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: www.frg.org. 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...