Monday, December 31, 2012

It's still 2012!

When I look at this photo as a candidate for hanging in an art gallery, I can't decide what to title it.  There's a tendency to think of it as a tossup between the Cinquefoil (flower on the right) and the Ladybug, AKA Ladybird Beetle.  It was only when I put it on my computer monitor that I discovered the aphid, probably about to become a meal for the Ladybug.  Now I think an appropriate title might be "Food Chain."  Or, if I wanted to wax philosophical, maybe call it "The Great Chain of Being" although that title has been taken.  I include the photographer, me, as a link in the chain.
Earlier I promised to continue with the them Beetlemania, so this is a start on a new family of beetles.

The end of another year....

 I didn't quite make one blog per day for December, but close.  Last year, I posted only 15 in December. So here are today's strongest impressions that I could capture with photos.  The icicles on my house and ...
... a poem by e. e. cummings.  The icicles are a reminder to me, mainly trained in biology, that nature is not just living things but also aspects of the physical environment.  The formation of icicles can be an introduction to all sorts of physical science, not to mention construction tricks to avoid winter damage to one's domicile. 
I wrote out the poem in response to a conversation with a colleague about nature writing.  This poem can be seen as a puzzle, a picture, an impression, and full of meaning.  When John Ciardi titled his excellent book "How Does a Poem Mean" he made the case that what we call meaning can be conveyed in lots of ways besides the literal meanings of words.  This was a fun way for me to end the year - even though, according to my high school English teacher, fun is not an adjective.  Happy New Year.  I probably won't stay up late tonight to celebrate because to me the winter solstice is an event more worthy of celebration.  My next big celebration will be January 27 or the day this blog gets its 50,000th visit, which ever comes first.  As of today, there have been 49,633 visits.  I hope you have enjoyed it as much as I have.

Two More from the Archive

Next, I'll dig up a few different species from the archives.  I think I have 37 beetle species altogether.
Saw a display in a local store of jewelry made from the elytrae of scarab beetles.  Maybe it's the artistic version of entomologists' preferring their beetles pinned and under glass.  I don't like either version.  My favorite beetle displays are either Ladybird Beetles clustered on plants or pairs of other species mating.   In both cases, ALIVE!

Friday, December 28, 2012


Recently I've been fine-tuning my essay on beetles that is planned to go into the first section of my book.  In support of that essay, I've been going through my archive of beetle images, nearly all captured in or near Quincy, my home town.  The first two photos are of the Red Milkweed Beetle which lives its entire life in or on the Showy Milkweed, the favorite haunt of Monarch Butterflies.
Next is the Yellow Velvet Beetle, in this case also on a Showy Milkweed blossom, although this species does not confine its adventures to this plant.  I've seen them land on most any shrub in the vicinity.  I haven't seen them feed or mate, so I don't know if they are attached to particular species of plants.
Next is the Spined Woodborer, the largest beetle I've ever found around these parts.  Powerful looking jaws, but this beetle doesn't move very fast, so it's easy to avoid the jaws when picking them up.
One of the prettiest visitors to my front yard is the Dimorphic Flower Longhorn, here resting on a Daisy.  In fact, I avoided running over this daisy with my lawnmower so it would attract a wide variety of insects and spiders.  If you scroll through my posts for the summer of 2012, you'll find many photos of this daisy with other bugs on it.
 Here are two photos of the Common Checkered Clerid, the one above resting (or possibly dining) on Yarrow, and the one below on a blade of grass.  I've seen these resting or dining on many different plants including several of our local species of milkweeds.
 The Blue Milkweed Beetle is smaller than all the others here, less than a half inch long, but the metallic blue is an outstanding beacon when the only green is the milkweed leaves and most other surrounding vegetation is brown.  I usually see these toward the end of summer.
 The Oregon Fir Sawyer has very impressive antennae.  This one wouldn't stay put near my woodpile where I found it, but when I brought it inside it cooperated for a photo session.  Then I released it back onto the wood pile.
 Last on today's installment is the California Prionus, a very large beetle with powerful jaws.  Like the Spined Woodborer, it doesn't move fast so it's easy to pick up without getting bit.  I find it particularly satisfying to show kids who were previously inclined to smash such critters to change their minds and enjoy gently picking them up and showing others, all the while feeling very brave.
This is probably a coincidence, but I just realized that all the beetles in this series are in the same family, the Longhorn Beetles.  I have photos of around 35 local beetles, so I'm sure I'll post another group soon.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Speaking of Owls and Tops

 During and after a big series of storms like we've just had, complete with chain control and power outages, we start hearing of a phenomenon known as 'cabin fever.'  I've never had this ailment, but it has always made me curious.  Some people deal with it by getting out of the cabin.  They walk around, commune with nature, meet others at coffee shops and talk about storms of the past, both real and imagined.  Others deal with it by having a repertoire of enjoyable indoor activities.  While I chose the former path, my young son Ryan chose the latter.  While I was at the coffee shop listening to people trade stories of owls hooting before daybreak, my son was home fine-tuning his electric-powered top.  Let's call it the Top Photo.    He fastened a cylindrical magnet on an axle then bought a concave make-up mirror to keep the top from wandering off.  Inside the box are a couple of coils he hand-wound to make, in effect, a step-up transformer.  Electricity comes in from a 5 volt power supply, pictured below.  The current spins the magnet much like what happens inside an electric motor or generator. My 'technical' description might not be up to his standards, but I hope you've got the essence of it.  I am so glad he has perfected the art of turning discarded stuff into interesting stuff, not only preventing boredom and a malaise like cabin fever, but also giving himself self a free education in electronic engineering.
Meanwhile, back at the coffee shop, people were enjoying owl stories.  The sun hadn't yet risen above the cloud bank toward Reno, so I obviously have no photos of owls, but it was nice to hear so many cheerful people who enjoy early morning walks and who pay attention to the interesting sounds of nature around them.  Later in the day I heard lots of Stellar's Jays in the pines behind our house.  
There's supposed to be a break in the stormy weather for a few days so hopefully more of the local wildlife will re-activate. 

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Self Portrait

Early morning scene the day after Christmas.  Main Street Quincy.  I'm in the bulb on the right.  Click on the photo and you might see me taking the picture.

My Snow Gauges

 Compare these to last Saturday's post and you'll see that the winter is getting whiter.  My trash cans are in the shade, relatively speaking, so they are a good place to keep track of snow fall.  These were taken around 6:45 a.m.  It warmed up quite a bit during the day, at least into the high 30s, so there were a few signs of life - other than evergreens which show signs of life year 'round.  Heard a couple of Chorus Frog croaks and saw a few birds, mostly ravens and juncos.
I'd say we have 18" on the ground.  In this shady spot where I live, that means there should be snow on the ground at least until April no matter what kind of winter we have.  If I suffer withdrawal symptoms from the lack of bug photography, I'll need to head down to the Sacramento Valley.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Nothing Vulgar Here!

 If I needed to drive somewhere, I'd consider my self 'snowed in.'  We've gotten around 6" of new snow so far this Christmas day, compared to none at this time last year.  In fact, on this date last year I blogged about finding an active caterpillar in my firewood pile and hearing Pacific Chorus Frogs croaking, despite the very cold weather.  Today, I've stayed indoors, cooking, reading, and eating.  I do plan to take a walk in a few minutes to see what a snowed-in town looks like, and maybe hear some birds.
While cooking our traditional noon-time Christmas feast, I was taken by the beautiful bunch of Chard my wife bought at the natural foods co-op.  The 'Christmas colors' were impressive, so I got out the camera before continuing with my chopping.
 I seldom write about cultivated plants or domesticated animals, but when I do, I get curious about their wild origins.  So, after taking these photos, I decided to do a little Internet research on the origin of chard.  Luckily, no power outages so far today.
I discovered that the Swiss Chard is a variety of the same species as Beets, Beta vulgaris.  I fail to see anything vulgar about this plant.  It is not only beautiful to look at, but is highly nutritious and has many domesticated varieties.  I wonder if it got dubbed 'vulgar' because its ancestors, the beets, grew underground.  Maybe all the root crops were considered vulgar due to their close association with
dirt.  I need to do more research on this.  I was then reminded that during an environmental training I did some years ago at UC Davis, we were admonished to quit using the word dirt. It implies 'dirty,' and 'undesirable.'  Instead, we were to think of 'soil,' a living community on which all living things are ultimately dependent.  I urge you to click on any of these photos in order to get a closer look at the vein patterns in the leaves.  The red is due to the fact that more iron is stored there than in other parts of the plant.  I love finding the Christmas colors in nature.  Better than in plastic ornaments.
For a snowy-day activity, I recommend researching some item you had for dinner.  I started with Chard, then got led to Beta vulgaris and Beets.  Then to Spinach, bete noire, all sorts of nutrition web sites, and interesting lore associated with all sorts of vegetables.  It was hard to stop, but I really do want to take a walk in the snow.
I'm now having memories of what I did on snowy Christmases when I was a kid. Besides playing with the new toys, especially ones that require assembly like Erector Sets and electric trains, I loved to look up things in our huge Webster's Unabridged Dictionary.  It was hard to look up just one word and stop.  At an early age, I developed the habit of seeing that everything is connected to everything else, and my siblings and I spent hours chasing words and origins through our dictionary.  It still worked when the power went out, unlike today's internet.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Naturalists from another planet?

I enjoy meeting naturalists from other parts of the USA, and from other countries.  Today I fantasized about meeting a naturalist from another planet  I won't say 'he' because I don't know if there's such a thing as gender on this planet.  So it approached me in my favorite coffee shop and asked me to explain this headline, which I saw on Yahoo News, and evidently it did, too:  "Fiscal cliff spooks shoppers in last lap of holiday race."  The alien had already been studying such earthly phenomena as "Black Friday" and the alleged Mayan forecast that Earth was going to end yesterday, and found us to be a very puzzling species.  It wondered how we've managed to survive as long as we have.  It asked me what sort of race was being referred to in the headline, and I was speechless.  It had correctly figured out that on Earth races have winners and losers, but couldn't figure out what would constitute 'winning' the holiday race.  This wise alien was also puzzled about the recent tragic event in Newtown, Connecticut.   It was particularly puzzled by the suggestion of some 'leading' humans that the best way to prevent such occurrences would be to have armed personnel on every school campus.  I am used to taking for granted my role as naturalist, observing, wondering, and writing about other species, but it was quite an awakening to find myself to be a member of a species that was being studied by naturalists from another planet.  I wonder if the beings on that planet have developed a field of study comparable to what we on Earth call Wildlife Management?

Good Snapshots: Oxymoron?

 This morning's scenery is quite a contrast to Thursday's when I took the photos in my previous post.  My thinking was, "I need to get a couple of snapshots to show the sudden change.  I didn't want to get my camera wet, so I moved quickly, taking a couple from my covered porch, then feeling I had to include my struggling birch tree.  So, to get the third photo, I stepped off the porch briefly.  It's amazing how quickly my world changed from full color to black and white - that is, except for a few items like the green trim on the well cover and the beige pipes below.  In the context of all that black and white, the spots of color look like they could have been added by Photoshop or a traditional colorizer's paint brush.
 My original intent, consistent with the overall theme of this blog, was to portray nature.  But, for some reason the fact that the word 'snapshot' entered my mind, I got distracted into finding out exactly what a snapshot is.  Seems like the consensus is that it's a photo taken quickly without serious artistic or journalistic intent.  Other definitions emphasize amateurish quality such as blurriness, poor composition, heads cut off, that sort of thing.  My three photos fit the first definition, but, hopefully, don't fit the second.  Thus, the rhetorical question implied in my title.  Is there such a thing as a good snapshot?  An excellent snapshot?  A professional snapshot?  My research continued until I came across an article titled "The Snapshot Aesthetic."  Interesting stuff.  Seems that for a while lots of professionals were exploiting the concept of Kodak's 100-year-old idea of snapshots by giving it a professional twist.  The kind of thing that might happen when a gourmet chef makes 'road-kill chile.'
So, the last of my three excellent snapshots features my struggling birch tree.  It was bent down to the garage roof by the weight of heavy wet snow last year.  When the snow melted off, the tree regained some of its stature, then during the spring and summer, negative geotropism took over and it started to grow straight up again.  A birch tree with scoliosis?  I'm pretty sure it won't make it through another winter.  Today's snow is extremely heavy and the neighborhood snowblower is already active.
This time, when it lands on the roof of the garage, I'm afraid I'll have to cut it down to prevent damage.  One of my favorite features about this particular birch tree is that it is a favorite haunt of a Red-breasted Sapsucker.  I do still have one birch nearby that is standing straight and tall.  I hope he'll discover it next spring and become a regular visitor.

Friday, December 21, 2012

A Walk Before the Storm

 We took a walk in the woods near our house yesterday and photographed scenes we won't see again for months.  As of today they are all covered by 6 inches of snow and there's lots more on the way.  There were many patches of ice crystals forcing their way up through the pine needle carpet.  Click on each photo to better appreciate the patterns in the ice crystals.
 The curved crystals in this patch made me wish I could do a time-lapse video of their formation.
 The top of a Douglas-fir stump supported a nice garden of mosses and fungi.
 This bunch of Pine Drops matured in the summer of 2011 and made it through the following winter.  I photographed it several times during the summer of 2012, and it looks like it might make it through another winter.
 Another attractive patch of ice crystals.
 The Prince's Pine, in the Heath or Wintergreen family, was bright green where all the other plant material has turned brown.  The color is striking on a cloudy, gray day.
 A nice formation of icicles on an old Incense Cedar snag looks like stalactites in a cave.
 A Douglas-fir trunk supports a nice variety of mosses and lichens.
 Boyle Creek runs through this patch of forest, and wherever there is a mini-waterfall the mist is thrown up into the overhanging branches of shrubs where it freezes and creates beautiful patterns of icicles.
 These bright pink bracket fungi stood out like little beacons in the shady forest.
 A nice crop of tiny mushrooms burst up through a patch of moss.  At first glance they looked like the sporophyte generation of the moss.  I'll miss scenes like this during the months of snow cover.
I photographed this patch of small fungi on my front lawn a few days ago.  Looks like the morning temperatures in the teens and twenties have taken a toll.  Of course now they are under six inches of snow and will be part of the soil by the spring melt.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Great Disconnect!

Some thoughts welling up inside me these past few days have something to do with global warming, something to do with guns, and something to do with what I think I've learned from watching wild animals.  By animals, I mean the whole animal kingdom including worms and bugs, not just mammals.  I just decided that at this late hour I cannot be as coherent or as calm as I'd like, so this is a reminder that I should tackle this statement  during prime time tomorrow which, for me, is before 10:00 a.m.  Meanwhile, I'll go to sleep counting not sheep but people who leave their cars running while they're inside stores shopping. [Late Wednesday night]

It's now the next morning, and a bit after 10, but I think I have my thoughts straight on a difficult subject.  The opening photograph is a combination of the thoughts and skills of me and my friend Chris Bolton of spudgrafix.  The photo has no direct relation to my topic, but is meant to provide a little levity to offset the seriousness  of the topic.  Scroll back to the photo whenever you need to.

A quote I've been saving from the late William James, Harvard professor in the late 1800's, will set the tone:  "The chief characteristic of civilization is the sacrifice of the future for the present."

These past few days there has been a collision in my mind of thoughts about our use of fossil fuels and about reactions to the recent tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut.  This collision led to my reading the article in Wikipedia on "Willful ignorance."  The gentle author reminds us that ignorance itself has gotten a bad rap.  It's meant to refer to a kid of ignoring, not necessarily purposeful, or an unawareness.  For example, if you were unaware of a tragedy happening in a remote part of the Earth you can't be blamed for not having a reaction to it.  Willful ignorance, on the other hand, is when you ignore any sense data the contradict your already established and preferred world view.  Some people who habitually do this sort of thing actually don't trust the senses as our primary source of information about the world.  Science, of course, is based on data gathered by the senses.  Knowing the senses are not perfect, science has other practices such as peer review and reason so that errors are found out and corrected as much as humanly possible.  Faith, on the other hand, as Mark Twain once said, is 'belief in what you know ain't so."

In the Wikipedia article, the second paragraph, titled "Examples," lists Creationism, Conservapedia, and Expelled: Leader's Guide, among other things.  I got a charge out of that.  Toward the end of the article there's a section titled "See Also" under which are listed Cognitive Dissonance and Faith.  Another chuckle.  At this point, some of my readers might want to scroll back to the opening photo for a few minutes.

Years ago I lived in an extremely remote area next door to a family that had some sort of hound dog.  Or maybe a Lab.  I don't know if it was one of those breeds that is trained to chase things, or if it was a breed genetically predisposed to chase things, or maybe a combination.   One evening this hound came yelping home from the woods with a face full of porcupine quills.  A painful trip to the vet, 45 minutes away, was followed by a few day's rest in the house on a diet laced with pain killers. 
The moment the dog was allowed to go back outside, it took off for the woods and a short while later returned yelping with a more serious face full of quills.  Another trip to the vet and another painful recovery.  The next time the dog was allowed out of the house it headed for the woods again, this time more animated and barking louder.  This time the dog returned with an inoperable face full of quills and it was agreed by the vet and family that the dog needed to be put down.

This dog's behavior reminded me of the philosopher Santayana's definition of a fanatic:  One who upon forgetting his original purpose redoubles his effort.

So, this brings me to my recent observations:
1. the continuing popularity of leaf blowers - using fossil fuels to blow leaves around rather than use rakes.  To further support this practice, it's hard to find a high quality rake any more. 
2. The popular seasonal practice of leaving one's car running while shopping.  If the world's going to end from global climate change, might as well keep that tush warm until then.
3. The continuing popularity of stock car races.  When the inevitable switch to electric or other silent cars arrives, I imagine 'stock' cars being equipped with speakers that play recordings of the roar of internal combustion engines without mufflers.  Young drivers would buy these from a J C Whitney catalog, or online they could order the particular roar that appealed to them.  Otherwise, can you imagine people attending silent stock car races?
Then I imagined football helmets with built-in sound systems that could broadcast roars of the players' choice - lions, wolves, hyenas, so the menacing roars could be heard above the roar of the crowd.
4.  Dry land snowmobile races. 
5. Saving the most ludicrous for last: require teachers to carry guns.  How else can schools be made safe?  The more guns we have, the safer we'll be, right?  If a high school prankster ordered a pizza to be delivered to his math class, the poor delivery guy would probably be shot on sight.

As a life-long student of natural history, I have tried to notice features of plants and animals that work. that is, enhance their chances of survival in given environments, versus features that tend to lead to maladaptive traits and extinction.  Over the course of life on Earth, at least 3.5 billion years, extinction is the rule, not the exception.  Seems like we're well on our way. 

Sunday, December 16, 2012


 My photographer friend Spencer Dykstra [Spencer Dykstra Photography] has just posted on his Expressions Blog what he calls the Human Shadow Project.  Please check out his site for some outstanding photos as well as an important message.  His collection of photos reminded me that I had a folder on my computer in which I've been saving photos with a similar idea in mind.  I titled the folder 'Symptoms.'  Imagine an archaeologist from another galaxy visiting Earth and formulating a description of our species based on the artifacts in my photos and Spencer's. 
 One of the many ironies I see in these collections is that each 'product' or human fabrication pictured must have involved an artist somewhere along the line.  Certainly the labels, at least, were meant to be beautiful.  And look where they end up!
 Even shotgun shells are meant to be beautiful in some way, or else why would they come in so many colors?
 I'm pretty sure this catfish didn't get to this spot unaided.  Someone must have considered it to be ugly.
 Becoming obsolete.  At least some artists are cleaning them up and turning them into interesting sculptures. 
 I titled this photo 'oxidation.'  It'll eventually return to the soil whence it came.
I call this one 'the worm,' but that's just a euphemism for 'crap at the side of the road.'    So, does the title 'symptoms' seem appropriate? 

It Works!

When I posted my photo of Middle Earth yesterday, I suggested that if you click to make it larger and look at it long enough, you might see wonders.  I was beginning to see a hint of a friendly, talking centipede when the clatter of the 'real world' invaded my psyche and I had to go run some errands.  Well, my friend Chris at Spudgrafix took me up on the challenge and sent me this image of what he saw.  He also wished me a Merry Chrysalis.  This was all very inspiring.  I think that tomorrow morning I'll go back to this magical place and look a while longer. 
I want to dedicate today's post to two inspiring ladies.  Beatrix Potter, 1866 - 1943, who was one of the first to realize, over 100 years ago that lichens are a symbiotic combination of fungi and algae, was basically laughed out of the academy by men who thought they knew better.  Lynn Margulis, 1938 - 2011, who was one of the first to realize that our mitochondria were once bacteria, as were the chloroplasts in plant cells, then followed up that hypothesis with the realization that each of us is essentially a colony of bacteria.  Therefore, we shouldn't be so arrogant in our relationship to Mother Earth.

Saturday, December 15, 2012