Monday, January 25, 2016

A Wild Success - The Capitol Lake Interpretive Center- Part 1

Text by Nancy Partlow ©
All photos were taken at the Capitol Lake Interpretive Center by Nancy Partlow©, unless otherwise noted.
My family’s interest in the Capitol Lake Interpretive Center began circa 2010. We were looking for someplace easily walkable, wheelchair accessible, and in a natural setting.  The Interpretive Center on Deschutes Parkway fit the bill perfectly, and it’s been a love affair ever since.
The Center’s history is interesting.  According to Washington State Department of Enterprise Services web site:
"Development of the Capitol Lake Interpretive Center was made possible with the 1979 dredging of Capitol Lake. In that project, an 18-acre, two-cell dewatering basin was created to process the spoils of future dredge operations. A much smaller dredging operation in 1986 utilized the basins for this purpose. A third dredging operation planned in the mid-1990’s was prevented, however, because portions of the dewatering basins had naturally evolved, were determined to be wetlands, and could not be disturbed.
The construction of Heritage Park in 1997 included the designation of these 18 acres as an Interpretive Center with a commitment by the state to establish and maintain a high quality wetlands in the former dewatering basins. These new wetlands mitigate the loss of open-water habitat and the expansion of the park grounds into formerly submerged lake areas.
The 2001 Nisqually Earthquake caused considerable damage to the area. However, reconstruction provided an opportunity for considerable improvements.
Today, the Interpretive Center holds great promise to provide visitors with an experience that contributes to their understanding of our natural systems. It is one of the most unique components of any state capitol in the nation."
In September  I walked the CLIC with Bob Barnes, the landscape architect who along with state horticulturist Susan Buis and Erica Guttman from the Native Plant Salvage Project, was responsible for the 2003 replanting of the trail.  He shared with me some photos from that time.

Volunteers help plant native plants at the Capitol Lake
Interpretive Center.
An enthusiastic proponent of native plant restoration, he conveyed his philosophy by quoting Chief Seattle: 
"We did not weave the web of life, we are merely a strand in it"
The Interpretive Center is a wonderful example of the flourishing web of relationships created by installing a diverse mosaic of native plants.  The result is a magical place, vibrantly alive with wildlife; a natural area that on a small scale rivals the Nisqually Refuge. 
A song sparrow throws back its head and sings at the CLIC

A Spring azure butterfly sips nectar from ocean spray flowers 

A cedar waxwing in an alder tree

A Bombus mixtus bumble bee nectars from mock orange blossoms

The Capitol Lake Interpretive Center beautifully illustrates the concept of, “Build it, and they will come”.  It is a wild success.
The CLIC at the time of its 2003 remodel. 
Courtesy of Bob Barnes
Aerial photo of the CLIC today
From the Thurston County Geodata website

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Eagles and Salmon at McLane Creek

Text and photos by Nancy Partlow©

The annual gatherings of bald eagles on the Skagit River in the North Cascades are quite famous, but I never dreamed we had anything similar to that here in south Puget Sound. I was excited to learn that every late fall and early winter, bald eagles converge in numbers near the mouth of McLane Creek to feast on the bodies of dead and dying spawned-out salmon.

After heavy rains, bald eagles splay their wings to dry their feathers
at a foggy McLane Creek

According to the Draft McLane Creek Basin Water Resource Protection Study, McLane Creek Basin is comprised of several streams: 

McLane Creek Basin…is located in northwestern Thurston County, a little more than five miles west of the city of Olympia. It encompasses more than 7,000 acres that drain into McLane Creek and into Eld Inlet, and is bounded on its northeastern side by State Route 101, and on its northwestern side by the steep terrain of the Black Hills. The basin contains six major tributaries to McLane Creek, including Beatty Creek, Cedar Flats Creek, Perkins Creek, and Swift Creek. The area is one of the most ecologically intact basins within Thurston County that discharges to Puget Sound.
Fish species of the basin include cutthroat trout, winter steelhead, coho and fall Chinook salmon. But it is the large numbers of returning chum salmon that attract bald eagles from miles around.  An article from a Thurston County Stream Team newsletter describes the chum runs in the basin thus: 

At the beginning of the winter rains, adult chum salmon return to the icy waters to reproduce and then die. The chum salmon spawn anywhere from the lower mouth of McLane Creek up past the protected area of the McLane Creek Nature Trail. They also spawn in tributaries to McLane Creek: Swift, Cedar Flats and Perkins Creeks. WDFW staff do fish surveys during the spawning season to count the number of salmon along different reaches of the creeks. For the past ten years, an estimated 6 to 10,000 chum have returned to McLane Creek. Swift Creek had an estimated 12 to 25,000 and Perkins Creek, 700 to 3,000.

That’s a lot of fish!

I have visited this area during the fall salmon run for the last four seasons.  Two years ago, I watched more than 30 chum spawning right before my eyes in Swift Creek. 

Chum salmon spawning in Swift Creek

Yet it is dead fish that the carrion-loving eagles really go for, and there are plenty of those, too.

Dead salmon at McLane Creek

Upon entering the area, the pungent smell of decomposing salmon permeates the nostrils. The shrill, piercing cries of eagles and gulls penetrate the air.  Depending on what the tide is doing, the trees next to the McLane estuary may be festooned with many bald eagles. 
Fifteen bald eagles perch in a tree above McLane Creek
The fact that such normally-territorial birds tolerate each other’s presence is testament to the rich and abundant food resource. 

I asked Janet why there appear to be so many more juveniles than adult bald eagles at McLane Creek.  She pointed out that it takes four to five years for a bald eagle to attain adult plumage, so maybe four out of every five eagles would naturally be youngsters anyway. She also suggested that it might be easier for juvies to scavenge dead salmon than to catch live prey, which is a learned skill. It also could be that most adult eagles are currently defending their territories, since breeding season has already started for them. 

These last two theories made some sense to me.  I recently caught sight of an adult bald eagle at Capitol Lake.  It was eating a bird that it had caught (probably some kind of duck or gull). I wondered why it wasn’t out at the salmon streams getting fat on chum.  Perhaps this was one of a mated pair that annually nests above the Deschutes estuary, hunting in its home territory. 
Whatever the reason, I know that mature bald eagles nest near the McLane Creek estuary too, and every year I see at least one pair together.   

It’s thrilling to watch them mirror each other’s flight and occasionally, even briefly lock talons.
Views of eagles along this stretch of McLane Creek are mostly from far across large farm fields, which is actually a good thing, so that the birds aren’t disturbed.  The tall firs, cottonwoods and alders next to Delphi Road may afford closer views.
When I was a child growing up in Olympia, seeing a bald eagle was an exceedingly rare occurrence.  That is why I still experience a major thrill whenever I catch sight of one.  I am so glad that bald eagle numbers have rebounded to a point where we can again experience one of nature’s great spectacles right here in Thurston County.

Other resources:

Draft: McLane Creek Basin Resources Protection Study

Stream Team article on chum salmon at McLane Creek


Bald eagles in tree at McLane Creek
Bald eagle courtship behavior at McLane Creek
Gulls and eagles soar over McLane Creek
Bald eagle eating a bird at Capitol Lake

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Native Pollinator Study Group (and Blog) Update

Every fourth Monday evening in Olympia a number of us gather to explore the rich diversity of bees. Right now, with winter rain and wind and lack of flowers, there is not much chance to observe pollinators except in a book.  Despite this, our January topic is shaped by two bumble bee optimists whom we hope to glimpse.  To prepare for February’s topic, (and in case you got a book-store gift card recently), we recommend three recent books that showcase the diversity of bees in North America, and invite you to grab (at least) one of them. For more information, including the bee books we recommend, check our Study Group page, or our page of just the fliers.

P. S. Google Blogger, our blog host, sent out the following. We aren't quite sure what it means, but here it is: 

"[S]tarting the week of January 11, we [Google / Blogger] will remove the ability for people with Twitter, Yahoo, Orkut or other OpenId providers to sign in to Google Friend Connect and follow blogs. At the same time, we’ll remove non-Google Account profiles so you may see a decrease in your blog follower count.

We encourage you to tell affected readers (perhaps via a blog post), that if they use a non-Google Account to follow your blog, they need to sign up for a Google Account, and re-follow your blog. With a Google Account, they’ll get blogs added to their Reading List, making it easier for them to see the latest posts and activity of the blogs they follow."

We hope this doesn't mean that we won't be able to notify you when we update our blog, but at this point there isn't much we can do beyond letting you know ahead of time in ways like this.  GB

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: