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.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Camels in the Backyard

Yes, camels!  Not in our backyard, but I guess this is somebody's backyard.  I was returning last year from a visit at the newest University of California at Merced, California, driving down a country road just a few miles from the campus, when I looked to my right and saw these camels.  They were standing in a muddy pasture and looking as out of place as a duck in the desert.  Or an igloo in Ecuador.  Or a camel in California!

I had my camera, so I stopped and took these pictures.  One of the camels became very interested in me and came over to the fence that separated us.   Or maybe he is just a ham and wanted me to get some good closeups of his handsome(?) face?

These are the Bactrian camels (Camelus bactrianus) which once roamed wild in Mongolia and the Gobi desert but now are completely domesticated.  There were some feral camels, both Bactrian and Dromedary (with one hump) loose in the American southwest.  They had been imported for use as military vehicles, but the project was terminated in the mid 1800s, and some of the animals escaped or were let loose.  The rest were shipped to a now abandoned Army garrison at Benicia, CA and auctioned to the public.  The feral camels were last seen in 1972 and are presumed to have died out.  A large and thriving population of feral camels live in the Australian outback, and are considered, like rabbits, to be an invasive species there.  

Another local angle: Fossil evidence indicates that camels evolved here in North America, then split into two groups.  One group went south and evolved into llamas, alpacas and vicunas in South America.  The other group went into Asia and evolved into Bactrian and Dromedary camels.  Evidently none stayed here.  Maybe they had a beef with the bison.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Raccoon on the Deck

The other night, just after we fell asleep, we thought we heard some noises in the house.  I tried to ignore them at first, but I finally really sat up and listened.  Yep, there was a strange noise, but I couldn't tell where it was coming from.  We were both awake by now and  looked out the window. There was the source.  A raccoon was on the deck railing, eating birdseed out of the feeder stationed there!

I went and grabbed my camera and tried to take a couple of photos through the window.  Most of these did not come out because the flash reflected off the glass.  I was going to open the sliding glass door to try to take a better picture, but he shimmied down the railing to the deck and came right up to the door to face me down. I was sure that  if I opened it he would come right inside.

After I took another couple of photos he turned and ran down the stairs and out of sight. Then we realized one cat, Paloosh, was still outside and we were worried he might run into the raccoon. I opened the door, called his name and in a few seconds he came racing up the stairs and into our bedroom. We're pretty sure he must have passed the Masked Bandit on his way up but luckily there was no fight.

The photos posted are the only decent ones I got.  They are rather amusing.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Cottontails on both coasts

Traveling around America, one of the things we notice is the differences in the flora and fauna in the different regions.  We were on Long Island in New York a few weeks ago and saw cardinals in a bird bath, a very interesting bird that is never seen in our Bay Area backyard.  We also saw robins as we do here, but they seemed to be bigger and fatter there.  Maybe there are more worms?

We were walking down a trail at Montauk point--the farthest east point of Long Island--when up ahead we saw a couple of cottontail rabbits.  Those critters we do see frequently. We did not get a good picture of them in NY, but here are a few photos of some we saw in the East Bay Municipal Utilities District (EBMUD) watershed near Upper San Leandro Reservoir.  We took those pictures a couple months ago and I have been waiting for an excuse to get them up on this blog.

On that same Long Island hike we were happy to see some bright orange orioles, another bird we don't see here.   And we got bit by no-see-ums, which, thankfully, we don't have out west!

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Does this fawn look OK to you?

The Doe and Her Progeny
Sitting at my desk today I noticed one of the local black tailed does walking through my neighbor's backyard, so I grabbed my camera and went out on our back deck.  Critter Watch had begun.

The doe heard me open the door and she looked up with concern, but I hunkered down below the railing and she started grazing again on my neighbor's plants.  I was hoping they wouldn't eat much.

The fawn with the swollen muzzle
Then I noticed something in the weeds behind her, a spotted fawn!  The fawn soon came out in the open and I took a few pictures.  The doe would walk a few steps up the hill and her spotted baby was trailing close behind.  As they approached the back of my neighbor's house, I noticed a second fawn that must have been ahead the other two as they came up the hill.  I took a few more photos. Several times, the deer heard me as I maneuvered to get a better shot, and they would look up in my direction with some concern. But after a few seconds, they would get back to the task at hand, eating my neighbor's plants.

The other, normal looking fawn
It wasn't until I looked at these pictures on the computer that I noticed something wrong with one of the babies. Its muzzle is swollen on both sides, below the eyes and up to its nose. Take a look. Maybe it's due to a bee sting, or a mutation?  Last year we saw a fawn that had a huge swelling on the side of its head by the neck, like a goiter, but we didn't get a photo of it.  A friend of my dad's speculated it may have been due to a rattlesnake bite.  We never saw that fawn again, so either the swelling healed or that fawn did not make it.

I'll send these photos to the local Lindsay Wildlife Museum and Hospital and see if they have any explanations. We'll keep you posted on the fawns' progress and hope for the best for the odd one.

Another view of the swollen schnozzola

Friday, June 3, 2011

Crawdads and Crayfish

We have a cat, Ninja, who likes to go on walks with us.  Yes, I said 'cat', not 'dog'.  If we put on our shoes and jackets in the evening, she will wait by the front door and follow us out and down the street, even around the block.  We wonder what the neighbors think, "There go those critter bloggers, walking their cat again!"  We wouldn't mind, except she is slow, very slow.  She lags behind us and we worry that if we get too far ahead of her she will get lost and not be able to find her way home.  If we need exercise and want a brisk, long walk, we have to escape the house without her.  

So the other night, we did just that, slipping out the front door before Ninja could squeeze out. And we did feel guilty. We walked to a nearby park that has a couple of shallow ponds.  Shining our flashlight into the ponds as we passed, lo and behold there were a slew of crawdads!  We had never seen them there in the daytime although we go to the park frequently.  I didn't have my camera--of course not!--so we returned the next evening and got some of these photos by flashlight.  (I diverted the cat's attention, again, and we darted out the door). 

I went by the pond again the next day and found several crawdads hiding in the shade of a footbridge.  No wonder we had not seen them before.  They can burrow into the soft mud pond bottom and become barely visible. I chased one out with a stick and took a couple more pictures.  It's not easy getting a clear picture of a critter in a pond, even if the water is clear.

You say crawdad, I say crayfish.  Where I grew up, the names were interchangeable.  But neither of them seemed to fit.  If they are crawdads, are the females called crawmoms?  And crayfish?  They are certainly not a fish, more like a mini-lobster.  The names come from the the French "ecrevisse" which sounds a bit like "crayfish" if you don't speak French.

They are crustaceans and related to lobsters.  There are many species in California and some of them, including the 'signal crawfish' and the 'Red Swamp Crayfish,' are invasive.  I am not sure if the pictures here show 2 different species or if they are the same.  The redder one is about 4-5" long and is probably the invasive red swamp variety (Procambarus clarkii). The smaller one, about 3" long, with blue on it's claws may be a juvenile or perhaps a different species.  The Red Swamp crawfish are a drab color when younger, according to the Elkhorn Slough Foundation.

When I was a kid we would tie a bit of bacon or liver on a string on a stick and leave it on the bottom of Pajaro River for 10 minutes. When we pulled it up we would have a crawdad or 2 hanging on the string.  One time we went with a bunch or people and caught hundreds of them.  We had a party afterwards, and dined on our catch.  It was a lot of fun.  I wonder what Ninja would think of these critters?

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Metallic Green Beetles in NY

We haven't posted in a week or so because we were on vacation in New York--Long Island, Brooklyn and Manhattan, to be precise.  While we were there, we visited Wildwood State Park on the north shore of Long Island, which despite its name, is better known for a spectacularly beautiful beach on the LI Sound that stretches for a mile.  As we walked down the trail to the beach, something bright and almost iridescent green caught our eye. We spotted a half dozen of these bright green beetle critters flitting about.

They are called 'six-spotted tiger beetles' (Cicindela sexguttata), although if you look closely it appears that one of them has 8 spots on its wings.  The metallic color makes them stand out against the vegetation and ground.  I figured it was an evolutionary strategy to warn other critters of their poison, but references say that they are eaten by a variety of birds, reptiles, rodents and other bugs without adverse effects.  A few references say they can give off a foul odor, but we didn't smell anything.

Long Island has had a particularly wet spring, which creates the perfect conditions for some not-so-pretty and really annoying insects. While visiting family there, we had to battle mosquitos and worse, hoards of no-see-ums, which aren't actually invisible and can drive you crazy with their persistent and unpleasant biting. In the Bay Area, we don't have those tiny pests--just big ones, like scorpions (see this post!) and medium sized ones, like ticks (this post).