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

September 8, 2013

WATERSCORPION
The long, slender, walkingstick-like insects with preying-mantis-like front legs first caught my attention when each morning I'd find one or two on my satellite-dish solar cooker, usually dead. I couldn't imagine why the cooker might attract them until one day just below the water's surface in a blue plastic tube used to catch rainwater I saw what's shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130908wc.jpg.

That's the same species as ends up on my solar cooker, and finally I understood: Flying at night the critter sees the silvery glow of starlight reflecting on the shiny aluminum sheeting attached to the satellite dish's parabolic surface, the reflection looks like a pool of water from above, and the insect dives into it -- maybe headfirst. You can see the live one from the rainwater tub at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130908wb.jpg.

The long, slender item at the critter's rear end isn't a stinger, but rather consists of two terminal filaments sometimes referred to as "urogomphi," which can be manipulated to form a "siphon" through which the submerged insect can take in air.

The stiff, slender object projecting away from the insect's head is one of the front two legs, the other being hooked to the side of my finger. The front legs with their end joint doubled back and tipped with grappling-hook-like appendages are displayed on one found on the solar cooker at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130908wd.jpg.

Entomologists refer to such front legs as "raptorial forelegs," the word raptorial referring to leg modifications that help the insect grasp its prey while the prey is being devoured.

Volunteer identifier Bea in Ontario reminded me that this remarkable insect is a waterscorpion, sometimes also called a needle bug or water stick insect, genus RANATA. It belongs to the Waterscorpion Family, the Nepidae, of the True Bug Order, the Hemiptera. Therefore, despite their mantis-like forelegs, waterscorpions aren't closely related to mantids at all, many experts now assigning mantids in their own order.

I say that Bea "reminded" me that these are waterscorpions because ten years ago when I was hermiting in the woods of southwestern Mississippi one spring morning I had the wonderful luck to watch about twenty waterscorpions recently emerged from the water as they dried themselves. I wrote then they "...had all oriented themselves toward the sun, posing their dark, stiff, gangling bodies at 45° angles. It was a strange and spooky sight. They looked like a fleet of Darth Vader's Death-Jets poised for take-off." You can read the full account at the top of the Newsletter at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/03/030316.htm.

Having seen the pictures and recognized the body parts for what they are, already we know the general features of the waterscorpion's life cycle: It's predatory on smaller aquatic animals, including tadpoles and small fish; it can fly; it hangs beneath the water's surface breathing through its siphon tube, prepared to grab prey with its "raptorial forelegs" and; while flying at night, it can confuse a solar cooker's shiny parabolic dish as a round pool of water, into which it is bound to plunge.

*****

A GREEN LEOPARD FROG
Last September we met the Rio Grande Leopard Frog, RANA BERLANDIERI, still shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/a/rana-berl.htm.

That frog and others seen since then was a light brown color. However, a younger member of the same species seen this week at a drying-up pool in the Dry Frio was largely green, as you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130908lf.jpg.

The Herps of Texas website describes the "dorsal color" as either pale brown or green, so this is no surprise. From a distance the brown and green ones do look very different, but the spotting and other features are all the same.

*****

POISON IVY FRUITING
Back in Kentucky and Mississippi we had lots of dermatitis-causing poison ivy. In North America, experts often recognize three widely distributed species of woody vines with trifoliate leaves as poison ivy, but where I hang out I nearly always run into the very variable Toxicodendron radicans. In California and Oregon, in arid, upland environments such as where I am now, we met with poison oak. In general, poison ivies are more vine-like, climbing high into trees, while poison oak is shrub-like.

So, having in mind the presence of these various poison ivies and the oak, the other day when a poison ivy turned up climbing a tree along the Dry Frio I wondered which species it might be. We're awfully far west to be getting the one I'm so familiar with back East. You can see the woody vine's three-parted leaves at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130908pi.jpg.

The woody stems bore panicles of white fruits, which many birds love to eat, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130908pj.jpg.

These pictures bring to mind various mnemonic rhymes to help us avoid poison ivy, such as "Leaflets three; let it be. Berries white, run in fright."

The hairless, or "glabrous," fruits, and adventitious roots on the climbing stem are field marks helping us identify our Dry Frio poison ivy: It's good old Toxicodendron radicans, the same species encountered so often back East. T. radicans is more widely distributed than I'd realized, reaching as far west as southern Arizona, and from Nova Scotia south to Guatemala, plus it appears to be native to China and Japan, and has been planted as an ornamental and medicinal plant in the UK, Europe, and Australia, where it's become naturalized.

When you see how eagerly many bird species eat the fruits, you can imagine how poison ivies get distributed over such large areas.

*****

MAXIMILIAN SUNFLOWER
The star of a morning's hike along the little Dry Frio River's banks was the head-high clump of yellow-blossomed members of the Composite or Sunflower Family seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130908he.jpg.

This is the only appearance of this species I've seen here; I can only imagine what whole fields of them might look like -- what we might have if the drought weren't so bad.

From the first glance this looked like one of 52 North American sunflower species -- members of the genus Helianthus with its large, yellow-rayed heads atop substantial stems with rough-feeling leaves. A close-up of a single 3½-inch-broad head with a large "eye" of orange-yellow disc flowers surrounded by pure yellow ray-flowers is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130908hf.jpg.

The orange-yellow eye differs from the blackish eyes of big-headed sunflowers cultivated for their "seeds." (The word "seeds" is in quotation marks because sunflower "seeds" are actually cypsela-type fruits, each fruit with a single seed inside it.) You can see the green involucre subtending one of our plant's head with its numerous, sharp-pointed, overlapping phyllaries, which also is typical of the sunflowers, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130908hg.jpg.

To firm up our confidence that we had a sunflower or something very closely related, a head had to be opened and looked at closely, as done at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130908hh.jpg.

There we see scoop-shaped scales, or "paleae," partly surrounding each flower base. Atop a white, developing cypsela at the lower right you see one of two opposing scales forming the pappus, which in many Composite Family genera consists of white hairs, a crown or some other form, or is absent. Also, note that the disc flowers are producing cypselae, but beneath the ray flower no cypsela is to be seen. All these details are exactly as to be expected in a sunflower head. By the way, the Y-shaped items at the top are style arms with stigmatic surfaces on which pollen germinates.

So, which of North America's 52 sunflower species is this? While "doing the botany," these features were further noted:

The leaves were slender with one dominant midrib down the middle, and their margins bore no teeth or lobes, unlike most sunflower species which have broader, often lobed leaves and often display three major veins arising at the leaf bases. Our sunflower's leaves folded together into a V shape above the midrib, while the leaves of most sunflower species are flattish. Also, our plant's leaves were scratchy feeling, or "scabrous," with short, broad-based, stiff hairs such as those shown on a leaf's undersurface at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130908hi.jpg.

In the first photo you could see that leaves arose one per stem node -- they were "alternate." At the stem's base, however, most leaves arose two per node, or were "opposite." Opposite petioles are shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130908hj.jpg.

All these details point to the Maximilian Sunflower, HELIANTHUS MAXIMILIANI, named for Prince Maximilian of Wied-Neuwied (west-central Germany), who encountered our plant on his travels in North America in 1832. Maximilian Sunflowers are fairly commonly distributed across North America's prairie states and provinces, from central Canada to about here; we're at their southernmost point of distribution. The species is eaten by livestock, produces a heavy crop of seeds, and thus is valuable to many kinds of wildlife. It's an important species. Being a prairie plant, it thrives best in rich, loamy soil, which explains why here we find it only in alluvium beside the river, and not on our limestone hills.

Despite all the details mentioned above, settling on the name was hard. That's because in most cases Maximilian Sunflowers tend to arrange their flower heads in narrow, vertical arrays, the heads arising close to the stem as in hollyhocks, but you can see that our plant's heads are dispersed on long peduncles. The online Flora of North America, however, describes various head arrangements, including borne singly or in ± corymbiform or paniculiform arrays, which covers ours. Atypical individuals often turn up at the edges of a species' distribution, so maybe that's what's happening here.

In our area, if you run into a yellow-eyed sunflower with such slender leaves V-shaped above the single mid-vein, just call it the Maximilian Sunflower.

*****

SKULLCAP
On the Dry Frio's bare sand and cobblestone banks, six-inch-tall (15cm) green sprouts issued from a much-pruned, woody, bushy base apparently chewed on by deer or maybe shattered during the last flashflood. One sprout bore two purple, dog-face-type flowers, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130908sc.jpg.

The flowers are shown up close at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130908sd.jpg.

Seeing the flowers' pronounced bilateral symmetry and the stems' opposite leaves (two per stem node), and the stem itself square in cross-section, most wildflower lovers recognize this as a member of the Mint Family, the Lamiaceae. When we see the remarkable disk-shaped protuberance atop each calyx, not only are we immediately confirmed that we have a mint, but also we know which Mint Family genus we have. It's the large, important genus Scutellaria, whose species generally are known as skullcaps. Experts estimate that maybe 300-425 skullcap species exist worldwide.

In our area we can expect two skullcap species. The calyx of the most commonly occurring one, Scutellaria drummondii, is long-hairy and the plant itself is an annual herb. You can see that the calyx of our plant lacks long hairs and that the green shoots arise from a definitely woody base. Therefore, this is our less common second species.

In books it's listed variously as Wright's Skullcap, Bushy Skullcap and Shrubby Skullcap. It's SCUTELLARIA WRIGHTII, in the whole world occurring naturally only in Texas and Oklahoma.

On a Gardenweb.Com forum I find Registered Herbalist Nicole Telkes of central Texas regarding Wright's Skullcap as a "calming" herb. Further she writes that "The wrightii species is more bitter so I use it for pain and headaches as well as calming the digestive tract."

*****

TEXAS BUTTERFLYBUSH
In cracks of large limestone boulders strewn along the Dry Frio River, several knee-high, soft-woody, much branched bushes turned up, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130908bu.jpg.

It was hard to imagine how the plants found enough moisture to survive. In fact, once I looked around, most plants bore curling-up leaves, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130908bv.jpg.

There you can see that the plant's leaf surfaces are dark green, but their undersurfaces are white with tiny, branched or "stellate" hairs. The curling causes the leaves' better protected undersurfaces to wrap around the more vulnerable upper surface. The undersurface's whiteness reflects sunlight bouncing off the limestone below it, and probably the hairs help dissipate heat, as well. Nice adaptations.

At first, from the bush's general form, the opposite leaves and leaf shape, I thought the plant might belong to the Mint or Verbena Families. However, the stems aren't in the least squarish in cross-section, and a quick glance at the tiny (1/16th-inch, or 1.5mm) flowers dispelled any notion of the plant belonging to those families, as you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130908bw.jpg.

The brown flowers are pollinated ones in the process of shriveling and falling off; the whitish ones are fresh. After several minutes of unsuccessfully trying to remember which families could produce leaves and stems like this, along with radially symmetrical, four-lobed corollas and four stamens, finally it occurred to me that I'd seen such terminal inflorescences with their widely spaced clusters of flowers and fruits before -- on ornamental "butterflybushes," mainly Buddleja davidii from central China. But the ornamental butterflybushes are much larger than our boulder-growing bush, and with larger, colorful, fragrant flowers.

Still, I couldn't think of anything else halfway similar to our rock bushes, so I checked to see if any Buddlejas occurred in Texas. And, by golly, there are, and one of them not only occurs in our area but also looks exactly like our plant.

In books it's known as the Texas Butterflybush or Wand Butterflybush. It's BUDDLEJA RACEMOSA, endemic to the Edwards Plateau in Texas. Two varieties are recognized, one on the Plateau's eastern end, the other on the western. The eastern variety, the typical one, is only sparsely hairy below, while the western variety -- where we are --is densely hairy, or "appressed stellate-tomentose," as the Flora of North America says. Our western variety is Buddleja racemosa var. incana. Most pictures on the Internet show the less hairy eastern variety because that's where San Antonio is. You must travel into the backcountry to find our variety incana.

Butterflybushes in the genus Buddleja have been shifted from family to family, but now the gene sequencers seem to have settled it comfortably in the Snapdragon or Figwort Family, the Scrophulariaceae.

What a pleasure to find such a little-known species so exquisitely adapted to our little part of the world! And what a surprise that it's so closely related to gaudy ornamental butterflybushes.

*****

BRISTLEGRASS
At the semi-shaded rim of a steep-sided gully eroded into alluvium beside the Dry Frio there was a knee-high grass I hadn't noticed yet. It's at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130908st.jpg.

A close-up showing clusters of elliptic spikelets, each subtended by one to three long, stiff bristles is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130908su.jpg.

If you pay attention to grasses, probably you recognize at once that this is a foxtail grass or bristlegrass, genus Setaria. Foxtails are recognized by their single, spike-like inflorescences atop leafy stems, with bristles such as these arising below each spikelet in our picture. When the spikelet falls off, the bristles remain on the stem, or rachis. In the Dry Frio Valley foxtails are common, mostly the Marsh or Yellow Bristlegrass shown at http://www.friocanyonnature.com/n/h/setaria.htm.

However, you can see that the spike-like heads atop the stems of that common species are very different. Our gully-rim one's heads are longer, taper off toward their tops, and the spikelet clusters aren't as compactly grouped as on the Marsh Bristlegrass. This species definitely is different, something much less commonly encountered.

It's the Southwestern Bristlegrass, also known as Scheele's Bristlegrass and Scheele's Foxtail Grass. It's SETARIA SCHEELEI, mostly found in the arid northern half of Mexico but extending into the US from southern Arizona to Texas. Utah State's Manual of Grasses of North America at http://herbarium.usu.edu/grassmanual/ says that in the US "it is particularly abundant in the limestone canyons of the Edwards Plateau of central Texas," and that's us, except that our part of the Plateau is in southwestern Texas.

Several foxtail species might turn up in our area but the only one that could easily be confused with Southwestern Bristlegrass is Grisebach's Bristlegrass, Setaria grisebachii. However, the spikelets in that species are not as slenderly elliptic as those of our gully-side Southwestern Bristlegrass -- they're more egg-shaped. Also the Grisebach species's inflorescence axis, or rachis, is stiffly long-hairy, while that of our Southwestern one has shorter, softer hairs.

What a pleasure meeting this new "variation on the foxtail theme," one that's so little known in the US outside our region, and one that with those gradually tapering inflorescence tops is so unlike most other species. Also, most foxtails we meet are rank weeds, usually invasives from Eurasia, but this one is all-American, highly adapted to just the kind of environment we have here.

Of course small seed-eating birds just love those little foxtail grains.

*****

WINDOWS
You can see where nowadays I write these Newsletters at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130908--.jpg.

That picture was taken at dawn as the sun rose above the hills across the Dry Frio Valley. During breakfast I'm listening to Public Radio's news program. The clutter on the deck and floor is from trim work being done inside. Behind the black cloth covering the cardboard box beside me is where I keep the laptop, because with windows all around there's so much light I can't see the computer screen unless it's shaded. The glowing, green object above my mug is an optical artifact from photographing into the sun. I set the camera on a ten-second delay, then hurried to sit and look as if I'd been sitting there all morning. The whole building, Juniper House, is shown at http://www.friocanyonnature.com.

The staticky, fading-in-and-out radio signal from San Antonio issues from the east exactly where the sun rises. With Mexico's vast Chihuahuan Desert at my back a couple of counties to the west, in my mind's eye I see beyond San Antonio the Mississippi River and my old hermit camp, Kentucky and the childhood home, the Appalachians, the Atlantic I used to fly over so often, Europe and beyond. Especially as I listen to the world news, the entire eastern horizon seems to shimmer with memories and teachings. Of course, I'm not seeing things as they are now, but as they were when I was there.

In Juniper House, morning sunrises are powerful -- so much light, such a broad view, time to think and remember, the air through the windows cool and fresh, patterns of the liveoaks' gnarly limbs always seeming on the verge of saying something important.

After the morning's physical labor I sit at the same spot working the rest of the day at the computer. By then it's hot, my skin red and wet from sweat. There's a ceiling fan where I sit but I don't use it, preferring the more casual, random breezes wafting through the windows. These little breezes surprise and delight with their brief gifts of coolness, and that occasional surprise and delight is more important to me than a constant, characterless, energy-consuming fan-cooling. All afternoon, the windows' little breezes mingle with the pleasure of identifying plants and animals, and writing about them.

Sometimes in late afternoons gorgeous thunderheads form toward the east where earlier the sun rose. In this arid land you can see the whole thunderhead from its dark, slate-gray base almost touching the horizon to its towering, dazzlingly white head maybe a hundred miles away. In the humid East such distant thunderheads remain hidden in haze but here their full disposition is clear, and it's hard to take your eyes off them as they mature and draw closer, and closer.

If they hit here, first the dark, scrub-covered hills across the valley disappear behind a sky-high white veil, then you hear rain in the valley, and then the valley disappears as raindrops streak the windows you're closing. Even with the windows shut you smell the rain and the electrical charge in it, and hear it on the metal roof. If there's lightning, it's spectacular in this room with big windows all around, sometimes almost scary.

The clouds dissipate soon after dusk and the stars shine. I sleep on the floor, with stars visible all around. When there's a full moon, it rises at dusk where the sun rises in the morning, and moonshine fills the room with transfixing brilliance and clarity. All night the room glows inside like something living, something more than just glass, metal and wood, something with its own moods and feelings. On full-moon nights I awaken a dozen times and have the most unlikely, irrational dreams.

But, I can't say that the dreams are any more bewildering or inspiring than being in the room during the day.

In fact, if I could give advice to humanity in the hope that what I said might save things, maybe something I'd suggest would be for everyone to make sure they surround themselves with plenty of windows, and that they're open windows, with long views.

*****

FEATURED ESSAYS FROM THE PAST:

"The Moon's Passage" from the November 24, 2008 Newsletter, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/p/081124.htm

"Corncrib Honeymoon" from the August 25 2008 Newsletter, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/p/080825.htm

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

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