Sunday, December 28, 2014

Building a Redd

I confess.  These are steelhead, but they look a lot like healthy salmon.
Cow Creek, near Dillard, Oregon:  Oct. 21

Broken clouds fly quickly overhead.  Here the air is still and damp.  Slightly warm when the sun peeks through; slightly  cool when the clouds rein.  Cow creek is summer shallow.  Clear, tannic stained water flows gently towards the South Umpqua river.  Most of the river bottom is brown and algae covered.  Riffles slip over a spot of clean – a salmon’s redd in the making.  Right now the redd is quiet – clean cobbles shimmering under shallow riffles. 

A faint stirring of air releases an ash leaf and floats it gently down to join others on the slow moving water of Cow Creek.  Soon an oak leaf drops onto the creek surface too.  The trees crowded along the banks of Cow Creek still hold most of their leaves – yellowing and browning after a long, dry summer. 

The redd I am writing about.

This redd is in deeper water and shows better how the female salmon uses her tail to dig into the gravel.  Note how clean the gravel is where she has been working. 
The long dark form of a salmon eases over to the clean gravel of the redd.  She approaches from the side in water so shallow her whitening tail and dorsal fin break the surface.  She flips onto her side, tail thrashing and water splashing.  A small pillow of silt billows from the river bottom and floats downriver.  The salmon slips into the nearby deeper water, soon to return.  Her redd is now a tad shallower, a tad readier for her eggs. 

Suddenly two long, dark form zoom in, one chasing the other.  I assume it is two males, one defending the area from the intrusion of the other.  Males hang out near the redd waiting for the female to deposit her eggs into the gravel.  He’ll move in and release copious quantities of ‘milk,’ his sperm.  The fertilized eggs with overwinter in the spaces between the gravel and hatch in the spring.  The tiny fish stay in the fresh water river for a couple of years before entering the ocean for another year to two.  Those that survive will return as mature fish, return to their natal stream to spawn and die.
The ghostly grey body of a spawned out salmon lies nearby, hung up on a cluster of rock.  Another floats by, rigid in death, yet on one last journey.  Soon his parts will be the parts of others.  Perhaps a hungry crayfish will feed on him, a bass will feed on the crayfish’s offspring, a great blue heron will eat the bass … and so life continues on.  Salmon are programed to die after spawning -- a natural part of their cycle of life.

Those clouds racing above are reaching down to me.  A gust of wind interrupts the fall stillness and scatters great handfuls of leaves onto the stream.  Then the air stills again.  A Stellar’s jay flies over, an acorn grasped in its bill.   I savor this fall day.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Merry Christmas!

May the year ahead be full of creativity, happiness, and whatever else is dear to your heart.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Klamath Basin: October - Part II

This post is a continuation of our trip to the Klamath Basin in early October.  
Brown Creeper
Friday, October 10, 2014: 
We park under the dense canopy of an ornamental apple tree at Refuge headquarters for lunch .  I'm immediately sidetracked by a tree-full of bushtits and one Bewick’s wren.  The tree is laden with tiny, orange-colored apples about the size of the tip of my little finger.  I think the apples are too large for wrens and bushtits to eat, but maybe the ripe fruit attracts little insects.  The next apple tree is full of birds who can eat the fruit -- robins and waxwings.  After lunch I photograph some more, especially the brown creeper and the waxwings.  Finally I settle in the car to paint the creeper.  The car is still under the apple tree.  Pleasant sitting here.  This could well be the last day of shirt-sleeve weather this fall.  Change is forecast. 

I feel as though I am under an umbrella full of birds.  Already I'm aware we're going to pay some dues for parking under this tree.  Splat!  Plop!  Robins and waxwings are pooping orange tidbits onto the car.  Our dark car is beginning to look as if we are decorating for Halloween, or maybe it has a case of orange-spotted measles.  I stay put in spite of the splats.  The temperature is just right here in the shade and the sun will glare on my white page if I move.

My little painting of the brown creeper is taking shape when "Whoosh" -- a minor hurricane rips through the tree. 


Every bird has scattered.  Thinking back I realize a moment ago I heard a collared dove call and then the alarm call of a robin.  A hawk must be in the area. 

My tree is silent for nearly fifteen minutes before a handful of wary robins return. No sign of the waxwings returning yet.
Double-crested Cormorant
Saturday morning: 
We're parked at the same bay on Gary Canal where we were yesterday morning.  Such a different morning.  Yesterday had a steady flow of ring-billed and Franklin gulls searching for food while soaring over the little bay, plus  ducks, geese, cormorants, egrets, and more gulls on land and in the water. 

Today is the first day of duck season and somewhere to our left a hunter is hidden
When we arrive about twenty egrets are perched high above the slough on the steep forested slope on the far side of the pond.  No geese nearby.  A few geese and about 200 cormorants have flown over high above. No gulls on the spit, but quite a few in the air.  It's as if a giant spoon is stirring up all the birds and slowly rearranging them. 

Mid morning the first cormorants dare to land in the slough just out of our sight ; and then, one by one, egrets drop out of the trees and float down to a spot out of our sight.  Their maneuvers are magnificent!  Twisting and turning they slip sideways, flare their  wings, and succeed in taking a very steep path downwards.  They sparkle white against the dark forest behind.  It's as if a giant apple tree is dropping its big white petals, they float down ziging this way and that.

Saturday midday:  Late morning the birds quiet down at Gary Canal. We head back to Tulelake National Wildlife Refuge where we lunched yesterday.  We eat our lunch at the same picnic table.  The brown creeper returns and even takes a nap, clinging onto the side of a large cottonwood tree.  How often does one get to see a little bird sound asleep?  Not often enough for me.