Thursday, July 17, 2014

Going Batty in Glacier

Left to right: Silver-haired bat, Long-haired Myotis, Little Brown Myotis

Triple mist net set over the inside North Fork Road at 1AM





Got to tag along with the park biologists last night / early this morning to catch bats around Ford Creek, near the northwestern corner of Glacier Park. My friends lured me in with rumors of "huge" moths getting tangled in their bat nets.

We ran a series of five nets in four locations, including two over-water sets and one triple-tall net on a pulley system that they set over the inside North Fork Road. Fortunately, there isn't a lot of traffic between 10PM and 1AM in that part of the middle of nowhere.

We caught a total of 16 bats, if my foggy memory holds up, including a pregnant Long-eared Myotis, several Silver-haired Bats including one with what appeared to be tiny orange mites behind his right ear (ooohs and aahhs from all of us biologist types), and a couple of Little Brown Myotis which is probably our most common bat in western Montana.

We got to see many of our most amazing native animals up close and personal, and collect measurements and other valuable data on these little-known species, so the sleep deprivation was definitely worthwhile. But I didn't see a single large moth, much less a "huge" one. I think I got snookered.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Four-of-a-kind Full House

Northern Flicker family (c) John Ashley
Four juvenile Northern Flickers in their crowded nest cavity
I knew this would happen, given my previous luck with these things. While I was working out of town over the weekend, I missed the moment when our neighborhood Northern Flicker family finally fledged and left their nest. I haven't seen the parents or youngsters for several days now.

I'd been watching the family for a few weeks, ever since the chicks were big enough to climb up the inside wall of their nest cavity and peek outside at the big wide world. That also gave them a better platform to beg for more food. Flickers have a long beak that makes their stare seem extra intense somehow. And as soon as a parent lands nearby with food, the hungry teenagers start making a buzzing, grinding, growling sound. Most un-birdlike. The begging sounds stop just as fast when the parent flies off.

Eventually, the fully-feathered offspring just can't stand to wait around any longer. They make the leap out the front (and only) door, usually to follow one of the parents around and keep begging to be fed. Watching their parents gather food helps to jump-start their innate foraging skills, and then they're on their way.

Friday, June 27, 2014

What's Good for the Gander - is a Goose

Canada and domestic goose family (c) John Ashley
Canada Goose (dad?), domestic goose (mom?) and their offspring

While I was in Helena about a month ago, a birder friend directed me to the local (Bud Ballard Memorial) duck pond to check out an unusual goose pair. A Canada Goose has paired with a domestic goose, and they hatched a handful of fluffy, yellow chicks. This sort of thing happens from time to time, and it reminds me that while the big concept of "species" is easy to understand, it can appear rather muddied at times.

With Canada Geese at least, the female leads and the male usually swims along behind the family. This makes me to think that the domestic goose is the "goose," as it were, and the Canada Goose is the "gander" or male. Canada Geese also tend to mate for life, and they nest where the female was born. The young birds stay with their parents for the first year, which means these guys should be around long enough to watch them grow up.

When these cross-pairings happen, the youngsters can look very different from their parents and each other. So if you're in the Helena area it might be worth taking the time to swing by the duck pond and check this family out. These youngsters will probably be unlike any geese you've ever seen, or will see again.

Sandhill and Whooping Crane flying together (c) John Ashley
Whooping (top) and Sandhill Cranes flying together
Side note - we saw something similar last winter, down on the Texas coast. Small groups of Sandhill and Whooping Cranes winter in the area of Goose Island State Park, where we were camped. On a foggy morning as we watched for cranes appearing and disappearing in the mist, a flock of three Sandhills and one Whooper flew past us.

Now we've got a mystery on our hands. Like the geese, cranes also live in family groups. Does this Whooper live with the Sandhills? Is it paired? Where did they come upon each other? It always irks me to leave with more questions than I arrived with.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

A Chickadee With Magpie Hair?

Chickadee with nesting material (c) John Ashley
Adult Black-capped Chickadee carrying nesting material
I crossed paths this evening with a Black-capped Chickadee carrying a beak full of nesting material. Some of our Chickadees have young in the nest already, while others are late nesters. With many bird species, older females nest earlier and often produce more eggs than younger, inexperienced females. The female Black-capped Chickadee picks the nesting location, normally a cavity excavated by both adults from a dead and rotting tree. They only produce one clutch per year.

At dusk I walked back down the hill to my own nest cavity, and we started looking a little more closely at the photos from today. What exactly is in this bird's beak? Could it be? It looks like this Chickadee might be carrying off some of the black and white hairs we combed out of our young Border Collie. You know, the one named "Magpie." Good to see her soft hair going to a good use.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

A Wee Little Spotted One

Spotted fawn (c) John Ashley

Lots of little big-eyed spotted fawns around the woods right now. While the youngsters are still relatively small and slow, mom stashes them in thick grass or brush where they lay hidden while she goes off to feed somewhere, sometimes out of sight and fairly far away. Then the doe returns with a careful, watchful approach. When the coast is clear the fawn leaps up and starts nursing while his mom stands guard.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Summer Solstice 2014

2014 Summer Solstice (c) John Ashley
Solstice sun at 10-minute intervals, camera pointing almost straight up
Family illness on the summer solstice kept me home where we don't have a view to the north. So I placed a fisheye 8mm lens on a full-frame body (which is why you see black edges), pointing almost straight up against the south side of a tall tree, and programmed the camera to record images at 1-min intervals, exposure set for the sun. After sunset, I exposed for the foreground without moving the camera.

Combining all 760 frames creates a white solar stripe across the sky. So I backed off to 76 frames at 10-minute intervals. A passing cloud partially blocked the sun about two-thirds of the way across the sky. This was one of our first blue-sky days in weeks, and it snowed here in northwestern Montana just five days ago - now we turn and head back towards winter.

Friday, June 20, 2014

One-eyed Sphinx Moth Camouflage

One-eyed Sphinx Moth (c) John Ashley
One-eyed Sphinx  Moth (Smerinthus ceirsy) on Douglas fir tree bark
She really has two eyes. But hidden under each forewing, each hind wing has one beautiful blue eye spot surrounded by black eye-liner and a brush of blush. In spite of this splash of color, she can all but disappear on tree bark just by covering her hind wings. Potential predator? Just uncover the hind wings and flash the eyespots. Pretty clever, eh? These native moths are fairly common across most of North America, and their caterpillars feed on poplar and willow.

Monday, June 16, 2014

The Bluebirds of Busy-ness

The new Mountain Bluebird family - so far (click to enlarge)
At least two Mountain Bluebirds eggs hatched today, here at the end of the road. Dad finally got to show his worth by making an almost continuous string of food deliveries to mom.

If mom read my bird books, then she would know to stay at the nest for the first 5-6 days after hatching, brooding the naked chicks to keep them warm until they grow a layer of downy feathers. Instead, she also made a few food deliveries. But for the most part, dad would fly in with food and land nearby, mom would come off the nest to join him, and he would stuff the insect and spider morsels into her beak. She then takes the food to the nest and feeds the bottomless pits that are baby birds. They may be featherless now, but the chicks will grow fast and fledge from the nest in about three weeks.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Spotted Sandpiper Dads

(Father's Day edition)

Let's be honest. For most males, it doesn't take much effort to become a father. But Spotted Sandpiper dads aren't like most males. They are fully responsible for the two behaviors that we typically think of as the most motherly - incubating eggs and raising young. While dad's caring for the kids, sandpiper mom spends her time looking for more males to mate with.

Spotted Sandpiper (c) John Ashley
Adult Spotted Sandpiper (sexes look the same)
The Spotted Sandpiper's strategy is a form of polyandry, when one female mates with multiple males during a single breeding season. This system evolved for one very good reason - it works.

Most species in the sandpiper family breed farther north, up in the arctic and subarctic, where the breeding season is short and there's barely enough time to lay one set of eggs and raise one set of young. A sandpiper egg equals about 20% of the female's weight and, physiologically, she can't lay more than four eggs in quick succession. So those northern sandpipers are limited to one clutch per year due to weather and physiological constraints.

But Spotted Sandpipers have colonized temperate areas further south, where the nesting season is longer. She's still constrained to four eggs in a row but, by shifting the egg and chick tending duties to dad, she can increase her production. In fact, with short breaks between clutches, our southern sandpipers can lay up to five sets of eggs during a single breeding season.

Female Spotted Sandpipers arrive first on the breeding grounds each spring. She'll fight to kick other females out of her territory, and she'll display to attract the arriving males into her territory. Her home will eventually include the smaller territories of several males that she'll mate with, one at a time, over the breeding season.

Here's the kicker. In areas with few Spotted Sandpipers, the female mates with just one male. Instead of spending her energy looking for another mate, she stays home to help incubate the eggs and raise the young.

In other words, Spotted Sandpipers maintain flexible behaviors that enable them to produce extra young when conditions allow. And in the natural world, how many young you produce is the one and only measure of success.

Fortunately, some human dads have also learned that there's more than one way to help mom succeed.

Spotted Sandpiper nest with four eggs (c) John Ashley
Ground nest of a Spotted Sandpiper with four camouflaged eggs

Thursday, June 12, 2014

"The Grandest Sight I Ever Beheld"

Swallows forage in the swirling air currents of Rainbow Falls in early June on the Missouri River










Two hundred and nine years ago today, a small group of explorers on foot clambered upon a series of five waterfalls in central Montana.

They were the first white guys to see these thundering falls that the local Blackfeet residents had known for generations. Even the Mandan, living weeks downstream in North Dakota, had told the party of explorers about "Minni-Sose-Tanka-Kun-Ya," the great falls. Still, the explorers could hardly believe their eyes, and their chief scribe had a hard time describing the scene in his journal.

"I hurryed down the hill which was about 200 feet high and difficult of access, to gaze on this sublimely grand specticle. ... immediately at the cascade the river is about 300 yds. wide; about ninety or a hundred yards of this next the Lard. bluff is a smoth even sheet of water falling over a precipice of at least eighty feet, the remaining part of about 200 yards on my right formes the grandest sight I ever beheld, the hight of the fall is the same of the other but the irregular and somewhat projecting rocks below receives the water in it's passage down and brakes it into a perfect white foam which assumes a thousand forms in a moment sometimes flying up in jets of sparkling foam to the hight of fifteen or twenty feet and are scarcely formed before large roling bodies of the same beaten and foaming water is thrown over and conceals them."

"I most sincerely regreted that I had not brought a crimee [camera] obscura with me by the assistance of which even I could have hoped to have done better but alas this was also out of my reach; I therefore with the assistance of my pen only indeavoured to traces some of the stronger features of this seen by the assistance of which and my recollection aided by some able pencil I hope still to give to the world some faint idea of an object which at this moment fills me with such pleasure and astonishment, and which of its kind I will venture to ascert is second to but one in the known world."


- Meriwether Lewis
June 13, 1805

The expedition had expected a half-mile portage around the falls. What they found instead was a month-long, 18-mile portage that included incidents with grizzly bears, a wolverine, mountain lion, three ornery bison bulls, lots of rattlesnakes, countless prickly pear and mosquitoes stabbing them, and torrential downpours with large hail. Welcome to summer in Montana...