Friday, December 16, 2011

Just in time for Christmas

The Christmas Cactus never fails to disappoint.  Just two weeks ago, I discovered the pot was inundated with water (the decorative wrap around the pot hid this fact from me for weeks), and I was worried the buds would drop off.  But wow, this year was a pretty good year.  No aphids this time (they've found more tender foliage in my other potted plants), but only two new leaves this year.  Even though there are a few buds hanging on, they will not bloom.  If it hasn't bloomed by now, the bud will drop within a couple weeks.

Without new leaves, the plant does seem droopier than prior years.  It happens to the best of us, my friend.

Merry Christmas to all, and may you produce blooms yet another year.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

As thin as a thread

I was in the kitchen doing something, when I noticed something on my hand.

At only about a cm long, I initially thought it was an out-of-season mosquito.  Only upon closer inspection could I tell that it's front legs were arranged somewhat mantis-like.  A miniature preying mantis?  I've never seen a live one in North America.  However, unlike a mantis, it's antennae were as long as its legs.  This particular fellow seemed a bit frail, walking slowly with it's hind four legs, not once stretching out its frazzled wings.
Looking like a cross between a mantis and a fly, I used those as search terms and found photos of actual mantis flies that bore only a slight resemblence to this one. I submitted a photo, an about an hour later the Bugguide volunteers moved to the Thread-legged bugs section.

Much like the preying mantis, the thread-legged bugs walk only on their four hind legs, keeping the front legs poised for catching prey.  Some species specialize in catching spiders (or feasting off the insects caught in the webs).  The native range of this species appears to be properly North America, but I surmised it came in off some vegetables that I was preparing for dinner.  In our recent lower temperatures, there is virtually no winged creature outdoors.

Friday, November 11, 2011


The snow geese chose the wrong day to take to the air.  Not only were they not making any headway into the wind, they had to navigate debris.  Mind you, standing in an open field with no shelter would not have been easy either.

The leaves seemed to collectively agree that yes, today would be a good day to give up the task of holding on to a tree.

But at least it was sunny.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

mycological metropolis

At the suggestion of Wanderin Weeta, I thought I'd see whether I could get a positive ID on this large mushroom to see whether it is edible, or at least try the "rub a bit on the lip and wait 15 minutes" experiment.  The top of the cap was positively slimey, and was pecked with small holes, so appetizing this was not.  Curiosity got the best of me, and I hoped to at least determine the edibilitiy of this for next year.

As can be seen on the underside, the stem has been rotted/eaten away.  It's surprising it was standing at all.

As noted yesterday, this bolete has pores on the underside, rather than gills.

A cross section of the pores, which really are long tubes.

One of the identifying traits of mushrooms are scabers, or protrusions from the stem.  Not sure if these protrude enough to be called scabers though.

As I started poking the mushroom apart, I noticed quite a few of the critters responsible for the numerous holes I found

A tiny centipede, no more than a couple centimetres in length.

A springtail (?)

Some kind of maggot.

A larger centipede...not sure if a mature form of the smaller white one, or a different species.

Seeing all these critters claiming this fungus as their home (as well as the tunnel laden cap) kinda turned me off to the idea of even tasting it.  I'll try to pick one out next year a little earlier in the season to try my taste test.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Fall growth

The patch of mulch behind our building has surprised us over the last week with some large, burger-sized mushrooms.  A little past their prime today, I noticed that these have pores on their underside, rather than the more common gills.  They look like a type of 

Some unidentified mushrooms

A few weeks ago, we went to the Apple Festival held at UBC.  To fruit, apples need cross pollination with a different apple variety.  The easiest way to ensure this is to plant two next to each other. Thus, we got two.  We finally got around to planting them today - an Orenco (taller) and a Honeycrisp.  Let's hope the gardener for our complex doesn't get overzealous on weeding and can tell what's intentionally planted.

While we're appreciative of all the greenery in our complex, many of the parking spots are under trees.  Needles inevitably get trapped in the gutters of the car, and we've got two small evergreens making the best of the moist environment in the trunk gutter of D's car.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Spined of the West Coast Trail

The animals on this planet that have successfully taken over the planet in the last few thousand years had, in part, a stiff skeletal frame to thank for that.  An internal bony structure frees us from the resource-intensive process of growing and shedding an exoskeleton, yet provides enough rigidity for us to leverage our muscles for strength and speed.

We humans have a natural tendency to identify most closely with other vertebrates - they are the animals closest to us in size, having behaviours that we are most familiar with.  During the hike, we encountered many species for the first time, but it was the vertebrates that I was most excited to see.

Tides bring in a constant source of food the Western Sandpiper.  They flirted with the waves that could knock them flat on their backs, but were also their lifeline for bringing in their food.

Sea otter tracks.  One moonless night, long after the sun had set, I could make out the bouncing gait of a sea otter trotting through our campsite.

On our second beach day, a black bear foraged along the beach.

In the city, a bear-human encounter usually means the bear will either require relocation or extermination.  A mandatory orientation session run by the Parks Board reminded all hikers that are the visitors.  I was happy to see that animals were capable of living as animals without having to apologize for doing so.  At each campsite, we were required to make use of locked metal bins within which any food we had would be stored.  If those were full, then we'd hang our food up in a tree.  Only by doing so could we keep animals such as bears from associated humans with a free meal.

Sea lions, lazing about on an island about 200 metres away.

For me, the highlight was seeing grey whales.  But once we saw them, we couldn't not see them.  Every few hours or so, another one would swim by.  Occasionally, I'd see a few swimming in opposite directions, and could only imagine the conversation they'd have while passing each other (cue the whale talk from Finding Nemo)

Grey whales migrate from Alaska to California or Mexico in the mid to late summer, staying close to the shallows where food is plentiful.  As benthic feeders, they sift for amphipods (the orange crustacean in the Spineless post) and other crustaceans from the muddy bottom.

The exhalations of the whales were loud enough that we'd be able to hear them above the din of the everpounding surf while in our tents.

I saw this egg case washed up on the beach; I recognized it as an egg case of either a shark or a skate. I've only seen one of these one other time in the wild (in California) so this was a treat.  It was long dried, but I opened it up anyways; it was empty, so either this "mermaid's purse" was without an embryo, or the baby skate had already slipped out (once dried, it's difficult to determine whether there was an exit point).  On further research, it seems like it belongs to a longnose skate.

An Osprey, hovering in the incoming winds, diving down into the surf periodically.

At the crab pier, I saw thousands of shiner perch hanging out, waiting for the crab entrails that would inevitably get thrown in.

Here's a video I made of all the wildlife we encountered.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Spineless of the West Coast Trail

The West Coast Trail on the west coast of Vancouver Island is one of the most remote coastlines you can explore in Southwest BC.   It is a 75 kilometre foot path connecting the towns of Port Renfrew and Bamfield with untouched forest on one side, and nothing but the great Pacific on the the other.  When the tide is out, we traverse around the tide pools, balancing carefully our 40+ pound packs on our backs without slipping on the algae covered rocks.  The absense of heavy industry allows animals to flourish here where you'd be hard-pressed to find within the vicinity of Vancouver.  As Wanderin Weeta points out, invertebrates tend to be the most sensitive to pollution and human activity.  This far away from civilization, I expected to see lots of biodiversity.

It's not often that I see sea urchins, washed up intact, but the pounding surf is quick to toss any weak urchins onto the beach

Amphipod of some sort.  They were larger than the sand hoppers, and didn't seem mobile on land.  This one twitched on the sand, leading me to believe it was tossed out of its native habitat.
About three of our eight days were in the forest.  We took a break by a river one day, and saw this:

My guess (yes, just a guess as I know very little about worms) is that it is a horsehair worm, a parasitic worm that spends most of its life parasitizing an insect like a grasshopper.  It has an amazing ability to take over the mental capacity of its host, causing it to jump into a pool of water at which point the worm erupts from the insects abdomen.  It spends the rest of its adult life in the water, where it can lay up to 27 MILLION eggs.  The eggs hatch, become free swimming, and are ready for any ingestion by any insect drinking from the water.  The life cycle repeats.

Now, back to the non-freaky ocean.

A pool of aggregating anemones

Gooseneck barnicles amongst the mussels and limpets. I've only ever seen these on the west coast of Vancouver Island (ie. never on east side of the island)

A purple shore crab ambivalent to the hikers stomping past him while filtering through the sand

One of the two vendors permitted to sell food to hikers sells fresh crab from his floating restaurant

Not too crabby

One of the largest purple shore crabs I've ever seen.


In grade 5, during a science class segment on marine biology, we were introduced to a bunch of sea creatures (on b&w photocopies) that inhabited the intertidal zone.  The keyhole limpet was the only one that I hadn't seen in the wild up to that point.  Whenever I see it now, I ponder how odd it was that they put such a rare animal on a list of things that school-children should remember.
One doesn't have to hike the entire 75 km of the West Coast Trail to see all of this.   In Port Renfrew is an aptly named, "Botanical Beach" just about 20 minutes from the parking lot, where at low tide, you'll be able to see most of these creatures.

Next post: The Spined of the West Coast Trail

Monday, September 26, 2011

Plants of the West Coast Trail

A leftover non-plant I should've put in the last post:

I've seen these elsewhere, but I've never been able to identify them until now.  They've always reminded me of type of Chinese herb, called "wun yee" in Cantonese, but they're not fungi.  Rather, they are a type of lichen.  The closest image match I could find was Peltigera membranacea.  Note the long tendrill-like rhizomes on the underside that allows these lichens to grow atop a layer of moss, which is a great evolutionary feature to have to outcompete in territory where every inch of rotting wood is covered by moss or other vegetation. I've only seen them in very dense, moist understories on rotting logs.

On to the true plants!  My interest in plants started with berry-bearing plants, as those usually yielded some sort of reward for correctly identification.  Unique-looking photogenic flowers also usually tempt a photograph out of me.  So here they are.

The Salal is one of the more common plants one may encounter on any west coast hike.  The berries are covered with fine hairs, and I've never been tempted to eat them until this trip when I just had a taste.  Not sour...not sweet...just sticky and moist.

Rosy Twisted Stalk
Thought this was hooker's fairybell at first, but I found a better photo online with a closer match to twisted stalk.  The berry apparently has a mild flavour, though I didn't try.

Some ferns do naturally branch, like the maidenhair fern.  Most, do not, so this licorice fern poking up next to the boardwalk immediately caught my attention.

Do you see the face?  Like something out of a Tim Burton movie, I think.

In recent years, I've grown fond of maindenhair ferns because of the distinct shiny black stems and the rounded arrangement of the fronds.  I obviously haven't been observant enough, because there are plenty of other ferns that have black stems, like this:
I can't seem to find other ferns with my web searches that look like this, in this part of the world.  This shall remain a mystery.

Flowers and leaves would place it in the Mint family (Lamiaceae), but I can't find any positive IDs online.

Harry Potter's jellybeans (locally known as False Lily Of The Valley - Maianthemum dilatatum)
The berries are apparently edible, and many parts of the plant were used for medicinal purposes by native peoples.

We saw many destroyed flowers/seeds of skunk cabbage.  Many times, we saw a crunched up seed pod dozens of metres away from the plant, .  Even with a bit of research, I couldn't figure out what animal did this.  Perhaps it was just a pole-carrying hiker.

We let out a collective cheer as we exited the damp forest into this sunny bog

I was excited to see sundews in dense bunches at my feet, most of them flowering in the sunshine of the bog (sorry, no closeups)

At the end of each day, we'd inevitably spill out onto a beach where we'd ultimately set up camp.  This last photo of a petrified dragon (technically a plant) will segue us into the next post descriving my favorite part of the journey, the fauna.