Back in August, I took a drive along some rural roads in Yolo County, on the edge of the Sacramento Valley, that I’d become familiar with on long bike rides 15 and 20 years ago. Most of the county is on the flat floor of the valley and was given over to agriculture — crops that even a city dweller like me could identify on the move included rice, sunflowers, alfalfa, tomatoes. Some nut and fruit orchards, too. That’s still a lot of what you see.
Northern and western parts of the county are hilly, though, and when I’d ride through, most of those areas appeared to be used for pasture with the occasional appearance of a grain crop wrapped around the hills’ contours.
In August, I was surprised to find that a lot of that former pastureland has been transformed into what I assume are almond orchards. I drove past a spot where, long ago, a couple of other cyclists and I had taken a break from riding against a fierce north wind. Back then, in 2006, it was a big open field with some abandoned-looking farm equipment that we ducked down behind to get out of the wind. Now that spot is all nut trees.
I stopped to take pictures along one of the routes I traveled, Road 6. Looking at the result — it’s the black and white shot below, which I just had developed — I realized that maybe Google Streetview would show the same scene over the years. The most recent shot Google has is from May 2012. Here’s a little of what the change looks like (and a before/after slider of the scene is here).
The transformation is not shocking; it’s part of the vast expansion of almond and pistachio acreage that’s overtaken much of the Central Valley.
If you live here, the puzzling thing about this changed landscape is that the last decade is one of the driest periods, if not the driest, since California was colonized 250 years ago. The state’s water supplies are dwindling, a situation that’s supposed to become more challenging as the effects of climate change accelerate. Given that there’s not a lot of visible irrigation infrastructure here, I assume that water is being pumped out of the ground to support these thirsty orchards. I haven’t looked into who the adventurous growers or hedge-fund investors are who have launched this experiment in the middle of our drought. It’s quite a gamble.
We dug up our lawn over the last two or three years after a long period of drought-induced neglect that had turned the grass patch into a weed patch. In its place we have created what I call “Kate’s Meadow,” a semi-tidy but very colorful collection of mostly native flowering plants.
I went out the other day to take pictures of one of the plants, a black sage that’s been attracting lots of bees. I’ll occasionally post my pictures of plants and animals on Flickr, and when I do, I’ll look up the species name. I was curious when I saw that honey bees, Apis mellifera, share an epithet with black sage, Salvia mellifera (the epithet being the second word in the binomial genus/species name).
What’s the explanation for the shared epithet?
Apis is Latin for bee, and mellifera is Latin for “honey bearing.” Swedish taxonomist Linnaeus designated European honey bees as Apis mellifera, honey-bearing bee, in the 18th century. According to some sources, he quickly regarded that name a mistake and attempted to change it to Apis mellifica — honey-making bee. But under later-adopted rules of scientific nomenclature, the older, “mistaken” name takes precedence.
Black sage came by the designation Salvia mellifera thanks to U.S. botanist Edward Lee Greene, a member of the University of California faculties in the 1880s and ’90s. In a series of papers published under the title “Pittonia,” Greene set out to correct what he viewed as the misclassification of North American sages, adding them to the genus Salvia and subtracting them from Audibertia, used by the botanist George Bentham in the 1830s.
The only clue I can readily to Greene’s use of mellifera as the epithet for this species is his comment in describing the black sage as “one of the principal bee-plants.”
Mrs. B— not her real name — has been a schoolteacher for some time. She’s retired from full-time work, but continues as a science curriculum consultant, as a substitute and as a volunteer for a very program called Trout in the Classroom.
The program is the work of Northern California conservationists and fishing groups and teaches about one of the native wonders of our state, the rainbow trout,Oncorhynchus mykiss. The program distributes specially prepared fish tanks and other equipment to classroom and delivers rainbow trout eggs. The kids get to study the fish as they emerge from the eggs and grow just big enough over a couple months to release in local lakes. (Given the state of some of our urban East Bay lakes , sometimes that doesn’t seem like such a great deal for the baby trout. But I guess Nature and Science Education have a plan.)
The other day, Mrs. B was at a nearby school where she was helping an elementary grades science teacher set up her trout tank. When she was done, she was invited to stay for lunch, and she did that.
She went and asked a group of second- and third-graders if she could sit at their table. “Oh, sure,” they said. “We’re just talking about the war in Ukraine.”
The title overpromises. Here’s just one bird in review from a weekend in the valley: the sandhill crane, Antigone canadensis. Among many other things one might write about the bird is the fact the original English common name assigned to these creatures in the mid-18th century was “the brown and ash-colour’d crane.”
Where can you see them? Over the late fall and winter, we’ve encountered them at several wildlife refuges: Llano Seco (near Chico), Cosumnes, Merced, and San Luis. There were small groups at most of these places when we visited. At Merced, we saw thousands.
More sandhill crane lore (and birds to be reviewed) later.
A predictable circumstance of this trip: that we’d see at least patches of wildfire smoke as we travel east. I mean, we’ve all seen the stories this summer, and the fires in California and elsewhere are still putting out major volumes of particulate matter. Even so, the image above, a screenshot of the map at fire.airnow.gov, is sobering. (That little blue dot at left center of the image is where we are now.)
Beryl Markham’s memoir “West With the Night,” an account of her history-making career as an aviator (including the first solo east-to-west crossing of the Atlantic) came to mind.
We’re now traveling east with the murk. Not nearly as hypnotically poetic as the image of flying into the twilight and the unknown. But we’re chasing our own sort of twilight adventure.
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.”
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.