Saturday, April 20, 2019

Opinionated Shrubs - Beware!

Yesterday my son and I were hiking in 3 or 4 year post-burn Chapparal just south-west of the intersection of the Garlock and San Andreas Faults.

We had rehearsed what to do if we encountered a rattlesnake: stop then back away.

Then we found one and got to put that into practice.

It is electrifying to have an ordinary bush begin buzzing loudly - there are no giant Cicadas here - leading to poorly considered actions. That is why we practiced and rehearsed snake encounter procedures BEFORE actually encountering one.

In this case, it paid off! We came within a few feet before it made its presence known, at which point we moved away briskly as planned. End result: snake is unharmed, we are unharmed.

Rattlesnakes are often just under the drip line of bushes. This allows them to bask and avoid predation by hawks. The downside of this is you can get quite close before the snake is aware of you or you are aware of the snake. Practicing calm and stop-back away helps in moments like this.

I have not identified the species yet. This video was taken from outside of strike range (the snake never tried to strike), through the Adenostoma fasciculatum bush that had concealed the snake.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Masked Bandit - Merriam's Chipmunk

They are cute. They are fluffy. These nefarious critters dig up and eat my seedlings! OK, so no one is perfect...

I bought a wildlife camera to identify the creature that was helping his or her self to my seedlings. Turns out it is a Merriam's Chipmunk, Tamias merriami. Now that I know the identity of the masked seedling bandit, I still need to figure out how to convince the critter to gnaw on other esculents.

Just as I was ruminating on what to do (I am going to try replaying a chipmunk warning call to him), I find that he has a sidekick!

This larger creature is a Western Grey Squirrel, Sciurus griseus. I don't have any photos of this one up to mischief (I have the Chipmunk actually eating the plants), though it is an arboreal species (lives in trees). There must be some reason it is not just on the ground, but more, sitting on my planting troughs. I am suspicious.

My son would be happy to have either as a pet, he wants me to catch them (nope!) instead of just encourage them to feast somewhere else. At least I intend to attempt discouraging their noshing... if my massive success with the deer is any indication, I should be adjusting to nibbled seedlings...

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

California's Plants that Eat Animals

California has wild carnivorous plants! We have representatives of five of six common styles of carnivorous plants right here in the state. These are:

  • Pit Traps - the California Snake Lily, Darlingtonia
  • Glue Traps - the Butterworts
  • Tentacle-y Grab Traps - the Sundews
  • Suck-things-in Traps - the Bladderworts
  • Snare Traps - the Oyster Mushrooms
The only major commonly accepted group missing is the Snap Trap group, which only contains a single species in the entire world, the Venus Fly Trap of the Eastern U.S.A.

While growing these is generally not a simple affair (not great choices for the beginner), they can be cultivated. If you are going to grow these, always start with a reputable nursery - locally I can recommend Predatory Plants along highway 92 on the way to Half Moon Bay (we have no ties to them, we just find them reputable and friendly).

Last August we went to the mountains of far Northern California - the Siskiyous. This is a great place to see some carnivores in the wild, including our biggest, the four-foot-tall Snake Lilies, Darlingtonia californica:

Our son says "I'm looking at Snake Lilies and they look like long snake-like lilies and the lilies are long like a snake. Snakes are long like these stems. They eat bugs and flies. Thank you, that is my blog post".

These are challenging to grow, as they grow with their roots in cold underground streams (scree slope seepage). We bought one from the nursery in Half Moon Bay, and it is doing well courtesy of some engineering, at least so far. The heat of Summer will be challenging.

These plants have tall, hollow leaves with slightly open "lids". Water laced with digestive enzymes fills the upright hollow stems, with a fragrance of water and rotting things (yummy for some bugs at least). The inside of the trap is lined with down-pointing fine hairs. When bugs try to climb out, even if they make it up the stem, the lid has false "windows" that the bugs make towards, only to find their way blocked. This is a lot like the way a yellowjacket trap works, except when the bugs become exhausted they fall not to the ground, but into the pitcher's digestive liquid.

Another type of carnivore deploys "Fly Paper", in this case the entire leaf coated with sticky stuff. These are the Butterworts. Below is Pinguicula macroceras from Del Norte county:

Bugs get caught on the sticky leaves and are digested in place - the plant senses the bug and exudes digestive enzymes that dissolve the parts of the insect containing useful nutrients, leaving behind the empty shells of indigestible chitin. The lower photo shows a large number of small flies caught on the leaves, in various states of digestion.

Why eat bugs at all? Bugs, and animals in general, are full of several nutrients that plants need. These plants are scavenging typically nitrogen or phosphorus from the insects, either or both of which can be in very short supply in certain environments, such as mineral spring seeps.

Sunday, April 7, 2019

Superbloom in Joshua Tree National Park becomes Super Caterpillar

A week ago we passed through the Sonoran Desert of California just south of Joshua Tree National Park, then continued on into the Pinto Basin of the National Park. There is an arbitrary point in the Pinto Basin we enjoy visiting. Even more when there is a true superbloom!

The superbloom isn't limited to vascular plants! This is a Stalked Puffball, a desert musroom benefiting from the same conditions that benefit the plants.

This annual is a daisy - Monoptilon - that I fell in love with as a kid. These cushions are only six inches across.

Our son had a blast playing with taking pictures of the plants with his tablet, and discovering the bugs. Which led to another discovery - Superbloom comes with Super-bug!

My son delighted in discovering these abundant caterpillars - of Hyles lineata, a Hawkmoth that as an adult can be mistaken for a small hummingbird. My son also liked that these caterpillars would hit you with their heads if you tried to bother them - a remarkably direct approach for a harmless caterpillar! These were just slightly less abundant than the flowers they were devouring. This one is shown next to a Plantago erecta, but it was actually eating an Oenothera heterophylla.


Fog is essential for Redwood Trees. Most of the water the forest gets over the dry Summer months in California comes in the form of fog that is captured by trees or converted to rain that falls within the dripline of the trees. You only find wild Redwoods where there is Summer fog. The needles of Redwoods are designed to capture fog and turn it into rain.

Our home is at the edge of the Redwood Forest. About one-third of the yard is in wild second-growth Redwoods. Much of the rest is Douglas Fir. Both these species actually act as precipitrons, with the needles electrostatically charged relative to the fog flowing over the mountain, resulting in fog droplets collecting on the tree needles. This in turn becomes larger droplets, until they are too large to remain on the leaf and fall to the ground. Locally this is known as "Fog Drip", and it more than doubles the rainfall under the Fir and Redwood trees relative to open ground rainfall. The entire ecology of the Redwood Forest is dependent upon Fog Drip to keep alive through the warm and dry summers (no actual rain typically falls between June and October).

When I moved here twenty years ago, I thought "Wow - I can grow a lot of vegetables!". True enough, though the ones I finally started to succeed with were not the ones I started with. In years that are typical of coastal Redwood Forest, it is a race between getting my first ripe tomato of the year and the first frost of the Fall. In more atypical years, I get ripe tomatoes in July. We've had lots more of these later types of years lately, and they stress the forest mightily.

At least this Spring, we still have the life giving fog. This is the view of the Fir trees from our deck.

While the fog keeps the yard colder than most folks like (not exactly swimwear weather), there are other compensating wonders, such as the reductionist Lilies: Trillium. Southern California and the deserts have superblooms. Our forests have their own version. Rather than carpets of color that run for miles, there are sublime blossoms to be found in the deep mossy places. Added bonus: no sunburn!

This is a local color form of Trillium chloropetalum. More typically flowers of this species are pale green on the coast, or brick red east of the coastal slopes.

We also have true Lilies - they will not be flowering locally for months, but the dwarf Checker Lilies are in flower now (Fritillaria affinis) often among the Trilliums.

You can't find our superfog superflowers from miles away, yet when you do find them they are sublime additions that make the day brighter.

Sunday, March 3, 2019

My Granary Tree, says the Woodpecker to the Squirrel

When a tree becomes ill, insects move in and start eating the tree. These insects are a major food for woodpeckers, indeed, they are the reason for the common name associated with this group of birds. They don't just eat insects, they also eat acorns. So do squirrels eat acorns. Hence the problem: how can woodpeckers store acorns so squirrels cannot get them?

The answer is something called a "Granary Tree". The bird finds a rotting section of tree, branch, or even exposed root, and pecks a hole into it just large enough to accept an acorn. Then, in the Fall, fill the holes with one acorn each, with the big, blunt, hard to grab end of the acorn facing out. Paws are not going to really help getting this slippery rounded thing out of a hole. Hence acorns stored like this tend to not be obtainable by squirrels. Woodpeckers just peck out the blunt end and eat the seed when they need it.

Here is one example from Rocklin, California earlier today:

That doesn't mean the granary trees don't get guarded... My son seems to have flushed a squirrel into a tree and in fact into a granary area, resulting in the squirrel hunkering down and enduring a dive-bombing and pecking by the woodpecker so calmly seen in the photo above. After a minute or two, I had to remove my son from the area to allow the squirrel to escape, as the woodpecker seemed to have attracted reinforcements that were joining the fracas.

Here is the woodpecker beginning to chase the squirrel:

Followed by squirrel hair collection activities by the same bird:

Food is serious business.

My son summarizes this much more succinctly: "The woodpecker is attacking the squirrel and then it is trying to knock the squirrel off the tree. And if the squirrel is knocked off the tree, maybe I can catch it [Editor/Dad's note - nope!]. And that is my blog post."

Saturday, March 2, 2019

How much Corona Discharge should be visible on PG&E (?) Transmission Lines?

Here is a neat trick to try on a moonless night - get a modern digital camera, a tripod, and a telephoto lens. Put the camera on the tripod, set the lens to a wide aperture (such as f/3 or whatever the lowest number happens to be for the lens you have), set the camera to its highest ISO setting, and take a 15 second or so exposure focused on the power line or the insulators supporting it on towers.

Look at the insulator - there are glowing purple blobs! This is on a 220-287 thousand volt transmission line near my home. I was trying to photograph the bioluminescence of Omphalotus mushrooms, but they appeared to not be in the mood, so I was looking for other things that might be interesting. I had seen a photo of power lines where the wires were all glowing purple, and thought that was what I would get from this method. Instead, it looks to me like the insulator is having a problem.

The purple blobs are ionized gas, in this case a form of plasma called "Corona Discharge". I cannot seem to find any information on how much should be visible on insulators, though what I have found would indicate that "very little" is expected on this type of insulating support.

Any time you are near high voltage wires and hear the crackling, buzzing sound typical of power lines, corona discharge is usually part of the sound generation. I never bothered looking to see where it was specifically being generated before, and was surprised that essentially the only stuff I could see was on the supporting insulators.

Corona discharge, in addition to eventually leading to the failure of insulators (hmm - I recall I live in PG&E territory - wonder if that's relevant), is the way power lines make ground level ozone and nitrogen oxides, neither of which are good for people.

It goes to show, keep your eyes open and you can see the unexpected in ordinary places!