Identification in kit form – blog 27

And that Liam O’Brien doesn’t just identify butterflies, he identifies mammals too.

By the way, I am now in King City, not that far from Monterey really, and not that far from Los Banos either.  King City, whose motto should be ‘ King City – fit for a pauper’  as it has several cheap motels and several cheap eateries (all Mexican as far as I can tell).

Anyway, Liam and I were chatting, and I think it was about how difficult it is to get the general public interested in creepy crawlies, except perhaps butterflies, compared with, say, the San Joaquin Kit Fox. ‘The what?’ says I, ‘The San Joaquin Kit Fox’ says Liam.

Only a few days earlier I had seen a small fox at the San Luis NWR early one morning.  I’d been driving on a track and a small fox had got up in front of me and then run, quite slowly, off.  It had been a small fox, and I had immediately thought ‘fox cub’, but it looked wise enough to be grown up and it had big ears.

I almost wrote about it here – but didn’t.  I had tried to look it up and had drawn a blank.  I even tried ‘Kit Fox’ but had decided that though everything seemed to fit, I was out of their range.  But I wasn’t and I see that the Kit Fox does indeed occur on this very site – and I saw one!

Identification in kit form – geddit?

Maybe someone could help me out with this snake that I saw while looking for condors, unsuccessfully, at the Pinnacles NP.  It was on the road, but alive, and was large by UK standards.  I guess, unfolded, it would have been 5ft long.  It was chocolate brown with pale stripes, or maybe you would have said it was pale with chocolate brown stripes. It was pretty.  Any ideas?



Two cafes and a butterfly – blog 26

Just in case anyone thought I was writing these blogs from my office in east Northants... Photo: Liam O'Brian

Just in case anyone thought I was writing these blogs from my office in east Northants…
Photo: Liam O’Brien

The only person on the scene, missing, was the Xerces blue – almost what Bob Dylan sang.

A few days after I disclosed that I was leaving the RSPB, back in January 2011, I was in Oxford for the farming conference and had a coffee in a cafe with Martin Warren, the Chief Exec of Butterfly Conservation, one of the nicest nature conservationists that I know (is there anyone nicer?), and one of the most knowledgeable (is there anyone more knowledgeable?).  When I said that I was heading off to the USA  in search of extinct birds he told me about an extinct butterfly – the Xerces blue.

Today, in Cafe Flore on Market Street, San Francisco, I met Liam O’Brien who told me all about this extinct little blue butterfly.  Liam is a great guy and I very much enjoyed his company, his knowledge, his humour and his turn of phrase.  And just to get this fact out of the way, there aren’t many experts on butterflies who have played 1000 performances on Broadway (as Liam has – and in Les Mis of all things).

The Xerces blue was a species that lived in the coastal sand dunes of this area.  It went extinct in the 1930s and 1940s because we destroyed its habitat – in other words the usual story.

In the 1780s, half of what is now San Francisco was sand dune.  This covered much of what is now the Sunset district and Sea Cliff and Richmond.  Looking down from the top of a hill, and San Francisco has plenty of hills remember, to the distant ocean it was difficult to picture this as a scrub-covered shifting dune system with little blue butterflies (amongst others) flying around in the sun.

The Xerces blue had a small range and we concreted it over. It’s difficult not to keep humming Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi at this stage; ‘They paved paradise And put up a parking lot’.  Yes, there were collectors taking specimens – Liam described it thus: ‘The polka-dot butterfly was the Willy Wonka Golden Ticket specimen’ but they wouldn’t have had anything to collect after WWII anyway.

The house where Ansel Adams grew up overlooked the spot, now having its habitat restored, where the last Xerces blue specimen was taken.

This is the only butterfly species (but was it a full species – it’s so hard to tell with flutterbys?) to have gone extinct in the USA, and it’s a different type of impact from that of the passenger pigeon.  This butterfly was a restricted range species and was always rare (-ish).

Liam had a ‘good news’ story to tell too – in fact I think he had a whole bag full of stories to tell.  The green hairstreak butterfly (same genus as ours – different species) used to fly around with the Xerces blue.  Liam and others are making sure that it doesn’t disappear from the streets of Sand Francisco.

Green hairstreak habitat restoration (14th and Pacheco if you’d like to visit). Photo: Liam O’Brien

When I was looking down to the ocean over thousands of roofs where there used to be sand dunes, at my feet was a patch of native vegetation running down one side of the many pedestrian staircases mounting the hills.  This provided a linear corridor of native vegetation for the green hairstreak.  Liam and friends are persuading lots of people to do their bit and as we drove around I began to be able to spot the patches of Liam’s influence.

It’s a great idea to spread the habitat through the streets and with it the butterflies too.  And it seems to be working.

I’m really glad that Martin told me about the Xerces blue (and that I listened and remembered) and I’m very grateful to Liam for being such a kind, amusing but knowledgeable host.  I should also thank the Xerces Society (named after the butterfly, of course) whom I contacted and who put me in touch with Liam.

So, I saw as many Xerces blue as I, or anyone else, will see passenger pigeons, but I saw where they used to live, understood more about why they aren’t there any more and heard about the work going on to make sure that although some of the blue has gone out of the San Francisco world, the green will remain. So here’s another of Liam’s photos, of a green hairstreak, with which to end.

Green hairstreak (San Francisco). Photo: Liam O'Brien

Green hairstreak (San Francisco). Photo: Liam O’Brien



Strange collection – blog 26

I am going to see an extinct butterfly’s last home so I may not have time to write a blog tomorrow (now today), so here, as a stop-gap,  is a collection of wildlife sightings and sightings of Americana that I just want to get off my chest:

  1. Amerigo Vespucci, after whom America is named, probably never came here, and C Columbus only got to the Bahamas. So this place might have been discovered by two geezers setting out from my home town of Bristol in 1497 – John and  Sebastian Cabot.  I’m in Cabotia!
  2. I was driving along a busy big road in Utah when in the distance I saw two ravens.  They appeared to be mobbing something in the central reservation between the carriageways.  I assumed it might be a fox but looked hard as I dashed past and saw an adult golden eagle not ten feet away tucking into some dead mammal.
  3. I haven’t seen many butterflies – but I have seen a monarch.
  4. A distant sign caught my eye as it seemed to say SOD in large letters.  This being the USA I thought it might be GOD, but it was a billboard advertising turf – Farm Fresh Sod.
  5. There are two magpies here – black-billed which is very similar to ours but has a longer tail, and yellow-billed which is very similar to ours but has a yellow bill.
  6. I could hardly believe this building which I drove past in Ohio.  I await the new RSPB headquarters in the shape of an avocet, or WWF’s panda building.
  7. I had a sudden worry that some of the things that I have been calling great white egrets were actually the white phase of great blue heron – but they aren’t ‘cos those don’t live where I’ve been.  But the GWEs don’t seem to kink their necks in quite the way that European ones do.
  8. I did see a roadside sign in Colorado saying ‘Vote Obama’ so somebody loves him.
  9. One of the consequences of having states, making their own laws, is that laws on fireworks differ greatly.  This is why you often see fireworks being sold and advertised at state boundaries.
  10. The United Kingdom is about the same size as the state of Oregon (I’ve never been to Oregon) but has 15 times as many people living in it.
  11. There are lots of billboards asking you to drain the water from your boat so that you don’t carry non-native species around the USA – if I had a boat I would comply.
  12. And there are also, for the same reason, notices asking you not to bring your own wood for barbecues but to get it locally – those tree diseases…



More whales – blog 25

Today was writing, whale-watching, writing, whale-watching, writing.  I went on morning and evening whale-watching trips  and each was excellent, each was different from the other and from my earlier trip (which seems like it was ages ago!).

Taken together these two trips provided more blue whales, 2 humpback whales, lots of Risso’s dolphins, lots of Pacific white-sided dolphins, lots of northern right-whale dolphins, harbour porpoise, sea otters and California sea lions (mustn’t forget them even though they are everywhere).

There were birds too!  Cassin’s and rhinoceros auklets. black-footed albatross and Heermann’s gull.

And there were people on the boats – fellow punters like me.  They were interesting too.  I think predicting who will get seasick and throw up is quite interesting (and quite difficult).  And it is quite difficult to tell who will be very enthusiastic about the trips (which last 3 hours or more) and who will begin to look bored stiff after a few minutes.

I met some nice people though – the Mom with her two children, the Afro-American couple and others.

Just as the people are a little unpredictable, so is the weather. My rule of thumb for going on any boat is that it will probably be both hotter and colder than you expected – so go prepared.   I was fine, though I have caught the sun a little, but others who started off cheery returned a bit less cheery as a result of not wearing the right clothes.

Kate Spencer was the naturalist/biologist on board and she was excellent – full of information of the right type, delivered at the right times, in the right ways.  Quite a class act and I enjoyed talking to her (she identified birds too!).

Each of the three trips was different – you can’t instruct nature to be in the right place at the right time. And that is part of the excitement for any naturalist – what will we see?

What a fantastic place is Monterey Bay.  I had a marvellous time.  Will I ever get back here – I doubt it? I’m glad I have visited.  I have always wanted to see killer whale and now I have – that is great for me.  Blue whales were not as high up on my list, but now I’ve seen a few I think they should have been.  That enormous, lasting-forever, blue-grey back and that afterthought of a small fin  make a lasting impression of majesty.  But when you realise how badly we have treated this species, harpooning them in their thousands and thousands, then you can’t help, when you see them, to be glad that they are still alive and that makes you, or at least it made me, glad to be alive.


Cute as anything – blog 24

I was still glowing with delight at seeing killer whale and blue whale yesterday when I woke today.  It was quite a misty morning as I headed along California Highway 1 to Moss Landing and Elkhorn Slough.  Here, I’d been told, I would see the cute sea otter.  And I did!

I had a few false alarms with sea lions but eventually got to a place where I could see three or four sea otters in the distance – lying on their backs in the water.

The distance soon became the foreground as I drove a short distance to the car park on the north side of the slough (little estuary) to get a better look.  I spent nearly an hour looking down on a sea otter feeding 10 feet below me.

He or she – I had a good look but didn’t see any ‘bits’ that would tell me which it was (so he’s going to be a ‘he’, as ‘he’ is quicker to type than ‘she’) – was diving and coming back to the surface with some sort of bivalve (I think). Lying on its back in the water, with its meal partly balanced on its chest, but held in its paws, he would bite through the shell and then eat the contents. Then the shell fragments would be discarded and fall through the water and he was off again to catch another mollusc.

My sea otter seemed very good at finding these food items as almost every dive resulted in a capture.  When it didn’t, he would have a bit of a scratch (all done lying on his back in the water and paddling to remain in the same place with his back legs) of his chest, armpits, shoulders or head.  Sea otters have very thick fur (rather than thick subcutaneous fat like most marine mammals) and that’s why they were hunted almost to extinction too.

Now and again he would come back to the surface, lie on his back, with not just a mollusc but also a rock.  Once he had the rock in his paws and smacked it against the mollusc on his chest to crack it open but other times the rock was on his chest and the mollusc in his paws.  The latter way made it easier when the mollusc was cracked, which usually took about 3-5 sharp smacks, to twist his body (this is all done while swimming on his back remember) and let the rock fall to the seabed again and carry on getting the good bits out of the shell.

Twice, the rocks that this amazing creature brought to the surface, along with its shellfish meal, and balanced on its chest to use as a tool, were bricks.  Full-sized bricks!  Sea otters aren’t small but to bring a brick to the surface to use as a hammering block to get your meal is quite a thing!

How did he know whether he would or wouldn’t need a rock each time – because usually he just used his teeth? How did he choose his rock? The biologist in me was coming to the top of my brain whilst the bottom of my brain was just going ‘Cute! Cute! Cute!’.

He occasionally looked at me – I think he was used to being watched. I didn’t want to be the one to leave – I thought he should go first and eventually he moved on to a new, more distant, stretch of water.

Across the slough there was a raft of 25 sea otters asleep in calmer water (with a western gull and (slightly oiled) Pacific diver). I went around to watch this group of sea otters for a while.  They didn’t do anything except drift very slowly in the current.  Now and again they’d all wake up and slowly paddle back, as a group, to where they started and then go to sleep again.

So, today was writing and cute sea otter time. It was an unforgettable encounter (for one of us).