Saturday, April 30, 2011

Tails of Survival, Part 3,

[These tails will be posted later tonight or early tomorrow a.m., including excuses for the bad pun.] It's now May 1, and here's my story:
Around a month ago, I saw my first lizard of the season, a Western Skink, part way up Mt. Hough where there was still plenty of snow on the ground. As we looked around for a dry, snowless spot to eat our lunches, I noticed there were localized spots that were much warmer than the overall surroundings. The vegetation in these spots was a little further along in development than the species on most parts of the mountain. I realized I was looking at some micro-habitats where windbreaks and other phenomena allow the arrival of spring to occur much earlier. So, my habit of tipping over rocks and small logs kicked in. Almost immediately, I saw a young Western Skink, brown overall with a bright blue tail. I didn't touch it, but in moving around several times to get a good photograph, I apparently startled it enough that after I got a couple of good photos, it dropped its tail and disappeared down a hole. I felt terrible. I was taking care not to molest the lizard, but I had uncovered it at its most vulnerable time. This capacity to quickly release its tail, which tends to continue to twitch for a while so predators might attack it instead of the lizard, is an amazing survival mechanism. Problem is, it takes so much energy and a bit of time to grow a new tail, it lacks that same protection for a while and may not have enough energy to reproduce that season.
Last weekend, I uncovered the same species of lizard in a pile of rocks near the Nelson Creek bridge on LaPorte Road. I wasn't able to get a photo, but I saw the lizard disappear down a hole with its tail intact. I left it alone. Yesterday, back at the same spot, I saw what I believe was the same lizard in the same pile of rocks (top two photos) and got pretty good photos before she disappeared again. In the photos you can see that she has lost and regrown her tail. Thus my title, Tails of Survival.
The third photo is of a Western Fence Lizard or Blue-belly that for some reason was not at all shy. Near the Greenville Y, lots of these were scurrying out from underfoot and disappearing into cracks in the rocks to escape me, the giant predator, but this one stayed still in the sun long enough for me to get several close-ups. I came within a foot and it didn't run away! That makes me think its survival instincts aren't as strong as his fellow lizards and if it had been a hawk or fox instead of me, he'd be a goner. These lizards can drop their tails, too, but not quite so readily. They have other means of protection, including a pretty good bite when needed.
Other critters with interesting survival modes that we saw near Nelson Creek include a centipede which can sting and has tails that look like antennae. A would-be predator has a 50-50 chance of dealing with the wrong end. Next, a wolf spider that lives mostly under rocks and logs and chases down its prey on the ground. No need for a web. These critters have pretty good camouflage. Last, a butterlfy which flashes bright blue while flying, but holds its wings together over its back when landing. The undersides of the wings are a dusky grey with spots causing them to blend in well with the sandy or gravelly areas where they stop to drink from puddles. I'm guessing this one is a Boisduval's Blue, but there are so many look-alikes (to me) in this category of butterflies that I'm not confident of my ID.

A Second Tale of Survival

[The tale will be posted later this evening or tomorrow a.m.] As the folk art plaque reads, "Today is the tomorrow you worried about yesterday." 5/1/2011 a.m. Going on another hike to Nelson Creek today and will undoubtedly come back with some interesting stuff. However, here are some comments on yesterday's photos:
Two places where plants struggle to survive struck me yesterday. One, of course, is the roadsides, trail sides, and track sides where humans have cut through the native vegetation and soil. That not only disturbs the native flora and fauna, it creates a kind of "open sore" into which the ever-present seeds of outsiders wait for opportunities to take root. These are the ones we call weeds. Some we consider ugly and some we consider beautiful. We angry at the ones who seem to be "taking over." In this latter category are often Star Thistle and Scotch Broom. The top three photos here feature Butter and Eggs, AKA Johnny Jump-Up. It's gracing the roadsides around Quincy right now, and so far I haven't seen it in a place where it might be considered a threat. If CalTrans comes along with mowers and/or poisons, it won't be because of Johnny Jump-Up. It'll be because of impairment of view for motor traffic - tall stuff like Sweet Clover, Teasel, Scotch Broom, etc. But everything else goes with it! For now, you get a good close-up view of this beuatiful little member of the Figwort family, Scrophulariaceae, on the roadside in East Quincy near the Chinese restaurant and road to the jail, and also on Lee Road, across from the veterinary clinic near the horse pasture. The second photo down shows a co-survivor, Filaree. The bottom two photos feature Whitlow Grass and Star Flower, the former in the Mustard family and the latter a Saxifrage. These two are surviving on rugged cliffs above Nelson Creek, a place subject to rock slides, foot traffic, and other disturbances as well as summer drought a bit earlier than the open fields. These two manage to get through their reproductive cycles before disasters wipe them out. This post is a tribute to survivors of all sorts.

Three Tales of Survival, Part 1

As promised in an earlier post, I went back to the school district lawn and got a photo of one of my favorite weeds, Shepherd's Purse (top photo). A half dozen of them had risen above the height of the lush grass which is maintained at a great environmental cost, and were already going to seed. They must know they're about to be mowed. Before moving on for further explorations, I took in the wonderful crop of dandelions in that same lawn (2nd and 3rd photos). Then, on the way to my van, I saw what I thought was a large, dead Earthworm on the sidewalk (4th from top). I felt sad to see it dried out and in a place to soon be stepped on or crushed by a bicycle tire. I picked it up to toss it onto the lawn and it moved! Still clinging to life, it might now absorb enough moisture from the lawn to go back underground and live a while longer.
As I drove home from this place to get a snack and contemplate the next leg of my exploration, I revisited a question that comes to mind often: Why am I so enthralled by weeds? As I pulled into my driveway, several images collided in my mind: the two weeds and worm I had just photographed and the severely snow damaged birch and plum trees in my front yard. The first birch (5th photo from top) had been bent under the weight of heavy, wet snow from my neighbor's snow blower, and bent all the way to my garage roof. As the snow melted, my son strapped the trunk to a neighboring tree with some webbing and planned to gradually pull it upright. Then, as the juices of spring started to flow, negative geotropism took over and the tree attempted to grow straight up, even though its trunk remained quite bent. We figure we'll get one more summer of leafy pleasure and sapsucker visits from this tree then convert it to firewood in the fall. The neighboring birch tree broke in half under the weight of snow, so we cut it off around 4 feet from the ground, intending to remove the rest of it later (6th photo down). Lo and behold, those same spring juices started to flow with profusion and dribble down the sides of what remained of the trunk. Then, nearby, the plum tree that had been knocked over by the snow remained in a heap some three weeks after I had pronounced it dead and nearly cut it all into firewood (7th photo). But today I was startled to find it was nearly ready to flower (8th photo). Taken as a whole, these scenes were tales of survival. More to come shortly. Also, I think what has enthralled me about weeds is that like myself they struggle against the forces of domestication. Like the weeds, I have moved around a lot and resisted conforming. Willing to trade security and stability for adventure, I have had many wonderful adventures, but have also caused distress to others. Fortunately, no one has yet tried to eliminate me with Roundup or a weed eater.

The Elegance of Dandelions

Some people would rather have Roundup(r) than these. I don't understand.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Pages from my journals

I'm getting ready to teach some classes called Adventures in Nature Journaling. I don't want to get too fixated on particular tools: size of journal, type of paper, drawing or painting media, etc., etc., nor peoples artistic skills (or lack thereof), per se. Instead, I want it to be a class about seeing, responding, and questioning. With my backgrounds in biology and photography as well as years of living in or near wilderness, I think I've learned a lot about what to look for, how to raise questions that lead to other questions in a never-ending exercise of curiosity. Once the journaling habit is established, there are many directions it can go. For some people, it will become mostly a memory book. For others a source of ideas for more developed art and writing projects. For some it's a combination of these and other "uses." It's a lot of fun when a group shares ideas about their various reasons for journaling and how their practices evolve. I get a great deal of enjoyment not only from sharing experiences such as these but also from seeing people expand their appreciation for elements of the environment they might not have previously noticed or toward which they might have previously felt hostile. I love turning arachnophobes into arachnophiles, or turning people on to the beauty of star thistle or to a generalized appreciation of so-called weeds. In the coming weeks I'll be posting drawings, paintings, photos, pages from my journals, etc., that are a part of these developing classes. First session begins tomorrow at Main Street Artists Gallery in Quincy, CA. Hope to see you there.

Dusky Horkelia?

As a naturalist, I come back from almost every outing with more questions than answers. Also, as a naturalist, questions come easily - too many questions to research by doing straight science. If I were doing science research in a "publish or perish" environment, I'd have to narrow the scope of my curiosity. Maybe study one species of lizard for 30 years, that sort of thing. But since I have the luxury of letting my curiosity loose, I can afford to take pictures, draw and paint what I see, and comment on what I see without the obligation of having to know all the answers or to find answers by doing direct research. So, I consult field guides, experts on particular taxa, and any other promising source of information.
I hope the forgoing paragraph is sufficient justification for posting photos or drawings of species I haven't yet been able to identify. I welcome input from any readers who recognize what they are. Today's posting is three photos of a small white flower I saw on the Old Highway near Keddie, the same spot where i saw the season's first Shooting Stars a couple of weeks ago. They're a really interesting looking flower, 5 smallish petals and 5 prominent sepals arranged in such a way that at first there appear to be 10 petals. My first trip through my field guides and a couple of websites has me thinking it's Dusky Horkelia, Horkelia fusca, a member of the rose family, Rosaceae. Please help meout here, botanists. I love the way this flower looks, so I'll be going back to get better photos if I can. Also saw Shepherd's Purse today, blooming in the school district office lawn. Hope I get to photograph it before they mow.
THIS JUST IN: Sunday, May 1. A little more careful research and I see that I was "close, but no cigar" as they used to say in the circus. The new flower is Three-toothed Horkelia, Horkelia tridentata. Should have been obvious if I had paid more attention to the leaves.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

