Mud Swallow

No, this is not a lair for some Halloween haunted house, even though it does look pretty spooky. As I was returning to my hotel after visiting the World Center for Birds of Prey outside of Boise, ID I noticed a bridge along the highway that crossed over a large dry creek. Always on the lookout for bat habitats I immediately pulled over, grabbed my camera, and headed down under the bridge. Although I did not find any chiropteras hanging about the underpass I did see something just as intriguing. At first I thought I was seeing an elaborate display of mud dawber wasps. On closer inspection, however, these were obviously not wasp nests. To begin with there were no wasps in sight and the wide entrances to these unique structures did not seem appropriate for these insects. Wasp nests do not contain feathers either and these muddy structures had plenty. Unfortunately, none of the feathered inhabitants were present during my visit. A bit of quick research later revealed the identity of the mysterious builders – “Mud Swallows.” More properly called Barn Swallows, Hirundo rustica, they build these unique nests out of mud reinforced with grass and feathers. I understand their industrious construction efforts can even be quite a nuisance in some places. I am thoroughly familiar with the Purple Martins that come to nest in our eves every spring but these Barn Swallow nests were a first for me. In fact, the gentlemen who lived right across the street from the bridge had never seen them either; he was pretty surprised when I showed him the pictures. So the next time you happen to near an underpass or bridge don’t hesitate to climb down and take a look. You never know what you’ll find!

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What Happened to This Snake??

Note the parallel marking on the head scales. I had not noticed these before.

I stumbled across an odd phenomenon today while out walking my dog. On the other side of the fence bordering our landscaped backyard from the rest of the property (a necessary precaution as we are surrounded by forest, coyotes, and hungry herbivores) I spied a small garter snake coiled near a large rock. This in itself was not unusual despite the fact that we had just been through a day and a half of raucous rain storms but it was a bit cool and the sight of one of my favorite wildlife representatives was welcome. I would have simply smiled and walked on but something about the serpent’s head caught my attention; it seemed to be swollen or something. I picked the snake up. It reacted sluggishly. Odd, but not entirely. Upon inspection, however, I noted something I had never seen before – nearly all of the reptile’s entire lower jaw was missing. Outside of that the serpent appeared completely healthy as is evident from the photos. There are no wounds along its entire body on the top or bottom scales, and the animal appears healthy. I am mystified as to what happened to this snake. An unfortunate encounter with some rodent perhaps? The little guy is in my care now and I will do the best I can to nurse it back to health. I’m sure Snake City Simon would approve. If you have any clue or have seen something similar please write me:



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Tree Shapes

Why Do Trees Do What They Do?

A few examples of odd tree shapes. Some trees bend out over a hiking trail while others prefer to stay straight. An extreme example of bending is found on the Wonderland Trail at Mount Rainier National Park. No idea what caused this. Then we have this example of branch “explosion.” Was it a result of the top of the tree being trimmed? If so, what provoked huge right angle limbs to jut out of this tree in the park near Cannon Beach Oregon? And talk about long term relationships – check out this Douglas-fir/Cedar couple. And here’s a unique example of triplets. A huge Douglas-fir split into a pair of enormous trees joined together at the trunk with an oak tree. Why?

Ever since I read the book about the secret life of trees I’ve become more and more aware of these very large and very obvious organisms. Living in the Northwest the first and most difficult thing to ignore about our trees is their size. Douglas-firs, Cedars, Hemlocks, and even our maples are huge. Growing to over 300 feet high with trunks of 10 feet in diameter or more, and life spans lasting hundreds of years, the Douglas-fir (hyphenated in scientific literature because it not actually a fir tree) is our size giant. The tallest Douglas-fir on record in the Olympic forest is 326 feet high. Not far behind is a Sitka Spruce at 305 feet and a Western Hemlock at 241 feet. That’s a lot of lumber! Astonishing to look at indeed, and knowing that the tree built itself to this gigantism by pulling molecules out of dirt adds to the astonishment. But their shape can be just as intriguing. Most of the coniferous species seem to grow with the vertical determination of a fired missile. Looking at them you’d swear you could place a carpenter’s level alongside the trunk and the bubble would be perfectly centered. Then there are some that twist and bend in bizarre angles. While most seem to prefer a solo life keeping some distance between themselves and their neighbors, some bloom like twins and triplets, and even keep company with other trees species. This is not confined only to the coniferous species, of course. I’m sure that within every tree species on earth there are examples of odd, even weird, morphological individuality. The question is why?


Oregon Forest Resources Institute

Article by Arthur Lee Jacobson

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Domesticated Animals and Livestock of the World

I attended the Washington State Fair on Labor Day and did something I have not done in quite a while – I visited the livestock exhibits. Anyone who reads my entries here understands my fascination for wildlife; farm and domestic animals are not generally topics that especially grasp my enthusiasm. But the fair was in town and I had the urge to check out the livestock. They are animals, after all, and I love all of them. What I saw was eye opening and extraordinarily interesting. From chinchillas to draft horses the number and variety of animals on display was amazing.

 The immense size of the Belgian draft horse was a surprise to say the least. Weighing in at over one ton and 17 “hands” high (68 inches from ground to around the base of the animal’s neck) these are magnificent animals. If you can’t afford an elephant get yourself a draft horse. It’s the next best thing! At the other end of the size scale were the pigeons. No, they certainly can’t match the equines for sheer bulk but the variety and exotic appearance of these birds was a surprise. I did a bit of research on the different breeds of domestic animals and livestock in the world and produced the table below. Opinions vary, however, so your own investigation may well produce different numbers. The primary point, though, is indisputable – mankind has manipulated a LOT of variation from the original wild stock. So far sheep old the record.

Animal Type

Number of Breeds




American Kennel Association



International Cat Association (opinions from other sources range from 44 to 73)



Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University


1000 (website)



Weber Training Stables


281 Oklahoma State University
Rabbits 48

American Rabbit Breeders Association


17 The Donkey Sanctuary



The Pig Site

Pigeons 78

The American Pigeon Museum


73 American Poultry Association
Ducks 23

American Poultry Association


7 varieties American Poultry Association
Geese 12 breeds/16 varieties

American Poultry Association

Large Fowl

57/150 varieties

American Poultry Association

Bantam Breeds 67/200 varieties

American Poultry Association

Mule Deer Showing its Stuff

Just in case you ever wondered why its called a Mule Deer. Get a load of them ears!

Limpets and Chitons and Crabs – And More (a lot more)!

I never fail to be overwhelmed at the incredible explosion of life energy generated by our planet earth. Astrophysicists, NASA scientists, and journalists get ecstatic at the slightest hint of the merest resemblance of life on other planets while here at their very feet is a daily and astounding eruption of life. To get a feeling for the incredible abundance of life supported by our planet look no further than the seashore. Right there at your feet is an explosion of life almost difficult to grasp if you stop to give it some thought. Twice each day when the tide rolls in and out, especially in the spectacular Northwest fashion, an enormous number of animals quietly and secretly live out their lives in perfect harmony with this aquatic rhythm.

Two of these unique creatures are chitons and limpets. Both chitons and limpets are members of the gigantic mollusk family, a phylum of animals that includes species from octopuses to land snails. With over 50,000 species described so far, molluscs are the 2nd largest group of invertebrate animals on the planet, exceeded in number only by the arthropods. Although they appear somewhat similar chitons and limpets are two different classes of the mollusc phylum. Chitons are members of the class Polyplacophora. Highly adapted for life on rocky surfaces in the intertidal zone chitons are distinguished by their low profile ellipsoid shape. They cling to hard surfaces with structures called a foot and girdle and feed on algae and other tiny organisms they acquire by scraping the surface just as a snail does using radula.

Limpets on the other hand, on the other rock actually, belong to a class of molluscs called Gastropods. This is the largest group of molluscs comprising of over 30,000 species to date. There are surely others to be discovered. Limpets are identifiable by their conical, symmetrical shell and pronounced pinnacle unlike the flat shells of the chitons. If you were turn a limpet over you would see a very snail like body underneath. And like their snail relatives they cling to the surface via a large “foot.” Our Northwest species breathe through a single gill that protrudes from the left side of the limpet’s body and extends to the right side of the animal. The round shell of the limpet overhangs the animal’s hidden body thus allowing a constant flow of water over the gill.

From left to right: Mask Limpet, Dogwinkle Snail, Mossy or Hairy Chiton

Closely associated in habitat with limpets and chitons are snails. Snails seem to have decided that the best shell design is a hybrid of chiton and limpet – spherical and conical and extended. Unlike their molluscan cousins, however, snails are a bit more extroverted in habit and prefer to get out of the confines of their calcified home for extended periods, although you probably won’t see this extroverted side of their nature in marine species when exposed to low tide.

Crustaceans, however, best the chitons and limpets in number and activity on many of our beaches. Flip over a rock or piece of driftwood on our shores and you are liable to see dozens of cute little shore crabs scattering about. In my experience the purple shore crab and the little, green hairy shore crab are the most numerous of the 25 species we host. But look a little closer and that tiny snail like shell you see might be housing one of our three hermit crabs.

From left to right: Lined Crab (the most beautiful of the shore crabs), Kelp Crab, Purple Shore Crab, Red Rock Crab

For sheer numbers, however, barnacles take the prize. Coating seashore rocks like living wall paper these abundant crustaceans are exclusively marine animals. They are also the only sessile (non-moving) crustacean so don’t expect to observe a lot of activity with these animals unless you view them underwater while feather like cirri whip food into their mouth. And yes they do have a mouth. Making their home on rocks, driftwood, coral, and even living whales, barnacles easily number into the billions upon billions and are extremely successful animals.

In this article I have only mentioned the sea shore wildlife you are most likely to encounter. I have not gone into eels, worms, nudibranchs, anemones, jellyfish, isopods, amphipods, sand dollars, sponges, fish, or the variety of vegetative and microscopic life near the sea shore. My intent in this piece was not to detail every creature of the shore imaginable but simply to impart the sense of wonder at astounding life this earth supports – and just on the shore! It is miraculous indeed. For more photos of these beautiful animals go here: Northwest Seashore.

And when you’re done marveling at the abundant life of the shore line turn around and gaze at the forests behind you. Those beautiful trees are an explosion of earth life, too.

In a Toad’s Eye  /  Reptiles and Amphibians of Afghanistan

Angry Heron

In a Toad’s Eye  /  Reptiles and Amphibians of Afghanistan

Pic of the day. This heron got a little upset with the sea gulls crowding the beach.


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).

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.


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.