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

June  2, 2013

LADDER-BACKED WOODPECKERS
In a grove of Texas Live Oaks I heard an excited-sounding PEEK! PEEK! PEEK! birdcall sounding very much like the Hairy Woodpecker, but that species isn't listed on Michael Overton's Birds of Uvalde County, Texas Checklist, so I wasn't sure what I was hearing. What I finally saw was that nearby two woodpeckers in a live oak were discussing an old trunk wound that must have harbored some bugs. You can see the woodpeckers at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130602lb.jpg.

The birds' faces were very similar to that of the Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers, but their backs were strikingly different, Hairy and Downy backs being not at all cross-banded or "ladder-backed" like these.

In fact, these were Ladder-backed Woodpecker , PICOIDES SCALARIS, in the same genus as the Hairy and Downy. From their behavior and short bills I supposed that they were young birds out exploring. Also, a third woodpecker with more decisive movement and relatively longer bill was stationed on a nearby tree keeping an eye on matters but otherwise letting things be, like a good parent. A nice close-up of just one short-billed bird with more white on the forehead than adults display is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130602lc.jpg.

Ladder-backed Woodpeckers are mostly birds of arid lands of Mexico, parts of Central America, and the southwestern US from southeastern California to eastern Texas, as far north as southeastern Colorado. Throughout its distribution it shows a special fondness for foraging and nesting in cacti. Here we have abundant cacti but they sprawl across the ground instead of rising like trees, so I'll be watching to see where these birds nest.

*****

COACHWHIP OR RACER?

On the hill where we're building a nature education center I was pulling out an 80 pound bag of cement when I noticed the shiny scales of a pale brown or tan snake maybe a yard long (1m) making himself at home among remaining stacked bags. You can see him once he was pulled out at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130602cw.jpg.

You can tell from the loose way he's being held that he behaved very tamely and didn't try at all to bite. Though he was clearly not a venomous species I wasn't sure what he was, so I took pictures to help with the identification later. Most important with most unidentified new snakes is the configuration of scales on the head, so you can see them at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130602cx.jpg.

In that picture, note the pronounced crest over the eye. My friend Phred, who was pouring cement with me, photographed me taking the above picture, so if you want to see how that looked check out http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130602cv.jpg.

It's always a good idea to note whether an unknown snake's "anal plate" -- the plate or scale on the belly just in front of and covering the cloacal opening (where poop comes out) -- is single or divided. You can see that this snake's anal plate is divided at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130602cy.jpg.

In that picture the snake's front is to the left, the tail to the right. You can see that single belly scales stretch across the forward part of the snake's belly, but on the tail end the bottom is covered by two rows of scales. A little to the right of the picture's center where the row of single belly scales meet the double row of scales there's an especially large scale with a diagonal break across its middle. That's the divided anal plate. Anal plates are important when identifying groups of snakes. For instance, garter snakes, king snakes, and pit vipers possess single anal plates -- so our snake definitely isn't one of those -- but water snakes, racers, and rat snakes have divided ones.

Also it's important to notice whether a snake's body scales are "keeled" or not -- whether there's a thin ridge running down the back of each scale. The scales of water snakes, rattlers, garter snakes and hognose snakes are very conspicuously keeled, while rat snake scales are weakly keeled, and kingsnakes and racers have smooth ones with no keels. You can see that our snake's scales are not keeled at all at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130602cz.jpg.

My first impression was that this was a Racer, a species I know very well from back East. Most Racers there are black, but I knew there was a paler subspecies possibly found in our area. However, a local fellow, upon seeing the pictures Phred sent him, said it was a Coachwhip. Coachwhips I've seen elsewhere had blackish front ends, but in our area there's a subspecies colored just like the one in our picture.

In fact, the pale subspecies of the Racer and Coachwhip are so similar that really I couldn't tell them apart until on the Internet I found diagrams showing the configuration of head scales of each species. Those diagrams, provided by the Florida Museum of Natural History, are linked to below:

Racer head scales:
http://www.flmnh.ufl.edu/herpetology/fl-guide/images/bw_coluber.jpg.

Coachwhip head scales:
http://www.flmnh.ufl.edu/herpetology/fl-guide/images/bw_masticophis.jpg.

Those diagrams are almost identical, except for scales along the top of the mouth between the eye and tip of the nose. Starting with the large scale above the lip and with a much smaller scale at its top, left touching the eye, and counting toward the tip of the nose, the Coachwhip has three scales. However, in the same spot, the Racer has only two. Our snake has three scales, so it's a Coachwhip, MASTICOPHIS FLAGELLUM.

More exactly, it's the pale Western subspecies of the Coachwhip, Masticophis flagellum ssp. testaceus, occurring from southwestern Nebraska and western Colorado south through eastern New Mexico and west and central Texas into Mexico. The broader Coachwhip species occurs across the entire southern one-third of the US, coast to coast, and deep into Mexico.

Without finding those scale diagrams I don't think I'd ever have been able to distinguish the two species. But that one extra upper-lip scale between the eye and the nose made it all easy, once the secret was known.

*****

ORANGE CATERPILLAR CROSSING A ROAD
On a hot, sunny day in mid afternoon, in the center of the gravel road running to the cabin, an orange caterpillar a little over an inch long (3cm) slowly made its way from one side of the road to the other. It was so hot I wondered how he'd traveled so far without succumbing to the heat. You can see him after he was retrieved from his little desert at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130602ca.jpg.

He's an unusual looking little fellow with those orange, finger-like spines and with such fleshy, downward-curved antennae on his head (the end at the top, right) being dragged along the ground. I figured there must be a story behind a brightly colored caterpillar allowing himself to be so clearly visible, even attention-getting, in such an inhospitable environment in the middle of the day, so off our picture went to volunteer identifier Bea in Ontario, who promptly replied that she'd been waiting for that very picture.

She'd been waiting because she knew that in our area maybe the most conspicuous butterfly awing at this season is the Pipevine Swallowtail, BATTUS PHILENOR, but until now I'd not sent her a picture of the Pipevine Swallowtail caterpillar. So, here it was. And that explained a bit.

For, Pipevine Swallowtail caterpillars eat the leaves of plants in the Pipevine Family, which contain chemicals that are poisonous to most animals, but not the caterpillars. Young caterpillars contain little of the poison but as they eat and grow the concentration of the poisons in their bodies increases until birds and other predators know better than to eat them. The caterpillars' bright orange coloration warns predators to stay away. Such poison-containing caterpillars that predators know to avoid don't need to restrict their travels to the night or to hidden passageways; they can cross a bright road in mid afternoon.

And, there's a reason why they might want to do it in the mid afternoon instead of waiting until the ground doesn't sizzle their feet. So far I haven't noticed any plant members of the Pipevine Family around here -- though there must be to support the large numbers of Pipevine Swallowtails -- so Pipevine Butterfly caterpillars must have to travel often looking for food.

Our orange caterpillar was a young one, for young Pipevine Butterfly caterpillars are known to be orange, but as they grow and approach the time when they metamorphose into a chrysalis they turn black, but retain orange-red spines, in which case maybe they look even more poisonous than when they were smaller and orange.

*****

TICKLETONGUE
Behind the cabin at the very edge of a limestone cliff with a 20-ft drop-off to the little Dry Frio River below there's the smallish, scraggly, spiny tree shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130602zq.jpg.

The tree's compound leaves, spines and green fruits are shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130602zn.jpg.

A close-showing just one leaf with five leaflets, and spines growing from the rachis where the upper two leaflets meet, is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130602zp.jpg.

The spherical, green fruits have something special about them, which you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130602zo.jpg.

What's special about the fruit is that the fruit's surface is bumpy or grainy like an orange's.

There's good reason why this tree's fruits might resemble green oranges, and that's because both this tree and orange trees are members of the Citrus Family, the Rutaceae. The bumps on the green fruit's skin are glands filled with aromatic oils, just as in the case of the orange fruit.

Despite this interesting little tree species growing naturally only in arid northeastern Mexico, Texas, and a tiny part of Oklahoma, it's captured the imagination of so many people that it goes by several names, including Texas Prickly-ash, Tickletongue, Tingletongue, Toothachetree and Texas Hercules Club. It's ZANTHOXYLUM HIRSUTUM, and people pay attention to it because its bark, leaves, and fruit all cause an interesting sensation in the mouth if you chew on them. First you enjoy a zesty, lemony flavor, then your tongue and lips begin to tingle, and finally your mouth goes numb. The effect is extreme with the green fruits on the tree now, but only mild with the leaves.

If you're familiar with the effects of Szechuan peppers used in Chinese cuisine, those "peppers" also are fruits of a tree that belongs to the same genus as Tickletongue, Zanthoxylum. In fact, worldwide there are maybe 250 Zanthoxylum species, with several in North America. All the ones I know look more or less like this one, though some have leaves with more numerous leaflets, grow larger, or are more or less spiny than this one.

I read that when mature the fruits turn reddish brown. I've been waiting to see fruits of that color but my impression is that birds eat the fruits before they ripen completely.

*****

SWEET MOUNTAIN GRAPE
On a vine twining up through the branches of a Sycamore in the shade of the Dry Frio River's cliff behind the cabin a very pretty sight attracted my attention, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130602vi.jpg.

I've always thought that hardly anything could be prettier than the way sunlight shines through a grapevine leaf, so I just stood awhile admiring this glowing creation, even taking a while before I began wondering which species it was. For, it was surprising to find any grape species at all growing here because of the arid climate. Maybe this was a special species.

The flowers were too undeveloped to provide much information. But that was OK since in grapevine identification the leaves are so important -- which is unusual. Normally features of flower and fruit are more important by far. One way that grapevine leaves differ from species to species is by the nature of the hairs on the leaves' undersurface -- if there are any -- and by how much hair there is. Therefore, I doubled up a leaf so I could see how hairy its underside was, and saw what's shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130602vj.jpg.

This species' leaf undersides are fairly hairy, and the hairs are straight and unbranched. That, and the fact that the leaves were uncommonly small, only shallowly lobed, and, especially, that it grows here in this arid land, eventually led me to the name, which is Sweet Mountain Grape, VITIS MONTICOLA. It's endemic to only a handful of counties in southwestern and central Texas.

So, this is a good find, and I read that the species is an important one to the grape-growing industry because the Sweet Mountain Grape is especially drought tolerant. Thus it's much used to impart that quality when viticulturists create hybrid stock, and graft.

And you know what joy wild grapes are to wildlife and humans.

What a fine little being grows there among the Sycamores in the shade of the cliff behind the cabin...

*****

DOGWEED
In thin, dry soil atop limestone rock and at the edge of gravel roads nowadays there's a tufted, dark green, fine-leafed, ankle-high perennial herb or subshrub -- a member of the huge Composite or Daisy Family -- abundantly and prettily producing golden flowering heads on long, slender peduncles held well above the herbage, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130602th.jpg.

So many of our wildflower species are golden-headed members of the Composite Family that it's hard to keep them all separated. Seeing this one for the first time I knew I'd have to seriously "do the botany," and when I do that, usually the first step is to turn a flowering head over and see what the green, scale-like "phyllaries" forming the cuplike involucre at the head's bottom looks like. You can see what I saw there at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130602ti.jpg.

Two items are especially noteworthy there. First, the lower, outer phyllaries are much shorter than the upper, inner ones. Second, each phyllary is equipped with one or a few oblong, somewhat glistening, fairly hard to see golden glands. Having glandular phyllaries is a good field mark.

Breaking open a flower head for a longitudinal section, I found what's seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130602tj.jpg.

The little platform the individual flowers stand upon, the receptacle, is convex instead of flat, so that's something. More important, though, is that no scale-like bracts appear between the individual disk flowers -- no paleae. A large percentage of Composite Family flowering heads do provide paleae between their disk flowers, so that's a major point.

Also, atop each dark, future fruit, or cypsela, the "pappus" consists of ten sharp-pointed, miniscule scales that hardly show up in the photograph. However, the scales that are hard to see on the flowers enlarge considerably to become parts of the future cypsela-type-fruit's "parachute," which helps with wind dispersal. Already certain flowering heads are in fruit so we can see what becomes of these ten tiny scales atop each cypsela, as shown in a mature head at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130602tl.jpg.

There you can see that the individual segments of the parachute aren't mere slender hairs, as in the case of Dandelions or asters, but are really sharp-pointed, broad-based scales, and that there are about ten of them atop each cypsela. These scales are fairly unusual in the family, so they also make good field marks.

The plant form and its leaves also are unusual for this family, as seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130602tk.jpg.

The leaves, which are mostly opposite -- two arising at each stem node -- are deeply divided into up to eleven slender, needlelike, somewhat sharp lobes.

So, with these and other observations in mind, the pretty little roadside pincushion plant eventually reveals itself as THYMOPHYLLA PENTACHAETA, which is so attention-getting and widespread in the arid southwestern quarter of the US and arid northern Mexico that it's known by several common names, including Dogweed, Golden Dyssodia and Fiveneedle Pricklyleaf. Also a population lives in Argentina, and it's anyone's guess as to how that happened -- whether naturally or by early human introduction.

The plant is pretty enough that some people grow it in rock gardens. I'll be collecting seeds for germination and passing out plants later.

The online Biblioteca Digital de la Medicina Tradicional Mexicana, which calls it Manzanilla del Monte, reports that the Kikapu people of Mexico's Coahuila State traditionally used tea brewed from the plant for fever and stomach ache.

*****

LEMON BEEBALM BLOOMING
Last December I showed you a field of long-dead wildflower stalks that caught the eye because the stalks in a striking manner bore the remains of the previous summer's flower clusters in pagoda-like terminal spikes. You can see the effect at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/121216bb.jpg.

The stalks were the remains of the Mint Family member Lemon Beebalm, Monarda citriodora, and I've been looking forward to their blossoming, expecting to see whole fields of tallish wildflowers with purplish flower clusters nodding in the wind. Well, the Lemon Beebalms are flowering now, sort of. The problem is that they're blooming only where I've been watering the compost heap and my garden. The field shown in the picture at the above link is nearly as brown and desolate as it was last December, in consequence of the drought.

Still, it's a pleasure seeing the few Lemon Beebalms around my garden and compost heap. You can behold their purplish pagodas among yellow-flowered Engelmann's Daisies at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130602mo.jpg.

A close-up of a flower cluster showing that each flower possesses two stamens and a single slender, Y-tipped style arching beneath its down-curved upper lip is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130602mn.jpg.

Feeling a little guilty about snipping off leaves needed by this pretty wildflower, I made myself some mint tea. The tea was OK, with a slightly bitter taste, and not much improvement on mere hot water.

This beautiful mint, I think, is better left alone so the bees who seem to crave its nectar can take all the nectar they want, and we can see all the flowers we want.

*****

HEDGE PARSLEY
One of the most common weeds in the grass around the cabin is producing diffuse little sprinkles of white flowers atop long, nodding peduncles, as shown in the grassy tangle at the base of the big spineless cactus in the backyard at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130602to.jpg.

If you get down and look at individual flower clusters you see that they're fireworks-like, each little speck of white a separate flower, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130602tp.jpg.

In that picture notice how the flowers of each cluster join at their bases in a way that makes the cluster flat-topped, and then stems of the various little flat-topped clusters join so that the several smaller clusters form a larger flat-topped cluster. Flat-topped flower clusters are called umbels, and when you see flowers in umbels the best bet is that you have a member of the Umbelliferae, the Parsley or Carrot Family. That's what we have here. In fact, leaves at the base of this weed are parsley-like, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130602ts.jpg.

At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130602tq.jpg a close-up of two flowers reminds us that blossoms in the Parsley Family, unlike most flowers, have "inferior ovaries" -- ovaries from the tops of which arise the flower's calyx, petals, stamens and style. Also typical of this family is the fact that the ovary often is equipped with spines or ridges bearing glands producing aromatic oils, so the bristly lower part of the above blossoms is normal for flowers of the Parsley Family.

By the time this plant's fruits are mature, the spines will have grown and hardened considerably, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130602tr.jpg.

Beneath the dissecting microscope, each fruit spine reveals itself as tipped with a double-pointed hook, and much smaller backward-pointing spines cloak the big spines' stems, as you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130602tt.jpg.

This plant is most commonly known as Hedge Parsley. It's TORILIS ARVENSIS, a native of Europe now spread worldwide. Its leaves are too small and stringy to be considered much of a food source and the species isn't noted for being medicinal. You pay attention to it later in the season, especially if you wear socks while walking through weeds. The tiny burs hook onto sock fuzz and stay there until scratched or combed off.

Despite such aggravations, this is a fine little plant, worth having as a neighbor if only because its little white sprays of flowers are so prettily speckle otherwise monotonously green roadsides and fencerows.

*****

DEBORAH'S SAGE
My neighbor Deborah told me that her big sage plant was in full bloom so I figured I needed to see that. Deborah is seen weeding from around the big bouquet at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130602sv.jpg.

Up close you can see that sage flowers are arranged in whorls, or "verticels," at branch tips, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130602sw.jpg.

Sage flowers bear two fertile stamens and a style that arch forward beneath the corolla's ceiling. As such they stand ready for a pollinator to land on the corolla's lower lip and plunge into the flower's throat, depositing pollen on the stigma while doing so, and gathering new pollen from the anthers. You can see how the pollinator must brush the stigma and anther to enter the flower at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130602sx.jpg.

Sages belong to the Mint Family genus Salvia, and Salvia is the largest genus in this big family, with 700-900 known species. Since so many sage species have come into cultivation, and the horticultural world has hybridized between so many species, I figured I might have a hard time identifying Deborah's garden sage. Therefore I made sure to get a leaf picture, which shows this plant's leaves as green (those of many species are woolly white), with leaf margins that are neither lobed or toothed, and with a leaf surface that is very wrinkled, or "rugose," as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130602sy.jpg.

After lots of "doing the botany," I just couldn't get a perfect fit for Deborah's sage with any of the standard species, though it seems to come closest to the European Salvia pratensis, sometimes called the Meadow Sage. But Meadow Sages normally produce broader leaves, especially at the bottom, than Deborah's plant. My guess is that Deborah's sage is a hybrid with a good bit of Salvia pratensis in it.

In the end, it doesn't really matter what species Deborah's sage is, for we both stood a good while next to it simply being in awe of its robust prettiness, and all the pollinators it was providing with nectar and pollen. Also, we both knew to honor the fact that sage has a long history of both culinary and medicinal use.

When I was a kid back on the farm in Kentucky, at hog-killing time we ground sage into the sausage we made from various of our hogs' body parts. Later when I became a vegetarian I was delighted to find how good sage tastes in cornbread.

NaturalNews.com's sage page begins with the statement that "Of all the culinary herbs, sage is perhaps the one with the broadest range of medicinal uses." It then continues by declaring that sage is anti-hypertensive, anti-diabetic, anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial; plus it helps cleanse your blood and may even prevent Alzheimer's disease. And that's just the beginning of the claims made. You can browse through them yourself at http://www.naturalnews.com/027520_sage_herb.html.

A certain part of the sage-appreciating world focuses on its ability to enhance a person's "grounding and presence" -- to calm you down and help you see things more clearly and intensely.

I don't know about any of that, but I do know that on a hot, sunny afternoon watching a healthy plant like Deborah's sage so lustily photosynthesize, gush out oxygen for us all to use, as it pleases so many different pollinators... is a real hoot.

*****

EATING BACKYARD CACTUS
The six-ft-tall, spineless pricklypear cactus behind the cabin is issuing this season's new pads and flower buds, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130602np.jpg.

In that picture the new pads, which average about five inches long (13cm) are darker green, smaller and much better to eat than the older pads. I've eaten older pads, but they're tougher and not as tasty. In the above picture the edible pads are flat like beavertails, while the goblet-shaped items are flower buds. The little curved, conical items covering the pads and buds, and looking like green cat-claws, are vestigial leaves, left over from the early history of the evolution of the Cactus Family. At the bottom of the pad up front in the picture you can see where the leaves have fallen off on their own accord, leaving white spots.

Those white spots are the worst thing about harvesting and preparing cactus pads to eat, for -- even though the cactus lacks regular spines -- those little white spots are where a second kind of spine is found, a miniscule one only 1/16th of an inch (1-2mm) long, and even if you don't see them they stick into your fingers, or your lips and tongue if you eat pads bearing them, causing endless irritation. They're very hard to remove once they're stuck into you. You can see a close-up of one of the white spots -- referred to as an areole -- with two of the almost-microscopic spines we're talking about at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130602nq.jpg.

These tiny spines are called glochids. The first thing to do after breaking off a newly emerged, dark green pad for eating is to remove every white spot, or areole, from the pad. You can see me doing exactly that at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130602nr.jpg.

First you slice off the rim all around the pad, because areoles tend to congregate there. If the pad is fresh and young, you can scrape most of the areoles off by scratching a sharp, finely serrated knife across the pad's surface, as I'm doing in the photo. Remaining areoles must be removed individually with the knife's point. On older, tougher pads you may have to remove each areole one at a time. It's tedious, messy work. Scraping creates a bit of sticky slime that gets all over everything. Also, you should never start the work without having tweezers handy because you'll get at last one glochid in a finger and tweezers are how you remove them.

Once all areoles are removed, cut the pads into French-fry-size strips and fry them in a skillet with oil. I usually add them to onions and garlic I've sautéed while slicing the pads. You can see my skillet after the cactus was added, with my fast-stirring chopsticks at work, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130602ns.jpg.

Usually when the dish is in this stage I scramble some eggs into the mixture, making a dish Mexicans call "nopalitos con huevos." You can also make a salad with the preparation, mixing it with chopped tomatoes, sliced white onions, chili peppers, cilantro, salt, pepper, lime juice, and some nice, tangy white cheese. A good webpage with more pictures and information is at http://chanfles.com/comida/nopalitos/.

The cactus in my backyard seems to be different from the spineless Nopal we saw so much of in Mexico, and also I'm thinking it's not just a spineless race or cultivar of the locally abundant Texas Pricklypear. I don't really know what it is. I'm very much looking forward to the first flower, which should open during the next week or so. Once I have a flower I think I'll be able to identify it, and I'll tell you all about it then.

*****

FEATURED ESSAYS FROM THE PAST:

"On Being Stung by Bees," from the February 19, 2012 Newsletter, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/p/120219.htm

"The Beekeeper's Smile," from the May 28, 2010 Newsletter, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/p/100328.htm

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

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

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