Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The Coming of the Ducks

It is now late October. Down the hill from our west Olympia house, where the Deschutes river is impounded behind the Fifth avenue dam, sits its current morph, Capitol Lake. In these days of sunny fall, the lake is very quiet. The autumnal colors of maple trees reflect into these waters, preening themselves in this mirror. The lake shapes itself into its stratified layers of hot and cold water, and only a few ripples stir its gelid form. During these bright October days, the lake is an autumn-colored jewel and there are few signs of any animal life: only a few resident Glaucous wing gulls loafing on a sand bar, screaming their petty squabbles to the skies. It looks like it could go on forever.

But not so: there’s the first big fall storm coming. And for the next few days, everything looks more like the maritime Northwest: lashing winds stir the lake into a froth. The colors fall from the trees into the dark waters, leaving behind bare branches. The rain slashes down in sheets and the mighty dam keepers have to play around with the water levels to prevent flooding . The lake is brim-full, mud-colored and hardly visible through the heavy veils of rain. It is now winter on Capitol Lake.

And somewhere in these nights of pounding rain, where we humans huddle gratefully in our warm houses, large flocks of waterbirds leave their nesting grounds in the interior of Alaska, the Yukon, the Northwest Territory. They leave their freshwater aspen wetlands, and for many, the place of their birth. They answer some wild, internal call and head south, looking for a place to spent the winter. They fly into the teeth of the storm, pounded by winds, often flying at night at high altitudes and calling their mournful cries into the dark. Many of them end up on Capitol Lake. After the storm breaks, after a clear morning dawns, we head back down the hill to the lake, and we find these first migrants of the year.

They huddle together in the north basin, usually the first place new arrivals come to. They have left the deep unpeopled quiet of the Canadian taiga and find themselves on this urban lake, surrounded by people and dogs and cars. They stay closely grouped together; they seem watchful and twitchy and quickly take flight at the slightest sign of possible danger. As we gaze, they splash water on their backs, washing and preening those all important feathers. Some dive to feed; a big food draw in this lake are the seeds left over from the thick summer algae mats.

Many different migrating ducks and geese can be found on the lake. They tend to form their own clubs and keep to themselves. See here, the swans keep a distance from the other birds, while the Buffleheads form small groups a clear space away from the swans.

Some of the first migrants are small flocks of Bufflehead ducks: the males are an eye-catching white and black, with crested heads. These are fiercely territorial ducks, and fight amongst themselves year around: for mates, for territory, because they feel like it, etc. It is said this is why they have only small flocks of 50 or less, because they can’t get along. If you watch the males even for only a few minutes, you will inevitably seen one lower his head and point his bill in a distinctively threatening posture, beat his wings and make a run at another bufflehead. They weigh about one pound, but emotionally they seem to believe they are the size of elephants.

Another common early migrant on the lake are the American Widgeons. As we watch, a small flock comes in, calling in a squeaky burble that is the ultimate rubber ducky sound. They form their own group and seek the lake edge, where they make shallow dives in search of vegetation.

As November comes in and advances, so too will the ducks. By the middle of November, hundreds of ducks will be making a their winter lives on this water. Here they spend much of the next few months, feeding and getting through the year. The different species will find microhabitats they like and hang out there. All the birds will get accustomed to the joggers and cars, and only the occasional pass by the local Bald Eagle pair will be enough to pull them, shrieking in terror, out of the water and back into the sky.

For me, it’s one of my favorite winter birdwatching hangouts. It’s a veritable Who’s Who of the waterbird world and one of the best places in which to learn about ducks and their lives. Maybe this winter, we will meet at the birdwatching bench, down by the lake...

Waterscape photos by Nancy Partlow

Sunday, October 17, 2010

In Search of the Wild Field Cricket

As a child growing up in Olympia, I spent a great deal of time playing outdoors. Yet I don't recall ever seeing or hearing crickets. I never even knew we had crickets in Thurston County. That is why it was such a delightful surprise when I moved to a Tumwater mobile home park to discover that along with some really neat human neighbors, I had acquired some really cool insect ones as well, from the species Gryllus pennsylvanicus - Fall Field Crickets. As the name implies, these crickets are usually found in fields, but I can personally attest that they also flourish in mobile home parks.
For several years I have kept a list of all unusual or notable nature sightings from around my home. The list records the dates of when certain animal species are first heard or seen every year; the first frogs chorusing from a nearby wetland, the first male Rufous hummingbird, etc. Reviewing this log, I note that the first Fall Field Cricket is reliably heard between the last week of July and the first week of August. This year the date was August 4th.

I have always cherished the crickets' songs (one recent and memorable hot August night, my entire house - and heart - resonated with the sound), but I've rarely ever actually seen one of these secretive insects. Occasionally I've glimpsed a cricket out in the open, but I'd never tracked one down in its habitat until about a month ago.

Since they seemed to be more active after sunset, one evening I took up my trusty flashlight and went "cricketing by ear". It wasn't easy. These creatures are masters of concealment and ventriloquism. Not surprising, since the noisy males would provide tasty morsels for inquisitive small mammals, birds, or other predators. In the red landscape rock beneath my neighbor's metal awning (great acoustics), I distinctly perceived two different crickets. Even though I knew they were only a few feet away from me, I still couldn't locate the source of their chirps. If I stood in one place, they sounded like they were in front of me. One step forward, however, and I could swear they were behind me. I never did pinpoint their location.

Roaming the mobile home park, cognizant of my reputation as the neighborhood bug nutter, I could hear crickets all around, but couldn't find them. They were hidden in rockeries or under groundcover foliage. Most of the calls seemed to be emanating from right next to the curb, where the insects were holed up in the gap between the cement sidewalk and the street asphalt. Eventually, I zeroed in on a large, dark insect nestled tightly against the sidewalk rise. Victory! Taking some photos, I really wanted to see what this critter looked like.

Downloading the hard-won camera shots to the computer, what they revealed surprised me. The cricket is an amazing looking animal! From its long antennae, round head, circular garnet eyes, black leather neck choker, yellow wing stripes, cerci and ovipositor, it is obviously a miracle of natural adaptation. But wait! What's an ovipositor doing on a male cricket? An ovipositor is the specialized organ that female insects use to lay their eggs through. The ovipositor on a female cricket is the long, dark, needle-like apparatus poking out dead center from the rear of its abdomen. But this cricket was supposed to be a male. I had tracked it down by ear, and only males "cricket". What had happened?

After mulling for a bit, I was forced to conclude that the female cricket, attracted by a sequestered male's stridulations, had been very near to consummating the procreative act with him when I came along. A male cricket had foiled me once again.

A few weeks later, determined to capture an image of a male, I set out anew with flashlight in hand. I was haunting street gutters when a neighbor out walking his dog saw me and inquired, "Did you lose something?" Explaining my quest, he expressed mild interest in my pursuit. He stood nearby until I discovered a male cricket deep in a crevice next to the sidewalk. I asked my neighbor if he would hold the flashlight and shine it down into where the cricket was hiding, so I could take a picture. He agreed. His previous indifference evaporated when he caught sight of the insect, proclaiming excitedly, "There it is! I see it!" But I still couldn't get a decent shot. Too deep.
As summer wore into autumn, I had pretty much relinquished my goal of photographing a male cricket. The advent of shorter days and cooler nights had reduced the trillings in the park to a precious few. Yet finally in mid-October, at the tail end of cricket season, I heard a very loud chirping directly in front of my house. Investigating the source of the ruckus, I was gratified to identify a male cricket, conspicuously wing-rubbing his amorous serenade into the late afternoon air.

"Kind of risky", I thought, but then I noticed her. The male was stridulating madly to a nearby lady love. Listening intently to his aria through eardrums in her front legs, she approached him tentatively, coyly, then turned away. But unable to withstand his ardency, she soon joined him in discreetly repairing to the shrubbery, from whence emitted a quite different kind of chirping (which I imagined as a sort of drunken ecstasy) as the deed was done.

Two frosty nights later, cricket song ceased from the mobile home park entirely. After more than two months of nearly non-stop activity, the insects had gained their well-deserved rest. But deep within the sandy soil, the females' oviposited eggs abide, waiting for the planet to tilt on its axis once more. Waiting, for the life-giving warmth of the sun to pour upon the earth. Waiting, for the cycle of life and death to begin again.

Nancy Partlow
Observing Insect Lives by Donald Stokes
The Songs of Insects by Lang Elliott & Will Hershberger

Monday, October 4, 2010

At Tongue Point: Goodbye to Summer

It is the end of September. Glen and I are sitting at the viewpoint at Tongue Point, a rocky protrusion of land poking north into the Straits of Juan de Fuca, just west of Port Angeles. We have been camping at this lovely site for a few days, enjoying the last days of a fading summer.

Around dusk we decided to finish our day by taking our camp cooked bean tacos and sitting at the outlook. This day has been a dream of a sunny day, now fading into dusk. The sunset in the west is sensational. I remark that this is a watercolorist’s dream (I dabble in watercolors); Glen shoots back, “Or a nightmare!” And I have to laugh. How is possible to catch and hold such unearthly colors?

This place is that rare thing along the the Washington seacoast: an easily accessible rocky shore. This is very different than the long sandy stretches of Ocean Shores or Long Beach: here the salt water from the Pacific rides east for 60 miles in great rolling swells that crash upon the rocky shore. All night, bedded down in our warm camp beds, we hear and feel the BOOM POUND THUMP of big swells pushing in a full tide and breaking at last on the stony reaches of the point.

These rocky beaches provide an excellent place for a sea garden of kelp to establish itself and flourish. We were here last spring for a brief visit and there was no sign of this garden; we have the photo to prove it. Upon our return this fall, the bull kelp is thick, floating and swaying some 20 feet from shore.

Kelp is a deciduous plant, like many of our leafy land trees. It starts from a spore deep down in the intertidal floor which sprouts in spring and puts out rootlike holdfasts which anchor to the rocky substrate . The plant then sends up its stipe at an incredible rate (up to 10 inches a day) growing towards the sun. Finally, it reaches the sun, and starts to photosynthesize, making carbohydrates which fuel its continued vigorous growth. It forms a bulb or float, which keeps it at the ever-changing tidal surface. It sends out long blades to collect even more sunlight. Throughout the summer, it grows and grows at a phenomenal rate: some kelp reach 200 feet from holdfast to bulb. Finally in this season of late summer, it reaches the end of its life, loosens its grip on the rocks and the tide casts it up on the beach in great heaping piles, just like the maple leaves in our front yard. Here many beach critters hide in it, and feast on it, helping to break it down, decay and provide nutrients to the next generation.

During its summer life, the kelp provides a floating mat island, and many birds take advantage of it; several gulls with crops full after a day’s feeding, perch on the kelp, facing west and watch the sun sink into the hills. A lone Great Blue Heron manages to balance itself on the mats !*! and continues to fish even in the last minutes of light. The bobbing bulbs of kelp look like so many seal heads and we are fooled, over and over again.

The rocks provide another feeding habitat that many rock shorebirds specialize in using. This is the country of Black Oystercatchers: as we watch the sunset, they vocalize back and forth from rock to rock, a mournful piping call.

This is a season of migration and transitions: we watch Pigeon Guillemots in their white winter coats, getting ready to fly to the north Pacific for the winter. Other birds come in to stay: small bands of Scoters and other seaducks move into the Straits for the winter.

This is a place of breathtaking beauty. This is a time of saying goodbye to summer. There are so many feelings: a feeling of mourning for summer lost, of reveling in in the beauty laid out before us, of anticipation for the change of the season. My heart is full.

The sun continues to sink, painting the sky and the water, too, in ever-changing colors. We watch and wait, until finally, the water turns black.


Salt Creek County Park (Tongue Point), Clallam County, Washington
close up kelp from
Black Oystercatcher from

Sunday, September 26, 2010

An Armada of Admirals in the Fall Garden

A few days ago I was out in my garden taking photos of the pollinators that use fall asters - the very last of the summer bloomers. I was minding my own business snapping shots of bees and flies, when I caught sight of a Red Admiral butterfly drinking nectar from the tall daisies. I gasped and began madly clicking away. I was entranced by its beauty; the underside of its wings were a phenomenal 60's acid trip of pattern and color.

Slowly, I came to the realization that I was actually taking photos of two different butterflies. There were two! I was blown away.

When I had just gotten used to that idea, I looked up and noticed a third! It's so rare to see one Red Admiral per summer, and here were three! I was so jazzed.

These were crisp, gorgeous butterflies fresh from the chrysalis. But where did they come from? Red Admiral butterflies usually lay their eggs on nettles, but I wracked my brain and couldn't think of any nearby stands of those prickly stingers. So I decided to pull out my "Butterflies of Cascadia", to see what Bob Pyle had to say about Vanessa atalanta. In reading his great description, I learned that yes, admirals (which he calls Red Admirables) use nettles as a host plant for their larvae, but they will also use hops, which are in the same plant family as nettles. Suddenly, a big light bulb went off in my head. I had planted hops more than ten years ago only a few feet from where these adult butterflies were nectaring on asters. I remembered that I had specifically chosen the vine in hopes that Red Admirals would lay their eggs on it, but had completely forgotten in the interval. It only took ten years, but the plan worked!

The next day, I went out to the garden again and darned if there wasn't a fourth admiral on the asters. It was a veritable festival of butterflies.

I don't know if it's because we had such a short summer this year, but those asters have been just crazy with pollinators of all kinds - bumblebees, honeybees, wasps, butterflies, syrphid and tachinid flies. I thought the poor insects might perish with all the September rain we've had, but whenever there's a dry spell, they are out there, frantically taking advantage of this last nectar source of summer. There are so many pollinators that they fight for space on the hundreds of flowers. It's quite amazing.

I guess the moral of the story is, if you want to attract pollinators, you can't go wrong planting fall asters. Given room, they will reseed themselves to become a terrific pollinator draw to any garden. One other really nice thing about asters - they're so tall that you'll be right at eye level to witness one of the greatest shows on earth.

Nancy Partlow
Nancy is our guest writer for this blog. A "silent partner" in our Bees, Birds and Butterflies work, she is a very gifted naturalist and gardener.  Janet & Glen

Resources: The Butterflies of Cascadia by Robert Michael Pyle

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Beaver ponds and big lunkers

In the last two weeks, there have been some gloriously sunny days, the kind of spring days that make us remember why we live in the maritime Northwest (and why we put up with months of sullen rain). During this season I scrutinize the Weather Channel carefully, checking out the satellite view and planning ahead for those rare, warm days. We got one on a Saturday and Glen and I took that opportunity to go to McLane Creek DNR park, a beaver pond wetland not far from our house.

I have been visiting this pond for over 35 years, on and off. Our goal on Saturday was to see if there were any dragonflies, emerging from their larval state and taking that first spring flight. But in the southernmost reaches of Puget Sound, it’s still a little early and cold for emergence, so there were no dragonflies on view . But as experienced nature watchers, we knew there would be plenty of things to see. And so it proved.

We perched ourselves on the dock that sticks out into the beaver pond. Here the sun was strong, we were surrounded by fertile freshwater marshlands full of lily pads, and encircled by cattails, sedges, rushes, willows and spirea. Here the wood ducks came eagerly to the dock, hoping for bread. Here one and only one Canada goose roosted nearby, ignoring us and preening its feathers. I kept fretting why there is only ONE goose, and remarked to Glen how weird that is, until he finally spotted a second goose, across the beaver pond, sitting on a nest. YEEES! It is a mated pair, they own this pond and for the time have successfully trounced and driven off all others. That’s why there’s just 2 geese. Soon there will be 2 geese + 6 golden-downed fledglings.

In May, one of the best treats McLane has to offer is the sight of Rough-skinned newts, patrolling the waters below the dock. This is a kind of salamander, common in our area. In winter they live a life in the woods, hiding out under logs, slowing down and finding ways just to get through the icy times. In spring, as the daylight lengthens and the warm rains come, they head for the wetland ponds to breed. The males’ bodies shift from a rough, dry winter skin to a smooth sleek finish suited to life in the water; their tails become flat flexible blades like fins, useful for propelling them through the water. Sexual hormones surge, and their cloaca at the base of their tail swells and protrudes.

Our friend Rain recently saw a spring migration of Rough-skinned Newts. She lives near a beautiful patch of DNR woods and wetland, north of Olympia. A few weeks ago in April she went to walk the trail that runs through these woods, and was startled to see at her feet masses of newts, heading in one direction along the trail towards the wetlands. We speculated that she had stumbled upon a mass migration; there had been a few days of wet, warm rain, which may have triggered the surge to water.

In the water of the beaver pond today, we see only males. They spend the spring and summer months almost exclusively in the pond (some may spend all year there), patrolling and fighting over the rare female. The females come to the pond only to mate, lay eggs along the shallow water edges, and then leave. Discretion is the better part of valor for these females.

We are struck by the sight of one HUGE rough-skinned newt. We hang perilously over the railing, gaping at it and making rude remarks about obesity and BMI (basal metabolic index). It moves well through the water and appears healthy. Glen manages to scoop it up in our dragonfly net and we get a few pictures. It is nearly twice the size of the other males. We wonder if it is diseased in some way and perhaps has trouble excluding pond water from its body.

After we returned home, I emailed Bill Leonard about this animal. Bill is a herpetologist extraordinaire, and co-wrote the book on Amphibians of Washington and Oregon. He looked at our pictures, and said that he and his co-author Bob Storm call these guys “the big lunkers” and that they are not uncommon. He believes that this one is healthy and very well-fed. They speculate these big lunkers may be as old as 50 years (up to 30 is more normal for Rough-skinned Newts).

My jaw drops at this news. Rough-skinned Newts are such small animals, migrating year after year from woods to water, struggling to get through winter, fighting with other males over females, dodging its only predator (garter snakes) . It is beyond belief that they can make it to 50 years of age.

It was a beautiful day at the beaver pond. We spent several hours that sunny afternoon at McLane creek, sitting on the dock. We watched spring come alive, in bird song, bursting green plants, blue sky and quiet fertile waters. We came home with our first sunburn of the season. And later that night, safe asleep in our warm bed, a big lunker prowled purposefully through our dreams.


Sunday, May 2, 2010

In Praise of Unkempt Gardens

Peering outside from the kitchen window, I consider how much longer I can delay mowing the grass and forbs patch that we call a lawn. I notice movement, and start counting one, two, four, seven birds gleaning seeds off the dandelions, now gone to fluffy seed. I watch one bird as she pops up and with one foot grabs a stem below the seed head. She pushes the seedhead to the ground, quickly picks through the tuft of seeds, and moves on. Although their motions vary, each member of this guild is moving just as quickly, intent on filling up on its share of the plunder. (Eat hearty friends, the larder is FULL in this garden!)

Of these birds, some are clearly Golden-Crowned Sparrows - we’ve been seeing and hearing them pass through for a while now. They are a big gray sparrow with an unmistakable head - a black cap with a yellow patch running as a wide stripe from the forehead back across the crown. In fresh breeding plumage and in the right light, as is my view from this window, the yellow is a strong color and the bird is aptly named. Its call too is unmistakable, almost tedious for its constancy - a few wheezy notes sung like a morse code operator falling asleep as he keys. Daaah dit dit Daaah dit dit dah daah, and over again. No resonant Song Sparrow he, his song nonetheless assures me, for a few weeks anyway, of his presence. Soon these sparrows will fly north to mate and raise young in mountain and tundra areas.

This is, however, a mixed sparrow flock and within the flock is a different bird of noticeable contrast. My eye is caught by a much smaller strongly striped buff-brown sparrow, at most two-thirds as big as the larger Golden-Crowned. As attention-getting as its size is its own distinctive crown. Like many sparrows, it has a colored stripe from its forehead back: on this little sparrow, the crown stripe is a bold rusty brown. Janet, who has joined me at the window, agrees that this is a Chipping sparrow. It is named not for its color pattern, but for its voice. As flocks of these birds move around, they keep in contact with each other by using a distinct chip note, hence their name.

Chipping sparrows are considered a fairly common sparrow, but it is a first sighting in our backyard. It too is passing through, looking for open lands to nest, and gratified to stop in our backyard for a traveling meal of dandelion seeds.

Here in early May, this flock of mixed sparrows is probably in migration. Kind of like us humans who stop off the freeway at the food mart and gorge on nuts and chocolate, (burgers and fries), before getting back on the road, the sparrows have located some high-energy food before resuming their flight. The birds are moving through, quickly grabbing quality snacks to restock their stores of fat, then taking to the skies again, searching for prime breeding habitat. We may well not see them again this year.

Though observing this particular mixed flock is a first for us, watching birds glean dandelion heads in our under maintained garden is something we have seen before. While I do make some effort to weed and mow, I know that an overzealous attempt to pare down our garden to just the most disciplined plants, and to impose too much order, also pares down the number of wild visitors to our garden. Janet insists on keeping some dandelions; in her other life as an herbalist we pick the flowers and infuse them in olive oil, making a wonderful remedy for muscle pain. In early spring I like to nibble the tender new flower buds still tucked tightly at the base of each plant. It is easy to keep some dandelions, (hard not to). As we watch this flock today greedily gulping down the seeds, we are reminded of other uses of this plant, and its role in feeding the wildlife around us.

Here’s to unkempt gardens!

Glen and Janet

Sparrows and Buntings by Byers, Curson and Olsson
• closeup sparrow photos from and

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Here Be Ssssssssnakes...

In early March, a friend was out walking the river trail at the Nisqually Wildlife Refuge. It was an unusually warm sunny early afternoon when he stopped to admire some frogs in a pond. While watching the frogs, suddenly at his feet he noticed a seething mass of garter snakes. He told me he saw several large ones, and then a large wriggling ball of snakes (a mass of male snakes trying to mate with a female). He had stumbled upon a winter snake den or hibernaculum.

This is what garter snakes do in winter. They find a convenient depression in the ground, below the frost line, but above the water table and there with hundreds of their compatriots they hole up for the winter. As cold-blooded animals they do not enter a true hibernation state, but use the protected space and the shared heat of the other inhabitants to get through the winter months. In our area, in early March, on sunny days, you can often find these snakes making their first spring forays out into the world. This is what my friend had found.

I've long had an interest in garter snakes. I grew up with six siblings on the rural edges of Olympia near Hazard lake, and we had miles of abandoned cow pasture to explore. I remember with great fondness how I would catch a garter snake, and then menace my younger siblings with it. Even now, the memory of the terrified screams of the young'uns, running for their lives, warms the cockles of my heart. (Yes, I was a BAD sister.)

My friend JoAnna and I decided to go out to the refuge and see if we could find this hibernaculum. Armed with detailed directions, we walked along the river trail and found a certain middle-aged Black Cottonwood tree, growing out of the raised dike that keeps the Nisqually river at bay. This tree has a fat root that is only partly embedded in the soil; underneath it is a perfect dry location for snakes. And about noon each day, the sun comes out and shines with full strength on this site. That is enough to bring out the snakes.

In our first visit we sat and watched for awhile and saw nothing. We were about to leave when another refuge visitor passing by looked down and remarked: "Look! Snakes!" Apparently it had warmed up enough and the snakes were starting to come out to bask. We got up in a flurry of excitement and watched for a couple hours. We estimate we saw about 30 snakes on that visit.

We've visited the snake den a few times now. Each time we learn more about the garter snakes and their habits. In our most recent visit Glen came along, which was great, because we managed to persuade him to pick one up. Glen is a skilled snake wrangler, and made it possible to get some great pictures. He also held the snake long enough that it got unhappy; it produced a pea-size drop of pink poo from its cloaca and the stench was palpable several feet away. I didn't get a picture of that.

I sent a few pictures along to Bill Leonard, a local herpetologist who very kindly answered my emails. It turns out we have 3 species of Garter snakes in western Washington. It turns out all three species can have a wide range of colors, but if you look at head size, and count the scales above and below the lip, you can sort out the different species. Bill is a co-editor in the book Reptiles of Washington and Oregon, which helps you learn how to do this.

The snake that Glen held is probably a Western Terrestrial Garter Snake, based on labial scale count. These snakes are widespread and commonly found near water. They feed on slugs, snails, earthworms, fish, salamanders, frogs, lizards snakes and even birds. Females are typically larger than males. These snakes may live as long as 10 years.

