Mystery Clay Blobs in Berkeley Neighborhood

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About a month ago, Piero and Jill, our neighbors across the street, presented us with a mystery: the seemingly ubiquitous appearance of tiny blobs of clay on their cars, their front porch, and on cars up and down our block of Holly Street, a couple blocks from North Berkeley BART.

Where had these blobs, probably in the thousands, come from? The theory I came up with: Maybe the dirt had been precipitated out from dust in the atmosphere. You know, dust that had been picked up in the Gobi Desert, say, and blown in the stratosphere clear to Berkeley, where it rained down on our street.

The idea isn’t entirely loony: Dust from Asia and Africa is known to play a role in precipitation over California’s mountains. But in that case, we’re talking about minuscule particles that serve as nuclei for ice crystals that later fall as snow or rain. (Yes, sometimes there’s so much dust in the air that it will precipitate as a muddy rain — but that’s different from what we were seeing on Holly Street.)

Kate, science teacher and certified California naturalist, appears to have come up with the most probable answer to the blob source: yellowjackets. Here’s what the University of California’s Integrated Pest Management site has to say about the nesting habits of these wasps:

Yellowjackets commonly build nests in rodent burrows, but they sometimes select other protected cavities, such as voids in walls and ceilings of houses, as nesting sites. Colonies, which are begun each spring by a single reproductive female, can reach populations of between 1,500 and 15,000 individuals, depending on the species.

The wasps build a nest of paper made from fibers scraped from wood mixed with saliva. It is built as multiple tiers of vertical cells, similar to nests of paper wasps, but enclosed by a paper envelope around the outside that usually contains a single entrance hole. If the rodent hole isn’t spacious enough, yellowjackets will increase the size by moistening the soil and digging.

The writeup doesn’t say what the yellowjackets do with the material they excavate. But a Georgia gardening website does. In trying to answer readers’ questions about the source of mysterious dirt balls, the site consulted an entomologist a University of Georgia entomologist, who said:

The yellowjacket is almost certainly the culprit here.

First is the time of year. Nests are expanded rapidly and grow almost exponentially during late June through September. To allow for this expansion the original nest hole must be greatly enlarged to accomodate the growing nest that will ultimately be at least soccer ball-sized and often larger.

After a good rain, excavating activity often approaches a frenzy level, and if you watch the traffic at the nest entrance 7 out of every 10 wasps will emerge with a chunk of clay in their jaws. They always airlift it generally out to within a few yards of the nest and drop the pellets like small bombs from several feet high, then immediately return to repeat the process. In this way they make room for their nest to grow, and it takes a lot of mouthfuls of mud to do so!

When Kate found this description, Piero said he’d been seeing a good number of yellowjackets around. Unknown, so far as I’ve heard, is whether the nest this industrious group has been working on has been located.

The photo above: a closeup of one of the clay blobs in question; below, to give an idea of scale, how they looked on the rear window of a Volkswagen Bug. More photos here. (Regarding the picture above: More alarming to me than the mystery blob is all the crud surrounding it; that, no doubt, is simply our normal urban fallout of dust, grit and particulate byproducts of burning hydrocarbons. We’re breathing that stuff.)

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Non-Natives in California: Snails and Other Species

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It’s September, and just about time for the chrysanthemums we’ve been nursing through the summer with buckets of dishwater to enjoy their autumn moment. Looking at the hundreds or thousands of unfolding buds this morning, I noticed a familiar garden visitor: Cornu aspersum, also known as the brown snail, garden snail, brown garden snail, European garden snail, or European brown garden snail (in French, its common name is apparently petit-gris, or little gray). Some of the snails were young, smaller than the just-opening buds they’re presumably feeding on.

The University of California’s Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources reports there are about 280 species of snails and slugs here in the Golden State, of which 242 are believed to be natives. Cornu aspersum (formerly Helix aspersa) is one of the many non-native species, including eucalyptus, striped bass and Homo sapiens, that make California what it is today.

C. aspersum is native to the western Mediterranean, probably originating in North Africa and migrating millions of years ago into Europe. Thanks to much more recent human genius and/or carelessness, the snail is reportedly now at home on every continent except that very cold one well to the south of us.