A Mystery to Me

I posted a photo of this flower on April 16 when I first saw it under an old apple tree on Lee Road in Quincy at an elevation of around 3,500'. At that time, the plants were around 3 - 5" tall and the pink blossoms were about an eighth inch across. The ones in my dirt parking space, which I first saw last summer, were barely breaking ground at about 1/2" tall. I wouldn't have recognized them at this early stage if I hadn't seen them at maturity last summer. Well, today, they are still only around 1 1/2" tall in my yard and not blooming. This afternoon in Portola, at nearly 5,000' in elevation, I came across a large patch of them averaging around 4 - 6" in height and blooming profusely. This drove home the idea of micro-habitats. My yard, in a shady, north-facing slope, is locally known variously as "the cold spot" or "pneumonia gulch." This alone could explain why mine are blooming a bit later than those on Lee Road. Lee Road is nearly the same elevation as my home, but receives much more sun. But why are the ones in Portola well ahead even of the ones on Lee Road? There could be a very localized greenhouse effect due to various windbreaks, trapped warm air, etc., or perhaps a soil or moisture difference comes into play. Lots of questions - could make a good high school science project. I enjoy sharing these fits of curiosity, but I would enjoy it even more if some botanist or botany hobbyist out there could identify the plant for me. Remember, you can click on the image twice for closer and closer views.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Non-flowers of the Greenville Y

At this time of year my blog usually emphasizes flowering plants. After a long winter, I enjoy welcoming them back. The spots of color along the roadsides are an enjoyable distraction and I'm constantly tempted to stop and hike a ways through the woods and meadows. On this particular day there were no new species blooming at the Greenville Y, so the non-flowering plants and fungi got my attention. The little fungi in the top two photos, popping out of a beautiful green mat of moss, always remind me of a scene in Alice in Wonderland, the one with the worm smoking on a water pipe. When I was a high school biology student, fungi were plants. Now they're in their own kingdom. Now, when you play 20 Questions, if you're thinking of a mushroom and your opponent asks "Animal, Vegetable, or Mineral?" what can you say? None of the above. That'll leave him totally puzzled. About the only possible answers would be God or fungi.
The third photo down shows an array of lichens on a slab of rock. Lichens are an interesting merger of fungi and algae, the latter being non-flowering plants. One of the first people to realize this association called symbiosis was Beatrix Potter. She was well on her way to becoming an important scientists when the male establishment wouldn't let her into the academy to report her findings. Her detailed drawings of lichens are classics. She finally gave up science and wrote the Peter Rabbit books. To literary types, that's probably a blessing in disguise. However, to modern female scientists like Lynn Margulis, whose theories about the endosymbiont hypothesis were laughed at by male scientists, but later became standard textbook fare, it probably represents a tragic loss of scientific talent.
The fourth photo is of a particularly beautiful patch of rock covered by a variety of lichens and mineral stains. Next is a patch of moss with prominent "fruiting" bodies. Last, is a fern, another non-flowering plant. The rocky area just north of the Highway 70 bridge over Indian Creek is a particularly interesting area biologically. Easy access, but be careful of slippery and wobbly boulders. Don't pick the flowers!

Sunday, April 24, 2011

On the trail to the Milkmaids

Took an afternoon walk up the hill from my house, without camera, and wouldn't you know, I saw the flower I had missed on the Keddie Cascades hike last Friday, the California Milkmaids. As soon as I got home, I grabbed the camera and headed back up there. A little tired, I walked slower and saw more. This sequence of photos shows the little scenes i couldn't resist in that short, 50-yard walk to the Milkmaids. From the top, young Bedstraw, two views of a millipede, four views of fungi, two views of centipedes (note, they're fast and were escaping), and finally, two views of the Milkmaids. I'm glad I forgot the camera the first time.

A More Leisurely Outing

Last Friday's excursion to the trail head to Keddie Cascades had a different motive than my usual. I didn't expect to find anything new blooming, but decided to walk more slowly and try to get better photographs of items I had seen during the past couple of weeks. I especially hoped to find California Milkmaids as I only got a couple of mediocre shots of them the first time. I didn't find any this time. Here are the better photos from that walk, from top to bottom: Henderson's Shooting Star which are now sporting multiple flowers per plant, a close-up of Miniature Miner's Lettuce, Grape Hyacinth (which is not really a hyacinth, but a lily, AKA Muscari), a new violet, not yet blooming, most likely Viola purpurea, Wood Violet, Viola lobata, and two views of Stout-beaked Toothwort, Cardamine pachystigma, the close cousin of the Milkmaids I missed.