Saturday, July 30, 2022

Backyard Pipevine


Backyard Dutchman's Pipe
(Aristolochia californica)

A couple of years ago I walked down to Strybing Arboretum and found someone who could sell me a pipevine plant. The clerk at the little store near the entrance sent me to the nursery greenhouses down by the California garden. I snooped around until I found a gardener who offered to see if they had one they could sell me, and she soon came back out with a fragile little sprig. For the price of sixteen bucks, quite a bit more than the typical potted plants I get at Sloat Garden Center, I had another California native to plant out back. It joined a hazelnut and a huckleberry that I planted more than ten years ago.

The little sprig looked so fragile that I didn't let myself get too attached to it. But it was still alive the following season, and I kept coddling it, giving it a little extra water and pulling out any nearby weeds or other competition. 

One day I happened to look down from the stoop above the garden and saw the cat sleeping right next to it, oblivious. I placed a ring of thin sticks around the base of the plant to make sure she didn't accidentally crush it. It has so far survived the cat, as well as visiting skunks, squirrels, raccoons, rats, slugs, and gophers. It's a winter-deciduous plant, and after its first growing season it soon looked even more pitiful than when I first planted it, so I was relieved to see new growth on it after its first winter.

At the end of January this year it flowered for the first time. Just one flower. Our yard gets very little direct sunlight (even when it's not foggy), so growth is unsurprisingly slow. Because it had already bloomed earlier this year, I was cheerfully surprised this week to see that it had bloomed yet again, and again with just one flower. 

And such a cool flower it is. According to the California Native Plant Society, "[t]he flowers have an unpleasant odor which is attractive to tiny carrion-feeding insects. The insects crawl into the convoluted flowers and often become stuck and disoriented for some time, picking up pollen as they wander. Most eventually escape; the plant is not insectivorous as was once thought."

I can't detect any odor at all from the lone flower I have, and looking down into the pipe reveals no fungus gnats or other critters, carrion-feeding or otherwise. When I trained my macro lens on the flower I did see a spider tiny enough to hide behind a grain of rice scuttle up the flower stalk. Maybe it is a hunter of other tiny visitors.

My neighbor, a former gardener at Golden Gate Park who at the age of 95 still does vigorous gardening by volunteering with the Recreation and Parks Department, has much more mature pipevine plants in his back yard. Much of his pipevine climbs the oak tree he planted from an acorn back around the time my wife was born, and his plants have hosted numerous pipevine swallowtail caterpillars (which I believe he got from the arboretum, if I recall right). I hope one day my plant becomes robust enough to be a host as well, and perhaps to provide a little genetic diversity should any pollinators visit the flowers in both our yards.

Hanging by a Thread

Phone Snap, Jan. 30, 2022

Phone Snap, Jan. 19, 2023

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Friday, July 29, 2022

Summer Morning


Summer on Cataract Creek

Mt. Tam's Cataract Creek, so named for its wet season splendor below Laurel Dell, is just a series of quiet pools separated by stretches of dry stones in the summer. I was on the trail at 7 a.m. the other day, feeling a little guilty for driving all the way up there on a bit of a wild goose chase, but also feeling very fortunate to be out in nature on a beautiful morning.

A couple of scenes I'd glimpsed in passing during a recent hike with my wife had stuck with me, so I thought they might be worth a closer look with the D800. One was a bloom of farewell-to-spring, and the other was this little fern-fringed section of the creek. Both spots were close together and only about a half-mile from Rock Spring. Despite the lack of novelty in these very familiar surroundings, I somehow spent a couple of hours exploring photo opportunities, about the same amount of time my wife and I had spent hiking our six-and-a-half mile loop a few days before.

The farewell-to-spring blossoms were still closed when I arrived, but the sun soon rose above the forest and opened them up. Around the same time the sun was opening them up, I noticed that the blossoms still in the shade were also opening up. I wondered if they were responding to some sort of circadian rhythm, or maybe temperature or a slight increase in brightness. Or maybe even the wood-wide-web: imagine the plants in the sunlight somehow communicating the new day's arrival to all the others nearby.

