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About a week ago, as part of yearly summer fire prevention, some of the fields at the marine lab were mown. After this happens many of the little critters living in the dried grasses are left homeless and become relatively easy prey for predators of all sorts. Since the mowing I had been seeing a great blue heron hunting in the field, and it took me until the day before yesterday to remember to bring the camera with me. Fortunately it was overcast that morning and the heron was there!

Great blue heron (Ardea herodias) hunting for rodents at Long Marine Lab
28 July 2018
© Allison J. Gong

I watched the heron hunt (unsuccessfully) for a while, then my attention was drawn to a much more dynamic avian predator. A juvenile red-tailed hawk, possibly the one that grew up and fledged from the nest across the canyon from my house, flew overhead and perched in a cypress tree. From there it had a birds-eye view of the field, and it didn't take long for it to spot a late breakfast. The heron left, squawking loudly to protest the interruption to its hunting.

Juvenile red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) with prey, at Long Marine Lab
28 July 2018
© Allison J. Gong

The hawk actually skinned the rodent before eating it. . .

Juvenile red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) consuming prey, at Long Marine Lab
28 July 2018
© Allison J. Gong
Juvenile red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) consuming prey, at Long Marine Lab
28 July 2018
© Allison J. Gong

. . . and then it ate the skin!

Juvenile red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) consuming skin of prey, at Long Marine Lab
28 July 2018
© Allison J. Gong
Juvenile red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) consuming skin of prey, at Long Marine Lab
28 July 2018
© Allison J. Gong

The hawk did not linger on the ground after eating its rodent prey. It flew back across the road up to the cypress tree again. I got lucky and managed to catch a few shots as it flew by.

Juvenile red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) in flight
28 July 2018
© Allison J. Gong
Juvenile red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) in flight
28 July 2018
© Allison J. Gong
Juvenile red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) in flight
28 July 2018
© Allison J. Gong

Of course, I have no way of knowing if this young hawk is indeed the one we watched grow up. I'm reasonably certain that the marine lab is in the parents' foraging territory, as I've watched them leave the nest site and fly towards the lab. At some point the juvenile will have to disperse away from its parents and establish a territory elsewhere. In the meantime, it, along with other birds of prey, will have easy pickings in the fields. This has been a banner year for wood rats and gophers (ugh!), which means there should be plenty of food to go around.

By the way, the heron did not catch any rodents while I was watching. It did not return after the hawk arrived.

In early July we joined my in-laws on a 2-day driving trip around the International Selkirk Loop, a series of highways that follow rivers and lakes through the northeast corner of Washington, the northern skinny part of Idaho, and southern British Columbia. These roads pass through some beautiful country in both the U.S. and Canada, and it would be a nice trip to take at a more leisurely pace, stopping to explore some of the little towns along the way.

The International Selkirk Loop

Knowing that we'd be driving through some spectacular scenery, I decided to test-drive a wide-angle lens. I rented the Nikkor 16-80mm lens, designed for crop-sensor cameras such as my Nikon D7200. I don't have much experience with wide-angle lenses, so it was a different kind of photography for me. And boy, talk about a whole new way of seeing things! I could get into landscape photography now. This post will showcase some of the photos I took with this lens.

Day 1:  Our trip started in Blanchard, Idaho, a tiny dot on the South Lakes Super Side Trip outlined in pink in the map. Our first sight-seeing stop was the Kootenay National Wildlife Refuge, near the town of Bonners Ferry and about 20 miles south of the Canadian border. I hoped to see a moose. En route to the Refuge we took a dirt road and got a little lost. But our accidental detour took us through some wide open landscapes, and the sky was fantastic.

Rapeseed field in northern Idaho
5 July 2018
© Allison J. Gong

The Refuge is on the Pacific Flyway and is visited by many migrating birds in the spring and autumn. Mid-summer is supposed to be the best time to see moose, but the moose didn't read the same pamphlet that we did.

Seriously, doesn't this look like quintessential moose habitat? No moose to be seen.

Kootenai Wildlife Refuge
5 July 2018
© Allison J. Gong

Crossing into Canada, we continued driving north along the east side of Kootenay Lake. One of the perks of the trip is the free ferry ride across the lake, from the town of Kootenay Lake on the east shore to Balfour on the west shore. During the summer season the crossing is traversed by two ferries, the M/V Osprey 2000 and the smaller M/V Balfour. We were on the Osprey, which runs year-round. Kootenay Lake remains ice-free in the winter, allowing business and pleasure craft to operate year-round.

The M/V Osprey 2000
5 July 2018
© Allison J. Gong

Here's the other ferry vessel making the eastward crossing:

The M/V Balfour
5 July 2018
© Allison J. Gong

That night we stayed at Ainsworth Hot Springs Resort, where we had a fantastic dinner and 'took the waters' before going to bed.

Day 2:  Our first stop on the second day was a town called Kaslo, the home of the S/S Moyie. The Moyie was one of several steam ships that transported passengers and cargo up and down Kootenay Lake. She operated from 1898 to 1957, when she was retired from service and sold to the City of Kaslo for $1.00. She was hauled up onto land, permanently dry-docked, and restored to become a museum. As the oldest known intact vessel of her type, the Moyie gives visitors a glimpse into the past. One thing I noticed right away was that people were a lot smaller 100 years ago.

The S/S Moyie, in Kaslo, British Columbia
6 July 2018
© Allison J. Gong
Rail and boat map
6 July 2018
© Allison J. Gong

Back in the day, there were 11 sternwheelers running on Kootenay and the other lakes in the region. The really cool thing was that they connected with the railroad lines, allowing transport of goods and people throughout the area before there were roads. Passengers would board the Moyie in the morning, stow their children and the nanny in one of the staterooms, and party in the parlor while cruising up or down the lake. It would be a leisurely cruise, with the passengers relaxed, well fed, and liquored up.

 

Parlor of S/S Moyie in Kaslo, British Columbia
6 July 2018
© Allison J. Gong

Passengers were looked after by a crew of stewards. I like kitchens, so this butler's pantry was my favorite part of the boat. Note sloping floor!

Butler's pantry of S/S Moyie in Kaslo, British Columbia
6 July 2018
© Allison J. Gong

And because safety always comes first, here's the obligatory set of instructions for how to put on your cork life jacket. I'm guessing that they are called Cork Life Jackets because they are filled with cork, which apparently was A Real ThingTM.

6 July 2018
© Allison J. Gong

The Moyie is docked on land right next to the shore of Kootenay Lake. Just off her port side there's a piling with an osprey nest on the top. And we got lucky in that the osprey was there, too!

Osprey (Pandion haliaetus) in Kaslo, British Columbia
6 July 2018
© Allison J. Gong

The osprey was the first of our wildlife sightings on the second day of the trip. Heading west on Highway 31A between Kaslo and New Denver, we stopped at a little lake on the side of the road. This was Fish Lake.

Fish Lake
6 July 2018
© Allison J. Gong

In addition to being a pretty little lake in the mountains, Fish Lake is home to a species of amphibian called the Western Toad (Anaxyrus boreas). The toads are likely restricted to a few lakes in this basin and are listed as Near Threatened by the World Conservation Union, and as Special Concern by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada. We didn't see any toads, but there were many proto-toads in the lake.

