Friday, February 16, 2018

Plant Profile: California Barrel Cactus (Ferocactus cylindraceus)

Spring is creeping up on us, and plans for our annual springtime pilgrimage to the desert of southern California are underway!  Abundant and well-timed rain the past two years have produced prolific displays of wildflowers in places like Death Valley and Joshua Tree National Parks, Mojave National Preserve, and Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.  (Carrizo Plain, a western outlier of San Joaquin Valley grassland, also put on a phenomenal show last year.) 

This year, the forecast for wildflowers is not so promising, but I'm keeping my hopes up anyway!  Regardless of blooms, beautiful and captivating things always await discovery in our deserts.  I find the sculptural shapes of those favorite of desert denizens, the cacti, attractive at any time.

California Barrel Cactus, it's crown of yellow blossoms just beginning to open in April,
Joshua Tree National Park.

The California Barrel Cactus (Ferocactus cylindraceus) is a well-known species of cactus throughout its range in the Sonoran and Mojave desert.  Barrel cacti in the genus Ferocactus are found across the deserts of Mexico and Baja California, and four species grow in the American Southwest; only one, the California Barrel Cactus, is found in our state.  They are typically found growing along desert washes, below canyon walls, and on bajadas (gravely slopes of alluvial material) in the Mojave and Sonoran deserts.

Yellow flowers grow in a crown around the top of the plant, blooming from April through June; the fleshy fruits which follow are also bright yellow.  The stems of barrel cacti (really, the whole thing is a giant modified stem) are covered in spines of varying sizes.  Large, fierce spines (Ferocactus literally means "fierce cactus") repel desert critters that might otherwise nibble on the succulent tissue, and the smaller spines provide a measure of protection against the scorching sun by reflecting some of the sunlight and shading the stem.

The flowers must be pollinated in order to set fruit and produce seed, and native solitary bees (not European colonial honeybees) pollinate barrel cacti almost exclusively.  Though known for their hardiness, cacti do eventually reach the end of their lives and when they do, dead cactus tissue provides a habitat for numerous species of beetles, which in turn feed many other desert animals.  Everybody has an important role to the play in the delicate balance of a desert ecosystem.

A close-up of barrel cactus flowers, which are pollinated almost exclusively by cactus-specialist solitary bees.

Though these cacti are cylindrical and distinctly barrel-shaped, they are not filled with water quite as one would imagine.  Rather than being full of water like a barrel, their spiny stems contain wet, spongy tissue.  The soggy pulp inside the stem can be a source of water in an emergency situation, but remember that these cacti are protected in many places and these slow-growing beauties should never be vandalized or removed from the wild!

Native people have long relied on the barrel cactus' flowers and seeds as a source of food; I have also read that the large stems were sometimes hollowed out to fashion cooking pots, and the cactus spines were used as needles.

Barrel cacti growing on a rocky slope along the Rings Trail in Mojave National Preserve.
Bonus photos below, taken just around the corner from the picture above: Petroglyphs at Mojave National Preserve.  

Found along the Rings Trail near Hole-in-the-Wall campground, this rock art is evidence of this region's human past.  The petroglyphs are estimated to be between 10,000 and 12,000 years old, probably made by the ancestors of the Chemehuevi people (a branch of Southern Paiute) or Mojave people as they lived, sheltered or rested in these rocky outcroppings.  Surely these desert inhabitants were familiar with the barrel cactus and its many uses.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

University of California's California Naturalist Program

It's an exciting time of the year: the California Naturalist Certification Program is starting up again at the UC Merced Vernal Pools & Grasslands Reserve!

I graduated from this program two years ago, and highly recommend it for anyone interested in the nature of California.  Naturalist courses prepare invested individuals for active roles as naturalists and citizen scientists in their local communities.  The goal of the program is to turn everyday citizens into engaged naturalists who take part in local natural resource conservation, citizen science projects, education, and restoration.

Courses are taught by teams of expert naturalists, and include guest speakers, field trips and hands-on projects.

