Sunday, July 27, 2014

Flying Without Feathers

“Flying without feathers is not easy; my wings have no feathers.” — Plautus

The Roman playwright Titus Maccius Plautus surely thought he was being clever when he rattled off the above epigram for his work, The Carthaginian, but featherless flight evolved several times independently, and is the rule throughout the aerial animal kingdom, rather than the exception. (In fairness to our friend Plautus, the latter part of the quote is sometimes translated as, “my wings are not yet fledg’d,” which makes much more sense).

I’m sitting down to write this in late July, when the birding is slow, and Moth Week is winding down, so this seemed like a good opportunity to highlight some featherless flyers. I’ve been on a bit of a butterfly tear lately, and even signed up for eBird’s Leppy cousin, e-Butterfly (it’s still going through its growing pains, but definitely give it a try). Two National Wildlife Refuges in the Willamette Valley region are particularly rich with butterflying opportunities, and have gone a fair way toward advancing our nascent Oregon lists. One of these, Baskett Slough NWR, is among the few remaining strongholds for Fender’s Blue, an endangered subspecies of Boisduval’s Blue. The other, William L. Finley NWR, has just had Fender’s reintroduced earlier this year, hopefully helping bolster the local population.

"Fender's" Blue

Western Tiger Swallowtail is our largest butterfly in the Willamette region (Two-tailed Swallowtail is larger, but it only occurs east of the Cascades in northern Oregon). It’s so big, in fact, that its wingspan can equal four Fender’s Blues from tip to tip. It’s also among our most common butterflies, so we’ve been crossing paths pretty frequently over the past month.

Western Tiger Swallowtail

Speaking of “common” butterflies, here are two more. Common Ringlet is a hugely variable species that we find in grassy habitats. Most populations have a dark submarginal eyespot, which ours lack. Common Wood-nymph is a similarly drab butterfly, but loaded with plenty of eyespots to spare. These two must have waged a winner-take-all gamble for the entire pot, and the Wood-nymph came away with the king’s ransom of eyespots.

Common Ringlet

Common Wood-nymph

California Sister is a subtly beautiful butterfly, with stained glass patterning along the leading part of the forewing. The group name “Sister” refers to their white stripes, supposed to resemble a nun’s habit. It’s not an entirely convincing resemblance, nor is it quite fair, as they’ve got a good deal more pizzaz than even Julie Andrews as Maria.

California Sister

From nuns to goddesses, we have the Mylitta Crescent. Mylitta was the Babylonian counterpart to Aphrodite, goddess of love and fertility. I don’t know the etymology of the species name, but these tiny bursts of orange were quite active when we found them at Finley NWR. Finley is the only place we’ve seen them so far, and only along a limited stretch of our trail. They’re common throughout much of the West, so I’m sure we’ll get plenty familiar with them in time.

Mylitta Crescent

Since it’s Moth Week, there’d be no excuse for my neglecting the butterfly’s less celebrated cousins. This odd-looking T-shape of a bug is actually a Morning-glory Plume Moth. It’s got spindly, plume-covered hindwings wrapped up inside narrow forewings. It’s completely bizarre, and not at all what people picture when they think of moths. If I hadn’t seen this one fly and then land when we crossed paths at Baskett Slough, there’s no way I would have seen it. We’ve had some other pretty good moths since we’ve moved to Oregon, but so far nothing like large and charismatic moths like we’d grown used to in Savannah.

Morning-glory Plume Moth

A couple of posts ago, I included a picture of an Eight-spotted Skimmer. Well, here’s a Twelve-spotted Skimmer. The Eight-spotted Skimmer spends it’s days muttering, “You think you’re better than me? You’re not better than me.” Deep down it knows that the Twelve-spotted is indeed better… by four.

Twelve-spotted Skimmer

Dragonfly mating never ceases to baffle and astound

Spreadwing sp.
Blue Dasher

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Camping and Birding at Detroit Lake

Oregon has a laudable tradition of opening up all of its state parks for free camping during the first Saturday of every June. That we would take advantage of our first State Parks Day was a total no-brainer, but settling on only one of Oregon’s 170 state parks took some consideration. Since we’d be staying for one-night-only we decided to stay relatively close to home, but far enough away that we could see a new side of Oregon, and wouldn’t be tempted to pop back to our apartment for whatever we’d left behind. Detroit Lake fit every criteria, and offered some pretty breathtaking views, to boot.

The view of Mt. Jefferson behind Detroit Lake

Since we arrived well before check-in time, we headed over to an nearby area called Detroit Flats. It’s a place that often shows up on my eBird county needs alert email, so it seemed like a good opportunity for boost our Marion Co. numbers. And we did have get a singing Willow Flycatcher, a couple of Band-tailed Pigeons that appeared briefly before disappearing over the trees, and a male Rufous Hummingbird who gave us some great looks.

Rufous Hummingbird

Golden-mantled Ground Squirrel

As we headed down the trail alongside the lake, we heard snake after snake slipping away through the grasses, on either side of us. Eventually, we found one that stayed put long enough for Maureen to snap some shots of it, and I *think* we were dealing with Common Garter Snakes. I always thought garter snakes were garter snakes, but later on we’d come across a different-looking specimen at a roadside stop called Tumble Creek Trail. This little fella was much more drab, and I’m inclined to call it a Northwestern Garter Snake. Garter snakes species are all extremely variable, though, and I’m certainly no herpetologist. If anyone had a better handle on snakes, please go ahead and correct me.

Common Garter Snake

Common Garter Snake

Northwestern Garter Snake

Once we’d successfully navigated all the snakes and emerged at the end of the trail we found a female Common Merganser and her nine tiny ducklings. All ten of them were huddled together on a rock hardly bigger than the group of them, and with the mother trying to tuck all the little ones in underneath her. It was a sweet sight, and when we came back the next day to check up on them, the family was in the same area, but swimming. The precocious ducklings were feeding on their own, and all keeping pace with mama… except for one rascal who hitched a ride on her back instead.

Common Merganser and brood

Merganser duckling hitching a ride on his mother's back

A different merganser family, with somewhat older ducklings

We discovered Tumble Creek Trail on the way over to our campsite, which is an uphill hike that runs alongside a fairly steep, rocky stream. Right at the trailhead we could hear a warbler, but weren’t able to place the song, or even locate it, close as it was. We decided to push on up the trail, but before getting very far, I realized that I’d left our scope in the car and ran back down to get it.

Since I had to pass the warbler again and it was still singing, I gave it another go and came up with a Hermit Warbler! A West Coast warbler that had so far eluded us. I managed to catch Maureen’s attention for her to join me, but by the time she had it had vanished. Disappointed, we trudged on up the hill, but within just a couple of minutes Maureen found us a different lifer warbler — MacGillivray’s Warbler! He was on the other side of the water from us, and high up in the trees, but at least I’d gone back for the scope. Plus, he was singing and he stuck around for a good long while, so there was plenty to be excited about.

MacGillivray's Warbler

Even though neither of us had ever seen salamanders in the wild, Maureen somehow got the idea that this stream would be a perfect place to look for salamanders. And she was right — she found one under only the third rock she lifted! Maybe it was beginner’s luck, because we never found any others, but we both got a good look at it. Before we could get any photos, though, it vanished instantaneously, seemingly dissolving into the rock. Luckily, not all slimy creatures are quite so fast, and I found a Pacific Banana Slug patient enough to stick around and pose with me.

Pacific Banana Slug (bottom)

This looked like some kind of fungus mimicking dead oak leaves

Our butterflies that weekend included the widespread Silver-spotted Skipper, which we’ve found previously when we’d visited Atlanta, but is always a welcome sight. Juba Skipper and Pacific Fritillary are two species with more limited ranges (the latter being restricted to the Pacific Northwest), and both were lifers. One other arthropod I want to mention was a sharp-looking ground spider (Sergiolus sp.), decked out in argyle, that we found on the campground. As an argyle fancier myself, I approve of this spider’s sartorial choices. I prefer to wear it in my socks, but if I had eight feet to dress every morning, I might settle for a vest, too.

Juba Skipper

Silver-spotted Skipper

Pacific Fritillary

Pacific Fritillary

Ground spider (Sergiolus sp.)

Back over on our actual campsite, we were sitting at the picnic table when we saw two MacGillivray’s Warblers — a male and female — just behind our tent. They were sticking pretty closely to the bushes, and never stayed put for very long. But they helped get us off our asses, and start exploring. Not long after we turned up a pair of Hermit Warblers. And then another pair. And another.

Hermit Warbler

We were surrounded by Hermit Warblers now, more than compensating for the one Maureen had missed a day earlier. We also turned up a Black-throated Gray Warbler, completing the trifecta of breeding warblers in the county. Black-throated Gray, like the others, is an awesome western warbler that we’re glad to have around, but is actually a species we saw in 2010 as a stray to south Florida, and was one of the very first vagrants we chased.

Black-throated Gray Warbler