Bird watching is alive and well at the Wetlands
Wetlands visitors have no doubt noticed that the ponds are once again full of water, to varying degrees, and along with the water have come the BIRDS. In fact, many birds found the Wetlands to be a perfect wintering destination, a veritable "bird magnet" as it were.
Several ponds sport low water levels which are preferred by dabbling ducks. Northern Pintail, American Wigeon, Northern Shovelers and Gadwall are all present in good numbers when temperatures allow for open water, which we've had plenty of this mild (so far) winter. The most abundant dabbler is the Green-winged Teal with numbers reaching into the 300s. Canada Geese, Ring-necked Ducks, Bufflehead and Common Goldeneye are also found regularly. Resident raptors include American Kestrel, Red-tailed Hawk (look for Willie on the lamp post) and even the occasional Peregrine Falcon. Magpies and Ravens are ever-present, and it is not uncommon to see a Belted Kingfisher or Marsh Wren hunting there.
While many of our birds leave the Wetlands for warmer climes this time of the year – our Yellow-headed Blackbird, for example, is living the good life in Mexico – it's always surprising to see who chooses to stay. So far this year there have been sightings of Say's Phoebe, Virginia Rail, Long-billed Dowitcher and Yellow-rumped Warbler, all of which typically migrate south. The most interesting species so far has been a resident Black Phoebe which has the double rarity of being an unusual species for Central Oregon and a typical southbound migrant.
Migration is all well and good if you can pull it off, but what if you can't escape the deep freeze? What if you're a MIDGE? That question was asked recently by one of the more inquisitive Wetlands volunteers: Do the midges freeze to death? It's no laughing matter, believe me.
Midges, you may recall, are the small, mosquito look-alikes that form dense black clouds around visitors' heads in the spring and summer, creating an irrational fear of being eaten alive. It turns out that like butterflies and many other insects, they have four distinct life stages (four-stage metamorphosis) and a clever way to make it through the winter.
Beginning as an egg with others in a gelatinous mass, the egg sinks to the bottom of the pond where it hatches into a larva within several days to a week. Once hatched, it burrows into the mud or constructs a small tube as a home, which enlarges as the larva grows. It's during this stage that the worm-like larva takes on a pink to red coloration and is known as a "blood worm."
It will remain in this stage for from less than two to seven weeks, depending on water temperature. At some point it will transition into a pupa and then in three days actively swim to the surface to emerge as an adult several hours later. No doubt excited about its adult life expectancy of three to five days (Woo Hoo!), it quickly joins its contemporaries in the sinister swarm to breed and continue the cycle. The time from egg to adult can be as little as two to three weeks in the summer.
Now back to winter. If you happen to be the unfortunate egg laid in the fall, you have a longer row to hoe. As a larva you burrow into the mud or build a tube like those before you. However, it's cold out, and rather than pupate, you hunker down and go into a kind of suspended animation (new word for the day – diapause). Somehow you don't freeze to death, and when the weather warms, you continue on as if nothing happened.
And so, listen carefully when you visit the Wetlands this winter: That low hum you hear is hordes of midge larvae sawing wood, comfy and cozy in the mud.
About a year and a half ago, the Wetlands volunteers and managers installed a VISITOR'S LOGBOOK so people could sign in, tell us from where they were visiting, and make comments about their experiences at the facility. 2020 was the first full year of logbook entries, and though COVID restrictions limited outside visitation to some degree, and there were no foreign visitors as in 2019, we still had entries from more than 30 Oregon cities and eight U.S. states. Altogether, more than 350 people signed our logbook and commented on the Crooked River Wetlands.
Mariah from Prineville summed up her experience with this comment: "Peaceful and Pretty." Lance from Prineville added, "Amazing place to see wildlife." These two testimonies well represent most of the comments we received. The next time you are at the Wetlands, make a logbook entry, share your bird sightings, let us know how you feel about this special area and provide any suggestions on how it could be improved.
In the meantime, get out there, go for a walk, enjoy the birds, and keep a close eye for signs of spring, no matter how small.
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