Friday, September 30, 2016

California's Cascade Volcanoes: Mount Shasta

Mount Shasta from the east; looking west, from Lava Beds National Monument (September, 2016)
Mount Shasta, a large stratovolcano in Northern California, is the second-tallest volcano in the Cascade Range.  (Only Washington's Mount Rainier is taller.)  At 14,162 feet in elevation, 25 miles across at its base, and with a volume of 108 cubic miles, Mount Shasta reigns over its surroundings with a quiet presence and ominous beauty.
Mount Shasta from Lava Beds National Monument (September, 2016).  Note that a portion of Sargent's Ridge is visible,
 just barely standing out as a small, dark ridge on the left (south) flank of the volcano.
Last week, I had the privilege of viewing Mount Shasta from the east, seeing a side of the mountain I'd not yet seen.  In past summers, I've spent time in the town of McCloud, soaking in views of snow-covered Mount Shasta from it's southern base.  But the first time I laid eyes on the mountain, while traveling with my parents, I was just two years old.  And it must have made an impression, because my family still recounts the story that upon returning home, I formed "Mount Sashtas" with my mashed potatoes.
Mount Shasta, from the south.  (June, 2010)
Mount Shasta has a 600,000 year history of eruptions, and is not the first volcano to occupy this location at the southern end of the Cascades.  Geologists have discovered that other volcanos have previously stood where Shasta now stands.  A region of low hills, called hummocks, partially fills a fault graben (a valley that sunk between mountain ranges along fault lines) north of Mount Shasta.  Geologists were puzzled by this geological formation until the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens, when an earthquake triggered the collapse of part of the mountain and resulted in a debris avalanche, characterized by its hummocky topography.
Mount Shasta's debris avalanche, characterized by hummocky topography.  Looking north (September, 2016)
From this evidence, geologists have concluded that the original Mount Shasta was destroyed in a massive debris avalanche about 400,000 years ago, the volcano's remains now forming the hummocks that span 5 to 8 miles in width and reach 28 miles down the valley.  The Mount Shasta debris avalanche is the largest recorded debris avalanche.
View from the south.  Photo taken from the lumber mill in McCloud. (June, 2009)
Mount Shasta is considered a compound stratovolcano (also called a composite cone), made up of four overlapping cones.  These four cones were formed during separate cone-building periods; during each period, cones produced eruptions of andesite lava, ash flows, and mud flows. 
View from the south.  Photo taken at the lumber mill in McCloud (June 2010)
The oldest remaining cone is Sargent's ridge (see second photo in this post), which erupted 250,000 years ago.  Misery Hill, a former summit near the top of the volcano, erupted between 100,000 and 130,000 years ago.  Most notable are Shastina, a parasitic cone and second summit which erupted 9,800 years ago, and Hotlum Cone, the very highest cone and current summit, which erupted 9,000 years ago.
Quiet backroads of McCloud, at the southern base of a massive stratovolcano.
According to the United States Geological Survey (USGS), in the past 10,000 years, Mount Shasta has erupted once about every 300 to 600 years; in the past 750 years, it has averaged one eruption every 250 years.  The last eruption, which probably occurred in 1786, was described, though vaguely, by the explorer La Perouse.  A future (possibly near-future) eruption of Mount Shasta is likely.  But take heart: many brilliant geologists have their eyes (and monitoring equipment) trained on the volcano, and an eruption would likely be preceded by a series of earthquakes and steam explosions, giving locals fair warning and allowing excited geologists to get into place to watch.
Shasta and Shastina (at left)
(P.S. If you're not a trained geologist, I would never advise trying to watch an eruption; I would suggest you heed their warnings and evacuate!)

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Botanizing on the Modoc Plateau

I mentioned that there would be a short series of geology posts coming up, but I can't seem to help myself: the plant life of Lava Beds National Monument is too enticing.  So first, before I get to the volcanoes, I will return to my first love: botany. 

Trail to Big Painted Cave & Symbol Bridge, Lava Beds National Monument.  It may look deserty and
uninviting to some people, but to me, it's a beautiful landscape, rich in diversity!

Actually, botany is my second love; my first will always be zoology.  As a biology major with a zoology concentration, my very first science class in college was Introduction to Botany.  It didn't make too much sense at the time, but it didn't matter because I fell in love.  Throughout my college career, I took more botany and "plant classes" than any other subject.  So you'll have to bear with me: this blog will gravitate toward plants frequently.

According to botanists using Jepson's ecoregions of California, Lava Beds National Monument is located in the Great Basin province of the Modoc Plateau region.  Geologists also agree that the region is unique, classifying it as the Modoc Plateau geomorphic province.

View from our campsite, looking east over the Modoc Plateau. 
The dark trees are Western Junipers (Juniperus occidentalis).

The World Wildlife Fund defines an ecoregion as a "large unit of land or water containing a geographically distinct assemblage of species, natural communities, and environmental conditions".  Similarly, a geomorphic province (or geologic province) is defined as a region with distinct landforms and geologic formations with a unique geologic history; often fault zones separate these regions.  As you might guess, the two methods end up dividing California into very similar chunks, based on different attributes (which are actually very much related.)  My point is, either way you approach the Modoc Plateau, whether from a ecological or geological perspective, the region is unique and beautiful, with a very special assemblage of both geologic features and plants.

But back to the task at hand:

A brief inventory of a few of the common plants found at Lava Beds National Monument, in Northern California on the Modoc Plateau.

Buckwheat (Sulphur Flower)  Eriogonum umbellatum polyanthum

Lava Beds National Monument supports seven species of Buckwheat in the genus Eriogonum.  This species, also called Sulphur Flower or Sulphur Eriogonum, is quite common in rocky mountainous regions of Pacific States.  The bloom period for the bright sulphur-yellow flowers is June through August.  I took this photo in late September, after the dried flower heads had developed a more golden hue and papery texture.

Desert Paintbrush (Castilleja linariifolia)

The Desert Paintbrush (Castilleja linariifolia) is associated with the sagebrush scrub, pinyon-juniper woodland, and Joshua Tree woodland plant communities of California.  It's bloom period is from June through September.  Like other members of the Castilleja genus (such as the familiar "Indian Paintbrush"), the Desert Paintbrush is hemiparasitic, meaning it absorbs some of its water and nutrients through haustorial connections with the roots of its host plant.  Specialized absorptive organs, called haustoria, invade the root system of the host, drawing a portion of water and nutrients from the host plant.  Paintbrushes produce the rest of their food through autonomous photosynthesis.  Here, the paintbrush was growing intertwined in a sagebrush (Artemisia sp.).

Flowers of Rubber Rabbitbrush (Ericameria nauseosa speciosa)
Rubber Rabbitbrush at Lava Beds National Monument

Rubber Rabbitbrush (Ericameria nauseosa speciosa) is a member of the aster or sunflower family, Asteraceae, and is commonly found in arid regions of the west, often growing alongside sagebrush (Artemisia sp.) and thriving in poor, alkaline soil.  Brilliant yellow flowers bloom from July through October, providing splashes of "fall color" to our arid western landscape.  More importantly, the flowers provide a valuable source of pollen for insects late in the season, after other flowers have faded.

Big Sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata) growing among basaltic lava flows, east of Mount Shasta.
Leaves of Artemisia tridentata

I didn't take a very good photo of Common Sagebrush, or Big Sagebrush, because it is just that - common.  I've already mentioned it a few times in this post.  I am guilty of overlooking this ubiquitous gray plant on more than one occasion, even though it has great value, and even has its own plant community named after it (sagebrush scrub).  Big Sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata) is found throughout the intermountain west, and in California can be found in dry regions of the Sierra Nevada, Central Valley, Coast Range, mountains of Southern California, the Great Basin and Mojave Desert.  It is a member of the aster or sunflower family, Asteraceae.  In July and August, Common Sagebrush demands the attention of passersby as well as pollinators with bright yellow flowers.

Rose-like flowers of Desert Sweet (Chamaebatiaria millefolium)
Ferny foliage of Desert Sweet, also known as Fern Bush
Desert Sweet, with dried flower spires, growing among a basaltic lava flow at Lava Beds National Monument.

