Toad in the Hole May 2005 Archives

« April 2005 | Main | June 2005 »

May 29, 2005

Restoration, Beer, Small World

Last weekend we joined a little tour of a spot that's on the list for salt marsh restoration in the South Bay, just to get some information on all that and to have a look. It turned out to be entirely a public spot, so we needn't have gone on the official day, but the retired vector control guy who gave the tour had some good stuff to tell us anyway.

What we saw was landfill with a small, noisy powerplant using the methane from the garbage. The garbage was entirely out of sight and smell, under the grassy knolls and assorted exotics growing there. Fairly presentable, though of course we looked askance at the eucs and gaillardia and such. There were blackbirds, a neat row of five male cowbirds on a fence (oy), a redtail, a male and a female harrier. The male flew off over the hill carrying some rodent -- probably an endangered salt-marsh harvest mouse. A few stilts in the distance, mallards and gadwall, song sparrows, a couple of hummers, one a probable Allen's; a butterfly or two, brine shrimp and brine flies and water striders in the salt pond channel. Sunny and quite breezy, basically a nioce stroll.

A couple of friends from the foodie group, Alison and Wolfgang, had told us about the tour and met us there. That gave us people to talk about the birds we were seeing between info stops, and tims to talk with them about their own bird adventures. They seem to have a lot of wild birds in hand: when we saw them last summer they were hand-raising a black phoebe that had survived a nest disaster in their backyard, and had it in a carrier at the picnic with them since it needed frequent feeding. It was almost fledged when we met it, and fledged successfully a day or two later. Wolfgang told us about plucking a slightly stunned chickadee off his window at 3AM a few nights before, making sure it could eat and fly well, and turning it loose again before going back to bed.

We all repaired to Tied House in Palo Alto (or is it Mountain View?) for a beer and fried stuff. In the course of conversation, Alison mentioned that she's the granddaughter of Ernest Choate, who wrote The Dictionary of American Bird Names that we have on the shelf, an old classic standby. She had a story or two about him, too.

The other day, Joe was looking up the origin of "grackle" and happened to notice an epigraph on the flyleaf of the book, over an engraving of a European robin and as the text declared, "adapted" from Punch, January 17, 1906; from Ernest Weekly, An Etymological Dictionary of Modern English:

Alison, "What's that, Granddaddy?"
Grandfather, "A robin."
Alison, "Why?"

Oh. Oh sure.
What an odd place that must be to find your verbal baby-on-bearskin picture.

Posted at 02:51 AM | Comments (4)

True Grit

In the the center divider on San Pablo Avenue, just a few feet north of the traffic light at Central Avenue, growing between the curb and the concrete pad, there's an artichoke.

Posted at 02:44 AM | Comments (1)

May 28, 2005

There Goes the Neighborhood

Late-morning low-tide trip down to Hayward Regional Shoreline to not see the black terns that are reputed to be hanging out with the Forster'seses there.

The Forsters' were taking turns doing noisy, V-winged display flights and making casual rude remarks at us. There were a few ducks -- gadwalls, mallards, and late-staying canvasbacks. Willets, godwits, curlews, avocets, stilts mucking around in the muck all around, but the peep and such seem to have moved on. Two marsh wrens hidden and singing in some unpromising veg near the pond where a lot of big shorebirds (and do I remember the black skimmers there a few years ago?) used to nest; I think it's too overgrown for those now, but there were ducks sitting here and there.

A few egrets, including one snowy doing the stir-up mud shuffle and grabbing little things that surfaced, mostly invisible. I did see a half-inch fish-shaped fish in its bill, and some gloopy worm thing it grabbed from the bank. A couple of Canada goose families, with 11 goslings of different ages: all had their black heads and necks and white chinstraps, but were otherwise in various states of fuzziness. Barn and cliff swallows, song sparrows overhead and underfoot.

No hawks, come to think of it, or even vultures, which is odd. We did see a jackrabbit and a vole, a few ground squirrels.

The painted ladies have hatched, the generation planted here by that great migration we saw starting out in Death Valley in March. They were flying around us in ones, twos, threes, fours, the occasional half-dozen, mostly looking very fresh though there was one that looked seriously pale, battered and frayed. One that we got a fix on was a West Coast lady; the rest looked like painteds or like orange blurs. We also had a bunch of large marbles... OK, Large Marbles. Take a second look at those apparent cabbage whites and wow, different! They have very handsome greenish-yellow markings on the under hindwings, and subtle marblings dorsally. They obliged us by sitting down to nectar on straggly wild mustard flowers by the path.