How did this land mollusk come to California? I remember hearing when I had newly introduced myself into this bioregion that they were the same species as one served to gastrophiles as escargot. In fact, I was told that Bay Area locals had been known to capture snails, feed them cornmeal to cleanse their digestive systems of whatever vile material they might have been eating, then consume them. I can’t say I’ve ever met someone who claims to have done this themselves.

The April 27, 1900, number of the journal Science includes an article titled “Exotic Mollusca in California,” by Robert Edwards Carter Stearns of Los Angeles. Stearns related a very specific genesis story for the European snails in California:

“This species was intentionally introduced or ‘planted’ in Calfornia over 40 years ago by Mr. A. Delmas, of San José, Santa Clara county, who brought the stock from France and turned it out among the vineyards on the west bank of the Guadalupe, a small river that flows northerly through Santa Clara Valley and empties into the southerly end of San Francisco bay near Alviso. The soil where the snails were placed is a rich sandy loam and the place well shaded. When the summer heats reach the maximum, the Helices descend into the ground several feet, hiding in the cracks that form, as the ground dries, and the gopher-holes also furnish cool retreats and protection. The region above named is one of exceeding fertility. It was settled by a few French families. The introduction of H. asperse by Mr. Delmas was made for edible purposes, or in common parlance ‘with an eye to the pot.’ Mrs. Bush, of the Normal School in San José, informs me that the snails have thriven, and have extended their territory from the starting point on the west bank of the stream to the easterly side, and have multiplied to such an extent, that in some instances they are troublesome in the gardens.”

Stearns also reported Delmas had planted the snails in San Francisco, where they did not do well at first, and Los Angeles, where they apparently thrived. By 1900, it had taken hold in other locations.

“A. Delmas,” it turns out, was Antoine Delmas, a French émigré who had arrived in California in 1849. He established a nursery and vineyards in the Santa Clara Valley and is credited in “A Companion to California Wine” with being the first to import French wine-grape vines, including merlot and cabernet, into the state. Another claim for Delmas: that he brought an obscure varietal to California that became known as zinfandel.

Between the grapes, the wine and the snails, that’s a big mark for one man to have made on this place.

Road Blog: Apparition

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The Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, about 40 miles south of the Las Vegas Strip on Interstate 15. The towers you see (shot from the passenger’s seat of a car traveling about 70 mph toward Los Angeles) are each 459 feet high.

The simple version of how the plant works: Each tower is surrounded by an immense field of mirrors that focus sunlight on a collector at the top of the tower. Thus the beams of light made visible by the desert haze. That intense heat drives turbines that generate electricity. (This isn’t the first time this type of plant has appeared on this here blog.)

For the more complex version of what’s really happening at the plant, check out my friend Pete’s coverage of Ivanpah here and here.

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Frontyard Visitor: The Gulf Fritillary

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Wednesday it rained. Thursday it rained. Saturday, it rained again.

Right there’s some news. Even though the rain didn’t amount to much — I’d guess just an inch or so here in Berkeley for all three “storms” — that was the most concentrated precipitation we’ve had since April, I’d guess. Today (Sunday) was clear, and that after avoiding even looking at the yard for a long time — the front “lawn” has not been watered in several seasons and looks worse than dead — I thought I’d taken advantage of the warm, dry weather and clean things up a little.

One of my chores was to cut down the mostly dead stalks of our September-blooming sunflowers (Helianthus salicifolius). I did that, then picked up the whole bundle of stalks to stuff in our green can (the one for “yard waste). As I started to push the stuff into the can, I realized there was a beautiful orange butterfly tangled up in the mass of dead stems and leaves. I thought it was dead, but then it moved. So I pulled stalks out of the can to give it more space to wriggle free. It quickly extricated itself. I ran for my camera, but it flew before I could get a shot.

I ran and grabbed my camera and followed it for a few minutes down the block. The undersides of the butterfly’s wings are gorgeous — “spangled in iridescent silver,” as one description I found puts it. I couldn’t manage to get a clear shot of the undersides, though.

