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08/8/14

Idaho Nature Areas

Idaho is known for potatoes, Hemingway and Sun Valley, which is recognized as the home of America’s first destination ski resort, the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness Area, the largest contiguous area of protected wilderness in the continental United States, and Hells Canyon, the deepest gorge in America.

Yet, did you know there are several wonderful nature centers to experience in Idaho? Here are a few:

Water Life Discovery Center: Located near Sandpoint, the WaterLife Discovery Center is a habitat education and interpretive area on the shores of the Pend Oreille River. The self-guided educational center combines a fish hatchery, nature trails, overlook bridges, wildlife watching areas, interpretive signs, and underwater viewing opportunities along a stream and a pond. Directions: Turn west on Lakeshore Dr., south of the Long Bridge. The WaterLife Discovery Center is 1.5 miles from Hwy 95 and is located on the south bank of the Pend Oreille River at the mouth of a small stream.

Lewiston Wildlife Habitat Area
: Located in Lewiston, this urban, wildlife-friendly oasis is registered with the National Wildlife Federation as a “Backyard Wildlife Habitat Area.” Its five acres let guests observe wild birds, mammals and aquatic creatures. A paved path snakes through meadows and a small forest planted with a variety of trees and shrubs. Deer, coyote, raccoon, rabbit, skunks, amphibians, reptiles and over 115 bird species have been observed here. An observation gazebo is outfitted with one-way glass and surrounded by bird feeders, providing up-close wildlife viewing.
Directions: From the north side of Lewiston, follow US 12 south into town. Follow 21st Street south up the hill to Thain grade, then Thain Road. At the top of the hill at the light will be a Walmart on the left and radio station on the right. Continue on Thain to the next light where a car dealership is on the left and gas station on the right. Take a left turn at this light and then a right turn on to Warner Ave. The Habitat Area is on the right.

MK Nature Center: Located near downtown Boise, the MK Nature Center is frequented by mule deer, raccoons, mink, herons, kingfishers, beaver, countless songbird species, reptiles, amphibians and insects. Chinook and kokanee salmon are introduced annually, and the three sturgeon are one of the most popular attractions. Another favorite feature is the four underwater viewing windows where native fishes can be viewed. The indoor visitor center offers has interpretive exhibits, hands-on displays and activities. Directions: MK Center (208) 334-2225. 600 S. Walnut, Boise, Idaho, located behind the Idaho Department of Fish and Game headquarters.

Edson Fichter Nature Area: This 29-acre nature area is located in south Pocatello, just behind Indian Hills Elementary off of Cheyenne Avenue. Various species of high-desert plants and a riparian corridor created by the Portneuf River that winds through the site allows numerous species of wildlife— from songbirds to mule deer – to call this area home. A trails system runs through the Nature Area, making it a popular stopover for walkers, joggers, and cyclists.
Directions: In Pocatello, from the corner of Bannock Hwy. and Cheyenne Ave., at Indian Hills Elementary. Turn east on Cheyenne Avenue and drive to the first turn on the south side of the road, one block to the pond.

Fischer Pond in Cascade: This pond is a couple of acres in size and is stocked every two to three weeks with rainbow trout. There is plenty of easy access shoreline and a big dock for fishing. Fischer Pond is located on Highway 55 on the south side of Cascade – look for the brown highway information sign.

Explore these nature centers from dawn to dusk. Those with indoor visitor/interpretive centers have varying hours of operation so please check with Idaho Department of Fish and Game Regional offices to confirm times.

IMG_1552 Underwater Rainbow TroutIdaho Wildlife!

07/22/14

Bees

“According to the laws of aerodynamics, bumble bees cannot fly,” stated the motivational speaker emphatically. “Their bodies are too heavy for the wings to lift.” Then he sagely concluded, “But don’t tell that to the bumble bee.” His point was clear: Since bumble bees don’t read physics texts, they do the impossible, so don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do something.
I wholeheartedly agree with the sentiment, but it is based on an old wives’ tale. Bumble bees don’t defy the laws of aerodynamics. They just exploit a process called non-linear dynamic stall that builds a temporary vortex on top of the wing. As this vortex moves from front to back, it creates up to three times the normal lift. There is no magic, just the physics of wings that move fast and rapidly change angles.

There are about 50 species of native bumble bees in North America. They may be small as a honeybee or as large as a quarter, “furry” and usually are a combination of black with orange, yellow or white.

You may hear a bumble bee before you see it because of its ominous buzzing. This was once thought to be wing movement but the bumble bee can buzz without moving its wings. Buzzing results from the rapid vibration of the wing muscles which can be disconnected from the wings.

Buzzing is useful in several ways. Bumble bees use it to warm their bodies just as ground squirrels waking from hibernation use shivering. Some queen bumble bees buzz to warm their eggs and hasten development.

The buzzing serves another purpose as well. When a bumble bee grabs onto a blossom and buzzes, the vibration can dislodge even the most stubborn pollen from the anthers. Known as sonic or buzz pollination, this is key for pollinating about eight percent of the world’s plants. Tomato growers routinely house colonies of bumble bees in their greenhouses as honeybees are very poor tomato pollinators.

Like the non-native honeybee, bumble bees are social insects. The colony starts when a single queen emerges from her winter hibernation where, like a bear, she has been surviving on fat accumulated the fall before. She immediately seeks a pollen source from an early blooming species such as willow. Then she finds an appropriate home—
an abandoned mouse hole is about perfect—for her new colony.

She lays a few eggs and gathers provisions for them. After these hatch, grow and then pupate, she lays another batch. Once the first group, all sterile worker bees, hatches, the queen will rarely leave the nest, concentrating instead on producing up to 400 offspring.

Near the end of summer, one of the last batches of eggs becomes males and new queens. Queens and males mate, queens head off to find shelter to overwinter and workers and males await their fate.

While it may be a myth that bumblebees defy the laws of aerodynamics, there is still plenty to admire about these cute, essential native bees.

Terry Thomas is a wildlife biologist with 27 years of experience. Opinions expressed are his own.

07/2/14

Pecking Away At Woodpecker Facts

We weren’t 50 yards down the nature trail at Stephen C. Foster State Park in Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge in Georgia when half a dozen red-headed woodpeckers swarmed near us.

As we were trying to sort out the calls and juveniles from adults, a red-bellied woodpecker began to hammer away above us. A few steps farther and we stopped again, this time to glass a pair of pileated woodpeckers that came winging in, their crow-sized bodies dwarfing the other woodpeckers.

Before we made it another 50 yards, a yellow-bellied sapsucker joined the party. I don’t know if they were just migrating or if they had been attracted by the recently burned trees around the boardwalk, but for whatever reason, it was woodpecker paradise.

With 22 North American species and 200 more worldwide, woodpeckers should be familiar to everyone. There are woodpeckers, all members of the Picidae family, on all continents except Antarctica and Australia. Surprisingly, the species-rich islands of Madagascar and New Zealand also have no native woodpeckers.

Woodpeckers worldwide share a number of characteristics. They all have strong, stout bills with which they excavate holes in trees and large cacti looking for insects and creating their nesting cavities. Their two central tail feathers are stiffened to act as a brace, something like a bicycle kickstand, for their hammering. All woodpeckers also have elongated tongues, some up to 4 inches long, for probing into holes and crevices for food.

They do not have mating songs. Instead, they drum on trees and other objects to attract mates and establish territories. Most have four toes, two pointing forward and two pointing back, but there are also a number of species with only three toes.

Recognizing woodpeckers gets easier the more you see them. The most common colors among woodpeckers are black, white, red and yellow. In fact, for the North American species, black and white form the base colors of all species. Flickers and several other woodpeckers are also tan, but the black and white is still prominent.

In flight, woodpeckers can be recognized by an undulating or wavy flight. They beat their wings three times then fold them against their body, causing them to drop a bit before they beat their wings again. Woodpeckers can hammer up to 20 times a second for as many as 12,000 pecks a day. Just thinking of that gives me a headache, but it doesn’t bother the birds. Their skulls are reinforced to distribute the impact, and their brains are well-cushioned.

Woodpeckers are a keystone species in many ways. Without the holes they excavate, hundreds of species of birds and mammals would be homeless. They also control many forest pests that could otherwise get out of hand. And when sapsuckers drill for sap, they provide food for a number of species, including migrating hummingbirds.

I don’t expect to always be as lucky as that day in Okefenokee. But I do enjoy seeing woodpeckers of any species and will always be grateful for the benefits they provide to other wildlife.

Terry Thomas
A wildlife biologist with 27 years of experience. Opinions expressed are his own.

06/11/14

Wildlife License Plate Website

Do you own a Wildlife specialty license plate?

Did you know that the Idaho Wildlife specialty license plates are sponsored by the Idaho Fish & Wildlife Foundation?

A portion of each purchase or renewal of a Wildlife plate helps to support wildlife diversity programs. These programs provide wildlife biodiversity research and management; habitat rehabilitation and restoration; and conservation education programs and materials.

To learn more about Idaho’s Wildlife specialty license plates,Visit: http://wildlifelicenseplates.com

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