Sunday, May 22, 2011

Two Spotted Fawns and a ?

The game camera, to paraphrase Forrest Gump, is like a box of chocolates: you never know what you're gonna get. Sometimes little or nothing is captured, but sometimes we reap a bonanza of great images.  Yesterday was the bonanza.

We moved the camera last week to a different critter trail, also in the open space area near our house.  The trail leads from a clearing in the brush under a large spreading oak down to a small creek.   It looked well used, but when we checked the SD card after 3 days we had no critter pictures to show for the time.  We left it there another 3 to 4 days, and look what we found!  The first photo shows a pair of spotted fawns.  Both look healthy and alert, evidence that the local herd is thriving nicely.  This is, of course, good news  for the local nature lovers, but bad news for the local gardeners.

The other photo is obviously of some sort of animal from the cat family, but we are not sure what.  The cat was moving and it is quite blurry.   Our best guess is that it is a house cat or maybe a feral cat.  There are homes a quarter mile away.  And we do see feral cats around the neighborhood from time to time.  There are wild cats in the hills nearby, both bobcats and moutain lions, but this guy is too small to be a mountain lion and has too much tail for a bobcat.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Scorpions in California?

We thought scorpions lived in the desert and the only time you need to be concerned about them was when you camped out, cowboy style.  You would have to empty out your boots in the morning before putting them on to make there wasn't a scorpion hiding out inside.  Just like in the old westerns.  I've lived in California my whole life and had never seen a scorpion until we moved to the East Bay hills, far from the desert landscapes of the southwest. So much for critter stereotypes!

One night, lying in bed, I saw a strange bug on the wall almost at the ceiling. I got up to take a closer look and knew immediately it was a scorpion.  I almost freaked out.  How did it get  there?  I went on-line and found out they are actually quite common in the Bay Area.  They live under rocks, and since the hillsides around our house are quite rocky, they are among the neighborhood's indigenous critters.  Since that first encounter, we have found a few others in the house, and a couple more while working in the yard.  This morning we found this little critter in our bedroom.  We think this guy is a California Forest Scorpion Uroctonus mordax after looking at these photos on

We don't worry about them as much anymore after reading that this species is not all that poisonous--no worse than a bee sting.  And the coolest thing about them is that they glow under a UV light, like the millipedes we blogged about in February.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Bristletail in the Bathtub

We just installed a new bathtub and as I was about to fill it up, I stopped when I saw a rather large bug inside.  It looked like a silverfish, but it was significantly larger, 3/4 or an inch long.  And it wasn't silver.  And it jumped when I tried to catch it.   I took a couple of photos before we relocated it out into the backyard, where bugs belong.  

I looked for information on the internet and learned that it is a bristletail, or a jumping bristletail, maybe a Trigoniophthalmus alternatus, or an Mesomachilis. These normally live outdoors in the detritus of trees and shrubs, and feed on lichens and moss.  So how did it get in our tub? Good question, no answer.  

These bristletails are one of the most primitive of all insects.  The oldest insect fossil found to date looks a lot like a silverfish or bristletail.  They do not have wings and never did, evolutionarily speaking, which is unusual for insects.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Artie Chokes Three for a Dollar

We planted an artichoke plant in our front yard a year or so ago and take a look at it now. I think our first artichoke is just about ripe. And there is a second choke a bit lower on the plant as well.  We do have the right weather for artichokes, cool and moist in the summer, but the soil here is rocky and hard, and we didn't think it would thrive like this.  We bought it at Home Depot, which we do not boycott even if they do sell the despicable French Broom (see this post).
I grew up near Castroville, California, the self declared 'Artichoke Center of the World,' most likely an undisputed title. I can't imagine any other town in the world would want it. Not that artichokes are bad, I love them, but they are basically a domesticated thistle, not a rose.  And the fruit must be picked before it flowers, turning into a lovely purple but inedible posy.
Since we have never grown an artichoke before I was looking online for information on how to tell when they are ripe for the pickin', and I found 'What's Cooking America' has a well researched page on the history of artichokes.  There I found out they were created by Zeus.  He had an affair with a mortal named Cynara, and when she later displeased him, he turned her into an artichoke plant. Some early philosophers considered it to be an aphrodisiac, and the English word for the plant came from the Arabic "al’qarshuf".  
In any case, we will be harvesting and enjoying this choke soon.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Lizards of the Bay Area

Alligator Lizard

Western Fence Lizard

On a hot day last week, the hottest day of the year so far, we took a stroll around our neighborhood just after sunset to get some fresh air as it cooled.  As we walked along the  sidewalk, we almost stepped on a lizard, an alligator lizard (Elgaria multicarinata ) like the one in the first photo here. About 8 inches long, it didn't move at first, and sat there as motionless as a stick.  It was probably enjoying the heat stored in the sidewalk from the afternoon sun.  But we were worried it would get stepped on by the next pedestrian that passed (a lot of people go for evening walks in our neighborhood) or worse yet, run out into the busy street just feet away.  So we tried to urge it over to the edge of the sidewalk, next to a grassy area where it could take cover.  Using a stick we tried to gently prod it to safety, but the lizard decided to play dead.  We tried to pick it up with the stick, but it went limp.  We were considering our options when it suddenly ran right under us and, yes, out into the street.

You can see just a bit of his blue belly
The street there is a major thoroughfare, probably 3 cars a minute go by on average, but for some miraculous reason there wasn't a car in sight just then.  We chased the lizard as he ran in a peculiar wiggly fashion clear to the other side of the street and into some brush.  Whew, safe at last.  We went on with our walk, but I kept wondering if it would eventually leave the brush and head back into the street another time. Was it smart enough to dodge cars and feet by itself without our assistance? We may never know unless we see its poor squooshed body one day.

Also a Western Fence Lizard?
Another variety of lizard that we see in the bay area is the Western Fence Lizard (Sceloporus occidentalis).  Some of these have a bright blue belly, like the one in the second and third photos here.  We used to call them 'blue-bellies' when I was a kid.  I found this guy perched on a rock in our backyard a few weeks ago on another sunny warm day.  He took a look over his shoulder at me, and I'm not sure, but I think he winked, too.

The lizard in this last photo is the most common in these parts.  He doesn't have a blue belly, so I always thought these were a different species. But after looking through the photos on the web site, I now believe this is just a paler version of the Western Fence lizard.  If someone can help us out and let us know if it is a different species, we would appreciate it.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

We Caught a Spotted Fawn

Look what we caught on our game camera this week.  A spotted fawn!  It passed by the camera a couple of times and we got several good shots, including that second one of the newborn gingerly stepping over a log on brand new legs. Our speculation that at least one of the local does was pregnant has been confirmed. This baby can't be much older than a week. Hopefully, we will see more than just one this spring.

Strange, we did not see its mother.  Probably the doe passed by the camera too quickly. My main complaint about this camera is that it takes several seconds after the motion sensor is triggered before it takes a picture.  Many times we see just the tail end of an animal after it has passed nearly through the frame.  Other times we get pictures of nothing but the ground and the flora, because whatever triggered the camera is long gone by the time it snaps a photo.  In fact, we get 5 or 6 pictures of nothing for every photo of an animal.  If it was quicker, we would have a lot more photos to share.  Hey, Moultrie - if you are listening, please improve this! And anyone who is buying a game camera, be sure you consider this factor.

We also got this picture of  a squirrel, a first for our game camera.  I think we will leave it in this same location for another week and see what else passes.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Crow Vs. Hawk: Dogfight

We have been watching some amazing aerial acrobatics the past few days.  The crows and the hawks have been going at each other like 12 year olds in a middle school playground.  Why can't they just get along?  I was able to get a few photos of the action, but it wasn't easy. Their maneuvers occur at light speed.  We have seen them fly upside-down with talons extended, swoop low under trees or between houses, dive with wings retracted, and twist and turn better than Snoopy and the Red Baron. They've even swooped down just above our car as we drove down the hill where the battle began. We have seen several crows gang up on one hawk and have seen a second hawk join in to a fight to help his wingman.

A few weeks ago we wrote that the new red-shouldered hawks and the crows were getting along nicely, but as you can see from these pictures, the honeymoon is over.  It seems to be a fair fight when these two go at it, but I notice one of the red-shouldered seems to be missing a couple of wing and tail feathers, and the crows seem to have all of theirs, so perhaps the crows have a bit of an advantage.

With the red-tails, it is a different story.  The crows have an edge in maneuvering if not in soaring to higher altitudes.  I don't have any pictures of the red tails here because they turn their red tails and run as soon as the fight starts.  I have seen them fight back a few times, and I pity the fool crow who gets a taste of their talons. But so far the crows seem to be much more nimble in flight and can avoid any counter attack.