Friday, April 27, 2012

Shimmering Balaclava

Anna's Hummingbird (male), Calypte anna

I went on a bike ride along the shoreline of the bay, and was distracted by the iridescent emerald feathers from a hummingbird perched nearby. I hopped off my bike and moved delicately towards this little guy. 

He sat, and posed. 

I would too if I had a shimmering rosy-red balaclava like him. 

So pretty. 

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Song birds migrate at night

On a whim a few weeks ago, I applied for a couple of summer field work positions. I like being outside (clearly), am interested and curious about Earth's creatures and their interaction with their environment (wildlife biology and ecology), and I wouldn't mind delving deeply into a particular piece of the larger puzzle. 

I heard back from two postions the same day I sent in my applications. The first was working as a field tech aid on a pilot project in Alberta surveying and monitoring Grizzly Bears. The key qualifications were walking for long-distances in rugged and backcountry terrain with no supervision, having navigation skills, and an interest in learning about wildlife biology. I heard back from the head researcher of the project, immediately connected with her, and was seriously considering it aside from the downfall that I would have to be away from Jacob for 3 months, and probably we wouldn't see each other. 

I also was waiting to hear back from a field assistant position studying the Southwestern Willow Flycatcher population at the South Fork Kern River Valley, and last week was offered a spot on the small team for this summer. I'm eager for the chance to gain practical field work skills and experience, to learn more about migratory bird ecology, work on basic and applied research, and gain more insight into if, in fact, I would like to go back to grad school. Admittedly, I'm a bit apprehensive seeing as I have no experience in avian biology, have not been trained in monitoring nests, nor do I have any additional specialized experience. I was reassured that these weren't prerequisites, and upon talking with the head researcher of this program, was told that she actually likes to give people who may not have direct experience a chance. And finds many times, that the lack of experience can be a useful asset. 
So... on to a new adventure! 

Project Summary:

The Southwestern Willow Flycatcher (Empidonax traillii extimus) is a migratory passerine (perching bird) and is an endangered subspecies of the Willow Flycatcher. They breed in riparian areas of the Southwestern United States (thus the name), and winter in neotropical areas in Central America and Mexico. This subspecies is part of the larger general trend in declining migratory bird populations worldwide. Habitat destruction from anthropomorphic activities (read: Human Impact), and brood parasitism from Brown-Headed Cowbirds are thought to be the primary reasons for this subspecies endangered status. The native willow/cottonwood habitat in the South Fork Kern River Valley harbors a population of Southwestern Willow Flycatchers. Since 1989, the team at the Southern Sierra Research Station have surveyed protected areas in the valley for flycatchers, have monitored the reproductive rates and survival successes of this population, and continue to try to understand the factors that control the size of the breeding population.  

More info about Southwestern Willow Flycatcher here.

More info about where I'll be, here

This means I'll be spending a very large chunk of my day going through dense riparian forests, sampling vegetation, and assisting with the management of the Cowbird population, and other various tasks which keep the project moving. 

I was asked if I like to be alone outside in variable terrain and inclement weather. 

Yes, and yes. 

As for the part about learning more about a migratory songbird, of course I'm interested. 

Song Birds Migrate At Night

They travel up to thousands of miles twice each year, 

Alone or together, 





Through storms and under the blanket of night, 

They follow the stars, 

Up and down, 

not round and round.

How do they know when and where and why to go? 

They perceive magnetic fields, 

and they once walked the earth as Dinosaurs.

Fossilized is a dino-bird, 

Shouting at us a simple, ancient something, 

About what it means to be one thing,

becoming another.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Building a Nest

Bewick's Wren (Thyromanes bewickii) building a nest
I was walking along by a thicket of dense oak and scrub, and just under the bridge I spotted a brown and white blur hopping about.

Upon closer inspection, I was struck by bold white eyebrows, a long tail, and soft brown back, white throat.

I carried A Field Guide to Western Birds by Roger Tory Peterson because I don't know my birds, and learned this little lady is a Bewick's Wren. She was carrying small feathers and twigs to deposit them in a cavity in the footbridge.

I thought of the Earth Wind and Fire song, Build Your Nest...

Build yo nest

Build yo nest on tenderness...

