Sunday, March 30, 2014

Continuing in the geological vein (bah dum!)

We woke up this morning after a Rainy Saturday, and determined that due to sunshine, it was going to be an Adventure Sunday.  Ensues heated debate re destination options.  Kid 2 wanted "frogs and newts and turtles."  Ok, easy. There's a little place we know that's hiking distance from  Borges Ranch that contains about as many frogs and turtles as one could wish.  This time of year, newts are likely, too.  Throw in the probable snakes (we've met many snakes at Borges, from baby rattlesnakes  to huge gopher snakes), coyotes, and the pigs/cows/goats/chickens/sheep with which the place is riddled, and great hiking in several directions, we'd have a slam dunk biology day.

Cute wittle baby wattlesnakey

The Physicist apparently had other ideas.  I loaded my kids in the car expecting frogs and newts and turtles, and somehow we ended up on the opposite side of the same mountain.  The Physicist, you see, has been attempting to inculcate my children with the physical sciences just about as long as I've been training them up as biologists.  He's sneaky, and sometimes he wins.

Do you know how many frogs we found today?  Zero.  Ditto newts.  Ditto turtles, snakes, coyote, cows, pigs, sheep, and assorted other actually interesting things.

Do you know how many rocks we found?  A lot.  A lot of rocks.  Rocks, my friends, are brilliant things, if you need something to stand on.  They are also good for the growing of moss, and occasionally sporting a nice bonzai tree.  If the Physicist thinks that bringing my kids to a place where there is nothing to do but stand on rocks, and watch the moss and bonzai grow, is going to interest them in the physical sciences, he is just going to have to try a little bit harder.

I give you Rock City, Mt. Diablo State Park.  Also known as kid-boredom-torture land.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014


Group camping.  Pro or con?  I'm usually more of a less-is-more kinda girl when it comes to large groups and camping, quite honestly.  But some good people were organizing a trip, and it was to a place I've been wanting to see for quite awhile now, and, well, why not?

We traded in our backpacking, two man, broken-poled old tents for the kind of monstrosity I would have scorned to sleep in, let alone own, before I had kids and a very finicky sleeper of a husband, and set out with some ridiculous number of other families to Pinnacles National Park.  I honestly had no idea what to expect.

Camp site:  If you like windswept plains with minimal trees, no privacy, sandwiched between a road and a parking lot, this place is for you.  On the plus side, flush toilets and sandy soils which made tent-staking a breeze.

Multi-family large group camping:  Well, there are the parents who put their kids to bed at 8 pm, and the parents who just begin to usher Very Loud kids to bed at 10 pm.  Between 8 pm and 11 pm, if you're one of the former, there's a lot of soothing of disgruntled, should be sleeping kids.  And then there are the kids who wake up at 5 am to sing showtunes, whose parents are apparently perfectly cool with that.  Which again, lots of soothing of disgruntled, should be sleeping kids.  On the plus side, we all got a 5 course gourmet dinner and a 5 course gourmet breakfast, and no one had to prepare more than one course, total, for the weekend.  And somebody's stove was always going for hot water, so tea is infinitely easier than when you have to fire up your own camp stove every time.

National Park: On the tiny side, comparatively.  Perfect for a weekend, whereas with most NPs, you could live on their borders for months and barely to begin to explore.  I know, because I've done that.  Excellent for: seeing brilliantly colored rock peaks, exploring caves (if you arrive later than 10 am, be prepared to explore them in a giant, non-stop queue that would rival Disneyland), animal and wildflower viewing (Condors live here. Sadly we didn't see them.  Saw a coyote, and various other fun fauna and flora).  Less good for: getting away from the madding crowds.

 They like rockclimbing, apparently.

Also spelunking.

The rocks were phenomenal.

More serious climbers thought so too.

And as usually happens, we happened across wildlife that needed a bit of a hand.  Does this only happen to me?  I'm sure it doesn't.  It started when I got a call from my husband, who was well ahead of me in the line on the trail.  He yelled "Rebecca!  Snake!"  And while, to most people, this would be a cue to stop walking and/or walk backwards, apparently for me it's a cue to leap down the trail with all the vim and vigor of a gazelle on Red Bull, because no way am I not going to see the snake.

