Sunday, June 26, 2011

Serendipity: River Jewelwings

Douglas County, Oregon: June 20, 2011
We embraced serendipity many years ago. It can be a big mistake to leave the house with a goal in mind, and then zoom right past something way more intriguing. Of course I’m not talking about necessary goals: getting groceries, gas, or going to work. Unfortunately one has to stay on track for those. I’m referring to our time spent in nature.

We left the house unprepared to go much of anywhere. We had a docent meeting to attend at Wildlife Safari where we volunteer. Fortunately much of our volunteering there is taking photos so we had the cameras with us.

When the meeting was over it was too nice a day to go home. We picked up ‘Subways’ (big sandwiches) for lunch and even stopped at the grocery store for crackers, canned beans, sardines and fruit. In this country we never go far off paved roads without emergency supplies. I always have a basket ready at home … but that is where it still sat. By now we had decided to drive out on the Coos Bay Wagon Road where the wildflowers are just bursting with spring energy during this wetter than usual spring.

But first we stopped to eat our Subways along Lookingglass Creek. Dale knew I wanted a quick peek to see if the dragonflies were flying down there. We ate and then I grabbed a camera and went down to the creek bank.

Summer sun; long lush green grasses; ash and big leafed maple trees rustle above me; the creek gurgles where it reaches a shallow rapids -- so summery, a commodity that has been in short supply this cool, wet spring.

Yes, the river jewelwings are flying, along with a few other dragonflies and damselflies. River jewelwings have to be one of the prettiest damselflies. First of all, they are big enough to actually see, and their bodies are rich metallic blues and greens. Male jewelwings have clear wings with dark tips. Females have smoky dark wings with bright white pterostigmas and a burnished gold glow on their metallic green bodies. Simply beautiful.
Two males are playing war games, each battling for territorial rights. Dragonflies fly with zip and zoom, but damselflies are more delicate on the wing. These male jewelwings are striking in the summer sun. Most of the time their wings are splayed out, flashing their dark tips. Jewelwings fly relative slowly, tipping and turning. One male is constantly on the heels of the other. They remind me of two World War II biplanes showing off their flight skills. One has stopped long enough to land on a beautiful yellow iris glowing in the creek bank.

That last sight is too much. I hike back to the car and show Dale my photo taken with a short lens. He takes one look and grabs the big lens and tripod and comes down to join me at creek side. Dale is a patient man. He stands glued to a spot near the iris for nearly two hours. The jewelwings spend nearly all that time chasing each other, but occasionally one pauses for a rest. Even more occasionally one rests on the iris. Dale finally gets his pictures, then starts roaming the creek side.
I'm sitting on a little cut bank and drawing a jewelwing, and then another and another. I listen to the stream gurgling and watch it quietly continue on downriver. A chat scolds for quite while and then a yellow warbler sings. A dark shadow sweeps over me – a low soaring turkey vulture. They have good eating today. A nearby hayfield has just been mowed, yielding a large snake and probably several voles.

Some would say this is the second day of summer, that summer has finally arrived. I’m sweaty, sticky, salty … and savoring every minute spent alongside this creek.

It's nearly 6 PM when we finally pack up and head home. No Coos Bay Wagon Road for us today.
Note: Some dragonfly books don’t even mention that river jewelwings can be blue, just label them as green. The direction of the light seems to affect their iridescence. I’m adding this photo of a blue one.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

White on White

Yellowstone National Park: April 15, 2011
Photos by Dale Paulson

Early morning shadows are long. Frost crystals sparkle on hard crusted snow. Several woody arms rise out of the snow -- glimpses of fallen logs and tipped over root mats that have emerged from the snow as last winter’s snow pack has settled. The snow still lies deep in this meadow next to the north facing edge of a thick spruce grove.

A weasel! … or rather, an ermine! (Ermine is the correct name for a short-tailed weasel in its white winter coat). An ermine zips across the snow and pauses next to one of the overturned logs. Oh my gosh! Dark eyes, black tail tip and white, white body. He is exquisite! In a flash he disappears, then pops up for another look-about.

Zip! Off he floats across the hard crust to the next log. No tracks. He looks about, then disappears beneath the log. He must be hunting. Most of the snow is too hard for him to enter and check out, but the sun has melted snow away from close contact with the exposed log. Down this crack he goes, to hunt in the subnivean zone.

‘Subnivean.’ I had to look the spelling for that wonderful word. The subnivean zone is the area underneath the snow and just above the ground. During winter snow insulates, making the temperature at ground level much closer to just freezing than the below zero temperatures that are often found on top of the snow. A thin layer of snow melts away from the ground, providing a zone of activity for mice, voles, shrews and even red squirrels. Weasels also take advantage of the subnivean zone and use it for hunting their prey.

The ermine is up again; standing, looking about, then off to the next log. He checks out half a dozen logs before disappearing over a weasel-sized rise. It is just enough of a rise for me to see there are at least two more logs back there, but no chance of our seeing him inspect them.

The light was beautiful. The ermine stood still. I can hardly believe our good fortune.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

We've Arrived

Yellowstone National Park: April 14, 2011

We’ve arrived! We were still getting settled in this morning. I didn’t realize how nice it was to have it all figured out at the condo (where we used to stay). The cabin we’ve rented this year is smaller and has a very different layout. It’s a good thing we didn’t arrive with $300 worth of groceries. As it is, I put my canned food in a box under a chair. I feel as though I’m playing house in a doll house. But I do have a stove and a small refrigerator, a nice big sink, and some cabinet space. It actually has two queen sized beds, so we have a nice place to lay out our cameras and spotting scopes when we come back for the night. Most important, it is clean, snug, and a good collection of pots and pans. We do our own housekeeping and cooking.

A pet goose lives here. Part of getting settled in was an introduction to Lucy. She has lived here longer than the owners. When Eddie and Laura purchased the cabins they had to promise not to eat her! Lucy is a sweetheart. She lives in a little enclosure with a pond (frozen),a small hut, and a bit of lawn. When she sees lettuce in my hand she greets me with wild exuberance. She even has me down on my knees trying to pick what little grass grows along the sunny side of the cabins.

Lots of snow in the park. There are patches of exposed ground, but not much to eat on these barren spots. Many places are still too deep for anything to wade through. The bison and elk take advantage of windswept ridges to move from one place to another. Elk tend to be a little skittish, but bison are very comfortable using roads for traveling.

Mountain bluebirds are back .. and Canada geese .. and robins. Why do bluebirds and robins come back so early? It is gusty and blustery and spitting snow. Three robins perch high in a rocking aspen in front of me. They could seek shelter in the lee of the heavily wooded slopes, but no. Instead they seem to embrace the wintery weather.

So many places are going to be buried in snow for a long time: Hellroaring Trailhead, Blacktail Ponds Loop Road, Petrified Tree road. I wonder if we’ll even get to drive the Mammoth Hot Springs Loop before we leave.

End of day: We drove through the Narrows and as far as Fisherman’s Access. Most of the elk are near Mammoth, and not many there. Bison are scattered. This is the first year of a new policy allowing bison to leave the park as long as they don’t go beyond Yankee Jim Canyon. A cattle guard and a fence will help hold that line. It is an ongoing problem that Yellowstone National Park saved a wonderful chunk of high country, but wasn’t properly designed to provide winter range for the herds of elk and bison. The new policy helps, although I’m sure there are people who are not happy about bison in their yards. Many bison have left the park, seeking food. Most look O.K., but a few are really thin.

Didn’t see a ‘dog’ today ( wolf / coyote / fox ). A three dog day is an event worth commenting on. A zero dog day is almost as unusual. Very quiet Yellowstone day. Some would say we are here too early. For me, the wide expanses of wildness are a balm for my spirit. It takes patience for Yellowstone to reveal her secrets.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

To Yellowstone

I’m back. I’ve got a confession to make. I haven’t been home mowing the lawn like my like my last little sketch suggested. Instead we’ve been in Yellowstone National Park. During the ‘shoulder’ season it is possible to rent a little cabin at greatly reduced rates. When we first started doing this we felt as though we almost had the park to ourselves. As the years have gone by, more and more people are discovering early wildlife watching. Mostly it is hardy people who come. You have to be prepared for snow, closed roads, and bad weather days. Only one half of one campground is open when we arrive and most of the park roads are still closed.

One of the joys of coming this early is that many of the same people / friends come year after year. We’re not the only ones hooked on Yellowstone.

April 11 2011
We’re finally on our way. Our plan was to leave two days ago, but the threat of a government shutdown loomed … and loomed. Finally at 8:30 PM the eve of our departure it appeared an agreement would be reached, and the national parks would stay open. If the government had gone into shutdown mode only essential government agencies would stay open … and the parks are not one of them.

The next morning, Saturday, we had the car 95% packed when we both admitted we were just plain worn out. The weather for going over the Rocky Mountains didn’t look very encouraging either. So we took a deep breath and stayed home for a couple more days.

Meanwhile I’ve been working on my Yellowstone ‘mojo’, i.e. I started a great grey owl on the first page of my new journal, Volume 38. It’ll be a good drawing to noodle on during quiet times.

Sometimes I think we must be a little tetched in the head to leave Oregon at this time of year. The swallows and osprey have just come back. The turkeys are strutting. Grass is lush green, trees starting to leaf out, fruit trees are in full bloom, and bright yellow patches of Yellow mustard fill the fields. I’m savoring the greens. By going to Yellowstone we are about to step back into winter. This is painted while Dale is driving north on Interstate 5.

Another 'car sketch,' i.e. painted while Dale is driving. I always look forward to the many miles we drive alongside the Columbia River between Washington and Oregon.