by Sue Ann Kendall
I see some pretty cool things on my walks around my ranch. I think part of my poor posture comes from looking down all the time, in case I see something. But that’s a small price to pay. I’ve been doing a lot more aural observation lately, and that’s come in really handy when I’m looking for new species to add to my collection on iNaturalist. I have almost 600 species identified since I started, 62% of my 1600+ observations are research grade. I’m trying to get a good picture of what can be found in this little piece of the Earth.
Yesterday and today I’ve put my listening skills to a test. I can’t take a picture of something if I can’t find it, and sounds often lead me to something interesting. For example, I went to check the mail, which is a third of a mile walk from my house. I often stop to observe in the pond and arroyo I go by. That’s hard right now since the pond is being dug up to make it deeper if it ever rains, and our gate emits an annoying beep that I once accidentally identified as a South American bird via an app. But yesterday I was alarmed to hear what sounded like someone talking in the stream. It sort of sounded like, “Help, help!” So I put down my mail and went searching.
I followed the eerie sounds and got closer to where our “spring” starts. I didn’t want to get my feet wet, so I was careful. At one point it seemed like I was right on top of whatever it was, but I couldn’t see anything, so I stomped my feet. That caused something to move and gave me a focus for my eyes. Finally I saw something.
Now I know why my friend’s orange and black water hose spooks the horses. That Western Ribbon Snake (Thamnophis proximus) sure looked like a garden hose. I was not inclined to grab it to get a better photo. But what was the sound?
I knew right away that it was a cricket frog, since that’s the kind of frogs I hear all the time from that location (I learned how they sound from one of our Chapter Meetings). I guess it’s now a former cricket frog, thanks to the circle of life. So, my aural observation skills clued me in without even having to see the frog. I was happy to learn from reading about these ribbon snakes that they hang out on the edges of wet areas (check) and primarily eat…of all things…cricket frogs! I also learned that the one we have here at the ranch is the orangestripe subspecies, T. proximus proximus, which is why it didn’t look like the one in the main photo on iNat, which had originally confused me.
By the way, I am only seeing ribbon snakes and coachwhips lately. I haven’t seen a rattlesnake or a rat snake in a month or two (the hens are glad about that). The coachwhip in this picture climbed into my son’s cabin and was hanging out on the ceiling. Luckily, he’s had pet snakes before, so he just knocked it into a laundry basket and took it outside (then sealed the hole the snake came in).
Back to my observations. Today was the same story. I was putting mail in the box to be picked up, this time. I kept hearing a sharp chirp, and it wasn’t the broken gate. It was coming from the black willow trees on our dam, which no, I’m not cutting down, because they are native and feed lots of things. I looked and looked, trying to home in on where the chirps were coming from. To the bird’s credit, it didn’t stop chirping until it began making tapping sounds. Aha. Now I knew to stop looking in the branches and look at the trunks of the trees instead.
Sure enough, there was a perky little ladder-backed woodpecker (Dryobates scalaris), pecking away and chirping during rests. There are a lot of woodpeckers around here (they like the grapevines to hide in and are especially fond of the telephone pole across the road), but I mostly see larger ones. Neither I nor the bulldozer grinding away behind this bird deterred it one bit from its mission.
I’m glad I keep listening when I go outside. I might have missed both of these interesting observations and new species!