Sunday, June 19, 2016

Beach Sights at the Water's Edge

On Friday morning, I visited the beach near our house and wandered along the edge of the high-tide water. It was a lovely, sunny morning, and the waves had brought out all sorts of interesting creatures, including several creatures that were deceased, washed up from their ocean homes and onto the sand.

Several strange, thick, jellyfish-like things were scattered along the beach, and they turned out to be a totally bizarre animal called a salp (it's worth looking these guys up to read about their life cycle and to see pictures of them underwater):


More specifically, the salps on this beach were the largest species of salp in the world, the strangely named Thetys vagina. (Some online sources suggest that this species' name doesn't actually come from an anatomical reference, but I don't know for sure.) In any case, I am once again struck by the strangeness of things that come from the ocean. I had no idea such a creature even existed:
 

Several large and beautiful Dungeness Crabs were also washed up on the beach, dead:
 

The beach was also teeming with Pacific Mole Crabs (Emerita analoga), and they were very much alive. At one point, I saw a spot behind a receding wave where the sand was practically roiling, and I (perhaps foolhardily) stuck my hand into the spot and felt more crabs than sand! These little crabs are such impressive diggers, but I managed to flip one out of the sand for closer viewing. I believe this is a female, with her orange eggs just visible behind her tucked-up legs (she's head-down in this picture):
 

Several birds were foraging along the water's edge, including this flock of Whimbrels:


A very handsome Black-crowned Night-Heron was patrolling the area as well:


It's always nice to meet one of these fancy herons, and the beach backdrop is a cool bonus:



It occurs to me now that this will probably be one of the last times I visit the Pacific Ocean for quite a while. We now have a week left before the move (ah!), so I'll be wrapping up my Northern California experience as best as I can during that time. Here we go!

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Horse Mountain

In a continuing effort to squeeze out some last drops of Northern California while we're still in the area, Paul and I drove about an hour eastward on Sunday morning, up into the nearest mountains (~4,000 ft or so). Despite a lack of maps and marked trails, we were able to explore a bit of the Horse Mountain Botanical area, and we really liked what we saw. We had sunny skies, pointy conifers, and snow-capped Trinity Alps in the distance; what's not to like?


I find upper-elevation trees so weird and interesting. This small stretch of woods was nice and shaggy:


And a nearby ridge made a very pretty backdrop for our walk:
 

One especially cool thing about this place -- and a reason why it's protected as a botanical area -- is that the ground contains a large amount of serpentine (California's state rock), and so the plants here tend to be rare and specialized for growing in these harsh soil conditions. (Click here for some more information about plants' adaptations for serpentine soils.) Serpentine rocks are, incidentally, quite pretty, and I kept getting distracted by the green/black stones on the road where we were walking. Here's a lovely hunk of serpentine rock that found its way home with me (I wet it with water to make the colors clearer):
 

In any case, we saw a lot of flowers on Horse Mountain, and some of them were indeed serpentine specialists. Evergreen Everlasting (Antennaria suffrutescens), for example, only grows in serpentine soil, and this little clump was providing quite a banquet for the local pollinators:
 

I haven't been able to definitively identify this tiny hairstreak butterfly, but it and several of its jewel-like fellows were making good use of these flowers:
 

This Wedgeleaf Violet (Viola cuneata) apparently also likes serpentine soils, although it can be found in other environments as well (the pretty leaf in the background is a lily whose flowers were already spent):
 

And I'm not sure what species of wallflower this is, but its bright orange blooms really stood out, and this (I think) Pale Swallowtail (Papilio eurymedon) certainly seemed to like them:
 

Several small lizards dashed across our path at various points during our walk. We watched this pair of Common Sagebrush Lizards doing lizard-couple things in the shade; the male on the left was doing pushups to impress the female on the right, and she watched for a while, then she led him on a bit of a chase and out of sight:
 

While driving through the area, we even caught a glimpse of a Mountain Quail scurrying across the road -- it was surprisingly big, compared to a California Quail -- and we later heard another of these birds calling in the distance.

What an amazing and interesting place!

Friday, May 27, 2016

A Busy Raven and More at the Marsh

As promised, here are the rest of my sights from Tuesday afternoon's visit to the Arcata Marsh. The Pacific Tree Frogs were my favorite part of the trip, but -- as usual -- there were lots of other cool creatures out and about as well!

A Common Raven was actively working close to the ground in one part of the marsh, and calling back and forth with its partner in a nearby tree:


I remain very impressed by these imposing birds:


I have to assume that this raven and its partner were in the process of building a nest, since I can't think of any other reason why this bird would have been carrying around what looks like mud in its beak (which it would swallow and bring back up again periodically):


This raven was also being either very industrious or very destructive; I watched it rip apart branches and lichen on a small tree -- keeping up a stream of calls the whole time -- but it didn't seem to actually keep any of this material. Here's a video of this raven at work (?):



And here's a second video of this raven calling after it moved to another tree; I'm always happy for the chance to admire Common Ravens, and I hope I wasn't bothering this bird too much by hanging around:



Small lovely butterflies (some crescent species, I think) were fluttering around near the bay:


Yarrow blossoms were popular feeding stations:


I've noticed small holes in the mud before, but this was the first time I saw the little crabs (so many crabs!) that went with them:


A few Bonaparte's Gulls were visiting the marsh on their way north; they looked like they were very much in need of a molt:


A Song Sparrow was digging through cattail fluff and making an adorable mess:


I thought this little bird was after the fluff for nesting material, but it didn't end up carrying much of the stuff away. Perhaps it was finding bugs (or seeds) instead? Either way, playing in cattail fluff looks like fun. Here's a video of this resourceful sparrow:



As of today, we have exactly one month left before the move. One more month in which to experience as much of northern California's amazing nature as I can! Let's do it!

