August 29, 2007

Creepy Crawler Carnivals #4 & #5

It's been a while since my last Creepy Crawler Carnival, so I'm glad that this episode involves not one, but TWO very cool insects. First up is one that I've never seen in the wild before, so it was particularly exciting when Sonja discovered this one crossing the sidewalk this evening.

Creepy Crawler Carnival #4
Walking Stick
Parabacillus sp.

Definitely one of the coolest insects I've ever seen. And to think I almost stepped on it cuz I wasn't paying attention to where I was walking. Unfortunately, there are 2,800 known species of walking sticks, so I haven't quite been able to figure out which species this one is. However, I think I've narrowed down the genus to Parabacillus. But that's only because the link I found for a book on walking sticks only had three sample pages available. And this genus was on one of those.

But Sonja's keen eyes spotted it after Harvey and I had already walked past. It seemed in no hurry to go anywhere, so we decided to pick it up to get a better look. Always a good idea with any unfamiliar insect, of course.

But then, everyone knows that walking sticks are harmless. Or are they? Either way, you've got to admit that's a pretty darn cute wittle face!

Blogger's got a new video interface, so I figured I'd try it out with this little movie of Sonja playing with our new friend. If you don't like how it works, though, you can always watch it on my youtube page.
If only I had the camera rolling when it first decided to stop acting like a stick while sitting on Sonja's hand.

Creepy Crawler Carnival #5
Velvet Ant

I've been wanting to get a picture of one of these for months, now. I don't see them very often, and when I do it's usually when I don't have a camera with me. Unfortunately, it was already twilight when we saw this one, and she was booking it into the brush, so I had to struggle with our crappy camera to get this picture.

There are over 40 species of velvet ants in Arizona, so I'm not even going to pretend that I know what species or genus this one belongs to. I do know that this is a female, however, since it lacks wings. These are actually a type of wingless wasp, also known as cow killers. I'm assuming that they got that name from their very painful sting. I'm sure it hurts just as much to a cow as it does to us to get stung by one of these, but I seriously doubt if any cows have died as a result. Either way, you don't want to try picking one of these up.

I did a little further digging and think I might be closing in on a species...or at least a genus for this velvet ant. The closest I can come to identifying this species would be Dasymutilla vestita. But without a range map I can't be sure.

I wanted to end with an off-topic photo I was able to get at the start of our walk. Like the velvet ant, I've been wanting to get a good picture of a Phainopepla ever since they arrived in our yard in the spring. But the little buggers don't usually stand still long enough for me to try digiscoping them. The few times I've tried it have not turned out very well. But the lighting tonight was spectacular, and when I saw this juvenile pepla perched at the top of our cottonwood with the setting sun illuminating its crest, I just had to try again.

It turned out pretty good, but I can only imagine what it might have been like if I had my dream camera (not to mention my dream lens). Someday...

August 27, 2007

First Contact

This morning I had to retrieve some items left over from a program I did in July. It's always pretty amazing to get a different perspective of a place you spend every single day looking at from the same location. It was like that, again, today.

To think that this structure is still over 90% intact, despite having been built nearly a millenium ago, is quite extraordinary. You can almost feel the presence of the ancient Sinagua while standing (or crouching, rather) in one of these dark, musty rooms.

But it wasn't entirely deserted today. As evidenced by the pile of suspicious-looking scat I discovered near the top. I was almost certain I knew who had made this pile o' poo, but not very hopefull about seeing one of these nocturnal predators. I'd smelled them before (a pair decided to perfume our garage back in April), but had never been lucky enough to see the elusive mammal.

Then, I caught movement in a tiny alcove about 20 feet from me. And with the flash of a bushy, striped tail I knew I had finally seen one.

My first Ringtail! It was pretty freakin' awesome! It kept poking its head out from inside the tiny cave it was living in, trying to figure out if it needed to be concerned about the fact that we were up there. This one was about the size of a small housecat, but very sleek...almost weasel-like in its body shape. I only saw the striped tail once, but I didn't care. Not with a face like that staring back at me. Sonja was pretty jealous about my ringtail sighting, but I tried to convince her that she could see all that she would want if she chooses to make them the subject of her master's thesis.

The sunset tonight wasn't so bad, either. You can even see the Phainopeplas' fly-catching near the top of the tree on the right. Yup, today was a good day.

August 24, 2007

I've Been MEME-ing to Post This

Because I am physically incapable of resisting a meme...

1. What is the coolest bird you have seen from your home?
This one's tough, since I've had so many backyards in my lifetime....

If we start way back in Minnesota when I was a kid, it would probably be the Cooper's Hawk that landed on our porch railing.

While living in the suburbs of Washington, DC, however, the coolest bird was definitely the Northern Mockingbird that acted as my alarm clock every morning.

In North Carolina, it's a tie between the Whippoorwill that would keep me up at night for hours, or the Eastern Screech Owl that I'd stay up for hours to listen to.

Up in Fairbanks, Alaska, it would be the bazillions of Common Redpolls that mobbed our feeders all winter.

While living in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, it was the Mountain Bluebirds and Western Meadowlarks that always brightened my days.

And in Troy, Idaho, the covey of California Quail that lived under a bush on the side of our house win the honor hands down.

Back up in Alaska, this time along the coast in Seward, it depends on what qualifies as "backyard." If flyovers count, then it's the Marbled Murrelets that flew overhead to get to their nesting sites in the forest. If flyovers don't count, it would be the numerous Bald Eagles that would perch in the spruce trees all year long.

And finally, here at our home in Arizona we've got so many cool species that are really new to us, it's incredibly hard to pick. But the highlights are the Phaenopeplas, Verdins, Summer and Western Tanagers, Gambel's Quail, Gila Woodpeckers, and the five species of hummingbirds that visit our feeders.

Ok, I probably cheated on that question. Oh well...

2. If you compose lists of bird species seen, what is your favorite list and why?
Well, I only compose one list, and that's my life list. Right now it's been rather stagnant at 449 for a couple months. The flurry of new species we've seen since moving to Arizona seems to have cooled down. I'm going to have to make some more trips down to the Huachucas to look for more (like the Flame-colored Tanager and Elegant Trogon).

3. What sparked your interest in birds?
There's no doubt in my mind that it was due to growing up on a lake and next door to a wooded lot in Minnesota with a dad who loved birds (but never got as crazy about them as I have). Our crappy old pair of binoculars were constantly glued to my face. I even remember as a 9 year old kid requesting bird books for Christmas (in addition to Transformers and Star Wars figures, of course). I think it was obvious to everyone who knew me that I was destined for bird-nerdness. I mean, how many 9 year olds ask Santa for the Audubon Field Guide to Western Birds?

4. If you could only bird in one place for the rest of your life where would it be and why?
Wow, that's a tough one. I'm assuming this doesn't mean it's the only place I could live, but rather the only place I'd be allowed to go birding? In that case, and given the assumption that I'd be able to go there any time I wanted to...either the cloud forests of Peru or the jungles of Indonesia. So...many...birds...

5. Do you have a jinx bird? What is it and why is it jinxed?
If there was a single species that has eluded every attempt I have made to locate one, despite having lived most of my life within its range, it is the Great Grey Owl. I have seen (and even held) most every other species of northern owl, but the Great Grey continues to elude me. Someday...

6. Who is your favorite birder? and why?
Got to be Kenn Kaufman. If for no other reason than "Kingbird Highway" is one of my favorite books of all time.

7. Do you tell non-birders you are a birder?
Well, considering we have a license plate that reads "BRDNERD" I think it's hard for us NOT to tell people.

Well, that's it. I think I'm going to tag Dave and Amy, even though neither one of them seems to really enjoy meme-ing much.

August 23, 2007

Feeling Minnesota

Ok, it's been almost three weeks since we got back from Minnesota. I guess it's about time I posted some pictures from the trip.

What blog post about a trip to Minnesota would be complete without the requisite photo of an oversized fiberglass statue? In the case of my hometown, our resident colossus happens to be none other than Big Ole. Now, everyone knows exactly why Alexandria claims to be the birthplace of America, right? Of course you do. So I won't go into that here.

And what would an Ollig family campout be without a law or three being broken? Well, it didn't take long for this group to not only break a law banning the tying of hammocks to trees but to get CAUGHT hanging a hammock from a tree. This is an action photo of the illegal hammock being removed from said tree.

It also didn't take long for everyone to get out and enjoy one of Minnesota's 15,320 lakes. This one is Lake Carlos, home to Lake Carlos State Park (the scene of the aforementioned crime). I think the tubers in this photo include both an Ollig and a Renslow.

Yes, yes, fire, fire, fire. heh heh heh eh eh eh eh...

Where there's a fire there are undoubtedly Ollig children playing with "fire sticks." I'm pretty sure the Ollig family didn't actually invent the idea of "fire sticks" (which basically involves holding the end of a stick in a campfire until it lights then waving it around to watch the embers glow), but I'm almost positive we're the first to turn it into a competetive sport. Of course, the use of firesticks is forbidden for anyone who is not between the ages of 8 and 14, which is why everyone else looks so bored in this picture.

Speaking of being bored...

We didn't spend the whole time enjoying the excitement of a campout at Lake Carlos, though (right Sarah?). We also took the opportunity of everyone being within 200 miles of Alexandria to gather for a visit with Grandma Schweighofer. I think this is one of the largest gathering of Grandma's progeny in quite a while...well, at least one of the largest Sonja and I have been able to attend. There are definitely benefits to moving back to the Lower 48. Being close enough to visit family more often than once every four years being one of them.

So, there we go. A smattering of photos from our recent trip to the Land of 10,000 Lakes. But while I'm in the middle of posting pictures from Minnesota, I thought I'd add one more thing. I recently purchased a fun new gadget that lets me transfer video from an analog source (ie, VHS) to a digital source. My first attempt to play with the thing was to try to capture some of our old home movies that were originally filmed on an 8mm camera, then transfered to VHS. I'm still working out the bugs, but here's a three minute clip from the summer of 1983.

Ok, so it's not the most exciting example I could have chosen from this video, but that's where the tape was at when I pushed play. So deal with it. Also, I can't figure out why it's so wobbly at times. And it seems to be more washed out than what it looks like if I were to just play it on the VCR and TV. So, if anyone has any experience using Pinnacle software and has any ideas how to fix that, let me know. It might just be because I chose to invest in cables that were advertised as "the cheapest ones we sell." But then, it might be because the movie is from 1983.

August 19, 2007

Imogen Heap

Ever since I discovered how freakin' awesome "Garden State" and "Scrubs" are, I've come to realize that I've developed a bit of a man-crush on Zach Braff. I know I've mentioned that before, but now I just use it to preface the following clip. You will notice during this truly amazing performance by a woman named Imogen Heap that ZB is sitting in the audience. And, of course, anything that ZB likes has got to be good.

Well, I'll let you judge for yourself. Here's Imogen Heap singing "Just for Now" live at Studio 11:

So, yeah. Pretty damn cool, huh? You may recognize Immi's voice if you've ever seen Garden State. She was the lead singer from the band Frou Frou and is now focusing on a solo career. Here's an acoustic version of her song "Let Go" from the movie.

If anyone knows where I can buy this version of the song, please tell me. Cuz it's freakin' awesome.

August 17, 2007

Condors at the Canyon

Every time I see a California Condor soaring over the South Rim of the Grand Canyon I get chills down my spine. To think that these amazing birds came within 22 individuals of becoming extinct in the 1980's makes me both very sad and incredibly hopeful. It is almost laughably easy to spot any of over 200 condors now living around Grand Canyon National Park. On many days, hundreds (if not thousands) of visitors are awed by the enormous size of these birds as they soar overhead, often so close you feel as though you can touch them.

Today, Sonja and I had yet another encounter with these relics from the Pleistocene, this time with our nephew from New Hampshire, Sean, who was seeing them for the very first time. And as you can see, my digiscoping abilities seem to be improving. I can't believe the detail that came out in this picture, particularly since I took it through our binoculars. But then, #81 is always photogenic.

They put on quite a show for us this afternoon. Not only were they incredibly close, but they kept landing then launching themselves off the cliff to go harass each other as more and more began to appear in the sky over the rim lodges.

I think the most we counted at one time was eight. And when that many birds, each with a wingspan approaching 10 feet, continually buzz your heads as you stand near the rim, it's easy to forget that California Condors are still critically endangered. Even non-birders can't help but be amazed at the spectacle of watching these living fossils soar once again over the Grand Canyon.

I put together a little montage of footage I took this afternoon while watching the condors fly overhead. Click on the arrow in the box below to watch it (make sure the sound is turned up).

I could have stood there for hours watching them fly around, but Sean and Sonja wanted to see more than just condors.

I couldn't really complain that much. Spending a day doing nothing but gazing down into the Grand Canyon is always worthwhile.

Even the plague-ridden rock squirrels agree.

August 16, 2007

Gila, Hummers, and a Spider or Two.

I recently got back from a short business trip to Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument in southwestern New Mexico. It was a long drive (8 1/2 hours) but we got a lot accomplished and I got to see a park I've been wanting to visit for a while now. The park is particularly interesting since it maintains its policy of allowing visitors to enter the ruins. This gives people a unique opportunity to have some very meaningful experiences here. It's really very cool.

They have almost as many hummers buzzing around the visitor center there as we do in our backyard, so that was neat to see, too. Unfortunately, one young Broad-tailed Hummingbird decided to take a head-first dive into the plate glass window, knocking himself silly. I checked him over carefully, though, and it didn't seem like there was any significant damage done.

So I let him perch on my finger for 30 minutes or so while he recovered. When he seemed strong enough I moved him to a branch in the shadow of a large pine, where he stayed for another 15 minutes before flying off.

I'm not convinced that he'll be completely fine, since many "window casualties" often fly off initially only to die from their head injury later. There is something we all can do, though, to minimize bird strikes on your windows, particularly if you have feeders nearby and experience them regularly. You can make construction-paper cutouts of raptor silhouettes and stick them on the window. This has been shown to be particularly effective at reducing the frequency of birds flying into windows.

Finally, last week was an interesting spider week. First off, Sonja found a spider crawling around in our bathtub. She wanted me to move it outside, but upon close inspection I had a suspicion that it might actually be a brown recluse spider, and that I probably didn't want to try to pick it up. So, rather than risk getting bit by the most dangerous North American spider around, I squished it. In my defense, however, I did want a closer look at it to determine if it really was a brown recluse.

I'm convinced. Sonja, not so much. But that certainly looks like a "fiddle shape" on the cephalothorax to me.

Anyway, I got to see a much less dangerous cousin to the recluse hanging out on our window screen outside the house later that afternoon.

I think you'll agree that this Green Lynx Spider is much prettier.

August 11, 2007

Cooking with Christopher

Nothing I could say would do justice to this little gem of a youtube clip. But if you ever thought Christopher Walken couldn't host a cooking show, think again.

I'm not sure I'd call burned pear bottoms "little cookies," but oh well.

Since we're paying homage to one of the most unique actors Hollywood has ever seen, I figured I'd post one of the most unique music videos ever seen. Not surprisingly, it stars Christopher Walken.

And finally, I do plan to post some pictures from our trip to Minnesota, but it will have to wait until I get back from a work trip to Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument on Wednesday.

August 06, 2007

A Gallon a Day

A couple months ago I posted a movie on here showing what I then called a "swarm" of hummingbirds. Well, in retrospect, having four hummingbirds buzzing around your head for the first time can certainly seem like a lot. Now that all of our resident hummers' babies have fledged, there are a lot more visiting our feeders. Add to that a constant stream of new hummers who seem to continuously discover our feeders (I think their location has been posted on some secret hummingbird message board or something) as they begin to head south on their late summer migration, and we have a virtual smorgasbord of tiny, buzzing birds. We've also had rather frequent visits by both Summer Tanagers and Hooded Orioles to the feeders. However, I probably won't be posting a video of one of them drinking out of the feeder while we're holding it any time soon.

I have absolutely no idea how to estimate the number of hummers we have visiting the feeders in our backyard now. Anything I could come up with would be a complete guess...although, I do recognize some of the juveniles as repeat visitors with their distinctively patchy bibs starting to grow in. Lately, a group of colorful Rufous Hummingbirds have decided to lay claim to several of our feeders. They've been bullying the other species away from the prime drinking holes. Although, I think the Black-chins seemed to have figured out how to handle them...they ignore them. It's quite comical to watch a hungry hummer poking another one in the back with its bill to try to get it to move.

Suffice to say, we are now going through over a gallon of sugar water a day, and at any given point there are probably 30-40 hummers buzzing around our backyard. If anyone knows of a regression analysis we can use to estimate hummingbird visitation based on food consumption, let me know.