Shallow Thoughts : tags : nature

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

Mon, 17 Jul 2023

Clouds and Shadows from Anderson Overlook

[Clouds and mesa shadows from Anderson Overlook] While driving back down the hill after an appointment, I had to stop at Anderson Overlook to snap a few photos of the clouds and their shadows on the mesa.

In a Robert B. Parker novel I read many years ago, a character, musing on the view from a rich guy's house, comments, "I hear that after a while, it's just what you see out the window."

Dave and I make fun of that line all the time. Maybe it's true in Boston, but in New Mexico, I never get tired of the view and the endlessly changing light and shadow. I know people who have lived here fifty years or more and still aren't tired of it.

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[ 20:12 Jul 17, 2023    More photo | permalink to this entry | ]

Fri, 07 Jul 2023

Beaver Ponds at Bandelier

[Beaver pond at Bandelier]

A couple of years ago, while hiking up Frijoles Canyon in Bandelier we came across some hikers one of whom carried a huge boxy backpack with a sheet over it.

We asked about it, and it turned out they were carrying a pair of beavers for release.

Like many places in the western US, Frijoles Creek used to have quite a population of beavers, but they were all wiped out for one reason or another. Now, park officials are trying to repopulate them.

It looks like it's working. We had heard rumours of beaver dams and beaver ponds, and about a month ago we hiked up Frijoles Canyon to see what beaver evidence we could see.

Read more ...

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[ 19:21 Jul 07, 2023    More nature | permalink to this entry | ]

Fri, 18 Nov 2022

Lizard Hunter

[Lizard hunting]

This is the first of two baby fence lizards that got into the house in the last few weeks. I guess I can't really blame them: it's getting cold outside, even for an endotherm.

It's funny how we always start seeing lots of baby lizards when the weather seems like it's getting too cold for reptiles to be out and about. Maybe the little ones just haven't learned yet that they should find a nice burrow to wait out the winter.

We usually capture spiders and crickets in the house with a cup and card, and escort them outside. But lizards are a lot harder to capture than spiders. Even with cooperative hunting — Dave holds the cup and sneaks up on the lizard while I try to herd the lizard toward him — lizards are fast, and there are so many possible hiding places.

This lizard didn't duck under the cabinets, the hole you can see in the photo. Instead it went the other direction and dove into the heater vent. We pulled the vent cover and left a little ramp so the lizard could get back up easily; later in the day, we found it, caught it and escorted it outside. As we did the second lizard (assuming it was a different one), a few days later.

I hope they've found a nice place to hibernate.

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[ 11:47 Nov 18, 2022    More nature | permalink to this entry | ]

Sun, 28 Aug 2022

Red Velvet Ant, and Other Interesting Insects

[Red Velvet Ant, by Mcevan] Jenni at the Los Alamos Nature Center had an unusual request: if I saw any red velvet ants, please scoop them up (alive) and bring them to the nature center for display. They already had a few, but wanted more.

Red velvet ants aren't terribly uncommon here in White Rock. I see maybe one a month. They're gorgeous: well named, with bright scarlet patches against black and a texture that looks velvety-soft. There are several other species of velvet ants worldwide, but only Dasymutilla aureola is common around the southwestern US; rarely, I'll see a white velvet ant, also called the thistledown velvet ant, D. gloriosa.

You don't want to try petting them to see if they feel velvetty, though: they're actually wasps, and possess one of the most painful stings in the insect world. The red velvet ant's other name is "cow killer", because of how painful the sting is (the venom isn't actually dangerous, and certainly won't kill a cow).

Read more ...

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[ 12:58 Aug 28, 2022    More nature | permalink to this entry | ]

Wed, 25 May 2022

A Brood of Small Cicadas

Our trees in La Senda have been ticking madly for about a week.

The noise had been worrying me. Some of our drought-stressed piñons might not have enough sap to fight off bark beetles (we lost four trees last year to the beetles). On the other hand, cicadas do make clicking noises (like an orchestra tuning up, preparing for the symphony). And the ticking noise came from junipers as much as piñons; bark beetles are usually species-specific..

[cicada from La Senda brood starting 2022-05-17] But eventually we were able to find a few of the tickers and photograph them. Definitely cicadas, though they're noticeably smaller than the big broods of 2014 and 2019, and greener, with bigger eyes (here's a 2019 cicada for comparison).

It's remarkably hard to locate cicadas to photograph them, even when you're surrounded by junipers that each have several of them clicking loudly. Once you see them, you can see the movement as they make their ticking noises, and as they slowly work their way along a branch.

Read more ...

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[ 20:01 May 25, 2022    More nature | permalink to this entry | ]

Tue, 17 May 2022

Time-Lapse Video of Pyrocumulus from the Hermit's Peak Fire

The Cerro Pelado fire that was threatening Los Alamos is mostly under control now (71% contained as of Tuesday morning), and the county has relaxed the "prepare to evacuate" status.

That's good, and not just for Los Alamos, because it means more people who can fight the much larger Hermit's Peak/Calf Canyon fire, currently 26% contained and stretching over a huge 299,565 acres.

For those of us on the Pajarito Plateau, that means we're getting views of enormous pyrocumulus clouds towering over the Sangre de Cristo mountains from Las Vegas to just south of Taos.

I keep missing the opportunity for photos, but on Sunday night I took a series of images and made this time-lapse movie.

Read more ...

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[ 12:25 May 17, 2022    More nature | permalink to this entry | ]

Sun, 08 May 2022

Earth, Wind and (Cerro Pelado) Fire

[tree cage tied to fence]
It's the windy season, and the winds are crazy here. I'm pretty sure I saw a house, some flying monkeys and a woman on a bicycle fly past the window twenty minutes ago.

I'm not sure precisely how crazy — our weather station is only showing a max of 18 mph, which mostly means there are too many trees around it, but the weather station at TA54 just up the road is reading 26 right now, with a max of 48.3.

The cage that I built this spring to keep the deer away from the apple tree (not that it ever flowers or fruits anyway) keeps wanting to slide into the tree or topple over on top of it. I had to jump up twice during dinner and run out to rescue it. So now it's tied to some big rocks and, if those lose their grip, it's also tied to the fence.

Read more ...

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[ 19:49 May 08, 2022    More nature | permalink to this entry | ]

Thu, 03 Feb 2022

Shoveling in Paradise

[long tracks shoveled in snow] Shoveling our long driveways and multiple decks and patios is a lot of work, still novel and unfamiliar to a couple of refugees from California. Especially when, like yesterday, the snow keeps coming down so you have to do it repeatedly.

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[ 11:30 Feb 03, 2022    More misc | permalink to this entry | ]

Thu, 23 Dec 2021

Lost Some Trees to Bark Beetles

[Piñon Bark Beetles and larvae] This year's drought was fierce. We only had two substantial rainfalls all summer. And here in piñon-juniper country, that means the piñon trees were under heavy attack by piñon Ips bark beetles, Ips confusus.

Piñon bark beetles are apparently around all the time, but normally, the trees can fight them off by producing extra sap. But when it gets dry, drought-stressed trees can't make enough sap, the beetles proliferate, and trees start dying. Bark beetles are apparently the biggest known killer of mature piñon trees.

We're aware of this, and we water the piñons we can reach, and cross our fingers for the ones that are farther from the house. But this year we lost four trees -- all of them close enough to the house that we'd been watering them every three or four weeks.

Read more ...

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[ 18:38 Dec 23, 2021    More nature | permalink to this entry | ]

Sat, 09 Oct 2021

Yellow and Red

Sometimes it seems like yellow is the color of fall.

[Cowpen daisies] First, in late summer, a wide variety of sunflower appear: at the house we get mostly the ones with the uninspiring name of cowpen daisy (Verbesina encelioides). The flower is much prettier than its name would suggest.

[Snakeweed in bloom] Then the snakeweed (Gutierrezia sarothrae) and chamisa (Ericameria nauseosa) take over, with their carpets of tiny yellow flowers. (More unfortunate names. Chamisa has a mildly unpleasant smell when it's blooming, which presumably explains its unfortunate scientific name; I don't know why snakeweed is called that.)

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[ 19:25 Oct 09, 2021    More nature | permalink to this entry | ]

Fri, 01 Oct 2021

Piñon Tree in Bloom

['Blooming' piñon tree ] Saw this outside the White Rock library. It's not every day you get to see a piñon tree in bloom!

(Okay, so it's actually a chamisa growing under the piñon.)

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[ 13:03 Oct 01, 2021    More humor | permalink to this entry | ]

Sun, 29 Aug 2021

Hurt Hummer

[Hummingbird with btoken wing] Yesterday afternoon, I stepped out the back door and walked a few steps along the rocky path when I noticed movement at my feet.

It was a hummingbird, hidden in the rocks, and I'd almost stepped on it.

Closer examination showed that the hummer was holding its left wing out straight -- not a good sign. He might have flown into a window, but there's no way to know for sure how this little guy got injured.

The first order of business was to get him off the path so he wouldn't get stepped on. *

Read more ...

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[ 08:34 Aug 29, 2021    More nature/birds | permalink to this entry | ]

Mon, 14 Jun 2021

Bear in White Rock!

[teddy bear at the White Rock dump] Bears have been in our local news lately -- along with anti-bear measures.

A few weeks ago, the County Council voted to invest a sizable chunk of money in bear-proof garbage roll carts for every home in the county.

While this is probably a good idea up in Los Alamos, down here in White Rock it's silly. We almost never see bears here. But apparently people on the hill don't believe that, or are convinced that if Los Alamos residents all have secure roll carts, the bears will migrate down the hill to White Rock and start becoming a nuisance here. (Really! -- that was the argument for buying roll carts for White Rock too.)

Anyway, I've scoffed at this ... until yesterday. I was at Overlook Park at the weekly R/C flying get-together, and as I was packing up to leave, carrying planes back to the car, I saw a bear! It was sitting on the fence at the Collection Center (that's the current euphemism for what they used to call a dump), just chilling out. Didn't seem scared of me at all.

I was able to snap a quick photo and still escape with my life. Whew.

Maybe we do need those roll carts.

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[ 18:38 Jun 14, 2021    More humor | permalink to this entry | ]

Thu, 27 May 2021

Backyard Wildlife Drama, with Chipmunk

[Least chipmunk] This year, we've been lucky enough to have a chipmunk hanging around our garden. I feed a lot of birdseed on the ground or a platform feeder: most of the birds here seem to prefer ground-scattered seed to hanging seed feeders. Sometimes the ground feeding backfires: this year I'm buying seed at a furious rate because a flock of about 25 mourning doves have discovered our yard. I thought I liked mourning doves, which in recent years have seemed to be losing out to the larger white-winged and Eurasian collared doves ... but 25 is really too much of a good thing.

Where was I? Oh, yes, chipmunks. Usually they prefer the canyon's edge, about a mile away; we get rock squirrels here, but no tree squirrels and seldom chipmunks. So we were very happy when one took up residence here earlier this spring and became a regular visitor to our seed station, as well as running along the brick wall outside my office.

Read more ...

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[ 18:02 May 27, 2021    More nature | permalink to this entry | ]

Sat, 15 May 2021

Squabbling Tenants

They keep telling us what a serious housing problem Los Alamos county has. Especially low-income housing.

Well, I just saw it for myself, from the landlord's perspective. I was awakened at six this morning by two tenants squabbling over a low-rent apartment.

It started when one of the ash-throated flycatchers, who just arrived this week, landed on the railing outside the bedroom, making its typical chip-chip-churrup call. But then it changed to a different call, one I'd never heard before, a low and insistent repetitive trill.

But the nest box on that deck was already occupied by a pair of mountain chickadees. The chickadees have been there more than a week and are clearly not interested in vacating, even for a flycatcher twice their size. They made their kissy-noise chickadee call right back at the flycatcher, and the flycatcher eventually gave up and flew away.

Fortunately, unlike the county's problem, this one is relatively easily solved. There's another nest box, which I think is still unoccupied this year, just below the garden fence.

I guess, like the county, I should consider adding more subsidized housing. I could have sworn I bought a third nest box when I bought those two, and never got around to putting it up, But I can't find it now. I guess it's time to buy or make another nest box or two.

It's a nice problem to have. When I first bought these birdhouses, I didn't really expect I'd get any takers. But in the six years I've had them, they've hosted at least one nest each year, sometimes two or three. in addition to ash-throated flycatchers and mountain chickadees, they've also Bewick's wrens also use them.

Although they're sold as bluebird boxes, I've never had a bluebird use them; bluebirds fly over and sometimes stop for a drink, but they don't hang around or breed. I know there are skillions of bluebirds over in Pajarito Acres, only a few miles away, but I'm not sure how to entice them to hang out here. They're bug eaters and not interested in seed. A few voices on the 'net suggest that commercial bluebird boxes are designed for eastern bluebirds, and western bluebird boxes should have a slightly larger hole. So far I've been too lazy to do anything about that, but I do have woodworking tools, including a set of hole saws and Forstner bits. Maybe I'll put that on the to-do list for this week. Meanwhile, I'll enjoy the chickadees and flycatchers.

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[ 09:13 May 15, 2021    More nature/birds | permalink to this entry | ]

Tue, 16 Mar 2021

A Junco Goes "Umbrella Fishing"

One memorable sequence from Sir David Attenborough's stellar Life of Birds documentary is that of a black egret (or black heron -- I've seen both, but aside from color it looks remarkably like the North American snowy and reddish egrets), "umbrella fishing".

[grey-headed junco, 'umbrella fishing'] I never thought I'd have a chance to see that in person. But it turns out black herons aren't the only birds to do that. This winter, we saw a grey-headed junco doing essentially the same thing in our back yard!

This little junco performed its umbrella trick almost like the black heron from Life of Birds, though it didn't hide its head underneath. Still, it might some day: it was still perfecting its technique as we watched over the course of a couple of weeks.

Read more ...

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[ 14:38 Mar 16, 2021    More nature/birds | permalink to this entry | ]

Tue, 05 Jan 2021

A Golden ... Redtail?

[Red-tailed hawk impersonating a golden eagle] We were flying R/C planes at the soccer field at Overlook on Sunday morning when somebody asked, "What's that bird doing there?" There was a big bird sitting in the middle of the field. It looked like some sort of raptor. I keep a monocular in my flying case (it's not the first interesting bird to show up at the flying field), so I pulled it out. The bird had its back to me, but hmm, big raptor, all dark brown except for golden feathers on the neck and a few light ones on the back ... "Hey, guys, I think that's an immature golden eagle!"

Read more ...

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[ 10:12 Jan 05, 2021    More nature/birds | permalink to this entry | ]

Wed, 19 Aug 2020

W is for Whiptails

[Maybe a New Mexico Whiptail] Late summer is whiptail season. Whiptails are long, slender, extremely fast lizards with (as you might expect) especially long tails. They emerge from hibernation at least a month later than the fence lizards, but once they're awake, they're everywhere.

In addition to being pretty to look at, fun to watch as they hit the afterburner and streak across the yard, and challenging to photograph since they seldom sit still for long, they're interesting for several reasons.

Read more ...

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[ 19:56 Aug 19, 2020    More nature | permalink to this entry | ]

Thu, 30 Jul 2020

T is for Tame

[Tame grey jay] A couple of weeks ago the hiking group tackled Deception Peak, above the Santa Fe ski area.

It's a gorgeous hike, and one I'd wanted to do for years. Every year the group hikes up to Nambé Lake, at about 10,826' elevation, which I've always considered one of the most beautiful of our regular hikes. And every time I'm there, I look up at the rocky peaks above, and wonder what it's like up there. Now I finally know.

While on our way up the mountain, we were welcomed by a crew of grey jays begging near the trail. Grey jays are sometimes known as "camp robbers" because they're so tame and bold. They've learned that humans are a good source of food, and they're happy to swoop down and take it from you, or, if you're slow about offering the goods, to sit on a branch next to your head scolding you.

I dug some nuts out of my pack ...

Read more ...

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[ 11:19 Jul 30, 2020    More nature | permalink to this entry | ]

Fri, 26 Jun 2020

P is for Ponderosa (and Piñon too)

[ponderosa: only mostly dead] In dry years like this one, hiking the trails you see a lot of dead ponderosas. It's so sad, thinking of the loss of beautiful, tall trees like that.

Several years ago, someone who researches trees told us that even when ponderosas look dead, they may just be conserving resources. They might still bounce back in the next wet season. It's hard to believe, when you see a tree covered entirely with brown, dead needles. I confess, I didn't believe him.

But then we had a wet season, and I started seeing miracles.

Read more ...

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[ 09:44 Jun 26, 2020    More nature | permalink to this entry | ]

Thu, 11 Jun 2020

O is for Overlook Park -- and Other Great City Parks

[Rainbow over Shumo from Overlook Park] "Ho hum, it's just our local city park", we say, walking back to the parking area from the overlook at Overlook Park here in White Rock.

We're joking, of course. The Overlook has stunning views of White Rock Canyon that change as the light changes. It's maybe three miles from home, and we visit it fairly often and never get tired of the view.

It's amazing to have a place like this so close to home. And sometimes we get to thinking: how many other towns have a city park that compares?

Read more ...

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[ 14:55 Jun 11, 2020    More travel | permalink to this entry | ]

Sat, 06 Jun 2020

N is for Nestlings

A pair of mountain chickadees have a nest in the nest box I set up outside the bedroom window.

[Mountain chickadee] I first saw them bringing food to the nest almost a month ago, May 10, though I'm not sure if they were bringing food to a nest-sitting parent, or if they were feeding chicks that had already hatched.

Chickadees at a nest are quick-moving: they flit up to the hole and immediately enter, not lingering on the threshold like ash-throated flycatchers or Bewick's wrens, both of which have used this nestbox in past years. So it's not easy to get photos of chickadees at the nest box. So instead, here's a photo of a mountain chickadee from several years ago.

Since May 10 there's been plenty of activity, chickadees flying in and out, bringing food and carrying away fecal sacs.

Read more ...

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[ 11:07 Jun 06, 2020    More nature | permalink to this entry | ]

Sun, 17 May 2020

J is for Juniper

The robins have all gone now. I haven't seen one in several weeks. Instead, we have ash-throated flycatchers trilling their songs as they float among the junipers, plus a few hummingbirds (broad-tailed and black-chinned), mountain chickadees nesting in the birdhouse outside the bedroom, singing Bewick's wrens and spotted towhees that I hardly ever see, and a few bright-colored western tanagers stopping by for some suet and sweet stuff (oranges and jam) on their way farther north. I wonder where they eventually nest. Most range maps ( 1, 2, 3) show them breeding here, but nobody on the birding lists seems to see them for more than a few weeks in spring.

And, as I type this, a chipmunk! We so rarely have chipmunks that they're very welcome guests. This one's been hanging around for three days. I wish it would find a mate and stay here all summer. They're a lot more common out by the canyon edge.

But back to those robins. We had a banner winter for robins this year. Some years, we only have a few; other years, there are hundreds whinnying to each other in our piñon-juniper woodland yard.

Read more ...

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[ 18:41 May 17, 2020    More nature | permalink to this entry | ]

Sun, 19 Apr 2020

H is for Hummingbirds

I'd been delaying this entry, hoping the hummingbirds would show up. I only have a couple of them right now: a male broad-tailed and a male black-chinned. I hope things will perk up later: in midsummer the rufous and calliope hummingbirds arrive and things usually get a lot more active. But meanwhile, I have an H entry to write.

[Rufous hummingbird showing off his copper throat] The black-chinned hummingbirds we have here now have a beautiful purple throat. With, yes, a little bit of black there. Why womeone would look at a bird with an iridescent purple throat with a small black border and name it "black-chinned" is beyond me.

Unfortunately, this purple throat is even more sensitive to light angle than other hummingbirds' colors, and I haven't been able to get a photo that really shows it. Hummingbird feathers -- and particularly the feathers of the males' colorful throats -- have a structure that diffracts the light, creating beautiful iridescent colors that only show up when the sun is at just the right angle. If you watch a male black-chinned hummer at the feeder, its throat will look black most of the time, with occasional startling flashes of purple. You have to take a lot of photos and get lucky with timing to catch the flash. I'll get it some day. Meanwhile, here's a lovely black-chinned hummingbird photo from Arizona.

So instead, here's a photo of a male rufous hummingbirds, which will show up later in the summer. Rufous are a lot easier to photograph. Their brilliant copper-colored throats show up from a much wider range of angles, and rufous males are even more territorial than other hummers, so once one decides it owns your feeder, it will pose in the sunlight for most of the day, ready to chase any pretenders away.

Read more ...

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[ 20:02 Apr 19, 2020    More nature/birds | permalink to this entry | ]

Thu, 26 Mar 2020

C is for Cabezon (and the Census too)

... You thought C would be coronavirus or COVID-19, I bet!

Well, I won't pretend I'm not as obsessed with it as everybody else. Of course I am. But, house-bound as we all are now, let's try to think about other things at least now and then. It's healthier.

[Cabezon Peak] One of the distinctive peaks here in northern New Mexico is a butte called Cabezón, west of the Jemez near Cuba.

It's a volcanic neck: the core of an old volcano, part of the Mt Taylor volcanic field. Once a basalt volcano stops erupting, the lava sitting inside it slowly cools and solidifies. Then, over time, the outside of the volcano erodes away, leaving the hard basalt that used to be lava in the throat of the volcano. It's the same process that made Tunyo or Black Mesa, the butte between Los Alamos and Española that's been featured in so many movies, and the same process that made the spectacular Shiprock.

Dave and I have driven past Cabezón peak several times, but haven't yet actually explored it. Supposedly there's a trail and you can climb to the top (reports vary on how difficult the climb is). One of these days.

Last week, Dave was poking around in a Spanish dictionary and discovered that -ón in Spanish is a suffix that denotes something larger. So, since cabeza means head, cabezón means big head. (Looking for confirmation on that, I found this useful page on 18 Spanish Suffixes You’ll Never Want to Let Go Of.) Apparently it can also mean stubborn, ditzy, or just having big hair.

But hearing that cabezón meant big head took me back to my childhood, and another meaning of cabezón.

When I was maybe ten, my father decided to take up fishing. He bought a rod and reel, and brought me along as we headed out to the docks (I don't remember where, but we were in Los Angeles, so it was probably somewhere around Santa Monica or San Pedro).

This didn't last long as a hobby; I don't think dad was cut out for fishing. And mostly he didn't catch anything. But on one of our last fishing trips, he caught a fish. An amazing fish. It wasn't especially big, maybe fourteen inches or so. It had a big head and a triangular body, with a flat belly as the base of the triangle. It had weird fins. It was dark olive green on two sides of the triangle, with a dull yellow belly. It looked prehistoric, and sent me running off to the books when we got home to make sure we hadn't caught a coelocanth.

[Cabezon, Scorpaenichthys marmoratus] After some research at the library (this was way pre internet), my father concluded that he'd caught something called, you guessed it, a cabezón.

Searching for photos now, I'm not so sure that's right. None of the photos I've found look that much like the fish I remember. But I can't find anything more likely candidates, either (though I'm wondering about the Pacific staghorn sculpin as a possibility). I guess fish identification even now in the age of Google isn't all that much easier than it was in the seventies.

I don't think we ever ate the fish. It sat in his freezer for quite a while while he tried to identify it, and I'm not sure what happened after that.

So maybe I've seen a cabezón fish, and maybe I haven't. But it was fun to learn about the -ón suffix in Spanish, to find out the meaning of the name for that distinctive butte out near Cuba. One of these days Dave and I will go hike it. And if we make it to the top, we'll try not to get big heads about it.

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[ 19:17 Mar 26, 2020    More nature | permalink to this entry | ]

Mon, 17 Feb 2020

A Couple of Nice Hikes

[The lunch spot on Lion Cave Mesa] We've had some wild weather recently. Two weeks ago, our weekly hiking group was sscheduled to go on a hike in sunny White Rock that Dave and I had proposed, a few miles from home. Then the night before the hike, we got our heaviest snowstorm of the year so far.

Sounded like a great opportunity to test those new ice spikes (for shoes) I'd ordered on eBay. We went down Lion Cave Canyon, around the mesa and up Water Canyon, then climbed up to the top of the mesa and went out to the end to a lunch spot with a panoramic view of Water Canyon and the Sangre de Cristos.

[Walking the Neck] Then back across the narrow neck of the mesa. The temperature was just about perfect for hiking with the sun and the snow. The ice spikes worked perfectly -- the snow wasn't deep enough to need snowshoes, but there were plenty of places where it would have been slippery without the spikes.

[Snow Bumps] We also had fun speculating on the cause of the "snow bumps" that formed around the grama grass stems.

[Dramatic light in Pueblo Canyoo] Now, two weeks later, most of the snow is gone and it's a beautiful day with a high of 60. We headed out for a short exploration in Pueblo Canyon, looking for the old airport that some folks in the R/C flying club thought might make a good flying site.

Some clouds moved in while we were walking, making for dramatic views of the cliffs. I just never get tired of the way the changing light plays on the mesas and canyons.

[Dramatic light in Pueblo Canyoo] We didn't find the old airport -- more exploration needed! -- but we did find the new connector to the Tent Rocks Trail, where the Youth Conservation Corps has been busy with trailwork in Pueblo Canyon. And we explored the remains of an old road -- below Anderson Overlook: possibly the original horse/mule road that they used in the Ranch School days before the Manhattan Project.

Another beautiful day in Los Alamos.

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[ 19:58 Feb 17, 2020    More nature | permalink to this entry | ]

Thu, 02 Jan 2020

Horseshoe Crabs in New Mexico

[Horseshoe crab tracks in snow] On a recent hike to Escobas Mesa, I happened upon these tracks.

"Look! Trilobite tracks!" I exclaimed. But upon examining them more closely, I saw I was wrong. They look a little like trilobites, but they're clearly the tracks of a horseshoe crab.

Either way, quite a rare find in the snowy mountains of New Mexico.

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[ 19:23 Jan 02, 2020    More nature | permalink to this entry | ]

Fri, 06 Dec 2019

Bluebird Houses in Winter

[bluebird peering out from birdhouse] Last week, a flock of western bluebirds suddenly became fascinated with my two bluebird houses.

First I noticed a bluebird clinging to the outside of the downhill bluebird house. He would poke his head in the hole briefly, a couple of times, flutter to the top of the house, flutter back down to cling outside the hole and stick his head in. He never actually went in, and eventually lost interest and flew away.

Then a few minutes later, there were several bluebirds fluttering around the birdhouse that's outside the upstairs bedroom. I counted at least five individuals; I think they were all males. (The photos here are of a different, mixed-gender flock.) They were taking turns perching on top of the birdhouse, clinging to the outside and poking their heads in the hole. They attracted a junco, a robin and a flicker who apparently came to see what was so interesting; eventually the big flicker was apparently too intimidating, though she wasn't doing anything threatening, and all the bluebirds departed.

Neither of my birdhouses has ever had a bluebird breeding in it; they've had ash-throated flycatchers and a juniper titmouse during breeding season. Neither of them has been cleaned out since the last breeding season; I've been meaning to do that but haven't gotten around to it yet.

[bluebirds hanging out at the water dish] Are they looking for a place to shelter in cold weather? Or scouting out sites to have an advantage in next year's breeding season? Should I hurry to clean them out so they'll look more appealing during the winter? I posted to the local birders' list, but nobody seemed to know.

I'd love to have more bluebirds around; they usually only visit briefly to bathe and drink. Alas, they haven't been back, but I put the heated birdback out a few days ago and it should be popular once the days get colder.

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[ 20:39 Dec 06, 2019    More nature/birds | permalink to this entry | ]

Thu, 24 Oct 2019

Fall in Frijoles Canyon

[Tree arch in autumn] We had a lovely hike yesterday down Bandelier's Frijoles Canyon, from Ponderosa to Upper Crossing then down the canyon to the Visitor Center (where we'd left a shuttle car), for a one-way total about eight miles.

Our hiking group had missed the peak of the aspens last week at Santa Barbara, so we were happy to discover that fall is still in full swing in Frijoles.

There are no aspens down this low, but there are plenty of cottonwoods, a related tree that turns the same vibrant yellow. Plus maples, Gambel oaks giving a nice multicolored show this year, and plenty of other trees I can't identify. (For people who really need a dose of aspen, the slopes of Pajarito Mountain still have some nice bright yellow patches.)

[Frijoles natural bridge] We had lunch by the natural bridge: a huge rock slab that collapsed into the opposite canyon wall, probably some time in the last ten years. No one is sure exactly when it happened because the canyon was impassable after the floods of 2013 and not very passable even in the decade before that. But old-timers who used to hike the canyon decades ago swear there was nothing like the natural bridge there, and it's the sort of thing you'd remember. When the trail was cleared out and made passable again a couple of years ago, the bridge was a surprise to everyone. Geology in action in our lifetimes!

[October snow] I started the hike in two sweaters and gloves, but was down to a t-shirt by the time we got to the canyon.

The next day, today, the temperature was around 31 at the house, and it snowed! New Mexico weather is so much more fun than California.

As I write this, there's still snow on the ground, the juncos are going crazy fueling up for winter, the sun is out here but I'm looking down at drifting fog over White Rock Canyon. And the oatmeal cookies just came out of the oven.

More photos from Frijoles Canyon: Frijoles Canyon Trail in October 2019.

[ 14:18 Oct 24, 2019    More nature | permalink to this entry | ]

Tue, 06 Aug 2019

Update on my Rescued Nestlings

Last month I wrote about the orphaned nestlings I found on the ground off the back deck, and how I took them to a rehabilitator when the parents didn't come back to feed them.

Here's the rest of the story. Warning: it's only half a happy ending.

[Nestlings starting to feather out] Under the good care of our local bird rehabilitator, they started to feather out and gain weight quickly. She gave me some literature on bird rescue and let me visit them and help feed them. There's a lot of work and responsibility involved in bird rehabilitation!

[Nestlings starting to feather out] I'd sometimes thought I wanted to be a rehabilitator; now I'm not so sure I'm up to the responsibility. Though the chicks sure were adorable once they started to look like birds instead of embryos, sitting so trustingly in Sally's hand.

[Looking more like a bird] The big mystery was what species they were. Bird rehabilitators have charts where you can look up bird species according to weight, mouth color, gape color, skin color, feather color, and feet and leg size. But the charts only have a few species; they're woefully incomplete, and my babies didn't match any of the listings. We were thinking maybe robin or ash-throated flycatcher, but nothing really matched.

Fortunately, you can feed the same thing to anything but finches: Cornell makes a mixture of meat, dog food, vitamins and minerals that's suitable for most baby birds, though apparently it's dangerous to feed it to finches, so we crossed our fingers and guessed that they were too big to be house finches.

As they grew more feathers, Sally increasingly suspected they were canyon towhees (a common bird in White Rock), and although they still didn't have adult plumage by the time they left the cage, that's still what we think.

[Hopping alertly around the cage now] By about twenty days after the rescue, they were acting almost like adult birds, hopping restlessly around the cage, jumping up to the perch and fluttering back down. They were eating partly by themselves at this point, a variety of foods including lettuce, blueberries, cut up pea pods, and dried mealworms, though they weren't eating many seeds like you'd expect from towhees. They still liked being fed the Cornell meat mixture, and ate more of that than anything else.

I Get to be a Bird Mom For a While

At this point, Sally needed to go out of town, and I offered to babysit them so she didn't have to take them on her trip. (One of the big downsites of being a rehabilitator: while you're in charge of babies, they need constant care.) I took them back to my place, where I hoped I'd be able to release them: partly because they'd been born here, and partly because the towhees here in White Rock aren't so territorial as they apparently are in Los Alamos.

With the chicks safely stashed in the guest bedroom, I could tell they were getting restless and wanted out of the cage. When I opened the cage to feed them and change their water and bedding, they escaped out into the room a couple of times and I had to catch them and get them back in the cage. So I knew they could fly and wanted out. (I'm sure being moved from Sally's house to mine didn't help: the change in surroundings probably unnerved them.)

Sally advised me to leave the cage outside during the day for a couple of days prior to the releasing, so the birds can get used to the environment. The first day I put them outside, they immediately seemed much happier and calmer. It seemed they liked being outside.

I Fail as a Bird Mom

On their second morning outdoors, I left them with new food and water, then came back to check on them an hour later. They seemed much more agitated than before, flying madly from one side of the cage to the other. Sally had described her last tenant, a sparrow, doing that just before release; she had released the sparrow a bit earlier than planned because the bird seemed to want out so badly. I wondered if that was the case here, but decided to wait one more day.

But the larger of the two babies had other ideas. When I unzipped the top of the cage to re-fill the water dish, it was in the air immediately, and somehow shot through the tiny opening next to my arm.

It flew about thirty feet, landed in a clearing -- and was immediately taken by a Cooper's hawk that came out of nowhere.

The hawk flew off, the baby towhee squeaking pathetically in its talons, leaving me and the other baby in shock.

What a blow! The bird rescue literature Sally loaned me stresses that bad things can happen. There are so many things that can go wrong with a nestling or a release. They tell you how poor the odds are for baby birds in general. They remind you that the birds would have had no chance of survival if you hadn't rescued them; rescued, at least they have some chance.

While I know that's all true, I'm not sure it makes me feel much better.

In hindsight, Sally said the chicks' agitation that day might have been because they knew the hawk was there, though neither of us though about that possibility at the time. She thinks the hawk must have been "stalking them", hanging out nearby, aware that there was something delectable inside the cage. She's had chicks taken by hawks too. Still ... sigh.

The Next Release Goes Better

But there was still the remaining chick to think about. Sally and I discussed options and decided that I should bring the chick back inside, and then drive it back up to her house. The hawk would probably remain around my place for a while,and the area wouldn't be safe for a new fledgling. Indeed, I saw the hawk again a few days later. (Normally I love seeing Cooper's hawks!)

The chick was obviously unhappy, whether because of being brought back inside, loneliness, or remaining trauma from hearing the attack -- even if it didn't understand exactly what had happened, I'm sure the chick heard the "towhee in mortal peril" noises just as I did.

So the chick (whom Dave dubbed "Lucky") had to wait another several days before finally being released.

The release went well. Lucky, less bold than its nestmate, was initially reluctant to leave the cage, but eventually fluttered out and flew to the shade of a nearby bush, where we could see it pecking at the ground and apparently eating various unidentifiable bits. It looked like it was finding plenty to eat there, it was mostly hidden from predators and competetors, and it had shade and shelter -- a good spot to begin a new life.

(I tried to get a video of the release but that didn't work out.)

Since then the chick has kept a low profile, but Sally thinks she saw a towhee fledgling a couple of days later. So we have our fingers crossed!

More photos: Nestling Rescue Photos.

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[ 09:50 Aug 06, 2019    More nature/birds | permalink to this entry | ]

Tue, 02 Jul 2019

Orphaned Nestlings

Yesterday afternoon I was walking up the path to the back door when I noticed a bird's nest on the ground. I bent to examine it -- and spied two struggling baby birds on the rocks next to the nest.

[Orphaned nestling baby birds, gaping for food] I gently picked them up and put them back in the nest. Then what? On the ground there, they'd be easy fodder for coyotes, foxes or any other predator. But the tree it must have fallen from is a tall blue spruce; the lowest branches are way above head height, and even then I couldn't see any secure place to put a nest where it wouldn't immediately fall down again.

I chose another option: there's an upstairs deck immediately adjacent to that tree, so if I put the nest on the corner of the deck, it might be close enough to its original location that if the parents came looking for the nest, they'd be able to hear the chicks' calls. I've always read that parents will hang around and feed nestlings if they fall from the tree.

Nice theor; but the problem was that the chicks were too quiet. When they felt the nest jiggle as I moved it, they gaped, obviously wanting food; but although they did make a faint peeping, it wasn't loud enough to be heard from more than a few feet away.

Nevertheless, I left them there overnight, hoping a parent would find them in the evening or first thing in the morning. The deck is adjacent to my bedroom, so I was pretty sure I'd hear it if the parents came and fed the chicks. (It's easy to hear when the Bewick's wrens in the nest box above the other deck come to feed their chicks in the morning.)

Alas, there was no reunion. I heard no sounds and saw no activity. The chicks were still alive and active in the morning, but obviously very hungry, gaping every time they heard a noise. I wanted very badly to feed them, to find a bug or a little piece of steak or something that I could put in those gaping hungry mouths, but I was afraid of feeding them something that might turn out to be harmful. As it turned out, that was the right decision.

It was time to call for help (I'd posted on our local birders' list the evening before, but no one had any useful advice). Fortunately, we have an experienced bird rehabilitator in town, whom I know slightly, so I called her and got the okay to bring them in.

[Orphaned nestlings, now warm and fed] She weighed the babies (roughly 17 and 14 grams), put them on a heating pad and gave them a little pedialite solution. She said she couldn't actually feed them until they pooped; if I understood correctly, baby birds can get backed up and if you feed them then, it can kill them. Fortunately they both pooped right away after getting a drink, so she mixed up some baby bird formula and fed them with an eyedropper.

You know how parent birds always seem to shove their bill all the way down the chick's throat while feeding them? It always looks like they'd be in danger of puncturing the chick's stomach, but it turns out there's a reason for it. Much like humans, birds can have food going "down the wrong pipe", down the trachea or breathing tube rather than the esophagus or food tube. Unlike humans, birds don't have an epiglottis, the flap that closes over a mammal's trachea to keep food from getting in. When adult birds eat (I looked this up after getting home), the opening of the glottis closes during swallowing; but when feeding baby birds, you have to insert your eyedropper (or your bill, if you're a parent bird) well past the entrance to the trachea to make sure the food doesn't go down the breathing tube and drown/smother the chick. It takes training and practice to get this right, and sometimes even experienced bird rehabilitators get it wrong. So it was a good thing I didn't start randomly dropping chunks of food into the nestlings' mouths.

Sally wasn't any more able to identify the nestlings' species than I was. One possible suggestion I had was ash-throated flycatcher: they're about the right size, we have several hanging about the yard, and one had been hanging around that area of the yard all day, pestering the Bewick's wrens feeding their young in the nest box. I thought maybe the flycatchers wanted the nest box for their second nest of the season; but what if the flycatchers, normally cavity nesters, hadn't been able to find a suitable cavity, had tried building a nest in the blue spruce and done a poor job of it and the nest fell down?

It's a nice theory; but Sally showed me that these nestlings have crops (bulging places by their mouths where they were storing food as they ate), which apparently flycatchers don't. She said that's why flycatcher parents are so harried -- they're constantly on the move catching bugs to feed to their chicks, much more than most birds, because the babies can't store food themselves.

[The nest that fell] They could be canyon towhees or juniper titmouse; the bird rehabilitator guides didn't those species so it's hard to tell. Or they could be robins or even bluebirds, but I haven't seen many of either species around the yard this summer. They seem too big to be house finches, wrens, chickadees or bushtits.

The construction of the nest might give some clues. It's a work of art, roomy and sturdy and very comfortable looking, made of tansy mustard and other weeds and lined with soft hair. Maybe I'll find someone who's good at nest identification.

Anyway, for now, their species is a mystery, but they're warm and fed and being well cared for. She warned me that nestlings don't always survive and sometimes they have injuries from falling, but with any luck, they'll grow and eventually will be released.

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[ 15:40 Jul 02, 2019    More nature | permalink to this entry | ]

Thu, 28 Mar 2019

Antler in the Yard

We see mule deer often enough that I've wondered if we would ever find a shed antler in the yard.

[Shed antler] A couple of days ago Dave found one. It's just a 4-pointer, but it's a big 4-pointer. We're still hoping its mate might be somewhere nearby, but no luck so far.

It feels enormously heavy, though the scale says it's just shy of two pounds. Still, carrying around four pounds on your head all the time ... sounds like a recipe for a headache.

The day after the antler turned up, five bucks visited our garden in the evening. Four of them still had substantial buttons where antlers had recently been. The fifth still had antlers (a ten-pointer).

I have to wonder, what do they think about that? Is the guy who still has antlers the macho king of the yard? Or are the other four saying "Gosh, I'm so glad mine dropped last week, so sorry you still have to carry that rack around"?

[ 15:51 Mar 28, 2019    More nature | permalink to this entry | ]

Sun, 03 Feb 2019

A Spectacular Lenticular

I was hurrying to check in some tweaks to the BillTracker before leaving to join some friends for dinner when I noticed some beautiful clouds over the Sangre de Cristos.

"That's a spectacular lenticular!" I exclaimed, grabbing the camera.

[Spectacular lenticular cloud]

The clouds got even better ten minutes later as the sunset turned the clouds salmon-pink, but alas by then we were pulling up to a friend's driveway and didn't have a clear view, and by the time I did, I'd lost the light.

When I offloaded the photos from the camera's SD card this morning to see how the photos came out, I found some older photos from our snowstorm a few weeks ago. In particular, a photo of that curly dragon-droop glacier above the den deck after it fell. Before and after:

[] []

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[ 17:58 Feb 03, 2019    More nature | permalink to this entry | ]

Sun, 13 Jan 2019

Snowy Views and Giant Curling Icicles

[Snowy back yard] And the snow continues to fall. We got a break of a few days, but today it's snowed fairly steadily all day, adding another -- I don't know, maybe four inches? Snow is hard to measure because it piles up so unevenly, two inches here, eight there.

[Snowshoe trail, Jemez East Fork] The hiking group I'm in went snowshoeing up in the Jemez last week -- lovely! The shrubs that managed to stick up above the snow all wore coats of ice, which fell by afternoon, littering the snow around them with an extra coat of glitter.

[icicle] And it was lovely here too, with a thick blanket of snow over everything. (I need to get some snowshoes of my own, to make it easier to explore the yard when conditions get like this, otherwise the snow would be thigh-deep in places. For the hike last week, I borrowed a pair.)

[Curling icicles] And, of course, there's the never-ending fascination of watching icicles, snow glaciers moving down the roof, and, this time, huge curving icicles growing downward above the den deck. They hung more than four feet below the roof before they finally separated and fell with a huge THUMP!, leaving a three-foot-high pile of snow that poor Dave had to shovel (I helped with shoveling at first, until I slipped and sprained my wrist; it's improving, but not enough that I can shovel ice yet).
Images of the snowstorm and the showshoe hike: Snowstorms in January 2019.

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[ 16:00 Jan 13, 2019    More misc | permalink to this entry | ]

Fri, 28 Dec 2018

A Post-Christmas Snow

[Snow world] The morning after Christmas we woke up to a beautiful white world, with snow still coming down.

Shoveling is a drag, but still, the snowy landscape is so beautiful, and still such a wonderful novelty for ex-Californians.

This morning we awoke to much the same view, except the snow was deeper -- 8-12 inches, quite a lot for White Rock.

[Roof glacier hanging] We also had the usual amusement of Roof Glaciers: as the mat of snow gradually slides off the metal roof, it hangs off the edge, gradually curling, until finally the weight is great enough that it breaks off and falls. Definitely an amusing sight from inside, and fun from outside too (a few years ago I made time-lapse movies of the roof glaciers).

[Sunny New Mexican snow world] And then, this being New Mexico, the sun came out, so even while snowflakes continued to swirl down we got a bright sunny sparkly snow vista.

Yesterday, the snow stopped falling by afternoon, so Raspberry Pi Club had its usual Thursday meeting. But the second storm came in hours earlier than predicted, and driving home from Pi Club was a bit icy. I wasn't looking forward to the drive up to PEEC and back tonight in a heavier snowstorm for our planetarium talk; but PEEC has closed the Nature Center today on account of snow, which means that tonight's planetarium talk is also canceled. We'll reschedule, probably next quarter.

Happy Holidays, everyone, whether you're huddling inside watching the snow, enjoying sunny weather, or anything in between. Stay warm, and walk in beauty.

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[ 12:28 Dec 28, 2018    More misc | permalink to this entry | ]

Sun, 21 Oct 2018

How to tell sparrows apart

[Sparrow ID page] I was filing an eBird report the other day, dutifully cataloging the first junco of the year and the various other birds that have been hanging around, when a sparrow flew into my binocular field. A chipping sparrow? Probably ... but this one wasn't so clearly marked.

I always have trouble telling the dang sparrows apart. When I open the bird book, I always have to page through dozens of pages of sparrows that are never seen in this county, trying to figure out which one looks most like what I'm seeing.

I used to do that with juncos, but then I made a local copy of a wonderful comparison photo Bob Walker published a couple years ago on the PEEC blog: Bird of the Week – The Dark-eyed Junco. (I also have the same sort of crib sheet for the Raspberry Pi GPIO pins.) Obviously I needed a similar crib sheet for sparrows.

So I collected the best publically-licensed images I could find on the web, and made Sparrows of Los Alamos County, with comparison images close together so I can check them quickly before the bird flies away.

If you live somewhere else so the Los Alamos County list isn't quite what you need, you're welcome to use the code to make your own version.

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[ 19:18 Oct 21, 2018    More nature | permalink to this entry | ]

Wed, 08 Aug 2018

August Hailstorm

We're still not getting the regular thunderstorms one would normally expect in the New Mexico monsoon season, but at least we're getting a little relief from the drought.

Last Saturday we had a fairly impressive afternoon squall. It only lasted about ten minutes but it dumped over an inch of rain and hail in that time. ("Over an inch" means our irritating new weather station stopped recording at exactly 1.0 even though we got some more rain after that, making us suspect that it has some kind of built-in "that can't be right!" filter. It reads in hundredths of an inch and it's hard to believe that we didn't even get another .01 after that.)

{Pile of hailstones on our deck} It was typical New Mexico hail -- lentil-sized, not like the baseballs we heard about in Colorado Springs a few days later that killed some zoo animals. I hear this area does occasionally get big hailstones, but it's fortunately rare.

There was enough hail on the ground to make for wintry snow scenes, and we found an enormous pile of hailstones on our back deck that persisted through the next day (that deck is always shady). Of course, the hail out in the yard disappeared in under half an hour once the New Mexico sun came out.

{Pile of hailstones on our deck} But before that, as soon as the squall ended, we went out to walk the property and take a look the "snow" and in particular at "La Cienega" or "the swamp", our fanciful name for an area down at the bottom of the hill where water collects and there's a little willow grove. There was indeed water there -- covered with a layer of floating hail -- but on the way down we also had a new "creek" with several tributaries, areas where the torrent carved out little streambeds.

It's fun to have our own creek ... even if it's only for part of a day.

More photos: August hailstorm.

[ 19:28 Aug 08, 2018    More nature | permalink to this entry | ]

Mon, 07 May 2018

A Hissy Fit

As I came home from the market and prepared to turn into the driveway I had to stop for an obstacle: a bullsnake who had stretched himself across the road.

[pugnacious bullsnake]

I pulled off, got out of the car and ran back. A pickup truck was coming around the bend and I was afraid he would run over the snake, but he stopped and rolled down the window to help. White Rock people are like that, even the ones in pickup trucks.

The snake was pugnacious, not your usual mellow bullsnake. He coiled up and started hissing madly. The truck driver said "Aw, c'mon, you're not fooling anybody. We know you're not a rattlesnake," but the snake wasn't listening. (I guess that's understandable, since they have no ears.)

I tried to loom in front of him and stamp on the ground to herd him off the road, but he wasn't having any of it. He just kept coiling and hissing, and struck at me when I got a little closer.

I moved my hand slowly around behind his head and gently took hold of his neck -- like what you see people do with rattlesnakes, though I'd never try that with a venomous snake without a lot of practice and training. With a bullsnake, even if they bite you it's not a big deal. When I was a teenager I had a pet gopher snake (a fringe benefit of having a mother who worked on wildlife documentaries), and though "Goph" was quite tame, he once accidentally bit me when I was replacing his water dish after feeding him and he mistook my hand for a mouse. (He seemed acutely embarrassed, if such an emotion can be attributed to a reptile; he let go immediately and retreated to sulk in the far corner of his aquarium.) Anyway, it didn't hurt; their teeth are tiny and incredibly sharp, and it feels like the pinprick from a finger blood test at the doctor's office.

Anyway, the bullsnake today didn't bite. But after I moved him off the road to a nice warm basalt rock in the yard, he stayed agitated, hissing loudly, coiling and beating his tail to mimic a rattlesnake. He didn't look like he was going to run and hide any time soon, so I ran inside to grab a camera.

In the photos, I thought it was interesting how he held his mouth when he hisses. Dave thought it looked like W.C. Fields. I hadn't had a chance to see that up close before: my pet snake never had occasion to hiss, and I haven't often seen wild bullsnakes be so pugnacious either -- certainly not for long enough that I've been able to photograph it. You can also see how he puffs up his neck.

I now have a new appreciation of the term "hissy fit".

[pugnacious bullsnake]

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[ 15:06 May 07, 2018    More nature | permalink to this entry | ]

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 | ]

Sun, 23 Jul 2017

Nambé Lake Grey Jays

[Nambe Lake]

This week's hike was to Nambé Lake, high in the Sangre de Cristos above Santa Fe.

It's a gorgeous spot, a clear, shallow mountain lake surrounded by steep rocky slopes up to Lake Peak and Santa Fe Baldy. I assume it's a glacial cirque, though I can't seem to find any confirmation of that online.

[Grey jay taking bread from my hand.] There's a raucous local population of grey jays, fearless and curious. One of my hiking companions suggested they'd take food from my hand if I offered. I broke off a bit of my sandwich and offered it, and sure enough, a jay flew right over. Eventually we had three or four of them hanging around our lunch spot.

The rocky slopes are home to pikas, but they're shy and seldom seen. We did see a couple of marmots in the rocks, and I caught a brief glimpse of a small, squirrel-sized head that looked more grey than brown like I'd expect from a rock squirrel. Was it a pika? I'll never know.

We also saw some great flowers. Photos: Nambé Lake Grey Jays.

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[ 09:55 Jul 23, 2017    More nature | permalink to this entry | ]

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 | ]

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 | ]

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 | ]

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 | ]

Sun, 08 Jan 2017

Snowy Winter Days, and an Elk Visit

[Snowy view of the Rio Grande from Overlook]

The snowy days here have been so pretty, the snow contrasting with the darkness of the piñons and junipers and the black basalt. The light fluffy crystals sparkle in a rainbow of colors when they catch the sunlight at the right angle, but I've been unable to catch that effect in a photo.

We've had some unusual holiday visitors, too, culminating in this morning's visit from a huge bull elk.

[bull elk in the yard] Dave came down to make coffee and saw the elk in the garden right next to the window. But by the time I saw him, he was farther out in the yard. And my DSLR batteries were dead, so I grabbed the point-and-shoot and got what I could through the window.

Fortunately for my photography the elk wasn't going anywhere in any hurry. He has an injured leg, and was limping badly. He slowly made his way down the hill and into the neighbors' yard. I hope he returns. Even with a limp that bad, an elk that size has no predators in White Rock, so as long as he stays off the nearby San Ildefonso reservation (where hunting is allowed) and manages to find enough food, he should be all right. I'm tempted to buy some hay to leave out for him.

[Sunset light on the Sangre de Cristos] Some of the sunsets have been pretty nice, too.

A few more photos.

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[ 19:48 Jan 08, 2017    More photo | permalink to this entry | ]

Mon, 19 Sep 2016

Frogs on the Rio, and Other Amusements

Saturday, a friend led a group hike for the nature center from the Caja del Rio down to the Rio Grande.

The Caja (literally "box", referring to the depth of White Rock Canyon) is an area of national forest land west of Santa Fe, just across the river from Bandelier and White Rock. Getting there involves a lot of driving: first to Santa Fe, then out along increasingly dicey dirt roads until the road looks too daunting and it's time to get out and walk.

[Dave climbs the Frijoles Overlook trail] From where we stopped, it was only about a six mile hike, but the climb out is about 1100 feet and the day was unexpectedly hot and sunny (a mixed blessing: if it had been rainy, our Rav4 might have gotten stuck in mud on the way out). So it was a notable hike. But well worth it: the views of Frijoles Canyon (in Bandelier) were spectacular. We could see the lower Bandelier Falls, which I've never seen before, since Bandelier's Falls Trail washed out below the upper falls the summer before we moved here. Dave was convinced he could see the upper falls too, but no one else was convinced, though we could definitely see the red wall of the maar volcano in the canyon just below the upper falls.

[Canyon Tree Frog on the Rio Grande] We had lunch in a little grassy thicket by the Rio Grande, and we even saw a few little frogs, well camouflaged against the dirt: you could even see how their darker brown spots imitated the pebbles in the sand, and we wouldn't have had a chance of spotting them if they hadn't hopped. I believe these were canyon treefrogs (Hyla arenicolor). It's always nice to see frogs -- they're not as common as they used to be. We've heard canyon treefrogs at home a few times on rainy evenings: they make a loud, strange ratcheting noise which I managed to record on my digital camera. Of course, at noon on the Rio the frogs weren't making any noise: just hanging around looking cute.

[Chick Keller shows a burdock leaf] Sunday we drove around the Pojoaque Valley following their art tour, then after coming home I worked on setting up a new sandblaster to help with making my own art. The hardest and least fun part of welded art is cleaning the metal of rust and paint, so it's exciting to finally have a sandblaster to help with odd-shaped pieces like chains.

Then tonight was a flower walk in Pajarito Canyon, which is bursting at the seams with flowers, especially purple aster, goldeneye, Hooker's evening primrose and bahia. Now I'll sign off so I can catalog my flower photos before I forget what's what.

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[ 20:17 Sep 19, 2016    More nature | permalink to this entry | ]

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 | ]

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


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 | ]

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 | ]

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 | ]

Sun, 20 Dec 2015

Christmas Bird Count

Yesterday was the Los Alamos Christmas Bird Count.

[ Mountain chickadee ] 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.)

[ Two very late-season sandhill cranes ] 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 to count.)

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.

[ Scaled quail ] 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: Los Alamos Christmas Bird Count, White Rock team, 2015.

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[ 14:21 Dec 20, 2015    More nature/birds | permalink to this entry | ]

Mon, 21 Sep 2015

The meaning of "fetid"; Albireo; and musings on variations in sensory perception

[Fetid marigold, which actually smells wonderfully minty] 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?

[Fetid goosefoot] 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.

[Albireo, from Jefffisher10 on Wikimedia Commons] 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, find "fetid".

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[ 16:09 Sep 21, 2015    More nature | permalink to this entry | ]

Thu, 10 Sep 2015

The blooms of summer, and weeds that aren't weeds

[Wildflowers on the Quemazon trail] 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.

[Snakeweed in bloom] 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 Friday) afternoon. 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 Planetarium Show.

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[ 21:24 Sep 10, 2015    More nature | permalink to this entry | ]

Sun, 09 Aug 2015

Bat Ballet above the Amaranths

This evening Dave and I spent quite a while clearing out amaranth (pigweed) that's been growing up near the house.

[Palmer's amaranth, pigweed] 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 same 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.

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[ 21:47 Aug 09, 2015    More nature | permalink to this entry | ]

Thu, 30 Jul 2015

A good week for critters

It's been a good week for unusual wildlife.

[Myotis bat hanging just outside the front door] We got a surprise a few nights ago when flipping the porch light on to take the trash out: a bat was clinging to the wall just outside the front door.

It was tiny, and very calm -- so motionless we feared it was dead. (I took advantage of this to run inside and grab the camera.) It didn't move at all while we were there. The trash mission accomplished, we turned out the light and left the bat alone. Happily, it wasn't ill or dead: it was gone a few hours later.

We see bats fairly regularly flying back and forth across the patio early on summer evenings -- insects are apparently attracted to the light visible through the windows from inside, and the bats follow the insects. But this was the first close look I'd had at a stationary bat, and my first chance to photograph one.

I'm not completely sure what sort of bat it is: almost certainly some species of Myotis (mouse-eared bats), and most likely M. yumanensis, the "little brown bat". It's hard to be sure, though, as there are at least six species of Myotis known in the area.

[Woodrat released from trap] We've had several woodrats recently try to set up house near the house or the engine compartment of our Rav4, so we've been setting traps regularly. Though woodrats are usually nocturnal, we caught one in broad daylight as it explored the area around our garden pond.

But the small patio outside the den seems to be a particular draw for them, maybe because it has a wooden deck with a nice dark space under it for a rat to hide. We have one who's been leaving offerings -- pine cones, twigs, leaves -- just outside the door (and less charming rat droppings nearby), so one night Dave set three traps all on that deck. I heard one trap clank shut in the middle of the night, but when I checked in the morning, two traps were sprung without any occupants and the third was still open.

But later that morning, I heard rattling from outside the door. Sure enough, the third trap was occupied and the occupant was darting between one end and the other, trying to get out. I told Dave we'd caught the rat, and we prepared to drive it out to the parkland where we've been releasing them.

[chipmunk caught in our rat trap] And then I picked up the trap, looked in -- and discovered it was a pretty funny looking woodrat. With a furry tail and stripes. A chipmunk! We've been so envious of the folks who live out on the canyon rim and are overloaded with chipmunks ... this is only the second time we've seen here, and now it's probably too spooked to stick around.

We released it near the woodpile, but it ran off away from the house. Our only hope for its return is that it remembers the nice peanut butter snack it got here.

[Baby Great Plains skink] Later that day, we were on our way out the door, late for a meeting, when I spotted a small lizard in the den. (How did it get in?) Fast and lithe and purple-tailed, it skittered under the sofa as soon as it saw us heading its way.

But the den is a small room and the lizard had nowhere to go. After upending the sofa and moving a couple of tables, we cornered it by the door, and I was able to trap it in my hands without any damage to its tail.

When I let it go on the rocks outside, it calmed down immediately, giving me time to run for the camera. Its gorgeous purple tail doesn't show very well, but at least the photo was good enough to identify it as a juvenile Great Plains skink. The adults look more like Jabba the Hut nothing like the lovely little juvenile we saw. We actually saw an adult this spring (outside), when we were clearing out a thick weed patch and disturbed a skink from its hibernation. And how did this poor lizard get saddled with a scientfic name of Eumeces obsoletus?

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[ 11:07 Jul 30, 2015    More nature | permalink to this entry | ]

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 | ]

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 | ]

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

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:

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 | ]

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 | ]

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 | ]

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 | ]

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 | ]

Thu, 02 Oct 2014

Photographing a double rainbow

[double rainbow]

The wonderful summer thunderstorm season here seems to have died down. But while it lasted, we had some spectacular double rainbows. And I kept feeling frustrated when I took the SLR outside only to find that my 18-55mm kit lens was nowhere near wide enough to capture it. I could try stitching it together as a panorama, but panoramas of rainbows turn out to be quite difficult -- there are no clean edges in the photo to tell you where to join one image to the next, and automated programs like Hugin won't even try.

There are plenty of other beautiful vistas here too -- cloudscapes, mesas, stars. Clearly, it was time to invest in a wide-angle lens. But how wide would it need to be to capture a double rainbow?

All over the web you can find out that a rainbow has a radius of 42 degrees, so you need a lens that covers 84 degrees to get the whole thing.

But what about a double rainbow? My web searches came to naught. Lots of pages talk about double rainbows, but Google wasn't finding anything that would tell me the angle.

I eventually gave up on the web and went to my physical bookshelf, where Color and Light in Nature gave me a nice table of primary and secondary rainbow angles of various wavelengths of light. It turns out that 42 degrees everybody quotes is for light of 600 nm wavelength, a blue-green or cyan color. At that wavelength, the primary angle is 42.0° and the secondary angle is 51.0°.

Armed with that information, I went back to Google and searched for double rainbow 51 OR 102 angle and found a nice Slate article on a Double rainbow and lightning photo. The photo in the article, while lovely (lightning and a double rainbow in the South Dakota badlands), only shows a tiny piece of the rainbow, not the whole one I'm hoping to capture; but the article does mention the 51-degree angle.

Okay, so 51°×2 captures both bows in cyan light. But what about other wavelengths? A typical eye can see from about 400 nm (deep purple) to about 760 nm (deep red). From the table in the book:
Wavelength Primary Secondary
400 40.5° 53.7°
600 42.0° 51.0°
700 42.4° 50.3°

Notice that while the primary angles get smaller with shorter wavelengths, the secondary angles go the other way. That makes sense if you remember that the outer rainbow has its colors reversed from the inner one: red is on the outside of the primary bow, but the inside of the secondary one.

So if I want to photograph a complete double rainbow in one shot, I need a lens that can cover at least 108 degrees.

What focal length lens does that translate to? Howard's Astronomical Adventures has a nice focal length calculator. If I look up my Rebel XSi on Wikipedia to find out that other countries call it a 450D, and plug that in to the calculator, then try various focal lengths (the calculator offers a chart but it didn't work for me), it turns out that I need an 8mm lens, which will give me an 108° 26‘ 46" field of view -- just about right.

[Double rainbow with the Rokinon 8mm fisheye] So that's what I ordered -- a Rokinon 8mm fisheye. And it turns out to be far wider than I need -- apparently the actual field of view in fisheyes varies widely from lens to lens, and this one claims to have a 180° field. So the focal length calculator isn't all that useful. At any rate, this lens is plenty wide enough to capture those double rainbows, as you can see.

About those books

By the way, that book I linked to earlier is apparently out of print and has become ridiculously expensive. Another excellent book on atmospheric phenomena is Light and Color in the Outdoors by Marcel Minnaert (I actually have his earlier version, titled The Nature of Light and Color in the Open Air). Minnaert doesn't give the useful table of frequencies and angles, but he has lots of other fun and useful information on rainbows and related phenomena, including detailed instructions for making rainbows indoors if you want to measure angles or other quantities yourself.

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[ 13:37 Oct 02, 2014    More photo | permalink to this entry | ]

Mon, 22 Sep 2014

Pi Crittercam vs. Bushnell Trophycam

I had the opportunity to borrow a commercial crittercam for a week from the local wildlife center. [Bushnell Trophycam vs. Raspberry Pi Crittercam] Having grown frustrated with the high number of false positives on my Raspberry Pi based crittercam, I was looking forward to see how a commercial camera compared.

The Bushnell Trophycam I borrowed is a nicely compact, waterproof unit, meant to strap to a tree or similar object. It has an 8-megapixel camera that records photos to the SD card -- no wi-fi. (I believe there are more expensive models that offer wi-fi.) The camera captures IR as well as visible light, like the PiCam NoIR, and there's an IR LED illuminator (quite a bit stronger than the cheap one I bought for my crittercam) as well as what looks like a passive IR sensor.

I know the TrophyCam isn't immune to false positives; I've heard complaints along those lines from a student who's using them to do wildlife monitoring for LANL. But how would it compare with my homebuilt crittercam?

I put out the TrophyCam first night, with bait (sunflower seeds) in front of the camera. In the morning I had ... nothing. No false positives, but no critters either. I did have some shots of myself, walking away from it after setting it up, walking up to it to adjust it after it got dark, and some sideways shots while I fiddled with the latches trying to turn it off in the morning, so I know it was working. But no woodrats -- and I always catch a woodrat or two in PiCritterCam runs. Besides, the seeds I'd put out were gone, so somebody had definitely been by during the night. Obviously I needed a more sensitive setting.

I fiddled with the options, changed the sensitivity from automatic to the most sensitive setting, and set it out for a second night, side by side with my Pi Crittercam. This time it did a little better, though not by much: one nighttime shot with a something in it, plus one shot of someone's furry back and two shots of a mourning dove after sunrise.

[blown-out image from Bushnell Trophycam] What few nighttime shots there were were mostly so blown out you couldn't see any detail to be sure. Doesn't this camera know how to adjust its exposure? The shot here has a creature in it. See it? I didn't either, at first. It's just to the right of the bush. You can just see the curve of its back and the beginning of a tail.

Meanwhile, the Pi cam sitting next to it caught eight reasonably exposed nocturnal woodrat shots and two dove shots after dawn. And 369 false positives where a leaf had moved in the wind or a dawn shadow was marching across the ground. The TrophyCam only shot 47 photos total: 24 were of me, fiddling with the camera setup to get them both pointing in the right direction, leaving 20 false positives.

So the Bushnell, clearly, gives you fewer false positives to hunt through -- but you're also a lot less likely to catch an actual critter. It also doesn't deal well with exposures in small areas and close distances: its IR light source seems to be too bright for the camera to cope with. I'm guessing, based on the name, that it's designed for shooting deer walking by fifty feet away, not woodrats at a two-foot distance.

Okay, so let's see what the camera can do in a larger space. The next two nights I set it up in large open areas to see what walked by. The first night it caught four rabbit shots that night, with only five false positives. The quality wasn't great, though: all long exposures of blurred bunnies. The second night it caught nothing at all overnight, but three rabbit shots the next morning. No false positives.

[coyote caught on the TrophyCam] The final night, I strapped it to a piñon tree facing a little clearing in the woods. Only two morning rabbits, but during the night it caught a coyote. And only 5 false positives. I've never caught a coyote (or anything else larger than a rabbit) with the PiCam.

So I'm not sure what to think. It's certainly a lot more relaxing to go through the minimal output of the TrophyCam to see what I caught. And it's certainly a lot easier to set up, and more waterproof, than my jury-rigged milk carton setup with its two AC cords, one for the Pi and one for the IR sensor. Being self-contained and battery operated makes it easy to set up anywhere, not just near a power plug.

But it's made me rethink my pessimistic notion that I should give up on this homemade PiCam setup and buy a commercial camera. Even on its most sensitive setting, I can't make the TrophyCam sensitive enough to catch small animals. And the PiCam gets better picture quality than the Bushnell, not to mention the option of hooking up a separate camera with flash.

So I guess I can't give up on the Pi setup yet. I just have to come up with a sensible way of taming the false positives. I've been doing a lot of experimenting with SimpleCV image processing, but alas, it's no better at detecting actual critters than my simple pixel-counting script was. But maybe I'll find the answer, one of these days. Meanwhile, I may look into battery power.

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[ 14:29 Sep 22, 2014    More hardware | permalink to this entry | ]

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 | ]

Wed, 20 Aug 2014

Mouse Release Movie

[Mouse peeking out of the trap] We caught another mouse! I shot a movie of its release.

Like the previous mouse we'd caught, it was nervous about coming out of the trap: it poked its nose out, but didn't want to come the rest of the way.

[Mouse about to fall out of the trap] Dave finally got impatient, picked up the trap and turned it opening down, so the mouse would slide out.

It turned out to be the world's scruffiest mouse, which immediately darted toward me. I had to step back and stand up to follow it on camera. (Yes, I know my camera technique needs work. Sorry.)

[scruffy mouse, just released from trap] [Mouse bounding away] Then it headed up the hill a ways before finally lapsing into the high-bounding behavior we've seen from other mice and rats we've released. I know it's hard to tell in the last picture -- the photo is so small -- but look at the distance between the mouse and its shadow on the ground.

Very entertaining! I don't understand why anyone uses killing traps -- even if you aren't bothered by killing things unnecessarily, the entertainment we get from watching the releases is worth any slight extra hassle of using the live traps.

Here's the movie: Mouse released from trap. [Mouse released from trap]

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[ 17:10 Aug 20, 2014    More nature | permalink to this entry | ]

Sat, 09 Aug 2014

Sphinx Moths

[White-lined sphinx moth on pale trumpets] We're having a huge bloom of a lovely flower called pale trumpets (Ipomopsis longiflora), and it turns out that sphinx moths just love them.

The white-lined sphinx moth (Hyles lineata) is a moth the size of a hummingbird, and it behaves like a hummingbird, too. It flies during the day, hovering from flower to flower to suck nectar, being far too heavy to land on flowers like butterflies do.

[Sphinx moth eye] I've seen them before, on hikes, but only gotten blurry shots with my pocket camera. But with the pale trumpets blooming, the sphinx moths come right at sunset and feed until near dark. That gives a good excuse to play with the DSLR, telephoto lens and flash ... and I still haven't gotten a really sharp photo, but I'm making progress.

Check out that huge eye! I guess you need good vision in order to make your living poking a long wiggly proboscis into long skinny flowers while laboriously hovering in midair.

Photos here: White-lined sphinx moths on pale trumpets.

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[ 21:23 Aug 09, 2014    More nature | permalink to this entry | ]

Sat, 12 Jul 2014

Trapped our first pack rat

[White throated woodrat in a trap] One great thing about living in the country: the wildlife. I love watching animals and trying to photograph them.

One down side of living in the country: the wildlife.

Mice in the house! Pack rats in the shed and the crawlspace! We found out pretty quickly that we needed to learn about traps.

We looked at traps at the local hardware store. Dave assumed we'd get simple snap-traps, but I wanted to try other options first. I'd prefer to avoid killing if I don't have to, especially killing in what sounds like a painful way.

They only had one live mousetrap. It was a flimsy plastic thing, and we were both skeptical that it would work. We made a deal: we'd try two of them for a week or two, and when (not if) they didn't work, then we'd get some snap-traps.

We baited the traps with peanut butter and left them in the areas where we'd seen mice. On the second morning, one of the traps had been sprung, and sure enough, there was a mouse inside! Or at least a bit of fur, bunched up at the far inside end of the trap.

We drove it out to open country across the highway, away from houses. I opened the trap, and ... nothing. I looked in -- yep, there was still a furball in there. Had we somehow killed it, even in this seemingly humane trap?

I pointed the open end down and shook the trap. Nothing came out. I shook harder, looked again, shook some more. And suddenly the mouse burst out of the plastic box and went HOP-HOP-HOPping across the grass away from us, bounding like a tiny kangaroo over tufts of grass, leaving us both giggling madly. The entertainment alone was worth the price of the traps.

Since then we've seen no evidence of mice inside, and neither of the traps has been sprung again. So our upstairs and downstairs mice must have been the same mouse.

But meanwhile, we still had a pack rat problem (actually, probably, white-throated woodrats, the creature that's called a pack rat locally). Finding no traps for sale at the hardware store, we went to Craigslist, where we found a retired wildlife biologist just down the road selling three live Havahart rat traps. (They also had some raccoon-sized traps, but the only raccoon we've seen has stayed out in the yard.)

We bought the traps, adjusted one a bit where its trigger mechanism was bent, baited them with peanut butter and set them in likely locations. About four days later, we had our first captive little brown furball. Much smaller than some of the woodrats we've seen; probably just a youngster.

[White throated woodrat bounding away] We drove quite a bit farther than we had for the mouse. Woodrats can apparently range over a fairly wide area, and we didn't want to let it go near houses. We hiked a little way out on a trail, put the trap down and opened both doors. The woodrat looked up, walked to one open end of the trap, decided that looked too scary; walked to the other open end, decided that looked too scary too; and retreated back to the middle of the trap.

We had to tilt and shake the trap a bit, but eventually the woodrat gathered up its courage, chose a side, darted out and HOP-HOP-HOPped away into the bunchgrass, just like the mouse had.

No reference I've found says anything about woodrats hopping, but the mouse did that too. I guess hopping is just what you do when you're a rodent suddenly set free.

I was only able to snap one picture before it disappeared. It's not in focus, but at least I managed to catch it with both hind legs off the ground.

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[ 12:05 Jul 12, 2014    More nature | permalink to this entry | ]

Thu, 03 Jul 2014

Detecting wildlife with a PIR sensor (or not)

[PIR sensor] In my last crittercam installment, the NoIR night-vision crittercam, I was having trouble with false positives, where the camera would trigger repeatedly after dawn as leaves moved in the wind and the morning shadows marched across the camera's field of view. I wondered if a passive infra-red (PIR) sensor would be the answer.

I got one, and the answer is: no. It was very easy to hook up, and didn't cost much, so it was a worthwhile experiment; but it gets nearly as many false positives as camera-based motion detection. It isn't as sensitive to wind, but as the ground and the foliage heat up at dawn, the moving shadows are just as much a problem as they were with image-based motion detection.

Still, I might be able to combine the two, so I figure it's worth writing up.

Reading inputs from the HC-SR501 PIR sensor

[PIR sensor pins]

The PIR sensor I chose was the common HC-SR501 module. It has three pins -- Vcc, ground, and signal -- and two potentiometer adjustments.

It's easy to hook up to a Raspberry Pi because it can take 5 volts in on its Vcc pin, but its signal is 3.3v (a digital signal -- either motion is detected or it isn't), so you don't have to fool with voltage dividers or other means to get a 5v signal down to the 3v the Pi can handle. I used GPIO pin 7 for signal, because it's right on the corner of the Pi's GPIO header and easy to find.

There are two ways to track a digital signal like this. Either you can poll the pin in an infinfte loop:

import time
import RPi.GPIO as GPIO

pir_pin = 7
sleeptime = 1

GPIO.setup(pir_pin, GPIO.IN)

while True:
    if GPIO.input(pir_pin):
        print "Motion detected!"

or you can use interrupts: tell the Pi to call a function whenever it sees a low-to-high transition on a pin:

import time
import RPi.GPIO as GPIO

pir_pin = 7
sleeptime = 300

def motion_detected(pir_pin):
    print "Motion Detected!"

GPIO.setup(pir_pin, GPIO.IN)

GPIO.add_event_detect(pir_pin, GPIO.RISING, callback=motion_detected)

while True:
    print "Sleeping for %d sec" % sleeptime

Obviously the second method is more efficient. But I already had a loop set up checking the camera output and comparing it against previous output, so I tried that method first, adding support to my script. I set up the camera pointing at the wall, and, as root, ran the script telling it to use a PIR sensor on pin 7, and the local and remote directories to store photos:

# python -p 7 /tmp ~pi/shared/snapshots/
and whenever I walked in front of the camera, it triggered and took a photo. That was easy!

Reliability problems with add_event_detect

So easy that I decided to switch to the more efficient interrupt-driven model. Writing the code was easy, but I found it triggered more often: if I walked in front of the camera (and stayed the requisite 7 seconds or so that it takes raspistill to get around to taking a photo), when I walked back to my desk, I would find two photos, one showing my feet and the other showing nothing. It seemed like it was triggering when I got there, but also when I left the scene.

A bit of web searching indicates this is fairly common: that with RPi.GPIO a lot of people see triggers on both rising and falling edges -- e.g. when the PIR sensor starts seeing motion, and when it stops seeing motion and goes back to its neutral state -- when they've asked for just GPIO.RISING. Reports for this go back to 2011.

On the other hand, it's also possible that instead of seeing a GPIO falling edge, what was happening was that I was getting multiple calls to my function while I was standing there, even though the RPi hadn't finished processing the first image yet. To guard against that, I put a line at the beginning of my callback function that disabled further callbacks, then I re-enabled them at the end of the function after the Pi had finished copying the photo to the remote filesystem. That reduced the false triggers, but didn't eliminate them entirely.

Oh, well, The sun was getting low by this point, so I stopped fiddling with the code and put the camera out in the yard with a pile of birdseed and peanut suet nuggets in front of it. I powered on, sshed to the Pi and ran the motion_detect script, came back inside and ran a tail -f on the output file.

I had dinner and worked on other things, occasionally checking the output -- nothing! Finally I sshed to the Pi and ran ps aux and discovered the script was no longer running.

I started it again, this time keeping my connection to the Pi active so I could see when the script died. Then I went outside to check the hardware. Most of the peanut suet nuggets were gone -- animals had definitely been by. I waved my hands in front of the camera a few times to make sure it got some triggers.

Came back inside -- to discover that Python had gotten a segmentation fault. It turns out that nifty GPIO.add_event_detect() code isn't all that reliable, and can cause Python to crash and dump core. I ran it a few more times and sure enough, it crashed pretty quickly every time. Apparently GPIO.add_event_detect needs a bit more debugging, and isn't safe to use in a program that has to run unattended.

Back to polling

Bummer! Fortunately, I had saved the polling version of my program, so I hastily copied that back to the Pi and started things up again. I triggered it a few times with my hand, and everything worked fine. In fact, it ran all night and through the morning, with no problems except the excessive number of false positives, already mentioned.

[piñon mouse] False positives weren't a problem at all during the night. I'm fairly sure the problem happens when the sun starts hitting the ground. Then there's a hot spot that marches along the ground, changing position in a way that's all too obvious to the infra-red sensor.

I may try cross-checking between the PIR sensor and image changes from the camera. But I'm not optimistic about that working: they both get the most false positives at the same times, at dawn and dusk when the shadow angle is changing rapidly. I suspect I'll have to find a smarter solution, doing some image processing on the images as well as cross-checking with the PIR sensor.

I've been uploading photos from my various tests here: Tests of the Raspberry Pi Night Vision Crittercam. And as always, the code is on github: scripts/motioncam with some basic documentation on my site: a motion sensitive camera for Raspberry Pi or other Linux machines. (I can't use github for the documentation because I can't seem to find a way to get github to display html as anything other than source code.)

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[ 20:13 Jul 03, 2014    More hardware | permalink to this entry | ]

Wed, 18 Jun 2014

Fuzzy house finch chicks

[house finch chick] The wind was strong a couple of days ago, but that didn't deter the local house finch family. With three hungry young mouths to feed, and considering how long it takes to crack sunflower seeds, poor dad -- two days after Father's Day -- was working overtime trying to keep them all fed. They emptied by sunflower seed feeder in no time and I had to refill it that evening.

The chicks had amusing fluffy "eyebrow" feathers sticking up over their heads, and one of them had an interesting habit of cocking its tail up like a wren, something I've never seen house finches do before.

More photos: House finch chicks.

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[ 14:40 Jun 18, 2014    More nature/birds | permalink to this entry | ]

Mon, 02 Jun 2014

Cicada Rice Krispies

[Cicadas mating] Late last week we started hearing a loud buzz in the evenings. Cicadas? We'd heard a noise like that last year, when we visited Prescott during cicada season while house-hunting, but we didn't know they had them here in New Mexico. The second evening, we saw one in the gravel off the front walk -- but we were meeting someone to carpool to a talk, so I didn't have time to race inside and get a camera.

A few days later they started singing both morning and evening. But yesterday there was an even stranger phenomenon.

"It sounds like Rice Krispies out in the yard. Snap, crackle, pop," said Dave. And he was right -- a constant, low-level crackling sound was coming from just about all the junipers.

Was that cicadas too? It was much quieter than their loud buzzing -- quiet enough to be a bit eerie, really. You had to stop what you were doing and really listen to notice it.

It was pretty clearly an animal of some kind: when we moved close to a tree, the crackling (and snapping and popping) coming from that tree would usually stop. If we moved very quietly, though, we could get close to a tree without the noise entirely stopping. It didn't do us much good, though: there was no motion at all that we could see, no obvious insects or anything else active.

Tonight the crackling was even louder when I went to take the recycling out. I stopped by a juniper where it was particularly noticeable, and must have disturbed one, because it buzzed its wings and moved enough that I actually saw where it was. It was black, maybe an inch long, with narrow orange stripes. I raced inside for my camera, but of course the bug was gone by the time I got back out.

So I went hunting. It almost seemed like the crackling was the cicadas sort of "tuning up", like an orchestra before the performance. They would snap and crackle and pop for a while, and then one of them would go snap snap snap-snap-snap-snapsnapsnapsnap and then break into its loud buzz -- but only for a few seconds, then it would go back to snapping again. Then another would speed up and break into a buzz for a bit, and so it went.

One juniper had a particularly active set of crackles and pops coming from it. I circled it and stared until finally I found the cicadas. Two of them, apparently mating, and a third about a foot away ... perhaps the rejected suitor?

[Possible cicada emergence holes]
Near that particular juniper was a section of ground completely riddled with holes. I don't remember those holes being there a few weeks ago. The place where the cicadas emerged?

[Fendler's Hedgehog Cactus flower] So our Rice Krispies mystery was solved. And by the way, I don't recommend googling for combinations like cicada rice krispies ... unless you want to catch and eat cicadas.

Meanwhile, just a few feet away from the cicada action, a cactus had sprung into bloom. Here, have a gratuitous pretty flower. It has nothing whatever to do with cicadas.

Update: in case you're curious, the cactus is apparently called a Fendler's Hedgehog, Echinocereus fendleri.

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[ 21:20 Jun 02, 2014    More nature | permalink to this entry | ]

Sun, 11 May 2014

Sonograms in Python

I went to a terrific workshop last week on identifying bird songs. We listened to recordings of songs from some of the trickier local species, and discussed the differences and how to remember them. I'm not a serious birder -- I don't do lists or Big Days or anything like that, and I dislike getting up at 6am just because the birds do -- but I do try to identify birds (as well as mammals, reptiles, rocks, geographic features, and pretty much anything else I see while hiking or just sitting in the yard) and I've always had trouble remembering their songs.

[Sonogram of ruby-crowned kinglet] One of the tools birders use to study bird songs is the sonogram. It's a plot of frequency (on the vertical axis) and intensity (represented by color, red being louder) versus time. Looking at a sonogram you can identify not just how fast a bird trills and whether it calls in groups of three or five, but whether it's buzzy/rattly (a vertical line, lots of frequencies at once) or a purer whistle, and whether each note is ascending or descending.

The class last week included sonograms for the species we studied. But what about other species? The class didn't cover even all the local species I'd like to be able to recognize. I have several collections of bird calls on CD (which I bought to use in combination with my "tweet" script -- yes, the name messes up google searches, but my tweet predates Twitter -- a tweet Python script and tweet in HTML for Android). It would be great to be able to make sonograms from some of those recordings too.

But a search for Linux sonogram turned up nothing useful. Audacity has a histogram visualization mode with lots of options, but none of them seem to result in a usable sonogram, and most discussions I found on the net agreed that it couldn't do it. There's another sound editor program called snd which can do sonograms, but it's fiddly to use and none of the many color schemes produce a sonogram that I found very readable.

Okay, what about python scripts? Surely that's been done?

I had better luck there. Matplotlib's pylab package has a specgram() call that does more or less what I wanted, and here's an example of how to use pylab.specgram(). (That post also has another example using a library called timeside, but timeside's PyPI package doesn't have any dependency information, and after playing the old RPM-chase game installing another dependency, trying it, then installing the next dependency, I gave up.)

The only problem with pylab.specgram() was that it shows the full range of the sound, both in time and frequency. The recordings I was examining can last a minute or more and go up to 20,000 Hz -- and when pylab tries to fit that all on the screen, you end up with a plot where the details are too small to show you anything useful.

You'd think there would be a way for pylab.specgram() to show only part of the spectrum, but that doesn't seem to be. I finally found a Stack Overflow discussion where "edited" gives an excellent rewritten version of pylab.specgram which allows setting minimum and maximum frequency cutoffs. Worked great!

Then I did some fiddling to allow for analyzing only part of the recording -- Python's wave package has no way to read in just the first six seconds of a .wav file, so I had to read in the whole file, read the data into a numpy array, then take a slice representing the seconds of the recording I actually wanted.

But now I can plot nice sonograms of any bird song I want to see, print them out or stick them on my Android device so I can carry them with me.

Update: Oops! I forgot to include a link to the script. Here it is: Sonograms in Python.

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[ 09:17 May 11, 2014    More programming | permalink to this entry | ]

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 | ]

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 | ]

Wed, 02 Oct 2013

Disgruntled by Grackles

On a trip last month, Mesquite, NV gave us couple of avian delights.

First the roadrunner, strutting around a side street poking its head into bushes, hunting as we watched from the car.

[Huge flock of grackles] Then, in the evening, a convocation of grackles -- several hundred of them -- in the tree just across from the third-floor balcony at our casino hotel. All chattering with each other, making an amazing variety of noises as they flew from branch to branch, occasionally bickering or feeding each other or landing on a branch too weak to support them.

Grackles make some amazing sounds. We don't have them at home, so I only hear them on trips, but they always want to make me look for the amplifier and speakers -- it seems impossible that a medium-sized bird could be making all that sound, and such a variety of noise, all by itself.

We stood there for maybe 20 minutes, watching them and listening, shooting photos and video, before the heat (over 100 even after sunset) got to us and we had to go back into the room.

[Don't park under a grackle tree] Unfortunately, in all that time, one thing that never occurred to us was that our car was parked right under that tree. We realized that the next morning.

And we had thought we were so clever, finding the one shady spot in that parking lot!

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[ 14:38 Oct 02, 2013    More travel | permalink to this entry | ]

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 | ]

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 | ]

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 | ]

Thu, 13 Dec 2012

Miss American Stuck-in-Green-Cross

[Mis American Green Cross]

This is one of the creepiest statues I've seen in a park. A bronze lady has her feet embedded in a green cross, with cut tree stumps below her.

On the pedestal below her, it says:



A small plaque below that says:


On the wide of the pedestal, it says:


The title of the work, as given on an even smaller plaque on the gruond in front of the statue, is "Miss American Green Cross". Apparently it was created in 1928 by sculptor Frederick Willard Proctor, for an environmental group (although I don't usually think of "the lumber supply" being a prime concern of environmental groups).

[Miss American Green Cross, side view] The statue was first erected at Glendale High School in 1928. But she suffered some damage and abuse over the next few years, including being hit by a car. And then at some point in the early 1930s she disappeared. No one knew what had happened to her.

She wasn't officially rediscovered until 1954, when some hikers reported seeing it near the old Brand family cemetery, now part of Brand Park. She stood there for another three and a half decades, where she continued to be vandalized, acquiring scratches as well as grafiti, and eventually losing both arms.

Eventually, in 1990, after some debate over materials and methods, the city of Glendale restored the statue and moved down the trail to itsmis current location near Brand Library at the foot of the Brand Park hiking trails.

I've chuckled at this statue for years, whenever I visit Glendale and hike Brand Park. I still find her trapped legs, crucifixion motif, and pile of razed stumps creepy. But I must say that her history is a lot more interesting than I had imagined.

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[ 21:04 Dec 13, 2012    More humor | permalink to this entry | ]

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 | ]

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 | ]

Sun, 06 May 2012

Playing an MP3 file from an Android app

I've mostly been enormously happy with my upgrade from my old Archos 5 to the Samsung Galaxy Player 5.0. The Galaxy does everything I always wanted the Archos to do, all those things the Archos should have done but couldn't because of its buggy and unsupported Android 1.6.

That is, I've been happy with everything except one thing: my birdsong app no longer worked.

I have a little HTML app based on my "tweet" python script which lets you choose from a list of birdsong MP3 files. (The actual MP3 files are ripped from the excellent 4-CD Stokes Field Guide to Western Bird Songs set.) The HTML app matches bird names as you type in characters. (If you're curious, an earlier test version is at tweet.html.)

On the Archos, I ran that under my WebClient Android app (I had to modify the HTML to add a keyboard, since in Android 1.6 the soft keyboard doesn't work in WebView text fields). I chose a bird, and WebView passed off the MP3 file to the Archos' built-in audio player. Worked great.

On the Samsung Galaxy, no such luck. Apparently Samsung's built-in media player can only play files it has indexed itself. If you try to use it to play an arbitrary file, say, "Song_Sparrow.mp3", it will say: unknown file type. No matter that the file ends in .mp3 ... and no matter that I've called intent.setDataAndType(Uri.parse(url), "audio/mpeg"); ... and no matter that the file is sitting on the SD cad and has in fact been indexed already by the media player. You didn't navigate to it via the media player's UI, so it refuses to play it.

I haven't been able to come up with an answer to how to make Samsung's media player more flexible, and I was just starting a search for alternate Android MP3 player apps, when I ran across Play mp3 in SD Card, using Android's MediaPlayer and Error creating MediaPlayer with Uri or file in assets which gave me the solution. Instead of using an intent and letting WebView call up a music application, you can use an Android MediaPlayer to play your file directly.

Here's what the code looks like, inside setWebViewClient() which is itself inside onCreate():

            public boolean shouldOverrideUrlLoading(WebView view, String url) {
                if (url.endsWith(".mp3")) {
                    MediaPlayer mediaPlayer = new MediaPlayer();
                    try {
                        mediaPlayer.setDataSource(getApplicationContext(), Uri.parse(url));
                    catch (IllegalArgumentException e) { showMessage("Illegal argument exception on " + url); }
                    catch (IllegalStateException e) { showMessage("Illegal State exception on " + url); }
                    catch (IOException e) { showMessage("I/O exception on " + url); }

showMessage() is my little wrapper that pops up an error message dialog. Of course, you can handle other types, not just files ending in .mp3.

And now I can take the Galaxy out on a birdwalk and use it to help me identify bird songs.

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[ 14:28 May 06, 2012    More programming | permalink to this entry | ]

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 | ]

Sun, 21 Aug 2011

Dragonfly nymph

A recent short hike at Sanborn was unexpectedly productive for creepy-crawlies.

At the lower pond, we looked for California newts. There were lots of newts last week a few miles away at Montebello, so we thought we'd see some at Sanborn too. But there weren't many adult newts in the pond -- we could only find three. That pond has never recovered from its draining three years ago, which seems to have killed all the fish and crayfish and driven away most of the newts.

[Dragonfly nymph] But we did see one very interesting sight: a large underwater bug, at least 2 inches long. It first caught our attention jetting through the water to the shallows near where we stood, where it sank to the bottom and rested for a while (posing for pictures!) It moved only slightly during the couple of minutes we watched it ... then it suddenly jetted off toward another part of the pond. I say "jetted" because it didn't move its legs or proto-wings at all; it moved like a torpedo, presumably propelled by a jet of water.

Upon returning home, at tip from a friend (thanks, Wolf!) I looked up dragonfly nymphs. Indeed, that's what this was. Much more massive than an adult dragonfly, these larvae apparently live underwater for several years, eating bugs, fish and small amphibians, until they're finally ready to metamorphose into the beautiful winged adults we're familiar with.

An interesting creature, and one I'd never seen before.

[CA newt larva with gills and legs] The small upper pond, unlike the lower one, was full of life. Small fish up to about an inch and a half schooled in the shallows. Some larger koi lurked near the reeds. But I spotted something that clearly wasn't a fish: yes, there's still at least one larval newt left in the pond. It obligingly lounged in a sunny spot near the pond's edge so I could snap pictures capturing its feathery gills as well as four tiny feet.

We also stopped by the scum pond at Walden West. No bullfrogs, no turtles. The only life we saw there was a couple of female mallards, eagerly vacuuming up the scum. That pond, with its surface completely covered with algae, must be paradise for an algae-eating duck ... I wonder why I don't see more of them there.

[garter snake] And as long as the subject is crawling animals, I can't resist throwing in a snapshot of a garter snake I spotted today at Huddart. Nothing especially rare or exotic, but a pretty little thing nontheless.

[ 19:39 Aug 21, 2011    More nature | permalink to this entry | ]

Mon, 01 Aug 2011

Chlorine and reptiles

We went exploring around the upper Skyline-to-the-Sea trail yesterday. The mysterious chlorine smell was very evident, for the first time this year. Usually I've first noticed it in early July or even June, but although we had some very hot weather in early June this year, it wasn't enough to bring out the smell. I've made no progress in identifying it, but I continue to suspect tanoaks as the chlorine culprit.

It was a good day for reptiles, too. We surprised the biggest ring-necked snake I've ever seen -- well over two feet long and thicker than my thumb (which admittedly isn't saying much). It hastened off the trail before I could get the camera out. Then back at home, I found a small young alligator lizard splayed out in the shade on the sidewalk of our back yard. We've occasionally had alligator lizards here before, but never such a small one. Again, no picture; instead we just watched as it made its way across the yard to hide under the rosemary. I hope it stays around.

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[ 11:31 Aug 01, 2011    More nature | permalink to this entry | ]

Sun, 10 Jul 2011

Newt larvae at Sanborn

It's always fun to look for newts when we go on walks in the woods. We're always reading that amphibians are in mortal danger -- they're more susceptible to environmental toxins than other vertebrates, and they're dying off at frighteningly high rates. So seeing newts, salamanders or frogs always makes me happy ... and seeing a new generation of them makes me even happier.

[ Newt tadpole ] [ Newt tadpole ]

Therefore, in spring and early summer, I always check the ponds for tadpoles and newt larvae. Usually I don't find any. But this year I got lucky: the little decorative pond at Sanborn county park had newt tadpoles when we checked last month (June 18), and yesterday we saw one in that pond and two in the lower pond.

[ Adult and larval newt ] Photographing tadpoles is tougher than photographing adult newts. Of course, they're always under water, so there are reflections and refraction to deal with; and it's usually mossy stagnant water, so you have to wait for them to come out from under the moss. They're also shy, and dart away if they see motion above them -- not surprising for something so small and defenseless. (Adult newts are pretty casual and it's easy to get fairly close to them ... maybe because they're poisonous.) [ Detail of larval newt from previous photo ]

So, okay, not exactly National Geographic material. But I was excited to get any photos at all that show both legs and gills, as well as one showing an adult newt with a larva right next to it. Coincidence, of course: newts don't care for their young. But it's fun to see the difference in size and shape between adult and youngster, and equally fun to see how much the larvae changed in three weeks' time from the first shots to the second.

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[ 13:42 Jul 10, 2011    More nature | permalink to this entry | ]

Fri, 01 Apr 2011

Bonorong Wildlife Sanctuary and the Tasmanian Devil

[Tasmanian Devil] The LA Times had a great article last weekend about Tasmanian devils, the mysterious facial cancer which is threatening to wipe them out, and the Bonorong wildlife preserve in Hobart which is involved in trying to rescue them.

The disease, called devil facial tumour disease, is terrible. It causes tumours on the devils' face and mouth, which eventually grow so large and painful that the animal starves to death. It's a cancer, but a very unusual one: it's transmissible and can pass from one devil to another, one of only three such cancers known. That means that unlike most cancers, tumour cells aren't from the infected animal itself; they're usually contracted from a bite from another devil.

Almost no Tasmanian devils are immune to DFTD. Being isolated for so long on such a small island, devils have little genetic diversity, so a disease that affects one devil is likely to affect all of them. It can wipe out a regional population within a year. A few individuals seem to have partial immunity, and scientists are desperately hunting for the secret before the disease wipes out the rest of the devil population. Organizations like Bonorong are breeding Tasmanian devils in captivity in case the answer comes too late to save the wild population.

When I was in Hobart in 2009 for (which, aside from being a great Linux conference, also raised over $35,000 to help save the devils), I had the chance to visit Bonorong. I was glad I did: it's fabulous. You can wander around and feed kangaroos, wallabees and the ever-greedy emus, see all sorts of rarer Australian wildlife like echidnas, quolls and sugar gliders, and pet a koala (not as soft as they look).

[Greg Irons and devil] But surprisingly, the best part was the tour. I'm usually not much for guided tours, and Dave normally hates 'em. But this one was given by Greg Irons, the director of the park who's featured in the Times article, and he's fantastic. He obviously loves the animals and he knows everything about them -- Dave called him an "animal nerd" (that's a compliment, really!) And he's a great showman, with a lively and fact-filled presentation that shows each animal at its best while keping all ages entertained. If you didn't love marsupials, and particularly devils and wombats, before you come to Bonorong, I guarantee you will by the time you leave.

[Tasmanian devil tug-o-war]

A lot of the accounts of devil facial tumour disease talk about devils fighting with each other and spreading the disease, but watching them feed at Bonorong showed that fighting isn't necessary. Tasmanian devils feed in groups, helping each other tear apart the carcass by all latching onto it at once and pulling. With this style of feeding, it's easy to get bitten in the mouth accidentally.

[ferocious killer Tasmanian devil] Of course, I have a lot more photos from Bonorong: Bonorong Wildlife Park photos.

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[ 10:48 Apr 01, 2011    More travel/tasmania | permalink to this entry | ]

Sun, 21 Nov 2010

Lunar Water Strip-Mines?

You may have seen the headlines a few weeks ago, when everyone was crowing "Water on the Moon!" after the LCROSS results were finally published. Turns out the moon is wetter than the Sahara (woo!) and all the news sites seemed excited about how we'd be using this for a lunar base. It only takes a ton of rock to get 11-12 gallons of water!

I wondered, am I the only one who thinks 12 gallons isn't very much? I couldn't help envisioning a tiny lunar base surrounded by acres of mine tailing devastation.

So I calculated how much rock it takes to make a ton (assuming basalt; lunar highland anorthosite would be a little less dense). Turns out it's not very much: a ton of basalt would make a cube about 8.6 feet on a side. So okay, I guess it would take quite a while to work up to those acres of devastation. It was an interesting calculation, anyway; rock is a lot less dense than I thought.

You can read the details in my SJAA Ephemeris column this month, Full of Moon.

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[ 19:55 Nov 21, 2010    More science/astro | permalink to this entry | ]

Mon, 08 Nov 2010

No (live) tarantulas, but lots of woodpeckers

November is normally far too late for tarantulas to be on the move -- mid-October is their normal season around here. But a friend commented she'd seen some at Alum Rock last week, so over the weekend we hauled ourselves out there and went hunting.

And we saw tarantula sign -- unfortunately consisting of two dead tarantulas lying mangled on the trail. No live ones. It was an unseasonably warm day, so perhaps it was too hot and the spiders were still hiding in their holes.

[Acorn woodpecker] It was lovely walk nevertheless. We saw a six-point buck chasing a doe with two other does trailing behind him ... why were the does following? No idea, but the whole procession crashed around through the brush and eventually came out and crossed the trail right behind us. We gave them space -- you don't want to get too close to a buck during this season.

And the pecking was fierce over by the dead Eucalyptus above the end-of-the-road parking lot, where a large family of acorn woodpeckers were pecking and laughing chattering as they stored their acorns for the winter. We saw at least seven on the tree at once, though counting was tricky because birds kept flying off to find more acorns while other birds flew in.

Most of the ground squirrels have already retired for the cold season -- we only saw a few out, fattening up before hibernation -- but we heard quite a few invisible chipmunks giving their sonar-ping calls as we walked past.

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[ 23:02 Nov 08, 2010    More nature | permalink to this entry | ]

Wed, 27 Oct 2010

Termite Feast at RSA

[trail silvery with termites]

At Rancho San Antonio today (Los Altos Hills), high on the High Meadow and PG&E trails, there's an incredible abundance of termite colonies on the trail -- the trail is thick and silvery with them in places.

A few colonies are flying, and around the flying ones there's a great diversity of wildlife partaking in the feast -- in about five minutes I saw wrentits, juncos, chestnut-backed chickadees, Townsend's warblers, woodpeckers (several flew by too fast to identify), spotted towhees, a Bewick's wren that didn't cock its tail like a normal wren, northern flickers ... plus chipmunks.

And the species that normally hide out in thick brush and resist being photographed -- especially the wrentit and the chipmunk -- were so busy gobbling tidbits that they didn't pay much attention to a photographer snapping away.

Quite a show! The lower parts of RSA were fairly nice too -- I got a good look at a red-shouldered hawk that swooped low across the trail, plus lots of quail, rabbits and squirrels. There's a sign just past the farm warning to stay away from "sick bobcats" (the nature of the disease is unspecified) but we didn't see any cats.

Photos: Termite feast at RSA.

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[ 21:25 Oct 27, 2010    More nature | permalink to this entry | ]

Wed, 14 Jul 2010

Hollow oranges

[hollow orange] Hollow oranges keep turning up on our lawn under the orange tree. Sometime we even find them still attached to the tree.

We're not sure what's eating them, but I have a theory.

A few weeks ago, I kept finding that as I walked across the backyard, something would fall out of one of the trees, either the orange tree or one of the guava trees. It was always barely viewed out of the corner of my eyes, but seemed about the size of a guava and fell and landed with about the same sound falling guavas make.

Only problem was: guava season is still three months away, and they haven't even started to grow on the tree yet.

I had speculations about what was going on, but I wasn't sure. Finally, a few days ago, I came out the office door and something fell out of the guava tree right in front of me.

It was guava sized, grey -- and furry, with a long naked tail. I got a good look at the mouse as it scooted across the grass to hide under the deck.

They're welcome to an orange now and then. We have lots of oranges. And they're polite about it -- they clean out one orange at a time rather than spoiling lots of them with small nibbles.

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[ 10:06 Jul 14, 2010    More nature | permalink to this entry | ]

Wed, 07 Jul 2010

Huge brood of wild turkeys at Rancho San Antonio

[Wild turkey chicks scuffling] Late last week in the field next to the parking lots at Rancho San Antonio we had a chance to watch a wild turkey family foraging in the dry grass. Two adults and twenty chicks -- that's quite a brood!

Two of the chicks got into a scuffle and kept it up the whole time we watched them. The adults didn't seem interested, but some of the other chicks gathered round to see what was going on.

Photos: Wild turkeys.

Meanwhile, in other nature news, the hot weather has brought the odd unidentified chlorine smell back to the redwood forests. On the weekend, when we were having 90-degree days, the smell was very noticable around Purisima and El Corte de Madera, and on a few parts of Highway 9. Today, though the weather is cooler, the smell was everywhere on the Skyline trail at the top of Sanborn. Still no idea what's producing it.

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[ 20:23 Jul 07, 2010    More nature/birds | permalink to this entry | ]

Wed, 30 Jun 2010

Tiny froglets at Picchetti Ranch

You read so much about the dire state of amphibians in today's world. They're delicate -- they can absorb toxins through their porous skins, making them prey to all the pollution the human world dumps at their doorstep, as well as being prey for a wide assortment of larger animals and prone to infection by parasites. I remember seeing lots of frogs around ponds in the woods when I was growing up, and these days it's rare to see a frog in the wild at all.

But sometimes you get lucky and get an indication that maybe the state of amphibians isn't as dire as all that. Mark Wagner gave me a tip (thanks, Mark!) that the pond at Picchetti Ranch was literally hopping with frogs. I thought he must be exaggerating -- but he wasn't.

[tiny frog at Picchetti Ranch] They're tiny, thumbtip-sized creatures and they're everywhere around the margin of the lake, hopping away as you approach. It's tough to get photos because they move so fast and like to hide under grass stems, but like anything else, take a lot of pictures and you'll get lucky on a few.

The scene is absolutely amazing. If you're at all a frog fan in the south bay area, get yourself to Picchetti and take a look -- but be very, very careful where you step, because they're everywhere and they're hard to spot between jumps.

I unfortunately lack a good amphibian field guide, and couldn't find much on the web either, but some people seem to think these Picchetti frogs are Sierran tree frogs -- which apparently are sometimes are green, sometimes brown and have a wide range of markings, so identifying them isn't straightforward.

Photos: Tiny frogs at Piccheti Ranch.

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[ 19:14 Jun 30, 2010    More nature | permalink to this entry | ]

Wed, 20 Jan 2010

Newt nookie!

[Newt nookie at Lake Ranch] Last weekend, on a tip posted on a local birding list, we hiked up to the little pond at Lake Ranch, above Sanborn county park, where a major California newt orgy is in progress.

There were thousands of newts throughout the lake, but especially by the dam, where they were mating and laying eggs.

I had never realized how much the male newts' appearance differs from the females -- or possibly, it doesn't except at this time of year. Most of the year, when we see newts they look like these females, with orange-red skin and lizard-like feet. But here the males look very different: larger, darker, often patterned with stripes or spots, with huge flipper-like feet and greatly flattened tails.

Most of the females were gravid with eggs already. The males seem to be able to tell when a female has already been fertilized, but only from up close: they'll pursue a female to a few inches away, then turn back if she's recently mated.

We saw some multi-newt orgies, with two or three males nosing each other to get access to a female; but mostly we saw pairs clasped in long-lasting embraces. We watched a few pairs for five or ten minutes.
[California newt laying her egg sac]

Some of the females laid their grape-sized egg sacs near where they mated, by the dam; but upstream, closer to the Black Rd end of the pond, we found a nursery where the pond floor was just covered with egg sacs. Is it safer for the eggs here, away from the newt festivities? Or is the temperature or oxygen content different?

Photos are a bit challenging. There's a lot of reflection off the surface of the water. The raw photos are just a sea of murky green, but a little contrast boosting in GIMP, and sometimes a bit of layer mode/layer mask work, brings out a lot more detail than I expected.

There were a few frogs singing, too. We couldn't see the frogs, but we did see a few schools of what might have been tadpoles (or else tiny fish). We also saw one huge tadpole, with a head like a squashed ping-pong ball. I hope the bullfrogs from Walden West pond haven't migrated up to Lake Ranch. It's fun to watch them at Walden West, but bullfrogs could wreak havoc on the pond's other wildlife. (Can bullfrogs eat newts? Most animals can't -- newts have poisonous skins. But we've never seen any newts at Walden West.)

If you go to see the newts, watch your step on the trails. After egg-laying, the females apparently leave the pond and go wandering cross-country. (Where do the males go?) We saw at least three females heading down the steep trail toward Sanborn, and a couple more on the flat trail above the lake that heads toward Black Rd. They move slowly and purposefully, and can't scurry out of your way to keep from getting stepped on. So be careful, and enjoy the show!

Newt nookie photos here.

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[ 12:06 Jan 20, 2010    More nature | permalink to this entry | ]

Sun, 27 Sep 2009

Butterfly romance!

[Skipper butterflies mating on my shoulder] I was in the back yard pruning the star jasmine when something came buzzing through the air and smacked into my shoulder.

It turned out to be two skipper butterflies, locked in what I can only presume was an amorous embrace.

Dave got his camera and documented the scene: butterfly romance photos.

They stayed on my shoulder for another 20 minutes, imperturbable, while I continued with yard work.

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[ 16:20 Sep 27, 2009    More nature | permalink to this entry | ]

Wed, 03 Jun 2009

Bullfrogs in stereo

bullfrog The Walden West pond is hopping -- literally! This afternoon around 3pm the pond's resident bullfrogs, who normally just float quietly in the scum on the surface, would suddenly hop out of the water for no obvious reason, then settle back down a few feet away. One pair was apparently mating like that, the larger frog hopping onto the back of the smaller frog, then immediately off again. And the pond was full of sound, sometimes with two or more frogs booming at once. Bullfrogs in stereo!

I didn't have the SLR along, but some of the frogs were close enough (and calm enough not to submerge when we got near them) that I was able to get a few decent shots.

But I really wanted to capture that sound. So I put the camera in video mode and shot a series of videos hoping to catch some of the music ... and did. They sound like this: bullfrog (mp3, 24kb).

Despite the title of this entry, the recording doesn't have any interesting stereo effects; the only microphone was the one built in to my Canon A540. It did okay, though! You'll just have to use your imagination to place two frogs as you listen, one 20 feet to the left and the other 15 feet to the right.

How to extract the audio from a camera video

(Non open source people can quit reading here.)

Extracting the audio was a little tricky. I found lots of pages ostensibly telling me how to do it with mencoder, but none of them seemed to work. This did:

mplayer -vc null -af volume=15 -vo null -ao pcm -benchmark mvi_8992.avi

I added that -af volume=15 argument to make the sound louder, since it was a bit quiet as it came from the camera.

That produced a file named audiodump.wav, which I turned into an mp3 like this:

lame audiodump.wav bullfrogs.mp3

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[ 21:42 Jun 03, 2009    More nature | permalink to this entry | ]

Fri, 01 May 2009

Bay Area Wildflowers

Spring is in full swing, and all around the bay area the parks are ablaze with the colors of wildflowers -- blues and lavenders at Alum Rock, blues and yellows at Rancho San Antonio and oranges at Arastradero.

I've been shooting photos of wildflowers for years, always intending to collect them into a web page -- for my own reference (I always forget which wildflowers are which) as much as anyone else's.

At the same time, I've been gradually working on finding better ways of displaying photos on gallery pages. Most of my old pages use tables, which work fine in all browsers but don't scale very well with page size -- 4 images across may look fine in an 800 pixel wide window but look pretty silly at 1600 pixels. After playing with various CSS-based ideas for showing images and captions, I finally found the answer ("display: inline-block" is the key) on this CSS gallery demo. I adapted it for my site and wrote some PHP glue to generate the pages, and here's the result: Bay Area Wildflowers.

Update: Isn't it always the case? Just when you think you're done with something, you find out there's more to do. I wrote the preceding a week ago and then didn't manage to post it before leaving for a desert trip. And the desert was blooming! So here I am, ba-wildflowers site barely made public, newly back from the Mojave with a disk full of desert wildflower photos that aren't from the bay area. Looks like the "Bay Area Wildflowers" site needs to expand to a wider area ...

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[ 22:13 May 01, 2009    More nature | permalink to this entry | ]

Wed, 11 Feb 2009

Bruny Island night life: penguins and shearwaters

After a week in Tasmania, supposedly the most wildlife-packed state in Australia, without seeing anything besides ducks (mostly mallards) and songbirds (mostly sparrows and starlings), I was getting desperate.

I had one last hope: Bruny Island, touted as the wild and unspoiled place to see wildlife ... though the wildlife touted in the tourist brochures mostly seems to involve paying for a boat ride to see sea birds and fur seals. Nobody ever talks about marsupials wandering around -- are there any? Since it's an island, how would they get there? Nobody ever mentions the intriguing spot marked "penguin rookery" on "The Neck" between North and South Bruny. After last year's tremendous experience at the Philip Island Penguin Parade, I thought it might be worth booking a room on Bruny in the hope of seeing (a) penguins and (b) other nocturnal wildlife.

We booked into the "Bruny Island Hotel", a tiny pub with two lodging units billing itself as "Australia's Southernmost Hotel" (a claim dubious claim -- we saw plenty of lodging farther south, though their actual names didn't include the word "hotel"). We were a little taken aback when we saw the place but it turned out to be clean and comfortable, and right on the bay. And the pub had some wonderful aromas from the daily curry special (which, we found that night, tasted as good as it smelled).

Since we'd caught an early ferry, we spent the day exploring Bruny, including a bushwalk up to Mt. Mangana. The narrow and overgrown trail climbs steadily through thick forest, but the adventurous part of the hike came in one of the few sunny, rocky clearings, where a quite large black snake (something between a meter and a meter and a half long and as thick around as Dave's wrist) slithered off the trail right in front of me. Then right after that, Dave spotted a much smaller snake, the size of a large garter snake, a bit off the trail. Should I mention that all Tasmanian snakes are venomous? (Checking the books later, the large one was a black tiger snake -- quite dangerous -- while the smaller one was probably a white-lipped snake, considered only moderately dangerous.)

After that our appreciation of the scenery declined a bit as we kept our eyes glued to the trail ahead of us, but we saw no more snakes and eventually emerged into a clearing that gave us great views of a radio tower but no views of much of anything else. On Mt Mangana, the journey is the point, not the destination.

On the way back down, when we got to the rocky clearing, both of our colubrid friends were there to meet us. Dave, in the lead, stamped a bit and the larger snake slithered off ahead of us on the trail -- not quite the reaction we'd been hoping for -- while the smaller snake coiled into a ball but remained off the trail. Eventually the large snake left the trail and Dave quickly passed it while I snapped a shot of its disappearing tail. Now it was my turn to pass -- but the snake was no longer visible. Where was it now? I was searching the trailside where it had disappeared when I heard a rustling in the bush beside and behind me and saw the snake's head appearing -- it had circled around behind me! (I'm sure this wasn't a strategic move, merely some sort of coincidence: I used to keep snakes and though they're fascinating and beautiful, intelligence isn't really their strong point.) I high-tailed it down the trail and we finished the walk safely.

That evening, we headed over to the penguin rookery, where it turned out that we had happened to choose the one night when there was a ranger talk and program there. I wasn't sure whether that was a good or a bad thing, since it meant a crowd, but it turned out all to the good, partly because it meant a lot more high-powered red-masked flashlights to point out the penguins, but mostly because the real show there isn't penguins at all.

The Bruny Island penguin rookery is also a rookery for short-tailed shearwaters -- known as "muttonbirds" because they're "harvested" for their meat, said to taste like mutton. Their life cycle is fascinating. They spend the nothern hemisphere summer up in the Bering Sea near Alaska, but around September they migrate down to southern Australia, a trip that takes about a week and a half including stopping to feed. They breed and lay a single egg, which both parents incubate until it hatches in mid-January. Then the parents feed the chick until it grows to twice the size of its parents (some 10 kg! while still unable to fly). Then the parents leave the chicks and fly back north. This is the stage at which the overgrown chicks are "harvested" for meat. The chicks who don't get picked off (they're protected in Tasmania) live off their fat deposits until their flight feathers come in, at which point they fly north to join the adults.

We were there about a week after hatching, while the parents were feeding the chicks. The adult shearwaters spend all day fishing while the chick sleeps in a burrow in the sand. At sunset, the adults come flying back, where they use both voice and vision to locate the right burrow. The catch: a bird that migrates from Alaska to Tasmania, and takes casual flights to Antarctica for food, is designed to fly fast. Shearwaters aren't especially good at landing in confined spaces, especially when loaded with fish. The other catch is that there are many thousands of them (the ranger said there were 14,000 nesting at that rookery alone).

So, come dusk, the air is filled with thousands of fast-flying shearwaters circling and looking for their burrows and working up the nerve to land, which they eventually do with a resounding thump. They crash into bushes, the boardwalk, or, uncommonly, people who are there to watch the show. It's kind of like watching the bats fly out of Carlsbad caverns ... if the bats weighed five kilos each and flew at 20-30mph. The night fills with the eerie cries of shearwaters calling to each other, the growling of shearwaters fighting over burrows, and the thumps of shearwaters making bad landings.

Penguins? We saw a few, mostly chicks coming out of their burrows to await a food-carrying parent, and late in the evening a handful came out of the water and climbed the beach. Penguins normally find each other by sound, and at Philip Island they were quite noisy, but at Bruny most of the penguins we saw were silent (we did hear a few penguin calls mixed in with the cacophony of shearwaters). But we didn't really miss the penguins with the amazing shearwater show.

When we finally drove back to the hotel, we drove slowly, hoping to see nocturnal wildlife. We knew by then that Bruny does have mammals (however they might have gotten there) because of the universal sign: roadkill. And we did see wildlife: three penguins, two small red wallabies, three smaller red animals with fuzzy tails (ringtailed and brushtailed possums?) and one barely-glimpsed small sand-colored animal the size and shape of a weasel (I wonder if it could have been a brown bandicoot? It didn't look mouselike and didn't have spots like a quoll).

Success! A spectacular evening.

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[ 12:24 Feb 11, 2009    More travel/tasmania | permalink to this entry | ]

Wed, 04 Feb 2009

Tasmania Photos

I still haven't finished writing up a couple of blog entries from bumming around Tasmania after LCA2009, but I did get some photos uploaded: Tasmania photos. Way too many photos of cute Tassie devils and other animals at the Bonorong wildlife park, as well as the usual collection of scenics and silly travel photos.

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[ 15:49 Feb 04, 2009    More travel/tasmania | permalink to this entry | ]

Wed, 24 Sep 2008

Akk and the Night Visitor

Last night we spotted a masked bandit at the office door.

[Raccoon at the door] The raccoon was in a nutty mood -- or at least in a mood to eat a lot of hazelnuts and cashews.

Happily, I had the DSLR on my desk and was able to sneak some shots. Last time we were visited by raccoons I established that unlike most wildlife, raccoons definitely do notice a camera's flash, and don't like it a bit. (Most birds, reptiles, amphibians and even rodents are remarkably un-bothered by flash and don't seem to notice it at all.) So the Rebel's ISO1600 and ability to focus in dim light came in very handy. (Have I mentioned how much fun it is having an SLR again?)

The 'coon licked the nut shelf clean, then headed north to the neighbor's house. This bandit worked alone -- no partner this time.

A few more raccoon photos here.

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[ 23:44 Sep 24, 2008    More nature | permalink to this entry | ]

Thu, 18 Sep 2008

The Alum Rock Narrows

On a trip a couple years ago, Dave and I sought out an interesting geologic phenomenon: the Victorville Narrows of the Mojave river, after reading the discussion of it in Geology Underfoot in Death Valley and Owens Valley by Robert P. Sharp.

The Mojave river is interesting because for most of its length it flows entirely underground. Looking at the wide, sandy, dry washes along the many miles of its length you'd never suspect that a year-round river was flowing beneath the surface.

One of the few places it comes to the surface is near Victorville, CA, where a big chunk of rock gets in the way and forces the water to the surface for a short distance before it disappears back into another sandy wash.

That's all background to the interesting discovery we made at Alum Rock park yesterday, where Penitencia creek and its tributary, Aguage creek, have been looking progressively drier over this past month.

[big fish in Penitencia Cr] Walking upstream along the creek trail, we saw a fairly normal looking lower creek up to the bridge at the last parking lot. Just a little further upstream beyond that parking lot, the creek follows a series of little cascades and pools. The pools are only a few feet deep at this time of year ... but in one, we saw quite a large fish, about a foot long and looking vaguely catfishy. How does something that big live in a stream this shallow and ephemeral?

Update, 2020: I've been told that sucker fish at least used to be found in Alum Rock park, and they get that big and bigger. So that's probably what it was. Apparently there also used to be small rainbow trout in Penitencia Creek, though I don't know if they still are. Amazing to think of trout living in such a small stream. Were they stocked, or did they swim upstream from the bay?

Not only that, but just upstream, as the stream crossed under the park road near Sycamore Grove, it disappeared. We knew there had to be water because something was feeding those pools and the lower creek -- but it was all underground here. We continued upstream, and discovered ... the Alum Rock Narrows! Right by the steel bridge over the creek, the dry Penitencia and Aguage creeks become wet as water is forced to the surface at their confluence, only to disappear again some fifty feet downstream of the bridge.

It was very like the Victorville Narrows in miniature ... right here in the big city. Not for the first time, I wish I could find a decent geologic map of this fascinating park!

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[ 22:26 Sep 18, 2008    More nature/trails | permalink to this entry | ]

Thu, 21 Aug 2008

Pond denizens struggle against mud

On a short afternoon hike at Sanborn today, Dave and I decided to go by the tiny koi pond near the visitors' center to see if any newts were left this late into summer. [newt stuck in mud]

What a scene! In the current semi-drought, the pond has become a mud flat, its surface criss-crossed with tracks and squirming with newts and crayfish trying to push themselves out of the sticky mud.

In the few holes where the water was more than a couple inches deep, fish flopped -- several 6-8" long golden koi plus something brown but similarly large. A few of the newts thrashed in the water holes, too, seemingly trying to get clean of the mud that coated them; but most of the newts wriggled across the shallower mud flats, heading nowhere in particular but looking very unhappy. The crayfish seemed most numerous at the dryer edges of the pond, pushing themselves laboriously up out of the mud with their claws and dragging themselves across the mud.

Newts normally migrate, and can go surprisingly long distances (miles) across land, so I think at least some of these newts will survive. The fish, I must assume, are doomed unless someone rescues them. I wonder if the rangers have considered selling the non-native koi to someone who wants them, and replacing them with native fish? Are there any fish native here this far upstream? Penitencia Creek (at Alum Rock) has small fish (up to about 3" long), but it carries more water in dry seasons than any creek near Sanborn.

What about the crayfish? Can crayfish survive long out of water, bury themselves in mud (the ones here didn't seem too happy about that idea) or migrate overland?

I suspect there will be some happy park raccoons tonight.

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[ 21:21 Aug 21, 2008    More nature | permalink to this entry | ]

Wed, 02 Jul 2008

Nature updates

Part of my reason for keeping this blog is keeping records of when particular events happen. If there's no story attached, that doesn't necessarily make for interesting reading. So I'll be brief, and just mention that last weekend the mysterious chlorine smell (Dave calls it a bleach smell) was fairly strong up on Skyline near Castle Rock; but it was not noticable at all the previous super-hot week. There goes the theory that it's temperature related.

And the bullfrogs are back at Walden West pond, though they're not croaking very actively. We even managed to spot a (huge!) tadpole, and the feet of something that looked like a crab but was probably a crayfish.

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[ 23:55 Jul 02, 2008    More nature | permalink to this entry | ]

Sat, 07 Jun 2008

Ladybugs and Bees

At Wunderlich today, while hiking up the Alambique trail a bit above the function with Meadow, we heard the bzzzzzzz of a swarm up ahead.

A beehive? No ... ladybugs! Hundreds of 'em, flying at trail level and just above it. When we stopped to watch, we had ladybugs landing on our legs and arms and shirts. We passed through the swarm, then just a few hundred feet up the trail there was another one just as big.

And then another few hundred feet and yet another buzzing ... this one seeming to go much higher than the other two, way up in the treetops. Sure enough, this time it was bees, from a hive in a tree just to the right of the trail. We hurried on by.

But I must have acquired some sort of karmic load there, because as we returned on the Meadow trail, a bee took exception to the top of my head, buzzing me persistently and eventually diving into my hair and stinging me before I could dislodge it. I have no idea why it was so upset -- this was one of the few places during today's hike when there wasn't any visible or audible insect swarm nearby. Must've used the wrong shampoo this morning.

In these days of Colony Collapse Disorder and since I don't own a decent insect field guide, in the interest of science I'll report that the bee was a bit smaller than a typical honeybee (maybe 3/4 the size) and quite a bit thinner, but with similar color and stripes (perhaps a tad less contrasty).

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[ 22:43 Jun 07, 2008    More nature | permalink to this entry | ]

Fri, 30 May 2008

The falcon, the owl and the chickadees

We went for a little afternoon walk at RSA yesterday. I was out of the car and waiting for Dave when I saw motion out of the corner of my eye and heard a thump! of something hitting the ground a few feet away. Maybe something fell out of that tree? It sounded like it fell right ... there ... what's that? It looks almost like ... a bird? But why would a bird fall out of a tree? Is it dead?

And then the bird came to life, stretched its wings, and turned into a kestrel that exploded off the ground and flew away. I never did see if it caught whatever it was after, but I'm happy to have had the chance to see the little falcon make a strike so close to me.

[small owl, maybe a young screech owl?] Later, on the trail, a spotted towhee burst out of a tree and flew past us. Then a small woodpecker emerged from the same cluster of branches the towhee had just left. As we drew nearer we could hear quite a commotion up in the branches ... a dozen or more small birds, mostly chickadees, chattering and darting in and out like bees around a hive. It seemed centered on ... that unmoving spot there ... wait, doesn't it look a bit owl-shaped to you?

I snapped a few pictures, but none of the small owls in the bird guides have a facial pattern like this. It was smaller than a screech owl, but young screech owl is still my best guess.

[bullfrog] And as long as I'm posting nature pictures, the bullfrogs are back at the Walden West Scum Lake. Just floatin' there, though ... they weren't making any noise or moving around.

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[ 23:18 May 30, 2008    More nature/birds | permalink to this entry | ]

Mon, 12 May 2008

Oak wants to be a quail, or maybe a wren

[young mockingbird who thinks he's a quail or a wren] The young mockingbird fledgelings have decided they like us. Oak in particular took a liking to our backyard, and particularly the lawn. It seems he wants to be a quail when he grows up: he loves to run (not hop) around the yard, and flies only when threatened (though once he gets going, he flies quite competently). When he's not being a quail he practices being a wren, cocking his tail up the way wrens do. I managed to get couple of pictures of Oak.

Cedar likes the backyard too, but stays above ground in the chinquapin or the orange tree. In the evenings, they sing a duet, somewhat lower EEPs from Cedar and higher ones from Oak (Oak can sing two notes, but when Cedar's singing Oak takes the soprano line). Holly remains in the front yard, a distant third EEP. [goldfinch and two house sparrows at the thistle sock]

Meanwhile, I've finally managed to attract some goldfinches to the thistle sock hanging outside the office window. Photos (not good ones) here.

Update: Oak continued to play quail in the backyard for the next week, gradually spending more time flying and less time EEPing for his parents. The turning point was when Oak and Cedar discovered the sweet petals of the guava tree's flowers. It takes some flying skill to get into a guava tree: you have to hover a bit while you pick your entry spot, then power your way in. The chicks begged their parents to get them guava petals, but when the petals didn't materialize fast enough they got motivated to improve their flying skills to get their own petals. By May 22 they were pretty much fending for themselves, emitting an occasional half-hearted EEP but mostly foraging for themselves. I see them both most evenings, but I never see three chicks at one time; I may have been wrong about there being a third chick, though it certainly seemed that way on that first day.

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[ 21:46 May 12, 2008    More nature/birds | permalink to this entry | ]

Thu, 08 May 2008

Feeding Fledgelings

After I wrote about the mockingbird fledgelings the other day, someone asked me how long the parents keep feeding them. I checked past blog entries -- that year they fledged on June 25, were still being fed on July 10 and were still EEPing but no longer being fed on July 20. A little over two weeks.

Two of this year's chicks, who fledged four days ago, can fly pretty well now for short bursts, but they tire very quickly and can't stay up for a long flight.

Just now, at sunset, Oak (I'm naming them for to the trees they ended up in when they fledged) flew from the oak over to the back porch roof and spent ten or fifteen minutes begging from there, in nice view of my office window. He was EEPing louder than the other chicks, and both parents were feeding him as fast as they could find bugs. Oak is as big as a towhee, and fat and fluffy, with a spotted breast and a short stubby tail less than two inches long. He still has some of that scrowly wide yellow bill that says "Feed me, mama!"

At one point a parent showed up with a pyracantha berry, but Oak was already being fed. The parent tried a little squawk, maybe to see if Cedar wanted anything, but almost dropped the berry in the process. So with an air of "oh, what the heck!" it swallowed the berry.

Then Cedar started crying from the chinquapin (or whatever the weird tree in the backyard is) and drew the parents' attention away from Oak. After another few minutes of fruitless eeping Oak decided to get some of that action and joined Cedar. Then they both flew down to the lawn, where for the first time I could see both at the same time. Cedar is a lot slimmer than Oak, but with a longer tail, maybe half the length of an adult's.

Oak was in the wildflower bed, actively hunting for food and occasionally finding something to swallow, though I don't have a lot of confidence that they were insects rather than dirt clods. Cedar wasn't hunting for food very actively, but took a few desultory pecks at the pavement and once picked up and swallowed something (a piece of a leaf, I think). Every now and then one parent would glide in from the front yard, and whichever chick noticed it first and eeped would get fed.

I haven't seen Holly today. I thought I heard some eeping from the direction of the holly in the front yard, but never definitely located the third chick.

The evening wore on, though, and the chicks have found trees to roost in for the night and have finally stopped eeping. Mom is taking a well-deserved break while Dad sings the family a lullaby.

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[ 22:00 May 08, 2008    More nature/birds | permalink to this entry | ]

Sun, 04 May 2008

Chicks everywhere

It's definitely spring now! The air is filled with the cheeping of baby birds demanding feeding.

I thought we didn't have a nesting mockingbird pair this year, because there's been almost no singing. I've heard chicks cheeping from the yard across the street, but nothing in our yard.

Until today, that is. This morning, there's a mocker chick in the holly tree in the front yard and another one in the red oak in the back yard, both making noisy demands to be fed. The parents are having a hard time, between hunting and flying back and forth between the two chicks.

The chicks are staying too high up for any good photos, but they're easy to see in binoculars. They're a bit bigger than house sparrows, but still very baby-like, with short tails, fluffy spotted downy chests and big wide yellow bills. They can flutter from branch to branch pretty well, but aren't comfortable going farther than that, especially on this windy morning. I wonder if the wind explains how the two fledgelings ended up in trees so far apart?

(Update a couple of days later: turns out there are actually three chicks. One of them is confident enough to fly in the open and perch on power lines; the other two haven't moved from their respective trees.)

I'm hearing lots of California towhee pings, too (they make a noise like a submarine sonar ping) and there's a towhee pair foraging more actively than usual in the garden, so I'm pretty sure there are some towhee chicks somewhere nearby, getting ready to fledge.

After watching the fledgelings in the yard for a while, I decided to take a peek at some Peregrine falcon webcams. The IndyStar falcon-cam is easy -- two views to choose from, and it pops up a window with an image that refreshes every 30 seconds. Works everywhere. The San Jose falcon-cam is a lot trickier, since their page is loaded with elaborate "pop up the Microsoft Windows Media Player plug-in, and if you don't have that, you're out of luck" code. But Sarah and I and some folks in #linuxchix worked it out a few months ago before there was much to see: it's actually a Realplayer stream, which realplay itself can't play but vlc sometimes can: vlc rtsp://

It doesn't work every time -- I have to try it five or six times before I get anything. I'm told that this is a common problem -- RTSP streams are notorious for having problems with NAT, so if you're anywhere behind a firewall, keep cheeping with vlc and eventually the server will feed you some falcon images.

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[ 13:24 May 04, 2008    More nature/birds | permalink to this entry | ]

Fri, 11 Apr 2008

A booth with a view

A local chain Mexican restaurant, Acapulco, has window booths that overlook a tiny fake pond belonging to an apartment complex. The pond is popular with mallards and Canada geese, birds that don't mind making their home in the back yard of an apartment complex. If you get there early enough to get a window booth, you can get a nice view of the birds over your meal.

I love watching the mallards splash down. Ducks are heavy birds, with fairly small wings. They have one flying speed: fast. So landing can be a bit tricky. Generally they come in with a long, shallow glide, big webbed feet outstretched. The goal is to get the feet down smoothly and use them as waterskis until you've bled off enough speed to drop down into a nice, sedate swimming position.

This is just as hard as it sounds, and the young ducks aren't too good at it, so over the course of a meal you get to watch lots of crash-landings where the waterski technique doesn't quite work and the duck goes splashing face-first into the water.

A couple of weeks ago, I got an interesting view of another aspect of duck life: sleeping. A mallard pair floated together, side by side. The female had her nead neatly tucked backward into the top of one of her wings, but the male had his head in almost a normal swimming position. The clue that he, too, was asleep was that the head never moved. But as he drifted closer, I could see something else interesting. His eye (the one on our side -- I couldn't see the other eye) alternated every two seconds between fully open, and closed with a nictitating membrate. So the eye would be open and dark for two seconds, then cloudy blue for two seconds, then open for two seconds ... quite odd!

Last night, we had an even better view than that. On the tiny rock in the middle of the pond sat a Canada goose, and next to her (I say "her" as if I could tell the difference) were goslings! Tiny, yellow, fluffy ones, lots of them, too many to count. And they must have been just hatched, because there was at least one egg still visible in the nest. The goslings were active, swarming around the mother and climbing around the rock.

But one of them was bolder than the others -- it wasn't on the rock, but in the water next to (I can only presume) the other parent. The adult goose glided sedately across the pond, the tiny gosling keeping up without seeming to try very hard.

Eventually they got to the edge of the lake, where the parent got out of the water and walked up the rocky beach to the manicured grass, where he sat down to rest. The gosling followed, clambering energetically up the rocks of the beach. But when the older goose settled down in the grass, the gosling wasn't content. It climbed up and down, from the water's edge to the grass and back to the water's edge, for the next fifteen minutes while the parent rested. Finally the adult got up and went back to the water, closely followed by the chick, and they went back to tandem swimming.

Meanwhile, the goose on the rock had settled back down on the remaining egg, and the rest of the goslings quieted down and cuddled up next to her. A lovely and tranquil scene.

South bay bird fans, check out Acapulco. Maybe the last egg has hatched by now! I never expected to wish I'd brought binoculars to a Mexican restaurant ...

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[ 10:46 Apr 11, 2008    More nature/birds | permalink to this entry | ]

Thu, 03 Apr 2008


We had some new visitors to our office door this evening: a pair of raccoons! We've had opossums here a few times, but this is the first time we've seen raccoons here.

They're curious and smart: the less fearful one stands up on hind legs and takes long looks at each of us, then decides we don't seem too threatening. Then it uses one "hand" to scoop food from the shelf into the other hand, and retreats back to where the water dish is.

Its companion is a little more nervous: it comes to the door and looks in, then backs off to where it's just at the edge of the door peeking in.

They've already figured out that when the door opens, that's when more food appears, so don't retreat too far. It takes squirrels ages to get over running away when we open the door to add more food. (It may be an ominous sign that we also saw the bolder raccoon stand up tall on its hind legs and reach toward the door latch.)

They've also figured out something else: they like chocolate chip cookies a lot more than nuts.

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[ 23:55 Apr 03, 2008    More nature | permalink to this entry | ]

Sun, 24 Feb 2008

Recycled Salamander

When Dave went to take out the recycling bin this afternoon, he found a surprise under it.

[Arboreal salamander in the backyard] It was motionless at first, and Dave worried that he'd hurt it moving the bin. But it was just resting; eventually it woke up and moved off to find a damper and less exposed spot.

My best guess is that it's an Arboreal salamander, Aneides lugubris ... and probably the same species as the baby salamanders from a few years ago.

It's fun to see amphibians in the backyard: makes me feel like the environment isn't a lost cause yet. I still don't see many frogs these days, but last week walking through a Google parking lot after a talk there was quite a frog chorus, so they're around even if they're not easy to see.

[ 16:44 Feb 24, 2008    More nature | permalink to this entry | ]

Sat, 17 Nov 2007

A newt in the hand is worth two in the creek

We found a tiny baby newt struggling its way across the Zinfandel trail at Stevens Creek.

[rough-skinned newtlet in hand] [rough-skinned newtlet]

Really across the trail -- I didn't see it and might have stepped on it, but luck was with both of us. Dave spotted it after I passed. We stopped to admire, handle and photograph it, then set it gently off the trail so it could continue to struggle its way up the hill.

(Then rinsed our hands thoroughly -- rough-skinned newts and their cousins the California newts secrete a strong neurotoxin through their skin. It's only dangerous if you eat it. They have an interesting defensive posture -- which I've only seen in books and on the web -- showing bright colors to let an attacker know they're poisonous. Garter snakes are the only predator resistant to the toxin.)

I don't know what's at the top of the hill that's so attractive for a young newt, but evidently it's worth some effort. I hope this little one makes it there.

[ 16:03 Nov 17, 2007    More nature | permalink to this entry | ]

Mon, 12 Nov 2007

Little Orphan Annie

Something rustled madly in the star jasmine when I walked past. Probably just a sparrow, I thought. Ever since the sparrows discovered the squirrel nuts, there's been a gang camped out in the guava tree just outside the office door at all times.

I put it out of my mind until an hour later, when Dave reported, "There's an orphan squirrel in the star jasmine. It looks too small to be out on its own. Where is its mother?"

We put a few pieces of walnut out by the bush and watched. After a little while the youngster came out to investigate, moving very slowly and awkwardly, and sat next to the walnut pieces. It didn't sit normally: its weight was back on its tail, with hind legs stuck out in front and crossed, like a tiny squirrel Buddha.

The tiny youngster took a piece of walnut in its front paws and stared at it blankly as if wondering what to do with it. But ten minutes later we saw that it was nibbling, slowly and tentatively. It took a long time, but the orphan eventually made it through three pieces of walnut.

We provided more walnut (the fearful youngster scurried back under the jasmine) and a little dish of water and waited, but the orphan didn't reappear. An hour later, we saw a small young squirrel climbing a tree in the front yard. Could it be the same one? The baby we'd seen didn't look capable of climbing anything. Could it have been merely weak from hunger and fear, and a few nuts revived it?

The next morning, a new squirrel appeared at our feeding area in the backyard. A young female, small but confident. She was able to move both up and down fenceposts and leap from the fence to the oak tree, usually difficult maneuvers for a squirrel trainee. Surely this couldn't be the same tiny, shivering orphan we'd seen the day before?

But after finding a nut I'd left on the fence, this youngster sat in the same odd Buddha fashion to eat it.

Little orphan Annie turned out to be smart as well as agile. She caught on to the nut shelf early -- she was hanging out in the guava (whose springy branches make a great playground for a light little squirreling) when a mouse made a rare appearance, darting out from under the deck to the nut shelf to grab a nut and run back to its hole. I could see Annie's head move as she watched the mouse; I could almost imagine her eyes widening. No need to tell her twice! She was down the guava and over to the nut shelf like a flash to pick up a piece for herself.

Annie hung around for about a week after that (getting chased by Ringtail a few times) but then she stopped visiting. Life is tough for young squirrels. I hope Annie's all right, and just moved on to find a nuttier place to live.

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[ 12:39 Nov 12, 2007    More nature/squirrels | permalink to this entry | ]

Sat, 27 Oct 2007

The annual autumn easter-egg hunt

I'm sitting here at my desk, taking a break from homework and listening to the plop, plop of guavas falling from the tree outside my window.

Both trees are going pretty crazy this year. Big, ripe, tasty guavas accumulate way faster than I can eat them. I should probably learn how to make jam, but it always sounds so daunting. And this year the squirrels aren't interested (funny, since last fall's squirrels liked guavas quite a lot).

Gathering the guavas always reminds me of hunting easter eggs. They fall into the tall sorrel, or the branchlets sprouting from the bottom of the bigger guava tree, or into the tangled, fragrant mess of lantana that pokes its head around the corner and under the tree. Guavas are smaller than easter eggs and not as colorful, but they're about the same shape ... and the thrill of discovery when you spot that elusive green fruit hiding in the underbrush is a lot like what I remember from those long-ago easter egg hunts.

I just heard another plop. I think I'll go eat a guava.

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[ 22:21 Oct 27, 2007    More nature | permalink to this entry | ]

Thu, 18 Oct 2007

What environmental issues face the Bay Area?

On an afternoon hike at Rancho San Antonio, a bright yellow twice-folded paper caught my eye from the ground beside the trail.

It began:

ESCI 19 (Martinez, Gorsuch, Poffenroth & Higgins) FALL 2007

October 19-20 DIABLO RANGE Overnight Field Trip Schedule
37th parallel field studies
then continued with details of the class camping trip to Grant Ranch county park this weekend.

They're doing a pre-dinner hike, a night lecture, a night hike, then the next day they have early morning bird-watching and a morning hike before dispersing.

At the bottom are some

Discussion Questions
1. What environmental issues face California? Bay Area?
2. What will the Bay Area look like in 10 years? 20 years?

Half a mile down the trail, there was another copy: again, twice folded; again, lying in the dirt by the side of the trail.

I think I have a guess at the answer to Discussion Question 2. If even Environmental Science students think it's appropriate to toss their field trip planning sheets any old place on a trail, ten years from now the Bay Area is going to be buried in paper and other debris. (Well, at least paper is biodegradeable, unlike candy wrappers and soda bottles.)

Perhaps Martinez, Gorsuch, Poffenroth & Higgins should consider, next semester, including a lecture on litter and Leaving No Trace. (Though it's sad to think that it should be needed, even in a community college course like this appears to be.)

[ 22:12 Oct 18, 2007    More nature | permalink to this entry | ]

Tue, 18 Sep 2007

It's Spider Season

It's nearly autumn, and that's the time of year when a girl's heart turns to ...


That's right, the tarantulas are on the move.

[tarantula] Mostly, tarantulas are hard to see. They stay in their underground burrows for most of their lives; if they do come out of the burrow, it's likely to be at night.

But for a few weeks each fall, male tarantulas become more adventurous, when they emerge from their burrows and wander in search of females. The females stay snug underground, but the males can often be spotted on roads and trails, if you know where and when to look.

Ah, but where and when? I've seen tarantulas numerous times at Alum Rock Park (in San Jose) and at Arastradero (in Palo Alto) ... but not in the last four years. In recent years, Dave and I have gone out every October looking for spiders, and have struck out locally. (Fortunately we've had better luck on trips, so not all of these years were completely tarantuless -- we've found them in places like Arizona's Valley of the Gods and Utah's Kolob Canyon.)

This year, we got started early, in September. We had no luck at Alum Rock last weekend, so this evening we took a late-afternoon hike a little higher up in the east bay hills, at Grant Ranch.

On the trail by Grant Lake, we got rattled at by a fairly large western rattlesnake, saw an underground beehive as well as lots of small wasps, watched a flock of wild turkeys down by the parking lot, and found a lovely feather from the blue heron at the lake.

But ... no spiders. So we got back in the car and continued up Mt Hamilton Rd toward the upper parking lot (Twin Gates). About two-thirds of the way there, Dave spotted our quarry: a tarantula crossing the road. We found a pullout and ran back with cameras.

After the photo session, we continued up the road to Twin Gates for another mini-hike. Again, we saw no tarantulas on the trail -- just hawks and kites, an oak tree covered with acorn woodpecker holes (with the woodpeckers themselves darting among the branches), and another oak tree being killed by mistletoe.

We returned to the car and headed back down the road -- and bagged the day's second spider, scurrying across one of the roadside pullouts. A nice end to the day's spider hunt!

Photos of the two tarantulas are here.

[ 23:16 Sep 18, 2007    More nature | permalink to this entry | ]

Wed, 18 Jul 2007

So that's why they call them Bullfrogs!

We were heading past the scum pond at Walden West for a quick afternoon hike when I heard Dave, just ahead of me, make a very loud and very rude noise.

Or maybe not. He immediately turned around and asked, "Was that you?" I insisted truthfully that it wasn't.

Weird! We walked on, and behind us we heard more odd noises -- sometimes like machinery, and sometimes like a cow bellowing. We figured it was part of the summer school at Walden West -- maybe they bring in barnyard animals to show the kids.

But the cow bellowing was still going on when we got back to the car, and we could tell now it wasn't coming from the school. It was coming from the pond. A thought occurred to me -- "What do bullfrogs sound like? Like, maybe, a bull?" I had to go see.

Sure enough, the green, scummy pond was covered with big frogs! I counted about 9 visible at any one time. Mostly they were just floating in the scum, but every now and then one would bellow, or dive and swim somewhere else.

Mostly they ignored us ... except the ones near the edge of the pond. If we tried to walk up near them and look down on them, they disappeared underwater immediately. Maybe we looked like a heron or egret.

I know I'm supposed to hate bullfrogs. They're an invasive species with a voracious appetite for local species. My bio teacher told us to kill them on sight if possible (not that we could have done so here even if we'd wanted to). But I found it fun and unusual to see any frog at all here ... let alone a frog chorus right in front of us in broad daylight.

A few photos.

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[ 22:44 Jul 18, 2007    More nature | permalink to this entry | ]

Sun, 15 Jul 2007

Sniffin' the Oaks

I continue to be puzzled by the mysterious chlorine small that sometimes wafts through the redwood forests during the warm days of summer. It's been fairly noticable for about a month now, though it's patchy and doesn't occur everywhere.

Today's hike was on a trail called "The Lonely Trail", up above Woodside. It was just as well that it was lonely: no one could see Dave and me (mostly me) stopping to sniff bushes and trees and rotting logs and dirt. But alas, no definite culprit emerged. It did seem stronger when we were next to tanoak trees, though that is virtually everywhere in these forests.

Tanoak is short for Tanbark-Oak, or Lithocarpus densiflorus. It's not a true oak (genus Quercus) and is more closely related to chestnuts. But it's like oaks in many ways -- the tough, shiny leaves look a bit like larger versions of our local coast live oak (though the distinctive veins make it easy to tell the two apart). The acorns, too, are very similar to those of live oaks.

The smell definitely wasn't coming from the tanoak leaves, but it did seem stronger near the trunks of some of the tanoaks. I'd always assumed "tan" referred to color (since there are white oaks, black oaks, blue oaks and red oaks, none of which are really those colors). But what if it refers to a tree whose bark is particularly high in tannic acid? What does tannic acid smell like, anyway?

This would still leave some mysteries. Tanoaks are all over bay area parks, not just in redwood forests. What is it about the deep, shady redwood forests which bring out this smell, where it's seldom obvious in the tanoaks of the valleys or rolling hills? Some interaction between tanoaks and redwoods, or ferns? Something that only happens in the shade?

I never found a tree that gave me a clear answer -- I merely picked up subtle hints of chlorine odor from the trunks of a few trees. Returning home to the digital world, I learned that the tanoak tree is indeed very high in tannins, and was extensively harvested for tanning hides. The local native Americans also used the acorns for flour, after leaching them to remove the bitter acid. I found no references to odor from tanoak bark or wood, but a few pages mentioned that the flowers, which hang in catkins, have a foul odor. No one goes into specifics on this odor.

I didn't see many flower catkins on today's hike, but they're listed as appearing in June through October. Looks like I have a research project lined up for the next outing.

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[ 22:30 Jul 15, 2007    More nature | permalink to this entry | ]

Thu, 21 Jun 2007

Notch has had her kids

Whew -- I think our resident squirrel Notch has finally had her long-overdue litter. It wasn't immediately obvious, but she's been deflating over a period of about a week. Since then she's gone off her mad burying frenzy and gone back to eating the nuts we give her.

Last week, while she was still pregnant, she was kind enough to give me a nice nut-burying exhibition right outside the office door, which I got on video. She digs a hole, places the nut in and tries to pack it down, decides it's not deep enough and pulls it out again, digs a little deeper, jackhammers the nut into place with her nose, fills in the hole then does her usual careful job of covering over the hole and arranging leaves on top of it to hide the evidence.

Then she turns and digs up a nut that was buried two inches away and eats it. Video on youtube.

In other squirrel news, on an afternoon hike at Rancho San Antonio yesterday I saw an Eastern Fox squirrel in the trees about halfway up the first leg of the PG&E trail. Foxes are an invasive species (just like Notch and her Eastern Grey friends who inhabit most of the suburbs around here), so that's not good news for the native Western Greys who have traditionally inhabited the park. I suppose it was just a matter of time, since RSA is so close to suburbia, before the non-native eastern squirrels invade and drive out the wimpy native squirrels. It'll be interesting to see whether the western greys can hold their own, or, if not, how long the invasion takes.

In non-squirrel news, we had a few very hot days last week (mid 90s) and fled to the redwood forests to escape the heat one day, and smelled that odd chlorine odor I've noticed before. The smell was fairly faint this time. I asked my Bio teacher about it in class last semester, but he didn't know what it might be, so it remains a mystery for now. I'll be tracking whether it's there on all hot days, or just some, this summer.

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[ 15:49 Jun 21, 2007    More nature/squirrels | permalink to this entry | ]

Sun, 10 Jun 2007

Young Squirrels are Nuts!

It's springtime in the backyard! I saw a couple of mockingbird fledglings cheeping to be fed in the pyrocantha while we were having dinner last night, though we never saw the mockingbird nest. And we have a couple of California towhee fledgelings who come by to eat sunflower seeds. Mama towhee first brought them by one by one, broke the seeds up (apparently a sunflower seed is a little too big for a towhee to swallow in one piece) and fed them to the cheeping youngsters. But now they're coming by on their own, and still having some trouble breaking up the seeds, but they're making progress. Unfortunately one of the chicks hops only on one foot, apparently having injured the other already.

It's springtime for our local squirrels, too. Ringtail, the fox squirrel, is still around, and we have an occasional visit from a male fox squirrel as well. Notch, our longtime resident grey squirrel diva, is heavily pregnant. She looks like a little furry bowling pin and we keep thinking she's going to have her litter at any moment, but days pass and she continues to grow. We noticed her pregnancy some time in mid-April (it was quite visible by then), and gestation is supposed to be around 44 days, so either she's way overdue, or the books are wrong about Eastern grey squirrel gestation. (Or she's just fat and not pregnant at all, but I don't think so since her nipples are very prominent too.)

She still moves remarkably gracefully and has no trouble with leaping and climbing, unlike Nonotchka, who lumbered and waddled when she got to this stage last summer.

But the real fun is a pair of baby squirrels who showed up a week ago. We're calling the female Nova and her brother Chico (he has slonchy ears that look like Chiquita's). We have no idea who their mother is -- obviously not Notch, and we haven't seen any other female greys in quite a while. The kids wear sleek summer coats, while Notch still hasn't shed her shaggy winter fur despite the warm weather.

This pair is much bolder and more athletic than Chiquita and Ringlet were last year. They leap, they run along the fence, and they scamper headfirst down tree trunks. They don't play together much at all, the way last year's twins did, but sometimes they play by themselves. This morning, we watched in amazement as Nova played by the guava tree just outside the office door, alternating between pretend-burying of walnut shells and wild gyrations, rolls and backflips.

Best of all, I got it on video! I've set up a youtube account and uploaded a long video of her doing backflips and spins, and a shorter video of her digging and rolling.

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[ 20:32 Jun 10, 2007    More nature/squirrels | permalink to this entry | ]

Fri, 11 May 2007

Great Deals on Brush Mouse

The previous entry covered springtime butterflies, but it's springtime in the back yard, too.

Notch (our longtime resident squirrel) is heavily pregnant. It's not slowing her down much -- she still leaps and climbs gracefully -- but apparently raging hormones in a pregnant squirrel create a desperate need to bury walnuts. She's here all day long, demanding one walnut after another. She isn't very interested in eating, only burying.

We play games. Today I handed her a walnut then raised it while she was still holding it; she hung on for a few seconds, then pulled her hind legs up, did a backflip, landed on her forelegs and scampered off, to reappear a few minutes later wanting another one.

Ringtail the fox squirrel is still with us, as is a young male Eastern grey (perhaps the father of Notch's brood?) and the most recent arrival, a male fox squirrel. But in addition, we have a new visitor we've only seen a few times: a mouse, larger than a house mouse but smaller than a black rat. It's apparently some kind of native mouse. (Good! That's much more interesting, plus it means it's far less likely to want to move inside the house. Wildlife is great fun outdoors, less fun when they want to move in with you.)

So what kind of mouse is it? Hey, no problem -- there are only thirty or forty species of native mouse in my mammals field guide! Okay, so identifying a mouse that you only see for a few seconds at a time isn't terribly easy. But one caught my eye pretty early on: the brush mouse with its long ears and habit of moving by jumping, like our mouse. I don't know for sure that this is a brush mouse, but it seems like a reasonable first guess.

When I google for "brush mouse", the links aren't that useful, but the ads are intriguing. Google presents two sponsored ads. One is a colored ad at the top of the page for a Mouse Brush, from I know someone who keeps mice -- I'll have to ask her if she has a Mouse Brush. I thought they normally kept themselves clean pretty well without needing to be brushed, but you never know, maybe those fancy longhaired mice need some help.

The second ad was over on the right and was even more interesting. It said:

Brush Mouse
Great deals on Brush Mouse
Shop on eBay and Save!

That's a relief -- if anything happens to our brush mouse, now we know where we can get a new one!

It's just amazing the sorts of things you can find on ebay.

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[ 21:53 May 11, 2007    More nature | permalink to this entry | ]

Spring Butterfly Madness

It's spring, and butterflies are everywhere in the local parks. If you like butterflies and live in Northern California (or anywhere with a similar climate), get yourself out this weekend ot check out the action! There are a few northern checkerspots, tiger swallowtails and others flitting about, but the real partiers are the variable checkerspots.

[Variable checkerspot butterflies on yerba santa] At Stevens Creek, they're clustered in huge numbers on the pale blue-violet flowers of yerba santa. Some yerba santa bushes are completely covered with butterflies. Others aren't: a closer look shows that those bushes have flowers pointing down, rather than up. Maybe once a flower is pollinated and its nectar gone, it sags?

[Variable checkerspot butterflies on buckeye flowers] On the other side of the road, at Piccheti Ranch, yerba santa isn't so common, and the checkerspots gather on the last of the clusters of buckeye flowers.

And one more checkerspot-on-yerba-santa picture, just 'cause they're pretty.

[ 21:17 May 11, 2007    More nature | permalink to this entry | ]

Sun, 01 Oct 2006

Frisky Fall Squirrelets

The cool, overcast fall weather is here (first rain of the season, too), and it's amazing how much difference it makes in the squirrels' behavior and appetites. They're hungry again! Just as Notch dropped from thirteen or fifteen nuts in a day last winter to one or two during summer (of course, she probably has plenty of other food sources aside from us), now that fall is here we had to make an emergency run to the nut store to satisfy the hordes.

The kids, Chiquita and Scrape (as Dave took to calling Ringlet after she got a scrape on her shoulder), are friskier in addition to being hungrier. Today Scrape spent most of the morning running up and down the guava tree, bounding in the air or doing front-flips for no reason, and starting tussles with Chiquita. When not tussling with her sibling, Chiquita spent most of the morning eating -- she's noticably bigger than Scrape and it's not hard to see why.

Ringtail drops by periodically to check on how the kids are doing in day care. Then she'll dig up a nut and move on. She never lingers. We try to feed her, but she has an amazing inability to see food even when she's standing right on top of it. She looks sleek and robust, so I guess she's getting plenty to eat somewhere else, but watching her nose around and still miss a nut right in front of her face, I sometimes wonder how she survives.

Notch usually doesn't drop by until afternoon, and seems to avoid the kids. Squirrels must have inhibitions about fighting youngsters (even those not their own), since she's never been hesitant to chase away any interloping adult squirrel. It'll be interesting to see how long the truce lasts between Notch and Ringtail's kids -- and how long the kids will stick together before going their separate ways.

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[ 16:20 Oct 01, 2006    More nature/squirrels | permalink to this entry | ]

Thu, 21 Sep 2006

Squirrel Babies: Chiquita and Ringlet

A few days ago, I saw our neighbor squirrel, "Ringtail", struggling along the fence with a baby in her mouth, and hoped that she was moving closer to us so we'd get to see the babies when they got older.

My wishes were answered: the very next morning a new young squirrel appeared to play on the fence. Dave called "her" (we're not sure about gender yet) Chiquita.

It's easy to tell squirrel youngsters: not only are they much smaller than adults, but they're quite klutzy and cautious about the aerial feats that the adults do without hesitation. Chiquita was fairly klutzy, once falling out of the red oak onto the motorcycle shed (a drop of maybe five feet, which didn't seem to hurt her).

Then the following day, both Ringtail and Chiquita showed up ... with another baby. This one has a ringed tail like "his" odd-looking mom, but otherwise looks like an ordinary young grey squirrel. Ringtail took a few nuts then disappeared, leaving the kids at nursery school (a role which we're only too happy to fill). We think they hang out in the atlas cedar in the front yard when they leave here.

We've been greatly entertained for the last few days, watching how fast the kids learn the business of being a squirrel. On the first day, they had a lot of trouble moving head-first downward on the fence: while Notch will scamper right down then leap to the deck, Chiquita stretches as far down as she can get with her rear claws hooked over the top of the fencepost, then stays there for many minutes, evidently trying to work up the nerve to move downward. When she does move, it's carefully, step by step, and making the leap over to the deck (only about six inches) also takes time and nerve. When squirrels are fearful of something, they lash their tails wildly, like an angry cat.

A red oak tree gives much better purchase for your claws. Neither squirrelet shows any hesitation about leaping the couple of feet from the fence to the tree trunk, though sometimes Chiquita misses and has to run around the tree trunk before she gets a secure hold. And when they're both in high spirits they'll chase each other at high speed through the tree's branches.

Their antics can be pretty funny -- like when Chiquita was nerving herself to drop from the deck to the ground, but her wildly-swinging tail dislogdged a rock on the deck, which fell next to her and sent her into a panic causing her to drop off the deck.

Both of them, but especially Ringlet, love the potted fuscia I have sitting on the kayak stand. They stand on their hind legs, reach down into the pot and dig: they'll bury a nut, then immediately dig it out again. Sometimes they eat the fuscia, too. The fuscia is not looking at all healthy now, and I've written it off as a squirrel toy.

Even from one day to the next, it's easy to see their skills improve. Yesterday afternoon Ringlet even made the jump from the roof to the fence -- only a few feet, but the landing is tricky since the top of the fence is less than an inch wide. They do still stumble and fall pretty often -- Ringlet fell from the tree to the ground yesterday, making an audible thump, then lay there for a few minutes before getting up. But they're looking more graceful every day. Ringtail still brings them by in the morning and drops them off, then heads off to work (or wherever it is she goes once the kids are safely in day care).

Notch hasn't been around much, though I can't imagine she's been scared off by Ringtail and the kids. I did catch sight of her yesterday. I was sitting in the yard watching Chiquita. (The kids are fairly tolerant of our presence as long as we move slowly, but we're still trying to get them accustomed to moving about the yard and finding nuts in the right places.) She'd finally moved from the tree across the fence to the post nearest the office, and I was hoping she'd come down and take a drink of water and notice the nut I'd put there for her. After about five minutes on the fencepost, looking longingly down at the water but evidently not feeling confident enough for a head-down descent, she finally started to make a move -- then froze. I caught movement out of the corner of my eye: Notch was ambling along the deck right past my chair. While Chiquita watched, rapt and motionless, Notch went decisively to the nut hole, pulled out the whole walnut (she dislikes all pre-shelled walnuts -- we've tried bulk ones from the local fruit stand and bagged ones from Trader Joe's, but Notch and I both agree that neither taste as good as the walnuts in the shell) and marched back the way she'd come.

That was enough for Chiquita: as soon as Notch was safely out of sight, Chiquita came straight down the fencepost and onto the deck, sniffed at the shelled nut (not hungry) and had a long drink of water. I still don't know if Notch knew Chiquita was there -- squirrels don't seem to have territorial battles with youngsters, so maybe Notch was just being nice to the kid. (And she obviously wasn't hungry anyway, or she would have eaten the walnut and asked for more.)

Pictures of Ringtail and Chiquita (no Ringlet yet) here.

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[ 19:00 Sep 21, 2006    More nature/squirrels | permalink to this entry | ]

Sat, 16 Sep 2006

Ringtail's baby

One of our occasional visitors is a very odd squirrel. She's very large, with powerful hindquarters (enough so that she walks differently from most squirrels, in a sort of waddle) and a long, long tail that's ringed like a raccoon. We call her "Ringtail".

She doesn't visit often: Notch usually chases her off. And she's not very good at finding the nuts we set out for the squirrels, let alone being bold enough to come to the door.

We hadn't seen her for several weeks when today I heard a nut-crack noise out in the yard, peered out and saw Ringtail on the fence -- with a baby squirrel in her mouth. Go Ringtail!

Carrying baby squirrels usually means it's time to change dens, I believe. Grey squirrels apparently keep several dens, and change from one to another when one den gets too dirty and full of parasites.

With any luck she and her babies are moving to a more nearby den, and we'll be seeing them more often now.

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[ 13:25 Sep 16, 2006    More nature/squirrels | permalink to this entry | ]

Sat, 29 Jul 2006

What's that chlorine smell in the woods?

A few weeks ago, hiking in the woods, I noticed it was happening again: the smell of chlorine in a forest far away from pools or other likely sources of chlorine smell. This happened about this time last summer, too. It only lasts for a few weeks: apparently there's something that blooms briefly in deep redwood forests which smells like pool chlorine.

Whatever it is, it's pervasive and not very localized. I never notice it getting stronger near any of the trails where we hike -- it's more a general odor one notices while driving along forest roads. That makes it hard to narrow it down to a specific plant.

Googling wasn't entirely enlightening, but it did suggest that the most likely culprit is a mushroom. Various species of Mycena mushrooms apparently emit a chlorine-like odor, especially when they're growing on wood. Chlorine smells are also reported from Marasmius oreades, the "fairy ring" or "scotch bonnet" mushroom, and from Amanita chlorinosma and A. polypyramis. But I didn't find anything about widespread seasonal blooms of any of these mushrooms.

So the mystery remains, and I guess all that's left is to remember, when hiking in the redwood forest at this time of year, to stop and smell the mushrooms.

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[ 11:36 Jul 29, 2006    More nature | permalink to this entry | ]

Sat, 15 Apr 2006

Peregrine Cam Only Available to High Bandwidth Microsoft Users

Today's SF Chronicle had a story about the nesting peregrine falcons on a building in San Francisco. In past years, they've had a "Peregrine Cam" allowing people to watch the falcons as they raised their chicks.

Well, this year the Peregrine Cam is back -- only now it's streaming video that requires a fast broadband connection and Microsoft's Windows Media Player.

If you just want to see the falcons, you're out of luck if your connection isn't up to streaming a full video feed, or if you're on a platform like Linux where Windows Media Player isn't offered.

Linux does have several video player applications which can play WMV format, but that's not enough. When I visited the page, what I got was a streamed video advertisement for the company that provides the streaming technology (in stuttering jerks that left no doubt that their bandwidth requirement is higher than the wimpy DSL available in this part of San Jose can provide). But that was all; the video ended after the ad, with no glimpse of falcons.

(I suppose I should be grateful that their Viewing FAQ even mentions Linux, if only to say "Linux users can't view the Peregrine Cam because it needs WMP." Other folks who can't use the camera are people with earlier versions of WMP, Mac users using Safari or Opera or who don't have Stuffit, and people behind corporate firewalls.)

The site doesn't have a Contact or Feedback link, where one might be able to ask "Could you possibly consider posting an photos, for those of us who would love to see the falcons but can't use your whizzy Microsoft-dependant streaming video technology?" Not everyone even wants high-bandwidth streaming video. Alas, the closest they offer is the 2006 Diary, updated irregularly and only with 200x200 thumbnail images.

Update: mplayer users with the appropriate codec can view the camera with the following command:

mplayer ""
Thanks to Guillermo Romero for poking through the source to find a URL that works.

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[ 12:25 Apr 15, 2006    More nature/birds | permalink to this entry | ]

Thu, 06 Apr 2006

Squirrel Territory Skirmishes

We were travelling for a week, so we left the squirrels with plenty of nuts to bury. (I'm sure our backyard will be a maze of walnut and hazelnut sprouts once the spring weather arrives.)

On our return, we found Nonotchka nursing an injury, limping on her left rear leg and sporting two wounds on that haunch. We're guessing she had a close encounter with a cat or similar predator.

(Dave saw Notch face off with a cat just a few days ago. Notch was crossing the street back to the place where we think she has her nest, when a cat came out of someone's yard. Notch stopped and sat up in the middle of the street, facing the cat. The cat stopped, too, and they sized each other up. Finally Notch turned and casually sauntered off the way she'd been going, obviously having decided she had enough escape options and wouldn't have trouble outrunning the cat. The cat turned and stalked off the other way: "Oh, I wasn't hungry ayway.")

Since our return Nonotchka has gotten steadily gotten better. She seemed very hot for a few days, constantly running off to flop onto the cold concrete in the shade, and the soles of her paws were hot when she came over to take nuts. We suspect she was fighting an infection. But her temperature is better now, and the fur is growing back over the wounded area. She's walking better every day, and it's hard to see that anything is wrong, until she jumps. She can't jump as high as before, and climbing the fence is harder. With any luck it's just stiffness, and she'll get over that in a few days.

We've made a special effort to make sure she gets plenty of nuts, despite Notch's frequent presence. But today they had an encounter that makes me wonder if we need to worry about that any more. I was feeding Notch some breakfast nuts when Nonotchka appeared on the fence. Normally Nonotchka would stay there, or retreat across the street, when Notch is around; but today she causually walked down the fencepost and sniffed around under the deck where we often leave nuts.

Notch stopped eating and turned to look. They eyed each other for a bit. Eventually Notch rushed Nonotchka, who retreated back under the deck -- but not very far. Notch hopped a few feet over to the grass under the orange tree and began to roll, dig, and pull herself through the grass (to leave her smell there?) After about a minute, Nonotchka appeared from under the deck and began rolling/digging/pulling herself through a patch of grass under the guava tree, not more than four feet away from Notch. Notch tolerated it for maybe half a minute, then it got to be too much and she rushed Nonotchka again with a little bark. Nonotchka retreated again, but still not very far, and they spent the next few minutes eying each other, circling slowly around the yard, in a slow chase that ended with them exiting into the cedar in the front yard, where I lost sight of them.

Five minutes later Nonotchka showed up at the office door to take a nut I'd left there, but she took it up to the fence and wouldn't come back to eat anything more.

I guess squirrel territory isn't immutable. It's nice to see Nonotchka asserting herself a little.

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[ 12:36 Apr 06, 2006    More nature/squirrels | permalink to this entry | ]

Fri, 17 Mar 2006

The Notch Gang

Our little squirrel family has grown to four. Notch has returned, after being gone for over a month, and now displays nipples like Nonotchka's. Turns out they were both females!

Notch is still as graceful, strong, and dominant as ever, and hangs around keeping Nonotchka from feeding. But we've found a solution: give Notch a nut in the shell, and she will take it off to bury it, which gives us a little time to sneak some nuts to Nonotchka before Notch flies back like a furry bolt of lightning.

Sometimes the ruse doesn't work. Once Dave went outside and chased Notch across the yard, over the fence and into the cedar while I communed with Nonotchka. Dave though he had her; but Notch vanished into the cedar branches, ran down the trunk and snuck under the gate while Dave was still watching the upper branches. Nonotchka only got a few nuts that time.

But that's not all. We have two other squirrels now, both apparently youngsters (they're scruffy, skinny, slightly smaller than our established squirrels, and markedly less graceful). One has white tufts between his ears, so I'm calling him Tuft; the other doesn't have a name yet and doesn't come by very often. They're both males, and yes, it is possible to tell when they're sitting up, contrary to some web pages I've seen.

Both of the kids are very nervous about us, and won't feed when we're anywhere in sight. But they're not nervous about Notch; the three of them sometimes eat at the same time, sitting on different parts of the fence, something Notch would never allow Nonotchka to do. Dave is convinced that they're Notch's kids from last year, and that he sees a family resemblance. The two kids sometimes quarrel mildly between themselves, and chatter at each other, but only when Notch isn't around; when she is, they're respectful and submissive.

Since the Notch Gang of three all tolerate each other, this makes it difficult to get any food to Nonotchka. She's taken to coming by later in the afternoons; the kids get up early in the morning, and Notch likes coming by around lunchtime.

Dave taped a little wooden shelf at the bottom of the office door where we can put nuts. Notch and Nonotchka learned it pretty quickly: not because they're any good at finding new nut sources (it takes them forever to notice a nut that's in a place where they don't normally find any; sometimes I wonder how the species survives) but because they're both bold enough to come to the door and look in when they're hungry, and eventually they bump their noses into the nuts on the shelf. Tuft is starting to notice the door-nuts, too, and will take one, then run off when he notices he's being watched.

I was able to get some photos of Nonotchka at the door (plus a few new shots of her outside in interesting poses). I tried to photograph Tuft today but he's too nervous.

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[ 19:27 Mar 17, 2006    More nature/squirrels | permalink to this entry | ]

Tue, 07 Mar 2006

Nonotchka has had her litter

Nonotchka has had her litter. Or at least she lost the tummy and regained her old svelte and graceful form as of yesterday afternoon. Of course, we haven't seen any squirrelets; she'll have them stashed away in a nest somewhere safe.

We're slightly worried about her. She came to eat today as usual (ravenously: she ate ten hazelnuts all at once then took several more away to bury), and although she seemed friendly and energetic, she left blood spots on Dave's jeans. I hope this is just some sort of normal postpartum condition and not an injury. She didn't seem to be in pain. (I get this from Dave; I was away when she made her visit. She's definitely spending less time here now that she has a family to take care of.)

