Clark’s Nutcracker Fledgling

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.

Thanks as always for taking the photo, Evan.

Thanks as always for taking photos, Evan.

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.

CaptureCapture2Stumbling 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!

 

Sapsucker Nest

Last week I was in the woods of eastern Pennsylvania, on a visit over the holiday weekend. It’s always fun to get a chance to see and hear the eastern birds I grew up with that we don’t have out west – Blue Jays, Eastern Towhees, Eastern Phoebes, and all the rest. This time, the highlight was spotting a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker nest just twenty feet or so off a trail.

DSC_1071 (677x1024)It was the very noisy begging calls of the woodpecker chicks hidden inside that first gave away the nests’ location, and once we stopped and watched we were able to spot both parents coming and going. Here’s Dad emerging from the cavity with a beakful of something, probably cleaning things out a bit – this was actually the only time we saw him and it was hard to get a good picture:

DSC_1075 (681x1024)It was Mom (without the extensive red forehead and chin) who kept coming and going with food, posing for photos.

DSC_1090 (674x1024)I’m normally not great at finding nests (though I seem to be having more luck than usual this year), so this was a treat. Now I’m back home in Walla Walla, and with high temperatures climbing into the triple digits this weekend, I’m not planning on hiking again for a little while!

 

 

 

Close Encounter of the Sooty Grouse Kind

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).

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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.

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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.

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All in all a great bird to conclude two weekend of travel on the west side with!

Photos (once again) by Evan Heisman.

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?

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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.

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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:

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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.