Monday, May 26, 2008

Another Canyon Walk

What a beautiful morning it was in the canyon this morning! After a weekend of weird weather that included rain, hail, wind, and unusually cold temperatures, things are starting to get back to normal—which is to say glorious sunshine and 70 degree weather. A few pretty clouds and high surf are all that is left of the storm.

One of the things I like about our monthly hikes (although I missed March and April) is seeing how the canyon changes with the seasons, how the plants die back and then return to life when their time is ripe. For the native plants that we are observing, we are learning that each has its own time and it is not necessarily spring. It is very interesting to compare the photos I took this morning with my reports on the canyon in February, December, November, and last June when we started. Of course, every year will be different, too, depending in large part on rainfall since the canyon gets no other irrigation.

Today, the Purple Sage (Salvia leucophylla) was one of the star performers. I finally could see why they gave it that name. The bushes were huge and even though the flowers are very small and there might not be many of them, the whole plant looked like a cloud of purple. The Black Sage (Salvia mellifera) wasn't as spectacular but had new leaves and flower buds that had not opened yet.

Another star of the day was the California Buckwheat (Erigonum fasciculatum). We have seen this plant in bloom before, but the blossoms were dry and rough-looking with a very hardy appearance. Today they were soft and delicate at the ends of slender stems. The buds were pinkish and if you looked very closely at the flower, you could see the petals were white with tiny pink anthems at the ends of the stamens (if I have my flower parts correct).

Cliff Aster (Malocathrix saxatilis) was everywhere and the plants and flowers were huge compared to those I had seen before. Some plants were three feet tall and true to its name, there were asters hugging the rocky cliff walls of the canyon.

Bladderpod (Isomeris arborea) was also big and bushy with profuse flowers and pods.

Some new plants that I had not seen in the canyon before included the Sticky Monkeyflower (Mimulus longiflorus) although I have seen plenty of it elsewhere. There were only two plants that we could find today in the canyon.

A totally new plant to me was Giant Rye Grass (Leymus condensatus). This large perrenial can reach heights of ten feet and amazingly, it is a grass. I loved the sound of the wind through its tall reed-like blades. The flower stalks were fascinating and most had not opened out yet. I'll have to be sure to go along for the walk next month to see them when they have.

The Wild Cucumber (Marah macrocarpus—not a cucumber and not edible), that had been threatening to take over everything in February has dried out and died back. Likewise, someone has gone through and hacked down all the Black Mustard (Brassica nigra) that Joan says was taking over last month. This plant covers hillsides everywhere in Southern California since the Franciscan Padres freely dispersed seeds along the El Camino Real. It is pretty but it is not a native. It is a grain weed from the Old World.

The last photo for today is of a Wild Radish (Raphanus sativus). The Wild Radish is the common garden variety naturalized from Europe and gone back to the wild. The root is edible, but gets tough and inedible after the plant flowers. Jeff pulled up one plant for me to see the root, but I am not sure I want to taste it.

One, Two, ...Many

How long did it take them to find me? I put up a new bird feeder last September and only just now have the small birds, the birds for whom it was intended, found it. Last week one brave House Finch had the courage to test it out. He probably couldn't believe his good fortune. Here was a feeder full of black oil sunflower seeds (caviar to him) and it was all his! However, he soon brought along a friend and before long the whole crowd (er, flock) was descending on my feeder.

House Finches come in several colors from yellow to orange to red like this fellow. The females are just stripey brown. They (the males, that is) sing a pretty gurgling song that has a little buzz at the end of it especially in the spring. After filling themselves up on seed, they will go to my nearby tree and serenade me. That's my thanks. Hopefully, they will also attract other birds to my yard like bright yellow goldfinches, and even warblers that don't eat seeds. It's a little too late in the season for the warblers, but there should still be some goldfinches around.

What they did instantly attract to my yard were squirrels and all the neighborhood cats, some I have never seen before. The predators tended to walk the walls behind the feeder, frustrated by the distance between which is farther than it looks in the photos. Yesterday a squirrel hung around to take a shower when my sprinklers came on. I have never seen a squirrel do that before.

Soon there were so many birds vying for the perches and for the seeds on the ground that squabbling broke out. And then the neighborhood bullies arrived, House Sparrows. This is the familiar LBB (Little Brown Bird) that you see everywhere there are people. These are the birds that will peck around on the ground under picnic tables looking for scraps. The House Sparrow was introduced to North America from Europe in the 1850s. It is not a native, but it has been here long enough to evolve changes in its morphology and has adapted well to humans. It is an aggressive bird that will steal nesting sites of the other cavity-nesting native species and has contributed to their decline.

By noon yesterday the birds had emptied the feeder that I had just filled the day before. Well, they will have to wait until tomorrow for me to fill it up again. Just like humans, if food is plentiful and always available, some will eat it to the point of obesity. In fact, at the end of the day, you will often see one lone, rather plump bird just sitting on the perch, reluctant to leave.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Late Bloom Day Post

I missed Bloom Day on May 15th and I'll probably miss the June Bloom Day also, but here is what is in bloom in my garden at the moment.

It's easy to see why this plant has the sub-species name, Firecracker. It's a Galvezia speciosa or Island Bush-snapdragon. It is native to the bluffs and rocky canyons of Santa Catalina, San Clemente, and Guadalupe islands off the coast of Southern California. I got mine as a cutting from my friend Kathy under false pretenses. She said it was a California fuschia (Zauschneria) and then realized that it wasn't but couldn't remember what it was. Now I have a hard time remembering what it's true name is, too. This year I have had more blooms on it than ever before. I must be doing something right.

It sits right below this beauty, Lavatera maritima, a most satisfactory plant beloved by birds of all kinds. The hummingbirds go from flower to flower sipping nectar, the Bushtits comb the leaves and branches for bugs, and the migrating warblers do the same. Ground birds like the Hermit Thrush and White-crowned Sparrows like to hunt and peck in the leaf mat that collects underneath. The bush has grown very large and the small birds can hide from predators in the tangle of leaves and branches inside. The branches cannot hold the weight of the squirrels and cats, so the birds are relatively safe. I cut it way back last fall and it seems to have enjoyed the rest. Otherwise, it grows and blooms constantly.

The Lion's Tail, Leonotis leonurus, has started to bloom again and the hummingbirds are very happy about that. This is another bush that I cut back drastically in the winter.

I'll bet you don't recognize this plant on the right as the Mickey Mouse plant, Ochna serrulata, that I blogged about last March. The yellow flowers have dropped leaving the sepals to turn bright red. The berries which are green right now will turn black and as soon as they do, the mockingbirds will be by to gobble them up. That's probably how this plant got started in the first place.

And then there is my lovely bougainvillea. This plant started out in a pot, a hanging pot no less, that I bought at the nursery. When the plant looked like it was done for, I moved it to the side of the house just outside my bedroom window. That was a stroke of luck because, as frequently happens, it liked this new spot much better and started putting roots down into the ground. Before I knew it, I had a huge, beautiful plant with lovely blooms to look at through the window. Apparently, this variety with purple-colored flowers, Bougainvillea glabra, prefers more shade than the usual bright red kind.

All of these plants are drought tolerant and are also well-established in my yard. So when Los Angeles starts water rationing, which they are threatening to do, I'll be ready.

Monday, May 19, 2008

848 the Second Time

They say that the third time is the charm, but thankfully, knitting Gedifra 848 from Highlight 061 a second time was all it took to get it right. The first version came out nicely, but after wearing it for a few hours it had stretched so totally out of shape that it was embarrassing. The problem was the stretchiness of the yarn, Gedifra Top Soft. It is a combination of Viscose, Polyamid, and silk. Very soft. But it seems to get softer and stretchier after blocking. So this time I used size 8 needles and knit very tight. I did not get gauge and thought I was going too far the other way, but after blocking—violà! Of course I haven't given it a true test yet. I only wore it for a few minutes while my daughter took this picture.

It knit up fast this time. It took only two weeks. Knitting any project the second time is bound to go faster. I just followed my previous notes and was able to watch several DVDs (Persuasion, The Prime of Miss Jane Brody, and A Room with a View—all great movies) while working. It's so hard to judge if something is going to fit until the very end after sewing the pieces together, weaving in the ends, and most importantly, blocking. It's too bad you usually don't have the luxury of doing things twice due to the time it takes to make something and the cost of the yarn, too.

I'm having just such a problem right now with the Helon Dress, a crochet project. I have finished the back up to the armholes. When I started it, it looked like it was going to be way too big, so I started over and decreased the number of pattern repeats by one. Now that I have gone past the waist, it seems too small. Will it stretch when I block it? Should I go back and start over again? Should I just crochet the front according to the pattern and have the front slightly larger than the back? Things to ponder... which is one of the reasons it takes so long to get something done.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Births, Marriages, and Deaths

I have been working on my genealogy project again. The widow of a distant cousin asked me for a copy of it and I realized that it needed a major update. So last week I dove into one of the shelves of three-ring notebooks that contain my notes and downloads from the Internet and started entering names on the French-Canadian side of my family. Last night I entered the 3100th name into the database.

