Sunday, March 30, 2014

Dreaming of Online Plants

This lupine in Santa Barbara County has been immortalized as iNat Observation 569966.
What if you were a nature geek planning a vacation, and you found a website about the wildflowers of your destination area with photos, dates of observation, places to see them, and even an app for identification?  How cool would that be?!!
Plants of Santa Barbara County, California; arrow points to location of lupine in top photo.
[Click on all images to view details.]
It would be very cool, and in fact such websites are already out there.  Problem is -- the data are sparse, even in California where I went a few weeks ago.  But there are things we can do to change that.

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I used to dream of compiling a book about the native plants of my home territory, with keys and photos for identification.  But devoting huge amounts of time, effort, and attention to detail before seeing any results isn't for me, and lining up and financing publication always seemed daunting.  However now that I'm living in the digital age, the dream has been resurrected.  Online I can “publish” as I go, instead of waiting until I’ve addressed many hundreds of species.  Others can help by contributing observations.  And it will cost almost nothing.  Sounds doable!

In fact, I’ve already started.  Right now I’m checking out websites and apps (if you have recommendations, I'd love to hear).  I read about iNaturalist several weeks ago in a post at The Dipper Ranch.  It looked promising so I gave it a test during my vacation on the Central California Coast.  Before I left home, I searched for plant observations in Santa Barbara County (above).  Then I entered my own from a hike on the Point Sal Road.
We used to drive the family station wagon to Point Sal on this road!
Point Sal beach from near "the pass" -- about halfway to the beach (5 miles one-way).
First I created an iNaturalist account.  I was able to sign in with my Google account; Twitter, Facebook and others work too.  Next I entered observations -- plant name, location, date, photos, description and more.  It all seemed intuitive and easy.
Fuschia-flowered gooseberry, Ribes speciosum (iNat observation).
Description:  "Low shrub growing with Toxicodendron diversilobum on slope just below road."
Identification can be to any level -- family, genus, species, common name, or even just “plant”.  Accepted names are available from drop-down lists, and there’s a box to check if you’d like some help:
Request for identification assistance, highlighted in yellow (iNat Observation).
Location can be as precise as you like.  You can enter coordinates or click on a Google Map.  For this outing, I mapped all observations to a single location about halfway between the trailhead and “the pass” (they were all north of the pass).
The "trail" to Point Sal beach is a narrow winding old road that's now closed to vehicles.
Photos can be uploaded directly, or you can link to other image hosting sites.  You can include multiple images per observation.
Flowers of poison oak, Toxicodendron diversilobum (iNat observation) ...
... and the despised leaves that cause itching and inflammation in most people.
It was easy to enter multiple observations for a single location with the Copy option.  It’s also possible to Batch-process and Import.  By the time I was done, I had added six observations from California to my single observation from Wyoming (the tree I’m following):
My first iNaturalist observations.


iNaturalist has good search tools for investigating the natural history of an area.  You can use text fields or a map.  Results are displayed as photos, text, or even hierarchically for those who are taxonomically-inclined.
iNaturalist search fields.


One thing that really excites me is the Projects option.  “Projects are a way to pool your observations with other people on iNat. Whether you're interested in starting a citizen science project or just keeping tabs on the birds in a nearby park with your local birding club, Projects are the way to go.”  Here's a nice example -- the More Mesa Natural Resources project near Santa Barbara, California.
More Mesa home page.
Output from the More Mesa project.  It currently includes 369 observations.

I hope there will be a "Plants of the Laramie Mountains" project soon, where anyone can share their observations.  We'll be able to see what's blooming, what's new, and of course debate identification -- a popular sport among botanists.  Folks new to the area can get to know our local plants, once we’ve added enough observations.
The only iNat plant observation in southeast Wyoming currently is my cottonwood (green arrow).
This caveat applies not just to iNaturalist but to citizen science in general -- scientific research conducted by amateur or nonprofessional scientists as well as professionals, often by crowdsourcing.  The usefulness of citizen science projects depends on participation; many are still in their infancy so data are sparse.  But surely at least some will grow to maturity, for why wouldn't naturalists want to contribute?  It's great to be able to share, debate, modify and continually update information ... to “record what [we] see in nature, meet other nature lovers, and learn about the natural world” (iNaturalist).

Here's a video featuring one such nature lover, Sonny Riddell, who demonstrates moth-collecting and citizen science.  I’m very glad to have “met” Sonny.  He's a great role model. His enthusiasm is contagious, and he reminds me how much fun it is when we really focus on what we enjoy.  You can learn more at SPRING AND MOTHS WHEN YOU ARE EIGHT YEARS OLD

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How about you?  Do you use iNaturalist?  What do you think of it?

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Going Home (WOE? 2)

WOE? 2-1
Two weeks ago I posted a geo-challenge with photos from my flight to California -- Where on Earth?  I didn’t recognize any of those locations from the plane, so I scanned Google Earth to figure out where they were.  On the way home it was different.  We flew further north, and I saw many familiar places.  Do you? (click on images for better views; answers at end of post)

WOE? 2-2
WOE? 2-3
WOE? 2-4
WOE? 2-5
WOE? 2-6
WOE? 2-7  Hint -- last mountain range to be named in the Lower 48
WOE? 2-8
WOE? 2-9
Where on Earth were we?  Here:
Where on Google Earth; coordinates below.
WOE? 2-1  Looking north to Death Valley
573640 m E 3935294 m N

WOE? 2-2  Red Rocks climbing area outside of Las Vegas, Nevada
637346 m E 3979023 m N

WOE? 2-3  Valley of Fire State Park northeast of Las Vegas -- the lithified remains of a huge 160-million-year-old dune field
718113 m E 4020068 m N

WOE? 2-4  Looking up the Grand Staircase; arrows point to steps (cliff bands below)
330413 m E 4098339 m N
A Grand Canyon, B Chocolate Cliffs, C Vermilion Cliffs, D White Cliffs, E Zion Canyon, F Gray Cliffs, G Pink Cliffs, H Bryce Canyon; NPS image

WOE? 2-5  The Cockscomb, one of the spectacular monoclines of the Colorado Plateau
417677 m E  4117366 m N

WOE? 2-6  Another impressive monocline, the Waterpocket Fold (east side of Capitol Reef National Park)
511707 m E 4159123 m N

WOE? 2-7  View north to the Henry Mountains.  Mt. Hillers is in the shade, but if you click on the image you can see the distinctive flatirons on the south side (blue arrow).
529802 m E 4166007 m N

WOE? 2-8  Mt. Holmes and Mt. Ellsworth, southernmost peaks of the Henrys.  Lake Powell to right.
537867 m E 4169194 m N

WOE? 2-9  Paradox Creek (blue arrow) crosses Paradox Valley, one of the bizarre salt-anticlines of the eastern Colorado Plateau
683477 m E 4238666 m N

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Acorn atole -- not a convenience food

Coast live oak near San Luis Obispo, California.  Photo by Giovanni LoCascio, used with permission.
The theme for March’s Berry Go Round is unusual edible plants, and all month I’ve had my ear to the ground for ideas.  Then last week while in California I read about Indians collecting, preparing and eating acorns.  I was struck by the oddity of it all.  I chose the coast live oak as my unusual edible plant but when I started to write, I realized there wasn't anything unusual about it.  Coast live oaks are common and the acorns are commonly eaten by wildlife.  They also were used by Indians to make a thick soup or mush, which the Spaniards called “atole” (ah-toé-leh) back in the 1700s.  It’s said to have been one of their most common foods.
Acorns of the coast live oak, Quercus agrifolia, were among the most prized for making atole.  Source
But times have changed and therein lies the explanation for why the oak seems an unusual edible plant.  In my world we rarely think about eating to survive.  Instead we search for food that's tasty, and usually convenient to prepare.  We wouldn't bother with acorn atole.

In fact, compared with atole, everything I eat is convenience food!  Converting tough bitter acorns to something edible was a long and tedious process.  Here’s a typical recipe, compiled from several sources (italics added for emphasis):
In fall, if the oaks have produced acorns, collect as many as possible, at least several hundred pounds.  Dry thoroughly in the sun and store.
Remove a small batch of acorns from storage, enough for the day.  In a stone mortar, grind a few at a time using a pestle or any suitable stone. When all acorns are ground, sift or winnow meal to remove coarse material.
Put the meal/flour in a depression in sand.  Rinse repeatedly with water.  This will require the greater part of a day unless hot water is available.  [Leaching removed bitter tannins.]
Pull out the sand-free center of the dough and bake as bread.
Use the remainder of the dough to make atole.  Mix with water in a woven bowl.  Drop in hot stones, stirring frequently to prevent scorching of the bowl.  Cook until desired consistency is obtained.
Methods of preparation varied somewhat.  Here Maggie Howard, a Paiute, shells and skins acorns into special baskets (Sierra Nevada, 1930s).  Elsewhere, acorns were simply dried and stored whole.  Source
“Grinding acorn meal.  A modern-day Indian woman gives a demonstration of the technique and tools employed by her forebears ...”  Source
Was atole tasty?  If so, maybe it was worth all that effort.  Saunders (1920) described the flavor as “rather flat but with a suggestion of nuttiness that becomes distinctly agreeable.”  Balls (1972) said it had a “slightly sweetish but rather insipid taste.”  Some visitors had problems with residual sand from leaching, and ash from the cooking stones.  But I think it's impossible for us to judge atole's appeal.  That was a place and time of limited fare, quite unfamiliar to us.

In any case, there were other reasons to eat atole.  Acorns are nutritious and rich in calories, especially compared with many wild plants.  They contain “up to 18 percent fat, 6 percent protein, and 68 percent carbohydrate” (CSUS no date).  They're large, and fairly easy to harvest.

Still, I was skeptical when I read that atole was an important staple, because acorns are so unreliable.  Oaks produce substantial yields only during mast years and these are unpredictable (Harper et al. no date).  This is good for the oaks.  During mast years, seed predators generally are swamped with food, and it's likely that some acorns will produce seedlings rather than be eaten.  However human seed predators had a counter-strategy -- storage.  Dried acorns are long-lasting, and Indians regularly stored them for several years or more (one source says up to a dozen).
Acorn woodpeckers also store acorns, but not as effectively as humans once did.  This one is stocking a "Granary Tree".  Source
Acorn atole has not disappeared.  It’s still prepared on special occasions, as a link to the past and in celebration of traditions and culture.  Fortunately, today’s cooks have access to modern conveniences:
“instead of the mortar and pestle, the electric blender or a meat grinder may be used to produce flour.  Cloth might substitute for the leaching basin, buckets may replace baskets, and a slow drip in the kitchen sink may flush the tannic acid.  For cooking, the stove and a metal pot might replace heated stones placed in baskets.  Whatever the preparation techniques, acorn is special: a tangible connection to the old ways, a nourishing food, and a commitment to the future” (from Past and Present Acorn Use in California)
Modern day mortar and pestle for making atole.  Source

NOTE:  Acorn atole is not related to the atole of Mexico, which is made from corn.

This month's Berry Go Round is hosted by Emma the Gardner.


Balls, E.K.  1972.  Early uses of California plants.  University of California Press.

California State University, Sacramento (CSUS).  No date.  Past and present acorn use in native California.

Harper, J.M. et al.  No date.  Acorn production by California oaks.

Saunders, C.F.  1920.  Useful wild plants of the United States and Canada.  New York: McBride & Co.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Photography Lessons 1, 2, 3 and 7

Textures, Lines, Color and Frames are elements of photography, and are among the “easiest to learn” and can have “the biggest impact”.  Thus started my most recent photo-adventure.  “Think about some locations where you might be able to put the lessons into action, and actually go and do the assignments”.  My location of choice was the main Hancock campus in Santa Maria, California.
Allan Hancock College is a public community college.  It opened in 1920 as Santa Maria Junior College; now there are four campuses serving 17,000 students, most of them locals (98%).  Like many public spaces in Santa Maria, the architecture and landscaping are uncluttered, bright, striking, colorful and photogenic.  In the warm light of morning, it was a great place to work on my photography assignments.

1: Textures

Texture is everywhere yet it's “the very thing that beginning photographers tend to overlook”.  Don’t obsess over big spectacular vistas; look close instead.  There’s beauty in detail.
When you find texture of interest, make it the only thing in the photo, thereby “isolating the texture from any distracting elements.”  Get close and intimate.  You’ll find wonderful overlooked worlds.
It’s easiest to start by shooting at a 90º angle, aiming for a flat uniform arrangement.  For “very rough textures, often sidelight is the best” as it casts shadows.  They add relief, enhancing the texture.
Holes in yellow.
Bumps (do your eyes play the same tricks as mine?) and leaf in yellow and purple.  See more on complementary colors below.
“Patterns” might be another word for these things -- that’s the term I used before I took the Textures lesson.

2: Lines

Lines affect a viewer’s emotions and reactions in ways I hadn’t considered.  Horizontal lines are the norm for many of us (we generally process information from side to side, especially left to right), and often are calming.  None of the photos I took featured horizontal lines alone.  Maybe their calmness makes it difficult to create interesting compositions.

Vertical lines are more exciting.  They can suggest strength and power -- for example trees or towers  or waterfalls.  Or not, for example a cast iron drainage ditch cover.  But even here vertical strikes me as more attention-getting than horizontal.
Vertical lines were common on campus -- or perhaps they more readily caught my eye.
Diagonal lines have even more impact -- they are especially “energetic”.
Lines in a sidewalk may be mundane, but I find them engrossing.
Mix a bunch together -- vertical, horizontal, diagonal -- and the eye will be either totally captivated by the excitement, or confused.
Intriguing? ... or over-whelming?
Lines also provide paths for the eye to follow.  A line can direct a viewer to an object, in this case a few plants in a concrete ecosystem.

3: Color

The color lesson was more challenging.  I skipped the monochromatic section.  I couldn’t find suitable subjects, but maybe I just need to be more open-minded.  In contrast, complementary colors quickly drew me in.  These are positioned opposite each other on the color wheel:  red and green, yellow and purple, blue and orange.  In combination they’re powerful.   I was surprised to find complementary pairs, and in interesting situations.
Blue Orange 1
Blue Orange 2
Red Green 1
Red Green 2
In Red Green 2, I captured both complementary colors and a warm accent in a cool background -- “one of the best color interactions”.  Cool green leaves fill the photo but the hot red flower grabs the eye.  It’s irresistible.

7: Frames

I found many frames to include within the overall frame of a photo.  A second frame is a bit unexpected, and can “add a new dimension” or “create a story”.
Entrance, and ...
... Exit, with frames and lines to direct the eye.
As always, I became absorbed in abstract compositions of shapes, colors, shadows and light.  They fascinate me for reasons I don’t understand.  But maybe after I read Book 2 ...
Textures, Lines, Colour and Frames are four of the eight chapters in Anne McKinnell’s excellent ebook, The Compelling Photograph Book 1.  I mentioned only a few things here; for each topic there’s much more to learn.  The book is easy to understand, helpful, and motivating too.  You can find it and others (some free) at her website, Anne McKinnell Photography.

I took my photography lessons on the road, to Big Sur:
Vertical line and frame -- power and story.