Saturday, August 19, 2017

Revisiting the Gumplant

At this time of year it seems that a high percentage of flowering plants along the road sides have yellow blossoms and are in the Family Asteraceae.  This includes Goldenrod, Sunflowers, Arnica, and Gumplant.  I posted photos of Gumplant in 2012, but I haven't really paid attention to it this summer until today.  I've been driving past a patch of it on Highway 70 near Cromberg for several weeks.  Today I actually planned a stop.  The above photo included a beautiful Caterpillar.  As I look over the dozen or so photos I took during my brief stop, I realize that the magic of technology, both camera and laptop, allows me to do a kind of "magic schoolbus" journey into the details I couldn't see while taking the photos.  The scientific name is Grindelia nana.  Tomorrow morning I'll select my favorites and post them.
Nearby, I made another stop to explore a patch of Sunflowers, and that produced some surprises.  I wondered about the origin of the name, although it's pretty obvious that there's a resemblance of each flower (composed of two kinds of flowers, disc and ray) resembles the Sun.  I also thought about the many times in the Sacramento Valley west of Colusa I have seen fields of cultivated Sunflowers facing the early morning Sun as I drove by, then still facing the Sun in the afternoon on my return trips.  So, I wondered if the name could have originated from the fact they "follow the Sun."  With that in mind, I was startled to see that in this patch near Cromberg, all the blossoms were facing away from the setting Sun.  Hmmm.  Tomorrow I'll post my favorites of the Sunflowers, too.

Goal: 1 Photo

 I pulled into the parking lot by the South Park trailhead and had 20 minutes to wait for an appointment.  I started thinking about Ansel Adams and the early days of film photography.  Adams would sometimes spend days in preparation for a single photograph.  I wondered what it would be like to wander around with my camera in the vicinity of my truck and wait for the opportune situation to take just one photo and base the day's blog post around that one photo.  With the advent of digital photography I have this nagging feeling that people, including myself, take too darn many pictures without giving much forethought to any one photo.  We might come home with hundreds, download on a computer, then delete most of them.  Choose a few good ones (lucky ones?) and feel we've created high art.  I wanted to slow down and get just one photo.  Couldn't do it!!!
After wandering for around 15 minutes in a very dry, brown, and combustable field, a shrub-like flowering plant (above) stood out as the pink blossoms were like little lights in an otherwise drab background.  Then I dropped my lens cap, and as I bent down to pick it up, I noticed that my new pants were covered with sticky seeds.  That called for a photo.
 I was running out of time and wondered whether the pink flowers would be worthy of my goal.  So, I paused briefly by the big sign with a map of the trail system.  Below it was a brown metal box containing free trail maps.  Printed sideways, as you can see below, the word MAPS jumped out at me and stirred a feeling I often got when I lived in Ukiah.  I never stopped getting a quick thrill when I saw the word "Haiku" on the "entering Ukiah" signs in my rear-view mirror.
 With about a minute to go, I passed a large Thistle that stood out above the surrounding dried-up vegetation.  Even though most of its flowers had gone to seed, the plant was obviously still alive and I found it photo-worthy.  So, there you have it - 20 minutes of wandering and thinking and producing a few photos and ideas that I'll undoubtedly revisit from time to time and see where they lead me.

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.