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 www.birdseek.com and SDakotabirds.com