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!

The Natural History of Dark-Phase Hawks

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

Ferruginous Hawk

It’s Sunday afternoon. You realize it’s been a week and a half since your last natural history blog post. You don’t feel like going on a long expedition. What do you do?

Luckily, I live somewhere where I can grab my camera and long lens, pick a direction, drive for ten minutes, and find a subject for a blog post on the side of the highway.

002 (730x1024) 005 (733x1024)As is the case throughout most of North America, our most common roadside hawks here are Red-tails. This one, though, is something different. It’s not a species I see very often but I’m ninety-five percent sure this is a Ferruginous Hawk, specifically a light-morph juvenile. The pale unmarked underside and face and the feathered legs set it apart from the Red-tail, Swainson’s, and other buteos we might expect to see here. I was first introduced to this hawk, a classic grassland species, four years ago during the summer I spent on the Saskatchewan prairie.

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After humoring me for a minute while I snapped photos through the passenger window of my car, it took off into the evening. This was a new one for my year list – I’m sure I’ve passed Ferruginous Hawks while driving around here before, but this was the first time I stopped and looked closely enough to make the ID.

This Post Brought to You by the Letter A for Anadromous

Anadromous (adj): migrating up rivers from the sea to spawn.

Over the weekend I had the treat of visiting Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River, where the annual run of Chinook salmon is currently approaching its peak. The dam is equipped with a fish ladder to provide passage around the dam for salmon and other anadromous fish migrating upstream to their spawning grounds.

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The best part was the underground viewing windows, offering aquarium-like views of the wild fish as they passed by. Photos didn’t do the sight justice so I shot a quick video clip (and has my dad wave his hand around for scale).

At another window a whole school of Pacific Lampreys had suckered themselves onto the glass. Lampreys! So cool!

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Not great photos (the light was bad) but still, OMG lampreys! Like salmon, these primitive fish spend part of their life cycle in the ocean but return to freshwater to reproduce before dying. Unlike salmon, they are parasites, using their crazy jawless sucker-mouths to latch onto other fish. Lampreys face a lot of threats and there are conservation efforts underway to help them out – more information here.

Like migratory birds, anadromous fish help stitch together different ecosystems in different places, connecting arid eastern Oregon where I live with the coast and the sea, and I really, really enjoyed getting to see them up close.

Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off

Coyote in Death Valley, California. Photo by Manfred Werner via Wikimedia Commons.

On Monday of last week, I posed a question on Twitter: “Hey everyone, do you pronounce the word ‘coyote’ with two syllables or three?” I’ve been in the habit of saying all three syllables – “coy-yo-tee.” But a lot of people generally only give it two, “coy-yote,” and I wondered which was more common. Of course, a lot of the answers were less straightforward than I expected. Continue reading

Butterflies as Pests?

Yesterday this innocent-looking white butterfly landed on a coworker’s hard hat and I made her stand still so I could take a photo before it flew away.

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This is a male Pine ButterflyNeophasia menapia. I first became aware of their existence shortly after moving here, when I noticed a brochure tacked up on the wall at my office – an update from the previous year on a Pine Butterfly outbreak in the local national forests. Like many butterflies, these are tied to a specific plant to complete their life cycle – in this case, their caterpillars feed on the needles of Ponderosa Pines and Douglas-firs. Unlike many butterflies, they occasionally have large outbreaks that can damage forests, which happened here last year. (Incidentally, the Forest Service brochure reassured anyone reading it that despite the damage “…they are not ‘eating all the trees,’” and I felt like those quotation marks conveyed a lot of frustration and weariness on the part of the Forest Service staffer tasked with educating the public on this issue. Doubtless he/she had fielded a lot of phone calls from people demanding that the agency do something about those butterflies eating all the trees.)

Anyway, I’m not used to thinking of butterflies as pests, but people around here who know almost nothing else about butterflies seem to know that white butterflies eat pine trees. (I’ve already found myself explaining at least once that no really, there are a lot of different kinds of white butterflies and only one actually eats pine trees, so please, please don’t just smoosh any white butterfly you see). The outbreak has died down somewhat since last year, and today was the first time I’d actually spotted any of the butterflies in question. It got a fair amount of media coverage at its height, though, including this great NPR piece complete with video of the butterfly “snowstorm.”

I looked briefly for any signs of eggs or caterpillars on the needles of the trees around us, but without time for a more thorough search I wasn’t able to find any. In any case, like so many things in nature, these insects are a little more complicated than we might like them to be. Butterflies are nice, pests are bad – which one is this?