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Much the most super-est!

No clouds where you are? Get out and look at our Moon this weekend. It’s a Supermoon. And not just any super moon, it’s the superest of the year.

Tomorrow night and the next night the moon will be at its best (that’s Saturday and Sunday, 22-23 June 2013). Here’s last night’s moon — Pre-Super — as a preview (click to enlarge):

pre super giant

Waxing gibbous, 20 June 2013 (photo A.Shock)

The term “supermoon” has recently been coined by media and some astronomers to refer to a full moon that coincides with its closest approach to earth (or perigee). What’s special about a supermoon is that it actually looks a bit bigger in the sky than at other times (although, don’t fall for some of the wacky claims circling the internet about just how big: it’s not going to look like ET’s bicycle moon). For more scientific and understandably presented info, click here.

The Man in the Moon has never shown himself to me.  When I look, I see Quetzalcoatl’s obliging Moonrabbit, her ears at two o’clock, pointing right.  And, why stop at waxing gibbous — let’s wax meta for a moment: Professor Danneru would like to point out the One-Clawed Crab in the Moon, the lunar apparition his mysterious ancient poets saw. That works for me. Can you see the Crab in the Moon?

Posted by Allison on Jun 21st 2013 | Filed in increments,natural history,rox | Comments (0)

Wren rocks

When you get out, you see things.

On a recent drive through a favorite stretch of desert mountain backroad, we saw a small thing that I’ve always wanted to see, ever since reading about it.  We saw it.  And I got a picture of it.  It’s this:

wrenrock

A tiny bird in a tiny hole in a big desert-dirt wall above a desert dirt road.   (Photo A.Shock)

That’s a Rock Wren — Salpinctes obsoletus — standing at the entrance to its nest cavity.  It’s not the bird itself that I’ve been hankering to see, because I’ve seen a few Rock Wrens: in the right place and time, they’re largely (or small-ly) unavoidable in craggy arid regions of the western US, Mexico, and Canada.  We even have them in our neighborhood occasionally.  What I was so excited about is the small expanse of rock chips to the left of the bird: the Rock Wren’s very rocks!

It’s not actually a pile, please, it took more effort than that.  It’s a pavement.  A mysterious pavement.  Rock Wrens are known to construct paved areas leading to their nests, and sometimes to lay a foundation of flat stones under the cup nest they construct in a crack, crevice, hollow, split boulder, or other rocky vug. But no one knows why, exactly.

Building this pavement requires a lot of time, energy, and effort.  Each bird of a nesting pair carries stone after stone in its beak from its source to the nest — sometimes as many as two or three hundred, then deliberately sets them in front of its chosen inaccessible and hidden location.  Both males and females have been seen doing this, although some observers report that it’s mostly the females who pave.  The stones are flat, and though they’re small by our human scale, they can weigh up to a third of the bird’s body weight.  Theories about why they go to the trouble lie as thick on the ground as wren-rocks, ranging from pair-bonding to mate-evaluating activities, to nest and nestling thermoregulation, to steep site soil stabilization, to landing pad or sign-post or defensive barrier.  Ornithologists studying an unrelated old-world species, the Blackstart, hypothesized that stone pavements or ramparts built by their subject birds could function as a predator defense system, providing early warning of a predator as it moves rocks aside to get into the hidden part of the nest. (In this case, the study was done in Israel in the Ein Gedi Nature Preserve, and the Blackstart pairs closest to the archæological sites there employed potsherds along with rocks to build their ramparts — how Bronze-Age is that?)

I watched this pair of Rock Wrens for twenty minutes as they fed their nestlings in the deep dark of the niche.  The babies were concealed in shadow, but mom and dad called frequently — Rock Wrens are very vocal — and took turns flying in and out of the small adit, their curved bills full of insects pried from crevices in nearby rock and streamside boulders.

(I should add that it wasn’t necessary to get close the nest site to watch the parents and take photos: this location was in a road-cut about 15 feet above the dirt road at a creek crossing, so I just walked up the road a bit to get an eye-level observation spot away from the nest, and watched quietly with binox and a telephoto lens. I don’t need to remind you how important it is to never agitate nesting birds, or wasps, mountain lions, or your sleepless neighbor with a new baby, right?  It’s rude and at best stressful for everyone, if not potentially harmful.)

Posted by Allison on Apr 18th 2013 | Filed in birds,field trips,natural history,nidification,rox | Comments (1)

Secret rock

20120617-205555.jpg

An outcrop in a high treeless field, slightly moister than the flat ground around it, sheltered ferns and flowers: golden columbine, and clusters of wild iris. The columbine was just starting, but the iris was spent, each stalk bearing a papery brown remainder of spring. All but this late blossom, which was still blue against the lichen spotted boulder. I’m glad we stopped — it would have been easy to just keep going. (photo A.Shock)

Posted by Allison on Jun 17th 2012 | Filed in botany,field trips,natural history,rox,unexpected | Comments (2)

Spot the Bird answer: rock and wren

20110417-021458.jpgTo the right is the photo key to the Rock wren of the current Spot the Bird. Rock wrens rock one of my favorite Latin names in the bird world (along with Upupa epops, the hoopoe): Salpinctes obsoletus. According to Choate, the name comes from Greek salpinctes, “a trumpeter” and Latin obsoletus, “indistinct”, referring to its ringing voice and drab plumage. These contradictory traits explain why the little bird is often heard before it’s seen.  Some of you who wrote to tell me you found it said that after not seeing it for a while “it just suddenly popped out of the picture”.  That’s the way it tends to happen in person with these guys, too.

Below is a rock wren up close, singing its song. You can see its long, de-curved bill, useful for probing rocks and crevices for insects and spiders.  It’s also good for carrying and manipulating small rocks: Rock wrens construct a pavement of tiny flat stones and pebbles leading up to their nest, which is concealed in a hole or crack in a rock.  No one (except the wrens) knows why they do this.  (<< photo E.Shock, taken at Fremont Saddle in the Superstition mountains) One thing the beak does not do is take up water: Rock wrens are thought to get all their moisture through their prey, and don’t drink even when water is available.

Speaking of water, E would like me to add that the rocks in the top photo, along Castle Hotsprings Road, are significantly hydrothermally altered.  You know, subjected to intense heat in a moist environment, either at depth, or nearer the surface, as in a hotspring.  I don’t suppose the rock wren cares, except that the hydrothermal process has left the rock cracked and full of holes, which is just what a rock wren likes.  Click here for a tale about another hydrothermally-altered rock that hosted many organisms.

Posted by Allison on Apr 21st 2011 | Filed in birds,etymology/words,natural history,nidification,rox,spot the bird | Comments (0)

Life under the volcano

Three Star Owl blogging resumes after a hiatus of two weeks in Costa Rica…

Volcán Turrialba at dawn, from Rancho Naturalista (photo A.Shock).

In the view above only a small plume of steam and gas is visible from the most active of the three summit craters of the nearly 11,000 foot stratovolcano.  Its last major eruption was in 1866, but a recent increase in activity and a release of volcanic ash in January of this year, resulted in the evacuation of two nearby villages.

Gray-headed chachalacas (photo A.Shock) >>

Local residents may be used to living in view of this steaming giant, but for visitors it can be a little unnerving.  However there’s lots to distract, including vocal groups of Gray-headed chachalacas eating bananas at a fruit feeder, and a Crested Guan perched and silhouetted against the green valley far below.


<< Crested guan (photo A.Shock)

Posted by Allison on Jul 14th 2010 | Filed in birds,field trips,natural history,rox | Comments (0)

Mono birds and tufa

One of our destinations during the recent eastern California trip was the dramatic and amazing Mono Lake and its crumbly, gradually ephemeral tufa groves.  Tufa towers are mineral formations deposited underwater when calcium-rich spring water pours up into carbonate-rich lakewater.  The resulting mixture precipitates calcium-carbonate which builds upward into the lake water, sort of like stalagmites in a cave, but underwater.  If the lake level drops or the lake dries up, the towers are exposed (like the Trona Pinnacles).

>> Osprey-nested tufa tower, Mono Lake.  The tips of the hen’s primaries look like a little black alligator head, if you click to enlarge.

Lots of birds and mammals use the pinnacles to perch, shelter, forage, and nest.  This tufa tower, about 15 feet tall, is completely surrounded by water — a pair of ospreys has built their nest on the platform of its top.  The Osprey hen, sitting tight on either eggs or chicks, is barely visible as two black wingtips sticking up just over the the middle of the untidy stick nest.  She’s hunkered low down in a whipping wind.  Her mate, not in the photo, was coursing low over the water nearby.

