Where you least expect it

Thursday is the day that our trash and recycling/green waste bins get emptied. This afternoon I was moving my green waste bin out to the curb and discovered three little creatures living under it. Two of the three guys were the same, and the third was something different. Fortunately none of them had been injured when I rolled the bin out of its spot next to the fence. The two little guys stayed put when I ran inside to grab my camera, but when I came out the largest guy had disappeared. I found it curled up next to the inside edge of one of the wheels on the bin and was able to coax it out for a few pictures.

A bit of research on the mighty Interwebs leads me to conclude that the larger of my new damp friends is a California slender salamander, Batrachoseps attenuatus. It certainly is slender, isn’t it?

California slender salamander (Batrocoseps attenuatus) that was living under my green waste bin. 3 February 2016 © Allison J. Gong

California slender salamander (Batrachoseps attenuatus) that was living under my green waste bin.
3 February 2016
© Allison J. Gong

If it weren’t for the tiny legs, at first glance this guy would look like a snake. Here’s a close-up of its front end (and the palm of my hand):

Head and forelegs of California slender salamander (Batrachoseps attenuates). 3 February 2016 © Allison J. Gong

Head and forelegs of California slender salamander (Batrachoseps attenuatus).
3 February 2016
© Allison J. Gong

All told, the slender salamander was about 15 cm long. It fit very nicely in my hand.

California slender salamander (Batrachoseps attenuatus). 3 February 2016 © Allison J. Gong

California slender salamander (Batrachoseps attenuatus).
3 February 2016
© Allison J. Gong

The two other critters were quite small, about 3 cm long, and more typically salamander-shaped. I’m pretty sure they were the same species but juveniles can be difficult to identify. They were dark gray, almost black, with tiny yellow speckles that I thought at first were dust bits. Looking at the photos now I’m pretty sure at least some of them were speckles, though.

Little arboreal salamander (Aneides lugubris) that was living under my green waste bin. 3 February 2016 © Allison J. Gong

Small arboreal salamander (Aneides lugubris) that was living under my green waste bin.
3 February 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Arboreal salamander (Aneides lugubris). 3 February 2016 © Allison J. Gong

Arboreal salamander (Aneides lugubris).
3 February 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Cute little guys, aren’t they? Aneides lugubris gets its common name from the fact that it can and does climb on trees. However, they are more commonly seen on the ground. Like all salamanders they must remain moist because they breathe through their skin, so they are found under wood piles or flower pots or other yard structures. Including green waste bins, apparently.

I had to remove these guys’ shelter to the curb, so I gently scooped them up, handling them as little as possible, and transferred them to the flower bed. I hope they’ll be happy and can find shelter there.

I love the serendipity of finding creatures when I didn’t expect to! Especially when they’re creatures I’m not familiar with. Any chance to learn about something new is fine by me!

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Gettin’ outside

On a misty, cool Friday I took my Ecology students up the coast a bit to Rancho del Oso, the nature center at the ocean end of Big Basin Redwoods State Park, which was the first state park in California. It was our first field trip of the semester, and goal was to get outdoors and start observing patterns in nature. The weather forecast called for a 50% chance of rain, but we lucked out and got the other 50% and had only light drizzle to contend with.

We spent the morning wandering through the woods. Even though visibility wasn’t great there was a lot to see close at hand. For example, I’ve always loved how a lowly spider web looks when the silk has collected beads of dew:

Orb web in the morning mist, Rancho del Oso. 29 January 2016 © Allison J. Gong

Orb web in the morning mist, Rancho del Oso.
29 January 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Orb web at Rancho del Oso. 29 January 2016 © Allison J. Gong

Orb web at Rancho del Oso.
29 January 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Am I the only person who has a favorite tree? I don’t mean a favorite species or type of tree, but a favorite individual tree. Mine is an oak, and it isn’t at all difficult to find, just a few meters up the trail leading from the nature center to Waddell Creek. Oak trees in general are my favorite trees in California, and this one is a magnificent specimen. One of the things I love about these coastal live oaks (Quercus agrifolia) is the way that the mature tree’s branches grow all gnarled and reach along the ground. They have such character and seem so wise.

