Monday, January 31, 2011

The Perils of Watercolor

I took a few outdoor photos for today's post on this last day of the month, but on the way back into the house I got to thinking I'd rather post photos of two little watercolor paintings I did recently in my nature journal. The butterfly (or moth?) was in my dining room the other day, and the kingfisher was seen on Stampfli Lane a week ago. I wasn't quick enough to photograph the bird, so I used a some internet photos to guide my painting.
On the way into the house, some melting snow on my roof dripped onto my head. I ignored it. A few minutes later, as I bent forward to photograph my paintings, some water dripped right onto the journal. Thus, the blurry left wing and text just below it. Maybe I'd better switch to acrylic paint and waterproof ink.
Will post a few of the outdoor photos I took today - after Ping Pong!

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Reflecting on Almanor

It wasn't glassy, but close. Lots to reflect on while driving along the East Shore of Lake Almanor yesterday. I grew up in New England where virtually all lakes had natural shorelines with forests or meadows blending into the shorelines. When I first came to the West where most lakes are impoundments I really missed New England. I landed in Yuba City from where it was a long day's trip to Lake Tahoe or Eagle Lake, the closest I could get to that northern New England feeling. Tahoe is almost natural, with that little dam at Tahoe City regulating the water level a bit. Clear Lake is never clear, so that one was never of interest to me. I had no urge to catch prize-winning, Mercury-laden fish, although the pea-green algae water in later summer was intriguing to one who had just finished graduate studies in biology. Eagle Lake was best. The lake straddles the Sierra crest so there's dense forest on one end and Great Basin-type high desert on the other. Also, that lake is big enough to sport some exciting weather with waves that can sink a small boat.
I realize Almanor is an impoundment, and that brings out my negative bias. But its water level is regulated somewhat by PG&E, so if one doesn't look too closely, it has some of the aesthetic qualities of a "real" lake. While I enjoyed the reflections on this particular day, I also reflected on the Native American villages that were displaced in order to build this lake. Depressing. I managed to leave this site in a light-hearted mood as I reflected on the story of the Clampers who commemorated the original site of Prattville by dropping a plaque into the lake above it.
I never tire of looking at Lassen Peak, no matter what my immediate surroundings might be.
I'm getting impatient waiting for the emergence of shoreline wildflowers.

Thursday, January 27, 2011


Here are the pics. Further commentary will have to wait.


Had an interesting discussion with my students following my photographing the above paper scrap (photo will be posted later today) on the ground behind the school. After asking for examples of redundancy to check whether the students knew the word, one took out his I-pod and played Little Richard's "Long, Tall Sally." Good one! I was thinking of biological redundancy. More on that later.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Early Morning Light

Early cold morning. At 55 mph everything seemed shades of grey or brown - except for the evergreens. At any one of my favorite turnouts from Quincy to Greenville, details emerge. Still mostly green, grey and brown, but "colorful" in a sense. Comparing the "skin" of a maple (top photo) to that of oak can be an absorbing study. The very smooth bark of Big Leaf Maple, attractive in its own right, doesn't attract the variety of mosses and lichens typical of our California Black Oak. The Cat-o-Nine Tail at one of turnouts looks like it'll last through the winter. I keep watching for the explosion of seeds that'll happen eventually and the challenging photo opportunities it presents. The acorns in a puddle are beneath a thin layer of ice. The parent tree is on a cliff 20 feet above the puddle. The acorns seemed to be clustered in little groups in separate holes reminiscent of those made by sea urchins in tide pool rocks. The grassy icicles reminded me of the intermingling of icicles and stalactites on Dog Rock, a photo of which I posted here a few days ago. Last, the little Douglas-fir I've watched for four years now. It reminds me of a bonsai product in that it's growing out of a crack in a rock with very little soil and looks like it'll stay tiny forever. Already has cones but is only about three feet tall.

Death Is Part Of Life

The things you see when you stop to pee. I remember my first trans-USA trip with my first 35mm film camera, a Honeywell Pentax. I shot several rolls of Kodachrome, recently extinct, but didn't keep a notebook. I was headed from graduate school in Floridda to my first teaching job in California. For many years I, my students, and friends enjoyed slide shows of the habitat changes along US 90, the signs at state bourndaries, intriguing animals, etc., and my memory of exactly where is each photo was taken enhanced by remembering a particular pee stop.
Early one recent frosty morning, I had such an occasion at the top of Crescent Grade. As the urge hit while passing through Crescent Mills, I remembered a wide spot at the top of the grade where I could safely pull over. I had stopped there many times during spring in summer and discovered several new (for me) species of plants. I'm already anticipating the Diamond Clarkia that bloom there. On this particular day, I was met by the above deceased deer. It actually looked peaceful. Maybe I was confused by the feeling of sudden relief of bladder pressure. At any rate, it caused flashbacks of days spent in Comparative Vertebrate Anatomy lab with Dr. Dundee, and many sessions of dissecting frogs, pigs, and worms with my high school students over the years. For a biology student or teacher unencumbered by religion, the difference between life and death is not a sharp line. Life and death are labels in a continuum of a particular gathering of matter. Not something to fear or resent, but simply an inescapable reality. This particular deer looked really peaceful, almost as if she were aware that she'll soon become part of a living Diamond Clarkia and may then live on in that form as part of this blog.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Playing with the Near and the Far

