Thursday, March 31, 2011

My First Wild Flower This Season

Ryan and I were quite involved with counting species of lichens on the rocks and photographing mosses, ferns, and fungi. Didn't expect to see any true wildflowers blooming. Maybe some dandelions. But, just as we were leaving the Greenville Y, we spotted two blooming Rock Cress, Arabis sp., a member of the mustard family. We played with the fence lizard a while longer, and took lots fo shots of fungi, and non-flowering plants. All in all, an enjoyable visit to one of our favorite spots, the rocky outcroppings between the highway Y and the river. I love the sun more than ever. I can see why humans invented Apollo.
This post makes 31 for March, keeping my one-a-day habit intact. April is looking very promising.

Hot to Trot

Playing around at the Greenville Y this sunny afternoon, it was a joy to find this Western Fence Lizard, AKA Bluebelly. The very bright blue along with the patches of orange and the swollen femoral pores, and the swollen base of the tail which hides his hemipenes, all indicate mating is going on or about to. A pretty quick response to the warm weather. The buds on this lilac are about to burst, too. These events make us feel more alive!

Coming in April

Top photo is a Calochortus and the bottom one is False Solomon's Seal, The former come in many varieties and have many common names - ones like Cat's Ear. Last spring, these bloomed just before my income tax was due. This year, we're off to a late start, but I am most interested in whether spring "catches up." This morning I photographed freshly-blooming violets, but they were of a domesticated variety, so I think I'll pass on posting them here. The "real" ones will be blooming soon enough.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Not Quite Flowers

Two warm and sunny days in a row, and I got carried away. Actually went in search of wildflowers. On the FRC campus, I didn't find any truly wild flowers blooming, but spring is definitely in the air and this friendly slug seemed as pretty as a flower to me. And the new leaves of a Pine Violet, Viola lobata, were a most promising sign. I think we'll see the first violets bloom within another week. Barring another snow storm, of course.

The Lilies Are Coming!

The evidence that we are going to have spring after all is mounting. In celebration, I'm posting photos of several lilies that are among the first to bloom, first in the lower foothills, then moving up the Sierra in later weeks and months. For openers, here is one called Pretty Face. It was formerly a Brodiaea, but the taxonomy of the brodiaeas has become mangled (from an amateur's point-of-view) so I still call them brodiaeas out of habit. The remaining photos will go up this afternoon. I have Harvest Brodiaea, Blue Dicks, Hyacinth, and maybe a few others. Lilies of the Field.
I'm back, and I just added four more Brodiaea photos. At one time these were all placed in the genus Brodiaea, and were in the Family Liliaceae. With more accumulated information from genetic studies, fossils, comparing species, and detailed studies of anatomy, there have been changes. Now the former Brodiaeas are divided among three different genera, and sometimes three different families! Check a recent Wikipedia article on Brodiaea for an update. It is still appropriate to use the common name Brodiaea for all of them unless locally a different common name has become predominant. Example, the flower at the bottom is often called Pretty Face, and the one at the top Harvest Brodiaea, for example. A good recent guide to the most common ones, as well as Sierra Nevada natural history in general is the one by John Muir Laws. Illustrated with very nice watercolors.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Pleasures of Summer

People keep asking me when this or that species of wildflower is going to bloom. Well, in general, blooming is off to a later than average start due to the late snows. But, beyond that, it's hard to pin anything down. Who knows what April weather will be like? Certainly not the Farmers Almanac, nor the weatherman!:) I have my own hypothesis, as follows: Lot's of metabolic stirring has been going on under the snow. The sequence of species blooming will probably be the usual. However, the Earth still turns, and the seasons come and go, so I think perhaps we'll have a "compressed" spring. That is, our common species, once blooming begins, will bloom in a more rapid sequence than usual, and perhaps more abundantly than usual, until by mid-June, the schedule is more or less back to normal for summer. I have not set up instruments and hidden cameras all over the place to test this, nor do I have hard data from previous years. I'll just enjoy making casual observations, taking pictures, drawing, and having interesting conversations. Looking forward to summer's pleasures.
Today's photo is a close-up of my son's index finger. Oh, it happens to be entwined by a little Ring-neck Snake. This is an ideal snake with which the herpetophobic can reconsider their fears. It is so gentle and so pretty, it's almost unbelievable. They only get about a foot long, eat worms and slugs, and give the impression of enjoying human contact. Be gentle.

