Archive for March, 2016

lies: rhamphotheca: Dodder (genus Cuscuta) This unique vine is…

Sunday, March 27th, 2016



Dodder (genus Cuscuta)

This unique vine is a parasitic plant, incapable of supporting itself through photosynthesis. Most species are red, orange or yellow and lack much if any chlorophyll. They derive their sugars and nutrients from their host using haustoria, root-like structures that burrow into the tissues of the plant. They usually have a select number of host plants that they can rely on, and use volatile (airborne) chemicals produced by the host to locate them; some dodder species can be serious crop pests.

However, the seed needs to sprout nearby a suitable host – if the seedling doesn’t encounter a host plant within several days of germination, it will use up the stored energy in the seed and die. In temperate regions it is an annual, growing from seed each year; but in more tropical areas it can grow continuously and form heavy mats draped over trees or shrubs.

The vines have no obvious leaves (they’re tiny and appear scale-like), but do produce pale flowers early in the summer; pea-sized berries appear from mid-to late summer. Previously classified in its own family due to its unique characteristics and behavior, genetic studies now place it in the morning glory family. Species can be found throughout North America; this one is Saltmarsh Dodder (C. salina), which occurs west of the Rockies.

Photo by sfbaywalk on Flickr

(via: Peterson Field Guides)

When I’m leading a docent tour at the Carpinteria salt marsh I usually pull off a little bit of pickleweed with some saltmarsh dodder attached and pass it around. Lately, though, I’ve been having second thoughts about doing that.

Once when I was taking a tour led by one of the other docents, the other docent plucked a leaf gall from an arroyo willow and sliced the gall open with a thumbnail to reveal the sawfly larva inside. It was interesting, but it also condemned the larva to a lingering death. I didn’t say anything, but it saddened me. I don’t do that during the tours I lead.

When the lemonade berries are ripe I sometimes pull one off and invite the group to taste it (fourth-grade marsh tour attendees unanimously agree: nothing at all like lemonade). I do the same with pickleweed (consensus: salty, and yeah, maybe a little like pickles). But picking the dodder for them to pass around makes me uncomfortable. Why is that?

There’s plenty of it in the marsh; the little I’m removing isn’t going to make a difference. I show it to the group because I think it’s interesting up close (like in the photo above), especially when it’s flowering. It’s not some primitive moss or fungus; it’s a full-on flowering plant, albeit one with no green parts, no ability to photosynthesize. But it grows slightly off the trail, and rather than take the whole group down to the water’s edge I figure it’s better to bring some of the plant to the people, even if that means I’m killing that part of the plant just for the momentary educational benefit.

Maybe I feel okay about the lemonade berry and the pickleweed, but not about the dodder, because there’s a difference between removing part of a plant to eat it and doing so just to look at it.

Another aspect of the situation is this: with the sawfly larva, the whole organism was being killed in the name of satisfying a momentary curiosity. But when picking a piece of plant, the donor plant survives. That argument runs aground, however, on my knowledge that even that little piece of dodder would have a chance of surviving and regrowing if it happened to be returned to a suitable location (which I’ve tended not to do). There’s also the knowledge that whole communities of smaller organisms live, Horton Hears a Who-like, on everything in the marsh, and by picking off a piece of their host plant and passing it around I’m definitely messing with their world.

I wonder if my feeling sympathetic toward the dodder is a result of my finding its obligate-plant-feeder lifestyle more familiar, and hence easier to identify with, than that of autotrophs like the pickleweed it grows on. We in the animal kingdom are all parasites in that sense; maybe this plant seems more animal-like to me, so I invest it with agency and imagine it to be more worthy of my consideration than its photosynthesizing fellows.

My brain is ridiculous.

The next time I do the tour I think I’ll have everyone walk off the path with me to observe the dodder in situ, rather than picking it and passing it around. It’s a dumb thing that will only matter to me. But I think I’ll feel better.

Originally posted 2014-10-10.

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lies: I was feeling kind of bummed yesterday. The website I…

Sunday, March 27th, 2016


I was feeling kind of bummed yesterday.

The website I made for the voter outreach effort for Measure P was finished, and my expectations for how it would be received were clearly (in hindsight) naive, like always happens when I get deep into some obsessive project. I push through the mountain of last-minute details to try to get as close to the vision as possible, imagining how great it’s going to be, and then it’s done, but instead of the imagined thing it’s something else, the real thing, and there’s an adjustment.

Look! We’re here! We’re… here. Oh. Okay.

And there are things about this campaign that are depressing. Not just the obvious things, like the misleading ads from the opposition that seem to be getting some traction, but less-obvious things that I’ve only encountered now that I’ve gone from pushing code (which is easy, even though python’s one-way-to-do-it makes me grimace sometimes) to trying to push people (which is always ridiculously hard for me).

So, again: kind of bummed. And my head hurt (fatigue? behind the caffeine-addiction curve? eyestrain from too much computer?), and it was making me less than patient in bugging someone about his APUSH homework, and he called me on it, and he had a point.

I hadn’t been out of the house at all, practically, for two weeks. So I put my binoculars in my backpack so I wouldn’t look like the kind of person who walks through a suburban neighborhood with binoculars around his neck, which is something I’ve felt self-conscious about since I was nine. And it’s ridiculous, because I’m walking through a suburban neighborhood wearing a backpack, and that’s different how? And no one cares, anyway, and if they do, fuck them; I’m not nine anymore. Anyway, I headed out the door.

It took me ten minutes to get to the marsh. I hadn’t checked the tide, but it turned out to be high, a 5.6. I love the marsh when it’s like that.

I didn’t take photos. I wasn’t thinking about documenting. I just needed to be there, to hang out with the bugs and the lizards and the coyote brush in bloom.

There were pygmy blue butterflies everywhere. They’re so cool, and so tiny. You’ll totally miss them if you aren’t paying attention. But they’re there if you look, flitting around low to the ground chasing each other. They disappear when they land, but if you mark the spot you can crank the binoculars down to minimum focus and find them, and they’re beautiful.

Actually I did take one photo there, but I’m leaving it out because it’s a closeup of what I think is a spider egg sac and it doesn’t quite go with the others. But I’m posting it to bugguide to see what Charley Eiseman thinks.

Then I walked to the beach to visit Linda and Joannie under their umbrellas, and then on east past Linden and the tomol park on Matt’s new trail, and there were savannah sparrows in the field and they let me check them out as long as I wanted, reading Sibley on my phone and ticking off the characteristics, yeah, savannah sparrow.

Then through the campground and into tar pits park, then past the CPF to the seal overlook, and on through the bluffs, past the site of the recent abandoned-well cleanup and the artist’s passage and finally my destination, which I hadn’t realized was going to be my destination when I started: the Lois Sidenberg overlook.

I never met Lois. But I’ve seen the picture of her testifying before Congress in Bob Sollen’s book, and I think about her sometimes when I visit the spot named after her. It really has the best view at the bluffs; the whole channel is laid out. I spent a while sweeping for pelagics.

I’d sent a feisty letter to the Coastal View the day before, the first time I’ve done that in a while, and I’d been reading again about the ‘69 blowout as part of deciding what to say. So I was thinking about Platform A, and I swung over to look at it. It doesn’t look special, just another in the row that follows the anticline from west to east: C, B, A, Hillhouse, then Habitat farther out in the channel, then Henry, Houchin, and Hogan. Back when I still had my boat we visited them all, because William was obsessed. Wonder where he gets that? So I know what they look like up close. But from shore Platform A was washed out, blurred by haze and distance. Fitting, I guess, for the symbol it has become.

I remembered the time I was at the Sidenberg overlook with a too-big group of third graders during one of Katie’s Earth Day events, and one girl started shouting “A’lul’quoy!”, because of the Chumash myth she’d heard in class, to make the dolphins come, and she got her friend to join in, and pretty soon all the kids were shouting “A’lul’quoy!” at the top of their lungs, and it was out of control and kind of hilarious. And then a gray whale, probably curious about all the noise, did a spyhop and fell back with a crash right in front of us, and the kids cheered.

And I remembered the time I drank wine there with Katie when I was still on the bluffs board. I miss her a lot. I think everyone who knew her does.

And then it was just the walk home. The sun was going down, and I thought to take a photo, that first one above, from the trail along Carp Avenue. And then I took a bad selfie, with my head cut off and sunscreen in the 52-year-old folds on my neck, but I’m posting it anyway because 1) hah! I’ll show you vanity, and 2) it’s actually a double selfie, because that’s me in the sign, too, with a different group of third-graders on a different Earth Day, in the photo Ted took and put on the sign without telling me until after it was done, “Hah! Hope that was okay, John.” And yeah, of course it was. Because again: vanity.

And then walking home through the suburbia, my right knee a little sore where it always gets sore if I push it too hard, and my legs tired, and a little sweaty. But my head felt fine.

Originally posted 2014-09-15.

Reposted from

lies: Bugs at the marsh Here are more photos I’ve taken…

Sunday, March 27th, 2016


Bugs at the marsh

Here are more photos I’ve taken recently at the Carpinteria salt marsh. These all relate to arthropods (to insects, mostly, plus one spider), so I’ve put them in a separate post to help anonsally avoid them with Tumblr Savior.

The outbreak of green leaf beetles (Trirhabda flavolimbata) that defoliated much of the marsh’s coyote brush (Baccharis pilularis) has now ended. There are only a few adult beetles left, and the coyote brush has started putting out new leaves. I took the photo above on July 14, when the beetles were still fairly easy to find.

The next image is of a syrphid fly in the genus Allograpta; probably A. obliqua or A. exotica. I took this photo the same day as the beetle photo and just a few feet away; both insects were sitting motionless at the tips of their respective stems, giving me time to take lots of shots until I got the focus right. Syrphids (also called hover flies or flower flies) act like bees, hovering to drink nectar from flowers and serving as important pollinators. They don’t have stingers, but have evolved warning colors like bees and wasps to confuse predators into leaving them alone. This is “Batesian mimicry,” named after 19th-century British naturalist Henry Walter Bates, who first observed it in South American butterflies. Whenever I hear the term, though, I think of Mrs. and Miss Bates from Emma.

Next are a couple of photos of super-cool twisted stem galls in coyote brush. The galls are the work of Rhopalomyia baccharis, a tiny midge. The adult midges look identical to their close relatives, Rhopalomyia californica, which I’ve blogged about before, but the galls are completely different. R. californica galls are the size and shape of a marble, and are found at the end of coyote brush stems. R. baccharis galls take the form of these thickened S-curves in the stem itself. A single larva lives in a chamber below each of the gall’s curves. Unlike R. californica larvae, which chew their way to the gall’s surface before they pupate, R. baccharis larvae pupate deep within the gall. Then, somehow, they trigger the host plant to create a tunnel leading to an elliptical exit hole through which the adult midge emerges. The lefthand image above shows me holding a gall to give a sense of scale, while the righthand image shows a different gall with one of those elliptical exit holes.

There is a patch of coyote brush near the marsh amphitheater that has a bunch of these galls right now, and I’m really excited about it, because although I’ve looked for them for years I’ve previously only found a few of them. Hopefully the city Parks and Rec. gardeners won’t prune these, as they previously did with another batch of twisted stem galls I found at the marsh.

The next image shows me holding another kind of coyote brush gall. This is the work of a moth called Gnorimoschema baccharisella. A single caterpillar lives inside the gall. When it’s ready to pupate the caterpillar chews its way out and falls to the ground. But that’s not the end for the gall. Now that it has that convenient hole, a bunch of other species invade it. Fungus grows on the departed caterpillar’s frass (droppings) inside the gall, fungus mites arrive to feed on the fungus, and probably lots of other things happen that I haven’t learned about yet. You can read more about G. baccharisella and see some video I took of a fungus mite running around inside an old gall at my Carp Without Cars blog.

The last image above is not of a gall, but of the kind of thing many observers mistakenly think galls are: an egg case. Specifically, an egg case of the bolas spider (Mastophora cornigera). Bolas spiders have an amazing hunting behavior: They catch their prey not by weaving a web, but by letting out a silken thread with a sticky blob on the end, then waving it around to lasso passing moths. To help improve their chances, the blob gives off a chemical scent that mimics the pheromones of the target moth species. Researchers have found that the bolas spider varies the chemical signature of the scent lure over the course of the night, to better match the pheromones of different moths species that tend to be active at different times.

I wrote more about the bolas spider in another post at Carp Without Cars, so check that out if you want. You can also watch a cool video from David Attenborough’s Life in the Undergrowth series, showing a bolas spider capturing its prey. It’s kind of creepy to watch, even for someone like me who has worked for decades to overcome his arachnophobia, but I think it’s interesting.

Originally posted 2014-08-09.

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lies: Plants at the marsh I blogged previously about the…

Sunday, March 27th, 2016


Plants at the marsh

I blogged previously about the California Phenology Project, and how I’m keeping track of some plants at the Carpinteria salt marsh as part of it. I thought I’d share a quick update.

One of the tricky things about doing phenology in southern California is that our plants don’t follow the familiar four-season cycle that occurs in places like New England. New England plants are all about the temperature. Plants leaf out in the spring, grow through the summer, flower and fruit in the fall, then drop their leaves and become dormant for the winter.

In southern California, at least in the coastal zone where I live, temperature isn’t as big a factor. Precipitation is much more important. Almost all our rain falls in the winter and early spring, followed by a long, dry summer and fall. Coyote brush, one of the plants I’m tracking, has a particularly weird (by northeastern U.S. standards) growth calendar. It might start leafing out after a heavy winter rain, then just stop, with its leaves half-grown, until months later when it will have another spurt of vegetative growth.

It can be tricky distinguishing “young leaves” (which have a technical definition for phenology purposes) from older leaves, especially on a plant like coyote brush where new leaves can appear at any time. One thing that’s helped me is that a number of my plants had all their leaves eaten earlier this year during an outbreak of green leaf beetles, Trirhabda flavolimbata.

Back in May when I started the project, four of my six coyote brush plants had no leaves at all. Now, though, all six have started putting out new leaves, and on the plants that were previously defoliated it’s really obvious. The first row of images above shows three of my study plants, the first two (plants #3 and #4 from the study) with newly emerged leaves. The third shot is of plant #6, one of the two plants in my study that didn’t get completely defoliated by the beetles. Plants #5 and #6 are off to one side of the study area, and though the beetles eventually made it that far they didn’t do as much damage to those plants. Now #6 has emerging flower buds, and I’ve learned something I didn’t know before: its sex.

Coyote brush is dioecious, meaning plants either have all male flowers or all female flowers. Or, as I explain it to the fourth graders who take the marsh tour sometimes, there are boy plants and girl plants.

Coyote brush #6 is a boy plant. The flower buds haven’t opened yet, but you can see that they have the rounded tip of male buds, rather than the pointed tip of female buds. Besides, the male flowers emerge first. All the coyote brush I’ve seen with flower buds so far this year have been male plants. Over the next few weeks those buds will swell and open, revealing the yellow disks of the male flower. The female plants will flower soon after.

Plants flower throughout the year at the salt marsh, with different species flowering at different times. The coyote brush is just getting started, but another species, the chaparral mallow (Malacothamnus fasciculatus) is in full bloom. In some ways the late summer is my favorite time to lead the marsh docent tours, because I get to take people down the path to the amphitheater while it is lined with the beautiful pink flowers of the chaparral mallow. The bottom two images above give you a sense of what that’s like, but the photos don’t do it justice. You have to be there to get the full effect.

I love those plants.

Originally posted 2014-08-09.

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Saturday, March 26th, 2016

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americasgreatoutdoors: Today, President Obama announced three…

Saturday, March 26th, 2016

Mojave Trails National Monument

Castle Mountains National Monument

Sand to Snow National Monument


Today, President Obama announced three new national monuments: Sand to Snow National Monument, Mojave Trails National Monument and Castle Mountains National Monument. These new monuments protect 1.8 million acres of spectacular landscapes, fragile wildlife habitat, unique historic resources and important cultural sites – ensuring that current and future generations can enjoy the unique beauty of the California desert.

Mojave Trails  is a stunning mosaic of rugged mountain ranges, ancient lava flows and spectacular sand dunes. The monument contains the longest remaining undeveloped stretch of Route 66 and some of the best preserved sites from the World War II-era Desert Training Center. Photo by @mypubliclands.

An integral part of the California desert, Castle Mountains National Monument protects some of the finest Joshua tree forest and native desert grassland in the Mojave Desert and contains important cultural resources including Native American archeological sites and vestiges of mining, ranching and the railroad from the period of western expansion. Photo by National Park Service.

Rising from the floor of the Sonoran Desert to San Gorgonio Peak, the tallest in southern California, Sand to Snow National Monument includes lush desert oases, significant archeological sites and 30 miles of the world-famous Pacific Crest Trail. The area is a favorite for camping, hiking, hunting, horseback riding, photography, wildlife viewing and even skiing. Photo by @mypubliclands.

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criterionfilms: Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)

Saturday, March 26th, 2016


Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)

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Carp? Like the woodworker?

Saturday, March 26th, 2016

Exactly like that.

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Leaf Bumps

Saturday, March 26th, 2016



Did you know that the bumps under a leaf especially red ones are wasp eggs? Other insects too. So, for every single one you see, KILL IT, unless you like wasps and their stings.


They’re not eggs. Well, they could be eggs, since I don’t know exactly what you’re describing. But insect eggs are tiny. What you’re probably talking about are galls.

Galls aren’t eggs. They’re swellings that a plant creates in response to a gall-inducing organism (often a wasp, though other types of insects and some non-insect species cause galls as well). The gall inducer’s larvae then live inside the gall, feeding on the plant tissue.

Galls are fascinating, and sometimes beautiful. Gall-inducing wasps tend to be tiny; a quarter-inch to a half-inch long. They can’t sting you. By destroying a gall you aren’t protecting yourself. You’re just killing another living thing for no reason.

Here are some galls that look like what you might be describing. These were on the underside of the leaves of an arroyo willow (Salix lasiolepis) at the salt marsh near where I live. I believe these were probably caused by a sawfly from the genus Pontania (not actually a wasp, but the adults look sort of wasplike):


My favorite gall inducers are a tiny midge called Rhopalomyia californica. They live almost their entire lives inside a gall they create in coyote brush (Baccharis pilularis), a common shrub that grows along the coast near here.

Adult R. californica midges leave their galls in coordinated emergence events. We don’t know how they time it so they all emerge at once, but it seems to be related to rainfall. What we do know is that about 24 to 48 hours after a rain, adult midges emerge from their galls around sunrise. The adult midges look kind of like small mosquitoes, though they can’t bite. They don’t have mouths. The females are already full of eggs; you can recognize them by their swollen orange abdomens.

Within an hour of emerging, their wings have hardened and they begin looking for a mate. After mating, the males die. The lifespan of an adult male is about two hours.

Females begin laying their eggs on the growing tips of nearby coyote brush stems. They lay as long as they can. The lifespan of an adult female is about eight hours.

It’s easy to find R. californica galls once you know what to look for. Here’s a picture I took of one. You can see the leftover exoskeletons (called exuviae) of the emerged adults:


Finding an adult midge is harder. I’ve never seen an emergence event in-progress, though I keep looking. The closest I’ve come is finding the body of a dead female a day or two after emergence:


She was still laying eggs when she died. The tip of her abdomen was stuck to the plant, an orange line of eggs trailing from it.

Bugs can be scary. A few of them can bite or sting, especially if you bother them. But most of them don’t want to hurt you. They’re just living their lives.

Originally posted 2014-06-18.

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lies: Baccharis pilularis galls at Solstice Canyon, Malibu I…

Saturday, March 26th, 2016


Baccharis pilularis galls at Solstice Canyon, Malibu

I mentioned before that one of the things I enjoyed about Yulin’s beautiful I Didn’t Write This Ep. 2 (the one with Auden’s “As I Walked Out One Evening”) was the setting. They shot the video in Malibu’s Solstice Canyon, which I’d never visited before. It looked like there was some coyote brush (Baccharis pilularis) in some of the shots, but I wasn’t sure, and since yesterday was my once-every-two-weeks mega-commute via Malibu, I decided to check it out on my way to work.

I really loved it. There’s water in the stream year-round, and the riparian habitat along the main trail was super birdyish. I didn’t have my binoculars with me (which was just as well, or I probably would have been late to work), but the southern California nesting season is getting under way, so there was lots of singing. Yellow-rumped warblers, oak titmouses, California towhees, spotted towhees, and white-crowned sparrows were everywhere.

The upper slopes (which I didn’t have time to hike to) looked too xeric for coyote brush, but down near the creek there was a fair amount of it. It was more spindly than the plants I’m used to near Santa Barbara, and the seed heads on the female plants seemed a little less profuse; I suspect that’s because Malibu is warmer and dryer than where I live. There also was less coyote brush overall in the habitat; individual plants were scattered around, rather than occurring in extensive stands.

When I’m around coyote brush I always look for galls. There were relatively few Rhopalomyia californica galls compared to what I’m used to, but I found some that you can see in the middle row of photos above.

You’ll probably think I’m an idiot to feel this way, but I get choked up when I think about the midges that induce those galls. They spend most of their lives as tiny maggots inside the gall, feeding on plant tissue. Then they chew their way to the surface and pupate, their body liquifying before transforming into an adult midge, and then finally, on a particular cool morning, often a day or so after a rain, a bunch of them emerge together.

The females’ abdomens are already orange and swollen with eggs. The males mate with them and die; the females lay their eggs before dying a few hours later.

They live their whole lives for that one day. I’ve never seen a Rhopalomyia emergence in-progress, though I keep looking. Once I found a dead female a day or two after emergence, a sticky trail of eggs connecting her to the plant, dead in the very act of laying her eggs. Will my own life have a dramatic climax like that? Probably not. I’ll just get older and crankier, and eventually something will take me out. But that Rhopalomyia midge died a heroine, fulfilling the essential purpose of her existence in her final moments.

Besides the R. californica bud galls, I also found a couple of stem galls made by a moth, Gnomorischema baccharisella. You can see them in the bottom row of photos. A cool thing about these galls is how different the ecology of the gall itself is, compared with the similarly sized R. californica galls that grow on the same plant. The Rhopalomyia bud galls contain multiple larvae, but a G. baccharisella stem gall contains only a single caterpillar. The larvae in the bud galls don’t produce frass (insect poop). I’m not sure what happens to their waste; either they don’t emit any, or it somehow is excreted and carried away by the plant. That latter explanation seems kind of unlikely, but I don’t actually know much about insect/gall interactions, and over evolutionary time scales gall inducers and their host plants have evolved pretty complex relationships.

The caterpillar in the stem gall does produce frass, which accumulates inside the gall. When the caterpillar gets old enough it chews its way out and drops to the ground to complete its development. But now there is a convenient hole in the gall (you can see it in each of the galls pictured above, meaning both of those galls have already lost their original caterpillar), and a bunch of other organisms move in. Colonies of fungi grow on the frass, and fungus mites that eat the fungi, and other creatures that prey on or parasitize the mites. There are whole little worlds in there, and that’s just one type of gall on one type of plant.

When I give in to the temptation to talk about plant galls during docent tours at the marsh, someone usually asks about the nature of the relationship. Are the gall inducers harming the plant? Helping it? And what they’re really asking is, are these good bugs or bad bugs?

It’s an interesting question. Looking strictly from the perspective of the plant, the gall inducers are harmful. In parts of Australia, where groundsel bush (a close relative of coyote brush) is an invasive weed, R. californica has been imported as a biological control, because the bud galls take the place of flowers, reducing the plant’s reproductive success. In effect, R. californica harnesses the plant’s activity and channels it into producing more R. californica midges, rather than producing more coyote brush.

