Sunday, October 11, 2015

Owls in the Night

Barred Owl
     Somewhere in the deep dark of early morning, the Barred Owl called.  A piercing series of low hoots, repeated over and over again.  I came out of deep sleep and groggily pieced together the pattern:  Who COOKS for YOU?  Who COOKS for you?  With that voice pattern I knew it was a Barred Owl.

     I noticed Glen was stirring and quietly asked him:  “Do you hear the owl?”  He came fully awake with a snort and said: 
“What? What owl?” And then he heard it as well.

     We lay in the dark and listened to it call for several minutes.  Glen wondered if it might be calling to a mate, but we heard no answering calls.  I wondered if it might have been a young owl, born this year and moving through the neighborhood, looking for a territory to claim.  We tried to figure out where it was, and guessed that it was probably north and west of us, near Schneider creek.  

     We’ve lived in this neighborhood for over twenty years now, first on Garfield ravine and now
near Schneider creek and its ravine.  Even in the middle of a small city, these ravines are still great owl habitats, so this is not the first time we’ve heard Barred Owls.  But they rarely stay;  even though city rats provide a fabulous source of food, city crows tend to band together and drive out owls.  So it is a real treat when one comes through and graces us with its presence.

    So we lay in the dark and let the sound of the Barred Owl lull us back to sleep.  Somewhere in the night, it keeps watch and it hoots.  I feel safe and comforted by its presence.


photo courtesy of Missouri Department of Conservation


Monday, September 21, 2015

They're BAAAACCK! Part 2


American Widgeons, loafing along the lake
A few days ago Nancy, my dad and I took a walk around Capitol Lake.  In the dog days of late summer, the lake is thick and turgid with clots of algae:  there are very few waterbirds.  But as the weather shifts into more cold & rain, and the days move into September, the waterbirds who winter over on this lake start to filter in.  And so it was a few days ago.

     We saw a few hundred American Widgeons.  These are small dabbling ducks, who feed in shallow water.  Their favorite feeding strategy is to upend themselves, dabbling with their bills along mucky bottoms and paddling with their feet to maintain their position.  From the surface what we humans see is the butt end; in widgeons the feathers under the tail are a bright white, so there is this marvelous big flash of white butt when they go ass over teakettle to feed.

    They are often the first wintering ducks to show up on the lake.  Part of this may be that Capitol lake is currently full of mats of bright green aquatic vegetation and this is the preferred winter food of widgeons.  

American Widgeons & friends
     They may stay here throughout the winter;  if Capitol Lake runs out of vegetation, they will leave the lake and look for other sources of winter food.  Sometimes they will leave the water and seek marshy green fields, finding their food there.  By next spring they will form pair bonds and return to their breeding habitat in wet tundra in Canada and up the Arctic circle in Alaska.    
     As we walk along the trail at Capitol Lake, we can’t usually see them:  the shrubs lining the path tend to block most of our views.  But we hear them:  they are pretty chatty to each other, making a distinctive “rubber ducky” kind of squeaky contact call.  They tend to stay together in groups, so the squeaking noises can be pronounced.
     There are reasons they hang out together:  as Nancy, Dad and I watched, a Bald Eagle swooped in over them.  Masses of screaming widgeons left the lake surface in a hurry, beating wings to avoid this predator.  The eagle made a leisurely circle around the panicking widgeons and went to a nearby perch, where it will keep an eye on the dinner table.  It didn’t catch any ducks on this pass, but my sense of  its behavior was that it was doing an exploratory flushing of the prey, watching for a weak or unwary duck.  Sooner or later, it will succeed.  And if the duck dinner doesn’t happen, there’s always salmon.

     When I see the American Widgeons begin to group on the lake, I am reminded that this is the
season of migration.  These ducks are showing me migration in action.  Let the fall season begin…

•  All photos by Nancy Partlow


Saturday, September 5, 2015


King Salmon on the Deschutes estuary
     In early September in the Pacific NW we got some of the first deep soaking rains for several months.  A prolonged hot and dry series of months finally broke to an unseasonal fall storm, coming several weeks earlier than normal.

     Normally we moan about the rain, but nearly everyone I knew was profoundly grateful.  I could almost feel the trees drinking it up and the rain-washed leaves finally able to collect sunlight more efficiently. The amphibians started to move too: Glen and Nancy and I went out on a couple of very warm, rainy nights and watched tiny froglets leave the breeding pond for the winter woods.   Birds are starting to form winter guilds;  I watched chickadees, bushtits and nuthatches forage in a group, gleaning scale insects off of our Mock Orange.  The wheel of the season turns and this year it is rain that is turning that wheel.

     But that’s not all.

     For several weeks now, adult salmon have been coming in Puget Sound.  They head for the streams & rivers in which they were born and they wait for the right conditions to run the rivers.  Well, it turns out that rain triggers these movements:  the fresh rainwater cools the rivers, raises the water level and sends the strong unique scent of each river out into Puget Sound.  All these things make the migration possible.  So the salmon wait.

      Our local watershed is the Deschutes river and there are several types of salmon that are born in that river and return to it late in the summer.  There is a dam they have to pass through in order to get into the river, and they can only do so at high tide.  After the rains came this week, Nancy went to the dam and got these great pictures.  The salt water was unusually clear and almost teal-blue, no doubt because of the fresh rainwater coursing out of the dam.

     These are King (Chinook) salmon: the huge size, spotty blue-green backs and dark gums are distinctive to this species.  In late July into September, they leave the North Pacific ocean, head down the Straits of Juan de Fuca and into Puget Sound;   finally they head south to Olympia, to the Deschutes river where they were born.  A couple of hours before high tide, the dam closes, so they are forced to wait out the tidal cycle.  Today I went down at high tide and watched 60+ fish circling restlessly, trying to find a way through the dam and up into the impounded river.

     They don’t wait alone.  In the waters around the dam, Harbor Seals lurk.  Normally the fish can easily elude the seals, but in the enclosed waters near the dam, the seals are much more effective in catching them.  Here is a photo Nancy took: a Harbor Seal munching on its salmon catch, with a gull nearby hoping for scraps.

    Nor is it just the Harbor Seals that wait.  During the running of the salmon, there are always many people hanging over the rail, fascinated by this yearly event.

    Here are some sobering statistics:  a female salmon may lay as many as 4000 eggs, usually in a gravel bed nest or redd.  Of these eggs, maybe four will make it to adulthood and return to run the river to spawn.  What we see here are those rare survivors, returning once again to our waters, turning the wheel of life once again and bringing the promise of future generations.


Resources:  All photos by Nancy Partlow

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Treefrog In Transition

Text and photos by ©Nancy Partlow

Several nights ago, I heard the call of a male Pacific Treefrog  (AKA Pacific Chorus Frog) through the bathroom window - Cree-EEEEK.  I could tell that it was probably somewhere in the covered walkway between the carport and the back patio, but thought I didn't have a prayer of finding it.  A few days later when I was rummaging around in a wheel barrow full of gardening paraphernalia I sometimes keep parked in this area, a little tan and brown spotted frog suddenly appeared on the rim of the barrow.
I figured it might have been hanging out in an open bucket of fresh planting soil, seeking a cool refuge from the recent heat and drought.  Greeting the little creature, I ran a bit of water into the bottom of a plastic watering can, which I then set beneath the wheel barrow. I did this because I’ve occasionally found tree frogs hiding inside watering cans on my back patio. 

Two mornings later, I searched for the frog but didn’t immediately find it. On a hunch, I checked the area around the hose connection a few feet away. In my experience, chorus frogs periodically loiter there, perhaps for the moisture.  Sure enough, I spied it on the hose rack next to the faucet, tightly snuggled between the coils of a black rubber hose.

By this time, the frog was not brown but a combination of green and brown. 

BB & B readers may recall a previous blog about chorus frogs where we wrote about this species’ ability to change color through the use of pigment cells in its skin.  In researching the literature about this neat trick, I discovered some disagreement among scientists as to why these frogs change color.  In my admittedly-unscientific opinion, they do it for camouflage.  Every time I’ve seen a chorus frog, it’s been the same color as its background. Although this one wasn’t the same hue as the hose it was perched on, (some have the ability to turn light gray), it did match the color of the plant foliage on the ground just below it.  Perhaps it had spent the previous day hiding out in that greenery, or was about to.  