Monday, March 28, 2011

A Sunny Day!

Not only is it sunny and warmer, but the dandelions are blooming already, the grass is green, and in the puddles around American Valley, there are lots of algae, rushes, sedges, and grasses. Lots of tree buds, too. The lilacs seem ready to burst. One sad note: a bird's nest fell out of a tree where I park. I photographed it, but then let nature take its course. A wonderful piece of architecture. I'm sure they'll make another. It's early yet. Looking forward to tomorrow's drive to Greenville. I'll be on the lookout for living nature - that is, besides the obvious trees and shrubs.

Sunday, March 27, 2011


My most exciting find last summer was the Mountain Lady Slipper. It was in a shady spot under tall Douglas-firs, and I didn't take a lot of care in my photographing beyond recording the flower's presence. Thus, the plant is not well lit, my exposure was not carefully planned, and the resulting photos are rather drab - except for the inherent beauty of the flower which cannot be totally suppressed. This coming summer will be different. Barring unforeseen climatic or logging interventions, these beauties will be back in June and I will be much more patient to capture them for sharing. I'll only tell a select few where they are located.:)

Friday, March 25, 2011

Our Plum Tree Wasn't Winterized

Not a pretty sight this morning as I set out to shovel our sidewalk and was faced with our plum tree's demise. We've enjoyed five summers of plums, against the odds, and will miss this tree. We also lost two of our three birches. Seriously thinking about planting native trees to replace them. This year's winter has made it clear why we don't have serious orchards around here. Some varieties of apples do fine, but that's about it. My son thought that if we had shaken the branches during or after each dump, we might have saved the tree. But, who knows? I think we would have had to stay up all night. This was heavy snow.
We had a warming trend for a couple of hours this afternoon, and I can see the pavement in our driveway. Also saw daffodils poking through the snow by the big rock on the Quincy High campus. Spring is still trying to arrive. However, the forecast is for another big dump over the next 24 hours. If things look gloomy when I get up tomorrow morning, I'll dig into my spring wildflower archive again:)

