Monday, November 4, 2019

The Saffron Harvest Begins!

The orange tip of the stigma - the female part of the flower - is just pushing out of the tip of the opening bud of this Saffron flower. To harvest the spice, you pick the flowers and take them apart, drying just the orange-golden stigmas like tiny threads.

We have a few patches of these we planted over the past 20 years. They are autumn flowering members of the genus Crocus, with flowers pushing through the dry ground before even the leaves emerge. This type of flowering, with the flower arising before the leaves, is called hysteranthous flowering.

Saffron is native to the Middle East and parts of Greece, though it was planted widely around the Mediterranean. Even in the United Kingdom the Romans grew it, leaving place names like Saffron Walden behind.

Saffron needs a hot, dry summer and a cool, wet fall through spring. It pulls itself deeper into the ground each year, so needs protection from gophers and squirrels and other rodents that dig.

Over the years, I've grown enough Saffron to make a few rice dishes with my own saffron. It takes a lot of land to grow an ounce of the dry herb!

Our son has planted his bed of saffron now, with high hopes and last year harvested his own first saffron!

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Stagmomantis - The Native Preying Mantises of Southern California

Fall is for Preying Mantises! More succinctly, early Fall is the easiest time to see adult Stagmomantis species in the wild in California. They have finished their growth and the adults are reasonably abundant.

There are several species of Stagmomantis in California. I suspect this one of being a male Stagmomantis californica, though it objected to my attempts to get a closer photo... It was encountered in the Verdugo Mountains near La Crescenta within the San Fernando Valley.

To find Mantids, look for places with lots of smaller bugs. These are ambush predators - they stand still and wait for their prey to walk within striking distance of their amazing spiked front limbs. Good choices are lights at night, flowering and fruiting bushes that are attracting small insects, and anywhere they blend in. While tall grasses often harbor them, such places also have ticks - best to stay in the open and watch carefully.

Other Stagmomantis species I believe are in California include these:

Stagmomantis limbata

Stagmomantis carolina

Stagmomantis californica

Stagmomantis gracilipes

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Seeing The Pacific Garbage Patch

Recently I had a flight between Honolulu and Oakland. On that path, about 45 minutes out of Honolulu, I happened to look out my window because I recalled the Pacific Gyre was roughly in this area. I did not know it would be visible from jetliner altitudes, yet it was. What surprised me further was that it is not a "patch", it is like a skein of yarn pulled this way and that. There are eskers and windrows and fans and tangles of yellow-green lines on the surface of the water. It is awesome, sad, and fascinating. Look to the right of the sun glare in the photo below.

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Mountain Shadows being cast into Deep Space

If you find somewhere where the Earth is very smooth, and drop a mountain onto that spot, something amazing happens. At sunrise and sunset, the mountain does something more normally assigned as a task for clouds: casting shadows not just through the air to project onto the ground, rather casting shadows through the air and on out, into deep space.

The giant dark stripes in the sky are the shadows of three mountains, in fact the largest mountain on the Earth is one of them: Mauna Loa, Mauna Kea, and Haleakala.

The unusual aspect is that these mountains rise out of a very smooth ocean with often very clear air. These shadows are going *up* and will not be cast on the ground, at least not at the time of this photo. These mountains are east of where I was to take this picture. The sun has not risen where I am. These shadows are diverging and actually rising up away from the dark side of our world. This is because their bases are still in darkness, before sunrise, while their tops nearly three miles above project into air that is illuminated by the sun.

The shadows are not cast onto the Earth. They actually continue all the way through the atmosphere and out, into deep space.

Almost twenty years ago I watched the first dawn of the Third Millenium from atop one of these, watching my shadow join the shadow of the larger mountain and together cast into deep space. That was twenty years ago. My shadow has passed many stars since then.

On January 1st, the sun is in Sagittarius, roughly near the position 18h 44m  -23° 03'. The point opposite that in the sky is where the shadow went: 6h 44m +23 03'. That point lies within the constellation Gemini. The major stars of the constellation range from 33.8 to more than 1763 light-years away. While my shadow has not reached any of the major stars, it has passed the distance of several of the lesser stars. Gliese 251 is about the closest star in the constellation at about 18.22 light-years distance. Some minuscule portion of the light blocked by our world from our star I personally blocked that morning. If there are entities out there looking for transiting exoplanets orbiting stars along the ecliptic, we would be visible as one of their detectable exoplanets. One morning almost 20 years ago, I helped a tiny, tiny bit.

