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.

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