Sunday, July 29, 2012

Close to Home, Rewarded

 I decided to take a little break from exploring the forest and instead take a local walk in my neighborhood.  I brought my camera along, just in case, but had low expectations for photography.   I was looking for a cup of decaf and a quiet place to write in my journal.  Well, the best laid plans.....
I didn't even get out of my driveway when I saw an incredible Sow Thistle glowing from the back lighting of the early morning sun.  I see so many things in this image: dragonfly wings, river deltas, and, of course, thistle leaves.

 I decided to take an early morning "break" and cut down the surplus thistles in the yard our dogs use.  This was a huge sacrifice for me because I love the variety of insects and spiders the thistles attract.  Lo and behold. when I came across a tall specimen of some species of Cirsium a white phase Goldenrod Crab Spider glowed near the top.  I decided not to cut that one down.  It is now early evening and I've had three different photos sessions with that spider who seems content to stay on or near that particular flower.  I provoked her a bit to get her to assume different, photogenic positions, but she never tried to escape.
 On that same walk down the driveway, a nice specimen of Chicory, also back lit, beckoned me to take a closer look at its stamens and pistils.  A very beautiful architecture in a flower that is known mostly as an expendable roadside weed.
 There are several patches of Tansy growing near our house, and I always check them for photogenic visitors.  Today's feature is the Pine White butterfly.  I got a shot of it resting and another of it taking off.  That way I got a look at both the topside and underside of the wings for easier identification.
On this walk with low expectations, I took nearly a hundred photos.  I'll be sharing more of them over the next couple of days.  I got my decaf and wrote a few notes in my journal.  An altogether satisfying morning.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

They Haven't Assassinated Me Yet!

 Some of these bugs have fascinating names and can keep bug-phobes on edge.  The two above photos are of a member of the Family Reduviidae, or Assassin Bugs.  I don't know this particular species, but one of its cousins I found last summer is called the Western Bloodsucking Cone Nose.  I haven't been bitten or had my blood sucked yet, and I've found their variety of shapes, colors and behavior quite fascinating. 
 Probably my most photographed bug of the summer is the Common Checkered Clerid which last summer I found mostly on a flower called Checker Bloom, but this year I've photographed it on at least a dozen different species of flowers.  I don't know which of these might just be resting places and which might actually be a part of the beetles diet.  More observation or reading needed.  More fun to discover by observation.
 The Dentate Eleodes, most often called a Stink Bug, is fun to play with.  When it strikes a defensive posture as above it gives off a sweet cyanide smell.  It works.  Upon smelling it, I had no desire to eat the bug.
This Longjawed Orb Weaver had spun its web just above standing water where it's easily confused with Water Striders, which are not spiders, but sometimes I've found this one hiding on the stems of plants with four legs stretched forward and four backward, making the entire spider skinny and looking like only a slightly raised portion of the plant's stem. 
 The Red Milkweed Beetle has passed the peak of its feeding and breeding season, but I did find this one the other day on a Showy Milkweed that has already gone to seed.  Watching it chew on the leaves, I sense that it could deliver a pretty good bite, but when I let them walk around on my hand, they never do. To my eye, they rival the Checkered Clerid for the title of Most Beautiful Beetle in the county.
 The honey bees on thistle seem so preoccupied with eating that they've never distrubed me when I've walked among dense swarms of them.  I like the color combination in this photo.
The most exciting new (to me) bug this summer has been the Thread-waisted Wasp.  Never threatened to bite while busy feeding on Indian Hemp and Brewer's Angelica.  I did see one successfully defend herself against my cat with a sting or bite on his nose.  The cat bit first, or tried to, so....

One for the Birds

 Knowing that insect activity for the season is on the wane, I jump at every opportunity for interesting photography.  Not knowing how the day's nature hike would go, I started off by photographing an Ambush Bug on a daisy in my driveway.  I had seen it the night before when I didn't have my camera.  It cooperated by staying the night.  Same spot on the same flower.  I had to poke at it to be sure it was alive.  It was. 
Lots of people leaving camp for home today, so I didn't have any hikers.  On the way home with my two teenagers, I was wondering if one photo of an ambush bug was sufficient "material" for an interesting blog post when we saw a photogenic cluster of Canada Geese in a freshly mowed field.  They were feasting on the many seeds left behind by the baling machine.  Then, while trying to keep my eyes on the road at 35 mph, I thought I saw a large group of Ravens with downward-curved bills.  Not possible, so I figured I'd better stop.  It was a group of White-faced Ibises.  My son popped the telephoto onto my camera and I got a few shots from the driver's seat, then got out to approach the barbed-wire fence.  The birds decided to relocate, so I got some nice photos of take-offs and landings.  I pretty much ignored the geese, although a few managed to get into the some of the photos.

 When I hit the road again, Ryan tried his hand at some photos while we were in motion.  Got some interesting abstracts of blurry grass and blurry cows, then we came across another group of geese worth stopping for.  He got the next two photos, plus a couple others with a pair of Sandhill Cranes in the distance.  Since they were each the size of a single pixel, I left them out of this post.  Sure wish we had a longer lens.  We discussed how these birds were more or less the ecological equivalents of cows.  Also noticed the considerable difference in coloration of the Ibises from the ones we saw in Sierra Valley during the mating season.  A very good finish to the day.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Why are those ants so big?

"Why are those ants so big?"   I was with a group of 9 kids on a nature walk.  I rolled over an old, decaying log, and the above scene(s) was revealed.  When a kid asked me that question, for some reason, despite 7 years of college and a lifetime of studying natural history, I found it difficult to come up with a good answer.   How big is an ant supposed to be, anyway?

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

An Interesting Discovery

During my frequent walks through shady forest, I am used to seeing several different types of plants that are not green and, like mushrooms, get their nutrition directly from the soil.  These include Pine Drops and Snow Plant, in the Heath family with Manzanita and Madrone, and two species of Coralroot which are in the Orchid family.  On a recent hike through a shady area in Boyle ravine, I looked down a steep slope and thought I spotted one the aforementioned.  But there was something different about it.  The bright white flowers contrasted sharply from the bright red stems, and they spread out a bit further from the stem than is typical of the more tightly arranged flowers of Pine Drops and the Coralroots.  It also surprised me to see such fresh-looking blooms since all the species I mentioned above have already gone to seed.  I scrambled down the slope to take a close-up photo, but I didn't try to identify my new find until I got home.  It turns out to be another member of the Heath family, Ericaceae.  My field guide calls it Leafless Wintergreen, Pyrola aphylla, but that's not the end of the story.  It turns out its identity is unclear in the world of botany.  Some consider it to be a variant of one of two species of Wintergreen that actually have leaves, while others consider it to be a separate species.  Well, I'm in no position to settle that debate, but I am excited to have found this interesting plant for the first time.  Click on the photo to better appreciate shape and position of the flowers as well as the richness of the red color of the stems.  If memory serves, they almost seemed to glow in the woods.  I'll probably go back to that spot soon for an even closer look.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Another Good Day for Bugs, Part 2

What we have here are two views of the Red Milkweed Bug, two of the Red-shouldered Cteucha moth, and one of a cluster of aphids on a pod of the Narrow-leafed Milkweed.  All that bug chasing today has got me sleepy, so the text accompanying these photos will have to wait until tomorrow.

Another Good Day for Bugs, Part 1

I started today's nature hike with the intention of paying attention to the milkweeds of which there are five species around Oakland Camp in various stages of life from fairly fresh blooms on Spreading Dogbane and Narrow-leaf Milkweed, to recently wilted blooms on Indian Hemp and Showy Milkweed, to seed pods about to burst open on Purple Milkweed.  While inspecting a herd of aphids on the seed pod of a Purple Milkweed, I felt a hard object hit me in the chest.  I thought I had been struck by an AirSoft pellet, but no one was around.  Then I heard the buzzing of a large flying insect at my feet.  It turns out I was "bombed" by an Eyed Elater, Alaus melanops, the largest Click Beetle in these parts.  Lots of fun to play with, I picked it up to show my hiking companion, and it performed its clicks which felt like tiny jolts of electricity running up my fingers.  I then placed it on its back in my palm to show how the click is used to right itself.  It decided to "play possum" and would not click.  It pulled all its legs up tight and played dead for quite a while.  It was very hot out, so I thought the sun would force it to try to escape by clicking itself upright then flying away.  No dice.  So, I turned it right side up.  After a few minutes, it cautiously extended its legs.  I braced my self for a one-handed photo of its take-off, but I wasn't quick enough.  While I was mesmerized, it spread apart its wing covers and extended its soft, membranous wings and took off.  It was probably ten feet away when I clicked the shutter.  No point in showing the photo of my empty palm!
The focus our hike then switched to bugs.  We saw lots of bug drama over the next hour.  Some children in camp found a large Jerusalem Cricket, Stenopelmatus fuscus, which they called a potato bug.  I gently prodded him out of his hole beneath a rock for some photos, then let him crawl back.  We replaced the rock to protect his home, and I'll bet he'll be there tomorrow.
Along the trail was another eye-catching bug, a bright orange Velvet Ant, Dasymutilla aureola, which despite its soft, fuzzy look actually packs a powerful sting.  You see, it's actually a wingless wasp.
There was lots of other interesting bug activity on today's walk.  More photos and stories in my next post.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Pondering Specialization

