Monday, November 26, 2012

River Otters at Sunset

      It was November 15th when we saw the first sunshine we had seen for many days.  Late October had brought in torrential wet storms from the Pineapple Express.   As a nature watcher, I’d been reduced to watching Anna’s hummingbirds beat their way to the feeders in strong winds.  It was entertaining, up to a point.  But when the sun finally came out, I was ready for something different.

    So when Glen called that morning after driving to work, and reported that he’d seen “wall to wall” ducks on the Deschutes estuary, I made a plan to go down to the water with my sister Nancy to see for myself.

     So much for my plans:  by the time I got there in late afternoon, the ducks had mostly flown the coop.   But rather than getting disappointed about plans gone awry, nature has taught me to look around and see what else is on offer.  And what showed up that day was river otters.

     It took me awhile to notice them.  By the time I got to the estuary it was late afternoon and the early winter sunset was beginning to paint the sky pink.  I scanned the water with the spotting scope, looking at the dark clots of winter ducks.   But when I turned to train the scope over near the dam itself, my scanning stopped with a sudden, surprised lurch as my eye was caught by otters, cavorting on the bank just beyond the concrete dam wall.

     These were the river otters that were known to be around Capitol Lake.  I remember a few years ago a sign was posted near 5th avenue about keeping an eye out for otters crossing the road;  the story was that an adult female and her young were living very near the dam and crossing the road regularly.  While the adult was no doubt skilled at avoiding cars, her pups were not.  Hence the sign.

     I’m guessing today’s otters were adolescents, born in the same brood early this year and getting near independence (Adult otters are solitary and territorial).  As I watched they rolled up and down the bank, nipping each other and chasing each other around.  The last of the sun was shining on the muddy bank and they seemed to be enjoying it as much as I did.  The tide had also reached its zenith and salt water came pouring over the dam into the estuary, creating a froth of bubbly fast moving current.  The young otters frisked and frolicked through this, as well.

     Then they caught sight of my sister, who had snuck up near the dam to get pictures.  It was comical, the way they all froze and stopped, staring at her and sniffing for possible danger.  I love the look in their eyes.

     When she ducked from sight, the otters returned to play, hanging out on the bank and slipping in and out of the water.  As the sun started to fade from the sky,  the play stopped and they grouped up, swimming purposefully, heading down south.  I had trouble tracking them while they were underwater, but realized I could follow them by the ducks;  it is not unknown for meat-eating otters to snatch a duck, and the ducks know this. As the otters got close, among the quiet rafts of ducks, there was a sudden otter-induced cackling and hooting and rapid skittering flight to a safer location.

     Finally the otters had progressed well across the water and I lost track of them.  The sun by now had slipped behind the hills to the west;  my hands were cold on the scope and I  began to shiver.  For me, it was a time to pack up  and head home to a warm house.  For the otters, it was the beginning of their “day” (they are more active from dusk to dawn);   off to check out a favorite feeding hole, to find crayfish and small fish and crabs and unwary ducks to maintain that high metabolic rate that keeps them warm on days like this.

     As I drove home, in the waning light of dusk, my head was still full of young otters, swimming and swirling,  moving as fluidly as the element of water they make their own.  I thought of them roving the estuary that cold winter night, hunting in the dark by smell and by whiskers, yet another piece of the rich life of the Deschutes estuary that is my own lifeblood, and theirs.

Janet Partlow
•  Otter photos by Nancy Partlow
•  YouTube link to a battle between a heron and an otter - a bit grisly:


Thursday, November 1, 2012

Winter Sanctuary for Yellow Jackets

     Here in the Pacific Northwest, we have had a prolonged Indian summer period which ended abruptly two weeks ago when the Pineapple Express starting funneling in huge tropical rainstorms from Hawaii.  Out in the world of nature, everything went from crackling dry, ready for a major forest fire to sodden:  the bright leaves ripped out of the trees and now stuck to the walkways, the mushrooms logs awaiting that rain now starting to sprout oyster and shitakes, the people (like me) slogging out to the car with wet socks and pant hems.  It has been a very abrupt finish to a halcyon summer that seemed as if it would never end...

