Sunday, May 30, 2010

A Great Day in Quincy

In a one-hour drive around American Valley, I had some wonderful encounters with wildlife. I've seen Sandhill Cranes so often when I didn;t have my camera with me, I was beginning to wonder...well, today I found five in a field by Mill Creek and they weren't shy. I hung around for 10 minutes and they never took of. (Be sure to click on the image to get a full-screen view.) Then, I saw patches of poppies all along Quincy Junction Road and Chandler Road. At one stop, I got lucky enough to catch this bumblebee coming in for a landing. Then, on the road out to Oakland Camp I saw a patch of about a dozen daisies and the assortment of insect visitors was constantly changing. Four of my favorites are included here. Finally, the arrowleaf balsamroot was also being visited by bumblebees. I'll post more photos from this same excursion tomorrow morning.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

We Need to Cure Snake Abuse

This has been an interesting day for me contemplating man's relationship with reptiles. Started with an early a.m. reading of the Chronicle in which I learned that some people in Oakland discovered a 4'-long gopher snake in a parking garage at one of the libraries. Panic ensued. Among other things, a "brave" man placed a traffic cone over the coiled snake and summoned other brave men for help in subduing the snake (which, it seems to me, was already subdued). They arrived with a tool of choice, a golf club. The snake, undoubtedly upset by his or her confinement under the cone, rapidly slithered into the wheel well of a car. When one of the brave men tried to pull it out with the club club, the snake wrapped around it. In a panic, the the man flung the snake across the garage. When the snake was finally "captured" comments were made to the effect that the snake was "very strong," "mean," and "obviously wild, not someone's pet."
Contrast this story with the top two images here of my son with a gopher snake of approximately the same size that had been captured a few hours earlier in the "wilderness" behind our school. Click on either image for an enlarged view. I promise that the snake will not escape from your monitor!
I have caught perhaps 100 gopher snakes in my life, on both coasts and points between. Almost every time, if it's a warm day, the snake rattles its tail in the dry leaves and sounds very much like a rattlesnake. Rattlesnakes do this, by the way, only because they don't want to get stepped on by a buffalo or other large, hoofed animal - which you probably resemble. The gopher snake, by practicing this mimicry, gains protection from potential predators or "stompers" that avoid rattlesnakes. On cooler days, they are sluggish and don't even resist being picked up. At any rate, in 100% of cases the snakes have calmed down immediately upon being hand held. Within a few seconds of capture, I let go of the head and let the snake rest on my opened hands, and they crawl around a bit, sometimes wrapping around my arms or even trying to go up a sleeve, but NEVER biting. I hope it is obvious in the top two photos above that my son and the snake are completely relaxed.
So, during my 7:30 a.m. reading, I found myself feeling hostile toward the "brave" men in the Oakland situation and, I confess, probably generalizing to "city folk" and their alienation from nature. In a marvelous coincidence, it turns out I am working this summer as camp naturalist at the Oakland Feather River Camp here in Quincy. This weekend the camp was visited by lots of volunteers from Oakland and vicinity for the annual clean-up. People were raking, painting, and doing all sort of repairs. I spent the morning helping a lady prepare the fire pit for a summer of evening campfires. While moving some firewood I came across a very large blue belly lizard. I caught it and a son of one of the volunteers, a boy of around 12, quickly heard that I had a lizard and came running over. He wanted to hold it and, while I had this reluctant reaction as if he were going to fling the lizard against a tree or something, I relented and was pleased to see that this young fellow was gentle and completely comfortable with the lizard. I showed him features that indicated it was a male "in heat" and when he let it go he might see it do push-ups as a combination of territoriality and attracting a mate. The boy held the lizard for quite a while, and later proudly showed me how it didn't even try to escape when he held it in his open hand. We need more boys like this in the world. He could be a good ambassador for reptiles who really need many.
Back to the Oakland situation. Just as disgusting to me as the maltreatment of the snake was the quote in the sidebar of the article. A security guard is quoted as follows: "It hissed and struck at us. I know I was screaming. Here you had two big black dudes running like hell from a snake." Some security! And why did he mention the guys were black?!
As for the other photos - I just want to show how beautiful these creatures are and point out they are being held gently with open hands. The middle two are my son's pet corn snake, Einstein, whom we call Einie. We take him out on the front lawn for a slither now and then. He very aggressively and quickly captures, suffocates, and swallows the live mice we feed him (which is his nature), but has never struck at us. He crawls around my son's neck, into and out of his shirts, and otherwise just rests without trying to escape.
Picture #5 is of a yellow-bellied racer, AKA green racer, a western subspecies of a snake whose relatives east of the Mississippi are usually black. In California they might fight and strike when picked up, but are harmless and nearly always hand tame immediately after being subdued. That should be apparent in the above photo.
The bottom photo is of a ring-neck snake, one of the prettiest species I've ever seen. They seldom exceed a foot in length and are as gentle as a snake can be. They like worms, slugs, and soft insects, and live mostly under rocks and logs. We have generally kept them for a week or two, fed them, observed them, and let them go where we found them.
A closing anecdote regarding my late, great advanced ecology professor Archie Carr of the University of Florida. Dr. Carr, a world traveler, observed that people in parts of the world that have no snakes, the Arctic for instance, exhibit great discomfort and even fear upon seeing photographs of snakes! Carr speculated that there may exist a genetic basis for instinctively fearing snakes that may have evolved in the human species when it was starting its career in Africa. When people spread to all parts of the world from Africa they may have retained that gene, although it would obviously be useless in a place without snakes. Sort of like the appendix that was probably useful in the distant past. Thus ends my snake story for the day. Be kind to your neighborhood snakes!

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Rainy Day Photography

I've been printing my students' photos and thinking about the challenge of photography in a rainy spring. If I don't drop from exhaustion tonight, I will share my findings including some shots I've called "Front Yard Lilac." As a teaser, Did you know lilacs are in the olive family?
Next Morning: Well, I did drop from exhaustion after working until 10:30, but this morning I'm adding these two photos of lilacs, taken in the rain. A busy morning ahead, so the erudite essay on taking pictures in the rain will have to wait. It's supposed to continue raining, so it will be easy to remain inspired (or uninspired, as the case may be).

Sunday, May 23, 2010

An "Off" Day for Photography

I was excited about adding some photos to this morning's message. I had certain specific spots in mind. I took the photos and looked forward to downloading them. Then I discovered that my camera was on the wrong setting and they were all nearly black. So, i salvaged a few as well as I could. The Fiddleneck was just beginning to bloom along Lee Road near the mill in Quincy. This is about two months after they bloomed down on Table Mountain, a couple thousand feet lower. Also, they don't grow quite as big at this elevation. The pink and white beauties may be "pinks" of the carnation family. They are a cultivated flower growing in the garden in front of Morning Thunder. There are several varieties there, but this was the only photo I could rescue. The large patch of yellow flowers are a group of aquatic buttercups growing across from the Quincy High tennis courts. I said to my son that it was a little village of buttercups and he replied, "More like a metropolis," so that's what I named it. The poppies along Lee Road were not yet opened because it was such a cold morning. I got what I thought was a great shot of an unopened snapdragon, but it came out totally black. Will try again tomorrow morning. Finally, one of my favorite weeds, Bachelors Buttons - bottom two photos - were growing out of cracks in the sidewalk near Morning Thunder. It may surprise you to know they are very close relatives of Star Thistle - same genus in fact. This coming week may have intermittent rain, so my enthusiasm may not return until next weekend. Enthusiasm for photographing flowers, that is. Maybe I'll try some indoor tricks.

Student Artists in Touch with Nature!