Desert Sweet, or Fern Bush, (Chamaebatiaria millefolium) reminds me at first glance of a taller cousin of Mountain Misery (Chamaebatia foliolosa), and they are both in the same family, Rosaceae, the rose family.  Desert Sweet generally grows to the east of the Sierra Nevada and Cascades, in the Great Basin province.  It grows in association with sagebrush scrub and pinyon-juniper woodlands, and in July and August produces lovely little white rose-like flowers.  Most of the flowers had turned a dry reddish-tan color by late September, but a few were still blooming.  The dried flower stalks of Desert Sweet caught my eye right away, as they lent an interesting textural element to the early fall landscape at Lava Beds.

Foliage of Antelope Bitterbrush (Purshia tridentata)
Antelope Bitterbrush (Purshia tridentata) at Lava Beds National Monument

Antelope Bitterbrush (Purshia tridentata) is a common shrub east of the Sierra-Cascade crest and in the Great Basin, found in arid habitats in association with sagebrush scrub, yellow pine forest, and juniper woodland.  Antelope Bitterbrush blooms quite early in the season, in February and March, producing creamy rose-like flowers that give away its family ties: it also belongs in the rose family, Rosaceae.  The roots of Antelope Bitterbrush fix nitrogen in the soil, and its leaves and branches provide valuable forage for wildlife.

Foliage of Curl Leaf Mountain Mahogany (Cercocarpus ledifolius)
Curl Leaf Mountain Mahogany, in tree form, growing in a basaltic lava flow.

Curl Leaf Mountain Mahogany (Cercocarpus ledifolius) is a third member of the family Rosaceae found on the Modoc Plateau.  It can be a shrub or small tree, growing between 3 and 30 feet in height.  In California, Curl Leaf Mountain Mahogany can be found between 3,000 and 9,000 feet in elevation, growing in all of the major mountain ranges except the central coastal range.  It grows in association with sagebrush scrub, pinyon-juniper woodland and yellow pine forest, as well as at higher elevations with red fir and lodgepole forests.  Curl Leaf Mountain Mahogany provides valuable forage for wildlife.

Foliage of Wax Current (Ribes cereum)
Wax Current at Lava Beds.

Wax Current (Ribes cereum) is one of four member of the genus Ribes found in Lava Beds National Monument.  Wax current grows in dry, open habitats in California, associated with pinyon-juniper woodlands and yellow pine forests, among others, and ranges into the Great Basin.  It is a member of the gooseberry family, Grossulariaceae. 

Western Juniper (Juniperus occidentalis)
Bark of Western Juniper
Berry-like cones of Western Juniper

Western Juniper (Juniperus occidentalis) is a short tree, up to 30 feet tall, and a member of the cypress family, Cupressaceae.  Western Juniper is often found growing in a transitional zone between sagebrush flats and pine forests, typically scattered amongst sagebrush scrub.  In most of its range in northeastern California, it grows on soils derived from volcanic rock, such as the vast basalt flows of Lava Beds National Monument.  The berry-like cones are an important source of winter food for birds and rodents, and the bark is appealing to deer and elk, as well as some small mammals.

If you read this far, you've learned about a good handful of common plant species found on the Modoc Plateau, and should have gotten some idea of the biodiversity found in the northeastern part of California.  The Modoc Plateau, specifically the Lava Beds area, is not a barren high desert region with little life; it is a beautiful and thriving ecosystem.  

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Canyon Wren at Petroglyph Point, Lava Beds National Monument

I recently returned from a trip to Northern California, the primary purpose of which was studying volcanoes.  All the fascinating geology of the Lava Beds area will make it into a post in the near future, but first, I wanted to share a few of the photos I took of this little guy, a Canyon Wren (Catherpes mexicanus), at Petroglyph Point.
Canyon Wren (Catherpes mexicanus)
Canyon Wrens are small Passerines, perching songbirds in the order Passeriformes.  Their barred tail sticks out in characteristic wren style, and their white throat is a prominent field mark.  They have a long, thin bill, designed for foraging for insects.  Canyon Wrens inhabit the dry mountains and canyon lands of western North America.  In California, they are found in a low-elevation ring around the Central Valley in rocky habitats, as well as east of the Sierra, in the Transverse and Peninsular Ranges of Southern California, and on the Modoc Plateau.  As suggested by their name, Canyon Wrens prefer rocky habitats, such as canyons, boulder piles and cliffs.
Canyon Wrens eat insects and spiders they find in rocky crevices, and are not known to drink water; they likely get all the water they need from their prey.  They nest in crevices, caverns, and protected rock faces, constructing small cup-shaped nests of twigs lined with lichens, feathers, spider webs, and other soft material.
Like other wrens in the family Troglodytidae, Canyon Wrens sing a beautiful cascading song.  Unfortunately, this little wren was not in the mood for singing.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Firsts: Great Horned Owl

The first time I saw a Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus) in the wild, I was literally shaking with excitement.  I was on a birding field trip at Merced National Wildlife Refuge last February, and had been in the field for several hours already, logging quite the impressive list of species (impressive to me, that is). 

I spotted a large nest of sticks in a leafless tree, and was in the middle of wondering aloud if it could be an owl's nest, when a large head and two ear tufts poked over the rim of twigs.
My first glimpse of a Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus) in the wild!
Great Horned Owls nest early in the season, remodeling a nest that was built the previous year by another species, often a Red-Tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) or other hawk; they will also utilize nests built and abandoned by ravens or crows, herons, even tree squirrels.  Nests are typically located in trees, but may also be in natural cavities or on cliff ledges, which explains the Great Horned Owl pair I heard in Joshua Tree National Park (though unfortunately I never found them).
Nesting Great Horned Owl
Mated pairs of Great Horned Owls are monogamous, and may remain within the same territory after the breeding season, though roosting separately.  The female is larger in size than the male, but the male has a deeper voice; when a pair is calling together, the difference in pitch is obvious and it becomes easy to differentiate the male from the female.
The non-zoomed-in version; my actual first glimpse.

Monday, September 19, 2016

American Dipper: John Muir's Water Ouzel

So beloved was the Water Ouzel to John Muir, he devoted an entire chapter of his 1894 book The Mountains of California to describing its life history.  And the Water Ouzel, now more commonly called the American Dipper (Cinclus mexicanus) certainly is an enchanting and unique little bird, the only aquatic songbird in North America.  Not only does this bird sing a beautiful song, but it also dives in rapids and waterfalls, even in the cold of winter, and can be found in the Sierra Nevada year-round.
Water Ouzel, or American Dipper (Cinclus mexicanus) in Arnot Creek, near the Clark Fork of the Stanislaus River
 I will let John Muir himself describe the Ouzel, as his description is superior to mine:

"THE waterfalls of the Sierra are frequented by only one bird, --the Ouzel or Water Thrush ( Cinclus Mexicanus , Sw.). He is a singularly joyous and lovable little fellow, about the size of a robin, clad in a plain waterproof suit of bluish gray, with a tinge of chocolate on the head and shoulders. In form he is about as smoothly plump and compact as a pebble that has been whirled in a pot-hole, the flowing contour of his body being interrupted only by his strong feet and bill, the crisp wing-tips, and the up-slanted wren-like tail."
Water Ouzel, with a tasty aquatic insect
I have seen Water Ouzels twice in the past two summers, and both times they have been along rapid streams, as expected, bobbing, dipping and plunging its head into the water in characteristic Dipper fashion.  In California, the Ouzel is at home in coastal streams, the forests of the northwest, and even southern California streams, as well as the Sierra. 

Muir goes on to describe the close association the Ouzel has with clear, cold, rapidly flowing water. 

