Friday, February 20, 2015

Bed and Breakfast for Bumble Bees

©Words, photos and videos by Nancy Partlow
Words in red text are links to video 
I used to turn my nose up at crocuses.  I thought they were just another species of over-bred nursery flower that sits there doing nothing. Turns out I was wrong.  Five years ago Janet wrote a blog about her experience with a queen bumble bee using a crocus blossom in her yard as an overnight hotel:

I was totally charmed by this story and wanted to have the same experience for myself. To this end, I bought and planted some crocus corms in a sunny location in my garden.  For the past several winters I’ve eagerly awaited the emergence of the flowers and for a queen bumble bee to choose one of them as a sleeping bag.  This week it finally happened.  It was the coolest thing!

Around four o’clock one afternoon, I went outside to check the crocus patch and was excited to see a queen Bombus vosnesenskii bumble bee lying inert inside the slowly-closing petals of a striped purple crocus blossom.

The day had been unseasonably warm, but the queen had sensed the approaching  darkness of a cold winter night, and had chosen a clever hiding place to protect herself from the elements and predators. She wasn’t asleep, but had entered into a semi-torpid state to conserve energy.  She had picked this particular blossom as a bed and breakfast, knowing that crocus flowers shut up at night and are a rich source of nectar and pollen.

The queen lay there until morning, when dappled sunlight gently shone upon the dew-covered flower, gradually warming its petals and the insect swaddled within.   

It took a few hours for the petals to sufficiently open to reveal the still-torpid queen, her slightly-twitching legs indicating that life was returning to her body.  

During the night, she had changed position inside the blossom, and now her legs were wrapped around the flower’s stamen.   Nourishing orange pollen grains coated the hairs of her body. 

Sunlight had not yet penetrated deeply inside the flower’s cup, so eventually the groggy bee laboriously dragged herself to the edge of a petal where she lay soaking up the life-giving solar warmth. 

It wasn’t until nearly noon that the bee finally started to move in earnest, crawling to the next flower to eagerly drink nectar and rub stamen pollen onto her belly hairs.

Janet (who was visiting me that day) and I speculated on what the belly pollen behavior was all about.  I thought the queen might be gathering food to eat later, to help her rebuild the stores of body fat she had depleted during a long underground hibernation. But Janet suggested a different theory, that since pollen is full of antimicrobial ingredients, perhaps the bee was using it as a type of medicine protectant for her body, especially since she had so recently emerged from the soil.  Or, maybe the queen had already found a place to build her nest and was gathering pollen to lay her first brood of eggs upon.

It was about this time that I caught sight of another insect crawling out of a nearby crocus, and was amazed to realize that a second queen bumble bee, this one a red, yellow and black Bombus melanopygus, had also used one of my crocus flowers as a B & B.

The previous evening, I had placed a 4-inch potted heath plant near the crocuses, knowing that with its masses of tiny nectar-filled flowers, heath is an important food source for early-season bumble bees.

The melanopygus queen, her body caked with yellow crocus pollen, flew straight to the heath and started drinking. 

Success!  This gardening for wildlife stuff is really great.

Pollinator gardening provides many such experiences of discovery.  It is also a way to welcome back into our lives the myriad wonderful creatures who previously inhabited  the spaces we now occupy on earth.

I can hardly wait to see what happens next.
Additional video:

After fully warming up, the Bombus vosnesenskii queen nectars on crocus blossoms:
Other resources:
About bee torpor:

Long before crocuses and heath became popular landscape plants in human settlements, bumble bee species had evolved over millennia to survive in native plant ecosystems. This article from England gives an idea of how queen bumble bees might survive in those situations: 

Monday, January 19, 2015

Salamanders and Frogs on the Move

Our favorite amphibian pond in daylight hours
     Last night Glen and I went on a herp walk. “Herp" refers to herpetology, the study of reptiles and amphibians:  in this case, salamanders and frogs.  We wrote in our blog at Thanksgiving about our driving ambition to see a big night: one of those special times when herds of salamanders and/or frogs migrate into the breeding ponds for the spring.  We haven’t had a big night yet, but we are definitely seeing signs of movement.  

     In pursuit of this obsession, we’ve been going out about once a week, whenever the weather looks promising.  Last night’s weather was primo:  temperature 51 degrees, half an inch of rain in the last 20 hours and when we left the house, coming down in sheets.  This is amphibian migration weather.

      We drove out to one of our favorite sites not far from our house:  on the east side of this country road are some healthy freshwater ponds, while on the west side of the road is a dense patch of evergreen trees.  Many of our local amphibians live a two part life;  in fall and winter they hide out in sword ferns, under rocks or rotten wood  or in rodent burrows deep in these evergreen forests.  But come mid-late winter, with warming temps, increasing daylight and  a Pineapple Express rain storm right out of tropical Hawaii, the amphibians are lured out of their winter homes and head across the road to the breeding ponds. These seasonal migrations lured us too, out of our warm house on a nasty winter night.

     Bundled up in rain gear, layers of fleece, reflective vests and juggling flashlights, we walked the road between the woods and the breeding ponds.  Right away we saw our first amphibian; a Northwestern Salamander Ambystoma gracile leaving the woods and heading across to the pond.  

Northwestern Salamander Ambystoma gracile
     You can identify this salamander by several key field marks:  it is a uniform dun brown on top and white-gray underneath.  It has fat parotoid glands at the base of the jaw on either side:  these glands have a concentration of pores capable of excreting a milky mixture of poisons and irritants as a defense against predators.  Northwestern Salamanders are also quite stout and have strongly marked grooves along their ribs.
      We turned it over to check its gender:  it squirmed and did not make the job easy but we saw that it was a male by the swollen genitalia at the base of the tail.  

Northern Red-legged Frog Rana aurora
     Further on Glen was surprised to see our first frog of the season.  This was a Northern Red-legged Frog Rana aurora . It played possum as we walked up, but was docile and cooperative as we moved it off the road and over the pond.  Up until a couple of years ago, I thought our only local species was the Pacific Chorus frog.  When we saw our first Northern Red-legged frog a couple of years ago, it was a real thrill.  This frog reminded us of that first sighting.

   We continued to walk down the road.  This road is well-traveled and on this night,  we had to move aside for more than 20 cars ( I was very happy for our reflective vests). It’s obvious that cars are heavy users of this road:  we counted 25 or more carcasses of amphibians that failed to make a safe crossing.  We saw one squashed Northwestern salamander female; we knew she was a female because as she was hit she extruded a jellylike mass full of unfertilized eggs.  

     Northwestern salamanders may live five years.  They show site fidelity, which means they like salmon always return to the same waters to breed and produce young.  Twice a year they must make these migrations:  from woods to ponds and back again.  This means as many as ten crossings in their lifespan.  For “our” salamanders at this pond, this is an incredibly risky lifestyle.  As we walked this road and kept a watchful eye, Glen remarked on the depressing nature of this field work and I concurred.

Amherst MA, Henry Street Salamander Tunnels
     But there is a different perspective.  At least on that night, we were there.  We helped some amphibians cross and we are bearing witness to their lives and their struggles.  Our local Stream Team is starting to develop a database of high risk road crossings for these amphibians; the information we collect will be added to this database.  I have a vision:  maybe we can develop teams of volunteer amphibian stewards, posting them on high risk roads throughout the winter.  Maybe people driving these roads at night will become more alert and aware.  Maybe city and county planners can learn to build roads around wetlands, or to make bridges over wetlands, which would allow amphibians to safely cross underneath.  

     The night got darker and wetter.  We returned to our warm house, where I sat by the furnace and watched steam rise from my sodden clothes.  I thought of the amphibians we had seen, who heed the ancient call of their kind, leaving the safety of the woods for the breeding ponds and for future generations.  On these dark nights, I pray for their safe passage.   

