JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER
Issued from the woods a few miles east of
NATCHEZ, MISSISSIPPI, USA

May 6, 2012

THE NEIGHBOR'S GUINEAS
A neighbor up the gravel road keeps maybe a dozen Helmeted Guineafowl, normally just called guineas, NUMIDA MELEAGRIS. They run around the yard and along the road in a tightly-knit flock pecking at seeds, spiders, insects, whatever. You can see their normal stance, their teardrop-shaped bodies tilted forwards and their small, ornate heads bobbing on spindly necks as they eye every detail of the ground, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120506gu.jpg.

Back on the farm in Kentucky one spring morning my father came in with a small flock of guineas, having heard that they lay lots of thick-shelled but delicious eggs, that their plump bodies also are good to eat, and thinking that they were about the most exotic looking critters he'd ever seen. Nobody had told him, however, how at the slightest disturbance they'd break into a chorus of loud, shrill calls, especially in early mornings, the males incessantly calling kek-kek-kek and the females screaming buckwheat buckwheat buckwheat. We were accustomed to quietness back then, so after a couple of weeks we were mightily relieved when somebody took the birds off our hands.

Guineas seen here are domesticated races of a wild species native to southern Africa. They're members of the "Upland Game Birds" order, the Galliformes, along with turkeys, quail and pheasants. In the wild, guineas normally are monogamous, mating for life, but domesticated ones tend to be a bit looser. The Spanish brought guineas into the Americas in the early 1500s. In recent decades breeders have developed many races.

You can have a better look at the helmets, or "casques," atop their heads and their widely flaring wattles at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120506gt.jpg.

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RED-BELLIED WOODPECKER
At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120506wp.jpg you see what in most of the eastern US is the commonest, most frequently noticed woodpecker species, the Red-bellied Woodpecker, MELANERPES CAROLINUS. That one landed on Karen's driveway and hopped around in spite of the proximity of the house and there being cats, dogs and people about. You just have to admire the species' verve and flexibility. They do peck on tree trunks and eat regular woodpecker fare, but also you see them gorging on tree fruits, snapping insects out of the air, and sometimes even capturing small lizards and birds. Currently Red-bellies are expanding their distribution to the north and west.

The name "Red-bellied" usually confuses beginning birders because typically the belly isn't all that red. The one in the picture has a belly with a little red flush, but outside the breeding season often there's no red on the belly at all.

If this Mississippi bird were to appear in the Yucatan I'm not sure I'd notice the difference between it and the similarly aggressive, fruit-eating, sometimes-red-bellied Golden-fronted Woodpecker, which is the most common woodpecker there. You might enjoy comparing the above picture with that of a Golden-fronted at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/wp-g-f.htm.

The Golden-fronted's zebra stripes are a little narrower than our Red-bellied's, but that's not much difference. Maybe someday the two species will be lumped into one big, polymorphic one.

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THE NEIGHBOR MOTH
On a green leaf near the ground in deep shade of a vast understory of greenness, in upland, mostly oak forest, and not moving at all despite my closeness, there sat a moth. Its wings were emblazoned with a whiteness that was nearly shocking within all that greenness, and the whiteness bore a strange geometric marking, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120506mo.jpg.

Volunteer identifier Bea in Ontario didn't need much time to name such a distinctive creature. "HAPLOA CONTIGUA -- The Neighbor Moth" she wrote with her usual laconic efficiency when in ID mode, adding a couple of links to prove it. So now on the Internet I sought what could be found about Haploa contigua.

The Neighbor is distributed from Quebec to the mountains of Georgia, west to South Dakota, Arkansas, and Mississippi. Its dark caterpillars with yellow lines along their sides and tufts of short, sharp bristles are similar to tent caterpillars, but don't make tents. They eat leaves of a variety of plants, including members of the Sunflower (Composite) and Borage Families and Hazelnut, overwinter, and then in their second season as caterpillars grow some more before metamorphosing.

And I can't find anyone who knows why Haploa contigua is called The Neighbor.

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SWAMP DOGWOOD FLOWERING
Our landscape couldn't be greener nowadays. The greenness is less the soft, luminescent, yellowish hue of spring than the harder, more serious and subdued green of early summer. Looking at the forest, you can almost hear the ecosystem's powerful, efficient and mystical photosynthesis. It's easy to imagine that within such a vast seriousness of shadowy greenness it may be hard for a little flower to draw attention to itself.

