Tuesday, March 30, 2010

A Serendipitous Chain of Events

March 27, 2010: Funny how one thing can lead to another. Dale and I have been wandering/photographing in an almost empty campground for three hours. A mallard pair preened on an old log floating in the nearby pond; two cormorants perched high in a Sitka spruce; a great blue heron flew by and landed out of our range; a kingfisher just plain flew by. The little birds aren’t cooperative. The most exciting find was two rough-skinned newts. Pretty quiet.

Mid-afternoon we decide to try another area. While Dale rearranges gear in the car, I grab my sketchbook to finish a sketch of salal blossoms I started earlier in the morning. The buds closest to the car are still closed so I move around to the warmer, south side of the salal bush.

I spook a damselfly, the first of the season. But what kind? I put the sketchbook in the car and grab a camera.

I got pretty chilled this afternoon even though I have on a heavy shirt. Any hope of finding the damsel fly again will be in a sun-warmed spot. My first find is a garter snake sunning itself. Its bright red and yellow stripes flow and he slips under the leaf litter. Then I see a Pacific tree frog nestled on a salal leaf. He is a brilliant emerald green with a jewel-like gold and black eye. And there resting on another leaf, is my elusive damselfly. It’s a male. That’s good. Many of the females can only be identified with a hand lens. They are so tiny, long, and skinny that it is hard to get the whole 1.3 inches in focus. So I click on the whole damsel fly, then focus on its head and thorax for another shot, and finally on its tail for the cerci and paraprocts. That should do it.

I’m suddenly aware that this dense bush holds more than a tree fog and a damsel fly. At least two wrentits are very unhappy. They make far too much fuss for me to be the source of their concern.

Then I see IT! Sharp claws scrambling on bark make me look up. There, at eye level with me, is a pine martin (North American martin). He watches me and I watch him. What a treat. I take about a dozen photos before he zips down the tree. The bushes shake and rattle again for about a minute. I wait for another five minutes, but all is quiet.

I feel privileged to have now seen martins in the wild four times, once in Alaska, twice in Yellowstone, and now here, on the Oregon coast.

Once home we identified the damselfly as a swift forktail, Ischnura erratica – one of the earliest damselflies of springtime. The salal drawing will have to wait for another trip.

Swift forktail drawing done from my photos. Pen and ink plus watercolor.

Friday, March 26, 2010


Spring comes in fits and starts to western Oregon. The daffodils are fading, yet we’ve had more frosty mornings in March than all of January and February. Today spring is everywhere. The sun won its war with fog by noon, birds are full of l’amour, and everywhere spring flowers are greeting the new season. Late morning Dale and I pick up our good friend, Eleanor, and head out.

A glossy raven sits high in an oak snag, one which serves as an acorn woodpecker granary. This granary still holds a decent supply of acorns stored last fall in the holes painstakingly hammered out by the woodpeckers. A second raven lands on a lower branch and walks his (?) way closer to the first. He offers a large gob of cream colored food, but the female (?) is unimpressed. She rears back, as if finding the offering disdainful. Since his offering is refused, the male caches it instead. Much to our surprise he picks a large crack on the underside of a horizontal branch … he actually hangs upside down while he wedges it in. Once it is safely tucked, he pauses, releases one leg and hangs by just one foot as he looks about. He looks very comfortable in that odd position, and stays for about a minute before flying off to retrieve another treat.

The second offering is small and dark. The female quivers and accepts it.

What a toadie! The raven is stealing one of the woodpecker’s acorns. The two woodpecker in the tree are not happy about sharing their acorn supply, but ravens are big, very big. The acorn woodpeckers call and fly from one branch to another. One even dive bombs the raven.

The raven takes the acorn to the end of a large broken off branch. He wedges it in and pounds away. The second raven looks hopeful. Another offering? No. When the raven finally cracks the nut, he proceeds to eat it himself. Then sits and preens.

Eleanor lives in the country. We head back to her house early enough to talk advantage of a countryside walk before returning to town. Shooting stars and buttercups are in full bloom and wild strawberries have just started. A farm pond comes up tight to the road and Eleanor comments that she is surprised there aren’t any ducks on the pond.

Only about eight feet from me I suddenly realize I’m looking at a mallard hen on her nest. The nest is nearly hidden in long grass and blackberry canes. I can see her head, half her back, and a few of the downy feathers she has pulled from her breast to line her nest. One photograph and we quietly move off. She sits tight. I can’t remember ever seeing a mallard on her nest, much less being so close I feel as though we are breathing the same air. I amazed I even saw it tucked in the tangle.

Before we leave Eleanor, she takes us to another little pond, just down slope from her cabin. Our intension was to walk a little farther, but little tiny red critters catch our attention. Eleanor already knows what they are – copepods. Copepods are crustaceans, about 1/8 inch long. They are busy swimming about near the surface, some just barely near enough for me to scoop one up. The bank is just steep enough for me to be a little careful. I empty my shirt pocket, unstrap my binoculars, kneel down and reach out. Success. I scoop up three copepods and a tiny tadpole. At first I thought the tadpole was a newly hatched minnow, but with a hand lens I don’t see any gills or fins. He is all eyes and tail. He doesn’t even have much of a belly yet. Eleanor smiles, and says she doesn’t know of anyone else who would so enjoy sharing such treasures with her.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Return to Lagoon Campground - Mar 13, 2010

We’ve come back to Lagoon Campground, hoping to find the great blue heron again. Too many dogs and people today. Last week the heron didn’t mind us on the trail, but I suspect dogs are a bit much.

A wrentit has popped out of the bushes and peers at me. Wrentits are funny little jerky birds who love to sing from somewhere within the dense tangle of thick coastal huckleberry and salal. When I get close to one, I always find their feathers fascinating. He almost looks hairy. Careful inspection makes me think the flow of the long barbs of his back and breast feathers is designed to help Oregon’s frequent rains slip off. The wrentit quickly slips back into the bushes so I “phish” him (phishing is birder talk for making little squeaky noises). Leaves wiggle but no bird. I decide to try a new sound, a quiet “click”, a sound I might make if I was saying giddy-up to a miniature horse.

Zoom! I just got dive-bombed by a midget. It took a few minutes to verify I have
upset a rufous hummingbird. I didn’t think he would have come north yet, but there he sits, in the gnarly shore pine above me. A few more clicks and he zooms me again. I must admit quarreling hummingbirds sound rather like my ‘click.’ I think I’m a monster who has infringed on his territory.

Many years ago the top broke out of this shore pine, and now a tangle of branches has grown a-new. His favorite resting spot is on a wisp of a twig near the tangle. He fluffs, and calls, and flutters his wings ; then flies off, soon to be back. I’m sketching the hummer and the shape of the tree quickly and then I’ll move away to work on details.

Oh ratzle-fratzle! I’ve been sitting on a trail bench working on my drawing while Dale has been waiting to photograph either the marsh wrens or the Virginia rails that I heard here an hour ago. No wrens or rails when I returned to show Dale where I heard them. The milky sunshine has turned to grey and all is quiet. Dale finally went scouting and I’m twenty feet from the camera and tripod. I see riffles in the water – right next to shore. The marsh vegetation is thick so I can’t see what is disturbing the water. I hope it can’t see me. I try to sneak over to the camera.
Up pops the Virginia rail. He drops into even thicker marsh grasses just a few feet away and scolds me. At least I got to see one.

This is a good spot. A pair of wood ducks flew by when we arrived and now they fly by in the other direction. The lady flies in front and the colorful drake right behind. They have a funny petulant call when they fly. I get a little more drawing done and now a scuffle in the three foot sedges distracts me. The marsh wrens have returned. One chases a second . Is it a male after an intruder or is this courtship? One disappears and the other bursts into his scratchy warbles and gurgles. Singing marsh wrens always remind me of the song of an old treadle sewing machine. The wren keeps me company while I sketch and wait for Dale to return.

No great blue herons today, but the other birds have been good to us.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

March 6, 2010 Watching a Great Blue Heron

Lagoon Campground: Nearly a century ago road building cut off nearly a half mile long oxbow of the Siltcoos River. In the middle of the loop lies Lagoon camp- ground. One of our favorite nature trails follows the oxbow around the campground. Some stretches of the oxbow have filled with cattails, parrotweed, sedges and other aquatic vegetation. Other stretches still have pools of dark, clear water.

A great blue heron hunts on the edge of one of the open pools. Slowly, ever so slowly, he stalks in the mucky soup on the far side of the lagoon. His belly is barely above the water surface. He pauses, frozen for about three minutes. All I see in the tall grass is his head and neck. Sunlight glistens in his yellow eye. His bill shows a lot of yellow and red and there is bluished skin between his eye and bill. I’ve never seen so much color on a great blue heron’s head … but I probably never had such a good look during breeding season. The colors are striking. The feathers coming off the back of his head are long and dark.

Darn. I can't see his first catch. Dale stands farther down the trail and tell me it looks like he caught a four inch bass.

Oh good. The heron is coming into full view. He moves and waits, moves and waits. His long neck is stretching out and off to one side. Very intent. Relaxes just a tad. Now stretching his long neck straight ahead. Bam! The prey is tiny. I see a tid bit caught in the tip of his bill. With a quick flip he tosses the morsel in the air and swallows it.

In a moment he is hunting again. He slowly walks to a new spot, then freezes. The chilly breeze blows the long grey plumes on his chest and back; and blows the long dark strands on his head. I thought when he focused he always stayed as still as possible, but we are so close I see that sometimes he sways his head and neck ever so subtly. It is almost mesmerizing. Is that what he is trying to do?

Out eases his long neck again. A pause. A quick jab. His successes are frequent, but most of the prey is very small. Fish I assume. We've seen great blue herons catch lots of salamanders in the other big lagoon, but today's dinner appears to be fish.

Note: When we looked at our photos on the computer we found that most of his prey was aquatic nymphs …. Maybe some large dragonfly nymphs and one that might be a Dobson fly nymph. The fish appears to be a stickleback.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Hazy Moon

Somewhere in the darkness lies a frog pond. In it a full choir of frogs sing. Their racket fills the damp night air and makes my heart sing too. A soft haze softens the moon’s edges and gives it an ethereal glow.

I’m walking down a country lane in the darkness. We just dropped off our friend, Eleanor, and now I have a few minutes to enjoy this moonlit night and the frogs (Pacific tree frogs) before Dale picks me up and we head home for supper.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Downy Woodpeckers -- Dunning Ranch

Feb 27, 2010: Today we’re hiking on a different lane on the Dunning Ranch, the Blacktail Basin Road. Blue sky. Cottonball clouds. Shirtsleeve temperatures. Even a few butterflies. At this time of year I crave the sunshine. If only the ground was dry. I’d spread eagle on the warm ground and soak up even more sunshine.

Lots of Lewis Woodpeckers are still wintering here. One darts out from a high perch and loops back, apparently catching bugs on the wing. A Coopers hawk soars ahead of us. When we approach that area, he flushes out of a tangle of bushes, carrying prey in his talons.

Nature frequently hands us little surprises. Last December we had the good fortune to watch a foraging downy woodpecker from just a few feet away. It was a damp, grey winter day and the little woodpecker was much more interested in tearing apart a dead twig on a dying bush than he was in us. I suspect he was finding a wealth of small grubs or insect eggs inside the old stem.

After we got home I read up on the natural history of downy woodpeckers. The first facts didn’t come as a surprise: they are the smallest and most widespread woodpecker in North America. But I also found they had succeeded in keeping a funny little secret from me: downys are an excellent example of differential niche use by the sexes of a species. Or, in simpler terms, the male dines separately from the female. Male downy woodpeckers usually forage in the small upper twigs of trees, or in bushy areas down below. The female forages on the thicker stems and trucks of trees. I had never noticed this difference, but I resolved to watch more carefully in the future. Only the male sports a bright red patch of feathers on the back of his head, so the sexes are easy to tell apart.

Here, at the Dunning Ranch, is another downy, also a male. The little woodpecker is busy foraging first in the top one oak and then another and another. When he tires of the little oak grove, he flies off and disappears into a blackberry thicket – just as if he has read the same book I did.