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. 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.


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.


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.


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


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.


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


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.