Proto-toads (i.e., tadpoles) of the western toad (Anaxyrus boreas) in Fish Lake
6 July 2018
© Allison J. Gong

And guess what we saw a few miles up the road from Fish Lake? That's right, a moose! And not just one moose, but a cow and a calf. They were right off the side of the road, and all we had to do to get a good look was find a safe place to turn around and drive by again. I took these shots from the car.

Moose and calf (Alces alces) near Fish Lake in British Columbia
6 July 2018
© Allison J. Gong

Despite her proximity to the highway, the cow was pretty undisturbed. She kept feeding in the shallow water. It was surprising how long she could keep her head underwater. Meanwhile the calf, obviously not weaned yet as it kept trying to nurse and didn't feed on vegetation, just waited until its mother raised her head again. Then she looked around to check her surroundings and plunged her head right back into the water.

"What happened to my mama?"
6 July 2018
© Allison J. Gong

I haven't always had the best of luck in moose country, so I was glad to see these two. They are odd-looking, lumpy animals, even the calves. And to get a good close-up look at two wild moose totally made up for not seeing any at the Kootenai Wildlife Refuge.

So, what do I think of the Selkirk Loop? Highly recommended! The roads are lightly traveled, passage between the U.S. and Canada is easy through these ports of entry, and the scenery is spectacular. You can take the driving trip as we did, or stop and camp along the way. When we were there in early July the weather was quite warm, but those were the first sunny days of the season after a long, wet spring. You'd probably want to have a back-up plan in case your camping trip gets rained out. Honestly, though, the entire drive was gorgeous. If the opportunity comes your way to drive this loop, take it. You won't be sorry.

This weekend a subset of my students and I spent a day at the Fort Ord Natural Reserve (FONR) to participate in the 2018 spring Bioblitz. We were supposed to visit FONR for a class field trip in early March to do some vegetation studies, but that trip was rained out. Today's visit was sort of a make-up for that missed lab; because it's a Saturday I couldn't compel the students to attend, but I offered a little extra-credit for those who did. It just so happened that Joe Miller, the field manager at FONR, had organized a Bioblitz for another group of students, and he welcomed my Ecology class as well.

Map of communities surrounding Monterey Bay
© Google Maps

Located adjacent to the city of Marina in Monterey County, FONR is one of five natural reserves administered by the campus of UC Santa Cruz. The other four are the Campus Reserve (on the main campus of UCSC), Younger Lagoon Reserve (on UCSC's Coastal Science Campus), Año Nuevo Natural Reserve (up the coast in San Mateo County), and Landels-Hill Big Creek Reserve (along the Big Sur coast). FONR occupies some 600 acres of a former military base that was closed in 1994. The reserve opened in 1996. As with all the other UC natural reserves, FONR exists to provide students, teachers, and researchers with natural lands to be used as outdoor classrooms and laboratories. Field courses at UC Santa Cruz and CSU Monterey Bay make extensive use of FONR, and students carry out independent studies and internships there.

After all of the participants arrived at the Reserve, Joe described the activities he had planned for the day. He told us that we could wander around the Reserve on our own if we wanted, but there were several hikes we could choose to join:

  • One to where some people were finishing up the day's bird banding activities
  • One to collect samples of environmental DNA
  • One to ID various tracks in the sand
  • One to the different habitats and vegetation types
  • One to check out some pitfall traps for small rodents and reptiles

Because my knowledge of the local flora is sorely lacking, I went on the plant hike with Joe. Many of the spring wildflowers had either finished or were finishing up their yearly bloom. The poison oak (Toxicodendron diversilobum) is looking amazing this year; I think it has been able to take advantage of two consecutive wet seasons with a decent amount of rain. There were many poison oak plantlets scattered around all over the place, and the established bushes are lush and green. There is no way I didn't come into contact with the stuff at least once on this hike, so today is going to be the true test of whether or not I am allergic to it.

One of many poison oak (Toxicodendron diversilobum) plants at Fort Ord Natural Reserve
12 May 2018
© Allison J. Gong

Much of the terrain at FONR is a maritime chaparral. The soil is extremely sandy (Pleistocene sand dunes, Joe says) with a poor nutrient load and water content. It's not a desert, because we do get a fair amount of precipitation along the Monterey Bay, but the plants have adapted to thrive with low soil moisture levels. It's also often very windy, and there are no trees. Even the coast live oaks (Quercus agrifolia), which can be magnificently massive and meandering, are stunted here. Much of the foliage is low-growing perennial shrubs or annual plants.

Coast live oak (Quercus agrifolia) growing above coyote bush (Baccharis pilularis) at Fort Ord Natural Reserve
12 May 2018
© Allison J. Gong

Joe led us through the habitats of the Reserve, mostly on trails but also along narrow-to-nonexistent tracks that we called Poison Oak Lane, Rattlesnake Drive, and Tick Alley. And yes, we did see a rattlesnake! My husband spotted it, right about where he was going to put his foot. It wasn't a big snake, maybe half a meter long, and was sunning itself in a narrow opening between manzanita bushes. I didn't stop to take a picture because there wasn't a good space to do so, and I wanted to let other hikers pass the snake quickly. The snake didn't seem to react to us, but it's always a good idea to leave them alone.

Just beyond where we saw the rattler, Joe had found a pair of southern alligator lizards (Elgaria multicarinata) mating. When Joe picked them up the male had grabbed the female with a bite behind her head; he does this to keep her from running away, and it also shows his strength and suitability as a father for the female's offspring. The lizards didn't like being interrupted in copulo, so to speak, and the male released the female and escaped back to the ground, leaving his lady love behind in Joe's hand. Hopefully they were able to find each other again once they were both let go.

Joe Miller (left) holding a female southern alligator lizard (Elgaria multicarinata) in his left hand
12 May 2018
© Allison J. Gong

To me, the picture above exemplifies what a Bioblitz is all about. We have two people examining a natural phenomenon, and one of them is taking a picture that he will presumably upload to iNaturalist. People learn a lot when they participate in a Bioblitz--they usually see things they've never paid attention to before, and when their observations are ID'd or corroborated by the community of iNat experts, they get to put a name to the thing they saw. True, it's a better learning experience to sit down with a specimen, hand lens, and book to figure out what an organism is, but most people don't have either the inclination or the luxury of time and the necessary books. And while I'd rather have people look at the real thing with their eyes instead of their phones, getting people to go outdoors and pay any attention at all to their surroundings is a minor victory. I find Bioblitzes to be a little unsettling sometimes. My preferred method for observation is to examine fewer things in greater depth; this is what my graduate advisor Todd Newberry referred to as "varsity" observations. I don't think a Bioblitz has any place in varsity studies, because of its very raison d'être--to record as many observations as possible--means to some degree that instead of taking a deep look you have to glance-and-go. Still, it does have its place in natural history, and I value it as a way to get more people involved in science.

I was on the plant hike, so many of the organisms I photographed and uploaded to iNat are new to me. Some are California endemics and all have adapted to survive in the difficult conditions of a maritime chaparral.

Eriastrum sp., a plant with delicate blue-purple flowers, at Fort Ord Natural Reserve
12 May 2018
© Allison J. Gong

And I did see one of the California native thistles. Invasive thistles are such a problem that the knee-jerk response is to stomp on them or yank them out of the ground. This one, for which I'm still waiting on an ID confirmation, is silvery and sort of looks like cobwebs. Joe said that its blossom is a bright pink.

A California native thistle, possibly Cirsium occidentale, at Fort Ord Natural Reserve
12 May 2018
© Allison J. Gong

And one of my newish old favorite wildflowers, Castilleja exserta, was there. The purple owl's clover occurs throughout California; in 2017 I saw a lot of it on my wildflower excursion to the southern part of the state. It varies in color from purple to pink to white and thus has multiple common names.

Castilleja exserta, the purple owl's clover, at Fort Ord Natural Reserve
12 May 2018
© Allison J. Gong

We also saw a lot of the peak rushrose, Helianthemum scoparium. It is a California native species that does well in dry, sandy areas, such as throughout most of Fort Ord.

Peak rushrose (Helianthemum scoparium) at Fort Ord Natural Reserve
12 May 2018
© Allison J. Gong

While I was leaning down to photograph this plant, one of the Reserve volunteers pointed out a much paler version nearby. He told me that most of the time the peak rushrose has brilliant yellow flowers, but there are always a few that have this much more delicate color.

Pale form of peak rushrose (Helianthemum scoparium) at Fort Ord Natural Reserve
12 May 2018
© Allison J. Gong

And speaking of yellow, I discovered another new-to-me organism! What at first glance looked like a blotch of spray paint on a tree trunk turned out to be something much more interesting--a gold dust lichen in the genus Chrysothrix.

Gold dust lichen (Chrysothrix sp.) at Fort Ord Natural Reserve
12 May 2018
© Allison J. Gong

The lichen book1 that I have describes two species of Chrysothrix, both of which can be found in coastal regions of California. The species have some overlap in habitat, with C. granulosa usually living on bark and occasionally on wood or rock, while C. xanthina can regularly be found on bark, wood, and rock. Nor is color by itself an entirely useful characteristic: C. granulosa is described as brilliant yellow, and C. xanthina can be brilliant yellow, yellow-green, or yellow-orange. There are certain tests that would be able to distinguish between the species, but field ID when the lichen is 'brilliant yellow' remains problematic. So while I'd guess that this specimen is Chrysothrix granulosa (based on a combination of color, location, habitat, and good old-fashioned gut feeling) I can't be at all certain.

The discussion of lichens brings us around to the animals. Did you know that fungi are more closely related to animals than they are to plants? Well they are, despite being included in more botany than zoology courses. And of course we did see animals on our plant hike. Hawks and turkey vultures soared overhead, song birds and hummingbirds flitted among the trees and shrubs, alligator lizards mated, and there was that one rattlesnake, which even the people on the herps walk didn't get to see. As we hiked through the various plant communities in the Reserve, Joe occasionally called out "If you see a horned lizard, catch it!" A woman in our group, Yvonne, managed to do so, despite being loaded down with a backpack and a camera. She pounced on it and held it up for us to photograph.

Horned lizard (Phyronosoma sp.) at Fort Ord Natural Reserve
12 May 2018
© Allison J. Gong
Horned lizard (Phrynosoma sp.) at Fort Ord Natural Reserve
12 May 2018
© Allison J. Gong

Cute little thing, isn't it?

The last critter we saw as we were walking back to the gate after lunch was a juvenile gopher snake (Pituophis catenifer). By the time I got there the snake was resting in the road. It was a very pretty snake. I wanted to take it home and release it into my yard, where there are enough gophers to feed an entire family of snakes, but alas, collecting is not allowed at the Reserve. I do wish that a gopher snake would move into my yard, though.

It is now about 24 hours since we got home. We did our tick checks and didn't find anything, thank goodness, then showered and scrubbed. There's no doubt that we were both exposed to poison oak; it is impossible NOT to be, this time of year. This is the real test for whether or not I am allergic to it. I haven't been so far, but there's a first time for everything and I will never say that I will never get it. My husband, who gets poison oak very easily and very badly, says it could take up to two days to be sure. I'm not itchy today. Tomorrow may be a different story, though.

 


1Sharnoff, S. 2014. A Field Guide to California Lichens, Yale University Press

Library of Congress  I was completely unprepared for how astoundingly beautiful the Library of Congress is. From the outside it looks like another of the many federal buildings constructed in the Classical style. The interior, though, was spectacular.

Columns, Corinthian capitals, and ceiling details inside the Library of Congress
28 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong
Ceiling and columns in the Great Hall, Library of Congress Jefferson Building
28 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong

The ceiling of the Great Hall is magnificent--take a look at this stained glass!

Ceiling of the Great Hall, Library of Congress Jefferson Building
28 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong

We joined a tour and the docent explained the significance of many of the architectural and artistic details she pointed out to us. She told us that when the building was designed in the 1890s, the intent was to portray the United States as a major player on the world stage, able to build in the Classical style as well as the Europeans did, while adding details that are distinctly American. For example, the mosaic floor of the great hall features a motif of an ear of corn, to represent a New World plant that isn't native to Europe.

And this painting, high up on a wall, represents Sport. It features  baseball, that most American of sports! The corresponding painting on the opposite wall shows American football. And of course the athletes are naked, because that's how the ancient Greek athletes competed. Artistic nudity, either in painting or in sculpture, was not a problem in the 1890s. There were no prudes calling for fig leaves to be placed over statues' genitals, or for female nipples to be covered with pasties.

Painting portraying Sport, Library of Congress Jefferson Building
28 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong

Our docent told us that the building's designers were all Americans, but that some of the actual artisans were brought over from Europe. Likewise, much of the stone came from quarries in the U.S. The marble for those columns with the fancy capitals, however, was mined near Siena, Italy. She wasn't sure if it was Cararra marble. I think the look is right for Cararra marble, though.

There a lot going on, visually, inside this building. It's exactly the kind of visual input that should have killed my brain right on the spot. However, because all of the elements conform to the theme of Classical Greek and Roman design, they fit together thematically. The net result is very pleasing to the eye. I would really like to return and go on a tour with a different docent, who would highlight other things for us to look at. The amount of symbolism and history in the building is fantastic. Every item and detail means something.

Angels in the high corner, Library of Congress Jefferson Building
28 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong

Our docent pointed out that there were no depictions of named women, anywhere in the Library of Congress. However, female figures were often used to portray broad themes such as wisdom, philosophy, culture, government, and the like. There is one mosaic of the Roman goddess Minerva:

Mosaic of Minerva, Library of Congress Jefferson Building
28 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong

Minerva is located at the landing on the staircase leading up to the overlook. Tour groups are allowed up to the overlook one at a time, and nobody is allowed to stop at the Minerva mosaic. The only way to photograph her is from across the room.

