Warm Weather Brings Out the Bite!

Warm, sunny weather has at last returned to the great Northwest; no rain in the forecast for almost another week. Time to get out the shorts and sun tan lotion. Our wildlife is happy for the change in environmental conditions as well. Goldfinches, grosbeaks, rufous hummingbirds and a lovely assortment of avians are returning to feeders and forests everywhere. Black bears are in the news trespassing in backyards, breaking into stores, and climbing trees all over the place. Then we have our not so cute – but utterly fascinating arrivals – the insects. I doubt that any animal is as keenly attuned to changes in the weather as these animals. The big carpenter ants are out and about and soon you will see their winged females looking for the ideal location to begin a new colony. Termites are on the lookout as well.

Take a sample of just about any still water right now and you’ll find mosquito larvae. Look closer and you’ll find any number of their fascination companions like this aquatic worm and this tiny amphipod that scoots around with amazing speed.

But the insects that inevitably get the most attention are the biting insects. So when you’re out selecting the perfect sun tan lotion you may want to consider some repellant as well. We are fortunate, however. Our mosquitoes, black flies, “no see ums,” and other pests are not nearly so bothersome as they are in other parts of the country. Thanks to our relatively cool year round weather these insects are not under the intense pressure in places like Alaska, for example, with its short bouts of hot weather in the summer. Anyone who has spent a summer up there is undoubtedly familiar with the incredible explosion of mosquitoes in the far north.

We do have our share, though. Mosquitoes and black flies are about the most notable. Hardly a surprise. With thousands of mosquito species worldwide and nearly 200 different kinds in the US alone, we are bound to get our share. In fact we have about 50 different species.

Gaze down at the rocks of a stream and you may notice thousands of little black things wiggling in the current. Those are black fly babies just waiting for the chance break out and taste you.

Black flies are another source of annoyance. They have about half the worldwide distribution of species as their mosquito cousins and not nearly as many here as in other parts of the country. I’ve been to a locations on the East coast from New York to Georgia where these little insects can make you crazy. Also called gnats these insects prefer running water for their little ones instead of the quiet, stagnant pools loved by mosquitoes.

We are fortunate in one other aspect of our black fly and mosquito population as well. Although both of these insects are notorious disease carriers we do not have a serious problem in the Northwest, although there have been outbreaks of Equine Encephalitis and West Nile Virus. Mosquitoes that carry the infamous Zika virus have not made it here to date.

References:

Washington Department of Health

Wikipedia

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

National Audubon Society – Field Guide to the Pacific Northwest

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Happy Mother’s Day

Nothing says Mother’s Day like Mother Goose!

To continue: I had some business to conduct a while ago in Salem, Oregon. At the end of the day as is my habit I worked out at the hotel and then went for a run. As I was trotting along the sidewalk I could not help but notice the slippery texture of the surface beneath my feet. I figured it was simply algae or moss due to the frequent rain and humidity of the Northwest. But when I had to pause my run for a moment at an intersection and looked down at the sidewalk I did not see algae or moss. I saw a LOT of goose poop. Thus began my formal introduction to the Canada Goose, Brant Canadensis.

I’d seen these birds before, of course. They’re pretty hard to miss here in the Northwest. In fact, they’ve pretty much overrun many states in the U.S. But in Salem, Oregon they are so numerous it is impossible not to see gatherings of them in just about anywhere to include busy downtown areas of the city. One particular location, however, is home to especially enormous flocks of these large birds. Between the Geer Community Park and the Oregon State Penitentiary is a large open field that often floods during periods of heavy rain. Gigantic flocks of Canada geese often make this field a temporary stop. It is not unusual to see hundreds of them in this location – and hundreds flying overhead as well – so keep your head down.

So just how have these birds become so successful in the midst of an ever increasing human population? The primary reason is diet. Canada geese eat grass, a commodity we have provided in obvious abundance. Oh they’ll munch on insects and other items as well. But grass appears to be the food of choice, a habit that makes them the bane of golf courses. A pronounced taste for grain does not endear them to farmers either. Adding to this cosmopolitan diet is a tendency for large families, fearless protective care of the little goslings, a sturdy constitution, and an ability to find food on land or water.

Despite all the literature out there about this common bird I have seen one behavior that is not mentioned anywhere. They are the only waterfowl I have ever seen that flips completely upside down in water. Many times I’ve seen them flip over, wiggle their goose feet in the air for few seconds, and then pop upright again. Coupled with the other behaviors I’ve seen at this time it seems to be a bathing ritual.

 

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Wig in Your Ear or Ear in Your Wig?

NO! It’s an Earwig:

In this case a European Earwig, Forficula auricularia. Another gift from our European settlers but just one of several that inhabit North America out of the almost 2000 different species of the insect that populate the world. Apparently there was a superstition in the old country that these animals like to settle down in human ears. Well, they certainly like dark places and are known to inhabit human abodes – so who knows? Perhaps a human ear was handy from time to time. After all these superstitions start somewhere. I’ve not seen any in my home or in my ears, nor have I heard of any such experiences, but I have found these fascinating arthropods under rocks and tree bark from time to time. Male European earwigs are distinguished by the more curved pincers at the end of their abdomen. Females have a straighter, more streamlined pair. These appendages are useful in catching prey and to unfold the small wings near the head of the animal. The jury seems to be out as to whether these insects are pest or friend. They enjoy a meal of vegetables but are quite adept at eating aphids as well. Your local gardener probably has a more informed opinion.

Reference: National Wildlife Federation Field Guide to Insects and Spiders of North America, Arthur V. Evans, 2008

 

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Idaho Country Wildlife

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.

NORTH AMERICAN PORCUPINE

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.

Reptiles and Amphibians of Afghanistan

Bullfrog – BIG!

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 and Beluga Point

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.

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.

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.

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.