Road Blog: The Murk, Continued

Sept. 2: Highway 33, near Tetonia, Idaho, looking toward Grand Tetons from the west.
April 2018: Google Streetview image of the same stretch of Highway 33 in image above, near Tetonia, Idaho, looking toward Grand Tetons from the west.
Sept. 2: Jackson Hole from Teton Pass.
Sept. 2: Grand Teton National Park
Sept. 2: Yellowstone Lake, Wyoming,
Sept. 1: U.S. 93, north of Ely, Nevada.
August 31: Along Nevada Highway 376.

Inbox: Salmon Extinction Alert

A (slightly edited) email that just landed in my work inbox from John McManus, the president of the Golden Gate Salmon Association:

Dear Reporter:


If you’re covering the news from the California Dept. of Fish and Wildlife documenting the lethal effects of the drought on federally protected winter-run salmon, consider this from CDFW’s updated winter-run data file (which you can download from:  https://www.calfish.org/ProgramsData/ConservationandManagement/CentralValleyMonitoring/CDFWUpperSacRiverBasinSalmonidMonitoring.aspx

7-6-21: Continued hot weather above 100 degrees for periods in late May, early June  and past two weeks continuously will lead to depletion of cold water pool in Shasta Lake sooner than modeled earlier in season.  This hot weather is leading to more demand downstream for water (flows from Keswick Dam from 8,500 to 9,250 cubic feet per second on July 4th).  Previously modeled season long cold water availability scenarios used steady flows in the 7500 cfs range  from Keswick.  Those earlier scenarios had very high expected juvenile mortality due to warm water later in August-October that would be lethal to incubating eggs and alevins in the gravel.  This persistent heat dome over the West Coast will likely result in earlier loss of ability to provide cool water and subsequently it is possible that nearly all in-river juveniles will not survive this season.  Counts of carcasses continue to indicate a large run of winter-run this year. Unspawned fresh females for the season are 71 with an overall percentage of 12.3% of all fresh females this season were unspawned.

If you are looking for a quote for a story, consider this one from me:

“Californians should be alerted that the extinction of a native salmon run is underway right now as a result of government inaction to stop it.  State and federal water managers have apparently decided it’s politically inconvenient to reroute short water supplies to prevent extinction if it means a few less acres of crops.  We’re losing winter run salmon right now and the fall run salmon that supply the sport and commercial fisheries will be decimated too.  Californians who care about the environment need to hold government officials accountable for allowing the loss of the state’s natural resources on their watch.”

Journal of Avian Reproductive Technique and Behavior, Mourning Dove Edition

A mourning dove, with freshly laid egg. On a fence. In the open.

There’s lots of evidence that mourning doves know what they’re doing when they try to reproduce. The Cornell Ornithology Lab says the worldwide breeding population is 120 million. Most those birds, about 100 million, spend at least part of the year in the United States (where a vast number, perhaps 20 million, are shot by hunters each year). A smaller number — we’ve seen as many as eight at a time — spend at least part of the year in our backyard.

That having been said, as a non-expert, I’ve seen mourning doves do some things as part of their apparent nesting behavior that makes it look like this species doesn’t really have its own future in mind. For instance, we’ve seen a pair of doves that looked like they were determined to build a nest on a telephone wire; at least that’s how I interpreted them trying to get twigs and strands of grass to stay in place on the line.

And then there’s the example above. There has been some obviously amorous dove-on-dove activity in the backyard for the last week or so. This morning, Kate saw a pair nestled together on the side fence in the backyard. One of them, we’ll guess it’s a female, started to waggle her tail back and forth. And a few minutes later, we spotted the above: an egg laid right out in the open. The bird shown in the picture is the one we were guessing was a male; the female had sidled off down the fence a ways. They just kind of left it sitting there in the open, and then flew off when I was in the yard.

I figured it was only a matter of time before a) they came back to incubate the egg on the very exposed non-nest or b) a crow, jay or squirrel realized that a delicacy awaited and grabbed the egg. I went out to get more of a close-up before nature took its course.

A mourning dove’s egg. It’s just a little smaller than a pingpong ball.

A while later, a breeze came up and blew the egg along the top of the fence for a couple of feet. Then the crow showed up. One seemed to peck at it, then leave it alone, which made me wonder if the egg had already been hollowed out. It was still intact. Immediately after my inspection, the crow came back, speared the egg with its beak, and carried it over to a neighbor’s roof, where it ate the egg whole.