Returning on that path, trying in vain to Walk Briskly for the exercise, I noticed an odd blackbird on a bit of cyclone fence. In fact, it was a great-tailed grackle, the first one either of us has seen in Alameda County or even near it. It got chased off the fence, disappeared over the bank near the visitor center. When we caught up to it, we saw there were three males and uh-oh, a female in the pickleweed.

The female flew up off the weed, and was immediately attacked and chased over the building and for some yards beyond by noisy, indignant barnswallows. Lots of them, and boy were they yelling. One of the male grackles went with her. She came back a few minutes later and was chased again, in a different direction.

Grackles are nest predators. Swallows chase crows, too, as we saw. Interesting generalization, or maybe bitter experience.

The remaining two males kept poking around in the pickleweed. As we walked toward the car, we noticed a stilt sitting on what looked like a nest near them, and adding bits of vegetation to it as she sat. She piped at us of course.Stilts are kind of high-strung. A male stilt nearby piped too. (Ever been yelled at by multiple stilts? They're pretty impressive en masse.) We moved along, so as not to make her more nervous, and the male walked over toward the two grackles and scolded them roundly.

Great-tailed grackles seem to be extending their range toward us. A few years ago we ran into one in the parking lot of the In 'n' Out by the Kettleman City exit on I-5, which is considerably south of here. I'm a bit apprehensive about this.

When I first met the species, in Texas in 1980, it gave me a turn. We were poking around in some wildlife refuge, along a long row of tall shrubs with a gravel road on the other side, and maybe some sort of water-regulating equipment in a cinderblock hut. This noise was emanating from the bushes. It sounded like something eating a large-model Xerox machine while the latter was running. I was sure we'd stumbled across the Real Machinery that ran the place, that the whole state of Texas was a sort of Disney animatronics ride. I'm still not sure I was wrong about that.

When we tracked it, it turned out to be a great-talied grackle doing some Texas-style display. (Add a sound like running your thumb over a deck of cards, to what you hear there in the soundfile. Besides hollering, he was riffing his feathers, to great effect.)

We saw a male cowbird at the shoreline too today, and there are lots of crows, ravens, jays, and other nest predators around already. Arguably at least the cowbirds don't belong here -- they followed our cattle herds and general disturbances, and many of the local birds are still defenseless against them. And now the Dread Texas Steam Grackle. Where did I put those earplugs?

Posted at 05:26 AM | Comments (0)

May 25, 2005

Fresher Falcons

This Falconcam is on the Rachel Carson Office Building -- the Dep't of Enviro Resources -- in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Wonder who they bribed for that. The camera refreshes only every two minutes, unlike the San Francisco one (every second) but it's still a good view and the youngsters are still in the lint stage.

Gives us a chance to relive somebody's youth.

On Eastern Daylight Saving Time, remember.

Posted at 12:33 AM | Comments (2)

May 20, 2005

Fun Science: Domestic Life of the Lords of the Air

I've got the habit of keeping the PG&E Building Falcon Cam in a minimized window on the monitor while I'm working or fooling around on the computer. For some days now, I've been seeing a field of view mostly empty of birds, looking pretty funky with scraps of down and feathers wiggling in the breeze, and lots of birdshit on the roof around the gravel nestbox. Reminds me of a house with too many adolescents.

I'd been wondering if the four young peregrines had fledged; they'd looked pretty ready the last time I saw all of them.

This morning, late, I saw one of the adults appear on camera, sitting on a square post that they sometimes use as a perch, taking in the sun. Later, another adult showed up, joined Adult A on the perch, and they went through a dance of movements -- head-bobs, pointed looks in the same direction, bows, head-turns, stretches -- by turns in sync and then opposite each other -- A down while B up and so on. There even seemed to be a little bill-touching.

The Bird B flew off, and Bird A spent some time stretching, preening, posing, the perfect abstraction of Swift Movement even when standing perfectly still.

A few minutes later, Bird A leaped from the perch to the rooftop, and the movement in the right margin of the viewfield turned out to be Bird B. More bowing and bill-touching ensued. Then Bird B began feeding Bird A with bits of a probable pigeon that was just below camera range. B ripped off pieces, "handed" them off, sometimes placed some directly into the opened bill of Bird A, sometimes seemed to be teasing A by holding a bit forward and then withdrawing it. Bits of white down from brunch clung momentarily to each bird, then blew away.

After several minutes of this, one of the young birds, distinguished by a pale, irregularly marked head and some still-fluffy body plumage, showed up at the right of the pair. They turned, in no great hurry, and fed Youngster by turns; Bird B also continued to feed Bird A intermittently. A picked up a drumstick fragment and took a few steps away, then disappeared to the right. I wonder if there were other youngsters hoping for a bite there.

Bird B finally backed off-camera, leaving Youngster to finish off whatever was left.

After a few minutes, Youngster had moved out of sight, and one of the adults had resumed the perch on the square post. More settling of feathers, preening and stretching, takingin the sun, and then one of the youngsters joined Adult A(?), perching on the parapet beside the post. Junior was a little fidgety, but both settled into basking.

Some years back, Joe and I were driving the pickup around the dirt roads in the middle of Sierra Valley. We rounded a corner and saw, on and beside a pasture fence about fifty feet away, four juvenile peregrines. They looked like a bunch of teenagers just hanging around, shuffling idly now and then, not much on their minds. They didn't startle at us -- vehicles make pretty good bird blinds -- so I turned off the engine and we sat there and watched in awe for a good 15 minutes before they got restless and left, one by one.

It was a strange thing to be seeing a flock of peregrines. They're not flocking birds, and aren't generally easy in each other's company. We were reluctant to believe that all four were siblings, and wondered if they joined up in juvenile motorcycle gangs the way ravens do before pairing off. Seeing the San Francisco pair evidently raising four to fledglinghood, we're reconsidering that.

That solitary tendency has to be countered, in a mated pair, by those little rituals I was seeing this morning, not just before mating but on a frequent basis as they raise their young and continue together. What I was watching was the fierce-and-solitary-predator equivalent of the pre-breakfast hug, of the cup of coffee and bun. Falcons don't bring flowers home, or a take-out pizza surprise; they bring pigeon parts.

And yes, I'll call them "fierce." Not ill-disposed toward the world, just jealous of privacy and space and hunting territory. There's a pair of peregrines known to hang out near the mouth of Bolinas Creek in Marin. Joe and I were standing in the pickleweed looking around one sunny day, and as we scanned the sky directly above us, we spotted two falcon silhouettes very high above, at the edge of visibility, a couple-three hundred feet at least, circling each other.Maybe our binoc lenses glittered; maybe they just saw something odd below. It's interesting to think about how much better they see than we do.

I started to say, "Hey, one of them's..." and before I could say, "moving" and drop my glasses, the bird was there at eye level, less than six feet from my side, clearly looking, checking us out. We could hear the wind singing through its pinions. Just as fast, it was gone, casually spinning back up the air column, rejoining its mate, leaving us gasping and gratified.

They can be just plain bitchy too. In that same spot, years earlier, we were gazing down the ranked and folded hills that line Bolinas Lagoon, watching birds and and the play of light in the water and the afternoon air. Down the lagoon, we could see a great wave of movement, rising fom both sides into the sky, gaining sound, and approaching us. It resolved into flock after flock of shorebirds, herons, and ducks, all streaming from the water and mudflats in a flow of panic, driven by a peregrine proceeding in a slow and lordly flight from the south end to the north. As it flew by, it turned its head from side to side, clearly watching its own effect, its shadow of reflexive fear among the birds of the water.

Posted at 10:07 PM | Comments (0)

May 19, 2005

Another deep sigh about journalism

and the future thereof, from a high school in Georgia. Blehs all 'round and at all levels for this one.

Then again, I don't suppose the cosmetology classes get slapped down for sending people out with bad hair.

Posted at 04:49 PM | Comments (0)

May 17, 2005

Two New Words

Over the last few weeks, I've picked up a couple of delightful English words. One was at Pharyngula, where a poster remarked upon reasonable arguments becoming "immerded" by large quantities of verbal, well, shit.

The other's more pleasant, and sounds lovely too. Our native soaproot blooms in the evening, between sunset and about 1 AM, and is therefore vesperine.

Posted at 04:48 AM | Comments (2)

May 14, 2005

Friday Fun Science Blogging

The quote below in italics is from an article in the September-December 1976 issue of the entomological journal Psyche by R.R. Jackson; the title is "Predation as a Selection Factor in the Mating Strategy of the Jumping Spider Phidippus johnsoni (Salticidae, Araneae)."

"Aposematic" coloration is coloration that has a warning function, as in orange-and-black birds or insects that taste nasty. The spider in question is black with a bright red abdomen.

"There is no evidence that their coloration is aposematic, although information concerning this is limited. They do not taste bitter or noxious to humans (personal observation)."

Posted at 02:11 AM | Comments (0)

May 13, 2005


Joe and I have been flitting around the East Bay parks the last two days: Briones yesterday and Sunol today. Got a later start than would have been ideal both days, but we saw good stuff anyway.

We go to Briones every Spring for lazuli bunting and sure enough, after a longish hike without many birds, we saw a couple of males setting out their territories, disputing boundaries, chasing and singing. Nice bird, great shade of blue, weirdly ethereal compared to its earthy-red breast band. We had ash-throated flycatchers there, too, and lesser goldfinches, black-headed grosbeak, the usual suspects like robin and both towhees, chickadee, oak titmouse, acorn and Nuttall's woodpeckers, black phoebe, redtails, turkey vultures. Couldn't see anyone in the owl hole in the big madrone by the trail, and, weirdly, no swallows at all. But the red-winged blackbirds are back in the poison hemlock swale by the Boy Scout meadow, where they'd been missing last year, and seemed to be foraging for the kids.

Birds at Sunol were pretty good, including red-shouldered hawk with an almost-grown juvenile on the nest, being fed (a snake; ouch); and orioles in a nest that had a scrap of purple ribbon woven into it near the entrance, v. Martha Stewart. Also, a singing male western tanager, very tenacious about his tree; several house wrens (one pair building a nest in the sycamore where we'd seen a screech owl last time we were there); cliff, rough-winged, and violet-green swallows; ash-throated flycatcher, western wood-peewee, western kingbird, and black phoebe; more black-headed grosbeaks; bluebirds, both jays, crows;more acorn and Nuttall's woodpeckers; rufous-crowned sparrow, singing. Herps included a very assertive fence lizard eating a very big bowlegged dark beetle; several more of his kin; and a baby rattlesnake (two little buttons on its tail) that one of several parties of folks-with-screeching-kids had stopped to show everyone. Gotta hand it to the guy: he did it right, lifting the little snake on a stick, delaying and deflecting it only long enough to show everyone on the trail, keeping the kids well back without inciting hysteria, and then letting it go its way down the hill. Lord, it was cute.

Flowers were more spectacular at Sunol. Three calochortus species are blooming: C. luteus, C. venustus, C. albus. The albus has some interesting color variations there, from a sort of pale-peach edging toward tan, to very very pale rose. Some of the color effect comes from a little glow of yellow on the outer points of the "lantern" part, and/or sketchy pink lines on the very top of the top petals. The whole flower looks like very fine polished silk, and does seem to glow from within.

We had looks at several lupines and a white larkspur, too; poppies, some very red-violet vetch all over the place, and that exotic white scrofe that looks like a miniature bear's-breeches blossom. A scatter of blazing-star way up a steep slope; a little blue flax; lots of tritelias also in a range from blue-blue to very pale; blue dicks.

The butterflies were impressive in both parks, too. Today must've been hatching day in Sunol for orange sulphurs, as they were all over the place, quite the cheerful mob. Also lots of common ringlet, variable checkerspot; a good handful of Lorquin's admiral; pale and tiger swallowtails; some slightly dusky little blue; several buckeyes.

Yesterday, ditto for fresh hatch of pipevine swallowtails in Briones -- they were flying at us from some point maybe northeast of the trail, all along that trail toward the archery range. Tiger and pale swallowtails there too, a skipper or two, a few orange sulphurs, a Lorquin's admiral.

And what I first took for a buckeye sat down for a better look, and turned into a very aged, pale, battered painted lady. It looked like something that had flown all the way from Mexico under its own power -- and was evidently a very determined bug in general, as we're seeing very few of them alive now. Its wings were so beat-up that the edges were completely gone -- no scales or structure left on what would have been maybe the outer one-quarter of the wings, just some thin vanes like bare umbrella ribs radiating from the thorax.

And still it flew. I had to doff my hat at such persistence.

Posted at 03:39 AM | Comments (0)

May 11, 2005

More Journalism: Until the Twelfth of Never

This one is just One of Those Things. It's in a piece about the murder of two kids in Illinois. I can understand that the writer -- AP's Nicole Ziegler Dizon -- would be upset and enraged by the subject matter, but a copyeditor should have caught this odd infelicity.

The girls were found dead Monday in a park in Zion, the day after they never came back from a bike ride.

Maybe "failed to come back" would work better, hm?

Posted at 11:58 PM | Comments (2)

May 07, 2005

Journalism #2

Here's one that could originate in either the reporter's ear or the source's mouth. It's in a Seattle newspaper's article about Microsoft Inc.'s (fortunately short-lived) decision to remain "neutral" in a legislative tussle about human rights for gays.

As for Murray, he believes the company was faced with a "profound" moral test, which it failed. The backpedaling "sends an incredible message of weakness and shows a lack of moral backbone," he says. "I mean, what is this? Is this the 1930s, and are they Krups?"

So why am I giggling?

Continue reading "Journalism #2"
Posted at 08:49 PM | Comments (0)

Friday Science-Is-Fun Blogging: Plastic Fantastic Liver

Or The Heart (and Spleen and Gallbladder) of Rock 'n' Roll is in Cleveland until June.

I missed it in Los Angeles twice but there's a supposedly credible imitation in San Francisco now. I think Joe's dragging his heels. He did suddenly have to go smoke a cigarette when our friend Barb hauled that splendidly done sagittal section of the male reproductive organs out of that bucket of preservative some years back.

Posted at 02:55 AM | Comments (2)

May 06, 2005

Journalist Training, # 1 in a Series

Something PZ Myers said in Pharyngula prompted me to take a little direct action.

Feel free to pass it on to anyone who might profit.

"Urban populations consume 75 percent of the world's natural resources and produce 75 percent of its waste so it's crucial that all citizens learn how to make our cities greener," said Mayor Gavin Newsom, host of the UN conference.

What's the next question?

Continue reading "Journalist Training, # 1 in a Series"
Posted at 12:52 AM | Comments (0)

May 05, 2005

Blame That Tune!

This is a few days old, but it tickled me.

I want to add that you can sing "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" to the Gilligan's Island TV theme.

Posted at 10:37 PM | Comments (0)

May 02, 2005

Don't leave me alone with this.

Raw Chicken Viking Hat Knit-Along

As for that school picture: serves you right, Janis, for the above. Never mind that boring old cause-before-effect thing. (Yes, I have some that are as bad.)

We spent yesterday wrangling volunteers, which is much harder than staking trees, which I also did a little of. Someday, with a little help from my friends, I'll post before-and-after pics of the Chaparral House garden here.

Today we toured a few of the gardens on the Bringing Back the Natives Garden Tour in the East Bay. I'd had a preview, so I took Joe to see a few I thought he'd like (and he did) and revisited Scott and Jenny Fleming's magnificent garden of California native plants. Neither of us had been there in years. The big sequoiadendron by the meadow patch is gone, just a twenty- or thirty-foot barkless stump left. It hurt to see that.

Jenny's in a nursing home now; Scott was there, speaking a little and receiving visitors, but clearly not in good shape either. Chaparral House is a nursing home, a true nonprofit skilled nursing facility. Joe's mother lived there about the last two years of her life.

There are accidents and exigencies of getting old; you never know what you're going to get out of that particular pig in that particular poke. Joe's folks are generally long-lived. His mother lived to 98; he sat in his great-grandfather's lap and pulled his patriarchal beard before the old man, a Civil War veteran, died at 102. Other assorted relatives have gone into their late 90s, though in various conditions, what with broken hips and mild or not-so-mild dementias.

(Mine don't make it past 70. One person -- my paternal grandmother -- has managed to in the last three generations.)

His mother was losing it, getting less and less verbal and having cumulative physical problems, toward the end, from her last birthday in November 2003 till she died in February 2004. But I swear the last thing she responded to, after she'd stopped responding much to us, was the Chaparral House garden. Other gardens, too: one October day we bundled her up and pushed her in her wheelchair around the neighborhood. She asked me, as usual, "What's that?" every now and then, about a plant. Otherwise, she seemed less than conscious about much -- what meal she'd eaten last, where she was, the usual.

But when we passed an azalea in full late second bloom -- something that happens in our climate, especially in a warm autumn -- she stared and asked rhetorically, "What's that doing, blooming now?" So in some way she was aware of what time of year it was, and what that shrub was. She has a safety belt on her wheelchair because she'd forget and try to stand up and walk, and had broken her arm once that way, but some set of reactions remained that told her it was the wrong time for an azalea to bloom.

That's why we still volunteer to work on Chaparral House's garden.

Posted at 04:51 AM | Comments (3)