Toad in the Hole June 2005 Archives

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June 30, 2005

"I Forgot to Count Her Toes."

We made a break for Yuba Pass, a bit north of Tahoe/Truckee, on Sunday, and just got back tonight. Great trip -- birds, mammals, flora, weather, rocks -- and worth getting all stinky from camping in an officially not-open-yet campground with no water (we brought our own) or trash collection (packed it out) or pit-toilet pumping-out (ugh, gag). Saved us $18.00 a night, anyway. Insert rant about privatization here. It was almost as crappy a year or so ago when we did have to pay.

One good bit was a very conveniently located black-backed woodpecker nest. Understand: This species skunked us both for decades. I looked for some 20 years, and Joe looked for it even longer before we saw one flashing past some years back at Mt. Lassen. Then we saw one at Yuba Pass a year or two ago. This time, we had good long looks at the female for two evenings, as she entered and left the nest. Noisy, interestingly different, wary bird. Very gratifying. I swear she looked back at us, but not the way hawks and owls do; rather, out of the corner of her eye.

After the show each night, we bowed and thanked the birds -- the visible female and the audible male -- and strolled back to the campsite. "Damn," said Joe the first night, "I forgot to count her toes." And the second: "I forgot to count her toes again." You may construe this as sarcasm; that's a very distinctive bird, never mind the toes. (Three. Used to be called the "black-backed three-toed woodpecker." Now the former "northern three-toed woodpecker" is just the "three-toed woodpecker" and she's the "black-backed woodpecker." This is one of the more sensible nomenclature changes in the last few decades.)

And that wasn't even the high point of the trip. When I can reliably find my fingers again -- tomorrow, I hope -- I'll post about one mammalian surprise.

Posted at 06:41 AM | Comments (0)

June 25, 2005

Patterson Pass Daytrip

In pursuit of yet another denizen of the Diablo Audubon birding maillist, we took off east on Wednesday morning, across the hills on I-580 to the remaining open area around Livermore. The grassland wildflowers were pretty much gone; maybe there’s still a seep-spring monkeyflower or two down in the creeks but we couldn’t see them. The yellow star thistles are up, though. Ugh.

In the spot on Patterson Pass Road where we’d been skunked by the alleged blue grosbeak a month or so ago, we took advantage of a relatively slow day and stood at the pull-off for a few minutes again. The bird was supposed to be still there and still singing.

Better luck this time: we heard a slightly different song, and there he was, in one of a zillion willows concealing the creek below us. Problem was, while I could see him from my spot on the flat space of the pull-out, I couldn’t see the whole gorge that Joe could see from the bank above. So we had a few moments’ frustration – "There! Over by the bare spot, in the dead bit of that willow! No, there!!" -- during which the bird flew upstream into the next thicket, out of sight. What I didn’t know was that there were rather more bare spots and willows than I’d accounted for in giving directions.

So we stayed awhile and waited to see if he’d reappear. We saw a Bullock’s oriole flash by and back again; the odd Brewer’s blackbird; several lark sparrows chasing each other around and basking on fences. Heard house finches. Listened to the windpowermills hum and moan and susurrate hoarsely. Mostly ignored the occasional passing car or truck.

Fortunately for domestic tranquillity, he showed up again, sang, spent some time snapping things out of the willows and singing some more. Nifty bird: in the shade, an inky deep blue that looks like a bird-shaped hole in the vegetation, with those chestnut wing bits that you can see from quite a distance. In the sun, an equally yummy blue that still seems to be in another plane from the landscape. He gave us a good five-minute show before disappearing again.

When we pulled out and drove around the next bend, we saw an adolescent coyote, all gangly-looking and distracted, standing and then trotting in the gold-dry grass. Then a second nearby – I’m sure they knew each other, about the same age, but with a curiously bobbed tail, about half the normal length. A few beef cattle in the same field ignored them completely.

Just south of Byron, we found the advertised gathering of Swainson’s hawks (probably some of yours, Pica!), hanging around and over(sometimes w-a-a-ay over) a couple of fields off a couple of side roads by the dozens and twenties. Most of them seemed to be juveniles, all marbly-looking, with that dihedral flight, somehow a bit lighter and less ponderous than the couple of redtails we saw with them.

Seems like molting season for everybody, Swainson’ses and redtails both. I saw one Swainson’s, a near-full adult, with two central tailfeathers grown out longer than the rest (which gave him a very odd jaegerlike look) doing the on-the-hook maneuver that redtails also do, for a few minutes. Kept looking over his shoulder.

