Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Fire & Ice Cream on the Mountain

--- Lockheed Fire, August 12, 2009, as seen from the Dipper Ranch. Erica Simmons was setting up her camera to photograph the Perseid meteor shower and unexpectedly caught this magnificent shot of the glowing skies shortly after ignition. This fire burned 7817 acres in a remote location where firefighting conditions were difficult. Smoke and flames were visible from many locations in the Santa Cruz Mountains for 11 days, and reminded us to review fire clearances and emergency escape routes on our own properties. ---

Saturday was the Skyline Neighborhood Ice Cream Party. Earlier in the summer when I won a party for 100 people from Dreyer's Ice Cream, I quickly realized I couldn't park that many cars at the Dipper Ranch without risking a wildfire. This time of year, the hillsides are so dry, driving or parking a hot engine over tall, brown grass runs the risk of igniting a fire. I mow a safe area around the house and ranch buildings, but not enough to park that many visitors.

--- With temperatures soaring into the upper 90s, everyone was delighted to try Red, White and No More Blues ice cream (Dreyer's new 'taste of recovery') in addition to many other flavors. ---

We held the party at the nearby Skyline Field Office of the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District. My goal was to give local mountain neighbors, the recreational users of adjoining parks, and the Open Space staff and volunteers a chance to mingle and meet.

--- Palo Alto firefighters and Mary and Bud Bordi, longtime local ranchers. We cheered when the engine from Palo Alto's Fire Station 8 came up the drive on Saturday. The day before, their crew from Foothills Park quickly put out a vehicle fire on Page Mill Road that spread into the Los Trancos Open Space Preserve. Some of the same firefighters were working both days and filled us in on the 'Thunderbird' fire. ---

We picked a party theme of high interest in the summer - ice cream and fire. With the recent nearby Lockheed fire and the general drought conditions, everyone is on their toes. Wildfires don't stop at property boundaries, and fire prevention and response are community efforts. We invited some of the local fire stations for ice cream. They were enthusiastic tasters and answered a burning question I've had - how should adult citizens express our enthusiastic appreciation when we see a fire engine going down the road? After all, we don't want to confuse the engine driver that we are waving them down for help. The firefighters suggested the thumbs-up signal.

---Cal Fire staff not only respond to wildfires in rural areas, but also help the Open Space District use prescribed burns to safely reduce the fuel load and manage the ecological conditions of preserves. In the background, an historic chicken coop. ---

Two Cal Fire crews and their engines enjoyed ice cream too. The local FireSafe Council set up an information booth and Open Space District staff explained a new policy to allow adjacent property owners to responsibly manage fuel conditions across property lines.
--- Rangers in uniform and off-duty staff joined in the information sharing and tasting. ---

All Open Space District field staff are trained annually on wildland fire fighting, and rangers carry fire pumpers on their trucks during the fire season. They can be first on the scene of a wildland fire, are able to put out small fires, and immediately call in firefighting support by radio to remote locations. There are also several volunteer fire departments in the Santa Cruz Mountains who donate many hours in training and response.

--- Lisa Bankosh, biologist with the Open Space District, led a volunteer project of over 20 people on Saturday morning to install erosion control materials and native grasses above Horseshoe Lake. Then she brought her hot crew over to the party and served them ice cream. We love our volunteers. ---

We held the party outside next to a historic building, the chicken coop. The coop was built on top of the concrete foundation of the former summer home of California Governor 'Sunny Jim' Rolph. The nearby ranger office provided modern conveniences like plenty of nonflammable parking, bathrooms and a freezer to store the 50 containers of ice cream. Dreyer's provided all the ice cream and party supplies for free.

--- Every year, over 500 volunteers provide thousands of hours of service on Open Space preserves. It's good to see them relaxing at the ice cream party and sharing tips on avoiding poison oak and heat stroke. ---

The land use patterns in the Santa Cruz Mountains have been changing for decades. Not everyone agrees on how to manage across property lines, but it's good to get together and talk, especially around the toppings table.

--- Metalsmith, Bill Sorich, has created many of the artistic gates seen along our country roads. ---

Bill Sorich brought an unusual item to share, an abandoned log that had large holes in it, probably from a pileated woodpecker. Bill has been a vocal advocate for maintaining adequate fire clearances along roads to allow safe escape by residents and access by fire engines during emergencies. Forest snags provide wildlife habitat and are generally not a fire hazard if they are not too close to structures. Bill is observant and respects the natural world that surrounds him, and designs natural elements into many of his gates and sculptures.

To lend an old-fashioned air to this ice cream social, I decided to wear the pink dress my grandma sewed and wore to my parents' wedding over 50 years ago. Grandma Marie was active in her local church and ever-growing family in rural Minnesota. Our lives are very different, but perhaps she still influences me - I made an apple pie for the party.

--- Catching up with a friend, Chris, and her little daughter. Another friend brought his daughter for her first taste of ice cream - she seemed more excited about the people. ---

--- Bud Bordi talking to our local business folks, probably about the weather. ---

Several people asked how I managed to win an ice cream party for 100 people. I wrote an essay in Dreyer's Slow Churned Neighborhood Salute contest:

----- Alpine Road is beautiful, wild, rural park and ranchland south of San Francisco. The hills turn brown in the summer and it gets hot, except when the fog rolls in from the Pacific Ocean. As neighbors, we don’t get together very often, but we call when there’s a package waiting at the local market, email wildfire warnings, share photos on websites, take cup-of-tea hikes from one neighbor to the next (2 miles or so), shoo the cattle back in the gates, and help the neighbor who’s afraid of rattlesnakes. An ice cream social would be a great summer get-together on Alpine Road, an activity to get park rangers, hikers and old-time ranchers talking together. Maybe I will meet the neighbors who knew the legendary cowboy who used to live in my house and collect stories for the local history book. ps: my fellow park employees have a rule that when you get your name in the media, you have to bring in ice cream for everyone. It’s a good rule. I owe them for a radio interview last week. ---

The weather cooperated and I think we pulled the party off just right. Thanks to everyone for the help on Saturday and their country friendship year round.

All photos (except the Lockheed fire) by Andy Butcher.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Toadlet, Finally

A tadpole finally transmogrified into a tiny toad in the kitchen tank today. Here he sits peacefully in his own bubble atop an algae island.

A little toad history - I first spotted toad eggs in the Newt Pond on the ranch on March 18th. On April 15th, the Newt Pond was alive with thousands of toad tadpoles. Several sources state that the California toad takes about 8 weeks from eggs to first toad-hood, but I only saw toad tadpoles with no legs and no mini-toads around the rapidly shrinking pond in May. By late May, I was concerned that the the tadpoles would not make it out before the Newt Pond disappeared, so I collected a few toad and treefrog tadpoles and placed them in an aquarium in my kitchen. The Newt Pond was completely dry by June 7th.

This guy took 26 weeks to grow up. That is a lot longer than 8 weeks. It could have been differences in the water temperatures or food supply in the kitchen tank. Although hard to tell in this photo, he has the distinct yellow toad line down his back and lots of warts. Over the next few days, I will watch to see if any other toadlets appear in the kitchen tank and try to get better photos.

This toadlet is barely the size of my pinky fingernail. Interestingly, Friday night I saw a figure scrambling across the driveway when I came home after dark. I stopped the car and watched a larger-than-fist-size California toad hop across the drive and up a steep bank. I don't know how long it takes a toad to get that big, but that's a lot of bug-eating.

California toad, Bufo boreas halophilus

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Cleanin' Up with The Blues

Western bluebirds arrive for their afternoon bath. The male has a brighter blue color on his head, wings and tail, with an orange breast and shoulder.

The adult females and the end-of-the-summer juveniles are blander colors. I can't tell the difference. Let me know if you have hints on how to tell them apart at this stage.

Although more dull looking from their front and top, these two birds are showing the brighter blue on the side of the tails and wings. (Double click any photos for a closer look.)

Birds prefer to stand in shallow water. Most birds don't really dunk their whole body under water when bathing. They dip their heads and wings into the water and fling it onto their back. Some flap their wings and wag their tails and spray water everywhere.

Keep their bathing technique in mind when picking out a good birdbath. The water bowl should be wide and shallow. The rim needs to be a good width (not too narrow or sharp) for gripping as they land or build up the gumption to step into the water. Birds like a rough bottom to the birdbath so they don't slip around. Some people put in sand. Remember to refill with clean water every day or so and scrub out about every week so the slippery goo doesn't build up.

The location of the birdbath may also be important. The birds like to have a tree or bush nearby to perch on before and after their bathing. But they also like a good view around the birdbath to feel safe from predators. Some birds seem to like sunny spots in the afternoon. Maybe the water warms up?

If you're gonna get old,
you might as well have The Blues.

Speaking of tHE bLUES, here's a partial setlist from the Bonnie Raitt and Taj Mahal concert on Monday, September 14, 2009 at the Mountain Winery in Saratoga, California. What does this have to do with natural history at the Dipper Ranch? Well, it was "a-live" show in the Santa Cruz Mountains . . .

Sorry about the incomplete status of the setlist. I'm rusty at this and there was a lot of dancing going on at the end. The show was originally scheduled for the night before. Taj and his band got in their first set but then the rain started falling in earnest at this lovely outdoor venue, and they rescheduled for the next night. After all the drought warnings and fire news, I think most people were glad for the rain and for another chance to see these two fine blues musicians creating a show together.

On Monday, Taj returned first to the stage with the Phantom Blues Band and played a different set than the night before, this time seeming more impromptu with all the chatting and shifting going on between the band members. There was a casual freshness and international spin to it that reminded me of those New Orleans restaurants with music in their big outdoor courtyards. Are they still there? At Mountain Winery, you feel that close to the musicians. The Phantom Blues Band is stuffed with seasoned, tight-playing blues men. Johnny Lee Schell is a great jazz-blues-picking guitarist, no wah-wah pedal for this gent, he just pulls it out of the strings and even smiles sometimes. The brass men, Joe Sublett on sax (what a beautiful patina on that sax with sound to match) and Darrell Leonard on trumpets and trumpet-likes, were fantastic and playing fine in several styles (torch blues, smooth jazz, mexicali, careeb . . .) and looking hip the whole time. I was pleased to find out tonight that they used to play with Stevie Ray Vaughn.

Bonnie still has a clear and true blue voice, and plays all her slide guitar. Make that guitarS as she switches instruments constantly with the help of a strap-N-guitar assistant. She doesn't hide her Queen Bee status on stage. There are so many people out there talking about Bonnie, I am not going to say much more except her rendition of I Can't Make You Love Me that night was sorrowful. For someone to ask for one last night of loving and be so forgiving of a lover leaving, is a humbling thing and she sings it like a personal blues style bible story to you.

Not only did the two bands play apart and together, but Bonnie and Taj played a set with just the two of them. Bonnie sliding and Taj picking. I've never seen Taj live before and was surprised at what a great showman he is. That eye googling thing is a little strange but he is a huge man up there singing and shaking it out. I decided to check him out some more and if you go to, you can find his shows, huge discography and listen to many of his songs while there. The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival is April 23 - May 2 in 2010. Taj, are you gonna be there?

Set 1 - Taj Mahal and the Phantom Blues Band
Going Up to the Country, Paint My Mailbox Blue
Here in the Dark
Queen Bee
Senior Blues
You Rascal, You
Rain from the Skies
Fishin' Blues

Set 2 - Bonnie Raitt and her band
I Sho Do
--- (are you really . . .?)
Nick of Time
Your Good Thing
Good Man/Good Woman

Set 3 - Bonnie & Taj together

Set 4 Bonnie and her band
Angel from Montgomery
I Will Not Be Broken
Love Sneakin' Up on You
I Can't Make You Love Me

Set 5 both bands
---(yah, you guessed it, dancin' at this point)

See Also:

western bluebird, Sialia mexicana

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Dusty Cusp of Summer

First rain Sunday night. September and maybe October will still have hot, dry days of Indian summer, at least our western version where the seasons are more about wet/dry periods than hot/cold temperatures. There have been subtle signs of the end of summer, but as with most changes, we don't recognize them until they are well underway. Some evenings are cool and the bare skies have occasional cloud visitors.