Fern & Pool

Morning Meadow #1

Morning Meadow #2

Flames of Grass

Arcs of Sedge & Spears of Mugwort

Farewell-to-Spring #1

Farewell-to-Spring #2

Farewell-to-Spring #3


Fresh Green Cones of Douglas Fir

Close-up of Cone Scales & Rat Tails

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Wednesday, July 27, 2022

Camo Cat


We semi-adopted this neighborhood cat around the time she started showing up in pictures caught by my back-yard trail cam in 2016. By semi-adopted, I mean that we feed her, a practice I started when I reasoned that a well-fed cat would be less inclined to try to eat the juncos, California towhees, scrub jays,  and hermit thrushes that also use the back yard garden. Despite the excellent natural camouflage she has when snoozing on piles of leaves, she's not a great stalker (maybe she's too well-fed to make an effort). I've seen her take an interest in gophers a few times without ever making a serious pounce. What she really likes to pounce on is a can of Friskies Turkey with Giblets.

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Monday, July 25, 2022

Mono Lake


Mono Lake Vista Point

When I stopped at the Mono Lake overlook on my recent excursion to the east side of the Sierra, one of the things I checked was whether a land bridge had formed out to Negit Island. As the FZ80 shot above shows, there is still water between the mainland and the island. I assumed all was well, and even as I drove past the lake along I-395 I didn't really notice just how low the lake level actually was. As of July it is 12.5 feet below the 6,392-foot "management level" prescribed for the lake.

One thing I hadn't realized about the land bridge is that the coyotes that threaten nesting gulls apparently don't need the bridge to go all the way to the island since they will cross shallow water. I also had forgotten that gulls stopped nesting on Negit Island since coyotes went over there in 1977. Instead they nest on other nearby islets. 

In 2017, the Mono Lake Committee installed an electric fence to keep coyotes from threatening the nesting gulls, and camera traps showed that the fence worked. This year the lake level was just high enough that they did not deploy the fence, but they did set up camera traps. No coyotes were seen on the land bridge during the early part of the April-August nesting season. 

Although I stopped at the Mono Lake County Park for a rest break on my last trip, I didn't even walk down to the lake shore, much less visit Black Point or the tufa reserves. Just being out near the lake and seeing it from the highway provides a rejuvenating sense of wonder and awe. It's all too easy to take for granted that it will always be there to enjoy.

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Sunday, July 24, 2022

Back to Nature


Summer at the Golden Gate

Some things never change, like summer fog in the Golden Gate, or flocks of pelicans soaring along the coastal bluffs. 

I was looking for a bike ride the other day that was a little longer than usual, so I pedaled my ebike over the bridge to Tennessee Valley, part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. The first surprise was finding that the formerly rough, pot-holed, dirt parking lot at the end of the road had been completely paved. The second surprise was finding that the horse stables and ranger housing half-way down to the beach were no longer in use and were going back to nature. (The decision to close the lower T.V. stables was made back in late 2013, and the Horse Mounted Patrol that was housed there has been moved to Rodeo Valley.)

I rode out the dirt road to the Haypress Camp and parked my bike to eat the apple I'd brought with me, then took out my FZ-80 while California quail, scrub jays, and northern flickers capered around the campground. It was sunny, warm, quiet, sheltered from the wind, full of bird life, and in general just about the exact opposite of my home in San Francisco. After filling up my spirits at that little nature sanctuary, I coasted back down the rutted dirt road to the main trail and toward the beach.

On the way I kept my eyes peeled for wildlife, stopping here and there to scan the hills and meadows more carefully. It was pretty much mid-day, so I had more hope than actual expectation, and indeed I didn't see any wildlife other than birds. The heyday of looking for bobcats to photograph was ten years ago, back in 2012. There were three very healthy male bobcats (nicknamed DeNiro, Redford, and Rocky) that occasionally made themselves available to be photographed by hunting in the open. They were plainly accustomed to having people around since Tennessee Valley has always been a very popular place.

