Mountain Toad

This fine specimen has been surveying the insect population around the driveway in front of the garage for some time now.


I’m pretty sure it’s a female, and I’m pretty sure it’s an American toad. There is often a smaller toad not far away, which might be a young toad or a male, since, according to this site, the female is larger. That site says its habitat “varies widely from mountain wilderness to urban areas”, so it pretty much covers our area.

The toads have no problems with the cats, who also tend to hang out in the area immediately in front of the garage. They pretty much ignore each other. The dogs sometimes sniff at the toad (the cats, too, for that matter), but the toad couldn’t care less. There are lights that stay on continuously on the garage, so the hunting is probably pretty good for the toads.

There is some dense foliage next to to the paved area which may provide shelter during the day. The Web site says they need water to breed, but I have no idea where they could find that around the house.

Pileated woodpecker

The pileated woodpecker (dryocopus pileatus) is one of the most impressive birds in the forest. Crows may be slightly larger, and eagles may look more imposing, but nothing thrills me more than the cry of a pileated woodpecker. To me, they symbolize wild nature more than just about anything else in our woods.

Pileated woodpeckers are hard to see in the forest, but it’s not so much because they’re shy as the fact that they seem entirely uninterested in anything human. They mind their own business, and that rarely has anything to do with people.

According to various sites, they feed largely on carpenter ants, which they usually find in standing or fallen dead trees. That means they need a mature forest that isn’t cut or managed to eliminate dead trees. That tends keep them away from large population centers, since most people don’t want dead trees nearby. Despite this limitation, their range is large. Here’s the US Geological Survey map showing their range.

US Geological Survey figure

US Geological Survey figure

According to the USGS website, the pileated woodpecker averages about 15 inches long. It has a prominent red crest and a white throat. It’s almost entirely black, with white on the under side of its wings. But if you’re looking for a pileated woodpecker, I don’t think you will have any problems identifying it. Here’s what the USGS says: “No other living woodpecker could be confused with the Pileated.”

The best view I ever had of a pileated woodpecker was many years ago at my parents’ house. My father had cut a small pine and laid the trunk along the edge of a terrace in the back yard. After it had dried and started to decay, a pileated woodpecker lit on it and started pecking at the bark. When a pileated woodpecker pecks, it hits like a hammer. This bird means business when it feeds.

They are not rare in the woods around the mountain. I hear their call quite often, but although I have looked for an opportunity to photograph one, I haven’t been able to do it. I see them at a distance, too far to photograph, or maybe flying over the road, there and gone before I can even think of getting my camera or phone out.

Since I don’t have one of my own photographs, here’s one from online:

"Pileated Woodpecker male" by D. Gordon E. Robertson

“Pileated Woodpecker male” by D. Gordon E. Robertson

Wednesday I was able to get a poor quality recording of the “wuk” call, along with dark and shaky video of some trees where the bird seemed to be perched. I was with the dogs, and I kept walking while videoing, hoping the bird would fly. I was holding the phone vertically because I wasn’t sure where the bird was and I wanted to catch it if it flew. That’s why there are black bars on either side of the image.

I normalized the volume of the clip, which brings out the call, but unfortunately, it also brings out the jingle of the tags. Sorry about that.

Cornell University has a website with good examples of pileated woodpecker calls. If you have never heard a pileated woodpecker, go listen there and imagine yourself deep in the woods.

Climbing the walls

We get a lot of bugs climbing the walls of our house. This is probably the most common sight.


I think this is a carolina grasshopper, but I’m not sure. I’m pretty sure it would make a tasty treat for this wall climber.


The praying mantis is one of my favorites. I like they way they turn their heads to follow you, maybe trying to decide if they could take you down.

I saw this little green anole on the wall outside the front door.


These little lizards are not as common here as the blue-tailed skink, and neither is as common as they were before the cat population boomed. This one will be safe as long as he stays on the wall.

I saw a walking stick but I didn’t get a photo of it. It wasn’t the cool blue of the one Pablo saw.



A bug policy change

I have a live-and-let-live attitude towards most living things around the house. There are a few things I kill any time I see them, like fleas, ticks, roaches, mosquitos and flies. If I find a big spider in the house, I catch it and release it outside. If it’s a small spider, I generally pretend I didn’t see it. I sometimes catch moths, or centipedes or beetles and release them. I have caught scorpions in the house and released them outside, usually with a stern warning not to come back. In the past we would see scorpions inside maybe once or twice a year. In the last two days we have seen three. Now I kill all the scorpions I find inside and even those I find outside within a few feet of the house.

I am not particularly happy about that situation, but somewhere between one or two scorpions a year and three scorpions in two days, the scorpion population in the house crossed a line. I doubt that my new policy will make a noticeable difference in the scorpion population outside or inside the house, but that’s now the rule.

The late, last scorpion, pre-mortem

The late, last scorpion, pre-mortem

And now the wasps.

I usually ignore wasp nests, unless they post a danger of a sting. I had to spray a nest that was on the under side of the front walk handrail after Leah was stung, but I have left a large nest in the shed where I keep the lawn mower. The door slides up very close to the nest, but they haven’t seemed to pay any attention to it.

A few days ago a wasp stung me for no apparent reason as I came in from the deck into the bedroom we use as an office. I slapped it off my upper arm and stepped on it. I went inside prepared to put an ice cube on it, but it didn’t really hurt. I was not happy about being stung, but I know it happens. A wasp lights on your arm and then your sleeve presses on it and it stings. That’s just the way it goes.

The next day I was on the lower deck starting some nails in some wood blocks I needed to screw up on the upper deck ledger board. A wasp came up and bumped into the ladder, and then flew at me. It stung me on the forehead and then, after I swatted at it, on my right ear. I think I have mentioned in the past that I can no longer run because my knees are worn out. It turns out that if a wasp is stinging my ear, I can still run. I ran across the deck, up the stairs and into the office, where I struggled to get my shoes off before running into the kitchen to get an ice cube.

The sting in my arm the previous day didn’t really hurt, but the sting on my ear hurt. A lot. It hurt so bad that my stomach started hurting. It felt like I had swallowed the damned wasp. I sat at the dining room table, held an ice cube on my ear and tried to calm down. I melted two ice cubes against my ear. By that time my stomach was OK and my ear wasn’t hurting too much. As I write this, two days later, my ear is red, and itchy but the pain is gone.

I had seen wasps on the lower deck earlier so I had tried unsuccessfully to find a nest. Night before last I sprayed some wasp killer blindly into a crevice under the deck and a few wasps fell to the ground. Last night, armed with a fresh can of Rain wasp and hornet spray, I thoroughly doused the nest.

After an ear sting, I’m afraid wasps are now going to have to get the same treatment as scorpions.

Now and then

When I worked in Huntsville, Al, I occasionally had to fly on business. That almost always meant flying out of the Huntsville airport to Atlanta. I usually tried to get an aisle seat, but on the short flight to Atlanta I liked to sit by a window and stare down at the passing scenery, since we flew over northwest Georgia where we live.

On one such flight I noticed a distinctive mountain formation. There were two ridges that formed an almost completely enclosed valley, and in the middle of the valley there was an oval mountain. I thought that was odd, because it looked so much like the ridges that form Big Texas Valley and Little Texas Valley. I thought that type of formation couldn’t be all that common in northwest Georgia. And then I realized that it actually was our mountains. I looked more carefully and actually saw our house. This image is from Google Earth. When zoomed, out house is very obvious because of the light blue roof.

texas valley

Lavender Mountain, our mountain, forms the southern boundary of Little Texas Valley. Simms Mountain forms the northern boundary of Big Texas Valley. Rocky Mountain sits in the middle, separating the two valleys (which I usually just lump together as Texas Valley). Lavender Mountain has a fishhook extension that turns north towards Simms Mountain and almost closes the gap. A separate mountain extends along the main ridge of Lavender Mountain. That’s Turnip Mountain.

There is another pocket formed by a fishhook mountain near us actually named The Pocket. Here is another Google Earth view.

the pocket

It turns out that this sort of formation is not uncommon in the Valley and Ridge province of northwest Georgia where we live. This region was formed by folding of strata, with the erosion-resistant sandstone forming ridges and the more-easily-eroded limestone forming the valleys. If you think about an irregularly folded sheet, it’s not hard to imagine how pockets and gaps could form.

Not far from The Pocket there is a little community my father told me about. He said that many years ago when the community was looking for a name for itself, they asked a local doctor to name it, with the provision that he not name it after himself. So Dr. Underwood named it Subligna.

Topo maps often show a lot of towns that don’t exist any more. In the days prior to automobiles and good roads, there were lots of small towns and communities with their own business districts and their own, distinct personalities serving people who didn’t have time for a long trip by wagon to a bigger town. When the automobile became common, most of them disappeared as actual towns. It’s hard to imagine how isolated people were 100 years ago if they didn’t live in a big city, and even Rome didn’t qualify as a big city.

Armuchee, a few miles north of Rome on the way to The Pocket, had its own post office, businesses and a railroad line to connect it with Rome. Maps show a community named Fouche in Big Texas Valley, which had a post office. There was a community named Lavender somewhere on the southern edge of Lavender Mountain that also had a post office and railroad service to connect it with the big city of Rome. Some of Armuchee’s buildings still exist, but today the name just refers to an area with indistinct boundaries miles away from “downtown Armuchee”.

I don’t know whether Lavender ever had its own businesses or even a building for its stop, but as far as I can tell, nothing exists to mark it other than an abandoned railroad right of way.

In searching around for information on our area, I also found the nearby communities of Poetry and Sprite. Like Lavender and Fouche, both of these exist today only as names on topographic maps, or maybe in the memory of someone older than me.