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

August 30, 2009

A BUSY KINGFISHER
As the dry season intensifies, the pond continues dropping and its few remaining fish find it ever harder to find refuge. Last week's Big Blue Heron has moved on but the Belted Kingfisher, MEGACERYLE ALCYON, visits more often than ever. In the morning as I work at the woodpile a loud KRRRRRRRRRRRR! shatters the quietness, there's a splash, I ready the camera and when he alights on a cable overhead, his eyes still searching the pond's depths, I get the picture shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090830kf.jpg.

You know that this is a juvenile or female because mature males bear only one belt across the chest while this one has two. What surprised me was that this bird's upper or chest belt seems rusty-colored while I'm used to seeing gray chest belts. On the Internet I do find pictures of other birds with rusty chest belts so I'm guessing that this is a normal phase of the juvenile plumage. Anyone have an insight into that?

*****

A REALLY PRETTY GARTER SNAKE
At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090830gs.jpg you see the garter snake I ran across this week as I descended along Shan Creek, coming down from Onion Mountain. I'd never seen a garter snake with such a nice red stripe down his back and at first I assumed it was a local race of the Common Garter Snake because some races of that species display red side stripes and red speckles. But my field guide didn't mention any race with a red stripe down its back.

The field guide cued me to be careful with this ID because in this part of Oregon we have four garter-snake species -- four species of the genus Thamnophis. None illustrated in my guide bore that red stripe. In the end I shipped the above picture to Dr. Tom Titus at the University of Oregon, the author of the wonderful Amphibians and Reptiles of Oregon website at http://www.uoregon.edu/~titus/herp/herp.html.

Dr. Titus promptly replied: "This is a Northwestern garter snake (and one of the prettier ones I've seen, I might add). It looks as though it might have 8 upper lip scales rather than the typical 7, but the narrow head makes it T. ordinoides."

So, Northwestern Garter Snake, THAMNOPHIS ORDINOIDES, distributed from southwestern British Columbia south through here to extreme northwestern California. If I'd been able to catch him I might have been able to distinguish him from a Common Garter Snake because Commons typically area covered with 19 rows of scales while Norhwesterns bear only 17.

While learning more about this species by browsing the Internet I read that gartersnakes, which we usually think of as completely harmless to humans, have toxins in their saliva which can be deadly to their prey. Their bite might even produce an unpleasant reaction in humans, though they are by no means t dangerous to us.

At the excellent California Reptiles & Amphibians site at http://www.californiaherps.com I also read about studies showing that the escape behavior of Northwestern Garter Snakes, which are highly variable in their appearance, is determined by pattern: Striped snakes tend to escape by crawling away, maybe because the stripes make it difficult to determine the snake's speed. Spotted or plain individuals, however, crawl, suddenly change direction, then hold still, possibly because their irregular pattern blends in with the background.

*****

A TOP-HEAVY FIR
Often I've referred to the abundant Douglas-Firs, genus Pseudotsuga, in the forest around my trailer. Douglas-Firs are not "true firs," for "true firs" belong to the genus Abies. At about 1500 feet in elevation the trailer forest appears to be too low for true firs. However, near Onion Mountain at about 4000 feet, here and there in isolated little coves sometimes true firs turn up, and during my hike this week they were doing something spectacular, seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090830ab.jpg.

Atop the trees, resin-dripping immature cones were weighing down branches with their sheer numbers. Right below the cone-laden branches in the picture the cones thinned out, and then the bottom 4/5ths of the trees were absolutely coneless. Notice that fir cones, instead of dangling from branches as they do on such species as pines, spruces and hemlocks, stand upright.

I'm told that four fir species are found in this area, though distribution maps I've seen show Onion Mountain outside the range for each. Supposedly the species here hybridize with on another. Based on the facts that leaves of the tree in the picture bore silvery lines of stomata only on their lower surfaces, and the trees' trunks were pale gray (silvery), I'm thinking that the species in the picture is the Pacific Silver Fir, ABIES AMABILIS, distributed from southeastern Alaska through here to northwestern California.

