Sunday, September 23, 2012

habitat ~ 09/23/12 ~ Toro County Park

Well, I finally did it.  I hiked at Toro County Park.  This would not have been my preferred time of year to visit this park for the first time, but once again I was a tagalong while Andy volunteered and ran the half marathon organized by Inside Trail Racing.  Everything was extremely dry. Even the poison-oak, monkeyflower, chamise, coyote brush, and black sage could not feign green, let alone in some cases having leaves at all.  My hike reflected the melancholy mood I've had the past few months.  I was so absorbed in thoughts and a desire to turn around to go get some breakfast (we rushed out the door by 6:30am so Andy could help set-up) that I barely noticed I had walked up 1600 feet. The elevation at the park is deceptive.  Before I knew it I was looking down on a marine layer over the Monterey Bay and through the Salinas Valley, Corral de Tierra, and Fort Ord.  I've posted pictures of Toro Park from a distance in various habitat posts for Fort Ord, which is situated right across Hwy. 68.  The middle vertical picture above of runners is from a trail that can be seen from a considerable distance, like in the last photo of this May 11, 2012 post.  I would like to return to Toro Park when its bright spring green like it was on March 14, 2009. Hopefully, in the coming days I'll backpost specific IDs of things I did notice.

crappy photos no more?

blue-eyed darner

posted 10/09/12 - Here on Nature ID, I've joked about my crappy photos.  It's okay.  I'm good with it.  I'm practically proud, even.  While I sometimes get slightly green around the edges with envy over other bloggers' fantastic photographs taken with great skill and fancy equipment, the fact of the matter is I have little desire to grow in that direction myself.

Our trusty 8-year-old Konica Minolta DiMAGE X50 point-and-shoot has served us well.  It's lightweight, fits in my front shirt pocket or Andy's running belt pocket, old enough that I don't care if it gets a few raindrops or specks of pollen on it, and meets most of our wants most of the time. I'm someone who begrudgingly carries water and won't even take my smallest pair of binoculars on a hike because it doesn't easily fit into a pocket... well, you get the picture.  Or don't you?

As with all electronic gadgets nowadays, things break or become obsolete for whatever reason. Hey, I was "forced" to replace my 10-year-old computer, not because it broke, but because technology and my desire to be online left it in the dust.  Sigh, it's time to start thinking about a replacement camera. Andy came across reviews for Lytro.  I'm not crazy about the awkward shape.  However, capturing an entire light field to create a "living picture" with the capability to refocus after the fact?  Anyone hear of it?  Does anyone know if these active focus pictures can be embedded in blogger, yet?  If so, could you please send me a link to your blogspot?  Any other recommendations?  Granted, like with my computer this may be a 2-year process before I purchase, and by then this new consumer technology will very likely be even better and cheaper.

nest box for western bluebird ~ 09/23/12 ~ Toro Park

nest box for western bluebird
nest box for Sialia mexicana

Packed clearly in my memory from some childhood book's chapter heading is a subtly shaded pencil sketch of a bird house, with a gabled roof and dowel perch, sitting sweetly atop a square peg post with flowers blooming at the base and butterflies fluttering about.  It's a charming and cozy iconic visual, but I rarely give nest boxes a second thought while out hiking.  The dilapidated state of this one stopped me in my tracks long enough to ponder some questions and provided a reason to look up information.

Is it merely semantics that distinguishes a bird house from a nest box?  Are nest boxes like this one placed specifically for bluebirds?  Why do bluebird nest boxes have a flat roof?  Why don't I see boxes with pegs for perching?  How come there aren't more different style nest boxes around?  What happened to this box?  With our weather incredibly mild since the spring of 2011, I doubt this damage was due to any storm.  Did a raccoon tear this box apart?  Did unknowing humans vandalize this box?  Are these the remains of a bluebird nest or of some other bird?

I know there are different styles of nest boxes for different kinds of birds, even though this medium-sized one with a flat roof is the type I most often see in parks around here.  While I don't normally link to commercial sites, this bird house supplier has a nice page of various man-made structures (they're not all boxes!) built to attract nesting birds.  I've seen owl boxes at Elkhorn Slough, wood duck boxes at various places I can't recall offhand, and numerous bluebird boxes, including one lone bluebird nest box at Fort Ord in memory of Chuck Haugen, which ironically is one of two places I've ever actually seen a western bluebird, with the other place being Pinnacles.

With the question of which birds also utilize nest boxes placed out for bluebirds, I continued to search.  Tree swallows have used them at Hastings ReserveEuropean starlings and house sparrows compete with bluebirds for nesting sitesViolet-green swallows and mountain chickadees use cammed bluebird nest boxes at James Reserve in SoCal.  Are there other birds, too?  I'll have to keep looking.

Steve at Blue Jay Barrens has a nice series of posts for bird box, eastern bluebird nest (Sialia sialis), and tree swallow nest.  Keeping nest boxes takes dedication and regular maintenance.

CA oak moth ~ 09/23/12 ~ Toro Park

Coming down through Wildcat Canyon, I found great swaths of dead-looking oaks, yellowish brown and upon closer inspection severely munched upon by oak moth caterpillars.  I don't think the folks who named the canyon had this kind of wild cat in mind.

Sounds of drops like gentle rain and tinkly crunchy chomping surrounded me.  The smell in this area was distinctive, too, but I can't easily describe it.  The trail and nearby ground were completely coated in greenish tan pellets.  Frass.  Caterpillar poop. And lots of it! The most I've ever seen... which really doesn't mean much considering I don't follow the fluctuating annual cycles of oak moth populations all that closely.  I believe there are people who use frass mass to estimate population densities, so my assertion isn't totally out of the blue.  This past spring, I did casually notice oak moths were on the wing in full force unusually early on with a second generation flying in June or July.  Unfortunately, I didn't take notes of the timing and my recollection isn't specific, only that it was significant enough that I commented to a couple of Monterey City forestry fellows at the local farmers' market how I predicted this was going to be a booming oak moth year.  They laughed me off and politely disagreed.

The few green leaves I found here had become veritable buffet lines for caterpillars. What surprised me was finding so many feeding on dead leaves. Their mandibles have got to be industrial strength to masticate crispy dried evergreen oak leaves.  There were plenty of dead caterpillars that simply looked dessicated, but there were also numerous dead caterpillars hanging by their first prolegs, a sure sign of a viral and/or bacterial infection.  Interestingly, I did not find a single chrysalis (yes, I use this term for moth pupa in addition to butterfly pupa, if it's not covered in hairs or silk and hangs by a stalk).  I wonder if this 3rd seasonal generation will successfully pupate and emerge in the next few weeks, or if this is an early sign of a natural population crash.

Even when everything else is dried up, live oaks usually remain green all year round.  I doubt the caterpillars were directly responsible for the dried oaks, because I suspect their heavy feeding did not actually kill the trees.  Our unusually mild winter with very little rain was gentle on last year's overwintering early instar caterpillars and also water stressed the oaks.  However, there were numerous other oaks in the park that were still green and with significant numbers of oak moth caterpillars.  There is a part of me that wonders if this area, easily accessible to group picnickers, had been hit by Sudden Oak Death or an Armillaria oak root rot fungi.  I will be curious to find out if these oaks have a fresh flush of green leaves after the rains hit.

I blogged about CA oak moths once before, which is an unexpectedly popular post.  I've linked to the UC IPM Online site for CA oakworms in the scientific name ID above, and I don't recall why I didn't include it in my previous oak moth post since it's chock full of great information. Also, while doing another oak moth search, I found this fellow blogger Garden Wise Guy's post to be quite entertaining.

ps 09/26/12 - Thanks to Cindy at Dipper Ranch who commented and always gets me thinking about things.  I have such a difficult time IDing trees, let alone the confusing complex of oaks. I've edited the post above to include the possibility that the oaks I saw were interior live oaks and the possibility the browned leaves were due to an oak root rot fungi.  I'll see what I can do about contacting the proper agencies to check into this, because SOD is closely monitored.