Monitoring amphibian egg masses in Clark County, Washington

Volunteers training to monitor amphibian egg masses
Volunteers training to monitor amphibian egg masses at Burnt Bridge Creek, Vancouver, Washington, USA. February 22, 2014.

I wrote a little about the Water Resources Education Center in my last post, so I’ll continue on about the actual amphibian monitoring training. We started the day at the Water Resources Education Center with an overview of common amphibian species in the area and how to identify their egg masses, given by Peter Ritson, the environmental scientist who coordinates the Southwest Washington Amphibian Monitoring Project (SWAMP). SWAMP is a volunteer citizen science project that aims to encourage protection of native amphibians and their habitat by collecting data crucial for conservation decisions, as well as engaging citizens in science and wildlife protection and educating people about the importance of wetlands in the region.

Ritson brought a couple Long-toed Salamanders (Ambystoma macrodactylum), a common Pacific Northwest species which can live in a variety of habitats, hibernating during the cold winter months.

Long-toed Salamanders (Ambystoma macrodactylum)

Although it’s not always possible to see in the field, one of the characteristic features of their egg masses is a “double” layer of jelly (actually triple, which you can see better in this photo on Wikipedia).

Long-toed Salamander (Ambystoma macrodactylum) egg mass

After the classroom training, we headed out to the field to a small wetlands near Burnt Bridge Creek Trail. Those with waders (or more dedicated than I am) worked their way down a drainage ditch, while the rest of us tried to avoid being stabbed by blackberries or falling in from the banks.

Burnt Bridge Creek

Amphibian monitoring at Burnt Bridge Creek

Most of the egg masses we saw belonged to Long-toed Salamanders or to the Pacific Tree Frog or Chorus Frog (Pseudacris regilla).

It takes some practice to spot egg masses, especially since healthy egg masses tend to be below the surface of the water. This one—a Long-toed Salamander egg mass—wasn’t doing so well, possibly due to weather damage.

Long-toed Salamander (Ambystoma macrodactylum) egg mass

Normally SWAMP discourages handling egg masses or removing them from the water, but this one was probably not viable.

Long-toed Salamander (Ambystoma macrodactylum) egg mass

Pacific Tree Frog egg masses look quite different.

Pacific Tree Frog (Pseudacris regilla) egg mass

While we didn’t see any frogs, we could hear them!

More photos from the day on Flickr.

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The Vancouver Water Resources Education Center

Coho Salmon alevin
A recently hatched Coho Salmon (Oncorhynchus kisutch) alevin, still carrying the egg yolk, at the Vancouver Water Resources Education Center, Vancouver, Washington, USA. February 22, 2014.

A couple weeks ago I went to an amphibian egg monitoring training at the Water Resources Education Center in Vancouver, Washington. While I won’t be participating in the program, which is centered in Clark County, Washington, I thought it would be nice to learn some more about the amphibians of the Pacific Northwest.

We started the day with a couple slideshows and a look at some captive salamanders, before heading out to a local wetlands to look for egg masses in the wild. The Water Resources Education Center was one of my favorite places as a kid, but I hadn’t been back in years.

Vancouver Water Resources Education Center

It’s an outdoor and informal education organization run by the City of Vancouver, right on the edge of the Columbia River and associated wetlands. The mission, as you might expect, is focused on water resources, particular the abundant wetland and river habitats of the Pacific Northwest. It’s a great place to learn about issues facing water resources in the region, as well as to see some of the native fish and amphibians you might not find in the wild.

Near the entrance is an area with a number of tanks and terraria, including salmon eggs and recently hatched alevins like the one above, as well as a bunch of native amphibians like this Pacific Tree Frog or Chorus Frog (Pseudacris regilla). We didn’t see any of these in the field, but we certainly heard them!

Pacific Tree Frog (Pseudacris regilla)

I find Western Toads (Anaxyrus boreas) and toads in general strangely charming:

Western Toad (Anaxyrus boreas)

Hanging above is a striking yet disturbing Salmon Lifecycle sculpture by local artists Maggie Rudy and Patty Maly, depicting the life cycle of the salmon in trash—such as that which ends up the oceans, negatively affecting salmon and other animals.

Salmon Lifecycle sculpture by Maggie Rudy and Patty Maly

Salmon Lifecycle sculpture by Maggie Rudy and Patty Maly

Moving towards the other exhibits, you pass a large fishtank, which usually has White Sturgeon (Acipenser transmontanus) and other fish. Later on, some of the salmon may move to that tank temporarily before release, although they can be aggressive. White sturgeons are the largest freshwater fish in North America, at their largest reaching up to 1,799 pounds (816 kilograms) and 20 feet (6.1 meters) and living over 100 years. In addition to overfishing, dams along the Columbia and Snake Rivers threaten sturgeon populations by reducing spawning habitat and blocking passage to and from the ocean.

White Sturgeon (Acipenser transmontanus)

I didn’t have time to poke around the main exhibit area, but I think it’s more focused on kid-friendly interactive activities and watershed education.

Vancouver Water Resources Education Center

A June outing to Lowell Ponds State Wildlife Area

A juvenile Red-winged Blackbird
A juvenile Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) at Lowell Ponds State Wildlife Area, Denver, Colorado. June 15, 2014

Last summer I didn’t get outside much for various reasons, but I did make it to a few places. Lowell Ponds State Wildlife Area is a relatively small streamside recreation area that mostly seems to be used for fishing, although there are some hiking trails.

Unfortunately, the evening I went turned out to be not very good for dragonflies (or photography), but there were a few interesting sightings, most notably the juvenile Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) above, whose parents were extremely displeased by anyone passing by on the trail, and extra-displeased by me stopping to take some photos:

Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus), female

But more excitingly, I spotted a female thread-waisted wasp (Family Sphecidae) provisioning a nest with a caterpillar. I didn’t have enough light to get even remotely decent photos of a fast-moving wasp (I would really like to invest in a decent off-camera flash one of these days), but it was still a pretty cool thing to watch. Last year was the year I discovered sphecids, which I’d never really noticed before, and now every spring and summer I’ll be watching for burrows in dry ground.

Thread-waisted wasp (Family Sphecidae) with caterpillar prey, female

Thread-waisted wasp (Family Sphecidae), female

Hungarian Natural History Museum

A dinosaur diorama at the Hungarian Natural History Museum
A dinosaur diorama at the Hungarian Natural History Museum, Budapest, Hungary. January 29, 2014.

Most of my trip to Budapest was (unusually for me) focused on things other than nature and museums, but I did make it to the Hungarian Natural History Museum (Magyar Természettudományi Múzeum), which turned out to be one of the nicest natural history museums I’ve been to.

The museum is located in a historic building near a large park, which was apparently in 2011 under threat of being converted to a military university. I haven’t been able to find anything more about that, so hopefully those plans changed—the building has been extensively renovated for the museum, and it’s a beautiful interior space. ETA March 6, 2014: Per the comment below and some other articles I found, apparently plans are still underway to use at least part of the building as a school, and the museum’s future is uncertain. I haven’t been able to find any really detailed explanations in English of what’s going on, unfortunately.

Of course, all good natural history museums need a giant whale skeleton:

Whale skeleton at Hungarian Natural History Museum

Many of the exhibits are fairly text-heavy, in part because everything is bilingual (Hungarian and English), more than I normally approve of in exhibits, but the exhibits are so beautifully designed from an aesthetic point of view that I felt they could be enjoyed on other levels as well. However, not everything was text-heavy, and there were some interesting aspects to the museums that I felt were counter to recent exhibit-design trends, at least in the U.S.

In fact, my favorite exhibit was the first one we passed through, a realistic coral reef diorama that surrounded you as you passed through the room, with the exhibit under glass floor tiles, extended up pillars and into the walls. A few tanks of live fish completed the experience. I don’t remember seeing any text here: it was just a beautiful, immersive display of biodiversity, the kind of exhibit I would have returned to over and over as a kid to look for new treasures.

Coral reef diorama/exhibit at Hungarian Natural History Museum

Coral reef diorama/exhibit at Hungarian Natural History Museum

They also had a temporary traveling exhibit on Argentinian dinosaurs, which was a bit more typical, including some interactive activities for kids.

The remaining exhibits for me nicely balanced informative with a more modern cabinet of curiosities approach, so they could be enjoyed on an aesthetic level or you could read the labels for more information.

Rocks and minerals

Rocks and minerals

Many Colors of Life exhibit on biodiversity

Many Colors of Life exhibit on biodiversity

Hungarian Natural History Museum

We finished up the trip with a quick walk through the outdoor Dinosaur Garden in the snow:

Dinosaur Garden

More photos on Flickr.

Wildlife Care Center Open House at the Audubon Society of Portland

Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus)
A Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus) visiting the feeders at the Audubon Society of Portland, Portland, Oregon. February 16, 2014.

On Sunday I went to the Audubon Society of Portland‘s Wildlife Care Center open house with my mother and a friend. I volunteered briefly there in high school, and also spent a lot of time on the trails as a kid, but going back after 10 years of living in a prairie/montane environment was a bit surreal. The trees are so big! There are ferns! So much moss! Everything is green and wet!

Audubon Society of Portland Nature Sanctuary

For the open house, they had all of their education birds out with volunteers, a great opportunity to see all of them and learn their stories. Many education birds end up at organizations either because they were illegally taken from the wild as pets and imprinted on humans or because they were injured permanently, often by cars. However, some, like their Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus) Finnegan, were removed from the wild by scientists due to congenital problems that would prevent survival (in his case a deformed foot).

Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus)

Hazel, a Northern Spotted Owl (Strix occidentalis caurina, is a gorgeous bird, but her coloration is due to vitiligo, a progressive loss of feather pigment with each molt. In the wild, it would harm her survival chances, but due to injuries (probably from automobile impact) she is unable to fly.

Northern Spotted Owl (Strix occidentalis caurina)

But my favorite of their birds is probably Aristophanes, a Common Raven (Corvus corax).

A volunteer holding a Common Raven

They also had volunteers giving behind the scenes tours of the Wildlife Care Center itself, starting with the kitchen…

Kitchen of Wildlife Care Center

…where they prepare food for rescued birds and occasionally small mammals and reptiles.

Wildlife Care Center

They have a small hospital where they can perform surgery and other medical treatments, with cages for recuperation. Some animals may remain there for other a year, depending on their injuries.

Wildlife Care Center

Some patients are literal flight risks:

Wildlife Care Center

They also have a (very tiny) lab for running blood tests and examining fecal samples. They’re hoping in the future to build a larger facility.

Wildlife Care Center

Most of the enclosures for the education birds are outside. This one is for Aristophanes, the raven.

Raven enclosure at the Audubon Society of Portland

After the tour, we took a short hike down across Balch Creek…

Balch Creek, Audubon Society of Portland, Oregon

…and around one of the loop trails, where we saw a lot of Western Redcedar (Thuja plicata), which is actually in the cypress family rather than a true cedar…

Western Red Cedar (Thuja plicata), Audubon Society of Portland Nature Sanctuary

…and also a lot of Licorice Fern (Polypodium glycyrrhiza), a common species that tends to grow on the trunks of deciduous trees.

Licorice Fern (Polypodium glycyrrhiza)

The feeders outside the window in the nature center are a great place to observe and photograph common local songbirds, such as the Spotted Towhee (Pipilo maculatus)…

Spotted Towhee (Pipilo maculatus)

…and Chestnut-backed Chickadee (Poecile rufescens):

Chestnut-backed Chickadee (Poecile rufescens)

I have more photos from the day up on Flickr.

A long hiatus, and a cave

Pál-völgyi Cave
Dripstone formations in Pál-völgyi Cave, Budapest, Hungary. January 28, 2014.

It’s been a long time since I posted—during that time I made some pretty huge life changes, including moving from Colorado to Oregon and applying to graduate school (again)—and I haven’t had a lot of chances to get outdoors or do much photography. But I’m back now, with some not very good camera-phone photos of Pál-völgyi Cave outside Budapest in Hungary, and hopefully I’ll get back into the habit of posting—and finish that Iceland travelogue eventually….

For various reasons, my trip to Budapest was a strange one for me. Although I took my SLR and a point-and-shoot, I mostly used my phone camera, and I can’t say I took any stunning photos—but I had a great time, and they’re certainly good enough for memories.

Most of the trip I spent in the city itself, where pretty much the only wildlife I saw in a rather chilly January was pigeons, but one day a friend and I went to Pál-völgyi Cave (more information in English) at 1025 Budapest, Szépvölgyi út 162, one of the easiest caves to get to from the city, and also the largest in Budapest. It’s part of Duna-Ipoly National Park, one of the most diverse national parks in Hungary. The cave itself stretches over 29 kilometers, and many of the chambers are actually underneath the residential districts of Budapest. The cave is open from 10 a.m. – 4.15 p.m. every day except on Monday, and later in summer. Regular tours start quarter past. Full price tickets cost 1300 forint (~$6 US) per person.

After a short metro and bus ride from the city center, we stopped briefly to warm up and buy tickets for the ~1 hour guided tour through the developed part of the cave, which is relatively easy aside from a bit in the middle involving a ladder and some very steep stairs. This is not a wheelchair-accessible tour, and I’d think twice if you have knee problems.

Outside Pálvölgyi Cave, Budapest, Hungary

On the bright side, the temperature in the cave stays about 10 ºC year-round, so in January it was actually an improvement over outside! However, if you want to do the longer, crawling tour through the non-developed part of the cave, I’d probably do it in warmer weather to avoid getting chilled when you emerge.

Pálvölgyi Cave, Budapest, Hungary

The cave complex is large and labyrinthine, mostly full of dripstone from the thermal waters which formed parts of it, as well as Budapest’s famous thermal baths. It was discovered in 1904 by a farmer looking for a lost sheep, which had fallen into a cave-in. Exploration followed, with some passages opened up with dynamite, and during World War II, the cave was used as an air raid shelter, resulting in damage to many of the formations.

Over 13 kilometers of the cave have been surveyed, and it hosts a population of bats, which were hibernating deeper in the cave when we visited.

Many of the cave formations had been given names, for example a “scorpion” and a “crocodile”:

Pálvölgyi Cave, Budapest, Hungary

This was the first limestone cave I’ve been in—I had never seen stalactites or stalagmites before!

Pálvölgyi Cave, Budapest, Hungary

Peeking into a narrow crevice:

Pálvölgyi Cave, Budapest, Hungary

I have to confess I paid less attention to the very knowledgeable guide than I should have because I was too busy gawking, but I think these large dents represented gas bubbles of some kind:

Pálvölgyi Cave, Budapest, Hungary

Aragonite crystals, I think:

Pálvölgyi Cave, Budapest, Hungary

Looking up some of the steep stairs midway through:

Pálvölgyi Cave, Budapest, Hungary

And down…

Pálvölgyi Cave, Budapest, Hungary

But the 500 meters of the short tour is quite developed and artificially lit:

Pálvölgyi Cave, Budapest, Hungary

Many parts of the cave are wet, and dripstone is still forming. It’s important not to touch the walls, as this can interfere with the process.

Pálvölgyi Cave, Budapest, Hungary

And as a lovely bonus, there are fossils, including clams and a sea urchin which I think the guide said was 40 million years old:

Fossil clams

Fossil sea urchin

Of course, I couldn’t leave without petting the adorable cat in the little coffee stand attached to the ticket office:

A cafe cat at Pálvölgyi Cave, Budapest, Hungary

The rest of my photos are up on Flickr, and I’d definitely like to go back someday with a better camera, as well as go back and do the longer tour (probably not at the same time).

Next, I’ll post some photos from the Hungarian Natural History Museum, one of the nicest natural history museums I’ve been to, and then I can say I have if not finished a travelogue for once, at least finished the natural-history-related part of one!

The first spring trip to Sawhill

Pasture Grasshopper (Melanoplus confusus)
Pasture Grasshopper (Melanoplus confusus), Sawhill/Walden Ponds, Boulder, Colorado, USA. May 12, 2013.

Not surprisingly, almost the first place I manage to get out to once the weather shifts–although this year we’ve almost skipped straight into summer–is Sawhill and Walden Ponds in Boulder. Just about every time I go there I see something new and interesting, whether it’s insects, reptiles, or birds, and today was no exception.

Since Lee gave me the T1i, my partner and I were both able to take pictures, which was a nice change from me taking pictures and him getting impatient. We had a pretty hot, sunny day, so the insects were quite active. I was hoping to see some early odonates (of course), but unlike last year, due to April being full of snow, this year’s ode season is starting slowly. Other local ode-watchers have just begun to report Plains Forktails (Ischnura damula) in the last few days, and they were the only species we saw.

Here’s a male with a nice meal:

Plains Forktail (Ischnura damula), male

And a female (teneral, I think–I didn’t see any mature-looking females):

Plains Forktail (Ischnura damula), female

I then spent a frustrating period trying to photograph a large and adorable Phidippus jumping spider, probably P. audax, which seemed convinced I might eat it and sidled around the other side of the cattail stem no matter where I moved. Eventually I managed to get a couple kind of decent shots.

Jumping spider (Phidippus audax?)

Jumping spider (Phidippus audax?)

My partner spotted a fairly large Common Garter Snake (Thamnophis sirtalis), a species I’ve seen a few times at Sawhill before; like before, it wasn’t very cooperative, so this was the best picture he could get:

Common Garter Snake (Thamnophis sirtalis)

I attempted some photos of a very tiny Pasture Grasshopper nymph (Melanoplus confusus), with pollen covering its tiny face:

Pasture Grasshopper (Melanoplus confusus)

And spotted a handsome weevil (Notaris puncticollis):

Pale-spotted Gray Weevil (Notaris puncticollis)

Pale-spotted Gray Weevil (Notaris puncticollis)

The most exciting insect we saw, though, will be getting her own post. Stay tuned!

Thanks to v belov for the weevil and César Nufio for the grasshopper identifications.