Monday, October 31, 2011

Signs of Fall at Simpson Reef

Oregon coast, USA: Oct 21, 2011
Tide is out. Pewter sea and pewter sky. Hundreds of sea lions laze about. The air is filled with the barking of California sea lions and the deep rumbles from Steller sea lions. Nine elephant seals and a few harbor seals. A great blue heron fishes in the shallows. We also see harlequin ducks, oystercatchers, pelagic cormorants, gulls.

Two flocks of geese have flown south over us. I hoped the first were brandts, but I couldn’t tell. The second were definitely cackling geese, probably Aleutians.

Mellow here today. Slight breeze. Shirt sleeve weather. Smells of salt and seaweeds and sea lions in the air. Very gentle surf. It hardly breaks upon reaching the shoreline. Mellow in so many ways, yet bursting with life. A thousand sea lions are not a quiet bunch. The jostle and bark and splash. When we arrived the majority were on the flat, sandy beach; but shortly afterwards they went into one of their mad scrambles for the water. A split down the center of the beach quickly widened into a gap and finally wide open space except for the handful of elephant seals who slumbered on. What causes the sea lions to rush into the ocean? There isn’t any predator able to take one on the beach. My best explanation is a sand flea bites one in a sensitive spot, he yelps, and all hell breaks loose.

Low tide is about now. It is low enough to expose a few bright orange star fish just above the water line. Late summer the kelp beds are at their best. Now, at low tide, we see bits of kelp floating on the surface. A good storm will rip out tons of their long fronds and pile them on the beach.

A great blue heron slowly stalks, searching in the shallow water between exposed rocks. I watch his slow progress until he disappears behind one of the larger boulders. Nearby three harlequin ducks bob on the gentle wavelets. It looks as though three is a crowd. One of the drakes soon chases the other drake off.
I savor the moment – the sounds, the smells, and so much to look at. In summer it is usually windy here. In winter it is often too chilly for comfortable drawing. Today I can draw to my heart's content.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Envy: Golden-mantled Ground Squirrel

Lake of the Woods, Oregon, USA: Oct. 12, 2011
Dale and I are on our way to the Klamath Basin. To get from the ‘West Side’ to the ‘East Side’ we drive up and over the Cascade Mountains. Shortly before we reach the summit we pull into Lake of the Woods Recreational Area just to see what we can see. In summer this place buzzes with boats, campers, fishing, biking. Today is grey, damp and quiet. Only two campers; the little store is closed until the weekend. We hear a raven in the distance and spook a flicker foraging along the roadside.

Up pops a golden-mantled ground squirrel. What a chunky little fellow! His belly looks as if he swallowed a balloon and his cheeks bulge almost hiding his bright eyes. I assume he has his cheeks stuffed with goodies. But no! When he stretches his head up the bulges smooth down and I realize he is just plain fat. He looks like a woodland Buddha. I thought squirrels were supposed to be slim little athletes. Is this an anomaly?

I soon realize these layers of fat must be quite normal. We find three more golden-mantled ground squirrels popping up on one downed log after another. Two are chunky cousins of the first and the third looks to be a youngster who hasn’t had time to put on his layers of winter food.

When we return home I read up on what we’ve just seen. Golden-mantled ground squirrels are true hibernators, unlike chipmunks which are quite similar. Both have dark and light strips on their sides, but the chipmunk’s run along the side of his face too, whereas the golden-mantled ground squirrel has a plain cheek. He is a little larger too. The chipmunk goes into overdrive in the fall caching food for the long winter. They sleep a lot during the winter but rouse every so often and nibble from their larder. Golden-mantled ground squirrels prepare for winter by eating as much as possible. Often they end up with 30% of their weight in fat. By spring they will have used up their fat and emerge from hibernation ready to eat, mate, and scurry all too quickly through summer.

Doesn’t that sound rather fun? He gets to eat and eat and eat, then wakes up slim and ready to start eating all over again. Furthermore don’t you sometimes wish you could just sleep for three days and really get caught up on sleep? I’ll admit sleeping from October to May seems like overkill. I do look forward to my friends, books, paints, music….

And the little fella has one more reason to make me envious. He gets to eat truffles … those expensive little mushrooms that grow underground. Just for the fun of it I priced truffles on the internet …. $465.00 for 5 ounces of frozen black truffles. He gets to eat them for free! He even helps truffles by spreading their spores around in his feces.

I have to content myself with an occasional chocolate truffle … and not too many of those.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Acorn Woodpeckers at Work

Wildlife Safari: Sept 20, 2011 -- I drew these drawings a month ago, but life has been busy. I wanted to add the color before posting them.
Fall has come. Grasses are golden, oak leaves are dulling, ash is turning yellow. Coolness in the morning air. Its not a great acorn year, at least not where I’m parked; yet there are enough to keep a family of acorn woodpeckers busy storing their winter food supply.

Watching the colony of acorn woodpeckers is a treat! They are such busy, talkative birds. Their antics remind me of a covey of clowns at work. I think there are only four birds using this granary at ‘mid-canyon’ at Wildlife Safari. At least I’ve only seen four on the granary tree at once. Some years the colony is twice this size. Acorn woodpeckers are unusual in that the family group stays together throughout the year and more than just the biological parents care for the nestlings.

Now that the acorn crop is ripening the woodpeckers are busy harvesting hundreds, if not thousands of acorns. One after another each bird flies off to one of the nearby oaks and wrenches an acorn free. They then fly back to the granary tree, in this case an old oak snag. A good granary tree is used until it falls apart, so hundreds of holes have already been drilled. When the bird first returns to the tree the pointy end faces down the bird’s throat – the way it grew on the tree. But that isn’t the correct position for storing. The bird then has three choices. Most are taken to a fairly level branch, the ‘anvil,’ and turned around. Once positioned correctly the woodpecker searches out the right sized hole. Choosing the correct hole is a trial and error process. One is too tight, one is too loose. When the right fit is found he taps it in, always pointed end first. Later, as the acorns dry out, there will have to do a little rearranging – don’t want these acorns easily stolen by the local scrub jays and squirrels.

A few of the acorns still have their caps on. These seem just a little greener. A handy cavity was serving as a holding well for the capped ones. The wood was so old and cracked we could see quite a bunch had already been dropped in.
Sometimes the woodpecker chooses to hull the acorn as soon as it flies in. The shell falls to the ground and the two halves break apart. One at a time he wedges each half into a crack in the wood. I even observed one of the woodpeckers breaking the acorn half into smaller pieces and wedging those into a small crack.

We’ll be watching the granary to see if they succeed in filling all the available holes. One a good year there will still be a few acorns in storage in March. Last year was a poor year. By late December most of the acorn were gone. Fortunately the woodpecker forage for other foods too.
It is easy to tell the sexes apart. The male forehead goes from white to red, whereas the female has a band of black between the white and the red.
Note: Only the first set of drawings was drawn from life. We spent two wonderful mornings photographing the colony … and I ended up with plenty of reference photos to draw from.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Otter Watching

Lake in the Woods, Douglas Co., OR, USA
Arrived 11 AM. After the wonderful otter encounters yesterday, we are back, hoping for more. Before we get out of the car we spot three otter on the far side of the pond, slowly heading our way. The otter are in and out of the edge of the cattails. Fronds sway and then one comes up in the open water munching on a salamander. In and out. In and out. Hunting is good. We wait quietly in the car, hoping the otter will continue working the edge of the pond and come right past us.

A mallard hen near us is becoming antsy. She swims from our left to our right. Sure enough. The otter are getting close. We hear the soft “plop” when each dives…. Then back into the cattails where rustling and swaying take over.

Can’t see the otter now. They are behind us. We are parked on the dike that impounds this pond, parked so close Dale would get his feet wet if he stepped out.

Suddenly we see a thin string of bubbles rising to the surface. The otters know darn well where we are. The string of bubbles draws a wavy line right past us, probably within ten feet. One by one the three pop up to our right.
A big Douglas fir log reaches into the pond just far enough away for the three to climb aboard. They shake first and then stare for a moment. When one turns I get to appreciate its long muscular body and heavy tail. It’s an adult and two youngsters.

Since the otter appear to be heading away from us we decide to go over to the other side of the pond. I get out of the car at midpoint while Dale drives to the far side. We both sneak down to the pond and wait.

Darn. I’m too late. The trio have already passed my spot. They are busy hunting salamanders out in the open pond. I don’t want to disturb Dale’s chances so I stay put and sketch. The pond is still. Air barely moves. High above me I hear far off white-fronted geese. The geese are migrating, soon to be in the Klamath Basin. Their high voices soon fade. Stillness hangs in the air …. Yet the water along the edge to my left is sending out ripples, probably a mallard feeding along the edge. Quietly I reach for my camera.
It’s a fourth otter, very close, but barely visible because of all the cattails. Underwater one moment and then water slipping off him the next. For just a moment he comes up on a log near me … never looks at me. I don’t think he knows I’m here. All too soon he continues on his way, heading towards Dale. I stay put and figure it’s a good time to catch up on my notes.

I’m nearly done writing when two mallards explode out of the cattails across the pond from me. Ah Ha! Maybe I’ll have another otter opportunity.

It is easy to watch the otter’s progress. I just look for swaying cattails fronds. I sit very still, full of anticipation. Soon the otter is close. I can’t see him, but I can hear him: cattails being pushed, the chewing of his salamanders, the plop of his next dive. Most of the pond is edged with a six foot fringe of cattails, but I’m sitting where fishermen have made an opening. Not a big opening, but big enough for a nice look if he swims past me.

That toadie! This one knows where I am. The tell-tale string of bubbles shows me he is swimming past my opening. Then, to my right, I hear more rustling and munching. Ah well. Just being so close is a treat.
Soon the otter are back out in the center of the pond feeding. Too far for good photographs, but I can sketch. I find it interesting that they sometimes hunt in the cattails and sometimes they hunt out in the open pond. The pond is full of weeds and apparently provides excellent salamander habitat in both places. This pond has plenty of fish too, but the otter are hunting the easy prey.

One last treat before they disappear into the cattails for a rest. The family comes out on a log across the pond from me. They have a playful tumbling match with lots of ‘chirping.’ If I didn’t know otter I’d be looking for a bird. Their cheerful calls carry easily across the still water to me. We’ve watched the otter enough to know they arrive and leave the pond from this location. The tiny stream that enters the pond flows just a few feet from this log.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Signs of Fall

Douglas County, Oregon, USA: Sept 29, 2011
Last night we heard geese flying overhead. Flock after flock gabbled as they flew over our bedroom, too high and too many to be our local flock heading from nearby pastures to nighttime pond. We seldom hear migrating geese, maybe because we are usually too insulated from night time sounds.

As we head out of town this morning there is a surreal beauty. Smoke fills the Umpqua Valley. Fog is cool and grey, but this has a brownish tone and warms the yellowed grasses. Even the nearest hills are soften by the murky air and just a little farther the hills are shapes without detail. After a long dry summer we’ve finally had just a little rain and now heavy dew. The nearby ranchers have a brief window of opportunity to do their field burning before falls rains soak the ground.

At the eastern edge of the valley the air clears. Blue sky above and sparkling dew on every blade of grass and leaf. A slope on our right is overgrown with teasel. Amongst the tall stems are scattered a field of crystal lollipops. It’s actually webs left by orb weaving spiders, but in the crisp, clear air they look like crystals. The golden teasel and sparkling webs and low morning sun sing of the end of summer. Even the turkey vultures are responding to the end of summer. At least a hundred soar high above me, slowly drifting in a southerly direction.
Another hour and we are at Lake in the Woods. Fall is in the air here too. Rusty brown hemlock needles drift down with every slight stir of the air. The ground is dotted with the colorful needles and more float on the quiet pond. A few of the cattail fronds are turning yellow. Dragonflies still dance over the dark pond, but few species are left this late in summer. I see turquoise and black darners, rusty-red autumn meadowhawks, and the flashy black and white wings of eight-spotted skimmers.

Soon after arriving we spot an otter family. Here, they too are a sign of fall. We never see them here in midsummer. I think they den somewhere along the creek and only come to the pond when the pups are old enough to travel. Twice we have photographed the otter feeding on rough-skinned newts here (see my blog post Aug 2010: ) . As a result of the photographs we sent to Dr. Edmund Brodie from Utah State University, some researchers came to Lake in the Woods this summer to catch some of the newts. Dr. Brodie is finding that the toxicity of newts lessens at higher elevations. A few years ago only one variety of garter snake was thought to be able to eat rough-skinned newts, but now they know of at least two other species including our otter.

Now that we have otter here again, we would like to see what they are feeding on … and, of course, we’d like to get some good otter pictures. I settle down near the pond edge while Dale goes to another spot. Three otter are in the center of the pond feeding. Soon two move on and I’ve only got one in front of me. By the time I start counting I figure I’ve seen this one catch 5 salamanders. Most dives are successful. Eight dives in eight minutes. Sometimes he munches on something small, but before long I quite sure he has eaten 15 salamanders! No sign of any of them being newts, but that does seem like one big Thanksgiving dinner.
My otter moves on and disappears into the cattails on the far side of the pond. Two mallards are on a log near me so I sketch them. When I finish I start walking to join Dale, but suddenly the mallards erupt in frantic flight. There must be another otter back in the cattails. I settle quietly with my camera well braced. Off to my left a level log just out of the cattails and floats on the pond. The log has been growing it own little garden for years. Lush grasses and forbs form a green carpet.
For just a moment an adult and a young otter pop up onto the log and greet each other affectionately … big, dark eyes; eyes high set on their heads; small ears; coat drenched in water. They snort and dive back into the safety of the pond.