Saturday, June 28, 2014

Finding Some of Everything at Ankeny NWR

Everyone should live this close to a National Wildlife Refuge. From our apartment in south Salem, we’re a mere 8 minutes’ drive from Ankeny NWR, one of the crown jewels of the Willamette Valley National Wildlife Complex, and a top spot for wintering waterfowl. We arrived in Oregon too late for wintering birds, but there are have been good numbers of Canada and Cackling Geese, Cinnamon Teal, and Ruddy and Ring-necked Ducks to enjoy into the summer. The Ruddy Ducks, in particular, are looking mighty handsome and we’ve been able to watch males perform their bizarre mating display, bouncing their bills off of their chests with increasing rapidity.

Cackling Geese

Ruddy Duck

Black-headed Grosbeak

I don't have any idea what this is, but it's incredible

There's an emu on the farm across from one of the main trails at Ankeny.
I wouldn't be terribly surprised if somebody tried to eBird it.

Right in the parking lot, Maureen spotted a gorgeous pink and gray moth. It was super tame, crawling over the ground right in front of us without flushing. Maureen was so taken with it that she almost would have preferred it’s colors to the navy and coral she chose as our wedding colors! It was a Cinnabar Moth, which isn’t native, but was introduced intentionally to help combat invasive ragwort, its host plant. Once we got started on the trail, we started noticing golden beetles clustered together on the tops of certain plants. Given that we’d just seen a Cinnabar Moth, I thought they could have been Ragwort Flea Beetles — another introduced species that’s also partial to ragwort, which happens to be a metallic gold — but now I'm leaning toward some kind of leaf beetle in the Chrysolina genus.

Cinnabar Moth

Chrysolina sp.

Recently, I was taking a stroll around our neighborhood and stumbled across a huge number of ragwort plants, each one totally covered in Cinnabar Moth caterpillars. Instead of the pink and gray of the adults, the caterpillars wear a striking orange and black striped pattern. With all of these Cinnabars consuming the ragwort, I’m surprised there’s still any ragwort left. If/when it is finally eradicated, I wonder what happens to the moths? The idea of introducing a species to help fight another introduced species is amusing and absurd, and I can’t help but think of an episode of The Simpsons: Bart cares for a pair of Bolivian Tree Lizards that eventually escape and decimate the Springfield’s pigeon population. To address the lizard problem, Skinner proposes “unleash wave after wave of Chinese needle snakes”.
Lisa: But aren’t the snakes even worse?
Skinner: Yes, but we’re prepared for that. We’ve lined up a fabulous type of gorilla that thrives on snake meat.
Lisa: But then we’re stuck with gorillas!
Skinner: No, that’s the beautiful part. When wintertime rolls around, the gorillas simply freeze to death.
An army of Cinnabar Moth caterpillars

Our other exciting Lep. find of the day was a beautiful Lorquin’s Admiral. We haven’t been chasing down West coast butterflies with quite the same gusto as we have the birds, but this was one that caught our attention. It makes me wonder what else we might have been missing while butterflies flit about in our periphery. We might just have to work on building up our Oregon butterfly list a bit.

Lorquin's Admiral

We also had some interesting Odes that morning. The damselflies were in fine form, mating every which way we looked. Actually, I shouldn’t speculate on whether they were in fine form or not because damselfly sex doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. As I understand it, below, the male’s terminal appendages (cerci and paraprocts) are clasped onto the female’s prothorax, which helps them determine whether they’re the same species or not. This step precedes copulation. Either that or he’s a zombie damselfly, vacuuming out her brains in an futile attempt to sate his unquenchable, ceaseless hunger for damselfly brains. We also had a nice look at some Eight-spotted Skimmers.

Zombie damselfly courtship

Spreadwing damselfly (Lestes sp.)

Female Eight-spotted Skimmer

Male Eight-spotted Skimmer

During our last trip to Ankeny we also found a motherlode of Pacific Tree Frogs. These little guys were all huddled together along blades of tall grasses, as well as dodging and diving around our feet while we walked the trails. Some groups preferred to take refuge in the wider leaves of blackberry plants (which are everywhere, and should be ripe in another a couple of weeks!). The frogs show astonishing diversity in color and pattern, but they all share dark striping that runs from their noses, through their eyes, and down their flanks.

Along the same trail as where we found the frogs, we came across a Northern Flicker doing some excavating. I rather prefer the bright red mustaches of these fellows to the black mustaches of the Yellow-shafted Flickers back East, but this is only quibbling: any bird unabashedly sporting statement-making facial hair has my respect (here's looking at you, Black-throated Sparrow).

The past several times we’ve gone there’s been a 2nd-year Bald Eagle perched up in a snag, just off the path. He stayed put for good, long stretches, giving us ample time to admire and photograph him, before he would take off over the water to terrify the ducks and geese.

2nd-year Bald Eagle

The highlight of our Ankeny birding, though, was an epic back-and-forth battle supreme between a female Tree Swallow and the Cliff Swallow whose nest she was trying to usurp. A dozen or so Cliff Swallow nests were built underneath the roof of the observation gazebo, and swallows were flying in and out almost continuously, alternately hunting and homemaking. One nest in particular was intensely coveted by an interloping Tree Swallow, who tried repeatedly to annex these other birds’ territory. We watched as, time and time again, the Cliff ejected the female Tree Swallow by force. The Tree clung on for dear life, despite being relentlessly bitten in the face and legs. Somehow, inevitably, she would shove herself back inside again. We watched this brutal war of attrition for nearly ten minutes, but it still wasn’t long enough to see the outcome. We were able to record some of the action, though:

Cliff Swallow in a Cliff Swallow nest

Tree Swallow in a Cliff Swallow nest

This Tree Swallow asserts his dominance by issuing a furious bellow. No Cliff Swallow will ever feel safe as long as this rage-machine and his brutish kin patrol the otherwise placid shores of Ankeny. Aye, this may be a designated NWR, but the designation serves merely as a bitter and ironic reminder there can be no refuge for weary Cliff Swallows.


  1. hehehe this post was awesome Nicholas.
    Shudders ran down my spine with the bellowing bellicose Tree Swallows. The tree frogs melted the heart. The Bald Eagle inflamed the patriot gland. The damsel fly zombies reminded me of a pleasant scene in Starship Troopers.

    Living 8 minutes from a NWalmostR sounds absolutely wonderful.

    It will be interesting to check on that swallow nest next time y'all are there and see who's occupying. It is good for the mind and soul to have the Hipster Birders back up and in such frequent operation again!

    1. Thank you most kindly, Laurence! It's good to be back in the groove, melting hearts and inflaming glands again. I think after 5 years of visiting marsh after marsh I was running out of ways to set each post apart, but Oregon has got us reenergized and ready to kick ass.

      I dig the Starship Troopers reference, and the refuge was thankfully devoid of brainbugs while we were there. It would be interesting to know who finally won out in the Battle of Eagle Marsh between the swallows. I like to think they worked out their hostilities by coming together and creating a massive brood of hybrid babies.