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

November 10, 2013

INCA DOVE
Common Ground Doves, which are small, mostly tropical American doves not found in most of North America, are commonly seen around Juniper House. At first glance they're very similar to Inca Doves, which also are small, mostly tropical American doves, and most of my neighbors call both species Inca Doves, not having noticed that two species are involved. Both species are much smaller than Mourning Doves, and the plumage of both appear "scaled." During most of the year I see no Inca Doves here, but they do come and go. I've tried to photograph them several times but failed. However, this Friday my neighbor Phred sent a picture of one visiting his birdfeeder, which you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/131110id.jpg.

How is this Inca Dove different from a Ground Dove? The Inca Dove's tail is much longer than a Ground Dove's, plus notice that the scaling effect on our Inca Dove covers the whole body, extending onto the tail. The Common Ground Dove's scaling is restricted to the head and chest area, as you can see on our pictures of him at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/b/grounddv.htm.

Inca Doves, COLUMBINA INCA, occur from Nicaragua north through Central America and Mexico into the US southwestern states -- therefore not found in the ancient Inca homeland of Perú. Inca Doves strike me as more town-oriented than Common Ground Doves, who like to hide in grasslands and small groves of trees, but do turn up below birdfeeders. In the Yucatán I had Common Ground Doves around my hut in the woods, but usually I saw Inca Doves only in people's yards in town, though sometimes they did appear on the resort's lawns near the hut.

Inca Doves are common to abundant within their range and they are expanding their distribution both north and south.

*****

WIREWORM
I was grubbing up a long-dead Ashe Juniper stump from a prairie patch beside Juniper House when a slender, amber-colored critter I thought was an inch-long (25mm) millipede appeared on the ground next to the stump. Apparently he'd popped from the soil as I'd hacked at the stump's roots with a pickax. You can see him at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/131110ww.jpg.

When I moved in for a close-up I saw that this wasn't a millipede at all -- didn't bear two pairs of legs on each body segment -- but rather was an insect larva with only six legs up front and no legs on any of the rear segments, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/131110wx.jpg.

Insect larvae like this are produced by beetles, and normally they're referred to as wireworms, though they're not worms at all. Calling something a wireworm isn't saying much because there are a lot of them. Wireworms are larvae of the Click Beetle Family, the Elateridae, widely distributed in North America in about 60 genera and 800 species. Moreover, there's a large group of "false wireworms," so similar it's hard to tell them apart, of the Darkling Beetle Family, the Tenebrionidae, of which more than 20,000 species are known.

When volunteer identifier Bea in Ontario saw the problem she figured she needed expert help, so our pictures were posted at BugGuide.Net. You can see what that looks like, and read viewers' comments, at http://bugguide.net/node/view/858844.

Unusual for the BugGuide crowd, days passed without anyone commenting. That was the first hint that we might have something unusual. I'd tried to figure out which wireworm it was, too, so already I knew that it didn't quite fit the way most wireworms and false wireworms look. The field mark that caught my attention can be seen in the close-up picture of the head area. The distance between the head and the first pair of legs is much longer than in any picture I've seen of a wireworm.

Finally one day Blaine in Atlanta, a microbiologist who identifies insects that might impact public health, for the CDC, posted his idea that our larva might be a member of the genus SELONODON, of which 25 species are listed for the US southern states. Selonodon belongs to the Robust Click Beetle Subfamily, the Cebrioninae.

On the BugGuide.Net page for Selonodon the beetle expert E.G. Riley is quoted as writing "To work out the taxonomy of this genus in Texas would be a lofty goal, and would require a lot of serious targeted field work year after year. A thorough working knowledge of the geology of Texas surface soils would probably be essential."

Therefore, here we're parking our information on the Internet under the name Selonodon, trusting that someday an earnest student of beetles will be very happy to see what we've found in thin soil of a hill made of early Cretaceous Glen Rose limestone and populated with Ashe Juniper and Texas Liveoak, and lots of prairie grasses.

*****

LOOSESTRIFE
In mud where water trickled from a spot near the water's edge on a gravel bar in the Dry Frio River -- which still is so low that sometimes in completely disappears beneath the gravel -- an ankle-high herb showed up with tiny lavender-hued flowers. It was in a precarious place, where cattle come to drink the pool's water, and where, if we were to get a good rain, the whole gravel bar would disappear below rushing water. Despite its fragile appearance, it was definitely an opportunistic and tough little plant. You can see it at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/131110ly.jpg.

A close-up of its 3/8ths-inch-long (9mm) flower with a strikingly ribbed, slender calyx arising singly from a squared stem is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/131110lz.jpg.

A blossom with petals removed on one side to reveal a spherical, yellow stigma held above the calyx by a slender, white style extending from the ovary deep in the calyx's cup is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/131110lx.jpg.

The most interesting feature to notice in that picture is that each petal arises from a spot on the calyx rim, between the calyx teeth. It's unusual for petals to arise in such a manner, and that cued me to this wildflower's family, which is the small, mostly tropical American Loosestrife Family, the Lythraceae. Checking to see what Loosestrife Family species occur in this area, it was easy enough to figure out that we had a Low Loosestrife, LYTHRUM OVALIFOLIUM. A second, more commonly occurring loosestrife occurs in our area, Lythrum californicum, but that species' leaves are narrower than ours.

Low Loosestrife is described as rare along and in water of rivers and streams of the eastern Edwards Plateau region of central Texas, and nowhere else. It's endemic just to here.

Some loosestrife species are much larger and bear spectacular inflorescences of purplish flowers, and thus are well known and appreciated wildflowers. Our little Low Loosestrife is clearly adapted to a very narrow habitat, one in which lushness and gaudiness aren't helpful.

The history of the name loosestrife is a good one. Back in the 1500s someone came up with the name loosestrife when they mistranslated the Latin name Lysimachia, which was used for a group of plants similar to our Lythrum. They mistranslated the name because they thought the Latin name Lysimachia was Greek, not Latin, and in Greek the word lusimakhos meant "ending strife." Lysimachia plants actually were named for Lysimachus, a king of ancient Sicily, who is said to have calmed a mad ox by feeding it a member of the genus. Anyway, not only is Lysimachia Latin and not Greek, thus having nothing to do with ending strife, but also Lysimachia plants don't even belong to the same family as our loosestrifes of the genus Lythrum.

*****

GREENTHREAD #2
In our arid environment with low, scrubby forests giving way to prairie patches, members of the Composite or Sunflower Family constitute a huge part of our wildflower population. It's hard to remember which is which. Thus the other day I wasn't sure if I'd ever seen the yellow-rayed composite turning up in grass along a weedy roadside, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/131110th.jpg.

Note that the heads stand atop long, slender, leafless stems, or peduncles. Compound leaves with very narrow segments cluster toward the plant's bottom. You can see those basal, threadlike leaves at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/131110ti.jpg.

We've had yellow-rayed composites with such leaves before. Hoping to see something more determinative, I removed two petal-like ray flowers from a head to give a view of the scaly, bowl-like involucre below the flowers. What I saw was unusual, but I'd seen it before, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/131110tj.jpg.

Usually a composite head's involucre consists of numerous scales overlapping one another like roof shingles, or maybe they're slender and aligned side-by-side, and typically the scales are very similar to one another. Here eight slender, green items poke from the involucre's base, then above them there's a series of very broad, colored, overlapping scales surrounding the head's yellow ray flowers and blackish disc flowers. This is very unusual, but we've seen it.

A view of the disc flowers' bases shows that each base is partly enveloped by an orangish, scoop-like scale, seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/131110tk.jpg.

The thing is, in gross aspect, the plant on which we've seen this kind of crazy-looking involucre looked very different from our present roadside one. You can see our previous species with such an involucre at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/h/thelespe.htm.

That's the Slender Greenthread, which we saw back in July hanging on a limestone ledge. On that page the third picture shows an involucre very much like this week's roadside species. The Slender Greenthread is Thelesperma simplicifolium. Our new plant also is a greenthread and a member of the genus Thelesperma, in wildflower books called Stiff Greenthread. It's THELESPERMA FILIFOLIUM, described by the Flora of North America as occupying disturbed sites on clays or sandy soils and rocky slopes, often on limestone, from southern South Dakota south through the US south-central states into arid northeastern Mexico.

Traditionally, several greenthread species have been used as teas by America's indigenous people, and sometimes are known as Navajo Tea, Hopi Tea, or just Indian tea. Both our Stiff and Slender Greenthreads are among those used as teas. A well illustrated page showing greenthreads cultivated for tea use and packaged for sale, as well as a discussion of the plants' medicinal properties, is at http://www.itmonline.org/arts/greenthread.htm.

*****

FALSE NETTLE
Sometimes plants turn up here that I'd thought could never survive in such arid country. Normally such species appear around seeps and at the water's edge. That was the case this week when a six-ft-tall (2m) herb or "subshrub" found in deep shade below a little waterfall where the Dry Frio broke over a thin outcropping of hard limestone. You can see the plant's nettle-like leaves arising two per stem node, and erect, fingerlike spikes of tiny fruits from the leaves' axils, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/131110bo.jpg.

The handsome leaves' margins were evenly saw-toothed, or serrate, with three principle veins arising from the blade base, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/131110bq.jpg.

The spikes were crammed with tiny, hairy, achene-type fruits -- achenes being dry, one-seeded fruits that don't split open at maturity. You can see a small part of one "infructescence" at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/131110bp.jpg.

This old friend from the humid East was the False Nettle, BOEHMERIA CYLINDRICA. Wildflower books wanting to distinguish it from other members of the genus call it the Smallspike False Nettle. Though it belongs to the Nettle Family, the Urticaceae, it's a "false" nettle because it doesn't bear stinging hairs the way "real" nettles do. Mostly we think of nettles as belonging to the genus Urtica.

Stems of members of the Nettle Family often contain such tough fibers that traditionally they've been used in making string, netting and such, and that's the case with False Nettle. Delaware Indians have been documented using False Nettle string for straps for carrying loads, and for making wampum belts. The Ojibwa made bow strings from it.

False Nettles appear in moist, deciduous woods, swamps, bogs, marshes, wet meadows and ditches throughout most of forested eastern North America, south through Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean and South America.

*****

WESTERN PANICGRASS
At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/131110pa.jpg you see a handsome little ankle-high grass thriving in a hint of soil accumulated among limestone rocks at the edge of a bank just above the Dry Frio River. Note the well formed rosette of broad leaves at the plant's base, which next spring will issue fresh new inflorescences, and the robustly branched stems bearing smaller, slenderer leaves than those at the base, plus notice the small clusters of flowers sprinkled here and there among the upper branches. Those flowers are unusually small, only about 1/16th-inch long (1.4mm), and their small size and hairiness are good field marks. You can see a close-up view of both the front and back of a flower at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/131110pb.jpg.

Back in the old days any decent, first-year Local Flora student would have recognized this as a member of a huge grass genus with over 600 species, the genus Panicum. Panicums were referred to as panicgrasses because their inflorescences were of the much-branched panicle type. In my home county in Kentucky I identified twelve Panicum taxa. In fact, on a hot summer morning on Knob Hill near Cypress Creek, on August 1, 1969, I collected the very species shown above, designating it as Panicum lanuginosum.

However, since those days genetic sequencing has come along and the big, easy-to-recognize and easy-to-remember genus Panicum has been split to pieces. Among other changes, most species forming basal rosettes like those in our picture have been shifted to the fanciful-sounding genus Dichanthelium. Some experts point out that the genus Panicum is mostly tropical American, and in the tropics there's no clear distinction between Panicum and Dichanthelium, and I'm of their party, but I seem to share the minority view here.

The splitters also have changed the species name of the plant I first identified in Kentucky, so now our plant is known by most experts as DICHANTHELIUM ACUMINATUM. Reflecting the fact that it's so widely spread and taxonomically has been kicked about so much, the grass goes by several common names, including Tapered Witchgrass, Tapered Rosette Grass, Hairy Panicgrass, Hairy Rosette-panicgrass, Western Witchgrass, Western Panicum and Western Panicgrass. That last one strikes me as the most useful, so that's what I'll call it.

Besides producing overwintering basal rosettes, members of the genus Dichanthelium usually metabolize by the C3 carbon-fixation process -- considered a more primitive, less efficient pathway than the more recently evolved C4 route -- plus they flower both in spring and fall. In the fall they tend to produce "cleistogamous" flowers, in which the flower buds remain closed and thus self-pollinate. Our flower close-ups, then, are of cleistogamous fall flowers, which may explain why they are so small, even for this small-flowered species.

Western Panicgrass produces tiny grains much relished by small, seed-eating birds.

*****

INDIAN LOVEGRASS
If Western Panicgrass perches picture-perfect on its ledge, another grass species, about 15 inches tall (40cm) found this week in roadside gravel is about as scraggly and obscure-looking as you could ask. Though it appears in the picture's center, you may find it hard to pick out it out at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/131110er.jpg.

However, if you get down low and view the panicle-type inflorescence against the sky you see that the homely little grass has a graceful side, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/131110es.jpg.

Despite bearing up to 14 florets, individual spikelets are extremely small and slender, only about 1mm across (1/32nd inch), as seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/131110et.jpg.

