Monday, November 16, 2009

Salmon at Kennedy Creek

On Saturday morning we awoke to a deep frost, crusting the grass and roofs with white crystals, cold and still. It was foggy too, with clouds of billowing fog sneaking fingers through the neighborhood trees. I sat inside by the big window, in my warm jammies, reluctant to even think of going outside. But my friend JoAnna and I had made plans to go to Kennedy creek, to see the annual flood of Chum salmon making their way upstream to spawn. This was an invitation from nature not to be refused.

Kennedy creek is a beautiful healthy creek that flows out of the Black Hills in northwestern Thurston county. If you head northwest on highway 101 towards Shelton, about ten miles out of Olympia, the highway drops down to sea level and you cross the Kennedy creek estuary. I have spent many happy hours at this estuary, counting shorebirds and watching the tide flow in and out.

On Saturday, the tide was coming in strongly, a new moon high tide swollen with the recent rains. This is the kind of flow that triggers the Chum to go up the river. Here in November, this is their month: all month long they will run the river of their birth, seeking places to spawn.

So here in this amazing place, JoAnna and I found a quiet place by the rain-swollen creek and settled in to watch. At first we saw nothing and thought we'd missed the fish. But as we quietly settled in, suddenly we heard the wild splashing of nearby salmon. The splashing, churning, chasing behavior is usually done by the males, in perhaps a territorial or dominance display. I never see the females do it; JoAnna and I remarked to each other how females in general have better things to do.

Among salmon, there is sexual dimorphism: the females are small and more gray. The males are larger, much more brightly colored in mottled green and red, and among the Chum, the spawning males develop an elongated snout and enlarged teeth, which give them the look of fighting dogs. Hence their other name: Dog salmon.

The name of Chum comes from the Chinook jargon language "Tzum", which means mixed colors, spots or stripes. This certainly fits the Chum in this fall season.

The females look for likely gravel beds in which to make their salmon nest or redd. The gravel must be clean of sediments, well-oxygenated, and protected from the main stream of the creek, to avoid washing out in flood times. This sort of real estate is at a premium in Kennedy creek; where the females find it, they congregate, along with a swarm of males all eager to participate in fertilization.

In general, there is a dominant male who guards the female and sticks close. He often chases off other intruding males - hence the splashy displays. He wins by virtue of his size and ferocity. When his female completes her redd and lays her eggs, it is his sperm that will fertilize them.

Other smaller males, called jacks, cannot hope to win these battles of size and temperament. Their strategy is to lurk in the shallows, making use of their lighter colors to blend into the murky water. When the dominant male has his back turned, chasing off other intruders, the jack sneaks in and fertilizes the eggs. It is strategy that works more often than you might think.

After the eggs are laid, the female is done and she dies. The males hang on a little longer, traveling up and down the stream to look for other fertilization opportunities. Then they, too, die. Sometime in their long journey from ocean to Puget Sound to Kennedy creek estuary, the salmon stop eating. They digest their own stored fat, and later, their own protein to survive just long enough to spawn. As they stop eating, their immune system weakens and their bodies are attacked by a wide variety of pathogens. You can see in the picture, the dead male is a blotchy white-red: the white is a fungus that overwhelms the salmon's immune system.

Along the banks of Kennedy creek, bloated white carcasses of salmon lie. They provide a crucial last service to the ecosystem; in our temperate rain forests, rain washes away a lot of the nutrients. The bodies of salmon fertilize the streams, providing nutrients to all of the forest. The caddisfly larvae in the stream, the young salmon smolts, the nearby threads of fungus, the tree roots all feed from these dying salmon bodies. And when the caddisfly molts into an adult fly, it is the nearby Wilson's warblers who catch them to feed their young, while the young salmon grow up and head out to sea. All these animals carry within themselves the life that was gifted to them by the death of the salmon.

JoAnna and I sit quietly in this frosty morning, looking on this dance of life and death. Overhead, the Bald Eagles lurk in the trees, their high-pitched loony cackle drifting through the lichen-shrouded trees. There is the damp sponge of Earth in fall, the leaves dropping off the trees, the smell of damp and fungus and dying fish, all wrapped around us. And in front of us, in the greatest nature show of all, we watch the last days of these magnificent animals, creating the future in the waters of Kennedy Creek.

Resources: webpage of Kennedy Creek salmon wildlife watching area:

Monday, September 21, 2009

Autumn Meadowhawks

Yesterday was the last day of summer. This string of endless sunny days has been a phenomenal opportunity to go out and watch animals that love the sun. For us, right now, that means dragonflies.

So my friend Jay and I went out to McLane Creek beaver pond once again. We decided to go out a little earlier this time; females and males use the pond differently at different times of day, and we wanted to see if we could observe these shifts in the daily use of the beaver pond.

When we got to McLane around 1:00 pm, it was about 60 degrees, and the sun was shining fully on the pond. It was very quiet, dragonfly-wise. We watched a few drab-colored female dragonflies whisking around the surface of the pond, occasionally dipping their abdomens into the water, most likely dropping off eggs. From my reading, female dragonflies tend to avoid the ponds (and the herds of sexually eager males), so those that are ready to lay eggs (oviposition) show up early and later in the day, when the males are less likely to be around.

As the afternoon warmed up, we started to see Shadow Darners (see previous blog) and Jay made a skilled swing with her net and caught one. Here is a photo of her gently extracting him from the green net bag, holding two wings on one side to prevent his escape. We took a few quick pictures, then let him go on his way, watching as he seemed to shake off the indignity of capture, then return to his previous circuit of the pond.

Around 2:00 pm we were surprised when several tandem pairs of red Autumn Meadowhawk dragonflies started to appear. In reading Dennis Paulson's book on Dragonflies of the West, it appears that when some Meadowhawks are ready to mate, they "hook up" with their partners near their night roost sites in the woods, then fly in tandem to the ponds, where the male flies the female low over the water, where she then curves her abdomen down and deposits her eggs.

The male has a special pair of claspers at the end of his abdomen, which are readily seen in this photo. When he makes hopeful ventures to a possible perched female, he is said to flutter and do a kind of courtship dance. If she is duly impressed, she cooperates, by allowing him to hook his claspers on her prothorax, a kind of narrow neck area behind her eyes ( it gives a whole new meaning to the phrase "hooked up"). This is called the tandem position.

If she is willing to mate, she then curves her abdomen up and touches the tip to the second segment of his abdomen, which is the genital bump. He then transfers sperm to her to fertilize her eggs. This is called the wheel position. They may then return to the tandem position, where he flies her to the pond to lay eggs, ensuring that HIS sperm are the ones that fertilize her eggs.

We saw many pairs in tandem, and watched a few hovering over the pond, no doubt laying eggs. It was amazing to see. Even though we were not able to net many dragonflies that day, we saw a lot of interesting dragonfly behavior that was new to us. For nature watchers, this is nirvana.

As the afternoon wore on, we saw more male Autumn Meadowhawks, by themselves. There was a lot of basking going on (perhaps post-coital). They were sunning themselves on the railing of the dock, on nearby cattails, even on my knee, briefly. September is late for dragonflies to be out and mating. I have read that the Meadowhawks who flourish in northern climes do so in part by spending a lot of time basking in the available sun. We certainly saw signs of that on this field trip.

By 3:30, activity was slowing down a great deal, and it was time for us to head home. That night my sleep was deep, drugged as I was with hours of sun and fresh air. Through my dreams, red dragonflies danced and wheeled in the last sunny hours of summer.


Thursday, September 17, 2009

A Passion for Dragonflies

One of the best things about being a nature watcher is that there is so much to see and so much to learn, that it would take a lifetime to learn all the things out in nature. This could be considered discouraging, but in fact, it means that there are always new things to focus on. Which I love.

A few weeks ago, Glen and I signed up for the Northwest Naturalists' weekend workshop at North Cascades Institute, on Diablo lake in the North Cascades. This is a yearly event; for this year they brought in two of my favorite expert naturalists: Bob Pyle (butterflies) and Dennis Paulson (dragonflies). We followed Dennis around on an all day field trip to Lake Campbell and Pipestone canyon in the Okanogan, to explore dragonflies. These were pretty new to us. We were astounded by the variety, the colors, the behaviors. We decided that when we got home, we would seriously pursue dragonflies. Which we have been doing.

I say "we" loosely. Since I am in recovery from hip surgery, my contribution is to strain my brain for good places to go to watch these amazing animals. Glen is the chauffeur, the tracker, the stalker, and ultimately the catcher (and yes, these insects are HARD to catch). We have also had our friend J come along; she has studied these animals for some time, and is a dab hand at catching them.

So we have been to various areas on the Black river, to Scatter Creek and to McLane creek. Here are some photos of some of our first successful catches (we catch them for a few minutes, take a photo and then release them). We then go home with our pictures and I spend several days pouring over books and photos, to identify them. It's been a lot of fun.


This is a male Paddle-tailed Darner Aeshna palmata. Dennis caught it at Lake Campbell on August 14th. Look at that striking green face and the HUGE blue-black eyes. Darners are the biggest and most visible dragonfly species, and my personal favorites.

This next one is a Blue-eyed Darner Rhionaeschna multicolor. Dennis also caught this one at Lake Campbell in August, but we recently saw this same dragonfly flying at McLane Creek beaver pond. This one is very easy to identify: of the ten species of darners in Thurston County, this is the only one with huge blue eyes and lots of blue splashed everywhere.

This next dragonfly is one of the group of the medium-sized red meadowhawks. It is called the White-faced Meadowhawk Sympetrum obtrusum. It was perched on some low vegetation along the Black River. J did a fabulous sneaky stalk on this dragonfly, dropping her net on it from behind. It has the bright red abdomen of all meadowhawks, and a distinctive pattern of black triangles edging that abdomen. And of course, a white face. Unmistakable.

Glen and I saw a lot of this species of dragonfly at McLane creek a few days ago. We were walking along a shaded path on the wooded edge of the beaver pond, when suddenly in front of him he saw and caught this dragonfly. It is a Shadow Darner Aeshna umbrosa. I struggled to identify this one, but with the help of Dennis Paulson's fabulous field guide to dragonflies, was finally able to figure it out. Shadow Darners tend to be quite dark, with limited blue splashes on the abdomen. They also prefer to hang out in shadowy edges of slow-moving streams, and this is exactly what we saw with this darner.

Finally, we did not catch this dragonfly, but we saw several big males flying over the pond at McLane Creek. This is the Common Green Darner Anax junius: the biggest dragonfly we have in our county, it has an unmistakable olive-green head and bright blue abdomen. We watched a few of these patrolling the pond, no doubt looking for females ready to mate.


Dragonflies and Damselflies of the West by Dennis Paulson
Dragonflies through Binoculars by Sidney Dunkle
North Cascades Environmental Learning Center - wonderful nature classes on many topics

Friday, September 11, 2009

Alligator Lizards

Three weeks ago I had hip replacement surgery. It has required me to take it easy, to allow healing to take place, to limit my activities. And in general, in this time of beautiful Indian summer, it has been a real pain. And boring, too.

So when Glen stumbled upon this Northern Alligator lizard sunning herself on the back porch, I was wildly enthusiastic. Well, I probably would have been pretty enthused anyway: I love all the "herps" ( lizards, amphibians, frogs, snakes, turtles). Twenty years ago I was a volunteer zookeeper assistant at Point Defiance zoo, and worked in the building that housed these animals. I got to see and work with some amazing snakes, tortoises, geckos, etc. These are animals that truly are from another planet.

But my fondness for herps was planted even earlier. In 1955 my parents moved to the outskirts of Olympia, near what is now Olympia High School. From our place looking east, all you could see was abandoned cow pasture and a few cow-chewed Douglas firs. This was the playground for me, my six siblings and all the neighborhood kids.
We saw Pacific chorus frogs in our apple trees, and chased after garter snakes. Nearby Hazard lake had salamanders and bullfrogs. All in all, it was a wonderful haven for herps and children alike.

One time we caught a huge bullfrog roughly the size of a dinner plate. I took it into the house to show my mom, and was surprised to see my normally unflappable mother become unglued when the bullfrog jumped out of the shoebox onto my arm. My surprise turned to a calculated glee as I stalked closer to her, menacing her with the bullfrog, despite her freaked out attempts to assert parental authority and get me to back off. It remains one of my better memories.

Anyway, back to alligator lizards.

Lizards are cold-blooded animals, so they especially like heat and sun, both of which are generally in short supply in western Washington. What this means is that lizards are also in short supply here; only the Northern Alligator lizard is considered widespread and common. It likes damp Douglas fir and Hemlock forests with sunny edges, where it can sun itself, and also catch its insect prey. If you, like us, find a lizard in your back yard, chances are very very good that it is this lizard.

They are active in the day, but tend to be secretive, so it's not common to find them. As I talked with a couple of friends who had seen them, I was told that they like houses with high exposed foundations, especially if those foundations are sunny. These flat concrete surfaces act as a rock face against which the lizards can soak in sunshine, but also pick up the stored heat the in "rock". Since our house is built on a high foundation, this probably helps bring in lizards.

The other factor is Schneider creek. I have written about this creek and its proximity to our house in previous blogs. Schneider creek emerges into a deeply forested ravine about one block from our backyard. This may provide the wet woodlands that Alligator lizards like; I speculate that these lizards use the forest edges of Schneider ravine, and venture into connected sunny backyards.

This particular individual is a fat female. Females bear live young as late as early September, and it is possible she is pregnant. Or not; she has clearly had a prosperous summer, and laid down lots of fat stores, which will help sustain her as she goes into an underground den to hibernate in October, slowing her body metabolism down to get through the winter months. Come next March she will re-emerge from her den, eat voraciously and find a mate. And so the cycle begins again.


• Washington Herp Atlas:
• The Reptiles of British Columbi:
• Reptiles of Washington and Oregon; authors Storm, Leonard, et al
• Many thanks to Bill Leonard for answering my questions.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Shaggy Manes in the garden

About 5 weeks ago, we decided to plant our vegetables in concert with mushrooms. We wrote about it on April 26th (see the blog). We dutifully followed the instructions from Fungi Perfecti, enriching the garden soil with steer manure, worm castings, etc. then putting down layers of alder sawdust and mushroom spawn.

Since then we’ve been wondering what to expect as far as mushroom production. The household skeptic (Glen) has been uttering dire predictions of complete failure. I say that we don’t know what is happening in the ground under our feet and it might be a year before we do know.

So it was with great pride that two mornings ago Glen went out to the garden for the daily sunrise inspection and found two mushrooms pushing out of the sawdust. Glen brought in a photo he’d taken. I felt a burst of pride in our “children” and got all excited. Then a few hours later I went out to look for myself. The mushrooms had continued to grow and develop, making them easier to identify. What we had was a species of edible Coprinus species mushroom called Shaggy Manes.

I admit it - I was disappointed. Where were the mushrooms WE planted? But this is the classic lesson for nature watchers, and one that I have to learn over and over again. It can be covered by that classic proverb: Man proposes, God disposes. I go out into the natural world all the time with my carefully wrought plans about what I am going to see. Then nothing I planned on shows up, but instead, there are other powerful things to experience and learn from. I need to let go of expectations.

And I do love Shaggy Manes. I’ve seen them rise at McClane creek, along the trail edges where all the nutrients wash down and collect. In moist, foggy fall mornings, under the shadow of the trees these mushrooms rise like ghostly battalions, foot soldiers in the battle of decay & nutrient recycling They are a powerful life force and will not be denied; we have seen them push through asphalt in their drive to fruit, produce spores and ensure the next generation.

I wrote Fungi Perfecti about what had occurred. Jim Gouin kindly wrote back and concurred that indeed these were a Coprinus species of mushroom, and that the spores of this mushroom had most likely hitched a ride in on the steer manure. He also told us that the companion mushrooms that we had “planted” in April were now active in the interface between soil and alder sawdust. He suggested we leave it alone for now, but come fall, dig down to that boundary and see the mycelium thriving.

I am looking forward to that day.


Monday, June 1, 2009

The Lure of Kale

I am very fond of kale, how it overwinters through almost anything, pushes out scores of dark tasty leaves in the lean frosty days of early spring, and infallibly follows with handfuls of succulent stems and flowers like undisciplined broccoli. When allowed to proceed to the next step, kale then bursts forth with hundreds and hundreds of bright yellow flowers and finally thousands of seed.

These yellow flowers are a bounty for any number of insects, lured by pollen and nectar and even tasty greens. On just a couple of plants in ten minutes of watching I have easily observed at least five different species of bee, as well as hover flies, jumping spiders, and cabbage butterflies, (these butterflies a mixed blessing I admit). A dedicated nature journalist could easily tally dozens of different species over the course of its six week bloom time.

The lesson of the story of course is NOT to replace our gardens with fields of kale, (or any other one plant). The point is how easy it is to increase diversity in even a small garden by letting small bits of the garden go. There is a wondrous array of plants which draw in and nurture insects if we let them. The mustard and carrot family are insect magnets. Herbs like thyme, mint, dill, and lavender attract multitudes. Let a garden get a bit “seedy” and likely it will reveal some delightful surprises.


photos by gb
kale in garden
weevils mating

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Peregrines at the Port of Olympia

This morning I got a phone call from Ann, who works in a building near the cranes at the Port of Olympia. Ann is a devoted birdwatcher, and for years from her office window has watched a pair of Peregrine Falcons, who have a nest box on the orange southern-most crane at the Port. This year they are back, defending their nest and likely they have eggs they are incubating, soon to hatch.

Ann had several questions about what she's been seeing. Over the years she has gotten accustomed to seeing the same pair of birds: Peregrines mate for life and the adults stay year around to defend and re-use a successful nest-site. Individuals also have distinctive unique markings, so Ann has gotten to know the birds at the Port. This year, however, she called and told me that one of the birds was different: she had noticed it was much bigger than the other. She was wondering what that was about.

Among Peregrines ( and many other birds of prey) there is a factor operating called sexual dimorphism. What this means is that there are strong differences between male and female birds. You can easily see this in mallard ducks: the male has a bright green iridescent head and other bright feathers, while the female is a dull, dun brown, better for camouflage.

In Peregrines, females are often much larger than males. Their feather markings are the same, but there are distinct size differences. As Ann and I talked about this, it became clear that the female of last year had probably died. Ann remembers hearing that a peregrine falcon had been found dead this winter near the Port. The remaining "widowed" male must have courted and formed a pair bond with a new female, who happens to be gi-normous.

Ann has a great window out on the lives of these birds. She was watching the other day and reported a typical Peregrine hunt. The big female was hunting, zooming at high speed just outside Ann's window. Ann did not see the target prey bird, only a burst of feathers when the female falcon dove at high speed right into it (It was probably a city pigeon. Remember when Randy Johnson aka the Big Unit pitched a 95 mph fastball into a hapless pigeon at Safeco Field? Bird explosion.)

The female then deftly retrieved the stunned pigeon (all of this happening in flight, at speed) and took it off to a nearby light standard, where she perched and began to pluck the breast feathers. Ann reported that feathers were flying in great abandon. The Peregrine then ate voraciously, pulling out choice breast meat, then diving in further for the rich organ meats of heart, liver, spleen, etc. This whole process took about 20 minutes.

Finally this female left her plucking post, carrying a choice chunk of meat back to the nest box. Ann did not see what she did with that token: it may have been for her mate, who was perched, guarding the box & eggs. Other falcons such as kestrels are known to cache their extra food, storing it away for times of hunger. So it's possible this bit of pigeon ended up in a falcon cache nearby.

I remember hearing another story some years ago, from a crane operator at the Port. He has a good view from his perch, both of the Peregrines, and of Budd Inlet. It was during nesting season, when the Peregrine pair are especially, ferociously territorial. It was near dusk; the operator was looking out over the inlet and saw a Great Horned Owl, flying low over the water, heading east and making a fatal mistake of moving near the peregrine nest box. He watched as one of the falcon pair saw the owl and took off after it with deadly intent; he saw the falcon hit the owl at high speed, driving it into the waters of the bay. The owl was unable to get out, and drowned.

From the perspective of a nesting falcon, this was a smart move. Great Horned Owls are known to take falcons at night, when the owls' sense of hearing and night vision tips the predatory balance to them. From the perspective of the owl, it would have done better to wait until it got darker to start its night work.

A good place to watch these birds is from the waterfront near the observation tower. Look north for the huge orange crane: it is supported by a large concrete brace. Look at that brace and follow it up to the highest, southernmost edge. There is a gray nest box up on that cement ledge; often you can see the peregrines perched nearby, or flying nearby.

Another great resource is the Falcon Research group: Based near Bellingham, this group was founded by Bud Anderson, who is a raptor biologist with a special expertise in falcons. Click into the page on Urban Peregrines; it gives a lot of insight into the lives of our local falcons. Also, FRG has a live falcon camera at the WAMU building in Seattle: look at FRG's website to find the link.

Resources: photos from the Internet

Sunday, April 26, 2009

In the garden

Sunday was one of those sunny weekend days that are starting to be not so much of a surprise anymore. A quick trip to the Farmer's Market, where we drooled over plant starts, and then Glen and I went out to the garden. Our goal ( I say "our" loosely, as he does all the work, and I provide supervision from the side) was to get the early season cool crop veggies into the ground. Starts of leeks, onions, bok choy, and broccoli all sat by me, brave in their small pots, ready to face wind and hail and slugs in their own drive to flourish and produce seed...

We also had another idea. I'd been reading Paul Stamets' book Mycelium Running. This book is highly recommended, full of deep insights into the vast web of mycelial threads running through the soil right under our feet. One of his experiments some years ago was to do some companion planting of certain veggies with certain edible mushroom strains. It turns out that the veggies and mushrooms formed mutually beneficial relationships: the mycelial threads go a long distance collecting water and dissolved nutrients, which they then pump into the root systems of plants, while the veggies contribute their stored carbohydrates, converted from sunlight. It turns out that all members of these community flourish: the veggies are bigger and better, and the mycelium sends up big fruiting crops of edible mushrooms.
I was enthralled by this idea, so Sunday was the day to implement it.

We had to get some supplies: a yard of alder sawdust from Great Western Supply, and we also ordered (from Fungi Perfecti) mushroom sawdust spawn of Garden Giant Stropharia annulosa and Elm Oyster.

First Glen had to clean up the gardens, pulling weeds, chasing down quack grass and clearing out old brussel sprouts (ugh). Then we needed to provide some soil amendments: this garden is only a year old, and the soil still needs to be built up. He mixed in steer manure and some wonderful soil amendments from Gary Cline's Black Lake Organic line- a mix of nutrients, and glacial rock grindings. Finally he put on a layer of alder sawdust, then scattered the mushroom spawn, then another layer of sawdust. Finally it was ready to plant; he shook little starts of leeks free from their pots and buried them down.
At the end of the afternoon, two new beds were ready, full of good soil, lots of nutrients, alder sawdust and mushroom spawn. I could almost feel the mycelium start to reach out tentative threads, testing the ground and finding it good, very good.

So then I sat for awhile in the sun, admiring our work and feeling the novel sensation of warm sunlight on my back. I flashed back on just six months ago, 2 feet of snow icing over the garden. And now? Mason bees droning away, laying eggs and building their homes, Yellow-faced bumblebee queens hover over the newly turned soil, looking for a likely abandoned mouse hole to make this year's hive, the male Song Sparrow sings territory songs near his nest, a streak of thin white cirrus clouds drifts across the deep blue bowl of the sky. Under my feet, the mushrooms are stirring, and the soil is returning to life. It is a good day to be alive and in the garden.

Resources: Fungi Perfecti, Mycelium Running by Paul Stamets

Thursday, April 9, 2009

On mason bees and other distractions.

A conversation with a friend the other day brought to mind Fiddler Jones of Edgar Lee Masters "Spoon River Anthology". The poem in part follows; I relish its ode to distraction.

Fiddler Jones

THE earth keeps some vibration going
There in your heart, and that is you.
And if the people find you can fiddle,
Why, fiddle you must, for all your life.
What do you see, a harvest of clover?
Or a meadow to walk through to the river?
How could I till my forty acres
Not to speak of getting more,
With a medley of horns, bassoons and piccolos
Stirred in my brain by crows and robins
And the creak of a wind-mill--only these?
And I never started to plow in my life
That some one did not stop in the road
And take me away to a dance or picnic.
I ended up with forty acres;
I ended up with a broken fiddle--
And a broken laugh, and a thousand memories,
And not a single regret.

Nature keeps throwing distractions in my path which I am loathe to ignore and which continually interfere with well-intended plans. Over the last year I've been writing and rewriting a handout on rules for mason bees. Sometimes there are seven rules, sometimes ten, sometimes eight. I am content to abandon it as finished whenever I don't need it for a few months. I trot out one version for a class, revise it for a lecture, reconsider it in a display. The thing is, at different times of the season my interests wander to other bees and other gardens and other wild things altogether. With these wanderings my opinions also change and develop. It is hard after all to describe a landscape in one visit. One day is drab and grey and the daffodils pop with cheery sunshine, the next day the sunshine highlights the swelling buds of a cherry tree, another day and I'm brought up short by the accusatory chatter of a chickadee or drawn in by the enticing scent of Daphne odora. I guess I forgive myself for noticing all this abundance.

Writing rules for nature is a misnomer anyway. It is not so much an effort at writing rules as an attempt to discern them - to see rules already in place. My first "rule" for mason bee success - the bold print, unflinching, never-changing one - is also one of the more interesting ones to test. What is "Rule One"? It is that mason bees (any bees really) require fresh clean housing every year. Fail to annually replenish their nesting tunnels and along come a progression of parasites and interlopers. The thing is, after working successfully with multiple thousands of mason bees, it is the interlopers and oddities which intrigue me almost as much. Right now I am trying to successfully raise some tiny tiny parasitic wasps which I removed as larvae from some mason bee cocoons. Once I get them to adult, (if I get them to adult), I will then collect them and attempt to mount them. They will join the carpet beetles and the moths and all the others who comprise my “pests” collection. And I will continue to probe out new rules and accept new distractions and be grateful for them.


photo, male mason bee, 4/09

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Frog Blog (2) The Singing of the Frogs

Last night my friend Nancy and I went to a local frog pond to spend some time sitting with the singing Pacific tree frog males. With the onset of warmer weather in February, male frogs head to the ponds and start to sing, calling in females to mate and start the next generation. As the days have lengthened into April, the singing has gotten more intense. Last night we decided to pay an after-dark visit, to experience the chorus, to look for frogs and hopefully, to find some egg masses. We were not disappointed.

My friend Barbara lives on the edge of a wetland, which also next door to a place where wetland plants are commercially grown in "wet beds". These wet beds are shallow temporary freshwater ponds, which for the tree frogs are ideal for raising tadpoles. Barbara has been hearing frogs singing from the wet beds for several weeks now. This was our destination.

So last night we left the house at 8:45 pm in the near-dark. It had reached 60 that sunny spring day and was still fairly warm. As we drove through the quiet night, the skies were dark and clear with a gibbous moon; the stars showed a frosty light, and Orion stalked the Lepus the Hare in the western sky.

We arrived at the wetland and parked, getting quietly out of the car, hoping we would not alert the frogs. Not a chance. As we sneaked up on the wet bed, it was silent as the tomb and we thought we'd blown it. We tiptoed around, setting up our chairs, fumbling with our flashlights, cameras, hats and trying hard not to giggle in the enforced silence. We didn't succeed at that, either.

We used our flashlights to scan the surface of the water and found a couple of frogs, looking very dead, but just playing possum. As soon as the light moved away, they hid themselves away.

We also searched for egg masses: I'd been checking the wet bed several times over the last 3 weeks and had not yet seen any. But viola! we were rewarded: several small clusters of greenish gel, containing fat round white eggs showed up, attached to the hardware cloth lining the bottom of the wet bed. These looked very new, very freshly laid.

Finally we settled down, turned off the lights and prepared to wait. I was not hopeful, thinking it might take 20 minutes or more. But I underestimated the hormonally driven males: within 2 minutes the chorus began again. There was one frog about 2 feet away from us who started things off. This was likely what they call the choirmaster: the leader of the band who gets things going. Several times over the 45 minutes we were there, the frogs quieted briefly and always, when they started up, his was the first voice to start up the songs.

We turned our flashlights on occasionally, trying to find all these calling frogs. We could only find two: one we believe was the choirmaster, sitting just half-submerged about 2 feet away from us, at the far corner of the wet bed, facing in. He kept his throat pouch inflated throughout; even when not singing, it was inflated. Unlike the other frogs, he did not move when we had the light on him. We speculated that these males might actually divide the wet bed into good calling territories; perhaps he had a primo one, and was unwilling to abandon it.
Other frogs were hiding under the plastic containers that held the plants. That seemed like a good choice for a couple of reasons: they were protected from predators, and the thin plastic might act as a resonating chamber, allowing their calls to be even more alluring to females ready to mate.

So we sat, in the dark, the frog song drumming on our bones. Overhead, the stars wheeled around the sky in their own ancient dance, and Orion almost caught the Hare. We felt a sense of deep honor, to be able to sit with the frogs and share their songs. And when the cold started to seep into our bones, we took ourselves home to warm beds, leaving the frogs to the night...


Monday, March 23, 2009

Rufous hummingbirds in migration

Early this Sunday afternoon I was sitting by the window feeder in the living room, pretty much minding my own business when SHAZAAAM! Our first female Rufous Hummingbird of the season showed up. Eighteen inches away from my fascinated view, she sat and drank for a couple of minutes. I quickly unscrambled my brain and reviewed her field marks: the most telling identification cues for her are the rufous wash on her flanks and wing pits, along with a few scattered deeply colored feathers on her throat and a muted green back.

Ten minutes later, it was our resident male Anna’s hummingbird Big Red. I wrote about this bird on February 16th; he had a hellacious fight with the then dominant female in our yard (Big G). He won and has been the big cheese in our yard since. His field marks include the distinct fuschia helmet over his head (green or black in low light) and an iridescent emerald green back and gray vest over his chest. He has no rufous whatsoever.

Ten minutes after Big Red flew off, a male Rufous Hummingbird flew in. He too sat and drank at length. He is vividly rufous - almost everywhere, except for a large scarlet-green iridescent patch that covers all of his throat and wraps around the side: this is called a gorget, which is a great word: it truly is gorgeous. All this within 20 minutes.

As the day has progressed, we have continued to see this variety of these hummers coming and going. I called with my friend Cynthia who has eight nectar feeders, and she too is seeing big numbers and varieties fighting and feeding at her nectar stations. We talked about the sheer numbers we are seeing; it is Spring migration season and we speculated that we are seeing a flood of migrating Rufous hummers coming through.

Some hummer watchers believe their migration movements are tied in part to the blossoming of Red Flowering Currant (Ribes sanguineum). Hmmm, is it a coincidence that we have one big bush in bloom in our garden as I write this?

Seeing this surge of hummingbirds in our garden reminds me of some field work I did years ago at Cape Flattery. In spring 1989 - 1991 I volunteered for a hawk watching project on a hill called Bahokus, overlooking the town of Neah Bay. This was a two-week stint starting at the end of March, since this is when the hawks tend to migrate through in the biggest numbers. The hawks would only migrate over Bahokus is certain unusual weather conditions, which meant that many days we were skunked as far as hawks. However, many birds use this same migration corridor, so a lot of time we sat around and watched whatever showed up (not a bad gig).

Rufous hummingbirds were regular migrants on Bahokus, and would suddenly show up at the hawk-watching hill. They had most likely followed the coastline north on their spring migration, only to arrive at Neah Bay, which is the northwestern terminus of Washington state. In front of the hummers was the Straits of Juan de Fuca, and to get further north meant they had to cross 13 miles of cold salt water to Vancouver island.

So we watched to see how they would handle this problem. Hordes of them would start to build up, hanging around for a few days fighting and feeding, mostly on thimble and salmonberry blossoms, probably restocking their fat stores. There were hummers everywhere, including in front of our spotting scopes, making hawk watching a little challenging. Finally one day we’d show up in the morning to start our shift and the hummers had disappeared, completely. That was the end of the migration.

But we don’t have to go to Cape Flattery to watch migration. It is happening right now, right in our own gardens, as herds of Rufous hummers move through. In a couple of weeks, the bulk of them will have moved on. Probably one male Rufous will take over your garden and feeder, and a few females will sneak in on occasion when his back is turned. So enjoy the spectacle of jewels in flight: it will soon be over.


Sunday, March 15, 2009

The Crocus Pantry

Last week on one of the two rare sunny afternoons I had a yen to find some bumblebees. I thought about what flowers might be blooming, and remembered that at Olympia’s Woodruff Park there were several fine beds of crocus. So I decided to go over and check them out.

The crocus grocery had opened its doors for business: it was flourishing. At 4:15 on a sunny afternoon, temperatures close to 50, there were several customers.

First I noticed some narrow-bodied flies, of an unknown species, actively clambering around on blossoms and drinking nectar.

Then there were the honeybees, flying in from the west (someone in the neighborhood west of the park must have a hive.) The honeybees were only interested in pollen, probably collecting it to feed their new brood. Crocus flowers have lots of orange-yellow pollen, and this pollen was completely coating the bees, making them look like tiny fish sticks ready for the fry pan. As the bees completed their pollen loads, they lifted off slowly, heavily, with dangling pollen baskets stuffed full. Then they headed west, back to the nearby hive.

As the afternoon wore on, the honeybees left and did not return. But a late afternoon visitor appeared: a queen yellow jacket. She had probably just emerged from her winter sleep, and appeared a little slow and clumsy. She landed on a crocus, took some nectar and then stayed there, stupefied, for awhile. As the sun started to sink in the west she finally stirred herself and took off, no doubt finding a place to shelter for the night.

Finally I heard the old Brewery whistle, blowing five o’clock from down the hill at Fishtale Ale brewhouse. The sun was sinking and the temperature was rapidly dropping. I was disappointed that I had not seen any bumblebees. But as I was walking back to the car, my eye was caught by a HUGE black bumblebee: a Yellow-faced queen posing nicely on a white crocus. She allowed me to take her picture before buzzing off at high speed. That made my day.

And once again, the crocus has come through to feed our emerging pollinators.


Saturday, March 14, 2009

The Swallows Return

Yesterday my 90 year old Dad and I went for an afternoon drive. He doesn't drive anymore, and he likes to get out of the house. He particularly like to get out of the house when it's a sunny day and 55 degrees, and it's still winter. I can't say as I blame him.

So we took Old Highway 99 south, wending our way down into the more wild areas of south Thurston County. My dad was born and raised in this county, and he's seen most of it, but when we take him for drives we are always trying to find something new, some area he hasn't seen. It's rare that we succeed.

Today we ended up on 123rd where it crosses the Black River. This is one of my favorite places, especially when the sun is shining. In the midday sun, the Black river becomes a deep ultramarine blue, which contrasts nicely with the russets and rufous-browns of the surrounding hardhack shrubs. In this picture, to the right, you can also see the sole willow tree, which is full of pussywillows (male catkins). I'd been hoping to see bumblebees here, but the catkins so far lack the yellow pollen that the bees love. I'll have to come back. Which will be real hardship.

The highlight of the visit was when we spotted the first swallows of the year. A small group of seven Tree Swallows were flying over the Black river drainage. Their flight was erratic, with lots of changes of direction and altitude: they were hunting for flying insects. They chase these bugs with verve & vigor; if you are close enough you can hear their bills snap together as they make a catch.

These are the first insectivorous migrant birds of the year, back in our county, and soon to be filling the skies of our neighborhoods. I can hardly wait.

Tree swallows are distinct for a dark blue top half, and a pristine white bottom half. This extends to the head, which is half and half. They are similar to Violet Green Swallows, but they are bigger, and they are completely dark on top from head to tail. They also come earlier than all other swallows; one reason for this is that they can and do eat berries (which is weird for a swallow) and so if they come a little too early, and the insects are not yet abundant, they can find other food.

They pair up and make nests in abandoned woodpecker holes in trees. Failing that, they use wooden nestboxes, and are particularly fond of nestboxes placed on pilings over water. You can reliably find them in East Bay south of the marina, squabbling with the Purple Martins over the nest boxes that have been placed there.

In a few days, spring officially arrives. But for me, with the swallows, it is already here.


Birder's Handbook by Ehrlich, Dobkin & Wheye
Bird photos by Bill Thompson and Bet Zimmerman

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Bats on the Wing

On Sunday my friend Rain called us up. She lives out near Woodard bay at the southern terminus of Henderson Inlet; here in late spring/summer there is a nursery colony of several bat species, living under the crumbling Weyerhauser dock. These bats show up sometime in March, pregnant and ready to give birth. Since Rain lives near Woodard bay, she benefits from their fly overs. She saw her first bat a few days ago. They are BAAAAAAACK...

It was 15 years ago when we moved into a house along Garfield ravine. This house had two large picture windows placed next to each other to form a corner. In that first summer we were there, it took us awhile to get curtains. So one night I was sitting near those picture windows, reading, shortly after sunset. My eye was caught by something flying in the dark - and it wasn’t a bird.

I called Glen and we started watching: the animal flying up to our window was a bat; as we watched, we saw about 20 passes of these bats. They flew in at high speed, flared their wings and swooped up and over the house. It was a virtuoso turn of speed and flight skills. It turns out that our big lighted (uncurtained) windows had called in flying insects; the bats had found these insects by echolocation, and came in their turn to our windows. I have been fascinated and thrilled by bats ever since.

We lived at that house for several years. We learned to go to the back patio at sunset, and look to the sky in the west, to the setting sun. About 20 minutes after sunset, the bats would fly in, leaving their daytime roosts in attics, and swooping through the skies, looking for insects to eat, but also, heading to water. On a good night, we saw 30-40 bats. From that experience, we believed that all backyards had similar sightings.

It turns out not to be true. A local animal-tracking expert named Greg Falxa started putting radio transmitters on our local bats, and tracking their movements. From his work, we have learned that many of our local bats are heading to the insect feast at Capitol Lake. The bats from the westside seem to orient and travel to the lake using lines of tall trees, which include Garfield ravine. It turns out our house was on the freeway on-ramp to Capitol Lake. That’s why we saw so many bats.

You might be able to see these same sunset movements by going to Garfield Elementary School playfield and looking north, watching the tops of the trees along Garfield ravine.

Or you can join us in our bat class, which is starting in April. (Details on our blog to to the right) We will be teaching about our local species of bats in the classroom, then going out for 3 field trips to see these amazing animals in the wild. We invite you to come along and begin your own journey of exploration into the lives of these amazing animals.

Janet Partlow

Bats Northwest
Bat Conservation International
Bats in Thurston County:

Monday, March 9, 2009

Frog Blog (1)

In this nature blog so far, we have mostly written about the things we know pretty well. However, I was thinking recently about this: no naturalist, no matter how experienced, knows everything. There is always plenty more to learn. And so it is for us.

My newest enthusiasm is that I want to learn more about our local amphibians. I know very little about these amazing animals. For me, it is important that my knowledge is based on formal training, supplemented by lots of hours of "dirt time" aka field experience. We have neither with amphibians. And yet they are CALLING to me (literally, from the nighttime ponds). So I thought I would write about my explorations, so other people can learn about how we learn about nature.

I decided to focus first on Pacific tree frogs. I have been fascinated for years by the idea of how they migrate in spring. Late one January, on a warm, wet night, Glen and I were heading to Millersylvania State Park for a weekend singing camp. As we headed down the narrow access road to the camp, we saw ahead of us in our headlights several frogs jumping across the road. I slammed on the brakes and we got out to check them out: Pacific Tree Frogs were hopping across the road, heading to the breeding ponds. I was enthralled.

Look at the picture of this frog: these frogs generally do not exceed 2 inches. They are often green, but can vary from deep brown to tan; from my reading it appears that they can change their color, depending on the habitat they live in, though these color changes may take several days or months. Two key field marks you can see in this picture: all Pacific tree frogs have a dark line/mask running from the tip of the nostril, over the shoulder, duplicated on both sides. They also are frogs which can climb, so they have small suction pads on the tips of their toes, clearly visible in this photo. This is how you know it is a Pacific tree frog.

I've been interested in the timing of migration of these frogs; typically their winter life is spent in upland woods, but when the time comes to breed, they move to the vernal (spring/breeding) ponds. I sent an email around a nature listserve asking about migration: one fellow near Bremerton noticed a mass migration across his road on Feb. 22nd. This fits, as my friends Barbara and Rain who both live near wetlands, reported the beginning of the deafening choruses about 2 weeks ago.

The females follow the calls of the males, and then mates. She begins to lay her eggs in a mass of gel: she attaches the egg mass to a floating stem. There may be as many as 10-70 dark eggs inside. From this picture you can see some of the early round eggs, but most of this eggs have developed into tiny tadpoles and are close to emerging. When they emerge, they leave the gel, and are free-swimming in the pond, where they are vegetarians.

Frogs are famous for using temporary ponds as their breeding grounds. Sometimes they even choose mudpuddles. I was puzzled about that; why use a mudpuddle that might dry up when you likely have a permanent lake nearby? It turns out the frogs know what they are doing: permanent water bodies tend to have fish, which eat frog eggs. A temporary pond does not, so there is better survival of the young.
Many amphibians also display something called site fidelity: like salmon, they remember the waters of their birth and it is to these waters they return when the times comes to breed.

So right now, the males are at their breeding ponds. You can hear them whooping it up much of the night. Soon the females will follow and egg masses and tadpoles will, too. I look forward to seeing these things, and I will share them with you when I do.


Washington State Department of Fish & Wildlife photos
Amphibians of Washington & Oregon by Leonard, Brown, Jones, McAllister and Storm
Amphibians of Oregon, Washington & Oregon by Corkran & Thoms
A Natural History of Amphibians by Stebbins & Cohen

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The Red-backed Spider Strikes

Some of you may have read our earlier post on our overwintering visitor: the Red-backed Spider. This subadult female has been hanging out in our house for a couple of months. Most of the time she has been hidden away; I suspect she has been using a cool dark place down behind a bookshelf.

Except in the last 10 days she has suddenly been showing up: dropping down on a six foot length of silk from the ceiling, not far from where I was sitting. I've seen her on the wall, not far from the bookshelf. She has appeared in the corner, above the clock. With all these appearances, she, like the clamoring spring birds filling up our yard, is announcing that she thinks spring is coming.

At the same time, Glen has been getting his mason bees ready for the spring. He has been a mason beekeeper for 15 years, and nothing says spring to him more than getting ready for their emergence. So he has been bringing in some of last year's bee boxes, cleaning them out, inspecting for insect pests, and preparing new housing. In the process, a few cocoons have been accidentally left inside our warm house. The warmer temperatures combined with sun pouring in the windows has awoken these sleeping mason bees. They have been chewing their way out of their tiny, leathery cocoons and are making their way to the sunny window. Often we come home at the end of the day to find a few in the window, which we then put outside the following morning. So far the system works.

However. In last few days, we are coming home to dried up bee carcasses scattered on the inside of the window sill. We were surprised at this, but were speculating that maybe the bees just did not have enough stored resources to make it through the day. But today, we happened upon the crime scene, literally catching the culprit bloody-fanged: the Red-Backed Spider has been stalking and feeding on these newly emerged bees. In this picture you can see that she was successful: here we have a detailed picture of her fangs deep in the head of this (mercifully dead) bee, sucking away the life fluids.

As I started to write this, the feeding process had been going on for over 90 minutes. I just went back to check; she has moved on to the abdomen and continues to drink deep. It appears to me that her red abdomen is swelling, getting bigger with each passing minute. I went back to check at the two hour mark, and there was only the desicated bee, its corpse leaning against the glass.

This is the end for this bee. For the Red-backed Spider, this is a much-needed source of nutrition that will jump-start her (excuse the pun) into the new season, and her life to come.


Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Raccoons in the City

Glen and I have been thinking a lot about raccoons lately. The frequent snows of this winter have provided opportunities for watching tracks. We have especially enjoyed looking at raccoon tracks.
From our tracking it appears we have one regular raccoon in our yard. From the last snow we were able to backtrack it to the alley behind our house. It looks like we are part of its regular circuit. It comes along the alley, cuts through our back yard, alongside the house and then out to the street. From the snow record, this appears to be its usual path. I have yet to find scat or daytime sleep roosts.

However, that all changed last weekend. We went to the Burke Museum of Natural History for a Mammals of Washington workshop. We were immersed in the life of mammals, looking at skulls, and bones and furs. Perhaps this is why we were paying good attention when we left Saturday afternoon.

We were leaving the area by their little cafe. Our eyes were drawn to a pair of oak trees planted along the parking area. About halfway up these trees, the trunks start to branch off. There is a commodious crotch at this point. If you look closely, you see a bundle of brown oak leaves stuffed into this crotch. If you look even more closely you will see a gray fur bundle, splayed out over those leaves, sleeping away and oblivious to the life going on 20 feet down. Yes, this is a raccoon, doing its daytime kip. There is another raccoon in the oak nearby.

Later I was talking with my friend Cynthia who lives near Garfield Ravine. She said that if you take the path down into the ravine and keep looking up, you can see raccoons sleeping, right in our own Olympia backyards. Glen & I also live near Garfield ravine. This may be where our raccoon is headed, on its nightly circuit.

Watching these animals, and thinking about their lives, reminded me of a quote from Henry Beston's The Outermost House:
"We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals...For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of time and life, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of the earth."

Raccoons are one of many many animals who are caught with us in this net of time. We need to remember that. We need to keep watching their tracks. We need to keep looking up.


Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Crocus Hotels

Today was another bumblebee hunt day. I was sitting in the sunny south-facing living room window around 2 pm, sluggish and trying to get myself out of the chair. Suddenly a Red-butt bumblebee queen (B. melanopygus) came bouncing around the window. The hunter-gatherer in me woke up abruptly and was more than ready to go outside.

So I gathered up camera, binoculars, sketchbook and insect collecting cup and went out the front door, juggling all these things as I went down the steps. Suddenly, eight feet ahead of me I saw a Red-butt: she seemed to be checking out some early orange crocus we have blooming along the walkway. I promptly dropped everything but the camera and managed to get a few shots of her, with her head deep in the flower taking in nectar, and her wide-load butt hanging over the edge.

Until last year, I was never much of a fan of crocus. But some field work last March changed my mind. I came home from a bumblebee survey around 4:15 pm. The sun was leaving the yard and the temperature was dropping rapidly. My eyes happened to catch the sight of a Red-butt bumblebee curled up in a white/purple crocus along the walkway. As I approached closely to check, she did not move. She almost appeared to be dead, though groggy movements of legs convinced me otherwise.

I knew the night was expected to get down in the 20’s. In a panic, I collected her along with the flower and brought her inside. I put her in a box away from the bustle of the house, and let her stay overnight. I did some quick research and found out that bumblebees like a solution of half sucrose, half water. I quickly made some up and added it to the box.

Throughout all this she barely moved. The next morning she barely moved. I put a dry towel in her cup, as she appeared both wet and disheveled. By noon, when I checked again, she had clearly groomed the wet off her fur, along with some crocus pollen, and looked normal, albeit groggy. I decided to put her outside in some heath flowers. She continued to be very sluggish. I left the house for work; by the time I returned around 3:00 pm, she had disappeared.

What I now believe is that these late winter queens spend much of their time in a torpid state, holding on to their reserves until better conditions arise. I think their active time of day in late winter is between 2 and 4 pm. I think now that as the temperatures dropped, she chose that crocus. Now I believe that I should have just let her alone. She knew what she was doing.

As it turns out, crocus flowers CLOSE UP at night, wrapping the bee in a protective floral cocoon. The crocus are full of both nectar and pollen so if the bee does wake up, she has food ready at hand. Finally, the crocus flower is tuned to the sun; it will not open up the next morning until it has the full life-giving rays of the sun on it. So in a way, it acts as a wake-up call for the torpid bee.

The bees know what they are doing. My job is to learn to trust them.


Resources: The Xerces Society