Published: February 2006
Virginia Morell

What was your best experience in the field covering this story?

I have the good fortune of living in a corner of the California Floristic Province, southern Oregon. It's part of the Klamath-Siskiyou region, and the plants and insects here have put it on the hotspot map. Perhaps because they aren't big and charismatic, they're often overlooked and not well-studied.

Robbin Thorp, an emeritus professor at the University of California, Davis, and a specialist on bumblebees, introduced me to the rare Bombus franklini. This bumblebee has a range of only 10,000 square miles (25,900 square kilometers), and part of that includes the meadows of Mount Ashland. I joined Thorp there to search for the bee.

Spotting one, he dashed downhill with his net held aloft like a hooded predator. He made two swift swoops, and then shouted, "Got her!" He put her in a vial to show her off. She was a good inch long, black and yellow, with a fine white ring encircling her derriere. Thorp said I was one of a select few to ever see one alive; most entomologists know B. franklini only from museum collections. So little is known about this bee that scientists don't even know where they nest. That's what Thorp was searching for. And sadly, also for unknown reasons, the bees' numbers are dropping. But that bee drove home the main point about the Floristic Province's biodiversity: Small is indeed beautiful.

What was your worst experience in the field covering this story?

I went to the Hopper Mountain National Wildlife Refuge complex near Ventura, California, where I joined Bruce Palmer from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Condor Recovery Program. We stood on a ridge as dozens of free condors swept past us overhead. They were so close you could hear the wind in their feathers. Later we went to an overlook and trained our binoculars on a condor chick sitting on the edge of its nesting cave. It was barely visible, a lump of gray feathers huddled in the shadows. This was one of the first chicks hatched in the wild since the recovery program began in 1985, so it was heartening to catch a glimpse of it and to imagine it soaring free one day. But that didn't happen. Three months after my visit, the chick died.

What was your quirkiest experience in the field covering this story?

Many of the serpentine-adapted plants, those that can grow in nutrient-poor, metal-heavy soils, are rather weedy in appearance when they're not in flower. But in bloom they have the power to take your breath away.

Susan Harrison, an ecologist from UC Davis, took me on a tour of meadows in northern California where we walked among flowers of bright magenta, blue, and gold hues, a botanical tapestry. Later we climbed Mount Eddy, where she showed me another favorite, a Galium serpenticum that lay brittle among the rocks. It had miniscule leaves, tiny white flowers, and looked as if it needed a drink of water and shot of fertilizer to boost its spirits, if not its growth. "No, no. It's definitely a happy plant," Harrison assured me. "Look around. It has this spot to itself. No competitors. For a plant, what could be better than that?"