Saturday, March 26, 2011

Turkey Plays Chicken

We wrote about turkeys last month (click here to see the post), and mentioned a turkey in Walnut Creek that was playing chicken with cars on a residential street.   I dug up some video I took of that bird, edited it a bit, and put it on YouTube.  Take a look, some scenes are truly hilarious.  And see if you can spot the cameo appearance by Santa Claus.

The locals called the turkey 'George'.  But just like the old saying, 'if you play with fire, you're going to get burned', George met his match a few weeks after I took that video.  I read about it in the local paper (in a news article, not the obits).   Maybe we should nominate George for a Darwin award?

We were recently reminded of this encounter because we saw turkeys roaming the streets of El Cerrito, CA, USA, last week.  These free-ranging turkeys, a tom and three hens, were not interested in playing chicken with the large steel critters that drove by.  The hens just kept to their own business.  The tom stopped to talk to a local before moving along as well. Maybe they just had more horse sense.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Invasive Species - French Broom and Worse

We have our share of invasive species here in the Bay Area.  There are aquarium plants  (Egeria densa) in the delta, eucalyptus trees (Eucalyptus globulus) on hills , yellow star thistle (Centaurea solstitialis) on grazing land, and the local government is desperately trying to keep zebra mussels (Dreissena polymorpha) out of the local lakes. But the worst offender in our neighborhood is French Broom (Genista monspessulana).

The bright yellow flowers are blooming everywhere around here now, and their sweet smell is enjoyed by many. If you go hiking in the open spaces and regional parks, however, you realize that it is a fast-moving wave that chokes out almost all native plants in its path.  The East Bay Regional Park District has organized volunteer work parties to clear their parks of this monster.  They have attracted a lot of workers, including Wendy Tokuda, a local news anchor woman during the 80's and 90's.   She gets out there and pulls up weeds with the rest of the volunteers, using a 'weed wrench,' a device specifically invented to make pulling these weeds easier.

When we bought our house, the neglected backyard was thick with broom. We spent a couple of weekends pulling it up by the roots and all, but every spring we find little broom plants sprouting up everywhere.  By summer's end, the seed pods from broom are plump and all it takes is a good, hot day and blammo!  The pods burst open and fling their spawn everywhere. We've hiked in open spaces on such hot days, and you can actually hear the pods popping along the trail.

It looks like we will have a never-ending battle to keep them at bay.  If that isn't enough, I saw these plants for sale at Home Depot in gallon containers for $4.99!!!  Please Home Depot, enough is enough!

I wonder in the big scheme of things just how bad a problem an invasive species like French Broom is. We tend to look at our world and think it is static, that the world has always been as it is now or as it was when you were a kid, so every change seems extreme and permanent.  But if you could watch a time lapse video of a local hillside for the last million years or so, would it show one invasive species after another getting a foothold and then taking over, only to be replaced by another 'invasive species' in its time?

They say French broom has no natural enemies, but how long will it be before something adapts to control this suddenly available food and fuel source?  I saw the local cotton tail rabbits taking cover under it's dense brush in Wildcat Canyon Park.  Of course, in ancient times, without humans to introduce new species to this area, invasive species were fewer in number and slower to establish, so the abruptness of these changes is the real issue.

The name 'invasive species' makes it sound like they came here by their own means with the evil purpose of taking over the land, "mwah-ha-ha-ha."  But every species mentioned above was introduced here by humans, either on purpose or accidentally, and they have found this area to their liking and have flourished.  As I play that imaginary time lapse video in my head, it seems that the one true invasive species is the humans, (Homo sapien).

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Young Bucks

One rainy day--and we have had a lot of these lately--these two young bucks posed in front of our game camera. I always wonder how animals deal with the rain, whether they try to seek as much shelter as they can, or if they simply put up with it. These two don't seem to mind the rain, but it seems they do have an itch or two.

Notice that their antlers are just starting to grow back. See the velvety knobs between their eyes and ears?  These will grow into antlers over the next few months.  They will use them to attract a mate in the fall, and will lose them again in early winter. The 3rd photo is from January, when we caught a three-point buck who still had his horns.  About that same time, I saw a buck with only one antler. The lopsided headgear looked like it could give him a headache or a pain in the neck.

I have heard that each year the antlers will grow out larger than the year before, that yearling bucks have only a spike and they add a new point to each side each year as they grow older. But I have not been able to confirm this with any reliable source on the internet.  In fact, some of the more reliable sources say that the antler size depends more on the health of the animal or his feeding habits.  Growing antlers requires a lot of calcium, as they are basically just bone, and when bucks have difficulty getting enough calcium in their diet, their antlers are smaller.  Rodents are known to gnaw on fallen antlers to get this source of calcium.

Last year while hiking in the open space behind our house, we found an antler, and now it sits on our mantle shelf, an objet trouvĂ©.  Perhaps over the next few months, we will see the antlers grow on these bucks and then lose their velvet covering.  If we do get more pictures, we will post them here.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Mystery Mushrooms

A cluster of mushrooms--almost like a bouquet--popped up in our front yard after a recent rain.  I have searched the internet trying to find out something about them, but I have come up almost empty handed.  They are certainly not the most showy mushrooms I have seen in the yard, no bright colors, only a slight golden tint in the sun.  They have no distinguishing features on the cap or stem.  Their main distinguishing feature is their size: the biggest is 5-6" (14cm) tall and about 7" (18cm)  in diameter.  I tried Googling "Large beige mushroom," "huge tan mushroom," "Big California Mushroom," but could not find a picture of them.

I checked the UC Berkeley mushroom guide and no luck there.  I learned from that they are the Agaric type, which are the common 'gilled' mushrooms.  I looked at every picture in their Agaric list (see Here), but I could not find one that really looks like these.  I have no idea if these are poisonous or edible or hallucinogenic.  Maybe Tricholoma dryophilum?  Agaricus californicus? Pluteus petasatus?  Hebeloma sinapizans?  These are the closest matches I found, but none look quite right.  No wonder experts say that you should not gather wild mushrooms, unless you are an expert!

So if you are an expert mycologist, or if you recognize these and can give me their common or scientific name, I would greatly appreciate it.  Here is a little more information on them:  They grew out of a mulch pile left behind when we had a large eucalyptus tree removed about a year and a half ago. The stump grinder turned the roots and stump into a mound of good, rich mulch. These fungi appeared after about 3 days of rain in mid March, here in the east bay hills near Berkeley, California, USA.
Top View of Mystery Mushrooms
Golden Mushrooms in the Sun

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

A Doe Poses for the Camera

Here are a couple of very good pictures we recently got from the game camera.  This doe walked up, stopped, smiled, and if she could, I bet she would have done her best 'Miss America' wave for the camera.  Now you know where the expression 'doe eyed' came from.

Does she look pregnant?  It's hard for me to tell, but I hope she is.  Perhaps the doe in the night photo at the bottom of this post?  We'd like to see their numbers grow, not just because they are fun to watch, but they also mow the hillsides, which reduces the wildfire danger here.  According to my neighbor, there were a lot more deer in this neighborhood 20 years ago.  Even though we see them several times a week, they are usually alone or in groups of 2 or 3.  Back then there were herds of 8 to 10.

We saw a doe with two spotted fawns in our backyard several times last summer.  One of the fawns looked healthy, but the other had a large lump on its neck near its head.  We thought it might be a goiter or a tumor, but when we mentioned it to a retired sheep rancher, he said it could have been due to a rattlesnake bite.  He said that sometimes when his sheep were grazing they would get bit and the area would swell up like we described.  Unfortunately, he said, the bite was usually fatal.  There are rattlesnakes in this area, we have seen them several times.  Later in the summer we saw a doe with only one fawn, and we think that the other one didn't survive, but we don't know for sure.

Maybe this year there will be several fawns to watch and photograph, and get into people's gardens.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Game Camera Update

The game camera has been quite some fun to play with.  We have been moving it around to various locations in the yard to see what critters are out and about when we are not looking. We exchange the memory card every few days (sometimes we're impatient and don't wait more than a day) and look at the pictures. Often there is not much to see, but we have gotten a few interesting photos, mostly of deer, and our cats.

We aimed it at the pile of scat beneath the overhang of our house for several days, but we did not catch the culprit who is making the deposit.  We saw a scat on the lower deck, so we left the camera aimed there for a week, but all we got were the cats and a few pictures of a California towhee.  Fortunately for the towhee, he was not there the same time as the cats.  We also aimed the camera at a hole in a pile of brush by a rock that seemed like a cozy den but we saw nothing coming or going there.

We get the best pictures when we aim it along one of the paths that the deer take through the yard, either the path we carved into the hillside (our goat path), or the routes they have created themselves. We usually get one or two deer per day passing in front of the camera.  I have been wondering if it is the same deer each time, or how many different deer there are, but unfortunately we don't see a lot of distinguishing features on them.  One deer with a swollen left front knee has passed by a couple of times. Others have marks on their fur, but I am not sure if they are permanent, or just fur ruffled from brushing against some brambles or brush.

One thing for sure is that these deer do not keep to any schedule.  They pass by the camera at random times day and night.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Little Spotted Beetles

Yesterday, I was working at my desk when I noticed 2 little spots on the pull cords of the blinds on my window. The spots were so small, at first I thought they were just specs of dirt, but on closer inspection I realized they were some sort of bug.  I got out my camera, put it in 'super macro' mode and took a few close-up pictures.

While these are not much to look at with the naked eye, they sure are interesting up close.  They look almost like a miniature lady bug, but with more interesting pied colors.  I had a little trouble finding the species, until I googled "tiny beetle" in the images section, and then I saw many photos of this critter.  They are 'carpet beetles', or 'varied carpet beetles,' Anthrenus verbasci.

Most of the references to this bug say that it eats natural fibers and is a pest that destroys carpet and and clothes, but come on, how much could this little guy eat?   He is only about 1/8" (3mm) long.   I hope he doesn't have a few thousand relatives nearby.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

The First Weeds of Spring

Winter still has it's grip on a lot of North America (a friend of mine from Utah says he shoveled a foot of snow out of his driveway this morning) but here in the Bay Area, winter is surrendering to spring, and the plants and weeds are starting to flourish.  

One of the first weeds of spring is this guy, called the 'old-man-in-the-spring', or 'common groundsel'.  It is sprouting up everywhere around here.  I think one of the reasons it thrives is because it is so unobtrusive and people hardly notice it and don't try to eradicate it.  It does not have burrs or stickers. It has no thorns.  It is a skinny plant that grows to less than a foot high, with meek yellow flower buds that don't seem to open up until they suddenly burst open into a dandelion-like puff of parachute seeds.

The Latin name of the plant, Senecio vulgaris, means 'vulgar old man' but in this case, 'vulgar' means 'common' as it it did in Old English.  It is said that that the seeds look like the gray hair of an old man, and when they blow away, the stem looks like a bald head.  

It seems that it is not native to this area, but nobody knows how or when it was introduced, or where it originated. It thrives in almost all countries around the world and has been known since ancient times.

Pliny the elder of ancient Rome wrote that groundsel can be used to treat a toothache.  According to the 1986 Reader's Digest book,  "Magic and Medicine of Plants", Pliny wrote:
"If a line is traced around it with an iron tool before it is dug up, and if one touches a painful tooth with the plant three times, spitting after each touch, and replaces it into the ground so as to keep it alive, it is said that the tooth will never cause pain thereafter."
I think he said something about selling a bridge in the next paragraph.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Pacific Hound's Tongue

We went hiking through Redwood Regional Park last weekend (early March), mostly to see the redwood trees, but we kept our eyes open for early wildflowers.  We came across several, but the most interesting were these purplish Hound's Tongue, Cynoglossum grande

It is a California native plant and not a problem here in the bay area, but many species of hound's tongue are considered pests or invasive species in North America and in Europe.  It is evidently quite poisonous and problem for rancher's whose cattle or sheep have eaten it.  There are many references to Hound's tongue as a medicinal plant, as a remedy for hemorrhoids and sore throat and several complaints in between.  This site claims it is an aphrodisiac, but I would not trust it, as the scientific name they give for the plant is an unrelated species from South America!

After the flowers wither, the seed pod or 'burr' that forms has prickles on it that stick to animal fur, as a way to spread the seeds over a wider area.  This is great for the propagation of this species, but a problem for me as they stick to my socks and shoelaces and are difficult to pull off. 

The name refers to the leaves, not the flowers, but you could not tell from these specimens.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Those Nutty Nuthatches

There's a new bird in town, or perhaps I just haven't noticed them before.  Red Breasted Nuthatches, Sitta canadensis.  They are quite amusing to watch as they creep up and down the live oaks and monterey pines nearby.  Just like Spiderman, they crawl upside down on the underside of branches as easy as on the top.  I saw one find a bug or a nut or something in the crevice of the bark of a tree and then fly off with it in its beak.  We also watched a pair flittering about, possibly fighting over territory or mates?  Or perhaps it was simply a mating ritual?  They were chattering the whole time, but I could not understand a word they said.

These birds were not shy, they stuck to their work, inspecting every crevice in the bark of the tree as I snapped these photos.  

Friday, March 4, 2011

Miner's Lettuce

In the description of our blog, we say we will discuss the fauna and FLORA of the bay area, yet every post so far has been on animals.  I do not want to be labeled as a 'kingdomist' so here is the first (of hopefully many) posts on the kingdom plantae.
Walking around the house today, I saw miner's lettuce--Claytonia perfoliata--growing everywhere. It's hard to miss with its signature circular leaf on a stalk.  No wonder the University of California calls it a weed.  I took a bite of a leaf and it brought back memories of my childhood in Hollister.  We called it 'Indian Lettuce' back then and found it in the fields around our town.  It is slightly sweet and well deserving of the moniker 'lettuce'.  Apparently, the deer like to eat it, too.  Its little white flowers are a prelude to the plethora of spring wildflowers that should start blooming in the Bay Area this month.
If you come across some of this delightful plant and want to give it a try, here is a recipe for you.  I think I'll go out and pick some for a salad for tonight.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

House cat encounters deer

Our cat Paloosh is lazy.  And has gotten lazier.  So much so, that sometimes he has not gone outside to do his toilet stuff.  So now we have him on a routine.  Every morning and afternoon (if it is not pouring rain) we put him out the front door.  He makes his way around the side of the house, down the hill to the back of the house, then up onto the deck and in through the cat door.  Along the way there are several locations with loose dirt for him to take care of his business, and we assume he takes advantage of the opportunity.  We have been doing this for a couple of months now.

This morning was a little different.  We glanced out the window and saw a black tailed deer, a doe, grazing at the side of the house.  We love to see these elegant critters, especially when they are up close.  Then we noticed that something near the house had caught the deer's eye.  We stretched our necks to see what the doe was looking at, and lo and behold, it was Paloosh.  He was hiding in the grass, and the deer was blocking his path around the house.  I grabbed a camera and took a few quick photos.

Paloosh kept one eye on the deer and schlumped back up towards the front of the house.  The deer was only mildly interested in the cat and continued to graze on the grass along the path, which surprised me a little as deer's main predator is the mountain lion, a distant cousin of the house cat.  Paloosh slipped under the "deer proof" fence to the safety of the front yard, and then around the other side of the house to the cat door.   We asked him later what he thought of the encounter, but he did not say much.