Friday, August 29, 2014

Acorn Woodpeckers, Grass Skippers, and Moon Trees

Over the past month or so I’ve taken several little “field trips” to visit the campus where Maureen works, at a huge public university. The campus is plenty scenic, and plenty historic, and it’s as good a place as any to while away 8 or 9 hours (filling the interim until my new job starts). Not looking for anything in particular, and not sure what I’d find anyway, I set out with Maureen’s camera in a bid to contribute some eye candy of my own to the blog.

The first marvel I met with was a Douglas-fir “moon tree”. The tree was grown from one of 500 seeds that accompanied the Apollo 14 mission during its 1971 lunar orbit. While this was certainly one of the more accomplished trees I’ve ever come across, it seemed modest enough, not letting the fame get to its canopy.

As a seed, this tree orbited the moon. You might say it was an astro-nut

Next, we’d heard it rumored that a family of Acorn Woodpeckers lives on campus, near the veterinary school. I started out in that direction, hoping to scope them out before Maureen’s lunch, so we could head there directly once she was free. The road was by with a stand of oaks, where, after just a couple minutes’ wait, a hyperactive set of five or six woodpeckers bounced from oak to oak, often fairly low and close.

When lunchtime rolled around we headed back over together. Now we discovered not only the nest hole they returned to again and again, but their stash spot, where they hoarded hundreds and hundreds of their namesake nut. The family was busy storing up for the dreary, barren winter months. They were also meticulously tending their inventory, sometimes removing an acorn from its cubby, and fitting it into a different hole.

The woodpecker photos above are all Maureen’s; my photographic efforts were decidedly lepidopterous. The only butterflies I found in good numbers, who were patient enough to put up with my obtrusion, were assorted members of the challenging “grass skipper” clade. Amid a patch of coneflowers, I found a handsome pair of Sachem.

As I watched them, the male performed a rather remarkable display: rapidly flying off diagonally, about eight inches, and flying right back at his mistress, as if connected by an elastic band. The dance lasted a total of about 10 seconds, with each round trip journey taking only half a second. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to get any video.

During a subsequent “field trip”, I came across another type of grass skipper, Woodland Skipper, gathering nectar from the lavender. These skippers look an awful lot like Sachem to my novice eye, except for the patterning on the underwing, and they lack the big boxy stigma on the upperwing. These skippers didn’t dance for me like their cousins, but being able to give them at least a tentative ID gave me satisfaction enough.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

HoJo Birding

Despite the incredible cross-country road trip we took moving from Savannah to Oregon, our new life here had started a little rough. We had never had trouble easily finding an apartment when moving to a new place before, but we ran into quite a bit of difficulty finding availability in the Salem area. We moved here at the end of April, and apparently almost everyone here prefers to move in the middle of summer, when there is less chance of rains impeding a move. Living in Florida and Georgia, summer moves were actually avoided if possible because of the crazy heat and humidity that meant sweating profusely in already sauna-like conditions.

Pretty Flowers

We felt like Mary and Joseph being told there was “no room at the inn” as we went to apartment after apartment that had no availability for weeks. We finally accepted that we would not have an apartment any time soon. So, in the meantime, we HoJo’ed it for several weeks. All we really needed was a clean room and free breakfast anyway. And to keep the cabin fever at bay, we explored various parks around the area. We even found a little city park tucked behind our second home at the time, Wal-Mart. 

Canada Geese & Goslings

Momma Mallard and Ducklings

Cascades Gateway City Park has a grand name, but it was a humble little park with a fishing pond and a Frisbee-golf course. Here we had some pleasant surprises and lifers. Upon our first pass through the park via car since it was a rainy, soggy day, Nick spotted a lifer Greater White-Fronted Goose. Luckily it was still there the next day when it wasn’t pouring.

Greater White-Fronted Goose next to Greylag Goose

Greater White-Fronted Goose

We could easily distinguish it next to the big-fat domestic Greylag Geese with which it was hanging out. Although they look so similar in the field guides, there was no doubt once you saw the size of the Greater White-Fronted Goose next to the Greylags. It looked like a stunted version of these large geese, and I could just hear it thinking to itself, “You kinda look like me, so I guess I’ll tag along with you guys.”

Greater White-Fronted Goose tails the other geese

This park also gave us great looks at another lifer – Bullock’s Oriole. We kept seeing flashes of orange and black swoosh past us. It turns out that there was a nesting pair there, calling to each other, and probably warning us to stay back. After trying for a while to get looks at the orioles in their well-concealed nest, the male decided to pop out and hang out low to show off his beautiful colors.

Male Bullock's Oriole

There were swallows all around us, both Tree and Violet Green. Try as I might, I just couldn’t get good shots of the Violet Greens. They would fly by too quickly, and often too close, for me to capture them. However, a trusty Tree Swallow gave a flashy performance as he went in and out of his nesting hole.

My best attempt at capturing a flying Violet-Green Swallow

Tree Swallow

But the grandest show of them all was definitely the aerial harassment of a Bald Eagle on an Osprey. The Osprey did his hard work and caught a fish, but the bully Bald Eagle chased him down with the fury of a thousand charging knights (sorry, we just watched all the Game of Thrones episodes). 

Determined Bald Eagle chasing after an Osprey with a fish

I'm gonna get you, sucka!
Oh gosh, so close!

There were a couple of close calls as they zoomed right above us. The eagle’s face was like cool steal as the Osprey struggled while flying with his fish. The Osprey somehow did make it away this time, but you better believe this was one tight raptor dogfight.

Gorgeous Bald Eagle

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Of Hawks and Hummers

We’re only an hour south of Portland, so we try to take the occasional trip up, maybe once or twice a month (mostly for the restaurants). It actually took us until late July before we headed up to do any birding, though. With so many parks and so little time, we needed some expert advice, and Sarah of Must-see Birds was ready with some great suggestions.

So our first destination was Mt. Tabor, an extinct volcano within Portland city limits, and a prime spot for songbirds. The birding was lively from the get-go, and right away we starting finding things we haven’t seen in Salem since May (Yellow-rumped Warblers, Lesser Goldfinches, Vaux’s Swifts).

Tolkienesque: "Through the fiery throat of this volcano exploded glowing
cinders which cooling formed the ground on which you stand"

Western St. John's Wort

Bull Thistle

Not far along the trail was was a pair of juvenile Cooper’s Hawks sitting side-by-side, looking completely forlorn and helpless. There was no sign of any adult ready to take them by the wing and teach them to fend for themselves. So unimposing were they that even the hummers showed no more restraint than if they’d been only so much topiary. First an Anna’s, and then a Rufous Hummingbird, buzzed back and forth, photobombing the hawks left and right.

Juvenile Cooper's Hawks, with pestering Rufous Hummingbird

Juvenile Cooper's Hawks, with pestering Anna's Hummingbird

"What just happened?"

Later, as we rounded the reservoirs, a juvenile Red-tailed Hawk stood guard over its prey in the grass. Some folks looked on, reveling in the awesome alongside us. Others passed within feet of it, sparing only a disdainful glance, as if it were a noisome pest. The hawk soon moved up to an electrical box, where it, too, attracted a hummer.

Juvenile Red-tailed Hawk

Where there were hawks, there were hummers

Hummingbirds weren't the only ones peeved by the hawks. Here, an American Robin makes a pass

After it flew, we continued a little further until we encountered the hawk again, but in a tree this time, and with a sibling. It still had its prey grasped tightly in one talon, which it would snack on from time to time. Finally the tree seemed to offer a rare respite from attention-hungry hummingbirds. One of the hawks let out a screech, which didn’t sound quite like a Red-tail. In the distance, an adult called back, as if to say, “No, no… like this.”

Red-tailed Hawk

Just as we approached the car, there was a burst of activity above us. I was trying to direct Maureen’s attention to some Chestnut-backed Chickadees, but she did me one better. We’d heard a Cassin’s Vireo earlier in the summer, but never got an eye on it. Here was our first-ever look at one. A lifer is not a bad parting gift from Mt. Tabor.

Cassin's Vireo

Afterward, we gave Oaks Bottom Wildlife Refuge a try. The wetlands here seemed lively enough, but we just didn’t have the time to explore the area as thoroughly as it deserved; we soon had to switch gears from birdwatching to Shrew-watching (as in, a Shakespeare in the Park performance of The Taming of the Shrew). But our brief stay did give us the chance to see a lovely bird mural that graces the Portland Memorial Mausoleum, overlooking the refuge.