Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Thanksgiving Salamander Hunt

    It is the day after our American Thanksgiving.  We are stuffed full of roast turkey and pumpkin pie.  We are sedentary, groaning from too much rich food and disinclined to leave the warm comfort of our couches,  but I have a longstanding tradition:  I make a point of getting out somewhere for a nature walk during this weekend, no matter how bad the weather.  So I grabbed a friend and we went on the great salamander hunt.

     We both have a burning ambition to see a mass amphibian migration.  In the Pacific Northwest the salamanders, newts and frogs march to the breeding ponds in spring and then march back into the upland woods to find a safe quiet place to hole up for the winter.  They often do these marches in large groups and we would love to see this.  Over the last couple of years, we seemed to have missed these moves:  they happen in unpredictable surges in the dead of a wet winter night so that’s not a surprise.  Part of catching these migrations in the act is to have a deeper understanding of the animals themselves.  So today’s field trip was in the nature of a scouting expedition to some possible breeding pond sites.  Long-toed salamanders, Northwestern Salamanders and Rough-skinned Newts were on our search menu, since they often time their return to the breeding ponds in early November into December.

Northwestern Salamander, sadly flattened
    Our first site showed no signs of amphibians and I was pretty disappointed. But then we moved on to another site in our region which is known to be a rich area for amphibians.  It is a county road that cuts through some high quality Douglas fir woods.  On one side are the woods, but on the other side are a series of shallow ponds.  The amphibians cross the road to get to the pond. On this road, there is little traffic and most make it across.  Though there are occasional fatalities:  here is the remains of a Northwestern Salamander, who met its doom under the tire of a car.  Far too many of our migrating amphibians are meeting this fate;  in Thurston county there is a real effort to identify the high-risk crossing areas and look at strategies for reducing this mortality. 

Rough skinned Newt in an alert, partially defensive posture
    As we drove along we saw more car-flattened remains.  Then suddenly I hollered STOP STOP STOP!!!!!  A salamander was lurching across the road.  When it saw us (or felt the vibration of the car) it stiffened its forearms and raised its head and tail in defensive posture.  That stance tipped me off to a salamander rather than a stick or leaf in the road.  This was a rough-skinned newt.  

     There was a mad scramble to park the car, grab cameras and boots and get to the critter before it made it across the road and into impenetrable shrubs.  Slipping and sliding on the wet grassy verge, we raced towards the newt. 

     The newt stayed where it was, still in defensive posture.  Rough skinned newts are poisonous to most other animals; only garter snakes seem to eat them with impunity.  Part of this defensive posture may be letting the bright orange underside be visible, which is a warning coloration to predators:  (if you eat me we’ll both be sorry).
   
Checking the newt for gender
     We gently moved the critter on to its back:  this was to check for gender.  In the breeding season the males have a swollen vent or anus at the base of the tail, just below the back legs.  The males also develop special dark friction pads on the bottoms of their feet, to allow for a better grip during a top-mounted copulation.  This animal has neither, so is probably a female.  Except it’s November and the breeding season has yet to begin.  So who knows?

     There are also adaptations it makes for living in the drier woods in winter versus the breeding ponds in spring.  In winter, its skin is tough, even warty and the tail is round.  For the breeding season it spends most of its life in water, so the skin loses its wartiness and the tail flattens out into a blade suitable for navigating in ponds.  This animal is still pretty warty on top so may just now be making its first move to the breeding pond. 

Rough skinned newt in pond
     We began prowling around the ponded waters on either side of the road.  Here we found a large rough skinned newt that had probably been living in water for a while:  its skin is fairly smooth on top and its tail forms a narrow blade for swimming.  In these ponds we found several more salamanders.

     We trotted up and down the road, from pond to pond, exploring all the salamander sign.  Though it is late November, cold and rainy and dark, there are still plenty of signs of life.   In the midst of winter, these animals are getting ready for the season to come.  It gives us great hope:  the wheel of the year is turning and sometime soon spring will be on its way. Yet another good reason for Thanksgiving…

Janet

Resources:
• Photos by Nancy Partlow, Glen Buschmann
   Some YouTube videos we made of this field trip:
•  Olympia Stream Team newsletter:  http://streamteam.info/pdf/current.pdf
    For local folks, Stream team will be offering a workshop on amphibians on Saturday Feb. 7, 2015
•  Amphibians of the Pacific NW by Lawrence Jones, William Leonard and Deanna Olson
•  Wikipedia - Rough-skinned Newt (Read the section Toxicity, which explains the RSN's neurotoxin and garter snakes' resistance to it.)


Freshwater amphibian pond near Olympia, WA

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Predators and Prey

Bald Eagle adults in nest tree
      Today my sister Nancy, our dad and I took a walk around the middle part of the Deschutes estuary.  This is one of our favorite places and we visit it often in fall and winter.  The walk allows for a great view of a Bald Eagle nest on the eastern shores of the estuary.  Today we lucked out and saw the pair of eagles in their nest tree, perched high in a Douglas fir overlooking the estuary.  Their white heads gleamed like brand new tennis balls in the late afternoon sun.  Just underneath the tree, in the waters of the estuary, floated a variety of overwintering ducks.  I remarked that it was a great place for an avian predator to sit and survey the dinner table below, checking out which ducks would make a tasty midday snack.  This reminded Nancy of an experience she had had.  

     A few days ago she was also at the lake, taking a leisurely walk.  Suddenly she noticed a crow flying in big swooping loops, screeching at top voice, with a flight pattern which seemed to be directed at one spot on top of a nearby cedar tree.  She  immediately stopped her walk and started scoping out that tree:  as an experienced nature watcher, she knew the crow was zeroed in on something that Nancy had not yet seen.  The crow was absolutely right:  here’s what it showed Nancy:

    This is an adult Bald Eagle and most likely one of the mated pair that we saw in their nest today.  At this time of year the young eagle fledglings that were hatched last April are moving into independent life, so this adult is back to its usual winter schedule, perching near the lake edge,  looking for any late salmon in the fish runs up the Deschutes, or going after one of the wintering ducks on the waters of the impounded river. Or when that fails, waiting for one of the local Peregrine Falcons to make a duck kill, then forcing the hunter to dropping its catch.  (This is a mode of hunting called kleptoparasitism.)  

     This eagle is directing a fierce look at the crows who are harassing it. It is clear to me that the eagle would loooooove to get its talons on the taunting crow, but though the crow is smaller it is also far more maneuverable: it can easily evade any eagle attack.  It’s like a Volkswagen beetle dodging a Boeing 727 : this is no contest.  Now if the crow is sick, slow or stupid, all bets are off.  If I were the crow in question, I’d be pretty damn careful:  the look in that eagle’s eye gives me the willies.

     But the crow is not being foolish.  It knows that Bald Eagles eat crow babies and like all crows, it is born knowing how to make life uncomfortable for such predators.  So there is method in this crow’s madness.

      Over thirty years of birdwatching, I have seen similar examples of birds who respond to and give warning of the presence of predators.  One of my favorite examples comes from this same lake.

     I’ve been watching winter ducks at this place for many years.  It often happens that I’ll be watching a beautiful pastoral scene of quiet ducks, nibbling away at vegetation, dabbling for food.  Then all off a sudden every single duck on the lake rises up in screeching cackling cacophony, beating wings high and fast for distant parts, running for their lives.  When I see that behavior I start looking for the predator.  Today we saw exactly this at the Deschutes estuary:  we were
enjoying a beautiful view of the ducks on the water when all of a sudden they got really restless and took off in panicked flapping flight.  We all started looking for a predator and bingo!  both of the Bald Eagles were had left their nest tree and were flying over the lake to hunt that snack.  And the ducks knew it.

American Widgeons in flight
    One another occasion I was leading a field trip for a class of beginning birdwatchers.  We went to our friend Sherry’s house, where she had a fabulous feeding station set up on the edge of wetlands and woods.  We parked our butts on some lawn chairs and watched the activity:  we saw the usual winter guild of black-capped and chestnut-backed chickadees, red breasted nuthatches, songs sparrows, juncos and etc.  The chickadees were especially active, darting in and out of the tube feeder, grabbing a sunflower seed and taking it off to a private cache.  I was in teacher mode, identifying each bird and describing field marks.  Suddenly,  all the chickadees stopped what they were doing, rushed en masse into a nearby thick shrub and started making LOUD alarm calls.  This was clearly a teachable moment:  I told the students to start looking for some sort of predator, probably a sharp-shinned hawk.  And sure enough, lurking in the woods off to one side, we finally saw the sharp-shinned hawk.  But the chickadees had seen it long before we did and took steps to save their lives.

     Then there was the time I was out at Cape Lookout on the Oregon coast.  The Cape has tall cliffs in which gulls nest as a group during spring.  Bald Eagles are infamous for raiding these colonies and making off with shrieking gull chicks.  Not surprisingly, gulls hate eagles.  During one April visit to the Cape, I watched an immature Bald Eagle.  It had been perched low on the cliff and was attempting to take off in windy conditions.  As a novice bird it was struggling in the wind and some nearby gulls noticed this.  They grouped up and mobbed the eagle, striking repeatedly at it and doing their best to drive it into the sea, where it would most likely drown.  I watched for about ten minutes as  they very nearly pulled it off.  The young eagle came perilously close to the high surf crashing against the cliffs before it managed to pull itself up and away to safety.    
     We have no personal pictures of this but here is a link to a fabulous photo/story from Europe, where White tailed Eagles prey on Herring gull colonies:  http://io9.com/5856819/see-gull-take-on-eagle-in-mid-air-piggyback-attack

     There are all kinds of ways to be a birdwatcher.  One of my favorite ways is to watch behavior and in doing so, allow the animals to show you their lives and their concerns.  Today at the Deschutes estuary, we got an eyeful .

Janet

Resources:  all photos by Nancy Partlow






Monday, October 27, 2014

Farewell to the Sun: Idaho's Kootenai Wildlife Refuge

      It is the third week of October.  Normally this is a time where we’d expect weather such as early frosts, with cold rain closing in on us.  Not so much this last weekend when we drove through eastern Washington to Idaho to explore some family history.   Although most of our trip was focused on explorations of my great-grandparents 1903 homestead in Bonner County, Glen and I snuck out for a quick trip to Kootenai Wildlife Refuge.  It was an unforgettable experience.
    The Kootenai river has its origins in British Columbia.  Born out of the glaciers of the Canadian Rockies, it runs due south into Montana, then loops through northern Idaho on its way to join the Columbia in eastern Washington.  For much of the year it handles a large volume of water and so is very fast moving, with many rapids.  But here in the Kootenai Wildlife Refuge, at the end of a dry summer, the water levels are low and the river is a quiet dream.  It is in fact so quiet we are able to see beautiful reflections of the autumn cottonwoods in its waters.

     Today as we arrive at the refuge it must be at least 70 degrees.  The sun shines strongly out of a blue sky, though high wispy clouds hint of weather changes to come.  As we drive through the refuge the sun hits with real force on my side of the car and I am roasting.  It looks and feels like full summer.  Except in the surrounding hills, clothed with pines and larch, the larch trees are turning golden-orange, preparing to drop their needles.  They look like so many candle tapers, lighting up the hillside,  giving early warning of fall.

     We went to the refuge to look at birds.  But there wasn't much bird activity;  what we saw instead were masses of insects, rushing to finish out their life cycle before winter starts in earnest here in northern Idaho.  And what an array of insects, what a surge of pulsing life:  they were flying around fast & furious, frantic to mate, frenzied to finish out the season with a bang (so to speak).  The horse flies were particularly prevalent, and eager to be insect phlebotomists and drain our blood.  We did not cooperate.

