I'm so sorry for everyone affected by the fires in the North Bay today. The damage to people's homes and hearts has been devastating.
Recently I've been reading a book about volcanoes. The book describes how the smoke and soot from large volcanic eruptions affects the atmosphere and light levels and air temperatures. I haven't been around an intense volcanic eruption, so it's hard for me to imagine what it feels like. But the fires and smoke and ash in Sonoma County on 9 October 2017 made me wonder if some of the conditions we experienced today were similar. Everything felt strange and unfamiliar and scary — the dim light throughout the day...the ash and leaves falling from the sky...the color of the sun, both in the sky and its reflection in the water.
Here are three quick photos for the record.
An example of a burnt and blistered oak leaf that had fallen into our front yard in Cotati (taken ~8 a.m.):
The fiery mid-morning sun (taken ~10 a.m.):
Unusual golden reflections of the sun in an ocean wave (taken ~3 p.m.):
I hope the winds will be favorable for the firefighters tonight.
We just returned from a trip to New England to visit with family...so I'm wondering, what did I miss while I was away? Looking at the ocean temperatures that recently dipped to ~11°C (~52°F), I'm guessing there were some strong winds during the past week?
Earlier I had done a rough count (by 10s) and estimated that there were somewhere between 300-400 swallows in the photo above. Tonight I carefully counted every individual I could see and came up with...398. This was just a small portion of the entire flock.
And back in California, here are a couple of photos from Cotati that I hadn't had a chance to share yet:
This bee was visiting a sunflower in our yard on 2 September 2017. As you might remember, I'm slowly learning about our local bee species. I knew that I hadn't photographed this species before. The yellow "underbelly" really stood out. Because I wasn't sure which species it was, I did a quick Internet search for something like "bee with yellow under the abdomen" and was quickly pointed to leafcutter bees (Megachile spp.).
Unlike many other bees that carry pollen on their legs, leafcutter bees are known for carrying pollen on the underside of the abdomen:
P.S. Fun fact: The genus, Megachile, means "large lipped." It refers to the large mandibles in this group of bees that are used for cutting pieces of leaves or petals to bring back to their nests.
Well, this feels a little strange. I started learning about dragonflies in New England in the early 1990s. But I've been living in California for over 12 years now, so I'm a little "rusty" when it comes to identifying some of the species in the northeastern U.S. We had a fun experience with a few darners yesterday (3 October 2017) near Alstead, New Hampshire. We found a warm, sunny field where several darners were feeding. They were flying a little slowly, perhaps because of cooler nighttime temperatures? And somewhat surprisingly, when we stood still in the middle of the field, the dragonflies started flying very close to us (looking for insects?) and sometimes landing on us. Here are two examples. I'll hazard guesses to the species' identifications, but perhaps I can get some help from some New England friends to confirm the i.d.'s.
Black-tipped Darner (Aeshna tuberculifera)?
Mottled Darner (Aeshna clepsydra)? perched on my mother's fleece jacket! The striped patterning on the thorax didn't quite fit the classic pattern for this species, but I'm not coming up with another idea (at least not yet). Here's a close-up of the thoracic stripes:
Then Eric spotted another beautiful darner perched on an old birch tree at the edge of a boggy swamp:
How about Variable Darner (Aeshna interrupta) for this one?
Here's a close-up (dorsal view), with nice yellow highlights:
And in case you're interested in helping to confirm the identification of this species, here's another close-up, this time from the side so you can see the lateral thoracic stripes:
Fun with dragons in October!
ADDENDUM (5 October 2017): Blair confirmed all three of my identifications above, so you can now consider the identifications solid. Thanks, Blair!
While visiting my mother yesterday in Humarock, Massachusetts, there was a very large flock of Tree Swallows (Tachycineta bicolor) circling over her house.
Tree Swallows gather in large flocks before migrating south to sites in the southern United States, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. Along the New England coast, they can often be seen eating the waxy fruit of Bayberry (Myrica pensylvanica).
It's hard to show the scale of these Tree Swallow flocks — many hundreds of birds swirling overhead. At one point, with their white bellies glowing against the blue October sky, they looked like a blizzard of white snowflakes!
Here's a fun series — click on the images for larger versions.
Who wants to count the number of birds in the last photo(above)? :)
Eric and I were looking for toads in Walpole, Massachusetts, on 1 October 2017, when we spotted this beautiful Ringneck Snake (Diadophis punctatus) under a rock. I'll admit— it fooled us at first!
Although it's hard to tell from the picture, this is a very small snake. [We estimate it was ~12 cm long, or a little less than 5 inches.] In a shaded woodland, the yellow ring around the neck was hard to see. We thought it was a salamander at first, but when I got a little closer for a photo, I realized it was a young snake.
Here's a zoomed-in view:
And the smooth, blue-black scales:
For a size reference, here's the snake in Eric's hand as we released it next to the rock where we found it. Adult Ringneck Snakes are often ~25-38 cm (~10-15 inches) long. In Massachusetts, hatchlings emerge from eggs in August/September, so it's likely this snake is only 1-2 months old.
Although Ringneck Snakes are also found in California, I haven't seen one there yet, so it was a treat to encounter this species!
Last night I mentioned butterflies zipping by, and that I wasn't sure if they were SatyrAnglewings (Polygonia satyrus) or California Tortoiseshells (Nymphalis californica). There were even more butterflies today, and I finally got a few photos.
The first photo was one for documentation, but I like it because the butterfly was perched on a seine net:
Then I managed to get a few morephotos — here's one from above:
Compared to Satyr Anglewings (see last night's post), note that California Tortoiseshells have fewer dark spots on the hind wings, pretty blue spots along the trailing edge, and relatively smoother wing margins (anglewing is an appropriate name for the other species).
Here's the view from below. I love the coppery tones and the bark-like appearance:
You can see how well camouflaged California Tortoiseshells are against background vegetation when their wings are closed:
So this is the first time I've seen California Tortoiseshells on Bodega Head. It was so much fun to see them flying in off the water (most were flying west to east), and to wonder where they were coming from and where they were going! This species is known to undertake long-distance movements, so it's not necessarily surprising to see large numbers of tortoiseshells flying by. However, in my experience here during the last 12 years, it's uncommon (rare?) to see this species, and large movements of this species, along the coast. (Large movements are more common in the mountains.)
I'd love to hear about other tortoiseshell sightings in this area, so let me know if you see them!
Several days ago, Peter was showing me some algae that he had collected on the tidal flats in Bodega Harbor. When he picked it up, a small nudibranch-like animal was left behind in the tray. I was intrigued because it didn't look familiar to me. When we looked at the animal under the scope, we realized that it wasn't a nudibranch, but a sacoglossan — a group that is sometimes known as "sap-sucking sea slugs." From the name, perhaps you can guess that sacoglossans eat algae.
Here's one of the first views we had. Note the small, black eyes and the large, rolled rhinophores above the eyes:
There are many projections called cerata on the back — cylindrical, greenish, with scattered gray flecks and white tips:
On the underside, you can see a smooth muscular foot with irregular black splotches (creating a marbled pattern):
Meet Aplysiopsis enteromorphae!
While we watched, the most striking thing about this species was its feeding behavior.
Aplysiopsis enteromorphae is known to feed on only a few species of seaweeds. (This individual was feeding on Chaetomorpha.) The feeding behavior was described originally by Gonor (1961). The slug grasps the algal filament with the front of its foot and a pair of oral lobes (see diagram below). It slices open an algal cell with a single row of teeth on its radula, sucks out the contents, and then repeats this process along the filament. After the filament passes by the mouth, it's easy to see the now-empty algal cells!
Modified from Gonor, J.J. 1961. Observations on the biology of Hermaeina smithi, a sacoglossan opisthobranch from the West Coast of North America. Veliger 4: 85-98.
This is exactly what we saw:
Here's an even closer view. Look for the solid green algal strand in front of the mouth (at the bottom of the photo), and the nearly-clear algal strand after it leaves the mouth and passes along the foot. The eaten portion of the strand is a little hard to see because it's almost transparent, but there are a few green cells left:
We were curious about whether you could see the slits in the algal cells. We couldn't with our eyes alone, so we put a strand under a compound microscope (200x magnification), and voilà! Below, the arrows are pointing to two of the slits:
Eric was able to capture a few seconds of feeding behavior on video. Watch carefully as the slug moves along the single strand of Chaetomorpha— grasping, slitting, and sucking out the contents.