Friday, April 14, 2023

Sandhill Crane Follow-up

 Note:  If you haven't read my previous blog, "Platt River Magic:  Sandhill Cranes", you probably should read that one first.  

I continue to enjoy watching the cranes on the Platt river, especially the feature where I can scroll back and see earlier hours.  On April 5, full moon day, I scrolled back through nighttime and caught the full moon soon to sink beneath the horizon.  All was dark and moody -- hundreds of cranes resting the flat Platt River.  I didn't think about whether the webcam was in night mode, which is black and white; or daytime mode, which is full color

Suddenly the webcam switched to daytime.  The setting moon glowed orange and the sky was full of color -- glorious, glorious color.  Cranes were starting to fly.  It is beautiful to see the many moods of the river. 

I've been checking in for a few minutes most days and quickly scrolling back a few hours.  During most of the blackness of night, the cranes sleep with their heads tucked and only an occasional restless crane.  About 1:20 AM, Platt River time, I realized something very different was going on....

The cranes are awake!  Lots of calling;  necks staring.  All the cranes I can see are standing in the water.  And then I see a coyote trotting on a distant sandbar.  With the night cam, coyote and cranes look like ghosts.  Suddenly the coyote gets too near a group.  With a loud clatter, the cranes take to the air ... not for far.  They'll land in a safer spot.

That was the 9th.  I got busy and didn't log on again until today, April 14.  I scrolled back to dawn when I expected to see hundred of cranes ready for their morning flight.... but the river was empty.  No cranes.  Nada.  Nothing.  I scrolled back farther into the night.  The camera was slowing panning the river.  Not a crane to be seen, only two raccoons inspecting one of the sandbars.  The cranes are on their way North, and I'm going to have to wait about 11 months to see them again ... unless they come in the fall???  What a treat it has been!

Sunday, April 2, 2023

 Platt River Magic:  Sandhill Cranes

    ... am I still blogging?  When the muse calls to me .....

Watching Audubon Society's Rowe Sanctuary’s webcam of sandhill cranes has filled my heart with crane music.  Much as I'd like to, I'll probably never go to Nebraska to be there in person.  It requires hundreds of miles of travel; a reservation, a half mile walk in the dark in the wee hours of the morning, a fee, and sharing the experience shoulder to shoulder with other people.  But on Audubon's webcam I can watch and hear one of this country's wildlife treasures:  sandhill cranes coming to the shallow Platt River in central Nebraska to stay a few weeks, feed, and then continue their spring migration.


I got lucky my first morning watching.  I logged at 8:45 AM (10.45 AM Nebraska CDT time) and found it had snowed in Nebraska.  About a hundred cranes still lingered on the river in the greyness of a dull morning.  Off in the distance crane music filled the air.  The elegant creatures poked and wandered.  Little did I know, all the cranes usually have left for their feeding grounds at that time of the morning. 


The next two days of watching I made a point of logging in much earlier.  Oh my gosh! 


Day four I didn't get up early enough --7:30 AM my time-- 9:30 AM Nebraska time.  Not a crane to be seen.  BUT I notice a little red bar on the bottom of my screen.  Audubon gives me the ability to scroll backwards and see the past 12 hours!  Dusk, Birds asleep, first light, thousands and thousands of cranes, lift off at dawn .... 


The peak of the gathering stretches from March 17 until April 8.  I can only apologize it didn't get this blog posted sooner. Here are my sketches ... and abbreviated notes.  I hope they inspire you to log on to Audubon's webcam and see for yourself. 

March 26:  The cranes at Rowe Sanctuary have awakened to snow!  The air is filled with crane music. 

March 27:  I sit mesmerized this morning -- watching thousands of cranes.  Cranes are awake.  Restless.  Some in the air.  Who could sleep with all that yammer?  Occasionally a pair bounce into a brief flurry of dancing.  

I'm limited by where the camera pans, but I get the deafening roar, the flowing Platt River, and the sandbars speckled with hundreds of cranes..... and then the camera shifts to the sky.  Thousands and thousands of cranes are streaming by.  Thousands!  It looks like smoke in the sky! 

According to the Iain Nicolson Audubon Center at Rowe Sanctuary between 100,000 and 200,000 cranes come here!  


Mar 28:  More snow last night and a little foggy this morning.  At 10:30 AM CDT the sandbars are still covered with cranes.  I sit down to finish yesterday's sketch.  How to paint 1000s of birds?  


Crane music fills my ears.  It is solid background noise.  Suddenly the calling takes on a new intensity.  Hundreds of cranes are lifting off ... calling ... calling. A flurry of overlapping cranes, and then the sandbar is bare.  


Mar 30:  I thought I got up early enough for lift off.  I didn't.  No snow.  Birds gone.  Rowe Sanctuary website tells me sunrise is 7:23 AM CDT.  No wonder I can't get up early enough.

BUT!  I discover a new feature on the webcam.  On a little red line at the bottom of the page I can scroll back as many as twelve hours.  I watch past hours as if I'm watching in real time.  

I can eat my breakfast and watch hundreds of light shapes hunkered in the dark.  Glowing embers are the eyes of the few cranes who are awake.  Even now a few birds call.  


I jump ahead to the sky showing a bare suggestion of morning light.... and then scroll ahead to an hour before sunrise. 

The noise level increases from occasional to a pleasant background chatter.  I can see silhouettes of cottonwoods in the background and speckles of cranes massed on the sandbars and in shallow water. The sky is full of muted greys and lavenders ... gradually brightening.  

7:20 AM CDT:  The noise level intensifies.  Thousands and thousands pick up and swirl over me.  Some swing around and drop farther out on the river. Others meld into strings in the sky, flying off to their feeding grounds.  

9 AM CDT:  I fast forward.  The air is still full of calling; flock after flock in the sky; but the sandbars are empty.   My heart is full.

Saturday, November 5, 2022

Paulson's Patented Patience Powder: PPPP


I didn't coin the phrase, 'Paulson's Patented Patience Powder!'  Our good friend, Joseph Conrad, coined it several years ago.  Joe is a retired physical chemistry professor we met in Yellowstone.  Someone suggested ‘that couple with Oregon plates on their van’ could help him identify a plant.  We clicked and over several years spent quite a bit of time with Joe.  After hanging out with us and seeing how long we sit and patiently watch, Joe coined the term PPPP — Paulson’s Patented Patience Powder.  He figured we sprinkle ourselves with PPPP on a regular basis.    Joe used to sleep in and often snuggled in his van reading things like the "Iliad" — in Yellowstone.  No more.  When he gets to Yellowstone, he can’t wait to get out in the park, pull out his PPPP. Over the years several people, including Joe, have thanked us for opening their eyes to the value of just waiting and watching.  


After a disappointing summer of either too hot or too smoky we finally are getting some rain,  clean air, and a few sunny days.  Time to go out and dose ourselves with PPPP.  


We head out to a little reservoir near us.  It is kept full all summer for recreation, but, on or about Oct 15, the Sutherlin Water Master draws it down to mostly a mud flat with a small stream meandering through.  When we get heavy rains, the reservoir fills instead of flooding the little town of Sutherlin downriver from the reservoir.  Then the water master lets the water out gradually and waits for the next heavy rain.  We look forward to drawdown because for a month or so fish are concentrated and bring in shorebirds, great blue herons, egrets, and even a few migrating white pelicans.  The last two years haven’t had nearly as many fish because our local fish hatchery burned in the 2020 wildfire, ending the stocking of fish; but the reservoir is still somewhat of a magnet.  


We park on the dam, where we can get close to the water, and liberally dose ourselves with PPPP.  It is so nice sitting here.  Trees are turning gold; a few fluffs of white clouds float over distant hills; water almost a mirror.  Not a lot of ducks, but we do have a flock of Canada geese, a few herons, egrets, and half a dozen coot inspect the mud flats. We even have three white pelicans resting near the water edge.   On the other side of the reservoir, a mature bald eagle perches high in the cluster of snags.  

Nearby an immature great blue heron catches a fish .... a stab into the water, a quick gulp and down the hatch.  Two fishermen arrive.  The heron catches two more fish; the fishermen don't.  A kingfisher comes and hovers over the water below us ... but only for a moment.  His luck isn't any good either.  The pelicans have left the mud shoreline and are bathing.  Whop!  Whop!  It surprises me I can hear their heavy wings beating the water from so far away.  


A little more PPPP is in order. 

The fishermen give up, but our young heron is still hungry.  He grabs a fourth fish, a rather large bullhead which poses a problem.  

He turns and carries his fish to where the water is only about an inch deep; drops the fish and stabs three times.  He picks his fish up, but it is full of wiggle.  


This heron now holds his fish still for a moment.  Wiggle! Drat!  He drops it again and the fish does it's best to escape in the mud and very shallow water.  Easy to catch.   The heron stabs again and again.  The fish is starting to lose its wiggle.  

‘Whoosh’!  Down comes the mature bald eagle and literally scares the crap out of the heron.  Look carefully and you can see the lone string of white poop and the bullhead is in midair.

In one neat swoop, the eagle snags the muddy bullhead and flies back to the far-off snag where he had been perched.  Note the eagle's muddy feet. 


Slightly ruffled, the great blue heron lands nearby.  Soon he is trying for another dinner.

And so ends a good day!



Sunday, November 14, 2021

Slow Motion: Comments on a Slug

I’m having lunch with a slug ... my slug.  Maybe I should say, “My pet slug.”  Oh dear.  I’ve really gone bonkers.  Dare I really admit I’m having lunch with a slug? 


In case you are wondering:  he is not on my plate!  Merely in a jar next to me where I can watch --- a dark, dirty lump which has been doing nothing at all for at least 45 minutes.  This craziness started nearly a month ago.  


While digging in my (future) rock garden I unearthed a strange, pale, firm lump.  This slimy pod is about the size and shape of a Brazil nut.   It is so strange I brought it into the house to show Dale.  We both pondered on what it might be.  My biggest clue was the slime which made dirt stick like glue.  So I rinsed him off and took a picture.  ..... and went to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife website to see if it might be some type of gastropod.  


Yes!  A slug.  The website lists 29 slugs, about half of which are non-native and most of which are hard to tell apart.  If my little slug would just stretch out like a proper slug, I would have recognized it as a slug right away, but this one can go into a tight, scaredy-cat mode.  He does have one, clearly identifying feature: what looks to be a small shell tight to its body down near the rear end.  You can see it in my photo.  This little shell gives the slug its name:  Earshell Slug, Testacella haliotidea.  This is one of the uninvited, nonnative slugs.  I read they are seldom seen because they usually are underground and that this slug is a carnivore!  I thought all slugs eat organic matter, but a worm is the preferred dinner for him.  Since I popped my slug in the jar nearly a month ago, I’ve fed him four worms.  I can’t find the worms so I assume he has dined well and I can only find him if I gently stir the two inches of soil I’ve given him.  


Today I stirred around and put him on top of the soil – a dirty, Brazil nut shaped lump.  I’m hoping, as I sit here watching him, that he will finally stretch out and look like a proper slug. I put a new worm in there too, hoping for some real action, but the worm quickly dug itself into the soil and disappeared.  


Watching is sooooo slow.  Slower than watching ice cream melt; slower than a five-year-old waiting for Christmas; slower than the last ember going black in a camp fire.  I had him next to my computer for a while, then in the kitchen while I made sandwiches, and now, next to me while I eat.  I figure he’ll finally relax and dig himself back into the darkness of his soil. 


I’m halfway through my sandwich when I start to wonder if I’m seeing movement, or is it my imagination?  I’m feel as though nothing is happening and yet it happens.  I finally start to see tiny peeks of his pale body under that sticky layer of dirt.  He is relaxing just a tad.  More watching.  Maybe he is no longer on his side. Has he ever so gradually righted himself?  Hard to tell because of all the dirt. 


I thought my patience would be well rewarded; that I would be able to give a blow by blow description of the slug stretching out and digging in.  But all I see feels like my eyes are playing tricks on me.  He never stretches out.  My black lump ever so gradually eases into the soil, seemingly without ever disturbing the soil.  It takes several minutes.  Finally he is gone!  


.... and I’m chuckling at myself for all the time I spent watching nothing. 


Saturday, April 10, 2021

Tough Bug!

April 6:  Mildred Knaipe County Park, Douglas County, Oregon

 The sun shines, its breezy, and a little cool. As I wander from one old apple tree to another I hear individual orchestras humming and buzzing.  Maple trees are also singing.  Honey bees are out in full force and seem extra active to keep up with the coolness of the day. 

Down by the pond Dale finds one lone damselfly and click beetle visiting an English daisy, but mostly it is pretty quite down here too.  


I see a little brown blob clinging to a section of dead, floating sedge – maybe a snail. When I was a little girl I had great success raising snails and I have a hankering to try it again.  Wet, squishy earth immediately soaks my knees as I kneel, grab a twig and pull the sedge towards me.   Dale has a conniption fit thinking I’m going to roll right into the pond.  I’ve already put my camera and pack down, so I’m willing to live dangerously.    


But it isn’t a snail.  It’s a tiny, bedraggled beetle hanging on for dear life!  Lucky for him this silly lady in tennis shoes came along; and lucky for me my pack has a small plastic bowl in which to temporarily corral him.  

It looks like a dung beetle, but not quite like one I’ve ever seen before.  It has horns and a humped back.  The little guy is smaller than the end of my little finger.  He settles into his temporary corral and sets to work cleaning and drying himself.  With my eyes I can’t see much, but I’ve got a close-up lens on my camera so I can enjoy watching his toilette while Dale and I both photograph.  


The ends of each arms has a delicate ‘tarsus,’  so tiny compared to the rest of his front leg.  He wipes and wipes.  Once done with his head …

his middle legs reach up and wipe down the middle of his body 

… and finally his hind legs wipe down his tail end.  

Beetles technically have two sets of wings:  The hard out covering is the elytra – the first set of wings.  Underneath lies folded a pair on thin, transparent wings.  The magic underneath the elytra never ceases to amaze me.  I’m hoping this little guy is cold enough and slow enough for me to actually see that second pair of wings …. But, Pop!  Just like popcorn.  He pops those wings open and off he goes, flying off to new places.  I’m left wishing he had stayed longer although I had a good fifteen minutes.  

This is a different kind of beetle, but Dale did catch this beetle just before launch.  See how the wings are unfolding.


Once we got home it took a couple of days to figure out just what kind of beetle I found – a bull-headed dung beetle, Onthophagus taurus.  …and once in a while I stumble upon some gems of information.  His ‘horns’ can vary considerably.  Some have horns that would make a Watusi bull proud.  He is prepared to do battle with other dung beetles in tunnels of dung.  Most important, this little beetle has been written up in as nearly strongest animal on earth for its size!  He can pull 1141 times his own weight!   That is equivalent to a man lifting two fully loaded 18 wheeler trucks.  To come up with this amazing statistic, someone tied a thread to a beetle’s back, pulled it through a pully and added a little bucket.  Drops of water where added to the bucket to see just how much the beetle could pull.  The beetle must have been given a rough surface to cling to.  I think about this and I imagine the beetle dangling from his thread and the bucket of droplets sitting on the ground.

If that indignity isn’t enough, it was a tiny mite that has been found to be even stronger.  

Saturday, March 20, 2021

Early Spring in Yellowstone

 I keep a very relaxed nature journal .... by that I mean some pages are careful, some are quick sketches, often I make a mess, and even more often I don't get my pages finished in a timely fashion.  The weather here has been dreary and yet spring is in the air.  What better way to enjoy it than by taking advantage of a couple wet days to finish these pages from April 2019.  

We arrived in Gardiner and found our cabin was locked!  The hosts were attending a wedding out of town and forgot to leave our cabin open or give a key to the neighbors. ... and I had just picked up about $200 of fresh groceries in Bozeman.  Much to our good fortune we are good friends with both next door cabin neighbors.  One filled his refrigerator with our groceries and the other got on the phone and found us a lovely spot five miles out of town.  That night it snowed ... and in the morning this magpie greeted us.  

Late the next day we got in our own cabin and the trip really began.  Here are my journal pages from the first week.  

Winter still lingers in Yellowstone in mid April  .. sometimes a lot of winter.  I grew up in snowy Wisconsin and look forward to a taste of winter when we arrive.
Redtailed hawks are forming their territories and sunny exposed locations have often lost their snow.

Spring came early in 2019 ... Blacktail Ponds had lots of open water.  Often it is still frozen.
These pen and ink sketches were finished on location.  The other pages were started on location, but I just added most of the paint.

Monday, February 22, 2021

Itty Bitty Critters


I’m hoping you’ll enjoy seeing what I do when the weather is sour and I want a dose of nature.  I’ve enjoying a whole new arena of wildlife.


I’ve been attending a zoom nature journaling conference ... one of the sessions was a ’Plankton Microscope Expedition.’  That got me thinking about my very nice microscope that has been gathering dust for over 20 years.  I traded a painting for it about 40 years ago and shared it with my young daughters until the electrical cord came out (no fault of theirs).  Dale tried to fix it, but my memory said it still didn’t work... would it light up?  


I plugged it in and had light for about two minutes ... just long enough to really wet my appetite.  Necessity is the mother of invention.  I soon found I could see very well using a LED flash light!  I can either shine the light down onto the slide, or up from underneath.


First I went to a soggy puddle in my backyard and found lots of tiny, tiny little specs of microscopic critters running in mad circles – like bumper cars at the county fair.  I think they are water fleas.  How do they get there?  In summer that dip in the lawn is bone dry, but during the soggy parts of winter the puddle is an obstacle on my way to my compost pile.  

Next I harvested a tuft of mosses and lichens off the bark on my honey locust tree.  It was easy to find a half inch grub, but what really amazed me was a tiny insect  -- 2 mm in length (3/32 of an inch).  Remember, adult insects don’t keep on growing.  This was an adult.  I could hardly see it.


I have a glass slide with a little scoop out where I can trap something so small.  I put a wafer of glass on top of the scoop out and trapped him long enough to look at him.  I wasn’t sure what it was until I saw two pairs of wings and fairly long antennae – definitely not a fly and probably a tiny wasp!  I penciled him looking through the microscope and after I released, it I painted a clone.  It was so small the wings don’t even have veins, just little speckles and a fringe of hairs.  

Next day I took my exploration even farther.  Drawing through the microscope is hard ... the little critters keep zipping out of my field of view.  I wanted to photograph my finds.  I actually found another wasp, trapped it on my slide again and started experimenting.  It’s hard.  I really need three hands:  one to push the slide around, one to focus the microscope, and one to hold my cell phone in position.  But it is possible!  I even have a transparent ruler I can put under on the slide and measure pretty accurately.  


I submitted my wasp to and verified it really is a wasp, probably Trichopria sp.  

This little cutie is a booklouse:  Reticulate-winged trogid – Lepinotus reticulatus.  He is just under one millimeter!

... and this is a slender springtail, Entomobrya katzi– all of 1.5 mm.  He created a flurry of e-mails on Bug Guide.  He is the first submission since a change in the scientific name.

... and a baby spider – about 1 mm.


What will I find next?