Monday, February 28, 2011

Ferry Dock Fight

In the early pioneer days of Washington, two men came to this area and each decided that this would be a great location to build a town and a port on the South Puget Sound. Both overlooked that other locations nearby were better suited. I think that their ambitions and greed may have clouded their judgment.  Never the less they each started to build towns side by side without any safe port or harbor. Each had very different ideas of the how to layout a their towns and as time passed and the edges of the two towns met. Of course when you have strong wills and egos there are bound to be small issues. The streets were at different angles and did not lineup.  Eventually the towns combined and a road was cut through the easement where the two met and was creatively named Union Avenue.

Union Avenue descends a long hill while bisecting town and terminates at the hot spot in my sleepy little town. Jam packed into just a couple of acres you will find the ferry terminal, ferry parking lanes, short term parking lots, a bus stop, a boat launch, a major railroad corridor, a small snack/liquor store and the State Prison boat and barge terminal.  All of this human activity as well as the trash cans and dumpsters are a gold mine for the local crows.   Like us the crows view anything of value as something worth fighting for.

In April of last year I happen upon this violent interaction two blocks from the ferry terminal. It ended when a crow dove in from the upper left and impacted the crow on the right. As a woman walking her dog approached the crows cleared out.

Last week I was passing by the same area when I heard crows sounding an alarm. I drive around with my windows down often to keep an ear to the world.  I approached them unseen due to the fight in progress.

After the fight broke up one of the crows was holding a feather.

It was a prize from the fight.

Though hard to see in the pictures there was a tiny bit of flesh and down feather on the base of the feather's shaft. The crow meticulously cleaned it from the quill.  It appeared as if the crow carefully consumed the tiny morsel of it's enemy.

Was this a symbolic act?

For the crow that lost the feather it may be more then just humiliating.  There is always the threat of infection,  avian pox or physical damage. During the early stages of feather growth the quill is engorged with blood,  if a feather is pulled or damaged during this vulnerable phase the crow could bleed out and die.

The noise of the two groups was deafening. The defeated crow and it's supporters shouted their rebuttals from the safety of a near by tree as the winners regrouped on the grass laughing at their defeated brethren.

Once the feather was cleaned and thoroughly inspected the new owner the crow jumped high into the air and hovered for a moment then dropped the feather falling to the earth behind it. This exhibition was repeated two more times rallying the winning crow's group to cheer in a raucous chorus and gather around the prized feather.

Hurling insults to add to the injury.

The exchange of taunts went on and on. It was very emotional for both sides and as it continued it took on  a very human appearance. Disturbingly human but then again the part of the brain being used by the crows at this point is the same part we use in similar circumstances.  The "lizard part".

The loosing team.  The best I can determine there was a total of fifteen to eighteen crow involved. The winning side had a two or three bird advantage.  More then enough to tip the balance of power.

I taunt you.

I own you.

To the victor go the spoils.  Now for the victory lap around the ferry dock parking lot for all to see.  I wondered how long this crow would keep the feather as it flew over the railroad tracks. My thoughts of following the pair ended when the crossing signal blared out it's warring of an oncoming train.

We all can agree that crows and their cousins are very intelligent and social creatures. When we think of the social aspect we tend to think of the nurturing of the young, cooperative feeding and strong individual bonds.  The positive and good things of society. These things we value as part of our social values.  Crows somehow make it is easy to draw conclusions and parallels to ourselves, until things turn dark.  Then they look more like us then we realize or want to admit to.

I will keep an I eye on the ferry dock "gangs".  I will try to determine how often these turf battles take place and how far do they go.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

A Disturbance in the Force

Just before a recent cold snap I went out to the yard and covered up the faucets and disconnected the hoses.  I went into the chicken's yard and made sure they had what they needed.  The last stop among the things I check out was the fountain I made to look like a spring two years ago.  I noticed the all of the soil around the "pond" was torn up and in disarray. I immediately suspected that Red the squirrel had done it. You have meet Red and know his ways.

I bought fresh batteries for the wildlife camera and set it up.  Here is an over view of what is going on when I not around to watch.

I not real pleased with this turn of events.  I turn on the yard lights at night and wait a minute or so before I let the dogs out. I do not want the Raccoons and the dogs to ever to have a change to interact. no good can come of it.

Red is on the log at the bottom of the pond drinking.
Red is at the at the top of the vertical log taking a drink.

A Steller's Jay hops along the vertical log toward the camera.

A Steller's at at the top of the pond standing in the water.

The sneaky little rabbit that eats more then it's fair share in the garden.

Then the Raccoons take over.

A challenge to the camera?

I am sure they area looking for the three goldfish that have been living in there for the last two years.

So now when Phoebe stands there and sniffs long and hard I can pretty much assume that she is taking in all of the nuances of the recent visitor. I often wonder when the dogs did that how old if any sent was there. Now I will not be so quick to tell her she is nuts.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

A Timeless Battle

Last month my laptop did something I have never had a computer do. It was full. Full full.  Not one more thing could be added.  Not one thing.  Foolishly I thought the day would never come. I set about deleting duplicate photos. I figured that was where the most fat was.  I was correct.  Quickly I dropped 41G.  I wish other things were that easy to lose.

One advantage to this was that I found a folder that contained the pictures I would like to share with you.  My last Blog was a graphic fight for life encounter between an eagle and a brant. The eagle is the apex predator of it’s world, the brant, big game in ever sense of the word.   This struggle goes one every day and sometimes it goes on right under foot.

This is a year round resident of my backyard.  S/he is a Rough Skinned Newt ( Taricha granulosa).
These pictures were taken in October, 2008.  I stumbled upon him as I was moving dirt near my fountain. I dropped the shovel and picked up the ever near by camera.  I do not know it's gender, so to make it easier on me to write this, he will be male. The next will be female.

I don't see his kind very often so I didn’t know much about them at the time I took these pictures.  What ever opinion I may have had of them before this encounter changed just as quickly as I took the pictures.   

On the prowl. In the first two photos you can't see the orange undersides. With the newt's coloration blending into and between the browns of the ground litter and the orange of the broken pot shards, he is for all intents and purposes invisible to his prey and those who would do him harm. He fears very few predators, he has a surprise for any animal that may want to eat him.  His orange coloration may give some warning to any predator that has color vision, but those with simpler eyes have to learn the hard way.  He is packing a powerful poison. His kind manufacture a chemical called Tetrodotoxin, in the vernacular of the local peasantry, "zombie powder".  As the name implies it is the source of your average day to day Voodoo type of zombie. It is found marine animals around the world, most commonly in puffer fish , a few crabs, rare octopus and it is the poison of choice in Central American frogs.

It is a powerful neurotoxin that has no antidote. It depolarizes nerve cells preventing commands from the brain reaching organs and muscles causing paralysis and / or death. In some areas select species of Garter Snake are not effected by this toxin which would suggest a long running co-evolution between the two.  A classic and timeless arms race. But how and why such a powerful toxin?

 Look but don't touch!

Really, have you ever seen or
heard of a zombie movie plot that ever really went well?

Years ago I had a tough little Chihuahua. In her prime she feared nothing and was a adventurous explorer.  One rainy night as we walked we came upon a newt slowly crossing a cold asphalt road. Before I could react she chomped down.  An instant later the newt was back on the road drenched in dog saliva. She never approached a newt again.  I know she could not see color under the conditions that night but she never forgot the shape, taste, smell and gait of the newt.

As a survival strategy a few newts may die but the effects they have on their predators (that survive) ensures that many are spared.

There have been times in my life when I have thought to myself, “Hmm I could really use an earthworm right about now” but this time one actually appeared.

Upon seeing the worm the newt froze and stood motionless for a long time. The worm kept cautiously advancing.  Half of an inch forward and a quarter of an inch back. The first light tough between the worm and newt caused the worm to pull back a little then stop. Both froze.

He then touched the worm.

The worm recoiled violently. The worm  knew now that it was in trouble and was not wasting any time in going back the way it had come.

"Eye of newt, and toe of frog,".   Macbeth's witch may have been onto something.
I am struck by the eye, it's proportion to the head as well as it looking differently from what we normally encounter, it looks as if the eyes are connected directly to the spine with the brain being rather rudimentary. The newt took up the chase and slowly followed with calculating steps.

Then he pounced which was surprisingly fast and well aimed.  It was on, these pictures do not do justice the violent thrashing the nest endured. The worm used it's serpentine grip on the soil to leverage the newt's head and body as the newt relied on it's legs and tail to counter each of the worm's assaults.

The newt had a mouthful but that was all. 
 If he had teeth they weren't very large.  The jaw has matching bony ridges that meet to form a vise like grip.  The jaw is driven by powerful muscles that barely have the strength to open but it's not about how fast or forcefully you open your mouth as a predator it's all about the closing and holding on.

As the worm thrashed about it slowly lost it's own grip on the soil and leaf litter. The newt's wide leg stance and tail swinging to counter the force of the worm had turned the table. The worm now just thrashed about in the air and on top of the newt helpless.

The newt now had not only the upper hand, he hand a hand, two actually.

 I sure that even by the simplest of evolutionary theory, a newt is not very advanced. Granted the poison thing is a pretty neat trick but otherwise he is not very complicated. His feet barely look as if they are completely formed, he is not fast, he doesn't dig, no really big teeth, no armor or scales for protection.  And if all of this was not enough to make his life tough, he is cold blooded.  If the temperature drops while he is out in the open and unprotected he just stops mid stride and waits helplessly until he warms up enough to move again.  The cold blooded issue for all of the possible shortcomings it has looking at it from a mammals point of view really is a blessing in disguise. His food requirements are minimal.  Without the need to burn calories to warm up,  food reserves last longer.

Then his slow moving gait and defensive stance gave way as he transformed into a worm wrestling dynamo.  All muscles strained to control the worm as the stubby little foot stepped on the worm near the newt's mouth. At first it looked as if the newt was wiping the dirt off of the worm before tried to take a larger bite.  As he repositioned himself  it became clear that the feet were increasing the leverage and pressure on the worm at the newt's jaw.

Just as it looked as if the worm was going to get the last of the upper hands to be had...

... it was over. The newt had used the thrashing of the worm to his advantage. His pit bull grip and tenacity used against the worm's rotating and writhing simply twisted off a juicy piece of worm!  He didn't have to eat the whole worm, just take a bite out of it.  Talk about renewable resources,  just go get a bite of worm and move on to the next. It will just grow back!

To para phrase something about dogs..."It is not the size of the newt in the fight that's the size of the fight in the newt".

Look, don't touch.  Zombies.