"Among all the countless waterfalls I have met in the course of ten years' exploration in the Sierra, whether among the icy peaks, or warm foot-hills, or in the profound yosemitic cañons of the middle region, not one was found without its Ouzel. No cañon is too cold for this little bird, none too lonely, provided it be rich in falling water. Find a fall, or cascade, or rushing rapid, anywhere upon a clear stream, and there you will surely find its complementary Ouzel, flitting about in the spray, diving in foaming eddies, whirling like a leaf among beaten foam-bells; ever vigorous and enthusiastic, yet self-contained, and neither seeking nor shunning your company."
Water ouzel, insect in beak.  Note the long pinkish legs and unwebbed feet.
The American Dipper feeds on aquatic insects and their larvae, swimming, diving, wading, even moving rocks on the bottom of streams to expose prey.  They also eat worms and small fish and their eggs.  Dippers build woven nests close to their stream habitat, often on cliff ledges or boulders, behind waterfalls, even under bridges.  They depend on clear, unpolluted streams, and water pollution is of concern when considering the Ouzel's future.
Because he is a favorite of mine, and because his writing is so beautiful, I will leave you with one more tidbit from John Muir, in which he captures the essence of the Water Ouzel in near poetry, as is his way.
"He is the mountain streams' own darling, the humming-bird of blooming waters, loving rocky ripple-slopes and sheets of foam as a bee loves flowers, as a lark loves sunshine and meadows. Among all the mountain birds, none has cheered me so much in my lonely wanderings, --none so unfailingly. For both in winter and summer he sings, sweetly, cheerily, independent alike of sunshine and of love, requiring no other inspiration than the stream on which he dwells. While water sings, so must he, in heat or cold, calm or storm, ever attuning his voice in sure accord; low in the drought of summer and the drought of winter, but never silent."
All quotes taken from The Mountains of California, Chapter 13, by John Muir, 1894

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Summer Wildflowers of the Sierra: A Fond Farewell

It's September, and the season of glorious meadows of wildflowers has passed in the Sierra Nevada.  I was up around 3,500 feet a couple days ago, near Twain Harte, and most of the summer's wildflowers were far past their prime.  (However, the mountain dogwoods were just beginning to change color for the fall!)

This post will be a quick review of some of my favorite summer wildflowers.  These photos were all taken on the western slopes of the Sierra, mostly in the Stanislaus National Forest near the Clark Fork of the Stanislaus River.

Leichtlin's Mariposa Lily (Calochortus leichtlinii)

Golden Brodiaea (Triteleia ixioides)

Penstemon (Penstemon sp.)

Penstemon (Penstemon sp.)

Western Columbine (Aquilegia formosa)

Mountain Pride (Penstemon newberryi)

Erigeron sp. (or Aster sp. - I'm sorry to say I didn't look closely enough to get an ID at the time!)

Paintbrush (Castilleja sp.)

Cinquefoil (Cinquefoil sp.)

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Yellow-bellied Marmot: Denizen of the High Sierra

You wake before dawn, hike miles uphill through forests, scramble boulders and steps etched into granite on your journey up, up, up.  You glimpse the summit ahead, still far above.  Finding hand-holds in the rock, you climb; or you wait in line, gather your courage, take hold of a cable and tow yourself up a ridiculously steep slab of granite.  At last, after half a day's worth of sweat, several liters of water and a few packages of trail-mix, you have arrived: the glorious granite summit of a peak in the High Sierra.  You take a deep breath, savor the moment, begin to take in the view.

And you are amazed by the sight before you: the lofty summit is populated by what look like giant ground squirrels.  The plump critters size you up at once and approach brazenly, eyeing your peanut butter sandwich.
Yellow-bellied Marmot (Marmota flaviventris), at home in the High Sierra.
These large rodents, weighing up to eleven pounds, are yellow-bellied marmots (Marmota flaviventris) and they are in fact related to squirrels, in the family Sciuridae and order Rodentia.  They dig elaborate burrows in meadows near rocky outcrops and talus slopes of the Sierra (as well as other mountainous regions of the west). 
Enjoying the view from the top of Half Dome, in Yosemite National Park.
At home in seemingly inhospitable high rocky places, you may wonder how on earth marmots are able to clamber up such steep boulders, reaching heights you struggled the better part of a day to achieve.  Their low-slung bodies and long claws make the task easy.
A Half Dome marmot, enjoying natural marmot fare, mountain-mahogany (Cercocarpus betuloides)
Yellow-bellied marmots live in family groups, and their communal latrine sites can often be found among boulders.  Family groups will post a sentinel to keep a lookout for predators while other individuals feed on grasses, flowers, and even insects of the high meadows.  Marmots enter true hibernation during the cold of winter, huddling together as a colony in their burrow and conserving as much energy as possible.
Resist those adorable faces; marmots are far better off without peanut M&Ms and raisins!
These marmots may seem too bold for their own good, especially in popular places like Yosemite National Park, but they should never be fed human food - not even nuts!  The marmot needs to remain wild, just as the bear and all other wildlife needs to remain wild.