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

April 22, 2012

BIG AND LITTLE ALLIGATORS
Last weekend Karen and I visited St. Catherine Creek National Wildlife Refuge about a twenty minute drive from here. Mostly the Refuge consists of seasonally flooded fields, swamps and bottomland forest along the Mississippi River. On sunny days it's hard to be there long without spotting alligators basking on ditch banks or floating in the water.

At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/a/alligatr.htm our Alligator Page shows a big one photographed in the Refuge in 2009. This week we ran across the tracks of one that must have been a real giant, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120422al.jpg.

The size of the print behind Karen's palm is scary. Of course the scrape mark across the bottom of the picture is from the dragged tail.

This week mainly we saw little Alligators about leg-long. While the big one shown at the top of our page is uniformly gray, a juvenile hauling himself onto a log displays bold spotting and barring along his side at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120422an.jpg.

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CHICKADEE "HOLD-HAMMERING"?
At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120422c2.jpg you can see two shots of the same Carolina Chickadee. The top view shows him, head blurred with movement, possibly "hold-hammering" -- with his beak pounding something held between his legs. Hold-pounding is a behavior known to occur among chickadees and titmice. The idea is to beat something until it's edible. I read that by hold-hammering they can open hazelnuts in about 20 minutes.

What surprises me about the photo is that the bird is pounding with his beak open. Also, I can't see anything being pounded. The bird kept doing this for about a minute, and all my pictures show him with his beak open -- except for the bottom one, when he wasn't pounding.

Maybe he's doing something besides hold-hammering. I hope that someone out there can shed light on what's going on here.

While we have these pictures before us, Northerners who have Black-capped Chickadees instead of our Carolina ones will notice that our birds have little or no white streaking in their wings. Black-caps do and that's one way to distinguish them. Black-caps are also larger, but in the field it's hard to see relative sizes.

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WREN WITH A BUG
For a couple of weeks a pair of Carolina Wrens has been feeding their nestlings beneath a nearby shed's eaves, and before they glide into the nest they pause right outside my window, look around, then proceed. You can see one carrying what looks like a fly at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120422wr.jpg.

When this happens I'm reminded of the classic Haiku by Issa:

That wren--
Looking here, looking there.
You lose something?

Several wren stories appear on our Carolina Wren Page at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/b/carowren.htm.

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TOWHEE AT BREAKFAST
Often during my campfire breakfast a certain male Eastern Towhee orbits around me lustily calling "DRINK-your-TEEEEEEEEE... " while busily foraging. You can see him caught in mid stride at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120422to.jpg.

That picture is a little curious because he's moving sideways along a fallen stem, but towhees are hopping-forwards birds, not walkers or runners, so he's having to twist his body funnily to coordinate it all. Notice the leg behind him blurring with speed. I'm not surprised to see such dexterity, however, because often you hear towhees scratching noisily in leaf litter below nearby shrubbery before you see them. They scratch like old hens, their feet working like crazy.

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BABY CATFISH GULPING AIR
In a drainage ditch along a levee road in the Refuge an inky, car-wheel-sized school of baby catfish swam up the ditch. As a group they'd move underwater maybe half a minute, then they'd surface for maybe another half minute, constantly poking their heads out of the water for half a second, again and again, apparently gulping air. As a kid on the farm in Kentucky I'd seen this many times in our pond so it's just something baby catfish do.

You can see heads sticking from the water and note how they stirred up the water as their school went along at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120422cf.jpg.

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MASON BEES ON THISTLES
Several pink-flowered Bull Thistles inhabit the infrequently bush-hogged lawn/orchard in front of the trailer. You and see our Bull Thistle page at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/h/bullthst.htm.

Though in many places it's illegal to allow Bull Thistles to stand on your land -- their very spiny parts can ruin grazing livestock's mouths and stomachs -- every day I visit each of our flowering thistles because their perfumy blossoms attract many pollinators. That's where I found the bee shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120422be.jpg.

Two bees of the same species worked together and when I saw them my heart skipped a beat, because they were collecting pollen not in "pollen baskets" on their hind legs, but on the hairy bottoms of their abdomens. That's what the leafcutter bees we looked at a couple of weeks ago in the Yucatan did. Were these leafcutters, too?

Volunteer identifier Bea in Ontario quickly figured them out, and an expert at BugGuide.net confirmed it, that what we had was a mason bee, OSMIA CHALYBEA. Bea points out that mason bees belong to the same bee family, the Megachilidae, as our leafcutters, so they're closely related.

Why haven't I noticed mason bees before? Maybe I was just blinded by my ignorance, or maybe they were less common in the past. For, we know that honeybees are having a hard time in the US. Honeybees are invasive, European species, so when honeybees were introduced into North America they must have displaced many native pollinator species. Maybe now that honeybees are suffering a population collapse, the natives are returning. I don't know that that's happening, but it makes sense.

In fact, some people already are promoting, and selling, mason bees as pollinators for orchards and fields where honeybees have disappeared, as you can see at http://osmia.com/.

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RAFTING WHIRLIGIGS
Whirligigs are those shiny, black beetles that skate across the water's surface at uncanny speeds, often suddenly swimming in tight circles. In a shallow, house-sized pond at the Refuge at about midday I came upon thousands of them floating in a car-tire-sized mass. My appearance at the pond spooked several Red-eared Turtles into splashing into the water, which made the mass break up. You can see them reforming at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120422ww.jpg.

An artsy picture showing them snugly back together is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120422wx.jpg.

Floating whirligig masses are called rafts, and the rafts may contain more than one whirligig species. A 1980 study by Heinrich and Vogt in the journal Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology point out that whirligigs, when they're threatened, are equipped with "defensive secretions" that are so noxious that if an uninformed fish attacks one, it'll not attack a second time. Possibly when large numbers of whirligigs raft they produce such a "stink" that predators stay away.

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DUN SKIPPER
Down at the Refuge on a blade of grass at a flooded field's edge a dark skipper showed up, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120422sk.jpg.

Obligingly he turned to provide the upper view at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120422sl.jpg.

Volunteer identifier Bea in Ontario quickly pegged this as the Dun Skipper, EUPHYES VESTRIS, whose habitat is described as "Wet areas near deciduous woods such as meadows, seeps, swamp edges, and streams," which was exactly where we were. Dun Skippers occur from coast-to-coast in southern Canada and all the way south through the US. Its caterpillars feed on members of the Sedge Family, the Cyperaceae, which are very common in our area.

So, one reason to highlight the species here is because it's so common that it's a good one to know. Also, since we were granted such vivid pictures, it's just a pleasure to look at this little creature, admiring his Stealth-Fighter-jet design, the composure of his brown hairs and the golden aura sunlight etches upon them, the neatly coiled proboscis, etc.

Also, this is a good time to mention that Bea and I, since we had such fun with the Yucatan's butterfly page, are building up a "Butterflies of the Natchez, Mississippi Area" page. The beginning of our page is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/a/natchez/.

Bea is even starting one for her part of Ontario, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/a/boo/.

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GREEN ASH FRUITING
In an often-flooded bottomland woods in St. Catherine Creek National Wildlife Refuge where about the only trees to be seen were Black Willows and Baldcypresses, something different appeared along the road. These trees' summery-looking green boughs were heavily laden with basketball-sized clusters of very pale, shining, samara-type fruits.

With such fruits it had to be an ash tree, but which species? In this part of the world three swamp-loving ash species are possible, the Pumpkin, Carolina and Green Ashes, plus there's an upland one, the White Ash. Also, these trees all were in a straight row at the swamp's edge, so clearly they'd been planted and therefore could have been just about anything. Therefore I had to wade through knee-deep water in which we'd just spotted a big Cottonmouth snake a few feet away to take a closer look -- to "do the botany." You can see a tree's opposite, pinnately compound leaf at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120422fz.jpg.

The leaflets had very short stems, or petiolules, so right there was a vote for it not being White Ash, whose leaflets normally have longer petiolules. Also, White Ash leaflets usually are conspicuously pale below, and these were greenish, so I eliminated White Ash from my list of possible species.

The most important way to distinguish ashes usually is to look at the samara-type fruits. A samara is a winged fruit that does not split open at maturity -- it's indehiscent. The best known plants producing them are maples and ashes. You can see a fallen panicle our trees' pale, rather slender samaras at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120422fy.jpg.

The wings on Carolina Ash samaras are very wide so ours wasn't that one. Pumpkin Ashes are usually distinguished by their very hairy leaves and twigs. Our trees' leaves and twigs were essentially hairless, so it wasn't that.

That left the Green Ash, FRAXINUS PENNSYLVANICA, which I'd figured it was all along, since Green Ashes are the most widely distributed of all American ashes, and are know to be a vigorous species liking swampy places.

Green Ashes are often planted in towns because they produce such pretty shapes and grow under many conditions. However, the species is now threatened in some parts of the country, particularly Michigan, by the Emerald Ash Borer, a beetle introduced accidentally from Asia.

A nice picture showing two leaves expanding from a growing twig tip, with the brownish terminal bud between their petiole bases, is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120422fw.jpg.

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OVERCUP OAK'S DISTINCTIVE LEAVES
At the swamp's edge stood some handsomely formed oaks who were easy to identify even though I couldn't find acorns or acorn cups below them. The leaves are shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120422ok.jpg.

This is the Overcup Oak, QUERCUS LYRATA, a southeastern US tree specializing in growing on poorly drained, clayey bottomland soils subject to prolonged flooding. The leaves' distinctive field mark is the way the blades constrict for an inch or so right above their two bottom "ears." The blades are vaguely cross-shaped. Post Oaks and Bur Oaks have the most similar leaves, but Post Oaks occur on drier soils and Bur Oaks aren't found in this part of the world.

Overcup Oaks get their name from their peculiar acorns where the nuts are almost entirely enclosed in their cups.

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CANARYGRASS IN THE WIND
Straight little gravel roads running atop low levees barely rising above the surrounding swampland crisscross the Refuge. These elevated, gravel-covered byways provide ecosystems profoundly different from the adjacent wetlands. Out in the swamp you seldom see invasive species, but there on the levees you never know what you'll find. Sometimes the "weeds" there have their own special prettiness.

For example, in some places for miles along the road there are endless populations of a certain brightly yellow-green grass with compact heads on long, slender stems. On hot, breezy mornings such as ours they very gracefully sway back and forth in the wind, as seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120422cg.jpg.

A flowering head that's mature above but green below is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120422ch.jpg.

Surely these grasses were sown along the roadsides, for I'd seldom seen them before, but here there were millions and millions of them. Also, a close look at the spikelets reveals why a refuge manager wanting to encourage wildlife might sow it, as you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120422ci.jpg.

The spikelets bulged with unusually plump grains. What a feast these big-grained grasses must provide to such birds as sparrows and Wild Turkeys!

Here we a member of the genus PHALARIS, species of which are commonly known as canarygrasses. I tried hard to determine which species it was but I couldn't be sure. Maybe Phalaris aquatica. But I read that Phalaris species hybridize, and since this is probably a wildlife planting, there's a fair chance that we are indeed dealing with a big-grained hybrid.

In that last picture be sure to notice this grass's peculiarities. First, until you look very closely, you think the head is a spike -- with each spikelet arising directly from the rachis -- but when you bend the head over you see that the spikelets are on pedicels attached to one another in a branching system. Instead of a spike, it's a panicle.

Also, the spikelets themselves are curious, for the very long glumes -- the scooplike scales surrounding the grains -- are longer than the lemmas inside them. Also, the glumes bear "wings" along their tops.

You can review these special grass terms at http://www.backyardnature.net/fl_grass.htm.

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"CAESAR'S MUSHROOMS" UP
At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120422am.jpg you see a pretty little mushroom that popped up a couple of days after a rain this week. It's the "Caesar's Mushroom," "AMANITA CAESAREA." Both the English name and binomial are within quotation marks because it's not really the Caesar's Mushroom, which is European, and it's not really Amanita caesarea, for the same reason. But, the taxonomy of this group of fungi is in a big mess, and there aren't any better names. The whole thing is entertainingly explained by Tom Volk at http://botit.botany.wisc.edu/toms_fungi/mar2002.html.

The various "Caesar's Mushrooms" are famous for being delicious. During my hermit days near here an acquaintance was familiar with the species and together we picked large numbers of them. They are about the best mushroom eating I've ever experienced.

But I don't pick and eat them on my own because the genus Amanita is famous for including some of the most deadly of mushrooms, including Death Angels, Destroying Angels or Death Caps, and the toxic and hallucinogenic Fly Agaric. Since Amanita taxonomy is so confusing and each geographic region has its own mix of species, I don't eat "Ceasar's" unless I have a local expert with me -- especially not after my famous mushroom poisoning in Kentucky in 2006. The page describing that embarrassing debacle naturally has become one of my most visited web pages. You can read about it at the bottom of the page at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/x/green-sp.htm.

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WHY I USE THE TERM "CREATOR"
The other day Joe in Cyberspace wrote taking me to task about sometimes using the word "Creator" in my essays. Over a decade ago Joe got fired from his teaching job because he wouldn't omit the topic of evolution from his high school biology class. That same week his fellow faculty members voted him "Teacher of the Year."

