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?

Saturday, September 25, 2010

September Moon

No, I haven’t lost my interest in blogging, but I will admit life has been all too busy lately to find time for it. We had our shed and deck painted a couple of weeks ago. I feel as though we’ve been in catch-up mode ever since the painter arrived earlier than we expected. And then the fall rains started a month early and there was yard work to hurry up and do.

The sun has returned. Yesterday we drove to the Oregon Coast. Coming back the moon rose when we were driving through the Oregon Coastal Range. Big beautiful orange moon. Technically I think it was one day past the full moon, but I couldn’t see any slimming yet. Fall moons are my favorites. Usually we have a little smoke in the air to add color, and I find it extra beautiful when there is still a touch of light in the sky when the moon rises. Later it will rise in full darkness. I scribbled a rough moon in my journal and wrote down color notes so that I could paint this last night and today.

And just a quick comment about the smoke, since the rains have soaked us thoroughly and yet we still have smoke. We get lots of somewhat smoky days. Too many for my taste. Often wildfire season starts in Aug. We were fortunate this year in that those that started near here were put out quickly. Then as soon as the fire hazard drops a little, field burning starts. They regulate it pretty carefully so field burning is usually kept under control, but the air can get pretty awful. Once the rainy season really starts we still aren’t out of smoke. A lot of brush clearing results in brush piles. Brush piles are left after logging and, in the past few years, a lot of undergrowth is being cleared to keep the fire hazard down – more brush piles. They put a sheet of plastic on top to each brush pile to keep a portion dry. Once the forest is really wet, they start burning brush piles. And by then quite a few people in town are heating their houses with wood and that adds more smoke. It is by far the smokiest place we have ever lived.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Learning Patience from a Toad

Young toads don’t look quite right. Their heads are to big for their body and the legs haven’t developed much muscle mass. This one is prettier than the one catching flies in this blog, but it is still a western toad. Most of the little toads were dark. Just a few were lighter with these wonderful red lumps.

Sept 5, 2010: Umpqua National Forest
I’ve wandered about for over an hour looking for sprites and such, while Dale, my man of patience, has stayed put in one spot. Maybe that stool he brought down from the car helped glue him to his little world of sedges, pond weeds, and muddy shoreline. He took a good hike earlier and deserves a rest. He can’t find a sedge sprite either, but he has found a tiny toad doing its darndest to become one of the few that succeed in becoming a bigger toad. Each spring thousands and thousands of western toad eggs are laid in these shallow waters. Just one female can deposit up to 12,000 eggs! A couple of summers ago we found a high Cascades lake with thousands of tadpoles clustered in the shallow water. I’m sure I could have scooped up a washtub full of the little dark wiggles with just a sieve. Patches of shallow water along the shoreline were black with them.

At this pond, toads were coming ashore on August first. They still had a chunk of tadpole tail attached but were able to walk and hop about. I avoided the last three feet of ground along the shore because my feet meant certain death for half a dozen toads; and, in some areas, I literally could have clobbered 25 with one step. By August eleventh the toads were spreading out all over the shoreline and the dry meadow nearby. Many were hundreds of yards from the lake. The ground cover is sparse and I could avoid stepping on them. Today their numbers are drastically reduced. I don’t know if thousands have been eaten, starved, wandered off, or are hiding. I do know that it has been literally years since I saw an adult toad, but that is largely because of their nocturnal habits. Adult toads are over four inches long but illusive. To see one again, I think I’ll have to go on a nocturnal toad hunt.

Back to Dale and his toad. I tear myself away from the chickaree I’ve been watching and start learning patience from Dale and his toad. This little guy (the toad, not Dale) is a tad over half an inch long, but his heart is fearless. He has decided humans can be ignored and that catching flies is more important. I wish I knew what kind of flies, but there are over 16,000 species of flies in North America. It takes experts to sort them out. These are funny little tender looking flies with beautiful bright eyes and long, skinny legs. Some have iridescent backs and other have stripes of brown. Some dance on the mud along the shore line. I can’t see wings or legs move, but the fly magically goes forward and backward, to their left side and to their right side. Dale is convinced one is taunting the toad, but maybe the real intention is to attract a lady fly.

The fly faces the toad and does his little dance. Toad tries to inch forward … fly leaves. Another fly (or is it the same one?) lands next to the toad, a little too far to the toad’s right. Toad freezes. Every so patient. He just waits. If he moves the fly will leave; but if he stays put, the fly just might come around to his front. It takes, minutes, but patience is rewarded. The toad gets his fly and we get to see the lunge. I always thought the fly was caught with just the toad’s tongue, but I think this little guy’s tongue is too short. The lunge seems every bit as important. We stay and watch him slowly catch a bellyful of various flies before he disappears into the nearby grasses.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Fall Harvesting -- Chickarees

High Cascades, Umpqua National Forest: Sept 5, 2010

I grew up thinking summers were green and winters white. Where I live now the grasses turned gold two months ago and will return to green in another two months. The valley floor seldom sees snow – just green grass all winter. At least it grows slowly in the cooler season. Even many of the winter trees and bushes are green: green pines and firs, green madrones, green ivy and holly, and green lichens on the browned oaks. The in-between seasons are the prettiest. Daffodils start to bloom in February, followed by a profusion of yellow mustard, white and yellow daisies and magenta sweet peas gone wild.

Now, at the end of summer, deep rooted creamy white Queen Anne’s lace and bright blue chicory continue to thrive. Poison oak has scattered leaves turning crimson and the oaks are slowing drying into browns. At a little higher elevation there will soon be splashes of yellow on the oversized big-leafed maples and sparkles of fire engine red on the vine maples. … but mostly more green, the pines, firs, and spruces.

Driving up river we see a sure sign of fall. The turkey vultures are kettling. First I see about 75 vultures soaring on the north side of the highway, then I realize there are at least that many or more on the south side of the highway. Up, up and soon away. It is like the whole cast of a theater troop coming out for a final bow before the curtain comes down.

We’ve come upriver hoping to find dragonflies. Still in the 50s when we arrive at Diamond Lake. A few damselflies are low to the ground, but no flying dragonflies. Once dragonflies start flying I can usually find where a few have perched, but I never seem to be able to find where they spend the night. They must work their way into the vegetation and out of harm’s way. I’m sure a few still survive.

We arrive at a nearby pond, in time to eat lunch. The pond is small and sheltered from today’s breeze. The sunny edge between water and forest is pleasantly warm. Darners fly along the shoreline. Crimson-ringed whitefaces and a few meadowhawks (all dragonflies) perch on downed logs, in the short grasses and on the ground. I walk the pond edge slowly and find a few damselflies but no sedge sprites. We were hoping the the little sedge sprites would still be flying, but it appears we are too late. We last saw them on Aug 21, just two days ahead of their official ‘last day of their flight season.’ There were so many on the 21st we knew we could get an official later date, but we waited too long. Hot summer days suddenly vanished, and along with many dragonflies and damselflies.

Nearby I hear twigs breaking. First I look to see if is someone or something is breaking their way through the nearby woods. I’ve seen elk tracks nearby and we should always keep half an eye open for black bear; but, no, the sound comes from above. Ah ha! Way high in a lodgepole I see a branch shaking. It is a chickaree harvesting cones for winter. Chickarees are kissing cousins to red squirrels. They look the same except they have a creamy, almost peachy belly, and a little dark line between belly and back. They are just as saucy and just as busy as the red squirrels I grew up with in Wisconsin.

This little chickaree is an efficient harvester. He climbs virtually to the end of a swaying branch and reaches out to nip off one tight, green cone after another. Same fall with just a little ‘thunk’ on the ground, but others crash their way down, breaking little twigs along the way.

Last time we parked here we happened to park between the chickaree’s current caching spot and the cones he had already dropped. He was busy running cones, one at a time, into a thick stand of young lodgepoles. The cones are still green and oozing pitch; and his face all sticky with sap. It’s a small price to pay for a good harvest.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Bedtime for Vaux's Swifts

A little over a mile from my house stands an unusually tall chimney. It is about fifty feet tall and maybe three feet across at the top. It’s left over from the heating plant once used to heat an old veteran’s hospital. For awhile the chimney was considered an eye sore and should be removed. Meanwhile Vaux’s swifts adopted it as a wonderful place to gather before migrating south. The official high count for birds using the chimney is 4600.

So many birds used the chimney year after year that their poop eventually plugged the hole at the bottom that allowed air to circulate. By the time the problem was identified, the swifts had quit coming. Fortunately by then there was enough community interest to save the chimney and correct the air flow problem. It took a few years for the swifts to return, but this fall I was delighted to see the swifts back in full force. The numbers swell for about a month before they head south.

7:30 PM: We arrive at Stewart Park, Roseburg, Oregon

The sun has slipped behind the distant ridges. A moment ago there were wisps of clouds above me, blushing orange. They’ve dissipated leaving a clear sky for the hundreds of Vaux’s swifts that are gathering over town. During the day they spread for miles throughout the valley. Now I see at least 500, so thick I half expect a collision. They circle tighter and tighter around the chimney, then spread out over the soccer field, the river, the veteran’s cemetery – hundreds of zooming dots in the sky.

Some return and take a slow dive over the tall chimney. The chimney stands stark, silhouetted against the evening sky. The swifts zip like mini jets, but with a combination of quivering wing beats and smooth glides. How many? 500? 1000?
They are tempted to enter the chimney but still not ready. I listen, but don’t hear anything unless one comes unusually close … then just a high sweet chitter. There are so many birds I half expect it to be deafening.

7:45 PM: The swifts have spread out again. A larger bird, I think a dove, flew past, scattering the swifts from their circling path. Soon they are back to circling. I think at least 1000. Perhaps many more. Specks I can hardly see still fly over the river and hundreds above me.

7:48 PM: Test runs are starting again. Some of the swifts break their speed and flutter down towards the mouth of the chimney, but instead of entering, they fall down the outside, catch the air and swirl up into the masses again.

7:50PM: Coming in closer. I hear chittering more often. The evening star now shines bright in the graying sky. Still a warm glow on the horizon and I can easily see to write. More and more flutter near the chimney mouth, yet change their mind at the last minute.

7:55 PM: Suddenly the swifts start to tumble in. It is as if the air sucks them right down; the chimney is a huge vacuum cleaner. I think half that try succeed in entering. The rest rejoin the swirling mass and eventually join the tumble for another try. The flow in is constant. Far too many and far too fast for me to count.

Now that there are lots fewer I estimate I still have 500 in front of me and that we started with at least 2500, maybe twice that many.

8:03 PM: A couple of hundred still circle and slowly pile in. A bunch have just come out … and in. Have they run out of space inside the chimney? About 50 were still trying, but they left … back again … slowly the laggards ease in. There must be a lot of jostling inside that tall stack.

8:05 PM: Two on the wing.

8:07 PM: Last one in.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Soaring with Turkey Vultures

Douglas county, Oregon: Sept. 2, 2010

Do you ever want to soar like a bird; to float in the air, tip and turn with hardly a thought; to just spread your wings and let the earth slowly slip by? Watching turkey vultures is next best. They are the masters.

It is a still summer morning, the beginning of what will be a toaster. I’m walking for exercise on a ridgeline above the valley floor where I live. In the valley to the north cars are specks and people disappear into the asphalt; the valley to the south stretches full of orchards, hayfields, and the meandering Umpqua River. I live near the edge of town, between asphalt and farms. The slopes of this ridge are steep and heavily wooded with oaks, madrones, and a few Douglas firs -- a nice surround for my town.

Turkey vultures are slow starters in the morning, usually waiting for the heat thermals to do their work. One vulture has started his morning venture. He soars at my eye level. He cuts slow circles in the quiet air with just a little tip here and a little tip there. He comes close enough for me to see it is an adult. Adults have naked cherry-bomb heads. Young birds have dark grey heads. The turkey vulture soars over the sunny parts of the ridge, where warm air already rises. The heat has barely started, yet he soars for minutes without a flap.
Oh to soar like a vulture!

Adult and immature turkey vultures.

Sept. 4, 2010: I was already writing about turkey vultures when I learned from Elizabeth Smith (http://natureartjournal.blogspot.com ) that today is International Vulture Appreciation Day. I never heard of such a thing! Does every day have a critter associated with it, or is this like the woodchuck that comes out every Feburary and looks at his shadow? I think this is something special.

Another thing Elizabeth commented on surprised me. She was writing about black vultures, a more southern species than our turkey vultures …. And they were dumpster diving. Our vultures are much too fastidious for that! I’ve never seen one near a dumpster or at the dump. I do see them taking advantage of road kills; and, after haying, a group gathers out in the hayfield and walks around looking for unfortunate victims.

One of their most unusual traits isn’t all that fastidious. Years ago I met “Jerry,” a turkey vulture at a raptor rehab center. I was unsettled to see that he had defecated all over his legs and that no one had cleaned him up. Then I learned it is standard procedure for turkey vultures to poop on their legs. The rehab center director told me the vulture’s juicy waste is so caustic it kills unwanted bacteria the vulture may have picked up while tearing apart old carcasses. Yum! But the more common explanation is “urohidrosis,” that the vultures do it to put moisture on their bare less and thus cool themselves through evaporation. I have no idea which is correct, but I lean towards the cooling powers since vultures do it sometime and not other times . Someone probably paid close attention as to exactly when.

Another turkey vulture oddity is that they can smell, in fact they can smell very well. Most birds can’t smell at all, but these vultures often use scent to find dinner. The books even say black vultures pay attention to turkey vultures so that they can cache in on what the turkey vultures find. Black vultures can’t smell nearly as well as turkey vultures.

Turkey vultures migrate south from here for the winter and return in early spring to nest on islolated ridges, on the ground and on rock ledges. At this time of years the youngster are flying. Once the thermals are rising it is hard to drive a mile or two without seeing a turkey vulture, or two vultures, or three. This morning I was watching 20 soaring together. They’ll be ‘ketteling-up ‘ soon. A big kettle around here is 75 to 100 birds. The birds in an area gather together in a ‘kettle,’ and head south. I’ll miss them.