In this context the pollination strategy of many plant species is to produce flowers as bright as possible -- white ones -- and to cluster them to make a larger visual impact. Biking down backroads, again and again, dense panicles of white flowers nod from the forest's edges. You can see what the leaves and flowers of one such 10-ft-high (3m) species look like at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120506co.jpg.

Notice how the leaves arise two to a stem node -- they're "opposite" -- and that the flowers are clustered in flat-headed panicles held aloft by slender peduncles at branch tips. A flower close-up is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120506cp.jpg.

There you see that each flower has four widely spreading petals, four stamens and a single thick style arising from the center of a doughnut-like disk. The stamens' filaments and the petals arise from beneath the disk. The flowers are "inferior," meaning that the petals and stamens arise above the ovary -- the future fruit -- not below it.

All these features point to the fact that here we have a dogwood flower, though it's very different from what most people think of as dogwood flowers. Most people visualize the white items that adorn Flowering Dogwoods in spring, but those are actually flowering heads, or inflorescences, as we've seen on our Flowering Dogwood page at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/w/dogwood.htm.

Lower down on that page you can see the yellow corollas of the Flowering Dogwood's "real" flowers, and those flowers with their four petals, four stamens and thick style do look like the white dogwood flowers we're considering now.

What we have here is the Swamp Dogwood, also called Silky Dogwood, CORNUS AMOMUM, fairly common in bottomland soils throughout the eastern US and southernmost Canada.

Most folks are surprised that dogwoods exist other than Flowering Dogwoods. However, just in Mississippi seven dogwood species are listed, and only one, the Flowering Dogwood, bears large, white, petal-like bracts making the flower head look like a single flower.

In the fall Swamp Dogwood produces pretty blue drupes that birds eat. Native Americans traditionally used Swamp Dogwood medicinally -- a decoction of the roots for relieving urinating pain and as a laxative, an infusion of the bark to wash babies and make them sleep, for chest congestion and for gonorrhea sores, and there were other uses as well.

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CHINESE PRIVET
Similarly using the strategy of grouping small flowers into large clusters to attract pollinators in this ocean of shadowy greenness is the 10-ft-high (3m) bush or small tree shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120506pv.jpg.

You can see an individual flower at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120506pw.jpg.

On an otherwise regular-looking flower, having only two stamens is fairly unusual -- unless you're in the Olive Family, the Oleaceae, which this plant is. It's a privet, a member of the genus Ligustrum, but there are many privet species.

This one is the Chinese Privet, LIGUSTRUM SINENSE, truly a native of China, but common enough in Mississippi to make the list on "Mississippi's 10 Worst Invasive Weeds," as you can see yourself at http://msucares.com/pubs/misc/m1194.html.

Despite its invasiveness, when you stand next to a Chinese Privet in full flower you have to admire the overwhelming perfumy fragrance its blossoms emit, and the sheer numbers and kinds of pollinators who visit the flowers. Even that 10-Worst page says that Chinese Privet's seeds are consumed by birds. Chinese Privet may be an invasive weed but at least it's contributing good works to the community.

Still, I've seen pure stands of Chinese Privet where not a native flowering plant was to be seen. The species can completely shove aside the natives. It's one of those good-news, bad-news things.

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MAYAPPLE APPLE IN MAY
The expert who wrote Wikipedia's page on the eastern North American wildflower called the Mayapple, PODOPHYLLUM PELTATUM, writes that "...it is the flower that appears in early May, not the 'apple.' The fruit or 'apple' is produced in early summer and ripens later in summer." You can see that in the US Deep South that's not true, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120506ma.jpg.

On a steep, tree-shaded ravine slope, in our area this Mayapple's "apple" isn't ripe, but if we wait until it's ripe to photograph it more than likely we'll never get the picture, since critters eat the fruits as soon as they begin emitting ripeness odors. Still, it looks like this Mayapple apple will mature in May.

Unripe Mayapple fruits shouldn't be eaten because they are mildly toxic. In fact, the whole plant is somewhat toxic, especially the roots, because of the presence of the compound podophyllotoxin, which serves the plant by keeping animals from too readily eating it. The "apple" technically is a fleshy berry because it's pulpy, contains more than one seed, and doesn't split open at maturity.

