Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Notable Monotropes: Snow Plants & Pinedrops

A week or two ago, while hiking in the Wawona area of Yosemite National Park (taking in the glorious fall colors and hoping beyond hope to see a Great Gray Owl), I came across a dried up stalk of Woodland Pinedrops (Pterospora andromedea) growing on the forest floor.  I'm sure most people would have walked right on by, but of course I was thrilled!  I stopped to take a bunch of photos (Eric wondered, I'm sure, what all the fuss was about over something so seemingly unspectacular) and once home, decided it was time to introduce you to a few of California's magnificent monotropes!

Dried stalk of Pinedrops - unassumingly beautiful!

Pinedrops are a lesser-known cousin of the showy Snow Plant (Sarcodes sanguinea), both of which are included in the heath family, Ericaceae.  Other plants in this family include California's 40+ manzanita species, John Muir's beloved Cassiope, the abundant Salal of the Pacific Northwest, and common favorites like rhododendrons, blueberries and huckleberries (plants with urn-shaped flowers).  But Snow Plants and Pinedrops are also considered members of the Indian-pipe subfamily, Monotropaceae, a group of mycoheterotrophs or mycoparasites, plants that obtain nutrients by parasitizing fungi.

Snow Plants have long been misclassified as saprophytes.

(And here we must stop to define saprophytes!  A saprophyte is an organism - a plant, fungus or microorganism - that lives on dead and decaying organic matter.  Ecologically, they are heterotrophs (consumers, like animals) rather than autotrophs (producers, like other plants) within the food web.  Fungi like the familiar and humble mushroom are common examples of saprophytic organisms.) 

Since Snow Plants and their kin lack chlorophyll and are therefore incapable of manufacturing their own sugars, they were once thought to belong to this group of saprophytes, living on dead organic matter.  But that turns out not to be entirely correct.

Snow Plant growing in forest humus at the foot of a pine

Snow Plants and Pinedrops, as well as other monotropes, may also be considered parasitic on the roots of the pine trees they are so commonly associated with, but that isn't quite the whole story either. 

To really get down to specifics, we must first understand the symbiotic relationship that exists between conifers and underground mycorrhizal fungi.  Then we can begin to understand that Snow Plants are actually parasites on this fungi, rather than on tree roots, obtaining nutrients from the mycorrhizae.  They are, in fact, mycoparasitic, a term meaning parasitic on fungi.

Mycorrhizae (a word which literally translates to "fungus-roots") are an essential part of the forest ecosystem, and many conifers (as well as other plants) depend on these fungi to live healthy lives.  Strands of cells called mycelia make up the mycorrhizae, growing in a web throughout the soil and root systems of forest plants.  Mycelia effectively become extensions of plants' root systems, enabling them to take in water and nutrients more efficiently.  The relationship is mutually beneficial, as the trees provide the fungi with energy (the products of the trees' photosynthesis, known as photosynthate) and the fungi provide the trees with a more efficient system of nutrient uptake. 

Snow Plants essentially steal some of this energy, or photosynthate, from the mycorrhizae, which had obtained it fairly from the trees by means of the aforementioned agreed upon exchange of goods and services.  Monotropes are then, essentially, fascinating little freeloaders.

Summer flowers of the Snow Plant

Though it may not look like it at first glance, the Snow Plant in bloom really is covered in little downward-pointing flowers and produces seeds when pollinated, just like other angiosperms.  It is considered an "herbaceous perennial wildflower," though alien-like fungi-creature might initially seem more appropriate!

The Snow Plant is not common, and belongs almost exclusively to California; some are found in Nevada and Oregon as well.  It grows up to 20 inches tall, and is found singly or in clusters on the floor of coniferous forests.  They thrive in the thick humus of the montane region from 4,000 to 8,000 feet in elevation.  Typically Snow Plants are in bloom from April or May to July, sometimes poking brave scarlet heads up through melting snow.  When you meet the Snow Plant, you are unlikely to mistake it for anything else!

