Please send in your wildlife photos. I know some of you are sitting on good ones!
Today’s photos, half of a larger batch) come from reader Dave (website here), and portray a variety of critters and plants (and one astronomy photo). A few have locations specified, but Dave adds, “Most are from upstate New York, from gardens or indiscriminate hikes. By the time I edit the backlog, though, months pass, and any recollection of when and where dries up.” Captions and IDs are Dave’s, and you can click on the photos to enlarge them.
Today we have a contribution from physicist and origami master Robert Lang, presenting some photos called “Altadena: Squirrel Noms Edition” (Altadena, California is where he lives). His captions and descriptions are indented, and you can enlarge the photos by clicking on them:
Most of these photos were taken from my office out the window above my desk.
Naturally we need to start with a kitty. Our first pic is a Bobcat (Lynx rufus), a species I get regular visitation from, though more often at night than daytime. As you can see here, the meadow outside my studio is starting to come back to life, which brings out the ground squirrels and rabbits that keep the bobcats coming.
I live and work in Altadena, on the northern boundary of the freeway-and-housing metropolis of Los Angeles. Because the mountains rise so abruptly, the boundary between civilization and wilderness is pretty sharp, and so we get a lot of wildlife along the edges, both big and small. The Western Fence Lizard(Sceloporus occidentalis) is one of the smaller ones.
One of my favorite visitors is the Acorn Woodpecker (Melanerpes formicivorus). They’re distinctive and chatty, and the locals seem to have forgiven me for letting Edison replace the old telephone pole last year that had become on of their granaries over the years.
I rarely see the Gray Fox (Urocyon cinereoargenteus) during the day, but one is a common nighttime visitor who gets snapped by an IR camera I have set. Here’s video.
The Western Gray Squirrels (Sciurus griseus) regularly come down from the trees to root around for seeds and such. This time of year, there’s lots of empty acorn caps, but not many acorns left (last year was a bumper crop).
A different kind of squirrel is the California Ground Squirrel (Otospermophilus beecheyi), which, though superficially similar to the grays can be distinguished by a tinge of brown and speckling in the fur and a not nearly as fluffy tail. (As the name suggests, they live in burrows, not trees.) This morning I saw a behavior I’ve never seen before: one was climbing around on a patch of Prickly Pear Cactus (Opuntia sp.), which must have hurt! Or else he climbed very carefully.
What could be so attractive to induce one to brave the glochids (the short, incredibly nasty little spines that grow in the areoles)? Turns out he was eating the cochineal insects (Dactylopius coccus)—which produce and live under the white, waxy tufts that you see around the areoles.
He went from pad to pad, cleaning them off. I’d never known that squirrels were cochineal predators, but this explained why they slowly disappeared from the cactus over the summer. I’m sure the cactus appreciated the squirrels’ cleanings.
In this last photo, you can see some of the waxy tufts around the squirrel’s mouth and I think I see one of the cochineal insects stuck on the end of a whisker—they’re tiny dark red dots (and are the source of Red Dye #4, also know as carmine, and commonly used in foods and cosmetics).
In this last photo, he has his eyes closed, and I see him as savoring the flavor of this delicacy that made it worth the trip and the spines. (I imagine Jerry having the same expression after a particularly juicy slab of brisket.)
I’ve spent two nights in La Grange, Texas, a small town (population about 4,600) near the Colorado River. I’d hoped to go to a well known (non-BBQ) restaurant in nearby Round Top, but it’s open only from Thursday-Sunday, as are many of the other recommended places around here, including BBQ joints. However, I saved the day by finding a very good local BBQ place out in the sticks, and today I’ll head back to Lockhart to either try another BBQ place or (as Jen Psaki says), “circle around” and return to Black’s BBQ, the site of my first meal on this trip.
After the trip is over, I’ll make a list of the best places I’ve been, and which places are best for which items, including side dishes. But be aware that I’ve had only ten days of culinary fieldwork in Texas, and the state is very large.
Back to La Grange. Google says that the town is famous for two things:
La Grange may be best known for two things: being the home of the Chicken Ranch, the inspiration for The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, and the subject of a classic ZZ Top song. The town began as a small fort built in 1826 to protect settlers in the area from Indian attacks.
For the first time I had a bit of breakfast, for I woke up at 5 a.m. and wasn’t going to eat for at least six hours. I headed two blocks north to a famous food emporium in town, Weikel’s Bakery, which specializes in one thing: kolache. These are a sweet bun heavily laden with fruit (not really jam, as it’s very thick—more like thick preserves. There were many kinds on offer (see below), but I was abstemious and chose only one type: blueberry. I knew I’d be returning later in the day.
It was absolutely spectacular, laden with full-flavored fruit. With it I had a large Colombian coffee, and that was all I needed to hold me until lunch.
After a bout of feverish restaurant-Googling last night, and having gone through several places, all of which were closed until Thursday, I found one that had good ratings, and was only 15 miles away. It was Peters BBQ in Ellinger, Texas, right on route 71. The ratings were good, and so the laws of physics sent me there.
And here ’tis, as they say. Note that, at about 11:15 a.m., the parking lot was already crowded and most of the vehicles were pickup trucks. Both of these are very good signs. Note that the guy is wearing a mask.
This was the most “authentic” BBQ I’ve been to—not in terms of authenticity of the food, but because it was truly local. Everyone there seemed to know everyone else, and all spoke with a heavy Texas accent. I was the only Yankee, but everyone was super nice to me.
As with most such places, you go to the meat counter first, order what you want (including sides, which are dished out by a nice lady from a steam table in the next room), and pay. Sweet and unsweetened ice tea are available ad lib in the dining room.
The locals (a lot of older people) were enjoying their lunch. Many got BBQ to go, as well. It’s cattle country here, and some of these folks may be ranchers or workers on a ranch.
My plate is below. I had the lunch special: two meats, two sides, free bread, jalapeños pickles and onions,along with tea and BBQ sauce (to be used only sparingly) on the side. My meats were brisket (of course) and pork ribs, and the sides were, as usual, pinto beans and potato salad. (There was no cole slaw, which also counts as a vegetable.)
I was lucky to find the place, as the food was very good. The pork ribs were tender and meaty, and the brisket, pictured below, while not the best I’ve had, was better than at other “famous” places I’ve eaten, like Cooper’s or the Southside Market. (Again, there can be brisket-to-brisket or day-to-day variation.) Here is “juicy” (i.e., fatty) brisket, and by now you should know to look for the outer char, the red “smoke layer”, and a ribbon of fat.
Yum! I was plenty full, believe you me, and it was about $15.
All over Texas I’ve been seeing signs with just a picture of a beaver wearing a hat. I guess the Texans know what it means, and I found out yesterday that it’s a chain called Buc-ee’s, which has 39 locations in Texas, Georgia, Alabama, and Florida. They are convenience stores and gas stations that also sell food (see below). I wouldn’t eat there, though occasionally, as with Weikel’s Bakery, a gas station can have great food.
As I drove around the area, I saw a bunch of cars pulled off onto the shoulder of Route 71, and of course I stopped to see what was going on. Below the road was a sunken field, glorious with blooming Texas bluebonnets (Lupinus texensis), the state flower. People were luxuriating in the flowers, taking selfies, and even having picnics. I’m told that entire hillsides can be in bloom like this, with many different flowers, but this is the only mass bloom I saw:
What a lovely sight to see, especially with a belly full o’ BBQ:
An unflattering selfie. I need a haircut and am unshaven, but so be it.
A few miles down the road, I pulled over because I saw a field of Texas longhorn cattle, the official State Large Mammal. (The Official Small Mammal is the armadillo, and the Official Flying Mammal is the Mexican free-tailed bat.) Look at those horns! They have a cool history; as Wikipedia notes:
The Texas Longhorn is a breed of cattle known for its characteristic horns, which can extend to over 100 inches (2.54 m) tip to tip for cows and bulls, with the biggest-horned steer measuring 127.4 inches (3.23 m) tip to tip. They are descendants of the first cattle introduced in the New World, brought by explorer Christopher Columbus and the Spanish colonists.
Descended from cattle that thrived in arid parts of Southern Iberia, these cattle have been bred for a high drought-stress tolerance. Texas Longhorns are known for their diverse coloring, and can be any color or mix of colors, but coloration mixes of dark red and white are the most dominant.
Here’s a group (I can’t tell if the adults are male or female):
As the article notes, there’s substantial variation in color among individuals:
Adult and adult in statu nascendi:
A longhorn calf with the horns starting to sprout.
In the afternoon I took a tour around La Grange, which of course didn’t take long, for the good bits of these towns comprise the courthouse and a few blocks around it, with sprawling roads out of town lined with McDonald’s, Wal-Marts and the like.
And the customary courthouse square, lined with old buildings (“old” in America means “older than 100 years”).
Finally, I went back to Weikel’s to get two kolache for an evening nosh (as I said, I have one meal and one treat per day, though I also had a kolache at breakfast). You can see that the bakery is part of a gas-station/convenience store/restaurant complex, which proves that you can get good food in gas stations.
I found the place because the Sterns gave it a “memorable” rating on Roadfood, but I’ve heard of it from other food sites as well. Kolaches are a remnant of the Germans and Czechs who settled in Texas long ago.
Here are all the kinds of kolaches they had. Hard to choose!
Left to right: cream cheese, strawberry,peach, apple, blueberry, and cottage cheese.
I got a strawberry and a cream cheese, which seemed to me a good pairing. The strawberry one got squished a bit in the car. The cream cheese one was good, but the strawberry, with whole berries, was fantastic.
As I head out to BBQ in Lockhart today, I’ll stop by Weikel’s again to get a few kolaches for an evening treat, for I’ll be spending the night in a motel near the Austin airport, ready to catch a flight home tomorrow. That’s when I start my kale juice cleanse. (Only kidding! But I am going to eat very abstemiously for a while. . . )
Today we have a contribution from Tony Eales of Queensland. His notes are indented, and you can enlarge his photos by clicking on them.
My wife and I did a road trip back up to tropical North Queensland to stay at Port Douglas and visit various places of natural beauty including the 40-million-year-old World Heritage Daintree Rainforest and the remnant isolated rainforest in the Clarke Range with its high degree of species endemism.
While bugs and spiders are my thing, I must say, though, that the vertebrates took a front seat on this trip with some truly fantastic sightings of mammals, birds and reptiles unique to these places, alongside some very interesting arthropods.
We were very lucky to come across two cassowaries (Casuarius casuarius) on our first day in north Queensland. We saw a third on our last day as well. These are wonderful birds to see, particularly because we were in the car rather than on foot. I’m not sure I’d like to come face to face with a cassowary without some barrier between it and me. They’re known as the most dangerous bird in the world and have killed at least two people that I am aware of. There are numerous videos of cassowary attacks on YouTube, this one is particularly alarming.
The absolute highlight of the trip and one of my best experiences with wildlife was finding this small family of Bennett’s Tree-kangaroos (Dendrolagus bennettianus) while on a night walk in the Daintree. These are a very rare animal: their ranges is only 70 km north-south and 50 km east-west. They are very quiet and stay high in the canopy. My wife noticed the red eyeshine but they were so far up in the dark it was difficult to determine at first what we were looking at. It was a long frustrating struggle to coax my camera that was set up for insects to focus on and capture an image of these animals. I am informed that this is the first photographic evidence of them living in small family groups. An unforgettable experience.
It was a good night for arthropods as well. I found this predatory katydid, the Pink-jawed Katydid (Emeraldagraecia munggarifrons), formally described only in 2012. It was just chilling out on a handrail waiting for something tasty to wander along.
Daytime was amazing too in the Daintree. We went to the Daintree Discovery Centre which had walking trails with lots of informative signage and displays. The best was a tower that took you up into the canopy. Right beside the tower was a huge Black Bean tree (Castanospermum australe) and while looking at the leaves I noticed this giant colourful bug, a Yellow-horned Giant Stinkbug (Oncomeris flavicornis). The bug was the size of a matchbox but only has a tiny head which is apparently typical of this family.
While leaning out over the edge of the railing to try and photograph the bug I noticed this large beautiful longicorn beetle Rosenbergia drouini. As soon as I put the picture up on Facebook, I was inundated with friend requests from beetle collectors asking if I had collected the specimen. This was apparently a very rare find and is not in many collections.
After our time up in the north we took our time coming home and spent a bit of time at Eungella National Park up in the Clarke Range. This rainforest is large but isolated and is recognised as a centre of endemism. I was able to find two of the key endemics while there. The Eungella Spiny Katydid (Phricta zwicka) and the Eungella Leaf-tailed Gecko (Phyllurus nepthys).
JAC: Look at that camouflage!
Also, on a night walk in the rainforest I snapped a photo of a pretty moth Ecnomophlebia argyrospila. It turns out that this is the only known live photo that the Australian moth experts I talked to have seen and it’s only known from a single specimen collected in 1927.
Two other notable endemics I photographed on the trip home were a land snail Pedinogyra cania that is restricted to a single locality called Cania Gorge and the cute Mareeba Rock-Wallaby (Petrogale mareeba) that lives only in the granite hills around the north Queensland town of Mareeba.
Tomorrow may mark a ten-day hiatus in photo postings, for I’ll be on the road. But do get your photos together during this time, as I’ll need them when I return.
Today we have two contributors in a photo duet I’ll call “The Birds and the Bees”. The readers’ captions are indented, and you can enlarge the photos by clicking on them.
