A Bear You Can Hold in Your Hand

The Isabella Tiger Moth Caterpillar – AKA Woolly Bear

Covered in fuzzy bristles, some are more black or more orange, but all have both colors. The one I found today was a beautifully dressed banded woolly bear, with black at each end and orange in the middle. Better known than its adult form – the Isabella tiger moth, the woolly bear elicits more pleasant reactions from people of all ages than most other caterpillars. They are cute and harmless, and don’t seem to mind being picked up.

There are similar caterpillars that are solid black or brown or other colors, and they can be called woolly bears, but they are different species. Only the larva of Pyrrharctia Isabella, the Isabella tiger moth, is the familiar black and orange banded woolly bear. Their bodies have 13 segments covered in stiff hairs.

First named in 1797, it’s not clear who this moth was named for. I know there was Queen Isabella of Spain. But these moths are found only in North and Central America.

The folklore of the woolly bear is said to stretch back to the American colonial days. The lore suggests that the width of the color bands relate to the upcoming winter. The thought is, if the orange band is shorter than the black, its means a snowy winter.

How could this be? People have tried to prove this notion, to no solid evidence. Researchers have crunched the weather data over periods of time and compared it to the markings of the caterpillars, finding no scientific evidence to support the folk tales.

We typically see the caterpillars in fall simply because that’s when the eggs hatch, though some do hatch in summer. They spend the summer munching on a wide variety of plants, getting ready for winter hibernation. When fall comes, they find a sheltered place, under a stone or log, or even underground. They have a kind of antifreeze that helps them survive very cold temperatures.

Cocoon (not my photo)

As soon as it warms up the next year, they emerge and begin to feed. Soon after, they make their cocoon, and within two weeks, the adult moth emerges, to begin the cycle again.

Like other moths, the Isabella tiger moths don’t live very long. They live simply to mate and lay eggs.

Isabella tiger moth (not my photo)

The moths don’t eat. I have never seen one, but they are attractive, with yellow-orange body and wings, and little black spots. The wingspan is about two inches wide.

If you see one, you’ll know winter is coming. The question is, what kind of winter?

One Million Tulips Can’t Be Wrong

I must have flowers, always, and always.
― Claude Monet

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What is the value of a flower? Can you quantify the visual and psychological impact of a field of neon blossoms? Do you base it on the number of wows, or Holy cows, or assorted verbalizations, or the number of persons standing seemingly dazed and dumbfounded in the presence of such manmade, yet breathtaking beauty?

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Suddenly, each spring like clockwork, thousands of men, women and children who, normally, don’t pay much attention to plants, flock like zombies called to the task, to behold fields of red, yellow, purple, pink and orange flowers, all arranged like soldiers in orderly rows.

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In this particular case, the astonishing sight of more than one million tulips peaking in precisely planted rows is what draws visitors with magical magnetism.

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A garden to walk in and immensity to dream in–what more could he ask? A few flowers at his feet and above him the stars.
― Victor Hugo, Les Misérables

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This year, the tulips did not disappoint. Right on schedule with the Skagit Tulip Festival, the flowers beamed their enchanting vibes to the crowds. Daffodils led the pack, with colors ranging from deep yellow to white with orange centers.

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Beyond the daffodils, the stars of the show, Tulipa, obediently performed, knit together with the other colors into a vivid but orderly counterpane.

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Renegade

 

Here and there, couples and families and friends posed for photos among the blooms. Children  delighted in the hues. To walk fields saturated with color, under a sunny sky, was like being in a painting.

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Even though the incredible floral display was not planted merely for our pleasure, but for a bulb-growing business, the impact was not lessened. We walked away happy, content to witness the renewal, the continuance of the seasons, the affirmation of life. Perhaps that is the value of a flower.

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Flowers always make people better, happier, and more helpful; they are sunshine, food and medicine to the mind.
― Luther Burbank

Salt Creek, a Desert Oasis

Salt Creek in Death Valley National Park is one place that has water, and that’s usually only seasonally. I have never been there in summer, so I can’t say how dry it is then, but I imagine it’s pretty much dried up. Surprisingly, it serves as habitat for the critically endangered Salt Creek pupfish, which are about an inch long.

The narrow creek with its muddy banks is only part of the overall marsh area. The upper area holds small pools that remain year round, and where the fish can survive the summers.

On my fifth journey to the park earlier this year, I revisited Salt Creek, with the intention of spending more time, walking well beyond the boardwalk that parallels the creek.

The boardwalk, which is almost a mile long round trip, ends where the creek peters off and the land becomes more open and vegetated, and the path is sandy.

In late afternoon light, the sun highlighted the creek and magnified the textures and shapes in the mud.

With the sun getting lower and most visitors back in the distance, I drank in the gift of Death Valley, pure silence. I looked and listened for birds, but found none.

Nonetheless, the landscape was enough. I loved the way the low sun hit the water, and a variety of textures and shapes revealed themselves.

I knew some of my images would look best in black and white.

Fossilicious

What happens when art and science collide? It’s not always a trainwreck.  In some cases it’s more like a delicious union, especially when artist Ray Troll and his buddy paleontologist Kirk Johnson get together. Johnson is the head of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, while Troll is a noted artist, fossil fan and conservationist who lives, fishes, and makes art and music in Alaska.

Detail of one of Troll’s illustrations, showing Washington state’s fossil map

I had heard Johnson speak at the University of Washington and seen him on some PBS programs and had become a fan. Last year I became a fan of Troll as well, when I attended a benefit for a conservation organization where he was a speaker. It was then that I first saw his artwork and learned of his enthusiasm for fish, fossils and the earth.

One of the museum’s impressive displays, combining a fossil with its illustration and a projected image

The pair have known each other for more than 20 years, traveling far and wide hunting for fossils. They previously collaborated on a book, Cruisin’ the Fossil Freeway, focusing on the west.

The latest is the sequel, Cruisin’ the Fossil Coastline, chronicling their adventures from coastal California to Alaska in search of mind-blowing fossils.

Gems of artwork and fossils representing their 10-year coastline journey are now on view at the University of Washington’s Burke Museum.

The exhibit of the same name features Troll’s magnificent artwork, Johnson’s expertise and some actual fossils. Troll’s knack for showing creatures both realistically and with a healthy dose of cartoon-like humor is on full view.

The artist and the scientist have come together to create a journey through time that will appeal to all ages.

The Burke recently reopened, with strict protocols. I visited the day after it opened and expected to find a fair number of other visitors as well. What I found was an almost empty museum! I had the exhibit just about to myself and was able to spend all the time I wanted, savoring the artwork, watching videos and ogling fossils.

What I really wanted to do here was share some images from the exhibit and maybe inspire others to check out Troll’s [Trollart.com] and Johnson’s work.

Desmostylians – New to me, these ancient marine mammals are thought to share lineage with horses and rhinos.

This exhibit is on view until May. Troll’s art is enough to lure you in, and the multi-sensory experience will leave you wanting more. The arrangement of paintings, fossils, videos and projections is very impressive. I have to applaud the museum for creating an educational and truly fun experience.

I know I will continue to learn about the captivating creatures I saw. (Here I will put in a plug for Troll’s alt website, Paleonerds.com, which I just visited, and believe you me, it will keep me occupied for millennia of lifetimes.)

The Burke isn’t a large museum, but it’s a treasure, and the research staff does amazing work. Apart from special exhibitions during the year, the Burke is known for its collection of regional Native American items and natural history specimens.

A most lifelike exhibit!

The Nest Box

Nesting season is over. I went out to clean out my chickadee box. I had seen Bewick’s wrens in the spring, bringing nest material to it. I got so excited, I figured wrens had beaten chickadees to prime real estate. I watched and watched. But after a while did not see any wren activity at the box. I assumed they had abandoned it.

I also watched for chickadees, but never saw any going in or out.

But opening the box just now, I got such a surprise! A beautiful little nest. There must have been a clutch! But whose?

Here’s the nest. You can see moss, twigs, feathers and other materials.

My first peek
Next
Note the blue feather! Must be a Stellers Jay
Out of the box
For size

August Full “Sturgeon” Moon

This month’s full moon has been given many names by native peoples. Among them are sturgeon, salmon, blackberry, and “flying up.” The latter referring to the time of year when young birds fledge.

I agree with Blackberry Moon. It’s ripening and picking time here! At various places in town, you can see people here and there with buckets and bags, cars parked alongside the road. But the invasive shrubs might make up for their brash ways somewhat by giving us bounties of berries to perk up summer meals and snacks.

I suppose if you are an angler, you might find sturgeon and salmon at this time also.

I went out to greet the Blackberry Moon on its fullest night and found an enchanting sight between the trees.

Columbines: Enchanting and Toxic!

What caught my eye against the red-rust bricks was the softness of the purple-blue and white petals, like bits of angel wings.

The shapes made me think of cranes and swans and butterfly wings; even dragons. They had a most delicate appearance, ethereal.

As it sometimes happens, an object in death can be as beautiful as it was when alive, just different.

The spent columbine petals lay assembled in various random poses, but could not have been more artistic if they had been purposely placed. I ran for my camera.

These magical columbines came with the house I bought 13 years ago. For years, there were very few, just about hidden beneath some shrubs. It took me a few years to discover them, coming to recognize their distinctive rounded lobed leaves. I quickly came to cherish the secretive blooms.

By this year they have spread and I had more little purple flowers than ever. Some gardeners almost regard them as pests. I wholeheartedly invite them to spread across the entire yard.

Widespread Wildflowers

Wild columbines are native to Europe, Asia and Northern Africa, but they have been widely cultivated as garden flowers in the United States. The five-petaled flowers come in many colors, from purple and blue, to pink and orange.

Aquilegia, their Latin name, pays tribute to the flower shapes, with spurs jutting out from the rear.

These spurs hold nectar and were thought to resemble eagle claws or beaks. Aquila is Latin for “eagle.”

Traditional uses

Columbines are said to symbolize wisdom, strength and happiness. It has served as a religious symbol of purity and has appeared in paintings with the Virgin Mary. It was also considered sacred to the goddess Venus.

Like many wildflowers, columbines have been used medicinally since the Middle Ages. All parts have been used, including the roots, flowers, leaves and seeds. The medicinal uses were many. It has served as a remedy for fevers, rhinitis, swollen lymph nodes, bloody coughs, jaundice and gall bladder ailments. The plant contains several alkaloids, triterpenoid saponins, flavonoids, and small amounts of cyanogenic glycosides.

Though columbines are considered toxic, the flowers have some astringent and antiseptic properties. The root has been used as a topical treatment for eczema. It is not recommended to consume any parts of the plant, as it contains cardiogenic toxins which can cause gastroenteritis and heart palpitations. Ingestion of large amounts of the fresh herb can cause convulsions, breathing problems and heart weakness.

Best to enjoy these storied flowers from a distance!

Just for fun, take your own Rorschach test: see what the petal shapes remind you of.

Before death

Bunny Visit

On a recent morning, as I was lifting the window blinds, I saw a tiny bunny munching on grass in my front yard. What a sweet surprise! It looked very small and seemed completely at ease.

I do occasionally see them around, cottontail rabbits, but not often in my yard. Once in a while one shows up on my camera trap that is set up in the back.

Cottontails are common throughout North, Central and South America. If you want to get uber scientific, there are many subgenera, such as Eastern cottontail, desert cottontail, mountain cottontail and swamp rabbit. Most have the little white fluff that gives them their name.

Females can have up to three litters a year, with an average of four young. they grow quickly and are considered full grown at three months! They live in burrows and are quite sociable with others in their group.

The life of these cuddly creatures is short though, averaging two years. They are appealing to many predators, including birds of prey, foxes, coyotes, cougars, dogs, cats, snakes and even squirrels!

I was able to get some good photos of my visitor before she or he left.

Squirrel streak

Eerie Anniversary: Mount St. Helens

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Now that I am living in earthquake territory, the fact that today marks the 40th anniversary of Mount. St. Helens’ most recent eruption is a stark reminder of the earth’s power, and the power to shake us out of our daily complacency at any second.

I can’t let this anniversary pass without a decent amount of acknowledgment, respect and awe.

Before the eruption, Mount St. Helens was to be a popular recreation spot. Lots of trees, trails, a magnificent mountain, boating on Spirit Lake.

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1953 Postcard

The lake was beloved by picnickers and families. I recall a woman remarking sadly after the eruption, “Spirit Lake was gone.” I found a charming vintage postcard, furnished by the Washington State Progress Commission, showing a uniformed serviceman and his family enjoying a picnic amidst the Pacific Northwest scenery. The back of the card reads “Write the commission … for Victory File for use in planning your first after-war vacation.”  mt st helens2

I vaguely recall my visit to the national park back in 2007. On my way there, I saw a lot of destruction. Felled trees, layers of ash in the Toutle  River.

Here are some photos from that visit.

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Toutle River

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the park, I looked out over the scene and the topped cone. It still lives. Scientists keep a regular eye on its activity.  lahar area

But flowers and plants have returned, and hikers visit every year. I need to return to see how it’s evolved since I visited.

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For now, I am thankful that the eruption didn’t reach Seattle. But we live along the Ring of Fire and that’s little comfort.

ghosts

Three Birds, Two Continents, One Burning Question

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finch standing

 

 

“Each species is a masterpiece, a creation assembled with extreme care and genius.” — E.O. Wilson

As we mark the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, I wanted to present something intriguing. The one thing that leapt out at me was something that’s been nagging me lately and I’ve been meaning to look into it.

So, here it is. I’ll drag you along as I explore these incredibly colorful birds. These species have survived despite the onslaught of humans. They are similar yet different, if that makes any sense. You’ll see what I mean.

My question is, Why? Why has nature given these birds such similarly distinctive patterns?

Thousands of their ancestors suffered being trapped and moved thousands of miles, to live out their lives in cages. Today, some wild birds still face being sold for pets, but there is hope that wild populations can continue to exist.

Painted Bunting

These are perhaps the closest thing we have to parrots in the U.S. (though there are some introduced, non-native parrots.)

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Males are spectacular with a blue head, red on the breast and back, and bright yellow-green around the shoulders and upper back. Females are green-yellow.

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Female and Male Bunting

 

 

 

Native to North America, they breed in the southeastern and south-central U.S. and winter in Mexico and Central America. They favor scrubby and coastal habitat. With their thick bills, it’s easy to see that they’re seed eaters.

Painted buntings have always been prized for their beautiful feathers and they’ve long been captured to be sold as caged birds. In the mid-1800s, John James Audubon reported that thousands were being caught and shipped to Europe.

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Today, birds are still illegally caught and sold in Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean. I cannot imagine these wild birds living very long in a cage.

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Their overall population is said to be stable, though like most birds, they suffer from habitat loss. The eastern population favors swampy thickets and woodland edges that often are destroyed by human development.

Gouldian Finch

Also known as the Lady Gouldian finch or rainbow finch, these are native to the grasslands of Australia. Male plumage can vary in the color pattern. In the wild, males usually have black faces, but can have yellow or red variations.

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Captive birds for the pet trade are selectively bred for red faces. The males feature turquoise around the face, green on the back, purple on the chest and yellow on the belly. Females have a similar color pattern, though not as bright.

About the time that painted buntings began to be trapped and exported from America to Europe for pets, Gouldian finches also were similarly being extracted from the wild.

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By the 1980s, trapping had reduced the wild population to only about 2,500. In 1992 they were declared endangered in the wild by the Union of Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources.

Today, it’s illegal to export them from Australia, but they continue to face challenges to increasing their wild numbers. finch variations

Gouldian finches may be as challenging to save in the wild as our endangered orcas – the Southern Resident Killer Whales – native to Puget Sound. Both species have incredibly narrow, specific food preferences.

Gouldian finches eat seeds of certain native grasses and conservation biologists discovered that they nest only in specific types of deep hollow branches of only two types of eucalyptus trees. Researchers are hoping that by installing specially constructed nest boxes in the wild, they can help boost finch numbers.

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Other factors that impact Gouldian finches are their bright colors, which make them easy targets for predators, diseases and wild fires. They are still popular as pets, though all sold are captive bred. They do not like to be handled and don’t do well with a lot of human interaction, compared to other finches kept as pets. Their average lifespan is six to eight years.

Rainbow Lorikeet

This brilliantly colored bird is also native to Australia. A blue head, red beak, orange and yellow breast, blue belly, and green wings and back make this species distinctive among parrots. lorikeet3

They grow to about a foot long from beak to tail.

In the wild, their preferred habitat includes woodlands, and lowland forests, and rainforest. Like the Gouldian finch, lorikeets prefer to nest in hollow limbs and holes in eucalyptus trees.

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But they have been moving into more urban areas and easily adapt. Their diet includes fruit, nectar and pollen, and they will visit bird feeders and eat various seeds. They have even become pests in some areas, such as orchards and farmlands, and in New Zealand, where they were illegally introduced.

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Needless to say, this species not threatened or endangered. In fact, they can out compete other native species of parrot and cockatoo for nesting holes.

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Rainbow lorikeets are very popular as pets, with captive bred birds available worldwide. They can live up to 30 years.

In conclusion

I have not answered my question. Why? Why are there such brightly colored birds? It’s no camouflage against predators. I have noted that most such colorful birds live in more tropical environments. Does climate have something to do with coloration? More questions needing more research.

Mother Nature has given us many mysteries, but one thing we do know, she has it all worked out. Everything is the way it is for a reason. Everything is linked to something else. We are running out of time to preserve the links.

“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” — John Muir

 

*Not my photos