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 15, 2013

BLUEGILLS
As the drought continues, small, isolated pools of shallow water remaining in the gravel and cobblestone bed of the Dry Frio River grow smaller and sometimes disappear. You never find dead fish in the bottom of dried-up pools, though. Raccoons, herons and the like capture the fish days before the water disappears.

Some of the Dry Frio's pools still hold goodly numbers of fish, mostly Largemouth Bass and the species shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130915bg.jpg.

That fish is about four inches long (10cm). When I first saw this kind of fish I figured they were Bluegills, halfway remembering what Bluegills looked like when I was farmboy fishing in the pond back in Kentucky: They're "sunfish" with dark spots at the back ends of their gills. However, other species also have dark spots on the gills and people use other names for fish more or less looking like what's in our picture -- crappie, perch, sunfish, pumpkinseed, bream, coppernose and more -- so the time has come to sort all these names out, and figure out what a Bluegill really is. Being a rank amateur at ichthyology, it takes time with me.

A webpage provided a chart showing various common "panfish," pointing out differences between the species. That's shown at http://fishandboat.com/pafish/id_panfish.jpg.

That chart's Bluegill doesn't look much like ours, their White Crappie being a fair match. However, the chart shows that the front end of the White Crappie's "dorsal fin" -- the big fin on top -- begins with five or six sawtooth-like spines before the fin enlarges and the spines no longer project above one another. Fortunately I had a picture -- a blurry one that otherwise I'd delete -- showing the number of sawtooth spines on our fish, and that displays a dorsal fin beginning with nine, ten or so spines, not five or six, so our fish isn't a White Crappie. The blurry picture is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130915bh.jpg.

Looking at lists of fish known to occur in the Dry Frio River and paying attention to spine numbers, I figure that the fish in our pictures really are Bluegills, LEPOMIS MACROCHIRUS. However, most pictures of Bluegills on the Internet don't look like ours, usually showing blackish backs beneath the dorsal fin and often with an orange chest area -- but some pictures do match ours. Thing is, among fish, species coloration can change drastically according to age, sex, breeding season and environmental influences. However, the basic structure doesn't change no matter what color the fish is, and such details as how many spines occur in a particular fin are as important in fish identification as number of stamens can be in plant ID.

The names Bream, Brim, and Copper Nose are other names people use for Bluegills. When referring to freshwater fish, the name sunfish is a general one applied to various members of the Sunfish Family, the Centrarchidae, which includes Bluegill, crappie, and Largemouth Bass. Perch are completely different kinds of sunfish than Bluegill, and there are different kinds. Pumpkinseeds and another kind of fish known as bream also are different species of sunfish.

Bluegills are native east of the Rockies from Minnesota and New York south into northeastern Mexico, but because they are appreciated so by fishermen they've been introduced throughout most of the rest of North America, as well as shallow waters of lakes and ponds, slow-moving streams and small rivers in nearly all the rest of the world.

*****

A LARGEMOUTH BASS'S MEAL
While taking pictures of Bluegills, suddenly there was a loud, slapping splash of water across the pool at the very edge, and a V-shaped wave slicing away from the splash. A Largemouth Bass had caught something to eat and had it in his mouth. I got his picture as he passed by, not a sharp one because of the fast action, low light and consequent slow shutter speed, but you can see part of what he caught sticking from his mouth at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130915f1.jpg.

That's clearly a fish's tail poking from his mouth, probably that of a Bluegill. The bass swam back and forth in the pool as he manipulated the fish into a different position. You can see the Bluegill bent so severely that surely his back is broken, the lobe at the top apparently a gill, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130915f2.jpg.

Ten minutes later the Bluegill had been turned into yet another configuration, as seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130915f3.jpg.

Twenty minutes later the bass still hadn't swallowed his meal and now was swimming back and forth with the prey's head stocking from his mouth, with clumps of bladderwort collecting against his lips, as seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130915f4.jpg.

At this point I wandered away, but returned about 45 minutes later, and at that time the bass must have swallowed his meal. He was hovering over one spot in the pool, breathing fast through his wide-open gills the way fish do when they're excited or upset.

So now we know that the larger fish in these isolated, drying-up pools survive by eating the small fish, but it's still hard for me to imagine how all those smaller fish themselves have enough to eat. There just aren't that many dragonflies allowing themselves to be snatched up.

*****

WANDERING SPIDER
A fair-sized, hairy spider turned up beneath plywood lying on the ground, so I took a picture and sent it to volunteer identifier Bea in Ontario. You can see a top view of the spider at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130915sp.jpg.

A front view showing front-looking pairs of eyes is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130915sq.jpg.

I'd assumed we had a wolf spider, of which many species are known, but Bea somehow came up with the idea that it might belong to the Wandering Spider Family, the Ctenidae, which I'd never heard of. Given that lead, I lucked upon a 1999 paper by W D Sissom in "Entomological News" entitled "New Records Of Wandering Spiders From Texas, With A Description Of The Male Of Ctenus Valverdiensis (Araneae : Ctenidae)" The paper can be downloaded for free in PDF format at http://biostor.org/reference/76615.

Judging from pictures in that paper we may have LEPTOCTENUS BYRRHUS, found only in southwestern Texas and adjacent Mexico. I say "may" because often it's hard to tell with spiders without dissecting them. But if you compare pictures you'll see that the markings are nearly exactly the same.

Not much is known about this species. Some members of the family are considered "highly aggressive and venomous nocturnal hunters," according to the family's Wikipedia entry, but our spider did nothing but patiently allow our pictures to be taken, then when I got too close suddenly darted off as if shot from a cannon.

Wikipedia also points out that Wandering Spiders have distinctive longitudinal grooves atop and at the rear of their oval carapaces, carapaces being the top of a spider's front main body segment. In our pictures such a groove seems to be clearly visible.

*****

TOOTHED SPURGE
Around here the only place I've seen the Toothed Spurge, EUPHORBIA DENTATA, is in the regularly watered flower garden behind the red cabin I lived in last winter. You can see the plant rising above some Purple Spiderwort, which is what I'd been watering, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130915eu.jpg.

The "toothed" part of the name derives from the toothed or serrated leaf margins. Lots of leaves are toothed, but toothiness isn't common among spurges. The name "spurge" is applied to many members of the genus Euphorbia in the Spurge or Euphorbia Family, the Euphorbiaceae. You can see why the Toothed Spurge definitely is a spurge with a close look at the center of the plant's flowering top at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130915ev.jpg.

Basic spurge flower anatomy is demonstrated by the Christmas Poinsettia -- also a member of the genus Euphorbia -- which places its female, or "pistillate," flowers on stems that curve over the rim of a bowl-like "cyathia." You can see this in Poinsettia, with labeled parts, at http://www.backyardnature.net/chiapas/poinset6.jpg.

The Toothed Spurge's basic arrangement is almost identical to the Poinsettia's. In fact, Toothed Spurges remind us of Poinsettias, only that instead of leaves surrounding the flowering zone displaying red, they're blushed with white.

In the last photo you see several female flowers with their green ovaries hanging outside their smaller cyathia. Cyathia aren't reduced flowers, but rather bowl-shaped receptacles containing several tiny male flowers and one female flower. The female flower's relatively gigantic ovary is banished to outside the cyathium. Each male flower bears just a single stamen. In the picture, at the base of each ovary's stem and along the cyathia's rims you see several bilobed, slightly yellowish anthers atop short, white filaments. Each anther represents a male flower. On the side of each cyathium opposite where the ovary's stem crosses the cyathium's rim you see shiny, dark green items looking like little tongues sticking out. These are "cyathial glands," producing nectar for pollinators.

This unique strategy of clustering tiny, unisexual flowers into a radially symmetrical cyathium, with the single female flower dangling its ovary outside the cyathium, is found only in the genus Euphorbia (bilaterally symmetrical cyathia occur in the genus Pedilanthus). However, that's still a lot of species with such cyathia, since up to 2000 Euphorbia species are recognized worldwide.

In the US, Toothed Spurges occur coast-to-coast in the southern half of the country, plus south through Mexico, as well as in South America. It's established itself in numerous countries across the world.

*****

WRIGHTWORT
In this part of the world you run into kinds of plants -- into genera of plants -- that even most professional botanists have never heard of. Such a wildflower is blossoming here this week. It's in the never-heard-of-by-me genus Carlowrightia, named after the American botanist Charles Wright (1811-1885). In 1849 he joined an army expedition through Texas, botanizing from Galveston to San Antonio and then on to El Paso, so probably he passed right through here, which explains why we might have plants named after him. You can see ours flowering this week at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130915ac.jpg.

It's a modest little thing arising from a semi-woody base mostly consisting of dead stems from previous seasons, its leaf-bearing part only about a foot long and reclining on the ground, and its oval leaves not more than 5/8ths-inch long (15mm). The whitish flower at the tip of its stem is only about half that long. A picture of the flower and a brown fruit above it, with a hole in the fruit left by a hungry bug, is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130915ad.jpg.

The picture informs us that the flower is bilaterally symmetrical and bears a yellow spot surrounded by a thin, rose-colored halo on the corolla's top lip, the lip composed of two fused corolla lobes. The corolla's bottom lobe is scoop-shaped, cupping the anthers of the flower's two stamens.

A bilateral flower with only two stamens with this particular shape and these markings already strongly suggests a family we saw a lot of in Mexico -- the large, mostly tropical Acanthus Family, the Acanthaceae. The shape of the fruit above the flower in the picture also is very characteristic of the Acanthus Family, with its larger, seed-bearing part rising above a more slender base. "It's shaped like an upside-down banjo," we used to say back in taxonomy class, with the banjo's neck emerging from the calyx.

In our immediate area we have two Carlowrightia species, with several more desert-loving species to the west and south. The one in our pictures is CARLOWRIGHTIA TORREYANA, in books often called the Torrey's Wrightwort. It's endemic just to southwestern Texas and adjacent Mexico, so here's yet another species you pretty much have to come here to see.

*****

GARLIC CHIVES
When I arrived here a year ago, in the small flowerbed behind the red cabin in which I spent the winter, there was a dense clump of flat, grasslike leaves. When I dug into the cluster preparing to transplant it to where there was more sunlight, the entire plant smelled strongly of onion. However, when I began digging, instead of bulbs I found rhizomes -- dark-brown, scaly, underground stems. Everyone knows that onion plants arise from bulbs, so apparently this wasn't an onion. Therefore, what onion-smelling, onion-looking plant produces such rhizomes? I couldn't figure it out, so I transplanted the rhizomes and waited for the flowers.

A year later, now the plants finally are flowering, as you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130915al.jpg.

They look like onion flowers, but onions don't arise from rhizomes, right? A side view of a flower cluster, or inflorescence, shows a classic umbel, also typical of onion species, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130915am.jpg.

A flower close-up showing six white perianth segments below six stamens with narrow, white filaments, arising from the base of a three-celled, superior ovary -- all exactly as with onion flowers -- is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130915an.jpg.

A view from below the flowers showing that the perianth segments are not the least joined with one another at their bases -- which they shouldn't if they're onion flowers -- is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130915ao.jpg.

So, here the flowers are screaming at us that they are onion flowers, but onions are members of the genus Allium of the Lily Family, and even the Flora of North America says that members of the genus Allum are perennial herbs that arise from "tunicate bulbs" -- tunicate referring to the loose membrane or "skin" around onion bulb.

Though I definitely remembered digging up rhizomes last year, I decided to dig up a plant this year and look again. You can see what I found at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130915ap.jpg.

That's definitely a scaly rhizome, but look at the base of the onion plant stem coming down from the upper left of the picture. It's slightly bulged and rounded at the base, and that rounded, bulging zone is a genuine small bulb attached to a genuine rhizome. I simply didn't know that onion plants could arise from bulbs attached to rhizomes.

This is ALLIUM TUBEROSUM, variously known as Garlic Chives, Chinese Chives, Oriental Garlic, Chinese Leek, and Kow Choi. It's native to southeastern Asia but escapes into the wild in many countries, including here and there in the US.

Garlic Chives is an important ingredient in many Asian dishes. On the species' Wikipedia page I read that "They are a common ingredient in Chinese jiaozi dumplings and the Japanese and Korean equivalents. The flowers may also be used as a spice. In Vietnam, the leaves of garlic chives are cut up into short pieces and used as the only vegetable in a broth with sliced pork kidneys."

*****

REFRIGERATOR RUNNING ON SUNLIGHT
Though for the last few months I've been cooking nearly all my meals on a solar cooker built from an abandoned satellite dish (as described at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/x/solar-ck.htm) this has been my first full week of having electricity available from solar cells. It's a small system bought by the property owner, my host, mainly to serve as an exhibition for others wanting to learn about solar energy. Also it helps us gain practical experience, since nothing is ever as simple as it looks on paper, and, of course, it's great having electricity from the sky.

You can see the solar panels outside Juniper House's south-facing kitchen window at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130915s5.jpg.

The panels came as part of a kit marketed as a "Sunforce 60 Watt Solar 12 Volt Power Generator Kit," on Amazon.Com costing $253.08. Also in the kit were a charge controller, inverter, cables and connectors, all made in China.

When the sun is shining, each panel generates 15 watts of solar energy, so the four of them yield 60 watts. The panels produce direct current, DC, which goes to a bank of batteries. Something needs to keep the batteries from overcharging, and that's taken care of by a little black box called the charge controller, included in the kit. You can see the controller mounted on the battery box's left side at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130915s6.jpg.

The charge controller has two lights. When the 12 volt batteries are a little overcharged, at 14.2 volts, the green light comes on and current from the panels is shunted away. When the batteries are at less than 14.2 volts, the light is yellow and the charger permits electricity from the panels to charge the batteries.

In the above picture the small batteries are Universal UB1210 12V, 18Ah (20HR), sealed, lead-acid, deep-cycle batteries, presently costing about $38.00 each, and they're bought separately. The 18Ah rating is "amp-hours," and 18Ah is regarded as pretty small. The larger battery in the back is a Super Start Captain costing about $85, but $15 less if you exchange an old battery. The large battery supplies as much storage capacity as all the smaller ones combined.

Electricity in the batteries can be used straight away if you just need 12 volt DC current -- something like a radio that otherwise runs on six C batteries. However, most house appliances utilize 110-volt alternating current. Therefore, an inverter is needed to convert 12 volt DC current to 110 volt AC current. A 200-watt inverter came with the kit, but a much larger inverter was bought. You can see it mounted on the side of a cabinet wall in the kitchen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130915s8.jpg.

That's a "Whistler 3000 Watt Power Inverter" costing $299.00 at Amazon.com. It's mounted where it can get good ventilation, since its alternating current is produced by large transistors that get hot. The digital window with red numbers keeps a running account of the voltage being supplied, reading 12.20 volts at this time. If the battery voltage drops to 10.5 volts an alarm goes off; if it reaches 10.0 volts, the system shuts down completely. It also shuts down if the voltage exceeds 15.5 volts. In the above picture the black cord plugged into the inverter goes to a half-size refrigerator.

The system works fine, the little refrigerator cooling nicely and the battery voltage staying at about 12 volts when the sun is shining. If clouds develop while the refrigerator runs, however, the voltage drops. At first we had only the small batteries, which couldn't carry the refrigerator through a whole night, and which closed down the inverter when a crockpot was plugged in. With the larger battery we can do these things, but on cloudy days the system might not make it through the night.

I'd hoped to run my laptop on the system, but now we know that our inverter produces a kind of AC current that might damage a laptop. Maybe you've seen the curvy sine-waves that depict AC current's alternating voltages. Our inverter produces "modified sine waves" that are square-cornered, not curvy, and not laptop friendly.

Another completely unforeseen situation is that the inverter's cooling fans sound like a small vacuum cleaner.

A much larger system would be needed to supply electricity for an average American household. However, I use much less electricity than most, and find that most of the time this system supplies all the electricity I need, except for the laptop.

If you want to review the circuitry, a picture of a section of the box in which the Sunforce Panel Kit came in schematically shows the system at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130915s7.jpg.

*****

SOLAR
Using solar energy makes me feel good. It's more than feeling good because I'm not causing coal to be stripmined and burnt, gas and oil to be fracked and transported, and dams and nuclear reactors to be built. It's a good feeling rooted in a certain visualization kept in my head all the time.

The visualization is of the entire Universe exploding into existence, then with unimaginably rambunctious evolution spewing out untold numbers of galaxies with stars and planets, all in a roiling matrix of matter, anti-matter and a lot more. The visualization continues with life arising here on Earth, at first just non-thinking microbes but eventually species such as birds who instinctually build nests appropriate for their kind even if they've never met another bird of their own species. Then brains capable of instincts evolved to human minds capable of conjuring forth art, empathy, science, and spirituality. This directional evolution of the universe is outlined in more detail on our Six Miracles of Nature page at http://www.backyardnature.net/j/6/.

The process I visualize is like an arrow shot into emptiness at the moment of the Big Bang, the arrow being the Universe evolving toward art, empathy, science, and spirituality. To me, the direction the arrow takes teaches that the Creator "wants" living things to feel, to understand, to live with a certain flair, to reflect upon what it all means, and to feel awe and reverence for what IS. To me, then, the day-to-day challenge is to live in harmony with the flow of the Creator's evolutionary process toward ever higher levels of sophistication, feeling and spirituality.

Using solar energy is harmonious with the Creator's evolutionary urge because it does not destroy the Creation the way using grid electricity does -- with the coal mining, the oil fracking, the global warming gases, and the nuclear power plants with their radioactive wastes. Solar power is also harmonious because using it requires more effort than simply flipping a switch for grid electricity, and our extra effort constitutes a kind of prayer of thanks. For, with grid electricity so cheap and easily accessible, using solar energy makes little sense unless one has his or her private ethical framework based on some kind of relatively enlightened spirituality.

If the evolving Universe is a song, the Creator is the singer, and I myself am part of the music. Moreover, my behavior has an effect on whether in my corner of the Universe the singing is harmonious or discordant.

Each time I rise from my chair, plod through the house and cross the backyard to realign the solar cooker dish with the ever-shifting Sun, the effort made to nudge along my sluggish body, to do something that's not exciting or sexy... is my consciously stepping forward to sing in harmony with the Creator in the Song of the Evolving Universe.

And this harmony feels good.

*****

FEATURED ESSAYS FROM THE PAST:

"Basil Seedlings Deploying Solar Collectors" from the May 9, 2010 Newsletter, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/p/100509.htm

"Firewood & Solar Cookers" from the February 23, 2007 Newsletter, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/p/070223.htm

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

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