Death in Nature – a look back and a new link

I recently read this article in the New York Times, and it reminded me that I had also written a blog post on the same topic. Of course the great scientist, Bernd Heinrich, has thought way beyond my musings, but there are parallel observations nonetheless.

Here is my humble previous offering.

And here is the real deal, scientifically speaking. I must read that book!


I’m reblogging a post from this wonderful southern Oregon bird blog, because it is so appropriate and I can’t really add anything:


It was 20 deg F last night, and stayed cloudy all day, preserving the thick layer of frost on all things leafy.

We had lots of birds flocking in to gobble birdseed, suet cakes, and leftover apples hanging in the trees. Notably, also a brand new bird siting (for us) – a Townsend’s Warbler partaking of the granny smiths. They winter along the west coast. It was a treat to see a new visitor we would likely not see in the summer. Here’s a great video Check out the eyeliner!! I only wish the videographer would keep his cat indoors, such an obvious example of why he should do that.

We still have the one White-Breasted Nuthatch hanging around with the Red-Breasted ones, who practically sit on your shoulder in their frenzy to eat enough to keep from freezing. I noted a Stellar’s Jay scaring off the WBNuthatch as it was cracking a sunflower seed it had wedged in the bark of the dougfir. The Jay snatched it. Turns out those jays can cling to the bark too, the bullies. The WBNuthatch may disappear once the weather warms up, but I hope it finds a mate and settles down for the summer.

Here is the bird lineup near the house currently:

Townsend’s warbler (new to us), white breasted nuthatch (recently noted), Stellar’s jay, black capped chickadee, chestnut backed chickadee, (oh- they are sooo dapper!), dark eyed junco, golden crowned sparrow (took awhile for Tom to settle on that i.d. as their crowns are not very golden in winter), spotted towhee, mourning dove, varied thrush (heard the policeman’s whistle of its call briefly in the evening, and then it visited the ground under the feeder); heard but not seen – golden crowned kinglets.

A Map Of Time, Time In Maps

This is a gallery of landscape changes in our little corner of the world. In a very short time (1994-2012), the local vegetation has been altered by land management quite dramatically. From our perspective (our 20-acre rectangle) it often seems overwhelming.

In 2005 we had a comfortable buffer of forest around us for the birds and wildlife we like to watch. We knew it was tree farm country, so logging was a given but, patchy as it was, it didn’t seem too traumatic. You can see the tree farms mostly blanketing the area in the earliest GoogleEarth map.

Then came a shift in land use – ‘conversion’ is the term – from timber to vineyards. Watch the photos as the trees begin to disappear. Vineyards and orchards sound like a sort of idyllic alteration, but think just a minute about what that entails. Conversion from old growth to tree farms is a step away from diverse, patchy habitat of a particular kind: spotted owls, flying squirrels, really big trees with a lot of carbon stored in their massive trunks, a lot of cavities for owls and other specialists. Old growth trees (250+ yrs) that store and hold – sequester – more carbon than any other type of forest. You can see that even in the earlier views, the connectivity between patches is important – those are corridors that allow wildlife and plants to move across the landscape either to escape the clearcutting or to find food or mates.

Timber farms, especially smaller ones cut in patches on a long rotation, (time between cuts), shelter many important organisms while they grow, and if those plants and animals are lucky, they can shift over to another patch when the clearcut begins. Technically, people are required to leave a certain number of trees and snags, but the rules about that are so lenient that it doesn’t really amount to anything ecologically important in most cases on private land. Federal forests are another story, as they are managed differently. The other thing about forestry is that there are relatively long periods between soil disturbance.

Now, step it up one notch with conversion from timber land to row crops, vineyards, or a hazelnut orchard. If you look, you can see that to the north and east of our 20 acres, all trees were removed, conifer, oak, even the ones that were formerly left by commercial forestry. Stumps were bulldozed, burned, and the land plowed. Two major changes that occur now are the absence of trees and shrubs, and soil disturbance on a regular schedule. Weed control and monoculture demand constant spraying, plowing, or both. All these activities restrict plant life and, importantly, affect the insects that can survive in disturbed habitat.

Unless a farm, orchard, or vineyard is conscientiously managed to leave patches of undisturbed habitat for native ground nesting bees, predatory insects, and other beneficials, the landscape is a depauperate one compared to a natural one.

In the gallery above, you can view the transition from 1) patchy timber harvest to 2) clearcuts on a larger scale (there is a large absentee landowner to the north and east of us who is progressively extracting all the monetary value from his timber, then selling off the land) then 3) conversion to vineyard to the east and north. Note the extremely clean patches and rows of plowed and planted crops. Oak trees that were left after cutting douglas firs were stripped off the land and sold for firewood. Thankfully, a few trees were left around a low spot on the east side, that is the source of a stream that flows across our property and down to Deer Creek. However, our hydrology is permanently altered. Erosion from the force of high water flows, and lower flows in summer are byproducts of vegetation stripped off the soil surface.

Next week – the closeup view of our patch before and after we acquired it.

Oh, Happy Day

There are two birds whose presence, to me, would signify that we have attracted the holy grail of bird residents: the Acorn Woodpecker and White-breasted Nuthatch.

I looked out the window, and LO and BEHOLD! There was a White-Breasted Nuthatch!!

What these species have in common is their fidelity to, or requirement for, a vanishing Willamette Valley habitat – open oak woodland and savanna. The nuthatch will go for mixed conifer/hardwoods which is exactly what we have. They are not the only species of concern here, just a couple I particularly like. A brand new publication online in two parts [ here and here ] called the Land Manager’s Guide To Bird Habitat and Populations in Oak Ecosystems of the Pacific Northwest provides a larger list:

Oak-associated bird species designated as being of conservation concern by the primary wildlife natural resource agencies in the Pacific Northwest…

  • Acorn Woodpecker
  • Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
  • Chipping Sparrow
  • Vesper Sparrow (Oregon)
  • Lewis’s Woodpecker
  • White-breasted Nuthatch
  • Western Bluebird
  • Western Meadowlark

As I noted, to my delight, a White-breasted Nuthatch arrived recently at our feeder and on the trees by our house. Because I don’t currently have the proper camera or skills, here is a nice photo swiped from the above publication.


White-breasted Nuthatch. Photo credit Tom Grey. Published in Landowner’s Guide to Bird Habitat and Populations in Oak Ecosystems of the PNW. 2012

Our species – the slender-billed subspecies – resides west of the Cascades. Fat white belly, an impression of upcurved bill because the lower bill curves toward the straight, sharp upper; used for hacking or ‘hatching’ open nuts and seeds it wedges in tree bark – a fun fact learned from my new Christmas book, the Sibley Guide to Bird Behavior. Oh, so cute and spunky. I hope they find lots of holes in our old trees to make nests.

Collecting Lichens

So, after the wind storm, which seems not to have lived up to major storm watch warnings, out I went to collect lichens. In the photo on the masthead above, the light green color on the oaks is their thick covering of lichen – easily seen when the leaves are off in the winter. Lichens get blown out of the trees quite easily, and whole branches and twigs often litter the ground after a good storm (below you can see the green blobs that are those branches):



It’s always interesting to walk around the path that winds through the woodland and savanna. There are wonderful surprises in the landscape. For instance, now that the humidity hovers around 80% – 99% the mosses and lichens are in full swing. During the winter they green up when most plants are dormant; reproductive structures pop out when conditions are best for spore germination. [My previous lichen post may be instructive for what follows.]

HypogymniaThe round structures on the tips of the lichen above are called apothecia; they contain the spores. But what strikes me is the blue-green octopus that is the lichen body – combined with the apothecia it looks like an extraterrestrial organism.

Here’s an example of the colorful abundance of lichens. This branch I picked up  – and yes, there is a branch under there – is a little over 2 feet long, and 1/2″ thick at its narrow end. There are at least seven or eight species of lichens and two kinds of moss crowded onto the surface, totally obscuring the actual branch. Some lichens grow on others in a multilayered cacophony. Just imagine the surface area created by these lichens and mosses, providing a place for algae, algae-eaters, and other microorganisms and invertebrates to flourish. Birds often find tasty morsels among them, and also use lichens to build nests. There is so much diversity of life on a single oak branch, add to that the vertical structure they provide, and it is easy to see why they are so important.

IMG_4171Here is a look at what I have sorted out so far, separating and removing the different kinds from their twigs and branches:

IMG_4172What are my plans for this pile of stuff?

Lichen dyes for yarn and wool. Here is one of the dyed samples using Lobaria pulmonaria (left). The dye color depends on chemistry and is unrelated to the lichen color.IMG_4173

Meet the Neighborhood Naturalists

White lined sphinx moth larva – discovery on the naturalist walk. That horn is on the tail end and it’s sharp! It turns into a very large moth, as you might guess. And yes, it’s native Woo-hoo!

I just received the new Neighborhood Naturalist Newsletter in my email. Such a delight. Each newsletter is full of everything you could want to know about a couple of local Willamette Valley species – flora or fauna; the design is high quality and the photos are fabulous.

Did I mention the newsletter is free by email? Do yourself a favor and subscribe! It is just one of the easy ways to learn about the diversity around us in the Willamette Valley.

I took a beginning birding class from the authors, Don and Lisa, and I have rarely had such a rewarding learning experience. Their avocation is natural history and they know a lot (a LOT!) yes, but they also have a facility for getting the information across in an interesting and helpful manner.

Their goal is to inform and to educate, and they spend a lot of their time taking people on walks (free – the next Neighborhood Naturalist Adventure in Corvallis is October 21) and teaching classes (very inexpensive). A bird walk is always enlightening. Lisa and Don will call out the names of unseen birds, identifying them by song, and point out salient details of those you can see. Don can also imitate bird songs, which is a handy skill.

My neighbor found this arresting caterpillar last summer when we attended a naturalist adventure walk near Corvallis. Lisa looked it up and confirmed the i.d. and posted it to us online later the same day.

Our own personal geology

After looking at the cool rocks in Silver Falls State Park, I went back to Gopher Valley, on the other side of the Willamette Valley, and took some photos of the rocks in our hillside. I have been puzzling over these since we arrived.

I grilled our instructor, Lockwood about these rocks. Then I sent him photos. He promptly returned my email saying they were examples of SPHEROIDAL WEATHERING.

I was having a hard time visualizing how this happens. I know that there are different kinds of weathering – the one I automatically think of is MECHANICAL or PHYSICAL weathering, like these rocks from a beach in Scotland. They’ve been in the geological rock tumbler since the continents formed, and they are still hard as well, rocks.

Some of these rocks are 2.8 billion (with a B!!) year-old Lewisian Gneiss. They are extremely hard and the oldest rocks on the earth’s surface.

But CHEMICAL weathering is just as prevalent, and that’s what is going on with the rocks in Gopher Valley. These rocks were extruded 17 to 6 million years ago (so young!), probably as one of the Columbia basalt lava flows. They have been weathering in place ever since, undergoing chemical changes.

Hillside full of decomposing rocks

Rocks-to-soil. This is how our clay soils formed and you can see it right before your eyes!

The rocks I call ‘flaky canonballs’. I’ll sell you the name for your band if you like.

Chemicals dissolve and change the rock, water expands and contracts inside cracks, creating that cool onion skin flaking. If you start with an angular shape, the corners and edges sticking out start to weather first, more than the flat sides. Eventually, the corners are gone and these spheroidal shapes develop just by the action of chemicals rather than abrasion. Word for the day: spheroidal weathering!

So, why are these particular rocks so crumbly and coarse and those 2.8 billion year old ones are hard and dense (and also still around??) That is a chemistry question, and I’m still working on understanding how geologists use nomenclature to describe what material rocks are made of, the chemicals in them, and the texture. When I do that I will be able to say that geology is not complicated or confusing anymore. And I will be able to explain it.

