A Shaggy, Scottish Beast

Having been in the registered Angus business (In Montana) earlier in my life, and associated with cattle all of it, I have a deep love of beef cattle. It is a glorious scene to see a group of sleek matrons grazing on a hillside against a green background. There is something about that scene that still “plucks” a chord in my psyche. Genetic traits, favorable or not, are of great interest to me. Once in Scotland, we came in contact with some most interesting beasts.

The Scottish Highlander is an ancient breed that has very long horns and very long hair. They can be red, black, brindled, yellow, or dun. The harsh Scottish climate required the development of cattle with long hair and stout hides to withstand exposure to the highland elements. Their breed standards require a great profusion of hair to go along with an impressive set of horns.The horns on the cow are usually longer than the bull’s – a surprise. The breed’s registration Herd Book was established in 1885, and breed standards have not varied much since that time.

The Highlander coat is made up of two layers – an inner down and a longer, coarser outer layer. Weather conditions stimulate the growth or shedding of their hair. The heavy hair inhibits the laying on off surface fat which results in a leaner carcass that is well marbled. Breeders claim that the hides can be sold for almost as much as the meat.

This breed seems to have a genuine ease of calving. They are, however, slower maturing. The positive side of this trait is that they can hold their condition longer under poor environmental conditions.

The mature individuals looked a bit “rangy”, but the calves were most adorable. They would make a good cuddly toy – competitive with Teddy Bears.

Highlander calves at home on the Scottish hills

Highlander calves at home on the Scottish hills


The Black-Crowned Night Heron

The fact that, besides fish, this heron feeds on other bird’s eggs makes it a prime target for harassment. This behavior forces it to forage mainly after dark when other species are sleeping – hence the name Night Heron. It will usually rest in good cover in the daytime. A very patient fisher, it will stand motionless for hours in shallow water or on the bank to ambush any fish that’s passing by. Its secretiveness makes it a difficult species to view. Any photos that we have of this bird are the result of luck.

This species is the most widespread heron in the world (on 5 continents). It is rather short and stocky for a heron – standing only 23 to 28 inches tall, with a 20 inch long body, and a 45 inch wing span. Red eyes, yellow legs, and a black bill are other field identification traits.

Nests are constructed in thickets and occasionally in trees and, like all herons, in a colony with other birds of its species. Males construct the nests, which are used year after year. Breeding season is heralded by the lengthening of head plumes and much preening of one’s mate. The bill is rubbed repeatedly over the partner’s head, neck, and back. Three to five eggs are laid each year and need a 24 to 26 day incubation period. Both birds will sit on the eggs. The young are fed regurgitated food, fledge at 6 to 7 weeks, and take three years to mature. Juvenile breasts are speckled, which make them easy to be mistaken as Bitterns.

Night Herons are being affected by loss of habitat. The reason: the habitat they favor is also great mosquito breeding grounds – hence the draining of wetlands. Market Lake and Camas Refuge, both north of Roberts, Idaho; along with the Bear River Refuge west of Brigham City, Utah are locations where you might see this

Black-Crowned Night Heron Feeling secure amid the foliage

Feeling secure amid the foliage

Black Vultures can be Urban Pests!

This cousin of our Turkey Vulture is usually a benefit to us. Like all vultures, it rids our surroundings of dead animals. But when population numbers increase, or because of urban expansion, they can become a big problem. No one likes to find bird “whitewash” and vomit all over their shrubbery and yards. A Washington D.C. suburb has reported flocks of them, settling in for the night, on pine trees in people’s yards. Upward of a 100 to 200 might come in to a group of trees – so many that branches would break because of the weight. Some species will adjust to living with humans. This is one of them.

Compared to our Turkey Vulture, it is a bit smaller, lacks the red head, and has whitish wing tips. Like all vultures, it has a bald head. This bird has no voice box but can hiss or grunt when disturbed, whether on a carcass or by its nesting area. I say nesting area because it constructs no nest at all – just lays two eggs on the ground under a bush. Young birds take 75 to 80 days to fledge and 3 years to reach maturity. It is very dominant when on a carcass – driving any competition (even larger species) away.

We don’t see this bird in Cassia County because it inhabits the southern and southeastern (especially coastal areas) of the country. Urban areas are warmer than the surrounding countryside. This is called the Urban Island Effect, and it attracts these birds. Noise makers have been used to disturb and move these birds away, along with harmless laser beams, but these methods only move them onto other people’s property. The Migratory Treaty Act of 1918 protects this bird along with other species.

We became aware of this bird in the Everglades of Florida and in southern Arizona and Texas.

A Black Vulture just west of the L.B.J. ranch in Texas

A Black Vulture just west of the L.B.J. ranch in Texas

Seashore Wildlife and “Haste makes Waste”

We were in Newport, Oregon and parked by the boat harbor. My wife went to look over the pier and came rushing back – “Oh hurry, hurry, hurry! There’s a seal right here – just over the edge of the pier. Oh, hurry!” I had also noticed a kingfisher perched on the railing close by – a bird that’s so hard to get near. Well, I did hurry. But you’ve heard that old adage “Haste makes Waste.” That was certainly true in this instance. In my hurry, I did not get the camera fastened securely to the tripod, and it fell on the concrete of the parking area. The flash and camera were broken. Luckily, the flash took most of the impact and our big lens was not damaged. However, without a camera, our trip was over. It was back to Idaho. We have been back several times and have had encounters with the animals along the shore – seals and sea lions included.

One of the species found in the Newport area is the always intriguing Black Oystercatcher. It is the Pacific variety. The Atlantic variety has a white underside and is called the American. The Black Oystercatcher is totally black. It has a long, very heavy, orange beak, prominent yellow eyes, pinkish legs and feet. They are found upon the rocks within the tidal zones. Their heavy beak is ideal for probing for mussels, limpets, and other forms of marine organisms.

They are 17 to 19 inches long and because of their size are quite noticeable. The sexes look alike and the female will lay 2 to 3 eggs in a scrape in the grass or in a depression in the rocks. Most noticeable are the “wheeps” they emit as they go about their business.

It’s somewhat of a challenge to avoid slipping on the wet, jagged rocks and to also avoid the incoming waves in order to get close enough for photos.

A Black Oystercatcher at home on the rocks

A Black Oystercatcher at home on the rocks

Bears – Everybody’s Favorite

It matters not what type of life-form you enjoy watching, if you come upon a bear, you will suddenly become a “bear watcher.” If you visit Alaska, and have plenty of time, it’s great to drive there. The biggest reason is that there is a lot of wildlife along the ALCAN Highway. This is especially true of Black Bears. We have driven on three different occasions. When spotting a bear, I would get out with my tripod and camera. By carefully watching the bear’s body language, I could maintain a reasonable distance. Most animals send signals, but you have to learn to recognize them. Nevertheless, being out in the vicinity of a bear is very exhilarating. Once in Yellowstone, two other gentlemen and I were photographing a Black Bear. I could hear their wives begging them to not get too close, when over it all came my wife’s voice saying: “Get closer and get a decent picture.”

Black Bears adapted in treed habitats and so trees are critical to their existence. They are excellent climbers, and will utilize the trees for safety measures. Because of this, they are not as aggressive as Grizzlies. Grizzlies adapted in more wide open areas – so size and aggressiveness became necessary traits. Blacks have roman noses where a Grizzly’s face is dished. Blacks also have smooth shoulders where a Grizzly has a hump between them. Both species basically eat the same items and are mostly vegetarian. Blacks are smaller. The adults may weigh anywhere from 200 to 600 pounds. They also wean their cubs a year earlier than Grizzlies do.

Black Bears are not always black, especially here in the west. They can be various shades of brown, cinnamon, or even white. They don’t always den underground in the winter. They may utilize a large, hollow log or even get under low hanging conifer branches. These branches get covered over and insulated with snow, forming a makeshift den.

It has been said in jest: “Another way to tell the difference between the two bears is to climb a tree – If the bear comes after you it is a black. But if it rips the tree down and shakes you out of it, IT’S A GRIZZLY!”

This Black Bear (Ursus americanus) is in a logical dining spot – grass.