Thursday, May 28, 2009

Nest Box Patrol

I have maintained a bluebird and tree swallow nesting box "trail" for the past seven or so years on our property. The power birders call a collection of nesting boxes a "trail," and I really don't know the story behind that. We have nine wooden Peterson style nesting boxes on our property. Two of the boxes are paired, meaning they are installed right next to each other or are back to back. Five of the boxes are solo. Thus there are seven nesting locations across our property. Nesting locations are spaced at least 100 feet away from each other on fence posts, a tree and a building.

I put up the Bluebird boxes because this species has been in decline across the U.S. due mostly to aggressive nest site competition from non-native Starlings and European house sparrows. The loss of grassland habitat also is a contributing factor to their population drop as well. These birds are gorgeous blue and they have the softest most gentle call of all the birds in our area. I love watching them fly around all year round, so more bluebirds are always better.

Today Ella and I did a nesting box patrol to see what's happening in the bird condos we installed this winter. Bird box construction was fun and you could check out HERE (Revenge of the Bluebird Boxes) if you care for the details.

This box was the subject to the fight by the tree swallows as described and pictured HERE (Love is in the Air). Now some serious business is underway with nesting material being incorporated into the box. Those are turkey feathers lining the grass nest.

I had to replace this box during winter due to the ravages of a horse named Gemma and I am so glad that a pair of tree swallows claimed it early on after they arrived back to our property this spring.

Here's mama tree swallow freaked out about a huge camera lens being stuffed into her nest. She says, "If I lay flat that thing WILL go away." She is right of course.

Here is my star bluebird nesting location. The two blue birds who claimed this nest box can be seen HERE (Battle of the Titans) as they conquered the swallows attaining world domination.

And the fruits of their labor have arrived! These are the first baby bluebirds this year! Hurray!! I freely admit they are a ugly little pile of gray feathers, but just wait and see. I will keep documenting their growth.

Then I noticed during the past week that a new pair of bluebirds were hanging around this unclaimed condo. Ella really wanted to get in there and take a peek.

So I helped her out and we looked at these huge blue eggs. They were very large by bluebird standards. Normally, they lay between three and five so I will check back in a few days to see if more eggs magically appear.

And finally, there was a nest box I installed on the side of my barn as an experiment. Normally bluebirds don't claim boxes on buildings, but someone made a beautiful nest of horse hair and laid four eggs. However, no one is around any more taking care of them.

Until next time, that's all from the nest box report!

UPDATE: There are now four eggs in the nest with the gigantic sized bluebirds eggs, just like clockwork! I bet one more will show up tomorrow, then it's time to start counting days until hatching.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

"Meow"-The Cat's Post

I have been feeling mostly random the last few days and equally as scattered with family, projects, and paying work occupying my time.

Subsequently, I have been doing weird stuff. Imagine if you will, me driving my truck down the road, radio off.... As I stare mindlessly down the the pavement, I reach to turn the volume lower, since some how I subliminally think I can reduce the sound of my diesel engine this way. My mind is in a flutter or a bluster or scattered.

So on that note, I decided to let the cats have a day to officially introduce themselves. The felines are always in the background here and sometimes unappreciated. Cats are focused, routine oriented, and orderly. These are qualities I need to absorb for next week and I hope they will rub off on me.

So, with no further adieu....

Lucky: 1 year old, 8 lbs, male.

Hi folks, I am Lucky kitty. I have been a somewhat regular staple on the tall lady's blog. You may recall some stories about me such as Two Dead Cats, Why Me, "How To," and News From the Farm. The humans here like me since I tolerate rough handling by the kids and follow everybody around like a little dog. I can't help it. I am a jolly little cat. I guess being colored black and named Lucky by the humans has been a positive thing for me. And if you are ever wondering what that smell is, I will admit to nothing... Well maybe my Pop was a skunk, but I will never tell the humans. I am sneaky that way.

Jimmy: 7 years old, 11 lbs, male.

The humans who I live with call me Jimmy-jam or Jammer for some reason. It may be that I run everywhere. Funny how the only pictures they have of me is sleeping, but it is what cats do well.

I think it is a good thing that I am cream colored, or the tall lady would have stepped on me at night many-a-time when she went out to the barn in total darkness. I think I have scared the bejesus out of her on a couple occasions with my mad dashes through the blackened night.

But I do like to lounge around on furniture. I think it is chiropractic.

When Ella was a baby I used to stalk her and rub my head all over her face and neck. She was not too hard to find back then, since she did not move very far. I am not sure she liked being coated in cat hair, but I did not care. I like to show love. Lots of love. Actually, I overheard the tall lady say I am a "slut-cat," whatever that means.

On special occasions, like when it is pouring rain outside, I will even get close to the black dotted, big one, called Shmobie. He used to hiss violently at me when I first arrived. Age has settled him though. We have been pals for about six or seven years now. I am thankful since he can really whoop some ass.

Shmobie: 8 years old, 19 lbs, male.

My name is Cosmo actually, but the tall lady calls me Shmobie or just Shmo (pronounced Shh-mow really fast emphasizing the mow part). This name change happened soon after she took me from the caged place.

The loud man always picks me up and stretches me in this preposterous manner. It is very embarrassing. I think the loud man likes to pretend I am a show cat. He make believes that he is displaying my large size body to the world. And by "large" I mean tall and strong since I am a lean mean cat machine. Regardless of my personal stature, humans are definitely strange.

I am a very big cat and I boss everybody around on this property. Last week, the tall lady was yelling at me about this, since she said I was good for nothing. All this ranting was because I could not handle a raccoon, but managed to chase all the other cats away. I was all, "Lady!! It was a F-ing RACCOON! That sucker could tear me up." But she did not seem to care.

Harley: 14 years old, 11 lbs, female.

This is the olde dame here. I have made it through five moves with the humans and have outlasted three other cats that once were in our cattery. And unlike Shmo, back in my day, I chased raccoons away, swatting them with my little paws of terror, as they ran from the humans dwelling.

But now days, my strategy is simple. I stay close to the house. Preferably on the humans bed. I especially like to sleep on the loud man's pillow. It is payback for all the years of his noise. My motto is "If trouble comes, hide under the bed." I really don't like the little humans.

I would like to reveal that the loud man said upon petting me for the first time 12 long years ago, "This cat is so soft we should make her into a slipper when she dies." You see, this is another reason I coat his pillow in my fur. Revenge is fluffy, itchy, and bitchy.

Vapor: 1.5 years old, 7 lbs, female.

I am Vapor. While, I really don't belong to the tall lady, she is the first human who noticed me sneaking around her house. I was so scared that I would not show myself for many days after I found the free food on the tall lady's deck. But seeing as there were many hiding places around these humans nests, I stayed. The tall lady would catch glimpses of me dashing off her deck late at night and all she could see was a soft grey blur of fur. I guess that is why she named me Vapor. I was kind of like a mist that would come and go in the night time.

But gradually I became used to the humans and let them pet me. The tall lady likes me since I have dainty little feet. She does not like long haired cats as a rule, but said I was an exception since I was delicate and had a cute face.

The short lady, the mom to the other family on the property, is my personal human. I like to mew politely through the window at her until she pets me. I still don't like going in the house. Maybe it is a good thing since I over heard the quiet man, the short ladies husband, once threaten, "I'll shoot any cat I find in the house..." So I pretty much sleep in the old garage.

Since I am the last cat to speak, I will say on behalf of the others that we love living on this crazy land even though strange things happen all the time. These humans are a busy bunch of animals. But because they feed us we accept their eccentricities. For the most part we have it pretty good around here.

Bye for now from all of us cats!!

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Hi Ho, Hi Ho, It's Off To Work I Go

My phone rang a few weeks ago and I could hear the sound of money jingling in the background as one of the companies with whom I work was requesting my services for botanical surveys. Finally. It has been months since I have worked in my trained field of botany. Three days of field work was more like a vacation for me.

After a long drive into south eastern California, we reached our destination in the northwestern portion of the Mojave Desert. I was back in "search and record" mode as easily as I breath. Head down, eyes to the ground I moved across this new area scanning the flora and taking notes.

For this assignment, I was anticipating three long grueling days in desert temperatures, but was surprised by mild and windy days. The strength of the breeze became annoying at the end of the eight hours, ripping maps, wearing skin to near raw, and sucking the moisture from my lungs. The wind's ceaseless nagging wore me down in a different, but no less tiring way than sweltering heat.

The spiked and naked mountains jutting up from the brown earth were disturbing at first. I am not used to seeing such a xerophytic landscape and the lack of trees made me uncomfortable. But after a day of absorbing the views and acclimating to the habitat change, I started to appreciate the beauty in the rocky details and the bare slopes, as they reavealed exacting details of the mountains. There were no soft edges or fuzzy boarders, just well defined lines demarked by rocks and ridgelines. As I passed crumbling cliff faces who's shards of rock were gradually creeping down slope, I realized these pieces of earth would be there long after I was gone.

As a botanist my job is to record all the plants which I encounter, and "key" those which I don't know by sight. Identifying unfamiliar plants requires the use of books with dichotomous keys and inspection of flowers, stems and general life form of the specimen in hand. This is the stuff that I love to do, I guess I am sick like that.

So with a heightened alert I proceeded to investigate these strange lands and search for plants that I knew, scribling their names on my notepad. Unfortunately, there were a plethora of common weeds which have become naturalized in our state. They are the usual suspects like bromes and filarees, which in laymens terms are non-native grasses and broadleaves.

Then there were the ubiquitous shrubs I encountered across the arid habitat, and they consisted of species with which I was not familiar. I internalized their differences during the first two days of survey so I could distinguish one greenish-grey shrub from another within the rabbit brush scrub habitat.

On the last day of work, a slope which had been previously burned in a wild fire years ago stretched before me. At the top of the survey area a patch of green still remained, escaping the flames for some reason. The subtle change in it's aspect and slope, or by some random chance, this pocket was alive with green vegetation showing me what the habitat was like before the fire. In survey areas, I always investigate carefully those areas which are different than the others. It is most often they have the most information for me and hold plant species which are rare or special-status.

Hiking up the steep slope to my little patch of greenery, my lungs filled with dry air and my leg muscles began to feel a burn. One step followed the next, again and again, foot fall after foot fall, until I reached the top of the slope. Like a determined mountain goat, I climbed the hill side to gain access to the plants that remained alive. Amazingly, some of the few dozen shrubs that remained had flowers which I could use to identify their species.

There were six shrubs that I repeatedly saw in my survey areas, which I identified to the genus and species level after working through my references. From 20 feet away, each of these shrubs could be mistaken for one another due to the similarity in their shape, leaf arrangement, colors and size. So I concluded that evolution created one basic growth form for shrubby vegetation in southeastern California (or other airid areas).

Grey-green, round shaped, about three to four feet tall and possessing various armature is the only shrubby growth form which can survive the upper Mojave conditions. And, I am certain I am the one millionth ecologist to come up with this revelation. As I became accustomed to seeing the differences in the shrubs, they became more distinct from a far, but again this is only due to the fact I am a plant geek.

I especially liked the tiny leaves and pointed stems on this little beauty below.

Critters were sparse, but side blotch lizards were fairly common and I saw my first antelope ground squirrels on day two.

THEY are adorable, spastic, rodents! I stalked these little guys around for a little while trying to get a photo, but had to resort to borrowing one off the Internet. That these rodents are capable of hacking out a living in such a rough environment is a testament to adaptability and survival skills! If only I was as tough.

So that pretty much sums up my latest adventure at work. Bye for now!!!

Monday, May 11, 2009

Love is in The Air

Remember Mr. Bluebird? He and his wife staked out this nest box on our property a few months ago...

I have been monitoring the boxes closely for the last few weeks. Last week I noticed the first egg in the box. And each day after there was one more shiny blue egg inside the nest! There are now a total of five eggs in there. Yeah!!!! These two parents to be were flighty and I could not get such good pics of them together.

Then I moved to another nest box location on our property and saw that the horses needed a glamor shot too. Here's Gemma, she turned five in March. I measured her yesterday for fun. She is a touch under 17 hands. That's huge by the way. A hand is 4 inches so you can do the math cause I can't in my head. What's math??

Then Sharpie and Max were alert and looking for their cameo. Max just came home from vacation at a friends place for the winter. He is the one on the left. I call him Sharpies "Mini-Me." He is a little guy, only 14.3 hands tall, and turned 6 on May 5th. Old man Sharpie turned 13 in March.

But back to business with the love birds here...

These are tree swallows swarming to take this nest box. There were five little bombers swooping and diving at each other over this box site.

But this pair were the apparent victors for the moment.

Mr. Swallow says, "Yo babe, you're kinda cute.... Uhhhhhhh.... Wanna shack up?

Mrs. Swallow says, "Well let me think about it."

Mrs Swallow states, "First I need to check out these here accommodations!"

The birds took off in a wild free for all after I stood up. I was stalking them from behind a fruit tree in our orchard. I investigated the box to see if they had begun any nest making. BUT all I found was a box full of pincher bugs!!! Yuck. I brushed the vermin out and hope that makes the swallow apartment suitable for use.

And on another note, I have several days of paying field work for botany this week and will be sparse in bloggy visits. :(

But finally some work is coming in and I have to take it! I am so going to do the happy dance when paychecks start coming again.

I hope everybody has a great week!

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Botany Part Deux

A profusion of late spring flowers are blooming in my area and there are gems which need to be shown. This shows Larkspur (Delphinium hesperium), smooth hawksbeard (Crepis capillaris), and early harvest brodiaea (Brodiaea coronaria). The shadowy figure in the background is Silvie Sue. She is a hiking maniac dog. When we show up for a walk she is always game taking the lead!

These are two larkspur inflorescence's that are about three feet from each other showing color differences within the species.

After we climb our first hill we have a great view of the road cut above. The trail goes down that brown line where there is no veg. When we get to the top, I let Ella out of the backpack and she foots it back to the truck on her own two toddler feet.

This is a spring bulb called white fairy lantern (Calochortus albus). I love to see the pendulous globes dangling there glowing softly among the drying grasses. The big green thing with the ridges is the fruit.

Next, these white sprays of flowers are virgins bower (Clematis lasiantha) which wind their way up shrubs and trees. This vine was tangled among the branches of a live oak.

Here is our view going up the PG&E road that we follow as a trail. Parts of the loop are chaparral, especially on southern exposures. On the north side of the hills woodland vegetation dominates and provides shade which I love.

This native vine is wild cucumber (Marah fabaceus) and it has fruit that are covered with those prickles you see midway in the picture.

In the cover of woodland trees, we took a moment for a portrait. Ella likes to hold oak leaves or grasses or the various flowers that I hand to her. She is getting pretty good and knows about 10 different flowers now. I'll get her trained yet...

Another interesting native plant called coffee fern (Pellaea andromedifolia). I love the little delicate leaves and the curled underside where the spores dehiss.

Fading fast, from the rising temperatures, I barely caught these blooming white blue eyed Mary or Chinese houses (Collinsia bartsiifolia). I like the common name "Chinese houses" better since I remember the wonderful architecture of the stacked roof lines in the far east. These flowers have blooms layered in decending arrays down the stem. I think the accepted common name got changed a decade or so ago. Sometimes politically correct goes just a bit too far. The common name I learned for this plant is very complementary no mater how you look at it.

Can you say, "Ahhhhh! The view from the top."

After circling around our loop we emerge at the top of the trail to see the north facing slopes, vegetated with mixed oak woodland. Live oak, blue oak and an occasional black oak are found on these more protected outlooks.

Once at the top of the hill I dump my botanist in training on the earth and say "Mush!" and "Walk on!"

She says, "Ummmmm....schmells yummy." That is after sniffing the sage she has in her hand.

We found a caterpillar hot spot near the end of our walk and captured the cocoons on camera.

This cocoon was clinging to sticky monkey flower (Mimulus aurrantiacus), one of Ellas favorite plants. If you pick a flower or leaf you can stick it to your clothes and it will stay put for a while. They are our natural stickers.

This is a picture of the butterfly's that were floating around in the vicinity. From what I could find, it is supposed to be a checkerspot butterfly. There are many species so I would totally be guessing if I put a scientific name on it... I'll just stick to my botany.

Finally, on the last leg of the hike Ella wanted to know what these flowers were. I said, "Morning glory." These are (Calystegia purpurata). Like all the members of this species they open in the day and close when it gets cold and the sun goes down.

Just another wonderful hike from me and my baby girl.

And just so you know Wyatt is still around....while I was writing up this post he came staggering out of his room at 9:30 at night half way crying, "Mommy I need you." Then he walked to the screen door, pushed it open, then stood and peed on the porch. Lovely.

While trying for a moment not to laugh, it was impossible. I burst into chuckles and contained laughter. Then I carried his lead weighted body back to bed.

Poor boy...

Post, post script: Then I heard some strange munching from outside. My big cat Smobie started complaining and merowing through the screen door. Hmmmm. I walked to the door and a small sized raccoon bolted.... CAT can you please do something constructive here! What the heck do I keep you around for anyway??? Yep. I am sure they ate my fish now.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

The Mystery Bag

Yesterday, Ella and I had a little project.
What's that in the bag you say?

It's a little hooch. Yep, I give booze to my kids. I like to make sure to train their liver from an early age. Just kidding.

Something for a horse??? Well sort of. Sharpie likes anything to do with crumply bags. They normally mean a treat of one form or another. It can't hurt to sniff at the bag and the child though.

Holy Mole! It's gold! Wait. Gold....floating in water?
Sharpie says, "I can't eat that!"

OK, so now you know. It's boring, old goldfish. The 15 cents a piece variety to go in the water trough.


Way frustrating since they were real beauties. Grand, shimmering specimens of goldfish majesty that swum around gracefully in our trough. They were likely a wonderful winter meal for a hungry varmint raccoon. After all, I was suspicious about the mortality in my frog pond and must attribute this disaster to the five finger feasters. All I know is that my pretties were in there when the rains began. Then when I turn out the horses a month later and peered in the tank, my aquatic friends were gone. Sob...

You are aloud to say YUCK. And just so you know, I emptied the entire trough and scrubbed it out only a week ago. But the fish won't mind. Now I can grow them big and fat so the raccoons can eat them again next winter... Oh dear.

FYI Goldfish eat mosquito larvae. Mosquitoes carry nasty viruses like West Nile Virus, just to name a few. Thus, goldfish in the trough equals fewer carriers of an evil viral scourge!

The Day the Swallows Came Home

The tree swallows are here already.  They arrived January 30 much to my dismay.  Swooping and calling and chirping their merry song over my ...