Wednesday, July 30, 2008

MId-Summer Produce Highlights

Our efforts to keep our produce local have been well-rewarded. We have been getting almost everything we eat from our CSA, farmers' markets, or our garden.

We harvested these purple bush beans last weekend.

Berry season is proceeding rapidly in Washington County.

On Saturday, a local farm had a one-day blueberry picking season.

We drove out as early as we could and had no trouble finding small shrubs drooping with ripe berries.

We picked about 12 pounds and are in the process of freezing them for the winter.

Our small freezer is almost full of produce, so we will soon borrow space in a larger freezer at Sarah's parents' house.

My favorite CSA crop is the Chioggin beet. They taste great roasted, have edible greens, and are just good-looking.

I love the gnarled roots that make each individual distinct from the others.

When they are sliced, a vivid, tie-dyed core is exposed.

I never get tired of looking at these beauties. Is that weird?

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Oregon Cicadas

When I was studying cicadas in New Mexico, I thought that the big buzzy insects did not occur in the northwestern US. A friend pointed out that I was wrong and the next time I visited Oregon in the summer, I heard the thin buzz of cicadas. They are here, but they are smaller, emerge in lower densities, and are not as loud as the ones found in the southern and eastern parts of the country. After a few years of searching, I found a site where there are male cicadas buzzing loud enough that they are not drowned out by song sparrow and Bewick’s wren songs. It is also the only place where I have found signs of emergence.

The place is Shute Park in Hillsboro. It is located near our Subaru dealership, so I checked it out today after getting an oil change. The park has dozens of large conifers, many of which are native to the area, and a closed canopy. During the month of June the place is buzzing with cicadas, likely of the genus Okanagana.

I found at least a dozen exuvia (shed exoskelotons) stuck to this small spruce tree.

A previous generation likely laid eggs near the tips of the branches, from which the tiny young fell after hatching. The youngsters buried themselves under the tree and fed on fluid they sucked from the roots.

After a few years, they crawled out of the ground, climbed the trunk of their tree, emerged from their old skin, stretched their new wings, and flew off in search of mates.

I did not see any adults, which are black and orange, but heard plenty of males singing in the canopy. I’ll have to return earlier in the morning if I want to see any newly emerged individuals, so for now I will settle for the shells.

In other news, I am back to work on my Forest Service-funded research. Next week is the American Ornithologists Union meeting in Portland. It will be a reunion of sorts because I will get to see many friends from previous research projects in North and South America. I will be presenting a poster with results from my analyses of hummingbird and mourning dove nest survival data.

The poster is printed out and ready to go, but I am not going to take it out of the tube and look at it until I put it up, for fear of spotting a typo that would drive me nuts.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Summer Camp Day 5

Friday was the last day of field biology camp and we had the best demonstrations of the week. Amy, a graduate student from Portland State, met us at Springbrook Park in Lake Oswego. She and her assistant Adam shared their methods for researching survival of juvenile spotted towhees.

First, Amy used a mounted towhee specimen named Gus to show us how they band adults.

We then took a short hike to look at a previously fledged nest on the forest floor.

The nesting season is pretty much over, but Amy showed us videos of nestlings banded earlier in the season.

We also viewed videos of mammalian predators filmed with remote cameras. Amy had secretly filmed the campers while they hiked to the nest, then uploaded the video to the computer, and showed us the result.

These tools made my own thesis research feel somewhat stoneaged, but that's probably the natural progression of things.

Adam attached a radio transmitter to Gus, hid him in the forest, then gave the kids a receiver and antenna. They quickly learned how to track down the bird., showing their future research assistant potential.

For the last demonstration, Amy and Adam strung up a mist net, attached Gus to a shrub, and played towhee songs with an iPod and speakers. A pair was drawn close to the net, but they failed to get caught. Instead, the kids took turns throwing Gus into the net, so no one was disappointed.

We finished the day in Forest Park searching for salamanders in Balch Creek. My high school helper Severin showed the campers how to find the slippery creatures under rocks at the water's edge.

Most were Dun's salamanders, but we also found Pacific giant salamanders and a rough-skinned newt.

Other than a few discipline problems, it was a great week. I am happy that I helped the kids spend a week outside learning about science and that I had a much needed break from thinking about my Forest Service work. It will be nice, however, not worrying about the behavior and safety of twelve children while working at home next week. Andie the dog will also be glad to have things back to normal.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Camp day 4

Today we drove up the slopes of Mount Hood to the Wildwood Recreation Area along the Salmon River. It took a little while to find the place, but once we were there, we were impressed with what the area had to offer.

We sent up camp along the river, then fanned out to sample terrestrial arthropods in the forest and capture some fish in the stream.

The campers shook small trees to collect arthropods on a sheet laid below. We collected spiders of many shapes and colors, geometrid moth larva, and long-legged true bugs.

At the river, we caught large sculpins that attacked the smaller fish.

After a while, they settled down and coexisted peacefully until they were released.

