Galls

Just imagine the gall of that Gaul to take a large bite out of a gall. These words, which are pronounced the same, are unrelated to one another. A synonym for the first word could be “audacity”; the second is a descendent from those pesky tribes who once irritated the Roman Empire and the final one is a remarkable plant growth created through genetic reengineering.
Most of us are familiar with the large round galls on oak trees – the so-called oak apples. But there are thousands of different kinds of galls. A gall is basically an abnormal growth on a plant. This can result from physical damage–caused by branches rubbing together, or an invasion of mistletoe or bacteria but most are created by the action of insects. An insect lays eggs in the host. The eggs hatch into larva and the larva release a complex porridge of chemicals. These chemicals in turn redirect the growth of the plant’s tissue into an entirely new pattern. The resulting galls are so unique in character that simply the shape of the gall can identify the species of parasitic insect. The gall provides sustenance for the developing larva, which pupates into a winged adult who then eats its way out of the gall and the cycle begins anew.
An extract from galls – Gallic Acid – has been used for centuries to make permanent inks. The US Constitution for example was written with iron gall ink. This chemical has also been used as a dye and medicinally as an antiseptic skin treatment.
Most gall making insects are neutral in their economic impact. However there are two notable exceptions. The first one is positive – members of one gall wasp family are the only pollinators of figs. The negative is the disease that nearly wiped out the entire European grape industry in the late 1800’s – phylloxera – is caused by another gall insect.
California is rich in gall diversity. Next time you are out hiking take a minute to find and appreciate these natural marvels, they are easily seen on oaks and manzanitas.

Near Death Experiences

If you live long enough eventually you may have several near death experiences. At least ones you interpret as near-death. But who knows really? I was in car wreck caused by my friend swerving to miss a possum crossing the road. Our little VW station wagon flipped over and over again– of course we were not wearing seat belts. When we finally stopped I heard Chuck Berry singing Sweet Little 16 from the 8-track tape deck. I was still alive but with a broken sternum and my friend had broken neck. Once off the Canary Islands I got caught in a severe riptide with no one around and barely struggled back to a tiny rock to recoup and then swam as hard as I could back to shore. On Wheeler Peak in Nevada at 13500’ I was caught in a severe electrical storm. Several folks got struck that afternoon. In 1998 four others and I got swept off our paddleboat while going through Crystal Rapid on the Colorado River. Those of you that have done this trip know that Crystal is one rapid you do not want to swim through! I came up under the raft in 48° water, certain it was the end of me. But wonderfully strong hands pulled me safely back onto the raft. Once near the top of the Atlas Mountains in Morocco I was pretty sure some Berbers were going to put an ice ax in my head if I didn’t pay them some money. I once startled three African buffaloes in the darkness that fortunately stampeded away from, not toward, my future wife and me. An aggressive male hippopotamus came charging out of the reeds at our tippy canoe in the Okavango Delta, we got away barely.

The most recent one was just several days ago. I was in northern Tanzania at a fairly nice hotel by the airport waiting for my flight home. I went to shower, turned on the hot water and walked into the stall. I went to adjust the cold-water tap and 220 Volts suddenly went through my right hand as I was standing in water. I could not pull my hand back. Finally – I’m not sure what happened maybe I just fell or I managed to pull my hand away – but at the next moment I was on the floor–alive and very, very angry. Several thoughts went through my head after I realized I wasn’t dead. First thank goodness this did not happen to one of my clients, the second – would this make me frightened to take future showers in Africa? The final thought was – what a stupid way to die. I’d rather fall off a mountain or get stomped by buffalo or snagged by a leopard but not electrocuted in the shower! How boring!

But the lesson is to live life fully. Don’t put off what you really want to do or what you want to say to someone. Life is precious and dangles by the slimmest of threads. Don’t waste it.

Creosote Bushes

So what is the most common shrub in California? Poison oak, Coyote bush, lupine? Excellent guesses but all wrong. Actually it is the creosote bush, which covers over 21,000,000 acres, both in the Mojave and in far southern California Deserts. This incredibly successful plant also dominates the large Sonoran desert of Arizona, New Mexico and much of northern Mexico.
The closest living ancestor to this plant is found way south in Argentina. I have seen Magellanic penguins along the Patagonian coast nesting under creosote bushes. That was one incongruous sight for me. Botanists hypothesize that the American golden plover – a long distance migrant that winters in South America – brought seeds of creosote north millions of years ago. Creosote was already adapted for the desert of that new region.
At the end of the last Ice Age as the climate became drier and drier, creosote bushes moved northward and now thoroughly occupy our deserts. Creosotes are the most drought tolerant of any plant. They survive on less than 2 inches of yearly rainfall and even through years of no rain. They have both a deep taproot and extensive surface roots. In competition for unpredictable rain, creosote bushes exhibit chemical warfare. Their roots to secrete toxic compounds that prevent other plants from growing and competing with them for water.
Though creosotes flower prolifically, they mostly reproduce by cloning themselves. In western San Bernardino County, scientists found a circle of creosote bushes 45 feet in diameter. The shrubs are all clones from an ancestral plant, which is thought to have begun growing 11,700 years old! Making this group of creosote bushes the oldest living thing on the planet, essentially as old as the desert.
The word creosote is German for “flesh preserver”. The name was applied to a petroleum compound developed by a chemist that had anti-septic properties. I hate the smell of treated lumber but I love the smell of creosote bushes, especially after a rain when the air is permeated their amazing aroma.
At a Nevada test site there were 20 creosote bushes obliterated by an atomic blast at ground zero, 19 of them came back to life. I want to be on their team.

Gulls

—“I’m a gull watcher, I’m a gull watcher, Watching gulls go by, my my my. I’m a gull watcher, I’m a gull watcher, Here comes one now….”
All right, all right terrible song but I am a gull watcher. It is a good thing, because no matter where you go if there is water – even far inland – there are often gulls. There’s about a half dozen species found during the summer in the San Francisco Bay. Probably the most commonly encountered is the Western Gull. This large black-backed gull breeds on the Farallon Islands, offshore rocks and steep inaccessible cliffs along the ocean edge from Baja to Washington State. Gulls belong to a large bird group collectively called “seabirds” which include 325 or so species of the pelicans, terns, albatrosses, penguins, shearwaters, cormorants, and grebes.
Gulls, like most other seabirds, exhibit little physical differences between male and female. They mate for life but are not tied to each other per se but to the location in which they successfully bred the previous year. The males arrive first at the breeding site and establish their territory. The females follow to that territory, NOT to the male. Courtship does not rely on flashy plumage but instead on elaborate rituals like mutual dancing and preening or food presentation. Most adult gulls are some combination of black and white. Black feathers contain melanin, which is resistant to UV damage, and seabirds rarely find shade! They are long lived- gulls to age 25, albatrosses to 70! Gulls have the ability to drink ocean water. Because like all seabirds they have a pair of lateral nasal glands that can remove excess salt from the bloodstream. They lay relatively few eggs and have a great deal of parental care- both male and female help raise the young.
These fascinating denizens of the Bay Area are everywhere to be seen but the more you know about them the more likely you’ll become a gull watcher, too. My, my, my.’

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A Murder of Crows

Ravens

There are two very large and common black birds found throughout North America– the northern Raven and the American Crow. They are fairly easy to tell apart. Ravens are much larger; their call is deeper and hoarser and they have heavier beaks. When ravens fly overhead their tail is wedge or V-shaped. The mnemonic device is V like the V in Raven. Ravens also tend to be in monogamous pairs though not always, occasionally there are flocks of ravens.
Crows on the other hand are two thirds smaller than ravens, their calls are slightly higher pitched, the tail is squared off and crows tend to be in large flocks. Crows are much more common in urban, suburban and rural areas. Ravens on the other hand are often found in wilder and more remote habitations like the mountains and deserts. In the San Francisco Bay area both species have been increasing in number, adapting readily to the changes humans have wrought to the land. In addition ravens have been expanding their range and showing up in places like the city of San Francisco where they were rarely seen 20 years ago.
For an unknown reason and much to my chagrin a huge flock of crows has been assembling in the 2 large redwood trees in my yard in Santa Rosa. Beginning shortly before the sun sets there are hundreds of crows flying in from every direction. It takes them an hour or so of squawking, flying around, flapping loudly before they finally settle down for the night. And at 515 every morning for the last 3 weeks they all wake up and announce loudly –that it is another fine day to be a crow. This in turn causes our dog to start barking loudly as well.
I have always wondered about the collective noun for a group of these raucous birds–a murder of crows. Now I finally know, it’s that you want to murder those crows. Of course I never would do that, just dream about it, if I could sleep.