Musings of a roaming nature nerd

Archive for July, 2012

The Nasties: Poison Oak & Stinging Nettle

The last month of field work has just begun, which means the start of vegetation surveying and the start of a whole new slew of nasty field encounters. Plants do not always get top billing in my blog entries, but today two plants have made the grade: Poison Oak and Stinging Nettle.

Poison Oak

Poison oak it isn’t all bad for nature’s non-human critters. It produces berries, which are eaten by a number of different birds including the Wrentit, found throughout our area of California. And its dense viney growth adds a thick layer to the understory in which some birds may nest and small mammals may find protection from predators. However, having had two mild cases of poison oak so far this season I can attest that the bubbled, blistered rash produced by its oil is at best uncomfortable. And at worst, the oil (known as urushiol) from the leaves, stems and berries of this plant cause severe itching rashes, swelling and may even need steroid treatment to get it under control.

Urushiol (which is the same oil found in poison ivy) actually changes the make up of the skin cells it comes in contact with. The body’s immune system then reacts as if these altered cells are a disease and attacks. The itchy rash we get is from the body attacking itself! Over time our bodies become really effective at fighting off this perceived threat and as a result our reactions to the oil only get worse. Washing exposed skin within a couple hours of contact can prevent the rash from developing, but since even a tiny, trace amount of oil is incredibly potent it is difficult to fully detox. And since the effects of contacting the oil may not be felt for several days one’s anxiety has extra time to build, wondering if the tell-tale rash will appear! Getting it on your clothes or boots or backpack is just as problematic. The oils can stay viable for years and the next time you put on your pack or lace up your boots, you might be spreading the oil onto your hands and elsewhere. Yikes!

A 1-2m high barrier of Stinging Nettle

Stinging nettle is another story. There is no waiting to see if symptoms emerge. Brushing against this plant produces an instantly painful sting! The stems are covered in needle-like hairs which when touched, inject a mix of chemicals into its unfortunate victim… often yours truly! Reactions tingle and itch and go numb for anywhere from a few minutes up to 24 hours. I tend to fall into that 24 hour end of things of course, and have to say that it is a strange sensation to have both numb and stinging appendages for that length of time. On the flip side, bees and butterflies love to feed from the flowers, and through trial and error people have found that young nettle shoots can actually be tasty. Cooking young shoots removes the stinging chemicals and the plant can be enjoyed in soups, salads, teas and other dishes. It is even said to improve inflammation problems such as arthritis. Certainly this plant is not without benefits, but a too-close encounter with stinging nettle can definitely ruin your day.

Despite the intense sting, I’ll take nettle over oak any time since the lasting effects are much shorter. And although lacking in the same “icky” factor that ticks possess, both poison oak and stinging nettle are a significant enough bane in the field to warrant making the nasty list!

I'll think I'll be looking for an alternate route around this wall of oak!


The Nasties: Ticks

My roommate and I have been talking lately about how any time a friend or colleague moves to a new location (Alaska, Belize, the Florida Keys) you typically see photos and hear stories of the amazing things they are doing. The grizzly that walked through camp. The glorious sunset that colored the mountains purple and red. Whether on facebook, over email or in an old fashioned letter, these are the kinds of things we all share with each other. After all, who wants to see pictures and hear stories of the swarming mosquitoes, the invisible and impossible-to-remove thorns in our socks, the endless exhaustion and filth and bruises? But it’s almost too easy to share only the fun, amazing and beautiful things. Every job, every lifestyle, even the best ones, have a challenging side and that can make things interesting too…

So over the next few blog entries I plan to pay homage to the less enjoyable things.

Lets start with ticks.



I’m from the east. I know about ticks. While backpacking in Kentucky one time, a tick fell out of tree above me and into my cup of tea. After a day in the woods of New Hampshire (and after showering!) I found 9 nymphs embedded in my stomach. Oh, I know about ticks! But I was not quite prepared for California ticks. There are 47 different species of tick in California and 4 in San Diego county which like to latch on to humans. And while some of the tick borne diseases like Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain Fever are less common here, not a single day goes by without a tick. I had to excuse myself from line at the post office after work, because I could feel one crawling up under my sports bra. Jason put his hand in his pocket the other day to discover a dozen ticks that had fallen in and couldn’t get back out. We find them crawling out of our clean laundry and sitting on the seat of the work trucks, waiting for us in the morning. We flush them down the toilet and they crawl right back out like little scuba divers resurfacing from a strange adventure. And while it disgusts me, it has made me start to think… man, ticks are really something!

There are two categories of tick in North America: Soft Ticks and Hard Ticks. The ones typically found on people are hard ticks (the little flat ones). Most hard ticks go through 3 or 4 life stages. Once hatched from its egg the six-legged larva seeks out its first meal of blood, usually on a bird or rodent. Once it feeds it molts into an eight-legged nymph, which also seeks a blood meal. After this meal it molts into an adult and will then die after its third feeding. An adult female will feed and then lay between 2-3000 eggs before completing her life cycle and dying. Many of the hard ticks live for over 3 years and can go months without feeding (soft ticks can go YEARS without feeding). They remain somewhat dormant until the right stimuli, such as carbon-dioxide (ie. breath), heat or movement, trigger their little senses and they lumber into action. Ticks are not fast moving and do not jump. They simply walk around, climbing vegetation and stretching out their tiny arms to grasp passersby in an act called “questing.” They are even known to recognize frequently utilized trails through grass or brush used by deer or fox or humans, and quest near those. Very little preys on ticks, although it is thought that possibly some herptofauna and a few birds such as grouse or turkeys eat them occasionally. They are very resilient and are very difficult to detect when they are on you, let alone when they are hiding in the grass. Considering that I spend most of my days bushwhacking through thick vegetation or trying to follow animal trails, my abundance of ticks is pretty easily explained. I just wish there was some way to avoid it!

I know for many of you reading, the very idea of this is at best repulsive. We live in a modern era where we can be as germ and bug free as we like. Not so many generations ago this would not have been the case. No one liked it, but they had no choice but to deal frequently with parasites like ticks. Although I can not wait for a tick free day at the end of the season, I’ve learned that I can deal with it too. And even though these are mean little blood sucking bastards, they still have an interesting existence. Hell, just the fact that they get around by “questing” is something I can relate to! My whole life feels like a quest or a journey- waiting to see what opportunity looks good next! In any case I love what I do too much to let a few creepy crawlies overshadow the positives. But yes, ticks do win the first slot in the nasty category!


A day at home in southern California: The 4400 acre Santa Margarita Ecological Reserve



Sitting quietly between the hills, fog waits. A young mockingbird determinedly chatters into the darkness. In response coyotes take up the call with howls and laughs… and so the morning chorus begins. Without a stage, without a spotlight, engulfed in darkness, yet with perfect timing, the world sings. Desert Cottontails dance out of the sage, into the fields, back to the sage, erratically showcasing their agility and ability to survive. As a gentle breeze swirls through the groves light appears in the east. At the sun’s command the curtain of fog slowly lifts and the earth awakens.



The hills themselves are revived under the golden glow slowly creeping down their boulder strewn slopes. Their tangle of vegetation brightens and deepens its green hues as the light shifts. Datura’s hallucinogenic and deadly blooms fade, while bright red and yellow monkey flowers open, inviting hummingbirds to feast and pollinate. Darkling beetles begin to trundle across dirt paths seeking meals of fresh decay. True to their name, fence lizards scurry up walls and fences vying for prime sunning spots. Up in the steep-sided gorge, full of rushing water and clear pools, crayfish savor the sun’s distorted reflections off the water as they hide in broad daylight from Great Blue Herons. As if delighted by the new day, life abounds in a fever of activity.






The air remains cool but the sun burns hot. Ground squirrels with mouthfuls of orange and avocado scamper from groves to burrows with their tasty treasures. Rattlesnakes bask and wait for careless squirrels. Although many local squirrels gain immunity to venom as youngsters, an unlucky baby could satiate a rattler for weeks. Red-tailed Hawks circle with vultures on thermals. Looking for a meal or just enjoying the view? Their calm demeanor seems to indicate the latter. Under increasing heat, all but the whine and rattle of grasshoppers subsides and the reserve quietly passes the day.



Baby Red-tailed Hawks



Light creeps back up the boulder laden slopes and shadows slink forth. The glow of a purple sunset escorts Black-crowned Night Herons through the canyon to their roost. A muted chorus of ravens, frogs, chirping squirrels, briefly crescendos and then gives way as Great-horned and Barn Owls announce the return of the dark and damp. Their throaty calls and shrieks are the only sounds as darkness becomes complete. Newly revealed moon and stars soon disappear behind the flowing marine layer. Again fog fills the canyons and blankets the hills. Then, sitting quietly, it waits for the encore at dawn.