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