Shallow Thoughts : : nature

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

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 ]

Sat, 07 Jul 2012

Strange wildlife in San Luis Obispo

On a brief and visit to San Luis Obispo, an unexpected bonus was the unusual wildlife about town.

We walked from our hotel on Monterey St. to downtown to stretch our legs, explore the mission and river walk and then get dinner. (Mo's Smokehouse has excellent barbecue.)

On the way back, I noticed a small figure in the gutter just below the curb, scratching and nosing around in the litter there. It was the size and shape of a chipmunk, but its coloration showed it to be a California ground squirrel -- a baby, probably on one of its first forays out of the burrow.

Burrow? Well, as I pulled my camera out of a pocket, suddenly the youngster vanished. I stepped into the street to see where it had gone -- and discovered that SLO has gutter drain holes in their concrete curbs that are exactly the size and shape of a typical ground squirrel's burrow entryway.

[Grossly fat California ground squirrel at Morro Rock] The size of these tiny ground squirrels was especially amazing because just a few miles northwest, at Morro Rock, we'd encountered the most humungous, gihugicle California ground squirrels known to man -- animals so swollen from tourist handouts that at first I took them for prairie dogs. (I wasn't able to photograph the tiny and quick SLO squirrels, but the sluggish Morro Rock squirrels were a much easier target ... as you see.)

Back in SLO, we walked on, marvelling at the little squirrel -- and half a block later, another squirreling the same size as the other one dashed out from under a car, ran to the curb and disappeared. Yep -- another of those round gutter holes. They must have a whole colony of these cuties!

Then just a few blocks later, I noticed motion out of the corner of my eye ... and turned in time to watch a pair of scarlet macaws fly across the street, up an adjacent street and into a tree.

I read an article once from a biologist who visited South America and thrilled to the sight of these huge, bright red, long-tailed parrots flying free ... but I never expected to see the same thing on the street of a California city.

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[ 13:42 Jul 07, 2012    More nature | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Fri, 29 Jun 2012

A fierce alligator lizard

[Young and fierce alligator lizard]

A short hike today to Lake Ranch above Los Gatos gave us nice views of three killdeer, a duck family with six ducklings, a hunting egret and a host of other birds. But on the way back, we met an unusual little fellow on the trail.

It was a young alligator lizard, one of the smallest I've seen -- which is still fairly sizeable for a lizard, maybe eight or ten inches long including the long slim tail.

In typical alligator lizard fashion, it was lying motionless on the trail. So in typical Dave and Akkana fashion, we whipped out our cameras and switched into macro mode.

Alligator lizards are normally very placid. It's hard to get them to move under any circumstances, as long as you don't touch them. You can shoot photos from all angles, get the camera right up where you have to shoot a panorama to get the whole tail in, move around to the other side and get a different angle, and the lizard won't move.

Imagine our surprise, then, when the little one opened its mouth and started threatening us!

Dave pulled back his camera (it's his a new toy, so I was letting him shoot the up-close macros while I stayed what I thought was a comfortable foot away) and the beast turned on me and started advancing, mouth still open. I snapped a few shots while pulling back slowly. Then he made a rush for me.

I pulled my camera, and fingers, up out of his reach -- supposedly alligator lizards can bite, though it's hard to see any evidence of teeth in the photos -- and he rushed my shoes. I lifted the foot he was headed for, and he darted under my shoe, turned on a dime and skittered toward Dave's hiking shoe. But I guess when he got there he didn't find it quite as vulnerable as he'd hoped, so he turned again and ran off toward the side of the trail, leaving us stunned -- and doubled over with laughter. [Young and fierce alligator lizard]

I actually tried to shoot a video of his advance, but once he rushed me I was too busy getting out of his way and missed most of the action. Evidently I'm not quite ready to shoot those National Geo documentaries.

That's a bit of dry leaf on his forehead, in case you're wondering.

Here's what Dave was doing that got the little lizard annoyed. The adult alligator lizards we see don't mind that a bit ... honest!

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[ 22:01 Jun 29, 2012    More nature | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Sat, 22 Oct 2011

Finding buried treasure -- harder than it sounds

While we were having dinner, one of the local squirrels came by to look for her own dinner under the cedar in the front yard, just outside the window by our dining table.

I remember, when I was young, reading somewhere that squirrels remember where they bury each nut, so they can return and dig it up later. Whoever wrote that clearly never spent much time watching actual squirrels.

I've also read, more recently and in more reputable places, that squirrels find buried nuts by seeking out likely burial spots then using their sensitive noses to find the underground nuts.

If so, the sensitive nose thing is overrated. It's actually quite a bit more work than that description makes it sound.

If you're ever hungry and wanting to dig up a snack from underground, here's the tried and true, time tested squirrel technique:

Hop over to a place that looks likely. Bury your nose in the ground, and plow a furrow with said nose for a few inches.

No nut? Pull your nose out of the ground, hope over to another location that looks appealing (not one right next to where you just were -- do not by any means use any kind of exhaustive quartering technique), bury your nose in the ground and repeat.

Every fifth or sixth time, it's permissable to sit up and brush dirt off your nose before going back to the hunt.

After about twenty minutes of this, our visitor finally did find something. She triumphantly sat up, brushed herself off, turned the prize around in her mouth for a while, then ran over to the cedar to hang upside down for dinner.

Curiously, what she found looked like a live oak acorn -- not something that's very common here in the suburbs. (Our yard sports a red oak, but it has tiny acorns which don't interest the squirrels in the slightest.)

She took five minutes to eat her prize, then returned to the hunt for another forty minutes. If she found anything else during that time, I didn't see it, though she might have found something while she was on the other side of the tree.

Note that I didn't say this was an efficient technique ... only that it was time tested.

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[ 19:07 Oct 22, 2011    More nature/squirrels | permalink to this entry | comments ]

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