Wednesday, December 10, 2014

my 2014 project, part 2

December 10, 2014
(see also part 1)

It almost feels like spring, part deux, 9 months later.  For over a month now, fresh new green has sprouted up everywhere after a decent amount of rain.  There's a definite procession, which began with the ferns the first week of November.  Two weeks later the fiesta flowers started poking up with their weird white spots, exactly like they did back in February.  I'll be curious to see what'll happen to all this new green once the freezing temps start dropping in at night for the winter.

The obvious indicator that it's indeed December is the leaves are still turning colors and are still attached to the plants, especially the willows and blue oaks.  The buckeyes turned back in July, and the numerous browned gray pines are ones that died this 3rd year drought.  Curiously, I noticed this week that the blue oaks were mostly two stark contrasts (all green or all tan) after the recent rains (wind gusts < 17mph) and the knock-down of the remaining smattering of turned tan leaves, which began back in July (as a note, this visit was before the wind storm hit the next day, which maxed at a whopping 44mph).  What's going on?  Does SOD or similar affect blue oaks?  Or, are all the tan blue oaks dead like the pines due to drought?  Or, are there genetic variations to explain the differences? 

Oops, oh dear, maybe they aren't all blue oaks?  I did a cursory check to confirm blue oak, but I'll check again.  And, even then, who knows about the genetics?  Still, I double-check frequently, because my first impressions are not always correct and the repetition helps me learn.  It's because of distinctive color changes that I was able to quickly distinguish between valley oak and black oak from a distance at my Monterey Co. site while looking for broadleaf mistletoes and great purple hairstreaks, but it wasn't until my second visit that I double-checked and realized what I had been told and had assumed to be correct the first visit was not the case.  It really helps to see things through the seasons, because differences become obvious at different times.  I've enjoyed discovering these little lessons as they come up from the first-hand doing, rather than from other people's accounts (which are not always correct, either, or may vary depending on location).

When writing up my Nature ID posts the past several years, I noticed I tend to make assumptions (often false) based on what I find during a single visit to any location.  I suspect I am not the only one who does this.  Problem is with random and sporadic visits, I don't often know what I'm not finding and in what context.  Grunion Greeting taught me confirmed negative results provide just as valuable information as positive results.  And, I've found context is often location specific beyond any general habitat label.

Through the course of going to Pinnacles every week, I've become more regimented in what I record in photos and notes.  I'm improving my plant ID photos and making sure my step-back shots are actually informative of the immediate surroundings.  I have the history, week by week. Sometimes I don't notice something until it becomes glaringly obvious, but if I look back through my sampling photos, I can often pinpoint the week the event started happening or clearly ended.

Timing.  How do natural events time relative to each other?  How do natural events time to weather events?  How do natural events time over the course of years?  Art has an easy to understand page about phenology and climate from a butterfly bent.

It was almost accidental that I even started going to Pinnacles every week Tuesday through the end of August, because after my April 8 visit, I returned 2 days later April 10 with a Santa Clara Valley CNPS group (they're awesome!) and 1 week later April 15 with Paul and his kids (they're awesome, too!).  By the following week's April 22 Pinnacles visit, I started latching onto the idea of phenology.

So, then it became a choice of do I continue to go every week on the same day to try to standardize phenology observations, or do I follow typical butterfly monitoring protocols and go on the best predicted flight weather day (sunny, warm, not too windy) for each week?  Or, do I go every 2 weeks, like Art does in order to fit in his numerous sites?  Hey, back in April, I just wanted some regularity in my schedule to match Andy's school schedule.  So, I picked Tuesdays, because there are few visitors to the National Park midweek (it can get crazy crowded on the weekends).  Plus, Tuesdays are our local farmers' market night and it was lovely to meet Andy after school to get food-to-go when I was too tired to cook dinner after a long day of hiking in the heat (in all fairness, Andy cooks plenty).  Whatever schedule I pick has to be pleasant enough to make me want to do it for the next 20-25 years, because money isn't my primary motivating factor for this project (it's still a factor, just not the primary one).  Whether I actually make it that long is totally unknown, but if I don't set it up now in a way that works for me, I'll never make it.

I figured since this was my practice year, I could test out how variable weather affects my observations and going 1-2 times weekly provided more practice.  Practice, practice, practice makes perfect.  Little did I know at the time that it would not rain again for months.  However on windy days, the butterflies tucked themselves down on the ground or clung for dear life to nectar sources.  The wind and moving shadows seemed to serve as a sensory overload such that they mostly ignored my own moving shadow, which was great for getting auto-focused macro shots (like these from my Monterey Co. site).  That was a nice discovery.  On cloudier days, I focused more on learning the plants.  And on super hot days, the butterflies generally disappeared for a siesta by 1:00pm, which made me want to follow suit, too.  The hottest I stayed was a high of 106°F on September 12 at 2:45pm.  Oof.  I'm still amazed I acclimated so well to the heat, after almost passing out at only 82°F on March 19 when I went to the east side.  A wet cover shirt, a better sunhat, lots of drinking water, and a lighter lunch than my usual hiking fare made it possible.  And, I'm a bit more fit after all this hiking and healing time from my bike accident last year (carrying a backpack full of water and gear hurt my injured shoulder for days after, which makes me consider how I'll be in 20 years' time).

Actually, my initial butterfly plan was just to practice to the end of June, because quite honestly I didn't predict I could hack the heat in July and August.  Paul told me the butterflies disappear in those months, even though he shows quite a few on his multi-year stacked Park checklist (zoom to > 200% to see the shading).  I'm glad I continued to see what happens first-hand through the heat of the summer, like how the best way to spot territorial CA sisters high above is to look down on the ground for their shadows moving through the dappled oak shade, or like how the ringlets are smaller and lighter in color than earlier in the year (and even compared to my Monterey Co. site's late summer darker forms), or like my very first metalmark on August 19, which prompted me to continue visiting into autumn.  It's funny, because I'm starting to miss the hot summer heat.

Now that the weather is seriously turning, I already know I don't want to be out in pouring rain, not so much for myself since I like playing in the rain, but to keep my electronic equipment dry enough (at least, that's what I like to tell myself as an excuse, because I'm not as tough as I'd like to believe I am).  Plus, if the wind gets to be too much, that's just plain dangerous with falling trees, branches, and even hefty gray pine cones that could do serious bodily injury.  Like I did with weather forecast for high temps and cloud cover, I'll have to correlate the trend of predictions vs. actual for wind gusts and set a limit for when not to go out (it was often hotter than predicted 3 days out).  Despite the new cautions (summer snakes traded for falling pine cones), I'm now looking forward to winter at Pinnacles, which was never in my original butterfly plan.