Another Kind of Oenophile

In keeping with my attempts to require the onset of spring, I've dipped again into my photo archives and found this Hooker's Evening Primrose with an insect guest hovering over it. The scientific name Oenothera elata, and the generic name derives from a word meaning "wine." Apparently the fragrance reminded an early botanist of wine. I've gathered lots of lore about this plant which I'll add here later. For now, let me just say I woke up to another foot of fresh snow, snow electricity, a demise of our front yard plum tree and two out of three birches, followed by more than two hours of shoveling the white stuff. My springtime fantasies were renewed when I arrive at the school parking lot, the place where I've recently photographed earthworms, to find a robin tugging at a work that was clinging to a crack in the pavement. Pretty tough worm. It didn't break, but eventually lost its grip and snapped into the robin's face which made her very happy. Even while my home town is under four feet of snow, I manage to find symptoms of spring. Meanwhile, I've included here two close relatives of Hooker's Evening Primrose. The second photo from the top is Birdcage Evening Primrose, and the bottom one is Fireweed. These as well as Fuchsia are all in the Evening Primrose Family, Onagraceae. Evening Primrose family lore will be posted here later.
Here I am a couple of days later (3/27/11). Having trouble "reining it in," which may be the title of another essay forming in my mind. Having morning coffee with friends/colleagues, discussing writing and the various challenges writers encounter. I was thinking about the assortment of facts I have discovered about the evening primrose family, and how I would organize them into a coherent essay here. Our discussion was about "writer's block." I think I have the opposite problem. Thus, my idea of "reining it in."
One friend's jacket had the label "Charles River." It set my mind on fire. Ridiculous, and I was drinking decaf! Immediately a map of Cambridge Massachusetts, cameto mind, and host of memories from my one year of college in Cambridge. Crossed the bridge from M. I. T. to B.U. many times. But, those particular memories don't belong here. Had practically nothing to do with natural history. Then, I revisited my memory of Charlestown, Mass., where my dad spent time in a naval hospital during WWII, and Charleston, SC, a sister city of sorts, where I met my wife. Ironic that her grandparents were a Bay Stater and a Palmetto Stater, just like us. Anyway, while we were talking about writer's block, my mind was racing, probably writing essays, based on this little label that said Charles River.
I don't think I've experienced writer's block since high school, and even then, it was mostly a response to an assignment I didn't like. When left alone, I wrote quite a bit. Since all of my writing on this blog starts from an observation in nature, sometimes preserved by photos, there is no shortage of "material" to write about. It may take some imagination to develop prose from these observations, but it seems to me that's easier than purely imaginative writing, such as much fiction and poetry.
I think a naturalist is one who notices a lot, and possibly is more inclined toward curiosity. I've been curious about nature as long as I can remember, certainly since elementary school. I cannot imagine being otherwise. The other day I was horrified when I heard an artist say he has "never been inspired by nature." This artist clearly has developed a high degree of drawing and painting skill and lots of his work includes studies of human anatomy. I wonder if he ever experiences "artist's block." With the abundance of human anatomy in the world it seems he could never run out of material. But, what to do with that skill? With some artists and writers, the pressure to earn money often enters the picture. One's motivation for certain kinds of creativity may be compromised, if that's the word, by the commercial motive.
Now, in the spirit of reining it in, let me return to the Evening Primrose family.
I found that Oenothera is derived from a couple of Greek words meaning "wine" and "seeker of." Apparently, the roots of some species of Oenothera gave people the desire for wine. Some members of this family are poisonous, so I wouldn't advise experimenting before you acquire a lot more knowledge about this than I currently have. Besides, I've never had the need to artificially stimulate the desire for wine. Another genus in this family is Epilobium, which includes Fireweed and Fuchsia. I think the Latin describes something about the position of the seed pods. The latter plant is named after a German botanist, Fuchs.
Most species in this family are pollinated by moths. This makes me wonder if the hovering insect in my top photo might be some kind of moth.
A fascinating species of Oenothera I've seen in Sierra Valley, eastern Plumas County, is Birdcage Evening Primrose (middle photo), and it is so named because then the flowers and leaves wilt and fall off, the remaining stems dry out and curve inward so a cluster of them resembles a birdcage. For those overly influenced by the concept of "original sin" and all its attendant pathologies, this plant is sometimes called "Devil's Lantern." Sad.
By the way, in pursuit of the etymology of Oenothera, I came across some alternative suggestions for the origin, such as "donkey catcher," "wine seeker," and "a plant whose juices cause sleep." I cannot imagine what the "donkey catcher" reference might be about.
Last, but not least, the genus Clarkia, is in this family. I written here before about Farewell-to-spring, and Diamond Clarkia, two common examples of this genus, and I won't repeat that material except to say the name comes from William Clark of the Lewis and Clark expedition.
This has not been a tightly-woven essay, although that may come later in some other venue. It has been fun, however, sharing my musings. Can't wait for the snow to melt so I can see these flowers again.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

