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

April 15, 2012

SKINK SCALES
As with Green Anoles, there are skinks all over the place here, stalking across piles of firewood and browsing among dried, brown leaves. You can see a six-inch (15cm) skink basking on a concrete block at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120415sk.jpg.

You'd think that with such an amber-colored throat and blue tail the critter would be easy to identify, but actually he's a challenge. In southwestern Mississippi adult males of the Five-lined Skink, the Southeastern Five-line Skink and the Broad-headed Skink all can have that combination of features. The color forms overlap among the species, so comparing pictures on the Internet doesn't work.

My old Audubon guide to reptiles and amphibians does make a distinction regarding the top of the two pale lines along the skinks' sides, though: On the Five-lined Skink the line occupies the 3rd and 4th scale rows counting from the middle of the back; on the Southeastern Five-lined Sink the line is on the 5th, or else the 4th and 5th, and; on the Broad-headed Skink it covers the 4th scale row. Now look at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120415sl.jpg.

It appears to me that the line occupies the 3rd and 4th scale rows, which points to the Five-lined Skink, PLESTIODON FASCIATUS, formerly Eumeces fasciatus. That species would make sense, since the other two are less likely to be found around houses, where this one showed up. During my hermit times in a more woodsy environment my common skink was the Broad-headed one.

I read that Five-lined Skinks are mostly terrestrial and that they feed on insects and their larvae, spiders, earthworms, crustaceans, and even other lizards and small mice.

*****

FROG & BIRD EYES
Jim Sharp in England writes inviting us to review his website and film about bird eyes. His page is at http://nictitatingmembranes.wordpress.com/. The link to his film is at the bottom of that page.

In setting the stage for presenting his work on birds he reviews a classic 1959 research paper claiming that "...a frog can only see its food, small flies for example, as movement due to its retina having a rapid sensitivity decay in some of its rods and cones.... if a frog was put in a box surrounded by dead flies it would starve to death because no movement would be detected and it would be unable to recognise them as a food source."

*****

CHERRYBARK OAKS FLOWERING
When I passed through here in June of 2008 we looked at the big Cherrybark Oak, QUERCUS PAGODA, with its strikingly silvery leaves occupying the center of the view from my trailer, as you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080609ss.jpg.

That same tree still impresses me when I look up from my morning campfires. It seems to channel to me some of its potency and dignity.

Interestingly, my old (1979) Golden Press Trees of North America doesn't even include Cherrybark Oaks, which are common across the US Deep South and up the Mississippi River drainage to western Kentucky and southern Indiana. Earlier it was considered a variety of the Southern Red Oak, and many field guides just ignored it. But, as the online Flora of North America says, "it is quite distinctive, however, both morphologically and ecologically." Southern Red Oak's leaf bases, for instance, usually are rounded or U-shaped, and their leaves' terminal lobes are longer than the side ones, while Cherrybark Oak leaf bases are flat to V-shaped, and leaf terminal lobes rarely are longer than the side ones. Cherrybark Oak leaves are at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120415ok.jpg.

Catkins of stacked male flowers already have appeared and fallen from our Cherrybark, but the female flowers -- the future acorns -- remain as tiny future acorns with slender styles still attached, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120415om.jpg.

Last year's acorn cups thickly litter the ground below the big tree, though the nuts themselves are hard to find, having been eaten with relish by local wildlife. You can see some smallish cups and a nut at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120415ol.jpg.

The big Cherrybark Oak's Cherry-bark-like bark is seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120415on.jpg.

*****

COTTONWOODS ALREADY RELEASING FUZZ
Karen needed to visit Vidalia, Louisiana across the river from Natchez, so while she did her chores there I wandered along the Mississippi River's muddy banks. One interesting discovery was that some of the 60-ft-tall (18m) Eastern Cottonwoods, POPULUS DELTOIDES, along the banks already were releasing "cotton" -- their tiny seeds attached to tufts of white, cottony hairs that drift away on the slightest breeze.

Actually all the seed-releasing fruits I could find were those on branches damaged by insects or the wind, where capsules were opening earlier than normal, the way a dying fruit tree often produces early fruit in order to save what it can. However, it's still true that cottonwood fuzz was in the air, weeks earlier than normal.

Cottonwoods are members of the Willow Family, the Salicaceae, in which trees are predominately or completely male or female. You can see long, healthy catkins of capsules -- from a female tree of course -- with the muddy Mississippi River in the background at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120415cw.jpg.

Some healthy capsules with one opened to show the cottony hairs inside is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120415cx.jpg.

One reason Eastern Cottonwoods prosper along river banks is that its seeds can germinate and root on bare soil in full sunlight. In fact, the seeds require those conditions for successful germination, though transplanted saplings grow robustly when planted away from river banks.

Another adaptation is that Eastern Cottonwood wood is soft and brittle, so the flooding river's powerful currents, instead of uprooting whole trees and killing them, may shatter them. Then the trees quickly sprout from their bases, plus their broken-off twigs carried downstream can root and become new, fast-growing trees. In the US Southeast, cottonwood plantations produce fiber for pulp used to make paper, as well as wood for biomass energy. In such plantations, planted rootless cuttings have up to a 90% survival rate.

*****

DEERBERRIES ALREADY FRUITING
Deerberries, VACCINIUM STAMINEUM, our main local blueberry, are dense, head-high bushes of the forest understory, and they're bearing ripe fruits now, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120415bb.jpg.

A green, developing berry prettily topped with a frilly, burgundy, collar-like calyx is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120415bc.jpg.

Most berries aren't ripe yet but if you look around you can get a mouthful ready to eat, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120415bd.jpg.

Finding ripe Deerberries now is interesting because, as with the cottonwoods, this is one of many seasonal occurrences happening much earlier in the season than normal. In my April 18, 2004 Newsletter issued from near here, Deerberry plants were "abundantly covered with small, whitish flowers." On our plants now, the corollas already have fallen off.

Deerberry shrubs occur throughout nearly all the eastern US except the northernmost states and this year I bet that everywhere their flowers and fruits appear earlier than normal.

*****

RED MULBERRY ALREADY FRUITING
Also early, the Red Mulberries are bearing, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120415mu.jpg.

Red Mulberry fruits when ripe are dark purple or blackish.

In our May 11, 2003 Newsletter we spoke of eating Red Mulberries nearly a month later than now. More recently, in our March 30, 2009 Newsletter, flowers had only begun to appear.

*****

APPLE FLOWERS
The leaves of pear and apple trees are fairly different and certainly the fruits are easy to distinguish, but the flowers are surprisingly similar. For example, look at the pear flowers photographed here in early March of 2009, at the top of the page at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/w/pear.htm.

Now look at an apple flower on a tree here now at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120415ap.jpg.

The similarities aren't surprising, since both apple and pear species are members of the Rose Family, and cladistic analysis shows that they are very close to one another, if not inclusive, on the phylogenetic Tree of Life.

If you ever need to distinguish an apple flower from a pear flower there's a little secret to help you. It's that the pear blossom's several styles -- the slender ovary "necks" connecting the ovary with its pollen-receiving stigmas -- are usually separate from another all the way to their bases, while in apple blossoms the styles usually join with one another above their bases.

Look at our longitudinal section of a pear flower at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090309ps.jpg.

There five greenish styles in the blossom's center remain separated all the way down to where they enter the green tissue that later will become the pear. Now compare those styles with those of an apple flower at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120415aq.jpg.

In that longitudinal section the tuft of styles in the blossom's center have bases that fuse together well above where they enter the future apple tissue.

Neat, huh?

*****

PHILADELPHIA FLEABANE
The seldom-mowed lawn here is prettily adorned with spring wildflowers, like a meadow high in the Alps in August. A pastoral scene below the big Cherrybark Oak is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120415ev.jpg.

Up close you can see who the white-flowered wildflower is, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120415ew.jpg.

It's the abundant, knee-high "weed" known as the Philadelphia Fleabane, ERIGERON PHILADELPHICUS, a member of the Composite or Sunflower Flower. Its flowers look like those of asters. A close-up is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120415er.jpg.

If you look behind that composite flower, however, you see something very un-aster-like, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120415es.jpg.

In that picture the white, slender things are corollas of the "ray flowers" at the head's perimeter. Below them, the slender, green items lined up side-by-side, forming a kind of cup (the involucre) are bracts. In asters, these bracts are of different lengths and overlap one another like roof shingles -- not situated side-by-side like these. In plant classification, this is a big deal.

You may find it interesting to see how this composite flower head has its yellow, eye-forming "disk flowers" crammed together, surrounded by ray flowers, in the longitudinal section across the head's center at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120415et.jpg.

About 173 fleabanes -- species in the genus Erigeron -- are included in the online Flora of North America. Features distinguishing our Philadelphia Fleabane from all the others include its very hairy stem and leaves, and the way its leaf bases "clasp" the stem, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120415eu.jpg.

Philadelphia Fleabane is native North American, but it's spread into temperate areas worldwide to become a weed.

"Bane," when part of a plant name, means "poisonous," and at least one website says that "When you burn Fleabane it produces an oily smoke that repels insects like fleas. Tannins in Fleabane protect cuts from infection and promote skin-tissue healing. Also, the weed was used to soothe sore throats."

*****

WHEAT IN THE BIRDSEED
Karen throws an occasional handful of birdseed outside her window so she can watch whomever comes to feed. Now some of that birdseed has sprouted and formed a little prairie. Though five kinds of seed are sold in the bag, all the plants in the birdseed prairie are of one thing -- the three-ft-tall grass shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120415wt.jpg.

With those flower heads composed of such plump, teardrop-shaped units and very long, stiff, needle-like "awns" pointing straight up, you can guess that you're dealing with either barley or wheat. A closer look at the flowering head helps us decide which it is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120415wv.jpg.

The big difference between a head of barley and a head of wheat is that at each joint or "node" of a head of barley two or three spikelets arise, while at each joint of a head of wheat there's only one. The above picture shows only one spikelet per joint, so this is wheat, genus Triticum.

However, there are several species of wheat. Durum Wheat, English Wheat, Polish Wheat, Spelt, Emmer and Einkhorn are all different species of the genus Triticum, not just varieties. A closer look at a spikelet shows important identification features at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120415wu.jpg.

There we see that a spikelet of our birdseed wheat has two fertile flowers, or florets, instead of one. The two lowest scales, the "glumes," are shorter than the awn-bearing lemmas inside the glumes. Also, on the scoop-shaped glumes below the florets, the long, hard, green awn bases disappear into the pale, papery glumes instead of continuing on down through them forming a ridge. That, and the fact that the flower heads don't fall off as a unit (disarticulate), tell us that we have what's known as Common Wheat or Bread Wheat, TRITICUM AESTIVUM, the species generally grown by farmers.

Some Common Wheat cultivars lack the long, needle-like awns. Awnless types are said to be "smooth" while those with long awns are "bearded."

You can imagine that the genetics of Common Wheat, so long domesticated by humans, has really been scrambled. I read that the species is "an allopolyploid with six sets of chromosomes, two sets from each of three different species."

*****

GALLS ON HICKORY LEAVES
It's a good time to see various insect-caused galls on many kinds of plants. A Pignut Hickory down in the bayou had a particularly heavy crop, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120415hg.jpg.

These galls are caused by a small, aphid-like insect of the genus Phylloxera. Many Phylloxera exist, causing various kinds of galls on different kinds of plants, and I'm unsure which species caused this is.

The galls are actually pretty when viewed with sunlight backlighting them, as seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120415hh.jpg.

That picture shows the leaf's top surface. The lower surface viewed with different light shows a different world at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120415hi.jpg.

*****

OAK-APPLE GALL INK
Speaking of galls, Oak-apple galls, caused by a wasp, AMPHIBOLIPS CONFLUENTA, of the Gall Wasp Family the Cynipidae, are easy to find on the ground nowadays. They are very lightweight and covered with a thin, brittle shell. Oak-apple galls are not to be confused with other woody or dense-textured common galls found on oaks. You can see one before and after I broke away part of its covering to expose the spongy interior at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120415oa.jpg.

Normally in such galls, in the center an egg hatches into a wormlike larva, the larva feeds on the gall tissue around it and grows, metamorphoses into a quiescent pupa, and eventually from the pupa an adult wasp emerges.

I've always read that in the old days they made ink from oak-apple galls, so this week I tried my hand at it.

Into a bowl with about a cup of water in it I crumbled two oak-apple galls and let the mixture set overnight. Oak bark contains high levels of tannin, traditionally used to tan animal hides into leather, and wherever I see "tannin-rich water," as in mangrove swamps, it's dark, reddish-brown. Therefore, I wasn't surprised when the galls darkened the water, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120415ob.jpg.

That picture shows the water after an overnight soak. When I brought out my calligraphy pen and began writing with the dark water, however, the "ink" wasn't dark enough to be useful. I'd used too much water. So, in a skillet over the campfire I boiled the water down to about a third of its former amount, concentrating the tannin, and this time I had ink, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120415oc.jpg.

On the Wikipedia Tannin Page I read that "Tannins produce different colors with ferric chloride (either blue, blue black, or green to greenish-black) according to the type of tannin. Iron gall ink is produced by treating a solution of tannins with iron sulfate."

If I had some iron filings I'd add them to my tannin-water to see if they changed things, but I don't.

I'm gratified to know that when the revolution comes I'll still be able to write, if I can figure out a good way to make paper.

*****

TERRIERS, SCHNAUZERS & WEEDS
Here I coexist with four dogs -- three Miniature Schnauzers and one Jack Russell Terrier. The three schnauzers lie around most of the day requiring no more than a pat and back-scratch whenever I pass by, but the Jack Russell Terrier works herself into a quivering state of gleeful anticipation at my approach and keeps the yard strewn with dead chipmunks and rodents obsessively collected from the surrounding woods.

It's interesting to look into the histories of dog breeds to learn what job each was bred to perform. Schnauzers arose in Germany during the late 1800s and were bred to kill rats, to herd, and guard property and children. Jack Russell Terriers were developed in England during the early 1800s to find foxes, badgers, groundhogs and other burrowing animals in their dens and either chase them out or hold them until the hunters could arrive. Jack Russells are mostly white so in the field at a distance they can be distinguished from their quarry, and their short legs enable them to easier enter burrows. To find such information, query a search engine using the breed name and the word "history" as keywords.

One reason I like to know such histories is that I'm fascinated by the idea of thoughts and feelings somehow being expressed in physical terms. What would "love" look like, or envy? Thing is, dogs of a specific breed are partly that: real-world manifestations of abstract hankerings of the humans who bred them.

Carrying the thought further, isn't that exactly what all the things of Nature (everything in the Universe) are -- real-life expressions of the hankerings of the Universal Creative Inspiration -- the "Creator"?

Moreover, as dog breeds say much about the humans who develop them, why wouldn't the things of Nature reveal something about "the nature" of the Creator?

For example, the existence of Jack Russell Terriers reveals to us that at least a certain part of humanity at least at one time felt compelled to persecute foxes and badgers in their dens. So, what does it say of the Creator that humans have been created requiring the services of Jack Russell Terriers? And that the same humans also are capable of everything from Auschwitz to Bach's fugues and Einstein's Theory?

The only common feature I can see uniting the worlds of human-created dog breeds, and Creator-created Universe is this: The Creator's passion for diversity.

Somehow when I view the broad spectrum of dog breeds, as well as forests and fields with their plants' benevolent photosynthesis alongside the animals' obligatory predator/prey relationship, and even all the bright and dark notions in my own mind, the only way I can make sense of it all is to conclude that the Creator doesn't concern Herself much with "good" and "bad," but She sure does like diversity.

Of what good is this insight?

For one thing, it suggests that people wanting to harmonize their lives with the general flow of the Creator's creation would do well to convert their monoculture lawns into gardens, or let weeds grow up, the more diverse, the better.

That's just a starting thought on the matter, but it hints at how much we modern humans must change our priorities if we are to accept guidance from the Creator's way of doing things, and live harmoniously (implying sustainably) with the Creation.

*****

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