Sunday, September 17, 2017

The Young Ones

Several weeks ago Sharon was working in the garden and dug up a couple of small eggs. As she had already disturbed them, she decided to collect them and try to incubate them inside. We thought they were snake eggs as we had seen several snakes in that area and had see some young snakes in the area. She put them in an old tupperware with a lot of leaf litter and a moist paper towel in the bottom. This was shortly before she headed off to Africa for work, so we hoped they would hatch quickly. But for several days, nothing happened. While Sharon was gone, I checked on them occasionally and added a spritz of water from time to time. But still nothing. Then a few weeks ago, I was out birding with our local club and chatted with a snake expert. He said at the park he works at the snake eggs usually hatch in about 10-14 days. They also put them under heat lamps. We had left our outside in the sun room where it was warm but probably not as hot as under a lamp. So it seemed like our eggs were not going to hatch. Sharon returned from her trip and we just left the tupperware and stopped checking on it.

Then today happened. We had had some friends over for lunch and after they left, Sharon headed back outside to finish cleaning up. As she walked past the table that had the tupperware full of leaf litter she saw something move. And then something else moved. She called to me to come quick. On the edge of the table was a small skink. The second one had dropped down onto the floor. Since our sunroom, while a nice place for us to hang out, wouldn't be a good nursery for baby skinks, we had to get them outside. I took the table outside and Sharon went and got a box out of the recycling bin and convinced the one on the floor to climb in so it could get a ride outside.

We killed a couple of mosquitoes in hopes that they would make good food. Sharon also found a small insect in the mulch of the one of the potted plants and offered that too. The offerings were accepted and devoured.
Skink #1 next to her home.


Hiding under the empty rice box


Looking at lunch



Look what I caught



All gone

It took a while for the one in the box to get settled again and climb out. But once again, this was the more adventurous one.  It heading over to the edge of the table and dropping down onto the deck. After about 15 minutes, lots of photos, and a few snacks, we recaptured them into the tupperware and released them into the garden from whence they came. Hopefully we will see them again and again in the coming years.



Ready for my new home

Afterwards, we looked in our guidebook and identified them as ground skinks (Scincella lateralis). It was about six weeks since Sharon uncovered them. And how lucky for us to be here when they emerged. What a wonderful day.
















Saturday, September 2, 2017

Train version 0

This fall, one of my garden goals is to install the first segment of a garden train. A garden train is a model railroad that is larger than what you normally have around the Christmas tree or is the basement. Rails are about 1.75" apart with cars (rolling stock) being 7-8" tall. We are going to install the first section in one of the existing garden beds. So, instead of building a raised bed or placing the track on the ground, I'm going to put it up on small risers.
Garden train installed on our deck

Part of garden where the train will eventually go

To get some practice and try out a couple of different options, I took the simple oval track that we have installed on the deck and built a platform for it. It was also an opportunity to practice some woodworking skills which I don't really have.

The general idea is to lay the track on decking board which is up on 4x4 posts. I found some instructions online for cutting boards to go around the curves. I started with a piece of PVC board to see how it worked and because it will hold up to the weather. But the boards I had were 1x4s and the track ties are just about 4 inches wide so 4 inch boards don't work for the curves. I have a lot of deck boards for our pier so I switched to pressure-treated lumber. The first pieces worked OK. It at least made the 180 degree turn.

Turn #1

The second turn I had something wrong with the angle and it ended up much worse. I tried to trim the pieces down but that didn't work either. So I ended up taking the first turn apart and using those pieces as templates for the second turn. It still didn't work out quite right and the pieces needed little gaps to make the correct turn.

spreading out the boards to match the track

I also struggled to get the posts cut square; my circular saw blade isn't long enough so I have to make two cuts. After watching YouTube for too long, I found a suggestion for a guide. I tried building my own following the video but still couldn't get it square. But then I saw my miter box on the wall. It is a little jerryrigged but it was close to usable. 


As the pieces came together I tested it out on the deck.

This let me get the straight boards to the correct length. One of the straight segments is the PVC board with rails on the side so I could use gravel to hold the track down. 

Once all of the pieces were cut, it was time to install. I picked an area where we have recently cleared out a lot of wisteria and there isn't any grass.
 

First, I roughly measured out the size of the oval, cleared away leaves, and then set out the posts.



I then attached the two curved ends. By this time it was getting late so I waited until the next game. And then it rained and was wet, and then rained again. So it was a week later before I got back to connecting pieces.





Then the track went on. It took a little adjusting to make sure everything aligned. I was surprised by how uneven the connecting deck boards were. I will have to focus on that next time. Even after adjusting the height of the posts didn't really help. There is one section that really sagged. I probably need to try and get longer straight pieces and use thicker boards for the connections. I used squares of plywood to hold the boards together.

I even had to go in and add another post to hold up the sagging part. The track doesn't lay flat on the boards. 



I tried the engine on the track and it ran. It was a little rough but runs. Soon I will try out the whole train on it. But again, the rain interrupted the work.

But Version 0 is officially working. 

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

BioBlitz

A few weeks ago, my wife and I participated in our first true BioBlitz. Previously we have participated in what was called a BioBlitz, but was more a park survey. The previous ones consisted of guided walks for the public that were also trying to collect species lists for the local park system to produce guides. And they lasted about 4 hours; an hour each for 4 categories.

This BioBlitz was 24 hours long with with at least 9 taxa groups out surveying the whole of Newport News Park. The park, one of the largest city parks east of the Mississippi, is over 8000 acres. Teams started at 1:00 pm Saturday and ended at 1:00 pm Sunday. We, or course, were part of the birding team; although my wife stuck around to help with insects of the night. More on that later.

I was with a group from the Old Dominion University Tick Lab. We explored a part of the park that the public seldom gets to. The area has a couple of power line cuts, several vernal ponds, and a remotely controlled airplane strip. Starting in the early afternoon on a warm late spring morning is not prime bird finding behavior. And the birds were doing well not to be found. But this is a BioBlitz, not a BirdBlitz, so we were happy to find this luna moth that was just emerging.
Emergent Luna Moth crawling across the ground

Emergent Luna Moth waiting it its wings to expand
How lucky were were to find it while it was still trying to find a place to pump up its wings.

This cricket frog and turtle gave us more herps than birds for a while.




We had collected a few species of birds, including a tufted titmouse making a most unusual call that stumped me for about 10 minutes, when we found this great horned owl sitting in the distance. I had to walk a ways off of the fire road to get this picture.


Interestingly, this was one of 4 owl individuals that were seen during the BioBlitz. We had a special owl walk scheduled for Saturday evening and got none seen or heard on that. We ended up with more frogs on the owl walk than owls. Birds can be so unpredictable.

The weather was odd that week with the temperature really dropping in the evening and wind picking up. As I mentioned, while I went on the owl walk, my wife stayed to help with the insects. Our local bug-guy had set up a white sheet with a bright light on it to attract night insects. But it was so cold and breezy that There wasn't much attracted to the sheets; just a bunch of tiny moths.The Oowl walk was also very slow. In fact, we got none. We did manage a couple of bats on the owl walk. One of the participants had a microphone that connected to her phone that picked up bat echolocation calls and could use the data from that to identify the species. It was a really cool set up.  One of the bats flew in close and we could see it in the dim evening light. A total of 7 bat species were identified (I don't think all at the owl walk). That's amazing.

Sunday, my wife and I headed out together in the Grafton Ponds section of the park. A place we have visited several times before.

We saw a lot of birds that were seen the previous day. The BioBlitz is focused on counting the number of species, not the number of individuals, that are found in the park. We enjoyed the repeat birds, especially ones that I didn't see the previous day, but we tried to keep moving to find new ones (my wife's team had much better luck with birds on Saturday getting 55 species to my teams 15). New ones Sunday included a red-headed woodpecker and summer tanager.




We also spied these mating insects (hanging scorpionflies).

Perhaps our best find was this:

video


We captured it in a plastic container and took it back to BioBlitz HQ. The bug-guy, who was doing all invertebrates, was over the moon. He was going to keep this leech for his classroom.

All told, the BioBlitz recorded over 600 species, people are still doing identifications on some of the invertebrates and plants that were collected. We had over 120 people participate. And for birds, we tallied 87 species. I had checked eBird and identified 95 species that had appeared in more than 5% of checklists for the city. Figuring some of the 95 are shorebirds and others with restricted habitats, we did well.

Here's looking forward to the next blitz.


Sunday, May 28, 2017

A Nice Paddle

My wife and I decided to enjoy the long Memorial Day weekend with a short kayak trip today. It was the first time we had had the boats out this season. Which meant a lot of work cleaning out all of the junk, especially empty boxes, from under the kayaks in the garage so we could get them out. The tide was running high this morning and the forecast was for rain in the afternoon, so after an enjoyable breakfast of homemade bread and coffees, we packed the car and headed out. We wanted to avoid the likely boat traffic of the holiday weekend so we didn't go to our usual put-in. Instead, we took advantage of a friend who had offered to let us launch from her dock. From there, we could ride the high water south through a marsh to a little sandy beach right behind a large marina. The beach is only accessible from the marsh during high tides.




We leave Janet's dock, turn under the road we drove in on and BAM there are two bald eagles, a red-headed woodpecker, and two more kayakers. We point out the closer eagle to them and they are impressed. It is just sitting up there for all to admire. We see what looks like an eagle nest a little further down creek but couldn't verify that it was in use (a missed opportunity to verify them as breeding in the area but I imagine there will be other opportunities or maybe someone has already confirmed it for the VA Breeding Bird Atlas.)

The water was really high today. Sometimes when we have been back here it is tough getting through the winding channel. Today we can occasionally see the tops of grasses sticking above the water along the edge. We probably "off-roaded" several times and didn't realize it.

Sharon stopped and picked up some trash and collected a few friends. Periwinkles were everywhere trying to hold on to anything above water, even an old potato chip bag. They rode with us for a while.

Red-headed woodpecker
 There were also at least a couple of gull-billed terns. These two were waiting out the winds on someone's pier. Until a few years ago, I hadn't seen one. This year I saw 8 on the spring bird count. And now 2-3 back in here. I wonder if they are expanding their range?

Gull-billed terns
We paused for a few minutes on the sandy beach which was our turn-around point. Several years ago we paddled out here and had lunch and then waded into the creek and found a seahorse. Today it was too cool and windy for anything like that. We both had long-sleeved shirts on. And it was a good thing as the wind coming off the bay was quite chilled. We were waiting out a jet skier who had passed us going inland and we could see returning towards the marina. And we waited. And waited. And then he popped out a different opening in the marsh. After waiting for another boat to approach, they also landed on the beach, we headed across the inlet from the bay for where the jet skier had emerged. At least we had some circumnavigation in for the day. We then poked around a few side channels until the wind and clouds told us it was time to had back. Along the way one of Sharon's periwinkles calls out to a friend so we pull over and drop them off. They will be happier here than back on the dock.


It was a nice paddle to get back in he swing of things. And we got home just in time. It turned from sprinkles to heavy rain as we pulled into the driveway. At least it washed the salt water off the boats.


Thursday, March 16, 2017

Hummingbirds of Costa Rica

One of the great joys of birding in Costa Rica, and probably anywhere in Central and South America, is the great number of hummingbird species that can be found. Here is a small collection of the 12 species that we saw.

Crowned Woodnymph at Villa Blanca

Green-crowned Brilliant at Villa Blanca
Green-crowned Brilliant at Villa Blanca
Scaly-breasted Hummingbird at Lost Iguana

White-necked Jacobin at Lost Iguana



Monday, March 6, 2017

Birding Villa Blanca

My previous post started talking about the birding vacation my wife and I took to Costa Rica. This post will focus on the birding, and other nature findings, at our first stop, Hotel Villa Blanca.

Villa Blanca sports 36 cabins around the property plus a main building and several smaller outer buildings. Around the property are several self-guided trails plus a few trails are only available for guided tours or by special permission. In the day and a half that we were there we covered only a small bit of the trails.

Common Chlorospingus next to our cabin
There was a lawn area between the main building and our cabin. Most of the time we headed out, there would be new birds here to stop us. On our first walk around the property we encountered a mixed flock of birds here. The rather common and difficult to say common chlorospingus (formerly the much more comfortable common bush-tanager). They were probably the most common bird we encountered here. And seeing one of them foretold many other birds coming soon. In this garden area there was always a bananaquit happy to join in the ruckus and a rufous-tailed hummingbird looking for someone to run off.


Bananaquit

Rufous-tailed Hummingbird
On our first morning the fog was heavy; we could barely make out the singing melodious blackbird across the path from our cabin. Then as we start up the stairs and across the lawn to breakfast this bird landing on the railing just ahead of us.


This orange-bellied trogon was hawking insects from the railing and low lampposts.

At the far-side of the lawn was the start of one of the self-guided tours that led to a hummingbird garden.


The first 50 ft of the trail was always productive. Our first time on it gave us looks at very good looks at several hummingbirds including an unexpected fiery-throated hummingbird. The fiery-throated is supposed to be at higher altitudes but after breeding they sometimes stray beyond their normal territories. While I didn't get a photograph, we did get excellent looks and could eliminate all other possibilities. On both eBird and the local checklist, this was a first for the property. And we had been in country less than 24 hours.

It was late in the breeding season so the hummingbirds were still being protective of the feeders and flowers (they really like the porterweed) so the density of hummers was low. But the variation was still high; at least for us.

There is a research center on site and on the second afternoon we wandered in and talked with one of the researchers, Estafan. The researchers also act as the nature guides on the property. Estafan looked up possible reports of the fiery-throated hummingbird for us. He then gave us permission to walk any of the closed off trains and suggested the long Henri Pittier trail. This is such a good location that it has its own eBird hotspot. It was a very nice trail but much less used and maintained than the others so we never made it all he way around. We added another 20 or so birds on this trail including another orange-bellied trogon. As we returned we saw a long line of leaf-cutter ants and discovered the purpose of some large mounds we had passed.

Leaf-cutter Ants on the March

Leaf-cutter Ant Mound

video

The mounds are part of the ants' nests. We found out later that the brown substance that we thought was dirt is actually the cellulose from the leaf bits that aren't broken down. The ants bring back bits of leaves to feed to fungus that they farm. They eat the fungus, not the leaves. But the fungus can't break down the all of the cellulose in the leaves. So the ants discard it just outside the nest holes.

Red-eyed tree frog
On our second, and last, night at Villa Blanca we had arranged for a night tour. We started by looking for some nighttime birds and saw a common pauraque flying low of the grass catching bugs. Our guide, Jave, knew of a tree that often had roosting birds in it and we found brown-hooded parrots and grey-headed chachalaca. We searched all around with flashlights and found several small tree frogs. Right before the end of the walk Jave tracked down a red-eyed tree frog; the iconic rain forest frog.

And as a bonus, we got to go with Jave to release a boa constrictor that Estafan had found earlier in the day. The snake really didn't want to go and Jave had to try several times to get it to release from his arm. Luckily, the are slow constrictors and probably any able-body human could unwind it as quickly as it wound itself around you.

Boa Constrictor
There is much of Villa Blanca that we didn't get to visit and I'm sure many more birds to be seen. We saw 51 species there over 10 checklists. It is some place we would love to return to and spend more time at. There are many more trails to be explored.
Green-crowned Brilliant