Two Thrushes on Saddle Mountain

Last weekend we camped at Saddle Mountain State Natural Area west of Portland and made the five mile round trip hike to the top of the mountain and back. It was cloudy, so we missed out on what would have been a spectacular panoramic view of the Cascades on one side and the Pacific Ocean on the other, but it was still a lot of fun. (Photos below by Evan Heisman; I somehow managed to leave my camera’s SD card at home.)

As we were on our way down, it was getting late enough that most of the day hikers were gone and the birds were starting to sing. One song in particular caught my attention: it had the sonorous, flutelike quality of a thrush, and the same pauses between phrases, but unlike any other thrush song I’d heard, each phrase was just a single, drawn-out note. I wish, I wish, I wish there was a way to embed Macaulay Library sound clips on WordPress, but there’s not, so you’ll just have to click here to hear it for yourself.

By process of elimination, I deduced (correctly) that this was the song of the Varied Thrush, a robin cousin found only in the forests of the coastal Pacific Northwest.

Photo by Roy W. Lowe, via Wikimedia Commons

Mixed in was this was the beautiful upward-spiraling song of a Swainson’s Thrush. Click here to hear that one.

Living in the Cascades’ rain shadow as we do, sometimes it is very, very nice to spend a weekend on the coastal side of the mountains. It was even worth getting rained on while we were breaking down our campsite the next morning!

Ladybug Eggs & Larvae

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:

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Photo by Evan Heisman

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.

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Photo by Evan Heisman

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.

Calliope Hummingbird Nest

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.


Photo by Judy Treman

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:


I’m Back, and I Come Bearing Purple Death Flowers

I’m baaaaack. My goal is going to be one post a week through the end of the summer. For my first post back from hiatus, I have something special for y’all: giant purple alien flowers that smell like rotting flesh!

While moving my stuff into the house in Walla Walla (yep, no more rural Oregon), I noticed the unmistakable smell of death. Some small animal had clearly crawled into the bushes, died, and was decomposing. We poked around a bit but couldn’t find the culprit so we didn’t think much more about it for the time being.

Not until the next day did we make the connection between the smell and the enormous alien flowers that were blooming in the yard.

DSC_0026 (681x1024)These things are wild. We’d been watching them grow all spring without being sure what they were; they started as tentacle-like spikes sprouting from the ground, then developed the pretty green-and-white striped foliage you can see in the picture, and finally grew enormous two-foot-long buds like alien pod things.

Then the buds opened into spectacular, death-scented flowers.

Turns out that this plant, Dracunculus vulgaris, is native to the Balkans and has variety of expressive common names like Voodoo Lily and Black Dragon. It is (of course) pollinated by flies, which it attracts by mimicking the color and smell of a rotting corpse. In fact, there was a cloud of flies buzzing around the flowers when I was taking photos, although I had trouble getting one in focus.

DSC_0027 (1024x768)The first spring in a new house, when you don’t really know what sort of plants are in the landscaping and every new thing that sprouts is a mystery to solve, is a lot of fun. According to the internet, the rotting flesh smell of our Voodoo Lilies should only last a couple days. We like our weird purple alien death flowers and can’t wait to see what strange thing appears in our garden next.




Here’s something that isn’t news to regular readers: since I moved out west, changes in my professional and personal life have left me with less time and ability to maintain a blog about my natural history adventures. (For one thing, now that I have a job that keeps me in the office a lot of the time, I’m simply not having as many natural history adventures.) Posts here have slowed from being published several times a week to once or twice a month if at all, and I feel like the quality isn’t what it used to be, as I haven’t been including nearly as many of my own photos lately.

So, I think it’s time to state clearly that yes, Rebecca in the Woods is going on indefinite hiatus. If circumstances change, I might start to post here regularly again, so if you like my writing and photos it may be worth your while to keep your subscription to this blog. In the meantime, there are some other ways to follow what I’m up to:

  • I’ve recently become a monthly contributor to the environmental blog The Ecotone Exchange; my first post is about culling Barred Owls in the Northwest to protect Spotted Owls. To keep up with all of my Ecotone Exchange posts, use this link.
  • Find me on Twitter! I post photos, facts, links, and other snippets there regularly, especially now that I have a smart phone and can easily update it while on the go.
  • While this blog is on hiatus, I’m not going to keep updating the bio and links on the About page, but I recently spent a little time updating and expanding my LinkedIn profile. So if you’re interested in what’s going on with me professionally, you can always check that.

I’ve learned so incredibly much from the process of writing this blog over the past four (!) years, and I do hope to come back to it in the future. But with where I’m at in my life right now, I can’t give it the attention it deserves, and I’m not willing to continue trying to half-ass it like I have been. Take care, lovely readers, and thank you.

Blue Basin Revisited

Last summer I wrote a post about hiking at Blue Basin, an incredible rock formation in nearby John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. When I was there before, I took the loop trail that circles the whole thing, but recently I went back to check out the shorter trail that takes you into the blue-green canyon itself.

If first guess for what causes the amazing color of the rock is copper, well, you’re not alone; that’s what I would have thought, too. However, it actually comes from the weathering of obscure minerals called celadonite and clinoptilolite, both part of the volcanic ash deposits laid down in this area by ancient volcanoes. (Like I said in my last post: my understanding of the geological history of this region boils down to “volcanoes, woot!”)

If, for some strange reason, you ever find yourself driving Highway 26 through eastern Oregon, the Sheep Rock unit of the John Day Fossil Beds is definitely worth a stop. In addition to Blue Basin, there’s a great visitor center with a lot of interesting fossils on display.

Photos in this post by Evan Heisman.

I Learned a Thing About Geology

Photo by Zinneke, via Wikimedia Commons

I have a confession to make: I’m not really a geology person. I understand objectively why some people would consider it fascinating, and I sometimes wish I was one of those people, but whenever I actually try to read a book or watch a presentation about rocks and geologic history my mind starts to wander almost immediately.

Still, occasionally a particular geology concept will lodge itself in my brain anyway, and when that happens I feel very proud of myself for being able to point out some odd rock feature and give it a name. Case in point: columnar basalt. Whenever I’m driving around here and see these odd hexagonal columns of stone, I always think to myself “hey, columnar basalt!” and feel happy.

Basically, these structures form when lava cools relatively rapidly and contracts as a result. From Wikipedia: “While a flow can shrink in the vertical dimension without fracturing, it can’t easily accommodate shrinking in the horizontal direction unless cracks form; the extensive fracture network that develops results in the formation of columns… The size of the columns depends loosely on the rate of cooling; very rapid cooling may result in very small (<1 cm diameter) columns, while slow cooling is more likely to produce large columns.” The fact that these formations are so common around here attests to the area’s volcanic past.

So, to sum up, my entire understanding of the geologic history of eastern Oregon boils down to “volcanoes, woot!” and I’m pretty okay with that. But I really like columnar basalt. Because I know what it is.