Sunday, June 30, 2013

My Big Fat Idaho Blog

I don’t get to blog about Idaho very often. I was there briefly in 1998 just to rent a Jeep to do some atlas blockbusting in Oregon, and then in September 2009 I was there for the Western Field Ornithologists annual meeting.

Last weekend I was in Boise for another meeting, this time the annual meeting of the American Penstemon Society, held jointly with the Idaho Native Plant Society. Attending was the great idea of my friend Jarid Simons who invited me. Neither of us are particularly nuts about penstemons the way some people are (the Brits and other Europeans have been hybridizing them for decades), but we both like them a lot, and the field trips promised to be a botanizing bonanza.

The first evening was a reception at the Idaho Botanical Garden a couple miles east of downtown Boise. There we enjoyed the varied gardens next to the old penitentiary, and I photographed this Agapostemon metallic green bee in a four-o-clock.

The main destination of our Saturday field trip was Leslie Gulch on the Oregon side of the border, but our carpool first made a stop along Highway 95 still in Idaho in a hilly area of sagebrush steppe where Penstemon cusickii was the main target.

We were soon in Oregon, turned off on a couple dirt roads, and our leaders Jean Findley and Steven Love pulled over by a draw, opposite of which were some barren patches of exposed, eroding dirt.

On these bare patches one finds the rare and local Penstemon miser, and we managed to find several plants, but only one had one flower left.

I noticed a few plants had some caterpillar damage, looked a little closer and noticed these little caterpillars which I recognized as a checkerspot or some such brushfoot but had no book. Later Jim Brock confirmed that they are Variable Checkerspot, which is indeed known to eat Penstemon, but this species is probably a new food plant record.

Another nice plant from here was this ray flowerless daisy Erigeron bloomeri.

We then drove all the way down Leslie Gulch to where the road ends at the upper end of Owyhee Reservoir – so low this year that it will be all the way down to the river bed by the end of the summer.

Our main stop was Dago Gulch, a side canyon of this geologically fascinating area. In fact, it’s the unique geology – exposed ash flows of a very certain eruption from Mount Mahogany – that probably explain the presence of so many localized species of plants found only here and in other areas around Leslie Gulch.

Senecio ertterae, Ertter’s Groundsel is one of these extremely local species found only here.

Another is Mentzelia pakardiae, Packard’s Stickleaf.

I managed to log 22 species of birds on our short hike here, including several Black-throated Gray Warblers, lots of Lazuli Buntings (which almost everyone who cared got to see), a few chasing White-throated Swifts, and a late migrant “Western” Flycatcher.

Predictably perhaps, I paid more attention to the bugs that anyone else did. This cooperative Lorquin's Admiral was one among several that I saw.

Two-tailed Swallowtail, our largest butterfly in the West, on the thistle Cirsium inamoenum.

These cicadas, probably Okanagana bella, were so abundant on all of the trees in the wash of Dago Gulch — some willows had several dozen — I figured they must be related to the periodic cicadas of the East (but they are not).

We had a few more stops where our field trip leaders knew of some unusual plants that grown on poor soils.

At this stop we saw the very local and unusual Ivesia rhypara. In the rose family and described in 1977, its name is a curious Cockney-like play on words: “Rhypara” is Greek for “grimy,” which sounds like Grimes; James Grimes was one of the first to discover the plant.

Our last stop saw John Wise photographing a Penstemon deustus growing right out of a boulder, earning its common name Hot Rocks Penstemon.


Sunday saw us heading the same southwesterly direction from Boise, but staying on the Idaho side of the border. We met on the Snake River with clouds of Cliff and Bank Swallows flying over, then once all were present we moved on to an area call Chalky Butte, as yesterday starting in the sagebrush steppe.

At this elevation, our target, the early-blooming Penstemon acuminatus was long past its prime, but there were plenty of other interesting plants in this slightly saline soil. One of the coolest was this Astragalus kentrophyta var. jessiae, Spiny Milkvetch, looking more like a spiny phlox rather than a pea.

But the best find at this stop was this Western Rattlesnake, Crotalus oreganus.

The next stop was on the way to the hidden Renynolds Creek valley. The bare soils at the pass had a population of the local ball cactus Pediocactus simpsonii. I hadn’t seen this plant since my Oregon bird atlassing on the northern ridges of Steens Mountain above Juniper Lake back in 1998.

A Long-nosed Leopard-Lizard was also fun find here.

Variegated Meadowhawks were at nearly every stop this weekend, even far from water.

Our last stop in the warm, dry lowlands featured this Tiger Whiptail (along with some roadside Penstemon speciosus).

We then spent the middle hours of the day a much higher elevation below War Eagle Mountain on the road to the ghost town of Silver City. The mosaic of Douglas-fir, Curlleaf Mountain-mahogany, and even patches of Subalpine Fir created a sky island effect not too different from the mountains of SE Arizona. Common birds here were Yellow-rumped Warbler, Cassin’s Finch, and House Wren – very different from the sagebrush flats.

I didn’t take very good notes, so I’m guessing here when I call this one Penstemon humilis.

And this one Penstemon rydbergi. The plant list we were given also had P. deustus, and one of these might be that. Oops.

Some other nice plants at this stop were:
Allium acuminatum

Eriogonum umbellatum

and Antennaria sp., Pussytoes

Bug-plant interactions included these buprestid beetles, both Acmaeodera idahoensis, despite having different markings, on Hieracium cynoglossoides.

And this gorgeous Juniper Hairstreak on Eriogonum heracleoides.

Minus the plant, we have this Machimus sp. robber fly with some tiny thing in his jaws. I can’t even be certain which order it is in, but I think perhaps Homoptera. [added note: Thanks to Andy Hamilton at, the prey item is a Hemipteran (Homoptera doesn't exist any more), more precisely a leafhopper in the genus Ceratagallia. There are about 55 species in North America, and you need a better photo than this, or perhaps a specimen, to ID it to species]

Finally, we made a stop at the highest elevation – New York Summit on the west side of War Eagle Mountain, where the windswept Low Sagebrush flats didn’t look to promising at first glance. But this Astragalus whitneyi ssp. circumvagum, Balloonpod Milkvetch was quite fetching.

Even more impressive was this patch of the stunningly gorgeous Lewisia rediviva, Bitter Root, an unusual member of the portulaca family.

It was great fun to see some new areas, meet some really nice people, and be out in the field with "my kind of people" who stop and look at every plant and even know their names.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Borneo Blog: My First Acquaintances with Pittas, Gibbons, and Wren-Babblers

May 1, 2013

Finally – another installment of my recreated Borneo Blogs.

Maybe I should get the leech story over with first. In case you haven’t heard, in much of southeastern Asia there are terrestrial leeches waiting on the tips of leaves in the forest that want your blood. Yesterday wasn’t a problem, as I was on the road almost all day. But today I tackled the forest trails across the Segama River, crossing the foot bridge and entering the 500 meter-by-500 meter grid of trails used by researchers. The further you get into the grid, the narrower the trails and the denser the low vegetation at ground level. But I stayed on top of the problem, constantly checking my legs for leeches, flicking them off, and teasing them when I saw them waiting patiently on their leaf perches before they noticed me. In the late morning I paused to look inside my boots and discovered 20 in each, all in their infrared heaven but no manna – hunkered down and pressed flat either on my socks or against the inside of my rubber boots. It took a good 10 minutes to get them all out, flicked off (with some effort) into the woods. I was a little more vigilant the rest of the day, but when I got back to the dorm, there were again a few inside my boots, and I scraped them out and flicked them off into the grass where they probably perished from exposure. Then inside, getting ready for my shower, I took off my shirt, and there above my left nipple was a nearly fully engorged leech, fast attached. “You little f*er,” was all I could say, and I dislodged his-her mouth by scraping it off with my fingernail, shuddered as it stuck to my finger like glue, and hauled him-her outside. It would have been too much work to try to kill it, so I just flicked it off into the lawn like the others. So, permethrin-treated socks, pants, and long-sleeved shirts will not deter them. Obviously, having button-down shirts is no insurance that they won’t sneak in between the buttons or down the collar if their journey begins where I can’t see them, such as on my back.

Ok, done. I took no photos of engorged leeches or blood (sorry Kate). I think most people just wouldn’t like that, and I don’t really want to be reminded, even though I’m usually of an extremely hardy constitution. Just google “leeches and blood” if that’s your thing (and you can move on to botflies if you haven’t had enough). But I did have a spectacular morning of birding, even if most of the sounds I recorded are still mysteries. Birding in the understory of tropical rainforest is hard anywhere, but it’s particularly hard when you don’t know the vocalizations and when the canopy is 60 meters tall. I eventually decided that one of the amazing, loud and surprisingly melodious sounds coming from many directions belonged to Bornean Gibbons in the canopy. Others might have been Agile Gibbons. But then I never even glimpsed a monkey, so my second guess is that they were Thick-billed Pigeons, a bird I did see way high in a tree through a tiny gap in the mid-story umbrella of foliage. As you see, I have no clue, and I’m grasping square straws and putting them in round holes.

I was excited to see my first pitta today – a colorful beauty which in the book is called Black-and-crimson Pitta, by the IOC Black-crowned Pitta, and in the Clements list Black-headed Pitta. I’m sad that I don’t have a photo to share of it, as it’s a gorgeous gem of a bird, but I did get excellent sound recording of its simple song – a 3.5-second pure whistle starting at about 1190 hertz and gradually rising to 1260, a barely noticeable increase in pitch. I later heard a few more and saw three by the end of the day, but it was the first one that was so spectacular, as I was not at all prepared and in retrospect realize that I was whistling the song only absentmindedly, not actually expecting a bird to fly up so abruptly from a hidden ground perch. Its wings gave a loud, snapping rattle, adding to the drama.

Then not far down the trail, while recording the second pitta, I recognized a two-noted whistled that I had been studying – the endemic Bornean Wren-Babbler. I hadn’t studied the pictures, so it was quite a surprise to see this quail-sized bird with long legs, long neck, brown-and-white streaked breast and an odd walking behavior hop on to a fallen log and pace back and forth in excited response to my whistled imitation. The other babblers I had seen were all vireo- or antbird-like foliage dwellers, not something rather like an oversized, disproportionate antthrush. Here's a horrible digibinned image.

By mid-day the cicadas had become impossibly loud, and I wanted to avoid getting caught in what seemed like would be a daily afternoon downpour, so I spent most of the afternoon back at the dorm, studying for tomorrow’s outing (and to take a break from the leeches, to be honest). Before I left the forest, a couple critters caught my attention: a small frog in the leaf litter, and a showy damselfly.

Walking back across the footbridge over the Segama River is this view of some of the Field Centre’s buildings, in what is a ridiculously oversized, spread-out campus that could have been more concentrated, allowing for a larger area of forest regrowth. Is a half-mile walk between the dorms and the dining hall really necessary?

This is the suspension bridge which doubles as a Whiskered Treeswift hunting perch, which I learned after flushing one at a distance of only a couple feet before I noticed it. I’ll try to remember another afternoon.

This evening, a few interesting moths visited the lights by the kitchen (I love the green one, and am very curious what family the big, square-winged one might be in), and a Bearded Pig cruised the grounds looking for handouts.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

My Sixth Year of Cooking at Gambell

On my feet and cooking nonstop for about 16-18 hours every day for this past week has kept me from blogging, and I will get back to my Borneo accounts later this week. Before I do, a quick recap of what has a been a very rewarding though exhausting week at Gambell, on the northwestern tip of Saint Lawrence Island.

First step was buying and boxing the nonperishables in Tucson the day after I got back from Indonesia. Second step was buying all the fresh food in Anchorage for two days and boxing it all up in 9 coolers, 8 boxes and two cartons (the 27 dozen eggs).

Then as a group, 15 of us flew to Gambell via Nome, and our Bering Air pilot Larry gave us a very nice view of the village before landing. (En route we also had views of Big and Little Diomede Islands to the north.)

This is the kitchen in the Sivuqaq Inn, my home for the week.

I cooked and baked up a storm. Here are whole wheat sandwich bread, no-knead bread (makes the best garlic bread), and challah (for the breakfast strata and french toast).

This is Nina Hansen, a saint and my savior in the kitchen. She washed 95% of the dishes while I kept prepping for the next meals, but that gave her bowl-licking privileges as well as license to give a few cookies to the kids. This Snowy Owl is one of a few pieces of precious ivory she bought from the local Yupik Eskimos who come in to the lodge to sell their works; exhausting her budget, she promised herself to not to buy any more. Then she bought some more.

And if you weren't there, here's what you missed:
Gambell Meal Plan
WINGS Tour, 2013
Rich Hoyer

Day 1, May 30
Afternoon flight to Gambell
Lunch: At Anchorage Airport
Dinner: Oven-roasted Salmon with Tangerine and Ginger relish, Green Beans with Toasted Hazelnuts and Browned Butter, Leafy Salad with Blue Cheese Dressing
Dessert: Strawberry-Rhubarb Fool

Day 2, May 31
Breakfast: Fluffy Scrambled Eggs, Cream Biscuits with Cheddar Cheese, Oven-fried Bacon                 
Lunch: Classic Chicken Salad Sandwiches, Barley Soup With Mushrooms and Kale
Dinner: Crispy Roast Lemon Chicken, Baked Wild Rice, Maple-roasted Brussels Sprouts and Rutabaga with Hazelnuts, Apple-Pear Salad
Dessert: Orange-scented Olive-oil Cake with Orange Compote and Ganache

Day 3, June 1
Breakfast: Fluffy Scrambled Eggs, Buttermilk and Buckwheat Pancakes and Sausage
Lunch: Slow-roasted Beef and Easy Roast Turkey Breast, cheese, West African Peanut Soup with Chicken
Dinner: Glazed All-beef Meatloaf, Quinoa-stuffed Eggplant, Shaved Kohlrabi and Arugula Salad with Chunky Garlic and Pimentón Dressing
Dessert: Blueberry-Peach Cobbler with Lemon-Cornmeal Biscuit Topping, whipped cream

Day 4, June 2
Breakfast: Sonoran Sunrise Bake, Fresh Tomato Salsa, Fresh Fruit
Lunch: Grilled Cheese Sandwiches on Homemade Whole Wheat Sandwich Bread and No-knead Bread, Creamless Creamy Tomato Soup
Dinner: Lasagna di Carnevale, Fennel-and-Endive Salad with Red Grapes and Walnuts, Classic American Garlic Bread
Dessert: Wicked Good Boston Cream Pie

Day 5, June 3
Breakfast: Fluffy Scrambled Eggs, Blueberry Scones, Oven-fried Bacon
Lunch: Roast Beef and Roast Turkey Sandwiches, Broccoli-cheese Soup
Dinner: Urban Tavern's Spice-rubbed Pork Spare Ribs, Couscous with Carrots, Raisins, and Pine Nuts, Evelyn’s Killer Kale Salad
Dessert: Classic Apple Pie with Foolproof Pie Crust and vanilla ice cream

Day 6, June 4
Breakfast: Fluffy Scrambled Eggs, French Toast, and Oven-fried Bacon
Lunch: Grammy Hoyer's Olive Spread, Hearty Chicken Noodle Soup
Dinner: Roast Cod Fillets with Potatoes, Garlic and Olive Oil, Walnut-Apple Celery Salad w/ Mustard Vinaigrette
Dessert: Triple Chocolate Mousse Cake

Day 7, June 5
Breakfast: Spinach-And-Fontina Strata, Sausage, and Fresh Fruit
Lunch: Homemade Pizza, Zuppa Toscana
Dinner: Egg drop soup, Gingery Chicken Stir-fry with Bok Choy, Steamed Jasmine Rice
Dessert: Blood Oranges with Caramel Sauce and Cocoa Nibs

Day 8, June 6
Breakfast: Fluffy Scrambled Eggs, Overnight Sticky Buns, and Oven-fried Bacon
Lunch: Leftovers
Departure to Nome in afternoon.

Home Made Whole Wheat Sandwich Bread
New York Times No-knead Bread
Perfect Chocolate Chip Cookies
Classic Brownies
Ultimate Turtle Brownies
Key Lime Cookies
Pumpkin and Currant Cookies