They Finally Let Me Outside for Good Behavior (or Something…)

In the past two weeks, I’ve actually gotten to go outside three times for work. Wow! Imagine that – a biologist actually being allowed to go outside…since I have no window in my office, I’d practically forgotten what sunlight is like. Which may explain the pale, pasty complexion and vitamin D efficiency that I’ve fallen prey to lately…

Anyway, I spent two days looking at project sites on Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, which is my new turf. On the first day I got to see my first endangered arroyo toad, along with some of the beautiful beaches and heavy amphibious vehicles the Marines use in their water-to-land assault operations (guess which I was more excited about).

On the second day, I assisted one of our office ornithologists in his weekly endangered least Bell’s vireo nest surveys. Which was really cool – we found several nests with eggs and chicks, and lots of other cool critters as well. I’ll put a link to some of the more interesting photos to the right so you can view them all!

The following week I participated in searching for endangered light-footed clapper rail nest surveys at the Tijuana Estuary just south of San Diego. It was a lot of fun, but a lot of work! We were walking around in boot-hungry mud and cord grass trying to find nests with eggs, but not step on them. We only found three nests with eggs, and they all appeared to be viable (I checked the fetal heartbeat with the Egg Buddy) so we didn’t collect any of them for contaminants analysis. We did take one egg back to the refuge to be incubated, as it appeared to have been abandoned by the parents. We saw several clapper rails, but they’re very speedy so I didn’t get any pictures of them. But I did get lots of other photos, so take a look at the slide show link to the right. I was completely filthy and muddy and sweaty and sore, but I also had a really great time – I think I might have even got a little sun on my neck. But just a little…I was wearing a big hat and plenty of sunscreen. I’m still working on keeping up that pale complexion and vitamin D deficiency…

Hope you’re all doing well and enjoying the spring!

And we set off two ground sensors, too!

I was fortunate enough to be able to leave the confines of my windowless cube-shaped office on Friday and escape into the Otay Mountain wilderness, just north of the US-Mexico border. A couple of us went on a tecate cypress reconnaissance mission for a monitoring program we’re developing for the Thorne’s hairstreak, a rare butterfly that lives in tecate cypress stands. It was a super nice day, and trekking through very dense prickly stabby vegetation left me sweaty, covered in charcoal (some of the stands we visited had burned recently), scratched, and minorly impaled. Needless to say, I was happy – I really do like being out in areas where I’m more likely to be speared by some sort of yucca plant than shot by a stray bullet (as is the case at home) or succumb to a severe case of carpel tunnel syndrome (as is the case at work).Actually, it was kind of sketchy – we came across numerous signs of illegal immigrants who cross the border and travel through the mountains (sneaker-not boot-tracks, empty waterbottles), and the brush is so dense that you’d practically be on top of someone before you knew they were there. Luckily, we didn’t run into any trouble, but we did set off at least two of the Border Patrol’s ground sensors, who deployed a helicopter to investigate us on two separate occasions. And holy balls – we saw a lot of BP agents, all driving brand-new trucks. Our government spends a lot of money trying to keep people from crossing the border, but I can’t see how it’s really worth it. We went to take a look at the border fence – we went all the way to the end of it – and people cut through it and tunnel under it, and the feds just patch the fence and wait for them to do it again. It’s just a cat and mouse game, and we keep spending the money to play. Pointless – we could be doing so much more with those dollars! Sigh…

Oh well – enjoy some pictures I took…

I spotted this burrowing owl from the road – the first one I’ve ever seen in the wild!

Moon setting over a ridge…

Looking southeast into Mexico…

The end of the border fence. Guess which side is Mexico!

The hills are alive…blah blah blah blah blaah blaaaaah…

About once a week I get to leave the dim confines of my office and drive up to Palomar Mountain. I spend the whole day looking for butterflies! Me and the rest of the survey team are specifically searching for an extremely rare endangered butterfly, the Laguna Mountain Skipper. We think their flight season is almost over (sightings have tapered off a bit), but I thought I’d post some pictures of some of the butterflies – and other things – I’ve encountered on the mountain. Enjoy!

Here’s the Laguna Mountain Skipper. It’s about the size of your thumbnail, maybe a little bigger. There’s a look-alike species that is also present, just to try to fool us; but I’ve been scoring 100’s on my LMS tests, so I think I’ve got that problem licked.

See that little white dot on one of the leaflets? That’s a skipper egg. The butterfly will land on horkelia (the host plant pictured here), curl her abdomen around the underside of the leaf, and deposit one egg, maybe another one on a neighboring leaf. They’re kind of hard to find, and each individual lays only maybe 100-200 eggs before dying. Most of the eggs are parasitized by wasps, or grazed by cattle when they eat the plant. It’s tough being a skipper, and I’m surprised any of them make it to adulthood!

This is a funereal duskywing; there were a lot out this week but they moved very fast and were hard to photograph.

Here’s a lupine blue – there were a ton of blues out last time I visited the mountain, and there are a bunch of different types. They are some of my favorites! They’re still relatively small, a bit larger than the skipper (some of them).

This is a Melissa blue, which hasn’t been documented on the mountain until now. I took this picture because I thought the butterfly was really pretty!

This Mylitta crescent is quite a bit bigger than the other butterflies pictured; kind of mid-sized. There are a lot of larger butterflies on the mountain – we’ve seen monarchs, admirals, and swallowtails. This one just happened to stay still long enough for me to get a picture of it!

Sick of butterflies? I came across this Southern Pacific rattlesnake last time I was out in the field. I also saw two green racers, but this rattler let me take several photos of him. Don’t worry – I didn’t almost step on him, and my camera has a very good zoom lens. This guy was easily as big around as my wrist, and I’m not sure how much more of him was in the burrow there. I’m definitely learning to watch where I walk!

Horkelia, where art thou?

A couple times a year I get to leave the sweet, dry, temperature-controlled confines of my office and head out into the field to help other biologists on monitoring projects. This past week I joined a crew of my fellow desk-jockeys to search for Horkelia clevelandii, the host plant for an endangered butterfly, the Laguna Mountain Skipper. When this project was described to me, I was told that it would be “really mellow, walking around in meadows looking for a little plant”. The name Laguna MOUNTAIN skipper should have tipped me off though – every day we drove up to the top of Palomar Mountain and searched for this small plant in yeah, a couple of meadows, but it seemed like also a lot of brambles and steep forested areas, and bouldered slopes. It was nice though – very pretty out there – aside from being all by myself in mountain lion territory (I carried a knife but I don’t know what good it would’ve done), having a member of our team lock the keys in the car at the end of the day with the clouds rolling in and the temperatures dropping, torrential rains and inpenatrable mist all day on Wednesday, and the pain, my god, the pain. But we had fun, too. We all had radios to keep in contact, and I gave myself the handle of “Dorkelia”. The mist and rain on Wednesday were unbelievably pretty, even if I did have about 20 pounds of equipment strapped to me, a clipboard in one hand, a GPS unit in the other, while trying to scale a 5.10 cliff face. I learned that given a radio, a GPS unit, and a sunny day a person (the same person who locked the keys in the car – who was NOT me) can get lost for two hours. Anyway, here are a few pictures of our adventures – enjoy!

I snapped this picture on the way up to the top of the mountain.

Here’s a nice patch of Horkelia that I found. Most of my sample plots did not have any, but the few patches that I did spot were really dense.

Here’s Kurt, trying to break into our vehicle with a wire hanger. We didn’t have cell phone coverage, but eventually walked to the observatory office and called AAA on my membership. We waited for the tow truck for two hours at the end of a very long, cold day!

Our last day of sampling was pretty easy – I had a couple of points inside of a horse pasture, and luckily none inside of this enclosure. We were warned that the ostrich would rip our guts out if we got too close – note the sign that says “DANGER – do not enter”.

There’s no fish in the desert…

It’s true. There are no fish in the desert, especially here in Southern California. I know this because I’ve looked. Well, there are desert pupfish, but not in the area that I was in.

I have a lot to catch up on! I’ve been very busy, with training in Sacramento and Denver and moving and field work, but back to the desert. In late May, I was fortunate to have had the opportunity to spend three days out in the desert near Palm Springs searching for the endangered Coachella Fringe-Toed Lizard. I didn’t see any of those, but I did see a ton of zebra-tailed lizards, desert iguana, desert horned lizards, and even a long-nosed leopard lizard (which was absolutely gorgeous, by the way). We were surveying in a few areas, including the valley that has hundreds of windmills. There’s a reason why they chose that area for windmills, too. You know why? Because it’s frickin’ windy! I think I saw a few lizards fly by, but I mostly just found abandoned shoes and rubber hoses in those plots. And it was global safety day – I was busted by some workers for not having a hard-hat and safety goggles, who warned me that propellers fall off the windmills all the time (my response: “gee – if one of those huge blades fall off and hit me on the head, do you really think a hard-hat will help me out?”).

I sure do miss the desert – it wasn’t as beautiful as Utah or Arizona, but it was still good being out there in the dry air and hot hot temperatures. Good times! Here are a few pictures I took – there’s the horned lizard and desert iguana, in case you were wondering (alas, the leopard lizard ran away before I could get my camera out – boo hoo!).