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