“Storm in the Outback”: An Essay

Gasp! A blog post! Okay, yeah, this has been the longest dry stretch since I started this blog four (!!!) years ago, but I’m resurfacing long enough to share with you a piece of writing that’s been sitting on my hard drive for a while now. This is a story from the three months I spent in Australia back in 2009, which I’ve posted about previously (specifically regarding echidnas and a giant dust storm). I fiddled around a bit with the idea of submitting this piece to a literary magazine or several, but ultimately decided to just post it here. It’s around 1200 words; let me know what you think. Continue reading

Your Sunday Wildlife & Conservation Reading

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.

As always, feel free to share your own finds in the comments!

Magnificent Magpies

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the Black-billed Magpie.

Photo by Alan D. Wilson, via Wikimedia Commons

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.

Photo by ZeWrestler, via Wikimedia Commons

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.

What Is Wrong With Your Faaaaace

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.

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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.

“Owl Eyes”: An Essay

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

Terrible Photos of Oregon Juncos

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.

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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!

I’m a Rebel, I Hike on Federal Land

If this were less in the middle of nowhere, it would be a pretty popular tourist spot.

Evan, you don't mind me using the photo you took, right?

Evan, you don’t mind me using the photo you took, right?

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?

Crowdsourcing Insect ID

One day last week a woman came into the office carrying a cardboard box and asking if there was a biologist around.

Last time something like this happened, the box contained a baby bat, but thankfully this time it was just a mysterious insect nest… thing… on a pine branch. I’m more or less the closest thing to a biologist in our office, so I took a look. I had no idea what it was, but I was pretty sure I could find out, and I used my phone to take a couple terrible photos.

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Then, I turned to the number one tool of a naturalist in need of ID help: Twitter.

Yup, I took shameless advantage of my entomology contacts on Twitter – again – and in less than forty-five minutes I had an answer. This is a nest built by the caterpillars of a pine-munching moth, and that stuff it’s made of is frass, or caterpillar poop. The next day I ran into the woman who’d brought it in and told her, and she was very interested, if a little repulsed.

Social media: it’s not just for posting photos of what you had for lunch. It’s also for posting photos of balls of caterpillar poop.

A Walk in an Aspen Stand

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Back in Wisconsin, aspen suckers grew like weeds after an area was logged. It came as a surprise to learn, when I moved out West, that here aspens are in serious decline and the focus of conservation efforts. Above is a stand that we’re going to be building a fence around soon at work, to protect it from damage from cattle, deer, and elk.

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It’s doubtful that elk actually spend much time in this pasture anymore (though they’re definitely around in the hills), but the dark scars on the trunks of the trees come from elk scraping at the bark with their teeth to get at the nutritious, photosynthetic layer of bark under the white outer layer.

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While aspen trees do produce flowers, most of their reproduction is vegetative, in the form of new shoots or “suckers” growing from existing root systems. Young, tender suckers are super tasty food for deer – the ones in the photo above, growing in the shelter of a fallen adult, have been heavily browsed. Fencing the deer out of the stand will help young trees get established.

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The way suckering works is actually pretty interesting – the crown of the tree produces a hormone called auxin that inhibits the production of suckers. When the tree falls and auxin is no longer produced, the growth of new suckers increases in response to keep the stand going. An aspen stand is really one big organism, interconnected by the root system that keeps on living even as individual trees die and are replaced. One particular aspen clone in Utah is a candidate for the world’s largest, oldest organism.

There are multiple reasons for aspen decline in the West, including the removal of top predators from ecosystems (no wolves -> more elk and deer -> more browsing of aspen) and the suppression of natural wildfires, which allows other trees like junipers to become established and crowd out aspen. Climate change is almost certainly playing a role, as well. More information: