Shallow Thoughts : : nature
Akkana's Musings on Open Source Computing and Technology, Science, and Nature.
Sun, 03 Jul 2016
A few unusual nature observations noticed over the last few weeks ...
First, on a trip to Washington DC a week ago (my first time there).
For me, the big highlight of the trip was my first view of fireflies
-- bright green ones, lighting once or twice then flying away,
congregating over every park, lawn or patch of damp grass.
But the unusual observation was around mid-day, on the lawn near the
A grackle caught my attention as it flashed by me -- a male common
grackle, I think (at least, it was glossy black, relatively small and
with only a moderately long tail).
It turned out it was chasing a sparrow, which was dodging and trying
to evade, but unsuccessfully. The grackle made contact, and the sparrow
faltered, started to flutter to the ground. But the sparrow recovered and
took off in another direction, the grackle still hot on its tail. The
grackle made contact again, and again the sparrow recovered and kept
flying. But the third hit was harder than the other two, and the
sparrow went down maybe fifteen or twenty feet away from me, with the
grackle on top of it.
The grackle mantled over its prey like a hawk and looked like it was
ready to begin eating. I still couldn't quite believe what I'd seen, so I
stepped out toward the spot, figuring I'd scare the grackle away and
I'd see if the sparrow was really dead. But the grackle had its eye on
me, and before I'd taken three steps, it picked up the sparrow in its
bill and flew off with it.
I never knew grackles were predatory, much less capable of killing
other birds on the wing and flying off with them. But a web search
on grackles killing birds got quite a few hits about grackles
killing and eating house sparrows, so apparently it's not uncommon.
Daytime swarm of nighthawks
Then, on a road trip to visit friends in Colorado, we had to drive
carefully past the eastern slope of San Antonio Mountain as a flock of
birds wheeled and dove across the road. From a distance it looked like
a flock of swallows, but as we got closer we realized they were far
larger. They turned out to be nighthawks -- at least fifty of them,
probably considerably more. I've heard of flocks of nighthawks
swarming around the bugs attracted to parking lot streetlights. And
I've seen a single nighthawk, or occasionally two, hawking in the
evenings from my window at home. But I've never seen a flock of
nighthawks during the day like this. An amazing sight as they swoop
past, just feet from the car's windshield.
Finally, the flying ants. The stuff of a bad science fiction movie!
Well, maybe if the ants were 100 times larger. For now, just an
interesting view of the natural world.
Just a few days ago,
Jennifer Macke wrote a
fascinating article in the PEEC Blog, "Ants Take Wing!" letting
everyone know that this is the time of year for ants to grow wings
and fly. (Jen also showed me some winged lawn ants in the PEEC ant
colony when I was there the day before the article came out.)
Both males and females grow wings; they mate in the air, and then
the newly impregnated females fly off, find a location, shed their
wings (leaving a wing scar you can see if you have a strong enough
magnifying glass) and become the queen of a new ant colony.
And yesterday morning, as Dave and I looked out the window, we saw
something swarming right below the garden. I grabbed a magnifying lens
and rushed out to take a look at the ones emerging from the ground,
and sure enough, they were ants. I saw only black ants. Our native
harvester ants -- which I know to be common in our yard, since I've
seen the telltale anthills surrounded by a large bare area where they
clear out all vegetation -- have sexes of different colors (at least
when they're flying): females are red, males are black. These flying
ants were about the size of harvester ants but all the ants I saw were
black. I retreated to the house and watched the flights with binoculars,
hoping to see mating, but all the flyers I saw seemed intent on dispersing.
Either these were not harvester ants, or the females come out at a
different time from the males. Alas, we had an appointment and had to
leave so I wasn't able to monitor them to check for red ants. But in a
few days I'll be watching for ants that have lost their wings ... and
if I find any, I'll try to identify queens.
[ 09:28 Jul 03, 2016
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Tue, 08 Mar 2016
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.)
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
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.
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.
[ 20:20 Mar 08, 2016
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Mon, 08 Feb 2016
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.
titmouse call as he attacks my window this morning,
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.
[ 11:10 Feb 08, 2016
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Thu, 31 Dec 2015
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.
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.
[ 11:28 Dec 31, 2015
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Sun, 20 Dec 2015
Yesterday was the Los Alamos Christmas Bird Count.
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.)
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
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.
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:
Christmas Bird Count, White Rock team, 2015.
[ 14:21 Dec 20, 2015
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Mon, 21 Sep 2015
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?
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.
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,
[ 16:09 Sep 21, 2015
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Thu, 10 Sep 2015
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.
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
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
[ 21:24 Sep 10, 2015
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Sun, 09 Aug 2015
This evening Dave and I spent quite a while clearing out amaranth (pigweed)
that's been growing up near the house.
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
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.
[ 21:47 Aug 09, 2015
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