Under the Tree Bark

The next time you’re out and about in the forest take some time and look a bit closer at that fallen log:

Peel back some of the tree bark and you will find a wide variety of wildlife that normally remains hidden from view. Isopods, centipedes, millipedes, spiders, and a huge population of various other arthropods and worms make their home in this unusual habitat. Tiger worms in particular seem to like this dark, humid lair.

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Feral Pigs and Wild Boars

These animals have been in the news quite a bit lately especially in southern states where their numbers have exploded. Their range has now extended into Oregon and Washington as well. And this is one “invasive” species that does a lot of environmental damage and has potential to harm humans as well. I put the quotation marks around the word because like the vast majority of invasive species we humans caused the invasion to begin with. In the case of wild boars they were introduced into several southern states from Europe as game animals a couple of hundred years ago. Add to that domestic pigs that have escaped or been let loose over many years. These highly adaptable animals took to the invitation very well, thank you very much, and quickly established breeding populations – a fact which we are now coming to grips with in nearly every state in America. I have not yet encountered them here in the Northwest but I have seen them elsewhere. I ran into a pair in the Everglades so big that I first thought they were black bears. While stationed in Germany I witnessed a large population of them. Any soldier familiar with training areas over there has likely run into dozens of wild boar as well. In my case I was doing pushups out behind my vehicle one evening when a sow and her piglets trotted by just a few feet in front of me. I froze in the front leaning rest position and was thankfully ignored.

Here in the Northwest feral hogs have been listed as invasive species in Oregon, Idaho, and Washington. At this point Oregon appears to have the worst problem with a population of several thousand. Sounds bad, and it is, but at least it is not the two to three million estimated to be running around Texas. So what’s the problem? The primary issue with feral hogs is their feeding behavior. They not only eat anything, they also root and tear up anything to get at it. Add to this an exceptionally strong sense of smell, high intelligence, and a prolific breeding and you have an animal ripping up the environment at a fast clip. Many states, to include Idaho and Oregon, have legalized, highly encouraged, hunting of them. The meat is edible but make absolutely sure it is well cooked – feral pigs carry a large number of diseases. Do your research first. Report any sightings to the Fish and Wildlife Department.

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IDENTIFYING SNAKES AND LIZARDS

IDENTIFYING SNAKES AND LIZARDS – The Basics

Color and overall body morphology are, of course, the most obvious methods of species identification. But what happens when those characteristics merge too closely for normal observation? And what about those species that display wide color variations within the same species? That’s when the professionals and intensely interested amateurs move to less obvious indicators. This naturally requires a closer observation and effort but for those of us fascinated by such things it’s an act of joyful discovery. The National Audubon Society Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibian lists about 20 species of garter snakes, the most common serpent in North America. All are very similar although many have distinct size and color differences. In some cases the differences are not so obvious, however. Arrangement of the ventral and dorsal scales would be the first thing to look for followed by a closer look at the head scales.

A similar situation exists with lizards. The agama family of lizards includes a huge number of species and sub species, some extremely similar in appearance yet with distinct differences between the male and female. And to make matters even more complicated there may be differences in mating colors and the color of the reptile depending on temperature and breeding availability.

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Polyphemus Moth

Named after the one eyed giant in Greek mythology the Polyphemus Moth is just about the most beautiful moth in our area. They range from here into the Midwest and likely beyond. They spread those four inch plus wings to reveal not just one eye but four; often enough to startle a would be predator. Larger than a monarch butterfly this is a very distinctive insect as is its bright green caterpillar.

 

Odd New Gecko Species

I’ve been studying these reptiles for a long time yet I never even knew this species existed:

New Found Gecko – Literally Jumps Out of its Scales!

Camp Murray Honey Bees

I was strolling along a walkway/running track in Camp Murray, Washington a while ago and noticed a very hard not to notice warning about a bee hive. Naturally I was prompted to take a closer look. It was a hive of honey bees, and a fairly new one judging by the furious activity going on. The queens of these bees live 2 to 5 years and produce colonies of well over 60,000 workers. When she’s had enough of that she lays a few eggs destined to be new queens and then takes off with a swarm of loyal workers to found a new colony, generally in their favorite setting, a hollow tree like the one in the photo.

The deep hole in the middle of this oak tree provides a perfect home for honey bees. During the warmer weather they are extremely active, but in the winter things slow down considerably. The bees retreat into their hive and pretty much wait it out. That’s one method of getting photos inside of a bee hive, by the way – wait for winter. Not surprisingly bees have a higher mortality rate in the cold weather. But as seen in the last picture nobody can beat a honey bee for collecting and distributing pollen.

Meanwhile back in the old hive the first new queen to emerge quickly assassinates her rivals, and takes up the task of producing thousands of new workers. This, of course, after mating with a lucky mail (drone) bee. (I say lucky because the remaining drones are shut off from food and starved to death by the female workers in the hive. At least the “lucky” guy got something out of life before expiring.) Despite their present ubiquitous appearance honey bees are not native to North America; they were brought here sometime in the 17th century for the same purpose they are cultivated and raised for now. You kind of wonder why they had to do that since, according the Audubon Field Guide, about 3,500 species of bees are native to North America, all of which specialize in flower feeding and are by default pollinators. Unfortunately, the death rates of these extremely valuable insects continues to rise. Check out the article in Modern Farmer to learn more about that.

References:

Audubon society Field Guide to North American Insects and Spider

National Wildlife Federation Field Guide to Insects and Spiders of North America

Bug Guide

Modern Farmer

Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge

How does an incredibly pleasant afternoon where you can see the ocean, the ocean floor, a forest trail with pond life, a huge array of bird life, plus animals from muskrats to reptiles sound? Make it a very exciting walk for kids yet an easy one for the elderly members of the family. There’s a gift shop, too, of course. And all of it for three bucks? Yep we’re talking about Nisqually National Park in Washington State.

Also known as the Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually Wildlife Area this place is a wonderful surprise that does not get the publicity it deserves. You’ll see a little brown sign advertising the park along Interstate I-5 between Olympia and Fort Lewis. You can actually see the park from the highway it is so close. Get off there and take a short drive to the park entrance. Put your three bucks in the drop box and cross a small bridge into a natural wonderland. You can stop at the gift and book shop before you head out but be sure to gaze out over the marsh first. (I also recommend a stop at the latrine – it’s a long boardwalk.) From there stroll the forest path along the waterway until you reach the boardwalk. Here you’ll see the Nisqually River as it meets Puget Sound.

Bird lovers will be in heaven. But there is a plethora of other land dwelling mammals, reptiles, and amphibians. Take a closer look at the mud flats and you’ll see an extraordinary number of sea creatures as well. Bring a camera! A pair of binoculars is a good idea, too.

ANNA’S HUMMINGBIRD

When we think of hummingbirds we think of flowers, spring, summer, sunshine, and warm weather. But here in the Northwest we have a unique species of hummingbird that breaks the rules. Anna’s Hummingbird, Calypte anna, is found up and down the West coast into British Columbia. Oh they love the warm weather alright and you’ll see them throughout the summer, but this tiny hummingbird is a year round inhabitant that toughs out some real frigid winter temperatures. This is a fairly recent development. Depending on the source consulted Anna’s hummingbird began to extend its range northward from California in the 1950s or 1970s. What exactly contributed to this is unknown but one reasonable explanation is the increase in human population in the area and the resultant expansion of feeders and backyard gardens the bird is so fond of.

The first photo with the puffed up feathers was taken in January 2017 at a temperature of about 20 degrees. This tough little bird was out there every day for about a week in these same low temperatures. Hummingbirds are able to tolerate this by going into a semi hibernation state. Other photos show a male displaying color and a female displaying the common metallic green of the species.

If you have a feeder or have been around these hummingbirds for any length of time their noticeable and constant twittering is unmistakable. They are vocal little things. Every now and then, however, you’ll hear a puzzlingly loud, sharp chirp. I am familiar with the calls of just about every bird in my Northwest backyard and this strange chirp confused me for some time. One day I was absolutely determined to locate the source of it. Much to my surprise it turned out to be an Anna’s hummingbird. According to one source the males make this sound during their dive bombing mating display. At the conclusion of their high speed descent they suddenly spread open their closed tail feathers and mechanically produce this unique sound. I cannot say that this matches my observation, however. The bird I observed seemed to produce this sound while sitting on a branch. Was it made by a sudden expansion of the tail feathers? Perhaps. I hold open the possibility as well that my own observations were mistaken; maybe a male hummingbird was “chirping” somewhere nearby and the bird I was watching reacting to that. We have a lot of hummingbirds around here. More to follow when the weather warms.

One final note about this tough little avian. The bird was named after Anna Debelle who later became Anna Massena by marriage and “Grand Maitresse” to the Empress of France in the 1880s. Exactly how this relatively unknown woman became associated with the bird that now bears her name requires further research but I suspect it has something to do with whoever first described the bird. I leave it to the reader to look further into the history of Anna Debelle. I’ll look further into her hummingbird.

References:

Our Pacific Northwest Birds and Habitat, Craig and Joy Johnson 2011

Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Audubon Guide to North American Birds

Hummingbirds.net

SF Gate

Wikipedia

Northwest Wildlife News

There have been some interesting incidents going on concerning our wild friends recently in the Northwest, and not all good news, either:

Wildlife Samaritans Rescue a Moose

Mountain Lion Attacks

Huge Elk Herd Falls Through Ice With Fatal Results

Illegal “Hunters” Kill 20 Geese

Aquarium of Boise

The other day I read and posted an article about the problems the Aquarium of Boise was having with its roof. Despite several visits to Boise I had never heard of the aquarium before.  Last week during a snowy afternoon I decided to fix this oversight and I was very pleasantly surprised. Below is my review of the Aquarium of Boise:

Where can you watch a stingray ballet, pet one of their marine cousins, observe a crocodile, enjoy an aviary of exotic birds, stick your hand into a tide pool – and do it all indoors? The Aquarium of Boise, of course!

This zoological gem of unique animal exhibits is located in downtown Boise, Idaho just off the Highway 84 Cole Road exit and is open every day of the year except Thanksgiving and Christmas. Encompassing 10,000 totally indoor square feet the aquarium, as the name implies, primarily focuses on ichthylogical species from marine and freshwater environments. But visitors are in for a pleasant surprise thanks to the imagination and vision of the aquarium staff. In addition to aquatic species the aquarium features a reptile exhibit, an aviary, educational posters, and hands on lectures with live animals. It is truly a mini zoo.

These photos do not adequately relay the scope of the aquarium. Go here for more:  Aquarium of Boise

Several of the aquatic exhibits encourage physical contact with the animals but the most unique is the bat ray exhibit. Bat rays, Myliobatis californica, are members of the ray fish family but are distinguished by a far more prominent head. This feature combined with the outstretched fins of the animal give it a bat like appearance, hence its common name. The Aquarium of Boise has a number of these fascinating animals in a large, waist high enclosure. Stand close to the side of the tank and the rays will swim right up to you and pop their unique heads out of the water like puppies waiting to be petted. And you can pet them, too! It is an amazing experience.

There are numerous other aquatic exhibits from tide pools to enormous aquariums bursting with brilliant color. Reptile enclosures feature a variety of snakes and lizards plus a dwarf caiman crocodile, a species not normally encountered in any zoo. The aviary is alive with the sound of lorikeets, small vividly colored parrots. Every single exhibit is generously spacious for the animal and immaculately clean. Every animal is in vibrant health and obviously well cared for. Staff members are not only extraordinarily knowledgeable about the creatures in their care they are very present and eager to talk about them.

With its indoor setting the Aquarium of Boise is truly unique yet it is spacious enough for children and adults to comfortably walk about and explore its numerous zoological features. And there is more to offer still. Lectures are provided for school and outreach programs, and the aquarium is open for special events from “weddings to corporate parties, graduations, to community gatherings.”

I’ve seen many other small city aquariums but none compare to the Aquarium of Boise. During your next trip to the city I highly recommend a visit to this beautiful facility. In fact, you ought to go to Boise just to see it.

Aquarium of Boise