Mariposas

A monarch butterfly, emerged May 2020.

This has been the month of butterflies. We had a stand of milkweed in the front yard, Asclepias curassavica, or what I’ve heard called tropical milkweed. According to this source, it’s native to many islands across the Caribbean and parts of South America and introduced here in California. Monarch butterflies are partial to this plant, as well as other varieties of milkweed. This particular species is believed to pose a problem for the butterflies, though. It doesn’t get cold enough here in the winter to kill the plant. So the leaves and anything living on them survive from one butterfly season to the next.

One of the things that might live on the leaves is a parasitic protozoan called Ophryocystic elektroskirrha. Called OE in the world of monarch studies, the parasite can be debilitating, causing deformed wings in some monarchs and weakening others. The biological consensus seems to be that OE is everywhere. Adult monarchs carry it and deposit it on plants where they feed or lay their eggs. Eggs can be infected. More commonly, monarch caterpillars become infected when they eat infected vegetation, and infected caterpillars metamorphose in their chrysalides to infected adults that continue the cycle.

We didn’t know from OE when I picked up those plants a couple years ago. And we didn’t know about it when I grew a bunch of new plants from seed last year and planted them in the front yard. (We also didn’t know about a lot of the other surprisingly commonplace organisms that can come along and kill monarchs, either, but that’s another story.) By last fall, we had read about OE. But we left the tropical milkweed standing because, well, it was there and no monarchs were around.

But late in the winter, there was some monarch mating activity we didn’t witness. By late March, monarch caterpillars had appeared in the milkweed. I only saw a few at first, but over the coming weeks, we counted about 40 of them in our small milkweed patch, all seemingly at a similar stage of development. They systematically devoured the leaves on one plant after another until they had stripped all the milkweed bare.

Asclepias curassavica, meet Danaus plexippus.

Then the caterpillars migrated to various spots around the front entrance of the house. Kate counted 30 chrysalides by the time the great pupation was finished. The stumpy remains of a pomegranate bush was the most popular chrysalis site. But we also found them on our mailbox, on one of the pillars of our front porch, on the porch stairs, on a stalk of fennel, on random pieces of wood, and next door on a neighbor’s bicycle lock cable, dog leash, fence and gate.

Chrysalis on bike cable; pupated April 19.

A couple weeks ago, they started emerging. Twenty-five so far, we think. (Kate, the science teacher, has mapped and charted the location of each. She’s also interested all the neighborhood kids in what’s going on, so we sometimes have a sort of free-form, socially distanced classroom in the front yard.)

Since we knew about OE and its effects, we were a little concerned about the condition of the butterflies that would emerge from all the chrysalides. All but about five have appeared to be healthy, emerging with no problems, all parts intact, and flying off very quickly after their wings dried.

The bike-cable chrysalis; eclosed on May 7.

What about the rest, the ones that have not appeared healthy or died before they emerged? Well, there’s another story there. Complete with actual butterfly names. To be continued.

***

A couple of days ago, the phrase Rancho Mariposa came into my head while I was describing the parade of monarch’s appearing on the estate here.

“Mariposa” is Spanish for “butterfly,” and it’s a street name here in Berkeley and over in San Francisco and I’m betting in many, many other towns. The name has been stuck on a Sierra foothills county, on that county’s biggest town, and on a creek that runs through both. “Mariposa” was apparently first used as a California place name there.

It’s easy enough to imagine how the name came to be. Someone saw a bunch of butterflies somewhere and was inspired to name the place for the insects. You hope for a more particular story, and there is one in which butterflies aren’t lovely, fragile ephemera but a memorable nuisance.

An 1806 Spanish expedition struggling through an unattractive stretch on the eastern edge of the San Joaquin Valley encountered an unattractive-looking stream. A priest with the party, Pedro Muñoz, recorded what they found there.

September 27: In the morning we crossed the river and, taking a northerly direction, we pushed through about a league of very high, thick tules, in the midst of which could be seen a few clearings well covered with grass. After traveling about three leagues, more or less, we stopped at a stream which runs from east to west. It has no running water, only a few pools, where we were forced to pitch camp. From the point where we left the tule swamps to this place the land is really miserable. Salt flats and alkali patches, with innumerable ground-squirrel burrows are all that one can see. There are at this spot about sixty oak trees and a few willows in the bed of the stream. The forage was extremely scanty, and that the country appeared to have been burned over by the Indians did not conceal the fact that the land is very poor. Consequently there is little pasturage.

This place is called the Mariposas, “the butterflies,” because of their great number, especially at night. In the morning they become extremely troublesome, for their aggressiveness reaches the point where they obscure the light of the sun. They came at us so hard that one of them flew into the ear of a corporal of the expedition. It caused him much discomfort and no little effort to get it out.

News From Our Semi-Intentional Menagerie

Monarch chrysalis, fastened to Ikea Strandmon armchair.

Briefly: We planted a bunch of milkweed this year in hopes of encouraging monarch butterflies to feed and reproduce. Among the lessons learned: There are lots of things out there in the world that will kill a monarch long before they have a chance to become butterflies. And when they get a chance to get to butterfly stage, the process is actually much more beautiful and absorbing than I had imagined.

Late in the season here in the San Francisco Bay Area, we noticed that the few adult monarchs around were accomplishing their reproductive mission more efficiently than they had been a few months ago. Maybe it was because most of the predators had gone underground for the year, but we were seeing more monarch larvae (aka caterpillars) than we had during the summer.

We brought a couple of well advanced caterpillars indoors and installed them in a butterfly house we’ve used several times this year. Kate, the chief wrangler of our semi-intentional menageries, named the larger of the new inmates Latelyton — that’s Lately and -ton — because of its appearance so late in the year.

It wasn’t long before Latelyton found his or her way out of the butterfly house. Where he/she had gone we had no idea. Monarchs that are ready to go into their chrysalids have a way of seeking an out of the way spot where they can attach themselves, so their odd, intense twisting dance to enclose themselves, and hang there in piece until they are ready to eclose (emerge, in insect talk).

We figured we’d see Latelyton after s/he emerged. I imagined a new butterfly flapping desperately to get outside to go about its natural calling. But it typically takes 12 to 14 days for a monarch to eclose, and as of yesterday, it had been three weeks with no sign of the wayward larva/pupa.

That was until Kate was vacuuming around an upholstered Ikea armchair. As she described it, she saw something dangling from one of the chair’s arms. It was, we are sure, Latelyton, in a perfect chrysalis. S/he does not look close to emerging, but what do we know? Maybe we’ll have on overwintering visitor. In any case, we’re letting him/her be. I’m hoping this monarch will at least wait until we get past our current predicted run of rainy, cold weather before it makes its next move.

Reading: ‘A Thousand Illusions’

A chinook salmon, having returned up the Mokelumne River to spawn, leaps against the closed gates of the fish hatchery at East Bay Municipal Utility Districts’s Camanche Dam.
“Civilization creates for me a thousand other worlds that have little to do with my senses, a thousand illusions among which to choose. It is one of the functions of much of contemporary education and politics to convince me that my choices are limited to these creations. Were there a television in my home, it would spend twenty-four hours a day convincing me that life is either a series of dangers and disasters or an endless series of shallow and banal encounters with uninteresting people. Magazines and newspapers tell me the same story. Shopping malls connected by broad paved highways are filled with objects presented as the rewards of existence–the flesh of the world converted to doodads. Big Science has had a good deal to do with the creation of this deadly alternative reality, and science has willingly lent its hand to the great effort to to convince me that the evidence of my senses and the intuitions that arise from their use are illusory.

“But there is a scientific practice that precedes Big Science, a devotion to patient and scrupulous observation of the world and its creatures. I have come to love this discipline, now known as natural history, which delves ever more deeply into the physiological and behavioral differences between my species and others. There is an explosion of this kind of knowledge accumulating in our era, driven by an increasing awareness that many species are disappearing and that we know desperately little about them and therefore little about how to save them. …”

–Freeman House, “Totem Salmon”

Post first published May, 2, 2015

Flying, Buzzing, Creeping and Crawling Around Us

On the wall at the rear of our house. It’s a blue bottle fly — either Calliphora vomitoria or C. vicina.

We had a flicker — you know, a kind of woodpecker — in the backyard this morning. And a robin and a bunch of sparrows. And an anise swallowtail butterfly that was hanging out in a little anise bush that’s regenerating itself after being cut to the ground last year.

But above is what I got a picture of: a fly.

A blue bottle fly, perhaps Calliphora vomitoria (Linnaeus 1758), or perhaps Calliphora vicina (Robineau-Desvoidy, 1830).

