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

May 13, 2012

FORAGING WATER SNAKE
At midmorning a young, two-ft-long (60cm) water snake rose to the surface of a muddy-watered drainage ditch running beneath a little bridge on an isolated gravel road. You can see how the snake kept most of his body underwater but poked his head high enough above the water's surface to see all around at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120513sn.jpg.

With round pupils, smallish head and narrow neck he's obviously not a venomous cottonmouth. Since he snake looks so at home in the water and he's covered with "keeled scales," it's a good guess that he's a water snake. Keeled scales are those with their upper surfaces bearing low ridges. Notice how each diamond-shaped scale is shadowed on one side and bright on the other. It's the elevated keels making the shadows. Water snake scales are heavily keeled, probably to help the snakes gain better purchase on the water as they wiggle through it.

In the field guide, our snake's cream-yellow bottom and black lines radiating from the eye to the mouth matches the Yellow-bellied Water Snake, NERODIA ERYTHROGASTER spp. FLAVIGASTER, a mostly Southeastern US species. The species' basic colors change throughout its distribution, so from Delaware to northern Florida and southeast Alabama it displays a red, orange or pink belly and is called the Red-bellied Water Snake. Elsewhere there's the Copper-bellied Water Snake and the Blotched -- all intergrading subspecies of the same Nerodia erythrogaster. Our yellow-bellied subspecies occurs from north-central Georgia to eastern Texas and up the Mississippi to southwestern Illinois.

The Audubon guide says that Yellow-bellied Water Snakes are active in early evenings, but this one was a morning snake. I read that they sleep high in branches of trees overhanging streams, and have been seen anchoring themselves in stream vegetation, keeping their mouths opened to the current, grabbing any small fish that happen by. They also eat frogs and tadpoles. Our Yellow-bellied calmly and systematically swam along both banks of the drainage ditch eyeing where frogs might be.

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MOSQUITOFISH
In the same muddy ditch-water as the water snake hundreds of Western Mosquitofish, GAMBUSIA AFFINIS, swam nonchalantly with their flattish foreheads flush with the water's undersurface, and their silvery twin swim bladders clearly visible inside semi-transparent bodies, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120513mf.jpg.

As a kid in Kentucky on a farm surrounded by drainage ditches that, before obsessive channelization and overuse of pesticides in the fields, teemed with wildlife, on Saturday mornings I used to sit beside the gravel road selling "minnows" to fishermen. Later I learned that the word minnow applies to any number of small baitfish, and that I'd really been selling Western Mosquitofish.

I know that what we have here are the Western Mosquitofish instead of the look-alike Eastern species because Ross & Brenneman write in their 2001 book The Inland Fishes of Mississippi, partially available on Google Books pages, mosquitofish populations east of Mobile Bay are Eastern Mosquitofish, Gambusia holbrooki, while those west of the bay are Westerns. The two mosquitofish species are native to fresh and low-salinity waters from New Jersey to central Mexico, and in the US up the Mississippi drainage as far inland as Illinois. They've been introduced into many parts of the world, though, especially for mosquito control, despite studies showing that typically they're no more effective at eating mosquito larvae than local native mosquito-larvae-eating species.

But mosquitofish do eat their share of mosquito larvae, along with other small aquatic animals and detritus. It's been shown that they can eat the equivalent of up to 75% of their bodyweight each day.

At least one specialist suggests that the Western Mosquitofish may be the most numerous freshwater fish in the whole world.

One reason mosquitofish are so common is that they're so prolific. Females typically brood around 60 young, but large individuals may produce 300 or more. Females born early in the breeding season reach sexual maturity in 21-23 days when they're as little as 2/5ths inch long (10mm). Males mature in about a month. Mosquitofish are livebearers with internal fertilization, and females can store sperm so that multiple broods can be produced from a single mating.

However, few mosquitofish in the wild survive beyond one year, with the maximum life span for females about 1.5 years. Male life spans are much shorter.

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HUNGRY WOODPECKER FLEDGLING
On a big Black Oak trunk near the trailer a fledgling Red-bellied Woodpecker waited nonchalantly doing nothing, so I figured an adult wood soon appear with food, and readied the camera. At the very moment the lens focused on the lolling kid, mama darted into the viewfinder, resulting in the picture at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120513rb.jpg.

You know it's the mother because her red is limited to the back of her head, the nape; on males the redness continues well onto the crown. The picture also answers the question of whether the adult jams its beak into the fledgling's open mouth, or the fledgling rushes to accept what's in the adult's beak. You can see that the mother is in focus but the fledgling is blurred by motion, so it's the fledgling who, at least this time, controlled the entry of the adult's beak into its own.

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WREN PORTRAIT
While the camera was set up photographing the woodpeckers a Carolina Wren suddenly flew onto the trunk and presented the nice portrait shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120513wr.jpg.

It's nice to see the extent of barring on the tail and wings, and surprising that the wing feathers display such whiteness.

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SKINNY SQUIRRELS
In late afternoon's quickly dimming light often a two or three Eastern Gray Squirrels, sometimes accompanied by a chipmunk or two, stealthily step from the forest beside my trailer and enter the orchard where they sniff and scratch until they find something to eat. You can see a squirrel at work at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120513sq.jpg.

That's an awfully skinny squirrel. However, when you think about it, there's probably good reason for it. Nuts and seeds cached last fall by now may be eaten up, or hard to find, rotten or bug-eaten. Starchy underground tubers have sprouted producing watery, low-calorie shoots. The first flush of general flowering has slowed down but most plants aren't fruiting yet. There are things to eat, but not much that's calorie rich, like acorns. There are eggs and nestlings to eat, but bird parents are on high alert.

For squirrels, unless someone in the neighborhood is keeping a birdfeeder full, nowadays just isn't a good time to gain weight!

*****

SILVER-SPOTTED SKIPPER
Not long after an afternoon shower a Silver-spotted Skipper, EPARGYREUS CLARUS, alighted on a spot where earlier some pickle juice had been poured out. You can see the little being supping at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120513sk.jpg.

This is a good skipper to know because he's so common throughout most of the continental US except for the arid regions, frequents human environments, and often lets humans come close for a good look. During our 2006 summer in Kentucky he was the species always bouncing against the inside of the old house's windows, finding it easy to enter but hard to get out. Their caterpillars shelter in folded-over, silked-together leaves.

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ELDERBERRIES FLOWERING
Another plant using the strategy of clustering many small, white flowers into large heads to attract pollinators in the current ocean of green hues is the American Elderberry, one seen standing over 13 feet tall (4m) at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120513ss.jpg.

The small tree's robust panicles and pinnately compound leaves are shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120513st.jpg.

And look at how neatly the little flowers hold side-by-side at the panicles' surface at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120513su.jpg.

Around the middle of August Elderberry branches will hang heavily with purplish-black fruits that are like succulent little peppercorns, and they're edible. You might enjoy reading my experiences with them back in my hermitting days when I dried the fruits with my solar cooker and added the raisinlike results to my flapjacks, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/04/040815.htm.

All my life I've thought of American Elderberries as being SAMBUCUS CANADENSIS in the Honeysuckle Family, the Caprifoliaceae. But now about half the sources consulted regard American Elderberry as a subspecies of the European one, classifying it as Sambucus nigra ssp. canadensis in the Moschatel Family, the Adoxaceae, which I've never heard of.

One reason that's interesting is because the European species is popularly used as food and medicine. The fruits do contain impressive levels of anthocyanins, vitamins A and C and are a good source of calcium, iron and vitamin B6. In Europe various herbal remedies contain elderberry products, the supposed cures being too many to list. Maybe now when Americans see that our plants are essentially the same as the honored European one, our species will gain more respect.

Already while researching these words Google offered me an 8oz. bottle of "Nature's Way Sambucus Kids Syrup" for $14 -- Sambucus being the elderberry's genus name.

*****

TOUCH-ME-NOTS
Deep in a shadowy swamp beside standing water with knobby Baldcypress knees rising nearby, a narrow shaft of light highlighted what's shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120513im.jpg.

That's the Orange Touch-me-not, also called Orange Jewelweed, IMPATIENS CAPENSIS. With such an unusual blossom you might guess that touch-me-nots belong to a smallish family, and that's the case. It's the Balsam Family, Balsaminaceae, comprising only two genera and about 850 species of soft or succulent herbs. A distinguishing feature of the family is that its flowers have three sepals -- the calyx lobes subtending the corolla and sexual parts -- with one of those sepals being tremendously enlarged into a backward-projecting "honey-spur." The honey-spur is a baglike structure holding nectar for pollinators. Hummingbirds are especially attracted to the flowers, as well as bees and butterflies. In the above image you can clearly see two yellowish sepals atop the orange corolla, and the orange third sepal, the honey-spur, behind the flower's opening. A close-up of the front showing the flower's five petals is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120513in.jpg.

The pale items suspended from the blossom's "ceiling" and slightly projecting beyond the throat are part of five stamens with short, flat, grown-together filaments and anthers.

Touch-me-not fruits are as remarkable as the flowers because they're explosive. Touch a mature fruit and the capsule instantly ruptures, its five elongate, elastic sides coiling into knots so fast that seeds are thrown in all directions. That's why they're called touch-me-nots. You can see an unexploded fruit with two exploded ones and some ejected seeds at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120513io.jpg.

When I come onto a large colony of touch-me-nots I enjoy picking fruits, exploding them in my closed hand so that the seeds don't escape, and snacking on the seeds, which have a nice, nutty flavor.

In the US Southeast we have two native, wild touch-me-not species, of which the Orange is one. The other species is practically identical, except that its flowers are yellow. The Yellow Touch-me-not doesn't occur in Mississippi but at my childhood home in Kentucky sometimes both the Yellow and Orange species occurred in the same area, not interbreeding. Orange Touch-me-nots occur throughout North America's forested areas, except for the northernmost and arid regions.

Juice from touch-me-not stems is used to relieve itching from Poison Ivy and for treatment of athlete's foot. In fact the juice contains a compound called lawsone proven to have anti-histamine and anti-inflammatory properties, plus studies confirm that it's fungicidal.

*****

BRAZILIAN VERVAINS GALORE
Biking the countryside these days, again and again you pass great swaths of diffuse violaceousness, long roadsides of it, and entire fields that have been spared of bush-hogs and herbicides. You wonder how any one wildflower or weed could dominate so much of the landscape. You can see a tiny section of a roadside of it at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120513vb.jpg.

A close-up showing the dense flower heads is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120513vc.jpg.

A shot of the narrow leaves with serrated margins arising opposite one another on stems square in cross-section is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120513vd.jpg.

This is the Brazilian Vervain, VERBENA BRASILIENSIS, an annual or short-lived perennial, a member of the Verbena Family, the Verbenaceae. And it's truly from Brazil and other South American countries, though in much of the world's warmer parts it's becoming a serious invasive, pushing native species aside. In the US, so far Brazilian Vervain is limited to the Southeast and a bit of the West Coast.

Pollinators relish the Brazilian Vervain's flower nectar, on sunny mornings keeping the blossoms busy with activity. However, the fruits produced are regarded as of only minor importance to ground-foraging small birds and mammals. The species' value to wildlife is regarded so low that in the US its presence is prohibited on National Forest System Lands. In nearby Homochitto National Forest, however, it's common along gravel roads passing through the forest.

*****

LOOKING CLOSELY AT JAPANESE HONEYSUCKLE
Sometimes in the calmness of late afternoon a vagrant breeze from the forest's overgrown edge carries a fragrance so sweet and evocative that I have to go look, even though I know it just comes from a big tangle of weedy Japanese Honeysuckle, LONICERA JAPONICA.

But, even though Japanese Honeysuckle makes the list of "Mississippi's Ten Worst Invasive Weeds," it's worth looking at closely. For example, a glance at a random gathering of flowers evokes a certain pathos, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120513hs.jpg.

Notice that only a few flowers are pure white, the rest being yellowish. To pollinators, many of whose eyes are attuned to the ultraviolet spectrum, the yellow flowers are less visible than the white. That's what the vine wants, for only the white ones are sexually receptive. The yellow flowers already have been pollinated. The vine is saying to the pollinator, "Don't waste your energy on these less visible blossoms... "

An individual honeysuckle blossom is a graceful thing to see, a form worthy of meditation, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120513ht.jpg.

See how the first item an approaching pollinator touches is the knobby stigma at the picture's far right? That's where pollen from other flowers is daubed, first thing. Then as the pollinator continues into the flower's throat searching for the nectar, brownish, hatlike anthers dusted with pollen grains are encountered next, the pollen ready to hitch a ride to the pollinator's next blossom. But, are those graceful curves really necessary? Wouldn't straight filaments and style have done as well? Maybe, but the effect wouldn't have been as elegant. What does the curve in a honeysuckle filament mean, what does it mean?

And look more closely at those pollen-encrusted, brown anthers at the tips of their filaments, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120513hu.jpg.

And see the glandular hairs coating the corolla's slender tube at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120513hv.jpg.

The closer you look, the more majestic, and the more forgiving you feel for this one of the "ten worst."

*****

PRICKLYPEARS FLOWERING
Pricklypears are cacti of the genus Opuntia, of which about 200 species are recognized. In this area's gardens they're flowering now, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120513op.jpg.

A 2½-inch wide (6cm) flower with a reddish center and a cream-colored or maybe whitish, five lobed stigma arising from among a tuft of numerous, yellow stamens is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120513oq.jpg.

In the online Flora of North America this keys out to the Western Pricklypear, OPUNTIA MACRORHIZA, whose natural area of distribution occurs a good bit west of here. However, Karen says she dug up this cactus from a woods in northwestern Arkansas, so it all makes sense. The Eastern Pricklypear, Opuntia humifusus, which is native to Mississippi, bears flowers that are completely yellow inside and the stigmas are white. I read that the Eastern and Western species may not be distinct from one another, though most taxonomists continue to separate them.

Some Western Pricklypears are heavily armored with stout spines but others, like ours, are spineless. However, those pale spots scattered across the pads' faces bear tufts of spiny items called glochids that are so small and pale that you don't see them unless you look hard. But just lightly touch your finger against a patch of glochids and they'll stick into your skin and be hard to remove. If you don't remove them, however, before long they'll penetrate to a nerve, and it'll hurt. You can see a tiny patch of glochids close-up at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120513or.jpg.

*****

LOESS EROSION AS A GLIMPSE INTO THE FUTURE
Loess -- the thick layer of wind-deposited dust from the last Ice Age mantling our area -- erodes in a manner different from that of regular dirt. It exhibits what's known as a "high angle of repose." That means that where loess is unprotected by vegetation it erodes cavities with near-vertical walls. In the April 29th Newsletter we saw the vertical walls typical of smaller roadcuts through this area's loess, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120429ls.jpg.

Thing is, nowadays highway engineers and builders on loess soil appear to have forgotten this fact. Again and again around here you see attempts to landscape loess into long slopes that are eye-pleasing until the first rain, when frightful erosion results as the loess begins its process of developing vertical walls. In the old days, highway engineers dealing with deep roadcuts through loess created steps or terraces with vertical walls. It looked funny, but it didn't collapse or erode much. Nowadays engineers and landscapers are back to gentle slopes and they're causing outrageous erosion and stream clogging.

When I was last here in 2009 a landowner built himself a lake by bulldozing up a high levee of loess across a narrow valley. The levee's walls sloped on both sides. I've been waiting to see what happened. This week I biked out to take a look.

The lake was empty except for mud in the bottom. You can see the state of the levee dam at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120513l~.jpg.

A gentle slope from the woods down to the lake had become what's shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120513l_.jpg.

Fifty years ago no one would have made such a mess. It was common knowledge then that loess erodes like this, and that certain measures can to be taken to accommodate the loess's natural disposition. But now that knowledge is either forgotten, or else now a lot of people are stupefied by the belief that money trumps natural laws. I do believe that this wrecked lake gives us a glance into the near future when education will be much less available to the masses, and the small numbers of rich and powerful will be even more rich and powerful, and stupefied, and therefore even more destructive.

*****

FOREST DEMOCRACY
During the campfire breakfast surrounded by utterly green, vibrantly photosynthesizing forest, on the radio there's news about democratic institutions everywhere tying themselves in knots: No compromises, endless quibbling, things not getting done. This thought comes:

The forest is an example of a functioning democracy.

For, in a healthy forest every citizen's wish is granted to perform the activity he, she or it feels most naturally inclined to undertake. Communistic ants, capitalistic predators, working-class photosynthesizers and decomposition organisms, specialist nitrogen-fixers, artful butterflies, pathogens and parasites thinning out the weak...

I personally would be no happier in the forest's efficiency-oriented democracy with its lack of playfulness and irony than I would be in current human society as practiced beyond these woods. I'm content hermitting here with the radio news on one side and the forest on the other.

But, it's interesting: Forest democracy has survived since the first forests of fern-like plants of the genus Wattieza some 385,000,000 years ago. Forest democracy endures because it absolutely adheres to ecological laws. In contrast, history shows that human democracy flourishes only under stable conditions, and most of the time things aren't stable. And human instability arises most when, ignoring ecological laws, people end up competing for natural resources such as productive land, drinkable water, and open space enough to keep from going crazy.

How can all these environmental-deregulation-obsessed politicians claim to support democracy?

As the cornbread in my skillet bakes to a golden brown and woodsmoke blows in my face, my mind rambles on and on, and I find myself visualizing news on the radio absorbed through stomata of the forest's innumerable leaves, and word-molecules being metaphotosynthesized into music ever so sweet to hear, into fresh air a delight to breathe...

And then I slice my big slab of steaming cornbread into two faces and make a skillet-size sandwich holding an entire Elephant-garlic omelet with two eggs along with a whole tomato from the garden, a big wad of hot turnip greens also from the garden, and sweet pickle slices from a glass jar, and I eat that thing, so tickled to have come up with the concept of metaphotosynthesis, and wondering what else might be so pleasingly transmogrified.

*****

FEATURED ESSAYS FROM THE PAST:

"Hypoglycemia & Spiders" from the September 9, 2001 Newsletter, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/p/010909.htm.

"Homosexuality in Nature" from the July 18, 2004 Newsletter, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/p/040718.htm.

*****

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