As anyone who has studied French-Canadian ancestry knows, they were excellent record keepers. The parish records of births, marriages, and deaths were not only well-kept, but each entry included the name of both parents when a baptism was recorded (including the mother's maiden name), and the names of all parents of the bride and groom when a marriage was recorded, as well as the names of witnesses and others present and their relationship to the couple, thus making it relatively easy to make connections from one generation to the next. I used to go to the LDS Family History Library here in LA and spend hours in a dark basement room peering at microfilmed copies of these parish registers. Of course, it helped to know a little French! But now the information from these records has been entered into a huge database at the Université de Montréal, put online, and for a fee, you can search for and download the information you need from the comfort of your own home. It is called Le Programme de recherche en démographie historique (The Research Program in Historical Demography), or PRDH.

My genealogy project includes stories, photos, and histories of people and places but the backbone of the project is the vital statistics, a seemingly endless list of births, marriages, and deaths without which I would not be here. So today being Mother's Day, I want to salute all mothers, grandmothers, great-grandmothers, etc. Here's to the working moms, the stay-at-home moms, and anyone who is a caregiver for the next generation. Here's to my daughter and daughter-in-law.

I also want to wish my son and daughter-in-law a happy anniversary. Can it really have been 17 years already!

And lastly, here's to Poppa. We still miss you.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Oak Canyon

I took Baby C. (now Toddler C.) to the Oak Canyon Nature Center last week when I was babysitting him. It was one of those suddenly hot days that we had here in LA, but it was nice and cool under the shade of the oak trees. We had a grand time. The Center has a room full of exhibits—bugs, snakes, turtles, etc.—that fascinated him and there were several groups of school children being guided through which fascinated him also. Because of the school children's visit they had extra stuffed animals out on display and Toddler C. got to "pet" the bobcat, raccoon, and owl, and touch a real snakeskin that its owner had shed.

We crossed one of the many bridges that span the creek that runs down the canyon and were lucky to see a wild Mallard family with about 7 baby chicks in the water. On previous visits to the center, we have seen Wood Ducks who are regular winter visitors to the canyon, but they were not there this time. They may have already left for the summer. Toddler C. has very sharp eyes and can spot a "birr" long before I can. He can usually see the Wood Ducks hiding near the shady banks when I can't. We saw lots of lizards, too, which I tried to explain were not birds.

We climbed a path that goes up the hillside by steps, some of which were very steep, and so he needed my help getting up. He thought that this was a lot of fun but by the time we got to the top, he was tired and I had to carry him down the other end of the trail. Along the trail we found some lovely Caterpillar Phacelia, but I didn't have my camera with me and I was not about to go all the way back down with Toddler C. to get it. (He wasn't the only one who was tired.) Luckily, we later came across more of it and now that he was comfortably sitting in his stroller, Toddler C. patiently let me take all the pictures I wanted.

Bush Monkey Flower. This covered the hillside and was very pretty.

Black Sage. This was everywhere the sun shone.

This last one is Milk Thistle which is not a native. It comes from the Mediterranean region and is considered something of a pest in the West. While it is an ancient medicinal herb, it is toxic to livestock.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Nature Unbound

Nefarious deeds have been happening in my backyard lately. The other day I went out to throw some kitchen scraps on the compost pile when I discovered two baby opossum... heads!... lying on the path. (No pictures were taken.) Bits of fur were lying about, too, but the bodies were gone. At first I blamed the neighborhood cats, of which there are several. But this didn't really look like a cat's doings. They usually don't eat their prey, they just play with it. And they wouldn't leave just the heads. They are more likely to bury their dead prey or bring it home to their astonished owners. Our cat used to do that. He would bury dead lizards under the living room carpet!

Later that same evening I spied an adult opossum slinking across the walls that separate my neighbors' yards from mine. Small animals including squirrels, an occasional opossum or raccoon, and the cats use these walls as freeways. At the same time the opossum was moving about, crows were squawking like mad in the pine tree. Did crows eat the babies?

Next day I discovered a more plausible answer to the mystery. A hawk was flying over being harassed by one crow, which they are apt to do. I am not sure of the kind of hawk, I was driving and couldn't get a good look at it. It could have been a Cooper's Hawk, or more likely a Red-tailed Hawk. A Red-tailed Hawk could have eaten the babies and left the heads. I feel sorry for the parents, but I guess that is Nature's way.

The same evening, I spotted a Hermit Thrush under the rose bushes. I haven't seen one of these in a long time. As their name implies, they lurk in the undergrowth and you have to be lucky to see one, never mind get a picture of one. I grabbed my camera which happened to be out on the table and got some great shots of the bird before he disappeared in the bushes.

Later, I remembered why the camera was out on the table. I was in the process of downloading photos when my cordless mouse's batteries announced that they needed to be re-charged. (Computers can be so frustrating!) So while the batteries re-charged, the CompactFlash card sat on the desk and there was no card in the camera. My "great shots" did not get saved!

I was terribly disappointed, but bless his heart, the little guy came back yesterday. Not only did he come back, he practically posed for me. You can tell from these photos that he was very aware of me pointing this big black thing at him even though I was inside the house. He slowly and carefully hopped from the Lavatera, behind the rose bushes which line the back wall, to the Rapheolepis on the other side, stopping every few seconds to have a look at me to see what I was doing. He then did the same thing in reverse all the way back to the Lavatera and then disappeared. He was extremely quiet. What I love most about these birds, the Hermit Thrush, Wood Thrush, etc., is their beautiful, haunting song. It sounds like Pan Pipes. I remember hiking through a woods in New Hampshire and hearing not a sound except for a Wood Thrush far off somewhere, beckoning with his song.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Astronomy News

I finally had a chance to go out and do some star-gazing with the guys Saturday night. March and April were such busy months, what with traveling and being sick and then taking care of my grandson because he and my daughter were sick, not to mention several concerts to play, that I haven't had time to blog much or do some of the routine things that I like to do. But Saturday was the night of the new moon, and the club was offering an extra in-town observing session, so I packed my scope and drove up to Ridgecrest.

Above is a photo of the sunset that night which shows that a low-cloud cover was threatening to ruin our evening. Straight up the sky was clear and that's how things were for most of the time. Fortunately, a lot of good things were to be seen looking straight up. Once, a bank of fog built up below us and briefly the sky was very dark in the west. Then a wind came along and blew the fog over us. After about 10 minutes, the sky cleared again. When this happened a second time at about 11:20 p.m., we decided to pack it in.

I was hoping to see Mercury after the sun set. It is always close to the sun from our perspective, so you have to catch it just after sunset and now is a good time to do that. I thought I had it in my scope at about 8:40, but after reviewing things at home with Starry Night Pro, I realized that I had been looking at nearby Aldebaran. I'll have to try again this week if the fog will lift. It has gotten even thicker. You don't need to have a scope for this one, you can see Mercury with binoculars. All you need is a clear view of the horizon at sunset. Mercury will be fairly bright right now. It will get dimmer as the month goes on.

Some of the best things to see at this time of year are galaxies. M104, the Sombrero Galaxy, was one of the two new objects that I observed. I was actually looking at this galaxy to try to see an asteroid called Iris that is moving close by. One of the guys (Ken) has a 12-inch scope that brought the galaxy in fairly clearly. We did see the galaxy, but whether or not we saw the asteroid, I can't determine. I think you would have to view the same part of the sky two or three nights in a row to see what has moved. At the left is a screen capture from Starry Night that shows the configuration as I saw it in my own scope. It's obvious how the galaxy got its name! However, I have to point out that it was not nearly this well-defined in our scopes. It was more like a hazy blur, but you could definitely see the sombrero shape. The red circle indicates the field of view I had with my 19mm Panoptic lens. The asteroid is not shown in this picture. It would have been passing to the right of the galaxy.

Saturn was spectacular Saturday night. Ken and I looked at it several times during the course of the evening. Not only the rings, but also the Cassini Division was easily discernible. At first we could only see 4 moons, but later, when it was darker we could make out a 5th moon. The moons we could see were (from bottom to top) Rhea, Dione, Enceladus, Tethys, and Titan. Mimas was too faint and too close to Enceladus and we didn't think anything further out was a moon. We probably could have seen Iapetus as well if we had tried. The picture shows the configuration of the moons as we saw it in Ken's scope.

Oh yes, the second new object for me was M35, an open cluster in Gemini.