Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Winter Wildlife Photography

I've often lamented how the rain and cold kept me from nature photography at this time of year, and I've often longed for spring and summer when I can resume photographing wildflowers and invertebrates. Then Fred (AKA Anas platyrhynchos) paid us a visit. It's not everyday one gets a chance to photograph a duck indoors. Fred belongs to my daughter-in-law and he is a remarkable duck. He's spending the week with us, and I've seen him perform tricks. I never thought I'd see a duck exhibit a distinct personality, but Fred seems to understand humans and ....well, I digress.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Do they get along?

I can no longer walk by a patch of Yarrow without looking for Goldenrod Crab Spiders, Misumena vatia. They are not only beautiful and exhibit interesting behavior, they change color. I wonder if yellow feels superior to white or vice versa, or if these creatures experience the equivalent of racism in humans. It turns out the color-changing ability does not function as camouflage but rather as an attractant. When a spider in its yellow phase rests on a white background, such as in the top photo, it looks like a flower to some potential pollinators. I've had the thrill of watching this happen. I was once photographing Yarrow when one of these spiders in the yellow phase came out from under the flower head, posed for a moment, and was visited by a would-be pollinator, a hover fly, which it promptly captured and ate. Photos of this event may be found in earlier postings on this blog.

Saturday, December 25, 2010


In my aesthetic there is usually a huge chasm between anything "of nature" and most things man-made, especially the highly technological. But humans are always bridging the gap, getting inspiration from nature for various manufactured goods. So, it shouldn't surprise me that once in a while I'll stumble across a scene in the hi-tech world that reminds me of things natural. Such was the case when I was moving some firewood and got a close look at the pattern of welding on my wife's mountain bike. I don't know if this constitutes good welding to someone who knows welding, but, to me it was beautiful and reminded me of a volcanic lava flow and of patterns created by throwing a pebble into a smooth pond, or the protective casings created by certain sea worms or caddis flies among other things. Beauty is wherever you find it.

Friday, December 24, 2010

A Pictorial Ode to Black Oak and Guests

Tomorrow morning I'll post 10 photos, taken today, of California Black Oak, Quercus kelloggii, with some natural history notes. I wanted this post to have today's date because I took the photos today in a very quiet and peaceful place, ecstatic that I was not at a mall.

It's now tomorrow morning. Happy Birthday, Greg! These oaks are living along the road to Oakland Feather River Camp, about half way between the green bridge and the camp entrance. The green bridge is not very green any more, but is still known by that name by locals and long-time camp visitors. It's the last bridge over Spanish Creek on the way to camp.

The top photo is a straight-up view of one of the more stately large oaks. The pattern of branching is distinct from other hardwoods in the area such as alder and maple. The second photo down is of a cluster of pretty good sized oaks near the creek. One trunk sports a scar from a missing branch that looks typical of black oak scars. These scars often become the entryway for cavity-nesting birds, mammals, and lizards. The remaining photos are views of a variety of mosses and lichens that take up residence on the bark of oaks. The bark of oaks is strong, just like the wood, so some of the slower-growing lichens prefer oaks because their substarate lasts a long time. These species don't last long on pine bark because the bark itself sheds more often. Lichens are a symbiotic relationship between fungi and alge. The ones with a greener hue have a relatively larger proportion of algae. The mosses that grow on oak bark have a "resurrection" property in that during dry periods they shrink up and get brown and crusty and seem to almost disappear in camouflage among the scales of bark. When it rains, they green up rather quickly - coming back to life, so to speak. The fragrance of oaks and its guests also varies greatly with humidity and temperature. I find it most pleasant during the cool and humid days of fall and spring. Put a chain saw to an oak log and you'll notice an odor reminiscent of new-born babies.

Christmas Eve Images

The popular swimming hole near Oakland Feather River Camp looks so peaceful in winter. The creek is high, the water is clear, and there is no litter on the shore. This young white fir looked so nice in its natural habitat that I felt a bit sheepish about having brought one of its cousins indoors for a couple of weeks, then....

Images of Common Teasel

One of my favorite weeds, teasel has a year-round presence. It may be a pest to some, but it has a fascinating natural history.

Cat Break

In the midst of processing today's photos from the dark and damp forest, I had a predator-prey interaction break out in my living room. Son's cat, Radar, loves to pursue imaginary mice under the rug. At least I hope they're imaginary. when I took the first photo, he heard or saw the flash and peeked out at me. The next flash sent him into hiding, but I pursued him for one more shot under a chair. It was fun, but I was well aware that the cat would last a lot longer than I would if the scene were for real.

Some Christmas Colors

Looks like Christmas will be cloudy and rainy or snowy here. I can't help but wonder what it would feel like to be in the southern hemisphere at this time of year. Or, even in Florida or Louisiana. All the songs refer to snow - definitely a New England bias. I grew up in New England and took this for granted. Even when I was attending college in Louisiana and Florida, I'd fly home for Christmas. Now that I'm in Quincy, land of fickle weather, when I look at the remnants of the last snow storm, I imagine the seeds of the spring and summer flowers beneath. These three photos are, from the top, a fallen leaf from my favorite oak tree in front of Papa's Donuts, a rear view of a Leopard Lily, and a Crimson Columbine. Christmas colors all.
I remember one Christmas with my son Greg whose birthday happens to be on Christmas day. We were living in South Carolina and an extreme cold spell was forecast. On a whim, I decided to go camping in Florida and show Greg the University of Florida campus where I had gone to graduate school. We camped out in the countryside in Alachua County. The cold spell followed us. We had a portable radio in our tent. Woke up to frost and temperature in the teens. We had a great laugh when the morning news announced that on that day it was colder in northern Florida than in Anchorage! Should've packed our swimsuits and gone to Alaska. I titled this "Some Christmas Colors" and it just dawned on me that the three of my framed photos on the wall above the computer all fit this theme. Maybe that's what stimulated the idea. They are a ripe gooseberry, surrounded by green foliage, a red milkweed beetle, and a ladybug. Each photo has a bright red subject surrounded by green. I can see why they are called complementary colors.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Adopting the Mid-Altitude Mindset

It's raining again, and we might continue to have alternating rain and snow for quite a while. Considering the fact I've been a life-long reader and admirer of Thoreau, it's a bit embarrassing when I catch myself complaining about the weather - ANY weather. As the wise man said, "There's no such thing as bad weather, just good clothes." Quincy, nestled in a mountain valley at 3,500 feet elevation, is in the "in-between" zone. That is, any given storm blowing in from the Pacific or down from the Arctic, might bring snow or rain. The temperature line between the two may fluctuate between 2,000' and 4,500' during this time of year, not only from storm to storm but within the duration of a given storm. When I remember to don the right clothing and footwear, I can go out and enjoy the drama. It's only when I wish for a sunny day and dress according to my wishes that I get angry when Mother Nature doesn't cooperate. Impersonal Mother Nature! I usually always keep my camera in the car. Why not keep an umbrella, too? Storms, not just wildflowers and bugs, present good photo ops. Most people can relate to the pleasure of huddling around a wood stove or fireplace when the weather outside is cold, windy, and snowing or raining. With the proper gear, the same cozy feeling can be achieved outside during a storm. I'm sure the folks doing research in Antarctica are not cold all the time. Also, I have fond memories of being "caught" on a mountain top during violent storms. When I was prepared, it was a lot of fun. For instance, on top of Mt. Washington in New Hampshire, part of the thrill of being there was its fame as the place that recorded the fastest wind velocity on the surface of the planet - some 230 m.p.h. When My brother and I climbed Mt. Washington a number of times in high school, we were prepared for harsh weather most of the time. We'd sometimes depart from the base camp in 90-degree, sunny weather only to confront hail or sleet and be totally fogged in when we ventured above the treeline which was only around 4,500 feet. Once we were surprised by hail when we arrived above treeline wearing only shorts and T-shirts? What to do? It could be life-threatening to venture onward under such conditions. It was exciting to read the signs at treeline telling us so. It's really a no-brained. just descend immediately and quickly. As long as we weren't face-climbing, it was quite easy to return to our vehicle or tent along safe trails in a fairly short time. On one occasion, when the temperature seemed safely above freezing, but the summit was enveloped in dense fog, we decided to push onward, even thought visibility was probably less than 20 feet. We were able to move forward along the trail from cairn to cairn, always remaining in voice contact. The cairns at that altitude were usually less than 20 feet apart - a product of experience! As we made our way through the fog, dreaming of the hot dogs and hamburgers available at the old wooden hotel at the summit, we were startled to hear a very loud train whistle. Even though we knew of the famous cog railway, it was quite disconcerting to hear the whistle get closer and closer but not be able to see the train at all. Logic told us that so long as we were not standing in the tracks, we could not get hit. We sat still and waited. The sound of the engine and whistle became deafening. If we didn't know better, we would have feared getting run over. Then, as we enjoyed the slight Doppler effect of the train passing by and heading toward the summit, we resumed our hike. We discovered we had been waiting only around 20 feet from the track!
Other "bad" weather adventures include a lightening storm at the top of Lassen Peak which actually made our hair stand up, and the threat of same while climbing 14,000+foot Long's Peak in Colorado. I also remember taking my family on a boat ride in my little 14', 15 h.p. motorboat on Eagle Lake and getting caught in a violent rainstorm while we were on the side of the lake opposite the launch ramp and our car. Perhaps should have camped out on the shore and waited out the storm, but, instead, decided to slowly motor our way back, hugging the shore, thinking that if we capsized we'd be able to make it to shore. We did have life jackets on. Still, thinking back on that one, we probably should have gone to shore immediately and waited it out.
Compared to these adventures, just driving or walking to the Post Office during "bad" weather, is actually a pretty mild experience and should be enjoyed if at all possible.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Let It Snow, Let It Snow....

Well, just 24 hours ago I said the snow is gone. Now we have over a foot of new snow and it's still coming down hard. Exciting. Hard to get in and out of driveway - with cars, that is. Rediscovered the fun of walking to the library and checking out natural history and drawing books. I'm already gathering ideas for my summer, week-long class in Nature Journaling. We have plenty of firewood and candles, so, even with the periodic power outages, we feel cozy. Nevertheless, will probably feel compelled to venture out with camera and umbrella to try my hand at winter photography again.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Summer Memories - Anticipation

This weather is crazy! And they used to say my native New England had crazy weather. Friday I photographed around 8" of snow on the ground. It's been raining ever since and the snow is gone! No wonder I feel steadier while contemplating photos I took last summer. I'm working on several "ecological" essays, and these photos fuel my thoughts. One is an extension of my recent post titled "Eveything Connected" and the other is "A Natural History of Phone Booths." The snippets I post here get modified and expanded in my journals and eventually developed into essays that may find a place in my book, "A Crack in the Sidewalk." Meanwhile, they also serve as conversation pieces with people who follow my blog. Their feedback helps launch new ideas.
I'm currently reading a very powerful book that has been gathering dust on my bookshelf for over 20 years. It's by Garret Hardin whom I met during a summer curriculum writing stint in Boulder many years ago. He was identified at the time with his thought-provoking essay, "The Tragedy of the Commons." A friend of mine made an impressive documentary film based on that essay. Anyway, the book I'm currently reading is "Filters Against Folly." Among other things, he deals with the tragic split between the science/math/rationalist outlook and the literary/humanities outlook. Besides the need to reconcile these two outlooks, he proposes a third, an ecological outlook, that is needed for humankind to be able to solve the many problems it has created for itself. The four photos above have significance for me in that they stir memories of the great variety of personal reactions my hiking companions have had to encountering these scenes. Everything from admiring their beauty to fear and revulsion. And these photos don't even include scary species like Black Widow Spiders or rattlesnakes. Right now my thought are all over the map. I hope that during this two-week winter break I can build a couple of coherent essays out of the chaos. Meanwhile, i hope you enjoy the photos. Maybe send some comments. Can you see beauty in spittle bugs?

Friday, December 17, 2010

Winter's Back...

...unless you're in Australia. Today is supposed to be the beginning of a week of snow around here. I'll undoubtedly dig into the spring wildflower archives for a few blog posts.

Thursday, December 16, 2010


A sunny day between storms, and everything with sun on it seemed beautiful. The deciduous trees and shrubs look dead, unless you get up close. Then you see lots of colors, patterns, and next spring's leaf buds. [Details and photos tomorrow a.m., along with more notes on "Everything Connected."]
Well, it's "tomorrow evening," so I'm a little late. On yesterday's drive through the "sticks," because of the rarity of the sun this month, the bark of willows, wild cherries, and others literally glowed. I could have taken many photos and made many drawings of sections of branches of just one specimen of wild cherry - not sure if it was Bitter Cherry or Choke Cherry - but I didn't have time. I actually stopped at this particular turn-out to check on the condition of the dried up Gum Plant. They were quite deteriorated, but the colorful bark of several nearby shrubs and small trees captivated me. Meanwhile, we've had at least six inches of new snow today, the first day of what promises to be a solid week of the white stuff. So, be expecting some snow photos - unless I revert to some indoor "still lifes."

