Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Ants Alive!

Today I came to the realization that I've come a long way in dealing with the creepy crawlies while checking nest boxes. When I first began checking nest boxes oh-so-long ago, I would FREAK OUT when I stuck my hand in a box to blindly feel around for eggs or chicks (because Eurasian Tree Sparrows cram the nest box to the top with grasses and that's the only way to see what's going on inside) and pull back a hand full of ants.

For the last 3 weeks I've been battling an ant infestation in one of the boxes. Today when I checked the box, the chicks were gone so I decided to pull the nest out. There was a mass exodus of ants. They spilled out and were all over my hands and arms, the top and sides of the nest box, the pole.

  These pictures were taken about a minute after the initial stream of ants exiting the box.

See those little white things that look like grains of rice? Those are eggs.

I left the lid off for a few minutes and continued to watch while flicking ants off my face, neck, arms and legs. And you know what? I didn't freak out! Although I did shiver each time I felt an ant crawling on me.

The next 2 boxes were also infested with ants. Wonder if the rest of the breeding season is going to be nothing but ant colonies in the boxes.  It's a good thing I no longer squeal and jump up and down like a girl with these ants. Ick.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Learner's Permit

For the last few years my yard has played host to a family of Robins. My three-year streak of having a Robin's nest around the house was broken this year because the birds chose an evergreen tree in my neighbor's yard. But the parents and fledgling decided to use my backyard as their day spot.  For the last 2 weeks, I have listened to the young Robin try out his new voice, watched him make short, low-to-the-ground flights across the yard, hop around in the flower beds, snooze on the edge of a flower pot, perch on the birdbath and in the lower branches of the dogwood tree. I wake up to his youthful squawks every morning and hear him throughout the day when I'm home. I love his voice and watching him learn about life outside the nest.

Yesterday morning I witnessed a very awkward flight. When I saw him on the birdbath near the patio, I grabbed my camera and slowly approached the sliding glass doors to take a few pictures. But he saw my movement and jumped up in an initially pretty good flight, but he didn't know where to go. He unsteadily flew around the bird feeders, hovered around the birdbath before heading towards the roof. But his flight was too low and slow and consequently bonked his head on the gutter before hovering over the BBQ grill and deciding to land on the birdbath hardware that was screwed into the side of the house.

That little excursion tired the little fella out because he paused for a short nap.

But his nap wasn't long because he started squawking. Was he demanding food, or just talking? In either case he seemed to be content to perch on his emergency landing spot.

Look at his little mohawk!

After watching him for awhile, I told Danno of the clumsy flight spectacle I witnessed. He simply replied, "Well, he just has his learner's permit. He's still learning."

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Birdwatching in Arizona, Final Entry: Back off, I'm a cactus in disguise! My love affair with cacti.

 As my closest friends and readers know, I love cacti. While the primary goal of our trip to Arizona was for birdwatching, I was looking forward to being among my cacti friends. I fell in love with the Saguaros (pronounced s-WAR- oh.) in Tucson. They were everywhere; out in the desert, on hillsides, roadsides, and in neighborhoods (although I imagine they were landscaped in).  I  know I am anthropomorphizing when I say this, but they were like a community of silent sentinels, guarding over their little spot in the desert.

Saguaro (Carnegiea gigantea) is the largest cactus in the United States.  This plant can live 150 - 200 years, but will not be mature enough to bloom until they are at least 30 - 40 years old. To say saguaro is a slow growing plant is somewhat of an understatement. But growth rate is linked to yearly rainfall.  In the Tucson Mountains, located just west of Tucson, the annual rainfall averages 14 inches, a saguaro takes about 10 years to attain 1¼ - ½ inches in height and 30 years to reach 2 feet. Saguaros begin to flower at about 8 feet tall, which takes about 55 years. The saguaros found in Saguaro National Park, located in Tucson, only take 40 years to bloom. The rainfall in that National Park averages 16 inches each year.  The Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in Ajo, Arizona, receives only 9 inches of annual rainfall and takes 75 years for the Saguaro to bloom. But when all is said and done growing, a saguaro will reach 40 - 60 feet in height.

A saguaro can produce up to 40 million seeds, but as with all forms of organic life, it is only considered successful if one plant grows to replace its parent. The saguaro creates white flowers on top in the spring with peak bloom time being mid-May through mid-June. Nighttime blooming, the strong fragrance emitted during the twilight hours and the copious amounts of pollen and nectar produced make the saguaro flowers especially enticing to bats. In fact, bats are the primary pollinators and seed dispersers of the saguaro. The flowers bear fruit during the summer months, up to 2000 seeds per fruit, and White-winged Doves, rodents, javelinas, and coyotes eat the fruit and distribute the seed.

A seedling requires summer rain in order to sprout followed by 2 - 3 years of seasonal rain to survive.  These tiny cacti usually grow under a canopy of plants that shelters them from the elements and hides them from foraging rodents, rabbits and birds. Saguaro in general cannot tolerate more than a day of freezing temperatures and will not grow in regions that receive less than 2 inches of summer rain. This explains why a "forest" of saguaro appear to all be the same size. Some scientists believe that a good crop of saguaro may only come a few times in the time span of 100 years.

During a year of good rainfall, an adult saguaro can weigh 3200 - 4800 pounds. Ribs, located under the green, waxy exterior, can expand and contract depending on water intake. The main root (the tap root) will extend down over 2 feet. The plant's remaining roots are fairly close to the surface, 4 - 6 inches deep but will radiate out as far from the plant as it is tall.  During a rainy season, the saguaro will send out new roots, known as rain roots, and collect as much water as possible.

As with the rest of the plant, the arms of a saguaro are slow growing, taking at least 5 years to grow 6 inches. The arms store water, provide extra surface area for photosynthesis, and acts as a good nesting place for some bird species, especially cactus wrens.

Cactus wren between the 2 arms that are in front.

Closeup of a Cactus Wren nest.

The bulky part of the saguaro protects the plant from extreme temperatures. The heat absorbed during the day is stored within the interior tissue and radiates the heat out slowly during the night. This also protects the plant during the rare times the temperatures drop to freezing during the night.  What an amazing plant. How could someone not love the saguaro?

This is the last of my Arizona entries, but stay tuned; I will be headed to Seattle and Nome Alaska in a few weeks.

    Thursday, May 16, 2013

    Birdwatching in Arizona, Part 3: Southeast Arizona; A birdwatcher's paradise.

    We spent the first 2 days in Tucson before moving out into the smaller towns outside of the big city. Our first stop was Portal, a tiny town consisting of a library, post office, library, fire station, doctor's office, and a compound consisting of a general store, restaurant and small motel. This was the first place I encountered backyard birdwatching; a practice where homeowners open their backyard for public viewing. The usual practice was that there would be a sign in the front yard welcoming birdwatchers to the yard and a container with a sign asking for donations ("seed money").  There would be multiple hummingbird and seed feeders set up and chairs set up under a tent, or in shade. In some places, there were even signs for parking:

    The next set of backyard feeders open to the public was in Sierra Vista.  The first place we stopped was on a large piece of property in Miller's Canyon. This place had a Bed and Breakfast, fruit and vegetable gardens, and poultry.  The owners had a stadium seating set up with 4 benches, and cushioned seating under a large awning. The seating overlooked several hummingbird feeders with each feeder hanging under a small number or letter. We visited 2 backyard feeding stations in Sierra Vista.

    One yard opened for public viewing was a home/Bed and Breakfast. In addition to the store bought bird feeders were several small feeders made from every day household items. This was also a great place for photographing the customers.

    Male and Female Black-headed Grosbeaks

    Bullocks Oriole enjoying grape jelly from a can. Note the oranges nailed to the tree.

    Female Black-headed Grosbeak (left) and Scott's Oriole.

    Pine Siskin.

    Bewick's Wren.

    I'm curious if this is the only area in the States with the practice of private residents opening their yard to the public.  I've bird watched in Alaska, Florida, South Texas, West Texas and I've never seen anything like this.  Even a non-birdwatching person would find it relaxing to watch the bird activity and observe the beauty of the yard.

    Tuesday, May 7, 2013

    Birdwatching in Arizona, Part 2: It's raining caterpillars.

    We made a stop in the San Pedro Riparian Area one morning. It was an oasis in the desert, and, I recently learned, a beautiful place in danger of being developed. The habitat outside the river was grassland/scrubland but the area immediately surrounding the water was lush with trees and large bushes. It was so pretty. We decided to hang out by the water for awhile to bird watch and gaze at  the water. It was while we walked along the bank that I noticed the tent caterpillars, LOTS of them. The longer we walked, the more caterpillars we noticed. They were EVERYWHERE. On the ground, tree trunks, in shrubs and yes, falling from the sky (well from tree branches).

    While walking, I noticed tiny dark brown specks on the ground. Initially I thought the specks were just part of the composition of the soil, but when we sat down, I discovered the flecks were actually caterpillar frass (frass is a fancy word for poop). The frass was almost as abundant as the caterpillars. When we sat down, the caterpillars commenced crawling on our legs, hands and my backpack. Later in the day Trillium found a caterpillar in her pants.

    It was hard to find a place to sit with all the frass laying around.

     You never know what else you're going to find while bird watching.

    Sunday, May 5, 2013

    Birdwatching in Arizona, Part One: Airports and Airplanes

    Trillium and I took a birdwatching trip last week to southeast Arizona. I keep a journal while on vacation, and this is the first entry of a handful of installments for the blog. I'm not going verbatim from my entries, rather I'm paraphrasing, summarizing, and highlighting the good parts.

    Travel day is usually a long one and it's a day where I usually have some sort of mini-adventure or encounter with an odd person.  My adventure began on the departing flight from my home city. For the first time in years, I actually had a good seat. I was in row 16 instead of the usual row 29 or 30 in the back of the plane. When I arrived to my designated chair, there was a man sitting in my spot. I immediately knew, but to be polite, I made a point of looking at my boarding pass to see if he would take the hint. When I told him he was sitting in my seat, he stared at me blankly, almost as if he was willing me to disappear. Apparently subtlety was not the way to go with this guy. When I told him my seat was 16D and he was sitting in it, he grumbled he wanted the aisle seat before moving to the center spot. Too bad. I've done my time sitting in bad seats and was not willing to sacrifice the aisle seat to someone who was purposely sitting in the wrong chair. I snuck a peak when he pulled his boarding pass out and found he was supposed to be sitting in 17E, the middle seat in the row behind us. Lots of nerve there pal. Cheater seat guy was also a seat space hog. His arms and legs extended beyond his allotted space so that he was crowding both me and the guy sitting next to the window.

    Not long after takeoff, the man sitting in front of me leaned his chair back, giving me that hemmed in feeling. Between cheater seat guy and the lean back man, I felt like Elaine from Seinfeld where she was trapped in the crowded, broken down subway. Like her, I was inwardly screaming "Move. MOVE!!!" The lady sitting across from me repeatedly made the sign of the cross during take off and landing, and even a few times during the flight. I understand she was nervous, and found comfort in prayer. I silently pray in public from time to time too, and while I do not judge anyone who prays out loud, I thought she went overboard with the nonstop cross signing. How much of that was sincere prayer, and how much of that was for attention?

    My destination was the Dallas-Fort Worth airport. I've been in that airport a few times and always groan because it is such a big airport. I exited from gate C2 and had to walk clear down to gate C28 for my connecting flight to Tucson. I sped walked down to gate C12, passed the trams that led to other gates, down a flight of stairs and had to thread my way through a crowd to C28. While walking, I noticed there was a Starbucks at least every 5 - 7 gates. Seriously. Not sure how wise it was of the DFW airport to allow that many Starbucks in the terminals, especially with the air traffic control furloughs (now since resolved) and the resulting delays. I can't imagine those delays are pleasant for the airplane personnel, who are in an enclosed space with a bunch of impatient, hyper-caffeinated passengers. But I digress.

    The other interesting scene in the DFW airport was of a disabled passenger golf cart driving through the crowd that came to a stop. I overheard the driver tell a woman on the cart that he was going to drop her off at her gate (I'm guessing she tried to jump off while he was moving). She had the nerve to tell him he was driving too slow. The cart had DISABLED ONLY in large blue letters all over the cart. She was the youngest person on that cart and she certainly did not look handicapped. Maybe there was more to that story, but her audacity to criticize certainly surprised me.

    I met up with Trillium at gate C28 and we sat across the aisle from each other during the flight to Tucson. We landed without incident and began our birdwatching adventures.

    To be continued...