Archive for the ‘Carpinteria Bluffs’ Category

Cleaning Up Kittie Bailard 1

Saturday, August 25th, 2012

I wrote previously about the patch of oozing oil at the Carpinteria Bluffs, near the point where the trail to the seal overlook crosses the railroad tracks. (See Rain at the Bluffs.) The City’s Bluffs Management Plan mentions it, and for years there’s been discussion in Carp about what that oozy patch actually is: A natural seep? Or a leftover well from the There Will Be Blood era of relatively unregulated oil drilling?

Apparently it was the latter. I’m unclear on what it was that got things moving, but the state Department of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) looked into the matter, and in December of last year contacted ConocoPhillips, the company that owns the “assets and liabilities” of the former Continental Oil Company. Apparently there was an old well, originally called “Kittie Bailard 1”, that Contintental drilled there in 1929.

The city’s website currently hosts a press release from ConocoPhillips describing the resulting cleanup project: Carpinteria Project Update: Kittie Bailard 1 (PDF). Like most corporate press releases, it casts the company in the best possible light. But you can glean facts from the account, and the spin itself is interesting. Here’s an image from the release showing the temporary fencing that was erected at the site:

There also was a presentation given by representatives of DOGGR and ConocoPhilips at the July 23, 2012 City Council meeting. You can read about it in the minutes of that meeting (PDF), though the account doesn’t go into a lot of detail. For example, “Bruce Henson, representing DOGGR, spoke regarding the original abandonment of the well.” I’d be interested in knowing more about what he said. This is one of those times when I wished I had cable so I could watch the rerun of the meeting on the public access channel.

Union Pacific’s New Antenna at the Bluffs

Tuesday, November 9th, 2010

Last night the Carpinteria City Council discussed two new ordinances: One to regulate the flying of radio-controlled airplanes at the bluffs, and another to ban dogs, either on- or off-leash, at the salt marsh. I wasn’t able to attend, though I was interested in the discussion, since the bluffs and the marsh are two of my favorite places to walk in Carp. I don’t get cable, so I couldn’t watch the meeting on TV. I’ll have to talk to somebody who was there, or wait until Thursday when the Coastal View comes out, to find out what happened.

The issue of the model airplanes was raised by Peggy Oki, who spoke to the Council recently about her concern that the planes might be bothering the white-tailed kites (Elanus leucurus) that forage and roost at the bluffs. I’m inclined to be skeptical about that; it seems to me that the kites and the planes have been getting along okay, but I don’t have particularly good data to back that up.

With both proposed ordinances I find myself thinking about this: Natural areas need to have a constituency. They need for there to be people who use those areas and appreciate them and will go to bat for them when they’re threatened. Not everyone loves nature the way I do, but if those people get to walk their dogs or fly their model airplanes in a beautiful natural setting they’ll appreciate those places more. It might be worth putting up with a few modest impacts (like those that would result from allowing dogs at the marsh, or model airplanes at the bluffs) to help build the constituencies for those areas.

The bluffs, even more than the marsh, represent an interesting coming together of different groups of users. There are nature-lovers like me, people who watch the harbor seals from the overlook, people who walk dogs, ride bikes, play soccer and softball at Viola Fields, paint landscapes…

And then there are the trains.

Union Pacific’s railroad line runs right through the bluffs. In order to get to the seal overlook most people make what is an arguably illegal uncontrolled crossing of the tracks at the western end of the Artists Passage. You can see the trains approaching from the west, but the curve hides them from the east, and sometimes they’re moving at a pretty good clip. I’ve seen some close calls at that crossing that really scared me.

Railroad safety is important. Besides uncontrolled crossings, there’s the risk of operator error leading to train-on-train collisions. After a 2008 accident between a Union Pacific freight train and a Metrolink passenger train killed 15 people and injured dozens more, the federal government acted to require U.S. railroads to implement something called Positive Train Control (PTC), a sort of air-traffic-control system for trains. As part of implementing PTC, Union Pacific recently added some new antenna towers along their tracks, and a few weeks ago I came across this newly installed pole at the buffs:

I took a picture and sent it to Jackie Campbell, the director of the city’s Community Development department, and at the following week’s Planning Commission meeting Jackie reported that someone named Jason in Union Pacific’s code enforcement operation told her that the antenna pole was part of the railroad’s new PTC system. Union Pacific hadn’t bothered to tell anyone in Carpinteria that they were putting it in; I’m sure their attitude was: hey, if we had to stop and discuss our plans with every little municipality our lines go through we’d never get anything done.

Yes, but.

The Carpinteria bluffs are special. They offer visitors amazing views of the sea, the meadows, the trees, and the mountains, while a trick of the landscape hides most signs of nearby development. Back in the 1990s a grass-roots effort that included a group of Plein-Air landscape painters called the Oak Group raised nearly $4 million in a short span of time to buy the bluffs, then handed the parcel over to the city with a conservation easement requiring that the site’s unique views be protected. The city’s planning documents explicitly recognize the visual aesthetics at the bluffs as being of the highest order, and call for preserving those views as a key goal of the city. Venoco’s recent proposal to drill for oil next to the bluffs was rejected 70-30 by voters, in part because of the visual impacts of the proposed drilling rig. While visual aesthetics are normally a somewhat intangible concept, at the Carpinteria bluffs that concept has been made about as tangible as I can imagine.

I wish Union Pacific had talked to Carpinterians before they put in their new PTC pole. If they could have located it just a short distance to the east it would have been largely hidden, instead of intruding so prominently into our views of the ocean. Maybe they’d be willing to move it.

In the meantime I’m doing my best to ignore it. When I lived in L.A. I was often confronted by the ugliness of my surroundings, but there were times when the sky, especially, would make me catch my breath and stand marveling while everything else — cars, telephone poles, urban grime — disappeared.

That happens to me at the bluffs, too, and even with a Union Pacific antenna pole (or a pier) in the way, I’m sure it will keep happening.

California Oak Moths

Monday, October 4th, 2010

Late one afternoon at the Bluffs last week I noticed a large number of California oak moths (Phryganidia californica) fluttering around a small coast live oak (Quercus agrifolia). The tree is right by the Lois Sidenberg Overlook sign, across from the bathrooms at the south end of the Viola Field parking. I wondered what the moths were doing, until some fluttering on a branch called my attention to these three moths:

That’s a female moth on the top, a male moth (identifiable by his feathery antennae) mating with her below, and a second male fluttering off to the side. That second male presumably was attracted by the female’s pheromones, but was too late on the scene to mate with her.

When I looked closer, I realized that the tree was full of oak moth caterpillars. Here’s a shot I took of one of those:

The California oak moth population rises and falls on a 6-8 year cycle. At population peak, stands of oaks can be completely defoliated. Interestingly, healthy oaks appear not to be harmed by these outbreaks. According to a 1986 postdoctoral study by David Hollinger of Stanford, nitrogen cycling is accelerated during the outbreaks, such that the moths actually help fertilize the soil, improving the oaks’ longterm health. See Herbivory and the cycling of nitrogen and phosphorus in isolated California oak trees.

Here’s a short video I took:

At the time I shot that video, I was transfixed by the beauty of the moths’ mating flight. In my memory, the scene is as quiet as a cathedral. After a few minutes I noticed another sound: the gentle, rain-like patter of caterpillar frass falling onto the leaves beneath the tree.

Watching the video after I downloaded it from my camera, the dominant sound is the traffic on the 101 freeway. I guess my brain filtered that out. Good job, brain.

Update: I went back later and noticed a bunch of pupae in an oak on the edge of the Viola Field parking. Here’s my favorite of the shots I got of those:

I also found this: the exuvia left behind after an adult moth emerged:

Coyote Brush Blooming at the Bluffs

Tuesday, September 14th, 2010

I went back to the Bluffs last weekend, checking out the invertebrates in and around the coyote brush (Baccharis pilularis). There was a big fundraiser walk (the Avon Walk for Breast Cancer) going on at the time, so instead of checking the coyote brush up near the Lois Sidenberg overlook, I avoided the crowd by wandering into Mishopshno Meadow, north of the Artists’ Passage.

The first thing I noticed was this fly:

The helpful dipterid experts at Bugguide were quick to ID this as a sinuous bee fly (Hemipenthes sinuosa), a widespread North American species. The “sinuous” in the name refers to the wavy border between the black area at the front of the wing and the clear area at the back of the wing. The fact that there is a rounded black “meatball” along that border near the tip of each wing is what tells us this is H. sinuosa; other members of the genus have a more jagged border. According to Wikipedia, Hemipenthes larvae are hyperparasites on parasitic Hymenoptera (bees, wasps, and allies).

Not far from where I photographed the sinuous bee fly, I noticed a web with a cool-looking stabilimentum of trash running down the middle, and took this photo:

Silly me. I didn’t even notice what was sitting at the center of the web until I got home and looked at the images on my computer. Here’s a closer view:

That’s a female trashline orb weaver spider (Cyclosa turbinata). She spins a fresh web each night, using the debris from the old web (and the body parts of her prey) to build the stabilimentum, which she then uses as camouflage — highly effective camouflage, judging from my experience.

I photographed a second trashline orb weaver female, again without realizing it, a few minutes later:

Here’s the (slightly fuzzy) closeup. Again, she’s perched right at the center of the web, which I assume lets her respond quickly when she detects vibrations:

In both closeups you can see the two raised bumps on the dorsal side of the spider’s abdomen, near the front. Those bumps were cited by my helper on Bugguide as cementing the ID as C. turbinata.

I had fun examining the newly emerging flowers on the coyote brush. Coyote brush is dioecious, meaning that male and female flowers grow on separate plants. Here are the flowers just beginning to emerge on a male plant. The unopened buds have a globular shape, and the flowers, when they appear, form relatively shallow yellow disks:

Here are the flowers beginning to bloom on a female plant. The unopened buds are more elongated, and the flowers, when they appear, consist of long white filaments:

Later in the year, when the female plants go to seed, the coyote brush is filled with white, fluffy masses that blow away on the wind, each tuft of strands terminating in a single seed. The ability to disperse via wind is one of the things that makes coyote brush so effective at colonizing new areas, as it currently is doing in Mishopshno Meadow.

The female coyote brush flowers seemed to be much more effective at attracting honey bees (Apis mellifera) than did the male flowers, at least during my visit:

I also noticed this wasp crawling through the blossoms on a female plant, flicking its wings:

The Bugguide experts tell me this is a spider wasp in the family Pompilidae. According to Wikipedia’s spider wasp article:

Spider wasps are long-legged, solitary wasps that use a single spider as a host for feeding their larvae. They paralyze the spider with a venomous stinger. Once paralyzed, the spider is dragged to where a nest will be built – some wasps having already made a nest.

A single egg is laid on the abdomen of the spider, and the nest – or burrow – is closed.

I wonder if this wasp would have been interested in the nearby trashline orb weavers.

Finally, some shots of insect homes without actual insects:

Here’s a mass of old leaves and webbing that I’m guessing might have been holding an orange tortrix (Argyrotaenia franciscana) caterpillar or pupa, though I’m not sure. I’m curious what Charley Eiseman thinks about that.

I also liked this shot of a gall from the stem gall moth (Gnorimoschema baccharisella), with what I think is an emergence hole:

Here’s an old G. baccharisella stem gall, dried out with the passage of time, also with an apparent emergence hole:

Even though the background is fuzzy, you can recognize the location if you’re familiar with the Bluffs. The tip of the dead stem divides the north-south row of tamarisk (on the left) from the blue-gum eucalyptus of the Artists’ Passage (on the right). That first blue gum is actually the same tree I wrote about previously that blew over in the big wind back in January. It seems to be doing okay in its new, recumbent position.

What’s Eating the Coyote Brush at the Bluffs?

Thursday, September 9th, 2010

It had been a while since I took my favorite walk at the bluffs, from the Lois Sidenberg Overlook down through the coastal sage scrub, and so I was surprised a few weeks ago when I noticed a big change: the coyote brush (Baccharis pilularis) is heavily infested with some sort of insect. The foliage of nearly every plant is filled with silk webbing, many of the leaves partially or completely eaten, and what looks like caterpillar poop (frass) sprinkled throughout.

At first I couldn’t see what was making the webs, but after a while, looking closer, I started to notice a few of these guys:

If I got too close or jiggled the foliage they would scuttle backwards, hiding themselves in the mass of leaves and webbing they had constructed.

I tried posting some photos to Bugguide, but haven’t had any responses so far. But I think I know what they are: orange tortrix (Argyrotaenia franciscana), a moth that is a common agricultural pest in the western states, especially near the coast.

Most of the coyote brush near the top of the trail is so infested that it’s hard to find a single clump of leaves that isn’t full of webbing. Other plants, which apparently were infested earlier on, have nothing but bare twigs at the outer tips of every branch.

I’m curious to see what happens to the coyote brush. There are a number of parasitic insects that prey on orange tortrix; my guess is that the outbreak will eventually be controlled by them, and the coyote brush will come back, just as it came back from being heavily pruned by green leaf beetle larvae, Trirhabda flavolimbata, at the marsh last year.

I think the coyote brush can probably handle the orange tortrix and leaf beetles, just like it handles the stem gall moths (Gnorimoschema baccharisella), bud gall midges (Rhopalomyia californica), and all the other creatures that live on it. They’ve evolved together, adapting to each other’s presence, and over the long haul the coyote brush seems to be doing just fine.