Shallow Thoughts : : nature

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

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.

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[ 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 ...

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[ 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 http://shallowsky.com/birdmap.html?bird=%s.

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: http://shallowsky.com/birdmap.html?bird=%s&minX=-122.202087&minY=36.89291&maxX=-121.208778&maxY=37.484802

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.

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

Wed, 01 Apr 2015

One-antlered stags

[mule deer stag with one antler] This fellow stopped by one evening a few weeks ago. He'd lost one of his antlers (I'd love to find it in the yard, but no luck so far). He wasn't hungry; just wandering, maybe looking for a place to bed down. He didn't seem to mind posing for the camera.

Eventually he wandered down the hill a bit, and a friend joined him. I guess losing one antler at a time isn't all that uncommon for mule deer, though it was the first time I'd seen it. I wonder if their heads feel unbalanced.
[two mule deer stags with one antler each]

Meanwhile, spring has really sprung -- I put a hummingbird feeder out yesterday, and today we got our first customer, a male broad-tailed hummer who seemed quite happy with the fare here. I hope he stays around!

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[ 19:25 Apr 01, 2015    More nature | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Tue, 21 Oct 2014

A surprise in the mousetrap

I went out this morning to check the traps, and found the mousetrap full ... of something large and not at all mouse-like.

[young bullsnake] It was a young bullsnake. Now slender and maybe a bit over two feet long, it will eventually grow into a larger relative of the gopher snakes that I used to see back in California. (I had a gopher snake as a pet when I was in high school -- they're harmless, non-poisonous and quite docile.)

The snake watched me alertly as I peered in, but it didn't seem especially perturbed to be trapped. In fact, it was so non-perturbed that when I opened the trap, the snake stayed right where it was. It had found a nice comfortable resting place, and it wasn't very interested in moving on a cold morning.

I had to poke it gently through the bars, hold the trap vertically and shake for a while before the snake grudgingly let go and slithered out onto the ground.

I wondered if it had found its way into the trap by chasing a mouse, but I didn't see any swellings that looked like it had eaten recently. I'm fairly sure it wasn't interested in the peanut butter bait.

I released the snake in a spot near the shed where the mousetrap is set up. There are certainly plenty of mice there for it to eat, and gophers when it gets a little larger, and there are lots of nice black basalt boulders to use for warming up in the morning, and gopher holes to hide in. I hope it sticks around -- gopher/bullsnakes are good neighbors.

[young bullsnake caught in mousetrap]

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[ 19:37 Oct 21, 2014    More nature | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Thu, 16 Oct 2014

Aspens are turning the mountains gold

Last week both of the local mountain ranges turned gold simultaneously as the aspens turned. Here are the Sangre de Cristos on a stormy day:

[Sangre de Cristos gold with aspens]

And then over the weekend, a windstorm blew a lot of those leaves away, and a lot of the gold is gone now. But the aspen groves are still beautiful up close ... here's one from Pajarito Mountain yesterday.

[Sangre de Cristos gold with aspens]

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[ 13:37 Oct 16, 2014    More nature | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Wed, 08 Oct 2014

What's nesting in our truck's engine?

We park the Rav4 outside, under an overhang. A few weeks ago, we raised the hood to check the oil before heading out on an adventure, and discovered a nest of sticks and grass wedged in above the valve cover. (Sorry, no photos -- we were in a hurry to be off and I didn't think to grab the camera.)

Pack rats were the obvious culprits, of course. There are lots of them around, and we've caught quite a few pack rats in our live traps. Knowing that rodents can be a problem since they like to chew through hoses and wiring, we decided we'd better keep an eye on the Rav and maybe investigate some sort of rodent-repelling technology.

Sunday, we got back from another adventure, parked the Rav in its usual place, went inside to unload before heading out for an evening walk, and when we came back out, there was a small flock of birds hanging around under the Rav. Towhees! Not only hanging around under the still-warm engine, but several times we actually saw one fly between the tires and disappear.

Could towhees really be our engine nest builders? And why would they be nesting in fall, with the days getting shorter and colder?

I'm keeping an eye on that engine compartment now, checking every few days. There are still a few sticks and juniper sprigs in there, but no real nest has reappeared so far. If it does, I'll post a photo.

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[ 18:10 Oct 08, 2014    More nature | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Thu, 18 Sep 2014

Mirror, mirror

A female hummingbird -- probably a black-chinned -- hanging out at our window feeder on a cool cloudy morning.

[female hummingbird at the window feeder]

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[ 19:04 Sep 18, 2014    More nature/birds | permalink to this entry | comments ]