Coastal live oak (Quercus agrifolia) at Rancho del Oso. 29 January 2016 © Allison J. Gong

Coastal live oak (Quercus agrifolia) at Rancho del Oso.
29 January 2016
© Allison J. Gong

If you climb up to the tree and look through it over the ridge there’s a fantastic view into Big Basin Redwoods State Park. Today the view was obscured by fog, but even so it was pretty spectacular, almost eerie.

Rancho del Oso is at the bottom of the Skyline-to-the-Sea trail, which starts up in the redwoods at the top of the park. Waddell Creek flows through the park, under Highway 1, and empties into the Pacific Ocean. Strong afternoon winds in the spring and summer make Waddell Beach is a very popular spot for kitesurfers.

Fog has a way of turning a technicolor world into black and white:

View of Pacific Ocean from Rancho del Oso. 29 January 2016 © Allison J. Gong

View of Pacific Ocean from Rancho del Oso.
29 January 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Fog also makes for difficult bird watching; on the other hand it brings certain other wildlife out of hiding:

Banana slug (Ariolimax sp.) at Rancho del Oso. 29 January 2016 © Allison J. Gong

Banana slug (Ariolimax sp.) at Rancho del Oso.
29 January 2016
© Caitlin Sorkhabi, used with permission

and:

California newt (Taricha torosa) at Rancho del Oso. 29 January 2016 © Allison J. Gong

California newt (Taricha torosa) at Rancho del Oso.
29 January 2016
© Caitlin Sorkhabi, used with permission

Can’t you see the determination of this little newt in its posture? They are single-minded when it comes to getting from here to there. The nature center has put up “Newt Crossing” signs to slow down the motorists. Driving slowly won’t keep a newt from getting squished if it is run over, of course, but it does help drivers see the newts so they DON’T get run over.


After lunch we crossed the highway and went down to the beach. The National Weather Service had put out a high surf advisory, and the waves were big. I’d guess that they were about 3x my height. There was also a lot of foam blowing over the beach.

Some of the foam made very interesting iridescent bubbles on the sand and various bits of flotsam washed up on the beach:

Sea foam at Waddell Beach. 29 January 2016 © Allison J. Gong

Sea foam at Waddell Beach.
29 January 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Sea foam at Waddell Beach. 29 January 2016 © Allison J. Gong

Sea foam at Waddell Beach.
29 January 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Sea foam at Waddell Beach. 29 January 2016 © Allison J. Gong

Sea foam on driftwood at Waddell Beach.
29 January 2016
© Allison J. Gong

There were some really fascinating patterns in the sand. I wasn’t the only person who noticed and appreciated them.

Sand at Waddell Beach. 29 January 2016 © Allison J. Gong

Sand at Waddell Beach.
29 January 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Sand and rocks at Waddell Beach. 29 January 2016 © Allison J. Gong

Sand and rocks at Waddell Beach.
29 January 2016
© Allison J. Gong

And lastly, we found a Strange Object. It was a white, oblong Object high on the beach, and it squeaked a bit, much like a dog’s chew toy does, when I stepped lightly on it–obviously it was hollow.

The Strange Object we found at Waddell Beach. 29 January 2016 © Allison J. Gong

The Strange Object we found at Waddell Beach.
29 January 2016
© Caitlin Sorkhabi, used with permission

Curiosity piqued, I borrowed a knife from a student and cut it open. The Object had the texture of a marshmallow, but was considerably tougher. It was about 4 mm thick. And on the inside there were remnants of what looked like formerly living animal tissue:

Interior of the Strange Object we found at Waddell Beach. 29 January 2016 © Allison J. Gong

Interior of the Strange Object we found at Waddell Beach.
29 January 2016
© Caitlin Sorkhabi, used with permission

What was this Strange Object? Well, I don’t know. My first thought was that it might be the empty shell of an animal that had hatched out of it. However I can’t think of what local creature might hatch out of an egg this size and of this consistency. Birds have calcified egg shells . . . this Object wasn’t calcified. Some reptiles have leathery eggs . . . but what local species of reptile, marine or otherwise, would hatch out of an egg this size? And the “shell” of this thing was thick, much thicker than an egg shell would be, as egg shells need to allows respiratory gases pass between the embryo and the external environment.

So, call me flummoxed. Do you have any idea what this Object could be? If you do, let me know in the comments.

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Bogus terminology

BEWARE: This is a mini-rant. Continue at your own risk.

Several times over the past year or so I’ve heard the term “king tide” being tossed about in the general media. I remember looking up the term when I first heard it, back in December 2014, and came across the following definition, which I cribbed from the EPA’s website: The king tide is the highest predicted high tide of the year at a coastal location. Okay, I thought then, every year there is going to be one highest high tide and why not call it a “king tide”? A king, after all, is the biggest of the cheeses, the headiest of the honchos, the top of the heap. I could live with that, although I generally steer clear of hokey terms and wouldn’t dream of using “king tide” in my classroom.

In 2015, however, it seemed that we heard about “king tides” about half a dozen times. WTF is up with that? Obviously, the highest tide of the year can’t occur more than once in a year, right? So why did I read reports of “king tides” in January, around Thanksgiving, and at Christmas last year? Part of the problem is that the meaning of the term itself has morphed into something else. Instead of reserving “king tide” for only the highest tide of the year, writers are now using it to refer to any old spring tide. I detest this trend the same way I detest grade inflation–it gives an ordinary natural occurrence more importance than it deserves and doesn’t make it clear what’s going on.

Okay then, let’s clarify.

First of all, what are spring tides, anyway? Well, spring tides are the extreme low and high tides that we get every two weeks or so. Spring tides and the intervening neap tides, during which both low and high tides are of intermediate height, are due to the gravitational pull of the sun and moon on Earth’s water. Obviously the sun, being orders of magnitude more massive than the moon, has much more gravitational pull than the moon; however, the moon is much closer to the earth and thus our tide cycles are closely attuned to the moon’s orbit around the earth.

Tides

The top of the figure above depicts what is going on during spring tides. During a new or full moon the gravitational pulls of the sun and moon are aligned, causing higher-than-average high tides (and correspondingly lower-than-average low tides). When the moon and sun are forming a right angle with respect to the earth their respective gravitational pulls cancel each other out a bit and result in intermediate high and low tides. These neap tides occur during the first- and third-quarter moon phases. Even people who don’t live near the ocean have experienced the different phases of the moon, and that the lunar cycle is about 28 days long. Thus every month we can expect two cycles of alternating spring and neap tides.

The take-home message is that EVERY MONTH we have extreme high and low tides. You could even say (thought I certainly wouldn’t) that we have a “king tide” every month, since one of the high tides is going to be the highest of the month. Kinda takes the oomph out of the phrase, doesn’t it? What’s the fun of being a king of there are 11 other kings? Nobody gets to be THE king, which is kind of the whole point of being a king in the first place, isn’t it?

So what are the reporters trying to convey? Digging a little deeper into pages from NOAA and other reputable sites, I think the intended message is that the effects of ordinary spring tides will be augmented by El Niño and climate change. Such effects include increased coastal erosion and flooding. When a spring high tide coincides with a big storm surge, which has happened here in Santa Cruz the past couple of days, the threat of flooding becomes quite real. The National Weather Service issued a high surf advisory for yesterday and today. The surf was indeed big when I went out to check things at the marine lab this morning.

In the context of a spring high tide combined with a big storm-driven surge, I can live with the term “king tide,” although I still don’t like it and won’t use it myself. A tide is a tide and has specific direct causes; same with a storm surge. Mixing them together and slapping the label “king tide” on the conflation gives people an incorrect impression of what’s going on and implies that somehow the tide and the surge are the same thing. They are not; they are two independent phenomena that occasionally happen at the same time, that’s all. I am an educator and it’s my job to impart scientific information in both academic and informal settings. But I feel that my job is made more difficult when the media get all hyped up about an impending king tide and either state or imply that it will be the highest high tide of the year, and then we read about it again a few months later, and yet again during the following spring tide series. It’s both bogus and lazy.