Monday, September 23, 2019

The Fruits of Summer

Picking wild grapes! California has two species of native grapes, including this Vitis girdiana we planted in our yard several years ago. The birds somehow missed these grapes, so we picked many today.

These grapes taste like Concord grapes to me, but better with an edible seed in the center. After carefully picking the bunches, my son had to inspect each bunch and taste test the ripe grapes... more will ripen in a few days....

Sunday, August 25, 2019

The Junior Monkeywrench Gang vs. PG&E

PG&E continues to do what I can most generously describe as 'hamfisted' and 'counterproductive' things to create the appearance of improving our safety.

The problem is this: the path to systemic safety comes from a system level approach.

There are many different types of forest in California. Any forest with a closed canopy keeps ground-level growth to a minimum simply by keeping the ground a low light environment. Further, Douglas Fir and Redwood trees are natural precipitrons - they electrostatically collect fog droplets and build droplets large enough to make rain. This keeps the duff moist and much slower to burn. Our biggest fires have been in Chaparral and open Woodlands with significant ground level brush. Comparatively few large fires have been in low-brush closed canopy forest.

PG&E continues to open closed canopy forests, including adjacent to and in our yard. We are opposed to these efforts to actively increase ground-level brush growth.

My son understands some of this. Today I found him trying to remove markings on trees in our yard slated for unwise removal.

At 6 years of age, he couldn't even read The Monkeywrench Gang, nor have I read it to him. Yet I am proud of him getting up and taking action on his own initiative against something he feels is fundamentally wrong.

He now holds vigil eating an apple he grew on our land defending his Fig Tree should the crews happen by this afternoon. He has never even heard of Julia Butterfly Hill, yet I feel they would find common ground.

Lilikoi and Apples!

Today we ate the first of our apples from the 2019 season. Anna is supposed to be even earlier than Gravenstein, though since Gravenstein did not set apples this year and this is the first time in 16 years that Anna has fruited for us, we can neither confirm nor deny the statement.

Anna turns out to be a soft-ish tart apple of good flavor and mild fragrance. Yellow-green and just soft enough to be tender when quartered, the seeds had not fully darkened on these apples when we cut them up and devoured them today.

We also found our Lilikoi vine is climbing into a small redwood in our yard, and set fruit! These will likely ripen between Halloween and Thanksgiving. This may not be remarkable to most folks, we just do not reliably fruit every year this far north.

BD's blog: "Lilikoi are a very beautiful color when ripe. The beautiful color is purple. Our lilikoi vine is grabbing onto and climbing our Redwood tree. I can't wait for our Lilikoi and other Apples to ripen - then we can make a stand.

Anna apples are green when ripe and we want to make juice out of them but we just ate them. Bye!"  "

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

The Mariposa Lilies of Summer?

California has wild Tulips?! Sort of - the genus Calochortus is actually more closely related to Fritillaria than to the Eurasian genus Tulipa, though they definitely look something alike.

The famed Butterfly Lilies of California and Western North America are generally flowers of Spring, with a few stragglers making it into late June or early July. Even in August, however, a few of the latest blooming species can be found - you just have to like getting to altitude!

Calochortus invenustus, the entirely incorrectly named "not-lovely" Mariposa, is in flower right now at altitudes above 7000' in the Tehachapi, San Gabriel, and other local high mountains. On Sunday while driving to Los Angeles I stopped in some of the high country near the Grapevine and was delighted to find substantial numbers of these pale treasures flowering among the low bushes and rocky areas.

These grow reasonably easily from seed and flower often in their third Spring when planted early in the Fall. They require a well aerated and well drained soil, kept dry (not baked in the sun if in pots!) over the Summer, then watered again starting in early October (or at least that is how I grow them). I'll post something more detailed later, however if you want instructions now, several excellent guides to growing these gems from seed exist: the Pacific Bulb Society has one of the best here.

Monday, August 12, 2019

PG&E Facilitating Spread of Fire-prone Invasive Species by Opening Closed Canopy Forests

Ever try to do the right thing and have it all go horribly wrong?

PG&E is in the midst of some bizarre and ill-advised efforts to make communities safer from "Utility Caused Wildfire". While this is a goal I think virtually everyone can support, it comes down to asking "what are they doing to accomplish this lofty goal?". That is where the trouble starts.