Most of these preliminary signs are plants throwing in the towel after a 4-month stretch of dry weather. In rocky and sunny places, the poison oak leaves are turning bright red and dropping. In shadier spots, they take on soft pinks and yellows. Soon, the canyons will sport deep red gashes where poison oak grows in its bush form. Be ever careful around poison oak. Even without the leaves-of-three, the urushiol oil is still present on the stems and can give you a rash if you brush up against them, particularly if you break a stem and the milky sap touches your skin. Identify leafless poison oak plants by the short stubby side branches that are arranged opposite of each other. Also, by the evil glow that always surrounds it.

The oaks are starting to drop their acorns, and the deer gather under the productive trees even in the daytime to snack. This first drop is of the punky acorns - infested with bugs or otherwise undersized. The trees throw them off while they pour their summer juice into the good acorns still fattening on the branches.

--- Dot 1 and Dot 2 - their coats are fading in step with the annual grasses. ---

The deer have a restlessness and are shifting their daily patterns, whether from the start of hunting season or the upcoming rut. This year's fawns are losing their spots and the shyness that previously sent them springing away at any new sound.

--- This yearling buck creeps out of the willow thicket for a quick drink at dusk and dawn and is probably Button. He no longer associates with his doe, Bump. She may be the single doe who has now taken up residence in the shade of the oak trees above the house. ---

The young fawns will stay with the does, but year-old bucks are now by themselves and in deep hiding. Their small antlers set them apart from their original doe-led family, but are too puny to stand up to the mature bucks.

Even the redwood trees have a special color this time of year. Small clusters of yellow and brown leaves stand out among the green boughs. Evergreen trees have to replace their leaves now and then. This happens gradually throughout the year, but most evergreen species also have a period when many of the older leaves are shed to make room for fresh leaves.

It is also the season of bugs. Crickets take over the night sounds. Huge dragonflies patrol the ponds and nearby grasslands. During the day, small flies annoyingly hover around your eyes and I often first spot a fawn by its constantly flicking tail.

I get wistful at the end of summer. Did I do everything I wanted to do this summer? During the long days of outside work, did I pause often enough to allow the colors, sounds and smells of the breeding season to enter my consciousness? I regret not finding the time to write about wildflowers, raptor flight, and lizards, but I can store those observations away for comparison next year. Will I see another summer? As I turn to face the fall, I look over my shoulder and cast a wish to be a student of summer again.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

My Friend's Broken Back

A friend broke his back this weekend. Yes, a dear friend, my favorite flora. The book I carry in my pack everywhere to help me identify plants. It fell right out of its beaten up cover and split into parts. I'm very upset. It has all these helpful notes I've added. Little sketches. Memory tricks. Places I first saw a new plant, kinda like a first date. When his binding originally began to loosen, I wrapped him in a cloth bookcover my son used in grade school. Once, I was leading a wildflower ID hike in May with my friend wide open to the skies and we got hailed on for 15 minutes. I took him home and wiped every single of the 508 pages with a towel, and then left him on the kitchen counter for 3 days so I would flip the pages every time I walked by - they are a little stained but none of the pages stuck together.

The good news is that I remembered a fellow botanist who had the same flora fall apart and devised this cool way to put it in a ring binder with a special strap he slings around his shoulder. He's a real gear guy, so I am anxiously waiting his advice on how I can heal my book buddy. After a morning of searching, I can't find a binder that will fit his irregular 7" x 10" size. A bigger binder won't fit in my pack and won't be elegant enough for my friend. Help!

