Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Citizen Scientists Awake—We Have Wildflowers!

Laramie botanists are emerging from hibernation, hungry and irritable, in critical need of floral sustenance. But while other plant lovers are gaily posting colorful photos of spring flowers and lush foliage, we're desperately searching for any color at all.
NOAA’s extended forecast; the little pictures say it all.
I’m exaggerating, but barely. Wildflowers are just now appearing, and to see them we have to get out in between snow storms. Last Friday was sunny, so I grabbed my camera and drove up into the Laramie Mountains. Fortunately all the heavy wet snow from a few days before was mostly gone. I was intent on adding observations to my Plants of the Southern Laramie Mountains project in iNaturalist, which has lain dormant since last fall.

I didn't have to walk far to be rewarded. Pasque flowers (Pulsatilla or Anemone patens ssp. multifida) were common, as they usually are this time of year—in the field and on Facebook! But then who wouldn't be excited to come across large showy flowers when everything else is mostly brown and gray.

I found Oregon grape (officially creeping barberry, Mahonia repens) at the base of large granite boulders on a south-facing slope. Neat discovery—I didn’t know it bloomed so early. With flowers it's a good addition to my iNat project.

While on the ground photographing Oregon grape, I spotted spring beauty (Claytonia lanceolata). It is a beauty, but you have to look close as the flowers are only about a centimeter across.

In a sunny opening in the forest, three goslins caught my eye—luckily. I don't usually see them. Their downy brown and gold coats blend well with dead vegetation and litter.
What are goslins? The purplish patch above is a hint (click on image for a better view). Goslinweed is another name for pasque flower, because the buds look like goslings.

I wandered across a gentle south-facing slope with scattered low sagebrush. I was searching for Easter daisies, but brilliant yellow spots stopped me—sagebrush buttercups (Ranunuculus glaberrimus var. ellipticus). They're usually the first spring wildflowers I see in the Laramie Mountains, and are bright beyond bright in the dull landscapes.

Nearby were the coveted Easter daisies (Townsendia hookeri). Officially they’re called Hooker’s Townsend daisies, which raises the question: "Just exactly whose daisy is this?" In 1834, English botanist William Hooker named the genus for Pennsylvanian David Townsend, a civic-minded banker and respected amateur botanist. In 1957, American botanist John Beaman named the species for William Hooker.
And it gets more complicated. (Readers who aren't taxonomy geeks may want to skip this paragraph.) The Encyclopedia of Life calls T. hookerii “Nuttall’s Townsend daisy”—which lured me into further research. Strictly speaking, Nuttall's Townsend daisy is T. nuttallii. But T. nuttallii is usually lumped in with T. hookeri. Not here in Wyoming however. In fact one of our botanists, Robert Dorn, named it. T. nuttallii is restricted to limestone areas, and hasn't been reported from the Laramie Mountains. So I won’t worry whether the leaves are linear-oblanceolate (vs. linear), and whether the bristles of the pappus are of two lengths. This post illustrates vividly (nice photos) the challenges of our townsendias.

I collected a plant to add to my native xeric plants bed, next to what I believe are stemless Townsend daisies (T. exscapa). In 2013 I rescued them from a prairie in advance of road construction. T. hookeri and T. exscapa are hard to tell apart; the Flora of North America separates them based only on size of various floral parts—unfortunately. Distinctive characters are so much easier and reassuring!
A gasket scraper is an effective collecting tool for small compact plants in rocky soil.
Townsendia exscapa transplanted in 2013. They have thrived in the garden (next photo).
Hopefully these are two species, and hopefully I'll get a feel for their differences. Already I've seen a difference in “behavior.” When winter returned two days ago, the new arrival from the mountains duly opened its flowers in the morning, but the prairie daisies stayed shut all day.
Left, Easter daisy from Laramie Mountains (8000 feet elevation); right, Easter daisy from Laramie Valley (7000 feet). Photo was taken mid-afternoon on a cold gray day.

Yesterday was clear, and all the Easter daisies were singing in the sunshine.
But today ...
... only Frog Jolson keeps the music alive:

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Re-reading John Muir

 John Muir in his mid-30s, ca 1875. Source.

In 1969, the exciting ideas transforming the public consciousness finally reached my small conservative working-class town: Question authority! Reject the status quo! Down with the Establishment! I rejoiced, and gratefully began marching to the beats of different drummers. The most influential was John Muir. I still hear his drum, and today being Muir’s birthday, I’m honoring him with a post.

John Muir, the great naturalist and one of the earliest and most effective proponents of wild area protection, was born in 1838 in Scotland. His family immigrated to the US in 1849, finally settling near Portage, Wisconsin. Muir led a life of hard labor on the family farm, but managed to find time to ramble through the still-wild woods and prairies nearby, where he found himself “utterly happy.”

He enrolled in the University of Wisconsin, made good grades, but left after three years to take to the road. Odd jobs supported his adventures—until an accident in a carriage shop left him blind. Fortunately it was temporary. And with that glimpse of what fate could deliver, Muir declared he would devote his life to his passion—“the inventions of God” in the wild natural world.

After walking a thousand miles to the Gulf of Mexico, Muir sailed to Cuba, crossed Panama, and then sailed north to San Francisco, arriving in March of 1868. He took the ferry to Oakland, and asked for directions “to any place that is wild.” He walked across the flower-filled San Joaquín Valley to the Sierra Nevada, and took up residence in Yosemite Valley, occasionally working as sheepherder.
Sublime glacial landscape of the Sierra Nevada.  Photo by RC Koeppel.
Muir rambled through the high country of the great mountain range admiring, studying, sketching, and writing of landscapes, streams, glaciers, plants, animals and rocks. In 1874, a series of articles about the Sierra launched his writing career. In his long life he would produce 300 articles and ten major books, and I’m quite sure that if Muir were alive today, he would blog.

I've forgotten which of Muir’s books I read first. But I clearly remember how his contagious excitement for wild nature pulled me back into a world I lived in as a kid, when I wandered up and down the creek examining plants, rocks, frogs, newts and water-skippers. Surely if I could stay in that world, my life would be free-spirited and satisfying.
Lopez Creek, in the central California Coast Ranges.

Last year I ran into Muir in a used bookstore, finding his essay on the water-ouzel, his favorite bird, in an anthology of the best natural history writing—The Book of Naturalists,1944, William Beebe editor. I bought the book, went home, turned to Muir’s essay, and was stopped by Beebe’s puzzling introduction. Muir had a “keen, sober, but uncreative interest, almost passion, for wild things and wild scenes” he claimed.
“He became a hesperian Thoreau, with less philosophy but infinitely more physical guts than the Cambridge dreamer [Henry David Thoreau], and he could guide his thoughts more consistently into an essay on a given subject.  Yet with the years Muir’s writings have seemed to me to have grown thinner, while Thoreau’s often inconsequential thoughts have held to their initial force.” [italics mine]
What did Beebe mean?! Did Muir’s writings grow thinner as time passed, or as Beebe grew older? Would I find my hero and mentor thinner with my accumulated years? Others certainly had diminished—for example, Thoreau!

But just a few paragraphs in, Muir was as engaging as he had been years ago; in fact, his writing seems to have grown stronger. To each his own I guess. Perhaps editor Beebe didn't understand a man who could thrive in wild places—living simply, happily observing God’s work. Maybe Muir’s enthusiastic colorful imagery-filled writing was unappealing. Maybe Beebe was more drawn to Thoreau’s focused contemplative darker style and profound conclusions. Not me. Muir's whimsical but aptly-descriptive language is heartening, reminding me there is much to be excited about.

• • • 
“The waterfalls of the Sierra are frequented by only one bird,—the Ouzel or Water Thrush (Cinclus Mexicanus, Sw.). He is a singularly joyous and lovable little fellow, about the size of a robin, clad in a plain waterproof suit of bluish gray, with a tinge of chocolate on the head and shoulders. In form he is about as smoothly plump and compact as a pebble that has been whirled in a pot-hole, the flowing contour of his body being interrupted only by his strong feet and bill, the crisp wing-tips, and the up-slanted wren-like tail.” [all quotes that follow are Muir’s]
Officially this is now the American Dipper, but he remains a water-ouzel to me. Photo by Ron Knight.
“The Ouzel seldom swims more than a few yards on the surface, for, not being web-footed, he makes rather slow progress, but by means of his strong, crisp wings he swims, or rather flies, with celerity under the surface, often to considerable distances. But it is in withstanding the force of heavy rapids that his strength of wing in this respect is most strikingly manifested.”
“WATER OUZEL DIVING AND FEEDING”  Ouzels tolerate temperatures well below freezing—enabled by low metabolic rate, oxygen-rich blood, and thick feathers (source for all sketches).
“He seems to be especially fond of the larvæ of mosquitos, found in abundance attached to the bottom of smooth rock channels where the current is shallow. When feeding in such places he wades up-stream, and often while his head is under water the swift current is deflected upward along the glossy curves of his neck and shoulders, in the form of a clear, crystalline shell, which fairly incloses him like a bell-glass, the shell being broken and re-formed as he lifts and dips his head …”
“The Ouzel's nest is one of the most extraordinary pieces of bird architecture I ever saw, odd and novel in design, perfectly fresh and beautiful, and in every way worthy of the genius of the little builder. It is about a foot in diameter, round and bossy in outline, with a neatly arched opening near the bottom … It is built almost exclusively of green and yellow mosses, chiefly the beautiful fronded hypnum that covers the rocks and old drift-logs in the vicinity of waterfalls. … The site chosen for this curious mansion is usually some little rock-shelf within reach of the lighter particles of the spray of a waterfall, so that its walls are kept green and growing, at least during the time of high water.” 
Ouzel family. Photo by Larry Jordan (labeled for non-commercial reuse).
“… the Ouzel sings on through all the seasons and every kind of storm. Indeed no storm can be more violent than those of the waterfalls in the midst of which he delights to dwell. … The more striking strains are perfect arabesques of melody, composed of a few full, round, mellow notes, embroidered with delicate trills which fade and melt in long slender cadences. In a general way his music is that of the streams refined and spiritualized.”
“THE OUZEL AT HOME”  Listen to an ouzel sing, accompanied by a stream.

My first encounter with the ouzel was in John Muir's beloved Sierra Nevada, on one of my early hikes. Trip after trip I channelled Muir, finding the same joy he found in his Range of Light. I kept food simple, pack light, gear cheap. I took notes, and learned the names of trees. With like-minded friends I covered miles of trail, climbed peaks, and slept among “grass and gentians of glacier meadows” or anywhere “one might hope to see God.” Whenever I sauntered*** along a cold swift cascading stream, I kept an eye out for the ouzel, “flitting about in the spray, diving in foaming eddies, whirling like a leaf among beaten foam-bells; ever vigorous and enthusiastic, yet self-contained, and neither seeking nor shunning your company.”

Eventually I left California, but not the ouzel. I’ve met him in the mountains of Wyoming, Montana and Colorado, and most memorably below a waterfall in the South Dakota Black Hills—bobbing, diving, flitting, and singing “perfect arabesques of melody.” Wherever I see the “singularly joyous” ouzel, I see John Muir. I think he would be pleased.
“Among all the mountain birds, none has cheered me so much in my lonely wanderings,—none so unfailingly. For both in winter and summer he sings, sweetly, cheerily, independent alike of sunshine and of love, requiring no other inspiration than the stream on which he dwells.” 
John Muir in his early sixties, ca 1902. Library of Congress; Public Domain.

*** When asked about hiking, Muir emphatically denounced it. “People ought to saunter in the mountains—not hike! … Away back in the Middle Ages people used to go on pilgrimages to the Holy Land, and when people in the villages through which they passed asked where they were going, they would reply, ‘A la sainte terre, To the Holy Land.’ And so they became known as sainte-terre-ers or saunterers. Now these mountains are our Holy Land, and we ought to saunter through them reverently, not ‘hike’ through them.” (Albert W. Palmer, 1911, The Mountain Trail and Its Message; excerpt here)

Sources (in addition to links in post)

The Sierra Club provides extensive biographical information about its founder.

John Muir wrote about the water-ouzel in Chapter 13 of Mountains of California, provided here by the Sierra Club.

For more on the water-ouzel/American dipper: Audubon Guide to North American Birds (online); All about BirdsCornell Lab of Ornithology.

Friday, April 15, 2016

On the Road in Nebraska (geo-challenge answers)

Where on Google Earth (click on image to view).

Lynn David met all three of the recent geo-challenges:
"Obviously Nebraska.... cannot mistake that bend in the Platte River. 
#1 Looks like you're on the bluffs above the Niobrara River (one of my favorite rivers) just northeast of the sand hills area, which might make that the Ogallala. Though I keep thinking it shoud be something older in the Arikaree, Laramie or Chadron? 
#2 Looks to be the Scotts Bluff area which would make it the Tertiary Arikaree and Gering formations sediments which are mostly fluvial or wind-blown in origin with quite a bit of volcano-clastic sediments, probably from Colorado. 
#3 Never been there. But going to guess it's the Niobrara."
Other readers sent correct answers by email, with more praise for the Niobrara River. They're right—it's great for both plants and rocks!

Locations are inserted in bold. Posts with more details will follow.

• • •

Ordered by increasing age of strata:

#1 Darker brown is caused by seepage from the base of a super important aquifer. Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge; base of Ogallala Group, above Rosebud Formation (either Arikaree or White River group; geologists disagree).

#2 Thousands of immigrants passed by—did any notice the white ash layers and curious wavy contact? Scotts Bluff on the Oregon Trail; Brule (White River) and Gering (Arikaree) formations below and above the mysterious wavy contact (Cindy—currently investigating, more to follow, hopefully).

#3 This rock is gray when freshly exposed, weathering to pale yellow or almost white. This is its type area, and its geological period is eponymous as well. Cretaceous Niobrara Chalk at the confluence of the Missouri and Niobrara Rivers.
Actually, this photo is in South Dakota (the state line is in the lake).

Happy geo-travels!

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

On the road again … but where? (geo-challenge)

Where on Google Earth? (click on image to view)

Here’s a special deal to celebrate the start of 2016 geo-tripping: three geo-challenges for the price of one! I visited all in a period of five days, traveling by car. Where was I? [answers here]

Ordered by increasing age of strata:

#1 Darker brown is caused by seepage from the base of a super important aquifer.

#2 Thousands of immigrants passed by—did anybody notice the white ash layers and curious wavy contact?

#3 This rock is gray when fresh, weathering to pale yellow or almost white. This is its type area, and its geological period is eponymous as well.

Please answer, speculate, discuss in Comments below. I’ll add locations in a few days, and posts will follow. Happy geo-travels!

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Juneberry Surrogates

Tall, taller than we know
bur oaks to be out West, where
they’re scrub-like or
bigger and low-branching, but
never sixty, eighty,
a hundred feet tall!
No wonder I never looked up.

But why should I?
Early April is early spring and
greening bursting buds are
too far away, too high.
Instead I walked through muted shade
and close straight trunks—
gray, brown, black, cracked, furrowed.

Then just fifty feet ahead at exactly eye-height,
spots of brilliant white flashed, and I saw
clouds of flitting white moths ...
two wild plums, still
bare of leaves,

Last week I drove 500 miles east to where more precipitation lets trees grow tall. The “real world” and all that’s “important” soon faded. Six days were more than enough to repair my frame of mind and far from enough to make me homesick, but of course I came back anyway. We never learn.

In the draws were respectable hardwood trees, quite unlike our undersized versions. On the ground I found leaves of bur oak—I had no idea they grew so tall!—and American elm, and occasionally black walnuts split in two (Quercus macrocarpa, Ulmus americana, Juglans nigra). I may have passed basswood unawares (Tilia americana).

Wild plum (Prunus americana) is an old friend, from lower-elevations in eastern Wyoming. I see it has similar habits 500 miles east—growing most commonly in thickets but also as small understory trees, and blooming before leafing out. The flowers are said to be ill-scented; apparently I’ve not been close enough to notice. Ripe plums are sour but always a treat to find, as they’re often destroyed by our early frosts. I suppose the eastern ones are more plentiful.
Flowers are about one inch across.

This is tree-following week, when The Squirrel Basket kindly hosts a virtual gathering and we share news (check it out). But here in southeast Wyoming we had three March blizzards and then I left, so I’ve not been back to visit my juneberry. The trees I so enjoyed last week are surrogates.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Bad Water, Sweet Water, and Greasewood

Healthy greasewood—dig here! (photo by Cory Maylett)

While traveling up the Missouri River through today’s northeast Montana, the great American explorer Meriwether Lewis came upon a shrub he didn't recognize, growing in large stands. "Hereafter I shall call it the fleshey leafed thorn” he wrote in his journal, on May 11, 1805. Lewis didn’t much like it, noting it was “extremely troublesome” and that animals avoided it (source).
“Fleshey leafed thorn” with succulent leaves, sharp-tipped twigs, and red winged fruit. It's now called greasewood (photo by Jim Morefield).
For the most part, folks agree there’s little to like about greasewood, including its eponymous habitat—wet greasy mud, where vehicles slide around before becoming firmly stuck. The scientific name, Sarcobatus vermiculatus, means fleshy bramble of small worms. Indeed, greasewood branchlets develop into stiff sharp painful spines, and the succulent leaves look like little green worms. And they’re toxic, fatal to any livestock that eat them. For greasewood grows where water is bad—salty, alkali, poison.

Many desert basins in southern Wyoming are closed—water runs in but not out, ponding at low points. Some soaks into the heavy soil, but much evaporates, leaving behind whatever chemicals were carried in—sodium, potassium, magnesium, calcium, and sometimes weird nasty things like boron and mind-altering selenium. Salty crusts encircle wetlands. When lakes dry up, brilliant white playas remain.

Amazingly, greasewood appears to thrive on these harsh sites! On basin margins it grows mixed with other salt-tolerant species, but on the chemical-rich heavy soils of the lowlands, it forms pure stands where few other plants can survive.
Greasewood flat in southern Wyoming, by Dan Lewis, The Wyoming Naturalist. Used with permission.
Alkaline and saline soils present insurmountable challenges to most plants, because their roots can’t absorb water with high concentrations of solutes (dissolved chemicals). But greasewood is a halophyte—a “salt plant.” The root cells contain high concentrations of solutes, and take up water even in these difficult situations. Greasewood stores toxic salts (oxalates) in its succulent leaves, and being deciduous, disposes of them at the end of the growing season, making the soil below especially salty.
Greasewood leaves, to 4 cm long (NPS).
From Meinzer 1927.

But greasewood can’t flourish on the paltry amount of water available at the surface. Fortunately it has another trick up its sleeve … or rather down its root. And this is the reason why greasewood has a fan club, albeit a small one.

• • •

Let’s walk down into a closed desert basin to a healthy stand of pure greasewood in the very bottom, and start digging.

First we have to get through heavy fine soil laced with small roots—there to absorb any water that might soak in. The networks can be dense. Donovan and colleagues (1996) found 140 km of roots per cubic meter under greasewood canopies!

Next, we dig through fine roots for several feet while navigating around substantial lateral roots 3 to 12 feet long. These are equipped with adventitious buds that send up shoots (clones) when a plant is damaged. Burned or cut plants can crown-sprout as well. No wonder the US Department of Agriculture warns land managers to leave greasewood stands alone:
“… treatment of the site will most likely fail or be a very poor investment of capital. … Areas of black greasewood that are burned, crowned, brush beat, or shallow plowed and/or shallow disked will often result in a much higher density of black greasewood. … Thus extreme caution should be exercised when selecting which sites have the best potential for improvement.” (“treatment” and “improvement” mean eradication; more details here)
By the time we’re six feet below the surface, we’ve left behind the fine roots, lateral roots and developed soil. But the tap root continues on. And it’s large—several inches in diameter:
“Near Moab, Utah, along a creek where the water had cut away the bank, exposing the roots, a greasewood 6 feet tall had roots down 18 feet, a taproot 3 inches in diameter down 6 feet, and abundant feeding roots, some 10 feet long, at a depth of 10 to 12 feet.” (Shantz 1940)
How far do we have to dig to find the tap root’s end? Usually at least 10 to 15 feet, often 20 or 30 feet, and sometimes more:
“Near Grandview, Idaho, H.T. Sterns observed roots of greasewood penetrating the roof of a tunnel 57 feet below the surface.” (Meinzer 1929; italics added)
Finally the tap root reaches its destination—the blessed capillary fringe! Here root hairs absorb sweet water that has seeped up from the water table. It's sucked up the tap root 10, 20, maybe even 50 feet—whatever it takes to reach the thirsty greasewood plant, standing in hot sun on an alkali mudflat.
“These plants have been called phreatophytes. The term is obtained from two Greek roots and means a ‘well plant.’” (Meinzer 1927; arrow added).

Old timers knew that a healthy stand of greasewood meant sweet water wasn't all that far away. They knew greasewood could help them site wells. But it wasn’t until the early 1900s that ecologists and hydrologists were convinced:
“Greasewood was not at first regarded as an indicator of ground water, because to a large extent it grows on land that lies some distance above the water table. Information now at hand, however, makes it practically certain that greasewood habitually sends its well-developed taproot to considerable depths … It is, thus, one of the most trustworthy of all ground-water indicators.” (Meinzer 1929; italics added)
Prickly, toxic and hardly photogenic, greasewood is helpful too—a most trustworthy groundwater indicator (photo courtesy BLM).

Sources (in addition to links in post)

Donovan, LA, and colleagues. 1996. Water Relations and leaf chemistry of Chrysothamnus nauseosus ssp. consimilis (Asteraceae) and Sarcobatus vermiculatus (Chenopodiaceae). Amer. J. Bot. 83: 1637-1646.

Groeneveld, DP. 1990. Shrub rooting and water acquisition on threatened shallow groundwater habitats in the Owens Valley, California in Proceedings: symposium on cheatgrass invasion, shrub die-off, and other aspects of shrub biology and management. Available here.

Knight, DK, and colleagues. 2014. Mountains and plains; the ecology of Wyoming landscapes, 2nd ed. Yale University Press.

Meinzer, OE. 1929. Plants as indicators of groundwater. USGS Water Supply Paper 577. Available here.

Shantz, HL, and Piemeisel, RL. 1940. Types of vegetation in Escalante Valley, Utah, as indicators of soil conditions. Tech. Bull. 713. Washington, DC: US Department of Agriculture. 46 p. Available here.

USDA NRCS Plant Guide: Black Greasewood.