Archive for March, 2016

lies: I visited the marsh this morning when it was a +6.5,…

Monday, March 28th, 2016


I visited the marsh this morning when it was a +6.5, which is about as full as it gets. I love it like this. All that low marsh habitat, covered by Salicornia virginica and a dozen other species, is completely inundated, transformed for a few hours into aquatic habitat, before the tide goes out and they all go back to being land plants.

Originally posted 2014-12-24.

Reposted from

lies: rhamphotheca: Dodder (genus Cuscuta) This unique vine is…

Sunday, March 27th, 2016



Dodder (genus Cuscuta)

This unique vine is a parasitic plant, incapable of supporting itself through photosynthesis. Most species are red, orange or yellow and lack much if any chlorophyll. They derive their sugars and nutrients from their host using haustoria, root-like structures that burrow into the tissues of the plant. They usually have a select number of host plants that they can rely on, and use volatile (airborne) chemicals produced by the host to locate them; some dodder species can be serious crop pests.

However, the seed needs to sprout nearby a suitable host – if the seedling doesn’t encounter a host plant within several days of germination, it will use up the stored energy in the seed and die. In temperate regions it is an annual, growing from seed each year; but in more tropical areas it can grow continuously and form heavy mats draped over trees or shrubs.

The vines have no obvious leaves (they’re tiny and appear scale-like), but do produce pale flowers early in the summer; pea-sized berries appear from mid-to late summer. Previously classified in its own family due to its unique characteristics and behavior, genetic studies now place it in the morning glory family. Species can be found throughout North America; this one is Saltmarsh Dodder (C. salina), which occurs west of the Rockies.

Photo by sfbaywalk on Flickr

(via: Peterson Field Guides)

When I’m leading a docent tour at the Carpinteria salt marsh I usually pull off a little bit of pickleweed with some saltmarsh dodder attached and pass it around. Lately, though, I’ve been having second thoughts about doing that.

Once when I was taking a tour led by one of the other docents, the other docent plucked a leaf gall from an arroyo willow and sliced the gall open with a thumbnail to reveal the sawfly larva inside. It was interesting, but it also condemned the larva to a lingering death. I didn’t say anything, but it saddened me. I don’t do that during the tours I lead.

When the lemonade berries are ripe I sometimes pull one off and invite the group to taste it (fourth-grade marsh tour attendees unanimously agree: nothing at all like lemonade). I do the same with pickleweed (consensus: salty, and yeah, maybe a little like pickles). But picking the dodder for them to pass around makes me uncomfortable. Why is that?

There’s plenty of it in the marsh; the little I’m removing isn’t going to make a difference. I show it to the group because I think it’s interesting up close (like in the photo above), especially when it’s flowering. It’s not some primitive moss or fungus; it’s a full-on flowering plant, albeit one with no green parts, no ability to photosynthesize. But it grows slightly off the trail, and rather than take the whole group down to the water’s edge I figure it’s better to bring some of the plant to the people, even if that means I’m killing that part of the plant just for the momentary educational benefit.

Maybe I feel okay about the lemonade berry and the pickleweed, but not about the dodder, because there’s a difference between removing part of a plant to eat it and doing so just to look at it.

Another aspect of the situation is this: with the sawfly larva, the whole organism was being killed in the name of satisfying a momentary curiosity. But when picking a piece of plant, the donor plant survives. That argument runs aground, however, on my knowledge that even that little piece of dodder would have a chance of surviving and regrowing if it happened to be returned to a suitable location (which I’ve tended not to do). There’s also the knowledge that whole communities of smaller organisms live, Horton Hears a Who-like, on everything in the marsh, and by picking off a piece of their host plant and passing it around I’m definitely messing with their world.

I wonder if my feeling sympathetic toward the dodder is a result of my finding its obligate-plant-feeder lifestyle more familiar, and hence easier to identify with, than that of autotrophs like the pickleweed it grows on. We in the animal kingdom are all parasites in that sense; maybe this plant seems more animal-like to me, so I invest it with agency and imagine it to be more worthy of my consideration than its photosynthesizing fellows.

My brain is ridiculous.

The next time I do the tour I think I’ll have everyone walk off the path with me to observe the dodder in situ, rather than picking it and passing it around. It’s a dumb thing that will only matter to me. But I think I’ll feel better.

Originally posted 2014-10-10.

Reposted from

lies: I was feeling kind of bummed yesterday. The website I…

Sunday, March 27th, 2016


I was feeling kind of bummed yesterday.

The website I made for the voter outreach effort for Measure P was finished, and my expectations for how it would be received were clearly (in hindsight) naive, like always happens when I get deep into some obsessive project. I push through the mountain of last-minute details to try to get as close to the vision as possible, imagining how great it’s going to be, and then it’s done, but instead of the imagined thing it’s something else, the real thing, and there’s an adjustment.

Look! We’re here! We’re… here. Oh. Okay.

And there are things about this campaign that are depressing. Not just the obvious things, like the misleading ads from the opposition that seem to be getting some traction, but less-obvious things that I’ve only encountered now that I’ve gone from pushing code (which is easy, even though python’s one-way-to-do-it makes me grimace sometimes) to trying to push people (which is always ridiculously hard for me).

So, again: kind of bummed. And my head hurt (fatigue? behind the caffeine-addiction curve? eyestrain from too much computer?), and it was making me less than patient in bugging someone about his APUSH homework, and he called me on it, and he had a point.

I hadn’t been out of the house at all, practically, for two weeks. So I put my binoculars in my backpack so I wouldn’t look like the kind of person who walks through a suburban neighborhood with binoculars around his neck, which is something I’ve felt self-conscious about since I was nine. And it’s ridiculous, because I’m walking through a suburban neighborhood wearing a backpack, and that’s different how? And no one cares, anyway, and if they do, fuck them; I’m not nine anymore. Anyway, I headed out the door.

It took me ten minutes to get to the marsh. I hadn’t checked the tide, but it turned out to be high, a 5.6. I love the marsh when it’s like that.

I didn’t take photos. I wasn’t thinking about documenting. I just needed to be there, to hang out with the bugs and the lizards and the coyote brush in bloom.

There were pygmy blue butterflies everywhere. They’re so cool, and so tiny. You’ll totally miss them if you aren’t paying attention. But they’re there if you look, flitting around low to the ground chasing each other. They disappear when they land, but if you mark the spot you can crank the binoculars down to minimum focus and find them, and they’re beautiful.

Actually I did take one photo there, but I’m leaving it out because it’s a closeup of what I think is a spider egg sac and it doesn’t quite go with the others. But I’m posting it to bugguide to see what Charley Eiseman thinks.

Then I walked to the beach to visit Linda and Joannie under their umbrellas, and then on east past Linden and the tomol park on Matt’s new trail, and there were savannah sparrows in the field and they let me check them out as long as I wanted, reading Sibley on my phone and ticking off the characteristics, yeah, savannah sparrow.

Then through the campground and into tar pits park, then past the CPF to the seal overlook, and on through the bluffs, past the site of the recent abandoned-well cleanup and the artist’s passage and finally my destination, which I hadn’t realized was going to be my destination when I started: the Lois Sidenberg overlook.

I never met Lois. But I’ve seen the picture of her testifying before Congress in Bob Sollen’s book, and I think about her sometimes when I visit the spot named after her. It really has the best view at the bluffs; the whole channel is laid out. I spent a while sweeping for pelagics.

I’d sent a feisty letter to the Coastal View the day before, the first time I’ve done that in a while, and I’d been reading again about the ‘69 blowout as part of deciding what to say. So I was thinking about Platform A, and I swung over to look at it. It doesn’t look special, just another in the row that follows the anticline from west to east: C, B, A, Hillhouse, then Habitat farther out in the channel, then Henry, Houchin, and Hogan. Back when I still had my boat we visited them all, because William was obsessed. Wonder where he gets that? So I know what they look like up close. But from shore Platform A was washed out, blurred by haze and distance. Fitting, I guess, for the symbol it has become.

I remembered the time I was at the Sidenberg overlook with a too-big group of third graders during one of Katie’s Earth Day events, and one girl started shouting “A’lul’quoy!”, because of the Chumash myth she’d heard in class, to make the dolphins come, and she got her friend to join in, and pretty soon all the kids were shouting “A’lul’quoy!” at the top of their lungs, and it was out of control and kind of hilarious. And then a gray whale, probably curious about all the noise, did a spyhop and fell back with a crash right in front of us, and the kids cheered.

And I remembered the time I drank wine there with Katie when I was still on the bluffs board. I miss her a lot. I think everyone who knew her does.

And then it was just the walk home. The sun was going down, and I thought to take a photo, that first one above, from the trail along Carp Avenue. And then I took a bad selfie, with my head cut off and sunscreen in the 52-year-old folds on my neck, but I’m posting it anyway because 1) hah! I’ll show you vanity, and 2) it’s actually a double selfie, because that’s me in the sign, too, with a different group of third-graders on a different Earth Day, in the photo Ted took and put on the sign without telling me until after it was done, “Hah! Hope that was okay, John.” And yeah, of course it was. Because again: vanity.

And then walking home through the suburbia, my right knee a little sore where it always gets sore if I push it too hard, and my legs tired, and a little sweaty. But my head felt fine.

Originally posted 2014-09-15.

Reposted from

lies: Bugs at the marsh Here are more photos I’ve taken…

Sunday, March 27th, 2016


Bugs at the marsh

Here are more photos I’ve taken recently at the Carpinteria salt marsh. These all relate to arthropods (to insects, mostly, plus one spider), so I’ve put them in a separate post to help anonsally avoid them with Tumblr Savior.

The outbreak of green leaf beetles (Trirhabda flavolimbata) that defoliated much of the marsh’s coyote brush (Baccharis pilularis) has now ended. There are only a few adult beetles left, and the coyote brush has started putting out new leaves. I took the photo above on July 14, when the beetles were still fairly easy to find.

The next image is of a syrphid fly in the genus Allograpta; probably A. obliqua or A. exotica. I took this photo the same day as the beetle photo and just a few feet away; both insects were sitting motionless at the tips of their respective stems, giving me time to take lots of shots until I got the focus right. Syrphids (also called hover flies or flower flies) act like bees, hovering to drink nectar from flowers and serving as important pollinators. They don’t have stingers, but have evolved warning colors like bees and wasps to confuse predators into leaving them alone. This is “Batesian mimicry,” named after 19th-century British naturalist Henry Walter Bates, who first observed it in South American butterflies. Whenever I hear the term, though, I think of Mrs. and Miss Bates from Emma.

Next are a couple of photos of super-cool twisted stem galls in coyote brush. The galls are the work of Rhopalomyia baccharis, a tiny midge. The adult midges look identical to their close relatives, Rhopalomyia californica, which I’ve blogged about before, but the galls are completely different. R. californica galls are the size and shape of a marble, and are found at the end of coyote brush stems. R. baccharis galls take the form of these thickened S-curves in the stem itself. A single larva lives in a chamber below each of the gall’s curves. Unlike R. californica larvae, which chew their way to the gall’s surface before they pupate, R. baccharis larvae pupate deep within the gall. Then, somehow, they trigger the host plant to create a tunnel leading to an elliptical exit hole through which the adult midge emerges. The lefthand image above shows me holding a gall to give a sense of scale, while the righthand image shows a different gall with one of those elliptical exit holes.

There is a patch of coyote brush near the marsh amphitheater that has a bunch of these galls right now, and I’m really excited about it, because although I’ve looked for them for years I’ve previously only found a few of them. Hopefully the city Parks and Rec. gardeners won’t prune these, as they previously did with another batch of twisted stem galls I found at the marsh.

The next image shows me holding another kind of coyote brush gall. This is the work of a moth called Gnorimoschema baccharisella. A single caterpillar lives inside the gall. When it’s ready to pupate the caterpillar chews its way out and falls to the ground. But that’s not the end for the gall. Now that it has that convenient hole, a bunch of other species invade it. Fungus grows on the departed caterpillar’s frass (droppings) inside the gall, fungus mites arrive to feed on the fungus, and probably lots of other things happen that I haven’t learned about yet. You can read more about G. baccharisella and see some video I took of a fungus mite running around inside an old gall at my Carp Without Cars blog.

The last image above is not of a gall, but of the kind of thing many observers mistakenly think galls are: an egg case. Specifically, an egg case of the bolas spider (Mastophora cornigera). Bolas spiders have an amazing hunting behavior: They catch their prey not by weaving a web, but by letting out a silken thread with a sticky blob on the end, then waving it around to lasso passing moths. To help improve their chances, the blob gives off a chemical scent that mimics the pheromones of the target moth species. Researchers have found that the bolas spider varies the chemical signature of the scent lure over the course of the night, to better match the pheromones of different moths species that tend to be active at different times.

I wrote more about the bolas spider in another post at Carp Without Cars, so check that out if you want. You can also watch a cool video from David Attenborough’s Life in the Undergrowth series, showing a bolas spider capturing its prey. It’s kind of creepy to watch, even for someone like me who has worked for decades to overcome his arachnophobia, but I think it’s interesting.

Originally posted 2014-08-09.

Reposted from

lies: Plants at the marsh I blogged previously about the…

Sunday, March 27th, 2016


Plants at the marsh

I blogged previously about the California Phenology Project, and how I’m keeping track of some plants at the Carpinteria salt marsh as part of it. I thought I’d share a quick update.

One of the tricky things about doing phenology in southern California is that our plants don’t follow the familiar four-season cycle that occurs in places like New England. New England plants are all about the temperature. Plants leaf out in the spring, grow through the summer, flower and fruit in the fall, then drop their leaves and become dormant for the winter.

In southern California, at least in the coastal zone where I live, temperature isn’t as big a factor. Precipitation is much more important. Almost all our rain falls in the winter and early spring, followed by a long, dry summer and fall. Coyote brush, one of the plants I’m tracking, has a particularly weird (by northeastern U.S. standards) growth calendar. It might start leafing out after a heavy winter rain, then just stop, with its leaves half-grown, until months later when it will have another spurt of vegetative growth.

It can be tricky distinguishing “young leaves” (which have a technical definition for phenology purposes) from older leaves, especially on a plant like coyote brush where new leaves can appear at any time. One thing that’s helped me is that a number of my plants had all their leaves eaten earlier this year during an outbreak of green leaf beetles, Trirhabda flavolimbata.

Back in May when I started the project, four of my six coyote brush plants had no leaves at all. Now, though, all six have started putting out new leaves, and on the plants that were previously defoliated it’s really obvious. The first row of images above shows three of my study plants, the first two (plants #3 and #4 from the study) with newly emerged leaves. The third shot is of plant #6, one of the two plants in my study that didn’t get completely defoliated by the beetles. Plants #5 and #6 are off to one side of the study area, and though the beetles eventually made it that far they didn’t do as much damage to those plants. Now #6 has emerging flower buds, and I’ve learned something I didn’t know before: its sex.

Coyote brush is dioecious, meaning plants either have all male flowers or all female flowers. Or, as I explain it to the fourth graders who take the marsh tour sometimes, there are boy plants and girl plants.

Coyote brush #6 is a boy plant. The flower buds haven’t opened yet, but you can see that they have the rounded tip of male buds, rather than the pointed tip of female buds. Besides, the male flowers emerge first. All the coyote brush I’ve seen with flower buds so far this year have been male plants. Over the next few weeks those buds will swell and open, revealing the yellow disks of the male flower. The female plants will flower soon after.

Plants flower throughout the year at the salt marsh, with different species flowering at different times. The coyote brush is just getting started, but another species, the chaparral mallow (Malacothamnus fasciculatus) is in full bloom. In some ways the late summer is my favorite time to lead the marsh docent tours, because I get to take people down the path to the amphitheater while it is lined with the beautiful pink flowers of the chaparral mallow. The bottom two images above give you a sense of what that’s like, but the photos don’t do it justice. You have to be there to get the full effect.

I love those plants.

Originally posted 2014-08-09.

Reposted from