Shallow Thoughts : : nature

Akkana's Musings on Open Source Computing and Technology, Science, and Nature.

Sun, 21 Oct 2018

How to tell sparrows apart

[Sparrow ID page] I was filing an eBird report the other day, dutifully cataloging the first junco of the year and the various other birds that have been hanging around, when a sparrow flew into my binocular field. A chipping sparrow? Probably ... but this one wasn't so clearly marked.

I always have trouble telling the dang sparrows apart. When I open the bird book, I always have to page through dozens of pages of sparrows that are never seen in this county, trying to figure out which one looks most like what I'm seeing.

I used to do that with juncos, but then I made a local copy of a wonderful comparison photo Bob Walker published a couple years ago on the PEEC blog: Bird of the Week – The Dark-eyed Junco. (I also have the same sort of crib sheet for the Raspberry Pi GPIO pins.) Obviously I needed a similar crib sheet for sparrows.

So I collected the best publically-licensed images I could find on the web, and made Sparrows of Los Alamos County, with comparison images close together so I can check them quickly before the bird flies away.

If you live somewhere else so the Los Alamos County list isn't quite what you need, you're welcome to use the code to make your own version.

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[ 19:18 Oct 21, 2018    More nature | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Wed, 08 Aug 2018

August Hailstorm

We're still not getting the regular thunderstorms one would normally expect in the New Mexico monsoon season, but at least we're getting a little relief from the drought.

Last Saturday we had a fairly impressive afternoon squall. It only lasted about ten minutes but it dumped over an inch of rain and hail in that time. ("Over an inch" means our irritating new weather station stopped recording at exactly 1.0 even though we got some more rain after that, making us suspect that it has some kind of built-in "that can't be right!" filter. It reads in hundredths of an inch and it's hard to believe that we didn't even get another .01 after that.)

{Pile of hailstones on our deck} It was typical New Mexico hail -- lentil-sized, not like the baseballs we heard about in Colorado Springs a few days later that killed some zoo animals. I hear this area does occasionally get big hailstones, but it's fortunately rare.

There was enough hail on the ground to make for wintry snow scenes, and we found an enormous pile of hailstones on our back deck that persisted through the next day (that deck is always shady). Of course, the hail out in the yard disappeared in under half an hour once the New Mexico sun came out.

{Pile of hailstones on our deck} But before that, as soon as the squall ended, we went out to walk the property and take a look the "snow" and in particular at "La Cienega" or "the swamp", our fanciful name for an area down at the bottom of the hill where water collects and there's a little willow grove. There was indeed water there -- covered with a layer of floating hail -- but on the way down we also had a new "creek" with several tributaries, areas where the torrent carved out little streambeds.

It's fun to have our own creek ... even if it's only for part of a day.

More photos: August hailstorm.

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[ 19:28 Aug 08, 2018    More nature | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Mon, 23 Jul 2018

Rain Song

We've been in the depths of a desperate drought. Last year's monsoon season never happened, and then the winter snow season didn't happen either.

Dave and I aren't believers in tropical garden foliage that requires a lot of water; but even piñons and junipers and other native plants need some water. You know it's bad when you find yourself carrying a watering can down to the cholla and prickly pear to keep them alive.

This year, the Forest Service closed all the trails for about a month -- too much risk of one careless cigarette-smoking hiker, or at least I think that was the reason (they never really explained it) -- and most the other trail agencies followed suit. But then in early July, the forecasts started predicting the monsoon at last. We got some cloudy afternoons, some humid days (what qualifies as humid in New Mexico, anyway -- sometimes all the way up to 40%), and the various agencies opened their trails again. Which came as a surprise, because those clouds and muggy days didn't actually include any significant rain. Apparently mere air humidity is enough to mitigate a lot of the fire risk?

Tonight the skies finally let loose. When the thunder and lightning started in earnest, a little after dinner, Dave and I went out to the patio to soak in the suddenly cool and electric air and some spectacular lightning bolts while watching the hummingbirds squabble over territory. We could see rain to the southwest, toward Albuquerque, and more rain to the east, toward the Sangres, but nothing where we were.

Then a sound began -- a distant humming/roaring, like the tires of a big truck passing on the road. "Are we hearing rain approaching?" we both asked at the same time. Since moving to New Mexico we're familiar with being able to see rain a long way away; and of course everyone has heard rain as it falls around them, either as a light pitter-patter or the louder sound from a real storm; but we'd never been able to hear the movement of a rainstorm as it gradually moved toward us.

Sure enough, the sound got louder and louder, almost unbearably loud -- and then suddenly we were inundated with giant-sized drops, blowing way in past the patio roof to where we were sitting.

I've heard of rain dances, and songs sung to bring the rain, but I didn't know it could sing back.

We ran for the door, not soon enough. But that was okay; we didn't mind getting drenched. After a drought this long, water from the sky is cause only for celebration.

The squall dumped over a third of an inch in only a few minutes. (This according to our shiny new weather station with a sensitive tipping-bucket rain gauge that measures in hundredths of an inch.) Then it eased up to a light drizzle for a while, the lightning moved farther away, and we decided it was safe to run down the trail to "La Cienega" (Spanish for swamp) at the bottom of the property and see if any water had accumulated. Sure enough! Lake La Senda (our humorous moniker for a couple of little puddles that sometimes persist as long as a couple of days) was several inches deep. Across the road, we could hear a canyon tree frog starting to sing his ratchety song -- almost more welcome than the sound of the rain itself.

As I type this, we're reading a touch over half an inch and we're down to a light drizzle. The thunder has receded but there's still plenty of lightning.

More rain! Keep it coming!

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[ 20:38 Jul 23, 2018    More nature | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Mon, 07 May 2018

A Hissy Fit

As I came home from the market and prepared to turn into the driveway I had to stop for an obstacle: a bullsnake who had stretched himself across the road.

[pugnacious bullsnake]

I pulled off, got out of the car and ran back. A pickup truck was coming around the bend and I was afraid he would run over the snake, but he stopped and rolled down the window to help. White Rock people are like that, even the ones in pickup trucks.

The snake was pugnacious, not your usual mellow bullsnake. He coiled up and started hissing madly. The truck driver said "Aw, c'mon, you're not fooling anybody. We know you're not a rattlesnake," but the snake wasn't listening. (I guess that's understandable, since they have no ears.)

I tried to loom in front of him and stamp on the ground to herd him off the road, but he wasn't having any of it. He just kept coiling and hissing, and struck at me when I got a little closer.

I moved my hand slowly around behind his head and gently took hold of his neck -- like what you see people do with rattlesnakes, though I'd never try that with a venomous snake without a lot of practice and training. With a bullsnake, even if they bite you it's not a big deal. When I was a teenager I had a pet gopher snake (a fringe benefit of having a mother who worked on wildlife documentaries), and though "Goph" was quite tame, he once accidentally bit me when I was replacing his water dish after feeding him and he mistook my hand for a mouse. (He seemed acutely embarrassed, if such an emotion can be attributed to a reptile; he let go immediately and retreated to sulk in the far corner of his aquarium.) Anyway, it didn't hurt; their teeth are tiny and incredibly sharp, and it feels like the pinprick from a finger blood test at the doctor's office.

Anyway, the bullsnake today didn't bite. But after I moved him off the road to a nice warm basalt rock in the yard, he stayed agitated, hissing loudly, coiling and beating his tail to mimic a rattlesnake. He didn't look like he was going to run and hide any time soon, so I ran inside to grab a camera.

In the photos, I thought it was interesting how he held his mouth when he hisses. Dave thought it looked like W.C. Fields. I hadn't had a chance to see that up close before: my pet snake never had occasion to hiss, and I haven't often seen wild bullsnakes be so pugnacious either -- certainly not for long enough that I've been able to photograph it. You can also see how he puffs up his neck.

I now have a new appreciation of the term "hissy fit".

[pugnacious bullsnake]

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[ 15:06 May 07, 2018    More nature | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Thu, 05 Oct 2017

Tarantula Under Glass, and Micro-Centipedes

Every fall, Dave and I eagerly look for tarantulas. They only show up for a few weeks a year -- that's when the males go out searching for females (the females stay snug in their burrows). In the bay area, there were a few parks where we used to hunt for them: Arastradero, Mt Hamilton, occasionally even Alum Rock. Here in semi-rural New Mexico, our back yard is as good a place to hunt as anywhere else, though we still don't see many: just a couple of them a year.

But this year I didn't even have to go out into the yard. I just looked over from my computer and spotted a tarantula climbing up our glass patio door. I didn't know they could do that!

Unfortunately it got to the top before I had the camera ready, so I didn't get a picture of tarantula belly. Right now he's resting on the sill: [Tarantula, resting after climbing up our glass patio door] I don't think it's very likely he's going to find any females up there. I'm hoping he climbs back down the same way and I can catch a photo then. (Later: nope, he disappeared when I wasn't watching.)

In other invertebrate news: we have a sporadic problem with centipedes here in White Rock. Last week, a seven-inch one dropped from the ceiling onto the kitchen floor while I was making cookies, and it took me a few minutes to chase it down so I could toss it outside.

[Tiny baby centipede] But then a few days later, Dave spotted a couple of these little guys on the patio, and I have to admit they're pretty amazing. Just like the adults only in micro-miniature.

Though it doesn't make me like them any better in the house.

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[ 18:47 Oct 05, 2017    More nature | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Sun, 23 Jul 2017

Nambé Lake Grey Jays

[Nambe Lake]

This week's hike was to Nambé Lake, high in the Sangre de Cristos above Santa Fe.

It's a gorgeous spot, a clear, shallow mountain lake surrounded by steep rocky slopes up to Lake Peak and Santa Fe Baldy. I assume it's a glacial cirque, though I can't seem to find any confirmation of that online.

[Grey jay taking bread from my hand.] There's a raucous local population of grey jays, fearless and curious. One of my hiking companions suggested they'd take food from my hand if I offered. I broke off a bit of my sandwich and offered it, and sure enough, a jay flew right over. Eventually we had three or four of them hanging around our lunch spot.

The rocky slopes are home to pikas, but they're shy and seldom seen. We did see a couple of marmots in the rocks, and I caught a brief glimpse of a small, squirrel-sized head that looked more grey than brown like I'd expect from a rock squirrel. Was it a pika? I'll never know.

We also saw some great flowers. Photos: Nambé Lake Grey Jays.

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[ 09:55 Jul 23, 2017    More nature | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Fri, 16 Jun 2017

Flycatchers Fledging, and The Buck Stops Here

We've had a pair of ash-throated flycatchers in the nest box I set up in the yard. I've been watching them bring bugs to the nest for a couple of weeks now, but this morning they've been acting unusual: fluttering around the corner of the house near my office window, calling to each other, not spending nearly as much time near the nest. I suspect one or more of the chicks may have fledged this morning, though I have yet to see more than two flycatchers at once. They still return to the nest box occasionally (one of them just delivered a big grasshopper), so not all the chicks have fledged yet. Maybe if I'm lucky I'll get to see one fledge.

I hope they're not too affected by the smoky air. We have two fires filling the air with smoke: the Bonita Fire, 50 miles north, and as of yesterday a new fire in Jemez Springs, only about half that distance. Yesterday my eyes were burning, my allergies were flaring up, and the sky was worse than the worst days in Los Angeles in the 70s. But it looks like the firefighters have gotten a handle on both fires; today is still smoky, with a major haze down in the Pojoaque Valley and over toward Albuquerque, but the sky above is blue and the smoke plume from Jemez Springs is a lot smaller and less dark than it was yesterday. Fingers crossed!

[Buck in velvet, drinking at the pond] And just a few minutes ago, a buck with antlers in velvet wandered into our garden to take a drink at the pond. Such a nice change from San Jose!

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[ 10:40 Jun 16, 2017    More nature | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Wed, 31 May 2017

Tiger Salamander Larvae

[Tiger salamander with gills] [Tiger salamander with gills] I got a tip that there were tiger salamanders with gills swimming around below Los Alamos reservoir, so I had to go see for myself.

They're fabulous! Four to five inch salamanders with flattened tails and huge frilly gills behind their heads -- dozens of them, so many the pond is thick with them. Plenty of them are hanging out in the shallows or just below the surface of the water, obligingly posing for photos.

I had stupidly brought only the pocket camera, not the DSLR -- and then the camera's battery turned out to be low -- so I was sparing with camera, but even so I was pleased at how well they came out, with the camera mostly managing to focus on the salamanders rather than (as I had feared) the surface of the murky water. I may go back soon with the DSLR. It's an easy, pleasant hike.

Photos: Tiger Salamander larvae.

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[ 20:31 May 31, 2017    More nature | permalink to this entry | comments ]