As I was checking out the abandoned stables I wondered if the area was better wildlife habitat now or before. It seems like a given that the landscape, if left to itself, would provide better habitat than a landscape with more human influence, but I'm not so sure. Can formerly productive fields and meadows become too densely overgrown? Is all human presence to be considered "disturbance," or is some of it actually conducive to wildlife? Hopefully the park service and/or others have taken this great opportunity to make a study of it. 

Young Redtailed Hawk on the Hunt

Paved Paradise

California Quail Chicks

Papa Keeping Watch

Northern Flicker on the Fence

Young Flicker

Picnic Area Near Former Stables

Trail to Tennessee Cove

Cardinal Meadowhawk

Tennessee Cove

Tennessee Cove in 2011, Before the Earth Portal Caved In

Cliff Selfie

Tennessee Valley

Great Egret Hunting the Tidal Flats of Richardson Bay

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Friday, July 22, 2022

Summer Settles In


Ravines Along Bolinas Ridge, Matt Davis Trail

I can't help it. I can "be here now" and enjoy the warmth and cheer of sunshine and the evocative scent of rosinweed wafting in the air, but the harder summer sets in, the more I look forward to a return of the wet season. And of course there's always a bit of trepidation mixed in, since the wet season isn't a given. 

As I went through my exercise routine this morning I listened to a news report on the radio about how hot it has been in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where folks were cooling off at a water park. I thought they were lucky, that they had the saving grace of water aplenty.

But I just looked it up, and it turns out they aren't much better off than we are. The whole state is in moderate to extreme drought, with zero rain in the last 40+ days being recorded at Will Rogers Airport in the center of the state. Tulsa is east of there, in the moderate drought zone, but to escape the moderate-level drought zones altogether you'd have to go much farther, say east of the Ohio River or north of the upper Mississippi.

As we found to my pleasant surprise on our hike a few days ago, there is still water flowing on Mt. Tamalpais, even up at the level of the Matt Davis Trail where it heads up the coast through the Doug fir, the oak and bay laurel, and the bigleaf maple. The spot where the creek crosses the trail is a little oasis of wet and green. It's too small an area to really want to linger over and fully savor, yet I still felt a tug of regret as we hiked past it all too quickly. Other than Cataract Creek, I don't believe we saw any other surface water on our hike, although there is a seep along the Coastal Trail below the hang-gliding launch area.

On the way up the Cataract Trail we encountered a small field of purple dots sprinkled among the brittle stalks of tawny grass: farewell-to-spring. I was sure I couldn't do justice  to the scene's intricate beauty with the FZ-80 I was carrying, and maybe not even if I'd had the D800. 

We had arrived at Rock Spring with only one other car in the parking lot. We hiked a leisurely loop via the Old Mine Trail to Matt Davis, then up the Coastal Trail and up and over West Ridgecrest at the Willow Camp Fire Road, then down the Laurel Dell Fire Road to the Cataract Trail to close the loop. We didn't cross paths with a single soul until we were within sight of the car at Rock Spring.

Cloud Surf, View from Old Mine Trail

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Wednesday, July 20, 2022

Urban Quail


Quail on Look-Out Duty, Strybing Arboretum

The California Quail, our State Bird since 1931, was named San Francisco's "official bird" twenty-one years ago this month. The last time I photographed one of the handsome males in Strybing Arboretum was in 2008. It was always such a joy to hear and see quail in the arboretum, whether bustling across the trail with a line of newborn chicks in tow, or hopping up onto a park bench to provide early warning of danger from hawks and, probably more importantly, domestic cats. 

