Wednesday, June 15, 2016

What's the Point?

Almost decent shot of a Cal gnatcatcher.

I was faced with a tough decision today. I could pick any location within 30 minutes drive, and spend up to 1 hour at that spot. But where...

I decided to focus on following up tuba crab sightings, specifically around Dana Point's harbour. These crabs were reported previously by a great naturalist that I've had the fortune to meet face-to-face at previous events, Kim Moore. Tuna crabs are an interesting ocean-going crustacean that are so specialized they are part of their own lonely family. They are normally quite rare in California, but thanks to unusual water conditions, likely from El Nino, this has become an invasion year for the species. Once the outbreak has subsided it would be nearly impossible to find until a future invasion, which could be decades away. Yes, of course I wanted to see them! As much as all crustaceans have a fascinating life history, this particular species was certainly one of the most unique.

The first new find of this day was an odd one. I was walking on the western side of the trail when I noticed a pile of sand...moving? I waited it out and soon enough a brown figure emerged from the debris. At first I was completely perplexed. A rodent? A reptile? But the scrambling creature was not furry or scaly, rather a bit more...beetley. The larvae of these may beetles live underground where they feed on roots, so it is possible that this individual had only just emerged from the pupa. I rubbed the dust and debris off of him for photos, before realizing that it wasn't dust and debris like it usually is, but delicate hairs intended to be part of the beetle! Ouch...I'm so sorry. Now I have to present to you the least dusty dusty june beetle in the world...

Dusty june beetle, Amblonoxia palpalis.

It then occurred to me, having crossed the entire reserve, that there was...well, barely anything showing. Dana Point was deserted. And I don't mean because the ground was entirely sandy. There was not a lot just...around. Even the clean white buckwheat shrubs, in full bloom, seemed to be attracting nothing but honey bees. The diversity would probably be high in spring, but spring it was not. I can only wonder what hidden, dormant life was surrounding me in this coastal wonderland. .I'll have to try this place again later in the year.

Further adding to the bleakness, the next mile dropped the immersion of the open sandy wilderness, directing me onto a plain concrete road with no roadside plants or verge. No interesting plants, insects, or birds. Luckily fate took pity on me though as on the final stretch of the path I was blessed with some sort of sulphur butterfly.

Some sort of sulphur butterfly.

I almost overlooked as the common urban cloudless sulphur, but there was obviously something different. It wasn't quite the fluorescent yellow of the common species. Instead it was a very specific shade of warm amber. So what was it? Well there was another option, an even rarer species by the simple but descriptive name of large orange sulphur. But this tropical butterfly is very rare in California, certainly as far north as this. Once this butterfly landed, and thank the gods it did, there was no doubt. I was truly looking upon a large orange sulphur. Incredible!

After being completely spoiled by photo opportunities, I then faced another puzzle. While focusing on this "sulphur", I had noticed the flicker of another, identical butterfly. It was the same elusive orange, mirrored from across the urban vista. It was soon clear there was not one, but two of these elegant butterflies.

Large orange sulphur, Phoebis agarithe. It is large. And orange.

The chances of seeing a rare butterfly in a place where it does not usually occur, is minimal, especially in a habitat that is not expected for migrants. Seeing two? There was something unusual going on. Back at the computer, AKA my secret second life, I did some research, which soon untangled the confusion sooner than it took the garden to untangle the unruly passionflower vines. Late last year this species was observed colonizing southern California, exploiting the tropical gardens for substitute foodplants which do not occur here naturally. Although still rare, this species is no longer a random rare occurrence, but one that is stable and increasing in number. Isn't that fascinating? Although I still dismiss the garden environment, experiences like this keep reminding me that not all is lost in the urban sprawl.

Waving away the orange flame, I scoured the east side of the nature trail, en route to the nature center. Along the way I picked up what is, I hate to admit, something I was hoping to see, the dainty yellow globes of western coastal wattle. I certainly have no intention of advocating the protection of these invasive shrubs, but weeds are just part of the experience. So I will photograph it nonetheless.

Western coastal wattle, Acacia cyclops.
Along this gentle sandy hike I scoured between the cacti for any unusual phenotypes. Unfortunately the vivid crimson flowers of Opuntia x vaseyi were not in show, and I was not about to try and identify this particular plant without the flowers so, a sight for another day, I suppose. While on my knees looking at cactus, I came across a new bee fly, Thyridanthrax nugator, which humbly alighted on the gravel beside the path with the most gentle of footwork.

Thyridanthrax nugator.
A little along the path's corner, where Cacama crepitans cackled at me from a distance as usual, I was able to get a decent shot of another confiding Cal. gnatcatcher. Not in focus as always...but decent. Seeing this bird so well today reminded me that only a few months ago I was scrambling hillsides trying to get no more than a shadowy glimpse of this amazing little bird. I never thought that I'd see the bird again, let alone almost every day of the week.

A decent shot of a California gnatcatcher.
When I was almost upon the nature center I bumped into some young plants of the horrifyingly noxious cape smilax. Such an innocent and unassuming looking plant. But if left alone it will soon choke out every patch of ground, shrub, and tree. It is a serious concern in many regions across the world.

An innocent and unassuming looking plant.
With the nature center hike complete I made my way down to the harbour. Immediately I spotted the scarlet bobbing of a tuna crab at the surface. This unusual crustacean was in a place that indicates doom for most of its relatives, but true to popular belief it was greatly adept at swimming. When it was not hiding in the rocks like most crabs it was floating at the surface, and perfectly happy to be doing so. As I walked on the species doubled in quantity every step of the way, eventually amassing into a congregation of what must have been hundreds, all sheltering in the shade of a water-gazing harbour building.

Tuna crab, Pleuroncodes planipes.

Watching the crabs had other perks too, with highlights including several rudderfish, garibaldi, and something which my dad has the real credit for finding, Haller's round ray! A fantastic trip, and, even with an apparently bleak start, I can't ignore how extraordinary this day has been. Now, what next...

Haller's round ray, Urobatis halleri.

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