Sunday, December 30, 2018

Happy New Year!

A sleek American Crow, Corvus brachyrhynchos, in mid-caw.

And this thought for 2019 from Alfred Lord Tennyson: 
Hope smiles from the threshold 
of the year to come, 
whispering, "It will be happier."  
Click to enlarge.

Monday, December 24, 2018

Merry Christmas!

The maple tree outside my window has a hole that is used by a family of squirrels. I see three or four of them going in and out and sometimes just sitting in the entryway looking cute. While I was drinking my morning coffee today, I noticed that there was an incongruous branch of white pine up there, pictured above. Is it a squirrel Christmas tree? I'm sorry it's a blurry shot, but when I was more awake and went back to take a better picture, the pine branch was gone. Did they pull it inside to help insulate... or to decorate? Click to enlarge.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Appreciating Cardinals

It has been raining and gray here for days that feel like weeks. It seems to make the red cardinals stand out even more than usual. Click to enlarge.
It reminds me of something Terri Guillemets wrote:

"Winter is the slow-down
Winter is the search for self
Winter gives the silence you need to listen 
Winter goes gray so you can see your own colors..." 

On the technical side, when I was picturing red cardinals on gray backgrounds, I realized that although my camera can take a selectively colored photograph like that, I did not know how to change an existing color image to only show reds and grays. I figured out how to do it with Photoshop. (I have CS 5.) I opened this jpg and called it Layer 1. Then I chose Color Range from the Selection menu, and then Reds from the Selected Colors pull down. I copied that selection to a new layer. Then I used the Adjustment option from the Image menu to change Layer 1 to Black and White. That's it. Red cardinals on gray backgrounds.

Works well for house finches, too.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Holiday Botany Review

I was in a garden shop full of Christmas trees the other day, trying to remember the differences between pine, spruce, and fir. Here are some clues to tell them apart. 
Pines, spruces, and firs are all in the pine family and have needle-like leaves, but their needles are arranged differently. Pines have needles in bundles or clusters, like the white pine pictured here. Can you make out the five-needle bundles? Click to enlarge. 
Firs and spruces have individually attached needles, but attached in different ways. The fir needles pictured here are flat and blunt and typically feel soft. If you pull one off, you'll see the attached end looks like a tiny suction cup. 

The single needles of spruces are stiffer and sharper than those of firs. I got poked a few times while moving this little spruce branch around to photograph. Spruce needles are four-sided or triangular, not flat, so if you pull one off you can easily roll it between fingers. They are attached with tiny woody peg-like structures that stay on the branch when the needles fall, making the branches feel rough. 
Here's a bit of leafless peg-rough spruce branch. So... that's the kind of thing I was thinking about when I went to the garden shop.
Imagine my surprise when I saw these. 
And this. 
And these. 
We may need a whole different kind of field guide here. 

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Guardian Crows

The bird feeders at my place are really busy these days. I see lots of chickadees that are, so far, too fast for me to photograph. The tufted titmouse above and all his relatives are busy all day taking seeds from the feeders and stashing them in secret places for later. 
Downy woodpeckers are busy pecking at seeds and suet. 
Here's a female downy waiting and watching. 
I can depend on visits from a few dozens lovely red house finches every day. 
Cute little white-breasted nuthatches flit between feeders and trees, hanging upside down to take seeds and running acrobatically along tree trunks and branches. Click to enlarge. 
All the bird activity attracts hawks. This is an immature red-tailed hawk. 
Its tail isn't red yet, just striped. It sits and watches the little birds at the feeder, looking for an opportunity to catch something tasty. 
But crows are also watching. They keep an eye on the hawks. Yesterday I heard a racket outside and when I looked, half a dozen crows were dive-bombing a red-tailed hawk that was sitting in a tree. When crows harass a predator like this, it's called "mobbing" -- they cooperate to bother the hawk, usually to keep it from messing with their young. The little birds at my feeders benefit, too. Thanks, guardian crows! 

Sunday, November 25, 2018


The holidays have started. I hope your Halloween and Thanksgiving were as nice as mine. 

Here's a thought about holidays from Fred Rogers:

"I like to compare the holiday season with the way a child listens to a favorite story. The pleasure is in the familiar way the story begins, the anticipation of familiar turns it takes, the familiar moments of suspense, and the familiar climax and ending."

Winter is coming! Get the egg nog ready! 

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Early Snow

It took me two hours to drive 25 miles through the snow storm we had this week. We don't usually get so much snow this early in autumn while the leaves are still falling. I think the colored leaves on the snow were worth all the trouble the storm caused.              Click to enlarge.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Autumn Leaf Edition

from Autumn 
by Rainer Maria Rilke 

The leaves are falling, falling as if from far up,
as if orchards were dying high in space. 
Each leaf falls as if it were motioning 

Monday, November 5, 2018

Halloween Aftermath

Halloween must seem like a free food windfall to squirrels. Click to enlarge. 
From this. 
To this.  
There are chewed up pumpkins all around. 
Because pumpkins are delicious and nutritious. 
And we love the corn, too. Thank you. 

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Squirrel Holiday

I love Halloween decorations. 
So do I. 
A funny thing happened. You know this corn that people decorate with for Halloween?  The other day I woke up and looked out my window. There was something moving out there that I couldn't quite make out. It was the size of a small dog, pale yellow, maybe with waving tentacles, and moving in a jerky run along the sidewalk.  The first thing that came to my mind, not being fully awake, was that it was a big yellow spider. It stopped running and sat and quivered. I still couldn't figure out what it was, so I got my binoculars. It turned out to be a squirrel carrying an ear of dry corn like above with yellow husks still attached, which can look a lot like giant yellow spider legs from a distance if you are just waking up. I figure that one of my nearby neighbors is missing an ear of corn from a Halloween display. Click to enlarge. 
I couldn't photograph the moment, but here is an artistic Photoshop recreation. 
So -- seasonal decorations or tasty snacks? 

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Caterpillar Update

Last week's blog ended with a cliffhanger. (Click here to read it.)
Were the black swallowtail caterpillars outside on the parsley plants immobilized by the cold or preparing to molt? The very next day the caterpillar above transformed into the stage pictured below. Click to enlarge. 
That black stuff below is its old skin. 
I touched him and he stuck out his little yellow stinkhorn. 
This morning it looks like this, about an inch and a half long -- about half an inch longer than it was this time last week. It is voraciously devouring parsley leaves. This seems almost certainly to be the generation that will spend the winter in chrysalis form. I want them to be fat and ready before I release them into the field of Queen Anne's lace where my other parsley cats have gone. Just waiting for the one pictured below to get a little bigger. 
I call this one Cat2. It shed a skin this morning. I'll bet it is feeling loose and empty and ready to eat some parsley. 

Sunday, October 14, 2018

More Caterpillars on the Parsley

A black swallowtail caterpillar, Papilio polyxenes. This one is on a parsley plant outside on my porch. It's not the first time I've had swallowtails lay eggs on that plant. A month ago I found a family of them and wrote a blog which you can read by clicking on this sentence. I did not have enough parsley to support that whole family so I set them free in a field of one of their host plants, Queen Anne's Lace. You can read about that by clicking on this sentence. I thought it was all behind me and then this happened -- a new cohort of caterpillars appeared on the same parsley plant. I still don't have enough parsley to support them, so this group will be joining the others in the wildflower field. The caterpillar in the picture above is about an inch long. I spotted them when they were less than a quarter of that. Click to enlarge. 
I hope they can deal with the sudden cold snap. This one has been sitting still in this position since the temperature dropped two days ago. Seems to be holding its face in its hands. Maybe tomorrow when it warms up it will get back to eating and growing. Maybe it is just planning to molt its skin; it is hard to tell what caterpillars are planning, but I know it has to get through a few more stages before it is safely wrapped in its winter chrysalis. 

Sunday, October 7, 2018


Leaves are beginning to turn color and fall. It's a great time to take a long walk. 
The marshy shores of the Rancocas Creek are yellow with autumn flowers. 
A carpenter bee works in the goldenrod. Click to enlarge.
A fence lizard warms in the afternoon sun. 
There's clear blue autumn sky above and below.