Shallow Thoughts : : nature

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

Thu, 05 Oct 2017

Tarantula Under Glass, and Micro-Centipedes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fri, 16 Jun 2017

Flycatchers Fledging, and The Buck Stops Here

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

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

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

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

Wed, 31 May 2017

Tiger Salamander Larvae

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

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

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

Photos: Tiger Salamander larvae.

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

Fri, 10 Mar 2017

At last! A roadrunner!

We live in what seems like wonderful roadrunner territory. For the three years we've lived here, we've hoped to see a roadrunner, and have seen them a few times at neighbors' places, but never in our own yard.

Until this morning. Dave happened to be looking out the window at just the right time, and spotted it in the garden. I grabbed the camera, and we watched it as it came out from behind a bush and went into stalk mode.

[Roadrunner stalking]

And it caught something!

[close-up, Roadrunner with fence lizard] We could see something large in its bill as it triumphantly perched on the edge of the garden wall, before hopping off and making a beeline for a nearby juniper thicket.

It wasn't until I uploaded the photo that I discovered what it had caught: a fence lizard. Our lizards only started to come out of hibernation about a week ago, so the roadrunner picked the perfect time to show up.

I hope our roadrunner decides this is a good place to hang around.

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[ 14:33 Mar 10, 2017    More nature/birds | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Sun, 05 Mar 2017

The Curious Incident of the Junco in the Night-Time

Dave called from an upstairs bedroom. "You'll probably want to see this."

He had gone up after dinner to get something, turned the light on, and been surprised by an agitated junco, chirping and fluttering on the sill outside the window. It evidently was tring to fly through the window and into the room. Occasionally it would flutter backward to the balcony rail, but no further.

There's a piñon tree whose branches extend to within a few feet of the balcony, but the junco ignored the tree and seemed bent on getting inside the room.

As we watched, hoping the bird would calm down, instead it became increasingly more desperate and stressed. I remembered how, a few months earlier, I opened the door to a deck at night and surprised a large bird, maybe a dove, that had been roosting there under the eaves. The bird startled and flew off in a panic toward the nearest tree. I had wondered what happened to it -- whether it had managed to find a perch in the thick of a tree in the dark of night. (Unlike San Jose, White Rock gets very dark at night.)

And that thought solved the problem of our agitated junco. "Turn the porch light on", I suggested. Dave flipped a switch, and the porch light over the deck illuminated not only the deck where the junco was, but the nearest branches of the nearby piñon.

Sure enough, now that it could see the branches of the tree, the junco immediately turned around and flew to a safe perch. We turned the porch light back off, and we heard no more from our nocturnal junco.

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[ 11:27 Mar 05, 2017    More nature/birds | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Sun, 05 Feb 2017

Rosy Finches

Los Alamos is having an influx of rare rosy-finches (which apparently are supposed to be hyphenated: they're rosy-finches, not finches that are rosy).

[Rosy-finches] They're normally birds of the snowy high altitudes, like the top of Sandia Crest, and quite unusual in Los Alamos. They're even rarer in White Rock, and although I've been keeping my eyes open I haven't seen any here at home; but a few days ago I was lucky enough to be invited to the home of a birder in town who's been seeing great flocks of rosy-finches at his feeders.

There are four types, of which three have ever been seen locally, and we saw all three. Most of the flock was brown-capped rosy-finches, with two each black rosy-finches and gray-capped rosy-finches. The upper bird at right, I believe, is one of the blacks, but it might be a grey-capped. They're a bit hard to tell apart. In any case, pretty birds, sparrow sized with nice head markings and a hint of pink under the wing, and it was fun to get to see them.

[Roadrunner] The local roadrunner also made a brief appearance, and we marveled at the combination of high-altitude snowbirds and a desert bird here at the same place and time. White Rock seems like much better roadrunner territory, and indeed they're sometimes seen here (though not, so far, at my house), but they're just as common up in the forests of Los Alamos. Our host said he only sees them in winter; in spring, just as they start singing, they leave and go somewhere else. How odd!

Speaking of birds and spring, we have a juniper titmouse determinedly singing his ray-gun song, a few house sparrows are singing sporadically, and we're starting to see cranes flying north. They started a few days ago, and I counted several hundred of them today, enjoying the sunny and relatively warm weather as they made their way north. Ironically, just two weeks ago I saw a group of about sixty cranes flying south -- very late migrants, who must have arrived at the Bosque del Apache just in time to see the first northbound migrants leave. "Hey, what's up, we just got here, where ya all going?"

A few more photos: Rosy-finches (and a few other nice birds).

We also have a mule deer buck frequenting our yard, sometimes hanging out in the garden just outside the house to drink from the heated birdbath while everything else is frozen. (We haven't seen him in a few days, with the warmer weather and most of the ice melted.) We know it's the same buck coming back: he's easy to recognize because he's missing a couple of tines on one antler.

The buck is a welcome guest now, but in a month or so when the trees start leafing out I may regret that as I try to find ways of keeping him from stripping all the foliage off my baby apple tree, like some deer did last spring. I'm told it helps to put smelly soap shavings, like Irish Spring, in a bag and hang it from the branches, and deer will avoid the smell. I will try the soap trick but will probably combine it with other measures, like a temporary fence.

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[ 19:39 Feb 05, 2017    More nature/birds | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Tue, 09 Aug 2016

Double Rainbow, with Hummingbirds

A couple of days ago we had a spectacular afternoon double rainbow. I was out planting grama grass seeds, hoping to take take advantage of a rainy week, but I cut the planting short to run up and get my camera.

[Double rainbow]

[Hummingbirds and rainbow] And then after shooting rainbow shots with the fisheye lens, it occurred to me that I could switch to the zoom and take some hummingbird shots with the rainbow in the background. How often do you get a chance to do that? (Not to mention a great excuse not to go back to planting grass seeds.)

(Actually, here, it isn't all that uncommon since we get a lot of afternoon rainbows. But it's the first time I thought of trying it.)

Focus is always chancy when you're standing next to the feeder, waiting for birds to fly by and shooting whatever you can. Next time maybe I'll have time to set up a tripod and remote shutter release. But I was pretty happy with what I got.

Photos: Double rainbow, with hummingbirds.

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[ 19:40 Aug 09, 2016    More nature | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Sun, 03 Jul 2016

Midsummer Nature Notes from Traveling

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. What fun!

Predatory grackle

[grackle]

But the unusual observation was around mid-day, on the lawn near the Lincoln Memorial. 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.

Flying ants

[Flying ant courtesy of Jen Macke]

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.

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[ 09:28 Jul 03, 2016    More nature | permalink to this entry | comments ]