Thursday, June 24, 2010

Yellow-bellied Varmint

My wife is trilingual. As an Ecuadorian, her first language is Spanish but she speaks fluent English and German. This does not mean she always understands me or the odd American idioms I spout out. I once attempted to calm her frustrations by suggesting she not get “bent out of shape”. She heard “banana shake” and the conversation thankfully turned to desserts. After a close encounter with a Black Bear in Yosemite National Park, I pointed at a bird across the meadow and said “Hey a cowbird”. My wife replied “you’re not a coward – you got very close to that bear.”

I’m not a coward, although as a child I did react to a fire alarm in our house by fleeing and yelling for someone to save my sister. Labels can be hard to take and tough to shake. Yosemite Sam indoctrinated a legion of Loony Tunes fans to believe that a Yellow-bellied Marmot (Marmota flaviventris) or varmint is a coward. Having never seen one I assumed this to be true. I also believed that all gunpowder trails lead to a shed full of TNT.

 I spotted my first Yellow-bellied Marmot on a walk in the woods in Sequoia National Park where the whistling rodent stood tall on a rocky perch and scouted its surroundings. The plump, fuzzy ground squirrel never backed down but darted from perch to perch whistling to other Marmots unseen to me.

Although marmots are cousins to the eastern Woodchuck (Marmota monax), they are social and live in colonies. One individual often gets sentinel duty and watches for danger while the others forage. The shrill this “whistle pig” was producing apparently had the effect of an alarm and sent the other marmots into their underground burrow, which in some colonies can contain over 200 feet of passages.

In the high Sierras of California, marmots hibernate from September to May but if this Yellow-bellied individual was shaking off its eight month slumber you could never tell. It had all the energy and excitability of Yosemite Sam with a stick of dynamite in his pants. It was endearing to watch this individual protecting the colony. It’s time to rethink the “yellow-belly” label and I guess I better go save my sister. 

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Low Gear

A few years ago my dad and I sat on a park bench on the boardwalk at the Six Mile Cypress Slough Preserve in Fort Myers, FL. We watched a male Green Anole flaring its dewlap in the hopes of impressing a female. We spotted a Red-bellied Woodpecker excavating a rotting snag where it would soon nest and we watched and listened as a Black Racer slithered between the cypress knees a few feet below. Intermittently people would march down the boardwalk and interrupt the moment. One guest bemoaned to her partner that there was nothing to see and they continued their apparent training for Olympic Speed Walking. Our outing revealed that there is much to see if you slow down, be patient and let the natural world show itself.

The serpentine switchbacks of the Generals Highway in Sequoia National Park trace the alpine edges from 7000 feet down into the valley. It’s over fourteen miles of cliff-edged driving at 20 MPH from the largest living tree on the planet to our hotel and despite the late May snow flurries and a setting sun, we were in no hurry to leave the park. Not everyone appreciated our pace but timely pullouts allowed for us to let the speed racers past so we could enjoy the fresh mountain air, laced with a noxious smell of burning brakes. 

At one stop, a traveler had overshot the pullout and decided to stop in the road to take a photo of the landscape. A parade of cars stacked up behind it and horns began to blare along with shouts of disgust. We stopped. We waited and eventually the line of cars snaked down the mountainside and out of view.
And then the bear stepped out. This beautiful American Black Bear (Ursus americanus) had waited for the traffic to pass before it crossed the road, flat-footed as they do, walked into a meadow and then sat and relaxed. For 45 minutes we watched the bear eat grass, sniff the air and poop (not in the woods).

As I photographed the bear above I heard grunting and snuffling behind me. As I turned I noticed a bear about 15 feet away, digging for grubs to eat. 
Immersed in the moment, I later wondered why most of the humans couldn’t just shift into low gear and enjoy one of the most gorgeous nature drives around. 

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Fantastic Fragrance - The Southern Magnolia

On a muggy, May afternoon in Hillsborough River State Park in Thonotosassa, FL, I find myself wiping rivulets of sweat off my face. As we amble down the trail, I swat away an entourage of mosquitoes that gravitate towards me and retreat with every swing of an arm. There is a hypnotic fragrance that wafts through the woods on the slightest of breezes. I raise my shoulder to wipe away the sweat. I flail my arm at the marauding blood suckers. The motions become routine. But the sweet aroma that undulates on unseen air currents leads me by my nose to undiscovered treasures.

To describe a fragrance is as easy for me as tasting music. No description could do it justice. It’s a pleasant, sugared scent that distracts me from my sweat-soaked clothing, and blood-spattered, mosquito bitten skin. As we make our way through a forest of Bald Cypress and Live Oaks we arrive at a clearing spiked with half-a-dozen, 60 foot tall trees adorned with massive white blooms. There is no mistaking the identity of the Southern Magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora).

Magnolias are named after French botanist Pierre Magnol and the species name “grandiflora” refers to the head-sized flowers they produce. The foot-wide bloom is decorated with a pineapple shaped structure that includes the female carpels and the male stamens at the base. Magnolias have been around since before the rise of bees and the trees were originally pollinated by beetles. The flowers evolved tough carpels to prevent damage from beetles crawling around on their surface. Today, bees and other flying pollinators assist beetles in propagating the species. Eventually the petals will fall away, the sweet scent will dissipate and by late summer the fruit will mature and spit out dozens of crimson, half-inch seeds.

We can’t linger long. The mosquitoes have caught up and the sun is blazing. I break the hypnotic hold the tree has on my olfactory senses and ponder the notion that I can’t remember what it smells like already. I just know when I smell it again I’ll like it.