After playing around with weekly timing starting in September, I suspect 7 days is too soon and 14 days is too long to really hit the best notching of the rate of change.  I'm guessing around 10 days would be best, but that's impractical with days that would hit on the crowded weekends. Observing butterflies and having a lot of disturbance from passing hikers is not an easy combination.  Variations in noted observations may be due to the distraction of human presence more than any changes in butterflies or plants, which is why I prefer not to have companions with me on my routes and I rarely engage anyone in conversation on the trails (I've overheard other hikers complain about me being so grumpy, ha!).  One thing that did occur to me is that in 20 years there will be many more visitors to the relatively new Pinnacles National Park (think Yosemite).  Paul helped out by pointing me to comparable canyons generally not accessed by the public, which in of itself could make an interesting study through time, less traveled vs. high traffic.  Besides, 10 days is mentally hard to compute with our week-based, monthly calendar system.  Real life limits my dream of a perfect data set.

What really surprised me this year is how Pinnacles goes through amazing color changes through the seasons, way more than I even suspected back in February 2012.  It's not subtle, which is a bigger contrast for me because I'm accustomed to year-round evergreen Monterey pines and coast live oaks against a constant blue-gray backdrop on the coast.   I've talked about the apparent seasonal nature of dominant flower colors before (here and here), and I think I can extend this concept to overall general color impression including the non-flower bits, too.  I make a big point of color in my notes, and I'm wondering how I might be able to utilize this in my project.  If I can consistently call it to code it, I can set it as a data point.  No?

What inspired me to think about color was having gone out to Fort Ord with David Styer, a local botanist and phenologist in his own right.  He's color blind, and I've been convinced this disability helps him distinguish plants better than most people (I just looked this up, and it's hinted at in the literature).  I know I'm sensitive to certain colors, and my camera picks up other colors.  Unfortunately, I don't have perfect color memory, so it could be a potential problem calling code when switching between lighting conditions and cameras, which may be necessary (equipment craps out, technology changes, etc.).

Speaking of cameras, I still haven't given up on Lytro, which is able to capture the entire light field and can be refocused after the fact.  I'll have to check to see if they've improved their software for macro shots (click anywhere on the photo to change the focal point).

Until then, my thought is to generally use two pocket cameras, one for macro and one for max zoom, for photo sampling.  I'm strictly thinking utilitarian, good enough to extract information. Remember, efficiency, and I'll need backup.   I have to cover a lot of ground and can't spend 20 minutes getting the perfect photo, and if a battery or camera dies halfway in, then that's a problem for a visit's worth of data (it's analogous to when it rained part way through a night's light trapping for the long-term moth survey, but several moths were still caught - what do you do with the data?  keep presence, ignore count and absence?  how?  throw it all out?)

I've also considered using a GoPro to record the drive down and back up the west side.  I think it'd be unreasonable to save the entire video footage every week for years, but if I could pull out set frames, then I could have an easier time of roadside photo series in order to call color changes across an elevation gradient, which I've discovered is much easier to spot along the road and in a series through time.  There's also the potential for photo recognition software. One thing I've noticed is the higher elevations on the road into the west side seem to run about 3-4 weeks ahead of down lower.  And based on discussions with Paul, the east and west sides are not synchronized or evenly offset, something I'd like to take a closer look at.  If nothing else, the weekly video could turn into an amazing art project of Pinnacles through the seasons.

I'm guessing it wouldn't be too difficult to index color to plant stage, particularly for obviously colorful plants like Pinnacles' prolific CA buckwheat.  USA NPN has 7 questions with 7 levels each including the no response, which seems inordinately cumbersome to me for only a single monitored plant, and I'd have to have someone show me what's considered their standard flower and fruit differentiations and their leveling estimates.  Oh, btw, their CA buckwheat description is incorrect (leaves 6 to 18 cm?).  I think I might be able to do better.  Maybe?

I'm hoping that after a couple years of doing this, I'll have grown an exhaustive list of markers to look for and have culled through them and picked ones of significance for long-term data collection.  I'm trying to keep an open mind about it all, taking one step at a time, following the path at my feet.  Sometimes when I hit a dead end, I need to backtrack and go down another path, which has been a challenge not to succumb to frustration and throw in the towel on the whole project.

To be continued.  Maybe?

Thursday, December 4, 2014

my 2014 project, part 1

December 4, 2014
(photo series)

I have now visited Pinnacles at least once every week for 35 weeks (8 months), a lot longer than I thought I would when I first set out to test some ideas.  It's either been a massive waste of everybody's time and gas for a midlife crisis fantasy, or I'm onto something brilliant... maybe? Sigh.

I'm hoping to face a fear head-on.  I'm not the best self-evaluator, so I figured I could use my blog space to practice writing out my ideas, reasonings, and discoveries, which for the most part I haven't shared with too many people.  I tend to be oversensitive to any perceived criticism, because I already feel like I'm not up to par.  I understand many female graduate students also feel this imposter syndrome, which is partly why I shied away from graduate school back when I had the chance, even though I was a straight-A student through college.  I swing from periods of inflated ego to crushing self-doubt, which is not very easy to live with.  Eh-hem.  Andy has been encouraging, but even he admits he can't follow all the details.  I'm pretty sure there are a few of you who might find this interesting.  For others, it's probably all a total navel-gazing bore, especially without the standard-issue plethora of pretty pictures.  You've been warned.  I'm shifting gears on Nature ID.  As always, I welcome feedback via public comments or private email.

This project basically started formulating during my February 25 Pinnacles visit, after Art Shapiro challenged me to "Go find them!" with regards to a butterfly I had asked about.  Around the same time I was meeting up with fellow nature bloggers and observing what they do for a living behind their public blog personas.  I was intrigued, because I recently had a couple crappy job interviews and was basically disappointed in the work options locally available to me.  I'm not willing to relocate, and I don't want to commute more than half an hour away.  It's a quality of life decision for me.  Then it occurred to me, why don't I create the job I want.  Why not?  This sense of I want to do something new, something yet undefined, something of my own creation took a month to incubate while I obsessed over my discovery that Annaphila day-flying moths look remarkably like jumping spiders.  I have Paul Johnson to thank for sharing his enthusiasm and extensive knowledge of Pinnacles.

It was during a second Pinnacles visit on March 9 that I started discussing these thoughts with Andy, my favorite person and life partner.  A passion project like this and its inherent financial uncertainty will affect him as much as me.  As a couple, we've gone from being DINKs, traveling for work to New York and Boston (me, educational publishing) and India (him, dot-com customer service) and traveling for fun, like a 5-week vacation in New Zealand, through job changes, lay offs, and returning to school (him, teaching credential), to living like college students again, solely on a teacher's salary.  I watched Andy reinvent himself and do something he always thought he wanted to do.  Come to find out, he loves teaching (not everybody does).  I'm proud of him... and, I'm envious.  I want to love what I do, too. 

We've been extreme about cutting down our expenses to make budget, especially when compared to some of our compatriots who are struggling under mounds of debt (hey, it's the financial times we live in).  We don't have children, which makes things easier.  We decided it was better to make just enough to be happy by being clear about our needs vs. wants, rather than to be stressed and grouchy spending all our life's time and energy working at things we don't even like doing and going after more money (it's the new god, unless you live in Bhutan) just to keep up appearances, which is ironic.  For the most part, we still live a good life.  I'm thankful.  However, we're not quite at enough to be comfortable and build a nest egg for potential poor health and/or old age, which is the responsible thing to do.  The question for me then becomes, do I gamble our financial future with the hopes that someday I will make some money, somehow, by doing what I love?  Remember, crushing self-doubt.  Ugh.  Andy is totally open to whatever possibilities and refuses to be my excuse for why I don't do something.  Dang him.  Ha!