An Interesting Weed

I'm busy creating an index of my photos of 145 different species of wildflowers, almost all found in Plumas County. My list will have common name(s), Family, Genus and Species, and eventually field notes. This information is currently scattered among several field journals and many more scraps of paper ripped from tiny pocket journals. I can't say why this particular flower, Scarlet Pimpernel, got my attention today except that it's one of the few on my list that I photographed outside Plumas County. In fact, this one was photographed in right field of Leggett Valley School's baseball field. It's snowing again in Plumas, so I decided early on that I would pull something from my archives to report on rather than take more snow photos today. I knew the plant was not native to California, so I did a little search into possibly "interesting natural history tidbits" - but that's redundant, isn't it?
First of all, this little beauty supports my frequent contention in this blog that "weed" does not equal "ugly" or "undesirable." It just means non-native. It's usually a plant that's been introduced accidentally or on purpose to a place to which it's not native. In most cases, weeds take root readily in disturbed ground. That's why most of them are found at roadsides or track sides, or on and around farms. In the case above, a baseball field. Around Leggett, I noticed that this plant, in places that were not regularly mowed, would grow a foot or more tall, and the blossoms were usually at or near the tops of the plants. However, in mowed fields, it seemed to "learn" the trick that dandelions learn everywhere. That is, to bloom below the level of the mower blades rather than grow long stems before blooming. Weeds that can do that seem to have a survival edge over weeds that can't.
When I typed Scarlet Pimpernel into my browser, 19 of the first 20 sites that appeared referred to a play and novel of that title by one Baroness Emmuska Orczy. In other words, second-rate literature trumped natural history or botany. I eventually found that the plant is said to bloom only on sunny days and will close up in anticipation of rain. Thus, in some areas, it's called "Poor Man's Weather Glass." I never noticed this trait over in redwood country because we always anticipated rain over there and were seldom disappointed. The Pimpernel did bloom sometimes, so it must have been sunny occasionally. I don't remember.
Once I located a spot where Scarlet Pimpernel bloomed, I could return on cloudy or rainy days and find it among the rest of the greenery even if it wasn't blooming. In that state, it looks a lot like Chickweed, but is distinguished by a square stem. One might initially place it in the mint family until discovering other anatomical details.
Pimpernel is probably derived from an ancient word meaning pepper. It is bitter to the taste, and can be quite toxic to cattle and people, depending on growing conditions. If not the taste, then maybe the appearance of the fruit or seeds reminded the ancients of peppercorns.
As usual, I invite the visitor to click on the flower once, then twice, in order to get closer views.

Monday, March 21, 2011

First Full Day of Spring

Soon after arriving at work, I was looking out the door of the library when a Red-shafted Flicker landed in a small tree only about 10 feet away. Couldn't grab my camera quick enough, but then I spied this beautiful wasp in the door frame. I think it's a Crabronid (Family Crabronidae), but in my field guides there are so many similar-looking wasps - other Crabronids plus Vespids and Sphecids - that I gave up trying to identify its family, much less the species. No time to become a wasp expert tonight, so just enjoy the view. If it is a Crabronid, it's a harmless ground-dweller, sometimes called a digger wasp. The weather outside was still pretty harsh, so I have no idea how that wasp managed to get indoors.
An hour later, I was staring out a window while waiting for the copy machine. The structure on the gazebo had me thinking of "Due East" as a title for this post. Then a strange thing happened. The cows in the distance had been standing so perfectly still that I wondered if they were frozen, and another title flashed through my mind: "Not a speck of green in sight." Within seconds a truck entered the scene from the left and dropped nice green bales of alfalfa hay for the cows. For a moment, I thought I had caused this to happen. Was thinking about starting a new religion, but changed my mind. Anyway, the day turned out to be another one of alternating winter and spring conditions, punctuated by a fe discussions of when spring actually began. The equinox occurred at 4:21 PST Sunday, so today was the first full day of spring. That is, where I live. It's also the first day of fall for folks in the Southern Hemisphere. Missed what was reported to be the largest-appearing full moon in many years Saturday night due to stormy weather. Looks like a few more days of the same are in store.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Eating Crow

Eight days ago I posted a photo, taken that morning, of a salamander. When I looked up from the salamander in the mud, i saw this view of Dyer Mountain to the north with a very spring-like setting in the foreground. I titled the post "Proof of Spring." Talk about "eating crow." When I thought about using that phrase as a title for this post, I decided first to research it. Very interesting! But, that's another story. It did make me a bit curious, for I don't see why crow should taste significantly different than chicken, unless perhaps the one that I've often photographed in front of Papa's Donuts. Imagine eating a bird that tastes like donuts! Anyway, snow's back big time and there's apparently lots more to come. The calendar says spring begins Monday, but don't believe it.

It's Laughing At Me Again!

I've been trying to usher in Spring with my photos to no avail. Woke to a new foot of the white stuff. After a half-hour of shoveling toward our cars, I was greeting again by that mocking little fellow on my antenna. Click on that little bugger twice for an extreme close-up and tell me if you agree that smile is a smirk! Fortunately, I have a sense of humor, too.
In other news, tonight will be the largest full moon in many years, and we won't be able to see it because of the continuing storm.

Friday, March 18, 2011

A Few Blooms Appear

A follow-up of yesterday's comments and photo of Spreading Dogbane, here is one from my archive to further 'prove' its beauty. The first leaves have broken ground, but dogbanes usually don't bloom around here until June. Manzanita, however, is blooming. Rather subtle when winter is still in full force. In fact, it's snowing as I type. But, along the roadsides during recent travels I've seen than many of the manzanita bushes are begun to bloom. It won't be apparent at 55 mph for another few weeks, so you'll need to get out and walk around. No harm done. You might also discover some beautiful bugs.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Beware the Ides! Part 2.

This series and title were inspired by a recent dialogue I had with a viewer of my blog about what constitutes beauty when it comes to flowers or other products of nature. Case in point, the top photo is of Spreading Dogbane which my correspondent thinks is ugly and which I think is beautiful. The title, taken from Shakespeare's julius Caesar, is a warning to all species that many humans consider ugly. Your days could be numbered! The word ugly, by the way, comes from a word meaning fear.
The worm photos were taken yesterday when the heavy rains the previous night resulted in hundreds of apparently dead earthworms spread all over the school's paved parking lot. By the time I left work, the pavement was nearly dry and virtually all the worms were gone. There was apparently enough life in them to crawl to the safety of the nearby lawn before they dried out. I was struggling the rest of the day with the urge to compare the original scene to the recent tsunami, for it seemed these worms were meeting an unfortunate end due to the heavy rains. I felt great empathy for the worms as well as for the people of Japan, but decided I couldn't risk having the point misunderstood. So, here we are with "Beware the Ideas," my personal celebration of beautiful plants and creatures that are underappreciated. The dandelion, by the way, will undoubtedly be sprayed with Roundup(R) soon. Sick!

Beware the Ides! Part 1

My rationale for this particular collection of photos will accompany Part 2. Here, I'll just identify them. From the top: First spring leaves of filaree which will bloom within the next few weeks and continue to bloom all summer long; Wooly Mullein, which had the misfortune of taking root inside a raised-bed garden - it will not last the summer unless one of the gardeners discovers (or already knows) its many wonderful properties, as well as its beautiful, snapdragon-like flowers;
larvae of some sort of Diptera (flies and mosquitos - the latter word meaning little fly); Giant Sawtooth fungus, around 7" in diameter - I've yet to see a young person walk by one of these without kicking it; I was lucky enough to observe it for several days before the inevitable happened.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Worth Tromping Through Mud

The weather forecast said we're in for another solid week of rain and snow. That is, after a brief period of partly cloudy this morning. To take advantage of that, we hiked a back road on Mt. Hough in search of more signs of spring. The walk was mostly unappealing as it was cloudy, cold, windy, and muddy. The road was made a mess by over-sized truck and 4WD tires cutting through the remaining snow. No bugs or wildflowers yet, and as we searched for a windbreak in order to eat our lunches, I grumbled "This is like a redneck autobahn." I did manage to get a few scenic views out over Quincy and of sunny Spanish Peak toward the West. And a close-up of deer droppings. As we crawled our way back up to the dirt road, I passed into a relatively sunny spot littered with pancake-sized pieces of shale. These often absorb enough UV, even on cloudy days, that they'll be relatively warm underneath and provide hideouts for the critters I seek. Surely enough, the first one I tipped over revealed a beautiful, active juvenile Western Skink with a bright blue tail. This is Eumeces skiltonianus to us amateur herpetologists. Seeing this fellow made the entire walk worthwhile. Well, the exercise and my wife's company were good, too.

Salamander Associates

In the vicinity of the salamander I photographed yesterday were lots of invertebrates, some of which are in the salamander's diet. I include the filamentous algae because they harbor lots of beautiful microorganisms that my camera can't see. I long for a microscope so I can explore that world again. Top photo shows the difference between a sow bug and a pill bug. Both are called roly-polies by kids, but only the pill bug can roll up entirely.