This streaky, buffy-lored Savannah sparrow was hunting along the highly alkaline, hyper-saline water’s edge, like a very tiny T-rex, searching for alkali flies and larvae, yum.  The cold temps and wind made it fearless or at least heedless — hunger does that — and it passed right by me, intent on finding a late afternoon meal. >>

Mono Lake is also the second-largest California Gull rookery in the U.S.  Below is one, bright and bold, who landed on our truck roof to see if we had anything to eat.  I suppose this photo might qualify as a “The Bird Spots You.”

(All photos A.Shock; click to enlarge.)

The Mono Lake story is a complicated one of rich natural history, ruthless water-greed, and hard work by a lot of dedicated conservationists and politicians, for better or for worse.  Check it out here.

<< check out the orange “gape” or flexible skin at the corner of the mouth, all the better to gulp down bickies with.  We did not oblige.

After much battling, litigation and legislation, current policy is to let the lake fill naturally, so the South Shore tufa towers pictured above are slowly being inundated.  A good reason to visit now, if you’ve never been; in a few short decades, these tufas will be underwater.

Posted by Allison on Jun 28th 2010 | Filed in birds,field trips,natural history,nidification,rox | Comments (0)

Rocks sticking up out of the ground in that way they do

Here are the Famous Fish Rocks, kept fresh with white paint by unknown artists in Trona, California.  I admit to disappointment when I found out they were not meant to represent T-rexes rising out of the earth to once again dominate the landscape, but, even if they’re just fish… really big fish… they’re excellent.  Each one is the size of a van. I will think of them as Dunkleosteus. The Famous Fish are easy to spot just north of CA State Hwy 178 en route to the Trona Pinnacles.

<< Fish Rocks (A.Shock)

The Trona Pinnacles were our destination: ancient underwater spring deposits now high and dry in the Mojave Desert.  They’re very large-scale versions of the tufa towers on the south shore of Mono Lake, further north, only there’s no water in sight. Predictably, the only creatures there other than ourselves were a traveller in a brightly painted hippy bus, a Rock wren, and a Raven.

The towers are up to 40 feet tall. >>

Perhaps you recognize the setting from Planet of the Apes, or Star Trek V: The Final Frontier?

Surely Shiva abides here.

And also here, at the Trona Community Methodist Church, which has seen fit to adorn its front entrance with smaller yet equally vigorous tufa deposits.  (Click to enlarge.)

Speaking of reverence gone awry, below is a bonus pop religious image of Shiva.  I find this version delightfully goofy: ascetic hermit my butt, there’s Tres Flores in those dreads — this is Shiva El Guapo.  It seems to be a portrait of the artist’s well-fed brother in law who wants to be an actor, rather than the standard idealized image of blue-male deity with the dreamy, stoned I mean introspective expression of the Lord of Eternity. His familiar smile and direct gaze are right out of an AFTRA/SAG headshot — instead of the blessing of Om and the Shiva-linga in his palm, this chap should be flashing us a confident thumbs-up, or making that “call me” gesture next to his Nagraj’s ear.

Posted by Allison on Jun 2nd 2010 | Filed in field trips,natural history,oddities,rox,unexpected,unnatural history | Comments (4)

Rock-watching in the wind

A few days ago, we drove far out into sage-covered lava rocks to check out some hot springs on the east side of the Sierra Nevada.  After walking to the top of the hill, walking around the next hill and between two other hills, seeing what birds were around and about, and while E was nearby doing Science in Hot Water, I felt I’d had enough wind — since we were above 7000′ feet, it was a cold wind — so I sheltered in the cab of the truck.

The rock I watched >>

If this seems like a nature-phobic sort of thing to do, let me recommend it: a vehicle makes a wonderful blind, great for observing otherwise human-wary wildlife.  I watched a Wilson’s warbler, a sweet scrap of yellow with a smart black cap, struggle in the gusts from one juniper tree to another right in front of the hood; an Audubon’s warbler, too, was getting buffeted about in the same nearby trees. And, next to the truck was this large Rock (top photo).  I studied it, thinking about making a sketch.

<< Ground squirrel and spiny lizard (far right edge of rock)

It was clear that this rock had been heavily used — most obviously by people, who’d built fires under it, but also by plants who’d sprouted in its cracks, lichens crusting its surfaces, and by animals, who were sunning themselves on it. Although I never made a sketch, I was able to watch and photo a series of species — seven in all, ultimately, although I only could photo five — as they used this rock as viewpoint, shelter, sunning place, food storage or source. (All photos A.Shock; be sure to click on each image to enlarge for better viewing.)

Birds landed on it briefly, including the Wilson’s warbler, and a vivid Western tanager male.

<< male Western tanager on the Rock

Being hydrothermally altered (so I’m assured by E), it was porous and full of useful cracks and refuges.  A small movement caught my eye, and in the darkest crack in the darkest center of the sooty overhang, a Piñon deermouse had packed the crevice with soft needles and moss, and was turning this way and that in its snug, sheltered nest, running tiny paws over its big ears.

<< Piñon deermouse in crevice nest in the Rock

Best yet, I happened to look over at the upper dark hole in the rock just in time to see this little face peering out, checking on how things were in the middle of the day.  It’s a Long-tailed weasel, a native here (unlike in New Zealand), but still an active and industrious predator.  I was alarmed when the ground squirrel above made a short trip into the very hole the weasel had just gone back inside.  But there was no disaster, and the squirrel came right back out again, presumably with all its parts, and with no dramatic nature-show confrontation music to mark the event.

Long-tailed weasel outside its hole in the Rock >>

The seventh species I observed on the Rock was Homo sapiens.  It was one of the two dudes that came by in a battered Isuzu Trooper (like the one I drove for years).  Although I didn’t get a picture of him up on the top of the Rock, we were particularly glad to see this human being: something you won’t often hear me say.  The reason he was a fine sight on this backcountry, rocky road?  That’s another story.  I won’t tell it here, except to say that it involved jumper cables…

Gryphons and pools near the Salton Sea

On the way home from San Diego Audubon Bird Festival, E and I stopped at a location near the Salton Sea where Gryphons are known to snore and slumber.

Gryphons, in this case, are geothermal features: modest but surprising cones built up by mud pots burbling out of the flat salty floor of the agricultural land around the Salton Sea.  This gyphon patch is officially known as the Davis-Schrimpf Seep Field, and is in the midst of a geothermally active area sprinkled with power plants that harvest energy from spots where warm gases rise up through cracks from deep underground, heating the salty water and liquefied clays they percolate through.  The gryphons lie sleepily in a field at the corner of two agricultural roads, some with briny pools of their own, tinted by hardy algae in red and green and orange, and others dry humps rising from the salty, cracked dirt.

For our trip we were lucky: though the ground had been wet recently, it was dry now, and we could approach the drowsy gryphons without sinking too deep. Some growled and burbled from deep inside without disgorging their liquid contents, while others sputtered and bubbled brownish gray mud, sometimes thin like a melted malt, sometimes almost thick as pudding.  Even in the brisk wind that blew, a slightly sulphurous and organic smell could be detected.  E wished to sample the waters, and I was the lackey, scooping up clays and biofilms into Falcon tubes, prepped for biological sampling.  My hi-tech tools were a narrow stainless steel spatula and a lighter with a  WWF wrestler on it, so it was work I could be trained to do.  (Although having made that claim, I should add that the wind made using the cheap lighter difficult, and I actually worked up a blister firing it over and over to flash off the sterilizing ethanol between samples.)

Meanwhile, E handled the serious equipment for testing pH and conductivity of the pools (several times reading “over range”, since the water is a few times saltier than seawater), and a couple of hours passed while we collected data and samples, trying not to let papers and zip-bags blow into the pools in between.  Clumps of visitors, locals and their friends, mostly, but others from farther places like Canada, came and went, asking questions about what caused the mudpots, what we were measuring, and if it was safe to walk around.  Some folks climbed right to the top of active gryphons, unconcerned about their own safety or the condition of the formations.  So far, this area is unprotected, and visitors have been fairly good about being careful.  For now, the only marks people had left were footprints, and a few unwise vehicle tracks.  As long as that’s the case, the gryphons will probably remain unfenced, regally accepting conscientious company into their realm.

Posted by Allison on Mar 11th 2009 | Filed in field trips,natural history,oddities,rox | Comments (2)