I am not an expert at much of anything, but I'd like to be.  Eventually.  I figure I have 20-25 good working years left in me to get there.  When I've sent inquiries around for Nature ID, I've been fascinated how so many people reply with, "I'm not an expert, but..."  It's curious.  I've also noted when people reply with things that can be found in most any decent reference book, or second-hand from someone else, or from first-hand experience.  The second-hand accounts are fascinating, because so much miscommunication and misunderstanding happens, that what gets translated ends up being the game of telephone.  I'm totally guilty of doing that in casual conversations, and I try to avoid it as much as possible on Nature ID (see my copyright notice at the bottom of all my pages).  I have indeed found true experts in their fields, and most are past retirement age.  So, now is the time to pick their brains before death or dementia.  That sounds harsh, but it happens.  In my mind, the way to become an expert is not to regurgitate someone else's account, but to experience it first-hand over the course of years. Actually do it, experience it, study it, know it. Gotta start somewhere. And, I am. 

On April 8 I began the first of what was to become many consecutive weekly Pinnacles visits.  I started out with a vague notion to do a long-term butterfly monitoring project along my butterfly highway (a term I coined back in May of 2010).  For those that don't know, in a previous life I assisted in the establishment years of The Ohio Leps' Long-term Monitoring of Butterflies and I co-authored a handful of papers from a long-term moth survey.  That experience helped create and shape the peculiar format of Nature ID.  For someone who jokes about rain curses and rarely plans beyond a week, long-term monitoring programs have both intrigued and tormented me.

My plan was to address the design flaws I've observed in other programs and see if I could set up my own strict methods from the get-go to avoid the statistical issues that bubble to the surface when theory meets the reality of actual long-term data sets.  This was a problem that stumped me 15 years ago when I failed to publish on the field effects of Btk and the then experimental Gypchek within the framework of Sonja's 10-year regional moth survey.  I thought I was too stupid to figure it out.  Come to find out, it's really, really hard to do.  New stats tools are now being invented just to get a handle on the long-term data sets.  Art pointed out I don't have to do it all and suggested I team up with someone who digs the stats, like he does with his collaborators.  There are questions that have haunted me for a very long time, and it's amazing that enough time has passed that other people are now looking at them, too.  I no longer feel so alone in the not knowing.

By practicing methods every week, I discovered a tenable butterfly monitoring project is at least 2-3 years down the road for me... um, if ever.  My initial plan was to practice this year and get it officially going in 2015.  Ha!  I'm simply not familiar enough with the local butterflies, which took me a while to admit to myself (remember, ego), and indeed this year was the first time I saw many of them.  I need several more seasons to observe them.  This relatively long set-up period, which coincidentally does not fit well into any standard graduate school time-frame (3-5 years just to begin + 10 years minimum for actual data collecting), is standard among those who have designed long-term projects (Sonja, Mark, Art, Matt, etc.), a fact that I forgot about while I felt pressured by my site contacts to start right away.  And, yes, money also factors into getting started sooner rather than later.  I'm suspicious of anyone who claims they can ID by sight even half of the butterflies they see right out the gate.  It's also why I'm not a big fan of organized counts for the general public, which are great for PR, but they also fool folks into believing they're collecting better information than they really are.  I worry it takes citizen science down the wrong path.

Also lurking in the background is the genetics issues.  There are enough examples of mimicry that visual-only IDs are always going to be suspect.  And, as much as I've tried to convince myself that I must, I simply do not want to collect specimens.  Period.  I know, I know, pretty butterflies are basically just bugs, as the local guys like to tease me.  I don't think I'm that kind of soft, frou-frou girl.  For me, the not collecting part has more to do with the fact I'm a lazy lepidopterist.  I don't like having to carry a net on long hikes through tall grass and burrs that stick and tangle (particularly bad on former grazing land) for only a couple samples, and while envelopes are sufficient, killing jars are preferred for the quality of the final specimens.  Yah, I can see myself inadvertently gassing myself in 100+ degree heat.  Oof.  Paul claims he can chill his with ice packs, but I wonder about the effect of condensation and jostling on the final specimens.  Then there's the pinning and spreading and storing away from other bugs that like to eat dead, dried bugs and more chemicals.  Been there, done that, and I don't want to do it anymore.  Besides being boringly tedious, I don't want to kill for a living.  Plus, I've seen one too many entomologists end up with neurological damage from exposure to the chemicals of the profession.  Erm, not really for me.  No thanks.  I might be convinced to selectively collect if another researcher is actively needing specimens for a current genetics project (that rumor about only needing a foot is hogwash; the thorax is used and the reality is you need to keep the entire specimen for documentation; problem is no one ever double-checks anyways).  Otherwise, collecting for some day in the future with the hope someone unknown might eventually look at the specimens has shown to be a modern-day burden and a million dollar challenge in the museum world.

As for the practice part, I tried various modifications of the standard Pollard walk (set-box, multiple-set boxes, as far as the eye can comfortably see, passive pace, active disturbance, etc.).  I also used macro shots and zoom shots (tested from a couple different pocket cameras) as replacement for using a net to catch actual specimens.  I think I have a better success rate with pictures.  Plus, they offer a decent indication as to actual wear and tear of the individual to estimate the age of the adult, rather than any wear and tear from sloppy netting and specimen prep.  Have you ever tried catching a fleeting butterfly with a net over rough terrain?  Ha, good luck!  Better watch out for snakes, too.  I also examined my own presence/absence numbers compared to actual count or some combination thereof on various set trails, because the reality is I have to be extraordinarily efficient during the prime butterfly flight window (usually 10:30am-2:30pm at Pinnacles) if I am to cover enough representative ground.  And, I looked at first flight accounts under the framework of climate change (note to self: check whether the few univoltine autumnal species are ignored in first flight winter-spring month studies, since Pinnacles has a whopping fall metalmark population).

Aha!  Climate change.

As has been pointed out to me many times, Pinnacles, at 40 miles inland, isn't exactly right next to where I live along the Monterey Bay.  A once a week visit breaks out to a standard 16-minute commute, which is totally doable.  I could even visit twice a week and essentially meet my half-hour commute requirement.  I adore the drive to the west side, because the farmland I pass through reminds me of my favorite parts of childhood.  Unfortunately, driving to the east side is not nearly as pleasant through a very dangerous section of Hwy 101, and it's made me rule out observing that side of the Park with any regularity.  I'm keeping open the possibility that if I get my methods down pat, I might be able to train someone to do the east side.  The thing that makes Pinnacles ideal for me is that it's different enough climatically from home that when I go once a week, I believe I can note distinct changes better than someone who lives immersed in the gradual daily changes.  Does that make sense?  I become a better monitor by not actually living there, which conversely makes any monitoring closer to where I live a bit harder to record as well.