There were crows and ravens hanging out there too. Funny to see the pale hawk heads popping up out of alfalfa fields along with the corvids’. There were a couple of treefuls of them, too, next to the fields, and lots of commuting in between. Also a big stack orbiting high on a thermal. Some of the fields had recently been mowed, and I suppose the disturbed bugs and little rodents were the attraction.

On the roads to and from all this, we saw several loggerhead shrikes, which is reassuring since they were probably on territory in this season. That species is in trouble in various places on the continent, and I’m not sure why.

Posted at 02:39 AM | Comments (1)

Friday Off-Science Blogging

The ever-reliable New York Times has an item that purports to report that someone thinks there's a genetic basis for a person's politics. Modified by one's life experiences, of course. If I had that much wiggle room in my shoes they'd double as three-person rowboats.

Of course, one can't forget that similar studies have indicated that separated identical twins are similarly likely to drive blue Fords, smoke Camels, and marry brunettes named Betty. Or something like that.

Posted at 01:37 AM | Comments (0)

June 23, 2005

My stapelia is blooming. This is one of those ambivalent occasions.

I got the thing in the mail from South Dakota, as a thank-you gift for a relatively small favor. It's grown happily on the office windowsill for a few years, and I've given starts from it to friends. I warned them what they were in for.

First it extended a V-fingers salute.

The next day, ever so slowly, it popped out another petal, then another.

Then it was all the way open and issuing forth its characteristic come-hither fragrance. As it is pollinated by flies, that fragrance is approximately of old garbage, rottiing meat. It's not nearly so strong as the infamous titan arum's, but it does get my attention now and then.

The flies do show up, and often walk around on those hairy petals buzzing indignantly: "Where's the beef?"

I noticed last night that the flower had dropped some bits of whitish matter, I assumed from its stamens or pistil. They were longer than wide, maybe a sixteenth of an inch. Just now I noticed some of them have dropped to the desk. And they're moving.


Maybe I'll take them outside and feed them to Joe's carnivorous plants.

Posted at 09:05 PM | Comments (0)

June 22, 2005

Bio Logic and Otherwise

Over at Chris’ blog, and in a great assortment of other blogs (scroll down to the 14th), people are having some weird debates about rape, porn, The Woman Question.

There are things that make me feel very very old. My left ankle, with its odd swelling and creaky demeanor. My knees, which hurt rather too much of the time. My lungs, which never have been much good. Menopausal nominal aphasia, the name of which I couldn’t guarantee remembering just then. Hot flashes, as in "WTF, I’m getting hot flashes again??" The skin of my neck. And reruns of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, including but not restricted to hip-hugger pants, mostly inept attempts at "hippie" style, and those damned debates about women, sex, and rape.

I really want to slap people. I really want to ask if they can’t read, and why they’ve never bothered to look up or read or even just ask about what’s been said before. It’s like running an urban legend debunking site, but even more repetitious and certainly more exasperating.

"Uncontrollable urges" my fat ass. "The drive to reproduce" – yeah right. Do the sociobiologists still wonder why some of us get impatient with them? Yes, yes, I know that this crap has as much to do with sociobiology as Social Darwinism has to do with Darwin or the vast sodden mass of Christianity has to do with Christ, but for gods’ sake how about you guys doing some of the lifting for a change? How about telling the rest of the world that your data on ants and duck rape and alpha wolves doesn’t actually map directly to human beings and sure as hell doesn’t give anyone a pass for fucking up?

And of course, before that there was the Pie Fight, and its lesson on Friendly Fire versus Horizontal Fragging. Remember how it felt when you realized those nice gentle brothers still thought you were a household appliance? The only household appliance they weren’t ready to give up when they went all wholegrain and groovily off-the-grid?

Well I do.

Well, if we really have to go through this clodfooted dance once again, at least there’s stuff in print we can… can roll up into cylinders and stuff up the appropriate noses, I guess. I don’t have a lot of hope for the people who are still making the same old indefensible arguments thirty years later. I’m not sure they’re educable and I’m too damned tired to educate them if they can’t pay attention.

Meanwhile, back at the belfry, we’re having a herp adventure week.