So we'll keep an eye on her, make sure she's well fed and hope that she's okay and that in a few months she might start bringing the kids by. Apparently grey squirrels nurse for an amazing three months before they're ready to go out on their own. There are usually four to a litter.

(Update the following day: She seems fine. She's still energetic and hungry, and there's been no more blood.)

Meanwhile, Notch is gone. We haven't seen him at all since getting back from our trip. We're getting occasional visits from a new squirrel: scruffy, young-looking and not terribly well coordinated. Dave thinks the newcomer is a male. He's confused about nuts, or well fed from someone else's yard: he'll sniff at a hazelnut in the shell then leave it where it lies. Perhaps he just doesn't like hazelnuts and is holding out for a walnut.

It seems odd that this scrawny newcomer could have chased the burly, graceful and confident Notch away from his territory. My guess is that Notch decided there was some other yard he liked better, since even before the trip we'd been seeing him only infrequently.

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[ 23:30 Mar 07, 2006    More nature/squirrels | permalink to this entry | ]

Thu, 02 Mar 2006

Nonotchka is going to be a mom!

We went away for a week, to visit family for my grandmother's 100th birthday (yay, Grandma!) Of course, before we left we made sure our squirrels had lots of nuts buried, so they weren't dependent on the shelled nuts we've been feeding them.

When we got back, Nonotchka wasted little time in visiting us, and she's just as friendly as ever (to someone with a walnut in hand). But there are some other changes. At first, we weren't sure if she seemed fatter; but eventually we saw her from angles that left no doubt. And her belly fur has changed; instead of the brownish grey, now it's white like Notch's, except for six dark spots arranged in pairs down her abdomen.

Looks like we guessed right about Nonotchka's gender (well, we had a 50% chance) and she's going to be a mom!

I hope we get to see the baby squirrels when they're old enough to leave the nest. Maybe she'll even bring them by when they're old enough to be weaned.

We haven't seen Notch at all since we got back. I hope he's all right. He'd been spending a lot of time across the street anyway, so perhaps he's found a territory he likes better than our yard.

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[ 12:29 Mar 02, 2006    More nature/squirrels | permalink to this entry | ]

Thu, 02 Feb 2006

Suburban Squirrels

In early December, a squirrel staked out our yard as part of his territory. We encouraged him with nuts. He has a notch in one ear, so I called him "Notch".

Later that month, another squirrel showed up. Sometimes Notch chased the new squirrel (especially when food was involved), but at other times they seemed to be playing in a friendly way. Apparently December is breeding time for squirrels.

There's no easy way to identify the gender of grey squirrels (at least from a distance), so we arbitrarily decided that the larger, tougher and more territorial Notch was a male, and the newcomer must be female. Dave dubbed her "Nonotchka".

(Of course we're hoping that in a few months it will become obvious which one is actually the female, and soon afterward we will have little squirrels to watch.)

Both Notch and Nonotchka have become rather tame (though not quite to the point of taking food from our hands), and we've been able to get some decent (though not spectacular) photos while feeding them. Unfortunately, the final review process for the GIMP book got in the way of organizing the photos or writing squirrel essays, and I'm only now starting to catch up.

So here they are: our Suburban Squirrels.

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[ 15:57 Feb 02, 2006    More nature/squirrels | permalink to this entry | ]

Wed, 12 Oct 2005

Autumn Winds

The mockingbird is singing. He's been doing that for three weeks now. What's he doing bursting into song all of a sudden in late September and keeping it up for weeks?

All over, animals in the parks are restless. Squirrels are madly digging up nuts from one place, carrying them to another and re-burying them. Chipmunks have appeared, chipping from the bushes as we walk by. I normally don't see chipmunks in the local parks, just ground and tree squirrels. Are they always here, but usually quiet so we don't see them? Or did they migrate in for the season?

An unusual species of large yellow-billed blue bird appeared on the wire above the house. How odd! What's blue, jay sized but has a big bulky yellow bill?

Binoculars provided the answer. A scrub jay with an acorn in its bill! Since then I've seen quite a few yellow-billed Stellar's jays in the local parks as well.

The central area of Alum Rock is filled with a large family of acorn woodpeckers drilling holes in trees, posts, and the walls of the Youth Science Institute building to store their acorns for the winter. The YSI building looks like swiss cheese. A few days after I saw the woodpeckers at work, we went back and the buildings had all sprouted dangling silvery tinsel from all eaves. It seems to be keeping the woodpeckers away. Bad for me (they're cute), good for the YSI.

I saw a couple of nuthatches at Arastradero. A first for me. I don't know if they're migrants, or if they're always there and I've just never noticed before. Arastradero was also thick with white-tailed kites. There are always a few testing the slope currents there, but this time I saw at least four different pairs, maybe more, each with their own territory staked out. Somehow even with that many kites they all managed to stay too far away for me to get a good picture.

The reason for all the time spent at Alum Rock and Arastradero is that we're on the hunt for tarantulas. Every fall, just as the weather starts to get cold, the male tarantulas come out of their burrows and go marching across the trails looking for females. (Maybe the females are marching too. I'm not clear on that.) They're only out for a short time -- maybe a week -- and they're easy to miss. Last year we missed them altogether (but then we lucked out and spotted one later that month while travelling in Arizona).

Anyway, we've had no tarantula luck yet this year. Henry Coe state park had its annual Tarantula Festival already, a week and a half ago. But they always seem to have the festival while the weather's still hot, long before tarantulas show up in any other parks. Maybe Coe tarantulas are a different species which comes out earlier than the others. At any rate, we've seen no sign of them at Alum Rock or Arastradero so far this year.

But back to that singing mockingbird. He doesn't seem to be the same mocker who set up house here this spring and raised three nests of chicks. That one had a very distinctive call note which I haven't heard at all this fall.

But what's he doing singing in autumn? Is he singing as he packs his bags to fly to LA or Mexico? Or confused about the weather? Someone asked that on a local birding list, after noticing thrashers (closely related to mockingbirds) suddenly finding the muse. I reproduce here the edifying and entertaining answer. (Googling, it appears to have been a folk song, though I can't find a home page for the author or anything about the music.)

The Autumnal Recrudescence of the Amatory Urge

When the birds are cacaphonic in the trees and on the verge
Of the fields in mid-October when the cold is like a scourge.
It is not delight in winter that makes feathered voices surge,
But autumnal recrudescence of the amatory urge.

When the frost is on the punkin and when leaf and branch diverge,
Birds with hormones reawakened sing a paean, not a dirge.
What's the reason for their warbling? Why on earth this late-year splurge?
The autumnal recrudescence of the amatory urge.
Written by Susan Stiles, copyright December 1973

[ 23:54 Oct 12, 2005    More nature | permalink to this entry | ]

Wed, 14 Sep 2005

It's Walnut Season

It's walnut season. The neighborhood is full of crows, making rattling calls, flying from place to place with walnuts in their beaks, and dropping walnuts on roads to try to crack them. It's always entertaining to watch the crows' antics. Walnuts are hard to crack, even when you're a professional.

Meanwhile, the squirrels are going crazy. In addition to running around carrying walnuts the size of their heads, burying, digging up, and re-burying, we've also seen squirrels fighting with each other, threatening each other, whirling around in trees for no apparent reason, and perching on wires barking at invisible enemies below.

I had assumed that they were barking at cats or other squirrels in neighbors' yards, but this morning I saw a squirrel on the power line above the driveway, barking and threatening and staring intently at ... the empty driveway. If there was anything there, it must have been the size of an ant.

Makes me wonder ... do walnuts ever ferment? Am I seeing a neighborhood full of drunken squirrels?

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[ 12:16 Sep 14, 2005    More nature | permalink to this entry | ]

Fri, 05 Aug 2005

Second Round of Nestlings

Both the mourning doves and the mockingbirds snuck in in a third round of nesting this year. Rather than make lots of little entries, I kept the timeline all in one (long) file. If nothing else, it's easy to skip for anyone who doesn't like "bird columns" (taking a cue from Jon Carroll and his "cat columns").

Jun 24:

There's a little drama going on on the roof of the house across from the office window. a pair of doves showing extreme interest in the rain gutters at the corner of the porch and above it at the corner of the house (flanking the tree where they raised their chicks last month). She (I assume) will fly to the porch gutter, snuggle down in the gutter for five or ten seconds, then appear dissatisfied and fly over to the other gutter, do the same there, fly to the ground, fly up to the roof, coo for a while, then repeat the process. Meanwhile her mate flies from the roof to the ground to the power line, cooing the whole time.

At one point, one of the dovelets flew to the roof just above the gutter and started pecking for gravel, and mom chased him away furiously. No more parenting for you! Get your own place! Get a job, why don't you? And cut your hair!

The scaly dovelet still looks scaly. I wonder why? The other chick looks like a miniature adult.

Unfortunately we had to disturb the little episode because the porch gutter the dove kept landing on had come loose. Dave went out with a hammer and hammered it back into place, but I guess that spooked the doves. Which may be just as well -- an exposed rain gutter really doesn't seem like a good place for a nest, especially since the youngsters seem to avoid sun, fun though it might be to have the nest right out in plain view of the window.

Jun 25:

The doves seem to have been scared off by the hammering of the rain gutter, and are looking elsewhere for a nesting site. There's lots of ooohaaahing going on while they're up on the power lines, and once I saw the male trying to mate (the female flew away). Haven't seen the dovelets since mom chased one off the roof.

Jun 28:

The doves are back, cooing and nestling in the gutter. Looks like she really likes that site.

Jun 29:

She's given up on the roof and gutter and has decided to nest in the old nest site in the guava tree.

July 2:

One dove now stays in the nest at all times -- I suspect there's an egg there -- while her mate furiously brings her sticks one after another. When he's not bringing sticks for the nest, he's up on the wires singing Oooaah, oooh oooh oooh!

July 3

Turns out there's a mockingbird nest in the pyrocanthus just outside the kitchen window. We can see it from the sink. The mocker hardly spends any time there, though. The dove is still sitting patiently in the nest.

July 5

Dave cleaned the outside of the kitchen window so we could get a better view of the nest. Haven't seen the mocker since; we may have scared her off.

July 7

The mocker wasn't scared off after all. I saw her perched on the edge of the nest, poking into the nest. I couldn't tell if she was rearranging eggs or feeding chicks. No chick noises, though. The dove still sitting. Of course, it's impossible to tell when dove chicks hatch since they are silent and motionless until nearly ready to fledge.

July 10

Mocker perched on the edge of the nest again, but this time we saw the chicks. She hunted about four bugs for them in quick succession, then disappeared. Amazing how little time the mocker spends in this nest compared to the dove, who's always there.

July 12

One mockingbird chick tentatively seen on the edge of the nest.

July 13

The mockingbird chicks have fledged. I say "chicks" but I've actually only seen one, hopping around the upper branches of the pyrocantha. It doesn't seem to be able to fly yet, and still looks very fuzzy and short-tailed.

And the dove-mom, never flitting,
Still is sitting, still is sitting ...

July 14

Drama outside the bedroom window this morning. Apparently there was a chick down in the neighbor's back yard, and I was awakened by squawking as both mockingbird parents buzzed something in the yard just on the other side of the fence.

This went on for about an hour, with breaks for a few minutes every so often. Then the harrassment abruptly stopped. I don't know whether whatever it is they were attacking (a cat? I didn't hear any barking, so I think the dogs were away) went away, or got the chick. But it's possible the chick may still be okay. A little while later I heard some tentative singing, and about an hour later there was a little bit of squawking aimed at a different part of the neighbor's back yard. My hope is that the chick is slowly making its way out of the yard.

July 17

I haven't seen any more sign of mockingbird chicks, but I heard outside the living room window something that sounded remarkably like a mocker chick and an adult talking to it. So I think at least one chick survived.

The dove, incredibly, is still sitting on the nest. It's possible that there are chicks in there too, but I haven't been able to spot any.

July 25

Incredibly, I think there are actually dovelets in the nest. I had pretty much decided that it must be time for the dove to give up sitting and go get a life, but I'm seeing vague signs of movement in the nest, and slightly different behavior from the sitting dove. Doves sure are patient.

July 26

Tonight when we got home from dinner, we were greeted at the gate by a baby bird hopping around on the driveway. In the dim light it was hard to tell what it was, but probably a sparrow or house finch -- too small for a mockingbird fledgeling.

And fledgeling it was: after regarding us for a short time it flitted unsteadily into the top of a nearby bush, which seemed to us like a much better place for a birdlet to spend the night than the driveway!

There are indeed dovelets in the nest. Looks like two again, though it's hard to see them clearly. The parents look tired; one of them spent part of the afternoon sitting on the deck, out in the open, and didn't move when we walked by. (It wasn't hurt, though; I kept an eye on it through the office window in case I needed to shoo away cats, and it eventually flew weakly up to join its mate in the guava tree.)

July 31

The dovelets are sitting up in the nest and looking very alert. Probably only a few more days left to fledging. The parents are no longer sitting with them, and are up cooing on the wire.

August 2

No dovelets in the nest! I found them in the corner of the yard, the same corner that the previous pair liked so much. They stayed there all morning.

Like the previous pair, there's one that looks like a miniature mourning dove, and a second with a scaly pattern.

But in early afternoon, they were gone. A whiff of cat poo in the air suggested doom.

August 3

There was one dovelet in the corner of the yard this morning. I haven't seen the other, but at least one (the scaly one) survived.

August 5

Haven't seen any dovelets since the morning of the 3rd.

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[ 23:15 Aug 05, 2005    More nature/birds | permalink to this entry | ]

Sun, 17 Jul 2005

Seal Nookie

Dave and I spent the morning swapping processors. He's letting me use his old P3 Tualatin to replace the Sempron based system I bought.

The Sempron was what I came up with after I had no luck finding a working motherboard to replace the one that died on my beloved old (quiet and cool) Tualatin machine. The machine always ran too hot. At least, everyone seemed shocked when I mentioned that it typically ran at 59-62°C with the case open and an extra fan blowing onto the chip, and more like 75°C with the case closed (so I've been running it with the case permanently open, which means it's a lot noiser).

That's the second time I've gotten burned by AMD. They make fast chips, but I don't care about speed: I care about cool and quiet operation for the machine I run day in and day out. Intel's no better, as long as a P4 is all you can buy for a desktop machine. The Via C3 line seems to be the only option until Intel finishes their promised switch to desktop processors based off the Centrino line. (I hope when those finally arrive, they're available in a version without DRM.)

After the machine swap was finished, the day had heated up, we headed over the hill to my favorite beach, Bean Hollow, to check out the tidepools and tafoni and harbor seals.

The tidepools had a decent selection of crabs up to about 3 inches as well as goggles of small hermit crabs (mostly in shells of some sort of purple snail).

Apparently it's harbor seal mating season. At least, we guessed that's what they were doing, though they might have just been playing in groups of two, with much flipper-splashing and nuzzling, and crowds of other seals gathered around to watch. There was also a lot of loud, rude sounding snorting from solo seals swimming nearby.

The seals' coats are very colorful, much more so than in spring when they're raising pups. The rocks were covered with seals sporting black-spotted white, white-spotted black, yellow, orange, and red. Quite a change from their spring colors of dark silver to black. One web reference I found said they molt after the pups are weaned, so perhaps these colors represent their fresh coats, which gradually turn duller as they age.

The bright colors are much more photogenic, too. They stand out from the rocks, especially the white youngster who obligingly ran through a gamut of cute poses for me, relaxing, looking alert, scratching, yawning, rolling over, and finally some seal yoga: I didn't know such seemingly ungainly animals could scratch their heads with their back flippers!

[ 00:15 Jul 17, 2005    More nature | permalink to this entry | ]

Sat, 18 Jun 2005

Dove Chicks Fledged

The two dove chicks fledged yesterday, early in the morning. By the time we were up, they were out in the yard, walking behind one parent and play-pecking in the weeds. They can fly: Dave saw them fly up to the fence once, then back down.

That didn't last long, though; after about fifteen minutes of activity they found a corner they liked, under the blue borage, planted themselves there in the shade of the fence, and didn't move until afternoon when the sun hit their corner and they went off in search of shade. They definitely prefer shade to direct sunlight (even on a cool and windy day). The parents came to feed them periodically.

They're still eerily silent. They never call for food, or for anything else. Very different from last year's mockingbird chicks. When they fly they make the normal dove squeaky noise that the adults make, but that's the only sound I've heard out of either one.

They look quite different from each other: one is a miniature adult, while the other is a bit smaller, usually more ruffled, and has a "scale" pattern in its feathers. They apparently spent the night somewhere high -- we saw them fly up to the roof a little after sunset, then they walked over to where we couldn't see them any more.

In the morning, they were back in their corner, still content to sit in the same spot all day. I spooked them once doing some garden work in that corner of the yard, and one of them flew across the yard and landed on the fence, and spent the next hour or so there before flying back to the normal corner. Later, the other flew up into the atlas cedar for no apparent reason, then spent a while trying to figure out how to get a solid perch on the swaying, uneven branches.

Meanwhile, the house sparrows were doing bushtit imitations all over the tree, hanging upside down while pecking at the needles. I'm not sure if they were after the cones, or actually eating bugs for a nesting season protein supplement, but it was fun to see a flock of house sparrows acting like bushtits.

A few photos of the dovelets.

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[ 20:36 Jun 18, 2005    More nature/birds | permalink to this entry | ]

Thu, 16 Jun 2005

More Baby Birds

The mourning dove chicks by the back door remain amazingly quiet. They're growing fast, nearly half the size of an adult dove now, with fairly adult looking feathers, the characteristic wing spots of their parents, and eyes that are starting to show a blue ring. There are only two of them, not three as I'd originally thought. They move outside of the nest onto adjacent branches, fiddle, flutter a little, and preen a lot. Yet they never make any noise. Quite a change from the noisy, demanding mockingbird chicks last year!

A female Nuttall's woodpecker showed up in the backyard yesterday. I heard her drumming this morning. Maybe she'll stick around. I put out a peanut-and-sunflower cake that woodpeckers are supposed to like, though birds in this yard never seem to like the foods the books and bird feeder companies say they will.

The towhee and house finch families still seem to be raising their young, but I haven't gotten a glimpse of any chicks yet. The mockingbird who shunned us earlier in the season seems to have moved into the atlas cedar for his second nest (or is it a third?) and is singing in the morning and squawking at jays by day.

Meanwhile, I dropped by Shoreline around lunchtime today and got some photos of a pair of avocets with one chick, including the rare 4-legged avocet (where the chick hides underneath mom, so only his legs are visible). I also got a couple of nice shots of a stilt flying at Alviso.

Other neat sights: a nesting colony of great egrets in a tree outside a business park, a bedraggled but still pretty snowy egret at Shoreline Lake, and the terns banking ten feet away from me as they fished in the shallows of the little lake.

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[ 19:50 Jun 16, 2005    More nature/birds | permalink to this entry | ]

Sat, 11 Jun 2005

Baby Birds

On a hike a few days ago we saw a baby swallow on the trail. So cute! He didn't appear to be hurt, but wasn't moving, either. It was soo tempting to move him, or take him home and feed him. But adult swallows were flying all around, and he was old enough that he had all his feathers (probably old enough to fledge) so we left him there and hoped someone would take care of him.

Meanwhile, back at home, house finches are raising a family in the Italian cypress outside the office, and a pair of mourning doves has taken over the nest the mockingbirds built last year in the guava tree outside the back door. It doesn't look like they rebuilt or improved the nest at all: the mockingbird-sized nest looks very small under a big mourning dove.

The chicks hatched several days ago, but I didn't realize it for at least a day, because the dove chicks are quiet and motionless, not at all like the active, noisy, demanding mockingbird chicks were. The dovelets act just like eggs, except they're fuzzier and occasionally I can catch a glimpse of wing feathers. I think there are three.

The adult doves are a lot calmer than the mockingbirds were, as well. The mocker parents would get angry any time they noticed a human trying to watch them through the window, and would hop up to the window and glare and squawk until the person went away. It was tough to catch a glimpse of the chicks.

The doves, on the other hand, spend a lot of time out of the nest now that the chicks have hatched (though before they hatched, there was always a dove on the nest: the sitting dove wouldn't leave until its mate arrived to take over) and even when they're there they're pretty calm, keeping an eye on anyone who tries to look through the window but not seeming too upset about it. I can't tell if they're frightened by being watched, but I try not to watch for long when an adult is there. (That's easy since there's nothing much to see anyway.)

I haven't seen any feeding yet, or other interesting behavior. Maybe they'll get more active when they're a little older.

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[ 13:28 Jun 11, 2005    More nature/birds | permalink to this entry | ]

Sun, 27 Mar 2005

Future Naturalists

I took a respite from wrestling with broken motherboards on Thursday for a short mid-day walk at Shoreline, looking for birds.

What I found instead was schoolchildren, everywhere!

Maybe 20 different groups, each consisting of about 10 kids (perhaps 5th grade or so?) and 2-3 adults. The students all carried binoculars and bird books; some of the adults carried scopes.

With so many people in the park, the birds weren't as plentiful as usual, but I didn't mind: it was fun to see how interested the kids were and how much fun they seemed to be having. One group spotted a hummer six feet off the trail in a bush; binoculars came up, pages flipped, faces concentrated, and there was a chorus of "Anna's hummingbird!" and "Ooh, look, he's so beautiful!"

Really fun. Watching kids get excited about learning is more fun than watching birds!

(Reminds me of Ed Greenberg's comment at an SJAA star party: "The only thing cooler than Saturn is a kid looking at Saturn.")

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[ 10:27 Mar 27, 2005    More nature/birds | permalink to this entry | ]

Mon, 07 Mar 2005

First Geology Field Trip; Signs of Spring

Catching up with events of the past week ...

My Field Geology class had its first field trip on Saturday. Great fun, and lovely weather and scenery -- the meadows were full of wildflowers and meadowlarks.

We didn't study many actual rock formations, though we did see some lovely marble, gneiss, and quartzite outcrops and several sinkholes. Mostly we practiced mapping skills with the Brunton pocket transit, triangulating bearings and measuring elevations to plot contours. Today I went to the USGS to pick up some maps for local mapping practice, only to find that they've discontinued the 15' series, and I'd have to get a huge number of 7.5' maps (at $6 each) to cover the areas I need to sight. I got three maps, which turned out to be vastly insufficient for my one practice hike so far. I may need to get some downloadable ones and do my own printing.

Meanwhile, there are other signs of spring: at home, a mockingbird has been singing fairly regularly for a week now (before that, there were sporadic short bursts of song but nothing sustained), and I saw one of the Audubon's warblers carrying nest-building material. And at the Los Gatos perc ponds, a killdeer has decided to nest on the grass right next to the entrance road. The rangers have her area roped off, and she doesn't seem too upset by all the traffic passing by. She wasn't actually sitting on the nest when we went to see her; she sat or crouched in several different places in the grass, not just in one spot.

Finally, at Stevens Creek reservoir, a log near the inlet of the reservoir 1hangout spot for the lake's turtle population.

[ 21:21 Mar 07, 2005    More nature | permalink to this entry | ]

Wed, 09 Feb 2005

Don't Try to Stare a Rabbit Down

We went for a short hike at RSA this afternoon. A flash of blue swooped showily past us and disappeared into the grass of the field ("What was what? that didn't look like a jay"), emerging half a minute later, a western bluebird with a big fat worm in its bill.

We saw the first wild turkeys of the year, a big flock of about ten. Some hikers scared them and they decided to cross the stream, but they did it in a very orderly fashion, one by one and single file. Obviously there was a wrenching conflict in the turkey psyche between not wanting to get one's feet wet, versus flying being a lot of work. So each turkey would trot down the slope to the stream, jump just before reaching the bottom, flap two or three times, land in the water then splash/trot the last couple steps to the far bank. Then the next turkey in line would follow the same procedure.

The last two turkeys said "Aw, to heck with it!" and trotted straight down the slope, getting wet feet.

Up the hill on the farm bypass trail, we came to a place where the grass was, evidently, greener. We saw one brush rabbit, then another, then a third, then a fourth, then some kind of mouse who vanished as soon as it spotted us (the rabbits were less concerned). We watched the fourth rabbit for quite a while as it munched the grass, and Dave noticed that it never blinked. Was it blinking too fast for a human to see, or do rabbits, somehow, not blink?

So I checked with Suzi. She says she's never caught her pet rabbit, Scamper, blinking -- and Scamper sleeps with both eyes open.

Dana found the answer. Rabbits apparently only blink once every six minutes. It's in the oddly titled study, Proliferation Rate of Rabbit Corneal Epithelium during Overnight Rigid Contact Lens Wear. Though I'm fairly sure the rabbit we saw on the trail was not wearing contact lenses.

[ 22:36 Feb 09, 2005    More nature | permalink to this entry | ]

Thu, 06 Jan 2005

Anna vs. Phoebe

Vignettes from a couple of short walks today ...

First, an exciting chase: a series of gulls loudly chased a crow which was carrying something large, orange and amorphous in its bill. I would have expected a crow could hold its own against a gull, being nearly as large, heavier, and smarter; but the crow obviously just wanted to escape with its prize, and ultimately did.

Later, on returning to the car, I had just spotted a black phoebe sitting on a branch near the road, when I saw something buzz past the corner of my vision. It was a male Anna's hummingbird rocketing straight up in what looked like a courtship display (in December?)

But it wasn't a courtship display: the hummer then sped straight down and arced past the phoebe, crying a short TCHEE! at the bottom of its arc when it was closest to the intruder.

I watched for maybe five minutes, fascinated, as the hummingbird repeatedly dove on the phoebe, never getting closer than a couple of feet (perhaps avoiding the branches of the bush in which the phoebe perched). The phoebe paid no attention, and didn't even flinch. It did change its perch to another bush once during the time I watched, and the hummer promptly shifted its attack to the new location.

A fellow hiker/photographer, returning from her walk, joined me for a minute to watch the show. She said she'd read recently in the paper that Anna's hummingbirds were due to start mating flights in mid-December. We both thought midwinter was an odd time to nest, especially for a bird so small that it has to worry about maintaining body heat. But if it's true, this male may have been defending a nesting territory, though I didn't see any female hummingbirds nearby.

This evening, a sunset walk along Los Gatos Creek revealed a first for me: a muskrat!

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[ 22:11 Jan 06, 2005    More nature/birds | permalink to this entry | ]

Mon, 03 Jan 2005

New Year's Day in the Verdugos

Trails in the Verdugo hills above Burbank are a happy place, even when they're crowded on New Year's Day, with everyone taking advantage of a brief respite between two weeks of rainy weather. Everyone smiled, waved, or offered a cheery "Happy New Year!" It's nice to see people enjoying being out hiking, instead of grumping down the trail glowering at everyone, like some of the trails at home. Even after the sun disappeared and the wind came up, people seemed happy to be there. Mountain bikers, hikers, families, dog walkers, and one careful-stepping barefoot runner shared the trail without any conflict.

Up at the ridge, the crowds thinned out and we were alone. A large brown bird -- some sort of thrasher? -- belted out a song in a tree near the ridge saddle, and we watched a big red-tailed hawk slip silently out of a tree just below us and sail out across the canyon, adjusting her attitude entirely with the angle of her tail, scarcely moving her wings at all.

On the other side of a lookout peak, a towering brick chimney surrounded by pottery shards bears witness to past attempts to colonize this place. A kiln? And what was the purpose of the tall mast on the hill above it -- a flagpole? A lightning rod?

We lost ourselves following side trails down from the lightning rod, and found ourselves tracing deer trails through the chaparral. We examined rocks (is that layered black rock a coal seam, or pillow basalt to go with the nearby serpentine?) and eyed erosion gullies. We waved to bikers and got sniffed by dogs. A nice New Year's morning!

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[ 16:02 Jan 03, 2005    More nature/trails | permalink to this entry | ]

Fri, 24 Dec 2004

Winter Yard Birds

There's still a hummingbird (male, Anna's) hanging around the feeder! Last year, all the hummingbirds lost interest and left my yard in October, so it's nice to see them staying through December this year.

We also have a lovely black phoebe who has adopted the yard, and flycatches from the power lines most of the morning.

The mockingbirds have finally left -- their renewed singing in late October had given me hope they might stay the winter, but it looks like they were just readying their traveling tunes. Long trips are so much nicer when you have good music. 300 miles south, at my mom's house, mockingbirds are still singing sporadically -- I thought I remembered them remaining in LA all year, unlike the bay area, and so indeed they do.

Audubon's (yellow rumped) warblers have been a nice surprise this year. Perhaps they've been here every year; I joined a few local bird-watching mailing lists, which has been great for helping me notice birds I never noticed before. It turns out the birds I used to see in Los Altos which I thought were pine siskins were in fact Audubon's warblers (I found an old photograph); but even so, I'd never seen them in San Jose before.

I used one of the warblers for this year's Christmas card, with the colors desaturated, and a nice colorful autumn leaf stapled to each card. (Watching Rivers and Tides must have gone to my head; I saw the striking leaves beneath a neighbor's tree and knew I had to use them for something.)

Wishing everyone a happy holiday season on this Christmas Eve!

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[ 13:49 Dec 24, 2004    More nature/birds | permalink to this entry | ]

Sat, 04 Dec 2004

Predators and Flocks

I've always read that the reason that animals congregate in flocks, schools, and swarms is that it's more difficult for a predator to attack an animal in a swarm. The predator goes for one animal, gets confused and veers off after another animal, veers after a third, and ends up catching none at all.

Today, I experienced this effect more directly, from the vantage point of both predator and prey.

We were flying model airplanes with the folks at Baylands. We brought the Pocket Combat Wings out of retirement, because there's been chatter on BayRC about people dogfighting Mini Speedwings, and we wanted to try dogfighting with more than just the two of us in the air.

We hit the jackpot today! The combat session had seven planes in the air at once, though it seemed like twice that as they twisted and twined and screamed and whined and tried to hit each other. Beautiful!

There's been some talk about rules and engine classes and that sort of thing. Speaking as a pilot of the smallest and least powerful plane there (I think I was the only one with a stock IPS motor), it doesn't matter a bit whether some planes are faster than others, or slightly bigger. Nobody can make contact anyway.

In some twenty minutes of intense dogfighting (and sore hands and raw thumbs!) there were maybe four hits total (and no kills -- in every case both wings continued flying). People tried different strategies: pick out one target and follow it (invariably to lose it quickly in the melee), fly straight and let everyone else attack you (except mini wings don't fly straight all that well, especially in high winds), fly straight back and forth through the center of the bait-ball, fly into the bait-ball and start doing tight loops, fly above the bait-ball and spin down through it ...

Didn't matter. It turned out to be impossible to aim for a particular plane as they all swarmed and twisted, and impossible to pick one and follow it. Life in a swarm is chaos, and all you can do is join in the chaotic dance.

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[ 22:21 Dec 04, 2004    More misc | permalink to this entry | ]

Fri, 03 Dec 2004

Told Off by a Squirrel

It was cold on the trails at RSA this afternoon!

After flying for a little while at the electric plane flying area, we took an afternoon hike. We should have reversed the order. Nearly all of the trails were in shadow by the time we got there, and parts were covered with ice! (Non-Californians are laughing; but it's awfully rare in coastal California to slip on ice covering the trail, and we weren't dressed for that sort of weather.)

The squirrels were active, calling to each other and dropping buckeye and acorn bits from the treetops. One squirrel decided we didn't belong on his trail. We watched him make flying leaps from one bay tree trunk to another, until finally he rested on the trunk at the edge of the trail, just above our eye level and perhaps three feet away. He peeked around the tree and glared at us, grunting at our effrontery.

I grunted back, and the obstreperous squirrel leapt into action, racing up the treetrunk to where it bowed over the trail, barking down at us (I barked back), racing to another vantage point, barking again.

Belligerence was rewarded. The simian trespassers quailed under such a display of squirrel valor, and retreated down the trail, leaving the precious buckeye stash unmolested.

(The invaders may also have been giggling a bit as they continued their hike. But let that be. The important thing is, they are gone and were not able to steal any nuts.)

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[ 23:40 Dec 03, 2004    More nature/squirrels | permalink to this entry | ]

Tue, 16 Nov 2004

Wood Duck!

I biked down to the perc ponds today (the Los Gatos Creek Percolation Ponds, a part of the local water storage system where creek water percolates down through layers of sand, clay, and rock into the aquifer) to look for birds. Rumour had it that there was a female wood duck hiding out among the mallards. I'd never seen a wood duck, so I hoped to find her.

Not only did I find her, but she has a boyfriend! Or, at least, there's a male wood duck in the perc ponds as well as a female, though they weren't hanging out together -- she was consorting with the mallards (and a curious ground squirrel) up by the trail, while he was out swimming in the pond.

I also saw some gadwalls (a new duck for me) and got better pictures than I previously had (for my bird photo project of several birds, including a belted kingfisher (always a tough subject). Nifty! Today's pictures are here.

Yesterday we went for a short hike at Alum Rock, and saw some more turkeys and even more deer, including a magnificent buck and a couple of little spike bucks, and lots of young deer play-butting each other. They've been added to the older Alum Rock turkey/deer photos from a few weeks ago.

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[ 21:14 Nov 16, 2004    More nature/birds | permalink to this entry | ]

Fri, 12 Nov 2004

Baby Newts are Migrating

Last Sunday I mentioned seeing one newt remaining in the newt pond, and wondered whether the rest were migrating already.

Today at Rancho San Antonio, we encountered a half-grown young newt, sitting on the trail nearly a mile uphill from the creek. After some photos (all but the first there are of this young 'un) we moved the newtlet off the trail where it wouldn't get stepped on.

Later, Dave noticed a part of the trailside lurching repeatedly in and out. Obviously some small burrowing animal, perhaps a mole, was beneath the rain-loosened dirt, trying to decide whether to burst out into the open. We watched for a while as the animal tunnelled from one place to another, but every time we thought it might be getting ready to poke a nose out, another herd of hikers would come by and all burrowing would cease; time would pass, then dirt would begin to lurch somewhere else. We never did see the burrower.

Other notable critter sightings: a wrentit (only the second time I've ever seen one, though I hear them all the time; the first one I saw was also at RSA, and I didn't manage a photo then either), a ruby-crowned kinglet, lots of fluffy white feathers along one trail (what bird there has white feathers? Perhaps the white-tailed kite we saw later, but I've never seen a kite in the more wooded part of the park where we saw the feathers), and an extended bout of animated loud chatter from the treetops which sounded more like geese than anything, but eventually turned out to be squirrels. (Akk's rule of birdsong: if it's loud and really weird sounding, it's probably a squirrel.)

[ 22:14 Nov 12, 2004    More nature | permalink to this entry | ]

Sun, 07 Nov 2004

The Last Newt; and Eclipses on Jupiter

We went for a "mander meander" up at Montebello this afternoon, curious how late in the season the California Newts hang around the newt pond. A month ago, the pond was full of newts, but today, only one was left. The rest must be migrating to wherever they go in winter. We didn't see any migrators.

Interestingly, the poison oak disappears at the same time as the newts: a month ago the trail was full of poison oak, but today, nearly all of it was gone.

Having nothing to do with newts, my fun project last night concerned an article in New Scientist about a new Hubble photo of a triple shadow transit on Jupiter. (They make it sound like a much more unusual event than it is; amateur astronomers get to see Jupiter double transits pretty much every year, and triple transits every few years, weather permitting, of course.) The article comments that the moons would look to an observer on Jupiter about the same as our moon looks to us, and that these eclipses as viewed from Jupiter would be similar to an earth eclipse.

That seemed unlikely -- that all four Galilean satellites would just coincidentally have the same size as each other and as the sun, just like our moon does from here -- so I wrote a little program to calculate the apparent sizes in arcseconds, and came up with:

       Sun : 6.1
        Io : 35.6
    Europa : 18.0
  Ganymede : 18.1
  Callisto : 9.1

So a Callisto eclipse might be somewhat like an earth eclipse, with Callisto being one and a half the sun's apparent size, but the other moons appear much much larger than the sun. And Io is about the same apparent size in Jupiter's sky as our moon is here (about half a degree).

[ 21:00 Nov 07, 2004    More nature | permalink to this entry | ]

Fri, 05 Nov 2004

Turkey Season

A few days ago, we took a break from Election madness and went for a late afternoon bike ride at Alum Rock.

We were hoping for tarantulas, but had no luck on that count. But what we did find, at dusk as we rode past park headquarters, was wild turkeys! Dozens of wild turkeys, all random-walking and gobbling like mad, the males displaying their tail feathers. The handful of deer (a few fawns and several bucks with antlers sprouting) grazing nearby were nervous of the turkeys, and backed off when they came near.

We stood and watched for quite a while, and neither turkeys nor deer seemed particularly worried about our presence. Alas, the light was low, so the photos didn't come out very well.

[ 20:02 Nov 05, 2004    More nature | permalink to this entry | ]

Mon, 11 Oct 2004

Migratory birds singing in autumn

For the past week, the mockingbird and the hummingbirds have suddenly begun singing again -- the mocker only in the morning, the hummer sporadically all day. October seems like a strange time to be singing. I wonder if it's related to the decision whether to migrate? Both Anna's hummers and mockingbirds are inconsistent about whether to winter here or migrate south: some years they stay, some years they go.

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[ 14:23 Oct 11, 2004    More nature/birds | permalink to this entry | ]

Sun, 05 Sep 2004

Año Nuevo: Elephants to Weasels

Dave took me to Año Nuevo for my birthday (and to escape the September heat). It's up the coast from Santa Cruz, really not that far from home, but somehow I'd never been there.

The park is famous for elephant seals, and during the breeding season it's necessary to make a reservation and go on a guided tour, so the tourists don't disturb the seals -- and vice versa (the male seals can get very aggressive and territorial during mating season). But during the off season, things are much lower key, the seals are moulting (which means they spend most of their time lying around on the beach) and you can get fairly close to them.

Volunteers man the observing stations at the ends of the trail spurs, and provide information on the elephant seals and other marine mammals.

Most of the seals were so inert that one might wonder if they were actually alive. One big bull, flopped in a nest of seaweed on a beach away from the others, looked particularly lifeless, though occasionally his sides would move as he breathed. Apparently the birds were fooled: one gull, poking through the nearby seaweed, hopped up onto the bull's side, perhaps thinking it was a rock, and the bull exploded into life, snapping at the gull as it hastily made its escape.

Harbor seals, California sea lions and Stellar's sea lions live on the island and make a huge and constant racket with their barking; and a couple of sea otters have been spotted nearby, but nobody had seen them today, unfortunately. Birds are plentiful: I bagged (photographically) several new birds, including Heermann's Gulls and sanderlings, and also got some decent shots of pelicans and gulls in flight.

But the highlight was neither bird nor marine. Dave spotted it first, and pointed. It looked like a squirrel -- a rather tall, skinny squirrel with a white belly -- but we don't have squirrels colored like red foxes here in California. Then the animal came down off its haunches and bounded across the trail and into some tall grass, waving its long, thin, and distinctly non-squirrelish black tipped tail. A long-tailed weasel! The first I'd ever seen. It was a nice birthday present.

[ 23:14 Sep 05, 2004    More nature | permalink to this entry | ]

Wed, 01 Sep 2004

Squirrel Baby

As I walked out to the backyard gate, a furry grey missile flew off the garage roof, over my head and into the slot along the top of the backyard fence. I just barely got a look as the squirrel flew by -- but it was carrying something big (baseball sized, at least) and brownish in its mouth, and landed with a thump because of the weight of its load.

My curiosity was piqued. What object that large -- it looked like a coconut with the husk on, but the size of a baseball -- could a squirrel be interested in carrying around?

The squirrel climbed down off the fence, still carrying its load, and landed (with another thump) on the driveway and went scurrying off across the street (dodging two cars in the crossing). Dave and I followed it, intrigued.

Half a block away, it stopped under a tree, and we were finally able to get a slightly better look at what it was carrying. Definitely big, definitely spherical, definitely fuzzy -- and it had two tiny paws clutching around the squirrel's neck. It was a baby squirrel, rolled up into a ball, holding on to mom's neck while being held in her mouth.

Where she was going with her squirrelet will remain one of the mysteries of suburban wildlife viewing.

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[ 18:36 Sep 01, 2004    More nature/squirrels | permalink to this entry | ]

Mon, 30 Aug 2004

Giant Salamander

Dave and I went for a ride down the 914 trail at El Corte de Madera (now officially called the Methuselah Trail since MROSD removed the Porsche 914 which used to be there). After it crosses the creek at the bottom of the trail, it connects to a trail called "Giant Salamander".

We hung around the creek bottom a while, enjoying the forest ambiance before starting the climb back up, and I half-jokingly asked "Where's the giant salamander?" Half a minute later, Dave said "There it is."

And sure enough, an enormous salamander, maybe ten inches long and dark with rust-colored spots, swam out into the creek and started poking its way among the rocks. It seemed much more active than the California Newts we usually see at Montebello, and it had a nice vertically flattened tail -- when it disappeared into crevices it almost looked like an eel.

A quick web search suggests that it was a California Giant Salamander.

Neither of us was carrying a camera. Oh, well.

[ 19:01 Aug 30, 2004    More nature | permalink to this entry | ]

Wed, 18 Aug 2004

Hummer nectar changes hummer behavior

I made a new batch of nectar for the hummingbird feeder. Now most of them are hovering at the feeder, rather than perching. They mostly seem to be taking shorter drinks, as well. I wonder why?

This batch might have been a little weaker than the usual. (I made it on a hot day, and added extra ice to cool it down faster so I could put the feeder out again, and figured that weaker solutions are probably better on hot days anyway.) I might have guessed that stronger nectar would lead to shorter stays, but I wonder why weaker nectar would?

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[ 20:03 Aug 18, 2004    More nature/birds | permalink to this entry | ]

Sun, 15 Aug 2004

The Blooming Garden

I spent a few minutes this morning wandering around the garden with a camera.

Those bugs on the dill are odd. No idea why they only liked the one flower cluster and none of the others. But they didn't look like useful pollinators, and did look like they were eating the stems of the flowers, so I clipped off that cluster and dunked it in a bucket of water. (Dave kept suggesting I should spray pesticide, but maybe I can avoid that. I will probably have to use some Cory's to control the slug damage on the beans, though.)

I also learned (via google) that those huge black insects d has been calling "wood boring wasps" are really "giant carpenter bees". A wood boring wasp actually looks like a wasp, whereas these look like black bumblebees the size of a small hummingbird, and make almost the same wing noise as they pass overhead.

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[ 14:20 Aug 15, 2004    More nature | permalink to this entry | ]

Sat, 14 Aug 2004

Newts still around

The California newts are still in their normal pond at Montebello. The pond is drying up, though (the area between the two ponds is dry now). We even saw a pair that might have been mating. It'll be interesting to see how long they stay there before they migrate.

One of the other ponds had a few tadpoles, one with legs sprouting.

[ 12:30 Aug 14, 2004    More nature | permalink to this entry | ]

Thu, 22 Jul 2004

Beta sighted

Saw a chick in the front yard last night, hopping around on the ground and playing with a branch. This chick still has a striped breast; the chick on the wire the previous day didn't. Looks like both Alpha and Beta have made it so far. Hooray!

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[ 10:55 Jul 22, 2004    More nature/birds | permalink to this entry | ]

Tue, 20 Jul 2004

At least one chick still okay

Saw one mocker chick yesterday and a couple of times today. It flies well but still has trouble balancing on a wire when the wind is blowing. It still CHEEEEEEEPs instead of making noises like the adults, though I haven't seen anyone feeding it. It landed on the house roof today and did an odd sideways dance, combined with the trademark mockingbird wing-opening ritual, then hopped into the gutter and rooted around there before flying off.

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[ 23:02 Jul 20, 2004    More nature/birds | permalink to this entry | ]

Come, Lulu! Come!

It was hot again, so we drove to the coast and went for a hike in lower Purisima Creek. I wanted to try the Bald Knob trail, which neither of us had been on before. Bald Knob is about 2000', one of the highest points around, so as well as being "new steps", it promised a great view.

The bottom trail, by the creek, is in bloom, with lots of flowers I haven't seen anywhere else, as well as several types of almost-ripe berries, and interesting fruits that looked like small cherry tomatoes.

The trail begins to climb, and we climbed for several miles, out of the creek zone and into more typical oak and redwood forest. It wasn't as steep as I remembered it: fairly pleasant.

Then we rounded a corner, and suddenly the trail was full of dogs leaping at us! They were friendly, tail-wagging, just exhuberant. (Did I mention this preserve doesn't allow dogs?) Turns out the total was 7 dogs, only one on a leash, and one woman guiding them (and shouting at them to come back and shouting Sorry at us!)

I like dogs, and they like me, so it was no big deal, just the surprise of having that many dogs come out of nowhere in a place where I wasn't expecting to see any. The biggest one, a Rottweiler-looking dog, made me a bit nervous as he came bounding at me, until I established that he was indeed friendly. Dave wasn't as happy; he's had both good and bad experiences with dogs, and doesn't trust them.

The rest were a motley collection: a dalmatian, a shepherd-mix puppy, a dachshund, a bulldog, a small black longhair, and an old fat mixed-breed dog who waddled along bringing up the rear.

The woman came running up, apologizing to us and yelling at the dogs and threatening one of them (the Rottweiler?) that "You're going to go on the leash now!" The dogs reluctantly left off sniffing us, and the whole convention proceeded down the trail from which we'd come.

Well, not quite the whole convention. The dalmation lingered behind the others, then turned and purposefully trotted up the trail, passed us, and kept going. The woman and her six dogs were already a fair way down the trail, and the dalmation kept going the other way.

Well, eventually she discovered the dalmation was missing. You might think that someone walking one leashed and six unleashed dogs in a steep wooded open space preserve that doesn't allow dogs would keep a pretty sharp eye on them, and keep count. Maybe not. Anyway, we started hearing calls of "Lulu ... Lulu!"

I figured Lulu knew that she was being bad. If we could hear the calls, surely she could? Dave wondered, though, and tried shouting at her, and whistling. Lulu didn't give any sign. Perhaps she was actually hard of hearing.

Lulu explored the trail for a while, well ahead of us, then turned and ran down to explore a ravine. The woman and her pack was making good progress up the trail now, and when the came into sight we pointed out where Lulu had gone. Eventually the group was reunited, with a lot of "I can't believe you're doing this!" and "That's it, you're out of my group!"

All looked well, until the little black longhair decided she'd had enough, and lay down in the trail refusing to move. ("Missy! Missy, get up! We're leaving! We're going home!")

Dave and I continued up the trail, in order not to be any more distraction. The Bald Knob trail turned off just a few hundred feet beyond where Missy lay, anyway. As we walked up that trail, it looks like the group did get going again.

It was a strange encounter. I have mixed feelings about dog bans in parks: it's true that some dog owners aren't good about cleaning up after them, and it may even be true that they'd chase wildlife and cause problems that way (though most pet dogs aren't much at hunting, and no self-respecting wild squirrel or bird would be in much danger). I even have mixed feelings about leash laws, because I remember going for walks with my unleashed dogs, when I was growing up, and it was a lot more fun for them to be able to run and explore and not restrict themselves to my pace. Dog people don't have many places to go, any more, and it's getting tighter all the time.

On the other hand, such an obvious lack of control, in a public place where a lot of people might be afraid of dogs (even aside from the remote possibility that one might turn vicious), seems like a failure of judgement or worse. If I were a dog owner, I'd be pretty upset at someone like this possibly turning people more against dogs, and getting them banned in even more places.

We continued on our climb. The Bald Knob trail is lovely! It leaves the redwood forest and climbs through manzanita chapparal and into a woodland of moss-covered, gnarled, twisted shrubs. Occasionally you get tantalizing glimpses of a stunning view down to the ocean, or south toward the mountains north of Santa Cruz. Dave found a huge raven feather and presented me with it; I stuck it in my ponytail. Then I found one, and added it to the headdress, and he found a third and stuck it in. I'm sure I looked perfectly silly. But they were nice feathers. Finally, we got to the end of the trail, where it meets another trail ... and to the right, leading up to the top of the knob, was a gate saying "Private Property ahead. Do Not Enter." What a gyp! What an anticlimax! A map that clearly shows a high viewpoint, labelled by name and by elevation, inside the park boundary, but no trail actually goes to it! We waz robbed!

It was pretty disappointing. There really is no place you can see a large portion of the obviously stunning view. The trail was first rate, but their map is misleading and Bald Knob is not in fact a destination. On the way back we kept our eyes peeled for places we could wildcat through the brush, but it was always too thick, and we didn't try.

9.6 miles total, longer than our usual hike. Tired feet. But it was a nice day!

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[ 23:00 Jul 20, 2004    More nature/trails | permalink to this entry | ]

Sat, 10 Jul 2004

Chicks flying

I spotted one of the mockingbird chicks this evening, first sighting in several days (though I've heard cheeping so I was pretty sure at least one was still healthy). I'm not sure which one this was, but it flew like a pro, sat on the house roof cheeping to be fed, then swooped down to the lawn and pecked for bugs (cheeping occasionally; I guess it's still easier to have mom feed you than to hunt your own insects). It has a long tail now, and white wing patches just like the adults, but a spotted breast and that funny wide yellow "baby bird" bill.

I got a few pictures.

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[ 20:00 Jul 10, 2004    More nature/birds | permalink to this entry | ]

Sun, 04 Jul 2004

Chicks are growing

In mockchick news, we haven't seen either chick for quite some time, but until yesterday we were still hearing regular cheeping from two directions. Today I'm only hearing cheeping from one tree; it may be that Alpha has graduated to bug hunting, and even Beta doesn't seem to be begging quite so often.

Update: a few minutes after I wrote that, I saw one of the chicks up on a wire, cheeping to the parent sitting next to it. The chick is almost as big as an adult (and fatter), has a tail that's almost as long, and flies quite strongly now (flew off before I could get to my camera, alas). It didn't look like the parent actually fed it anything; I suspect they're mostly hunting their own food now.

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[ 20:00 Jul 04, 2004    More nature/birds | permalink to this entry | ]

Tue, 29 Jun 2004

Alpha is flying

Beta still lives in the pyrocanthus, and is getting fairly good at hopping from branch to branch, fluttering at the right time now. We weren't sure it was Beta, since we hadn't seen Alpha in a while and were getting a little worried that something bad might have happened ...

But tonight after sunset, I saw Alpha perched up on the wire! After a feeding by one of the parents, Alpha actually flew down off the wire. Hooray!

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[ 21:30 Jun 29, 2004    More nature/birds | permalink to this entry | ]

Mon, 28 Jun 2004

Beta comes for a visit

This morning, I was organizing the mockchick pictures into a web page when I heard a lot of adult squawking in the backyard. I turned, and saw a chick (probably Beta) sitting on the sill of the office door, looking at me. Eventually the chick jumped off and hopped across the walk and under the deck, not to be seen for a few hours.

But this afternoon, there was chick activity in the front yard, moving between the atlas cedar and the pyrocanthus. The chick is now settled down for the night at the top of the pyrocanthus. The parents are still feeding it. It's hopping from branch to branch pretty well, using its wings a little bit, as an afterthought. I don't think it's getting much help from its wings yet, but it's getting used to the timing of when to flap them.

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[ 18:00 Jun 28, 2004    More nature/birds | permalink to this entry | ]

Sun, 27 Jun 2004

Beta out of the tree

Beta chick left the nest today, late in the day, and made it to the juniper in the front yard, where he/she spent most of the day, being fed by mom. But late in the afternoon, somehow Beta appeared in the rosemary, where I was able to get a couple of nice, sharp pictures with no window in the way. Strangely, the parents didn't even dive-bomb me during this.

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[ 18:00 Jun 27, 2004    More nature/birds | permalink to this entry | ]

Beta out of the nest

Beta chick was out of the nest by early morning, but still afraid to leave the tree. All day it hopped from branch to branch, but never flew. The parents are still feeding it.

Alpha chick still seems to be safe, in the trees across the yard. The parents feed it occasionally, but not nearly as often as Beta.

Fired up by the PenLUG talk, I tried getting swsusp working on blackbird. No dice: it's still not at all obvious how to initiate a suspend (except for echo S4 > /proc/acpi/sleep, which obviously isn't very helpful on non-ACPI machines). The kernel Documentation file power/swsusp.txt says to use the acpi method for the "old version" of swsusp, echo disk > /sys/power/state for the "new one". But echo disk > /sys/power/state does nothing. says nothing about this "new version" or anything else modern; it offers a pair of patches against 2.6.2 (or comparably old 2.4 kernels) and says to use the script. But complains at install time because it can't find /proc/swsusp.

Linuxchix get-together tonight in SF -- saw Pearlbear again and met xTina. Didn't see Erin (meara) -- apparently she was there !? but we never recognized each other. Bummer!

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[ 00:00 Jun 27, 2004    More nature/birds | permalink to this entry | ]

Fri, 25 Jun 2004

Mocker chicks fledged!

One of the mockingbird chicks fledged today! I didn't think it was ready, but the parent mockers were unusually aggressive this morning, dive-bombing Dave or me whenever we went in or out of the house, which made me wonder if a baby had fallen out. Scanning the tree, I discovered a chick out of the nest and sitting on a branch right next to the porch (I took a few pictures on my way past).

Then a few minutes later, I looked out the office window and there was a strange looking bird sitting on the back porch. The chick had fallen or fluttered there from its perch. It hopped around a bit, and fell into the recycling bin. There ensued a few minutes of concerned conversation between parent (perched on the edge of the bin) and the unseen chick, punctuated by occasional aluminum can rattling sounds. I was just about reaching the point of rescuing the chick and putting it back in the tree when it succeeded in hopping out.

It then hopped decisively down the walkway toward the back of the yard, paused briefly at the dirt patch where the lawnmower is parked, then hopped into the patio. The parents followed its progress from on high, but didn't interfere. They were obviously afraid to follow it into the patio, but paced the wires outside, nervously wing-fluttering and head-cocking.

That was the last I saw of the alpha chick. Later in the afternoon, the parents have been aggressively protecting the orange tree outside the patio, and occasional cheeps sound from roughly that direction, so it looks like the chick probably did manage to fly up into the tree. I hope it's out of reach of cats.

Beta chick is still in the nest, showing not much interest in flapping, exploring, or leaving. It looks quite a bit smaller and fuzzier, and the parents are still feeding it.

Photos here.

In between mockwatching, I went over to Sarah's and we attempted to install various distros on her machine, with no success:

She may end up going back to RH8. Sigh.

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[ 17:00 Jun 25, 2004    More nature/birds | permalink to this entry | ]

Thu, 24 Jun 2004

First blog entry. Let's see how this goes.

We've been watching the mockingbird chicks in the nest outside the laundry room for about a week now. The chicks (two, I think, but it's possible there's a third) are growing fast, and at least one is starting to grow some normal feathers on its back. That must itch: yesterday the baby was wiggling around in the nest, stretching, and preening itself madly.

I hear at least two different voices from the nest. One sounds almost hoarse, the other is clear and high pitched.

The parents are getting increasingly agitated. Today I got dive-bombed repeatedly while I was checking plants in the garden, despite being careful to stay away from the guava tree where the nest is. I keep wondering if somehow one of the chicks fell out and is hiding in the rosemary, since the parents get so agitated when I'm near there; but I never see them flying to the rosemary, and the chicks are obviously far too young to fly yet.

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[ 17:00 Jun 24, 2004    More nature/birds | permalink to this entry | ]