Monday, July 31, 2017

They actually land sometimes!!

 The phrase that came to mind last night and early this morning was "the drone of helicopters," but that phrase nowadays will lead to misunderstanding.  These helicopters have real human pilots inside.  Their flights are constant.  I wondered if they ever land.  Reminded me of certain insects that never seem to land, especially when I'm trying to photograph them.  Then there's the albatross, a bird that many people throughout history perpetuated the belief that they never land.  Exciting to contemplate, but I've seen albatrosses on the ground in the Galapagos Islands.  They have to lay their eggs near the edges of cliffs because they cannot take off from flat ground from a run.  Their first flight begins when they and/or their moms believe they are ready; the first flight begins when they jump off the cliff.  The sport of hang gliding must be something like that.  Not for me.
These pasta few days I've taken lots of photos of the helicopters in flight, but this morning I saw one on the ground at the airport, so they do land.  I drove closer for some photos.  Very impressive.  They're huge.  My son Googled this model and found that they can carry 10 tons!  Click on either photo for a closer view and to see them in relation to the size of humans on top and nearby.  A fuel and maintenance stop, and maybe a few moments for the pilot to rest, eat, drink, whatever.
AS far as I'm concerned, this is heroic work, and a brief chat with one of the guys confirmed my positive opinion of them and their work.  I'm grateful that our home seems relatively safe for now.
But I'm still opposed to this so-called heliport that's been approved over in Genessee Valley.

As if a forest fire were not enough!!!

 From the window in my office, I can see across the town (or, could see last week) to the place where I live that is currently threatened by what they're calling the Minerva Fire.  The road of helicopters is constant and the air is heavy with soot.  The office is not air conditioned and I am sweating without even moving around.  I stepped outside for a moment to see if the outdoor weather was any better than the indoor.  And there he was - a rattlesnake trying to escape under the neighboring building.  I took a couple of poor photos with my cell phone in order to send a message to the people in charge of dealing with rattlesnakes.  The snake seemed to disappear under the building, but I came back a few minutes later with my better camera, and there he was.  Trying to crawl under the building again.  But this time I noticed that there was a kind of wooden wall that stopped him, so I got down low and closer and got the second photo with my Nikon.
After looking over all the  photos from my phone and my DSLR, I determined that the rattler had at least 7 buttons.  However, the snake was not very long.  Three feet at most.  As I've said here before, the number of buttons does not correlate to the size of the snake.  They add a button every time they shed, and that could occur several times during the summer.  In fact, they are likely to have the most buttons when they are around half their maximum length.  This is much like deer who tend to grow larger antlers when they are young and in their prime.  Yet, for souvenir hunters, the larger number of buttons and the larger antlers remain symbols of size and of the prowess of the hunter.  AS Donald Trump would say, "Sad."  Or is it "SAD"?

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Fighting fire with fire. The ironies.

I live on the north side of a mountain whose south side is on fire.  Yesterday, the watershed called Boyle Ravine, just above my house, was filled with smoke and American Valley where my town of Quincy is located was quite hazy,

and particulates were raining down on our vehicles and homes.  At mid-day yesterday we took delivery on our first cord of firewood (preparing to build fires) for the forthcoming winter season and sweated profusely while getting it all stacked.  Meanwhile, the sky was busy with fire-fighting aircraft run on thousands of little fires as their pistons raced up and down carrying water and chemical retardants to the fire.  Fighting fire with fires.  The irony.
This morning, the immediate threat of evacuation has passed for the time being, but we are advised to be alert as conditions can change rapidly in the afternoon.  The winds pick up and the humidity drops.
Meanwhile, I am sitting at my bedroom window which faces the action and grading papers from my summer class for California's incarcerated students called Nature Literature in America.  AS one of the required "nature journal" entries, an inmate provided a nice colored pencil drawing of a mountain-top fire burning within view of he prison.  More irony.
I might get the urge later to walk downtown to a point from where I can get a photo of the smoke and aircraft to supplement this post. [Done]
Oh, one more irony: in the forest there are many species of conifers whose seeds must be exposed to fire before they will germinate.  Likewise, many species of wildflowers.  Next year could be a great season for many species of wildflowers.  I hope we can still live here to see them.

Friday, July 28, 2017

An Imaginary Contest

 When I encounter a field full of very tall Mulleins, I don't pay attention to an individual plant, and none of them seems special - unless a Bluebird or Meadowlark lands on one.  Then that one seems special, at least for a few moments.  The Mullein in the above photo is the only one in my neighborhood, or at least the only tall one that is noticeable on my daily drive-bys,
Only a block away, on the other side of Coburn, is a very tall Hollyhock.  Again, being the only very tall one in the vicinity, it seems very special.  For the record, I've never seen a field full of vary tall Hollyhocks, so I've never taken them for granted.  Since I drive by these two tall plants every day, I've taken to imagining them to be in a contest, the Weed vs. the Cultivar.  Much of my writing in this blog over the years has been in support of weeds, but this time, I think the Hollyhock has an edge.  For one thing, it is part of a flower garden that is well-cared for - watered, etc., and the Mullein is most likely an accidental that the property owners simply did not choose to "weed."  The Mullein, too, is accompanied by a few well-cared-for cultivars, the most impressive of which are the usually Foxgloves and Peonies.  But the Mullen is looking rather heavy at the top with its load of literally millions of tiny seeds.  It looks rather vulnerable to winds, and who knows what other forces come along in the night.  Bears, for instance.  I often find fresh bear poop in the middle of this road, and also tipped-over trash cans on Monday mornings.  You'd think people would learn not to put their trash cans out Sunday evening.  They get knocked over by bears every time.  So much for my amusements during my daily drive down Coburn.

Prickly Environments and Prickly Naturalists

 I just had a nice lunch, so I'm not feeling quite prickly enough to write out the intended text for these photos.  Maybe after a couple of hot afternoon hours. :)

Wednesday, July 26, 2017


 Hooker's Evening Primrose, but in my experience, which is limited, it only blooms in the morning.  The photo below shows the lone blossom surrounded by taller vegetation.  I spotted it while driving along Chandler Road at around 15 mph.  I would never have seen it if it were not blooming.  During the past several years I've photographed this species along this stretch many times, always in the morning.  By noon or some afterwards, the blossoms close and are barely noticeable unless one knows exactly where to look.  The other location in my local travels where they've often been abundant is in and around the ditch that flows along the north side of the Safeway parking lot.  Same pattern - blooming in the morning.  I've barely done any Internet research on this question, but I plan to soon.  I'll start by looking for etymologies for the Family Onagraceae and the genus Oenothera.  Even my favorite field guide for this area says it blooms in the evening.  Nothing like a misbehaving plant to arouse my curiosity.

Brady's Camp Epilogue

 Before writing about my last few photos for the season from my Brady's Camp adventure, I want to express appreciation for the fast Internet available at my favorite Coffee Shops and Cafes in Quincy: Carey Candy Company, Midtown Coffee, and Pangaea.  The library is pretty good, too.  The Internet at home is terrible.  ATT needs to improve!!!
Anyway, back to the photos.  I've started off with primary colors.  EAch is more beautiful when seen alongside the others, but these were seen at widely separated stops along the Squirrel Creek Road.  The red is Crimson Columbine (Buttercup Family), the yellow is a species of Cinquefoil (Rose Family), and the blue is Delphinium, AKA Larkspur (Buttercup Family).

 Near the spot where Pine Creek crosses under the Squirrel Creek Road, I saw a long stretch of dead Choke Cherry bushes.  I couldn't help but wonder what killed them.  Maybe a Forest Service or log company herbicide?  Until I find out, I won't eat any cherries from this area.
 Another favorite encounter was with a Red Dragonfly.  Various blue, black, green, and grey dragonflies seem much more common which makes the occasional red one stand out.  It took me quite a few shots to get one that I could reasonable post here without embarrassment.  Even at that, I didn't get very close, so I've cropped this photo seriously.  Click on it if you like to see individual pixels. :)
There, I've caught up to my self-imposed goal of averaging one post per day.

Her Favorite Tree

 Around the same time I was riding around among the Red Fir, my daughter-in-law was hiking among the Red Fir on the PCT, and she mentioned that it was her favorite tree.  They seemed particularly beautiful to me on this day.  I am reminded that at some point I must have declared the California Black Oak to be my favorite tree, thus the name given to this blog.  However, that choice was contextual.  It had not only to do with the tree itself but to the ecology of its habitats and the history of its namesake, Albert Kellogg (Quercus kelloggi).  Now I'm in a new context - high altitude, fresh cool air, amazing scenic backdrops.  Then I remember where I've encountered my favorite grove of these trees and that was along the PCT above Bucks Lake Wilderness, between Granite Gap and a place just north of the side trail up Mt. Pleasant.  I wondered if Kelly's fondness for this species might also be contextual.  Sound like a bit of navel-gazing?  Perhaps so, but I think it's a harmless enterprise.
 The perfect Christmas tree, but I'm glad it's usually covered by many feet of snow by the time people go out on their snowmobiles to harvest them.
 The tree species that interested me on this particular outing, the one to Brady's Camp over a week ago, or has it been two weeks?  The Lodgepole Pine, known by several other names, depending on the region and/or the use to which you wish to put the tree - firewood, cabin building, fenceposts, etc., etc.  Several features of this tree fascinate me in comparison to other local pines.  The pollen release can be intense.  The needles occur in "bundles" of two (see a pair of bundles in my hand below).  The cones some time grow right off the sides of branches, even off the trunk.  Other pines in this area have needles in bundles of three, four or five, and the needles are of different lengths, those of the Lodgepole Pine being among the shortest, and those of Ponderosa and Jeffrey Pines the longest.  When you develop an eye for subtle shades of green, you might even be able to identify these species from a distance by the overall color.

 Hmmm, this could be turned into a logos design for letterhead for someone named Willis.
Like many other species at high altitudes, when they die and lose their needles and bark, they can decompose internally over several years without any outward signs of weakness, then BOOM, a wind knocks one down in your path or on your head.  This one will become soil in a few years.

I Can't Get Enough of This Beetle!

 In the longhorn beetle family which I featured in my previous post, the Red Milkweed Beetle, Tetraopes basalis, is one of my favorite photo subjects.  The plant, Showy Milkweed, Asclepias speciosa, is the host.  When the beetles are eating or mating, they seem oblivious to my presence.  Before they began either of those activities, around a month ago, they would bend their antennae back like a cat guarding its territory, then fly away if they couldn't get me to back off.  Then, as if over night, they became engrossed in eating and breeding and became an easy photo subject.
 In this head-on view I got the camera to within 9 inches.  Below, I turned over a leaf and revealed what I think are eggs.  It's time to do my annual review of this beetle's life history.  I do know they spend the winter in the roots of the plant below the ground surface.  I guess that's redundant. :)
 I've never been bitten, although I think they're capable of it.  They do take good-sized chunks out of the leaves of the milkweed.

 An aerial shot against a bright blue sky - I was actually holding the blade of grass, and my picking it did not seem to bother the beetle.  I made a point of placing her on another blade of grass when I was done photographing.

I think I may have satisfied my beetle photography needs for this season - unless I encounter a new species.

A welcome distraction

Seen on the pavement in the alley behind Pangaea where we were parasitizing the fast Internet on a hot Sunday afternoon.  I "tweaked" the photo a little so the bug would stand out against in pavement.  It's a longhorn beetle of which there are many species around these parts.  When this bug stood still, it was beautifully camouflaged against the dusty pavement and we couldn't see it unless we somehow made it move by waving our hands or creating wind with a computer case.  Reminded me of certain crabs and flounders that easily disappear visually against the beach sand.  Longhorn beetles are often blamed for forest destruction, but the fact is forests "taken over" by beetles are already stressed by human activities.  Otherwise, how did the trees and the beetles manage to get along together for millions of years before we came along?  We need to ask that question more often about lots of forest plants and creatures, such as the wolves in this morning's local paper.  We are lucky to have at least one family of wolves in Plumas County.  I hope I get to see them.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Thinking about helicopters.

The White-lined Sphinx, photos of which I've already posted last week, on first approach looks like a hummingbird and is thus often called a Hummingbird Moth.  They, and the bees, wasps, and hover flies also can conjure up images of helicopters.  So, today I'm thinking about helicopters for several reasons besides the moth image.  For one, my youngest son works at a machine shop at the airport servicing and rebuilding vintage rotary aircraft engines.  He and I see helicopters taking off and landing at the airport daily.  Some are doing fire protection work and others are on medical missions.  I have seen no signs that suggest any of them are being used recreationally.
Meanwhile, a decision by our county planning department has come to my attention.  The decision seems to me absurd.  First it amounts to denying the fact that a "heliport" is a class of "airport."  I have found no definition of "airport" that indicates heliports are not included.  Second, the claim of certain wealthy parties in Genessee Valley, separated from Quincy by a mountain range, are trying to get permitted to establish a base for helicopters for agricultural use.  The Genessee Valley has been loved by residents and visitors alike for many many years specifically because of its beauty and quietude.  The people applying for helicopter use in this valley obviously have no respect for the wishes or explanations of the residents.  The permission has been granted, but I hope the fight is not over.  Among other things, the relationship of this issue to my usual musings in natural history has to do with the practice of naming things.  What's in a name?  How broad is the definition of "agricultural use"?  Is it important that a distinction is made between "heliport" and "airport" and by extension the rules governing each?  In Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, did it matter whether one was a Montague or a Capulet?  Has my life in the USA been different due to inheriting my father's last name, Willis, rather than my mother's, which was Scalabroni?  Does it matter when a certain plant is called Bindweed rather than Orchard Morning Glory?  Does it matter whether various raptors are called by their specific AOU names as types of hawks, eagles, and owls, or called buzzards - along with the vultures?  Genessee Valley, R. I. P.


The only thing these photos have in common is that they are addenda to several narratives about recent trips that I left unfinished in last week's blog posts.  The first two relate to our trip to the Mendocino coast, Fort Bragg specifically.  I call the above photo Plato cuadrado.  But, it's bedtime.  Hasta manana.
7/26 - I'm back, and will try to make sense of this collection.
First, our recent visit to Fort Bragg which definitely included nostalgic impulses.  We wanted to visit the Headlands Coffee House on a Friday night when there always used to be live music and the usually great pastries, pizza, coffees, teas, and great service.  It worked out fine, and as a bonus we ran into an old friend from Ukaih whom we hadn't seen in over 15 years!  Second, we wanted to get up early and beat the crowd to have breakfast at Egghead's, a place with a Wizard of Oz theme, and a painted "yellow brick road" leading to the outdoor bathroom.  The walls were covered with photos from the movie and book.  We expected to hear Judy Garland singing as we ordered, and that our omelettes would arrive with heaps of home-fried potatoes all arranged on a large, oval-shaped, ceramic plate.
Well, there was no crowd waiting.  We were greeted by a friendly Mexican gentleman and escorted to our table to the sounds of Mariachi music that transported us to our experiences many years ago visiting Tecate and Tiajuana.  We loved those visits and enjoy greatly what we know of Mexican history and culture and the Spanish language.  However, when our meal arrived on square, styrofoam plates (above photo), and all the music, personnel, and much of the menu were no longer Oz-themed, it was quite disconcerting.  We may go back, because it was good, but first we'll need to adjust our expectations.
Now, for the natural history link.  The Tabasco bottles on each table brought back great memories.  When I was a zoology major at Tulane, I took many field trips to Avery Island in Louisiana where Tabasco sauces are made.  The "island" is a salt dome rising like a small mountain from a vast expanse of tidal marsh.  The island includes a wildlife refuge.  When I was in college, the Tabasco plant was run by a grandson of the founder, E. I. McIlhenny who happened to be a zoology graduate of Tulane.  Thanks to him, we were granted permission to do certain biological field studies in and around the refuge.  During those visits we learned a lot of history of the place, including the story of the original McIlhenny introducing the Nutria, a very large, water-loving rodent, to the area with the European market for furs in mind.  That experiment turned out badly.  Among many other problems, the Nutria multiplied very rapidly and almost eliminated the native Muskrat and brought many other environmental problems that remain to this day. But, my zoology field experience there was wonderful, and the association of Tabasco with pleasure is probably permanent.
The next three photos were taken on my Brady's Camp adventure over a week ago.  There might still be a few more in my archive from that trip that I'll post later.  The first is a great view of Quincy from the road that hovers around 7,000' from Argentine Peak to Solomon's Saddle and side roads up Grizzly Peak.  Views of placesI've lived from mountain tops or airplanes (although I now avoid airplanes) always remind me of how small we humans are in the scheme of things and how our power to ruin things gets out of hand so easily.
At the Quincy elevation, we have Douglas's Spiraea growing alongside the major streams such as Spanish Creek as it flows by Oakland Camp.  Below is a patch of Mountain Spiraea growing around a little spring in the vicinity if Solomon's Saddle.  We have several bushes of Mountain Spiraea growing in our front yard.  It seems pretty hardy, even during these drought years.
Somewhere along the route I took, possibly at a lower elevation on Squirrel Creek Road, I found a patch of Scarlet Gilia (below) that always stands out when everything around it is green, brown, and dusty.
Last, a photo I took at the magazine rack in Safeway.  My emotional reaction to this cluster of magazines was nausea.  I had been reading Professor Steven Pinker's thoughts from his book "The Better Angels of our Nature," in which he makes the claim that the human species (that's us!) is less violent than ever.  Now the book did come out before Trump was elected, so things could change.
So, this photo and brief comment opens a can of worms.  Maybe even a Twitter storm.  I wonder if it could also launch a calm discussion of issues around guns, hunting, safety and violence.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Lepidoptera by Pine Creek.

There's a large patch of Mint, maybe Horsemint, at the edges of Pine Creek where it crosses the Squirrel Creek Road, the road I took to Brady's Camp (see previous posts), and there were hundreds of Butterflies and Moths visiting.  I'm not too good at photographing things that keep moving fast, but I did get a few that I thought were worth sharing.  The first two are White-lined Sphinx moths, also know as Hummingbird moths because of the amazing resemblance in flight.
THe next one is some species of Fritillary.
And finally, a Pale Swallowtail butterfly.
I haven't located this spot on a topo map, but I suspect it's at around 6,500 '.  After Pine Creek flows eastward out of Brady's camp, it takes a sudden right turn southward and drops down to this crossing of Squirrel Creek Road,  Very dusty and bumpy.  I was worried about rattling my truck to death.

Lilies at 7,000'

Washington Lily, at the edge of Pine Creek, downstream from Brady's Camp.  Approximately 7,000' elevation.
Leopard Lily, same area.
Rear view of Leopard Lily, just as pretty.
Sierra Onion, at Brady's Camp.
Pretty-Face Brodiaea at Brady's Camp.