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. Continue 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!
Time once again for one of my erratic collections of interesting nature and wildlife links – articles, photos, and more! Enjoy, and please share any interesting links of your own in the comments.
- In addition to being a writer, Vladimir Nabokov was a major butterfly enthusiast. Check out his beautiful drawings of made-up butterfly species for his wife and this lovely poem about describing a new butterfly species. “Dark pictures, thrones, the stones that pilgrims kiss, poems that take a thousand years to die, but ape the immortality of this red label on a little butterfly.”
- This comic about jumping spider mating dances is pretty much the best thing ever.
- Bad news for already-endangered Siberian Tigers – they’re experiencing a serious outbreak of canine distemper virus.
- Look closely at this infographic about the Monarch butterfly from the website of Orkin, the pest-control company. Something is wrong. Something is very, very wrong.
- Different species of pitcher plants have different strategies for capturing insects, and it depends on whether they live in wet or dry habitats.
- Apparently it’s a thing to photoshop arms onto birds. Because internet.
- Darwin’s kid drew adorable doodles on his manuscript of On The Origin of Species. Aww.
- I learned this week that snapping turtles are becoming established in Oregon (probably through people making unwise pet choices and then releasing them). An alligator snapper was recently found in a reservoir in a town a couple hours west of here.
- And finally, the morning that EPA employees got to back to work after the government shutdown, Joe Biden brought them muffins. Oh Joe Biden. Good ol’ crazy uncle Joe.
Next stop… the weekend!
Over the weekend I took a drive up Highway 395 to take some photos of Camas Creek and the North Fork John Day River. Even here where most of the trees are pines, the scenery manages to look autumnal.
If this were less in the middle of nowhere, it would be a pretty popular tourist spot.
Having been to Arches National Park, when I hear “natural arch” I picture red rock desert, not volcanic basalt and pine trees. The idea is the same, though. This is Malheur National Forest’s Arch Rock, the trailhead for which is down a questionably-maintained gravel road and marked with a minimalist sign.
I’m not sure whether or not we were technically breaking the law by hiking on federal land during the government shutdown; there were no signs or barricades at the trailhead or on the road. National forests are so large, and used for so many different things, that it’s impossible to really close them. We passed a number of other people on our way in and out, including a couple cowboys on horseback rounding up a group of cattle.
It was a different story when we drove in the other direction out toward John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. Despite the fact that it’s a unit of the National Park Service, there are no gates or fees and the various overlooks and trailheads are located along a well-traveled state highway, so I thought they might still be accessible. However, each one had literal red tape stretched across the entrance to the parking area.
This thing is going to blow over pretty soon… right?
I wish I had photos to illustrate this post, but I don’t, it’s just something that’s been on my mind.
I’m not sure I’d ever laid eyes on a dark-phase Red-tailed Hawk before I moved to Eastern Oregon. Now I see them all the time. (At first, I’m embarrassed to admit, I think I mistook a few of them for Golden Eagles. Western raptors are still a new thing for me.) Click here for a photo of a typical Red-tailed Hawk, and here for a photo of the dark variety. Same species, two very different-looking birds.
A number of other Buteo raptors also have dark and light morphs – Swainson’s Hawks, Rough-legged Hawks, and Ferruginous Hawks are all found here and all include both dark and light birds. This variation is genetic (think of hair color in humans), and while dark birds are generally less common that light birds in every species, this varies by geography – you’re more likely to see a dark Red-tailed or Ferruginous Hawk out west, more likely to see a dark Rough-legged Hawk back east. What I want to know is, why? Is natural selection at work here, and if so, how are different color morphs adaptive for different regions? Continue reading
I spent Wednesday through Friday of last week canoeing the Willamette River over on the coastal side of the state (for work – yes, be jealous). Marked on the map of one of the state parks we camped at, Willamette Mission, was the nation’s largest black cottonwood tree. Who could possibly resist?
This is the “Willamette Mission Cottonwood,” which is 155 feet tall, has a circumference of over 26 feet, and is approximately 270 years old. For scale, here’s a poorly-lit shot with a couple people standing next to the trunk:
I wish I’d had more time to take better pictures and enjoy it properly, but alas, we were only passing by. Still, it’s always fun to encounter a giant.