Thursday, June 14, 2018

The Importance of Pickleweed & The Plight of California's Coastal Salt Marsh

The evidence is there: I am a proponent of the underdog, and that sentiment extends to underappreciated habitats.  Marginalized, abused and under appreciated habitats abound in California, right alongside majestic Sierran peaks and captivating rocky Pacific shorelines.  From coastal dunes to deserts, sagebrush scrub to the grasslands and wetlands of the Great Central Valley, much of California's less glamorous habitats have been largely degraded. 

The coastal salt marsh is certainly one such habitat. 

Picklweed-dominated salt marsh, with shallow salt pan and dunes in the background, blooming gumplant in the
foreground. Salinas River NWR.
Coastal salt marshes, also called tidal marshes, occur in protected areas of bays and estuaries that are subject to tidal influence but sheltered from the strong winds and waves found elsewhere along the coast.  Salt marshes are found widely scattered along California's coast, and in an unaltered system they function in conjunction with tidal flats (mud flats), shallow naturally occurring salt pans and freshwater streams to create a diverse and highly productive habitat mosaic.

In Northern California, Humboldt Bay, Tomales Bay, San Francisco Bay, Monterey Bay and Morro Bay all support remaining patches of salt marsh habitat.  Farther south (and outside of my realm of expertise) remnants of salt marsh can be found in the Carpenteria Marsh south of Santa Barbara, Ballona wetlands in Los Angeles, Bolsa Chica near Huntington and lagoons in the San Diego area.

In the Monterey Bay region, I highly recommend a visit to Elkhorn Slough and Moss Landing harbor.  Salinas National Wildlife Refuge also provides access to salt marshes, salt pans and dune habitat.  In the San Francisco Bay area, there are a few salt marsh areas left and some are being restored.  Try visiting Don Edwards National Wildlife Refuge, China Camp State Park or the small restored marsh at Crissy Field.

Salt marsh at China Camp State Park

Around the year 1800, scientists estimate there were approximately 190,000 acres of salt marsh in the San Francisco Bay alone.  By 2009, that number had dropped to about 40,000 acres, with less than a quarter of original salt marsh remaining.  As the largest estuary on the west coast of North and South America, the tidal marshes around the San Francisco Bay provide critical - and critically endangered - habitat for an array of wildlife species in addition to providing a number of ecosystem services to surrounding areas.

Historically, tidal wetlands, like freshwater wetlands, were seen as unproductive, wasted land, and herculean efforts were made to "reclaim" this land.  (I hate that phrase, by the way; it's a total misnomer.)  Around the San Francisco Bay, dikes and levees were built to create arable land, and wetlands were backfilled for urban development.  Flood control projects were instated and extensive salt ponds were created, further reducing tidal wetland habitat.  (Ironically, the creation of artificial salt pond habitat during the late 1800's and early 1900's corresponded with the draining (e.g. destruction) of important and extensive inland wetland habitats of the Great Central Valley, such as Tulare Lake, and provided some shorebirds, like American Avocets and Black-necked Stilts, with an alternative suitable breeding ground after they were forced to abandon the Valley.)

But there is good news.  For the past decade or two, efforts have been underway to restore some of the Bay's salt marshes, as well as other California tidal wetlands.  The goal is set for San Francisco Bay: 100,000 acres of salt marsh are needed for the ecosystem to successfully sustain itself.  In the southern part of the Bay, former salt ponds are being reconfigured to a more natural state in an effort to strike a sustainable balance between salt pond management and tidal marsh habitat.  According to reports, the plan is working; salt marsh habitat is returning, and with it, endangered wildlife is also making a small comeback.

Salt marsh and mudflats provide food and shelter for an abundance of birds at Moss Landing harbor

Wetland areas such as the coastal salt marsh provide a number of services to human populations as well as to wildlife.  Wetlands provide flood control, acting as a sponge to soak up flood water and store it safely.  They also function as a filter, improving water quality, and a barrier, preventing shoreline erosion.  (Think of those long tubes of straw you see at construction sites, only much, much larger, more efficient and far more aesthetically pleasing!)  And of course, wetlands possess the intrinsic value shared by all natural, unspoiled areas.  We need beautiful places, like wetlands, in which to reconnect with nature as adults, as well as introduce children to its never-ceasing wonders.

The climate of coastal salt marsh areas is generally about the same as nearby coastal strand habitats (beaches and dunes, collectively): mild year-round temperatures, a long growing season, little available freshwater and low rainfall, thick fog, and heavy salt spray driven by harsh winds.  But despite these tough conditions and twice-daily inundations of saline sea water, a number of plant species are able to thrive - particularly, halophytes (salt tolerant plants).  One of the most important and conspicuous of these is Pickleweed (Salicornia spp.)


Pickleweed, also called Glasswort and Pacific Swampfire, was indeed used for making pickles at one time by early pioneers, due to its high salt content.  Surprisingly, it was also used to make glass, as another of its names would suggest.  High sodium content in the fleshy leaves of Pickleweed was converted to soda ash when burned, which is one of the raw materials used in glass production.  (I don't know a whole lot about it, but it seems soda ash allows silica - the raw material sand - to melt at a lower temperature.  The type of glass produced by this method is called soda-lime silica glass, so named for its three essential ingredients.)  The moniker "swampfire" is descriptive of the plant's succulent leaves, the tips of which turn red and drop off as they accumulate excess salts.

Illustration of the zonation of plants in salt marshes and adjacent communities, from one of my favorite books,
A Natural History of California, by Allan A. Schoenherr

Other plants of the salt marsh vegetation types grow in accordance with their tolerance of tidal inundation.  For example, salt grass (Distichlis spicate) doesn't tolerate inundation and is therefore found only along the upper edges of the marsh.  (Salt grass is also found in inland areas of alkaline or saline soils, near wetlands as well as some upland areas in the Great Central Valley, east of the Sierra Nevada crest, and in desert regions.)  Cord grass (Spartina foliosa), on the other hand, tolerates being covered with sea water during rising tides and is found along lower margins of the marsh.

Salt marsh gumplant

Plant diversity is low in the costal salt marsh, but other species indicative of this unique habitat include arrow grass (Triglochin spp.); the succulent-leaved sea blight (Suaeda spp.); the humble yellow-flowered Marsh Jaumea (Jaumea carnosa) and showy yellow-flowered salt marsh gumplant (Grindelia stricta), both of Asteracea; alkali heath (Frankenia spp.), which is not really a heath at all; the equally misnamed marsh rosemary or sea lavender (Limonium californicum), which is neither a rosemary nor a lavender but pretty nonetheless; and the curious dodder (Cuscuta spp.), which infests salt marsh plants (as well as desert plants) with its strange, parasitic orange strands and is actually related to morning glories.  (Will the wonders of botany ever cease?) 

This mosaic of plants serves to support banks and prevent erosion, filter water by trapping sediments and taking up nutrients, and provide valuable habitat for a number of species of birds as well as mammals.  The high productivity of salt marshes produces an abundance of detritus (particles of decomposing organic matter) which feeds amphipods and other invertebrates such as worms and snails, which in turn support an abundance of avian life.  Herons and egrets patrol the edge of still water, while Long-billed Curlews probe the mud.  Black-necked Stilts forage in the shallows and American Avocets filter food from the water using their upturned bills. 

Along the water's edge, the rarely seen endangered Ridgeway's Rail (Rallus obsoletus), which was known as the California Clapper Rail (Rallus longirostris obsoletus) prior to 2014, and the California Black Rail (Laterallus jamaicensis coturniculus) make their homes in dense marsh vegetation.  The Ridgeway's Rail is almost entirely restricted tidal marshes of the San Francisco Bay.

Belding's Savannah Sparrow

Several sparrows are also salt marsh obligates, requiring this unique habitat type for survival.  The Belding's Savannah Sparrow (Passerculus sandwichensis beldingi) lives in pickleweed, feeding on seeds and able to drink sea water. Three distinct subspecies, or geographic "races," of the Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) exist in salt marshes around the San Francisco Bay: Alameda (M. m. pusillula), San Pablo (M. m. samuelis), and Suisun (M. m. maxillaris).  These populations are highly sedentary, as pairs remain on their territory year round, able to raise multiple clutches of young on the abundance provided by perhaps less than one acre of salt marsh habitat.

Also endangered and endemic (restricted) to the San Francisco Bay's salt marshes is the Salt-marsh Harvest Mouse (Reithrodontomys raviventris).  This little nocturnal mammal builds its nest in the marsh vegetation, and has adapted to survive on sea water.  Due to the extensive loss of salt marsh habitat, the Salt-marsh Harvest Mouse has become restricted to a few isolated patches of habitat around the Bay.
A tangle of pickleweed, perhaps the most important plant of the salt marsh

Whether birding along the shore of a pickleweed marsh, hiking upland coastal trails or kayaking through Elkhorn Slough, I hope you are able to take a moment to appreciate the intricate ecosystem that is the coastal salt marsh.  Habitats like these don't often get the publicity of glamorous Coast Redwood forests, and it's likely you're far more familiar with charismatic Spotted Owls or awe-inspiring California Condors than secretive rails and mice, but these little creatures require our attention anyway - even more so due to the years of degradation their habitats have suffered.

For an uplifting read (with photos a million times better than mine), check out this National Geographic article: How the Bay Area Is Restoring Nature's Delicate Balance.

Sunday, June 3, 2018

The Elfin Forest: A Land of Mythical Woodland Beings? Maybe Not Quite...

In some parts of the world, magical places really do exist.  Glittering snowcapped peaksoasis pools of turquoise and ferny fairylands are all out there, just waiting to be discovered! 
A couple of weeks ago while exploring the Morro Bay area with my mom (visiting that part of the state for my cousin's wedding), we came across an enchanted place unlike any other: El Moro Elfin Forest.
The Elfin Forest

While there are no actual elves, fairies, pixies, dryads, or other small woodland folk inhabiting this forest (that we saw), the miniature woodland is certainly possessed by its own type of botanical enchantment.  The landscape is filled with an abundance of flowering jewels (wildflowers and flowering shrubs), fluttering gems (butterflies and birds)... and beautifully sculpted dwarf trees, for which the forest is named. 

Though the graceful forms of dwarfed Coast Live Oak (Quercus agrifolia) look like they may have been twisted and set in place by the hand of a giant playing with a toy set, the real sculpting agents at work here are a combination of harsh winds off the Pacific Ocean and the nutrient poor soil of ancient sand dunes in which the trees are rooted. 

The stunted Coast Live Oaks found in the Elfin Forest are genetically no different from nearby trees of the same species, which regularly grow to 50 feet tall.  Here, the small trees are only about 12 feet tall, though in some groves the dwarfed oaks may be up to 400 years old.  They grow in pockets amid a mosaic of other hardy plant communities, generally found in the shelter of dunes which afford some protection from the high winds.

Lace Lichen (Ramalina menziesii) drapes elegantly from the branches of the oaks, adding to the mythical air of this enchanted forest.  Lichen is made up of algae and fungus living together in a symbiotic relationship, and it benefits the trees as well by collecting additional nutrients and moisture from the damp, foggy coastal air.

In addition to the coastal live oak woodland, the 90-acre El Moro Elfin Forest Natural Area preserves seven other distinct plant communities and habitat types.  Most of these habitats pose serious challenges for plants and animals living there (such as the highly saline soil of the salt marsh; the nutrient-poor soil of dunes; and the high winds and low precipitation over the whole area).  These environmental challenges have led to the development of specially adapted species. 

Riparian Woodland, dominated by California Sycamore (Platanus racemosa) and willow (Salix spp.), is found along Los Osos and Chorro Creeks.  Beyond the reach of all but the highest tides, evaporation concentrates salts and soil salinity is high, allowing Coastal Salt Marsh to develop.  Pickleweed (Salicornia spp.) and Salt Grass (Distichlis spicata) are indicators of this community, though the line between it and the Brackish Water Marsh community is blurred.  Where fresh and salt water mix, and tides flood twice a day, the soil salinity is lower and sedges (Carex spp.) and rushes (Juncus spp.) dominate marshes with brackish water.  (It seems backwards, I know, but have a look at the map below to understand how the habitats or communities are arranged in relation to the topography of Morro Bay.)

Twice a day, the tides of the bay cover and uncover a valuable (and terribly underappreciated) habitat: the mudflats.  Mudflats are home to an astounding variety of invertebrate life (clams, crabs, shrimp, amphipods and polychaete worms, to name a few) , which provides a nourishing and reliable food source for innumerable birds, particularly species like curlews, willets, whimbrels, dowitchers, sandpipers and plovers.  Birders are bummed when the tide is in; we love mudflats!  (Edward F. Ricketts' classic and highly recommended Between Pacific Tides devotes an extensive chapter to mudflats and their invertebrate inhabitants.  You'll never look at a lowly mudflat the same way again!)

Overlooking Maritime Chaparral to Coastal Salt Marsh, Brackish Water Marsh and tidal mudflats beyond.

Above the tidal influence is an old complex of sand dunes, now stabilized by extensive vegetation.  The dunes present another challenging habitat, as the sandy soil is low in nutrients and the coarse particles have very little capacity to retain water.  The little rain that does fall (an average of around 16 inches per year) sinks quickly into the sand and beyond the root zone of most plants.  In addition to low rainfall, high winds blowing in off the ocean have desiccating effects and are heavy-laden with salt particles.  The saving grace of this environment is the ocean's moderating effect on temperature (it never gets extremely hot or cold along the coast) and the regularly high humidity and fog, which greatly reduces plants' water loss through evaporation and eases the stress of drought that would otherwise prove too great for survival.

Growing on the stabilized dune system is a mosaic of plant communities, including Coastal Dune Scrub, Maritime Chaparral, an oak/manzanita complex, and of course, our dwarfed Coast Live Oak Woodland.

Coastal Dune Scrub is comprised largely of California Sagebrush (Artemesia californica) and Black Sage (Salvia mellifera), perfuming the air with their wonderful scent - especially if you happen to brush against these aromatic plants.  (But do watch out for Poison Oak!)  Other noteworthy plants include Coast Silver Lupine (Lupinus chamissonis), the flowers of which also smell fantastic, and Fuchsia-flowering Gooseberry (Ribes speciosum).

Black Sage and Sticky Monkeyflower grow intertwined

Maritime Chaparral is a fairly rare and unique plant community that differs from the chaparral of interior areas in its much milder climate.  Chamise (Adenostoma fasciculatum) and Buckbrush (Ceanothus cuneatus) are two plants characteristic of Maritime Chaparral, though other species are present, such as Sticky Monkeyflower (Diplacus aurantiacus) and Black Sage, and overlap with adjacent communities.

The Oak/Manzanita Complex, a locally accepted plant community (though not really an "official" vegetation type), is a blend of Maritime Chaparral and Coast Live Oak Woodland that grows in the protection of dunes.  The dunes provide enough shelter to allow the oaks to mingle with the otherwise treeless chaparral plant community, and also allows shrubby chaparral manzanitas to grow to almost treelike proportions.  The federally threatened Morro Manzanita (Arctostaphylos morroensis), the species found here, is so specially adapted to this particular climate that it is found only in the immediate area, from Morro Bay State Park just to the north, through the Elfin Forest and south to Montana de Oro State Park (a span of less than eight miles).  I would have taken a photo of it, but I received a very painful sting on my hand from a mysterious flying insect that put a bit of a kink in our plans.  That's my excuse, anyway.

The map below, from the website of El Moro Elfin Forest, outlines the approximate locations of the various vegetation types and habitats found within the natural area.


Although I said the elfin forest is not inhabited by any small woodland folk, that's not entirely true. 

Peering closely beneath the shrubs and trees, you may discover the telltale signs of one of the forests most impish inhabitants: the Dusky-footed Woodrat (Neotoma fuscipes).  Piled against the trunks of shrubs and trees, under the protection of dense branches above, are woodrats dens or nests (sometimes called middens or lodges) that look to the casual observer like large piles of sticks.  These domed structures can reach up to five feet high and as much as eight feet wide.  Woodrats in the genus Neotoma are also known as packrats, so named for their curious habit of stealing, stashing and hoarding found objects, particularly shiny objects humans tend to leave lying about. 

So perhaps the elfin forest is home to a few mischievous (and furry) woodland sprites after all!

The midden (den) of a Dusky-footed Woodrat

Friday, June 1, 2018

Into the Redwoods: Hike the Fern Canyon, James Irvine and Prairie Creek Trails

One year ago today, on the first of June, 2017, I awoke in the wee hours of the morning to the sound of Barred Owls caterwauling in the Coast Redwood tree directly above our tent.  That night, I drifted to sleep listening to the enchanting and ethereal melody of a Swainson's Thrush spiraling upwards into the canopy. 
And in between those two idyllic bookends to our day, Eric and I managed to hike six miles along the Prairie Creek Trail before lunch, and nearly six more miles along the James Irvine Trail after lunch.  (Just a short hike, I know *winks*) 
Hiking in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park
We saw an abundance of wildflowers and nearly every shade of green imaginable represented in the diverse plant life.  Forest birds serenaded us along the way: the energetic, effervescent song of the Pacific Wren, the single whistle of the Varied Thrush, the taunting two-part "hey you" call of the Pacific-slope Flycatcher, so often heard, so rarely seen.  (Dense forest environments like this are when birding by ear becomes so valuable!)
This ferny paradise known as the Coast Redwood Forest occurs along the Pacific Coast from extreme southern Oregon south to California's Big Sur area, becoming slightly more dry farther south.  Redwood State and National Parks lie within the heart of redwood country, preserving some of the largest, oldest and best remaining redwood groves.
And as I always say, the very best way to experience nature is to get out and immerse yourself in it!  You can drive through the redwoods along the Avenue of the Giants for a windshield experience (we tried it; I got bored with it and was antsy to get out of the car) but the best experiences will come with your feet planted on solid (though perhaps spongy) earth beneath a canopy of impossibly tall redwood trees.  Immersed in a green world of ferns and fronds, the pressures of busy life melt away into the silent fog. 
I always recommend a stop by the visitor center (or nature center or natural history museum or informational kiosk, whatever is available!) to pick up a map and informative brochure, and to give yourself a quick fifteen-minute education on your new surroundings.  Thus oriented, you're ready to strike out for new discoveries on the trail!  Most well-trafficked nature areas (National and State Parks, refuges, reserves and the like) have paved or well-graded trails that are both short and level (often with additional informative signs) for a quick tour near the visitor center parking lot.  These experiences are ideal for those with mobility issues, small children, older folks and those with only a short amount of time.  As much as I love my 12+ mile days of hiking in remote wildernesses, I almost always do the short, touristy visitor center loop walk first (or last, or at some point in the day). 
Contemplating the immense scale of Coast Redwoods
If you're feeling more ambitious, talk to a ranger or consult a map to find a trail with a suitable length and level of difficulty to meet your needs.  (Confession: we don't always climb mountains!  Sometimes a flat, two-mile saunter is preferable, and that's just fine.  We tried the Cathedral Tree trail on our "rest day"... though Eric will be the first you tell you that hike ended up being over four miles long anyway.  So much for a rest!)
A mossy maple arches over a section of the Cathedral Tree Trail near the visitor center
at Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park
In Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, I highly recommend two trails, which can be combined into a loop for a long day hike (nearly 12 miles, with an elevation gain of 1350 feet), or broken into more manageable chunks: the Miner's Ridge and James Irvine trails, including popular Fern Canyon and Gold Bluffs Beach. 
Fern Canyon
This loop is one of the best redwood hikes out there, passing from redwood-covered ridges into a ferny creek canyon and finally opening up onto a wild shoreline of unsurpassed rugged beauty where you're likely to see more elk than humans.
A remote stretch of Gold Bluffs Beach
The next day, perhaps after camping at either Gold Bluffs Beach or Elk Prairie campground, venture out on the Prairie Creek trail which follows a stream and wends through lush groves of redwoods and tangles of bright green maples and ferns.  Keep your eyes open for delightful forest surprises, like Pacific Giant Salamanders! 

Pacific Giant Salamander

If you're unable to make it all the way to Redwood National and State Parks, other excellent places to visit Coast Redwood Forests include Grizzly Creek State Park (where you can camp along the Van Duzen River and wander paths where scenes of Return of the Jedi were filmed), Humboldt Redwoods State Park, Muir Woods National Monument (though not on a weekend) and Mount Tamalpias State Park (try the Steep Ravine Trail - it's worth the climb and includes a fun wooden ladder), Big Basin Redwoods State Park, and both Pfeiffer Big Sur and Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Parks.

And when your hike is done and you're back in camp, spread a blanket out on the forest floor and relax, gazing up at the world's tallest trees.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Identification Tips for Tricky Species Pairs: Western & Clark's Grebes

In the world of ornithology, there exist what I like to think of as species pairs: two very closely related species that look very similar and cause no small amount of frustration and confusion for the beginning birder.  Some species become familiar and easily distinguishable from each other with practice, while others remain much more confusing, even to experts.  Some species pairs are best told apart by range and voice alone!

A familiar pair in California during the winter months, Snow Geese and Ross's Geese are one such example of two species that share the same range and may even be seen together.  Though at a glance they look almost the same, their physical differences lie in their size and proportions (bill proportions and head shape especially) and a few other slight differences.  In field guides, they look impossibly similar, but in real life, the differences are clear: each species has a completely unique "feel" (known to birders as "jizz," referring to all the characteristics of a bird which, when taken together, make up the overall impression of that species).  Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers are two other quite similar species, best distinguished by proportions.

How can I tell a bird is a Ross's Goose (left) rather than a Snow Goose (above)?  I just know it is one, without even thinking about size, head shape, relative bill size, the shape and color of the bill or absence/presence of a "grin patch"!  It just looks and feels like a Ross's Goose.  The same goes for a Downy vs. Hairy woodpecker.  It comes with practice and familiarity.  (Maybe it's a little like how parents and close relatives can tell apart twins so easily, while other acquaintances struggle.)

Other species pairs are best told apart by range, like Nuttall's and Ladder-backed Woodpeckers, or Pacific-slope and Cordilleran Flycatchers (all birds of the Western United States).  In California, the ranges of the very similarly-patterned and sized Nuttall's and Ladder-backed Woodpeckers overlap very little, and it's almost safe to assume that if you're in an oak or riparian area, it's a Nuttall's, while the Ladder-backed is restricted to dry desert areas of the southeastern part of the state. 

Field guides generally say that Pacific-slope and Cordilleran Flycatchers are "essentially identical" to each other in appearance and are best told apart by range and voice.  West of the Sierra-Cascade axis, on the Pacific slope, you're likely to find the Pacific-slope Flycatcher, while the range of the Cordilleran Flycatcher is restricted to areas east of this axis.  (But the line is entirely arbitrary and their ranges do overlap, the Pacific-slope Flycatcher ranging east into Cordilleran territory.)

My best attempt at capturing a distant Pacific-slope Flycatcher last weekend at Montana de Oro State Park (San Luis Obispo county).  Cordilleran Flycatchers look pretty much exactly the same, and until the 1980's the two were considered one species, the Western Flycatcher.

In one of the most confusing cases of species pairs, it's only possible to distinguish an Allen's from a Rufous Hummingbird with any certainty by looking at a male during the breeding season, on his breeding ground, and getting a good look at his tail feathers.  During migration, you can pretty much forget telling these two apart with absolute certainty, unless you're an expert at measuring tail feathers and have the good fortune of holding a male Rufous/Allen's Hummingbird in your hand in order to do so. 

While the photo quality is poor, I feel confident calling this guy an Allen's Hummingbird, as his back showed green and he was seen in late May in coastal chaparral (Montana de Oro State Park, San Luis Obispo county), quintessential breeding habitat for this species.

Luckily for those new to birding, these confusing pairs are the exception, not the norm, and with practice it does get easier! 

Western and Clark's Grebes are two species whose ranges and habitats overlap; they may even be seen paddling together on the same lake!  And while at first glance one may think these two birds are the same species (see the photo below), there is one easy way to tell these two apart (well... at least during the breeding season...)

Clark's Grebe (left/foreground) & Western Grebe (right/background)

First, we'll compare the black caps of the two birds above, which is the easiest, most obvious way to differentiate between Western and Clark's Grebes.  The black cap of the Clark's Grebe ends well above the eye, as seen in the bird in the left or foreground of the photo above.  On the Western Grebe, the black cap extends all the way to the eye and below.

Bill color differs slightly between the two species as well.  Clark's Grebes have brighter yellow or yellow-orange bills, while the bills of Western Grebes tend to be a bit more olive-yellow in color.

The two species often show subtle differences in overall color as well, with the Western Grebe being darker than the Clark's Grebe.  Both species have black stripes running down the back of their necks, which can be used as an aid in identification as well.  The Clark's Grebe has a thin stripe (below left), while the Western Grebe has a thick stripe (below right).

Clark's Grebe - thin hind stripe
Western Grebe - thick hind stripe

Hopefully these tips will help you confidently identify your next Western or Clark's Grebe!

I will note that Sibley's field guide states that during the winter, some birds that appear intermediate between the two species are unidentifiable... and may actually be hybrids.  See this post on hybrid gulls for more identification tips for confusing groups of birds!

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Antics of the Scaly-breasted Munia

When I called Eric from the hotel in San Luis Obispo to tell him that I had seen a new species on my travels (new to me, not new to science!), he asked, what exactly is a "Scaly-breasted Munia"? 
"It sounds more like a lizard than a bird!" 

Perhaps, but the "scales" aren't scales at all - the name comes from the lovely, intricate, lacy pattern of feathers on their breast.  Maybe "Lacy-breasted Munia" would sound more appealing.  Other names of the Scaly-breasted Munia (Lonchura punctulata) include Nutmeg Mannikin and Spice Finch, names commonly used in the pet trade.

The brownish, sparrow-sized Scaly-breasted Munia is an Estrildid finch (family Estrildidae) indigenous to the Old World tropics.  Their native range spans Southeast Asia, India, the Philippines and Indonesia.  They were introduced in the New World through the pet trade (their beauty and gregarious nature apparently make them endearing pets, to some...) and escaped birds have been successfully establishing wild populations in California since the 1980's.

Scaly-breasted Munias are highly social birds, foraging and roosting together in large flocks.  In their native range, they are birds of tropical grasslands where they feed largely on grass seed as well as some small berries.  In California, where populations have become established in some coastal locations (especially in Southern California), they are generally associated with weedy areas like vacant lots and riparian areas.  They especially favor areas of marshy vegetation and reeds where grassland and water meet.  I found this gregarious and entertaining flock of nearly 30 individuals feeding on grass seed along the trail beside Laguna Lake in San Luis Obispo.

No, Scaly-breasted Munias are not "supposed" to be here in California, and yes, I generally have a problem with introduced species.  A species' ability to survive outside its native range is a testament to its adaptability and competitive life strategy; for a species to really  thrive in a new place, like European Starlings and House Sparrows have done across the entire North American continent, shows just how well those birds can out-compete native species.  Boisterous, bullying European Starlings and House Sparrows regularly outcompete our native Western Bluebirds and Tree Swallows, pushing them out of nest cavities which leads to the reproductive success of the non-native species and the failure of the natives.  It's an issue I like to draw attention to.

And yes, I also have a problem with the pet trade in general, and the exotic bird trade in particular.  There are facts and figures out there that truly make my blood boil, and no shortage of images that make me want to throw up my hands in despair and just have a good cry.  And lest you think this is something that only happens on the other side of the world, I assure you, it is not.  This is a very real problem here in California

So of course, while watching the entertaining antics of this flock of beautiful birds, these were the thoughts going through my head: the issue of invasive species, the cruelty of the pet trade.  (You're welcome for bringing that little ray of sunshine into your day.) 

But I don't intend to cause despair!  I only hope we can begin thinking about our actions and about what we owe to other living beings - humans, animals, the entire beautiful planet we have been blessed with.  Next time you see an exotic bird - be it a parrot at a zoo or a starling (or munia) in your yard - let them serve as a reminder to pause and think about the issues they represent.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

New Plants to Love in California's Coastal Sage Scrub

California is a large state, spanning 10 degrees of latitude and over 1,000 miles from north to south.  It covers just over 163,000 square miles and elevations range from 282 feet below sea level at Badwater Basin in Death Valley to about 14,500 feet atop Mt. Whitney (that number varies by about ten feet depending on who you ask).

Needless to say, though I've traveled to all four corners of the state, up it's rugged coast and down it's spectacular spine (the Sierra Nevada) I haven't even begun to scratch the surface in terms of visiting every little nook and cranny, every hidden gem our diverse state has to offer the intrepid naturalist.

I've been traveling recently (thanks to a cousin's wedding), and found myself in a new-to-me part of our state: San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties.  And of course, as is always the case when visiting new places, there are new natural wonders to behold: new birds (like Scaly-breasted Munias - stay tuned), new plants (see below)... and one mysterious insect with a very painful sting (another story for another day). 

We hiked predominately in the coastal sage scrub (soft chaparral) plant communities of Montana de Oro State Park, around Morro Bay and the hills around the La Purisima Mission in Lompoc.  I've written before about Coyote Brush (Baccharis pilularis) and it's role in the chaparral and northern coastal scrub plant communities of northern California.  But south of Big Sur, northern coastal scrub grades into coastal sage scrub, which differs slightly from its northern counterpart in that it includes sages (Salvia spp.). 

Two common plants of coastal sage scrub: sticky monkeyflower (orange flowers in background)
and black sage (purple flowers in foreground)

Sticky monkeyflower (Diplacus aurantiacus

Here, in the coastal sage scrub, sages (Salvia spp.) mingle with sticky monkeyflower (Diplacus aurantiacus) to create a display of blooms that rival any garden display (above), and morning glories (Calystegia macrostegia) ramble through coyote brush in pale pink profusion

Morning glories twine amongst coyote brush and other shrubs of coastal sage scrub

Morning glories (Calystegia macrostegia)

California lilac (Ceanothus spp.) and manzanita (Arctostaphylos spp.) cover the hills, punctuated by the fragrant gray-green foliage of California sagebrush (Artemisia californica) and buckwheats (Eriogonum spp.). 

The view from the top of an ancient sand dune above La Purisima Mission, Lompoc.

But, amidst all these familiar faces, I discovered a beautiful flowering plant, entirely new to me: Prickly Phlox (Linanthus californicus).

Prickly Phlox

Though I had never before made the acquaintance of this lovely plant, it was immediately recognizable as a member of the phlox family (Polemoniaceae).  From there, all it took was a quick search on Calflora to confirm its identity.

Prickly Phlox, growing on ancient sand dunes in Lompoc

A beautiful fragrance alerted me to the presence of another new plant, and it was easily love at first whiff.  Horkelia (Horkelia cuneata) is a rather inconspicuous little perennial herb in the rose family (Rosaceae) which grows along the coast of central and southern California in association with coastal strand (dune) plant communities, as well as chaparral, northern coastal scrub and coastal sage scrub, perfuming the air with its enticing fragrance.  Seriously, I wish there was a way you could smell the photo below...

Horkelia: inconspicuous flowers, incredibly fragrant foliage!

If you're interested in botany and would like to learn how to identify plants in the wild, I highly recommend starting by learning the characteristics of a few of our most common plant families.  This was the method I was taught while studying botany in college, and it's the method I use every time I go out.  In fact, I do this now without even thinking about it!  I could tell you at a glance that the Horkelia above is in the rose family (Rosaceae) without even thinking about numbers of petals or stamens; it just has the "feel" of a member of the rose family. 

You probably don't need to know the Latin name of every plant or wildflower you encounter, but being able to tell what family it is in will go along way to help you identify the plant to species (or at least genus) if you so desire.

I recommend starting with a few of the most common plant families in California (not including the grasses and sedges, which are pretty tricky):

Then you can add a few more families, like:

Clearly this topic deserves its own post (I can get carried away with botany...)  But once you learn the characteristics of the world's major plant families, you will be able to identify new plants you find anywhere you travel, from city parks to wilderness trails all across the globe. 

For now, I'll leave you with a book I enjoy and recommend: California Plant Families: West of the Sierran Crest and Deserts

Happy botanizing!

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Red Admiral

Spring is a beautiful time in California's Great Central Valley - the grass is green, the wildflowers are in bloom, the wetlands and woodlands are teeming with new life.  But the season is all too short!  Soon, very soon, the heat will descend and the mercury will remain high until October or so.  In other words, get outside now, while the weather is pleasant!  May is an excellent time to catch the songbird migration through the Valley: flycatchers, vireos, warblers are particularly abundant during this season.
But even if you miss the small, flighty songbirds this spring, there is another type of winged wonder to capture the attention of the naturalist: butterflies! 
Red Admiral on Brassica flowers, San Joaquin River NWR
The Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta) is a familiar butterfly across North America.  It's colorful wings, which span nearly three inches, make it distinct enough to be accurately identified by beginning lepidopterologists (entomologists who specialize in the study of lepidopterans - butterflies and moths) - such as myself!
Red Admirals are members of the Brushfoot family of butterflies (Nymphalidae).  The Brush-footed butterflies make up the world's largest butterfly family, and include such beloved species as the Monarch, as well as our friends the California Sister (which shares a similar color scheme with the Red Admiral), Common Buckeye, Painted Ladycommas, and tortoiseshells.

These widespread butterflies seem to owe their success at least in part to their ability to adapt to a wide variety of habitats, from forests and riparian areas to gardens and city parks.  Host plants (on which females lay eggs and caterpillars feed) include those in the nettle family (Urticaceae). 

Adults feed on fermenting fruit, tree sap and bird droppings (which is actually quite a common butterfly behavior  known as "mud puddling," whereby butterflies obtain salts and amino acids from unorthodox sources such as dung, carrion and mud).  When these food sources are unavailable, the Red Admiral will dine on more "typical" butterfly fare, the nectar of flowers like milkweed, clover, aster, and, in this case, Brassicas.

I can't encourage you enough to get outside this spring and see for yourself what natural wonders are in store beyond the bustle of city life and the transfixing power of screens.  It seems like almost every time I go out during the warmer months, I discover another new butterfly to add to my life list of lepidopterans!  So you see, I'm still learning, and always will be!