The overlook looks down into the Reading Room. It sounds like anybody needing to do research can obtain a library card and use the resources, including the Reading Room. As mere visitors, we were restricted to looking down from above.

Reading Room, Library of Congress Jefferson Building
28 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong

The Library of Congress holds one of three existing Gutenberg Bibles printed on vellum; the other two are in Europe, housed in Paris and London.

Gutenberg Bible, Library of Congress Jefferson Building
28 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong

The docent described how Gutenberg had to set, by hand, every single letter on each page he printed, and that he needed a way to organize all of the letters so he could find them easily and use them again. He decided to put all of the capital letters on the upper levels of his shelves . . . which is why we call them 'upper case' letters! And the lower case letters were, of course, organized in the lower levels of the shelves. I had no idea how or from where we inherited that terminology. If Gutenberg had put all the capital letters in boxes on the floor, 'upper case' and 'lower case' would mean the exact opposite of what they do mean!

Thomas Jefferson's library is housed in this building, as well as memorabilia from Bob Hope. It also holds much of the estates of George and Ira Gershwin, some of which is displayed in the Gershwin Room, opened as a permanent exhibit in 1998. We got to see George Gershwin's piano! It's a black Steinway grand, a smaller version of what you'd see in any concert hall and doesn't look particularly special until you consider the musical genius of the man who sat at it and composed Rhapsody in Blue and An American in Paris. Not to mention Porgy and Bess. I mean, WOW!

Front page from the original score to Gershwin's An American in Paris, Library of Congress Jefferson Building
28 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong

It doesn't get more American than that, does it?

Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History  Finally, on the afternoon of our last day, we got to visit the NMNH. My friend, Dr. Chris Mah, works in the Invertebrate Zoology department of the NMNH. We arranged to meet him outside the staff entrance so we could bypass the ginormous line, then wandered the hall for a couple of hours before meeting up with him again for a tour of the behind-the-scenes stuff.

To be honest, while I love exploring any natural history museum, this one was too crowded for me to relax and enjoy. Again, it was because I was there during spring break, and all of the museums were especially packed with visitors. We had time to wander through the Ocean Hall, the fossils, and the minerals and gems. The minerals and gems are often my favorite part of a natural history museum, because (a) I'm not a geologist, so there's always stuff for me to learn; and (b) I love the colored minerals. I don't covet precious gems because of their monetary value, but I do love looking at them for their brilliant colors.

I took only one good picture on the main floor of the museum--there were too many people around for me to be able to take the time to frame shots nicely and after a while I gave up. But this is the fossil skeleton of a whale ancestor. Note that this animal didn't have just the pelvic bones that modern whales have; it had fully formed hind limbs. The most recent thinking is that Ambulocetus natans was entirely aquatic, but may have been able to walk around on the seafloor even if it never came out onto land.

Ambulocetus natans, at Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
29 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong

The real treat for us was meeting up with Chris again at the end of the day. Chris took us through the security doors to the Invertebrate Zoology department, where the various collections are housed. This is where all the cool (and bizarre) stuff is kept. Most of the items are not going to be displayed, but are used by scientists studying particular groups of animals. Chris works at the NMNH but also travels to museums in California, Paris, and Tokyo to identify sea stars in those collections. The bowels of a museum are like the bowels of any other building--fluorescent lighting, dingy walls, old posters and whiteboards on the walls.

This was the best door sign. In recent years the federal museums have undergone reorganizations and consolidations. I don't know why and forgot to ask Chris, but the Invertebrate Zoology department inherited the entire National Parasite Slide collection. I bet it's a huge collection of parasites sectioned and mounted on slides.

 

In one of the collection rooms, sitting against the wall, was one of the most godawful objects I have ever seen.

29 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong

It's a giant clam shell (Tridacna sp.) mounted on a silver base of mermaids. At first I thought it was a bathroom sink, but Chris said it's a punch bowl. Apparently there's a whole set of punch cups that go with it. The whole shebang was a gift to one of the early 20th-century presidents. Seems it might be a better item for the American History Museum, but may be they got right of first refusal and refused to accept it. Or maybe because of the clam shell the IZ department wanted it? Doubtful.

The collections are housed in movable shelves, in some order that hopefully makes sense to both the curators (people who decide what goes where) and the scientific users. Here's a bit of the coral collection:

One drawer of the coral collection, Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
29 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong

Items that are being actively studied or need a temporary place while their permanent home is being decided or made ready end up spread out on big tables. This is the kind of thing that I find fascinating. The detritus of working scientists is fun to examine.

MIscellaneous items, Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
29 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong

These are freshwater bivalves:

Freshwater bivalves, Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
29 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong
Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
29 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong

Chris said that the museum acquires items from a variety of sources: private collections, smaller museums or schools that can no longer keep all of the material in their own collections, and donations from individuals. Some of the artifacts are quite old, and arrive in quaint containers such as these nostalgic match boxes. Other things are packaged in paper towels and plastic bags. This, of course, is for dry specimens. Wet specimens, preserved in alcohol or formalin, are stored in buckets elsewhere.

Chris showed us some specimens that were of special interest to this marine biologist from California. The first were some brittle stars, Ophiocoma aethiops, collected by Ed Ricketts! Get a load of the label on this box:

Ophiocoma aethiops, collected by Ed Ricketts, Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
29 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong

There were four other boxes of the same animal. The date (March 20, 1940) and location (Espiritu Santo) indicate that this specimen and the several others just like it were collected during the trip that Ricketts and Steinbeck immortalized in their book Sea of Cortez. I read this book every so often, and use bits of it in lectures. I know that most of Ricketts' collection was deposited with the Hopkins Marine Station, part of Stanford University in Pacific Grove, after his death, and it was really cool to see this set of specimens in the Smithsonian.

The other special item that Chris likes to show visitors from California is the type specimen of one of our local sea stars, Pisaster giganteus. Before the onset of sea star wasting syndrome I'd see this star occasionally in the low intertidal, and divers would see it subtidally in kelp forests. The biggest one I'd ever seen was probably about 23 cm in diameter, a bit larger than my completely outstretched hand. What the Smithsonian has in its collection, for reasons that I don't remember, is the type specimen for this species. The type specimen is the individual (or group of individuals) that is the basis for the scientific description of a species and the species' name. You can think of it as the 'default' for a species, with an important caveat. Many times a species is named based on a type specimen that turns out to be not the norm for the species, which is why we encounter scientific names that are descriptive but make no sense.

Anyway, here's the type specimen of P. giganteus:

Dr. Chris Mah holding the type specimen of Pisaster giganteus, Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
29 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong

The tag says that this animal, which indeed lives up to its species epithet, was collected from Tomales Bay in 1857. It's easily three times the diameter of the conspecific stars that I've seen alive. And even in photos of subtidal stars, I haven't seen a P. giganteus this big. Do they just not get this big anymore? Does it have something to do with habitat? I wouldn't have expected to find P. giganteus in Tomales Bay, because I usually associate them with a rocky bottom in a more exposed habitat. So what's going on with this type specimen? I don't know, maybe nothing. This thing is remarkable for its huge size, though. Stuff like this is very cool. I always like going backstage and getting to see things that will never make it into the exhibit hall.

