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...