Ant Antics

This week we had an emergence of nuptial ants.  Most people don’t know what that is and I didn’t either until I saw it happening in my driveway one day years ago.  Since that day, when I see it happening I stop whatever I am doing and watch in admiration.  I give them a little wish, too, for a successful and productive colony. 

But if you could see it happening for yourself, you might not be so calm.  It is rather startling, especially if you have never seen it before.  Little winged insects come spewing out of the ground, like silent fireworks; hundreds of flying bugs scattering in every possible direction, relentlessly shooting out from somewhere.  At first you don’t know what they are because the air is suddenly so filled with this cloud that all you want to do is take cover.  If you happen to be standing nearby, say, talking on the phone, all of a sudden your hair and nostrils and ears are filled with these fluttery creatures.  You scream into the phone, “I’m being attacked.  I’ll call you back.  If I live.”  Then you run out of the cloud and wait, still swatting at the air and vigorously shaking your head like a dog. 

At our house we’ve seen it so many times, now, that we no longer run for cover.  In fact this week when it happened I noticed we simply covered our lemonade glasses with a napkin to keep the little critters out of our drinks.  If you are not standing right in the middle of the cloud when the emergence erupts, it’s not so traumatic; it’s another fascinating event in the outdoor world. 

What is this crazy emergence?  It is mating time for ants and they are emerging from their parent colony to form a new colony.  The weather conditions dictate when it will happen, usually after a rain that has softened the earth, but not during a rain when their flight is hampered.  Although you do not necessarily see what is happening, for most species it is the virgin queens and males emerging from a hole in the earth.  Once airborne, the queens mate with several of the males and are impregnated (thus the term “nuptial”).  If successful, the queen then lands, loses her wings, and submerges back into the earth to build the new colony.  The males live such a short time thereafter that not only do they never eat, but they never even develop jaws for eating. 

Not all ants have this exact sequence.  And it’s different in different locales.  In some locations this happens so universally on one or two days that they actually call it “Flying Ant Day.”  But here in the moderate climes of northern California we get it several times in a day, sometimes several times in a week, and in both shoulder seasons of spring and fall.  We watched two separate emergences last Saturday, a very mild spring day in April; but we have also observed it happening on a mild October day. These ants are harvester ants.

WesternFenceLizard-NuptialAThere is almost always some opportunistic creature enjoying the emergence.  The western fence lizard pictured here is on our 25 foot rock wall.  When the emergence began, the spray of ants was in the shade.  The lizard just sat there and we wondered why he was not participating in lizard paradise.  But he’s a cold-blooded reptile early in the morning, and probably couldn’t leave his rejuvenating warming station in the sun until he could get his little limbs working.  Seemed a shame that he was so close to nirvana but unable to engage.  Then moments later, we discovered that he had worked it out perfectly.  He had moved to a strategically sunny spot where there was an endless supply of fresh, juicy ants practically flying right onto his sticky tongue. 

Yellow-rumped-WarblerHours later and over 300 feet away, we saw a different emergence.  It was easy to see because it was a yellow-rumped warbler, pictured here in his breeding plumage, who was the lucky recipient.  His erratic hawking flight was quite a spectacle.  He would perch in a Manzanita bush close to the ground (already a risk due to ground predators), then shoot off the branch, effortlessly flip upside down, grab the flying ant in mid-air, and return to the branch for his feast.  He did this every few seconds for a quarter of an hour, then rested high up in a nearby oak. 

The world of ants is extremely complex.  Their successful social structure is baffling to us humans, we who have not yet figured out how to all get along.  Entomologists and myrmecologists (those who study ants) have been fascinated by these beings for centuries.  With over 14,000 ant species and subspecies, there is a lot to study, and still many questions to be answered.  There are also many earth citizens like myself who have become fascinated with ant antics. 

In the spring there is a lot more activity in the waking outdoors.  If you water an area you haven’t watered in a while, for example, you might see ants going crazy, moving little white dots.  That’s their eggs.  They’re relocating with your emergence.


Hiking for Owls

I’m working away on writing the second novel in the Anne Lamington series, so I have been glued to my desk this week.  For fun I went for a hike with my partner on Sunday.  Our neighbors e-mailed us about a nest in their woods, a very cool sighting, we decided to check it out. 


We took the trail through the nearly-dry riverbed, climbed over boulders and rocks, jumped across puddles of water, and hiked a few miles into the forest.  What we were looking for was a great horned owl nest with two nestlings in it.  When we got close to the waterfall, where the nest was supposed to be, we were perplexed.  Somehow the trail was gone and here we were in the middle of a riverbed wondering what to do. 


Great-Horned-Owl-FlyingJust then the shadow of a giant bird flashed, we looked up.  The female great horned owl had flown right over us.  A four foot wingspan cruising through a densely wooded forest, and she was silent.  Her wings are designed to be silent.  We were jazzed, we must be close. 


Since we had lost the trail, we decided to cross-country up the side of the cliff, for the trail must be up there.  We had been on this trail two years ago and had memories of it; it had to be very close, especially with the sighting of the mother owl. 


We traversed the cliff diagonally, taking each section slowly and sensibly.  We were careful not to put our foot down into a leaf-covered hole to avoid a twisted ankle, only grabbed onto trees that were firmly rooted in the ground, and stayed away from rocks that were loosely positioned.  I guess it was when I had to place my highly-sensitive-to-poison-oak leg into a knee-high patch of poison oak that I realized I was in trouble.  I didn’t panic though, because I just hate panic.  I trekked on. 


About two minutes later I had to let go of a stabilizing 30 inch downed tree trunk to move forward and realized I had nothing to grab onto.  One slip and I would tumble down this rocky cliffside.  I was on a nearly vertical cliff that was damp and crumbling, and I had nothing to hold onto.  Now my legs were shaking too. 


My partner is the photographer in the family, she had 40 pounds of gear on her back.  We had to shimmy under a low tree so I held her pack while she did so, and this was when I had a taste of the weight she was carrying.  We had made our way to the big tree.  We had thought that after we got to this tree we would see the trail.  But there was no trail in sight.  She said, “What do you want to do?” 


I heard my always-be-brave voice reply, “I’m so scared I can’t think.” 


So we spent the next ten minutes climbing back down the way we had come.  That incredibly undignified method of descending steep trails on your rear end came in handy. Back at the bottom of the cliff, I sat down on a mossy rock to get my legs to stop shaking while she left her pack with me and scouted around for the trail. 


The only answer was to go back to the beginning of the trail and try again.  She’s an intrepid photographer.  Of course she would say that.  I’m a novelist, thinking about a line on Downton Abbey that the Dowager said, “The trouble with nature is there’s so much of it.” 


On the way back down we found where we had made our mistake, at a crucial trail fork.  I still had rubber legs, declared I was going back to the trailhead and she could try again on her own, I’d be glad to wait for her.  She agreed and hiked off. 


I went to the trailhead and leaned against a big mossy rock by the creek.  I listened to the water and the wind.  I thought about the sensation I was having of my hair mixing with the rock’s hair.  I didn’t have a book to read so I thought about the book I’m writing and the new beginning I’m doing.  I willed myself to not feel like a failure for not going back. 


Great-Horned-OwletsShe made it back fine, said she thought she got a few good shots.  She found the nest and the two chicks.  That’s what this photo is.  I waited for the inevitable disappointment comments about what she wanted to get but didn’t.  Photographers are like that.  Then she added, “I should have spent the whole day there to get the best shots.” 


Migration Miracles

There is a miracle happening in the U.S. right now and it’s called bird migration. No matter where you live in this country, the onset of spring has started the courageous journey of our feathered friends. Some birds do not migrate at all, some birds fly hundreds of miles.

There are many different kinds of birds and different migration patterns for all of them. The normal movement involves a species flying from their food-rich wintering grounds to their breeding grounds in spring, then back again in fall, usually in a north-south pattern. But there is nothing “normal” about these tiny creatures flying hundreds of miles amidst the danger of hunters, predation, stormy weather, stressful exertion and habitat destruction. They are true warriors.

In the U.S. there are three to four major “flyway” routes that most birds tend to follow, based primarily on topographical features:  the Atlantic, Central and Pacific Flyways. Another flyway is the Mississippi which is often an overlap from the Central.

How do they know where to go?  It’s different for every bird, but the amount of light in a day is a big factor, and other things figure in like the earth’s magnetic fields, celestial signals, memory, and genetics.  Why do they migrate?  For food.  If it is too cold for food in their breeding grounds, they spend the cold months in the south where food is readily available.

Black-headed Grosbeak, male

Black-headed Grosbeak, male

This bird pictured here is one of my favorite migratory birds in our area, the black-headed grosbeak. We heard our first grosbeak this year on April 3. Regardless of whatever chaos or uncertainty is going on in my life, that sound, that single-note springtime chirp, bathes me with peace…for I know that all is right in the world. So far only one or two males are here. More will arrive in the next few weeks, both genders, and they’ll stay here in the vicinity and breed. Then in July our mountaintop will be a-flutter with adult and juvenile grosbeaks flying in every direction. Their heavenly melodic song will be filling the air. Like all the tides of life on earth, in August things will change; they will leave our mountain and fly back down to central Mexico.

We have many other birds who nest here, some who pass on through to go further north to their breeding grounds, and many who stay here year round. The grosbeaks didn’t always migrate here to our property. A few years ago we saw one on a neighbor’s feeder which inspired us to create a suitable habitat. Then after years of consistent sunflower seed at a clean feeder, a safe environment without threatening domestic pets, and plenty of water and cover, they got the message it was a suitable venue for raising their young. This spring marks our fourth successful year with the grosbeaks.

What birds have arrived to your area?  If you don’t have a yard or feeders, maybe you have noticed a new bird sound or a different looking bird near your home in the past few weeks. If you haven’t noticed anything different in the world, you’re missing out. Look around, listen. It’s time to celebrate this new season of glorious life.