Summer Begins before the Solstice

Farewell to Spring blooming at Rush Creek in Novato

After a wet cool spring, the hills are suddenly straw, yet every afternoon the fog reaches its arms over the coastal hills. Summer in California has more sense of ending than any other time of year. In the Land of Seven Month Springs, we discover that even grass is mortal.

The red salamander in this contemplative poem is a Red Eft, the land stage of the East Coast cousin of our newts.

LIVING

The fire in leaf and grass
so green it seems
each summer the last summer.

The wind blowing, the leaves
shivering in the sun,
each day the last day.

A red salamander,
so cold and so easy
to catch, dreamily

moves his delicate feet
and long tail. I hold
my hand open for him to go.

Each minute the last minute.

.        –Denise Levertov

Some Farewell flowers have a brilliant red bloodspot at the base of each of their four petals

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Our Surprise: Sylvia Pippen’s Exquisite Quilt!

An unexpected gift for Tina and myself manifested in yesterday’s mail, all the way from the coast south of Hilo on Hawaii’s Big Island — one of Sylvia Pippen’s flower quilts, arriving unannounced and without any special occasion to justify it.

The three blossoms on this 1 1/2 by 2 foot quilt are Rocky Mountain columbine, a reminder of Sylvia’s more than four decades of deep friendship with us, and of the love all three us of share for the high mountains.

I’d bet my bottom dollar Sylvia was remembering as she stiched the very stand of columbine that rose instantly to mind from my own forty-year-old memory: Not far from the summit of Wheeler Peak in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of northern New Mexico is a hidden dell, its walls a wild tumble of talus boulders; each year in August, masses of white-and-blue columbine — hundreds upon hundreds of glorious blossoms — fountain from every crevice in this tiny place, their colors mirroring the cumulus-dotted alpine sky.

I marvel the quality and precision of Sylvia’s work. Everything you see is hand-stitched. The stamens of the flowers — each stamen separately — is embroidered with two or three colors, topped by bright yellow, pollen-heavy anthers. And look in the detail below at the quilting itself.

Sylvia and her near-ninety-year-old mother, Kitty (who still quilts and teaches), are among the Olympians of North American quilt-making. You can see more of their master craft at http://sylviapippendesigns.com/

And you can find their books at Amazon:

Paradise Stitched: Sashiko & Applique Quilts. Sylvia Pippen  http://www.amazon.com/Paradise-Stitched-Sashiko-Applique-Quilts-Sylvia/dp/1571206175/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1275609171&sr=1-1

Asian Elegance: Quilting with Japanese Fabrics and More.  Kitty & Sylvia Pippen  http://www.amazon.com/Asian-Elegance-Quilting-Japanese-Patchwork/dp/156477483X/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1275609171&sr=1-3

Quilting with Japanese Fabrics. Kitty Pippen  http://www.amazon.com/Quilting-Japanese-Fabrics-Kitty-Pippen/dp/1564772977/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1275609171&sr=1-2

We’re on our way to the hardware store right now to get a dowel and wooden brackets to give this marvel its place of honor on our living room wall.

Thrush Music

Red Ribbons, one of our loveliest Clarkias, on a steep bank in song-filled Creamery Canyon

This will be a brief post, with a promise, hopefully over this long weekend, to catch up with flowerblogging that’s nearly six weeks behind.

This morning I got up at first light and headed all by myself out to my old stomping grounds on the ridges and redwood canyons above San Geronimo Valley. It was my first early-morning hike in weeks. The Valley was filled with translucent silver mist that magnified the space around me as I began to walk. Its uppermost reaches were already caressed by the sun slanting in over the hills. The world glowed.

In the course of not much more than five minutes my ears were bathed in most of the most beautiful birdsong to be heard in Marin:

The lush riparian fringing the creek was filled with the even lusher proclamations of Black-headed Grosbeaks — robins trained and conducted by Toscanini. Up the side canyon I began to climb, Swainson’s Thrushes’ echoy, ethereal songs spiraled up and up till I could almost believe they ascended ultimately to some higher sphere of existence (if one was imaginable on a morning like this). As the redwood colonnades began, the sword fern thickets trembled with the endless tinkling song of the Winter Wren. And higher still on the Valley’s flanks, I began to catch the mournful verses of Hermit Thrushes.

A Frost poem came to mind — a lovely poem of dusk, not dawn, but one certainly written about the Hermit Thrush.

