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Thursday, February 28, 2013

Is an adder acceptable?

This is a very special local wildflower that is primarily found along the northern California coast.

Scoliopus bigelovii is a member of the Lily Family.  It has an unusual common name — Fetid Adder's Tongue. 

"Fetid" because it has a disagreeable odor (to attract fungus gnats to pollinate its flowers).  At this time I'm not quite sure about the origin of "Adder's Tongue."  [An adder is a type of snake.]  One source said it had to do with the appearance of the leaves.  The oblong leaves with prominent veins and dark purple mottling will remain visible long after the flowers have disappeared.  But other sources mentioned different ideas about why it might be called Adder's Tongue, so I'll have to do more research.  If you can provide some insight about the true origin of the name, I'd love to know more!

Here's another view looking down at a plant, showing a flower at the tip of a long stalk (pedicel) emerging from between the leaves.

The image below shows the flower from the side.  It's a good view of the different parts of the flower.  First look at the broad white ribbon-like structures with dark parallel stripes — although they look like petals, these are called sepals.  It might seem surprising, but the three slender, upright structures with dark purple tips are the petals.

You can also see the male and female reproductive parts.  In the center look for the green structure with downward curving branches — this is the style (female part) that along with the ovary will eventually become a capsule that contains the seeds.  Lower down at the bases of the sepals look for the rounded lavender and green structures that look a bit inflated.  These are the stamens (male parts) that will release pollen.  I think you can see some pollen on them (and on the sepals) in the photo below.

Fetid Adder's Tongue is sometimes called Slinkpod.  This name comes from the way the flower stalk twists and droops until the seed pod touches the ground (see below).

Fetid Adder's Tongue flowers early in the season, so look for it now in coastal coniferous forests, along mossy stream banks, and on shaded slopes.  It hasn't been recorded on Bodega Head, but it's nearby.  These photos were taken in Occidental on 28 February 2013.

P.S.  Okay, I know it's not a snake, but until I can find a real snake in 2013, I'm hoping Fetid Adder's Tongue might be an acceptable candidate for celebrating the Year of the Snake!

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Tongue trivia

Pacific Hound's Tongue (Cynoglossum grande) 
 flowering at a woodland site in Sebastopol on 15 February 2013 

Look for the raised appendages forming a white ring near the center of the blue petals.  Additional views (below) show the entire inflorescence with side branches (always with terminal flowers opening first — note the large buds that are almost ready to open) and the long, narrow leaves that give this native perennial its name.

Within the genus Cynoglossum, "cyno" means "dog or hound" and "glossum" means "tongue."  

And now for the trivia: There are several other types of organisms in the Bodega Bay area with some version of "glossum" in their name.  This is challenging, but can you think of any?  (A few examples follow...)

There are at least two sacoglossans (sap-sucking sea slugs) in Bodega Harbor (e.g., Alderia modesta and Alderia willowi).  And although the names have changed, there are several species of marine algae on the outer coast with "glossum" in their names = Rhodoglossum affine which is now called Mazzaella affinis, and Botryoglossum farlowianum which is now called Cryptopleura ruprechtiana.  There are other examples, so send in more if you think of them!

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

From snow to petals

We returned to California today and took a short stroll in our backyard in Sebastopol late this afternoon.  It looks like it might have been warm and sunny while we were away.  There were a few nice patches of wildflowers under the redwoods.

Redwood Violet (or Evergreen Violet), Viola sempervirens 

Milk Maids (or Toothwort), Cardamine californica 

For the record, there have been a few observations of Milk Maids on Bodega Head, but no violets that I know of.
It felt a little strange to leave the New England snow this morning and to be admiring wildflower petals this afternoon!

Monday, February 25, 2013

Red-bellied (or not)

I don't have much time tonight, but I can't resist showing a couple of photos.  I took these images through a window, so they're a little fuzzy, but it's still easy to appreciate this striking woodpecker.

Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) at a suet feeder in Massachusetts on 25 February 2013.

This is a male, with red coloration extending over the top of the head to the base of the bill.  Females would only have red on the nape (the back of the head).  It's true that the "red belly" is very difficult to see and is not at all visible in these photographs.  

Although its core distribution is in the southeastern U.S., this species has been extending its range northward and westward.  I don't think there are any records for California yet, but correct me if I'm wrong, as I don't have any references with me right now. 

Here's another image showing how well the black-and-white striped patterning on the back blends in with the bark of a pine tree.


Sunday, February 24, 2013

Chick-a dee-tails

Black-capped Chickadee in Massachusetts on 24 February 2013

Although Black-capped Chickadees are common songbirds across much of North America, I tried to find a few fun details that you might not be as familiar with:

- Males and females are generally indistinguishable, but males tend to have longer wings and tails, deeper blacks, brighter whites, and broader black bibs.

- Most of their flights are apparently less than 15 meters (49 feet) long.  They tend to avoid crossing large open gaps.  I'll admit, I haven't ever thought of estimating chickadee flight distances myself (have you?), but it would be interesting to see if this measurement generally holds true!

- Individuals tend to join winter flocks and stay within the same flock throughout the winter.  They may also re-associate with the same flock in subsequent winters.

- Within winter flocks, there is a linear social dominance hierarchy — males tend to dominate over females and older birds tend to dominate over younger birds.

- Black-capped Chickadees embed information about predators in their calls — if all you've thought you were hearing was a simple chick-a-dee call, you might want to listen more closely the next time.  They'll call more often and add more "dee" notes for smaller, more threatening predators.  And they'll respond more quickly and call more frequently for predators that are closer rather than further away.

(Facts above from Birds of North America account by Foote et al. 2010.)

[Black-capped Chickadees aren't common in California.  I'm still new enough to The Golden State that I'm not totally familiar with their status in the 3rd largest of the U.S. states, but it looks like they only occur regularly in the northwest corner of California, primarily in Del Norte and Siskiyou counties (edging into Humboldt and Trinity counties).]

Friday, February 22, 2013

Sleepy hollows

Snowy Plovers resting in shallow sandy depressions (or hollows) on Salmon Creek Beach

Thursday, February 21, 2013


Here's another discovery from the kelp holdfast last weekend.  Can you tell what's attached to the branches of the holdfast in the center of the photo below?

Because they would have dried up on the beach, we removed a few to take a closer look and to try to identify them.  Here's a small cluster in Eric's hand:

If you think you're seeing eyes, you are!  These are small fish eggs that were attached to the kelp.  Many of the tiny fish embryos appeared to be in the later stages of development — every now and then they would wriggle around inside of their clear, rounded capsules or pods.

Many details were visible under the microscope:

We're not sure what type of fish these are.  They appeared to be very long, with a dark checkerboard pattern running along the back.  

If you have experience identifying local fish eggs or fish embryos and have thoughts about what species of fish this might be, we'd be very interested in hearing about it!

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Will a serpent suffice?

Do you recognize the animal in the photo above?  
(It's a close-up, so it's only a small portion of the animal.)

Last weekend Eric and I checked a few kelp holdfasts that had washed ashore on Salmon Creek Beach.  One of the animals seems an appropriate follow-up to the recent discussion about the Year of the Snake.

Here are two pictures, the first showing the upper surface and the second with the mouth-side up.  The entire animal was ~6 cm across from arm tip to arm tip.

This is a brittle star, so called because they sometimes drop parts of their arms when disturbed or threatened (they can regenerate the lost parts later).  They're also called serpent stars because of the snake-like appearance and movements of the arms.

This particular species is a Daisy Brittle Star, or Ophiopholis kennerlyi (formerly Ophiopholis aculeata).  [Alternative common names include Painted Brittle Star and Painted Serpent Star.]  The scientific name is informative, especially for the topic of this post.  Ophio means snake or serpent and pholis means scaly.

Brittle stars (formally known as ophiuroids) are echinoderms, related to sea stars, sea urchins, sand dollars, sea cucumbers, and crinoids.  They have a star-shaped central disc covered with short spines (see below).

Five long arms radiate away from the central disc.  When you look at the arms, you'll see flattened plates on the upper surface, projecting spines along the sides, and flexible tubefeet underneath.