I've taken copious pictures and notes of changes along timed and GPS-marked trail sections, all the while brainstorming for ideas.  Initially, I focused on learning the local butterflies by practicing the previously mentioned modified Pollard walks.  Then, it became clear to me that I need to know the plants just as well as the bugs that feed on them.  As Paul pointed out, lepidopteran host plants are often not the brightly flowered ones that catch my attention (my fave delphiniums are useless to leps), which was a bit of a shift in thinking for me.  Many butterfly enthusiasts have no clue about the plants, and I'll admit I was one of them.  I'm working on correcting that.  Funny thing, after staring at tiny 1/2 inch butterflies that look alike, plants are a piece of cake to ID in relative comparison.  Plus, plants don't move, unless it's windy.  As the seasons progressed, I also noted other easy to observe events as they came up, e.g., the status of surface water in the creek beds, the timing of cicada and cricket calls, the mating flights of ants and termites, and the arrival and departure of select birds and mammals.  I did a cursory preview of the USA National Phenology Network, but I find their protocols to be a bit cumbersome.  I believe I have the potential to carry out an amazing long-term phenology project, but I'm still not clear how to shape this into a more formal project.  Yet.

To be continued...

Sunday, November 30, 2014

naming nature

Art sent me a book under the guise of my non-birthday last year.  It's Naming Nature: The Clash Between Instinct and Science by Carol Kaesuk Yoon.  I'm not a big reader, so it sat on my shelf for 9 months until Andy and I went to a cabin for holiday this spring (read: no internet, no tv, no phone).  Naming Nature made sense to me at the time and provided a good historical summary, most of which I've long forgotten the details.  I also took along my perennial favorite Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver, which I read through twice (it's total book candy) while it rained.

Given my recent discovery of my own religious-based beliefs still lurking about in the grey matter, I think it's time to give Carol's Naming Nature another read through.  Let's see what will stick this time around under a refocused lens of understanding.

I'm guessing my written lines from my last blog post's edit, "As humans, I think we have an instinctive need to identify things, although our ability to do so is not always intuitive.  What are you?  It's in our nature." came directly from having read Carol's book.  It's funny how the mind works.

Art and Jim also sent me several scientific papers, a book chapter, and a dissertation all covering related topics on speciation, subspeciation, the molecular phylogentics of Eriogonum, and the issues that arise when taxonomy meets law.  I'll admit to being a bit intimidated by the technical details that read like Greek to me, and that's one of the points of Carol's book of how science, as it's practiced today, is largely out of reach to the average Joe.

One of the goals that I set out for Nature ID was to invite folks to "learn along with me."  Despite the foolishness I've displayed as of late, that invitation still stands.  Take a look at the book if you want (I recommend it), and feel free to comment.

ps - Has anyone else noticed their reading comprehension is easier from a printed physical page compared to an electronic pdf?  I'm loathed to print out so much paper, but...  I wonder if this holds true for kids growing up in the digital age who are learning to read primarily from computer screens?

Monday, November 17, 2014

of buckwheats and butterflies

Eriogonum parvifolium (var. parvifolium)

edited 11/25/14 -  I've made a public fool of myself.  And, I'm okay with that.  Sharing my journey may help someone else learn something new about themselves, or about the world around them.  Sincere apologies to those who have read through my numerous emotional incarnations of pure drivel as I worked all of this out in a very public space.  I do thank you for your time.

The embarrassing kicker is that my experience could be the perfect demonstration, p-e-r-f-e-c-t, of the perils of ID based on observable traits.  Art Shapiro kindly pointed out to me, "Your essay is no surprise to me. Laypeople often think taxonomy is just naming and identifying distinct entities in Nature (for the religious, add "as created by God"). Well, it ain't. DNA sequencing has underscored that! I've been teaching students since 1972 that "if species weren't messy, we'd have no reason to believe in evolution." Subspecies are even worse. In the heyday of the Neo-Darwinian Synthesis, taxonomic subspecies were viewed as species in statu nascendi. Some folks understood way back then that being recognizable to a taxonomist had no necessary implications regarding genomic differentiation. Now we KNOW that. Do you want me to go on?!"

I read this last night, and it made absolutely no sense to me.  Then, it hit me how I've been understanding all along that Art's got some bugs in his 40+ year transects that look nearly identical, but are not the sameI know this.  He also sent me one of Jim Reveal's old papers about the amazing sequential evolution between butterflies and their host plants...  Oh, my God!  How could I have been so blind?  It's fascinating to look at my own deep-seated beliefs compared to what I think I know intellectually.  They don't match!  It's crazy making.  I was at a point of complete frustration, and I'm glad Art spoke up in such a direct way.  Maybe other people have been telling me all along, and I just haven't been listening?

I can't believe I never saw this before, because I'm fairly self-reflective.  I've always considered myself firmly in the evolution camp ever since my junior year of high school (1987-1988), and a handful of us asked our Mormon AP biology teacher for his opinions of evolution vs. creationism (now disguised as intelligent design), which had been the topic of a recent US Supreme Court ruling (Edwards v. Aguillard).  To be honest, I hadn't given this much thought since then, even though my college degree is in the sciences.  You'd think I'd know better.  However, I was raised in a conservative Christian family (the 700 Club, laying of hands, speaking in tongues, no drinking alcohol, no secular music in the house, no reading LOTR, etc.).  I'm definitely not that way today, but it's funny how the cultural beliefs of the people I've been around have seeped into my subconscious.  It's ironic for a blog titled Nature ID, as in identification, not intelligent design.  Have I been subtextually promoting intelligent design?  This was never my intention.  I need to reevaluate.

Art sent me a follow-up e-mail that explains things pretty well for me.  I've edited it for brevity. He says, "...we have learned in the era of "barcoding" (if you're unfamiliar with it, search the term) that the number of apparent genetic species is often larger than the number of taxonomic species, because cryptic or "sibling" species are often concealed by one phenotype. That is, the phenotype has been constant while the genome overall has changed a LOT. Surprise! Here's a bird example--a bird!  ...The whole thing started with butterflies, but it has now expanded to everything (my naming usage follows the genetics for herps). On the other hand, taxonomic subspecies may be dramatically different in phenotype, but virtually identical genomically, because those conspicuous differences are caused by just a few genes under strong selection, superimposed on a constant genetic background..."  Wow.  Just wow.  My mind is blown as to how I knew about this, yet haven't actually applied it to my hobby cum citizen science project turned hopeful serious science project that can be peer-reviewed and funded.

So, does anyone know who is currently doing the DNA on buckwheats in CA?  Is this buckwheat genetically different than the one Smith's needs, even though its superficial physical characteristics match what's found right along the coast?  I'm still curious to see if the buckwheat(s) that Smith's actually uses (or can use in situ, with potential drawbacks) is the one that's being planted for mitigation as it's currently practiced.  I owe the two CNPS authors an apology for making such a fuss (but not for pointing out their error - I wish I could be more diplomatic).  I'll have to ask around if anyone has already tested this idea, because I'm not sure the authors know themselves.  Otherwise, wouldn't they have just pointed that out, instead of hanging their hat on the amount of hairiness?  Does anyone know?