Topics covered by the 10-week course include:
  • San Joaquin Valley and Sierra Nevada foothill ecology
  • Nature interpretation (how to teach others about nature)
  • Wildlife and plant communities
  • Water and aquatic ecosystems
  • California geology and soils
  • Bird study
  • Invertebrates and insects
  • Global environmental issues and climate change
  • Vernal pool ecology
  • Rangeland ecology
  • Wildflower identification
  • Nature journaling and sketching
(As listed on this year's flyer.)

Visit the website and check out this year's flyer for more information, including class times and registration. 

UC Merced isn't the only location where these classes are held!  If you're located anywhere in California, chances are there is a naturalist certification program near you.  Visit the website (follow the link here) to find one of the 45 locations nearest you!

Yours truly, proudly wearing my California Naturalist hat while birding on the coast.

The statewide California Naturalist Program is a fantastic way to get your feet wet in the world of natural history.  It is a suitable introduction for anyone who has a passion for and curiosity about the world around us, specifically those who want to know more (What is this wildflower called?  What bird is that?  What is the best way to manage our wildlands?) but don't know where to start.  The classes are a great way to get back in the classroom if you've been out for a while, but equally appealing to current students who want to add a little something extra to their resume.  The class I was a part of consisted of retired folks, college students, teachers eager to pass on natural history knowledge to their students, landowners, and all sorts of interested people in between.

Naturalists are something of a rarity these days, as we become more and more disconnected from the natural world as a society.  These classes are an excellent way to take the first step you may need to become reacquainted with the natural world.

If you too would like to "promote environmental literacy and stewardship through discovery and action," the California Naturalist program is definitely worth checking out!  Besides the great information available through the program, and the nifty certificate you will earn... it is a huge amount of fun!

Friday, February 9, 2018

A California Endemic: Lawrence's Goldfinch

Although some finches may be lumped together with other LBJs, the Lawrence's Goldfinch is unlikely to be mistaken for anything else.  This stunning little goldfinch is a special bird to Californian naturalists, as it is nearly endemic to our state (some also breed in northern Baja California).  

Lawrence's Goldfinches are migratory birds, and exhibit highly erratic patterns of movement from year to year.  This makes them a rather unpredictable species; they may have successfully bred in one location last year, but that doesn't ensure they will return this year.  Their unpredictable movements also make assessing the health and stability of their populations difficult. 

Scientists suspect their yearly movements may be partially determined by the presence of water and food sources - namely, seed crops.  Unlike most birds that migrate north to south between summer and winter, Lawrence's Finches move from east to west, wintering as far east as Arizona and New Mexico, and moving west into California to breed.

Like other goldfinches, Lawrence's prefers open habitats, often visiting chaparral areas and weedy fields in search of the seeds of annual plants that make up the bulk of its diet (fiddleneck and chamise are two favorites).  These finches prefer perching on plants and picking off seeds to foraging on the ground.  Lawrence's Goldfinches nest in trees, and breeding habitat includes riparian areas, oak woodlands, pinyon-juniper woodlands and chaparral.

Though this species appears stable, its somewhat mysterious nature means that it could quietly suffer decline without much notice.  Like so many birds, it is threatened by loss of the open habitat it depends on.

These photos were all taken at Carrizo Plain National Monument last spring, where Eric and I encountered a flock foraging near the KCL campground.  I hope to be fortunate enough to encounter another flock of Lawrence's Goldfinches during my wildland wanderings this year, since one never knows where they might turn up!  Seeing these beautiful, uncommon, endemic birds is always a huge treat!

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

The Savannah Sparrow: Not Just Another "Little Brown Job"

The group of birds casually referred to by birders as "Little Brown Jobs," or LBJs, is perhaps the group that is most commonly feared and therefore frequently avoided by beginning birders.  While anything small and drab could be considered a Little Brown Job, the group typically includes wrens, finches and, perhaps most often, sparrows.
Ah yes, the sparrows, in all their abundant shades of brown diversity.
But, as I am fond of saying, there is always more to something than what first appears when we take a moment to slow down and really look.
The Savannah Sparrow, for instance, has a beautiful feature that readily distinguishes it from other LBJs: adult birds have a sunny yellow patch between their bill and eyes. 

