Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Lower Table Rock

Lower Table Rock, as seen from the road.
It's summer in Southern Oregon which means it's very hot (in the mid-90's), dry, and sunny. Working with honeybees, my current day job, is limited by the heat since temperatures above 92°F can harm the young larvae. On my way home early from work one fine, and hot, afternoon, I decided to take a more scenic route home. On a whim, I spontaneously decided to hike up Lower Table Rock, heat be damned! I've hiked up Lower Table Rock several times, all in the spring, yet I was enticed by the fact that I had never climbed up Lower Table Rock, and I had never experienced either of the Table Rocks in summer. I was determined. I was going to make this happen.
Narrow leaved milkweed (Asclepias fascicularis) and a large spider wasp (Calopompilus pyrrhomelas)
My first stop, barely twenty feet from the parking lot, was a lovely patch of narrow leaved milkweed (Asclepias fascicularis). This is the latest blooming of all the locally native milkweeds, and also has the smallest flowers. Several small pollinators were at work, including some flies and a small leaf cutter bee (Megachilidae). The most impressive and largest of the floral visitors was without a doubt a large spider wasp (Calopompilus pyrrhomelas, Pompilidae).
Narrow leaved milkweed (Asclepias fascicularis) and a large spider wasp (Calopompilus pyrrhomelas)
Spider wasps are aculeate predatory wasps which hunt living spiders for their young to feed upon as they develop. Instead of killing the spiders, pompilid wasps immobilize its spider prey by stinging it, thus rendering it paralyzed. The spider is then sealed in a chamber, normally underground, where an egg is laid and the entrance sealed. The young wasp larvae feeds on the living yet paralyzed spider until it begins to pupate. Some pompilids, such as Calopompilus pyrrhomelas, engage the spider head on in its own burrow, then turning the spiders home into its tomb. The types of spiders they hunt depends on the species of the wasp, as they are all specific.
Crown brodiaea (Brodiaea coronaria) with a large dipteran pollinator (Thevenetimyia sp.)
Further up the trail, by this point on the incline, the last of the crown brodiaeas (Brodiaea coronaria) were in bloom. Curiously, I have not observed many bees of any kind working these flowers with only a few exceptions, and have suspected flies to be important for their pollination. Low and behold, I observed several beeflies (Thevenetimyia sp.) visiting perhaps half of the brodiaea flowers. Their behavior appeared to be of the nectar gathering sort, though I do not know with certainty.
Pincushion gall (Diplolepis rosae) on a wild rose
Signs of other wasps were evident, from pompilids and ichneumonids briefly revealing themselves in the grasses, to mossy rose galls on the roses. Wild rose plants of a few select species are subject to strange growths on the stems. The growth, a gall, is formed by very small phytophagous wasps. The mossy gall wasp (Diplolepis rosae) lays an egg on or in the tissue of the new leaf buds in the spring. A reaction occurs causing the plant to form the gall, and the wasp larvae feeds on the tissue within. They overwinter inside the gall as prepupae, emerge as adults in the spring, mate, and lay eggs. Their adult lifespan is probably pretty brief, probably within a few weeks.
Royal rein orchid (Piperia transversa)
The forested incline up the side of the monument was mostly carpeted with poison oak. Every now and again I would spot tiny orchids, Piperia sp. (now considered Platanthera, but I like saying Piperia more), peeking up through the other plants. Piperia transversa leaves appear in late winter, then they usually dry up and disappear before they flower. Moths (mostly Geometridae and Noctunidae) and the occasional bumblebee is documented to visit various species of Piperia, all of which produce nectar that is held in the spur of each flower. Pollinators visit the older, lower flowers first, then move up and visit the youngest flowers at the top last. Though self pollination is possible, they set seed much better when crossed with another plant.
I was being watched
Close to the edge of the forest, which is mostly madrone (Arbutus menziesii) I heard footsteps above me. I stopped fifteen feet of a forest dweller, a black tailed deer. She just stood and stared, assessing whether I was a threat I imagine. She did,'t even flinch as I pulled out my camera to take a picture. I told her I realized this was her home, and I was her guest, and I moved along on the trail.
Western fence lizard (Sceloporus occidentalis)
Having grown up with reptiles in my house (as pets) I am always fond of seeing lizards and snakes. I grew up with green iguanas, king snakes, boas, bearded dragons, and horny toad lizards. In Southern California, we would drive out to the Anza Borrego desert where I would catch horny toads with a long piece of grass tied at the end (I'd hold them, pet them, then always let them go). Western fence lizards are very common here in Southern Oregon, so they are the most commonly encountered reptile for me. I don't catch them, except on my camera.
Lark sparrow (Chondestes grammacus)
I saw a lot of birds on the hike, but the first one I was able to photograph was the lark sparrow. This is a common bird, and I don't know much about them, so I'll leave it at that.
At last, the dry summit!
And then it happened, I came out of the forest and there I was on the summit! It was hot and dry, unsurprisingly, but a steady breeze made it feel deceptively cooler than what the actual temperature probably really was. Dry grasses and buckbrush (Ceanothus cuneatus) were the dominant plants up there, or at least the most apparent. Wyethia angustifolia and Triteleia sp. were in seed, and few other things were in flower. Clarkia amoena was practically everywhere, in bloom among the grasses, but for some odd reason I didn't take a single photo of it in bloom. The most striking part of my hike was that there were practically no other people on the trail. Maybe two other cars were in the parking lot below, and I saw only two people on the way up. Upon reaching the top, I was alone. The word serenity came to mind.
A view of Upper Table Rock, Mt. McLoughlin in the distance to the right
I diverged from the main trail and took a smaller thinner trail to the edge. Initially I was looking for more flowers, but then I realized it didn't matter and I just wanted to be on the edge and look down.
Watch that first step
Looking down, I had few words. Even now, I struggle to make sense of what I saw. There is something beautiful and awful about seeing houses, farms, neighborhoods, and businesses from a high vantage point. In one aspect, it is beautiful and awe inspiring, a scene most people (including myself) do not see very often. But for me, seeing the work of many people living their lives, seeing it from a pristine wilderness, it is sad. There is no other species on the planet which has altered their habitat so much as people. The Table Rocks might not be so special if it weren't for the great loss that has taken place over the centuries as families and entrepreneurs have expanded their uses of the land around them to suit their purposes. What surrounds the Table Rocks mostly are farms and houses, and around or within those are many agricultural weeds. The two Table Rocks are nearly pristine islands of what it all once was, surrounded by a sea of invasive sprawl. This makes me sad.
Eriogonum umbellatum
After withdrawing from the view below, I returned to focusing on what was within my literal reach. Various species of wild buckwheat, Eriogonum spp., dot the rocky edges of the Table Rocks. Most, with the exception of E. umbellatum, were in seed.
Eriogonum umbellatum with a small halictid bee
Small flies and bees were visiting the Eriogonum. Wild buckwheat has flowers with very accessible rewards, and in my experience attract a wide range of short tongued pollinators.
Western fence lizard (Sceloporus occidentalis)
Fence lizards are probably everywhere there is sun and rocks in this area. A very chubby one was pretty sure I did not see it, and allowed me to take a good close up with the sun in the background.
Common yarrow (Achillea millefolium) with a grasshopper nymph (Melanoplus sp.)
The most common insects on the summit were the grasshoppers. A beautiful green grasshopper nymph, apparently missing a leg, allowed me to photograph it on the inflorescence of yarrow. Achillea millefolium was one of the few flowers in bloom. I often see grasshoppers on flowers, it is likely they are eating flower parts rather than nectar, but one never knows. Maybe, perhaps, they are underappreciated pollinators. They are good eating for the fence lizards.
The moon, as seen from a dried vernal pool.
The vernal pools are completely dry by summer, and nearly devoid of life. Tiny fairy shrimp (Branchinecta lynchi) which once swam in these very same vernal pools earlier in the year are dead now, but their eggs are now embedded in the soil, completely immune to seasonal drought, and will come back to life in late winter or early spring when the pools are resurrected and the temperatures begin to trend upwards. For now I fathom the semblance of the moon and the dry vernal pool.
Epilobium densiflorum
Denseflower willowherb was one of the few flowers in bloom on the summit. The flowers are very ephemeral, usually only open in the mornings and then fading by noon. New flowers are produced daily.
Melanoplus devastator on tarweed (Madia sp.)
Many many grasshoppers were visible, mostly jumping away from me, perceiving me as a predator. Tarweeds (Madia spp.) were in seed, some dried to varying degrees. The grasshoppers, perhaps by coincidence, would jump away from me as I walked along the main trail, and then hit the dried stalks of a variety of plants in seed. The jostling would scatter seeds, each time grasshoppers hit a plant I could hear the tiny seeds flying everywhere.
Fitch's tarweed (Centromadia fitchii)
Resembling a starry Madia, Fitch's tarweed was mostly in seed except for a few individuals. I have seen this species growing around the base of the Table Rocks, yet seen not a single pollinator visit it.
Blister beetle (Epicauta sp.) on Fitch's tarweed (Centromadia fitchii)
In previous years I have seen blister beetles eating the flower parts of elegant tarweed (Madia elegans), and now I have seen blister beetles on Fitch's tarweed. Blister beetles are named so due to a chemical within them and on them that causes blisters when it comes into contact with human skin. Look, but do not touch.
Western mountain balm (Monardella odoratissima) above, farmland below
The main trail on the summit of Lower Table Rock is wide and straight and felt to me like it was never going to end. But it did, and I was ponce again looking down a cliff face. The rocky outcrops at the far side of the summit was host to many flowering mountain mints, Monardella odoratissima. This small mint, one of my favorite summer blooming wildflowers, found its niche in the pockets between the volcanic rocks on the edge. A few bumblebees were at work on them, but the wind and the low aspect of the sun prevented me from catching a god photo. More eriogonums were blooming on the edges, and they had me crawling along the precipice like Sméagol looking for the Precious.
Ladies tresses (Spiranthes sp.) going to seed on the summit
It was getting late, I had to turn back before it got dark. On my way back the sun was very low, and the low light highlighted the dried foliage of the grasses and other plants. I caught sight of another orchid, this time Spiranthes, ladies tresses, going to seed. These are very beautiful plants in flower, and also beautiful in seed. I hope the dust like seeds spread and grow into new plants. I've observed bumblebees visit these in flower, and unlike the other orchids in this region (Piperia, Goodyera, etc.) Spiranthes sometimes grows in open sunny fields and clearings.
Allium bolanderi, flowers withering and seeds developing
I had seen wild onions on Upper Table Rock earlier this year, Allium parvum, growing on the summit. Now in summer, those have long gone to seed, and we have the last remaining Allium bolanderi also going to seed. These grow under the canopy of the madrone forest below the summit. A smaller subspecies also grows in this region, A. bolanderi subsp. mirabile, with flowers no wider than a framing nail.
A mystery, solved
On my descent, I had seen what I thought were some kind of exotic trumpet-like flower growing under some of the buckbrush shrubs, and its identity remained a torturous mystery. Then I was informed that no, they aren't some type of amazing new flowering species that for a century has been ignored and neglected, but rather they are the beautiful seed capsules of some type of Clarkia! So I photographed the Clarkia after all! I am much relieved.
Great horned owl (Bubo virginianus)
Nearing the end of my descent, a huge owl swoops over the trail ahead of me. I was very gratified to discover this large predator had landed not fifteen feet from the trail, and posed politely for me to take a photo! Owls are amazing, and I was gifted the pleasure of encountering the largest owl in the region, the great horned owl. Nature is amazing.