Written by Cathy Nowak, Union, Oregon.
Welcome to Cathy’s View – – a natural history blog written by ODFW wildlife biologist, Cathy Nowak. Cathy earned her master’s degree from Washington State University in Wildlife Biology with a study of cougars in NE Oregon. She returned to the Grande Ronde Valley as a wildlife biologist on Ladd Marsh. With a home on Little Creek and an office on the marsh, Cathy has some nice views on the world which she has agreed to share with us in this column.
23 August, 2016
What about August?
In August it seems like things slow down a bit. After a frenetic spring and early summer, in August even summer seems tired. In August it is hot and dry and breezes, welcomed in June and July, just intensify the heat and suck the moisture from everything. Afternoons are like a convection oven. The danger of fire is always present and considered when driving, parking, mowing; the tiniest spark could be catastrophic.
One of my tasks in August is to monitor sandhill cranes as they gather in ever larger groups to feed in preparation for fall migration. I work to position myself, with my spotting scope, to see as many cranes as I can. To scan heads in search of this year’s chicks with pale, rust brown feathers lacking the red crown and white cheek of adults. There are few. Maybe the successful parents are just not ready to bring their offspring into the big groups yet. I hope. I know survival is low among crane colts; they are vulnerable to so many hunters both feathered and furred. I still hope for more than the 3 fledged young I have seen so far.
I also scope long legs of cranes for color bands. This is harder given their preference for foraging standing grain or harvested fields with stubble just tall enough to hide the bands. The exact combination of color bands on each leg identifies an individual bird so I need to see all the bands on both legs. Good luck comes with 2 banded birds walking quickly across a fallow field of bare dirt. I just have time to record the bands through the heat shimmer before the cranes become hover-birds floating legless over the top of the wheat stubble. Heat shimmer, vegetation, shadows and impatience are my enemies in August. This week I have seen twelve of my 23 banded birds. I still have weeks before they leave for the winter. Maybe I can find more.
In August snakes seem bent on being run over. Nearly as many snakes are on the roads as in spring when they have just emerged and need the early season sun to energize their systems. In August, twigs and shadows on the roads morph into garter snakes pencil thin to as big around as my thumb. Rubber boas bask and gopher snakes go about their business as they have all summer but they seem more visible in August.
In August the great blue heron chicks have fledged. Having spent most of their young lives in nests high in cottonwood trees, they are more comfortable off the ground than on it. I see them perched in trees, on fence posts, on osprey platforms, on rooftops. They seem awkward up high but right now they are teenagers – it is an awkward time for all of us, I think. As adults they will occasionally perch in trees but mostly will stand in water or in fields, hunting until they nest and rear young high in cottonwood trees.
In August, dragons and damsels own the marsh. Forktails, spreadwings, darners, skimmers, pondhawks and meadowhawks of impossible blues, greens and reds as well as black, white and transparent wings. Huge eyes look back through my binoculars and deep inside me. They fly, stop, perch, hover and hunt over every pond, wetland and road. Clouds of them flush with my passing. They have names like black saddlebags, paddle-tailed darner, lord of June, saffron-winged meadowhawk and lyre-tipped spreadwing. They eat mosquitoes.
In August, the rabbitbrush blooms. By August, most of the flowering plants have finished their summer job of blooming and have set seed. When rabbitbrush starts to bloom it is busy with all kinds of pollinators from tiny wasps to butterflies, moths, beetles and flies. I met a new (to me) pollinator on a rabbitbrush today – Archytas lateralis. It is a parasitic fly that looks a bit like a cross between a big, burly house fly and a bumble bee. It was mostly black with large, deep bronze eyes and a short golden mane between head and thorax. The wing bases were the color of honey and the whole thing – head, thorax, abdomen and legs – was sparsely covered in stiff black hairs. On that same shrub I found western and cabbage whites; woodland skippers and the prettiest, purplest purplish copper I have ever seen. There was also a worn police car moth sporting black and white wings and 2 orangey-red spots on the face. Hunt’s bumblebee was making good use of the new flowers as it does every year in this spot. A little more time might have shown me more customers to this late pollinator café but it was hot and patience melts under the August sun.
In August the forest smells of pine pitch and every step crackles needles, snaps twigs or crunches cones. There is little stealth in August. Somewhere the forest burns and the smoke finds its way to our valley. The smell of it brings a mix of good camping memories and anxious uncertainty. Big air tankers – we used to call them borate bombers – huge for our little airport, fly low over my office. The sudden rumble is startling in a place that hardly knows air traffic at all.
In August we harvest tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, eggplant and beets from the garden. The lettuce is done and cabbage whites got most of the kale. Too bad the lettuce can’t hold on until the tomatoes and cukes are ready. It would all make a fine salad. In August the zucchini grows too fast so we give a lot away. We save some for bread in the long cold days of winter. In August I get green beaned out. It is my favorite vegetable grown fresh but enough is enough. We freeze what we can’t eat so come winter, after recovering from the glut, we enjoy nearly fresh green beans we raised ourselves.
What about August? In August I try to stay indoors through the heat of the day going out in the morning and evening. We close the house all day to keep out the heat but open it wide to let in the fresh, cool air of night. Open windows allow the sounds of night to come indoors as well. Lately that has included two young great horned owls begging their parents to bring more food. More, more, more. They fly well and can be heard from all over the neighborhood. They have just not quite mastered the details of being, pound for pound, the most powerful predator in these parts.
September is just around the corner. In September the days will be shorter, the nights longer. There will be more time for the earth to cool hidden from the sun’s gaze. In September I will spend more time outdoors. But for now, it is August and I will cherish the cool mornings and cooling evenings, the sound of cranes and the flutter of butterflies on rabbitbrush.
27 July, 2016
I was privileged to participate in the workshop known as Summer Fishtrap a couple weeks ago. I wrote the following in response to an invitation by our instructor and thought some of you might relate to it. I hope you enjoy it.
Where would I be without binoculars? There was something I wanted to write but it would not come. It might have been the chainsaw work going on across the river. It might have been noise going on inside my head. So, I sat on a log and glassed the split channel, watching the splash and spray as water struck stone, jumped and subsided. Small movements filled the frame. A robin bathed in a minor pool between rocks. It dunked, fluffed and shook its head, body, wings then feathers in a spray of droplets. Cliff swallows flashed by hunting on the wing, their pale foreheads and rumps like nametags revealing their identities. A mourning dove dropped to the bank of the island to drink or bathe or rest, hidden behind rocks. Another robin seemed only to want a wade in the shallow edgewater. A swift! A Vaux’s swift flew swiftly by with telltale fluttery wingbeats, gleaning unseen insects from the air. Without binoculars, would I have seen these things? Would I have known the deep, electric blue of Steller’s jay? Or seen only the shadow of black as it crossed above the rushing water? Would I have studied the pale eyebrow, orange bill and spotted breast of the spotted sandpiper? Or, would I have allowed the dipping of its tail to fool me into thinking “dipper?” Although the waxwing gifted me a visit to a branch overhead, I might not have been able to see the red wingtips that give it its name. Without binoculars, I would miss so much. Who would I be without binoculars?
24 November, 2015
Thanksgiving. A time to reflect on what we are thankful for and to consciously appreciate the things we may at other times take for granted. I have my health – something that was at risk just a few years ago. For that I am thankful. I spend each day surrounded by a natural world that never stops amazing me. The wildlife and habitats of Ladd Marsh humble me, teach me and leave me in awe. For that I am thankful. I am privileged to work with natural resource professionals who devote their careers to protecting and teaching others about the natural world. For that I am thankful. I have the pleasure of working with volunteers who spend their free time working for the betterment of Ladd Marsh and spreading their knowledge and passion for the area far and wide. For that I am thankful. I have the opportunity to visit with users of the marsh including hunters, birders, photographers, hikers and others. Their enthusiasm is contagious: “The worst day on the marsh is better than any day indoors.” For that I am thankful. I hope you find in your lives many things to appreciate and be thankful for. Happy Thanksgiving!
20 August, 2015
Ladd Marsh Sandhill Crane Satellite Telemetry Project – Update
As many of you are aware, ODFW and FOLM embarked on a project last spring to learn more about the movements of “our” sandhill cranes. The project involved capturing 3 local (not migrating through) greater sandhill cranes and fitting each with a satellite transmitter called a Platform Transmitter Terminal (PTT). The transmitters are equipped with GPS technology and record the birds’ locations 5 times each day, then upload that data to a satellite about every 3 days. Our objectives are to 1. Learn where the cranes that nest on Ladd Marsh spend the winter and what are the important stopping places on the way there; 2. Learn more about where non-breeding birds that hatched on Ladd Marsh spend the summer; and 3. Learn more about sandhill crane nest sites and breeding season movements on Ladd Marsh.
There was a definite learning curve when it came to catching adult sandhill cranes. We had caught and banded pre-fledging crane colts nearly every year since 2007 but we had something of an advantage since those birds could not yet fly. Adult cranes are wary and whip-smart! At first we attempted to catch them with monofilament foot snares placed near sites baited with corn. They loved the corn but COMPLETELY avoided the snares. Next, we located a rocket net and my colleague Blake Grisham (certified in the use of rocket nets) arrived from Texas to help. On March 31, we captured 3 birds with 2 shots of the rocket net. The first shot caught a clear mated pair so we placed a PTT on the male and color banded the female. The second shot, just 20 minutes later, captured a single adult bird so we placed a PTT on it as well. We never had a chance at another crane with the rocket net; cranes are also fast learners. We decided to attempt to place the remaining PTT on a colt hatched this year. That was pretty optimistic since the adults hadn’t even started nesting yet but we had faith in our birds and in our ability to catch one.
We began downloading data from the first 2 birds as soon as possible and immediately began learning from their movements. The birds we caught as a pair (LM010 & LM015) began a nesting attempt, based on a cluster of locations in what seems to be good nesting habitat. It was not clear what was going on with the single bird (LM013). We were a bit surprised by the broad movements across the wildlife area made by both radio-marked birds. Contrary to our early assumptions, they did not stay in a small nesting territory but traveled widely to feed and, in some cases, to roost for the night. Eventually, it became clear that LM 010 & 015 had lost their eggs as there were no more locations at the nest site. The movements of LM013 made us wonder if it was a subadult bird but it stayed in the area all summer. Most subadults leave during summer but come back before fall migration.
As the nesting pairs hatched and raised their chicks, I monitored their growth and success and looked for an opportunity to catch one to place that last PTT. Successful capture depends on several factors related to the location of the family relative to roads and cover and our ability to get to them quickly. All the pieces fell in place July 1 and we were able to catch one of a pair of colts below Foothill Road. Now dubbed LM014, this bird fledged (began flying) the very next day as indicated by the locations the PTT gave us. As of today, LM014 is maintaining minimal movements from Ladd Marsh to feeding areas on private land and back to the marsh.
A few samples of location maps are included here. Each red dot represents a GPS location on a given day and time and the program connects those dots with a thin yellow line. All 3 birds are spending a significant amount of time in grain fields and meadows and are mostly night roosting in water.
4 February, 2014
Nature vs Nature (sort of):
I have always considered, if I thought about it at all, the relationship between birds and the trees and shrubs they perch in to be pretty much one-sided and positive for the birds (commensal). That is, birds benefit from a secure resting or sleeping place and the trees are not affected at all. This does not consider birds consuming portions of the shrub or spreading its seeds, just perching. Birds do this uncountable times each day – they fly a bit then land on a branch, then fly again and land on another branch. Perch at the feeder, fly to a branch. Soar over a field in search of rodents, fly up to a branch. Harass a competitor, land on a branch. Trees and shrubs are just the furniture used in between trips to the kitchen or the back yard.
That relationship got a little more complicated for an adult female Northern Harrier that Mike Mahoney and I encountered last week on Ladd Marsh. Mike and I were touring the marsh and doing a little scouting for the FOLM First Saturday Bird Walk. We happened to be on a road that took us nearly full-circle around a patch of plum and other shrubs when we noticed a harrier perched in a shrub with one wing still up. We thought she had landed clumsily and just didn’t want to try to get organized with us in proximity so we continued on, chuckling that she was probably embarrassed about the encounter. It took several minutes to make the circle to the opposite side of the shrubs and the bird. We realized she was still in the same position and both immediately suggested that she was in trouble.
The wing that was “up” was somehow caught on the shrub. We assumed there was fishing line, twine or plastic involved but it was too far to be able to see the culprit. We got out of the truck, rooted around for tools and started toward the bird with a Leatherman and a fish net in hand (why I have a fish net in my truck is kind of a long story). The harrier was understandably freaking out as we approached so we were as quick and as quiet as we could be. I pulled down on the branch she was hung up in to lower her so Mike could get the net over her to stop her thrashing. Then we worked it low enough for me to grab the bird while Mike untangled her. We were surprised to find that there was no foreign object involved in her predicament. No line, no twine, no plastic. She was trapped, and trapped very effectively, by her own feathers. When she landed in the shrub, something she had probably done in uncounted trees and shrubs, a small twig pushed up between her primary feathers. The barbs and barbules that make up feather structure acted like Velcro, closing around the twig and locking her to it. Mike had to peel the feathers apart to free the wing which was otherwise unharmed. Once loose, she sat on my hand for a few seconds to gather herself and understand that she was free before taking off with just a little lilting to one side. My guess is there was some major preening required to get the offending feathers back in line.
She may have survived if we had not come along. She could have eventually broken the branch or maybe the offending feathers would have pulled out (that would teach ‘em!). There is no way to know. I do know I have never seen anything like that before and I would not have thought it possible. One does not expect the furniture to be a trap! It is a reminder of the extraordinary complexity that is nature and that very few interactions are completely neutral. The effects can be surprising.
28 January, 2014
As I look forward to spring, I got curious about when we should expect the first migrating geese and sandhill cranes to arrive on Ladd Marsh. I looked in my records and found the following dates reflecting the first time each year I became aware of the species’ presence on the marsh. These are not absolutes and someone may have seen them before I did. Someone else may have seen them and posted it to the bird list and I recorded it as a “first of season” on the marsh. It is fun to look at seven years of “first arrival” dates to get an idea of when these birds may show up this year. It is grey and cold and windy outside – it helps to dream of flocks of geese and sandhill cranes…
GREATER WHITE-FRONTED GOOSE: range February 4 – March 1
3/1/2013 (this is an outlier; I must have missed the early birds)
SNOW GOOSE: range March 2 – March 22
SANDHILL CRANE: range February 19 – February 27 (just a 9-day window over 7 years!)
2 January, 2014
Winter is just a few weeks old and yet it offers the promise of spring. The days are getting longer, the willow twigs have turned golden and the first migrating geese are not much more than a month away. Sandhill cranes will be back on the marsh in about seven weeks and Canada geese will be pairing up and choosing nest sites soon. At Ladd Marsh headquarters, the period from about Thanksgiving to the start of the new year is a quiet time. It is a time when I can finish up last year’s projects, get data entered in the computer, put away supplies and equipment “temporarily” piled in the corner of the office and maybe, just maybe, clean off my desk. I have been hard at work trying to accomplish these things but the part of the year allocated to making the mess is so much longer than the portion allotted to cleaning it up that it never quite works as planned.
Nevertheless, it is now 2014 and I am suddenly thinking of spring and all that must be done, prepared or planned for before the days get long and the leaf buds break. Tasks that seemed a future concern last week now occupy a sizeable to-do list on my desk, which was never completely cleaned off. So, although it seems cliché, the new year really does turn my thoughts forward to what will come in terms of both work that needs doing and the life that will gradually return. The wetlands will, eventually, thaw and the ducks and geese will come back. The song sparrows that never left will start singing and their song will be joined as the season progresses by savannah sparrow, common yellowthroat, blackbirds and others. The sound of sandhill cranes high overhead will be heard before the first of the species will be seen on the marsh near the end of February. The painted turtles will emerge from their long winter hibernation to bask on rocks, banks and logs. The meadows will green up and the wetlands will fill up. The trees will leaf and the flowers will bloom. Spring really is the most exciting time of year on the marsh and its promise begins now, when winter is just a few weeks old and the days begin to lengthen.
16 April, 2013
I did a bird survey this morning. I follow the same route once a month, every month, and record all birds I see or hear. I usually travel very slowly with the radio off and the window open so I can hear the birds; many birds are detected only by hearing them. On my way to begin the route, traveling between segments of the route and on my way back to the office after completing the route, I generally have the radio on and tuned to NPR. This morning I was struck, as I always am after some tragedy of human violence, by the stunning, surreal contrast between the work I was doing, the world I was interacting with and the events being described on the radio. How can these two realities exist at the same time on the same planet?
I see a Canada goose on a nest laying low, trying not to be seen, protecting her clutch in the hope that it will become a brood. Her mate is on the water, laid out flat and paddling away. Calm. Quiet. Secret. Male and female northern harriers call and dance in the sky performing the rituals necessary to make a new generation of harriers. Red-winged blackbirds try to glean food from cattails while cinnamon teal bob with their tails in the air gleaning food from the living marsh. A Swainson’s hawk has returned to reclaim its nest from last year. Maybe they will make it bigger this year; it hardly looks big enough to hold eggs, let alone growing young hawks. Oh, there is a great blue heron, and another, and another. The fishing must be good right here. I turn the radio on.
There were, apparently, just two bombs exploded at the Boston Marathon Finish Line. People rushed to help. An eight year old was killed. People lost limbs. First responders did a fabulous job of taking care of the injured. No, there were no unexploded devices. We don’t know who did this. We don’t know why.
A raft of 15 ring-necked ducks paddles away from me although I know I am no threat. Buffleheads bob and dive and the drakes show off their best breeding colors. I am sure the females are impressed. Several cinnamon teal lounge on the far bank of the pond. I haven’t seen a blue-winged teal yet this year. Maybe I will find one later today. Two pairs of redheads, handsome and understated, share the pond with other ducks but don’t mingle. Ah! Marsh wrens sing their buzzy song and flit from cattail to cattail. Two Virginia rails call from the bulrush – kadik, kadik, kadik. A hundred northern shovelers make the pond look speckled with white.
The President offers his prayers and support. People in Oklahoma City know what Bostonians are going through. The area is still a crime scene. The Governor gives an update. People ask if this will change us. People ask if we have changed. People ask who did this. People ask why.
Three hundred greater white-fronted geese take to the sky. Was it me? Was it the bald eagle that has been hunting here lately? Maybe they were just restless. The urge to continue north must be strong. There is not much time once they get there to nest and raise a family before they have to turn south again. A sharp-shinned hawk looks tiny after watching the geese. A Vesper sparrow looks small after watching the sharp-shinned hawk. Lesser sandhill cranes call from a nearby field. They, too, have somewhere else to be but for now they are here and I enjoy hearing their calls and watching them dance.
Nature helps me cope with the lunacy of the human world. It is not that nature lacks violence, it is that the violence in nature is somehow real, honest and necessary. In nature, killing is almost always in service to individual survival not for ideology. I can understand the eagle’s need to hunt geese or the sharp-shin’s need to hunt sparrows. It makes sense. Because it makes sense to me, it is calming and reassuring to be out in nature when people do things that seem to make no sense at all. I plan to spend a lot of time outside in the coming days.
1 February 2013
I have recently observed something you may already know – spring comes earlier for bird watchers than for others. The weather may still be cold and grey or the weather may turn again to cold and grey after a brief, hopeful warm spell. The grass may still be brown, crushed under the weight of winter. The wetland cattails may be brown and folded into origami homes for unseen winter hangers on. Broadleaf trees may yet have no leaves at all. Orion, companion of many a winter owl survey, may still shine in the night sky. All these signs of winter’s grip may keep others from seeing it, but bird watchers know. Bird watchers know it has begun.
Song sparrows have started tuning up and a few have burst into full song. A flock of meadowlarks all perched in a tree looked and sounded like a choral group practicing as bits and pieces of their song tumbled out of the tree. None completed the song but the invitation to spring was clear. Two red-tailed hawks were together building a nest that risked not just the ire of the power company on whose pole they were putting it, but a change in weather that could transform it from a cradle of new life back to just a pile of sticks. For those who watch, these signs are clear that spring has begun. They help us look forward and anticipate the next arrival or activity while others still lament winter.
In just a few weeks, sandhill cranes will begin to arrive and some shorebirds will show up in mudflats and flooded fields. Each new arrival is anticipated and celebrated with ticks and lists and list-serve posts until they have all come home. Swainson’s hawks will be one of the last to arrive as they have the farthest to travel. In the meantime, resident birds will pair and sing and defend territory and begin to nest. Many of the owls, of course, are way ahead; they have been singing for weeks and may have begun nesting already.
Watching the birds, and other wildlife, gives a sense of the true passing of seasons unencumbered by calendar or clock. Its’ liberating. I recommend it.
3 November 2012
This morning as we drank our coffee and tried to remember who we are (an effort that is renewed each morning), a RED-BREASTED NUTHATCH hit the sliding glass door. My usual response to such events is to race out and pick up the stunned bird to protect it from dogs, cats and the elements until it recovers, if it does recover. If the weather isn’t too terrible, I often place the birds on top of the wood pile or some other place where they can rest and figure out who they are in peace and out of the wind.
So, when this little nuthatch hit the window, I started to jump up but it sort of flapped around a little to right itself and it had landed on a log on the wood cart where it was pretty protected so I left it alone. I watched from the house but I knew that all the 4-legged denizens of our household were inside and would be no threat. The nuthatch gradually seemed to gain its balance and moved around to be settled more comfortably on the log and with a better view of the area. The bird had hit the window where there is a screen so I hoped the cushioning effect would mean the damage was minimal. I have never seen a bird hit the screen before. In fact, I often keep the screen partly closed in an effort to reduce the number of strikes on either side of the door. I wondered if an unseen predator drove it into the window or maybe a rogue wind gust surprised it.
As time went on, I could see the bird was recovering because it became more vigilant in scanning the sky and following movement of other birds. Its posture also improved as it seemed more in control of muscles and joints. During this time we were able to study the bird as I have never studied a nuthatch before; they tend to be a species I take for granted and don’t spend much time looking at. We could see the sort of long, narrow head and the relatively long and slightly up-turned bill. The striking black and white of the head makes them look a little like a mountain chickadee at first glance but up close there is no resemblance at all. This bird kept from us the red breast that gives it its name. Kept it from us that is until it turned around, looked at something over the roof of the house, and with strong and confident wing beats, took flight. Yay!
Now, this is autumn in the Grande Ronde Valley! Cold, a little damp and blowing like crazy. Some of the leaves have turned and even fallen but the cottonwoods on Little Creek are clinging to their green like it was money. On the marsh, the cattails and grasses have all gone to brown, leaving us only to remember and wait once again for the vibrant colors of spring – the electric green of meadow and marsh and the bottomless blue of ponds and shallow water. Now we hope to hold on to the brown for a while longer before snow and ice turn the valley to monochrome and the wind folds cattails and tules into tents for remaining wildlife.
Most of the migrants have gone. Cranes, avocets and stilts have headed south. Pelicans are nowhere to be seen. Virginia rails and bitterns are still around but maybe not as many as in summer. They seem to wait until they really have to go, and some don’t leave even then. Waterfowl are still working their way through as new ducks come in with each weather system and a hundred or so white geese (Snow or Ross’s) were high above La Grande recently. Someone up north might be writing that their migrants have gone and their swans and rough-legged hawks should be here soon.
Both on Little Creek and at the marsh, we have seen more Steller’s jays this fall than I am accustomed to seeing in the valley. There have also been a few Mountain chickadees along with the Black-capped variety. Mountain chickadees are pretty rare at my Little Creek feeders, until this fall. The presence of both species makes me wonder why. Maybe they are short on food resources at higher elevation because it was such a dry year. Or, maybe they had a really good year and produced so many young they are spilling over into the fringes of their usual habitats. Maybe I should stop trying to analyze it and just enjoy the sights and sounds of fall in the Grande Ronde Valley. Was that a Red-tailed hawk? Or was it one of those Steller’s jays calling?