One day this past week I found myself on top of Mount Howard, just south of Joseph, Oregon. (It’s a popular tourist area, known as the “Alps of Oregon,” and an aerial tramway takes tourists up to the summit of this particular mountain.) To my delight, one of my favorite western birds was making a racket in the fir trees: the Clark’s Nutcracker, a member of the jay family.
I’ve written before about how, in some places in the west, it seems almost possible to estimate one’s altitude based on which jay species are present. You have to get up into the mountains before you’ll see any Clark’s Nutcrackers, but once you get into the right habitat, they’re pretty common.
The birds were making quite a racket. Jays often do, but there was something specific going on in this case: as I watched, I realized I was seeing a pair of birds, one quietly going about its business of foraging among the conifer cones and a second one following it around making piteous keening noises. I’m 95% sure it was a recently-fledged bird, following its parent around and begging.
Stumbling across interesting birds is always cool, and it’s even better when you get to see an interesting behavior like this. Part of the fun of living out west is that even some of the fairly common birds of the area (like Black-billed Magpies and Lazuli Buntings and Red-breasted Sapsuckers and what have you) still seem novel. Happy birding!
We visited Mount Rainier National Park over the weekend, and after driving up to the Paradise visitor center, opted for a short hike to Snow Lake. The trail was still partially snow-covered but was absolutely beautiful, thick with blooming Avalanche Lilies and providing stunning views of the mountain (I’d been to the park once before, but on an overcast day when the peak was lost in clouds).
On the way down, a grouse unexpectedly walked out onto the trail in front of us. Unlike Ruffed Grouse, which in my experience flush as soon as they hear you coming so that all you ever see is their tails as they fly away, this male Sooty Grouse (a lifer for me) was remarkably unconcerned by our presence as he pecked at the vegetation.
We also got to see a female when one flew across the road and perched in a hemlock tree by the trailhead, where she appeared to be eating the needles.
All in all a great bird to conclude two weekend of travel on the west side with!
There are hops plants in containers in our yard. The person responsible for said plants (not me) is rather invested in their well-being and regularly examines their leaves for any sign of disease or other problems. Recently he found these:
Insect eggs! But what sort of insect eggs? Something that would munch on the hop leaves and damage the plants? Luckily it wasn’t hard to figure out the answer, because the culprit was still nearby.
This was last week. When I checked back this morning, the eggs had hatched and the plant was crawling with tiny, spiky ladybug larvae. And also with aphids. But at least there are baby ladybugs around to eat the aphids, right?
I’m not sure whether these are a native ladybug species or an Asian one; I know you can tell by the face pattern, but the photo of the adult ladybug isn’t clear enough for me to be sure. In any case, it’s fun to be able to watch their life cycle. I’ll have to check back and see if I can find pupae later on.
UPDATE: I did keep checking but apparently missed the pupae – after forgetting about it for several days, I took a look at the plant and there were no remaining ladybugs (at any stage of their life cycle) to be seen. Oh well.
Last week I joined some members of the Blue Mountain chapter of the Audubon Society for their weekly bird walk at Bennington Lake. Like most birders, they were a welcoming, friendly group, and there was one woman in particular who apparently birds the trails there intensely every week and had scoped out a couple nests. So, in addition to great looks at Lazuli Buntings, Bullock’s Orioles, Black-headed Grosbeaks, and other western treats, we got to observe a Western Kingbird and a Yellow Warbler on nests – pretty cool.
As we were walking through a wooded area, a flicker of movement in the branches caught my eye, and I turned my head to see a female hummingbird buzzing among the leaves. As I watched, to my amazement, it settled onto a ball of white fluff on one of the twigs. Another nest! A hummingbird nest! I had found a hummingbird nest! I didn’t have my camera with me but one of the others did and she kindly gave my permission to use her photo.
And this is not just any hummingbird. Female hummers all look the same to me in the field, but according to the others who were there, this is a Calliope Hummingbird, the smallest bird found in the U.S. and Canada. I’d only seen one Calliope before ever, so I was amazed to learn that this is actually the second most commonly seen hummer species around here, after the Black-chinned. The nest itself, as far as I can tell, is made of cottonwood fluff held together with spiderwebs.
Finding a hummingbird nest (even if it was pure luck) was certainly a great way to earn my stripes with a new group of birders. Next time I go birding at Bennington, I will definitely be bringing my own camera!
UPDATE: We managed to re-find the nest a week later, and seen from a slightly different angle, its proportions look different and there was some talk that it may in fact be a Black-chinned Hummingbird after all. Here’s the new angle, decide for yourself:
Here, once again, is my monthly-ish collection of wildlife and conservation links and articles that have caught my eye – plenty of fun facts and interesting eye candy for your Sunday afternoon reading.
I love the series of “wide-angle close ups” of plants that Ohio nature photographer Tom Arbour has been posting on his blog, putting native plants in the context of their habitats – my favorite so far is the large white trillium but they’re all worth checking out.
Finally, this past Monday science-y folks on Twitter hijacked Seventeen‘s #ManicureMonday hashtag with photos of their own hands (some manicured, some not) doing science stuff. I posted an old picture in which I’d used my hand (with purple nail polish) for size reference in a photo of coyote scat. Slate linked to my tweet in their write up. I guess I’m famous now?
As always, feel free to share your own finds in the comments!
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the Black-billed Magpie.
Is that not a beautiful bird? I grew up in the magpie-free eastern third of the continent, and the first time I laid eyes on one was the summer I spent on the Saskatchewan prairie. The locals didn’t understand my fascination, but I mean, look at it. That long, streaming tail! (The only non-magpie bird regularly found in the U.S. with a tail so long relative to its body length is the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, which I’ve never seen.) The handsome black-and-white plumage, with iridescent blue-green highlights!
Now, of course, I’ve moved to a corvid-rich part of the country where Black-billed Magpies are just one of the cool members of the jay family flying around (I also see Common Ravens, Stellar’s Jays, Gray Jays, and Clark’s Nutcrackers all pretty regularly). No matter how many magpies I see, I never get tired of them. They’re so handsome. A fellow immigrant to the area told me he used to think they were cool until he found out they’re “just scavengers.” Just scavengers?! Yes, like most corvids they’re not above eating roadkill, but the best looks I’ve gotten at eagles (both Bald and Golden) have also been at roadkill! There’s no such thing as “just” a scavenger. Hmph.
I wonder if people who grow up out here and move to the eastern part of the country are as fascinated by Blue Jays as I am by all their beautiful western cousins. Magnificent marvelous magpies with their streaming tails.
These photos have been sitting on my little point-and-shoot camera for a couple weeks now, waiting for me to finally bother to download and post them. I was pulling into the office after a day of field work when, as I parked the truck, I noticed that there was something very, very weird about one of the deer hanging out in the yard.
They aren’t great photos, but I wasn’t trying to be artistic, I was just trying to document this truly messed-up looking deer face.
He literally looks like he has an old bird’s nest stuck to his forehead. I went in and showed the photos to my boss, who at first thought it was some sort of deformation that had been caused by an old injury like getting hit by a car, but then she went outside for a better look and decided he’d somehow gotten caught on a chunk of old carpeting or something, although it must have been there a long time to cause his antler to grow in a funny direction.
Thoughts? Theories? He hasn’t come back, that I’ve seen.
Hark, a blog post! (Man, remember when I used to post three times a week? Crazy.) Last spring I sat down and wrote an essay about a wildlife encounter I had on the Saskatchewan prairie the summer after I graduated from college. It was my first real dabble into “literary” writing in years, and after submitting it around and racking up a pile of rejection emails, I’ve admitted to myself that it’s not likely to get published for real. However, I hate to just leave it wasting away on my hard drive, so here it is. If you like owls and have time for a 1500-word essay of questionable literary merit… keep reading.
Juncos! Who doesn’t love juncos? These fluffy little gray birds were one of the first species I learned to identify, always a winter fixture at our backyard birdfeeder when I was growing up in Ohio. But when I first cracked open a field guide, I was in for a bit of a surprise: juncos in other parts of the country looked very different from mine. In fact, what I know as the Dark-eyed Junco used to be considered about five different species before the “lumpers” got their hands on it. Back in the day, my plain-gray Ohio juncos would have been called Slate-colored (not Dark-eyed) Juncos to distinguish them from their various cousins around the country.
Which brings me to the birds that were in my backyard over the weekend.
Just like in Ohio, the arrival of juncos here is a sign that winter is approaching, but these aren’t “Slate-colored” Juncos, they’re (appropriately enough) “Oregon” Juncos. A common yard bird here, but a novelty to an easterner like me, and even though the lighting was bad I couldn’t resist taking a few terrible photos.
See? I warned you, terrible. But at least you can see that they have a dark gray head that contrasts with the reddish-brown back, unlike “Slate-colored” Dark-eyed Juncos, which are just solid gray on top.
Despite all the junco lumping, there is still a second official junco species in the U.S., but you have to travel to the mountains of southeastern Arizona to see it: the Yellow-eyed Junco (exactly what it sounds like, and on my 2013 year list, thanks to my spring break Arizona trip). It’s entirely possible that the Oregon subspecies of Dark-eyed Junco could be split off again in the future, giving me one more tick for my list. In the meantime, I’ll just keep enjoying my yard birds!