Come In

As I came to the edge of the woods,
Thrush music — hark!
Now if it was dusk outside,
Inside it was dark.

Too dark in the woods for a bird
By sleight of wing
To better its perch for the night,
Though it still could sing.

The last of the light of the sun
That had died in the west
Still lived for one song more
In a thrush’s breast.

Far in the pillared dark
Thrush music went —
Almost like a call to come in
To the dark and lament.

But no, I was out for stars;
I would not come in.
I meant not even if asked;
And I hadn’t been.

–Robert Frost

Why am I so certain this poem is about Hermit Thrushes? The Eastern forest has two “versifying” thrushes, the Wood Thrush and the Hermit. Each bird begins each verse of its song with a long, clear note, followed by a musically complex, silvery phrase that sounds as if it’s sung in the lofty spaces of a cathedral.

But the two species’ songs have a critical difference: listen to the initial notes, in sequence, of any three of a Wood Thrush’s phrases, and they make a major chord, giving the whole song a sunny, happy air.

But the Hermit Thrush carries another mood: Any three of its initial notes make a minor chord — the “lament” called up for Frost.

Of course, neither bird is singing for us. They’re both proclaiming the same thing: this piece of forest, this mate, this nest, these babies, all the food we glean — are mine!

Infidelitus Geographicus – Stebbins Cold Canyon Natural Reserve

We escaped Marin yesterday for a romantic interlude with the wanton flowers in Yolo County.

Yesterday was our great-grandson Terence’s first communion (and the column of flowers above is, of course, Chinese Houses. We spent the day with them in the Sacramento Valley town of Winters, about 20 miles west of Davis, along Putah Creek. After gorging on more-than-plentiful homecooked food, our son Brendan barely surviving hours of dreadful lightsaber wars in the backyard with knee-high Jedis, and catching up on everyon’e lives, four of us — Tina, Sarah, Brendan and myself — headed about 15 minutes up Route 128 to Montecillo Dam, which creates Lake Berryessa.

Here’s our grinny granddaughter, Maciel (on the right), sitting on the steps of Terence’s house with her buddy Haley. (Terence rents out part of the house to his mom and dad, Amaris and Keith, to his thoroughly Irish grandfather Terry, and to his brother Kenneth.

Just past the dam are two undistinguished dusty, rutted parking lots. But right across the road are two intriguing trailheads. Flowers and tumbled greenery are everywhere: redbud (in flagrant bloom, above) and blueblossom, mounds of creamy clematis heaped on bushes and trees, roadcuts splashed with every color of the rainbow.

Golden Fairy Lanterns, a delightful relative of Mariposa Lilies

Venture up the trails a few dozen yards and you come to signs and interpretive material introducing you to one of the gems of the University of California Natural Reserve system, the G. Ledyard Stebbins Cold Canyon Reserve.

Ledyard Stebbins (1906-2000) was a near-legendary botanist at UC Davis and one of ther foremost evolutionary biologists of the last century. I had several times the privilege of being in the field with him in his older years, once on a California Native Plant Society outing where he outwalked nearly everyone in the group, straight up a hogback on Mt Tam, talking to us about Ceanothus the whole way.

Clematis or Virgin's Bower

Clematis showing its silky seed plumes

To find out lots and lots more about the Reserve (and the public education programs there) go to http://nrs.ucdavis.edu/stebbins.html. Or to be a volunteer or guide there contact jfalyn (at) ucdavis.edu.

A creamy-white Clematis vine graces the crown of an enormous Blue Blossom shrub

The ordinary blue-purple flowers of Blue-eyed Grass, and interspersed among them, flowers of a rare white variant of the plant.

Here and there, hillsides were thronged with this beautiful native Clover.

All the plants in Cold Canyon seemed just a bit bigger than life. Even the Sticky Monkey Flowers were nearly twice normal size, and California Pipevine was everywhere, green and luxuriant, hung with striped fruits. We found one leaf of Big-Leaf Maple that was nearly a foot across. The soil was springy and deep underfoot; a handful of it was a fragrant as the loam in a well-tended vegetable patch. Why the exuberance? I’m going to have to find out!

Harvest Brodiaea

A Gray Pine in the foreground, and far above it, a peek at a slope covered with Blue Buckbrush.

We all know the littleairy parachutes of Dandelions. Here's a beautiful variant on that theme. The inconsequential flowers of Blow Wives mature into these spectacular satiny papusses with a single glossy black seed dangling beneath it when it takes flight.

We’ll end with another white oddity. Here’s an albino seedling of Buckeye. Somewhere, perhaps in the original production of the egg cell that gave rise to the huge Buckeye seed, its chloroplasts were lost.

Chloroplasts are the green organelles inside plant cells that do the work of photosynthesis. They were, in ancient evolutionary time, once-independent algal cells that formed an intimate symbiosis with the plant.

This little plant is growing off the food reserves of its seed. But it cannot make its own food fron sun, water and air. When its reserves are exhausted, it will die.

Green, Greener and Greener: March Week 3 – April Week 2

I’ve had three topical posts up during this three-week period, but here’s a belated catch-up overall for this transition between our early and late bloomers. These weeks have seen the first major flush of migrant songbirds arriving back from Mexico and the deep tropics.

It’s been unsettled weather — a few days of sun and warming, then bluster accented here and there by intense and in some cases record-setting rains. Just when we might be watching for the first tenative suggestions of browning on the distant hills, they seem, impossibly, to be getting greener and greener.

3-21-10 My first Thimbleberry blossom hangs above the Laguna Trail in PRNS.

Thimbleberries and Salmonberries are two of our summer treats, their mild delights often bypassed for the more sugary seductions of the Old-World blackberries that are rampant along every byway. They’re also quite beautiful plants, in contrast to the aggressive  thorny sprawl of balckberries.

3-26-10 Fiddlenecks unfurl their gold in Eliot Preserve, part of Cascade Canyon Open Space.

Fiddlenecks are part of the Borage family, which includes Hounds Tongue, Popcorn Flowers, and the garden escapees, Forget-Me-Nots.

A Western Fence Lizard, or Blue Belly, regards the camera (or the cameraman) with reptilian mistrust in Eliot Preserve.

3-27-10 Johnny-Jump-Up, China Camp

Some of our vioets aren’t violet, of course, just as some of our evening primroses have decided to bloom in the mornings. Johnny-Jump-Ups are one of Marin’s two large-flowered yellow kinds, the other having an equally engaging name, Western Heart’s Ease. (I just haven’t hiked to one of my good places for them yet. Be patient).

3-27-10 Here's Madrone with its countless thousands of nectared bells, most of the way through its spring bloom in China Camp

For the last three weeks I’ve been prowling for the perfect shot of one of my favorite spring delights: the snow of Madrone bells that will eventually be strewn under each tree. I’ve come close, but I haven’t found it yet.

Later in the year, each of these blossoms will yield a plump orange berry, and with a sound like distant summer thunder, clouds of Band-tailed Pigeons will wheel in for the harvest.

As nesting season begins, Scrub Jays spend longer and longer times sitting at the top of trees and tall shrubs, quietly observing. Are they betraying a meditational bent? Nope.

Crows, jays and magpies, as a family, rival the parrots in intelligence, and in fact evidence seems to be accumulating that the brightest of them rival all but the higher primates in thoughtful resourcefulness.

Scrub Jays are watching for nest building by other birds. From extensive studies, many of them conducted in Marin by Point Reyes Bird Observatory scientists, we know they’ll remember where the nest are, many nests — but they won’t necessarily slip in and steal eggs as soon as they’re laid (well, maybe a few). Instead, they’ll treat many of the nests as long-term resources and return to harvest nestlings after parents have established a sunstantial “value-added” by feeding their young up to good, plump size.

Think of it as a sort of proto-animal husbandry.

4-1-10 Finally, I found my first Larkspur, along the Fairfax end of the Yolanda Loop

4-1-10 One of our several species of Lotus, or Deerweed, a legune and a 'belly flower' just an inch or so high, at the edge of the Yolanda Loop

4-1-10 Another belly flower, a Locoweed

4-3-10 A jewel-like unidentified moth on Giant Chain Fern, in Blackstone Canyon above Marinwood.

4-6-10 A native poppy, Creamy Cups, on the Bay Ridge north of Whites Hill

4-6-10 Owls Clover on Whites Hill. See the tiny owl faces on this relative of Snapdragons and Paint Brush?

This orange-capped rock is at Camp Tamarancho, a extensive, ecologically rich  Boy Scout property above Fairfax. Why is it orange? Bird poop.

This Xanthoria lichen is a cosmopolitan species that is highly tolerant of the high salts and nitrogen residues of . . . bird poop, so it’s often found atop rocks like this where birds like kestrels (our smallest falcon) routinely perch. just between us, let’s call it Bird-Poop Lichen.

4-9-10 Goldfields, California Poppies on serpentine soil at Tamarancho

As we hiked Tamarancho, I spotted this striking but too common scene: two lovely Madrones flanking several of our magnificent Live Oaks, killed in the last two seasons by Sudden Oak Death Syndrome (SODS).

By now the story of SODS, at least as far as we understand it, is pretty well known: an exotic fungal disease, likely introduced on horticultural plants, began to infect native trees on the slopes of mount Tam. It is now spreading north and south in California, killing live oaks and tanoaks, sometimes destroying an individual tree in a matter of weeks.

Will our oaks go the way of the American chestnut? No one knows.

4-9-10 Our native chaparral Morning Glory at Tamarancho

4-9-10 The curious blossoms of the somewhat funky-smelling Pitcher Sage.

4-13-10 "Linear Montia" Pams Blue Ridge

Pacific States Wildflowers, in the Peterson Field Guide Series, is the best book for identifying Western plants, but between the inevitable shifts in the scientific naming of some of our common plants as our knowledge expands, and the egregious disrespect (or botanists’ lack of interest) in common names by this book’s authors, some of our loveliest plants have very odd and unbecoming names.

Take this pink beauty, for instance, that, especially after fires can paint acres of our thin serpentine soils in brilliant color. “Linear Montia.” Not very evocative, is it? Beyond that, other problems. It’s now been moved to the genus Claytonia from Montia (where it and Miner’s Lettuce used to live. And its “specific epithet” — the second part of its scientific name — has had to change, too.

Common names belong to us, not the scientists. They’ll always know what Claytonia gypsophiloides is. But what do we want to call it? Please suggest a name.    🙂

4-14-10 A male Lesser Goldfinch nibbles the (probably delicious) flower buds of Valley Oak on Mount Burdell.

4-14-10 Yellow (or Streamside) Monkey Flower & a visiting insect on the slopes of Mt Burdell

4-14-10 Another name-challenged flower, glorifying a wet meadowy spot below Mount Burdell. Let's call it Yellow Owls Clover.

4-13-10 on Pams Blue Ridge, a picture-perfect bouguet of Mules Ears & Red Delphinium.

4-14-10 Miners Lettuce flowering in the lap of a Live Oak on Mt Burdell

At the Edge of the Bay

A Black-necked Stilt in the treatment ponds at Las Gallinas.

On this perfect spring day, I took an early-morning stroll at Las Gallinas Valley Santitary District’s sewage treatment ponds, one of the richest places on Marin’s bayshore for wildlife (sewage ponds, worldwide, are a favorite habitat for finding birdwatchers).

The light was crystalline, the air warm and still but ringing with birdsound. At the bridge where the trails begin, several hundred Cliff Swallows whirled and filled the air with twitter. They rushed en masse under the low bridge where they build their colony of mud-gourd nests and streamed back out the other side. Safe  in numbers, they ignored a pale merlin that flew directly under them.

Red- winged Blackbirds clacked and konk-a-reed from every cattail clump, Marsh Wrens chattered like demented sewing machines, hundreds of musical Salt-Marsh Song Sparrows competed for female attention. A summer-butter Wilson’s Warbler perched for an instant a handspan from a masked male Yellowthroat, who ignored his bursting into song.

Ducks. They arrowed in twos and threes over the narsh in pursuit of sex, bringing the embarrassing rubber-ducky squeaks of male Wigeon and the reedy quacks of Gadwall.

A Greater Yellowlegs called out beyond the saltmarsh, geese honked. I heard the serial grunts of Virginia Rails and the endangered Clapper Rail.

American Goldfinches have arrived; a dozen or more like this one sang from weed patches. Can you see his imperfect black crown? Goldfinches are among the few small songbirds to take several years to achieve full, resplendent male plumage.

This wasn’t a flower walk, though there were plenty of flowers: millions of white, yellow, brassy or lavender blossoms of Corkseed, the European ancestor of radishes, and muddy patches here and there golden with the massed bloon of salt-tolerant Brass Buttons, an arrival from South Africa. But in an hour of walking, except for the vegatation in saltmarshes and the sloughs, I saw only three native plants: Coyote Bush, California Bee Plant (one clump) and California Poppies (probably seeded from horticultural stock).

