Shallow Thoughts : : nature

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

Tue, 08 Mar 2016

Juniper allergy season

It's spring, and that means it's the windy season in New Mexico -- and juniper allergy season.

When we were house-hunting here, talking to our realtor about things like local weather, she mentioned that spring tended to be windy and a lot of people got allergic. I shrugged it off -- oh, sure, people get allergic in spring in California too. Little did I know.

A month or two after we moved, I experienced the worst allergies of my life. (Just to be clear, by allergies I mean hay fever, sneezing, itchy eyes ... not anaphylaxis or anything life threatening, just misery and a morbid fear of ever opening a window no matter how nice the temperature outside might be.)

[Female (left) and male junipers in spring]
I was out checking the mail one morning, sneezing nonstop, when a couple of locals passed by on their morning walk. I introduced myself and we chatted a bit. They noticed my sneezing. "It's the junipers," they explained. "See how a lot of them are orange now? Those are the males, and that's the pollen."

I had read that juniper plants were either male or female, unlike most plants which have both male and female parts on every plant. I had never thought of junipers as something that could cause allergies -- they're a common ornamental plant in California, and also commonly encountered on trails throughout the southwest -- nor had I noticed the recent color change of half the junipers in our neighborhood.

But once it's pointed out, the color difference is striking. These two trees, growing right next to each other, are the same color most of the year, and it's hard to tell which is male and which is female. But in spring, suddenly one turns orange while the other remains its usual bright green. (The other season when it's easy to tell the difference is late fall, when the female will be covered with berries.)

Close up, the difference is even more striking. The male is dense with tiny orange pollen-laden cones.

[Female juniper closeup] [male juniper closeup showing pollen cones]

A few weeks after learning the source of my allergies, I happened to be looking out the window on a typically windy spring day when I saw an alarming sight -- it looked like the yard was on fire! There were dense clouds of smoke billowing up out of the trees. I grabbed binoculars and discovered that what looked like fire smoke was actually clouds of pollen blowing from a few junipers. Since then I've gotten used to seeing juniper "smoke" blowing through the canyons on windy spring days. Touching a juniper that's ready to go will produce similar clouds.

The good news is that there are treatments for juniper allergies. Flonase helps a lot, and a lot of people have told me that allergy shots are effective. My first spring here was a bit miserable, but I'm doing much better now, and can appreciate the fascinating biology of junipers and the amazing spectacle of the smoking junipers (not to mention the nice spring temperatures) without having to hide inside with the windows shut.

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[ 20:20 Mar 08, 2016    More nature | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Mon, 08 Feb 2016

Attack of the Killer Titmouse!

[Juniper titmouse attacking my window] For the last several days, when I go upstairs in mid-morning I often hear a strange sound coming from the bedroom. It's a juniper titmouse energetically attacking the east-facing window.

He calls, most often in threes, as he flutters around the windowsill, sometimes scratching or pecking the window. He'll attack the bottom for a while, moving from one side to the other, then fly up to the top of the window to attack the top corners, then back to the bottom.

For several days I've run down to grab the camera as soon as I saw him, but by the time I get back and get focused, he becomes camera-shy and flies away, and I hear EEE EEE EEE from a nearby tree instead. Later in the day I'll sometimes see him down at the office windows, though never as persistently as upstairs in the morning.

I've suspected he's attacking his reflection (and also assumed he's a "he"), partly because I see him at the east-facing bedroom window in the morning and at the south-facing office window in the early afternoon. But I'm not sure about it, and certainly I hear his call from trees scattered around the yard.

Something I was never sure of, but am now: titmice definitely can raise and lower their crests. I'd never seen one with its crest lowered, but this one flattens his crest while he's in attack mode.

His EEE EEE EEE call isn't very similar to any of the calls listed for juniper titmouse in the Stokes CD set or the Audubon Android app. So when he briefly attacked the window next to my computer yesterday afternoon while I was sitting there, I grabbed a camera and shot a video, hoping to capture the sound. The titmouse didn't exactly cooperate: he chirped a few times, not always in the group of three he uses so persistently in the morning, and the sound in the video came out terribly noisy; but after some processing in audacity I managed to edit out some of the noise. And then this morning as I was brushing my teeth, I heard him again and he was more obliging, giving me a long video of him attacking and yelling at the bedroom window. Here's the Juniper titmouse call as he attacks my window this morning, and yesterday's Juniper titmouse call at the office window yesterday. Today's video is on youtube: Titmouse attacking the window but that's without the sound edits, so it's tough to hear him.

(Incidentally, since Audacity has a super confusing user interface and I'm sure I'll need this again, what seemed to work best was to highlight sections that weren't titmouse and use Edit→Delete; then use Effects→Amplify, checking the box for Allow clipping and using Preview to amplify it to the point where the bird is audible. Then find a section that's just noise, no titmouse, select it, run Effects→Noise Reduction and click Get Noise Profile. The window goes away, so click somewhere to un-select, call up Effects→Noise Reduction again and this time click OK.)

I feel a bit sorry for the little titmouse, attacking windows so frenetically. Titmice are cute, excellent birds to have around, and I hope he's saving some energy for attracting a mate who will build a nest here this spring. Meanwhile, he's certainly providing entertainment for me.

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[ 11:10 Feb 08, 2016    More nature/birds | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Thu, 31 Dec 2015

Weather musing, and poor insulation

It's lovely and sunny today. I was just out on the patio working on some outdoor projects; I was wearing a sweatshirt, but no jacket or hat, and the temperature seemed perfect.

Then I came inside to write about our snowstorm of a few days ago, and looked up the weather. NOAA reports it's 23°F at Los Alamos airport, last reading half an hour ago. Our notoriously inaccurate (like every one we've tried) outdoor digital thermometer says it's 26°.

Weather is crazily different here. In California, we were shivering and miserable when the temperature dropped below 60°F. We've speculated a lot on why it's so different here. The biggest difference is probably that it's usually sunny here. In the bay area, if the temperature is below 60°F it's probably because it's overcast. Direct sun makes a huge difference, especially the sun up here at 6500-7500' elevation. (It feels plenty cold at 26°F in the shade.) The thin, dry air is probably another factor, or two other factors: it's not clear what's more important, thin, dry, or both.

We did a lot of weather research when we were choosing a place to move. We thought we'd have trouble with snowy winters, and would probably want to take vacations in winter to travel to warmer climes. Turns out we didn't know anything. When we were house-hunting, we went for a hike on a 17° day, and with our normal jackets and gloves we were fine. 26° is lovely here if you're in the sun, and the rare 90° summer day, so oppressive in the Bay Area, is still fairly pleasant if you can find some shade.

But back to that storm: a few days ago, we had a snowstorm combined with killer blustery winds. The wind direction was whipping around, coming from unexpected directions -- we never get north winds here -- and it taught us some things about the new house that we hadn't realized in the nearly two years we've lived here.

[Snow coming under the bedroom door] For example, the bedroom was cold. I mean really cold. The windows on the north wall were making all kinds of funny rattling noises -- turned out some of them had leaks around their frames. There's a door on the north wall, too, that leads out onto a deck, and the area around that was pretty cold too, though I thought a lot of that was leakage through the air conditioner (which had had a cover over it, but the cover had already blown away in the winds). We put some towels around the base of the door and windows.

Thank goodness for lots of blankets and down comforters -- I was warm enough overnight, except for cold hands while reading in bed. In the morning, we pulled the towel away from the door, and discovered a small snowdrift inside the bedroom.

We knew the way that door was hung was fairly hopeless -- we've been trying to arrange for a replacement, but in New Mexico everything happens mañana -- but snowdrifts inside the room are a little extreme.

We've added some extra weatherstripping for now, and with any luck we'll get a better-hung door before the next rare north-wind snowstorm. Meanwhile, I'm enjoying today's sunshine while watching the snow melt in the yard.

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[ 11:28 Dec 31, 2015    More nature | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Sun, 20 Dec 2015

Christmas Bird Count

Yesterday was the Los Alamos Christmas Bird Count.

[ Mountain chickadee ] No big deal, right? Most counties have a Christmas Bird Count, a specified day in late December when birders hit the trails and try to identify and count as many birds as they can find. It's coordinated by the Audubon Society, which collects the data so it can be used to track species decline, changes in range in response to global warming, and other scientific questions. The CBC has come a long way from when it split off from an older tradition, the Christmas "Side Hunt", where people would hit the trails and try to kill as many animals as they could.

But the CBC is a big deal in Los Alamos, because we haven't had one since 1953. It turns out that to run an official CBC, you have to be qualified by Audubon and jump through a lot of hoops proving that you can do it properly. Despite there being a very active birding community here, nobody had taken on the job of qualifying us until this year. There was a lot of enthusiasm for the project: I think there were 30 or 40 people participating despite the chilly, overcast weather.

The team I was on was scheduled to start at 7. But I had been on the practice count in March (running a practice count is one of the hoops Audubon makes you jump through), and after dragging myself out of bed at oh-dark-thirty and freezing my toes off slogging through the snow, I had learned that birds are mostly too sensible to come out that early in winter. I tried to remind the other people on the team of what the March morning had been like, but nobody was listening, so I said I'd be late, and I met them at 8. (Still early for me, but I woke up early that morning.)

[ Two very late-season sandhill cranes ] Sure enough, when I got there at 8, there was disappointment over how few birds there were. But actually that continued all day: the promised sun never came out, and I think the birds were hoping for warmer weather. We did see a good assortment of woodpeckers and nuthatches in a small area of Water Canyon, and later, a pair of very late-season sandhill cranes made a low flyover just above where we stood on Estante Way; but mostly, it was disappointing.

In the early afternoon, the team disbanded to go home and watch our respective feeders, except for a couple of people who drove down the highway in search of red-tailed hawks and to the White Rock gas station in search of rock pigeons. (I love it that I'm living in a place where birders have to go out of their way to find rock pigeons to count.)

I didn't actually contribute much on the walks. Most of the others were much more experienced, so mostly my role was to say "Wait, what's that noise?" or "Something flew from that tree to this one" or "Yep, sure enough, two more juncos." But there was one species I thought I could help with: scaled quail. We've been having a regular flock of scaled quail coming by the house this autumn, sometimes as many as 13 at a time, which is apparently unusual for this time of year. I had Dave at home watching for quail while I was out walking around.

When I went home for a lunch break, Dave reported no quail: there had been a coyote sniffing around the yard, scaring away all the birds, and then later there'd been a Cooper's hawk. He'd found the hawk while watching a rock squirrel that was eating birdseed along with the towhees and juncos: the squirrel suddenly sat up and stared intently at something, and Dave followed its gaze to see the hawk perched on the fence. The squirrel then resumed eating, having decided that a Cooper's hawk is too small to be much danger to a squirrel.

[ Scaled quail ] But what with all the predators, there had been no quail. We had lunch, keeping our eyes on the feeder area, when they showed up. Three of them, no, six, no, nine. I kept watch while Dave went over to another window to see if there were any more headed our way. And it turns out there was a whole separate flock, nine more, out in the yard. Eighteen quail in all, a record for us! We'd suspected that we had two different quail families visiting us, but when you're watching one spot with quail constantly running in and out, there's no way to know if it's the same birds or different ones. It needed two people watching different areas to get our high count ot 18. And a good thing: we were the only bird counters in the county who saw any quail, let alone eighteen. So I did get to make a contribution after all.

I carried a camera all day, but my longest regular lens (a 55-250 f/4-5.6) isn't enough when it comes to distant woodpeckers. So most of what I got was blurry, underexposed "record shots", except for the quail, cranes, and an obliging chickadee who wasn't afraid of a bunch of binocular-wielding anthropoids. Photos here: Los Alamos Christmas Bird Count, White Rock team, 2015.

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[ 14:21 Dec 20, 2015    More nature/birds | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Mon, 21 Sep 2015

The meaning of "fetid"; Albireo; and musings on variations in sensory perception

[Fetid marigold, which actually smells wonderfully minty] The street for a substantial radius around my mailbox has a wonderful, strong minty smell. The smell is coming from a clump of modest little yellow flowers.

They're apparently Dyssodia papposa, whose common name is "fetid marigold". It's in the sunflower family, Asteraceae, not related to Lamiaceae, the mints.

"Fetid", of course, means "Having an offensive smell; stinking". When I google for fetid marigold, I find quotes like "This plant is so abundant, and exhales an odor so unpleasant as to sicken the traveler over the western prairies of Illinois, in autumn." And nobody says it smells like mint -- at least, googling for the plant and "mint" or "minty" gets nothing.

But Dave and I both find the smell very minty and pleasant, and so do most of the other local people I queried. What's going on?

[Fetid goosefoot] Another local plant which turns strikingly red in autumn has an even worse name: fetid goosefoot. On a recent hike, several of us made a point of smelling it. Sure enough: everybody except one found it minty and pleasant. But one person on the hike said "Eeeeew!"

It's amazing how people's sensory perception can vary. Everybody knows how people's taste varies: some people perceive broccoli and cabbage as bitter while others love the taste. Some people can't taste lobster and crab at all and find Parmesan cheese unpleasant.

And then there's color vision. Every amateur astronomer who's worked public star parties knows about Albireo. Also known as beta Cygni, Albireo is a double star, the head of the constellation of the swan or the foot of the Northern Cross. In a telescope, it's a double star, and a special type of double: what's known as a "color double", two stars which are very different colors from each other.

Most non-astronomers probably don't think of stars having colors. Mostly, color isn't obvious when you're looking at things at night: you're using your rods, the cells in your retina that are sensitive to dim light, not your cones, which provide color vision but need a fair amount of light to work right.

But when you have two things right next to each other that are different colors, the contrast becomes more obvious. Sort of.

[Albireo, from Jefffisher10 on Wikimedia Commons] Point a telescope at Albireo at a public star party and ask the next ten people what two colors they see. You'll get at least six, more likely eight, different answers. I've heard blue and red, blue and gold, red and gold, red and white, pink and blue ... and white and white (some people can't see the colors at all).

Officially, the bright component is actually a close binary, too close to resolve as separate stars. The components are Aa (magnitude 3.18, spectral type K2II) and Ac (magnitude 5.82, spectral type B8). (There doesn't seem to be an Albireo Ab.) Officially that makes Albireo A's combined color yellow or amber. The dimmer component, Albireo B, is magnitude 5.09 and spectral type B8Ve: officially it's blue.

But that doesn't make the rest of the observers wrong. Color vision is a funny thing, and it's a lot more individual than most people think. Especially in dim light, at the limits of perception. I'm sure I'll continue to ask that question when I show Albireo in my telescope, fascinated with the range of answers.

In case you're wondering, I see Albireo's components as salmon-pink and pale blue. I enjoy broccoli and lobster but find bell peppers bitter. And I love the minty smell of plants that a few people, apparently, find "fetid".

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[ 16:09 Sep 21, 2015    More nature | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Thu, 10 Sep 2015

The blooms of summer, and weeds that aren't weeds

[Wildflowers on the Quemazon trail] One of the adjustments we've had to make in moving to New Mexico is getting used to the backward (compared to California) weather. Like, rain in summer!

Not only is rain much more pleasant in summer, as a dramatic thundershower that cools you off on a hot day instead of a constant cold drizzle in winter (yes, I know that by now Calfornians need a lot more of that cold drizzle! But it's still not very pleasant being out in it). Summer rain has another unexpected effect: flowers all summer, a constantly changing series of them.

Right now the purple asters are just starting up, while skyrocket gilia and the last of the red penstemons add a note of scarlet to a huge array of yellow flowers of all shapes and sizes. Here's the vista that greeted us on a hike last weekend on the Quemazon trail.

Down in the piñon-juniper where we live, things aren't usually quite so colorful; we lack many red blooms, though we have just as many purple asters as they do up on the hill, plus lots of pale trumpets (a lovely pale violet gilia) and Cowpen daisy, a type of yellow sunflower.

But the real surprise is a plant with a modest name: snakeweed. It has other names, but they're no better: matchbrush, broomweed. It grows everywhere, and most of the year it just looks like a clump of bunchgrass.

[Snakeweed in bloom] Then come September, especially in a rainy year like this one, and all that snakeweed suddenly bursts into a glorious carpet of gold.

We have plenty of other weeds -- learning how to identify Russian thistle (tumbleweed), kochia and amaranth when they're young, so we can pull them up before they go to seed and spread farther, has launched me on a project of an Invasive Plants page for the nature center (we should be ready to make that public soon).

But snakeweed, despite the name, is a welcome guest in our yard, and it lifts my spirits to walk through it on a September evening.

By the way, if anyone in Los Alamos reads this blog, Dave and I are giving our first planetarium show at the nature center tomorrow (that's Friday) afternoon. Unlike most PEEC planetarium shows, it's free! Which is probably just as well since it's our debut. If you want to come see us, the info is here: Night Sky Fiesta Planetarium Show.

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[ 21:24 Sep 10, 2015    More nature | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Sun, 09 Aug 2015

Bat Ballet above the Amaranths

This evening Dave and I spent quite a while clearing out amaranth (pigweed) that's been growing up near the house.

[Palmer's amaranth, pigweed] We'd been wondering about it for quite some time. It's quite an attractive plant when small, with pretty patterns on its leaves that remind me of some of the decorative houseplants we used to try to grow when I was a kid.

I've been working on an Invasive Plants page for the nature center, partly as a way to figure out myself which plants we need to pull and which are okay. For instance, Russian thistle (tumbleweed) -- everybody knows what it looks like when it's a dried-up tumbleweed, but by then it's too late, scattering its seeds all over. Besides, it's covered with spikes by then. The trick is to recognize and pull it when it's young, and the same is true of a lot of invasives, especially the ones with spiky seeds that stick to you, like stickseed and caltrops (goatheads).

A couple of the nature center experts have been sending me lists of invasive plants I should be sure to include, and one of them was a plant called redroot pigweed. I'd never heard of it, so I looked it up -- and it looked an awful lot like our mystery plant. A little more web searching on Amaranthus images eventually led me to Palmer's amaranth, which turns out to be aggressive and highly competitive, with sticky seeds.

Unfortunately the pretty little plants had had a month to grow by the time we realized the problem, and some of them had trunks an inch and a half across, so we had to go after them with a machete and a hand axe. But we got most of them cleared.

As we returned from dumping the last load of pigweed, a little after 8 pm, the light was fading, and we were greeted by a bat making rounds between our patio and the area outside the den. I stopped what I was doing and watched, entranced, as the bat darted into the dark den area then back out, followed a slalom course through the junipers, buzzed past my head and the out to make a sweep across the patio ... then back, around the tight corner and back to the den, over and over.

I stood watching for twenty minutes, with the bat sometimes passing within a foot of my head. (yay, bat -- eat some of these little gnats that keep whining by my ears and eyes!) It flew with spectacular maneuverability and grace, unsurpassed by anything save perhaps a hummingbird, changing direction constantly but always smoothly. I was reminded of the way a sea lion darts around underwater while it's hunting, except the bat is so much smaller, able to turn in so little space ... and of course maneuvering in the air, and in the dark, makes it all the more impressive.

I couldn't hear the bat's calls at all. Years ago, waiting for dusk at star parties on Fremont Peak, I used to hear the bats clearly. Are the bats here higher pitched than those California bats? Or am I just losing high frequencies as I get older? Maybe a combination of both.

Finally, a second bat, a little smaller than the first, appeared over the patio and both bats disappeared into the junipers. Of course I couldn't see either one well enough to tell whether the second bat was smaller because it was a different species, or a different gender of the same species. In Myotis bats, apparently the females are significantly larger than the males, so perhaps my first bat was a female Myotis and the male came to join her.

The two bats didn't reappear, and I reluctantly came inside.

Where are they roosting? In the trees? Or is it possible that one of them is using my bluebird house? I'm not going to check and risk disturbing anyone who might be roosting there.

I don't know if it's the same little brown bat I saw last week on the front porch, but it seems like a reasonable guess.

I've wondered how many bats there are flying around here, and how late they fly. I see them at dusk, but of course there's no reason to think they stop at dusk just because we're no longer able to see them. Perhaps I'll find out: I ordered parts for an Arduino-driven bat detector a few weeks ago, and they've been sitting on my desk waiting for me to find time to solder them together. I hope I find the time before summer ends and the bats fly off wherever they go in winter.

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[ 21:47 Aug 09, 2015    More nature | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Thu, 30 Jul 2015

A good week for critters

It's been a good week for unusual wildlife.

[Myotis bat hanging just outside the front door] We got a surprise a few nights ago when flipping the porch light on to take the trash out: a bat was clinging to the wall just outside the front door.

It was tiny, and very calm -- so motionless we feared it was dead. (I took advantage of this to run inside and grab the camera.) It didn't move at all while we were there. The trash mission accomplished, we turned out the light and left the bat alone. Happily, it wasn't ill or dead: it was gone a few hours later.

We see bats fairly regularly flying back and forth across the patio early on summer evenings -- insects are apparently attracted to the light visible through the windows from inside, and the bats follow the insects. But this was the first close look I'd had at a stationary bat, and my first chance to photograph one.

I'm not completely sure what sort of bat it is: almost certainly some species of Myotis (mouse-eared bats), and most likely M. yumanensis, the "little brown bat". It's hard to be sure, though, as there are at least six species of Myotis known in the area.

[Woodrat released from trap] We've had several woodrats recently try to set up house near the house or the engine compartment of our Rav4, so we've been setting traps regularly. Though woodrats are usually nocturnal, we caught one in broad daylight as it explored the area around our garden pond.

But the small patio outside the den seems to be a particular draw for them, maybe because it has a wooden deck with a nice dark space under it for a rat to hide. We have one who's been leaving offerings -- pine cones, twigs, leaves -- just outside the door (and less charming rat droppings nearby), so one night Dave set three traps all on that deck. I heard one trap clank shut in the middle of the night, but when I checked in the morning, two traps were sprung without any occupants and the third was still open.

But later that morning, I heard rattling from outside the door. Sure enough, the third trap was occupied and the occupant was darting between one end and the other, trying to get out. I told Dave we'd caught the rat, and we prepared to drive it out to the parkland where we've been releasing them.

[chipmunk caught in our rat trap] And then I picked up the trap, looked in -- and discovered it was a pretty funny looking woodrat. With a furry tail and stripes. A chipmunk! We've been so envious of the folks who live out on the canyon rim and are overloaded with chipmunks ... this is only the second time we've seen here, and now it's probably too spooked to stick around.

We released it near the woodpile, but it ran off away from the house. Our only hope for its return is that it remembers the nice peanut butter snack it got here.

[Baby Great Plains skink] Later that day, we were on our way out the door, late for a meeting, when I spotted a small lizard in the den. (How did it get in?) Fast and lithe and purple-tailed, it skittered under the sofa as soon as it saw us heading its way.

But the den is a small room and the lizard had nowhere to go. After upending the sofa and moving a couple of tables, we cornered it by the door, and I was able to trap it in my hands without any damage to its tail.

When I let it go on the rocks outside, it calmed down immediately, giving me time to run for the camera. Its gorgeous purple tail doesn't show very well, but at least the photo was good enough to identify it as a juvenile Great Plains skink. The adults look more like Jabba the Hut nothing like the lovely little juvenile we saw. We actually saw an adult this spring (outside), when we were clearing out a thick weed patch and disturbed a skink from its hibernation. And how did this poor lizard get saddled with a scientfic name of Eumeces obsoletus?

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[ 11:07 Jul 30, 2015    More nature | permalink to this entry | comments ]