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

March 23, 2014

FIRST NEW BUTTERFLY OF SPRING
In our area if you have a few warm days anytime during winter you might see a butterfly; I've seen them on and off every cold month. This week I photographed the first butterfly species that hasn't been registered yet on our webpage for local butterflies at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/a/uvalde/.

The new species turned up last Sunday as the latest cold front was blowing in. It was 65°F and the wind just howled through the trees. In such unfriendly conditions it was surprising to see a butterfly, and this one clearly was having a hard time. He'd fly a very short distance, then clumsily land and cling to something. I began my usual slow, careful approach hoping to get a picture, and I got it, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140323bu.jpg.

In fact, when I got close enough for that picture the poor butterfly seemed too distracted or exhausted to react to me at all. I actually nudged him with a finger and he didn't seem to notice. I just left him as you see him, wishing some kind of happy outcome for him.

Bea in snow-clogged Ontario was thrilled to have a butterfly to work with and it didn't take her long to figure out that we had a Checkered White, PONTIA PROTODICE.

Having the name, now our discovery could be looked up, to see what kind of story might lie behind his being out butterflying on such a blustery day.

My guess is that he was out looking for food and maybe was having a hard time finding it, being so unresponsive because of starvation. Checkered White butterflies feed on flower nectar, especially on plants of the Mustard and Daisy or Composite Family, and alfalfa, but because of our drought there's very little flowering now. This time last year there was plenty, but the drought is much worse this year.

Female Checkered Whites lay eggs singly on leaves and flowers of plants the caterpillars will eat, and that's mainly members of the Mustard Family, which holds not only mustard but cabbage, turnips and radishes. At this time of year back East, at least in the South, sometimes you see big fields vibrantly yellow or white with flowers of wild Mustard Family members, and in a normal year here there'd be some flowering, but I haven't seen any so far in this dry year.

Checkered Whites are widely distributed, however, so our drought isn't a threat to the species. They're permanent residents in the southern US, coast to coast, and northern Mexico, but conduct spring flights northward, where they temporarily occupy the northern US and southern Canada, though they don't make it to most of New England.

*****

ROUGH STONESEED ON A BOULDER
Though last spring we reported that the drought was holding back the usual show of wildflowers in the valley, this spring the drought is even worse and wildflowers are only a shade of what they were last spring. Still, some finally are emerging, and what a pleasure to find them. One of them is the modest little white-flowered one who here seems restricted to thin soil atop a few shaded, limestone boulders along the Dry Frio River floodplain, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140323li.jpg.

The tininess of the flower can be judged by comparing it to my finger behind it. Also notice the blossom's yellow center, and the long, spreading hairs on the vegetative parts. A view of the flower's bottom side showing how the long hairs extend onto the green calyx below the corolla is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140323lj.jpg.

A longitudinal section of the flower shows how the stamens with their dark, oblong anthers are attached by their filament bases to the corolla tube's yellow walls, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140323lk.jpg.

Experienced wildflower sniffers probably can guess that such a hairy, spring-blossoming little herb with small flowers with five stamens arising from the corolla tube's walls will be a member of the Borage or Bluebell Family, the Boraginaceae, and that's the case here. Moreover, if when you step from Juniper House and see the numerous tiny wildflowers conspicuously blossoming with bright, yellow flowers whose basic structure is the same as this flower's, and you know that those yellow-flowered plants are stoneseeds of the genus Lithospermum, you might further guess that this white-flowered, boulder-top wildflower also is a stoneseed, and you'd be absolutely right. The yellow-flowered one common around Juniper House can be reviewed at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/h/gromwell.htm.

Our white-flowered, boulder-perching stoneseed species is the Rough Stoneseed, LITHOSPERMUM MATAMORENSE. Stoneseeds in general also are called puccoons, gromwells and other names. Our Rough Stoneseed also is called Rough Gromwell and in Texas some call it the Rio Grande Puccoon. The "roughness" in two of the names is caused by the plant's mildly stiff hairs.

The yellow-flowered species is a widely distributed one but our boulder-percher is mainly a Mexican one found in central and northeastern Mexico, and extending into the US only in the southern half of Texas.

The boulder perching Rough Stoneseed isn't nearly as flashy as the yellow-flowered one, but its rarity and limited habitat make it worth looking for.

*****

DEER-PEA VETCH
Sometimes on the very thin, quickly drying soil formed atop bedrock capping hills, in an environment that's so windswept and sun-baked that trees are unable to grow, or are very stunted, you get grassy "balds" or open areas where interesting plants might show up -- plants uniquely adapted for such extreme environments. Looking for such hilltop specialists I came upon a slender, herbaceous vine whose few small, rosy-colored blossoms were easy to see surrounded by such wintry, droughty brown-grayness. You can see the vine twining around a weed stem as it issues leaves and flowers at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140323vc.jpg.

The flowers' corollas, only about 3/16ths inch long (5mm) are typical of the Bean Family -- they're "papilionaceous," with a big top petal forming a bonnet-like "standard," two side petals called "wings," and two lower petals fused to form a scoop-shaped "keel," as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140323vd.jpg.

The modest, slender, pinnately compound leaves also are typical of the Bean Family. You can see that the compound-leaf tip bears two tendrils that wrap around things in the neighborhood as the vine climbs higher, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140323ve.jpg.

A Bean Family member with tendrils tipping a wildflower's pinnately compound leaf cues many wildflower sniffers to the fact that we have a species of vetch, genus Vicia. However, about 140 vetch species are known worldwide, with over 30 in North America, so which one is this?

Our hilltop species is so relatively small, with so few flowers per raceme, and with such hairy vegetative parts that it keys out quickly to what's variously called Deer-pea Vetch or Louisiana Vetch. It's VICIA LUDOVICIANA, in the US occurring mostly in the arid southwestern states, though appearing spottily here and there beyond. It also occurs widely in the northern half of Mexico.

Therefore, though I was looking for a rare species in this severe habitat, I got one of moderate-size distribution and one that's fairly commonly occurring. However, Deer-pea Vetch is described as living in grassy, brushy or wooded slopes, so it was at home atop our hill. On the hill you wouldn't have found the similar but more robust, weedy vetch species that down in the valley wrap themselves in fences and occupy lush pastures.

*****

SENNA LEGUMES DROPPING BEANS
The Velvet-leaf Senna is one of the most common and conspicuous wildflowers/weeds around here. Much branched from the ground and semi-woody, it stands about chest high and in late summer can be spectacular with its stem-tip clusters of fair sized, yellow flowers. You can see the handsome plant flowering last summer at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/w/vl-senna.htm.

Nowadays the flowers and leaves are all gone, but dangling from the tips of last season's slender stems you find clusters of brown, legume-type fruits. At this season the legumes are splitting along their entire lengths, revealing inside orderly rows of little brown seeds, or beans, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140323sn.jpg.

A close-up of the beans showing each one attached to the legume pod's wall by threadlike, curvy funiculi (singular funiculus) is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140323so.jpg.

I'm guessing that the tattered, papery material peeling off the beans is the remains of the epidermis of the seed coat, or testa. In some seeds upon reaching maturity the epidermis ruptures and sloughs off, enabling the seeds to dry better.

Whatever the case, it's pleasing to see these well formed little beans all ordered exactly as they should be, ready to abandon their pod and usher forth new senna plants -- despite the drought and all the things going on in the world.

*****

POWDERED RUFFLE LICHEN
The Texas Live Oak's low-hanging limb was so heavily cloaked with leafy lichens that the stem itself couldn't be seen. However, as I scanned the lichens, it was the usual species turning up again and again... until one struck me as slightly different from all the rest. For one thing, its thallus margins were exceptionally ruffly-frilly, as seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140323pa.jpg.

A close-up better showing the thickened thallus margins is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140323pb.jpg.

Even much closer, a detail of one spot along a thickened margin shows that the thickness consists of massed, powdery-looking granules, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140323pc.jpg.

The swollen, powdery-looking rims bear "soralia," which in turn are composed of "soredia," which are composed of small groups of algal cells surrounded by fungal filaments. When dust-like soredia break from their soralia and land in an environment appropriate for the species, they grow into new lichens. Soredia are not formed by any sexual process, so the resulting lichen will have the same genetic makeup as the parent.

Besides the thickened rims, another distinction of this little colony was that none of its thalli bear the spore-producing, cup-like apothecia normally seen on such leafy lichens borne on twigs. Also, notice the black, hair-like structures along the thallus margins, which are cilia. Some very similar lichen species completely lack such cilia, or the cilia may be much longer, so these black cilia provide a good field mark. The function of cilia isn't known, but it's been suggested that during times of high humidity, as when it's foggy, they provide places on which water may condense -- water the lichen can use.

Our present lichen belongs to a large genus whose leafy, or "foliose," members mostly inhabit tree bark or acidic rock. It's the genus Parmotrema. Another Parmotrema species, which is somewhat similar, commonly occurs on tree limbs in our area, the Perforated Ruffle Lichen, which you can compare with our present one at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/x/p-r-lich.htm.

Note that that species also bears cilia, but lacks the swollen, soralia-occupied margins, and its thalli often bear spore-producing cups, or apothecia.

Within Parmotrema at least three species look like our lichen. The LichenPortal.Org website informs us that "... P. hypoleucinum, P. hypotropum and P. louisianae are all morphological nearly identical. The species have not yet been investigated from a molecular perspective." Our lichen appears to be one of them.

All three of those look-alike species have been observed in Texas, and both P. hypotropum and P. hypoleucinum occur in the area of the southern Edwards Plateau, though P hypotropum seems to occur closer to us in the western region, and pictures of that species, on the average, match ours the best.

Therefore, I'm filing this page under PARMOTREMA HYPOTROPUM, knowing that eventually a specialist will find it and be glad to know what our local representatives of the group look like, and correct me if needed. The only common name I can find for it, rarely used, is Powdered Ruffle Lichen, and that seems good enough.

By the way, the Powdered Ruffle Lichen does very rarely produce apothecia that issue sexually produced spores. This is one of those occasional species encountered in nature that mostly depends on asexual reproduction, but practices just enough sex to modestly keep the evolutionary process going.

*****

BIRDS HITTING WINDOWS
Juniper House's walls are more windows than wood, and it's good having a wrap-around view of the forest, and of the birdfeeder where there's always a carnival taking place. On windows all around the house I've stuck up falcon silhouettes to keep songbirds from flying into the glass, and the silhouettes work fairly well, but still a few birds continue colliding, apparently seeing the woods' reflection.

After most collisions the birds fly away with little evidence of being hurt, but rarely dead birds turn up below the windows. Sometimes the collisions leave imprints on the glass, showing every feather, the beak, the eyes, all visible at the moment of impact, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140323bd.jpg.

In a life where sensitivity to, and empathy with, living things is important, this is a sad and worrisome situation. I deal with it by trying to focus on the broad sweep of things, not the pain and death suffered by individual birds. Here's how that works:

I accept that, as a natural organism on Earth, also I may claim living space appropriate for my species, and if birds run into it, then it's sad, but part of the inevitable reality of living in a physical world. Second, these collisions are part of the evolutionary process. Human shelters may have reflective parts, which to a certain extent the rest of the biosphere must evolve to accommodate. When a bird dies who is unable to adapt, that bird will not pass on genes to its descendents carrying the dead bird's fatal vulnerability.

But, there's more to the human mind than abstract rationalizations. We are wired to react viscerally to what's seen and heard, to react to this or that with fear, hate, love, arousal... or, in my case, with sadness and empathetic pain if it's the thump of a bird against a window.

On another level, maybe these bird tragedies are so affecting because each one is nothing less than a real-life metaphor of what may be the most fundamental and unavoidable tragedy afflicting humanity in general.

That tragedy is that we humans are at least potentially maturing, ever-more alert and understanding spirits residing in physical bodies programmed to fall apart in ways every bit as inelegant as breaking one's neck by flying into a window.

That bird headed for the window is me with ever greater certainty coming face to face with my own inescapable reflective surface.

*****

FEATURED ESSAYS FROM THE PAST:

"A Reason to Save a Bird" from the April 25, 2004 Newsletter, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/p/040425a.htm

"A Profoundly Encouraging Thought" from the April 25, 2004 Newsletter, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/p/040425b.htm

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

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