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

September 20, 2009

PIGEONS AT DUSK
This week in the mountains I camped overnight at the edge of a cliff overlooking a valley opening onto a pretty bend of the Rogue River. At dusk I lay on my belly at the tent's door enjoying the view when a low-flying squadron of about ten pigeons winged up the valley, swooped within spitting distance of my tent and landed in a big Madrone right behind me.

City pigeons, sometimes called Rock Doves, come in all kinds of colors and patterns, but these birds -- clearly pigeons because of their big bodies with small heads and flocking behavior -- looked all the same. Also they lacked the Rock Doves' white lower back, or "rump," and they seemed larger. When landing, their fanned tails displayed white feather-tips that formed narrow, white tail-bands. The birds were curious about my tent, stretching their necks gawking at it first with one side of their head then the other, then flying to another tree and looking some more. You can see four of them giving me the eye at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090920pg.jpg.

They were Band-tailed Pigeons, COLUMBA FASCIATA. Field guides show the birds with conspicuous white crescents on their napes but these birds didn't have that. The crescent is absent on juveniles, so I'm guessing that that day I was visited by "a bunch of teenagers out exploring."

The birds visited several oaks around my tent seeming to feed, but it was too dark and my eyes were too weak to see what or how they were eating. I read that at this time of year flocks of up to 50 become nomadic, following the acorn crop, and acorns are listed as one of their prime foods. They store acorns in their crops, the literature says, which suggests that they swallow the acorns whole. With such small beaks and slender necks, that's something I'd like to see.

Band-tailed Pigeons range from British Columbia, Utah, and Colorado south in higher elevations through Mexico and Central America to northern Argentina. They're hunted in much of their southern area and since the 1960s even in North America their numbers have declined steadily at a rate of about 2.5% per year, and it's not understood why.

*****

FRITILLARY ON THE ASTERS
At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090920fr.jpg you can see a butterfly species that's been flitting around Anita's spectacular blue garden-asters this week. The moment I saw them I pegged them as fritillaries because of their similarity to the Mexican Fritillaries often seen during my Querétaro days, and the Gulf Fritillaries back in Mississippi. But, this one was different, so which species was it?

I'm guessing that it's the very variable Northwestern Fritillary, SPEYERIA HESPERIS, but it's awfully similar to other species that are mainly darker or paler than mine. My old Audubon field guide doesn't even list this species. Its picture of the Aphrodite matches it almost exactly but Aphrodites aren't supposed to occur in Oregon.

Trying to figure out the species online I found that the "Butterflies and Moths of North America" website has become much more complete and useful than in the past. It's at http://www.butterfliesandmoths.org.

On their main page I clicked on "Map Search," then on Oregon, and directly a page appeared listing Oregon's butterflies. Already I knew that my fritillary belonged to the genus Speyeria, so on the list I searched for Speyeria and found eight species listed. Each name was linked to its species page showing the butterfly in question, and with an Oregon county map indicating which counties the species has been reported from. After visiting each page I narrowed the possibilities down to "Northwestern Fritillary."

When not on Anita's garden asters, Northwestern Fritillaries live in forest openings, meadows, and on open hillsides in the Western mountains from central western Alaska, Yukon, and Northwest Territories south to central California, Arizona, and New Mexico. The caterpillars eat violets.

*****

FALL WEBWORMS
Lately large, silken "tents" have been showing up on the area's young Madrone trees, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090920ww.jpg.

The tents reminded me of those of Eastern Tent Caterpillars so my first guess was that here might be the Western version. However, the caterpillars didn't look at all like Eastern Tent larvae, as you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090920wx.jpg.

The USGS produces a nice section on "Caterpillars of Pacific Northwest Forests and Woodlands" at http://www.npwrc.usgs.gov/resource/insects/catnw/ which includes a "Photo Key to Species." With that I "keyed out" my caterpillar to the Fall Webworm, HYPHANTRIA CUNEA. The site said that "This caterpillar is very common on numerous plants, in particular willow, alder, and black cottonwood, during August and September."

