Sunday, July 28, 2013

A Brief Report From Oregon

I’m in the middle of leading a private WINGS tour for six people through my home state of Oregon. This itinerary is nearly identical to my regular Oregon tour (some years in May, other years in summer), and I lead it just the same; “private” only means that it wasn’t advertised on the WINGS website and you couldn’t sign up because you weren’t invited.  About a quarter of the tours I’m leading this year happened like this.

Days are long for me, but it’s been great fun, and it’s really nice to have a group who already know each other well (five of them have been on previous tours with me) and for whom many of my favorite birds are lifers, not really surprising given that they are all from the East Coast. Such as today’s Spotted Towhee. The bird that got me started looking at birds when I was 14 was the Oak Titmouse. But the one that set the hook was the stunningly beautiful Spotted Towhee, and I got to look at it again through those eyes today.

Besides – Oregon is just beautiful. The top photo is from dawn this morning at Marys Peak west of Corvallis, the coastal fog oozing up to the Coast Range divide but burning off before reaching the Willamette Valley. Not long after my taking this photo, we were looking at a Sooty Grouse on the road (which hadn’t been there on the way up). A little later we had Mountain Quail family on a side road (I almost stepped on a chick) and later yet another one even further down on the main road.

Other highlights from the past days:

Two Tricolored Blackbirds at Fernhill Wetlands in Forest Grove on our first morning.

A particularly bright and confiding Western Tanager near Netarts, responding to my imitation of Northern Pygmy-Owl. Earlier that morning a real owl responded and came in for great views.

A Peregrine Falcon family at Yaquina Head, this one surely just exhausted from flying in the strong winds all day.

A surprise Laysan Albatross (rare in summer) on the pelagic trip out of Newport yesterday.

And a vagrant juvenile Franklin’s Gull at the Philomath Sewage Ponds (referred to locally as the Philomath Poo Ponds) after our Mary’s Peak birding today; it was found by Doug Robinson who posted the info, which Alan Contreras saw and texted to me. We would have missed it otherwise, and it was a lifer for at least one of the participants (and a county bird for me and my local birding friends Alan, Hendrik, Oscar, Tristen, and Jamie, who all showed up while we were there).

Tomorrow morning another early start, so I really have no business blogging now.

Friday, July 26, 2013

National Moth Week!

I just found out this afternoon, while listening to Science Friday on my way to the grocery store, that it's National Moth Week.

So, even though I'm leading an Oregon tour right now, enjoying such great birds as Northern Pygmy-Owl and Hermit Warbler, I'll post a few pictures of some moths from an overnight trip I did to the Pinal Mountains with my friend Margarethe Brummermann (her blog here) earlier this month.

Here's Margarethe installing the bug sheet, which was later illuminated with a mercury vapor and two ultra violet bulbs.

Towards the end of the evening, we had at least 16 Manduca florestan sphinx moths (among four other sphingid species), and many other smaller moths and insects.

If you look very closely, you will appreciate the beauty in every species. This tiny noctuid is Ponometia venustula, easy to identify with that silver dash in the wing.

This erebid, Bulia deducta, is one I can almost never figure out – adults are amazingly variable. It's quite common, even in my Tucson yard, as its caterpillar food plant is mesquite.

This pretty little thing is Cacozelia basiochrealis, in the family Pyralidae. I don't know anything about it, other than that I'd never seen it before.

You have to look very closely to see the beauty in the fine pattern and interesting shape of this Givira lotta, the Pine Carpenterworm Moth. It's in the family Cossidae, the same as the huge hulks I recently posted from Borneo. (Speaking of which, yes I will have more to post on that eventually).

I am always mesmerized by the intricate patterns and colors of Melipotis indomita, the Indomitable Melipotis. It's extremely common and widespread – I even had it in the Galapagos once.

The prettiest for last are three species of tiger moths, subfamily Arctiinae.

Lophocampa argentata, the Silver-spotted Tiger Moth

Hypercompe permaculata, the Many-spotted Tiger Moth

Arachnis picta, the Painted Tiger Moth

Many thanks to Maury Heiman and Bob Patterson at for the many species IDs.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Hopping Over to Bosque For a Rail

This past Sunday, Matt Daw, a birder from North Carolina was taking this video of a Least Bittern at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge when a surprise walked into view behind the bittern. Surprise is putting it mildly, and I'm almost certain that the video clip was edited to end just before a stream of expletives uncontrollably let loose. It is the first record of Rufous-necked Wood-Rail for North America, not a species anyone predicted would be found here.

See an interview with Matt here.

Since such an out-of-range occurrence for this species is without precedent, some people are suspicious about the origin of this bird. The debate centers around the plausibility of the bird's either being an escaped or released bird that was brought here from its tropical home or its ability to travel this distance on its own. The New Mexico Bird Records Committee will have their work cut out for them when they decide on whether to accept it or not.

In the meantime, anyone banking on acceptance is rushing to Bosque del Apache, including me. Yesterday I rode over with my birding friends, retired doctors Peter Salomon and John Mueller, as well as my friend Celina. I did this very drive with Peter and John (and our friend Gene Loring) over 12 years ago when we went to the Sandia Crest to see the rosy-finch spectacle. This time we stopped long enough for me to get a shot of this famous (to birders) sign, just north of Deming. Whether or not the bird reference was intended by the highway department isn't known, but the only species in the immediate area were House Sparrows and Eurasian Collared-Doves (not too far down the road were Chihuahuan Ravens and Swainson's Hawks).

We arrived at the refuge almost exactly 5 hours later, 370 miles from our meeting point in NE Tucson. Using the good directions provided by the NM RBA service compiled by Matt Baumann, we arrived at the spot and waited and watched. Suddenly it was there, walking just within the edge of the cattails at first, then finally venturing out into the open to catch critters in the shallow mud.

We watched it for about 15 minutes before it vanished into the cattails. Elated over our success, we babbled all the way back to Tucson, Celina and I knitting in the back seat.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

You Made Your Own Pita Bread?

My gut reaction, to hearing this question with a tone of incredulity was,

"What? You mean to say you don't make your own pita bread?"

But really, it is kind of ridiculous if you think how readily available this item is at your local grocery store. It actually took me a moment to go back to those times though.

Once you've done it – made the relatively low hydration dough over the course of 2 days and let it rise (very little effort and time involved, I might add), portioned out the balls and rise once more, rolled them out a bit, let them rest a few minutes, rolled them out even more, then rise for just 15 minutes, and then baked each one for just a couple minutes in a super-hot oven – how can you ever go back? Experiencing this transformation on so many levels and savoring the end result is priceless.

Really? You don't make your own pita bread? Why on Earth not?

Friday, July 5, 2013

Dawn in the Saguaros

This past Saturday my friend Celina and I made a dawn field trip to the Saguaro forests northwest of Tucson in search of a special item. As we crossed the agricultural flats of Marana, a red sunrise warned us of the heat to come – the low temperature in most areas this morning was only 85°F, and the forecast said it was going to be well over 100.

If you have lived amongst Saguaros for a few years, you take them for granted, and most people here don’t even see them any more. But I try to remind myself how utterly amazing and bizarre this huge cactus is.

They bloom any time from April though June, with the peak sometime in May. But the season is spread out a bit, and even now you might see a stray flower like this one.

What we had hoped to sample were the sweet fruits of the cactus. Unlike the indehiscent fruits of prickly pear (like tiny watermelons, their flesh is solid and moist, and the fruits do not open), the carpels of the Saguaro fruit split like the peel of a banana, exposing a combined mass of the inner pulp and seeds, which usually separate from carpel walls, fall from the plant, and dry in the sun.

Everything eats them – squirrels, birds, ants – you name it. Even people. If you find a dry one, preferably one that hasn’t fallen into the dirt but instead baked in the sun after falling into the branches of an acacia or other plant  below, the crunchy morsel is like candy. But we were too early to find but just a few – most of the fruits were still unripe at the tops of the columns, and those that were the first to ripen and fall were snatched up by the eagerly-awaiting wildlife. Perhaps in a week or two, when the main mast falls and most animals are saturated, there will be more lying around. There is no more pulp and just a few seeds left to this fruit, perhaps eaten by a Collared Peccary.

But we enjoyed just poking around in the desert, looking at plants and critters. Most productive was a dead Saguaro that had fallen months ago but was still a rotting mass of flesh beneath its flattened trunk. It was teeming with beetles and their larvae.

Identifiable only as far as genus by me is this clown beetle, Hololepta, in the little known but very large family Histeridae.

This hyper little thing is a rove beetle, and so far I’ve managed to identify it only as far as family – Staphylinidae. It looks a lot like an earwig but is actually a beetle with short elytra that hide its wings; earwigs are a different order altogether.

Back at home, it was indeed very hot – up to 109°F. This Bronzed Cowbird was seeking shade in the mesquite right outside my window.

And this juvenile male Costa’s Hummingbird, rather a rarity in my yard, wisely took up residence in the cool(er) breeze emitting from my back door (left open a crack to let the moist air from my evaporative cooler vent) and hung out on the plant stand all afternoon.