Shallow Thoughts : : nature

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

Sat, 12 Jul 2014

Trapped our first pack rat

[White throated woodrat in a trap] One great thing about living in the country: the wildlife. I love watching animals and trying to photograph them.

One down side of living in the country: the wildlife.

Mice in the house! Pack rats in the shed and the crawlspace! We found out pretty quickly that we needed to learn about traps.

We looked at traps at the local hardware store. Dave assumed we'd get simple snap-traps, but I wanted to try other options first. I'd prefer to avoid killing if I don't have to, especially killing in what sounds like a painful way.

They only had one live mousetrap. It was a flimsy plastic thing, and we were both skeptical that it would work. We made a deal: we'd try two of them for a week or two, and when (not if) they didn't work, then we'd get some snap-traps.

We baited the traps with peanut butter and left them in the areas where we'd seen mice. On the second morning, one of the traps had been sprung, and sure enough, there was a mouse inside! Or at least a bit of fur, bunched up at the far inside end of the trap.

We drove it out to open country across the highway, away from houses. I opened the trap, and ... nothing. I looked in -- yep, there was still a furball in there. Had we somehow killed it, even in this seemingly humane trap?

I pointed the open end down and shook the trap. Nothing came out. I shook harder, looked again, shook some more. And suddenly the mouse burst out of the plastic box and went HOP-HOP-HOPping across the grass away from us, bounding like a tiny kangaroo over tufts of grass, leaving us both giggling madly. The entertainment alone was worth the price of the traps.

Since then we've seen no evidence of mice inside, and neither of the traps has been sprung again. So our upstairs and downstairs mice must have been the same mouse.

But meanwhile, we still had a pack rat problem (actually, probably, white-throated woodrats, the creature that's called a pack rat locally). Finding no traps for sale at the hardware store, we went to Craigslist, where we found a retired wildlife biologist just down the road selling three live Havahart rat traps. (They also had some raccoon-sized traps, but the only raccoon we've seen has stayed out in the yard.)

We bought the traps, adjusted one a bit where its trigger mechanism was bent, baited them with peanut butter and set them in likely locations. About four days later, we had our first captive little brown furball. Much smaller than some of the woodrats we've seen; probably just a youngster.

[White throated woodrat bounding away] We drove quite a bit farther than we had for the mouse. Woodrats can apparently range over a fairly wide area, and we didn't want to let it go near houses. We hiked a little way out on a trail, put the trap down and opened both doors. The woodrat looked up, walked to one open end of the trap, decided that looked too scary; walked to the other open end, decided that looked too scary too; and retreated back to the middle of the trap.

We had to tilt and shake the trap a bit, but eventually the woodrat gathered up its courage, chose a side, darted out and HOP-HOP-HOPped away into the bunchgrass, just like the mouse had.

No reference I've found says anything about woodrats hopping, but the mouse did that too. I guess hopping is just what you do when you're a rodent suddenly set free.

I was only able to snap one picture before it disappeared. It's not in focus, but at least I managed to catch it with both hind legs off the ground.

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[ 12:05 Jul 12, 2014    More nature | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Wed, 18 Jun 2014

Fuzzy house finch chicks

[house finch chick] The wind was strong a couple of days ago, but that didn't deter the local house finch family. With three hungry young mouths to feed, and considering how long it takes to crack sunflower seeds, poor dad -- two days after Father's Day -- was working overtime trying to keep them all fed. They emptied by sunflower seed feeder in no time and I had to refill it that evening.

The chicks had amusing fluffy "eyebrow" feathers sticking up over their heads, and one of them had an interesting habit of cocking its tail up like a wren, something I've never seen house finches do before.

More photos: House finch chicks.

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[ 14:40 Jun 18, 2014    More nature/birds | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Mon, 02 Jun 2014

Cicada Rice Krispies

[Cicadas mating] Late last week we started hearing a loud buzz in the evenings. Cicadas? We'd heard a noise like that last year, when we visited Prescott during cicada season while house-hunting, but we didn't know they had them here in New Mexico. The second evening, we saw one in the gravel off the front walk -- but we were meeting someone to carpool to a talk, so I didn't have time to race inside and get a camera.

A few days later they started singing both morning and evening. But yesterday there was an even stranger phenomenon.

"It sounds like Rice Krispies out in the yard. Snap, crackle, pop," said Dave. And he was right -- a constant, low-level crackling sound was coming from just about all the junipers.

Was that cicadas too? It was much quieter than their loud buzzing -- quiet enough to be a bit eerie, really. You had to stop what you were doing and really listen to notice it.

It was pretty clearly an animal of some kind: when we moved close to a tree, the crackling (and snapping and popping) coming from that tree would usually stop. If we moved very quietly, though, we could get close to a tree without the noise entirely stopping. It didn't do us much good, though: there was no motion at all that we could see, no obvious insects or anything else active.

Tonight the crackling was even louder when I went to take the recycling out. I stopped by a juniper where it was particularly noticeable, and must have disturbed one, because it buzzed its wings and moved enough that I actually saw where it was. It was black, maybe an inch long, with narrow orange stripes. I raced inside for my camera, but of course the bug was gone by the time I got back out.

So I went hunting. It almost seemed like the crackling was the cicadas sort of "tuning up", like an orchestra before the performance. They would snap and crackle and pop for a while, and then one of them would go snap snap snap-snap-snap-snapsnapsnapsnap and then break into its loud buzz -- but only for a few seconds, then it would go back to snapping again. Then another would speed up and break into a buzz for a bit, and so it went.

One juniper had a particularly active set of crackles and pops coming from it. I circled it and stared until finally I found the cicadas. Two of them, apparently mating, and a third about a foot away ... perhaps the rejected suitor?

[Possible cicada emergence holes]
Near that particular juniper was a section of ground completely riddled with holes. I don't remember those holes being there a few weeks ago. The place where the cicadas emerged?

[Fendler's Hedgehog Cactus flower] So our Rice Krispies mystery was solved. And by the way, I don't recommend googling for combinations like cicada rice krispies ... unless you want to catch and eat cicadas.

Meanwhile, just a few feet away from the cicada action, a cactus had sprung into bloom. Here, have a gratuitous pretty flower. It has nothing whatever to do with cicadas.

Update: in case you're curious, the cactus is apparently called a Fendler's Hedgehog, Echinocereus fendleri.

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[ 21:20 Jun 02, 2014    More nature | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Fri, 21 Mar 2014

Flicker Morning

[Northern Flicker on our deck] "There's a woodpecker sitting on the patio", Dave said, shortly after we'd both gotten up. He pointed down through the gap where you can see the patio from upstairs. "It's just sitting there. You can go down and look through the door; it doesn't seem to mind."

Sure enough, a female northern flicker was sitting on the concrete patio deck, immobile except for her constantly blinking eyes and occasionally swiveling head. Definitely not a place you'd normally expect to see a woodpecker.

Some twenty minutes earlier, I remembered, I'd heard a couple of thumps on the roof outside the bedroom, and seen the shadow of wings through the drawn shades. I've heard of birds flying into windows and getting stunned, but why would one fly into a roof? A mystery, but I was sure the flicker's presence was related to the thumps I'd heard.

I kept an eye out while I made coffee and puttered around with normal morning chores. She wasn't budging from that spot, though she looked relatively alert, keeping her eyes open even while sitting immobile.

I called around. (We still don't have internet to the house -- Comcast keeps giving us the runaround about when they'll dig their trench, and I'm not entirely convinced they've even applied for the permit they said they'd applied for three weeks ago. Maybe we need to look into Dish.) The Santa Fe raptor center had a recorded message suggesting that injured birds be put in a cool dark box as a first treatment for shock. The Española Wildlife Center said if I thought she was injured and could catch her, they could take her in.

I did suspect she was injured -- by now she'd been there for 45 minutes or more, without moving -- but I decided to give her some time to recover before going for a capture. Maybe she was just in shock and needed time to gather herself before trying to fly. I went on with my morning chores while keeping an eye out for coyotes and ravens.

For two hours she remained there. The sun came out from behind the clouds and I wondered if I should give her some shade, food or water, but decided to wait a while. Then, as I was going back to the bird book to verify what kind of flicker she was and what gender, she suddenly perked up. Swiveling her head around and looking much more alert than before, she raised herself a little and took a few steps, to one side and then the other. More head swiveling. Then suddenly, as I was reaching for my camera again, she spread her wings and flew off. A little heavily and stiffly, but both wings looked okay.

So our morning's flicker adventure has a happy ending.

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[ 11:46 Mar 21, 2014    More nature/birds | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Sun, 19 Jan 2014

Our black squirrel: Little Blackie

[LB, our black squirrel] We've been having occasional visits from black squirrels for maybe five years now, but mostly they're shy and don't stay long.

Black squirrels are interesting. As far as I know, they're a color variation of the usual Eastern grey squirrel we get as our most common yard visitor here in San Jose. (For a while we got a lot of Eastern Fox squirrels, but I guess that population moved away since I haven't seen one in years.) Our native Western greys are larger and more wary, and keep to the hills and forests, never venturing down into the city.

Black squirrels have been common in Palo Alto for many decades, I'm told, but it's only in the last five or ten years that they've started expanding southward. First I would see a few in Sunnyvale and Mountain View, then a couple in Campbell, and then, finally, a few years after that, they made it here to West San Jose. (Campbell is farther south than our house, but the squirrels as they expanded their range probably moved toward the less urban hills and parks.)

This year we had our first friendly, regular black squirrel visitor. I called him Little Blackie after the pony in True Grit. He's by far the most beautiful squirrel we've ever had -- his fur glistens in the sun and looks amazingly soft. Unfortunately he's also difficult to photograph well -- the point-and-shoot tends not to focus on him very well, and he's always underexposed even when I use exposure compensation.

LB was very quick (as squirrels go) to figure out that our fencepost was a good source of walnuts, and even pretty quick to make the association that people near the office door means that another nut may appear soon. (Most squirrels take forever to figure that out, and when you come out to put up another nut, they run away and don't come back for hours.)

After a few months of regular feeding, he was tolerating us only a few feet away as we put nuts on the fencepost, and then it was a few more months before he worked up the courage to take nuts from our hands. He still doesn't linger -- he grabs the nut and runs.

[black squirrel LB hanging by his feet] This morning he was quite entertaining, when he decided I was coming out too slowly (I try not to make sudden movements when approaching wild animals) and jumped from the fencepost to run along the gate. I met him halfway, and offered the nut to him as he sat on the gate. He grabbed it, but his nervousness about being in a different place made him too hasty, and he missed his grab and the nut went bouncing down onto the driveway.

He looked at me with a bemused expression, jumped back to the fencepost and ran back along the fence -- but couldn't quite work up the nerve to run down and get the nut off the driveway. So I fetched it for him, and offered it to him up on the fence.

Nothing doing -- that was too weird. So he waited until I went back to the fencepost, whereupon he scampered right over, grabbed the nut and ran off to hang from the tree.

Wacky Blackie! Here are the best photos of him I've been able to get so far: Little Blackie, our black squirrel.

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[ 11:29 Jan 19, 2014    More nature/squirrels | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Sun, 18 Aug 2013

Learning to Sing

[House finch] I was awakened at 6:30 this morning by what sounded like a young house finch learning to sing, just outside my window. It got me thinking.

Every fall, songbirds which have stopped singing during high summer start up again, briefly, to sing for a few weeks before weather gets cold. A discussion several years ago on a local birding list concluded that nobody knows for sure why birds sing in autumn -- are they confused about the weather and think it's spring again, hoping for a last fling before the cold weather sets in, or what? There's a a wonderful ditty about it, "The Autumnal Recrudescence of the Amatory Urge", apparently written in the 1970s by Susan Stiles.

It's too early in the year right now for autumnal anything -- it's still quite warm. But lying there in bed listening to the exploratory notes of a bird clearly not yet confident in his song, I got to thinking about how birds learn their songs.

In most birds it's not innate: young male birds learn singing while still nestlings from listening to their father sing, much like human babies learn the rhythms of their native language from hearing their parents talk; and if you raise a songbird in a nest of another species, they will often learn the wrong song, or end up with some hybrid song that doesn't attract females of either species. (A good overview: The Development of Birdsong on Nature.) More recently, there have been all sorts of interesting studies on how young birds learn their local dialect, since a species' song varies quite a bit from one location to another.

But ... not all birds sing much once the eggs are laid, do they? They sing their hearts out while acquiring a territory and trying to attract a female; but once nesting starts, I don't remember hearing much activity from the house finches. Mockingbirds are an exception: I've seen mockers singing day and night even after they're feeding nestlings, though not all male mockers are quite so industrious. But I thought most species stopped singing much once the nest was built and eggs laid.

But if that's true, when do the young males learn their songs? Even if the father does sing a little, off and on, while the nestlings are being raised, that's not very much time to learn. Suppose the adults started singing again in the fall before the family disperses. Wouldn't that be an advantage to the young males who are just learning their songs? If a fledgling, off the nest and mostly able to care for himself, is "babbling", trying exploratory notes while learning what sounds he can make, wouldn't it be helpful to have a few nearby males who occasionally burst into song even if it's out of season?

Maybe the "Autumnal Recrudescence" isn't birds being confused about the weather at all. Maybe it's an evolutionary aid to help the young birds crystallize their songs before heading into their first winter. By singing in autumn, the males help their sons crystallize their songs for the next year, which helps the sons be more successful when it's time to look for a mate next spring.

Just a theory ... but I think it makes some sense, and I'll be listening to this autumn's chorus with new interest.

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[ 11:57 Aug 18, 2013    More nature/birds | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Sun, 31 Mar 2013

Dinosaur Eggs, Collared Doves and Wildflowers

[Dinosaur egg (okay, not really)] Happy Easter! In keeping with the season, here's a dinosaur egg I spotted on a recent hike.

Okay, or maybe it's just a vaguely egg-shaped rock. But there's been a lot going on this spring now that the weather is turning.

[Eurasian Collared Dove] First, we seem to have Eurasian collared doves nesting somewhere near our house. There's a dove up on the power pole, cooing, most of the day. I know I've heard lots of reports of collared doves around the south bay in past years, particularly down around Morgan Hill, but this is the first time I'd seen more than a glimpse of them here at home in San Jose. It's fun to see new species, though I hope these European interlopers don't push out the native mourning doves entirely.

[Shooting star] In addition, the wildflowers have been great out on the trails, especially around the south end of Windy Hill OSP and Coal Mine Ridge. A hike up there last week revealed nearly every wildflower on my wildflower page that could be in flower now -- California poppy, wild cucumber (intriguingly also called manroot), giant trillium, hound's tongue, milkmaids, the most impressive profusion of Indian warrior I've seen, blue larkspur, miner's lettuce, Sierra suncup, vetch (it's pretty despite the unfortunate name), red maid, wild radish, wood sorrel, broom, and my favorite, shooting star.
[Indian warrior and hound's tongue blooming  in Coal Mine Ridge] Dave had to keep waiting for me while I argued with the camera over macro focus distances. So if you like wildflowers, get out there and take a look!

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[ 17:22 Mar 31, 2013    More nature | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Wed, 16 Jan 2013

Bluebirds and phantom horses at Arastradero

[Western bluebird]

The weather was a bit warmer today than it has been, so I snuck off for an hour's hike at Arastradero, where I was amazed by all the western bluebirds out enjoying the sunny day. I counted three of them just on the path from the parking lot to the road crossing. Bold, too -- they let me get close enough to snap a shot with my pocket camera.

Farther up the trail, a white-shouldered kite was calling as it soared, and a large falcon flew by, too far away and too backlit for me to identify it for sure as a peregrine.

[Phantom stump horse] But then I spotted an even more unusual beast -- a phantom horse rearing out of the ground, ears pricked forward, eyes and mouth open and mane whipped by a wind we could not feel on this pleasant, windless day.

Dave always teases me about my arboronecrophotography inclinations (I like to take pictures of dead trees). But how could I resist trying to capture a creature like this?

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[ 20:26 Jan 16, 2013    More nature | permalink to this entry | comments ]

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