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Everything Connected

I was tempted to call this one "What's in a name?" Quite a lot, actually. Both scientific and common names of plants and animals are windows to history, math, art, everything really. Later today, I'll launch from these five photos a rough draft of an essay I'm preparing called "Everything Connected." It'll be about an approach to learning that I advocate but which really goes against the tradition of compartmentalizing knowledge and thereby removing quite a bit of the excitement. Stay tuned.
6:00 a.m., Thursday: Got busy last night, and this will be a busy day, but here's a first installment.
Using the scientific names of these plants as a jumping off point, from the top we have Lewisia rediviva, named for Meriwether Lewis of the Lewis and Clark expedition. Next two photos are of the genus Clarkia, you guessed it - William Clark. The green foliage is a California Black Oak, namesake of this blog. Quercus kelloggii. The generic name was an early name for oak; the specific name is for Albert Kellogg, a California physician and botanist. A man ahead of his time, he was one of the founders of the California Academy of Science and was the first to nominate women for membership in the all-male science club. Last is the showy milkweed, Asclepias speciosa. The genus is named after the Greek God of medicine and the species name means showy. For each of these plants, both the scientific and common names serve as entry points for lessons in history, science, art, everything really. All that is needed is tenacious curiosity and a willingness to cross over "subject" boundaries. More detail to come later.

Monday, December 13, 2010

All In The Family!

I've been having a pretty good time trying to build up enthusiasm for winter photography lately. However, today I yielded to the temptation to review last year's photos from the vicinity of Oakland Feather River Camp. Around this time of year, plans are being made for next summer's camp, and I am planning to offer a class in Nature Journaling. I love to point out relationships among plants that may seem quite different but are actually quite closely related. The top photo here includes two flowers of the same genus! The Bachelor's Button, Centaurea cyanus, is a European ornamental that has established itself as a wildflower in the USA. It occurs in quite a variety of colors. Around Quincy, I've seen blue, purple, white, and combinations of these colors on the same flower (technically, the same head). The blue ones are easily confused with Chicory when driving along. Above and to the left of the Bachelor's Button is a Yellow Star-thistle, Centaurea solstitialis. Who but a botanist would guess these two were in the same genus?
All the remaining flowers are in the same family, the buttercup family, Ranunculaceae. Who but a botanist would see what they all have in common to warrant being placed in the same family? From top to bottom, the buttercup allies are: Crimson Columbine, Aquilegia formosa; Baneberry, Actaea rubra (This one has unspectacular little white flowers, but the leaves are similar to those of the Columbine, the Buttercup, and the Larkspur). Next down is the Western Buttercup, Ranunculus occidentalis; then the Red Larkspur, Delphinium nudicaule (Many of the Larkspurs are also know by the common name of Delphinium.); last is the Western Monkshood, Aconitum columbianum. I'm afraid I'm back in the I-can't-wait-for-summer mood! Now that I've recorded favorite spots for finding all of these, next summer I'm going to try to photograph and/or draw them in all stages of their life cycles and collect some seeds.

Friday, December 10, 2010


I almost titled this post "Ant Landscapes" because I imagined how much fun it would be to be really small and to wander around among these lichens and mosses. Probably also quite dangerous. So, I reverted to the way a naturalist looks at scenes like these, seeing the process of rock and bark decomposition aided by lichens and knowing that this is the ultimate source of the soils in the great agricultural valleys. Rock-covered lichens also remind me of Beatrix Potter who, over 100 years ago, did pioneering work on lichens, being one of the first to recognize they were a symbiotic arrangement between fungi and algae. She was, of course, banished from the male-only scientific world and ended up writing great stories about rabbits. I think of her in the same way I think about Lynn Margulis, a contemporary female biologist who pioneered the concept known as the endosymbiont hypothesis to explain the possible origin of eukaryotic cells. Laughed off by many male biologists a couple of generations ago, she has seen her idea elevated to theory in most high school biology books. Three cheers for those who still study whole organisms and appreciate the "big picture" rather than becoming overly specialized.