But the plant’s perspective isn’t the only one. From the point of view of the larger ecosystem, gall inducers are just doing what nearly every other organism has done before it: Finding a niche in the pre-existing biome within which it can survive, adding one more layer to the mind-bogglingly rich assembly of interrelated living things that make up all life.

From that perspective, what gall inducers do is awesome and cool. Certainly the fungus mites that specialize in living inside old G. baccharisella galls would say so, if you could ask them, as would the dozen or more species of parasitic wasp that prey on R. californica, or the hyperparasites that prey on those parasites, or the specialized bacteria that live in the guts of those hyperparasites, and so on, as far as human curiosity can take you. The more I learn about this, the more I believe that people like James Lovelock and the late Lynn Margulis were on the right track in arguing that we spend too much of our time focused on the organism as the most meaningful level of biological organization. We also need to think about life as a whole.

One other thing I liked about Solstice Canyon: Its parking lot was nearly full, but it’s a small lot, and the people who were there were really nice. I think the fact that it’s kind of hidden away on a side road means you’re only going to get people who make a point of seeking it out, and that selects for a certain kind of visitor.

At one point I was standing under a big sycamore, trying to see a woodpecker that I could hear drumming. Two people, an older woman and a younger woman who might have been her adult daughter, were standing not far away. I didn’t notice them paying any attention to me, but when I walked past them the younger woman asked me if I’d been looking for the bird.

“What?” I said, not because I hadn’t heard what she said, but because I’m shy, and a dork, and I’d been shocked out of my big-city bubble by a stranger willing to talk to me.

“Were you looking for the bird?”

“Oh, the woodpecker? Yeah. I couldn’t see it, though.”

“I’ll show you,” she said, and walked back a few feet to point it out to me, an acorn woodpecker that was hammering away at the underside of a dead limb.

“Thanks,” I said, and smiled, and she smiled, and we went our separate ways. And maybe it was just me being maudlin from thinking about Yulin’s video, which made me cry when I watched it — because of the music, and the images, and Auden’s words, and Sean’s delivery — but it just seemed like a really nice thing of that woman to do, noticing that I’d been looking for the bird, and helping me see it.

tl;dr: I had a really nice time at Solstice Canyon, and I’m happy I followed Yulin’s recommendation to visit it.

Originally posted 2014-02-11.

Reposted from

lies: Marsh phenology I’ve started collecting data on the…

Saturday, March 26th, 2016


Marsh phenology

I’ve started collecting data on the timing of events in the lives of various plants at the marsh. I submit the data online as part of the California Phenology Project, which itself is part of the National Phenology Network. I’ve selected 10 individual plants of 3 species, and now I watch them to see when they leaf, flower, drop their fruit, etc.

Six of the 10 plants are coyote brush (Baccharis pilularis). I chose so many of them because I want to increase the chances that I end up with data from at least two plants of each sex, and I can’t tell the males from the females until they flower in the fall. Also, I just like them best.

The two coyote brush images above are not from one of my six phenology plants, but from another one nearby that has an interesting gall, a thickening of the plant’s stem caused by a fungus called Puccinia evadens. A few weeks ago I posted a picture of a “witch’s broom” produced by P. evadens, but that gall was old and dried out. The images above show an active gall, with lengthwise cracks filled with bright orange fungal spores.

The next row shows three images of my second species, blue elderberry (Sambucus nigra). The big plant in the first image, behind the interpretive sign, is the one I’ve labeled “blue elderberry 1” for data-collection purposes, and the second image is a spray of its flowers. The third image is a close up of blue elderberry 2, showing both flowers and some developing fruit.

The third species I’m monitoring is Rosa californica. The last row shows some of California rose 2’s flowers, as well as a close up of the rust fungus I wrote about previously, which grows on the underside of rose leaves and causes them to bend back on themselves.

I guess I’m turning into Egon from Ghostbusters, with his thing for spores, molds, and fungus. Can I help it if they’re cool?

Originally posted 2013-06-01.

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Friday, March 25th, 2016

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goat-soap: Ravens and coffee pattern for mazz!!

Friday, March 25th, 2016


Ravens and coffee pattern for mazz!!

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suonko: by James Hamilton 

Friday, March 25th, 2016


by James Hamilton 

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athinglikethat: New York Magazine February 2016Photographer:…

Friday, March 25th, 2016


New York Magazine February 2016
Photographer: Erik Madigan Heck
Celeb: Saoirse Ronan

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sylvia-morris-reblogs: sylvia-morris: the haunted mirror. I…

Friday, March 25th, 2016



the haunted mirror.

I don’t ever really draw without creating a story around whatever I’m drawing. Sometimes they change a lot from the beginning of a picture to the end. They almost always get more complex/detailed, which I think is good. At the start of this one, I was just gonna have a lady in a nice 1800s dress playing piano in a formal sitting room. Probably on a sunny afternoon. I wanted her to seem lonely, and perhaps trapped by the imposing room. I wanted her looking in a mirror so we could see the front and back of her dress.

The light was what caused all the changes in this one. I wanted a hanging light because I thought it would make a nicer composition. So it became an evening piece with cool lighting. After I’d gotten attached to that idea I realised that the 1800s weren’t real big on electric lights… and having a fancy chandelier wouldn’t make a lot of narrative sense (maybe it could’ve, but I didn’t like it).

I could drop the light and have an 1800s dress, or I could keep the light and drop a modern woman into a fancy old room. I set it aside for a little (longer than planned because I spent 3 hours with a super painful eye thanks to some dirt or something) and figured I’d decide later. But later I couldn’t give up either the dress or the light and somehow in that space of stubbornness I decided that the mirror was haunted.

This carefree woman moves into a fancy old house and whenever she plays piano and looks in the mirror she finds a woman who looks a little like her looking back out of it. I liked the idea of her trying to find out all about the other people who’d lived in this house and whatnot. But I tend to keep it a little open too. Perhaps she steps into the past. Perhaps they swap lives. Perhaps actually the story is that of the woman in the mirror who’s seeing a ghost from the future whenever /she/ plays piano. Who knows. The story is definitely about the connection between two women who lived in the same house 150 years apart.

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lies: In which I see if I can make you nauseous with video of a…

Friday, March 25th, 2016


In which I see if I can make you nauseous with video of a green leaf beetle (Trirhabda flavolimbata) crawling around on a mostly-defoliated coyote brush plant (Baccharis pilularis) at the Carpinteria salt marsh. The beetles have been having an outbreak at the marsh for the last few months.

I think they’re cute, but even if you agree about that there’s still a chance of nausea due to my extremely poor cinematography, especially after I mounted the macro attachment to the iPhone and things got really shaky.

You can read more about these cute beetles (including blessedly stationary images) in the post I made earlier today.

Originally posted 2013-05-26.

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lies: Green leaf beetles (Trirhabda flavolimbata) at the…

Friday, March 25th, 2016


Green leaf beetles (Trirhabda flavolimbata) at the Carpinteria Salt Marsh

I mentioned previously that I’m a volunteer docent at the Carpinteria salt marsh. I started off being mostly into birds, but in the spring of 2009 I started obsessing about bugs, and it was these beetles that started that. I was looking for invertebrates to photograph for Circus of the Spineless, when I discovered that there were large numbers of shiny green “caterpillars” (I thought) feeding on the coyote brush (Baccharis pilularis) at the marsh. I estimated that there were more than 500 of them in a single medium-sized bush.

It turns out they were actually beetle larvae. Over the next several weeks I watched as they turned into adult beetles and kept munching. By the end of the outbreak, in late May, much of the coyote brush along Ash Avenue had been completely defoliated. The first two shots above are from that 2009 outbreak; they show the larvae (left) and an adult beetle (right).

By the next year the coyote brush had bounced back. There were only a few leaf beetles at the marsh each of the next three springs, but this year they’re back in a big way. Once again, a lot of the marsh shrubbery has been eaten down to bare twigs.

I was out there yesterday and today gathering data as part of a citizen science project that I’ll write up in another post, and while I was there I took some photos.

The second row above shows the effect the beetles have on the coyote brush. On the left is a plant that still has leaves (and beetles). On the right is one that’s already been eaten.

Finally, there’s a shot I took with the macro lens attachment I bought recently for my iPhone. It’s just a little dingus that slips over the end of the phone. I’m pretty impressed with how well it works, though I need to work on my focus skills. There isn’t much depth of field to work with.

Isn’t that beetle adorable?

I tried taking some video, too, which I’m in the process of uploading to YouTube. I’ll post a link to that when it’s ready, so you can see beetles in motion. (Update: As promised: shaky beetle video.)

Originally posted 2013-05-26.

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lies: California wild rose (Rosa californica) at the Carpinteria…

Friday, March 25th, 2016


California wild rose (Rosa californica) at the Carpinteria salt marsh

When I’m poking around at the Carpinteria salt marsh the thing that interests me most is the marsh ecology. I’m fascinated by the densely layered relationships of all those plants and animals; preying on each other and being preyed upon in turn, competing and cooperating, part of in an incredibly complex network of co-evolved interactions.

Here are a few photos I took recently in the patch of California wild rose (Rosa californica) that borders Ash Avenue. The flower at the top is not perfect, but its imperfections make it more interesting to me. I wonder what caused that damage to its petals.

Next are a couple of photos of a fungus I’ve noticed frequently in the marsh roses. It produces a bright orange fruiting body along the midvein on the underside of a leaf, causing the leaf to fold back on itself. A few years ago I asked Andrea Adams-Morden, head of the marsh docents and my go-to person for inane botanical questions, if she knew anything about this fungus, but all I remember is that she said it was a non-native rust, and she was hoping to have the plants treated to combat it. It made me sad to hear that, because I think it’s beautiful.

