KQED Perspective series

By Michael Ellis

I am watching one. The head turns, giant multifaceted eyes rotate skyward, watching, waiting and suddenly he takes off, transparent wings glistening in the afternoon sun… flies upward and snags a giant crane fly and comes right back to the same exposed perch. Through binoculars I can see him chewing as the insect slowly disappears into the gut of the flame skimmer, one of 7 species of dragonflies that I have identified at my house in Santa Rosa. By the way, I can say “he” because this one is a male. And while it ain’t lions in the Serengeti, these fierce predators are fun to watch and helps keep my backyard clear of gnats, mosquitoes and flies and for that I am thankful.

Dragonflies and damselflies make up the order Odonatas, as this group of insects is called. Dragonflies have large eyes that often touch, they are big, robust fliers and when they land they keep their wings held straight out. Damselflies are smaller and more delicate, with clearly separate eyes and when they alight the wings are held together, up over the head. To those of us in the know they collectively are called od’s and when you go out searching for them, you are oding.

Dragonflies were the first animals to take to the air and 400 million years ago there was one with a wingspan of 2 feet! And while the dinosaurs came and went, dragonflies have remained relatively unchanged. There are now 4800 species in the world.

The first part of the ods lives are spent underwater. This nymph phase may last from 6 weeks to 6 years depending on the species. And let me tell you, these guys are the bad-asses of the pond bottom. They have a giant lower lip studded with teeth, which they use to lash out at unsuspecting prey. They eat fish, frogs, tadpoles, crawdads, other insects and even each other. When they emerge from the water, shed their skin, pump up their wings and take to the air, they may only live for 3 weeks as adults.

So what are you waiting for?? Get out to your local pond and begin oding.

This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.

Drumming Woodpeckers

Drumming (KQED Perspective aired March 2004)
by Michael Ellis

I live in sub-urban Santa Rosa and in my life as a naturalist I am aware of the fabric of wild things that drape over my local landscape. One of my favorite signs of spring is the drumming of one of our common woodpecker species – the Nuttall’s Woodpecker This bird is almost wholly associated with the oak woodlands, especially live oaks, and is confined to mostly California. They mate for life and are present throughout the year; they don’t migrate in the winter. And as long as there are plenty of oaks, they thrive. But when oaks are cleared for development, these woodpeckers soon disappear.

Our Spanish speaking neighbors to the south call woodpeckers, Carpenterios – the carpenters. And what a perfect name that is, because they are the little home builders for many other species of birds. The Nuttall’s peck a large hole in a tree and then only nest in it for one year. So the following year another home becomes available on the bird real-estate market, so to speak. Some of our local birds that rely on these woodpecker-created holes are Western Bluebirds, Violet-Green Swallows, Bewick’s Wrens, Chestnut-Backed Chickadees and White-Breasted Nuthatches.

There are three situations in which you may hear a woodpecker pecking on wood. The first and most common is the daily activity of these birds searching for beetle grubs or other insects buried in the trunk of a tree. These sounds tend to be very irregular, as the bird simply explores the area for food -tap, tap, t tap ttttap. Then there is the nesting cavity excavation which is a lot of sounds indicating a lot of work being done but not in a regular beat. And finally there is the drumming. Woodpeckers often choose a hollow tree, a metal gutter, or even a tin roof – any substrate with good acoustics. This is a rapid tattoo. Bddddddddtttt. Dbddddddddddtttttttt. It is a self promotional announcement. I am here and you are not. I hear this only in the spring and it’s associated with breeding activity and in many ways corresponds to the singing of testosterone-laden male birds. But both male and female woodpeckers drum.

I am happy to know that I live around enough oaks to support the Nuttalls and they are busy building houses for my other feathered friends. This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.

EL Nino

EL Nino – Perspective KQED aired in August 1991

Recently a friend was rejoicing about what a fog-free summer we have had so far, she loved it. But I know what that really means. No fog means there’s no cold water right next to the coast, no cold water means there has been no upwelling of deep ocean water, no upwelling means there has been no recycling of nutrients up to the surface, no nutrients means there has been little production of plant life or phytoplankton, no phytoplankton means nothing for the little animals, the zooplankton, to eat, no zooplankton means there are no blue or humpback whales feeding off our coast and it means no schooling fish, no schooling fish means no salmon, it means hungry sea lions, it means sea birds unable to breed. In other words it looks like we are having another El Nino.

The last big El Nino we had was ten years ago. Remember those days? Huge storms and waves washing away Malibu. Barracuda were caught in Monterey. Salmon fishermen’s boats were repossessed by the banks. The population of sea birds crashed. Scuba divers were reporting over a 100′ visibility, unheard of in central California. And I went swimming nearly every day at Muir Beach in water that was 68.

El Nino is primarily a southern hemisphere event. Off the coast of Ecuador and Peru upwelled nutrient rich waters support the largest single source of protein in the world, the schooling fish called anchoveta. Every year around Christmas the productivity of the waters cease and the fish disappear. The fishermen call this time El Nino, after the Christ Child. Periodically, every seven years or so, the entire anchoveta crop fails to develop and this is also called an El Nino.

Now whenever there is failure of upwelling or an intrusion of warm water anywhere in the world we call it El Nino. So I don’t mean to suggest that us coastal dwellers should not luxuriate in the balmy, fog-free environment but just remember while you’re soaking up the rays, some poor baby cormorant is dying of starvation. But heh, this environmental calamity is a apparently a natural one and for this one at least we cannot blame humankind.

Fire Pines

aired on KQED public radio on December 1, 2000

By Michael Ellis


In the SF Bay area we have four native pine trees that are collectively called Fire pines – Gray, Coulter, Knob-cone and Bishop. These trees grow in the chaparral and are adapted to periodic fires. Most of them are also known as closed-cone pines because the cones require intense heat in order to open up and release their seeds.

The Gray pine is a much more appropriate word than the old name – Digger pine. “Digger” was a derogatory term used by white settlers to refer to all of the Native Americans, regardless of their respective tribe. Because their culture was destroyed, many of the natives were reduced to using sharpened sticks to dig out roots and seeds or poke through the refuse left by white settlements. Gray pines furnished them with tasty and nutritious pine nuts. On the slopes of Mt. Diablo is the best place to see this lovely tree, standing in isolation on the steep hillsides.

The Coulter pine looks a lot like a Gray pine with its long, lacy needles but the cones are even larger — up to 20″ long and weighing 8 lbs. Do not camp under this tree! Coulters are mostly found in southern California and reach their northern limit on Mt. Hamilton and Mt. Diablo.

The knob cone pine as the name indicates has its cones located right along the trunk in conspicuous knobs instead of out at the ends of the branches like most pines. The cones are so persistent and long lasting that often the tree actually grows around the cones. It is known as “the tree that swallows its cones.” On Mt. St. Helena are extensive forests of knob-cone pines.

Marin County only has one kind of pine – the Bishop pine – and it is found almost exclusively on the Inverness Ridge. The 1995 Mt. Vision fire burned large portions of Pt. Reyes National Seashore including the Bishop pine forests. The cones on the blackened charred dead trees popped open like beautiful gray flowers and cloaked the earth with seeds. Five years later there are literally tens of thousands of little Bishop pines that now stand 5′ or more. Like all of the fire pines it takes death to give birth to a forest. This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.

Flower Sex

Flower Sex (KQED March 1994)

by Michael Ellis

Once on San Benitos Island off the coast of Baja I was with a group and we were watching elephant seals mate. Earlier we had seen copulating gray whales and courting ospreys. Finally one lady could take it no longer and shouted. “You biologists are nothing more than frustrated voyeurs.”

I replied, “I beg your pardon, I am not frustrated.” Ah but I readily admit to being a voyeur. Right now I am thoroughly enjoying looking at the reproductive organs on display throughout the SF Bay region. Now I am not referring to some racy billboard but to the wildflowers. Spring is the time for breeding and brightly colored flowers attract insects with an enticement of pollen and nectar, this facilitates transfer of plant sperm from one flower to another.

The first person to make the comparison between the genitalia of animals and the flowers was Herr Sprengel, a schoolteacher in Spandau, Germany who published a book in 1787 entitled “The Newly Revealed Mystery of Nature in the Structure and Fertilization of Flowers.” in which he described in detail, flower sex. The citizens were shocked and immediately dismissed him from his teaching post.

But the most poetic description of plant love comes from that uptight Swedish taxonomist, Carlos Linneaus, who described the wedding night of flowers thusly:

“The petals of the flowers themselves contribute nothing to procreation, but serve solely as the bridal bed, for the great Creator has thus splendidly arranged it, a bed equipped with such noble curtains and perfumed with so many lovely scents in order that the bridegroom may consummate his marriage there with all the greater festivity. When, then, the bed is prepared, it is time for the bridegroom to embrace his dear bride and to offer her his gifts: I mean, we see how the testicuii open and pour out pulverum genitalem which falls upon the
tubam and fructifies the ovarium.”

Don’t you love it when I talk like that? Anyway enjoy the spring flowers and I hope this gives you something else to think about when you stop to smell the roses. This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.