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June 27th, 2009 - It's Post Number 371...!!!

Yes, that's right, it's time again to palaver on about another random post along the wayside of the Infinite Universe...
Welcome to post #371!

Woo, woo.


Now that that is out of the way, lookit this Scarab beetle we came across on our dog walk today:

It seems to fall under the classification...
Kingdom: Animalia (Animals)
Phylum: Arthropoda (Arthropods)
Class: Insecta (Insects)
Order: Coleoptera (Beetles)
Suborder: Polyphaga (Water, Rove, Scarab, Longhorn, Leaf and Snout Beetles)
Superfamily: Scarabaeoidea (Scarab, Stag and Bess Beetles)
Family: Scarabaeidae (Scarab Beetles)
Subfamily: Rutelinae (Shining Leaf Chafers)
Tribe: Rutelini
Genus: Pelidnota
Species: punctata (Grapevine Beetle)

Other-wise known as the "Spotted June Beetle" (June Bug), or the "Spotted Pelidnota"
since the species name means, "spotted." That would be punctata, or Victor Borge would say, "pwhut."
Apparently, the southern specimens have light brown legs, the northern specimens have dark legs, as is the case here.
It's a cool-looking thing, to me anyway. To our neighbor Barb, I believe the adjective was "ugly."
This bought up a discussion about the significance of Scarab beetles in ancient Egyptian culture, and the fact that they adorned the necks and clothing of many Egyptians; hoi polloi and mummified alike. But I couldn't remember why.
Arriving home, Google refreshed my overloaded grey matter with informative articles describing other members of the Scarabaeidae family, vastly more famous for rolling balls of dung uphills, downhills, and into burrows. This skill, and their ray-like antennae so impressed the Egyptians that they likened the beetle's activities to their own solar clockwork: the scarab-beetle god Khepera was believed to push the setting sun along the sky in the same manner as the beetle with his ball of dung.
That is so true! I personally have had many days like that, especially when I worked in customer service.
So in many Egyptian artifacts, the scarab is depicted pushing the sun along its course in the sky.
Giving way to the phrase, "Now we're rollin'!"

THAT is a nice dung-ball.
During and following the Egyptians time of the "New Kingdom," scarab amulets were often placed over the heart of the mummified deceased. These "heart scarabs" were meant to be weighed against the feather of truth during the "final judgement."
Possibly giving way to the phrase, "He wasn't worth a crap."
The amulets were often inscribed with a spell from the Book of the Dead which entreated the heart to please, "do not stand as a witness against me." Which I interpret as, "I know I should have used my brain, but it seemed like a good idea at the time."
Be that as it may, our Scarab beetle is not a dung-roller but a Shining Leaf-Chafer. No less prestigious in my book, I must say. Some days you're rolling dung, some days you're chafing leaves. That's just the way it is.

June 25th, 2009 - Lighten Up

I'm blatantly stealing my friend Buthidae's green valve cap photo here, because: 1) I like the picture, 2) I like to give her blog some PR, 3) I don't have a green valve cap, however, I do have some purple valve caps, but they're on my bike tires, and 4) I can't think of any photos I already have that have anything to do with today's topic, and today's topic is probably too stupid to go out and specifically photograph something for anyway, especially when I like this one so much.

So with that rather dubious introduction, let's proceed to the chalkboard...

Okay. Sharon was engrossed in a blog for awhile about these guys that try to maximize their driving habits and cars to induce maximum fuel efficiency. They go to some pretty extreme measures, but have definitely influenced their fuel consumption. Some things worked, some things didn't, but it was interesting to hear all the thought that was put into the topic.

I've had an idea along these lines for awhile, and I finally sat down and crunched some numbers just to see if my theory had any justification at all. Unfortunately, doing so brings up one of those "story problems," you know the ones... those that I hated so much in math class: "If a train full of passengers leaves the station going east at 8 A.M., and another train..." my eyes begin rolling back in my head at the thought. However, since there may be an actual practical application for it this time (who knew?) I will attempt the calculation AND, I'm probably doing it wrong since I was so bad at these in school, so speak up and get ready to whack my hand with a ruler if you see an error.