When the cones of Pacific Silver Firs mature they disintegrate on their branches, leaving slender, upright cone axes. In the picture on the lower branches you can see many of last year's naked cone axes still pointing skyward.

*****

WILLOWS AT A MOUNTAIN SEEPAGE
As the dry season grows ever more severe, water during my long mountain hikes becomes more of a problem. I'm always on the lookout for springs or even muddy seepages, and one way to find them is to look for willows. In this landscape where evergreen conifers reign supreme, deciduous willows are easy to spot. This week near Onion Mountain at about 4000 feet I found a classic seepage with its willows, and of course then I started wondering about the willow's identity. You can see its shiny, pale-bottomed leaves, arising from yellow stems and accompanied by a catkin with its baglike, capsular fruits splitting open to release large numbers of fuzzy-white-parachuted seeds at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090830sx.jpg.

Closer up you can see some good field marks at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090830sy.jpg.

Running horizontally across the picture is a velvety, yellow stem, with leaf petioles diagonally arising from the stem above and below. The earlike items at the very base of each petiole are stipules, which often serve to protect leaves and shoots as they emerge from their buds, and then drop off. Among many willow species, however, they persist on the stem as these have. Stipules come in many sizes and shapes.

The rounded stipules with little bumps along their edges are important field marks for this species. The bumps are glands, and those are glands, too, at the blades' bases and atop of the petioles. The stipule shape, glands, and the slender-pointed leaves shiny above and silvery below all lead to: Pacific or Shining Willow, SALIX LUCIDA, a common species in wet spots throughout western North America and as far south in the East as Virginia.

During the identification process hairiness can be helpful sometimes but in general -- unless you have some really spectacular hairs -- it's a weak character. Leaves, petioles and stems can be hairy when they're young but hairless when old. Hairiness also is a feature liable to change from subspecies to subspecies.

You probably know that all willows produce salicin, a compound closely related to acetylsalicylic acid, commonly known as aspirin. Native Americans used various preparations from willows for toothache, stomachache, diarrhea, dysentery, and even dandruff. They also used willow stems for basketry and bow making, and the bark for tea and fabric making. Pacific Willow's slender branches are excellent for use in screening and making windbreaks, and the tree itself is worthy of being included in landscaping plans.

*****

COFFEEBERRY
At a steep, rocky roadcut at about 4000 feet near Onion Mountain a woody shrub got my attention. It's at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090830rh.jpg.

One eye-catching feature is that somehow it managed to be so green and healthy looking in such an austere, dry, sun-baked environment. Another feature is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090830ri.jpg.

Pretty red fruits mingled with pretty black fruits, with no fruit I could find midway black and red.

I've seen leaves and fruits similar to this on small trees back East -- on Carolina Buckthorns, of the genus Rhamnus. And, sure enough, the Onion Mountain tree turns out to be California Buckthorn, or Coffeeberry, RHAMNUS CALIFORNICA. Cultivated sometimes for its evergreen leaves and colorful fruits, the species is native from here in southwestern Oregon to southwestern California.

Coffeeberry's fruits look like coffee beans but you can't make coffee from them. I read that Native Americans ate the fruits, but I find them a bit tasteless with little flesh surrounding the three or so seeds. The bark was used by native folk as a laxative, but it's known that too much of it is poisonous. In many areas the fruits are often the only abundant "juicy" fruit available in the fall and are readily eaten by birds, Black-tailed Deer, and Black Bear.

*****

WILD BUCKWHEATS
Since my arrival here in early spring I've seen many wild buckwheat species flower, fruit and subside -- many species of the genus Eriogonum of the Buckwheat Family, the Polygonaceae. Probably the best-known Buckwheat Family member to most North Americans is the smartweed. Seeing a lot of wild buckwheat species can be exciting here because, as they say on a US Forest Service page about endemic wildflowers "In the Klamath-Siskiyou region ... the genera with the most endemic taxa are Eriogonum (7), Phacelia (4), Minuartia (3), Erythronium (3), Erigeron (3), Epilobium (3)."

So, if you're looking for rare plants in this area, pay special attention to wild buckwheats, the genus Eriogonum.

The reason I haven't yet profiled a wild buckwheat is that I've been waiting for one I could identify with certainty. But that's hard. California's Jepson Manual lists 115 species just for there. In contrast, Weakley's Flora of the Carolinas and surrounding area lists only three species; Wild buckwheats are mainly Western plants. To get a feeling for them you can browse pictures of California's wild buckwheats at http://calphotos.berkeley.edu/browse_imgs/plant_sci_190.html.

During my backpacking hike this week at about 3500 feet on a steep, rocky serpentine slope a particularly pretty Eriogonum showed up, its golden flower clusters glowing in intense sunlight, and I decided that the time had come to try for an ID. You can see the plants at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090830er.jpg.

At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090830es.jpg I've removed flowers on the near side of a dense flower cluster so you can see how the bugle-shaped blossoms arise on slender pedicels in clusters subtended by bracts (modified leaves) almost the way composite flowers do it, and that these clusters are themselves clustered in groups subtended by bracts. The flowers when younger probably were pure yellow but now they're fading a bit and developing a rosy tinge.

I'm about 90% sure that this is the Sulphur Flower, ERIOGONUM UMBELLATUM, native to western North America from California to Colorado and central Canada. Often it grows abundantly and in many habitats. In fact, it's one of the most variable of all flowering-plant species, the Flora of North America recognizing 41 varieties, which is amazing. In form the species can manifest itself as anything from a clumping perennial herb five inches tall to a sprawling shrub six feet high and wide.

Native Americans used the plant medicinally. The Kawaiisu used mashed flowers as a salve for gonorrheal sores; the Owens Valley Piute employed the plant for colds and stomachaches; The Cheyenne used a mixture of powdered stems and flowers to halt lengthy menses. On and on the uses go, varying from plant variety to variety, and from human culture to culture.

The hard, three-cornered little fruits can be ground and used as flour, though each plant produces so few of them that you'd have to spend a lot of time picking them just to make a biscuit.

*****

A SURPRISING CLEMATIS
In environments as severe as roadcut stone walls at 3500 feet you're not surprised to find unusual plants with special adaptations enabling them to thrive there. What's surprising is when in such an extreme environment you find a species you think of as typical of moist, rich soils down in the valley. That was the case this week when a species new to me, but clearly a clematis, turned up clambering over a roadcut's wind- and sun-blasted stone face near Onion Mountain. You can see the vine's leaves and flowers at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090830cl.jpg.

At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090830cm.jpg a close-up shows clusters of many white, pollen-producing stamens subtended by white, petal-like sepals, there being no petal-bearing corollas among clematises, and this being a species producing unisexual flowers.

Best I can figure out, this is the common Western White Clematis, CLEMATIS LIGUSTICIFOLIA. Clematises are often referred to as Virgin Bowers.

The Flora of North America describes this species' habitat as "Forest edges, woods, riparian deciduous woodlands, moist wooded draws, scrub, secondary sites derived from these, or clearings and pastures, usually near streams or on moist slopes." That's far from the exposed, rocky roadcut face where I found it. Maybe a seed blew where water seeped from the cliff, though I could see no evidence of that.

I'd like to think that I've discovered something new, but Western White Clematis, found throughout most of western North America, is variable, and experience tells me that it's hard to find something new in this part of the world. The compound leaves are more leathery, shiny and deeply incised and toothed than normal, but drought and intense sunlight sometimes do that to a species. Maybe someone out there can help me understand what's going on here better.

Infusions made from Clematis ligusticifolia were used by Native Americans as a wash for skin eruptions, a lotion for backaches and swollen limbs, and as a lotion for protection against witches. Stems and leaves were chewed to treat colds and sore throats, and decoctions of leaves were used for stomachaches and cramps. Lathers of leaves were used to treat boils on humans and other animals

*****

BEAKED HAZELNUTS
The other day at a moist, overgrown woods edge in the valley I was tickled to see what's shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090830hz.jpg.

That's a Beaked Hazelnut, CORYLUS CORNUTA var. CALIFORNICA. It's the same Beaked Hazelnut occurring in eastern North America, the northern states and southern Canada, and the western tier of Pacific states. The californica variety, native to California and Oregon, forms a tree about twice as large as the shrubby eastern "typical" variety, but its fruit's "beaks" are shorter and thicker.

Of course hazelnuts, often known as filberts, are important foods everywhere, or have the potential for being so. Indigenous Americans throughout Oregon and California ate this variety and bartered the nuts to explorers such as Lewis and Clark in 1805, and botanist David Douglas in 1825.

The hairy, corolla-like coverings of the nuts are neither corollas nor calyxes, but rather modified leaves -- they're "leafy involucres." The female flowers from which the nuts derive are tiny, simple things remaining hidden in their buds, with only their red styles protruding.

*****

ELK CLOVER
For some time I've been watching certain bushy plants developing in moist, usually shaded, often streamside situations, and I've been looking forward to seeing their flowers so I could figure out who they were. From the first I had them pegged as members of the Parsley Family, the Apiaceae, because their thrice-divided leaves were typical of that family, somewhat like a parsnip's leaves. Few members of that family grow this large, however. These plants average about six feet high and the five-ft-long leaves' individual leaflets are wider than the palm of an open hand. You can see the plant's flowers, fruits and some leaflets at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090830ec.jpg.

The problem with this being a member of the Parsley Family is that fruits in that family are dry, usually ribbed or winged, and typically flattened or slender. These fruits are more or less spherical, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090830ed.jpg.

If a plant looks like a member of the Parsley Family but has fruits like this, it's a member of the Ginseng or Aralia Family, the Araliaceae. In fact, this is Elk Clover, ARALIA CALIFORNICA, and of course it has nothing to do with real clover. Easterners might be familiar with the Devils-Walking-Stick or Hercules Club, Aralia spinosa, of the same genus. Each of those berries contains 3-5 seeds. The plant, an herbaceous perennial, occurs in cooler, moister parts of western and central California and here in southwestern Oregon.

Sometimes this species is also called the California Spikenard, reflecting its close relationship to the American Spikenard, Aralia racemosa of eastern North America. American Spikenard is regarded as an important medicinal plant, and it's the same with our western species. Elk Clover root extracts are used as a natural alternative to such commonly used anti-inflammatory drugs as Ibuprofen and Piroxicam. One website recommends it especially for leg cramps. Other uses include serving as a douche and a cough suppressant.

*****

GRAVENSTEIN APPLES
For the last couple of weeks I've been in pig heaven, for in the orchard apples have been falling and I've been picking them up and each afternoon making solar-apple-cornbread. Into about a cup of mixed cornmeal and wheat flour -- both ground from grain with Anita's little electric mill -- and enough water to make it pasty, I snip about five apples. The resulting mix is about 4/5ths apple, the batter basically just holding things together. This I plop into an oiled skillet, put it into my solar cooker, and within an hour the aroma of cooking apples drifts all over the place. While it's baking I just love sitting next to the cooker reading, absorbing the odor into my soul.

The apples are distinctive, being greenish yellow with vertically aligned short, narrow, reddish blotches. You can see one hanging on a tree now at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090830gv.jpg.

Anita told me that these are Gravenstein Apples. I read that Gravensteins are generally considered one of the best all-around apples, with a sweet, tart flavor and especially good for baking and cooking. I just hit it lucky having them available during a long train of sunny afternoons and with a fine solar cooker available.

I figured that anything with a name like Gravenstein must have an interesting history. On the Internet I found that the variety is native to Gråsten, Denmark, just north of the German border. The variety was discovered there in 1669 as a chance seedling, though some suspect that the variety may have originated in Italy and somehow traveled north. It's thought that the apple traveled to North America first via Russian immigrants who planted Gravenstein apple orchards at Fort Ross, California in the early 1800s. To this day Gravensteins are most widely planted in the US along the Pacific coast, though they're grown all across North America. Luther Burbank is quoted as saying that "It has often been said that if the Gravenstein could be had throughout the year, no other apple need be grown."

So, if you have an old-timey apple growing at your place and you know its name, Google that name, find out what's wonderful about the variety, and begin admiring that old tree not only for its fruit but also for its history and general character.

*****

UPDATED WILDFIRE INFO ON THE WEB
The other day Bob in California wrote saying that a wildfire had broken out in his area, burning some of his favorite spots. He gave me an Internet address where I could see a map showing the fire's exact location, read about its history and current condition, and much more. That website is at http://www.inciweb.org/. Click on a fire name to get detailed info about that specific fire.

To use the above site well you need to know a fire's official name, and Bob had a site for that, too. It's at http://activefiremaps.fs.fed.us/.

A site with daily updates about the national wildfire scene is http://www.nifc.gov/fire_info/nfn.htm.

*****

NATURAL SPIRITUALITY NOT SO COMPLICATED
Already in the August 2nd Newsletter I was declaring the previous week as the very one when you'd go blackberry picking in southwestern Oregon. Well, the picking has only improved since then and maybe this week was the best of all. It's just unbelievable. Moreover, the picking has been in relatively cool weather and there were no chiggers (redbugs) or ticks. They have deluxe berry picking out here.

When you're picking blackberries your hands get all purple and gummy, your beard hairs get stuck to your lips, and the plastic tub tied to your belly just keeps getting heavier and heavier. Even if it's cool, as your shoulders bend forward and your arms reach into the stickery canes sometimes with little beads of crimson blood breaking out where you've been scratched, you know that the sun's radiant energy is more than an abstraction, is something tangible and powerful, something that stings your back and brings sweat on your forehead.

Sunlight flowing through empty space, falling onto Earth, onto this blackberry bramble and you, is materialized Universal benevolence. The brambles, through their leaves' photosynthesis and the solar energy stored among atomic bonds of photosynthesized carbohydrates in the berries, are intermediaries channeling the benevolence to your lips, stomach, soul, and the social and spiritual world around you. In the blackberry patch you can't help but to reflect on the flow of things, and how all this reduced to its essence might as well be called "the Creator's love."

I was thinking about all this as I picked blackberries this Wednesday because the night before a religious neighbor had handed me a book and told me to read it, saying that it provided proof for a lot of things he believed in.

The book was the predictable stuff, the author beginning with Einstein's brain but within a few pages quoting "proofs" from the Bible supporting the writer's notions on how one should go about seeking redemption.

Redemption! That concept and others going with it like "original sin" and "eternal damnation" were so out of place in the blackberry patch this Wednesday that just remembering passages from the preachy little book was like having a dark cloud pass between the sun and me.

For, when you are admitted into the intimate relationship of sunlight --> blackberry bush --> sweet fruit --> poetry & song & moving about, it's clear that there's no redemption needed anywhere, that the Universe isn't structured so that the most exquisite of the Universal Creative Force's Earthly creations -- we humans with our highly evolved brains -- get born needing to be "saved."

If there is "sin," then sin is willingly constraining the mind and spirit with so many imagined complications that you're unable to recognize and relate to the sun/blackberry/human/spirituality landscape.

And if you want "proof" of this spiritual insight, then go blackberry picking on a sunny day when butterflies are flitting, birds are singing, and the berries are as perfectly ripe and sweet as they have been here this week.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim