Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Dinner With Owls

Page Springs, Malheur Basin, Oregon:  May 25, 2013
While we were out on Ruh-red Road a couple of birders told us about a long-eared owl nesting in the rocks at Page Springs Campground.  It seemed too good to be true, but we still drove the extra 35 miles south to Page Springs, 60 miles south of Burns.  
It was too good to be true, but we aren’t disappointed.  Two great horned owls are spending the day on the basalt cliff that borders the campground.  One sits in a rocky alcove half way up the face of the cliff.  Sleepy fellow.  Beautiful.  He is relaxed and close enough I can almost feel his delicate feathering.  I’ve nuzzled a full grown great horned owl often enough to know how soft those feathers are.  There is a surprising amount of air between the outer smoothness of the feathers, and the hidden warmth underneath.  Owls like their head gently rubbed.  I suppose it is an area difficult for an owl to scratch with great finesse.  
It took me awhile to find the second owl.  I end up asking for help from a birder.  No wonder.  The owl was pressed into a crevice.  Only about half an owl shows, just part of his back and often the back of his head -- sometimes a sleepy face.  I switch my attention back to the first owl and start drawing.  
Somewhere along the way the registered campers for the site I am standing in have returned.  Fortunately they are happy to share their owl and soon I am chatting as much as drawing.  Very nice couple -- Jan and Rodger.
I look up from my sketching and my owl is gulping a little; but I am too late.  The owl has just coughed up a pellet! .... and I missed it!  Big, dark and shiny pellet.  The new pellet lies on the rocky shelf at the owl’s feet. 
While the sun drops lower I realize there is a chance the owl will soon be basking in late afternoon sun.  Right now the overhang above him keeps him in shade.  But Mr. owl is in no mood for a sun bath.  Just as the sun reaches him he moves about four feet into a shadier spot.  The crevice owl is still safely out of the sun.  
By now Jan an Roger have invited us for supper!  Jan disappears into her camper for awhile and comes out with a wonderful meal:  fresh salsa, browned hamburger and pinto beans on a bed of lettuce, warm tortillas, fresh oranges and mangoes.  Yum!
Just before we sit down to eat the owl comes out into the forward edge of its ledge.  For a few minutes the dropping sun glows on his soft feathers.  

While we eat we can keep an eye on the owls.  The sun slips lower, putting all of the rock face into shade.  First one owl stretches and then the other.  The owl on the shelf is in a better position for twisting and turning.  He preens, he stretches again.  He doses, but he spends more and more time awake.  Wonderful to be so close to a pair of wild owls, ones who live close enough to the campground to be people-tolerant.   

While we eat dusk deepens.  Time for robins to sing.  Off in the distance I hear a poorwill call.  
Big hoot!  The owl I sketched hooted, then off he flies.  His evening of hunting has started.  Too dark to see if the second owl is still in his crevice or has left to hunt too.  

Friday, June 21, 2013

Malheur Basin, Oregon, USA

A willet perches on a fence post.  He looks so plain, but when he flies up, calling over and over, his wings have flashy back and white bands.  When he lands he shows them off for just a moment more, before going back to his quiet pose.

When we come home from traveling I have a journal full of ideas for blog posts .... and am arriving here during our busy season here.  So most of them never happen.  Year after year Malheur gets short changed, and yet it is often a special stop on our way home.  This year I plan a series of at least three posts inspired by the Malheur Basin.  

Malheur Basin is a huge, very flat basin in Central Oregon.  It’s flatness stretches roughly 30 miles east and west and even deeper north and south.  Some areas are edged with volcanic rimrock; other areas fade off into the distant mountains.  Sometimes the basin contains a fair amount of water, but normally it is a mix of some water, wetlands, pasture and sage.  It’s a nursery for thousands of birds set in the middle of Oregon’s high desert.  the basin’s vastness and the wild variety of birds makes my heart sing.  It is also a welcome change from all the people who are piling into Yellowstone by the time we leave there.  Here there is just a handful of ranchers and a few bird watchers.  
May 23, 2013:  From my notes.......
“The moon looks full, but it already rides high in the sky and yet it is not yet dark night.  The full moon must be tomorrow or the next day.  Soon in any case.  A few minutes ago, when I painted the moon, blues and a touch of crimson colored clear parts of the sky.  Dark clouds tried to hide my moon.  Now the clouds have mostly moved on and the moon shines with a hazy glow.  It’ll be cold tonight -- probably a frost.  A meadowlark sings off in the distance.  One frog sings in spite of the chill and I hear a Wilson’s snipe calling.  A little earlier gulls and ibises flew to their roosting spots.  I half expect a straggler to come winging by before I go in.  Dusk is coming quickly.  By tomorrow night I should have seen curlews and    willets courting, perhaps grebes dancing, yellow-headed blackbirds singing their scratchy song, and ibis flying overhead.  I’ll for sure soak in marsh sounds and smells.”  
This year we spent three full days in the basin.  We probably would have stayed longer if the weather had been more cooperative.  Sometimes heat makes it miserable in the basin; this year the weather changed to cool and frequent showers.  Napping in the car for an hour or two while a shower passes through is wonderful, but not for a day or two!

By the end of the first day we have seen over fifty species of birds.  True birders would have seen over 75, but we tend to stay in each spot too long and don’t get a long list.  The Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is a birder’s paradise in late May because a variety of unusual birds are attracted to the few oases of green out in the high desert.  

More sketches ....

The raven has stolen a good-sized egg, possibly a teal's.  Another raven is being mobbed by blackbirds because  he got too close to a blackbird nest.  The female Brewer's blackbird just after copulation.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Sketching Dragonflies

Douglas County, Oregon, USA

Earlier this spring I told myself I don’t need to sit and drip in the hot sun;  shading my camera so it doesn’t fry; squinting because my paper is too bright in the sunshine ..... I should be nicer to myself than that.   But, then I find a dragonfly that has just emerged from its exuvia (nymph casing) and hasn’t even opened its wings yet.  

I fetch a 3 inch cushion and plop it on the damp ground.  I’m sitting just a few feet from the edge of a pond.  There is only about ten feet of shoreline open to the pond.  Lots of cattails on either side.  This tiny, sun-warmed bay is a mecca for dragonflies.  Last year there never seemed to be a normal quota.  This year lots.

I’ve just settled and I spot a pair of cardinal meadowhawks (dragonflies) flying in tandem.  The bright red male hangs on to the back of the female’s head with his cerci.  She frequently dips her abdomen just to the water’s surface -- laying eggs.  
Song Sparrow
Soon insanity strikes.  I decide to quick sketch every dragonfly species I see from this one spot.  It’s hot.  Dragonflies love hot.  I drip and get sticky, but I persist.  A fly buzzes by.  A song sparrow discovers me and scolds.  Way off I hear a pileated woodpecker pounding.  Zip!  Zoom!  Many of the male dragonflies are very territorial.  Chases go on right over my head.  

Finally it’s time for lunch.  I’ve got six species of dragonflies, a damselfly, and I couldn’t resist adding the little crab spider hunting from the top of a cattail.  I’ve sketched a couple of chalk-fronted corporals, the pair of cardinal meadowhawks, a widow skimmer, an eight-spotted skimmer, a four-spotted skimmer, a female western pondhawk,  plus two damselflies and the crab spider.
Shadows have grown long putting the far side of the pond in shadow.  A song sparrow pops up into the late afternoon sunshine and sings a brief soliloquy.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Newts and Spiders

Now doesn’t that sound like something for a witch’s brew? ... something I should save for Halloween?  Halloween is a long way off and right now is the time to see these two things.  

I’ve been watching and sketching rough-skinned newts,Taricha granulosa, at a little reservoir about twenty miles from my home.   From my Journal:

“A few Ods (Odonata - dragonflies and damselflies) are  flying.  A 4 PM half the pond is in shadow.  Dale found a hot spot for newts.  I sat down quietly with my sketchbook and waited for them to relax.  He saw at least 8 within my immediate viewing, all in the water, but at first I don’t see any.  Soon a gnarly head peeks out from between underwater rocks ... and another.  A third drifts slowly up and parks itself just beneath some floating pond weeds -- hunting?  Over to my right two more swim to the surface for a quick gulp of air.  One sinks back down immediately; the other hangs suspended between the surface and the pond floor three feet below.  I marvel at how he can choose where to suspend himself.”

Rough skinned-newts are wonderful fun to draw.  Much of the year they live on land, but now many are in the pond mating and egg laying.  They live in slow motion, and since they often come up near the water’s surface, I can get a good look.  It took me awhile to verify each has four toes in front and 5 toes behind.  Their tail is used for swimming.  When one wants to go somewhere, it tucks all four leg next to its body and just wiggles its tail in a fluid motion.  The male's tail reminds me of a long, long tadpole tail -- flattened vertically.  The Female's is rounder.

Rough-skinned newts have the deadliest natural toxin yet discovered, far deadlier than potassium cyanide.  Pufferfish and blue-ringed octopuses have the same poison, tetrodotoxin.  Fortunately the newts aren’t out to get me.  Their toxin is a defense.  As long as I don’t eat one, or inject their poison I’m safe.  But I should wash my hands if I handle one.  
While eating lunch I suddenly realized this spider was about 5 feet from me.  It had ‘sewn’ two leaves together to make a little shelter.  Little bits of last night’s cobweb, an orb, still slung to one of its leaves.  She (?) looked very cozy in her hidy hole.  Puddles in the area told me it had rained recently.  I suspect she stayed dry.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Distracted by a Tiny Fly

Long-legged  Fly -- I least I think it is.  

It is bug season.  I love bug season!  Mostly because I live in a place where mosquitoes and no-seems-ums are so few we haven’t bothered to replace a screen or two that fell off years ago.  Most of our bugs are fascinating; not a nuisance. 

Several years about, 2005 I think, we realized we could take digital photos of bugs with our cameras.  I’ve posted several buggy blog posts as a result.  Now for another.  

Today I just intended to put some vegetable scraps on my compost pile, but that took me within feet of our blackberry clump.  Yesterday and the day before I spent time photographing bugs on blackberries in somewhat different habitats.  I couldn’t help but check to see who was visiting my blackberries.  I meant it as a quick peek, but immediately a tiny iridescent fly caught my eye.  How beautiful!  It is only about a quarter of an inch long, too small for me to see well; but digital cameras are wonderful.  I can blow up a photo.  I ran to get the camera.  

Once I was out there, a bank of blackberry blossoms in front of me, I was hooked.  Hmmmmmm.  The bumble bee I photographed day before yesterday was packing grey saddlebags of pollen on its back legs. Some of my bumble bees have bright orange pollen on their legs, some have cream, one honeybee had grey.  That indicates the bees in my yard have a variety of flowers to pick from right now.  Just because they are on the blackberries now, doesn’t mean they were ten minutes ago.  My yard has a handfull of choices and the neighborhood has even more.  

I also have a greater variety of bumble species than the two other places.  I soon counted four species on my bushes:  One mostly yellow; one all black except for a grey face; one with yellow, orange and black; and the commonest was black with a yellow face and one yellow band on its abdomen.  Friday’s location was a big clump of blackberries growing next to Plat I Reservoir -- two species bumblebees and a small number of other insects.  Saturday’s location was a modest clump growing near Slater Creek and mostly surrounded by forest -- also two species of bumble bees.  

Getting a good shot of the tiny fly was turning out to be harder than I expected, especially since I kept finding other treasures.  I found two other species of tiny flies, three species of wasps, a crane fly, a long-horned beetle, some small bees, lots of honey bees, ‘normal’ flies, a thin orange ‘thing’ that looked like a flying stick with horns, and a tiny crab spider.  

I think these tiny flies are species of 'fruit flies' or 'picture winged flies.'  There are so many species that I can only find a few in my books.  Insects are such a challenge.  There are thousands of species.  Often I have to content myself with just enjoying them, and not succeeding in identifying them.  

The crab spider put on quite a show for me.  I spotted it hunting from the top of a blackberry blossom -- probably hoping to catch one of those tiny flies in its long front arm.  When hunting the crab spider sits motionless with its two pairs of extra long front arms held out and waiting to grab. He uses his shorter, back pairs of legs to hang onto his hunting perch.  

I wasn't quick enough to get a photo of him in full 'thread-throwing' position, but this will give you an idea of what was about to happen.

Suddenly he switched position:  he put his head down, abdomen straight up into the air and stood on the tippy toes of his four long legs!

A moment later I realized what that was all about.  He suddenly dropped back down onto all eight legs, turned around, and scampered away on the virtually invisible thread he had just floated in the air.  His line took him to another blackberry branch about 18 inches away.  

The spider hunted again for a few minutes before he decided to move again to a new spot.  This time I knew what to expect when his abdomen tipped up into the air.  Away floated the invisible thread, downwind to another branch.  Off he scrambled on his line and soon disappeared into a thicker tangle of blackberry where I couldn’t keep track of him.