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The first new-to-me visit on our spring break road trip was Anza-Borrego State Park in the southern California desert. We arrived late in the day on Monday and had just a brief chance to look around. On Tuesday we got up early and went for a hike, trying to avoid some of the midday heat. Fortunately there was a bit of a breeze, which helped with the heat but made flower picture-taking challenging.

Anza-Borrego is located in the Colorado Desert, which is a western subdivision of the Sonoran Desert. The Colorado is a low-altitude desert (most of the surrounding hills are only ~900 meters tall) and thus gets much hotter in the summer than deserts at higher elevations, and very rarely experiences a winter frost. Winter is the main rainy season and some regions also receive rain during a late-summer monsoon season.

After a rainy winter, the desert explodes into vibrant life:

Anza-Borrego State Park
2019-03-26
© Allison J. Gong

The color of the day at Anza-Borrego was yellow. More details on the yellow players in a bit.

Anza-Borrego State Park
2019-03-26
© Allison J. Gong

It had rained a few days prior to our visit, and there a stream was flowing through the desert.

Anza-Borrego State Park
2019-03-26
© Allison J. Gong

This running water would be a temporary situation, of course, but one that is of great help to the wildlife in the park. At the park visitor center I read that wildlife large and small come to drink from the shallow streams, and that if we were to see bighorn sheep approaching the water we should stay out of their way. Water is so scarce for these animals that any delay in getting to it, or any separation of individuals from their family unit could be very stressful. I didn't know whether or not we'd even see the sheep, since they are shy, but we got lucky!

Desert bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis) at Anza-Borrego State Park
2019-03-26
© Allison J. Gong

Handsome fellow, isn't he? He was eating and didn't seem to mind us hikers as long as we stayed on the trail. Of course, there was an idiot who approached too close to get a better photo, and this ram wasn't happy about it. He withdrew away from us and then went about his business. Other sheep wandered through, too, to forage or drink from the stream. But this big guy gave me the best photo op.

A visit to the desert this spring, after all the rain we had over the winter, was all about the wildflowers. Most of them were new to me. One thing that struck me was that, instead of the carpets of color that we'd seen at Carrizo Plain or Antelope Valley, flowers at Anzo-Borrega were much more widely dispersed. Some species were very common and others I didn't see more than once or twice.

As I mentioned above, yellow was the predominant color at Anza-Borrego. There were several daisy-like flowers in both yellow and white, and some were very common. Fortunately for me, the visitor center had an easy-to-use pictorial guide of the most common wildflowers; using that, some wildflower field guides that we brought with us, and Calflora.org, I may have identified them all correctly. I'm sure that somebody will point out any identifications that I got wrong.

Brittlebush (Encelia farinosa)
2019-03-26
© Allison J. Gong

One of the defining characteristics of E. farinosa is the way that the blossoms are raised up above the grayish-green foliage. It's a cool morphology, and makes the plant look very different when you see it from the side. Here's a shot that shows it:

Brittlebush (Encelia farinosa)
2019-03-26
© Allison J. Gong

And brittlebush was very abundant!

Lots of brittlebush (Encelia farinosa) at Anza-Borrego State Park
2019-03-26
© Allison J. Gong

Another very abundant yellow flower was the very aptly named desert dandelion, Malacothrix glabrata. It looks like a typical dandelion, perhaps a more pale buttery color than usual, and when mature the blossoms have a small purplish red spot in the center.

Desert dandelion (Malacothrix glabrata) at Anza-Borrego State Park
2019-03-26
© Allison J. Gong
Desert dandelion (Malacothrix glabrata) at Anza-Borrego State Park
2019-03-26
© Allison J. Gong

Our state flower, Eschscholzia californica, is typically a brilliant pure orange color, although sometimes the color can be more yellow. In Anza-Borrego I saw some plants whose foliage looked poppy-ish, but the blossoms didn't look quite right--a little too small to be California poppies and a color that was definitely yellow rather than orange. Turns out, though, that they were gold poppies (E. parishii)!

Gold poppies (Eschscholzia parishii) and one of the purple Phacelia species at Anza-Borrego State Park
2019-03-26
© Allison J. Gong

And who can resist a plant called ghostflower? That palest of yellows, almost but not quite white, combined with the tiny dark speckles, makes the plant seem very quiet--indeed, almost spooky. Ghostflower is easily overlooked, compared to the vibrant yellows of brittlebush, poppies, and dandelions.

Desert ghostflower (Mohavea confertiflora) and gold poppy (Eschscholzia parishii) at Anza-Borrego State Park
2019-03-26
© Allison J. Gong

One of my favorite flower color combinations is yellow, white, and purple. Imagine how pleased I was to find it in the desert!

Desert dandelion (Malacothrix glabrata), desert chicory (Rafinesquia neomexicana) and a purple phacelia (Phacelia distans) at Anza-Borrego State Park
2019-03-26
© Allison J. Gong

The color purple was represented by two species of Phacelia, P. distans and P. campanularia. Phacelia distans was by far the most common in the floors of the valleys, and we saw P. campanularia at higher elevations.

This is Phacelia distans. Note the shape of the inflorescences, and how the blossoms are arranged.

Phacelia distans at Anza-Borrego State Park
2019-02-36
© Allison J. Gong
Phacelia distans at Anza-Borrego State Park
2019-02-36
© Allison J. Gong

And this is Phacelia campanularia, the desert bluebell:

Desert bluebell (Phacelia campanularia) at Anza-Borrego State Park
2019-02-36
© Allison J. Gong

These plants have the same blossom shape, but very different blossom arrangements and foliage morphology. Nifty, the differences between presumably closely related species, eh?

Another flower in the purple family was the desert sand verbena (Abronia villosa). It occurred in sandy soils, often in washes or dunes, similar to the sand verbena that I see on beaches along the coast.

Desert sand verbena (Abronia villosa) at Anza-Borrego State Park
2019-03-26
© Allison J. Gong

The pink color family was represented by the bright pink Bigelow's monkeyflower, Diplacus bigelovii. They were fun. The golden-orange throat is the diagnostic feature for this species.

Bigelow's monkeyflower (Diplacus bigelovii) at Anza-Borrego State Park
2019-03-26
© Allison J. Gong
Bigelow's monkeyflower (Diplacus bigelovii) at Anza-Borrego State Park
2019-03-26
© Allison J. Gong

I didn't get very many good pictures of the white flowers. It always seemed to be especially windy when we saw them. Desert chicory (Rafinesquia neomexicana) is a white daisy-like flower.

Desert chicory (Rafinesquia neomexicana) at Anza-Borrego State Park
2019-03-26
© Allison J. Gong

This being the desert, much of the plant biomass was succulent in nature. The ocotillo were blooming, as were the teddybear cholla and other cactuses.

Ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens) at Anza-Borrego State Park
2019-03-26
© Allison J. Gong

Everything living in the desert survives only if it can take advantage of the minimal precipitation that falls every year. Cactuses must suck up as much water as they can during the wet season, and store it for use during the hot, dry summer. Barrel cactus (Ferocactus acanthodes) this spring are fat, like the barrels for which they are named, and full of water. Their bodies are pleated longitudinally, allowing them to swell up when water is available. Then, as their water stores are depleted during the summer, the pleats fold together and the body becomes more compact. The large saguaro cactuses in the Sonoran Desert do the same thing.

Blooming barrel cactus (Ferocactus acanthodes) at Anza-Borrego State Park
2019-03-26
© Allison J. Gong

A cactus whose blossom definitely belongs in the pink category is the beavertail cactus (Opuntia basilaria). I think it was early in the blooming season for them, as I never saw any plants with more than a few open flowers, but most of them had many buds developing.

Beavertail cactus (Opuntia basilaria) at Anza-Borrego State Park
2019-03-26
© Allison J. Gong

The chollas are cactuses in the genus Cylindropuntia, characterized by cylindrical stems. The teddybear cholla (C. bigelovii) was the one we saw at Anza-Borrego. It has dense spines that give it a fuzzy look but in reality form an impenetrable defense--it manages to say "I'm cute and fuzzy!" and "Don't touch me!" at the same time.

Teddybear cholla (Cylindropuntia bigelovii) at Anza-Borrego State Park
2019-03-26
© Allison J. Gong

The teddybear chollas were very abundant at Anza-Borrego. We continued to see them as we continued on our trip. Next stop, Joshua Tree!

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We've had a good strong wet season this year, resulting in another wildflower superbloom. Over spring break we went to southern California to chase the flowers and, while we were at it, visit some places that I'd never been to. Our first stops were at familiar stomping grounds that we'd visited in 2017: Shell Creek Road, Carrizo Plain, and Antelope Valley. There were significantly more people at all of these places, compared to two years ago. Many of the well known sites for wildflowers have become very popular lately, and we tried to avoid the most crowded areas.

Location 1: Shell Creek Road

Just because I love the California oaks, here's one that is well festooned with lace lichen (Ramalina menziesii) and moss:

Coastal live oak (Quercus agrifolia)
2019-03-24
© Allison J. Gong

The sky was hazy that day, making for less than ideal picture-taking conditions. The wind certainly didn't help, as the flowers were moving constantly. This early in the bloom the predominant color was yellow: a soft, buttery yellow due to the tidy tips and a much more brilliant, retina-searing gold due to the goldfields.

Goldfields (Lasthenia californica)
2019-03-24
© Allison J. Gong

There was some relief from all the yellow, in patches of baby blue eyes.

Wildflowers along Shell Creek Road
2019-03-24
© Allison J. Gong
Baby blue eyes (Nemophila menziesii)
2019-03-24
© Allison J. Gong

Location 2: Carrizo Plain and Temblor Hills

Soda Lake Road, which runs through Carrizo Plain, was quite crowded. We stopped at the vista point and then headed off the beaten track onto some less-traveled dirt roads.

Still hazy, see?

Soda Lake, from vista point
2019-03-24
© Allison J. Gong

There was such glorious scenery all around!

2019-03-24
© Allison J. Gong
2019-03-24
© Allison J. Gong

To the northeast of Carrizo Plain lie the Temblor Range hills, on which the bloom was just beginning. We saw fiddlenecks and goldfields at lower elevations, and splotches of purple Phacelia and orange poppies higher on the hills.

Fiddlenecks (Amsinckia menziesii), goldfields (Lasthenia californica), and Phacelia ciliata
2019-03-24
© Allison J. Gong

Poppies weren't going very strongly yet, but were distinguishable as a faint orange wash on the hills:

Wildflowers on Temblor Hills
2019-03-24
© Allison J. Gong

We'd see plenty of poppies the next day!

Location 3: Antelope Valley

Antelope Valley was overrun with people, climbing up hillsides with their dogs and selfie sticks. Seems that selfies of people sitting in poppy fields is all the rage these days. We didn't bother even trying to get into the poppy preserve, as there were lots of flowers to be seen in the surrounding areas.

Owl's clover (Castilleja exserta) and California poppy (Eschscholzia californica)
2019-03-25
© Allison J. Gong
California poppies (Eschscholzia californica)
2019-03-25
© Allison J. Gong

Compared to what we saw at Antelope Valley in 2017, this year's bloom was different. This year the poppies were not as widely scattered as in 2017, but where they occurred they were extremely dense. Then again, this year we were early in the bloom, and by now it could be different.

Poppy field at Antelope Valley
2019-03-25
© Allison J. Gong

Next up: Anza-Borrego!

Over the holiday weekend I was in Morro Bay for a surprise 80th birthday party--not mine! The party on Friday evening was a huge success (none of the guests let the cat out of the bag), the birthday girl was completely taken by surprise, and a good time was had by all. The weather was cold and sporadically stormy the entire weekend, but the clear spells between storm squalls were gorgeous and almost a little warm.

Since it wasn't raining on Saturday morning, we went out to Morro Rock to look for peregrine falcons. There are two (I think) pairs of falcons nesting on the Rock, one of which nests on the side of the rock that is visible to people. This is nesting season, and Morro Rock has a lot of ledges that make good nesting platforms. Peregrines don't make a nest, really. They lay eggs and incubate them on ledge high up on structures--rock cliffs, buildings, bridges--that dominate the landscape. We did see one peregrine way up on the rock, identifiable through binoculars but far enough away that I couldn't get a decent photo. This is the best I could do:

Peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus) perched on ledge on Morro Rock
2019-02-16
© Allison J. Gong

So not much success with the falcons, although I could at least document that they were there. Turning away from the Rock I was able to watch a great blue heron (Ardea herodias) go after and catch and eat a juvenile rockfish! The photos tell the story, so I'll just post them.