National Archives  We spent the morning waiting in line to see things in the National Archives building. The lines to get in were very long, and even though we'd bought a membership the night before so that we could bypass the entry line, once we got inside the building there were more lines to go through security. And this was like going through security at the airport--all coats and belts removed, all pockets emptied, walk through the metal detector, then retrieve belongings and get dressed again. At least they let us keep our shoes on.

Of course, everybody at the Archives wants to see the Charters of Freedom. I'd never heard of that term before but it refers to documents such as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. There were very long lines to get into the room where these items are displayed, and this was the location where my head really was unhappy with the crowds. Many of the tourists were school groups on spring break, and they were loud. It was exactly the kind of stimulus that my brain, still suffering from post-concussion syndrome, can't deal with.

Oh, and there's no photography allowed at all in the Archives, so no pictures to share.

The Charters of Freedom are exhibited in a dimly lit room. Museum staff let in group of ~30 people at a time, and people would rush from case to case. As soon as the crowd began to dissipate another group would come in and there wasn't any time to really look at any of the documents. Given their age it is not surprisingly that they are faded with time. The ink is visible but difficult to read. Some day I would like to go back when it isn't so crowded and spend some time inspecting them. There is something undeniably special about seeing one of the original copies of the Declaration of Independence in person, even if it is sealed in a special case behind glass.

Smithsonian Air and Space Museum  After lunch we made our first visit to one of the Smithsonian museums. Air and Space is always one of the most popular of all the museums in DC, and the day we were there it was predictably crowded. The staff was also setting up for a fancy shindig of some sort, which I imagine must happen fairly regularly in places like that. The folks arriving towards closing time were dressed in formal cocktail attire, and the rest of us were herded towards the doors right at 5:30 p.m.

The Air and Space Museum makes for tricky photography: all of the artifacts are behind glass and most are dimly lit so photos end up glare-y and/or noisy. A lot of the cool stuff is hanging from the ceiling, but there are so many vehicles suspended up there that it's really hard to get the entirety of any one item in view without it being at least partially covered up by something else. Still, there's no other way for some of these huge planes and craft to be displayed, and it's really cool seeing the actual sizes of things. You can walk through the Skylab module, which we did right at closing when they were shooing visitors out the doors. I didn't know they had a real shower up there!

This is probably my favorite artifact of the bunch. It's the Apollo command module. I don't know why, but I think it looks really cool.

Apollo command module, Smithsonian Air and Space Museum
27 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong

As someone who suffers from mild claustrophobia, it's really hard for me to imagine what it would be like to be cooped in this capsule for longer than about five minutes. And the Gemini capsule would be even worse! This module was used to learn how humans perform in space and how they can work in space, leading up to the Apollo moon missions.

Gemini capsule, Smithsonian Air and Space Museum
27 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong

Two astronauts would stay in this tiny capsule for as long as the anticipated length of a lunar mission, up to 14 days. Two whole weeks! See those chairs? That's about all the space there is. There was nothing in the signage about how they took care of bodily functions when restrained in a tiny compartment for that long. Surely I can't be the only person who wonders!

Moon suit worn by Gene Cernan, Smithsonian Air and Space Museum
27 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong

This is the suit that Eugene Cernan wore on the moon. He became the last human to leave the moon's surface by being the last to return to the lunar landing module in Apollo 17. He died in January 2017. Some parts of each moon walker's suit were left behind on the moon to minimize weight for the voyage home.

Apollo moon flag, Smithsonian Air and Space Museum
27 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong

And hey, here's that flag from MTV! This isn't the actual flag that astronauts left on the moon, obviously, but is a replicate. There were six U.S. flags planted on the moon, by astronauts from Apollo 11, 12, 14, 15, 16, and 17. According to this NASA site, five of the six flags were still standing on the moon's surface until fairly recently. I think many scientists were surprised to learn that the flags have survived several decades on the moon's surface, with constant exposure to full solar radiation and extreme temperature. They must be completely faded by now.

I have been fascinated by the idea of robots crawling across the surface of Mars and sending data home to Earth since the Sojourner rover landed on Independence Day 1997. And I remember watching and listening with bated breath as the Spirit and Opportunity rovers approached for its landing on Mars in 2004. To me, the fact that we sent robots to another planet and communicated with them for over 10 years as they collected data, is the epitome of scientific success. Spirit's wheels got stuck in the sand and NASA was unable to free it, but the robot continued to send data back to Earth until March 2010. As of today, Opportunity is still alive and roaming.

But I've never known how big these robots are. Air and Space has a life-size model of the Curiosity rover, which landed on Mars in 2012 and remains operational. Based on this model, Curiosity is about as long as and both wider and taller than my car, a Honda Fit.

Curiosity rover, Smithsonian Air and Space Museum
27 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong

Of all the weird gizmos and gadgets displayed in the Air and Space museum, one of my favorite displays was this panel of equipment included in the return modules. I think that now, with Russian Soyuz capsules serving as the vehicles taking astronauts and cosmonauts up to and back from the International Space Station (ISS), returning space travelers land in Kazakhstan. But before the use of the Space Shuttle, astronauts came back to Earth by splashing down in the Pacific Ocean. So perhaps it isn't surprising that their return kit included these items:

In Case of Water Landing
27 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong

Those NASA engineers sure thought of everything, didn't they? I wonder if any of the astronauts had to use the shark repellent. Unfortunately, the signs didn't say.

Lincoln Memorial  This is one of the most easily recognizable monuments in Washington, DC. It graces the back of our $5 bill and sits directly across the Reflecting Pool from the Washington Monument. Everybody knows what it looks like.

Lincoln Memorial
26 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong

From the outside, especially from the bottom of the steps, this is another imposing marble edifice. I like that the names of the states carved into the frieze above the colonnade. I first saw these names on the back of a $5 bill when I was in grade school. Kinda cool to see that they're also present in the real thing.

Inside the memorial has a very different feel. There's the famous sculpture of Lincoln sitting on that big chair, of course, with his various writings carved into the walls around him. But even though that statue is so dang big, it doesn't feel cold or distancing. Lincoln looks like he's just a person. Viewed from ground level the statue's hands and feet are enormous compared to the head; I don't know if the sculptor did that deliberately, or if it's just an artifact of perspective because we're looking up at it.

Lincoln Memorial
26 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong

I'm strongly drawn to the hands of this sculpture. Neither of them indicates a relaxed posture; the fingers of the right hand are gripping the armrest of the chair, and the left hand is closed in a fist. I don't know what those hands are intended to convey, but to me they suggest tension.

Lincoln Memorial
26 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong
Lincoln's Gettysburg Address
26 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong

Isn't that slightly raised right index finger interesting? I wonder if that was an actual mannerism of Lincoln's, or just an artistic decision made by the sculptor.

Lincoln's Gettysburg Address is, of course, among those writings inscribed on the wall of the memorial. For some reason I'd assumed that the bit we all know was the beginning of a much longer speech. But no, the entire thing is contained in this single panel. Simple and eloquent. Why the heck do politicians talk so dang much today? And why do they so often seem to say so little?