Posted in General science, Marine biology | Leave a comment

Don’t worry, bee happy

On a dreary day in mid-winter I stopped by the Häagen-Dazs Honey Bee Haven, which is operated by my alma mater, UC Davis. I first visited the garden shortly after it opened to the public in 2009, when all the plants were babies. Even then it supported an astonishing array of honey bees and native pollinators, and now that the plants have grown up and the gardeners continue to make improvements, it will be indeed be what its name says, a haven for insects, wildlife, and people.

I love the sign that greets people as they enter the garden. It is hexagonal, of course, and has information or art on all six sides. It’s a bench and an art piece, and an educational exhibit, all rolled into one.

Entrance to the Häagen-Dazs Honey Bee Haven at UC Davis. 16 January 2016 © Allison J. Gong

Entrance to the Häagen-Dazs Honey Bee Haven at UC Davis.
16 January 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Given that it is the dead of winter and raining a bit, there was zero insect activity. But I do kind of like gardens in the winter, especially after the solstice when the days are getting longer and plants start working on their spring buds. There’s a feeling of spring around the corner even if it’s drizzly and gloomy today. Plus, mid-winter is when honey bee colonies begin growing again. The bees will be out foraging any time it’s not raining or too windy, and the queen will resume her egg-laying duties. This also the time of year when managed colonies are most likely to starve–if a beekeeper has taken too much honey, or hasn’t right-sized the hives so that honey stores are near the clusters of overwintering bees, they may run out of food just at the time that there are more mouths to feed.

The spring nectar flow is when honey bee colonies grow, and thus are likely to throw swarms. Just as egg-laying is the way that new bees are produced, swarming is the way that new colonies are produced. A responsible beekeeper takes measures to reduce the number of swarms thrown by her managed colonies, for a couple of good reasons:  (1) bees lost when a swarm is thrown are bees that could have been used to start another managed hive; and (2) swarms often end up in undesirable locations, such as a neighbor’s tree or house. A large part of being a good backyard beekeeper is keeping the neighbors happy. Gifts of honey are helpful, of course, but proper care to reduce swarms is just as essential.

Even with the most diligent care, some swarms are going to happen. While it’s fun to go catch a swarm, there’s also something satisfying about catching a swarm from one’s own hive. The Honey Bee Haven beekeepers have put up a bait hive in a tree outside the garden proper:

Bait hive at the Häagen-Dazs Honey Bee Haven at UC Davis. 16 January 2016 © Allison J. Gong

Bait hive at the Häagen-Dazs Honey Bee Haven at UC Davis.
16 January 2016
© Allison J. Gong

The idea behind a bait hive is exactly what it sounds like. If a colony swarms, the beekeeper hopes that the bees will be attracted to the bait hive and decide to move in. A bait hive is usually a miniature hive box containing a few frames of drawn-out wax and maybe some honey. Hopefully the scout bees in the swarm will like the familiar scents of wax and honey, and convince their sisters that the bait hive will be the ideal home. It’s a nice strategy, but doesn’t always work.

I hadn’t been to the Honey Bee Haven for a couple of years, and was happy to see that they now have established a bee hive right in the garden. And it’s a pretty hive, too.

Bee hive in the Häagen-Dazs Honey Bee Haven garden at UC Davis. 16 January 2016 © Allison J. Gong

Bee hive in the Häagen-Dazs Honey Bee Haven garden at UC Davis.
16 January 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Judging from the condition of the paint this hive is a relatively recent addition to the garden. I watched the entrance for a while, but given the weather conditions the bees were all sensibly tucked up inside the hive.

Of course, you can’t just put a bee hive in a garden visited by the public, even if the garden’s raison d’être is to be a haven for bees, without proper signage to inform said public. Besides, maybe the visitors don’t know what a bee hive looks like, and are wondering what those boxes are all about.

