JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER
Issued from the woods near
Natchez, Mississippi, USA

November 1, 2009

ANHINGA AT ANNA'S BOTTOM
On Wednesday Karen and I were back in the swamps, this time at Anna's Bottom about ten miles north of Natchez in the Mississippi River floodplain. Permanent open water stands here and there and you never know which water-loving bird will show up. On Wednesday many Double-crested Cormorants, profiled here last week, were flying around, plus there was one snaky-necked Anhinga, ANHINGA ANHINGA, shown sunning on a snag at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091101an.jpg.

This looks a lot like last week's cormorant, seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/b/cormrant.htm.

However, notice that the Anhinga's beak is sharp while the cormorant's was rounded and hooked at the tip. Anhingas spear fish with their sharp beaks, flip them into the air and swallow them head-first. I've read that sometimes the Anhinga's beak skewers the fish so that the bird must return to shore with the fish Shishkabobed on the bill and somehow pry it off.

The Anhinga's neck is so long and slender that Anhingas often are called Snakebirds. They swim with their bodies submerged under the water, with their necks stretched forward. From a distance they can look like snakes with their front ends raised.

Often you see both cormorants and Anhingas sunning themselves with their wings spread against the sun. All the larger birds at Anna's Bottom seemed too nervous for that. I'm guessing that people go there to take potshots at them.

Anhingas are permanent residents in much of the Deep South. They breed in open freshwater wetlands from here through Mexico and Central America into South America.

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BUCKEYE BUTTERFLY
Common Buckeye butterflies, JUNONIA COENIA, are widespread across most of North America south of the Canadian taiga, and south all the way through Mexico and Central America into Columbia. Their wings' large "eyes" and two orange "corporal stripes" make them easy to identify except in southern Florida and southern Texas where other buckeye species occur. Our "Common" on a gravel road in Anna's Bottom is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091101bk.jpg.

Several butterfly species, among them various wood nymphs, satyrs and ringlets, bear conspicuous eyes on their wings but none has eyes as eye-catching as the buckeyes', plus other species lack the corporal stripes. The individual in the picture looks like an old veteran because of various gashes in his wing margins, some suspiciously in the wedge-shaped form of bird beaks.

In North America Buckeyes tend to migrate northward early in the year, then in the fall head back southward. I read that in places such as Cape May, New Jersey, in October hordes of Buckeyes drift southward rivaling the migrations of Monarchs "in number and spectacle." They're permanent residents in the Deep South, however.

One reason Buckeyes are so common and widespread is because of their ecological flexibility: Their caterpillars feed on a variety of plant types, especially members of such common plant families as those of the Snapdragon, Plantain and Acanthus Families.

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A PROMINENT CATERPILLAR
While I chainsawed firewood the caterpillar shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091101cu.jpg turned up on a fallen oak limb. I sent the picture to Bea in Ontario who quickly replied that it might be the Mottled Prominent, MACRUROCAMPA MARTHESIA, and after my own Googling I'm thinking she's right.

I knew that Bea didn't have a caterpillar field guide so I asked her how she came up with the ID so fast. Her reply describes a search-engine procedure that might be useful to anyone with an unknown organism and an Internet connection:

I usually look for something on our specimen that would set them apart from other insects of their type. After a simple search for "green caterpillar" "white stripe" yielded way too many images and after searching the first ten or so of those pages without getting close I decided to try and find out the name of those things that were sticking out his rear end. After finding out they were called "anal prolegs" and the caterpillar in our picture had "long anal prolegs" I did a search on "long anal prolegs" caterpillar ... and after searching those images I came across a caterpillar called Prominent, but it didn't look at all like your picture except for the long anal prolegs so then I searched on Prominent and eventually came across one that looked like yours.

Once you have an organism's name you can search on the name to find interesting stuff about it. A quick search on "Macrurocampa marthesia" turned up a picture of the adult moth the caterpillar eventually metamorphoses into, after passing through its pupa stage, as well as its distribution map. That's at http://www.butterfliesandmoths.org/species?l=3554.

Apparently there's not much more known about this particular species, but the same site gives an overview of the species' family, the Notodontidae. There I learn that when resting the moths hold their bodies in a way causes them to look like a stick. Most prominents overwinter as larvae, pupating in cell in the soil or in loose cocoons on the ground. My caterpillar was big enough to have been looking for a spot to metamorphose into an overwintering pupa.

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BALDCYPRESSES IN THORNBURG LAKE
Thornburg Lake is a locally famous fishing spot in Anna's Bottom, at the end of a Pecan-tree bordered, one-lane gravel road that first passes across big fields of cotton and soybeans, then through bottomland forest. The lake is shallow and here and there all the way across it Baldcypress trees, TAXODIUM DISTICHUM, rise like ships from the water, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091101cy.jpg.

The trees' leaves are brown because Baldcypresses, despite being gymnosperms like pines and spruces, are deciduous, and it's time for leaves to fall. It's also time for the trees to bear fruits. You can see both the trees' feathery leaves and spherical fruits at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091101cz.jpg.

I'll bet that several folks who know their trees are looking at the above pictures wondering whether, with those oversized trunks for such short trees, and light gray bark, those might not really be Pondcypresses. Some field guides recognize Pondcypresses as a separate species, Taxodium ascendens. The Flora of North America, however, relegates Pondcypresses to varietal status, Taxodium distichum var. imbricarium, plus the distribution map for the variety places southwest Mississippi outside its range, as seen at http://efloras.org/object_page.aspx?object_id=7080&flora_id=1.

I don't know what the Pondcypress deal is in this area but I do know I love Baldcypresses. In the western Kentucky bottomlands in which I grew up I was surrounded by "cypress swamps," the nearby stream was "Cypress Creek," and to me no ecosystem was more interesting and exciting than wherever Baldcypresses showed up. When I waded into them I always saw species of waterfowl, aquatic mammals, snakes, insects, spiders and the like not found elsewhere. Just thinking of Baldcypresses evokes for me a feeling of discovery and adventure.

In western Kentucky we were near the northernmost extension of Baldcypress distribution, as seen at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Baldcypress_range.jpg.

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GREEN ASH KEYS GALORE
These days it's wonderful seeing so many trees bearing fruits so I hope I don't over-tree-fruit you in this Newsletter... I just can't help it.

Among the most common trees in Anna's Bottom were Green Ashes, FRAXINUS PENNSYLVANICA, which at this time of year were absolutely loaded with winged, one- seeded fruits called keys or samaras, as seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091101fx.jpg.

Those bountiful samaras at the picture's top, right are a blessing for certain seed-eating critters, especially birds such as finches. Many times I've noticed commotion up in a forest's canopy and when I focused my binoculars there I'd see a flock of Goldfinches, Purple Finches or the like contentedly among the samaras grinding the wings and husks off one fruit after the other, creating husked-off chaff that snowed groundward.

If you were to see the branch in the picture without the fruits, would you be able to identify it as an ash branch and not, say, a hickory? Both ashes and hickories bear pinnately compound leaves -- which means that at the bottom, center of the above picture you see a single large leaf, a compound leaf consisting of seven leaflets. Both hickories and ashes bear large, pinnately compound leaves. The big difference between hickory leaves and ash leaves is that hickory leaves are "alternate" (a single compound leaf arising at a twig node) while ash leaves are "opposite" (two compound leaves arising at each node). Can you see how this ash's twig bears opposite, pinnately compound leaves?

It can be hard to distinguish certain trees by their bark, but ash trunks are fairly distinctive, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091101fy.jpg.

Notice the "ashy" gray color and how many low, slender, flat-topped ridges interconnect with one another.

Green Ashes, sometimes called Red Ashes, are native to the eastern US and adjacent Canada -- they are, in fact, North America's most widespread ash species. Also, because they adapt well to extreme conditions, they're one of the most widely planted ornamental trees, several cultivars having been created that produce fewer "nuisance" fruits, brighter fall color, etc. The species is most at home, though, in rich, moist bottomland soils like those at Anna's Bottom.

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PECANS FALLING
If you drive around Natchez these days you'll see many lawns populated by large Pecan trees, CARYA ILLINOENSIS, and here and there there'll even be entire Pecan orchard whose trees now are heavily laden with nuts. Sometimes you see big van-type trucks parked along the highway beside large, sloppy signs reading "We buy pecans!" Because of late-summer and fall rains there's a big crop of pecans this year, but from what I've seen a good half of them are wormy or fungusy inside. A wild Pecan in Anna's Bottom is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091101pc.jpg.

A shot showing pecan nuts dangling from their opening- up husks, the nuts with their typical black mottling, is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091101pd.jpg.

Pecans, being members of the genus Carya, are hickories. Pecan trees, like other hickories, bear alternate leaves (one leaf at a twig node), and each leaf is pinnately compound. So, in the above picture, you can see that each compound leaf consists of, usually, seven to thirteen leaflets? Pecan leaflet shape is unusual in that they curve like a sickle blade. Such blades are said to be "falcate."

Pecan trees are native to the south-central US as far north as Illinois, plus here and there in northern Mexico. You can see a map of their native range here.

Karen's mother maintains a Pecan orchard next to her house. She enjoys picking them up and supplying her friends with them, including me. You'd be surprised how much variation in nut size, form and taste there is from tree to tree. You can see some variety at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091101pf.jpg.

Dozens of pecan cultivar names can be looked up at http://extension-horticulture.tamu.edu/carya/pecans/pecalph.htm.

You can see the prize finding of Karen's mom -- a "double pecan" -- in its exhibition container at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091101pe.jpg.

*****

OSAGE ORANGES DROPPING
At a certain corner on the north side of Natchez you can see a tree doing the remarkable thing shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091101oo.jpg.

That's an Osage-orange tree, sometimes called Hedge Apple or Horse Apple. It's MACLURA POMIFERA, a member of the Fig Family, the Moraceae. The yellowish things on the ground beneath the tree are large, heavy and hard fruits. Karen collects some for a future hedgerow at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091101or.jpg.

At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091101op.jpg Osage oranges hang on the tree. That black stuff running down them is as gummy and sticky as you might expect from a member of the Fig Family. The fruits are multiple fruits, which means that what we think of as the fruit is actually many fruits fused together. Each bump on the multiple fruit's surface derives from a distinct small flower. A car tire had run over one "orange" knocking away its side. That was lucky for me because they're too hard and tough to break apart by hand. The cross section is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091101oq.jpg.

Osage-orange is native to a narrow slice of eastern Texas, southeastern Oklahoma, southwestern Arkansas, and the extreme northwest corner of Louisiana, which is a rather small area. However, it's been planted widely and has escaped, so now it grows in the wild across the US and in Ontario.

Osage-orange trees used to be much appreciated for their ability to form impenetrable, spiny hedges, for the twigs do bear short but stout and sharp spines. In fact, the Osage-orange was one of the main trees planted during Roosevelt's "Great Plains Shelterbelt" WPA project, launched in 1934 to prevent soil erosion in the Great Plains states. About 220 million Osage- oranges were planted during that program, which further explains why they show up in so many places today -- and why they deserve to be reconsidered for the service they once performed.

Though the fruits aren't edible for humans, once they've lain awhile they turn brown and mushy and sometimes squirrels tear them apart to get at the seeds. However, few other native animals make use of the fruit. That's unusual because most large, fleshy fruits have evolved to be eaten by large animals, which then disperse the seeds in their droppings. Some evolutionary biologists suggest that Osage-orange fruits once were eaten by large mammals that became extinct at the end of the last Ice Age -- Giant Ground Sloths, Mammoths, Mastodons, horses and others. Modern horses and other livestock do sometimes eat the fruits.

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WATER OAKS
We're in an oak-pine forest type here. My impression is that overall the most common oak species is the Water Oak, QUERCUS NIGRA, an acorn-bearing branch seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091101wo.jpg.

Water Oaks are native throughout the US Southeast, mainly on the Coastal Plain, but not reaching as far north as Kentucky. You can see its distribution map at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Water_Oak_Range.gif.

Water Oaks are most common in bottomland situations, but they also turn up in well-drained sites and, in the Deep South, in people's lawns. Around here they are very common even on ridge crests, maybe because our entire area is mantled with a thick deposit of loess, or Ice-Age, wind-deposited dust, and loessal soil may hold water better than soil developed without it.

In my picture, notice the leaves' unusual shape. They are "club-shaped," widest near their outer ends. Students with tree field guides often misidentify Water Oaks as Blackjack Oaks because Blackjack Oaks have a similar shape and are more widely distributed and better known. However, Blackjack Oak leaves are larger, more leathery and tend to grow on poor, thin, dry, rocky or sandy soils.

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A DOGWOOD WITH PRETTIER FRUITS THAN FLOWERS
Down in the bayou's moist, rich soil next to the sandy creek bottom here and there you run into what's shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091101dw.jpg.

Old-fashioned porcelain dolls' eyes held in more or less flat-topped clusters on red, branching and rebranching ganglia (technically the clusters are defined as "axillary pedunculate corymbiform cymes"). In shafts of sunlight penetrating the bayou-bottom gloom it's a pretty sight.

Of course the eyeballs are tree fruits, and in this case the tree is the Roughleaf Dogwood, CORNUS DRUMMONDII, a small, common tree in many habitats from dry to wet ones, and displaying an odd distribution pattern, basically the eastern US as far north as southern Michigan, but absent from the Atlantic coastal states.

Roughleaf Dogwood is one of those dogwood species in which the small flowers are NOT bunched together in a flower head which itself looks like a large flower, as with the "flowering dogwoods." The broad, white, flattish inflorescences look like those of elderberries or certain ornamental viburnums. The flowers are pretty, but not as pretty as the fruits.

A good field mark for this species is how most leaf veins arise at the blades' bases, and of course the leaves themselves are "opposite," or two to a stem node. Also notice how the main veins curve or arch toward the leaves' tips -- they're "arcuate." The leaves also are described as rough-feeling because of short stiff hairs on them, but the ones in the picture were only a little rough, maybe because it's so late in the season and the hairs have rubbed off.

Roughleaf Dogwood often forms large, dense thickets like bamboo because the trees grow from an underground stem, or rhizome. What appears to be the trees' slender trunks are actually branches off the underground rhizome This thicket-forming propensity means that the species is important for erosion control.

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VIRGINIA CREEPER
Climbing up, running through, and then dangling from branches, a Virginia Creeper vine, PARTHENOCISSUS QUINQUEFOLIA, offered a little reddish color to the landscape the other day when we visited the Osage Orange tree profiled above, where it hang from some branches. You can see the woody vine's distinctive leaves consisting of five leaflets joined at their bases (the leaf is "palmately compound") and fruits at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091101pq.jpg.

Widely distributed in the eastern and central United States and nearby Canada, Virginia Creepers often climb to the tops of fenceposts or telephone poles, then cascade back toward the ground. They climb into trees but, except in environments such as plantation- pine plantings, seldom overtop their hosts the way Kudzu might. The vines attach themselves to their supports by adhesive disks at their tendril ends.

As you see, the vine is pretty enough to be cultivated as an ornamental. In fact, Virginia Creeper is regarded commercially as an excellent covering for walls, trellises, arbors or fences.

The grapelike fruits (Virginia Creeper belongs to the Grape Family, the Vitaceae) contain oxalic acid so are regarded as inedible for humans. I find them too bitter to even consider eating, but birds seem to like them.

From the fruits the Kiowa indigenous Americans once made a pink dye for their skin, and feathers worn in war dances. Various medicinal uses have been documented for the plant as well.

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THE CHRISTMAS FERN'S CURIOUS FERTILE FRONDS
When I passed through here last March the Christmas Ferns were just unfurling, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/x/xmasfern.htm.

Back then the fronds didn't show a hint of the future sori beneath their "fertile fronds" -- sori being clusters of spore-producing sporangia. Now you can see the fertile fronds bearing mature sporangia at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091101cf.jpg.

The curious thing about the fertile, sori-bearing fronds of Christmas Ferns is that the sori are limited to frond divisions, or pinnae, at the tip of the frond, and those "fertile pinnae" are considerably smaller than the pinnae below them not bearing sori. Moreover, once the spores are released, the small fertile pinnae shrivel up and turn brown, as the photo shows. Sometimes students think that the fertile pinnae are diseased or somehow damaged.

A few fertile pinnae still bear sori with immature sporangia. A fine picture of those can be admired at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091101cg.jpg.

This picture shows very nicely an important field mark for ferns of the big, very common genus Polystichum -- the sori's indusia (the shiny, round, cellophane-like sheets partially covering each sorus) are attached to the frond at their centers, like umbrellas.

Of course in that picture each spherical, yellowish item emerging at the indusia's edges is a baglike sporangium which, when mature, will split open to release many spores. They're not the spores themselves, but they contain the spores.

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EBONY SPLEENWORT FERNS
Christmas Ferns are the most abundant fern here. Our second-most common fern species is either the Southern Shield-Fern, which we've already taken a look at, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/h/shield-f.htm or the Ebony Spleenwort, ASPLENIUM PLATYNEURON, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091101sp.jpg.

This is a much smaller, more delicate fern than the first two, and you recognize it at a glance by its slender, pagodalike fronds, and stiff, dark brown frond stems or rachises. You can see the fern's sori at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091101sq.jpg.

The cinnamon-colored, granular masses there are bunches of spore-producing, baglike sporangia. Upon maturation the sporangia burst open and release spores. The pale, cellophane-like structures running alongside the sori are indusia, which protecte the sporangia before they mature. Indusium presence and shape are important fern identification features.

Where I grew up in rural western Kentucky, similar to here in southwestern Mississippi, the Christmas Fern was the most common fern species. We were too far north for the Southern Shield-Fern, but the Ebony Spleenwort, as here, was the second-most common fern. This hints at the fact that this small, fragile- looking fern is tougher than it looks. In fact, it's recognized as an ecological generalist specializing in disturbed woods, but it also grows on rock and masonry, even in urban zones. With global warming, Ebony Spleenworts have been documented as migrating northward at the northern part of its range in the upper Great Lake states

The species occurs throughout nearly all the Eastern Forest Biome from Quebec southward, plus, amazingly, some quirk of history has made it native to South Africa as well -- a distribution shared by no other fern.

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THE DA VINCI CODE, GLOBAL WARMING, & TRUTH
For years I've heard about Dan Brown's novel The Da Vinci Code so when I stumbled upon a website offering it as a free text download I grabbed it. Finally I know why everyone wants to take a new look at Da Vinci's "The Last Supper." The novel has spawned a whole new generation of conspiracy theories, plus there's a spate of new books and websites either debunking The Da Vince Code's most provocative assertions, or embellishing them. It looks like most people just don't know who or what to believe.

At the same time I was reading The Da Vince Code, poll results came out reporting that despite an avalanche of scientific data documenting the effects of global warming, people believing that there is solid evidence that Earth's average temperature has increased over the past few decades has dropped from 71% last year to only 57% today.

Moreover, in the current public debate on healthcare issues, one side says one thing as the other says the opposite, and opinion seems to track with the side spending most on TV ads. Also I hear on National Public Radio that about half of North Americans believe in ghosts.

It seems that this may be yet another of those yin/yang situations: The more information we have, the less capable we are of processing it. As the information explosion continues, maybe average people will lose their ability to deal with information so completely that they'll become as superstitious, functionally ignorant and vulnerable to manipulation by truth-bearing "illuminati" as our ancient ancestors.

That doesn't have to be the case, however, for Nature offers us all the truths we really need. Moreover, if anything on Earth is trustworthy, surely it is Nature, for Nature is the Creator's most profound and immediate Creation. Nature's structure, the evolutionary trends She manifests, and the spiritual insights She inspires within each of us spontaneously, reveal truths enough to guide us through meaningful, enriched and enlightened lives.

Nature's structure reveals sacred patterns, the most obvious being those of recycling, the sanctity of diversity, and the recognition of mutual interdependency among all components of the biosphere.

Nature's Earthly evolutionary history reveals to us aspects of the "Creator's plan." Maybe the most transfixing feature of this history is the fact that throughout Earth's biological evolution species have arisen with ever more intense awareness of their own context, and with ever greater capacities for feeling creative inspiration. This trend amounts to a spiritual imperative for each of us personally: To harmonize our own lives with the flow of Earthly evolution by always struggling to know more, to understand more, to feel more...

Surely spiritual insights gained by reflecting on Nature's nature inevitably vary from person to person, because we are all programmed to interpret the input of our senses differently. Among my own most useful spiritual insights are those based on The Six Miracles of Nature, which I outline and annotate at http://www.backyardnature.net/j/6/.

Those Six Miracles, to me, reveal a Universe more mysterious, more generous and more beautiful than my little brain can grasp. Meditation on them has bestowed me with a satisfying spiritual rootedness, and a profound reverence for The Creative Impulse. And when I find myself wondering about "the meaning of it all," sometimes I glance that Meaning by imagining what form the Seventh Miracle may someday take.

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ON THE ROAD AGAIN, AGAIN Tomorrow, Monday, I'll pile back onto a Greyhound bus, and I just don't know whether this time next week I'll be able to issue a Newsletter or not. I'm going someplace where I don't know the people, don't know what kind of place I'll be staying in, and don't know how long I'll be staying. But they have interesting plants and animals there, and an Internet connection, so that sounds good enough.

See you on the other side, if not next week, then maybe the next.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

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

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