Saturday, September 29, 2007

Study Urban Birds

Are you a budding ornithologist or just a regular city-dweller who wants to take a closer look at the living things around you? Well, this project might be for you.

Cornell University has a long-standing, well-respected tradition of bird studies and now you don't even have to leave your neighborhood to help them out. Their ornithology lab has started an Urban Bird Studies project. Watch pigeons, crows and gulls, collect data and join their band of citizen-scientists. Doesn't that sound fun? Check it out.

Pigeon mating rituals are hilarious.
If you don't do it for the science, do it for the comedy.


Something about primitive plants really gets me. Maybe it's their dependence on water. I imagine the mosses, liverworts and ferns all holding their breath with me as our dry, dry summers wear on. Saying little plant hallelujahs when the grey days and rain start again. It's finally started raining here again. Let's all breathe a sigh of relief.

This lovely fern has sprung up all on it's own in our yard. It's wedged under the fence between our house and the neighbor's-I swear it looks like it's growing right up out of the concrete.

Ferns are incredible plants. If you ever find yourself around a fern, dissecting microscope and lamp (yes, I realize that magical trio is probably rare in most lives), put a fern frond sori side up under the scope and watch what happens. Seriously, it's great. When the sori dry out they pop open like a pac-man and tons (thousands?) of spores fly out. These spores land on the ground and grow into the other life stage of the fern, the microscopic gametophyte that makes the sperm and eggs needed to make the plant we all think of as a fern.

(Fern gametophyte photo from

Incredibly, ferns are able to survive and thrive in some really harsh urban environments. Blair found one growing way up in the air on the metal supports of the freeway. Last month the New Yorker published this article (by Oliver Sacks of all people) describing a fern hike in the middle of New York-not in the park, but right down the city streets. You all in New York have some fantastic urban naturalist stuff going on.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Western Fence Lizard

Scelorporus occidentalis

In our yard, catching insects and basking in the sun. Males have bright blue patches on their flanks and bellies, hence the other common name "Blue bellies". Apparently they can also change color to match their background, though this fella seemed to be content to stay the color he was when we were hanging out.

It turns out that we may have these lizards to thank for the relative rarity of Lyme Disease in California. Infected nymphs (young ticks) that feed on Western Fence Lizards do not have the Lyme Disease causing bacteria when they metamorphose into adults. The protein that protects the lizard from contracting Lyme moves into the ticks body and kills the disease causing bacteria in the host.

Now if they could just do something about poison oak.

Western Fence Lizards and Lyme Disease