Monday, May 22, 2017

Hope is the Thing With Feathers

Text and photos by Nancy Partlow©
At long last, our weather pattern  seems to be changing, but it was a hard winter and early spring.  In addition to the months of relentless rain and gloom, I lost my father.  We were very close, and since his death, the lack of  light and warmth outside has been the persistent accompaniment  to the internal struggles of a wounded heart.  The challenge has been to find a way back to some sense of normalcy and peace, and for that, as so often in the past, Nature has come to my rescue.

Dad wasn't a nature nut like I am, although he did enjoy getting outdoors.   My outdoor enthusiasms focus greatly on things with wings - native bees and birds. His passion centered on the kind of wings that allowed him to fly.  He was a flight instructor, which he loved doing.

Unfortunately, as he aged into his ninth decade, he was forced to give up this thing he loved. Truthfully by then, even walking had become a problem for him.  I tried to compensate  by taking him places in a wheelchair.   One of our most frequent haunts  was the Capitol Lake Interpretive Center, a great  place for a "nature fix", and the trail is well suited to handicapped access. 

We did this for several years until last fall.  The months surrounding his death were difficult, and although I was able to grab the occasional respite to observe the many beautiful ducks on the lake during the shortest days of the year,  I very much looked forward to the return of neotropical migrants.

It was almost a relief when the vernal equinox brought the first splashes of vibrant color to the CLIC in the form of Yellow-rumped warblers - a lot of them.  To my surprise, they  persisted for several weeks, enthusiastically hawking for flying insects from the  thicket of willow and alder trees that line the shore of the lake and the dike trails:  Yellow-rumped warblers hawking for insects from Capitol Lake shoreline
The rain didn't seem to bother them, and the beauty and antics of these birds, known as "butterbutts" for the splotch of bright yellow on their rear ends,  helped to lift my spirits at a time when I needed it most. 

I've always known that there are two forms of this warbler - the Audubon's and Myrtle races, but I was under the impression that we didn't get the later type here.  I was wrong. Both kinds were well represented at the CLIC this spring.

Audubon's warbler 
Myrtle warbler

By late April, I began to hear and see other kinds of warblers, like this Orange-crowned:

Orange-crowned warbler

In mid-May, after nearly two months at the CLIC, the Yellow-rumpeds  finally departed for their breeding grounds, to be almost immediately replaced by the vibrant Yellow warblers, with their "sweet, sweet, sweet, I'm so sweet" songs.  Some of those will stay at the Interpretive Center for the remainder of spring and early summer to nest and raise young.

Yellow warbler

Slowly, over weeks, as life has returned to the CLIC, so it has returned to me, like sap rising in a tree, or the first tentative song lifting from the throat of a bird at dawn. Earthly existence compels continuance and renewal, as hard as that may be to achieve.
Spotted towhee throwing back its head to sing

I know that I will never visit the Interpretive Center without thinking of my Dad and the many experiences we shared there. I take great solace in knowing that he now enjoys the  freedom of flight that he always longed for. 

I'll be with you on the trail, Dad. 

 In loving memory of Verne Partlow

More videos:

Another warbler seen and heard at the CLIC this spring:


Monday, May 15, 2017

Prairie (etc.) Appreciation Day

The prairies at Glacial Heritage Preserve, Thurston County, May 2017
Saturday May 13 was a cool rainy Prairie Appreciation Day. Janet and I were grateful for the canopy that sheltered us and our visitors during several impressive showers. At rather the last minute we were filling in as the main instructors at a booth on indigenous uses of prairie plants, training ourselves more deeply in everything from herbal remedies to camas harvest to making cordage from plants. Each of those topics could be a blog in itself.
Bud at Mima Mounds, spring 2014

This is the first time we’d been at P.A.D. since we lost Janet and Nancy’s father this year, two months shy of his 99th birthday. While we miss him a lot, it does free us up for more extended periods of nature exploration, not having to sort out our elder care assignments.

With this in mind we were confident that at some point Nancy would join us, and were delighted when several hours into our shift, Nancy strolled into our booth, camera in hand and bubbling over in the joy of the beauty of the prairies.

It was a break in both weather and visitors and so she was able (rather easily) to distract me with a “Glen, what do you think this bee is?”,  just a few yards outside.  She led me through some rain-soaked camas to one flower being visited by a rain-chilled bee.  At first glance it was a small bumble bee she had in her sights (and lens).  The bee had lots of fur and at first look seemed big enough to be a first generation bumble worker.  But as she and I studied it, other things were not right, starting with its “fur” coat.

Bombus fervidus (B. californicus)
Andrena transnigra? A wider face than Bombus

From the photos you can see that while on the thorax of this bee there is a dense pile, the pile on the abdomen is sparse, almost bare. Another thing that distinguishes her from a bumble bee is her face which is as wide as it is long; compare her face to the bumble bee Bombus fervidus (aka B. californicus). Finally, one can also see that on her hind leg is a great bristle of hairs, (scopa) designed to collect pollen.

It is because of her very furry legs that we also know that we are looking at a female, for only females are so well coiffed with pollen collecting leg fur.  We believe that this charming little bee is one of many mining bee who make a home on the Puget Sound Prairies, in this case probably (at least until corrected) Andrena transnigra -- who we know to reside here.  Here is a link to a few photos in BugGuide: Bugguide: Andrena transnigra .

If, by the way you have a different i.d. for this bee, please let us hear your thoughts.

- - - - - 
I close with a couple more thoughts about my father-in-law.  Bud was a man whose interests never really extended to watching birds, chasing insects or gardens and botanizing.  Flight was marvelous if it included an engine and stick he could control.  He loved a good meal as long as it wasn't messed up with too many vegetables, and a good conversation as long as it circled around family, friends, flight, or Hawaii.

Up until the last few weeks he was tolerant of excursions as long as a meal -- or at least a chocolate chip cookie or ice cream bar -- was part of the mission.  We had little else in common except family and just showing up. But that was enough to become good friends.  Towards the end being earthbound was not fun and certainly not easy.  But he kept a firm handshake, a sharp wit, and mostly a good sense of humor.  I miss that.

For Bud.
We went places.
Pau hana.

All photos, © Nancy Partlow

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Blog update

Hi all.  We have a few posts pending, but life has had some upheavals.  In the meantime we have put into our blog a new reference page with our three 11x17 Thurston County pollinator posters -- Bumblebees -- Flower Flies -- Bee Diversity.  Check it out.  (The different colored text means "Click here".)

Our study group continues too.  My current system of displaying all the monthly posters is a pain -- Blogger and I don't think the same way.  But here is our most recent announcement.

The May 22nd program is called "How Grows It?"

The short version is our program is garden bragging (and solemnizing).  And, we will start with a field trip at 5:30, but that has yet to be confirmed. (I'll rewrite this when it is.)

June 26 (no poster yet) will be Prairie Pollinators.  We will have a speaker from Center for Natural Lands Management, who operate the South Sound Prairies program.

This is a good time to mention that Saturday May 13th (in ten days) is the annual Prairie Appreciation Day at Glacial Heritage county park, between Olympia and Rochester.

In July the study group takes a break, no meeting.
August and beyond is not yet planned -- up to you -- what do you want?

May 3 2017

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Do worker bumble bees camp out?

Rusty Burlew is a beekeeper friend who lives in the same county and writes a regular (at least weekly!) blog about bees.  While these days she writes mostly about honey bees, she knows alot about native bees as well.  Anyway, I replied to a recent post of hers about bumble bees -- Honey Bee Suite / Bumble bee answers ... -- and she asked me to elaborate on whether or not worker bumble bees (the colony females who are not queens) stay out at night rather than going home to sleep.  The short answer -- yes -- was not enough for me.  But rather than fill her comment section I decided to add it to our blog roll.  I can't say how broadly this applies to all bumbles -- it is but a single experience.

Bombus melanopygus is a big boldly colored early season bumble common in Olympia (and the maritime Northwest).  She particularly likes old bird houses filled with old bird nests. We’ve recorded queens as early as the third week of January, but the weather has to cooperate and this soggy winter we’ve reached March and not seen a one.  (To illustrate this blog I'm using some older photos of Nancy's.)

The story.  One spring years ago I was asked to move a bumble'd bird house because of its poor location. The box was originally just a birdhouse ornament on an arbor that also supported the mailbox. Occupied one or two years by some bird, then the bumbles found it. This bee house was jostled with each mail delivery and the occupants were unhappy -- pointedly -- about the jostle. So was the Post Office, who notified the owner that she'd have to alter the setup. Thus, one night I corked and bagged the bird bee house and moved it, to our home a mile away. I'd not thought it all through, and being night and all, I just set the box down on the back shed steps intending to mount it later.

A call brought me back the next day, where many bumbles — at least a dozen, (I didn’t count) — were huddled together where their home used to be. The bumbles were homeless, and the colony was deprived of many of its workers. The huddle looked like a big number in a small bumble colony, (though a tiny number for honey bees). I’d moved a box the year before, and that colony failed. With the failure in mind I went home for my insect net intent on returning the homeless bumbles to their community — and that was my third mistake.

The bumbles had lost their home but not their sense of territory. My effort at netting the homeless bumbles was met with mostly empty netting. But I gained personal evidence that the homeless bumbles were queenless WORKERS who, even in the cool of the spring, had slept out at night, and upon returning “home” were defensive enough still to sting, (painfully!).  I'm still not as skilled as I'd like when it comes to distinguishing male from female bumbles, but a sting is definitely gender specific.

My other mistake was I learned that raccoons thought my temporary location was just for them -- low hanging fruit in a pretty wooden box. I'm sure they were stung too, but for them the wax and honey and larvae were no doubt worth the price of admission. If I’d first visited the shed I’d have known that even if had I recaptured the homeless bees, it would have been for naught.

These days, when asked to move a bumble nest, I try to find other solutions.  Unlike honey bees, bumble bee colonies are annual -- only living months -- so mostly I ask folk to be patient.  Usually bumbles do not reuse an old nest site, because wax moths and carpet beetles and a whole array of hungry camp followers consume the nest even as the colony fades once the new queens and drones emerge.  In hindsight, moving the mail box would have been easier -- but if I had done that, there would have been no story to tell.

Here is video made by Nancy a couple of years ago of B. melanopygus in a bird box: Bumbles in a bird nest box (video)


Sunday, November 27, 2016

Beaver Sign at the Capitol Lake Interpretive Center

Text and photos by Nancy Partlow©

Yesterday, I came across a large alder tree that beavers had toppled across the CLIC main trail.     

I spoke to a couple who were walking by.  I commented that  "it must be really tough to be an alder tree here because of the beavers."  The woman asked if I really thought beavers had brought the tree down.  I showed her tooth marks on the branch stubs and wood chips littering the ground.  She was amazed.  She didn't know that there are beavers at Capitol Lake.

Beaver tree-gnawing activity at the CLIC has increased in the last few weeks as the weather has gotten colder, just as it does every year.

Even though I've searched extensively for a beaver lodge nearby, I haven't been able to find it  yet. I think it's probably tucked away in one of the two CLIC wetland ponds. 

I only wish I could have returned after nightfall to watch the beavers continue to harvest branches from their felled tree. That would have been really cool.  A friend told me he once saw a beaver on a CLIC trail during the day.  I would have loved to see that!

I've often observed a male Anna's hummingbird perched in the upper branches of this alder, vocalizing and defending from all comers the large twinberry bush right across the trail, and  a rambling stand of salmonberry bushes close by.  Both these shrubs are good sources of hummingbird nectar when they're in flower.  I guess the bird will just have to find another perch now.
I also found a bushtit nest lying in the middle of the trail, probably knocked from nearby branches by the wind.  It  retained its still-beautiful construction of natural materials - moss, twigs, lichens and spider's web.   

Yesterday's soggy weather could have hardly been less conducive for a nature walk.  But with a good umbrella I was able to take a much-needed stroll and respite. 

My discoveries on the CLIC trail show me that even on the worst of days, nature  provides endless opportunities for wonder, restoration and learning.   In this season of thanks-giving, I am grateful for that. 

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Random Acts of Blogging

In trying to update our blog, I too hit the dreaded Publish button.  Indeed there be dragons, and they reproduce at will.  MOST of the time we like Blogger.  BUT, sorry for the multiple reposts of Nancy's recent blog on dragonflies.  (She does have great photos.)

My intended post was / is in large part a celebration of the one-year anniversary of the Native Pollinators Study Group (Thurston County). We are delighted to have developed a nice relationship with Traditions Cafe, who has hosted all of our our programs after our opening meeting at the Olympia library. Over the past year we have explored many topics and learned a great deal.

One of the projects I have enjoyed has been making monthly flyers for the program, which further inspired me into making some posters using some of our numerous photos, taken especially by Nancy, over the years.  Both posters and flyers will be found in one of our blog side-bars.

About the Pollinator Study Group.  If you live in the greater Olympia area, come join us for one of our 4th Monday programs, which meets at 7 p.m.  Traditions Cafe lets us use their cafe after they close, and we put in a good word for them whenever we can.  Over the past year we have explored many topics and learned a great deal.  One of the projects I have enjoyed has been making monthly flyers for the program, which has further inspired me into making some posters using some of the numerous photos taken, especially by Nancy, over the years.

By the way, if you don’t live in the area, consider starting your own study group; I’ve loads of suggestions.  In part I take inspiration from Scarabs, an insect society (bug fans) who have gathered, with a few year interruption, since 1937.  If you are in Seattle near the Burke Museum on a 4th Monday (yes, we meet the same time), they always have an interesting program.  (AND... this coming Sunday, 9/18 BugBlast at the Burke.)

Our September program (Sept 26) is a new visit with an old friend — Mason Bees. This is the first study group program specifically on them since we have been meeting.  Mason bees — a starter bee (entry drug) for many of us — have taught me a great deal both about the habits of solitary bees and about the diverse small animals who coexist with them.  While I do not blog often about these fascinating and sometimes overhyped bees, also on our blog side bar are several static pages with information about them that I am in process of updating and expanding.

In October (Oct 24) we welcome Eli Bloom, a WSU student completing his doctoral studies.  Eli and his assistants placed monitoring stations at about two dozen organic farms in the Puget Sound region as well as developed identification guides so that farmers and gardeners could better identify some of the pollinating insects visiting their landscapes.  Now Eli is ready to present his initial findings and to explore with us the roles native pollinators play on organic farms and what can be done to improve their numbers and success.

The final program for 2016 is November (Nov 29), as we do not meet in December.  At this point our topic is under discussion, so if you would like to influence our decision please let us know ASAP of what pollinator topic YOU would like to explore. 

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Here Be Dragons

Text by Nancy Partlow©.  All photos taken at Capitol Lake by Nancy Partlow©, unless other wise noted.

In our community there is a magical kingdom.  Towered over by a castle on a hill, it is known by the mundane name of  Capitol Lake, but for the countless creatures  roaming its aqueous realm, it is a cradle of life.  Anyone who has ever peered through a microscopic lens at a drop of pond water has glimpsed this mysterious world. 

As Capitol Lake has slowly filled with sediment over the years, many native species have benefited from its increasingly marsh-like condition.   One group of insects  that has prospered greatly are members of the order Odonata, comprised of dragonflies (Anisoptera) and damselflies (Zygoptera). 
Dancing over the water at Percival Cove, zooming like sunlit fairies above the east lawn at Heritage Park, defending territories and fighting for mates along the  Marathon Park shoreline, dragonflies and damselflies are a consistent summer and autumn-time presence at Capitol Lake.  

Male Western Pondhawk on Heritage Park lawn

Odonates are creatures of freshwater wetlands, and the lake is perfect  habitat for them.  With its shallow depth, muddy bottom and summertime algal mats, the lake is a lentic lagoon and a dragonfly heaven.

I'd previously garnered some limited knowledge about odonates from Janet and Glen, but recently learned a lot more while attending a presentation by well-known expert Dennis Paulson at a Stream Team sponsored event at the WET Center.  Author of Dragonflies and Damselflies of the West, Paulson's comprehensive field guide is filled with fascinating and specific information about these charismatic mega-fauna of the insect world.   I was surprised to learn that beside their great diversity in appearance, each species has differing behaviors for hunting, mating, egg-laying and even perching. 

The language used to describe odonata reflects the way they have captured the human imagination:  dragons and damsels, jewelwings and emeralds, sprites and dancers, even the more explicative skimmers, darners, dashers and hawks.

Damselfly on emergent vegetation at Capitol Lake's middle basin

The immature forms of these insects are called nymphs, although the name hardly reflects the classical definition of the word - they are fierce-looking bugs.  The larval phase comprises the vast majority of the odonate life cycle, which is lived under water.  A nymph's sole purpose in life is to eat and grow through voracious predation upon other aquatic invertebrates. 

After several months and molts, the nymph crawls out of the water  and clamps its legs onto a piece of shoreline vegetation, where it bursts its exoskeleton and emerges into aerial form.  Although I've never seen any of these shed skins called exuviae, there must be many of them hidden in the vegetation around the lake. 

Bright red as an adult, this is an immature Autumn Meadowhawk, just recently emerged
from the lake.  It will gain adult coloration over a period of days or weeks.

Paulson refers to dragonflies as "Natures Rainbows", and they really are.  Their variety of colors and patterns are amazing.  As a wildlife photographer, I love to shoot dragonflies. They're beautiful and make excellent subjects since, unless they're twisting their swivel heads, they perch stock still.  

It's been really fun and interesting trying to discover just how many species of dragonflies breed in Capitol Lake.  I've documented eleven so far, out of the total 33 species recorded for Thurston County as a whole.  Here are their photographs:

Cardinal Meadowhawk near the entrance to the CLIC

Eight-spotted skimmer at the Interpretive Trail
 A Blue-eyed Darner suns in shrubbery along the CLIC trail. This species belongs to the genus Aeshna, whose members are known as Mosaic Darners for the decorative patterns resembling mosaics on their abdomens.

Variegated Meadowhawks mating in a copulation wheel at the CLIC.

Shadow Darner male

Female Western Pondhawk

A male Common Whitetail perching on the ground in the middle of the CLIC
main trail - a typical pose.

 Common Whitetails are highly dimorphic.  This female  was perched on
 a rock near the lower falls at Capitol Lake's south basin.

Blue Dasher male perched on reed canary grass at Marathon Park.

Male Blue Dashers waiting for females at a CLIC pond.

Juvenile male California Darner near south basin of Capitol Lake in May.  According to Paulsen's book, the California Darner is "...almost always (the) first dragonfly to appear in spring, throughout at least (its) northern part of range".

Female California darner ovipositing eggs in an algal mat near CLIC dock. The floating vegetation helps protect the eggs from foraging fish.  

As adults, dragonflies and damselflies are both predator and prey.  The lake which gives them life is also nursery to many other insect species that fly as adults, such as caddisflies, stoneflies, mayflies, midges and mosquitoes, to name a few.  Odonates eat them all. Beetles, flies and Lepidoptera are other common food items, as evidenced by this video I took of a female Western Pondhawk munching on a moth at the Interpretive Center, the scales from its wings floating away in the breeze:

In a terrific and highly unusual photo, local nature photographer Barry Troutman captured a Shadow Darner eating an insect being parasitized by a wasp at the CLIC.

Shadow Darners derive their name from their habit of conducting much of
their activity in the shade.
PHOTO: ©Barry Troutman

Odonates make a good meal for other animals.  Spiders and frogs take their share, and at least 40 species of birds, probably more, are known to consume odonata larvae and/or adults, including the Blue and Green Herons that haunt the shoreline of Capitol Lake.

Despite the name, this is the only Common Green Darner I've seen at Capitol Lake - caught in
a spider web.

Green Heron at Percival Cove.

A Cardinal Meadowhawk perches on a branch near an American Bullfrog near the entrance to the CLIC.  Several Blue Dasher dragonflies also flew near this frog, just out of reach.

I asked Dennis Paulson whether odonates could survive the transition of the lake to an estuary.  Sadly, the answer is no.  Like many magical kingdoms, this one would retreat into legend.  Until such a day comes however, I will visit as often as possible, and allow myself to be willingly spellbound by its mystery and beauty.
Many thanks to Dennis Paulson and Barry Troutman for their help.

Odonata Central records for dragonfly and damselfly species in Thurston County:

Nature's Deadly Drone, from the New York Times:

A female Western Pondhawk finds good camouflage on an Oregon Grape leaf