Common Creatures – Uncommon Pictures

Sometimes you get lucky (if you’re persistent enough) and catch some very common animals in a unique pose or manner. This little lizard I found in Afghanistan seems to be saying, “Ain’t I pretty?” Then there was this odd colored deer found very close to my home. Sure, ducks catch fish, but how often do you see one with a frog in its mouth? Then there was this raven poking away at a coyote carcass out on Fort Lewis.

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The Wide World of Porcupines

From left to right: African Crested Porcupine, Indian Crested Porcupine, North American Porcupine, crested porcupine quills.

Porcupines in appearance and behavior are interesting animals. Their morphology and behavior, like other members of the Rodentia order of mammals, has allowed them to adapt to a number of different environments around the world. According to Walker’s Mammals of the World (Ronald M. Nowak, 6thedition) there are 3 Genera and 11 different species of porcupines living in Africa, Europe, North America, The East Indies, and South Asia. Most of these have very distinctively shaped quills and/or body size and quite easy to tell apart. The crested porcupines of Afghanistan are most the likely Indian Crested Porcupine, Hystrix indica, but the African Crested Porcupine, Hystrix cristata, has recently been reported in the United Arab Emirates. If spotted in the UAE it is reasonable to believe they inhabit Saudi Arabia as well. And as with other animals of that continent such as hedge hogs and hyenas it is not out of the question that these African species may have made it into Afghanistan as well. I did not see any crested porcupines in Saudi Arabia but I spotted a number of them plus numerous track and traces in Afghanistan. The ones I saw were much longer than the North American porcupines,Erethizon doastum,and have very different quills. Instead of the needle like, barbed quills of the American porcupines, crested porcupines have sharply pointed, sturdy quills. The longer, thinner quills are found on the back and neck; shorter and stouter ones near the rear. If threatened a crested porcupine will rattle these quills and even back up into whatever is bothering the animal. These quills are sturdy enough to actually stab someone with. Crested porcupines are herbivores but I often found bones outside their burrows. They have probably collected these bones and munched on them for the calcium.

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Another Idaho Wildlife Surprise

Hiking about the huge hills and plains along the Boise River valley you run into unexpectedly beautiful sights like these colorful little rocky streams. Then while looking across the valley I noticed some tiny specs that seemed to be moving. Was that the animal I have wanted to photograph for so long? My long lens told me it was! So I crossed the valley, climbed up the cliff on the other side, got as close to the Pronghorns as I could, and started filming. Along the way I got this nice shot of an American Kestrel as well.

To the east of Boise, Idaho the landscape changes dramatically into an enormous expanse of huge treeless hills, rocky cliffs, valleys, and plateaus. It is a wonderful place for hiking and an especially intriguing location for wildlife photography. When the weather is agreeable the intrepid explorer is liable to find everything from lizards to mountain lions. My time there in this chilly middle of January did not turn up any reptiles but I did manage to photograph one of the most beautiful creatures of the country – the American Pronghorn “Antelope.” Despite its oft used common name and scientific name, the pronghorn is not an antelope. And despite its goat like appearance it’s not a goat either. The Pronghorn is a unique species unto itself within the great hoofed group of mammals. Ranging from southern Canada and all the way into Mexico they are often seen in remote parts of the country grazing in the open areas they prefer. Don’t expect to get close up for observation, however. Pronghorns are extremely alert and exceptionally fast runners – up to 70 mph according to some sources. The ones I found in the photos above consistently remained about a quarter of a mile away from me. Good thing I had my long lens out.

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Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium

Come visit this wonderful zoological park. Pictured above is a very small sample of the animals and exhibits. There are daily, very informative keeper talks at each exhibit, a Wildlife Wonders Theater, a nice little restaurant and gift shop plus a petting zoo and special place for children that includes small animal species and a playground. All of this right next to a state park on the shoreline of Puget Sound. A truly fantastic way to spend the day. And don’t worry about the weather – there are plenty of indoor exhibits as well.

Do Wasps Like Hummingbirds?

If you’re like me and have a hummingbird feeder (or three) you will more than likely notice a wasp or two buzzing around it annoying the hummers. What you are seeing is probably either a Paper Wasp or a Bald-faced Hornet. Common throughout America the Paper Wasp gets its name due to its papery appearing nest; Bald faced Hornets due to their distinct white facial markings. That name, however, is a bit deceptive as this “hornet” actually a member of the yellow jacket wasp family and not a real hornet. At one to two inches long, hornets are larger than wasps. Paper wasps of the genus Polistes comes to us in several species, the most common of which is the one we see quite often in the Northwest, Polistes fuscatus. Although a bit larger than Bald-face Hornets, Paper Wasps have a reputation for being fairly mild mannered compared to their other wasp cousins, but they can be irritated and it is no fun to be stung by one so don’t push your luck. Paper Wasp nests are often found up under the eves of homes or some other overhanging shelter. Their nests are not very large and is actually not as “papery” as the big rounded ones of the Bald-faced Hornet.  Bald-faced Hornets prefer trees but they are not adverse to building a home under your eves and there is no mistaking one of those hanging under your roof. This smaller Paper Wasp nest holds an advantage for us human observers because you can easily look inside and see what’s going on thanks to its open to the public construction; and these wasps are normally laid back enough to let you do it. Be careful trying that with a Bald-faced Hornet. Their nests are distinctly different but both species have very similar feeding habits. Primarily to feed their larvae Paper Wasps and Bald-faced Hornets hunt other insects for food. In this respect they may very well be considered your partners in pest control. Adults have a taste for flower nectar and fruit juices, however, hence their attraction to your hummingbird feeder. By the way, are those nests really made of paper? Actually yes. It is made of wood pulp mixed with the saliva of the wasp.

References:

The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Insects and Spiders by Lorus and Margery Milne, 1980

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

Garden Insects of North America by Whitney Cranshaw, 2004

Bugs of Washington and Oregon by John Acorn, 2001

The three hummingbird feeders hanging over my back deck.

Beautiful Wood Ducks and the Morison Knudsen Nature Center

For a long time I have been trying to get a good photograph of one of the most colorful avians in America – the Wood Duck, Aix sponsa. Although they are common in the Northwest I had been looking in all wrong places. Wood Ducks do not like big open stretches of water; they prefer small quiet ponds in secluded areas and near trees where they can lay and develop their eggs. Their nests may be self made in some kind of natural tree formation or in something like a hole previously pounded out by a woodpecker, and their ducklings are famous for jumping out of these high altitude nests just 24 hours after hatching. With that in mind you would not expect to find this animal close to the middle of a populated city. But that is exactly where I found them – in the city limits of Boise, Idaho at the Morison Knudsen Nature Center. Run by the Idaho Fish and Game Department, and a lot of very dedicated volunteers, the MK Nature Center (as is usually referred to) is a very pleasant surprise as close as is to a population center. Mule deer and squirrels were very much in abundance on the day I visited but this small park is home to a number of other unique animals. Beavers have built an impressive structure that borders the home of the wood ducks; red foxes and mink have also been observed there. The pond homing the wood ducks is also inhabited by an enormous, prehistoric looking white sturgeon. Another unique feature of the MK Park is the presence of what I’ll call “natural stream aquariums.” Several streams run through the park and are of course wonderful to look at. The MK folks, however, have taken this one step further and somehow constructed a glass sided viewing attraction where a visitor can see inside the stream just as you would a home aquarium. At just 4.6 acres with a nice visitor center and well marked hard ball paths it is an ideal family outing. Don’t expect a gigantic moose and bear, wilderness adventure. That is not the MK Center. Easy to get to and easy to stroll around in it is a perfect afternoon outing where a lot of wildlife can be observed without a lot of effort. The next time you find yourself rolling around Boise I highly recommend a visit to this charming little park.

Odd Behavior in Canada geese

The photographs above were taken at American Lake on Fort Lewis, WA.

Living in the Northwest these large birds are just about impossible to miss. In many places it is also nearly impossible not to come into contact with the aftermath of their grassy diet, I certainly have, and I’ll bet there are quite a few golfers out there who can attest (and detest) to this experience also. I believe this is especially true around Salem, Oregon where I have seen flocks numbering in the hundreds, more than I’ve seen anywhere. Messy aftermath aside I have become quite fond of these birds. Their energy and raucous interactions are very interesting to watch and you can normally get quite close to them as well. Because of this and due to the fact that they are such a common sight much has been written about their behavior. Yet despite all that I have read about these beautiful birds I have noticed two peculiar habits not described elsewhere, and one of these behaviors is something I have not seen in any other bird. Watch a flock of Canada Geese on land for a period of time and you are sure to see the one legged stance. Sure, a number of other birds exhibit this posture so it is not too much of a peculiar thing. But spend some time observing Canada Geese in the water and you just might see something that is very peculiar – they flip themselves completely upside down – the only bird I know of that does this. Normally you see the geese swimming about in relative peace but sometimes I see small groups of them engaged in what I can only describe as vigorous bathing. At first all seems normal, then you notice one or two of them begin to furiously flap their wings and splash water all over the place. Immediately after one of the animals dips its head into the water and heaves itself completely over to the point where its flippered feet are sticking out of the water and pointing upward. Perhaps it is some kind of aggressive demonstration or something; I do not know. But the geese never appear to be facing a rival during these episodes and after seeing this behavior numerous times it looks very much as though the birds are trying to thoroughly wash themselves off. The flock does not all do it at once, only one or two of the birds go through this ritual at a time, and the energetic wing splashing does not always result in the upside down display. But every time I have seen the wing splashing sooner or later the birds are flopping upside down, and eventually they all seem to take turns doing it. Perhaps some bird expert out there can provide some insights on this.

Elk Show! Dosewallips State Park

We counted 24 elk in this herd, the largest I’ve seen in some time, and quite comfortable with human and vehicle presence. Although he was not an exceptionally example of his species, the antlered fellow in the photo was the only one sporting antlers and appeared to be El Hefe of this group. The two closeups are examples of his very extended, very beautiful, family.

North of Olympia along highway 101 sits a beautiful, uniquely named state park. Dosewallips State Park, named for its proximity to the Dosewallips River, encompasses over a thousand acres and boasts long shoreline trails along the river and the Hood Canal. Camping sites abound as well. The marine waters of the Hood Canal dominate the scenery yet, from time to time, like this Columbus Day weekend, elk herds steal the show.

REPTILIAN REPRODUCTION MINUS THE MALE

Although the photograph does not accurately show the color difference between the snakes, it was very visible to my eye. The photo of the harvest ant herding its flock of aphids is a tribute to Swiss naturalist Charles Bonnet.

I recently discovered a pair of beautiful new born garter snakes in my backyard. Hardly big news but the sight of little things triggered my curiosity as usual. Based on their size and location I assumed they were from the same litter but each possessed a distinctly different color as is evident in the above photos. I took them in for a couple of weeks to see if their individual colors would progress or revert to something similar. The colors remained different on each snake so I let them go in the same location I had discovered them in. Garter snakes, especially our Northwest species, come in a variety of beautiful colors and this pair reinforced that fact. As I pondered the delicate beauty of the tiny serpents I was also watching one of the Great Courses I’d ordered from National Geographic, “Zoology, Understanding the Animal World.” If, like me, it has been many years since you formally studied the subject this is a great refresher to bring you up to date. The section of the course that deals with reptiles mentioned parthenogenesis. The lecturer, Donald E. Moore, had covered this topic earlier but in this section of the course he interviews Lauren Augustine, curator of reptiles at the Smithsonian National Zoo Reptile House. MS Augustine and Dr. Moore discuss a female Asian Water Dragon that has been in captivity without any other lizards male or female for the past eight years. Recently, and very unexpectedly, this lizard laid several eggs which are developing normally. This triggered my memory of several other reports about parthenogenesis in reptiles that have recently made news. So I went online and looked around. With very little effort here are a few of my findings about reptiles giving birth without fertilization:

From Reptile Report (ReptileReport.com):

  • Crested Gecko 2013

  • Albino Python 2012

From Reptiles Magazine (ReptilesMagazine.com)

  • New Caledonian Giant Gecko 2009

  • Copperhead snake 1998

From Live Science (LiveScience.com):

  • Yellow Bellied Water Snake 2015 – the second time in 2 years!

From Encyclopedia Britannica (Britannica.com):

I discovered that the study of parthenogenesis is not new by a long shot. It was first described in the 1700s by a Swiss lawyer named Charles Bonnet (1720-1793). Although he was a lawyer Charles had a passion for natural science. He discovered and described the birth and development of unfertilized eggs while studying aphids and ants. Shows what you can do with a hobby! This work was further carried on by a German biologist, Jacques Loeb, (1859-1924) who actually provoked parthenogenesis by manipulating environmental conditions. Loeb began working with unfertilized sea urchin eggs and then went on to work with frogs. His studies shed much light on the process and initiation of cell division.

I am sure there are many more examples of parthenogenesis in reptiles and other vertebrate species as well so I will be following up this post with more research on the topic.

Please send comments or critiques to reganjm@northwestwildlifeonline.com

Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center

A few examples of the scenes awaiting visitors at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center. You might see a black bear swaying back and forth high up in a tree, a herd of bull elk with antlers pointing to the sky preparing for the rut, the giant northern wood bison, a very relaxed brown bear surrounded by ravens.

About an hour south of Anchorage along the Seward Highway the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center is a worthy destination. From porcupines to musk ox the Conservation Center has it all; a complete resume of the most famous Alaskan animals this non-profit organization is focused on preserving. Even the drive to the center is fine outing for wildlife lovers. As you begin your trip along the beautifully scenic Seward highway you may want to stop by and stroll the boardwalk around the Potter Marsh, a bird lovers paradise. A few miles further on check for signs pointing to the Alaska Zoo. This great zoological park is just two miles off the highway and you will be treated to close up views of many smaller examples of Alaskan wildlife as well as some other exotic cold weather species. As your journey continues you just may be one of the lucky few (I was one of them) treated to the sight of Beluga Whales in the Cook Inlet. Pull over into Beluga Point and take a look. And keep a look out to the mountains of the Kenai Peninsula for the lovely Dall sheep that make these mountains their home. I guarantee that you will be so distracted by the splendid scenery you will arrive at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center before you know it. Alaskan weather is always a concern, of course, but you can take your pick of driving or walking through this sprawling beautiful park. From the youngest to the oldest in the family a fine time is in store. Whichever you choose be prepared for some extraordinary scenes such as the ones I photographed. One word of caution – be sure to check the hours that the park is open. Because of the previously mentioned Alaska weather the center has varying hours for almost every month of the year.