The Chase:

Great blue heron (Ardea herodias) chasing after prey
2019-02-16
© Allison J. Gong

The Catch:

Great blue heron (Ardea herodias) with rockfish prey
2019-02-16
© Allison J. Gong
Great blue heron (Ardea herodias) with rockfish prey
2019-02-16
© Allison J. Gong
Great blue heron (Ardea herodias) with rockfish prey
2019-02-16
© Allison J. Gong
Great blue heron (Ardea herodias) with rockfish prey
2019-02-16
© Allison J. Gong
Great blue heron (Ardea herodias) with rockfish prey
2019-02-16
© Allison J. Gong
Great blue heron (Ardea herodias) with rockfish prey
2019-02-16
© Allison J. Gong

And finally, down the hatch it goes:

Great blue heron (Ardea herodias) swallowing rockfish prey
2019-02-16
© Allison J. Gong
Gulp!
2019-02-16
© Allison J. Gong

And there you have it! On a day when it was too blustery for human fishers to venture out of the bay, one avian predator had a successful morning. Way to go, bird!

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:

Lunar eclipse
2019-01-20
© Allison J. Gong

21:41 Pacific Standard Time:

Lunar eclipse
2019-01-20
© Allison J. Gong

21:51 Pacific Standard Time:

Lunar eclipse
2019-01-20
© Allison J. Gong

22:33 Pacific Standard Time:

Lunar eclipse
2019-01-20
© Allison J. Gong

22:48 Pacific Standard Time:

Lunar eclipse
2019-01-20
© Allison J. Gong

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:

Full moon after the lunar eclipse
2019-01-21
© Allison J. Gong

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:

Lunar eclipse series
2019-01-20 and 2019-01-21
© Allison J. Gong

Totally worth it, though!

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.

System of vernal pools at San Luis National Wildlife Refuge
2018-12-26
© Allison J. Gong

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.

2018-12-26
© Allison J. Gong

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.

Coots (Fulica americana) at San Luis National Wildlife Refuge
2018-12-26
© Allison J. Gong

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.

Northern shovelers (Anas clypeata) at San Luis National Wildlife Refuge
2018-12-26
© Allison J. Gong

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.

Geese in flight
2018-12-26
© Allison J. Gong

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.

Greater white-fronted geese (Anser albifrons) at San Luis National Wildlife Refuge
2018-12-26
© Allison J. Gong

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.

Tundra swans (Cygnus columbianus) at San Luis National Wildlife Refuge
2018-12-26
© Allison J. Gong

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.

Sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis) at San Luis National Wildlife Refuge
2018-12-26
© Allison J. Gong

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.


1

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!

Davenport Landing beach
Davenport Landing Beach
21 December 2018
© Allison J. Gong

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.

Cryptochiton stelleri
Dead gumboot chiton (Cryptochiton stelleri)
21 December 2018
© Allison J. Gong

Cryptochiton stelleri 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.

Intertidal benches on the south end of Davenport Landing
21 December 2018
© Allison J. Gong

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.

Mopalia lignosa
21 December 2018
© Allison J. Gong

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!

Fluorescent Anthopleura sola anemone
21 December 2018
© Allison J. Gong
Another fluorescent Anthopleura sola anemone
21 February 2018
© Allison J. Gong

The third fluorescent anemone was closed up. There were just enough partial tentacles visible to see that it is indeed a fluorescent specimen.

A third fluorescent Anthopleura sola anemone
21 December 2018
© Allison J. Gong

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.

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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.

Monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) at Natural Bridges State Beach
18 November 2017
© Allison J. Gong
Monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) at Natural Bridges State Beach
18 November 2017
© Allison J. Gong

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.

Monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) at Natural Bridges State Beach
18 November 2017
© Allison J. Gong

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:

Sponge in display tank at Seymour Marine Discovery Center
10 September 2018
© Allison J. Gong

or this:

Sponge in aquarium at Long Marine Lab
24 September 2018
© Allison J. Gong

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.

Ascon body type of a sponge. Arrows indicate direction of water flow.
© Sinauer Associates, Inc.

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 m2i.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:

Piece of a living sponge, viewed with darkfield lighting
8 September 2018
© Allison J. Gong

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!

Interior of sponge body
8 September 2018
© Allison J. Gong

Here's another view at the same magnification, which shows more clearly the cells of the chamber:

Choanocyte chambers
8 September 2018
© Allison J. Gong

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.

Choanocyte chambers
22 October 2018
© Allison J. Gong

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.

They really do look like grapes, don't they?

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.

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