Sunday, July 17, 2016

Sand, Salt, and Sea

Alkali heath, Frankenia salina.

I figured having been in the area for a while now it was about time I visited the Upper Newport Bay area. This great estuary is widely populated with saltmarshes, salt flats, beaches, and much more. This is a botanical hotspot as well, and given I have no field experience with salt-dwelling flora, there was a lot of incentive. My focus was on the area known as Big Canyon.

Upon arriving I made sure to photograph the tiny, innocuous blooms of alkali heath, a mysterious pink-flowering plant that does not look or feel like heath(er), nor is it even remotely related. No more than a few footsteps into the reserve and I noted the tangling, orange strands of goldenthread, one of the dodder species and a salt marsh specialty. Although dodder species are all quite identical without taking a ruler to them and measuring the size of tiny components, this is the first I have heard of a salt marsh species, and for this reason it had been on my wishlist for some time. Goldenthread is a parasite of fleshy stemmed plants, which in turn are also endemic to salt marshes and flats.

Goldenthread, Cuscuta pacifica, growing on
Parish's glasswort, Arthrocnemum subterminale.
Goldenthread, Cuscuta pacifica, this time on saltwort,
Batis maritima.

Along said salt flats it took little effort to find marsh jaumea, saltwortParish's glasswort, and the turquoise stems of Pacific Salicornia. A bit of squinting at a misty patch of white flowers far out into the bay revealed a great population of salt marsh bird's-beak, a very rare native plant that was also parasitic. Browsing the trailside weeds I found a few interesting insects, notably a giant Scolid wasp Campsomeris tolteca.

Marsh jaumea, Jaumea carnosa.
Saltwort, Batis maritima.
Distant views of salt marsh bird's beak, Chloropyron maritimum ssp. maritimum.
Scolid wasp, Campsomeris tolteca.
At the Big Canyon car park I was taken aback by a Baccharis shrub with strikingly giant leaves, certainly B. salicina. Here it was growing side-by-side with the much smaller B. pilularis, with at least one possible hybrid between them. Nearby I marveled out the vivid lavender blooms of western marsh rosemary, a much more vibrant plant than the related invasive species. A large wader out on the flats was, surprisingly, not a whimbrel, but a long-billed curlew. Later an actual whimbrel showed up beside it, and the differences were very striking.

Western marsh rosemary, Limonium californicum.
Long-billed curlew, Numenius americanus, along with its smaller relative,
whimbrel, Numenius phaeopus.

Across the bay I scoped out Canary Island palm, although I'm uncertain whether they are directly planted or escapees. There was no doubt however about the white waving claws in the hundreds across the salt flats, belonging to a territorial congregation of Mexican fiddler crabs. At a distance the intermittent white flashes of these crabs were oddly comparable to twinkling stars in the midnight sky.

Mexican fiddler crab, Uca crenulata.

From Big Canyon I was quickly greeted with a local but widespread colony of the rare southern tarplant. a spiny relative of the other rare tarweed I covered in the previous blog entry. This section of the trail allowed me to gather a few more saltmarsh specialties, with California cordgrass, what seemed to be both estuary and woolly seablite, the inconspicuous but pleasant blooms of alkali weed, and a sprig of salt marsh fleabane that was so obscured by cattail leaves that it was almost not worth photographing! Common spike-rush grew in a nearby ditch, a species I had probably overlooked in Europe many times.

Southern tarplant, Centromadia parryi ssp. australis.
Alkali weed, Cressa truxillensis.

At the turning point I photographed the aptly named spiny rush, a plant that was probably the closest terrestrial equivalent to a sea urchin. Nearby I found the highly invasive Sprenger's asparagus fern, although thanks to the pleasing white flowers, with anthers delicately dipped in marmalade, it was difficult to be upset about its trespass.

Spiny rush, Juncus acutus.
Sprenger's asparagus, Asparagus aethiopicus.

Before finishing up the expedition I scouted out some vividly metallic green bees feeding on nearby saltbush. The first tergite of the abdomen on these stunning native bees was brown at the base, leading to Agapostemon melliventris.

A native bee. Agapostemon melliventris.

For only 2 hours of my time the final total of 24 life ticks was certainly nothing to frown at. This was the bottom slope of a pinnacle of salt marsh exploration in California. I eagerly await future visits, and perhaps next time I will find some of the marsh-associated ladybeetles...I can only hope.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

An Easy Tar-get

My focus today was a rare Asteraceae by the common name of San Diego tarweed, which fellow iNatter Jesse had located a few days prior. This is one of a handful tarweed species in California, but stands out by inheriting an usual series of traits from its time-lost ancestors. The plant itself was endemic to the state, occurring only in certain coastal areas of Orange county and nearby. So with that on my mind, I arrived at a spot at the Laguna Coast Wilderness Park, a sizable region of natural habitat in southwestern OC.

At a glance it was clear this site had its fair share of cactus and sage scrub. My nemesis cicada Cacama crepitans alone could have told me this, as it interspersed the scorching SoCal heat with its wild, rattling drones.

Needless to say the San Diego tarweed may have been the easiest search mission ever, with several conspicuous examples of this stunningly canary yellow wildflower immediately on the trailside, no more than seconds from the parking area. This species is unusual in that it is very tall, almost at Conyza proportions, while inhabiting the least native of native habitats. What that means is this plant is busy surviving on areas where the native ground has been disturbed by weeds and human traffic. This is not the first time I have encountered a native plant that may in fact benefit from accidental human intervention. But in the end, will it be enough to keep this rare species alive?

While most tarweeds have 5 ray florets, the San Diego tarweed stands out with its 8 floret array. For those not familiar with botanical terms, ray florets are what look like petals in the images below. That is in contrast to the cluster of miniature flowers ("florets") bundled in the center. Yes, that one "flower" is actually a complex of several!

San Diego tarweed, Deinandra paniculata.
After marveling at this little beauty I made my efforts to find those pesky cicadas. Luckily there was no fence for them to hide behind this time, but that didn't stop them crashing out of the undergrowth and bursting out of sight while I was still several feet away. On the bright side these fleeting views were the first views I had ever had of this difficult cicada. Fortunately though a few kept still after some persistence, and I was finally able to properly appreciate this interesting species.

Cacama crepitans, unmasked.

This cicada is in a genus often referred to as cactus dodgers. While that is a great name, it is well justified. Not only have these cicadas always been in the close vicinity of Opuntia cactus, but in flight they are adept at swerving back and forth through vegetation at high speeds. Certainly this behaviour has captured someone's imagination in the past, as it has mine today. If I had to say anything, they were a little smaller than I expected!

Already truly impressed by the results of a mere 10 minutes of effort, I continued on a little further. A little on the trail I stumbled onto one of the less common local plants, woollypod milkweed. I made sure to document this plant and its coordinates for the record purposes. While doing so I could not help but notice a large red beetle, with antennae so strongly curving that they could have been hung as ornaments on a Christmas tree. This made me very happy as this was my first ever encounter with the unusual "milkweed beetle" series! Such a beetle was one of the western species, Tetraopes basalis. Although it was quick to edge away and threaten take-off, making for one of the most stressful times in my life so far, it was actually quite confiding. It did however completely fly off at one point, but it was quick to turn around and settle back on the same plant! When you feed on what is one of the least common plants, often popping up singly over several miles, I guess you can't be too picky as to what area you call home!

From this point on it remained entirely still. Unlike the great majority of nature encounters, I was the first to depart the scene!

Tetraopes basalis.
The next point of interest was on the return hike, where upon brushing some coyote brush I found a very ornate Issid (or ex-Issid, according to some taxonomy), Dictyssa obliqua. This insect was difficult to photograph because it was tall in body form, which created quite a few depth of field problems. This basically means that it was hard to capture the entire insect in full focus, without the image either becoming too dark, or losing a devastating level of shutter speed, due to photographic reasons. Well, the wings and head were the most important parts anyway! I know I regularly ramble about nature having an amazing art style, but really, it was such an ornate creature.

Dictyssa obliqua.

On the same bush I also had a chance to check out a sharpshooter, which recalled the brightly patterned Cuerna species I used to encounter in Canada. As it happens it is a Cuerna, and one of two dull western taxon. In this case I am calling it Cuerna occidentalis, based on an hour of comparing references. It has a look-alike, C. unica, which according to official publication can only be separated by male genitalia. However C. unica seems to be consistently red, reddish-brown, or black, while occidentalis is consistently brown. The more diffused markings seem to work for it, too! Not the most scientific way of calling an ID, but what choice do I have...

Cuerna cf occidentalis.

The day finished up with chaparral prickly-pear. Most populations of this species are plagued by hybridization, and although it is common it is only now that I have found a plant that I am satisfied with calling a lifer. The rounded pads, golden spines, and flower characteristics are textbook matches for species, and it was relatively tall-growing, so it works out nicely.

This outing was tidied up by a brief rodent sighting. My first impression was an introduced brown rat, but there are several points that don't work for it, and the habitat supports an interesting native species. I was close to getting a perfect photo of the front of the head in focus, but for some reason that was the only photo in the line up that was not only blurry, but so fuzzed up that it was entirely unrecognizable. Typical.

Anyone recognize this? It seems close to large-eared woodrat, but that shouldn't have such a small tail either.