Shallow Thoughts : : nature

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

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 ]

Tue, 08 Mar 2016

Juniper allergy season

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.)

[Female (left) and male junipers in spring]
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 our neighborhood.

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.

[Female juniper closeup] [male juniper closeup showing pollen 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.

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[ 20:20 Mar 08, 2016    More nature | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Mon, 08 Feb 2016

Attack of the Killer Titmouse!

[Juniper titmouse attacking my window] 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. Here's the Juniper titmouse call as he attacks my window this morning, and yesterday's Juniper 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.

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[ 11:10 Feb 08, 2016    More nature/birds | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Thu, 31 Dec 2015

Weather musing, and poor insulation

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.

[Snow coming under the bedroom door] 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.

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[ 11:28 Dec 31, 2015    More nature | permalink to this entry | comments ]