Backyard Journal: Bird vs. Reptile


Two of our backyard turtles (Pickle, left, and Shelby) in happier days. Shelby went missing after visit by local scrub jay.

Earlier this week, I posted what might well be construed as a fond reflection on our local scrub jays. They’re interesting, they’re beautiful, yadda yadda yadda.

Now listen to what the little bastards have done.

A few weeks ago, Kate the Science Teacher brought home three little turtles, red-eared sliders, given to her by a student who was moving away. Turtles–I remember having some as pets when we were kids, how one tragically escaped our house and fell victim to ants.

But these little reptiles (Trachemys scripta elegants) are actually really fun to watch insofar as they are clearly observant and social and react to what’s going on around them. Kate read up a little on their habits and and how to keep them and we instituted some improvements in the condition of their captivity. We gave them names–Pickle, Shelby, and Serena. One of the things Kate discovered was that they like to sun themselves and that basking is an important way for them to get their needed dose of Vitamin D (it helps build strong shells). So we have taken to carrying the turtles’ “tank” (a 7.5-gallon translucent blue plastic filing box) out back to let them soak up some rays.

That’s what I did yesterday morning. I could see from the kitchen that all three turtles, each just a few inches in diameter, had pulled themselves up onto the flagstone at the center of their container.

Then I went away. When I came back, I heard one of the local jays squawking. I looked out back, and saw it fumbling around with something on the back part of our patio. Huh, I thought. Then I went back to whatever I’d been doing. Getting ready to go to my afternoon shift at the Public Radio Station, I went out to bring the turtles back inside. Weird–I could only see two of them. I looked again. Yes, only two.

Then I noticed the cuttlebone (a calcium supplement) from the tank had been pulled out and pecked. Who or what had done that? My conclusion was that it was the scrub jay I’d seen hopping around before, and that that bird or accomplices unknown had managed to spear the missing turtle and make a meal of it.

Conclusion: I am saddened and chagrined to report we’ve got charming predators in our midst, and we’ll need to screen the top of that tank when we put it out back again.


Red-eared slider as rendered by 19th century artist Karl Bodmer.

May Rain


It rained last night in our part of the Bay Area. Not a lot–just enough to sort of wet everything down and leave water beaded everywhere on foliage this morning (like the neighbor’s parking-strip apple tree). In most of the country, rain in May would not be news. Here it’s rare, but not unheard of. As Jan Null, a local meteorologist who has pored over San Francisco’s precipitation history, told his email list over the weekend:

Rain in San Francisco at some point during the Memorial Day* weekend has occured on 34 occasions (21% of the the time) in the 163 years since rainfall records began in San Francisco in 1850. Rain has fallen on Saturday 15 times (9%), Sunday 23 times (14%) and on Monday 16 times (10%).

The last time there was rain at any point on a Memorial Day weekend was Sat., May 28, 2011, when 0.28 inches fell. The last time rain fall on the Monday of Memorial Day weekend was in 1993 when 0.01 inches fell. And the last time there was rain on all three days of the weekend was in 1932 with 0,26, 0.18 and 0.10 for a total of 0,54 inches.

The rainiest Memorial Day weekend was 1906 with a total of 1.64 inches, and the rainiest single day of a Memorial Day weekend was Sunday, May 27, 1990 with 1.42 inches.

* Formerly known as Decoration Day dating back to the Civil War.

Quoth the Blue Jay: ‘I Want Some More’


I think I know every way that blue jays are objectionable birds. They’re raucous. They’re aggressive. They prey on those weaker than themselves, and the young of those weaker than themselves. We had a towhee nest in a trellis on our back porch, and the towhees went about their business and laid their eggs, and in no time a scrub jay, maybe a couple of them, found about about it, and before we could stop nature from happening, the jays were having a scrambled towhee egg brunch.

Still. In the eye of this beholder they are beautiful. The blue plumage, for one thing. And their apparent intelligence. They just look like they’re sizing things up when you watch them. They give the impression that they’re watching you, too. Some California researchers believe our western scrub jays hold a form of funeral (more like a group alarm) when one of their jay buddies flies on to the next life (here’s a BBC story: Birds hold ‘funerals’ for dead; and a video of one of these gatherings).

The last couple of days, I’ve been trying to reclaim the North Forty (a.k.a., the backyard). A scrub jay showed up yesterday as I cleared weeds, and followed along behind me to pick over whatever I uncovered. This afternoon, same routine. This bird appeared entirely unafraid; I can’t decide if it’s a young one who hasn’t learned how untrustworthy the Wingless Two-Leggers are, or an older bird that has figured out that Berkeley is full of Bird Huggers.

Anyway. The bird hung around as long as I was clearing the ground. As soon as I stopped, it moved on, probably to the next easy meal.

California Road Trip: Yolano Wandering


As earlier recounted, Kate and I went up the Delta on Friday, the beginning of the Memorial Day weekend, in search of ferries. After riding back and forth on the Real McCoy II (just outside Rio Vista) and the J-Mack (at a non-place called Howard’s Landing, across Steamboat Slough between Ryer and Grand islands), we started thinking about getting something to eat. We both had the same thought: a hamburger. One place to procure a decent one–OK, everyone’s got their own idea of decent–In N Out Burger in Davis.

So we set out north from Rio Vista, ignored signs that we were trespassing as we crossed onto Hastings Island, then hit state Highway 113 somewhere south of Dixon. My knowledge of the farms roads in that part of the world, earned from cycling on some of them day and night, told me we ought to head east off 113, in the general direction of Davis, which still lay to the north. I turned on Midway Road and at every crossroads looked for names that looked familiar. Pedrick Road–I knew that would take us up to Interstate 80 a few miles southwest of downtown Davis; I kept heading east on Midway. At one corner, I saw a sign for Yolano–my favorite kind of name, a hybrid of two places (Yolo and Solano counties, in this case) and probably right on their border. I headed east thinking there might be a town out there I had never seen. We got to Midway and Yolano roads–farms in every direction (looking at the map now, the hamlet is south and west of this intersection).

Eventually I started to get the feeling I’d driven too far east. Way off in the lowering sunlight to the northeast, I could see some tall buildings that had to be downtown Sacramento. I kept east but decided to turn north at the next opportunity, no matter what road I came across. It was Levee Road, and it was gravel.

I turned, and just north of the intersection with Midway, on the lefthand side of the road, the west side, just at the edge of the right of way, there was a big stand of eucalyptus, maybe a shelter belt for a nearby farm. And there were dozens of turkey vultures in the trees, getting ready to roost for the night. We stopped to take a look. The birds stirred. Then Kate pointed up to a tree that had a pair of big white egrets, right in among the vultures. I grabbed my camera and opened the door to climb out and take pictures. And doing only that much prompted a mass takeoff of the vultures–50, maybe 100 of them, along with the egrets and maybe a stray hawk or two. Some turkeys that were roosting nearby started to gobble. It was a full on big-bird party.

Here’s a snippet of the sound, and after that, a couple more pictures:

Picture above: Vultures (and maybe others) above eucalyptus grove in Yolo County, south of Davis. Below left: turkey vulture at same location. Below right: turkey vulture at same location and airliner far above (I’m having trouble identifying the plane, though: It looks like a four-engine jet, and the colors look like a United scheme; as it turns out, there was a United 747 to Frankfurt passing over the area right about this time, so maybe that’s it.)

vultures052413b.jpg vultures052413a.jpg

Illinois Road Trip: The Eternal Indian, and Other Stories


Last September, our family gathered in Chicago for a memorial for my dad. It’s one of those events that seems like it happened both long ago and just yesterday; long ago in that I can’t believe that nearly nine months have passed, just yesterday in that some of the experiences of last summer seem so immediate.

Anyway, people came from all points of the compass. We had a short family gathering at Holy Sepulchre Cemetery, just past the southern edge of Chicago, where Dad’s ashes were being placed in the same grave where Mark, our brother, who died in 1960, is buried and where Mom, who died in 2003, is also inurned. After our ceremony, we walked around and visited some of Mom’s family elsewhere in the cemetery, then we drove back up to my sister Ann’s house on the North Side for a memorial–a party, really–with other friends and family.

Early the next day, people started to head home: our older son Eamon and his wife Sakura to New York, my brother John, also to New York, and last Thom, our younger son, back to the Bay Area. That was on Monday, it was already mid-afternoon, traffic back into the city looked like it was backing up on the expressway outside O’Hare. As we left the airport I asked Kate whether she’d just like to go for a drive someplace instead of going back into the city. She was game.

We headed west with no particular destination in mind. But if you go west from Chicago, there’s one destination I automatically think of, and that’s the Mississippi River. That was one of Dad’s favorite trips, and I usually never hesitate to start out on a foolishly long drives, but as we tried to get free of the traffic in the northwestern suburbs, even I had to concede it didn’t seem realistic since we had to be back the next day to fly home ourselves.

So then I thought of another place that seemed more reachable: the Black Hawk statue on the Rock River, near the town of Oregon.

Dad took us there when we were kids–it might have been the time he took us on a drive out to White Pines State Park with his mother, a trip during which I remember him getting our new gold Chevy Impala station wagon, complete with a 327-cubic-inch V8, up to 90 miles an hour on Illinois Highway 64. I would have been 13, and what I remember is that we pulled over on Highway 2, which goes up the west bank Rock River from Oregon to Rockford, to look at this statue on a bluff across the water. It made a huge impression–an impassive , blanket-clad stone figure gazing out across the river and off to the west.

So, driving west last September on Illinois Highway 72, I told Kate I thought we could get there before dark and that it would be well worth the trip. Along the way, we stopped to check out a historical marker in a town called Stillman Valley. The site turned out to be the burial place of militia members killed in the first battle of the Black Hawk War of 1832. (Yes, I had heard of Black Hawk’s War, but remembered it mostly for the name of its last skirmish, the Battle of Bad Axe, and the fact the brief conflict marked Abraham Lincoln’s first and only military service).

Driving on, we hit the Rock River at Byron and turned south. We made a detour so I could take pictures of the big nuclear power plant between Byron and Oregon. And eventually, we made it to Lowden State Park, home of the Black Hawk statue (titled by its creator, sculptor Lorado Taft, “The Eternal Indian”). As we parked, we encountered an older woman sitting in her car and finishing up her dinner, from the McDonald’s in Oregon. She directed us to the statue and said she’d be over in a few minutes to tell us about it.

So: I had my camera with me, and I had an audio app on my iPhone that was good enough to record our guide, Betty Croft. That’s her picture up above. We talked to her for an hour, until well after dark. It took me until the past week to actually sit down and listen to the audio and figure out what to make of it. Here it is (edited down to four minutes or so):

Friday Ferries: Delta Edition


I’ve known for a while about ferries in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, barge-like little boats that run across the side channels to the main rivers and at a couple of points actually provide continuations for state highways (84, a rather long one, and 220, a very short one). But the Delta isn’t really next door. The closest gateway is Antioch, in eastern Contra Costa County, about 50 miles northeast of Berkeley. So the ferries up there were just little dotted lines on the map.

We both had the day off today, got up late, did a couple chores, and early in the afternoon headed up to the Delta by way of Antioch and Highway 160. We caught the Real McCoy II ferry, which crosses something called Cache Slough (apparently the outflow of Cache Creek, which flows out of Clear Lake, about 80 air miles and a lot more stream miles to the northwest) onto the west bank of Ryer Island. We drove around to the east bank of Ryer Island and took the J-Mack ferry across Steamboat Slough (so called, I’ve heard, because it was the favored route of early river boats that ran from the Bay Area up to Sacramento) to Grand Island. (That’s the picture above, looking east toward Grand Island.)

And then we noodled around a little, stopping in Walnut Grove, a little town on the Sacramento River, and puzzling over the map trying to see a way of getting north from where we were to Davis while avoiding the capital city and suburbs. The only way was to head back down across the ferries to Rio Vista, then double back north to the west of Cache Slough and the Yolo Bypass. We managed that and eventually came to a bridge shown on the map between Liberty Island and Hastings Island. There was a sign declaring the bridge was a private road. I walked across it and saw a couple big signs declaring the road and land beyond to be private. Back at the car, I decided to see if anyone who had come out this far–we were on a gravel road atop a levee, surrounded by fields full of hay, wheat and corn–had posted anything about whether the road ahead was really private. I came across a posting from a hunting club that told visitors to ignore the “no trespassing” signs and just head across the bridge. So, that’s what we did, and drove onto Hastings Island.

After crossing to the west side of the island, we were back up on a narrow levee road with a view of Mount Diablo maybe 30 or 40 miles to the south. We approached a farm, and right there on the side of the road, a horse looked like it was leaning against the side of a red barn. The sun was low and even though I just glanced over, the light and shadow were dramatic. I kept going, but decided to turn around to take another look. And that’s what you see below. I’ll add that the horse looked spent. Old, tired. Skin and bones. Someone’s good friend, I hope. Waiting on sundown.


Front-Porch Visitor: White-Lined Sphinx


The other morning, Kate was headed out for the early-morning walk with The Dog, then came back in to tell me I should come and see a moth on the front porch. I was editing a story and grunted that I was busy. After the walk, she came back and showed me a picture of the creature hanging on the wall near the front door. Yeah, it was striking. So I grabbed my camera to go take a look.

What we didn’t know was what sort of moth it might be. Thanks to the amazing World Wide Web, I found a site that included a species identifier that, after four or five clicks, drilled down to five candidate species. No. 4 on that list was Hyles lineata, or the white-lined sphinx. I don’t recall ever seeing one before, though I readily find a reference to a recent appearance in Alameda, less than 10 miles from here.

According to one of the links above, this species is a fairly benign presence in our environment (especially when compared to the more widely distributed Homo sapiens).

And unless their numbers are excessive, they’re unlikely to pose a significant worry for gardeners or orchardists. “Sometimes they might nibble a little bit along the way, but they will have little effect on those plants,” he says. The caterpillars have fed on a wide range of plants — purslane, portulaca, wild grape, and a host of weeds and various desert shrubs; they tend to stick with low, shrubby plants.