Beehive

I really like that people can come to the garden and observe the activities of an actual bee hive. And I imagine that the beekeepers have populated this hive with what I call sweet bees; that is, a queen whose genetics produce mellow bees that aren’t likely to take offense at visitors who are watching from a safe distance (in this case, about 2.5 meters). The door to this hive faces to the left in the photo above, so the bees’ flight path will take them safely away from visitors.

The last time I visited the Haven it was summer, in the midst of a prolonged drought. One of very cool things I saw was a watering platform for bees. Bees do drink water, and they also take water back to the hive to dilute honey, reliquify honey that has crystallized in the comb, and for evaporative cooling when it’s hot. The Haven provides water for bees, without threat of drowning, on these nifty slabs:

Water source for bees and other small creatures. 16 January 2016 © Allison J. Gong

Water source for bees and other small creatures.
16 January 2016
© Allison J. Gong

The slab slopes a bit so that water drains off the end and doesn’t pool. Right now the taps are closed, and given all the recent rain it’s easy for bees to find water, but in the summer one of taps will be opened enough so that the tiniest trickle of water drips onto the stone and accumulates in the little troughs. Bees can land on the stone and drink.

The Haven was designed and built to accommodate not just honey bees, but all sorts of animal pollinators. The planners included these “bee condos” to provide nesting areas for carpenter bees:

Condo for carpenter and other excavating bees at the Häagen-Dazs Honey Bee Haven, UC Davis. 16 January 2016 © Allison J. Gong

Condo for carpenter and other excavating bees at the Häagen-Dazs Honey Bee Haven at UC Davis.
16 January 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Carpenter bees don’t eat wood, but they chew into it to make burrows for their larvae. They can be a nuisance, as to them the rafters or eaves of a human’s house often make prime real estate for bee burrows. Providing them an attractive site to deposit their eggs might draw them away from human structures. Carpenter bees are large, shiny, black bees, easily distinguished from the fuzzy bumble bees, and as California native pollinators should not be regarded as pests. Watching them buzz through the garden like heavy air-borne tanks is one of the joys of spring. I think this year I’ll put up a carpenter bee condo of my own and see if I can get them to nest in it. Fortunately, the Haven provides instructions for a DIY bee condo! If you’ve ever wondered how you can protect native pollinators, this is something that’s easy to do.

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A tale of sand, a shell, and a seal

The new moon is tonight, which of course means that we are in spring tides. Yesterday afternoon my friend and colleague Scott joined me for my first visit to the intertidal in 2016. And where to go for this inaugural field excursion of the new year, but to Franklin Point? Low tide was at 15:53 yesterday, so we met up at 14:00, stopped to fill up the gas tank, and headed up the coast. Expecting it to be crazy windy as afternoons tend to be on the coast, I had dressed in extra layers. Scott and I were surprised to emerge from the car and find it wasn’t windy at all, so even though the air temperature was cool at least we didn’t have to deal with any significant amount of windchill factor.

Hiking over the dunes we saw Unusual Thing #1–a bridal photo shoot. A couple of stretches of the trail are covered by a boardwalk, and on the first of these we encountered a bride decked out in full regalia–wedding dress, flowers, hair, make-up–and two photographers. They were very nice and let us pass through in our decidedly inelegant boots and field gear. I didn’t think it would be very nice to take their picture. However, I did think that they’d lucked out and gotten a great day for photography: the aforementioned lack of wind meant that the bride wasn’t freezing in her slip of a wedding dress, and the afternoon light was flat so there were no shadows or harsh glare.

Descending onto the beach we came across Unusual Thing #2–an elephant seal.