In this species, the large plates on the upper (dorsal) surface are surrounded by smaller accessory plates arranged in a mosaic-like pattern.

The tubefeet look quite different than the tubefeet of most sea stars and sea urchins in that they lack suckers at the tips.  Daisy Brittle Stars are suspension feeders — they extend their arms up into the water to catch food particles with their tubefeet and then pass a ball of mucus-coated food particles towards the mouth.

What do you think — Does a brittle star, or serpent star, qualify as a highlight for the Year of the Snake?

Monday, February 18, 2013

Blue rays

Northwest winds picked up today and the ocean looked very dark and stormy ahead of the approaching cold front.

In the early evening, rays of light streamed down through the clouds at the horizon.

Sunday, February 17, 2013


I'm excited to share a tale about a tattler.  This afternoon I took a short break to watch some shorebirds feeding among the algae and waves on the intertidal rocks.  Most of the time it feels impossible to identify exactly what the birds are eating, so I was a little surprised when a Wandering Tattler caught something quite large.  Can you tell what it is? 

This happened pretty quickly, but I captured several views on film.  The first photo (above) shows the back of the prey, while the next photo (below) shows the prey flipped over, belly-side up.

The next image displays the prey from the side.

This tattler caught a small fish, probably a sculpin, although I'm not sure which species. I found one reference that talked about Wandering Tattlers catching freshwater sculpins at a lake in Alaska, but I don't know how often they eat marine sculpins.  Examples of other prey listed for Wandering Tattlers include the following: aquatic insects (flies, crane flies, stoneflies, caddisflies, midges), polychaete worms, snails, amphipods, and small crabs.

Here's one more view, this time with the sculpin facing you.  Seems like quite a bill-full for the tattler!

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Suspicious spouts

Okay, so I'm afraid these are the most marginal photos I've posted so far.  But it's for a good reason!  They *might* be of a very interesting species.  So even if they aren't good pictures, they still offer an introduction to an animal that you may not have heard of and that you, too, can look for when you're near the ocean or especially if you're on a boat (in the North Pacific).

I was casually glancing offshore today from Bodega Head and noticed a whale spout in the distance.  Can you find the small, bushy spout in the photo below?

I didn't give it too much thought at first, assuming it was probably a Gray Whale.  But something didn't seem quite right — the spout didn't seem tall enough and it was angled slightly.  And then I saw several others very close by.  I would guess there were at least 6 different individuals in a very tight group.  There are 2-3 in the photo below.

The next thing that really caught my attention was that the animals seemed to be moving very quickly.  Their low backs just rolled by at the surface, instead of slowly lingering or rising and sinking like a baleen whale such a Gray Whale or Humpback Whale.

The backs were long and slender and appeared to be dark.  They were larger than dolphins, but didn't seem as large as Gray Whales.  You can just barely see one of the backs in the center of the image below.  It looks like a thin dark gray line with the sun reflecting off it.  (Really, it's there!)

When I realized these whales might be interesting, I was so busy trying to see them in my binoculars and take pictures with the camera, that I didn't have time to look at my watch.  I would guess the group was at the surface for about 1 minute or less, and then submerged for about 8 minutes before resurfacing.  I saw them at least 4 different times and the pattern was the same each time.

They appeared to be quite active (see next photo).  One time I saw one spiraling downwards and showing its flukes as it dove under water.

And they were often very close to each other. 

Another clue from my notes:  The whales were pretty far offshore, I'm guessing 1-2 miles, so I didn't have the best views.  I can't really say anything about the dorsal fin, except that I never saw an obvious one, so it was probably small.

So I'm really not sure about the identity of these whales, but I'm wondering if they could have been Baird's Beaked Whales (Berardius bairdii).  I'll never know, as I didn't see enough in the field and the pictures aren't good enough either (as you can tell), but I'll always be suspicious.  They just weren't right for the other more common species of whales and dolphins.  (I can't rule out other species of beaked whales, but these were relatively large animals, and Baird's Beaked Whales are the largest and most commonly seen beaked whales in this area.)

Of beaked whales, Shirihai and Jarrett (2006) say, "Most sightings are very brief and a matter of luck."  They spend most of their time offshore, and are difficult to observe at the surface.  

And I like what Rich Stallcup says about Baird's Beaked Whales: "Baird's are rare, generally shy animals, seldom found near shore...When seen on the surface at a distance (that's often all you get), they may be lying still, resembling logs, or splashing in a small area like a hot-tub party."

You can read more about this unusual species at the American Cetacean Society's web site

P.S.  If you disagree with me, or have other ideas about these mystery whales, let me know, as I'd love to hear your thoughts!

Friday, February 15, 2013

Ensatina eyes

Perhaps it is the Year of the Salamander!

Eric found this small Ensatina (Ensatina eschscholtzii) in our yard in Sebastopol tonight.  It was only ~4 cm long.

You may notice that it looks fairly similar to the Arboreal Salamander that I found yesterday.

Here's a view from above.  Note that it has brightly colored patches where the legs meet the body, but they're glowing orange rather than metallic gold.

From the side, you can see one of the most distinctive characteristics of an Ensatina.  The rounded tail is constricted, or narrowed, at the base.  Note that the tail is also reddish-orange in color.

A close-up of the face shows the large, dark eyes and the beautiful purple speckling.

P.S.  Now you're really going to think I'm crazy.  Do you know the song, "Bette Davis Eyes"?  I'm thinking it might be fun to write a song called, "Ensatina Eyes."  Can you hear it now?  

Her skin is speckled bold
Her lips near redwoods lie
Her hands are always cold
She's got Ensatina eyes 

P.P.S.  Last February we found a larger Ensatina in our yard.  It looked a little different than this one.  To compare, review last year's photos here.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Year of the...


The Chinese Lunar New Year, the Year of the Snake, began on February 10th.  We thought it would be fun to post a picture of a local snake this week, and believe me I've been trying to find one, but so far I haven't been successful.  In general, Bodega Head isn't a great place to find snakes.  And winter is probably an even more difficult time to locate one.

Late today I tried again and turned over a few old boards.  No snakes, but a couple of salamanders!

These Arboreal Salamanders (Aneides lugubris) were small, only ~5-6 cm long.  One (above) had lots of dense gold speckling on the top of its head.  The other (below) was darker overall, but had noticeable metallic gold patches where the legs met the body.

Here's a close-up where you can also see scattered blue and gray spots everywhere.  It's like looking up at the night sky.

(I only held the salamander briefly for a couple of photos before releasing it back under moist cover again.)
I also posted a couple of Arboreal Salamander pictures last January, so if you'd like to learn a little more about them, you can read more here.

And, here's a useful trick that Eric taught me about the blog.  You might have already figured this out, but I hadn't!  If you're interested in seeing *all* of the salamander posts — for example, if you wanted to quickly compare photographs of all of the different salamander species or encounters I've written about — you can click on the word "salamander" where it says Labels at the bottom of this post.  That's actually a link that will show you all of the posts that have salamander as a label.  Fun!

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Plates and bristles

I'm not sure if anyone noticed, but I never posted additional pictures of the small chiton that Eric found in the kelp holdfast on Salmon Creek Beach in late January.  

I was procrastinating, mostly because I was hoping to identify the chiton before writing more about it.  Sadly, I haven't been able to figure out which species it is, but I'd still like to show a few more images because they're interesting, especially if you haven't seen a chiton up close.

In the photo above, the front end is to the right and the back end is to the left (with the notch).  Chitons are marine molluscs with eight partially overlapping shell plates.  The plate at the front end is called a head plate, and the plate at the back end is called a tail plate.  Here's a zoomed in view of the head plate with attractive green radiating tubercles (bumps).

If you look along the edge of this chiton, you can see lots of spiky bristles (they're formally called setae).

These bristles are (supposed to be) useful for identifying chitons.  I've isolated one in case someone can help me with figuring out this species.

I searched through some of my older chiton pictures to see if I had any images of chitons that looked similar to this one.  No luck, but I did find a lot of other beautiful chitons that I haven't identified yet.  (See below for an example.)

I think I've photographed at least 15 different species of chitons on Bodega Head so far, with more to come!