The next pair of pictures show some spiny leaf galls produced by a wasp, Diplolepis polita. The wasp inserts its egg in the leaf, and the rose responds by growing this outlandish, swollen, tumor-like structure, inside of which the wasp larva grows, feeding on the plant tissue. Gall researchers would love to understand better how this process works, but much of it remains a mystery. How do gall inducers manipulate their host plants’ normal growth pattern? What mechanisms are involved?

I’ve always assumed that the spikes on these galls reflect the wasp’s having taken advantage of the rose’s existing thorn-producing genetic code, appropriating it to better defend the gall from outside attack. And defending the gall is important: Just as the gall represents a successful exploitation of the rose’s resources, the gall itself is a resource that other organisms have evolved to exploit. As with most galls, the D. polita gall is prone to being targeted by other species, either inquiline species that feed on the gall tissue, or predators or parasites of the wasp larva the gall contains. There are even hyperparasites, wasps that lay their eggs in the larvae of wasps that laid their eggs in the larvae of the original gall inducer.

It’s kind of mind-boggling.

The galls darken as they age, eventually turning brown and brittle. The next photo shows what I believe is a younger gall, its spikes softer, more flexible; toward the middle of that photo two still-younger galls are just starting to emerge from their respective leaves. And in the lower right of the picture, something I didn’t even notice until after I got home and looked at the photo on my computer: A small female wasp, her long ovipositor resting on the leaf surface.

I’ve cropped in tighter on the wasp in the last image. It’s not a very good photo; I took these shots with my iPhone, and its built-in lens can only take you so far. I didn’t get any detail of the wing venation, which would have been really helpful for identification purposes. I’ve posted the image to, though, in hopes that a wasp specialist will be able to tell me something more. This could be a D. polita female, looking to lay her eggs in the leaf tissue to start more galls. Or it could be one of the other five species of inquilines and parasites known to associate with D. polita galls. Or it could be some completely unrelated wasp that just happened to be in the vicinity. I’ll probably never know.

Update: A helpful user on bugguide identified it as being a cynipid gall wasp, a category that includes D. polita. So given that it’s a female gall wasp hanging out on a leaf right next to a bunch of D. polita galls, I think the chances are at least decent that that’s what it is. Which is pretty cool.

Originally posted 2013-05-09.

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lies: Coyote Brush (Baccharis pilularis) through the year As…

Friday, March 25th, 2016


Coyote Brush (Baccharis pilularis) through the year

As promised, some photos of my favorite plant.

The first image was taken on March 28, 2010, at the Carpinteria bluffs. I actually was trying to photograph the March flies (Bibio albipennis) that were flying around the plant; there were thousands of them in mating swarms above the coyote brush at the bluffs that day. But I think it’s a nice shot that shows what the plant looks like when it has leafed out with new growth in the spring.

The next two shots show close-ups of the flowers of a male plant (left) and a female plant (right) when the plant is blooming in the fall. These shots were taken at the bluffs in September 2010. You can see how the unopened male flower buds are thicker at the tip, giving them a kind of “fat-headed” shape, while the unopened female buds are narrower at the tip. Once the flowers actually open the differences are more obvious, with the male flowers being disk-shaped and yellow with pollen, while the female flowers have long, white filaments.

The next shot is of a female plant in full bloom. I took this image on October 30, 2011 at the Carpinteria salt marsh. I like how it shows both the plant and the marsh at my favorite time in their respective cycles: The coyote brush looking like it has been dusted with snow, and the marsh at maximum high tide, with the pickleweed (Salicornia virginica) of the low marsh habitat completely inundated.

The next shot is a close-up of a female plant actually releasing its seeds. At this point just a little bit of wind is enough to carry the seeds away. I took that shot in November 2010.

The next shot was taken in January 2011 at the marsh. By then southern California’s wet season was in progress, and new leaves were growing. This shot shows an interesting “witch’s broom” structure in the plant’s old dead stems. I suspect that’s from an attack by a gall-inducing fungus called Pucinea evadens. Active P. evadens galls develop lengthwise fissures filled with bright orange spores. I have some photos of those I’ll share another time, but in this shot I like how the old dead stems are being gradually hidden away by the plant’s new growth.

Finally, I have a shot of a lone coyote brush plant taken in February, 2011. The plant’s vegetative growth phase continues, though it’s tapering off, leading into the long, dry, southern California summer, during which the plant stores up energy, preparing for the fall flowering. The marsh is at low tide, which makes for an interesting contrast with the earlier shot taken at high tide. This is the same basin as in the earlier photo, though this shot is taken from the east side of the basin while the other was taken from the north. But that’s the same patch of marsh in both shots, showing how dramatic the tidal changes are.

I haven’t talked much about the rich community of insects and other invertebrates that associate with coyote brush; I’ll save that for another post. But this gives you an idea of the yearly cycle of this plant that I love so much.

Originally posted 2013-05-08.

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