On today's nature hike, I was mostly impressed by the extreme dryness and the fact that nearly all the trailside wildflowers I've been enjoying have gone to seed.  There were some dark clouds in the distance, and possibly a few flashes of "dry" lightning.  I found myself telling my guests more about what was here recently than what is here now.  Then, one of our group spotted a beautiful Western Swallowtail Butterfly on a low shrub with its wings fully spread.  We both came in close with our cameras, and the butterfly didn't move.  This made me suspect that it was being eaten from beneath by a Goldenrod Crab Spider, an operation I'd seen many times in recent months.  Not this time.  After getting a few nice photos, I attempted to pick up the butterfly for a photo of it on my hand.  It flew away!  If it had the energy and inclination to fly away, why didn't it do so sooner?  This is the sort of question that can lead one to want to specialize.  Some personalities would decide, on the spot, to pursue this one question to the end - possibly become a lepidopterist for life.  Then, just 10 feet away, I spotted a large cluster of freshly-blooming Leopard Lilies where I had seen only one a week before.
I recalled that in a similar setting on a creek just a half mile away, the Leopard Lilies had bloomed over a month ago and were now all wilted and bearing seed pods.  There seemed to be a full month's difference in where these two clusters were in their annual cycles.  Another question one might want to pursue to the end.  I realize that I don't have the brain power or persistence to stick with all questions that come to mind for any length of time.  If I had chosen to specialize, say, when I was studying reptiles in graduate school, I might have given up on birds, mammals, fish, flowers, lichens, mosses, rocks, weather, etc., except insofar as they bore directly on my study of a particular reptile.  My zoology buddies from Tulane chose to specialize - one in herpetology, one in parasitology, another in medicine, and I remain an enthusiastic generalist.  I realize that I enjoy pondering lots of questions, but only pursuing some via library research and/or further observation.  I am grateful for the ease with which information others have gathered is so much more readily available to the general public than when I was in college.  The main purpose of this blog is to share my enthusiasms in the hope that more people will care enough about our amazing planet to want to protect it.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

I Love This Plant!

I chose the photos and chose the title for this post.  Now I need to take a break, nurse a cold, and think about why I made these choices.  The only disappointing thing, so far, about Gumplant watching is that when they are about to depart for the season they don't make beautify spheres of aerial seeds like dandelions and salsify.  Be back soon with the rest of my musings on Gumplant.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Learn Something New Every Day

In my last report I was preoccupied with bugs.  Almost forgot that when I had that close encounter with a Ctenucha moth, I was actually in pursuit of photos of the only blooming Scarlet Monkeyflower I've seen this year, and the only one I've ever seen at Oakland Feather River Camp.  It was blooming in a shady area near Gilson Creek.  I've always thought this species of Mimulus looked a little different than other monkeyflowers I've known, so this time I decided to do a little research.  As a frame of reference, I'm including a recent photo of the Seep Spring Monkeyflower, also at Oakland Camp, that is my idea of a "normal" monkeyflower.  Turns out the genus Mimulus has been moved to a different family!  I've always known it as a member of the snapdragon family, Scrophulariaceae, but now it is in Family Phrymaceae.  In the discussions of this family I've read there's mention that there are three general types of monkeyflowers, all still called Mimulus, but which perhaps should be recognized as belonging to three different subfamilies.  I also learned that two major centers of radiation of monkeyflower species are western USA, especially California, and Australia.    The American species have certain features in common that differentiate them from the Australian species.  Now, I'm not about to drop my interest in other plants and animals in order to become a Mimulus specialist, but it is still fun to learn something new.  I'll be watching for new field guides to include the family Phrymaceae.  None of my current ones do.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Bugs of the Day

Exciting start of the day when one of our campers brought a huge beetle he had caught to the breakfast table.  At first, it looked to me like a slightly smaller version of a very large beetle that another camper caught last week and which I've already posted here.  Turns out they were both Cerambycids, the family of longhorn beetles.
The top photo is of this morning's beetle, the California Prionus, technically Prionus californicus.
As for common names, besides California Prionus, it is known as the California Root Borer, Pine Sawyer, and Ponderous Borer, among others.  It can grow to nearly 2" long.  Click on the photo for a look at the details. 
Last week's Cerambycid (2nd photo) was the Spined Wood Borer, Ergates spiculatus.  It is the largest beetle in western North America, often exceeding 2" in length.  Note, both of these beauties have impressive jaws and can bore through wood.  However, they don't move very fast and are not difficult to handle safely.
While they look similar, their habits are quite different.  The Prionus lives on hardwoods and can bore into Oak, Maple, Madrone, and other live hardwoods.  On the other hand, Ergates bores into dead and dying pine and fir, especially after a fire.  While it doesn't harm healthy live trees, it can quickly reduce the value of burned timber that might otherwise be available for salvage.  I'm for letting the beetles have it!
ANother exciting find of the day was a shiny metallic blue beetle, around 1/3" long, I found an a leaf of Spreading Dogbane.  Since Dogbane is a kind of milkweed, it wasn't too surprising to find this was a Blue Milkweed Beetle, Chrysochus cobaltinus.  
Today's fourth photo is of a Red-shouldered Ctenucha moth, Ctenucha rubroscapus.  I've posted photos of this beauty recently.  I'm repeating it here because I took this oe without a telephoto lens.  It was only afoot away from my face when I turned toward the bush it was on.  I haven't identified the bush, although it looks a lot like an Elderberry.  When I first discovered this moth a few summers ago, I saw it only on Pennyroyal.  This summer, besides seeing it on the aforementioned shrub, I'me still seeing it on Pennyroyal, but also Brewer's Angelica and Spreading Dogbane.  Now I'm wondering if it is feeding and/or laying eggs on all these plants.  They're plentiful this summer, so I'll keep on watching.