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.

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