Berkeley Hills-Blackberries, Ladybugs, and Fence Lizards!

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Today’s post features some of my favorite summer things in Strawberry and Claremont Canyons:

Blackberries!

The first blackberries of the season!

Western Fence Lizards!

Western Fence Lizard (Sceloporus occidentalis)

Ladybugs!

Ladybugs on Himalayan Blackberry plants

Now that summer is finally here, after a very rainy winter and cool spring, you’re likely to see lots of these in the canyons and Hills in the months ahead.

The Blackberries of the Berkeley Hills

Blackberries are not hard to find along almost any of the fire trails in either Strawberry or Claremont Canyons.  So far, however, I’ve found the best picking and eating to be along Centennial Road and the fire trail that leads off of it into Strawberry Canyon.

On Centennial Drive, there are blackberries stands all long the pedestrian path up to the fire trail parking lot.

In many places along the trail, and along Centennial Drive the blackberry bushes are really thick.  You have to be careful, though, because most of these plant are growing right on the edge of very steep drop offs.  Trying to reach ripe berries that are tantalizingly out of reach, you can easily step off a cliff.  Be very careful!

Just out of reach! Step off the trail too far, and you’ll tumble into the canyon!

Earlier this spring, you could see hundreds of blackberry flowers, foretelling the bounty to come:

Blackberry flowers are very delicate, with dozens of beautiful golden stamens.

The berries all start out a bright green and then get darker and darker purple as they ripen.  Of course, the darkest colored berries, the ones that look black, are the sweetest and most delectable.  This last hike I had all the berries I could eat, and it’s still early in the season.

Typical cluster of Himalayan blackberries

In researching this post, I discovered, to my surprise, that I’m probably seeing two species of blackberry plants in the canyons:  the California blackberry (Rubus ursinus) and the Himalayan or Armenian blackberry (Rubus armeniacus).  The Himalayan blackberry is actually considered an invasive species.

Since its introduction in the 1880’s, the plant has spread widely and become naturalised.  But because of its tasty fruit, it usually isn’t considered a pest.  It seems to be the dominant blackberry in Strawberry Canyon.

There are two easy ways to tell the difference between the two species.

First: the flowers of the California blackberry (left) are much more slender than that of the Himalayan (right):

Left: California blackberry (Rubus ursinus) Right: Himalayan or Armenian blackberry (Rubus armeniacus)

Second, as is explained at Kay Loughman’s most excellent Wild Life in the North Hills website, the Californian has a three leaves and the Himalayan typically has five leaves.  (The stems of the Himalayan are red and very thorny.)

Three Leaves = California blackberry — Five Leaves = Himalayan blackberry

The Summer Ladybugs of the Canyon

As I was walking up the lower Strawberry Canyon fire trail, I soon encountered hundreds and hundreds of flying ladybugs.  They seemed to congregate in the warmest, sunniest parts of the of the trail, like this:

The ladybugs loved the warm, sunny places along the Strawberry Canyon fire trail, like this. There are actually hundreds of ladybugs in the air at this spot, but my camera couldn’t pick them up!.

I found very few ladybugs on the plants along the trail; most seemed to be flying about.  It was such a scene of intense activity, compared to the very quiet but huge swarms I found on the blackberry plants last fall after the record October rainstorm:

If you’re lucky, in the fall or early winter, you’ll come upon huge ladybug swarms in Strawberry Canyon, like this one I saw last year.

I tried to catch the beautiful insects on camera, but they moved too fast and my humble camera just wasn’t up to the task, even though the air was thick with them.  Here’s a close-up image of a ladybug flying that I collected some years ago doing research. Like all beetles, to fly, the ladybug has to lift her beautiful wing covers in order to free her wings for flight:

If you want to learn a lot more about ladybugs and see beautiful images of other species, be sure to check out my earlier post They are the Lady(bugs)of the Canyon.

On my way out of Strawberry Canyon, I took this shot across the Canyon to UC Berkeley’s historic Cyclotron:

The historic Berkeley Cyclotron and the North Bay on a gorgeous summer day.

The Western Fence Lizard

Once summer arrives, you can find the Western Fence lizard most places in the Berkeley Hills, but you rarely find them in the cooler, deeper parts of the canyons.  They love the warmth and sun of the upper canyon, and you will often find them sunning themselves on canyon trails and roads.

The Western fence lizard enjoys a variety of habitats from grassland to broken chaparral to woodland and coniferous forests, although they avoid harsh deserts.  I came across this one on the paved road near the top of Panoramic Way, above Claremont Canyon.

Western Fence lizards are also known as Blue-bellies, but unless you catch one or are in a vantage point where a displaying male shows off his underside, you might not know they have blue bellies.  I’ve never been able to get close enough to a displaying male with my camera to catch his underside, but here’s a fine image from Wikimedia that shows it:

“Don’t I have a beautiful blue belly? I wonder if that cute babe over there notices!”

The Western fence lizard can be a long as 21 cm (8 inches), though I’ve only seen one that big to date.  Here’s a juvenile I saw on my last hike.  He had just squirmed around because an ant had tickled him:

“Hey, where’d you go? That tickled!”

And here is a larger Blue-belly with very unusual head markings.  It looked like it had dipped its head into ink!

“The ladies find my black head cap irresistible!”

Vistas from the Claremont Canyon

I hiked out of Strawberry Canyon and crossed over to the trails of Claremont Canyon.  From there, I usually head down Panoramic Way or Dwight Way and back through the UC Berkeley campus. The vistas from the tops of the Hills are different every hike and always so wonderful:

Nearing the end of the upper fire trail where it joins Panoramic Way. You can see the Bay Bridge and San Francisco City in the distance.

Milk Thistle and downtown Oakland in the distance

Looking at the Bay Bridge and San Francisco

The Golden Gate Bridge with distant fog

Flowering agave plants in Claremont Canyon

Goodbye, beloved Hills! Heading home!

May all beings be happy. May all beings find the supreme joy that is beyond all sorrow. And may we meet as friends, some day, in the Hills of Great Beauty!

♥♥♥

Berkeley Hills-Observations and Thoughts-July 1, 2010

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The Trail Goes Ever On

I’ve decided to include a journal of some of my walks and share my observations and thoughts about my hikes in the Hills here on Berkeley, Naturally!

This is the first entry, appropriately enough, on the first day of July. (I’ll date these by my post date, not by the day of my walk.)  May all my readers have a great 4th of July weekend!

July 1, 2010

Wonders on this hike:

Amazing blue skies. Golden, shimmering summer grasses dancing in the warm wind caressing the Hills. The warmth of the sun coming through my T-shirt and making me wonderfully hot as I labored up the slopes. The cool breeze from the Bay evaporating my sweat.

Plum trees are already dropping their sweet fruit—yummy treats on  some of the streets and trails. Also, the first ripe blackberries are starting to show up among their green brethren. I picked and ate a handful. There will be many, many more to enjoy throughout the summer and into the fall.

Western Fence Lizard, stopping his duel to check me out

Spent 10 minutes watching a Western Fence lizard defend its territory against another male. Much head-bobbing, rapid body push-ups, and posturing; no violence.

Plaintive red-tailed hawk, sitting in the shadow of the tree

Saw a very young red-tailed hawk crying plaintively in a tree—for its mother?

Came upon a black beetle on the trail just as a runner was coming; stood between the beetle and the runner so the little hunter wouldn’t be crushed. Waited until beetle moved off the trail, foraging for food.

Hiked into a huge stand of wild rosemary. Made some cuttings to bring home to Sarah and for spices for our cooking.

Coming down Panoramic Way, met a wonderful tortoise-shell cat who demanded that she be stroked and petted until she’d had enough—and then plopped over in the sun as if to say, “OK, your job is done. I won’t be needing you until the next time we meet.”

Then met a wonderful old woman who saw me loving the cat. She said she’d loved her earlier and that the cat lived in the area. But, she didn’t know her name. I showed her the cut rosemary; she drew a big, long breath of it, and said, “Wonderful!” I told her where she could find it and she beamed. She ambled very, very slowly up the hill. I thought she was a miracle of beauty and grace.

May all beings be happy. May all beings find the supreme joy that is beyond all sorrow. And may we meet as friends, some day, in the Hills of Great Beauty!

♥♥♥

The Beauty of the Berkeley Hills-Part 2

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This is the second of a two-part series I’m calling “The Beauty of the Berkeley Hills. You can see Part 1 here:

The Beauty of the Berkeley Hills-Part 1

As I said in Rethinking Berkeley, Naturally! I’m going to try to post more often and have less of a “hard science” aspect to these posts, unlike my Extreme Science blog.

In this second part, I’ve included some of the animals you can run into in the Hills—some you see all the time, and others, like the gray fox, are quite illusive. There are also some amazing skies in this series of photos. As a self-confessed weather nut, I never get tired to seeing the play of clouds over the San Francisco Bay and the Hills.

And so, let’s kick off Part 2 with some images of magnificent Bay Area clouds!

If you click on any of the images below, you can see a higher resoltuion 1600 x 1200 image.

♥♥♥

These clouds, of course, are cirrus, which in this area so often are the heralds of distance storms marching in from the North Pacific for Gulf of Alaska. Cirrus clouds typically form above 23,000 feet (about 7,000m), in the cold region of the troposphere and are typically composed of ice crystals.  In the view looking at the North Bay, you can see both the sweeping cirrus unicus and the denser cirrus fibratus.

This sunset was really dramatic and foreboding. I was in the Hills directly above the UCB Campus, looking across the Bay, past the Campanile (lower right) and toward the Golden Gate Bridge.  A big Pacific storm was approaching, as the rapidly lowering sky foretold.  The clouds in this picture are mostly altostratus and altocumulus, which are medium-level clouds.

This is perhaps my all-time favorite summer picture that I’ve taken in Strawberry Canyon.  To me, it captures just about everything I love about the Berkeley Hills—the Eucalyptus and Oak trees, the beautiful golden hills, and a sky with gorgeous, puffy cumulus.  It was hot, it was summer, and I was on my way up Centennial Drive to my beloved fire trails!

The color of the lichen on the trees in Strawberry Canyon are especially deep and brilliant after a rainstorm.  I love how this yellow species contrasts with the moss.

I’m always amazed at the different moods of the Bay throughout the day.  This grey sunset marked the end of yet another heavy late spring rain storm.

California poppies!  Just seeing them makes me smile.  Did you know Native Americans used  poppy leaves medicinally?  They also ate their seeds.  Extract from the California poppy acts as a mild sedative when smoked, although apparently the effect is much milder than that of opium, which contains a much more powerful class of alkaloids.

If you live in the Bay Area, you’ve probably seen one of these little critters. The Eastern Fox Squirrel (Sciurus nigris) is actually a non-native species, probably introduced to California around the beginning of the 20th century.   You can see them throughout the Berkeley Hills, and there’s quite a population of them on the Berkeley campus.  I’ve yet to see a native Western Gray Squirrel on my hikes, but I keep looking for them.

Eastern Fox Squirrel (left) vs. Western Gray Squirrel (right)

I met this young female Fox Squirrel on the North Campus near the Life Science Building.  If you stop and make a “tchi tchi” noise, you can almost always make a Fox Squirrel stop and see if you have some goodie for them.  Having raised a squirrel from the age of a blind pup, I know lots of squirrel communication sounds, and she seemed amazed at my vocabulary!

This fat and muscular male lives in Strawberry Canyon.  He too was intrigued by my squirrel talk, and stopped to observe me, although the squirrels in the Canyon are much more wary of humans than the ones on campus.

A gray fox!  I wrote about this encounter at this post:

Gray Fox in Strawberry Canyon and a Mother Fox’s Wisdom

I made a lot of noise to get the fox to turn lift its sleepy head and turn toward me.  No doubt he wondered what the crazy human was doing! But I was so excited to see a gray fox  that I didn’t want my picture to be nothing but a gray lump on that fallen tree.  I wish I had had a telephoto lens to see more of this magnificent creature, which apparently, is one of the few foxes that can climbs trees.  This one was sleeping at least 20 feet off the ground. (Be sure to click image for close-up!)

Here is a small cluster of ladybugs I saw this spring.  In October of 2009, after our record rainstorm,  I came upon an astonishing gathering of what had to have been hundreds of thousands of ladybugs along the fire trail off Centennial Drive.  I wrote about this amazing ladybug gathering here:

They are the Lady(bugs) of the Canyon

Here is an amazing insect you are apt to run across in the Berkeley Hills, especially after a rain, the aptly named banana slug.  This one was nearly 10 inches long and as big around as a small banana.  Many people find them “gross,” and I know it can be what we humans call a “pest,” but I think it’s a beautiful animal.  I watched this one for about 10 minutes as it gracefully moved about 3 feet from the pavement into some vegetation.

Down on its level, laying on my stomach to watch how its muscles propelled it along on a layer of mucous, I was reminded of a majestic (albeit, miniature) ocean liner as it glided along the pavement.

I came across this small (maybe 10 inch) snake walking down from the North Gate of the UCB campus.  I’m not sure what species it might be, but my best guess is some species of Sharp-tailed Snake (Contia tenuis)—maybe a Forest Sharp-tailed snake.  If some herpetologist wants to weight in, that would be great! It was moving very fast to try to take cover, and I barely caught it on camera before it disappeared into the foliage.

Here’s another view of the Bay and Golden Gate Bridge near sunset.  A Pacific storm was heading our way, and the high cirrus and cirrostratus clouds that appeared in the West at the beginning of the day were beginning to give way to lower level altocumulus and stratocumulus.

The height of some of the redwoods in Strawberry Canyon is astounding.  I estimated that most of the trees in this grove were well over 110-120 feet tall.  Now that I live in Northern California, I hope some day soon to see the coast redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens), the tallest trees on earth, at Redwood National and State Parks.

I loved how these California poppies found a way to grow out of near solid rock along the upper fire trail at Strawberry Canyon.

When spring arrives in the Berkeley Hills, you really should climb up into them and see for yourself  how deep, rich, and varied the greens are.  After being brown all summer and through much of the winter, the hills are transformed by the winter and spring rains into an emerald wonderland.

One of the delights of walking up the streets that head up into the Berkeley Hills above the City of Berkeley are the little paths and well-kept lanes and walks that connect the lower and higher levels of the hills.  Here’s one of my favorite paths (for privacy, I won’t say where.) If you don’t have a copy, I highly recommend getting the Map of Berkeley Pathways which is put out by the Berkeley Path Wanderers Association.

More spring green near the top of Claremont Canyon.

I’ll end this post with a photo of a glorious sunset taken from the hills right above the UCB campus.  (You can see the Campanile behind  one of the Eucalyptus.)  I hope this two-part series, “The Beauty of the Berkeley Hills” will inspire you to explore the Hills yourself and with loved ones and to always be alert for ways to preserve and protect this amazing natural treasure right at our doorsteps.

May we meet as friends, some day, in the Hills of Great Beauty!

♥♥♥

The Beauty of the Berkeley Hills-Part 1

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Berkeley Hills (red box) – Part of the Pacific Coast Ranges

Having taken the pressure off myself to write a second “science” blog (one of my two other blogs is Goodheart’s Extreme Science) I hope to get out more regular posts about my beloved Berkeley Hills.

But first, a word about that term, “Berkeley Hills.” When I use that term, I mean the geological formation that is part of the Pacific Coast Ranges, not just the hills immediately above the City of Berkeley.

So, peace, dear friends in Oakland, and other beautiful cities abutting these lovely hills! I know how beautiful the hills are above you as well, because I often hike there:

Looking into Claremont Canyon

Here’s how Wikipedia explains it:

The Berkeley Hills are a range of the Pacific Coast Ranges that overlook the northeast side of the valley that surrounds San Francisco Bay. They were previously called the “Contra Costa Range/Hills”, but with the establishment of Berkeley and the University of California, the current usage was applied by geographers and gazetteers.

Tectonically, the Berkeley Hills are bounded by the major Hayward Fault along their western base, and the minor Wildcat Fault on their eastern side. The highest peaks are Vollmer Peak (elevation 1,905 feet/581m), Grizzly Peak (elevation 1,754 feet/535 m) and Round Top (elevation 1,761 feet/537m), an extinct volcano, and William Rust Summit 1,004 feet.

With that clarified, let’s take a look at some of my favorite recent images from the Berkeley Hills.  I hope they inspire you to discover the amazing beauty of the Hills for yourself.  In 15 or 20 minutes, up a trail, and you are in a place of great wonder and beauty, indeed, even a place of Faerie:

The Road Goes Ever On-Tolkien and the Berkeley Hill Trails

If you click on any of the images below, you can see a higher resoltuion 1600 x 1200 image.

Enjoy!

Although my wife and I have only been here a year and a half, I already look forward to seeing the Hills do their dramatic change from emeralds to golds and browns as the virtually rainless summer begins.  This year, because of the very heavy winter and late spring rains, the usual transition was much later than last year.

Summer Grasses and Eucalyptus in Claremont Canyon

This is the near the beginning of the fire trail that runs up the north side of Claremont Canyon.

Fire Trail above Claremont Canyon

Here is a view of the historic UC Berkeley Cyclotron from one of the fire trails in Strawberry Canyon.

Looking Across Strawberry Canyon at the Historic Cyclotron

If you hike late in the Hills, you are often treated to the most beautiful sunsets. Here, I was walking back down from Claremont Canyon toward the Campus.

Sunset over the Berkeley through Eucalyptus

Because of the very heavy winter and spring rains, the Hills were especially lush this year, with explosions of wild flowers everywhere.  This shot looks down into Claremont Canyon from Panoramic Way.

Spring Flowers and Grasses in Claremont Canyon

Many of the trees in lower parts of Strawberry Canyon are covered in beautiful lichen and moss.  I’m always amazed how many species there are and how richly varied the colors can be.

Lichen and Moss in Strawberry Canyon

When the California poppies start to pop up in the Claremont and Strawberry Canyons, and I know spring has really arrived.  I have a special place in my heart for the poppies, because they are part of my earliest childhood memories when my family still lived in California.

California Wild Poppies and Grasses in Claremont Canyon

I am a connoisseur of clouds, and I have to say that the Bay Area has some of the best cirrus clouds I’ve ever seen.  I wish this photo could show more of the incredible traceries and webbing that these particular cirrus had, but at least you can get a feel for it.  I am amazed at how many people don’t really seem to pay attention the sky or clouds.  Some days, the sky can take your breath away. Look up!

Beautiful Cirrus Clouds above Trees near the Life Sciences Building

There are some magnificent Sequoia trees about half-way up the Strawberry fire trail that starts on Centennial Drive.  These hundred-foot plus trees are in the Woodbridge Metcalf Grove, which was planted by University of California students in 1926.  (The little stone marker for this beautiful stand of trees actually reads “Woodbridge Metoale Grove”—not sure why.)

Towering Sequoia near the top of Strawberry Canyon

Spring in Claremont Canyon is just glorious, and the naturalist in me wants to get a good book on the local plants and start learning some names.  I would love any suggestions from readers on good books about the flora or fauna of the area!

Spring in Claremont Canyon

I was really struck by the color of these mushrooms growing on a log.  Again, I wish I could identify species, because I’ve seen so many varieties on my hikes.

Red Fungus after Late Spring Rain

I loved how the moss was growing into the cracks of this rock—one of the more beautiful forms of erosion.

Moss & Small Ferns

More poppies.  Again, when I come upon a clump of these lovely ladies (they always seem like dainty ladies to me), they just make me happy.  I like how the petals close up for the night, or when it’s too cold for them, or too cloudy.  This seems like perfect behavior for the state flower of sunny California.

California Poppies above Strawberry Canyon

One of the things I immediately fell in love with about the Bay Area is how many beautiful trails there are to hike, and how accessible they are.  A ten-minute hike out of Berkeley Campus or East Oakland and you can be in incredible beauty.

Trail Near the top of Panoramic Way

I love the winter storms we have here in the San Francisco Bay area.  The mighty storms from the Pacific are really impressive, though most of them can’t match the fury and grandeur of the Nor’easters I enjoyed (yes, enjoyed, as I confess, I’m a weather nut) when I lived in Boston.

Escape from New England-a weather nut’s confession

Winter Storm Clouds from Lawrence Hall of Science

One of the interesting geological features of this area, and of Southern California, are landslides.  Here’s a small one came across on Panoramic Way after a really heavy rain storm.  You can read more about it here:

Berkeley Hills Landslide

Landslide on Upper Panoramic Way, Berkeley

Here’s one of the beautiful little waterfalls in Strawberry Canyon.  I often stop here and just listen and watch.

Small Waterfall in Strawberry Canyon

This shot was taken coming home after a long hike in Claremont Canyon.  I was thoroughly wet and muddy and happy as a golden lab after a romp in the hills.  As I was coming down Panoramic Way, the storm lifted and I was able to see Oakland and the Bay Bridge, and the City, in the distance.  It was a magical moment.

Coming down Panoramic Way During Rainstorm – the Lights of Oakland in Distance

This was without a doubt one of the most spectacular sunsets I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen some real beauts growing up in the Southwest desert and in New England.  (I’ll share more in a later post.)

Standing on the top of one of the taller hills above Strawberry Canyon, I couldn’t believe my great fortune to be there at that moment, looking at this beautiful Bay, the Golden Gate Bridge, and a sky on fire.  I hope you see such a sunset one day.  It is truly a great, great blessing to be alive on this beautiful planet and see its wonders.

Fiery November Sunset Over San Francisco Bay

May we meet as friends, some day, in the Hills of Great Beauty!

♥♥♥

Rethinking Berkeley, Naturally!

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My posts to Berkeley, Naturally! have slowed down to the point where I realize I need to re-think the goals of this blog. Originally, I had hoped to make Berkeley, Naturally! a kind of science/nature blog, similar to my other blog Goodheart’s Extreme Science.

But with three blogs to write for and look after, it’s become apparent to me that I can’t be as ambitious with Berkeley, Naturally! as I had hoped. It will need to be more of a nature/photo blog and less of a science oriented blog, although it will always have a science and nature lover’s perspective.

When I have time, though, I’ll probably still want to do in-depth posts with like these:

They Are the Ladybugs of the Canyon

Berkeley Hills Landslide

Source Area – Where the Slope Gave Way

Escape from New England—A Weather Nut’s Confession

I get up in to the Berkeley Hills three or four times a week, and always take my camera, so I will have lots of images to share, and observations. Stop by and have a look!

The Berkeley Hills are calling!

How We Here in the Bay Area Can Help with the BP Oil Disaster

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Hello friends of Berkeley, Naturally! It’s been a while since I posted here, because my dharma and science blogs have been dominating my time and attention.

I’ve missed posting there, a lot, and realized I needed to make this less of a “science” blog if I was ever going to share with others. So, that change should be evident soon in a lot more regular posts at Berkeley, Naturally!

However, since this blog is basically all about nature and celebrating it, I wanted to bring you attention to a post I just made at Goodheart’s Extreme Science.

The Gulf of Mexico Oil Disaster

The post is all about the growing environmental tragedy in the Gulf of Mexico. I’m sure we’ve all been staggered by the sheer scale of the disaster, as every two to three days the ruptured BP oil well spews out the same amount of oil as the entire Alaskan Exxon Valdez oil spill!

What’s worse, officials are now telling us that it may be August before the rupture is fixed—near the very height of hurricane season

Gulf Pelican Being Cleaned of Oil

After discussing some of the physical, environmental, and oceanographic aspects of the oil spill, I zero in on using oil-eating microbes, which have been used with great effectiveness in other big spills. Oil-eating microbes aren’t a silver bullet, but I find it hard to understand why this technology hasn’t been utilized yet.

Here’s the link to my Extreme Science post:

The BP Oil Disaster-Send in the Microbes!

A key part of this post is an outstanding video that I’ve embedded that explains how oil-eating microbes have been used before with great success.

Our Little Helpers – Alcanivorax borkumensis

If you’ve been wanting to know more about the science of this spill, how it’s affecting the Gulf environment, you should find this post very helpful. There’s a lot we can do, even from afar, to urge officials and the government to do more than they have.

Please share these ideas, and the embedded video, with your friends or anyone who can or who wants to help.

The World Is in Our Hands-What Will We Do?

♥♥♥

They are the Lady(bugs) of the Canyon

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“Trina takes her paints and her threads
And she weaves a pattern all her own
Annie bakes her cakes and her breads
And she gathers flowers for her home
For her home she gathers flowers
And Estrella, dear companion
Colors up the sunshine hours
Pouring music down the canyon-
Coloring the sunshine hours
They are the ladies of the canyon”
~ Joni Mitchell, Ladies of the Canyon

The Big October Rainstorm

A couple of days after the big October 2009 rainstorm, I headed up Centennial Drive to catch the fire trail up into the the hills of Strawberry Canyon.

Heading Up Centennial Drive to the Fire Trail

The Fire Trailhead on Centennial Drive

As San Francisco Bay Area residents will recall, that October 13th storm was epic—the heaviest October rain in nearly 50 years! San Francisco, Santa Cruz and Livermore all set rainfall records for a single day in October.

The Big Rain of October 2009

Nearly 4 inches fell in downtown Oakland, almost 20 percent of what the city usually gets during an entire year! In the Santa Cruz Mountains, rainfall totals approached 10 inches, and Angel Island record 77 mph gusts. At one point, 193,000 residents were without power!

The fire trail up Strawberry Canyon showed a lot of erosion, and there was still heavy runoff in Strawberry Creek itself. Especially near the higher part of the fire trail, where the winds had been higher, there were good-sized tree limbs littering the trail.  Interested to see what I’d find, I started up the trail head, only to come upon:

In Strawberry Canyon, an Amazing Sight!

I hadn’t gone far up the trail from the Centennial Drive parking lot, when I noticed something very unusual looking on the alongside the trail.  Something that was subtly moving. Lots and lots of something was moving:

Ladybugs! But not just hundreds, but thousands of them. I could scarcely believe me eyes, the plants were so thick with them.  The more I looked, the more I found:

Hundreds of Thousands of Ladybugs!

I had heard of lady bug gatherings, but I had never seen one myself, and this one was massive. They were mostly in blackberry bushes along the trail, and for at least 20 yards, the plants were thickly coated with them.  (I wish I could convey more of the extent of the swarm, but because the ladybugs were in the bushes, they disappeared in any distant photo I tried to take.)

I read that a gallon jar will hold from 72,000 to 80,000 ladybugs. If that’s the case, then the number alongside the fire trail had to be way, way over a hundred thousand, maybe two or three! It was astonishing, and somehow touching, to see so many little creatures in a brief moment of community.

The Most Beloved Bug in the World

What we call the ladybug is a beetle of the family coccinellidae. In the UK, Ireland, Australia, Pakistan, and South Africa they are known as ladybirds.

“Ladybug, ladybird, by any name, I’m wonderful!”

If there is a more beloved insect in the world than the ladybug, I don’t know what it would be. It is certainly the all-time favorite insect of children. Few English-speaking people haven’t heard the nursery rhyme, Ladybird, Ladybird:

Ladybird, ladybird, fly away home
Your house is on fire and your children are gone
All except one, and that’s Little Anne
For she has crept under the warming pan.

I remember as a child being rather troubled by this poem. Why is her house on fire? And where have all her children gone? Poor ladybug! At least Little Anne was able to escape unharmed!

“Hey, where did everybody go?”

Here’s another ladybug poem I learned as a child, which some of you may know:

Five Little Ladybugs

Five little ladybugs climbing up a door
One flew away then there were four

Four little ladybugs sitting on a tree
One flew away then there were three

Three Little ladybugs landed on a shoe
One flew away then there were two

Two little ladybugs looking for some fun
One flew away and then there was one

One little ladybug sitting in the sun
She flew away and then there were none

Ladybug Names and Folklore

The beloved ladybug, or ladybird, seems to have some sort of affinity in people’s minds with cows and, well, God. In Ireland, Wales, and Russia, the beetle is called “God’s Little Cow.” In Croatia they are called “God’s Little Sheep.” In Romania, the ladybug is the “Lord’s Cow,” the “Lord’s Oxen,” and even “God’s Hen!” The French call it “the Good Lord’s animal.”

Moo! Moo! Moooooooo!

How did the humble ladybug attain such godliness—and “cow-ness” in the eyes of people all over the world? I did lots of research, but couldn’t find anything definitive. But there is something about a group on them on a plant does somewhat remind me of cows grazing.

Or maybe it’s cow-like the spots? Who knows!

God’s Cow? Wait, that’s me!

Not only does the ladybug have many Godly names, it also has much happy folklore associated with it. As Wikipedia notes:

“In France, ladybirds are considered to be bringers of good weather. In parts of Northern Europe, tradition says that one’s wish is granted if a ladybird lands on oneself (this tradition lives on in North America, where children capture a ladybug, make a wish, and then “blow it away” back home to make the wish come true). In Italy, it is said by some that if a ladybird flies into one’s bedroom, it is considered good luck.

In central Europe, a ladybird crawling across a girl’s hand is thought to mean she will get married within the year. In some cultures they are referred to as fortune bugs. In Russia, a popular children’s rhyme exists with a call to fly to the sky and bring back bread; similarly, in Denmark a ladybird, called a mariehøne (“Mary’s hen”), is asked by children to fly to “our lord in heaven and ask for fairer weather in the morning.”

And of course, Ladybugs are famous for being friends of gardeners and farmers:

“OK, which way to the aphids?”

They have a voracious appetite for aphids and scale insects, especially when the ladybug is in the larval stage:

“Love dem little aphids; aphid’s what I likes to eat”

I remember seeing these little monsters when I was a kid and never realizing they were going to metamorphose into my beloved ladybug!

“Hey, I may be ugly now, but wait until I grow up!”

Some Scientific Facts about Ladybugs

Ladybugs, coccinellidae, are small insects, ranging from 1 mm to 10 mm (0.04 to 0.4 inches). They are commonly scarlet but can also be yellow and orange:

and most, but not all, have their trademark small black spots on their wing covers.

Like your typical beetle, they have black legs, head and antennae. There are 450 species native to North America and over 5,000 species worldwide.

Most coccinellids are predators, and of course are famous for eating aphids and scale insects, as mentioned above:

Aphid: “Hey were did Ed go? He was here just a minute ago!”

But they will also eat eggs and larvae of their own species if prey is scarce. In fact, some species of ladybugs lay infertile eggs with their fertile eggs, apparently to give the larvae something to eat when they are getting started. Momma ladybug is also smart enough to lay her eggs near the prey her larvae need to feed upon. In her lifetime, the female ladybug can lay more than 1000 eggs.

Ladybug Life Cycle – butterflynature.com

The bright, beautiful colors of ladybugs has a purpose: it’s a warning to predators that they taste awful and are even poisonous. Once a predator tastes a ladybug and gets a mouthful of its powerful alkaloid poison, it is not likely to try another one! When attacked, a ladybug will play “dead” and leak foul-smelling toxins from it joints. Some species will even spray a toxin from their abdomen that is venomous to mammals and other insects.

This warning signal is called aposematism, which comes from apo– away, and sematic– sign/meaning. It’s an evolutionary adaptation that benefits both predator and prey, since the warning signal keeps them both from harm.

Monarch butterflies, which we often see passing through the Berkeley Hills, also use aposematism, since they are very nasty tasting.

Aposematism—”Don’t eat me-I don’t taste good!”

The warning signal doesn’t have to be a bright color—the rattlesnakes rattle is an example of sound aposematism, and so is the bad odor of a stink bug.

The Mystery of the Mass Gathering of Ladybugs in Strawberry Canyon

I had heard that ladybug overwinter in huge groups, massing together for warmth (and security, I suppose, given their nasty taste and smell when attacked.) But the incredible mass of ladybugs I found in Strawberry Canyon that day seemed somewhat anomalous to me.

Typically, coccinellids gather on the south (sunny) side of large objects like houses or trees. When they can, they get out of the weather altogether, which can result in them invading houses in the winter, to the dismay of owners:

“Dude, check out the new winter digs!”

These ladybugs were all out in the open, along the side of the trail, and there they would be exposed to rain and the weather. My guess was that the once-in-fifty-year rain had flushed or flooded them out of some overwintering spot. Or maybe, the huge rain has sent the ladybugs of the Bay Area up to the canyon to find their usual overwintering spot. After about 3 days, the mass gathering dispersed. I came up one day, and they were all gone, as mysteriously as they had come.  The ladybugs had “flown away home” and even “Little Anne” was nowhere to be seen!

In the past few weeks, I have started finding small masses of ladybugs here and there in Strawberry Canyon. Their appearance seems to be totally dependent on how warm it has been, which makes sense, since they don’t like to fly when it’s cooler than 55 F°.

Ladybugs of Late Winter

Another Moment of “Faerie” in the Berkeley Hills

Seeing that mass gathering after the October storm may have been a once-in-a-lifetime event. I don’t know. I’ll sure keep my eyes open next fall and early winter for another mass gathering.

What I do know is that seeing hundreds of thousands of beautiful ladybugs coating the blackberry busheswas yet another magical, “faerie” moment in my beloved Berkeley Hills, as I discussed in The Road Goes Ever On-the Berkeley Hill Trails.

If you are ever out hiking about in the Berkeley Hills, keep your eyes open. You bound to see them if you look closely. They are the Ladies of the Canyon!

Here are some great ladybug info links:

http://everything-ladybug.com/ladybug-life-cycle.html

http://www.ladybuglady.com/LadybugsFAQ.htm

http://animals.nationalgeographic.com/animals/bugs/ladybug.html

http://www.ca.uky.edu/entomology/entfacts/ef105.asp

And here are some great accounts of ladybug swarm encounters:

http://richwolf.wordpress.com/2009/07/18/the-attack-of-the-ladybugs/

http://naturefiles.wordpress.com/2009/08/14/lady-bug-swarm-turns-green-mountain-red/

And here is a truly astounding, MUST SEE YouTube video of a truly stupendous ladybug swarm:

Ladybugs Invade & Go Wild – Invasion Covers Home And Trees

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