Rana sphenocephala

Rana sphenocephala
Leopard Frog, Rana pipiens sphenocephala

Monday, February 9, 2015

Great Blue Heron Method for Eating Catfish

The camera trap last night produced nothing, a surprise considering that it has videoed wildlife every night since being set out. Perhaps the critters are tired of dried instant rice, or maybe they aren’t interested in tomato peelings and spoiled blueberries. New bait is in order – more banana chips at the very least will be set out tonight.

But the day’s Orange Lake wildlife viewing has started out much better. While on telephone hold, I noticed a Great Blue Heron standing on the bank maybe 50 yards from me, so I put binoculars on it to see why it was not in the marsh. The bird had a 6- or 7-inch brown bullhead (Amieurus nebulosus) in its mouth. While I watched, the heron dropped the fish, turned it over belly up, and used its beak to stab into the head through the fish’s softer chin. Each stab involved the top and bottom bills slightly agape, so that it actually made two wounds with each thrust. This happened repeatedly, with the fish slowly showing less and less life over time.

Ordinarily, we see a heron snag a fish and swallow it right away, but the catfish’s three long spines prevent quick ingestion and the poison gland at the base of each spine is also a deterrent. After 15 or 20 minutes of this, the fish was lifeless and the heron began pecking at the bases of the spines to break them. It returned to the water several times during the procedure to wash off dirt and grass adhering to the fish’s sticky skin. After killing the fish and removing its spines, the heron returned to the lake to wash it one last time and then swallowed it.

Contrast this heron’s method of removing catfish spines to that of a Double-Crested Cormorant I reported on February 22, 2008 at tinyurl.com/lljuy2o.

I figured the heron would loaf for a while to wait for the fish to pass through the gizzard, but no, it went right back out to forage for more prey, catching another little victim or two:

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Orange Lake Camera Trapping - February

My place beside Orange Lake is immediately adjacent to open water and myriad vegetation cover types, primarily emergent shallow marsh, floating vegetation mats, and shrub swamp. Plant life here is rich in terms of stem density and the number of species, both of which are mirrored by wildlife, so I am expecting to photograph a lot of lakeside fauna with my Moultrie game camera.

I got spoiled by wild animals while camera trapping in North Carolina, getting photos and videos of the whitetail deer, coyote, gray fox, raccoon, opossum, gray squirrel, and common crow. There was even the drama of a family of raccoons usurping the bait from a feisty but outnumbered opossum. Unfortunately, the black bear seen several times in the yard was never caught on camera, but maybe that’s a good thing because these incredibly strong omnivores are famous for tearing up game cameras.

I have not yet photographed a native predator here in Florida this season until yesterday, getting only the cotton rat, opossum, raccoon, Northern Cardinal and an unidentified sparrow. The black racer on my porch that I previously posted about I saw once at the camera station, but it has not yet been videoed. This morning, a feral cat came to the bait station and ate some dried instant rice that was used as bait:


I used several kinds of vegetative baits over the last two weeks, such as rice, pineapple spears, cherry tomatoes, and dried banana chips. The latter are the herbivores’ favorite, containing fiber, sugar, oil, and carbohydrates, but cats are obligate carnivores. Notice also how dull and matted its coat looks. Notice also the look in its eyes; they are not at all the docile eyes of a house cat, but neither are they the truly wild eyes of a bobcat or coyote. Also, although the animal is feral, it is not skinny, indicating it is obtaining sufficient food from somewhere. Perhaps the other food subsidy contains rice or other starches like potatoes?

But this feral cat is far from secure. Around sunup this morning, I heard a bunch of coyotes howling off in the distance. I bet the cat heard them, too.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Harbor Freight Machete

Woodsfolk appreciate a good machete, one that has the right heft and size, good grip, and holds an edge. I found a machete at Harbor Freight in Asheville NC that had good heft, size, and grip, and even came with a sheath and backside saw teeth. I painted it orange so it wouldn’t get lost after slipping out of my sweaty mitt and sailing off into the brush on a hot summer’s day, and proceeded to use it.

I used it first on small brush, mostly less than an inch thick, but after one good hour of weed-whacking its handle fell apart. Looking closely, I found that the screws holding the handle to the blade were made of soft plastic, and were themselves screwed into soft plastic. Of course they couldn’t stand the shock typically given to machetes, which any competent designer and manufacturer would know. Of course a seller of tools, in this case Harbor Freight, would know that plastic screws would be incompetent. Nonetheless, the manufacturer and Harbor Freight were evidently only concerned with profit. To make the machete work, I had to drill out the handle and replace the plastic screws with stainless steel screws, nuts, and washers.

This pic shows the replacement screws before grinding them down to make them flush with the machete handle:

The second thing that went wrong with the machete was that the backside saw teeth shredded the sheath so badly that it was very difficult to remove the machete from the sheath. Obviously, the sheath is incompetently designed for a sawback machete, and the nylon rubbing should have been a steel rubbing:

Then last Saturday I used it on a 1.5-inch laurel oak and the blade broke clean in half! Now what kind of steel would do that? Cheap steel, that’s what kind. Clearly, the manufacturer supplies incompetent steel and Harbor Freight has insufficient quality control or concern, or both. Check out this blade:

How would you like for a blade tip like that to fly off your machete at high speed and stick you in the leg or a companion in the face? Well, that's exactly what could happen if you use a machete from Harbor Freight!

Who manufactured this machete? There are no identifying marks on the blade, nor does the handle have an id either inside or out. This is undoubtedly because the manufacturer does not want to be responsible for his shoddy product. Because the vast majority of junk being sold at big boxes like Harbor Freight seem to be from Communist China, I assume that is also where this piece of junk originated. One wonders how many other incompetent products made by this anonymous manufacturer are sold at quality-control-challenged Harbor Freight. I challenge Harbor Freight to address this issue in a responsible manner. In fact, I challenge also Wal-Mart, Lowe’s, and all other big boxes that obtain shoddy merchandise from Communist China to get some quality control.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Florida Torreya Re-wilding Presentation

Today, I finished creating a PowerPoint presentation of the Torreya Guardians project to re-wild the Florida Torreya via assisted migration for preventing the extinction of the species in the wild. I’ll post the presentation to my Flickr site after review by other Torreya Guardians.

The project germinates Torreya taxifolia seeds and raises the seedlings until they can be given to volunteers who will plant the trees on their own lands. I created the presentation help introduce gardeners, landscapers, and naturalists, among others, to the values of this tree. Connie said I would be getting twenty more seeds this winter, so I hope to use the presentation to find new volunteers next spring and summer.

Photo by Connie Barlow

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Eighteen Torreyas in the Ground

I have almost maxed out the number of Florida torreyas (Torreya taxifolia) that can be reasonably planted at my North Carolina home. Eighteen are now in the ground, mostly along both sides of the driveway and a few around the edge of the yard. One is from the 2010 seed crop, five from the 2011 seed crop, and the twelve planted this year from the 2012 seed crop. My previous torrey blog posts document the first six (2010 + 2011) that were transplanted into the ground in past years, and the present post documents the last twelve.

All have 4-foot tall, cylindrical 2x4 wire cages around them for protection from deer. The following series of photos represents the steps I go through when planting Florida torreyas. First, I rake leaf litter away from the chosen spot:

I then shovel the 2-inch-thick root mat from the ground and set it aside (to the lower right in the second pic, at the base of the wire cage). Next, I thoroughly chop up and mix organic fertilizer and dolomitized limestone into the soil with a shovel to at least the depth of the shovel head:

The seedling is then transplanted into the prepared ground:

The wire cage is then placed over the plant and I try to screw it into the soft, prepared ground. This seats the cage several inches into the dirt, which enables forest roots over the next year or so to grow through it and fasten it to the earth. Then, I place long, thin branches through the wire cage to hold additional fastening materials:

Larger logs are then placed on top of the branches to weigh down the cage:

Next comes mulching with local leaf litter:

I photograph the finished product with a nuance:

Notice that this last photograph was taken from the perspective of the fifth horizontal cage wire. The first wire is seated about 2 inches in the ground. Count the horizontal wires from that invisible first wire to the fifth wire; that distance represents 5 x 4 inches, or 20 inches. You can see that the seedling is about two inches below that level, so this photo tells you that this seedling is 20 inches (wire height) minus 2 inches (first wire in the ground) minus 2 inches (below the fifth wire) equals 16 inches tall. This is a handy way to document seedling height growth until the cage is removed.

I re-transplanted the 2010 seedling this year because it was in the way of house construction. Only a few roots were growing through the cage after one year, which was disappointing. It apparently will take several years for good root-cage fastening to occur.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Do lizards have a theory of mind?

We often wonder what lurks in the hearts of beasts, but how far “down” the phylogenic (evolutionary) tree does a “theory of mind” go? It’s easy to understand that another human has a theory of mind, and perhaps also dogs and cats and other smart animals, but do ants and frogs and lizards understand that others have desires and intentions different from their own?

There is now claimed to be the first published scientific evidence that reptiles can learn through imitation; that is, they not only mimic what they see but also understand the intention behind the action. This is different from emulation, which is mimicking what is seen without understanding intention.

Some herpetologists took a few lizards out of their natural environment and subjected them to a learning test that did not emulate natural behavior, yet the reptiles consistently got it right. A food item (mealworm) was placed under a wire trapdoor that could be slid aside by either the lizard’s snout or a forelimb to reach the snack. A “demonstrator” lizard was taught to slide the trapdoor aside with its snout, and test lizards then watched the demonstrator perform the deed. All the test lizards quickly learned to slide the trapdoor aside with their snouts whereas control lizards (that were not instructed) all failed to open the trapdoor by any means.

The scientists also pointed out that the snout was used by all the test lizards but none of the controls. The latter used only their forelimbs to try to move the trapdoor, suggesting that the snout-swing motion is not part of their “spontaneous behavior.” In other words, these lizards used social information in order to learn a new trick. Is this not evidence of a theory of mind in lizards?

This is the original reference:
Anna Kis, Ludwig Huber, Anna Wilkinson. Social learning by imitation in a reptile (Pogona vitticeps). Animal Cognition, 2014; DOI: 10.1007/s10071-014-0803-7.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Lotta Big Birds

My first job out of college was to maintain a lab for a university prof. One of the projects he (Sam) had his graduate student Allen and me construct was a floating aquatic sampling machine – basically a boat containing sampling and power machines plus collection containers. Upon completion of assembly, Sam told us to take it out on Newnans Lake the following morning and test all the equipment to see if the sampling system worked.

Allen had an early class so we met at the boat ramp at dark-thirty. Stars were still out and it was bitter cold, as a polar front had come through earlier that night. We gamely did our do on the foggy waters, circling the lake and sampling here and there. As the dawn slowly lightened, before sunup even, we gradually became aware that the perimeter ring of mature cypress trees held a bunch of big black birds. We couldn’t make out what they were for the longest time, so we assumed they were vultures as vultures are wont to mass up at night. But as the sun did rise up over the horizon and we got a good look at the birds, we could see that each and every one of them had a white head and a white tail. Using the best principles of wildlife management that I could muster, I counted all the eagles within a pie-shaped slice of the lake and multiplied out the number for the entire lake. My conservative estimate was in excess of 400. They had evidently migrated south before the cold front.

This was during the winter of 1971-72, during the middle of the multi-decadal DDT Winter, when there were estimated to be only about 1000 bald eagles in the entire coterminous United States. Is it possible that Allen and I were looking at nearly the entire population of the Atlantic Seaboard’s Bald Eagles that morning?