Saturday, October 25, 2014

Bay Area Fall Color: Madia and Anaphalis

The faded stalks and flower parts of this year's non-native wild oats (Avena sp.) serve as a blurry context to the green and yellow coast tarweed (Madea sativa) in this photograph. It was a windy day, and I used a tripod to stabilize the camera to create the blurry effect of the loose grasses. Since that was the effect I desired, I stopped down the aperture to allow a longer exposure.

The tarweed was growing vibrantly, its stiff stems resisting the same breeze that tossed around the grass stalks. This was on the Alta Trail, GGNRA, just uphill from Marin City, where a Best Buy just went out of business, and a now Halloween superstore seasonally squats. 

Tarweed and oats, Alta Trail (Marin), Fall 2014.
Here's a closeup of the tarweed itself.  This particular individual had a special symmetry to it. In general on this plant, I think the toothed petal tips are interesting.The black flower centers are loaded with seed to collect starting in October, if one can tolerate getting the sticky tar on one's fingers while extracting them. That tar gives the unopened flower on this plant its glistening appearance. 

Madia sativa closeup, Alta Trail (Marin), August 2014.
A few days prior, I had mountain biked home down the Julian Fire Road, the section of the Coastal Trail connecting Conzelman and Bunker Roads. This is a treat, rolling down toward the ocean, really only hearing wrentits, wind, and crunching gravel; sometimes seeing a bobcat on the lowest portion near the historic fire range. It is a treat that must be paid for in sweat and hard breathing. San Francisco and Marin Cyclists know the name Conzelman to be synonymous with exertion.

On that ride, I stopped to capture a picture of pearly everlasting (Anaphalis margaritacea), shown below. This is another fall favorite, found across most of North America. It's named after its pearly white flower clusters, which remain into the winter and spring than one might expect. 

Pearly everlasting, Coastal Trail, August 2014.
This roll of film is proof that it may be better not to use old film that has been sitting in a garage for nearly a decade. It was free, yes, but seems to have literally lost its luster. In some ways, it's a cool effect (one may even call it "old-school"), but given the choice, I would opt for rich color. 

I hope you enjoy these two California native plants.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Different Views of Ivanpah Solar Energy Facility

Ivanpah Solar Energy Facility (from the northwest), April 2014.
Back in May of this year, I posted a photograph that I shot out of the window of the plane I had taken on my way into Las Vegas. At the time I didn't know what it was called, nor had I been able to locate it on Google Earth.

Well, I got the roll developed from the way home, and that revealed I'd taken another photo of it. So, that led me to decide that I needed to learn more about this place. 

Through my membership with the California Native Plant Society, I should have been able to figure out that this 1,600-acre facility is one that has been under discussion and debate for some time now. Actually, that particular debate is finished, since the facility, called Ivanpah Solar Energy Facility, is now in operation. But the overall debate continues to intensify.

Renewable energy has been coming face-to-face with conservation in California, especially in the public (BLM) lands of the desert, and CNPS has been trying to give a voice to the ancient plant communities that can be impacted when facilities like this are built on otherwise pristine land. Aside from plants, wildlife such as tortoises, bats, and birds (see articles below) are impacted, studies are showing.

Ivanpah as viewed out the plane window (from the east/northeast), April 2014.
The human population continues to grow. The UN expects that our current 7.0 billion population will exceed 9.6 billion by 2050. Much of this population, as it has been since the industrial revolution, will live in large urban centers. No doubt, we need to find ways to create power other than the pollutive and non-renewable coal- and gas-burning power plants; or nuclear, which despite being highly productive, generates wastes with no clearly acceptable long-term disposal plan.

When I first heard that California was committed to providing its utility customers up to 33% renewable energy by the year 2020, I was excited. But, through economic incentives to large power companies, the promise of jobs, and the view that solar energy is clean, Ivanpah represents the form it's taking.

We must find ways to generate power in cities, where people need it. We also must find new ways to conserve energy. If we must build large-scale renewable energy plants, let's do it on land that's already disturbed; if done on private land, it can be used to increase the local county's tax base. (An old car sales lot in Albuquerque comes to mind...)

Click here for a closer look at some of the 300,000 mirrors that reflect light to the steam boilers.

Here is an aerial view of the world at night, compiled by our friends at Blue Marble. The map is centered near Las Vegas. This gives one an idea where the power from Ivanpah is going.

Scientific American, August 2014
Solar Farms Threaten Birds

AP, August 2014
Emerging solar plants scorch bird in mid-air

Desert Sun, April 2014
Birds going up in smoke at Ivanpah Solar Project

And finally, an optimistic video from BrightSource Energy released in September 2013:
Ivanpah: a Compilation

What to do about it? A few organizations -- California Native Plant Society, Defenders of Wildlife, and Audubon California, to name a few -- have been taking action. From what I can tell, the main activity in which these groups are engaging is advocacy: suggesting better ways to locate these facilities. However, the Center for Biological Diversity has launched a lawsuit* against the US Department of the Interior for allowing these facilities to operate. 

In the meantime, it seems "streamers" will tragically remain part of the Mojave sky.

*note that this action specifically mentions the Yuma Clapper Rail, a federally endangered bird species -- which tells me that the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) is not powerful enough to make a case for the swallows, warblers, and other birds -- not to mention insects and bats -- impacted by the facility. This attests to the power and value of the Endangered Species Act, but also indicates, to me, someone with little knowledge of law, the weakness of the MBTA.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Velella Velella

The By-the-Wind Sailor is a most interesting creature. Known worldwide by its scientific name Velella velella, this jellyfish-like creature floats freely in the Pacific Ocean. Its tentacles are for feeding and to create air for buoyancy, and a stiff ridge on its back acts as a sail to propel it -- literally where-ever the wind blows.


When living, Velella are purplish-blue, a color they derive from their diet. Apparently their indigo tint is a mechanism to deal with the incredible amount of sun they are exposed to, from above and from the sea's reflections. See the General natural history section here for more. 

Depending on where you do your research (or, which branch of the Internet you browse), you may learn that:

  • Velella is a communal organism (chondrophore) -- each tentacle is a separate living thing, and all tentacles floating in the same connected unit are actually just helping eachother out (like a Portuguese Man-o-War);

~ or ~
  • Velella is a single organism (hydroid polyp) -- each floating body is its own separate living thing. Apparently, this is what more recent research has revealed, but I could not find that research, and it is easier to find seemingly reputable sources that claim the former.

Regardless, this summer seems to be a particularly "good" (depending on how you look at it) summer for Valella observations. They are washing up on the beaches all over the West Coast this year. They're such a popular observation that even the  San Francisco Chronicle has covered them recently.

Although I haven't seen them in the four previous springs I've spent here, they are apparently a fairly common vernal phenomenon in the Pacific Northwest and points south. But it's currently August and they continue to wash up, since starting in mid-July. According to this article, jellyfish in general currently abound in our oceans, and it's probably due to an imbalance in the ocean's overall health. It is also an El Niño year, but apparently its effects are expected to be mild, if anything at all, this year. Here's a great blog post explaining all that.

This morning, Catey and I observed them at Tennessee Beach. This small pocket beach has uplands immediately adjacent to it -- so as they have dried, the Velella have blown up into the coastal scrub. This creates a curious sight -- round, papery white jellyfish skeletons on the coastal hills. As Catey observed, it looks as if trash had been dumped on the beach. 

The skeletons are tough and pliable, more resembling plastic than paper. The crafty might find a way to stitch them together into clothing or bags.

"Ah, to be brainless and worry-free" was a comment I recently wrote to my good friend Toni in a discussion we were having last week about Velella. The closing sentence in the Farallones newsletter article (also linked above) led me to this chuckle of a conclusion.  These creatures' fates are solely determined by the shape of the sail that their genetic makeup creates on their backs. For the philosophical, this birthright is one worth exploring and pondering (to what coast would I have drifted if I were born a brown-haired lefty?), as we reflect on the vast scope of the natural world in both space and time.

All photos on this post were shot by me at Rodeo Beach, Marin County, California, 8/14/14, on an old roll of Mitsubishi MX-II 100 ASA film.

Friday, July 18, 2014


Catey (& Bear),

Here's to many more sunsets together.