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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!