The Paradise fire was caused when "a live wire broke free of a tower that was a quarter-century past what PG&E considers its “useful life.”" (from the New York Times). While PG&E claims to be changing to a stronger safety footing, even California Governor Newsom states "They have simply been caught red-handed over and over again, lying, manipulating or misleading the public,” summing the situation up simply as “They cannot be trusted.” (also from the New York Times).

Now I get to see this behavior up close and personal, as they attempt to mow a corridor through a closed-canopy second growth Redwood and Oak forest bordering my property.

The trick to fire safety in a Redwood Forest is one of ground clearance - keep no limbs for the lower 50' or so of the trunk, and fire simply cannot climb into the canopy. However, those trunks will only stay free of growth if they are in the shade, such as happens once the canopy of the forest closes. Remove the canopy, and those trunks become green with new growth and young branches. This then becomes not just a ladder fire path to the canopy, but a ladder fire path immediately adjacent to the PG&E power lines.

To engineer anything, you need to understand the system as a system. Forest is not a one-size-fits-all sort of affair. Chaparral and Savannah type woodlands are very different from closed canopy forests with little ground-level growth or light. How the forest and other vegetation will respond matters and needs considered in any plan to manage risks.

The forest is more than the trees.

In our case, a flammable and highly invasive grass is moving into the area called Slender False Brome. The local Open Space District is actively trying to limit the spread and in fact eradicate this species as it poses several risks, including fire.

Here is a photo of the species growing along one of our neighborhood roads where a natural tree fall created an opening in the canopy. The grasses with the nodding seed heads are the problem ones.

Standing on the same spot, looking the other direction, the view is completely devoid of this noxious species because the closed canopy prevents sufficient light from reaching the ground to support growth of the grass.

Opening power line corridors to the sky is inconsistent with California Public Utilities Commission guidelines (which recommend a small radial distance be cleared from the lines, not clearing to the sky).

There is an adage about "the road to ... being lined with good intentions". Certainly this approach to closed canopy forests is going to line the area under the powerlines with easily ignited grasses that are tinder dry in late summer and fall, when fire risks are highest. It might even look like the road to ... should a line fall into such perfect kindling.

The kindling aspect aside of Slender False Brome, creating paths for rapid and deep spread in the largest forest lands in San Mateo and Santa Cruz counties seems unwise at best, and seriously negligent at least in my eyes.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Defending our Fig Trees from Rodents

This is BD's (our son's) fig tree. It doubles as a train, spaceship (such as the Roton), and factory.

Living in a Redwood Forest and practicing what we call "permacultural forest infill farming" has some strong benefits (leaving the Redwoods and Douglas Fir trees increases our effective rainfall by about 50% since they actively convert fog to fog drip), yet has a few downsides (all the critters are still here...).

Our son recently discovered rodents harvesting twigs, leaves, and the all-important figs from our fig tree - his fig tree and favorite climbing tree - which was a declaration of war as far as he was concerned.

This is a transcript of his dictated Call-To-Arms Blog Entry (very lightly edited)

"OK, stop talking. Hey everyone um I just wanted to tell you we're having problems with our fig tree, because rodents are climbing up our fig tree and stealing our branches and figs. I was just wondering could you help us do this because we need help we need all of my friends help to a make the fig tree be better so um would you like to come to our house today to help us fix our fig tree. When you're done you can so and we can like have a little party at our for tree so please help us fix our fig tree. Thank you."

The culprits seem to be chipmunks, since they are also attacking other plants and we've caught them in the act... Look just above center right in the photo below.

Tanglefoot seems to prevent more damage, so we have cut back branches that touch the ground and applied to about 24" of the lower trunk. Other species could be involved, such as Grey Tree Squirrels and Dusky Footed Woodrats. We've caught all three eating plants in the seedling troughs.

Madrone Bark Harvest is Underway

If you are the sorts of folks that enjoy Madrone Bark Tea, the season is now underway to collect freshly fallen bark curls!

Saturday, August 10, 2019

The Bagging of the Trilliums

Trilliums inhabit deep and moist woodlands across the North American Temperate Zone. Some, since they are not known as great map readers, seem to have even wandered into Eastern Asia.

In California we have several species of these Lily relatives. The flower in Spring, and produce seeds in Summer in berries. Most of them have seeds dispersed by ants, though that gets harder to demonstrate if the berries actually ripen - they simply fall off at that point!

To collect actually ripe seeds of Trillium ovatum such as shown above on our land, the seed filled berry needs captured in a mesh bag before it actually ripens.

This last weekend was our weekend for bagging the berries on this species in our yard. The other local species was collected a week or two ago: Trillium chloropetalum. Our son is a fierce defender of these little plants and actively helps seek them out and protect them. Here he is heading back up our hill after helping with bagging of the Trillium berries!

Sunday, July 28, 2019

Anna - The Apple Actually Fruits!

Anna is among the first of the apple trees we planted in our orchard - back in 2003. Every year it is the first to flower, covering itself with blooms. Until this year, that was all the more we got - it never previously set fruit. In case it never happens again, I thought I'd commemorate the event!

This is an early season apple, ripening ahead of all our other varieties. I look forward to trying one!

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Goumi Berries!

Elaeagnus multiflora grown at LittleGrove Farm! 

It is Goumi Season! This seems to run right around the end of June and be over by the middle of July for us in the Santa Cruz Mountains. These normally are exceptionally abundant on the bushes, however, that is before my son had a "snack".

This is hard to find in any markets, so we grow them ourselves. The berries are soft, sweet and with a nice flavor when ripe, yet pucker-y if you get them before they are soft and fully ripe. There is a single seed in the center. The seeds are soft enough to eat and have the same basic flavor as the rest of the berry.

My son says "They are tasty when they are ripe and sour when they are not ripe".

Monday, July 8, 2019

Ahuna Mons on Ceres in scale model made by Botta's Pocket Gophers

Now you don't need to go to Ceres to see Ahuna Mons... or at least a scale model.

This is a mound of dry, unconsolidated soil pushed out and up through a circular hole entrance. The artist is a Botta's Pocket Gopher living in the Blue Oak Savannah of the central Sierra Nevada foothills.

What I find interesting about it is that structures at radically different scales on disparate worlds can be made by similar processes, even in a back yard.

While there are better analogs at closer scales (Inyo Domes for example) this is essentially the same process, admittedly at a lower temperature.

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Math Photo Challenge, Week 1 - Flowers and leaves of the genus Paris #mathphoto19 #five

After a morning of foggy forest math games, the Math Photo Challenge came to mind immediately when I found this jewel in the office garden:

Unknown Paris sp.

Can you believe those spindly yellow bits are flower petals?! The Wikipedia entry on Paris polyphylla does a nice job of talking about this type of plant anatomy.

As I showed Rob my attempts at taking a photo, he told me there was a surprise hiding in that garden. Another Paris, this time with light pipes on the leaves that make it shimmer and reflect light like my beloved Southern African Nerine flowers. 

Zoom the photo below to see glints of blue. Best picture I could take, folks

The Heronswood Nursery was a purveyor of rare and exotic plants grown from wild seed. In the early 2000s, Rob received this unknown Paris sp. and the Paris luquanensis shown above.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Math Photo Challenge: Week 1 of Ag, Botanical, Geological participation

We love math and we love the natural world. What better way to celebrate both than through participation in this year's Math Photo Challenge?

#MathPhoto19 #five

This is our entry for Week 1: Five. It's a Desert Five Spot (Jepson), photographed near our land in Joshua Tree National Park.

I simply admire them for their beauty, delicacy, improbable environment, vigor, and design.

My son wants to know, "Why does it have curved lines on [the petals]?"

Asked this question, my husband tells us these striations are nectar guides for pollinators.  I immediately want to return with a black (ultraviolet) light. Assuming they remain open at night...

Alas, these beauties were photographed on 20190325.

Looking forward to posting more in this challenge! (challenge website)

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!

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Snow Day among Redwoods!

It snowed overnight! Not enough to sled (that hasn't happened since 2004 at our home), but enough to make snowballs, crunch around in, and add a rare artistic touch to this fog forest! The view towards the ocean from our front deck was priceless:

Now, I admit to being biased - however, the San Francisco Chronicle ran it on their homepage for a while today...

I don't think any photo of mine has had such a great venue before!

Ah, but to important questions: What to do with snow?

For starters, eat it! Find clean snow that is not the layer directly in contact with whatever it has collected on. Collect clean snow away from sources of contamination, such as chimneys, trees, and roadways. My son has this to say about the uses of snow: "We made it into snow cones that had Lingon and Blaubeeren in it and we ate it. Then we made more. And, then, the snow melted that we had brought in but not yet eaten. I hope you have a good day. Some day when it snows a lot I want to invite friends over to collect and eat snow. Be happy and have fun!"

Also explore, climb your favorite tree, make snowballs, throw snowballs, and generally enjoy!