My caterpillar looked whiter than other Fall Webworms shown on the Internet, however, so I conferred with my insect expert, Bea in Ontario. She agreed with my ID and also told me that the large silk webs enclosing tips of branches are sure signs of fall webworms. The caterpillars remain inside the webbing, and if food runs out new foliage is encased.

That observation about enclosing leaves and small branches is exactly what my first picture shows, but don't tent caterpillars do the same? I went back and looked at the Eastern Tent Caterpillar tent photographed in Mississippi this spring, still seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/a/tentcatr.htm.

In that picture and others on the Internet sometimes leaves are indeed included within the net, but mostly tent caterpillar nets are built in limb crotches and other "limby" situations, as in my Mississippi picture. Enclosing the entire branch tip along with its leaves is really a webworm thing.

Fall Webworm larvae have been known to feed on over 85 species of trees in the United States. In fact Fall Webworms are considered to be one of the most "polyphagous" -- feeding on many hosts -- of all insects. Though the webs are regarded as unsightly by many humans, damage to most trees is insignificant.

Fall Webworms are native from Canada into Mexico and from coast to coast in the US. They are one of few insect species that have been introduced from North America onto other continents as invasive species, where they now occur from France to the Caspian Sea, plus Japan, Korea and China.

*****

SUPER-RESINOUS BUDS
It's not often that a tree draws attention to itself with its buds but that's the case with a certain fast- growing tree in a roadside ditch near here, seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090920pp.jpg.

Not only are those buds super large but also they're absolutely drippy-gummy with viscous resin, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090920pq.jpg.

If the leaf shape suggests to you that the tree is a kind of poplar or cottonwood, that's right. This is the Black Cottonwood, POPULUS TRICHOCARPA. When I first saw it and its sticky buds immediately I thought of the closely related Balsam Poplar, but that species isn't found here, being more northern and more prevalent at higher elevations.

Why would a tree produce such resiny buds? The most obvious reason I can think of is to keep bugs from eating them or laying eggs in them, because of the tar-baby effect. I read that in the spring the buds are fragrant with a balsamy scent but the stuff oozing from these buds were neither fragrant nor with much taste.

However, after awhile my mouth did develop a slight tingle, maybe even numbness. This caused me to think that the resin may have medicinal value. On the Internet I found pages selling dormant leaf and flower buds of Black Cottonwood under the trade names of Balm of Gilead Buds and Organic Aspirin. A page explained that the entire poplar genus contains "salicylate precursors" related to aspirin, so "Any ailment helped or relieved by aspirin will probably respond in the same way to the internal use of poplar-bud medication. This includes sore throats, fevers and headaches, as well as arthritis and rheumatism." The site sells six tea bags of Black Cottonwood buds for US $5.50, and half a pound of loose buds for $19.00.

I also read that some people develop the early signs of anaphylactic shock when their skin comes in contact with the buds' resin so one shouldn't just grab a bud and start sucking on it.

Black Cottonwoods can grow 165 ft tall (30-50 m) and can have trunks over 6-½ ft across (2 m). As such, they're the Americas' largest member of the poplar/cottonwood group (the largest species of the genus Populus). They are distributed from Alaska south through here to Mexico's northern Baja California. Mostly they live fairly close to the Pacific, though some small, scattered populations occur eastward as far as North Dakota and Utah.

*****

VINY POISON-OAK
During most of my life I've thought of Poison Ivy as a vine and Poison Oak as a bush. Now look at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090920tx.jpg.

Leaves of our abundant Western Poison-Oak, TOXICODENDRON DIVERSILOBUM, are turning red now and that's one in the picture. Notice that the right side of the plant behaves as a shoulder-high bush, exactly as it appears along roads and at wood edges, but at the left a branch has let loose and climbed into a Douglas-Fir as if it were Poison Ivy.

Actually, its climbing isn't exactly like that of Poison Ivy; its woody stem is much looser attached to the tree trunk than would be a Poison Ivy's. However, its stem does indeed produce adventitious roots anchoring it into the tree's bark, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090920ty.jpg.