Both species are part of a group known as blow flies. I won’t dwell on their habits — we all sort of know what flies are up to for a good part of their lives. But like everything else that flies, buzzes, creeps and crawls around us — except maybe mosquitoes — these flies fit in somewhere. Here’s what the Encyclopedia of Life (with its British spellings) has to say about C. vicina under the category “benefits”:

Unless there is something to prevent their access, blowflies will rapidly colonise a human corpse. For this reason, they are frequently encountered by police who are investigating suspicious deaths. It is now recognised that an exploration of the insect community on a corpse can contribute valuable information to the forensic investigation and the field of forensic entomology is relatively well established. Due to their ability to locate corpses so quickly after death, blowflies have proved more useful than any other insects in giving an estimate of the minimum post-mortem interval (the time elapsed since death). To do this the forensic entomologist models the growth of the blowfly larvae recovered from the remains in relation to the scene temperatures. To date, the forensic entomology team at the Natural History Museum have been involved in some 120 forensic cases. Calliphora vicina was the primary blowfly species recovered in most of these.

And here are benefits attributed to C. vomitoria, which could prove valuable at a time when we seem to be killing pollinators:

Although blue bottle fly larvae eat carrion, the adult flies frequently feed on flowers with exposed nectaries. Pollen grains become attached to the flies’ body hair and are moved from flower to flower as they search for nectar, a process known as incidental pollination. Typically the blue bottle fly visits flowers with a strong odor often resembling rotting meat. Plants pollinated by the fly include the American pawpaw (Asimina triloba), dead horse arum (Helicodiceros muscivorus), skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus), goldenrod (Solidago spp.), and members of the carrot family like Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota).

At the North Central Regional Plant Introduction Station (NCRPIS) in Ames, Iowa, both the blue bottle fly and the common house fly (Musca domestica) are used to pollinate plants of the carrot family in the field and greenhouses. Several farms have used blue bottle flies to successfully pollinate vegetable crops including carrots, broccoli, lettuce, and canola. As managed pollinators, the blue bottle fly is non-aggressive to humans; the pupae are cheap to purchase and can be stored for three weeks; and the flies work in smaller areas and at cooler temperatures than bees. For these reasons, the blue bottle fly is actually being used as an alternative to bee pollinators.

I tried and failed to discover what the Latin word “vomitoria” means in the species naming context. I note, though, there appear to be more plant than animal species named vomitoria. Ilex vomitoria, for instance.

Solar Eclipse Countdown: Out There in Flyover Country

2017 EclipseLike many another skywatcher who has never seen a total solar eclipse, I’m scouting places to see the big event that will, failing a world-ending electoral event in the interim, occur a year from now.

For Californians, Oregon is the natural eclipse-watching destination. The path of totality will cross the Beaver State just north of Bend, east of the Cascades and an area that’s reliably sunny.

Lots of people have figured out that this part of Oregon is strategically located. The owner of a 72-room motel in Madras, along the line where totality will be longest in the area — 2 minutes and 3 seconds — says his place has been booked for more than three years.

I admit I can imagine a crowd descending on the area and the roads resembling something like rush hour here in the Bay Area. It’s not an inspiring thought. Still, we’re checking to see what lodging alternatives there might be up there.

My thoughts also tend further east. Maybe to the High Plains. It’s a different world out there. In noodling around looking for places one might stay out in flyover country, I happened across the following description of a tiny hostelry in a very small town. It’s one of the best things I’ve read today. Here it is:

There is a very slim chance that you are going to visit the Longhorn Motel in Tryon Nebraska. There are several reasons for this, chief among them that almost no one lives in Tryon, and it is not on the road to anywhere. The Longhorn’s primary mission in life is to serve as an overflow bedroom when more than one relative comes to visit a resident of Tryon at the same time.

You will not break down in or near Tryon because, as noted above, it is not on the road to anywhere.

Should you need to visit in Tryon, the Longhorn is the ONLY place to stay. That is literally the truth. The rooms are quite small but very clean. Your hosts, Mr. and Mrs Pyzer, are without a doubt the friendliest motel hosts in the business, There is a small TV in each room connected to the satellite system, so there is a wide range of programing available. If you want coffee in the morning the Pyzers will give you the fixins before you turn in. Even though they have a bona fide monopoly on rooms to rent, $40 will get you the finest room in the place.

Sadly there is not WIFI hook up, but all is not lost. One block west on the other side of highway 92/97 sits the McPherson County public school. The school has a nice strong signal to which you can connect if you park near the handicapped parking spots along the highway in front of the school.

The Longhorn does not provide breakfast but just a block and a half west you will find Aunt Bea’s Restaurant. Aunt Bea is a middle aged gentleman who fires up the grill about 9 each morning and can whip you up a sausage breakfast that should make Ronald MacDonald hide his head in shame.

As I said before, you are probably not going to be in or near Tryon, but if you are, you will experience first hand the friendly nature of the folks who live in Nebraska’s fabulous Sandhills. If you do not know what the Sandhills are – you do need to get out more.

Room Tip: All the rooms are good but #3 is the best among equals!

Mapping a Mosquito

Recently, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (the CDC, for short) publicized statistics and maps on where the Aedes aegypti mosquito is found across the United States; or rather, where the species has been found in monitoring going back to the mid-1990s.

Aedes aegypti is in the news because it’s been identified as the primary vector of the Zika virus. (Among things I didn’t know until I sat down to write this just now: The virus was first detected in a rhesus monkey in Uganda in 1947; the first human case was reported, again in Uganda, in 1952, and the first major outbreak was recorded in 2007 on the Pacific island of Yap, about 1,200 miles east-southeast of Manila (or 4,300 miles west-southwest of Honolulu, if you want to get all America-centric; it is a very big ocean out there).

But back to the Zika and the data the CDC put out. The statistics, compiled by a team of researchers from the CDC and Colorado State University, showed that Aedes aegypti had been found in 13 of California’s 58 counties since 1996 (in fact, all the reports appear to be from 2001 or later). In most cases, the mosquito has been found in just one or two or three years. In one case — Los Angeles County — Aedes aegypti has turned up in nine years since 2001, including every year from 2011 through 2015.

Anyway. Why was I paying attention to this? A colleague at work wanted to make a more informative map than those published along with the Oxford Journal of Medical Entomology article that carried the CDC data. I sort of pointed her to what she’d need to do, and another staffer helped her make a finished version.

Me? I started noodling around and came up with the very slightly refined map above.

Of course, looking more closely at what the CDC scientists had to say, I see there’s another mosquito I should be mapping, too: Aedes albopictus. As The Atlantic reported in May, scientists in Mexico recently detected the Zika virus in this second species.

Has it been found in California? Yes. According to the CDC researchers’ data, Aedes albopictus has been found in eight counties since 2001. In rough south to north order, they’re San Diego, Orange, Los Angeles, San Bernardino, Los Angeles, Kern, Santa Clara, San Mateo and San Joaquin. Notable: This mosquito was found in Kern, L.A., Orange, San Diego and San Bernardino counties last year; it hasn’t been detected in the more northerly counties since 2003. (The California Department of Public Health has published a map, which is says is updated weekly, of Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus detection sites from 2011 through this year.)

Maybe I’ll do a map with layers so we can see both species. That’s a project for another day, though.

An Eye on the Eye of the Storm

Himawari satellite image of an intense storm in the northern Pacific, March 26, 2016.
Himawari satellite image of an intense storm in the northern Pacific, March 26, 2016.

A few weeks ago, I downloaded a Chrome browser extension that, when you open a new tab, shows a current (or at least very recent) view of the full disk of the Earth as captured by Japan’s geostationary Himawari 8 weather satellite. Himawari produces high-resolution images of the Earth — the kind you can lose yourself in for hours if that’s the kind of thing you like.

Anyway, I noticed last Friday and Saturday that the full-disk image was showing a huge storm someplace in the northeastern Pacific. I wondered whether I could find a better view of the images online, and sure enough, NOAA’s Regional and Mesoscale Meteorology Branch (RAMMB to its friends), which inventories a lot of satellite images, features a Himawari Loop of the Day.

The loop for Saturday, March 26, was titled “Intense Low in the North Pacific.” Hit that link and it takes you to a movie — you need to have a little patience for the download — of the storm I was seeing in the full-disk picture. The image above is a frame from the movie.

It’s extraordinary. Or maybe everything on Earth is extraordinary if you have a chance to sit back and watch it for a while.(One note on the movie: A shadow crosses toward the end: that’s night falling as the Earth rotates. But the surface details are still visible because of GeoColor, a system that blends visible (daytime) and infrared (nighttime) imagery. GeoColor is also responsible for the reddish appearance of cloud tops in the nighttime images.)

Below is what the storm looked like on a conventional surface weather map: a sprawling, intense system with sustained winds over 60 mph forecast to occur 500 miles and more to the south and southwest of its center. The storm was producing monstrous waves, too, with seas as high 34 feet.

stormchart