First quarter moon, January 1, 2012


The last day of 2011 was beautiful here in south Florida. Started off cool (chilly, even), but warmed nicely throughout the day. Since it was the first Saturday after Christmas, I was out in the field on the West Palm Beach Christmas Bird Count, and the weather proved mildly conducive to the birds we were seeking; a morning’s work yielded 50 species in some pretty marginal habitat. I’ll have more on the bird count later.

I spent the afternoon at the beach with Eric, who decided that a dead-tired-from-birding Daddy had no excuse not to take him, and I’m glad we went. The weather was just so lovely; much nicer than the previous two times we’d gone, with 20-mph easterlies howling at us, sending sand stinging against our legs and into our eyes. I actually wore my parka the last time I went to the beach!

But December 31, 2011, was absolutely idyllic:

Just perfect for building castles in the sand.

All was well until the evening, when I decided to haul out my big telescope and take a few pictures of the moon, which was nearing first quarter. It turned out that the hand controller for the computerized mount wasn’t working, so I couldn’t use the big mount and its tracking capability. I suspected that the battery was undercharged, so I hauled it into the garage, but by the little strap instead of by the battery box handles. And that was a huge mistake. I don’t think I’ve ever seen swelling in my shin bone quite so drastic or immediate. Two gigantic lumps and a divot where the battery came crashing down on my leg; I’ve been limping slightly ever since.

But on New Year’s Day, I couldn’t resist using my grab-and-go setup to get the first quarter moon on the first day of the year:

I haven’t gotten all the camera settings exactly the way I want them, but I really don’t notice the missing 2 megapixels from my “downgrade.” Do you? The picture’s a little grainy, but it’s because I had the ISO set to 400 to compensate for the fact that I didn’t have a tracking mount.

With a nontracking mount, there just isn’t enough light from the first-quarter moon to shoot the way I’m accustomed to, after two years of tracking the full moon. After all, when the moon is full, there’s enough light that I can shoot at ISO 64 and not get too much grain.

But with only half the moon’s lit surface to work with, the reduction in luminosity is enormous: first quarter moon is only 8% as bright as full moon. Put another way, it’s 2.7 magnitudes less bright ( −10 instead of −12.7). Put yet another way, it’s about a 12× reduction in brightness. (Numbers seem funny when you’re dealing with magnitudes because each step in magnitude, represented by a whole number, is not a unit increase, but a logarithmic one. A 1st-magnitude object is more than twice as bright [2.512× to be precise] as a second-magnitude object. And because the moon is an extended object, not a point source of light, the numbers get even funnier, but I’m not sure how, so I can’t explain them. This post was supposed to be just a snapshot of the first quarter moon to show off the new camera, but I got sidebarred—er, sidetracked.)

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More fish stories

In an update to yesterday’s adventure to FWC’s non native fish research center at FAU, I did a bit more digging and found some nice informati0n on no native species in Florida here, at FWC’s site. Still nothing about the research facility on Spanish River Blvd. here in Boca, but at least we found out what kind of fish Eric caught yesterday: the walking catfish, Clarias batrachus. When it was first discovered here, there were fears of this fish taking over the ecosystem, excluding native fish and generally causing an ecological catastrophe. This was fueled in part by their sensational method of moving from one body of water to another: they walk! On land! So after a good rain, they are able to leave their canal, hop across the levee, and get into the pond on the other side (I have this anecdote from an eyewitness report of such an event in the 70s). Here’s a shot of it in action:

Thanks in part to the research at this facility, aided (or prompted) by reports from Florida’s avid fishing population, we now know that these fears were somewhat overblown. As the species information linked to earlier mentions,

early accounts that this fish would eliminate native fishes were erroneous, and it has not had major detrimental effects.

The Florida Museum of Natural History has a nice website about it, documenting its range expansion, but the FWC’s site indicates that its numbers have actually declined since 1970. I suspect that the FWC’s scientists are documenting an exotic species that isn’t as invasive as first thought, and that the word hasn’t spread very far as yet…

In any case, it’s an interesting fish; not scaly, so it’s not all that “icky” to the touch (as I can report, having done so yesterday), and pretty fun for even a toddler to catch. And while it’s considered tasty in its native range (Southeast Asia), it’s pretty unappetizing to those of us who like our largemouth bass from our inland waterways or our snapper or jacks offshore.

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Gone fishin’


This morning our across-the-street neighbor came over and told us that the fish farm over at the local university was having their annual open house. So Eric and I piled into the van and drove on over to check it out. Sure enough, the FWC’s FAU Fish Research Center (which normally keeps a very low profile: go ahead, I dare you to find mention of it on the web somewhere–please send it to me if/when you do!) had a big sign out, the gate was open, and the parking lot was full. They had tanks set up inside with fish from around the world that have been found in Florida’s inland waterways: piranha from the Amazon, cichlids from Africa, Asia and South America, and much more. Apparently they’ve just hired someone on to do research on exotic herps in South Florida as well, so they had a Burmese Python hanging out in a tank as well.

But the real action was out back of the office, at the kid’s fishin’ hole. There were dozens of families with wee ones around one of the containment ponds, putting cut-up hot dogs on fish hooks and casting, with varied success. Some kids were able to cast for themselves, and they generally caught very little. Others, like Eric, were too little to cast independently, so they got help from the staff. Eric caught two catfish in two tries in about two minutes this way:

Our helper, by the name of David, had one of the most southern accents I’d ever heard. Being polite, or maybe just shy, I said nothing about it, but wondered where he might be from. So naturally, when we fell to talking, he exhibited no such shyness,  asking me right out where I came from, because he noticed I had a bit of an ak-sayent… Go figure. That’s David in the picture below, along with Eric and the catfish.

It turned out our next-door neighbor had gotten the heads-up from our other neighbor as well, and she was there with her two boys, bored but happy at the same time in the pre-summer heat. One of the toddler girls over in the corner fell in, to much consternation. But a good time was had by most, and we made it home in plenty of time for lunch (not catfish, in case you were wondering–this was a catch-and-release event). As you can see, Eric was a bit puzzled at the idea of catching a fish only to let it go; he didn’t really know what to think:

Maybe when he’s a little older…

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Busy month


Over the course of about ten days this month, we:

  • moved to a new house
  • began potty training our only son
  • brought a new son into the world (thus rendering the wording of the previous item obsolete)

I guess when you boil it down like that, it doesn’t sound like very much. But when you’ve lived through the clutter and jumble of a move, the clutter and jumble of accidents, and the midnight to three a.m. feedings, it seems like a pretty darn full month, indeed.

Updating addresses with banks, credit card companies, the DMV, phone, cable, etc. providers. Trying to make sure our phone number will transfer over (in about two weeks; still using a temporary one for now), etc.

After the dust clears (one of these years, it’s bound to) I might return to regular updates.

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Saturday morning at the park


It’s the tail end of migration down here in south Florida, so naturally I went to Spanish River Park: the best birding park in all of Boca Raton, and one of the best in the entire area, for a bit of relaxation. However, I left my binoculars at home. This, after all, was not a birding trip, but a way to burn off some energy outdoors until other members of the household could join us at a more civilized hour for, say, breakfast. So, to pass the time, Eric and I found a playground. I think he had fun, don’t you?

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Say cheese!

So much of how we live our lives is full of conventions that we’ve almost forgotten to be conventions. We were at the playground of Sugar Sand park recently and mommy wanted a picture of little e, who was engrossed in play with his digger. So she said “say cheese!” Eric complied, but not in quite the way she’d expected. Without looking up or even breaking his bulldozer-operating stride, he said “cheese” and that was that.

Amazing the things we can learn, isn’t it?

Eventually we may even be able to post the pictures we got…

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Playground at the beach

One nice thing about being a resident of Boca Raton is that the beach parks are superb. They have playgrounds, trash service, parking–all for a mere $30 or so per year. (Don’t forget your beach permit, though–it costs $18 for one day in the parking lot if you don’t have the sticker!)

Eric and I spent some there this weekend while Mommy was away in the Big Easy:

Note the bus and train engine clutched in the hands–they slide down the plastic slide much better than a toddler, actually, since they have wheels and playground slides have enormous stiction to prevent their municipalities from being sued for providing fun.

Of course, one can spend only so long at the playground before becoming anxious to hit the beach:

When we get there, it’s just one handful of sand after another. But you have to watch out for all the seaweed:

Cell phone cameras are convenient, but they suffer from the same problem as most P&S cameras: you can’t choose your focus area very easily. Note how the seaweed in the background is in crisp sharp focus, while the lad in the foreground is blurred by both breeze in the hair and funky focusing algorithms:

Had I wanted to take a closeup of the seaweed, I might have been better served to use a real camera, as I did in the shot below, from 2008:

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Parallel worlds

There aren’t very strong geologic, climatologic, zoologic or botanic parallels between my two “home” states of Florida and California. True, both states have endemic scrub-jay populations (the Santa Cruz island scrub-jay and the Florida scrub-jay), and many of the plants and animals of Florida’s “ancient islands” (scrub habitat) have western affinities, but beyond that, there’s not a whole lot linking the two places.

Oh, sure, there are some superficial parallels. I mean, when I was going to grad school at UCLA, I rode my bike through palm tree–lined streets, dodging expensive cars, with the sights and sounds of the ocean never too far away from consciousness. Here in south Florida, I ride my bike through, um, palm tree–lined streets, dodging expensive cars, and the sights and sounds of the ocean aren’t too far away. We moved away from California in part because the housing prices had become unaffordable. Now we’re in Florida where, it seems, housing prices had become unaffordable. In both places, it appears to have been a bubble.

Geographically they’re also superficially similar: Both are longer on the north–south axis than they are east–west. California covers close to 800 miles longitudinally and only around 250 in latitude, while Florida is around 450 miles N-S and surprisingly wide–360 miles from Pensacola to the Atlantic coast. Both of them also start out in the upper left and drift across the page to the lower right:

But Florida, surrounded by water on three sides, is only much more recently, and perhaps temporarily, emerged from the ocean. Only those ancient island systems like the Lake Wales ridge date back more than a few thousands of years. California, on the other hand, is millions of years dry.

The water offshore of the two states is remarkably different: the cold California Current keeps the Pacific waters quite chilly, even in summer; the warm Gulfstream, on the other hand, keeps our Florida waters comfortable, even in winter. And presumably, these differences account for a climatologic difference as well. As I’ve mentioned before, the clouds are different: in California, unless you’re in the middle of June gloom (which, as a recent study has indicated, may be fluctuating or even decreasing over time, causing potential problems for California’s signature redwood forests), the clouds are never that close to the ground.

But in Florida, it seems like they’re right smack overhead all the time:

Both states have some interesting herpetofauna. Below, a west coast treefrog, Pseudacris species, which by range I assume to be Sierran treefrog (P. sierra):

And here an east coast group of hylids, Hyla squirella (Squirrel treefrog):

And, since this is basically a backyard nature blog, here’s an introduced species, Osteopilus septentrionalis (Cuban treefrog), from my own (front) yard in Florida:

So, what does all this mean? Yes, two states on opposite sides of the country have clouds that may or may not be the same; flora and fauna that may or may not be the same; people and cities and coasts that may or may not be the same. One has a coldwater current close offshore; the other a warmwater one. So what?

Well, each state has a claim on my affections, and I’m going to make sure my family makes the most of each one:

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Christmas party

Our neighbors across the street threw a Christmas party last night, and as luck would have it, it was one of the rainiest afternoon/evenings in recent memory. The streets were flooded, and I really regret not having been able to mow the lawn before the rain started…

But, luck tends to even out. This morning dawned bright and beautiful, and since Eric wouldn’t let me sleep, I decided to take him outside to enjoy the morning as only he knows how: splashing through puddles! (Last night as we went home from the party he spent about 5 minutes stomping through the Überpuddle, the puddle of all puddles, the one puddle to rule them all and in the darkness drown them). This morning’s puddle, by contrast, was quite tame, although he got to spend as long he wanted in them:

He got to splash to his heart’s content because Daddy was distracted by yet another spectacle of Urban Nature. Although the puddles had receded, the local ant colony decided that now was the time to go for it. Now was the time to hold their own holiday party, to boldly go forth in answer to nature’s call:

Click on the photo to see the larger version; small flying insects, unless they form swarms of truly ginormous proportion, simply don’t photograph all that impressively. But even so, you can see that there was something going on here. There must have been several hundred little winged ants all trying to find two precious commodities: a mate and a place to nest. After all, the purpose of the mating flight is, well, to mate.

Here is how Hölldobler and Wilson (1994) describe the mating flight of one common ant of the eastern United States:

At five o’clock on a sunny afternoon, if rain has recently fallen and if the air is still warm and humid, vast swarms of virgin queens and males emerge from the Lasius neoniger nests and fly upward. For an hour or two the air is filled with the winged ants, meeting and copulating while still aloft. Many end up splattered on windshields. Birds, dragonflies, robber flies, and other airborne predators also scythe through the airborne ranks. Some individuals stray far out over lakes, doomed to alight on water and drown. As twilight approaches the orgy ends, and the last of the survivors flutter to the ground. The queens scrape off their wings and search for a place to dig their earthen nest. Few will get far on this final journey. They must pass through a terrible gauntlet of birds, toads, assassin bugs, ground beetles, centipedes, jumping spiders, and other hunters of such vulnerable prey. Most deadly of all are worker ants, including those of the ubiquitous Lasius neoniger, always on the alert for territorial intruders.

Change the date (around Labor Day for L. neoniger, around Christmas for my neighborhood ants), change the time (this flight was well underway by 7:30 a.m., and didn’t last much past 9), and the above description applies pretty darn well to these Florida ants. Below is a detail from a photo that showed three such scenes within about 3 square feet:

Almost all castes are present: the winged reproductive hopeful, who appears to have run out of luck, the large soldier ants, and the small worker ants. These latter two castes appear intent on making a meal of what I can only assume is their queen’s offspring. Nature red in tooth and claw, indeed!

But these reproductive ants aren’t all that aggressive; I allowed several to land on me in hopes of getting a decent photograph with some sense of the scale of the animals, and not one of them so much as offered to bite; not so the sneaky little mosquitoes who tried to impose on my hospitality in the same manner. Those, I swatted. I may be OK with most insects, and I understand the role the mosquito has to play, but I draw the line at willingly providing these ladies a blood meal.

The long passage I quoted above from Hölldobler and Wilson talks about ants furiously copulating in midair. This subtropical species doesn’t seem to hold with that; I couldn’t find a single mated pair, although I wasn’t able to search as intensively as I’d have liked. Myrmecologists are not advised to bring their adorable toddlers with them into the field, particularly when that field is a sidewalk next to a street. The church at the end of the block disgorges swarms of vehicle traffic directly into our street, and the early mass ended right around the time Eric saw his opportunity to reenact Splashdance. Thus, yet another adventure of this urban naturalist was curtailed, but not scuttled. At least I got some pictures!

I’ve posted the pictures to, but despite the great success I’ve had with the folks there, I don’t have high hopes of anyone being able to identify these ants to species, or even to genus. I simply couldn’t get a good enough close-up of these guys, and I’m not big into capturing insects, even in the interests of research. And really, I’m not doing research on these guys. I’m just noticing them and their ant-ics as an interesting addition to the fauna of my neighborhood.

[UPDATE: the folks at bugguide have given me some leads, and what looks like a solid identification! A Mr. James Trager tells me: “Can’t tell the species from the pictures, but the waist of two segments plus two distinct sizes and shapes of workers clinches the genus for the Florida ant fauna. If this is the common one in urban southern Florida Pheidole as you note, then likely the non-native, invasive Ph. megacephala. The winged one is a female.”]

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