The first contributor is Alex Salcedo, who sends four photos of snail kite that he explains on his website. The photos were taken several years ago at Lake Tohopekaliga in Kissimmee, Florida.
Female Snail Kite (Rosthramus sociabilis) in mid-flight. Lake Tohopekaliga, Kissimmee, Florida.
Male Snail Kite:
Male Snail Kite:
Female Snail Kite:
And some flower and bee photos from reader Ron Miksha.
Iceland is more than spectacular volcanoes, ground quakes and rupturing continents. It has bees, too. Some say that the first founder bumble bee blew in with the wind. Others think that Iceland’s first bumble bee hitched a ride aboard a Viking ship, hidden among hay, ponies, and sheep on the 1,000-kilometre journey from the north of the British Isles. Bee DNA shows that Bombus jonelluslikely arrived on two distinct occasions, so both theories may be right. More recently, between 1959 and 2010, four other bumble bee species were found in Iceland. All of these species are well-represented throughout northern Europe and likely arrived as stowaways.
I’m badly color-blind and often mistake my wife for a hat, so Dr. Anselm Kratochwil of the University of Osnabrück has kindly identified the species for me. These photographs were taken in Reykjavik by family members and me.
This is my favourite photo. It was taken on a cool rainy summer’s morning in the hilltop gardens at Hallgrímskirkja (Hallgrímur’s Church). The bees had been foraging the night before and camped out overnight. In the morning, they began twitching their muscles to warm up as soon as the rain ended and the sun shone. On this Centaurea cyanus (bachelor’s button) are Bombus hypnorum, left, with brown thorax hair and black abdomen, and on the right, Bombus lucorum, the White-tailed bumble bee. These are different species, of course, so their sharing of a bed was quite surprising.
Here’s another Bombus lucorum, foraging on Centaurea cyanus:
Yet another B. lucorum. It’s important, of course, to not frighten the bee.
The next bee, Bombus hypnorum, is the newest accidental arrival in Iceland. Once restricted to continental Europe, in the past 20 years it has colonized Britain and Iceland. Typically, Bombus hypnorum has a dark ginger thorax (mid-section) but this one has an unusual black thorax. She is visiting flowers of Syringa vulgaris (lilac).
By now, Bombus lucorum’s thorax of light-yellow and black bands of hair and its abdomen of light-yellow and black bands followed by a white tail is familiar. The plant species is Philadelphus coronarius, which we call mock orange.
Thanks again to my sister, Jane, who took the best of these photos and to Anselm Kratochwil for all the identifications.
Please send in your photos. I will probably put this feature on hold while I’m in Texas, but, except when I’m gone, the tank is always emptying.
Today’s photos come from regular Tony Eales, an anthropologist in Queensland who loves natural history. Tony’s captions and IDs are indented, and you can enlarge his photos by clicking on them.
Tropical North Queensland part II (part I is here)
Here are a few of the other wonderful organisms I encountered on my brief trip up north to the jungles.
Australian Prismatic Slug (Atopos cf australis). I’m pretty sure there are several species of this slug around, but they all seem to be labelled A. australis. They are predatory slusg with curved teeth in the radula, and they spit acid onto snail shells to help rasp through to the snail inside.
The tracks at Speewah Conservation Park were empty of other humans, which was great for spotting wildlife. I got to approach this Northern Tree Snake (Dendrelaphis calligaster) quite closely without alarming it too much. It’s a slightly built rear-fanged colubrid and presents no danger to humans.
These beautiful Tropical Rockmasters (Diphlebia euphoeoides), a type of flat-wing damselfly, were common around Cairns and the surrounding area. I wish we had such beauties near me. This photo shows a male and female at Lake Eacham.
This is a lichen-mimicking caterpillar, Enispa prolectus. These caterpillars fasten small pieces of lichen to their backs with silk as a form of camouflage.
As the area is a tropical rainforest and it was actually raining while I was there, I was inevitably attacked by many, many leeches. However, I spotted this one (Haemadipsa sp.) on a railing at night actively questing, and I was struck by the bright colours. I have to wonder, are these colours signals to each other, warning, camouflage or just random?
One for Mark Sturtevant: a Pisuarid spider, related to the Dolomedes triton that he featured recently. This one is Hygropoda lineata. These were very common in the north. Rather than living by the water, these spiders make a simple web platform across the surface of broad leaves and sit on top of it, often looking like they are hovering in thin air.
Nephila pilipes, the Giant Golden Orbweaver. These are well named. We have Golden Orbweavers at home, which are big spiders, but these northern ones are mind bending. This one had a body length of about 50mm and was eating a cicada the size of my thumb. The span of the web was about 6 metres from attachment to attachment and the main orb about a metre and a half across.
They are only weakly venomous to humans and very reluctant to bite even when handled, preferring just to climb away.
There were a huge variety of amazing ant species to be found in the forests, but by far the most common were the Green Weaver Ants,Oecophylla smaragdina. I was always checking their trails for signs of the spiders that mimic them. Unfortunately, I didn’t find any. I did however observe their interesting behaviour of holding leaves together like living stitches. Inside the ball of leaves larvae are being hatched. The larvae are then taken by workers and produce silk to tie the leaves together more permanently.
In Speewah Conservation Park there were lots of climbing palms, Calamus caryotoides. The mature stems are festooned with black spines to ward off herbivores. However, these caterpillars, which I’ve yet to ID, use the spines to create a protective home as the crawl around and eat the leaves.
These long-jawed orbweavers, Tetragnatha rubriventris, were very common around Cairns. They have massive hinged chelicerae and the males have large clubbed pedipalps with complicated spiralled spines for placing a sperm packet into the female epigynum. all this weirdness makes them great photo subjects for a really alien look.
Also in Speewah Conservation Park I found this amazing fruiting bodies of the slime mould Tubifera microsperma.
I’m still not out of danger, so please send in your good photos.
Today’s photos are by Mark Richardson, and show some of the landscapes of Alaska. Mark’s notes and captions are indented; click on the photos to enlarge them. I’ve put a map of the area—the Kenai Peninsula—at the bottom.
Here are some landscape photos of wild Alaska. Most are self-explanatory as landscapes naturally are. I had a whimsy with one name…can you guess?
This was a trip to Alaska’s Kenai peninsula in 2004. The area is readily accessible by car (it’s about 4 hours from Anchorage) and offers what the locals call “combat fishing”- fisherfolk elbow to elbow trying to catch spawning salmon. I must admit, it is some of the greatest salmon fishing I’ve ever encountered. But after a day of this angling mayhem, we took a plane out of Soldatna and flew for about an hour into the interior. This meant fewer people and even better fishing. These photos were taken on the flight to the secluded cabin and surrounding areas.
A wild coast aerial:
Alaska green aerial view:
Aerial view of a braided river:
Portrait of morning fog:
Portrait with fireweed [Chamaenerion angustifolium]:
Today’s photos come from Dom, who’s spent the lockdown in Cromer, a seaside town on the east of England. Dom’s notes are indented, and you can click on his photos to enlarge them.
Here are some snowdrops, Galanthus nivalis, in the Cromer woods. Not a native species in the British Isles, they have however become naturalised. They hang their flower heads- I suppose it protects the flower from precipitation…
This is a mass of hornwrack, not the same as horned wrack which is a seaweed, but a form of sea-mat and a Bryozoan or Polyzoan. With the iPhone it is hard to get a good close-up, but you can see the spaces individuals live in—a bit like a honeycomb. They live below the tideline & presumably dead ones get thrown up on shore in storms. This mass of hornwrack was 2-3 feet deep, & full of bits of shore crab; and I found part of a lobster shell. There was a dead black-headed gull, probably the victim of one of the peregrines that nest on the church tower, also remains of 6 dead woodcocks – wings & breastbones- possibly also eaten by the peregrines.
There were also masses of Whelk eggs – Buccinum undatum – astonishingly large compared with the size of the whelk. They look like bubble-wrap. Apparently of all the eggs in each bubble, only one hatches, after consuming its fellows! Common Whelks, found on shores of the North Atlantic as far south as New Jersey and France, do not tolerate waters warmer than 29° C. They are also affected by marine pollutants, like the coatings used on ships to inhibit growth of marine life – Tributyltin or TBT. These can cause female whelks – they have male/female sex unlike some molluscs – to develop male gonads, which is called ‘imposex’.
Photo attached is a rather bashed whelk shell. I threw the egg cases in the sea – some eggs were still unhatched – but they could easily have been washed up again. I imagine whelks attach them to something. I cannot understand how one whelk can produce so many eggs!
Some pictures from Cromer this week. The only visible flowers are on the gorse which can be seen with some flowers every month of the year, though I wonder what insects would take advantage of that—perhaps winter flying gnats Trichoceridae? But they tend to be in the woods rather than heath-like habitat.
A couple of pictures show snow showers blowing in from the north-east.
We have unusually had snow lying here for over a week – one of the crab fishermen said he’d never seen it last this long. Usually being by the sea moderates the cold, but that means it is often cooler in summer of course.