image of Dragonfly on Chaparral Honeysuckle

Change & Observations in These Chaotic Times

Spending time on our trails has been a needed outlet even when the specter of a pandemic was not looming over our everyday activities. Trails have been more crowded than I remember. Social distancing is hit-and-miss. Courtesy to others is not always the default. Mask up, mask down, no mask, who yields? Do you move off the trail or thank those who extend courtesy to you? Things are so different on the trails, or are they?

Plants Need Pollinators, Pollinators Need Plants

One thing that has not changed are the native plants and the pollinators (birds, bees, butterflies, moths, etc) who visit them. Winter rains bring about the largest number of blooming plants - so much so that most people assume flowers only grow in the spring. The abundance of flowers requires massive quantities of migratory pollinators that follow the wave of spring from Mexico to Canada working alongside the pollinators that live here year round.

Spring flowers fade, migratory pollinators move north but local pollinators need to get through summer, fall and winter. As a result there are a variety of flowers that are blooming long after spring has faded. Every few weeks bring a fresh group of plants in bloom. Other plants, specifically the shrubs along the trail, produce fruits for the sole purpose of dispersing their seed and with any luck to create another generation of the species.

Being Oblivious to Nature Has its Pros and Cons

As you are enjoying the trails, local flora and fauna carry on an existence geared towards producing the next generation of its species - a cycle of seed production, pollination, dispersal and germination that repeats. Modern civilization has reduced the requirement that we be in sync with the changes at the trail’s edge. Our need for recreating outdoors has not changed. Being oblivious to the continual change of plants along the trail has an advantage — you can move faster, go farther, have more in-depth conversations with your hiking partners or even get lost in your thoughts.

Miles Per Hour or Hours Per Mile?

I used to determine the quality of my experience on our trails in terms of miles covered and miles per hour. Observing plants and pollinators has led to a reversal — hours per mile. Do you see and experience more by going faster, or is it possible that you could see and experience more by going at a slower pace? As the days of summer roll on, at a slower pace, you may notice the Fish’s Milkwort in bloom at the creek crossing or the deep-red Coffeeberry fruits up the trail. Many times we travel the same trail over and over again - if you do not see something for the first time on each outing, you are not paying attention! Our landscapes are so full of details that it is not possible to take it all in at once. Compare this concept with the viewing of the mural in the Sistine Chapel. Repeated viewings and discussions with others reveal more and more details that overwhelmed your senses on the initial encounter.

Why Not Level Up?

Our normal travel speeds require more focus on movement and the trail ahead, and as a result these plants are just a blur and missed. Changing things up by making an observational visit is a significant way to enhance your next trail experience. Learning the names of plants you encounter is like putting on a pair of glasses, bringing into focus something that was a blur. As you change your trail habits responding to the pandemic, why not enhance your trail experience by taking time to observe and learn more about the natural world at your feet?

What do you see in this image?

As you work your way down the above list, we start with a generic description, through common names and finally down to scientific names. Similarly, the more you know about these subjects, the vocabulary describing these subjects becomes more precise and dense - mostly filled with latinized terms assigned to each distinctive and identifiable part. Each step of the way, the process of observation distills specifics and eventually yields more definitive information.

Common Example of Botanical Description. Fruit: berry, (1−)2−4(−5)-seeded, spheric, (5−)6−8 mm, yellow-orange to deep purple or cherry red, with persistent crownlike calyx 0.3−0.4 mm long; pulp juicy, yellow-orange. Seed: slightly domed and like a turtle shell, circular to ovate in outline, 3–3.8 × 2.2−3.2 mm, light cinnamon to golden brown and sometimes reddish dotted, ± cordlike on margin, forming rim 0.7−1 mm thick, the rim well-defined on ± concave side and weakly defined on convex side, faces minutely bumpy.

Even for those who are not Botanists or Entomologists, the image presents considerable amounts of information that is both fascinating and useful. The insect’s eye is a great place to begin. I will make the assumption that you know as much about the anatomy of a dragon fly as I did before taking a deeper look. The hexagonal shape in the middle of the eye is a reflection of the sun! The eye is comprised of thousands of eyes - scientists call them ommatidium - these are akin to pixels in a display. With this species, red indicates high resolution eyes that point in one direction and the remaining eyes in blue/gray/yellow have limited ability to resolve an image but are useful in providing information in multiple directions. With 30,000 of these packed into a very small area, the dragonfly can make flight decisions quickly and accurately. If you have four independent wings and can fly backwards and forwards, it is nice to have such powerful visual abilities.

The colors in the nearly transparent wings were caused by the flash I used to take this image. The image was not taken in the dark but a somewhat clever manipulation of flash and exposure provided just enough light to capture the image but not the background at 10AM. What else can we learn from this image? I am certain there is a lot more - if we just look and learn from our observations.

Panoramic image of Santa Monica Mountains