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.