Monday, November 29, 2010

Guinea pig in the wild

Last week, as I pulled my car into a parking space at Howarth Park, I saw something small moving oddly through the underbrush in the woods above the parking lot. I gathered up my gear and my dog and went closer to explore. Before I'd gotten very far, I knew that I was looking at a nearly forgotten friend from my early adolescence, though in a decidedly different habitat than that of my pet guinea pig (Cavia porcellus) from many, many years ago. This guinea pig was hopping awkwardly about, stopping every now and then to eat some of the new grass sprouting all over the park. He was decidedly unconcerned as I drew closer but only to a point, at which he scuffled off at a distance.

Chloe and I went on our way and when I got home, after our walk, I set about refreshing my memory about guinea pigs. I found that much of what I remembered was wrong.

Guinea pigs originated in the Andes and were domesticated long ago, as a food source. There are some close relatives still in the wild but but it's not certain that the domesticated pig is descended from any of them. Although Guinea pigs are still raised as food in in the Andean highlands, they were enthusiastically adopted elsewhere as exotic house pets beginning in the 16th century, when European traders brought them back from their travels to the New World. I was relieved to find that guinea pigs still retain a preference for cool weather over hot, as our night time temperatures have been about 30 degrees F (-1C) for nearly a week.

Back at Howarth Park, I returned the next day with some fruit and vegetables which the pig devoured with great enthusiasm, as long as I kept my distance. I began an internal debate about whether to attempt a rescue or allow the pig to live a shorter but certainly more exciting life at Howarth Park. I wondered if the pig missed the humans who  abandoned him, or if life at the edge of the park was a welcome and exciting change from the more sedate, but possibly very boring domestic life of a household pet in a cage. Trying to imagine myself in this guinea pig's place, I felt that life in the wild would be my choice, in spite of the increased danger and hardship. When I told a friend about my predicament, she thought she'd prefer the cage or, rather, the steady supply of food and easy lifestyle. So, I'm trying to split the difference by taking food with me when I go to the park to walk.

I hadn't seen the pig in a couple of days, because I've been going early in the morning when it's still cold and he seems to wait, as do many of the native inhabitants, for warmth before venturing out for breakfast. Yesterday I finally got a chance to see  the pig, in the late afternoon, when I dropped off some food but he's adapting well to life in the wild and was gone before I got close.

Cavy history
Animal Diversity Web
The Humane Society of the United States

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Watching the sun set

Most afternoons my husband, Chloe and I walk to downtown Santa Rosa to visit our favorite coffee place. We chat and watch the people and dogs that always seem to be bustling about. If we're not in a hurry, I'll do some urban sketching, mostly of the other people drinking coffee outside.

There are often quite a few birds about, especially in the winter, eating pieces of muffin, bagel and cookies that end up on the ground. There's also someone who puts out handfuls of seed most days. We see Brewer's blackbirds (Euphagus cyanocephalus)and a few House sparrows (Passer domesticus). Last week,  a hawk dove from on high trying to capture one of the blackbirds but it missed and was gone so quickly that I wasn't even sure what I'd seen until I'd thought about it a while. Oddly, there aren't any pigeons, though there are some living near our house, a quarter of a mile away.

In winter the blackbirds begin to gather at around 4 p.m. on top of the building across the street, facing the sun as it rapidly sinks in the sky. Often, we'll see nearly 100 birds perched quietly at the edge of the roof, some of them preening themselves. Sometimes the whole group will suddenly lift off and wheel about over the small city of Santa Rosa before landing again, often when crows fly over, but usually for no reason that we can discern.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Insect ballet

One brilliantly sunny day, after days of rain many years ago, I was in our backyard when the air around me suddenly filled with graceful winged insects that drifted off and then disappeared. They seemed to be rising from the ground beneath me and when I looked I saw hundreds more crawling unsteadily about the flagstones beneath my feet. I captured one for later identification and watched as all of them became airborne and disappeared within an hour.

I was chagrined to discover that the beautiful flight I witnessed was the annual departure of reproductive termites from their nest. The one somewhere on our property. Uh oh.

The nice exterminator who came the next day couldn't find any sign of invasion of our home but still felt strongly that we should begin an toxic and expensive monthly pest control program. We decided against it and have been keeping watch for signs that the termites have moved from the old stump beneath the house to the house itself. So far it hasn't happened.

It turns out that termites, like the fungi I'm so fond of, serve an important function as one of the recycling crews of our planet. They recycle old, decayed wood and help keep the soil porous and rich with nutrients. Oh, and termites are considered choice eating by several species, including our own, some of whom consider toasted termite to be a culinary delight. Earlier this year I watched a Western fence lizard (Sceloporus occidentalis) eat quite a few termites as they emerged from the ground to fly away.

Most of the information about termites seems to be provided by colleagues and employers of that nice exterminator that came to our house after the first termite flight we saw. Here's some less biased information, including a wonderful video of an amazing termite skyscraper in Nigeria.

University of California
Arizona Sonora Desert Museum
David Attenborough video

Friday, November 5, 2010

Just before the rain

It had rained in the morning and was supposed to clear up in the afternoon, so I changed my day around and went to the park in the afternoon. Ha! Paying attention to weather forecasters is pretty much like gambling with your life savings. It was gray and chilly and felt as though it was going to rain at any moment. This really wasn't a bad thing because I love that gray light for the way it makes every other color so brilliant that they almost glow, even the faded golds and tans of late summer in Northern California. I was considered drawing a landscape until this Oak titmouse (Baelophus inornatus) landed in a manzanita (Archostaphylos sp.) and preened long enough for me to get a sketch. After the bird left I worked on the leaves and branches until the rain that wasn't supposed to fall did, indeed, begin to fall. Since I was in a meadow with no umbrella (remember the part about believing weather forecasters?) I cut the sketching short and toddled off to enjoy a delightful walk in the rain.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Lion's mane

In my last post I mentioned looking for a fungus called Hericium erinaceus or Lion's mane. Although I didn't find the one I was looking for, I did find this one fruiting in the Black oak (Quercus kelloggii) in another part of the park. I actually saw my very first Lion's Mane fruiting from this tree about three years ago. It fruited the following year then skipped last year and here it is again.

If you find it early, this is an edible fungus, though not one I've ever tried to eat. Although my sketch only suggests it, the rounded white area at the bottom of the organism is comprised of slender "teeth" or spines which produce the spores, rather than gills. This fungus had already begun to produce spores and had a white dusting on top.

More written and pictorial information:

Monday, November 1, 2010


The voice of the Northern red-shafted flicker is what the beginning of fall sounds like here in Sonoma County. This year I heard the first flicker in August, which seemed a bit early, but now, in mid-October, it's hard to go anywhere in Howarth Park without hearing one or more flickers calling out to one another. My ears led me to this dapper fellow in an open part of the park with scattered Blue oak (Quercus douglassii), one gray day. I started to draw him with a fountain pen but it didn't work out the way I wanted so I switched over to ball-point and then got carried away by the whole scene, not just the bird. Thus, an inky ghost of a Flicker watches over the scene on the left side of the image.

Although the flicker is a woodpecker it's commonly seen on the ground, foraging for insects. This one was foraging in some dead wood high up in an oak and stayed a good long while. Up to 45% of a flicker's diet is ants, along with other insects, and in winter, some nuts, seeds and berries.

Here in the western part of North America, you're most likely to see the red-shafted flicker, while in the east the yellow-shafted Northern flicker is more common.

More about flickers:
Chipper Woods Observatory