Saturday, August 31, 2013

World's Smallest Star Thistle?

I've had a lot of fun, as well as serious political commentary, in this blog about various plants that are survivors of mowing and "weeding."  This has been especially intense when I have fallen in love with a particular roadside hot spot and am following certain plants in their annual cycles then one day they're gone.  I'm always proud of the ones who come back.  Today, on a walk around downtown Quincy, I was excited to find the smallest blooming Star Thistle I've ever seen, blooming at around 2" in height in an area that has been kept mowed all summer and was a crispy dry brown everywhere except where this lone survivor poked up through the straw to laugh at its enemies.  Long live the weeds!  The least we could do is eat them rather than poison them.

Friday, August 30, 2013

All's Well on Our Oaks!

 I check the lower branches of the California Black Oaks along my driveway every day, but I thought it would be a couple more weeks before the Oak Treehoppers returned.  But, they showed up today.  They are my version of the swallows returning to San Juan Capistrano, an indicator that all's well with nature (even though it isn't).  I can't explain my excitement over these little critters.  Perhaps one thing is the amazing metamorphosis during which the bright black, white and red striped young become orange-spotted, olive drab adults.  There's an adult on the far left in the top photo.  Sometimes the adults become white with longitudinal red stripes, which is also amazing.
 Here's a closer view.  They remind me of exotic little toy cars. 
Buds on a neighboring branch are a similar shape and color as the adult treehoppers, although I don't see camouflage as being significant.  I'm finding the treehoppers pretty easy to spot.  They're quite small, so I think most people don't know about them because they just don't look that closely at oak branches.  I haven't seen birds or other animals prey upon them, so I wonder how they taste.

My Archive Was Handy

 As I was leaving the FRC campus Thursday afternoon, I walked by the xeric landscape in front of the library and encountered a lot of insect activity.  I didn't have my camera with me, but I saw a half dozen different species of insects visiting the Rabbitbrush and Sagebrush planted there.  Over the past month there have tended to be just one or two of these species visiting on any given day, but on this day I saw virtually all the species I had seen during the month of August.  In this posting, I've drawn photos of the major visitors from my archive of photos taken during the summer.  The skippers (above) were finally abundant after having been visiting only one or two at a time for weeks.
 The Thread-waisted Wasps were impressive as usual and there was another one crawling on my front porch when I got home. 
 I didn't manage to photograph any insects on the Sagebrush this time, but I saw many rapid landings and take-offs of several kinds of bees and wasps.  I didn't see any Aphids which had been abundant near the beginning of August.  They didn't appear to be damaging the Sagebrush at all.
 The Camomile is still blooming strongly and looks as fresh as it did a month ago.
Finally, the Carpenter Bees, which are nearly as big as the biggest bees known, were still doing their acrobatics on the flowers, although I haven't been seeing them around the decks and railings by the Eagle's Perch lately.  Many insects are having "one last fling" before cold weather sets in.  I guess I should bring my camera every day.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The Journey There

 A few days ago I set myself up by promising to write about interesting sights on the way to my weekend at Donner Summit, and more sights while there.  Strangely, I managed to post a few photos and some text about the journey home.  Well, school work, among other things, threw me off schedule.  Belatedly, here are the two most memorable images made on the way to Donner.   First, I was excited to see many Blazing Star blooming in the area between Spring Garden and Blairsden.  Most were growing near the chain-link fence at the edge of the highway, but I managed to get a few nice shots without the fence.  The early morning light made it easy to get a glowing feeling from the flowers while letting the background go black. 
Then, around Blairsden and Graeagle I got a hint of the smoke coming from the fire south of I-80.  But, when I dropped down into Sierra Valley around Calpine, the smoke was intense.  I could look directly at the sun.  Every few minutes it was bright red, but never too strong to look at directly.  The effects on the respiratory system were obvious, too.  When I got to Donner, it was pretty discouraging.  I can only imagine what it's like around Yosemite now.  Much worse.  Many people who came up to Donner for the weekend chose not to go on hikes.  I hiked a few miles, but definitely felt the effects of smoke on my eyes.  Fortunately, I didn't have any trouble breathing.  The best thing about the experience was the stimulus to talk a lot about fire policies, logging practices, and speculate on whether humanity will wake up and take care of the land. We also talked a lot about trees and smaller plants adaptations to fire and the need for fire for healthy ecosystems.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

A Little Drama without Bugs

 I got used to checking on this Thistle daily when it hosted an Ambush Bug.  Now that the bug is gone, I've been enjoying watching the closing stages of this plant's annual cycle of life.  One of the blooms has gone to seed, while the other looks like it will be colorful for another week or two. 
Another noticeable plant along the same walkway is this member of the mint family.  My first guess was Horsemint, but this one is pretty fuzzy and a lady I met along the path said it was Bee Balm.  The other very noticeable feature on this day is the large number of acorns that are falling from the California Black Oak.  Unfortunately, when I use this path I'm always in a hurry to get to class or to get home.  I'm hoping that on a weekend I can schedule at least an hour to walk the path slowly and observe more.  Meanwhile, during tomorrow's Nature Literature class, we'll take an hour-long amble to discuss nature journaling and observe some of the natural features of the forest uphill from the main campus.  That will include some discussion of the Maidu methods of maintaining a good acorn harvest.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Fall Colors

I know it's not Fall yet, but the feather fell and these are pretty bright colors.  Everyone seems to make the same kind of fuss about fall colors every year, so I always feel like doing something a little different.  So much of what catches my eye is contrast.  The lone black pebble on a white beach, or the only white pebble on a black beach.  In this case, bright blue and yellow, side by side, in a sea of green.  And the green, watered lawn stands out against the surrounding brown of the unwatered "wilderness" on either side of campus.  Soon, the evergreens will stand out as the deciduous trees turn red, yellow and orange, then lose their leaves.  The latest bloomers will stand out in their stubborn persistence when most others have wilted, gone to seed, and are already becoming part of the soil.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

The Journey Home

Yesterday, while hiking near Donner Summit, I was looking forward to seeing the photos I took on the way there early that morning.  In the area between Mt. Tomba and Blairsden, there were great patches of Blazing Star blooming.  Before I could prepare my photos from the "journey there" I glanced at my friend Spencer Dykstra's blog and sensed that we had been in similar moods with our photography, so I'm posting here three photos taken during my journey home this morning.  Compare these with Spencer's recent post at Spencer Dykstra Photography.  Click on Expressions Blog to see his recent back-lit photo of a flowing plant blooming on Table Mountain.  These three photos of mine were taken at the edge of Sagehen Creek between Truckee and Sierraville.  There's something about fall colors, before they get intense and attract rubber-necking tourists, that is subtle and appealing.  Without the distraction of bright reds and purples and yellows, one discovers the many shades of green and brown.  It reveals why a serious sketcher or painter of nature wants to have a 120-color set rather than the 12- or 18-.  In elementary school, my crayon set had only one green.  Now my colored pencil set has 6 shades of green and I wish I had 12.
So, now I have to go back in time and post photos and describe what I saw between "the journey there" and the "journey home."

What's In a Name?

My signature tree.  A follower of the blog has asked why?  I'm still resting up from a high altitude hike and eating too much afterwards.  I hope to post the story of my choosing Black Oak before bedtime tonight.  Hopefully also some photos from that hike.

Friday, August 23, 2013

New Bugs on Tansy

A last minute decision to hike a ways up Boyle Ravine with Bib and Emma was rewarded by seeing some bugs on Tansy beside the Ambush Bug and Skippers I've been posting so often lately.  Both of those last summer insects were still there, but they were not the only show.  Another show was discovering a number of piles of fresh bear poop and trying to prevent our dog from rolling in it.  Success!
Below the big green water tank there is a large patch of Tansy, and the most noticeable visitor was the relatively large Pine White butterfly, shown above and in the fourth and fifth photos from the top.
A saw a smaller butterfly, which I couldn't identify, about fifty feet away.  Got a not very sharp image of it resting on a tansy, and another of it just as it took off.  Maybe  Hairstreak?

Then I found in one area the Tansy were covered by lots of these bee-like flies.  My field guide has a whole page of these and I'm not patient enough to key out the exact species.  I was just in the mood to enjoy watching them feed and fly around, and maybe get caught by an Ambush Bug.
THere were a few Bumblebees around, too.
When we emerged from the ravine and got on pavement again, I had to stop to photograph the Snowberry.  There's a large patch of them at the foot of my driveway.
On the corner of Boyle and Coburn, there's a great pear tree in a neighbor's yard.  Looks ike a great crop coming this year.  No partridges yet.
And, finally, my signature plant, the California Black Oak, is producing a good crop of acorns this year.  Probably a response to the extremely hot and dry year.  I'm already inspecting every twig on the lower branches in anticipation of the return of the Oak Treehoppers.  If you can't wait, scroll through my September photos from 2012.

Seen While Eating Lunch

 I was hungry and carrying a heavy load, so I figured, Why not?  I just sat down at the edge of the woods to eat my lunch.  This occurred as I was heading up the paved walkway leading from the main parking lot to the upper campus at FRC.  It's amazing how much more one sees when not driven to get from point A to point B.  The first thing I noticed was a nice patch of grass without an apparent ant population, so I sat down.  The natural reaction to things from this spot seemed to be a comparison of tree trunks, since I was surrounded by them.  Virtually all the common species of this area and elevation were within my view.  First and foremost was a very large White Alder (above), and as my eye moved up the trunk I was startled to see the tree was infected by Tongue Fungus.  Until now, I had seen this interesting phenomenon on only one tree on the main paved road near the science building.  Now I'm seeing it more often.  I don't know if it's spreading or I'm just spotting it more readily.  In any case, the top photo here shows a dried up and possibly dead patch of the fungus surrounding last year's female cones.

 The second photo shows healthy male (the thin ones) and female cones developed during the current season.  Not yet infected, as far as I could tell.  Some dead ones from last summer are in the background to the left.
 The green patch at the center of this photo is a thriving patch of tongue fungus.  It's actually rather pretty and could pass for a natural part of the tree if one didn't know otherwise.
 Despite my looking at things above eye level, my usual habit took over, and I found a dense patch of Ranunculus (Buttercup) at my feet.  There's water moving by this area, perhaps a few inches beneath the surface, or else the Buttercups would be long gone for this season.
 Drat!  The clock dictates that I need to move on.  Will continue this story later this morning.

10:35 a.m., I'm back.  The above and below images of the White Alder were chosen to show the male and female cones from last season.  They are brown and dry, have done their jobs, and will fall off soon making way for a new crop.  The female cones make great miniature pine cones for model railroading and other crafts projects.
When I got my mind off the trees overhead in order to take another bite of my sandwich, I found an acorn of the California Black Oak right under my nose.  It's the signature of this blog.
One other sight that stood out, through my longer lens, was the West wall of my classroom.  Windowless, of course.  It reminded me of some internal features.  As a naturalist, I find myself sizing up indoor environments from a similar perspective to what I have in the forest.  What is the relationship between environment, natural or human-made, and behavior?
First of all, no windows.  No wonder students have the urge to play with electronic devices.  No windows, to me, represents sensory deprivation, but to architects and pedagogues it may represent a lack of distractions.  Hmph!  Also, the desks are bolted to the floor in order to accommodate electrical and electronic hookups.  Thus, the arrangement of the desks, chairs, podium, etc., is consistent with lecture, a pedagogy in which instructor dominates, and students face in the same direction in order to listen.  The arrangement does not lend itself to collaboration.  Fortunately, I have a small class, and we will sit in any configuration our imaginations allow.  We will collaborate. Might have to step outside once in a while.
When I finished my sandwich and got that little curmudgeonly spasm out of my system, I walked the rest of the way up to the main campus and was pleased to see Asters still blooming at the edge of the pavement.
An even closer view.  Click on any photo for still closer views.
Footnote of the day:  The Ambush Bug was still occupying her California Thistle blossom this morning as of 9:00 a.m.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Still there!

OK, I'm done.  Just had to share with you one more time, this critter I've been watching for over a week is still occupying the same flower.  The flower was showing evidence of fading today, so my friend will be gone soon.  Not sure if there's an Ambush Bug's Graveyard nearby, or what will happen.  But she did weather the storm we had last night.  Might not have noticed it.  We sure did at home. 
I sat on the ground and ate lunch a few yards away and saw several other interesting things.  Kept getting mayonnaise on my camera.  Will share those photos in the morning.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013


Following Thoreau's suggestion, I found this artifact a short distance off the trail.  I think the wasps discovered geometry before the Greeks.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

A Few Hours Later

This was one of those situations that tempts me to take up video, and time-lapse in particular.  In the photo of this scene in my previous post, the Ambush Bug is residing on the flower to the right.  It is clear that it is the older flower and is close to wilting.  A few hours later, as I returned to my car, I checked the scene again.  Not only had the flower on the left begun to release its pollen, but the Ambush Bug, apparently recognizing it as more attractive to flying insects, had moved over to occupy it.  It would have been fun to watch the bug negotiate that path and to see the pollen emerging.  For now, all I have to go on is imagination, and that's working pretty well.

Consolation Prize

 I began the new week with a walk up the paved path to the upper campus to check on the Goldenrod Crab Spider that has occupied the same Red Clover blossom for over a week.  It was gone!  I was very disappointed.  Evidence of weed eaters and leaf blowers all around.  On the way back to my car, as is my usual habit, I closely inspected the remaining weeds, looking for late summer blooms and the bugs they might be hosting.  I was happy to find an Ambush Bug, poised for action among the spines of a California Thistle.

A few other attractions included what I called a "Bonsai Salsify."  The main crop had grown tall and gone to seed, and were mostly flattened by foot traffic and the above-mentioned machinery.  But there are always a few trying to outlast the ravages of summer, and they have developed the abilty to bloom when only a few inches tall, much like the way dandelions and daisies respond to frequent mowings.  I always admire survivors.
 Here are the older ones, preparing to release thousands of seeds to ensure next summer's crop.
 The last plants to get my attention were the remaining Mullein.  Several by the parking lot have grown to over 7 feet tall.  Most of the blooming is done, and they are covered with pouches of seeds.  Each plant produces thousands of tiny seeds that mostly drop to the ground and grown more Mulleins nearby, or are carried by birds to other locations.  They have no projections that would allow them to be carried far by air.  I enjoy seeing a few fresh blooms at the top of each plant, even though the season, and thus the lifetime, of most of them is essentially over.  This straight-on photo shows the plant's relation to the Snapdragons.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Walking Among Weeds

 Friday afternoon I had a little time on my hands while waiting for someone at the Court House Annex.  Since I had my camera with me, I decided to take a walk in a "weedy" area just beyond the manicured lawns.  Weeds are much more interesting than lawns.  Here are my favorite images from the walk.

From top to bottom, two views of a non-native called Teasel. (There are several other spellings.) Five views of Wild Sweet Pea that comes in Pink, White, and variations.  Finally, a view of Goldenrod, one of the more prolific late-summer bloomers.  No more photos on the weekend. Still gearing up for fall classes I'll be teaching.  Starting tomorrow I'll be on campus every day, so I do plan to chronicle happenings in natural history on my many walks up and down and around the campus.