Kenya, Day 1

I was lucky enough to be invited to join my advisor on his 41st research trip to Kenya. For the next month I’ll be living at Mpala Research Center, helping with an experiment looking at the interaction between herbivory (by cattle or wildlife) and prescribed fires. We flew in to Nairobe late at night, and the next morning drove about four hours to the research station. The drive itself was incredible, seeing the change from drier lowlands to wetter uplands to dry again uplands–this time in the rain shadow of Mount Kenya, which remained shrouded by heavy clouds. I loved the alternating patches of farmland with towns, bright colored shops and roadside stands. The road itself boasted newer cars and Landrover-type safari vehicles, overburdened motorcycles and brightly colored buses with catchy shoutouts to Jesus painted on their sides.

The research station itself is incredible, with views looking out at the mountain range and an impressive diversity of wildlife. In just my first afternoon here I’ve seen eleven wild mammal species–zebra (Plains and Grevy’s), giraffe (reticulated), bush hyrax, warthog, dik dik, mongoose, bush baby, hare, vervet monkey, and bush buck–in addition to cattle, donkeys, sheep and goats. I wasn’t quick enough to get pictures of all of them, but I know there will be a lot more to see and many more opportunities! Our few hours in the field ended with thunderstorms in the distance and the setting sun lighting up the clouds over Mount Kenya.

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Humes Ranch

We squeezed in a late-September backpacking trip up the Elwha. Despite a bit of chilly rain, it was a really beautiful trip, and we camped near a creek that feeds into the Elwha River. I’m really glad we managed this last-minute jaunt, as winter storms have once again destroyed the road leading to this trailhead, and it may not be passable next summer.

 

Pinnacles Stars

We wandered in to Pinnacles National Park around 4:30 on a November afternoon– around the time the rest of the parking lot was clearing out–to take some night sky pictures on a new moon night. Although it was a bit cloudier than we would have liked, it was fun to work with the clouds–and the light pollution they reflect–to add a bit more drama to the photos.

I really enjoyed watching the camera’s developing pictures reveal things my eyes couldn’t see–like the yellow glow from far-removed cities, and the Andromeda galaxy in the second to last photo. I also really liked the effect of the stars sparkling through the pine trees.

Burning Sun

The sun the last few days has been a wee bit… odd. Fires in eastern Washington, Oregon, and Montana have been sending smoke our way, which combined with the cloud cover has created a very surreal sky-scape.

McLaughlin Natural Reserve, part 2

I couldn’t resist sharing more of the stunningly bizarre flowers I encountered while working at McLaughlin Reserve this spring, as well as some insects who make use of this space.

McLaughlin Natural Reserve

The last two years I have been working on a project at McLaughlin Natural Reserve studying the response of flowering plants and grasses to fire in shrub chaparral. The fire opens up the canopy, allowing for a large bloom of wildflowers. The reserve includes many areas with serpentine soils, soil from ultramafic rock with high magnesium, low calcium, low nutrient levels and often high levels of heavy metals, so only certain adapted species can grow on it. These serpentine regions tend to have many native California plants which have adapted over time to the harsh soils, often in very strange ways.

This year, the particularly wet conditions led to a bloom of many stunningly strange flowers in these burned patches. It’s been incredible to wander through these fields of bright colors, and to look up close at some of these strange flower forms.

McKerricher State Park and Coastal Dunes

Every spring, I teach a class on plant communities of California, that travels on four field trips to different parts of the state to see some of the incredible range of terrestrial ecosystems in our neighborhood. Last weekend we took three days to go towards the coast, in the Mendocino area. The trip takes students from coastal dunes to coastal prairie to riparian system to pygmy forests to mixed evergreen forests and ends with old-growth redwood. Along the way they learn to identify the different plant species, understand the different drivers that cause the plant communities to be what they are, and hear stories of the history and social factors that shape how we think about these communities today.

These are a few of my students from McKerricher state park, where the students conducted a sampling exercise to look at how the assembly of plants changed as they moved from the high tide line towards the inland dunes. The plants we saw include beach evening primrose, purple owl’s clover, Indian paintbrush, beach bur, coastal sagewort, knotweed, American dune grass, and sand verbena. These plants all have amazing adaptations to the shifting sands, harsh winds, bright light, salty air, and low water supply they have to deal with in this environment. One of these adaptations is a spreading below-ground root structures that anchor the plants in the dunes, store water and nutrients for drought, and allow the plant to resprout if it is buried. Check out the photo of the sand verba roots–you’d never know from their cute little leaves that such a monster lay underneath! We also enjoyed a stunning display from Menzies’ wallflower, an endangered species with a limited range along the California coast.

Yosemite in snow

I’ve been lucky enough to visit Yosemite many times, and especially often since I moved back to California a couple years ago. Despite two previous January trips; however, I had yet to see the valley in the snow. A recent visit during this winter’s storms finally solved that, and it was incredible to see the Merced River in full flow, and the ice and snow on the valley floor and mountain tops.

The snow had spent a couple days melting and re-freezing, creating stunning ice crystals on branches, rocks, and blades of grass. We were treated to two colorful sunsets and a gorgeous early morning rainbow in Upper Yosemite Fall. It was amazing to see mist forming and disappearing throughout the day as the snow warmed and cooled with the passage of the sun.