Archive for the 'Nature' Category

Black Widow: Saturday Afternoon Freakout!

Saturday, May 16th, 2009
Black Widow on Neighbor's Garbage Can

Roger found a black widow hiding under the rim of a neighbor’s trash can.

I took a photo before we knocked it down and squished it.

As much as I hate to kill anything, I’m not at all opposed to discouraging growth of the disturbingly large population of black widows in the San Jose area this year.

Mason Bees; North American Native Pollinators

Tuesday, April 21st, 2009

Update:

We’ll be lucky to get any Osmia lignaria bees this season as they generally try to already have a nesting site by now. They are a very early season pollinator!

However, there is a second native bee that may likely take up residence and provide effective pollination services all summer. Osmia californica, another mason bee, takes over about the time lignaria is done!

I might order some tubes of Osmia californica bees to kick start the local population.

Ready for Occupancy!

If you have any interest in gardening or flowers, or follow any kind of agricultural related financial markets, you are likely aware that one of the ecological disasters we face is known as colony collapse disorder.

Basically, the worker bees in a honey bee colony die, get lost, or otherwise just cease to function. The cause has been attributed to pollution, mites, genetic degradation, pesticides, genetically modified crops, and/or a slew of other guesses.

It is a serious problem in that bee driven pollination of crops is what sustains much of the agricultural production in the United States.

Oddly, though, the european honey bee — the bee that everyone immediately thinks of as the One True Way that flowers are pollinated to yield seeds and crops — is actually an imported species and, frankly, a bit invasive at that.

Not only invasive, honey bees tend to be territorial in that they will actively defend their hive. As well, they really aren’t even that efficient as pollinators.

Not surprisingly, there are many native pollinators buzzing or flitting about. In the South Bay, the most noticeable are the carpenter bees as they are gigantic, relatively clumsy, totally non-agressive, fuzzy, and have a noticeably loud buzz while flying.

But they aren’t the true superstars of the native North American pollinators. For that, one should look to the Mason Bee or Orchard Bee (Osmia lignaria).

The mason bee is a rather docile flying insect that is considerably smaller than the carpenter bee. Like the carpenter bee, it is non-territorial, won’t sting unless seriously threatened, and is non-swarming.

The mason bee is an extremely efficient pollinator as a single bee may visit over a thousand blooms per day.

Clearly, this is a bug whose presence should be encouraged!

Fortunately, it is easy to provide housing for such a helpful critter. Roger is standing next to a mason bee home that we made over the weekend. We chose to make one out of a block of wood. However, bundles of reeds, bamboo or — even — appropriately sized straws work quite well, too.


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The Incredible Growth of Banana Plants

Sunday, April 12th, 2009
4 Hours of Banana Growth

I have always loved banana plants. Actually kept one alive in a pot in an apartment in Columbia, MO for a few years! For an apartment banana in a cold climate, a new leaf is rare and exciting (if you are into plants anyway).

Upon moving to California, I acquired some banana plants. For free, even, though that really shouldn’t come as much surprise to other Californians.

In a more favorable climate — like California — Bananas are incredibly fast growing plants. And they multiply rapidly. A well established banana tree will produce two or three new tree stalks per year.

Fast growth? No. Really. Fast growth.

A couple of weeks ago, I was cutting the dead leaves off of our bananas and accidentally sliced new leaf growth that was coiled up inside an old leaf.

The picture at left was taken less than 4 hours after the cut was made.

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Blue Blade; Destroyer of Favas

Monday, April 6th, 2009
Loading the Fava Bean Shredder

This year we are making a more concerted effort to actually, like, plan meals and buy what we need as opposed to ending up with the world’s most expensive compost heap from the wasted food bought at the farmer’s market with best of intentions.

As a part of that, I’m also taking a more serious run at the whole gardening thing in our community garden plot.

This actually started last fall when I turned and planted the entire 20′ x 30′ (approx) plot with fava beans. Now, we happen to love fava beans, but not that many. There was an ulterior motive.

Namely, fava bean plants do a brilliant job of pulling nitrogen out of the air and fixing it into the cells of the plant itself. As well, since favas are such a vigorous over-winter growth in this climate, they nicely shade and choke out most of the weeds that would be sprouting about now.

To put the nitrogen into the soil, the bean plants must be worked into the soil. Last year, I did this largely by hand (with a much smaller number of favas) by digging holes, chopping up the plants with a shovel and turning them into the soil. It worked, but not terribly well as it leaves potentially large air pockets in the soil that plants hate.

