Sunday, June 29, 2014

Mothapalooza!

Promethea Moth
If you think birders are single minded, wait till you attend your first event with moth lovers! We just returned home from the 2nd Annual Mothapalooza, held at Burr Oak State Park in Southeastern Ohio, and sponsored by the Ohio Division of Wildlife. Jim McCormac works for the Ohio Division of Wildlife, specializing in non-game wildlife diversity issues, especially birds, and prior to that, he was a botanist with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. We know Jim from several other Ohio nature outings, and anything he's involved in will be fantastic. We know next to nothing about moths, so I just wanted to broaden my horizons and get some cool photos, if possible. Mission accomplished!
Giant Leopard Moth
Butterflies are colorful and fun to follow among the bright summer flowers. Moths can sometimes be colorful, but often are not. Some are active during the daytime, but most are active at night. One speaker gave a great comparison between butterflies and moths, and says it's still hard to tell them apart sometimes. An estimated 160,000 species of moths have been cataloged worldwide, with new species added annually, even in Ohio. There are at least 20 times more moth species than butterfly species! The folks we met this weekend can rattle off the Latin and common names, followed by the taxonomy of most species we found. Very impressive! You think birds are tough to ID, given differences between male, female and juvenile? Try moths, then caterpillars with multiple "instars," or molting. If he finds a caterpillar he doesn't recognize, a moth-er will take it home to raise and see what it turns into as an adult. Disclaimer: if you actually know something about moth identification, and I goofed on any of these, please let me know. I have a whole bunch of "mystery moths" that I can't find at all in a book.
At the Sheet
Each evening, the keynote speakers told us more about studying moths. You too, they emphasized, can discover a brand new moth never seen before. It happens every day. Just set up a sheet with a bright light, maybe a black light, and the moths will come to you - along with lots of other night insects. Some moths are huge, colorful and easy to photograph. Others, however, are know as micromoths, due to their very, very small size. Always carry a small bright flashlight and magnifying glass.
Rosy Maple Moth
Some moth names reflect the activities of either the moth or caterpillar. This incredible pink and yellow Rosy Maple moth should be easily found by predators, you would think. But against red maple seeds, it blends right in. Jim McCormac gave some wonderful sessions on photographing moths. His big message was to avoid the "white sheet of death," whenever possible. If you are just going for a mug shot for identification purposes, yes, you'll have to photograph on the sheet.
Io Moth
But when everyone else has gotten their shot, put your finger in front of the bigger moths. They are surprisingly cooperative and will climb on your finger to be moved to a more natural location. . Many moths sit with their forewings closed, covering the hindwings. Tap their thorax (as a predator might do) and they will open up to flash those crazy false eyes like this Io! Oh, always spray yourself well before going out. I'm dying of chigger bites right now. And don't forget to put a spare camera battery in your pocket. Using the flash will wear the battery out quickly.
Moth camouflage
Camouflage is the best way to survive if you are a moth. How many moths do you see here?
Blinded Sphinx Moth
How about this guy?
Feathery Antennae
Of course, moths are renowned for their beautiful feathery antennae. Once you have the mug shot for identification purposes, Jim says, see if you can focus in on the head and antennae for some really dramatic photos.
Not so feathery antennae
Night feeding
One of our speakers specializes in moth behavior. If you just set up a light and sheet, she says, you miss much of the natural behaviors still to be discovered. So we followed her out into a field full of milkweed at midnight, flashlights in hand, so see what they were up to. Some moths will eat as adults, using a long proboscis to get nectar, while others don't eat at all as adults. Many plants are pollinated by moths as much as any other kind of pollinator. (I think this field was also full of the chiggers that started feeding on me!)
Painted Lichen Moth
Some moths look like beetles to me, such as this Lichen moth. Of course there were many other kinds of insects, including actual beetles, on the sheets, so sometimes the decision was - umm, not a moth! The littler moths, flies, beetles, and who knows what  might sit quietly on the sheet, or they might buzz around flying into your eyes and ears!
Tree Frog
One of our mothing sites was actually at the home of an organizer, where she has planted acres of natural plants. If you plant it, they will come! Copes Tree Frogs were out in force, croaking incredibly loud songs!
video


At home, we rarely go out at night, so we miss the other world that comes to life then. The motto on the official t-shirt says it all - "Welcome to the dark side!" At least three raccoons checked out the garbage can at the lodge while we waited for the shuttle to take us to the sheet sites.
Spider with egg sac
This mother spider is carrying all her children around. Except for the white egg sac, which resembles a golf ball, she was invisible against the tree bark.
Imperial Moth
The native plants in our yard are all in full bloom now. We may try setting up some lights some night to see what we can find at home. But, I think we'll stick to birding as our primary activity. We need our sleep!

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Birding on the River

I began my career as a volunteer about 10 years ago at the Falls of the Ohio, spending the cool mornings on the observation deck, showing visitors the fossils to look for, and really enjoying the birding. So I headed back for the Falls when a notice came that a Black-bellied Plover in breeding plumage had been seen there.  I didn't find the plover, but did enjoy quietly watching the birds.
The water is much more shallow at the Falls than anywhere else on the Ohio River. Fish migrating upstream must come this way, since they can't swim through the locks and canal on the other side. Masses of Great Blue Herons and Black-crowned Night Herons stand in the rushing water, patiently waiting for a fish to come by. If you watch long enough, you will see large fish leaping out of the water, just like the nature documentaries about Alaska.
But my favorite bird is the Turkey Vulture. They roost nearby, and as the sun warms the exposed rocks, he warm air currents give them a boost into the sky. So every morning at the same time, you see all of them circling to gain altitude. Of course, sometimes they don't need to look far for a carcass. When fish run into the dam, their bodies float downstream landing on the banks of the fossil beds, and the vultures begin to feast!
Sometimes a small bird chases the larger vulture away. Don't they know that TV's only eat dead stuff?
video
Yes, vultures are my favorite birds.

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

The Engine that Could

All Aboard! at Antonito, CO Station
If you like trains at all, you will love the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad, which reflects much of the history of railroads in the west. It is a narrow gauge train (3 feet between the rails, instead of the standard 4 feet 8 inches), built in 1880 as part of the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad. The narrow gauge allows the train to make tighter turns in the mountains, and reduced construction costs. We traveled from 7888 feet in elevation at Antonito, CO, to the 10,015 feet Cumbres Pass, then down to 7863 feet at Chama, NM.
We left the station at 10 am, stopped for a full lunch midway, and arrived at the Chama by 4:30. Then we boarded a luxurious motor coach, returning to our cars in Antonito in about an hour. As you can see, this is not a rapid mode of transportation, but it was lots of fun!

Trip Route
 In the mountains, a train cannot take a straight route to arrive at its destination. Steel wheels slide on steel tracks if the grade is too steep, so the tracks wind around and around, going up one side of a canyon then down the other. You can often see the track zip-zagging behind you. Oh, what you hear as a child is true. A steam locomotive really does say "I think I can, I think I can" on the way up a hill!
At first, the landscape was dry and flat. A small group of pronghorn antelopes raced us for a while, and eventually veered aside. "Wild" cattle graze on the free range, staring without curiosity as a train passes. We learned that the different patterns of the whistle mean different things.  Four long blasts, for example, means only 5 minutes remain before departure. Elk and mule deer were visible too.

 Going up the mountain requires more coal in the engine to fire up the steam locomotive, and the wind blows it from one side of the train to the other, and in through any open windows. There is no escaping it. But I couldn't stop thinking about all the Westerns I've seen with trains, and even a few non-Westerns. There's no way anyone (other than a stunt man) could run from car to car on a train like this. The cars jiggle back and forth too much. I kept picturing Christopher Lloyd in Back to the Future III, as the train raced toward the gorge, with the school ma'rm hanging from the side of the engine. Actually, this train has been used for many movies over the years.
Observation Car
The Observation Car is nothing like the one we rode on AmTrak in Oregon last summer. This one is an open car - open to the sun, the wind, and every bit of smoke and soot from the engine. However, it was also the best place for photos. By the time we stopped for lunch I was filthy. I'm so glad we don't have to use coal for transportation and home heating anymore. The smell and dirt were incredible.
Cliff Swallow
About half way, we stopped for a huge lunch, meeting the train coming from the other direction. Got a little birding in at this stop. They put up wire netting to stop the swallows from nesting under the eaves, but it doesn't stop these little birds at all! I have a new respect for those men who built and worked on the railroad - we went through a tunnel in stone that was 1.5 billion years old at one spot, and through more recent volcanic ash in another place.
Toltec Gorge
The Toltec Gorge is 600 feet deep, and we moved with no room for error before a drop straight down. The slopes looked distinctly unstable in several spots. They no longer run the train during the winter, but when it was a commercial venture, they had to plow in the winter. I can't imagine the conditions.
 After Cumbres Pass, we slowly crept down through glacial valleys and winding trout streams. With each change in elevation, the aspen trees changed - fully green at the lower levels, up to no leaves at all in the higher mountains. I could hear the little leaves calling "Go away, nasty train! Cough! Cough!" It was a great trip, but I was so glad to get in the shower when we got back to the condo!


Here are all the videos I took, sliced together. See if you can find the antelope!

Monday, June 02, 2014

Aldo Leopold Pilgrimmage

Aldo Leopold Cabin - Tres Piedras, NM
Most people have heard of the leaders in the conservation movement - John Muir, Henry David Thoreau, and Rachel Carson. Yet few people have heard of one of the most influential voices of the 20th Century, Aldo Leopold, author of Sand County Almanac.  In 1912-1913, he worked for the Forest Service here, and built a house for $650. He didn't live in it long, and it decayed over the 100 years since he lived there.


Aldo Leopold is Dick's hero. We went to the Leopold Foundation in Baraboo, WI, and he returned for training as a Land Ethics Leader. He has presented the movie Green Fire many times, to acquaint people in Kentucky with Leopold's works. He ran across this video on YouTube about the restoration of Leopold's New Mexico house, so we called the Forest Service ranger station and arranged to visit it this morning. Not just a "visit," but more like a pilgrimage for my dear husband.
Front Porch View
Just imagine living here when there were no cars on the road, nor power lines interrupting your view of the snow capped mountains on the horizon. We don't know for sure why he left so soon, Dick plans to look into that.
Leopold Living Room
On a cold autumn day, he would come in from the barn, after taking care of his horse, and warm up before a fire in the living room.

After dinner, he might sit at his small desk, typing a report or just his thoughts on the day. He was a lifelong hunter and fisherman, and kept detailed logs of where he went and what he found there each day.
Dick on Leopold Bench
For my husband, this was an emotional day, re-living experiences of his hero. Not many even have a hero, let alone get to visit parts of his life. 
Green-tailed Towhee
While at the ranger station, another couple came in early this morning. They were birders, they announced, and were looking for Grace's Warblers and Grey Vireos reported nearby on eBird. Dick and I smiled. We've had this happen before on vacation. After introducing ourselves, we invited Mack and Aram from Maine, to meet the spirit of Aldo Leopold at the cabin, then we'd go birding with them. Off we drove on the unpaved Forest Service roads up into the mountains. I'm so glad this car we rented has good options for low gear driving in the mountains! I sure used them today. They stopped and we pulled over too. "We heard Grace," they said. I was very impressed with these folks, who had driven down from birding in Colorado already. They knew Virginia's Warbler, Grace's Warbler and Grey Vireos by song only! I saw a bird in a tree, but it was a Robin - you never expect to see these familiar birds in unfamiliar locations. Another bird shook the branches and Aram declared - Green Tailed Towhee! I needed it to make a Towhee hat trick, and we chased it around until I saw it.
Western Bluebird
After the thrill of the chase wore down, we decided to return to Leopold's cabin and eat lunch on his porch. The breeze was pleasant and the view spectacular. But I put my sandwich down when I saw this little Western Bluebird (a first) on the branch not 10 feet away. Does it look like this bird has a brood patch on its belly?  Females pull out some feathers so bare skin can be on the eggs during incubation. I think this looks like a male, but maybe they sit on the eggs too.
Cassin's Vireo
Mack and Aram searched for Grey Vireos on the mountain. Now, I'll be honest. When it comes to sparrows and vireos (among others) I think they all look the same. But I can recognize the cadence of a vireo call, so when I heard one from the porch, I browsed through my phone app for New Mexico vireos, trying the various calls to see what matched. Glorioski! This little bird came zooming up to the same tree just vacated by the Bluebird, and challenged me to mortal combat! Not only did he respond to the Cassin's Vireo call, he matches all the descriptions. Ah, victory is sweet, but I left him as the winner after a few good photos. Thanks, little bird! That makes 4 life birds today - the Green Tailed Towhee, Grace's Warbler, Western Bluebird and Cassin's Vireo. Life is good!

Earth, Fire and Water

Valle Calderas - Grand Valley
What to do on our second week of vacation? Flexibility is very important. We had two choices near each other around Los Alamos. To pass through Los Alamos, we had to show ID at a guarded gate, and promise not to take any photos. Valle Calderas National Preserve is actually the remains of a super volcano that erupted about 1.25 million years ago, spewing pumice, ash and rocks into the air, then collapsing into a valley approximately 12 x 14 miles in size. It filled with water during the
Pleistocene, and this magma dome was an island in the middle of the large lake.
Somehow, we envisioned something like Yellowstone's caldera, since it is another super volcano along with Long Valley in California. After winding up and down the finger canyons (I've become much better at driving in the mountains on this trip, without going all white knuckle), we crested the rise to view a large meadow with cattle and elk, but nothing in the least volcanic looking. In fact, the whole valley is suffering from drought the last couple of years, plus forest fires. In other words, it looked like what it has been for the last 200 years - a cattle ranch, cowboys on horseback and all.
Fire Damage
Our van guide told us lots about its history and ecology, as well as the many movies filmed here, which we enjoyed. But after taking a few short hikes around, we decided we didn't need to spend much time here.
Savannah Sparrow
Not many birds. Despite all the prairie dogs, we did not see any raptors at all, which surprised me. Some sparrows flitted across the fields, along with Say's Phoebe and Mountain Bluebirds. Our guide said that Lewis' Woodpeckers sometimes stashed their bugs in the wooden fence posts for later consumption, but we found none in today's trip. He did recommend that we see Bandelier National Monument while we were in the neighborhood, so we headed back across the mountain again.
Ancient Cliff Dwellings
Bandelier, on the other hand, was fantastic. The orange cliffs are actually volcanic "tuff" produced by Valle Caldera's volcano solidified into tall cliffs. Apparently the orange stuff we found at Rio Grande Gorge is not sandstone at all, but this tuff. It is easily eroded by wind and water, so naturally has lots of holes in it.

But humans have been coming here for some 10,000 years. The Ancestral People who are the ancestors of the current Pueblo peoples lived in this canyon in 1325, and ran into conflict with the Spanish who arrived in 1598. They were farmers who grew corn, beans and squash, supplementing their diet with native plants and animals. By the mid-1200's, villages often included as many as 40 rooms. They dug small rooms into the cliff face, and built houses of adobe using the cliff to support several stories, and ladders to enter doors from the roof.
"Rock Band"
I speculated that the wind blowing across the many holes in this rock might produce sounds, so this collection of stones might be the original Rock Band!
Petroglyph of Turkey
The soft rock also lends itself to carvings in the walls. Some seem to be ordinary creatures such as this turkey, which they raised, but archeologists speculate that they might have a deeper spiritual significance.
Flash Flood Damage
In the last few years, forest fires have killed the trees and plants at higher elevations, so when it began to rain hard just one year ago, the water created a flash flood which destroyed the bridges over a normally small and quiet stream. Cars can no longer reach the parking lots, so they arranged for everyone to enter via shuttle buses which must be caught in town about 15 miles away. The valley floor is covered with sand and tree trunks. It will take a long time to get it all cleaned up, if they ever do.
Canyon Towhee
This Canyon Towhee caught a nice healthy bug for his chicks, but was tempted to grab some Cheetos on the sidewalk too. Took him a while to give up the Cheeto. We called some Canyon Wrens we heard, but they weren't interested in checking us out today, so I'll have to keep trying to find one for a good photo. Tomorrow, we make a pilgrimage to the home of Aldo Leopold!

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Floating Down the River

Dick floating on the Rio
Many years ago, when Dick and I were much younger, we went to West Virginia every fall to go white water rafting on the Gauley River. We started with the easy stuff - just floating down the New River, and worked our way up to the Lower Gualey, then the Upper Gauley with class 5 rapids, where olympic kayakers train. After an incident with a paddle resulting in 3 root canals, I gave up my career as a white water rafter. So I was glad to just relax and enjoy a smooth "float" down the Rio Grande this morning, enjoying the cool breeze, warm sun, and birds in the wetlands.
Black Crowned Night Heron
It can be both surprising and reassuring to see familiar birds from home so far away. We've found several Black Crowned Night Herons and Blue Herons along rivers and ponds. A Spotted Sandpiper with a bright orange bill flew ahead of us down the river. I never realized how hard it is to focus on a bird from a moving raft.
Canada Goose Family
Our river guide Syd, a nice young woman who loves the outdoors, told us about the plants along the river, while we told her the secrets of all the birds we found. The ducks and geese escorted their youngsters along the shore, and didn't seem to mind us looking at them.
Common Merganser Female
The surprise of the morning was this stunning female Merganser. She probably had a mate somewhere, but we didn't see him today.

Syd was polite enough to listen to us talk about other trips we have taken over the years. After two small stretches of "noisy" not "white" water, we put back into shore for the morning.
Common Raven Surveying the Canyon
 The Ravens and Vultures soared up the gorge, inviting us to continue our day along the river, so we drove back to the Rock Slide Trail - marked as easy, except for the rock slide. Once upon a time, there was a road into the gorge. When the rock slide covered much of it, they turned the rest into a hiking trail from the bottom of the gorge to the mesa top above.
Rock Wren
The Canyon Wren sounds like a wind-up toy that is running down, and although we called back asking them to visit us, they decided to stay on the rocks. This Rock Wren flew over to find out who else was singing in his territory, when we played his song on my phone app. He challenged our right to be there, and we eventually decided to accept his mastery of the canyon, and walked on up the trail.
Geologic Formation
Dick and I have indulged our geologic chimpanzees on this trip, bending over to collect small shiny rocks along the trail. The rocks in the gorge are basalt, laid down by volcanoes some 3 - 4 million years ago, fracturing in a typical columnar fashion. At one point, though, we had to clamber up some loose rocks for a closer look. At the top, a layer of basalt. Below that, an orange layer of sandstone, (which is a sedimentary rock) in which other hikers carved their initials. But below that was a layer of small rocks and pebbles laid down by an ancient river millions of years before the volcanoes.  Walking back down into the gorge you can track this layer of orange, hollowed out beneath the basalt, higher and higher on the cliff face as you descend. It's pretty cool stuff. But tomorrow will be even better. We are going to Valles Caldera, the remains of an ancient super volcano just west of Los Alamos. Of the 6 super volcanoes in the world, 3 of them are in the United States - Yellowstone, Long Valley Caldera in California, and Valles Caldera in New Mexico.