Friday, October 7, 2011

Feral Cats caught by Camera Trap

We placed our trail camera by a creek in an open space park near our house, and we were surprised when the results showed a pair of feral cats coming and going in front of the camera almost every evening.

We also got quite a few blurry pictures of the local deer, birds, and raccoon along the creek, and a couple of slightly blurry pictures of a rat or rat like creature.

I guess we shouldn't have been too surprised. The creek is probably a good home for these cats.  There is cover in the bushes, rats and birdies to eat, and water to drink.  I suppose they could get on quite well.

You will notice in one photo a strange snaky streak next to the black cat.  We are not sure what it is.  A snake ghost?  A ghost of some other animal?  Or just the blur of the reflecting eyes of another cat as it ran through the photo?

They say coyotes and mountain lions come into this neighborhood from time to time.  We have not seen them here and have not caught any on the trail cam, but we did see a dog-like foot print in some sandy soil behind our house.  If they do come around, these cats may find life here a bit less enjoyable.

Feral cats have caused tremendous harm to the native populations of birds, especially song birds, and many naturalists have sounded the alarm about them. Should we try to capture and deliver these critters to a shelter? At least if they can be neutered, they won't be contributing to the problem by producing more ferals.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

A fox in our backyard

Going through the fridge last week we found a Tupperware container with the remnants of three-week-old arroz con pollo. There was one piece of chicken left, a drumstick.  It was too old to eat, of course, and we don't put meat in our compost bin. But just tossing it seemed wrong. Repurpose! We got a bright idea: let's put it in front of the trail cam and see who comes to dinner!

We have been moving the trail camera to different locations in the hills here and have not gotten a lot of postable pictures.  We did see a few house cats or feral cats by a creek nearby (perhaps I'll post those later), and a bunch of blurry deer pictures.  We moved the camera into our back yard and put the drumstick a few yards in front of it.   A day later, the morsel was still there in front of the camera, but a couple of days after that it was gone.  We went to get the card out of the camera and 'OH NO' the batteries in the camera had died and there were no photos on the card.

Not completely daunted by this, we looked in the fridge for another item a critter might enjoy, and found a half of a cantaloupe that was never very good anyway and getting kinda old. We put it in front of the camera and 2 days later, voila, several very good pictures of a fox!  And a pair of raccoons, and a young buck.  All came to investigate the melon.

I'm not sure the species of the fox, all foxes look gray in the IR light at night.
Strange though, all they did was nibble on it.  It's still there.  Maybe we will get more pictures yet. Or maybe, like us, they didn't think the melon was very tasty.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

A Green Anole on Maui

After hiking around Haleakala (the tallest dormant volcano in the world, on Maui during our vacation last week, we stopped at a Mexican restaurant for lunch. They seated us right at a window with a view of a neat little rock garden just outside. And while we were eating, this guy appeared on the rocks.  He sat in the sun for awhile, then scurried to and fro, jumped from rock to rock, then lazed in the sun some more.  Every time a fly or other insect buzzed passed him, he would lift up his head and watch it closely, but we never saw him catch one.

He has a dewlap or throatfan under his chin that he would open up from time to time.  It was bright red or orange in color and would stick out from under his neck by half an inch or so.  He wouldn't do this when I had the camera on him, though. But, here is a picture of a gecko with his dewlap out.

The waitress said it was a gecko, and they like the geckos on Maui because they eat a lot of bugs.  A gecko in your house is considered a good sign.  But after researching him up on the web, I see he is not a gecko, but  a Green Anole (Anole carolinensis), a lizard that is native to the the southern United States and was introduced to Hawaii in the 1950's.  Some say they escaped from a pet store. Who could blame the critters? Life in a Maui rock garden beats a box in a pet store.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Back from Hawaii

Maui Grey Francolin
In late July, we took a vacation on the island of Maui in Hawaii, and while we were there we kept an eye out for the local critters. We saw many, although few are native to the islands. Birds, lizards, goats and mongeese, to name a few.  Here is the noisiest of them, the grey francolin (Francolinus pondicerianus).

Frankolin Hen and Chicks, Top View
We noticed these birds soon after we arrived. It would be hard not to. They are one of the largest birds in the area,  and did not seem to mind humans coming within a few feet of them.   We were marveling at these birds in a Kihei park when an apparently inebriated local gave us a 5 minute dissertation on how noisy they are.  When we asked what they are called, he struggled to remember, but could not think of it.  But as he walked away, he yelled back,  "Oh yeah, I remember, they are 'Franklins'".

Francolin Chicks Learning to Squawk
The francolins were brought to Hawaii from India in the late 1950's to establish a flock of game birds.  They have flourished on the islands.  It appears they have no local predators, but if they continue to squawk at the top of their lungs at sunrise, just outside of the hotel rooms and condominiums of late sleeping vacationers, this might change!  Just as the sun comes up these guys can make one heck of a racket.  And there were several flocks of them scurrying around the gardens, lawns and open spaces near our hotel.  We saw a couple of litters of young as well.

They look a bit like partridge or quail, and are about the same size. If you plan to visit Maui, and like to get up with the sun, just leave your windows open and you'll have an authentic Maui alarm clock awakening.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Bucky is Back!

Last week, we lamented  that we had not seen any of the local black tail deer bucks lately, and our trail camera trap has not caught any either.  We have been seeing a couple of does wandering around the neighborhood, one with a couple of fawns in tow.  Then the other day when we were out for a walk we saw 2 bucks in a local school yard, but alas, I did have my camera.

Then last night while cooking dinner, we looked out our kitchen window and there, just 15 feet from our house, was a buck.  He was looking for a way to get into our garden and munch on all those delicacies--day lilies, a lemon tree, succulents.  Fortunately, our six-foot-tall deer proof fence proved to be just that, and he gave up, munched on some greens outside of the fence, then curled up and mulled it over for awhile before sauntering away.

His antlers are quite large now, but they still have the velvet on them, so it looks like they may still be growing.  I hope we get a shot of the velvet coming off when that happens.

For more of our pictures of deer, click on "Deer" in labels section at the bottom of this page.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Camera Trap Captures These Critters

We have been moving around the trail camera to different locations in the open space parks in the hills of the east bay near Berkeley and El Cerrito, CA, and the results have been very satisfying. We've set up the camera near obvious game trails to spy on the comings and goings of our animal neighbors, often near streams that would be an attraction for thirsty critters.

This camera has proved to be a lot fun and worth the investment. Posted here are a few of the more appealing and intriguing pictures, and again, they are mostly of deer. While many are clear shots, others are more mysterious, leaving us to wonder the real identities of the flash of fur before the lens.

Click on 'Trail Camera' in the section titled 'Labels' at the bottom of the page for more pictures from our Trail Camera.

It is interesting we have not seen any bucks lately, only doe and fawns.  We would like to see how the buck's antlers have grown lately, and if they are losing their velvet yet, but no luck on this.  It is good to see that the fawn we wrote about earlier, with the swollen nose, is better.  We think it is the same fawn as in the first picture here.  It must have been due to a bee sting.

We have gotten a few pictures of other animals, but they have been at night, taken with IR, and they have been so blurry and muddy that it is often difficult to identify the critter.  We think we got several shots of a fox at one location, and perhaps a few shots of a bobcat, but it is really hard to tell.  We got a few very  blurry pictures of a  raccoon, too. There was a mountain lion sighted in El Cerrito a few weeks ago, but we are disappointed he didn't stop and pose in front of the camera while he was in town.  One animal we can't identify is posted here.  Is it a very skinny fox?  or perhaps a weasel, or a long legged  ferret, or ?

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Pretty Poison Hemlock

Ladybug on a hemlock flower
How to tell plants from very far away:
#1 the Hemlock
Most people around here know and respect poison oak, a native plant whose leaves and stems contain a potent oil that can cause your skin to erupt into an itchy blistering rash if you brush up against it. But few are aware that we have a more toxic poison plant common to this area.  This one can kill you if you eat at least 5 or 6 leaves. It is an invasive species, not native to Bay Area. In fact, it comes from the Mediterranean and was used as a method of execution several thousand years ago.  It is Poison Hemlock (Conium maculatum), the plant that killed Socrates about 2400 years ago.

Lots of people think that hemlock is a tree, and there is a conifer called the hemlock, but that's not where the famous (or infamous?) poison comes from.  Instead it comes from this plant in the carrot family.  Poison hemlock has lacy, almost fern-like leaves just like a carrot's, but it grows up to 8 feet tall.  It really does look like a giant carrot plant.  I would not recommend eating the root, though, as it is poisonous, too.

According to literature online, the poison works by paralyzing the muscles that keep you breathing, so you basically suffocate.  The antidote is to get in an iron lung or respirator or something that will artificially keep you breathing until the effects wear off in a few days.

Hemlock Leaf
These specimens were growing in Wildcat Canyon Regional Park, but they are in bloom in most open space parks around the Bay Area.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Disabled Bluebird

Here is a picture I shot of a bluebird (Sialia mexicana) in the parking lot at Mission Peak Regional Preserve, in Alameda County, a few years ago.  I sent it to a photo contest run by the local newspaper, the Contra Costa Times.  It won the weekly contest and was published in the paper.  One of my few claims to fame.

In any case, this bird does not look disabled to me and flew off without a problem, so he should probably use one of the standard parking spaces next time.

Youtube has an interesting clip of a bluebird hovering in flight that you can watch here.  Also, Cornell has a camera inside a bluebird nest box, and you can view it here.

Friday, July 1, 2011

A cross between a grasshopper and a shrimp?

 Last fall we bought a couple of packages of California Poppy (Eschscholzia californicaseeds.  We spread them around our semi-landscaped front yard, and all over our not-landscaped and wild backyard.  We really like California poppies with their bright orange and golden colors.  They brighten up the hillsides and roadsides all around California in the springtime.  And best of all, they are a drought tolerant native plant that is tough and persistent, even in poor soil.

In early spring a couple of years ago, we drove to Yosemite, and along the way passed a hillside that was absolutely covered in poppies, completely orange, with very little green showing through.  The poppies are now in full bloom in our front yard, but the weeds still have the advantage in the backyard.

We are having some beautiful weather this week after a rather cool and wet spring, which has been good for our nascent garden. So the other morning I was wandering around our front yard with my camera.  I saw a bumble bee visiting some of the poppies, but I wasn't quick enough to get a photo of him.  As I looked closer, though, I did see a strange looking bug in one of the poppies and took these photos.  I was sure surprised when I viewed them on the computer and zoomed in.  A little spotted cricket?  It is less than an inch long, including the lobster-like antennas.  

A cross between a shrimp and a cricket?
I found a very similar looking bug on the website.  The expert there says it looks like the nymph of a katydid, probably a Scudder's bush katydid, maybe Scudderia furcata.  If you are an Orthoptera expert, please let us know if this is correct.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

An Oriole Takes a Bath

When we were on vacation in New York in May, we drove out to the easternmost tip of Long Island, to Montauk Point.  We were hoping to get a picture of a Montauk Monster for this blog, but alas, none were to be seen. We took a long, meandering drive through the burgeoning vineyard country out in western Suffolk County, in farm land that has managed to hold on against the tide of suburban sprawl.

Out at The End, as Montauk is known, we got these pictures of Baltimore orioles (Icterus galbula), one taking a bath in a mud puddle, the other watching from an awkward perch on a thicket of dead vines.

The orioles are impressive birds with their bright orange coloring and a pretty song that reminds me of a meadow lark  or red-winged blackbird.  There are no orioles in California so they are a special treat for us.

Locals say they are not common on most of Long Island, but they are commonly seen in apple and other fruit orchards in upstate New York.  They eat bugs, not fruit, so they are welcomed by the farmers.

Perhaps this pair was on a migratory trip down south and just stopping by a favorite tourist destination.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

The Spotted Towhees Eggs Hatched

They've hatched!

I went down the path in our backyard  yesterday to pick up the trail camera so we could move it to a new location.  As I approached the brush with the spotted towhee nest we wrote about two weeks ago, I couldn't resist taking a quick peek to see if the eggs were still there, or if they had hatched.  I pulled back the brush just enough to see 4 little birds with mouths wider than their heads, as still as statues and starring back up at me.

I let the brush settle back in place and quickly scurried off to retrieve the trail camera.  I was ecstatic. We had not scared off the mother bird as we had feared a couple of weeks ago.  She had returned to the nest and continued to incubate the eggs.  Not only did she finish incubating, but these little guys look very well fed, and perhaps almost ready to fledge.  Another generation of critters for our neighborhood.

This is how the nest looked 18 days earlier.
Since they look so healthy, and since it appears the mother cannot be scared off that easily,  I decided to take another photo for this blog. I got my camera ready, and as I went back up the path, I stopped for a moment, pulled back the brush again and took a couple of quick pictures. The best ones are  here.

We can't wait to see the babies take flight and, hopefully, make their way up to our bird feeder. To be continued....

Friday, June 24, 2011

The Soap Plant, Mother Nature's Bodega

Soap Plant Flowers
Among the many native flora populating our yard and the neighboring open space parks, one caught our eye soon after we moved here, with its broad floppy leaves that grow in bunches and thick bulb with a mass of fine fibrous roots. There are a dozen of these 'soap plants' or 'soap lilies' (Chlorogalum pomeridianum) in our yard, and we even transplanted one into our flower garden. They are indigenous to the Bay Area and apparently have a variety of uses, according to the many citations on the internet. Native Americans in the region--probably the Miwok and other tribes--used them for soap, thus their common name, but also for food and so many other uses, it seems they are an entire general store in one species.

Soap Plant Leaves
One thing I don't understand is how something that works well as soap, could also be edible.  These two properties seem diametrically opposite.  Most good cleaning products are very poisonous and taste awful.  And conversely, I can't think of a single food that doesn't just make things dirty in the preparation and eating of it. Anybody who has washed dishes, or has kids knows this very well.

Soap plant root fibers.  These look like they would make a good brush
The other uses attributed to this plant on 'Wayne's Word Online Textbook of Natural History' are so numerous as to be questionable: brushes for sweeping flour, poultices for sores, cure for rheumatic cramps, glue for arrow feathers, goo for waterproofing baskets, ink for tattoos, and a poison used to kill fish so they can be scooped up for food.  He does list references, so someone could followup and see if these are all true or just someone's imaginings. Or, better yet, we could harvest a few of these plants and test out these uses.  Maybe I will see if it makes a good soap the next time I take a shower.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Mosquito Eaters, aka Crane flies

Crane fly on the patio door
Every spring we get a minor invasion of these critters.  They look like giant mosquitoes.  I remember the first time I saw one, I was just a kid and I was terrified.  I thought it was going to suck every last drop of blood out of me, but the older kids just laughed and said, "It's not a mosquito. It's a mosquito eater! They're good".

Crane fly close up
It wasn't until years later that I learned they're really called crane flies and they don't eat mosquitoes. They do not bite and they do not suck blood. They are harmless.  In fact, they don't eat much at all as adults.  The larvae, which do eat plants, especially lawns, are considered a pest.  There are a gazillion different species, some as small as gnats, and a tropical species that has a leg span of 4 inches (100 mm).  This one was hanging out on our patio door.  I took photos of it from inside and out.  Its body is less than an inch long.

Bottom of Crane fly, through the glass door
I read that other people call these 'daddy long legs,' but not us. The bug we call a 'daddy long legs' around here is a true spider, and they commonly get in the house and build a cobweb in the corners of ceiling.  I'll do a post on them one day.

I am not sure the exact species of this crane fly, and it is not easy track it down as there are over 400 species of crane flies living in California, according to a local mosquito control disctrict. They are in the family Tipulidae

It appears to be a male, based on the rounded end of it's tail.  Females have a more pointy tail to deposit eggs in the soil. This may be a  Nephrotoma alterna, or a Tipula oropezoides, or Tipula jacobus.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Antlers are Growing

Reminds me of my drivers license photo
After we got back from our trip to New York, we moved the trail camera (formerly called the game camera) to a tree in back of our property and aimed it at a trail that deer have been using.  There are several spots of matted-down grass along this trail where we think the deer have been taking naps.

It is a lot of fun to look through the photos because the camera has been catching several deer each day. It's a well trafficked path! The better photos from the last couple of weeks are posted here  for your viewing pleasure. The nighttime pics are strange and beautiful, especially when the camera's infrared light reflects in the eyes of an approaching deer, which is visible only as two glowing globes.

Surveying his domain
Notice the antlers on the buck. He is one of two we have seen in the neighborhood recently.  The other buck has a smaller rack.  The velvet is still on the horns, so they are still growing.  Compare these antlers to the those in these older posts (Early April, Mid March) to see how much bigger they are now.

Sometime this summer we hope to get pictures of the velvet coming off, and we will post them if we do.
A doe looks over her shoulder
Doe, a deer, a female deer...

Monday, June 13, 2011

A clutch of Spotted Towhee Eggs

Spotted Towhee nest with a clutch of 4 eggs
A couple of days ago we were walking down the steep trail to the back of our property to change the SD card in the trail camera (formerly known as the game camera).  As we approached the end of the trail, I saw a spotted towhee (Pipilo maculatus) fly out from under a thicket of grass, ferns and monkey flower plants not more than 2 feet from where I had stepped.  We thought it was strange that the bird had stayed in the brush until I got that close, and wondered if she had a nest there.  We looked around a bit and sure enough, there was a nest on the ground cradling 4 dappled eggs.  We quickly left the scene and went on to the trail camera, marveling at our find.

The nest was under this thicket, invisible to all who pass by
Then we noticed our two cats had followed down the trail!  Evidently they did not notice the bird or the nest, and stayed at our side as we lazed in the sun well away from the nest.  Rather than taking the trail back  with the cats following us right past the nest, we herded the cats up a different route to give the nesting bird some peace.

We decided to try to photograph the nest for this blog, so the next day we went back down the trail.  We watched carefully to see if the towhee would fly from the nest as we approached, but we never saw her leave.  We did find the nest again and I took 2 quick photos and quickly left the scene.  Since we didn't see the mama towhee, we are worried we may have scared her off for good the first day we stopped at the nest.

According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the incubation period for towhee eggs is 12-13 days and the nesting period is 10-12 days, so we will take another look at the nest 25 days after we first discovered it, and see if the eggs have hatched and the little birds have flown.