In February?

I took a trip down to Nehalem and Alder Creek Farms yesterday.  The sun was out.  The wind was blowing from the east.  And the temperature was 65F.  Not your typical winter’s day on the North Oregon Coast…

I spent about an hour in the community garden on the farm.  There was some sort of cruciferous vegetable that had been let go for the winter and was flowering in big, showy, yellow blooms. And the pollinators were busily taking advantage of both weather and flowers.

Apis mellifera - 2/8/2016

We think of Honey Bees when we think of pollinators and there were plenty of them out doing their bee-business, but they were not alone.  By the end of the morning, I counted no fewer than 5 bee species, 2 kinds of wasps, 7 kinds of flies and a beetle, all actively doing the important work of pollination.

Diabrotica undecimpunctata - 2/8/2016

The first sign of a healthy ecosystem is diversity… even in a garden… in February.


More photos of my visit to Alder Creek HERE.

Mystery Magoo

Today in Cannon Beach I came upon a mystery…

20160201sm014I’ve seen it before in other places, usually after lots of rain.  It looks like it comes oozing out of the ground.  Today I decided to do a bit of research.  I GOOgled it…

The stuff is most commonly referred to as Star Jelly.  In folklore, it was believed to fall from the sky during meteor showers.  It seems to defy any modern, more earthly explanations though there are plenty of opinions ranging from the remains predated amphibians to the residue of slug sex to some kind of slime-mold or bacteria.  None of these hypotheses is completely satisfactory and efforts at analysis have proven mostly inconclusive.


A new distraction

Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is a ridiculous one ………………………… …………………….………………………– Voltaire

I have been spending a lot of (and perhaps too much) time at the communal data collection site iNaturalist over the last several weeks. It is a place to record things we see in nature. There are plenty of sites like this out there on the internet, but none tries to capture so much with the kind of user level of participation that iNaturalist does. Anybody can enter data and anybody can comment and agree or disagree with the identification specifics of entries made by others.

Harpaphe haydeniana - 5/18/2012

At first, I was a bit surprised by the number of folks from far away giving me advice on local identifications, getting them wrong and doing it with such authority. Experts from out-of-town assuming I’m clueless and telling me how to do stuff. A lot of that going around these days…

Then there are the folks from out-of-town on iNaturalist that actually caught my mistakes and pointed me in the right direction.

For most of us, what we think we know is a mix of personal experience and stuff we have picked up from reading or taking a class or watching Nature on PBS. The farther away a thing is from my local patch of experience, the more reliant I am on external sources. Those external sources are subject interpretation and a certain amount of faith. The book I’m using may be the same one that the other guy is using, but depending on our experiences, we may interpret the words differently. Or that other guy may be using a completely different reference written by an author with a different set of definitions for what’s what. They may believe that theirs is the definitive text.

Definitive. Over-confidence in the inerrancy of an opinion. A lot of that going around these days…

It may surprise some of you to learn that I don’t know everything and, more importantly, I don’t believe I know everything. I have my doubts about what other people have dubbed “my expertise”. iNaturalist brings this reality into sharp relief.  Using iNaturalist is as much a study in human psychology as it is in participatory citizen science, not to mention an exercise in learning to check my own ego.

I have learned quite bit  interacting with folks on iNaturalist. The first lesson is: get used to anarchy. Everyone can offer an opinion and once given, there does not appear to be a mechanism for weighting or removing opinions that are clearly in error. There are folks called curators working on the site, but they do not have the power to add or subtract dubious votes from the general user population (assuming I’m reading the FAQ correctly). This can place some records into an undeserved limbo until enough additional votes come in to over-ride that one outlier.

And that would be the second lesson: the number of folks available to accurately assess data, particularly at a regionally specific level, is not large. The only taxonomic group that is well represented is the birder group and, even in that group, the gull ID’s (among other problematic ID challenges) are pretty sketchy. If you’re interested in confirming a bug or a fish, you will probably have to wait a good long time and the botany answers show a frustrating regional bias which most probably reflects an incomplete understanding of range and taxonomy by out-of-town commenters.

But the third lesson is, for me, the most revelatory: there are some really serious and knowledgeable folks who’ve made themselves available to the rest of us rabble on iNaturalist. There are a couple of snail and slug folks who’ve helped me out, a primatologist, and the guy who reminded me that there are two kinds of raccoons in Costa Rica (Common and Crab-eating).

Raccoon - 3/27/2014

There is a great deal that I don’t know.  I try not to let that get in the way of participating in these larger citizen science projects.  We all have things to contribute and things to learn.  We may doubt our ability to contribute meaningfully to a citizen science projects, but having doubt is a sign of critical thinking.  It’s a good thing.  Stating with authority “I don’t know enough to contribute” is a doubtful proposition.

You can explore iNaturalist for yourself at:

Role Models

I made my first trip to Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in the back of Lona Contreras’s station wagon – spring of 1971 – four teenage boys and Alan Contreras’s mother. She was a genuinely brave woman.

My father took over the driving duties the next year and did so until I went off to college. I made an annual pilgrimage to Malheur just about every year from 1971 until 1998.

mische20070526My daughter was born in 1998 and that complicated life just enough to stop the annual trips to Malheur for a while. We didn’t get back to Malheur until 2004. We’ve tried to fit in a trip every two or three years since 2004.  Malheur is important to me.  Memories of Lona Contreras.  Trips with my friends and my father.  Trips with my wife.  Trips with my daughter.  It should be of no surprise to any rational human being that I am linked to the place and that I might be angry that some out-of-state yahoo, who’s probably visiting for the first time, has decided he could make better decisions about that sacred place than I might.

Any rational human being…

So when news came that a coalition of concerned folks was planning a Portland rally today in opposition to this recent occupation of Malheur by armed thugs from out of state, I thought I might make the drive from Astoria to participate. When I mentioned to my daughter that I was thinking of going, she asked me not to. She had heard about those gun-toting cretins and was afraid I might be putting myself in danger. There were lots of reasons why I might have talked myself out of going: four hours driving, fuel expenses, icky weather. But fear?

When she said that, I knew I was going to have to make the drive. Sometimes being a role model for your children can be a pain…

It was raining when I arrive at Holladay Park, but that didn’t really dampen the mood of the crowd.  I would describe that mood as (mostly) polite anger.  If there were any pro-Bundy folks around, they kept pretty quiet.  I did note a couple with a “free the Hammonds” sign, but it was signed at the bottom “Socialist Workers Party”, so I didn’t quite know what to make of it.


My peak count was something north of 750 people (though I have no doubt sinister forces within the media will try to claim a smaller showing).  A RED-TAILED HAWK, escorted by a dozen or so AMERICAN CROWS, was also in attendance.


The annual movement of birders to Malheur, usually timed to Memorial Day Weekend, is as routine and predictable as the northbound movement of birds in the spring. We come to Harney County. We buy gas. We shop at the Safeway.  We eat at the restaurants and sleep in the motels. We buy t-shirts and coffee mugs. We contribute to the local economy.  We love Malheur and we appreciate the great and fragile gift of compromise that the real residents of Harney County have offered.

The Bundys are having their snacks (and their ideas) shipped in from out of state.  It’s probably time for them to go home a be a burden to someone else’s economy…


More photos from today HERE.

And don’t forget to sign the petition.

Another Red-shouldered Hawk…

Today was shopping day so I hopped in the car and headed to the store.  I took the scenic route: Wireless Rd to Tucker Creek to Ft Clatsop to the Airport to Warrenton.  Along the way I counted six different RED-SHOULDERED HAWKS.

Red-shouldered Hawk - 1/13/2016

I have lived in Clatsop County since 1987.  I saw my first Red-shouldered Hawk at Brownsmead in 1998.

rsha19980201skch01The Wahkiakum Christmas Bird Count reported a Red-shoulder in 1999, but went for another 10 years before recording a second one.  The Columbia Estuary CBC did not see Red-shoulders until 2001.

Today I saw more Red-shoulders than Red-tails…

Birds of Oregon: general reference (2002) describes the distribution of Red-shouldered Hawk as “locally uncommon to common in breeding locations in the winter, as well as along the central coast.”  The account is accompanied by a Breeding Bird Atlas map (2001) with no records north of Polk County in the Valley or north of Coos County along the Coast.  In other words, we have pretty clear documentation of a northward march up the Valley and the Coast over the last 15 years or so.

An eBird map of birds reported in the last year tells the story.


Something has changed over the last half-century that has allowed Red-shouldered Hawks to successfully expand their range northward. That change is most probably the same thing that has allowed the expansion of White-tailed Kites, Anna’s Hummingbirds, and Black Phoebes. You all know where I’m going with this. I mean good golly, there are currently 3 kinds of orioles WINTERING on the coast this year.

Global Climate Change is real and we can see it happening before our eyes…

Red-shouldered Hawk - 1/19/2015

For which it stands…

“Republic. I like the sound of the word. It means people can live free, talk free, go or come, buy or sell, be drunk or sober, however they choose. Some words give you a feeling. Republic is one of those words that makes me tight in the throat – the same tightness a man gets when his baby takes his first step or his first baby shaves and makes his first sound as a man. Some words can give you a feeling that makes your heart warm. Republic is one of those words.”  ……………………………………………………………..— John Wayne in the Alamo

There are fortunes to be made tapping into the unfocused rage of angry American white males. If more than 10 or 12 get together in one place, odds are the one at the front of the room, talking the loudest, will hit the rest up for money. Laissez-faire. The insurrectionary anarcho-capitalists who have recently taken up residence at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge are white and male and purport to be angry and they all have “legal defense funds” into which others are encouraged to send contributions…

What these men are not are Constitutional Scholars or even good republicans. They are willfully ignorant and angry. They are self-absorbed and angry. They are anarchists and they are angry. Willfully ignorant is not the same as unintelligent and there is method to an anarchist’s madness, but anarchy fails because of the economy of scales. It’s easier to cherry-pick the parts of the constitution you agree with when sitting around the table at the coffee shop with your friends than it is to do so on a National scale. At National scales you will come off looking stupid, even if you are really just showing your ignorance. There are currently 320 million people in the United States. Odds are most of them are going to disagree with you. The framers of the Constitution understood this way back in the early days when there were only 3.5 million people to deal with in a much smaller United States. That’s why they set up a Constitutional Republic rather than going with anarchy.

If we are going to invoke the ghost of John Wayne we had better start with a definition:

Republic (from Latin: res publica): a sovereign state or country which is organized with a form of government in which power resides in elected individuals representing the citizen body and government leaders exercise power according to the rule of law.

That’s right. In a republic, we live by the rule of law and the laws we live by are made by people we elect through democratic principles to represent us. We call that body of elected officials and folks they hire to carry out the rules THE GOVERNMENT. A true republic is all about a functioning government representing all the people and a set of rules we are all expected abide by to get along. We adjust our behaviors to the rule of law as part of our covenant with these republican ideals.

I have, on occasion, broken the law. I’m guessing most folks have stories of times when they chose to put themselves above the law. Drove over the speed limit. Took a shortcut across someone else’s property. Partaken of a controlled substance… or two…

Most of us have, at one time or another, re-evaluated a law and made the conscious decision that it wasn’t meant for us. Laws are for controlling those others, after all. Most Americans have a little bit of the anarchist in our hearts. We all cherry-pick the rule of law. But when I get pulled over by a policeman, I try to be respectful. He’s doing his job and deserves my respect not my anger. If I was obviously breaking the law, I pay the fine. If not, I take my day in court. What I don’t do is take up arms and occupy a government building with demands that the laws as they apply to me be removed. The difference is that I have a fundamental respect for republican ideals even if I might disagree with some of the products of republican governance (or most of the current crop of self-identified “Republican” legislators).

The cowboy-anarchists from out-of-town, currently occupying a public building on the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, are tilting at windmills and they will probably make their fortunes doing so. The windmills belong to you and me.  That makes me angry. I was already white and male.  The armed occupation of an object of the public (and republican) trust is an act of desecration.  Malheur is no less a shared symbol of American Ideals than the American flag.  It is my genuine belief in the ideals of the framers of our Constitution (and John Wayne’s ideal of a republic) that stand between me and these misguided outlaw-anarchists in the high desert.

UPDATE: Sign the petition to the WHITE HOUSE!!!

Coyote Butte - 6/19/2011

18 Fox Sparrows

I spent yesterday morning in the sparrow mines…


I was digging around specifically for FOX SPARROWS.  Individuals from the coastal populations spend their winters in the scrubby mix of willows, salmonberry and non-native blackberries found on the Lower Columbia.  In a few months, they will begin moving back north to breed.  Right now, they’re at peak densities along the Oregon Coastal strip.  This, combined with decent morning light, moved me to go out and do some photo-documentation.

The local Fox Sparrows belong to a genetically distinct sub-group collectively described as “Sooty” Fox Sparrows and within this group are smaller sub-populations that have reliably diagnosable characteristics.  Most of those smaller sub-populations can be found by the properly tuned in observer.


On average, smaller, darker individuals breed along coastal British Columbia and southern Alaska.  Larger, grayer individuals breed along the central Alaskan coast and the Aleutian Islands.  The differences in size and color are an artifact of where these different populations breed and are a product of natural selection.

Birds that breed in the more humid temperate rainforests tend to be darker, a phenomenon seen in many bird species and referred to a Gloger’s Rule.   Differences in size tend to follow latitudinal temperature differences with larger individuals  associated with colder regions and smaller individuals in warmer regions.  This phenomenon is referred to as Bergmann’s Rule.  Both of these “rules” are meant to describe clinal trends in physical characteristics within larger groups.  There are exceptions and there are fuzzy boundaries, kind of like the sub-specific units they describe…

So, when we’re out watching Fox Sparrows we might infer that the small, dark brown ones will be heading to the Olympic Mountains and the coast of British Columbia to breed…


…and the larger ones are bound for parts much farther north and west.


The very bold birder might even attempt to put a sub-specific epithet to some of these individuals.

But even on a less rigorous plain, the differences in the size, shape and color of all those Fox Sparrows in the shrubbery celebrate diversity in nature and the relationship between organisms and their environments.  Fox Sparrows only make sense when we understand the ecology of the places where they live.

You can see photos of the 18 Fox Sparrows that were good enough to sit for me HERE.


Broken record

This last Sunday we did the 36th annual Columbia Estuary Christmas Bird Count.  The weather was much nicer than expected with mostly sunny conditions in the morning and scattered showers in the afternoon.  Nice weather tends to make for happy participants and happy participants find more birds.  As a result, we managed to find 134 species. This is one more than the previous record set in 2000 and about 10 above the average for the count.

Common Ground Dove (count week image)The COMMON GROUND DOVE originally found by Steve Warner in early November put in two appearances over the course of the day.  Which, for those who have gone looking for it know, is remarkably out of character for this shape-shifter…

There were two different outlier subspecies BRANT noted on the count.  One on the Washington side which goose aficionados think is most likely an PALE-BELLIED (ATLANTIC) BRANT and a second bird at Warrenton which is either a GRAY-BELLIED or DARK-BELLIED BRANT.  The literature on Brant identification is contested and a bit confusing.  My photos for the Warrenton bird (taken from more than 300m through a spotting scope in icky light) do not really represent what I saw and do not really contribute the discussion beyond “yup, it’s some kind of Brant).  I have not been able to relocate the bird I saw.

putative Pale-bellied Brant (photo by Kathleen Sayce)Lee Cain and Nick Baisley had a very good day in the Wireless Rd Sector.  Not only did they relocate the Common Ground Dove and CLAY-COLORED SPARROW, they found and photographed a WILSON’S WARBLER…

Wilson's Warbler (photo by Lee Cain)…and also found a HERMIT WARBLER embedded in a flock of TOWNSEND’S WARBLERS and a TURKEY VULTURE sharing a meal with ravens.

Other unusual species include an AMERICAN WHITE PELICAN at Ilwaco Boat Basin, a ROCK SANDPIPER keeping company with a flock of DUNLIN at Ft Stevens and BLACK PHOEBE along Ridge Rd (two others were seen in different locations during the count week).  A count week SNOW GOOSE on Sunset Lake could not be found on count day.

I want to thank the 22 folks who helped out over the course of the day.  We don’t always get a day like the one we had this year and I’m glad I got to share with the others who participated.

Hope to see you all next year.