I took photos of some waterfowl that were too far away for me to identify. My average-quality, 200mm lens wouldn't quite do it. Probably snow geese, but I'm not sure. I usually prefer close-up photography for reasons I've shared here before. However, for about 30 seconds, I wished I had one of those 1,000mm lenses that cost about 5 times as much as my camera. The urge only lasted for 30 seconds, though, as I was soon taking close-ups a little further down the road. The ability of any lens to focus on the near and the far and to vary the depth of focus reminds me of how much we take for granted the capabilities of our eyes.
I'm always fascinated by how the use of a camera can alter our perceptions. Also, most drawing and painting is done in a rectangular format even though that is not what we see. We can alter the depth of field on a camera by adjusting the aperture. With our eyes, it happens automatically. On bright days, the pupil closes and results in greater depth of field than in dimmer light when the pupil opens resulting in narrower depth of field. As for the shape of the scene we are looking at, it's probably something like two overlapping circles. However, we can't really examine the edges because when we try to look at the edge, it becomes the new center.
As for my preference for close-up photography, there are two main motives, one noble and the other an excuse. The noble motive, as far as my interest in natural history is concerned, is that I love to get very close to my subject. I like to be able to smell it, touch it, tease it, be threatened by it - anything that helps me identify with it as a fellow creature and not see it as just another post card. The not-so-noble motive is that my distant vision isn't so good. Trying to be a good photographer of birds requires a skill set (besides good vision) that I haven't developed. Also, it requires either long lenses (expensive) or the time and patience to spend enough time in certain places that the birds might come closer. Is using a bird feeder cheating?

Another angle that I've given lots of thought is that nearly everyone likes birds and doesn't feel threatened by them. There are some negative biases out there, of course, toward certain birds of prey. Many different kinds of birds are called buzzards, for instance, and are considered by some farmers and ranchers to be pests. Also, some alleged bird lovers have a prejudice toward blue jays and other birds they consider to be threats to their favorites. When it comes to my favored bugs, reptiles, and amphibians, there are far more negative stereotypes out there. Many people feel threatened by many species or feel their agricultural interests are threatened by them. As a naturalist, I try to be an ambassador of good will on behalf of the disliked species. Some of my favorites to photograph are spiders, scorpions, Jerusalem crickets, centipedes, and the like. I've also taken many photos of unpopular plants like poison oak and star thistle.

Anyway, a quick guide to the photos here, from top to bottom. Top, probably Snow Geese, at least a quarter mile away from my camera. Not a strong enough lens or steady enough hand to produce a sharp photo. Next one down, Canada Geese. These were close enough to identify, although still not a great photo. Next down, a series of three photos of the Narcissus growing on the window sill in our school's conference room. I played with the "Near and Far" theme here. No prize winners, but fun as a stimulus to some of the thoughts I've just shared.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Bugs and Birds

Another sunny, warm spell this afternoon and there was some animal activity to enjoy. Indoors, we found a couple of Box Elder Bugs, Boisea trivittata, that evidently noticed the heat and came out to play. We played. They spend the winter in the walls of the building and cause no harm. They can't bite. Ironically, I found some natural history information about them on the website of an exterminator and they did not recommend poisons! These look similar to the Red Milkweed Bug which is common around these parts in the summer.
On the way home, we did a little birding (strange verb, no?) along Stampfli Lane in Indian Valley. Actually hoping to see and photograph that Kingfisher I saw here the other day. No luck. But, we did see several Cooper's Hawks and had the privilege of seeing the one pictured above launch an amazing poop. The projectile in question is the long whitish object below and slightly to the right of the bird. Also saw a Kestrel perched on a wire and managed to get a photo as it took off. I'm not so good at photographing birds, especially while driving, but it was fun to see this activity in the middle of winter. Oh, in the morning, this same area sported large flocks of Lesser Canada Geese grazing in the fields, but they had relocated by the time we returned in the afternoon.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Narcissus Gone Wild

Another cold, foggy morning. Ice on the windshield and sidewalk. The biological excitement was indoors. The Narcissus at school love this sunny window. Growing very fast. Last week there weren't any buds. Now they're all blooming. Smell nice, too.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

A Scenic Ride Home

After a very foggy morning, the sun burst through just in time for my drive home from work. The view of Mt. Hough and Grizzly Peak as I descend Crescent Grade is always impressive, but it seemed even more so today following a dense morning fog. Among other roadside attractions were the lichens and mosses growing on tree trunks and a female Belted Kingfisher. Too slow on the draw to photograph the bird, but it left a nice memory. I've been watching the Wood Duck box every time I pass. Finally stopped to photograph it.

Monday, January 17, 2011

A Sunny Afternoon

Intimations of Spring. After a cold, foggy morning which netted a couple of photos of a group of crows, the sun burst through after lunch and the worms surfaced again. I got these colorful photos and enjoyed a half hour in the sun before going home for dinner. Hard to believe we're bound to have more winter. But we are.

More Indoor Biology

I spent the day doing paperwork within view of the plant experiment I posted here last week. They're growing very fast, almost seeming to grow while I watched. I expect a bloom by Wednesday.

Foggy Morning

A very foggy morning, and I came across a large group of crows grazing. They took flight before I could get my camera ready, but I still got a couple of nice shots. I've been noticing patterns of crow and raven behavior around American Valley and the surrounding mountains. Reminds me of a place where I lived in Mendocino County. Both here and there it seems like the crows prefer open fields and the ravens like the tall firs and redwoods around the margins. Occasionally they'd feed together, such as on road kill, but mostly kept away from each other. The ravens made a much larger variety of sounds. I'll keep watching.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Everything's Connected

I used the above title recently for an article I wrote for our school's newsletter. In this blog, I'm often writing about the interconnectedness of things and referring to people like John Muir and DaVinci, not to mention those polymath Founding Fathers Franklin and Jefferson. While the writings and biographies of these people influence me a great deal, I was not particularly aware of their lives when I was in high school. Yet, I think the notion of the interconnectedness of all things did occur to me at that young age. A few minutes ago, I found the source. On one of my bookshelves I found a hand-made volume, The Notebook of Elbert Hubbard. Hubbard has been described as a "home-spun" philosopher. To me he was a true Renaissance man, and not just because he was an acquaintance of my grandmother. I highly recommend that you do an internet search on this fellow. I hadn't looked at this volume for quite a while, but it felt good in my hands, the personal craftsmanship by the Roycrofters Society was quite apparent. Inside the front cover I found my grandmother's signature, done with a crowquil pen and every bit as elegant as John Hancock's famous signature. I turned the page and found my father's signature. "To Joe , from Dad, 1987," in a hand every bit as elegant as my grandmother's. Dad was to die only four years later and he gave me this book the last time I visited him. It is my most treasured gift from him.
Paging through the volume for a few minutes, I came across the following quote: "An educated man is one with a universal sympathy for everything and a certain amount of Knowledge about everything that is known, and who still is on the line of evolution and is learning to the end." The spirit of that quote has driven my quest for knowledge throughout my life. I'm not sure I qualify as an "educated man," but I definitely plan to be "learning to the end."
The above two photos are of pages in my current nature journal. The top photo is my attempt to emulate the watercolor paintings of John Muir Laws in my favorite field guide. It's of a ladybug found around these parts called the "Nine-spotted Lady-beetle," Coccinella novemnotata. The bottom photo is my drawing of a wild turkey, patterned after a photo I found on the Internet. I drew it in response to having seen a "herd" of wild turkeys recently in a place where it was not safe to stop and try to get a photo. Whenever I think of wild turkeys, I think of Ben Franklin and how he suggested this bird should be our national symbol. Bald Eagles certainly make for impressive imagery, but have you ever smelled their breath?

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Recreational Typography

What is the connection between this font and that medieval weapon, the trebuchet? I guess I'll "google" it. Then, we have courier which looks like my old Underwood typewriter. I wonder if that was the same company that made Underwood Deviled Ham. I guess I'll "google" it. Now we have Georgia. Is it a rip-off of Times New Roman Condensed? Now Lucida. Another one with serifs. Supposedly more readable than sans. Verdana - does this one have anything to do with green? Looks black to me. To me, it's easier to read than Lucida. How about you? Finally, we have webding. What in hell is that?
End of game. I'm going back to Microsoft Word which has far more choices than this blog host. Can I live without Comic Sans? Probably not. Thanks for indulging this experiment. Good night.


This green beauty was found at the roadside on the way to Oakland Camp. Grasshopper? Cricket? Katydid? How are these things differentiated? One distinguishing feature is the location of their "ears", AKA tympani. Notes about this group will be included in the forthcoming essay mentioned in my previous post.

Preview of some dichotomies

I'm collecting some photos from my archives to support an essay called "Some Interesting Dichotomies." These are the first. A Yellow-Spotted Millipede [bottom photo] was photographed in my classroom in Leggett, Mendocino County. I've always been fascinated with students' reactions to my lessons on centipedes and millipedes. Since most students begin by worrying which are poisonous, I start by letting them observe the critters in separate jars. I ask them to observe anatomical and behavior details and take notes. They always come up with a surprisingly (to them) long list of similarities and differences. The end result is that lots of students switch from an attitude of fear or disgust at these creatures to one of fascination and protectionism.
Some of the dichotomies I'll be discussing are butterflies-moths, dragonflies-damselflies, frog-toads, lizards-salamanders, and centipedes-millipedes. These are groups of organisms that most people cannot tell apart and, more often than not, one group is generally liked and the other disliked.
The remaining photos, from top to bottom, are of a butterfly, a moth, and a centipede. I'll be looking in my archive and my journals for representatives of other such groups and will include some brief natural histories and notes on how to tell them apart.