Monday, October 27, 2014

Farewell to the Sun: Idaho's Kootenai Wildlife Refuge

      It is the third week of October.  Normally this is a time where we’d expect weather such as early frosts, with cold rain closing in on us.  Not so much this last weekend when we drove through eastern Washington to Idaho to explore some family history.   Although most of our trip was focused on explorations of my great-grandparents 1903 homestead in Bonner County, Glen and I snuck out for a quick trip to Kootenai Wildlife Refuge.  It was an unforgettable experience.
    The Kootenai river has its origins in British Columbia.  Born out of the glaciers of the Canadian Rockies, it runs due south into Montana, then loops through northern Idaho on its way to join the Columbia in eastern Washington.  For much of the year it handles a large volume of water and so is very fast moving, with many rapids.  But here in the Kootenai Wildlife Refuge, at the end of a dry summer, the water levels are low and the river is a quiet dream.  It is in fact so quiet we are able to see beautiful reflections of the autumn cottonwoods in its waters.

     Today as we arrive at the refuge it must be at least 70 degrees.  The sun shines strongly out of a blue sky, though high wispy clouds hint of weather changes to come.  As we drive through the refuge the sun hits with real force on my side of the car and I am roasting.  It looks and feels like full summer.  Except in the surrounding hills, clothed with pines and larch, the larch trees are turning golden-orange, preparing to drop their needles.  They look like so many candle tapers, lighting up the hillside,  giving early warning of fall.

     We went to the refuge to look at birds.  But there wasn't much bird activity;  what we saw instead were masses of insects, rushing to finish out their life cycle before winter starts in earnest here in northern Idaho.  And what an array of insects, what a surge of pulsing life:  they were flying around fast & furious, frantic to mate, frenzied to finish out the season with a bang (so to speak).  The horse flies were particularly prevalent, and eager to be insect phlebotomists and drain our blood.  We did not cooperate.

     We stopped at the refuge office for a quick break and took a look at the spotting scopes mounted there:  no birds to see.  But the wall of the main office faced south and was almost hot to the touch with the reflected sun.  The wall acted as a solar collecting panel and many insects were drawn to its heat. Since many insects are more or less solar powered, it makes a lot of sense to find them congregating there. 

    There was a Satyr's Anglewing butterfly.  These are butterflies who overwinter in adult form, but will take flight on sunny warm days to feed and enjoy the rays.  Notice the cryptic coloration: when it folds up its wings, it looks like the bark it prefers to roost in.  But when its wings open up, there is a lovely flash of spotted orange and white.
     The edges of this butterfly's wings normally look like someone took some pinking shears to them.  But this particular butterfly was especially battered:  the extensive ragged edges speak to a hard life dodging bird beaks.  This individual was quite friendly and fluttered around me, even trying to land on my shirt. I later watched it follow some children and try to land on them. As the evening cools it will find some bark to crawl under and it may well stay there for several months.  Until the sun lures it out again, or the sprouting tops of nettles next April will bring it out to lay its eggs.  

     Glen went walking out in the grasslands to explore what he could find.  There were yellow sulfur butterflies, finding nectar in napweed and dandelions.  These butterflies are common in northern Idaho because their host plant is alfalfa, which is extensively planted in the surrounding fields.  We saw a few golden butterfly pairs dancing around each other, eager to finish out the mating before it was too late.

     We also found a weird black grasshopper:  when it took flight away from our intrusive feet, there was a scarlet flash of wings and a harsh rattle as it found a safer place to hang out.  On later research we found this was called the Red winged Grasshopper Arphia pseudonietana and is a common late summer denizen of grasslands.  Its red wings and rattling flight are distinctive identification cues.
      Meanwhile I continued to watch the bug show on the south wall of the refuge.  A damselfly ( a smaller relative of dragonflies) showed up. This one had impressive dark bug eyes;  it perched for some time on the wall, basking in the sun.  For identification, I had to contact dragonfly expert Dennis Paulson.  He told me that it was a female Spotted Spreadwing, Lestes congener and it is the latest damselfly to still be on the wing in the Pacific Northwest.  That certainly fits with what we saw.

     Then Glen got a picture of another insect.  We puzzled over it for awhile;  we knew it was some kind of true bug but beyond that, had no idea what it was.  So we checked Bug Guide:  this is a Western Conifer Seed bug Leptoglossus occidentalis.  The young nymphs reach adult status by August and then feed on ripening seeds of conifer trees such as Douglas firs.  As the summer season draws to a close they can be found on walls of houses, near windows and other openings, where they lurk, waiting for opportunities to move indoors to overwinter.  So it was no coincidence that we found it on the refuge wall, near the windows.
     As the sun went down in the western sky, the temperature began to drop and insect activity slowed.  We too needed to wrap up our activities and head back to our place.  We drove out along the five mile refuge road that followed the Kootenai river;  here we saw our first significant birds.  This was a pair of adult Bald Eagles, no doubt perched along the river waiting to feast on the large flocks of migrating waterfowl who will be passing through the refuge.  These eagles too are a sign of the changing seasons.

     And then there is the last picture Glen took as we left the refuge:  here were open fields of alfalfa, now harvested, tilled under and awaiting next year’s seeds.  The golden grasses of late fall lined the edges of the refuge road, while overhead the blue skies began to fill with mares’ tails proclaiming the changing weather to come.  
     The next day we woke to the sound of the first rains, pelting our windows.  And we knew that the wheel of the year had turned…

     


Janet

Resources:

  • Thanks to Dennis Paulson for the damselfly identification
  • Dragonflies and Damselflies of the West by Dennis Paulson
  • Bug guide:  bugguide.net/  You can send photos of insects to Bug Guide and do an ID request.  These folks are great.
  • All photos by Glen Buschmann

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

River Otters Feast on Salmon at Capitol Lake

By Nancy Partlow 

Text in Red Bold is a clickable link to video.

A family of river otters has been putting on quite a show at Capitol Lake recently.  They've been catching and eating Chinook salmon in full view of the public. 


Janet’s friend Cynthia told her she’d seen a mother otter and three pups chomping on salmon near the train trestle at Marathon Park.  We decided we  had to check it out.  Unfortunately, when we got there, no otters could be seen. 

So the next day, on a hunch, I decided to peruse the area along the lake near the 5th Avenue dam.  A few years ago we had seen otters in this vicinity in late November.   Sure enough, as I walked along the lakeshore, through the shrubbery I spied two otters slither off a log and move out into the lake.  As I entered Heritage Park, out in the middle of the north basin, five heads were just discernible poking above the water.
 

I began to film them.  So intently was I watching three otters masticating salmon that I only slowly became aware of people nearby saying things like, “Oh, look, it’s got a salmon head!”  Turning around, I was very surprised to see a mother otter and her pup on a log in the water about 15 feet away.  The mother had a salmon head she was biting into with obvious relish.  The look on the face of the salmon was one of astonishment with perhaps a touch of, “I came so far, was so near my goal, and then this!”
 
 
The Chinook salmon in the lake are following the fresh-water scents of their natal streams, the Deschutes River and Percival Creek, to their long journey’s end.  But for some, the odyssey terminates just short of "home".  For years, we have watched harbor seals corral and devour salmon on the north side of the 5th Avenue dam, which forms a bottleneck and gauntlet through which the salmon must pass before entering the lake.  It never occurred to us that the waters on other side of the dam could also be a kill zone.  For one thing, we didn’t think that river otters could catch and dispatch something as large as a king salmon, which may be as big, (or bigger), than the otter itself.  But according the WA Department of Fish and Wildlife’s page on river otters, they do eat salmon, among many other prey items:
 
River otters are opportunists, eating a wide variety of food items, but mostly fish. River otters usually feed on 4- to 6-inch long, slowly moving fish species, such as carp, mud minnows, stickle backs, and suckers. However, otters actively seek out spawning salmon and will travel far to take advantage of a salmon run. 

River otters can smell concentrations of fish in upstream ponds that drain into small, slow moving creeks, and will follow the smell to its origin, even in urban areas.
 
River otters also eat freshwater mussels, crabs, crayfish, amphibians, large aquatic beetles, birds (primarily injured or molting ducks and geese), bird eggs, fish eggs, and small mammals (muskrats, mice, young beavers).
 
Salmon heads must be a particular delicacy, because the mother otter didn’t want to share it with her pup.  In surveying the whole scene, I surmised that perhaps the mother had killed the salmon, bit off the head, then left the kids (most of them, anyway) out in the middle of lake to eat the body while she came near shore to nosh on the best part in relative peace.
 
The two otters on the log seemed not at all perturbed by the small group of humans watching them from a few feet away on the bulkhead.


A couple of folks thought the otters might be nutria, which are an invasive species in the lake.  But nutrias are vegetarians.  One woman said, “What a blessing!”, about being able to watch the mother and pup so close-up. Another man related a story of how, many years ago in front of Genoa’s restaurant (now the Hearthfire), he had seen two otters mating very loudly.
 
According to WA DFW, “River otters digest and metabolize food so quickly that food passes through their intestines within an hour.”  This could explain why, when I returned a few hours later, the otters were still hunting and eating, with  four otters now on the half-submerged log.


I couldn’t tell whether the mother was among them, although one was again eating a fish head. Three of the otters were playing and nuzzling each other. 


When the trio swam off together, the fish eater didn’t want to follow, only reluctantly diving into the water with the salmon head in tow.  Later, as the day moved toward sunset, Janet told me she saw the whole family swimming toward the railroad trestle. 

I had heard an intriguing rumor that river otters had been seen in the fish ladders at Tumwater Falls Park, so I decided to stop by the park on my way home.  I spoke with a DWF employee there, asking if he had seen otters in the fish ladders.  He said he hadn't.   

He did say though, that in the spring when the fish tanks are full of small salmon ready to be released into the river, young otters enter the tanks and eat many of them.  They've tried to block the otters from getting in, but the clever mustelids end up climbing over the chain link fences.

As it turns out, the story about the fish ladders was partially true.  It was referring to the fish ladders at the 5th Avenue dam. Not surprisingly, otters move with ease back and forth through the open dam to access both the fresh and salt waters of the lower Budd Inlet.  That is why the otters are frequently seen at the West Bay lagoon and elsewhere along the Olympia waterfront.

Now that the rains have returned in earnest, opportunities for watching the salmon-eating otters may decrease. A slug of fresh rainwater flowing into the Deschutes River and Percival Creek systems could trigger the salmon to make a final rush to their ultimate objectives.  Such is the cycle of life.  We here at the end of the Salish Sea are indeed blessed to be part of it.


All words, photos and videos by Nancy Partlow ©

Additional video:


Other Resources:

WA Dept. of Fish and Wildlife page on river otters:

http://wdfw.wa.gov/living/river_otters.html

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Bee Imposters

     So our intrepid photographer Nancy Partlow sent us these photos and a story.  She  was out in her garden one day watching the pollinator animals,  She was looking at the fall asters when she saw this insect.  Nancy immediately got nervous and quickly put some distance between herself and the bug:  this is of course of a yellow jacket wasp, right?   Nancy and I both have had a childhood horror of these hornets, which is pretty ironic considering that now fifty years later we plant gardens which attract them.  But even today one or the other of us will call in early spring and in a voice of doom report:  “They’re baaaaaack….”   The first fat yellow jacket queen of the year can still give us the chills.  So it was very reasonable to me that Nancy would very quickly back off of this wasp.  Except…..it’s not a wasp.

     Nancy has become an acute observer of nature, and she noticed something weird about this so-called wasp.  Yellow jackets make a low ominous droning hum as they explore their territory: that sound strikes terror in the hearts of children.  But this insect had an annoying high pitched buzzing.  Nancy said it was like the difference between a B47 and an ultralight.  
     The other thing she noticed was that it was pretty nervous and twitchy.  Now yellow jackets are a top insect predator and they behave like they own the neighborhood.  If you’ve ever tried to shoo one off of your picnic food, you know how persistent and unflappable they can be.  This insect was very flighty and Nancy had a hard time getting close enough to get these pictures.  That struck Nancy as pretty strange, too.

     So the next picture she got really tells the tale:  look at those huge alien compound eyes:  no wasp has eyes like that.  Look too at the short knobs of antenna: these are very unlike the antenna of wasps.   And those thick hairy legs are much more typical of another insect.  What we have here is a FLY, pretending to be a wasp.  By putting on the coloration of a yellow jacket, other predatory insects will think twice about trying to eat it.  This is what is known as a bee mimic. 
   
  It’s a great trick. 



Janet

Resources:  
• photos by Nancy Partlow
• This fly is probably Spilomyia citima
Megan Asche has a great blog with other photos of this insect.  Check her out at: 
• Bug Guide is a great ID resource:  http://bugguide.net/node/view/15740

     

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Bumblebee Poster

We have created a poster of Bumblebees of Thurston County, Washington.  Four of the best BBee photos of each species, two each male and female, that Nancy has taken over the past few years make up the poster.  This poster is very regionally biased and may not match bees seen in other areas. Folk in other regions are encouraged to do something similar.  It has been a mostly enjoyable effort putting the photos into a poster, and small compared to the time spent by Nancy in the field.

The poster is now a feature of our Bumblebees page, along with some other information.


Omitted are common names.  There are common names out there, but they can be confusing in a different way and we generally either adopt our own or abbreviate the scientific name, like "Vos" for Bombus vosnesenskii.  

Bumblebee i.d. is not always easy nor certain.  The only certainty is that the more one watches the more one sees.  
Here are some hints on telling gender.   
Males are different in appearance and habit in several ways.   
1) Pollen basket.  If the bumblebee has a blob of pollen on the hind leg, the bee is female.  Even if not laden with pollen, the female hind femur is wider.  The males may have pollen on his body, but it is haphazard.   
2) Flower habits.  Males spend much more time drinking nectar and less time gathering pollen -- only enough to feed themselves.  Some flowers may draw mostly male bees, because they only produce nectar, or mostly female because they mostly produce pollen.  Some flowers draw everyone.   
3) Timing.  Males show up at the end of a nest cycle, never in early spring.  First a few queens show up preparing the new nest, then the female workers, then the males and the new queens.   
4) Appearance.  Males have longer antenna and a longer body, an extra segment each.  They typically have more yellow, although it may be a little or a lot more depending on the species.   
5) Sting.  Only females can sting, (and they can sting more than once, the stinger is unbarbed).  If you are very confident, you can test gender by hand-collecting a male.  If you get stung it was not a male.

Nancy Partlow photo credit
 B. californicus (fervidus) female
Nancy Partlow photo credit
 Bombus californicus (fervidus) male

Nancy Partlow photo credit
 B. vosnesensikii male
Janet Partlow, photo credit
 B. vosnesenskii female

Now as we head into fall, field study slows hugely with most bumblebees closing camp and dying or (if new queens) headed to ground until spring.  Mid-September and we have seen a few fat new queen vos, laden with fluids and calories, and a few workers of a couple of tenacious fall species are still out there.  In the meantime, over the next few months we will sort through photos and observations and work on both this and other pages about our native pollinators.

Glen

Additional resources

Bumble Bees of North America,  Paul Williams et al, 2014

Bumblebees of the Western United States,  Jonathon Koch et al, 2012 (PDF available)

Xerces Society bumblebee i.d.  http://www.xerces.org/bumble-bee-identification/
Xerces Society, bumblebeewatch.org



Monday, September 8, 2014

The Language of Chickadees

We woke this morning to heavy rain, the first wet pounder after several weeks of hot & dry weather.  Native to the wet side of the Pacific Northwest, we find this a source of rejoicing.

Chestnut-backed Chickadee
So does the world outside of our windows.  As I sit snuggled up in a warm fleece blankie, a small flock of chickadees shows up in the big picture window.  One works its way through the rhododendron beneath the window, picking off scale insects.  Another is using its tiny beak to glean out minute insects from between the shreds of moss that coats the branches.  As I look out the window beyond the rhododendron, I see several chickadees, working almost as a team, methodically providing insect removal service to our yard.  The yard is full of chick chick chick contact calls, as they keep in touch with each other.  The wet conditions deter them not at all.

We have a long relationship with chickadees.  For many years we had a tube feeder stuffed full of their favorite black oil sunflower seeds.  We kept it going year around, and the chickadees were very aware of this.  And on some level, they seemed to recognize us as their neighbors. They seemed to know we lived in the house and that we were no big threat. They also seemed to know that the tall lanky human guy was the one to refill the feeder. Over time they trained us to take care of them.  Here is an example:

In winter, chickadees take their time getting up.  I remember many weekend mornings while we were still in bed, hearing the small local flock of chickadees moving slowly alongside the wall outside our bedroom window.  They were working through the native yew and rhododendrons, quiet sleepy chick chick noises marking their progress.  We knew that their ultimate goal was the front yard, where the tube feeder of sunflower seeds sat.  This was a reliable source of breakfast food.

Every once in a while, the tall lanky guy neglected to fill the feeder.  When the chickadees rounded the corner of the house and discovered this serious betrayal, the sleepy contact noises burst into loud, imperative CHICKa dee  CHICKa dee CHICKa dee as they registered their deep unhappiness with this state of affairs.  But through the course of many years together, we had learned their language. That call was enough to get the lanky guy out of bed, into enough clothes to venture outdoors, where he filled the feeder.  The complaints then stopped, forthwith.

I remember one spring I was laid up with a bad knee, awaiting joint replacement surgery.  I spent a lot of time sitting around that spring, waiting for the operation that would give me relief and make me mobile again.  During that spring we put up a chickadee nest box on the front of the house, near our rarely used front door.  Our invitation was promptly accepted by a pair of Chestnut-backed Chickadees, though they had to put a vigorous fight with others of their kind in order to “win” the box.

These chickadees entertained me during that long period of waiting.  I watched them ferry in beaks full of shredded moss to line their nest.  They were pretty sneaky about it:  they would fly into a nearby bush, moss hanging every which way out of their beaks.  They would lurk and look carefully around, very wary, before finally making a mad dash into the depths of the nesting box.  This went on for a few days and finally the nest was done.  From the outside, it appeared to be deserted, but looks were deceiving.  One of the pair was sitting in the box, quietly incubating a clutch of eggs.  The male often found a hidden perch high in a tree nearby.  He would sing a distinctive, mournful DEEE, Deee, dee, a series of notes in a minor, descending scale:  this is the distinct call of breeding chickadees.  As he sang (incessantly) and she sat, the eggs finally hatched and after a few days we would hear tiny peeps as the adults took turns, flying in to stuff their begging maws.

The nesting chickadees seem to get to know us and also knew the usual pattern of visitors to the yard.  For example, the postman always delivered to the wall slot just under the chickadee box.  The birds were not thrilled about his daily incursions but they accepted it with a quiet alarm call.  This call was distinctive: from inside the house I recognized it and would get up and check the mailbox.  They were always right.

They were more unhappy about cat visitors.  Our next door neighbor had a young hunting cat who regularly prowled the yard and killed birds.  The chickadees knew this cat and whenever it appeared, they would let loose a loud volley of Chick a DEE chick a DEE chick a DEE!!  When I heard that call, I knew to get up and chase off the cat.  After a couple of times, the chickadees knew I was available to provide this service and I believe they came to rely on me.  Who was training who, anyway?

While the cat was a serious threat, we had put the nesting box high up on a wall where it was out of the reach of cats, so there was no real risk.  However, the biggest threat to the young nestlings was Stellar’s Jays:  these are large birds who regularly prey on other birds’ eggs and nestlings; they of course fly and can reach into the nest box,  and the chickadee parents are very aware of this.  When the Stellar jay flocks made their circuit through the yard, the chickadees would sound their own version of screaming chickadee hysterics: CHICKA DEE DEEE DEEE CHICKA DEE DEEE DEEEE!!!!!!.  I heard that shrieking and jumped from my chair, chasing off the jays and once again earning my keep in the eyes of the chickadees.

Over that spring, I learned the different calls and was able to predict what the problem was even before I opened the door.  Sometimes I got a mixed message: one day I looked out the window saw Stellar’s Jays, but the call from the chickadees signaled a cat.  I opened out the door and watched the jays attacking the cat, who was attempting to hunt for one of their nestlings.  Jays have seriously long sharp beaks and the flocks they live in are only too happy to go after prowling cats.  As I looked out, it was clear to me that all of us: jays, chickadees and me were really enjoying the sight of the overfed cat put to scrambling, panicked flight.

After a few weeks, the hatchlings fledged and the nest box was empty once again.  But throughout the year, the chickadees continued to glean in our yard, to come to the feeder, speaking their own language and allowing us a window into their lives.  It remains one of my favorite memories as a bird watcher.

Janet Partlow
     ------------------
Resources:
•  Photos by Nancy Partlow
•  Short YouTube by Nancy Partlow:  Chickadees at a nest box  (Mason bees in foreground)
•  The Black-capped Chickadee by Susan Smith.  A wonderful book on the lives of these birds.  
     

Friday, July 25, 2014

Cedar Waxwings at Tumwater Falls Park

Text, photos and videos by Nancy Partlow


I’ve known for quite a while that woody debris in a river creates great habitat for salmon. But until recently I didn’t realize it does the same thing for birds. My two latest blogs have been about interesting bird activity taking place on or near the log jam in the Deschutes River at Tumwater Falls Park. Less than one block from the busiest interstate highway on the west coast, this recently-created tangle of scoured tree trunks and branches seems a very unlikely wildlife haven.

 
That is why I was surprised once again to notice something intriguing happening there: a whole flock of birds flitting on and off the wood pile. What was going on? From far away, these birds looked rosy in color, so I thought at first they might be finches. But in checking them out through binoculars, I discovered they were cedar waxwings, and they were "hawking" - catching food on the wing.
 

You could have knocked me over with a feather. I’ve always thought of cedar waxwings as fruit-eating birds. Yet apparently, they really like insects too, because that’s what they were going after on the log pile. Some sort of winged insect "hatch" was in progress, and as the tiny critters zipped sky-bound from the jumble of dead wood, the waxwings were launched into a frenzy of competition to see who could grab them first from mid-air.
 
Some of the birds seemed to be gathered around a small shaded area of the wood pile, like campers congregating around a campfire, staring intently into the flames. But what the birds were watching for were diminutive sparks of life flying upward into the daylight – sparks that were almost instantly snuffed out by the waxwings’ prowess. Other waxwings hung out on the periphery of the log jam, their sharp eyes open for any insects that made it past ground zero.
 

It was impossible to discern from so far away exactly what the insects were, but my sister Janet, who one day accompanied me to the platform overlooking the river, surmised that they must be termite "alates", the reproductive form of the insect, which could be either female queens or male drones. We referred to these creatures as "salmon flies" when we were kids.
 
It makes sense that termites would make a home in all that dead wood. It also makes sense that birds would take advantage of such a great source of protein, because it wasn’t just cedar waxwings going after the bugs. Several Violet-green swallows swooped back and forth low over the falls, snatching any insects the waxwings missed.
 

A Spotted sandpiper appeared on the scene to glean bugs that had fallen into the river. It was exciting to see it. Until a couple of years ago, I only knew sandpipers as the little birds that scurry around in big flocks at ocean beaches, poking their bills into the sand. I had no idea that there was such a thing as solitary, fresh-water sandpipers until I spied one foraging along the shores of the Deschutes estuary and asked Janet about it.  


This one was in full breeding plumage – dark on top with a white spotted belly and an orange beak. It blended in beautifully with its surroundings.


The waxwings too, were beautiful. One of the most nattily plumed of songbirds, waxwings seem to wear evening dress while the rest of the avian world wears workaday clothes.


Only a few of the birds that we saw had the red wing tips (not really wax, but extensions of adult secondary wing feathers) that the birds are known for, leading us to guess that most of them might be young, first-year birds. 
 
We had learned that the yellow coloration of the waxwings’ tail feathers are the result of diet, and that in recent years some birds have been observed with orange tail feathers due to their eating of non-native berries like pyracantha.


The frenetic insect hunt on the log jam continued for several weeks, until it eventually slowed down to a just a few birds participating. Maybe the waxwings lost interest as their favorite food, berries, began to ripen in the warm summer sun.
 
But as I have finally learned, there will always be something intriguing happening there, even if it’s not readily apparent. I now eagerly await the next natural wonders to be revealed by the Deschutes River at Tumwater Falls Park. 
 
 
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Here are a couple more videos:
 
Cedar waxwings as viewed from the other side of the log jam:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gWZNpCQc2mQ&list=UUG3jWO8v65u8iJuwiX2blSA 
 
Spotted Sandpiper feeding off a log in the Deschutes River:
 

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This link goes to a blog about a group of bird banders and their experiences with cedar waxwings.  It includes pictures of birds with orange tail feathers:

http://www.hiltonpond.org/ThisWeek091111.html 
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Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s All About Birds web site describes the cedar waxwing thus:
A treat to find in your binocular viewfield, the Cedar Waxwing is a silky, shiny collection of brown, gray, and lemon-yellow, accented with a subdued crest, rakish black mask, and brilliant-red wax droplets on the wing feathers. In fall these birds gather by the hundreds to eat berries, filling the air with their high, thin, whistles. In summer you’re as likely to find them flitting about over rivers in pursuit of flying insects, where they show off dazzling aeronautics for a forest bird.
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Wikipedia’s entry on Cedar Waxwings explains how the species got its name:

These birds' most prominent feature is this small cluster of red wax-like droplets on tips of secondary flight feathers on the wings… The tail is typically yellow or orange depending on diet. Birds that have fed on berries of introduced Eurasian honeysuckles while growing tail feathers will have darker orange-tipped tail-feathers.
 
The Cedar Waxwing eats berries and sugary fruit year-round, including "dogwood, serviceberry, cedar, juniper, hawthorn, and winterberry", with insects becoming an important part of the diet in the breeding season. Its fondness for the small cones of the Eastern Red-Cedar (a kind of juniper) gave this bird its common name.

Friday, May 30, 2014

The Dippers and the Caddisflies

By Nancy Partlow

I took my Dad to Tumwater Falls Park recently. I wanted to show him the Canada goose that was nesting in the wood pile atop the upper Deschutes falls. As I rolled him in his wheelchair to a platform overlooking the river, I glanced down and right in front of us I saw my favorite bird – Cinclus mexicanus, the American Dipper.
It was hunting from atop a log - diving quickly in and out of the swiftly flowing water behind the falls. I knew it must be feeding young, but there were no babies apparent in the immediate area. Dad and I were both amazed at how fast the bird was jumping in the river, retrieving its prey, knocking it on the log, and diving back in again. We couldn’t figure out what it was going after. They didn’t look like salmon smolts, which I had seen a dipper gathering in abundance last spring at the lower falls. What could they be?



The next morning I returned to the platform to check out the goose, which was still incubating eggs, and briefly caught sight of a Spotted Sandpiper flitting off the woodpile. Then, as I had hoped, the dipper returned to the log, this time with a baby. 

The bird resumed its activities of the previous day, but now with my zoom camera, I was finally able to figure out what its prey item was – fat, juicy caddisfly larvae. 

I was excited. I remembered learning about Deschutes River caddisfly larvae as a youngster. My brother, a fisherman, had shown me the clever little houses called “cases” that these aquatic insect grubs create out of the river-bottom materials of teeny pebbles and sand. It was one of those “isn’t nature amazing” moments that stick with you for the rest of your life. And here was the dipper eating them. There must have been hundreds of these creatures submerged beneath this small stretch of river because empty caddisfly cases littered the log’s surface. 



Fascinated, I watched as time and again the parent grabbed a larva by its head (the only part of the insect sticking out of the case) and banged the case on the log until the bug inside was knocked insensible and relaxed its grip on its only source of protection. The bird did this several times in a row until it had gathered up a mouth full of grubs, which it then unceremoniously stuffed down the gullet of the loudly-begging baby dipper.

Occasionally the caddisfly worm was so far inside the case that the dipper couldn’t grab its head. When that happened, the bird would take the whole case in its beak and knock it on the log to dislodge its tenant. 

Other times it tried unsuccessfully to poke its beak into the case to grab the recalcitrant food morsel inside.



Obviously, dippers have a well-honed search image for such underwater prey, no doubt aided by the protective shields on their eyes called nictitating membranes. Many people mistake the dippers’ striking white eyelids for these membranes, but bird authority David Sibley dispels that notion.



All of the parent bird’s feathers were worn from months of indefatigable use, but in spite of this, the dipper was singing! 

Dippers are America’s only aquatic songbirds, and this one was showing off its vocal prowess; perhaps teaching its baby how to sing, or maybe just warbling its exuberance at finding such a great food source. Whatever the reason, it was fun to hear.

Naturalist John Muir was enamored of the American Dipper, which he called the Water Ouzel, and wrote extensively about it. His description of its song is pure poetry:
The more striking strains are perfect arabesques of melody, composed of a few full, round, mellow notes, embroidered with delicate trills which fade and melt in long slender cadences. In a general way his music is that of the streams refined and spiritualized. The deep booming notes of the falls are in it, the trills of rapids, the gurgling of margin eddies, the low whispering of level reaches, and the sweet tinkle of separate drops oozing from the ends of mosses and falling into tranquil pools. 


The tranquility of the two dippers in front of me was abruptly ended when a crow landed nearby. All singing stopped, and the dipper baby, which had been bobbing incessantly, froze in place, becoming the proverbial bump on the log.
The crow, which seemed more interested in what the dippers were eating, soon moved on, at which point the baby tentatively explored the more placid waters next to the log. I enjoyed watching it learn how to become a dipper.



The next day when I returned to the park, I saw the parent dipper foraging the rapids below the upper falls, trying valiantly to keep two persistently-begging babies fed.
The parent was not nearly as successful in finding food as the previous day, and was too busy to sing. 
The water above the falls was noticeably lower and clearer, revealing a cobbled river bottom with no caddisfly cases to be seen.
Perhaps the dipper had hunted them all out. Hopefully, by next spring there will be another bumper crop of these intriguing insects to feed the next generation of dippers at Tumwater Falls Park.

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All photos and videos by Nancy Partlow

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Resources: 

Dippers must be pretty tough to survive the constant battering of their dynamic environment of cold, fast-moving water. Their range extends into northern Alaska, where they are able to endure temperatures down to 20 degrees below zero. A friend recently told me that the first time he ever saw an American Dipper was in a stream at Paradise in Mt. Rainier National Park.

Here’s a photo that gives a sense of how resilient these birds are:


http://www.flickr.com/photos/61210501@N04/6456463295/in/photostream/



Here are a couple of truly gorgeous images by photographer Eugene Beckes of an American dipper with caddisfly larvae in its mouth:
http://www.flickr.com/photos/61210501@N04/6425042809/

http://www.flickr.com/photos/61210501@N04/6320238965/in/photostream/