Sunday, March 17, 2013

Clearwing Moth

Last year, we had Hemaris caterpillars on the coral honeysuckle. And, like Eric Carle's Very Hungry Caterpillar, they proceeded to devour the plants. In fact, we had to re-locate several of them from a spindly little vine to a set of more robust plants in the backyard. That was a win-win: the pitiful honeysuckle survived the onslaught, the caterpillars got more food, and the new honeysuckle was right on the back porch, so it was much easier to watch the feast.

Nom nom nom. poop. Nom nom nom. poop (Lifestyle of the average caterpillar)

They're grew to be big caterpillars: I could feel their weight when they crawled on my hand. Beautifully colored as larvae, they metamorphose into a pretty interesting critter, too.

Hemaris caterpillars become Hemaris moths, a.k.a. Clearwing moths, a.a.k.a. Bumblebee moths. They buzz around plants with their transparent wings, sipping nectar while pretending mightily that they are Dangerous Bees with Very Large Sharp Stingers, so you should Certainly Leave Them Alone.

I was reminded of my caterpillar friends and their honeysuckle buffet when I spotted an adult this afternoon, drinking from a patch of henbit.


I hope this means that there will be more Hemaris caterpillars this year. I'll keep an eye out.


Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Sheriffs

Our three dogs keep us updated on important happenings outside. Hot-air balloons flying over OUR house, woodpeckers munching on OUR birdseed, maurading armadillos digging up OUR grubs...It's a wonder those poor puppies ever get any sleep.

Co-Sheriffs Meg (left) and Tessa (right)
Deputy Finn

A few days ago a weather system brought in some high winds. I noticed the dogs were barking a lot, while looking straight up. I investigated, and found a weatherbeaten taurpalin was stuck high in a pecan tree near the porch. "Not much we can do about that, deputies. Carry on." A few days later, I noticed it on the ground, apparently blown out of the tree. Yesterday, when I went to grab it and throw it away, it was gone again.

Back to this morning. All three dogs were hysterical, bouncing on the deck, looking up, then at me, as if I needed to DO SOMETHING. The culprit?


I guess the squirrel dragged the lightweight tarp back up into the tree yesterday, and was busily working at taking it apart,  pulling it into little fibrous shreds. It would then haul a big mouthful of tarp fluff into the crotch of the next tree, where it disappeared. Moments later, it was back for another load.


I guess I'm glad that my procrastination gave the squirrel (and future little squirrels) a nice fluffy nest. AND I'm happy to know where the nest is located. I'll be waiting impatiently for little ones to appear.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Be careful, tree: someone's following you!

Natalie's "Tree Year" blog came to an end in December 2011, but the idea stuck with a lot of people. Simply choose a tree, and use words and pictures to "follow" it over the course of a year. Lucy, over at Loose and Leafy, has kindly offered to keep up with bloggers who are tree-following.

When I decided to follow a tree, it was pretty hard to choose one. Maybe a big bur oak, with acorns like golf balls? Or one of the southern prickly ashes, whose bark is covered with spiny pyramids? There are pecan trees, and walnut trees and cedar trees and hackberry trees in the Not So Big Woods.  Big ones, too: mature trees that arch high overhead, with trunks that my arms can't circle.

But in the end, I chose a young cedar elm. It's about 7-8 years old, growing within a few yards of its probable parent tree. It's the center of our circular gravel drive, in an area we enclosed with big limestone rocks and railroad ties.

At this time of year, the tree doesn't have any leaves, and it was hard to get a picture of it against the backdrop of all of the other trees that also don't have any leaves. Here, it's silhouetted against the storage shed.

The droughts of the last 2 summers haven't had as much of an effect on this tree as on most others. It got the benefit of the water that we gave the roses that are planted around it, and the dribble from the morning filling of the birdbath. In the picture below, you can see the birdbath flat on the ground on the right side.



Right now, the circumference of the tree is about 8 1/4 inches just below the main fork. It has an important job:  providing perching branches for the songbirds that hang out at the feeder station just a couple of feet away. The twigs are tiny little things, a few of them showing the corky wing-like structures that make it easy to confuse the cedar elm with the winged elm.




I picked this tree because it's so small. As fascinating as the big trees are, I love the idea of having the branches of my "followed" tree right down at a level where I can get at them. Spring is springing here in North Central Texas, so changes are sure to be coming soon.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Tug of War

February is a strange month in this part of the state. Spring is desperate to come busting in, but winter doesn't feel like leaving yet.

All of the trees are still bare, their long wooden fingernails stretching toward the sky.




Dead brown leaves cover the ground, crunching underfoot, their dry crackle allowing a single squirrel to sound like a huge restless beast. Recent rains sculpted dried grass into undulating waves as runoff flowed to the creek.



It's still cold at night: my car crunched through icy puddles in the driveway on the way to work yesterday. Dead weeds still stand against the edges of the woods, their blooms bleached and dessicated.

But changes are coming....

Green groundcover is stirring under a protective layer of oak leaves, reveling in the warmer afternoons and damp soil.


I was surprised to find a stonecrop plant sprouting. It "died" last year in the heat and drought, but apparently a little bit hung on. It's the only surviving companion to the rosemary bush in the sandy bed that once housed a giant unsightly prickly pear cactus.


Out in the front field, a new branch on a young pecan tree sheds its velvet like an overheated child peeling off a coat...



...and a flowering pear tree offers up hundreds of miniature bouquets.


The swing of the seasons: a gentle but constant tug-of-war.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Swarms!

We've had a long dry spell, but it was broken last night by a line of thunderstorms that dropped about three inches of rain in a couple of hours. This morning, Awesome Husband called me out to the backyard to see a swarm of insects that seemed to be drifting around in a thick cloud, then fluttering up into the blue sky. Winged termites, hundreds and hundreds of them, were emerging from the softened ground, wandering on the ground for a bit until their delicate wings dried, then taking off. Lit up by the morning sun, they seemed like specks of magic dust, rather than wood-chomping insects.

It's can be hard to tell termites apart from winged ants when they both get flying. Look closely, though. Ants have antennae that are sharply bent, but termites have mostly-straight antennae. Ants also have a narrow waist, but the termite is pretty straight from it's head all the way back.

I even got a chance to test out the ID trick, because this evening I found a swarm of flying ants crawling up a post by the steps leading to the garage. The little bent antennae were a dead giveaway.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

You're looking a little pale....

Color is the first thing I notice when I look at a bird, trying to figure out what it is.  Red = cardinal.  Blue = blue jay.  Grey/white = Tufted titmouse. Every flippin' color under the rainbow = painted bunting.

When it's winter, black on top, white on the bottom = junco. They're the first birds that really signal the appearance of winter. Tiny and chirpy, they're the reminder to pull out my heavy coat and make sure that each glove has a mate.

The junco flock from this last winter brought a bird of a different color. It was so different that I wasn't sure at first that she (?he?) was a junco at all. Rather than charcoal and ivory, this bird resembled a toasted marshmallow.





I named her "Lucy," because the condition that lightened her feathers is called "leucism." It's not the same as being an albino. There's pigment there, it's just not as much as usual. I think Lucy's case is interesting because the color pattern is different from a normal junco. Junco's are top vs. bottom colored, not front vs. back, like Lucy.

Another form of leucism is called "pied." Imagine a section of feathers dipped in bleach.  I've never seen one in person, but pictures of pied birds always make them look a little embarrassed. The rest of the flock didn't seem to treat Lucy any differently than the other birds. It makes me wonder how much they respond to their own colors.

Friday, February 4, 2011

The Little House Cafe

The temperature here in North Central Texas is currently colder than the northern half of Montana. The last time we rose above freezing was about 3 a.m. Tuesday morning. We had an ice pellet storm on Tuesday, which has congealed into a solid sheet of ice coating the streets and driveways. Most of the schools in the area have been shut down since then: the streets are simply too slick for safety. To add insult to injury, 5 inches of snow were dumped on us overnight.

The intense and continuous cold has led to an avian crisis: the birds need food. Lots of it. With temperatures dropping near single digits, the tiny birds that normally frequent our feeders can lose a significant part of their body weight in one night trying to keep warm.  Fortunately for my bird buddies, the school where I teach has been closed for 4 days, allowing me to maintain a pretty continuous buffet. Awesome Husband estimates that over 300 birds have dined at the Little House Cafe, where we've gone through about 30 pounds of black sunflower seed in 3 days, and too many cups of cornmeal/peanut butter suet to keep track of.

Over 100 in this picture alone, including a growing flock of red-winged blackbirds


Our usual friends were there. Tufted titmice, chickadees, mourning doves, and cardinals know where to turn for a meal any day.

"Please: fewer pictures, more seed."


Their enthusiasm brought in some birds that are less familiar. The red-bellied woodpecker hangs around the trees all the time, but it's only since the weather chilled down that he came to the buffet line. He was initially attracted to the whole peanuts we were putting out for the blue jays, but he soon learned to like my homemade suet. His first approaches were timid and quick, only peeking over the edge of the railing while he perched vertically. Now, he hops around like he owns the place, and visits every day.

Shot with one hand holding a heavy camera, through a window & screen, in low light. Better than expected.

I'd been wondering where the Harris's sparrows were. They always arrive later than the other birds, like a mid-winter present. I saw the first few on Tuesday, sporting their characteristic black beret and bib. So far, nine of them have showed up.

Harris's sparrow, with a brown-headed cowbird looking on


Fox sparrows were unexpected guests. I've seen a few of them in the woods, but never in a close-up. They're bigger than I'd expected, just about the size of a cardinal, with gorgeous brown and grey feathers on their backs. Their bellies are streaked, with a smeary black spot on the chest. They have a distinct little double-scratch they do when they're searching for food: they jump forward, then scoot back a couple of times. It's not so effective when they're on a layer of ice, but it's awfully cute.

"Yes, as a matter of fact, I AM stunning."


These chipping sparrows are enjoying the shelter from the biting north wind, nestled inside an overturned flowerpot.

"If she really loved us, she'd plug the hole that lets in the wind."


After a party, there's bound to be a little debris. Each evening, the deck is littered with the detritus of the day, evidence of a lot of hearty meals.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

One Tree, in Close-Up

It feels like Spring in the Not-So-Big Woods. We're topping out around 68 F (20 C) today. Yesterday was even warmer. Three days from now, we aren't expected to get above freezing. Knowing that the cold front is coming is a push to go outside while I don't have to bundle up.

On our west side, there's a little worn slope that leads down into the riverbed. Just to the left of the slope I found a tiny path leading into the trees. That's one of those head-scratchers, because WE certainly didn't put it there.  It drops off into a river-eroded hillside, straight into a tangle of tree roots. My best guess is that it's a raccoon highway.


I walked down to the riverbed (NOT on the mysterious trail) to check out some of the trees that grow in precarious areas. The river is usually placid, but when we got a big rainfall, it fills up its banks with a roar of churning water. Soil is swept away from the trees lining the edges of the stream, exposing their roots. Eventually they tilt at crazy acrobat angles, then one day, they tumble, squealing and crashing.

Digging in with all their strength. So far, they stand.
The darkest tree in the middle is the one that caught my attention today. It's a little awkward to get close to it. The leaf-covered slope is slick, and stems of poison ivy stick up here and there.  Scores of small spiders dashed out of the way of my footsteps, probably screaming little arachnid versions of "AAAUUUGGGHH!"

Up closer, it's easy to see the top of the enormous taproot, plunging straight down into the earth, providing a tenacious grip that gives way only under tremendous strain.

This looks like a branch, but it's actually a horizontal root. There's evidence that a bird uses it as a dining hall, munching the poison ivy berries that are abundant in that area, leaving little crumbs behind.
 
That same root provides meals for birds like woodpeckers and sapsuckers. Little holes drilled cleanly into the wood hint at the enjoyment of past meals. And...do you notice a couple of orange blobs?

Two bright orange fungi add a little cheer, peeking out from the underside of the roots. The color is like pumpkin flesh. They're hard, like homemade biscuits left out on the counter for a few days. Soft velvet covers them, reminding me of the velvet on a deer's fresh antlers.
 


Countering the orange fungus, there's a miniature forest of green moss. Yes, as a matter of fact, it IS on the north side of the tree.  The craggy bark looks like the tortured twistings of mountain ranges when seen from an airplane, with tiny mossy trees adorning them.



A funnel-web spider was peering out from her silky tube. When I jostled the bark a little, she retreated. Apparently, I didn't send out "come and eat me, I'm just a little innocent bug" vibes.


Saturday, January 22, 2011

House of Herps: A Festival for the Senses

The Little House in the Not-So-Big Woods is currently a house of another sort. The House of Herps Carnival has landed here this month, with posts that appeal to a variety of senses.

Touch

At Dave Hubble's ecology spot, the crumpet-like texture of a fossil tipped him off that he might have found an ancient crocodile. What else could it be, after all? It was located on that well-known crocodilian hotspot: the Isle of Wight!

A red-backed salamander is all snuggled up warm in its under-rock bed, until Bernard Brown goes herp-hunting. The chilly amphibian is at Philly Herping.

David Steen prides himself (and rightfully so) on taking down the myths that circulate on the web. Here, he debunks a bit of the "alligator vs. electric eel" video that made its rounds recently. Another of David's myth-defying entries dispels the notion that cottonmouth snakes want to drop in on you while you drift down the river in your canoe.

At the Birder's Lounge, a red-eared slider is caught basking in the warm sun. Sadly, Amber writes about another turtle, caught in the wild and for sale.

Taste

There's nothing like a nice ripe peach. In January, though, Stephanie Suesan Smith discovers that the fruit that you find on the tree may not be as sweet as you'd expect.

Here at the Little House, we've got two herps for the price of one. And one of the pair appeared to be pretty tasty.

Smell

Sniff...sniff-sniff....What's that smell? Is that insect repellent? Yes. Is it killing off anacondas? Probably not.

Hearing

Charlie Moore's shifts his focus from avians to monitor lizards at this entry from 10,000 Birds.  Read carefully, and you can practically hear the drip of water and the soft shush of grass as the enormous animals move through the marshes and waterways.

Sight

At xenogere, Jason shows off his photographic skills with an exciting story about his too-close-for-comfort encounter with a Southern Copperhead, complete with a breathtaking image of the gorgeous reptile. Nothing gets away from Jason's camera. Well, almost nothing. VERY LITTLE gets away from his camera....

Greg Neise writes of finding a Peruvian toad that only seems to exist in his photographs. These toads aren't only skilled in hiding in the leaves, they're also pretty good at keeping out of sight in the reference books.

Macro photography is applied to a variety of natural subjects. Insects, snails, and spiders have all become accustomed to having a big camera lens shoved right in their faces. Getting an up-close-and-personal macro of a snake is still a rarity, though. Visit Count Your Chicken! We're Taking Over! for a snake portrait of a different sort.

Blending into the background is a common adaptation. This individual hasn't read the memo.


Thanks to all who submitted an entry. Reading over all of these blogs was a joy to the senses: all five of them.  The House of Herps carnival moves from McKinney to Philadelphia next month, hosted at Philly Herping, so start writing!

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

It's a Mosstery to Me


Sometimes, interesting things are high in a tree, making binoculars a necessity. Other times, you have to lie face-down in the dirt to focus on the teeny crawling thing that caught your eye.

Now and then, all you have to do is glance down to see what you just tripped over.














Yes, it's just a stick, probably fallen from the overhanging hackberry tree, but it had an Interesting Thing attached to it.

Moss? Lichen? Alien creature bent on world domination? Beats me. I don't even know whether the bumpy things on the underside might be spores or old insect eggs.




Sunday, January 2, 2011

Approval

When I was very young, I heard loud bird screeching in the side yard. I hopped off the porch swing and walked around the corner of my house. There, I saw a blue jay swooping and screaming around a young bird on the ground. With all the righteous indignation of a typical 6-year-old, I marched over to save the baby from the Blue Evil, but my good intentions fell away when the jay switched her attention from the baby bird to the top of my head. Blue jays have long sharp beaks, and she applied hers with vigorous force.

I abandoned my mission and ran shrieking back to the front porch, sobbing out my story. That was when I learned from my parents that mama blue jays don't like little naturalists messing with their fledgelings.

It took some years to recover from that trauma, but I managed to forgive the mother bird for her attack.

The blue jays in the Not-So-Big Woods enjoy irritating me in a totally different way. For 3 years, we've been trying to lure them in with offerings of peanuts. For 3 years, they've been indifferent.

Until now.

Choosing carefully. Not all peanuts are equal.

Desperately wanting to carry two nuts at once, but beak capacity is limited.


Suddenly, for no reason that I can find, we've been stamped "APPROVED." A blue jay couple visits every morning, scooping up peanuts both shelled and unshelled. Unlike many other situations I've read about, our jays don't bully the smaller birds, probably because we have so much food available and spread out over a large area. 



Cramming shelled and unshelled nuts at the same time.



Too many nuts in the crop to easily push this one down.

Taking off, fully laden.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Puzzle

There are approximately 20 birds, mostly sparrows, in this picture. I know they're there, because I saw them as I clicked the shutter button. They blend in pretty well.





Happy hunting!

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Apology

Dear Squirrels and Raccoons,

I'm sorry. I accused you falsely. But you have to admit: the circumstantial evidence was plentiful.

Squirrel, do you remember the day I looked out the window and found you curled up inside the "squirrel-proof" bird feeder, merrily chewing away at the goodies within? And aren't you the critters that march like furry tanks across the seeds spread on the deck railing, leaving a trail of shattered and  empty shells in your wake?

And raccoons: really, can you blame me for being a little suspicious, when "search and destroy" seems to be your motto? Remember the suet feeder? You took it. Not the suet, oh no! You took the WHOLE FEEDER from its chain on the porch. We did find it, you know, months later, in the crawl space under the house.  Its little door was pried open, and the suet was long gone. I don't even want to think about the hummingbird feeder. It wasn't enough that you had to open it and drink it dry: you pulled off the little yellow flower-shaped wasp-guards, too. We never did track down the last two.

Because of this history we have, little mammals, you can understand why I thought of you when the peanut feeder went empty so fast. Less than 4 hours to completely run out of unshelled peanuts? There's NO WAY mere birds could do that.

Except... Shouldn't there have been empty shells on the ground under the feeder? You two tend to dine in, rather than resort to carry-out. And, now that I think of it, the emptying was done during the day, which doesn't sound like Mr. Raccoon.

Who, then? It was clearly time for clandestine surveillance.

Oh.

I see that I underestimated the persistence and tenacity of our brash titmice. When a bird swoops in and removes a nut roughly every 60 seconds, the feeder goes empty quite fast, actually.

So, raccoons and squirrels, I offer my sincere apologies for accusing you unjustly.
Even though you had it coming.
 
Sincerely,

Joy

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Cooperation

Afternoon car-rider duty at school is pretty simple: hang out with the kids at the back of the school while they get picked up and taken home. There's rarely any drama beyond the occasional phone call by a "forgotten" child. "I was supposed to pick you up? I thought your dad was going to pick you up! I'll be right there!"

Therefore, it was quite surprising when we heard the screams, and saw the group of kids leap from the ground and scurry about ten feet away from where they'd been sitting in the grass.  "Problem?"  a teacher asked.

"SNAKE!!!!!"

And indeed there was. A snake had slithered over, probably hoping to help with homework, but had been soundly rebuffed. He was beautiful, and very calm, although none of these qualities seemed to endear him to the kids. "Are you gonna kill it?"  "Um, no, but I think I'll take it home so no one else decides to do just that."

The agreeable snake stayed in one spot while I dashed into the building and got a big cardboard box from the storage room. Then we tackled the problem of how to get him into the box.  "We could pick him up..." No one was volunteering.  Almost as a joke, I asked "What if we just put the box on the ground and nudged him. Think he'd just crawl in?"  I got a solid round of "Yeah, right" looks, but when I put the box down and nudged the snake with my foot, he slithered right inside.   All of the yeah-righters were wide-eyed with awe. I was pretty amazed: how often does wildlife do what you want?

No fighting, no hissing. What a good snake!

The box was rather shorter than its meter-long occupant.

Shy snake doesn't want to come out after relocation.


The snake came home with me, and was released into the backyard on the edge of the woods. He was reluctant to leave the box but he did finally slide out into the grass, then into the leafy floor of the woods, where he vanished.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Anybirdy Out There?

It's relatively quiet in the Not-So-Big Woods. The hummingbirds have moved south. We spotted the last one, frantically drinking from the feeder, on October 2. Our year-round residents, the tufted titmice, chickadees, and cardinals, are taking much less food from us than usual. I guess they're filling up on the autumn buffet available in the woods, because their visits to our cafe are of the "grab and go" variety, rather than a "stay a while and fill up" encounter.

The house finches are gone, taking their chirpy quarrels with them. I think we have two populations that visit. One stays with us during the warm season, raising their little ones here, then they disappear when the days get short. Another group must breed further north, and they arrive more-or-less synchronized with the annual goldfinch brigade.

Right now, it's like the calm few moments before a giant gust of wind brings a downpour. I know my winter friends are coming, and hungry.