Carol and I went for walks in two wildlife sanctuaries today: the Daniel Webster Wildlife Sanctuary and the North River Wildlife Sanctuary, both in Marshfield, Mass. Usually when we walk in wildlife sanctuaries I spend most of my time looking at plants, especially flowering plants. But today, without trying at all, we wound up seeing a quite a few animals. Here are three of them:

Two raptors in a nest built of sticks.
Adult and juvenile Osprey (Pandion haliaetus)
A beetle on a leaf. The leaf has pieces gone from it, perhaps eatne by the beetle. possibly
Red Milkweed Beetle (Tetraopes tetrophthalmus) on Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca)
Turtle mostly submerged in water.
Painted Turtle (Chrysemys picta)

Each of these three animals is what I’d call charismatic. I’m not quite sure what makes some animals more charismatic than others. Animal charisma is not a matter of being cuddly — none of these three animals could be considered cuddly. Nor is animal charisma a matter of being cute — a baby Osprey might be cute, in a fierce flesh-tearing-beak sort of way, but a Red Milkweed Beetle is not what most people would consider cute. In fact, being cute and cuddly is almost the opposite of being charismatic. Cuteness and cuddliness feel controllable; charisma does not.

Humans remain my favorite animal. At the same time, I think it’s good for us humans to encounter non-human animals. After all, for most of human existence, we lived in close-knit human communities while being surrounded by non-human animals — a distinct contrast to our current existence, where we are alienated both from other humans, and from non-human organisms.

The biggest environmental threat in California?

Here’s another environmental threat to keep you up at night:

“Nitrogen deposition and pollution is [a] more acute threat than climate change. … [But] few people are paying attention.” — Dr. Stuart Weiss, Chief Scientist of Creekside Science.

Weiss’s key paper on Bay Area nitrogen deposition, written while he was at Stanford, has a great title: Cars, Cows, and Checkerspot Butterflies: Nitrogen Deposition and Management of Nutrient-Poor Grasslands for a Threatened Species (Conservation Biology, v. 13 no. 6, Dec. 1999, pp. 1476–1486).

I’m listening to Weiss talk to the California Naturalist class I’m taking right now. Weiss makes some interesting points: Smog does an amazing amount of damage, not only to human lungs but also to non-human organisms. Non-native grasses are big contributors to the increase in pollen in recent times. Free-range cattle on California grasslands can keep non-native invasive grass species under control, providing habitat for endangered species as well as reducing allergens.

Mud puddling

Butterflies, so goes the common wisdom, like flowers, so if you want to attract them you plant flowers that they will like. But butterfly enthusiasts point out that some butterflies prefer “mud puddling”: they are attracted to mud puddles, and like to hang out there.

Carol and I went for a walk in Purisima Creek Redwoods preserve. In places the trail was still damp and even muddy, and in one such place, on a boundary between chaparral and Douglas fir forest, I saw an Echo Blue fluttering along. The trail wasn’t exactly muddy, but I guess it was damp enough, for the insect would light every now and then, put its wings up, and bask.


When I got too close, it unfolded its wings, revealing its attractive bright blue upper surfaces, and flew quickly away, staying close to the trail. I never once saw it go near a flower; so simple observation happened to disprove a stereotype generated by common wisdom. On the other hand, sometimes common wisdom is right. A little further down the trail, a Variable Checkerspot was energetically seeking out flowers.

Variable Checkerspot

Drama in the portable toilet

Several us went out to Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area on Saturday to look for birds. We did see some fabulous birds, but the highlight of the trip for me was seeing a Black Widow spider capturing a wasp of some kind, and wrap it in spider silk, and slowly kill it. This all took place inside one of the portable toilets, just below the urinal. Had anybody seen several of us standing around and looking in the door of a portable toilet for five or ten minutes, I suppose they would have thought us odd. But it was a riveting drama, well worth watching.

Emily, who was with us, has posted a series of photos showing the whole process; my favorite of this series of photos is here.

I spent a little time trying to track down what kind of wasp the Black Widow was preying on. The best I could do was to say with certainty that this insect was in the order Hymenoptera; with somewhat less certainty, I’m willing to say the insect was in family Vespidae. But is it a paper wasp, a hornet, or a yellowjacket? I have neither the patience nor the expertise to answer that question.


Ed, whom we met through Sacred Harp singing, is a docent at Natural Bridges State Park, where migrating Monarch butterflies spend several months in the winter. Months ago he had offered to show us the Monarchs, and today we took him up on his offer.

Many of the Monarchs roost near the visitor center, down in a hollow where Blue Gum Eucalyptus trees grow. We walked into the grove at 11:40; the sun was well down into the hollow, and the temperature was rising into the mid-50s F. I looked up, and saw dozens of Monarchs soaring about twenty feet above me. Many more were roosting in the trees, and in the ivy growing up the trees.

Monarch Butterflies roosting in ivy

Ed pointed out three large clusters of Monarchs, on three nearby Eucalyptus branches. He had a scope, which he focused on one of the clusters of Monarchs. The scope took in about half the cluster, and it was a spectacular sight: I counted well over a hundred butterflies roosting, all closely packed together. They were mostly showing the dull orange of the undersides of their wings, but every once in a while one would spread its wings, making a momentary spot of vivid bright orange.

Male and female Monarch

The park has a collection of dead Monarchs, and using two dead insects Ed showed us the difference in the wing patterns of the male and female Monarchs: males have a distinct black spot on each hindwing; females have heavier black veining on their wings.

Monarch caterpillar

Near the visitor’s center, there’s a small butterfly garden, with two different species of milkweed growing. The caterpillars of Monarch butterflies will eat only milkweed. Sure enough, there were two caterpillars feeding on one of the milkweed plants.

It was a pretty fabulous way to spend a morning.

Info about visiting Natural Bridges State Park and the Monarchs here.

“Nature, red in tooth and claw”

The old time Universalists were fond of saying that “God is love.” That statement may be true, but not in any sentimental sappy sense. Many years ago, Tennyson pointed out that he who might place trust in the belief that “God was love indeed / And love Creation’s final law” needed to remember that “Nature, red in tooth and claw … shriek’d against his creed.”

On our walk today, Abs and I saw a butterfly that had lost much of its left hindwing, and a part of its left forewing. We speculated that perhaps a bird or other predator had attacked the butterfly, and somehow it had gotten away, and was still flying:


Living things need to eat, and as often as not they eat other living things in order to stay alive. And this is true of you, too, O human being who think yourself an apex predator: there are plenty of microorganisms and parasites and biting insects who feed on you.

“Humble bee”

Abs and I went for a walk in Great Meadows in Concord, Mass. We spent some time looking at native pollinators, of which my favorite was a bumble bee (Bombus sp.) working the blossoms on Purple Loosestrife and goldenrod:


It reminded me of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s poem about bumble bees, called “The Humble Bee.” When I got home I looked up the poem; it wasn’t as good as I had remembered, but I did like the fourth stanza, which captures something of the flavor of a warm July day in New England:

Hot midsummer’s petted crone,
Sweet to me thy drowsy tune,
Telling of countless sunny hours,
Long days, and solid banks of flowers,
Of gulfs of sweetness without bound
In Indian wildernesses found,
Of Syrian peace, immortal leisure,
Firmest cheer and bird-like pleasure….

Geneva, Ohio, to Rensselaer, N.Y.

Of course I awakened late. First of all, I hadn’t gotten into the motel room until 11:30 the previous night. Second of all, the time I awakened might seem late in the Eastern time zone but in the Pacific time zone I got up at six o’clock. When I finally got to Erie Bluffs State Park, it was half an hour before noon.

Erie Bluffs State Park, the largest undeveloped stretch of Lake Erie lake front in Pennsylvania, is mostly fields and woodlands. There is a boat launch, and there’s a tiny beach at the mouth of Elk Creek.


But, as I say, it’s mostly fields and woodlands. I walked down through the woods to the shore. The trees were mostly maples and oaks, with some nut trees and sassafras — typical woodlands of the middle Appalachian region, and very similar to the woodlands I got used to growing up in eastern Massachusetts on the eastern edge of the hills of central New England. The woods felt familiar, more familiar than the town I grew up in which has been so altered by development and gentrification, and so many of the woodlands built up with very expensive houses, that it no longer feels like the town I once knew. But there were still surprises in the woodlands of Erie Bluffs. I came across a downed tree covered with some kind of insect I had never seen before, coming out of its larval stage to its adult stage.


There wasn’t much to see at the shores of Lake Erie except people on personal watercraft bouncing over the chop raised by the northeast wind. I got tired of their buzzing, and the faint stench of two-cycle engine, and head back up the bluffs to the fields. The eastern fields at Erie Bluffs cultivated, with what I think was an annual rye grass, some kind of seed-bearing grass that probably provides good foraging for migrating birds. The western field is not cultivated, and it was filled with birds: Field Sparrows, Blackburnian Warblers, Indigo Buntings, Baltimore Orioles, and many more birds took advantage of the ecotone, the edge zone between the woodlands biome and the field biome.


Then, all too soon, it was time to go. I started driving east, and kept driving east.

After dark, I stopped at a rest area somewhere in upper New York state. By that time, there was little traffic on the highway, and few people in the rest area. Just one other person was waiting for coffee at Starbucks, and she and I got into a conversation with the two workers at Starbucks. I asked the workers if they got time and a half for the holiday, and they said they did. But, they said, no benefits. I told them I thought Starbucks had good benefits, but they said they were actually employed by the company that runs the rest area, a company which pays minimum wage, provides not benefits, and does not allow them to take tips. The other customer and I commiserated with them. She — the other customer — said she drove that stretch of highway regularly, because one of her children was involved with Circus Smirkus. We both said we love to drive, and we both agreed that the best time to drive was after dinner, after the crazy drivers got off the road. When I left, I told one of the workers that I wasn’t leaving a tip, because that wasn’t allowed, but it looks like I left some money on the counter by mistake so they better keep it.

Avoca, Iowa, to Joliet, Ill.

I was sleepy today, and had to stop twice in rest areas to take long naps. I tend to drive myself pretty hard at work, even when I’m on sabbatical, and I suspect my body is constantly putting out a little adrenalin to keep me moving fast. Now I’ve been away from work long enough that the adrenalin has stopped, and it makes me sleepy. Because of the naps, I got in late tonight, so this will be a short post.

In the middle of the day I stopped for a walk at the Kuehn Conservation Area in Dallas County, Iowa, three and a half miles along well-graded gravel roads from the interstate. A cold front had gone through last night, with thunder and lightning, and the day was cool and gray; the grass was wet, and the sky still threatened showers. There was not another car in the parking lot. I walked around the upland meadows, looking and listening to the birds, all from the eastern half of the continent — no more Chestnut-backed Chickadees, now there were Black-capped Chickadees; no more Scrub Jays, now there were Blue Jays; no more Western Bluebirds, but rather Eastern Bluebirds.

I walked down a wooded bluff into the Bear Creek valley. The rolling grasslands near the creek were damp and unbelievably green to an eye which has become accustomed to dry, drought-ridden California. You could see the humidity in the air, turning everything a faint blue.


But what really captured my attention were the variety and number of butterflies. I must have seen ten different species (not that I could say what species they were, but they were so obviously different), and a great many individuals: flittering through the grass, basking on the mud or gravel, dodging in and out of the brush in the woods, sitting half hidden in the leaves.



The rest of the drive was uneventful. I drove, it rained off and on, I stopped in Grinnell, Iowa, to find Chinese food and a bookstore, I drove some more, took another nap, it rained, and slowly it got dark. I knew when I was getting close to Chicagoland because there were more buildings, more cars, more people. I have now left behind the lightly settled western two-thirds of the United States, and entered the busy, crowded, bustling eastern third of the country.

Water striders


This afternoon, I went walking up Purisima Creek Trail, off Higgins Canyon Road in Half Moon Bay. Purisima Creek flows down through a canyon in which grow Coastal Redwoods. It’s a perennial stream, but at this time of year the water is only a few inches deep. I was curious to see if I could find any organisms living in the creek.

The first organism I saw was a water strider, probably Aquarius remigis, Common Water Strider; in a half an hour of walking along the creek, I saw dozens of these water striders, in sizes ranging from tiny (I was barely able to see them) up to an inch or so long. They were mostly quite aware of my presence, and if I moved too quickly, or got too close to fast, they would skate away from me over the surface of the water. The only other organism I saw in the stream was a Banana Slug, which had somehow gotten to a rock in the middle of the stream; it was mostly out of the water.

But I didn’t see anything else living in the water. Most of the plants I saw grew on the steep banks at least half a foot from the water, and my guess is that the bottom of the stream bed gets well-scoured when water comes pouring down the creek after winter storms; any plants that manage to take root there in the summer get torn away in winter. Nor did I see any other insects, crustaceans, amphibians, or other animals living in the stream; though I suspect there are other animals in the stream. I did see several hatches of small insects dancing in a cloud a few feet above the stream; did they hatch from the water? do their nymph forms live in the water? I’ve seen California Newts (Taricha torosa) in this area; I would guess some of these newts breed in this stream, the largest stream in the vicinity, and that the tadpoles must therefore live in the stream for a time.

But today, the only organisms I saw in the stream were the water striders.