June 2020 Archives

Trapping Update: The Armadillo Abides
June 27, 2020 9:28 AM | Posted in:

Will you still need me, will you still feed me
When I'm sixty-four.

  -- Some obscure musical group

Armadillo trapping count over time
It's been a while since I posted anything about our varmint trapping endeavors at Casa Fire Ant, and although nothing of great significance has happened over the past few months, we have achieved a minor milestone: our 64th armadillo capture since we moved in about three years ago (wow...time does indeed fly).

"Why," you may ask, "is this a milestone?" Well, the answer should be obvious: it's the only way I could think of to use the lyrical reference atop this post. Even that's a stretch, because (a) we don't trap armadillos by feeding them, and (2) we certainly don't NEED them, except as subjects for a tedious series of articles.

It is worth noting, however -- if only for purposes of maintaining a reliable historical record -- that armadillos have figuratively left all the other species in the dust in terms of the numbers wandering into our traps. Here's the latest iteration of our classy trap status graphic:

Classy trap status graphic

The raccoon count has hasn't budged since last year. This phenomenon is closely related to the fact that I've put those traps in the attic which remains blessedly raccoon-free. Seriously, though, now that we've stopped putting out food in the traps, the raccoons have stopped coming. Who could have foreseen that?

Also, the T-rex count remains disappointingly low. I have no good explanation for that.

I thought it would be interesting to see how the armadillo trapping has progressed over time, so I wasted invested an inordinate amount of time on the animation shown above. Be sure to watch it over and over so that my ROI is enhanced.

At some point, one would think that I've surely decimated the local armadillo population. Granted, the females always give birth to quadruplets, so keeping up with the birthrate will be a never-ending challenge. But I also have a sneaking suspicion that I'm not only trapping neighborhood animals, but also those arriving via involuntary relocation. As in, other people are bringing their trapped armadillos into our neighborhood and releasing them. We are surrounding by semi-woodsy, uninhabited terrain, and a sufficiently sneaky person could easily dump an animal without being seen. And since we back up to a creek, the armadillos would logically head toward our location. This scenario makes sense to me, because I used to do the same thing early on, before I realized the implications.

But, since armadillos don't typically carry IDs, I have no way of proving anything. We'll just continue our program of catch and release (the latter now taking place miles away in a totally uninhabited part of the county) and occasionally bore you with updates. It's not as though I have anything better to do.

Armadillo peering out of trap
Agricultural Tragic album coverI was going to post a varmint trapping update today but then I realized that Corb Lund's latest album just dropped and the critter count cuento will just have to wait.

You have to be a long-time Gazette reader (I doubt there are many of you, but if you qualify -- bless your heart!) to know that I've been a Corb fan for at least a decade. I won't rehash my fanboi proclivities (if you must know more, here's a place to start); suffice it to say that I think he's one of the premier songwriters working today in any genre.

Agricultural Tragic (the cognoscenti will know it as AgTrag) breaks little new ground, melodically. Corb's style is pretty unmistakeable. That's not a knock; his melodies stand up to repeated listening, and the lyrics range from delightfully silly to sophisticatedly poetic. He takes his time when crafting songs, and they all exude personal authenticity (for more about his creative process, and about this album in particular, check out this podcast).

I have absolutely zero bona fides as a serious music critic, so I won't attempt to review the record in detail. But here are my one-line summaries of each AgTrag track:

  • 90 Seconds of Your Time - An attempt to dissuade an Army Ranger from hunting down a horse thief

  • Old Men - An ode to experience

  • I Think You Oughta Try Whiskey - An "old-style" duet with Jaida Dreyer; more about this below

  • Raining Horses - A tale of fecundity, but too much is never enough

  • Oklahomans! - Garth would be proud

  • Grizzly Bear Blues - Don't wait until you meet up with one to decide what you'll do

  • Dance With Your Spurs On - Life is short, so...you know...

  • Louis L'amour - A paean to days past, an elegy for today's tragedies, in three-quarter time

  • Never Not Had Horses - A tribute to his cowgirl mom, a rancher and horsewoman from day one

  • Ranchin', Ridin', Romance (Two Outta Three Ain't Bad) - Chris LeDoux (RIP) would be proud

  • Rat Patrol - Who you gonna get to get 'em under control? Las ratas rockabilly

  • Tattoos Blues - We don't judge, but spelling can be pretty criticle
I'm hard-pressed to pick a favorite song on this album, although Grizzly Bear Blues is dangerously earwormish. But I do want to call special attention to I Think You Oughta Try Whiskey. I feel a kind of personal connection with this song, for no other reason than Debbie and I got to hear it performed live last November at the Coupland Dance Hall. Jaida Dreyer opened for Corb and his band (the Hurtin' Albertans), and then joined Corb for Whiskey. We had no idea at the time that it would make its way onto his next record.

