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Sagebrush

12 Mar
Sagebrush.

Its aroma is almost an aphrodisiac.

It is the timeless scent of an ancient organism
that evolved with the sand and deserts

of the Great Basin.

Many of the Artemesia spp. are very aromatic; their leaves lush with terpenoids. These aromatic lipids are volatile and will relinquish their scents when leaf cells are crushed, or even under the right weather conditions.

Adding to the symphony of volatile compounds are the three isoprene rings that build the  sesquiterpenoids; lactones that repel herbivory, invite the sagebrush checkerspot butterfly to lay their eggs, and gall midges to build galls to house their nymphs.

But they also attract humans that cherish the yin and yang of their leaves and scent. The silver hairs, the trichomes, on the leaf surfaces that catch the sun and dew; the aroma they impart when crushed between fingers, the scent when scattered upon a fire.

In a harsh land where sun and sand cover the earth,

in the shadow of the mountains,

sagebrush provides shade for sage grouse,
structure for fly nymphs,
caterpillar homes,
and an aroma that
sits
and
waits
between the fingers
of the Ancient Ones.
Sagebrush,
all Artemesias,
are my spiritual plants.

 

The Grandfather Rock and its children

15 Sep

Summer has been busy with family and work on the refuge. A four-day weekend was welcomed, especially by the lake. I took advantage of some down time and brought my sketch book with me, finishing a sketch started a year ago while hiking around Fish Lake on Steens Mountain in southeast Oregon.

A windy and chilly day at nearly 8,00 feet, but every day on Steens Mountain is glorious. The wind whipped the deeper water surface only the middle of the lake. The group of poplars on the opposite shore were home to a nesting pair of ospreys. Watching the immature siblings practice their hunting, kiting, and diving skills was an immense thrill. One of the adults interrupted them to demonstrate how it’s done. After the adult rose from the water with a fish, it shook the water off its feathers, flew to an aspen tree branch with its meal, and seemed to taunt the offspring by standing on its fish while glaring at them.

I sat on a bare spot of ground next to the water and sketched two pages. A section of the lake and two plants near me. I watched and listened. I finished the lake sketch just now. It’s as if I was there, right now.

I remember, and still feel the peace there.

Steens Mountain is a Grandfather Rock. It has many, many stories to tell if one is willing to listen. And many Children live on its skin: elk, hawks, mule deer, coyotes, badgers, butterflies, lichen, mosses, sagebrush, pines, aspens, and so many more. When visiting, listening, and being respectful, you will learn many stories, like sitting at the feet or in the lap of a Great Grandfather.

When I am there,
I am just a Child,
eager to learn the stories.

An encounter with a young hawk

29 Jul

I heard a nearby truncated shriek. A familiar sound, but lacking the usual power and strength. Scanning the area around me, I saw a silhouette that, again, was a familiar shape.

Underneath the wide umbrella canopy of an old tree, sheltered from the sun, sat the form of a raptor. My first thought was one of the four raven fledglings that constantly explore the air and ground around the refuge headquarters and resident area. But the shape of the head, attentive and looking around, was not that of a raven.

Most of the buteos have a sloped skull that flows into the downward slope of their hooked beak. The bony ridge over the eyes of a buteo gives the profile of their familiar hooded eyes, which can be piercing.

A raven’s skull is shorter and rounder than a buteo’s. Ravens also lack the boney ridge over their eyes, which are like round black buttons. The long and fat raven beak is the key difference. Thick and long, it might be compared to a tapered black banana.

When the bird awkwardly took flight from the ground, white feathers of the short leggings and underwings confirmed that the mystery bird was a buteo, or hawk. What also caught my eye was that its talons were taking a meal for a ride.

Red-tailed hawk

Red-tailed hawk

The hawk flew into a nearby large and ancient cottonwood tree, where it couldn’t seem to find its balance on a branch. As I walked closer, perhaps about a hundred and twenty-five feet away, the bird gave up flapping its wings in amongst the branches and finding a place to perch. It flew down to the ground.

Now quite curious, I retrieved my binoculars out of the travel trailer and walked back to where I was. Scanning the weedy grass and rabbit brush, I could not see any sign of the bird. But occasionally I would hear a sound like a short and high-pitched bark. An odd sound for a raptor!

Walking slowly and carefully through the dried weeds and grass, I chose a direct path towards the sound. After 20 feet of noise with every foot-fall, I stopped and returned to the chunky gravel and decided to try my luck along the edge of the gravel refuge road.

Recalling what I was taught decades ago when learning to track animals, every footstep was slow and light. Any audible sound of the gravel rearranging under my feet was muffled by the strong breeze and moving tree leaves. Keeping my upper body as motionless as possible, I slowly shifted my weight with every carefully-placed footstep. Moving sideways, without moving my head and arms independently was a bit tricky, trying to keep it all a fluid motion. I made a mental note that I needed to get back into Tai Chi to improve my balance and proprioception.

With the binoculars held up to my eyes, I spotted first the raptor head, then the neck. Moving closer, I could monitor the bird’s eyes through the binoculars. Whenever its head and eyes moved in my direction, I froze; sometimes with a foot suspended above the gravel while waiting for the head and eyes to turn away from my direction.

It seemed to take forever for me to approach near where the bird was on the ground. Perched on a large branch lying on the ground and in the shade of the tree was a young hawk. A few features informed me that it was immature. The color of the eyes (iris) were grayish with subtle yellow. Adult Red-tailed hawks have dark brown irises, which often blend in with their black pupils.

The white breast feathers were typical of a red-tailed hawk. However, its white patch was smaller than most others I have seen on juveniles of this species. Below this patch were soft, almost downy variegated feathers; white with wide bands of medium to light brown, and many of them blowing in the breezes sneaking under the canopy of the tree. It’s cere was large and bright yellow, the brightest coloration on this mostly dark bird. Little white showed on the top of the wings and head. Below its white softly feathered leggings betrayed the presence of knobby legs and gray-yellow talon. This bird had not gone through its first molt yet.

Now at about 25 feet from the bird, I didn’t need the binoculars anymore. I held them to my chin to avoid any exaggerated movement. Standing stock still, I studied this bird and wondered why it decided to perch on a grounded branch rather than up in the tree canopy.

Slowly shifting my body a few more feet to the right I was able to see more of the story. One set of talons grasped the wood, and the other…….   All I could see was the bottom of its leg and the upper toes disappearing in the gray-rusty colored fur. These talons were deep into the hindquarters of an unidentified furry mammal with soft gray and tan-orange fur. Below the heap of fur was the bottom of a leg with some white fur and a foot. A paw, to be more exact. With the binoculars, the shape of a paw with dark tan fur had me stumped. Then another feature grabbed my curiosity.

To the right of the hawk I noticed and oddly shaped reddish branch covered with yellowish knobs. It looked like a miniature bloody chainsaw! Not until the hawk picked up its buried talons and shook the heap of fur did I see this odd reddish bar shake as well. It was attached to the heap of fur!

I realized that the hawk was sitting on a hindquarter that was still attached to the bloody spine of a mammal. After shaking the heap of fur and the rib, the hawk looked down at his trapped talons. Apparently the youngster buried those talons into the scavenged meal and was unable to remove them. Shaking it a few times unsuccessfully released it. It finally took a break and glanced around, yawning. And I continued to watch.

After a furious attempt to shake the cumbersome attachment to its talons, it managed to jump up off the fur heap and branch, and turn around with a squeal. Possibly sitting on the rib and powerfully pushing off, its talons were finally dislodged from the fur. With great dexterity, this determined bird caught the entire carnage before it fell on the ground, parked it on the branch, itself carefully perched on the wood, and began to tear off tufts of gray and tan fur. A whitish tail surrounded by gray and tawny-orange fur leads me to guess that the unfortunate meal was a white-tailed jackrabbit, a large relative of the common black-tailed jackrabbit.

The beautiful black and brown banded tail feathers confirmed the age of this bird. Although fledged for a month or so now, it was learning to hunt and feed itself on its own. Finding a partially consumed meal might seem an easy meal for this youngster, but now it needs to learn constraint on digging its talons into prey. And I thanked it for letting me share its experience.

 We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals. Remote from universal nature, and living by complicated artifice, man in civilization surveys the creatures through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion. We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of haven taken form so far below ourselves. And therein we err and greatly err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of the earth. –  by Henry Beston, excerpted from The Outermost House

Fuzzy owls day off!

8 Jun

“Some things you miss because they’re so tiny you overlook them. But some things you don’t see because they’re so huge.”
― Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

The four Great Horned owlets near the Refuge headquarters have fledged from their nest. I visited with the entire family for a few hours the other day as they roosted in two large cottonwood trees. I was privy to some interesting behavior and interactions.

At six to eight weeks old, Great horned owl nestlings will begin to venture from their nest. By climbing branches or other structures next to the nest, the  young begin to exercise and strengthen their leg muscles. They will also flap their wings for the same purpose, often jumping around in the nest while flapping. At this stage, these nestlings, and other large birds of prey, are referred to as ‘flappers’. They will then progress to taking flight for short distances.

The four owl siblings were often spotted flying around inside the fire tower structure, where they could safely exercise without falling to the ground. It was like a large playpen for these owl youngsters. We knew then that they would be fledging soon outside of the fire tower box and take wing.

Owl fledglings remain in close proximity for several weeks.  They will often roost together in the same tree or in neighboring trees. Adults generally roost away from the young, albeit nearby, and they will continue to feed their young with decreasing frequency throughout the summer.

I spotted three of the youngsters with the dad in one tree. The lone sibling was in a tree across the way with mom. I heard the adults communicating with each other shortly before I spotted them, which is how I identified the gender of the adults. A pair of nesting ravens (in a spruce tree ~400 yards from the cottonwoods) tried harassing the lone owlet. Mom had enough and chased them off.

I quietly chuckled while watching the group of three youngsters preen each other while perched on a large tree branch. When one tried preening the feathers on its sibling’s leg, it got a foot of talons in its face. So it stepped on its siblings foot and proceeded to continue preening its leg feathers, while the other tried in vain to pull its leg away. All the while, third sibling did it’s rolling and bobbing the head-thing while watching its two siblings argue about pedicures.

I returned later with the camera and found that the siblings had separated. Two were deep in the shade of the tree canopy, their heads pulled down into their shoulders and wings. They blended in quite well with the rough bark of the tree. One lone sibling was still awake, watching below and in plain view. I set up the tripod and zoomed in for a few portraits. These youngsters still have some downy feathers on their heads, which makes them look lighter than the adults.

As the day was getting warmer and brighter, this one eventually succumbed to nap time. It very slowly tilted to the side and laid prone on a branch next to it.

Unfortunately, a visitor appeared, yelling out, “Whatcha watching there?! Anything good?!” Because it was my day off, and I was not in anything associating me with refuge staff, I told him to be quiet!

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Where does one organism end? The art of seeing.

31 May

It began with my father telling me as a child, “If you want to talk to an animal, you have to learn their language.” So I started to learn and talk to animals. In their language. Decades later when I was in undergraduate university struggling through chemistry class, he again helped me to understand. During a phone conversation we discussed chemical bonding, which I was having trouble grasping. Again, “Think like electrons and you will see how they attract and repel. And that will illuminate how weak or strong they are in varying conditions and in relation to their neighbors.” It started to all make sense and I ended up loving chemistry.

When water from spring thaws threatened to invade my cabin where I lived in the woods of Maine, an old-timer on the farm up the road told me to ‘think like water’ and work with it rather than against it. Every spring found me constructing meandering ditches to channel water away from the cabin foundation. It became a game and it was like dancing with old friends (yes, we even had conversations).

Another time, Larry helped me build a dormer onto a loft in the cabin for a spare bedroom. He taught me much about carpentry and literature. (I never did learn why a man with three degrees in English and literature chose to become a carpenter.) While working where the dormer walls integrated with the main roof, I asked how to prevent the roof from leaking. It was déjà vu when he replied, “Think like water and work with it.”

A few years later a local trapper mentored me on tracking animals. By this time I already began infusing into my everyday perception the phenomenology of weather, plants, and soil. The old trapper was like the Dali Llama of animals and birds. The only organism I lacked any ability to ‘think like’ was human beings. Back then I had no interest, nor patience.

It was months before I was ‘allowed’ to look at animal tracks and relate them with a species identification. My first lessons were sitting or standing still, for hours. Silent. Listening. Observing. Letting go of any obtrusive thoughts that might separate me from my surroundings. I learned to meld into the tree I sat against, to become the bush that I stood in, and to move silently. I learned to appreciate silence. Not only in the woods, but also in my own habitat. It was not unusual for me to not see or talk to another human for a week or two.

I could be ‘invisible’.

Trumpet swans and cygnets

I became highly sensitized to the weather. I could smell and feel weather changes long before they arrived. Wind patterns in the upper or lower canopies of trees informed me when storms might be coming in, and where they came from. Animal movements were also predictive.

Birds and  animals began to approach me rather than flush away. In the winter, a mink was a common visitor to the porch of the cabin. It would approach and watch me as ardently as I watched it while sitting on the outdoor steps. At one point, it would come near my feet and groom itself or eat a caught prize.

I learned patience with the changes in the natural world around me, and the creatures that shared my space. I watched their behavior and learned how they interacted with their surroundings. We all learned to inhabit the same space with a mutual respect. They observed me as much as I observed them. And it was a smooth transition to learn how to piece together the stories of their tracks and sign as much as they did the same with me. It was not uncommon for me to spot a deer or badger that had been following me as much as I had been following them.

A quarter of a century later, and many chapters of life changes, I found myself doing the same last week. Every day I drove the cramped little truck down the chunky gravel road to park the truck so that it would not block visitors or other staff on the refuge. Sitting on the tailgate, I removed my regular boots and pulled on the chest waders. The field vest was the last item; heavy, with so many filled pockets it was like a weighted vest, binoculars hanging on my chest. And then wade through the canal waters to go out into a world that few really see. By that, I mean ‘see’.

My focus was surveying vegetation in the marshes and  transition zones from wetland to dryland, even the sagebrush steppe. I searched for plants (other than grasses and sedges) that were emerging, budded, and flowering. The prize was the milkweed species (Asclepias spp.). However, I also searched for plants that might serve as nectar sources for Monarch butterflies. Because of the dearth of data for Monarch butterflies, the milkweeds and nectar sources in SE Oregon, my search was wide open. I decided to document all of the forbs and shrubs that might be candidate nectar sources, as well as any milkweed plants.

Red-winged blackbird.

Over four days I covered a large field accumulating a preliminary database of plant phenology that has been missing from this part of the refuge. However, my time out in the marshes also provided an opportunity to observe a variety of  birds and mammals within their own private lives. I learned many new bird calls, observed birds interact with each other and their interactions with me. Twice I was warned away from specific locations by female northern harriers, probably too close to their nests. Other times, I watched red-winged blackbirds dive bomb the same harriers, one blackbird even riding on the back of a harrier until it was out of range.

One early morning I quietly came upon two young black-tailed bucks as they grazed grass. While I froze in place, they watched me. Our eyes met, and when I blinked, they blinked. I could see them relax, and even when I slowly moved myself several feet away, they were not perturbed.

During these days, I found myself thinking, ‘Think like a butterfly’. Or ‘Think like this plant’, and ‘Think like that/those bird(s).’ As my father and others in my past taught me, I tried to look at their world through their eyes, their noses, their mouths, and their ears. Even their roots and leaves. Our lives and being overlapped.

At times I forgot what species I was. I became a part of the whole system. I found myself adopting their same behavior when a vehicle drove down the gravel refuge road: being still and blending in. Becoming ‘invisible’.

I began to ‘see’ and become a part of them.

Where the wild things are, go I

30 May

Last week was a string of days within this:

Malheur NW Refuge and Steens Mnt.

We enter solitude, in which also we lose loneliness…

True solitude is found in the wild places, where one is without human obligation.

One’s inner voices become audible. One feels the attraction of one’s most intimate sources.

In consequence, one responds more clearly to other lives. The more coherent one becomes within oneself as a creature, the more fully one enters into the communion of all creatures.
– Wendell Berry

The ultimate was watching a pair of swans with four cygnets. Watching for hours the intimacy of their body language with each other, their communication and connections so basic and honest simplicity, putting all of ours at shame and bumbling inadequacy. The poetics of space and place through the eyes of six swans was an experience I won’t forget. And it makes all our human drama seem so ignorant and trivial.

I belong where the wild things are.

Trumpeter swans and cygnets

White-faced ibis and cinnamon teal on marshes on the Refuge.

Choices

23 May

It was my free choice to release all the stuff and trappings in life and live simply where I want. Poor, yet very happy in the natural world. I wouldn’t trade it for anything else.

 

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Sagebrush Galls: Medusa!

16 May

“How galling!! The audacity of this insect making a home in me!”

True; no matter how one organism looks at it, it’s annoying. The word ‘gall’ originates from Middle English (~ 900 A.D) and refers to bile, the bitter fluid from the gall bladder. The figurative word ‘galling’ refers to irritating, offensive, audacity and very annoying behavior.  But how did an abnormal plant growth acquire the same name, gall?

We may never know.

As a child roaming the woods and wild fields, I would often collect tree and shrub leaves and twigs that had protruding bumps in a variety of shapes.  I wondered what these odd shapes were, but it never occurred to me that they might be injurious to the plant, or even malicious at all. Nor did I know then how they were formed.

One day while wandering in the field I found a particularly large growth on the stem of a shrub. Pulling out my magic little ‘looking glass’ (pocket magnifier), I watched half a dozen little translucent bugs crawl out of the ball-shaped growth. In a short time, these bugs acquired color and their wings unfolded away from their bodies. I wondered if the abnormal-looking ball of green was a home for these bugs, and only much later did I learn they were called ‘galls’. And from then on, anytime a person uses the word ‘gall’ or ‘galling’, all I can think of are these appropriated plant cells that serve as a home for small insects.

Five decades later and I’m still fascinated by galls!

Here in the high desert of the Great Basin, galls are common on sagebrush, the most dominant plant. What surprises me is the morphological variety of these galls: the colors, shapes and sizes. So, like the child I was (and probably still am), I have been collecting samples to take back with me, as well as photographing them.

What are galls, anyway?

Galls are an abnormal plant growth induced by various parasitic organisms (1), usually insects. These latter galls will be the focus of a series of posts here as I find examples.

Galls serve as ‘incubators’ for developing insects where they gain nutrition and protection from environmental conditions and predators. Some galls are colorful and easily distinguished from the other plant material. Some are wooly, some round and colorful like tiny plums, some are lobed, and others have spiky protuberances.

Gall-inducing insects are usually species-specific and sometimes tissue-specific on the plants they parasitize. Galls can be found on leaves, stems, shoots, flowers and roots. Combined with gall morphology, these traits will often help to identify which insect is associated with them. However, identifying the insects inside will be the confirmation.

These insects manipulate and exploit the chemistry and physiology of plant tissue to their own benefit and development. Accordingly, galls act as physiological sinks for mobilized plant resources, mostly as nutrition for larvae. Fungi sometimes grow on the interior of the gall surface on which the larvae feed.

Like little houses, galls physically serve as protection from the sun, wind, rain and snow. In fact, because the gall-forming insects control gall formation so well, galls are commonly referred to as their extended phenotype. However, several predatory insects have also adapted to this system by inserting their own larvae inside galls. Then a battle for who eats whom ensues until maturation of one or both species. It’s not uncommon to have more than one species of insect emerge from a gall, but only one of those species induces galls.

Protection is one explanation for the high levels of compounds, such as phenolics and tanins, found in many galls. This is considered a defensive gall trait, protecting the gall against natural enemies outside. Thus, in addition to serving as a nutrition sink and physical protection, some galls have a natural chemical defense.

Sagebrush gall midges

Like any plant, it’s an insect-eat-leaf world out there for sagebrush. Of the 237 species of insects that are associates of sagebrush, 42 are gall-forming insects. Of those, the most predominant are Cecidomiidae, or gall midges. They are a small family of tiny flies that are associated with gall induction.

The most abundant gall midges found on sagebrush are of the Rhopalomyia genus. Although there are 32 species, not all may be present in the same location and area. A recent study suggests that land use or local abiotic conditions may greatly influence the diversity of gall midges.

The adult midges lay eggs in the sagebrush stem tissue. The eggs hatch and the larva secrete saliva into the plant. Compounds in the saliva alter the growth of the injured plant cells and the tissue produces a swelling, or gall, around the young insects. However, the size, shape and color of the developing gall are typically specific to the gall midge species. On the other hand, one species unusually induces a wide range of gall morphologies.

Medusa Galls

During a recent camping trip on Steens Mountain in SE Oregon (and bordering the Refuge), I found many specimens of Medusa galls (Rhopalomyia medusa) on Big Sagebrush (Artemesia tridentate). As seen in the photograph, these galls are composed of numerous leaf-like structures. Looking at the long miniature leafy structures, it’s easy to see how this gall was called “Medusa”.

Medusa Gall on Big sagebrush

The galls develop in October and rest during the winter. They reach full size in the following spring and adult midge flies emerge in April or May. When I was there, May 9-11, the galls were intact with no sign of emergent flies. Considering the elevation (7,300 feet) where I was hiking, patches of snow were common and the climate was barely spring-like.

Authors of a study (2) sampled arthropod diversity on sagebrush in two ecosystems, one surrounded by dryland agriculture and the other area protected from agriculture and significant human use. Their data suggests that diversity of gall midges is highly variable with the dynamics of arthropod-sagebrush interactions and the sagebrush ecosystem. Interestingly, R. medusa was one of a few species that served as an indicator species in low human impact sagebrush habitats. A good description of where I found the many specimens on Steens Mnt.

So, do these galls negatively affect the sagebrush? We will examine that question in a later post!

1. Some bacteria species can also cause galls. This was my first introduction to galls in undergraduate university. Crown gall (Rhizobium radiobacter, formerly known as Agrobacterium tumefaciens) is the textbook and lab example used in plant pathology and lab classes. It is also a common tool to teach Koch’s Postulates. Soil bacterium inserts a small segment of DNA (T-DNA) from a plasmid and into the plant cell. This DNA encodes for genes that produce a plant hormone, auxin (indole-3-acetic acid), via a special pathway that is not used in most plants. Thus the plant has no molecular means of regulating the production of the exocrine hormone. The T-DNA also signals extra production of a group of plant hormones called cytokines, which are involved in cell division. These hormones are responsible for the tumor-like growth of plant tissue and form the galls.

2. Sanford, M.P., Huntly, N.J. 2010. Seasonal patterns of arthropod diversity and abundance on Big sagebrush, Artemisia tridentata.  Western North American Naturalist, 70(1): 67-76.

On Being an Osprey

15 May

My treat for the day was watching the osprey finally get a fish on its fourth dive into the pond.

I can see its eyes, its talons, it indecisiveness and aborting a dive. I can almost feel it spring out of the water, shaking that cold wetness from its feathered back and wings, climb back up in the air, and finding a thermal to coast, I could almost feel its exhaustion.

I stood there with my eyes projected through the binoculars, almost flying and diving with it, smiling and rooting for this osprey, calling it ‘Sweetheart’, and remembering why it was known as the ‘sea eagle’ where I grew up.

I love ospreys. If I can’t be an osprey, take me with you in flight and in dive.

Osprey at Yellowstone; photo by Jean Philippe Dugault, French nature photographer.

Osprey at Yellowstone; photo by Jean Philippe Dugault, French nature photographer.

The Belle of Spring – Yellow Bells

5 Apr

Coming recently from south-central New Mexico I was thrust backwards in the progression of seasons. At the Bosque del Apache NWR daily temperatures were already in the low 80’s and nights above freezing. Here in in the high desert of SE Oregon (same altitude of 4500 feet) spring is still trying to assert her dominance.

Although I arrived at the Refuge during a sunny warm day in bare feet wearing sandals, that was a tease. Night temperatures have been consistently below 32 F (one night at 17 degrees!) and I’m lucky to see day temps in the high 50’s. I wish I had brought more warm clothing.

Two days this week were devoted to hiking and scouting the Stinking Lake Natural Research Area, a ‘wilderness’ area on the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Armed with binocular, maps, GPS, water bottle, and thick warm layers, a total of 15 miles were hiked and explored, with the last day accumulating 8.5 of those miles. My back and feet are still protesting (need better boots).

Yellow bells (Fritillaria pudica)

An example of a small spring-fed alkaline lake, the predominant plant community along the shore is alkali-saltgrass/black greasewood. On my way to nearby Derrick Lake I happened to find the first flower of spring here in SE Oregon’s high desert. Diminutive, dainty, bright, and elegant yellow bells are the harbinger of spring in sagebrush country.

Yellow bells can be found in loose dry soil in alpine and sub-alpine communities as well as in sage-steppe lands. It is one of the earliest spring flowers, sometimes appearing in small bare islands surrounded by shallow snow. It needs the early season’s moisture, but can also be found along rocky ridges in the mountains.

Like most other lilies, yellow bells have grass-like leaves which arrive from underground bulbs. The 1-2 nodding flowers branch from the top of a thick round stem. Numerous smaller bulblets grow on the main bulb’s primary roots and the bottom exterior surface, which is why this plant is sometimes referred to as ‘rice root’. Native Americans used the bulb and bulblets as a source of food, cooked or raw.

The bright yellow nodding flowers are short-lived and become orangish or reddish as they age. Dried capsules resemble a dice box, a cylindrical box used to shake dice by the Romans. This is reflected in the generic name for this plant, Fritilaria, derived from the Latin term, fritill, meaning ‘dice box’.

The species name, pudica, is Latin for ashamed or bashful and refers to its nodding habit. On the other hand, there are several more nodding Fritillarias that can be found on the North American continent. Another species I am familiar with is F. affinis, also known as chocolate lily, checker lily, or leopard lily. This flashy nodding flower is often found in the deep woods of western Oregon, again appearing in early spring. This species is not commonly found within the high desert area, instead preferring a more wet, darker and more humus environment. Although this flower’s velvety dark chocolate or purple background is beautifully speckled with orange and yellow, its aroma is repugnant.

How better to attract flies for pollination in a dark moist place than smell like decaying meat?

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