Saturday, July 30, 2011

Bug Life at the Park

I was at the park with my grandchildren when we suddenly noticed an abundance of flying bugs, possibly a type of wasp. After closely examining the photos, I believe they may have been Ichneumon Wasps, though I cannot see any white on their antennae.

The wasps were not bothering us at all. They hovered over the sand, digging holes, crawling inside, crawling back out, then covering the holes. After we watched them for a bit, we decided they were either looking for food in the sand, or laying eggs. We could actually see them moving tiny pebbles, pebbles that looked like boulders compared to the size of the wasp!

I suspect this is a type of Digger Wasp, or Miner Wasp. The reason for the digging is rather unpleasant, in a way. They paralyze their prey, stuff the prey inside the holes, then lay their eggs in the holes and their larvae eats the paralyzed prey.

I have read a few interesting stories regarding the behavior of these wasps. Apparently, they are capable of memorizing every last detail surrounding their nest. They fly off, then quickly return to check on the nest. The book Wasps and Their Ways by Margaret Morley explains how one can place a leaf across the entrance to the nest, and the wasp will frantically fly about, confused by the altered appearance, though certain she is in the right place. When the leaf is removed, she will calmly check on the nest, then search for prey.

Another article describing Digger Wasps explains the theories of philosopher Daniel Dennett who compares the behavior of Digger Wasps to the concept of Free Will. According to this article, the digger wasp brings its prey to the nest, leaves the prey outside while it inspects the nest, then comes back out to retrieve the prey and stuff it inside the nest. If the prey is moved, the wasp will locate the prey and move it back in the nest, but repeat its behavior of inspecting the nest first before depositing the prey inside, even though it has already inspected the nest.

We did not observe the wasps depositing prey in the nests. We observed the wasps digging holes in the sand, climbing into the sand, returning head first and flying out of the holes, and sometimes covering the holes back up. They could be a different type of wasp altogether who is simply depositing eggs in the sandbox. There were many of them, though. So many that we stopped playing and returned home.

A week later, we returned to the park. There was a few wasps, but not nearly as many as the first trip, so we decided to play. Suddenly, we noticed a type of creature that appeared to be a type of centipede crawling through the sand, many of them, very small, and dark brownish-red. We could not identify these bugs, either, so we decided to leave in case they were biters.

As we left, we noticed that a pair of swallows has a nest in the bar that holds up the swing set. The birds were flying in and out with...bugs. Apparently, nature has taken over the playground.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

A lizard in suburban Colorado?

The last thing I expected to see crossing the sidewalk as we walked to the park was a lizard.

They are quite common in Texas. In fact, I see three or four a day. And I'm sure they are also common in Colorado, but to be honest, the only place I've ever seen them in Colorado is down south, near Mesa Verde.

At first, my grandchildren and I stood and stared. None of us expected to see a lizard this far north where the snow is sometimes six feet deep in winter, and in fact, winter dragged on this year until May! But there it was, a tiny lizard, sunbathing on the sidewalk. We crept slowly forward, and when I realized it was, indeed, a little lizard, I slowly moved to its side, talking to it, photographing its lovely head and tail. The grandchildren followed my example, creeping closer and closer, using soft, soothing voices.

Lizards enjoy this type of conversation with soft voices and baby talk. They often turn their heads and look at you sideways--as this one died--as if they are trying to understand the conversation. After awhile, though, he seemed to get a bit nervous, realizing he was surrounded by giants, and scampered beneath a nearby fence.

After downloading the pictures and searching diligently on the Colorado State University website, I have determined it was a female Prairie Lizard. They prefer sunny, rocky habitats and cliffs, downed logs, and forested areas, though they prefer ground areas. The females lay their eggs in June, July and August, so it's possible it had eggs nearby.

My daughter's house is in the foothills, so close that we can walk into the lower hills at the base of the mountains. I suppose it isn't that rare to find this type of lizard in this area, I was just surprised to see it!

Parenting in the Bird World

The grandchildren and I went for a walk a few days ago and noticed a few baby sparrows perched on a neighbor's house. One of their parents flew up with some food, so of course, we rushed back to the house to get my camera. When we returned, they were gone.

While we were at the park, we noticed a house sparrow flying in and out of the thick metal tube that the swings connect to, and this truly surprised me. I imagine it is rather hot inside the tube right now!

Disappointed, we went back to the house, fetched the wagon, and went to the park. On the way back, we once again saw the baby sparrows. This time, they were perched on the street sign in front of my daughter's house. Four little babies chattering madly as their parents flew back and forth with bugs to soothe their insatiable appetites--baby birds eat about every twenty minutes.

And I thought it was challenging feeding my babies! My goodness, by the time those poor birds choose the juiciest bug, wash off the dirt (or boil it if its the first child and the parents are still in that over-protective mode), fly back to the babies, choose the child that will eat this round, stuff the bug in the beak of the baby who, by this time, is chattering loudly and flapping all over the nest, pick up the toys they've scattered around the nest, toss a load of dirty feathers into the washing wonder it takes both parents to shop for the family groceries! Seriously, though, it must be exhausting to be a bird parent!

I am also surprised by the large number of birds in Colorado right now. They seem to be everywhere! Colorado, however, is generally a very dry state, and while Texas is plagued with drought at the moment, Colorado has so much rain that mountain towns, such as Estes Park, have daily flooding in the parking lots and public parks, and the park down the street from my daughter's home has sand bags piled up in various places around the park to prevent the water from overflowing onto the park's access roads. Water brings plants, which bring bugs, which bring...birds!

I suspect we are seeing the baby birds in Colorado right now because they also had a very long, cold winter. When I left Texas the first week in June, we had skipped right past spring and were already experiencing 105 degree summer days.

Before I left Texas, I took many pictures of a mated pair of cardinals that stopped by our bedroom window tray of seeds every morning. For a short time, the father appeared alone and we assumed the mother was at the nest with the babies. Then one day, we noticed juvenile cardinals sitting in the tray--three females and a male. It is easy to spot a juvenile cardinal--they look awkward, are missing feathers, and almost appear as if they've been in a fight! At first, we could not tell their sex, but it gradually became more obvious as their feathers filled in.

And these were the magic moments. Every morning. we watched in awe as the mother and father cardinal took turns feeding the babies. After awhile, it became obvious that the parents were trying to teach the babies how to crack open seeds. The father actually appeared to be demonstrating this act. Then we realized the baby birds had learned the technique, though they continued to flap and chatter noisily, begging for food when their parents appeared.

What amazed me the most, though, was the undeniable fact that the parent birds were showing emotions. We could actually see this through the window--the love, tenderness, and compassion they felt for their children. It was a family truly blessed by God.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Where do the birds go in a hailstorm?

Late in the evening of July 13, 2011, I was helping my grandchildren get ready for bed when I heard thunder in the distance. I tucked them beneath the covers, then jumped into the shower to prepare for bed myself before the storm hit. Just as I turned off the water, I heard thunder so loud it made the walls tremble. I quickly slipped into my pajamas and ran into the hallway to meet both of my grandchildren.

Suddenly, it sounded as if hundreds of guns were firing at the house. My son-in-law shouted at us to get into the tornado closet, which was behind us, just beneath the stairs in the basement. I could hear him calling my daughter on the phone, knowing she was on her way home from work and trapped in the storm. I peeked out the door of the closet and watched in awe as golf ball-sized hail averaging 1 3/4 inches, smacked into the window, porch and yard, some flying back up off the ground.

As the storm started to ease, my daughter pulled up in front of the house--she had stopped beneath a tree, hoping to protect her windshield. Another friend was caught in the storm with her children. She stopped the car, climbed into the backseat and covered her children with her arms to protect them in case the windshield broke.

The family cat, who darted outside through an open door earlier in the evening suddenly appeared, shivering with fear. We checked him over for injuries, but he apparently found shelter because he is fine.

I then walked out onto the lawn, staring up and down the street, looking for injured animals. Thankfully, there were none that I could see.

There was hail of all sizes on lawns, in door jambs, driveways, and on cars and trucks. All four vehicles at this house received hail damage. The hail was in all sizes, too, from tiny, dime-sized pieces to golf ball sized chunks. Some were smooth, round, perfect balls. Others appeared to be clumps of tinier balls joined together.

I am still in Colorado. Although only a small portion of the state is considered part of "Tornado Alley," Colorado also has frequent tornadoes, particularly in the foothills. In 2008, I spent three hours in the basement closet with my granddaughter as the television repeatedly warned of possible tornadoes in our area and a mile-wide tornado plowed across the fields and the Town of Windsor on the other side of the highway from where my daughter lives.

Colorado is also known for fierce hail storms and tremendous hail damage. According to the NOAA's National Severe Storms Laboratory, Colorado, Nebraska and Wyoming generally have more hail storms than anywhere else in the United States.

As an avid bird watcher who keeps God's little creatures close to her heart, I am always concerned about the small animals caught in these storms. In May of 2010, residents of Norman, Oklahoma experienced a severe hail storm and in its aftermath discovered a large flock of birds was injured. Many of the birds died, but sixteen were rescued by local residents.

Hail can be extremely dangerous, particularly for small creatures, like birds, who cannot take shelter. I believe it is important to check outside, in the yard, perhaps even in the neighborhood, after storms like this to see if there are birds or other creatures injured by hail. God's little creatures need all the help they can get.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Swallowtail Butterflies and American Goldfinches

I'm in Colorado again visiting family. There seems to be a large number of many little creatures in Loveland this year, which could be explained by the fact that they've had an unusually high amount of snowmelt and rainfall and some of the lower mountain towns have daily flooding in the streets.

I've spent a lot of time in my daughter's backyard and I've noticed her neighbor's tree seems to be the center of attraction for many little creatures in the neighborhood. I see many swallowtail butterflies in the neighborhood and they all seem attracted to this tree.

I watched one for about twenty minutes this afternoon. I don't know if it was playing, or searching for something, but it would fly around the perimeter of the neighbor's house, then into the tree, fluttering through the leaves and branches, then start around the house again. I kept waiting for it to land so I could take a picture, but it didn't seem interested in settling down. There are over 550 species of these large, colorful butterflies, but the ones I've seen in my neighbor's yard are all yellow with black stripes. Back in Texas, I've seen many varieties.

I don't know what type of tree the neighbor has in her front yard, but it seems to be a happy place for little creatures. It also attracts a wide variety of birds. I photographed a stunning brown bird, which I have not been able to identify. I also photographed an American Goldfinch, which was watching my granddaughter as she walked beneath the tree. My granddaughter could not see the bird, but you can tell by the photograph, the bird obviously could see her! It was a magical moment watching the bird follow my granddaughter as she strolled around the grass, staring up through the leaves. I think the bird was actually enjoying the fact that she was secretly spying on the little girl!