Friday, June 10, 2016

A Wild Success - Pollinators

Text, photos and videos by Nancy Partlow ©  All photos and videos taken at the Capitol Lake Interpretive Center, unless otherwise noted. 
Renowned biologist E. O. Wilson calls invertebrates "the little things that run the world".   My interest in insects, particularly pollinators, has always been in observing and learning about  their world, especially in a natural context.
 Pollinator bee on a starburst spray of Red-osier Dogwood blossoms
One of my favorite places to do this is at the Capitol Lake Interpretive Center when the native shrubs are in bloom.  Each spring, nootka rose, thimbleberry, twinberry, ninebark, mock orange, serviceberry, vine maple, snowberry and red-osier dogwood offer pollinators what they really need - pollen and nectar.  In return, these plants receive fertilization, which result in the fruits and seeds that wildlife  eat.     
Bombus mixtus worker buzz-pollinating Nootka Rose
It's really fun to watch bumble bees buzz-pollinate Nootka rose and thimbleberry blossoms.  These worker bees (all female) sound like teensy kazoos as they scramble over flower stamens while vibrating their wing muscles at a frequency that dislodges the closely-held pollen. 
Bombus melanopygus pollen-gathering  
from Thimbleberry
Bombus sitkensis on Nootka Rose
Their male counterparts, unburdened by the requirement to gather pollen to feed larvae back at the nest, go straight for the sugar nectaries on flowers like ninebark and twinberry.   This sweet syrup fuels their sole purpose in life - to find a queen to mate with.    

Bombus melanopygus male on Pacific Ninebark
Male Bombus flavifrons nectaring on Twinberry
I'd always wanted to see a pair of bumble bees mating,  so I felt lucky when I  happened upon two bumble bees coupling at the CLIC.  
I spied what looked like a very large Bombus queen stumbling oddly about on a thimbleberry leaf.  As I watched in puzzlement,  she dropped heavily to the ground and continued to stagger around in the leaf litter.  It wasn't until I had  observed her for about a minute (an eon in insect time) that I realized that it was actually two bumble bees together - a Bombus mixtus queen with a much smaller male clinging to her back.
The queen did not seem particularly receptive to his advances.  In fact, she appeared to be vigorously trying to give him the brush off.  It's unclear from  this video  whether the male eventually successfully mated with her or not. 
Bombus mixtus male attempting to mate with B. mixtus queen
Most people don't know that beetles can also be pollinators, but according to the Xerces Guide to Attracting Native Pollinators
Beetles (order Coleoptera) represent the greatest diversity of pollinators.  There are more than 340,000 identified species of beetles worldwide, including nearly 30,000 species in North America alone.  Fossil records suggest that beetles, along with flies, were probably the first insect pollinators of prehistoric flowering plants in the late Jurassic era, around 150 million years ago. 
Its not uncommon to see beetles hanging about on rose stamens at the CLIC, attracted by the edible pollen.
Long-horned beetle on Nootka Rose
Another species of Long-horned beetle
Flies provide incidental pollinator services at the CLIC.  In their larval form, some bee-mimic flies are are voracious aphid predators.  As gem-like adults, however,  they are content to sop up nectar with their spongy tongues, receiving a light dusting of pollen in the process. 
Bee mimic fly on blackberry blossom
Syrphid fly on Mock Orange
Bumble bees are our most familiar native pollinators, yet a  host of other indigenous bees imbibe nectar and collect pollen to feed their young. 
An unidentified mining bee gathers pollen from Nootka Rose
Adrena bee on Snowberry
A Halictid (?) bee gleans larval food from
 Ninebark flowers
A newly released book, The Bee-friendly Garden, says this about native plants and pollinators:
While many plants provide resources for bees, native plants are especially beneficial.  These are the plants that have evolved with the local pollinators and evolved in the local habitats.  They are likely to support specialist species and be easier to grow without the aid of pesticides and herbicides.
I would like to add that native plants are drought-tolerant.  The Interpretive Center's  trees and shrubs endured extreme stress during last year's record heat and aridity, but nearly all survived until autumn rains arrived to slake them.  
The CLIC's diverse ecosystem is like a symphony composed daily by the plants and animals that live there.  Working in concert, they create a beautiful and exuberant Song of Life.  Pollinators supply the buzz,  and their irreplaceable services help ensure that the Song never ends. 

A pollen-flecked ground-nesting bee on Red-osier Dogwood flowers

Online Resources:
Video of a long-horned beetle eating rose pollen:

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Prairie Appreciation Day

     Here in Thurston county, at the southern end of Budd inlet in Washington state, we are fortunate to have some beautiful, very unique prairies.  Historically, this land was covered with trees, especially Douglas fir trees.  However the southern reach of the county marks the final boundary of the last Ice Age about 12,000 years ago. 
Gray Hairstreak butterfly on cotoneaster flowers

     As the ice field bulldozed south, it removed all living plants and left huge piles of gravel behind in what is today called a gravel outwash prairie.

     Once the ice retreated, these gravel areas became home to a unique set of plants and animals.  Rather than trees, these prairies are dominated by grasses such as Idaho fescue, and flowers such as camas.  The indigenous tribes of the area:  the Nisqually, the  Puyallup and others used these prairies as agricultural fields, burning them regularly to keep the trees back and keep their food and medicine plants thriving.

     These prairies are still alive.  Once a year, we celebrate them.  Glen and I will be staffing an informational table on butterflies (it turns out that there are butterflies very specialized to these prairies).  

Here is a link on Prairie Appreciation Day:

Here is a link to information about these unique prairies:

If you are interested in learning more about butterflies in the Pacific Northwest, here is a link to our resource page:  Butterflies -- Resources 2016

Resources:  photo by Nancy Partlow

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Prairie in Bloom

Text and photos by Nancy Partlow ©
Every year, I  keep trying to see the prairies at the peak of bloom, but never manage to time it just right.  This year, serendipitously, I finally did.  A few days ago I was driving along  Delphi Road when I noticed that the grounds of the Old Delphi Schoolhouse were a gorgeous carpet of blue camas lilies. 
Wow!  What a knockout sight.
This told me that the prairies must be in full flower as well.

So yesterday I drove to the Mima  Preserve trail to check out the show.  But when I got there, I was kind of disappointed.   The bloom was nice, but not what I was hoping for.
Knowing that farther south on Mima Road near Bordeaux  the camas fields are more robust, I headed there instead.   Upon arrival, I was not disappointed.  The roadsides were thick with blue stars and the prairie itself  an undulating patchwork of  azure lilies and yellow lomatiam. 
As I soaked in the beauty of the scene, the naturalist in me wondered if the  unseasonably hot weather earlier in the week  had brought on a sudden and intense flowering that usually takes place over a longer period of time. I also pondered whether climate change will eventually cause spring-emerging insects that rely on native flowers for food to miss an ever-earlier bloom period.   
Queen Bombus vosnesenskii bumble bee gathering nectar
and pollen from a camas lily

Such gloomy thoughts aside, I also remembered my great-grandmother Cynthia, who lived with us while I was growing up.  Cynthia was born and raised on the Camas Prairie in Idaho in the late 1800's.  Sights such as this must have been very familiar to her.
In researching this story, I learned that the camas prairie she knew is now gone.  This makes me grateful that at least some of ours have been preserved.  Long may they flower.

Monday, April 18, 2016

A Wild Success: Food

Part 3 in a series of stories about the Capitol Lake Interpretive Center

Text by Nancy Partlow©  All photos were taken at the Interpretive Center by Nancy Partlow© or Barry Troutman©

The Capitol Lake Interpretive Center attracts so much wildlife because of its abundance of food.  This is not surprising, since the native plants installed there were chosen specifically for this purpose, to provide a wide variety of fruits, seeds and insects.

Oregon grapes

The CLIC's heavy concentration of berry-bearing shrubs and trees especially contribute to the park's reputation as a birding hotspot.

One species of plant that the familiar American robin  frequents is Red elderberry.  The crimson fruits are eaten so fast  they seem to evaporate.

Lonicera involucrata, or Twinberry is another a wildlife favorite.  I was unfamiliar with this shrub prior to seeing it at the Interpretive Center, and was surprised at the play it gets.

Twinberry  attracts pollinators with nectar-sweet flowers, and birds with fat, shiny berries.

Anna's Hummingbird sips nectar from a twinberry blossom at the CLIC
Photo courtesy of Barry Troutman
In the spring, high-pitched calls and rustling shrubbery alert human users of the CLIC to flocks of Cedar Waxwings feasting in the large, trailside bushes.

Omnivorous waxwings may be the greatest beneficiaries of our state capital's most thoughtfully-conceived wildlife area, freely exploiting its bounty of fruits, insects and flowers. 

A Cedar waxwing eats hawthorn berries at the CLIC
Photo courtesy of Barry Troutman

There is an old Madrone tree next to the CLIC's main trail.  It comes alive with swarms of feeding-frenzied birds when the berries are ripe.

A Red-shafted flicker harvests Madrone berries
near the Interpretive Center's main trail.
Photo courtesy of Barry Troutman

Vireos, warblers, robins, flycatchers and wood ducks devour Red-osier dogwood's copious fruits.
Red-osier dogwood berries
Plush, velvety thimbleberries are a juicy enticement to humans and wildlife alike.
Salmonberries glow with the light of the sun that grew them.  They are consumed by a wide variety of CLIC bird species including robins, tanagers, finches, wrens, bushtits and towhees.
Seeds are an additional source of nourishment at the CLIC, where Red alder is the most abundant tree by number.  Its diminutive seed cones provide chickadees and other small birds welcome winter fodder.

Photo courtesy of Barry Troutman

Douglas fir cones extend an open invitation to nuthatches, chickadees and small mammals.                                            

Nootka rose hips are eaten by juncos, grosbeaks, thrushes, chipmunks, rabbits and deer.

Some birds use the tough seeds as grit to help them digest food.

Capitol Lake is a fecund breeding pond for diverse species of flying insects that keep CLIC inhabitants fat and happy.  For example, it’s not uncommon to see clouds of “gnats” wafting above the trails. These are actually chironomus midge flies.  In their larval and pupal stages, midges live on the muddy bottom of the lake, where fish, birds and aquatic insects consume them. In their adult flight form, male chironomids create swarms of thousands of individuals swirling in now-you-see-‘em-now-you-don’t whirlwinds.

Male midges have elaborate, feathery antennae, which are used to detect the specific buzz tone that a female fly emits as she enters the swarm to mate.

Their large antennae don’t seem to save them from the sticky webs of spiders, or from the beaks of hungry hummingbirds that pluck the tiny flies from the air with ease.

Another freshwater aquatic insect with an adult flight form is the October Caddis Fly.  Caddis flies breed in the near-shore leaf litter at the bottom of the lake, emerging into winged insects in the fall, although I've often seen them at other times of the year.  Fly-catching birds perform impressive aerial acrobatics pursuing them.

Leaf litter is a valuable nutritional resource.   It mulches and nourishes the CLIC's many trees and shrubs, but also provides a rich larder for ground-feeding birds and mammals that kick up the organic debris in search of fallen seeds, grubs and other small invertebrates.

Of course, the main food at the CLIC is the esculent greenery that supports foliage-munching mammals and insects.

A young deer buck browses scrumptious new growth.

A caterpillar hides out in a thimbleberry blossom to escape
the eyes of hungry birds
The Capitol Lake Interpretive Center is animated by creatures pursuing life's prime directive of survival.  This is not by accident, but by design.  In an era when humans are destroying wildlife habitat at an astounding rate, the CLIC extends a small but gracious overture to our earthly companions to share their lives with us.  For that reason alone, it is well worth celebrating.   
Many thanks to Barry Troutman for the use of his wonderful photos.


Washington Native Plant Society's list of plants that provide berries and seeds, and the animals that eat them:


An American Robin gobbling down red elderberries at the CLIC:

A Song sparrow scratches up leaf litter at the CLIC in search of food:

Online photos:

Robin eating red-osier dogwood berries:

Red-breasted sapsucker with salmonberry in its beak:

Song sparrow with thimbleberry:

Juvenile robin eating Oregon grapes:,+American+2010.07.09a+sub-adult+eating+Oregon+Grape.jpg

A salmonberry with a bird bite in it

Friday, March 18, 2016

Olympic Mountain Vistas from the Capitol Lake Interpretive Trail

Text and photos by Nancy Partlow©

I was so surprised when I first realized that the Olympic Mountains can be seen from the Capitol Lake Interpretive Center. 
When looking up the estuary, my sense of direction gets all turned around, so it just didn’t make sense to me.  Since then, I’ve learned to orient myself and now enjoy the beautiful views that avail themselves to all CLIC users whenever the clouds lift above Washington’s rainforest peaks.
I’d like to share some pictures that I’ve taken from the CLIC dike trail that forms the southern shore of Capitol Lake’s middle basin. 
Sun and shadow over the Olympics:

Canada Geese fly low over the lake with the Olympics as a dramatic backdrop:

The Brothers peak peeks above the nearshore forest surrounding the lake:

Fog below and clouds behind create the optical illusion of a mountain range floating in air:

The city of Olympia is in the process of assessing its downtown “viewsheds” to be protected.  Janine Gates recently wrote about this effort for her Little Hollywood blog:
Although Capitol Lake is not in Olympia or even Tumwater, (it is part of the Capitol Campus and therefore under state jurisdiction), I still think the gorgeous Olympic Mountains views from the CLIC should be preserved.   

Saturday, February 27, 2016

A Wild Success - The Capitol Lake Interpretive Center, Part 2 - Plants

Text and photos by Nancy Partlow©
All photos taken at the Capitol Lake Interpretive Center unless otherwise noted
The Capitol Lake Interpretive Center is a verdant refuge for wildlife.  Its extensive palette of native trees and shrubs provide a bounty of food and shelter for many creatures. 
Native plants create healthy ecosystems.  Indigenous insects have evolved to eat plant leaves of a certain chemical composition – namely, those provided by endemic flora.  In other words, local insects have evolved to eat local plants.
By definition, native insects have shared little or no evolutionary history with alien plants…, and they thus are not likely to possess the adaptations required for using these plants as nutritional hosts. Consequently, the solar energy harnessed by alien plants is believed to be largely unavailable to native insect(s)…- at least until they evolve the behaviors and physiology necessary to eat them – and therefore unavailable to all animals that include these insects in their diets.

From Bringing Nature Home by Douglas W. Tallamy
In addition to their chemically-compatible leaves, native plants offer up a wide buffet of flowers, fruits and seeds throughout the year.  Their branches host bark-dwelling insects, and their leafy ground detritus hides countless worms, grubs and other critters that birds and small mammals love to scavenge and eat. 
For human users of the CLIC, native plants bestow a subtle beauty to the eye, and the opportunity to observe animals “at home” in their natural setting. 
Here are photos of some native plant species growing at the CLIC: 
Holodiscus discolor - Ocean Spray
Lonicera involucrata - Twinberry
Spiraea douglasii - Spirea

Sambucus racemosa - Red elderberry
Rosa nutkana - Nootka rose
Philadelphus lewisii - Mock Orange
Mahonia aquifolium - Tall Oregon grape
Physocarpus capitatus - Pacific ninebark

Salix sitchensis - Sitka willow
Cornus sericea - Red-osier dogwood
Rubus parviflorus - Thimbleberry
Rubus spectabilis - Salmonberry

Native plant species installed at the CLIC in 2004:

Red Elderberry
Oregon Grape
Nootka Rose
Redosier Dogwood
Red Flowering Currant
Mock Orange
Vine Maple
Western Red Cedar
Ocean Spray
Beaked Hazelnut
Indian Plum
Western Crabapple
Western Hemlock
Sitka Willow
Black Hawthorn
Black Cottonwood
Sitka Spruce
Bigleaf Maple
Additional natives that were already there: 
Paper Birch