Monday, May 18, 2015

In, on, and around the house

In the corner of my study a big very handsome Cellar Spider has been living for the past two or three years. She seems to feed quite well on spiders that wander into the house. She can catch spiders much bigger than she is by wrapping them up carefully at arm's length, which in her case is a good safe distance away.


 Lately she had been growing quite fat, which indicated she was filling up with eggs.


The local males had noticed this as well. Last week when I looked into her web, at least four hopeful males were hanging around in it. They were nervous around this spider hunter, and probably with good reason. You will understand why, when I explain some of the intricacies of spider mating. First note the male's heavy equipment on the palps on either side of his face. These carry intricate vessels that the male fills with semen when he is approaching a female.


Now here is the female from underneath.


The dark slit near the base of her abdomen has in its center the epigynum, into which the male (the female's deadly fangs hanging over his head) must pump the semen he holds in his palps. This risky maneuver is preceded by a great deal of stroking from the tip ends of his own very long legs, while he unfurls his apparatus and tries to judge her mood.



 Suddenly he dives in, does his job in less than a second, and dives away as fast as he can.



He was successful. In about a week she was cradling her new eggs.



About the same time the eggs appeared, Cheryl and I were outside and noticed what at first looked like a small ant walking along on the lid of our garbage can. But when we looked more closely, we saw it was a kind of jumping spider (Synemosyna formica) which mimics ants (no one knows exactly why, but perhaps it's because ants are known to be full of formic acid and therefore not very tasty to predators). This one walked along on six legs with an ant-like gait, and since, being a spider, it had eight legs, and no antennae, to complete its mask it carried its second pair of legs in the air and waved them like antennae.

 
On top of the lid near it was an ant just the size and color of the spider and so similar in appearance we decided this was the model the spider was imitating.



(This ant apparently led a warrior life; note the decapitated head of another ant which still has its jaws locked on this ant's antennae.)

From there we walked around the corner of the house not twenty feet and saw a completely unrelated spider (Two-banded Antmimic, Castianeira cingulata) which appeared to be imitating the same ant (only this time waving its first pair of legs like antennae).




And a few minutes later we had another nice observation. I went to check a chrysalis that was hanging on the back wall of my study, and a Question Mark butterfly had eclosed. It was so fresh it still had a number of delicate tints on its wings that would soon wear off.


Not a bad day, and we had scarcely stepped outside the house.



Friday, May 8, 2015

Anelosimus studiosus

Last summer I noticed a messy scraggly spider web in some holly bushes down at the end of our driveway. It was three-dimensional, like a sock that had been pulled over the end of the branch, with a hollow space inside where the owner of the web could live.



I peered through the webwork to see if there was anything living inside. Finally I spotted a tiny spider (ca 3 mm.) and took a picture of it. With the picture downloaded I saw what I would not have seen with my bare eyes. The tiny spider was accompanied by a baby spider.


The tiny spider looked so much like a spider common in the garden (though not in such a big complicated nest) that I didn't pay much more attention to it. But in the middle of winter when things were quiet I was looking through pictures I had taken during the summer and studied this one more carefully and realized it was something new for the yard. According to my books, it was Anelosimus studiosus. So I changed the name on the caption, and was pleased to have a new species.

More time went by, then as I was reading a new book a friend had recommended to me, Biology of Spiders by Rainer F. Foelix (which says something about the kind of friends I have), I learned something amazing about this species. Now, as everyone knows, spiders are solitaries. They live separate from each other, and if they meet they fight to the death. Even during the times they have to come together for mating, the (usually smaller) males come with fear and trembling, and run for it afterwards as soon as they can. Well, it turns out that, of 40,000 named species of spiders in the world, only 31 species are considered to be "social," which is scarcely even enough to prove the rule. Anelosimus is one of them.

To call an insect or spider social in the technical sense, it's not enough that they live together without killing each other. For example, a number of kinds of spiders do live together, even sharing webs, peacefully, in sort of what might be called colonies, but that is not enough. You need to cooperate in keeping up the web, in helping the others kill food which is larger than any one of you could catch alone, you need to help with feeding the young, and you must be ready to give your life defending the nest.

All species of ants and termites are social in this strict sense. A handful of species of wasps and bees are social in the strict sense (thousands of species of bees and wasps are solitary). We are familiar with these social insects, but just the idea of social spiders seems amazing. We know something about bee and wasp hives and termite mounds, but how do spider societies operate?

I feel like I missed an opportunity to study these spiders last summer, because I did not realize they were something special. This summer I am going to make an effort to learn something about them.

I started this spring by searching our yard, and finding half a dozen nests. All the ones that were there last summer are still there, and are still being kept up. But I have found a particularly large nest in the backyard, and I am going to try to keep it under close observation. It won't be easy. The spiders are so tiny it is hard just to see them, let alone make sense of their behavior. The inside of their sock-like web is so full of sticks, dried flower stalks, dead insects, and other debris they can easily conceal themselves in it. Any photography I do is through the web, which obscures things. Also to photograph such tiny things I can get very little depth-of-field, so, when there are several spiders together its hard to get more than one or two in focus at a time, making the rest ghost-like out-of-focus apparitions. But I will try my best, and report my findings here.

Here are a few early attempts at photography (I hope I will improve).





This larger nest has at least six spiders living in it (I have seen that many at one time). All of them seem about half grown. I will be interested in seeing them work together to attack large prey that gets tangled in their communal web, and especially interested in seeing them feed their young. This varies among different species, from catching prey and letting the babies come together to feed on it, to regurgitating food into the babies' mouths, to, in the most extreme case, the mother slowly digesting her inner parts and offering them to the babies until nothing is left of her.

Their patterns are different enough from each other that I might be able to make a chart of how many different individuals there are in the nest by comparing the photographs, and then perhaps I can know which ones I am  looking at so that I can see if they differ in behavior. Termites and ants have carried sociality up a notch by evolving a caste system. There are huge muscular soldiers, medium sized workers, smaller minims to feed and raise the children. With the spiders in this group (there are other species of Anelosimus plus some near relations) individual spiders tend to be bold, and others timid. You don't see any difference in appearance, but the bolder ones (which biologists are now calling "warriors") are first to to come forward to capture prey, or try to drive off predators or parasites, and the more timid (called "nannies"), tend to stay behind and care for the young. I think it would be fascinating to actually observe that.

I already feel like George Schaller studying his lions or gorillas.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Ahimsa (up to a point)

Ahimsa, a Sanskrit word ('noninjury') for the Buddhist doctrine of avoiding harm to any living being.  In the year we spent in Thailand where I was an exchange teacher we often visited Buddhist monasteries because the grounds were, by default, wildlife sanctuaries. We could see even from a distance, driving up to them, trees filled with stork nests or sleeping giant fruit bats. But even devout Buddhists had to face certain practicalities. As, for example, when microscopes were invented, and people learned for the first time that the water they drank was filled with microscopic living creatures. They had to wonder: When I take a gulp, am I destroying millions of living things? They sensibly decided they were only responsible for things they could actually see.

Ahimsa: Reverence for Life. It's an important doctrine for us, too, in our sort of secular Buddhism, but we also have had to face practicalities. I don't remember if it was The Shadow or some other of the crime fighters I listened to on radio when I was a kid, whose motto was: 'Friend to those who have no friends, Enemy to those who make him one.' I have added that motto as a footnote to my use of the word Ahimsa. It gets us past chiggers and ticks and mosquitoes and fleas. Well, add yellowjackets and the big red paper wasps, whose nests I don't allow in the yard since they tend to attack us. But otherwise we are tolerant of the arthropods that live in our neighborhood, in fact we do all that we can to attract them to us.