 

Vietnam Veterans Memorial  I knew what the Vietnam Memorial was going to look like, having seen plenty of pictures and followed from afar the design and construction of it. And everyone I knew who had seen it raved at how touching it is. The one thing that pictures and words cannot convey is what it feels like to walk by the wall. Getting to the wall from the Lincoln Memorial you walk past a monument to the U.S. soldiers who fought in Vietnam.

Vietnam soldiers
26 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong

It's slightly larger than life-size and the details are amazing. From the expressions on their faces these men are exhausted and yet resolved. I wish we'd had more time so I could take pictures of this piece from different angles.

The Vietnam Wall is shaped like a long, meandering trapezoid. Like the FDR Memorial, this is one that you don't just approach and leave; the path takes you along the entire length of the Wall. The panels on each end taper up towards the panels in the middle. This is visually pleasing, but the effect results from the fact that each panel bears the names of the soldiers who died in a given year of the war, and so the overall shape of the wall is a long, tapered trapezoid. I didn't have the right equipment to get all or even any significant portion of the Wall in a photograph, so I didn't even try.

A tiny portion of the Vietnam Wall
26 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong

You might not expect a simple list of names to be so moving. I certainly didn't. And while this listing might seem like a way of making the names anonymous, it had the opposite effect. I don't have a relative whose name is on the Wall so none of the names here meant anything to me personally. But when you are confronted with the sheer magnitude of the mortality and the (mostly) young people who were lost to their families, it's very sobering.

Note that there are no ranks among the names. Each name on the wall represents a person who served and died, and military ranks don't matter to the dead. Nobody gets special treatment in this memorial.

Visitors leave gifts and notes for a loved ones whose name is on the Wall
26 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong

Slightly off the beaten path and therefore not heavily visited is the Vietnam Women's Monument. There are only eight women's names on the Wall, but there were ~11,000 women who served in Vietnam, mostly as nurses. The Vietnam Women's Monument recognizes the skills of these women as they tend to a wounded soldier.

Vietnam Women's Monument
26 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong
Vietnam Women's Monument
26 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong

The blue cards on the base of the monument are thank-you notes written by schoolchildren in Kansas. They said things like "Thank you for serving your country" and "I wish I had your courage." Smart kids.

1

Monday 26 March 2018 -- Memorials

Southwest District of Columbia
© Google Maps

On Monday we ventured south of the Mall to the Tidewater area, where an extension of the Potomac river floods into a basin and forms a tidal pond. This area is where the famous cherry trees of Washington, DC, are concentrated, and we hoped to catch some of the bloom. Alas, it had snowed about a week earlier, there were still patches of snow on the ground, and that day it was cold and windy. The cherry trees were thinking about blooming but hadn't gotten around to making any real effort yet. It was sunny, though, and nice weather for walking around, since we were bundled up.

About a week too early!
26 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong

Jefferson Memorial  Our first stop was the Thomas Jefferson Memorial. We skipped the Washington Monument because it didn't look very interesting and I didn't want to wait in the line to go up to the top, from where the view must be spectacular. I did, however, take the obligatory photo of the monument itself.

Washington Monument
26 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong

The Jefferson Memorial occupies a beautiful spot along the tidewater shore. It must be truly beautiful when the cherry trees are blooming.

Jefferson Memorial
26 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong
Inscription from interior of the Jefferson Memorial
26 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong

Inside the rotunda the walls are inscribed with some of Jefferson's writings. The walls are curved and tall, making them difficult to photograph. Another difficulty I had with this memorial was reconciling Jefferson's words about freedom with the knowledge that he was a slaveholder. While I do think it's unfair to judge historical personages by the moral standards of today, I can't really wrap my brain around that particular cognitive dissonance. This one particular inscription, though, I thoroughly agree with. It seems pretty clear to me that Jefferson never intended the U.S. Constitution to be a static document that could not be amended as required. Rather the opposite, in fact.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial  My favorite memorial of the day was the one for FDR. I liked it because it didn't have present me with any of the minor squicks that I got at the Jefferson memorial. Not only that, but unlike the other presidential memorials this one isn't a single giant edifice that people walk up to and then away from. The FDR memorial consists of life-sized sculptures mounted at eye level, so passersby can interact with them as they wander along the path. Several of FDR's quotes are inscribed along walls interspersed with fountains. All this gives us a memorial that we can experience at a human level and gives us a feel for who FDR was as a person, not just a president.

FDR Memorial
26 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong
FDR Memorial
26 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong

I liked how Eleanor Roosevelt was memorialized, too.

Sculpture of Eleanor Roosevelt at the FDR Memorial
26 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong

My favorite part of the FDR Memorial was at the far end. Walking along the path you first encounter a series of columns that appear to be covered in bronze plates. The columns and the frieze behind them commemorated FDR's federal public works projects, a response to the Great Depression.

Bronze frieze and die rolls at the FDR Memorial
26 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong

The really cool thing about this part of the memorial is that the columns are actually the die rolls used to make the panels on the frieze wall. I didn't see any signage explaining what was going on, so the visitors have to figure it out for themselves. This was another of the things that made this particular memorial feel personal.

Here's one part of one die roll:

26 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong

and here is the panel cast from it:

26 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong

Isn't that cool?

Martin Luther King Memorial The MLK Memorial consists of a single large sculpture of the man in front of a wall inscribed with bits of his writings and speeches. The sculpture itself is very imposing and grand, very different from the more personal and humble feeling I took from the FDR Memorial.

Sculpture of Martin Luther King, with the Washington Monument in the background
26 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong

From the front of the sculpture he really seems to be looking down on us. He was a preacher, and this expression makes me feel like I'm about to hear a sermon. I don't enjoy being preached to, so this is not a comfortable feeling for me.

MLK Memorial
26 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong

Like the Jefferson Memorial, this one left me feeling cold. It imparts a feeling for who MLK was as a preacher and leader, but nothing about who he was as a person. Most of the inscriptions on the wall were ones that we're all familiar with. The one that struck me most strongly was this one:

MLK Memorial
26 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong

I like this particular quote because I think we often forget how easy it is to be a good person when things are going well, and how bloody difficult it is when things aren't going well. It may not be fair to judge people by how they behave in times of adversity, but it is fair to say that we are generally not at our best in those situations. And yet, there is something to be said about how having to endure hardship often shows us our true selves. It can be a difficult thing to face up to. For me, the power of MLK's message comes from his exhortations to us to be better people, and a society, than we have been. We may have come a long way, baby, but we still have a long way to go.

2

For a long time now I've wanted to document a phenomenon that I've observed many times: the way that some birds change color when they move from the light into the dark. I'm sure you've noticed this before, in the vibrance of a peacock's tail that turns to black when the bird moves into the shade. But have you ever thought about why some feathers change color with changing light, while others don't?

