Tuesday, January 27, 2015

12-Sept-2014 West End of East Zayante Road, Felton, California

All you need is one good pine...
The next opportunity to collect came with a time limit; I had to be back in Palo Alto to attend an evening wedding rehearsal dinner.  This meant that a return trip to the foothills of the Sierras was out of the question.  Luckily a few tantalizing marks on Griffin & Critchfield’s ponderosa pine distribution map led me to believe that ponderosas are, or at least were in 1976, present in scant quantities in nearby Santa Cruz County.  A bit of citation mining in Griffin & Critchfield and some googling led me to discover the existence of the Santa Cruz sandhills, an unusual 7,000 acre area of sandy soils supporting a disjunct population of ponderosas.  (Damp soils and redwoods are the norm in this coastal environment.)  Based on those dated resources and a more recent report from The Sandhills Alliance For Natural Diversity, I decided to aim for the town of Felton and cruise the area until I found a productive tree.

...to get a full sample of cones.
The main way into Felton from Route 17 is via Mt. Hermon Road, which online resources indicated would be sprinkled with ponderosas.  Alas, there seemed no safe place to stop and collect along that very busy road.  I thought my worries were over when I found a few sizable ponderosas decorating the edge of the shopping center parking lot where Mt. Hermon Road meets its end at Graham Hill Road, but as happens so frequently with urban pines, most of the cones had been removed by groundskeepers. 

I decided to continue on to the “census-designated place” west of Felton called Bonny Doon, which from my reading seemed a good place to continue prospecting for ponderosas.  And how could a person resist the promise of Pine Flat Road?  Sadly, there were no pines on Pine Flat Road.  I should know by now not to take road names literally, since they seldom reflect the reality of the vegetation they transect.  

The disappointment of the Bonny Doon digression faded quickly, however, after I returned to my starting point in Felton.  There, only a few blocks from the “cleaned-up” shopping center trees, I discovered an impressive lone ponderosa with dozens of fallen cones beneath it (location map).

Oecobius navus female.
Setting up at a picnic table in the nearby and very busy little Felton Covered Bridge County Park, I quickly found this set of cones to be teeming with an unusually high concentration of spiders: 58 spiders from only 21 cones, or 2.8 spiders per cone!  In eastern Washington, I’d found a mean of 0.24 spiders per cone with the maximum from any site of 1.3, so you can imagine my surprise.

I got my first peel spiders today, but only four -- not enough to account for the high overall tally.

The most common species by far was Oecobius navus (Oecobiidae), a presumably naturalized species which comprised about a third of my specimens.  Oecobiids have an anal tubercle fringed with long, curving hairs arranged in a way that is reminiscent of a fountain or a flower.  I love this, not only because it makes the family easy to ID, but who doesn't love a spider butt that encourages poetic description?

Tiny refugium between the cone's
basal scales.
Incidentally, the “human dimension” at this park was quite entertaining.  Besides the usual flow of moms with toddlers stopping by to ask “whatcha doin?” that I encounter in urban parks, I had interesting conversations with a homeless man retrieving multitudes of returnable beer bottles and cans from the groundcover in the woods beyond the picnic tables, as well as with a police woman who pointedly asked me what I was doing.  I suppose my little alcohol vials could look suspicious to an officer of the law, especially given the presence of all those beer cans in the ivy; undoubtedly she was keeping an eye out for public drunkenness and drug dealing. 

Which brings me to the small group of people with the look of hard living about them who I suspect were responsible for many of those discarded returnables.  One of the men informed me quite directly that I was using “their” table and that he wanted to share it. I explained why I wasn’t prepared to move or make room (“delicate biological specimens”), and they grudgingly moved on to a different table.  Happily, several women from the group came back later to find out more about what I was doing, declared it a cool thing, and told me their spider stories, so our interaction ended on a positive note.

Vital equipment: table, cloth, net, pliers, bag o' cones, Diet Pepsi
So many spiders per cone really increased my cone processing time, and so I worked until the last possible moment before I figured that I needed to head back north. Except that I hadn’t counted on the closure of Mt. Hermon Road, the most direct return route, by repair crews! In retrospect I should have continued south into Santa Cruz and picked up Route 17 north there, but I dislike backtracking and Route 9 north via Saratoga looked straightforward enough on the map, so that’s the way I went.  Little did I realize how twisty-windy slow Route 9 is, nor did I anticipate the construction stoppages I encountered along the way, all with less than a gallon of gas left in the tank! Needless to say I was relieved to emerge from the forest in Saratoga virtually within sight of a gas station. The rest of the return trip was uneventful, and we made it to the rehearsal dinner on time and enjoyed it very much. 

* Related: 10-Sept-2014: Columbia Historic State Park, Columbia, California

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