Magpie: Our Black and White Jay

The Black-Billed Magpie is an extreme bird. People either love ‘um or hate ‘um. They probably have more detractors than supporters. However, I am one who likes this beautiful bird. Their satiny black and white feathers and long tails are most attractive. Seen in the right light, their feathers shine with an iridescence. People from the east who haven’t experienced this species are usually very impressed – much as westerners are with Blue Jays when visiting eastern states.

Like all jays, this bird is very raucous. When they are near, you can hear them “jabbering away” to each other. This intelligent species would have to be considered the valedictorian of the bird world. Very alert to their surroundings and very hard to approach, they have been known to do clever things – like the one that dropped nuts at a stop light. The nuts would be cracked when the traffic ran over them. The bird would then fly in to get the results when the light changed.

They are a year-round bird and very adaptable. As generalists, their diet covers a wide range from fruits, grains, worms, slugs, and insects to small animals like snakes and mice. They also do much scavenging and are often seen on highways taking advantage of the “road-kill”. Magpies are early nesters and build roofed, dome shaped nests of sticks that protect the eggs from the early spring weather. The same nest is used each year. Five to nine eggs are laid and are incubated for 16 to 18 days. When fledging, the young have short tails which elongate as they mature. By early nesting, they are gone from the tree when other species arrive.

We have other jays in Cassia County: the Scrub Jay which is blue and gray, the Pinyon Jay which is all blue, Clark’s Nutcracker which is gray, black, and white, the American Crow, and the Common Raven. All are raucous, opportunistic, smart, and adaptable. The Black-billed has a cousin – the Yellow-billed which is slightly smaller and found in central California. Magpie behavior is always interesting. I’ve watched them “mob” hawks and owls, sneak food away from larger animals, and even perch on the rumps of deer – getting great pleasure out of annoying their hosts.

The Red Crossbill: An Unusual Beak

This beak is not deformed. Nature intended it to be thus. It is an adaptation for the opening of cones. While useful for that purpose, it does make the bird into a specialist and whether the beak crosses to the right or to the left runs about 50-50. Crossbills must have coniferous forests in order to survive and because conifer cones may last on the tree up to 20 years, there is no need to migrate out of an area of good cone production. Therefore their movements are irregular and controlled by cone availability.

There are two species of crossbills in North America: the Red Crossbill and the White-Winged Crossbill. The red variety is hard to “spot”, but is very abundant in the Cassia and Twin Falls mountain areas. The more glamorous White-Winged one is an inhabitant of boreal (northern) forests.

These interesting birds may not come to seed feeders, but water can be a major attraction. They are very gregarious and will come in to drink in large groups. The all-red, mature male is pictured. Immature birds are boldly streaked brown. The females are yellowish-olive and may show patches of red. The species is 6 ¼” long, with a large head, and a short, notched tail.

Different strains of the species are each adapted to a specific tree type (i.e. Lodgepole Pine, Ponderosa Pine, Douglas Fir, etc). Other species such as finches, chickadees, and siskin benefit from the nuts not consumed after a cone is opened. Crossbills are also quite vocal and will call while in flight. Each individual’s calls may vary somewhat from other individuals, giving that bird a character of its own. It gives a rapid series of harsh “jip” notes, started with several two-note phrases and followed by a warbled trill.

The female lays three eggs, but only two individuals usually fledge and there is about a 12% survival rate of the young into the second year. It is enough, however, to maintain the bird’s population numbers.

The crossbills of our south hills have the largest beaks of their kind. They are an isolated population and researchers are thinking of denoting them as a separate species. When camping, the presence of crossbills gives one a true flavor of the mountain experience. It is a truly unique bird!

A bird in the hand equals two in the bush

By Dave Hanks 

Tiny little claws grasp and tickle my fingers. It’s a BLACK- CAPPED CHICKADEE – a small bird that is named for its call and black cap. If you are in the woods you hear the call “chick-a-dee-dee-dee”, it is unmistakably this bird.

We have two Chickadee species in Cassia County: the Black-Capped and the Mountain. The Mountain Chickadee is told from the Black-Capped by a white eyebrow stripe and is the more common in our county. Both prefer higher elevation woodlands of both deciduous and coniferous trees. They usually forage in the lower branches where they are often seen feeding by hanging upside down. When not nesting, they gather in huge flocks. They are insectivorous but will come to feeders containing seed.

As you can see, they can also be lured onto ones hand, perch on your camera, or even alight on your head. Following a Chickadee call can lead you to other species, which they tend to feed in a group with; such as woodpeckers, nuthatches, warblers, and kinglets. They may even lead you to owls that are sitting on their daytime roosts. These frisky fellows are a favorite winter visitor to bird feeding stations.



The Chukar: A favorable introduction

by Dave Hanks

This national bird of PAKISTAN can, also, be found in the Mediterranean Islands, Turkey, Iran, Eastern Russia, China, Nepal, and now the United States. Most introductions to the USA have been detrimental, but not this bird. It has become established in the rocky grasslands and canyons of the western USA.

The Chukar’s name resembles its call – a rapid series of “chuck – chuck – chuck – chuck” and a shrill “whitoo” when alarmed. This partridge is a plump 14 inches long, has a white face that is encircled with a black ring that runs through the eyes and down to its throat, light grayish-brown back, buff belly, and Rufous streaking on its sides. It is a striking, multicolored bird that leaves no question as to its identity.

I have had acquaintances tell me that it was their favorite upland game bird to hunt. The Chukar is not only fun to hunt, but is good eating – even considered of gourmet quality. These characteristics have prompted the breeding of this species on game bird farms, thereby keeping a viable wild population. It is very easy to keep and breed in captivity.

Whenever you find yourself in the rocky canyons of Nevada, Utah, or South-West Idaho, look for this bird.


A member of the pheasant family

The Rise and fall of Wildlife Populations

by Dave Hanks

There are only a few wildlife species whose populations fluctuate at regular intervals. The Lemming cycle peaks at four years. Ruffed Grouse increase for four to six years and then decrease at the same rate. The relationship between Lynx and Snowshoe Hare is fairly constant – the cats increase as the hares become more abundant and they in turn reverse the cycle.

However, the fluctuations of most species depend on the weather and food supplies. It is very important to each species that population numbers stay in balance with the available food sources. HIGHLINING is when trees are missing limbs as far up the tree as animals can reach. This is a sure sign of too many individuals utilizing the resources. If this continues, the area may become permanently damaged and unable to support the number that it once did. The Elk population in Yellowstone Park was putting the park’s vegetation in serious straits – hence, the introduction of the wolf. Whether that was a good or bad decision, remains to be seen.

There are more young born each year than the environment can possibly support. Just think of the implications of the following: two rats and their offspring would yield 350 million in 3 years, trout lay hundreds of eggs, and rattlesnakes have 15 to 20 young each year. Even an elephant would raise 6 offspring over a 75 year period, and even that would put undue stress on the available resources.

The cruel fact is that most offspring either die or are food sources for predators. Cottontails lose 80 % of their population each year. If they all lived into the winter, none would survive to greet the new spring. Not only does crowding damage the vegetation, it damages the health of the animals.

Natural predators are a must to increase the vigor of both the habitat and the prey. Where predators are absent, controlled hunting is a necessity.

The adaptable Coyote – A major predator on rodents

Critical Minimums and Extinction

by Dave Hanks

Maintaining the diversity of life-forms on the earth is extremely important! The loss of habitat (favorable living space) is the major reason a species becomes extinct. Also, over hunting or poaching can be especially devastating on large animals like elephants, rhinos, etc. The introduction, by man, of a new predator to an area can be very harmful because the prey species haven’t had the chance to adapt to the new enemy. Predators that have naturalized in an area are not a problem. They even help their prey species maintain their numbers at optimum levels by weeding out old or diseased, unproductive members, and thus reduce the stress on the food supplies. I know this sounds unfeeling, but this is how the natural world works.

In existing habitats it is necessary to maintain a species’ CRITICAL MINIMUM. Nothing lives forever, so reproduction is necessary to keep a population viable. Rodents have a low critical minimum, which means that only a few surviving individuals can easily repopulate an area because they can reproduce fast, often, and with big litters. Large, slow reproducers have a high critical minimum. Disease, predation, and old age will always reduce the numbers in a population; and if not enough young are born each year to off-set those losses, extinction is assured even if a few individuals still exist.

Pictured is a NORTHERN FOX SQUIRREL whose low critical minimum keeps this species abundant – especially in our yard!

Also pictured is a mother GRIZZLY and her cub at an Alaskan water hole (Ursines at a snow-melt pond in June). She matures late sexually – has a cub or twins only about every 4 or 5 years which means only about 5 or 6 sets in her lifetime, and not all make it to adulthood. Her species minimum is therefore high.

THIS EARTH: Some Thoughts

Van Gogh stated that the creation was a study – a roughed-in sketch. Perhaps that is one reason that his art looks roughed-in. But his view doesn’t seem to be true! The earth is supremely & meticulously put-together; abundantly, extravagantly, and in fine.

While observing the intricacy of form, nothing seems to be ridiculous. The variety of form itself and the multiplicity of forms is mind “boggling”! It seems that anything goes. Form follows function, and function is nature’s only aesthetic consideration. Freedom is the earth’s water and weather, the world’s nourishment freely given, its soil and sap. It definitely has pizzazz!

But only ten percent of the earth’s life forms are still here. Were some forms made with extinction in mind? Created as test models so to speak, to be refined as the adaptation process progresses?

Also, the globe (viewed from afar) may appear smooth but it is anything but smooth. It is jagged and rough. Anything less would be frightfully dull and also very non-utilitarian. Texture is extremely important – both for beauty and for function. The looping, rough inside, nature of intestines is not only necessary for nutrient absorption, but creates more area in a limited space to facilitate the process. Good fishing streams operate on this same principle; and we all would die of thirst if watersheds were smooth and even. In fact there would be no watersheds. .

The tremendous diversity in the earth, points out how important variety is. Why would anyone want to minimize it?

Form and function are important for our physical well-being.

Beauty is important for our mental and emotional well-being.

(Dave Hanks)

The beauty and diversity of REVELSTOKE Park, B.C

The beauty and diversity of REVELSTOKE Park, B.C

Taiga: “Land of the Little sticks”

Taiga is Boreal forest, or in Russian perspective – “the land of the little sticks”. It is so called because the tree growth is stunted and skinny. Permafrost prohibits deep root development and trees usually only grow to around 15 to 20 feet tall. This Biome is the largest in the world – covering the northern areas of Canada, Russia, and Europe. The major trees in the Taiga are Black and White Spruce.

This Biome is characterized by many forest fires, but the trees recover quickly and re-growth is fast. Summers are warm, rainy (12 to 30 inches), and temperatures stay around 70 degrees because of the continual daylight. Winters, however, are another story. They are dark, snowy, and very cold. At this time temperatures range between 30 to 65 degrees below zero.

Taiga animals either migrate south or hibernate. Only a few withstand the harsh winter conditions. Caribou come south, from the Tundra, to winter amid the trees and to get some protection from the wind. Lynx, Snowshoe Hare, Wolverine, and fox are some other species that withstand the weather. Grizzlies and Black Bears are snuggly ensconced in their hibernation sanctuaries.

Summer invites many species of birds to nest, reproduce, and use the continual summer daylight to give them more time to hunt the food for the never satisfied appetites of their young.

We have experienced the vastness of this part of the world on four different occasions when we were in the Yukon Territory. Once we traveled 900 miles north on a dirt road and into the Arctic Circle. The broad expanse of the landscape makes one realize just how insignificant one is!

Black Spruce amid the wet – permafrost causes poor drainage

Aransas Wildlife Preserve: A National Treasure

The semi-darkness slides gently into daybreak. The day is new, fresh, and with that early morning coolness that hints of warmth latter on. My wife and I greet this sun-up with excited anticipation. Southern Texas is a long way from home, but the distance has not dissuaded us. One advantage of early rising is the glorious feeling of having the world to one’s self. This day is no different, as we are the only ones on the refuge. The gate opened early, and we were waiting to take advantage of the situation.

But now, the park is ours alone. White-Tailed Deer are everywhere. They still feel secure because the darkness has just recently lifted. They graze the meadows beside the road, and being surprised by our sudden appearance, dissolve into cover as we pass. Bird calls break the stillness and their flitting from bush to bush catches our attention. From the brush, a pair of ears sticks up. I hit the brakes. A female Peccary is foraging with her litter of babies. Unlike their mother, who is dark and solid colored, they have stripes running the length of their backs. Now that we have detected them, the pigs dash for the wooded areas. Around a bend, appears an animal whose hips undulate in a most ungraceful gait. It is a Raccoon. He sees us and takes refuge in a water pipe. The waiting game for a photo begins – but I finally get one.

The gentle meadows and woods of Aransas are bordered on the east by the Gulf of Mexico. Most species of shorebirds find a home here, especially the endangered Whooping Crane, for which the refuge was set aside. A boat trip is necessary to see them at a shorter distance. They are in groups of three.

Upon leaving the park, there is still one more major treat – ALLIGATORS. A pair has chosen this moment to come ashore to bask in the mid-day sun. What grand, primitive, animals! Their hides are heavy and dark and somehow don’t seem totally real. They have jaws that can open “a mile” to reveal formidable teeth. They are content, however, to allow me to get close-up pictures.

This day, long looked forward to, is memorable – and this place, is one of contentment and inner joy!

A White-Tailed Buck with forward sweeping antlers

A White-Tailed Buck with forward sweeping antlers

A Spring Mountain Greeting

GLACIAL LILY, also sometimes called Dogtooth Violet, is the flower pictured. It is one off the very first blooms to show itself after the covering of snow melts from its mountain home. Whenever we’ve chanced to be on the Idaho-Montana continental divide, or in the Colorado Rockies, just after the snows of winter have permitted it, this flower, in full bloom, has always been there to greet us. It’s such a delightful and graceful flower that it’s difficult to pass it by without photographing it.

This inviting species consists of a beautiful yellow, nodding inflorescence connected to a 6 to 15”, slender stem. There are 3 petals and 3 sepals that curl back and upward and six stamens hanging down. The anthers are large and prominent. They range in color from yellow to red to white or purple. Other variations of this bud may be reddish. Two or three large, long, broad, lanceolate, basal, lily leaves extend from the plant’s base.

The plant sprouts from a long, starchy corm. Indians often used the bulb as a food source. The bulb is also a favorite of Grizzlies, who dig for it with their well-equipped claws. High in calories, the energy derived is important for the bear’s summer body weight increase.

As we often frequent high and wild areas, we come upon this plant frequently. It is usually found in dense patches of many individuals – an enticement to a bear. As it is usually cool after snow-melt, coming upon this flower will warm your heart with its charming design and bright color.

Glacial Lily

Glacial Lily