     It’s been a precipitous turnaround for the insects, as well.  Lately I’ve been watching several fat Yellow Jacket queen wasps, hovering at the walls of our house, seeking out a place to find sanctuary from the coming winter.  Days are getting shorter, colder and wetter and soon they must find a safe place, or die.

     Here at our house, these queens often crawl in our mason bee tube colonies, tucking down into the dry spaces between the wooden tubes.  Once safely stowed away, they go dormant, reducing their metabolism and feeding off their stored fat.  Here is a picture from one of our mason bee houses; you can see two different queens deeply asleep and well protected between the tubes.

     They often find piles of woodland duff or conifer needles to overwinter in.  One memory from childhood is when I climbed up in our juniper trees and found a fat, cold, sleeping queen buried in a pile of needles in the crotch of the tree.  I was both terrified and fascinated to see how quiet she was, though as I prodded her she began to waken and within a few minutes was more than capable of defending herself.  I fled that tree forthwith. 

     Yellow jackets often overwinter in cold outbuildings.  I remember going into an unused cabin in mid-February:  we turned on the heat and the lights and within half an hour we had awoken a dozy queen; she was at the ceiling light, grumbling away with that low, steady, ominous buuuzzzzz that can still freak me out. 

     Yellow jacket is the common name for predatory wasps of the Vespula and Dolichovespula genera.  Most of us know these wasps as the uninvited guests at the summer picnic.  Most humans give little respect to these wasps, but in fact the Yellow Jackets play an important part in the natural world:  they are key predators of insects such as caterpillars, grubs, crickets and any other bugs too slow to get away.   Were it not for predators such as these, keeping populations in check , our world would soon be over run by insects. 

     Yellow jackets have select food preferences and they are voracious about these preferences.  The adults like sweet-tasting liquids, such as nectar in flowers.  They also like rotting fruit, and can be found swarming over fall fruit on the ground, especially juicy ones.  They like tree sap, which explains why our drippy Norway Spruce always has lots of yellow jackets around it in the summer.  All of these natural sweet items are mimicked in our sodas and fruit drinks, which is one big reason why Yellow Jackets visit the picnic table.
     The other reason is meat.  The young larvae growing in the hive require animal protein to grow.  This is why the adults hunt for burgers.  But they will also forage for dead insect carcasses, the yellow jacket version of road kill.

     The adults also happily settle for any other available protein.  Glen had a friend who brought home some salmon bone carcasses, which she planned to use in an art project.  She hung the carcasses out in the carport to dry; Glen watched over several weeks as the yellow jackets came and went, efficiently stripping off the fish to take home to the nest to feed their young.  He watched in fascination as some worker wasps carved off huge hunks of salmon, some of which were so large the wasp could barely fly.  Over time the yellow jackets completely cleaned the bones.  Their growing larvae were well-fed and Glen’s artist friend got some spanking clean bones out of the process.
     Yellow jackets have their predators as well.  A related black and white wasp commonly called a Bald-faced Hornet specializes in catching and eating bees and wasps.  I have seen this first hand.  
    One late summer day I was sitting outside near our plum tree.  It had produced masses of fruit that year , so a lot of it was on the ground, slowly fermenting in the sun.  There were yellow jackets all over these plums, sucking up a quick energy snack before foraging for the hive.  
     I was watching a yellow jacket crawling over the surface of a plum, looking for the best place to dig in, when a Bald-faced hornet appeared.  I expected to see a skirmish over the plum and was curious about who would win.  I was wrong: the Bald-faced hornet was hunting meat.  There was an epic battle where the two wasps duked it out, loud buzzing , frantic manueverings and stinging like crazy.  The Bald-faced hornet won.  I watched the yellow jacket die, and then the Bald-faced hornet efficiently began to carve it up and carry away pieces back to her hive.  It took a couple of trips.   That predatory Yellow Jacket was the building block for more Bald-faced hornet workers.  And so the cycle continues...

     Today the Pineapple Express has finally changed tracks.  The clouds are breaking open and sun is pouring through my window.  The temperature gauge reads 56 degrees, which is warm enough for wasps.  I expect to see more queens hovering at our wooden siding, looking for a safe place to make it through the cold days approaching.  Soon they will be completely gone for the season. 

     Come next March, when the temperatures rise once more into the low 50’s and the sun makes a serious appearance, these queens will shake off their sleep and find the nearest nectar to recharge their energy.  Here is a photo I took in late March, at a crocus flower bed in our nearby park.  This was a queen who had found a good winter sanctuary and made it through.  Here are the wasp queens, coming out of dormancy and back into the active hive life for the new year ahead. 

Janet Partlow
Resources:  hive photo by wise acres gardens.  All other photos by BBB naturalists.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

The Bumble Bees of Thurston County

Bombus mixtus and Bombus melanopygus workers on allium
Bumble bees are the most readily recognizable of all native pollinating insects. They're like pandas; terrific ambassadors to the natural world. And even though they have the ability to sting, they are surprisingly tolerant of humans when away from their nests. Yet the average person knows very little about them, and even bumble bee experts (few and far between) have only recently begun to get a handle on the complexities of their taxonomy, ranges and habitat.

This is true on the local level as well. We know for sure there are at least eight species of bumble bees indigenous to Thurston County and probably more. In an effort to educate the public about these amazing insects, we would like to share with you our introductory identification guide to the Bumble Bees of Thurston County.
Probable male Bombus flavifrons
Photographing and identifying bumble bees in the field can be surprisingly challenging. Some bumble bee species look very similar, if not identical to each other. Bumble bees of different species occasionally interbreed. Bumble bees move very quickly. They typically forage on blossoms for only the briefest moment in time before moving on to the next flower. The flowers they forage on are often close to the ground. The female and male bumble bees of some species look quite different. Finally, bumble bees of the same species and sex can be of dramatically different sizes!
Bombus mixtus queen on rhody
The queens are the largest bumble bees of each species to be seen all year. The first generation of worker bees that the queen raises herself can be really tiny - no larger than a pea. As the season advances and the number of workers in the nest grows and more food resources become available, subsequent generations get larger. In the spring, this can lead to the the rather puzzling sight of seeing two same-species bumble bees on the same plant, one about the size of a large marble (a queen), and one pea-sized (first generation).

We have endeavored to take the best bumble bee photos possible for this guide, but for all the reasons above, it's an ongoing process. As more and better shots become availble, we'll post them.  For identification purposes, the three main bumble bee body parts are: The head; the middle section called the thorax (where the wings attach); and the largest hind segment which is the abdomen.  Worker bees are always female and resemble the queen.

The Bumble Bees of Thurston County:

Bombus vosnesenski, or Yellow-faced Bumblebee. Very common from early February until mid-November, B. vosnesenskii is one of our largest queens. A big black body, with yellow face, a yellow bar across the upper thorax and a thin yellow stripe near the end of the abdomen. From February to late June, you can see a distinctive behavior: these large queens slowly patrol the grass and gardens in a loud, droning, low altitude flight looking for abandoned mouse holes in which to make their nests.                                                
Bombus vosnesenskii queen on rhody
Bombus californicus or Black-faced Bumblebee. A late-emerging queen, this species is first seen in late June and vanishes by October. They are uncommon here. The queen is very large, even slightly bigger than the Yellow-faced bumble bee queen. B. californicus has a large, shiny black prow of a face, with a thick pale yellow stripe across the thorax and a thin yellow stripe near the end of the abdomen. Preferred nectar plants we have observed this bee on are germander, lamb’s ears and caryopteris, although the one in the photo happens to be on monarda (bee balm), another favorite.
  Bombus californicus on Monarda, ("Bee Balm")
Bombus melanopygus or Black-rumped Bumble bee. We think this species should be called the "Red-belted Bumble bee" for the bright red band around its middle. B. melanopygus is our earliest emerging queen; the earliest date we have seen her is January 21st (during an unusual warm spell one winter). These bees love rhododendrons and in May can be seen using all kinds of rhodies, faces buried deep in the flowers' nectaries and frenetically gathering pollen. By early June, the rhododendrons are done, and so, too, are the melanopygus bumble bees; it is rare to see one past June.

Bombus melanopygus worker on rhody
Bombus melanopygus is distinctive: a yellow head, a mostly black thorax, with some yellow further back, then a wide, brick-red cumberbund across the upper abdomen, followed by black. The aposomatic (warning) coloration of this bee befits its feisty nature. If you get too close to a B. melanopygus nest, watch out!

In early spring the queen of this species loves crocuses, heather and pussywillows. On a 50+ degree day in February, with full sun, from 2- 4 pm, she can usually be found seeking nectar and pollen at these flowers. 
Bombus melanopygus queen on crocus
Bombus occidentalis is officially known as the Western Bumble Bee, though we think of it as the "white butt" bee. It's a large bee that used to be common in Thurston County, but in the last 10 years it has disappeared from much of its previous habitat and is considered to be in trouble. We have been observing local bumble bees since 2008, and have never seen one.                    
Bombus occidentalis      (Xerces Society photo)

For this reason the Xerces Society is tracking any sightings. Look for a large black bee with a black face, a yellow stripe across the thorax and upper abdomen, followed by a thick white patch that covers the tail. The white patch is distinctive and unmistakable.
If you see this bee, try to take a picture. Call us at 352-9009 and contact the Xerces Society at                      

Bombus mixtus is a smallish bee, even the queen is pretty small . The first queens emerge in late March and the workers can be seen throughout the summer.

On first glance B. mixtus is mostly a small, fuzzy yellow bee. But on closer inspection, on the abdomen you will notice a thick yellow stripe, followed by a mostly black thick stripe, and finally, at the business end (stinger-tail), pale-orange pile.
Bombus mixtus male on lavender
These bees have short tongues, which mean you are less likely to find them nectaring at deep flowers. They are famous for "nectar-robbing", which means they chew holes in flowers with hard to reach nectar, sticking their tongues in to feed and bypassing the pollen. The flower thus gets cheated of pollination services.
Bombus mixtus female nectar-robbing columbine blossom
Bombus nevadensis nevadensis is the Nevada Bumblebee. We’ve only see it once: a spectacular HUGE queen had just emerged in late July and we found her nectaring on lavender. We let her go (after taking a few photos) and we’ve not seen her or her progeny since. In four years of serious BB watching, this is our only sighting, so at least in Thurston County it is a very rare bee. 
Bombus nevadensis queen on lavender

These are our biggest bumblebees. A glossy black face, a thorax covered very densely with mustard-yellow pile except for a central black spot, and an abdomen that is also covered with thick yellow pile, except for black pile at the business end.
Bombus nevadensis queen
Bombus sitkensis or Sitka bumblebee. We are still learning about this bee. The queen probably emerges in mid April. She is medium sized; her face is black with a few yellow tufts, her thorax has a circlet of pale yellow hair and a very large black central spot. One thing we’ve noticed is that she has quite a bit of yellow hair at the base of her wings, which sort of looks like armpit hair.

The first part of her abdomen has a lemony yellow pile, followed by mostly black. The very end of her abdomen has some scattered, distinctly dark red rusty hairs. This is a key field mark,and is also hard to see without getting within striking distance of her stinger.
Bombus sitkensis worker

Bombus sitkensis worker

Bombus flavifrons - This bee looks very much like Bombus sitkensis, and quite frankly, we're still trying to sort out the differences.  The one diagnostic is the lack of rusty-colored hairs on the very end of the abdomen.

Probable Bombus flavifrons
Probable Bombus flavifrons

Other bumble bees of Thurston County:

Bombus rufocinctus - We haven't seen this bee yet, but we know its here. When we have photos we'll post them.

Bombus bifarius - Another bee we know is here, but haven't seen yet.

For those interested in learning more about our native bumble bees, two excellent identification guides have recently been become available:

Bumblebees of Washington


Bumble Bees of the Western United States

Several of the bees here we have written on in more depth in earlier posts.  They can be found here:
We hope you enjoy and use this guide.  Please feel free to contact us with feedback and questions about bumble bees. We'd like to continue to expand our knowledge of these fascinating and important pollinators. 

Text written by Janet and Nancy Partlow
Except for Bombus occidentalis, all photos taken by Nancy Partlow

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Dawn Chorus

Some of my earliest and sweetest memories are of awakening at daybreak to the sound of a robin singing outside my window.  The robin’s repetitive call was easily recognizable to me, yet it wasn’t until I reached adulthood that I fully realized that his voice was but one of a host of birds singing each spring morning to create the natural phenomenon known as the dawn chorus.

What is the dawn chorus?  Here in the northern hemisphere, it is a temporal event that takes place over a period of days and weeks every spring, but it also one that is recreated every morning during that period.  It is the voices raised by a multitude of male birds to attract mates and claim breeding territories.
The first songs to be heard each vernal season are of “resident” bird species that live here year round, later to be joined by the neo-tropical migrants who fly in for summer from their wintering grounds in Central and South America. 
Where I live, the dawn chorus starts to build in early March with a few “in-house” voices: the robin’s sing-song cadence, the chickadee’s gently pleading fee-bees, the Bewick's wren's loud staccato, the spotted towhee's assertive rattle, and the junco's ticker tape trill. 

In mid-March, Violet-green and Tree swallows start chittering their joy and verve into the skies above my house, while vehemently discussing just who will be occupying the specially-designed swallow box mounted beneath my carport roof. 

As the calendar advances into April, I delight in noting the aural return of my old friends the warblers and flycatchers: especially the Orange-crowned Warbler’s downward trill, the Black-throated Gray’s zeetle, zeetle, zeetle, ZEET, the Western Wood Peewee’s raspy peer, and the Pacific Slope Flycatcher’s attention-grabbing See-oo-EET! whistle. 
As spring bird migration progresses further, I listen intently for all the familiar vocalizations.  It is only when I hear the Black-headed Grosbeak's jazzy improv, the Western Tanager's clever robin imitation, and the Swainson's Thrush's "Doink!", whinny, and ethereal, spiraling reverberations, that my heart gains its ease, knowing that all the eagerly awaited sojourners are present once again.
On a daily basis, the dawn chorus actually begins before any light is discernible by the human eye, around 4:30 a.m.  Yet the birds must see it. One study found that the opening verses of the dawn chorus are sung by the bird species with the largest eyes.
But why do birds sing at or before dawn? Here is a good explanation from Yahoo Answers as to why male birds choose the hours nearest sunrise to warble their arias:
Dawn is the best time to sing because the air is generally calmer and sound transmission is good. A dawn song is thought to be 20 times more effective than singing at midday and at dawn, birds can do little else. Light is poor and insect prey is not flying, so foraging for food is difficult. Also, female birds generally lay eggs in the morning, so a dawn mating is the best time for a male. Finally, if any birds have died overnight, the others will know where there is a vacant territory.
I am fortunate to live in good bird habitat; near a large wetland and surrounded by forest edge vegetation.  In my first years of residency at this location I would sometimes rise early on a spring morning and stand on the bank behind my house to listen in awe and appreciation to the beautiful swelling symphony that is the sound of the earth singing.

