A River Otter Experience

There is nothing cuter than a River Otter. However, they are excellent predators – speeding under the water just like a torpedo. A fish doesn’t stand a chance. Otters are one of the larger members of the Weasel family – 28” from nose to tail tip. Weasels are mustelines. All mustelines give off a protective odor (i.e. skunks).

Otters are very active and many of their actions appear to be play. Sliding down river banks seems to be a favorite activity. They are semi-aquatic and move well on land (up to 18 mph), as well as in the water. Their long tail and webbed feet are a great aid in their under water navigation. Thick, dense fur keeps them well insulated from the cold and those prominent whiskers are sensitive to surrounding situations.

Fish is their main food source but they will also consume frogs, crustaceans, insects, and occasionally water fowl and small mammals. They den on land and the female evicts the male before birthing. He will return when the young are half grown and help in their care. Their lifespan is usually 10 to 15 years.

On two successive and very chilly mornings, at South Davis Lake, Oregon, we pursued a family of three. It was September and the mornings were cold in the woods. My fingers were so cold that it was difficult to work the camera. However, the cold was overlooked because we were experiencing a rare (for us) event. Following that family group up and down the stream, as they sped after trout, kept us at rapt attention – from just before sunrise to about 11:00 AM each day. Those mornings provided golden opportunities to observe and photograph these lovable creatures.

Wrentit: Bird that’s Half Tail

by Dave Hanks

Wouldn’t it be nice to have such a fancy tail – one that you could carry pointed skyward? Tails are used several different ways: a rudder to maneuver through trees and bushes, or as a convenient signal flag to warn competition away, or to be used as body language to exhibit various moods. And who has a more distinctive tail than the little Wrentit?

The Wrentit is a small brown bird that holds its tail erect, much like a wren. It is reddish-brown underneath, has creamy white around its eyes, and a short gray bill and head. This bird lives in western coastal chaparral and scrub. It stays hidden most of the time, but is very noisy.

So when you’re about from Oregon to the Baja

Listen for a tit—tit-tit-tit-t-t-t-tit

A sound that resonates like a bouncing ball

Getting shorter, and then faster, is the way of it

Not seen too often, because

Dense shrubbery is where they nest

The concealment and protection of the foliage

Makes it the place they think is best

Each pair has a huge range of around 160 square miles. And, they mate for life. Perhaps this could explain why they are always bickering.

Wrentit Feeling secure amid the thorns

Feeling secure amid the thorns

Color Hues and Geographic Location

by Dave Hanks

Returning from an excursion in the pine forests of central Oregon, I’ve become more impressed with the color intensity of its various lifeforms. I’ve always thought Ponderosa Pine to be a most attractive tree – from its long (three in a bundle) needles to its reddish (or yellowish – depending on location) bark. I would suppose that variations in color intensity would depend a lot on soil nutrients. Animals eat the vegetation and are no doubt influenced by those same nutrients. After observing the dark reddish color of the Ponderosa tree trunks, I also observed that the squirrels were of a darker shade than the same squirrel species we have around Southern Idaho. Their color mimicked the Ponderosa bark. Likewise, I have noticed the House Finches in the Desert Southwest to be of a brighter shade of red than our Idaho finches.

Black Bears are essentially black, especially in the eastern USA, but out here in the west you might see an occasional cinnamon colored one. These brown ones are a genetic recessive, but have evolved over time to be in tune with their surrounding environmental hues.

Anyone who has raised cattle realizes that the color of the meat produced depends a lot on the feed the animal has been fattened on. This, also, applies to the brightness of a Western Tanager’s red head, which is greatly affected by the amount of carotene the bird can obtain from its surrounding food sources. Geographic climate variations affect each area’s vegetation, which in turn affects the pigmentation of the animals in that area.

The Yellow Pine Chipmunk is a bright, tawny to a pinkish cinnamon. They prefer open forests where the sun casts sharp shadows. The squirrel’s Ponderosa Pine woodland habitat gives this rodent its name.

As we prepared to leave this place, after a restful night, nostalgia set in as we observed a big, bright, full moon that was visible behind a backdrop of Yellow Pine and further mystified by the various vocal utterances of a group of coyotes.

A Yellow Pine Chipmunk at a seep

A Yellow Pine Chipmunk at a seep

Say’s Phoebe Likes to Nest Under Eaves

Thirty miles south of Burns, Oregon is a wonderful refuge called Malheur. You can travel the refuge roads another thirty miles to the southern end. Here you will find the tiny village of Frenchglen. There is a very old hotel there that is now turned into a bed and breakfast where you can stay if you don’t like to “rough it.” At the southeast corner, on the bottom edge of Steins Mountain, is a campground called Page Springs. It is here that we always stay.

There is an old outhouse, which is no longer used, that has a shelf under its eaves on the west. Here you can find nests lined up in a row. They are this year’s and previous year’s nests of the Say’s Phoebe. It’s quaint – how they are all lined up.

The Phoebe is in the Flycatcher family. They have the interesting behavior of darting out to nab an insect and then returning to the same perch. Growing in the campground are some new, small trees that have mesh fences around each one. The bird likes to perch, in the open, on these fences to watch for insects. This behavior facilitates observation and also photography.

Say’s Phoebe is 7 inches long with a gray topside and a rust colored underside. It breeds farther north than any other Flycatcher – nests having been found on the Alaska pipeline. Flycatcher is an appropriate description, as they feed exclusively on insects.

Listen for a low, whistled “pit-tsee-eur” alternated with an up-slurred “chur-eur” or “phee-eur” to locate this tail wagging species.

Say's Phoebe Perched

Sayorris saya

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

Dark-Eyed Juncos and “The Good Old Boys Club”

Testosterone works in several ways. It enhances male characteristics, sharpens the sex drive, and increases feelings of aggression. Its effect on Dark-Eyed Juncos is very amusing. Males in winter will form groups and force females and immature birds to the less desirable peripheries. It’s like they’ve formed a “good old boys club.” There will be a hierarchy within the group. The more testosterone produced, the greater the aggressive nature, and therefore a higher ranking.

A higher level of the hormone induces a more intense feather coloration – especially the white stripes down the sides of the tail. Testosterone makes for better singers, to match all the other extras. Females are more apt to select these males for pair bonds. However, they make poorer mates. They help very little with raising the brood, spending most of their time singing and displaying on their territories to other males. There is, however, a price to pay for all this glory – a shorter life span is the cost.

The Dark-Eyed Junco is actually a type of sparrow. This six inch species comes in several varieties. Slate-Colored, Pink-Sided, Red-Backed, Gray-Headed, and Oregon are some of the races. The Oregon Junco and Gray-Headed Junco are our most common types.

Juncos are widespread over the United States and are very common at bird feeders. The feeders need to be on the ground for them, as they are ground feeders. Lake Cleveland has a sizable population of Gray-Headed ones. The Oregon is more likely to be at feeders here in Burley, with an occasional Slate-Colored in winter.

You are driving on a forest road enjoying the things around you. You notice small birds flying across the road that are hard to see well enough to identify positively. However, if there is noticeable white in their tail, the probability is high that you are seeing Dark-Eyed Juncos.

(An Oregon Junco: Black head, rusty sides, white belly)

(An Oregon Junco: Black head, rusty sides, white belly)

Edge Effect

This is a principle that I taught in my High School Ecology classes. Where two communities meet is an edge (i.e. Sage brush ends and pine begins). There are always more numbers and greater varieties of species along an edge than deep within either community. This is because species from both communities are along the edge and there is a greater variety of factors that can either provide food or cover for the animal. Mule Deer are a good example. They can hide in the trees during daylight hours, but come out into the meadow at twilight time. The meadow furnishes feed but the trees are close enough to dash back into in case of danger. Fishermen take advantage of this principle when fishing where slow, deep water is off to the side of rapids, or along a log that has fallen into the creek. There are many types of edges.

One of the best edge effects we have experienced is in central Oregon at a place called Cabin Lake. Why it is called that I don’t know because there is neither a cabin nor a lake there. What is there is a spot where the Sage, Rabbitbrush, and Bitterbrush “peters out” and a Ponderosa Pine forest is starting with widely scattered trees. Sitting in a blind by a watering spot there has yielded more photography opportunities than about anyplace we’ve been. We were lured there because we read that it was a great place to see Pinyon Jays.

We discovered a wonderful spot. Not only were Pinyon Jay abundant, but a total of 33 bird and 5 mammal species came to that watering spot. A half dozen jay species, 5 woodpecker species, 2 bluebird and 2 towhee species, as well as crossbills, nuthatches, and chickadees to name a few. Some of the woodpeckers (like White-Headed, Lewis, and Williamson’s Sapsucker) are ones that are hard to come by in favorable photographic situations.

It is a hard, out of the way, place to find. But since that original trip, we have been back several times. The effort to get there is always rewarding because the variety is amazing!

(White-Headed Woodpecker at Cabin Lake)