Sunday, January 14, 2018

Como Conservatory Sunken Garden - December 2017

My family visits the Como Conservatory every year on Christmas eve day.  We visit periodically throughout the year.  I especially appreciate visits during the winter months.  The greenery, the smell of flowers and soil, the humidity and warmth all have a rejuvenating effect.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Trip Report: Bay Area to Big Sur, Dec 29 to Jan 6

1.  Black-crowned Night Heron at KFC
Oakland has an urbanized population of Black-crowned Night Herons centered around Lake Merritt.  We were surprised to see one hanging out at Kentucky Fried Chicken with a bunch of Pigeons.

2. Golden-crowned Sparrow at the Golden Gate Bridge
 First life lister of 2018 seen on January 1st.  An auspicious start to the new year.

3. Tide Pools
They were incredible!

4. Pelagic Birding
Six birds added to my life list on this three hour cruise.  Saw some whales too.

5. Burrowing Owl

Monday, December 4, 2017

Mushroom Log - December 2017

Laccaria sp.

I found a few dozen of these shriveled Laccaria mushrooms on a Christmas tree farm.  There are a few species that can be found associated with pines in disturbed habitat. 

I also found a cool website, all about the genus Laccaria!

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Hibernating Bald-faced Hornets

I found two Bald-faced Hornets (Dolichovespula maculata) under a piece of rotting wood earlier this week.  Only new queens hibernate, the rest of the colony dies when temperatures drop below freezing.  These queen have already mated and will start new colonies next spring.  Assuming they survive the winter, which doesn't at all seem guaranteed given the scant protection afforded to them by their shelter.
Cold is the most obvious danger.  I didn't find anything that specifically referred to hibernating Bald-faced Hornets, but insects as a group have a wide variety of behavioral and biochemical strategies for preventing and/ or controlling ice formation in their bodies.  But many of these strategies partially rely on an insulating blanket of snow; which helps moderate the temperature of the hibernating insect's immediate surroundings; our Minnesota winters seem to be trending towards a less consistent snow cover.
Bald-faced Hornets have a bad reputation for being nasty insects that sting with little provocation.  I believe this is largely an exaggeration.  I've often watched them up close as they chew on the wood of an old bench, raw material for their paper nests.  Of course coming into contact with their large, ovoid paper nests can result in many, many painful stings.  But often their nests are high up in trees.

I'm sometimes asked something along the lines "What are they good for?"   The quick answer is they prey on other insects,  some of which are pests.  But I think the best answer is why do they have to be "good" for anything; they are living creatures in their own right and that should be enough.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

An Illustrated Life List: European Starlings

This is a re-work of a picture I did in 2014.  I liked the original concept I had of merging a sonogram with starlings calling from utility lines, but I was never satisfied with how I executed it. 

The scenery of the picture is the sonogram graph.  I wanted to highlight the starling's ability to imitate other birds, so the data points of the sonogram are shown as abstractions of birds I've heard starlings imitate.

Sonograms aren't usually depicted in field guides.   But the Golden Guide "Birds of North America" does include sonograms for many birds.  When I first started birding I found these sonograms to be more helpful in describing bird calls than the textual descriptions offered in most field guides.  I could glean a sense of a call's timing, pitch range and variation from the sonogram's blotchy plots and roughly compare this to what I heard in the field.  This though, was before recordings of bird songs were readily available online or mobile devices (cause they didn't exist!).

From the 2014 post
Don't take this as a defense of starlings; I do understand their negative impact on other cavity nesting birds (but really, who's to blame for this), but I enjoy watching starlings.  I especially enjoy listening to them for other bird sounds that they are imitating.  I frequently see them in my neighborhood on the mess of utility lines that run through the alleys and along the streets.  I envisioned these lines as the lines on a sonogram graph, with the starling's call taking the shape of the bird they are imitating; the blips on the sonogram.

Robbins, Chandler S, Bruun, Bertel, Zim, Herbert S and illustrated by Singer, Arthur. A Guide to Field Identification Birds of North America.  New York; Golden Press, 1966.