Saturday, August 22, 2015

Treefrog In Transition

Text and photos by ©Nancy Partlow

Several nights ago, I heard the call of a male Pacific Treefrog  (AKA Pacific Chorus Frog) through the bathroom window - Cree-EEEEK.  I could tell that it was probably somewhere in the covered walkway between the carport and the back patio, but thought I didn't have a prayer of finding it.  A few days later when I was rummaging around in a wheel barrow full of gardening paraphernalia I sometimes keep parked in this area, a little tan and brown spotted frog suddenly appeared on the rim of the barrow.
I figured it might have been hanging out in an open bucket of fresh planting soil, seeking a cool refuge from the recent heat and drought.  Greeting the little creature, I ran a bit of water into the bottom of a plastic watering can, which I then set beneath the wheel barrow. I did this because I’ve occasionally found tree frogs hiding inside watering cans on my back patio. 

Two mornings later, I searched for the frog but didn’t immediately find it. On a hunch, I checked the area around the hose connection a few feet away. In my experience, chorus frogs periodically loiter there, perhaps for the moisture.  Sure enough, I spied it on the hose rack next to the faucet, tightly snuggled between the coils of a black rubber hose.

By this time, the frog was not brown but a combination of green and brown. 

BB & B readers may recall a previous blog about chorus frogs where we wrote about this species’ ability to change color through the use of pigment cells in its skin.  In researching the literature about this neat trick, I discovered some disagreement among scientists as to why these frogs change color.  In my admittedly-unscientific opinion, they do it for camouflage.  Every time I’ve seen a chorus frog, it’s been the same color as its background. Although this one wasn’t the same hue as the hose it was perched on, (some have the ability to turn light gray), it did match the color of the plant foliage on the ground just below it.  Perhaps it had spent the previous day hiding out in that greenery, or was about to.  

Whatever the reason, the frog was beautiful. I’ve seen chorus frogs with all- green skin on their upper body, or mottled green and brown coloration, but nothing like this. Its back was mostly lime green, with tan still clearly visible along the edges.  The liver-colored spots and stripes from the previous few days were almost completely gone, although the black eye stripe was still there.
Patches of green were visible on its legs, while the cute ovals on its face reminded me of clown make-up.  I thought, "The frog is coloring a paint-by-number picture, using its body as the canvas.  How cool is that?"

I took a few photos of the little fellow, then left him to his own devices. I try not to intrude too much on the animals I see.  Their lives are hard enough as it is.

I didn’t see or hear the frog again after that day. More than likely, it was migrating from a nearby wetland to the forested area behind my house, where it would spend the terrestrial phase of its annual life cycle hiding in the shrubs and forbs, or buried in the leaf litter beneath the trees. 
I’ve been hoping to observe a frog change its color for a long time, and am thrilled to have finally caught one “in the act” in my own back yard. 
What a finished "paint job" looks like.
Courtesy USGS Amphibian Research & Monitoring Initiative
About Pacific Treefrogs:

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Of Toads and Mountains

Mount Baker from Boulder Creek
     Last week Glen and I went camping at Baker Lake, just southeast of Mt. Baker in northern Washington state.  Over the years we’ve been on a mission to camp near each of the major peaks in the Cascade Range.  This year, Mt. Baker was our goal.

     We camped at Panorama Point campground, which is along southeastern border of the impounded Baker river.  This river/lake is eight miles long and sits right at the feet of Mt Baker, so there is a lot of snow and rain draining into this lake.  Our campsite was sitting near/on a wetland that adjoins the lake, so  it shouldn’t have been a surprise to find (and hear) amphibians.  

Western Toad Bufo Boreas  (photo L. Halleck)
     One night after a thunderstorm and soaking rain, we were walking over to the Sani-can facility to do our evening ablutions, prior to turning in for the night.  I had my flashlight trained on the ground, watching for trip hazards.  Suddenly, along a path that I had come to know well, we saw a weird lump sitting right smack in front of us.  I trained my flashlight on it and found:  my first ever Western Toad Anaxyrus (Bufo) boreas.

     It was dry skinned and warty, light gray, with dark blotches near the warts.  The most distinctive field mark was a thin creamy-white line running down its spine from neck to vent.  It was about 3 inches in length, which is an average size;  apparently they can get up to five inches in length, with females being bigger.  

    It sat in our path;  it blended very well with the gravel that surrounded the Sani-can.  It remained very still, doing its best to blend in like a rock.  Finally it blinked and revealed itself to be a living animal.

     Over the evening and next morning we saw it several times, always near dusk or dark, always near the Sani-can.  We speculated that it might be territorial:  the smell of the Sani-can definitely attracted insects and so for the insect-eating toad, this is prime habitat.  Also the nearby wetlands and Baker Lake itself are excellent feeding and breeding habitat sites.  

    I was charmed.  As a birdwatcher, we always are on the look out for “life birds”.  This was a life amphibian for me, and as such, a real treat.  

•  Washington Herp Atlas
•  Toad photo by L. Halleck from The Herp Atlas
•  Mount Baker photo by Glen

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Shameless Promotion (Bees & Other Pollinators)

When, twenty years ago, Janet introduced Mason Bees into our family, neither of us had a notion of what she was starting.  By now I well know that mason bees are an entry drug into the world of bees, for they are easy to both raise and observe.  They have lured me deep into the pollinator world.

This past weekend (July 24 - 26) was definitely another tipping point, where I attended a program mostly about recognizing bumble bees.  Forty plus folk gathered in a Snohomish County Extension classroom (one county north of Seattle) to expand their knowledge of pollinators and receive instruction on how to recognize bumble bees down to their species and gender, taught by Rich Hatfield.  Rich is the biologist for Bumble Bee Watch, (a project of The Xerces Society), and he did a good job covering a complex topic.

A poster: Study pollinators at Oly Public Library on 9/28/15The field trip the next day was soggy — the first real rain in weeks.  It started with showers, and many of the bees we spotted were wet and huddled under larger flowers.  Ninety minutes in, and both insects and insect surveyors were soaked and wanting to hide. With our field trip shortened, some of us retreated nearby for warmth and hot drinks.  By the end of the workshop day I already knew that I wanted (needed) to do the same thing in Thurston County -- well not the getting soaked part, but that will happen too.  With the caffeinated conversations in my head, I considered the next steps while driving home a few counties to the south.

So what is next?  How about a monthly study group on native pollinators (not honey bees) and then a weekend short course, this time in Thurston County.  Look for regular updates including speakers / topics on our blog main page under "Pollinator Study":
Pollinators Study Group (Thurston Co, WA)

This is your invitation: if you live in the area and are interested in being part of a regular study group that wants to both learn more about some of the pollinators of the South Sound, and share some of your knowledge with others as well, please come.  The first meeting will be a mix of "Show and Tell" (bring something), and planning for the future.  We look forward to seeing you.

Meeting room, Olympia Timberland Regional Library, Monday, Sept 28th, 6:00 p.m. 

Glen Buschmann
360/ 352-9009

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Wasp Hunting

Display, Thurston Co Fair Beekeeper booth -- Bald-faced hornet
Now is the time of year where the aerial nests of yellow-jackets and bald-faced hornets assume a size of significance, easily exceeding a soccer ball in size.  I respect them, and give the nests wide berth.  Soon, the nests will start producing queens and drones and by September each nest will have started its inevitable decline into chaos.  But for now (early August), each working female is intent on provisioning the young in the ever-growing nest.

This week I put in a stint at the Beekeeper Booth at our county fair,  and read an article by Rusty Burlew / with some of her recent observations of wasps.  So I've been thinking about and looking for them.  But I was not expecting my attentions to lead to the following wasp tale, fascinating if somewhat gross -- and perhaps understandably unphotographed.

Really this tale really started the day before with a malodorous cat gift underfoot -- grumble grumble -- a mishap that put both Janet and me in a state of greater alertness.  Today it was Janet who saw a feline land mine in the middle of our dry lawn.  To those who do not know us, our response was peculiar, for instead of following a disposal plan, we brought out the lawn chairs: two bald-faced hornets were locked in an energetic stinging battle over this apparently valuable resource.

Bald-faced hornet on fennel
This we watched for a while.  I, having hose in hand and perhaps feeling a slight degree of pity for both the battle and for creatures reduced to this as a source of moisture and nutrition, gave both wasps and poo a shot of water.  One wasp circled and returned to the target and lawn -- now fresher and more attractive.  A couple of dozen flies invited themselves to the revitalized bounty. 

With the flies, the battle scene truly became murderous.  The remaining BFH revealed herself to be an adept hunter, adroitly capturing a fly, flying off presumably to her nest, and then returning.  We watched for a while with a perverse sense of appreciation combined with some disgust.  Finally, I removed the hazard.

But the wet lawn, odors, and insect routines remained, and thus Janet and I did not leave either.  The provisioning hunts by this wasp continued — waiting, pouncing, circling, waiting, waiting, darting, pouncing, and in time, success.  With the main nutritive target gone, flies were fewer and more twitchy, and the difficulty of hunting increased.  Our primary knowledge of wasp feeding habits has been learned while seated at the picnic table, when a meal is animated only by its being moved from barbecue to plate to mouth.  This was different.  So we watched the show and speculated, with a running commentary and considerable admiration.

I will still give wide berth to the nest of this wasp, just as I would to a roaming grizzly bear or resting rattlesnake.  But this paper-making hunter has my respect on a whole new level.


Short video by Miklos Bacso of Bald-faced Hornet hunting, similar story -- sorry about the ads.
Photo Credits
Nest photo Paul Henderson for Thurston Co Fair
BFH photo Nancy Partlow

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Lorquin's Admiral Butterfly in the Pollinator Garden

     In our last blog, I wrote about butterflies.  I remarked that our warm sunny spring was going to provide great opportunities for butterfly sightings.  This week we had more evidence of this.

     Nancy was in her pollinator garden early one morning, watering the plants.  The sun had just come out:  lo and behold what should appear but a Lorquin’s Admiral butterfly.  This is one of our common June butterflies;  it can be found in city backyards, often around apple trees, where the males defend the trees and allow females to lay eggs on the leaves.

     This butterfly perched briefly on Nancy’s hose and then moved over to a compacted mole hill, now wet from Nancy’s watering.  You can see it as it flies in and starts to do a series of complex butterfly behaviors.

•  First, it pumps its wings open and closed.  When I saw that I knew it must have just gotten up:  this is a butterfly behavior in early morning, akin to how we humans stretch as we get out of bed.  They stretch their wings, pumping hemolymph (an insect’s version of blood) from their bodies into their wings, getting ready for flight.  
•  Secondly, it carefully positions its body to receive the strongest rays of the sun.  Butterflies are solar powered and rely on the sun’s light and heat to warm them up enough to get ready for action.  It has placed itself in such a way as to collect heat right on its body and the flight muscles just underneath.  This  helps prepare the animal for a day of flying, feeding and mating.
•  Finally it chose to do all these things on a pile of wet soil.  Butterflies are known to do something called “mud-puddling”;  the males in particular gather in clubs around muddy puddles, stick their drinking straw (aka proboscis) into the slurry and drink in mineral rich water.  It seems as if they especially need sodium, which is otherwise in short supply in their 100% nectar diet.  Here is a link that talks about this behavior:

     Nancy had never seen this butterfly behave in this way in her garden.  This is yet another example of how nature can show us amazing things, even when we are in the middle of ordinary tasks.  


All photos & videos by Nancy Partlow
The Butterflies of Cascadia by Robert Pyle

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Cause and Effect: Nelson's Hairstreak Butterflies

    In this late winter to spring, we have had a long series of sunny, dry days.  A few weeks ago I remarked to my fellow blog naturalists that with these conditions, this was going to be a going to be a good year for butterflies.  And so it has proved to be…

    Nancy was in our backyard on one sunny afternoon, goggling over all the pollinators that were clustered on our Ceanothus shrub.  She was focused on all the bees, but suddenly noticed a small brown butterfly, its proboscis extended, drinking deeply of the nectar provided by the tiny blue flowers.  She got some great photographs and came back in the house to share her discovery with me.  It was a Nelson’s or Cedar Hairstreak butterfly Callophrys nelsoni.

     This is a life butterfly for me, meaning I’d never seen it before.  I was very surprised to find it in our small city backyard.  The thing about butterflies is that they tend to flit into a garden, grab some nectar and move on.  But if you provide a key host plant for that butterfly, they might actually stick around your yard.  That is what happen with this Hairstreak.  .

     It turns out this hairstreak butterfly lays its eggs only on cedar trees.  The males will perch all day on cedar branches, waiting for females to come by.  When she arrives, they will mate, and then the female will lay single eggs on the tips of cedar branches.  This hairstreak uses both our native cedars Western Red and Incense Cedars, but will also use Cedar of Lebanon, native to the middle East.

     In our front yard is a old, very tall Cedar of Lebanon.  It is facing south and gets full sun, conditions which butterflies love.  We have lived at our place for eight years now;  it is my guess that in all these years, the Hairstreaks have been using our cedar as a host plant, then diving down into our pollinator garden to feed.   And we had never known about this butterfly.

     We are nature watchers and we are excellent observers.  Yet until this year, we missed the Hairstreak butterflies.  It just goes to show that there are always new things in nature and in our own backyard, to provide a rich source of amazement and learning...


•  All photos by Nancy Partlow
•  A great blog on Washington Butterflies:

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Rhododendrons and Bumble Bees

Text, photos and videos by Nancy Partlow ©

For most of my life, I was afraid of bees.  This made my childhood in our suburban backyard a fraught affair.   You see, my Mom loved rhododendrons, and planted them in different corners of our yard.  I dreaded bloom time, because the rhody bushes would come alive with clouds of visiting bumble bees.  I devised mental maps in my head of relative zones of safety throughout the yard to navigate me as far from these shrubs as possible.
Nancy with Brinker the dog, and her mother's Jean Marie Montague

So I find it amusing that when I now hear the buzzing of bumble bees in a rhododendron bush, I make a beeline toward it instead of in the opposite direction.

Janet’s 2008 study of local bumble bees was a turning point for me.  I was at first highly dubious of her work with stinging insects, but the more she shared her newfound knowledge with me, the more I became fascinated by these little creatures.

When I eventually started to take pictures of bumble bees inside rhododendron and azalea flowers, I made a surprise discovery that finally cracked the code of why bumble bees are so attracted to these plants.

First off, the flowers of many rhododendron and azalea plants are chock full of nectar.   When in bloom, these shrubs are like neighborhood fueling stations for bumble bees.  The bees’ abdomens pulsate like little basting bulbs as they suction the precious sugar solution from the nectar repositories deep in the base of the flowers. 

But the other thing these blossoms offer is pollen; which I accidently discovered while taking bumble bee photos at the magenta-colored azaleas in my neighbor’s yard.
I kept hearing the bees making funny noises as they landed on flower after flower.  I was perplexed by what they were doing.  On closer inspection, I noticed that azalea (and rhododendron) anthers are little “pollen pots”  jammed full of bumble bee larvae food. 
The openings to these pots are really tiny, so to expediently “get at” the pollen, the bumble bees were using a technique at which they excel: buzz pollination.  Grabbing hold of a pollen pot, a bumble bee purposefully vibrates its flight muscles (but not its wings) at a frequency that makes the anther eject its contents. 
Bombus mixtus bumble bee buzz-pollinating
an azalea anther
Similar to pulling the ripcord on a tightly-packed parachute, the pollen, connected to viscous “threads”, emits from the pot like a baby spitting up milk.

The bumble bee quickly gathers up these threads, but sometimes filaments of pollen festoon the bee’s body. 
Other bee species glean pollen from rhododendrons, as well.  I’ve watched solitary ground-nesting bees extract the pollen directly from the anthers using their mandibles.  They too are gathering food for their larval young.


Bumble bees utilize rhododendrons in one additional way that is still a mystery to me.  When the plants are near the end of their bloom periods, the bees seem irresistibly drawn to the bases of the flowers (calyxes), even if the blossoms are falling off, or are gone completely.  Are the bees simply going after the last dregs of nectar, or (and this is sheer speculation on my part), could they possibly be collecting some sort of substance on the calyxes? Honey bees collect tree resin for its antimicrobial properties, to help line their nests.  Maybe bumble bees do something similar, especially since all parts of a rhododendron are poisonous, even, apparently, the nectar:  

Whatever the bees are doing, this activity is not without its risks.  Anyone who has ever dead-headed rhododendron flowers (something we had to do quite often as kids), knows that certain rhody varieties have very sticky calyxes.  One day, while visiting a friend’s house, he pointed out several bumble bees that were completely stuck to calyxes on one of his rhododendron bushes.   

The poor things were struggling mightily to no avail, and we were reluctant to try to help them for fear of being stung.

Taking photos of bumble bees on rhodies and azaleas has been a transformative experience for me. Besides learning about how the bees interact with the flowers, I have gained a much greater appreciation for these previously-avoided plants, and for the beautiful world that pollinators inhabit.