October 3, 2004
Saturday morning I hiked down to the old goldmine in the canyon and was surprised to find a good bit of bear poop -- Black Bear, URSUS AMERICANUS. Some of the hard, crumbly turds, the same diameter they came out of the bear, measured a full two inches across (5 cm) and they consisted of almost nothing but the remains of Manzanita fruits. There just isn't another species in the area that can produce such large, fruity poop!
This poop was orangish red, since that's the color of Manzanita fruits. In Spanish the word "manzanita" means "little apple," and that's what the pea-sized fruits look like, though inside they are very dry and seedy. Here Manzanita bushes are super-abundant. They belong to the Heath, or Azalea, Family, and currently bear a very heavy fruit crop. You can see a Manzanita bush at www.tropic.ca/A%20-%20B/Arctostaphylos%20Manzanita.htm
Many Manzanita fruits had passed through the bear's gut whole. Fruit stems were also visible, so I could just picture bears on our recent full-moon nights pawing clusters of Manzanita fruits into their maws and chomping down on leaves, stems and fruits, making a few half-hearted and sloppy chews, swallowing, and then moving on.
There's an interesting Web page about Black Bears in California at www.bear-tracker.com/bear.html with several pictures and personal anecdotes. A locally based website treating Black Bears as a problem is at www.co.el-dorado.ca.us/ag/wildlife/bears.html That site says that Black Bears are "generally protected," which appears to mean that you can't shoot them unless you feel threatened.
I just can't wait to learn more about these critters, firsthand.
One of the most common as well as one of the prettiest birds here is the California Quail, LOPHORTYX CALIFORNICUS, California's state bird. You can see a picture of one at www.plh-photos.com/Quail.htm. In that picture you'll see that the species' most striking feature is the jaunty topknots atop the heads of both sexes -- black, upside-down-teardrop-shaped plumes worn as an Indian brave might wear a single forward-drooping feather stuck in his headband. The male also has a striking black face and his throat is sharply outlined by a white border. You can hardly imagine a neater-looking bird, a plump-looking little chicken-like species with every feather in place. He reminds me of a portly but very elegant Musketeer.
The East's Bobwhites are closely related, and the two species behave very similarly -- running on the ground in small flocks, habitually pecking at weed and grass seeds, small fruits, leaf material and insects, and only hesitatingly taking to the air when they have to. And when they do take flight, it's explosive.
Around the house, especially around ten in the morning and just before dusk, often I hear a series of soft, sharp clucks and slurred notes. Looking around, it's easy to spot a flock of up to 30 scratching and pecking in the grass next to the garden, or running from one open area to another. When I approach them they run with remarkable speed, and only if I'm really aggressive do they take wing.
Folks around here say that there's a "mountain quail" and a "valley quail." The California Quail is the "valley quail." The Mountain Quail is a bit rarer and I've not seen it yet.
CLOUDS OF BUSHTITS
If Acorn Woodpeckers are attention-getting here because of their abundance and bright patterning, and California Quail because of their charming neatness, then the Bushtits, PSALTRIPARUS MELANOTIS, are conspicuous because they move about in spectacular, peeping flocks. The first time I saw a flock drifting from one Madrone tree to another I thought I was seeing a wave of dried leaves carried on a breeze.
If you take a mousy-gray, backyard titmouse, make it a bit smaller, remove its crest and dramatically increase the length of its tail, you have a Bushtit. Bushtits even behave like titmice, habitually probing for tiny insects and mites with their petite, black beaks into every fissure, around ever loose scale and beneath every leaf a tree or bush might have. As their flocks of ten to thirty or more birds move among the trees, some of them emit sharp calls that any birder would identify as "tit-like." You can see Bushtits and read more about their nesting and behavior at birds.cornell.edu/BOW/BUSHTI/.
My old fieldguides assign Bushtits to the same bird family as titmice and chickadees. However, recent studies show that Bushtits are not as closely related to titmice and chickadees as they seem. Now Bushtits are placed in the Long-tailed Tit Family, the Aegithalidae, formed mostly of Eurasian species.
If earlier ornithologists had paid more attention to behavior than to outward appearances, they might have guessed that Bushtits were not just crestless titmice. Titmice nest in abandoned woodpecker holes, natural cavities and nest boxes, but Bushtits are known for constructing complex, pendant, gourd-shaped bag-nests of grass, leaves and twigs bound with spider web. Other members of the Aegithalidae likewise build woven bag nests in trees.
You can't keep from liking Bushtits. They are so small, full of energy and curiosity that your spirit just has to rise when you watch them, the same as if you were watching kids or pups thoroughly enjoying themselves.
SASSY STELLER'S JAYS
The black-headed, black-chested, black-backed Steller's Jays here strike me as maybe even a bit more aggressive and outlandish than the East's Blue Jays. You can see one at www.montereybay.com/creagrus/CAlistSTJA.html.
When I'm sitting on a log, one may land on the ground ten feet away, call a few times with his hoarse "wahhh," snap up an acorn and fly away.
There's a small boat here filled with water. Jays and other species enter the boat to drink and bathe. If the boat becomes too crowded, the jay suddenly screams its alarm call, flashes its wings and, while the other birds frantically escape into the trees, the jay simply hops onto the boat's side, looks around nonchalantly, and quickly hops back into the boat and continues his ablutions alone.
In a similar vein, it does a fantastic job imitating the call of a soaring hawk. Of course this call unnerves other perching birds nearly as much as the jay's alarm calls, yet it's nothing to see a Steller's Jay calmly sailing from tree to tree issuing its blood- curdling hawk call.
Maybe the sassiest behavior, however, is the species' tendency to land right above me and knock acorns all around me. One even pooped on my shoulder.
Well, with the Creator's obsession for diversity, it's clear that "sassiness" can be considered an option.
A "MOUNTAIN MISERY" GREETING
On my first ride up to this location the species that most caught my attention wasn't the big Ponderosa Pines or the flashy Acorn Woodpeckers, but rather a woody- stemmed, two-foot-high, much branched, ferny-leafed little shrub which later my friends told me was "Mountain Misery." Its name comes from the fact that in many places it forms coverings so pure and dense that you can't see the ground beneath it, and the plant is so sticky with resin-producing glands that when you walk through it, its tar sticks to your legs, and the wiry stems can tangle together and make you fall.
Books also call it Kit-kit-dizze and Bear Clover. It's CHAMAEBATIA FOLIOLOSA of the Rose Family. The name Kit- kit-dizze was given by Yosemite's Miwok Indians, who made tea and medicine from it. You can see what the plant looks like (ours are flowerless now) at www.miracosta.cc.ca.us/home/kcunningham/images/2kitkit.jpg.
The plant's misery-causing features weren't what got my attention. What did was the way the plant smelled. On the sunny, hot afternoon of my arrival, the foothill air was powerfully odoriferous with the pungency of essential oils evaporating from the plants' copiously produced resin. The fragrance transported me back a few years to that part of my life when sometimes I spent weeks on the Mediterranean island of Corsica, wandering the coast's sparse, brittle, scratchy maquis vegetation. And that maquis -- the whole windy, arid coast of Corsica in fact -- smelled overpoweringly of wild lavender, rosemary and thyme. To make it worse, in that heady, French-speaking world I was in love! And what carries the memory of a shattered romance more than once-shared odors?
Anyway, the other day, the pungent odor of "Mountain Misery" sunnily mingled with the scent of pine, sage and a smattering of other fragrant plants also oozing essential oils... stabbed me in my old, dried-out heart. And that plant is just all over the place here, every day singing its song of sunny Corsica.
A MEDITERRANEAN CLIMATE
It's more than a coincidence that the vegetation's odor around here reminds me of Corsica. In the field of plant geography, the "Mediterranean Biome" is divided into five vegetation biome subtypes, and "Californian" is one of those five. A biome is "a major regional group of distinctive plants and animals, discernible at a global scale." North America's Eastern Deciduous Forest is often spoken of as a biome.
The Californian Mediterranean Biome Subtype is called chapparal in California. Chapparal consists of densely growing together, drought-resistant herbs, shrubs and small trees. Since we have tall Ponderosa Pines and California Black Oaks around us here, the vegetation here can't be called chapparal. Though there's a strong chapparal element in the vegetation here, real chapparal is found lower down where there's less rainfall. I think of the airy forest here as constituting a transition zone between the chapparal below and the taller, more luxuriant forest above.
One feature of the Mediterranean Biome and its five subtypes is that the vegetation is typically aromatic because the plants produce many fragrant oils. Often "fragrant" mean "smells like strong medicine." These oils, however they smell, typically taste bitter, and that keeps grazing animals from eating the plants. Such oil-producing plants also burn like crazy, so Mediterranean vegetation is especially vulnerable to wildfire.
You can read more about the Mediterranean Biome at www.botany.wisc.edu/courses/botany_422/Lecture/Lect10Mediterr.html.
The California Native Plant Society has a "Kid's Page" called "Chapparal and Fire" at www.cnps.org/kidstuff/chaparral.htm.
My friends' orchard has a couple of trees not typically found in Eastern orchards -- namely almond trees and a Pomegranate. There's also a Japanese Persimmon with enormous fruits, but these are catching on in the East, too.
At the garden's edge there's a commonplace-looking little herb looking like a weedy cousin to the chrysanthemum. It's known by the name of Stevia, and its scientific name is STEVIA REBAUDIANA. For centuries the plant has been used by Paraguay's Guarani Indians as a sweetener and a medicine. It's supposed to be "300 times sweeter than sugar," despite its being non- caloric and thus diabetic friendly.
And it's true: My friend told me to pick off a leaf and chew it, and it was just like biting into a bland weed leaf heavily powdered with Sweet'N Low!
You can read all about Stevia -- it's history, how to cook with it, where to buy plants, how to grow it -- at www.stevia.net/. The "Practical Hippy Site" page on Stevia at www.practicalhippie.com/stevia.htm considers the controversy over the FDA referring to Stevia as a "dangerous food additive" (think "industrial-sweetener lobby")...
A BIRDING WALK
While hiking down to the old goldmine Saturday morning I listed the birds I ran into. Here they are, in the order in which I saw them:
1 Acorn Woodpecker -- small flock in the pines
2 Bewick's Wren -- singing prettily in a brush pile
3 Bushtits -- flock in a thicket of Ceanothus
4 Anna's Hummingbird -- perched atop thicket singing
5 Spotted Towhee -- in thicket
6 Red-breasted Nuthatch -- on pine trunk, nasal call
7 Canyon Wren -- rockslide on steep canyon slope
8 Ruby-crowned Kinglet -- inside tree
9 Steller's Jay -- around house
10 Western Scrub Jay -- around house
11 White-breasted Nuthatch -- around house
12 Plain Titmouse - taking boat water
You can see that some of the birds here, such as the nuthatches and the kinglet, also occur in the East. Most are not found east of the Rockies, however.
Anna's Hummingbird is the common window-feeder hummer here. It's very similar to the East's Ruby-throat, except that its iridescent red color spreads onto its forehead, it is larger, and here it is a permanent resident. You can see a fine feeder picture of one at www.acoustics.washington.edu/~gauthier/Photography/Seattle/03_Annas/DSCF0006.JPG.
Somehow I've gotten into the habit of ending these newsletters with a bit of philosophy. Well, when I'm in new territory enjoying myself so much as a naturalist, it seems I forget to think about more than what's at hand.
But, maybe sometimes that's a philosophical statement in itself... !