What about mammals? Well, we love mammals too. When, some forty years ago, we moved into our little house out in the country, we thought our place had it all: it was on an acre of land, a dirt road in front, fifteen or twenty healthy oak trees about forty years old, railroad tracks across the street perfect for elevated walks for miles through fields and swamps, and across the tracks a twenty-or-so acre untouched woods also forty years old (the deed to the house showed us the area had been clearcut forty years ago). Lots of mammals were present. Coyotes denned in the row-crop fields behind our house, and when the trains sounded their whistles, the coyotes howled in return. Voles and shrews had tunnels under the leaf-litter, cottontails were numerous in the yard and chewed up the saplings I was planting all over, but a wire cage around each shoot solved that problem. Beautiful fox squirrels came over from the woods to share sunflower seeds with the birds at our feeders. When we moved in, our house was not very rodent proof and in our first winter house mice invaded in droves. We could hear them in the attic chewing the insulation on our electric wiring. That made them an ENEMY. I set out snap traps and caught them by the dozen, and we sealed up the house better.

Raccoons and opossums were common. We always had one or more cats which wandered in and adopted us. We fed them on the front porch, and sometimes at night if we turned on the porch light we would see them sitting out there with a raccoon sitting comfortably next to them. The raccoons had one bad habit though. We hung plastic cages of suet blocks up in our trees for the birds, but sometimes in the morning we would find them missing, and if we walked across the street looking for them we eventually would spot the cage hanging thirty feet up in the raccoons' den tree. We forgave them though, because sometimes the mother would bring her troop of babies into the yard and they were so comical to watch, invariably one still pottering around in the yard when the rest had left, then the mother coming back irritatedly to fetch it.

But we had our closest relationship with the opossums.


There were openings under the house to give access to the crawl space, and in our first winter an opossum moved in. One day I looked out the back window and saw him do something astonishing: He gathered together a big pile of fallen oak leaves, then wrapped his prehensile tail around them and carried the whole stack under the house. He built his nest right under the bathtub, and when we sat in the tub (which no doubt spread some of its warmth underneath it), we could hear the opossum, inches away, scratching contentedly, then beginning to snore.

But in the spring when I crawled under the house to see how things were I discovered that he had pulled most of the insulation off of our heating and cooling ducts, finding that to work better than dried leaves. He became ENEMY number two, and when he met the fate of most of his kind and was run over on the road out front, I put wire grills over all the openings.

There were other adventures, but let me come forward to last winter. On a number of occasions we began getting fairly strong whiffs of skunk, on our porch, or in the backyard. And then one night we heard scratching around under the living room floor, and realized it had moved in with us. When I looked out back the next morning, I saw where it had pulled one of the screens out a little ways then tunneled underneath it.

At first I thought, if it behaved itself maybe we could co-exist. Lately we had replaced our old heating and air-conditioning system, and now the ducts were up in the attic and the vents were in the ceiling. But the old heating and cooling floor vents still remained, though we had blown them full of insulation to block them.

Well, one day I noticed a funny smell in the living room, but couldn't work out where it was coming from. Then it got stronger. We thought maybe a mouse had come into the house, and the cat (an indoor cat) had killed it and left it under the couch. We searched every inch but found nothing. Finally we traced the smell to the heating vent. It was coming from the skunk's nest, and no matter how much insulation we stuffed in the vent, we couldn't stop it. It wasn't the skunk's defensive smell; it hadn't had an encounter with some other animal under the house. That would have been really bad. No, this was just the smell of a skunk at home, and, we learned to our surprise, they are very smelly animals.

ENEMY number three. Now you might think I could wait for it to go outside, then seal up the openings airtight. The problem is, this was mid winter, freezing temperature outside. That skunk was for the most part sitting tight. There might even have been enough mice down there to keep him going. Perhaps he only went out once every couple of weeks. So how would I know when he was out? You'll say, that's easy, put some flour out and check the opening (several times a night?) for tracks leading out, with no sign of tracks leading back in. I even tried that, but after a couple of days the flour gets rain or dust on it, and you can no longer read tracks on it.

Cheryl went on line and found a local person who removed skunks. He charged quite a bit of money for the service, and besides, he had moved to Little Rock. But very decently, he left a detailed description of his technique, so we could remove the skunk ourselves. First of all, you got a big live trap. The ones for squirrels weren't big enough. You need one at least Raccoon size. You set it outside the opening baited with marshmallows, which of course no skunk can resist. Now you might think the skunk would respond with sudden anger to being entrapped, but the expert swore it wouldn't, but would be waiting patiently in the trap when you got up in the morning. The trick was, not to sneak up on the skunk and startle it. But to approach it from a little distance in plain sight, and approach "unthreateningly," that being the secret. And then, very unthreateningly, stick the skunk and the trap in the back of your car. Now when I lift up the back lid of our small SUV, it leads straight into the car, so I would be putting the skunk in right behind me. And then just drive unthreateningly, I guess, until you are at least ten miles away, as they have a good sense of geography, sort of Lassies of the mustelid world.

I saw a lot of drawbacks. The live trap sounded expensive. The detail cleaners might have charged a lot in case of an unprecedented accident.

In the end I went to Lowe's garden section and bought a few cinder blocks and flat cement slabs, nineteen dollars worth, and a dollar-fifty bag of marshmallows. We had heard the skunk moving around and thought this might be an activity period in the midst of its semi-hibernation. I put the bag of marshmallows outside the opening by our bedroom. I closed up all the other openings with the blocks and slabs so that a wolverine couldn't have scratched its way in. Then I closed up the opening near our room except for one skunk-sized gap (but I had a slab next to it that I could use to seal it in one second). I took a thin sheet of plywood and leaned it up against that opening.

As soon as it was dark, I took up my station in the darkened bedroom, straining my eyes out the window to see if the plywood had been pushed out. The first night I watched until I had to go to bed, and even then, got up several times during the night to check. Nothing. The next night looked like a repeat, so I yielded to temptation and went out to the living room to sit with Cheryl and watch a crime thriller on Netflix. The nest was under the living room and we heard the skunk stirring. I raced out to the bedroom window and looked, and the plywood had been pushed outward. I raced out and sealed everything up and came back to the living room panting. Maybe it had just peeked out and immediately gone back in. But maybe it had stayed out long enough for me to have caught it out. We waited a couple of nights and didn't hear anything. The third day I went outside and thought I could smell his personal B.O. on the porch. I followed the scent and it made a complete circle of the house, pausing especially by each opening under the house, as if looking for a way to get back in. The problem is, its smell seemed able to drift through the walls, so maybe what I was smelling was the skunk trapped inside the house, going around looking for an exit.

A week later there was a two-inch snowfall, and there were its tracks, very distinctive with their long nails, and it indeed circled the outside looking into every former opening for a way to get in. We kept the openings blocked all the rest of the winter, crossing our fingers that we wouldn't hear it stirring in its bed. In the spring we took out the blocks and just had the screens.

It was gone. It was gone!

But the house went right on stinking. It wasn't so bad, and sometimes it was almost gone, but when temperature or humidity were right, the smell would hang in the front room like a ghost, a presence that we couldn't quite see.

This past winter had been skunk free, the lingering odor fainter and fainter. So we were suddenly alarmed to get a strong skunk smell outside, the defensive smell, but just a brief burst, like it met up with an only slightly threatening animal, or even, who knows? had a touch of incontinence. Then a few nights later we were watching our crime program in the front room when we thought we heard a scratching around from under the floor vent, and I groaned thinking, How could I have let down my guard?

It was a bitterly cold night, just when a skunk might have been seeking a winter retreat. I went out the next morning and searched around. By great good fortune we had had frozen pipes earlier, so I had put big boards over the openings, to protect the pipes from the cold, and that had made the openings as secure as the big cement blocks would have been. When I checked, they were all in place, and it seemed to me there was no possible way the skunk could have gotten in.

Here is a picture of the screened opening, vulnerable to being dug under or pushed aside, and here it is with wood in front of it to protect the water pipes from cold.


We had heard the scratching under the floor, but I told myself it might just have been a mouse. Still, I caught myself waking up in the middle of the night and listening for sounds coming from under the house. Again the snow rescued us. We had had a few inches of soft powdery snow a week earlier, and most of it was still on the ground. There was another minor confrontation and a suffocating defensive burst outside the bedroom window. In the morning I had tracks to follow.

The skunk had walked all the way around the outside of the house. I could see the four feet of its funny loping walk.


And then I got perhaps some insight into its nervous squirts. Another predator was on the scene, our neighbor's burly tomcat had been striding through our back yard. I could see its bipedal track (cat's place their hind feet exactly in the track of their front feet). Right outside our bedroom window, the two sets of tracks crossed.



The best thing I discovered was out in the front yard where I saw a regular highway of tracks leading back and forth from a big outbuilding on our next door neighbor's lot. The building was half empty and they would probably never know the skunk was there. At any rate, the skunk was our neighbor's problem now, and we eased back into our love for all living things.


















Thursday, February 26, 2015

One more thing.

Here's another way I've been spending the dreary cold days.

For the past several years Cheryl and I have been cataloging the insects and spiders of Crowley's Ridge, the anomalous small range of hills which runs by our house in the northeast corner of Arkansas. We have kept photographic records for the Ridge, and of course as we have traveled to other parts of the state we have been taking pictures of everything we saw, since that is our pleasure. But I have been putting specifically the Crowley's Ridge photos on Picasa Web albums (The Butterflies of Crowley's Ridge, the Dragonflies of Crowley's Ridge, etc.) and arranging them as photographic field guides, hoping they might be useful to people learning Arkansas insects.

Well it occurs to me that by now we have taken images of most of the butterflies in the state as a whole. The major ones I am missing are the irruptives that every few years come just across the Texas border into the Lake Millwood area. They are all common Texas species that we know quite well from traveling there, and it didn't seem worth it for us to drive all the way to Lake Millwood just to say we have seen them in Arkansas. We have images of these species that we have taken in Texas, so I decided I could just add them in and make a new set of albums, and call them "Butterflies of Arkansas." We have about 130 species, which is as many species as anyone is likely to see in the state. We are missing nine species that are considered to be regularly occurring, though very rare (we'll make it a goal this summer to look for them, and that will get us out in some parts of the state we are not very familiar with).

So what I am saying is, I have been passing a few days in my study splicing pictures together and creating this new collection of field guides, THE BUTTERFLIES OF ARKANSAS, which I have put on five albums and I am just this moment making them public. Here they are, in case you might be interested.
 

Butterflies of Arkansas (I): Swallowtails and Whites and Yellows

https://picasaweb.google.com/105943400667867775182/Crowleysridgeswallowtails?noredirect=1#




Butterflies of Arkansas (II): Gossamerwings and Metalmarks

https://picasaweb.google.com/105943400667867775182/ButterfliesOfArkansasIIGossamerwingsAndMetalmarks#







Butterflies of Arkansas (III): Nymphalids

https://picasaweb.google.com/105943400667867775182/ButterfliesOfArkansasIIINymphalids





Butterflies of Arkansas (IV): Spreadwing Skippers

https://picasaweb.google.com/105943400667867775182/ButterfliesOfArkansasIVSpreadwingSkippers#




 Butterflies of Arkansas (V): Grass Skippers





















Sunday, February 22, 2015

Well, something else to do in the winter.



In my last blog I stated with casual certainty that winter was now over. It's pretty clear I offended the weather gods.

So I'm back to figuring out things to do when the weather is so bad its not worth going out of the house. I'm back to trying to take pictures of birds. I think as a modest endeavor I would like to do portraits of the common birds in our garden. This is hardly photography of the kind where you set up a hide in an area rich with exotic birds, leave it up for a few days for the birds to get used to, then go before daylight accompanied by a friend who, after you crawl into the cramped and uncomfortable and bitterly cold hide will walk away so that birds (so long as they aren't ravens), being unable to count, will see someone leaving and think the coast is clear. That's how my heroes did it when I was growing up.

No, I'm of the new school who sits at my dining room window with a cup of coffee and my digital camera lying on the table in front of me, and when a bird comes by I start clicking pictures of it through the double-panes.

The first one I see is a female cardinal. They can be just as attractive as the males in their quieter and more tasteful way. But this one is kind of blowsy, letting it all hang out. I decide it's a throwaway.


The next one is a blue jay, which poses nicely, sort of like a dog stretching out in front, an invitation to play.


But the picture is too dark. Those blues on the wings and tail should be brilliant, the colors on the back rich shades of purple. I don't know anything about the technical aspects of photography, but I believe the problem is this: The camera is exposing the picture for the brilliant white of the snow, but that leaves the dark bird underexposed. So I use my adjustment button and move it towards overexposure, and that brings out more accurate (or at least, prettier) colors on the bird. While I am at it, I dodge out most of the seeds lying around, which give away the fact that these are bird-feeder shots, kind of cheating. The snow now makes a nice uncluttered background.


That's better, I think. But I see I still have to take out that silly black streak above the bird's head. And since I am fiddling with it again, I can't resist pushing the exposure even further. Here's where I end up:


Now parts of the bird are overexposed. I can no longer, for instance, see the white undertail coverts against the snow. But lots more detail has come out around the eyes, and the blue spots on the wings and tail have come up even more. The general color of the bird is truer, I believe.

But I'm thinking, bird photography is a mug's game. There are so many brilliant bird photographers around now that each species has been recorded with every feather barb showing, every scintillance of reflective color, every aspect of behavior, to where there is no point taking another picture of that species.  It seems like there is no opening left to do something new or something better. In this past couple of years when I have been trying to take some bird pictures, I am discovering how many really excellent photographers there are just here in Arkansas, whose most casual snapshots seem to get a brightness and depth and clarity I can't equal. Is it because they have better equipment? ("It's a poor carpenter who blames his tools," Cheryl's father used to say.)

In the midst of these thoughts a very handsome Eastern Towhee jumped up on a tree branch before me. He was jerking his head around, flirting his tail. But staying at the same spot for a few moments. I started clicking pictures of him as fast as I could, hoping to catch him in a good pose. But I was out of synch with him. I would see in the view finder a good head angle, and click a picture of him just as he left that position. I finally made myself stop and I waited. There was the view I wanted: He was looking directly at me with his wild red eye. He stayed just long enough for me to get the picture.

Now I was happy, all my doleful thoughts gone. I was ready to compete with the others now. They might have got the eagles locking talons in mid-air, but they didn't get this common species sitting on this ordinary branch in my front yard.



And anyway, the moment it warms up I'll get back to taking pictures of spiders and insects, where the field still isn't as crowded as bird photography.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Something to do in winter

One gloomy drizzly day after another. And then finally a very cold but at least clear sunny day. That was a week or so ago. It was what we were waiting for: With that good light, maybe we could go look for raptors and try to take some pictures of them. I put the long lens on my camera, we packed the cooler with peanut-butter sandwiches, filled our thermos cups with coffee, and drove southeast from Jonesboro to Wapanocca National Wildlife Refuge, near the Mississippi River.

It was totally empty of people, a big wildlife refuge just for us. Constant flights of geese were going over, white-fronted, snows, Ross's, heading for the lake in the center of the refuge. We headed there too and walked out onto a long fishing pier. There were thousands of ducks out there, almost all mallards (we had read that mallards had a very good breeding year on the prairie potholes this past summer). We must have made them nervous as they quietly moved off to another part of the lake, revealing as they did so the huge raft of geese out in the center of the lake, and stretching the length of the lake. Here were tens of thousands of birds.


Their murmuring and yammering was constant, and then suddenly it went up several decibels and the geese burst into the air like the explosion of an atomic bomb filled with confetti (clearly going beyond my ability to form a metaphor). Maybe I should just settle for saying it was one of the great sights in nature, equal I think to the courtship flights of flamingos in African soda lakes, or the autumn flights of shearwaters along the Pacific coast,  or the blackbirds flying from every point of the compass into multimillion-bird winter roosts.


When the air cleared a bit, we saw the culprits who had caused it, a couple of "white-belly" (second year) bald eagles had flown directly overhead. Here's a not very good snapshot of one of them.


Before we left the pier I happened to look down in the water close to us, still thinly frozen over, and was surprised to see two predacious diving beetles swimming under the ice. There were also a couple of water boatmen (the little bugs that are like backswimmers right-side-up). Don't ask me what they were doing there, but when I got home and read up on it, it turns out it was not unusual behavior, at least for the beetles (Brian Baldwin tells me they have been seen active under a foot of ice).



And when we walked over frozen leaf litter, tiny wolf spiders were racing along ahead of us. Is there no time of year when they are not active?

Now we began driving the levee road down one of the refuge's canals, the sun behind us. Cheryl drove slowly while I sat in the passenger seat, window open, camera pointed down into the canal. The car makes a good blind, and birds pretty much ignore it as long as you keep moving. The moment the car stops and you point that big eye directly at them, they take off. We drove along hoping to find a bird that would remain behind for at least a moment, to give us a chance for some reasonably close shots. We got lucky with some hooded mergansers, birds in equal parts handsome and comical, especially the females with their Marge Simpson hairdos.


There were a few red-shouldered hawks beginning to call, the initial signs of courtship, that premonition that spring was somewhere in the offing. One handsome bird flew out of the woods and landed on a tree over the canal. Cheryl eased to a stop, cut the engine, and the bird, which had been facing us, turned to the side, leaned out, and took off. But by good luck it hung poised just long enough for me to get a desperate snap.



Then gloomy winter closed in again. But we had a feeling its back was broken. The trees were beginning to flower, the bald cypress had their long tassels, bees were finding the first flowers sheltered in among last year's fallen leaves.

Friday, December 5, 2014

2 bird feeders 1500 miles apart

Cheryl and I spent the week over Thanksgiving with our son Gawain and his girlfriend Heather at their home in Tucson. We visited our favorite places, the Desert Museum, Saguaro East, Catalina State Park, Mt. Lemmon, Sweetwater Wetlands, various gardens and so on. At night they wined and dined us with wonderful meals at home and at various of the endless supply of first-class ethnic restaurants. In other words, it was our usual visit.

But at quiet times during the day I sat in the back yard and observed their bird feeders. We had just begun getting our own feeders up and running in Jonesboro, in the NE corner of Arkansas, some 1500 miles (nearly half a continent) away, and I found myself comparing the two. A garden with bird feeders is, after all, a specific kind of habitat with characteristic birds. Our feeders and theirs are, I suppose, in suburban gardens, theirs in the middle of a large but very green city in the southwest, ours on the outer edge of a small city in the mid south. I wasn't comparing them in terms of which was best or had the most species, but in terms of seeing how the fauna changes as you travel east to west. What I noticed was, the birds I saw in Tucson were not very different from ours: Essentially the same birds were present, but each species had shifted over one space.

Some birds were exactly the same. For instance, we had a daily flock of mourning doves, they had a daily flock of mourning doves. Occasionally a small flock of white-crowned sparrows came by both places, but not often, as the vegetation in both our gardens was too tall for their liking.

But, as I say, most of the species had shifted over to the nearest western version. For instance, American goldfinches are a major component of our feeder in Jonesboro. Here in Tucson, it was lesser goldfinches.





Because they are more towards the center of town than we are, they have an invasive introduced species we do not have in our garden, house sparrows.



Since we seldom see them, or look at them when we do see them, I had the novelty here of noticing what handsome little birds the males are. In Britain, where ours come from, they are a part of the natural fauna, and for unknown reasons they (along with starlings) are slowly disappearing. We may one day be in a position to reintroduce them to Britain from our unwanted stocks.

Filling this bird's position back in Jonesboro, we have an invasive introduced species of our own, the house finch. When we moved to Jonesboro in the mid 70's, the very first house finches were appearing in Arkansas. I think we may actually have driven into town once to get a glimpse of one. Now they are numerous. The story we all hear is that a pet shop in New York had brought some out from the west coast to sell as cage birds, and a few had escaped, and from that tiny beginning began spreading west. They have since joined back up with the original west coast birds somewhere in the middle. The house finches in Tucson are not introduced but were there all along, no doubt nesting around the dwellings of the paleo-indians adding color and cheerful songs to their lives. They are the commonest birds at the Tucson feeder, and I fancied these "real" birds looked different from ours in Jonesboro, though I don't know in precisely what way. Something subtle in the color perhaps.



Our brightly colored and patterned eastern towhee was replaced in this garden by Abert's towhee, a bird that ran along the ground like a mouse, staying in the shadows. It's an elegant bird, but like so many birds that are western versions of their eastern counterparts, the colors and patterns are subdued to be more in keeping with desert colors.




A bigger more dramatic bird also racing about mostly in the shadows, the curve-billed thrasher is the desert-colored version of our richly colored and patterned brown thrasher. It would bound up on the feeding table with its muscular body, glare around with its fiery eye, then grasp a peanut and dive back into the tangle of palms and cactus at the back of the yard.



Our noisy red-bellied woodpecker, which comes to suet cakes and (awkwardly) to our hummingbird feeder, is replaced here by the closely related and even more noisy gila woodpecker. The gila sweeps in for a peanut and is gone too quickly to be able to get a decent picture of.



Instead of the ruby-throated hummingbird that comes to our feeder, in Tucson it is the Anna's.



At our home in Jonesboro in winter the tiny tame ruby-crowned kinglet is constantly flitting around the garden searching along every branch or under every leaf for tiny bits of protein. In Tucson filling the same niche was the tiny tame verdin.



And just as at our feeder, in Tucson a heavy presence hangs over the scene. Every time a bird picks up a seed it stops to look all around before looking down for the next seed. At the least movement of a limb, at the sudden shadow of a large bird, all the birds are up with an audible rush of wings. Scarcely a full minute goes by without that rushing sound. The cooper's hawk is a common nesting bird in Tucson (as it is becoming in Jonesboro), and their visits came at least once a day. The birds dive into the thicket, the hawk dives in right behind them, and the success rate is high.


But minutes later the surviving birds are back feeding again. I sometimes think, how can the birds lead a normal life knowing that if they go even ten seconds without looking around they could be violently killed? Why aren't they entirely stressed out? How can they eat, court, feed young birds? But sometimes someone can come up with an analogy which makes these impossible to conceive of questions suddenly comprehensible. My favorite example is the person who said the movement of tectonic plates is making the Atlantic Ocean spread "at the speed that fingernails grow." My wife came up with one of these analogies. When I said, What must it be like to live when you can't ever relax your attention for more than a few seconds? she said, "It would be like driving."

I thought about that, making the long drive back to Jonesboro, snacking, drinking coffee, talking, listening to music, marveling at the scenery, at the same time that multi-thousand pound semis hurtled by us inches away at eighty miles an hour.