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

May 11, 2014

LARK SPARROW
The two most common sparrow species here are the Chipping and Lark Sparrows. Chipping Sparrows commonly visit Juniper House's feeder, but Lark Sparrows never do, though sometimes individuals call from trees not far away. You see Lark Sparrows perched in wire fences and at the edges of sunbaked little gravel roads. Often they forage on open ground right at the road's edge -- walking, not hopping like many sparrows -- where if you get too close they quickly dodge into the grass or fly away. When Lark Sparrows take flight, in that split second just before they alight, they fan their tails to brake their descent, and then white outer feather conspicuously flash at the tail 's edges, and that's a fine field mark..

If you get close enough to see a Lark Sparrow's face, it's patterning is so bold and distinctive that you can't confuse it with that of any other species, as you can see on a bird met along the road this week at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140511ls.jpg.

During the summer, Lark Sparrows are fairly common in dry fields near brush or trees throughout the western US, and in our area they're common year round. They extend a bit east of the Mississippi River, though at my previous homes in Kentucky and Mississippi they were never common.

*****

SNOUT BEETLE FEEDING
Last fall we looked at the Rice Weevils who had taken up residence in my stored rice. You can see that species' long, slender, blunt-tipped snout with antennae arising from the snout's base on our Rice Weevil page at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/a/riceweev.htm.

Since the Rice Weevil's front pair of wings form a hard covering over the cellophane-like hind wings, it's clear that weevils are beetles belonging to the huge Beetle Order, the Coleoptera. And when a beetle is equipped with such a snout with antennae sprouting from its base, it's a member of the Weevil Family, the Curculionidae.

However, the Weevil Family is one of the largest of all animal families, embracing over 40,000 known species, so there are plenty of "variations on the weevil theme."

All these matters coursed through my mind the other day when in the acute angle formed by a leaf attaching to a stem of Water Willow, Justicia americana, emerging from a drying-up pool in the Dry Frio River a weevil-type beetle turned up with his long snout poked into the leaf axil, apparently feeding on soft tissue there. The weevil's basic structure was the same as our previous Rice Weevil's, but this one was much larger, and occupying a profoundly different habitat. Pulling the leaf back to better expose the weevil enabled the picture at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140511wv.jpg.

A nice thing about that image is that it shows the tiny open mouth at the very tip of the long, black, blunt snout.

With so many look-alike weevil species, volunteer identifier Bea in Ontario could only hope that by uploading our photo to the wonderful BugGuide.Net website an expert someplace might take a look and give us a name. In a few hours, "v belov," an entomologist in New Jersey, replied: "prob. Erirhininae; need a good dorsal to proceed." In other words, probably it belongs to the weevil subfamily Erirhininae, but to be more certain a picture was needed from directly above, of the "dorsal surface."

My own Internet browsing into the matter makes clear that simply because there are so many possibilities, and distinguishing features often are microscopic, we can't go much further in identifying our weevil.

However, there's so little life-cycle and ecology information on this group that it's a shame to not post what little we have -- that the weevil in the picture was feeding on a Water Willow, Justicia americana, in southern Real County, Texas, in the upper Dry Frio River Valley, on May 4, 2014.

Trying to pin down the identity of our Water Willow feeder and judging from pictures on the Internet, I'd guess that our weevil belongs to the genus NOTIODES. In John LeConte's classic 1876 paper "The Rhynchophora of America North of Mexico," in Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, partially available through Google Books, our weevil keys out to Notiodes limatulus, based on its body possessing no bristles, and its length, which was 5mm or longer.

Notiodes weevils are sometimes referred to as semiaquatic species, so it sounds right that ours should have been feeding on a Water Willow. Whoever our weevil truly is, here we're filing it on the Internet under "Notiodes limatulus" in the hope that someday a researcher will be pleased to find this page, and maybe either confirm or correct our ID.

*****

BEE ASSASSIN
Lounging atop the flowering head of a Woollywhite wildflower, Hymenopappus tenuifolius, was the handsome bug shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140511ba.jpg.

And it's truly a "bug," since having that shape, a strawlike, sucking probocis below its head, and wings that are half leathery and half like tissue paper, it's clearly a member of the big "True Bug Order," the Hemiptera. Also belonging to that order are cicadas, aphids planthoppers, and thousands of kinds of somewhat similar-looking species known variously as stinkbugs, shield bugs, and assassin bugs.

Even with so many possibilities, it didn't take volunteer identifier Bea in Ontario long, using the BugGuide.Net browse tab, to write that, "... I did spend some time looking around in the plant bugs and leaf-footed bugs, but these bugs had thick BACK legs and yours has thick FRONT legs, and that detail led me eventually to the assassin bugs and eventually to your Bee Assassin."

So, Bee Assassin, APIOMERUS SPISSIPES.

While confirming the ID I found lots of species looking practically identical to ours, but after reviewing hundreds of pictures and studying the distribution of species possibly found in our area, it seems that Bea probably is right, as usual. Apiomerus spissipes occurs throughout the US, south to central Mexico.

The individual in our picture seems to be waiting for bees coming to take nectar and/or pollen from the flowers. The bees will be "assassinated" when our Bee Assassin thrusts his proboscis into the bee's body and begins feeding. Something interesting that the 110 or so known Apiomerus species do is to apply plant resins to their legs, making them sticky and better able to hold onto bees.

Bee Assassins certainly do kill bees who we like to see pollinating our plants, but studies show that they kill other insects, too, often insects that damage our plants. Therefore, it's unclear whether Bee Assassins do more harm or good in our gardens and cultivated fields. In Nature in general, of course, it's always the case that everything has its place.

*****

AGARITA FRUITS
On thin, dry soil atop limestone in the upper Dry Frio Valley the Agarita bush is abundant. With its evergreen, stiff, spiny-margined leaves, some folks imagine that it's "wild holly," but it's a kind of barberry. Our page telling about it is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/w/agarita.htm.

Nowadays the Agarita's branches are loaded with pea-sized, succulent, red fruits, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140511aa.jpg.

I've heard people claim that Agarita fruits are delicious and that sometimes jams are made of them, but I find them only slightly sweet or with any taste at all, though they are a little tart. Their seeds are small, however, so if you just want to nibble on them they're fine. I think that if people used to make jams of them, they were just looking for something to sweeten with sugar or honey, and as such they probably made fine jams.

But the thing about Agarita fruits is that when you collect them, the leaves' spines stick you. If you wear gloves, it's hard to grasp the fruits. Not many people nowadays are eating Agarita fruits.

*****

TEXAS SAGE
Even with our drought, some wildflowers manage to blossom, and their ability to deal with so little rain is admirable. One such foot-tall survivor in thin, dry, rocky soil, surrounded by brown, dry-crisp grass, is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140511sa.jpg.

You expect an herb with two leaves per stem node -- opposite leaves -- and such pagoda-like flower clusters to be a member of the Mint Family, even before you check for the squared stem. And when you see this plant's strongly bilaterally symmetrical corollas -- like little dog faces trying to bite -- you're even more certain. You can see this plant's typical Mint Family flower at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140511sb.jpg.

The corolla seen from the front appears at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140511sc.jpg.

Notice that the corolla's two lower lobes expand into a broad "landing pad" for pollinators. Also, the slender, white style arches beneath the crest of the corolla's top, scoop-shaped lobe, and extends beyond the lobe's end, projecting downward, ready to collect pollen from the back of any pollinator entering the corolla tube in search of nectar.

This configuration is just like what we've seen among the sages, genus Salvia, and in fact that's what we have here. It's the Texas Sage, SALVIA TEXANA, endemic just to Texas, mostly the central area, plus a small part of southeastern New Mexico and northern Mexico. You can see one of its slender, shallowly lobed leaves at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140511sd.jpg.

With nearly 1000 Salvia species recognized, that genus is the largest of the Mint Family, and several Salvia species are found in our area. Lot's of red-flowered Cedar Sages, Salvia roemeriana, grace our limestone hills. Also in our area there's the very similar Engelman's Sage, Salvia engelmani, but that's a little larger, and the scoop-shaped upper corolla lobe is proportionally longer and more slender than the Texas Sage's. All three of these sage species are narrowly endemic to our area. In fact, lots of sages are narrowly endemic -- found in just a small area -- so it's always worthwhile to pay special attention to a newly encountered sage, for you might have something rarely enountered.

One reason our Texas Sage manages to prosper during our drought is because ecologically it's adapted to especially dry environments. It's described as occupying well-drained limestone soils, especially in prairies and on hillsides, slopes, and ledges.

*****

WOOLLYWHITE
Along a road across the Dry Frio's gravelly floodplain a wildflower managed to develop green leaves and flowers despite the awful drought we're having. You can see it surrounded by brown, dry-crisp grass at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140511hy.jpg.

It's a member of the Composite or Sunflower Family, as is clear when we see its tiny florets clustered in bunches, with each cluster held inside a bowl-shaped, calyx-like "involucre" consisting of scale-like modified leaves, or phyllaries, as seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140511hz.jpg.

Unlike typical members of the Composite Family, however, this plant's phyllaries, while green at their bases, flair into large, white, petal-like wings, making it seem as if the flowering heads are composed of both tiny disk flowers in their centers, and petal-like ray flowers along the margin, like a typical daisy. However, these flowering heads bear only cylindrical disk flowers. A closer look at a couple of heads showing the situation is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140511hx.jpg.

The plant's shape and unusual flower configuration is very much like the Old Plainsman wildflower, Hymenopappus scabiosaeus, we saw last summer. However, that species flowered later, when it was quite hot, plus back then I saw the Old Plainsman only in thin soil atop limestone bedrock, so could this be a second, earlier-blooming species? You can compare our present plant with the Old Plainsman at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/h/hymenopa.htm.

It turns out that this is indeed a second Hymenopappus species. The easiest-to-see difference between the two species is in the compound leaves, whose lobes are very narrow in the present species, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140511hw.jpg.

Mostly this wildflower is known as the Chalk Hill Woollywhite or Chalk Hill Hymenopappus. Its HYMENOPAPPUS TENUIFOLIUS, endemic to the US central prairie states from South Dakota to about here. The "chalk hill" in the names refers to the species' affinity for limestone hills, though it also occurs in lowland sandy, gravelly, and silty soils, where we found it.

One reason our plant can issue green leaves and flowers during our severe drought is that Chalk Hill Woollywhite is a biennial. Last year it developed a nice taproot that now draws moisture from deep in the soil, plus it spent the winter as a rosette of leaves storing energy for this spring's big push, whether there was much rain or not.

It's always a special pleasure to find another species of a genus I'm already familiar with. It's the "variations on a theme" phenomenon, a process that's powerful not only in the field of music, but in nature-sleuthing as well.

*****

MELIC GRASS
In the upper Dry Frio River Valley about three miles north of Juniper House, you find more prairie plant than farther south, or "down below." That makes sense because the Edwards Plateau -- with us residing on its southern rim -- often is regarded as the southernmost extension of the Great Plains physiographic province, which originally was occupied mainly with prairie glassland.

One grass species found just two or three miles north of us, but which I haven't noted yet around Juniper House and farther south and lower in elevation is the perennial bunchgrass standing about a yard high (1m) shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140511ml.jpg.

This grass draws your attention with its pale, fair-sized spikelets quaking in the wind as they dangle top-down on short stems from the main branches of the flower part, the inflorescence. You can see a typical inflorescence with its dangling spikelets at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140511mm.jpg.

Up close, the spikelets display unusual and distinctive features, as you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140511mn.jpg.

Mainly, notice the glumes, which are two scales arising opposite one another at the bottom of most grass spikelets; in our picture the spikelets are hanging downward, so the glumes arise at the spikelets' tops. This grass's glumes are much larger, paler, papery and more loosely fitting that those of typical grasses. In the above picture, glumes on the spikelet at the right are open, showing three florets inside them. The green parts covering each floret are scale-like "lemmas," and in this species the lemmas also are very unusual, in that their tops (pointing downward in the picture) also look like thin, white paper.

Whenever you have a grass that's new to you, it's good to pay attention to the "ligule" that may or may not form where the grass blade meets the stem. this grass's membraneous ligule tends to split at its top, as is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140511mo.jpg.

This grass, so typical looking at a distance but very distinctive up close, is MELICA NITENS, often identified in books a the Three-flowered Melic, "melic" being a general term for species in the genus Melica. Three-flowered Melic mostly occurs in the central US, in a band from Illinois to here in southwestern Texas, plus a bit in arid northeastern Mexico. About 80 species of Melica are known from north-temperate parts of the world, South America and southern Africa.

Three-flowered Melic likes partial shade, so often you see it at the base of trees. Since it tolerates shade, forms such large, dense tufts, and in general is a graceful-looking being, it deserves to be planted around homes, especially those trying to conserve water.

*****

SOAP ALOE
Commonly planted along streets and next to houses and walls in Uvalde is the handsome, waist-high, agave-like plant shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140511ao.jpg.

This plant's succulent, swordlike blades with spines on their margins and pale spots on their faces look very much like those of the famous Aloe Vera, as you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140511aq.jpg.

However, the flowers of Uvalde's plants are pinkish, as seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140511ap.jpg.

Maybe you remember that flowers on Aloe Vera plants we saw so abundantly in the Yucatan were yellow, as documented on our Aloe Vera page at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/aloevera.htm.

Over 500 species of the genus Aloe are recognized, however, and many are cultivated, so it's not surprising to run into something that's almost an Aloe Vera, but not. The genus Aloe is native to Africa and thereabouts, so any aloe occurring in the Americas will be planted or "gone wild."

Uvalde's close relative to Aloe Vera is ALOE SAPONARIA, often called the Soap Aloe or Zebra Aloe, originally from southern and eastern South Africa. It's much planted throughout the world in warm, dry areas. The Wikipedia expert claims that it's ".. the most popular ornamental aloe in the Tucson, Arizona area, and is also popular in California." That's certainly also the case in Uvalde.

The "saponaria" part of its binomial reflects the use of the gummy material in its leaves as a soap. Beat leaf sap in water and it forms a soapy lather.

*****

FEATURED ESSAYS FROM THE PAST:

"Dusk at The Canyon's Edge" from the May 29, 2005 Newsletter, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/p/050529.htm

"Gathering Firewood" from the November 26, 2007 Newsletter, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/p/071126.htm

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

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