Belding’s ground squirrel

On our trip to southeastern Oregon’s high desert last week, we were astounded at the number of mammal species we encountered in just four days – pronghorns, deer, marmots, voles, squirrels, horses, cattle, jack-rabbits. One of the most abundant mammals in eastern Oregon is the Belding’s ground squirrel (AKA sage rat).

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Just in the small area around of the historic Frenchglen Hotel, I saw at least a dozen Belding’s ground squirrels. They would emerge from their numerous burrows just after sunrise and stay active until sunset – feeding, chasing each other, and peering around for predators. As we drove along Hwy 205, both north and south of Frenchglen, a ground squirrel ran across the road about every 5 seconds.

They are relatively small ground squirrels, measuring only 8.5 inches long with a short 2.5-inch tail and small ears. They have few markings and are generally brownish-gray to red in color. Their burrows extend about two feet below ground.

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Belding’s ground squirrels are seasonal rodents. They hibernate for nearly seven months of the year, starting in August, but when they emerge in late spring, they are eating machines. They do not cache food for hibernation, so they must double their weight by eating during the spring and summer. Preferring leaves and stems of wild and cultivated grasses and roots of other herbaceous plants, Belding’s can do considerable damage to yards and agricultural crops in a short time.

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In fact, Belding’s ground squirrels are the most damaging ground squirrel to agricultural crops in California and eastern Oregon. Not only do they damage crops, but they can chew through irrigation lines, weaken levees and ditches with their burrows, and pose hazards for farm workers and equipment. Because of that, farmers and ranchers spend a lot of time and money trying to manage them using methods as diverse as fumigation, trapping, shooting, toxic baits, and burrow modification. Baiting with poison-coated seed is not effective since Belding’s ground squirrels are not typically seed-eaters.

Cute as they are, these ground squirrels (like many desert rodent species) can be deadly. They spread diseases such as Rocky Mountain spotted fever, rat bite fever, tularemia, Chagas’ disease, adiospiromycosis, and encephalomycarditis. They also serve as reservoirs for bubonic plague (which spreads by fleas from infected squirrels). So, it’s best to observe them from a distance.

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A Baskett of wild surprises

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“Stop!,” I yelled as we slowly drove west on Coville Road. “There’s something in the field.” I rolled down my window and peered through binoculars to find a silver-feathered male Northern Harrier sitting on a hump of plowed farm dirt, preening. I sat there for a few minutes admiring his pale beauty in the bright Oregon sunshine. I’ve seen harriers in flight many times, but never had the luxury to watch one perched and preening for so long.

It was a gorgeous, sunny, unusually warm, spring day, and we were going for a hike at Baskett Slough National Wildlife Refuge west of Salem. The harrier proved to be only our first surprise. As we hiked up to the top of Baskett Butte and out to the Rich Guadagno observation platform, we learned through interpretive signs that the butte trail was dedicated to Rich Guadagno, a former refuge manager who died in the United Flight 93 plane crash on 9/11. He was 38 years old. It was a poignant and touching tribute to a man who obviously loved nature and nurtured this land where we now stood.

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The views from Baskett Butte are inspiring – surrounding farm fields, the peak of Mt. Jefferson, and beautiful old growth oak savannas (one of the most endangered habitats in Oregon).

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On this day in May, wildflowers dotted the meadows – Oregon sunshine, lupine, Nootka rose, Mariposa lilies and more.

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Mariposa lily (Cat’s ear)

 

Near Morgan Lake at the north end of the refuge, we saw a large area of white, and wondered if it was bare sand. A look with binoculars showed us it was a wildflower bloom, solid white and expansive. We were able to hike around the edge of the lake and get a closer look. Turns out it was a field of white meadowfoam (Limnanthes alba). Turns out, one species of meadowfoam is an important commercial crop in the Willamette Valley. The seed oil is used in cosmetics.

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At one point along our hike, as we emerged from the oak savanna and walked downhill toward the marshes to the north, Keith wondered aloud if ring-necked pheasants lived here. Five minutes later we flushed a pheasant from the tall grass and watched it glide about 200 yards across the meadow to a copse of bushes. Pheasants are an introduced, naturalized species in the US. In fact, they were first introduced in the Willamette Valley from China in 1882. Farmland habitat is a pheasant’s heaven, so it makes sense that they would be sighted here at the edge of farm and refuge.

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As we crossed Moffitti Marsh along the freshly mowed but sometimes muddy trail, we spotted nesting tree swallows in their iridescent blues, striking yellow common goldfinches, cinnamon teal, and red-winged blackbirds.

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Tree swallow
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Goldfinch

There was even a swarm of bees circling around an old barn across the road from the marsh. Hiking back up the butte from Morgan Lake we spotted three black-tailed deer browsing at the edge of the forest.

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Four hours after we had seen that harrier stting and preening in the field, we left Baskett Slough National Wildlife Refuge with a renewed sense of wonder and light hearts. Our five miles of hiking had provided surprise after surprise, each one marvelous and welcome. Thank you to the US Fish and WIldlife Service for managing yet another amazing natural area for the people!

If you go: Baskett Slough NWR is located off of SR 22, west of 99W and Salem, OR. Some trails are closed in winter to protect wintering waterfowl. Take sun protection in summer; most of the trails are not shaded.

 

Oregon’s feathered camp robbers

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Gray jay (photo ©Deb Hanson 2017)

Gray jays are one of the most entertaining birds of the Pacific Northwest. They have earned the nickname “camp robbers” because they are quite adept at sneaking into campsites and cabins (and flying onto hikers’ hands!) to steal food.

These little gray jays are cute and sneaky, but they are tough little critters, too! They live in very cold climates (think northern Canada and Alaska, as well as the Cascade and Rocky Mountain ranges), rarely migrating out of high elevations or south. They can do that because they store food in the bark of trees (using sticky saliva to keep it there) all summer, so they have plenty to eat during the winter.

Their diet is varied. They will catch insects in flight, eat seeds and nuts, attack rodents and birds, and eat carrion (left by wolves or other predators) in winter.

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Gray jay (photo ©Deb Hanson 2017)

These little birds are so tough they even nest and raise their young during the late winter and early spring rather than wait for warm summer days like most other songbirds. Typically they lay 3 or 4 eggs. Mom incubates them for 20 or so days while dad feeds her. After hatching, parents take turns feeding the young. They leave the nest at about 24 days, then hang around for parental guidance for another 30 days before they fly off to live their own lives.

We’ve seen them at Mirror Lake near Mt. Hood, begging food. Friends of ours had them land right on their hands eating gorp while they were out snowshoeing at Trillium Lake one day this winter. They make a lot of different sounds, from whistles to harsh, scolding cries. If you are up in the mountains here in the Oregon, be on the lookout for these cute little “camp robbers.”

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Gray jay with nut (photo ©Deb Hanson 2017)

 

Western fence lizard

Last week were hiking the Coyote Wall trails in the Columbia River Gorge when we spotted this lizard sunning itself on a rock. It was reasonably unafraid of us and more interested in staying in the sun than running to hide. I was struck by its somewhat frilly neck and abundant, spiky scales covering every centimeter of its skin, even its toes.

This is a western fence lizard (Sceloporus occidentalis), a reptile in the Iguanidae family, sometimes called a “Blue-belly” because the belly and underside of the neck of the adult males are bright blue. I didn’t see any blue on this specimen in the field, but when I blow up the photo and look closely at the scales on its back, I see some hint of aquamarine on some of the scales. Perhaps this one is a female or young male.

Western fence lizards are fairly common in eastern and southwestern Oregon and in the Columbia Gorge. They grow to eight inches in length. They prefer desert canyons, woodlands, boulders, and log piles, but not wet woods or flat valley floors. They are insectivores, eating bugs, beetles, grasshoppers and some spiders.

They love to bask in the sun atop rocks and fence posts. They can change color from tan/brown to black, often to help them absorb more of the sun’s heat. When attacked by a predator they will bite and/or defecate on their attacker.

Interestingly, one study has shown that when ticks with Lyme Disease bite western fence lizards, the blood of the fence lizard kills the bacteria that causes Lyme Disease, essentially cleaning the blood of the tick. For this reason perhaps, Lyme Disease is less frequent in areas where western fence lizards live.

Western fence lizards fully mature in about two years. Females lay a clutch of 3 to 17 eggs up to three times each breeding season. Eggs hatch in late summer. They hibernate for some time during cold winters.

 

 

Another Gorge-ous Hike: Coyote Wall

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Spring is here and the wildflowers are starting to pop up all around Oregon and Washington, especially in the Columbia River Gorge. We decided to hike Coyote Wall last week, knowing that the grass widows would be in bloom. What we found there was a treasure trove of natural wonders unlike anything we’d ever seen before in the Gorge. Coyote Wall is on the Washington (north) side of the Gorge just 4.5 miles east of the Hood River Bridge. It is a hiker and mountain biker paradise, for sure. We arrived around 10 AM on a Friday morning, and by the time we left at 3 PM, the parking lot was full, and cars were parked all all the way down to SR 14.

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Coyote Wall from the trailhead
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The beginning of the trail

Coyote Wall is an impressive formation of columnar basalt, often nicknamed “The Syncline”. The wall itself is two miles long and over 200 feet high, with it’s highest elevation at 1800 feet. Above the cliff wall are rolling, rocky meadows, and below are oak and pine woodlands. These trails were once an unmarked mecca for mountain bikers, who made many unofficial trails throughout the area, including into private property nearby. Hikers and wildflower buffs discovered the trails in the early 1990’s – still unofficial and unmarked – and the combination of use and abuse made it necessary for the US Forest Service to create a recreation plan and an “official” trail system.

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Currently, there are eleven different numbered and marked recreation trails in the area. We hiked the Old Ranch Road Trail, part of the Coyote Wall Trail, the Coyote Wall Traverse, and the Little Maui Biking Trail, for a total of about eight miles.

After a short hike along the south-facing edge of “the wall” on abandoned SR 8, we stepped onto the dirt trail that led us four miles uphill, switch-backing along the rocky, open meadows dripping with spring snow melt and bursting with wildflowers. Desert parsley, grass widows, prairie starflowers, and yellow-bells dominated the display, but there were many other small flowers blooming as well.

Mountain bikers huffed their way up amid the hikers. Dogs ran free everywhere, something the trail rules clearly prohibit during certain portions of the year. Loose dogs concerned me since we were hearing meadowlarks singing all over the place, and it is nesting season for these ground-nesting birds.

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Western meadowlark at Coyote Wall trail

Mt. Hood loomed over the south side of the Gorge in all it’s snow-white glory. The further up we climbed, the more of Hood we could see. The Columbia River shimmered below us as tiny creeks and waterfalls cascaded down the hills toward it.

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We left the Old Ranch Road trail to traverse over to the edge of Coyote Wall. When we arrived and peeked over, it was easy to imagine falling to your death below. In fact, a mountain biker did just that in 2005, and there is a sign reminding visitors of it further down the wall trail.

As we sat there, having a snack and taking in the view, an immature bald eagle glided silently past us, not 30 feet away from the edge of the cliff where we sat. It isn’t often I get to see an eagle from above and so close, and this was a highlight of the day.

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Our first glimpse of the wall from the edge

 

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Down into the Labyrinth

Once we had our fill of vista views, we headed back down to the Little Maui trail, which curves through an area known as The Labyrinth. Steeper, rockier, and filled with lush green grasses and waterfalls, this part of the trail made us think of parts of New Zealand as seen in the Lord of the Rings movies. Basalt outcroppings, lava rock, stunning, crooked oak trees all made it feel like a place of medieval times.

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Rocky outcroppings
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Waterfalls along the trail
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Starflowers bursting forth along a creek

It was a beautiful day and an extraordinary hike. I expect it will get busier as the wildflower season goes on, but its worth the hour and a half drive from Portland. Just get there early!

Anna’s hummingbird videos

Here’s a little update to the Anna’s hummingbird post from last week.  “Emily” is Keith’s name for our female hummer. She disappeared for a few days, and we worried that she had gone for good, but then she returned, and a second hummer followed. Now, we have a male (Edward) and a female (Emily) who visit our feeder many times each day.

The male likes to sit upon the top railing to rest between sips of nectar, something the female has never done. He has this hood of brilliant, neon pink feathers on his head and neck, but you never see the color unless he’s looking (or flying) straight at you.

I did finally capture a little video of each of them, but he’s always facing away from the sun and away from the camera, so his hood just looks black most of the time. Still, it’s fun to watch them feed in real motion…

Here’s Emily (the female)…

and here’s Edward (the male)…you get just a brief glimpse (at the 11-second mark) of his pink hood after he rests on the railing and then begins to fly again…

And here’s another video of Edward…

Anna’s hummingbird – Oregon’s flying jewel

 

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After living in a 4th floor apartment for two years, we finally decided to install a hummingbird bird feeder on our balcony. We were encouraged when we saw a hummingbird fly up to inspect the sparkly red garland we had hung on our balcony railing during the holidays. Until then, we had suspected that we were too high up with too few trees to have any significant bird activity outside our window. Turns out, we were wrong.

After two weeks – and an artificial red flower addition to the feeder display – our first Anna’s hummingbird arrived – a female, all alone. Her typical daytime pattern is to fly up, hover and feed for 15 – 30 seconds, and then fly back down and around the building. Every 15 – 20 minutes she returns, repeats. In the evening, as the twilight fades, she comes, feeds, perches on a cable under the railing, feeds, perches, and then disappears for the night.

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Female Anna’s hummingbird coming to feeder

I’ve always been fascinated with hummingbirds. My parents have been feeding Ruby-throated hummers on the east coast for years and years. They sometimes get a dozen or more at a time fighting over their feeders. While hiking, I’ve had them fly up to within inches of my face and hover, staring at me. They are so fast and so tiny, and they definitely hum.  Those tiny, beautiful wings beat in a figure-8 motion up to 80 times per second!!!

Growing up on the east coast, I had only seen ruby-throated hummers most of my life. Once I became a birder, I learned that there are many more species. The Sibley guide says there are 18 species in the US and Canada. Operation Rubythroat mentions that 27 species have been reported sighted in the Unites States. Here in Oregon, we have seven species that could show up at feeders. Five of those are commonly seen residents – the Rufous, Black-chinned (the Western counterpart to the Ruby-throated), Allen’s, Anna’s, and Calliope.

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Female Anna’s hummingbird

The Anna’s hummingbird was the first hummer I saw when we moved to Portland. I was astounded that they were here in this cold, rainy climate during the winter. I later learned that Anna’s once nested only in the northern Baja peninsula and southern California, but due to an abundance of ornamental flowers and artificial feeders, they have expanded their range all the way up the west coast and east into Texas. Now, some spend their entire lives in Portland neighborhoods.

They are striking in color – iridescent green back, pale grey chest and green sides, with brilliant pink iridescent head and throat (creating what looks like a hood) on the males, but just a pink throat on the females. When a male flies toward you, there is no mistaking his identity. That bright pink-red hood is unmistakable (and unique among North American hummers).

Anna’s are common in many Oregon habitats, from urban neighborhoods to chaparral to coastal forests. Like most hummers, Anna’s feed mainly on nectar, but also insects and spiders, and sometimes they sip tree sap. Occasionally, Anna’s hummers will accidentally impale a bee or wasp on its bill, leading to starvation and death.

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Notice the tip of her tongue sticking out here

 

I was fascinated to learn that the Anna’s hummingbird’s normal body temperature is 107 degrees F. When the air temperature gets cold (and often at night), they go into torpor, slowing their heart rate and metabolism, and reducing their body temperatures to conserve energy. They are so tiny (3 – 4 inches and about 4 grams) and so active, their hearts beat up to 1200 times a minute.

They nest between December and May, taking advantage of early spring blooms when young are fledging. Males and female do not pair up, they simply mate and move on. Their nests are 1 inch by 1.5 inches, so good luck finding one. Females are responsible for all the care-giving, though it doesn’t last long. The young are flying within three weeks of hatching!

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So far, we’ve only had the female visit our feeder, but we hope to see a male stopping by for a sip sometime before summer is over this year. If you want to know more about hummingbirds, this is a fantastic site with a free downloadable book all about them.

Where have you seen hummingbirds? What species have you encountered?

Watch how a hummingbird drinks here.