Saturday, May 24, 2014

It has been a long time between posts- work and life got in the way, and now I have a backlog of over a thousand photographs to cull through! I am starting out with catching everyone up with our resident Barred Owls. Chester and Greta hatched just one baby this year, after having two each the preceding years. But first, I must tell the sad story of Chester's favorite branch. A lovely, arching branch from a large Swamp Bay, it was both beautiful and useful. It was in a perfect location, right next to where a stream emerges, and there is water trickling up all year round. It feeds into the swamp proper, and is perfectly located over a large permanent brush pile. I call it the owl buffet, prime area for our other slithery, scaled, feathered and furred denizens to sneak out for a quick drink of water. It is the first place I saw Chester; and he, Greta and the various owlets have used it year round for all of these years. Just over a week ago, the majority of the branch broke off, leaving just a stub. Chester still persists in using it, though it must cut back on his ability to flick open his wings and swoop down on the unsuspecting prey. The first photograph shows one of the mostly fledged owlets from last year on the buffet branch, waiting patiently for a snack. Then, one of poor Chester- it is a bit cramped. Next is a rare clear shot of Greta, followed by some shots of this year's baby- starting with him/her on a neighbor's trailer during the early branching stage, then a bit later when he/she had better control of its wings and could fly high up and pester mom and dad for food. Then, some random shots of Chester around the yard.
Next is Greta, ever regal


Newest baby, brancher period, then way up in tree after discovering how wings work-

This is likely a threat display-







Chester-

Chester, all fluffed up right after a bluejay hit him in the head. He had flown in to distract them from the baby.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Argiope spider

The spider species Argiope aurantia is commonly known as the black and yellow garden spider, also called a writing spider and it has an interesting adaptation to their web. The feature is a zipper-like design in the center where she mostly hangs out. There is some dispute as the whether this is to keep birds from flying through the web- but nonetheless, it is interesting. This beauty is set up in a sunny, but sheltered area and she was very uncooperative. I had to go out multiple times to get a photograph of her in her web, she was very clever at detecting me and disappearing into the twigs her web was attached to. When she is in position at the center, she arranges her front and back legs into an x- almost like a Maltese cross sideways. That was what I was trying to capture. They are not dangerous to humans, and lovely to watch. They usually tear down and eat their web every night, and re-spin it again early the next morning. They don't get quite as big as the Golden Orb spiders, but they are pretty big. First photo is of her web, then her hiding in the foliage- then finally, an underneath shot of her in her web.



Saturday, August 3, 2013

Herons, Egrets and Ibis

We see various herons/egrets/Ibis daily. The most common are the Little Blue Herons (Egretta caerulea see photograph)), Great Blue Herons (Ardea herodias- see photograph), Yellow-crowned Night Herons (Nyctanassa violacea, several photographs), Great White Egret, aka Heron(ardea alba), Cattle Egrets (Bubulca Ibis) and white Ibis (Eudocimus albas). Rarer sightings are Snowy Egrets, Green-backed Herons, Black Ibis, Tricolored Herons with very occasional Roseate Spoonbills, Sand Hill Cranes and Wood storks- these are usually just passing through. The White Ibis are almost ubiquitous- they are around in large flocks frequently, and will even follow after a lawn mower taking advantage of the the insects that have been disturbed.
The majority of the photographs are of a Yellow-crowned Night Heron who has been growing up in our yard at the river for the past two years. I first spotted it hanging out in the trees at the edge of the swamp near the river two years ago- I never did get a good photograph, but this summer I managed several. When it was a juvenile, it had spotty brown feathers, and blended in very well with the background. Since it has grown up seeing me, it will hang out longer than the others so I could take a few decent photographs this year. Unlike the name suggests, I frequently see it during the daytime hunting through the shallows and rocks at the river for small prey including our large resident population of Fiddler crabs. It is a handsome mid-sized shore bird, with slate gray feathers, a black head, white crown and cheek stripes, reddish eyes and yellow legs. Breeding adults have a yellow fore crown (thus the name) with white plumes from the nape and orange legs. The Yellow-crowned Night Herons are among my favorites-and this one bird seems to have made a solitary home in our  yard. There is probably a small breeding colony nearby, but I have seen the same bird here almost daily for two years. When disturbed, like most herons, it will squawk quite loudly as it takes off.

First, a beautiful Great Blue Heron, followed by a shot with the same bird and a Little Blue Heron in the background, then a Little Blue Heron wading in the Hillsborough River near sunset.



Yellow-crowned Night Heron in an Oak tree next to the river- if you click on the image, you can see its head plume.
Hunting for crustaceans on the rocks





Saturday, July 20, 2013

Alligator tales



When people first visit our pocket swamp, one of the initial things they ask is if we ever have alligators in the swamp. In summer during the rainy season, both the upper and lower swamp areas are full of water- so it is a natural assumption. But, I have only had two encounters with an alligator actually in our yard, and this goes back to my childhood in the 60’s when I spent most of my free time either exploring the swamp or poking around in the river.
At one point in the late 1990’s my mom and our closest next door neighbors kept saying they heard an alligator in the lower swamp. I knew this wasn’t probable, but borrowed some chest high waders (the mud in the swamp is at least 2 feet deep, and the water over about a foot or so), took a big metal pole and waded in. I almost got stuck a few times, and I did almost step on a snapping turtle- but no alligator. After listening to it one night, I determined it was pig frogs. Very anticlimactic.
Mostly, we see alligators from a distance in the river during spring, when the guys are out hunting for new territory and single females. Even then it is infrequent, as the Hillsborough River in our area is brackish (varying degrees of salinity) and although they will travel through salt water, they prefer fresh water. Another reason we don’t see them in our back yard at the river is because our bank is made up of limestone rock and chunks of cement- I’ve always heard that alligators don’t like climbing up rocks.
My two brushes with the prehistoric beasts both happened after a huge gulley washer (storm) which coincided with a very high tide and flooding. In both cases, the river flooded our property almost to the house, with a good foot of water over the bank at the river. The first one was late at night- a huge storm front kicked up by a diminished hurricane Frances, August 2004, coinciding with a high tide and flooding. At about 11pm, I put on my rubber boots, took a big flash light and waded down the path to the river just to check it out. The river was a torrent, and I waded over to where the stream empties into the river to see if our bridge was still there. As I approached, I suddenly heard a lot of splashing, not the ambient sounds I was already hearing from the rushing water, rain and wind. When I got near- I shone my flashlight and beheld a rather large alligator who had apparently wedged himself in the rocky stream bed head-first under the bridge (which was a very heavy metal grate) to ride out the roiling current and storm. I watched in amazement, and not a little glee- apparently in this situation alligators don’t back up easily. He bucked and bumped- finally got himself disengaged and turned around and disappeared into the dark roiling river. I stood there a while bemused, shining my flashlight around and then started wondering where he went. Looked down at my knee high waders, with the water almost to the top- looked back at the river and decided it was time to skedaddle. Yes, I really do wish I’d had a video camera with me.
In June 2007, a fairly equivalent situation- big storm surge overnight with flooding. I, of course, had to go check it out in the morning. Everything was soaked, the swamp was full and the paths flooded. I waded into the center- a slight rise between the lower and upper wetland areas, and spotted a baby alligator- just about two feet long. It was probably a yearling and maybe got separated during the storm from its mom. I ran to the house, grabbed my camera and just barely managed to track it down again and take a few photographs before it got away. Little alligators are very fast. Naturally, I really wanted to catch it- yes I know, you should not catch or molest alligators, but it was so cute and just at the perfect size to hold.
There are three photographs below- two of the baby alligator and another one showing more recent flooding on the path. After seeing the baby alligator, I always check out the swamp when the river floods over the bank, but no more chance encounters with these amazing critters. I always hold out hope!

In the second shot, it was running away from the strange two-footed beast.


Friday, July 12, 2013

Trash and treasures- stuff found in the river

For this post, I will be discussing the interesting and nasty things found in the river. Since my family bought this house in 1962, I have always combed the river and shoreline for interesting critters and objects. Since my husband I moved in, I have instituted a routine of fishing out any trash that floats up. About once a month, I have a large trash bag full of plastic and Styrofoam containers, beer cans, bottles and the occasional shoe which I mostly recycle.

Just a few weeks ago, a small refrigerator, complete with two scummy bottles floated up. Now, why would someone just throw this into the river?
Sometimes I hang on to the brightly colored or unusual things- and sort them out by category. This is some of the plastic stuff that floated in, including a rubber brain that the squirrels think is tasty. The two blue reflectors floated in a year apart.
Odd scraps of metal found along the shoreline-
Interesting bits and pieces of pottery-

Bits of broken glass

My big finds in the glass category are these 3 intact glass bottles, after finding one I started digging and unearthed two more. The small clear bottle is labeled Leon Hale, Apothecary, Tampa Fla, the larger brown bottle Warner Safe Remedies, Rochester N.Y. and the smaller brown bottle- Leonardi's Blood Elixir, The Great Blood Purifier, S.B. Leonardi & Co., New York and Tampa, Fla. I am thrilled by the two that reference Tampa, the original house was an old pharmacy building from south Tampa that was floated up the river on a barge, and I like to think these were somehow associated with that building. Unfortunately, the original house was destroyed in a hurricane in 1921, and the current house was built in the current location, further from the river on higher ground. Mrs. Rohrer salvaged a few bits and pieces and they still exist in a couple of doors downstairs.

Occasionally, toys float up- many still in a sealed package. I tend to keep them and give them away to visiting children, but here are a couple that remain. Our dog Sophie enjoys all of the balls that float up.
A few months ago two paperback books washed up on the shoreline. George Orwell's 1984 and The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky. I fished them out because I found this curious- and imagined some young student throwing them in the river in frustration.
From childhood, one of my pleasures and treasures has been finding fishing lures and bobbins that some poor fisherman has lost to the elements. I have a tackle box full dating back to the 60's, these are a few of the more recent finds.

Occasionally, more unusual things float up such as the plastic wedding cake couple and the coconut spectacled monkey-
Some of the stranger things that float up, and that I don't mess with- are probably Santeria offerings-  roosters with the heads cut off, gourds with objects rattling around in them and mysterious bags with roots, bones and tobacco. Those I leave alone.


Since moving in, my mother and I have found and collected odd bits and pieces of fossilized coral. Large chunks which are fossilized coral heads probably around 35 million years old, and smaller pieces.

 My mother thought the large chunks were brought up the river as ballast (from Ballast Point) and thrown overboard as the river grew more shallow. But a find from several years ago now solves the mystery- a projectile point likely from the Florida Archaic period, roughly 2,000-5,000 BCE. A friend, Terry, who is an archeologist, helped identify and date this lovely knapped piece. The odd bits and pieces are evidence of ancient indians working on the chert (sometimes referred to as flint) found in the heart of the fossilized coral heads. Among them are several possible tools, and discarded worked objects. The projectile point (which shouldn't be called an arrowhead- bows and arrows had not been invented at this time)  counts as the most precious object I have ever found in the river.













Saturday, June 22, 2013

The slithery and the fuzzy, chance encounters along the path.



Last week I caught an Eastern Glass Lizard, Ophisaurus ventralis, on the pathway to the river. This poor baby had dropped its tail to escape a predator, and just has a little stump. They look like snakes, but are true lizards despite not having legs- they have moveable eyelids, external ear openings, and inflexible jaws. The main body is actually rather stiff and not very flexible, but the tail, which takes up half or more of their length, is very supple and fragile and breaks off readily when seized by a predator. This trait is what led to the common name- Glass Lizard. With the predator distracted by the wriggling tail, the lizard is free to escape. This one is beginning to regrow its tail- but the tail will never quite look the same. In early summer, the female will lay her eggs, and then stay curled up around them until they hatch- rather sweet for a cold blooded animal. You need to be careful when catching them- try for as near the head as possible so the tail doesn't break off. They do thrash around, but I've never had one bite me. I usually don't try and catch them as I always feel guilty if they drop their tail, but this one was safe from that! The first two are close-up photographs of its head, I think they are quite handsome with their stripes and dots- and they blend in very well with the ground and ground cover, as you can see in the last photograph in this series.







Next, the cute and furry; a very young opossum, Didelphimorphia, trundling across the path. This one was very lucky, as the place I saw it is where Chester and Greta love to perch, looking for dinner. It stopped and hissed at me, brave little soul.
They are frequently referred to as possums, but that should be reserved for the Australian marsupials.
The Virginia opossums are marsupials, meaning they have pouches where the newly born wee babies climb into and attach themselves to a teat until big enough to climb in and out. Opossums are semi-arboreal, and can climb trees quite readily. Opossums are primarily nocturnal, seeing this little guy during the day was unusual. Probably had been weaned very recently and was trying to find something to eat after relying on mom for so long. They are omnivores; they will eat almost anything from fruit to carrion. One of the things they do like to eat is snakes, and supposedly, because they eat venomous snakes- the adult opossums are immune to the venom of copperheads, rattlesnakes, and cottonmouths. They can carry rabies, but this is extremely rare as they seem to be highly resistant to the disease.
Although they are not really aggressive, they do have formidable fangs and because they love to eat stinky dead animals, the bite can easily become infected. Best not to catch them, and if your dog or cat gets bitten- you should take it the vet. Opossums are marvelously adaptive and can live almost anywhere. They do have a prehensile tail, the adults use it as an aid to climbing but only the small guys can hang by their tails. They also have opposable thumbs, so much for that being a uniquely primate trait! When the babies get big enough, they will cling to the mother's back fur with their little black hands and naked tails and can hang on quite well- I've seen a mother opossum climbing rapidly up a tree with 6 or more babies hanging on for dear life. Only the adults play dead- the babies just hiss. When an adult plays dead- commonly referred to as playing possum; the animal's lips are drawn back, the teeth are bared, saliva foams around the mouth, the eyes close or half-close, and a foul-smelling fluid is secreted from the anal glands. Yuck! Even a dog will usually leave well enough alone at this point. The stiff, curled form can be prodded, turned over, and even carried away without reaction. The animal will typically regain consciousness after a period of between 40 minutes and 4 hours, a process which begins with slight twitching of the ears. I've seen this numerous times and I think it is a rather unique way of dealing with threats.




Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Chester and Greta- and some new owlet photographs

Chester and Greta have started hanging out in their old spot- halfway down the path, overlooking a woodpile and right by where the stream emerges. Good place for dinner. I finally got some images with both of them, Greta stays further away but I can stand right under Chester and he just blinks and ignores me. On the first one, Greta is in the lower right.
Also, some photographs of Click and Clack hanging out high up in the oak trees in our front yard. They were watching our dog Sophie more than me.



Chester, checking me out-



Owlets hanging out in a mature Laurel oak, they are about 50 feet up. One to show distance, the next more detailed. The whole time, they were bobbing their heads up and down and all around. Made it hard to get a good photograph!





Saturday, April 20, 2013

Vultures- a wake and a venue

Last week, there was a wake (what a group of vultures on the ground are called) of mostly Black Vultures (Coragyps atratus) in my neighbor's yard. There was only one Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura), poor guy. Turkey Vultures have a better sense of smell than Black Vultures- and the Black Vultures often follow them to a carcass and are quite successful at crowding out the lone Turkey Vulture. In this case, a well-rotted Opossum body was the center of contention.
Both roost in large groups, and I have in the past dissuaded them from roosting in our trees in the pocket swamp because of their copious and very stinky poops- apparently, their feces can hurt or even kill trees. I would go out at twilight, and bang a wooden spoon on a cast iron skillet, it's so loud, I had to wear earplugs. They didn't like it one bit.
A venue of vultures roosting in trees is very quiet, they only rarely hiss or make a low grunt sound.The tip off that there are vultures overhead is when they get nervous, they rustle their wings, which creates a sound much like the biggest taffeta skirt in the world. Very creepy. Glad I never traumatized them too much, if they really get upset- they puke up all the rotten meat that they have just consumed.
A group of vultures is called a wake, committee, venue, kettle, or volt. The term kettle refers to vultures in flight, while committee, volt, and venue refer to vultures resting in trees. Wake is reserved for a group of vultures that are feeding,-quite apropos.
Both populations live in the Tampa area year round. At different times of the year- usually spring- they are more obvious. It has been a point of much discussion (and mirth) that our resident vultures like to roost during the day on the top of the county courthouse.
New World Vultures are genetically different from Old World Vultures, but very similar in appearance and structure because of convergent evolution. The mostly naked head and neck are convenient when digging into stinky carrion, a typical Old and New World Vulture feast; this is an example of analogous structure (i.e., when the same traits evolve independently in unrelated groups). The bald heads are an important part of hygiene for vultures.
Although both roost in large groups, the Turkey Vulture tends to strike out alone when searching for the next rotting carcass, Black Vultures tend to go out in groups- thus disadvantaging the Turkey Vulture you see in the photos, up in a tree watching the black headed bullies finish off his find.
Vultures are very elegant when flying, soaring on updrafts like elegant black parentheses against the blue sky, seemingly for hours at a time. On the ground, they are quite ungainly- the Turkey Vulture more so- they half lope and hop. The Black Vultures can stride along pretty well, but even they tend to flap a lot and almost crash when attempting to land.
For some odd reason, people in the south refer to Turkey Vultures as Buzzards, This may be because the original English colonists were familiar with Buzzards (what they called any large, soaring bird of prey), an interesting linguistic holdover.
Vultures are an essential part of the ecosystem, they help clean up dead animals that could contaminate water and poison other animals. These birds are of great value as scavengers, especially in hot regions. Vulture stomach acid is exceptionally corrosive, this allows them to safely digest putrid carcasses infected with bacteria that would be lethal to other scavengers.


Turkey Vulture up in a tree, watching while the marauding Black Vultures devour his prize. Turkey Vultures are various shades of brown and have a bright red head and neck, devoid of all feathers. Their legs are white because they pee on their legs in the summer to cool off- this also helps to to kill any bacteria left over from wading into decaying tissues while feeding.




Black Vultures strutting around the corpse. They are solid black except for a lighter feathers at the wing tip (most obvious when flying). Their heads are a dark charcoal gray, with no feathers.The last photograph shows their strutting style.