Thursday, January 29, 2009

Go Sooners!

This may look like a sports post, but I promise there is a bird connection.

My employer, the University of Oklahoma is known to be football-crazed and their other sports teams regularly fly under the radar, so I am doing my part to give credit where it is due.

I recently noticed that the OU Men's and Women's basketball teams are off to great seasons.


The Women's team, led by Courtney Paris (above) and her twin sister Ashely, is ranked #2 in the country and last night defeated #3 Baylor in Waco, Texas. The victory was especially sweet because former President "W" was in the crowd.


The Men's team is 20-1 and ranked #4. Their forward Blake Griffin (shooting) is the projected #1 draft pick this summer. They have already beaten rivals Texas, Texas A&M, and Oklahoma State. If they hold of Kansas next month, they should get a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.


In addition to sports teams, Oklahoma also has a great State Bird, the scissor-tailed flycatcher. They are spectacular summer nesters that hang around until October when they accumulate in large staging flocks and depart for their wintering grounds. Six years ago, I saw my first scissor-tail from the parking lot of the Lloyd Noble Center, where the basketball teams play. There's your bird connection!

Wednesday Wanderings

On Wednesday morning, I dropped Sarah off at Sauvie Island where she joined others scouting for Raptor Road Trip (8 days away!).

The trees, such as this asymmetrical oak, looked great in the fog and early sunlight.

I spent the rest of the day working at the grandparents-in-law house dreaming of planting this year's garden in the spring.

I picked a few scarlet runner bean pods that had dried out on the garden fence.
I kept some of the the pink and black seeds to dry and plant next year.

I turned over a log behind the house and found a tiny salamander. I think it is an Ensatina.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Cool Papers of the Week

I recently read two papers that have given me much to think about, so I thought I'd share them.

The first was published several months ago in American Naturalist. Adam Tofilsky and others studied the nests of Brazilian ants (Forelius pusillus) and uncovered a darkly efficient home security strategy.

The ants build underground nests with a small opening to the outside world. As nighttime approaches, several workers bring bits of sand to close off the opening. when the opening is sealed, they kick sand over their work to hide the entrance. Cut-off from their colony, the workers wander off and die, some before the next morning when the entrance is opened from inside the nest.

The sacrifice of these workers seems like a plot from a Cormac Mccarthy novel or the Old Testament. I wonder if the oldest workers in the colony volunteer for the closing duties each night.

The second paper was recently published in Science and has been getting a lot of press lately. Phillip J. van Mantgem and others report rates of tree death in 76 undisturbed western forest stands.

An Audubon Camp field trip to one of the study sites

The alarming finding is that mortality rates increased in 87% of study plots and the percentage of trees dying in the Pacific Northwest doubled during a 17 year period. The authors speculate that hot and dry conditions resulting from climate change have led to the increased mortality of trees. Mortality rate increases were highest in the Pacific Northwest, in mid-elevations. A variery of species were examined, but pines and hemlocks had the greatest increases in mortality.

Whatever the causes of climate change, it seems likely that forests as we know them will not exist for long. As tree species are lost from a given area, they will be replaced by trees or other plants from lower elevations or latitudes that are better adapted to the new climatic conditions. The big question for me is how birds and other animals are affected by these changes. Animals that are confined to specific habitat types will likely respond in one of three ways to changes in forest structure and composition: (1.) they will evolve new behavioral or physical adaptations to their altered habitat, (2.)they will move to higher elevations or latitudes that are more hospitable, or (3.) they will go locally or globally extinct.

I am working on a presentation for an upcoming ornithology meeting in which I predict whether certain southwestern birds will need to respond in one of the three ways to predicted climate change scenarios. I hope that we can identify habitats that are most at risk from climate change to develop management plans that will lessen the impacts to wildlife populations.

Works Cited:

Tofliski, A. et al. 2008. Premptive defensive self-sacrifice by ant workers. American Naturalist 172(5):239-244.

van Mantgem, P.J. et al. 2009. Widespread increase of tree mortality rates in the western United States. Science 323: 521-524.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Mid-winter Veggies

After several weeks away, I checked on the remaining plants in our borrowed garden bed.

The combination of snow, freezing, temperatures, and dry days finally did in the kale.

Surprisingly, the arugula is still alive. It must have been well-insulated beneath the snow.

I pulled the tomatillo plants several months ago, but many fruits, like the one above, were left behind.

The tomatillos decomposed on the ground and all that is left are the "skeletons" of the husks containing the seeds. I collected several of these convenient little packets and I will try to germinate the seeds this spring.

We still have loads of winter squash and I processed some of them yesterday.

I boiled some down for squash stock, baked some more and froze the puree, and cooked up a buttercup squash stew with chucks of fresh squash and a variety of vegetables we froze in the fall. So far, we have largely succeeded in our goal to refrain from out-of-state produce this winter.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Mussel Carnage

Last Sunday, we "tidepooled" at Cape Kiwanda. The tidepools here are actually sandstone rocks covered by beds of mussels, barnacles, and countless other organisms.

Life is tough in the inter-tidal zone, and for me, viewing mussel beds is similar to watching predators stalk and consume their prey on the Serengeti, but on a much smaller and slower scale.

A few feet of sand had been deposited on the beach since the last time we here, burying the lower layers of the mussel beds. The largest mussels are usually found high above the water at low tide, where they have grown old in the absence of predatory seastars that dry out if they climb too high. The newly deposited sand had lowered the large mussels' elevation, however, and a feast was on!

Several seastars were in the process of wrapping their arms around the mussels, opening the shells, and digesting the contents from the inside-out.

Sarah spotted someting strange sticking out from an opened mussel shell. As we looked close, the thing appeared segmented and worm-like. I tapped it on it's side and it withdrew its head from the shell.

It was a carnivorous mussel worm (Nereis vexillosa) that was probably cleaning out what had been left in the shell by a seastar. It had two fleshy "fangs" and a bony "lip" that can apparently deliver a painful bite. These worms are abundant in mussel beds throughout the Pacific coast, but I had not seen one before.

California Mussels are my favorite tidepool creatures because the create an ecosystem with their presence.

Their shells are attachment sites for sessile creatures such as acorn and goose-necked barnacles pictured above. Worms and other free-moving animals find protection from predators and waves in the gaps between mussel shells. Some crabs even live inside the shells of mussels without bothering their hosts. Mussels: another example of valuable oceanside real estate!

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Weekend at the Beach

We had a very relaxing weekend in the sun at Pacific City. I am too absorbed in the Inauguration to write much about it, so here are a few photos.

Sunset on out first night

Sunrise on our first morning

Mouth of Sand Lake, where we survey beached seabirds

A huge beached moon jelly

A smaller sea nettle

Winter surfing near Haystack Rock

Ziak Wildlife Refuge, full of ducks and coots

Blind Slough, where we saw a group of western grebes and an orange-crowned warbler, rarely seen wintering here.

Here's to a day of unbridled optimism!

Friday, January 16, 2009

Frost Shadows

Today started with a beautiful, frosty morning as the reflected sunlight changed in color from pink to orange to yellow. As the sun started warming the apartment roofs, ice crystals found refuge in the shadows of chimneys.

In this time of long nights, waking at sunrise is never easy, but once out of bed and walking the dog, I become a morning person and wish I'd been up earlier.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Thursday Walk

The sun has returned to western Oregon after what seems to have been a month-long absence.

I took the dog on a walk to the field south of us and we took in some views we had not seen in a while.

Last month's snow has melted down here but it still visible in the clearcuts of the the Coast Range to the west.

A large flock of cackling geese was grazing the field and an adult California gull had joined the group.

A few mallards and northern shovelers swam in the pond, but the usual buffleheads were absent.

Two large black cottonwoods stand guard over the southeast corner of the field.

These and a few other big trees, such as the broccoli-shaped white oak were lucky to survive the surrounding developments and I always look forward to seeing them on my walks.

This doug-fir is the largest tree in the neighborhood. It's bark is covered with lichens, moss, and old English Ivy vines that were girdled to save the tree.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Monday at Audubon

In winter, the woods around the Audubon Society of Portland are dark and squishy yet full of life such as licorice ferns pictured above. It was foggy all day and the mist condensed on branches and dripped to the ground, making it feel like rain.

I walked to Upper Maclay Park and took in the view of Balch Canyon. The snag on the right is a great place to see olive-sided flycatchers perch in the summer.

One of the first signs of winter life is the opening of beaked hazel catkins.

Back at Audubon, I said hello to Aristophanes the raven, the newest (and smartest) education bird.

A pair of varied thrushes were calling to each other near the feeders.

During lunch, Sarah gave a talk on winter raptor identification to Audubon volunteers. We prepared the talk to get people ready for our Raptor Road Trip event next month.

After the talk, the volunteers were invited to watch the release of a Cooper's hawk that was patched up at the Wildlife Care Center. The small male flew up to a branch as everyone watched and quietly cheered.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Changing Seasons

In a few hours, Oklahoma and Florida will play in the BCS Championship Game, putting an end to the college football season. I hope Oklahoma wins, but I'm a bit nervous because, lately, they tend to lose big bowl games.

The next big season for me is the bird nesting season. I stopped by Dawson Creek to see if any Great Horned Owls are staking out territories. I did not see any owls, but I was able to see some recent weather damage to trees.

The branches of this exotic oak have been bent to the ground by the weight of ice and snow.

This native white oak probably tipped over during the last few days due to the wet soil and high winds. I like to check out downed trees to examine the parts that I can't see when they are standing.

The leaf buds were growing at the tips of the branches.

A nice carpet of moss and lichens covered the trunk.

The trunk's wood was quite solid.

But some of the branches were rotting. Woodpeckers had carved a few holes in the softened wood.

Some fungi have colonized this piece.

When I returned home, I found that a new book had arrived. It is a field guide to the riparian forest in New Mexico where I have been conducting research for the last five years. Some of my results have been included in the natural history descriptions of insects and birds, and I was excited to see that I was credited in the acknowledgments. I will read through the book tonight during the many commercial breaks in the bowl game.