November seed capsules of Pinedrops

Woodland Pinedrops are also covered in tiny flowers when in bloom, which generally happens during the late summer, though they seem to be particular little plants and cannot be depended on to come up every year.  Pinedrops are fairly uncommon, though their range covers much more of the United States than the Snow Plant.  Habitat preferences are similar to that of the Snow Plant and other monotropes, found growing on dark forest floors in association with conifers such as Ponderosa Pine and Douglas Fir.

California is home to a few other notable monotropes as well: Pinesap (Monotropa hypopitys) and Indian Pipe (Monotropa uniflora), both of Northern California; Sugar Stick (Allotropa virgata), Fringed Pinesap (Pleuricospora fimbriolata) and rare California Pinefoot (Pityopus californicus) of montane forests; and the redwood forests' own Gnome Plant (Hemitomes congestum). 

So, while birds and boughs beckon your gaze upward, next time you are strolling through the evergreens pay some attention to the dark forest floor as well and see what interesting plants may await your discovery there!

Friday, November 17, 2017

Northern Pintail

With delicate chocolate-brown heads and characteristically pointed tails, the Northern Pintail (Anas acuta) is the duck species I consider to be the most elegant.  Northern Pintails assemble in freshwater wetlands across the Great Central Valley during the winter months, and are usually one of the first species to arrive in great numbers, perhaps second only to Northern Shovelers.  Northern Pintails are quite common birds across North America, Europe and Asia and there's a good chance that you will encounter them on any trip to a Central Valley wetland or wildlife refuge between October and March.  (Though they do reside in the valley year-round and a few even breed here - I'm not sure where! - their numbers are highest in the winter when augmented by migrants from the far north.)

The summer breeding range of the Northern Pintail covers much of Canada (especially in the west) and Alaska, as well as northerly states such as Montana and the Dakotas.  Their preferred habitat is open, with low vegetation and wetlands, including tundra, prairie and farmland.  Nests of the Northern Pintail consist of shallow scrapes on the ground, concealed by grasses or brush and lined with downy feathers; typically they nest a considerable distance from the water (as much as half a mile).

Pintails are dabbling ducks (as opposed to diving ducks), filter feeding at the surface and turning tail-end-up in shallow water in search of food.  Plant matter such as weeds and seeds, as well as aquatic insects, mollusks and crustaceans make up the bulk of their diet. 

Since the 1960's, numbers of Northern Pintails have declined by 72% across their range, earning them the distinction of "Common Bird in Steep Decline."  Threats may include drought in their northern breeding range and, as always, habitat loss.

Read more here: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Northern_Pintail/id 
and here: http://www.audubon.org/field-guide/bird/northern-pintail

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Painted Lady Butterfly

The Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui) is quite the cosmopolitan butterfly.  Found on every continent except Australia and Antarctica, it is considered by some to be the world's most widely distributed butterfly.  Additionally, it is one of the most common and familiar butterflies across all of North America.  Certainly the Painted Lady is a species that merits getting to know! 

These pretty orange-and-black Lepidopterans are found in a variety of habitats, though they are perhaps most frequently encountered in open or disturbed areas, such as gardens and fields.  Females lay eggs on over a hundred different host plants, with thistles and mallows seemingly among their favorite.  Adults favor nectar from thistles and other members of the aster family, and will also partake of more standard butterfly fare, such as clover and milkweed.  Most of our Painted Ladies in California overwinter in the desert parts of the state near the southern border, and begin their northward migration in the spring.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Plant Profile: Jimsonweed (Datura wrightii)

When it comes to choosing topics to write on, I generally let the seasons dictate.  A walk outside reveals a host of ideas, and most often I like to write in keeping with current happenings in the natural cycle of seasons.  Hence, the autumn months ought to be filled with information on migrating Monarchs, colorful leaves and the fall salmon run.  But at other times, an older photo jogs a memory or a book sparks an idea and I'll find myself reminiscing about the springtime desert in the fall, or summer in the Sierra during the depths of winter.  At still other times, a topic might not be as far-fetched as it may seem.

Wildflowers, you might think, fall exclusively into the territory of spring and summer but that's not quite so, as California's mild Mediterranean climate tends to defy expectation.  With the start of what is supposed to be California's rainy season, autumn rather than spring marks the beginning of our growing season.  Hillsides that have lain golden and dormant during the long, dry summer (the real "winter" for plants here) begin to sprout with new growth: summer-dormant shrubs awaken and wildflower seeds in the dry earth begin to stir.  The seasons in California are effectively reversed, with a long, hot dormant period during the summer, and the "spring" growing season beginning in autumn.  Here in our Mediterranean climate, wildflowers come and go as they please, with something pleasant blooming at all months of the year.

And so it is that we find the dazzling white trumpet flowers of Jimsonweed (Datura wrightii) carpeting wasteland areas across the state, blooming continuously from early spring through late fall.  This oft-maligned plant is generally relegated to the realm of "weeds," but is in fact a native of California and the southwest.  It has a way of making the most of things, as all weeds do, and thriving in the most unlikely of places.  Look for Jimsonweed blooming along roadsides and other neglected places throughout much of the state (except maybe in the Sierra and northern mountains). Jimsonweed is at home on a variety of soil types from sand to clay and gets by on little water.

In honor of its exquisitely beautiful flowers, D. wrightii is also known by the names Angel's Trumpet and Moon Lily.  Jimsonweed is in the nightshade family (Solanaceae) along with our familiar garden tomatoes and potatoes.  But be aware that all parts of the Jimsonweed plant are potentially lethal if ingested, as suggested by still other common names: Devil's Trumpet, Deadly Nightshade and Locoweed.  During religious ceremonies, native people of the southwest used the plant for its narcotic properties, earning it the moniker Sacred Datura.  The moral of the story: admire the flowers, but don't get too friendly; perhaps it is best to leave the flowers for the pollinators! 

At night, Datura flowers are visited by Hawk Moths and Sphinx Moths of the family Sphingidae.  The larvae of these moths, known to gardeners as tomato hornworms, might be familiar to you.  It's best to leave these critters alone though, as the agricultural application of pesticides has reduced the numbers of hawk and sphinx months, meaning there are fewer pollinators out there to pollinate neat desert plants like the Queen of the Night cactus and our new friend, Sacred Datura.

If you're interested, a more detailed article on Sacred Datura can be found here:

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Plant Profile: Apricot Globe Mallow (Sphaeralcea ambigua)

Oh, the Apricot Globe Mallow!  Be still my heart!  This humble mallow is perhaps my favorite desert shrub, bursting forth as it does in glorious coraly-salmon bloom.  (Some sources call the blooms "orange," but once you spend some time with this plant you will see that bland description doesn't quite do the color justice.)

Apricot Globe Mallow (also called Desert Globe-mallow, Desert Mallow, Apricot Mallow, Globe Mallow or seemingly any other combination of those words) is a member of the mallow family (Malvaceae) along with the familiar garden hollyhock.  The plant is a shrubby perennial that grows from about 1 to 3 feet tall and wide, depending on its location.  The leaves are gray, fuzzy and roundish with scalloped edges, much like those of a hollyhock.
Apricot Globe Mallow with Joshua Trees, Joshua Tree National Park

This globe mallow is found across the desert southwest on dry, rocky slopes as well as sandy washes.  Its range extends across the Mojave and Colorado (Sonoran) deserts of California, into Nevada, Utah, Arizona and Mexico.  Last year, we found a spectacular showing of Apricot Globe Mallow in Joshua Tree National Park as well as Mojave National Preserve and the higher elevations around Death Valley. 

The Apricot Globe Mallow is reputed to be the most drought-tolerant of all the mallows.  The plants provide a source of browse for Bighorn Sheep (Ovis Canadensis) and the flowers are an excellent source of nectar for native bees and other pollinators, such as butterflies and hummingbirds.

Along a desert wash, Joshua Tree National Park

Apricot Globe Mallow is typically associated with creosote bush scrub and desert chaparral plant communities, though it can also be found in pinyon-juniper woodlands, below about 4,000 feet in elevation.

These plants are also great candidates for a garden of California native plants in the hottest and driest parts of the state (and I would include the San Joaquin Valley in that category!)  The photo below was taken in the native plant garden at Kern National Wildlife Refuge in early April.  Absolutely stunning!

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Tiny, Twittering Bushtits

At only three inches long, tiny Bushtits (Psaltriparus minimus) might go unnoticed by most, flitting through the foliage in loose flocks.  But once you've learned their diminutive calls you'll begin to notice the lively twittering of these little songbirds in suburban backyards as well as wilderness areas of the Great Central Valley.  They move almost constantly as they forage for small insects in shrubs and trees across the western United States, and are often found in flocks associating with other small, sprightly songbirds, such as kinglets, warblers and chickadees. 
Female bushtits can be distinguished from males by their pale eyes (pictured above and below); male bushtits have entirely dark eyes.  Together, the male and female of a breeding pair build a hanging nest that looks sort of like a dirty gym sock hanging in a tree (at first glance, of course).  The nest is about a foot in length, and the building process can take over a month to complete. 
The sack-like nest is built using stretchy spider webs and plant material.  The birds use their weight (all 5 grams of it!) to create the elongated shape by sitting in the nest letting gravity pull it downward. The inside of the nest is lined with soft material, like downy plant material, fur and feathers, while the outside is cleverly disguised with bits of lichen and other nearby plant matter.  
A female Bushtit outside her nest in a Valley Oak.  Notice the round entrance hole near the top of the nest.

Interestingly, other adult bushtits help the breeding pair raise its young; more interestingly, these adult "helpers" are generally males.  During the breeding season while the nest is in use, all members of this family-like group will sleep together in the nest.  Once the young have fledged (left the nest), the birds roost in trees at night.  Groups of bushtits may huddle together for warmth during cold weather.  Bushtit flocks change their ranges throughout the year in a constant hunt for food, but they don't truly migrate.

Bushtits are not showy birds by any means, but they are abundant.  Listen for the soft, continuous chipping or "lisping" communication calls of bushtit flocks, and expect to see these cute little birds throughout much of California all winter. 

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Life Along a Valley River: The Tuolumne

In days gone by, California's Great Central Valley was crisscrossed by a handful of free-flowing rivers carrying snowmelt from the Sierra Nevada to water fertile grasslands below.  Natural flood plains were regularly inundated with nutrient-rich silt, and wetlands of tule reeds and myriad wildlife flourished.  Today, the rivers persist in a somewhat diminished state, rigidly controlled by upstream reservoirs and dams.  Fruit and nut orchards, vineyards and housing developments have spread across the valley, to the very edges of river bluffs. 

The view west, down the Tuolumne River in Stanislaus County.

Earlier this year, flooding was a major concern in many areas along the rivers, the water flowing fast and strong.  But last year, like many years, the Tuolumne River was low and fairly calm, allowing for natural explorations of the riverine ecosystem.  Now, in the fall, the river has returned to its placid state.  When the river is quiet, pleasant hours can be spent wandering its banks and peering into the shallows.  Where the Tuolumne leaves the foothills and begins its journey across the valley to join the San Joaquin River, there are a few spots that have become special to me.

Damselfly resting along the edge of the Tuolumne River, a natural and beautiful part of this ecosystem.
Unfortunately the rivers of the Great Central Valley, which once offered life-giving abundance to wildlife as well as humans, have been greatly diminished and disrespected over the last century.  The rivers were manipulated, their natural cycles of flooding disregarded, their native vegetation uprooted and indigenous species supplanted by aggressive exotics. 
Bullfrog tadpoles lurk in quiet waters.  This introduced, invasive frog gets to be quite large as an adult and preys on
anything that will fit into its mouth, including native species of fish and frogs, even ducklings and turtle hatchlings. 
Bullfrogs are destructive to the native fauna and efforts have been made across the state to eradicate them.
I like to think that today, we have reached a turning point in our relationship with the rivers.  I like to think that we have learned our lessons and hence forth will do a better job of protecting our rivers and watersheds.  Many individuals and organizations do just that, and the results are encouraging.  But the sad truth is, our rivers are still corridors for invasive species, and their banks and beds still collect trash and bare the scars of careless humans.  Why are our rivers so subjected to becoming trashed and polluted, these beautiful riparian ecosystems damaged beyond recognition? 
Purple Loosestrife: though beautiful, this introduced ornamental plant has escaped
gardens and now out-competes native vegetation along our rivers.
Where once grew Valley Oaks, there now grow almonds.  Riparian areas were once thriving ecosystems, multi-storied forests akin to tropical rainforests in their complexity.  Canopies of oaks and cottonwoods gave way to understories of willows and elderberries.  Thickets of native blackberry brambles and wild rose bushes formed a dense carpet beneath, and the whole assemblage was intertwined with vines of wild grape and filled with wildlife.  Today, these forests are very different, if not gone entirely. 

We can still find protected remnants of what used to be, though the glorious riparian forests have been largely replaced by a scattering of weedy non-native species: Tree of Heaven (Ailanthus altissima) and escaped ornamentals line the riverside bluffs, purple loosestrife and exotic annual grasses carpet the banks and water hyacinth chokes out life in the quiet waters.  Old tires, beer bottles, abandoned ice chests, rusty cans, broken flip flops, carelessly discarded fishing hooks and more yards of wildlife-threatening fishing line than I care to think about now fill our rivers and adorn their banks. 
Evidence that even in their diminished state, valley rivers do indeed support life!  This felled tree is evidence of beaver
I can only conclude that we have almost entirely lost touch with the river ecosystems that our predecessors, the former inhabitants of our valley, once knew so intimately.
Therefore a remedy to the current sad state of our rivers, or at least the beginning of their restoration, must come from a reintroduction to the wonders that are found in the life along a valley river.

Find a quiet spot to venture down to the river.*  Wade in the shallow water along the edge and watch tiny fish and tadpoles scurry out of your way.  Flip over a rock to examine the life beneath.  Follow raccoon tracks along the bank and watch quietly for otters and beavers.  (Beavers, while sometimes accused of being pests, are really great hydro-engineers, vital to a healthy ecosystem.)  Notice an osprey or hawk soaring above, a belted kingfisher calling loudly from its perch, acorn woodpeckers busily working in the oaks.  Black phoebes chirp from conspicuous branches, and during the summer months, swallows dart across the surface of the water catching insects on the wing.  If you're lucky, you might catch a glimpse of a Western Pond Turtle (California's only native turtle) basking on a log.  I've seen evidence of beavers, river otters, raccoons, foxes, opossums and even shrews along our rivers, and over 50 species of birds along just one small section of the Tuolumne River. 

Flip over a rock... and you might find flatworms!  Though not much to look at, these little guys are just one small part of
a much larger and immensely complex ecosystem.

To peer into a miniature world, take a closer look at the insect and other invertebrate life that abounds in and near rivers.  Dragonflies and damselflies are easily seen and recognized, but less familiar to many are their aquatic larvae.  Crayfish, though introduced in the valley, are fun to watch as well as catch.  Peek underwater for a look at the world beneath the surface, where bass and bluegill (introduced for sport fishing) swim along the rocky bottom.  In the fall, it's a fascinating thing to watch the annual salmon migration and spawning.

Beneath the surface, it's mesmerizing to watch bass, bluegill and other fish glide quietly through the water.  (Whoever said snorkeling is just for Hawaii?)

Perhaps slowly we will become reacquainted with rivers and the life found there.  First we may notice the singing birds, a jumping fish, an otter sliding quietly beneath the surface, and we will remember that the rivers belong not only to us.  Then maybe we will be moved to pick up a piece of trash, pull a few invasive weeds and clean up a jumbled tangle of fishing line.  Perhaps, one inspiring discovery after another, we will regain our collective appreciation for our precious rivers.
* Explore safely, and remember to be aware of your surroundings!  Rivers are always unpredictable.