Saturday, June 16, 2012
It's been hot and dry here so mushrooms were the last thing I expected to find in the woods at Howarth Park! Agaricus augustus is also known as The Prince. They are considered to be quite tasty but a seething mass of larvae got there first.
Read more about The Prince:
Tom Volk's Fungus of the Month, August 2002
Morel mushroom hunting
Tom Volk's Fungus of the Month, August 2002
Morel mushroom hunting
Monday, June 4, 2012
|Youthful blue tail fades then turns dirty orange.|
In my last post I mentioned seeing Western skinks (Plestiodon sketonianus) hanging out with Western fence lizards. I always thought skinks were shiny because they're moist, like salamanders, but, really, it's that their scales are so smooth and rounded that they reflect light like a piece of glass. When they're young their tails are a bright, screaming blue. As they age the blue fades and eventually their tails are a dull orange brown. When I first began to watch them I thought that blue tail, though really pretty, seemed like a terrible idea. It's awfully easy to find the youngsters as they hunt just by watching for that flash of blue. It's like a bright neon sign pointing the way to an otherwise secretive creature.
|A breeding male with paler tail and orange on chin and face|
When I asked Google why skinks have blue tails I found many websites promoting slightly different versions of the same story, which is that Western skinks have blue tails so that predators are attracted to the tail rather than the skink's body. Then, when the predator grabs the tail, the skink separates itself from the tail and runs off to be free, if quite a bit shorter. Each time I read the story I became more skeptical about it. For instance, why would only the young skink need that kind of protection? For that matter, why would any creature want to attract a predator to any part of it's body? Why not be like so many drably colored creatures that blend beautifully into their surroundings? I decided that this explanation of the blue skink tail was a very poor one and kept following links, hoping to find something more plausible.
|Western skink lying in wait for breakfast|
Several pages into my Google search I came across an article written in 1970 for a publication called Herpetologica. The authors shared my skepticism about what they called the decoy theory. Although their article was about a different species of skink, they proposed that the blue tail was a way of letting mature males know not to get territorial and aggressive toward the youngsters they crossed paths with during breeding time. The authors conducted a not entirely conclusive study to support their theory. Their explanation and theory seem a bit more convincing but I think that, for now, blue tail might just be one of those lovely mysteries that must remain unsolved. For now, anyway.
|Another day, another young skink hunting.|
•Function of the Blue Tail-Coloration of the Five-Lined Skink (Eumeces fasciatus)Author(s): Donald R. Clark, Jr. and Russell J. HallReviewed work(s):Source: Herpetologica, Vol. 26, No. 2 (Jun., 1970), pp. 271-274. Published by: Herpetologists' LeagueStable
Thursday, May 24, 2012
|Where the lizards gather|
|Fence lizards and a skink hanging out|
One morning in early spring I arrived just as the sun hit the rocks and was pleasantly surprised to find a gathering of several lizards andl Western skinks (Plestiodon skiltonianus) hanging (literally) together on the vertical face of the rock. As I watched a few more emerged from holes in the wall and within an hour most had dispersed and could be found hunting within view.
|Western fence lizards easing out of a tiny cave in a big wall of rock|
Entranced, I returned several mornings in a row. The first couple of days the gathering was large. The weather became unseasonable warm and by the time I arrived (between 7:30 and 8 a.m.) the lizards were already out hunting. The skinks appear to come out later than the lizards and I was usually able to see them straggle out, sun for a bit and then glide off for some breakfast. After a few days, the gathering was much smaller but when I looked closely I could see lizards and a few skinks scattered among the rocks, hunting and defending territory.
Tuesday, May 15, 2012
|Reticulate tail dropper|
A few weeks ago it had rained a bit and, as I sketched a Banana slug (Ariolimax columbianus) devouring the leaves of a Wild cucumber (Marah oreganus) plant, this little fellow ambled across the rock I was sitting on and buried itself in debris that had built up in a crevice in the rock. It was gone before I had a chance to sketch it but I lucked out the next day when I saw a white mushroom glowing in a patch of Poison oak (Toxicodendron diversilobum) and went closer to inspect it. Not only did I find fungi but I found two of these little slugs having a feast. I was able to pick up the mushroom and take it out of the Poison oak and sketch one of the slugs while it ate, then return the mushroom to it's original location with the slugs still attached.
Though slugs don't actually have tails this native species is called Reticulate tail dropper (Prophysaon andersoni) because they're able to self-amputate the back end of their bodies much in the same way that lizards release their tails when captured.
Learn more about Tail droppers:
Identification Guide to Land snails and Slugs of Western Washington
Sunday, May 13, 2012
|Banana slug stealthily eating manroot leaves|
|Headed home for the day|
The slug moved slowly, producing enough slime, as it traveled, to help carry it safely over dried leaves, twigs and rocks. I had plenty of time to admire it's moves, contemplate the meaning of life and rearrange my bag. I was even able to plot it's course and identify it's home before it actually arrived at the small cave in the rocks and disappeared slowly into the dark.
|A young banana slug|
It'll be a while before I see any of the Banana slugs again. During the dry summers here in Santa Rosa these native creatures estivate (the summer version of hibernate).
Think you know all there is to know about slugs? Think again:
Slugs: A Guide to the Invasive and Native Fauna of California by Rory McDonnell
San Francisco State University Department of Geography
National Parks Traveler
Monday, May 7, 2012
One afternoon, at the end of March, I went looking for one of my favorite spring wildflowers, Marah oreganus, also known as Manroot and Wild cucumber. It sprawls along rocky places and I had recently discovered that it grows wantonly in a partially quarried rocky area in Howarth Park. As usual, I had trouble figuring out how to draw this long, sprawling plant and was thinking about giving up when I heard a tiny ruckus on the next rock over. I looked up to see two Western fence lizards (Sceloporus occidentalis), in colors I'd never seen before, fighting and posturing with great vigor. I thought there might be a female involved and I soon found her, peering out of a crevasse on a ledge below the action. The males continued to interact with one another for quite a while. Then one of them left, only to return again, and they picked up where they'd left off. A bit later they both went to opposite ends of the slab and rested up for the next round. The female had climbed out of the crevasse and looked a bit exhausted, though she began to recover (from what?) before very long. As the males resumed their battle, a young lizard climbed up the to view the proceedings from the edge of the rock. One of the males chased him away and I watched as he headed my way, only to stop short when he noticed me noticing him. When I once again turned my attention to the territory struggle, the female had climbed up the cliff and was standing next to one of the males. The other male turned around and headed off slowly through the grasses at the edge of the battleground. I watched him until he disappeared and when I looked back at the victor and his mate, I was astonished to find that his brilliant colors and pattern had reverted to a pattern almost identical to her drab brown!
Tuesday, April 10, 2012
For a few weeks in March it seemed that everywhere I walked in Howarth Park I heard a bird singing a loud, trilling song, often from trees right in front of me. I'd scan the canopy with my binoculars yet never was able to see the singer. When I'm patient I usually can solve the little mysteries that I come across as I wander about the woods and meadows in the park. So, I kept trying to find the trilling bird and, near the end of the month, as I watched several species of birds flitting madly through some oaks, I again heard the song that had been haunting me. At first, as usual, I was unable to find the singer and then I spotted him perched at the top of a tree. He preened for a bit, giving me time to make some sketches and then was gone.
Once home, I began looking through my field guides and listening to sound samples at the Macaulay Library. I was certain of my identification of Wilson's warbler (Cardellina pusilla) and made notes on my sketch. A little over a week later, as I prepared to publish a post about my abilities at bird identification, I revisited the information I'd found about the warbler and began to realize I'd been, perhaps, a bit too hasty in my identification. My heart sank as I flipped through the warbler pages in my Sibley guide and saw that there were at least two other possibilities. Even more discouraging, I couldn't quite remember the song and when I listened to all three birds they sounded terribly alike. I've been trying to work out ways to make better notes about bird song and this just emphasized the need.
I've almost certainly ruled out Wilson's warbler now. The male bird has very distinctive markings, including a very black cap. My bird had none. I would be surprised to find that this bird was a female. He sang like a fellow telling the world that he was ready to go forth and procreate and that he'd found the place to do so. If he'd been a Yellow warbler I would've seen some bright red stripes on his manly breast. An Orange-crowned warbler would've had dingy stripes on his.
Well, maybe the females are the territorial singers in one of these species. Maybe the light or my own sloppiness kept me from seeing important details that would've helped me identify that darned bird. If I'd had more ability to make notes about bird song, I might've been able to narrow that down. Maybe the bird had a cap and I just couldn't see it. Well, you get the idea. Sometimes you can convince yourself that you're really brilliant and other times you learn that it just isn't so. Not at all.
I haven't heard that song in the past week, leading me to believe that the unknown warbler has probably found a mate and gotten down to the business of procreating. No more need for loud and glorious song. Maybe next year I'll have learned enough to name that bird. In the meantime, patience and humility, patience and humility, patience and...
Here are some links to information about the birds I think are the most likely suspects:
Yellow warbler (Setophaga petechia)
Orange-crowned warbler (Vermivora celata)
Wilson's warbler (Cardellina pusilla)
Wednesday, March 28, 2012
It's been raining all day and Chloe and I are dreaming about getting back out and walking tomorrow. Until then, here are some wildflowers to remind us that there's a world outside this studio. Giant hound's tongue (Cynoglossum grande) setting some of it's lovely orange seed capsules and hosting a Silvery blue (Glaucopsyche lygdamus), both spotted in a meadow a few days ago, along with a solitary Parasola plicatilis mushroom a few feet away.
Red larkspur (Delphinium nudicaule), one of my favorites. There's a patch I've been watching at Howarth Park whose leaves have barely emerged from the ground so this one took me by surprise in a rocky quarry area I've only recently started visiting. I drew it as a group of children practiced their archery in Camp WaTam. As the arrows began flying about the area I felt that I'd better wrap up and leave sooner than later.
There are some lovely wood orchids that bloom in late spring and early summer at Howarth Park. By the time the flowers appear, the leaves are usually gone, so I wanted to sketch some while they're still there. I had hoped the leaves might help me with identification but I don't think they will, though I enjoy finding them. I've been amazed at how many end up as food, probably for deer. I see them one day, then go back and find just a stub coming out of the ground. Speaking of deer food...
...Fritillaria afinis aka Checker lily and Chocolate lily appears here and there in the park, too. I saw this one, ready to bloom, and came back the next day to sketch it, only to find it beheaded and a nice little deposit of deer scat nearby to tell me who had committed the crime. It seemed only fair to go ahead and sketch the headless plant. My paper still wasn't tall enough for the whole plant so the very top is shown on the right side of the page. Later I did a fast sketch of some flowers on another in a different part of the park.
Tuesday, March 20, 2012
One gray winter morning I watched a juvenile White-crowned sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys) stop to rest in the pepper tree. A larger, shadowy figure appeared in my peripheral vision and piqued my curiosity. Even in the murky light I could see that the bird had a red head, not something I see on any of the birds that frequent our area. I crept closer and closer, until I could see enough detail to do some rough sketches to take home and use to help me identify this lovely and, to me, exotic bird. While sketching I noticed that the tree was riddled with neatly drilled holes in tidy rows, something I hadn't ever seen before. I hoped that the pattern might help me identify the bird making them.
Once home, I looked in my copy of Sibley's Guide to the Birds and was able to easily identify the bird as a Red-breasted sapsucker (Sphyrapicus ruber), a bird that drills neat rows and columns of holes in living trees and returns later to drink the sap and eat any insects that may have been attracted to the sap. This led me to hope that I might have another chance to see her. When I arrived the bird was working the tree as though she'd never left. Closer examination showed that the Pepper tree was neatly pierced up and down it's trunk and larger limbs. This bird had clearly been around for a while.
I've returned several times, at different times of day, and most of the time have found the sapsucker working the tree. The last time I was there, an Acorn woodpecker (Melanerpes formicivorus) flew in noisily and began drinking sap from one of the holes the Sapsucker had drilled. The Sapsucker immediately moved to another limb of the tree and waited. The intruder continued to drink for a few minutes then flew off. As soon as he was gone the Sapsucker returned as though nothing out of the ordinary had occurred.
Surprisingly, this sapsucker was one of the least shy birds I've encountered. Each time I've gone to observe her I've been able to sit, as long as I like, very near where she's working. She checks on me every now and then but mostly keeps drilling. She often stops and appears to rest while watching the comings and goings of a Nuttall's woodpecker (Picoides nuttallii), several Lesser goldfinches (Spinus psaltria) and the occasional Yellow-rumped warbler (Setophaga cornonata) as they forage nearby.
Learn more about Red-breasted sapsuckers:
Wednesday, March 7, 2012
One morning in early March, as a very cold wind blew through Howarth Park, I found myself sitting in the sun in the middle of a meadow surrounded by bay, oak and manzanita trees, trying to get warm. A few birds drifted through the shrubs around me while American crows soared high above, dipping and banking in the wind and looking as though they were having some kind of fun. Out of the corner of my vision I noticed movement in a nearby shrub and raised my binoculars to see a bird that I thought was probably a Ruby-crowned kinglet. I watched it as it moved from shrub to tree and back again, singing "Pweep - Pweep - Pweep." loudly and repeatedly. Something about it just didn't seem right for the kinglet, but I couldn't clarify what made me feel that way so I made as many notes as I could in order to mull it over later.
At home I looked at the Ruby-crowned kinglet article at All About Birds. I looked at a few other pages, too, and read, on more than one of them, about the uncanny similarity between Ruby-crowned kinglet and Hutton's vireo (Vireo huttoni). By this time I'd listened to the Ruby-crowned kinglet sound recording and felt fairly certain that my hunch had been correct and the bird I'd seen wasn't a kinglet. I listened to the Hutton's vireo recording and knew I'd found my bird! Pweep!
Monday, March 5, 2012
|Dining at top, various escape postures below|
I also often come across scat that appears to be strategically placed, often on high rocks at high points along various trails or at trail intersections. Sometimes, there are more than one deposit. I have yet to hone my scat identification skills but have learned that some of the mammals that live in the park communicate via scat placement.
A few days ago, on a rocky trail I saw a banana slug. When I got closer I saw that the slug was eating a freshly deposited pile of dung. When I sat down to sketch the scene the slug began to move away from me and it's meal, rather quickly for a slug. I sat as quietly as I could until it finally circled around and headed back, stopping short of the dung and hunkering down to wait me out near the interrupted meal. I didn't like to keep it from it's meal and moved on after making a few sketches.
Although dung isn't as yummy to banana slugs as fungi it's still a regular part of their diet along with seeds, roots, fruit, algae and carrion. In turn, slugs are eaten by crows, snakes, ducks, shrews, moles, salamanders, porcupines and the occasional human.
|Hunkered down, waiting for the intruder (me) to leave.|
Home of the Slug Love
North Coast Journal
Sexual escapades aside, banana slugs are still pretty fascinating:
San Francisco State University Department of Geography
National Parks Traveler
Saturday, February 25, 2012
However, the other day, as I walked through an area in Howath Park where children get pony rides on weekends, I noticed a large pile of horse manure with several mushrooms sprouting merrily out of it. Imagine my joy at finding mushrooms, any mushrooms! That they were fruiting in manure was an added bonus because it meant that I would be able to more easily identify them.
Most mushrooms are saprophytic. That is, they nourish themselves by growing on dead organic matter such as fallen trees, dead insects and animals, fallen leaves and excrement. In the process, the mushrooms decompose the material they feed on, providing what I like to think of as essential janitorial services for the forests and meadows that I walk in. Saprophytic mushrooms are often specialists, so if you find one in, say, horse manure, then it won't be too difficult to find out that you're looking at Panaeolus papilionaceus. Oh, and if you like learning new words then you'll be happy to know that mushrooms that feed on manure are coprophilous.
Disturbingly, during the research for this post I found that this is considered an edible mushroom. Uh, bon appétit?
The sketches were done with graphite, ink, watercolor, gouache, colored pencil on 8.5 x 11 inch Canson mi-teintes paper. The black circle at the top right is a spore print from one of the mushrooms, an essential identification aid.
More about the ways fungi nourish themselves:
The Royal Horticultural Society
The Hidden Forest
Especially the coprophilous varieties:
And about Panaeolus papilionaceus:
The Fungi of California
Monday, February 13, 2012
|Graphite, colored pencil on 8.5 x 11 Strathmore paper|
Last Sunday I did just that early in the morning before the neighborhood was awake. I listened and watched as birds began to move about, looking for food and mates, not necessarily in that order. I noticed that the leaf buds on many trees were nearly ready to burst and that many lawns had been mowed. On one of those lawns I saw a pristine dead Roof rat (Rattus rattus) looking so natural that I hesitated before collecting her to take home, afraid she would leap up and take offense as I placed her into a bag. She didn't and I spent a couple of days sketching and admiring her.
I know I'm not really supposed to like rats. As I write this I'm listening to the rustlings of a family of them that we've been unsuccessfully trying to evict from the attic above my studio. As my work day is ending I can hear theirs beginning as they exit through the (not so) cunning trap door we put in to let them leave but keep them from getting back in. I really do admire their ability to adapt to adversity. They've traveled far from their original place on the planet, yet thrive and multiply. And multiply. Where once they lived high up in trees and foraged in fields and forests, many now live high up in our buildings and get a ready supply of food from our gardens, homes and refuse. These tiny creatures have caused us much bigger creatures an awful lot of grief for a very long time without even trying. Pretty impressive, if you ask me.
|Graphite, ink on 8.5 x 11 inch Stonehenge paper|
Saturday, January 14, 2012
As I looked around I saw that I was being regarded by a Turkey vulture (Cathartes aura) with what appeared to be dignified indifference. I got out some paper and a pencil and began to draw. The vulture proceeded to take care of some personal grooming then gathered herself together and lifted off with enviable grace.
I returned to the spot where I first heard the ruckus. The crows had begun flying about again, though this time over a larger area while still making a lot of noise. There were more of them, too. Then most of them disappeared, though I could still hear them. Finding an open area, I found them roosting in a tree at the top of the ridge I had walked off of just before all of the excitement. I watched for a while as the crows flew out and about then returned to the tree, calling out their harsh cries. After a while, there were only a handful still in the tree, mostly silent. I packed up my sketch gear as the last of the crows dispersed.