We tallied our species and returned to Portland. One more day to go, I can't wait until I can once again work at my own pace at home.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Camp Days 2 and 3

I did not get a chance to post Tuesday's camp activities because Sarah and I went straight from camp to the Emmylou Harris concert at the Oregon Zoo.

The show was great, and we did not get home until it was too late to blog.

On Tuesday, I drove the campers to Cannon Beach. We arrived at low tide and had a tidepool creature scavenger hunt.

I did not take many pictures because I was too busy counting children and watching the incoming tide. The kids found every animal on the list except for chitons and encrusting sponges.

We had lunch neat Haystack Rock which was covered with nestling western gulls. We also spotted pelagic cormorant nests, a tufted puffin guarding its burrow, and a floating harlequin duck.

Today, we crossed the Columbia and climbed into the Wind River Experimental Forest to see their canopy crane.

Matt, a researcher out the University of Washington, led us on great tour of old-growth forest.

We put on our hard hats and walked to the base of the huge crane, which once built skyscrapers in San Francisco, but now hauls biologists hundreds of feet high to conduct their work.

After lunch, we toured the fish ladder at Bonneville Dam.

We saw plenty of steelhead, salmon, and lamprey swimming by. We also learned about steps taken to reduce juvenile salmon mortality during passage.

After 21 hours of child wrangling, I'm getting pretty tired, but there are only two more days of camp left, so I still look forward our next trips.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Summer Camp Day 1

The first day of Junior Field Biologist camp is in the books! It was a successful day and, apart from my sunburned neck, we all made it through unscathed.

We started the day with introductions at the Audubon Society, then we loaded into the van and drove out to Sauvie Island.

We met with two great ODFW biologists who were trapping ducks for banding and influenza tests.

The first trap held a pair of young mallards. The campers enjoyed up-close views of the ducks and were more than a little shocked to witness the cloacal swabbing techniques used to test for bird flu.

The next trap produced a whopping six ducks. The biologists processed them all and we procceeded to the next trap. This one was empty and the children were getting hungry, so we left for lunch.

After lunch, we observed some osprey and swallow nests while I showed everyone how to fill out a nest card used in nest survival studies. For our last exercise, the campers had a great time plucking western chorus frogs from the roadside vegetation. We conducted a small study to see if frog color types differ in length.

Everyone grabbed their trusty rulers and measured the lengths of the frogs they captured.

We tabulated the data and made a graph. We did not get a chance to run the statistics, but it appears that there were no significant differences in size among color types.

When we finished, we wrapped up the day at Audubon. We awarded beads for good behavior and sent everyone off. The campers seemed to enjoy every activity I planned, which left me extremely happy and satisfied. Tomorrow it is off to Haystack Rock at Cannon Beach where we will tidepool and count nesting seabirds. Stay tuned for details!

Friday, July 18, 2008

Summer Camp Approaches

Next week I will once again be a camp instructor for Portland Audubon. Since I don't do this sort of thing very often (about one or two weeks a year), I am a bit nervous. Last summer I planned and lead a bird watching camp and I learned a lot about what not to do when trying to keep a dozen nine and ten year olds entertained for a week. The boys were particularly challenging but apparently not enough to keep me away for long.
This year, I feel better prepared, though a bit apprehensive since I know that things that I enjoy do not necessarily translate into things the children will enjoy. As usual, I will throw a lot at them and see what sticks. The title of next week's camp is "Junior Field Biologist" I will be driving the group to some spectacular locations and I have several researchers lined up to show us what they do.
If I still have the energy, I will post photos and stories from each day's excursion when I return to the apartment.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Garden Workings

Yesterday, I pulled several bucketfuls of weeds and helped Fred construct a cucumber fence in the garden. As the cucumber vines grow and attempt to take over the other plants, he will string them between the wires to train them to grow upwards instead of outwards.

While in the garden, I noticed the first ripe tomatoes of the season! An early ripening variety from Europe. We ate them with lunch, ushering in the short time of the year when fresh tomatoes have flavor.

Our dinosaur kale plants are approaching the size of small dinosaurs. I have been harvesting shopping bag-full amounts of leaves, which I bring home to blanch, chop, and freeze for winter soups and pasta. At this rate, we will not need to buy our favorite leafy green at the grocery store for the rest of the year.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

A New Home and a New Bridge

Last week, I spent a day at the Audubon Society of Portland preparing for the week of summer camp I am leading starting next Monday. I will be taking a dozen fourth and fifth graders to field research sites to introduce them to wildlife biology in action. I still have a lot to organize, and I am trying not to stress out.

While at Audubon, I was able to check out their newest structure. The Wildlife Care Center has several unreleasable education birds. Julio the great horned owl once had a large enclosure all to himself.

Last year, however, Ruby the turkey vulture arrived and was moved into the enclosure while a bitter Julio was relegated to a smaller cage inside.

During the last few weeks, staffers and volunteered built Julio a splendid new enclosure just down the hill from his old one.

He seems much happier now.

Yesterday, I drove to Sauvie Island for a job interview with the Department of Fish and Wildlife. As usual, the interview was a tense process, so I had a much better time viewing the island's sites.

I crossed the new Sauvie Island bridge for the first time. The old, green bridge is still in place. Some want to move it to downtown Portland for a bicycle commuter bridge, but the plan seems to have stalled.

The volcanic peaks of Mount Hood, Mount Saint Helens and Mount Adams are all visible from the island. A forest fire is currently burning on Mount Adams. This weekend, the plume of smoke resembled an eruption and fooled many, including myself, into thinking that one of the giants had reawakened.

Unfortunately, the local news stations show many bemoaning the "loss" of the forest. Apparently many people still think of forests as a static entity that will not recover from a natural disturbance.

I also spotted a purple marten perched near this marten condo complex. The small bird on the bar is a black-headed grosbeak. I only saw house sparrows enter the nests, but hopefully there are some marten babies in there as well.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Cool Paper of the Week

Ever wonder why one egg is bigger than another?

A colleague and former boss of mine, Tom Martin, wonders about these things all the time. He recently published a paper in the Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences:

Martin, T.E. 2008. Egg size variation among tropical and temperate songbirds: An embryonic temperature hypothesis. PNAS 105:9268-9271.

I was excited to read the paper because it presents an interesting hypothesis about variation in egg size among birds and because I measured many of the eggs!

In the paper, Tom reports that, after controlling for adult body size, eggs are larger in South America than in North America. Birds in South America spend less time incubating eggs than their North American cousins and as a result, their average egg temperatures are cooler. The pattern exists among birds within a study site as well. Tom's hypothesis is that, by providing an egg with additional resources, parents offset the metabolic costs of egg cooling. Since this is an observational study, experiments are needed to test the hypothesis.

The jury is still out as to why South American birds spend little time on the nest when they should be incubating. Tom thinks that adults are vulnerable to predation while on the nest and southern birds have greater incentive to decrease this danger. Whatever the reason, it is an interesting way to explain why one egg is bigger than the other.

While working in one of the field sites in Venezuela, I carried a small electronic scale with me and weighed eggs of every species of bird whose nest I found including hummingbirds, trogons, and turkey-sized tinamous. At the time, I was not sure why I had to do this, but now that the paper is out I have a clearer understanding. The paper and others from our studies can be found at

Monday, July 7, 2008

Waxwing Construction, LTD

While I was error-checking data from New Mexico hummingbird nests Monday morning, I took a break to help our new neighbors build their own nest.

A pair of cedar waxwings appeared on our deck and started tugging at plant material in the pots. They were having a hard time freeing the stuff, so I collected some material for them and placed it in the feeding dish.

The birds jumped on the new material and gathered it in their bills while I was still standing on the deck!

Throughout the day, they grabbed pieces of grass, lavender stems, cotton twine, green carpet fibers, and dog hair. With both adults in a building frenzy, the nest should be complete in no time.

They brought the material to a small maple below our deck. We can now check the nest's progress as we leave and enter the apartment.

Beach Finds

As usual, we spent Independence Day weekend in Pacific City. The weather was cold, gray, and wet, a nice break from the heat and humidity of Hillsboro.

On Friday, we brought Andie to the tidepools of Cape Kiawanda. She had a great time jumping on rocks and seeking interesting smells.

While Sarah likes to find rare creatures such as chitons and nudibranchs hidden among the more common residents, I am most interested in two of the main players in the tidepool saga: seastars (Pisaster ochraceus) and California mussels (Mytilus californianus). These species seem to be locked in a never-ending battle for survival. The seastars are always looking to have mussels for their next meal, and the mussels seek spots on the rocks that become too dry at low tide for the seastars to survive.

We found a seastar that had just finished one mussel and was holding on to another for its next course. The first mussel had been opened by the star's tube feet, its contents digested by the external stomach of the predator. Life seems tough for mussels, but they are capable of moving along the rocks to find places that are safe from seastars.

We also surveyed our beaches for dead seabirds.

At Bob Straub State Park, we found our second black-footed albatross of our dead bird counting career. It was a molting adult that was fairly intact. We tried to get Andie to pose near it for a size comparison, but she was not interested.

Along the survey routes, we also found a large number of pelagic goose barnacles (Lepas anatifera) stuck to washed-up items such as kelp, driftwood, and bird feathers.

Pelagic barnacles are fascinating creatures that live their lives at sea attached to floating debris until they drift ashore and die. I have seen some that are quite large, about eight inches long, but they can reproduce at small sizes to which they must grow quickly because their time at sea may be limited.

I imagine that forensic scientists would be interested in their growth rates to determine how long certain things had been out to sea.

I had never seen so many attached to so many things before this weekend. I am not sure if the bumper crop we observed is due to currents keeping all this debris at sea long enough to collect many barnacles before washing up or if their are unusually high numbers of barnacle larva out there seeking attachment sites.