With this kind of potential discrepancy, how can we use physical features and observations in the field and for what purpose?  How do we separate what we see with what we know is continually changing and evolving?  How do we assign names to each defined entity for the sole purpose of clear communication?  Have we lost the original definitions and intent of common names vs. scientific names in the age of digital photographs, online sharing, and public outreach in the form of organized counts and BioBlitzs?  Are field guides (and all their online incarnations) really just a 1950's era hobby that have little to no basis in science as we understand it today?  Do they keep the layperson lay?  Eh, maybe some of these questions are too much of an exaggeration, but is there truth in there as well?

As humans, I think we have an instinctive need to identify things, although our ability to do so is not always intuitive.  What are you?  It's in our nature.  Maybe I want to stay lay, because I've been having so much fun tacking on names to everything?  It's like a game.  Heavy, heavy sigh. I'm going to leave my post below as I had last edited it (including the incidental original religious references and the late ps) as a true testament to the perils of ID from a layperson who got led astray by her own righteous beliefs as she tried to find her way back to science on her own.  Ha!

~   ~   ~   ~   ~   ~   ~   ~   ~   ~   ~   ~   ~   ~   ~   ~   ~   ~

Seacliff buckwheat was my very first buckwheat ID on Nature ID.  I've come a long way since then in learning about the local nature.  As you know, I rely on photographs rather than keys for most of my IDs.  I believe my process and methodologies have served me well in the 5 1/2 years I've been doing this blog, specifically designed to be my personal learning tool.  I've been able to quickly recognize seacliff buckwheat ever since this spring with my numerous casual trips down the coast, looking to learn the local buckwheats and butterflies.  It's a common native plant around here.  And, it has caused me more headache than you can possibly imagine. 

To me, this shrub's leaves have a distinctive cobwebbiness to the topside (adaxial - with a 'd', as in dorsal) that can sometimes look like it's been partially rubbed off to a shoeshine, and underneath (abaxial - with a 'b', as in belly) there's a thick cottony felting that can sometimes be so thick it extends down the woody stem.  It just has a look that is much easier to recognize than it is to describe in words.  Granted, there are at least two forms I recognize around here, this one shown here with the narrow-arrow leaves (Mortuary Beach) and another one with really fat/wide round leaves mainly from online photos and a vague recollection of having seen it adjacent to the ocean (Point Lobos, Asilomar, gardens?).  If I were to assign a common name to each form, this narrow-arrow one I would call seacliff buckwheat (I find it really does grow on steep hillsides that have any hint of marine influence, i.e. right up from the water to extending inland at least 12 miles or more), and the round one I would call dune buckwheat.  Neither shrub form should be confused with the similarly-and-confusingly-named perennial herb coast buckwheat, aka seaside buckwheat (E. latifolium), a common mistake that I've noticed online. This is all fine and good that I can recognize these by sight.  However...

Through a series of communications for my research permit application as required as part of my agreement with my Monterey Co. butterfly site (not Garland Ranch), it's come to my attention that the local CNPS folks believe this is CA buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum) and more specifically, var. foliolosum.  Nope.  I went back and checked their local field guide, their CNPS-endorsed website, and a draft that was sent to me of the Monterey Co. wildflower bible revision that one of them is updating.  They are correct in recognizing the rounder form as dune, which is fine.  But, I can clearly see they have the mistaken impression this narrow-arrow form of seacliff buckwheat (E. parvifolium) is CA buckwheat (E. fasiculatum), two different species.

In my experience, that multi-toned pink, tight pom-pom shape they show in their "CA buckwheat" photos is distinctive of the mature summer season's seacliff buckwheat, and I have never seen that flower head on CA buckwheat, which tends to be looser in shape (ex. of comparable summer season CA buckwheat).  I asked around and have been informed by people who have grown buckwheats for decades that these two species do not hybridize.  I specifically went to Terrace Trail at Garland Ranch's Garzas Creek access on 11/17/14 just to take these diagnostic photos (see also at the bottom of this post), because this is the location I was told by one of the CNPS authors where he's found CA buckwheat.   I was fully prepared to find CA buckwheat (and actually hoping!), but I didn't.  I found this narrow-arrow seacliff buckwheat, instead.

The Garland Ranch wildflower field guide has been very useful to me as I learn the local plants.  I make no qualms that it's well-designed and one of the best ones available for our area.  I would recommend it to anyone interested in local wildflowers.  With that said, I do think the authors' mistake makes it impossible for anyone to ID the local buckwheats by using their guides.  What I've seen of the wildflower bible revision draft, which is a CNPS publication, is misleading and could be improved.  I hope they get that fixed, but not likely.  I tried my best to explain and provide evidence as to why I think their ID isn't right, but they maintain they're correct in calling it "CA buckwheat".

Here's the thing, I have been staring at real CA buckwheat at Pinnacles every single week going on 8 months now and looking at thousands of my own pictures and others' online of CA buckwheat from all over the place.  While I still may not always be able to distinguish Pinnacles' var. foliolosum (the local CNPS ID, btw) against var. polifolium, I know CA buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum) to species, in person and in photographs, through the seasons.

I've also consulted with photo-documentarians for the Eriogonum Society, the National Park Service, and CalPhotos.  Even if they're unfamiliar with seacliff, they have confirmed it is not likely CA buckwheat, which is more common and familiar in SoCal.  I've been utterly amazed at how many people don't actually know how to distinguish buckwheats (or are not willing to say on record). Hey, I don't know all of them either, but a handful of the larger local buckwheats are really obvious to me now that I made it my mission to learn the local buckwheats this year.

Given the continuing disagreement over this ID, I had to seriously consider the possibility that the local CNPS authors could be correct in their determination, especially considering one is revising the local wildflower bible and many people defer to their opinions, including the folks at my Monterey Co. butterfly site.  Their insistence made me question my own observations, because I know I make mistakes, too.  For my own peace of mind, I needed to double-check what I felt I already intuitively knew, so I took the time to research the keys and figure out the dizzying array of taxonomic terms.

Basically, it boils down to leaf shape.  Simple as that.  When keying to species (not variety) between the two, forget what you hear about amount of fasciculation or hairiness/tomentoseness (remember, hard to describe in words).  The Jepson eFlora keys out E. fasciculatum at 60/60' with "Leaf blades narrowly linear to oblanceolate".  Additionally, eFloras of North America keys out similarly at 20/+ with an additional statement under the species description for E. parvifolium, "blade lanceolate to round".  Linear and round are pretty obvious, and the above is neither.  Now, google images or take a look at this exaggerated graphic between lanceolate and oblanceolate.  The leaf shown above is clearly lanceolate (aka narrow-arrow), therefore E. parvifolium.

