Archive for August, 2014

Kingsnake Predation

August 28, 2014

Posted on EdHat

Two weeks ago someone running Nine Trails found a king snake eating a rattler on the route.

Today, as I was running up Jesusita I passed Heidi and Brett and others coming down. They told me to watch for a King Snake eating a lizard further up the trail.

Taken by Heidi Heitkamp at ~5:30AM.

Taken by Heidi Heitkamp at ~5:30AM.

Sure enough, right before the trail gets really steep, right in the middle of the trail was a small king snake eating a western fence lizard. But I didn’t have a camera. I debated turning around to get a camera, but instead kept going — there was a flower I wanted to see further up.

I found my flower and turned back, but I ran a little faster than I usually do. When I got back to the steep spot the snake was exactly where I’d seen it before and seemed to have made no progress on eating the lizard. It appeared stuck on the front legs.

I wondered if the snake could actually eat it? The lizard appeared bigger around than the snake, and the legs were even bigger…

Predation events are rare…

Anyway it seemed that the snake wasn’t going anywhere and I figured I might actually have a chance to get back home; grab camera; return. So I sped up. It took me 20 minutes to get back to the bike, 13 minutes to get home (downhill), 3 minutes to get the camera, 15 minutes to get back to the trailhead (uphill), 20 minutes to get back to the snake.

On the way down I passed a woman taking her dogs up the trail. Perhaps the dogs would disturb it.

On the way up it was starting to get hot. Perhaps the snake’s metabolism would speed up and it would finish and move away.

And when I got there it was gone.

I swore.

That was a long way to go for nothing.

Then I searched more carefully.

The snake had moved. It was not gone, but it was no longer in the middle of the trail, being instead some distance off to the side. Whew.



It’s not a large snake…


The only other time I can remember running back so far to get a camera was one day when I stumbled on two snails mating in Ranomafana (Madagascar). The snails there are enormous, about 3 inches long, but like all snails they are slow. I figured I’d have time to run back and return before they were done (In fact they seemed to spend more than 8 hours together — I kept checking them throughout the day.)

Helicophanta ibaraoensis mating Jan 1999

Helicophanta ibaraoensis mating Jan 1999

Rounding errors in Running Foods

August 26, 2014

(When I wrote this I was unaware of certain things. A better analysis is given in a subsequent blog post: Not all Calories are created equal.)

Rusty gave me a enormous bag of cliff blocks the other day, so I’ve been eating those on long trail runs rather than GU gels as I usually do. I think it takes me longer to get nauseous when eating these blocks than when eating gels. I also seem to notice that I am hungrier when eating the blocks than when eating gels. This might be part of not being nauseous (if I’m nauseous then I don’t notice hunger, and if I’m not then I do; or maybe I don’t feel nauseous so I run harder and get hungrier?). Or maybe the blocks and the gels have a different number of Calories?

So I came home and checked. The blocks are said to have 100 Calories/serving of 3 blocks, and the GU gels claim 100 Calories/serving of one packet. That was what I thought. So I should be consuming at the same rate…

But then I looked a little closer. A “Mountain Berry Cliff Block” is said to have: No Fat, No Protein and 24g Carbs. A “Salted Watermelon GU gel” is said to have: No Fat, No Protein and 22g Carbs. Now Carbohydrates burn at at rate of about 3.8 Calories/gram.
3.81*24=91.5 Calories/3block serving
3.81*22=83.8 Calories/gel serving
So you’d think I’d get more hungry from eating GU than blocks? But I don’t…

Ah! Not all GU flavors are the same. “Chocolate Outrage GU” has 15Cal from Fat, No Protein and 21g Carb=80Cal. So that one has 95 Calories/serving.

Flavor Cal Fat Cal Carbs Tot Cal Claimed
Salted Watermelon GU 0 84 84 100
Chocolate Outrage GU 15 80 95 100
Salted Caramel GU 0 84 84 100
Strawberry Banana GU 0 95 95 100
Peanut Butter GU 15 76 91 100
Mountain Berry Cliff 0 92 92 100
Chocolate Cherry Cliff 0 88 88 100
Citrus Cliff 0 92 92 100
Margarita Cliff 0 92 92 100
Mountain Huckle Hammer Gel 0 84 84 90
Orange Hammer Gel 0 80 80 90
Raspberry Gel 0 80 80 90
Apple-Cinanamon Hammer Gel 0 88 88 90

Those were all the flavors I had on hand to test. And, of course, I have no idea how accurate the carbohydrate/fat readings are. Could there be something else in these concoctions which would increase the Calorie content? (Alcohol is the only other thing I know of that can be metabolized but there are probably others, and I guess it doesn’t need to be metabolizeable to count toward the Calorie content).

Still it does seem to me that there is likely to be significant error in the Calorie labeling of these products.

Different carbohydrates have slightly different heats of combustion in a bomb calorimeter.

Glucose 3.81 Cal/gram
Fructose 3.79 Cal/gram
Sucrose 3.94 Cal/gram

However maltodextrin (the primary component of GU, and a component in cliff blocks) is a variable length polysaccharide, so heat of combustion is going to be variable too. At any rate I can’t find any data for it. I used 3.81 as a factor in my calculations above (but even had I used 3.94 none of the totals would reach 100 Calories).

Now within the body the energy currency is glucose so all carbohydrates are converted to glucose before being used. Within the cell the energy currency is ATP and one mole of glucose is converted into theoretically 38 (but in the real world about 30~32) ATP molecules. In the theoretical case only about 50% of the glucose energy is captured in ATP (in the real world it’s even less).

To use a molecule of fructose it must first be converted to glucose which takes up 2ATP molecules, so fructose is less efficient.

To use a molecule of sucrose it must first be broken into a glucose and a fructose (the energy released in this break down is too small to make an ATP molecule — I think). Then the two simple sugars would be oxidized as above. So the efficiency here is again slightly less than 50%.

Nine Trails by Night

August 16, 2014

Nine Trails started out as Patsy Dorsey’s training route for long ultras. Then she turned it into a race, and that first race was run in 1991, the year before I moved to town. So it’s been in the background of my mind since I moved here. But I’ve never run it. At first I didn’t race, but Nine Trails has always been the week-end after Thanksgiving — and I went back East for Thanksgiving. One year I persuaded my parents to allow me to skip the family party so I could do the race — but I got injured and went back to them anyway.

Nine Trails starts at the flagpole of Cater Water treatment plant, goes up San Roque road for about 100ft and then heads off onto Jesusita trail, up to Inspiration and down to Tunnel trail. Up Tunnel trail to the Rattlesnake connector, and down that to the Rattlesnake meadow. Up Rattlesnake trail to Gibraltar Rd. and down that to the west fork of Cold Spring. Down the west fork to the east fork, and up that to the Hot Springs connector. Out the connector, past the hot springs and the old hotel site to the Edison catway that leads to San Ysidro trail. Then up The Wall, a very steep catway, and down Buena Vista connector to Buena Vista trail. Up the trail to the Romero catway, out that to the Romero connector, down that to Romero trail, and finally down the trail to the trailhead. At which point we turn round and run the whole thing back to the start. About 35 miles total they say…

Nine Trails Map

In 1994 the west fork of Cold Spring was washed out by the flood and the race was not held until 1997 when west fork trail was finally rebuilt. In 2008 the Tea Fire happened two weeks before the race (and made the trails unusable) and in a mad scramble Luis moved it to Ojai at the last minute. In 2009 the Jesusita Fire burned most of the rest of the trails and Luis gave up and created Red Rock to replace Nine Trails. In 2012 and 2013 he has organized fun runs along the course in August, and this year he announced he was going to put on the race again — but in August.

Now I think running on our trails in August is too hot. So when he made his announcement I suggested a night run instead. Of course by the time I learned about the race it was far too late for Luis to change his plans. But it occurred to me that there was no reason I couldn’t do the run on my own. At night. I am hoping to do a night race next May, so it would be good training. I wouldn’t need much support, just a couple of water bottles hidden in the bushes.

I tried to persuade others to join me, but no one seemed to want to. Some wanted to race, others were worried about running in the dark (and most, of course, had no interest in Nine Trails in the first place). Ah well.

When August finally arrived it turned out to be relatively cool with nice early morning fogs. I was tempted to run the race after all. Of course the fog doesn’t reach as high as the trails, and if it’s the high 70s in town it’s probably high 80s on the trails. And that would be hotter than I’d like (even though not as hot as I feared).

The moon would rise at 11:10pm on the night before the race, and it would be waning gibbous so there would be some light out there once it got above the mountains. I decided to start at midnight. Civil twilight starts at 5:54am. So I need to be prepared for ~6 hours of darkness.

Thursday night (30 hours before my start time) I placed a gallon jug of water at the hairpin on Gibraltar, and another at the Romero turnaround (hidden in the bushes, of course).

That night I had a strange dream. I was trying to drive my parents to the Earthling bookstore (long closed now) through a snow storm (never happens in SB) and somehow I got lost when crossing the river (there isn’t one in SB). I ended up wandering in a part of the city I’d never seen before. I hoped that didn’t mean I’d get lost on the trails. I used to do them in the dark when I hiked with the Sierra Club. This would just be longer… and later… and just me.


  • Getting Lost — not unlikely, but I’d probably realize it fairly quickly and find myself again
  • Falling — possible. At worst I’d have a broken leg and be unable to run, but of course a whole bunch of people would be running those same trails in a few hours. This would be the best time to do that.
  • Mountain Lion — Highly unlikely, I’m not going to worry about it.

    (However someone else saw a lion at Romero just a few hours before I ran)

I had no idea how long it would take me. I had run from Romero to Cater in ~3:25 so I figured that if I were racing in the daylight then a 7 hour run was conceivable but highly unlikely, while shooting for 7:30 would perhaps be reasonable. But by night? with no one to run against? Getting lost? Fumbling for waterbottles in the dark? I’d be lucky to break 8 hours.

Well I’d see…

I tried to sleep from 2pm until 10. Not very successfully, but I did rest even if I didn’t sleep much.

It was about 60°F when I set off from home at ~11:30pm. I had a couple of long sleeve shirts with me in case it got chilly and a cap in case it got sunny in the morning.

In the dead vast and middle of the night,

Am thus encount’red. A figure like myself

Cloth’d at all points exactly, cap-a-pie,

Appears before you, and with solemn run

Goes fast and stately by.

Cater flagpole, about midnight. (I thought flags came down at sunset?)

Cater flagpole, about midnight. (I thought flags came down at sunset?)

I got to the trailhead a little before midnight, but I spent some time frumphering around with my gear and locking the bike so I actually started at 12:04am. And I had to trot down the tenth of a mile to the flagpole. In the real race this time on the road means the fast people get to pull ahead of the slower ones so they don’t have to pass on the single-track. But it’s part of the course even if I have no one to pass (or be passed by).

So many people had told me that they were worried about my running in the dark that I was actually starting to worry myself — not about anything particular, but more that I was overlooking something.

But when I started it just felt natural and all my worries vanished. The only real concern I had had was that my light would not be bright enough and I’d slip and fall. But my light was actually quite bright (125 lumens) and I did not feel that my foot placement was a problem (it wasn’t quite so bright when looking ahead and I did once charge off on a side-trail when the main trail bent sharply, but I quickly realized something was wrong and backtracked 10ft).

The insects were singing nicely with their legs (or wings, or whatever) and I was surrounded with their quiet chirping (until it started to get light).

My light was quite bright, right in front of my feet, but several times I felt myself wondering where exactly I was on the trail. I know that trail backwards and forwards and can usually tell precisely where I am on it. But this evening I kept finding myself disoriented until one of my usual landmarks came into view.

I had expected that I might perhaps run faster because I wouldn’t be distracted by flowers, but I found I was. I kept looking for them in places I expected them and sometimes I would see them, and sometimes I would not. I’ve only recently started wondering about at what times of day the various flowers bloom. I now know for instance that Clematis blooms at night. On the other hand Coastal Morning Glory folds up its flowers and doesn’t open them up again until about 5 (which is still well before twilight). But the flowers were certainly less distracting than usual.

Goleta At NightAs I climbed up above the traverse there were some nice views of the city of Goleta all lit up. But I couldn’t hold the camera still enough, and after this one attempt I decided it would be pointless to try more pictures until the sun came up. Yet another distraction gone.

I was glad to see that Luis had routed the race onto the trail rather than the catway/fireroad. That’s where it’s supposed to go.

I got up to Inspiration in 43 minutes. Not fast, but not slow either. It seemed like a reasonable pace when these 3.4 miles are the start of something 10 times longer…

There were some nice views of the SB city lights here, but I would have needed a tripod. I’d vaguely thought I might get a shot of the gibbous moon rising over the ocean, but that happens in the winter (or maybe never up here). The moon was too far north, over the mountains.

Then down the other side. If it had been lighter, and I’d had someone to run with I’d have gone down this bit faster. I’m not sure which effect would be more important — light or company.

Up Tunnel. I do my first walking up some of the more technical rockfaces. When I get up to the flat section I look down on the lights of SB spread out below me. This is probably the best place on 9T to see that. Maybe someday I’ll climb up with a tripod and good camera at midnight…

I’ve been eating 3 Cliff blocks every half-hour (Cliff gave Joe gave Rusty gave me an enormous back of blocks the other day, so I figure why not use some up today). At the one hour mark I was planning to take a salt tablet, but I can’t find the salt tablets in their pocket. I know I put them in, but there’s a bunch of other stuff in there too which is hiding them. Oh well, when I get to the hairpin I’ll need to stop to refill my water and I’ll find them then.

Rusty warned me that he thought going down the Rattlesnake connector would be bad at night, but it turns out to be fairly easy. Perhaps because I can’t see far in front of me and so don’t worry. Perhaps because when he last did it the trail was full of star thistle or something.

When I get down to the meadow it’s time for more food, and I decide to take a salty GU instead. I feel nauseous almost at once. Hmm. I wonder if GUs have been causing my nausea in the past? Could it be that switching to blocks would solve all my problems (Sadly, no, I learn later).

Up Rattlesnake and then pounding down Gibraltar. I thought I might try turning off my light once I got to the road and just run with the moon. But the moon is very dim compared to the light and I don’t feel safe. So on goes the light again.

As I approach the hairpin I see there’s quite a collection of vehicles already here. And a camper and a large pickup truck, and the aid station tent is all set up. As I come nearer I realize there is someone standing in the aid station just looking at me. He (or she) doesn’t move. It’s kind of creepy. As I get even nearer I realize it’s a skeleton, and that gives me a start. And then I remember Luis’s habit of placing a skeleton on the Born to Run course. It’s never bothered me there, but then I’ve never approached it in the dead of night before.

A dog from within the camper starts to bark, and I quickly run past so as not to wake any sleepers. The dog quiets.

Now somewhere off to the left here, I hid a gallon of water. There’s my marker tree. I click my watch and remove the camelback and start to search. (My watch says that I got here in just under 2 hours, and this is as close to 1/4 of the course as can be, so I’m on track for an 8 hour run). But I can’t find my bottle. I run down into the brush and rummage around down there. I start to get quite worried. Finally I give up. It’s gone. I still have some water left, I’ll fill up at Romero. Then it occurs to me to look on the other of my marker tree. And there it is. Yay!

I fill up my camelback, find my salt tablets (take 2), hide the bottle again (but in a much more obvious place — no one else will come by before I return). Oh, and I can leave my cap here too. I haven’t needed it so far, and shan’t until the sun comes up high enough to reach the trail. And onward.

That whole process took just under 5 minutes. I guess that’s one advantage of a real aid station — you don’t need to look for your water bottle’s hiding spot.

Onward and downward. When I ran this with Gene and Tyler the other week we just bombed down this trail. It takes me about two minutes longer to get to the bottom than it did then (and we were running in the dark that morning too), so I’m thinking that I respond more to company than to light. Of course they’d both be ~30 minutes in front of me if I had done the race so I won’t have had them to chase anyway…

Then up Cold Spring east fork. Somehow I miss the turn at the final stream crossing. I guess there’s a (short) trail that just goes straight ahead, which I usually don’t notice because I see the rocks in the stream, but tonight my puddle of light doesn’t extend to the rocks and I just see the trail continuing — until 10 feet later it doesn’t. Hunh? Oh. I go back, and find the normal route.

Up to the Hot Springs Connector. And now for the first time I can see out east to — well probably — to Summerland. SB and Goleta have been crystal clear with no sign of fog, but there is a haze gathering over these lights.

Down to the catway/fireroad. Occasionally the road twists enough that I see the lights of SB, still clear of fog.

And then The Wall. This is a really steep, half-mile section of catway. It can be a killer. But tonight it doesn’t seem that bad. Oh, I have to work at it, but I keep running and don’t feel too tired. Maybe it’s an advantage that I can only see a small circle of light right in front of me, and not the wall of road rising steeply up into the distance. I don’t get downhearted.

Down and up Buena Vista. Along the Romero catway to the Romero Connector, then down Romero Trail to the gate. This is the turnaround and again, just under two hours. And there is Cynthia. She said she actually wanted to drive here at ~4am and wait here till I showed up. I tried to dissuade her (I wouldn’t want to do that and I didn’t think she should have to either). But she did it anyway. Then she found a weasel to watch (I’ve never seen a weasel) which wanted to watch her, and the two of them entertained each other.

Somewhere off in the bushes I stashed another gallon of water. But it isn’t where I remember putting it. I crash around. Still nothing. I wander around again. Eventually I give up. I have some water, I just need to ration it. I’ll make it to the hairpin where I do have water (And boy am I glad I found that one).

Bye to Cynthia and off I go.

(I went back the next day to look for the bottle — to avoid littering — but I couldn’t find it in the daylight either)

Back over the trails I’ve just run. But the catway feels very steep in this direction and I have to walk it. I walk fast, of course, but it’s still slower than running. I’m not pleased about this.

But the steep bit ends and I run down to Buena Vista, and up Buena Vista Connector and down The Wall.

And then the Catway to Hot Springs gets steep, and I’m walking again. This has a much longer steep section. It occurs to me that I’m getting hungry, perhaps 3 blocks/half-hour isn’t enough. I eat another. After a bit I’m eating two blocks every ten minutes or so.

Halfway up Hot Springs I run out of water. I’ve still got about an hour to go. I’m walking up bits of Hot Springs too.

I remind myself that every mouthful of carbs (blocks) turns into ~half a mouthful of water after it has been metabolized. Can I eat myself unthirsty?


Then down Cold Spring and up the West Fork (I keep eating). I think eating all those blocks has helped. I run up the West Fork. But I’m getting very thirsty.

My light dims. This happens when the battery has only 10% of its juice left and it switches to a low power mode. But I realize that I don’t need it much. It’s starting to get light enough to see without it. But not quite completely, but I don’t need full strength.

TwilightThen I cross the west fork of the creek and start to climb out of the canyon, and as I do, I see the first signs of the sunrise. There’s a little color over the ocean off east. I turn off my light.

TwilightAs I climb higher the views get better.

And when I reach the top of the trail there’s my water, and my cap and good heavens Cynthia (This time she is watching bats, which I do see). I fill up my camelback. She offers to take back what I don’t need. Well I shan’t need the near empty waterbottle. Nor these two long-sleeve shirts, nor the light. I probably won’t use the cap either. But I don’t give her the waterbottle quite yet, I drink most of what’s left in it. I’m thirsty.

SkeletonSomehow the skeleton doesn’t look as creepy now as it did in the dark… (the bats aren’t creepy either)

This quarter has been slow. I’m no longer on track to break 8 hours. All that walking. I should have started eating more earlier. Well, I’ve learned. It might also have helped if I had had more water.

I’m beginning to feel nauseous. I guess I drank too much too quickly. On the other hand this is the first time I’ve felt nausea from drinking water. Maybe my normal nausea is catching up with me? I hope not. It’s worth trying to do another cool run again, only without misplacing a water bottle…

I am able to eat, just not as much as I would like. I had hoped that this final quarter would be my fastest (because it’s mostly downhill and I don’t need to hold anything in reserve, and I have run it fast before). But that’s not going to happen today. I’m able to get back to my 8 hour pace, but that’s not fast enough to make up for the extra 16 minutes on the last section.

It’s now after 6, so the real race has started. I’ve been wondering where I’ll meet the first runners. I’m guessing near the junction of Rattlesnake and Tunnel. Maybe on the Rattlesnake Connector itself (though I hope not, it twists so much that if someone comes bombing down that trail there won’t be time to get out the way). I keep my eyes and ears open as I go up the connector, but I see no one.

Just down from the Connector on Tunnel I do see someone, but he’s hiking, not running. Not him. But he’s the first person (except Cynthia) I’ve seen since I started my run.

And then I see Nash, he’s sitting on a rock waiting for the race to pass. Not him either.

And two more hikers. Not them.

Finally about halfway down Tunnel I see a guy, head down, pounding up the trail. I can’t see his face, nor guess who it is, but he’s clearly the first runner. A little way behind him comes Tyler, walking easily. And then more and more. When I get to the bottom of Tunnel, the flood has turned back into the occasional trickle.

Jesusita FogUp to Inspiration. I plod along, running, but not fast. Not fast enough. Although Inspiration is bright and sunny, the city below is covered in fog. It looks as if it will be hot today (it got up to 85 in the city, and much hotter on the trails); I’m glad I started at midnight. I would probably have done much worse in the coming heat.

Flagpole MorningI try to sprint down the remaining 3.5 miles, but it’s not really a sprint. I’m not really sure where the finish line is. Is it the trailhead? or the flagpole? I’m hoping that when I get to the trailhead it will be obvious. But it isn’t. No one is around. There’s no indication anywhere. So I click my watch at the trailhead and again at the flagpole. It’s probably the flagpole.

Cater to Hairpin 1:54:24 + 4:45(looking for water)
Hairpin to Romero 1:50:23 + ~4:00(looking for water)
Romero to Hairpin 2:16:40 + 2:27(repacking)
Hairpin to Cater 1:58:33
Cater to Cater 8:10:50
Very Dirty Toes

Very Dirty Toes
Trail shoes are designed to “breath”. On a dusty trail they breath mostly dust


August 5, 2014

Methane is in the news at the moment for many reasons. Perhaps first is Obama’s plan to reduce CO2 output by 30% by 2030 by reducing coal consumption and increasing the use of natural gas at our power plants. When natural gas burns it produces about half the CO2 that coal does when it burns (for the same amount of heat/power output) so this seems like a big win. Unfortunately it has several problems:

  1. Natural gas is a gas. It leaks. It leaks everywhere. At wells, in pipelines, in processing facilities. No one knows how much it leaks. You might wonder why this matters, but over 100 years a given amount of natural gas will trap 20 times as much heat (cause 20 times as much global warming) as the equivalent amount of CO2. So seemingly small leaks can spell disasters. A recent article by Scientific American concludes that even if fully implemented Obama’s plan would not achieve its goal of a 30% reduction by 2030.
  2. Although we currently have a glut of natural gas that is likely to be temporary. Current projections say that shale gas production in the US will probably peak around 2015 (next year!) and decline steeply thereafter. Relying on it is stupid.
  3. Switching to natural gas will not be cheap. And that infrastructure will still be here in 20, 30, 40 years time. Unfortunately in 40 years time we cannot use it. Natural gas still produces far too much carbon. We need to get our carbon consumption down by more like 80% by 2050, and if we invest heavily in natural gas we will have a bunch of useless expensive junk in 40 years time.

A far better solution would have been to invest heavily in renewables, but that seems to be politically infeasible. Of course even reducing coal usage also seems politically infeasible so perhaps it would have been better to bite the bullet and try for something that might ultimately work…

Another interesting new story is about the recent discovery of mysterious new craters in the Siberian tundra. Three large craters have recently been found. The one which has been examined most closely was probably caused last summer (2013) when the underground methane hydrates heated up to the point where the methane came out of solution, expanded and exploded the ground above it. But there are only three craters, and that was last year.

At approximately the same time as that discovery a Swedish research vessel in the Arctic Ocean found plumes of methane gas bubbling up from 500m subsurface. This should not be happening in the Arctic, the water should be cold enough to trap the gas in hydrates. Even if it were happening the gas should be eaten by microbes before it reached the surface. But it appears that an underwater warm current is now melting the methane hydrates and releasing the gas.

One of the great imponderables (or “tipping points”) in climate sciences was if or when the methane hydrates in the tundra and oceans would release their methane. The problem is that there is an awful lot of methane trapped in these hydrates. Remember methane is a very potent greenhouse gas? The fear is that once methane starts leaking it will cause the earth to get warmer, which will cause more methane to leak, leading to a positive feedback loop where there is exponential heating as all the methane hydrates disappear.

The terrifying thing about passing a tipping point is that once passed there is absolutely nothing that can be done (on a human timescale) to return the world to its prior state. Even if we stopped burning any coal or oil or methane it would not be enough. If this is happening, we are screwed.

No one really knows how much hotter it will get. Nor how fast it will happen. The IPCC has not included this in their estimates.

But the process now seems to have begun. We will find out. Perhaps quickly (where “quickly” may mean decades or even years rather than the centuries that the IPCC has assumed we have).

Some Thoughts on the Western Toad.

August 4, 2014

It rained today, long but not hard, and that rain brought out the toads.

It doesn’t often rain significantly in August, and I had never wandered down the trail to Mono in a rainstorm before. I’ve never seen toads there before. But today they were all over that river bed.

The western toad Bufo boreas halophilus

The western toad
Bufo boreas halophilus

After a couple of hours of running in the rain my glasses tend to fog over, so at first all I saw was something small moving away from me. I stopped, removed my glasses and peered closely at the whatever-it-was as it moved away.

Toad2It was a toad. The first toad I have seen here after living in Santa Barbara for 20+ years. I soon realized it was not the only toad, there were lots of them — once I knew what to look for. They would sit quietly, until I approached, and then would hop off. Once they moved they were easy to see and follow.

This is not the breeding season, and the toads were not breeding. Normally, at this time of year here, these toads would be nocturnal. Today they appeared to be out enjoying the unusual rain, as I was.

I do not mean to imply that the only way to enjoy the rain is to watch toads. I was not intending to watch toads today, that was pure happenstance. MariposaI intended to find out if there were any Late-Blooming Mariposas still blooming (yes), if Biglow’s Monkeyflowers were blooming (monkeyfloweryes) and if the Scalebroom were blooming here or only in the White Fire area (only in the White Fire area).

But it is often the things I do not expect that are the most interesting. When I take to the trail I try to see what is there, rather than only what I expect.

The rain itself was what fascinated me at first. After twenty minutes of running (and maybe half an hour of raining) I realized that the ground was still not wet. Oh, I could see where the raindrops had fallen — but that was just it, I could see the wet splotches in the trail; surely by now the dirt should be completely damp? Well maybe:

  1. There really had not been enough rain to cover the ground
  2. The rain evaporated almost as fast as it hit.
  3. The rain was somehow absorbed into the lower dirt while redrying the superficial layer.

A little higher up I found some rocks scattered in the dirt, and the rocks were all slick with rain. So there had been enough rain to coat the surface. And, assuming the rocks and dirt were the same temperature, the water was not evaporating…

Eventually the soil became completely wet.

I walked my transects in the Cold Fire. Two weeks ago there were 13 species blooming, now there are 10; most of them represented by a single plant. Two months ago the whole area was covered with blooming morning glories, now there is one.

On the other hand the Tall Stephanomeria is enjoying the rain. Even though it only blooms during the driest time of the year, today it is putting out more blooms than usual. The Elegant Madia that covers Forbush is also producing more flowers today than it did two weeks ago.

A Whiptail Lizard lies in the trail. It is not enjoying the cool rain and its movements are more more sluggish than I expect.

The little Lobelia (I used to think Tolkien had made that name up, but it really is a type of flower) that covers the creek down by the Grotto is happy.

Today was an uncommon day which I was lucky enough to seize. Yet a grey, rainy day does not leap out as one that might be fascinating.

Cold Spring Trail is here, every day; as is the national forest through which it runs.

Every day has its sunset or sunrise. The Pelicans soar over the waves, every day. Dolphins leap, every day. Whales breach. Grunions run. Egrets search for food in Atascadero Creek, every day. On Coal Oil Point a rare fiddleneck blooms. The wonders of nature are always there.

I like to look at them.