Spotted towhee

Let’s start with this bird. The spotted towhee.

We’ve always pronounced it as though it rhymes with “dewy” but it turns out that it is probably rhymes with “doughy” instead. Just like I often pronounce the paint I work with “gohssh” instead of “gwash”. (Tomato, Tomahto.)

To add to my bewilderment, the Spotted Towhee was always called the “Rufous-sided Towhee” in my household, as apparently we were not with the times and in fact learning that the Rufous-sided Towhee is merely a “spotted” Towhee is something that left me a bit thunderstruck as I was putting together this piece. Evidently this was to differentiate it from the “Eastern” Towhee — which also has rufous sides and seems alike in every way apart from the relative lack of white spots. We find them interbreeding on the Great Plains, but otherwise we’ve decided to distinguish the regional plumage variation as a separate species.

This sort of thing is a bone of contention for my husband, who has less patience than I have for the finer points of taxonomy. To him, a sparrow is a sparrow, and sometimes when I look over a page of essentially identical birds with a little arrow pointing to the white patch touching a black stripe which is the diagnostic feature of that particular bird, I am inclined to agree with him.

Flickers have gone through an inverse transformation in my lifetime, a who-are-we-kidding-they-are-the-same-species shift, so I certainly allow for changes and, to a certain extent, laxity in classification. (Particularly for the home birder.)

Another example of the confusing world of fine print: the Towhee is technically a “New World” sparrow; we Americans apparently lump together all sorts of birds in the “sparrow” category — even bigger, different-seeming birds like our towhee. (Or other ground-shufflers like juncos.) In Europe, such birds are called “buntings”, whereas “sparrows” are chiefly what we refer to as “Old World” sparrows. (The only one of those we regularly have on this side of the pond is the ubiquitous “House Sparrow”, which is the little brown bird that steals your french fries, or attends political rallies.)

Furthermore, the buntings I know about — indigo bunting, painted bunting, lazuli bunting — are actually in the cardinal family are are themselves not buntings at all. And all of these birds can be generally referred to as “finches”.

(Do you see why I avoid getting too militant about classifications?)

For myself, I unscientifically think of towhees as the step between sparrows and jays, as they are quite large for a sparrow (nearly the same size as a robin, though more slender,) and have a raspy, jay-like call note that sounds like a big question mark.

(This sound, as well as the tumbling jumble of the house finch’s song make me immediately homesick.)

They like a good amount of cover, and as such particularly like our yard, what with the blackberry patch on the other side of the fence. In my childhood home they favored the low, wide juniper bushes. They are ground feeders, attracted to the mess the squirrel leaves behind when it gorges on the suet cake. They are the vacuum cleaners of the forest. They do a funny little shuffle-hop to uncover bugs and seeds from the leaf litter or, in wintery places, from under snow.

Towhees, like tigers, sport what offhand appear to be very daring colors that actually make them invisible in their preferred surroundings. In the bleak winter it can be a thrill to spot one. A combination of orangey, white, and black, topped only by red eyes and a very expressive tail. There is a nervous energy to the tail, leaving flashes of white with nearly every movement. Very often one simply looks for those tell-tale white flashes at the tail for identification. And fortunately they don’t really care what you call them

Cedar waxwing feathers

Something made a snack of a cedar waxwing in my backyard — I didn’t see it in progress but I found the feathers. A whole lot a smooth greyish brown ones, and several diagnostic ones, including the namesake “wax” tipped secondary flight feathers. 

I’d never seen these up close before — they’re very striking. As though someone shaped them with scissors and then dipped them in paint. 

The Sparkling Salish Sea

I didn’t want to talk about this until I could show you, and short of standing with you on the shore and demonstrating, this is the next best thing.

Apparently the waters surrounding the San Juan islands (which we visited recently) are filled with noctiluca scintillans (also known as sea sparkle!) a microscopic organism. (Not a plankton itself for it eats plankton, but just as small.) Agitation of the water’s surface causes a chemical reaction within their little organelles, and they glow for a brief moment with a fascinating blue-greenish tinge that you have to really pay attention to at first, because it seems unreal. (It reminded me of the table-cloth we were “seeing” at the blind cafe.)

Once you do finally accept that what you are seeing is real, it becomes captivating. I was particularly mesmerized by the waves crashing onto the pebbly shore, and the sparks of light that would dance of the surface of the bouncing pebbles — the bright hiss of the peebles tumbling in the surf registered as a sizzle, coupled with the dance of light so quick it seemed like electric sparks.

These guys are dinoflagellateflagellate meaning they travel via flagellum (like sperm — they have sperm tails) and dinos meaning they are tiny dinosaurs. (Just kidding. It is latin for “whirling.” They spin!)

(…whirling-lizard?) *checks Wikipedia and the OED via the local library website* No, we’re good: the Greek root “dinos” means whirling, whereas the Greek root “deinos” means terrible, potent, or “fearfully great”.

Back to our creatures. They feed on plankton, which is apt to bloom in the nutrient-rich waters surrounding the San Juan islands, and evidently this bloom is reliable enough that bioluminescent tours exist. We knew nothing of this phenomenon before we went out to the shoreline at night, so in our case the discovery was as serendipitous as it was delightful.

You know now, so I’ve spoiled the surprise for you, but I don’t think I’ve diminished the wonder, because there really is no picture I can show you that will replace seeing the thing for yourself with your own eyes. So get to it, will you?

On or about the San Juan Islands

I drew this picture as a bit of wishful thinking last year, long before we’d ever actually done anything like look for orcas of a rocky coast north of Seattle. Last weekend we finally did just that, and many other classic summer vacation things up in the San Juan islands.

We met up with a group of friends who had already set up camp, and then for the next four days explored the island.

We didn’t manage to see any whales, (I suspect they hang around the Haro Straight more than they venture into the smaller sounds,) but one member of our party did see porpoises playing in the water just off the coast of our tiny pebbly beach. And there was lots of other marine life to admire.

It was a glorious trip. Filled with happy surprises.

( Perhaps the biggest surprise for me was that Hugh made it there and back with no trouble.)

For the journey home, rather than retracing our steps, I cajoled my brother-in-law into helping us drive around the Olympic peninsula, and visit some of the Hoh Rainforest, where we spent not nearly enough time on a trail called the Hall of Mosses.

The thing that struck me most about this trip was how lovely is was to come home. It was probably one of the best trips I’ve had in a long time — very simple, filled with natural wonders, and weather nice enough to sleep under the stars as I did the first night, all moss and deer creeping through the underbrush.

And to sink into a bed after four days on the ground (and six hours propped up against bedding and tents in the hatchback,) was just the crowning jewel of it all. To come back to plumbing and ice cubes and running water.

The best kind of vacation is the sort of vacation that really makes you appreciate what you already have.

Bird Nerd

The other night I was working late at the studio and during a cloud-gazing break I think I identified my first osprey of the season.

Really. I mean it.

You can’t tell from this picture — I couldn’t REALLY tell from that picture, and of course I can’t be sure because I had neither my good camera nor any binoculars to speak of. But I think I’m right. Here’s how I got there:

I first noticed the crows dive-bombing the top of that construction crane. There were about three of them and they were definitely picking on something. I noticed a bird up there, much bigger than the crows. Crows often pick on birds of prey like this, usually while they’re in flight (crows being more flappy and nimble than the birds that soar).

We’ve a pair of bald eagles that nested atop a radio tour in the Oaks Bottom Wildlife Refuge last summer, and one of the adults is still hanging around with the yearling, much to my delight and astonishment. (I saw them arguing in trees the last time I was down there, and they were about fifty feet away.) So urban sightings of birds of prey are not unusual here. I’ve heard we have a pair of Peregrine falcons that nest under the Fremont bridge (oh, be still my heart) but I haven’t yet seen them, and anyway this bird was bigger than a falcon — the book says a Peregrine will be “near the size of a crow”. This wasn’t, this was bigger, and of the Known Resident Suspects that put it in the eagle / osprey category. But which was it?

We’ll have bald eagles year-round. Ospreys are seasonal and the local chapter of the Audubon society has been saying to keep a look out for them since a few weeks ago. I’ve never seen either species out my studio window, but I’m only nine blocks from the river, so it isn’t inconceivable, just weird. And the eagle in Sellwood has a Thing about construction equipment — I often see him perching on or around the machines when they aren’t rebuilding the bridge down there. So I’m rather suspecting this thing to be an eagle.

The crows move on and the bird remains, moving around a lot but it’s hard to see from my window. The rain is starting again but I run a few blocks over for a closer look.

This quick look isn’t much better, but it’s enough to confirm a few things.

No eagle I know of has markings like this.

So I defer to: osprey. The first one I’ve seen all season. I will check the rare bird sightings list from this week to make sure there isn’t something AMAZING and WEIRD and ACCIDENTAL hanging around the eastside industrial district, but barring that I feel fairly confident in my identification.

And that’s how you get the magic bird eye that I admired so much when I was five. Some of it is Actual Visual Knowledge, but a lot of it is just the application of educated guesses and somewhat-scientific narrowing-down. So often birds are darting past you, or shuffling around under a bush, or perched far out of sight in bad light like this one was. Knowing which birds are inclined to dart, shuffle, or perch in the first place is a great skill to have. It gets you closer to a positive identification.

Sometimes you can’t get much closer than I just did with this maybe/probably-osprey. But considering it was a dot being harassed by smaller dots, I’d say that’s pretty good.

A great way to procrastinate, at any rate. Back to work!

Oaks Bottom: Amusement Park or Wildlife Refuge?

It’s both, really. Or at least, both use the name Oaks Bottom. (It’s also a Lompoc pub not far from here.)

I’m not sure how many of the amusement park patrons partake in the wildlife refuge — I know that when I come down here I’m usually much more interested in the nature scene than I am in carnival rides.

Prime tadpole habitat -- both frog and salamander.

Prime tadpole habitat — both frog and salamander.

Pacific chorus frog, the color of spring.

Pacific chorus frog, the color of spring.

So, the proximity seems strange, but you can’t argue with geography. The pond (which will be all dried up by high summer) is almost all that remains of what used to be a series of wetlands and seasonal ponds, fed by tributaries feeding into the main river. There are several signs along the Springwater Corridor that show sobering aerial photographs — first of the original flood plane, and then of the urbanization and cementing over a lot of that habitat. It’s not a story unique to Portland, but it’s rare that you are made aware of this so bluntly, standing on the very concrete slabs that choked Johnson’s Creek.

Nor can you argue with the oldest continually run amusement park in the country. This was one of those parks built by trolley companies — to lure city folks to use the lines on the weekends. So there’s a delightful old-timey feel to the place. It’s not big on rides (there are some, but none of the glossy vomit-o-matics you get with a larger establishment), but it has a dance hall — resevable for events but just a gorgeous building in its own right — as well as picnic pavilions and innumerable picnic tables dotting the walkway by the river. And you can’t argue with the view.

Painted from the picnic tables of Oaks Bottom Amusement Park, in a moment of non-rain in late spring. Painted from the picnic tables of Oaks Bottom Amusement Park, in a moment of non-rain in late spring.

It also has a skating rink, gloriously kept, with the original pipe organ. Occasionally on Sundays an old man will play it intermittently for one of the afternoon sessions. (This is NOT TO BE MISSED. Check their calendar to find out when and go, if you are near enough.)

Summer’s gearing up and now when you go down to look for ospreys and bald eagles you can usually hear carnival sounds echoing through the valley. Sometimes you can even hear the heritage train, chugging along what used to be trolley tracks to bring happy patrons from OMSI on the eastern waterfront down to the amusement park just as they might have back in the 1920s. It’s a lively little area.

Magic at Sauvie Island

So in an impeccable act of anti-climax, our eagerly awaited expedition to Sauvie Island with the Oregon Mycological Society was cancelled at the last minute, owing to another expedition taking place the day before. In fact, when we called the Office of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife to secure our REMOVAL OF VEGETATION permits, the woman on the phone kept asking if we meant “Saturday” instead of “Sunday”.

Alas, Sunday it was. There were rumors that the overall secrecy of the morel-picking spots have been betrayed, and promises were made that “new spots” would be found in the future.

As we had all requisite permits so we decided to go anyway and try and see what we could find — no easy feat when you have no frame of reference. A good part of the first few hours was spent tramping through undergrowth. Not nettles, as on Kelley Point, but blackberries. Which have thorns.  Delightful.

We eventually gave up and drove to a few other sites, building theories on where the lucky morels might be hidden. And finally, maybe out of luck more than anything else, we did in fact strike gold.

We came away with two by the end of the day, and in comparing stories with other mushroomers it seems is a fairly typical morel score at Sauvie Island. Better luck up in the hills, which we’ll have to go attempt because now that we have tasted the meaty goodness that is a morel (a first for both of us) we are hooked. There is a reason people tramp through nettles and blackberries to look for these things, and it is because they are delicious.

In which we consider Kelley Point

During our third mushroom class we were given vague tips on spring mushrooms sites. I say “vague” because mushroom hunters are extremely reticent to disclose information that could lead to the pillaging of cherished hot spots, particularly those containing morels.

Kelley Point Park was among the places mentioned, so as I had some time on my hands yesterday I went out there to see what I could see.

To me, Kelley Point is interesting for its incredible geographic significance. It is at this point, beyond a riot of dandelions and daisies, that the Willamette River feeds into the Columbia River before heading out to sea. The very end of Portland’s river, right here at the viewpoint. (Where is the beginning? I will find out.) 

Kelley Point is named in for Hall Jackson Kelley, a New England school teacher who had a something like an obsession for settling the western territories, and the Pacific Northwest in particular. Reading of Lewis and Clark’s journeys must have sparked something in him. Long before laying eyes on the place he wrote articles encouraging settlement along the Columbia river. He also attempted to secure funds for several expeditions, one of these an attempt to colonize the area around Puget Sound via “expedition by sea”. None of these attempts succeeded.

Finally, in 1833, Kelley set out with a smaller band than his intended group of several hundred, which two years earlier had attracted private investment and left without him. During this expedition, (funded presumably with his own money,) his company simply abandoned the project and stayed on in New Orleans, “at a great personal loss to himself.” From then on the venture looks as though it was a perilous, doom-laden thing — either due to Kelley’s fanatical, God-fearing Manifest Destiny imperialism, or by simple bad luck, it’s unclear to me as yet which.

In the end he was only in the area for about five months before being shipped off home by the fur traders who had claim to the area. The sign at the viewpoint is pretty direct about its feelings towards the man. It ends: “A bit deranged, Kelley visited briefly in 1834. He spent the rest of his life bitterly trying to win notice and payment for having sparked American interest in the Pacific Northwest.”

It seems an odd choice of patrons, but then maybe it just goes with Portland’s sort of scrappy reputation. Reading through his background was like reading a tome of tragic art.

Kelley endears me particularly for the exhaustive nature of his book titles, the last called tellingly, “A History of the Settlement of Oregon and of the Interior of Upper California, and of Persecutions and Afflictions of Forty Years’ Continuance endured by the Author.”

If Kelley had had his way, the city center would have been right here at the confluence of the rivers, where nowadays pilot boats dart about nervously and guide enormous ships into their various ports. Alas, it is about eleven miles southeast of here, and this place is merely a gem at the tip of the far Northern warehouse district. And apparently an excellent place to find mushrooms, if the furtive people walking around with buckets, baskets and brown grocery bags are any indication.

As usual, I was much more interested in the bird situation than the mushrooms, and after sitting and watching ships for a long time I managed to see a pair of red-breasted sap suckers, a white crowned sparrow (among a mess of chickadees, bushtits and song sparrows,) and an osprey eating a fish. The first osprey of the season, for me. Added to this were what appeared to be ominous walls of nettles spread beneath the gnarls of cottonwoods.

No, really. After you.  No, really. After you.

I found interesting specimens, but didn’t collect anything for spore prints, nor did I see any of the elusive morels. Though I did see an old verpa — in the family of false morels. So doubtless they’re out there.

Next Sunday there is an OMS sponsored field trip out to Sauvie Island to pick morels, so there was no need to go overboard here. Hopefully the nettles aren’t as bad out there as they are at Kelley Point.

In which we have the “wrong” guidebook, and decide not to mind

It seems I’ve made a bit of a tactical error. I did not reserve our copy of “All That The Rain Promises And More…” by David Arora, from the library the week we signed up for the class, but instead waited until yesterday. Which means we have have now attended two sessions of our little mushroom class without the Preferred Guidebook.

Furthermore, the guidebook we do have — Audubon’s — is looked down on a little bit in this circle, as it apparently invents laymen’s names for mushrooms that do not have official laymen’s names. So the non-Latinate names Anthony and I are getting used to are not universal, and may, (at least in the Oregon Mycological Society,) out us as goofy non-scientific phonies.

Guidebook preference really isn’t anything new to me. In the bird world, Sibley’s is the book that seems to be gaining a lot of popularity right now, but I will always be a Peterson’s girl myself. I started on Peterson, I am used to Peterson, and I appreciate the approach he takes to breaking down key differences — particularly the use of illustrations:

Although I frequently refer to my 35-millimeter transparencies as a memory jog, I enjoy wildlife photography for its own sake; it is action. Drawing, by contrast, is cerebral. Whereas a photograph is a record of a fleeting instant, a drawing is a composite of the artist’s experience and selectivity…Whereas a photograph can have a living immediacy, a good drawing is really more instructive.

– Robert Tory Peterson, originally published in Bird Watcher’s Digest, Sept/Oct 1996 

Back to mushrooms: I’m not especially worried about being a goofy non-scientific phoney, but I am a little bummed out that the class is reliant on any particular book, rather than the general “any book works” approach. There were a few flow charts we went over that were so specific to Arora’s book that we had to look over someone’s shoulder to follow along. 

Next week we’re going to talk more generally about toxicity, and that should lighten things up a little in the guidebook department. Every book out there talks about symptoms of poisoning. And no one else has a hold on Arora’s book at the moment, so we’ll be able to pick that up from the library in a day or two. Crisis: averted.