Some Native American groups used Mayapple root powder as a laxative and to control intestinal worms. Modern medicine uses Mayapple extracts against genital warts, HIV-related oral hairy leukoplakia and certain skin cancers. Of course the trick in using these cures is to know what the dosage should be because if you take too much orally you can kill yourself.

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CRIMSON CLOVER
Along lots of landscaped roadsides throughout the US Southeast this spring you see what's shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120506cc.jpg.

On the Natchez Trace Parkway between Natchez and Nashville for mile after mile the roadside is bright red with that plant, which is Crimson Clover, TRIFOLIUM INCARNATUM. Parkway officials must manage their roadsides to encourage Crimson Clover's majestic spring appearance because the species tends to disappear, like most wildflowers, with the frequent mowing and herbicide use practiced along most highways these days. When I was younger many roadsides announced spring with great, glorious blossomings of Crimson Clover, where now there is none.

Crimson Clover, despite looking so different from other plants we think of as clovers, is a real clover, which means that it's a member of the genus Trifolium, in the Bean Family. If you look closely at a single flower you can see the typical "papilionaceous" Bean-Family-type blossom structure, with the oversized "standard" petal curving away from the smaller "wings" and "keel," as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120506cd.jpg.

Crimson Clover was introduced into North America from Europe as cattle fodder and to improve soil. As a groundcover it retards erosion plus its roots bear nitrogen-fixing mycorrhiza. It's escaped throughout the US but does much better in the southern states.

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RATTLESNAKE FERN
At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120506bm.jpg you see one of the easiest to identify and widely distributed ferns. It's found almost worldwide except in the coldest, driest and tropical parts. It's the Rattlesnake Fern, BOTRYCHIUM VIRGINIANUM.

What makes the species so easy to identify is its triangular frond divided three to four times into cut-margined leaflets, and the slender, pale, sky-pointing item arising at the center of the frond's base, which is the spore-producing part, the sporophore. Ours is a bit past its prime. Sometimes the top of a Rattlesnake Fern's sporophore looks a little like an old rattlesnake's tail sticking into the air.

Sometimes the sporophores bend to one side. When I was a kid in Kentucky I was told that such bent sporophores pointed toward rattlesnake nests. That's the kind of story that got me to doubting a lot of things people were telling me in those days.

A University of Michigan medicinal plant database reports that the Cherokee made a decoction of Rattlesnake Fern root which they boiled down to a syrup, which they rubbed on snakebites. The Chippewa made a poultice of the fern's freshly mashed root for the same purpose. The Ojibwa said the plant was good for lung trouble and tuberculosis. However, none of these uses have been confirmed, and one suspects the snakebite cure arises from the "Doctrine of Signitures," which rests on the superstitious assumption that plants signal to us how we should use them. Thus the Rattlesnake Fern's sporophore similarity to a rattlesnake tail signals that it's good for snakebite.

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TWO WAYS TO THINK ABOUT GRAVEL
Stream bottoms here are sandy with occasional deposits of gravel. The gravel is fascinating stuff. Sometimes I lie with my face only an inch or two from it, exploring every pebble, trying to understand what's before me. A random sample of what I might see is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120506gv.jpg.

Looking into gravel, the mind has two main paths to take. The first path is to identify what's there. That helps us know what's normal, and what's special. Taking the first path with the above image, the first thing I notice is that all the pebbles are rounded. Therefore, they've come a long way -- maybe hundreds or even thousands of miles -- rolling and tumbling in running water, having their corners knocked off, becoming more and more spherical and smooth.

Something else to notice is that they're all silicates -- all composed of atoms of silicon and oxygen, the two most common elements of which the Earth's crust is composed. Silicon provides about 28% of the Earth's crust by weight, and oxygen some 47%. However, the pebbles contain different amounts of other elements, too, so they display different colors, different textures and densities.

Most of the pebbles -- the yellow-brown ones -- are chert. Highway engineers might call this chert gravel. The reddish pebble at the picture's upper, right corner is chert containing much more iron oxide than the other pebbles, so it's known as jasper. This is low-grade jasper. Finer-textured jasper rocks are considered semiprecious gemstones and can be polished to be made very pretty. The white pebbles are more purely silicon dioxide. The brightest white pebbles showing translucency and very fine texture are the purest quartz, but they still contain too many impurities to be crystalline. The pure white ones are sometimes called white quartz. Tiny, transparent sandgrains are crystalline quartz -- pure silicon dioxide, SiO2.

The second train of thought gravel sets our minds on begins with the question, "Where does this gravel come from?"

Gravel here in southwestern Mississippi derives from two main sources. Gravel in the Mississippi River lowlands was deposited during the various Ice Ages (of which there were three main ones) during the Pleistocene Epoch from about 10,000 years ago to some 1.7 million years ago. This Ice-Age gravel originated hundreds of miles to the north where glaciers ground up the bedrock they passed over, carried the shattered stone along, and ultimately released it in torrents of meltwater that rushed southward in white-water streams to our area and beyond.

Our other gravel -- the one in the picture -- occurs just beneath the loess of our loess-mantled uplands. It's primarily of Pliocene age, deposited 1.7 to 5.3 million years ago. At that time the southern half of what is now the state of Mississippi was a broad alluvial plain covered with south-running "braided streams." Water in the streams brought our gravel from the north where forces within the Earth were causing the land to rise in three main places -- the Ozark region, the southern Appalachians, and central Tennessee. Our gravel came mostly from atop a "dome" that formed at that time in central Tennessee -- a dome that now has eroded into a structural basin. This process is described in more detail in my November 9, 2003 Newsletter at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/03/031109.htm.

If you live in a different part of the world and you have gravel, of course the story of where your gravel comes from will be different, but just as interesting. With fancy search-engine work, maybe you can discover its origin, and what's special about, and start feeling the same buzz I feel when visiting my own gravel deposits.

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AN OPTION FOR EMAIL DELIVERY OF THIS NEWSLETTER
Mike in Houston knows his way around computer code and just for the fun of it wrote a program that "strips" each week's current Newsletter from my archives, makes an email of it, and sends it to anyone subscribed. So far he himself is the only subscriber, but if you'd like to join the list, drop him a mail at temp@mflan.com.

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WISDOM OF THE ORANGE MOSSCAP
Across the river in Louisiana a bayou is a swampy body of water such as the outlet of a lake or river, usually with sluggish or stagnant water. Here among southern Mississippi's loess-mantled uplands along the Mississippi River, bayous are deep, steep-walled valleys or ravines eroded into loess -- loess being accumulations of dust deposited by wind at the end of the last Ice Age. Deep, moist and shadowy bayou bottoms often provide refuges for mosses, ferns and other plants that don't occur higher up where sunlight and wind dries things out. The north faces of vertical loess walls in bayou bottoms often are heavily encrusted with green mosses.

Nowadays emerging here and there from the green moss crust on bayou loess walls there's an exceedingly small, yellow-orange mushroom, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120506om.jpg.

Best I can determine, that's the Orange Mosscap, RICKENELLA FIBULA, a humus-decomposing fungus nearly always associated with mosses, and distributed nearly worldwide. Its cap is only about 3/10ths-inch across (7mm).

Focusing on the Orange Mosscap draws me into a world that really exists, yet it's a state of reality conflicting mightily with human experience. In that world, a moss's leaf is as formidable as a machete, snail slime trails are as significant as little streams, and dewdrops the relative size of basketballs adhere to vertical walls in defiance of gravity.

While I lean against the loess wall focusing on the Orange Mosscap's world, the caw of a flying-over crow draws my attention to the narrow swatch of sky shining above the bayou. The deep blueness there draws me into the sky's reality, its enormity, and into thoughts about Outer Space's gleeful inattention to the local rules of Earth's Euclidian geometry, and the Universe's raging expansion to the tune of quantum physics, curved space, and time warps.

But then a butterfly flits through a shaft of sunlight so off I go, thinking no more of Orange Mosscaps and quantum physics. However, all day the insight lingers that as a human with a mind -- as a member of the most evolutionarily advanced of all Earthly organisms -- I'm granted the ability to swing my mind back and forth through wildly different dimensions of reality. There must be a reason for it. And if my having this ability is so important to the Universal Creative Impulse that She's invested millions of years of creative energy to create it, that reason must be regarded as being Her wish and thus, for me, a spiritual imperative.

Down in the shadowy bayou where the Orange Mosscap surrounds itself with dark green moss and shining snail trails there is a teaching about the beauty and necessity of empathy, of mental flexibility and adaptation, of learning, feeling and evolution.

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FEATURED ESSAYS FROM THE PAST:

"Rattlesnake Alive" from the September 22, 2002 Newsletter, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/p/020922.htm.

"Pickle Juice" from the February 24, 2002 Newsletter, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/p/020224.htm.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim