Monday, November 6, 2017

A Smoke Tree Gets Creative

Text and photos by Nancy Partlow©
Smoke trees are really cool shrubs.  The gazillions of teeny flowers that smother them in the spring attract pollinators like nobody's business. But that is a story for another time. 
This tale is about a plain, ordinary smoke tree that one autumn did something extraordinary.   

Smoke trees are noted for their fall color, with leaves that usually look something like this:  
Yet in the autumn of 2010, this humble, alley-growing smoke tree, for whatever reason, put on the most marvelous display of leaf-artistry I have ever seen.  It reminded me of 60's pop art.  Each leaf bore a unique design of pattern and color.   
I'd like to share some of these nature-made compositions with you: 


I never saw the smoke tree do this again, but I will always remember its wildly creative gift of beauty to the world.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Clueless Juvies

Text, photos and videos by Nancy Partlow©

Late summer and early fall can be a fun time for observing juvenile bird behavior.  One way to identify a first-year bird is by its appearance: coloration, a fading but still brightly-hued gape, puffy primary feathers (the downy ones beneath the tail being the last to go), and a corresponding lack of adult secondary feathers. 

Behavior is another way.   New birds often seem clueless.  While alert adults constantly flit around looking for food and predators, unwary youngsters  sit there like lumps on a limb waiting to be fed, like this immature Bushtit:   

When newbies start to gain a bit of independence things can get interesting.  I had three experiences in September that gave me insight into how young birds learn.    

The first bird I saw was a Virginia Rail, trapped behind a culvert fence  at one of the Capital Lake Interpretive Center's wetland ponds.  Having never seen a VR before, I wasn't completely sure it was a juvenile, but it certainly acted like one. 


I  immediately recognized the species  since the tall grass, reeds and cattails lining the CLIC's shorelines are  perfect habitat for it.  According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Virginia Rails have evolved adaptations such as laterally compressed bodies, flexible vertebrae and long toes to facilitate their movements around their native freshwater marshes.

This rail was definitely being laterally compressed  in its frantic efforts to escape, as can be seen in this video: 

Virginia Rail caught behind culvert fence at Capitol Lake Interpretive Center

I was wondering if I was going to have to wade into the water to help it, so I was very glad when the bird eventually managed to release itself by flying over the fence to freedom.

The second bird I saw surprised me.  Prior to starting a walk on the CLIC's dike trail one day, Janet and I stopped to view Capitol Lake from the dock  near Deschutes Parkway.  Through experience, we have learned that this is a great place to spot birds, and that day was no exception. Just as we were about to turn away, we glimpsed something small and non-descript fly beneath the dock. I thought  it looked like a dipper but didn't believe it could be since the habitat isn't right.  As I've written in previous blogs, dippers are creatures of fast-moving waters and can be regularly seen at Tumwater Falls Park.  

When the bird broke cover,  it was definitely a dipper.  With its stubby tail, general lack of motivation and movement, we pegged it as a juvie:


I was concerned that it was hanging out where it wouldn't be able to find its customary food.  I checked the eBird lists for Capitol Lake, and couldn't find any previous sightings of dippers on any of them:

I hoped  this youngster hadn't become irrevocably separated from its family group, which I had been seeing at Tumwater Falls Park during this period. Dippers  will feed at salmon spawning areas, and the adult dippers had been showing their young how to take advantage of the bounty provided by the fall Chinook run.  I managed to film a dipper finding and eating a salmon egg in the pool below the upper falls, where a few errant salmon get trapped and spawn every year:

The final sighting I had was of a juvenile Great Blue Heron, again at Tumwater Falls Park.  The heron too seemed out of place, since herons are more likely to be found at Capitol Lake. Perhaps it had been pushed away from the lake's shoreline by adult herons with previously claimed territories.

Salmon filled the Deschutes River, and they swam in numbers at the bird's feet, shown in this video:   

Juvenile Great Blue Heron surrounded by salmon at Tumwater Falls Park

I was sure that this young heron could not eat an adult king salmon. These fish looked bigger than the bird, so like Harry Potter staring into the Mirror of Erised, its hearts desire would stay forever just out of reach. 

I should have known better.  A few days later I caught this same birding eyeing a dead salmon in the river.  I imagined it thinking, "I'm not going to settle for any  measly little sticklebacks, I want a real meal!"

Then it went for it,

I captured the attempt on video:

The bird didn't succeed in swallowing the fish that time, but I think it may have gone back later and managed the feat.   I returned to this same area the next day and the dead salmon was gone.
Nature can be harsh metric, and most young birds succumb during their first year. Yet nature has profound wisdom too, and perhaps the life-giving salmon will bestow on these particular birds an edge in the survival sweepstakes.

As for me, what I learned from these encounters is that  "clueless" juvie birds are really not, but like all youngsters, simply trying to find their way in the world and earn their wings. 

Saturday, September 23, 2017

A Walk in the Woods

Text and photos by Nancy Partlow©

On a recent walk with Janet through the shady environs of Priest Point Park, I noticed an ivy-covered log lying on the ground.  This is a not an unusual sight at this park, but what is unusual is that many of the ivy's leaves were rusty-looking.  Ivy is  nearly indestructible, and even this summer's drought wouldn't turn the leaves that color.  On closer inspection, it turned out that the brown coloration was something that neither Janet or I had ever seen before: a thick coating of cocoa-colored spores from Ganoderma applanatum, better known as Artist's Fungus, or Artist's Conk. 

A flash photo  revealed several of these mushrooms growing out of the rotting log, and the extent of the spore spread.

Being the curious naturalists we are, we had some questions (we always have questions).  Like, how did the spores spread so far from the mushrooms, and how were they released from a fungus which looks gnarly like this on the topside...

...and solidly smooth and white on the bottom?:

It turns out that Artist's Fungus is a polyphore, meaning, "many pores" and that its "solid" white underside is actually comprised of  many tiny holes, from which are released billions of minute spores.  Here is what the underside looks like in close-up:

And here is what it looks like when spores are released, in this cool video I found online of a related bracket fungus:

From the video you can see that the slightest air currents can spread spores, but Janet informed me that mushrooms can make their own air currents too!

Here's a video showing that actually happening, with an explanation of how:

Mushrooms generating air currents to spread spores

Along our walk, we saw further evidence of air currents spreading spores.  An Artist's Conk growing from a rotting tree stump showed plenty of spore powder in close proximity to the fungus.  

But on the other side of the stump a dusting of drifted spores had been funneled through the crotch of the tree by a breeze: 

Some day I hope to see an Artist's Conk  releasing its spores in real time, but at least now I know how it's done.  Nature is a teacher I never tire of learning from.

Some more beautiful and fun spore release videos: 

Spore rain

Puff balls releasing spores in the rain

Brown cup fungi releasing spores when blown on

Friday, September 1, 2017

Jellyfish at Sunset

    A couple of weeks ago, Glen and I went to the San Juan Islands in the Salish Sea of Washington state for a week long Marine Naturalist Training Program, offered by the Friday Harbor Whale Museum.  This was something of a departure for us, Glen especially:  he describes himself as a terrestrial naturalist.  This was also challenging because our class was full of people madly in love with whales, and not much else.  I can understand that:  whales were my gateway drug into learning about the natural world.  But over 30+ years as an amateur naturalist, I’ve learned a few things.  One is that whale sightings are few and far between, so it behooves us to keep our eyes open for whatever nature has to show us.  Tonight’s feature was moon jellyfish.

   It was a beautiful evening, near to dusk when we walked from our campsite overlooking Haro Strait and went over to the sandy beach where the kayaks launch.  At the end of the day, most of the kayakers had returned back to port and the beach was quiet.  A  very high tide was lapping at the sand.  The tidal verge was full of interesting things, but what really caught our eye was the huge raft of moon jellyfish, bobbing at the water’s edge, tangled up with seaweeds.

     Moon jellyfish Aurelia aurita aka saucer jellies live near the coast of many oceans:  Atlantic, Indian and Pacific and of course the Salish sea, where we were staying.  They are made of a gelatinous gel and can be as big as 20 inches in diameter, though the ones we saw were about 8 inches.  They can swim, using their central bell to pulse rhythmically, but in the strong currents around these islands and a high full moon tide, they had been caught and brought in to the shore, where if they get beached, they die.

    They are carnivorous and feed on the tiny animals that live in plankton soup (zooplankton).  The small larvae forms of mollusks, crustaceans, copepods and tunicates get caught up on the sticky arms of the jellyfish, where tiny flagella move these tasty bits to the mouthparts where they can be digested.

     Moon jellyfish first emerge as adults around May.  You can tell males from females:  the females have a lovely pink color around the four horseshoe shaped discs at the top of the bell.  The males have white discs: as the season progresses, the males release gametes from these discs into the water.  The females pick up these gametes and transfer them to the pink gonads, where fertilization occurs.  She broods her eggs for several days and then releases the larvae into the plankton soup.  The adults then die and no more will be seen until the following spring, while the larvae float in the plankton, finally finding a rock to attach to and become a polyp.  The following spring this polyp starts to transform, casts itself from the rock and begins to morph into an adult jellyfish.  And the cycle repeats itself again.

     We sat on the beach in the gathering dark, the moon jellies bobbing in the shallow water.  As the sun began to set, a gaggle of Canada Geese joined us at the tide’s edge, nudging the jellies aside to pick out thin strips of eel grass, which they nibbled then sucked down like spaghetti.  The sun sank in a smoke-haze sky, scarlet over Haro strait.  We sat there until dusk, in the company of jellyfish and geese…


•  photos by Glen Buschmann 
•  The Whale Museum at Friday Harbor:
 • A live jelly cam at this link:
•  A great you tube of moon jellies:

Monday, July 17, 2017

Pasting Pollinators

Text and photos by Nancy Partlow©

Neon-pink flowers are in currently in bloom along the  East Bay waterfront.  I didn't know what they were until  following the theory of, "to find bees, go where the flowers are",  I decided to check them out. I was delighted to discover that these blossoms are a terrific  food source for pollinators.   

Lathyrus latifolius, or  Everlasting Pea, is a widespread naturalized wildflower that blooms in shades of white to deep pink.

Lacking the heady scent of the bred-for-garden sweet peas, the flowers are nonetheless similarly beautiful. 

Queen Bombus vosnesenskii on wild pea flower.

The sturdy blooms attract a variety of pollinating insects with their nectar, predominately bumble bees, including a noticeable number of bombus queens of various species.

Honey Bee
Hoplitis bee

Cabbage white butterfly

Bombus melanopygus queen

I was glad to see  Bombus fervidus using these flowersNot one our most common, generalist bumble bee species B. fervidus instead seems to prefer particular plants, including, apparently, Everlasting Pea.  

Bombus fervidus

While taking pictures one day, I noticed a big blob of pollen near the head of a Bombus fervidus worker, which I thought very odd.  That is not where the pollen is supposed to go.   Was this an inept bee that didn't know where to store its pollen?  That seemed unlikely since bees are evolutionary experts at what they do.   

The mystery was solved only when I pulled up another image of this bee on my computer.  The stamens on these pea flowers, which remain hidden until a bee pushes its head into a blossom, sneakily pop up and paste it with pollen right at base of its wing. Since that is a hard-to-reach place for the bee to groom, the pollen stays there. 

This video shows the mechanism at work:

Other bees are similarly dusted and smeared.

Hoplitis leaf-cutter bee
Western Little Leaf-cutter Bee

On this Bombus sitkensis the stamen looks like a tiny spatula slathering buttercream frosting on the bee. 

Bombus sitkensis

Blossom by blossom, pollen-pasted bees fertilize the pea flowers.   It's a clever strategy for this plant, and if the East Bay waterfront is any indication, a very successful one!

Since it's such great pollinator attractor, I considered gathering some pea seed for my yard, but reluctantly decided against it due to the plant's somewhat robust spreading habit. However, I think East Bay is perfect place for it, and I can only hope these gaudy pink wildflowers and their feasting bumble bees endure at this location for many years to come.
Articles about Lathyrus latifolius:

Monday, May 22, 2017

Hope is the Thing With Feathers

Text and photos by Nancy Partlow©
At long last, our weather pattern  seems to be changing, but it was a hard winter and early spring.  In addition to the months of relentless rain and gloom, I lost my father.  We were very close, and since his death, the lack of  light and warmth outside has been the persistent accompaniment  to the internal struggles of a wounded heart.  The challenge has been to find a way back to some sense of normalcy and peace, and for that, as so often in the past, Nature has come to my rescue.

Dad wasn't a nature nut like I am, although he did enjoy getting outdoors.   My outdoor enthusiasms focus greatly on things with wings - native bees and birds. His passion centered on the kind of wings that allowed him to fly.  He was a flight instructor, which he loved doing.

Unfortunately, as he aged into his ninth decade, he was forced to give up this thing he loved. Truthfully by then, even walking had become a problem for him.  I tried to compensate  by taking him places in a wheelchair.   One of our most frequent haunts  was the Capitol Lake Interpretive Center, a great  place for a "nature fix", and the trail is well suited to handicapped access. 

We did this for several years until last fall.  The months surrounding his death were difficult, and although I was able to grab the occasional respite to observe the many beautiful ducks on the lake during the shortest days of the year,  I very much looked forward to the return of neotropical migrants.

It was almost a relief when the vernal equinox brought the first splashes of vibrant color to the CLIC in the form of Yellow-rumped warblers - a lot of them.  To my surprise, they  persisted for several weeks, enthusiastically hawking for flying insects from the  thicket of willow and alder trees that line the shore of the lake and the dike trails:  Yellow-rumped warblers hawking for insects from Capitol Lake shoreline
The rain didn't seem to bother them, and the beauty and antics of these birds, known as "butterbutts" for the splotch of bright yellow on their rear ends,  helped to lift my spirits at a time when I needed it most. 

I've always known that there are two forms of this warbler - the Audubon's and Myrtle races, but I was under the impression that we didn't get the later type here.  I was wrong. Both kinds were well represented at the CLIC this spring.

Audubon's warbler 
Myrtle warbler

By late April, I began to hear and see other kinds of warblers, like this Orange-crowned:

Orange-crowned warbler

In mid-May, after nearly two months at the CLIC, the Yellow-rumpeds  finally departed for their breeding grounds, to be almost immediately replaced by the vibrant Yellow warblers, with their "sweet, sweet, sweet, I'm so sweet" songs.  Some of those will stay at the Interpretive Center for the remainder of spring and early summer to nest and raise young.

Yellow warbler

Slowly, over weeks, as life has returned to the CLIC, so it has returned to me, like sap rising in a tree, or the first tentative song lifting from the throat of a bird at dawn. Earthly existence compels continuance and renewal, as hard as that may be to achieve.
Spotted towhee throwing back its head to sing

I know that I will never visit the Interpretive Center without thinking of my Dad and the many experiences we shared there. I take great solace in knowing that he now enjoys the  freedom of flight that he always longed for. 

I'll be with you on the trail, Dad. 

 In loving memory of Verne Partlow

More videos:

Another warbler seen and heard at the CLIC this spring: