Monday, January 19, 2009

A Two-Year Old's View of Nature

I took my two-and-a-half year old grandson to the nature center near his home on Friday afternoon. We left almost as soon as he got up from his nap because I knew that they closed the gates at 4:00 pm in the wintertime. We hadn't been there since the fall and I wondered if the ducks had come back.

The building which houses the neat displays of snakes, bugs, frogs, and fish was already closed when we arrived, so we went on a hike along the path that goes up the sides of the canyon. He is big and strong now, so he can climb the wood tile steps all by himself. We walked quickly by the "no-touch" Prickly Pear plants. He remembered when he picked up a fruit of this plant last summer and it was days before we got all the almost invisible prickles out of his fingers. We noticed that the Sugar Bushes were blooming, the Black Sage had new green shoots, and the Toyon! Just full of beautiful red berries. But don't eat them. The birds eat them he told me.

Back down by the creek we discovered that the ducks were back, Wood Ducks, with their white stripe down the side. Some were placidly paddling in the water and some were sitting on the bank. "What's a bank?" he asked. I really struggled to explain that word to him. He learned that if he ran to the edge of the bank and yelled at the ducks they would fly away upstream. So we sat down quietly, shhhh, and watched them for awhile.

He climbed around the multiple trunks of the oak trees and we had a discussion about roots. No, the trees don't move once they put their roots down into the ground. The ground had been littered with acorns last fall, but now there wasn't a single one to be found. Had the Acorn Woodpeckers and squirrels gathered them all? While collecting acorns last fall and taking off their "hats" we had talked about seeds and how these big, tall trees had grown from the small seeds. This time we found catkins that looked like little caterpillars. He is very good at finding very small things.

We checked under the platform they use to give nature talks to see if the Bobcat was still sleeping there. Nope. We walked up the path on the other side of the canyon and found the butterfly garden. The big metal butterflies that they have set out here reminded him of umbrellas. His comment reminded me of seeing him standing at my door with his little Thomas-the-Train blue umbrella last December.

We found some old rusted farm tools. He was full of questions now. What's this? What's this? I was at a loss. Uhmm... That's a spring. That's a bolt. Those are wheels. I tried to explain that this was a plow and that a horse would be attached to the front to pull it. It would make a furrow, ditch, hole in the ground and then the farmer could plant his seeds. We examined this tool for a very long time.

We found another "no-touch" plant. This one conveniently had a sign next to it with a picture warning about its presence, Poison Oak. The hummingbirds buzzed angrily at us. No wonder. Their feeder was nearby and it was empty. As we walked along, I would ask him which way he wanted to go next and he would reply, "Follow me, Grandma!" He is growing up so fast. He is no longer Baby C., not even Toddler C. anymore. What do I call him now?

Sunday, January 18, 2009

More Hidden Treasures

Last night I went in search of hidden treasures of a totally different kind—treasures hidden in the stars. I went up to Ridgecrest with the guys from the astronomy club. I hadn't been out with my telescope since September and the warm days we have been having with no clouds or fog made the prospects good for a perfect evening of stargazing. Actually, we ended up at Del Mar High School which is nearby because the folks at Ridgecrest have added a new lock to the gate and no one had the key. Quite a few visitors managed to find us anyway and there was a continuous stream of people coming to have a look through our scopes.

It had been so long since I used my scope that I almost forgot how. I did forget to bring my binoculars which I use to find my bearings in the sky, but after a failed first attempt at alignment, I was off and running with no further problems the rest of the night. When I go out, I make a list of things that I want to see and when I have exhausted the list, I go hunting. I am much more familiar with the summer sky (I wonder why?) than the winter sky. Orion is there in the winter, of course, and the Orion Nebula is always a spectacular sight to view with any scope or even just binoculars. But I decided to concentrate on other wonders "hidden" in Orion.

A few months ago, I purchased James O'Meara's Hidden Treasures, published by Cambridge University Press. It's a sequel to his Deep-sky Companion books on the Messier objects and selected items from the Caldwell catalog. His idea was to write a book about other interesting things to look at with a small telescope that are not on either of these two more popular lists.

The focus of my attention last night was Hidden Treasure No. 34 (NGC 2024, known by many names including the Flame Nebula) and the area around Alnitak, one of the stars in Orion's belt. (The famous Orion Nebula is the second star of his sword.) This area includes several interesting things to look at. First of all, there is Alnitak itself which actually is a tight double star with a third companion, then there is NGC 2023 as well as 2024, IC 431, 432, 435, and 434 which contains the famous Horsehead Nebula. Just slightly below Alnitak is Sigma Orionis, another multiple star. I had trouble seeing the nebulosity in this area due to the glow of city lights and did not see the Horsehead, but still enjoyed getting to know this part of the night sky. Click on the links to see some spectacular photos of these nebulas and you'll see why I went in search of them.

