Saturday, June 16, 2012

A royal surprise

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
California Fungi
Morel mushroom hunting

Monday, June 4, 2012

Why do Western skinks have bright blue tails?

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.

•Kaweah Oaks
•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

A gathering of lizards

Where the lizards gather
 I've read that Western fence lizards (Sceloporus occidentalis) tend to be loners, defending their territory fiercely. There's a rocky place at Howarth Park where I like to sit and watch lizards, birds, insects and the occasional California ground squirrel go about their business. In winter the lizards are tucked away under rocks and in the ground but when the sun warms up those rock, the lizards come out of hibernation.

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

Another slug

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
Living Landscapes

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Slug and Manroot

Banana slug stealthily eating manroot leaves
A few weeks ago we were having unseasonably cold weather and I found myself looking, though unsuccessfully, for Banana slugs (Ariolimax columbianus) as I walked in the cold, gray early mornings. Then it got a bit warmer and rain gave way to blue skies and sun. I gave up on the slugs and went off to look at a Manroot or Wild cucumber plant (Marah oreganus) that I'd been admiring in a somewhat secluded rocky area.

Headed home for the day
I noticed an odd color in the depth of the plant and lo and behold! I'd finally found a banana slug! Wild cucumber produces upright stalks of small white flowers and the deer scat near the slug told me who had eaten nearly every flower off of the plant. As the sun rose higher in the sky the slug began it's journey home. I was thrilled because I've often wondered where these creatures go when the sun is out.
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
The weather remained cold for several days and I returned a few more times. In all, I found three different banana slugs eating the Manroot leaves at different times. One was quite small (3.5 inches long) and must have been a youngster. The other two were adults and easy to tell apart because one had almost no spots and the other had many.

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
Birds Amoré

Monday, May 7, 2012

Dressing up to do battle

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

Which warbler?

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

Cabin fever

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

A new acquaintance

One of the best ways to see birds is to sit quietly in a place that they like to visit, usually for food. One of my favorite places to do this is Santa Rosa Oddfellows Cemetery. It's an open, grassy place with a mix of native and non-native trees in a central area. I can spend hours in shade or sun and observe the comings and goings of songbirds stopping by to forage on the ground or in spruce, oak and an old, gnarly Peruvian pepper tree (Schinus molle). There are also some hawks that hunt the area, Northern flickers (Colaptes auratus) in winter and American crows (Corvis brachrhynchos) and Western scrub jays (Aphelocoma californica).

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

Name that bird

Ruby-crowned kinglet
I'm no expert when it comes to identifying birds. I haven't been at it for very long and I look for birds in only a few locations near home so I've gotten to know the birds that frequent those places because I see them so often. One of the birds that I've learned to recognize easily is the Ruby-crowned kinglet (Regulus calendula), a winter resident here in Sonoma County. These small birds bounce energetically from branch to branch, seeking insects to eat. Although the males don't often display the red crown they're named for, I've been lucky enough to see and be impressed by a few. I've only heard recordings of their courting song but can easily recognize the harsh chipping sound of their call. You can hear both in this recording at All About Birds.

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.

Hutton's vireo

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

Food for thought

Dining at top, various escape postures below
Mushrooms are gourmet fare for banana slugs so, in past winters, I've sometimes encountered banana slugs (Ariolimax columbianus) as I searched for fungi in Howarth Park. This year we've had less than half our usual amount of rainfall and I've found very few mushrooms and fewer slugs.

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.
You may have noticed that I refer to the slug as"it". Sometimes there's no way to tell the gender of creatures I encounter and sketch but banana slugs are hermaphrodites, able to act as either male or female. There are some who seem to think that slugs are sexy little beasts and study their sexual activities with what appears to be great zeal. Interested in knowing more? Follow these links for discussion and videos of the sex lives of slugs:
 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
Birds Amoré

Saturday, February 25, 2012


It's been crazy dry here in northern California this winter. We had some promising rain early in the season and then high pressure systems wheeled around above us, pushing storms to the north or the south or the east, essentially anywhere but here. As a consequence, I haven't seen much fungi this winter, partly because there just wasn't enough moisture and partly because the lack of rain kept the fallen leaves from decomposing, leaving ankle deep piles of crisp, light leaves which, in turn, hid the mushrooms that did fruit. As I've walked through the woods I've occasionally seen withered old specimens uprooted in areas that have been disturbed by squirrels or other creatures rooting around for food.

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

One woman's treasure...

Graphite, colored pencil on  8.5 x 11 Strathmore paper

I've loved to walk since I can remember. I love to put one foot in front of the other and propel myself into the known or the unknown. It's a simple act that we mostly never even think about. For many years illness has limited my ability to go walking, which has only made me appreciate it more. I'm thrilled when I can go to a park and walk even for just a half mile and ecstatic when it's one or two miles.  I've learned to appreciate every single walk I'm able to take, even when I can only go around the block.

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

A death in the park

I was at the end of a walk when I heard, then saw, a mob of American crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos) circling nearby. It sounded and looked as though they were mobbing a predator so I decided to investigate further and walked quickly to the spot the birds seemed to be circling. In a little grove of oak and manzanita I found the fresh remains of a crow. The mob had disappeared and gone silent as soon as I arrived on the scene. There was no sign of the predator though I guessed that I might have interrupted the meal of a hawk or an owl.

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.