Wine Country Autumn

Wine grapes

In Northern California it is early autumn and it is unfolding beautifully. We are experiencing cool nights in the 40s F. (4 C.), occasionally in the 30s (-1 C.). Days are warm when the sun shines…and it almost always does. About 75 F. (23 C.).

 

One of the biggest events right now is the grape harvest. Wine grapes are harvested at different times, depending on many things; but many are picked in the early fall before the rainy season arrives.

 

Large trucks labor up and down the small highways bearing big open boxes of grapes. Most of us have spent our share of time patiently sitting behind these slow-moving trucks on impassable roads. I use that time to look at the sun glistening on each purple jewel.

Bewick’s Wren on grape vine, California

The wine harvest attracts many visitors to the area, lured by the slick marketing of vineyards with their festive “stomps”, release parties, and energized tours. I drove through Napa County yesterday and counted six hot air balloons languidly suspended overhead, another popular tourist draw in autumn.

 

Every weekend there are animated harvest celebrations going on with gourmet food, live music, and free-flowing wine.

 

Other harvesting that goes on here, to a far lesser extent, are apples and pumpkins. I also see persimmons and figs on trees.

 

Persimmons on tree, California

Local Farmer’s markets have tables piled high with colorful peppers of all kinds, table grapes, heirloom tomatoes, and plums. The waning summer harvests are still yielding green beans, zucchini, cherry tomatoes, eggplants. Squash are coming out now, too.

 

Squash

 

We have had two short rains recently, so the autumn dry grass is not quite as intimidating as in past years. The anniversary of the raging 2017 wildfires is next week, and we are frequently reminded that we’ve now entered “Fire Season.” We hope for rain and work on ways to protect our families and homes.

 

Wildlife is shifting at this time of year, with the bird migration underway. A few species are coming in to settle here for the winter, and more will arrive as the temperatures up north cool.

 

I await the arrival of the sandhill cranes, due in about a month, if we get rain.

 

Sandhill cranes with red-winged blackbirds

 

Other birds like hawks and warblers are passing through from the northern parts of the continent as they travel to their summer homes in Mexico, Central and South America.

 

I’ve seen numerous flocks of swifts and waxwings in the past few days.

Healdsburg chimney and Vaux’s swifts

 

Cedar Waxwing

 

Due to the hot days, the reptiles can still be seen during the day when it’s warm. I saw a snake track on my morning walk yesterday, and was reminded of the thick rattlesnake I almost stepped on recently on the same path.

 

Lizards skitter as always in the heat, but now there are many little ones, smaller than my pinkie.

 

Chipmunks, squirrels, and jays are busy burying acorns, and woodpeckers are boisterous and frequent in the oaks. Several acorns fell out of the blue oaks above me this morning, acorn woodpeckers are on the move.

 

Tall grass is blonde and beautiful. The soil is so dry it is powder. Deciduous trees are starting to lose their leaves.

 

Other than the scent of dry vegetation, the distinct and common smell of vinegar is in the air. As the grapes are being picked and processed, the smell of freshly crushed grapes and fermentation are pungent. You can smell it everywhere in the valleys.

 

Both the big wineries and the small boutique wineries are bustling. Residents who grow and make their own wine have purple-stained fingers. This is a small grape press of a neighbor’s.

 

Grape Press with sides removed

 

I breathe in the smell of “the crush” with great reverence, and fervently hope we will be spared the wildfires this year.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Advertisements

Camera Obscura on Wheels

Camera Obscura Front View

I found another Camera Obscura this past summer. We were driving down Highway 1 and happened to see it beside the road. Stopped the car immediately. I never miss an opportunity to steal away from the real world and escape into a Camera Obscura.

 

This one is a mobile unit, and was parked at Russian House #1, a restaurant where the Pacific Ocean and the Russian River meet in Jenner, California.

 

From the outside it looks like a psychedelic tool-shed. The inside is small, but has all the essential ingredients: completely dark with a parabolic screen, a tiny ray of light, and the rotating lens and mirror on top. I found it charming and curious, and appreciated the ingenuity it took to build it. It rests sturdily on a small flatbed trailer, with steps built for visitors.

 

Camera Obscura Side View

 

Camera Obscura Lens

 

Camera Obscura means “dark chamber” in Latin. They date back centuries; and are the original idea behind the pinhole camera, where light passes through a pinhole and provides an inverted image in a dark chamber.

 

The oval photos are what we saw from the inside of the unit. These are real time images, as reflected by the lens onto the oval concave screen.

Camera Obscura Screen Photo of Russian River and Bridge

 

And this is the wheel, inside, that you turn, moving the lens for 360 degree views.

Crank for Turning Outside Lens

 

As we hand-cranked the lens, the Russian River, bridge with passing cars, and restaurant appeared on the screen.

 

There are 23 public Camera Obscuras listed as existing in the world today. In addition, there are private ones. This one we came upon is both. The owner, Chris de Monterey, built it and owns it; he transports it and shares it with the public.

 

Camera Obscuras date back to the 5th Century, B.C. Over the centuries, scientists, scholars, and artists studied the phenomenon. By the 18th century, it had become a resource for education and entertainment. Then photography pioneers built portable Camera Obscuras, and the camera was born.

 

As portable cameras became popular, the Camera Obscuras fell out of fashion, and most were demolished. Fortunately there are still some in the world.

 

Camera Obscura Wikipedia — including the list of Camera Obscuras with public access.

 

In San Francisco there is a Camera Obscura: The Giant Camera, on Ocean Beach behind the Cliff House. It was built in 1946 and is on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places.

 

I’ve been here dozens of times, and taken many loved ones here as well.

 

I wrote about it in a previous post:  Camera Obscura San Francisco.

 

San Francisco Camera Obscura

Camera Obscura, San Francisco

Camera Obscura, San Francisco

 

I have seen another one at the Exploratorium in San Francisco, but it’s always been closed when I’ve gone there. The Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles also has one; there are about two dozen open to the public around the world. A list of their locations is provided in the Wikipedia link above.

 

Today we all walk around, rather cavalierly, with a telephone/computer/camera in our back pocket.

 

I suppose one day our back-pocket-phone devices will become quaint antiques, too.

 

But for now, we can take pleasure in all the different versions of any sized device that records the beauty and magic of our surroundings.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexanader.

More info:

The Magic Mirror of Life, a website about the world’s Camera Obscuras by Jack and Beverly Wilgus.

 

 

Point Reyes

Point Reyes, Tomales Point, Pacific Ocean side

 

Tule elks (male), Point Reyes

 

Pt. Reyes from Tomales Point Trail. McClure’s Beach.

 

About a two-hour drive north of San Francisco is an expansive park called Point Reyes. Geologically it is a large cape that extends off the Pacific coast. Technically it is Point Reyes National Seashore…locals call it Point Reyes.

 

It is an entire peninsula with ocean coastline, beaches, and dunes; rolling hills; forests; dairy ranches; hiking trails and more. The land area is 70,000 acres (283 sq. km). It is my favorite of all places to hike in Northern California.

 

Point Reyes Wikipedia

 

Point Reyes is home to 490 bird species, 40 species of land animals, and a dozen species of marine mammals. Pods of California gray whale migrate through here. Two resident mammal species nearly went extinct: tule elk and elephant seals.

 

A breeding colony of elephant seals can be seen from December through March.

 

Elephant Seals on the beach, Point Reyes near Chimney Rock

 

The coast is rocky and often foggy, typical of Northern California, and this peninsula juts ten miles into the ocean…so far that it is notorious for hundreds of shipwrecks.  See map below.

 

Sir Francis Drake’s ship is said to have hit damaging rocks here in 1579. The crew hauled The Golden Hinde up to the beach for repairs.

 

Centuries later, but in the same general vicinity, we came upon this tiny cemetery in a grove of eucalyptus trees. Experienced life-savers succumbed to treacherous waves while helping passengers of shipwrecked boats.

 

Life-saver Cemetery, Pt. Reyes, California

 

Today the Coast Guard cruises overhead, maintaining public safety.

 

Coast Guard helicopter at Point Reyes

 

On the craggy mountain ridges overlooking the Pacific Ocean, tule elk herds graze on protected land.

Tule elk male, Pt. Reyes, California

 

Hikers share the trails with elk herds. Sometimes when the fog is very thick you can hear their impressive bugling without actually seeing an animal. The first time this happened I was nervous, didn’t like not knowing where they were. But now when I’m there I hope for it, I like the mystery.

 

Point Reyes Tule Elk

 

At this time of year, late summer, the grass has turned brittle and brown. Wild amaryllis flowers, common name “naked ladies,” can be seen clumped in the grass. They have a heady fragrance–sweet, like bubble gum.

 

Wild Amaryllis, aka Naked Ladies

 

While hiking along the grassy trails to Abbotts Lagoon, we came upon California quail, brush rabbits, and many sparrows.

Abbotts Lagoon, Point Reyes

 

California Quail (male) in lupine

 

Last summer’s visit yielded a coyote.

 

Coyote, Point Reyes, California

 

Every spring we find nesting swallows.

 

Barn Swallow nestlings, Point Reyes

 

One summer a few years ago, Athena and I decided to go out after dark in search of a rare owl known to live here, the spotted owl.

 

We knew the trail well enough that we walked without light. Our reasoning for walking in the pitch black dark–which in retrospect doesn’t seem quite so wise–was that we would come upon the owl and hear it, without it being frightened by us. Once we located its hoot, we could use the light to see it.

 

But as we tripped along the trail, we heard the unmistakable breathing of a big mammal…very near. When we switched on the light, we came face-to-face with a really big buck.

 

We were all three very startled.

 

We backed off, gave him some room, and he continued to graze. We never did hear or see the owl.

 

I could fill a book with the outdoor adventures we have had in our 30 years exploring Point Reyes. You may know that feeling: when you realize you have spent most of your life in a place…and loved every minute.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

All photos by Athena Alexander.

Header photo, also Point Reyes: Tomales Bay. You would never guess that below Tomales Bay lies the San Andreas Fault.

 

Point Reyes, California. Courtesy Wikipedia.

 

North American Prairies

Prairie meadow with black-eyed Susan wildflowers, Wisconsin

Pronghorn, California

Bison, Yellowstone NP, Wyoming

The prairies of North America, unique to the continent’s central region, have intrigued and enlightened residents for centuries. Born and raised in America’s prairies, I continue to take great pleasure in our grassland expanses.

 

The history of the continent’s grasslands has been interesting, you can read about it below in the two links. Today we are in the fortunate period of a resurgence of prairie restoration.

 

Carrizo Plains, California

 

Red-winged blackbird, Horicon Marsh, WI

 

With the experience of previous generations, we have discovered that natural ecosystems, like grasslands, provide profound balance and abundant sustainable activity.

 

Prairie Ecology and History

 

Prairie Wikipedia

 

The deep roots of the grasses absorb rain and nutrients, preventing erosion and run-off. The grassland absorption of nutrients and minerals creates rich soil and productive farming. The grasses and forbs also capture carbon, an important process with the current threat of global warming.

 

Pawnee Grasslands, Colorado

 

Not all prairies are the same; some are wet, some are dry. The grasses are not all the same, either: tall, short, or a mixture of the two, depending on precipitation.

 

Colorado

 

In addition to the Great Plains of North America in the center of the continent, there are also prairie habitats in several parts of the U.S. and southern Canada. See map below.

 

Savannah habitats can include shallow waterways like marshes or vernal pools; some have occasional buttes. Trees are typically rare, except for what might grow alongside rivers.

 

With the absence of trees and mountain formations, unobstructed gale-force winds are common.

 

If you’ve ever been in grassland regions, you know about the storms. Sometimes they are glorious. Purple-black clouds roil for hours until at last the skies ominously open, bringing rain that actually smells sweet. Dramatic lightning and booming thunder.

 

Sometimes, admittedly, it’s not so glorious…it’s terrifying. This is where tornadoes occur.

 

Impending Storm on the Pawnee Grasslands

 

Wildlife in the prairies are dependent on open expanses, grasses and forbs. Grazers like bison, pronghorn antelope, deer, and elk live here.

Pronghorn, male, California

Tule elk male, Pt. Reyes, California

 

Insects here are grasshoppers, moths, beetles, and butterflies. Small mammals like rodents, reptiles, and prairie dogs occupy this habitat. Jackrabbits and coyote too.

 

Prairie Dog, Colorado

 

The vast open plains are also home to many bird species: raptors and burrowing owls, seed-eating birds, field birds like bobwhites and quail.

 

California Quail

In addition, large migrating bird populations pass through the continent’s grassland habitats.

 

Sandhill Cranes near Cosumnes River Preserve, CA

 

One spring we went to a prairie preserve in Texas in search of the rare prairie chickens native to these grasslands. We were unable to find the prairie chickens, they are now extremely rare, but we were treated to many prairie sights.

Texas

Several male dickcissels, seed-eating songbirds who occupy the prairie grasses, made their way to the top of the grass to vie for female partners.

Prairie Dickcissel, Attwater Preserve, Texas

Many plains and prairies show a vibrant display of wildflowers every spring. With the huge expanse of wildflowers brings the pollinating bees.

Texas prairie wildflowers

Western Meadowlark, Carrizo Plains, California

 

We tend to visit oceans, coasts, mountains, or cities when we travel, and the Plains (the word means ordinary) are not attractive to many folks.

 

But I love the flat grasslands redolent with sweet-smelling grasses and fresh air. Skies are open, grass is golden. Bison and elk graze without concern, meadow birds rest on fence posts or disappear in the tall grass.

 

Thanks for joining me.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

For early American prairie experiences, read Willa Cather. 

 

Bison Bull, Yellowstone NP, Wyoming

 

Image result for north american prairie map

North American Prairie Map. Courtesy rediscovertheprairie.org.

 

Fireworks on the Bay

San Francisco Bay, 07.04.18

The American tradition of launching fireworks on Independence Day is a festive event on the San Francisco Bay. If we have a Fourth of July when the skies are clear it is especially spectacular, but the ubiquitous San Francisco fog is also enjoyable.

 

These are photos from the past two Julys: 2018 was clear, 2019 had fog.

 

San Francisco Bay, 07.04.18

 

Many of the surrounding cities also set off fireworks, like Oakland and Sausalito. Here you can see Sausalito’s fireworks in the background.

 

Fourth of July on San Francisco Bay, 07.04.18. Sausalito fireworks in the background.

 

San Francisco hosts two synchronized sets of fireworks, one near Pier 39 and the other from a barge in the Bay. With so many steep hills, there are many perches for watching the fireworks, restaurants, rooftops. Pier 39 is a party all day long. No pedestrians on the Golden Gate Bridge, however, after 9:00 p.m.

 

My favorite is taking a boat cruise on the Bay.

 

The fireworks begin at dark, approximately 9:30 p.m., so boats start cruising the Bay around sunset.

 

Sausalito Hills, California, 07.04.19

 

Sausalito Marina, California, 07.04.19

 

Whether it’s foggy or clear, it is always cold on the Bay. Locals know to dress in winter clothes. We wear our parkas to watch the explosive extravaganza, without a regret for the days of summery fireworks in shorts and flip-flops.

 

Blue and Gold Fourth of July Cruise, 07.04.19

 

As the sun inches lower, cruise boats and private vessels move to the center of the Bay and drop anchor; the excitement builds.

 

Sail boat on the SF Bay, 07.04.19

 

Police boats with red and blue lights circle the fireworks barge, to keep others at a safe distance.

 

The fireworks are always fantastic. State-of-the-art pyrotechnics, firing off in rapid succession.

 

The water reflects the colors for miles…the rockets’ red glare.

 

San Francisco Bay, 07.04.18

 

The fog reflects a massive glow.

 

Fog glow, SF Bay, 07.04.19

 

Whether it’s foggy or sunny, cold or dark, there’s never a bad time cruising on the San Francisco Bay.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

San Francisco Bay, 07.04.18

 

Summer Moments with a Butterfly

Anise Swallowtail Butterfly on fennel, Calif.

Of the 18,500 butterfly species worldwide, every species relies on a host plant to provide food for its larvae. Fennel is one of the host larval plants for the anise swallowtail butterfly, a common butterfly found along the western coast of North America.

 

Here in northern California we have a lot of wild fennel–found along freeways, in parks and yards, city parking lots and pavement cracks. This is great news for the anise swallowtail butterfly who depends on fennel to begin life. It’s great news for us, too; our summers are consistently decorated with this large butterfly.

 

Anise Swallowtail caterpillar, final instar, California

 

The host larval plant provides the food vitally necessary for the young caterpillar stages, or instars, of the butterfly. When they form wings and fly off, they seek primarily nectar thereafter, because they no longer have mouthparts for chewing.

 

Observing a butterfly’s four-stage life cycle is fascinating. Most of us know the general story: eggs, larva (caterpillar), pupa (chrysalis), butterfly. We often share this miracle with the children in our lives. Butterfly – Wikipedia. 

 

Athena and I have watched the many stages of this butterfly in the fennel patch in our yard, brought guests young and old to see, too. Then one day last month we were elsewhere, on a trail overlooking the Pacific Ocean, when Athena spotted an adult female butterfly behaving oddly.

 

The adult was on fennel, for one thing, and not drinking nectar from a flower.

 

Pacific Coast, California

 

She took a few photos and in examining them later, discovered that the butterfly had deposited an egg on the fennel. (This species lays eggs singly.)

 

Here you can see the swallowtail’s curved rear end touching down on the fennel. The egg is microscopic, so you won’t see it here.

 

Anise Swallowtail ovi-positing

 

They start out as a tiny dot on the underside of a plant leaf. All alone it grows from an egg into several successive caterpillars; then forms an exclusive protective shelter around itself as it changes life forms yet again. Eventually it emerges with wings, waits for them to dry, and then flies away. Quite a remarkable feat.

 

Anise Swallowtail Chrysalis or Pupa

 

Last weekend we went down to our fennel patch to see if there was any Lepidoptera activity.

 

Our fennel patch

 

We found this one caterpillar, below. It is about the length of a staple. It is one of the first caterpillar instars. Two or three more times the ever-transforming being will eat voraciously until it splits its skin. A new skin will have formed underneath, and the caterpillar will crawl off in it.

 

Anise Swallowtail caterpillar, early instar

 

One day the adult will flutter by in all its majestic beauty.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.
All photos by Athena Alexander.

Image result for nabokov quote on butterflies

Vladimir Nabokov Scientific Illustration: Butterfly Ovi-positing. Color Plate 60 from his book Fine Lines. His note to his wife: From Vladimir to Vera. Courtesy hyperallergic.com.

 

Lizard Land — Part 2 of 2

Green Iguana, Belize, native

 

Last week in Part 1 of this series we looked at lizards’ antipredator adaptations, camouflage, and size. Today we look at their skin, and various ways they move, sense, and communicate.

 

For starters, they are gloriously prehistoric. When you watch a lizard, especially the way it moves, it’s almost as if you are watching a dinosaur. The evolution of reptiles dates back 310-320 million years; more info here. 

 

Marine Iguana, Galapagos Islands

 

Blue-tongued Lizard pair, entwined, Sydney, Australia

 

Spiny-tailed Lizard, Ambergris Caye, Belize

 

Skin. Lizard skin is covered with overlapping scales made of keratin, providing protection from the environment. Scales also help prevent water loss, especially important in hot, dry deserts.

 

This photo shows the textured scales.

Western Fence Lizard, California

 

Tough and leathery, lizard skin is shed as the animal grows; they usually eat it for the minerals.

 

Locomotion.  Lizards live on the ground, in trees, rocks, underground, and even water. Therefore, they move in many different ways.

 

Although there are some legless lizards, most lizards are quadrupedal. Their gait has alternating movement of the right and left limbs, requiring the body to bend–shown in this photo of the Nile monitor.

 

Nile Monitor, Botswana, Africa

 

One of my favorite lizards for their movement is the common basilisk. When alarmed, basilisks rear up on their two hind legs and skitter across the water, earning them the name Jesus Christ Lizard. I’ve seen them run bipedally on the ground as well.

 

This photo demonstrates the basilisk’s muscular hind legs, necessary for bipedal locomotion.

 

Basilisk Lizard, Belize

 

Many species of lizards can effortlessly leap two and three times their body length. Lizards with short legs, like the skink, undulate like a snake.

 

Skink, California

 

Some lizards are extremely fast, while others, especially larger ones, are more languid. In addition, how much sun they have stored in their body is directly relational to speed.

 

The black spiny-tailed iguana (Ctenosaurus similis) is known as the fastest lizard, clocked at 21 mph (34 kph).

 

Black Spiny-tailed Iguana, Ambergris Caye, Belize

 

Geckos get the prize for hanging upside down. Their adhesive toe pads allow them to adhere to most surfaces.

 

The Asian House Gecko has the broadest distribution of any lizard in the world.

 

Asian House Gecko on the ceiling, Kakadu NP, Australia

 

Senses. With over 6,000 species of lizards, there are many variations of how lizards sense their environment–here are a few notable ways.

 

Eyes. Many lizard species, especially iguanas, have a parietal eye, a third eye, on the back of their head. It is photoreceptive and regulates circadian rhythm and hormone production for thermoregulation. Although it does not form images, it is sensitive to light and movement, helpful for detecting predators. The eye is difficult for us to see.

 

A chameleon can steer each eye in opposite directions. Geckos do not have eyelids, so they lick their eyes to keep them clean and moist. Geckos, like monitors, have acute vision.

 

Ears. Instead of external ears, lizards have ear holes or openings. The eardrums, or tympanic membranes, are just below the surface of the skin. These two close-ups clearly show the “ears.”

 

Dragon Lizard, Australia. Ear hole is reddish-brown circle below and left of eye.

 

 

This frill-necked lizard’s ear opening is just right of center photo, in an almost straight line below the eye. Australia.

 

Nose. All lizards, like snakes, have a specialized olfactory system for detecting pheromones or chemical signals. They have a vomeronasal organ (VNO), located in the soft tissue of the nasal septum. When you see a lizard sticking out its forked tongue, as in the photo below, what you are witnessing is the transferring of scent information from the tip of its forked tongue to the VNO.

 

Golden Tegu Lizard with forked tongue out, Trinidad

 

Mouth. Most lizards are predatory and hunt small invertebrates and/or insects. We have lizards to thank for keeping the insect population in check.

 

This western fence lizard had a fruitful day in my backyard. As winged nuptial ants were streaming from a rock fissure, he gorged for at least an hour.

 

Western Fence Lizard, California, eating nuptial ants. Notice all the dead winged ants he hasn’t yet had the chance to consume.

 

Here in California we are lucky to have the western fence lizard, because ticks that feed on this lizard do not spread Lyme disease. This lizard’s blood kills off the Lyme bacteria.

 

The marine iguana, found only in the Galapagos Islands, forages on algae, kelp and other marine plants. They will dive up to 98 feet (30 m), and can stay submerged for an hour.

 

While underwater, marine iguanas ingest salt. The salt is filtered from the blood and then nasally excreted. We saw many of them squirt salt out their nostrils.

 

This photo shows the marine iguana’s lovable face encrusted with algae (green) and dried salt (white) on it.

 

Marine Iguana, Galapagos Islands

 

As squamates, lizards have movable upper jaws, and some lizards, like the green iguana, have very sharp teeth capable of shredding leaves and even human skin. All lizards have teeth, dentition varies.

 

Communication. Lizards make sounds for courtship, territorial defense, and distress signals. Geckos are the most loquacious lizards, with chirps and squeaks that can be surprisingly loud. Sometimes you’ll hear a lizard hiss, a warning.

 

Other forms of communication include:  various body postures like push-ups and head-bobs, as well as the expansion of the dewlap. Tail-flicking is common in territorial disputes.

 

We found this dapper anole with a bright orange dewlap in a Texas swamp.

 

Green anole, Texas

 

This green iguana below, near a river in Costa Rica where it is native, was nearly five feet long (1.5 m) including the tail. An arboreal lizard, they hunt and bask in the trees and can easily break a fall with their hind legs.

 

This photo shows his crescent-shaped, uninflated dewlap under the neck. Dewlaps are muscle-controlled, and help regulate body temperature; also used in courtship and territorial displays.

 

Green Iguana, Costa Rica

 

Leaping Lizards Batman! They are the coolest animal on this planet!

Thanks for joining me in Lizard Land.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

All photos in the wild, by Athena Alexander.

 

Great Basin Fence Lizard, Great Basin NP, Nevada