JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER
Issued from the valley of the Dry Frio River on the
southern slope of the Edwards Plateau, northern
Uvalde County, southwestern Texas, USA

October 7, 2012

EASTERN BLUEBIRDS
Since my arrival here in August several times I've seen bluebirds flying around but with my poor vision and foggy binoculars I've been unable to figure out which bluebird species it was. According to the distribution maps, here in southwestern Texas both the Eastern and Western Bluebirds birds might possibly be permanent residents, or else occur only during the winter. Also we're pretty close to where Mountain Bluebirds overwinter, so even they can't be discounted. One afternoon this week when it was so breezy that a certain bluebird could hardly balance himself on a light wire and his chest feathers ruffled violently in the wind, I got his picture. Now I'm sure that we have at least his species here. You can see him at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/121007bb.jpg.

That's a male Eastern Bluebird. He's just about as far west as you'll see the species during the winter. Unlike him, Western Bluebirds display rusty upper backs and blue throats, and Mountain Bluebirds lack our bird's rustiness altogether.

I'm told that bluebirds are seldom seen around here, but this week along the road passing by the cabin there's been a nice flock of them alternately riding the wind-whipped lines and swooping down onto the cow pasture below them to feed. They make very congenial and welcome neighbors.

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ALPINE GOATS
A neighbor keeps milking goats across the road from the cabin I live in. At dawn each morning and at dusk a lady from down the road comes and milks them. You can see what they look like at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/121007gt.jpg.

I'm told that they're Nubian Goats, but Nubians, though similar, have much longer ears that droop down the sides of their heads, and their snouts are thick and rounded -- "Roman-nosed," people like to say. The ears of my neighbor's goats are short and stick up, and their snouts are slender. They're Alpine Goats, famed as "heavy milkers," and considered to be hardy and adaptable enough to thrive in a wide variety of climates.

I enjoy knowing the names of domesticated breeds for the same reason I like knowing the names of other things: Once you have a name, you can look it up, and find out all sorts of interesting information.

For example, Alpine Goats originated in the French Alps. All my neighbor's goats display the same black and white patterning -- white front quarters, black ears and snout, black hindquarters, but white hind legs and a bit of white on the belly. However, there's a variety of Alpine Goat types, and they bear French names. My neighbor's are Cou Blanc, which means "white neck" in French. Another form is the Cou Noir with black front quarters and white hindquarters. Chamoisee goats are mostly brown or bay colored, with blackish extremities.

Alpine goats are said to be especially curious and friendly, to train easily, to bond with their keepers and -- since relative to other goat breeds they are especially large, healthy and strong -- they're often used as pack animals. They're said to have a "guard dog like" instinct on the trail. An experienced Alpine pack goat remembers trails he's been on and can lead a pack through snow and fog.

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NUBIAN IBEX
Speaking of goats, one day as I was birding-biking out in the county I passed a ranch with several goats grazing in a pasture. One of the goats was smaller than the others, mostly brown, and bore an impressive set of curved-back horns unlike any I'd ever seen on a goat. That's why I was looking at the goat when it happened.

The goat, apparently made nervous by my stopping to look at him, suddenly shot straight into the air and landed on the other side of the fence he'd been standing beside. No goat I've ever heard of possibly could have cleared that fence!

A few weeks passed until the brown goat appeared again, peacefully grazing in another roadside pasture a few miles away. This time I got the picture you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/121007ix.jpg.

Even with the picture on my laptop screen I had no idea what I was seeing -- not with those heavy, curved-back horns with such heavy, widely spaced rings.

Several "hunting ranches" operate in the area catering to hunters wanting to kill exotic animals. Doing an Internet search on "Texas hunting ranches" I found lists of exotic mammals people were invited to come and shoot for hefty sums of money. Axis Deer, Fallow Deer, Blackbuck Antelope, Aoudad Sheep, Russian Boar... all and much more can be hunted right here in Uvalde County, Texas.

So, I'd find the name of an exotic animal these ranches want people to pay to shoot and I'd do an image search on it. I went through about twenty species before I saw our "brown goat." It was a Nubian Ibex, CAPRA NUBIANA, a desert-dwelling goat species found in mountainous areas of Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Egypt, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Yemen, and Sudan. A wild population of only about 1200 individuals is known to survive, but they seem to be featured at a good many hunting ranches here. A ranch near here offers the possibility to kill one for "$9,500 - up."

On the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species Nubian Ibexes are listed as endangered species with an EN C2a classification. EN means endangered, and C2a means that the population estimate is less than 2,500 mature individuals, with no subpopulations greater then 250 mature individuals, and an overall declining population trend.

So, somebody's endangered $9,500 has escaped, and now grazes with goats in Uvalde County, Texas.

CBS's "60 Minutes" has looked into the matter of hunting exotic species, reporting that "Exotic wildlife has become a billion dollar industry in Texas supporting more than 14,000 jobs." You can find the interview by searching on the keywords "CBS can hunting endangered animals save the species."

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MESCALBEAN
On rocky limestone outcrops along the little Dry Frio River behind the cabin and atop the nearby hill, the top of which opens into an open natural glade, nowadays you find a small tree only about ten feet tall (3m) with pinnately compound leaves a little like a sumac's, and bearing interesting looking fruit pods, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/121007ms.jpg.

If you break open a pod's 2½-inch long (6cm), woody husk you find hard, red beans inside, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/121007mt.jpg.

With those compound leaves and legume-type fruits, obviously the tree is a member of the huge Bean Family. It's the Mescalbean, also called Texas Mountain Laurel and Frijolito. It's SOPHORA SECUNDIFLORA, mostly found in arid northern Mexico but extending north into New Mexico and Texas.

With a name like Mescalbean you might guess that there's something going on with the beans. Mescal is a distilled alcoholic beverage made from Mexico's big Maguey agave. Mescaline is the psychedelic alkaloid occurring in peyote cactus. Mescalbean beans contain neither mescal nor mescaline, but do contain the poisonous alkaloid cytisine, which is chemically related to nicotine. Mescalbean beans are thought to have been used by some native American tribes as hallucinogens during ceremonies to make contact with the Other World, so maybe ingesting the beans produces a dizzying high the same way that smoking a cigar too fast does. However, you'd need to know how much bean to use or you might end up poisoning yourself in a way similar to nicotine poisoning.

Mescalbean trees are much planted as ornamentals in this area, and sold commercially as Texas Mountain Laurels. People appreciate their dark, evergreen, waxy-looking foliage and, especially, their large clusters of early-spring-appearing purple flowers with a strong fragrance like grape soda.

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CEDAR ELMS FRUITING
In our September 23 Newsletter we looked at our flowering Cedar Elms, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/w/cedarelm.htm.

Already certain of our Cedar Elms are loaded with dense clusters of wafer-like, deeply notched and white-hairy, samara-type fruits, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/121007ul.jpg.

A close-up of the fuzzy samaras can be seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/121007um.jpg.

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PLATEAU AGALINIS
Atop nearby windswept limestone hills and on thin soil atop limestone ledges nowadays there's a dazzling display of untold numbers of thimble-sized, pale purple, snapdragon-like flowers held on very slender stems and with very small, fine leaves. Seeing them glowing in sunshine and dancing in wind is very pleasing. You can get a tiny notion of what it's like in a photo of a tiny part of a house-size thicket of the plants at a ledge's edge at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/121007ag.jpg.

A side-view of a blossom with its typically upturned corolla and its style projecting just beyond the corolla's upper lip is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/121007ah.jpg.

A view down the throat of the above blossom showing very hairy anthers sheltering beneath the corolla's upper lip is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/121007ai.jpg.

Despite this plant being absolutely abundant in thin soil atop limestone, the species is narrowly endemic just to a handful of counties in south-central Texas -- basically the southern portion of the Edwards Plateau. For that reason it's called the Plateau Agalinis, Plateau Gerardia and Plateau False-Foxglove. It's AGALINIS EDWARDSIANA.

When I arrived here in late August already it was conspicuously flowering, but it seems to have reached a peak of floriferousness impossible to exceed right now.

Even though in Nature the Plateau Agalinis seldom occurs out of its thin-soil-over-limestone habitat, it's regarded as an excellent wildflower for gardens, where their seeds can be sown directly, or else plants can be grown in pots for latter transplanting. The species is a larval and nectar plant for the Common Buckeye Butterfly, plus I see many other butterfly and bee species visiting them enthusiastically.

This is simply a wonderful wildflower deserving to be grown far beyond its limited natural distribution.

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VELVET-LEAF SENNA
Outside my kitchen window, as well as along roads, on ledges beside the river and many other places, there's a six-ft-tall (2m), much branched shrub nowadays absolutely resplendent with brightly yellow, 1¼-inch-wide (33mm) flowers, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/121007ca.jpg.

Up close you can see its pinnately compound leaves, legume-type fruits, and flowers of a special kind at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/121007cb.jpg.

What's special about the flowers is that of their nine or ten stamens only six to eight produce pollen, the others being smaller and sterile. The anthers curve upwards, and instead of pollen being shed from slits along the anthers' sides, the grains exit by pores at the anthers' tops or bottoms. "Normal" flowers have stamens of equal lengths with straight anthers with slits along their sides. You can see a flower close-up displaying this flower's curiosities at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/121007cc.jpg.

Especially in Mexico we've seen several bushes and trees belonging to this plant group, the sennas, which are members of the enormous Bean Family. This is SENNA LINDHEIMERIANA, variously known in English as Velvet Leaf Senna, Lindheimer's Senna, Velvetleaf Senna, Velvet-leaf Wild Sensitive-plant and Puppy-dog Ears. From the names you might guess that the leaves are softly hairy, which is the case, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/121007cd.jpg.

Besides the velvety leaflets, another good field mark of the Velvet Leaf Senna is that on the compound leaf's rachis there are slender, upward-pointing, curved, sharp-pointed, black-tipped glands between the connection points for each pair of leaflets in the leaf. In most sennas glands occur only between the lowest pair of leaflets.

Velvet Leaf Senna extends from arid northern Mexico into southwestern Texas, southern New Mexico and southeastern Arizona.

One reason the plant may be so common here in cow country is that it's poisonous to cattle, who avoid it, thus giving the bush a competitive advantage over other bushes cattle find more palatable.

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THORN APPLE/ MOONFLOWER
When at dusk it gets so dark you start tripping over things, nowadays certain small glowings show up low on the landscape. If you're not seeing the white tails of our innumerable White-tailed Deer probably you're seeing the moonlight-gathering flowers of the knee-high plant shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/121007dt.jpg.

Those flowers are impressive not only for how they show up in the darkness but also for their size, nearly eight inches long (20cm). If you walk up to the plant and look down on a blossom you see a surprisingly elegant esthetic expression, sort of a half-hearted spiraling around a deep center where pale stamens clustered around a pistil can be seen, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/121007du.jpg.

The flowers open at dusk and stay open all night. After being pollinated by night-flying sphinx moths -- which look and act like small hummingbirds -- the corollas drop off about mid-morning the next day, leaving behind the item shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/121007dv.jpg.

That's the flower's ovary cradled in its bowl-like calyx. The soft spines covering the ovary will become harder and much larger spines on the fruit, accounting for one of the most frequently used names for the plant, Thorn Apple. It's also called Pricklybur, Moonflower, Jimson Weed, Angel's Trumpet, Devil's Trumpet, Stinkweed, Sacred Datura, and a host of other names. It's DATURA INNOXIA, a member of the Nightshade Family, the Solanaceae.

We've run into Thorn Apple before, in Mexico, where we called it Devil's Weed in remembrance of Carlos Castaneda's books, particularly The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge, first published in 1968. Don Juan was an indigenous Mexican, a Yaqui brujo, or witchdoctor, who taught the book's narrator how to refine his awareness of the Universe. Don Juan's portal to the Other World was the poisonous and possibly hallucinogenic seeds of a plant thought to be Datura innoxia.

More on that theme is on our Datura innoxia page at http://www.backyardnature.net/q/datura.htm.

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SNAPDRAGON VINE
Nowadays a certain herbaceous vine climbs and twines into bushes and trees along the river's edge and other places forming dark, dense tangles of stems and shiny, thumbnail-size, ivy-like leaves. Its purple and white flowers, a little over an inch long (27mm), are bilaterally symmetrical and look like snapdragon flowers, as you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/121007mo.jpg.

The vine's fruits are capsular, which means that they are dry, composed of more than one chamber, or carpel, and that at maturity usually they split along one or more "lines of dehiscence." You can see one at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/121007mp.jpg.

This is such a common, conspicuous and pretty vine that it goes by several English names, including Snapdragon Vine, Snapdragon Maurandella, Vine Blue Snapdragon and Violet Twining Snapdragon. It's MAURANDYA ANTIRRHINIFLORA. Traditionally it's been assigned to the Snapdragon Family, the Scrophulariaceae, but lately those folks who look at DNA to determine the real relationships of things have shredded that poor family, so now Snapdragon Vine finds itself with those homely little plantains, genus Plantago, who with their broad leaves and tiny flowers grow weedily along northern footpaths. It's hard to imagine any relationship between these very dissimilar plants, but who can argue with DNA?

