Monday, August 31, 2015

Waxwings on the Wing

South Slough National Estuarine Reserve, Coos County, Oregon

Aug 22, 2015

We are heading to the coast. …. and starting a new journal – Volume 45.  Oh my gosh!  That makes me older than dirt!  

I always wonder just what all these blank pages will get filled with.  For now I’ll start with our ‘Yellowstone Breakfast’:  three hard-boiled eggs, three Jimmy Dean turkey sausages, four slices of ancient grain toast from the Lighthouse bakery (of course with peanut butter on all four and jam on two of them), and one banana to share.  I’ve already taken a couple of bites out of one of my pieces of toast.  Dale is getting gas so I have a moment for notes.  (If you don’t know what my ‘Yellowstone breakfast’ is go to my June 2015 post 'Pavlov's Dogs.')

This bodes well!  We haven’t even gotten out of town when a young grey fox streaks across the road in front of us, his feet barely touching ground.   I can count on one hand the grey foxes we’ve seen in Oregon.  We know they are here, but very nocturnal.
Spent the afternoon ‘bugging’ at South Slough National Estuarine Reserve – hiked in to the beaver pond again.  I’m falling in love with the trails at the reserve.  They give us easy access to habitat usually too dense to struggle through, and we hardly ever meet anyone.

A couple of weeks ago we heard the trail into an old beaver pond at South Slough Reserve is open.  We looked forward to finally seeing this tucked-away pond.  This summer we’ve been photographing insects at the reserve.  Eventually I’ll write a blog post about that project, but I’ll wait until that project is nearer to completion.  Meanwhile we return to the reserve every few days to search out new habitats and see what insects we can find. This particular day we are hoping for dragonflies at the pond. 

Early afternoon we head down the meandering trail along the edge of a coarse grassy meadow with peeks of Hinch Creek and cool stretches through a mixed canopy of alder, cascara, and evergreens.  We’re hiking in to the beaver pond for a second time.  The trail opens suddenly onto the beaver pond.  The first time we approached the pond too quickly and spooked a great egret and then a great blue heron.  Today we are careful.  Dark shadows are on the far side of the pond and warm summer sunshine highlights the green marsh grasses, sedges and cattails.  Bright yellow monkey flowers capture little dots of sunshine.  Many years ago beaver dammed this small thumb of a valley that juts off from Hinch Creek’s valley.  We haven’t seen any sign of current beaver activity, just their overgrown dam and their pond.

No egrets or herons today, but several mallards and one goose rest on a downed log.   A kingfisher rattles off in the distance.  We catch a glimpse of him as he flies along the far edge.  A small flock of cedar waxwings darts over the water.  Usually I think of cedar waxwings eating berries, but these are hawking for insects.  They perch on a weathered Sitka spruce snag near us, then zoom out after a bug, and back again.  Sometimes two or three crowd onto the little snag; sometimes even four.   

Cedar waxwings have always intrigued me.  Waxwings have a smoothness to their feathers that doesn’t seem quite real – hardly any sign of individual feathers and a soft gradation from a pale yellowness on their lower belly into the warm browns on their chest and head, grading into soft greys on their wings and tail, plus exclamation points of red, yellow and black.  A beautiful bird.  I don’t see them often, so just seeing one is a pleasure and these were entertaining us to boot. 
They zipped and zoomed in the bright sunshine – flashes of golds and warm browns against the dark shadows on the far side of the pond.  For awhile we forgot all about photographing bugs and just concentrated on the waxwings.

Our hike in to the pond has been quite productive:  two new dragonflies, a sexton beetle, an unusual wasp, a better photo of a wood nymph (butterfly).  We’ll be back.

August 25, 2015

We’ve returned to the beaver pond.  The day seems almost the same – bright summer sunshine, still shirt-sleeve weather, but just a little cooler and windier.  The breeze is kicking up a choppy riffle and bending the long marsh grasses – not good weather to find insects hovering over the water.  Hardly a waxwing was to be seen.  Darn.  I was looking forward to seeing more of them.

Insect hunting in general has been a little slow, but I did find a new damselfly and we finally take time to try for a good mosquito shot.  That means I offer my arm to the cause, i.e. I hold still while a mosquito lands and sucks a drop of my blood.  I’m not sure why I’m the one offering my blood and not Dale. 

Late afternoon we head back to our car.  Shadows were reaching out into the meadow along the trail, but most of the meadow is still golden in the late summer sun.  Suddenly we are invaded by a little flock of waxwings.  This time they are hawking over the meadow.  Down into the long grass one disappears and then another.  A third perches on a swaying weed jutting high above the grass and several more are higher in the air.  The whole flock works the area around us and then flies on down the valley.  Before long they are back again, flying right over my head, just a few feet away, and some landing on a Sitka spruce just a few feet from me.  Still no sign of them eating berries, even though the nearby bushes were full of ripe salal, huckleberries and blackberries.  Insects seem to be on the menu at this time of year. 

Sunday, August 23, 2015


As I write I see only the barest shadows in my backyard.  Shadows are growing long but just faint stripes across the yard.  Sunlight is way too yellow.  There is even a haze between the house and the back shed. 

On the other side of the house we’ve almost lost Mt. Nebo – rather a fancy name for just a ridge.  The ridge is about a mile away and borders my town to the south.  Usually I can look up and see the hillside full of madrones and oaks.   Today I can just make out its outline.  A few days ago it actually disappeared for a few hours. 

The West is in the middle of a harsh wildfire season.  I’m in no danger.  The fires aren’t near town, at least none right now.  A grassy field caught fire late yesterday less than two miles from me, but fortunately the fire department was close and soon had it out.  The nearest serious fire is at least 25 miles from me.  Most of this smoke is coming from the horrendous fires to the north, much of it 200 miles away in Washington State.   Most days the westerly winds blow the smoke farther east, but today the Pacific Northwest currently has an inversion, trapping wildfire smoke and putting us all into a dull grey fog. 
We drove to the coast yesterday to get away from the smoke.  Half way home the air was already smoky – unusual.  While driving along the Coquille Valley I spotted this crow flying near the roadway.  His blackness popped out against the soft haze in the distance.  I grabbed a little sketchbook and painted this mostly on my lap in the car.

Long before the sun set, it glowed red, and fuzzy red again this morning.  It’ll be red again this evening. 

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Watching Tadpoles

Osprey Landing, Umpqua River, Oregon, USA
I’m sitting on a warm boulder, my feet resting on another just inches above the surface of a warm backwater along the Umpqua River.  It’s sunny and warm.  Across the river a family of osprey chick call incessantly.  Keeping up with their adolescent appetites must be a challenge. 

When I sat down I spooked at least fifty tadpoles, mostly big ones two to five inches long.  Those must be bullfrog tadpoles; but there is also a smaller, more golden species too – a medium sized tadpole.  Only half a dozen of the tadpoles stayed put.  Most skedaddle to deeper water.  I didn’t disturb their water, but just seeing me hunkering nearby is enough to send them hurrying.  Gradually they relax and work their way back.  Then I hear a loud splash just to my right.  Algae swirls and the rest of my tadpoles come scurrying back into the shallow water of my little bay.  There are small-mouth bass in the river.  I suspect a large one triggered the splash. 

Soon my eight foot wide bay is again full of activity.

The river here is covered with cobbles and boulders.  Everything underwater is covered with dull green algae, about the same color as the bullfrog tadpoles.  It is scummy stuff.  If I tried wading on these cobbles, I’d have to be very careful not to slip.  But the tadpoles like it.  They eat it.  When a tadpole feeds, his nose is to the rock, his tail waving to keep him in place, or to move him on.  At this stage a frog’s mouth is quite small.  Later he’ll have a huge gape – better to throw his tongue out to catch flies … and dragonflies…. and even ducklings. 

So nice sitting here, even if it is a bit warm.  I sketch, paint and write.  The tadpoles feed; some rest; and a few wiggle on to a new spot.  Those that are still are ever so gently rocked by the very slight ripple in the water.  Every so often one suddenly zooms to the surface for a quick gulp of air.  If I had more patience I’d keep my eyes glued on just one tadpole and time how often it rises to the surface …. Every ten minutes?  Twenty minutes?  Not often.  A young tadpole gets most of its oxygen by using gills and through its skin.  Gradually its lungs become more important.   

I’d also like to observe one individual every day from the day it hatches out of its egg until it is a full grown frog.  Today I’m watching a snippet of that process, but at least I have tadpoles in various stages.  Most have a lot of tail and no legs.  A few have tiny back legs, and a few are losing their tails and have bigger hind legs.  Shortly before adulthood they’ll have four legs, hardly any tail, big mouths….
.... and big eyes.