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Saturday, November 28, 2009

Waterfowl at Westmoreland Park

With the nicer weather yesterday, I went back to Westmoreland City Park in hopes of getting some nicer photos of the red phalarope. Unfortunately the phalarope had moved on (I'm glad I went in the rain and saw it before it left!), but there were lots of other waterfowl hanging out on the two ponds there. Since I had my camera in hand anyway, I decided to walk around the two ponds and take some shots.

First is a female American wigeon who was flapping her wings after bathing:

Here's a male American wigeon:

Some of the Canada geese were being fed, which is probably why they were much more approachable than the other species. I took advantage of this to try some close-ups. While I got some neat head shots, this full-frame picture turned out the prettiest:

There were only two lesser scaup that I could see, but the male took one pass close to the shoreline:

Finally, I've tried several times in the San Juans to get a nice picture of a bufflehead, but haven't had too much luck. I had a little more luck yesterday. There were a few of them hanging out together on the pond, and with the sun peaking through the clouds you can really see the iridescent feathers on the head of this male:

Thursday, November 26, 2009

I'm thankful for....A new life bird!!

Happy Thanksgiving to all my fellow American blog readers out there! I was going to list a few things in the natural world that I'm especially thankful for today, but an unexpected sighting takes the cake today as I got a new life bird!

This guy must have gotten blown off course during some of the recent wind storms, because he/she is supposed to be out in the ocean but instead has been hanging out here in a city park. It's a red phalarope! (Same as the grey phalarope for those of you in Europe.)

Red phalaropes breed north of the Arctic circle and migrate offshore, so they are the least often encountered of the three North American phalaropes. They are late migrators with many of them heading south in November, going as far as beyond the equator. Funny, there's no red on it at all this time of year, but you can tell them from other phalaropes in winter plumage (here are some red-necked phalaropes from a few months ago) due to its all gray back with no streaks and stouter bill.

Red phalaropes are known for being fairly approachable and this one is no exception, because some fellow birders have reported getting to within a couple feet of it in recent days. No such luck for me today, because despite the rain a lot of other folks were out enjoying the park and it was a bit skittish of the edges of the pond. I may have to try again in nicer weather if it sticks around.

Finally, this mallard was just too pretty not to share as well:

Squirrels - Shot with a new camera!

A few days ago I bought myself a new camera and lens set up (!!!) and I've been starting to get used to my new equipment. After using my last camera set up for five years, I had started to notice some things slowing down. The lenses especially are a major upgrade for me in quality so I look forward to really seeing what they could do. I needed a subject to shoot while I played around and I found some obliging red fox squirrels at a neighborhood park. I'm sure I'll be posting more as I continue to experiment with the new camera, but for now enjoy these photos....

Monday, November 23, 2009

Windy and Wild Oregon COASST Survey

Yesterday I went to the Oregon coast with my dad to conduct a beached bird survey. COASST, or the Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team, is a citizen science program where people monitor beaches and report all seabird strandings. I've been doing surveys on a beach in the San Juans, and while I've had some cool sigthings, I haven't ever actually found a dead bird there. I also got my dad interested in the program, though when I did a survey with him we didn't find any birds either. More birds tend to wash up on the outer coast than in the interior waters like where the San Juan Islands are, often in the fall. My dad has found a total of seven birds on his recent surveys, so when I joined him yesterday I thought chances were good that I might find my first stranded seabird. Little did I know what I was getting into....(a couple of these photos aren't for the faint of heart if you don't like seeing dead things)

The weather has been fairly stormy and very unpredictable lately, and yesterday was no exception. On the drive through the beach we had nearly every kind of weather imaginable - sun, clouds, rain, hail, and snow. Luckily when we arrived at the beach the sun was shining again, though it was very windy. Here you can see the dry, lighter colored sand blowing over the wet, darker surface of the beach:

We didn't have to walk far before we found our first bird of the day: a northern fulmar. When we find a bird we measure its beak, wing chord, and tarsus on its foot. We also assess its overall condition, note where it was found on the beach, and if it is associated with any oil or entanglements. The bird is then tagged and photographed.

By the time we finished recording the required data for this fulmar, we could see a squall moving in. We half-ran back to the parking lot, getting caught in the first of the rain before reaching the shelter of the car. Luckily it only lasted about 15 minutes before the clouds moved on. Here you can see the squall moving to the left, and the nicer weather returning on the right:

Luckily we stayed dry after that, because we had a lot of work ahead of us. Not far after where we found the first northern fulmar, I spotted a western gull entangled in some wrack. Here's my dad measuring the beak:

I think it was then that we realized there could be a lot of birds on our beach that day. In the end, we found a whopping ELEVEN birds: five northern fulmars, two brown pelicans, one western gull, one western grebe, and an unidentifiable wing that may have been from another fulmar. I think one reason there were so many birds is because of the stormy weather we've been having, which both takes the lives of some weaker birds and causes bigger waves to wash them up on shore.

If you're a little bit grossed out by some of these photos, I don't blame you. I almost am too, looking at the photos. I'm not the kind of person you would expect to spend time looking at or handling dead animals, but I have to admit in the field it is actually pretty fascinating. A bit of the naturalists' curiosity takes over when you get a chance to examine some of these animals up close. Take this brown pelican:

I never would have imagined that I could say something dead was beautiful, but this pelican was pretty close. First of all, check out this wing-span!

Brown pelicans have wing spans of 6-8 feet, and I'd have to say this guy was towards the larger end of that spectrum. Just seeing the sheer size of the bird was amazing, but being that close gives you a chance to notice other details as well, like this hook on the end of its beak:

Or how about these beautiful feathers:

We weren't the only ones out on the beach yesterday afternoon, either. Check out this guy, who nabbed himself a live pelican!

It turns out it had an injury and he was taking it to a wildlife rehab center. He only stopped briefly for a quick photo because he said the bird was pretty heavy (they can be upwards of ten pounds). He said it was the second one he had gotten that day, and we saw a third injured juvenile later on. While its sad to see dead and injured brown pelicans on the beach, we did actually see several thousand live pelicans while we were out there too. The brown pelican was listed as endangered mostly due to issues arising from DDT, but they were actually delisted just ten days ago due the amazing recovery they've made!

Above is the western grebe we found right at the boundary of our survey area. It provides another example of some of the cool observations you can make by seeing a bird like that up close. Grebes actually have lobed feet, which is something I didn't know until I took the COASST training. The lobed toes look very bizarre to me:

The northern fulmars also gave us a chance to see why they're in the tubenose family. I've seen fulmars on a couple of occasions before, but never close enough to really see the tubular nasal passage on top of the bill. This part of their anatomy has several functions, including being an olfactory organ they use to smell prey at sea. It's also the site of a gland where they excrete salt, since when they spend their whole lives at sea they actually drink salt water:

It wasn't just birds we found on the beach, either. These last two I want your help identifying. First is this pirhana-like fish. Anyone know what it might be?

Second is this huge light bulb. Any ideas as to what it may have been used for?

You just never know what you're going to find when you walk on the beach. It took us three hours to complete our survey, but we learned a lot, saw even more, and got to participate in a cool citizen science project.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Sauvie Island in November

About 10 miles outside of Portland near the junction of the Willamette and Columbia Rivers is Sauvie Island, a rural 26,000 acres including a large wildlife refuge. Its one of the first places I remember my dad taking me birding when I was little, and is still one of my favorite spots for finding overwintering waterfowl.

Much of the wildlife refuge is closed to bird-watchers and open to hunters from November-April, but there is still a pretty driving tour around the island with several places where you can stop and overlook ponds and fields. The weather here has been very blustery and gray, so it wasn't a bad day to bird mostly from the car anyway.

The first stop I made was to look at a flock of Canada geese with some snow geese mixed in. There are many different races of Canada geese, and I'm no expert at telling them apart, but it was obvious that several different sub-species were present just by the range in their size and coloration. (Hmmm....maybe a future blog post can focus on this?) Later on, I also heard some cackling geese - they used to be the smallest race of Canada geese but have since been designated their own species.

This photo is of a cedar waxwing who was part of a large flock feeding on the fruits in a patch of leafless trees and scrub. I think this one is eating a rosehip. I'm kind of surprised to find waxwings here in the winter. Even though the Pacific Northwest is part of their year-round range according to maps on my field guides, I just don't recall seeing them here in the winter and associate them mostly with the peak of summer. The picture was nearly all black and white anyway, so turning it to grayscale just enhanced the contrast, really capturing the feeling of the day:

One of the main birds I associate with Sauvie Island is the sandhill crane which likes to stopover on the farmlands on both its fall and spring migrations. I was hoping to get some photos, but I only saw one small flock way off in the distance. When I was stopped to view them, however, I was startled by several killdeer that were scurrying about in the tilled field much closer to the car. They blended in so well I didn't notice them until my binos happened to pan over them! Look at that camouflage:

Raptors were the other highlight of the day, since they seemed to be everywhere. There was one pair of bald eagles in a field, and when the took flight one of them was trailing a big mass of vegetation. I saw four separate pairs of American kestrels, at least as many red-tailed hawks, and both male and female Northern harriers. There were several osprey nest, but none of them occupied, and no owls today either, which would have been a nice find.

In a little over an hour, I turned up a respectable 24 species. It was nice to get out and about a little bit and revisit one of my favorite local birding spots, but I can't wait until we get some sunshine and its nicer weather for both hiking and photography!

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Sunday, November 15, 2009

How many points on a buck?

It's rutting season, and as a result it seems like deer have been everywhere. It's the time of year males get to show off their antlers, and as a result I've had several discussions about how many "points" a buck has. A point is each tine on the antler, including the brow tine, which sticks straight up near the base of the antlers. Someone will say they saw a four-point buck, and the debate is whether that means four tines total or four tines on each side.

A little research has shown that traditionally you count all the points on the antlers. This makes sense to me, since antlers are not always even on both sides, so it may be possible to have a seven pointer who has three tines on one side and four on another. The confusion comes in the fact that some hunters, particularly on the west coast, use the other method. So what is traditionally called an eight point buck could also be called a western four pointer. Follow all that?

The buck in the photo above is an eight-pointer. He's got three prominent tines, plus the two brow tines which are easier to see if you enlarge the picture by clicking on it. The other question I've had come up several times is whether or not the number of points is related to age - ie, do older bucks have more points? The answer is, someone surprisingly, no. It turns out the number of points has more to do with genetics and can also be influenced by diet and overall health of the deer. That makes sense - if you're a healthier deer you can "afford" to put more energy into larger antlers.

For white-tailed deer, common over much of North America, bucks can get up to sixteen or more points. On San Juan Island, we have mule deer, and their antlers are a little different. Their antlers fork as they grow rather than branch off the main shaft, and from what I can tell they don't usually have as many points as white-tails.

The other afternoon when I was out near sunset there were probably about fifteen deer grazing the prairies near the south end of the island. The buck pictured above was the largest male I saw, but mostly they were females. With the golden late afternoon light and some remnant clouds from our weather earlier in the day, this silhouette shot turned out to be a beauty:

Here's another pair of does that lifted their heads to check me out before returning to their grazing:

Despite the beautiful photo ops of the deer, my prized photo of the day was actually of a bird. I only see them occasionally and they've never let me approach close enough for a photo until now - the northern shrike!

The south end of the island is actually a pretty reliable place to see the shrikes this time of a year, as I think we have a couple that overwinter there. They're still a treasured find for this birder.

It was a beautiful afternoon outing, and my last on San Juan Island for the calendar year! I've headed south for at least part of the winter and arrived in Portland, Oregon last night. My heart lies in the islands, but Portland is where I grew up, and it will be nice to catch up with family and friends over the next little while in addition to visiting some of the local natural areas with a keener naturalists' eye. Stay tuned as my future posts, over the next few weeks at least, will feature some new places and different critters!

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Orcas in November - Including A New Calf!

I haven't seen the orcas since October 9th, and I just felt like surely I had to see them one more time before calling the season truly over. I had to wait a little longer than expected, but today was that day!

Thanks to a report of the whales being heard on the hydrophones, I called a few friends and then headed out to the westside to see if I could find them. Before long the word had spread and I was joined by about a dozen other "orca-holics" as we watched J and K Pods head south past Lime Kiln.

It was exciting to see the whales, but even more exciting was the fact that we saw what is almost certainly a brand new calf! It was traveling with J28 Polaris, who at the age of 16 would be a first-time mom.

At first we noticed what some of us refer to as a "nursery group", in this case one female with several youngsters that seemed to be a couple of years old at most. Often one mom will babysit other little ones and the calves will play together. When we saw that the adult female was Polaris, we assumed she was probably babysitting her younger brother J44 that was born earlier this year, which she has been seen doing before. There have been four calves born this year (two in J-Pod, including J44, and two in L-Pod), but all of a sudden one popped up next to her that just looked too small to be 10 or so months old, as the J-Pod babies are. Here's J28 and the new calf next to another youngster that's a little bit older (and bigger):

Several of us that keep close tabs on the whales have earmarked Polaris as a likely future mom since she is about the age most females have their first calf. After a few years of anticipation its exciting to finally see her with a little one of her own. There has to be a few more sightings before the calf's mom is confirmed, so it's not 100% yet, but it sure looked that way! The calf being new has been confirmed, and the Center for Whale Research has designated it J46.