•  Northwestern salamander photo by D. Hagin from Washington Herp Atlas, (The Washington Heptofaunal Atlas Project).
•  Northern Red-Legged Frog photo by Nancy Partlow
•  California Herps - Salamander Life History,  Amphibians and Reptiles of California
•  Searching for Salamanders and Frogs, by Rob Schanz, Chehalis River Council,  Rob surveys for amphibians for Stream Team.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Celebrating Olympia's Great Blue Herons

Words, photos and videos by Nancy Partlow

“The Heron flies in a slow, leisurely manner, as if it was hoping to remember where it’s going before it actually gets there.”  Anthony Armstrong
Great Blue Herons are iconic and beloved denizens of the Olympia shoreline.  Of all our local species, I think they most resemble the dinosaurs from which birds evolved. To see one flying with huge wings extended, and hear its emphatic grawk, only reinforces the impression of a present-day pterodactyl.

Great Blue Herons are beautiful, graceful in flight, and have intense golden eyes that reveal, more than anything else about them, their wild natures.

For photographers and bird lovers, the presence of these magnificent creatures offers an increasingly rare opportunity to capture images of bird life on the Olympia waterfront.   I’d like to share some photos that I’ve taken and some interesting facts I’ve learned about Olympia’s herons over the last few years.

Last spring, I noticed a group of great blue herons gathered on a rubble pile offshore of West Bay Drive - which seemed odd.  Except when nesting, herons don’t seem to tolerate being near each other like that.   I thought perhaps it might have something to do with the breeding season. As it turns out, it does.

According to WA Dept. of Fish and Wildlife Management Recommendations for the Great Blue Heron,

Prior to nesting, herons may gather in groups. Surveyors have observed pre-nesting groups close to many of the region’s heron colonies…

...  There is some debate as to how prevalent these groups are in the region. Although birds may not exhibit this behavior at every colony, more survey and research during the pre-nesting period will help us better understand these habitats.
I dubbed the jumble of bricks and cement blocks “Heron Island”, and discovered it is located almost directly below the heronry tucked in the woods above West Bay Drive. 

At the start of the breeding season, adult herons sport a long, jaunty plume upon their heads,

...and an elegant feather cape draped over their shoulders.

Their beaks and lower legs deepen in color from a dull yellow to an orange hue.

Juvenile Great Blue Herons differ in appearance from mature ones, appearing to have more brown coloration and more solidly dark heads than adult GBH’s.

Looking like a Dr. Seuss creation, and perhaps newly fledged from a nest at the west Olympia heronry, this juvenile scoped out the lay of the land and water at Percival Creek estuary in the spring  of 2013.

It could have been the same young bird I captured in silhouette later that summer hunting below the 5th Avenue Bridge.

A salmon swam at its feet, but after jumping into the water with a noisy splash,

the heron emerged with a smaller fish impaled upon its bayonet-like mandibles.

Quickly ingested its prey, evidence of its kill stained its bloody beak.

When hunting, herons can be quite territorial.  Watching two of them at the Percival Creek estuary, one stalked the other until the perceived interloper was forced to fly off and land near a group of geese and ducks.  Finding safety in numbers, the vanquished heron’s countenance seemed to say, “Don’t mind me.  I’m just hanging out here with my peeps.”

After dining, the wispy cravat on a heron’s breast serves a specific purpose.  According to Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s All About Birds web site,

Great Blue Herons have specialized feathers on their chest that continually grow and fray. The herons comb this “powder down” with a fringed claw on their middle toes, using the down like a washcloth to remove fish slime and other oils from their feathers as they preen. Applying the powder to their underparts protects their feathers against the slime and oils of swamps.

Herons have their favorite grooming posts.  Months without rain in the summer of 2013 left the accumulated evidence of one such hangout at Capitol Lake, on a log covered with heron droppings and old feathers.  As I watched the bird combing and preening, it created a small cloud of feathers and dust around itself.

Herons are opportunistic, and the 5th Avenue dam and two nearby bridges have created favorable conditions for them to pursue fish.  At certain times of the year, it is rare to visit this location and not observe a heron.

One day at the dam, the inky-black reflection of a 5th Avenue bridge streetlight manifested intriguing and ever-changing patterns in the water near a bird.  I half-expected it to spell out, “Save the Herons!” or “Surrender Dorothy”.

Waiting for the darkness to lift, a heron huddled on a dam abutment one freezing winter morning at the perigee of a King Tide.

Peering intently into the autumn-hued waters of Budd Inlet, a heron stands like a phantom at the threshold between two worlds.

Humans too, stand at a threshold; between a world where species other than ourselves can flourish, or one sadly and eerily devoid of such life due to habitat loss, climate change and the ever-growing claim that Homo sapiens stake upon the earth’s freely-be bestowed gifts. 

I am so grateful to those people who have toiled to protect Olympia’s heronry and forest habitat above West Bay Drive.  May their inspiring work be an impetus for further preservation, and restoration, of Olympia’s nearshore and shoreline ecosystems, and the Puget Sound at large.

Videos (for best viewing, watch in high definition):

Great Blue Herons in pre-nesting congregation on rubble pile off West Bay Drive, right below the heronry:

GBH eating a three-spined stickleback at 5th Avenue dam:

GBH watching flock of mergansers swim by at North Point:

Olympia Coalition for Ecosystems Protection (group working to protect the west Olympia heronry) on facebook:

March Point Heronry colony at Padilla Bay, with a link to some audio of herons on the nest:

Pictures of Woodard Bay heronry:

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Owls in the Ravine

      It was just after sunset one cold clear night in February when we decided to go down into Garfield ravine and listen for owls.
      We bundled ourselves up in our winter woolies and carried binoculars in mittened hands.  We stood for a while and quieted ourselves down, our ears tuned up for the call of one of the most common yet elusive backyard birds.  When we were finally ready, we filed down into one of Olympia’s neighborhood ravines to wait for owls.
     Though Garfield ravine is in the middle of developed, residential west Olympia, it still retains a rich mix of bigleaf maples, alders and second-growth conifers. It has steeply pitched, seeping sides so no houses have ever been built into it.  The stream that once ran unimpeded through west Olympia has been locked away into culverts, but here in the ravine it has been allowed to run freely for its last mile into Puget Sound.  

Glen checking out native vegetation in the ravine
     This ravine forms what is called a riparian corridor:  a kind of wetland habitat that forms the banks of streams and rivers.  Here are native plants such as swordfern and Western Red cedar,  adapted to wet conditions.  Here are rats, sneaking up from the bay to feed out of human backyards.  There are mice, too and salamanders, insects and worms.  All of these animals provide food for the owls of the ravine.

     The stream had probably carved out the ravine in times past.  Now with recent rains, the water ran high and fast;  we listened to the rushing sound over the rocks in the creek bed.  Up above, the wind brushed through winter-bare branches and the distant voices of children at play up in the neighborhood floated down to us.

Western Screech Owl
     The ravine was cold and wet, waking slowly to spring and new life.
     It was the perfect place for owls.
     We sat and let the silence move into us.  We sat and let the night darken and the stars come out, one by one.  And then the owl began to call.

     A quiet rolling series of hoots echoed up the ravine towards us.  A haunting sound, the quick heartbeat of the nighttime woods, it came towards us.  We held our breath.  We cupped our ears into radar dishes as we strained to hear.  And it called again.

     For the next half hour, the Western Screech Owl asserted its claim to the ravine, as its kind had done for centuries.  We sat, entranced and let the sound fill us up.  Up in the neighborhood, few people heard the call;  they were busy with their usual Sunday evening lives.
     But for us in the ravine, we were blessed with the presence of owls.  


•  This article was originally posted in Green Pages in April 1995
•  Owl photo from Wikipedia
•  All other photos by Nancy Partlow

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…


• Photos by Nancy Partlow, Glen Buschmann
   Some YouTube videos we made of this field trip:
•  Olympia Stream Team newsletter:
    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:

     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 .


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…




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