The ligule -- the wall-like structure at the base of many grass leaves where they meet the stem -- consists of a low fringe of densely packed, short hairs, and the lower leaf blade itself bears especially long, soft hairs, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/131110eu.jpg.

Last week we looked at Bigtop Lovegrass, Eragrostis hirsuta, which also bore very small spikelets in an unusually diffuse terminal panicle. Now we have the closely related ERAGROSTIS PILOSA, often known as Indian Lovegrass. You might enjoy comparing the two lovegrass species, which structurally are very similar, though in general gross character they look quite different. Indian Lovegrass stands stiffly erect while Bigtop Lovegrass tends to sprawl. Bigtop Lovegrass's page is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/h/lovegras.htm.

Our roadside Indian Lovegrass isn't called Indian because Indians used to roam western Texas, but because it's native to tropical and warm temperate regions of the Old World, including the Indian subcontinent. Here in the Americas it's an invasive weed. Other common names for it include Hairy Lovegrass, Jersey Lovegrass, Small Tufted Lovegrass, Soft Lovegrass, and Spear Grass. As noted last week, it's not known how this group of grasses came to be called lovegrasses, but that name has been in use for centuries.

*****

THAI CHILI
Last year a neighbor returned from Thailand with a chili pepper in his pocket, which he'd bought at a little market there. He saved the seeds and now on Juniper House's deck a potted, knee-high pepper plant from one of those seeds is as lush and pretty as it can be, and loaded with flowers and peppers. You can see a small part of it at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/131110ps.jpg.

A flower with its typical crooked neck, next to an immature chili, is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/131110pq.jpg.

A flower close-up showing pale anthers with white fringes, possibly caused by bees fraying the anther edges as they collected pollen, is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/131110pr.jpg.

Chili peppers are members of the genus Capsicum of the Nightshade or Tomato Family, the Solanaceae, and all Capsicums are native to the Americas. Therefore, this "Thai Chili" is a descendent of American ancestors. That doesn't mean, however, that Thai Chili peppers are not uniquely Asian. Presumably, 500 years ago Spanish galleons carried American chili peppers from the Americas across the Pacific to Asia, and 500 years is plenty of time in which plant breeders can come up with a whole new cultivar.

Cultivars developed from five Capsicum species are produced throughout the world today, so I wondered whether our Thai Chili might have derived from one of the lesser-known species. Capsicum annuum is the most widely cultivated species. Super-hot Habeneros are Capsicum chinense. Tabasco peppers are Capsicum frutescens.

The Peppermainia.Com website provides an identification key to the different species. There our Thai Chili plant easily keyed out to be the commonly grown CAPSICUM ANNUUM, on the basis of its white, unspotted corollas, its flowers arising one per stem node instead of two or more, and the flowers' filaments not being purple. You can find this key a little down the page at http://www.peppermania.com/chile_facts.html.

Besides our Thai Chili, which sometimes is called Bird's-eye Chili, other cultivars developed from the wild Capsicum annuum ancestor include such popular pepper types as bell peppers, cayenne, paprika, Tabasco, and jalapeños.

It's interesting that from Capsicum annuum cultivars have been developed ranging from sweet bell peppers to hot jalapeños. Clearly a pepper's hotness can be selected for during the plant breeding process. Our Thai Chilies strike me as considerably hotter than jalapeños, but I wasn't sure how they stacked up to habeneros, developed from Capsicum chinense.

A pepper's hotness can be designated by "Scoville scale units," or SHUs, which measure the amount of the chemical called Capsaicin in the pepper. Capsaicin stimulates nerve endings, causing the "hot" sensation.

Pure capsaicin clocks in at about 15,000,000 to 16,000,000 SHUs.

The stuff that police use in pepper spray rates about 5,000,000.

The pepper with the highest rating is the Naga Viper Chili, developed in the United Kingdom by crossing the three hottest peppers known to science. It measures 1,359,000 SHUs.

The famously hot Red Savina Habanero rates 580,000 SHUs.

Thai Chilies typically fall between 50,000 to 100,000 SHUs, so they're not as hot as habeneros. However, they're much hotter than jalapeños.

Jalapeños, who some folks regard as very hot, range between 2,500 and 8000 SHUs, so to real chili eaters they're hardly hot at all.

Bell peppers come in at zero SHUs, having no capsaicin at all.

*****

CIRROCUMULUS UNDULATUS CLOUDS
Thursday morning the sun rose behind a thin cloud cover that in one part of the sky broke into the interesting pattern shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/131110cl.jpg.

We've seen such rippled patterns before, as in April of 2011 when they appeared over my hut in the Yucatan. You can see those, which we identified as Altocumulus undulatus, at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/undulatu.htm.

Our clouds this week also are of the "undulatus" kind, but you can see that the Yucatan ripples, or "undulations," are much larger and thicker than this week's cloud. That's because this week's clouds are higher in the sky, probably composed of ice crystals instead of the usual water vapor, and therefore are wispier.

High-altitude, wispy cloud-curdles are cirrocumulus clouds, so the ones in our picture are CIRROCUMULUS UDULATUS. Cirrocumulus undulatus clouds seldom cover the entire sky, but rather appear only in patches, as did ours. Though our clouds were produced as a cold wave was passing through, Cirrocumulus undulatus are known to occur throughout the year, though they are never frequent or widespread. Often they're hidden by lower clouds, thus they may be more often seen from jet windows than from the ground.

The occurrence of this cloud type isn't helpful for predicting the weather, but they do often occur where there's instability in the air, and cirrocumulus clouds in general are associated with large weather systems such as the cold front that was moving through last Thursday morning.

*****

SLOPE BAROQUE
Through Juniper House's big windows there's a fine view of the surrounding forest and prairie patches on our limestone hill slope, and of hills on the other side of the Dry Frio Valley. Looking at it, the spirit clears and becomes receptive to music.

Often days pass here with nobody coming around and with not a single word said, so the rhythms and themes of the outside world on the radio -- its country, rock, and Mexican music -- don't feel right here. On the Internet, however, radio can be listened to from anywhere, and that's where I get my music.

Western music has evolved through stages: Medieval; Renaissance; Baroque; Classical; Romantic, Modern. Music from each era has its charm and I listen to them all, but at Juniper House certain music feels more at home than others.

Medieval music is too constrained by the Middle Age's severe religious attitudes and prohibitions. The forest makes no effort to harmonize with mankind's belief systems, so Medieval music feels out of place on this slope.

Renaissance music freed itself of the Inquisition's mood, but its courtliness and cuteness doesn't resonate at all with what we experience here of Nature's robust voluptuousness.

Skipping the Baroque and coming to the Classical Era, Mozart showed how beautifully melodies can dance with one another, and how artful accompaniment can enhance an already gorgeous melody. Much of Nature is like this and Mozart is welcome on this slope but, in the end, Nature is a web of interrelating and mutually dependent melodies, not just one or two, so eventually even Mozart grows a little thin among the Ashe Junipers and Liveoaks.

Bringing more expressive and emotional content to music, Beethoven and Schubert helped bring about the Romantic Era, paving the way for Rachmaninoff and Wagner, among others. Visualizing Nature blossoming from the Big Bang and evolving forth with such rambunctious, joyful energy, ornamenting Her themes with rainbows of orchids, woodwarblers, beetles and butterflies, fishes, microbes, big mammals of the Serengeti, and us, you can say that music of the Romantic Era is indeed like Nature in general. However, here on this slope we are not Nature in general. We are exactly what's appropriate for a limestone hill in arid country, so Rachmaninoff and Wagner, despite the deliciousness of their offerings, here, feel like French pastries when one's mood is for wholegrain.

Nor does modern music fit here, its dissonances, its trying-to-be-something-new, its heavy, mindless beats and electronic artificialities.

So, back to the Baroque, to Bach and Vivaldi. Counterpoint like yin and yang improvising dance through time, exactly as with Nature. You have a basic flow of emotion -- on the page of music it's the base notes written below the melody, the "figured bass" they call it -- and in Nature it's the base feeling of an oak-juniper scrub forest, or the riparian assemblage along the Dry Frio, ornamented with species, charmed and defined in terms of singing, flitting, photosynthesizing, flowering and fruiting.

You follow the dirt trail upslope with prairie grass along the side and as you approach Juniper House you might hear us before you see us, Bach filtering through the big windows, even as finches and titmice sing their own ways, and deer snort and stomp among the bushes

Moreover, there's a whole world beyond Western music. You might hear strains of the koto and sitar played here, too.

On this slope, it's all one, but certain manners of expressing the unity are more harmonious with how we are than others.

*****

FEATURED ESSAYS FROM THE PAST:

"Music of the Spheres" from the December 5, 2010 Newsletter, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/p/101205.htm

"With a Song in My Heart" from the February 1, 2004 Newsletter, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/p/040201.htm

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

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