Shallow Thoughts : : nature

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

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".

Tags: , , ,
[ 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.

Tags: , , ,
[ 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.

Tags: ,
[ 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?

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

Tue, 14 Jul 2015

Hummingbird Quidditch!

[rufous hummingbird] After months of at most one hummingbird at the feeders every 15 minutes or so, yesterday afternoon the hummingbirds here all suddenly went crazy. Since then, my patio looks like a tiny Battle of Britain, There are at least four males involved in the fighting, plus a couple of females who sneak in to steal a sip whenever the principals retreat for a moment.

I posted that to the local birding list and someone came up with a better comparison: "it looks like a Quidditch game on the back porch". Perfect! And someone else compared the hummer guarding the feeder to "an avid fan at Wimbledon", referring to the way his head keeps flicking back and forth between the two feeders under his control.

Last year I never saw anything like this. There was a week or so at the very end of summer where I'd occasionally see three hummingbirds contending at the very end of the day for their bedtime snack, but no more than that. I think putting out more feeders has a lot to do with it.

All the dogfighting (or quidditch) is amazing to watch, and to listen to. But I have to wonder how these little guys manage to survive when they spend all their time helicoptering after each other and no time actually eating. Not to mention the way the males chase females away from the food when the females need to be taking care of chicks.

[calliope hummingbird]

I know there's a rufous hummingbird (shown above) and a broad-tailed hummingbird -- the broad-tailed makes a whistling sound with his wings as he dives in for the attack. I know there a black-chinned hummer around because I saw his characteristic tail-waggle as he used the feeder outside the nook a few days before the real combat started. But I didn't realize until I checked my photos this morning that one of the combatants is a calliope hummingbird. They're usually the latest to arrive, and the rarest. I hadn't realized we had any calliopes yet this year, so I was very happy to see the male's throat streamers when I looked at the photo. So all four of the species we'd normally expect to see here in northern New Mexico are represented.

I've always envied places that have a row of feeders and dozens of hummingbirds all vying for position. But I would put out two feeders and never see them both occupied at once -- one male always keeps an eye on both feeders and drives away all competitors, including females -- so putting out a third feeder seemed pointless. But late last year I decided to try something new: put out more feeders, but make sure some of them are around the corner hidden from the main feeders. Then one tyrant can't watch them all, and other hummers can establish a beachhead.

It seems to be working: at least, we have a lot more activity so far than last year, even though I never seem to see any hummers at the fourth feeder, hidden up near the bedroom. Maybe I need to move that one; and I just bought a fifth, so I'll try putting that somewhere on the other side of the house and see how it affects the feeders on the patio.

I still don't have dozens of hummingbirds like some places have (the Sopaipilla Factory restaurant in Pojoaque is the best place I've seen around here to watch hummingbirds). But I'm making progress

Tags: ,
[ 12:45 Jul 14, 2015    More nature | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Sun, 28 Jun 2015

Chollas in bloom, and other early summer treats

[Bee in cholla blossom] We have three or four cholla cacti on our property. Impressive, pretty cacti, but we were disappointed last year that they never bloomed. They looked like they were forming buds ... and then one day the buds were gone. We thought maybe some animal ate them before the flowers had a chance to open.

Not this year! All of our chollas have gone crazy, with the early rain followed by hot weather. Last week we thought they were spectacular, but they just kept getting better and better. In the heat of the day, it's a bee party: they're aswarm with at least three species of bees and wasps (I don't know enough about bees to identify them, but I can tell they're different from one another) plus some tiny gnat-like insects.

I wrote a few weeks ago about the piñons bursting with cones. What I didn't realize was that these little red-brown cones are all the male, pollen-bearing cones. The ones that bear the seeds, apparently, are the larger bright green cones, and we don't have many of those. But maybe they're just small now, and there will be more later. Keeping fingers crossed. The tall spikes of new growth are called "candles" and there are lots of those, so I guess the trees are happy.

[Desert willow in bloom] Other plants besides cacti are blooming. Last fall we planted a desert willow from a local native plant nursery. The desert willow isn't actually native to White Rock -- we're around the upper end of its elevation range -- but we missed the Mojave desert willow we'd planted back in San Jose, and wanted to try one of the Southwest varieties here. Apparently they're all the same species, Chilopsis linearis.

But we didn't expect the flowers to be so showy! A couple of blossoms just opened today for the first time, and they're as beautiful as any of the cultivated flowers in the garden. I think that means our willow is a 'Rio Salado' type.

Not all the growing plants are good. We've been keeping ourselves busy pulling up tumbleweed (Russian thistle) and stickseed while they're young, trying to prevent them from seeding. But more on that in a separate post.

As I write this, a bluebird is performing short aerobatic flights outside the window. Curiously, it's usually the female doing the showy flying; there's a male out there too, balancing himself on a piñon candle, but he doesn't seem to feel the need to show off. Is the female catching flies, showing off for the male, or just enjoying herself? I don't know, but I'm happy to have bluebirds around. Still no definite sign of whether anyone's nesting in our bluebird box. We have ash-throated flycatchers paired up nearby too, and I'm told they use bluebird boxes more than the bluebirds do. They're both beautiful birds, and welcome here.

Image gallery: Chollas in bloom (and other early summer flowers.

Tags: ,
[ 19:38 Jun 28, 2015    More nature | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Tue, 02 Jun 2015

Piñon cones!

[Baby piñon cones] I've been having fun wandering the yard looking at piñon cones. We went all last summer without seeing cones on any of our trees, which seemed very mysterious ... though the book I found on piñon pines said they follow a three-year cycle. This year, nearly all of our trees have little yellow-green cones developing.

[piñon spikes with no cones] A few of the trees look like most of our piñons last year: long spikes but no cones developing on any of them. I don't know if it's a difference in the weather this year, or that three-year cycle I read about in the book. I also see on the web that there's a 2-7 year interval between good piñon crops, so clearly there are other factors.

It's going to be fun to see them develop, and to monitor them over the next several years. Maybe we'll actually get some piñon nuts eventually (or piñon jays to steal the nuts). I don't know if baby cones now means nuts later this summer, or not until next summer. Time to check that book out of the library again ...

Tags: , , ,
[ 15:20 Jun 02, 2015    More nature | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Mon, 06 Apr 2015

Quickly seeing bird sightings maps on eBird

The local bird community has gotten me using eBird. It's sort of social networking for birders -- you can report sightings, keep track of what birds you've seen where, and see what other people are seeing in your area.

The only problem is the user interface for that last part. The data is all there, but asking a question like "Where in this county have people seen broad-tailed hummingbirds so far this spring?" is a lengthy process, involving clicking through many screens and typing the county name (not even a zip code -- you have to type the name). If you want some region smaller than the county, good luck.

I found myself wanting that so often that I wrote an entry page for it.

My Bird Maps page is meant to be used as a smart bookmark (also known as bookmarklets or keyword bookmarks), so you can type birdmap hummingbird or birdmap golden eagle in your location bar as a quick way of searching for a species. It reads the bird you've typed in, and looks through a list of species, and if there's only one bird that matches, it takes you straight to the eBird map to show you where people have reported the bird so far this year.

If there's more than one match -- for instance, for birdmap hummingbird or birdmap sparrow -- it will show you a list of possible matches, and you can click on one to go to the map.

Like every Javascript project, it was both fun and annoying to write. Though the hardest part wasn't programming; it was getting a list of the nonstandard 4-letter bird codes eBird uses. I had to scrape one of their HTML pages for that. But it was worth it: I'm finding the page quite useful.

How to make a smart bookmark

I think all the major browsers offer smart bookmarks now, but I can only give details for Firefox. But here's a page about using them in Chrome.

Firefox has made it increasingly difficult with every release to make smart bookmarks. There are a few extensions, such as "Add Bookmark Here", which make it a little easier. But without any extensions installed, here's how you do it in Firefox 36:

[Firefox bookmarks dialog] First, go to the birdmap page (or whatever page you want to smart-bookmark) and click on the * button that makes a bookmark. Then click on the = next to the *, and in the menu, choose Show all bookmarks. In the dialog that comes up, find the bookmark you just made (maybe in Unsorted bookmarks?) and click on it.

Click the More button at the bottom of the dialog.
(Click on the image at right for a full-sized screenshot.)
[Firefox bookmarks dialog showing keyword]

Now you should see a Keyword entry under the Tags entry in the lower right of that dialog.

Change the Location to

Then give it a Keyword of birdmap (or anything else you want to call it).

Close the dialog.

Now, you should be able to go to your location bar and type:
birdmap common raven or birdmap sparrow and it will take you to my birdmap page. If the bird name specifies just one bird, like common raven, you'll go straight from there to the eBird map. If there are lots of possible matches, as with sparrow, you'll stay on the birdmap page so you can choose which sparrow you want.

How to change the default location

If you're not in Los Alamos, you probably want a way to set your own coordinates. Fortunately, you can; but first you have to get those coordinates.

Here's the fastest way I've found to get coordinates for a region on eBird:

Then look at the URL: a part of it should look something like this: env.minX=-122.202087&env.minY=36.89291&env.maxX=-121.208778&env.maxY=37.484802 If the map isn't right where you want it, try editing the URL, hitting Enter for each change, and watch the map reload until it points where you want it to. Then copy the four parameters and add them to your smart bookmark, like this:

Note that all of the the "env." have been removed.

The only catch is that I got my list of 4-letter eBird codes from an eBird page for New Mexico. I haven't found any way of getting the list for the entire US. So if you want a bird that doesn't occur in New Mexico, my page might not find it. If you like birdmap but want to use it in a different state, contact me and tell me which state you need, and I'll add those birds.

Tags: , , , , , , , ,
[ 14:30 Apr 06, 2015    More nature/birds | permalink to this entry | comments ]