Sunday, May 21, 2017

Take a Break

Chorro Creek bog thistle on a reserve on the Calpoly-SLO campus.   
I'm on crutches and have one foot encased in a boot brace for a few weeks. Not the best situation for a field biologist. Fortunately, I just finished a fine series of spring hikes.

We did an April bioblitz on a coastal prairie in rural San Mateo County. From sunrise to sunset, thirty  biologists combed a 900-acre grassy ranch with ponds, streams, and brush patches. On that one property on one day, we recorded 1290 observations on iNaturalist consisting of 326 plant and animal species. We already knew that some of the ponds supported California red-legged frogs, a threatened species, and I was fairly certain I had spotted the rare artist's popcornflower on the property in previous years, but the bioblitz gave us a better idea of where they occur.

Artist's popcornflower is quite a name. The easterly team reported seeing its tiny white flowers filling swales and I was a bit jealous I didn't get to see the large sweeps of it this wet spring. However, the expert botanists I sent to that side of the property confirmed the tentative identification I had made from scrawny plants in the previous drought years. My west-side team had a view of ocean cliffs and we saw interesting coastal residents too.
Just a few inches high, artist's popcornflower can fill seasonally wet low spots of the coastal prairies.   
My favorite observation was salmonberry growing in the shade of a creek. As we made our way through the muddy floodplain and patches of stinging nettle and poison oak, its orange berries were a bright beacon that led us to fresh tracks of a San Francisco dusky-footed woodrat. I've never seen salmonberry in the Santa Cruz Mountains before - its magenta flowers reminded me there are still discoveries to make in my own backyard. Also interesting were a meadow vole latrine on top of a cow jawbone and badger burrows along the coyote brush highway.

Salmonberry flower and fruit shining in the shady riparian forest.   
With our new understanding of what plants and animals live there and how the site varies, we can make better decisions on how to manage this coastal prairie. The logistics of setting up the bioblitz and organizing so much information was more complicated than we expected, but using the project function on iNaturalist and being able to record our sightings on cell phones was efficient and fun. We'll be bioblitzen with iNaturalist again.

An old jawbone of a cow rests next to the grassy tunnels of meadow voles.
It's funny to imagine these small nearly tail-less rodents hopping onto the bony platform for a poop break.   
While many thousands of people in over 600 cities around the world participated in the March for Science, we led a Hike for Science in Sierra Azul Open Space Preserve on April 22. This was the tenth year on the Saturday closest to Earth Day that biologists with the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District and 45 citizen scientists recorded all plant species that were in flower on three designated trails. Over the long term, this annual effort should indicate the responses of local plants to climate change. In this first decade, the surveys have revealed the robust biological diversity of Sierra Azul with 343 species found blooming on the three trails on that particular day of the year. In a typical year, our citizen scientists often see over 50 flowering species on each of the three hikes. And our species discovery curve is still trending upwards.

Slender phlox - flowers are less than half a centimeter across.   
I led the Woods Trail portion of the Hike for Science and was delighted to find two tiny plants new to me: slender phlox and delicate buttercup. Also, the fairy moths were back. When I posted a photo of three-striped longhorn moths dancing around flower clusters and waving their extremely long antennae, Moonlittrails responded with a single word, "lek." I knew leks as packed dirt mounds where male ptarmigans dance to attract females, but apparently the males of some other species also aggregate for courtship display. So this spring, after so many springs, I learned that tiny moths have courtship dances around tiny flowers.

A male three-striped longhorn moth with antennae nearly three times longer than its wing length.   
When you go back to a place year after year, you see the small things.

What I saw in the Midpen parking lot at the end of the day.
Looks like lots of the staff (and taxidermy) were at events on Earth Day.  
I got a special invitation to see the endangered Chorro Creek bog thistle (Cirsium fontinale var. obispoense) in San Luis Obispo County. It looks stouter than the related Mount Hamilton thistle (Cirsium fontinale var. campylon) which I've surveyed near Mt. Umunhum in Santa Clara County. They are both California native thistles that only grow in wet seeps on serpentine soil, a soil with low nutrients but high levels of heavy metals as a by-product of being created in earthquake country. As we walked by the prickly purple stems, many insects were visiting the nodding flowerheads and we noticed slightly different forms of other familiar plants: lesser Indian paintbrush and sneezeweed.  These unique plants have adapted to growing in serpentine soils and changed in form over time. I got a tingling feeling just walking among them and knowing I was witnessing long periods of geology shaping plant evolution.

Lesser Indian paintbrush - waiting for pollinators.   
Some plants don't seem to mind the poor soils of serpentine outcrops such as this sneezeweed.   
In one May week, I hiked Russian Ridge Open Space Preserve four times, either for wildflower trainings or with grasslands ecologists studying prescribed burns. You might have heard about the fabulous "super blooms" in California this year, a record-breaking year for rain after five consecutive years of drought. "Super blooms" are an occasional phenomenon of the deserts when the right weather conditions stimulate dormant seeds in the soil to all germinate and bloom at once. It usually occurs in places with no trees and no grass - deserts. We don't have deserts here in the Santa Cruz Mountains but wildfires can stimulate a similar response if there are plentiful rains the following spring. It will be great to plan prescribed burns at Russian Ridge again. If you are willing to look a little closer, you will see lots of wildflowers thriving among the grass at Russian Ridge even this year. Just look.

