Sunday, September 2, 2012

Flicker in the Cascara Tree

Now that my native landscaping is starting to fill in and mature a little bit, I've really noticed an increase in the number of bird species that I see in the yard.  On one recent morning, I looked out the window and saw a Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus) enjoying a snack of suet among the branches of one of my Cascara trees.


 So I quietly snuck out the back door and poked my camera lens around the corner of the house to get a better shot.

The Northern Flicker is a beautiful woodpecker.  Sort of a brownish-tan color overall, with all kinds of black spots and bars, and a black crescent on the chest.  The female lacks the red moustache stripes that you can see on the lower sides of this male's face.

The behavior of the Northern Flicker differs from that of most woodpeckers because they spend a lot of time on the ground, where they eat beetles, ants and other insects.  When they are in the trees, they're perched on branches like this one, rather than hanging on the trunk, supported by their tail feathers.  Sometimes your only view of a Flicker is when you interrupt its ground-feeding.  You'll see a white rump spot and a flash of red as it flies up and away, into the trees.  The flash of red is due to the red color of the flight feather shafts.  The Flicker pictured above was kind enough to leave me a sample of his red-shafted feathers.

The Northern Flicker is a common, year-round bird across most of the contiguous United States.  In the Eastern US, the flight feathers have yellow shafts instead of red.  Hybrid forms are common where the ranges of the two forms meet.

Even though this is a commonly-seen bird, it really is beautiful.  And I don't think I would have seen one in my yard before I provided a little bit of habitat.  OK, I admit... the suet feeder helped.  But when my yard was a flat, monoculture lawn, there was nothing of interest to attract this bird.  No native planting areas to offer forage, and especially no trees in which to seek refuge (or to hang a suet feeder).  Every time I spot a new species in my yard, it's like a little reward for all of my effort.  I can't wait to see what the next one will be!

You can learn to identify the Woodpeckers of North America by sight, sound and behavior, with this illustrated book by Frances Backhouse.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Native Bees, Large and Small

About a year and a half ago, I posted some information about solitary Mason Bees... how they're important native pollinators, and how you can help sustain their numbers by providing a good spot for them to shelter and lay their eggs.  This past spring, I decided to give it a go myself.

I purchased a basic house from Ruhl Bee Supply, then I added a larger roof using some metal flashing, to better protect the bees and the paper tubes from spring rains.

 I put it on a post against a south-facing wall, with the opening facing east so the housing material would be warmed by the morning sun.

Then I drew a Mason Bee on the side...

...and filled it up!

I used cardboard tubes with paper inserts (also purchased at Ruhl Bee Supply), and I added some spacer blocks and twigs left over from pruning my Red-osier Dogwoods.  Apparently it can help the bees identify which tube they're filling with eggs if you break up the space and make it a little random and natural-looking.  (Those Red Osier Dogwood twigs turned out to be a lucky choice, but more on that later...)

I decided I didn't want to rely on the curb appeal of my new bee house to attract the bees, so I bought a small box of Mason Bee cocoons from Portland Nursery (supplied by Crown Bees).  Here's a picture of my supplies.  Each cardboard tube has one closed end and one open end.  The paper tubes are open on both ends, and slide into the cardboard tubes to make one ready-for-eggs tube.

When the weather seemed consistently warm enough, and some of the native early blooms were opening in my yard, I took the box of cocoons out of the refrigerator where they had been waiting patiently, poked a hole large enough for the bees to emerge, and placed it in the top of the house.

A few days later, I was lucky enough to catch one of the bees as it left the box and explored the new digs.  I think it might be a male because it was kind of just hanging around.  The males emerge first (my box of 10 cocoons had 4 male and 6 female cocoons), then wait for the females to emerge so they can do their thing.  Then the females can get on with their business of gathering pollen and nectar, placing it in a tube with a single egg, then adding a wall of mud to create a chamber.  They'll repeat this process until a tube is full, and move on to the next one for as long as they're able.

I enjoyed watching my Mason Bees fly back and forth, industriously going about their work.  Because these solitary bees are so docile, you can stand right in front of the house and they will just fly around you on their way in and out.  I think I ended up with three or four females working in the house.  All of my cocoons hatched, but I think a couple females flew off or maybe had an unfortunate run in with a hungry bird.  You can put large mesh or wire in front of the house to protect the bees from any lurking birds as they come and go.

I provided a tray of mud at the base of the pole, to make sure the bees had a source, but I don't think they ever used it.  I guess during spring in Oregon, it might not be too hard to find a good spot to pick up some mud.

I didn't make a note of when I saw my last live bee working, but I believe by mid-July they were all done.  One of them died in the end of a tube while trying to pack in that last egg chamber.  You can see it's iridescent bee-hind in the photo below (top, left of center).

Some people recommend taking the nest tubes out of the house after the bees stop flying, and placing them in a protected space with natural temperatures.  The idea is to protect the eggs and larvae from parasitic wasps (which can drill through the nest tubes to lay eggs of their own) as well as other pests and predators.  I decided that my house was well-packed enough that no wasps could get in, so I thought I would just let them stay in the house until the time comes to remove the cocoons and check for mites this fall.  (If mites are present you can rinse the cocoons before storing them through the winter.)  So that's what I did.

It turned out to be a fortunate choice.

After returning from a camping trip the first week of August, I was walking past my bee house and just happened to notice a very small bee crawling around the twigs.  My first thought was "Oh no!  It's a tiny parasitic wasp with bad intent!  All my larvae are doomed!"

I took a closer look, and realized the tiny bee - probably 1/4 the size of a Mason Bee - was excavating the soft centers of the Red-osier Dogwood twigs, presumably to lay eggs like the Mason Bees had done in the cardboard tubes.

This bee may look large in the photo above, but the end of that twig is only about 1 centimeter in diameter.  And a few of the twigs that the bee was able to excavate and crawl into were as small as half a centimeter in diameter!  While I was standing there, happily watching this second species of bee making use of the house I provided, a second tiny bee flew in to join the first.  They would crawl into one of the twigs, and push out little bits of "sawdust" as they dug deeper into the twig's core.  Then I noticed that some of the excavated twigs had already been capped off.  But it didn't look like the capping material was mud because it had a definite green tint.

In the photo above, you can see the green-capped twig, as well as a partially excavated twig and several that remain unexcavated.

I had no idea what this new micro-bee was, so what would any curious natureophile do?  TO THE INTERNET!!

From the information I was able to find, I believe my new tenants are Leafcutter Bees (Megachile spp.).  Leafcutter Bees nest in holes or excavate pithy plants (like pruned rose canes), and they use either chewed-up bits of leaves or neatly trimmed pieces to make their egg cells.  Leafcutter Bees (and Mason Bees) don't collect the pollen on their legs like Honey Bees.  They collect it on the underside of their abdomen.  You can just make that out in the photo below if you click to zoom in.

My Leafcutters were only around for two or three weeks.  From late July to mid-August.  But I have quite a few capped-off twigs, so hopefully - between my Mason Bee tubes and the Red-osier Dogwood twigs, I'll have a big batch of bouncing baby bees come next year.  My plan is to remove and clean the Mason Bee cocoons this fall, remove the twigs, and store them all either in my unheated shed, or maybe in the refrigerator.  (I fear my wife may influence that decision in one definite direction.)  I'll be sure to keep you posted.

So start paying attention to little holes around your yard - you may be hosting some native pollinators without even knowing it.  That's what happened to Mike over at Native Plants & Wildlife Gardens.  And even though I purchased my Mason Bees, the Leafcutters found the twigs on their own.  So I guess if there's a moral in this blog post, it has to be... "If you build it, they will come."

For more information on Mason Bees, and a link to some great resources, read my earlier post on Mason Bees.  Or check out a book called Attracting Native Pollinators: The Xerces Society Guide for information about a multitude of native pollinators.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Afternoon on the Esplanade

It's Rose Festival time in Portland. 

 Last week, I decided to go down to the East Bank Esplanade to watch the ships come in for Fleet Week.  It was a beautiful afternoon, and in between ships I was able to do a little bird watching.

Just a quick post to share a few pictures...

I saw an Osprey coming upstream toward me - keeping an eye on the water below for any possible meals.

He got closer, then hovered over the river very close to where I was.

I was hoping I'd get to see him dive for a fish, but no luck.

Then I heard a bird singing loudly nearby.  I'm just a newbie birder, so I didn't recognize the song, but I spotted the bird in the growth along the river bank.

It's a Song Sparrow.  Pretty common bird - I know - but he sure was singing his heart out!

Apparently the Song Sparrow is known for its energetic singing - it's one of the most persistent singers throughout the spring and summer within its wide range.

Since I was down there to watch the ships, I can't resist throwing in just one of those pictures...

And one gratuitous picture of our beautiful city, celebrating Rose Festival...

Sunday, June 3, 2012

River Otters, Sea Otters, and Otter 501

It seems I've been circling some sort of strange otter nexus, lately.

River otters - photo by Dmitry Azovtsev [CC-BY-SA-3.0]
Kind of an odd statement, I know.  But not too long ago, I was pleasantly surprised to find out that we have river otters in the Portland area.  And no - I'm not talking about the ones at the Oregon Zoo.  Since receiving that bit of cheerful news, I've seen photos of Portlandian river otters posted to Facebook, watched my niece and nephews be captivated by the otters (both river and sea) at the Oregon Zoo, and - out of the blue - I had a chance to see an advance screening of Otter 501, a movie about sea otters living in Monterey Bay, in California.  With all of these intersecting otter events, I decided it was time to learn a bit more about otters in Oregon.

First off - for anyone who doesn't already know -  sea otters and North American river otters are two different critters.  They belong to the same Family (Mustelidae) and Subfamily (Lutrinae), but their Genus and, of course, Species are different.  The North American river otter's genus and species is Lontra canadensis, while the sea otter's is Enhydra lutris

According to Wikipedia, the habitats of river otters and sea otters can overlap, because river otters can live along coastal shorelines and estuaries, as well as inland rivers.  But sea otters are much bigger animals, tipping the scales at 30-100 pounds, as opposed to the river otters' 11-31 pounds adult weight.

Just like their classifications, the stories of these two animals' history in Oregon have similar beginnings, but not necessarily the same ending.

Let's look at the river otter first.

I guess I always had some vague idea that you wouldn't have to go too far out of the metro area to find a stream that could support a river otter population, but I just never thought that they were alive and well as close to downtown Portland as Oaks Bottom, or Smith and Bybee Lakes.  Although the Willamette River has its share of pollution problems, they're apparently not at a level that would prevent river otters (which are very susceptible to environmental pollution) from existing, if not thriving in the area.  Kudos to the various municipalities and organizations working to clean up the river since it hit its environmental low point sometime in the early-to-mid 1900s.  A study by the USGS, which used otters as a "sentinel species" to judge the health of the Lower Columbia River found PCB levels in otters greatly reduced between 1979 and 1994.  That same study, in 1994, "found a relatively dense river otter population throughout the study area, including the heavily polluted portion of the (Columbia) River within the Portland-Vancouver area."

Like most fur-bearing mammals in North America, the river otter populations greatly declined as a result of the fur trade.  Habitat loss and pollution has reduced their numbers even further.  But as long as we continue to clean up our rivers, and protect vital natural areas along the Willamette and Columbia Rivers in the metro area, river otters should have a bright future here.

No so for sea otters in Oregon.  The future remains to be seen (funny thing about the future), but there are currently no Oregon sea otter populations outside the Oregon Zoo and the Oregon Coast Aquarium.  This is a direct result of the fur trade.  The thick fur (the thickest of any mammal) that keeps sea otters insulated in the frigid Pacific Ocean, became a major target for the fur trade - expanding from Russia in the early 18th century, through the Aleutian Islands, and south along the west coast of North America in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.  By 1911, perhaps only 1,000–2,000 individuals remained in the wild.  Fearing extinction (finally), the United States, along with Russia, Japan, and Great Britain (for Canada) signed the Treaty for the Preservation and Protection of Fur Seals, which included a moratorium on the sea otter harvest.

Sea otter - photo provided by Otter 501 and Sea Studios Foundation
Today the sea otters have rebounded from the brink of extinction, to cover about two-thirds of their historic distribution.  However; the sea otter is still listed as an endangered species, and they have not been able to reclaim their place along Oregon's coast.

Sea otters were thought to be extinct in California until a population of about 50 was discovered near Big Sur in 1938.  All sea otters in California today are descendants of those 50 individuals.

In Washington, 59 sea otters were relocated from Alaska in 1969 and 1970.  Surveys in the early 2000s recorded between 504 and 743 individuals.

There have been attempts to re-establish populations in Oregon, as well, but the efforts have not been successful.   The Elakha Alliance is working to understand why these attempts have failed, and how they might succeed in the future.  Established in 2000, the Elakha Alliance (elakha is the Chinook word for sea otter) is a group of tribes, universities, and other organizations working toward the goal of restoring sea otters to Oregon's coast.  The problem is complex, partly because the sea otter is such an important keystone species - a species that has a large effect on the structure and health of its ecological community.

Sea otters depend on healthy kelp forests for their food.  These kelp forests provide shelter for fish, sea urchins, and other otter delicacies, and also help keep coastal erosion in check.  But when you remove sea otters from the equation, the system begins to break down.  With no otter predation, sea urchins (which feed on the kelp) overrun the forests, eventually turning them into "sea-urchin barrens".  These barrens can no longer support the rich diversity of species which depended on the kelp forests for survival.  So it's kind of a catch 22.  For sea otters to survive, you need healthy kelp forests.  For kelp forests to flourish, you need sea otters to control the sea urchin population.  Hopefully the Elakha Alliance can figure out a way restore the needed balance.

The final element of my otter nexus was the chance to see an advance screening of Otter 501 - a movie about sea otters in Monterey Bay.  The movie opens as Katie, a young freshwater biologist from Wisconsin, is settling in to her uncle's vacant apartment on Monterey Bay.  She posts a video to Facebook, telling her friends back home about her plans for a six month break in California.  Her beach bum intentions go out the window when she finds an abandoned baby sea otter on the beach and reports it to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which sends staff to rescue the otter.  Katie ends up volunteering at the aquarium so she can keep tabs on the otter pup - Otter 501 - but she also learns a lot about sea otters in general, how to observe them in the wild, and how to collect behavioral data.  Katie is the primary role in the movie.  Aquarium staff and other people have very minor speaking roles.  Katie narrates the story through her Facebook posts, which become very popular as she relates the tale of Otter 501's rehabilitation.  The narration seems a bit stiff or scripted at times, but the movie includes beautiful footage of the California coast and lots of insight into the aquarium's work monitoring and protecting sea otters in Monterey Bay.  I would recommend it to anyone interested in learning more about these iconic animals.  Warning to parents - this movie will have your kids asking for a cuddly baby sea otter of their very own!  Otter 501 opened June 1st at the Regal Fox Tower.
Sea otter pups - photo provided by Otter 501 and Sea Studios Foundation

Other links of interest:
River otters at Oaks Bottom

Photo of a river otter at Smith and Bybee Lakes

Oregon's missing sea otters

2009 Oregon sea otter sighting

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Scrub Jays are Moving In

I posted recently about all the spring action in my yard - including some new neighbors helping themselves to my bark mulch.  Now some neighbors are tearing apart the liner of our hanging flower basket.

The liner is made out of coconut fiber, and it apparently makes pretty good nesting material.

A pair of Western Scrub-Jays (Aphelocoma californica) have been working on it for a few days now.

According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's website - All About - "Scrub-jay nests are made of a basket of twigs lined with rootlets, fine strands of plant fibers, and livestock hair. Nests take about 10 days to build and are about 6 inches (15 centimeters) across when finished. Both members of a pair help with building."

Oh well - I hope they enjoy my fine strands of plant fiber!

Want to provide your neighbors with Coconut fibers?

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Battle of the Ospreys at Camassia

On a recent trip to Camassia Natural Area, I was lucky enough to catch some interesting Osprey behavior on film.

The Ospreys have a nest atop a cell phone tower, just outside the park's boundary.  When I first spotted the nest, there were two adults in it.  After a few minutes, a third adult Osprey flew in, and they all had a bit of a scuffle.

The third Osprey was not this year's offspring because this was on April 15th - right at the beginning of the nesting season.  It could have been a chick from the previous year - I'm told that sometimes they return with the parents, and may help guard the nest.  If that was the case here, its help did not seem to be appreciated.  Maybe it was an unrelated bird competing for the nest site.  Who knows?

Watch this montage of photos and see what you think...

Sunday, May 13, 2012

My New Pair of Bloomers

Two of the newest plants in my native landscaping have flowered for the first time, so I thought I would share a few pictures of this brand new pair of bloomers.

Blue-eyed Grass (Sisyrinchium idahoense)

First up:
Blue-eyed Grass (Sisyrinchium idahoense)

This plant is not a true grass at all, but a relative of the Iris.  The plant is native to the western United States, and the flowers are variable. 

Blue-eyed Grass (Sisyrinchium idahoense)
The flowers close in the evening, and the stems have little joints which allow the flower to stand upright even when the stem falls over. (Like the stems to the right in the photo below.)

Blue-eyed Grass (Sisyrinchium idahoense)
These were planted in February, and I wasn't sure if the tiny, bare root plants would produce blooms this year.

Flower: Blue/purple, with yellow center (variable)
Blooms: March-May
At Maturity: 1 1/2' H x 2' W
Location: Fulls sun to part shade, dry to seasonally wet

I planted some Yellow-eyed Grass at the same time (Sisyrinchium californicum) but it has not bloomed yet.  Yellow-eyed Grass looks just like Blue-eyed Grass but the flowers are solid yellow.

My Blue and Yellow-eyed Grasses were purchased at the annual native plant sale held by East Multnomah Soil & Water Conservation District (EMSWCD).  They have some great online Native Plant Resources if you'd like info on selecting and finding native plants for your yard.

Nevada buckwheat (Eriogonium umbellatum) var. nevadense

My second new bloomer was purchased at the Tryon Creek Trillium Festival and plant sale in 2011.  So this is it's second spring in the ground, but it didn't bloom last year.

 It's called Nevada buckwheat (Eriogonium umbellatum) var. nevadense.

 This plant is not native to the Willamette Valley, but it is found in drier, sunnier areas east of the Cascades, and in other western states.  I wanted to give it a shot in my yard because it gets a lot of full sun, and I figured the plant would do well with no water in the summer.

Nevada buckwheat (Eriogonium umbellatum) var. nevadense

Looks like it's doing OK!

Flower: Bright Yellow, suffused with red
Blooms: May-July
At Maturity: 1' H x 1 1/2' W
Location: Well drained soil, PS-Sun

Nevada buckwheat - Blooms fully opened
Here's another good resource for NW gardeners interested in using more native plants:

Monday, May 7, 2012

Spring Happenings in the New-and-Improved Yard

Readers of this blog may know that I installed a landscape using (almost) entirely native plants, in what used to be the very bland yard of our duplex (mostly lawn).  Now I have large planted areas with layered vegetation - groundcovers, shrubs, small and medium-sized trees.  The full sun yard now even has a couple of areas approaching part shade.  I couldn't be happier with the results.

Before and After (2008-2012)

One of the benefits has been a very noticeable increase in the wildlife that frequents the yard.  The birds especially love the new trees, and enjoy digging around in the groundcover.  I notice more and more wildlife each year.

Just the other day, I was pruning my Red-flowering currants (after the bloom), and there were lots of young ladybugs crawling around.

And a few weeks ago, I noticed a pair of Bushtits hopping around one of my Cascara trees - just as they were starting to leaf out.

They're cute little birds - known for their acrobatic ways.

I think they were looking for insects on the new leaves.  And they seemed to appreciate the suet feeder, too.

I see the pair all the time now, flitting between this tree and a larger tree in a neighbors yard.  I think they must be nesting nearby, if not in that neighbor's tree.  I've been meaning to go look for the nest.  I recently saw a Bushtit's sock-like nest when I joined one of the Backyard Bird Shop's nature walks, out at Smith and Bybee Lakes.  Here's a picture I took of the nest...

The nest is made from grasses, spider webs, and other soft materials, and I'm told if you happen to come across a nest with chicks in it, you can tell by all the wiggling.

Another recent happening in the yard...

Bark mulch thievery!

I watched this crow stealing my bark over the course of several days.  Sometimes his (or her) mate would come to supervise - walking along beside, and seemingly giving each piece the thumbs - I mean wingtips - up or down.  (I have my theories about who was who in this pair, but I won't go into that here.)   :-O  

After settling on a piece, the thief would take it up to the power line and go through a shredding process with beak and foot, before flying off to a large conifer where I assume they're nesting.

It can be fun getting to know your non-human neighbors!

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Shameless Self Promotion

Hey, look at that!  My Facebook page is almost up to 100 likes!  If you haven't caught up to me there yet, why not help me blow right past 100 and get on my way to 200 likes?

Here's a link:

And you can also find me on Twitter:

Spring Blooms at Camassia Natural Area: Part II

Picking up where we left off, let's see the park's namesake - the Camas lilies...

The path through the wet meadows uses boardwalks to get you from rock to rock.

Bumblebee on Camas lily (Camassia quamash)

Camas lily with a Pacific Madrone backdrop

The rocks give the meadow a very Zen look and feel.

I think the yellow flowers above are Swamp Buttercup (Ranunculus orthorhynchus). The pink flowers below are Rosy plectritis (Plectritis congesta).  Both colors really set off the Camas.

There are a few white Camas sprinkled around, like the one pictured above.

Camas reflected in a puddle

 No shortage of wildlife in the park.  Woodpeckers have done a number on the dead tree above, and it looks like something has been munching on the plants below.

Maybe the deer that left these tracks in the mud.

Spotted Towhee (Pipilo maculatus)

The Spotted Towhee kept his bright red eye on me.

Bushtit (Psaltriparus minimus) on Oregon Grape
Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus)

There is an Osprey nest atop a cell tower at the edge of the park.  Great viewing opportunity.  I saw a skirmish between three Osprey while I was there, but I'll show those pictures in a later post.  For now, just a pic of one Osprey doing a fly-over.

Osprey (Pandion haliaetus)

One of the highlights of the trail is a great view of Mt. Hood.

OK.  I know that was a ton of pictures, but it's such a great place to visit and photograph.  I hope you can find your trail to Camassia Natural Area soon!

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