Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Tracks on the water

Today was the kind of sunny day the winter produces: weakly yellow sunlight, streaming through haze, cold but paradoxically producing a faint warmth. I am in a grumpy mood, and ready to be anywhere else. The sun lured me outside, down to Percival landing, where I stood by the 4th avenue bridge, watching the tide retreat north.

Years ago I studied with Tom Brown, the tracker, at his farm near the Pennsylvania/New Jersey boundary line. He taught his students how to read animals tracks; this forever changed the way that I walk through nature. I bring some of those long-ago tracking skills to today's nature watch on the salt water.

Today the Deschutes estuary is calm. I start tracking on the water, looking for animal sign. I had hoped to see a harbor seal, and am rewarded with the dark glossy head of this one, sculling purposefully through the water, heading north to an unknown destination. Off in the distance are Cormorants, Grebes, Buffleheads and Goldeneyes, too far away to get a good look. But then, right below the wooden planks under my feet, a small flotilla of four female Hooded Mergansers emerge.

In this picture there are only 3, but if you look to the right of the front one, there is a swirl of water that tracks her abrupt dive and disappearance. Under their paddling webbed feet, unseen to our eyes, is a small school of tiny silver fish, probably salmon fry recently released. These mergansers are doing their own tracking, seeking out that school, and having some success in catching them.

Mergansers are fish specialists; they have flat bills with tiny serrations, which allow them to keep hold of their slippery prey. As I watch, they dive over and over again, coming up with their tiny breakfast items. A local gull lands nearby and attempts to steal some of the breakfast in an act biologists call kleptoparasitism, but the mergansers swallow quickly, eluding the gull.

As I watch, the mergansers head south, under the bridge, beyond my sight, probably continuing to follow the fish. Gusts of icy west wind push against my face and my eyes are cold and full of wind tears. The sun beats down on my back and warms me faintly through my black jeans. My bad mood is cleared; I feel a profound sense of homecoming, and also gratitude for this life and this place.


Monday, January 26, 2009

All hail the returning sun

This morning I woke up at 7:00 am and was surprised to see light leaking through the blinds into the dark bedroom. I immediately thought it must have snowed last night, but no: it was the returning sun.

I immediately leapt out of bed (not a common occurrence in these gray, cold gloomy days) and went out to the front picture window. I pulled the blinds and saw a beautiful sunrise starting to emerge out of the southeast sky. We've not seen one of those, either, for many long cold days.

Last night I also noticed the longer light. My friend Roderick had led a beautiful Native ceremony to honor our dead Ancestors. This ceremony was held near Spurgeon Creek, deep in south Thurston County. I was not looking forward to driving home in the dark, but at 5:15 pm, the light held. It felt like the Ancestors kept the country roads well-lit and I found my way home safe and sound.

So this morning, I went outside in my jammies to take this picture, foolishly expecting it would be as warm as it looked. It wasn't: 19 degrees. Yowie. The Anna's Hummingbird that has a night roost in the rhododendrons near the feeding stations started chittering at me. She thinks she owns the yard and it is the faeries that bring her the fresh sugar water. We are merely intruders on her world. I took the hint (from the Annas and also the cold) and quickly returned inside.

Biologists talk about this time as a time of lengthening photoperiod. The light returning the sky, the lengthening days, are known to play a key role in the lives of many animals, including humans.

I am most familiar with it for birds. This is the time I expect to hear the song of the Winter Wren, wafting out of the woodlands. He (the males are the ones who sing) finds a stump in the woods, with good acoustics bouncing off nearby tree trunks, opens his bill and lets fly with the most glorious singing. For him, this is a song that is about establishing territory, and perhaps attracting a mate. To this human who is listening, it is a song of returning light, of hope and possibility, of believing that the dark times are retreating, and a warmer, sunnier time is to come.


Photo by Suneko from creativecommons
"Bird Songs of the Puget Sound and Washington State" a CD by Martyn Stewart

Monday, January 19, 2009

The Kestrel and the Vole

Today was a holiday and a rare sunny, almost warm day in January, so Glen and I decided to get outside and look for salamanders at McClane Creek. But in the way of nature watching, our best plans went awry: the pond was still half frozen and the ground frosty - not good salamander weather. So we left, a little disappointed and were driving home along Delphi road, enjoying the sun as it painted the late afternoon fields a golden hue. Suddenly we spotted the distinct silhouette of a hawk on a telephone wire; as we passed under it we identified a male American Kestrel. Glen grabbed the camera, while I stopped the car and watched for traffic. He managed to get some great silhouette shots of this bird, and also the dead vole this falcon was clutching in his talons.

This is a real treat. These birds are uncommon residents in Thurston County; in my experience I only see them in pasture habitat, which is increasingly rare. This particular field had telephone wires strung along the length of it, which makes it especially attractive to kestrels: They hunt from their wire perches, keeping those hawk eyes trained on the grass for the slightest twitch of a vole.

Clearly, this kestrel had just succeeded in catching a sizable meal for himself. We had missed the actual hunt, but it is likely he hovered over the grassy field, keeping an eye out for an unwary vole, then dropped down at speeds of up to 60 mph and pounced on it. Kestrels like all falcons have a special notch on their upper beak, called the killing tooth. The special tooth is designed to slip down into the prey’s cervical vertebrae, snapping it, breaking the neck and causing instant death. From the limp hanging quality of this vole, we speculated that the killing tooth had been applied to great effect.

From long years of experience watching kestrels, I knew he would then fly off to a favored “plucking post”. These are usually flat tops of fences or telephone poles, where the kestrel can prepare its dinner, and also keep a wary eye out for predators or food thieves. At the post, the fur will fly as the kestrel plucks its vole, taking special care to clear the abdomen area. Then the kestrel will dive in, feasting on choice blood-dense organ meats.

Since it was late in the day, we speculated that this kestrel would quickly eat the best bits, then cache the rest of the vole away in a hollow tree: someplace where it could be easily retrieved in a few hours or days. If our recent cold foggy weather pattern continues, this kestrel may well ensure its continued survival with this cache.

After feeding, this kestrel will most likely find a hidden place for a night roost, perhaps deep in an evergreen tree near the trunk: a place safe from owl eyes.

We know this is a male: male kestrels have a distinct blue back. He probably is holding these fields as a winter territory. He will continue to hunt & feed, keeping himself going until warmer days bring on migration and seasonal shifts of territories. With these shifts, other kestrels, perhaps a female, may venture into these fields and a new season of life for all.


"A Field Guide to Hawks of North America" by William S. Clark
Kestrel on wire photo by Glen
Hovering kestrel by Kevin Cole at flickr. creativecommons
Kestrel on fence post by Lip Kee at flickr.creativecommons0

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Annas & the Paperwhites

So I was talking to my friend Cynthia. She and I have been sharing the joys and obsession of having Anna’s hummingbirds in our gardens this winter. I’ve spent time at her house and together we have watched the birds at her feeders, starting to get a sense for the individuals that grace her yard. There’s at least 3, and probably more.

Cynthia loves her hummingbirds and only gives them the best. She uses organic sugar to make their nectar ( and they do seem to prefer it). She uses glass feeders rather than plastic: she doesn’t use plastic for her own food, so why use it for hummers?

She is also a superlative gardener: a Master Gardener in all senses of that phrase, so it makes sense that already she is plotting a large hardy fuschia hedge, and other plants for the winter hummingbirds.

A few months ago in the cold depths of winter, she planted the bulbs of paper whites: a kind of highly fragrant narcissus that you can encourage to bloom by planting early, and keeping in the warmth of your house. In the last week her paperwhites bloomed, filling her house with white flowers and fragrance. She decided to put them outside on her day off and share these flowers with the Annas she loves.

Now, you’ve probably all seen those scenes of shark feeding frenzies in PBS nature specials during Shark Week? Well, Cynthia ended up with an Anna’s hummingbird feeding frenzy. Hummers kept zipping through, very excited, very fast. Some stopped to feed, but there was a lot of activity they didn't stay long. Cynthia said they flew by so fast they were a blur- hummer warp speed. There was probably a lot of hummer chatter. It’s as if the hummers were throwing a party to celebrate the first flowers of spring.

When she told me about the frenzy, we spent some time talking about it. It makes sense that while hummers can get through winter on sugar water, it must be fabulous to be able to have that first real drink from a real flower, with real nectar, full of complex flavor. We laughed at how hummers are so tuned in to their environment, and especially the excitement and energy they brought to these new items on the menu. But then we thought about how humans are: back in the days I could eat chocolate, if someone showed up eating a glorious truffle, I would immediately hone in on her, ask her where she got it, and plan to get some myself at the earliest opportunity. Hummers and humans: not so different after all.

Photo:  Jessicafm CreativeCommons

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Townsend's Warbler on the hummingbird feeder

So I'm sitting at the computer, just having posted the blog on bats, and feeling that sense of satisfaction that I had some great stuff about nature to share. I'm ready to close up, go do the dishes, etc. when WHAMMO! Eighteen inches in front of me at the window hummingbird feeder an adult female Townsend's Warbler lands ON TOP of it. I sit with my mouth agape, staring at it, trying to encompass the idea of this amazingly beautiful bird so close I could touch her (except for the glass). She marches around the top, peering carefully at the openings for a way in to the goodies. Naturally my camera, which usually I keep nearby, is buried somewhere in the house. Sigh...

Now our neighbor Thera across the street has a hummingbird feeder that is more suitable for warbler bills; she tells us that she has seen a Townsend's warbler drinking at that hummingbird feeder for three years, and has sent us a photo to prove it. So it wasn't a complete surprise. Still...

After about a minute of searching, this female left. I'm left wondering: how did she find it? Is she, like hummingbirds, tuned in to the color red? Or did she watch the other hummers and follow them in?

The other thing I noticed: normally I consider warblers a small and delicate bird, but after watching the Anna's at this feeder, this Townsend's female looked like the size of a horse.

Wow. What a blessing on my day.


• photo Slodocents at CreativeCommons

Big Brown Bats of Winter

Last night I got a call from a former student Kathy. She had been down in the Chehalis area in the last week, visiting a friend. While outside around 4:00 pm, they saw a bat flying around. She noticed that it was fairly large: about the size of a small swallow. She was very surprised; she had thought all bats leave the area by September to overwinter elsewhere. Her friend remarked that she frequently saw bats in winter, especially around the Boisfort area. Kathy wanted to ask me: what’s going on here?

Kathy was right: most bats do leave the area in September, heading for a place to hibernate over the winter. We don’tknow where exactly they go; it is thought they go to mid-altitude caves and abandoned mines in the Cascades, where they can find steady state temperatures of 40-45 to hold them while they hibernate.

But small numbers of some bats do stick around in winter, particularly Big Brown Bats (Eptesicus fuscus). Glen and I remember one winter we were living near Trosper lake wetlands south of Tumwater. We had a pair of Big Brown bats that lived in the roof over our living room. For the most part they were quietly sleeping, but every once in awhile we would hear the distinctive flap & scritching scrabble of toenails as they hoisted themselves, shifting into a different position.

One night in February was quite different. A warm Chinook wind had been blasting through the Northwest, and it was 55 degrees or more, pouring warm rain. We were sitting, quietly reading, listening to the rain in the living room. About 9:00 pm we heard these two bats flap & scrabble around. Not just a brief resettling, but they actually worked their way over to the exit site high on the east wall (we had previously figured out where that was) They left for awhile, presumably to stretch their wings and to remember they are animals of flight, to drink, to excrete, and to find meat on the hoof (insects on the wing). We went to bed before they came back, but by the next night we heard them again in the roof. They stayed in our roof all winter.

So yes, Kathy, some bats overwinter here in our area. And from our experience, they mostly sleep. But when the temperatures warm up into the fifties, some bats do leave their warm hibernaculums and venture out into dusk for food, water, and a brief constitutional.


• Bats Northwest
• Bat Conservation International
• Photo by Furryscaly @ Flickr.creativecommons

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Hazel: the first blossoms of Spring

I don’t know about you all, but for me, right around this time, I become REALLY eager to find signs of spring. Maybe even a bit obsessed: I make a point of checking out all the Hazel shrubs in the neighborhood, looking for those first tiny blossoms.

Now if you blink, you might miss those flowers. Less than a quarter of an inch, tiny magenta petals burst bravely forth from the bud tips of the hazel branches. I have seen them as early as December in some years. Not this year; it was January 10th when I found the first flowers.

How do they do this, after the bitter ice & snow of last month? How do they put themselves out there in this weather, and how do they prosper? It seems like a true act of faith: putting out their blossoms in a gesture of faith & hope that there will be warmer days, and more sun, and the wind will bring pollen, all so that they can make hazelnuts. With luck a squirrel buries the nut and viola! This particular hazel has paid off all that gambling by passing on its genetic material.

So when I see those first blossoms, there’s something about them that is profoundly magical: it’s as if the winter ice encasing my heart starts to melt, things start to flow, and once again I feel the possibility of a green and healing time to come...


Resources: Photos by Chavala of Seattle, from

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Salamanders in Snow

A few days ago, Glen went to McClane Creek DNR with Erica Guttman of the Native Plant Salvage Project. Erica was helping him brush up on his winter twig identification skills in preparation for teaching a class .

The road at McClane was closed; this park sits in a cold pocket under the edge of the Black Hills, and is always the last place the snow melts. As they walked down the snow-packed road, Glen was quite surprised to see a Rough-skinned Newt on the compacted snow, in the middle of the road. It lay unmoving on the icy surface as they saw it; he wondered that it might be hypothermic. As he went to check it out, it got quite lively, though he was still able to pick it up.

Those of us who love McClane know all about these newts in May. As the ponds warm, and the sun rises more and more over the Black Hills, you can stand on the docks and stare down into the peaty water, watching a great deal of salamander sex.

April and May are the beginning months of their summer lives: they lead two different lives. In their spring/ summer life, their bodies take on a sleek. smooth outline suitable for living in water. During these months, they spend most of their time in the water. They have lungs specially adapted for this part of their life; they seem to hold their breath for a long time, but as you watch, you will see them come to the surface for a breath, leaving telltale tiny bubbles on the surface.

Summer is the breeding time: it’s common at McClane to see large swirling balls of salamanders in the water: all males clustered on one female. Once fertilized, the primary goal of females is to lay their single eggs on floating blades of vegetation.

By late fall, the falling temperatures urge the newts out of the ponds; they move into the woods, finding places under logs, under the leaf litter, stones and stumps to live out their winter lives. The thin, sensitive skin suitable to a water life morphs into a thick, warty hide, especially on the top. This tough skin is much more appropriate for living life on the forest floor. In the photo we see a Rough-skinned Newt in "winter plumage".

They continue to be active, even in winter, exploring the forest leaf litter for food. They are carnivores; I remember learning that salamanders eat “anything they can get their mouths around”. They specialize in small slow-moving prey, which they find by smell. While they are generally considered nocturnal, some will also hunt during the day.

Seeing this winter salamander reminded us of the years when we lived at Trosper lake wetland. We noticed that when the warm wet Chinook winds blew in February, it seemed to trigger mass migrations of frogs and salamanders to the breeding ponds. It could be the recent warm wet weather got this salamander moving. If true, it didn’t bargain for the snow pack. It may have been following its nose as it hunted, then strayed onto the snow and perhaps got too cold.

It was this salamander's lucky day. Glen picked it up and put it back in the forest.


"Amphibians of Oregon, Washington and British Columbia: by Corkran and Thoms
"Amphibians of the Pacific Northwest" by William Leonard
Photo: From Miguel Vieira at CreativeCommons

Saturday, January 10, 2009

The first pussywillows

It is January 9th. As I drive through the neighborhood in the last few weeks, I’ve been doing a regular check of the male Scouler’s willow trees in a nearby alley. These are always the first ones I’ve found anywhere in Olympia to produce the classic pussywillows. In the 15 years I have lived in westside Olympia, I notice that the arrival of the pussywillows is coming earlier and earlier. Today I saw the first ones: this is the earliest date ever.

This is a plant that has spoken to me from childhood. In high school, my best friend Geva and I would keep an eye out for these, and gift each other with them. We considered the soft grey catkins a powerful badge of the best kind of friendship: “The Royal Order of the Pussywillow”. Just last year, she sent me some from California.

Also last year I spent quite a bit of time sitting with willows. I was doing a field survey project for our local bumblebees. I had read that the earliest emerging queen bumblebees seek out pussywillows for food. So near the end of February, I parked my camp chair in the alley beneath these blooming trees. I chose a sunny late afternoon, on one of those freakish warm days. I was astonished by what I saw: the bumblebees were out in herds.

I had read that they love willow pollen. Bumblebees use nectar and pollen to fuel themselves, and in late winter, there are few sources of either. But some willow catkins break dormancy early, morphing over a few weeks from fuzzy grey into producing long yellow stamens stuffed with bright yellow pollen at their tips. This is a fabulous late winter food. For the early emerging bumblebees, it’s as if the only local food market opened its doors for the first time since fall. These early willows may make the difference between life and death for these queens.
It also turns out that even male willow catkins produce nectar. Bumblebees find food by smell; though I could not see the fragrance drifting on the slight breeze, I am guessing that an irresistible willow fragrance drifted out into the neighborhood, calling in all bumblebees. This is likely how they found these trees.

As I sat there drowsing in the sun, the bumblebees came and went; the willows were buzzing with queen bumblebees. I was entranced and enraptured, totally engaged in these bees and the amazing spectacle of new life they were showing.
In the neighborhood nearby, people were out washing their cars, looking at their gardens, tinkering with their projects. But no one saw the bees. Here at these willow trees, bees from all over the west side are pouring in, finding critical food, and getting read to build their nests for the year. This is a spring miracle, the festival of the returning bumblebees. And only I, sitting on my chair in the late February sun, noticed.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Schneider Creek (1)

We live in west Olympia, on the shores of Schneider Creek. I say shores loosely, however. A full half of this stream has been placed underground, in culverts for many years. It finally emerges from underground at a small filtering station on Giles street. We probably live over the culvert as it heads for Giles.

In early Olympia history, this stream found its headwaters near what is today the Decatur Woods park. Patricia Pyle of Olympia Stream Team told me that it seeps up from the groundwater and used to flow north, on the flatter parts of west Olympia. When the west side was developed early in Olympia’s history, the stream was deemed inconvenient and was put underground.
Today it leaves Decatur Woods in a pipe. It heads north to Division and Harrison, where it is joined by culverts from other westside feeder streams. The culvert carrying all these streams is then is routed over to Giles filtering station, where it finally emerges into daylight, goes through a cleaning process, and then is a wild stream once again.

The City of Olympia does an excellent job of cleaning and filtering this stream. As an urban stream, it is very prone to picking up oils, etc. from the streets. In the past, this dirty city water ran straight into Budd Inlet. Today, thanks to the City's hard work, Schneider creek is relatively clean on its exit. And it is still a source of grief for me that we have inherited these historical choices about culverts and it is unlikely Schneider creek's upper reaches will ever be daylighted again.

From the filtering station, Schneider creek crosses under Giles street and heads north, crossing under Bowman and finally into a deep ravine that cuts through the neighborhoods east of Division. Finally the stream encounters the high rise of land that forms the big hill on West Bay drive; it cannot surmount this hill, so it turns east and eventually runs out of land, emptying out into Budd Inlet.

Today is a day of pounding rain - perhaps as much as 5 inches in the last 24 hours. I had wanted to see my own watershed Schneider creek in a full spate, so I pushed my way through sheets of rain, and swam over to the Giles Station. Today the water bursts from the culvert there in a rushing flow, then is diverted immediately to an overflow channel and under Giles street. There is little filtration going on when the flow is so intense.

I then looked across the street where wild Schneider creek sees its first daylight for several miles. The water is so high: peaty brown, rushing between tangled branches of snowberry. There is a powerful sense of freedom here.
Then I went down to West Bay drive. At the bottom of the big West Bay hill, behind the Smythe condos on the west side of the road, you can see Schneider creek pouring headlong down the hillside like the flood it is. The sound of rushing water was so strong, I could barely hear the traffic along the busy street.
Finally I crossed West Bay drive to the tiny pocket park across from the Smythe condos. I got on the tiny overlook deck, and looked down to the final culvert that had carried the stream under West Bay drive. There was a huge surge of opaque brown water pouring out into the bay. I could see the massive plume of brown water flowing into the bay, showing its boundary starkly where it pushed against the clear blue salt water.

This is our watershed, our wild stream which on this stormy day shows all her wild nature. This is our estuary in process, bringing the nutrients of the land down to the sea, dropping them on the tidal flats and creating opportunities for new life. This is our water. This is our life.


Resources: An excellent article by John Dodge in the "Daily Olympian", writing about the silent killer of untreated stormwater discharge to Puget Sound:

Monday, January 5, 2009

Tracks in the snow

The eye of the naturalist is an odd thing. We can be in the middle of doing something really critical like the dishes, only to look out and be completely derailed by something we see in the outside world.
Today’s distraction was not only the snow, but also a set of beautiful animal tracks on the snow. Glen bolted outside with the camera and caught these photos of the tracks before the snow melted. (Natural history is so much more entertaining than the dishes).
It looks like the animal took shelter under our deck before the snow started, because Glen couldn’t find any entry tracks, only the exit ones. At some point after the snow fell, probably after midnight when temperatures rose enough to leave an impression of melting, the animal tracked from out under the deck, across our front yard, and towards the Cedar of Lebanon along the street, leaving only tracks and a faint sense of a story lingering...

These are raccoon tracks. The front paws are quite different from the back: the front ones are smaller, and very hand-like, with deep nail imprints. The back are much longer, looking more like small versions of our feet, and in length as much as 3 inches. I notice in looking at this particular set of prints that the raccoon put most of its weight forward, sinking deeply into the snow, and mossy grass underneath.
Raccoons have several different gait patterns as well. Sometimes the front paws are central, and the big legs swing around, planting outside for the push-off move. Sometimes they reverse the pattern, and the front legs are planted outside, and the big back legs are central. Lots of different patterns, depending on how eager they are to move.
This was a fairly large, weighty animal: the size of the tracks, and the way they sink in tells me that. It was alone; most likely a single male.

These prints tracked over to the cedar. Raccoons are stellar tree climbers, and often spend the night sleeping in a crotch of a tree. It’s possible that this animal ambled over to the cedar, climbed up 20 feet to the first crotch, and had a sleep. It’s also possible that this raccoon skirted the tree and headed down the street. The tracks don’t tell that story. Back to the dishes...

Wilderness Survival School - Tom Brown - Pennsylvania
Wilderness Awareness School - Jon Young - near Seattle
"Animal Tracks of the Pacific Northwest" by Pandell & Stall
"Animal Tracks" (Peterson Field Guides) - Olaus Murie


Friday, January 2, 2009

Greeting the morning

"I watched prairie dogs every day, rise before the sun, stand with their paws pressed together facing the rising sun in total stillness for up to 30 minutes," says Williams. "And then I watched them at the end of the day take that same gesture 30 minutes before the sun goes down they would press their palms together in perfect stillness. I don't mean to anthropomorphize, but when you look at a creature that has survived over the millennium begin and end each day in that kind of stance, it causes one to think about one's own life and speed and rapidity in which we live."

Finding Beauty In A Broken World by Terry Tempest Williams, an environmentalist committed to showing man's impact on the land.

My friend Geva sent me this piece from Terry Tempest Williams. I really love it.
In my science training, we are taught not to anthropomorphize- not to put human feelings, ideas, behaviors on other animals. This is a fairly strict rule. While reading Terry's beautiful writing and looking at her picture, I remembered an experience I had in Joshua Tree one hot summer.
It was August 2001, and the daytime temperatures were reaching 110+. (That was the day the air conditioner broke down at the retreat center).
It was a beautiful natural area, and I'd been looking forward to seeing lots of animals during that week, but because of the heat, I rarely saw any. But there was one day, at dusk; it had been marginally cooler that day and I was out enjoying the sunset. I suddenly noticed all kinds of birds, flying in, perching on nearby cacti. I also noticed they were all facing towards the sunset. They were unnaturally quiet, still: no bird song, no twitching, no territorial fights: just facing the sun in an attitude of reverential quiet. In that moment, I knew absolutely, without doubt: the animals were honoring the setting of the sun (and perhaps giving thanks that the fierce heat was abating). I felt goosebumps on my skin, and I also felt the sense of being in the presence of something deeply sacred.


Winter Hummingbirds

These are Anna's Hummingbirds, (Calypte anna), at our feeders in Olympia during the recent snowstorms. We feed two females in our yard, and several more - male and female - are in the neighborhood.
In "our" yard the one perched is boldly dominant. She owns the feeder, chases her competition, and is giving the stink eye as Janet take her photo.

Her "competition", perhaps her daughter, spends far less time at the feeders, sneaks in for quick sips and darts off again. GB