It turns out that there is more than one explanation for feather color. Some feathers are colored because of the pigments they contain. Pigments are molecules that absorb some wavelengths of light and reflect others; the wavelengths that are reflected are detected by our eyes and interpreted by our brain as color. There are three groups of pigments that occur in feathers, each of which contributes certain colors to a bird's plumage: (1) melanins--responsible for pale yellows, dark browns, and blacks; (2) porphyrins--producing reds, pinks, browns, and greens; (3) carotenoids--contributing bright yellows and oranges. Pigments can work in concert, too, as when melanins and carotenoids combine to produce olive-green.

Pigment molecules are independent from the underlying structure of a feather. It turns out that the structure itself can produce color. For example, the blue in the feathers of Steller's jays (Cyanocitta stelleri) is due to scattering of light by tiny air pockets in the feathers. When sunlight strikes the filament of a feather, the blue wavelengths are refracted back into the atmosphere where they can be picked up by our retinas, and the other wavelengths are absorbed by a layer of melanin at the base of the filament (which is why we don't see them).

A second kind of structural color is iridescence. This is due to the microscopic structure of the feather's barbules. These barbules act like prisms, refracting light as it hits the feather. The appearance of the light (brighter or darker) changes as the angle of viewing changes.

My favorite example of iridescence in birds is in the hummingbirds. These ornithological gems flit about so rapidly that it can be hard to get a good look at them, but their brilliant colors are stunning. This afternoon I was finally able to take a series of photographs that show how minute changes in a hummer's posture can change its coloration. This male Anna's hummingbird (Calypte anna) posed very nicely and allowed me to snap off a series of photos. In this series of photos I have edited them only to crop them to the same size and center the bird in each one. I have made no adjustments to color or saturation.

Male Anna's humming bird (Calypte anna)
26 February 2018
© Allison J. Gong
Male Anna's humming bird (Calypte anna)
26 February 2018
© Allison J. Gong
Male Anna's humming bird (Calypte anna)
26 February 2018
© Allison J. Gong
Male Anna's humming bird (Calypte anna)
26 February 2018
© Allison J. Gong

And to drive home just how brilliant that pink head is, here's a shot of the same bird, this time on the opposite side of the feeder.

Male Anna's humming bird (Calypte anna)
26 February 2018
© Allison J. Gong

Anybody who says pink isn't a masculine color has obviously never seen a male Anna's hummingbird in full sun!

1

It seems that most years, the Memorial Day weekend brings some of the lowest spring tides of the year, and 2017 certainly fits the bill. I've been out for the past two days, heading out just as the sun is starting to rise, and already I've seen enough to whet my appetite for more. And with plans for the next few days, I'm pleased to say that my dance card is completely full for this tide series. There are a lot of stories building out there!

Gathering (orgy?) of dogwhelks (Acanthinucella punctulata) at Davenport Landing
27 May 2017
© Allison J. Gong

At this time of year everything is growing and reproducing. Many of the larvae I've seen in the plankton have parents that live in the intertidal; makes sense that those parents should be having sex now. Barnacles, for example, copulate when the tide is high. I've seen them go at it in the lab, but never in the field, as they don't mate while emersed. This morning I interrupted a pair of isopods locked in a mating embrace, and they swam off, still coupled together, when I disturbed them. Other animals were much less shy. Lifting up a curtain of Mazzaella to see what was underneath, I spotted a small group of dogwhelks (small, predatory snails). I can't be certain, but suspect they were having an orgy.

A short distance away I found the inevitable result of the dogwhelk orgies.

Acanthinucella punctulata with eggs, Davenport Landing
27 May 2017
© Allison J. Gong

Each of those urn-shaped objects is an egg capsule, containing a few dozen developing embryos. After the snails copulate the mating individuals go their separate ways. The females lay these egg capsules in patches in the mid-intertidal, usually on a vertical surface under the cover of algae to minimize the risk of desiccation.

For many years now, some of my favorite animals have been hydroids. I worked in a hydroid lab as an undergraduate, and this is when I fell in love with the magic of a good dissecting microscope. A whole new world became visible, and I found it easier than I ever imagined to fall under the spell of critters so small they can't be seen with the naked eye. I still do.

The ostrich-plume hydroid Aglaophenia struthionides, at Davenport Landing
27 May 2017
© Allison J. Gong

Hydroid colonies come in a variety of forms, shapes, and colors. Most of them are small and cryptic, resembling plants more than any 'typical' animal, and aren't easily seen unless you're looking for them. One intertidal species, however, is pretty conspicuous even to the casual tidepool visitor or beachcomber. It often gets torn off its mooring and washes up on the beach.

A hydroid colony is the benthic polyp stage of the standard cnidarian life cycle. The polyp represents the clonal phase of the life cycle and reproduces by dividing to make several copies of itself. In a colony such as a hydroid, the polyps remain connected to each other and even share a common digestive system. The polyps don't reproduce sexually. That function is reserved for the medusa stage of the life cycle. Some hydroid colonies produce free-swimming medusae, and others hang onto reduced medusa buds or structures so un-medusa-like that they're called gonangia. Aglaophenia is a hydroid that houses its sexual structures in gonangia that are located on the side-branches of the fronds.

Here's a closer view of a single frond of the Aglaophenia colony. I had to bring it back to the lab to look at it under the scope.

Frond of a colony of Aglaophenia struthionides, showing gonangia
27 May 2017
© Allison J. Gong

The gonangia look like leaves, or pages of a book, don't they? After working a low tide I'm always hungry, and when the lows are early in the morning I'm often cold and sleep-deprived as well. That's my excuse for not dissecting open one of the gonangia to see what's inside.

Even the algae are getting into the act of reproducing and recruiting. This spring I've noticed a lot of baby bullwhip kelps (Nereocystis luetkeana). Nereocystis is one of the canopy-forming kelps in subtidal kelp forests along our coast, but every year some recruit to the low intertidal. However I don't remember seeing so many baby Nereocystis thalli in the tidepools. The smallest one I saw this morning had a pneumatocyst (float) the size of a pea! In mature thalli, the float might get as big as a cantaloupe.

A baby Nereocystis thallus, at Davenport Landing
27 May 2017
© Allison J. Gong
Intertidal nursery area for Nereocystis luetkeana, Davenport Landing
27 May 2017
© Allison J. Gong

Nereocystis doesn't usually persist or get very large in the intertidal. It is more common to see detached thalli washed up on the beach than to see a living bullwhip kelp longer than about 2 meters in the intertidal. Whether or not this particular nursery area results in an established population remains to be seen. I'm betting 'No' but could very well be proved wrong. Only time will tell.

Day 2 (24 March 2017): Tehachapi, Antelope Valley, and Wind Wolves

We spent the night in Bakersfield and the next morning (24 March 2017) headed up over Tehachapi Pass and headed into Antelope Valley.

It had been many years since I'd driven over Tehachapi Pass, and I didn't remember ever having seen Joshua trees before. Maybe I was always sleeping on that part of the trip. Once we got past the windmills at the top of the pass--most definitely Not Good for my concussed brain--and started descending into the valley there were Joshua trees all over the place! So cool! And with this year being the 30th anniversary of U2's best (in my opinion) album, how appropriate.

