Tuesday, March 31, 2009

SLO Bloom

I recently drove my son to Cal-Poly (California Polytechnic State University) in San Luis Obispo (aka SLO) after his spring break of sleeping, hanging out with the ranch cat, and overall recharging. We took a side trip over the Santa Lucia Mountains to see the spring wildflowers on Shell Creek Road off Highway 58, about 19 miles east of Santa Margarita. The later has some excellent delis to fuel your botanical wanderings.

<--- goldfields & baby blue eyes ---

--- tidy tips --->

The carpets of goldfields, tidy tips, baby blue eyes, California poppies, lupines, Indian paintbrush, and chia were fab the last weekend in March and many people were jigging between blooms like giant, wingless insects. Lots of photographers, some painters and a few tailgate parties. Nature Ali has lots of Shell Creek photos with wildflower id.

<--- shooting stars ---

We found the rocks and flotsam on the sandy floodplain above the creek just as attractive. Shell Creek is so called because of the fossilized shells it deposits. By the variety of the rocks we found (my guesses are sandstone, obsidian, granite, and fossils), it must carve through many different aged beds. The properties along Shell Creek Road appear to be privately-owned cattle ranches and a winery, but most of the roadside is not fenced in as if to accommodate this unique spring break crowd.

Further back from the road are fences and No Trespassing signs which should be respected. Some previous visitors had spun donuts on the road and left some bottles, but the daytime visitors we saw were respectful and happy to be among the wildflowers.

<--- ceonothus ---

I kept thinking there should be snakes out on those crumbly hillslopes, but we saw none, so perhaps it was not warm enough yet. Nor had the occasional blue oak trees above the wildflower fields popped their wavy green leaves.

We looped back towards SLO on Pozo Road in the La Panza Range and then on various Forest Service roads, the later due to a wrong turn while being distracted by colorful hillsides. As I've claimed many times, "I have never been permanently lost." Red Hill and McGinnis Creek Roads were somewhat narrow with switchbacks and culverted creek crossings, but not bad for Forest Service Roads probably because they had been graded since the last rains.

Signs on Pozo Road as you enter the Forest Service lands warn not to travel them in rainy weather due to possible washouts. Another sign along the way suggests you "Slow your sweet a__ down". Black Mountain and Parkhill Roads are even paved probably because of a communications outpost at the top of Black Mountain Road.

The trick when navigating Forest Service roads is to follow the old folks in the Pontiac Le Mans, assuming they are locals visiting a favorite old haunt in their retirement comfort car rather than lost tourists - that would be us. I drive a Subaru just to cover such mistakes when my wanderlust strikes. My son is game for exploring backroads, especially when he is driving a sturdy manual vehicle, whereas my sisters tell horror stories about my wayward routes.

<--- chia, old & new ---

In the La Panza Range, we saw fields and hillsides of shooting stars, fiddleneck, miner's lettuce, blooming ceanothus brush and the occasional dirt biker. Also a few longhorn cattle and a flock of turkeys with several toms doing their fantail strut next to the county road while the hens cackled.

I found myself most attracted to the dried seedheads of the wildflowers from last year contrasted with the bright blossoms or fresh leaves of this year. It's like figuring out a colorful puzzle.

<--- new buckwheat leaves ---

--- threadlike buckwheat seedhead from last year --->

Thanks to the rains and warm spring sun for rejuvenating these wildflower fields and us over spring break.

<--- down & out at the end of the quarter ---

--- upright & outstanding in the field at the end of spring break --->

--- sheep on the Cal-Poly campus taking spring break SLO-style ---
"Slow your sweet baaaaa down."

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Welcome, Spring

Our heads are buzzing with spring and we cannot think straight. Here is a short game to welcome the arrival of spring today. Match the descriptions in the paragraphs with the photos. Don't think too hard, just breathe it in. If everything looks mixed up, that's okay - Happy spring.

1. Baby Brush Rabbit saved from spring-crazed ranch cat.

2. Willow Catkins capturing pollen early so that seeds can develop, drop, float and then germinate on the edge of the shrinking pond.

3. Brown Towhee fluffing up his down after a spring shower

4. California Buckeye Buds - one of the first deciduous trees to pop (and to lose) its leaves.

5. Blue-eyed Grass which is not a grass and not really blue-eyed but you will have to wait a few more days for the flower evidence.

6. Bunny Butt thus proving that it is a brush rabbit rather than a cottontail and it is okay to look at butts.

7. Popcorn Flower - learn and look for the seedheads from last year to detect the young plants of this year's wildflowers.

8. Buckeye Moon - California buckeye loosening its new leaves under the last of the winter's full moons.

9. Go Outside and Play

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Toads Lay Eggs Too

After a challenging morning trying to explain the simpleness of grasslands, I introduced a like-minded associate to the Dipper Ranch ponds. While circumnavigating the Newt Pond, I was surprised to see a snarled black string in the water. I reached to pull it out when I realized it was actually the egg strands of the California toad. They look like long, clear jelly tubes filled with a double row of shiny black beads.

I occasionally see toads crossing the Dipper drive - in their shuffling toad fashion - on rainy nights. I have never seen their eggs before. One female California toad can lay over 10,000 eggs with the male helping to squeeze them out of her body and fertilizing them externally. It sounds like something out of the Willy Wonka factory.

Go outside and look around without an air of expertise. Nature may delight. One day, if I am especially humble, perhaps I will hear the chirping of the California toad, a sweet sound for this warty rambler.

See also:
California toad, Bufo boreas halophilus
Gayle Pickwell, Amphibians & Reptiles of the Pacific States, Dover Publications, 1972.

Monday, March 9, 2009

King of the Pond

Who would you say is the King of the Pond?

The California red-legged frog because it is big and so are its eggs?
<-- photo by K. Greene --

The coast range newt, after all, it is full of deadly neurotoxins?

Or, the Pacific treefrog because there are so many of them, they're so darn loud and they wear a superhero mask?

I suspect the kingship has something to do with eating habits.

At the Dipper Ponds this year, I first spotted a few clusters of red-legged frog eggs in early February. The eggs were approximately 1/2 inch in diameter and tightly wedged together like grapes in fist-sized or larger clusters. On Sunday, I saw a few dark tadpoles already zipping around the Plum Pond. I think they were red-legged frog tadpoles, so they are developing the fastest at this stage. One point to the red-legged frogs for grabbing the early window, and another point for their large-sized eggs stuck together in big clusters.

By mid-February, I had found only one treefrog egg mass and the female newts were still swimming about with swollen abdomens. February closed with days of rain and amphibians still in amplexus.

Now, in early March, the newts and treefrogs are adding their eggs to the ponds' production.

Last Sunday, the Newt Pond had dozens of loose globs of clear jelly attached to pond vegetation, 3/8ths to 1/2 inch in diameter and sometimes covered with debris or algae.

On closer inspection, I could make out several clear circles of eggs within the cluster, each containing either a dark dot or a small, knife-like larvae with a white belly. Because of the small size of the individual eggs, and the loose jelly nature of the irregularly-shaped cluster, I knew these were treefrog eggs. One point to the treefrogs for the large numbers of eggs, another point for their strategic placement at many locations throughout the pond, and a third point for the incidental camouflage.

In an old trough in the sun by the Monotti Barn, rainwater had collected. Treefrogs had suctioned their way up the tall sides and laid eggs on stems floating in the 3" deep water. Some of these eggs had recently hatched (perhaps because the shallow water is warmer), and the brand new tadpoles rested on their sides on the bottom of the trough like bicolor grains of rice. Another point to the treefrogs for finding innovative places to breed, some even inaccessible to other amphibians.

At the Plum Pond, the shallow water was suddenly festooned with piles of semi-transparent ping-pong balls as if the newts had communal egg-laying events. In contrast to the small, delicate treefrog egg masses, the newt egg masses have a firm, rubbery exterior enclosing several dozen eggs. One point to the newts for their sturdy piles of eggs.

As I was stepping over the Mallard Pond's outlet, I spotted 9 female newts resting together on their sides in a quiet pool. I immediately noticed that these newts were unusually still. Although newts are generally intrepid and not too concerned by my presence (neurotoxin bravado), they usually swim away from the pond edge when I move about. I squatted down for a closer look and noticed that each female was in the process of laying a large egg mass. In the group of nine, I could see egg masses at all stages of emergence and they were surrounded by many previously laid eggs.

The process was happening very slowly, almost unbearably so for me, and the female newts seemed to be in a trance unaware of their surroundings. One female was even gripping the shoulders of another. I tried not to project my own child-birthing experience on these bright orange amphibians, but the process looked rather difficult. Even after witnessing the event nine-fold at once, I am still baffled that these 3/4- to 1-inch diameter firm masses come out of the narrow newt bodies. One point to the newts for laying such enormous egg masses and another point for undertaking the struggle communally.

After watching the quiet females deliver the next newt generation, I began to wonder what the male newts were up to. Approximately 30 feet away, I found a group of male newts swimming tight circles around a cluster of red-legged frog eggs. Every now and then, a newt would thrust its head into the cluster, thrash its tail and tug loose and swallow a single large frog egg.

In late February, I saw single newts thrashing about in a similar way in the Plum Pond. At that time, I realized they were tearing apart jelly and gobbling up treefrog eggs.

After those amazing sightings, I think I will crown the hungry newts as King of the Pond. At least for now. Interestingly, newt egg masses are large and firm perhaps to prevent other species or their own from gobbling them up. I have also read that for some species newt eggs are even more toxic than the adults.

Actually, red-legged frogs, treefrogs and newts return to these ponds year after year, so somewhere within their life cycle, the frogs must have strategies to survive the gobbling nature of the newt. Still, with their female communal birthing pools and sushi-eating males, the newts certainly take the prize for interesting behavior.

California red-legged frog, Rana draytonii
Coast range newt, Taricha torosa torosa
Pacific treefrog, Pseudacris regilla

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Frog Calls

Here is a video and a link to an audio recording of frog calls at the Dipper Ranch ponds on the evening of 02/20/09. Thanks to my brave nighttime companions, K. Greene and D. Bruscoe for bringing these new technologies to biological surveys on the Dipper Ranch. 'Course, I waited until after our 10 pm spaghetti dinner to show them the mountain lion-punctured deer skull I found near the Mallard Pond last year.

The video below shows a treefrog at the Plum Pond inflating his vocal sac and then his chest like a bellows to create his mating call. It also gives you an idea of the din created by many treefrogs calling at the pond. Video by K. Greene.

Notice that the Pacific treefrog advertisement calls are high, loud and nearly continuous. They repeat a double tone, krek-ek. The advertisement call is used by the males to attract females in the pond for mating. The racket sounds so loud to us, it is hard to imagine a female picking out an individual male. Obviously, treefrogs hear differently than humans do, and breed differently for that matter.

Treefrogs have other, shorter calls, some of which we occasionally hear during our surveys and I frequently hear around the farmyard and ranch during the day.

If you follow this link to Moonlittrails's Weblog, and listen carefully to the audio recording, you can hear the very low and occasional call of the California red-legged frog, chuck-chuck-chuck waaahh among all the trilling tree frogs. The last waaahh sound is not always included and is referred to as a growl or groan. Red-legged frogs will call underwater in addition to in the air. D. Brusco recorded and modified this audio clip. Fortunately, she is an excellent sound technician, and somehow edited out K. Greene and I snickering into our fists every time we heard the red-legged frog waaahh.

The first time I heard a red-legged frog call, I actually felt it before I heard it. In February 2008, I had just sat down in a disappointed huff by the Plum Pond after receiving a jubilant radio report that my fellow nighttime surveyors had heard and seen several red-legged frogs at the Mallard Pond. Although the leader of the survey team and the keen observer to have recently reported and photographed eggs of this rare frog at the Dipper ponds, at that time, I had still not seen or heard an actual red-legged frog, ever. Kinda embarrassing. I was trying to calm my anxious mind, when I thought something brushed against my jacket and made it vibrate. I was a little nervous because that night we were short one person and I was at the Plum Pond solo. I held my breathe in the darkness and then heard/felt it again. It was then that I realized I was feeling the dark vibration first through my seat chuck-chuck-chuck, and as I tuned my ear lower than the treefrog racket, I could more distinctly hear the deep sound chuck-chuck-chuck waaah. Soon my fellow surveyors joined me at the Plum Pond and we enjoyed hours of frog calls and sightings.

Now when I take new people out to listen for red-legged frogs, I encourage them to sit down and concentrate on low sounds and vibrations. I know they have finally heard it when their teeth suddenly flash in the night - undoubtable from a huge grin as they finally hear and recognize their quarry.

Ms. Bruscoe also introduced me to an article by bioacoustician Dr. Bernie Krause about bioacoustical niches. Mr. Krause believes that each vocal species, be it bird, insect, frog or jungle primate, finds its own sonic niche in pitch, pattern and timing within a geographical region. Within this acoustical territory, the individual members of a species can hear the mating, warning and other calls from each other without being covered up. Certainly, the treefrogs and red-legged frogs have very different calls even though they are occupying the same pond and breeding season. Increasingly throughout the world, human generated sounds may be occupying some of those sonic niches. Or, by altering the natural landscape, humans may be changing the mix of wildlife species at a location and thus causing formerly unassociated species to call over each other. We may be acoustically bulldozing over love songs of the night.

See also:

The CA Herps site has recordings of these two frogs and other calls and describes the correct protocol for their use by manner-minded frogs and toads. Dr. Krause's website includes animal and landscape sounds from around the world.

Pacifc treefrog, Pseudacris regilla
California red-legged frog, Rana draytonii