Toad in the Hole July 2005 Archives

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July 30, 2005

I Am a Part of All That I Have Met

Thereís a spot we like to hit every year Ė Iíve mentioned our recent trip there: Yuba Pass, north of Tahoe Ė thatís handily central to a high basin of little lakes and a slightly lower, larger mountain-marsh-and-sagebrush-semidesert bowl, Sierra Valley. Yuba Pass itself is interesting; there are wet spots and red-fir forest, a combination that houses lots of nifty flowers and birds.

The birds breed there in abundance largely because the bugs do, too, with all the wet spots, marshlettes, ditches, snowmelt ponds. The birds feed the bugs to their nestlings and eat them themselves in various combinations. Bugs are high-protein, high-fat, high-energy nutrition.

To many of the bugs, so are we. Any place like that fosters, along with mayflies and dragonflies and damselflies and stoneflies and robberflies and craneflies and caddisflies and scorpionflies and soldierflies and beeflies and droneflies and deerflies and blackflies and just plain some-fly-or-other-flies and assorted bugs and beetles, bees and wasps, large populations of the dread mosquito. Mosqitoes bite us. Only female mosquitoes bite us, and only when they want to breed; our blood (like that of other mammals, birds, I donít know -- maybe even herps) is a supplement that lets them grow eggs.

We wear bug repellent, swat a lot sometimes, and scratch and apply various kinds of soothing goo later. But weíre resigned to being bitten, and when we have the time to get philosophical about it, we consider that after all, itís a matter of paying the rent. Weíre up there along with our interesting brethren, and we all pay the same fleshly dues somehow.

Weíre all part of the place, the "ecosystem," and thatís a physical, literal fact. We take up space, take oxygen and leave carbon dioxide the those grand trees use to build themselves, generally leave our waste where it will be collected and taken out of local circulation, but also bring in most of what we consume, from some other watershed. (At Yuba Pass, that often includes the water; the plumbing there has never been reliable.)

In return for the places we flatten with paving and tent and footprints, for the odd berry that ripens early or leaf sample or scented bit of resin we collect, we leave a drop or two of blood. The aftermath of collection is annoying enough, but the payment itself is only fair.

And I really like the idea that there are a few molecules there that Iíve collated and cobbled together and had brief custody of, a bit of the real me in that ditch with the orchids; in that meadow of corn lilies and elephantsí-heads, blue camas and red columbine; among the waterlilies and odder aquatics around the steel bridge that sits in the middle of nowhere, somewhere we see bald eagle and white pelican, ruddy duck and black stilt, bittern and yellow-headed blackbird, a bustling polity of birds and the occasional mammal.

Years ago, when we lived on Derby Street in a ground-floor flat, I had the habit of cleaning my hairbrush and dropping the tangles out the bedroom window into a bed of wild ginger where no one walked or saw and the hair vanished under the leaves. I figured that bit of sequestered nitrogen might eventually do some plant some good.

Late one summer we cut back the pink jasmine vine that ran up alongside another window. We knew the local housefinches had nested somewhere very close, and raised two clutches that year. When Iíd cut away a couple of tangled layers of vine, I found the housefinch nest, woven of grass straws, little twigs, and, most visibly, my hair.

Posted at 07:01 PM | Comments (1)

July 29, 2005

Friday Science Blogging: Manakins stridulate!

This bit of Nature news captures a nice piece of tech-facilitated science. Darwin (see footnote in the linked article) noticed that manakins make weird noises, and a really really fast camera has shown part of how they do it: not with voice, but with their feathers. It's a lot like the way crickets sing, but apparently unique among vertebrates.

Unique insofar as it's their only noisemaking method; I know that other birds use their feathers to make noise. I've watched the North American great-tailed grackle, the first time I saw it in Texas, making a racket that sounded like eating an operating copier. (I was sure I'd found The Works, that Texas was a big machine like Disneyland and Joe and I had stumbled onto the back door of the engine room.) The bird was using both his vocal apparatus and his feathers, rattling the latter like a flipbook or a deck of cards being thumbed while he creaked and grawked and screamed. I await the arrival of The Dread Texas Steam Grackle in my neighborhood with a certain trepidation.

Manakins themselves have some interesting habits anyway. Some species are pole dancers; males strip the leaved from a slender sapling or tall stem and use it to spin and climb while they display; some species dance in troupes, a lek with a "display partnership" of unrelated male birds. Some do their dance, including a "moonwalk" so fast it took another of those highspeed cameras to catch it, on horizontal twigs. Some seem to vary in color depending on their preferred dancehall, showing white for contrast in dark deep-jungle places.

The San Diego Zoo has an aviary with a cock-o'-the-rock show around 3PM daily in season -- not tame birds; just that predictable. I wonder what it would take to add some of these sophisticated babies to the cast.

Late addition:

See it live and in slow motion.

Posted at 06:02 PM | Comments (2)

July 28, 2005

Lapse, Laps, Leaps, Loops

Sometimes reading the news and the Web and even the e-mail, tangling with the damned word trade and all its henchpersons, just makes one so damned tired one loses the urge to add to the endless circle of chatter and noise. By "one" of course I mean "me." So two (by which I mean Joe and me... of course) just throw deadlines to the winds, stock up on Tasty Bites, and head back to the mountains.

One side effect: There's nothing that can make one feel that the world is going to Hell on a slippery slope in a leaky handbasket carried by a lurching nincompoop than being away from newspapers (not to mention radio and such) for a few days and then coming home to read a pile of them. Christ almighty, can't I turn my back on the rest of you at all? And I'm still wondering who died that they had the flags at half-staff for in Redding. That's a hell of a way to get the news; last time that happened to us, it was the space shuttle wreck. This time I still don't know. Maybe they were just wilting; it was supposedly 106F there yesterday and I'm thinking parts of the area were hotter.

Well, I never did finish the tale of Yuba Pass and the black-backed woodpecker, so I will merge it over the next few days with the tale of Mount Lassen. This involves yet another black-backed woodpecker -- for a bird we'd chased in vain for two decades and more, this one's lately just dropping on us from the sky -- and a goshawk and Mr. and Mrs. Beaver and their lovesick neighbors, besides.

Film at 11. First, a deadline to meet and library fines to pay.

Posted at 04:38 PM | Comments (1)

July 16, 2005

Friday Yes It Is Science Blogging

The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill is showing all over the place, and the book's in its sixth paperback printing. Almost gives me hope for our species. Nice, sharp movie.

If it's near you, go see it posthaste. Then read the book. In that order.

Posted at 06:19 AM | Comments (0)

July 10, 2005

Eyes Above the Fold

Man, I should really stop reading political blogs first. I followed a link from Chris' place and just got too depressed to write.


Joe and I took a flying leap to Point Reyes on Friday, just to get away. We didn't see the northern parula warbler pair that's supposed to be nesting in the big California bay laurel at Bear Valley HQ, but a couple of others there did. WTH, it wasn't a lifer; we pressed on.

Stopped at a freshwater pond waaaay out on the Point, where a couple of friends had been seeing all kinds of rails. And we did see one, a young sora. Also a couple kinds of dragonflies -- flame skimmer, and some sort of big blue mosaic darner -- darting all around and mating. Also a bumblebee working the cobweb thistles, which I managed to photograph. Goldfinches: a male American gf doing that merry-go-round display flight, singing "potato chip, potato chip" all the way. Wrentits, blackbirds, yellowthroat, song and white-crowned sparrows, vultures, redtails, a male harrier -- the usuals, and a pleasant lot they are.

But the best thing was frogs. We started seeing little bubble-eyes, then triangular noses above the pond's surface. Most of the frogs attached to those were small, and we were seeing distinct lateral ridges, not much in the way of tympani, and yellowish undersides when we could see them, on a brown splotchy frog with a good tailor -- the bands on the hindlegs came together to form longer bands when the legs were folded. (I'm trying to visualize how that works developmentally.) The small ones were a couple of inches nose-to-tail; there was one big guy, 4 to 5 inches long.

Not bullfrogs. Grabbed the fieldguide when we got home, to be certain, and yes those were red-legged frogs, the rare and endangered sort. (You see the red when they leap, on the back surface of the hind legs.) We may have seen them before, but this was the first time we'd recognized them.

There must have been at least 20 of the little boogers, too; they kept appearing in the water, as we stood there quietly looking. Not bad for a slimy cowpond.

I hope they're not cannibals... Uh-oh, do rails eat frogs? I do know the egrets and herons that we've seen there do. Keep your heads down, little guys!

Posted at 06:08 AM | Comments (0)

July 08, 2005

Friday Fun Science Blogging

Guts, undersea movies, local interest, unsuspected talents, and nominative determinism, all in one short story!

And a great take-away last paragraph:

Douglas suggests that the siphonophores might be using their lures for something other than fishing. "It's at least as likely that they are using them for signalling to one another," he says, although he has little idea what siphonophores might have to talk about.

Posted at 06:47 AM | Comments (1)

Used Book

When we stopped in Davis on the way back from Yuba Pass, I picked up a book in Bogey's on E Street: a compilation, America's Garden Writing edited by Bonnie Marranca. When I opened it, I found some thoroughly dried pressed leaves that look like southernwood, a fragment of some other, less dissected leaf, and a note, as follows:

Dear Virginia

You were sleeping so good
I didn't want to
wake you.
I wash up the
dishes in sink.
I'll drop back
again later to day.
I have Dr appt
this after noon


Posted at 06:30 AM | Comments (2)

July 06, 2005

Out of the Closet

Curious readers can see a photo of me from my best angle here in the July 5 entry, and I'm wearing the Raw Chicken Viking Hat too!

Posted at 11:59 PM | Comments (0)

July 05, 2005


Today was our 32nd anniversary. We had our Pearl (30th) two years ago, as was only sensible I guess, and celebrated by going out for oysters. So what, I mused, was the talisman for the 32nd? "Gutta-percha," said Joe.

We both woke up blurry -- yesterday, the traditional Fourth of July party at Ray's was held, as is becoming the tradition, at Jerry's, and it generally results in a blurry morning. Neither of us had bought a gift, but Joe proposed dinner an a Turkish restaurant we like, The Bosphorus. Fortunately he made this proposal after breakfast and coffee.

He had a book to return to a library in San Francisco, and I had to make a drug run to Costco. When we both got home, I gave him Volume 2 of a Django Reinhardt CD box set; he'd bought Volume 1 a month or so ago and liked it. He gave me two books: C.J Cherryh's newly paperbacked Forge of Heaven and one called Oak: The Frame of Civilization by William Bryant Logan, who wrote that book about dirt. Looks like fun.

And we went to The Bosphorus and had lamb shank and Huncar Begendi. (There should be a Turkish cedilla under the "c" in "Huncar.") I'm very fond of the dish. It's grilled bits of meat, which are almost superfluous but provide a nice taste contrast, over a foam of charred eggplant flesh whipped with kasseri cheese. Incredibly rich, smoky, and light, like angel spoo.

OK, fallenangel spoo.

Joe apologized for not having found any gutta-percha artifacts. That's OK.

Posted at 10:13 AM | Comments (2)

July 03, 2005

Sunday Anticute Blogging


(You might get just a flash of it before a registry form... be thankful.)

With a tip o' the hat to Dori of MILstories.

Posted at 05:39 PM | Comments (0)

July 02, 2005

OK, I Wanna Be a Pirate

What kind of pirate am I? You decide!
You can also view a breakdown of results or put one of these on your own page!
Brought to you by Rum and Monkey

And it's Way-hey! where the Red Queen reigns
From her throne upon the sea.
With the hot rum running in our veins
We will serve ye steel for tea!
With the black flag dancin' overhead
We will salt yer beef with flying lead
And ye'll regret that ev'r ye fed
At the board of Anne Bonney!

(Call that a broad hint.)

Posted at 04:46 PM | Comments (3)

Yuba Pass, Mammals and All

Iím going to tell about our Yuba Pass trip in no particular order.

We camped at the National Forest campground thatís right on Route 49 at Yuba Pass. Itís been pretty crappy (literally Ė they donít pump out the outhouses often enough) since its management has been privatized, taken over by some management company whose name Iíve flushed. And itís more expensive. It would have been $18.00 a night except for the technicality that it wasnít open yet. That meant we could camp there legally, but there were no "services" Ė the water was turned off at the bibbs; there was no dumpster; the can wasnít pumped outÖ Oh wait; that wasnít any worse than usual. And there was no charge posted (I inferred the fee from the campgrounds that were open along the road) and no payment envelopes. We carry a water jug and can pack out our trash easily enough, so no problem.

There were still stray snowpiles in the shade, but the weather was balmy enough. We set up camp and took a stroll around the meadow by the campground. The elephantís-heads werenít blooming yet; the willows were barely leafing out; there were shooting-stars and blue camas blooming. Dusky flycatchers sneered at each other ("Dweeb! Dweeb!") and yellow-rumped warblers, mountain chickadees, and juncoes darted around.

Across 49, thereís a hard dirt road flanked by a wet meadow and pine-red fir woods. Absurdly red and rococo snowplants were just emerging under the trees. It was too early for rein orchids, but there were some little delphiniums. More warblers, chickadees, and juncoes, an evening grosbeak, and a pair of Cassinís finches (a bird that shows you youíre in the mountains) who were gathering nesting matter, courting, and mating. And, for a wonder, we stumbled on a pair of mountain quail, a real piece of luck. Also white-headed woodpeckers, a red-shafted flicker yelling offstage.

Next morning we headed up to the Lakes Basin, past Bassettís, and made our ritual stop at Sand Lake. This is an old beaver pond with lots of dead snags Ė drowned trees Ė and a nature trail with a boardwalk over the marshy parts. We were on the first bridge over actual running water, near the start of the trail, and I could hear something setting up an incessant clamor across the marsh in a cluster of tall silver snags. I found a hairy woodpecker doing most of the yelling, accompanied by every other bird in the neighborhood: vireos, warblers, chickadees, a very aggressive flicker.

I followed the action to its center, a snag with holes in it. Out of one hole Ė "Ha!" I said to Joe, "Thereís a squirrel with its butt hanging out of a woodpecker hole." ThenÖ "Thatís not a squirrel," from Joe as Iím figuring out that the tail is wrong. Then the whole critter emerges backward. "Weasel!" says Joe. "NoooÖ Omigod. Marten!"

Itís about housecat-sized, but skinnier; brown with black tailtip and paws and a bit of yellow under the chin. Itís obviously quite agile. Itís frustrated too, as it gnaws irritatedly at the edges of the hole, not making much evident difference in its size.

The woodpeckers keep yelling and charging at the marten, evidently making contact sometimes, as I can see its fur ruffle.

The marten puts its head back into the hole, worries around a bit, and emerges with an almost-fledged woodpecker nestling in its teeth. It makes a fast U-turn and takes the bird down out of sight in the shrubs at the treeís base. In about 30 seconds it comes back up the tree Ė still accompanied by the incessant bird chorus Ė and this time gets all the way into the hole, clearly a struggle. After a minute, it re-emerges, with another woodpecker fledgling. Down the tree again.

Another several seconds, and back up the tree, headfirst with considerable effort into the hole, back out with a third chick, and down into the shrubs.

Things slowed down almost immediately, so we figured that was the last chick, and indeed the marten didnít come back out. Gradually, the birds dispersed, except that the vireos continued the local "Down With All Nest Predators!" mood by mobbing and harassing a Stellerís jay that wandered in belatedly.

This was the first time either of us had seen a marten, and it was quite a show. Judging by the thoroughness of the raid, it was probably Mother Marten providing for her own youngsters, somewhere in the fairly heavily human-used Sand Lake area.

On the way out, we saw a yellow-bellied (Stop that; that's what they're called.) marmot scuttle across the road with a mouthful of Terebinth's pteryxia, pause on top of a boulder to scope out the people in the parking lot, and scuttle under the boulder when a woman approached waving her clearly uncomprehending infant in the marmot's general direction.

Posted at 05:25 AM | Comments (4)

Friday Scientists-Have-All-the-Fun Blogging

Or: Fluorescent Bluebird Droppings

Nature published a Science study in which some lucky academics sprayed wax-myrtle bushes and their berries with a compound that produced fluorescent shit from the bluebirds that ate the berries. The other good news is that the study indicates that "wildlife corridors" between patches of forest actually work for the wildlife and their vegetable prey.

Take-away quote:
"We had to spray tens of thousands of fruits, and look at tens of thousands of poops."

Posted at 03:36 AM | Comments (3)