Among photographers and those who watch the sky, last night's lunar eclipse was an event to stay up late for. In much of California the latest storm left the sky cloudy, but I was lucky to have pretty good viewing for most of the eclipse. The moon was behind clouds at the beginning of the eclipse and for most of the period of totality, though, so I didn't get any pictures of those times.
I did, however, take a series of photos of what I could see. Here they are, in chronological order. All photos were taken with my new camera, a Nikon D750 combined with the Nikkor 300mm f/4 prime lens.
21:36 Pacific Standard Time:
21:41 Pacific Standard Time:
21:51 Pacific Standard Time:
22:33 Pacific Standard Time:
22:48 Pacific Standard Time:
At this point the clouds came back and it started to rain. I didn't wait for the eclipse to end, as I wouldn't have been able to see it anyway. When I got up this morning the skies had cleared, and since the moon would still be full I sat on the front porch in my pajamas and bathrobe and took this final shot.
05:53 Pacific Standard Time:
And there you have it--my series of eclipse photos! I learned a lot while shooting and processing these. I am embarrassed at how long it took me to figure out how to create this montage:
People who moved here from other states often say that California doesn't really have seasons. I think what they mean is that in general we don't oscillate between frigid winters and hot, humid summers. The Pacific Ocean moderates weather conditions through most of the state, giving us our Mediterranean climate characterized by a short rainy season and a long dry summer. However, California is a very large state with many different climate zones. Here on the coast our summers are cool and foggy, while in the interior of the state summers can be quite hot, upwards of 38° C for weeks at a time. Snow falls in the Sierra Nevada, providing much of the state's annual water budget, but the rest of the state usually remains snow-free for most of the winter.
That said, California does of course have seasons, even though they may not be as in-your-face as what you'd see in, say, New England. One of the ways to experience the seasons is to observe the comings and goings of migratory wildlife, especially birds. In fact, bird migration patterns make up a significant part of phenology, the study of the timing of biological events in the natural world. California's position along the Pacific Flyway provides fantastic bird watching opportunities throughout the year. There are many locations within California that are pit stops for birds migrating up and down the coast and overwintering oases for birds that breed much farther north.
The San Luis National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) in Merced County is one such place. Located in the Central Valley, it represents some of the original habitat in this part of the state. The San Joaquin River winds through the Reserve, providing riparian habitat, although the river is currently a mere ghost of its former glory. Since 2009, federal and state entities have worked to restore the San Joaquin, increasing water flows and cleaning up the surrounding lands. While it would be marvelous to see chinook salmon once again migrating from San Francisco Bay up the San Joaquin, it hasn't happened yet. The re-establishment of salmon runs up to just below Friant Dam would indicate a healthy San Joaquin River, and I really hope to see it in my lifetime.
Before the era of modern agriculture, much of the Central Valley flooded with the winter rains and spring snowmelt. Only a tiny fraction of these wetlands remain; most have been drained for agriculture and further deprived of water by state and federal water diversion projects. In areas such as these, small pools form during the wet season. These vernal pools--so called because they are often at their deepest during the spring--are ephemeral habitats. They almost always disappear during the long dry summer, but during their short existence they provide living space for a unique biota. A few vernal pools occur in most of the flat areas of California, although there are far fewer of them than before, and they differ biologically throughout the state. It is not uncommon for each vernal pool in a given area to have its own combination of flora and fauna, all of which have adapted to thrive in both desiccated and flooded conditions.
On our way back to the coast after spending Christmas with my family, we stopped at the San Luis NWR to do some wildlife watching. The visitor center was closed because of the federal government shutdown, but the roads were open. The Refuge has two auto tour routes, one to the tule elk reserve and the other to see resident and visiting aquatic birds. We chose to drive the bird route, because winter is a good time to see birds that spend the rest of the year at much higher latitudes.