Two years ago, SFGate reported that the quail had last been seen in Golden Gate Park in 2017 and was, by 2020, locally extinct. If cats (along with hawks, rats, skunks, and raccoons) truly were the bane of quail, then coyotes might give a boost to efforts to re-introduce quail in the Presidio. As a report on quail research from the Presidio Trust said, "Looking at urban parks across the state, researchers found that parks with coyotes had a 73% higher likelihood of being occupied by quail than similar parks without coyotes."

As far as I can tell, no quail have been reintroduced yet. Maybe now that the big Tunnel Tops project has finally been completed, attention can be turned toward doing so. I hope that someday soon I will once again be able to see and hear California quail in the city, and maybe even, once again, in Golden Gate Park.

What got me thinking about all this was a chance photo picked up yesterday by the trail camera I keep in the back yard:

Yard Quail

The cam was triggered while I was setting it up and happened to be pointing at a metal quail sculpture  (bought at Micano in Reno) that's mounted in the yard.

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Monday, July 18, 2022

Wonder Pools

Little Moonglow
(Click photos to view larger.)

Although I did see footprints in the sand when I got down to the beach, I appeared to be the first tidepooler of the morning at Fitzgerald Marine Reserve on Sunday (not counting the great blue heron and flock of sea gulls). After descending the stairs at Seal Cove (the main entrance was still closed) I headed up the beach and soon spotted movement in one of the pools, some kind of crab. 

I wrestled my Nikon out of a canvas Domke shoulder bag, trying not to dump the Panasonic FZ-80 in the process. So much for the Domke, which turns out not to be a very good bag for this kind of work. Along with the FZ-80 for grab shots, I had brought my D800E with a 105/Micro and a small SB-400 flash attached to an SC-29 coiled remote cord. I turned it all on and was promptly greeted by a "card error" flashing in the display. 

In the minute or so that it took to sort that out and get the D800 working, the crab had gone to ground, hiding probably in plain sight, but so well-camouflaged that I needed my special x-ray vision to find it again. Even when I was right above it, I found it virtually impossible to make a photograph of the crab, a kelp crab, that would look like anything other than random colors and shapes. Even when it moved out of its hidey-hole of seaweed its camo held up quite well.

I moved on from the kelp crab to a lovely little orange moonglow anemone about the size of a half-dollar, then to another one nearby. By the time I reached the second one, a hermit crab had photobombed it. The crab was in no rush to vacate the premises, so I gently flicked it out of the way. When I finally looked up  from my tidepooling I was surprised to see that several people had joined me on the reef. By the time I left, there were probably three-dozen or so people out there. It was nice to have low tide striking at such a reasonable hour, and on a weekend to boot.

The sun made a very brief appearance, dazzling us with brighter colors and a more cheerful atmosphere, but Karl the Fog soon reasserted himself over his briny domain.

As I skimmed across the reef peering into pools I stopped several times to just take in the beauty of them, the wonder of the everyday aliens that share this incredible planet with us. I asked a couple of docents if they'd seen any nudibranchs, and they pointed me back down the reef toward a guy in a distinctively bright orange jacket. 

I asked around when I reached him, but no one had a bead on any 'branchs at the moment. As I mosied back toward the beach I spotted a different bright orange creature that I took to be a worm or some kind of new 'branch, but a boy about 10 or 11 years old took one look at the tiny inch-long thing from maybe 10-15 feet away and said it was probably a sea cucumber. Oh, to have laser eyes like that again. I never would have guessed that sea cukes could be so small, and I looked it up when I got home. The kid was absolutely correct.

Hermit Crab Photobombing Moonglow Anemone

Seal Cove

GBH Looking for Morsels

Camouflaged Crab

Crusted Kelp Crab Out in the Open

Inflorescence of Coralline Algae

Best Buds (Sea Star and Anemone)

Coralline Algae with Folded-up Anemones

Big Daddy on a Stalk

Barnacle Bill (and Ted and Hillary)

Sea Shell Collector

Enjoying Our Thirty Seconds of Sunshine

Li'l Cuke

Orange Sea Cucumber (Cucumaria miniata)

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