Monday, February 10, 2014

habitat ~ 02/10/14 ~ Stevens Creek

A casual comment on a blog post on Saturday afternoon quickly morphed into a gathering of blogging friends, meeting for the first time face-to-face, on Monday morning.  It was a whirlwind of invitations, e-mails, and phone calls.  Many people had to decline (What, people have to work?), but Ken @ Nature of a Man and Randy @ Way Points joined Cindy @ Dipper Ranch and me for 7 hours of hiking, chatting, enjoying nature, picture-taking, and snacking.  The weather cooperated beautifully with the ending of several days of heavy rain, just in time for our excursion.

One of the themes that stayed with me is the ramifications of nature blogging.  How much should we share online about rare or unusual sightings when there are nefarious people who would steal, poach, or profit from our wonder and innocent enthusiasm?  In the next couple of weeks a scientific paper is getting distributed, one that's been 4 years in the making.  Plus, Cindy has asked for first blogging dibs, and she definitely deserves that right.  Until then, my new favorite ID will have to wait, but hopefully I'll have enough other stuff to dazzle regular followers.  And, maybe you'll be able to join us next time?

So, Stevens Creek is a new site for Nature ID.  While it's technically in Santa Clara County, like Mt. Madonna County Park, it felt more like Memorial Park and Butano State Park in neighboring San Mateo County, exchanging the redwoods there for Douglas-firs here.  I love the Santa Cruz Mountains, but as I drove home via Pescadero to avoid the evil commuter Hwy 17 traffic, I breathed a sigh of relief upon seeing the afternoon sun on the ocean.  I can no longer imagine living anywhere where I can't see open water everyday.  In the mean time, I need to figure out the best times to avoid heavy traffic up that way...

CA newt ~ 02/10/14 ~ Stevens Creek

Taricha torosa

 possible rough-skinned newt intergrade? 
 possible Taricha granulosa intergrade?

Squee!  I thought I had died and gone to newt heaven.  With 4 days of decent rain, we had high hopes in finding newts.  And, we did.  A couple hundred of them.  Yes, hundreds.  I stopped keeping track of count after a few hours.  We must have hit the timing jackpot, because I don't believe sightings like this are typical.  Or maybe they are?  This year's winter has been so wacky with the lack of rain, that the newts may not have been very active before now.  Many looked like skin and bones, with tiny little hips sticking out, and yet just as many others were quite plump and very healthy looking. Lots of thanks to Cindy @ Dipper Ranch for getting us bloggers together for this excursion.

If left to my own amateur ID skills, I would have said the above two newts were both CA newts.  Many online pictures show rough-skinned newts as being much darker, practically a charcoal color, with the area under the eye also quite dark.  Ken @ Nature of a Man suggested the ones we found may be intergradesHybrids?  With so many newts around to compare, there was quite a bit of subtle variation in how much the eyes bulged and combinations of coloring (mustard yellow to cheddar orange to chocolate brown).  As I picked up several, I noticed an immediate tactile textural difference.  Those that felt rougher indeed had slightly darker coloring under the eyes; perhaps that's how they got their name.  I honestly don't know if the way they feel in the hand could be considered diagnostic, because I haven't handled that many newts before.  Plus, we found newts in many different stages, from itty-bitty 2 1/2" (head to tail tip) juveniles to hefty males with, eh-hem, bulges.  Check out Gary Nafis' California Herps for the best side-by-side Taricha spp. comparison.

 How many newts?

Answer: 3.  Only after one or two had been pointed out to me did I begin to recognize their movement in the douglas-fir leaf litter.  Pretty much they plod along on their little legs, but they will freeze momentarily when approached.  I can see why some parks will close roads for newt crossings.  They're perfectly colored to blend in with their surroundings and are not easy to spot.  I'm guessing I've passed many newts during my hikes and simply have rarely noticed them before.  Sadly, they're collected for the pet trade as "Oregon newts". Along with the convergent lady beetles, this was yet another reason for our discussion about the implications of sharing nature finds online.  Hey, I'm not giving out trail names or GPS points, so collectors can hike around just like everyone else to maybe find them.  They'd better be in good shape.

A 5th leg!