Savannah Sparrows are indeed brown, with white underparts and delicate streaking.  The crisp markings across their body give them a neat and tidy appearance.  Other distinguishing features include a tail that is short relative to the body, a small but stout pink bill, and almost absurdly long toes.  (You've probably never looked closely at a sparrow's toes until today.  You're welcome.)

Savannah Sparrows are one of my favorite sparrows, and I encounter them regularly in the Great Central Valley throughout most of the year.  Savannah Sparrows inhabit open areas of low vegetation, such as grasslands, marshlands, farmland, even tundra in the summer, though they are not named after the savannah-like habitat they favor; they were named by a 19th century ornithologist for a specimen collected in Savannah, Georgia.  Even so, the name is a good way to remember where you are likely to encounter this sparrow! 
These birds range across nearly the entire North American continent, from northern Canada and Alaska in the summer to Mexico and Central America in the winter.  In California, they can be seen in the Central Valley from September through May, but remain on the coast and, to a lesser extent, in the Sierra Nevada year-round.  Along the coast, Savannah Sparrows inhabit open tidal salt marshes, environments that have been severely reduced over the last century-and-a-half.  (I see them consistently near the salt marshes around Moss Landing Harbor.)
Savannah Sparrows are ground-foragers, consuming nutritionally rich insects during the breeding season and switching almost entirely to a diet of small seeds during the winter months.  The flight of the Savannah Sparrow is usually quick and low as it moves through the grassland, seeking food and cover from predators.  This darting behavior can make watching (and photographing) them a challenge!  But males do perch conspicuously to sing and defend their territory. 

Though they are one of the most numerous songbirds in North America, the Savannah Sparrow often goes unnoticed, or brushed off as just another LBJ.  Don't let that be your experience with this exquisite little bird!  Take the time to admire and really get to know this one.  You'll be glad that you did!

For more on little brown sparrows, check out these articles:
Common Sparrow ID Tips (English House Sparrow, White-crowned Sparrow & Song Sparrow)
Lincoln's Sparrow
White-crowned Sparrow
Rufous-crowned Sparrow
Bell's Sparrow

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

American White Pelicans: A Peek at California's Avifaunal Past

Large and white, with a distinctly prehistoric appearance, flocks of American White Pelicans (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos) are one of the great avian sights of California's Great Central Valley, paddling in shallow inland lakes and marshes, and soaring high above on thermals.

American White Pelicans at San Luis NWR

Like so many species, the American White Pelican is one that is past its heyday in the Great Central Valley.  Historically, flocks of these magnificent birds bred in the southern San Joaquin Valley (Kings, Tulare, and Kern counties) until Tulare Lake and its surrounding wetlands were drained in the 1930's.  (Pelicans bred sporadically in the area until 1941, according to Evens and Tait in their Introduction to California Birdlife.)  Other former breeding sites include the remote sloughs of the lower Sacramento River, the Salton Sea, and the Colorado River Delta. 

Today, their breeding range in California has been reduced to the northeastern corner of the state (largely in Modoc, Siskiyou and Lassen counties) where they breed with regularity at Lower Klamath and Clear Lake National Wildlife Refuges.  Outside of California, American White Pelicans breed in the prairie regions of the U.S. and Canada, requiring shallow wetlands and lakes dotted with isolated islands for suitable nesting habitat. 

Most populations are migratory, but American White Pelicans can be found in the Central Valley throughout the year, though perhaps more frequently during the fall and winter months.  Though American White Pelicans persist in secluded wetlands of the Great Central Valley, their days as breeders here have passed.

Pelicans nest in large colonies and require fairly remote breeding sites with an abundance of food (fish).  The entire population of American White Pelicans nests in fewer than 60 colonies.  These large birds nest on the ground in areas with good visibility, as they are quite vulnerable to predators during the nesting period, including coyote and foxes, gulls, ravens, Bald Eagles and Great Horned Owls.  White Pelicans are able to range widely in order to forage for fish during the breeding season, and studies indicate that pelicans breeding in the Great Basin of western Nevada repeatedly fly over the Sierra Nevada to forage in the Central Valley.

Pelicans feed on fish by scooping them up into the large pouches that hang from their bills, or tipping bottom-up like an enormous duck.  After draining the water from their pouch, they swallow the fish whole.  Often, groups of pelicans will work together to herd fish into shallow water to make feeding easier.  (They do not plunge-dive like coastal Brown Pelicans.)

The primary cause of the decline of American White Pelicans has been habitat loss, as much of their interior freshwater breeding habitat has been drained for land "reclamation" and agricultural endeavors.  During the late 1800's and early 1900's, they were also killed in large numbers as they were perceived as competitors to sport fishermen and their plumage was valuable for adorning ladies' hats (much like that of Snowy and Great Egrets).

Loss of habitat for foraging and nesting are still concerns today, as is human disturbance.  Almost the entire western population of American White Pelicans passes through the Salton Sea area during the nonbreeding season, which is a cause for some concern.  As is the case with all species that gather nearly their entire population together in one place, these great birds are susceptible to catastrophic losses due to disease outbreaks. 

American White Pelicans are large birds, with a 9-foot wingspan and weight of nearly 20 pounds. Although they are among the world's heaviest flying birds, they are very elegant in flight, often seen high above soaring gracefully or very slowly flapping their long wings.  Frequently, I spot flocks of pelicans flying high, high above the Central Valley, their black-tipped white wings almost too high up to discern with the naked eye. 

To see these impressive birds for yourself, head out to one of our local wildlife refuges: I highly recommend Merced or San Luis NWR, where I saw this flock a few days ago.  A soaring flock of American White Pelicans is a captivating, prehistoric sight I hope will continue to be common in California's Great Central Valley.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Coyote Brush of California's Coastal Scrub and Chaparral

In addition to being a birder's dream come true, California and its wide range of floristic provinces is a treat for botanists as well.  Coyote Brush (Baccharis pilularis), an evergreen shrub in the sunflower family (Asteraceae), is characteristic of several of California's unique plant communities, from coastal scrub to foothill chaparral. 
Coyote Brush provides valuable wildlife habitat at San Luis National Wildlife Refuge, Merced County
Coyote Brush is characteristic of the Northern Coastal Scrub and Coastal Sage Scrub plant communities and closely associated with adjacent closed-cone pine forests.  It is also a characteristic component of foothill chaparral.  The coastal scrub communities are referred to as "soft chaparral," since the leaves are literally softer than those of the true "hard chaparral" and landscapes of soft chaparral have an overall softer appearance.
Northern Coastal Scrub is found directly inland from the beaches, dunes and coastal bluffs of Northern California.  It differs from the Coastal Prairie (which consists primarily of grasses and is now largely destroyed) and the Coastal Strand (comprised of low-growing plants like sand verbena and beach evening primrose) in that Northern Coastal Scrub contains a high number of shrubs.  And one of these is Coyote Brush. 
Northern Coastal Scrub, predominately consisting of Coyote Brush, near Stinson Beach, Marin County.
South of Big Sur, Northern Coastal Scrub transitions to its southern counterpart, Coastal Sage Scrub, which is found along the coast into Baja California.  Here sages (Salvia spp.) are present which are absent in the north.  The soft chaparral community of the coast provides breeding habitat for Allen's Hummingbirds (Selasphorus sasin) and Nuttall's White-crowned Sparrows (Zonotrichia leucophrys nuttalli).  A great number of bird species are associated with Coyote Brush along the coast.  Most commonly, these include: Wrentit, Bewick's Wren, American Goldfinch, California Quail, Nuttall's White-crowned Sparrow, California and Spotted Towhees, California Thrasher.
Bewick's Wren in the leaf litter beneath Coyote Brush, San Joaquin River NWR, Stanislaus County
Coyote Brush grows close to the ground where it is effectively "pruned" by wind, as on the coast.  In protected sites and farther inland, it can grow over 6 feet tall.  The small leaves of Coyote Brush are covered in a waxy coating to aid in the plant's ability to withstand drought and deter herbivores.  This shrub is also well-adapted to fire, readily re-sprouting after a blaze.
Coyote Brush as part of Northern Coastal Scrub at Salinas River NWR, Monterey County
Coyote Brush is dioecious, which means that male and female flowers are produced on separate plants; each plant is either male or female. 
Backing up a little to Botany 101, we must remember that not all plants produce "perfect" flowers, with male and female parts occuring on the same flower - for example, the stamen (male) and pistil (female) that occur on each rose flower.  Plants that produce "imperfect" flowers - flowers lacking one of the reproductive parts - are either dioecious, with separate male and female plants, or monoecious, with separate male and female flowers occurring together on one plant. 

Male flowers on a strictly male Coyote Brush

A few other dioecious plants you may be familiar with are hollies; in order to get those lovely red berries, you have to plant a female holly bush, with a male nearby.  Ginkgo trees are also dioecious, but you'd better plant only male ginkgos, or you will find yourself with a mess of extremely stinky fruit every year! 

Oaks are familiar examples of monoecious plants, with conspicuous male catkins and inconspicuous female flowers.  Squash plants also produce separate male and female flowers, which is why it's okay to pick the male squash flowers for garnish and not worry that half of the plant's flowers didn't produce fruit - a valuable lesson from my years as an organic market farmer!
There is your impromptu botany lesson for the day!

Coyote Brush blooms in the fall, from about August through December.  It is pollinated by native bees, parasitic wasps and small butterflies.  The fruit is very small, borne on a fluffy tuft of white "hairs," reminiscent of a miniature dandelion.  Like dandelions (also members of Asteraceae), Coyote Brush seeds are dispersed by the wind.
Female Coyote Brush flowers, dispersing their fluffy seeds.

Though Coyote Brush is typically associated with chaparral and scrub plant communities on the coast and in the foothills, it can also be found in the Great Central Valley.  It has been planted extensively along the levee roads at the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge, along with California Wild Rose (Rosa californica) and Blue Elderberry (Sambucus nigra), to provide cover for endangered Riparian Brush Rabbits when the low-lying parts of the refuge are flooded (which is a natural part of the restoration of the river's flood plain).  Since 1999, River Partners and the San Joaquin River NWR have been working toward the goal of restoring habitat for endangered Riparian Brush Rabbit and Valley Elderberry Longhorn Beetle, as well as conserving habitat for riparian bird species, like the Yellow Warbler and endangered Least Bell's Vireo.  Coyote Brush has been a valuable part of restoration efforts, and today, California Thrashers, formerly driven out of the valley by habitat loss, can be seen and heard singing from the tops of Coyote Brush.
Coyote Brush along the levees at San Joaquin River NWR, Stanislaus County, provides valuable wildlife habitat.

In addition to restoration plantings, Coyote Brush also works well in native plant landscapes at home, particularly the low-growing ground cover form, 'Pigeon Point.'  Most landscape cultivars are male, to avoid fluffy seeds blowing all over the yard.  Sometimes called Chaparral Broom, Coyote Brush is not to be confused with the non-native and highly invasive yellow-flowered Scotch Broom that is used in the landscape industry and has escaped captivity much to the detriment of California's coastal scrub and chaparral communities!

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Rock Wrens at Knight's Ferry

The Rock Wren (Salpinctes obsoletus) is a bird of the arid western United States, associated with rocky areas - as the name would suggest.  Light brown in color, this is our palest wren.  It might not look like much at first glance, but closer inspection of this little bird's plumage reveals intricate patterns of delicate spangles and flecks.

Rock Wrens inhabit varied areas of exposed rock, from deserts to alpine regions.  I see them regularly along the rocky bluffs above the Stanislaus River near the town of Knight's Ferry.  Perched on top of rocks, they bob up and down exhibiting their characteristic "deep knee bend" behavior.  In the Knight's Ferry area, Rock Wrens share their habitat with Canyon Wrens, which can be distinguished from Rock Wrens by their rusty red backs and bright white chests.

Like Canyon Wrens, Rock Wrens are not known to drink water, and obtain all the liquid they need from their food: insects and arthropods foraged from the ground.  Rock Wrens nest in the cracks and crevices among rocks, building loose nest cups of plant material.  Curiously, these wrens are known for creating a "paved" pathway of small stones leading to the nest cavity.