Monday, April 16, 2012

Thursday, April 12, 2012

More Signs of Spring: Newt Xing

What is cute, small, brown, moves at the pace of a drunk snail, and secretes a particularly potent neurotoxin? 

Rough-Skinned Newt, aka Taricha granulosa

Why did the newt cross the trail?

To breed on the other side...

I've been tempted to make a sign alerting people to keep an eye out for Newt Crossings, which are a regular occurrence these days. Some newts in this particular area have been alerted by celestial cues that it is time to migrate.

Aside from being my chosen trail of choice for training runs, Rancho San Antonio Open Space Preserve is home to both the Rough-Skinned Newt (Taricha granulosa) and the California Newt (Taricha tarosa).

I'm fascinated by these amphibians. They are so clearly in their own world, meandering along, searching for the perfect water spot to get it on. They blend in really well with their habitat, so it's actually quite dangerous if they migrate through a heavily trafficked area. Wildcat Canyon trail, which follows an oak-lined canyon leading up to the west side of Black Mountain in the preserve has heavy traffic. And the other day, I came across a few newts who didn't make it.

What do you think, a big yellow sign that says, Newt Xing?

A few fast facts:

1. Newts are able to regenerate body parts. Yes, cut off a leg, and they will grow a new one. Not only that, you could poke out their eyes, break their spine, rip out their heart, break their jaw in a fight, or if you were really mean, take out their intestines, and it wouldn't phase them. Ok, well, maybe it would phase them if you did that all at once. But they have cells which are able to de-differentiate at an injury site, reproduce, and re-differentiate to grow new limbs which retain structure and function. Pretty cool, eh? So, don't go dissing the newts.

2. Newts, particularly the Rough-Skinned Newt as seen above, secrete neurotoxins called tetrodotoxin and terichatoxin. The former of these is  more poisonous than potassium cyanide. Similar to pufferfish and other animal species who secrete these chemicals. If ingested, the poison binds to sodium channels in nerve cells and leads to paralysis, and if in high enough doses and depending on the victim, death. Humans usually don't have a problem when handling newts, but should be careful to wash after. Probably humans handling newts cause more damage to the newt because they have semi-permeable skin, and we have chemicals and oils that could make their lives rough.

As members of the Salamander family, these particular species have a range from the coastal areas of California, inland to higher foothill elevations and extend up to Alaska. They like cool waters from ponds, lakes, streams, and slow-moving rivers. Terrestrial adults like to hang out in grasslands, woodlands, or coniferous forest beds, under rocks, leaf litter and beneath fallen logs. They eat crustaceans, insects, snails, leeches, worms, or other larvae and are estimated to live for up to 20 years.

Salamanders, like other amphibians, are sensitive bioindicators, providing insight into water quality and watershed health. California newt populations in Southern California are considered by the California Department of Fish and Game to be Species of Special Concern. Populations have declined due to introduction of non-native species, pollution, and human development. 

Next time your out in Newt habitat keep your eyes peeled for these incredible creatures.

Now that I got that out of my system, just a few more pictures from a hike I took today out on the trail. I  decided to give running a break, and carried a notebook, camera, and moved slowly, like a newt. I saw black-tailed deer, western scrub-jay, california quail, *heard and saw* wild turkey, a bees nest, various species of mushroom, and pretty little wildflowers in bloom.

Black-Tailed Deer

Steen, Sue, can you ID?

Wildcat Canyon Trail

I was told this is a "Jack-O-Lantern" Mushroom by a fellow mushroomer.  Neat fact: it is bioluminescent. 
water droplets in a web

Caught in a web

So pretty, yet so uncomfortable. I love to look at Poison Oak this time of year

Ghost Spider (as dubbed by me)

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Poetry of the Wind

I want to know the poetry of the wind.

What get's carried, and where it goes...

A project I stumbled across on facebook,, is a map, a simulation of the winds in the US.  Jacob and I were looking at it last night, and could make out the movement around some of the mountains we crossed in Southern California. Where San Jacinto would be, there was a circular motion to the wind as it went and ran up against it and was pushed around in a different direction. San Gorgonio, and up and up as we started to pick out parts of the Sierra. It's neat to give a picture to an energy we can't see even though we feel the wind, hear the wind, touch the wind, taste the wind.

What other energies do we pass right on by, simply because we can't see them?

Arlington by The Wailin' Jennys started playing as I was writing. Happenstance? Perhaps...

Where do you go little bird
When it snows, when it snows
When the world turns to sleep
Do you know, do you know
Is there something in the wind
Breathes a chill in your heart and life in your wings
Does it whisper 'start again'
Start again

Where is the sun in the night
Is it cold, is it cold
Does it feel left behind
All alone, all alone
Does it wander through the dark
Does it wait for the dawn, wish on a star
Does it stray very far
Very far

Where is your home restless wind
Is it there, is it here
Do you search for a place to belong
Search in vain, search in fear
Or is your spirit everywhere
Is your voice every tree
Your soul of the air
If there's no home is there no death
Is there no death

Friday, April 6, 2012

Imaginal Cells: Nature's Imagination

"What the caterpillar calls the end of the world, the master calls the butterfly." ~Richard Bach

It's spring, and some caterpillars are or already have gone through one of the most magical reminders of the life/death/life cycle. On my run today, I was distracted more than once by the butterflies fleeting around me, and I couldn't help wonder how it must feel to have fresh new wings.  

During the life cycle of a butterfly, a caterpillar is liquified inside the chrysalis in the transition phase. There are cells forming the liquid which carry the intelligence to metamorphose into what we recognize as a beautiful, shimmering, and majestic butterfly. These are the imaginal cells. 

If we were to open up a cocoon during this process, we'd encounter a blob of goop, unrecognizable from the very hungry caterpillar it was before, or the butterfly it will become. I think of becoming that blob of goop. 

In order to become, do we have to give in to the inevitable goopy part of the cycle? Do we have to let parts of ourselves die in order to live? 

And what about these magical imaginal cells? 

Scientists named them this for a reason. Because they carry the image of the butterfly in complete detail. There comes a time when imaginal cells wake up. Upon activation, they congregate. They are instinctively drawn to each other, sending messages to mobilize and connect to become the genetic directors, and thus take on the task of forming the butterfly. 

There are researchers who study how many of these imaginal cells are needed in order to make the metamorphosis complete. While the exact number continues to be unknown, it appears that it's been established that there is a critical point, in which the pre-existing caterpillar cells putrefy, becoming a nutritive soup for the imaginal cells, feeding them while they continue to create the butterfly. Then the imaginal cells differentiate. Some become wing cells, some become antenae cells, some part of the digestive tract, and so on. Once the butterfly emerges from the cocoon, there are no imaginal cells remaining, only the miracle of a butterfly. 

Imaginal cells, so magically and exquisitely attuned to the intelligence of nature. 

Do we have our own imaginal cells? Dormant, just waiting to be activated? Activated when we are ready to leave the cocoon we've created for ourselves? 

It's a nice thought.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Springing here

Jacob and I went for a picnic/walk at Wilder Ranch State Park. The park contains 5000 acres of coastal habitat, trails, farms, and historic buildings. Many things merge at this particular spot on the Pacific Coast just north of Santa Cruz. The area is rich with preserved history, a dance between the past and present. The Ohlone people once hunted the hills and fished along the shorelines for abalone. Settlers converted the land to dairy farms. Today it is the setting for recreation, wildlife restoration and preservation, and farming.

We walked along a path bordered by scrub and agricultural farms and followed the coastal bluffs. Along with stunning views of the rocky shoreline, we witnessed a restoration project in progress, returning agricultural farms to thriving coastal wetland and riparian habitats, providing refuge for endangered species such as the Snowy Plover and Peregrine Falcon. I caught glimpses of gulls and terns, raptors (I was unable to identify), canadian geese, and tried to keep my eyes peeled when we approached views of the intertidal shelves and cliffs for nesting birds.  We had lunch at Sand Plant Beach, where we were greeted by the bobbing head of a seal, checking us out while the waves crashed around him/her. Wilder Ranch SP elicits a desire to frolic and skip, do cartwheels. And so I did. Cartwheel, I mean.

Oh, give us pleasure in the flowers today;
And give us not to think so far away
As the uncertain harvest; keep us here
All simply in the springing of the year.
–Robert Frost

California Poppy

Calla Lillies

Pretty Purple Flower

I thought this was an egg, but upon closer inspection realized it was a mushroom.

Gulls, terns and other birds congregate on the ledge

Cliff's at Wilder Ranch State Park
oh, happy day.
Happy April.