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Pacific Tree Frogs

I've been so hoping to see a Pacific Tree Frog for a while now. I've heard these secretive little frogs calling several times at the Arcata Marsh, and OK, I did actually find a tree frog hopping around inside a garden center soon after we moved here last summer, but somehow that doesn't feel like it counts. I love amphibians, and I've had a distinct lack of amphibian encounters since moving to California.

So imagine how happy I was when I glanced down next to the path at the Arcata Marsh yesterday afternoon and saw a bright green blob resting on a leaf among horsetail shoots and Queen Anne's Lace:


A Pacific Tree Frog! Do you see it? (It's just to the right of center in the above picture.) The little frog was wonderfully handsome up close:
 

Yay, tree frog! And then once I saw this one frog, I spotted another a few feet away:
 

And then another:
 

I ended up finding five (!) frogs along this small stretch of path. I have no idea why so many of these creatures were out in the open. Is this normal afternoon behavior for these frogs? Or were they perhaps avoiding some danger on the ground? (I did see the tip of a retreating snake's tail at one point.)

Some of the frogs chose blackberry leaves for their resting platforms (again, find the frog in this next picture):
 

I loved seeing the subtle variations in color and pattern among these little jewel-like amphibians, and a blackberry leaf makes for quite a dramatic stage:
 

One of the frogs had a beautiful brown-dappled pattern on its back. Pacific Tree Frogs apparently come in a few different colors, and individual frogs can even change colors over time. This individual's costume might be my favorite:
 

I have more sights to share from yesterday's visit to the marsh, but I was too excited about the tree frogs to let them wait. Hooray for beautiful amphibians!

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Under the Tallest Trees in the World

Yesterday, Paul and I explored further into the Redwood National and State Parks than we'd yet been. We drove several miles down a winding gravel road, through a locked gate (we had to get the passcode from the visitor's center first), and then hiked to the Tall Trees Grove, where exist -- literally -- the tallest trees in the world. The redwood tree that held the wold record for tallest tree until 1994 is in this grove, and the current world record holder is somewhere in the area, although it's not marked and there's no trail to it. We've seen lots of big trees already, but we figured we had to take a trip to this place while we still live in the area, if only to be able to say we'd done it. Besides, redwoods are awesome, and I'll take any chance I can get to explore these woods.

Here's the area from a nearby overlook:


More tall trees, plus mist (it was an overcast, sometimes-rainy kind of day):


And here's the grove from ground level:


Of course, the trees were huge and impressive -- as redwoods are -- although we couldn't get an especially accurate sense of their height from our lowly position on the ground. We couldn't even see the tops of most of these trees! (I guess that says something in itself.)

So we wandered around these giant trees, just generally being impressed. And in the process, we found lots of interesting things to look at on the forest floor.

The molluscs were out in force, chief among them that famous denizen of the pacific coastal forest, the Banana Slug. :)


This individual wasn't huge by Banana Slug standards, but it was still pretty darn big; here's a penny for comparison:


We found another Banana Slug in the process of consuming a leaf:


I've never actually thought about how slugs eat before, and this creature's very normal biting action really surprised me! I made this rather shaky video with my iPhone -- it's still weirdly shaky even after YouTube's stabilization process, probably because I was filming the slug so close up -- so watch if you're up for it. You can hear the crunch of each bite; mmm, what a crispy leaf:


 
We kept finding snails all over the place as well, including a bunch of these large and beautiful Pacific Sideband Snails:


And I'm not sure of the exact species of these smaller, ghostly pale snails that kept showing up, but they were also quite cool:


Lots of Yellow-spotted Millipedes were sharing the forest floor with the molluscs, including this pair of millipedes who were on the move despite being otherwise engaged:


A chipmunk (one of a couple of species in this area, but I'm not sure which one) watched us carefully while it worked over an acorn from atop a moss-covered trunk near the path:


And as if these woods weren't already fantastical enough, we found several blooming coralroot orchids sprouting up like little intricate flags next to the path. I'd never seen coralroot blossoms in person before, even though various species of coralroot also exist in the woods in the eastern U.S. These are strange, leafless, parasitic plants that get their nutrients from their host fungi underground. And then they send up these beautiful little flowers; some of the flower spikes we saw were more than a foot (maybe two feet) tall:


Here's a closer view of this Summer Coralroot (Corallorhiza maculata; perhaps this is some particular variety that lacks the usual spots on this flower's lower lip):


We also found Pacific Coralroot (Corallorhiza mertensiana), with its narrower purple-and-yellow flowers:


I love orchids, and finding new members of this diverse and fascinating family in the wild is always extra exciting for me. Yay, orchids!

And that about sums up our tall trees adventure: redwoods, molluscs and other crawling critters, and orchids. I'll add that before we even got to the woods, we had a treat in the form of Cliff Swallows nesting under the canopy outside the visitor's center:


It was so cool to see these little birds swooping around and guarding nests-in-progress that ranged from barely a ledge (like in the picture above) to fully enclosed bowls:


There are so many interesting things to see out there!