Corb kinda likes it, as today's tweet announcing AgTrag focuses on it:

"Old school country duet" hits the bullseye. It's a throwback to some great "love you/hate you/can't live with you/can't live without you" songs. A couple that come immediately to my mind are You're the Reason Our Kids Are Ugly (Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty) and In Spite of Ourselves (Iris DeMent and John Prine).

Here's an acoustic version of Whiskey, via YouTube.

Whether you're a country music fan or not, if you get a chance to go to a Corb Lund show, do it. His band is tight, and they put on a great performance. Regardless, I recommend checking out his stuff wherever fine music is downloaded/streamed/vended.

Since I mentioned them, I'll save you the trouble of looking them up for comparison. (Note: John Prine's lyrics can skew a bit to the randy side. But also hilarious.)

One late afternoon last week, Debbie was looking out a dining room window and spotted a strange sight in the courtyard. She called me over to have a look, and for the next couple of hours, we watched a fascinating process unfold.

Alert Gazette readers will recall the previous post in which I described, by word and by photograph, the behaviors of the three most common species of lizards around our house. I mentioned the Texas spiny lizard only in passing - I didn't have a relevant photo to share - commenting only that it is skittish and secretive. So, we felt privileged to witness the scene taking place in the courtyard: a female of that species digging a nest, laying eggs, and then covering and leaving them to hatch.

Naturally, I took photos of the process. I must apologize in advance for the poor quality of most of them. Some were taken at a very odd angle through the window, and some are just the product of an old camera and an older photographer. But I think you'll be able to discern all the subjects, and I hope you'll share our wonder at seeing something that's rarely witnessed by humans.

What first caught Debbie's eye was the half-buried lizard busy excavating a hole. We initially thought she was perhaps digging for insects to eat, but the hole seemed too big for that.

Photo - Texas spiny lizard digging a nest

While I was trying to get photos, Debbie was busy finding out more about the nesting habits of the lizard. She found this very informative website which seemed to confirm that what we were watching was indeed a nest building exercise. (The photos are better, too...but more limited in scope than what follows.) That article describes the preferred site for a nest as being one with fairly dry, loose soil, good sun exposure, which also happens to be a perfect description of our courtyard in every respect.

Photo - Texas spiny lizard female backed into nest

Once the hole was several inches deep, the female backed into it. At that point, sensing that things were about to get real, I crept out into the courtyard and tried to get some pictures without disturbing her. I was successful in the latter; the results of the former are fairly sad.

Photo - Texas spiny lizard laying eggs
Photo - Texas spiny lizard eggs

In the top photo, you can just make out a couple of eggs in the nest. That's a far cry from the eight to 30 mentioned in the article, but perhaps the others were buried before I got the photo. Or maybe she's just an underachiever. The bottom photo is a little clearer. They do resemble bird eggs, so perhaps that theory linking birds and dinosaurs in the evolutionary chain isn't farfetched at all.

Once the eggs were deposited, the lizard got busy covering them...and I do mean busy! In fact, for the next hour she devoted herself to restoring the ground over the eggs to its original state. This behavior is common among reptiles, and I've documented it for turtles a couple of times previously.

Photo - Texas spiny lizard hiding the nest

The nest hiding process went something like this. She would back partway into the hole, then use her front feet to send loose soil backwards. That loose soil was then flung into the hole by her back feet. She would periodically pause in these efforts to turn around and push the fill dirt with her snout to compact it. This sequence was repeated countless times until the nest was completely covered and undetectable to the casual observer.

Animated GIF of lizard covering up nest
"Our" spiny lizard busily hiding her nest

Midway through the process, things took an unexpected and captivating turn, as a six-lined racerunner entered the scene. At first, it came within a few feet of the spiny lizard and then headed off, but then it turned around as if curious and actually made contact with the female. Here are a couple more photos of the encounter. Again, my apologies for the photography; these were taken through the dining room window with the camera at a very uncomfortable angle.

Photo - Texas spiny lizard encounters a six-lined racerunner
Photo - Texas spiny lizard encounters a six-lined racerunner

We feared that we were about to witness one or both of the following: an attempt by the racerunner to dig into the nest, and a fight to the death between the two lizard species. In reality, neither occurred. The racerunner really did just seem curious, and the spiny lizard, while cautious and protective, didn't act belligerent toward the racerunner. After a bit of scrambling around, the racerunner disappeared under the flagstone, which presumably covered its lair.
After this brief encounter, the spiny lizard continued hiding the nest, and about two hours later, apparently satisfied with her efforts, disappeared. Her job was finished; she will not return to the nest (spiny lizards are typically arboreal; they blend in perfectly with tree bark), and if all goes well, the eggs will hatch within about 45 days.
Update (06/16/2020): After I posted this I realized that I had forgotten to mention a rather fascinating -- and surprising -- behavior on the part of the lizard. When she was about 3/4 finished with the coverup process, I went out into the courtyard to take some photos. I tried to move slowly and quietly so as not to disturb her, but she bolted away from the nest and out of sight on the porch. We figured that the camouflage effort was finished and would have to suffice.

