Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Cascara Berries are for the Birds; Mine are for Cedar Waxwings

When I planted four Cascara Buckthorn (Rhamnus purshiana) trees in my yard several years ago, my yard didn't have much to offer the wildlife.  So I couldn't wait for my new trees to mature enough to produce lots of berries, which would hopefully bring in lots of native birds during the summer months.

Berries of the Cascara Buckthorn (Rhamnus purshiana)

Cascara berries start out green, then change to red, then black as they ripen.  They are edible, but I'm told they're bitter.  Wikipedia says that the fruit "has a laxative effect. The food industry sometimes uses cascara as a flavoring agent for liquors, soft drinks, ice cream, and baked goods."

My trees have finally grown to a fairly good size over the past year or two, and the wildlife has definitely taken note. Bees and other pollinators seem to love the tiny spring blooms, and flocks of Bushtits come to search for insects among the leaves.

As for the berries, I'm a little sad to say that most of them get eaten by European Starlings.  I know, I know... European Starlings have been around a long time now, and some people find them attractive.  I think they're just a little too pushy and voracious, hogging all the food which could support more native birds.

Recently though, I have seen Northern Flickers eating the berries.  And just the other day, I finally saw the bird that I've been hoping to see for 5 years now... the Cedar Waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum)!  Cedar Waxwings have to be one of the most beautiful birds in Oregon, with their silky smooth feathers - which look like they've been carved from wood and sanded to a perfect finish.  Their elegant black masks, their yellow-tipped tail feathers, and the little red wax tips on their wing feathers give these birds a lot of flare.

Cedar Waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum) (Drawn by my father, Jerry Nenninger)

Before seeing the Waxwings in my yard, the only other place I've gotten a close look at them was at Elk Rock Island, in Milwaukie. Since seeing them in my yard, I've also seen them on Rocky Butte, and now that I know their calls, I've heard them at Mount Scott Park.

Here's a little photo and video montage I put together.  The Cedar Waxwings in this video look a little scruffy because it was raining lightly at the time.  It shows both adult and juvenile birds.

Friday, July 26, 2013

When a Cricket is not a Cricket: Cicadas in Oregon

I love the sound of crickets in the evening.  They always remind me of summers where I grew up in North Carolina.  It seems like we had more crickets there, and where my grandparents lived in the mid-west, than we do here in western Oregon (or should I say HEAR in western Oregon?). I don't know if that's true, but it seems like that to me.

Late last summer I had a tree cricket in my yard, happily chirping his little tune every night.  I was glad to have him move in because I've never heard a cricket right here in my yard, which is in a fairly urban area.  I sat on the patio many evenings over several weeks listening to his song, which was eventually joined by another.

So I was excited when I heard chirping again yesterday afternoon, but I thought it was a little early in the day for a tree cricket to be singing.  I went in search of the chirping's source, which was pretty high up in a Cascara tree, and found... a cicada?! 

Cicada (probably Okanagana rimosa) in a Cascara tree
 I've seen cicadas by the thousands when visiting my grandparents in Illinois and Missouri, but they were bigger and greener.  And I've never seen or heard one in Oregon. 

Cicada (probably Okanagana rimosa) in a Cascara tree
Having spent my fair share of time outdoors in Western and Central Oregon, I probably would have said we don't have cicadas here.  That's why I grabbed my camera as fast as I could, and snapped these pictures.  They're not great because it was about 10 feet up the tree, and this was the only angle I could get.

After I got the photos I sat down to do a little research, to see if there really were cicadas in Oregon, or if this was just a wayward traveler blown in by some freak wind.  I was somewhat surprised to read that there really are cicadas in Oregon.

A local biologist, named Max, wrote on his blog (Apartment Biology) that the cicadas found in Oregon "are smaller, emerge in lower densities, and are not as loud as the ones found in the southern and eastern parts of the country."  He reported hearing many cicadas - most likely of the genus Okanagana - at Shute Park in Hillsboro.  He also found their exuvia (shed exoskelotons) on the trunks of the conifers in the park.

I looked around for my visitor's exoskeleton, but didn't find anything.  I think he must have flown into my yard.  And soon enough after I took the photos, he flew away - probably in search of a better cicada social scene.

While researching cicadas in Oregon, I ran across a great site called Cicada Mania.  Everything you've ever wanted to know about cicadas, plus lots of photos, videos and even sound clips of different cicada songs.  After tweeting a photo of my cicada to their Twitter account (@cicadamania), I learned that we have 32 species of cicadas in Oregon, all belonging to the Okanagana, Platypedia, or Neoplatypedia genus.  Judging from the limited view of my cicada, they thought it was probably Okanagana rimosa, sometimes called Say's Cicada.  

Here are some interesting cicada facts, from Wikipedia:

  • Cicadas are insects in the order Hemiptera.
  • About 2,500 species of cicada have been described, and many remain to be described. 
  • Cicadas are related to leafhoppers and spittlebugs, but NOT locusts.
  • Cicadas do not bite or sting in a true sense, but may mistake a person's arm or other part of their body for a tree or plant limb and attempt to feed (only if allowed to rest on a person's body for an extended amount of time.)
  • Many people around the world regularly eat cicadas. 
  • Cicadas have three small eyes, or ocelli, located on the top of the head between the two large eyes.
  • The male cicada has loud noisemakers called "tymbals", their song is not created by structures rubbing together, as in crickets.
  • Some cicadas produce sounds up to 120 dB- loud enough to cause permanent hearing loss in humans should the cicada sing just outside the listener's ear. 
  • Cicadas live underground as nymphs for most of their lives, emerging in the final nymphal instar, and molting one last time to become adults.
  • After mating, the female cuts slits into the bark of a twig, and into these she deposits her eggs.  When the eggs hatch, the newly hatched nymphs drop to the ground, where they burrow.
  • Most cicadas go through a life cycle that lasts from two to five years. Some species have much longer life cycles.
Wikipedia has much more cicada information, including cicada symbolism and culinary use, and even a time-lapse clip of an adult cicada emerging from its molted exoskeleton.

So how about it - has anyone else seen cicadas in Portland or other parts of Oregon?

Monday, March 11, 2013

Smith and Bybee Wetlands: Something to See, Anytime of Year

Recently we've had some very Spring-like days here in Portland. The days last a little longer, and the sun feels a little warmer. We're already seeing the first blossoms of Spring.  Native plants like Red-flowering Currant and Indian Plum don't wait around for the calendar to say that Spring is here.  They just bloom whenever it feels right.  I know there are many more showery, gray days to come (and rain is a good thing), but I can't help looking forward to the drier, greener days ahead.

Red-flowering Currant

Sometimes our weather memories are rather short-term.  Here in western Oregon, we gripe about the rain until it's time to gripe about how hot it is.  So to help us not take the current mild temperatures for granted, I thought I'd look back a couple of months and share some photos that I took out at Smith and Bybee Wetlands on a very cold and frosty January morning.

 Smith and Bybee Wetlands Natural Area - often referred to as Smith and Bybee Lakes - is the largest protected wetland within an American city.  Located in North Portland, west of PIR and Delta Park West, the park is a great place to see water fowl, raptors and other birds, as well as beaver, river otter and one of the few remaining populations of Western Painted Turtles in the lower Willamette Valley (listed as "critical" on Oregon's sensitive species list).  Facilities at the park include a paved, accessible trail between the two lakes (complete with viewing platforms), restrooms, a launch for non-motorized boats, and some very nice interpretive signs.  Some interesting public art is sprinkled throughout the developed areas.

View Larger Map

 It looked like I was the fist to arrive by car on this January day.

Informational signs by the parking area

 I walked past frosty Nootka Rose hips...

...frozen cattails...

...and frost-dusted Oregon Grape.

Then I came to the viewing area looking out over the frozen slough.

This is the place where you can spot Western Painted Turtles basking in the sun during the warmer months.  Hopefully they're all tucked snugly into the mud at the bottom of the pond where they hibernate - their body temperatures dropping to just above freezing.

Moving on down the trail, I saw a Brown Creeper and a Bushtit, but didn't get a good picture of either one.  Then I looked up to see this juvenile Bald Eagle looking down at me.

It either got tired of me staring up at it, or it decided it had better things to do.

Here's the observation platform on Smith Lake.

And the view from the platform,

 which included some American Coots (I believe).

The Coots seemed nervous, and I thought it was because of me, but it might have been that juvenile eagle that was flying overhead.

So even in the rain, snow, or heavy frost, you can always see something interesting out at Smith and Bybee Wetland.  

Just a few more photos to wrap it up...
Frozen perimeter of Smith lake

Signs of Beaver in the neighborhood
One of the many pieces of public art
This last photo was taken south of Portland, in the area of Donald and Aurora, but it could have been taken at many places in the Portland Metro region.  I wanted to share it here because it goes so well with the frosty theme of this post.

Canada Geese flying in front of a frosty old Oak

Brrrr... looks cold, doesn't it?  

Remember to get out and enjoy the mild temperatures we've been having lately.  Pretty soon it will be too hot.  ; )

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