Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Artistic Goals

This posting strays from my usual subject matter, yet might be of interest to those who are making resolutions at this time of year. It is intended as only a temporary detour from my normal nature writings.

For those of you who have been watching my progress at you have probably noticed I’m nearing my goal, i.e. 100 quick paintings in a 12 month period. I started January 30 of this year, so I’m on target. Sometimes it has been a challenge to keep up, but I have learned a lot in the process. It has been well worth the effort. I realize that often a quick sketch is more alive than something I’ve slaved over. Light and mood do wonders for a piece of art. I’ve learned a lot about new materials and realize I need to learn a lot more. Part of me will be sad when I finish my 100th painting, and part of me will take a deep breath and be glad. I’ll feel I have time to do a few serious works of art along with my writing and sketching.

Meanwhile, Laure Ferlita, who manages the Challenge ,wrote a nice posting on her blog ( -- Dec. 28 post) challenging artists to put some thought into what they want to accomplish in the coming year. …. And to post it on our blog. She nudged me to go beyond my comfort zone. Ouch!
I chewed on the idea for awhile. At first I drew a blank as to what new goal I wanted to set. Then, while I was sketching last night, it came to me. I had just finished the Clark’s grebe with chicks. I don’t fault how well it is drawn, but I did feel disappointed in myself that I had picked such a static pose. A drawing becomes a work of art when it has life. ‘Life’ doesn’t necessarily mean action. There can be life in something that is sound asleep. There can be life in just a few squiggly lines. ‘Life’ happens when there is a little extra sparkle in there which makes the subject alive. I feel sometimes I get it, and sometimes I don’t. But I should always be aiming for it! Sometimes I need to let loose a little, and not get hung up in detail and accuracy. The aim is to capture both life and accuracy … and to do that I need to practice drawing, …..practice….. practice, but not just practice. Stretch my limits. Try for mood, action, light; whatever will give the drawing life. Feel O.K. about the failures. Be one of those artists who believes it takes 10,000 mistakes to really learn …. And start sticking my neck out far enough to make more of those mistakes. My early journals are full of what I call ‘encyclopedia drawings.’ The drawings in my later journals are much more interesting. Drawing is my fundamental building block. There is a lot more for me to learn. … so my goal is to draw regularly (I do already), but to do more of it and to put more thought into what I want to accomplish.

That means more field sketching .... more drawing from our wonderful collection of photographs .... and I can even draw from published photographs 'just for practice.'

And so I drew the dancing grebes today……. Both grebe drawings are from our photos taken during our day with them in Klamath Falls early last summer.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Gusty, Blustery Oregon Coast

I’m on a headland on the Oregon Coast. Choppy sea, racing sky. Blustery gray day. The wind whips the top off each white cap and throws it downwind. Huge breakers roll in from the Pacific and fracture into tall white plumes as they crash into the outer reef. Gulls tip and turn in the wind …. up ….up and up, and then with a big zoom, down. It is as if the gulls are snowflakes in one of those glass shake-em-up balls and someone just shook the ball. I savor their freedom. I stand here, tied to earth.

I succeeded in painting the first sketch even though the wind was strong enough to whip a flag to shreds. One hand held my book down, I tucked my paint box in the lee of the wind on a rock wall, and just jumped in, trying to capture the moment.

We were happy to eat lunch in the comfort of our car – shrimp cocktails, veggies, crackers and fruit. By two PM the wind died a little and we got out again, this time at the Shell Island overlook.

String after string of common murres are heading south. Just beyond the outer reef, they fly low over the chop, flying into the wind. A few loons are out there too. The water between us and the reef is still choppy, but offers some protection. Tiny ancient murrelets bounce on the waves and dive deep. I think the longest diver of all is the lone long-tailed duck. I haven’t seen one of those for years. I still prefer their old name, ‘old squaw.’

One red-necked grebe, a busy bundle of eared grebes, a few western grebes and horned grebes …. at least five harlequin ducks, two kinds of cormorants, and a flock of black oystercatchers … and all the wonderful gulls tipping and turning: lots of birds. As the tide goes out a great blue heron flies to the exposed rocks beneath us to start foraging. Seals and sealions haul out on the beach as soon as a stretch of sand is available. This one road out the high tide by climbing high on a rock.

A peregrine flies in to check things out from the top of Shell Island. It’s a busy, blustery place. One that makes my heart sing. We stayed until darkness was erasing all detail amongst the little islands, the reef and exposed rock.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Merry Christmas

My little red fox is looking across the eastern end of the Lamar Valley in one of my favorite places, Yellowstone National Park. He is waiting for Santa to come ... and thinking Merry Christmas to you all!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Lunar Musings: Dec 21, 2010

Our Moon at 9 PM

Tonight is the night of the winter solstice and a total lunar eclipse. It’s been 372 years since the events coincided. I’m hopeful but not optimistic that we’ll get to see it. Right now there is a patch of sky showing, but lots of rain predicted for tonight. Meanwhile I have over three hours to wait before it begins and shall content myself by remembering my first memorable eclipse of the moon.

In the early 70s we moved to Prineville Oregon. As best I remember about a year later we decided to camp on the western edge of Klamath Lake. The eastern edge of the lake is rather blah – sagebrush on shore and no marsh. We didn’t know what to expect on the western edge except we knew the Winema National Forest (now known as the Fremont-Winema National Forest) reached down to the water. We arrived late in the day. A little wayside called Crystal Springs looked good enough to camp at. It wasn’t quite on the lake, but through a grove of trees we could hear coots and grebes and an occasional sandhill crane calling. Crystal Springs is near Agency Lake, a smaller lake just north of Klamath Lake.

Well after sunset our family of four headed down a woodsy path towards the sounds. It would be dark soon, but the full moon was rising and we knew there would be plenty of light. After only about a quarter of a mile we came to an overlook. Hundreds of acres of marsh stretched off into the darkness. Moonlight sparkled on patches of water glimmering between masses of tall tule bulrushes and spatterings of lilypads. A wild assortment of sounds drifted up to us from the marsh …. the coot, grebes, and cranes along with various ducks, Canada geese and a great horned owl. Most unusual for us was the lovely night call of a poor will.

It was magical! The whole marsh was unsettled and talking. But fate was playing with us. The sky seemed clear, yet a dark cloud was slowly overtaking the moon – a very dark cloud. We began to worry about finding our path though the woods on our way back, so we headed back to camp before we totally lost our way. Only later we sheepishly realized we had been watching an eclipse of the moon.

The next day we found a camping spot right on the edge of the marsh. That night the nearly full moon rose a little later and sent its long rays of soft light into our camp. As darkness fell the marsh was ever so much quieter. It was as if the night before every bird on the marsh had celebrated the eclipse.

And now for today's moon:

10:00 PM

The moon has continued to mostly show all evening and now, a half an hour before start time, there is no sign of it. Heavy clouds have smothered it. I don’t even have a clue as to where it actually is. I’m skunked!

10:33 PM: Now is the time the eclipse is supposed to start on the West Coast.

10:40 PM: We can see it! Thin clouds pass over it, but the moon shines bright and the dark shadow is starting. Whoopee! Very still down here, damp, about 45 degrees. Above us the clouds race.

I’ve been sketching and painting and enjoying. I drug out the camera equipment and was delighted when Dale took over. The moon has been playing with the clouds ever since the eclipse started. At one point light drizzle was falling on us, yet we could see the moon. The clouds really thickened just as the last bit on sunlight was leaving the moon. Gone. It was a race to see if the light would leave the moon first or if the clouds would just cover the whole works. Instead of an orange red ball, we saw blackness.

12:08 AM Dec 21

Wouldn’t you know, I put the tripod and big lens away, and then the clouds thinned again. The ‘shadowed’ moon glows reds, burnt orange and warm browns up there, above us. Etheral. This solstice moon is a very moody moon. A night to remember.

Thursday, December 9, 2010


Bear with me. December is turning out to be a busy month. I wonder why. So this will be short .... and the Yellowstone posts will have to wait a while longer.

Oregon is in its rainy season. It seems some form of water is everywhere; rivers are full, fields have soggy ponds, ivy drips, our grass is forever wet. Even the air is full of water here in the western valleys. Fog night after night. It seems it rains forever, but actually it mostly threatens to rain.

All too often that silly little icon on the weather channel show clouds with a peak of sun. Ha! We’re lucky if the sun wins for even a few minutes. In the daytime the fog rises and hovers over town on the ‘sunny’ days. Often we to drive to a higher elevation to greet the sun and look down on the cloud choked valleys. The Umpqua Indians called this ‘the valley of sickness.’

Today we drive south to Grants Pass. The sun finds cracks in the clouds. Off in the distance I see magic happening, mist rises out of the wet mountains. Some of yesterday’s rain is drifting back up, rather than scurrying to the sea via the swollen rivers. Will-o-the-wisps of mist ease out of the dark slopes. I have to concentrate to see the upward motion. Watch a little hole in the mist, or a curl on the edge. Slowly, ever so slowly, the mist rises until it dissipates. It just plain disappears. If I just glance off into the distance, I see pockets of mist. Five minutes later the impression is the same, but in actuality the scene has changed. The sun has moved to a different slope, a different will-o-the-wisp rises.

Now we are looking across the flat valley that holds the town of Grants Pass, looking west towards several ridges and west towards the hidden sun. Rays of run reach down onto a slope angled towards the sun. Out of the ridge erupts an ethereal cloud, the biggest yet. The backlit mist is brilliant white, so white it blocks parts of the ridge behind.

But not for long. Clouds shift and smother the ridge in grayness again. The mist dissipates and the far off trees come back into focus. New pockets of mist start to rise in new places.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Foraging for Dinner

Acron Woodpecker

An acorn woodpecker pounds and probes deep into the rotten wood of an old oak. We see him nab a grub and move on to repeat the process. Usually life is a little easier for him at this time of year. He is working on a dead limb that is part of one of the two granary trees this colony uses. Most years the half dozen woodpeckers that live in this little canyon will have harvested thousands of acorns and put each in its own hole. They save energy by using the same granary tree year after year. Last March a high percentage of the holes in this tree were still full. There had been plenty of acorns for the whole winter and more.

But this year the acorn crop was exceptionally poor. During the summer I searched the surrounding trees with my binoculars and could see just a few acorns. For awhile the granary tree held a few acorns from the new crop, but it is already empty. Fortunately the woodpeckers eat other things too … grubs, insects, other seeds, but acorns are their primary winter food. Already most of the woodpeckers are gone from this canyon. I can only hope they are foraging elsewhere. I even had one at my feeder the other day. He was helping himself to my sunflower seeds.

An acorn woodpecker in happier days. This is one of my illustrations from “Birds of Oregon: A General Reference.”

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Coot Wars

Western Oregon’s winter wetness has settled in. Time to finally finish my series of Yellowstone posts I started in June. This one took place in mid May.

Coot are funny black birds often seen swimming about on a local pond. It always seems strange to me that they are a rail. Most rails are extremely secretive about their private lives. Just seeing one is noteworthy. But coot hang out in the open and are often dismissed as being ‘just a coot.’ I’ve learned to pay attention to these very plain dark birds.

Yellowstone National Park: One edge of Floating Island Pond is still in morning shadow and frost. Most of the pond is flooded with morning sunshine. A sandhill crane incubates on a small island in the middle of the pond. Its back is dark – still wet from the frost that has just melted. Dale and I have parked and wait, hoping to photograph the crane’s mate when it flies in to exchange places on the nest. The ruddy ducks are lazy this morning. Three sleep in the fringe of broken off bulrushes near the crane’s nest.

Lots of mellow sounds: chuckles from the coot, chucks and an occasional “Kleeee-e-e” from a red-winged blackbird. A pair of Canada geese are noisy as they fly in. I’m sitting on an embankment above the pond. Below me I hear water splashing. It a pair of coot copulating. They are standing on a half submerged platform of bulrushes. Once done, one rouses and preens while the other swims off. There are five coot on the pond. We haven’t figured out if it is possible to tell males from females.

Here comes a coot back, swimming towards me. It hurries up the journey by walking/flying a third of the way. Once it settles back into the water I see it is dragging a section of bulrush, bringing it right to where the copulation took place. The coot pulls the bulrush onto the slight platform of bulrushes and proceeds to pound it into the mat. Its long green toes slap at the soggy stem and stir up a spray of water. Satisfied with its job, the coot swims off again.

The crane finally stands and rolls her eggs. We learned to tell the cranes apart about five years ago. When they ‘unison bugle’ the male’s bill points to the sky and calls a little more slowly. The female doesn’t point as high and her call is faster. This female has a broken toe. Whenever we see the left foot we know which crane we are watching. Papa crane is slow in trading places this morning. He finally flies to the nest at 9:05. He bows upon arrival, but doesn’t bugle. The female flies off within a minute. It usually is hours before she returns. He’ll stay at the nest until she does.

Having five coot on the pond seems to be causing some concern between the coot. Bicker. Bicker. Bicker. Coot heads are black and the rest of their body is charcoal grey, that is all except their bright white under-tail coverts. When they bicker they hold their wings up just a little and their stubby tail up a lot, flashing their white under-tail coverts. When they chase and turn and can’t help but think of a bunch of nuns running about catching chickens or something. They always make me laugh.

Suddenly our peaceful scene erupts. Mad splashing. Water flies. Two coot are having a battle royal. Both seem to be trying to plant their feet on the breast of the other and push the opponent underwater. A third coot quickly joins the fracas. Lots of squabbling. The battle is intense, but brief. Back to their busy ways. I can’t help but think this indicates we have three males and two hens …. And someone is going to get the short straw.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

To the Coast

Fog in the forest near Cape Arago, Oregon Coast

It’s a beautiful day! Blue sky. Wet earth. Big leaf maples are a mix of greens, golds and browns. We are on our way to the coast. The sun is back!

We arrive at Charleston Harbor, a little fishing village, in time to buy shrimp cocktails for lunch. I brought veggies, fruit and crackers to go with. The sun hasn’t won its battle with the fog here. A soft grayness envelopes the harbor and the pelicans perched on nearby pilings.

Heading to our favorite overlook for lunch we are sidetracked by long rays of light glimmering through thin fog and reaching into the depths of the thick coastal forest. The rays speak of mystery, magic, and comforting spirits. We savor this rare moment when the fog has thinned, and the sun sends long shafts of light into the greenery. Off in the distance we hear deep pounds – breakers hitting rocks. We came to the coast today because of the ‘high surf alert.’ Now that we are here I wonder if we’ll only hear the surf, not see it.

Normally our ears would be full of sea lions barking. Today water crashing on the rocks pounds out all but the highest gull shrieks. The outer reef at Shell Island shows as a hazy line of low, dark rocks. Plumes of white reach 50, 60, 70 feet into the soft fog. The huge waves have flattened the sand on the Shell Island’s beach, revealing peeks of solid bedrock, more rock than I believe we have ever seen on Shell island’s beach. No sea lions on the beach, but a few have crawled onto the rocks to escape the surf. With the thin fog I didn’t try to count – maybe 100, heavy to Steller sea lions. The Stellers glow golden in the thin fog, lighter than the California sea lions.

End of day finds us back in Charleston Harbor boat basin, away from the roaring surf. Each gull’s call carries across the mellow boat basin. The sun is still trying to conquer fog, but only succeeds in giving a magical glow, bouncing soft yellow off a white fishing boat and the white head of a pelican. Two crabbers are on a nearby dock, just finishing up for the day. The man and woman collapse their crab pots, wind the ropes and fold up their camp chairs. He totes the heavy stuff on a luggage carrier, while she picks up a cooler, a chair, and their dog’s leash.

A seal swims by and then a cormorant. Both spend most of their time underwater, presumably fishing. The harbor is full. No boats go over the bar on a day like today. Any boat that didn’t come to harbor in time will wait it out farther out to sea.

Monday, November 15, 2010


Here is my postscript for my Oct 31 blog posting, “Half Grumping, Half Appreciating.” When we were in the Klamath Basin I knew I wanted to sketch this mule deer doe as soon as I saw her. She was daintily nibbling on willow leaves and peering over the skimpy bush at us. Mule deer have such pretty faces. A buck was nearby and definitely interested in the ladies, but tended to keep the scattered junipers between him and us.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Reading Sign

Ben Irving Reservoir, Douglas County, Oregon

Ahhhhh….. Finally. Tonight I get to set down at my beloved PC and polish some journal scribbles. Life is still way too full of working through the differences between Dale’s new I Mac and my trusty old PC. I’m still his guru, but I’ve exhausted all expertise and myself. Were I to do it over I would have immediately demanded a recommendation for a third party manual (Apple doesn’t print one) and then I would have had someone lock me in a windowless room for two weeks while I figure the dang thing out … with a big box of chocolates to comfort me. I’ve called Apple support at least 15 times, I’ve contacted friends, and I now have a third party manual. There is light at the end of the tunnel, maybe. I keep thinking I’m making progress and then I stumble again. My sanity has been taking advantage of scattered days of sunshine…. like today.

So on to today’s notes….

We’ve retuned to Ben Irving Reservoir, the same spot where I sat in the warm sun and sketched the striped meadowhawk (dragonfly) eight days ago. So very different today. Quiet. Damp. Cool. Still. Far off a raven flies, croaking as he wings his way out of sight. Quiet again. Then a flicker’s call notes drift out of the deep woods to the north. Peaceful out here. It is hard to find even a spider. We inadvertently flushed the handful of ducks that were in this end of the reservoir. Far off an egret slowly stalks in the shallows.

We saw one dragonfly pop off the sun-warmed asphalt when we first arrived. Then the thin haze thickened and erased all hope of seeing another. No matter. The recent rains have left large spotches of mud on the open banks of the reservoir. One of the things I missed most, during the years Dale was on two canes, was poking about reading sign with him. We both have natural history in our backgrounds, but from very different sources. Dale started hunting at an age which would turn modern social services apoplectic. Three men; his father, a Winnebago Indian, and an old trapper, taught him about the woods and fields. I hunted too, but started at a later age. Both my parents were ornithologists. My mother loved to show me sign left by wildlife. Dale and I still surprise each other with odd bits of information we have each picked up. We both gave up hunting years ago. Stalking with the camera and sketchbook has taken over.

Tracks tell us that a deer walked to the water edge; ducks waddled down muddy tire tracks; worms squiggled in a thin slurry of mud; and a shorebird, probably a killdeer, poked about. Killdeer don’t have a hind toe, just three forward toes.

But now we are scratching our heads. I thought I saw raccoon tracks … I did, about ten yards away. Raccoons have five well developed toes on their front feet. I can close my eyes and remember the warm feel of the soft leathery hands of my pet raccoon, Heidi, poking her hands in my ears, in my nose, between my toes. So inquisitive.

These tracks are about the same size as a raccoon’s, but different. Is it opossum? Opossums have a funny toe, but I can’t remember just how. The front foot of this mammal has four spread out toes and a stump of a toe. Dale keeps thinking the hind foot reminds him of a beaver. But where is the broad tail drag a beaver should leave? Then our friend, Eleanor, sees a thin tail drag. Finally we have our “Ah Ha” moment.

We’ve been focusing on native species. This one is an unwelcome exotic, a nutria. I saw a young one swimming in the reservoir earlier in the summer.

Nutria were imported from South America to Louisiana in the 1930s for fur farming. Unfortunately they either escaped or were released. Since then these semi aquatic rodents have spread to several of the milder state. Nutria demolish aquatic vegetation wherever they go, eating a quarter of their body weight every day. We see them all too often in Oregon.

When we get home I refresh my memory about an opossum’s track. Their hind foot has a toe off at an odd angle, rather like our thumb ….. better to climb with. My track sketch is perfect for a nutria.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Sketching in Nature

Striped meadowhawk ... Ben Irving Resevoir, Douglas County, Oregon

I have some pleasant news to share with you. Cathy Johnson has invited me to join the "Sketching in Nature" blog ( ). It is a site for artists who sketch nature from life. A wonderful mix of artists from around the world contribute. I've recently posted these two sketches there and plan to post something every so often.

My longer posts will continue to be in "Elva's Field Notes". Much of the art I post here looks as though it would qualify for the Sketching in Nature blog, but in actuality I often sketch from my computer after we get home; or I start a sketch in the field and finish it up after we get home. Too often I'm too busy to do enough good skeches on location for this blog.

But I do feel strongly that sketching from life keeps my drawing skills sharp in a way that drawing off the computer or a printed photo never can. Those of you who have met me know that I am forever scribbling in my journal -- both writing and sketching.

For years, many years, I have been a wildlife artist. It is only rather recently that I realized I like writing too. I love combining the two skills.

Autumn Meadowhawk, drawn at Lake in the Woods, Douglas County, Oregon

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Half Grumping and Half Appreciating

Crater Lake, Oregon: October 2010

Excuse me for venting …. But life has been too dastardly busy for the past three weeks. I thought when the rains came my life would simplify, but my stars have been out of alignment. There was one more drawing I wanted to do for this post, but I give up. …… Maybe I’ll do it as a postscript. … and maybe, after a couple of more weeks of rain, I’ll finally finish my Yellowstone posts that I’m looking forward to working on. (For those of you who are new to this blog, I don’t blog while in Yellowstone, so it takes me a while, a long while, to get all caught up after I get home. Fortunately my journal is scribbled full of notes).

The stars out of alignment started with a star in place …. We purchased a better camera, a CANON 7D. It is wonderful! Among other things it seems to snap to life on flying birds and we have more control over focusing in general.

Then the stars started shifting. I’ll make it sort of brief. I help my neighbor and my husband, Dale, with their computers and related stuff (Dale is the camera man and helps me when it comes to cameras). First my neighbor’s VCR died and it was a struggle for me to figure out old TVs don’t support new VCR’s … but Cable TV offers a DVR box which will record. We suffered through four installations before the correct box was installed and I had to learn to use a remote control so I could teach her (Dale has done all our clicking for years). Meanwhile we switched to ‘bundled’ TV, internet and phone for ourselves. Two more installations (these all average over 2 hours each). I got to make one phone call before my phone went dead. … not impressed. During this my neighbor’s computer died so I took it into my favorite shop where they pronounced it a lost cause. Fortunately her far away son-in-law took over her computer issues. BUT, by then it was dawning on me that Dale was spending half his life tolerating a slow computer. Once his images are downloaded and the thumbnails are up, it takes 20 second per image to see it full size. Ugh. 100 images equals half an hour of thumb twiddling, and we often take 300 or more photos in a day. So we danced the PC versus Apple waltz for the third time in fifteen years.

We now have an Apple, but those stars are still in ‘lets drive Elva crazy mode.’ They forgot to install the extra RAM, to give us the word processing software we ordered, and even forgot the gizmo that allows us to attach the digital projector. But worse, they assured us we could happily live with one PC and one Apple and that our external hard drives would be fine. Ha! Eventually maybe. First each Hard drive has to be emptied onto another, reformatted to talk to both computers, and then filled up again. Hours and hours of moving pixels. Each of his externals holds more than the Mac so I can’t just dump everything on the Mac.

We can look at images on the new Mac. … and can hardly believe our eyes. Wow! The Mac’s display is awesome and the speed is a dream. I think about 10 PM tomorrow Dale will actually be working on the Mac and I can begin to think about learning to use the new camera.

Somewhere in all this we did squeeze in a one night camping trip to the Klamath Basin. Sleeping out under the stars at Lava Beds National Monument is a rare treat. The high desert air was so clear we can see ranch lights sparkling twenty miles away across the basin. The monument campground keeps their lights to the barest minimum, so the sky above twinkles in full glory. The moon was nearly full. The Big Dipper slowly rotated around the North Star during the night. And quiet. Only one other camper in our loop.

Morning brought lots and lots of lazy ducks and geese out on Tule Lake (they were supposed to be flying over us so we could practice with the new camera), mule deer, California quail, and even otter.

The most striking wildlife was spiders! We had left the refuge and were driving north in the flat ranch land at the upper end of the Klamath Basin. The lowering sun was backlighting zillions of spider threads. I believe there is a little spider that disperses by sending out a long line and drifting in the breeze. There must have been millions, if not billions of them.

Some lines had tangled with each other and resulted in drifting gobs.

We dawdled long enough so we could be on top of Crater Lake at sunset. To the east the sky was clear. The moon was huge, but not quite full, so it rose before the sky was totally dark…. Thus my painting at the beginning of this post.

To the west the setting sun filtered through a thin layer of smoke, a well dispersed layer created by slash burning and at least one controlled burn. Layers and layers of ridges disappeared into the western sky between Crater Lake and the Pacific Ocean. There is a special exhilaration to standing on the top of the earth and looking out over the earth. I tried painting this too, but the photo says it far better than my painting.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Pools of Water

Umpqua National Forest, Oregon: October 2010

Warm Indian summer sun. Quiet campground. We found a very leaky faucet amongst the tall lodgepoles . A shallow pool, not much larger than a throw rug, has become a magnet for thirsty birds in this dry habitat. From the car Dale photographed birds for about twenty minutes. The birds finished drinking and bathing and left … so Dale left too. Now I’m sitting on the ground with my back to a not-quite-wide-enough lodgepole. I picked this one so I could sketch a wonderful old snag. I hardly get started sketching when first one bird and then another joins me. Soon sketching is forgotten.

Juncos talk softly as they flutter in. Bathing is on the agenda. A female junco starts with a head dip, followed by a wild spray of water. It is like hitting the little pool with an electric eggbeater set on high. The egg beater turns off and she looks around to make sure all is well. Then tips back to wet her tail, forward again for her head again. Such a scattering of water! She sprays her neighbors and ends up well soaked. It takes several pauses and several splashings for a good bath.

A pair of red-breasted nuthatches are more cautious, keeping their distance from these rambunctious juncos. They sip from the shallowest water off to my right, then return to their upside down posture on a nearby lodgepole. A small flock of twittering pine siskins land in my snag and check the pool before zipping down for their turn. They are nervous, high energy birds.

Oh my! I’ve even got three red crossbills. They are funny, chunky birds with what appears to be a malformed bill. But the bill is their livelihood. With it they can pry into cones that are inaccessible to other birds. The trio come down for a good drink, then sound like little bombers when they take off. I’m surprised a bird that size makes so much noise.

All this whirring of wings reminds me of one of my favorite experiences. Years ago we were told about Heppe Cave, a large collapsed lava tube in Lava Beds National Monument. Two portions of the roof had collapsed, leaving a dark cavern in between. A fellow camper told us how to enter the cave, follow a narrow path down, and wait in dark shadows. At the bottom of this cavern was a small pool of water, another magnet for thirsty birds in a dry environment.

Heppe Cave was dark and chilly, unlike this spot where I am now. It was even quieter. One drop of water seemed like an intrusion into the silence of the cave. After waiting several minutes the birds started to arrive, cautiously at first. Their eyes needed to adjust to the darkness, just as mine did. Each bird flitted from one rock to another as it made its way to the pool, drank quickly and left in one flight. Sometimes I had a dozen birds drinking at once. Mostly the birds were quiet. I remember vividly how the wings of each species whirred differently. Soon I was able to tell the soft flutter of a junco from the steady, heavy beat of a Clark’s nutcracker, from the crisp wing strokes of a noisy raven.

Back to the present. It is so quiet enough in this campground I can hear the bird’s take offs and arrivals, but here chittering and chipping mix in. It is obvious the birds feel more comfortable out here in the open than in Heppe Cave. I’m savoring the fall sunshine and being so close to this happy gathering of birds. In addition to the crossbills, siskins, nuthatches and juncos I’ve got mountain chickadees, white-crowned sparrows, golden-crowned sparrows and lesser goldfinches.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Vole Watching

Lake in the Woods, Douglas County, Oregon: October 2010

A vole shot in Yellowstone. Voles are cousins of mice. Their ears close to their heads and they have short little tails. They are an important food source for many predators, from harriers to foxes and coyotes.

How many of you have ever gotten a good photo of a vole ….. or even tried to? If you’ve never even tried, you probably are in the wiser portion of the population. I did get a good photograh, ONCE, mostly by accident. I was photographing pikas in Yellowstone and out popped a little vole. I had just time enough to snap off this shot.

Even seeing a vole happens about once in a blue moon. My blue moon just happened.

We arrive at Lake in the Woods later than usual. Autumn is in the air. By the time we eat lunch several darners and meadowhawks are flying. I walk down to the water’s edge and zip! A vole runs across the three feet of bare shoreline below our favorite lunch site. Hummm …. Don’t get to see those often.

I continued on down the path that runs between cattails and forest looking for dragonflies. When I returned I spook a vole a second time, zipping across the same opening. Two sightings! Now my interest is piqued.

Best way to see more is to sit and watch … and best way for me to extend my patience is to sketch or paint. A pretty little butterfly is sipping nectar from purple pennyroyal blossoms. So I settled down onto the ground and get my paints out.

Twenty minutes later I am just finishing my butterfly when Dale comes along. Zip! There scurries a vole again. Have I been too busy painting to see them, or has it taken 20 minutes for them to relax? In any case, Dale fetches a stool and joins me.

There is a small carpet of trefoil to my right. The tender trefoil appears to be what the vole is after. The vole has to cross the three feet of bare shoreline to return to a thick clump of grass where I believe it lives. Except for this spot, the shoreline in this area disappears into thick cattails.

Soon there is a wiggle in the trefoil here … and a wiggle there. It is plain there is more than one vole. Dale sees one is much larger than another. I’ve seen two smalls ones … so we have at least three voles, probably a family.

Photographing voles is way harder than photographing chickarees! When one zips across the open space between trefoil and home base, I can’t even swear it has legs. I see a furry bratwurst with a stubby tail fly by. Once in the trefoil patch we know where they are by the wiggling vegetation.

I’m still sitting on the ground, my feet near their patch of trefoil. Oops! One is curious about me. I see wiggles in the trefoil approaching my foot… and my open pant leg. He wouldn’t dare run into my pant leg, or would he? My shoe has packed down the vegetation . He comes out into the packed area, into the open, for just a moment, then turns and darts back into the trefoil. I don’t want to spook him, but that was getting a little close for comfort.

Dale and I watch the little voles family busy foraging for an hour. Mostly we watch vegetation wiggling. Eventually we realized there are 4 voles, one adult and three youngsters. One by one they finally zipped across the little opening heading home. We never did get a good photograph, just bits and pieces of anatomy, or out of focus … at least I got a nose and hind toes in focus!

Monday, October 11, 2010

Chickaree Olympiads

October 2010: Umpqua National Forest

Are we crazy or what! Three out of the past four days we’ve driven 80 miles to a campground in the Umpqua National Forest, spent a chunk of the day there, but didn’t camp.

There is some method to our madness. We are opportunists. Right now the opportunity is chickarees, the western cousins of the red squirrel. We first noticed they were busy harvesting a month ago when I posted “Fall Harvesting – Chickarees.” At that time the squirrels were high in the lodgepoles, nipping off cones, one after another. Today we’re watching another chapter of their busy work.

Here, in the campground, the chickarees are somewhat tolerant of humans. They have already dropped hundreds of cones, most of which have been barely tucked into the loose layer of twigs and pine needles that cover the forest floor between campsites. These little pockets hold anywhere from one to a half dozen cones. The area the size of my modest living room might have 50 mini caches. Scattered all about like this, the cones would be hard to find under the snow pack. Now it’s time to cache them in great basketfuls, called ‘middens,’ for winter.

We’ve been watching one chickaree in particular. No one is camped near here and he is busy, busy, busy. He seems to have established rights to this particular area. When another squirrel dares to trespass a wild chase ensues, up one and down one tree after another. After lots of chattering , the intruder leaves.

When gathering cones, the chickaree floats over the ground like a weasel – quick as a wink. In an eleven minute period he cached ten pine cones and then was interrupted by a bicyclist. After depositing a cone he comes roaring out from a little grove of lodgepoles where his midden is tucked under a rotting stump and log.

He zips 50 to 150 feet to a new cone, grabs it, twirls it around until he can put the narrow end in his mouth like an oversized cigar and back he runs.

We’ve been trying to get photos. Ha! Ha! We’re using the car as a blind. We prefocus on about the right distance and lean on the trigger when he flies by.

Occasionally I’m on my target, at least good enough photos to draw from and about 3 sharp photos out of 300. I love digital. I would never have tried this with film.
At first I thought the rapid fire of my camera (six frames per second) was catching six frames of the same leap. But then I realized my camera happens to fire at almost the same speed it takes for one leap. The skinny little squirrel must be all muscle. He switches from flat out to tucked, six times per second. I think he touches the ground once in awhile, but it looks as though he is flying! No wonder I have a hard time getting my camera on him.

Every so often the chickaree takes a break. He sits on his hindquarters, tail curled with the curve of his back, and munches his way through a lodgepole pine cone. The ones he is gathering are still closed and somewhat soft. He holds it like an ear of corn, discarding parts and eating the rest. His favorite eating spots become littered with scraps and the cores of the cones. For a little variety he nibbles on mushrooms. The area offers both boletus and I’m pretty sure he is finding truffles. I even caught his neighbor holding a small, red amanita, just ready to take a bite when we disturbed him. Why can squirrels tolerate the toxins in amanitas and we can’t? Amanita look absolutely delicious.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Sticky Spit

Grey Jays -- Umpqua National Forest, Oregon

We came up to high Cascades hoping to photograph chickarees and have been side tracked by grey jays. Each species of bird has its own character. Ravens are bold, eagles majestic, hummingbirds brazen, and grey jays are sweet. Their feathers are a medley of soft grays ranging from nearly white to nearly black; big dark eyes. Their voice is soft and their flight is surprisingly quiet. They float from tree to tree like spirits in the forest.

A family of six gray jays have joined us for lunch. Dale is being a toadie and eating all his sandwich; while I, soft hearted person that I am, am letting them have the lion’s share of my bread. They are doing a fine job of living up to their nick name, “camp robber.” As I toss tidbits of bread they keep eyeing the whole sandwich. I’d better guard it carefully.

The six camp robbers and I have finished my sandwich and I have no more bread. Ah! They like cheese. They seem even more excited by cheese offerings than bits of bread.

Wild grey jays are well known for feeding from human hands. Maybe I can convince one to come. They are cautious at first, landing on the short lodgepoles near me and on our car. One grabs! I hang onto my cheese and he veers off.

It doesn’t take long for the bravest to perch on my hand. Having one alight, ever so briefly, is not much more than a breath of air. Gentle. I let him have his cheese and off he goes.

Now that I’ve switched to cheese, the grey jays are making little gluttons of themselves. Well, maybe not. That suggests they are eating one piece after another. They aren’t. They are packing their throats with cheese to cache. I don’t offer enough with one piece for a throat full, but they hang out nearby and keep coming to me until they have packed their throats full.

I’m getting excited, hoping to see “sticky spit” – theirs, not mine. Grey jays live in the high country where snows fall deep and food becomes scarce. How do they cope? Clark’s nutcrackers (another corvid) solve the problem by caching thousands of pine nuts in windswept areas, sometimes miles from their source. Grey jays solve the problem by caching with sticky spit.

The first time we saw a grey jay goober our offering onto a twig of a lodgepole, we thought he just had a lot of saliva. It was about two years ago and we were parked right here. Later we read Berndt Heinrich’s book, “Winter World: The Ingenuity of Animal Survival.” Grey jays have learned to store their food above ground, away from the deep snows to come. The jays gather food when it is plentiful and glue it onto tree branches! He explains that their spit quickly turns to glue when exposed to air.

Today none of the jays are caching near me. They fly off into the lodgepoles with their treasure. I do see a jay far out on a limb, busy at work; but I can’t tell for sure if he is foraging or caching. I like to think he is gluing my cheese to the branch with his sticky spit. Maybe a chickadee will come along and think, “Yum!”

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Indian summer

Sept. 28: Ben Irving Reservoir, a long narrow reservoir created by the damming of Berry Creek southwest of Roseburg, Oregon

Dale says we three remind him of three great blue herons out here stalking their prey. Dale (my husband), Eleanor (our friend) and I are stalking the grassy banks of the narrow end of Ben Irving Reservoir. Just like the heron, we pause more than we move. We stalk with cameras, not a long, pointed bill.

Indian summer has come, a welcome interlude between the unusual fall rains of mid September and the certain rains that come with late fall and winter. I thought the early rains might have clobbered our insect world; but, no, there are plenty of insects to watch and photograph. It was just a little cool when we arrived – cool for dragonflies, not for me. I love cool, but pay my dues in sweat in order to photograph dragonflies.

It is wonderful out here at the wild end of Ben Irving Reservoir. We’ve got noisy neighbors – about fifty Canada geese seem to be readjusting their pecking order. Lots of honking, gabbling and splashing. One pileated woodpecker calls from the forest to the north, another responds from within the forest to the south. Not to be outdone, a pair of ravens are talking up a storm. Other than the wildlife, we have the place to ourselves.

Eleanor calls to me. She has found an especially colorful garden spider. I arrive just in time to see a small insect fly into the spider’s web. Wow!

The spider pounces onto its victim and in two seconds has it well wrapped. Two seconds! The camera keeps track of the time for me. I even caught a photo of the burst of silk just starting.

The spider just spins that little bug round and round and lets out multiple stands of silk at the same time. It actually looks as though she (?) is wrapping the bug in Saran wrap. Once wrapped the spider takes the bundle to the center of her web, to dine.

Three Pairs of Striped meadowhawks flying in tandem. If you look carefully you can see an egg ready to drop of the tip of the right most dragonfly.

The air is warming rapidly and by late morning striped meadowhawks (small dragonflies) are out in droves. They almost seem to be in a frenzy, finishing their breeding and egg laying before winter comes. A pair of meadowhawks fly by my feet when a bald faced hornet zooms in a grabs one. I call out to Dale and Eleanor and we watch while the hornet decapitates the little dragonfly, clips a couple of its wings off, and then chews the thorax free from the abdomen. The hornet then flies off with the thorax, a heavy load of dragonfly meat. Apparently the whole dragonfly is too much for one hornet. As we watch we realize the bald-faced hornets are taking advantage of an easy food supply. The dragonflies are preoccupied, easy targets for the hornets. The remains of several dragonflies lie scattered on the ground.

But there are plenty of striped meadowhawks. They continue with the business at hand. First the male transfers his sperm from the tip of his abdomen to a pocket just behind this thorax. Once ready he flies about in search of an available female. The pair form a ‘copulation wheel’ -- the male grabs the female behind her head and she brings her abdomen around to retrieve the sperm. Sometimes they fly about in a wheel and sometimes they rest on the ground.

Once fertilized, they usually stay ‘in tandem’ while they fly low over the ground and she drops her eggs one by one. The tiny, light yellow eggs are so small I have to get on my knees to find one. Soon I realize this area is sprinkled with eggs. In spring this area will be underwater, but how do the meadowhawks know that?