Friday, July 3, 2015


Some photos (mostly by Jess, a couple by Ellie and me) from a recent camping/fishing trip on Verdigre Creek. Our closest neighbours were Cooper's hawks (a nest with at least two young ones, perhaps a week from fledging), we were serenaded by screech-owls and whippoorwills, and winter wrens provided a much better wake-up call than the fake birds that live in my alarm clock back home. Belted kingfishers and great blue herons fished the creek with us, and we had Baltimore orioles, rose-breasted grosbeaks, yellow warblers, and eastern phoebes for company.

It is good to get away once in a while...

Thursday, July 2, 2015


Jessica, Ellie, and I recently visited the Grove Trout Rearing Station near Royal, Nebraska, where most of the state's trout are raised to fishable size. (There are a very few coldwater creeks with partially or totally self-sustaining populations, but a case could be made that even these are indirectly dependent on the work done here, which reduces the pressure on those vulnerable locales.)

Established in 1961, Grove originally consisted of a couple of spring-fed ponds, but was soon expanded by re-diverting part of Verdigre Creek's flow into an old streambed. Verdigre is a class-A coldwater stream, and additional aeration is provided to support high concentrations of trout within the station.

Grove is not a hatchery; trout (mostly rainbows, occasionally browns) are trucked in from the Rock Creek and Calamus hatcheries as fingerlings. They are fed a carefully controlled diet, and their development monitored by fisheries staff.

Once they reach a certain size, trout are moved to the old creekbed, where visitors are allowed to feed them ad lib. There are vending machines full of pellets scattered around the grounds, and these help defray the station's expenses, one quarter at a time.

"Feeding frenzy" is not too strong a word for what happens when pellets hit the water, but it soon became apparent that these trout have been quite conditioned to being fed by visitors: the water churned anytime we happened to step near the banks.

When the time comes, trout are sucked from the raceways with a Honda-powered fish pump (this may sound violent, but actually spares them the stress of netting and handling) and deposited into fisheries trucks, specially equipped with aerators and monitoring equipment, for transport to various locations around Nebraska. Most are stocked only in the colder months, but those with sufficiently low water temperatures (including Verdigre Creek) may be stocked year-round.

In some respects, this is an industrial operation—it could be viewed as a mere feedlot for fish—but its park-like setting makes it a pleasant place for a visit, whether to initiate a feeding frenzy or to simply watch the rainbows cruise through the cool water.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Some call it marijuana

Found all across Nebraska, "ditchweed" is a legacy of the Second World War: with the Philippines under Japanese control, the United States needed a domestic source of fiber for rope and canvas, and encouraged the planting of hemp. (Etymological reminder: canvas is a cognate of cannabis.)

Because it derives from industrial hemp strains, ditchweed has very low THC levels. "That stuff will give you nothing but a headache." It has been reported, however, that growers of high-quality ganja sometimes use wild-harvested ditchweed to cut their product and increase profits accordingly.

Nebraska policy, officially or otherwise, has been to recognize that the stuff grows wild, and to tolerate it accordingly—as long as it's not being actively cultivated or harvested. (The stand above, photographed by Jessa, is actually on state land, a wildlife management area in the north-central part of the state.) Legislation passed last year would permit the growing of industrial hemp for research purposes, but regulations are still under development, and both full-scale commercialization and medical marijuana will apparently have to wait. I liked this remark posted by another photographer: "I found this patch growing along a remote dirt road. The only other thing in sight was the vast fields of corn being watered by a plethora of gigantic sprinklers. I will not comment as to how the priorities might be backwards..."

I remember Mike Cox talking about an early (1970s) Nebraska Falconers' Association field meet, held just outside Yutan. The group was camped in a cow-pasture woodlot, which happened to contain a large stand of hemp. Apparently a sheriff's deputy stopped by, and had some trouble believing that all these long-haired, bearded young guys with the fringed suede jackets were there for bunnies, not the local plant life...

Although non-native, ditchweed is not particularly invasive, and is a high-value plant for wildlife, specifically seed-eating birds. (As Peter Tosh notes, "Birds eat it...and they love it," and the Bob Marley song "Three Little Birds" was inspired by ground-doves eating marijuana seeds at his home/studio in Kingston, Jamaica.)

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

On the fly

For today's lunchtime fishing break—this has become a habit of late—I broke out the fly rig, and even remembered the camera. Pretty bluegill, innit?

Thursday, June 11, 2015

One and done

I don't put much stock in New Year's resolutions, but at some point I did form a firm intention to fish more often this year. (Which shouldn't be hard, as I didn't get out at all last year, and only once or twice the year before.) So yesterday I set myself an arbitrary challenge: leave work on my lunch break (I get 45 minutes), drive to some public water, catch a fish, and then get back to work on time. A guerilla-style, hit-and-run mini-expedition, if you will.

I budgeted the time thusly: Ten minutes to drive to a municipal lake. Two and a half minutes to reach the water's edge and gear up. Figuring another two and a half minutes to pack up and another ten to drive back left twenty minutes on the water. (And since the mercury hit 104°F yesterday, I wasn't anxious to stay longer.)

I affixed a tiny crankbait—a Wiggle Wart from Storm—to my ultralight rig and began casting. (I'm not much for bait-fishing as a general rule, and this was to be a catch-and-release outing, which is much easier with artificials.) A rather pretty bluegill—but then ain't they all?—hit on what was to be my last cast, was gently unhooked without ever leaving the water, and I clocked back in precisely on time.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Southern Living

M: "Hi, sweetie. Whatcha doin'?"

J: "Oh, just reading a magazine."

M: "I see. Wait, are you really reading, or just looking at pictures?"

J: "Well, the pictures are kinda sexy... You could, y'know, look with me if you want to."

M: "Um, sure, I guess so. Oooh... Oh, wow."

J: "I know, right? So...would you like to try that sometime?"

M: "You are a great wife, you know that?"

Good grief

The kite-eating tree strikes again.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

The impoverished crown jewels of the desert

You can read all you like about iridescence and refraction in bird feathers (here you are, for a start), but to truly appreciate it, you have to see it. Witness these consecutive photos of a male Anna's hummingbird at a feeder:

Or these, again consecutive, of a male Costa's hummingbird turning its head:

Or, back to Anna's for a moment, forget the now-you-see-it-now-you-don't colour shift. Consider this single picture (all of these, by the way, were taken by Jessica at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum) of a male Anna's perched on a branch. I've consulted several popular field guides on my shelf, and there's a consensus verging on unanimity with regard to colour: both Peterson and Sibley describe the male's throat and crown as "red", National Geographic as "deep rose red", and National Audubon, changing the modifier and punctuation slightly, as "dark rose-red". The Smithsonian guide concurs with Peterson and Sibley ("red"), while the National Wildlife Federation goes out on a limb with "stunning strawberry red". I'd have said raspberry rather than strawberry, but okay, we're all agreed on red. Now, Jessa's picture:

I see raspberry, plum, fuschia, orange, olive, bronze, velvet black...all on this one photo of one bird, depending on how the light happens to be hitting each individual feather. Small wonder that hummingbirds made such an impression when they came to the attention of Western science and the general public. British ornithologist John Gould brought his collection of specimens, representing more than three hundred species, to the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park for the Great Exhibition of 1851, though he didn't get to see his first live hummingbird (a rubythroat) until six years later.

As stunning as the Victorians doubtless found Gould's specimens, the birds themselves are even more unbelievable. To reflect upon all that energy—fueling not just the endless dogfighting of these pugnacious birds, the apparent suspension of gravity as they hover before a flower, but also keeping such tiny bodies warm—coming from tiny amounts of nectar sipped from flowers, plus whatever tiny insects they can catch...well, let's just say it tends to give a person a new perspective on sugar water, and I'll be taking a break from Monster and Red Bull, thank you very much, since I have no intention of matching a hummer's activity level anytime soon.

Of course, hummingbirds conserve energy when they can, resting between fights and feeding sessions. They can also go into torpor, slowing down their notoriously fast metabolisms, at night and when food becomes scarce.

Fascinated as I am by predation, I don't think it plays all that major a role in hummingbird ecology.  Hummingbirds are quick, agile, and tiny—a challenge to catch, with a relatively small payoff for the lucky predator who does manage—and the very fact of their bright colouration indicates that finding a mate (or, rather, the mate du jour, since hummers don't form pair bonds) is a higher priority than avoiding the notice of a predator.

Instead, it would seem that that question of energy intake, conservation, and expenditure is the most salient for these little bundles of life. All creatures must balance the books—in fact, by some definitions, that's what life is. In the black = alive; overdrawn = dead. (In this view, ecto- and endothermy—cold- versus warm-bloodedness—represent different economic strategies.) Hummingbirds, though, have to pay more attention to their checkbooks than most. They are the working poor, never far from catastrophe. (And my, how I can relate to that.) As one source puts it, "Hummingbirds are continuously hours away from starving to death and are able to store just enough energy to survive overnight."

So, bearing this life-on-the-ragged-edge-of-disaster in mind, how miraculous is it to have a tiny surplus to pass on?