Friday, April 29, 2011

Ticks tick me off

It must be tick season. Lately, we have found several ticks on our clothing and worse, crawling around on our bodies after working in our back yard.  It is said that if there are deer in your neighborhood, there will be ticks as well, and we can vouch for that.   After pulling up a lot of thistles yesterday, I found this guy on my hand last evening.  The second photo is of a tick we found a couple of weeks ago.

These are wood ticks (Dermacentor variabilis), also called dog ticks.  These do not carry Lyme disease but have been know to carry other diseases, including rocky mountain spotted fever.  Fortunately, it takes them a while to dig into your skin, bury their head and begin feeding, and so far, we have found them before they were able to do damage. Some sources say a tick cannot transmit disease unless it has been feeding for 48 to 72 hours. But they are dirty little bugs and even a slight bite on your skin can cause swelling and redness for weeks after. Yuck!

Notice the slightly longer long front legs on this guy?  They will find a host by crawling to the top of tall grass or a low branch, and stick out those front legs.  If an appropriate host brushes up against them they latch on with those forelegs.  They usually try to crawl up to the neck of the animal before they bite. They will stay on for days until they have had a good meal before dropping off and starting the cycle all over again.

If you look carefully when hiking you can see them on the tips of tall grass blades and avoid them. But be sure to check yourself thoroughly when you get home and shower carefully (or have your partner scrutinize your skin). Wash your clothes too and you'll get rid of them before they bite you.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

We Caught a Fox

When we bought the game camera, we were hoping to get photos of a variety of critters crossing through our backyard.  It has been recording a lot of activity, but lately it has mostly been from our deer neighbors. We have seen other wildlife in the area, including raccoons (which we have caught with the game camera), opossums (but only dead on the side of the road), squirrels (every day in the trees), and skunks (OK, maybe we haven't seen them, but we have smelled them).  And we know that coyotes and mountain lions live in the open space nearby, and have been known to come close to suburban areas.  But all we get are photos of deer.  The camera had been in the same location in our backyard for a couple of months, so we decided to move it to a different site off our property.

There is a large open-space park area near our house that is criss-crossed with game trails and also with several small creeks.  We decided to put the camera at a game trail/creek crossing, about a quarter mile from any house. Even though few people traipse around this part of the open space, we were a little  worried that someone might come across the camera and steal it. But we decided it was unlikely anyone would be hiking there--it is thick with brush and bramble--and worth the gamble.  We left it almost a week in one location, and got 2 photos of guess what?  Yes, deer again. So we moved it to another critter creek crossing and checked it yesterday.  Bingo!  We caught a fox in motion!  The pictures are not the best, taken at twilight in infra-red mode, and blurry.  This quick red fox was jumping over a log and some rocks en-route to a meal, perhaps.

We will leave the camera in that location for a week or 2 and see if we can get a better photo, or with any luck, some other critters as well.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

A Tale of Two Towhees

California Towhee
California Towhee

The most drab, mundane and unappreciated bird in our neighborhood is the California Towhee (Pipilo crissalis).  Their plumage is nothing to write home about, and their song is just as undistinguished.  Hardly anybody notices them, just another bird in the yard.  However, once you take notice of them, you will see them everywhere. They are one of the most common birds of the Bay Area.

California Towhees are native to this area and historically lived in dry chaparral areas.  They have adapted very well to the suburban environment.  They are seed eaters and make their nests in low shrubs, includig poison oak bushes.  The Cornell Lab of Ornithology says that they commonly attack their reflections in windows and car mirrors, but I have never seen them do that.

Spotted Towhee

Spotted Towhee
Spotted Towhee
Their cousin, the Spotted Towhee (Pipilo maculatus), formerly called the Rufus Sided Towhee, is a much more handsome bird but more rare than the California variety.  I have seen them around our yard from time to time, but it has been difficult to get a good picture of them because they are a lot more skittish than their drab cousins. During a late March rainy day, a couple of them visited our feeder and stuck around long enough for me to get a good shot.  Then this week I noticed one making a nest near an open space park and got a couple more photos to share.

The spotted towhee is just a bit smaller than the California towhee, and it seems that they are a bit lower in the pecking order as well.  Those bland towhee will bully and chase off their dapper cousins, at least around our bird feeder.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Dance of the Mockingbird

Mockingbirds (Mimus polyglottos) are one of my favorite birds, but I know they are not everybody's.  My friend Sara has a mockingbird that will sit in a tree right outside her bedroom window and sing at the top of its lungs all night long.  She said she could kill it.  But I like the way they sing, and I can sit and listen for hours. Well, 5 or 10 minutes anyway.  I used to hear them at night and fall asleep while I listened to their many songs.

Once upon a time when I was a kid, I was walking through an open field approaching a barbed wire fence.  As I approached I heard a frog croaking at the base of the fence and I noticed a bird sitting on the top wire, directly above the frog.  "Croak-croak" went the frog, then "croak-croak" went the bird, a very good imitation of the frog.  I was amazed.  Yes, it was a mockingbird, mocking the frog.  Some mockingbirds will sing like a robin for a minute, then sing like a sparrow for another.  Then they change to a titmouse or oriole or nuthatch.  Some have amazing repetoirs.

We haven't heard many mockingbirds around our house here in the hills, probably because there aren't many berry bushes nearby, and mockingbirds do like berries.  But last evening when we got home from work, the mocker pictured here was sitting at the top of a pine tree singing his heart out and performing an aerial show. Every minute or two he would leap up off his perch, do a somersault or simply flutter about and then land again on the same perch.  Why was he doing this dance?  Probably so I could get some good pictures for this blog!

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

New Hawks in Town

We have some new neighbors. A trio of red-shouldered hawks (buteo lineatus) showed up about two weeks ago.  They have been hanging around ever since with a big noisy presence that is hard to ignore, not that we would want to. The Cornell website "All About Birds" says these hawks are one of the most vocal hawk varieties in the United States, and we can attest to that.

These critters screech loudly and often during the day. It's a wonder they catch anything to eat since every gopher, pigeon and snake in the county must be able to hear them.

They ride the updrafts on the hillside, and then swoop and play with each other.  Later they will land in a nearby Monterey pine and screech at each other some more.  This behavior closely resembles a mating ritual called a "Sky Dance" as described by Kari Kirschbaum of The University of Michigan .   It is strange that there are three of them, perhaps a oiseau "menage a trois"? 

The ravens here will chase after every red-tail hawk that comes by, but they have been leaving these red-shouldereds alone, even though they are a smaller bird by a good five inches in length and about 10 inches in wingspan.  We're not sure if the ravens do not consider them a threat, or if the red-shouldereds are more agile and not so easy to pick on without getting picked at back.

Red-shouldered hawks, red-tail hawks and other Buteo's are called buzzards in Europe.  Here in the USA we think of a 'buzzard' as a another name for a turkey vulture, but this is not correct.  It seems that early settlers, in colonial times, mistakenly called our soaring vultures 'buzzards', and the name has stuck.  I got this factoid from the Turkey Vulture Society web page.  No kidding, there is a Turkey Vulture Society!

We hope they are building a nest nearby, but we have not seen it.  We'll be watching with binoculars in hand.

Monday, April 11, 2011

These Birds Can't Read

Here are a few photos I took last week.

Fishing?  Who's fishing?  We don't see no one fishing."
The first one is of American White Pelicans (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos) at San Pablo Reservoir, near Orinda, CA, USA.  I was sure surprised to see them here.  I thought pelicans only lived around salt water, but according to the Cornell University website All About Birds, they breed on inland lakes and return to the sea for the winter.  The strange flat protrusion on the top of their bills is called a 'horn' and grows on each year before breeding season.   After they breed, it drops off and the bill has a more normal shape.  If you can call anything about a pelican bill 'normal'.

This photo reminds of one of my favorite limericks, by Dixon Lanier Merritt:

What a wonderful bird is the pelican,
His beak can hold more than his bellican.
  He can hold in his beak
  Enough food for a week,
But I'll be darned if I know how the hellican.

"Rules don't apply to me."
This second photo is of an American Coot (Fulica americana) in Lake Anza inTilden Park, near Berkeley, CA, USA.  The coots are strange birds.  They run on the water for 20 to 30 meters when trying to get airborne.  And they make some of the strangest calls of any waterfowl, a very unique screechy-clicky sound.  This guy is completely ignoring the "no swimming / no wading" buoy.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Deer Developments

There have been a couple of developments in the deer situation in our neighborhood.

 In this post from a few weeks ago, photos from our game camera showed just the beginning little knobs of antlers on the local black-tailed deer (Odocoileus hemionus columbianusbucks.  Take a look at them now, just a few weeks later. They have grown significantly.  According to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, antlers are the fastest growing tissue in any mammal.

Now, take a look at this video clip below, also taken by the automatic game camera.  Compare it to the photos in this post from just a few weeks ago. Back then, we speculated that one of our doe neighbors may be pregnant. And sure enough, I'd say the doe trotting away from the camera definitely has a bun or two in the oven, so to speak.

Perhaps in another month or two we will have a spotted fawn or two to gaze at, and a full set of antlers on these bucks.  We will keep you posted.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Charismatic Megafauna (Marine Variety)

I just finished reading an enjoyable article in The New Yorker by Ian Frazier about seals and sea lions.  I was amazed to read that people in New York will spend 24 bucks to go on a boat with the hope of catching a glimpse of a seal, and that 20 years ago there were no seals anywhere near New York City.  Here in the bay area of California, one simply has to go to any  harbor and look around.  They are everywhere.

I remember visiting the Santa Cruz Wharf when I was young, and imitating the barking of the sea lions below the pier.  For 50 cents you could buy a small paper plate of  'seal food', a few finger-sized mackerel, that you could toss to the seals in the water around the pier. I'm sure that's against the law these days.

Fraizer mentions the term 'charismatic megafauna,' which is applied to animals that people love to love.  Animals that   are large enough to watch and cute enough to pull at your heart strings.  And lovable enough to get a bunch of people to write to their government and demand that these critters be protected.   And popular enough for law makers to pass legislation to protect them so they can say, 'Look what I did'.  Deer, panda bears and elephants also fit into this category, but scorpions, pigeons, and possums do not.  The term was coined to point out that there are a lot of tiny, ugly critters on the brink of extinction that do not get this same kind of support.  What should we call them?  Repulsive micro-critters?

We took the photos on this page in Monterey last summer.  These California sea lions (Zalophus californianus) are the same species that are trained for circus acts and marine live shows.  Here, they had taken over the beach rocks all around the pier.  They were also beaching themselves on private yachts and docks.  And pooping everywhere.   Cute critters, but somewhat messy and smelly, as well.