I also reached out to Jim Reveal, the author of Eriogonum.  For additional reference, here are his original descriptions, from which I believe most every key depends for EriogonumE. fasciculatum and E. parvifolium E. parvifolium has not been keyed out into varieties, and Jim told me he doesn't officially recognize them.  With that said, there were certain forms or phases he did recognize in the past, until he was shown examples that completely graded with each other.  For my own edification, here's how I understand it: var. parvifolium ("thickened leaf blades" and "compact clusters of involucres containing white to rose flowers", this is the narrow-arrow form I find common around here in the wild), var. crassifolium ("compact and dense mat-forming", is this a round one found in the sand? I don't know), var. lucidum ("yellow flowers" with round leaves, also found here with a white phase, too, according to Jim), and var. paynei ("white-flowered inflorescences", and "more graceful habit", found down in Ventura Co. and is supposed to be large).  I'm guessing this elegant white phase shown here on Terrace Trail at Garland Ranch may just be how "var. parvifolium" grows in protected, shadier places, because it has the same leaf shape as the shrubbier pinker one I find on exposed sunny hillsides that Jim confirmed the ID for me via my photos.  Again, seacliff buckwheat varieties are not formally recognized.

So, why is this plant such a big, huge, deal for me to go to all this trouble?  

Six words: the federally endangered Smith's blue butterfly.  The seacliff buckwheat (Eriogonum parvifolium) is its host plant.  There is only one person in the entire country who has ever been granted a permit to study this butterfly and in essence even be around seacliff buckwheat for research purposes (I may be exaggerating slightly, but you get the picture).  While I'm sure he's done a lot of good, he's also made quite a tidy business over his legally-mandated monopoly.

The fact of the matter is, there are very few people who could see a blue butterfly and know it is or is not Smith's.  I believe I could eventually tell, only if I could be allowed to get close enough and take enough photographs as absolute substitutes for physical specimens.  It's worked for me with buckwheats, why can't it work for me for butterflies?  Gotta start somewhere for baseline info.  Let someone else do a specific collection to work out the genitalia and genetics if anything unusual is seen.  I've heard that merely taking photographs of this endangered butterfly can be considered as "take" by the USFWS, a strict no-no.  Sigh.  It sure seems silly that the very laws created to protect an animal keep us from learning more about it.  Something is seriously broken in the system.

Hey, I'm not even particularly interested in Smith's, but I discovered seacliff buckwheat is the dominant native nectar source for butterflies at my Monterey Co. site (again, not Garland Ranch).  I can't study the other butterflies without getting near Smith's listed host plant, and if they are there, either in flight or potentially trampling over delicate pupae around the buckwheat bushes.  I wonder if we might even have one of the square-spotted blues (Euphilotes battoides) in the area, which isn't reported for anywhere near here, but that may be because no one admits to looking close enough over fear of Smith's restrictions.  They do look a lot alike.  The selfish solution for me is to see Smith's delisted, but it's all entangled with political and financial motives. 

The federal permitting process for Smith's is essentially non-existent and shrouded with stories of how impossible it is to jump through the hoops to meet their requirements.  They require experience to get the permit, but no one can get the experience without the permit or threat of jail and financial ruin.  Catch 22.  From several people, I've heard hushed horror stories about closet lepidopterists who live in fear and flatly refuse to cooperate with other researchers over concerns of being raided by federal agents.  I have no way of knowing if any of these stories are actually true.

These stories not only hamper research to learn more about this rare butterfly, they may also hamper the information made available about its host plant.  I figure there must be some antiquated law about not being able to update listings based on new findings.  Gordon Pratt believes the listed species (Euphilotes enoptes smithi) is not the one that's actually rare, but he told me he was talked out of delisting by the USFWS.  Smith's close relative (Euphilotes enoptes arenacola), which he helped describe, that feeds on coast buckwheat (E. latifolium) in a small sandy area in Marina is the one that he believes is truly endangered, and Smith's law protects it, too.  Likewise, I wonder if there was pressure on Jim Reveal to not reveal (pun!) his buckwheat variety designations, because it would further complicate the listed identity of several endangered butterfly host plants.  I asked him directly, but his answer shed little light on the question.  The reason why I came to this conclusion is because Jim goes into such mind-boggling detail for the various buckwheats and their varieties (case in point, sulphur buckwheat/E. umbellatum has 45 keyed varieties as of 2002), and yet for the seaclifff (E. parvifolium) and coast (E. latifolium), nothing, nada.  They are as they are, no variety designations, even though there's obviously different forms.  You'll notice that both of these buckwheats are host plants for endangered butterflies (real or listed).  Or, maybe even he can't get a research permit to study the plants that the endangered butterflies need?  I don't know, but there's gotta be more to the story.  I believe this lack of variety designations for seacliff, when there are so many for other buckwheats, confuses a lot of good plant people who may only be familiar with the round dune version. 

So, maybe Smith's blue is a common butterfly around here, who's to truly say?  Without hardly trying, I have twice found the earliest seasonal record for Smith's blue, once in 2003 and again this year 2014, the only two years I've gone down the coast with the specific purpose to look for various butterflies (hey, I've been busy pursuing other interests in the intervening 10 years).  I personally suspect Smith's is way more common than anyone realizes considering the locally recognized "CA buckwheat" is actually seacliff buckwheat.  Maybe people haven't been looking in the right places for the butterfly?  In any case, I imagine there might be some wealthy landowners out there who were relieved to find out they had "CA buckwheat" and not seacliff buckwheat on their property when it came time to do their EIRs before they developed.  Eh-hem.

On the flip side, I have a hunch CA buckwheat (E. fasciculatum) in Monterey Co. is not as common as is reported by the local CNPS chapter, unless it's found along the highway where it's been planted by Caltrans and maybe further south towards SLO.  eFloras also cautions that var. foliolosum is, "a potentially aggressive weedy shrub, efforts should be made to curtail its introduction into areas outside its native range."  I worry that good-intentioned native gardeners, seeing it listed as occurring here, will plant the not-native to this area weedy CA buckwheat, where it could easily escape and compete with the locally native seacliff buckwheat.

Most importantly, the narrow-arrow form that is mistaken in our local books for "CA buckwheat" is, in fact, the seacliff buckwheat form that I have personally seen Smith's blue on and is in all the photographs I can find online where the butterfly is actually on the plant.  Yet, when E. parvifolium is shown without the butterfly for illustrative purposes of the reported host plant, the round shape is chosen to be used.  Peculiar and possibly misleading.  I'm thinking that's because the round dune form is the one people first think of for E. parvifolium, very likely due to the famous El Segundo blue's round dune use down south, which had a spectacular CA buckwheat fail.  I worry folks are planting the round dune up here as part of mitigation based on the El Segundo experience, when really the narrow-arrow is what Smith's uses.  And, that's not to imply all narrow-arrows are used by Smith's. So, if anyone needed to do restoration or mitigation work as required by law, they'd be pulling out the narrow-arrow seacliff buckwheat fully believing it's the weedy "CA buckwheat" and planting the round dune form, which could possibly be the wrong seacliff buckwheat form for Smith's.  I'll admit, I don't actually know if this happens here with Smith's, but who does?  

It would have worked in my favor if this really had been CA buckwheat.  Despite my desire to be correct, I was actually hoping I was wrong, because then I'd have no need to apply for a federal permit for my butterfly site.  Problem solved.  But, I'm not okay continuing to call it "CA buckwheat" just because other people say so.  That's just bad research.  If I had only kept quiet, I might have been able to make nice-nice with the local CNPS folks.  Although, at this point, with the way they dismissed all my research and documentation, I don't feel they have earned, nor deserved, my trust.  I'll admit, I made a bit of a fuss as I was attempting to get them to see reason.  I can be very pushy in getting things correct, and it does not do me any favors in winning over people.  I've pretty much burned that bridge.  Erm... torched?  

