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Title Image


This blog is predominately about camera trapping in California. We camera trap to save our souls and to teach primary school students about biology and conservation. We will also touch on other camera trapping news and musings, sets from afar, mediocre herpetology, sucky birding, and other natural history discussions.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

A Fleeting Glance: Birding in Havana

Cuba is a confusing and at times truly frustrating place, but one with a magnetic culture, history and ecology that has intrigued me for many years.

April 2016 marked my second trip to the island, the first occurring nearly five years ago in 2012. The first trip was a wild, whirlwind of a trip with three co-workers, one of whom would become my wife. There is a bit more to that side of the story, but that will be saved for the Special Ed teacher tv series script (in progress).

Relevant to this blog, exploring natural history that first trip took a backseat to a frenzied week in Havana that focused on Cuban staples such as music, baseball and gallons of rum, all with the attractive aura surrounding us as Americans in Cuba pre-Thaw.

Last April's trip was with my wife only and while much of our plan was a continuation of her family discoveries from the first trip, we also set aside some time for deeper explorations based on our own interests -- so I got some vinyl crate-digging in and a birding trip to the Jardin Botánico Nacional, just south of the city.

It was a brutally hot day and we were half-delirious from lack of sleep and Zika paranoia after three nights of unwilling participation in a mosquito buffet...yet we chose to walk the grounds rather than explore all 500 acres on the tractor tour? Anyway, we stumbled around the gardens for a couple hours which were at times, loudly soundtracked by Mockingbirds and legions of Greater Antillean Grackles.


Anoles were ever present, clinging to broad leaves and sides of structures.
Cuban Green Anole

Cuban Lesser Racer?

This dead snake is notable because it is the first and only snake seen in Cuba, counting both trips.

A few more birds !
LaSagra's Flycatcher with nest material

Cuban Emerald
Cuban Emerald

Bonus city bird:

Red-legged Thrush with lizard snack

Thoughts and plans for trip number three to the island are already brewing, with Viñales and the Zapata Swamp part of the itinerary !

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Siberian / Sub-Tropical Saturday Search Social


It has been said that these are dark times and here in California this has been experienced psychologically in the mindframes of stunned and outraged progressives/rational beings/humans with a soul, but also literally with the onslaught of storm after storm.

Yesterday the clouds kindly parted to make way for glorious sun, an invitation to voyage and embrace the light.

The winter storms have brought in some unusual characters to the Bay Area and after the last Pineapple Express came through, there was a determination to see a couple of these visitors before they took off -- or met a darker fate -- RIP little Ross's Gull :( 

First stop was in Pacifica for the Emperor Goose. An inhabitant of the Siberian and Alaskan tundra, records do show appearances in CA -- primarily the Northern part of the state -- about every other year. This is the second record of the bird in San Mateo County.

Many locals were also stoked on the sunshine and walking along the Sharp Park levee required a decent amount of navigation around strollers, oldsters and frisky canines.

However, the Emperor abided and performed well for the half-dozen or so birders inching towards the park fence.

Emperor Goose

Emperor Goose

Emperor Goose

While it appears that the two goose species were on friendly terms, whenever the Emperor would forage near a Canada, the larger cousin would immediately turn, hiss and nip at the intruder from the north.

Also of note on the ocean side were several large rafts of Surf Scoters. I don't have a ton of sea -watches under my belt, so this was a unique and cool sight. No images because my lens is too weak.

The Emperor was first observed on January 23rd -- will it stay for the spring?

Following the great success of the morning, next up was the quick trip across to Colma, where JK was waiting at Cypress Lawn Cemetery. Yes folks, birding with the dead... initially kinda awkward, but one quickly gets back into the birding spirit, especially while on the quest for the brilliant Vermilion Flycatcher!

Now the Vermilion is a more common visitor in CA, particularly in the south, but for a Sonoma County boy a real treat (ebird shows only one record from north of the Golden Gate to Humboldt).

This bird was first discovered in November of last year and the fear was in us that the day-glow freak was gone after the latest round of soakings. Brief cries of alarm were attributed to finches with their red hues and there were moments where we tried to convince ourselves and the two other kind birders we teamed up with that the flash in the foliage we had seen was It.

A leisurely loop around the stakeout point did yield some nice stuff: a large flock of Cedar Waxwings, a Western Bluebird clan and the always welcome Say's Phoebe.

Western Bluebird
blue wing-lines are rad

Say's Phoebe
the lord Say's

When it was just about time to throw in the towel, an intensely out-of-place dab of color came into focus in the distance.

Vermilion from afar

The spectacular creature let us creep forward to truly bask in its splendor before zipping off.

Vermilion Flycatcher

Vermilion Flycatcher

These are the best shots I got and they do no justice to this fine specimen. Truly paralyzing in person.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Pathetic Attempts in Mushroom Identification

Hey look what a little bit of rain will do.

Fungi sprouting up everywhere. A few I saw on the walk from the parking lot to the lab. Pulled out the cell phone and snapped some pictures, but didn't bother touching them up at all.

What are these things? God if I know, but I figured a weak attempt might be in order. But a post that actually has to do with something on Campus might be appropriate.

So I pulled out my trusty new mushroom guide: Mushrooms of the Redwood Coast, and immediately had a panic attack. Holy crap there are a ton of different mushrooms in the area, and holy crap do a lot of them look alike. I figured maybe I could settle for Genus, but quickly realized that I don't have much of a clue to even figure out what group any of these guys belong to. This is going to much harder than I thought.

So stopping at any attempt to mis/identify any of these, I just present pictures.

There were a couple of groups of this one. The cap appeared a little slimy or wet.

Only saw one or two of these below. The cap seemed very dry on these ones

These next two are the same individual with my hand for scale (note: my hand is larger than PEOTUS's tiny fingered hands)

I think I only saw one of this one with the red/pink edges to the cap.

The next two images are from the same individual and were in close proximity to the one above. Similar cap, but no red/pink in them. I failed to get a top picture of the cap.

Finally lots of these guys that kinda reminded me of chanterelles, but not quite. Were both under oaks and eucalyptus. Some had wider stalks like the first picture and some had skinnier stalks like the second and third picture. Its also possible these aren't all the same. They were growing mostly in groups and popping up through the natural mulch

I thought birds were hard, but damn fungi ... They may hold still but its hard to even know where to start. If anyone want to chime in with hints or full IDs it will be much appreciated. Mad respek for the mycologists.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Herp Holiday 2016 plants

Back in August I shared some pictures of the herps we saw on our Herp Holiday Extravaganza 2016. I'll share a few pictures of some of the plants and flowers we saw on our trip.

The downside to waiting so long to post photos, especially of plants is that I have forgotten most of the IDs and all that hard work of keying out IDs back in May have gone to waste. Oh who am I kidding, keying out plants on the desert trip almost always consists of asking Randomtruth "Hey man, what's this?" and "I know I asked you an hour ago, but what is this again?"

So I am going to do my best to re-ID these flowers, but I am not going to let a couple of unknown plants hold this post up for another 6 months.

Please feel to correct any IDs. [Thanks for the ID help Christopher Moore and Randomtruth]

Desert Willow
Chilopsis linearis

Desert Willow
Chilopsis linearis
The Desert Willow flower has strong scent and and when trees are in full bloom like this one, the desert smells like a glorious perfume. Some say like the gentle scent of a high class lady in nearby Vegas.

Apricot Mallow
Sphaeralcea ambigua
Apricot Mallow is probably my favorite of the regular desert flowers we see. I really need to get some seeds and see if I can grow it in the backyard.

Desert Senna
Senna armata

Yes, you can make a tea with Mormon Tea, and its natural ephedra will have you champing at the bit and hiking a little bit faster than your friends. This plant may or may not be a certain friend's favorite part of visiting the Mojave. Although as Christopher in the comments pointed out this isn't Mormon Tea which has cone shaped flowers.

Brown-eyes Suncup
Chylismia claviformis

Barrel Cactus
Ferocactus cylindcaceus

Barrel Cactus
Ferocactus cylindcaceus

Common Fishhook Cactus
Mammillaria tetrancistra 

Wild Canterbury-bell
Phacelia campanularia

Palmer's Penstemon
Penstemon palmeri

Palmer's Penstemon
Penstemon palmeri

Desert Thistle
Cirsium neomexicanum
I have found a few images online of these same insects in this thistle. Not sure what the are, but maybe they specialize on this particular flower?

Xylorhiza tortifolia

Desert Indian Paintbrush
Castilleja chromosa


Buckhorn Cholla
Cylindropuntia acanthocarpa

Buckhorn Cholla
Cylindropuntia acanthocarpa

Beavertail Cactus
Opuntia basilaris

Silver Cholla
Cylindropuntia echinocarpa

Hedgehog cactus
Echinocereus engelmannii

When RandomTruth saw the below flower we were walking along a dirt road listening to group of young coyotes go apeshit at the scene of mom or dad returning with an early dinner. These young 'yotes were howling, squealing, and making the kind of ruckus that made all the rabbits nervous.

RandomTruth was so excited to see this mound of dirt flower that at first I thought his screams of joy meant he's found a Heloderma. Imagine my disappointment when it was just a plant. Oh, but wait, this wasn't just a plant! Look at this glorious little turd flower!

Scaly-stemmed Sand Plant
Pholisma arenarium

Scaly-stemmed Sand Plant
Pholisma arenarium

Friday, August 12, 2016

Herp Holiday 2016

For the first time since starting my postdoc I was actually able to make it down to the Mojave Desert with the gang (blogmate Xian and Randomtruth included) for a few days of herping, botanizing, and general tomfoolery.

It was a bit of a weird trip. Despite being the latest trip in the year we have ever done it may have been the coldest. The wind blew and hoodies and jackets were necessary as soon as the sun went down. These factors lead to very poor night driving conditions and we put in only minimal effort during the witching hours on the road.

Most of the herps we saw were during the day including this nice Speckled Rattlesnake, Crotalus mitchellii. We saw this nice girl in sunning herself on some rocks in a wash near the Trilobite Wilderness in the Marble Mountains.




This was a new area of exploration for us and a place I'd really like to check out further. We saw plenty of sign of Desert Bighorn Sheep, but no actual animals. Still sweet though. While fossils looked pretty picked over there seemed to be a few one could see still in big rocks (to my untrained eye). I would love to go out there with someone who really new their geology. There was a lot of this really cool seafoam green rock. The camera didn't capture the color as it was IRL.


I like to think there was some dinosaur out there with heart shaped feet making these marks, but alas just Mother Nature being random and my human eyes picking out a familiar shape.


We found a very cooperative Desert Iguana not far from the car on the way back from the end of the hike in Trilobite.



Our single night of driving the roads gave us only two living species with a few individuals of each. First a very young Sidewinder, Crotalus cerastes.


Then a black and white morph shovel-nose


And a few Desert Banded Geckos, Coleonyx variegatus variegatus. This one and a few others appear to be hypomelanisitic. We have noticed apparent hypomels before in the Eastern Mojave, but it would be nice to know if they bred true and this was a simple genetic trait. Maybe someone out there has done this research.



Next a Desert Patchnose, Salvadora hexalepis mojavensis, that we found in the Granite Mountains.




And finally the best herp of the trip, a baby Desert Tortoise. It is always so great to see the majestic tortoise, but even better to see a young one, knowing that recent breeding efforts have been successful. This baby was found less than a mile in the same wash that we found an adult female a few years ago. Maybe it is her offspring?



A flower post to follow, maybe in something like 18 months from now with the rate of posting I have accomplished the past couple of years.

UPDATE: Meant to include the statement that we do NOT collect on these trips, just in case anyone was worried.