Snapdragon Vine occurs mostly on limestone in arid northern and central Mexico, but comes into the US desert Southwest from southern California to here.

The vine is pretty enough to be sold as a garden flower. It's handsome on trellises but doesn't tolerate cold weather.

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FLOWERING FERN
Toward the top of the limestone hill in front of the cabin there's a population of the unusual ferns shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/121007af.jpg.

The most curious feature about this species is that arising from the juncture of the stem and the compound blade there are two upright spore-producing structures, not one.

This fern species is known in English by two names that are equally uninspired and misleading. One name is Flower Fern, which is an oxymoron, since all ferns reproduce with spores, thus none ever flowers. The other name is Mexican Fern, even though many fern species besides this one occur more in Mexico than the US. It's ANEMIA MEXICANA, and one wonders why such a nice fern would belong to a genus called Anemia. Well, the name is based on the Greek aneimon, which means "without clothing," referring to the absence of blade tissue associated with the spore-producing sporangia.

Anemia mexicana occurs throughout much of arid northern Mexico, but in the US is found only on lightly shaded limestone outcrops of southwestern Texas's Edwards Plateau.

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DESTROYING ANGELS
I was afraid that here in arid southwestern Texas I'd hardly ever see interesting mushrooms. However, two days after a good rain last weekend, on the lower slope of a limestone hill forested with Texas Live Oaks and Ashe Junipers, a line of twelve very impressive mushrooms popped up averaging six inches tall (15cm), their stark whiteness glowing in the dim understory, as seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/121007am.jpg.

A different view of another one in the line of twelve shows fresh, crumbly dirt atop the cap, testifying to how recently the mushroom had pushed up from below, is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/121007ao.jpg.

Seeing that they were so large and that their stems bore skirt-like rings, or annuluses, already I had an idea of the mushrooms' identity. However, first I needed to scratch away debris at the stalk's base to see what's shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/121007an.jpg.

The stem arises from a white, fragile, cuplike "volva." Most mushrooms don't have volvas, but the kind I was thinking of do, so this an important field mark indicating that the mushrooms were members of that famous group of mushrooms known as the Amanitas. Amanitas include some of the most deadly of all fungi -- as well as a few delicious, highly edible species.

An Amanita bearing both ring and volva, with a smooth, white top free of warts and patches, and with white gills is most likely a Destroying Angel, AMANITA BISPORIGERA. I saw "most likely" because the taxonomy of the Destroying Angels is poorly understood. Also, at least three other deadly, similar species also are known as Destroying Angels. Michael Kuo at MushroomExpert.com explains the situation at http://www.mushroomexpert.com/amanita_bisporigera.html.

When I was famously poisoned by a Parasol Mushroom in 2006 -- the story is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/06/060824.htm -- the toxin only affected my gastrointestinal tract, as in simple food poisoning. Much in contrast, Amanita toxins disrupt basic cellular function by inhibiting the enzyme RNA polymerase II, which catalyzes the transcription of DNA to synthesize precursors of Messenger RNA. If you know basic genetics, you know that life doesn't happen without well functioning Messenger RNA. Amanita poisoning is serious stuff.

The first symptoms of Amanita poisoning appear six to 24 hours after the meal. Then there's a period of apparent improvement, but before long, if you've eaten enough, the liver and kidneys fail, and death occurs after four days or more.

Amanita bisporigera hyphae form mycorrhiza on hardwood roots. You can see what mycorrhiza are and why they're so important at http://www.backyardnature.net/f/mycorhza.htm.

The species is thought to be widely distributed in North America.

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FEATURED ESSAYS FROM THE PAST:

"Virtue," from the July 24, 2005 Newsletter, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/p/050724.htm.

"Voluntary Simplicity," from the February 23, 2003 Newsletter, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/p/030223.htm.
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Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

All previous Newsletters are archived at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/.

Even without a Facebook account you may be able to access an index to this week's essays, with each essay on its own page and with images embedded in the text, on the Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/pages/Jim-Conrads-Naturalist-Newsletter/412345652126940.

Visit Jim's backyard nature site at http://www.backyardnature.net