Wolves of the Sea

Orca, or Killer Whales, are sometimes called ‘wolves of the sea.’ Orcas have no natural predators and often hunt in packs like wolves.

Killer Whales (royalty free image by Bart Van Meele on Unsplash)

Killer whales can be found in all oceans, most seas, and even in some rivers. They are also tolerant of most water temperatures.

Range

Orcas can be seen on the Oregon coast in several locations, particularly in mid-April when the gray whales are returning.

Generally, they are found along the Pacific west coast from California north into Alaska. Killer whales have also been seen at Depoe and Yaquina bays, and Newport.  

Orcas have been spotted on large rivers (as in 100 miles upstream on the Columbia most likely hunting seals).

Diet

Their diet will vary depending on food productivity. As the level of productivity goes down, their diet becomes more generalized.  Some specialize and focus on a particular (most likely abundant) prey species in a particular region.

They hunt fish, squid, octopi, mammals (otters, seals, swimming deer), seabirds, squid, octopus, cuttlefish, sharks, nautilus, and other whales. Killer whales eat around 100 lbs of food each day.

Maternal Groups

Some orca populations, or pods, have complex and stable social groups and may include 50 individuals.  Several generations will travel together, and with only short separation periods (for foraging and mating).

An Orca may live with its mother as part of a pod for their entire life. Orca form matrilineal (matriarch, or eldest female) family groups.

Matrilineal family structures are the most stable. No other species has such a complex social structure.

Pod members help teach young Killer whales how to hunt and parent through apprenticeship, among other skills. 

Social Structures

A pod can contain several family groups. Males nearly always mate with females from other pods.

Pods may co-mingle to create a clan. Clans typically share similar dialects or vocalizations and potentially older Maternal lineages.

Clans can also regularly commingle to create a ‘community.’  Communities, however, may not share the same vocal patterns.

Vocalization, or dialects, can be specific to a particular clan. A lack of shared dialect suggests that there may be more than one species of Killer whale.

Identification

Orca pod (royalty free image by Lachlan Gowen at Unsplash)

You have probably seen pictures of a Killer whale. They are very identifiable due to their size (huge), color (black and white warning colors), teeth (big and sharp), and similar to dolphins. All white orcas have been found.

This apex hunter is often significantly larger than most great white sharks. The arrival of orcas in an area can cause white sharks to flee and forage elsewhere.

Killer whales are the largest members of the dolphin family. Males can grow up to 26 feet long and weigh over six tons. Females are generally a bit smaller growing up to 23 feet long and weighing about three to four tons.

These giant dolphins are born large weighting in about 400 pounds at birth and already nearly eight feet long. Even so, nearly half of all newborns die before their first birthday.  

Unlike other dolphin species, this animal has a well-developed protective dermal (skin) layer that includes a dense network of collagen fibers. Beneath the skin, orcas have a nearly four-inch layer of insulating blubber.

Hunting

Killer whales are amazing apex hunters. Orcas typically swal­low small prey whole and tear up larger prey. A few facts about orcas:

  • They are so­cial hunters, similar to wolves, that work as a pack to hunt large prey. They use coordinated behaviors and communication which may be specific to a particular pod.
  • Orcas have very sophisticated echolocation abilities (like other dolphins). They can identify the location and characteristics of prey or objects in the water.
  • These dolphins also have good eyesight above and below the water. They also have excellent hearing and a good sense of touch.
  • Typically, they spend most of their time in shallow waters but will occasionally dive several hundred feet to reach prey. As they dive, they are able to reduce their heartbeat per minute from 60 to 30 which helps them conserve energy.

Humans

Killer whales have been a part of many indigenous cultures and widely regarded with respect. This has not always been true.

For some time, orcas were hunted for entertainment (shows, zoos, etc.). This practice is being dramatically discontinued.

Several elements make these animals difficult to maintain in captivity (social structure, size, etc.). Generally wild orcas have not killed or harmed humans. This is not the case for stressed-out captive whales.

A lack of knowledge affects our ability to measure populations, identify different species, and track them. See Oregon Whale Watching!  

REFERENCES:
–Oregon Dept. of Fish and Wildlife, Orca (https://myodfw.com/wildlife-viewing/species/killer-whale)
–Animal Diversity (https://animaldiversity.org/accounts/Orcinus_orca/)
–Wikipedia, Killer Whales and several other terms like ‘Cephalopoda’ (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/)

Neither a grape or a holly be…
This evergreen is not a tree. 
The spike and point to clusters yellow,
Makes the fruit a favorite fellow.

Oregon grape became our State Flower in 1899. Choosing a favorite from so many beauties must have been difficult.

Oregon Grape flower and leaves (image courtesy of Oregon State University, Landscape)

State flowers provide a way to showcase abundance, beauty, historical significance, feelings, and economic prowess. Oregon grape was chosen to represent beauty and abundance.

Why Oregon Grape?

The common plant name suggests that this plant is a grape. It is not.

Oregon Grape is a woody evergreen shrub under the Berberis Barberry family. Barberry shrubs are common in many Pacific Northwest landscapes.

Where Found?

Oregon Grape grows in Southeast Alaska, east into Alberta, Canada, and south into central New Mexico. It often grows in Douglas-fir forests common in the Pacific Northwest.

Clusters of bright yellow flowers makes this plant easy to identify in the early spring. In the fall, the plant produces a crop of small, purple-ish-black grape-shaped fruit. The fruit is bitter, but edible.

Oregon Grape flower close up (image courtesy of Oregon State University, Landscape)

Not a Holly

The dark green, glossy holly-like leaflets have sharp spines and can reach 12-inches in length.