Here's the premise:
I have heard that if you carry a certain amount of weight in your car, it will take a certain amount of gasoline to move it. For example, if I filled my trunk with lead weights and left them in the car, my gas mileage would go down as opposed to my car without the lead weights.
What about the weight of the gasoline itself? Gas is lighter than water, they used to use it in submarines as anti-ballast if I remember correctly, but a full tank of gas must be heavier than an empty tank. So IN THEORY, I should be getting better gas mileage as my tank goes dry, because I have less weight.
My question is, how much difference does this make...? dot dot dot... question mark.
Before we go into the math, (I'm putting that off as long as possible) I'm reminded of the days when I used to race bicycles:

With them, it was all about weight. You wanted the lightest bike you could get without it falling to pieces after hitting the first bump. If you had the cash, you would replace all the aluminum parts with titanium parts to save those precious ounces. Grams really. And they WERE precious. At one point, I think we figured out that most machined titanium bike parts came out to something like $100 an ounce, average, so the joke was that you could dump half the water out of your water bottle and save $500. Conversely, those grams and ounces saved DID add up to calories burned over an 80 mile road race or stoking up the side of a ski hill on a mountain bike. Part of it is psychological ("psycho" for short) and part is reality. Especially when you start taking grams and ounces off of your wheels, which go round and round with every pedal stroke you suffer through.
If you have ever watched a bicycle road race, if a rider is lucky enough to have extra water on the last lap, they will usually chuck all their bottles somewhere before the finishing sprint or the last big hill. No reason to drag around a half pound of water at this point, there's plenty at the finish (we hope) and we want every advantage we can get. My dad was a tailgunner in a B-17 in WWII, and when they were down to one engine and unable to fly the plane above the mountain tops any longer, they threw out everything that wasn't bolted down: guns, ammunition, tools, fuel, maybe their St. Christopher medals, I don't know, they wanted to make it to Switzerland. The point is: less weight, less fuel needed to move it.
Alright, to the chalkboard. This time for real:

Q: How much does a gallon of gasoline weigh?
A: 2.69 to 2.91 kg (5.93 to 6.42 lbs), depending on temperature, type and blend (e.g. with methanol, water, benzene etc.)
We'll call it 6 lbs., US.
By the weigh, water ways in at about 8.35 lbs. per gallon ("pint's a pound, the world a 'round", that would be 8 lbs., but close enough).

Let's say my 2000 Ford Focus Wagon has a 13 gallon gas tank:
13 gallons of gas = ~ 78 lbs. (that's a little surprising. It's like having an extra passenger, albeit a small one)

Q: How much MPG loss is there if I put weight in my car?
A: The best answer I could find on the web for this came up with:
A loss of 2% MPG for every 100 lbs. in vehicle.

78/100 = 0.78, times 2(%) = 1.56 % loss of MPG for the weight of a full tank...
0.078 % loss of MPG for the weight of a 1/2 tank...
0.039 % loss of MPG for the weight of a 1/4 tank...

So if I normally get 30 MPG with my car:
30 MPG x 0.078 % = 2.34 (it would actually be better than that, because as you drive your tank is getting lighter, so let's call it 2.5 conservatively) of added MPG, driving on 1/2 tank (and less) compared to driving on a full tank.

Say I get 390 miles out of a full tank (at 30MPG)...
I would get 211.25 mi on 1/2 tank (at 32.5 MPG)...

That means I would save about 0.52 gallons per tankful by filling it to 1/2 full compared to filling it completely full of gas.

Based on that, if I fill my tank 25 times to only 1/2 full, I will have saved about 1 full tank of gas.

Hmmm. 13 gallons of gas = $32.50 (at $2.50 a gallon). Is it worth it stopping twice as often...? Is my theory correct?
More research must be done in a more empirical fashion, me thinks...

June 20th, 2009 - In the Catbird's Seat

We have a family of catbirds living in the rosebushes in the backyard. We've been watching, I should really say "listening" to their progress for the last few weeks. They have this massive vocabulary of catbird sounds, words, and songs, and use it profusely. I wish I knew what it all means. I do know what some of it means, as I learned a bit as I was getting phwapped in the head for being too close to the nest yesterday. "Phwapped" is a pretty good adjective for it because just as I was getting my camera to focus on the babes, the parent swooped down unheard by me and phwapped me on the head with a wing, like Mother Superior giving me a ruler to the back of the hand. He or she also did not have very pretty things to say at the time, or so I gathered by the intonation.

I wasn't sure where the nest was at first, I thought it was in our neighbor's tree, as I had always noticed a lot of catbird activity there. However Sharon said she saw the five baby birds sitting a fairly low nest in the rosebush when she was getting into the car yesterday, and when I opened the back door of the house to let the dog out I noticed both the bird parents driving a squirrel out of the pear tree like lead caballeros on a cattle drive. The squirrel was outmatched and out manned, and beat a hasty, rueful retreat. The birds then took up lookout perches one in the tree and one on the end of the fence on top of the abandoned suet feeder, and recommenced dissertations at a high decibel level.

I had always heard the idiom "sitting in the catbird's seat" and have used it myself a few times. I was thinking it didn't apply in this case, at least from the babies view. "The catbird seat" is an idiomatic phrase used to describe an enviable position, often in terms of having the upper hand or greater advantage in all types of dealings among parties.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first recorded usage occurred in a 1942 short story by James Thurber titled The Catbird Seat, which features a character, Mrs. Barrows, who likes to use the phrase. Another character, Joey Hart, explains that Mrs. Barrows must have picked up the expression from Red Barber (the famed baseball radio announcer) and that to Barber "sitting in the catbird seat" meant 'sitting pretty,' like a batter with three balls and no strikes on him." Further usage can be found in P. G. Wodehouse's 1958 novel Cocktail Time: "I get you. If we swing it, we'll be sitting pretty, 'In the catbird seat.'"
According to Douglas Harper's Online Etymological Dictionary, the phrase refers to the Gray Catbird and was already used in the 19th century in the American South. However, another clue to the history of the word may come from the Australian bowerbird of the family Ptilonorhynchidae, also known as the catbird. This bird is known for the extraordinary lengths that the males will go to in order to build a bower to attract a mate. Some birds will assemble several hundred colored rocks or shells, arranging them in a remarkable and artistic display, in order to build the "seat" atop which his mate will eventually be enthroned. Sounds a little more plausible than Red Barber, at least from a naturalist perspective.

So it seems the parents really get the catbird seat, but to the five babes stuck in a stick & plastic scrap nest in a thorny brush three feet off of the ground, the term doesn't seem exactly ideal.
I guess it works both ways; they have a thorned fortress that few would dare enter, watched by gargoyles on high, but they also have to deal with fledging out of it. Life is just never easy.

Today we came back from a dog walk and to our surprise, the nest was empty. The parents were still around, being watchful and possessive, but had slackened off a bit. As we gave things a closer look, we saw a young catbird flitting around the bushes, seemingly way too big to be one of the same birds that was in the nest yesterday, but stranger things have happened.
It now looks like that is the way things have gone, as through the window I hear the shrill call of birds with a higher pitch than the parents. Oh, those darn kids, they grow up so fast...

June 19th, 2009 - Sound the Trumpets

The Trumpet Vine (Campsis radicans) or "Trumpet Creeper" is in full bloom on Springbrook's wall trellis, though I haven't noticed any blooming of the ones in our neighborhood quite yet.

Trumpet vine is definitely one of those, "love it or hate it with a passion" plants. Personally, I like them, because I know when the trumpets 'sound,' I'll be looking for hummingbirds on my walk in from the parking lot everyday. They LOVE them. At least the ruby-throated hummingbirds we have here.
Some folks despise the plant because of its tenacious climbing and survival abilities. (Why is it we always despise the organisms that are the best at surviving by their own means...?
Hmm, probably because it usually has to do with stepping on some other species toes, and we humans have this 'universal justice' hangup. And if they were "ugly" or "smelly" or irritating to the skin, THAT would be the death knell, EVERYONE would despise them. Good thing they're trumpets and not bells. ANYway, that sounds like another post coming on...)
That and the fact that they leave a lot of sweet moldy plant parts all piled up when they're done blooming, which attracts the bees, another love/hate relationship for humans...

Then on my last trip out to the creek (that would be Springbrook creek) to "grab" some thistle for the butterfly exhibit, I looked to see if those dynamic Large-Flowered Penstemons were still out there. They weren't. Exactly. The two plants I had noticed last week were either done blooming and not noticeable, or someone took them, which isn't improbable, but further down the trail was another Penstemon plant just coming into bloom that was smaller, shorter, and pinker than the large ones from last week.

I looked through about a zillion Penstemon thumbnails trying to ID it (of about the two zillion varieties - most of which live in the southwestern states), and couldn't definitatively put a species on it. Either it's a hybrid and got there from someones prairie seed mix, or USDA plants hasn't seen it in MN very much, or I am just mistaking it for a different version than what I saw last week, I dunno. Why does everything need a name anyway?
The buds seem happy enough. Maybe even a little smug.

June 14th, 2009 - Beard-tongued dragons going wild...!

I was driving our little John Deere six-wheeled "Gator" around at Springbrook on Friday night, (as I was going out the door I told the secretary that I "was taking it to the creek," one of the junior leaders overheard and said, horrified, "You're taking an alligator to the creek...?!") looking to pick up some thistle for the butterflies, and rocks for our "pond." (Think "fountain.")
As I bounced along the overgrown trail that parallels the creek, I was floored by two largely-flowered plants growing in the sand prairie where nothing else was flowering yet.
I know I had seen these flowering plants before, but my memory for plant names being what it is (or isn't, I pretty much have to re-learn them every season) I had to take some photos so I could look them up when I got back. Not that I wouldn't have taken some photos anyway, they were stunning plants - somewhat on the order of our Minnesota state flower - the "Showy Lady's Slipper" or "Pink & White Lady’s Slipper" or "Queen’s Lady Slipper" or simply the Cypripedium reginae, depending on who you talk to, but not all closed up like a slipper.
I checked it out when I got home and am pretty sure it was a Penstemon grandiflorus, or "Large-Flowered Penstemon" or even flowerier, "Large-flowered Beardtongue," or even gothier, "Large-flower Beardtounge" if you really want to go Old Worldy on it.
However you spell it or pronounce it, it is a member of the Snapdragon (Scrophulariaceae) (say that three times fast) family. Also known as the Figwort family, which is the same but sounds so much more Harry Potter-like. Conversely, "Lady Slippers" are in the orchid familiadae, and are not available in your favorite department store's footware section. They may be found under "Home & Garden" if you are lucky however.
Be that as it may, it is a beautiful flower. The "bearded-tongue" thing comes from one of it's five stamens or "tongues" being sterile and having a tufted, beard-like appearance. Appropriate for a dragon, I'd say. In addition there are four fertile stamens, hence the generic name Penstemon, from the Greek paene, meaning "almost", and stamon, meaning "thread" or both together, "almost a stamen." The specific name grandiflorus means "large-flowered" in botanical Latin.
I could have told you that.

Another interesting and unanswered connection involved here brings us back to July 2nd, 2008, where I posted a pic of an unopened mysterious pink eggplant-shaped flower I could not identify (go figure) and my dear sister Bethy later suggested it was a Prairie Beard-Tongue, (Penstemon eriantherus) according to her "Wildflowers of America" book, plate 332.
I think she's on to something there. The penstemon may be mightier than the swordstemon that hath slain the snapdragonstemon.
Enough of this, I have to go pull swords out of rocks and things now. Or at least mow the lawn.

June 13th, 2009 - You are now entering Minnesota...

Minnesota Lutheran church and sign.

Minnesota Lutheran church sign detail.
Makes me want to go to service just to see what goes on.... and eat the blessed bratwurst.

I can't even begin to imagine what the homily for this week is going to be like.

June 11th, 2009 - You can't park there. Oh wait, I guess you can...

I got a message from our neighbor Barb this morning saying her Aussie Shepard was trying to herd a huge snapping turtle that was burrowing by the sign across the street from their house, and that I had better get out there with my camera, pronto.
So, donning my trusty reporter's fedora and slinging my somewhat trusty Nikon around my neck, I slipped on my flip-flops and set out to check it out.
I figured snapping turtle / flip-flops, I'll live on the edge. Those war photographers don't get the good stuff unless there's an element of danger involved.
So ironically enough, it turns out she was under a "No Parking" sign. She was dug in pretty solidly and was in process of burrowing out a nest for the eggs. I would almost call it drilling. It was interesting to watch, she had started a depression by pushing off the turf with her legs, no small task, and was now holding herself up with her tail and one leg over the hole while she pretty much drilled and scooped like a steam-shovel with the other rear leg. Albeit a very slow steam-shovel. All the while giving me a look of, "If I wasn't so busy here, I'd be kicking your ass."
She'd scoop a while and rest a while, and all the time I was marvelling at the amount of work she was doing. If I had to do it with a spade the size of her foot, I'd be sweating it. Her hole was at least five inches deep. And she wasn't in the water, her natural place of residence.
I took a couple pics, and as I did I looked her over, mostly from the back as I figured she didn't need any obnoxious spectators staring her down in her time of labor.
She was old. Not just adult old, but OLD. She had a few cracks around her shell and her beak had seen some serious use. I'd heard all kinds of age ranges given for snapping turtles, we have one at Springbrook that we think is in the 30-something year old range. Data suggests that in the wild because adults have no real natural enemies, they usually live a long life and die of old age during the winter. Annual adult survivorship is 93 to 97%, and confirmed annual adult mortality ranges from less than 1 to 1.3%, which means that 60% of the individuals reaching maturity will live to age 50. (!) Unlike in any other species survivorship does not decrease with age. (!) The maximum theoretical longevity is 170 years (!), and longevities over 100 years can be expected especially in the northern populations where the activity season is shorter. (!) Lifespans of over 75 years have been observed.

There is a quote on a turtle site I was looking at that read, "Snapping turtles are creatures who are entitled to regard the brontosaur and mastodon as brief zoological fads...” and goes on to say: "Snapping turtles, as we know them today, evolved about 40 million years ago, and they are the ancestors of about 80% of all the turtles today. Today’s snapping turtles have hardly changed from 215 million years ago when Proganochelys, the most primitive turtle known, lived. In comparison, the age of the dinosaurs was approximately 150 million years ago, 100 million years more recent than the first turtle. Turtles were one of the few reptile groups which survived the impact of a six mile wide meteorite hitting the earth and the following nuclear winter about 65 million years ago, which is known as the K-T boundary."
To put things into perspective: humans have only been in existence a minuscule 3.5 million years. Audacious young pups.
Besides all of her weathering and battle scars, I noticed she was toting around a few parasitic worms in spots on the back folds of her leg tissue, probably about the only spots where something could actually attach that she couldn't get off. Nothing like a pile of parasitic worms to give you a fifty year itch you can't scratch. And we think life is hard when we get a mosquito bite.
Then of course, you get out of the water and the flies are on your parasitic worms like flies on... well, you get the idea. Talk about a world within a world within a world.
She's a tough old bird.
Another interesting thing was as I was getting back to the house, Morgan the neighbor's kid was taking in the garbage can and I asked him if he wanted to see the cool snapping turtle. He laughed and said that it was funny that it's over there now, because yesterday as they were leaving the house they noticed a snapping turtle digging a nest in the neighbor's driveway, right behind the rear tire of their car! They ended up moving her (I should have asked how they managed that) and he thought it was probably the same one as she was last seen heading in that direction. She seems to have a penchant for automobile-related objects.
As I now look out the window with the binos, it looks as though she has finished the job and moved back to the water. She did a pretty good job of tamping everything back down, and camouflaging the nest as best as possible.
Now it's up to time, temperature and the raccoons to see if the eggs will make it. Maybe we had better help her out a little. The raccoons tend to pop out of the gutter which is right down the street, and they're pretty well fed already. We'll see how it goes.
Good job, mama turtle.
So, to leave you on a happier note than a pile of parasitic worms, here's a nice fern in the morning sun of Fern Gully (our front yard) and lo and behold, the apples live again!
It is time of birth and rebirth, from the plants to the reptiles to the parasitic worms to the insects. And more...

June 2, 2009 - The things you see on your walk back home from the coffee shop...

People really should walk more, in my humble opinion. There are things you miss if you are driving in your nappy little car, riding a bike, or even running. The dog stops to take a crap and the world opens up, because you're waiting for him to get done and are looking anywhere but in his direction. You begin to notice things. White robins. Flowers with colors that go on forever. That forgettable stench wafting your way that you had better bag up before you gag. Let's move on.

Look deeply into my iris, what do you see...

Can't stop. Busy here. Manipulating. Pollinating. So many flowers, so little time. Buzz off.

The world needs more of this.
Wait a minute, "caution...?"

I can't help but take pictures like this. They're therapeutic to me or something. The textures, the symmetry, the fact that someone designed this pattern so that even the dimples have dots. That's deep.

The insatiable dirt-eating terracotta frog. I couldn't quite figure this one out. I was about to pick him up and inspect his butt to see if it had watering holes, but I was too self-conscious. Maybe he is full of coins. Maybe he fills up after a rain and attracts bugs that other frogs steal from his mouth. Maybe he is one of those sprinkler-frogs that were taken off the market because they were exploding from a design-flaw. I can only wonder.

Oh, look. Some lineman left a pair of Kearney 20Kv line hook interrupters on the power pole. How convenient, say if someone wanted to climb up there and pop the whole neighborhood's transformer. Well, maybe next trip, a dog tied to the pole might be a dead give-away.

Allium, glorious allium. More symmetry in nature. Order amongst the chaos. Yet chaos amongst the order. It looks like a globe, yet look too closely and it falls apart like a Monet painting. Perfection in an imperfect way, what could be more fitting.

37 year-old canoe registration sticker. Time flies when they make a planter out of you.
And so it goes. Take a walk today. Bring a camera.

June 1st, 2009 - White Robin

I did a double-take yesterday when I saw what I thought was an "albino" (or at least partial albino) American Robin in someone's yard as Hapdog and I were walking to the coffee shop!
Da-doiiing...! What the?!

At first I thought it just a "trick of the light," as it was so bright outside, it was hard to tell how light the wings were. But something didn't look right. Hap and I waddled over and sure enough, after seeing it hop in the shade, and hear it's robin's call, it was a definitely a robin with white wings, and off-colored head feathers.
I took a few pics both with it in full sun, in the shade, and in the shade with flash, and of course, this is the day that I chose to go out only with my (actually Bob's) macro lens on.
It is still a 105mm straight lens without the macro switched in, so I at least got something. I did a pretty hack job of brushing out an area of overly bright grass at the bottom of the picture where the "shade line" was, but other than that, I didn't modify the bird.

I posted the pics on my Facebook site, and immediately got numerous responses from the local naturalist and birder crowd.
Kirk Mona, who runs a naturalist podcast site and is a local super-birder, straightened me out on the terminology. Most people, including myself, tend to use the term "albino" whenever they see something white that isn't normally white, or a creature that has an unusal pigmentation change.
Kirk says, "Looks like it's a case of partial leucism more than albinism. Since albinism is genetic, it is always systemic, affecting all of the animal. So, if it were an albino, the eyes would be pink. Also, the legs would lack color. The pigment missing in a albino is melanin, so in animals that have other pigments albinos are not always white, they can be yellow as well. Leucism is a phenotype not genotype resulting from defects in pigment cells. This looks like a case of hypopigmentation or partial leucism where only some of the cells are affected. This is more common than total leucism."
That's a lot of isms for one bird, but what he is really saying is "it's still cool and unusual." I for one have never seen a partially white robin before, however I have seen crows with pigmentation issues, and have seen photos of an all white peacock along with other mammals. Albinism can occur in pretty much any animal, I'm not sure if it occurs in every organism, however. Do bacteria come in colors...?
Here's some photos of other birds with partial leucism on Kirk's blog, including a really interesting "purple" finch.

Meanwhile, I will keep an extra eye open for the "white robin," and see if it is part of a nesting pair.
If they have a brood, what will they get...? Checkerboard...? Stripes...?
More color commentary on this story as it "develops..."