But, much to our surprise, after I went back in the house, she returned to the nest and continued to scrape dirt and rocks back over the nest until it was finished. The primal urge to protect her eggs is strong and apparently irresistible, even though she'll have nothing to do with them once that task is finished. Put another way...she takes pride in her work, but has a pretty narrow definition of the scope of that work.
Here's how the nesting area looked following her camouflaging efforts. 

Photo - Texas spiny lizard's hidden nest

Debbie and I will, of course, monitor the situation over the next six weeks and, assuming nothing obviously untoward happens, I plan to place a GoPro camera on a tripod to take timelapse photos of what we hope will be the emergence of at least a couple of brand spanking new Texas spiny lizards.
Fake MPAA rating for this post warning you about its provocative content

I don't know whether it's because we've been stuck at home more this year, but I've noticed more evidence than ever before that spring in our neighborhood is a matter of life and death...and I'm not talking about COVID-19 at all.

If the Circle of Life was unrolled and laid flat in a trend line, we've spotted examples of the significant points along that line. To wit...

In the beginning

We have three species of lizards living in our neighborhood: the six-lined racerunner (Aspidoscelis sexlineatus) , the green anole (Anolis carolinensis) and its less-plentiful cousin, the brown anole, and the Texas spiny lizard (Sceloporus olivaceus). The three each have unique "personalities" and behaviors -- the racerunners are like inquisitive two-year-olds around kitchen drawers, the anoles (at least the males) are pugnacious and territorial, and the TSLs are skittish and secretive. But they all have one thing in common: a strong desire to make little lizards. And, for some reason, our courtyard seems to be the preferred make-out location.

Photo - Anoles mating
Photo - Six-lined racerunners mating

Both the anole (top photo) and racerunner (bottom) females will lay eggs that will hatch in less than two months.

By the way, I'm not sure why it is, but a noticeable percentage of the lizard population around here are missing parts of their tails, as you may have noticed with the female anole and the male racerunner. Fortunately, they'll both regenerate those tails.

New life...or not

So, after making whoopee, the next point along the Great Trend Line of Life (GTLL) is -- can you guess? -- babies...assuming everything goes according to plan. When it does, it's very cool. I've written at length about the new family of hawks next door, but not all the life stories end that happily.

About a year ago, I documented the nesting and egg-laying behavior of a river cooter, and the predation of that nest by an armadillo. I assumed this was a rather isolated event, but this spring I've found four such ravaged nests just in the vacant lot adjacent to ours. Here's an example, with the background faded to highlight the destroyed eggshells.

Photo - Turtle nest attacked and eggs devoured

The hole at the top of the photo is where the eggs were originally buried; the white slivers are all that remain of the leathery eggs.

Fortunately, nature has a way of compensating for these destructive events via the sheer number of nests that are built and eggs laid, and our populations of red eared sliders and river cooters seems quite healthy. And so we occasionally get treated to scenes like the one below (excuse the poor long-distance phone photography) of a tiny turtle sunning itself atop a big one. Are they related? Who knows? But they both appear content.

Photo - Tiny turtle on top of big turtle

Life is a gift, if you can keep it

But, of course, life can be a zero sum game in the world of nature. The food chain is pretty immutable; eaters get eaten, and sometimes bad decisions are fatal.

As an example of the latter, here's a hummingbird who kamikazied into one of our windows. I'm sure that everyone with a feeder has seen this happen at some point in the past, and it's always tragic.

Deceased hummingbird

Life seems to be particularly nasty, brutish, and short if you're an insect (you're not, by the way, so don't worry). For example, you might encounter an assassin bug. When that happens, the prognosis is grim. Just ask the May beetle in the following photo (but don't expect an answer).

Photo - Assassin bug sucking the life out of a beetle

This pair was on our back porch. If you look closely, you'll see the assassin bug's proboscis inserted into the belly of the beetle, whose life is slowly being drained. We don't mourn this passing because the beetle is a pest, like much of the assassin bug's other prey, so the bug may be ugly (and it is capable of giving a human a nasty little puncture if handled) but it's a beneficial guest in a garden or yard.

The assassin bug is also tenacious. As I attempted to photograph this behavior, it tried to back away from my presence...but it never let go of its prey. You've got to admire someone (or something) that's willing to fight for its dinner.

Another occupant of the "death point" on the GTLL is the moth shown below...or at least, what's left of it.

Photo - Cope's gray tree frog eating a moth

We've noticed that tree frogs have taken to hiding beneath the cushions of the chaise lounges on our deck, in obvious defiance of the dangers of being squished. So, we've started looking under the cushions to help them avoid any embarrassing flattening. Early one morning, I pulled a cushion back and uncovered this Cope's gray tree frog (Dryophytes chrysoscelis) in the middle of a tasty breakfast of moth.

So, in this version of the zero sum game, the moth's life energy is converted into the frog's ability to continue waking us up in the middle of the night by singing its unique arrangement of Bohemian Rhapsody outside our bedroom window.

By the way, there are actually two almost identical species of gray tree frogs, and they can be distinguished pretty much only by their calls. Both have that bright orange or gold stripe on each back leg that you can see in the photo. I'm guessing that this one is a Cope's gray tree frog, but that's only because the Wikipedia photos look similar. And, really, from the moth's perspective, it's not important.

So, there you have it -- the amazing and intriguing and disturbing facets of natural life in the Fire Ant neighborhood. If there's a silver lining in the COVID cloud, it's the [forced] opportunity to slow down and observe more closely what's going on around us.

I leave you with one last tree frog photo. You'll have to guess what happened to him/her/it.

Photo - Cope's gray tree frog
Alert Gazette readers will recall that only two days ago, I predicted that the juvenile red-shouldered hawks next door would be leaving the nest "within the next couple of weeks." Well, we discovered today that my prediction was off by only...well...a couple of weeks.

I walked outside early this morning in time to see one of the youngsters glide from the nesting tree, across the vacant lot, and land in a tree about a hundred feet away. A white-tailed doe was grazing below and the hawk seemed to be fixated on it, as it hopped from branch to branch following the deer. The doe was obviously much too large to be prey, but it was still an object of apparent curiosity. The hawk eventually disappeared from sight into the the thick stand of live oaks bordering the golf course.

Turning my attention back to the tree with the nest, the other two juveniles were resting on branches near their previous home. The nest itself looked tattered, just a haphazard mass of twigs, half of which was now hanging from a branch below the original location. As I told someone later, imagine what your house might look like if you left three teenagers alone in it for a period of time (no offense to the young hawks, of course). However, Debbie and I also wondered if the adults had destroyed the nest as a not-so-subtle hint to the kids that it was time to move on.

Two juvenile hawks ready to leave the nest
These two appear ready to follow their sibling's example by setting out on their own.

Late this afternoon, only one juvenile remained in the tree. As I mentioned in the previous post, the hawk's eggs don't hatch simultaneously, so the three siblings won't necessarily be at the same stage of development at any given time. But they seem to  mature very rapidly and those differences don't have any significant impact.

It's been a fascinating process to observe, from a mother incubating eggs, to newborn nestlings, and from "teenaged" fledglings to young hawks ready to strike out on their own. I'm sure we'll spot them in the skies from time-to-time, and perhaps a couple will return to build another nest and restart the cycle.
It's been about six weeks since I discovered the active red-shouldered hawk nest in a live oak tree adjacent to our property. At that time, the female raptor appeared to be spending her time incubating eggs, an assumption that was confirmed a few weeks later.

Up until now, I've had to rely on my drone to get photos and video of the occupants of the nest, but the young birds have grown to the point where I can observe and photograph them from a couple of spots on the ground (and only a couple -- the hawks were quite expert in hiding their nest from casual observation, about 40' above the ground). I use a Canon 70-200mm zoom lens, and it's just barely good enough to allow my ancient 8mp DSLR to get some decent pictures. Fortunately, the three nestlings-almost-fledglings are pretty photogenic.

Three fledgling red-shouldered hawks
Three fledgling red-shouldered hawks

If you're wondering, as I was, why one of the birds seems to be a bit behind the other two in terms of development, I've learned that the eggs don't hatch simultaneously; in more technical terminology, they hatch asynchronously. So, the bird in the middle obviously hatched later than the other two.

My uneducated guess is that these birds will be leaving the nest over the next couple of weeks. I'm looking forward to the possibility of observing the next chapter of their avian lives, and I hope to be able to share some of that with you.

By the way, if you're new to bird watching, here's a quick primer on the differences between nestlings and fledglings.

And this is an excellent and thorough reference site for red-shouldered hawks, although it seems to overlook the possibility of the species dwelling in Texas.

About this Archive

This page is an archive of entries from June 2020 listed from newest to oldest.

May 2020 is the previous archive.

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