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

June 3, 2012

BARN SWALLOW FLEDGLING
Beneath a small, seldom-used, concrete bridge over a currently dry stream I went to check on some Barn Swallow nests I've been watching. They were mud nests in the bridge's darkest corners, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120603sv.jpg.

The four or five nests had been abandoned since my last visit. As I wondered how the nestlings had fared, an adult Barn Swallow streaked beneath the bridge, right beside me, then soared back into the sky, but not before I'd noticed a fluttering on the gravel a few feet out from under the bridge. It was a swallow fledgling, and I bet the adult who'd just streaked by was watching it, and not happy about my messing around there.

Before quickly leaving the area I snapped the fledgling's picture, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120603su.jpg.

There you can see the bluish sheen already appearing on the bird's back, the deeply forked tail, and the tawny throat on its way to becoming dark orange -- all features distinguishing Barn Swallows from other swallow species possibly found in this area. Another shot from the front showing that the bird is so young that it still retains the "white lips" helping make the mouth a target when an adult arrives with food to plop into it is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120603sw.jpg.

The fledgling must have just left the nest, for it couldn't fly at all, just flutter along the ground like an injured moth. From up on the bridge I watched it try to mount a foot-high tree branch fallen onto the ground, but it couldn't. Finally it pulled itself into some weeds where it hid itself completely. All during this time several Barn Swallows flew gracefully far overhead, round and round, so I knew I was being watched, and left.

Barn Swallows are summer residents here. They might be confused with Cliff Swallows, but that species' tails are squared, not deeply forked. Rough-winged and Bank Swallows lack the bluish tinge. Tree Swallows don't nest this far south and have white throats.

Barn Swallows overwinter from central Mexico all the way south to the southern tip of South America.

*****

MOTH MATING FRENZY
Biking down an isolated little road deep in a bottomland forest I noticed several insects flitting among the roadside weeds. They were moths, presumably males, circling a much larger female clinging to a grass stem. One male already was mating with the female, opposite here on the grass stem, while a second male below tried to find his own place, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120603mo.jpg.

That female must have been issuing some very potent pheromones -- excreted chemicals that trigger social response, often carried by the wind -- to have attracted such an excited group of suitors. As the stationary couple mated and the third lingered below, a fourth male landed on the mating male opposite the female, apparently trying to dislodge him and while he was doing that yet a fifth male glanced off him. Two other males flew around in circles, buzzing from time to time but having no luck at all.

At first glance volunteer identifier Bea in Ontario, who is becoming a genuine lepidopterist, recognized not only that the moths belonged to the Giant Silkworm Family, the Saturniidae, but also the Royal Moth Subfamily, the Ceratocampinae. It's always a treat to meet new Giant Silkworm Family members because most are very pretty and when you see one you know that the individual moth before you won't be alive long. Adult members of this family are little more than sex machines. They don't even have functional mouthparts, since all they are supposed to do is to have sex and die, the female needing to lay eggs before her death.

Bea pegged our roadside discoveries as Pink-striped Oakworm Moths, ANISOTA VIRGINIENSIS, pointing out that the forewings of males bear clear patches while those of females do not. In our picture you can see that this is true, the clear patches showing up clearly in the forewings of the frustrated male below the female.

At the Butterflies & Moths of North America website at http://www.butterfliesandmoths.org it's said that adults fly during the day and mate in the morning. After dusk, females lay eggs in groups on the undersides of oak leaves. Caterpillars feed together in groups, and pupate and overwinter in shallow underground burrows. In the adjacent bottomland forest, Water Oaks, Quercus nigra, were abundant.

Pink-striped Oakworm Moths are distributed from Nova Scotia west across the Great Lakes states to Manitoba and Minnesota, and south to central Florida, the Gulf Coast, and east Texas.

*****

MAGNOLIAS FLOWERING
When I arrived here the last week in March, already magnolias along the main roads were flowering. Trees here in the wood away from town, however, bore no flowers at all, and just now are reaching their flowering peak. Maybe the early flowering in town and along roads was because of more heat there, or maybe the Highway Department planted a long-flowering cultivar there. Whatever the case, you can see the amazing blossom of a wild Southern Magnolia, MAGNOLIA GRANDIFLORA, flowering when it's supposed to at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120603mg.jpg.

That blossom is about eight inches across (20cm) and is issuing into the morning air a dizzying, lemony perfume. The fragrance, the dark green, waxy leaves and those exquisitely structured blossoms all create a unified impression that can be almost overwhelming. Moreover, inside every blossom there's a pineapple-shaped structure somehow evocative of presences you'd expect in an ornate Buddhist temple, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120603mh.jpg.

At the base of the "pineapple," and scattered around on the blossom's floor, are pollen-producing stamens, the male parts. The greenish, curved items at the top are styles with fuzzy, pollen-collecting stigmatic lines. Together, the stigma, style and ovary are regarded as the female part, the pistil. Below the styles, hidden by the stamens, are ovaries inside which seeds will form. After the blossom is pollinated, the petals and stamens all will fall away, leaving only the maturing cluster of pistils, which eventually will produce a cone-like structure composed of many mature pistils. The mature pistils, referred to at that stage as follicles, will open to release one or two seeds, which for a time will hang suspended from the split follicles on thread-like cords.

Magnolia species arose early in the evolution of flowering plants, even before bees had appeared. Therefore magnolias are adapted for pollination by beetles. One consequence of this is that in the magnolia flower's ovary the compartments holding the future seeds, the carpels, are tough to discourage gnawing beetles. Also, magnolias arose so early that continental drift hadn't yet separated the Earth's land masses into their present configuration, resulting in there being today native magnolia species in Asia as well as North and South America.

Our Southern Magnolia is distributed all through the US Deep South, mostly on the Coastal Plain, from North Carolina to eastern Texas.

*****

A WINTERBERRY'S LINGERING WINTER BERRIES
Deep in a swamp on a low bank right next to standing water with Baldcypress trees I was astonished to see the prettily lighted leaves and bright red fruits shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120603il.jpg.

That's the Winterberry, ILEX VERTICILLATA, one of the deciduous hollies, and what's astonishing is that I'm used to seeing the crimson fruits during the winter, not the end of May when it's over 90° (32°C) in the swamp. The tree is called Winiterberry for reason.

I crushed a fruit to confirm the identity, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120603im.jpg.

Holly fruits normally bear 2-8 bony seeds, or stones, but this fruit contained only one well formed seed and what looks like an aborted one. Maybe these fruits were somehow abnormal, didn't ripen as they should, and thus remained on the tree unnaturally long.

Whatever the case, I was glad to see such a pretty exhibition, and to learn more about this interesting species. I'm not the only one to think the species is pretty. Several cultivars have been developed retaining through the winter large numbers of red fruits. In Nature, the species is distributed throughout forested eastern North America.

*****

WITCH-HAZEL FRUITS
Beside a stream through a bottomland woods a ten-ft-high (3m) shrub or small tree was loaded with immature, curious-looking fruits, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120603wh.jpg.

The distinctive leaves, with their wavy margins and lopsided bases, help us recognize this as Witch-Hazel, HAMAMELIS VIRGINIANA. On the same tree producing these green fruits were the remains of old fruits, now brown and split open with their black seeds already dispersed, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120603wi.jpg.

Witch-Hazels are members of the Witch-Hazel Family, the Hamamelidaceae, along with abundantly occurring Sweetgum trees. That's worth reflecting on because if you squeeze several woody, Witch-Hazel fruits together into a ball, with their pointed tops facing outwards, you get a structure very much like a "Sweetgum ball" -- those spiny fruit clusters that anyone familiar with Sweetgums knows about. It makes sense that Witch-Hazels and Sweetgums belong to the same family.

When I was a kid in Kentucky Witch-Hazels got my attention not only because of their unusual appearance and evocative name, but also because old farmers in my area sought out forked Witch-Hazel stems for divining rods used for finding water. Also, my grandparents rubbed a commercial Witch-Hazel extract over parts of their bodies afflicted with what they called rheumatism.

The Witch in Witch-Hazel derives from Middle English wiche, from Old English wice, meaning "pliant" or "bendable." Probably its use as divining rods encouraged the word's transition to "Witch."

Medicinally, Witch-Hazel has lots of uses. As with the oaks, extracts of its bark and leaves are astringent -- they cause tissue to pucker. Thus they help shrink and contract blood vessels and are used as the active ingredient in many hemorrhoid medications. On the Internet I find a 4-oz (118ml) bottle of "Witch Hazel Extract" selling for US $37.74.

*****

WINTER GRAPE FLOWERING
Handsomely clambering over streamside trees in the bottomlands here is the big-leafed grapevine with large, dangling panicles of greenish-yellow flowers shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120603vi.jpg.

On the leaf at center, top, notice the shallow lobe or "ear" along each margin. A close-up of some flowers is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120603vj.jpg.

In that picture notice that green flower buds mingle with flowers in which the pollen-producing stamens are very evident but no petals are visible. In grape flowers, genus Vitis, the corolla's five petals, instead of opening wide as in most flowers, remain stuck together forming a "cap" over the immature sexual parts inside them. Once the sexual parts are ready for pollination the "cap" of five adhering petals falls off as a unit, the stamens quickly unfurl, and the flower is ready for business.

Besides its large, soft leaves with those shallow lobes on the margins, another noteworthy feature of this grapevine species is its general hairiness. Look at the soft, spreading hairs on a leaf petiole at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120603vk.jpg.

The most commonly-used English name for this species is Winter Grape, though sometimes it's called Graybark and Gray-leaf Grape, Nut Muscadine, as well as other names. It's VITIS CINEREA, mostly a southeastern US species but found as far north as Pennsylvania and Nebraska, and extending into northeastern Mexico.

I read that a yellow dye can be obtained from its fresh or dried leaves. Traditionally the smallish, sweet-tart grapes were eaten raw or dried for winter use. As with other large- and soft-leafed grapes, the leaves can be wrapped around other foods as they are baked, with the leaves imparting a pleasant flavor to the foods. Sap can be drunk from the severed stems, though that's being pretty hard on the vine just for a drink. The tendrils of this species are edible either raw or cooked, though there's not much substance to them. They taste a little acid, like Sorrel, though not that strong. They're not bitter like many young grapevine tendrils.

*****

CHIT PALM/ THATCH PALM
Karen's mom not far from Natchez has two palm trees planted in her front yard, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120603fp.jpg.

This time last year we were at Marcia's on the beach north of Mahahual on the Yucatan coast where an abundant palm, the Chit Palm, Thrinax radiata, looked a lot like this one. Our Chit Palm page is at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/chitpalm.htm.

So, does Karen's mom have the Yucatan's Chit Palm growing in her front yard? The Natchez palm produces very large panicles of flowers and fruits just like the Yucatan's Chits, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120603fq.jpg.

Also, remember that Chit Palm leaves bear a broad toothlike thing, the hastula, at the top of their petioles where the leaflets radiate from, as shown on our Chit Palm page. Well, look at the broad, toothlike hastulas where leaflets radiate from atop the petioles on fronds of the Natchez palm at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120603fr.jpg.

And look at the great shags of fiber covering portions of the trunk of the Natchez palms at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120603fs.jpg.

"Matted fibers" are mentioned in the literature as a feature of Chit Palms. Historical records indicate that indigenous people in the Chit Palm's distribution area made rope and fish netting Chit fiber.

Therefore, by golly, Karen's mom does have Chit Palms growing in her front yard.

Literature and websites in the US habitually refer to the Chit Palm species, Thrinax radiata, as Florida Thatch Palms. Having seen so many in the Yucatan, however, and knowing that the Maya there use a different palm, the Huano, Sabal yapa, for thatching, that name just doesn't seem right. Still, it's what North Americans call it. We'll just lop off the Florida part, and call it Thatch Palm, but always think of it as Chit.

*****

MUDPLANTAIN
At the edge of big cotton field I'd been watching a puddle filled with an interesting aquatic plant, waiting for the plant to flower. Returning there this week I found that the farmer had driven his tractor right through the puddle, though he easily could have passed by it, leaving only a fraction of the original population. You can see some beat-up leaves and a fresh 1-1/8th-inch wide (3cm) flower at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120603ht.jpg.

That pretty little plant goes by names such as Ducksalad and Mudplantain. It's HETERANTHERA LIMOSA, a member of the Water-Hyacinth Family, the Pontederiaceae. Actually, the most commonly encountered English name is Blue Mudplantain, but the species comes in both blue and white forms and we have the white in this area. The flowers are ephemeral, opening soon after dawn but wilting by midday. Also, they are bilaterally symmetrical, not radial like most blossoms, plus they arise from folded sheaths like dayflowers, which also is unusual. A pretty close-up is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120603hu.jpg.

Mudplantain occupies an interesting distribution area, occurring in the central US from South Dakota southward, eastward as far as Mississippi and westward to western Texas, plus there's an island population here and there in other states. Then it extends southward into Brazil and Argentina.

*****

BLACK-EYED SUSANS FLOWERING
This week one of North America's most beloved wildflowers has been putting on a show along some isolated roadsides here, sometimes thousands of them where they're not obsessively mowed down. You can see a small cluster at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120603rd.jpg.

They're Black-eyed Susans, RUDBECKIA HIRTA, members of the Sunflower or Composite Family, so the yellow "petals" are actually flattened ray flowers, and the flower-head's dark, raised center -- the "black eye" -- is composed of many dark purple, cylindrical "disk flowers." A close-up of the dark center is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120603re.jpg.

In that picture, above the beetle, notice the slender, fuzzy items rising skyward. Those are stigmas, their fuzziness helping them to collect pollen. Several species of Rudbeckia occur in North America, and the online Flora of North America recognizes four varieties of our Rudbeckia hirta. Our variety, angustifolia, bears narrower leaves than the others and is limited to the Gulf Coastal Plain. Rudbeckia hirta can be distinguished from other Rudbeckia species by its stems and leaves being invested with long, stiff hairs, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120603rf.jpg.

Indigenous Americans traditionally made infusions of Black-eyed Susans for bathing sores and snakebites. Also parts were used to treat dropsy, earaches, diarrhea, worms, headache, fever and heart problems. Yellow dyes were made from the yellow ray flowers.

When I was a kid on the Kentucky farm, millions of Black-eyed Susans along the gravel road in front of our house and along other roads and in pastures imparted to the countryside an early summer beauty that still fills me with nostalgia when I remember what it was like. But the species suffers from mowing and herbicide use, and now those same roads grow just grass and short-lived weeds, while obsessive county and state mowing and herbicide use continues at great cost. If anyone ever asks me which government agencies I'd cut funds to, without a blink I'd suggest reining in those doing mowing and spraying.

*****

FEATURED ESSAYS FROM THE PAST:

"Computer, Compost, Bullfrog & Art" from the September 7, 2003 Newsletter, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/p/030907.htm.

"Conservatism & Liberalism in Nature" from the August 1, 2004 Newsletter, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/p/040801.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