She was pretty.

Problem was, she was cold.  And trying to climb a near vertical rock (not shown), and being stared at and photographed by all the Disney crowd.  Which caused her to lose her grip on the vertical rock, and freefall three feet to the rock on which you see her, above, which was wedged in a crevice below which there was a 50 foot drop - with various bits and bobs of boulders wedged here and there on the way down.  So continuing to fall would have been a bad option for her, and she was clearly too cold to do much other than stubbornly continue to climb, in full view of,  and less than 3 feet from, hundreds of people trooping down this trail.  And... well.  People aren't kind to snakes.  See Eve and Adam and the whole crushing beneath feet thing.  So I photographed her and I left her, and then ... I turned around and went back.  She was being guarded and filmed by a lovely Swiss couple, but the lovely Swiss couple wouldn't stay there all day.  Lovely Swiss Female found me a nice long stick, to replace the completely inadequate one I'd found, and Lovely Swiss Male held my camera for me, and we were able to lift her gently off the rocks without

1) dropping her into that 50' crevice, or
2) getting bit (non poisonous, but plenty big sharp teeth nevertheless).  
So I moved her to the other side of the path with a nice gently sloping ravine and lots of brush to hide in and sun to warm up in, and everyone was happy.  Win/win.

Lovely Swiss guys' camera was 4 times the size of mine, so you'd think he'd manage to film me in focus, wouldn't you?  Sometimes I think it's not the size of the camera, it's what you do with it.

But that could just be me.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Aint nothin' cuter than a cooler full o' turtles.

It's one of those turtle-y months.

Ten days ago, I was wandering around with some friends, and happened upon this little guy:
I mean, he's ridiculous, right?  Insanely cute. That's my buddy J holding him.  J has normal, largish, man sized hands.  The turtle's head is about the size of J's fingernail.

It's a western pond turtle, by the way.  California Species of Special Concern - might soonish become listed as a California Threatened Species, which is one below Endangered.  They're being crowded out by people releasing pet turtles (usually red-eared sliders), and eaten by invasive bull frogs.  Bull frogs eat anything, even baby turtles.  

Today, I was wandering around with some friends (we're biologists.  It's a good time to wander outside right now), and .... well.

First I found a drying up puddle in a drainage.  It was about 2 inches deep and 5 feet across.

And then I found a small invasive bull frog - they get MUCH bigger than this.

And then I found evidence of invasive crayfish - possibly the second most vicious invasive freshwater predator in California.

And then I found this:
And his sister:
That is not a J sized fingernail.  That is a Rebecca-sized fingernail.  My hands stopped growing when I was 10 years old.  My hands are tiny girl hands.  It's hard to find rings small enough for me.  That turtle's head is half the size of my fingernail.  It is unbelievably, redonkulously, the cutest turtle I have ever met in my entire life.  Bar none, ever.

They camouflage really well.  Here, I'll show you:

Did you know that hatchling turtles have belly buttons?  They DO.
And then I found their brother:
At which point I called up the land owner and said "Hey, I just found three hatchling western pond turtles in a drying up puddle on your land, and there's bullfrogs and crayfish in their puddle.  What do you want me to do?"

And they said "So they're bullfrog food? And the pond will be dry by tomorrow? I'll call you back."
And they called back and said "I have been informed that I can not give you direction here. But I know what I would do if I were there.  We can all hope that they will find a way to the bigger pond over the levee. Perhaps they like to hitchhike."

And I said "perhaps they do. I hope they find a way. By the way, now there are five. "

It's possible - in theory - that they might have done some hitchiking.  To a nice clear slow moving creek with good hiding places.  Not sure how they would have done that, though.  Nature is supposed to take its course without interference from biologists.  Maybe western pond turtles in drying up puddles down steep banks they can't possibly climb up, sharing a tiny pool with two voracious invasive species, just weren't meant to survive.

Five turtles in a cooler, with a pencil.  Yes, that is a standard sized mechanical pencil.  (We put them in here to photograph them, because they are impossible squirmy and oddly fast.  A handful of quarter-sized turtles is surprisingly difficult to hold on to.)

Empty cooler

On the other hand, maybe they were.