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!”