Coots (Fulica americana) are ubiquitous in California's wetland habitats, and because of that they are easily overlooked. When I was little we called them 'mudhens' and smirked at them because they weren't ducks. Of course I now realize that that thinking is entirely unfair, and have come to appreciate coots because they aren't ducks.
In addition to the coots, which weren't much of a surprise because we expected to see them, we saw large numbers of several species that we weren't as familiar with. There were ducks and geese, which took us some time to ID because they weren't mallards and Canada geese. Fortunately I keep a bird field guide and binoculars in the car! My favorite bird ID book is the National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America; we keep one of the later editions at home, but my beloved and well battered third edition lives in the glove compartment.
The ducks turned out to be northern shovelers, which I've seen at Elkhorn Slough. True to the typical avian way of doing things, the males are strikingly colored, with brilliant green heads, while the females are a dark streaky brown. In the photo below, a female swims with two males.
The geese were entirely new to us. We first saw them flying overhead in the V-shaped formations that you expect from a gaggle of geese in the air. But they didn't honk like Canada geese so we knew right away that they were something different.
I wasn't able to ID these until we got home and I looked at my photos on the computer. iNaturalist helpfully gave me a tentative ID of greater white-fronted goose (Anser albifrons), which I was happy to go along with.
In North America, greater white-fronted geese nest in the Arctic of western Canada and through most of Alaska, including out along the Aleutians. They migrate south to spend the winter along the Gulf coast and along the eastern coast of the Sea of Cortez. The winter wetlands of the Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys host many of these geese, and smaller numbers overwinter in coastal Oregon and Washington.
Living in California, I don't usually expect to encounter any species whose common name includes the word 'tundra', but tundra swans do indeed spend their winters here! They nest in the very high Arctic on tundra, a habitat that is threatened by climate change, and winter is the only time we would see them in the lower 48, when large flocks venture south to overwinter near lakes and estuaries. I'll keep an eye out for them next time I'm at Elkhorn Slough or Moss Landing.
We saw hundreds of these swans hanging out with the shovelers. Only a few were within photograph range, as I don't have a very long telephoto lens (yet!), but there were lots of large white blobs floating, foraging, preening, and sleeping. They were fun to watch through the binoculars. We had hoped to see some sandhill cranes in the Refuge, too. We had seen them off in the distance, much too far to be photographed, but it wasn't until we were on the last leg of the auto tour that we saw them up close. They were not mingling with the swans and geese, and as far as we could tell tended to gather in single-species flocks. They seemed to be more skittish, too, and would startle and fly away when they heard human noises. I had to move slowly and quietly to get this close to them. Even the sound of the camera shutter caught their attention and made them wary.
The Central Valley is Ground Zero for sandhill cranes in California, where they can be seen only in the winter. They don't breed here, of course, but there is a small population of ~460 pairs of sandhill cranes breeding in far northeastern California. There are locations in the Central Valley that are known for hosting large crane populations in the winter, and one of my goals is to witness a big 'fly-in' event, when huge flocks come in to roost in the evening. I've seen pictures, and it looks like a spectacular sight. I want to see it with my own eyes.
All this is to say that we do indeed have seasons in California. The shifts between summer and winter are perhaps more subtle here than in other states, but an observant eye keeps track of changes in the natural world. And you don't have to be a trained scientist to track seasonal changes wherever you live, either. We tend to use temperature to tell us which season we're in, but in reality light is a much more reliable indicator. Just think of how dramatically temperature can fluctuate in a few days, and how much more extreme these fluctuations seem to be in recent years, due to climate change. Day length cycles, however, remain constant over geologic time, as we humans haven't yet figured out a way to mess with the tilt of the earth's axis. Everyone notices how the amount and quality of light change with the seasons. It takes just a little more effort to notice the ways that life responds to those changes.
For a number of reasons--a lingering injury to my bum knee, scheduling difficulties, and ongoing postconcussion syndrome--I missed the autumn return of the minus tides. At this time of year the lowest tides are in the afternoon, and at the end of the day I just didn't have the energy to deal with field work. It took until today, the winter solstice, for me to find my way back to the intertidal. An additional motivating factor was a request from both the Seymour Center and Seacliff State Beach for critters to populate their displays. So off I went!
Over the past day or so a storm system blew through the area. It didn't drop any rain on us in Santa Cruz, but earlier this week the National Weather service issued a small craft advisory and suggested that people stay off the beach, due to a combination of big swell and high tides. Usually when I go collecting at Davenport I go to the reef on the north end of the beach, which has more varied vertical topography and a similar, but generally richer, biota than the gently sloping benches to the south. However, the big swell had washed away a lot of the sand, leaving the beach steeper than it would be in the summer, and even the -1.0 ft tide didn't make the reef safely available to someone not clad in a wet suit.
So I trudged across the beach and went to the south instead. It gave me an excuse to poke at the stuff that had been washed up onto the beach and look for nice pieces of algae to take to the Seymour Center. Algal pickings are rather slim in the winter, but I did find several decent small clumps that will do nicely in the touch table. One noteworthy find was a dead gumboot chiton (Cryptochiton stelleri). There were four such corpses washed up on the beach, in varying states of decay and stench.
Cryptochitonstelleri is the largest of the chitons, routinely growing to length of 20 cm. It's a hefty beast, too. The chitons as a group have their greatest diversity in the intertidal, but Cryptochiton is a subtidal creature. Unlike the intertidal residents, Cryptochiton's sticking power is pretty weak. Living below the worst of the pounding of the waves, it generally doesn't have to cling tightly to rocks. However, because it doesn't stick very well, Cryptochiton often gets dislodged by strong surge, especially during spring tides. Then they get tumbled by the waves and wash up dead on the beach. I don't think I've ever seen a live Cryptochiton washed up.
The reef to the south of the beach consists of flat benches that slope down to the ocean. There are some channels and a few pools, but otherwise there is no real topography. Of course, for creatures living in the intertidal, there is topography--the nooks and crannies, as well as vertical faces, provide a variety of microhabitats.
Mopalia lignosa is one of the intertidal chitons that I'm always delighted to find because it's not as common as some of the others, and it's a beautiful animal. The species epithet lignosa means 'wood' and refers to the patterning on the dorsal shell plates.
As usual, there were spectacular anemones to be seen. And I saw something new! Anthopleura sola, the sunburst anemone, is one of the large aclonal anemones that is very common. At Natural Bridges there is a brilliant fluorescent A. sola in a pool on one of the benches I visit. I've been keeping an eye on this animal for a couple of years now, just to reassure myself that it's still there and doing well. The animal is hardly hidden, but it feels like a little insiders' secret that not everybody knows about.
For the first time, I saw fluorescent A. sola at Davenport Landing. Three of them, in fact! And boy, were they all bright!
The third fluorescent anemone was closed up. There were just enough partial tentacles visible to see that it is indeed a fluorescent specimen.
Now, I don't spend as much time at the south end of the beach as I do on the north side, but until today I had never noticed these fluorescent animals. Could I have missed them all this time? It's kind of hard to miss a neon green animal the size of a cereal bowl! At any rate, now that I know they exist and hopefully remember where they are, I'll be able to keep an eye on them, too.
The other day I joined the Cabrillo College Natural History Club (NHC) on a natural journal walk through Natural Bridges State Park and Antonelli Pond here in Santa Cruz. The NHC is a student club at the college where I teach, and I attended one of their meetings early in the semester. It's a very active club, and although I'm not currently one of the official faculty sponsors I hope to become one in the future. I had a prior commitment and couldn't meet them when they started their walk, but since they were traveling at what club president described as "a nature journaling pace" I was able to catch up with them.
Monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) overwinter at Natural Bridges. On warm sunny days they flit about, feeding and warming their bodies in the sun. When it's cold or raining they huddle together in long, drooping aggregations from the eucalyptus trees. It hasn't been cold yet this year, but in November of 2017 I went out on a chilly morning and was able to photograph monarchs clustered together.
These two photographs are the same clump. Notice that the butterflies' wings look very different when they are closed up. The insects roost with their wings held together over the back, showing the paler, dusty undersides. I think this posture minimizes risk of damage to the fragile wings as the butterflies huddle close together to retain as much warmth as possible. As the sun warms their bodies the butterflies begin opening and closing their wings to generate additional heat for their flight muscles. The brilliant orange color of the top side of the wings is the hallmark of a monarch butterfly.
The monarchs hanging out at Natural Bridges in 2018 are the great- great- grandchildren of the butterflies that were here last year. It takes four generations to complete one migration cycle. The butterflies in Santa Cruz today emerged from chrysalises up in the Pacific Northwest or on the west slope of the Rocky Mountains, and flew thousands of miles to get here. They'll be here through the winter, departing in February to search for milkweed on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada. The eggs they lay there will hatch into caterpillars and eventually metamorphose into the butterflies of Generation 1 in March and April. Generation 1 butterflies migrate further north and east, lay eggs on milkweed, and die after a post-larval life of a few weeks. Generation 2 butterflies, emerging in May and June, continue the northeast migration, lay eggs on milkweed, and die. Their offspring, the Generation 3 butterflies, emerge in July and August and disperse throughout the Pacific Northwest and eastward to the Rockies; they lay eggs on milkweed and die. Generation 4 butterflies emerge in September and October, and almost immediately begin migrating south to where their great- great- grandparents overwintered the previous year. Of the four generations, 1-3 are short-lived, lasting only a few weeks before dying. Only Generation 4 butterflies live long, and their job is to escape the winter and survive elsewhere in a milder climate.
This truly is an extraordinary migration. Given that each individual travels only part of the migration route, how do they all know where they're supposed to go? Each individual is heading for a location that hasn't been encountered for four generations. Day length cycles are probably the primary migration trigger for each generation. I imagine that since each generation is born at a different latitude from the others and at different times of the year, day length signals may be generation-specific, at least enough so to tell the butterflies where they should go.
One of the students asked a great question: Other than the fact that they make the long leg of the migration and live longer, are there any differences between Generation 4 butterflies and the others? I don't know the answer to that. I suspect that there may not be obvious morphological differences, but there certainly are physiological differences. The Generation 4 butterflies have much greater physical stamina than Generations 1-3, and have to fuel flight muscles to travel over 1000 miles. That's quite a feat for an animal that looks so delicate! Appearances can be deceiving.
When I teach sponge biology to students of invertebrate zoology, I spend a lot of time describing them as phenomenal filter feeders, and suspect that most other professors do the same. There really are no animals that come close to possessing sponges' ability to remove very small particles from the water. Sponges have this ability despite the fact that their bodies are extraordinarily simple. I can draw pictures on the board to diagram the variety of sponge body types, but I've always wanted to show students how these bodies actually work.
Thing is, from the outside sponges just aren't that interesting. Some grow into large, conspicuous tube or vase shapes, but most occur as crusts of varying thickness and color. For example:
Not much to write home about, is it?
But as with most things invertebrate, sponges are more complex than they appear to be at first glance. And of course their complexity can be best appreciated when you observe sponges under the microscope. That's what I've been doing over the past few weeks: making wet mounts of living sponge and looking at them under the compound microscope. I'm still figuring out the best way to take photos through the scope, and trying to find the magic combination of lighting, magnification, and depth of field to obtain the clearest images.
Let's take a step back and review some basic sponge fundamentals. Sponges are animals in the phylum Porifera. Their bodies are characterized by a lack of true tissues; in other words, a sponge's body consists of various types of cells that do not form permanent connections. The different types of cells have different functions, but most of the cells retain the characteristic of totipotency, the ability to differentiate into another cell type as needed.
The sponge cells that do the filtering are called choanocytes. They form the lining of the sponge's body cavity. Choanocytes consist of a cell body and a collar region of microvilli that form a ring. From the center of the ring protrudes a single flagellum, whose undulations travel from base to tip. The choanocytes are arranged so that the flagella face into the body cavity, and their collective beating draws water through the body. The flagella also capture food particles, which are phagocytosed by the cell.
In its simplest tubular form, a sponge can be visualized as a miniature vase, with a single body cavity called a spongocoel ('sponge cavity') which is lined with choanocytes. Water enters the sponge through many microscopic pores on the outer skin of the body, is filtered by the choanocytes, and exits through a single opening called the osculum. This system works, but the efficiency of filtering is limited by the surface area of the choanocyte layer lining the spongocoel, and very few sponges have this body type.
Now if you imagine making invaginations into the choanocyte layer and continue the choanocytes into the channels you create, you could increase the filtering surface area of a sponge without having to increase its overall body size. Continue this maneuver to its logical end and you'd end up with something that resembles a cluster of grapes. The skin of the grapes would represent the layer of choanocytes, all oriented so that their flagella face the hollow interior of the grape, which would correspond to what we call a choanocyte chamber. This type of body plan has a vastly expanded surface area to volume ratio compared to the tubular form, and these sponges achieve the largest sizes. Incidentally, natural selection has used this exact same strategy to maximize the respiratory exchange surface area of your lungs: gas exchange occurs in the alveoli, which are tiny thin-walled sacs where oxygen diffuses into and carbon dioxide diffuses out of capillaries. The total respiratory surface area of your lungs is about 70 m2--i.e., roughly equivalent to one side of a standard tennis court, without the doubles lanes--all tucked neatly into the volume of your thoracic cavity.
The canals leading into and out of each choanocyte chamber are smaller than the chamber itself, and this arrangement takes advantage of some fundamental fluid dynamics: a given volume of water flows faster through a tube with a narrow diameter and slower through a tube with a wider diameter. Water travels relatively fast through the narrow canals on either end of a choanocyte chamber and slows down significantly within the chamber proper. This gives the choanocytes time to capture all of the food particles in the water stream, and speeds the water to the outside of the body once it has been filtered.
Now we can get back to the animals themselves. Their external appearance may not look like much, but sponges are very interesting when viewed under a microscope. I've been taking samples and squashing them under coverslips for a close look.
Here's a view under darkfield lighting:
The clear-ish objects that look like the back roads of a map are spicules. They provide a bit of skeletal support for the sponge's body and help to deter predators--who would want to bite a mouthful of glass splinters?
When I switched to higher magnification and phase-contrast lighting I could see hollow spherical structures that vaguely resembled blackberries. I felt a thrill of excitement to realize that these were probably choanocyte chambers, and I was looking at the choanocytes themselves!
Here's another view at the same magnification, which shows more clearly the cells of the chamber:
The chambers themselves closely resemble the blastula stage of early animal embryology. Like a blastula, a choanocyte chamber is a hollow ball of cells; unlike a blastula, which has a ciliated outer surface, a choanocyte chamber consists of flagellated cells with the flagella oriented towards the inner hollow space. At a bit less than 40 µm in diameter, the chambers are about half the size of my sea urchin blastulae.
Remember how I said that the structure of the choanocyte chambers is similar to that of our alveoli? You may not be able to visualize the alveoli in your lungs, but this photo shows how the chambers resemble a cluster of grapes.
Because it's impossible to see the three-dimensional structure of the chambers from the single plane of focus you get with a photograph, I shot some video while focusing up and down through the sample on the slide.
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!
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.
The hawk actually skinned the rodent before eating it. . .
. . . and then it ate the skin!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Here's the other ferry vessel making the eastward crossing:
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The ceiling of the Great Hall is magnificent--take a look at this stained glass!
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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:
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.
These are freshwater bivalves:
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:
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:
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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:
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.