Evil invertebrate vs. good vertebrate: who you got?

The BBC has a report that the squeamish will find most disturbing: Invertebrates such as spiders and centipedes feasting on vertebrates, including birds, snakes and turtles.

Among incidents included in the story: A tarantula eating 15-inch snake that it had apparently subdued and killed last year in Brazil; a dragonfly catching a hummingbird in midair and eating it in 1977 in Canada; and Scolopendra centipedes, which regularly scales walls to either grab bats as they swoop past or pluck them from roosts while they sleep. The centipedes also eat birds, mice, lizards, frogs and snakes.

Even animal lovers can find this sort of behavior unnerving – after all, vertebrates typically eat invertebrates, not the other way around.

“Most of us are happy to watch vertebrates hunting vertebrates; if lions kill a giraffe, we might feel sadness but not revulsion, and we cheer when the baby iguana escapes the racer snakes. Similarly, if a vertebrate hunts an invertebrate, that seems normal: an early bird catching the worm is simply being enterprising,” according to the BBC. “But invertebrates eating vertebrates is another matter. We find ourselves horrified by crabs preying on baby turtles, wasps targeting nestling birds, or a giant centipede munching on a bat. Somehow it seems wrong, as if the natural order has been turned on its head – but why?”

The BBC surmises that the reason may be that we instinctively recognize that we are much more akin to other vertebrates than we are to invertebrates.

“We might not use the word “vertebrate,” but a dog is clearly more similar to us than a giant centipede,” it writes. “Not only does the dog have hair and the same number of limbs, it also behaves in understandable ways, displaying familiar emotions like happiness and anger.

“ … we cannot understand invertebrates in the same way that we understand dogs, lions or eagles,” the BBC added. “They are just too alien, their behavior too strange and their bodies too dissimilar. They do not have waggy tails and their eyes are never big and soulful.”

Or, as one of my daughter said when I asked why she didn’t like spiders: “Too many eyes, too many legs!”

If you’ve ever seen a frog swarmed over and stung to death by fire ants, or a lizard being stung repeatedly by a hornet, it does appear that things sometimes go amiss in the animal kingdom.

And while Scolopendra gigantea, also known as the Amazonian giant centipede, has yet to make its way to the US from South America, that’s one creepy-crawly I can foresee showing up in my nightmares.

(Top: I chose an image of a pug eating a sprinkled donut for this story because, well, the other photos, while interesting, would have undoubtedly upset lovers of baby turtles, small birds and other cute animals which happened to have fallen into the clutches of voracious invertebrates.)

Pint-sized pooch pays price for owners’ indolence

A small yappy dog in a San Francisco-area bedroom community was helped to its eternal reward early Monday morning, courtesy of a mountain lion that slipped into the canine owners’ home and made off with it.

A 15-pound Portuguese Podengo was grabbed from a bedroom in a Pescadero home after the residents reportedly left their French doors partially open for the dog to go outside, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

The dog woke its owners around 3 a.m. by “barking aggressively.” A witness told authorities she saw the shadow of an animal come into the room through the French doors, grab the dog from the bed and walk out. When she grabbed a flashlight, she saw “large wet paw prints” near the bedroom’s entrance, and called 911.

When police arrived on scene, they discovered paw prints resembling those of a mountain lion, and notified the Department of Fish and Wildlife.

While certainly unfortunate, I have trouble mustering much sympathy for dogs that bark a great deal after hours, or, more particularly, for people who leave their doors open in the middle of the night.

Some will argue that the dog was making noise because it sensed the mountain lion and was being protective, but the fact remains there are too many dogs that bark continuously, disturbing everyone and their brother.

Perhaps if word gets around on the canine grapevine that mouthing off after hours could result in becoming a mountain lion’s late-night snack, a few pooches will think twice before baying all the livelong day (and night).

I don’t expect people who leave their dogs to bark nonstop to suddenly wise up and begin paying attention to their animals.

As for folks who leave their doors open so they don’t have to be bothered getting up and walking their pets, well, it’s hard to muster much sympathy for the indolent.

California wildflower bloom short-lived but spectacular

California’s Carrizo Plain National Monument covers some 250,000 acres – a swath of land 38 miles by 17 miles – between San Luis Obispo and Bakersfield and due north of Santa Barbara. Despite its rugged beauty and location within perhaps three hours of the several million residents of Los Angeles, it receives just a few thousand visitors a year.

At present, one of the more spectacular aspects of California’s spring is taking place in the Carrizo Plain National Monument. A “superbloom” of wildflowers, with a seemingly endless array of yellows, purples, blues, reds and oranges, is giving the area the appearance of an impressionist’s palette.

Carrizo Plain National Monument, at the southern end of California’s Central Valley, is a vast grassland where antelope, elk and numerous other fauna roam, inhabitants of the last undeveloped, unfarmed region of grasslands that once covered much of the state.

Called California’s Serengeti, the Carrizo Plain is home to a variety of threatened or endangered species.

It has been inhabited off and on for millennia and features Indian pictographs believed to date back thousands of years.

The remote monument is also traversed by the San Andreas Fault, which has carved valleys, moved mountains and can be viewed up close in the ridges and ravines evident throughout the region.

Within a few weeks, at most, the superbloom will have withered and given way to the drab brown of dry grass, which a good part of the sun-baked state is noted for much of the year. But like a nova in the night sky, the bright explosion of colors may fade but will most certainly leave a brilliant memory.

(Top and middle: Images taken of superbloom of wildflowers at Carrizo Plain National Monument, California, by Bureau of Land Management.)

Butterflies: neither butter nor fly, but still welcome

Spring’s advent is announced any number of ways, depending on what part of the world one inhabits. In the Deep South, wisteria vines taking bloom in otherwise drab, lifeless trees are often the first sign that seasons are changing.

This year, I came across a new harbinger: a brood of recently hatched Eastern tiger swallowtails.

During a weekend drive through the country 10 days ago, I stopped at a small creek to peer at the water coursing below. Being shallow, the creek was more sand than stream. In one of the many islands were eight Eastern tiger swallowtails, a common butterfly noted for its yellow body and black stripes, congregating together.

After snapping a few photos from the bridge, I made my way down to stream level. With each couple of steps, I’d snap photos, not knowing when the insects would take flight.

After a short time I was upon them, and it was only when I touched a couple with my finger did some make a lazy effort at flight. Others simply walked a few inches away.

It was apparent that this group had just hatched and were sunning themselves, letting their wings dry before setting off in search of food.

The Eastern tiger swallowtail is among butterflies that spends winter in a chrysalis, emerging when the weather warms. This made sense as it seemed difficult to fathom caterpillars finding enough greenery to fatten up in winter, never mind surviving occasional below-freezing conditions.

Eastern tiger swallowtails are abundant, being found across much of eastern North America, from Ontario south to the Gulf Coast and into northern Mexico.

Typically, Eastern tiger swallowtails avoid company, except, apparently, just after hatching and, of course, when mating.

Besides birds, swallowtails have a variety of predators, including hornets, praying mantises, squirrels, possums and raccoons.

With bright colors and a wingspan of up to 5.5 inches, one could see how they’d make a tempting target for the butterfly-hungry.

However, within a short time, my kaleidoscope of swallowtails had gained enough strength to safely take flight and make their way into the world.

(Top: Eastern tiger swallowtail resting after being disturbed by nosy blogger.)

Getting the finger(ling): Adventures in big-game fishing

Beaver Dam Creek 8 13 2016 001

About the above photo: No, my hand isn’t so large that it makes normal-sized fish appear puny. Also, I have not taken up “tanago fishing,” which, popular in Japan, apparently involves the inexplicable sport of purposely catching very small fish.

Instead, it was simply a lousy day of fishing. The above largemouth bass would likely agree, even if I did free it shortly after snapping the photo.

It’s interesting that even at 1-1/2 inches, the fingerling possessed vibrant coloring and has the exact appearance, albeit much smaller, of a mature bass.

Less interesting was casting for more than an hour and having nothing to show for my efforts but the small fry.

Of course, the scenery in rural South Carolina is always spectacular this time of year, which helps assuage the aggravation of going home empty-handed.

(Below: Beaver Dam Creek, Newberry County, SC, where the behemoth was caught – and freed.)

Beaver Dam Creek 8 13 2016 028

Nothing marks spring’s arrival like … snakes

Black rat snake 4 20 2014 059

Different folks have different ways of ushering in spring. For some, the simple arrival of the vernal equinox, marking the point on the calendar when days and nights are of the same approximate length, (March 20 this year) is good enough. For others, it’s tied to specific events such as Easter, the start of the Major League Baseball season or spring break for high schools and colleges.

I measure spring’s return slightly differently. In my eyes, spring begins gradually, with the arrival of wisteria in the trees and shrubs here in central South Carolina, which usually occurs in mid-March, followed by other flora and fauna, such swallowtail butterflies, red-tailed hawks and white-tailed deer.

But the one event that signifies unequivocally, at least in my world, that the seasons have changed is represented by the capture of the first snake of the year. For me, at least, spring came yesterday.

I’d had a near-brush a couple of weeks back when I took my girls to Woods Bay State Park, near Olanta, SC, where we saw a Northern water snake just inches from our path, but while I was able to get a hand on it, it proved too quick and slipped into the underbrush.

Yesterday, with a bit of free time in the afternoon, I drove up the road about 15 miles to an old railroad bed that had been converted into a walking trail within the past few years. It rarely gets much use, so I figured that my chances for seeing some wildlife were decent.

Right off the bat I managed to catch a five-lined skink. About six inches long, this creature resembled a large, fat, short-legged lizard. Judging from its reaction – repeatedly biting me – it appeared unhappy with being disturbed. After snapping a few pictures of Plestiodon fasciatus I set the ingrate free and continued down the path.

After about a quarter mile I came across an old railroad bridge that crossed Crim’s Creek, located in Newberry County, SC. It’s a short bridge, about 30 feet in length; its rails were pulled up many years ago and wooden planking laid down to facilitate foot and bike traffic.

As I walked across watching the water flow along I caught sight of a black rat snake. It was curled around one of the bridge edgings that jutted out two feet or so over a dry part of the creek bed. I snapped a couple of pictures without startling the snake, which was about five feet in length, then walked past to find a stick.

(Having been bitten by several rat snakes, I know better than to simply try to grab at one when it’s facing me. I’m quick that way.)

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How I outfoxed a 6-ounce bird and four eggs

Killdeer 008 a

My 2013 Mess with Nature Tour found me in a small churchyard in a neighboring South Carolina county this past weekend, where I came across a clutch of killdeer eggs and one very aggravated mama killdeer.

Prior adventures this summer in the never-ending quest to snare (and release) God’s creations include catching a baby turkey, catching and being bitten by two separate black snakes, catching but not being bitten by any of half a dozen Eastern box turtles, being outsmarted by several baby moorhens, along with numerous run-ins with lizards, skinks and anoles.

The latest occurred while I was in a quiet graveyard off a two-lane state highway. The cemetery, enclosed by a beautiful old stone wall, was without trees and had little vegetation except grass.

As I wandered about, an adult killdeer about 15 feet in front of me suddenly began plying its “broken-wing” routine, squawking and struggling to keep its balance.

Thinking there were babies about, I quickly scanned the area, but saw none. With nothing but headstones in the graveyard I knew there was nowhere to hide, so I determined there must be a clutch of eggs somewhere close.

I scoured the ground along a 20-square-foot patch of ground, but found nothing, so I then tried a bit of triangulation, seeing which movement caused the killdeer to come back toward me most rapidly.

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