During a meeting this morning, I was still sorrowfully carrying around my wounded comrade, and trying to transition from a nature-filled weekend to the weekday office routine. I decided I better clean the "bookmarks" out of my friend's pages before I took him in for surgery. I found many pressed leaves and flowers, a ruler, a photo of a bull, and three owl feathers tucked throughout his pages. Then I brushed the debris off every single page of my friend with the biggest owl feather.

This is the name of my friend: Plants of the San Francisco Bay Region: Mendocino to Monterey, Linda H. Beidleman, Eugene N. Kozloff, 2003, 2nd Edition, University of California Press. My nickname for him is Kozloff.

And here's a cool trick I remembered by looking at the pile of pressed plants. You can write the name of a plant on the back of a leaf with a permanent pen. Then you can refer to it later to remember exactly how the leaf edges are inrolled or whatever obscure feature distinguishes that species from another.

While trying to cure myself of the worried book blues this evening, I started browsing through all my treasured field guides and plant books. Here is one that gave me solice for awhile.

A Natural History of Western Trees, Douglas Culross Peattie – old-fashioned charming descriptions of visual characters of trees and their uses. Often from the perspective of a lumber man but with much detail. I have the original 1950 first edition which never goes out into the field. An example of his prose: “Here is a tree that might have been created as the friend of mankind . . . this one stands apart. For it grows singly or in little groves in the interior valleys, along the sandy washes, the upside-down rivers of the desert, in the cool of the canyon walls, more needed where you find it than valuable if felled, sawn, dressed, and exported . . . The quality of its shade – broad but filmy-leaved . . . is never so dense as to be stuffy; ever the breeze moves about its boughs, and any stir of air, in the warm habitats it chooses, even the rangeland’s or the wheat field’s, is better than none. So the white-faced Herefords stand or lie for hours in the long burning summers beneath the Sycamores.” Wow. That man loves trees.

Just as I pledged to myself when I was getting treated for cancer, I have made promises about taking care of my friend if he gets better. I will brush him clean inside and out once a year. I will draw more sketches on his margins. I will memorize more plant families. I will brag about his fine qualities to many other people. And I will thank him frequently for his companionship and help in the field.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Tarantula Hawk

Got lucky today and had a camera when I saw another tarantula hawk. It could be either a Hemipepsis or a Pepsis species. A knowledgeable entomologist would be able to tell primarily by close examination of the vein pattern on the wings. This large wasp was frantically searching the ground and difficult to photograph.

I was beginning to wonder how many tarantulas live at the Dipper Ranch when I read that tarantula hawks also attack other large spiders. It seems like a lot of work to sniff out, challenge, sting and drag a large spider underground for one egg. I wonder how many total eggs a female tarantula hawk lays and thus how many spiders it must attack. No wonder they always seem so busy.

Turns out the sting of a tarantula hawk is quite painful to humans, even more so than the infamous bite of a tarantula. The bright orange wings, aposematic coloring, are a warning to predators of dire consequences. While I was trotting behind a tarantula hawk last week, my cat came up for a friendly rub, then charged at the bright, flickering bug. I pulled him back just in time. Cats may not see red colors very well.

See Also:

Desert USA amusing description and video

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Tarantula Hairs

--- Notice the red hairs on the tarantula's abdomen. ---

I was driving a hot country road one evening last week. 96 degrees Fahrenheit and I thought the road was melting. Until I saw a tar bubble move. It was a tarantula crossing the road. Screeeech, I pulled over at the next curve, grabbed my camera, and ran back.

--- Hazards of Page Mill Road ---

Recently, I've noticed two peculiar holes in the ground next to the red barn at the Dipper Ranch. They are about one inch in diameter with a silky carpet that drapes over the lip and lines the inside. I had a vague recollection that these might be tarantula lairs. When I peeked in the holes, day or night, and gently poked around with a grass stem, I was unable to stir up a resident.

--- Possibly a tarantula hole ---

So, I was excited to follow the real 8-legged critter, even if it was taking its time to cross the hot asphalt. After waving a car full of chattering boys around the beast, I nudged Mr. Hairy Legs with a long stick to the road shoulder, a safer place for the legs, my camera and curiosity.

--- Run faster! ---

When the tarantula paused on the grass, I walked around to photograph it from the front side. It raised its abdomen. I wasn't sure what that meant, but since its fangs were on the ground side of its body, I didn't worry too much. Eventually it trundled off into the grasslands and I headed back to the car. I crossed the road for a safer line-of-sight, only to find another tarantula on that side of the road. As the sun set, I got a few photographs of the second tarantula. Figuring it was a good night for sightings, I shined a flashlight down the barnside holes when I got home, but still, no Dipper tarantulas revealed themselves.

I've also been on the alert for tarantulas since spotting several tarantula hawks in the last few weeks. Tarantula hawks are large, colorful wasps that prey on tarantulas. They sting a tarantula, drag it down a hole, lay one egg on its body, and the larvae hatches and eats away at the paralyzed spider.

[Can't find my tarantula hawk photo. Do you have one? The ones we have in coastal central California are black-blue body with orange wings.]
New photo of tarantula hawk added on next day.

Since my tarantula adventures the other night, I've researched tarantula behavior. I am less scared of them now, but advise more caution because of some of their peculiar, dare I say hairy, behavior. I think the roadside tarantulas were Aphonopelma iodius because this species has a dark triangular patch around the cluster of eyes at the front of its head, and it is widespread in California. These were probably males which leave their burrows this time of year to search for female mates.

Tarantulas otherwise spend most of their time in their burrows, and through vibrations transmitted by the webbed collar, they detect the outside passing of insects or other small prey. Then, they dash out of the burrow, sink their fangs into the prey and inject a venom which paralyzes and prepares it for spider digestion. We hear wild stories about the tarantula's bite, but all the tarantulas in the United States have a bite similar do that of a wasp or bee.

--- Preparing for hair warfare? The black triangle marks this species' compound eyes. ---

Tarantulas have an unusual defense against larger creatures attacking them - they throw hair. Many tarantula species have hairs on their abdomen that are barbed and mildly venomous. If a mouse or skunk gets too close, the tarantula will press or use its legs to throw these hairs into the face of the threatening animal where they irritate the sensitive mouth, nose and eye tissues. So, maybe Mr. Hairy Legs was raising his abdomen at me in preparation for hair warfare. Fortunately, I was using a long lens on my camera and did not get too close. I advise you don't get within hair throwing distance of tarantulas.

---Short tibial hook on male tarantula.---

Male tarantulas have a spur on the front pair of their walking legs (tibial hooks) which they use to keep the female's fangs out of the way while they mate frontside. I won't go into tarantula mating behavior further; here's a link.

--- Second tarantula showing his pedipalps between front legs
and distinct red hairs on his abdomen.---

I've read that male tarantulas use their pedipalps (shorter leglike appendages near the mouth mostly for handling food) to drum on the webbing outside the female tarantula's burrow. If the beat is right and the female is receptive, then spider nightlife . . . well, see link above.

This explains a mystery I have pondered for many years. Once I took a hike with a friend in Pinnacles National Monument. This friend repeatedly pointed out tarantula holes. When we challenged his claims (afterall, he was an ornithologist), he said he could prove it. At the next silk-lined hole, he carefully stripped a grass stem and gently lowered it into the hole. As he pulled the stem out, there was a tarantula clinging to it. To the delight of the kids, he was able to repeat this magic trick at four more consecutive holes, however, none of us could do it. I always thought he was getting the spider to grasp the stem out of irritation. Now I realized he must have known the tarantula mating drumbeat. I wonder what ever happened to that guy.

See also:

American Tarantula Society

ENature article on tarantulas

ENature article on "Spittin Hairs"

Basic tarantula facts from desert website

Tarantulas at the Beetles In the Bush blog