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

September 27, 2009

CHICKADEES AT THE RIVER
Instead of hiking into the mountains this week I descended into the valley and camped next to the pretty Rogue River. At only about 1000 feet in elevation (300 m) it was a little warmer there than here on the slope, and more sheltered, so I expected new plants and animals, and found some.

Away from the river's banks it was still very dry with few birds. Ospreys, Crows and Turkey Vultures silently winged up and down the river but inside the woods it remained eerily quiet. Therefore, when finally some chickadees began fussing from inside a drying-up ash tree I was tickled. Especially tickled because Oregon has three chickadee species -- the Black-capped, Mountain and Chestnut-backed -- and I wondered which one this was. You can see one of them in the ash at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090927ch.jpg.

The Mountain Chickadee has two white head-stripes so it's not that one. The bird in the picture has a much rustier chest than is shown on either of the two remaining species in my old Robbins field guide. Moreover, some pictures on the Internet show both Black-caps and Chestnut-backs looking just like my picture.

As usual when I have Oregon bird-mysteries I sent the picture to my friend Romain, the best birder I know out here. You should hear how he can call Spotted Owls. Anyway, it turns out that about nine regional variations are recognized for Black-capped Chickadees and our Pacific Northwest race has buffy sides that can look a lot like the striking brown ones of a Chestnut-backed. In other words, he wasn't too sure who it was, either, but leaned toward Black-capped. He relayed the picture to Dennis, a local bird-bander who has handled plenty of birds up close.

"A Chestnut-backed would have a rich 'chestnut' color to the sides and belly would be much less colored, more grayish-brown making a sharp contrast," Dennis opined, adding that you don't see many whitish-bellied Black-caps in our area. He thought it probably was a Black-capped Chickadee, POECILE ATRICAPILLUS, but he wouldn't commit to it 100%.

So, let's say that with maybe 95% certainty the bird in the picture is the buff-breasted Pacific Northwest race of the Black-capped Chickadee, and isn't it interesting how even experts can have trouble with some of the most common birds?

*****

200+ MIGRATING GEESE
Last Thursday several big, high-flying, noisy flocks of geese, Canada Geese I suppose, flew over us headed exactly southward. You can see their big V-formation at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/09092720.jpg.

I counted over 190 birds a couple of times before my cataract-wracked eyes, which can see double images with each eyeball, confounded me. It was well over 200 birds, though.

Some local Canada Geese hang around year-round, being fed, but these flying-over flocks were old-time, conservative birds seeking their traditional foods on overwintering grounds far to the south, the way good Canada Geese are supposed to.

It's funny how we can admire conservatism in something like a goose, but so often find it aggravating and maladaptive in our own species. Well, goose society doesn't evolve the fast way human society does so mindless conservatism serves geese better than humans.

*****

BLUE ELDERBERRIES
A couple of weeks ago Andy, a college senior in California majoring in ecology, dropped by for a talk. He was gracious enough to arrive with a gift -- a fruiting inflorescence of the local elderberry. He'd collected it lower in elevation; our elderberries weren't fruiting yet.

At first the gift struck me as a bit curious because the blackish fruits of the Eastern Elderberry I'm most familiar with are gorgeously succulent and in sunshine glow with a pretty, bluish tint, but they don't taste good. Of course that's a different species so I plopped some of Andy's fruits into my mouth, and they were excellent! During this week's valley hike our elderberries had ripened and I ate a lot. A roadside elderberry bush's opposite, pinnately compound leaves and hand-size, flat-topped fruit cluster is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090927eb.jpg.

Some fruits in the picture appear whitish while others are blackish with a blue tint. In fact, all the fruits are blackish with a blue tint, just that the white ones haven't had their silvery bloom, or glaucescence, rubbed off. Maybe a bird while feeding fluttered a wing against the darker ones. Fruits are seen closer at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090927ec.jpg.

This is the Blue Elderberry. Currently elderberry taxonomy is in such a mess that you find the species going by several technical names. California's Jepson Manual calls it SAMBUCUS MEXICANA but the USDA lists it as Sambucus nigra ssp. cerulea, and Wikipedia's expert claims that it's Sambucus cerulea. This is one of those rare instances when the common name may be more useful than its technical one.

Whatever its technical name, it's a wonderful plant. Birds and other animals love eating its fruits. Its soft-woody stems and leaves provide high-quality browse for deer, chipmunks, rabbits, squirrels, mice, rats and livestock. In fact, livestock relish its vegetative parts so that wherever Western ranchers graze livestock, including vast acreages of public land such as Bureau of Land Management holdings, Blue Elderberry has been totally extirpated.

In the first picture, did you notice that even at this late season the plant's leaves look in good shape? Compared to other species they are relatively disease free and even without evidence of bug gnawings. One reason is that elderberries appear to have a natural resistance to many diseases and insects. This suggests potential medicinal value for humans, and it's true that Native Americans used Blue Elderberry plants when treating sore or swollen limbs, headaches, swelling, relief from pain in general and when they needed an antiseptic wash.

Native Americans also called Blue Elderberries "tree of music" because they made flutes from the shrub's branches cut in the spring and dried with the leaves on.

*****

ACORNS FALLING
Nowadays this happens more than I like: At night when I'm in my mosquito net next to the trailer, just about as I'm drifting off to sleep, BANG! An acorn from the big Oregon White Oak over my trailer drops an acorn on the tin roof above my trailer. These are big acorns, too. You can see a couple still on their branch at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090927ac.jpg.

Of course the green one on the left is immature, and the dark brown one is about ready to fall. We're talking about the Oregon White Oak here, QUERCUS GARRYANA.

It's easy to see how important acorns are to wildlife, and why indigenous Americans once collected them so assiduously. North Carolina State University provides instructions on how to leach bitter tannin from acorns and prepare acorn meat so it can be added to bread dough and muffin batter, made flour of, and prepared as a thickener for stews and gravies, at http://www.ces.ncsu.edu/depts/hort/consumer/poison/Quercsp.htm.

*****

SOAPWORT
A blooming wildflower on a weedy sand bank beside the Rogue River caught my eye. Nowadays most herbaceous plants are either fruiting or dried up and dead. In fact, to the right of this plant rose clusters of maturing capsules from an earlier flowering. See http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090927so.jpg.

It was the Soapwort, sometimes called Bouncing Bet, SAPONARIA OFFICINALIS, a member of the Pink Family, the Caryophyllaceae, like phloxes and chickweeds. It'd been awhile since I'd seen such a gaudy wildflower so I sat down next to it and took my time admiring how sunlight vividly lit up its pinkish blossoms. Up close each blossom revealed interesting details, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090927sp.jpg.

In that picture the two slender items curving out from the flower mouth are the ovary's styles -- "necks" connecting pollen-receiving stigmas to the ovule-bearing ovary. They're female parts, then. Surrounding the mouth is a thicket of slender things, in twos. The brownish ones are old filaments -- the stamens' "stems" which hold up the baglike, pollen producing anthers. They're male parts, then. Between the filament pairs lie pairs of shorter, pinkish, fingerlike things. Botanical literature refers to those noncommittally as appendages or claws. They're just growths the likes of which appear a lot in this family, and I suppose they aid in pollination. For example, if you were a small bee landing on a petal, working toward the flower's mouth, you might appreciate having a "claw" to grab onto.

At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090927sq.jpg I've opened a flower so you can see how the styles arise from atop the green ovary deep down in the blossom's bottom. On the ovary's green walls you can see bumps caused by ovules inside the ovary. Ovules are the future seeds.

These perennial plants are called soapworts because soap can be made from them. Though I read that the soap is best made by boiling the whole plant, especially the roots, I've made a passable green, cleaning suds just by kneading green leaves with a little water in my hands. I tried to get some suds from this plant but it must have been too dry so I got only a few green bubbles.

Soapwort is invasive from Europe. In Europe it's been used as a traditional medicinal herb since the time of Dioscorides. Decoctions of the herb can be applied externally to treat itchy skin, and the ancients used it for a broad range of ailments. However, the plant is poisonous, destroying red blood cells and causing paralysis of the vasomotor center, a portion of the brain's medulla oblongata, regulating blood pressure.

*****

STARTHISTLE
When I plopped onto the sandbank on which the pretty Soapwort lived, I managed to sit right atop a knocked-down Yellow Starthistle, CENTAUREA SOLSTITIALIS. You can see why that turned out to be so disagreeable at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090927st.jpg.

A close-up of an inch-high starthistle flower head is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090927su.jpg.

To understand what the last picture shows, first keep in mind that starthistles are members of the Sunflower or Composite Family, so the whole thing in the picture is a flower head, not a single flower. The yellow items issuing from the spiny sphere's top are the flowers, many slender ones crammed together as in a vase. Remember that composite-flower flower heads are set upon a table-like platform, the receptacle, which is subtended by a cuplike collection of many scale-like bracts (modified leaves), which usually are tough, greenish and overlapping, like shingles on a roof. These "involucral bracts" are also known as phyllaries. Last week we saw how the phyllaries of Pearly Everlasting flowers were spectacularly white, papery and widely flaring, so this week we're seeing how each phyllary can bear big, forking spines.

Starthistles also are invasive, native to the Mediterranean region. You can imagine what they can do to an animal's mouth or stomach, and to top that off they're even poisonous to horses, causing the nervous disorder "chewing disease". Sometimes you see large areas of pure populations of them. One reason is that they've left their natural predators back in the Mediterranean region, but another is that they produce "allelochemicals" which prevent the growth of other plant species. There's more about allelochemicals at http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1O6-allelochemical.html.

Yellow Starthistles now occur throughout the US except in some Southeastern and far Northeastern states.

*****

ARTICHOKES ON THE STEM
Maybe you've never seen what an artichoke looks like before it's sold in the supermarket. Some neighbors grow them and you can see one of their plants at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090927ar.jpg.

This is a good time to talk about artichokes because we've been looking so closely at involucral bracts, or phyllaries. Each big, green, tough, pointy, scale-like part of an artichoke is nothing more than an involucral bract.

Since artichoke plants are members of the Composite Family "tribe" (family subdivision) of the Cynareae, which is the "thistle subfamily," artichoke plants are pretty close to being thistles. You can see how similar a flowering artichoke is to a thistle here. . 

If the artichokes in the picture aren't cut, eventually flowers should emerge from among the bracts. You might be able to guess what part of the Artichoke flower is the flat, round, soft, good-tasting thing we eat from inside the artichoke head. That's the receptacle -- the table-like platform on which future composite flowers will be stacked.

Artichoke plants are CYNARA SCOLYMUS.

It's not known where Artichoke plants came from originally but it was probably from in or around northern Africa's Maghreb Region, for wild Artichokes are still found there.

*****

DWARF MISTLETOE
Easterners think of mistletoe as a shrublike plant with green leaves growing on trees. It's a member of the genus Phoradendron. In western North America we also have Phoradendrons, plus, in the same family, there's "dwarf mistletoe" of the genus Arceuthobium, of which about a dozen species are listed just for California. You can see one of those on a branch of Ponderosa Pine growing next to my trailer at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090927mi.jpg

A big difference between our dwarf mistletoe and regular Phoradendron mistletoe is that the dwarves bear no flat, green leaves. In fact, Phoradendron mistletoes are only partly parasitic (they're "hemiparasitic") because they take only water and dissolved nutrients from their hosts while they photosynthesize their carbohydrate food with their own green leaves. In contrast, our dwarf mistletoes are entirely parasitic, bearing no green leaves or green parts at all. A close-up showing three immature fruits about 1/5th-inch long on a typical branch at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090927mj.jpg.

Dwarf mistletoe's mature fruits disperse their seeds by means of explosion; hydrostatic pressure in the ripening fruit builds to such a point that eventually the slightest touch dislodges the fruit from its pedicel and the seed is shot from an opening in the fruit at a velocity of 89 feet per second!

When you "key out" a species of dwarf mistletoe in California's Jepson Manual, very little reference is made to the unknown plant's anatomical features. Instead, species identification is based mostly on the host tree's identity. The individual in the picture is on a Ponderosa Pine so it must be the Western Dwarf Mistletoe, ARCEUTHOBIUM CAMPYLOPODUM.

In North America's western forest ecosystems heavy dwarf mistletoe parasitization can result in reduced tree growth, premature tree mortality, reduced seed and cone development, reduced wood quality, and an increase in susceptibility to diseases and insect attack. Most commercially important conifers in western North America are parasitized by one or more dwarf mistletoe species.

*****

CHAIN FERN
Walking home from my valley hike I noticed a thicket of horsetails, genus Equisetum, in the bottom of a roadside ditch. I figured that there must be a spring there, for horsetails need water, and if there was a spring, maybe I could find organisms there not found in my usual upland haunts. I plunged into a shadowy, stickery tangle of vines, bushes and tree trunks, mud sucking at my hiking boots, and almost instantly was rewarded with the ferny sight shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090927ww.jpg.

I've mentioned how in this area we have abundant ferns, but low fern diversity -- endless repetitions of Bracken and two look-alike species of swordfern. But here was a fern species I'd not seen here until now, a frilly, pretty, robust one with six-ft-long fronds, clearly a species that just doesn't show up if it can't have mud to root in.

Flipping a big frond I was gratified to see numerous spore-producing fruiting bodies, or sori -- unusual ones -- ornamenting the undersurface, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090927wx.jpg.

The average fern sorus is round or almost round, or long and placed side-by-side, so those frankfurter-shaped ones end-to-in on both sides of the pinna mid-vein are remarkable. They're also wonderful field marks, for I can't think of another fern genus with sori like them. This is the Giant Chain Fern (the sori are "chained" end-to-end), WOODWARDIA FIMBRIATA. Other Chain-Fern species occur in Eastern North America but the Giant is distributed only from British Columbia south through the westernmost states into northwestern Mexico.

This is such a large (to 9 feet, 2.7m), luxuriantly growing fern that it's marketed in many nurseries as perfect for shady, woodland walks and even locations in full sun, wherever it can have its roots in mud. "I imagine it would look like an ancient forest where dinosaurs roamed," one savvy salesman suggests, and that's about right. It doesn't tolerate severe freezes, however.

The stalks are so stout that they were used by Native Americans for making baskets.

*****

BLACK SPOT DISEASE ON ROSE LEAVES
Each morning for the last couple of months as I watered Anita's flower garden I've been watching some of her rosebush leaves develop the situation shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090927rd.jpg.

The disease shows up as blackish spots surrounded by a yellow halo on an otherwise green leaf. I've seen the same spotting on rosebushes in many states and countries so I figured it was a common, easy to diagnose disease, and that was right. I read that by late summer most roses everywhere have at least a little of it. It's known as Black Spot and it's caused by the fungus DIPLOCARPON ROSAE. Like the Tar Spot disease we saw on a Bigleaf Maple leaf last week, it's a member of the Ascomycota, so it has a similar lifecycle. Basically it overwinters in leaf litter, then infects new growth in the spring, and starts showing up as leaf spots in the fall.

The disease may sap a bit of the bush's energy, reducing flower size and such, but usually it's not considered a serious disease. All fungal diseases like this I know of benefit from heat and humidity, so watering the roots instead of spraying the plants would help control it, as would planting roses where there's good air circulation. Cleaning up dead leaves at the end of the season and pruning old canes also would help.

But, no matter what you do, eventually your roses will probably get a little Black Spot. I wouldn't worry about it. Actually, it's kind of pretty.

*****

TWITTER
Andy from California encouraged me to make my Backyard Nature website more dynamic, to attract more young people. From what I hear on National Public Radio the big social-networking thing among young people is Twitter. Therefore I've Twitterized my site, though I tweet a bit differently from most. If your computer has Flash installed you can see some of my tweets at http://www.backyardnature.net/j/twitter.htm.

*****

THE TREE OF LIFE
When I finished nibbling all the fruits from my elderberry umbel I was about to toss the remaining inflorescence stem aside when I noticed how pretty it was. I held it against the sky and took the picture at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090927tl.jpg.

The elderberry's inflorescence stem pleases me less with its gracious symmetry and harmonious proportions than by the paradigm it imparts to my mind. For, in it I see a model of the Tree of Life -- the branching and rebranching and rebranching and rebranching scheme by which Nature's gorgeous diversity of species has arisen from a single sort of living thing.

The same pattern of endless rebranching arising from a single stem root corresponds to the history of the Universe itself where everything arose from the single instance of the Big Bang. The history of all computers arising from a single first one, the history of all great thoughts and movements arising from single first inspirations, the history of all religions arising from the single mother of spirituality... The Tree of Life pattern is the most natural and powerful of all paradigms.

It's good to meditate on the Tree of Life. For, much in our lives is diminished by thinking assuming that reality is static, and that its parts are either one way or another. That kind of thinking requires us to choose good or bad, right or left, in or out, with or against... In fact, everything in the Universe that is consequential, worthy and lovely reveals its majesty most when understood as part of an ongoing evolutionary process whose profoundly interrelated parts possess values and characters that vary, and are relative, depending on perspective.

The world, life, the future, every dimension of reality, all are patterned on the Tree of Life, the spent elderberry inflorescence. Let religions and raging schools of thought insist on their monolithic, unchanging dogmas, their demands for yes-or-no or come-or-go, but, let ME meditate on the elderberry's Tree of Life, the Tree of Life's elderberries, the simple little elderberry tree freely at hand.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

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