Joshua trees (Yucca brevifolia) in the Tehachapi Mountains
24 March 2017
© Allison J. Gong

To my admittedly inexperienced eye, Joshua trees are the symbols of the Mojave Desert, as the saguaro is the symbol of the Sonoran Desert. None of the Joshua trees that we saw at Tehachapi were blooming, although I heard from a friend that they were in bloom slightly farther south at Lancaster.


Continuing on, we drove through the desert scrubbiness and eventually could see orange splashed onto the distant hills. We stopped to pick up sandwiches at a corner market and then headed towards the Antelope Valley Poppy Reserve. And bang! all of a sudden we were in the poppy fields.

California poppies (Eschscholzia californica) in Antelope Valley
24 March 2017
© Allison J. Gong

California's state flower grows as either a perennial or an annual, depending on how much water it receives. In desert areas in the south it behaves like an annual, whereas in moister areas along the coast and in gardens it can come back as a perennial. There are several subspecies of E. californica, each adapted to a particular habitat within the state. Blossom color varies from a golden yellow (very similar to that of fiddlenecks, actually) to a deep intense orange.

California poppies (Eschscholzia californica) in Antelope Valley
24 March 2017
© Allison J. Gong

Our intent was to stop at the visitor center of the park and pick up a trail map, but we never got there. We arrived at early mid-day on a Friday, when everybody from Los Angeles showed up, and the line of cars trying to get into the park was backed up almost to the road. Um, no thanks. Besides, we saw all these poppies from the road, and could find places sort of off the beaten track with fewer people tromping around with selfie sticks than would be inside the actual park. Now I'm not one to discourage people from visiting our state parks, but if you decide to go here, try to arrive earlier in the morning on a midweek day. And time your visit for a sunny day, when the poppies will be open.

Poppies (Eschscholzia californica) and goldfields (Lasthenia californica) near the Antelope Valley Poppy Reserve
24 March 2017
© Allison J. Gong
Field of poppies (Eschscholzia californica)
24 March 2017
© Allison J. Gong

And looking up towards the hills we saw pastel paintings. The orange flowers are poppies, I'm guessing that the yellow is goldfields, and the purple is lupines.

And in terms of lupines, Antelope Valley was the best place we visited. When we made plans to come here I had grandiose ideas of capturing that perfect iconic photograph of purple lupines and orange poppies together. You know the one. Unfortunately I think we arrive a week or two early to catch the peak of the lupine bloom. I never did see nice full lush poppies and blooming lupines in the same spot.

We did, however, see several nice lupine bushes in the various washes around the poppy reserve. Honeybees were glad to see them, too.

A deep purple lupine (Lupinus sp.) in Antelope Valley
24 March 2016
© Allison J. Gong
A foraging honeybee checks out the lupine blossom
24 March 2017
© Allison J. Gong

As glorious as the poppies were, we needed to keep moving in order to meet up with friends on the coast. Working our way westward we stopped at the Wind Wolves Preserve, an ecological reserve managed by the Wildlands Conservancy. I had never heard of the place and wasn't sure what to expect. What I got was a lovely surprise.

There are, of course, no wolves in this part of California. So then, why the name? According to a sign at the head of the wildflower trail, the name refers to the Preserve's long grasses, which undulate like running animals when the wind blows through them. I wasn't carrying the tripod with me so I didn't try to take any video. However, on our way from Antelope Valley we stopped at Tejon Pass, where the wind was blowing pretty well. I took this video there.

It does look like one of those aerial views of a herd of galloping ungulates, doesn't it? Perhaps not wind wolves, exactly, but at the Preserve it was easy to imagine how the place got its name. The wildflower walk, a bit less than a mile long, winds through rolling hills covered with grasses and dotted here and there with flowers. There were several small groups of people hiking the trail, and it wasn't uncommon to have them disappear completely from the landscape when they got lost in the grasses as the trail dipped into a small depression.

Wind Wolves Preserve
24 March 2017
© Allison J. Gong
Wind Wolves Preserve
24 March 2017
© Allison J. Gong

No doubt the resemblance to running wolves will be stronger when the grasses are a bit taller.

We were perhaps two weeks ahead of the bloom and most of the flowers were just starting to open up. The overall effect was a cool wash of green dotted here and there with bright splashes of color. There were lupines, of a smaller ground-growing type rather than the bush lupines we had seen in Antelope Valley, and a plant that we had first seen a lot of on the Carrizo Plain, another whimsically named flower called purple owl's clover (Castilleja exserta). As its scientific name implies, owl's clover is a member of the paintbrush family of plants.

Purple owl's clover (Castilleja exserta) and a small, dark lupine (Lupinus bicolor, perhaps) among the grasses at Wind Wolves Preserve
24 March 2017
© Allison J. Gong

And this might well be my favorite photo of the entire trip:

Purple owl's clover (Castilleja exserta)
24 March 2017
© Allison J. Gong
Horned lark (Eremophila alpestris)
24 March 2017
© Allison J. Gong

We had already seen many familiar and not-so-familiar birds on the trip, and it was at Wind Wolves that I saw my first ever horned lark (Eremophila alpestris). This individual wasn't very shy at all; it let us approach within 2 meters on the trail before running off ahead to wait for us again. It had such expressive postures, and a curious look on its face. If there hadn't been a family with small kids behind us on the trail, I could have watched this bird for a long time. But we couldn't block the trail just because there was an interesting (to us) bird standing in it, so we let the family pass and the lark flew off into the grasses. They are social birds so no doubt it had friends and family of its own to join.

We saw lizards, too, most notably the western side-blotched lizard (Uta stansburiana ssp. elegans). These lizards have very interesting gender expression, depending on color morph: there are three male morphs (orange-throat, yellow-stripe, and blue-throat) and two female morphs (orange-throat and yellow-throat). Sounds crazy, doesn't it? The female morphs differ in egg-laying strategy. Orange-throat females lay many small eggs and defend territories, while yellow-throat females lay fewer larger eggs and are less territorial.

Western side-blotched lizard (Uta stansburiana ssp.elegans)
24 March 2017
© Allison J. Gong

Work by Barry Sinervo's group at UC Santa Cruz showed that the three male color morphs also have different reproductive strategies. They are locked in an evolutionary game of rock-paper-scissors: each color can dominate one (but not both) of the other colors. Note that in this context 'dominate' doesn't necessarily mean that one lizard beats up the other, but rather has greater reproductive success than the other. Orange-throats are the most typically testosterone-driven males; they are more aggressive towards other males and control territories containing several females. Yellow-stripe "sneaker" males hang around the edges of an orange-throated male's territory and sneak copulations with females while the territory holder's attention is elsewhere. Blue-throats have an intermediate level of aggression; they can defend a single female from other blue-throats and yellow-stripes, but not against an orange-throat. In a nutshell:

  • Orange beats Blue but loses (sometimes) to Yellow
  • Blue beats Yellow but loses to Orange
  • Yellow beats Orange (sneakily) but loses to Blue

Pretty dang cool, isn't it?

Next installment: The voyage home

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