This year, I used Blue Blade (pictured at left). Or the scariest damned Make-style hack ever. It is one of the various inventions used by the gardeners in plots around mine. (No, I didn’t make this — if I had, the sides would be a bit sturdier and I would have used nylon nuts to keep the damned thing from falling apart.)


Shredded Fava Beans And Shredder

It is a pretty simple device.

  • Rip apart an old lawnmower
  • Cut a piece of plywood in a circle the same diameter as the lawnmower’s deck
  • Drill hole in middle and bolt lawnmower engine to plywood
  • Attach blade to bottom
  • Attach plywood to a sawed off barrel (In this case, plastic… lending to the fear factor)
  • Cut a 2.5″ in diameter hole to the side of the engine
  • Attach a plastic tube used to feed in the favas
  • Grab a handy stick and jam the engine’s throttle wide open because you don’t have a throttle cable or dead man’s switch anymore

Then? Fire the damned thing up and feed favas, weeds, and any snails/slugs into the tube.

The end result is green gold. A thick mat of minced favas that are easily spread and turned into the soil. Not only does it add a ton of nutrients to the soil, but the fibrous matter loosens the soil quite a bit and makes subsequent planting and weeding tasks a ton easier.

I’m still letting a good sized patch of favas grow to full maturity. Which is frightening. I picked up fava seeds from Peaceful Valley Farm & Garden Supply along with a rhizobacteria that grows in symbiosis with the plant to maximize nitrogen yield through excellent plant growth & health. In my case, this means a solid mass of 6 foot tall favas!

Peaceful Valley or “groworganic.com” is an awesome company. They have been very helpful and have an amazing assortment of heirloom seeds.

Red Pincushion Protea (Leucospermum cordifolium)

Sunday, March 29th, 2009
Red Pincushion Protea (Leucospermum cordifolium) Full Stem in Vase

At left is one of my [many] favorite flowers.

If I’m not mistaken in my specificity, it is the Red Pincushion Protea (Leucospermum cordifolium), a flower native to Southern Africa.

The red pincushion flower is generally available year round as it is a long-lasting, woody stemmed, bloom that is apparently quite easy to cultivate in a hothouse environment.

In general, I’m trying to keep our house with at least one random bouquet of fresh flowers in a prominent area at all times. With our local farmer’s market, this has proven to be quite easy and, given California’s climate, there is always some locally grown bloom to be had.

But, I do like to occasionally mix things up with a bit of a bloom from something grown on other than this hemisphere. Fortunately, there is one vendor at the farmer’s market that has the occasional bit of imported oddity and, thus, I brought home a red pincushion for the first time in a long, long time.

I first met this particular flower when we lived near the corner of North, Milwaukee and Damen in Chicago. Yes, a six-way intersection. One of said corners was an amazing florist shop that continually stocked random exotica as if it were roses.

The blossoms are simply fascinating. Inordinately complex with thousands of little bits all arching together to form an almost alien like bloom.

In the photo at left, the blossoms are illuminated by bright sunlight streaming in through our kitchen skylight.

Perfect light with an interesting flower sounds like a great combination for a bit of a photo study….


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Crumbling Cliffs

Saturday, December 27th, 2008
1 - Cliff Face Pulling Away From Shore
2 - Cliff Face Falling Into River
3 - Cliff Splashes into River

Yesterday, we took a road trip down to Santa Cruz to visit the monarch butterflies and to check out the beach.

Turned out to be a beautiful day at the beach.

With all the rains, the rivers were running high and, thus, nature’s awesome power was evident everywhere.

We happened to be on the far bank of a river that was steadily eating a way at the sandy cliffs along its shore.

I noticed cracks appearing across the land at the top of the cliff.

Grabbing the camera, I set it to a 1/1000th shutter speed to ensure that all the crumbly splashy goodness would be caught in sharp detail.

And then I waited.

It wasn’t long before my patience was rewarded.

An entire section of cliff pulled away from the shore and splashed into the raging rapids below.

Of course, the splash is best viewed really large.



Roger Crumbling Sandy "Cliffs"

These were taken on the beach at Natural Bridges State Park in Santa Cruz.

The relatively flat beach has a river that runs through it while the tidal action causes the river to enter the sea via a variety of ever changing paths.

On the day we visited, the river was running around the rocky outcropping at the west end of the beach. This created a nice curved bit of rapids that was eating away at the sandy shore.

The “cliff” was all of 15 inches tall and the water would undermine large sections at least once or twice every minute along about a 100 foot path.

The river itself, was a whopping four to eight feet wide, and was entirely mesmerizing to watch. Because the sandy bottom is ever changing, the river would ebb and flow in an almost tidal fashion.

One moment, it would be smooth and serene, and then it would suddenly turn into a bumpy course of white capped waves.

Next time, we’ll take a shovel and a bucket so we can go seriously artistic on the beach and river. No worries about damaging the shore as the tide effectively resets the canvas every high tide!

Covering the Atrium

Saturday, November 29th, 2008
Atrium Cover & Lights

We do get weather in California. Beyond the 9 months of sun, we have 3 months of sun and rain. And, believe it or not, cold weather. It actually freezes quite a few times over the winter.

And when you live in a glass house with a gigantic hole in the middle, this can make for a few wet and chilly days.

To compound the issue, we are in the midst of a remodel and, thus, our kitchen is actually in our atrium. We cook, eat, and refrigerate in this open space.

In past years, I have tied a tarp over the hole. It worked, but was ugly and leaky.

Clearly, a better solution was in order.

Many of the Eichler’s in our neighborhood have covers, but most are permanent — intentional or otherwise due to the inconvenience of dealing with it.

When I searched for “eichler atrium cover“, the first non “network” hit was this beauty. Well engineered and stylish, but unintentionally permanent. Coincidentally, that cover was built by Robert Bowdidge, a rather smart fellow that I used to work with at Apple.

So, we took a wander about Home Depot to peruse all of the materials that might be suitable.

Off the bat, I chose Suntuf corrugated lexan panels as the actual covering material. It is lightweight, very strong, and reasonably priced. Suntuf blocks almost all UV radiation.


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Paranoid Praying Mantis

Sunday, November 16th, 2008
Wary Praying Mantis

For whatever reason, the praying mantis have been out in force in the last week. We found three yesterday without really looking.

At this time of the year, the mantis are near the end of their life and, thus, are of maximum size.

They also tend to be completely unafraid of anything and will often be seen walking out in the open.

This mantis was found on the windshield of a car. We moved it to the bamboo and I took the opportunity to get some photos.

The mantis didn’t care much, but it certainly did keep one eye pointed directly at the lens of my camera the entire time.

Praying Mantis Preening a Leg

After a while, it decided to preen itself.

Only the one side and always with that rather deadly [to bugs, anyway] front claw/leg held in a provocative fashion.

Funny, too, because it only cleaned the the legs on the side facing me. Given that both eyes move independently and over quite a wide range, I have no doubt that it could have cleaned the other side without taking an eye off me.

Of course, it would have had a much more difficult time showing me that claw thing.

The Mutant Plants of Northern CA

Friday, November 7th, 2008
Giant Lemon with Lemon Trees Inside

Before Silicon Valley was silicon valley, the valley was full of orchards from bay to mountains. Even amongst the high technology, there are still pockets of trees and crops.

There is even a small Apple orchard on Apple’s property!

Things grow here. Generally, you just have to add a bit of water and a plant/tree will simply explode with growth! Just about every house older than a decade has one or two citrus trees and a variety of flowering bushes, trees, or plants.

Out of this spawns the occasional mutant. Or just surprisingly large examples of typically small plants.

On the left is a meyer’s lemon that Roger and his friends found on the street. When we sliced it open, some of the seeds had actually sprouted to yield little tiny lemon trees inside the gigantic lemon!


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Roger & Western Fence Lizard (Sceloporus Occidentalis)

Sunday, October 19th, 2008
Roger & Shedding Western Fence Lizard (Sceloporus occidentalis) On Shoulder

Roger has a way with bugs. We have often called him a “bug whisperer” because of his ability to capture butterflies and their subsequent willingness to simply hang out on his hands, shirt, head, whatever as if it were a perfectly normal thing for a bug to do.

As he has gotten older, his fascination has expanded to include frogs, lizards, and turtles.

Roger captured this fine lizard around the house in Seaside, CA (near Monterey) that we stayed in over the weekend. Wonderful house.

Dessert climate, but across the street from the Frog Pond Wetland Preserve. More on that in a moment.

Shedding Western Fence Lizard (Sceloporus occidentalis)

As best as we can tell, this lizard is an example of a Western Fence Lizard (Sceloporus Occidentalis) or one of its subspecies.

Blue Belly of Shedding Western Fence Lizard (Sceloporus occidentalis)

The distinctive blue belly gives strong indication of both the species and that it is likely a male.

This particular lizard was in the midst of shedding.

The western fence lizard is common throughout the sub-6,000 feet of elevation areas of the west and northwest.

These lizards are commonly fed upon by ticks. However, they are not a transmission vector for Lyme disease. Instead, the lizards carry some kind of natural anti-bacterial agent that kills the lime disease in the ticks!

Areas with western fence lizards, and subspecies, have a notable reduction in the number of lyme infected ticks.

A very good lizard to have around!