Whatever the reason, the frog was beautiful. I’ve seen chorus frogs with all- green skin on their upper body, or mottled green and brown coloration, but nothing like this. Its back was mostly lime green, with tan still clearly visible along the edges.  The liver-colored spots and stripes from the previous few days were almost completely gone, although the black eye stripe was still there.
Patches of green were visible on its legs, while the cute ovals on its face reminded me of clown make-up.  I thought, "The frog is coloring a paint-by-number picture, using its body as the canvas.  How cool is that?"

I took a few photos of the little fellow, then left him to his own devices. I try not to intrude too much on the animals I see.  Their lives are hard enough as it is.

I didn’t see or hear the frog again after that day. More than likely, it was migrating from a nearby wetland to the forested area behind my house, where it would spend the terrestrial phase of its annual life cycle hiding in the shrubs and forbs, or buried in the leaf litter beneath the trees. 
I’ve been hoping to observe a frog change its color for a long time, and am thrilled to have finally caught one “in the act” in my own back yard. 
What a finished "paint job" looks like.
Courtesy USGS Amphibian Research & Monitoring Initiative
About Pacific Treefrogs:

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Of Toads and Mountains

Mount Baker from Boulder Creek
     Last week Glen and I went camping at Baker Lake, just southeast of Mt. Baker in northern Washington state.  Over the years we’ve been on a mission to camp near each of the major peaks in the Cascade Range.  This year, Mt. Baker was our goal.

     We camped at Panorama Point campground, which is along southeastern border of the impounded Baker river.  This river/lake is eight miles long and sits right at the feet of Mt Baker, so there is a lot of snow and rain draining into this lake.  Our campsite was sitting near/on a wetland that adjoins the lake, so  it shouldn’t have been a surprise to find (and hear) amphibians.  

Western Toad Bufo Boreas  (photo L. Halleck)
     One night after a thunderstorm and soaking rain, we were walking over to the Sani-can facility to do our evening ablutions, prior to turning in for the night.  I had my flashlight trained on the ground, watching for trip hazards.  Suddenly, along a path that I had come to know well, we saw a weird lump sitting right smack in front of us.  I trained my flashlight on it and found:  my first ever Western Toad Anaxyrus (Bufo) boreas.

     It was dry skinned and warty, light gray, with dark blotches near the warts.  The most distinctive field mark was a thin creamy-white line running down its spine from neck to vent.  It was about 3 inches in length, which is an average size;  apparently they can get up to five inches in length, with females being bigger.  

    It sat in our path;  it blended very well with the gravel that surrounded the Sani-can.  It remained very still, doing its best to blend in like a rock.  Finally it blinked and revealed itself to be a living animal.

     Over the evening and next morning we saw it several times, always near dusk or dark, always near the Sani-can.  We speculated that it might be territorial:  the smell of the Sani-can definitely attracted insects and so for the insect-eating toad, this is prime habitat.  Also the nearby wetlands and Baker Lake itself are excellent feeding and breeding habitat sites.  

    I was charmed.  As a birdwatcher, we always are on the look out for “life birds”.  This was a life amphibian for me, and as such, a real treat.  

•  Washington Herp Atlas
•  Toad photo by L. Halleck from The Herp Atlas
•  Mount Baker photo by Glen

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Shameless Promotion (Bees & Other Pollinators)

When, twenty years ago, Janet introduced Mason Bees into our family, neither of us had a notion of what she was starting.  By now I well know that mason bees are an entry drug into the world of bees, for they are easy to both raise and observe.  They have lured me deep into the pollinator world.

This past weekend (July 24 - 26) was definitely another tipping point, where I attended a program mostly about recognizing bumble bees.  Forty plus folk gathered in a Snohomish County Extension classroom (one county north of Seattle) to expand their knowledge of pollinators and receive instruction on how to recognize bumble bees down to their species and gender, taught by Rich Hatfield.  Rich is the biologist for Bumble Bee Watch, (a project of The Xerces Society), and he did a good job covering a complex topic.

A poster: Study pollinators at Oly Public Library on 9/28/15The field trip the next day was soggy — the first real rain in weeks.  It started with showers, and many of the bees we spotted were wet and huddled under larger flowers.  Ninety minutes in, and both insects and insect surveyors were soaked and wanting to hide. With our field trip shortened, some of us retreated nearby for warmth and hot drinks.  By the end of the workshop day I already knew that I wanted (needed) to do the same thing in Thurston County -- well not the getting soaked part, but that will happen too.  With the caffeinated conversations in my head, I considered the next steps while driving home a few counties to the south.

So what is next?  How about a monthly study group on native pollinators (not honey bees) and then a weekend short course, this time in Thurston County.  Look for regular updates including speakers / topics on our blog main page under "Pollinator Study":
Pollinators Study Group (Thurston Co, WA)

This is your invitation: if you live in the area and are interested in being part of a regular study group that wants to both learn more about some of the pollinators of the South Sound, and share some of your knowledge with others as well, please come.  The first meeting will be a mix of "Show and Tell" (bring something), and planning for the future.  We look forward to seeing you.

Meeting room, Olympia Timberland Regional Library, Monday, Sept 28th, 6:00 p.m. 

Glen Buschmann
360/ 352-9009

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Wasp Hunting

Display, Thurston Co Fair Beekeeper booth -- Bald-faced hornet
Now is the time of year where the aerial nests of yellow-jackets and bald-faced hornets assume a size of significance, easily exceeding a soccer ball in size.  I respect them, and give the nests wide berth.  Soon, the nests will start producing queens and drones and by September each nest will have started its inevitable decline into chaos.  But for now (early August), each working female is intent on provisioning the young in the ever-growing nest.

This week I put in a stint at the Beekeeper Booth at our county fair,  and read an article by Rusty Burlew / with some of her recent observations of wasps.  So I've been thinking about and looking for them.  But I was not expecting my attentions to lead to the following wasp tale, fascinating if somewhat gross -- and perhaps understandably unphotographed.

Really this tale really started the day before with a malodorous cat gift underfoot -- grumble grumble -- a mishap that put both Janet and me in a state of greater alertness.  Today it was Janet who saw a feline land mine in the middle of our dry lawn.  To those who do not know us, our response was peculiar, for instead of following a disposal plan, we brought out the lawn chairs: two bald-faced hornets were locked in an energetic stinging battle over this apparently valuable resource.

Bald-faced hornet on fennel
This we watched for a while.  I, having hose in hand and perhaps feeling a slight degree of pity for both the battle and for creatures reduced to this as a source of moisture and nutrition, gave both wasps and poo a shot of water.  One wasp circled and returned to the target and lawn -- now fresher and more attractive.  A couple of dozen flies invited themselves to the revitalized bounty. 

With the flies, the battle scene truly became murderous.  The remaining BFH revealed herself to be an adept hunter, adroitly capturing a fly, flying off presumably to her nest, and then returning.  We watched for a while with a perverse sense of appreciation combined with some disgust.  Finally, I removed the hazard.

But the wet lawn, odors, and insect routines remained, and thus Janet and I did not leave either.  The provisioning hunts by this wasp continued — waiting, pouncing, circling, waiting, waiting, darting, pouncing, and in time, success.  With the main nutritive target gone, flies were fewer and more twitchy, and the difficulty of hunting increased.  Our primary knowledge of wasp feeding habits has been learned while seated at the picnic table, when a meal is animated only by its being moved from barbecue to plate to mouth.  This was different.  So we watched the show and speculated, with a running commentary and considerable admiration.

I will still give wide berth to the nest of this wasp, just as I would to a roaming grizzly bear or resting rattlesnake.  But this paper-making hunter has my respect on a whole new level.


Short video by Miklos Bacso of Bald-faced Hornet hunting, similar story -- sorry about the ads.
Photo Credits
Nest photo Paul Henderson for Thurston Co Fair
BFH photo Nancy Partlow