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