Thursday, January 18, 2018

Derailed by a Bug

Varied Thrush
Oh, so much fog and clouds this winter, and yet, we are way shy on rain.  We try to take advantage of each sunny day.  Today promises sun – once the fog burns off.  We decide to go to the coast hoping to photograph varied thrushes.   They are common along the coast in the winter time.  Varied thrushes remind me a lot of robins, but they are much fussier about their habitat and their song is so very different.  Instead of singing a long musical soliloquy like their cousin, the varied thrush pipes just a few ethereal flute-like notes .  I hardly ever get to hear one because I don’t live where they breed.  At least they come down to the valleys to winter.

Just over fifty years ago Dale and I arrived in Alaska.  When we stepped off the ferry in Ketchikan our first new and delightful discovery on our Alaska adventure was the song of the varied thrush.  We fell in love with their sweet, simple song. 

So off to the coast today to see some varied thrushes.  They won’t be singing, but the lawns at Shore Acres State Park will almost surely have thrushes poking around on the short grass. 

We swing into the park to quickly verify the thrushes are there, but then we go to another spot about a mile away to eat lunch and watch for whale spouts.  All is well with the whales (grey whales are migrating south to their breeding grounds right now).

While we are eating, we occasionally hear a tap on our windshield.  Backswimmers are on the wing and are attracted to our shiny glass.  Do you know what a backswimmer is?  It is a little bug about one half inch long, who rows around, upside down, underwater.  His paddles are two specially adapted hind legs.  Backswimmers remind my of a one-man racing boat.  Our windshield must look like water to the backswimmers.  One after another lands briefly, then takes off again.  I can just imagine they are a little embarrassed by their mistake.

Soon it is time to head back to the thrushes …… but first I want a quick stop at a small puddle in the ditch next to the road.  The puddle is only about 2 feet x 6 feet, but nearly always has water thanks to a seep.  What will be in it today?

I quickly realize the puddle is a bonanza of activity.  Two weeks ago it was dulls-ville, but today it has a good population of whirlygigs (small, black beetles that zip around on the surface of pond water, often in clusters) and backswimmers.  I’ve hardly arrived, when another backswimmer comes flying in and zips into the water in a flash.  The pond seems to swallow it.  Another comes in and another.
Water Boatman -- this one landed on wet asphalt so I was able to get his photo.

 … and then a little guy flies in.  Much smaller.  This one seems to struggle a bit to get beneath the surface – it’s a water boatman.  Water boatmen are the small cousins of backswimmers.  They have the good sense to swim upright, but, they too, spend most of their time underwater.  They like to hide in the muck where they find their food.  Both backswimmers and water boatmen come to the surface, grab an air bubble, and can stay underwater for long periods. 
A Predacious Diving Beetle -- Colymbetes sp. 
 But that isn’t all.  A half inch brown-colored diving beetle flies in and immediately zips underwater.  After we return home I submit our beetle photo to and soon learn it is Colymbetes sp, one of many predacious diving beetles.  Ours is the first photo of this genus submitted to Bug Guide from Oregon.  Tiny striations across its back separates this genus from many other diving beetles. 

It is the middle of winter, yet this especially mild, sunny day has triggered all kinds of activity.  I never expected today would be a good day for insect watching.   Most people in the park are here to watch the whales.  As far as I’m concerned, far off whales can’t compete with little bugs right at my toes. 
Backswimmer -- upright on the surface of the water.

I stand still and realize the pond has another surprise for me.  There is a backswimmer upright, on top of the surface of the pond.  I’ve always watched them upside down in the water.  A moment later there are two on the surface.  A car comes by, throwing a shadow on the pond, and poof!  They are underwater again. 

All is quiet and I watch while one after another backswimmer floats, belly up, near the surface and suddenly does a roll onto the surface  -- a roll that would make any kayaker proud.  Any good kayaker knows the importance of being able to upright themselves once they have been flipped.  Soon I’ve got over a dozen backswimmers flipped over onto the surface of my little pond.  One flies off. 

Another car comes along.  Most dive underwater again, but two more take to the air.  I’ve seen backswimmers flying before, but not often.  Whenever I do, there seems to be a lot on the wing, such as today.  Interesting that the water boatmen and at least two kinds of aquatic beetles are flying too.  This must be a good time of year to disperse to new locations. 

…. And the thrushes?  I confess, the insects kept us so busy time got away from us.  We headed back to Shore Acres Park to hunt down our varied thrushes,  but found the park was already closing for the day.  No matter.  We’ll just have to try for the thrushes another day.


  1. Love the painting..such a pretty bird. Chuckled at the bugs being more interesting then the Whales and thrush. Who knew? 🤗

  2. Wow! I've never had backswimmers try to land on our windshield, nor have I ever seen them perched 'right side up' on the surface of the water! You've set me yet another observational challenge. :-)

    1. The first time we had lots of backswimmers landing on the windshield was at Lava Beds National Monument(n. California) -- probably ten miles from open water!