It is not closely related to a holly. Like a holly, this plant will tolerate poor soils, resist summer drought, and create minimal leaf litter. It rarely grows over four feet tall.

Shiny leaves are usually a sign that a plant will resist wilting making them attractive to florists. Depending on the variety (and there are several), the leaf color may shift in the fall to more of a purple-ish tint.

Who Loves Ya?

Birds love the berries, along with the bees and butterflies. Berries can be used to make juice, jelly, jam, and wine. Note: The berries are quite tart and have large seeds. Berries are best eaten after the first frost.

Indigenous people used the inner bark and roots to make yellow dye; berries make a purple.

Medical

Medicines for stomach ailments and fighting bacterial/fungal infections have been made from rhizomes. There is even documentation show it might help with psoriasis.

Other Uses

Oregon Grape is deer resistant. The sharp spiny leaves make formidable natural barriers.

The plant does not require regular fertilization. A bit of compost over the root zone will help it retain moisture and reduce weeds).

The Oregon Grape provided much utility for pioneering families and indigenous peoples in our area.

REFERENCE:
–World Atlas, What is the State Flower of Oregon? (https://www.worldatlas.com/articles/what-is-the-state-flower-of-oregon.html)
–Oregon State University, Landscape Plants (https://landscapeplants.oregonstate.edu/plants/mahonia-aquifolium)
–Web MD (https://www.webmd.com/vitamins/ai/ingredientmono-493/oregon-grape)  
–Wikipedia, Oregon Grape (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mahonia_aquifolium and  Berberis_aquifolium)
–Britannica Encyclopedia, Oregon Grape (https://www.britannica.com/plant/Oregon-grape)
–Oregon Grape-Holly Care (https://www.gardeningknowhow.com/ornamental/shrubs/mahonia/grape-holly-plant-care.htm)

Red-tailed hawk (royalty free image courtesy Unsplash)
Sky Dancer

Sitting on a lonely fence post.
Staring down in silence.
Patient. Hunting.

Focus attack to prey.
Feet outstretched; talons sharp.
Killing. Surviving. 

Dangling legs and sharp talons.
The sky dance has begun.
Touching. Singing.

Climbing high to plunge.
Cartwheel dances in the air.
Thriving. Red-tailed hawk.

Red-tailed hawks are one of the most common raptors found across the U.S., northern Canada, and far south into Panama. Go for a ride and look for them hunting atop telephone poles, fence posts, trees—anywhere they can watch for prey and swoop silently.

Size

Adult female Red-tails are slightly larger than the males both in length (26 versus 24 inches), weight (just under four pounds versus under three), with a similar size difference in the over four-foot wingspans.

These are medium sized raptors are the largest in their genus (Buteu) with robust bodies; thick, broad wings; and relatively short, broad tails. The reddish, orange tail color is unique among North American hawks.  

Just for comparison, a similar-sized dog could
weigh 10 times what an average Red-tail might.

Color

Coloration will vary greatly but most adults have a dark brown upper head that almost looks like a hood. Feather coloration creates an imperfect “V” shape on its back. From below the bird is a light-buff orange.

Range and Habitat

Red-tail hawks are considered an American native based on fossil and current distribution studies. Some, but not all, of the birds will migrate, typically going north into Canada and Alaska for breeding.

This raptor is one of the most broadly distributed birds in the U.S. The large, year-around range for non-breeders covers the entire contiguous U.S. with no substantial gaps.

Red-tails have become habituated to almost any habitat in North and Central America. This could include tropical rainforests, to deserts and grasslands, to woodlands. Some are even found in urban areas.

In every case, they will be looking for high nesting and perching sites. Based on the area, ‘high’ may be a shrub or fence post, tall conifer, or telephone pole.

Red-tailed hawk (courtesy of ODFW)

Hunting

A high perch gives the birds an advantage when hunting. Not only are they able to get a great view, but they are able to jump into an easy soar or quickly swoop down on prey almost silently. Minimizing wing flaps help to conserve energy which may be needed to get their prey back to the nest.

These carnivorous hawks are highly opportunistic feeders. It is not hard to imagine them taking small mammals, reptiles, fish, amphibians, birds, and invertebrates.

Let your imagination run a little wild. They will also take (or try at least) much larger prey carrying up to about five pounds in a load. Larger prey would be dismantled, temporarily hidden, while pieces are taken to the nest.

Remains of larger prey (such as armadillos, lambs, pigs, deer, sheep, and horses) have been found in nest sites. There are also stories of juveniles unsuccessfully trying to take adult wild turkeys and overwintering pairs hunting together.  Amazing!

Courtship

This bird has a great courtship process that can include daring ‘sky dances’ for and with their mates. These dances occur on the edge of the pair’s territory suggesting that it is also a way to designate territory limits.

Human Interaction

Red-tailed hawks are more social than other raptors and can be tamed and trained for hunting. The sport of Falconry was used in 2000 B.C. and is still practiced today. For more information see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Falconry.

Note all parts of this bird are protected and regulated like eagles.

The long-term interaction with humans has created a rich record of data and images for this bird. More than a single blog could ever hold. Consider taking a little time to learn more about this amazing bird—you will be glad you did!

REFERENCES:
–Oregon Dept. of Fish and Wildlife, raptors (https://myodfw.com/wildlife-viewing/species/raptors)
–All about birds, Red-tailed hawk  (https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Red-tailed_Hawk/)
–Ebird, Red-tailed hawk (https://ebird.org/species/rethaw)
–Wikipedia, Red-tailed hawk (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Red-tailed_hawk