California Bay Trees

From 65 to 24 million years ago a tropical forest flourished throughout California. Rainfall exceeded 80 inches per year and both temperature and humidity were high. Large broad-leaved evergreen trees dominated a landscape interspersed with conifers. The scene was reminiscent of the jungles of modern Central America. Slowly the climate became drier and cooler and most of the tropical plants retreated to coastal areas or south toward the equator. Eventually nearly all the tropical plants died out. In Northern California we are left with two reminders of those ancient times– the Coast redwood and the bay tree.

Umbellularia californica is a tree with many common names – California-bay, California-laurel, bay- laurel, pepperwood, peppernut and Oregon myrtle. It is a member of the Lauraceae family. The group is characterized by numerous aromatic oil glands in the leaves. Many economically important plants such as camphor, sassafras, cinnamon and avocado are in this tropical plant family. If you carefully slice open a mature bay fruit you will see soft, green flesh surrounding a hard, brown pit. It basically resembles a tiny avocado.

Bay trees now grow in cool wooded canyons and valleys in the Coast ranges and in the foothills of the western Sierra Nevada up to 5,000′. They are found from San Diego to southwestern Oregon. Mostly small trees in the Sierra, they become much larger in coastal canyons. In Oregon, bay trees reach their greatest size. The climate there must closely approximate those ancient conditions. The hard durable lumber of these magnificent trees is sold as Oregon myrtle and fashioned into lampshades, bowls, and other curios. The souvenir sellers claim that this tree grows no where else in the world but Oregon….wrong.

At the base of many bay trees are large shelf fungi. These parasites are very common and attack all hardwood trees in North America. They are called the Artist’s Fungus because scratches made on the white undersurface stain brown and are relatively permanent. Messages can be left to elves, goblins and other genies in the forest. This fungus can eventually kill the tree so you should remove it from your ornamental bays.

Some aphids feed on bay leaves. Their sugar-rich droppings (called honeydew — a most polite word for insect crap) rain down on the leaves below. Any plant or shrub beneath a bay tree is soon coated with small black dots. These spots are a rust; a fungus that grows specifically on aphid honeydew.

Native Americans ate the bay fruit, but not the fleshy “avocado” part; they ate the seed. Uncooked seeds are very acerbic so they roasted them to eliminate the bitterness. Then they either ate the cooked seeds directly or made them into cakes for later use. The Indians placed bay leaves in their nostril or bound them tightly to their heads. The pungent bay oils allegedly cured headaches. My experience is that sniffing these leaves will give you a headache! The leaves could also cure rheumatism, stomach aches, colds and even repel fleas. Rubbing the leaves on the body induces sweating; the natives and pioneers took advantage of this property during steam baths. It was and is a miracle cure for nearly everything. Cheap too.

Most of the bay leaves that we use to flavor soups and sauces come from the European bay, Laurus nobilis. However the upstart California-bay is rapidly supplanting the Old World bay, at least in the West. At the corner market a small jar of 20 “premium” California-bay leaves cost over three bucks. That’s 17 cents a leaf! It is indicative of our detachment from the environment that we feel more comfortable using leaves purchased in a bottle than those picked from the trees growing in our backyard.

We have some magnificent bay trees. With wide arching branches they make the perfect climbing tree and an ideal fantasy site for a Swiss Family Robinson treehouse. They are one of the few plants that flower in the winter, reminding us of the mild tropical climate in which they once dwelled.

Blue Whales

BLUE WHALES aka Ballenas Azule (March 1992)

By Michael Ellis

I had the good fortune to be in the Sea of Cortez, a.k.a. the Gulf of California last month. In our 92-foot long range fishing boat we were exploring the waters and islands in this section of the world sometimes called Mexico’s Galapagos. Just offshore of the ancient city of Loreto, the original capital of the Californias founded in 1697, we found a group of blue whales. We were in channel between Isla Carmen and mainland Baja where I have often seen many different species of whales in the past. On this particular day we saw fin, Brydes, humpback, and blue whales as well as bottlenose and common dolphins. Few places in the world can boast this diversity of whales.

The reason that whales concentrate in the lower and mid-part of the Sea of Cortez is simply that that’s where the food is. When Cortez first sailed into the area he named it La Mar Vermillion, the Vermilion Sea. It was red because of the abundance of krill that colored the water. The krill, of course, is what the big whales feed on. Krill is the Norwegian word for types of crustaceans known by their scientific name as Euphasids or Thysanoessids. During the winter, upwelled water comes from the depths of the Sea of Cortez bringing nutrients to the surface. This water is like compost and it fertilizes the top layer of the ocean creating a tremendous bloom of small plants, the phytoplankton. These are fed on by small animals, the zooplankton. The zooplankton is then eaten by schooling fish, some seabirds and some kinds of whales. You know the rest of the story.

Blue whales are unique among the great whales in that they feed exclusively on krill. Other whales like fin and humpback will eat fish if available. Blue whales are the largest animal that has ever lived on the planet. You could fit five brontosaurs in one blue whale or 25 African elephants or 1600 human beings or about 2000 fifth-graders. In the Antarctic a blue whale was killed that reportedly weighed 130 tons and was 110 feet long! But no more, those big ones were all wiped out by the whalers. The blues we watched that afternoon I estimated to be about 75 feet long, still big by any standard.

We could watch them on the boat’s sonar as they dove beneath us straight down to over 275 feet. We presumed that that was where the food was concentrated. One whale rolled over on its back right near us and we could see the pleats or throat grooves. There are 60 of these that expand just like an accordion when the whale takes a huge gulp of water and krill. The grooves go all the way back to their belly buttons. Full of water they look like gigantic tadpoles. Blue whales often turn on their side when feeding open their mouth at about 50-degree angle and scoop up a big mouthful. They then use the muscular tongue to force the water out through the 400 baleen plates leaving the trapped krill behind. The tongue then sweeps the food into the gullet. Blue whales must eat about four to eight tons of krill, that is over 60 million of these small crustaceans, every single day.

The fastest growing living thing has to be a blue whale fetus and nursing baby. It begins as a single egg at inception and 12 months later at birth weighs 5,550 pounds and is 23 feet long. And then the baby drinks 50 gallons of milk every day gaining an incredible nine lbs. per hour! When it is finally weaned at the age of seven months it weighs 50,000 lbs. and is 52′ long!

Blue whales have been protected from whaling since 1966. Their recovery has been steady but slow. Like most of the great baleen whales blues travel toward the poles to feed in the summer and toward the equator to breed in the winter. And they are found in all the oceans of the world. And it is not necessary to travel far to see these magnificent creatures. Upwelling creates a very rich coastal environment in our neighborhood. Nearly every summer and fall, blue whales feed around the Cordell Bank, the Farallon Islands, off Half Moon Bay and Monterey Bay, sometimes in huge numbers. I have seen as many as 15 at one time.

But even something as big as a blue whale has a predator, besides man. A pack of 40 killer whales, orcas, was seen attacking a full grown blue whale. They bit the flukes and lips causing the animal to bleed profusely and weaken. Then the orcas moved in for a very large meal. Amazing.

Cancer Crabs

Cancer Crabs – article from 1991

As I peer back in the darkness under a rock crevice I can barely see the crab. A pair of eyeballs on stalks are staring at me. The mouthparts are fluttering, antennae gently swaying and giant claws folded just below the chin. I imagine that he feels protected, safe and secure in the crack. Ha! I sneer as my testosterone level increases; I pride myself on being able to dislodge unwilling crabs without hurting them or myself. And I have only lost one human fingernail and no crab legs in the process.

I carefully pull him out by the claws. The bumpy front of the carapace (shell) is slightly curved like a crescent moon and it’s about 5″ across, the massive claws are tipped in black. The broad abdominal flap indicates that it’s not a him after all, but a her. It’s the common rock crab, Cancer antennarius.

Cancer is the Greek word for crab, as in the fourth sign of the zodiac. We now associate the word — cancer — with that dreaded and pervasive illness. This is due to Galen, a famous physician in the 2nd Century A.D., who first named the disease for “the swollen veins surrounding the part affected, bearing a resemblance to a crab’s limbs. ”

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Well, Cancer crabs ain’t broke and there has been no reason for them do much changing for the past 60 million years or so. They are in the Phylum Arthropoda which also includes insects, millipedes and spiders.

One characteristic of Arthropods is a rigid exoskeleton, which must be shed (molted) periodically for growth to occur. Just before molting some of the chemicals of the shell are re-absorbed by the crab. The shell then splits at a weakened line in the back of the carapace and the crab literally backs out of its old shell. It backs out of its claws, all eight legs, its antennae, the covering of its eyeballs, part of its digestive tract, and even its gills. As it emerges, the brand new shell is soft and the crab is extremely vulnerable. Its pincers can’t pinch, its back cannot protect and its mouthparts cannot feed. Not surprisingly crabs usually molt under the protective cover of darkness.

If the shell hardens immediately the crab would be the same size as before or even slightly smaller. So the crab pumps water into its body cavity and enlarges itself. It holds this extra water for about three days until the shell becomes completely hard; it then releases the water. Now the crab has room to grow. When the crab is young it may molt every few weeks. An older crab only does it once or twice a year.

The only time that female crabs can mate is when they are molting. She emits a chemical in her urine that alerts the adjacent males to her sexual receptivity. One lucky fellow reaches her first and “protects” her until the shell hardens. In exchange he mates with her. Female crabs store several thousand eggs under their abdominal flap. They hatch in a very short time. Most of them never reach adulthood but become food for fish.

Rock crabs are active mostly at night; they are aggressive predators and scavengers. They eat nearly anything they can catch. One favorite food is hermit crabs. The crab grabs them and slowly breaks open the shell with the pincers until it can reach in and pull the hermit crab out. Crab eating crab.

Octopuses (correct plural) are one of the prime predators on cancer crabs. The tentacled mollusks lie in wait and then reach out a tentacle and grab a crab with the suction cups. The octopus then uses its stylet (a very sharp bone in its mouth) and pierces the shell of the crab. I can testify to the sharpness. I was once stabbed by an octopus I was letting walk over my hand. I stopped that behavior.

The Great Central Valley

Every December for the past two decades, I make a pilgrimage. I journey into the Great Central Valley of California to witness one of the most extraordinary natural spectacles in North America – the over wintering of millions of birds. Most of the waterfowl of western North America and many from Siberia come to this temperate area to escape the harsh winters of the north. And while the modern spectacle is but a shadow of the past, it is one hell of a shadow and the best we have going.

For thousands of years elk, antelope, grizzly bear, beavers, deer, otters, tens of millions of birds, oaks, tules, and wild grains thrived in the Central Valley and supported the densest concentration of human beings north of Mexico. There were 55,000 native people living on the flanks of the Sutter Buttes in the northern Sacramento Valley.

The first Spaniard to venture into this area was Luis Arguello in 1821. He saw a river totally covered from bank to bank with the feathers from roosting waterfowl. He named it the Rio de las Plumas, the Feather River. Other early visitors reported that the sky often darkened at midday from all the geese. But as the European settlers rushed in, full scale farming began. The natives were soon wiped out by disease and warfare; levees were built and wetlands diked and drained. Rice, wheat, millet, and corn soon surpassed the value of all the gold in California’s rapidly growing economy. By 1870 virtually all the large mammals were gone and the Valley was transformed into the richest agricultural area in the world.

The Central Valley is now the most altered landscape in California, 97% of it has been changed. But some of the waterfowl still manage to eke out an existence in a few intensively managed refuges and private hunting clubs. When twenty thousand snow geese erupt from a nearby tule marsh, you can actually feel the beating of their wings against your face. The distant cry of a Sandhill Crane is like an echo from the past. We have lost so much.

While the birds attract me, it is the character of the Valley that fascinates me. I have little patience for people who say they are bored by the Central Valley…. “I just put a CD on and drive through it as fast as I can to get to the Sierra.” To those folks I say the problem is not with the Valley, it is with you. The freeway is designed for rapid travel, uniformity and thoughtlessness, but if you want to see anything of value you must exit off the fast lane. Get onto the old roads — Highway 99, State Rt. 113, Almond-Orchard Rd. — or follow the train tracks through Zamora, Meridan, Yolo, or Willows. Then you may begin to understand the Valley.

Everything is big here. Ranchers aren’t ranchers, they’re operators. Plowed fields go on forever. Huge electric transmission towers criss-cross the Valley; they look like colossal monsters marching to the horizon with spider webs stretching between them.

The Central Valley is most ethically diverse non-urban area in the world. People from all over the planet have migrated here to live and work in this rich area. I was once sitting in a bar in downtown Williams. At the table next to me were five people whose parents or great-grandparents came from Mexico, India, Taiwan, Ireland, and Cambodia. These people were enjoying a beer and each other while listening to a country music band. They looked like a poster for the United Nations. It may well be that in the next century the densest concentration of human beings in California will once again reside in this Great Valley.
An excellent reference book with superb photographs is The Great Central Valley, California’s Heartland by Johnson, Haslam and Dawson. UC Press. 1993.

Horny Deer

HORNY DEER (September 1996)

The deer are getting horny this time of year…or I should say “antlery”. Deer do not have horns they have antlers. There’s a big difference. Horns are permanent; both males and females have them. Many of our domestic animals like goats, sheep and cattle have horns.

Antlers on the other hand are borne only by the males. Antlers are deciduous – they grow and fall off every year. They are made totally of bone whereas horns are a core of bone surrounded by keratin, the same material that your fingernails are made of. Many of our North American mammals have antlers – moose, elk, caribou, and, of course, our local black-tailed deer.

By early spring the days are getting longer. This increased daylight passes through the optic nerve of the deer and stimulates the hypothalamus (a small but important part of the brain). This organ, in turn, causes the pituitary gland to dump the male hormone, testosterone in the blood stream. This chemical causes many changes in male deer –thickening of the neck, growth of antlers, aggressive tendencies and an increase in sperm production. You guessed it, they get horny.

Antler growth begins with a soft moss-like skin called velvet that nourishes the growing bone – it provides the necessary nutrients and oxygen. By mid-summer the antlers are fully developed and the velvet is useless; the deer rub it off on small branches. You can easily find these rubbing trees along streambeds; look for loose strips of bark and even bloody velvet on young willow trees.

Antlers are what we call secondary sexual characteristics. They have no function in the day to day survival of the animals. They certainly don’t help the deer find food and shelter. But they do send a very clear message- “not only am I a healthy vigorous buck capable of supporting myself but I have secured enough extra nutrients to grow an especially large set of antlers. I am one tough dude!” This message isn’t directed at female deer like you might suspect but to males. In order to mate successfully a male deer must dominate other male deer. Usually all that’s necessary for dominance is a raised head, erect hairs, and a rut-snort or two. Occasionally battles do happen but these clashes rarely result in injury.
Soon the dominant bucks will begin to corral several females into small groups. In the past biologists have described this breeding arrangement as a “harem.” Biologists, like most other people, bring their biases to work with them. Harem connotes control but these does are choosing to be with this buck, allowing him to corral them. It is to her benefit to mate with a dominant and fit male. Her offspring will inherit half their genes from that buck. Female choice is now the watchword in many breeding systems that were once described as harems.

The bucks must wait for the does to come into estrous. They continually taste the females’ urine. By curling their upper lip the urine is exposed to a special receptor on the top of the palate called the Jacobson’s organ. This organ tells the buck whether the female is in heat. Actual mating is a fairly stereotyped ritual.

After the breeding season is over, the males split. The testosterone level drops. By January most bucks have shed their antlers and mellowed out.

The females carry their developing young for about 6 1/2 to 7 months. Usually twins are born in March or April and weigh about 16 lbs. Fawns apparently have no odor. When threatened they curl up and remain perfectly still on the forest floor. Predators walk right by the camouflaged and odorless fawns. In three months they are weaned, losing their spots and foraging on their own.

The following spring the young males begin growing their first set of antlers. These small antlers are called spikes. The cycle begins anew.

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