My "hunting" brought me to M36, 37 and 38. These are three open clusters in the constellation Auriga. At first I couldn't tell which one I had, but finally found all three after carefully examining their structure. I take notes as I observe and try to draw a picture of what I see in the scope. This can be a very tricky thing to do when you have a cluster of hundreds of stars, not to mention trying to draw by the light from a small red flashlight. Nebulas are also very hard to depict. I need to get myself better drawing tools. But someone commented that you really haven't observed something until you have tried to draw a picture of it.

Friday, January 16, 2009

In Search of Palilas

Searching for unusual or rare birds can be like a treasure hunt. You get directions from a book, a magazine, or a friend and follow them very carefully, word by word. If you are lucky, the prize will be at the specified location—the X on the map. The directions can sometimes be pretty cryptic, turn left where there are no buildings, go east at the fence, keep to the right when the path diverges, but usually when you get to the area in question the ambiguous phrases become clear and you realize that they are very precise. The most memorable treasure hunt my husband and I ever went on was on the big island of Hawaii where we climbed the slopes Mauna Kea in search of the endemic and endangered Palila. We never found it, probably because we took the wrong fork, but after that, in our family looking for something precious or ephemeral became synonymous with "searching for Palilas."

Friday I went on one such treasure hunt in search of this Burrowing Owl. Of all the owls in North America, this is probably the one that is the easiest to find because it likes to sit and stare in the daylight, and it is not very afraid of humans. That is, it is easy to find in its habitat area which would be agricultural land, the desert, or open grassland. You would not expect to find it in a city, especially a city the size of Los Angeles, and yet that's where this little fellow was found. Yvetta sent me the directions and after following them to the letter, there he was.

The Burrowing Owl is not endangered in California but it is of "special concern" because its numbers are dwindling due to habitat loss and human attempts to eradicate Ground Squirrels and Prairie Dogs which share its habitat. They both like golf courses and airport grassland, for example. And although they can be found in the daylight, their coloring camouflages them very well with their surroundings so much so that if I had not known that this owl was where Yvetta said he was, I would never have seen him.

However, due to concerns about this fellow's safety, I cannot give you the map of his location. It would be so nice if he were to make L.A. his permanent home, but there are just too many people and dogs and cats in the city for me to have too much hope for that. And I have had too many experiences on my birding expeditions of humans not caring about the animals and birds in the wild (feeding the squirrels Cheetos, of all things, right in front of the Do-Not-Feed-the-Animals sign at Yosemite comes to mind), and not only not caring but deliberately trying to harm these wonderful creatures. We have become so divorced from nature, particularly those of us who live in the city, that we have no idea of nature's ways, the diversity of wildlife, and the joy and inner peace that comes from observing wildlife, and the realization that we are part of that same nature.

That being said, I also agree with groups like the Audubon Society (check out this article about birdstrikes and the recent near disaster in New York, and this NY Times article on the same subject) that by educating the public about these wonders of nature that are all around us, people will show more concern for the birds and animals that share our city and our world with us. At least that is the theory.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Abalone Cove

Saturday was a perfect day at the tidepools at Abalone Cove. The weather was a balmy 75 degrees, there was no wind, and best of all, there was a very, very low tide of -1.9 feet at 2:24 pm PST. That's about as low as it gets along the Los Angeles coast. I was amazed by the difference between what I could see Saturday and what was visible the last time I was at the tidepools like this row of stone ridges covered with Surfgrass, Phyllospadix torreyi, and Feather Boa Kelp, Egregia, that emerged from the water.

Of course, all these good things brought out the people, but that turned out to be a benefit for me rather than an annoyance. A cub scout troop was in attendance and that meant there were several knowledgeable adults around to help find things and explain what was found. Whenever a group gathered around one spot, you could be sure that there was something interesting to see, like the crowd that gathered around this expert octopus catcher who let anyone who dared to hold the slippery creature before putting him back under his rock.

That's a two-spotted octopus (Octopus bimaculoides), in case you are interested. You can't see his spot very well in this photo. It's below his eye between two of his legs.

Now my philosophy of things is that I observe nature as she presents herself and when I take photos, I do the barest minimum to arrange a shot. I might get a weed out of the way of a wildflower photo, for example, but that's it. I do not and did not stick my finger in the pools of water to stir things up, I didn't lift any creatures out of the water, didn't drop rocks to catch the attention of the octopi (I saw a total of four on Saturday), or in any other way disturb the environment. But other people do not have this reticence, especially the children who were very good at spotting things, not to mention climbing over the slippery rocks like little monkeys. One little girl presented me with this Bat Star (Patiria miniata) whose photo I obligingly took before putting him back in the water. This sea star was pretty hard to find. I only saw two and neither one did I find myself.

Here is a Warty Sea Cucumber (Parastichopus parvimensis) that I was observing as he squirmed between the rocks and some Sea Urchins. He stretched himself out, turned his "foot" over and displayed the foot pods to me. Later the same little girl found him, but when she lifted him out of the water he contracted into a little ball and didn't move.

Now I know that children learn by touching and at least one little girl had to be coaxed (by her mother) into touching this California Brown Sea Hare (Aplysia californica). She proclaimed him to be "soft and squishy." Her finger helps to give you an idea of the size of the animal.

There was another young woman with a pail of goodies who really seemed to know what she was doing. (She was even wearing special tide pool shoes.) Turns out that she has a degree in marine biology but now is a practicing nurse. She helped me to identify this Giant or Great Keyhole Limpet, Megathura crenulata. I found this one myself hanging from the underside of a rock and took a picture of it because it looked so weird, but she had two more of them in her bucket. Usually you only find the empty shell.

Another sea star that was hard to find was this Spiny Brittle Star, Ophiothrix spiculata. Grace had said that they found too many to count back in November, while I could only find two and the second one was a tiny baby inside of a hollowed-out sea urchin shell. Maybe they have a season or maybe the tide was too low and they were all hiding under rocks.

This one appears to have lost part of a leg. Apparently, they can regrow dropped legs, but it takes a few months.

Speaking of legs or arms, here is a sea star that has so many legs it doesn't know what to do with them, the Sunflower Star, Pycnopodia helianthoides. This fellow has at least 16 (they are hard to count), but there can be as many as 24. You can see the suction cups at the end of some of his tube feet (click on the photo for a closer view). A large Sunflower Star can have 15,000 of these feet. Imagine trying to coordinate them all! Fortunately, people left this one alone and didn't try to pick him up. He was wedged between some large rocks and didn't move very much. The water level was too low.

While the little kids were squealing and yelling with delight over the octopi and other sea animals, older kids, the teenagers, and young adults were gathered on the rocks trying to get inside this cave out at the point. I heard someone say it goes back about 40 feet and is only accessible at one of these very low tides.

I did not venture across this gorge. I still may be able to climb around the rocks like a monkey, but I am an old monkey! But I was fascinated by the interesting rock formations we were walking on.

There will not be another tide this low during the daylight hours in all of 2009. The next best thing will be a -1.7 tide one day in February and another on December 31st. So the sea creatures are covered and safe once again, at least from inquisitive humans.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009


My DIL loves the ocean (as do I). She has filled her house in land-locked, desert-dry Arizona with pictures of the sea, waves, rocky shores, etc. She takes every chance she gets to go to the beach when they come here to visit. I think one of her favorite places is Monterey (who would not like Monterey?) So when she saw the beautiful photos that Grace took at Abalone Cove, she wanted to know if we could go there last week to do some tidepooling. I didn't need to be asked twice and promptly checked the tide tables. While there wouldn't be a negative low tide, there was a 0.0 low tide on New Year's Eve. Unfortunately, it would happen pretty late in the day, about a half hour after sunset. But we thought we'd do the best we could and headed for the beach at 3:00 pm.

Why is a negative low tide important? Because the tidal zones are divided into four areas and Zone 4 is only exposed when there is a negative low tide. Zones 1 and 2 are called the Splash Zone and the High Tide Zone respectively and here you will see the periwinkles, barnacles, and limpets. These rocky areas will be dry at least for half the day. In Zone 3, there is much more to see including the starfish, anemones, mussels, and crabs. This is the Mid Tide Zone and it is dry for about a quarter of the day. Finally, in Zone 4, the Low-Tide Zone, you find the "treasures" including the octopi, sea urchins, sea hares, etc. This special area is only exposed every few weeks and not always in the daylight. (I got my description of the zones from the map handed out to us at the gate.)

We were pretty lucky. The weather was foggy and very cold but it was not windy. The sun set early behind the fog bank out over the ocean, but we were able to see some pretty good stuff before we had to leave and climb back up the cliff. What impressed me was the many colors that we saw—oranges, green, blue, and purple. The anemones, the starfish, and the one sea urchin we found were especially colorful. If you want to learn more about these fascinating creatures, Genny Anderson of Santa Barbara City College has an online course on the tidepools of California with some spectacular photos. I am indebted to her for the information given below.

Pisaster ochraceus, also called the ochre sea star.

California mussel, Mytilus californianus. Don't they look like they are smiling? Maybe that's where the expression "happy as a clam" came from.

Starburst (or sunburst) anemone, Anthopleura sola.

The starburst anemone has fighting tentacles, called acrorhagi (the white tipped tentacles). They use these to keep other anemones from getting too close. The white is a concentration of stinging cells. When touched, they slough off and keep on stinging the opponent. Who would have thought that these benign-looking creatures gently waving in the waves could actually fight?

It is interesting to look at the different color patterns on the tentacles and oral disks of these starburst anemones. The various shades of green come from a combination of the natural color of the anemone and from green-colored symbiotic algae that grow in their tissues. Anemones found under rocks or in the shade have little symbiotic algae so are generally very pale. The various striping on their tentacles is genetic and serves to show how each is unique.

Sea urchin S. purpuratus, also called 'purps.' There is a piece of kelp stuck to this fellow. That is their favorite food.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Down to the Wire

Talk about going down to the wire... I finished my DIL's Maltese Shawl just hours before she and my son and Nick arrived last Monday night to spend the week and celebrate New Year's with me. I finished the actual knitting on Sunday afternoon, then hastily blocked the shawl by soaking it in tepid water with some Eucalan and then stretched it out with wires on old mattress pads down the hallway of my house. The lace blocking wires from KnitPicks ("down to the wire," get it?) made the task go so much easier than using pins! And it would have been impossible to work on it in the small space I had. The purple thingy at the bottom of the photo is a knee pad which also helped tremendously. It's for gardeners. I got it at my local nursery. All day Monday I straddled the shawl to get down the hallway which was a neat trick with bags of groceries to carry. At about 3:45 pm I suddenly remembered that I had a student coming, so I slipped out the wires and laid the shawl on my bed. Fortunately, it was dry. Then after the lesson, I gift wrapped it and waited for the birthday girl to arrive. Whew!

I can't believe I started this project on August 21, 2007. My first blog entry about it was here, then I mentioned it again one year later here. I'm a finisher, at least when it comes to knitting projects I have promised to someone else. To reiterate some of the facts on this shawl, the pattern is from Jane Sowerby's Victorian Lace Today. The yarn is Rowans' Kidsilk Haze, color Meadow.

I found this to be the most difficult project I have done so far because of the size and because the lace pattern goes both ways, on the knit and on the purl rows. No simply purling back to catch your breath. There are 88 repeats of the middle panel pattern which includes the cross. It took me forever to memorize it and it's only six rows long! I am beginning to recognize the SSK, SSP, and SK2P stitches in other projects now and have found that it was the fineness of the yarn, and the tendency for it to cling to itself, that made them so difficult here. BTW, Sowerby gives very good explanations of lace techniques in the back of the book.

After the middle panel is done, the border is knitted and attached to the panel at the end of every WS row. The corners were difficult in that they required double and triple joins and the fuzziness of the yarn obscured the stitches. I used two cables when doing the border. One was acting as a stitch holder at the ends of the panel, and the other had the needles I was working with on it. I didn't use DPNs as the instructions called for as the yarn was too slippery. The needles kept slipping out.

You'd think I'd had enough of KSH by now, but yesterday while browsing Amazon, I found this book of Estonian lace patterns and thought, Oooh how pretty! I'd like to try that. Won't somebody stop me?!?

Here's my happy DIL.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Cloudless Bonus

I thought I'd start off the new year with these stunning photos taken by Yvetta and her family. I'll let Yvetta tell the story, too.

The first batch of pictures were taken by my daughter and my granddaughter. I took them a bouquet of senna flowers to use for Thanksgiving table decor. On the way to their home a little all-yellow caterpillar fell from the flowers onto my slacks. I picked it up and returned it to the flowers. A little over a week later they saw the yellow with brown stripes larvae and sent me a picture. It is in the kitchen on the flowers. It was running out of food so I picked more flowers and they put it in the vase. It ate and ate and ate. I suggested they put a thicker piece of wood in the vase. The next day the caterpillar began its change to the pupa. Today they sent me the picture of the yellow pupa that had become pink and green. Really interesting.

I looked yesterday at the mother plant and there were two more caterpillars. Today I took pictures also and a female cloudless sulphur visited the plant while I was there and laid eggs. I took pictures of the 2 white eggs and the mom. I just read that the eggs will change to orange color. I will keep looking. This is the first time I have observed this butterfly. Fun, fun, fun!!!
The butterflies turned out to be Cloudless Sulphur (Phoebis sennae). Yvetta and her family were able to get photos of the entire life cycle of this butterfly from egg to caterpillar to chrysalis (pupa) to adult. The photos at the top and bottom show the newly emerged butterfly expanding and drying its wings. What a treat!

The green and the yellow are both the larvae of the sulphur. One site says that the green eat green leaves and the yellow eat the flowers and that they will change color in a few days if they change the food. I am not sure. Could one be in a different stage? A different instar? The green one is now eating yellow flowers so I will check again tomorrow.

Addendum: Yvetta just sent me the end of the story.

The butterfly stayed on the pupa case for 2 days. My daughter brought it back into the house because it was so cold outside. It finally flew to the window and she took it outside. The wind was blowing and she is not sure if it took off or was blown away, but she saw it flying across the street and away. A new butterfly in the big world.