Right away some people were spectulating the calf's father might be L57 Faith, an adult male that passed away last year that had a known affinity for J-Pod females. He traveled with J-Pod for all of the summer season in 2008 before he was last seen last November. He was often seen following J28 around, hence the speculation he's the father. With a 17 month gestation period, its certainly possible.

These next two shots are a little blurry, but I'm posting them anyway because they show what look to me like fetal folds on the back of the calf. Notice how the head and back don't look perfectly smooth. You may want to click to see the larger version. This is something you commonly see in newborns before their skin smooths out after being in the womb.

The orcas weren't the only wildlife out in Haro Strait, either! In addition to lots of seabirds and hordes of rooster-tailing Dall's porpoise, this Steller sea lion came by and took a look at us:

Monday, November 9, 2009

Gull and bait fish

I've been meaning to post this picture for a while (I took it earlier this summer), but I always end up blogging about something else. Today's the day!

I was out watching the sunset, and a rhinoceros auklet was diving and feeding on bait fish, perhaps to take back to its chick. Often, they will capture their last fish of the day and then carry it to their nesting site, which is often miles away, under the cover of darkness so predators don't find their nest.

Gulls will often come in and take advantage of an auklet or other diving bird that herds a school of small fish near the surface, hence bringing the food within reach of the surface-bound gull. I see this all the time, but what made this particular encounter so unique was all the fish bubbling to the surface around the gull as they made an effort to escape the auklet.

It must be an interesting life to be a gull. As a fellow naturalist put it, they pretty much make a living by waiting for someone else to get food. Then they find a way to steal or otherwise get some of it. Scraps stolen from seals, sea lions, or whales; food scavenged from humans; or in this case, fish schooled to the surface by a diving bird. Hey, whatever works!

Friday, November 6, 2009

Hearing in Marine Mammals

Today was the annual Marine Naturalists' Gear-Down, an end-of-season lecture series hosted by The Whale Museum. While there was a lot of great information shared, I thought I would focus this post on one interesting fact I learned and have since been pondering (and reading about further in a marine mammal biology textbook).

Our first speaker was talking about the adaptations required by marine animals to deal with the conditions of oceanic life. He made an interesting point when talking about hearing underwater. Evolutionarily speaking, animals originally had ears designed for hearing in the water, but as animals moved to land there had to be changes in the structure of the ear to deal with hearing in air. Humans, like all terrestrial mammals, have air in the middle ear, which makes us great at hearing sounds transmitted through the air. If, however, we have our heads underwater, our hearing is impaired due to impedance mismatch, which basically happens when sound switches from one medium to another. When sound going through the water encounters the air in our middle ear, it impairs our ability to hear it clearly or determine which direction its coming from.

Marine mammals evolved from terrestrial mammals, so their ears still have the basic structure designed for hearing in the air. How, then, have they adapted to hear so well underwater? They've had to find a way to overcome the impedance mismatch caused by the air/fluid barrier.

Toothed whales spend all their time underwater and have "solved" this problem by receiving sounds directly to their inner ear not through their external ear canal but through the fatty tissue of their lower jaw, which conducts sound in a similar manner to water. But what about pinnipeds, which need to hear both in the air and underwater?

This harbor seal pup is adept at hearing in the air and underwater, due to a very interesting adapation

It's theorized that most pinnipeds primarily receive underwater sound through bone conduction, which means that sound reaches the inner ear by resonating through the bones in the skull. Some human hearing aids actually make use of bone conduction. This process isn't very well understood in pinnipeds, since orienting the direction of the sound must still be difficult. These pinnipeds then hear sound in air via the typical pathway through their external ear canal.

Different pinniped species have different hearing abilities in air/water depending on their life history. Elephant seals have sharper underwater hearing, whereas sea lions have better hearing in the air. Harbor seals, however, get the best of both worlds. As our speaker shared today, harbor seals actually have a mechanism to fill part of their middle ear with blood (a fluid which transmits sound more like water than air) when they are underwater to better receive sound. When they are at the surface, this blood drains, restoring the air to the middle ear and allowing them to hear better in the air. Since harbor seals use the external ear canal to hear underwater instead of bone conduction, they have better underwater directional sensitivity than other pinnipeds.

The biologist in me is fascinated by this kind of thing....

2018 Update: I continue to get inquiries about this post years later! Unfortunately I don't recall who the speaker was, but did find this reference in the book Sensory Ecology (pages 271-272) that describes this theorized mechanism a bit further:

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

2010 Photo Calendars

It's amazing that 2010 is just around the corner, isn't it? Every year I put together a wildlife photo calendar, but this year I decided to do three with different themes: wildflowers, orcas, and birds. Since many of these photos have been featured on my blog, I thought I would link to them here. Click on a calendar to see all the photos for every month. The holiday gift-giving season is just coming up quickly, or get one to enjoy yourself! At checkout use the coupon code 10CALENDARS9 to get 10% off your order.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Insect IDs

I've had some time to sit down with my new field guide (Insects of the Pacific Northwest by Peter and Judy Haggard) and have been successful in identifying some insects from my photos. There are some cool looking critters to share with you today!

This first one is one of my favorites for its interesting shape and unique coloration. (It was also relatively small at about 10-15 mm long, which made it more pleasant to approach than some of the larger specimens below. I'm not exactly an entomophobe, but I do believe in giving insects their space and hoping they give me mine!) From the shield-like shape I was immediately able to narrow it down to a stink bug (Family Pentatomidae), but the colors looked nothing like any of the photos in my guide. By referencing The Bug Guide, I was able to learn that its actually a stink bug nymph (Chlorochroa spp.):

Some insects, like butterflies, go through complete metamorphosis, progressing from an egg to a larva, then a pupa, then an adult. Others, like stink bugs, go through incomplete metamorphosis, hatching from an egg to become a nymph, then becoming an adult after one or several molts (instars). The fact that you can encounter a wide variety of nymphal stages in addition to the adult stage of an insect will make identification much more difficult, I can tell....

Aside from the charismatic butterflies and moths, the other large, common, distinctive insect group we often encounter is the order Coleoptera - the beetles. My field guide has a nice introduction at the beginning of the beetle section:

Coleoptera is the largest order in the animal kingdom and, with approximately 290,000 species described, contains an estimated 37 percent of all known insect species. More than 23,700 species have been recorded in the United States and Canada. Approximately one-third of the total number of insect species found in the Pacific Northwest are beetles.

This first beetle, pictured above, is a golden buprestid (Buprestis aurulenta) of the metallic wood-boring beetle family. In addition to its remarkable iridescent coloration, notice the four longitudinal grooves that run down each wing, another identifying mark.

The next one, pictured below, is a tiger beetle (Cincindela spp.). There are several similar species that vary in how green/brown the body are as well as the particular yellow markings on the wings, so I'm not sure which particular species this is. The field guide notes that they can be difficult to approach, and indeed this one was running when I saw it. This is the only photo I was able to get of it - I'm lucky it turned out as well as it did!

This next beetle I at first thought was either a ground beetle (big and black) or stag beetle (large jaws), so I was surprised to figure out that it was also in the tiger beetle family, although in a different genus. This is the flightless tiger beetle (Omus audouini). The mouth parts are what I immediately noticed, but upon closer examination I also looked at the shallow pits on the wing covers.

Moving on from beetles, here is a common fall critter that I've always heard referred to as a woollybear caterpillar. Turns out this is accurate - its a larval banded woollybear (Pyrrharctia isabella), that will eventually metamorphose into a tiger moth. According to an old wives' tale, the width of the orange band in the middle will tell you how cold the upcoming winter will be. Hmm, this band doesn't seem to be too wide - are we in store for a milder winter than last year?

Here is another closely related species - the larva of a rangeland tiger moth (Platyprepia virginalis). It's funny that I recognize many of the tiger moth larva, but not the boldy patterned adult moths.

There's nothing quite like picking up a new field guide and, while flipping through it, finding something that I haven't been able to identify anywhere else. As I've expanded my horizons over the last year and a half from birds and marine mammals to also encompass wildflowers, mushrooms, and insects, I've experienced this joy of identifying a new species several times - they are very much "Ah-ha!" moments. This last photo was one of those moments, the very first thing I identified using my new book - and I didn't have it down as being insectoid at all!

I thought this was some kind of fungal parasite when I found it growing on these plant leaves this summer. Take a look:

It's actually a gall formed by a gall wasp (Family Cynipidae). They're tiny wasps that are hard to find or identify, but each species lay their eggs on a particular host plant, and as a result a distinctive looking growth (the gall) develops in which the larva feed. The galls are the easiest way to detect and identify the species. The one pictured above is the rose leaf gall (Diplolepis polita). So THAT'S what that thing is! Amazing.