At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090920tz.jpg you can see the plant's pretty, trifoliate leaves as well as some dried, withered inflorescences. They're dried inflorescences instead of fruits because the plants are dioecious -- producing unisexual flowers on separate plants. That's a male bush/vine in the picture so naturally it'd not bear fruits.

*****

CALIFORNIA WILD GRAPE
Another vine occasionally appearing in fairly moist soil at woods edges is the California Wild Grape, VITIS CALIFORNICA, its glossy, serrate-margined leaves and a small cluster of silvery grapes shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090920vi.jpg.

The grapes are actually purple, but they're covered with a silvery "bloom," known as glaucescence. You can wipe the glaucescence right off with a finger.

Back East it can be hard sometimes to figure out which wild grape you have. Weakley's Flora of the Carolinas lists eleven species for the Southeast. Apparently in Oregon only the California Wild Grape appears, and that species is found only here in the southwestern corner of the state, extending southward through most of California. Two other Vitis species occur in California.

Nowadays California Wild Grape leaves are turning very prettily red and yellow. In fact, this vine is so generally attractive that it's much sold in plant nurseries as a landscaping vine. There's even a "Roger's Red" horticultural variety available.

Naturally this area's indigenous people once ate this species' grapes with relish. The Mendocino people made preserves with them. The Karok used the vine's roots for the bottoms of their baskets, and used the vines themselves to moor boats to shore. The Pomo soaked the vines in water and hot ashes, removed the bark and teased out strands to use as thread, and used the vines themselves to tie Service Berry thatch in place on the roofs of their winter homes. The Miwok placed the vine's green leaves over hot stones in their earthen ovens. These are just some of the uses of this wonderful plant, and we haven't even mentioned its obvious value to wildlife.

*****

PEARLY EVERLASTING
Few wildflowers are blossoming nowadays but one fairly common one along mountain roads has been maintaining its flowers for the last month or so. It's the Pearly Everlasting, ANAPHALIS MARGARITACEA, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090920pe.jpg.

It's a member of the Composite or Sunflower Family, so the white items are composite flower heads, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090920pf.jpg.

A cross section showing individual slender flowers atop their dark, parachute-topped, achene-fruits is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090920pd.jpg.

One unusual feature of the plant is that the undersurfaces of its narrow leaves are wooly with soft, white hairs, and the picture shows yet another uniqueness: The base of each flower head bristles with white bracts (modified leaves). Other composite flower heads have bracts but very few bracts are as widely- flaring and conspicuous as these. Since the bracts (technically known as involucral bracts or phallaries) are somewhat dry, as are the stiff stems, the species often is grown for making dried floral arrangements.

Indigenous Americans used the plant medicinally, taking it internally for diarrhea, dysentery and pulmonary problems, and as a poultice applied to burns, sores, ulcers, bruises, swellings and rheumatic joints. Steam from the plant being boiled was inhaled for headaches, and a cooled infusion of the roots has been used as a laxative and emetic to treat "poison stomach." Pearly Everlasting is fairly closely related to Cudweed, the "Gordo Lobo" I have written about from Mexico, where it is highly regarded for treatment of lung problems. My Gordo Lobo page is at http://www.backyardnature.net/chiapas/cudweed.htm.

Pearly Everlastings (other kinds of plants bear that common name as well so use the Latin to be sure) are common and native throughout North America except in US states bordering the Gulf of Mexico. The species also is native to Asia and has been introduced into Europe, so this is a very wide-ranging plant, one good to know.

*****

THE POND'S SEDGY BANKS
Much of the pond above my trailer is attractively bordered with a lush, dense, thigh-high mantle of grasslike growth, a small part of which is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090920cx.jpg.

You look in vain for grass inflorescences or fruiting heads rising above the arching blades, but if you part the blades, inside them at mid-level you'll indeed find inflorescences, two of which are shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090920cy.jpg.

You might recognize these as being produced by a kind of sedge, genus Carex, which are not members of the Grass Family, but rather of the big Sedge Family. If you've looked into sedges probably you know that there's a lot of them, and that they can be a challenge to identify. In the Manual of Vascular Plants of Northeastern United States and Adjacent Canada, 1991 edition, Carex is the largest of all genera, embracing 230 species, and it's a similarly sedgy situation here in the Northwest.

In the above photo the flower arrangement is typical. Male flowers are restricted to three or so slender, silvery flower spikes at the inflorescence top, while female flowers are spirally arranged in much thicker, brown spikes below the male ones. A close-up of a spike of female flowers, showing sharp bracts beneath each sac-like, teardrop-shaped item (the perigynium), is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090920cz.jpg.

Each perigynium is mostly filled with empty air, but inside and at the bottom of each there's a tiny, three-angled fruit of the achene type (dry, single seeded fruit not splitting at maturity), as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090920cw.jpg.

That achene is topped by a slender, more or less persistent style, which is the "neck" connecting the former ovary with its pollen-collecting stigma, which protruded through the perigynium's open, chimney-like "neck."

You can imagine how such perigynia function. They fall off the flowering stalk, land in water, and float to a distant shore. There they decay or are torn open by a duck or something, and next spring the achene that floated inside it germinates to form a new sedge.

This particular sedge keys out fairly easily to CAREX VESICARIA. Most sedges are so poorly known that they bear no common name, but at least the USDA suggests the name of Blister Sedge for it, though I wonder where the blisters are.

The species is native to most of North America, except for the US Southeast and south-central states, plus it's known as well from parts of Eurasia. You can see yourself what an excellent job this plant does protecting the pond's banks from wave erosion, plus those tiny achenes must be good eating for small birds and rodents.

*****

SICK SNAP-BEAN LEAF DIAGNOSIS
Leaves on our snap bean vines look pretty bad, as seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090920gb.jpg.

Here was my approach to diagnosing the problem: First, it didn't look like a nutritional disease because symptoms of nutritional deficiencies typically don't gather in such tiny, randomly spaced and mutually isolated spots. Nutritional diseases may affect whole leaves or create broad streaks, but in the picture it looks like one cell might be dead while the cell next to it is healthy.

Next I thought about viruses, and in fact some virus mosaic diseases cause symptoms a lot like this. I used Google's image search option looking for pictures answering to the keywords "snap bean viruses." Bean Common Mosaic Virus looked good, but the written description said that bean pods usually are stunted and deformed, while our beans looked OK.

Fungal diseases next came to mind, but when I examined leaves in more advanced stages of deterioration I couldn't find reproductive structures, which typically show up as black specks when leaves are held against the bright sky.

However, while searching with my handlens for those black specks on a leaf's underside I spotted something much smaller than the smallest aphid. Of course: Mites! This time I did a search on "bean diseases mites" and came up with lots of pictures of leaves just like ours. A page said that the tiny mites roam bean leaf undersides, often leaving silken, weblike zones around them to help them get around. Using my camera's 10X macro lens and pushing PhotoShop to its limit I came up with the shot of a leaf's undersurface at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090920gc.jpg.

There you can see some cream-colored mites not visible to my unaided eyes. Also some white zones which I assume to be the webs, and some white spheres, which are eggs. I'm guessing that this is the commonly occurring Two-spotted Spider Mite, TETRANYCHUS URTICAE, said to thrive in hot, dry weather exactly like what we've had for months. They can be controlled during their early stages by applying soapy water, and individual leaves can be sprayed with water to knock them off. Ladybugs eat them, too.

There's more information about spider mites at http://entomology.ifas.ufl.edu/creatures/orn/twospotted_mite.htm.

*****

FUNGAL "BLACK DOTS" ON LEAVES
Above I mentioned looking for evidence that the leaf disease was caused by a fungus by searching for tiny black dots. It happens that nowadays here many Bigleaf Maple leaves are infected with a fungal "tar spot" disease in which the black dots are conspicuous, seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090920ts.jpg.

This particular tar-spot infection is caused by the fungus RHYTISMA PUNCTATUM, which is an Ascomycota, which means that it's grouped with mildews, molds, and the famously edible morels.

The fungi overwinter on fallen leaves. In the spring wind spreads spores from the leaf litter onto young, expanding leaves where the spores germinate. The resulting mycelium invades the leaves through stomata, which are the leaves' adjustable openings through which air is admitted. During the summer, black "stroma" form on the upper leaf surface. Stroma are masses of fungal tissue with spore-bearing structures embedded in or on them. The black dots, then, are stroma.

The stroma become wrinkly or convoluted as they mature and during the summer, on the resulting ridges, "conidia" appear. Conidia are asexual spores, which makes them different from the sexually produced spores rising from the leaf litter in the spring. Also on the stroma wrinkles, tiny "apothecia" develop in the autumn. Apothecia are typically cuplike, with their cups' inner surfaces lined with saclike structures called asci. The leaves fall onto the ground, then when spring comes the asci release the spores (technically called ascospores) that start the new life cycle.

You can see my diagram of a typical cuplike apothecium lined with ascospore-producing asci at http://www.backyardnature.net/f/funclass.htm#a.

Another common tar-spot disease, in which the black stroma are larger and merge to form large black spots instead of separate dots, is produced by the closely related Rhytisma acerinum fungus, found throughout North America. Our Rhytisma punctatum avoids the US southern states. Both diseases are regarded as eye-catching and easy-to-diagnose, but not as serious threats to the trees they infect.

*****

DIGGING POTATOES
Last spring when "Varmint Caller Bob" visited from California he kindly brought me some potatoes to plant. All summer I've been watching them grow and this week I dug them. You can see some nice ones at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090920po.jpg.

What a pleasure it was digging those potatoes! Something about digging those potatoes struck a chord in me, something not rational. There's just something about digging potatoes that really turns me on.

Actually, I have a theory as to why I enjoy digging potatoes so. I believe that most people are created predisposed to fulfill one or more functions useful to any healthy, thriving, village-type community. And I was meant to be a gardener/teacher.

I believe that if you take any random grouping of humans of village size anyplace on Earth, if each person were encouraged to "get in touch with his or her inner selves," it'd be found that enough people will have been born with such a variety of natural predispositions that if you put them all together they'll automatically be inclined to do all the jobs a thriving community needs to have done.

People with take-care-of-others urges would become gifted and fulfilled nurses and social workers. Those with weapon fixations and highly developed concepts of structured authority would become honored police and soldiers, and those loving to work with tools and their hands would be builders. Always a few artists and artisans, magicians and jugglers would appear out of nowhere, and they would be welcome for how they enrich community life. Also always a fair percentage of people would report having no particular urges at all but would be willing to go along with whatever everyone else is doing, and those folks also would be honored for their useful flexibility and agreeableness.

To some extent society already is structured along these lines, but still far too many people get stuck in unfulfilling jobs and enjoy too little peer recognition. Our society is based on making money and accruing wealth, with impersonal corporations and agencies making the big decisions. Taking advantage of each person's natural gifts and psychic needs is less important than having the person doing a corporation's bidding. Our schools are complicit.

For, especially with today's "No Child Left Behind," our teachers use standardized curricula to fulfill standardized quotas, with the goal of achieving, at least on paper, standardized scholastic results. To take advantage of each child's natural predispositions, our schooling must change to just the opposite of how it is.

The first task of schooling must become to discover what special gift each child brings to the community. Teachers must be encouraged to exercise their own special talents and their own special insights to assure that each student's natural gifts and natural interests are nurtured. A system of apprenticeships such as I've seen in Germany would be an important feature of this new system.

For my part, if I'm still around when that golden day arrives, give me access to a garden and I'll be more than happy to share my potatoes with you, and to teach any apprentice how such bounteous crops are produced.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

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

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