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

January 19, 2014

GREEN KINGFISHER
In most of North America Belted Kingfishers are the only kingfisher species to be seen. They're easily recognized by their large size, big heads, and their tendency to fly up and down streams and along shores, sometimes hovering above the water watching for fish below, and often diving headfirst into the water, making spectacular splashes. What a sight when sometimes one comes up from the water and flies away with a silvery fish squirming in his beak. Here in southwestern Texas we have three kingfisher species, all listed in Michael Overton's "Birds of Uvalde County, Texas" as uncommon or rare throughout the year. Besides the Belted, there's the Ringed and the Green Kingfishers.

From the first it was clear that the one swooping past me as I moved along the Dry Frio was neither the Belted Kingfisher nor the Ringed one, because they're fairly large birds and fly with powerful, deep wingbeats. This Dry Frio bird followed the stream like a kingfisher but was the size of a Starling, about half the size of the other two species, so it had to be the Green Kingfisher. My field guide gives the Ringed Kingfisher's length as 15.5 inches (39cm), the Belted's as 12.5 inches (32cm), and the Green's as only 7.7 inches (20cm).

Amazingly, our Dry Frio bird landed just downstream beside some bulrushes, struck a perfect pose, and the result was the picture shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140129kf.jpg.

Besides being much smaller than the other species and therefore flying with faster wingbeats and more of a lilt, Green Kingfishers are mostly greenish, while the other two who have slate gray bodies.

We often saw Green Kingfishers in Mexico. In Querétaro I described the sound of their diving into water as "... a small splash as if someone had tossed a pebble into the water." If you've seen the larger kingfishers dive, you know that with them it's more like a sizable rock thrown into the water.

Green Kingfishers are mainly tropical birds, distributed from southeastern Arizona and here in southern Texas south to southern South America.

*****

HERMIT THRUSH AT DAWN
Back during my hermit years in the Mississippi woods, Hermit Thrushes seemed to be drawn to my camp. In my January 19, 2003 Newsletter I reported how one "... landed on a water bucket and cocked his head sideways so that one eye seemed to look directly into my own eyes. Saturday morning he briefly landed on the table less than a yard from me as I breakfasted." And then I quoted Walt Whitman's lines:

Solitary, the thrush,
The hermit, withdrawn to himself,
avoiding the settlements,
Sings by himself a song.

I'm in a different world now, but nowadays often my mornings still are graced with the visit of a certain Hermit Thrush. He only comes at dawn, sometimes so early that he's just a silhouette hopping on the deck's boards. Other times he comes when there's just enough light to see the spots on his chest as he stands there looking through the window exactly at me. In morning's dim light you can see him next to my potted Thai Chile plant at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140129ht.jpg.

He looks like several other species of spotted-breasted thrushes that can turn up here, but Hermit Thrushes are the only thrush species present here during the winter. In fact, Hermits visit only during the winter. They nest in Canada, Alaska and the mountainous western US.

Actually, instead of looking at me as I took that picture, he may have been eyeing those chili peppers, for when he departed he flew straight up and touched the plant, as if swiping a pepper. He did it so fast that I couldn't see if he really got one, but he well might have. I read that in the northern US during the winter when insects are hard to come by he feeds largely on berries and buds, so he might really have wanted a chili pepper.

Some say that the Hermit Thrush's song is the most beautiful of all North American birds', and that could be right. He's not singing now, though. These mornings he seems to channel all his poetic urges into that dawn look in his eye.

*****

MAYFLY LARVA BENEATH A ROCK
In most places the Dry Frio's streambed consists of cobblestones. Sometimes the stream flows over or between the stones, and sometimes it disappears into cobblestone bars to reemerge downstream. Nowadays if you turn over cobblestones where the water is very shallow, you'll find clinging beneath them slender, whitish, half-inch long (13mm) critters looking like what's shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140129nd.jpg.

It's the larva of an insect that during its adult stage will bear four wings, as indicated by the four dark wing-buds on the larva's back. A side view of the same larva appears at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140129ne.jpg.

The immature form of an insect that undergoes incomplete or gradual metamorphosis before reaching its adult stage is called a nymph. Complete metamorphosis consists of

egg --> larva--> pupa--> adult

But during incomplete metamorphosis it's

egg --> nymph --> adult

The nymph grows through a series of gradual changes and often is similar to the adult, except that it's smaller and lacks wings and functional reproductive organs. The aquatic nymphs of dragonflies, damselflies, stoneflies and mayflies can also be called naiads. Our picture shows a naiad, since volunteer identifier Bea in Ontario pegs what's shown as a mayfly nymph. About 110 mayfly species are listed for Texas, distributed in 12 families and 40 genera, so we're not sure what kind of mayfly nymph this is. However, earlier we identified the Speckled Dun Mayfly in the Dry Frio, which produces a slender nymph like ours, so that species would be a good bet.

Mayfly nymphs do come in a wide variety of shapes, as shown on a University of Iowa Limnology page at http://www.shl.uiowa.edu/env/limnology/ephemeroptera.xml.

Among the adaptations of our mayfly nymph enabling it to cling to the bottom of cobblestones in runny water is its somewhat flattened body that reduces the water's pull, legs spread to the sides and ending in claws enabling the nymph to hold onto the rock better, and eyes on the back of the head, enabling the nymph to advance through muck and sand without damaging the eyes. Some mayfly nymphs are streamlined like fish, enabling them to swim, and others have strong front legs and upturned tusks near their mouthparts enabling them to burrow through silt and sand.

*****

FOSSOMBRONIA LIVERWORT
Unable to find much new in our wintry landscape I was working down the Dry Frio's mostly dry streambed looking for mosses in sheltered spots near water. The boulders and cobblestones heaped up there by a long-ago flashflood were coated with thick, drying, flaking marl, or muddy lime. This time last year water cascaded over the same stones, but we've been having a drought since then. In this fairly forlorn, unpromising-looking spot suddenly something caught my eye. Maybe you can see it, too, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140129fs.jpg.

To get oriented in that picture, notice the shiny water surfaces at the right. The large rock in the upper, left corner is maybe 2½ feet across (75cm). Here and there tufts of grass are sprouting. But what I wanted to see closer was the faint, green smudge at the base of that boulder at the top, left. You can see what the smudge looked like closer up at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140129ft.jpg.

At first I thought it was a moss colony getting started and I looked for capsules, but there were none. However, can you see the tiny, dark, spherical items scattered throughout the colony? A closer look is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140129fr.jpg

This was something I'd never seen in my life. Notice that toward the top, center of the picture one of the black, spherical items stands atop a pale stem issuing from the cuplike structure below it. Apparently the black things are sporangia, but no moss has sporangia like that. I collected one plant. Back in Juniper House, the dissecting scope provided an even closer look at a mature sporangium, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140129fq.jpg.

The sporangium's near side has fallen away to reveal a spongy interior. A rippled daub of clear, gelatinous matter adheres to the sporangium's top and I have no idea how to interpret that.

To identify this discovery I had to begin at the beginning. First, with a sporangium on a stalk arising from a green, photosynthesizing plant body, it just had to be a bryophyte. The three kinds of bryophytes are mosses, liverworts and hornworts. The spherical sporangium is unlike any moss sporangium I've seen, and hornwort sporangia are like tiny, slender, sharp-tipped fingers, so that left the liverworts. Doing an image search on the keywords "liverwort sporangia," before long a picture turned up of something similar to what's in our pictures. It was a liverwort of the genus Fossombronia.

The Flora of North America checklist includes eleven Fossombronia species for North America. Of these, only two appear to have been observed in Texas: F. texana and F. zygospora. The latter was collected only once on red, loamy soil very different from our Dry Frio habitat. Fossombronia texana, however, occurs on limestone. In fact, the only illustration I could find of Fossombronia texana, matching perfectly our Dry Frio plants, and appearing at the centexnaturalist.com  website, describes its Texas habitat as "... limey clay banks and near waterfalls on a small stream running through limestone," which fits our location about perfectly.

So, apparently what we have is FOSSOMBRONIA TEXANA. A plant named Fossombronia americana was collected near Puebla, Mexico, and later determined to be the same as Fossombronia texana, so maybe the species occurs not only in Texas but also Mexico. Whatever its distribution, it's very rarely encountered and not much is known about it.

To identify Fossombronia liverworts to species level, microscopic examination of the spores normally is needed. Vegetative parts vary greatly, but the size and surface ornamentation patterns of the spores are distinctive.

This just may be the most exciting discovery I've made since being here!

Liverworts, by the way, are primitive, fascinating plants. If you need an introduction to them, Wikipedia's liverwort page is fairly good, though at this time it's confusingly entitled "Marchantiophyta." It's at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marchantiophyta.

*****

BLADDERWORT BLADDERS
We've seen that in stagnant pools along the little Dry Frio River we sometimes find the interesting carnivorous aquatic plant known as the Bladderwort. Our well illustrated Bladderwort Page is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/h/utricula.htm.

Here in winter the bladderworts aren't flowering but sometimes you find tangles of their green, threadlike stems gathered here and there, as shown in water half a finger deep at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140129ut.jpg.

How can we be sure that this isn't just a filamentous alga? One way is to lift a thread from the water and see if it bears bladders, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140129uu.jpg.

In that picture, notice the branched hairs issuing from the blackish bladder in the center. When in water and a microscopic aquatic animal brushes against one of those "trigger hairs," a kind of trapdoor suddenly opens in the bladder. Before the trapdoor opens, the bladder is not completely full of water so when it does open water bearing the prey is sucked inside and the door closes. The whole process takes only ten to fifteen thousandths of a second.

As we've seen with their yellow, snapdragon-like flowers, bladderworts are flowering plants. However, bladderworts are so highly specialized -- for one thing, their vegetative parts are not clearly separated into roots, leaves and stems -- that they have their own family, the Bladderwort Family, or Lentibulariaceae. Their bladder traps are regarded as one of the most sophisticated structures in the entire Plant Kingdom.

*****

GOLDEN-EYE LICHEN
One of our most handsome and easy-to-identify lichens turned up this week on a dead Texas Liveoak branch. It was a "fruticose" lichen, which means that it had definite stems, as opposed to "crustose" types that form more or less solid sheets growing over surfaces, or "foliose," which are like leaves lying flat on a surface. Our fruticose lichen was a small one, only about an inch tall (2.5cm). You can see its branched, grayish stems and its spectacular apothecia, or fruiting cups, distinctively fringed along their cup margins with eyelash-like cilia, and with the spore-producing cup surfaces a bright yellow-orange, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140129li.jpg.

With such flashy features our lichen was easy to identify as TELOSCHISTES CHRYSOPHTHALMUS, often known as the Golden-eye Lichen. Golden-eye Lichens occur spottily worldwide, except not in Asia, and are most frequent in Mediterranean climates in both hemispheres. In North America it seems limited to the central area from Manitoba south through the Plains, through Texas and Louisiana, and southward.

On the south coast of England, Golden-eye Lichens were present over a hundred years ago, then became extinct, and now are recolonizing at a good rate, apparently as spores blow across the English Channel from France. Global warming isn't thought to be behind this, since the lichen was present earlier during much cooler times. General consensus is that probably the species is particularly vulnerable to air pollution. Recent environmental laws have cleared the air somewhat, so the lichens are returning.

Of course lichens are "composite organisms" composed of a species of fungus whose hyphae intermingle with cells of an alga and/or cyanobacterium. In the Golden-eye Lichen's case, the photosynthesizing partner, or "photobiont," is the single-celled green algae Trebouxia, which combines with several species of fungus to produce various lichen species. You might be interested in seeing what Tebouxia algal cells look like enmeshed with fungal hyphae at http://www.bioref.lastdragon.org/Chlorophyta/Trebouxia.html.

*****

WHITE BLOBS OF COTTONY SLIME
Scanning the Dry Frio's shallow water for interesting algae not yet looked at, I came upon the white blobs of cottony slime shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140129dt.jpg.

You can judge from the sycamore leaves in the picture that the main blob is maybe the size of a hand, with cylindrical sections about as thick and long as fingers. I guessed that when the blob was looked at microscopically it'd reveal parallel strands of fungus, but instead I saw what's shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140129du.jpg.

Apparently the white masses are composed nearly entirely of several diatom species of very different sizes and shapes. In the picture the smaller ones shaped like grains of rice pointed at both ends were constantly moving about but the other kinds remained motionless.

Diatoms constitute a major group of algae. One of their main features is that they are enclosed within a cell wall made of silica, silica being SiO2, the main component of most glass. Most diatoms are composed of just one cell and they come in many distinct shapes and sizes. You might enjoy reviewing the major groupings based on gross morphology at http://westerndiatoms.colorado.edu/taxa.

In our picture, the ones with pointy ends are "asymmetrical biraphids." I think the long, straight ones are "araphids."

I read that thick, slimy masses of diatoms are known to form in streams after prolonged sluggish flows and in waters with moderate to high nutrient concentrations. With our current drought, the Dry Frio's flow certainly has been sluggish. If there are ranches upstream discharging nutrient-rich water from cow manure, they are at a great distance. However, I'm seeing other indications of the Dry Frio's waters being moderately nutrient rich -- of "eutrophication" -- so that well may be the case.

*****

FIRE-ALARM POLLEN
One chilly, early morning this week I was exploring along the Dry Frio when I looked up and saw smoke rising from the woods, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140129po.jpg.

My heart skipped a beat because with our drought and the very dry state of things, a fire can spread fast and be dangerous.

But, I wasn't smelling smoke, and it didn't seem right that smoke should suddenly rise all along a whole slope without my having noticed a smaller fire earlier. And then it dawned on me: It wasn't smoke, but rather pollen. After a cold night the sun was just breaking over the hills, things were drying out fast as the temperature rose, and the day's first wind was gushing up the canyon. With binoculars I could better see what was going on, as shown with a view through a sycamore tree heavy with fruit-balls, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140129pp.jpg.

At the far right in that picture you can see pollen exploding from the top of an Ash Juniper. As the wind rose, the whole valley whitened exactly as if filled with smoke. Later I heard that a bit south someone had alerted the community fire department to a fire in the scrub and the fire truck had gone out, only to find a valley filled with pollen from male Ashe Junipers. It was an amazing thing to see. Several people in the community are practically incapacitated with their pollen allergies. I'm lucky to get by with one sneezing fit each morning and then it's over for me.

Ashe Junipers are profoundly important to the ecosystem of the southern Edwards Plateau, yet they are controversial and many landowners spend thousands of dollars killing them. You can read all about it on our Ashe Juniper page at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/w/ashe-jun.htm.

*****

RARITY
Discovering the rare Fossombronia liverwort this week set me to thinking about the concept of rareness itself.

A species can be rare for several reasons. For example, maybe its adaptations equip it for living only in very unusual habitats, as was the case with our limey-muck-loving Fossombronia, or maybe the species is losing out to aggressive weeds. It's thought that over 99.9% of all species that ever lived on Earth now are extinct, so at one time or another all species are rare. In Nature, "commonness" is unsustainable, and even "rarity" trends toward extinction simply because any rare thing is relatively easy to dispose of, as when a bulldozer destroys a species' last refuge.

Over time, the Earth's landmasses shift about, ocean currents alter direction, solar radiation varies in strength, the atmosphere's combination of gases changes... so the planet's mix of species constantly evolves accommodating and building on not only these changes but also newly evolved adaptations: scales on the first fishes; warm bloodedness among the mammals, and; primates with their big brains. In fact, the only process in the living component of Nature that looks like it might be permanent and sustainable is evolution, and even that ends when there's nothing left to evolve.

One morning this week my friend Ron dropped by buzzing with insight after viewing a program in which someone made the point that if the Earth were to be represented by a golf ball, a model of the big star Canis Majoris built at the same scale would be the height of Mt. Everest. And to fill Canis Majoris's model with Earth-representing golf balls, you'd need enough to cover the entire state of Texas 22 inches deep (56cm). If my math is correct, that means that New York State would be beneath 8½ feet (2.6m), and little Delaware 198 feet (60m) of golf balls.

And there are lots of stars other than Canis Majoris. Current thought is that their count probably is more than the number "one" followed by 24 zeros -- a septillion stars.

When Ron left I leaned on my shovel awhile letting things digest, because before his visit that morning I'd been thinking about the Fossombronia liverwort's "rareness." Now as I stood there with morning sunlight from one among billions of stars feeling good on my skin and a fresh Earthly breeze blowing up the canyon carrying the scent of fresh soil and warming junipers, I saw that in terms of the inconceivably huge Universe, the Earth itself is rare. And with the ephemeral nature of species, Earth's living things are doubly rare, in fact so rare that it's hard for the human mind to grasp how precious, vulnerable and evanescent the planet's living things really are. And that's not even considering the individuals of which species are made. Compared to the Universe and its time scale, we living things are hardly flickers of presence.

What does it mean to be in a Universe and on an Earth where everything, everything, is so special and worthy of notice?

*****

FEATURED ESSAYS FROM THE PAST:

"Ghostly Glow on The Greyhound's Ceiling" from the April 13, 2009 Newsletter, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/p/090413.htm

"Horseflies & Rachmaninov" from the July 18, 2010 Newsletter, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/p/100718.htm

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

All previous Newsletters are archived at http://www.friocanyonnature.com/n/.