Friday, December 23, 2011

Winter Gifts

This time of the year the natural world is more subdued.  It is easy to swap the grey and chill of a typical December day for myriad distractions that confound and divert us, moths to the flame of commerce.  But putting up lights, careening through stores, and fretting over lists is a practice which fills a need for nature in the same way that foam pellets and crumpled paper fills a box.  A package of only crumpled paper is filled and yet empty, an expense and a disappointment.  There must be something in the box - how could it be empty?  So ... time to fill the nature box.

Nature's winter subtleties are a gift perhaps more precious for all the packaging that surrounds it  - or more accurately, us.  We watch through windows and under raincoats.  We scan the weather channel and the book shelf, or take long wanders through the lighting section of the hardware store and the travel pages of the internet.  Observations come not in long lazy meanders but in brisk brief snatches.  The kinglet who pops in and out of view - a ruby crown or was it golden - no matter, thanks for the visit.  The Anna's hummingbird who chitters vociferously when I step into his domain to replenish the feeder's sugar water -- yeh... well, you're welcome anyway.

There are longer moments.  The other morning a mixed flock, including robins, white crowned sparrows, and Oregon juncos, inspecting the underside of most every leaf for the soil micro herd that in turn has come to feed on the decomposing litter.  The somehow unfamiliar hum of a fly disturbed from  hibernation.  Or again the Annas', this time drinking deep on liquid energy before their overnight torpor.

The fleetest moments are moments of recognition: something has somehow changed.  Leaftips hint above bulbs.  Days turn barely longer.  Jupiter inches through the constellations.  I struggle with being a patient observer.  I want not to observe but to maneuver and manipulate.  Isn't there something to assemble or dismantle or design or capture?  Perhaps later.  Right now I shall be content with what has taken me parts of several days to write, a phrase here, a moment of clarity there, closing a difficult personal year and opening a fresh new one.

Glen Buschmann

Resources:  photos by Glen Buschmann

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

We Follow the River

   It is the last week of summer:  not only by the calendar, but also by the weather forecast.  A high pressure ridge is building in over Cascadia, and sunny, even hot days are forecast this week.  It feels like a last hurrah of the season...

   I decided to follow one of my wild hairs.  I confess that I get them frequently, and take turns cajoling, coercing or luring various friends and relatives into coming along. My wild chase today is the Black River.

I grew up less than a mile from the Deschutes river; it is the largest river in Thurston county, and I have come to know it well.  The Black River is more of an enigma:  it arises from some obscure wetlands south of Black Lake, and drains the high country of the Black Hills as it moves south, meandering 25 miles, heading for the confluence of the Chehalis river in south county.  The Deschutes river  cuts through the heart of our cities (Olympia and Tumwater), behaving like a “real river” with falls, with rapids, with scouring floods and concurrent fire hose velocity. In contrast the Black River shifts and shimmers, seemingly without a current, finding its way south by guess and by golly.  There are no cataracts, no surging rapids, no roaring deluges.  There are sometimes huge floods in winter, when the Chehalis backs up into all its tributaries, including the Black.  In these events, the waters of this river rise and seep, soft water fingers parting pasture grasses and tickling into backwater sloughs.  This is a dream of a river.

     This river was an important highway for the Coast Salish peoples on their trade routes.  Here is what they say:    “The waterways were our highways, and our people traveled extensively along them, as far north as Vancouver Island and south along the Pacific Coast. As our ancestors traveled by canoe, they listened the elders tell stories that were passed down through many generations and taught important lessons about life.
     Our ancestors also traveled the extensive trade routes of the North American continent, taking  well-established trails across the Cascades into Yakama Country, the Columbia River Basin and far beyond. One familiar route ran from the Pacific Ocean, up the Chehalis River, into Black Lake and across the Black Hills to Steh-Chass at the head of Budd Inlet and Squi-Aitl at the head of Eld Inlet. Many of today's highways were built along existing trail routes, worn deep by years of continuous use.”

    And the European-American perspective:  “ The Hudson's Bay men knew the waterways well (thanks to  Native American guides). As early as 1824 an expedition left Astoria for the Puget Sound country. Led by James McMillan, it made its way by canoe and portage from the Columbia River to Grays Harbor. Through a dark and tangled wilderness, it paddled its way through November rains up the Chehalis River to the Black River, up the Black River to its headwaters in Black Lake, just west of the present site of Olympia. From there the men portaged to Eld Inlet and made their way up Puget Sound to the Fraser River” 

       Now some 187 years later, I make my first stop along the Black River at  123rd Avenue, north of Littlerock.  This is the southern end of the  Black River Unit of the National Wildlife Refuge.  In the last 20 years,  organizations such as the Nature Conservancy, the Capitol Land Trust and State Fish & Wildlife,  and the National Wildlife Refuge system, among others, have been scrambling to save the land along this river.  So far they are doing an excellent job. Here at 123rd, you can pull off by the bridge and get a beautiful overview of the valley.  When the Black River floods in winter, these fields  fill with over wintering ducks, finding rich sources of food.  In the spring, the willow trees along the edges of the river provide fabulous nectar and pollen to the early native pollinators.  And now, in late September, we see (and hear) the occasional loud slap of the tails of spawning salmon, returning to their ancestral breeding grounds, and the fallen leaves of summer, floating on the river, giving their nutrients back to the earth.

      I poke along, heading south on the Gate road, trying to find the river wherever I can.   I stop where Moon Road crosses the river (previously the Gate wagon road).  The thing I’m really struck by in today’s explorations is that it doesn’t seem as if it has changed much. Here is a picture from 1898, taken by Alfred Waite on the Gate wagon road.  Today I found the same bridge  (now modernized for cars) and looking north, the same viewpoint.  Some big trees are gone, but otherwise, it looks pretty similar.  Time seems to stand still on this river.

      I spend some time on the Moon Road bridge, now looking south.  I feel the last of the summer’s sun warming my back and overhead, the piercing calls of flocks of swallows, migrating south down the river to their wintering grounds in Central America.  The river flows beneath me, a quiet, nearly imperceptible current, pulling the summer away and gone.  

     There are some lines from a favorite poem from my youth that come to mind:

     “In a wonderland they lie
      Dreaming as the days go by
      Dreaming as the summers die:

      Ever drifting down the stream
      Lingering in a golden gleam
     Life, what is it but a dream?”

     Lewis Carroll says it best.

Janet Partlow
•  Black Hills photo by Nancy Partlow
•  Alfred Waite photo from 1898
•  Gordon Newell’s book: So Fair A Dwelling Place
•  Poem by Lewis Carroll

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Tree Frogs on High

    Tree frogs, aka Northern Pacific Chorus frogs, have been a part of my life from my earliest memories. There were the strident amphibian choruses in spring, rising on the night mists from nearby Hazard Lake. I can still remember being a child, lying in bed,  listening to the frogs lull me to sleep. Though today I live in the middle of a much bigger city than I grew up in, I still hear those frog choruses repeated every March, and am transported back to those early days...

    Tree frogs have two distinct life phases: the spring water phase, where they congregate in wetlands to sing, to breed and to lay eggs. (See our Frog Blogs from March and April 2009). Then there is the lesser-known phase where they migrate out of the wetlands and back to drier, upland areas, where they spend the winter. I’d learned about this from books. What the books didn’t tell me is that somewhere on the march to the overwintering grounds, the frogs seem to like to find a high place to climb and hang out.      

    For example, Nancy took the above picture at one of our favorite local nurseries, Bark and Garden.  While looking at pollinator plants she came across a "Tomato Soup" echinacea.  Her eye was caught by a frog on the topmost flower;  stealthily she adjusted the plant racks, climbed up and captured the shot.

      This brought back more childhood memories.  I remember I was examining  our elderly plum tree, thinking about its tree climbing opportunities.  As I explored one branch in particular, I came eyeball to eyeball with a tree frog.  It was tucked into a crook of branches;  it’s hard to say who was more startled.  I went back into the house and shared this tidbit with my mother, who remarked that frogs do this in the summer, and that’s why they are called tree frogs. 

      I remember some friends who lived out on a wetland off South Bay road.  In summer, the tree frogs left the nearby pond, and climbed up into their tall roses, tucking themselves into the deep red rose buds.  That was quite a thing to see.
    Or my friend Rain, who lives on a wetland near Woodard Bay;  in late summer, there are frogs all over her deck, including one she found living in a dried flower wreath arrangement on the front door.

    One June afternoon a few years ago, Nancy went into her carport shed and stumbled across a Northern Pacific tree frog lurking on top of a shovel handle.   Notice the dark brown color it has.

    A year later just outside the shed, she discovered a deep green Pacific tree frog perched on a hose rack near the moist faucet bib.  

       Just recently, another frog of this species was found suctioned to the outside wall of her mobile home.  She believes it's  the same one she spied several weeks ago in the identical spot, wearing a light green hue.

    It turns out tree frogs have skin full of chromatophores, pigment-containing skin cells that can change color, allowing the frogs to be better camouflaged in their surroundings.  Tree frogs can vary widely in their colors;  notice how the frog on the wall of the mobile has streaks of a pale blue-gray, just like the paint!

       This behavior has caused us Olypollinators  naturalists to kick around various theories as to why they hang out in trees.   One thing  we’ve read says that trees are in fact their preferred habitat, and that the spring ponds are only a brief part of their life cycle. Trees and their leaves have pockets of water, even in summer, which can attract insects;  maybe this is the reason.
    The frog on the echinacea at the nursery was in a fine position to receive the daily spritzes of water from the overhead sprinklers;  maybe that was an attractant?  Or the frog on the wall was near a patch of active pollinator plants, which could provide food?  Or the frog on the shovel handle in the shed was near the one sunny window, which had an active spider web.  Maybe the frog was raiding the web, taking advantage of that food opportunity?
    All these things seem possible.  And it is also true that  animals live in their own world, beyond our knowledge and ultimately, beyond our full understanding.    And that’s one reason we enjoy watching them.

Janet Partlow

Resources: all photos by Nancy Partlow

Sunday, August 7, 2011

The Nevada Bumblebee

    So it was July 29th, a hot sunny Friday afternoon around 5:30 pm.  I don’t handle heat well;   I was inside sucking down ice cubes and grumpily trying to finish a project on the computer.  Glen had been outside gardening, though I noticed he had been taking a break, standing in the neighbors’ front yard by their lavender bushes, gossiping.  I was grumpy about that, too.

So when he came barging in the house and bellowed: “JANET”  my first thought was that either he had sliced open his foot with the shovel (at the very least) or he had found something good.  When he went on to say: “You have GOT TO COME SEE THIS”, I knew he must have something really fabulous.

     This is what he had:  a Nevada Bumblebee queen (Bombus nevadensis nevadensis), which had flown into the lavender bushes where he had managed to catch her.  She was huge in the insect cup, buzzing ominously and oh, so gorgeous!  I was struck with awe, and fascination, and a burgeoning, insatiable curiosity about this animal.

      This was a first time for this species for us.    We’ve been dedicated bumblebee watchers for many years, and serious about it since winter 2008.  We (Glen, Nancy and I) have  seen literally thousands of bumblebees in our well-developed pollinator gardens.  We’ve gotten pretty good at identification, too (not easy) and we thought we had seen just about everything Thurston county had to offer. Not so.

     How do we know this species?  I didn’t at first;  I pulled out my bumblebee identification flashcards for Thurston County (yes, I know, it sounds funny, but it works) and thumbed through them.  Nevada bumblebees are large (this was the biggest BB I’d ever seen), with black faces, yellow fur on the thorax with a central dark mark, and yellow on the abdomen from segments 2-4.  Bingo.  We had a match.

      This particular bumblebee was a queen, based on size, pollen baskets and a few other technical details.  Her wings were very fresh and crumpled;  she was really too easy to catch and quite dozy as we took pictures.  This is strongly suggestive she had just emerged from her hibernaculum in the soil and was getting ready to get her nest going.  We’ve worked with quite a few  just-emerged queens (usually in February) and they take awhile to get  over being buried for nine months in the ground. 

     We called Nancy,  who raced over with her camera and took several pictures .  Again, queen Nevada cooperated, quite docile.  After about 10 minutes of this, Glen put her back on the lavender blossoms, where she tanked up on some nectar.  You can see her here, almost sleepy on the blossoms;  this is typical of a newly emerged queen.

    Finally she took off, flying strongly to the north east.  We have not seen her since.

     It’s been several days since then, and we’ve been trying to read up on this species.  The Nevada bumblebee  is more common in the Great Plains states and is often found at mid-elevations.   It had been thought to be in Thurston County, though nobody has mentioned any specific sightings before.  I think about the Black Hills, which are ~2,000 feet altitude, and perhaps 3 miles away as the bumblebee flies. Maybe this is where she was born?

     In Alberta, Canada, where they have researched these bees, they have found the queens to nest underground in abandoned mouse burrows, or in abandoned bird nests in boxes. So they have a wide range of nest choices.  I think of  our chickadee nest box, which we hadn’t gotten around to cleaning out.  Maybe she will find it? 

     For now, her job is to find a nest site and get a brood of ~12 worker bees going.  This will take about a month.  During that month she will mostly sit on her larvae, warming them and helping them grow.  She will make occasional forays for pollen and nectar.  Once these worker bees emerge, they will take over the chore of provisioning the  nest, and she will spend the rest of her life as an egg-laying machine, finally producing near the end of her life the queens who will carry her genes into next year and the future.

     All of this takes about 3-4  months.  While Nevada Bumblebees are known to be a late-emerging species, July 29th is really pushing it.  If we have a cold wet September, she may not win her race against time.  But I hope against hope that she will.

    I have a picture of this beauty as my screen saver.  I keep thinking about her, wondering how she is doing and wondering if we will see any of her daughters.   At night I close my eyes and see her once again, winging her way off into an uncertain future.   And once again, Nature teaches us that there are always new things to see, out in our gardens, if only we keep our eyes open...

Janet Partlow

photos by Nancy Partlow and Glen Buschmann

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Early Spring Pollinators

This hasn't been a great spring for pollinators. The weather has been so cold and wet that there haven't been a whole lot of insects out. They need dry and warm, with temps of at least 50 degrees to emerge and become active. However, on the few precious days meeting that criteria, I emerged to sneak some peeks into the secret lives of insects. Nothing could be more cheering after a long, dark winter.

Some of my favorite pollinators are the first queen bumblebees of the year. Breaking dormancy from their underground hibernacula (latin for "winter residence"), they are hungry for nectar after their many months sleeping in the earth.

Bombus melanopygus was my first sighting, easy to recognize by her bright red stripe around the middle. I was surprised to see her with her head buried deep in a hyacinth blossom, a plant that until that moment, I didn't know offered any liquid nourishment for insects.

My second encounter was with a Bombus vosnesenski queen on a heath bush. Heath is a wonderful early spring pollinator plant, attracting many different types of insects to its multitude of tiny nectar-rich blossoms.

A few days later I spied a Bombus mixtus queen sitting on a sunny wall. She seemed to be shivering, perhaps having just crawled out from her subterranean refuge, although she flew away smartly enough a few minutes later.

Willow catkins offer important early spring sustenance for many insects, like this unidentified fly, which seemed to be either eating or harvesting pollen on the first and only warm day in late March.

Another fly, its body and foot pads flecked with golden pollen grains, rested on an unopened catkin. These young willow trees were planted as part of a wetland buffer mitigation for an apartment complex built a few years ago and are only now starting to flower in abundance.

I was delighted to see our native trillium attracting some attention from a bee mimic, possibly Malota posticata, a member of the large and endlessly varied syrphid fly tribe. How could I tell it was a fly and not a bee? Its short, stubby antennae, and its two, instead of four wings, which is why it is in the order diptera; di: two, ptera: wings. This little critter also flew like a fly - very fast.

I've come to learn that even dandelions can be important early spring pollinator plants, and have been forced to think twice about removing these invasive weeds from the lawn.

When the weather hasn't cooperated for insect watching, I've snuggled in to read the Xerces Society's recently released "Attracting Native Pollinators" which offers an engrossing alternative for learning more about these amazing and important creatures.

Pollinator Week is June 20 - 26 this year. What a great idea! I'd never heard of it until stumbling onto the terrific Pollinator Partnership web site at There are currently no Pollinator Week events listed for Washington state on the site, although we can all celebrate pollinators by welcoming them into our gardens, and by opening our hearts and minds to the incredible beauty of small things.

Nancy Partlow

Xerces Society Attracting Native Pollinators

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Pollinator home page:

Monday, January 31, 2011

Winter Shorebirds of Budd Inlet

A few days ago Glen and I were taking a walk along East Bay in Olympia. This is the southern terminus of Puget Sound, where Indian and Moxie Creeks pour their waters out, and feed nutrients into the East bay estuary. We happened to take our walk at extreme high tide, and only the boiling turmoil on the surface of the bay showed the outlet of the creeks.

As we walked along, Glen remarked on the squeaky sounds of birds, and pointed out some American widgeons in the distance. Then he stopped suddenly as he realized he was wrong, and showed me a group of birds perched on some rocks just below us: a flock of Dunlins, shorebirds that spend their winter lives around the estuaries of Puget Sound. Here, ten feet away from us, was part of a resident flock in Budd Inlet making their peep noises of alarm.

Dunlins are shorebirds, which means they spent most of their lives on muddy tidelands, probing those long bills into the fine silty muds, seeking by touch a wide variety of polychaete worms and arthropods. They feed as long as they are able throughout the tidal cycle, but once the incoming water covers the mud flats that are the dinner table, they retire to some safe perch. This is their high tide roost, and here they digest, preen out their feathers, take a quick nap and wait out the tide, watching the fall of water that signals that the dinner table is available once again.

Notice how well their color blends into the surrounding rocks. This is no mistake; they blend beautifully into their surroundings and if they hadn’t made their alarm calls, Glen and I would never have seen them. A safe high tide roost is a necessity, as these birds are the favored prey item of Peregrine falcons, Merlins and pretty much any other hawk that can catch them.

The location of the roost is no mistake either; just below these rocks are the highest mud flats in East Bay, and as the tide turns and drops, these are the first mud flats available to the Dunlins.

Shorebirds are notoriously hard to identify, especially when they are in their drab winter plumages. How do we know these are Dunlins? Some key identification marks include dark legs, dark long bill and dark eyes. The long bill has a characteristic slight droop at the tip. In winter they are a uniform brown; their heads are very round and the dark eye is like a bull’s eye in the middle of that round head.

If you look carefully at the feathers on the backs of many of these birds, you will notice they are very faded and worn around the edges. These birds molted in new feathers last July, while on the breeding grounds in Alaska and in preparation for their long migration flight south to Puget Sound. By now, through many months and the storms of winter, those feathers are both faded and very ratty around the edges.

However, some of these birds are juveniles; born last summer, they molted in a different way and in a different timing, and so their feathers are more fresh. Here you can see a bird of the year, with a few dark, gold-rimmed feathers on its back, and the gold-rimmed flight feathers below. This bird has not yet seen its first birthday, yet it has made it through the long flight south, and the hard winter. It is a miracle of survival.

Over a long and varied life as a naturalist, I have spent many many long days sitting on the mud flats, watching shorebirds as the incoming tide pushes them in. Some of the best memories of my life are these vigils in the wild places, my butt planted on cold sand, beach grasses whipping my face, the calls of wild birds filling my ears. There is a feeling that if I wait long enough, quietly enough, the tide will push the flock all around me and I too will become one of the wild migrants, travelers from an unknown land, making my living on the rich dinner table that is a muddy estuary. Such is the beauty and magic of shorebirds.

Janet Partlow
Resources: Photos by Nancy Partlow

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Subtle Signs of Spring

This Sunday morning we woke to pounding rain on the roof, and sheets of water slobbering down the street in front of our house. It was 53 degrees at 7:00 am, which for the maritime Northwest in January can mean only one thing: a Chinook is blasting through.

These are warm weather events wherein the jet stream entrains plumes of warm moisture straight from tropical Hawaii, shooting them northeast and aiming them (in the classic meteorologist's phrase) like a fire hose on Cascadia. These Chinooks often follow a period of landlocked cold and ice and come as a welcome relief to all living here.

So when the fire hose took a brief sun break at noon, I hot-footed it down to the Deschutes estuary, to take one of my favorite walks through the wetland along the river.

Here, if you look closely, are many signs that winter is losing its hold; the earliest native plants along the estuary are breaking dormancy and getting ready to grow leaves. The Indian Plum is one of the earliest: here the bud sheaths have fallen away and there are tiny green furled leaves, getting ready to unfold. Soon they will produce long chains of delicate white flowers. The first spring I knew this plant, I brought the flowers into the house, but I only did it once: after a few hours inside these flowers left the lovely scent of skunk, permeating the entire house.

The Oregon grape also looks ready to bolt: here the tight buds of flowers are poised to open into early spring sunshine, providing a rich source of nectar eagerly sought by our native pollinators, such as the earliest bumblebees. Notice, too, the prickly evergreen leaves, their flat surfaces turned up to take in every possible bit of sunlight, to photosynthesize and rebuild their carbohydrate stores.

In late winter, sap begins to run up the branches of the woody shrubs and trees; some of them are thin-skinned enough that you can see the color changes. Here the whippy branches of a (non-native) Weeping Willow are showing bright yellow, a clear sign of sap moving up and out.

These Chinook events bring with them inches and inches of rain; as I walked along the river, the nearby hillsides were bleeding out gouts of water. All around me I could hear the sounds of running water, pouring down the hills and into the river. This is a noise that triggers the beavers: they emerge from the winter lodges with a powerful urge to DAM EVERYTHING!! BLOCK IT! STOP IT! MAKE A POND! So all along my walk, I saw evidence of mid-sized deciduous trees sacrificed to this urge; in this picture you can see the typical pointy stump of a beaver chew, and large chips scattered at the base. This is one cherry tree that will not see another year.

My favorite tree ever is willow; each spring I eagerly anticipate the showing of the first pussy willows. My walk was complete when I saw a native willow with some pussy willow catkins; in this picture you can see them, fresh & rain-speckled, behind the sap-filled branches of Red-osier Dogwood.

Then I reached the point where the Deschutes river flows out from under the I-5 bridge. The water here is thick brown with muddy sediment, washed down by the Chinook rains. Here we are at sea level; these are the warmest places in winter, where the maritime influences moderate the icy grip of winter. And here is a Red Alder tree, leaning out over the river, showing its catkins getting longer, getting ready to produce clouds of February pollen. I checked one catkin; it was turning from brown-green to red, and was softening up. Signs of spring, indeed.

Finally I turned around to head home. Looking north I saw some blue sky- YES! A break in the weather! And in the distance a faint half rainbow, trying to find its way through the clouds. It was a much-needed sign of hope that the season of winter is losing its dominion; soon we will see the light and the life of spring return once again.

Janet Partlow
Resources: "A Field Guide to the Common Wetland Plants of Western Washington and Northwestern Oregon" by Sarah Speare Cooke