It was still a grand tour of the living world at the verge of San Pablo Bay. And just to keep me in line, this Raven supervised my visit in silence.

Kaleidoscope: The Douglas Iris Show across Marin

I’ll  begin this long-promised post on the variety of color and form among our native iris with an exploration of the iris flower’s curious complexity. Here, for comparison, is the standard formula for how a flower is structured:

o   Farthest from the flower’s center are the sepals, typically green and leaflike.

o   Next toward the center are petals, the flower’s unabashed bid for attention.

o   Next in, add a ring of stamens, bearing dust-like male pollen.

o   In the center stands the female part, the pistil. Pollen grains, usually transported by insects, birds or wind, get deposited on the sticky cap, the stigma, and long pollen tubes grow down inside the pistil’s stalk, the style, to fertilize the flower’s eggs.

Now take a close-up look into an iris (above). Hard to fit to the standard model, isn’t it? First are three broad sepals, splendidly striped, and splashed with color. We call them falls, because they hold themselves out horizontally and bend gracefully downward at their tips. They’re landing pads for pollinators, conspicuously marked to guide arriving insects into the reproductive and nectar-producing parts of the flower.

Next are the three more-or-less upright petals–the standards–beautiful but far less assertive than the falls. They add a vertical dimension to the flower’s advertising.

Now look at the three bright, petal-like things that lie on top of the inner parts of the falls. Without a hand lens and a detailed knowledge of flower anatomy, you’d never guess what each is: a colorful, flattened, highly modified style! Underneath, the sticky stigma has become a simple cross-wise ridge that the pollinator has to squeeze itself under, scraping off the pollen it’s transported.

The stamens–the male parts, remember?–are snuggled, half-wrapped in the style’s folds. In the super close-up below, you can just glimpse the tips of the stamens, the anthers, loaded in this particular flower with royal purple pollen (in others it may be white or yellow).

So that’s how an iris’s beauty is assembled.

With that under our belt, let’s tour Marin, from Mount Burdell in the north, near the border with Sonoma, south to the Golden Gate Bridge, and from China Camp, on the silty eastward brink of San Pablo Bay, to Chimney Rock, far west at the end of Point Reyes.

The variety you see here from here on down the page–all from the last month and a half–is, as I said in February, the result of the complex hybridization Douglas Iris has done, uniquely in Marin, with Grass Iris (mostly around Inverness Ridge) and (strangely, because the species no longer occurs anywhere near Marin) with the pale Fernald’s Iris throughout much of the interior and eastern parts of the county.

The only double iris I've ever seen in the wild, along the Laguna Trail in Point Reyes

March Week 3: Bathed in Gold

The Bay Ridge Trail, which is planned to circumnavigate San Francisco Bay, winds its way south from Big Rock toward Loma Alta

The sun has fought its way back to sunny California. This week, daytime high temperatures held steady around a balmy 70 degrees. We’re as happy as the flowers.

3-15-10 Blue-Eyed Grass at the top of the Oakwood Valley Trail

Blue-Eyed Grass isn’t a grass at all (though later in the spring we’ll have more shots of our lovely native grasses — the California Fescue is already tasseling) but a diminutive iris. I went hunting on Sunday for a particular, rare, white-flowered plant of this species I’ve sought out every spring for years, but it hadn’t yet bloomed. But on Monday, on the southern ridge of Tennessee Valley, where the Oakwood Valley Trail climbs up to glorious 360-degree views, I found the first few azure eyes peering at me.

If you like natives in your garden, watch the nurseries for Blue-Eyed Grass, Sisyrinchium. It naturally has a long blooming season, and it’s a compact and thrifty plant that will produce dozens of flowers over many months.

3-15-10 Red Elderberry, Oakwood Valley

Before sunrise, at Big Rock at the head of Lucas Valley, I met my old friend Mike Day. We climbed the Bay Ridge Trail northward above the Lucasfilms complex as the light brightened and the sun finally shouldered over the horizon in the East Bay. Before we found a single flower, we spotted this:

3-17-10 A bobcat headed north, a dog headed south, and multiple mountain bike tracks on the multi-use Bay Ridge Trail

But then, surrounded in every direction by hills so green they made the soul ache, we turned one more corner to find this, perched in a rock cleft next to a tiny rivulet:

3-17-10 Green Mule Ears below Big Rock Ridge

3-17-10 Coast Live Oak tasseled with bloom on Big Rock Ridge. Sometimes we ignore the flowers of our wind-pollinated trees, but they have their own magic. In a few days these red masses of pollen-producing male flowers will hang vertically and turn a lovely brown-gold

After you finish admiring the oaks, look underneath them at the Lilliputian world of mosses and lichens, which are also at their most beautiful at the warming end of the rainy season. Here on 3-17-10 is the humble Liverwort, Asterella on Big Rock. The visible plant of a liverwort has just a single set of chromosomes--as if our eggs and sperms grew into their own kind of creatures. Inside these curious apple-green structures grow the double-chromosomed generation which never get to lead independent lives. They come into existence during the rains, when sperm swim through the water film from plant to plant to unite with the eggs.

3-19-10 Lupine Sp Lucas Vy Rd

3-19-10 Woodland Star along Lucas Valley Road

Here’s another of my favorite spring flowers, worth getting down to its level for a close look at its delicate beauty. Its generic name hints at unlikely abilities (or the caprice of some long-ago botantist): Lithophragma, which means “rock breaker.” Go figure.

3-20-10 Blue Buckbrush on Greens Hill

Tina, Brendan and I set out just minutes after the Vernal Equinox for a gray day shower-and-little-bits-of-sun hike along the top of San Geronimo Ridge. Three kinds of Ceanothus were blooming and the air was filled with their earthy perfume.

We hiked up Creamery Canyon, through the dark redwood grove at the old Hunt Camp, and over the top of Greens Hill. From there we ambled eastward through a mile of miniature forest composed of Sargent Cypress growing on serpentine. Then we dropped down across the high Woodacre Meadow, a grassland because its ‘montmorillonitic’ soils that expand and contract hugely with changes in moisture, and thus sever the roots of large woody plants — this is one Marin grassland that’s always been a grassland. From there, we descended again into forest about the head of Evans Canyon to discover a brand-new (for us) stand of Calypso Orchids and lots of trilliums!

3-20-10 Bear-Grass not in bloom on Greens Hill

This sometimes spectacular lily (at it apogee in Montana or British Columbia) rarely blooms in Marin, here at the southern limit of its range. It takes a fire and the huge flush of nutrients that frees up to make it blossom on our hills, but then, if conditions are right, its bottlebrush flower stalk, bristling with hundreds of small lilies, can reach several feet higher than your head.

3-20-10 Wake-Robin Trilliums in Evans Canyon

Evans Canyon and its first-class trail were named for long-time San Geronimo Valley resident, biologist and passionate conservationist Willis Evans. Evans was a lifelong cohort of famed herpetologist and artist Bob Stebbins, and the two of them never lost their boyish enthusiasm for nature. Willis worked indefatigably on fisheries and forest conservation issues for decades until his death a few years ago from Alzheimers.

One of my favorite memories of Willis is his lecturing, straight-faced, on salmon biology at the Annual Picnic of Marin Conservation League while I illustrated his talk by squirming appropriately upstream, wearing a wet suit and a three-foot-long salmon headpiece.

3-20-10 Spotted Coral Root, Creamery Canyon

Another of our native orchids, commoner than Calypsos, Spotted Coral Root is what used to be called a saprophyte (harvesting its food as we thought not from sun but from decaying organic material in the soil) and thus had no need for chlorophyll and the hard work of photosynthesis. These days, we have a new name for the Ungreen: We call them myco-heterotrophs because we now know that they make their living in an amazing way — they’ve become parasites of the soil fungi that are the intimate partners of almost all flowering plants. Did you know that, say, a Douglas fir can have as many as 2000 species of mycorhizal fungi in symbiotic association with its roots? The tree makes food for itself and its partners through photosynthesis; the fungi, with their tiny, threadlike hyphae that can go places in the soil that the bigger, clumsier plant roots cannot, capture water and mineral nutrients. These orchids and their relatives, along with a scattering of other flowering plants (ever seen snow plants in the Sierra?), have figured out a way to cheat. They invite connection with the mycorhizal fungi, most often, apparently, the Honey Mushroom, Armillaria, but don’t keep their end of the bargain. No free lunch? There is for Coral Root.

Our Spring Calendar

3-21-10 A rocky meadow with thousands of Goldfields

A SPRING LANDBIRD CALENDAR

Our local birds–including some that winter as far south as the Amazon Basin and make the trek back to Marin each year–travel thousands of miles on a clock that’s far more precise than the bursting of flowers. Flowering varies with local climate, sun exposure and the vagaries of weather. Birds transcend those.

Based on observations collected over a century, here are first-of-season (FOS) dates for some of our familiar nesting birds. The data is from Dave Shuford’s Marin County Breeding Bird Atlas, but I found it on Daniel Edelstein’s wonderful bird-oriented website: http://www.warblerwatch.com/CABirdArrivalTimes.htm. This is fun information to put in your yearly calendar or print on a card for your wallet. You might even make a scientific contribution by watching FOS dates drift earlier under the impact of climate change.

Feb  5     Allen’s Hummingbird
Feb 13    Tree Swallow
Feb 21    Violet-green Swallow
Mar  4     Orange-crowned Warbler
Mar  7     Rough-winged Swallow
Mar 11    Barn Swallow
Mar 18    Cliff Swallow
Mar 24    American Goldfinch
Mar 25    Pacific-slope Flycatcher
.                 Warbling Vireo
.                 Wilson’s Warbler
Mar 28    Brown-headed Cowbird
Mar 29    Hooded Oriole
Apr   3    Bullock’s Oriole
Apr   5    Western Kingbird
Apr   7    Purple Martin
Apr 13    Western Tanager
.                Black-headed Grosbeak
Apr 14    Black-throated Gray Warbler
.                 Chipping Sparrow
Apr 17    Olive-sided Flycatcher
Apr 18    Yellow Warbler
.                 MacGillivray’s Warbler
Apr 21    Grasshopper Sparrow
Apr 26    Swainson’s Thrush
.                Ash-throated Flycatcher
Apr 28    Lazuli Bunting
May15   Western Wood Pewee

As this is written, our year-round residents are full of seasonal change too. Quail are paired up and have left their coveys. The little winter flocks of chickdees are breaking up, most often with the resident pair that provided its nucleus last fall starting to set up housekeeping and the wandering young of the year who joined them for the rainy season setting out to find their own mates. And for a month or more now, the skies have rung with the exuberant kee-eer, kee-eer of courting Red-shouldered Hawks.

Blister Beetlemania: Lytta magister

We’ve identified the giant beetle in our Anza-Borrego post.

The brilliantly colored, inch-and-a-half long Desert Blister Beetle is the largest of all its brethren in the American deserts. According to my friend Mike Day, bugman extraordinaire, blister beetles exude an extreme skin irritant from their leg joints, which explains both their bright (warning) colors and their blithely undefensive public presence. Curious creatures: the adults eat mostly brittlebush, a plant loaded with its own warding-off chemicals that protect it from most grazers, but their larvae have an even odder niche. They predate the nests of solitary bees. They eat the food the female bees have stored for their larvae — and along the way, munch up the larvae too.

New to me — blister beetles are hypermetamorphic: they develop through several quite distinct larval phases. Kinda like our kids.

We’re unlikely to run short of blister beetles. There are about 7,500 kinds of them worldwide. As JBS Haldane once said, “God must be inordinately fond of beetles. He created so many of them.” Indeed, about 40% of all known insect species are beetles — about 350,000 forms of creaturehood.

Blister beetles, and this species in particular, zap us with cantharidin. We harvest it from this genus as a wart remover — and as the infamous Spanish fly, which is a violent, poisonous irritant of the urinary track.

So, dear Member of the Chain of Being, here’s how one tiny, tiny piece of the world works: With vast industy, bees harvest the male sex products of flowers (pollen) to feed themselves and their larvae, then with great labor, one stage of blister beetle larvae seeks out the underground lairs of the bees to steal their food and eat their babies, and then we send gimlet-eyed folk into the desert to collect beetles and steal their cantharidin . . . which we buy from another vartiety of human specialist, the pharmacist, to kill our warts, which are caused by a virus that only pretends to be alive.

Where’s Paul Hawken and his disintermediation when we need him? Wouldn’t it be simpler to try to remove warts with bees?

I have my own views about Nature’s methods, though I feel that it is rather like a beetle giving his opinions upon the Milky Way.

.                                                                           –Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

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