Given the number of newts we found this day, the chances of finding a mutant were good,  obviously considering we found one.  I don't understand how mutations work in newts.  Does it originate in the egg?  Or does it happen sometime when transforming from aquatic larva to terrestrial adult?  How much does the quality of the environment affect newts?  Or even an accident later in life?  Apparently, they're able to regenerate lost limbs.  These are definitely animals I want to learn more about.  Does anyone have a recommendation for a good, scientific, but not too dry, newt book?

echo blue ~ 02/10/14 ~ Stevens Creek

 echo blue / Pacific azure (formerly spring azure)

What time of year is it, again?  Mid-February?  A fairly fresh blue butterfly?  Oh, that's right, we're in CA (sorry, folks back East, with all your snow and ice).  The Pacific azure is one of the earliest butterflies of the year here, not including those that overwinter as adults like the monarch butterfly

However, they're not the only ones on the wing this early.  I also spotted a couple whites (Pontia sp.) nectaring on a small patch of milkmaids during our hike.  They were possibly checkered white (P. protodice), spring white (P. sisymbrii), or even western white (P. occidentalis - see Dr. Shapiro's note).  Even if my only photograph wasn't blown-out in bright white, I have a hard time distinguishing between them.  

Speaking of photographs, the above is a vast improvement over my only other spring azure picture (it helps to learn the settings on the camera - doh!).  I'm keeping the old name on that post in reverence to my butterfly days past of true C. ladon ladon in Ohio.  I found the male above right next to the creek.  Maybe he was trying to mud-puddle and got caught in the rain?  He was pretty wet but still alive.

ps 02/21/14 - Now that I have good pictures of whites from Los Padres Dam, I'm positive what I saw were margined whites (Pieris marginalis venosa), not a blown-out bright white Pontia sp.  Doh!

pss 02/26/14 - I've changed the primary common name from Pacific azure to echo blue.  I kept getting stumped on my own post.  Haha.  Echo blue is the name I actually hear being used, and that's what I remember it as.  Online sources are trying to make Pacific azure (and echo azure) a thing when I don't know anyone who actually calls them that.  Maybe the younger lepidopterists are more hip to the new names?

CA turret spider ~ 02/10/14 ~ Stevens Creek

posted 03/15/14 - It seems to me a great many locals to the Santa Cruz Mountains know about these turret spiders and in great detail as this BayNature article by David Lukas explains.  The part I found most interesting is this quote, "Analysis of hundreds of genetic samples reveals that instead of a single species, there are at least eight species of California turret spiders, and even these eight species can be further divided into distinct subpopulations separated by obstacles in their environment."  They apparently don't move around much.  I was unfamiliar until Ken pointed out this little structure to Randy and me.  Note the cool use of douglas-fir needles?  I'm always amazed at the "houses" animals will build for themselves.  Now I have The Three Little Pigs on the brain.  Stickless stone woodrat midden, anyone?

mycenoid mushroom ~ 02/10/14 ~ Stevens Creek

Why, hello, tiny friend.  Long time, no see.  Welcome back.  Boy, it sure was nice to find mushrooms again, given our record-breaking dry winter.  This Mycena sp. was growing on a very large, decaying douglas-fir trunk.  I looked at numerous mycenoid pictures online with the off chance I could make a specific ID.  No such luck.  Most are nondescript brownish grey, but some mycenoids are gorgeous yellow, orange, reddish orange, and rose colored.  I doubt I'll ever become proficient with mushrooms, especially considering I have zero desire to look at spore prints and haul out my scope. Plus, I worry about poisonous ones, and not knowing which are which, I have a general hands-off policy.  Just as well, I end up leaving them just as I found them.

red-toothed shrew ~ 02/10/14 ~ Stevens Creek

Cool.  Well, maybe not as spectacular as the ladybug aggregation, but I like featuring diversity on Nature ID and I don't have very many mammals in my collection.  Eh, I have no problem posting pics of dead animals, because that's often the only way I ever get to see them.  Like with the mole I found, I wonder how I knew this was a shrew without ever having seen one before.  In fact, I found not one but two dead shrews very close to each other on the trail, and we postulated on how they could have died without any external signs of trauma.  It could simply be that they died of old age, since they reportedly only live a little more than a year.  There doesn't seem to be very much known about them. Many times people tend to find their carcasses in discarded beverage containers.  I had a little chuckle noting how similar a dead, muddy shrew looks just like a muddy Douglas-fir cone, whose seeds happen to be a food source for Trowbridge's shrew.  If I had to guess the ID between the 3 spp. reported in the area, I would guess Trowbridge's strictly based on habitat.  I'm pleased I was able to capture the red color in the teeth tips - click first picture for zoom, or check out Seabrooke Leckie's excellent close-up photo of shrew teeth.  Btw, Sorex spp. are also called long-tailed shrews.  There are 13 spp. of shrews in CA, and 40 spp. of shrews in North America.

ps - Thanks to Ken's comment, check out Codger's canned shrew and Ken's own bottled shrew with great teeth photos.

convergent lady beetle ~ 02/10/14 ~ Stevens Creek

Holy cow!  Wow!  Just... wow.  When I first heard about this phenomena happening in the Sierra Nevada during my first entomology class 20 years ago, I mentally placed it on my bucket list of things I wanted to witness firsthand.  In my mind's eye, I had pictured maybe a gallon's worth of beetles at the base of a large tree.  Actually seeing this exceeded all my long-held expectations... by a long shot.  Wow.

During my museum stint in Cleveland, I fielded calls about aggregating ladybugs around Halloween, but instead of doing their thing out on the forest floor like shown above, the introduced multicolored Asian lady beetles (Harmonia axyridis) preferred the warmth in or on human structures.  I don't blame them, it's gets awfully cold in Ohio. Imagine having a horde of ladybugs on the wall of your living room?  Interesting, but not pleasant to live with.  They make such a mess and are not good house guests.  My advice to folks who called was to use a vacuum cleaner, as this Ohio State Extension Fact Sheet clearly explains.

There are lots of different kinds of lady beetles and many of them look very similar. According to Powell and Hogue, there are more than 125 spp. in CA alone.  I couldn't find any information on whether all lady beetles gather in some capacity for the winter or not, or even if they move their gathering spot around.  I believe the recent, decent rains helped create this massive and extensive aggregation.  By the next day, Randy @ Way Points discovered there were much fewer here, but his pictures are still impressive. I've heard the term hibernate thrown around when referencing lady beetles, but I don't think that's an accurate use of the word.  Does anyone have a better descriptor for what lady beetles do in the winter?  Diapause?

Sigh... now, this was one of several of our day's findings which prompted some discussion about, as Cindy put it, the "delicate process of protecting natural resources on public land."  I have to admit, that's one thing I do not miss about being affiliated with an institution, organization, or governmental body - that kind of public tiptoeing over my own sheer joy of nature.  For my own blog, I've laid out some basic, good-sense ground rules and generally don't worry about what other people will do with the limited information I choose to share.  However, this time I'm trying to be especially respectful of other people's concerns.  So, in the interest of sharing the wonder of nature, I've been given the green light to post about this very cool lady beetle phenomena... despite the fact there are people who could profit from such a find.  Indeed, most of those garden centers that sell ladybugs?  Well, where do you think they get them?  Eh-hem.  My advice?  As a rule of thumb, do not purchase lady beetles, even if it superficially appears to be the "green" thing to do for your garden.

ps 08/22/14 - Cat Ferguson from the Awl asked for permission to use my photos to illustrate ladybugs harvested in the Sierra Nevada.  I initially declined, "Thank you for your permissions request and compliments on my photos.  Unfortunately, I am denying your use of my photos to illustrate Sierra Nevada lady beetle congregations, because my photos were taken in the Santa Cruz Mountains - totally different habitat with different trees.  To the trained eye, it is not factually correct.  Isn't the Awl motto Be Less Stupid?  And, for the record, I am against wild-collecting ladybugs for sale as natural pest control.  Due to their documented seasonal pattern of winter congregation and then obligate flight dispersal before chowing down on aphids, they are not effective as directed pest control.  All collecting achieves is quick money for the sellers and a disruption of natural processes, which could potentially have a negative impact on our native beetle populations."  After assuring me her article would be about general Northern CA ladybug populations, not just Sierra Nevada, and about the ineffectiveness and problems with wild collection, I finally agreed for a fee.  Eh, my photos ended up not being used, and that's fine by me.  Cat's "The Flight of the Ladybugs" contains an interesting tidbit  from a 1919 California State Commission of Horticulture bulletin about dispersal of the ladybugs.  We've known for almost a hundred years that releasing ladybugs at a location doesn't work, and yet it remains a commercial enterprise?  Too bad.  I've got a bridge to sell you.

bird's nest fungus ~ 02/10/14 ~ Stevens Creek

It's thanks to Ken @ Nature of a Man who pointed out the bird's nest fungus hiding among the leaf litter.  I've never noticed them before.  No wonder, they're tiny!  The microcosm of the forest floor is amazing.  I'm sure I heard about this fungus somewhere in my biology education due to their active other common name of splash cups, but it wasn't until I started seeing pictures on other nature blogs that it really hit home how incredible these tiny fungi are.  Now that I know what to look for, I hope to find other kinds of bird's nest fungi, of which there are many variations, all with the same common name.

Ken also pointed out a blooming beaked hazelnut (Corylus cornuta ssp. californica).  I may have looked disinterested, because I didn't want to get frustrated trying to take what I knew would be crappy pictures.  It's pretty dark under the trees.  But, I really was excited to see it and now know to look for the hanging catkins, which are much more noticeable than the tiny red female flowers. Someday, I want to taste a wild hazelnut that I find on the trail.