     We stopped at the refuge office for a quick break and took a look at the spotting scopes mounted there:  no birds to see.  But the wall of the main office faced south and was almost hot to the touch with the reflected sun.  The wall acted as a solar collecting panel and many insects were drawn to its heat. Since many insects are more or less solar powered, it makes a lot of sense to find them congregating there. 

    There was a Satyr's Anglewing butterfly.  These are butterflies who overwinter in adult form, but will take flight on sunny warm days to feed and enjoy the rays.  Notice the cryptic coloration: when it folds up its wings, it looks like the bark it prefers to roost in.  But when its wings open up, there is a lovely flash of spotted orange and white.
     The edges of this butterfly's wings normally look like someone took some pinking shears to them.  But this particular butterfly was especially battered:  the extensive ragged edges speak to a hard life dodging bird beaks.  This individual was quite friendly and fluttered around me, even trying to land on my shirt. I later watched it follow some children and try to land on them. As the evening cools it will find some bark to crawl under and it may well stay there for several months.  Until the sun lures it out again, or the sprouting tops of nettles next April will bring it out to lay its eggs.  

     Glen went walking out in the grasslands to explore what he could find.  There were yellow sulfur butterflies, finding nectar in napweed and dandelions.  These butterflies are common in northern Idaho because their host plant is alfalfa, which is extensively planted in the surrounding fields.  We saw a few golden butterfly pairs dancing around each other, eager to finish out the mating before it was too late.

     We also found a weird black grasshopper:  when it took flight away from our intrusive feet, there was a scarlet flash of wings and a harsh rattle as it found a safer place to hang out.  On later research we found this was called the Red winged Grasshopper Arphia pseudonietana and is a common late summer denizen of grasslands.  Its red wings and rattling flight are distinctive identification cues.
      Meanwhile I continued to watch the bug show on the south wall of the refuge.  A damselfly ( a smaller relative of dragonflies) showed up. This one had impressive dark bug eyes;  it perched for some time on the wall, basking in the sun.  For identification, I had to contact dragonfly expert Dennis Paulson.  He told me that it was a female Spotted Spreadwing, Lestes congener and it is the latest damselfly to still be on the wing in the Pacific Northwest.  That certainly fits with what we saw.

     Then Glen got a picture of another insect.  We puzzled over it for awhile;  we knew it was some kind of true bug but beyond that, had no idea what it was.  So we checked Bug Guide:  this is a Western Conifer Seed bug Leptoglossus occidentalis.  The young nymphs reach adult status by August and then feed on ripening seeds of conifer trees such as Douglas firs.  As the summer season draws to a close they can be found on walls of houses, near windows and other openings, where they lurk, waiting for opportunities to move indoors to overwinter.  So it was no coincidence that we found it on the refuge wall, near the windows.
     As the sun went down in the western sky, the temperature began to drop and insect activity slowed.  We too needed to wrap up our activities and head back to our place.  We drove out along the five mile refuge road that followed the Kootenai river;  here we saw our first significant birds.  This was a pair of adult Bald Eagles, no doubt perched along the river waiting to feast on the large flocks of migrating waterfowl who will be passing through the refuge.  These eagles too are a sign of the changing seasons.

     And then there is the last picture Glen took as we left the refuge:  here were open fields of alfalfa, now harvested, tilled under and awaiting next year’s seeds.  The golden grasses of late fall lined the edges of the refuge road, while overhead the blue skies began to fill with mares’ tails proclaiming the changing weather to come.  
     The next day we woke to the sound of the first rains, pelting our windows.  And we knew that the wheel of the year had turned…

     


Janet

Resources:

  • Thanks to Dennis Paulson for the damselfly identification
  • Dragonflies and Damselflies of the West by Dennis Paulson
  • Bug guide:  bugguide.net/  You can send photos of insects to Bug Guide and do an ID request.  These folks are great.
  • All photos by Glen Buschmann

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

River Otters Feast on Salmon at Capitol Lake

By Nancy Partlow 

Text in Red Bold is a clickable link to video.

A family of river otters has been putting on quite a show at Capitol Lake recently.  They've been catching and eating Chinook salmon in full view of the public. 


Janet’s friend Cynthia told her she’d seen a mother otter and three pups chomping on salmon near the train trestle at Marathon Park.  We decided we  had to check it out.  Unfortunately, when we got there, no otters could be seen. 

So the next day, on a hunch, I decided to peruse the area along the lake near the 5th Avenue dam.  A few years ago we had seen otters in this vicinity in late November.   Sure enough, as I walked along the lakeshore, through the shrubbery I spied two otters slither off a log and move out into the lake.  As I entered Heritage Park, out in the middle of the north basin, five heads were just discernible poking above the water.


I began to film them.  So intently was I watching three otters masticating salmon that I only slowly became aware of people nearby saying things like, “Oh, look, it’s got a salmon head!”  Turning around, I was very surprised to see a mother otter and her pup on a log in the water about 15 feet away.  The mother had a salmon head she was biting into with obvious relish.  The look on the face of the salmon was one of astonishment with perhaps a touch of, “I came so far, was so near my goal, and then this!”

 
The Chinook salmon in the lake are following the fresh-water scents of their natal streams, the Deschutes River and Percival Creek, to their long journey’s end.  But for some, the odyssey terminates just short of "home".  For years, we have watched harbor seals corral and devour salmon on the north side of the 5th Avenue dam, which forms a bottleneck and gauntlet through which the salmon must pass before entering the lake.  It never occurred to us that the waters on other side of the dam could also be a kill zone.  For one thing, we didn’t think that river otters could catch and dispatch something as large as a king salmon, which may be as big, (or bigger), than the otter itself.  But according the WA Department of Fish and Wildlife’s page on river otters, they do eat salmon, among many other prey items:

River otters are opportunists, eating a wide variety of food items, but mostly fish. River otters usually feed on 4- to 6-inch long, slowly moving fish species, such as carp, mud minnows, stickle backs, and suckers. However, otters actively seek out spawning salmon and will travel far to take advantage of a salmon run. 

River otters can smell concentrations of fish in upstream ponds that drain into small, slow moving creeks, and will follow the smell to its origin, even in urban areas.
River otters also eat freshwater mussels, crabs, crayfish, amphibians, large aquatic beetles, birds (primarily injured or molting ducks and geese), bird eggs, fish eggs, and small mammals (muskrats, mice, young beavers).

Salmon heads must be a particular delicacy, because the mother otter didn’t want to share it with her pup.  In surveying the whole scene, I surmised that perhaps the mother had killed the salmon, bit off the head, then left the kids (most of them, anyway) out in the middle of lake to eat the body while she came near shore to nosh on the best part in relative peace.

The two otters on the log seemed not at all perturbed by the small group of humans watching them from a few feet away on the bulkhead.


A couple of folks thought the otters might be nutria, which are an invasive species in the lake.  But nutrias are vegetarians.  One woman said, “What a blessing!”, about being able to watch the mother and pup so close-up. Another man related a story of how, many years ago in front of Genoa’s restaurant (now the Hearthfire), he had seen two otters mating very loudly.

According to WA DFW, “River otters digest and metabolize food so quickly that food passes through their intestines within an hour.”  This could explain why, when I returned a few hours later, the otters were still hunting and eating, with  four otters now on the half-submerged log.


I couldn’t tell whether the mother was among them, although one was again eating a fish head. Three of the otters were playing and nuzzling each other. 


When the trio swam off together, the fish eater didn’t want to follow, only reluctantly diving into the water with the salmon head in tow.  Later, as the day moved toward sunset, Janet told me she saw the whole family swimming toward the railroad trestle. 

I had heard an intriguing rumor that river otters had been seen in the fish ladders at Tumwater Falls Park, so I decided to stop by the park on my way home.  I spoke with a DWF employee there, asking if he had seen otters in the fish ladders.  He said he hadn't.   

He did say though, that in the spring when the fish tanks are full of small salmon ready to be released into the river, young otters enter the tanks and eat many of them.  They've tried to block the otters from getting in, but the clever mustelids end up climbing over the chain link fences.

As it turns out, the story about the fish ladders was partially true.  It was referring to the fish ladders at the 5th Avenue dam. Not surprisingly, otters move with ease back and forth through the open dam to access both the fresh and salt waters of the lower Budd Inlet.  That is why the otters are frequently seen at the West Bay lagoon and elsewhere along the Olympia waterfront.

Now that the rains have returned in earnest, opportunities for watching the salmon-eating otters may decrease. A slug of fresh rainwater flowing into the Deschutes River and Percival Creek systems could trigger the salmon to make a final rush to their ultimate objectives.  Such is the cycle of life.  We here at the end of the Salish Sea are indeed blessed to be part of it.


All words, photos and videos by Nancy Partlow ©

Additional video:


Other Resources:

WA Dept. of Fish and Wildlife page on river otters:

http://wdfw.wa.gov/living/river_otters.html

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Bee Imposters

     So our intrepid photographer Nancy Partlow sent us these photos and a story.  She  was out in her garden one day watching the pollinator animals,  She was looking at the fall asters when she saw this insect.  Nancy immediately got nervous and quickly put some distance between herself and the bug:  this is of course of a yellow jacket wasp, right?   Nancy and I both have had a childhood horror of these hornets, which is pretty ironic considering that now fifty years later we plant gardens which attract them.  But even today one or the other of us will call in early spring and in a voice of doom report:  “They’re baaaaaack….”   The first fat yellow jacket queen of the year can still give us the chills.  So it was very reasonable to me that Nancy would very quickly back off of this wasp.  Except…..it’s not a wasp.

     Nancy has become an acute observer of nature, and she noticed something weird about this so-called wasp.  Yellow jackets make a low ominous droning hum as they explore their territory: that sound strikes terror in the hearts of children.  But this insect had an annoying high pitched buzzing.  Nancy said it was like the difference between a B47 and an ultralight.  
     The other thing she noticed was that it was pretty nervous and twitchy.  Now yellow jackets are a top insect predator and they behave like they own the neighborhood.  If you’ve ever tried to shoo one off of your picnic food, you know how persistent and unflappable they can be.  This insect was very flighty and Nancy had a hard time getting close enough to get these pictures.  That struck Nancy as pretty strange, too.

     So the next picture she got really tells the tale:  look at those huge alien compound eyes:  no wasp has eyes like that.  Look too at the short knobs of antenna: these are very unlike the antenna of wasps.   And those thick hairy legs are much more typical of another insect.  What we have here is a FLY, pretending to be a wasp.  By putting on the coloration of a yellow jacket, other predatory insects will think twice about trying to eat it.  This is what is known as a bee mimic. 
   
  It’s a great trick. 



Janet

Resources:  
• photos by Nancy Partlow
• This fly is probably Spilomyia citima
Megan Asche has a great blog with other photos of this insect.  Check her out at: 
• Bug Guide is a great ID resource:  http://bugguide.net/node/view/15740

     

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Bumblebee Poster

We have created a poster of Bumblebees of Thurston County, Washington.  Four of the best BBee photos of each species, two each male and female, that Nancy has taken over the past few years make up the poster.  This poster is very regionally biased and may not match bees seen in other areas. Folk in other regions are encouraged to do something similar.  It has been a mostly enjoyable effort putting the photos into a poster, and small compared to the time spent by Nancy in the field.

The poster is now a feature of our Bumblebees page, along with some other information.


Omitted are common names.  There are common names out there, but they can be confusing in a different way and we generally either adopt our own or abbreviate the scientific name, like "Vos" for Bombus vosnesenskii.  

Bumblebee i.d. is not always easy nor certain.  The only certainty is that the more one watches the more one sees.  
Here are some hints on telling gender.   
Males are different in appearance and habit in several ways.   
1) Pollen basket.  If the bumblebee has a blob of pollen on the hind leg, the bee is female.  Even if not laden with pollen, the female hind femur is wider.  The males may have pollen on his body, but it is haphazard.   
2) Flower habits.  Males spend much more time drinking nectar and less time gathering pollen -- only enough to feed themselves.  Some flowers may draw mostly male bees, because they only produce nectar, or mostly female because they mostly produce pollen.  Some flowers draw everyone.   
3) Timing.  Males show up at the end of a nest cycle, never in early spring.  First a few queens show up preparing the new nest, then the female workers, then the males and the new queens.   
4) Appearance.  Males have longer antenna and a longer body, an extra segment each.  They typically have more yellow, although it may be a little or a lot more depending on the species.   
5) Sting.  Only females can sting, (and they can sting more than once, the stinger is unbarbed).  If you are very confident, you can test gender by hand-collecting a male.  If you get stung it was not a male.

Nancy Partlow photo credit
 B. californicus (fervidus) female
Nancy Partlow photo credit
 Bombus californicus (fervidus) male

Nancy Partlow photo credit
 B. vosnesensikii male
Janet Partlow, photo credit
 B. vosnesenskii female

Now as we head into fall, field study slows hugely with most bumblebees closing camp and dying or (if new queens) headed to ground until spring.  Mid-September and we have seen a few fat new queen vos, laden with fluids and calories, and a few workers of a couple of tenacious fall species are still out there.  In the meantime, over the next few months we will sort through photos and observations and work on both this and other pages about our native pollinators.

Glen

Additional resources

Bumble Bees of North America,  Paul Williams et al, 2014

Bumblebees of the Western United States,  Jonathon Koch et al, 2012 (PDF available)

Xerces Society bumblebee i.d.  http://www.xerces.org/bumble-bee-identification/
Xerces Society, bumblebeewatch.org



Monday, September 8, 2014

The Language of Chickadees

We woke this morning to heavy rain, the first wet pounder after several weeks of hot & dry weather.  Native to the wet side of the Pacific Northwest, we find this a source of rejoicing.

Chestnut-backed Chickadee
So does the world outside of our windows.  As I sit snuggled up in a warm fleece blankie, a small flock of chickadees shows up in the big picture window.  One works its way through the rhododendron beneath the window, picking off scale insects.  Another is using its tiny beak to glean out minute insects from between the shreds of moss that coats the branches.  As I look out the window beyond the rhododendron, I see several chickadees, working almost as a team, methodically providing insect removal service to our yard.  The yard is full of chick chick chick contact calls, as they keep in touch with each other.  The wet conditions deter them not at all.

We have a long relationship with chickadees.  For many years we had a tube feeder stuffed full of their favorite black oil sunflower seeds.  We kept it going year around, and the chickadees were very aware of this.  And on some level, they seemed to recognize us as their neighbors. They seemed to know we lived in the house and that we were no big threat. They also seemed to know that the tall lanky human guy was the one to refill the feeder. Over time they trained us to take care of them.  Here is an example:

In winter, chickadees take their time getting up.  I remember many weekend mornings while we were still in bed, hearing the small local flock of chickadees moving slowly alongside the wall outside our bedroom window.  They were working through the native yew and rhododendrons, quiet sleepy chick chick noises marking their progress.  We knew that their ultimate goal was the front yard, where the tube feeder of sunflower seeds sat.  This was a reliable source of breakfast food.

Every once in a while, the tall lanky guy neglected to fill the feeder.  When the chickadees rounded the corner of the house and discovered this serious betrayal, the sleepy contact noises burst into loud, imperative CHICKa dee  CHICKa dee CHICKa dee as they registered their deep unhappiness with this state of affairs.  But through the course of many years together, we had learned their language. That call was enough to get the lanky guy out of bed, into enough clothes to venture outdoors, where he filled the feeder.  The complaints then stopped, forthwith.

I remember one spring I was laid up with a bad knee, awaiting joint replacement surgery.  I spent a lot of time sitting around that spring, waiting for the operation that would give me relief and make me mobile again.  During that spring we put up a chickadee nest box on the front of the house, near our rarely used front door.  Our invitation was promptly accepted by a pair of Chestnut-backed Chickadees, though they had to put a vigorous fight with others of their kind in order to “win” the box.

These chickadees entertained me during that long period of waiting.  I watched them ferry in beaks full of shredded moss to line their nest.  They were pretty sneaky about it:  they would fly into a nearby bush, moss hanging every which way out of their beaks.  They would lurk and look carefully around, very wary, before finally making a mad dash into the depths of the nesting box.  This went on for a few days and finally the nest was done.  From the outside, it appeared to be deserted, but looks were deceiving.  One of the pair was sitting in the box, quietly incubating a clutch of eggs.  The male often found a hidden perch high in a tree nearby.  He would sing a distinctive, mournful DEEE, Deee, dee, a series of notes in a minor, descending scale:  this is the distinct call of breeding chickadees.  As he sang (incessantly) and she sat, the eggs finally hatched and after a few days we would hear tiny peeps as the adults took turns, flying in to stuff their begging maws.

The nesting chickadees seem to get to know us and also knew the usual pattern of visitors to the yard.  For example, the postman always delivered to the wall slot just under the chickadee box.  The birds were not thrilled about his daily incursions but they accepted it with a quiet alarm call.  This call was distinctive: from inside the house I recognized it and would get up and check the mailbox.  They were always right.

They were more unhappy about cat visitors.  Our next door neighbor had a young hunting cat who regularly prowled the yard and killed birds.  The chickadees knew this cat and whenever it appeared, they would let loose a loud volley of Chick a DEE chick a DEE chick a DEE!!  When I heard that call, I knew to get up and chase off the cat.  After a couple of times, the chickadees knew I was available to provide this service and I believe they came to rely on me.  Who was training who, anyway?

While the cat was a serious threat, we had put the nesting box high up on a wall where it was out of the reach of cats, so there was no real risk.  However, the biggest threat to the young nestlings was Stellar’s Jays:  these are large birds who regularly prey on other birds’ eggs and nestlings; they of course fly and can reach into the nest box,  and the chickadee parents are very aware of this.  When the Stellar jay flocks made their circuit through the yard, the chickadees would sound their own version of screaming chickadee hysterics: CHICKA DEE DEEE DEEE CHICKA DEE DEEE DEEEE!!!!!!.  I heard that shrieking and jumped from my chair, chasing off the jays and once again earning my keep in the eyes of the chickadees.

Over that spring, I learned the different calls and was able to predict what the problem was even before I opened the door.  Sometimes I got a mixed message: one day I looked out the window saw Stellar’s Jays, but the call from the chickadees signaled a cat.  I opened out the door and watched the jays attacking the cat, who was attempting to hunt for one of their nestlings.  Jays have seriously long sharp beaks and the flocks they live in are only too happy to go after prowling cats.  As I looked out, it was clear to me that all of us: jays, chickadees and me were really enjoying the sight of the overfed cat put to scrambling, panicked flight.

After a few weeks, the hatchlings fledged and the nest box was empty once again.  But throughout the year, the chickadees continued to glean in our yard, to come to the feeder, speaking their own language and allowing us a window into their lives.  It remains one of my favorite memories as a bird watcher.

Janet Partlow
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Resources:
•  Photos by Nancy Partlow
•  Short YouTube by Nancy Partlow:  Chickadees at a nest box  (Mason bees in foreground)
•  The Black-capped Chickadee by Susan Smith.  A wonderful book on the lives of these birds.