Joe wrote that when I speak of the Creator and keep "... guessing as to his/her motives {it} leaves you looking weaker as a naturalist. It's simply not science."

I explained to Joe that I don't pretend to be a scientist. I'm just publishing what I see and think, and let people subscribe and unsubscribe as they wish. However, there's more to it than that.

For, I mean to consciously and passionately resist how the term "Creator" is being co-opted by those self-identifying as "creationists." Creationists represent a Creator in which the whole Universe is a static stage for humans on planet Earth who determine by their behavior whether a paternalistic, vengeful "Creator" applying 2000-year-old rules assigns people upon their deaths to either Heaven or Hell. "Creator" is a word that's too beautiful and important to be surrendered to such a dismal meaning without a fight.

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary at http://www.etymonline.com/ the word "create" upon which "creator" is based derives from the 14th century Latin creatus, meaning "to make, bring forth, produce, beget." These meanings explode with a sense of action, of movement, of blossoming -- of EVOLUTION!

In my writings, then, I do what I can to pass along the Good News that a rambunctious, artistic, dancing and singing, playful and jiving, diversity-obsessed and absolutely lusty Universal Creative Impulse -- a Creator -- can be detected and beheld with awe with our own minds if we will only open them.

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ON BEING THROWN OFF THE INTERNET
Last weekend my entire website was thrown off the Internet. My service provider, FatCow.com, sent an email explaining the situation, but they'd blocked my email service so I couldn't receive any mail.

Someone at FatCow.com had seen our Newsletters being issued on Sunday morning, assumed that they were spam, and suspended my service. Maybe they'll do the same this Sunday. Eventually the site was reinstated after I was passed through a series of unsympathetic FatCow.com service representatives.

The experience is worth thinking about. For, we all know how the Internet, mobile phones, digital databases and the rest now profoundly affect our lives. What will happen when these systems break down, or someone takes control of them, reserving them only for the rich and/or powerful?

Our fast-evolving digital age so vulnerable to wayward electrons and unexpected interference has its analogy in Nature. For, human technological evolution is exploding and opening up new ways of being exactly the way biological evolution produces ever more highly adapted species for ever narrower ecological niches -- ever more novel ways of being. Also, the most exquisitely adapted of living organisms are the most vulnerable to environmental changes, just as people most engaged with technology are the most vulnerable to having their lives turned upside down.

Should humans abandon our technologies, then?

It seems to me that the Creator teaches through Her example of producing more and more biological diversity with ever more extraordinary adaptations that we thinking humans are being instructed to forge ahead with our own experimentation, our innovations and our evolution. But she also teaches us to hedge our bets: She produces tough, flexible, generalist weeds as well as exquisitely adapted orchids highly vulnerable to environmental changes.

This week as I did battle with FatCow.com I toyed with the notion of just walking away from this whole Internet thing, and spending my remaining years next to peaceful campfires, and wandering along isolated beaches, not bothering to tell anyone about it.

But, then I remembered the examples of coral reefs I've seen, of mountain meadows, of lush rainforests and deserts in bloom, and the pleasures of weedy roadsides, and I wanted to be like them. I wanted to be beautiful, too, and, like them, to live in harmony with the Creator's teachings.

So, here's another Newsletter today...

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EMAILED NEWSLETTERS ENDANGERED; TRANSITIONING TO FACEBOOK
It's obvious that problems with spam filters and such knuckleheaded behavior as I endured from my server, FatCow.com (whom I pay $98/year to host my site), eventually will make it impossible to issue these weekly emails. Therefore, I've set up a Newsletter FaceBook page where Facebook users can receive weekly messages announcing the Newsletter's publication. On this page there will be no jabbering about my own life, just weekly Newsletter messages.

Many of you may actually prefer the Facebook messages to these emails because they will provide links to pages on my website where photos are embedded in the text so you don't have to click on an address to see them. For example, in this week's Facebook message, click on the link beside "Big & Little Alligators" and you'll be sent to our Alligator Page where this week's text appears along with all my Alligator pictures and other entries regarding Alligators.

If you are a Facebook user and would like to subscribe to my Facebook feed, or if you'd like to create your own personal Facebook page where you can receive the announcements, go to the Newsletter's subscription page and at the bottom click on "Sign Up," at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/.

Also, if you "like" all this, be sure to click on the "like button." I'm not sure what this accomplishes, but I'm told that on Facebook it's desirable to be "liked."

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Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim