Get to Know Your Natural Neighbors
● By Sandy Kauten
Great Blue Herons: What’s blue-grey, about three feet tall, eats fish, looks like a pterodactyl in flight, and lays eggs? No, not a cross between Big Bird’s mother and Cookie Monster. Yes, a great blue heron! You can find these spectacular blue-grey birds all year long in our community, lingering in the shallows of rivers and streams, on stilt-like legs, waiting silently for a meal to happen by. With their long necks and dagger-like bills, herons feed mainly on fish, but also enjoying amphibians, insects, and even small birds and mammals. Look with your kids for their large flat nests of interwoven sticks, high in the tree branches near waterways, visible before all the leaves grow out. Babies will hatch soon, and when that happens, you can watch mom and dad coming and going from their noisy nests with good things to eat.
Pacific Tree Frogs: Did your family hear the free symphony playing in wet places all over town earlier this spring? This lovely chorus was male Pacific tree frogs “singing” their annual mating songs. Their music can be quite loud since each frog amplifies its tune by inflating a resonating throat sac — up to three times the size of its head! Although it’s hard to see these singers in the dark, tree frogs are about one and a half inches long, light green to brown, and have a dark stripe lined with white around their eyes. In our area, the breeding starts in January-February, eggs hatch two-three weeks after being laid, and tadpoles turn into frogs in June.
Osprey: If you’ve ever watched a hawk-like bird dive from as high as 100 feet in the air and grab a fish right out of the water with its feet, you’ve probably seen another one of our winged neighbors in action, the osprey. These fascinating birds are spring and summer residents in our area, so start looking for them now. Sometimes you’ll hear them before you see them – listen for their distinctive high-pitched, sharp, whistles. If you and your kids are lucky you might see an unmated male perform a “sky dance,” climbing and diving, often while carrying a fish, to attract a female. Ospreys reuse the same nest year after year, typically located at the very top of a tree or platform. There are usually several active nests on platforms hear the Autzen Stadium. Bring some binoculars to get the best view of these birds coming and going.
Beavers: Although you may not get to see beavers up close, a great place to find signs of beaver activity is by the ponds outside the Science Factory in Eugene. Industrious beavers have been busy here in the past year, and you’ll see plenty of their handiwork if you visit. In addition to water plants, beavers delight in eating the soft, tasty growing layer (called the cambium) just under the bark of water-loving trees. Have kids touch the rough tooth marks on one of the beaver-chewed cottonwoods by this pond. Imagine having teeth tough enough to chop down a tree! So where do beavers live? In Alton Baker Park, they live in dens under the canal banks and do not need to build classic beaver dams. If you have a chance to go canoeing in the canal on a spring or summer evening (there are canoes for rent in the park), watch for signs of beaver activity in the tell-tale piles of twigs that litter their underwater den entrances. Fun fact: beavers can hold their breath underwater for up to 15 minutes!
Ducks: We all love ducks, right?! Here in local natural areas like Alton Baker Park, we have lots of mallard ducks – classic brightly colored males and easily camouflaged brownish females. Listen closely and you will hear females making a loud, harsh “quacking” noise and males making a softer “kweking” sound. Mallards are called puddle or dabbling ducks. It’s fun to watch them tip tail-up to reach submerged vegetation, seeds, and invertebrates. Have kids imagine if they had to dabble for their dinners! Here’s a fun fact – water birds must be well insulated to stay warm and therefore have LOTS of feathers – about 12,000 per mallard!
Geese: If you hear a song in the sky that sounds like “a-honk” and “hink,” you’re probably hearing another pair of our winged neighbors, Canada geese. These birds mate for life, and if all goes well for the eggs they lay, they will have two-nine babies in the spring. Goslings (and ducklings) “imprint” on adults within hours of hatching, so you’ll probably see them parading around local parks with their parents soon. (Many kids have seen the movie, “Fly Away Home” about geese that imprint on humans. This movie is based on a true story.) Water birds like geese (and ducks) are also “precocious,” meaning they take to water right away, so you’ll see them paddling around in waterways quite young (unlike baby herons and osprey, who stay in their nests). Wondering about those large groups of mixed age geese that like babysitting co-ops? That’s pretty much what they are! They are called crèches. Nice!To help your kids learn even more about local wild critters, be sure to sign them up for some fun outdoor summer daycamps. Nearby Nature has several wildlife-themed camps – from Busy Builders to Wild Things! to Crawy Critters. Other local non-profits, schools, and city parks departments also have great nature camps for kids. See the Camp Directory in this issue of Oregon Family Magazine for more information.
Beth Stein is the Executive Director of Nearby Nature, a non-profit education group dedicated to fostering appreciation of nature nearby and providing tools for ecological living. The group hosts summer daycamps in local parks as well as school programs, special events, and restoration projects. For more information, call 541-687-9699 or see www.nearbynature.org.