One aspect is that it’s Spring, hopla! and the voice of the turtle is heard throughout the dining room. OK, mostly the clunk of the turtle. It was an unfortunate accident that of the four box turtles, only one is female. Poor Blanche duBox is putting up with a lot of courtship lately. Courtship in box turtles is pretty klutzy. Add to that the personality of one of the guys, Sid Viscous, and you can see the impatience building in even the most patient of animals.

We’ve actually had to take Sid out of the turtle sty and put him in the bathtub to meditate upon the error of his ways. We’ve taken Studs out and let him roam around the room, when everyone else seemed to decide it was Bite Studs’ Foot Night. Studs is our senior – we’ve had him for at least 25 years and he was an adult when we acquired him – and of gentle disposition, so he gets some breaks. Sport, our refugee from Los Angeles, is only this year getting bold enough to try mating, and Blanche seems interested, as she has been in Studs’ direction for years. But not Sids’. Sid does not get any action.

Sid tries, though; Sid tries with all the other turtles, and just won’t give up. He’s really annoying; I can see that.

The other night, I noticed that Sid had got one foot between Blanche’s plastron and upper shell – this is part of mating; the male engages both feet between the female’s shells and then brings his goodies out from within his tail – and Blanche had clamped down on him at that point. He was over on his back, one foot well stuck, and clearly in pain. He had his mouth wide open and was snapping ineffectually at the air.

Well. I figured we didn’t need to be dealing with injured turtles, however richly Sid deserved his comeuppance. I did feel a bit sorry for him. And hell, they’re turtles. They’re living in unnaturally close quarters in the 60-gallon fish-breeder tank in our dining room. And they’re box turtles – the female can close up completely, and presumably doesn’t have to do anything else she doesn’t want to.

So I picked them both up, put them in the bathtub, and ran tepid water until it started pooling and Blanche let go of Sid to start swimming away. I put her back and put Sid on Joe’s lap, just for a change.

And I’ve been thinking about the limits of analogy and sociobiology a lot lately.

Posted at 07:10 AM | Comments (6)

June 18, 2005

Friday Science-is-Odd Blogging

This study in Science purports to show that Nepalese porters expend less energy (and therefore are more physiologically efficient) while toting heavy loads than are women of a couple of African tribes carrying large loads on their heads or with a tumpline, or Americans carrying backpacks.

However, these studies were performed on American army recruits, Kikuyu and Luo women, and Nepalese men, all of whom presumably had better things to do than walk around in various configurations with strange blue oxygen- and carbon-dioxide-measuring masks on. Surely they were paid, and I'd never discount that as a motivator. Maybe the recruits were just ordered. Still, I think the study is, more than anything else, a measure of the patience of ordinary people confronted by a couple of crazy Belgians who ask them to do silly things in the name of Science.

I'll conclude on an optimistic note: Maybe science has more friends than we think.

Posted at 01:40 AM | Comments (3)

June 15, 2005

More Good News, Maybe

Below: text of a message fwd'd to the native plants maillist from within the Fish & Wildlife Service, in turn from the Point Reyes Bird Observatory. It's about a field survey in the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge.

This is very exciting news. Although we are not absolutely positive
this is a Least Bell's Vireo, it is highly probable (> 90%) according to

Least is listed as endangered with both the feds and state! It is
likely the first breeding pair in the Central Valley in 3 to 4 decades! Sightings
were made of dependent juveniles being fed by adults and adults copulating
(= 2nd brood ?).

The vireo family was located on a PRBO study site in the middle of a 3
year-old restoration site conducted by River Partners on USFWS refuge
land with Calfed funding! River partners was using PRBO recommendations
from the beginning. Examples include patch work design and planting
herbaceous under story (especially mug wort) which is a favorite of this species.
This species typically nest within one meter of the ground and loves
herbaceous plants for nest cover.

This is excellent example of monitoring being an integral and necessary
part of adaptive management in restoration. ... (The refuge is closing off the site for now!)


Hi ______, just a quick message to let you know that the PRBO
crew supervisor, _________, found a family group of Bell's Vireo on
one of the restoration plots earlier today! Absolutely amazing!! They
copulated and were feeding dependent but mobile young! I'll send more
details later.


Posted at 10:40 PM | Comments (0)

June 10, 2005

Friday Science For Fun & Profit Blogging

I just got this announcement from the California Invasive Plants Council (formerly the California Exotic Pest Plants Council).

The 2nd Annual Cal-IPC Photo Contest!

Got an Arundo infestation you just can't describe? A thistle flower bigger than your head? Now's your chance to show it off...

Photos will be accepted in the following categories (just a tip, let us know which category your photo belongs in):

Best weed impacts photos
Best weed workers photos
Best landscape infestation photos
Best specimen photos
Best weed humor photos (remember Peter Connors' hungry iceplant?)

Last year, John Knapp of the Catalina Island Conservancy took home an awful lot of the prizes -- anyone out there want to give him a run for his money this time around?

While we recognize that the admiration of your weed-battling colleagues is prize enough, we've got other goodies for those who take 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place, too.

Deadline for submissions: September 1, 2005

Winning photos will be chosen by the Cal-IPC Board in time to show them off at the Symposium in Chico, this October.

How to Enter:

Digital photos preferred, email them to Elizabeth at

- Or -

Send a CD to:
Cal-IPC Photos
1442-A Walnut Street #462
Berkeley, CA 94709

Don't forget to check out last year's winners in the Cal-IPC News (volume 12 Fall/Winter 2004 issue).

Submit as many photos as you'd like; they don't need to be new or unpublished.
Photo authors retain copyright, however Cal-IPC reserves the right to use submitted photos in publications, on the Cal-IPC website, and in other outreach materials.

Elizabeth Brusati, Ph.D, Project Manager
California Invasive Plant Council

Posted at 05:05 PM | Comments (0)


Over the past week or two, we've gone up to Tilden Park, out to Walnut Creek, over to El Cerrito, and a few other places either birding or on various errands. Everywhere, we've encountered shiny new painted ladies -- I'm guessing they're the offspring of the great migration we saw in March and early April. In some places, they're even in comparable numbers. They were thick in the air up in Tilden (near Jewel Lake) around Grizzly Peak and the top of Spruce Street in Berkeley, and several every minute, counting just while we waited at traffic lights in Walnut Creek and Berkeley today.

The ones on the west side of the hills seemed to be flying every whichaways, but most of the ones crossing the roads in Walnut Creek seemed to be heading north. In Tilden, they were nectaring on thistles and poison hemlock.

One interesting thing about this species is also a decent fieldmark: They don't fly around obstacles -- including you -- they fly over them.

Posted at 05:14 AM | Comments (0)

June 07, 2005

Tuesday Holy Crap! Science! Blogging

Nature tells us of a cultural tradition of tool use in cetaceans: Bottlenose dolphins in Shark Bay, Australia have been seen using sponges as snout protectors.

They snatch the somewhat cone-shaped sponges off their bases and keep them over their noses while rooting out burrowing organisms from the local sea bottom. I'm thinking this is as much clothing as tools, for the presumed original use of clothing: protection. When they start decorating the sponges, we can call it fashion. And then they'll need undersea closets. Somebody call SpongeBob's architect.

Posted at 04:38 PM | Comments (0)

June 06, 2005

Art & Politics

OK, I can't quite resist the occasional lapse into political commentary.

In several blogs and other near occasions of word, I've seen comments about the recent stories of Koran desecration that mention the controversy over Andres Serrano's infamous artwork "Piss Christ." None has seemed to twig to the actual humor content of the piece.

No, it has little to do with desecrating anything. Serrano says that the thing is a crucifix in a vial of urine. However, he offers no evidence of that, so the outraged (and all other) viewers of the work , if they think it's what he says it is, have to take it on faith.

Posted at 04:51 PM | Comments (0)

June 04, 2005

Friday Fun Science

This combines art and science, since I skipped last week. Blame it on the holiday.

On the other hand, it's kinda last-year. The college radio DJs have been playing it since at least last September. Hey, one of the blessings of old age is not having to keep up with the latest in pop culture.

Broken Hearted Dragonflies purports to be jungle recordings of the death throes of Southeast Asian dragonflies. The mp3 sample at the link sounds like yer basic jungle tweets and stridulations moving into a teeny jet takeoff. Charming, in its own way. I'll probably even buy the CD someday, if I'm feeling flush. The subtitle's a bit odd... I mean, is it insects or is it electronica?

Insect Electronica from Southeast Asia
Recorded by Alan Bishop forthe Sublime Frequencies label. Liner notes by Hakim Bey.

This catalog page has more samples.

I'll have to admit it's in the Buy This queue well behind the two (so far) boxed CD sets of Cab Calloway that Down Home Music has. Still, it would go nicely in the clockradioCDplayer in the bedroom. or on the answering machine. Yo, Valerie, maybe it would make good ringtones!

Posted at 02:09 AM | Comments (0)