California Natives - Fauna California Natives - Flora Nature Photography

iNaturalist Observations

I am spending much of my time in the field and just outside my door taking photographs of plants, flowers and insects with the occasional bird, reptile and mammal included when our paths intersect.

Doing this kind of work requires patience and focus. I find that I must slow down and concentrate on my subject.

Many times I fail to get a decent photograph. Other times the photographs are good but I am stumped when it comes to the identification of a plant or insect that I have not seen before. Even when I am starting to feel confident, knowledgeable about a species, I sometimes find myself starting over again, or at least second guessing my assumptions of what I thought I knew. Because a creature I thought I knew one day may appear on another day in a novel, for me, context.

For example, I might spot a bee species that I have often recognized without much trouble, but this one is foraging on a flower that suggests a new association (of pollinator to pollinated), or maybe the lighting is unusual, leading to visual or photographic difficulties. Some assumptions are bound to fall away. When that happens, I go back to review the characteristics of a species I thought I knew.

And that is part of the challenge and the reward of focusing on the natural world, it forces me to put one hundred percent of my focus on a living thing, not just glancing at, but really seeing the diversity and splendor of life around me. A key requirement is to see and record with me removed as much as possible. So the project is easiest when I forget where, what, who and why I am. The subject becomes, just for a few moments, the locus for all those conceits, the answer to all those questions.

California Natives - Fauna California Natives - Flora Nature Photography

Winter – 2020 Trail Observations

Things derive their being and nature by mutual dependence and are nothing in themselves.
Nāgārjuna, second-century Buddhist philosopher

The Meditation (My Trip into Crazy Town)

Truth is a provisional construct, the integrity of which is only as good as the reliability of the source. We all know this on some level. Without some basic agreement about what we see, about the world around us, we would not be able to understand each other at all.

Consider the color blue: You and I are walking along a trail when you notice a butterfly with blue wings. We stop to take a closer look at the butterfly. It has inexplicably ceased its typical, mind-bending for human observers flight behavior, and is now perched on a branch of deerweed. Thank you butterfly.

Your perception of the color blue on a butterfly’s wings is not the same as mine. Aside from the fact that neither our eyes nor our brains are identical, we are not standing exactly in the same place. The view angle, the light and several other inputs that shape for each of us what we see, are a little bit different.

Blue sky. Blue eyes. A western bluebird. The color name is a place-holder for all the variations, it has become the vessel that allows our mutual understanding: Blue is a sensory experience as well as an abstract concept that we can agree upon, even though we know that each of us may see a different shade of blue. So much potential for growth is seeded in our infinite shades pooled together, but we must not let go of the reference point we rely upon to sustain universal understanding. The “truth” of blue is that reference point, however complicated and multi-shaded its iterations may be.

Our species has, over millennia, developed the ability to communicate through language. Words serve as accessible wrappers for ideas and meaning. The tool of language enables us to agree on some universals, including a baseline understanding of the color blue.

We can agree on the presence of the color blue, unless one of us decides to confuse or complicate the matter. For example, suppose I insist that the butterfly’s wings are not blue, but yellow. Playing the devil’s advocate can be useful if the goal is to determine whether facts are missing or our understanding is flawed. In response to my claim, suppose that you suggest that we ask others on the trail what color they see on those so very patient butterfly wings. Perhaps there is a wisp of yellow somewhere.

But what if I do not care about the input of any others on the trail unless they agree with me? Maybe I will choose to disagree in spite of the majority consensus gathered among our trail-going peers because I simply disagree with the assigned color names. Ridiculous scenario of course, but I feel entitled and empowered to do this as a high-level member of the Blue is Yellow party.

Or perhaps I take you aside and state off the record in a most dreary tone that my true purpose is to sow confusion:

I do in fact see a color that past precedent has established as blue, but I choose to say blue is yellow from now on to further the Blue as Yellow party’s goal of confusing everyone on this damned, buggy trail and beyond about whether they are seeing blue or yellow.

A general consensus regarding facts, of truth built squarely upon those facts is necessary for a civil, humane society to continue in its project of becoming more civil and humane. I hope that is still our project? Presenting fictional narratives as factual, distorting evidence-based science and promoting lies based upon such distortions, is to facilitate and expedite our species’ descent into barbarism.

Even the most casual wildflower enthusiast will agree: A Fire Poppy is not a Matilija Poppy.

California Natives - Flora Nature Photography

Pacific Pea and California Hedge Nettle

Etz Meloy is one of my favorite trails, but I decided to hike Backbone in the opposite direction yesterday. I followed the trail until it came to an intersection with the Zuma Ridge trail, then continued on Zuma Ridge up to Buzzard’s Roost, then turned back and retraced my steps. Just after I started walking, I encountered at least one signpost promising “Agony.” Agony turned out to be a short and steep side-trail connected on both ends to the Backbone trail. I followed it on the way out but passed it by on the return.

Photo of Pacific Pea, blue-hued flowers on the Backbone trail in the Santa Monica Mountains (January 2020)
Photo of Pacific Pea, blue-hued flowers on the Backbone trail in the Santa Monica Mountains (January 2020)

The trail wound down to a canyon floor. Because there have been some good bouts of rain this winter, a stream was flowing at the bottom of the canyon. Wafts of moist air rose from below as I descended. In the sun the drifts of air were warm, in the shade they were cool. Humidity was a mild constant. When I reached the canyon floor and started walking through a green world, isolation’s gravity took hold. I was surrounded by living things. Isolated from whom? From what?

Here were leaves and trees, shrubs full of energy, reaching up and through their (blackened by the Woolsey Fire) former iterations. Here were ancient boulders and rocks, the pebbles and sand below my feet and what I could see of the sky, above the canopy. I listened to the stream, to the birds, to other, unidentifiable sounds.




Photo of Pacific Pea, red-hued flowers on the Backbone trail in the Santa Monica Mountains (January 2020)
Pacific Pea, red-hued flowers on the Backbone trail in the Santa Monica Mountains (January 2020)

Pacific Pea, Lathyrus vestitus

A popular food source for a number of butterfly species, the Pacific Pea is a perennial herb that is native to western North America and is concentrated near the coast, although it appears to exist further inland that the California Hedge Nettle described below. There are subspecies associated with this vine. Subspecies identification is a level of classification, ongoing discussion and reclassification best left to the botanists, so even though the vine I saw may be Lathyrus vestitus, var. vestitus, I am leaving off the subspecies portion: “var. vestitus.”

Of the two plants I photographed, the flower hues varied. Open flowers on one vine were closer to blue while the second vine’s flowers contained more red. Sweet Pea bloom time begins in March, except when favorable local conditions encourage some flowers to bloom in January.


Photo of California Hedge Nettle, Stachys bullata near a canyon stream on the Backbone Trail in the Santa Monica Mountains (January 2020)
California Hedge Nettle, Stachys bullata near a canyon stream on the Backbone Trail in the Santa Monica Mountains (January 2020)

California Hedge Nettle, Stachys bullata

Calflora has the bloom time starting in April, but, like its Sweet Pea neighbors, this single representative (that I observed, for there may have been others nearby) decided to bloom early. The California Hedge Nettle is a perennial herb that is endemic to California. The habitat where I found it provides a good idea of its preferred conditions, near the coast, forest, filtered sun, moisture, sand and clay. Butterflies and hummingbirds feed on the nectar. The common name is a misnomer: The California Hedge Nettle does not form a hedge and it does not sting like true nettles.


California Natives - Fauna California Natives - Flora Nature Photography

Urbane Digger Bee and Sleeping on Flowers

Photo of the Cleveland Sage shrubs that I write about in this post
In addition to Apis mellifera, the Western Honey Bee, several native bee species foraged for pollen and nectar on our Cleveland Sage shrubs

Among the several native bee species that showed up to forage for pollen and nectar in our yard this summer was the Urbane Digger bee, Anthophora urbana. The first individual I observed was working the flowers on a couple of large Cleveland Sage (Salvia clevelandii) shrubs that I planted three years ago. Cleveland Sage is fragrant, drought tolerant after it is established and native to California.

Photo of an Urbane Digger with tongue extended, preparing to sip nectar from a Cleveland sage flower
A Cleveland sage flower’s long, narrow entrance is not an obstacle for this long-tongued bee in search of nectar


The two shrubs now regularly measure just short of five feet in height by four feet wide when the flower stalks are set and the blooming begins. With three or more clusters per stalk, individual flowers within a cluster bloom sequentially, extending the bloom period well into fall. This strategy may benefit the plant species as well as its pollinators, first by extending the length of time and fertility during which plant pollination may occur, and second by providing a steady food source from June into at least September.

Photo of pair of Urbane Digger males sleeping
Pair of Urbane Digger males, sleeping

For a week or more in August, I noticed a pair of male Urbane Diggers settling themselves on the spent buds and leaf tips of Symphyotrichum chilensis ‘Purple Haze’, a California aster cultivar.

Photo of Close-up of sleeping Urbane Digger male
Close-up of sleeping Urbane Digger male

The Urbane Digger male does not live in a nest. It sleeps at night on the stems, leaves and flowers of forage plants. It uses its mandibles to bite into the selected anchor so that it does not fall out, or “off” of its bed.

Side view photo of an Urbane Digger bee asleep on an aster
Bees do not have eyelids, but this bee is fast asleep

Photo of an Urbane Digger bee sleeping on the leaf of an aster
A male Urbane Digger bee sleeping on the leaf of an aster




The asters have been in the ground for a couple of seasons. During that time, they have doubled their territory in the two locations where I planted them. They are known to spread aggressively if conditions are right. Because they are so popular with the local pollinators and bloom long into the fall, I have not tried to contain the spread.


Photo of a male Yellow-faced Bumble Bee at rest on a aster flower
A male Yellow-faced Bumble Bee at rest on a aster blossom

Other native bee visitors at the aster patches included the Yellow-faced bumble bee, Bombus vosnesenskii in abundance. From late July into August they foraged among the sage, asters and sunflowers.

A pair of pollen baskets filled with a yellow to red pollen nectar mixture on the hind legs is the easiest way to identify a bumble bee as a female queen or worker. I am still trying to verify whether the absence of pollen or pollen baskets on this group indicates that most if not all of the individuals observed in this group were male bees. Another clue that this transient influx of bumble bees at the asters was male: One day they stopped showing up.

Photo of Bombus vosnesenskii (male) sleeping
Bombus vosnesenskii (male) sleeping

Male drones and young queens or gynes, are produced near the end of the season. Both leave the nest to forage and mate. While the drone is short-lived, a gyne has the potential to hibernate underground and establish her own nest the following spring. Both workers (all female) and drones live short lives compared with a queen that is successful in establishing a nest, but even a successful queen’s lifespan is no more than a year.