Kate went online to make the identification: a Gulf fritillary (Agraulis vanillae). The Bay Area is about as far north as these get in California, though they have been seen recently in the Davis and Sacramento areas. Here are a couple links with details:

The name “Gulf fritillary”: Well, “Gulf” comes from their association with areas bordering the Gulf of Mexico. And “fritillary”? A U.S. Forest Service “pollinator of the month” page explains:

The common name comes from a Latin word, fritillus, which means chessboard or dice box. Fritillary is also the name of a flower with an interesting checkered pattern; it is obvious that both the flower and the butterfly get their common name because of such pattern. Another name for these handsome butterflies is silverspots because of the metallic markings on their wings undersides. It is possible that this pattern, similar to a leopard’s spots, serves as camouflage when they are resting in places of dappled sun and shade spots.

Getting in further over my head: It should be noted that the Gulf fritillary is a member of the same butterfly subfamily, Nymphalidae (brush-footed butterflies) but a different tribe (Heliconiini) from the rest of the fritillaries (Argynnini). I didn’t know butterflies had tribes. And that’s as far as I’m going to take the fritillary story for this evening.

Dining-Room Visitor

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Earlier this month, Kate spotted some wild fennel stuffed into a yard-waste bin here in the neighborhood. Wild fennel, which has become profuse here, is kind of weedy and annoying; once it takes root, it’s very hard to get rid of.

But it’s also a host plant for a butterfly called the anise swallowtail (Papilio zelicaon), whose image has graced this blog before. It’s a largish black-and-yellow beauty, at least in the eye of this beholder.

So, having spotted the fennel in the bin, Kate took a look to see if any anise swallowtail caterpillars might be there, too. To her surprise, she found 10, including a couple that were probably close to going into their chrysalides. So she brought the caterpillar and their host sprigs of fennel back home, where they took up residence in our dining room.

Within just a few days, one of the caterpillars crawled onto the vase that held the fennel and began preparing to go into its chrysalis. We left town for a couple of days, and when we came back, the chrysalis was complete. (See the photos below; click for bigger versions of the images.) That was less than two weeks ago. Since we’ve sometimes watched chrysalides for months and months before a butterfly appears (if one appears at all), I was kind of thinking we’d be into the autumn before anything more happened.

But this morning, Kate got up, walked into the dining room, then called out, “We have a butterfly out here now!”

So now, it’s doing what it needs to do for the next stage in its life cycle. We’ll watch.

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Nighttime Campground Visitor

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We did a car-camping trip down to Central California last week: spent a night on the shore of Lake Nacimiento on the Monterey-San Luis Obispo county border, then a couple nights at Wheeler Springs, a National Forest campground on Highway 33 a few miles north of Ojai in Ventura County.

The second night at Wheeler, while we got ready to go to bed, the individual above landed on a towel on our picnic table. He tolerated lots of picture taking and stayed on the towel when I carried it into our tent’s front vestibule (he/she flew off, eventually). I’d say the wingspan was an inch and a half or two inches.

Thanks to the excellent iNaturalist site, I’ve got an identification for the creature: Tetracis cervinaria (Tetracis are also called “slant line” moths, it appears). This one’s a native, seen up and down the West Coast from Southern California (Ventura County is near the southern limit of its range, apparently) up to British Columbia and east to the Rocky Mountains.

In looking and photographing a few moths and butterflies, it’s always surprising to me to see how much there is to the organism beyond the wings. In the case of moths, big hairy bodies. I said this guy (or whatever) was tolerant of my picture taking. I happened to have a headlamp on and used it to light up the moth as I shot it from different angles. When I shone the light directly into its eyes, I expected it to react. It didn’t appear to, though if you’re in an anthropomorphizing mood its stare looks a little baleful.

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OK — What Is This Bird Saying?

Kate recorded this the other morning while walking The Dog in the neighborhood. The audio contains two distinct calls from one bird. When she got home, she said, “Listen to this — what do you think it sounds like it’s saying?”

I listened to Part 1, a two-syllable call, and I said, “[deleted to maintain suspense.]” Kate said, “Yes!”

I listened to Part 2, one syllable, and I said, “[DTMS].” Kate said that’s what she heard, too.

So you tell me, what is this bird saying?

Slideshow: Lake Oroville, Before and After

Thanks to the miracles of software and the Internet, I put together a short slideshow comparing scenes at Lake Oroville as I shot them late last March and yesterday. If I’d known back then to what extent the lake would empty out, I would have taken pictures all along the shoreline. As it was, the pictures I did take of the lake were an afterthought, something to do before we started to head home.

The big surprise in the “after” pictures, the ones I took yesterday, is the landscape revealed by the receding waters. There’s no hint looking at the surface in March what the underwater topography looks like. And it’s amazing looking at the exposed landscape now (it was drowned in 1969, when the new reservoir was first filled) and how completely it’s been scoured of anything that might suggest that before Oroville Dam was built, these were canyons choked with oak, pine and brush.

Here’s the slideshow which includes a few bonus shots at the end):

California Drought News: Bishops Call on Faithful to Pray for Rain

With all sorts of bad news about California’s long, long dry spell — flows on the American River will be squeezed down to a relative trickle this week, suburban Sacramento is facing draconian water restrictions — here’s my favorite drought story. The Roman Catholic bishop of Sacramento, who leads the state’s conference of bishops, has issued a call for “people of faith” to ask God to make it rain. (Here’s the post I did on it for the KQED blog earlier today: “As Drought Deepens, Catholic Bishops Say ‘Pray for Rain’ “).

There are no atheists in foxholes, the saying goes, a simple way of communicating the notion that everyone gets religion when their mortal ass is on the line (or they think they’re about to meet their maker). But there are plenty of atheists in droughts, like the person who said to me this evening they can’t believe there’s a god who messes around with the weather. Myself, I don’t scoff at the notion of praying for rain and actually found something moving in some of the language in the bishops’ suggested entreaties to “the Almighty.”

Here’s my favorite, not least because it’s said to have originated in a 1950s volume called “The Rural Life Prayer Book” from the National Catholic Rural Life Conference:

Almighty God, we are in need of rain. We realize now, looking up into the clear, blue sky, what a marvel even the least drop of rain really is. To think that so much water can really fall out of the sky, which now is empty and clear! We place our trust in You. We are sure that You know our needs. But You want us to ask you anyway, to show You that we know we are dependent on you. Look to our dry hills and fields, dear God, and bless them with the living blessing of soft rain. Then the land will rejoice and rivers will sing Your praises, and the hearts of all will be made glad. Amen.

I admit I’m not crazy about the “you want us to ask anyway, to show You that we know we are dependent on you” part of that plea. Assuming we’re not dealing with Zeus and his ilk, what kind of a scheming, manipulative jerk of a god is going to hold back the rain just to maneuver us into begging? (Yeah, I know, scripture is probably chock full of examples of god in his/her various guises acting the jerk.) But what I do like about that prayer is the sense of wonder at nature: “To think that so much water can really fall out of the sky, which is now empty and clear.”

I’m of the mind that help is welcome from whatever quarter it arrives. We have fish runs struggling, pastures withering, farms going fallow, streams dwindling, and forests drying out. Native shamans, do your stuff. Bishops, priests, ministers, rabbis, imams, clerics and monks and religious practitioners of all sorts and stripes — likewise. Let’s clap in the presence of our local kami, Shinto style. Pray, if you’re moved to. Ponder this dry place of ours and all that’s beautiful in it. Then look west, or north, or east, or south — that’s where the rain will be coming from.

An American Coot in Oakland (with Very Large Greenish Feet)

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An American coot (Fulica americana) on the rocks next to the Oakland ferry terminal last week. I took the picture (through a window) for one reason: While these coots are omnipresent, cruising the local waterways, I have never seen one out of the water and had no idea what huge, strange feet they have: big, greenish things with prominent claws on the end of each toe. (click on the image for a bigger version and a better view of the coot feet in their full bipedal grandeur).