Russian Ridge Open Space Preserve - just look.   
Early spring - what a biologist is supposed to look like.   
It's not a good thing for a field biologist to be non-ambulatory in the spring. I can't walk on rough ground or go very far. I had to cancel my attendance at the first ever San Luis Obispo County Flora workshop offered by the California Native Plant Society which was a birthday present to myself (nerd!). With ice on my elevated foot, I'm sorting through some of my spring photographs. Right outside my window, the ash-throated flycatchers are carrying sticks into the giant cavity of a California buckeye tree. The house finches are once again determined to build a nest on my clothes line.

The wingspan of this ceanothus silk moth was nearly as wide as my spread hand.   
As I work on reports, call my family, and answer inquiries about rattlesnakes, I can't help falling into the springtime discovery mode again. I've been tracking the appearance of interesting insects in the house. Is anyone else struggling to keep the swarms of ornate tiger moths from swooping through open doors this spring? One night, I heard a soft thud and looked up to see a huge ceanothus silk moth climbing the screen door. The cats killed a spider in the kitchen which I threw into a jar with a giant carpenter ant I collected off the living room blinds. The ant climbed up onto the carcass of the larger spider and is sucking out its juices while I finish downloading bioblitz data.

Large carpenter ant, 16mm long. Later when looking at the photos, I realized there were eggs in the container,
but I had already rinsed it out.   
On Thursday my foot was turning especially purple, and being my birthday, I rescued a California quail out of the barn, a volunteer group sang over a carrot cupcake before tromping off without me to dig up purple starthistle on the lower pasture of the Dipper Ranch, and a co-worker brought me hamburger and fries from Alice's Restaurant. We ate lunch on the porch and watched the nesting birds. Afterwards, I asked him to help me put a heavy board in the barn. Watching him from the barn threshold I asked, "What's that black thing over there?" It was a headless baby skunk. You never know what you might find if you keep your eyes open even if you are on crutches. I'm equating a chewed skunk with the return of the gray foxes denning in the barn.

Fixing the water trough with crutches since I couldn't slip under the barbwire fence like I usually do.  
It was a peaceful birthday. A headless baby skunk kind of birthday. I tossed the little body into the corral and someone will eat it tonight. It's an endlessly fascinating world out there even if you are an inveterate naturalist on crutches.

Postscript:  I'm healing and walking again and we spotted a tiny fox pup running around on the porch a few nights ago. It's summer. Many thanks to the angels who brought me groceries and helped while I couldn't drive.  I really hope CNPS offers that SLO plant class again next year. And I'll watch out for curbs.

A thistle bog in San Luis Obispo County. More adventures to come.   
Artist's popcornflower, Plagiobothrys chorisanus
Stinging nettle, Urtica dioica
Poison oak, Toxicodendron diversilobum
Salmonberry, Rubus spectabilis
Slender phlox, Microsteris gracilis
Delicate buttercup, Ranunculus hebecarpus
Chorro Creek bog thistle, Cirsium fontinale var. obispoense
Mount Hamilton thistle, Cirsium fontinale var. campylon
Lesser Indian paintbrush, Castilleja minor
Sneezeweed, Helenium bigelovii
California buckeye, Aesculus californica
Purple starthistle, Centaurea calcitrapa

California red-legged frog, Rana draytonii
San Francisco dusky-footed woodrat, Neotoma fuscipes annectens
California meadow vole, Microtus californicus
American badger, Taxidea taxus
Three-striped longhorn moth, Adela trigrapha
Ash-throated flycatcher, Myiarchus cinerascens
House finch, Haemorhous mexicanus
Ornate tiger moth, Grammia ornata
Ceanothus silk moth, Hyalophora euryalus
Carpenter ant, Family Formicidae
Striped skunk, Mephitis mephitis
Common gray fox, Urocyon cinereoargenteus

David J. Keil, editor, Wildflowers of San Luis Obispo, California, California Native Plant Society.


  1. Thanks for this view of California spring. It is fun to compare to Minnesota spring flowers and creatures.

  2. Glad to hear you're on the mend and will be able to return to 'normal' duties. My wife is recovering from a second knee operation in under a year, so our usual perambulations have been somewhat curtailed. But you're correct, adjusting one's sights and looking to see what other wildlife is close at hand brings its own rewards. We too are now much more clued up about the invertebrates at home! Interestingly, salmonberry is an invasive, if gorgeous looking, pest here (Orkney), and there aren't too many plants that fall into that category (Japanese knotweed is also present in the county, but struggles with the climate). To date, I've not attended a bioblitz, but am hoping to have the opportunity this summer when the loal wildlife records centre is organising one. I'll try to remember your helpful info as regards phones, apps and databases. Many thanks.

  3. Great stuff. The bioblitz was good times. We found Ribes divaricatum on our hike. That place has quite a berry diversity. And I did enjoy the "sweeps" of Plagio chorisianus. Having a red-legged frog jump right next to me on the trail was a treat too.

    "Lesser Paintbrush"... geesh. What a yawner. A literalized latin name. I like the old local name: California Thread-torch. :)

    And fairy moth leks - doesn't get much better. You can see a 2nd species, Adela septentrionella, lekking over/around Holodiscus.


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