Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Tough Little Plant

Every year, just as it seems as if spring will never really make itself at home in our drizzly part of the world, this tough little plant blooms in a crevice between the sidewalk and the wall of a building a few doors down and around the corner from us. I think it is a dwarf purple alyssum, a pretty carpet of lavender blooms that doesn't ask for much in return for its charms. The Sunset guide to western plants notes that this plant, with its Mediterranean origins, thrives in "poor, rocky soil." It loves full sun, is heat tolerant, and is happy with a splash of water now and then.

It's an annual, but don't tell that to this particular plant--or at least the particular patch of soil that it sprouts from. It pops up every year in this hardscrabble spot, and if the new blooms are really those of its scrappy seeds, so be it--it's still a dogged little thing.

I was surprised to learn that it's in the Brassicaceae family, kin to broccoli, cabbage, and the like. If the plants in my vegetable garden as well as the dwarf purple alyssum and the white "snow crystal" alyssum plants in my yard had an attention span,  I'd lecture them about their brave cousin around the corner and how it blooms despite receiving no attention, scant water, and (when summer finally arrives) nothing but direct sunlight glaring off the pavement all day long. And how they really should be thriving given their optimal locations, well drained soil, and admiring gardeners. But you know plants. They pretend they don't hear you.

So I'll just continue to detour now and then while walking the dog to check on how this plant's doing. It's terribly obvious how this surprise bouquet functions as a symbol for so many themes (Resiliency; Nature's Restorative Powers: Adversity, Courage in Face of [see]; et cetera) so I won't belabor that point. I'll simply hope that the building's owners don't get the notion one day to zap the little metaphor with Round-Up like a crabby English professor reading the 127th essay of the day.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Lady of No Spot

I found this little ladybug on the top of the yard-waste bin when I went to put the trash out over the weekend. Its elytra were so vividly red, it looked like a droplet of blood. The lack of spots made it look quite exotic, though I think it belongs to a species fairly well represented in the Pacific Northwest. I'm not a coleopterist (nor do I play one on TV), but it appears to be a Western Blood-Red Ladybeetle (Cycloneda polita polita).

This possible identity came up in an Internet search. My field guides weren't much help in identifying the little beetle. Granted, there are about 350,000 known species of beetles ("on Earth," many sources like to add, suggesting the possibility that beetles abound on other planets--but with beetles being so abundant, who knows?). And there are more than 450 species of ladybugs just in North America. So that would be one heck of a fat field guide if it listed all the possibilities. Instead of boosting toddlers up to table height with a phone book, parents could use a Ladybug Field Guide to do the job.

The field guide did suggest one spotless species, the ironically named Spotless Nine-Spotted Ladybug. But the shield behind the head did not look the same, much to my relief.

Right after I snapped this picture of the ladybug, a spittlebug toddled past her. A spittlebug is a nymph; when it grows up, it's known by the equally wonderful name of froghopper. Spittlebugs are not generally regarded fondly. They're condemned as pests, and a quick Google search turns up many sites suggesting how to eradicate "infestations" of them. They're particularly loathed by growers of alfalfa and other crops.

But I still harbor a fondness for these little creatures. I remember, as a kid, learning that the weird blobs of foam I saw on plant stems were made by tiny bugs hidden inside them, merrily spewing bubble fluid out of their hind ends and whipping it into a foam with their legs and bodies. The first time I poked a grass blade into one of the little foam homes, I encountered a tubby bug with big brown eyes that looked like a cartoon character. It's hard to shake first impressions. My infestation of spittlebugs quietly resides on the stems of the Canterbury bells in my garden, and both seem to be thriving.

After I loaded the images onto my computer, I noticed what looks like an aphid moseying about in the background. As aphids are the ladybug's main prey (a ladybug may chow down on 5,000 aphids in a lifetime), you'd think it would steer clear, but it was quite unconcerned. Perhaps, like a gazelle on the savannah stepping lightly past a recumbent lion, it knew the ladybug was sated. More likely, it's just completely oblivious. (OK, you probably can't be partly oblivious.)

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Early birds at the Zoo


May 8 dawned bright and clear, and by the time I arrived at the local zoo at 6:45 a.m., the grass gleamed lemon-yellow in the slanting rays of sunlight and the air was soft and warm. At this hour on a Saturday, few cars roll along the roads, and the only people out and about are joggers and dogwalkers. And, here at the zoo, birders.

We'd come to stroll the zoo grounds in the company of a bird curator and enjoy the rare opportunity to amble about the 90+ leafy acres without encountering large family groups of moms pushing prams and screaming toddlers sticky with Itzakadoozie candy--not that there's anything wrong with those things. They just have a tendency to make it hard to identify the sibilant whisperings of a shy, small bird high in a treetop.

Though we didn't spy any rare migratory species, we did enjoy a nice selection of birds that are either year-round residents or seasonal nesters: white-crowned sparrows, bushtits, black-capped chickadees, house finches, violet-green swallows, barn swallows, robins, Bewick's wrens, and a pair of bald eagles nesting in a tree. The curator also identified a glaucous-winged/Western gull hybrid relaxing on the savannah, incongruously situated among zebras and gazelles. And I got to add a new bird to my life list upon glimpsing a yellow-rumped warbler gleaning insects high in an oak.

The zoo's own birds also exhibited a restfulness and poise rare to see during the hours that it's open to the public. Chilean flamingoes stood one-legged in their pond with their necks corkscrewed over their backs in repose, watching us carefully with their squinty yellow eyes but otherwise unflappable. One peacock glowered down at us from a treetop perch while another fanned out his emerald tail coverts, parading around us just in case there were a peahen hidden in our midst.

Of all the birds we saw that morning, I most enjoyed watching this busy white-crowned sparrow hunting insects in the savannah grass. I'd never seen this bird when I lived back east, and now every spring I look forward to hearing its wistful song, sometimes rendered as wee SWEE chilly-chilly-SWEEE cheer-cher-er. One bold sparrow even staked out a territory in the courtyard of my daughter's elementary school--a brilliant location, noisy with children, perhaps, but unlikely to attract a hungry Cooper's hawk.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Django the Art Cat


Once again a stream of water flows across the kitchen floor. Thankfully, it's not due to a leaky pipe under the sink or an overflowing dishwasher. It's just a sign that Django the Art Cat has been hard at work.


Django is a big, fat, lazy, tuxedo-clad cat who spends most of the day snoozing in ridiculous postures in various parts of the house. He's an easygoing, mellow fellow--doesn't mind if the clumsy yellow Lab licks his face, doesn't think twice about sleeping flat on his back with his paws curled over his white-cummerbund tummy, doesn't object (and, in fact, purrs happily and closes his eyes halfway in contentment) if my daughter dresses him up in hats, frocks, and underwear.


He does have one passion in life, however, and it's called a bowl of water.


For the first two years of his life, he indulged his fascination with water by playing in the ceramic water bowl shared by all three of our cats--Pebble, the tortoiseshell female with whom he grew up, and Ceilidh, the ancient calico who resented him and Pebble with equal distaste.


When we got a fountain-style waterer to encourage the elderly calico to drink more water, Django thought he'd died and gone to heaven: now here was a waterplay park most cats could only dream of! Not only could one scoop water out of the bowl with a paw, one could also remove the lid, extract the charcoal filter from the reservoir, and leave the mess on the floor for an unsuspecting human to step on early in the morning.


Then Luna the Lab arrived. About 75 pounds of thirsty dog, requiring a stainless-steel water bowl large enough to bathe two guinea pigs in. Django was quick to see the artistic possibilities offered by this enlarged canvas.


Throughout the day, he dabbles in drowning, floating, and soaking objects in the water: paper napkins, dish towels, paper towels, pipe cleaners, pompoms, wire fasteners, ribbons, receipts carelessly left on the sideboard, ponytail holders, flowers, and candy wrappers a certain person has not thrown away (you know who you are). For Django, it's a great day if an ice cube is placed in the bowl: he bats at it, gazes at it, licks it, and then reclines by the bowl, leaning his head on its rim, dozing as he fondly remembers the good old days, before the ice cube melted.


Greatest coup: pulling the dangling paper towel at the bottom of the roll so that all 9 remaining sheets came off and stuffing the entire wad into the dish. Yes, all the water was absorbed. (Bounty's the quicker-picker-upper, after all, though I doubt the manufacturers ever imagined their product would be used in this manner.) Yes, the dog was puzzled when she returned to the bowl for a drink, though I think she's learned to expect the unexpected, having found so many items floating in it in the past.


There's little we can do to contain his activities except mop up the mess (which often sends rivulets of water into the cabinets and under the bookshelf, especially if he's draped a paper towel over the bowl's edge so that it siphons water out for hours). A waterhog-type doormat placed under the bowl helps, as does a jelly-roll pan.


And hey, perhaps he's not just canoodling with toys. Perhaps Django is living up to the artistic standards set by his namesake, just in a different realm. Perhaps he's the Andres Serrano of felines. Perhaps he's actually arranging the disparate objects in the water to make a Statement. Perhaps the ephemeral nature of his work is a commentary on...something or other.
He's not sayin'.
Anyway, here's one of his latest works, which we call "Chrysanthemum." It had the added benefit of dyeing the water pink.