Wednesday, August 16, 2017


I brought the Nikon to work today, not just the iPhone.  Was it a premonition?  Normally, the Oak Treehoppers have not arrived (or, I should say "emerged") at this particular Black Oak until mid-September.  This is mid-August!  I've often mentioned on this blog how the Mountain Lady's Slippers have been blooming earlier and earlier every year since I first encountered them some six years ago.  They are now blooming a full month earlier than they did that first year.  This is the first time I've been so startled by the early arrival of the treehoppers.  We'll see what sort of winter lies ahead. then, in the Spring we'll play "Monday morning quarterback" and assess whether or not the arrival of the treehopper was some sort of premonition regarding weather.  Now I'm excited.  The treehoppers go through a life cycle on the tips of the branches and the really cute red, black and white babies will probably arrive within a month.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Catching up to today

 I just got back from feeding my neighbor's cat while she's out of town.  In her front yard there's a single Tanzy bush.  I haven't seen much Tanzy in the usual places this summer, so when I do see a bush I usually check it out for interesting visitors.  On this particular outing, I did not have my Nikon, so I had to make do with my limited skills with the iPhone camera.  The interesting visitor was an Ambush Bug.  They tend to stay on the same plant, or even the same flower, for long periods, sometimes several weeks.  So, I'll be checking on this one again.  I'll bring the Nikon on my afternoon cat-care trip and hope for something more dramatic and better focused.  Maybe a pair of Ambush Bugs mating, or an Ambush Bug actually ambushing some other kind of bug, or being ambushed by a spider.  Stay tuned.   If I'm not so lucky today, I may feel moved to go back to older posts from earlier years during Ambush Bug season that have photos of these kinds of occurrences.

Some things happen fast

 Three days ago I posted a photo of a blooming Yellow Wood Sorrel, Oxalis stricta, that was blooming in my otherwise completely dead and brown front lawn.  I mentioned that eventually it would go to seed and the elongated seed capsules are fascinating as they burst open when they dry out and shoot their seeds every which way.  Well, these photos were taken yesterday and the change has already happened.  Click on each photo for a closer view and try to spot the seed capsules.  They stand vertically and resemble  tiny seed pods of Okra.
 They were not dry yet, so I pinched one open to reveal the seeds.  This plant is sometimes called
Sour Grass due to the acidic taste of the Oxalic Acid contained in the leaves.  Sour Grass is not a particularly useful name since several other plant species that also grow in and near my lawn go by that name.  They do taste pretty much the same however.

Interesting Friday, Part 3 of 3

 I call this an interesting Friday because it was basically a normal work day pleasantly interrupted by three different events that put me in direct contact with Mother Nature.  The previous two posts describe my discovery of a thriving crop of Alder Tongue Fungus and a small flock of juvenile wild turkeys on the FRC campus.  This last post is from a short hike right out of my front yard into Boyle Ravine.  The Tanzy crop along this path is much diminished over previous years when it was a favorite place to view visiting bugs of all kinds. On this particular hike with my wife and her dogs, I spotted a lone Tanzy bush a short distance off the trail.  Since I brought along my camera "just in case," I wandered over for a closer look and discovered a tiny crab spider.  The yellow disks of the Tanzy flowers are approximately 1/4" across, so that was the size of this little spider.  I'm sure I would not have spotted it if I hand't had some sort of subconscious expectation of such.
 On another stretch of this same trail I saw a False Solomon's Seal that had an impressive cluster of berries that somehow the birds have overlooked.  I hope they continue to ignore this plant so I can check on it periodically and hopefully photograph it when these berries turn bright red.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Interesting Friday, part 2 of 3

 These chicks grow fast.  I think they are part of the same bunch of chicks I saw around a month ago balancing on the wooden railing just outside the office.  On this cool morning, they were grazing on a lawn wet by sprinklers.  Maybe the sprinklers were driving worms and other bugs to the surface.  The birds were definitey engrossed in feeding and did not panic as I approached with my camera phone.
 Click on any photo for a closer look.  I had no telephoto, so these are not National Geographic quality, just a record of what I saw.

Tongue Fungus in the morning....

 No, I'm not about to describe my early morning dental hygiene challenges.  Instead, these two photos show what I spotted just as I parked my car in the FRC larking lot.  The west side of the lot is bordered by a creek that sports a healthy crop of White Alder trees of all sizes.  The ones right in front of me as I parked were infected by Taphrina occidentalis, variously called Alder Cone Fungus, Alder Cone Tongue Fungus, and Alder Tongue Gall Fungus.  ANd some websites more accurately refer to the Alder "cones" as bracts, but lay people call them cones.  How can they resist? They look like miniature pine cones, especially in the Fall when they dry out and turn brown.  I used to use them as pine cones on my model railroad set.  I find them rather photogenic, especially when they show a lot of red.
These particular alders looked no worse for the wear, but there is a lone alder on the right hand side of the main driveway to the upper campus that I think will soon succumb to this fungus, or at least to a combination of factors.  The main trunk is already hollowed out from rot.  This was just the first photo op of an interesting day.  A few minutes later, I was photographing wild turkeys just outside my office.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Watching ants...

 I was waiting for a ride in the hot sun when I thought I was developing an eye problem.  Something seemed to be moving along the surface of the steel rails that enclose the edge of the lawn at the college.  The air was still quite smoky from the Minerva Fire and my eyes were watery.  I'm glad I took a closer look.  The motion was caused by a long line of ants.  I love watching ants.  I am currently teaching a correspondence class to inmates in California prisons, and through their nature journaling assignment I find that more and more inmates have become interested in watching ants, and even keeping some as pets rather than stomping on them.  Some catch them as a food supply for lizards they catch and keep as pets.  I find this kind of activity very therapeutic at home, so I assume it works that way in prisons, too.

This last photos of a group of four reminds me of a passage in Thoreau's Walden that is often published separately as an essay titled "The Battle of the Ants."  It contains metaphors about how humans treat each other.       I guess I should add that I took these photos with my iPhone.  I know that Apple would want me to mention that.

Oxalis stricta

Called Yellow Wood Sorrel, among many other names, Oxalis stricta is a native of this area although it is considered a weed by most people if it grows where they don't want it to.  The above specimen is growing in what was my lawn.  We've let the lawn die to save water while we contemplate designing a xeric landscape.  Maybe if we do nothing we'll get an expanding crop of the sorrel.  It's a very pretty plant.  It produces seed pods which at a certain degree of dryness will pop open and send the seeds flying every which way.  It's fun to catch them just before that happens and apply a little pressure so they'll pop in your hand.  Back a few years in this blog I've posted photos of the seed pods.  And there's always Wikipedia.

I love trains, but....

 I'm beginning this post with an image that represents what we were mostly looking for on last Friday's hike in the area around Gilson Creek, northwest of Oakland Camp.  This nicely camouflaged bug, a leafhopper, treehopper, or plant hopper or some other kind of hopper could easily be mistaken for a thorn or bud along the stem of this wild raspberry plant.  While thinking of small items of natural history, we heard the train coming.  Figured we'd better stay away from the tracks and the tunnel until it passed.  Trains always rekindle memories of model railroading that began when I was around six and continued well into adulthood.
 Four engines?  It must be a long one.  I figured maybe a mile.  But as it passed, we waited and waited, and it seemed like it would never end.  Then came another cluster of engines in the middle, then more freight cars.  It must have taken around 5 minutes to pass and was probably at least two miles long, the longest train I've ever seen.  Then came the art show....
 From an early age, I've been fascinated by lettering.  I used to make all kinds of letters and numbers with pencil and ruler, then color them in.  As I got older and interested in the printing industry and publishing, and worked closely with various Sacramento printers when I edited a magazine, I developed a strong interest in typography and page design.  So, while the graffiti on the sides of trains - and buildings and bridges - is technically considered vandalism in most settings, it is also art.  I marvel at some these artists' understanding of the basic structures of letters combined with their flamboyant sense of design, and mostly their sheer speed.  To me, it is not a crime, or no more so than the intrusion of a train into pristine wilderness.  I have around a dozen shots of graffiti in a folder that
I'll add to this post after a short break.  Then I'll close with an image that represents the original purpose of this hike.  In retrospect, the interruption was just as  memorable as the original game plan.
I'm back with selected art works from the secretive artists.  Where and when do they do this work?  I'd love to watch it happen.
I apologize if the art contains offensive messages that I could not detect.  Mostly, it seems like decorative ways of saying "I was here."  Or maybe, "I'm making your freight car more beautiful."

As for "building America" I think history will show that the graffiti artists' contribution to what America is and can become will compare favorably with the record of Union Pacific.
Last is a view of Gilson Creek cascading down from the place where it emerges from under the railroad track through a culvert and goes on down to join Spanish Creek.  This place where the water usually flows year 'round, even during drought years, is always a reliable destination for nature hikes.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Flower of the Day

In celebration of surviving last week's Minerva Fire and with thanks to all the local and visiting firefighters, I dedicate this photo of Fireweed taken last Friday from a place 7 miles from the fire.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Some Faunal Wanderings

 Internet speed at home this morning is better than usual, although still ridiculously slow.  I figured I'd load these photos while I had the chance, then tackle the stories buzzing around in my mind a few hours from now after getting caught up on my school work. This will be a companion (with bread) piece to my previous entry titled "Some Floral Wanderings."  Third and final post about my Friday nature hike will focus on trains and graffiti, with a few other random observations thrown in.  The immediate threat of having to evacuate due to the Minerva Fire has passed, so hopefully my brain will re-organize. (9:05 a.m.)
(12:10 p.m.) When wandering through a large patch of milkweeds, it would be easy to overlook any insect presence unless specifically looking for them.  The above photo, for instance, is taken from around 12" away from the bug after I barely spotted the bug from around 6 feet away.  And I was consciously searching for bugs.  I pestered this one a little so I could get a better view and identify it (below). Turns out it is the Small Milkweed Bug, Lygaeus kalmii.  I include the technical name here only because the so-called common name seems so common it might have been made up by a little kid and not be a name you'd find in a field guide for adults.  After seeing one of these, I began seriously looking for others, hoping to find a mating pair.  No such luck this time, but you may find other photos of this bug in my past posts.
The next photo is another example of a tiny spot of red that would easily be overlooked if we weren't specifically looking for bugs.  A tiny spot of red from around 10 feet away.  A slow breeze and the stalk of plant material swaying like a pendulum resulted in a slightly blurry image.
Then nearby was a milkweed with a pair of the same bug with a little more protection from the wind. This is the Convergent Ladybird Beetle. Click on the photo for a closer look and you can see the angled (converging) pair of white stripes in the "shoulder" region.  The plant is the Showy Milkweed, Asclepias speciosa, that has lost most of its flowers and many are sporting big seed pods, only a few of which have burst open in this area
Out in the open, windy field again, we saw lots of pairs of Monarch Butterflies appearing to be courting in mid-air, occasionally landing, only to take flight again when wind or the presence of a photographer spooked them.  This shot (below) was the best I could do from over 20 feet away without a telephoto lens.  Click on the photo and you can confirm that it is a Monarch.
Nicely sheltered from the wind (below) is either a Fence Lizard or a Sagebrush Lizard.  Both live in this area.  This is a young one and I did not catch it or examine it closely.  Just enjoyed seeing it.  About half the adult size, it was about the size of my index finger.
Back in the wind again, I got a slightly blurry photo of a Damsel Fly.  Wings held over the back, while its relatives, the Dragon Flies, land with their wings spread.
Finally, a handsome grasshopper.  Not a bad day for insects viewing.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Some Floral Wanderings

