Avoid temptation…

The weather over the last couple weeks has pushed a great many RED PHALAROPES inland.  Hundreds are congregating in coastal puddles, river estuaries and sewage lagoons.

Red Phalarope - 11/28/2016

Most of us probably don’t get to see a large sample of phalaropes at one time. There is impressive variation in what they look like, some mostly gray, some gray and black, and some are strikingly dark.

Red Phalarope - 11/21/2016

One might be tempted to turn some of these dark outliers into a different species of phalarope.  Resist the temptation.  Hatch-year Red Phararopes start out dark and streaky.  They molt into their more characteristic gray plumage in the first basic molt.  This will leave the primaries and much of the head feathering dark.  We can’t depend on the ratio of dark to light feathers to sort one kind of phararopes from another.

Red Phalaropes have sturdy bills that are pale (usually yellowish) at the base…


…and show very white underwings in flight.

Red Phalarope - 10/16/2016

Red-necked Phalaropes should have moved on by now with their needle fine, all dark bills and patterned underwings. So, if you find yourself tempted to call one of the phalaropes you are seeing something other than a Red Phalarope make sure you’ve looked at the whole bird.

Duck and cover

About 2 weeks ago, a COMMON SCOTER turned up in Siletz Bay, Lincoln Co.  This is the second North American record for this species since it was split from Black Scoter in 2010.  In the bird-listing world, this is a big deal that has attracted continent-wide attention from the birding community.

I have been watching the action from about 120 miles north via the rare-bird report function on eBird.  I get a dozen or so alerts per day from folks adding their list to the pile.  As of Monday morning, 151 lists had been submitted containing a record of the scoter and 139 of those list were marked as “complete” lists.  Of the 12 lists that were submitted as incomplete, 5 listed the Common Scoter only.

You may recall that I put some energy into critiquing birder behavior back when the TUNDRA BEAN GOOSE turned up at Nestucca NWR a couple years back using eBird listing data.  Well, I’m back…

cosc_chart02The good news is that the mode has shifted and the average list shows increased effort toward birding the place rather than the bird.  Perhaps the emphasis on complete lists instituted by eBird managers is paying off.

But here’s a more frustrating graph…


This is data taken from the all-years bar chart for Lincoln County on eBird, broken down by weeks in November.  When most of us look at an abundance bar chart, we assume that the thickness of the bar equates to relative abundance and the key on the eBird bar chart confirms this: narrow = rare and wide = wide spread.  A novice (or some non-birder agency resource manager) reading this chart might conclude that Common Scoter is as likely as Harlequin Duck and more likely than either of the scaup species and make unwise assumptions as a result.

I don’t know enough about the underlying programming that goes into building these charts, but it seems to me that there is a fundamental miscalculation at work here that fails to take long-term data volume into account.  All those years when a Common Scoter was not reported in Lincoln County do not seem to be considered when building an abundance chart.  The old-school mechanism for solving this problem, from back in the day when we built bar charts by hand, was to replace the data point on the chart with an R (rare) or an A (accidental) in these special cases.  I suspect that a clever programmer could come up with a new-school fix that would serve to broaden the accuracy and utility of these charts.

Playing dice with the universe

We live in a universe where all things are possible, though most things are highly improbable.  We often mistake the high odds for or against something happening for certainty.  Nothing is certain.

The birth of my daughter Michelle was an improbable thing.  We were too old when we started.  We spent quite a lot of time and money fighting the odds and we beat them.  Within days of her birth, she began to exhibit a weird thing with her eyes that the pediatrician thought might be hydrocephaly.  What are the odds?  We prayed that it would not be so.  It turned out it wasn’t.  A week later she was diagnosed with a completely unrelated protein disorder that makes it difficult for her to metabolize branch chain amino acids.  She showed no outward symptoms.  It only showed up in the bloodwork and, then, only on the margin of the statistical curve.  We prayed that she not be afflicted with a disease that could impact her intellectual capacity and general health.  It turns out that the one in a million chance that she’d have the protein disorder was trumped by the even less likely probability that she had a form of the disorder that could be easily managed by diet alone.

We call these low probability outcomes miracles and we shouldn’t let the math get in the way of celebrating them as such.  I believe in miracles, because I live with one.  And I don’t dismiss the possibility that prayer works, because I have prayed and had my prayers answered.  I’m also human and we humans rationalize the irrational.

I don’t pray very much, because I believe that we celebrate that divine purpose for the universe we call God by doing good works.  I practice what I call Zen Deism and believe we should thank God with our good deeds, not empty words and the hope of divine intervention.  I save my prayers for the big ticket items – healthy children, healthy planet, healthy universe, but I believe these goals are achieved through my actions, not passive pleas to the only thing greater than ourselves.

Whatever the outcome of the recent presidential election, someone will break out the word miracle.  Many will claimed that the outcome was produced by divine intervention and prayers.  I won’t be able to argue against that notion, but I would argue that getting cancer or being struck by an asteroid is no less miraculous than beating cancer or having that asteroid miss us.  We color our perspective with hubris and self-interest.  Hubris and self-interest will be the death of us.  We all have expiration dates.  At some point miracles fail the individual, probably because they were never about the individual to begin with.

Albert Einstein, the source for the quote that titles this essay, was both architect and skeptic in the creation of Quantum Mechanics.  He recognized the predictive power of the statistical math that describes a quantum universe.  He also believed in a purposeful God and could not fathom a universe that was so seemingly random at its core.  But we find God through the miraculous, those low probability statistical outcomes.  We ask God for miracles and we deny God when the miracles break in the wrong direction.  We have the temerity to claim that miracles are a reward or a punishment.  We take them personally.  The miracles we witness may well speak to a higher purpose for the universe, but our ability to define that higher purpose is certainly lacking and some miracles, like the Cretaceous comet that killed off 75% of all the living things on Earth and in turn brought about the rise of intelligent shrews, should serve as a warning to all of us about how we interpret a miracle.

We do, after all, continue to live in a universe where all things are possible, but most things highly improbable.  And sometimes we have to live with the consequences…

I heard the news today…

I was out salamander hunting this morning on the Shingle Mill.  While standing along side the road, a pick-up came by with a couple guys in it.  The driver had a semi-automatic rifle on his lap with the muzzle pointed out the window.  They had assumed I was mushroom hunting.  They asked me if I was having any luck.  I explained that I was looking for salamanders then asked if they’d had any luck hunting.  We chatted a bit about shooting stuff and then they drove on.

I am not a hunter.  I do not own any firearms.  I’m pretty sure, however, that much of what these two gentlemen were doing was illegal. I am, as always, willing to stand corrected.  Even if the law says it’s okay to drive down the road with a loaded semi-automatic weapon on your lap, muzzle pointed out the window – presumably to make shooting roadside deer more efficient –  even if  that is perfectly legal – encountering guys with guns on a deserted logging road is always a bit unnerving and has become even more so these days.

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised by guys with guns in pickups disregarding laws.  It turns out that there are no longer any rules about firearms – only 2nd amendment solutions. Stand your ground laws impart more rights to the guy carrying a gun than the folks around him who are not.  I can (apparently) take my guns (if I had any) and march into a government office, threaten the employees and occupy the place for as long as I wanted and, as long as I could make the case that it was a spontaneous act of civil disobedience – no worries about accountability.  This assumes, of course, that I am not a Native American defending sacred tribal lands or a person of color with an interest in policing policy in my community.

The news today that Ammon and Ryan Bundy were acquitted of all charges in the armed occupation of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge last January has put me in a pretty dark place.  Given all the other troubling stuff that’s been going on over the last year, this is not the kind news I needed to hear.  I’m having trouble not going down into that dark gloomy tunnel of abject, why bother? despair.  But I’m going to try…

It’s hard not to be afraid in these frightening times.  The Bundy armed occupation of a government facility was an act of terrorism and when it can be dismissed as a mere act of civil disobedience, it’s hard not to give in to the scared little voice in my head that says hide, run away, stay safe, hide.  Acts of terror are meant to be terrifying and I am terrified that these behaviors are going to spill over into polling places, school houses and public gathering spaces.


Somebody famous once said the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.

Somebody else famous once wrote: I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.

Fear is the mind-killer and that is what the bullies and terrorists in this world are counting on.  We must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and keep on keeping on.

But it got a little harder today…

I can see for miles and miles…

One or two of you may remember that a little over a year ago I had my car broken into and lost a lot of stuff including two pair of binoculars, the telephoto lens for my camera and my venerable old Bushnell Spacemaster spotting scope.  I was able to replace everything with insurance money, but the new Spacemaster and tripod I bought were stolen a couple weeks later out of my car either while it was parked at home or at Fort Stevens.  I bought a used Leupold Sequoia, but it was not a very good instrument.  It was dim and did not focus very well.  I took to depending on my Zeiss Terras for everything including most seawatch efforts…

…until this last weather event drove me to make a change…

I decided to spring for a new spotting scope and started looking at instruments in the range of $500 to $700.  I had my eye on a Kowa standard 60mm which was going to run me just over $700 with the lens and was just about to put it in my shopping cart when the Nikon Prostaff 5 82mm popped up in the “people also looked at…” section.  The reviews were all very positive and it was $449 with the eyepiece.  It usually runs $600.

It came in the mail yesterday.  I took it out to the North Jetty today.


I went with 20 to 60 zoom and spent most of the time today at x30.  I spotted several jaegers, two Short-tailed Shearwaters and a fulmar.  I haven’t had that much fun on a seawatch in a while…

It’s much bigger than a Spacemaster, longer, and the 82mm objective is, well, huge, but it is lighter in weight.  The eyepiece end is also large, but the telephoto is remarkably clear and comfortable to look through all the way up to x60 (though I don’t see using that very much).  And it takes a clean digiscope from just holding my Nikon D7000 up to the eyepiece.   I’m very pleased.

Now I just have to make sure I don’t give the car thieves any opportunities to take my new toy away from me…

Lapland Longspurs

Every year, beginning in mid-September, the Lapland Longspurs stop along the Oregon Coast on their way from their breeding grounds in the Arctic Tundra to points south.

Lapland Longspur - 9/15/2016

One of the best places to find longspurs in the fall migration is the Salicornia flats at parking lot C of Fort Stevens State Park. In a typical season, small flocks of up to 20 can be found feeding on the seed of salt marsh grasses and plantagos. In some years, the numbers are much greater. I remember one season, years ago, when I estimated a flock of nearly 300. Nobody believed me…

Yesterday Owen Schmidt reported a flock of about 70 at the the flats. He had photos. I went out today to see if they were still around and found that the flock had grown to more than 100.

Lapland Longspur - 10/8/2016

Lapland Longspur - 10/8/2016

My best shot of the whole flock hits the middle.  I count 76 in this photo and it does not represent the entire group which I reckon would be another 40 or 50 birds.

Lapland Longspur - 10/8/2016

I suspect the flock will remain as long as the weather stays icky and may even grow in size as more birds drop in.

On safari: Circle Creek Conservation Center

The folks at the North Coast Land Conservancy have nearly completed a raised boardwalk as part of their effort to create a publicly accessible trail system at Circle Creek just south of Seaside.  The trail starts at a building complex at the Conservation Center, tracks north through a flood plain restoration then along the base of Tillamook Head and through a wetland area we’ve been calling the Magnolia Patch.

20160912sm118This deciduous edge habitat is heavily used by migrating song birds, especially in the fall and the Magnolia Patch got its name from the Magnolia Warbler that showed up in 2004.  The general area has hosted many interesting vagrant birds including a Broad-winged Hawk, Eastern Kingbird, several vagrant warbler species, Rose-breasted Grosbeak and just today a funny-looking tanager that was quite possibly a Summer Tanager.

The big brush pile and garden areas around the buildings at the south end always have plenty of activity and would probably keep the average birder busy.

…but to properly explore Circle Creek, one needs to take a walk.  The beautiful map on the message board in front of the barn will point you in the right direction for the Wetland Walk Trail.


Most of the birds moving through now are Nearctic migrants that will be spending the winter here – lots of kinglets and chickadees and sparrows.

But the bumper crop of crab-apples is attracting other species as well, so the walk can be quite birdy.

Anyone who would like to bird-watch at Circle Creek is welcome.  You are asked to sign the liability form inside the barn before your walk and please, no dogs.

September photos from Circle Creek can be seen at iNaturalist.

The meaning of rarity

I photographed a moth at my back porch light the other day which I assumed was a washed out Spotted Tussock (Lophocampa maculata) and posted it, as I do most of my moth photos, on iNaturalist.

I got a correction from Jim Johnson yesterday.  It is not what I thought it was.  It’s a Roseate Tussock (L. roseata), a rare-ish Pacific Northwest endemic (though there are a couple disjunct records from Colorado and Arizona).  This is only the second record for Oregon.  It is listed on the NatureServe watchlist as Critically Imperiled.

But what does critically imperiled mean? and who decides?

Assessing these sorts of things can be complicated.  Folks who live in the middle of a population might see a given organism as common, while folks who live outside that range may value it as rare.  Folks who have a vested interest in the places where an organism lives may be biased one way or the other about the legal issues that come with a tag like “critically imperiled”.  The Roseate Tussock is NOT listed as threatened or endangered by the USFWS.  Its official status in Washington State and British Columbia is, in fact, “species not ranked”.

NatureServe uses an objective, data driven approach to these assessments.  They have a formula which assesses rarity factors, population trend factors and habitat threat factors to score an organism’s risk of extinction.   The score an organism receives is an objective, numbers thing and the ranking is more or less automatic based on the calculated score.  Not much is known about the Roseate Tussock.  No one is sure what the larval host plants are or what the specific habitat needs might be.  It has a restricted range and hasn’t been seen by very many people.  The NatureServe calculator lists this species as critically imperiled precisely because we know so little about its true status.

And when you think about it, this is actually a good thing.  Endangered species protection over the last 50 or so years has been all about crisis management.  Waiting until we can say with certainty that a species is on the brink of extinction and then acting.  It strikes me that erring on the side of protection before a species is nearly gone is a more cost effective, long-term approach to these kinds of management issues, especially given that we know so little about so many things in nature…

Two Oddballs

I took a Fourth of July hike to Soapstone Lake yesterday.  It’s an easy walk along a well managed trail that begins from a trailhead on Hwy 53.  I was banking on more sun than I found, so didn’t see any of the hoped for dragonflies and butterflies, but I had a pleasant day, nevertheless.

2010704sm039If you get out your copy of Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast (Pojar and MacKinnon 1994 and there’s a newer version), you’ll find a section titled “Oddballs”.  This is the place were all the weird little families of plants have been grouped. Some of these plants have peculiar lifestyles.

One such oddball is the Round-leaved Sundew (Drosera rotundifolia)

Drosera rotundifolia - 7/4/2016

It is a carnivorous plant that lives in boggy, nutrient poor environments.  It supplements its nitrogen requirements by catching and digesting insects.  The insects are attracted to the shiny, sugar covered leaves and become trapped in the sticky goo on the tentacle-like hairs.  The plant extracts ammonia from the decaying corpses of the dead insects.

The second oddball, was a large patch of Indian Pipe (Monotropa uniflora).

Monotropa uniflora - 7/4/2016

This plant has forsaken photosynthesis for a saprophytic lifestyle.  Ecological purists will tell you that there is no such thing as a saprophyte and that plants like the Indian Pipe are really just living off the hard work of micorrhizal fungi (technical term = Myco-heterotrophy).  Of course some people might also argue that the micorrhizal fungi are living off the hard work of the trees they have infiltrated, but nature is far more complicated.  There is a subtle and fascinating give and take going on between these organisms which is still being investigated and we would be wise not to judge…

My new favorite fuzzy caterpillar

Michelle and I were out doing a bit of nature photography at the Netul Trail of the Lewis and Clark National Historical Park today.  We were trying to get some video of a robin that had a beak full of worms, when a second robin flew in and quite deliberately dropped a caterpillar at the feet of the first robin.  We thought we were going to get to see a food exchange between robin parents, but both then flew off leaving the caterpillar on the road.  We picked it up and moved it to a nearby maple.

Phyllodesma americana - 7/1/2016

It’s a satisfyingly large caterpillar, flat looking with a cool looking fuzzy fringe like a walking dust mop.  The references point to Phyllodesma americana, the American Lappet Moth, which just so happens to be one of my new favorite moths…

Phyllodesma americana - 5/5/2016

Does this mean I’m giving up on my other favorite fuzzy caterpillars in favor of this one?  Heck, no.  I have room in my heart for many fuzzy caterpillars.