Had great fun Saturday morning hanging student art in the windows of merchants along Main Street, downtown Quincy. After having a wonderful sunny day of photography last Thursday, it was a bit frustrating to experience snow again on Friday, then a bitter cold morning on Saturday. However, seeing how many of the student artists were inspired by our mountainous scenery, the spring wildflowers, and various real and imaginary animals, was a delightful experience. It was also a great feeling to be a part of a "gang" of fellow artists and photographers, cruising Main Street in our yellow T-shirts and cheer-leading for the development of young artists of which there seem to be many from grades K though college. Congratulations to them and all the teachers and parents who have encouraged them. The sun is out again, so I hope to capture more of the beauty of our town and post some photos later today.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Spring in Plumas County

We had a fairly sunny day today and I got some nice wildflower photos on the way home from work only to learn that another week of rain is expected. Click on any of these to see a larger view and a caption in the upper left corner. These were all along Highway 89 between Greenville and Quincy, mostly near the Greenville Y. The scenic view of Indian Creek was taken just a couple hundred yards north of the Y, one of my favorite places for photography. I see something different every week. Saw otters playing here last fall, so I look for them every time. Saw a beautiful yellow-bellied racer here last week. Blue-belly lizards every time. Chorus frogs and yellow-legged frogs almost every time. And the insects....don't get me started.
P. S. The next to last photo I hastily captioned "Silk Tassel Bush." Actually, it's Bitter Cherry, formerly known as Choke Cherry. Rose family.
P.P.S. One of the neat things about a blog is I can correct errors. Further research into the aforementioned cherry reveals that I've run into "common name" trouble again. I have to keep reminding myself and my readers that I'm not a botanist. I'm just very interested in photographing and learning about the plants you see here. It turns out the one pictured above is still known as Choke Cherry, but we can be more precise by using the scientific name, Prunus virginiana, while the Bitter Cherry, not yet pictured here, is Prunus emarginata. As for the common names, you will find great variance from place to place. I'm sure that both species are called Choke Cherry, Bitter Cherry, Wild Cherry, and who knows what else, from place to place. As for the scientific names, they get changed from time to time as botanists learn more about "known" species and discover others. Also, any species that lives from coast to coast, such as the Choke Cherry, usually always has varieties in different habitats. Some botanists (and zoologists, for that matter) are inclined to split a species into many subspecies based on rather fine points of anatomy, while others might include more variants under each subspecies name. Among scientists, these two camps are semi-seriously referred to as "splitters" and "lumpers." I tend to be a lumper simply because then there are fewer names to learn. One extreme example of splitting I remember from college days was in a book of North American mammals in which the human species was divided into subspecies, each with its own Latin name. We of Northern European descent were called Homo sapiens sapiens, sapiens meaning wise, while other "races" had names like Homo sapiens africanus, Homo sapiens australis, and Homo sapiens americanus. Guess which group did the naming. Thus ends the longest P.P.S. I ever wrote.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

I Like Slugs

I don't really enjoy handling them because the slime is very difficult to wash off. But I do enjoy watching them. The eye stalks explore independently like a chameleon. I wonder how or if the brain integrates the images, or does it even register what we would call images. They move slowly, always a lesson in patience. I must admit, I'm also fascinated by the revulsion they stir in many people. Why? They can't really attack! Finally, I'm always reminded of a fantastic video clip I saw of two slugs mating with an operatic love song playing in the background. This was part of a video called "Way Cool Creepy Crawlies," but I'm sure it can be found somewhere on the web. I'm going to sign off and look for it now. :)

Sunday, May 16, 2010

To Lewis and Clark

Today's photos are in memory of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark who discovered many new plants and animals in an expedition that began around this time of year in 1804. The top photo is Bitterroot, Lewisia sp., which I've only seen on Table Mountain, and the bottom photo is sometimes called Farewell-to-Spring, Clarkia, which is widespread throughout the county. I photographed this one on the road out to Oakland Camp yesterday.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Mathematics of Miracles, 101

Lunch Break: Just reserving this space for a May 13 entry that I'll post later today. It is prompted by reports on the tragic airplane crash in Libya the other day from which there was only one survivor, a young boy. President of the EU pronounced the boy's survival a miracle. I beg to differ.
4:00 Posting three pics I shot on the way home from work, the whole while thinking about this Math of Miracles Idea. They are, from top to bottom, a green racer, Coluber constrictor, a small mushroom farm :), and Blue Camas, the latter growing in a field full of them off Stampfli Lane in Indian Valley.
9:30 p. m.: Reports like the one above about the sole survivor of the plane crash are heart rending, and it's understandable that a word like miracle would get tossed around loosely. However, as a naturalist, I get a bit peeved (understatement) when the religious sense of the word is used in arguments against evolution. It is argued, in a broad sense, that life is so complex, especially certain intricate mechanisms like the human eye or the bacterial flagellum, that they couldn't have evolved or come into existence by accident. People who make a profession of developing these arguments, such as the staff of the Discovery Institute, portray the scientific case for evolution as a simplistic belief that life evolved by accident then tear down a argument that biologists never made in the first place. Here's a little math to help my argument along. It will necessarily be brief. After all, this is just a blog. For a full development of this argument, try Richard Dawkins' "Climbing Mount Improbable."
A female oyster can lay upward of 10,000,000 eggs in her lifetime. On average, only two of these will survive to adulthood and reproduce, or else the ocean would soon be overrun with oysters. If the two surviving oysters could think, and if they thought like humans, one might say to the other, "It's a miracle that we made it old pal!" You and I are each the product of one spermatozoon out of perhaps millions that were once sent in the general direction of the egg that became you. Was it a miracle that that particular one won the race? At a moment prior to conception, that egg was swarmed by spermatozoa, but at the very instant that the winner penetrated the egg, a chemical barrier was set up by the egg to prevent others from entering.
Let's reflect on the tragic earthquake that struck Haiti recently. Several hundred thousand people perished. Days later, a surviving baby here, a teenager there, an elderly person in another spot, were found to have survived. In each case, many people thanked god for the person's survival. Why did they not hold him accountable for the demise of all the others?
In the case of evolution, what gives the appearance of a plan or design or might make the results seem like a miracle is actually the result of the mechanism of natural selection which,given millions of years, can result in the accumulation of small changes and produce complexity. Dawkins' most recent book, "The Greatest Show on Earth," spells out the details of the process wonderfully and is beautifully illustrated. One more example: the odds of winning the California lottery are quite small. Yet, every now and then someone does win. God's doing? I don't think so. Consider the millions of entries. It's inevitable that eventually someone will choose the right numbers. Did the winner have some sort of insight? No. Actually, if everyone fully understood the rules of probability, the Lottery and casinos would go out of business - unless, of course, the entertainment value of throwing away money while watching barely clothed girls dance sufficed. To get back to natural history: I try to cultivate among my students the use of words such as "wonder" and "beautiful" and even "amazing" but rather than see the great variety of living things as miracles try to understand how they are the inevitable result of natural processes given suitable conditions. In a Universe composed of literally billion of solar systems, these conditions are not as rare as you might think.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Some New Flowers Appeared Today

I drove from Quincy to Greenville for the first time in 6 days, and there have been some exciting changes. Last week I photographed the Heartleaf Milkweed when it sported only unopened buds. Today there were lots of open flowers and they're quite beautiful. This warm spot just north of Indian Falls has them blooming a couple of weeks ahead of my other favorite milkweed spots. More on milkweeds later. We have at least three different kinds in this area.
Next discovery was in the spot where I photographed Showy Phlox last week. Now the Sulfur Pea vines are invading it and the two species look great together, the phlox a bright pink and the pea, shown above, a mixture of bright yellow and orange.
Then I saw my first Fritillary of the season. Usually these plants get two to three feet tall before blooming, but this group of flowers was on the ground and the stem of the plant looked as though it was a victim of the recent snow storm.
Last, the first dogwood I've seen this season although I've reports of others in the area. This one is on the edge of Hwy 70/89 in the vicinity of the Keddie Y railroad trestles.
I had trouble focusing on these brief flower notes because I just read in the local paper about a forthcoming visit to Quincy of a "Dr." Mace Baker, a "scientific creationist" fraud, if you'll forgive me for being redundant. "Scientific Creationist" will be an entry in a book I'm planning called "Cell Phone Etiquette and Other Oxymorons." Perhaps more on this Baker fellow in a later post. Suffice to say his Ph.D. is from Pacific International University, which isn't even a real school. You can start by "Googling" it - and him. Check out his website, then read other websites "about" him. The idiocy involved never ceases to amaze me.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

A Grey Day Gets Even Better

My office doesn't have a window, but today I had the privilege of proctoring an exam in a room with a window. For the first time, I saw a group of Western Tanagers flying around and landing on the pine tree around 50' from the window so I got a few pictures. Didn't see any females, but at least 6 males. I was tired of doing work on my laptop, so I looked up Western Tanager and was surprised to discover that the bird does not manufacture the red pigment on its head. It gets it from bugs in its diet which, in turn, get it from the plants they eat. What a wonderful example of interdependence of species. Then, on a lunch break, I spotted some bright yellow flowers in a ditch at the side of Quincy Junction Road. Stopped to investigate and photograph. They appear to be some sort of wild mustard. Maybe I'll find out more later.

Bright Light on a Grey Day

Monday, May 10, 2010

Let the Adventures Begin

For the past couple of years I have been taking lots of photos of wildflowers and sharing them in various venues. People have started calling me a botanist, but I am really just a photographer who loves wildflowers. Well, actually, my formal training was in zoology. This past year, I have become particularly interested in pollinators and other visitors to our wildflowers. So, these two spider photos taken last summer are to whet my appetite and yours for a summer of searching for adventure among our local wildflowers. I am going to find as many different kinds of spiders as I can, and also try to improve my skills at photographing moving targets such as butterflies and hummingbirds. Hope to see you out in the fields and forests.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Three Phyla Under One Plank

The odd title of this post was inspired by that of a book penned by my late cousin, Ray Tripp, Jr., titled "Two Fish on One Hook." Ray's book was an exploration of Thoreau's "Walden," and the association seems fitting because this blog is about natural history.
I saw two short planks more or less welded to the ground in a particularly unkempt part of my yard. Camera in hand, I decided to flip over one of the planks, a habit I've had ever since pre-school days. The photos above attest to my findings: a slug, Phylum Mollusca, an earthworm, Phylum Annelida, a pill bug and a beetle, both in Phylum Arthropoda, were the most obvious inhabitants. Then I cruised around my yard a bit, paying particular attention to plants that would likely have been eliminated if I did a better job of keeping up the yard. First, the early leaves of Bindweed, known by those of us who find it attractive as Orchard Morning Glory. The early leaves are nondescript and nestled adjacent to the overgrown lawn. They don't usually get anyone's attention until they bloom. I eagerly await the blooming and will make a point of not including them in my mowing - if I get around to mowing.

Then, I moved on to a very robust dandelion growing in a warm corner of the foundation of my garage. Nearby was the young body of one of my favorite wildflowers, looking here like an odd bunch of grass. It's Yellow Salsify, AKA Goatsbeard, and soon it will sport beautiful, yellow, daisy-like flowers.

Next stop was a bunch of tulips whose bulbs had been discarded on top of a burn pile. I guess they were determined not to be discarded. The last photo is of the area by our deck from which my wife and a friend thought they had eliminated all the tulip bulbs to make way for some new shrubs. The incredible comeback of these tulips challenges one's definition of "weed."

When I was in elementary school, I always delighted in visiting cousin Ray's yard. He lived a half hour away, and his dad was on medical disability from exposure to mustard gas during WWI. The exposure resulted in a kind of sleeping sickness, so he could not hold down ordinary jobs that required paying attention for more than a few minutes at a time. As a result, with time on his hands, he became an incredible, self-taught naturalist and passed his knowledge and attitudes about nature on to his kids. Ray Jr. in particular parleyed his youthful knowledge into earning a biology degree at University of Massachusetts in just two years. Being a true Renaissance man, he then shifted his interests to literature and became an expert on Chaucer, among others. He ended up with a PhD in literature and a career as an English professor. If I have absorbed even a fragment of Ray Sr's and Ray Jr's natural history knowledge and writing ability, I am giving thanks to them via this post.