Dedicated to the wildlife of the NW United States – and wildlife worldwide.
Take a drive in the Idaho countryside outside of Boise and here are few examples of wildlife you are likely to see. The first little guy you’ll notice is Townsend’s Ground Squirrel. If you don’t see dozens and dozens of these little rodents you’re paying too much attention to the road and the radio. Even the most casual observer for wildlife bounty will see them immediately. Next up for sighting is the Mountain Cottontail. Fairly big rabbits they are hard to miss as the bound across the highway or the prairie. You’re probably going to have to stop the automobile, however, to get a look at the American Badger. Normally a nocturnal animal they are seen from time to time during the day. Now pull over and escape that vehicle completely. Get out, point your eyes at the ground, walk about and look a bit closer. There’s a Western Fence Lizard basking on a rock. Turn over that rock or a log (or two) and you’ll be treated to a Multicolored Centipede. Or you can just stay in you car, keep driving, and miss all of this.
Our North American Porcupine in the first two photos. The crested porcupine found in Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia has a longer and narrower body, and much harder quills.
Just in time for Easter! Okay, it’s not a rabbit; not even the same kind of mammal. Rabbits are lagomorphs, porcupines are rodents. But as rodents go you have to admit (once you get past the beady eyes and quills, of course) that porcupines are cute, too. At least I think so. Whatever your feelings are about looks of our spiny natives they are interesting creatures to say the least. One of the 12 species of porcupines that inhabit the “new world” the North American Porcupine, Erethizon dorstum, is the only one to represent the species in Canada and the US. They are primarily nocturnal animals but I discovered this one peacefully grazing alongside a forested road inside of Fort Lewis, WA. I thought the sighting was a bit unusual but according to the Peterson Field Guide, Mammals of North America, they are “sometimes seen ambling along roadsides, especially after spring thaw.” Well that matches up exactly with my observation. Nearly every source mentions this animal’s overwhelming fondness for salt, a preference that many times leads to it munching down on the handles of hammers, axes, and such. Probably attracted by the salt from human sweat. Porcupines are well known bark eaters and will go after just about anything you’d expect a large rodent to eat. They are the second largest rodent in our country just behind the beaver and that gets them a pretty good rating on the size scale. The ones I’ve seen in the Northeast are much more silvery in color than our Northwestern animals and are a bit larger.
I’ve come across some big frogs before but nothing like this giant amphibian I managed to catch in my backyard koi pond! He’s a doozy.
REPTILES AND AMPHIBIANS OF AFGHANISTAN – now on Kindle; coming soon in hard copy.
Dall’s Sheep rams are distinguished by their large yellow colored horns; the ewes are smaller and have sharper, thin horns.
There’s a place where can you see beautiful white sheep and beautiful white whales all in the same day and all from the same place. It’s called Beluga Point and you’ll find this amazing spot just twenty minutes outside of downtown Anchorage, Alaska on the New Seward Highway. Hit the time and tide just right and these comical looking whales put on quite a show; sometimes bobbing up and down with their calves in pods of 20 or more. Read more on Beluga Whales here: Beautiful Belugas. When you’ve had your fill of this cetacean display (as if that’s possible) turn around 180 degrees and focus your gaze up the mountain on the other side of the highway. Look for some tiny white specks and watch for movement. April through May is the lambing season, and if your binoculars are at hand you might see the little guys, too.
The sheep named after American naturalist William H. Dall can be a bit tricky to get up close and cozy with, however. Although they occasionally descend to lower ground, I once saw one actually on the side of the highway, it is rare. Binoculars or a camera with a nice long lens are far more reliable. The other way is to climb up there and see them – a task much easier said than done. The mountains along the Kenai Peninsula are extremely steep and be prepared for some exciting rock climbing along the way. I managed to labor my way up to their lofty home twice. On one occasion the wary animals departed long before I arrived and I was not adequately outfitted to hang around in the extreme weather. On a previous expedition I was just within range of some great photos when a sightseeing plane flew overhead and frightened the sheep away. Exasperating to say the least but a great experience no matter what. So the next time you find yourself in Anchorage and wondering what to do look up Beluga Point and head out.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I’ve been studying these reptiles for a long time yet I never even knew this species existed:
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.
Audubon society Field Guide to North American Insects and Spider
National Wildlife Federation Field Guide to Insects and Spiders of North America
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