Three Things I Learned In Oregon Master Naturalist Class

Here are three of the many things I learned in my first two Oregon Master Naturalist Willamette Valley ecoregion classes (well, it’s hard to stick to just 3, and also it has been more than a week since my last post, but it’s just the end of this week so I’m sliding in):

1. Even with a long cultural history of death and devastation, people still find ways to work in useful, collaborative ways to move life forward

This is the second time I have been to a fascinating talk by a member of the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde Community of Oregon. David G. Lewis, PhD, Tribal Museum Curator/Cultural Liaison, shared a lot of information about how the tribes of western Oregon lived on the land.

Tribes of the Willamette Valley
from book Melville Jacobs _Kalapuya Texts_, 1945

The story of white settlement in North America is always a sad one. What would become western Oregon held 60 tribes and tribal bands during the pre-settlement period. There were around 100 languages spoken in Oregon when whites began to settle here.

In the mid-1800’s Indian leaders saw that they had no chance of keeping their traditional hunting and harvesting lands, and requested that they be allowed to live on a reserve “between the forks of the Santiam River”. Whites refused to give them their chosen place, and the Indians refused to leave. During the stalemate no treaty was ratified, but eventually a treaty was negotiated by Joel Palmer (a local historical personage in whose mansion in the town of Dayton, an upscale gourmet restaurant currently resides).

There are lots of interesting details about the treaties and subsequent ramifications, but what sticks in the mind is this: under 7 different treaties, all the Indians in the valley were removed in 1855-56 because they were in the way of full exploitation of the land by whites. This was a “trail of tears” march for those from southern Oregon especially, separating them from the land and their source of food and shelter, in the winter, when people were most vulnerable to starvation and sickness, which of course, happened.

The area ceded to the U.S. government comprised more than 14 million acres. In return, the Indians received 61,440 acres. All tribes were lumped together on a small area down the road from us where Highway 18 cuts through the coast range – the Grand Ronde reservation. Through a series of events, including the sale of some land by individual Indians, and “surplussing” (read: stolen a second time) of 30,000 acres by the US government, the tribes eventually were left with no property whatsoever. As late as 1954 (when the confederated tribes owned 400 acres of land) all treaties and tribal status and rights were TERMINATED by the US government, essentially wiping out what remained of a community and culture base. In 1983 the tribes owned about 11 acres of forest land and 7 acres with a grave yard on it. Finally in the 1980’s, congress had what David called a “change of heart” – tribal restoration occurred, including restoration of 9811 acres of land.

The good news: currently the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde Community own 11,000-12,000 acres of valley floor and upland timber property. There are several staff positions devoted to cultural affairs, heritage education, and archeological preservation. The tribes are planning a museum and David is working with many government agencies all over the state to restore and bring life back to the streams and traditional harvesting grounds on public and private property as well as tribal lands. The Confederated Tribes just received 100 acres of land purchased and donated by several US agencies and the Nature Conservancy, and more land is being acquired to manage for conservation.

In many places in the world, this history would fuel a long-simmering guerrilla war against the dominant group and government. In this case, Indians have embraced relationships that benefit everyone and although the process is long and complicated, it is moving on positive paths. We can learn a lot from their example.

2.  Wildlife see landscapes differently than humans do

Our next speaker was Dave Vesely, a wildlife ecologist who has trained dogs to sniff out endangered plants, among other species. He recounted a story to illustrate item #2.

He was asked to look at an open meadow to document how many dark-eyed juncos were using it. He discovered that the birds, which forage on the ground, were actually avoiding this meadow that had been created for them. They were in the trees and shrubs around the meadow instead. This particular habitat was not being used by these birds because the grass was too long. Juncos forage in the open, and they couldn’t see their surroundings or even penetrate the tall grass.

Dark eyed (Oregon) junco

His conclusion: “habitat type” is an ecological unit classified by vegetation and/or abiotic features. However, classification can get in the way of understanding how wildlife actually use habitat. We have to understand how wildlife view habitat to get the results we want. Harder than you might think, AND it’s more than just plants.

3.  Geology is everywhere

At Silver Falls State Park we had a great time looking at the geology around us and learning about how it shaped the Pacific Northwest. We learned that all you have to do to see rocks and learn about geology is walk around – the gravel in parking lots, the stones in buildings, and any number of everyday elements tell the story of local geology.

Looking at fossils in the dressed stones built by the CCC, Silver Falls St Park

It’s a beach – casts and molds of clam shells and marine sediments greater than 25 million years old

We enjoyed looking at these beautiful stone buildings constructed during the depression by the CCC. The walls were constructed of blocks of fossiliferous sandstone (sedimentary rocks that hold fossils created when the Willamette Valley was a shallow sea, or embayment). Rocks in the low wall to the right of the steps our instructors are standing on are 25-million-year-old volcanic tuff (cemented volcanic particles and rocks). The steps are younger basalt from Columbia basalt lava flows that began15 million years ago. All were quarried locally in the park.

Three lava flows are visible (a path follows the line between the second and first)

The falls cascade over three visible flows of Columbia basalt, separated by thin layers of paleosols (old or fossil soils) – accumulated in the time between lava flows. It’s a Columbia Gorge in miniature, complete with amazing water falls and enormously tall trees.

Close to the cliff face, the path follows a boundary layer where softer sediment creates a break between lava flows

  • Geologic processes create landforms
  • soil weathers from rocks with different chemical composition
  • vegetation is product of those soils and landforms.

The temperature was comfortable and the air moist, up here in the trees and cool gorges – when the valley was baking in the upper 80’s – and it can all be explained by big GEOLOGY.

These plants can thrive in the high humidity and shade created by waterfalls and overhanging basalt cliffs (liverwort, saxifrages and maidenhair fern)

Ambitious plans and fall activities

I have decided to sign up for WordPress Post-a-Week. Although I admire and seek to emulate post-a-day people such as the Dragonfly Woman, whose exemplary blog sets a standard, weekly posting is my own new ambitious goal. However, due to my recent low production there is a current backlog of ideas and photos so I might be barraging you subscribers with several short ones. So, off we go.

Here is the view from Gopher Valley as late summer burns everything to a crisp:

I am embarking on part two of Oregon Master Naturalist training: on-site classes and fieldtrips for the Willamette Valley regional specialization. Last fall I took an online course from OSU, where the Master Naturalist Program resides. This is a wonderful Extension program course and I’m in the first wave of students moving through online and on-site training. When I get done, I will sign up for volunteer hours working with a non-profit or agency, and eventually it will help me be a better tour guide for our restoration project here in Gopher Valley.

This Friday I will spend the day at the Straub Environmental Learning Center in Salem and on a fieldtrip to Baskett Slough National Wildlife Refuge (our neighborhood refuge) talking about historical vegetation and landscapes in the WV. On Saturday it’s off to Silver Falls State Park for another day of classes and fieldtrips in the park to learn about and observe geology. Two of my favorite subjects.

Here’s a trailer for an interesting movie project that gives a taste of what there is to know about the Willamette River and the valley. They need donations to help finish the movie so if you’re looking for something good to support, now is the moment!

On Birding

Author Jonathan Franzen was quoted In an article in the NY Times about bird watching in Central Park:

“I thought I knew the park,” Mr. Franzen said. “I realized I didn’t know anything about the park at all.”

That pretty much sums up my recent conversion to bird watching. For years I have avoided identifying the flying world. They move too fast, I can’t see their colors, markings, tail shape, whatever. However, the cacophony in the trees and shrubs every morning is the sound of creatures I really do want to know.

I thought if I could learn the language, maybe I would know what was going on up there. It turns out, birding by ear is very practical. In an introductory class, I learned that because of their cryptic behavior (you: on the ground/birds: way up in the trees) you can’t actually see many birds, and the only way you know they are there is by their song or call.

I went on a couple of bird walks, got some binoculars, tried to pay attention, and voila – I am now a “birder”! I will be at the Birding 101 level for a long time, though. I learned a little vocabulary by listening to one bird at a time. I got a 2-CD Cornell ornithology lab recording of western bird songs. When I see a bird I can identify – or have someone else identify – I can look up the song. A song without a bird prompts me to rummage through likely candidates. If I am lucky I get it right and then I have a new birdsong in my vocabulary.

(Note: playing songs to the birds to call them out is deeply frowned upon. If everyone does it, or you do it at times when birds are busy trying to stay warm or deal with stress, it adds more stress. Also, I found out it sometimes scares them away if the call is an alarm! Anyway, I try not to do that, and I do not advocate it.)

Listening to the chatter in the trees and bushes is like being in a crowded room where everyone is speaking a different language, of which you know only “hello”, “goodbye”, and “lookout for that owl!” Just when you think you know the local dialect, you realize there are other sounds, obscure ones, that you have no idea what they mean or who’s talking.These nuances of meaning are analogous to the beginning language student’s realization that they have a long way to go before they can carry on a conversation in a foreign language, much less get the jokes.

It seems that I really have missed half of what is going on in the world.  As I walk or work in the yard, I realize birds are extremely busy. One by one I hear, name, listen to their chatter. Are they taking turns so they’ll be heard? Or talking to each other across species boundaries?

Black headed grosbeak – when it really gets wound up, a humorous long horn solo with squeaks, trills, wolf whistle in the middle

Stellar’s jay – everything’s an emergency (shut UP already). A screecher, kind of raucous, but they don’t stick around long before hustling off to yell at something else. It’s always about themselves!

Chickadees – black capped or chestnut backed? I once thought I knew but I can’t always tell for sure by the song. Need to practice that one.

Chestnut backed chickadee

Swainson’s thrush – probably heard it long before I knew what it was, now I hear it all the time, but never see one, although I did see one sitting at the top of a Dougfir singing one evening, I didn’t have the binocs, so I sort of had to imagine what it looked like. Knowing that, this YouTube video is quite amazing. I just realized it is on the neighborhood_naturalist channel done by the people who teach my birding classes. Excellent sound and photography!

Bewick’s wren

Bewick’s wren – I hear a different dialect than the one on the CD, beautiful and bright. Common in our yard in Seattle too.

Red-breasted sapsucker – A fun garden companion with a squeaky woodpecker sound, (just a hint as they fly by) they don’t mind if you walk up to them. Their drumming is distinctive.

Western wood-peewee – song sounds like its name, now I recognize its flight: out/ back, out/back, catching insects. I can hear its beak snap when it grabs one.

Red breasted nuthatch – such a beautiful, delicate creature; such a loud duck-like call. Oddly, their song is not at all musical – more like some kind of mechanical device or a squeaky hinge, louder and clunkier than their size and plumage would suggest. Beautiful, small beaks and streamlined heads, they surgically remove insects from crevices and cling to tree bark. Once one came to the window screen to eat insects out of spider webs.

Northern flicker – sometimes sounds like a hawk, or robin, or acorn woodpecker ‘wacka-wacka-wacka’: Here’s a photo and the full repertoire of sounds

Saw-whet owl – I originally identified it by its “tooting” sound in late winter. Tom found it in a tree the chickadees were mobbing. Tiny.

Spotted towhee – often seen rummaging around in the shrubbery, they have a somewhat monotonous trill. I’m putting a link in place of a photo because I can’t find a public domain one that looks like the actual bird.

Dark eyed junco – so common in these parts, but I only recently found out what they sound like when I saw one in a parking lot chatting away. Now I hear them all day long, alternating with the towhees. Recently I tried to distinguish them from a chipping sparrow with no luck – it’s that foreign language thing again.

Ruby crowned kinglet – One of the little flitty birds. I noticed it in the fall, a solitary one hanging about with a flock of chickadees – turns out that is one of their distinguishing behaviors. Now I recognize them by their wing bars, and round, light colored bellies flitting through branches. Once in a while you see the male flash his red crest, and up close you can see the eye ring.

Birding is really entertaining. Endlessly so. There are tons of wildlife areas, parks, and yes, sewage ponds to visit to see birds, not to mention just sitting on the porch all day listening. Getting a good look at a new bird is like finding Easter eggs.

I never pay any attention to the descriptions of bird song in the guide book – they never make any sense. Thank god for technology and people who spend all that time making recordings. Also thanks from the bottom of my heart to the fieldtrip leaders who taught me the little I do know.

Since we thinned the trees on our hill, it is much easier watch for birds. If you take a chair, it’s even easier! My friend MaryEllin came for a visit and we did just that. Must put some benches in.

Credits for photos are included, or they are public domain. Many are from Wikipedia. Some day I might have a camera capable of zooming and the patience to take my own. Meanwhile thanks to all the photographers whose photos I have used.

We love our vultures

The turkey vultures are back in the Willamette Valley. Familiar circling objects in the sky, sometimes first perceived by a passing shadow overhead. As this piece in Conservation Magazine notes, vultures’ decline worldwide could signal another hole in the safety net of ecosystem services that keep humans alive.

This fine portrait of vultures in the Neighborhood Naturalist reveals that the Cherokee call them “peace eagles”, and that the turkey vultures in the Americas are not closely related to those in Africa, Europe, and Asia, but to storks and flamingos! (Click down to page 3 for the vignette on vultures.)

Post-harvest cleanup and re-vegetation commences, rain beetles appear

Well, the winter rains have descended. The final cleanup from this latest activity will have to be done next year. But, happily, the people with the equipment (R-J Consulting – check out the link on the blogroll) were able to get in, clean up the debris, and pile all the slash, ready for chipping. See the video HERE.

Usually slash is burned, but I hope we can chip instead. That will give us more mulch to work with, and the carbon will still go into the atmosphere, but on a much longer schedule than incineration. The increased sequestration of carbon from the trees left to grow will offset this somewhat (for the technical details, send me a comment!)

We also had two piles pushed off into the ravine, which is dry in the summer. Although this sounds like a bad idea, the extra debris can break the impact of rain drops, and slow down runoff to protect from erosion. And eventually the piles will melt down into the ground and add organic matter back to the soil, which also helps hold more water. There are no fish in these intermittent (mostly winter and spring) trickles, so this is an approved method.

The equipment operator will return next year with his wonderful skid steer machine with a mowing attachment to reduce the blackberries, poison oak, scotch broom and assorted branches to chips, when the ground is dry and most of the favored plants are dormant.

For the recap, here’s what we started with, at two different spots:

And this is the current scene

It can be a bit shocking, but just look at these oaks – so many years living in the shadow of each other and the Douglas firs, and now they can breathe!

Although many won’t ever bush out like the huge open-grown savanna oaks that were never crowded, these will sprout from a number of dormant or buried (epicormic) branches and start to look better-clothed in a few years, although they will always be narrow.

The rains began in earnest, just as the machines finished up, so everything happened just in time. I spread 22 pounds of native grass seed and 3 pounds of forbs (aka wildflowers and herbaceous plants) as evenly as possible over 2-1/2 or 3 acres. For this I spent a day measuring out 50’ X 10’ plots and portions of seed to cover each. Thanks to Heritage Seedlings for advice and a good product.

Grass seed on disturbed ground

Current plans are to conduct well-timed weed control at every opportunity, with every means possible, until the end of time.


Days spent tossing out seed on a slick, sloppy hillside were pleasant, despite the prospect of falling on my butt and sliding all the way to the bottom of the slope. A muddy boot day for sure – even the deer were sliding around.

One dividend of being out with the first fall rains was discovering this interesting creature:


Wings spread, furry body protected from rain and cold

(Pleocoma sp.) . These are comical, extremely furry-hairy creatures about an inch long. They come buzzing out with the fall rains in the Northwest, the males flying around with their fabulous, complex antennae oriented for female pheromones. They sound like tiny helicopters. They are our own northwest endemic species, except for those in Utah, which is a puzzle.

The females wait at the entrance to their burrows for mating, then go back underground. Weeks or months later they get around to laying eggs.

After they hatch, the larvae live underground, eating the roots of – you guessed it – oaks and conifers. The first soaking rains of fall are apparently a trigger for those that have pupated to emerge as adults.

I must look for them next year, as I’m not sure if they have coordinated emergence like cicadas, or if a few come out every year or every few years. They are native, and as such are not pests, except in cultivated crops like orchards. I surmise this is because their native habitat has been plowed and they’ve lost their natural food web relationships. They might be an instrument of natural selection, taking out the weaker trees. The larvae would be a tasty snack for a gopher, mole, vole or other burrowing creature and the adults are eaten by other mammals like skunks and raccoons or anything that can catch them, which is pretty much anything because they are very slow.

WHAT A WONDERFUL THING to be here when the beetles were. If we hadn’t cut so much vegetation, I might never have seen them, and if the logging, loading and slash piling hadn’t taken so long, I might have missed the rains; if Tom hadn’t found this place, I wouldn’t have this hillside to stand on, and if I hadn’t left Colorado, I wouldn’t have met Tom. I am so lucky.

Looking forward to another year of discovery and witnessing life converge on the present moment. Best wishes to all.

Living With Wildlife

Apparently one can convince a California ground squirrel to leave the cozy burrow it constructed under your house by harassing it. So says my bible of wildlife information Living With Wildlife in the Pacific Northwest”.

Normally, everything in this book is quite helpful. I’ve attended talks by the author. He is very experienced and knowledgeable. However, I can tell you from recent experience, it takes a heap o’ harassin’ to get a rodent to give up on good real estate, and we’re not done yet, so it may actually be impossible.

Buddy the squirrel

Backing up to my previous post where I thought I had an eastern fox squirrel, turns out I was wrong. After trapping and having a conversation with it as I walked it down the road, I realized it was a California ground squirrel. Although it scampers whenever it spots me, it has a distinct fearless attitude that implies familiarity, or possibly contempt. Tom decided his or her name is Buddy, and we should have it as a pet.

Anyway… why do these rodent stories always wander around like this… Buddy is indeed a beautifully decked out California ground squirrel. Note the gray shawl and checked pattern on the fur. I mentioned the houndstooth check when describing it to Tom over the phone and he wanted to know was Buddy wearing an ascot?

The good thing is, he’s native, and I don’t have to kill him. But on the other hand, that fur would look so good as a hand warmer.

Alright, so after putting Buddy at a distance, I closed up the hole to the entrance of a burrow – maybe not as thoroughly as I should have – and put some rocks to barricade it. I did not do the extensive digging and armoring that I did LAST summer on the other hole, and that may have prolonged our war of wills.

the entrance

Twice a day I reposition the rocks, add a bigger one, and Buddy starts digging back in, then more rocks farther away; Buddy digs deeper than expected, etc, etc. I frequently caught him/her in the act, and he instantly scurried away. At one point he brought his spouse, offspring, or sibling to have a look – reinforcements?

Then after about a week of this he finally did what I had feared – moved to a new location and dug a fresh hole towards the old burrow. So this is where I tried part two of harassment – stuffing things in the entrance.

Some suggestions from the book (wads of paper) would be laughable in our case – I went for the ickiest one – used kitty litter. Just before I left for a couple of weeks, I noticed Buddy pushed out some of the litter so I dumped a whole lot more into the entrance. I think you have to do this for a long time. The other suggestion was coyote urine – yes you CAN buy it  – oh, and “tethering a cat or dog near the entrance”. I don’t think the cat would have a chance. If you want to know how to tether a cat, you have to read the book.

But enough about squirrels. I had a thrilling experience on one of our partly sunny days. I was collecting seeds, and was about to reach for a stem when I heard an extremely loud HISS next to my left foot. As I made my exit (no sudden movement, get the hell out as fast as possible) the thoughts that went through my head were 1) no rattlesnakes around here, at least I don’t think 2) I had no idea snakes could hiss that loud 3) do rattlesnakes hiss?

gopher snake

When I was at a distance I got a picture of this gopher snake. It was still hissing every time I moved and I was yards away by then. Once the adrenaline stopped coursing through my veins, I marveled at the cartoon quality of the hissing. It sounded like an Indiana Jones soundtrack. Consulting the reptile field guide, I find that yes, they do hiss and strike, but when you finally pick them up they are quite docile, and some don’t hiss – they just let you pick them up. Keep in mind these were herpetologists talking. These snakes do eat gophers and such, using constriction to do them in. Hey – maybe I could get one to come after the ground squirrel.

Come to think of it, there are a lot of cartoonish sounding critters out here: Hoot owls (great horned) actually hoot, ribbiting frogs (Pacific chorus) actually ribbit, hissing snakes (gopher), coyotes. It’s just a Disney movie every day. To finish off the cuteness, here’s a baby bunny I found in the scotch broom and a fawn my neighbor Sherry photographed.

Fawn Copyright S.McConnell 2011

Baby bunny


Oaks toothwort

This is one of my favorite plant names. I like it so much, I have to look up the scientific name every year because I can’t remember Cardamine nuttallii var. nuttallii.

One reason it’s so captivating is that this is one of the most diminutive, yet appealing flowers of early spring. It surprises me every year. So small, so pinky-striped, so self possessed on the moist, humus-y forest floor. The leaves are unusually dark green, the plant stands on its own without flopping over, holding the flowers up well on sturdy stems with interesting divided leaves on the upper stem.

A former species name, pulcherimma means beautiful. Cardamine is a genus of edible cresses – mustard family – although I’m not sure this one is very edible; haven’t tried it. Another common name is beautiful bitter cress; pretty good, but not as good as oaks toothwort.

I’ll say it again: oaks toothwort…one of the best names ever.

The alligator lizards like it too, this one said when I woke it up this spring while pulling weeds.

Spring shoots, bizarre fungi, welcoming birds

It’s been awhile since I went out with the camera, but I got some timely photos of emerging shoots, early bloomers and – oh yes, some alien pods – possible leftovers from last fall….

Here is a beautiful photo of an Anna’s hummingbird from Lisa who posted it on the Mid Valley nature blog. We discussed the lichens in the nest – they work great as camouflage; these lichens may have some antimicrobial properties against parasites and disease.

On the topic of birds, I diligently researched the best ways to keep birds from crashing into our sliding glass doors. I am sorry to say ours have been responsible for knocking a few birds unconscious and a few deaths. According to an American Bird Conservancy study, vertical white lines 4″ apart on the outside of the windows should work (my stripes are wider because I was too impatient to make them tiny and neat), and we are now ready for the birds to raise their babies.

windows painted to reduce bird strikes

If you don’t find the new shoots below particularly exciting (always better in person!) Plants can be found on the In Bloom in Gopher Valley page as they look later on in spring and summer.

Lilies abound, and it’s not clear which these are, as many have onion-like leaves. Many leaf out, but not all will bloom. Some need to grow larger to have the resources to send up a flower, others may just be in a spot that is too shady. Here they are growing up through the invasive ornamental Vinca minor.

Onion-like stems of lilies showing red at the base

The fawn lilies (Erythronium oregonum) are recognized by their speckled leaves – like a fawn. They’ll soon be in bloom.

And of course the great big bulbs of Camas are sending up fatter leaves. Unfortunately, the deer will probably eat them before I get a chance to see them bloom and collect seeds. These are very much bigger than the little oniony ones above – see the dougfir cone for comparison as these are not so close up.

Camassia leichtlinii

Trillium albidum

Here a clump of Trillium albidum is just emerging with flower buds at the center. These knocked my socks off when I first saw the in bloom – magical!

Although I’m not a big fan of snowberry in landscaped areas because of its tendency to turn into an amorphous thicket, in the wild, it’s quite modest. These tender new leaves attracted my attention, and now I see something has been nibbling the branch tips. Possibly a rabbit. Deer would leave a raggedy, shredded end, but these are cleanly pruned.

Early snowberry leaves

They are not arresting at this stage, but this one patch of shooting star (Dodecatheon sp) is the only occurrence I’ve found on our property and therefore a treasure that I watch for every year, hoping to collect seed and propagate more. I have gotten a few to sprout but none survived.

Shooting star leaves March

Indian plum with hazelnut catkins

Hard to believe all these leaves and flowers were packed into a couple of buds on the Indian plums; their time is spring and early summer. As summer drought wears on, their leaves yellow and drop, and they disappear in the woods. Right now their blossoms seem to float in front of the conifers and ferns. The hazelnut catkins are out early too – most of ours are either escaped cultivated ones or hybrids between domestic and native.

It’s almost invisible, but last year’s brown flowering stalk on this orchid (Piperia elegans) is still attached. Wide leaves are emerging from the bulb-like underground storage stem, surrounded by the ferny leaves of sweet cicely [Osmorhiza sp]. The orchids will spend 3 more months gathering the energy to bloom.

This photo of just the leaves may help in finding the cryptic leaves in the previous photo. This is a month earlier in mid-Feb:

The tiny single, wide leaf in the photo below is one of several giant houndstongue seedlings I planted at various locations. These in the oak woodland seem to be surviving. The long-established mother plant I harvested seed from is sending up huge fat shoots (second photo).

Giant houndstongue sending up shoots from a giant rootstock.

Cynoglossum grande

I find meadow checkermallow (Sidalcea) here and there, and although we have planted some, the indigenous plants are always my favorites. Like finding easter eggs hiding from the years of grazing, logging, and whatnot. Here they are just peeking out, and easily confused with sanicle or the ubiquitous invasive shining geranium or dovesfoot geranium.

Sidalcea campestris

I am delighted to see some Kincaid’s lupine made it through a second winter. I have been trying to get this endangered species established, but they are still not there yet. Hoping for more chances to plant this year. Someday the Fender’s blue butterflies may find these.

Kincaid's lupine seedlings planted in 2009

And now, for something COMPLETELY DIFFERENT! Take a guess what this might be:

I saw a group of these next to the lupines in the oak savanna. Vaguely remembering a photo and description, I confirmed that it is the fruiting body (similar to a puffball) of a fungus called an earth star. Check out the whole story here.

They are reminiscent of the pods in Invasion of the Body Snatchers. And they have a uniquely strange ability to rise up out of the ground and expand when moist (when the spores in the white puff would have a chance to germinate); with the tough, leathery star part retracting back underground when dry.

Here is what the underside looks like – I think these must be left over from last fall and winter because they seemed to have detached from their underground parts or mycelium. The one I brought home is dry and curled up again – might be a fun kid’s toy that curls and uncurls when you get it wet like those sponges in the shape of animals.

Earthstar underbelly

Stay tuned for more natural history surprises from the oak savanna, and oak and fir woodland of Gopher Valley Road and the Willamette Valley!

Oregon white oak - still dormant

The harvest is in…

Seeds collected 2010

I finally finished cleaning and packaging the last of the wildflower seeds. Although there will be a few late-bloomers and maybe some seeds from a few trees or shrubs. It doesn’t look like so much, but over the years as I plant them out and harvest again, the bulking-up process should yield more and more plants for restoration and enjoyment.

Just two weeks ago, it was hard to believe we were going to get more rain in parts of the NW in four days than the total average for September. Here’s what the dry ground looked like before the moisture came (not sure about now, as I have been gone for the rains):

Cracks in clay - August

These are REALLY deep cracks in the clay soil, caused by a prolonged dry spell. You can’t see the bottom when you peer into them. Not unusual for our climate, but it has been very hot as well, evaporating even more water from the soil.

Clay in soil is of two types: the kind that swells when wet and shrink as it dries, and the kind that doesn’t. This is the first type, of course. The shrinking and swelling mixes soil particles over time, allows water and air to penetrate, and – when these cracks open, stuff can fall in, which facilitates the delivery of organic matter to deeper layers.

It also produces characteristic soil structure, which is a good thing: undisturbed soil organizes into shapes and aggregations called peds. These shapes are stuck together by the things that soil-dwelling microorganisms and roots exude. The space between the peds allows water to infiltrate slowly and the organic matter soaks up rain like a sponge instead of letting it run off the surface

Microorganisms especially soil fungi, are instrumental in holding carbon in the soil and sequestering atmospheric carbon. If you till the soil all the time, it destroys this structure, the extra oxygen accelerates decomposition, and microorganisms suffer. If you leave your soil alone, mulch it to protect it from rain pounding on it, and keep adding organic matter for the organisms, you have done your part to reduce atmospheric carbon and reduce pesticide and fertilizer use!

Late August observations: Some of the oaks are getting toasted. Some have dried up leaves, others show thinning and a yellow tinge to the canopy. This may be a sign of genetic responses to climate change. Some are going to be better at it than others.

At a conference I attended a few years ago, a researcher presented his calculations on weather patterns. At the seasonal/yearly scale, patterns are hard to see, but he examined longer term records of temp and rainfall statistically and found that in general, overall, the temperature is rising. Another conclusion presented at this same conference was that Oregon is getting hit harder by extremes of temperature and rainfall, with Washington still cushioned a little from these extremes. The heavy rainfall in the Puget Sound region of Washington is getting to be the norm rather than the exception. In Gopher Valley, my neighbor reported rain but not a deluge, at least not this time.

Another factor in the leaf stress in our oaks could be the incredibly wet and long spring/early summer rains that lasted till the end of June. This probably made it easy for fungal and bacterial leaf pathogens to infect the young leaves, and this is showing up now as the drought stress kicks in.

Color difference between stressed oak and greener ones

Toasted oak on thin soil late summer

Oak leaves showing effect of drought/possibly pathogens


Even I get nervous when the yellow jackets starts to mass late in the season. But this tiny drama was cool. If you recollect the vulture post earlier this year, this is kind of a tiny version of that – meat eaters stripping a carcass really clean. I wouldn’t have noticed, except I was taking a picture of the giant cracks in the ground. This might have been a mole shrew or a baby mouse. Hard to tell because it was just fur and the head was some inches away. Yellow jackets are the coyotes of the insect world it would seem.

Tiny carcass

My son Patrick picked up this Giant Root Borer (deceased). Which it turns out is one of the biggest (by weight) long horned beetles in N America, (there are longer ones apparently).

Thanks to the Audubon Field Guide to N American Insects and Spiders and Bug Guide online for the i.d. Here is their post:

What you have there is a female Prionus californicus. Since she seems intact (that is, not chewed on by a predator), I would say that she probably fulfilled her biological duty and laid her eggs. She lays them in the ground at the bases of the host plants (just about any plant in this case), and the eggs hatch into larvae, which burrow in the soil, finding the roots of the hosts and feed until they reach maturity. This takes about 2-3 years.

The female uses a pheromone to attract males, then mating quickly occurs. The males are smaller, and have larger antennae which are elaborately articulated into serrations and plates which increase their surface area, thus enhancing their ability to detect the female pheromone.

The female of this species is quite large, and may well be the largest longhorn beetle in mass, but the palo verde root borer (Derobrachus spp.) is the largest in terms of length. Prionus is very common and there are probably hundreds per acre in natural habitat, but less common in developed areas. Hope that helps!

It’s easy to get nervous about how many of these things might be out there in the woods, note that the larvae take up to 3 years to mature – which means they’re eating the whole time and getting bigger and bigger (they are really huge, and you can see photos on the Bugguide website if you click on the beetle icon, and then go to Prionus). BUT natural landscapes and even ornamental ones can support a surprising number of critters. Like craneflies in your lawn: there can be a lot present, unseen, and you still will not notice much if any damage. And … recall that they are very nutritious food for something – perhaps birds or small rodents.

Since wood borers are probably scooting around and mating this time of year and invisible the rest of the time, it’s actually a fun and rewarding find and a sign of the season.

Working our way up from ground level, here’s a beautiful banded garden spider (Argiope trifasciata) that hangs out in grassy, dry areas: id. by our friends at (the requests for i.d. of this spider range from “what’s this beautiful spider?” to “this spider is giving my child nightmares”…)

a beautiful Argiope 2.5+ inches incl legs

Dorsal view

Here are a couple of more seasonal pics:

I was getting ready to dump out the partially finished compost when this Pacific tree frog (Pseudacris regilla) caught my eye – I think it was enjoying the cool moist habitat and decided the flies were easier to catch than if it had gone into some rodent hole for the dry season. After the tadpoles mature, the adults disperse to upland protected areas, and this one thought the compost was the best location.

If you are lucky enough to have amphibians in your yard, it’s good to know that they need a mosaic of habitat to survive all the life stages. Even some logs on the ground can keep the soil moist and cool and provide a nice holding area for reptiles, amphibians and – yes – slugs, but the slugs are food for reptiles and other creatures so it works out!

Pacific Tree Frog in the compost bin

In late winter and into summer, the air is filled with the RIBBITS (see and hear one) of the tree frogs, but I have only been able to see them a few times. Very elusive. This one is getting to be a pet, I have pulled the lid off to show it off so many times.

The birds are done with mating and announcing territories, the frogs are aestivating, and things are very quiet. The crickets sounds have been either louder or more noticeable since the other racket has died down.

In the next post, I’ll have some moist fall photos of newts, lichens, and whatever surprises I find on the next walk.

Ecosystem Services – Carcass Clean Up

O death, O death

Won’t you spare me over till another year

Well, what is this that I can’t see

With ice cold hands takin hold of me

Well I am death none can excel

I’ll open the door to heaven or hell

O death someone would pray

Could you wait to call me another day…

[Hear incomparable Ralph Stanley version here]

I’ll fly away

I’ll fly away O glory I’ll fly away

In the morning

When I die hallelujah bye and bye

I’ll fly away

When the shadows of this life have gone

I’ll fly away

Like a bird from these prison walls I’ll fly

I’ll fly away…

[Hear Alison Krauss and Gillian Welch sing it ]

Death came to our neighborhood this week, when a young deer expired next to our pond.  Since it was a young one – possibly dead of an infectious virus – the view towards death in the first song above would be appropriate for a farewell. The second song maybe for an old, injured one. The first song always makes me feel like bucking up to face reality and do what I have to do, the second one makes me cry.

After a day or so the vultures found the carcass, as we had hoped. Tom calls it a sky burial. Death in the woods is more of a transformation. Bits of deer are soaring high above the earth now. Out here, ecosystem services like carrion disposal are very welcome. In a few days there wasn’t much left of the deer. Vultures are surprisingly shy – here you can barely see them against the trees as they took off at our approach. Even though I waited for them to come back, they wouldn’t return while I was there.

There are lots of others on the clean up crew: the coyotes or some animal moved the carcass, and took their share. Flies were the first on the scene and will probably be the last. Ants will no doubt be there as well. Ants are quite efficient, and quick; when I emptied the mousetraps under the house a few weeks ago, I found three very clean skeletons under empty piles of fur and ants still busy. Also – no dead mouse smell for a change. (I have decided to try live traps when I am here to empty them daily, as it appears there is no end to the mouse supply and I still feel regret when I have to toss their little bodies out.)

Ravens were very interested in getting in on the action at the deer carcass. I had to refer to my handy Cornell Ornithology Lab CD of birdsongs to decipher the raven repertoire of deep croaking calls and weird loud beak clicks that were eerily echoing off the hillside every morning. Sometimes the sounds of unseen birds everywhere in the trees make it seem like we’re in a tropical forest.

I found another recycler of organic matter in the garden this week – in the damp of the coast range, you can always enjoy the banana slugs!

In the coast range you get banana slugs!