On yesterday's hike to Gilson Creek and points beyond, we made several unexpected discoveries.  The plant pictured in these first two photos is American Brooklime, known scientifically as Veronica americana.  When we first spotted it in the sand at the edge of Spanish Creek, I thought I knew what it was, but was a little rusty on the precise name.  Not Hiker's Gentian, not Monument Plant, but what?  I took a few photos as did my hiking companion, figuring we'd do the research after the hike.  I had been sharing my point of view about the ramifications of responding to a plant aesthetically vs. scientifically.  Or, to put it another way, factually vs. emotionally.  I believe that these different perspectives can lead to different kinds of knowledge and experiences, and that the best result would be to remove the "vs." and be able to comfortably float between or combine the best of one's knowledge base and reasoning ability with an aesthetic appreciation, or, what some people might choose to call spiritual.  I had mentioned earlier my fascination with etymologies and my love of words like Scrophulariaceae, a plant family whose name I get a kick out of pronouncing - probably second only to Aristolochiaceae, which has 8 syllables, one more than Scroph....
So, a few hours after the hike, I got a kick out of an email from my hiking companion who had figured out that the plant was American Brooklime, and we had been staring at it on a page of our field guides without actually seeing it.  She was happy to point out that it was in the family Scrophulariaceae.  This sort of jogged my memory, so a while later I discovered that I had first encountered this plant and identified it some six years ago and posted it on this blog on August 13, 2011.  After doing a little more online checking, I found that some of the botanical police had moved this plant to another family, the Plantaginaceae.  Some sources have retained the scientific name of Veronica americana and simply placed it in another family.
[To be continued this afternoon....]
The Blue Elderberry is in the Honeysuckle family, Caprifoliaceae, another 7-syllable family name that is fun to pronounce.  This one has been surviving just inside the green gate entry to Oakland Camp.  It has withstood harsh weather and aggressive weed-eaters.  Two summers ago I thought it was dead.  But, it's back and is now bearing thousands of berries.  So, why is it here?  Nothing unusual to say about it at this time.  However, on the way into camp, about a half-mile before said green gate, there's a culvert where Berry Creek passes beneath the pavement on its way to Spanish Creek.  On the east side of the culvert and five or six feet beneath the pavement is a large shrub I've been looking at but failing to identify for at least five or six years.  When I first saw it, I might have carelessly passed it off as a species of Elderberry.  It has pinnately compound leaves, for instance.  Over the years I gradually came to realize thee are only two species of Elderberry around here and this new shrub was clearly neither.  I also noticed that as robust as this shrub gets by midsummer, it never gets woody stems, and it dies back completely by winter.  Hut, I didn't see it in any of my easy-to-use field guides, and I've been too lazy to look beyond.  Enter, my hiking companion.  She took photos, which I failed to do - still not curious enough, I guess - and found that this plant is not in my field guides, but on CalFlora and other plant ID sites, and is variously known as California Spikenard and Elk Clover (although it is not even close to being a true clover) with a scientific name of Aralia californica.  It's in the family Araliaceae, the Ginseng family.  As you might guess from that factoid, it is known for medicinal properties.  I invite the curious reader search any of the names I've associated with this plant and enjoy the botanical wanderings as I have.
Last, but not least, a beautiful find adjacent to the mouth of Gilson Creek, the Scarlet Monkey Flower, Mimulus cardinalis.  This looks superficially like California Fuschia, so I did a bit of web searching.  So, here we go again.  While my field guides place it in the Scrophulariaceae, I discovered that some now place it in the family Phrynaceae, and some have even changed the plants of the genus Mimulas to the genus Erythranthe.  So , if you enjoy these wanderings you can now call this beautiful plant Erythranthe cardinalis.  You might also enjoy finding online images of California Fuschia and comparing them to this head-on view (below) of the Monkeyflower.
Next up: a few more interesting plants seen on this hike, a few animals. and some great railroad graffiti.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Late season flora and fauna, Part I

 I took a new friend on a tour (nature walk) just north of Oakland Camp this morning.  What with the drought returning and the extremely hot week punctuated by the Minerva Fire, I had low expectations when it came to wildflowers and bugs.  To make up for a possible dearth of flora and fauna, I thought I'd take us up to the railroad tunnel a half mile or so west of Gilson Creek.  Just before we got to the tunnel, we spotted a patch of very healthy looking Mullein.  This is close to the tallest one I've seen this year, and my friend put me in the photo for scale.  I'm 5' 6", unless I've shrunk a bit this past week, so that puts the Mullein at around 8 feet.  We then continued on toward the tunnel.  It was very hot.
 We discussed the nature of train approaches from the Quincy direction.  I mentioned that we can hear the "whistle" blow when the train crosses the dirt road by Tollgate Creek.  Then it takes about two minutes for the train to reach the tunnel from there. It takes about a half minute to walk through the tunnel, so, as we chatted away we began to hear the train - but had not heard the whistle.  So, we waited.  Sure enough the train came into view in less than a minute.  I think our chatting covered over the sound of the train whistle, or possibly it did not whistle.  This was an amazing train with a couple of engines in the middle.  I'd estimate it was two miles long.  I explained the purpose of the engines in the middle and how I'd had to do the same thing with my American Flyer model train so the front engine would not pull the cars off the track when rounding tight curves.  A lot of train talk for a wildflower walk, don't you think?  I named the bottom photo "Tunnel Vision" and I think it looks a little better without me in it.
Looking back on a delightful though very hot morning and reviewing my photos, I see that we actually saw quite a few interesting flowers and bugs, and I'll post more of those photos and spin some yarns in a couple of blogs tomorrow.  With a few tips on plant ID from me, my friend managed to identify a shrub I'd been looking at for the past 8 or 9 years and was never able to identify.  She also identified a beautiful flower that stumped me.  It looked vaguely familiar, but I couldn't quite nail it.  From photos we took, she ID'd it.  Then I discovered I had photographed it and put it on this blog on August 13, 2011.  I'll post more photos and tell out stories tomorrow.