Friday, September 23, 2011

Sketching at Sough Slough

South Slough National Marine Sanctuary, Coos Bay, Oregon, USA
Fog rides above us. Except for a noisy raven family grunting and croaking, South Slough is damp and almost quiet. Farther off a crow caws. Long summer grasses are golden, just barely moving in the quiet air. I feel a sense of waiting. The changing of the seasons is coming all too soon. My last three walks at home have been strictly for exercise … getting out of the house before the days gets too hot. Today Dale and I are at Sough Slough Marine Sanctuary near Coos Bay, Oregon. I’m in the mood to just wander, pausing here and there to sketch.

My first find is a crab spider on Queen Anne’s Lace.
A little farther down the road more Queen Anne’s Lace catches my attention. Some of the blossoms have curled into tightly woven cups. Down in the interior of one I spot the bright green of a little instar which almost blends with the greens of the fading blossom. I think it will grow up to be a stink bug.
As I near the old wooden bridge that crosses Winchester Creek I upset a song sparrow. He pops out of a thick huckleberry bush and scolds. I’ve disturbed his dinner. Parts of a smashed berry stick to his bill and more berries dot the branch he sits on. Soon he is back to the business at hand – eating huckleberries.

I cross the creek on Hinch Bridge. When the tide heads out the creek becomes tiny and rushes towards the ocean. Now the creek is swollen and nearly as high as it will get. The tide is coming. It still sluggishly pushes more and more water upstream. Dale stays on the east side of the bridge studying the green pine cones scattered on the gravel road. These cones are too green to have just dropped. Sure enough! Big dark eyes peer at him at eye level. There sits a chickaree (our western version of a red squirrel), munching away on one its recently harvested cones.

Loud honking comes from down stream. A narrow grassy valley follows the creek, with dense stands of Sita spruce on either side. The geese are flying towards us, following the valley upstream. Soon twenty geese are above us; then on their way, honking as they fade off into the distance.

I wander on down the road to where trilliums bloom in the spring. I’m hoping to see what a trillium seed looks like. I read recently that these seeds have a yummy spot , an enticement for ants to pick them up and carry them off to a new location. I’d like to see one of these seeds, but I think I’m too late. I find only one trio of trillium leaves. No seeds.
One the way back Hinch Bridge catches my eye. I sit down on a log to sketch. The creek continues to lazily head inland. Still damp and gray this morning, but pleasant sitting on the log. While I sketch two egrets fly over … white against the gray sky. I’m nearly done sketching when I realize the tide has turned. Sluggish water swirls slowly, some of it heading in the direction all proper streams should flow, towards the ocean. The daily mixing of fresh and salt water yields a rich mix of nutrients, a rich ecosystem for many animals South Slough is famous for.

Thursday, September 15, 2011


We’ve been home more than usual. Odd for us. Some days its too hot to go anywhere … and some days we get energetic and have been doing some serious yard work. That does have to be done once in awhile. Meanwhile we have nature right at our doorstep. This has been the summer of skunks, the common striped skunk. I haven’t seen one yet, but all too often we’re aware of their presence. Normally the encounter starts with Lucy’s loud “Woof, Woof!” in the middle of the night. Lucy is the neighbor’s Labrador. She is a sweet old dog who never strays far from home…. but our backyard isn’t ‘far from home.’

After the “Woof, Woof!” I hold my breath and listen. On good nights I hear the scramble of two or three deer hustling out of our yard. The deer love our grapes leaves, then the grapes; apple and pear leaves, then the apples and the pears.

On not so good nights all is quiet …. too quiet. About a minute after Lucy’s bark, skunk stench blasts us. I think the skunk must spray directly beneath our bedroom window. All too often we end up closing the windows just when the house is cooling down for the night. According to a recent Nova program skunks don’t spray unless really provoked. Somehow Lucy succeeds in provoking without getting herself sprayed. We must have a colony of skunks with a really itchy trigger.

When we first moved into this house we were somewhat unsettled to find we had skunks under the house. We half-heartedly tried to evict them, but generally speaking we all got along well together … until one night. The little dears waged war under our house! The stink was awful! I felt as though we should just give the house away. Our daughters went to school and anyone nearby smelled skunk. Dale went to work and the subject of skunk came up. I stayed home and hoped I’d become numb. It does go away …. eventually. Fortunately Dale was now motivated. He figured out a way to close off the foundation with the skunks outside and not trapped inside. He built a swinging door for our crawl space with nasty little spikes all around its edge. The skunks could easily push their way out, but getting back in just wasn’t going to happen.

Speaking of stinky, I have an even stinkier story. When I attended the University of Wisconsin I had a job in the Natural History Museum as a bone cleaner. My job was to end up with a box full of nice clean bones for each species I worked on: jumping mice, Swainson thrushes, flying squirrels, etc. Most of the specimens either came out of a freezer and I boiled them, or they went to the dermestid colony. Dermestids are little beetles very adept at cleaning up a carcass and leaving me a little pile of almost clean bones. Usually I worked a very flexible schedule, but one day my boss call and asked if I could possibly come down right now. A rather stinky package had just arrived.
I was told I was about to unwrap the third known record of a spotted skunk in Wisconsin. A farmer had shot and buried it six months ago! Just recently the University heard about the unusual specimen and asked to have it sent to the museum. The package didn’t smell all that great, so I took it outside to open. Unfortunately I made the mistake of opening the package in front of the air intake for the big, old multi story building. Whew! The whole place stank. I took the specimen back to the museum and for once I wore both a lab coat and gloves. As quickly as possible I reduced the spotted skunk to a tidy pile of relatively sweet-smelling bones. …. And off to class I went.

It happened my next class was in one of the University’s enormous lecture halls. I believe it held 300 students and was at least half full. I liked to sit near the front. All too soon students around me commented on skunk smell . I took a deep breath and commented too. I looked like any normal co-ed, and pretended I was as normal as I looked. Nobody guessed exactly where the smell was coming from.

After class I walked over a mile back to my dorm. Surely I was ‘freshened’ by then. But, no. As soon as I entered my dorm the subject of skunks came up again. It was time for action. I bagged all my cloths and hung them out the window and then I showered. Finally I could walk into a room without the subject of skunks coming up.

Do I know of anything stinkier than that incident? Oh, yes! Dale can do me one better. When he was working as a soil scientist in Alaska he found a humpback whale deliquescing on a beach. Much his surprise a black bear came running out from inside the whale. The bear obviously didn’t mind the smell, but Dale said he couldn’t stand getting close to the whale.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

The Blob

Last night I sat down with “Amphibians of Oregon, Washington and British Columbia” by Corkran and Thoms …. Looking forward to looking up the great big egg mass we found attached to some submerged wood at Ben Irving Resevoir. Wow! It was a duzy. It was a gelantous mass about a foot across and sunk even deeper into the water than that. But what was it? My best guess was maybe several amphibians laid their eggs together, the eggs hatched, and now a big slithery mass of firm goo floats just beneath the water surface. Either that or some science fiction movie dude has been at work.

My book has a nice ‘egg key,’ i.e. it asks questions and based on the answer you go to another question until the find which amphibian is involved. Sounds easy, doesn’t it. The first question was easy: are the eggs laid in a string or in a mass of jelly. Jelly! But the farther I got, the more confused I became. Nothing seemed to fit. Finally I went back to the beginning and found a hint I shouldn’t have overlooked: Not all jelly masses are egg masses; some are certain types of algae.

Nest step, the computer. I Googled ‘jelly mass + algae’ and then clicked on the University of Maine’s website, “ What’s that stuff in water?” Now we’re cooking! Maybe I’ll solve this mystery yet. I soon learned my big blob wasn’t algae either.

“What’s that stuff in water?” did have a photograph that looked somewhat like my blob ; and it was big -- “Bryozoan” or “moss animal.” I never heard of that! But I had to admit this blob isn’t exactly what I expect to stumble across when peering down into Ben Irving Reservoir. Now my curiosity was really piqued. I spent the next hour gleaning information. I am amazed to find there is a basketball sized animal living twenty-five miles from me and I never heard of it.

Bryozoan colonies are made up of tiny animals called ‘zooids.’ They live in colonies rather like sponges, but sponges are different in that their colony of animals builds a firm structure, the sponge. Bryozoan zooids also build a communial structure but it is gelantous and basically leaves no trace when the colony dies. We had found a bryozoan colony, in fact we found we found several when we started looking for more. Each colony was attached to a piece of submerged wood, an old root or a stick. It is likely this colony is made up of Pectinatella magnifica, one of the several fresh water bryozoans. Most bryozoans are marine.

Each colony started from one statoblast, the tiny disk-shaped ‘seed’ that the mature zooids put out in great quantities. Remember, this is a plant and not an animal, but ‘seed’ is the best word I could come up with. I think the dark spots on this closeup photo are statoblasts and golden spots haven’t matured yet.
This photo is of a fairly young colony on the nearest stem. The original statoblast has already grown into fifty or more lumps. Each lump will eventually look like rosettes on the larger ball, and each one contains 12 to 18 zooids.
Here is the bryozoans colony that started all this fuss … the one that is about a foot across and sinks even deeper into the murky water. If you poke it, it is quite firm.

These big slimy balls of goo may sound creepy, but further reading tells me they tend to live in water that can use some cleaning up. Each zooids has a filter system by which it eats, improving water quality in the process. This food gathering organ was too small for us to see with our naked eye, but apparently is extended during feeding or can be withdrawn into the interior of the colony. Until fairly recently bryozoan colonies were only known to be found east of the Mississippi River. So far it is a mystery how they got to the West Coast, but the statoblasts are extremely durable. They can freeze, dry out, and stay dormant for long periods of time. Man or even a bird could have brought them West.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Heron Watching

Wildlife Safari, Winston, Oregon
Usually when we watch a great blue heron we are awed by their patience. Maybe the heron we’re watching now is impressed by our patience. We’re parked in warm, late morning, sun, and watching him. The heron is just lazing about, perched on a large horizontal branch in an old snag. We almost didn’t stop: the light is a little harsh; the heron is no longer in breeding plumage; he doesn’t appear to be doing much of anything. Yet a great blue heron is almost irresistible to pass by when he is close. Dale quietly places his camera on the car windowsill and I start sketching.
First the heron is just resting, then he takes an interest in the murky pond thirty feet below. I can’t imagine he’d dive after something from up there. Probably he is just curious about the mallards dabbling about, or perhaps he sees a frog or two. It is an adult great blue heron. The young of the year are a rather blah grey. This bird has strong darks and lights on his head, but he has lost the long plume that is characteristic during breeding season. He looks a little ratty to me. Then Dale comments, “He’s soaked.” Dale can see more through his big lens than I can with binoculars. The heron must have drenched itself when hunting in the pond and then flew up onto this branch to rest and dry off.
A little scratching is in order. Growing in new feathers is itchy.
Oh my, Now I can see he is wet. Time to dry off. He fluffs out his breast feathers, droops his wings and stands facing the sun.

After sunning himself for awhile he folds his wings back into place and starts to gap a little, as if something is stuck in his throat. Something is stuck! The heron just coughed up a soupy pellet. Owls are famous for their pellets, i.e. little lumps of bone and feather they cough up after digesting a meal of mouse, bird, or whatever is on the menu. Several other birds also cough up pellets. Hawks do, all the corvids do (crows, jays and ravens), even kingfishers do. And now we’ve seen a great blue heron cough up what he can’t digest.
We finally drive on, but when we return an hour later, the heron is back to soaking his belly again. Hunting is good in this little pond.

Note: We watched the heron at Hart Lake, a small pond that is part of Wildlife Safari in Winston Oregon. Wildlife Safari is a drive through park where we volunteer. Amongst the zebras, wildebeests, rhinos, etc., are many native species which also benefit from the park.