Sunday, August 29, 2010

Sorry, More Bugs

Sorry, more bugs. I told myself not everyone is as fascinated with bugs as I am, but then I found a really interesting one, one that nightmares are made of.

Dale (my husband, and Eleanor (our friend) were on our way to photograph dragonflies at one of our favorite spots, Lake in the Woods. It occurs to me a lot of our good sightings this summer are by-products of our search for dragonflies: The otter eating newts, the butterfly that lays down a chasiity belt, the hummingbird stealing sap from a sapsucker, etc. We learned a long time ago to grab serendipitous events. It’s good to have a goal in mind, but there should be a lot of flex built in. In this instance we had already entered the Umpqua Nation Forest and were bumping along on the last stretch – seven miles of gravel road. About a mile from our goal a very narrow gravel road branches off at an odd angle, leaving a sunny triangle of grasses and weeds in the middle of the forest. We spotted a dragonfly in the opening and all piled out.

Varigated Meadowhawk

Autumn Meadowhawk

The sunny opening is buzzing with insects. I quickly verify three species of dragonflies: a common green darner zooms overhead while a variegated meadowhawk and an autumn meadowhawk perch on the tips of tall grasses. Dale finds a spider to photograph. The spider has wrapped up an ant and is sucking its juices. Suddenly a pine white butterfly gets tangled in the web too. A robber fly grabs a honey bee and lands on Eleanor’s shirt. She patiently stands still while we photograph. At least four species of butterflies are busy in this tiny opening. So much going on.

And then a great big lump flies past me and lands on the tip of a large grass. It must be a fly. Flies have only one set of wings, whereas most flying insects have two pairs. Their second set of wings is reduced to funny stubs called halters. But I’ve never seen a fly like this. It reminds me of a miniaturized dirigible. Blunt head. Blunt rear end. Huge eyes. It’s about ¾ inch long and looks heavier than any fly I’ve ever seen. It lands for about a minute, then zooms off for two or three minutes. My triangle of grass is small enough I can spot it wherever it come back to rest.

When we get home I dive into Kaufman’s, “Field Guide to Insects of North America.” It’s a bot fly! There are 41 species of bot flies in the United States. Only two are shown in Kaufman, but mine is similar to one whose larva are parasites of small mammals. Bot flies can’t bite. They can’t even eat, but their life history is a little unnerving. The female lays about 2000 eggs. She picks spots where they should come in contact with the host species –in a rabbit nest, a mouse tunnel, grasses where rodents forage. The egg is heat sensitive and hatches when a host is near. The tiny larva usually enter through the mouth or nose, but an open wound will do. It soon travels to a subcutaneous location and spends the next month or so living off the host before emerging. After emerging it drops to the ground to pupate.

My friend, Donna, somehow got a bot fly larva into her body when she was traveling in a foreign country. Of course she didn’t know it at the time, but pretty soon she realized she had a funny little lump on her hand. The lump got bigger and bigger. One night it was time for the larva to emerge. Out he poked. I’m pretty gutsy, but I know I would have been a little unnerved by seeing that bot fly larva crawl out. For my fly to be so big, the larva has got to be big too.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

I'm Vindicated

Follow-up to my last post, “It’s a Bug Eat Bug World”
Umpqua National Forest, Oregon: Aug 21, 2010

Sedge sprites in a copulation wheel. The male holds onto the back of the female’s head while she retrieves sperm from where he has deposited it in his thorax.

I’ve been feeling a little chagrined that I must have had sedge sprites within inches of my feet many times during the past five years, and yet I never saw one. Today we are back at the pond where we found them two days ago. I just found some right where Dale often sat on his stool in years past. In fact he spent an hour or two within a few feet of them today. He had opportunity too!

Sedge sprites were first found in Oregon in 2001. They are so tiny I almost have to imagine they exist. Now that we’ve found them, I know why they escaped our attention. They are only an inch long and their abdomen is about as big around as my darning needle. When they take off and fly, it is almost like popping a bubble – they disappear. Most damselflies are a little bigger and easiest to spot in flight. Their bright colors give them away.

Sedge sprite colors are exquisite, but get lost in the sedges. They have oversized turquoise eyes, metallic emerald on top of their thorax, a dark abdomen and more turquoise on the sides of their thorax and the tip of their abdomen. The females we are seeing look very much like the males.

Odonata (dragonflies and damselflies)sex is a little odd. First the male deposits his sperm into a pocket on the underside of his thorax. Then he searches out a female and grabs her behind her head. The anatomy of different species varies enough so that the male’s appendages on the end of his abdomen only fit behind the head of the female of his species. Often the pair fly about ‘in tandem,’ i.e. basically in a straight line with the male hanging onto the female. Eventually the female brings the tip of her abdomen around and gathers the sperm out of his pocket on the underside of his thorax. Many species are perched when they go into this copulation wheel, but others do it in the air. They can navigate reasonably well even when in a copulation wheel. After transferring sperms some species break apart and the female goes off to lay her eggs. The sedge sprites we watched were perched during their copulation wheel and stayed in tandem during egg laying. While she busily deposited eggs either into or onto some barely submerged sedge, he maintained his hold on the back of her head.

Still attached the male hold this funny stiff position while the female lays her eggs on some soggy sedges floating just beneath the surface of the water.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

It's a Bug Eat Bug World

Umpqua National Forest, Oregon: Aug 19, 2010

Hot sun on my back. Tepid muck oozing into my shoes. I’m frozen in one spot watching a soggy pool of water about the size of my bathtub, but much shallower. Last week this pond was a big as my house and earlier this spring the wet meadow held a pool of water as big as the block I live on.

Drying out is expected and many creatures are adapted to the ephemeral nature of the pool. Hundreds of western toads have recently become land based. Several large ‘beds’ in the lush, grassy area show me where a large animal rested, probably elk. The areas that have dried out recently are still alive with dragonflies and damselflies. I came out here looking for some elusive damselfly species. We’ve been seriously hunting odonates (dragonflies and damselflies) for six years. Several that have been reported for Douglas County still elude us. There is a chance of finding one or two of them out here.

I thought all the water had dried in this meadow, a little opening in the lodgepole forest high in the Cascade Mountains; but after wandering about I’ve been sidetracked by this little pool of water. It holds life concentrated. A bright red ‘white-faced meadowhawk’ floats dead on this dab of water. Already a water strider straddles the little dragonfly. The water strider has inserted its proboscis into the thorax of the dragonfly. First he pumps his own special formula of juices in, which dissolves the dragonfly’s innards. The water strider can then suck up dinner, leaving just a shell of the dragonfly.

I’m a little surprised the water strider has this choice meal to himself, but not for long. Soon another strider comes over and sinks his proboscis in too. Not to be outdone, two backswimmers swims up from underneath and start chewing from underneath. Meanwhile I’ve been standing still and the little pool I’ve disturbed in coming back to life. Two emerald spreadwings (damselflies) move from one sedge perch to another, often so close I can’t focus my camera. Several other water striders are in the area and the shallow water fairly wiggles with backswimmers. One has nearly finished eating a damselfly and another is chewing on a salamander hatchling. First I thought the backswimmer was chewing on a tadpole, but little gills and a small head made me realize it was a salamander.

Even baby western toads, about one half inch long, are showing themselves and crawling up to where they can hope to catch little flies and mosquitoes. This whole area is rather trampled, probably by the elk coming for a drink, and provides lots places for the toads to crawl out.

Another and another water strider finds available space on the dragonfly, until there are five busy eating, plus the back swimmers underneath.

Nearer to me a water beetle crawls out onto the broken over sedges. I wonder what he eats. I think he is a predator too.

In the muck right by my foot I see movement and find a dragonfly nymph. I pick it up briefly and then let it disappear into the muck again. I’m thrilled to have seen it. It is only the second time I’ve seen a dragonfly nymph before it crawls out to emerge into a dragonfly.

I’ve been away from Dale and our friend, Eleanor, for an hour and a half. Time to wander back to where they can at least see me. A few minutes later I’m in the next forest opening and walking along the edge of a permanent pond. I’ve been told sedge sprites have been found somewhere around here, and read that in order to find them , I must look carefully into the sedges where they like to hide.

Sure enough! I see a sedge sprite. It is the tinest damselfly I have ever seen. No wonder I’ve had a hard time finding them. I holler to Dale and Eleanor …. “Wham!” Drat! (Maybe I thought something stronger than that!) I had just time enough to take one fuzzy photo and a great big darner came crashing into the sedges and grabbed my sprite! End of sprite.

But, not to worry. Now that I’ve discovered how hard sprites are to find, I’m finding more and holler to Dale and Eleanor again. Soon all three of us are owwwing and ahhhhhing over the little jewels. I’ve walked past this patch of sedges at least a dozen times during the past few years. How could I have missed them all this time?

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Newts for Dinner?

This is a follow-up to my last post, “Cattails.”

First I need to tell you a little about a certain salamander, the rough-skinned newt, since they feature prominently in this post. Rough-skinned newts can be about eight inches long; they have a rich, reddish brown back and orange undersides – very distinctive. They are at home both on land and in the water.

There are a variety of newts in the world, and a handful in North America. I don’t know if other newts are poisonous, but the rough-skinned newt certainly is. According to Wikipedia the skin of one rough-skinned newt contains enough toxin in its skin to kill 30 adult humans! … that is if you carefully divided the toxin into 30 equal portions. I can’t vouch that they are really that poisonous, but I have heard a reliable account of a researcher who just touched the tip of his tongue to a newt and was temporarily so paralyzed that he probably would have drowned if he had been by himself. It gives me the willies to think how often I’ve seen children playing with newts. They are so easy to catch.

Both Wikipedia and our reptile book says only one animal, the common garter snake, can successfully eat a rough-skinned newt. The garter snake may be temporarily paralyzed but is able to take advantage of this rather abundant food source.

So now you know a little about rough-skinned newts. Those who have been reading my blog for very long quickly learn we like to watch, to observe, to learn something new. Every so often we have the added pleasure of seeing something really unusual … or, perhaps, never before seen. Our world’s fund of knowledge about natural history is still in its early stages. We know a lot, but there is a lot more to learn.

About ten years ago we spent nine days photographing a great blue heron catching lots of salamanders. Since then we’ve taken a particular interest in newts and salamanders as food. Each day the great blue flew in and fed on salamanders. We knew rough-skinned newts were common in the lagoon and hoped to see the heron grab one. He never did. He must have read the right books. He mostly caught small salamanders, probably northwestern salamanders. Occasionally he caught a much larger salamander – probably a Pacific giant. The big salamander made quite a lump going down. Each time the crane swallowed a Pacific giant, he drank a little water and then ruffled every feather in his body, as if to say, “YUCK” …. “Double YUCK!”

Otter eating a salamander, probably a northwestern salamander.

Our next intriguing salamander sighting was Oct 27, 2007, at Lake in the Woods (see my last post “Cattails.” A family of otter came out into the small lake and caught a lot of prey. Often the otter were too far away to see if they were catching fish or salamanders; but at least some of the time, they were catching salamanders. Some of these salamanders seemed to have the tell-tale orange color characteristic of rough-skinned newts. But we didn’t feel we could tell for sure. We returned the next day and so did the otter, but still our photos weren’t good enough. On our third try the otter didn’t return.

So we’ve been keeping a sharp eye open, hoping to verify otter eat rough-skinned newts. Earlier this month we had another opportunity, once again at Lake in the Woods. We were quietly eating lunch when a lone, rather large, otter swam into the pond. Dale immediately set up our big 500mm lens and waited. This time we felt the photos were good enough to send off to our reptile expert, Alan St. John. He immediately forwarded the images to Professor Edmund Broadie who has studied the rough-skinned newt’s toxins. Both were very interested in our sighting.

First they made sure we think the otter were actually eating the newts, and not just mouthing them. We think they were, but can’t be totally positive. We got to watch a lot of catches and are familiar with how an otter chews its prey. It definitely looked like feeding. Prof. Boadie also told us our sighting is possible. At this elevation, i.e. 3000 feet, the newts are known to have less toxin than at lower elevations. Professor Broadie is hoping to come to Oregon next spring and measure the level of toxins in these newts. … that is how interested he is in our sighting!

The day I painted the cattails, we had returned to Lake in the Woods hoping to see the otter again, but no such luck. We’ll be keeping our eyes open when we are there, hoping for some even better photographs. Meanwhile, it delights me that we have seen something truly unusual.

Friday, August 13, 2010


Lake in the Woods is a two acre pond, actually a reservoir, surrounded by tall, deep forest. It is one of our favorite places to photograph dragonflies. It is always a treat when we see otter on the pond, and sometimes an osprey comes to fish.

Dale and I arrive at Lake in the Woods about noon. The air barely moves. Each dragonfly flying low over the water has a twin on the surface of the pond. They zip and zoom in the bright sunshine. After eating cold chicken, veggies and crackers, I set up a spotting scope near shore and sit down to wait. I’m hoping an otter will come (more about that in the next post). It is still cool in the shade but a little warm in the sun. Dale has gone over to the dike on the far side to watch and wait.

There is a charm sitting here by myself. The temperature in the shade is perfect. Occasionally I hear a song sparrow in the cattails. I’m waiting for paint to dry on a field sketch of cattails. The trees across the pond are mostly in shadow. The cattails near me are backlit by the afternoon sun. Last year’s heads are fluffing out. Wisps of cattail fuzz drift with the wind. Every spider web is decorated with cattail fluff and I soon will be too.

This year’s cattail heads are just finishing pollination. For a brief period in early summer cattails have two heads, stacked one on top of the other. The lower is the traditional dark brown head. They are trim and firm at this time of year and just turning from a fresh bright green to roasted brown. The head on top is usually just as long or longer. A quick flick of my finger and this head explodes into a cloud of yellow pollen. Eventually all the pollen will have flown in the breeze, leaving a bare stalk above the cattail head.

This cattail patch has been good to me. One of my favorite otter encounters happened here three years ago, on October 28, 2007. I was waiting for otter then too. Earlier in the day we watched an adult and two half grown pups fishing in the pond. We soon realized they were eating salamanders and wondered what kind. I tucked myself in the cattails to observe. Here are my notes from that day:

Usually all three dive together, giving me the opportunity to move through the cattails and get closer to the edge of the pond. I get a sense of their underwater direction from the stream of bubbles. First up almost always has prey, then #2 and #3 pop up. It doesn’t’ take long to eat a small salamander. I think there are at least two species of salamanders, one olive-green-brown and the other shows some bright orange. It is the orange that piques our attention. Could it be a rough-skinned newt?

Sometimes I feel so fortunate, and sometime I’m not quite so fortunate. Picnickers! A noisy group comes down to the site to my right, just when the otter were beginning to get close. The otter disappear into the cattails – the ones I’m hiding in. About five minutes pass and I see cattails waving a few feet to my left. Quiet for a couple more minutes … and whoosh! A little snort and the commotion of a herd of three tiny elephants scampering away as fast as they can go. They were only about four feet from me when they were horrified to find me.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Unspotted Spotted Sandpipers

Diamond Lake, Douglas County, Oregon: July 29, 2010

I’ve walked down to the shore of Diamond Lake, high in the Cascades, to see if there is any sign of a major dragonfly emergence. There is. The rocks and grasses along the water e edge are sprinkled with empty nymph casing. Hundreds, if not thousands, of damsel flies have recently emerged. In the beginning their colors are drab greenish. Soon they are tiny turquoise and black jewels. Already, as I walk along the path, I feel as though I’m kicking up turquoise fairy dust.

A spotted sandpiper feeds along the shore edge, taking advantage of the bounty of tender damsels. I sit down next to the rip rap which borders the lake’s outlet and steady my camera on my knee. The sandpiper is across the outlet and apparently undisturbed by my presence. It is a beautiful mature bird, with black spots all over his breast. He (or she?) eats. He snoozes. He wanders farther away.

Just when I’m ready to leave I hear soft “peeps” coming from the other end of the twenty feet of rip rap I’m sitting on. I get a glimpse of fuzzy. Yes! It is teen aged spotted sandpipers. Two of them don’t know quite what to do about my presence, but they are getting used to me. First I catch just glimpses as they hurry back and forth between one rock and another. They relax and start to peer at me. Funny little birds. Their new feathers are coming in and the down from their first coat hasn’t worn off. It is Phyllis Diller hair on top of a nicely feather body and someone forgot to put their spots on. Instead of a well spotted breast, the youngster’s breast feathers are a plain, soft grey. During the winter the adults loose their spots too.

Their tails are the scraggliest part. Long plumes blow with every movement as if they are trying to make more of their tails than is really there. The effect is exaggerated because fluffy natal down is still attached to the little tail feathers that are growing in.

The little sandpipers feed a little and peer at me and call out every so often. Finally I hear an adult, calling from across the outlet, about fifty feet away. I think the little guys realize they are supposed to fly across all that water to their parent … but first they shorten the distance by coming closer to me. About ten feet from me, one, and then the other, flies to the opposite shore and are hurried off by their parent.

Aug 1, 2010: Diamond Lake

The sandpipers have changed a lot in just three days. They look much more grown up – most of the natal down has rubbed off and new feathers dominate. But their tails still look like scraggly feather dusters. The down still hasn’t worn off the tips of their tail feathers.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Lots and Lots of Seabirds

July 28, 2010: Yakina Head, Oregon Coast

Full of anticipation we wind our way north along the coast of Oregon on Highway 101. Sometimes we’re exposed to the vast grey expanse of Pacific Ocean. Long strings of combers stumble and crash along the shoreline. The horizon is lost in a foggy blur between sea and sky. A curve to the right and we are swallowed by thick, knarled stands of Sita Spruce. It is a dark, damp forest where elf stories might brew. A curve to the left and the ocean welcomes us again.

Will the murre colony we are heading for be buried in fog? Or laid out on a platter for us to watch? Thousand of common murres come to a handful of Oregon’s offshore islands just separated from the mainland at Yaquina Head. Most people go to Yaquina Head to climb the lighthouse, but we go to see the birds. We spent a magical morning at the murre colony ten years ago. Now, with Dale able to camp and walk the trails, it is time to return. We camped in an Oregon dunes campground last night, and are now finishing the trip to the colony.

We’ve arrived! Yaquina Head is a raucous place. Cool. Windy. Spits of drizzle. Downright chilly. I remind myself that Roseburg is supposed to be 92 degrees today. Be thankful for the need for a long sleeve shirt, plus polar fleece jacket, plus a lined windbreaker. I’ve even been sketching with my work gloves on since I forgot my lighter weight ones.

I love this spot. We’re on an exposed location with tall grasses, yellow mustard and Queen Anne’s lace blowing in the wind. A few pelicans fly by, skimming low over the water. The surf and the constant yammer of thousands of murres fight for my attention. The island before me is relative flat on top and well dotted with penguin like murres and a few Brandt’s cormorants. Smaller pelagic cormorants nest on the steep slopes of the islands, and occasionally a pigeon guillemot flashes its red feet as it disappears into a rocky crevice where they hide their nests.

I spent hours sketching, first one bird and then another. By the end of the day I felt blown to bits and deliciously happy. Here is a selection of my field sketches…….

The painted sketch at the beginning of the post is one of the smaller islands. The big island has thousands of Common murres, but was too exposed to the wind for good sketching. The murres just plop one big egg on the rocks and take turns brooding.

The murres are actually packed much tighter than my sketch, but I wanted to show birds and not just a mass. One parent or the other stays with the chick unless food is scarce. The little chicks can soon sit tall like their parents. We had to look hard to even see a chick amongst them. Look carefully on the right side of the sketch.

Parents bring one small fish at a time. The little fishes are aligned parallel with the parent’s bill – not easy for a neighbor to steal. When the chicks are about half grown, they glide down to the water and finish maturing in the company of their father. Some had already glided down to the water where hundreds more bobbed.

Scattered amongst the murres are a few Brandt’s cormorants. They are much larger and all black except some still showed blue on their throat, left over from breeding season. The habits of the two birds are very different. Brandt’s cormorants build a big, sloppy nest glued together with copious amounts of guano. I saw up to four chicks per nest. When small, the chicks are brooded, but by the time we were there, they were often left alone while the parents foraged for food.

Cormorant feeding habits are very different. The parents arrives with a belly full of partially digested fish. Chicks eagerly peck at the corner of the parent’s mouth until the parent is ready to regurgitate – then a chick put half its head into the parent’s throat while the adult regurgitates. Yummy! Cormorant chicks will stay at or near the nest until ready to fly.

Pelagic cormorants are quite a bit smaller than Brandt’s cormorants. They find the tinest ledges on the steep side walls of the islands and build themselves are little platform. Seaweed and guano and glued into a fairly firm ledge. One platform was too small. I saw a half grown nestling tumbled down the steep slope and disappear into the rocks beneath. I suspect he was pushed out by his siblings.

The last bird in my cast of characters is the little pigeon guillemot, the smallest of them all. He mostly black and sports the bright red feet, which he flares when coming in for a landing. Guillemots aren’t much to brag about on land, but on and in the water they are masters. They choose to nest in vertical rock crevices. Round and round they fly, and then, zip!, they disappear into the rocks.