its own natural tempo, its own style of syncopation -- but the melody's essence always remained the same. Gregariously flocking Zebra Finches, googly eyes cementing bonding between male and female humans, all the same, beautifully improvised on the spot, this spot, Earth.

And what of the notion that a neurochemical molecule's shape and electrical configuration translate into specific kinds of feelings? Beautiful, too, that. If that can happen, might not emotions flow through the Universe's different dimensions and places, sometimes chemically, sometimes electrically? And don't forget that astrophysicists claim that over 95% of the Universe is dark energy and dark matter that can't even be observed with any of our senses or current instruments. In that 95% there is plenty of room for Universal emotional flow along neurons the nature of which we can't even imagine.

Who is to say that the Sun's "photons flowing through space" bathing Earth with life-giving energy is not a Universal expression of generosity and benevolence just as "real" and worthy of recognition and reverence as any emotion an Earthbound human might be able to manage?

What beautiful music it all is, if only we listen, if only we open ourselves to music beyond the mere kind restricting itself to Earthly air waves beating on eardrums.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

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