The snakes we saw at the hibernaculum were probably males. The story goes that on sunny days in early spring, the males emerge first, to bask and to keep alert to the scent of a likely female. If one appears, every male snake in the vicinity will try to mate with her, which is how my friend saw a snake ball. Once mated, the females leave the den and head for likely foraging territory. The males may stick around for awhile, and then they, too, will disperse. Come early October, many snakes will return again to the same hibernaculum, using it to help with their winter survival. We plan to keep our eyes on this hibernaculum for some weeks to come.

You can help garter snakes prosper in your own backyard. At the end of this blog entry, I am posting a link to a description of how to build a backyard rock pile (Glen and I are in the process of putting one in as we speak). A more simple addition is a snake board; this is described in the Washington Fish and Wildlife webpage. We hope you enjoy these fascinating animals!

• Fish & Wildlife info about snake boards:
• Info about Rock Piles:
• Check out Manitoba's Narcisse Garter Snake Dens:
• Thanks to Bill Leonard for answering my questions.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The Tree of Life

We first discovered this willow tree in spring 2006. I had just had major surgery and was unable to drive. My sister took pity on me, taking me for an outing. We rambled south and stopped at a favorite birdwatching place along the Black River in southern Thurston county.

It had been a cold, wet, gloomy winter that looked like it would never end (never have major surgery in winter if you can help it). I had had excruciating pain for months before the surgery - the worst of my life. It had been a profoundly difficult journey to the Underworld and at that point of time in late March, just 5 weeks after surgery, I wasn’t sure I could (or wanted) to come back. Then we found the Tree.

It was midday, about 50 degrees, with weak sun pushing through clouds. We parked next to the Black River, and “happened” to park next to a lone willow tree, probably a Sitka willow. We briefly looked at the willow, noticed it had tons of fuzzy gray pussywillows and dismissed it. We wanted to see BIG wildlife: the Red tailed hawks, the Great Blue Herons, the first migrant swallows of spring.

But oddly for this place, none of the big things showed up. And as we sat there, using our binoculars to scan the horizon behind the willow tree, I suddenly noticed: hundreds of bumblebees flying in to the tree. We watched carefully for awhile and realized: they were the new queens of the year, starting up their hives, and flying into this willow. They went to the gray pussywillows that had progressed on to yellow pollen, and proceeded to collect this pollen to provision their young brood of worker bees. In this picture, if you look closely at the sky to the left of the tree, you can see many black dots: these are all queen Bumblebees heading to the willow store.

The sun came through the clouds and the day started to warm up. We then saw a Rufous Hummingbird female come into the willow. We watched, spellbound, as she delicately, carefully inserted her bill into an individual pussywillow, clearly collecting nectar. I was astounded; while it was obvious that the massive amounts of pollen were nourishing the bees, I had no idea that pussywillows could also provide nectar. As we watched, more females came in, then a male hummer, who promptly started a territorial fight. It was quite a show.

Then the sun really started to break through the clouds. Suddenly we noticed a BUTTERFLY flitting through the pussywillows. (Butterflies in March are pretty rare). It was a California Tortoiseshell, coming to the willow to collect nectar. These butterflies overwinter as adults and sneak out on the rare warm sunny days for a quick burst of nectar energy. This one stayed for awhile, and was joined by others of its species. We stared, our eyes glued on the tortoiseshell as it inserted its proboscis (drinking tube) into the pussywillows, clearly finding and drinking nectar.

We sat for a long time, the sun warming our backs, the rich life all around us, the Tree of Life bringing its abundance and fertility back to the Earth and her creatures. It was a profound lesson in the seasons of life: to everything there is a season and the Tree of Life was bringing all of us: the bees, butterflies, the hummingbirds (and me ) back into the warmth and life of spring.

My spirits lifted for the first time in months. Life once again held hope, beauty and possibility. The Tree of Life brought me back from the Underworld and back to life. Ever since, that willow has a special place in my heart.


Photos by Nancy Partlow
Check out the Black River Unit of the Nisqually Wildlife Refuge at:

Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Deschutes Estuary: The Tide Runs Again

A few days ago I was driving around Capitol lake in Olympia. For those unfamiliar with the area, this lake was formed in 1951 when a dam was put in to impound the Deschutes River at Fifth Avenue. Since this time, the river has backed up behind this dam, only flowing northward to discharge the overflow of fresh water. The impounded lake is a series of three basins, running north to south. You can drive south along these basins, on the Deschutes Parkway.

Before 1951, the Deschutes River met the salt waters of Puget Sound in a tidal estuary. Prior to the first American and European settlers, this estuary was a thanksgiving feast richly laid out for the Squaxin Indian bands who lived along these waters. Seafood, waterbirds and wetland plants all provided great sources of food year around. The Native Americans knew this well, which is why they had their year around longhouses near the lower falls of the Deschutes, at the beginning of the estuary.

By the 1840’s the first European American settlers showed up. In 1908, my grandfather Partlow left the snow-bound farmlands of Michigan and set up a medical practice in Olympia, settling in a house on the bluff above the estuary. A descendant of Scots & Irish emigrants, he planted roots in Olympia, right on the shores of the estuary. I often thought he chose a place that looked very much like the firths (estuary) of the family's roots in Scotland. His grandson my father Bud was born in 1918 in the “old” St. Peter’s Hospital on the grounds of the Capitol campus, near where the totem pole is today, and also, just above the estuary.

By 1925, my father was growing up around the estuary; he well remembers the stinking sewage, the garbage, the shanty houses of Little Hollywood that lined the edges of the estuary prior to the dam. (You can see Little Hollywood in this 1946 photo taken from the hill below the Capitol, looking north). Now in 2010 he thinks all estuaries are dirty, stinking, disgusting mudholes, and he wants Capitol lake to stay an impounded river forever.

In 1921 my mother Shirley was born in Maxwell Maternity home, on the western side of the estuary, where today the 5th avenue bridge becomes a roundabout. (Here is a picture of Maxwell, taken from the west side hill facing east. You can see the estuary at full tide - minus the dam and Fifth avenue.)

She too grew up on the mudflats, and for all the days of her life found them a source of joy, of wonder, of great seashells and fabulous agates. She would not at all agree with my father that estuaries are worthless mudholes. She dragged her children out for regular jaunts to the tidal mudflats and showed us sand dollars and moonsnails, seaweeds and seashells. I have never forgotten her lessons.

By the time I was born in the fifties, the Fifth avenue dam had been built and the river was blocked behind it. That was the end of the tidal estuary.

So when I was driving around the lake a few days ago, I saw an amazing thing. There had been a low tide and the dam had been opened up. The water was entirely drained from the lake, leaving only a thin ribbon of the Deschutes river, snaking its way over a thick muddy bottom.

( This was being done as part of a plan to eradicate invasive New Zealand Mudsnails. Somehow they have been introduced to the north basin of the impoundment and threaten not only that lake but all other local and regional lakes. So the plan is to drain Capitol lake and refill it with salt water, allowing the snails to pickle in a salty brine for a couple of days in hopes of killing them off).

I had some errands to do; it was several hours later when I came back around the impoundment. By this time, the tide was coming in through the open dam with a vengeance: two of the three basins were nearly full of saltwater, and the water was moving rapidly into the southern basin by Tumwater Historical Park. I went to the Fifth avenue dam and stood next to it. The rush and roar of water pouring southward was impressive; it was so loud I couldn’t hear my own voice.

I sat near the dam for a long time, watching the water flow south. I couldn’t quite believe it; it seemed weird to see the water flowing the “wrong” way. Yet, at another level, it felt profoundly right.

As I sat there, I was filled with a sense of an old mistake, an old wrong, being corrected. The vigor and energy with which the tidal waters flowed back into their old grounds spoke to me of a natural system that wants what it wants, and that is to be the estuary it has been for thousands of years.

As I watched by the river, I felt in the marrow of my bones: there are bigger forces in the Creation and they are at work. See the tidal waters, sweeping back into the place that for thousands of years has been theirs, reclaiming the tidal pull and tug that is generations old. Smell the salt water all the way up to the old Brewery. Watch the Cormorants on the lake, calling excitedly, flying up and down, basking on the new logs brought in with the tide.

There are Greater forces at work. Long may they run.


• Photo of Little Hollywood by Merle Junk/Shadowcatchers
• Photo of Maxwell Maternity House -undated photograph from History of Olympia website
• Deschutes Estuary Restoration Team (DERT): check their blog at