Quick Guide to Common Western Wasps

In a Toad’s Eye  Reptiles / Amphibians of Afghanistan

Paper Wasps, Polistes aruifer, construct open to the air cellular type nests. The Bald Faced Hornet, Dolichovespula maculate, makes a round, classic looking hive that can become quite large if left undisturbed. The Western Yellow Jacket, Vespula penslyvanica, finds a home underground, normally in an old rodent burrow or something similar. Another distinguishable characteristic of the Yellow Jacket wasp is a head completely outlined in yellow.

As the weather heats up here in the Northwest you are sure to notice a sudden abundance in bees and wasps. In general bees are not nearly as aggressive as wasps and are easily recognized by their distinctly different body shapes. Bees are round bodied, hairy insects specifically designed for maximum collection of pollen. Wasps have longer, streamlined, naked bodies and tend to feed on other insects, and even carcasses of dead animals. They also display a notably more cantankerous disposition than bees. It’s this difference in attitude that makes wasps fairly unwelcome visitors while you’re out and about enjoying the summer sun.

Topping the list in aggressive behavior is the Yellow Jacket. These easily irritated insects nest in underground lairs, often in old rodent holes. So if you notice some buzzing insects that seem to pop out of the ground – watch your step. It could very well be a nest of Yellow Jackets. Under the eaves of your homestead you are likely to see two other common members of the wasp family, Bald Faced Hornets and Paper Wasps. Neither of these species have a particularly aggressive disposition but they will vigorously defend their real estate if sufficiently provoked. As noted by Arthur Evans in the National Wildlife Federation “Field Guide to Insects and Spiders of North America,” the names of these wasps are a bit confusing considering the nests they build. Bald Faced Hornets build large globular nests that much more resemble paper than the open faced cellular nests of Paper Wasps.

So there is your quick guide to wasp identification. Now the next time you hear somebody lump all of these insects together as Yellow Jackets you’ll be able to make an on the spot correcting (if necessary, of course).

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My Favorite Millipede

I am fascinated by these many legged arthropods. Something about their exotic, otherworldly physiology, innate harmlessness, and unique locomotive skills captivates me every time. Here in the Northwest, as in most parts of the world, we have our share of these intriguing creatures and they come in a variety of shapes. The familiar little roly poly pill bug that hides under rocks and leaf litter sits at one extreme while big five inchers prowl about bulldozing their way through deep forests. We have some unusually small species as well. The tiny Andrognathid family are often found under loose bark of our conifer trees. Seldom more than an inch long and glossy beige in color they can be mistaken for worms. We have a fast moving red millipede that could easily pass for a centipede at first glance, until you notice the telltale millipede characteristic of two legs per body segment. My favorite, however, is the Yellow Spotted millipede, Harpaphe haydeniana. Also referred to a Clown Millipede these distinctive Diplodas get to be about 2 inches long and are generally found in forest leaf litter or hiding under logs. They are well known for one very distinctive talent – it uses cyanide as a defense weapon. This kind of defense is not uncommon in millipedes but the Yellow Spotted millipede produces so much that it has a pronounced odor. Pick one up sometime and you’ll see what I mean. Don’t worry. It won’t hurt you to smell it. Just don’t try to eat the thing.


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Crow Fight

Crows are extraordinarily interesting birds to observe. Large, loud, and intelligent you can always count on some kind of neat behavior from them. Many live in family groups and share habitat, food, and upbringing of young birds. Sometimes, however, this harmony is interrupted. This aggressive behavior is most likely directed at a crow from another clan but like any family arguments will erupt. I have often seen one crow furiously attacked by others but it is difficult to tell the relationship without prolonged observation. After installing a camera that overlooks a small compost heap in our garden I had the chance to film one of these encounters in my backyard recently. Photo after photo revealed mainly peaceful dining among the birds but intermittent raucous arguments regularly occurred as well. No one seemed to be injured by these confrontations and life resumed normally a short time later.

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The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben

Every now and then, every rare now and then you have the fortune to read a book that significantly transforms the way you view the world. Such is the case with The Hidden Life of Trees. Wohlleben, a German forester, once viewed these plentiful organisms much like you and I – beautiful to look at and wonderful to behold but scarcely more complex than a giant boulder and slightly more useful. As a forester his job was to ensure the growth of trees primarily for their future use as in a lumber mill. In the course of his work, however, he added a place in the forest as an “alternative to traditional graveyards.” Such irony! Thanks to this initiative he had many conversations with people who marveled at the beauty of the forest, especially about gnarled and odd shaped trees, exactly the ones he used to dismiss due to their low commercial value. Wohlleben took notice and delved deeper into the lives of the giants that surrounded him. What he discovered made him realize that trees are infinitely more complex than ever he had realized and changed his life. Trees communicate, they assist each other in times of need, help their offspring, and even assist their deceased companions to carry on. In addition trees, aided by a mass of fungi, create an incredible tangle of complex biochemical and electric reactions that take place underground. In short – it is an astounding life hidden from us for years and years. Until now.

            One word of caution here, however. After reading Wohlleben’s amazing book you will never view trees in the same again.

A Visit to MT Rainier National Park

For those fortunate enough to live near this tremendous National Park an abundance of spectacular scenery awaits, and for those with a practiced eye, an abundance of wildlife as well. I say practiced eye because like most popular national parks the animals can be shy during the height of the tourist season. As you wander up to greater altitudes and greater views keep your head down a bit and look closely at the streams and brooks flowing alongside the trails. Caddis fly larvae are plentiful as are a large number of other insect larvae. Tailed frogs are interesting amphibians with that peculiar mating appendage very much in view and an ability to thrive in very cold water and high altitudes. I doubt there is another mammal on earth as cute as the pica, but this member of the rabbit family is a bit difficult to observe unless you find just the right rocky habitat they love. Check out the trail called Comet Falls. Up beyond Paradise Lodge is the land of marmot; hoary marmots, that is, the biggest member of the squirrel family. These “whistle pigs” are not shy by the way. Certain rocky peaks near the park entrance are sometimes great for viewing the marvelous mountain goats; always a thrill to see. No matter how many times I have visit this wonderful place I am never disappointed. Check it out!


They have honored you with their service, honor them and their families with your prayers and memories.

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.


Washington Department of Health


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

National Audubon Society – Field Guide to the Pacific Northwest

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.


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


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.