Saturday, July 21, 2012

Whistler's Bend

 Whistler's Bend, Douglas County, Oregon, USA

Dale and I often sit in one spot for hours ... but usually because we watching a specific wildlife event, or at least waiting for something specific.  A few days ago we spent a delicious, long day in one spot, but with no real agenda on our minds.  We headed out early to meet friends.  Weather reports sounded as though we’d be roasting by mid afternoon and ready to head home.  
But the weatherman is far from perfect!  It was deliciously cool all morning.  The sun didn’t come out until noon.  Meanwhile we our friends, Norma and Scott, were there ahead of us.  A few photographs got taken, Norma and I painted, but mostly we talked and talked ... and talked.  We did move from one picnic table to the next to keep in the shade.

Of course a few things caught our attention during the day.  When we first arrived two bald eagles perched across the river from us.  
The eagles soon left but before long we spotted a great blue heron, also across the river.  Unless he was temporarily behind a rock, the heron was in sight for the rest of the day -- Norma and I both painted him.  Part of the  day he slowly stalked prey along the river edge.  Twice he had long sessions of preening.  Herons are unusual in that they have a ‘pectinated’ middle toe nail.   Big word.  It means the edge of the middle toe nail has a comb-like serrated edge, enough to enhance their grooming abilities, but not so serrated as to actually cut.  Someday I hope to see this serrated edge for myself.  At least I found an excellent photo on some else’s blog:

Another pleasant visitor was a gangly group of large common merganser chicks.  Their bodies were nearly full sized, yet they still didn’t have any decent flight feathers on their wings.  At this stage of life they are already masters of their watery world.  Lots of busy feeding  in the swift, but shallow  water; then a cozy nap on a nearby rock. 

Our last find was a beautiful beetle.  It was only about half an inch long, but its iridescent greens and reds more than made up for its size.  Even its underbelly was a coppery bronze.  Once we got home Norma had him identified before I even had time to wonder -- it is a metallic wood borer, also known as a Buprestid beetle.  There are several species of metallic wood borers.  Ours is probably a Buprestis aurulenta.  It’s a common insect found in forests of the Northwest.    The adults eat Douglas fir needles and lay their eggs in bark crevices.  The tiny grubs that hatch out usually take ‘a few years’ to mature, but under less than ideal conditions, such as in the wood of a picture frame or a rafter, they may even take 40 years to mature and one web site says even 50 years!  
Several time in my life I’ve had wood boring beetles invite themselves into my home, but the one that brings a smile to my face are the ones that came out of a madrone cane my husband, Dale, made and my father, Hammy, used.  Dale figures he cut the madrone at least five years before Hammy used the cane.  Then, during the brief period my father needed a cane, Hammy noticed a couple little piles of saw dust when he left the cane overnight.... and then he saw a black beetle.  We hurried up the emergence of the rest of the beetles by ‘ginning’ them, i.e. we put little drops of gin down their holes.  Sure enough!  Out came a couple more black beetles.  

That fond memory was the last nature encounter I had with my father.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012


Anyone who has read this blog more than a few times knows I normally write about birds and bugs and whatever catches my eye in nature.  Sometimes I write about art.  Today I can’t resist commenting on a people encounter because it ties in so well with the last three posts about the sandhill cranes at Floating Island Lake.  

First of all let me say we mostly meet wonderful people in Yellowstone -- people from all walks of life and mostly people who wouldn’t be there if they weren’t interested in our natural world at least to some degree.  We find ourselves standing next to doctors, lawyers, biologists, waitresses ... the butcher, the baker, the candle stick maker.  Such a variety.  
My favorite Yellowstone person, my husband, Dale.

Often, when I have a question, I can soon find a person with the answer:  how do you tell a male from a female sandhill crane?  At what age does a bison cow first give birth?  What is that bright yellow fly I just found on fresh bison patties.  Sometimes we are the people with the answers.  
Many people cruise through the park in record time.  I remember standing next to one of our Yellowstone friends when a happy tourist pulled up to see what we were watching.  He’d seen the whole park in three days and was about to head home -- he’d seen it all.  Jason turned to him and drawled, “Well, you see, I come from Virginia where the soils are poor and we get hookworm.  We’re a little slow.  I’ve been coming to this same square ten miles of park for 25 years and I still haven’t seen it all”  
At the time I thought, “Wow!  25 years!”  Dale and I have now have our 25 years in and more.  The only year we skipped was the year of the fires when we choose to stay away from all the smoke.  
Jason and the happy tourist were both good people, just different from each other; definitely not tourons. 
'Touron' is the name given by ‘regulars’ (us) to the idiots (tourist + moron = touron).  Unfortunately there are a few of those. I probably got my maddest ever at a touron.   A cow elk was wading a swift, but shallow section of the Gibbon River.  She’s picked that portion of the river to cross because it was one of the few relatively shallow areas.  Above and below the river was narrower, faster, and deeper.  Her calf was already having problems with the current.  Everyone but one touron stayed put and watched.  The touron had a little camera and wanted a picture so he trotted down to meet the cow!  She shifted direction, the calf stumbled and rolled in the current.   While the cow and calf stumbled downstream the touron kept following them along the riverbank, keeping the two in the river.  I tried just yelling at the man first, but he wouldn’t listen to ME.  
Soon I was surprised at what started coming out of my mouth -- a few words I won’t mention.  I finally clinched it by saying I knew which car was his and I was getting a ranger.  That finally worked.  I’ll never know if the calf made it across.  By then the cow and calf where stumbling around a bend in the river and I wasn’t about to follow.  
My most recent touron encounter took place this spring at Floating Island Lake.  Generally people in Yellowstone are surprisingly friendly.  Strangers talk to strangers all the time.  I come back to Oregon and strike up a conversation in line at the grocery store and get odd looks, but in Yellowstone everyone does it.  So after the sandhill crane brawl (described in my recent post, Broken Toe:  Part II), I thought the three people standing near me might be interested in a little of Broken Toe’s history.  They had a scope on the cranes and had watched the battle.  Little did I know they were tourons.  
I walked the few steps to their tripod and started out saying I’d never seen cranes battle like that.  The man glared at me, “Battle!  That wasn’t a fight.  That was sex!  
I tried again, but he interrupted and sputtered, “It's Sex!  That's male dominance!”  and with that, he picked up his tripod and moved to the other side of his car!  I guess he thinks I’m a white-haired touron.  

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Broken Toe: Part III

Yellowstone National Park

This is a continuation of the last post .... same morning - April 15
Rusty is starting to look more like a viable male.  He is strutting, tail high, neck stretched out, calling.  He is quite a way from Broken Toe, but at least it looks as though he is taking an interest in her.  Can’t see her right now.  She is in the trees to the left of the talus slope, but she calls.  

Rusty and Broken Toe just copulated!  Both were near the inlet when, once again, Broken Toe dropped her wings.  This time Rusty hopped onto her back from behind.  Both kept their wings spread -- part of the balancing act.  Then tails twisted to the side and they briefly made contact.  Rusty then hopped forward off her back in good crane fashion.  The act seems a little brief, but definitely a copulation and a deep bow by both afterwards.  No followup bugling.  Off they walk on their separate ways.  
By now we are sure Rusty is not Broken Toe’s old mate.  There was much more togetherness between the original pair.  They frequently unison bugled, they often stayed near each other when feeding, and the two were comfortable coming near the road.  Rusty seems to be learning proper male behavior and he seems to be road-shy.  Also, he has never flown out to the nest site Broken Toe used for several years.  We have spent literally hundreds of hours watching Broken Toe and her old mate here because their nest was so visible -- a small, exposed island in the pond.

Rusty and Broken Toe copulate a second time just before noon.  Once again they bow afterwards, but no bugling.  Then they spent the next hour appearing to make a point of avoiding being near each other.  
Once again Rusty is strutting his stuff:  nose high, neck stretched out, tail fluffed.  He appears to be doing some soft vocalizations ... but we can’t hear him.  Too breezy. 
1:40 PM: another copulation.  Still no celebratory bugle, but we do feel Broken Toe has a new mate.  We haven’t heard any more of the plaintive calling which filled the first two days of our crane watching.
Snow is starting to fall ... sideways.  A definite burr in the air.  We are going to head in early.  When we leave the other pair still hasn’t come back.  
So far we haven’t seen a crane fly out to the island nest site where Broken Toe nested for the last several years. I wonder who picks the nest site, the male or the female?  Both Rusty and Broken Toe have been inspecting the bullrushes at the far side of the pond, especially west of the inlet.  If they nest there we won’t be able to see much.
Looking at our photos in the evening I verify Rusty was not involved in the battle.  Rusty has half of his third primary on his left wing broken off.  The crane fighting with Broken Toe does not have a broken primary.   The second fighter is large, probably the male of the intruding pair. 
In past years Broken Toe laid her two eggs in late April if their pond was somewhat thawed.  This year the pond thawed much earlier than usual so we wondered if they would nest sooner.
On April 18th we watched Broken Toe and rusty breaking off bullrush stems and tossing them in the marshy swale to the east of Floating Island, but they were working in different parts of the marsh.  The marshy swale has been a poor place to nest in years past.  Once the nest was abandoned because of the wolf making an elk kill and two other nests were broken into by a coyote; but, of course, Rusty doesn’t know this.  
On April 29 Broken Toe and Rusty still hadn’t nested, but we did see him dance briefly in front of Broken Toe.  By May 2 they had settled on a site, the marshy swale just to the east of Floating Island.  When they first started building we could barely see the birds. As they broke off bullrush stems, their nesting platform grew and the site became quite visible from the road.  Late in the day we saw that one bird had settled onto the nest.  
On May 3 we were able to verify they had at least one egg.  We watched Rusty roll an egg white Broken Toe stood nearby.  There could be two eggs in there.  The nest is too deep to tell for sure.  Then Broken Toe walked out of the marsh and onto the slope to feed.  

It snowed enough on May 4 to keep us in town for the day.  May 5 was beautiful.  Clear, still, fresh snow flocked every blade of grass, twig, stem and tree trunk.  The crane nest was well dusted with snow and a crane incubating.  A bull moose wandered through the back side of their marsh.  
The next time we drove past the little marsh, on May 8, the nest was empty.  We suspect a coyote got the eggs, but this time no one witnessed the plunder so we can’t be sure. 
At least Broken Toe and Rusty are fine.  It may take some time, but they should figure out a good place to nest.  We last saw them inspecting the bullrushes at the backside of Floating Island Lake.  That location has been successful in the past.  I can’t help but think the male has a lot to do with the nest selection site or else they would have gone to the site in the center of the pond that had such a good track record.  Maybe next year.  

My last notes for Rusty and Broken Toe are May 16.  They we breaking off bullrushes on the far side of Floating Island. Red-winged blackbirds were objecting violently to their presence.   But we spent many hours at Floating Island over the next five days and didn’t see the cranes again.  When we left Yellowstone on May 23 we were wondering if they would re-nest this year.
Recent News!
On July 1 we received an e-mail from Bill Hamlin, a Yellowstone friend.  He spotted Broken Toe and Rusty with two colts!  They successfully nested in the marshy swale to the east of Floating Island Lake.