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

May 27, 2012

DIAMONDBACK WATER SNAKE
At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120527sn.jpg a yard-long (1m) snake works along the banks of the same drainage ditch where two weeks ago we documented a young Yellow-bellied Water Snake looking for frogs. This week it's an adult Diamondback Water Snake, NERODIA RHOMBIFERA, doing the same thing. Water snakes must find this ditch a frog-collecting heaven.

With its "arrowhead-shaped" head, watery habitat and the snake's predisposition for fighting and biting vigorously when threatened, this species is often misidentified as a Cottonmouth or Water Moccasin, but the Diamondback's neck and body are too slender to be that of a Cottonmouth, plus the diamondback pattern is classic for the Diamondback Water Snake. Cottonmouths are much darker, too.

Diamondback Water Snakes are distributed mainly in the south-central US, south into Mexico, extending as far north as southern Illinois and Indiana, west to south-central Texas and east to central Alabama. Mostly they feed on fish and frogs. In 2008 also we ran into the species, a young one curled beneath a flower pot atop a small hill a good distance from any permanent body of water. You can see that one at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080616el.jpg.

*****

LONG-TAILED WEASEL BESIDE ROAD
Armadillos, squirrels and snakes are the main roadkill in this area, and the slender little body being approached this week as I biked the area's backroads at first looked like the usual smallish, young squirrel, but when I was right beside it the tail didn't look right, and then other things didn't, either. If you don't mind looking at a dead animal with a banged head, take a look at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120527ws.jpg.

The tail was too slender to be a squirrel's, the creature's whitish bottom had a definite yellow cast to it, and the back legs weren't formed like those of a squirrel. The pale underside meant it wasn't an otter or mink, it was too slender to be a Ground Hog (not found here, anyway), Nutria, Opossum, Raccoon or Muskrat.

It was one of North America's three weasel species, and the only weasel occurring this far south, a Long-tailed Weasel, MUSTELA FRENATA, occurring from southern Canada through the US, Mexico and Central America into northern South America.

In my 60 or so years of biking I don't recall having ever encountered a road-killed weasel, so this was unusual. One assumes that all such animals are having a hard time surviving, but sources on the Internet indicate that weasels are more or less holding their own. Even the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species regards them as a "species of least concern."

Long-tailed Weasels are mainly nocturnal, but also active by day. They can climb trees but spend most of their time on the ground. Mostly they prey on small mammals up to rabbit size, but also take a few birds and other animals, killing by piercing the skull with their canines. Usually they nest in old burrows of other animals, sometimes under wood or rock piles. This one was beside a roadcut through loess where exposed tree roots formed dense, enclosing tangles, probably providing good nesting sites.

When I was a kid on the farm back in Kentucky we lost many old hens to what my father was sure was weasels, and it seemed that no amount of fencing and patching holes in the henhouse could keep them out. The closest I've ever been to a living weasel was in Mexico when one morning in the mountains one appeared atop a stone fence not ten feet away. "Comedreja," my friend told me they're called there.

*****

EASTERN CHIPMUNKS
What astonishes me about this area's Eastern Chipmunks, TAMIAS STRIATUS, is that there's so many of them. Of course Karen's cat brings in one every few days, plus there's a Jack Russell terrier who obsessively hunts them in the adjacent woods day after day, keeping the crows supplied with chipmunk carrion dropped along the driveway. It seems that we'd have run out of chipmunks in this area long ago, yet the bodies keep appearing, and nowadays there's even a perky one who occasionally ventures into the mid-afternoon sunlight, sneaks past snoozing dogs and cats, and climbs the shadowy side of the Black Oak just outside my window, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120527ch.jpg.

I read that Eastern Chipmunks over most of their range produce two litters a year of 4-5 babies, so that birthrate certainly explains a lot, but still it hardly seems enough to keep supplying all the carcasses that appear here.

If you study the facial profile of the chipmunk in the picture it's easy enough to believe that chipmunks are rodents, which they are, like squirrels. In fact, chipmunks are regarded as small squirrels, residing in the Squirrel Family, the Sciuridae, along with tree squirrels, ground squirrels, woodchucks, flying squirrels and prairie dogs. They're all rodents -- members of the order Rodentia, class Mammalia.

With those "racing stripes" along their sides, in Eastern North America chipmunks can't be confused with anything else. However, out West there exist several similarly striped chipmunk and antelope-squirrel species, as well as the Golden-mantled Squirrel, all with stripes and looking pretty much like Eastern Chipmunks.

Literature usually says that Eastern Chipmunks live in rocky areas, but around here we have no rocks, since the entire landscape is mantled with end-of-Ice-Age-deposited dust called loess. However, on steep slopes often the loess erodes away beneath trees leaving root mazes behind which chipmunks love to dig their burrows.

Eastern Chipmunks eat bulbs, seeds, fruits, nuts, green plants, mushrooms, insects, worms, and bird eggs, often transporting their food in cheek pouches. The species occurs throughout forested eastern North America except for most of the US Deep South. I'm guessing that it's missing from the Deep South because the Coastal Plain there is geologically so young that rocks and boulders haven't had time to harden from sediment, or lithify, and chipmunks genuinely need those rocks and boulders, or else our tree-root tangles on steeply eroded loess slopes. Here in southwestern Mississippi we're right at the Eastern Chipmunk's most southwestern point of distribution.

*****

BROWN THRASHER NEST
A Brown Thrasher has built a nest in a dense, unpruned Pear tree in the orchard. You can see the nest and the mama giving me the yellow eye at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120527tx.jpg.

I read that Brown Thrashers lay three to five eggs in "twiggy" nests lined with grass. The nest in the picture certainly couldn't be twiggier.

It'll be fun monitoring the nest, which isn't far from my trailer. I'm a bit worried about it, though. It's only about five feet off the ground (1.5m), easily climbable by a cat, and the resident house cat knows the nest is there. I've seen cats wait on their attacks until nestlings were available. The only hopeful part is that Brown Thrashers are known to be vigorous nest defenders. And if I'm around when the attack comes, I'll have my slingshot ready.

*****

AN OAK THAT COMES AND GOES
For years I've wondered about the identity of the oak whose small, narrow leaves and stiff, slender, angularly jutting stems are shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120527ok.jpg.

My old Trees of North America indicates that in this area we have two species with such leaves: Willow Oaks, Quercus phellos, and; Laurel Oaks, Quercus laurifolia. But both of those species favor bottomland soils and these mystery trees definitely like loess-mantled ridge crests and bluffs. Also, the trunks of my upland trees are blotched with pale patches, and small twigs branch off the main trunk in a way that just didn't "feel right." You can how our ridge trees do it at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120527om.jpg.

So, biking along ridge crests through the hills near here in Homochitto National Forest this week I decided to try one last time to settle in my mind these trees' identity. First I needed last season's acorns, which were found beneath a tree as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120527ol.jpg.

By comparing with the width of my fingers, you can see that those are very small acorns. They look like Laurel Oak acorns. After a lot of internetting, here's what I've come up with:

Based mostly on pictures on the Internet others have taken of the growth form and the pale, blotchy bark of young trees, and the fact that these are upland trees, not bottomland, I'm fairly sure we have QUERCUS HEMISPHAERICA, which doesn't have a commonly accepted English name. Most authors needing an English name appear to call it the Laurel Oak, but that name already is used by Quercus laurifolia. In the past, Quercus hemisphaerica was regarded as a variety of Laurel Oak, or a form not worthy of variety status. Quercus hemisphaerica isn't even mentioned in my old Trees of North America.

However, the online Flora of North America recognizes Quercus hemisphaerica, saying that it occupies "moderately dry sandy soils, scrub sandhills, stream banks, occasionally on hillsides and ravines." It is distributed along the Coastal Plain from southeastern Virginia to southern Texas.

It's reported to hybridize with several other species. Maybe that explains why as I biked through forests in which the main trees were Water Oaks, Quercus nigra, our oaks were like ghosts, sometimes suggesting Water Oaks with extra small and slender leaves, sometimes looking like our oak but with strong hints of Water Oak, and only rarely exhibiting the species' full-blown features as shown by the tree in our photos.

I wonder if this species is in the process of being obliterated as its genes are absorbed into other more distinct species, or whether it might be the opposite, emerging as a species, gradually separating from Laurel Oaks. Or maybe it's something else, a genetic strategy not yet recognized by biologists, in which a species' genome crystallizes in certain individual trees only when environmental conditions are just right, otherwise waiting unexpressed in the genes of other species.

*****

CYPRESS KNEES
The other day I was in a swamp with Baldcypresses growing in standing water. It was a beautiful place and I just sat for a long time watching dragonflies dart about, bubbles gurgle up from the mud, breezes giving this or that leaf a momentary shudder. You can see the scene before me at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120527cy.jpg.

All my life I've read, and passed on the information, that those knobby items projecting from the water -- "cypress knees" -- are pneumatophores supplying oxygen to the trees' submerged roots. Baldcypresses planted on dry land don't produce them.

Now I learn that studies haven't been able to prove this assumption. In fact, laboratory tests demonstrate that Baldcypress knees are ineffective at depleting oxygen in a sealed chamber. Also it's known that swamp-dwelling Baldcypresses having their knees removed continue to thrive without them.

So, really it's unclear what purpose Baldcypress knees serve. The only thing that's certain ab out them is that in a swamp they lend an air of majesty with their mere presence.

*****

PARROTFEATHER IN A DITCH
If you want to see a summery, pastoral shot showing a stream between a bottomland woods and a wheat field, take a look at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120527my.jpg.

If you're surprised to find wheat being grown in southwestern Mississippi, the way it works is that wheat is planted in the winter, harvested in the spring, then the same ground is planted in cotton for the upcoming long summer season.

Something interesting about the picture is that the stream -- actually a "channelized" drainage ditch -- is choked with some kind of frilly-leafed vegetation. You can see the plant close-up, its submerged tough, ropy stems with feathery, bright green tufts of whorled leaves prettily emerging from the water at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120527mz.jpg.

This is Parrotfeather, MYRIOPHYLLUM AQUATICUM, native to the Amazon River Basin, but now a serious aquatic weed in much of the world with warmer weather. It's reported to have been introduced into the US in the Washington, DC area about 1890. However, it's commonly sold for aquaria and aquatic gardens and has escaped many times since. Parrotfeather can clog larger streams and even lakes just as you see in our ditch.

Parrotfeather is hard to get rid of. Physically removing it usually doesn't work, since small parts left behind sprout new plants, so you just get more plants. Even herbicides don't work well because a waxy cuticle on emergent stems and leaves repels herbicides. Biological control might work, but so far no bug or disease to serve as an agent has been found for it. On the Internet you can find hundreds of pages describing efforts of local water districts all across America spending hundreds of thousands of dollars clearing Parrotfeather from channels. But also at PondMegastore.com you can buy it ("Buy more and save!"), $2.70 per bunch, fewer than five bunches not sold.

*****

GARDENIAS FLOWERING
Especially after afternoon showers just before the fireflies start flashing and mosquitoes get bad, the delicious odor of gardenia blossoms pools around my little trailer. Sometimes a deer steps into the orchard's tall grass, flicks her tail and looks around, and I'm sure she smells it, too, but I can't imagine how she must feel, and think.

Various gardenia species exist. The commonly planted one here, sometimes called Cape-Jasmine -- the "real" Jasmine is something else completely -- is GARDENIA JASMINOIDES. The shrubs' large, white blossoms, up to four inches across (10cm), seem to glow with an inner light. A blossom at its peak of perfection, before its petals stain with brown bruises and age spots, droop and start falling off, is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120527gd.jpg.

One way the jasminoides species differs from others in the genus is how its calyx -- the green part below the corolla -- bears several raised ridges or "ribs," and the calyx's teeth, or sepals, are unusually long and fleshy, about as long as the corolla tube nestled inside the calyx cup, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120527gf.jpg.

Several cultivars of Gardenia jasminoides exist. I'm not sure which one we have but it's a "double flowered" one. That's clear because the basic Gardenia jasminoides flower -- the blossom on the wild plant native to China -- bears five to eight lobes, not the twenty or so on our blossoms. Also, the sexual parts in our flowers' centers look a bit irregular, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120527ge.jpg.

In regular Gardenia jasminoides flowers there should be five to eight stamens with anthers. Instead, we see full-sized, yellow, pollen producing anthers, two or three stunted ones, and several brown, undifferentiated items.

Frequently here we've looked at cultivar blossoms in which stamens horticulturally have been converted into petals to create flashier "double blossoms," and that's happening here. At the left in the above photo a petal bears a brown streak. The streak is a section of the petal abnormally displaying features of an anther. This is possible because during evolution stamens arose from preexisting petals, so genetic information for producing stamens is built upon information on how to make petals. If the stamen-making information of the embryonic thing destined to become a stamen is "turned off," you're left with information on how to make a flower petal, and that's what you get.

I don't like any kind of double blossom. It diminishes the uniqueness of each species' flowers in favor of a general human obsession for "bigger and gaudier" things. In the end, all double-blossom flowers end up looking the same, like brightly colored pompoms.

Still, our cultivar's flowers manage to smell good, so at least that has been left to them.

*****

A RED-CAPPED "BOLETE" MUSHROOM
From the much-shaded, moist, leaf-littered ground next to my trailer arose a pair of red-capped mushrooms with thick, white, brown-staining stems, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120527bo.jpg.

Recognizing the general form as typical of the delicious bolete mushrooms of which I've picked and eaten so many in Europe, I tipped over a cap to see if it was gilled or pored, for boletes are among that minority of mushrooms who bear pores, not gills. You can see what I saw at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120527bp.jpg.

Pores! So it was a bolete. You might be interested in seeing what a bolete cap with pores instead of gills looks like in cross section at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120527bq.jpg.

There you can see that the pores are the bottom openings of long, vertical tubes. Spores form inside those tubes and fall out of the openings at the bottom, which appear as pores.

So, our mushroom is a bolete and boletes are famous for good eating. However, recalling my 2006 mushroom poisoning (described at the bottom of the page at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/x/green-sp.htm) and not willing to assume that American boletes are as uniformly edible as European ones, I wanted to know what species this was.

To many the term bolete means a member of the genus Boletus. It looks like the mushroom in our pictures is XANTHOCONIUM PURPUREUM, so it's debatable as to whether it's a real bolete. It's a member of the Bolete Family, the Boletaceae. However, no genetic studies support the existence of the genus Xanthoconium, plus, back in the days before genetic sequencing, Xanthoconium purpureum mushrooms appear to have been overlooked, even though in many places, including here, they're quite common. They were assumed to be variations of various Boletus species. All this goes to show that especially among the fungi the identities of even common things often are uncertain, or unknown, even by the experts. Neither Phillips's Mushrooms of North America, claiming to be "the most comprehensive mushroom guide ever," nor Simon & Schuster's Guide to Mushrooms, mentions the genus Xanthoconium, much less our species.

Features taking me to Xanthoconium purpureum include the fact that the cap didn't bruise green or blue as many boletes do, but only slightly brown. The flesh and pore surface was white and the cap when young was bright red but with age turned reddish tan. Spore color was yellow-brown. Also, MushroomExpert.com's Michael Kuo makes the point that often malformed, contorted individuals of this species are encountered, prominent among these being mushrooms with grossly oversized stems -- such as the one shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120527bn.jpg.

That one appeared about a week after the first pictures were taken, and in the same place -- apparently from the same mycelium.

Michael Kuo also says that at spore-producing time Xanthoconium purpureum produces a "somewhat foul and bad-meat-ish odor." That's like ours, too. This is one "bolete" I'm not eating.

*****

THE END TO NEWSLETTER-END PHILOSOPHIZING
Years ago I began philosophizing a bit at the end of each Newsletter. That is ending with this Newsletter. There are two main reasons.

First, several years ago I realized that basically I'm saying the same thing again and again. The message I have to pass on to readers is very simple and can be expressed in few words, and now that message has been articulated many times, maybe too often.

Second, I've begun writing a new book and want to use what creative juices I have on it.

So, as was the case last month when I had to give up emailing these Newsletters because they were classified as spam, time passes, priorities shuffle, things get let go of, new possibilities arise, and evolution takes place.

Just like this, then, long established, comfortable traditions simply end, as the unknown takes its place.

*****

FEATURED ESSAYS FROM THE PAST:

"On the Joy of Studying Flower Anatomy" from the January 28, 2006 Newsletter, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/p/060128.htm  

"Cold Crow over Windy Grass" from the May 18, 2006 Newsletter, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/p/060518.htm

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim