What's goin' on, Ma Nature...? | The Source Weekly - Bend, Oregon

What's goin' on, Ma Nature...?

There's something fishy going on with Mother Nature. I'm not an expert on bird behavior or comings and goings of wild animals, but the appearance of a Common Nighthawk over in The Swamp (Portland) last week threw me a curveball.

Then there's the complete absence of house sparrows (or English sparrows) at my domicile, the sudden appearance of that out-of-place poorwill at Lowe's last spring, the appearance of Bar-tailed Godwits (which should be in China and Alaska) on the Oregon coast, and other things. It just doesn't seem "normal."

Take that nighthawk, for example. We don't usually see them around here until around mid-June, and even then they're spotty, and, unfortunately, seem to be declining in numbers. Now one turned up in Portland in late May. Why so early, and why pass up Central Oregon? Nighthawks usually stop here before heading for The Swamp. Did it get lost and go over—or around—the snow-capped Cascades without seeing them?

And what about those Great-tailed Grackles from the southwest countryside that have popped up in The Swamp? How come they're in the Willamette Valley and not here?

Those Bar-tailed Godwits that birders are seeing along the coast are really something! They usually make an incredible, non-stop flight from their wintering grounds in New Zealand all the way to China, then onto Asia and Alaska in spring. Now they're turning up along Oregon's coast, banded, wearing fancy tags and implanted radio transmitters.

Where are all those pestiferous English Sparrows I've been feeding for the last 50-plus years? They've vanished from my place. How come, all of a sudden I have so many Brewer's Blackbirds pigging out on my feeders, when in the past, one or two would accidentally come by? To further mystify things, we haven't seen a hummingbird at our house yet, and I can hardly remember what a Black-headed Grosbeak looks like. They hung out at my place by the hundreds years back. But those dang-blasted European Starlings and Eurasian Collared-Doves are still here, and there are more of them each year!

Then this note from a Sisters birder: "Over the past couple of years I've idly considered calling you to ask why so few birds were on our property here in Crossroads, after many years of visits by a whole plethora of species. 

"Yes, we still have Juncos, Chickadees and Mourning Doves with routine appearances of White-headed Woodpeckers and Jays, but these, too, are less frequent and fewer in number.  The varied Thrushes, Grosbeaks, Crossbills, Bluebirds, and several others are so sporadic as to be almost non-existent. 

"Even the Hummingbirds are scarcer. Really miss them all. I wonder if the prescribed burns and forest clearings around Sisters (which are vitally important for forest health and fire safety) might impact them in any way? 

"Global warming?  Who knows. Just hope they will return. Enjoyed them so much."

And it isn't just birds, there's something else going on with rodents. A tiny Pinyon mouse turned up at the home of my airplane repairman pal, Vern Goodsell, in 2014. Then last week another turned up at my birder pal Sue Tank's place—miles and miles from Vern's.

Are we being invaded by the mighty Pinyon mouse? Pinyon mice are named for the pinyon pine seeds they love to eat. You'll be hard-pressed to find Pinyon pine around here. Oh sure, there may be a couple of decorative trees planted here and there, but a forest of them, forget it.

Way back in the ancient times of 1958 I was fortunate to witness what I think may have been an outbreak of Meadow voles that happens maybe every thousand years or so. I was going out to Alfalfa every Thursday night to play pinochle and eat homemade peach pie at the Grover home. Gene Grover made the best pies on this good Earth, and everyone thought pinochle was a holy pastime.

For about a month (if my memory's as good as I hope it is) when we'd go out at night and change water (no pivots or wheel-sets in those days), a sea of fur would move in front of the irrigation water as it moved between the laterals.

It was not possible to step on the ridge of high ground that made up the laterals without stepping on a meadow vole. At night, when the hay was being baled, coyotes would follow the baler, gobbling up voles until their stomachs were stuffed. Then the coyotes would puke them up and go back to eating voles again. In the morning, ravens would find the piles of puked-up voles and go at them like there was no tomorrow.

That year, voles were so thick on this side of the Cascades that I can recall Dayton "Hawk" Hyde writing about them in his book, saying they were actually putting ranchers out of business in Klamath country.

Then Tularemia hit 'em, and they were gone, and so were all the Long-eared Owls who were pigging out on them. They dropped out of sight and coyotes started pestering farmers and ranchers again. Old magpie nests had owls nesting in and on them, but when the crash came to the vole's population, not an owl could be found.

So, is that's what's going on? Is something changing in our environment because of climate change? Are all those Townsend's ground squirrels popping out of holes everywhere because hay ranchers are pulling so much water out of the ground that the ground squirrels feeding on the hay are multiplying out of control?

Ground squirrel shooting has become a new business. I saw a bus parked in downtown Christmas Valley last week with a shooting platform on top. If all those shooters are using lead ammunition, it's going to be very hard on the hawks, eagle and owls who eat the dead ground squirrels. They'll perish from ingesting the lead.

There's another facet to ground squirrel populations that may so be worth considering: They're also known carriers of the Bubonic plague.

If you're seeing odd things happening with your bird populations, rodents, or frogs and lizards, please keep a record of what you see. Make daily notes on your calendar, then at the end of the growing season, write up what you observed and send it to me. Maybe someone a lot wiser than I can make head or tails of what Mother Nature is up to, what we can look forward to in the future, and perhaps, why.

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