Where should I go?

January 20, 2023 • 3:07 pm

My lecture trip to Cuzco, Machu Picchu, and the Galápagos has been called off because of political troubles in Peru. (I was going to talk about evolution on an alumni trip.) It was scheduled from Feb. 7-22, and it’s a good thing I didn’t buy trip insurance yet.

The trip has been rescheduled for late October/early November, but there’s no guarantee that the political turmoil will have abated then, nor that there will be enough people willing to go to put together a trip. Although I have been asked for this later trip, and have said yes, I’m not sure it will happen. Alternatively, there’s a trip in August, but only 9 days, and the Galapagos only.  That one’s more or less guaranteed, as the Galapagos are Ecuador, not Peru, but it’s shorter.  Maybe I can do both.

But the purpose of this post is not to ask readers to decide what I should do, but to suggest an alternative trip for February or March (I plan to go to Paris for a week or so in late March). Ideally, I’d go in three weeks for at least two weeks, for I am stir-crazy and need to get out of here.

Plane fares this close to departure are, of course, pricey, but I won’t let that deter me. BUT WHERE SHOULD I GO? The requirements are simple: it should be a nice place, not too hard to get to because of the press of time, but can be either in the US or in another country. It should have some attractions, not be too touristy, and ideally provide a soupçon of adventure. And the food should be decent.

Any suggestions? I am free and retired, so nothing is really off limits.

Readers’ wildlife photos

January 13, 2023 • 8:15 am

Bruce Cochrane introduces us to the sights in some little known New York museums. His narrative is indented, and you can click on the photos to enlarge them.

Continuing on with sights worth visiting in the Finger Lakes region, there are three museums that are well worth a visit.

The Corning Museum of Glass is the home to a world-renowned collection of glass and glass art, dating back about 3500 years.  These are a few pieces with animal themes.

The Blaschka Collection of Glass Invertebrates Includes some of my favorite pieces, including the cephalopod below (ID help appreciated).  Other collections of Leopold Blaschka’s work can be found at Cornell and Harvard.

Glass Cephalopod:

Other pieces from the collection:

A crystal canid, exhibited in the spectacular new Contemporary Art and design wing, completed in 2015. The outer walls are made of translucent glass, so the light balance on the interior is excellent for photography.

A dipteran:

Next stop is the Museum of the Earth near Ithaca.  I have a personal connection to it – its director is Warren Allmon, a Ph. D. student of Steven Jay Gould and a former colleague and friend of mine at the University of South Florida.  In about 1992, The Paleontological Research Institute, the home of the collection of a retired Cornell geologist, lured Warren away from USF to try to make something of this extensive collection.  The result was the Museum, which opened in 2003.  It is a great place to travel through geological time, starting with the Cambrian and proceeding to the present. The exhibit rooms are separated based on mass extinction events.

The entryway is a ramp showing off paintings by Barbara Page depicting geological history. My wife and I purchased the naming rights to these two panels, depicting the fish Dapidium politum and its prey,  the ammonite  Psilocerus planorbus.  These are from ~200 million years ago, around the Jurassic/Triassic boundary.

A signature of the museum is the “Hyde Park Mastodon” (Mammut americanum), which was discovered when a pond in Hyde Park NY was dredged. Ever the opportunist, Warren assembled a group to work on excavating it, and over the summer and fall of 2000, they excavated what turned out to be one of the most complete mastodon skeletons ever unearthed.

Finally, another opportunity arose when the Museum of Natural History underwent major renovations and had to relocate Steggy the Stegosaurus, a paper mache model dating back to the St. Louis World’s fair in 1904.  It was shipped to the Museum in three pieces, where it was reassembled to become part of a permanent display.

Dr. Allmon and I watching the assembly go forward

The final display:

Last but not least (at least for the WEIT audience) is the Robert G, Ingersoll Museum in Dresden NY.  It is the birthplace of Ingersoll, and includes a lot of Ingersoll-related history and culture, including two Edison recordings of his original orations.

Ingersoll birthplace from the outside.

Busts of the great man:

Finally, I can’t resist including some roadside displays.

Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus):

Canada Goose (Branta canadensis):

Readers’ wildlife photos

January 12, 2023 • 8:15 am

Today’s photos come from Kevin Elskin, who recently contributed some photos of Arkansas waterfalls. This time he goes to Scotland and Northern Ireland. Kevin’s narrative is indented, and you can enlarge his photos by clicking on them.

One of Jerry’s blog readers recently posted their photos of a hiking trip they took around the Kintyre Peninsula in Scotland. Last summer I and three friends embarked on a two week golfing trip that took us to Islands of Arran and Islay (pronounced AYE-la) in Scotland as well as Northern Ireland. I cannot say enough about the wonderful people who live in that gobsmackingly beautiful land. Scotland is derided on account of its weather, though it is surprisingly temperate, so if you hate both hot and cold weather it might be the place for you. If you don’t mind some (?) rain.

I mentioned it was a golf trip. If you have never seen Robin Williams’ describe the invention of golf, please take two minutes of your time to enjoy his brilliance. For me golf is a fun form of exercise, I always walk, and in Scotland you can hire a local caddy and enjoy that along with the scenery. We began our trip on the west coast of Scotland, just south of Glasgow, in the town of Prestwick. Old Prestwick hosted the first Open Championship (the uncouth sometimes refer to this as the British Open) in 1860. In 1868, Young Tom Morris, son of the father of the modern game, Old Tom Morris, became the youngest ever major golf champion at the age of 17. No one, not even Tiger Woods, has matched that feat. Not only that, he won the next three Open Championships, a feat of four Opens in a row that no one has ever matched. Tragically, in 1875, his young wife and child died during childbirth, and Young Tom followed them a few months later, poetically due to a broken heart. Playing golf in the rain did not help his case, either.

Which brings us to the first photo, which is a simple marker at Prestwick noting the first tee location at the 1860 Championship (the course layout was revised in the interim). Note the yardage of 578 yards. That is a huge hole length today, not to mention in the mid 19th century when the technology was hickory-shafted clubs and gutta-percha golf balls. The par of the hole is 5, it is said no one ever made a birdie 4 on the hole, but Young Tom Morris once holed his third shot for an eagle 3. Remarkable.

We crossed the Firth of Clyde by ferry and landed on the Isle of Arran. On the crossing I snapped a photo of the returning ferry with the landmark Ailsa Craig in the distance. For you Winter Olympic fans, Ailsa Craig is one of the sources for granite curling stones.

The Island of Arran is less than 200 square miles in size, with a population of around 5000 people. I have heard it said that Arran is a microcosm of Scotland, but all I know it is beautiful. A search of YouTube will turn up many tourist videos if you would like to see and learn more. United Airlines was kind enough to give me a chance to take a snap of the entire island on my return flight:

We stayed in the village of Blackwaterfoot on the western side of the island. Not much there: a hotel, a B&B or two, and a couple of restaurants. And a pair of swans if you look carefully.

One other attraction in Blackwaterfoot is the Shiskine Golf and Tennis Club. You can keep Pebble Beach and $600 green fees, I will go to Shiskine anytime for a tenth of the cost with views just as compelling. Two photos from the course, the first includes the Kintyre Penisnsula across the water.

After the round a buddy and I hiked to King’s Cave, a natural cave supposedly visited by Robert the Bruce, who while there was allegedly inspired by a spiders numerous attempts at casting a web. Anyway, a little portrait of the author was taken on the return.

I snapped a photo of a bucolic field of two row barley growing near the golf course. This is of course an important ingredient for the one of the two best known Scottish products, whiskey. Our golf group has the custom of toasting any birdies made by taking a wee dram on the next tee. Luckily we are not that good so we stay pretty sober. We would offer our caddy an opportunity to join us and some did, but quite a few said no, whiskey was their fathers’ drink of choice, not theirs. That said, the distillery business is going great guns and most of the local companies have been bought by the big worldwide liquor companies. Good thing, I guess, as the local economies do struggle, and tourism and whiskey are a good source of jobs.

We left Blackwaterfoot and headed north to Lochranza, where ferry service to Kintyre is available. Lochranza is the home of the Arran distillery, and also Lochranza Castle, built in the 13th century but now looking a little rough.

Lastly, if you happen to be in Lochranza and are feeling a wee bit peckish, there is a small sandwich shop located next to the ferry.  I am not one to take pictures of my food, but I made an exception. I have lived over six decades in this world and I have eaten a fair number of sandwiches, but the cumin-butternut squash-with lime pickle and chickpea puree served with robin’s leaves on turmeric hazelnut bread is the best goddam sammitch I have ever tasted. And this is a hill I will die on.

Up next: Kintyre

Readers’ wildlife photos

January 3, 2023 • 8:15 am

Today we have the second part of reader Taryn Overton’s hiking trip to Scotland (part 1 is here).  Taryn’s captions are indented, and you can click on the photos to enlarge them.  Here’s part of the description we had for part 1.

This year I spent the month of September in Scotland on a walking holiday.  We explored the Kintyre Peninsula via the Kintyre Way trail, went North to the Isles of Gigha and Skye, and ended in the Northern Highlands.  We were prepared for rain given the notorious Scotland weather, but apart from one 18 mile day in a downpour, hop skipped and jumped alongside the sun.  The superlatives ran out early on – it was a restorative trip, made all the more wonderful by the generous and witty Scottish hikers and B&B hosts that we interacted with.

Isle of Gigha.  There were beautiful rock formations at the South end of the island.  They nestled in brilliant short green grass and sea water:

Isle of Skye.  Our first hike was the Quiraing, a hike along the side of the Trotternish landslip.  The scenery was other-worldly, and the perspectives spellbinding – a tapestry of green/rocky/staggeringly beautiful mountainous formations, lochs, and valleys.  The Quiraing remains geologically active and shifts a few centimeters every year:

Isle of Skye.  Fairy Glen – an area also the result of a landslip.  Whimsical and surreal.  The stone circle labyrinth is a bit of human artistry:

Isle of Skye.  ‘The Spur’ mountain, with its triangular imposing face and jagged crevice.  Part of the Black Cuillin mountains:

Calluna vulgaris (Scottish Heather):

Isle of Skye.  On the way to the Old Man of Storr, which is one of the most popular hikes on the isle.  When we arrived it was heavily misting – the rock formations were shrouded – but the higher we climbed, the clearer it became until a welcome blue emerged:

Isle of Skye.  The Old Man of Storr rock formations.  Tip to those visiting – arrive early to beat the crowds:

Isle of Skye.  View across Moonen Bay to Waterstein Head:

Isle of Skye.  Neist Point with lighthouse.  This is the most westerly point of the Isle and is known for its dramatic cliff scenery:

Brora Beach:

Sandwood Bay Beach.  If visiting Scotland and you’re anywhere near the Northern highlands, I implore you to visit this beach on a sunny day.  Everything about it was spectacular.  It’s a short and mostly flat 4 mile walk from the car park.  Nearing the beach, there are numerous paths that can be taken through a field of sand dunes.  Some terminated in rather steep descents, where with each step, the sand gently cascaded around our feet and helped to propel us downwards:

Sandwood Bay Beach.  Once through the dunes and onto the beach, the land mass of Scotland jutted out into the sea on the left, and a single dark tapering column of rock stood immediately adjacent to it – the staggering “Am Buachaille’, meaning “the herdsman” in Scottish Gaelic.  It’s a sea stack of Torridonian sandstone ~213 feet high and has been climbed by numerous adventurous humans.  To reach it, one must swim 100 feet at low tide:

Sandwood Bay Beach.  In some areas the waves and wind left flame-like patterns in the sand:

Sandwood Bay Beach.  The color palette of the ocean ranged from simply mirroring the cerulean sky, to turquoise and steel blue further out, to variations of sea green, pea green, and even emerald green closer to shore.  The “Atlantic Breaker” waves were fierce.  Majestic, mesmerizing, dramatic, secluded – this beach is in many ways unmatched.  Someday I hope to return to Scotland, if for nothing else than to experience this wonder once more:


Reader’s wildlife photos (and videos)

December 17, 2022 • 8:15 am

Today we have photos of a swell trip taken by Robert Lang, physicist and origami master. (I believe it was this trip, sponsored by New Scientist and Steppes Travel, and featuring Richard Dawkins as lecturer) Robert’s notes and IDs are indented, and you can click on the photos to enlarge them.

Hawaii Wildlife

We spent a week sailing around the Hawaiian islands. We saw quite a few birds, both endemic and introduced, but I didn’t get many good pictures of the endemics; most of them were too skittish and/or stayed in heavy leaf cover. But I did get this Saffron Finch (Sicalis flaveola), which is an introduced species, but was too pretty to pass up.

We also did some kayaking along sea cliffs. I loved the brilliance of this Red Pencil Urchin (Heterocentrotus mamillatus), which was just above the waterline.

At one point, the ship we were on spotted a pod of Pantropical Spotted Dolphins (Stenella attenuate). As we revved up the engine, they joined us to surf the bow wave.

The highlights of the trip were two snorkeling excursions. First, a night snorkel with Reef Manta Rays (Mobula alfredi). The organizers set up surfboard with lights, which attracted plankton; the plankton attracted the rays, which did repeated somersaults just underneath us—literally less than a foot away. This picture is a screen capture:

But I hope you will able to see the video:

Later we did a day snorkel on Lahaina with Green Sea Turtles (Chelonia mydas). There were quite a few people in the water (as you will see in the video), but they just ignored us, coming up to the surface for a breath, then heading back down.


We’d arrived on the big island of Hawai’I while one of the volcanos, Mauna Loa, was undergoing an eruption (note, this is not the volcano with all of the telescopes on it—that’s Mauna Kea). We only saw lava distantly from the plane on the way in, but the ash in the sky gave us some beautiful sunrises and sunsets.

Robert didn’t ask me to put this up, but I couldn’t resist.  He sent it while on the trip, with the remark, “Richard had a slide in one of his talks comparing embryonic development to origami, which was why he pulled me in as a visual aid when that slide came up. That was, of course, great fun.  Charming fellow, I gather he’s done some biological something-or-other in his day.”

Finally, since Mauna Loa is having one of its rare eruptions on the Big Island, I asked Robert if he saw it directly. He responded:

We did see the eruption from afar, from the plane while flying in. (Pic below.) One of the days we drove up to within a mile of the flow, but it was fogged in so we couldn’t see anything.
What a great gig for Richard! I’m jealous.

Readers’ wildlife photos

December 12, 2022 • 8:15 am

Well, this doesn’t count as wildlife, but it does refer to the excretory habits of one species of primate. As contributor Athayde Tonhasca Júnior notes, ” I strongly suspect that this subject has not been approached before in your website. . . ” Indeed!  Apparently these are loo-related photos from his travels.Athayde’s notes are indented, and you can click on the photos to enlarge them.

A visit to the toilet (room), bathroom, restroom, washroom, or lavatory, is an opportunity for reflection and introspection, or to seek refuge, peace and quiet. Indeed, British men allegedly spend seven hours per year in the toilet hiding from their wives and children (according to “research” commissioned by a bathroom furniture company). But the loo – or bog, can, head, john, or latrine – can also be a place of amusement and learning.

A flamingo on duty to check your hand-washing technique in Bologna, Italy.

Unfortunately this educative and lyrical message was removed from a dentistry practice in Perth, UK:

A health warning in Scots, which is a language, a dialect or bad English, depending on who you ask (and their political views). The UK government and the European Union recognise Scots as a minority language, but many linguists place it somewhere on a dialect continuum. To the chagrin of nationalists, Scottish heavyweights Adam Smith and David Hume considered the use of Scots as an indication of poor education.

An emergency cord is great, but what if you want to order a pizza or dry your hair while bombing the bowl? (Hotel in Padua, Italy):

My travelling companion was displeased with the facilities in a Padua cafe. Squat toilets are terrible for the elderly or disabled, but they have a great advantage: you don’t need to touch anything. You learn to appreciate them when you hear the call of nature in the back of beyond. They are also better for your health, supposedly:

A latrine in the Housesteads Roman Fort, Britain, on the northernmost edge of the Roman Empire. Year 200 AC:

Marcus: Salve, Quintus.
Quintus: Ave, Marcus. Are you well? You look a bit green around the gills.
Marcus: Tell me about it. I think that batch of garum from Rome was off.
Quintus: I hear you.
Cornelius: I hear you too, Marcus. Loud and clear! Ha-ha! Say, chaps, wouldn’t you have a spare sponge on you?

A tersorium (a sea sponge on a stick) supposedly used by the Romans to wipe themselves after using the latrine. The sponge may have been washed in a gutter with running water, or in a bucket of water, salt and vinegar. But not everyone agrees with this popular tale (kids love it). According to Gilbert Wiplinger (Austrian Archaeological Institute), the tersorium may have been nothing more than a toilet brush. Read his gripping account in the Proceedings of the International Frontinus-Symposium on the Technical and Cultural History of Ancient Baths, Aachen, Germany, 2009.

Sign in a loo in an antechamber of Perth’s Sheriff Court House. One must be at rock bottom to shoot up before facing a sheriff (a Scottish judge with powers to fine or lock you up for up to five years). For the last seven years, Scotland has maintained the unenviable first place in Europe for drug-related deaths; drugs in Scotland have a death rate almost four times the rate in the UK as a whole. These figures – together with failing education, economy and health indicators – are secondary for people in power. The one-track-mind Scottish National Party cares for little else besides breaking up the union:

Epiphany inside a loo in Perth, UK:

The facilities in the family home (today a museum) of Brazilian painter Cândido Portinari (1903-1962) in the town of Brodowski, São Paulo State, illustrate a time when homes were not cluttered with stuff and had plenty of space to spare:

Collector, philanthropist and extremely rich Ema Klabin (1907–1994) needed the loo to store some of her many priceless pieces of art. Her house in São Paulo is a museum (Fundação Cultural Ema Gordon Klabin) well worth visiting. Entrance is free:

A replica of a once common warning to men in public urinals, hotels and railroad stations in the UK. Not doing-up all the buttons of your trousers (no zippers then) was a grave indiscretion:

That’s not nice. At all:

Able young non-pregnant adults can use the loo in the petrol station across the road:

In a cafe in the Brazilian coastal city of Ubatuba, you are not allowed to flush yourself. Presumably to prevent polluting the sea:

“Use the toilet as you have committed a crime: don’t leave clues behind” (loo in a São Paulo bookshop):

The sterile and expensive Denver International Airport

November 6, 2022 • 1:30 pm

You know what really bothers me?

I have to cool my heels at DIA for several hours before catching a flight back to Chicago, and I swear that I’ve never seen a more sterile airport in my life.  There are long, soul-less corridors of gates, with nary a nom to be found unless you take a long hike towards Baggage Claim. The place may be efficient, but it provides little comfort.

Here are two panoramas of the corridor (click to enlarge):

Can you name a more sterile airport?

Well, at least the restrooms are clean. But the restaurant is also victim of another pet peeve: overpriced food. After you hike a mile to find something to eat, what’s on offer is grossly overpriced food.

Now all airports (like ballparks and movie theaters) have overpriced food, but it’s gotten worse since the pandemic.  One could explain this with reference to the captive audience: there’s not much competition, and if you remember what happens when demand is high and supply is low, well, that’s what you see.

In the San Francisco Airport I wanted a bagel with a schmear, and it was around five bucks. Here I had a chicken salad sandwich, and had to part with $12, not including tax. Now I have to admit the sandwich was good (photo below), but really—twelve bucks?  Do airport food places make a deal with the airport to charge astronomical prices, or do they kick back a lot of their profit to the place?

Well, if you Google “why is airport food so expensive?”, you get a ton of answers. This site gives six, and I was partly right:

  1. Airport rent and regulations, which include extra fees besides rent.
  2. COMMISSIONS TO THE AIRPORT. These can be as high as 10%
  3. Delivery fees of foodstuffs to airports are higher than delivery to normal outlets. For example, delivery people have to go through security
  4. Limited storage space, so you have to rent more space.
  5. Delivery people have to pass extra background checks.
  6. Airports are out of the way and that makes it harder to retain employees, ergo they have to pay them more.

Their solution is twofold. First, avoid beverages in airports, which have an even higher profit margin. But the best solution is to bring in your own food (but not drinks, which aren’t allowed to go through TSA!). That was not an option for me.

But the chicken sandwich was good, and on my Southwest flight I got a free can of cranberry juice (actually, a mixture of cranberry, apple, and grape juice, with the first ingredient being water and the second HIGH FRUCTOSE CORN SYRUP. The damn can had two ounces (ca. 60 grams) of sugar in it!)



I have landed (in Palo Alto)

November 3, 2022 • 3:15 pm

Strange to say, this is the first time I’ve ever been to Palo Alto, and tomorrow will be the first time I’m visiting Stanford University. The arrival was swift from Davis: a shuttle to the SF airport, and then an Uber to the spiffy hotel where they put me up in Palo Alto.  Now I’m writing a brief post. before setting out for noms.

Here are few photos from the past few days, but not of terrific interest.

First, two plants in Davis I saw on a walk. The captions are guesses by Phil Ward, but if I had the app called “Seek, I could have pointed it at the plant and got a pretty accurate ID. You should download that free app, which is remarkably accurate at telling you what a plant is by pointing the camera at it. (It even does animals: I pointed it at myself and it said Homo sapiens.) I didn’t get it until after I took the next two photos. Readers can help with the identification. Seek also gives you information about what you point the camera at. All you do is hit the green camera once in the app, and after that just point your camera at whatever you fancy.

Phil’s caption: The first one looks to me like Lantana (in the Verbenaceae).

Phil’s caption: Not sure about the second. Maybe ornamental asparagus (Asparagus setaceus).

Here’s a video about the Seek app, a product of iNaturalist that continually updates its photos using AI.

Clouds in Davis:

One night we ate at a dorm near campus, a place called Latitude. Boy, have dining halls changed since I was in college! At William and Mary we got one plate of glop and a side (with Jello or pudding for dessert), and there were no seconds,

Now, at Davis, they have different ethnic foods each night, a huge selection, and it’s all you can eat (and drink). Today’s menu is here, but they only show about half of what they actually have on tap. It’s only $13 for a visitor—cheaper if you’re a UC Davis professor. Talk about the “freshman 15”: here it would be the “freshman 30.” (This refers to weight gain in first-year college students.)

It was Korean, Brazilian, and Middle Eastern Night on Tuesday. Here’s my dinner.

First course: a bowl of cold garlic shrimp, Korean short ribs with (overcooked) broccoli, cucumber salad and rice, and a baklava that I snatched because the desserts turn over during the evening:

Second course: a sort of Brazilian feijoada, with beans, pork with green chile, rice, guacamole, and sour cream. On the side are dried pork cracklings (chicharrones). I washed this all down with an agave vanilla cream soda (the drinks are good, too!)

As I suspected, the baklava disappeared quickly, so later I got a second dessert: a cream puff:

This morning it was 1.5 hours from Davis to the San Francisco airport, where it was dead easy to get an Uber to Palo Alto. Here’s Alcatraz Island with its famous prison on the way (now closed as a prison, but you can take Park Service tours and see Al Capone’s cell):

And a panorama of my hotel room. You can see me in the mirror to the left.

Tomorrow: the Academic Freedom Conference begins. I will of. course report on it.

A hike in the Sierra foothills

October 31, 2022 • 12:30 pm

Yesterday my friend Phil and I took a long hike (though it was only 3.4 miles long, it was a tortuous path with ups and downs) in the Sierra Nevada foothills: we took the Western States Trail near Auburn, which connects with other trails going all the way east to Lake Tahoe.

There are several viewpoints looking down to the North Fork of the American River, below. About fifty years ago they proposed to build the Auburn Dam here, which would have filled this beautiful valley with water. But the project ran out of money, and work on the dam was suspended.  I am glad. Think of all the animals and plants that would be killed by this flooding! But some day they may finish the dam.

We found a vine of wild grapes (Vitis vinifera, the ancestor of Concord grapes) and decided to mash them up to see if black flies (D. persimilis or D. pseudoobscura, species I worked on) could be caught. Their ecology, including what adults and larvae feed on, is virtually unknown, and I spent a long time during my postdoc trying to find out, No success. Here we have a native, wild-grown berry that might attract flies, so we put a grape moosh in a vial and left it during our hike.

Phil placing the grape mash in a cool area at the base of a tree. Sadly, when we returned there were no flies, or other insects, on the mash. It’s curious that two of the most genetically well-studied species of Drosophila (by Dobzhansky, my academic grandfather) have an ecology that’s a mystery. This is also true of D. melanogaster, the genetically best-studied species of fruit fly, but where it lives in Africa—if it’s still extant in the wild—is unknown.

A humongous cone of gray pine (Pinus sabiniana), a California endemic. Each bract hides a tasty seed (“pine nuts”), which the squirrels work hard to obtain:

An extracted pine nut, itself covered with a hard shell.

Christmas berry or toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia), a perennial shrub native to the west coast of North America.

Below is one of the two great finds we made on our hike, though it’s not rare: it’s a cynipid wasp gall on the stem of an interior live oak (Quercus wislizenii). Galls are structures that are “made” by larval insects whose mothers laid eggs on either stems or leaves of plants.

In this case the mother was the live oak apple gall wasp (Callirhytis quercuspomiformis). This species of tree, like others, can be parasitized in this way by several species of wasps, but each species makes only one type of gall. In this case a yellow, golf-ball-sized gall also has prickles to protect it against predators.

Below: clearly, two wasp eggs were laid, and the larvae somehow form this gall (as all galls are formed) by hijacking the plant’s developmental system to form a large, hard tumor that protects the larvae until they pupate and hatch. The adults then chew themselves out of the gall.

This is an amazing evolutionary phenomenon, for a gall can be regarded as an “extended phenotype” of the wasp (or whatever insect makes it), which has evolved to make the plant build a house for the larvae. Even the spines on the gall, which protect it against predators, are somehow coded in the wasp’s DNA: wasp genes that somehow make the plant’s own genes produce spikes. I’m not an expert on galls, but I think we have no idea how the insect manipulates the genome of the plant to make such a structure.

Galls are one of the marvels of natural selection, and something that Phil and I discussed in detail on our hike. It’s a great mystery, too, and would be a fascinating–though formidable–problem for scientists and Ph.D. students to work on. How do the parasite’s genes hijack the plant’s genes to mold such amazing structures?

Here is a different gall (the thickened part of the stem) made by a different wasp, but on the same species of oak–the interior live oak. The shape of the gall is diagnostic of the insect species that produced it. Galls can appear on both stems and on leaves.

This was our second great find. I saw a woodpecker flying by, and it settled in a nearby tree. It turned out that this was an acorn woodpecker (Melanerpes formicivorus), and it had several mates on a dead oak branch. You may know of this woodpecker, as it’s famous for its “granaries”: trees or branches in which it drills holes to store acorns over the winter.  They are also cooperative breeders. Here are three on a dead oak branch; you can see the holes for storing acorns:

Wikipedia‘s description of this storage system:

Acorns are stored in small holes drilled especially for this purpose in “granaries” or “storage trees”–usually snags, dead branches, utility poles, or wooden buildings. Storage holes–always in dead tissue such as bark or dead limbs–are used year after year, and granaries can consist of thousands of holes, each of which may be filled by an acorn in the autumn. Access to acorn crops influences the composition of acorn woodpecker communities. In one study in New Mexico, there were about 90% of non-breeding adults per social unit in 1976, a year of a poor acorn crop. The following year, 1977, there was a significant increase in acorn production and a correlating decrease in non-breeding adults per unit.

Although acorns are an important back-up food resource, acorn woodpeckers primarily feed on insects, sap, and fruit. They can be seen sallying from tree limbs to catch insects, eating fruit and seeds, and drilling holes to drink sap.

The woodpeckers then collect acorns and find a hole that is just the right size for the acorn. As acorns dry out, they are moved to smaller holes and granary maintenance requires a significant amount of the bird’s time. The acorns are visible, and a group defends its granary against potential cache robbers like Steller’s jays and western scrub-jays.

It’s interesting that they find acorns to fit the holes, and move the acorns as they shrink.  Look at all the holes in this tree!

Here you see some of the holes filled with acorns:

After the hike, when it had become hot, there was nothing else to do but find a brewski in the lovely small town of Auburn. I didn’t want an overhopped IPA at the local brewpub, but went for a refreshing cherry-flavored gose beer, a variant of Belgian fruit beers.

A fitting end to our hike:

In which I go to In-N-Out Burger

October 30, 2022 • 11:50 am

Yesterday I discovered that Davis has an In-N-Out Burger, a chain highly extolled by food experts like Anthony Bourdain and Gordon Ramsey (see below). It’s not found anywhere outside of California, Nevada, Arizona, Utah, Texas and Oregon, so I haven’t had one in many a moon.

After this discovery there was nothing else for me but to take my host to this joint for a late lunchl. There were two of us and this our visit.

First, the location, right off the freeway (I-80). It’s a pleasant sunny spot, and the restaurant is bright and spotless. If you’re driving from San Francisco east, hop off at the Davis exit and get yourself a burger.

Click photos to enlarge them. The exterior:

A pano of the inside.

The menu below looks limited, but there’s a whole slew of stuff not on it—the so-called “secret menu” (see it here). You can get root beer floats, grilled cheese sandwiches, get your fries or burgers “animal style”, and have that burger prepared a gazillion ways.

Below: our order. My friend Phil’s is on the right side: a hamburger served animal style and fries cooked animal style (fries prepared this way on the secret menu).

Mine on the left: the famous “double-double”, animal style, medium well (they don’t do medium rare) with lettuce, tomato, and grilled onion, and regular fries. Phil had lemonade on the side, and I had a root beer float (from the secret menu).

A double-double, animal style. As Bourdain argues below, this is a work of culinary art. Look at that thing: veggies on the bottom, where they should be, and fresh (the potatoes are also cut from fresh spuds and fried on site), two patties of proper size with American cheese, and a schmear of “animal sauce” (sort of like Russian dressing) on the bottom. The regular animal style burger has raw onion, but I like mine grilled.

My first bite: a cheeseburger in paradise!

And my root beer float, half root beer, half soft-serve ice cream. It was a better accompaniment than a milk shake (they do those, too), as it was lighter: a hybrid between a milkshake and a soft drink.

It was a great meal. Price for two people: $19.

The experts weigh in:

I put this short video up the other day; it’s Anthony Bourdain extolling the virtues of In-N-Out burgers (he’s eating a double-double, animal style). Note his claim that this is his favorite restaurant in Los Angeles.

And here’s Gordon Ramsay, who names this the chain as purveyors of favorite fast food, and also praises the double-double, animal style.