Such as it is, imagine for a minute, the ripple effect this simple ID error has... 

Their expert plant advice (books, online, in person) is probably followed by many environmental consultants who do EIRs and restoration-type work (if you believe they know better, I have a burnt bridge to sell you), who then also mistake this buckwheat ID, which ends up determining the fate of the land all based on a plant name, potentially costing millions of dollars (or making others billions of dollars), and all to the detriment of the very butterfly we're trying to save from extinction.   

This is important!  Does any of this make any sense to anyone besides me?

I sincerely thought I was helping by pointing out a simple correction, like I do all the time when I look up stuff for Nature ID (most people are appreciative).  However, it does beg the question why these old guys, who are no more botanists than I am (they're two fellows with a lot of money who moved here from far away places for retirement), are so adamant that I'm wrong with barely an explanation.  This is not a fight I'm up for.  I wish I could continue with my butterfly studies at my Monterey Co. butterfly site, even if I avoided the seacliff buckwheat like the plague and went searching the brambles for Nymphalids (don't think I haven't thought of this), unfortunately, by doing so, I would not be able to honor the spirit and intent of my private land access agreement. 

As it is, I may have to completely abandon my grand plan to have a companion Monterey Co. butterfly research site in conjunction with my Pinnacles one in San Benito Co., two sites on roughly the same latitude and with similar elevation changes, with similar historical and current cattle land usage, with two native butterfly-pleasing shrubby buckwheats, one cool coastal and one hot, hot, hot, to monitor as the climate changes for the next 20+ years, the rest of my life. Wouldn't that be an incredible data set!?!  

Unfortunately, I'm facing the reality that I will not likely be granted a federal permit anytime soon.  Even if I did manage to get one by some miracle, I would still have to fight the local transplants.  Quite frankly, I feel utterly defeated over this issue and how complicated it got rather quickly.  This has significant personal implications for me, far beyond a simple plant ID or a couple rare butterflies. Have I been overly dramatic?  Sure.  Sob.  At the very least, this hullabaloo has made me rethink my plans and scale down, way down.

Terrace Trail - Garland Ranch - Garzas Creek

Again, I specifically went to Terrace Trail, because this is the location I was told by one of the CNPS authors where he's found CA buckwheat for his field guide.  This is the only type of buckwheat I found on the hillside.  Eh, there might have been an herbaceous buckwheat tucked in there, but remember, I went looking for shrubs.

The photographs below were taken as part of my ongoing effort to better document plants without the need to clip a specimen, bag it, press it, store it for perpetuity who knows where. And, at the point we're taking photographs of dried, dead specimens, wouldn't photos of the living work just as well, or even better?  I feel the same about butterflies, too, and had hoped my method could have been a possible avenue to get federal permit approval.  With the quality of macro-photography these days, I think we need to evolve past collecting things to be hidden away in closets (or for those wary of dermestids and moth balls, in freezers).  Plus, photos are so much easier to share and get feedback.

it's November, so the flower selection is sparse

Does anyone know the name of the stringy brown nest-looking stuff found at the base of the bundled perianths on older buckwheat flower heads (last photo here)?

variety of leaf shapes, from roundish to narrow-arrow to superficially linear 
(must look at individual leaf to really make that determination)

contrary to what the local bible says, I believe seacliff is often fasciculate

one last look at overall form and appearance
(note V-shaped cyme with flower clusters half-way up)

ps - For the evolutionary biologists out there who have a valid criticism that I'm focusing too much on names (man-made construct), when speciation (natural) is in constant flux, I'll concede this post does read like that.  Funnily enough, the names are in flux, too.  Like I've said before, I don't really have the writing skill or vocabulary to describe what I'm seeing, hence, why my photos have served me well. For once on Nature ID, the point of this post is decidedly not about the names in of themselves. Rather, it's precisely because of the confusion over those names that the issue described here becomes real in practical application.

To put it another way, it may be best to substitute species names and varieties (and all the baggage that entails) and simply label each entity as a snapshot in time.  BugX feeds on PlantA.  BugX does not feed on PlantB, nor on PlantC.  Human1 groups PlantA and PlantB together and calls it Plant AB.  Human2 sees PlantB, and calls it PlantAB.  Human2 also sees plant A, does not know Human1 includes it in PlantAB, and then calls it PlantC, for lack of a better alternative.  Human3 wants to save BugX.  Human3 reads that BugX feeds on PlantAB and to remove competing PlantC.  Human3 uses Human2's labels.  Human3 plants more H2's PlantAB (PlantB) and removes H2's plantC (PlantA).  PlantB and PlantC thrive.  BugX no longer has PlantA to feed on.  BugX is not saved.

Does this help explain?  As a repeat reference that helped get me thinking along these lines:
"On the Perils of Ecological Restoration: Lessons from the El Segundo Blue Butterfly".

Saturday, November 15, 2014

habitat ~ 11/15/14 ~ Fort Ord National Monument - Creekside

Fort Ord National Monument - Creekside entrance
November 15, 2014

It feels like forever since I've been out to Fort Ord, mainly because I've been focusing on my butterfly sites, which leaves me too exhausted to do more hiking elsewhere.  Plus, it's been unbearably dry.  Andy hasn't been trail running out here much this year, either.  We enjoyed the recent rains (last one on Thursday 11/13/14), and we were hoping to see our coastal version of early winter "spring green".  Sure enough, Creekside delivered in the form of freshly sprouted fiesta flower leaves under the oaks.  There's something so soothing and welcoming to see soft green again.  Yep, this is what November looks like here on the central coast of CA, and I'm very glad I'm not still living in the Midwest with their polar vortex

Things that caught my attention at Fort Ord...  There are a lot more people on the trails since Fort Ord became a National Monument.  They finished another parking area off Hwy 68, so there's better access.  Before it used to be primarily mountain bikers and retired folks with hiking poles; now there are more youth trail runners and families with little children.  I love their new "Play Nice" campaign, which covers horseback riders, dogs, bikers, and staying on designated trails.  I finally figured out I can use unused trailside-dispensered dog poop bags as trash pickup receptacles - the increased litter was bothering me, so I decided to do something about it.  The BLM replaced the old sign off Reservation Road, and the neighboring farmer switched from strawberry plasticulture to berry vine plasticulture.  The thought occurred to me that those plastic awnings would be the perfect cover to hide crops from DEA agents.  Eh-hem.  And, as always, there are reminders on the trails that this used to be an Army training area.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

ear-shaped wild buckwheat ~ 11/11/14 ~ Pinnacles


I've been on a mission the past many months to learn, really learn to recognize the local buckwheats, given they're so important for butterflies as hosts and nectar sources.  Calflora currently lists 256 spp./var. of Eriogonum in CA, but I've primarily concerned myself with 17 of those listed for my two butterfly study sites.  I have to laugh at how completely lost I was 3-4 years ago when I first started even recognizing buckwheats as a group.  I mean, good golly!  I know I'm not alone with this feeling, because so many people I've talked to have also expressed confusion over distinguishing buckwheats.

Like with most of my IDs on Nature ID, I rely heavily on CalPhotos and various buckwheat image searches on Google and Flickr.  I've been fortunate to learn about local plants in the age of digital photography and internet sharing.  The main problem with photographs is that many are mis-ID'd online and in local field guides.  As a side project, I'm hoping to improve the situation by writing to the various authors and requesting they, at the very least, take another look at their own photos and maybe make corrections, because these mistakes get promulgated and adds to the general confusion.  As with everything else, I try to keep in mind that I could very well be wrong.  Honestly?  I often have to fight the urge to be full of myself, an ugly trait of which I'm not very proud.  Gah!

So, here's the dealio.  Looking at photographs alone is obviously not enough.  As I go out on my weekly study visits, I keep an eye out for newly blooming buckwheats.  They're so much easier to spot when they're blooming, especially the ones that are only 2-3" tall.  No joke.  Plus, just like with butterflies, they essentially sort themselves by timing, so it makes it easier to study them as the seasons progress and to take a closer look at the natural variations.  Week after week, I look at checklists, I look up photos, I look at real plants, I take pictures, and then I look at my photos and compare with existing photos, rinse and repeat.  It's methodical in its own way, and it works for me.  I've been enjoying my autodidactic process.

I believe I now have a decent handle on most of the larger local buckwheats (knee-high or taller) down to species (unfortunately, the numerous varieties are still tripping me up).  In fact, I've been arguing that I can distinguish certain buckwheats by photograph better than the local CNPS experts who trot out less-than-perfect keys with highly confusing and subjective vocabulary.  Eh-hem.  Is it me, or does there seem to be an elitist attitude among botanists who use keys and adore dead, dried, flatten specimens?  Hey, I look at keys, too, but it seems to help to already know what you have in order to follow the key properly.  Seriously.  I regularly read the Eriogonum species descriptions on Jepson eFlora and Flora of North America as a double-check, not that I ever measure miniscule plant parts or entirely understand all the fancy-speak.

"occasionally inflated"
ear-shaped wild buckwheat
E. nudum var. auriculatum

Back in September when the metalmarks were going gangbusters, Gordon Pratt (one of my butterfly go-to pros) suggested different buckwheats to look for as possible hosts, including the protruding buckwheat (E. nudum var. indictum) with inflated stems.  He also cautioned that it's frequently mistaken for another, more common inflated-stemmed buckwheat, the desert trumpet (E. inflatum).  So true!  Even well-respected butterfly folks who are in the business of documenting host plants make mistakes (I believe they show E. nudum var. indictum, not E. inflatum). Please note, naked buckwheats E. nudum var. auriculatum, var. decurrens, var. pauciflorum, and var. westonii can also have inflated stems to varying degrees.

 note the low placement of leaf growth, leaf shape, and type of fuzz on leaves
ear-shaped wild buckwheat
E. nudum var. auriculatum

So, how does one tell the difference?  In the case of the naked buckwheats (E. nudum vars.) vs. the desert trumpet (E. inflatum), look at the leaves.  They're different.  See here and here for what desert trumpet leaves look like.  I'm not even going to attempt to describe it in words, which is why I believe it's often mistaken by those who bother to look past the inflated stems and use a key.  Visually, it's obvious.  It worked in my favor that it had rained over the Halloween weekend, so there were a handful of fresh leaves to examine.  I noticed last week the long-stemmed buckwheat (E. elongatum) had sprouted fresh leaves and wondered about the possibility of protruding, too, which prompted me to get out there again.  The rest of the leaves were dried and impossible to distinguish.

ear-shaped wild buckwheat on a west-facing hill

Protruding buckwheat is not a common plant in CA, nor is it at Pinnacles, either.  I asked Paul Johnson (Pinnacles Wildlife Biologist) about it, and he had a vague recollection from a plant survey done over 10 years ago.  There are two distinct spots on record, one is closed to the public due to condor activity and the other is this hill.  This was my second attempt trying to find this remote patch of protruding buckwheat (which turned out to be ear-shaped wild buckwheat), because my first excursion ended prematurely after I spotted what I believed was a second mt. lion scat pile.  I quickly turned around to more human-populated areas.  Similar to comparing buckwheat leaves, it's easy to spot when something is not, like after seeing hundreds of smaller coyote/bobcat scat piles along the trails, then an extra-large one shows up?  It's way obvious.  Haha.  Andy came with me this time to serve as my mt. lion guard and backpack carrier.  Sweet!

ear-shaped wild buckwheat grazed down to knee-high

Coyote, bobcat, and mt. lion scat weren't the only poo bits I found on that first trip. On the west side of the Park's impressive pig fence, yet still within Park property, are meadow muffins.  Lots of meadow muffins.  I predicted to Paul that any protruding buckwheat I might find would be grazed.  Apparently, the neighboring cattle are free to roam ever since BLM days.  Yep, almost all the stalks (turned out to be ear-shaped buckwheat) in a roughly 50x30' area had been chomped.  Interestingly, the nearby long-stemmed buckwheat, also in bloom, didn't appear to be touched, except for a solitary clump.  While we found my first evidence of deer scat on the west side (there are reportedly more deer on the east side), it was located on the other side of the fence and far enough away from this hill to not be a contender.  Don't know if this could be a potential land management issue, or not?  I've heard both pros and cons about cattle.  There are a couple stories of butterflies that disappeared after the land was closed for their protection, because their host plants needed the regular disturbance to grow.  So, who knows if this is good or bad?

edited 11/15/14 - I originally posted this as protruding buckwheat (Eriogonum nudum var. indictumJepson eFlora and eFloras of NACNPS CRPR 4.2), because that's what the official Pinnacles veg map calls it.  And, I know I have the exact location, thanks to GPS.  Unfortunately, there isn't a Park herbarium specimen for this location and no known photos.  I've been trying to convince myself that it's a match ever since writing this blog post and looking up all the embedded links.  After all, the folks who did the mapping probably know way more than me. Right?  Ugh, I've finally decided this ID is incorrect, even though I've never knowingly seen var. indictum in person before.  Yeah, the nerve of me!  It helped that I found inflated stems, exactly this shape, on very clear E. nudum var. auriculatum at Fort Ord today and confirmed by David Styer.  What convinced me that this is also var. auriculatum are the hefty white flower clusters, white and pink anthers and green sepal/tepal highlights that appear to be typical of var. auriculatum, specific shape of the inflated stems, and notable lack of silvery-sage woolly leaves that's evident in all the online var. indictum photos that I've found.  However, it's a bit late (November!) to be blooming for var. auriculatum, but I've rarely found reported bloom times to be reliable.  Who knows, maybe var. indictum was also there and I just didn't find it?  Or, maybe 10 years ago it was var. indictum (Paul recalls distinctly yellow flowers) at this location and for whatever reason it's changed?  Although, I find this scenario highly unlikely.  I've made additional minor corrections in the original blog post above.