Male elephant seal (Mirounga angustirostris) hauled out on the beach at Franklin Point. 8 January 2016 © Allison J. Gong

Male northern elephant seal (Mirounga angustirostris) hauled out on the beach at Franklin Point.
8 January 2016
© Allison J. Gong

It is e-seal haul-out time at Año Nuevo State Park a few miles down the road from Franklin Point, and I’ve seen them on the beach a few times before. This was the first time I’d seen an adult male, though, and he was HUGE! Without being stupid and going over to stand next to this animal it’s hard to depict how large he is, and unfortunately there wasn’t anything in the vicinity to give a sense of scale. So trust me, or look it up for yourself, male elephant seals are ginormous. This big guy was taking a siesta, and we could hear him snoring. He did wake up and lift his head to look at us, but we gave him plenty of room as we walked past and he returned to his nap.

One of the reasons I wanted to see Franklin Point after the El Niño storms of the past week was to see how much sand had been washed away from the beach. Sand typically accumulates on California coastal beaches during the dry storm-less months of summer and autumn, only to be flushed away by storms the following winter. After a particularly violent storm or a series of storms occurring in a short time, very large amounts of sand can be removed from a beach. For the past four years we haven’t had much of a winter storm season (hence the awful drought) and the beach at Franklin Point has been tall and gently sloped. I’d grown accustomed to this state of affairs, which makes what we saw yesterday qualify as Unusual Thing #3–rocks that had been covered with sand for years and are now exposed.

To set the stage, here’s a picture that I took on an afternoon low tide last year on 17 March 2015:

Franklin Point beach on 17 March 2015. © Allison J. Gong

Franklin Point beach on 17 March 2015.
© Allison J. Gong

And here’s yesterday’s photo from the same general area:

Franklin Point beach on 8 January 2016. © Allison J. Gong

Franklin Point beach on 8 January 2016.
© Allison J. Gong

Can you see how much steeper the beach is in yesterday’s photo? And those rocks on the left side? They are not visible in the photo from last spring because they were under sand!

Here’s a closer look at the newly exposed rocks:

Newly exposed rocks at Franklin Point. 9 January 2016 © Allison J. Gong

Bare rocks at Franklin Point.
9 January 2016
© Allison J. Gong

You can see exactly how high the sand was last summer. What’s really exciting is that these rocks represent pristine habitat that has yet to be exploited. I can look at primary ecological succession this spring! Well, at least until the sand returns and buries the rocks again.

As we meandered among the rocks in the intertidal, Scott and I both noticed an abundance of abalone shells. Fairly early on we spotted this black ab shell lying emersed above the water line:

Black abalone (Haliotis cracherodii) at Franklin Point. 8 January 2016 © Allison J. Gong

Black abalone (Haliotis cracherodii) at Franklin Point.
8 January 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Turning the shell over we saw Unusual Thing #4–an abalone showing signs of withering syndrome:

Ventral view of a black abalone (Haliotis cracherodii) at Franklin Point. 8 January 2016 © Allison J. Gong

Ventral view of a black abalone (Haliotis cracherodii) at Franklin Point.
8 January 2016
© Allison J. Gong

We were actually surprised to see that the animal was alive. Healthy living abalone are firmly attached to rocks, tucked into crevices. This one wasn’t attached to anything, just lying on the sand. We picked it up, turned it over, and found the body of the animal shriveled up and filling up only about half of the space it should have occupied. It didn’t respond to gentle pokes but wasn’t dead yet, or at least not dead enough to pass the stink test for deadness.

Withering syndrome is a bacterial disease that inhibits digestive function in abalone. To stave off starvation the infected animal begins to digest its own body tissues. As a result the entire body shrinks and eventually the foot can no longer stick to rocks. In California it affects black abs and red abs (H. rufescens). Until the recent years of warmer-than-usual water black abs (H. cracherodii) had been most common in southern California, but I’ve been seeing more of them in the past few years. Now it looks like the disease that plagues them has accompanied them up the coast. It’s not surprising, given the current El Niño conditions.

This gives me another thing to keep an eye out for in my intertidal excursions. I’ll start keeping track of abalone and see if withering syndrome becomes more prevalent. Might as well start with this afternoon’s low tide!

Posted in Marine biology | Tagged , | 2 Comments