Yet over time as land development and habitat destruction has occurred in my neighborhood, that composition, while still robust, has diminished in nature and become slightly harder to distinguish. Studies have shown that birds nesting in urban in areas must now sing louder than normal to be heard above our human-created cacophony, especially that of traffic noise. Situated as I am near several big box stores and I-5, the birds have to “shout” to be heard.  There are also concerns about light pollution’s effects on birds, which may cause them to confuse night for day and sing when they should be sleeping.
There are many ways to enjoy the Dawn Chorus.  My sister recalls a birding class she taught several years ago.  She took her students on an early-morning field trip to Ellis Cove at Priest Point Park to hear the dawn chorus. She says the experience was unforgettable.
There must be many other similarly great places in Thurston County to hear nature’s majestic chorale.
I have taken to video-taping the dawn chorus on my camera and playing back the recordings, especially during the mid-winter months to remind myself that the season of darkness inevitably gives way to the season of light.
The dawn chorus is available on CD.  Lang Elliott is a “nature recordist, photographer and author” whose works I have enjoyed.  I found his book Music of the Birds: A Celebration of Bird Song fascinating.
One of my favorite movies, the 2005 version of Pride and Prejudice with Keira Knightly, utilizes birdsong to wonderful effect.  In some early scenes, the voice of a single male bird serenades Lizzie, clearly foreshadowing her and Darcy’s ultimate pair-bonding in the gorgeous English countryside to the exultant strains of the dawn chorus.
There is even an International Dawn Chorus Day which is being held on Sunday, May 6 this year.

150 years ago, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote these lines about this amazing natural event:
Think every morning when the sun peeps through
The dim leaf-latticed windows of the grove,
How jubilant the happy birds renew
Their old, melodious madrigals of love!
And when you think of this, remember too
'Tis always morning somewhere, and above
The awakening continents, from shore to shore
Somewhere the birds are singing ever more

Yearly, the dawn chorus grants us the chance to remember that the earth belongs to all creatures, not just us. That this shining globe, hurtling through the inky blackness of space, burgeons with countless forms of life whose only desire is to not be silenced. Our task as humans is to learn to be worthy of this benediction.

I am so thankful that I can still awaken to the song of the robin outside my window.  My fervent hope is that we all continue to have this opportunity, "ever more".

Words and photos by Nancy Partlow

Dawn Chorus In Tumwater, May 2011

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Migration begins

    It is early April.  Long streaming days of cold, wet and depressing weather have sent us fleeing  north for spring break to the area around Sequim.  Here there is a rain shadow from the Olympic mountains and here, too, we might find surcease from this hideous spring. And so it has proved.
Striped Peak

    We are sitting at Salt Creek  campground along the Strait of Juan de Fuca, where we stopped for a bathroom break.  The heavy rain & slashing winds of the night before have broken open, and we have been enjoying some strong spring sunshine.  Sitting  east of us in the near distance is Striped Peak,  one of the last foothills of the Olympic Mountains before the cold waters of the Strait devour its base.   I was sitting in the car, idly glancing around, when I saw a couple of Bald Eagles soaring over the peak.  There was a mad scramble for binoculars (both pairs!)  and then jostling for the  best viewing place.  Binos glued to our faces, we called out sightings and descriptions back and forth: “No, look, look, to the left of the peak, see that scraggy tree, just above it.  Ooooooh look, there’s another one!”  As we watched, a thermal updraft formed, and  migrating hawks raced to catch it.  This is spring hawk migration along the Strait.  For me, it took me back 22 years to Cape Flattery and other April raptor migrations I have watched.

          Here in western Washington state, the birds of prey are making their migration move north.  It is the Red-tailed Hawks, the Bald Eagles (and occasional Golden Eagles),  the falcons,  the accipiters like Sharp-shinned and Coopers Hawks, and others that leave their winter territories in the southern lands and follow the Pacific coast line north.  Some stop in Washington state, and set up breeding territory,  but many more push through to Canada and into Alaska to find their place, their mate and rear this year’s young.  

Crossing the cold water to Vancouver island
     A big challenge for these birds is the Strait of Juan de Fuca.  A frigid body of salt water, it forms the northern border of Washington state, sharing its waters with Canada.  They have to cross it to get north.  It can be as much as 15 miles across to Vancouver island, and it takes strong flight muscles to get a bird across without getting pulled down into 40 degree water.  Falcons can do it:  I’ve seen both Peregrine and Merlins get a fine head of steam and just power themselves across on the strength of those oar-like wings.  But surprisingly, most of the other common travelers are fairly weak flyers over long expanses of cold water.  They need to find another way. 

A Red-tailed hawk, wings set to ride the thermal
     The strategy they use is to ride the “thermal elevator”.  Thermals are updrafts of warm air that rise from the ground and can go many thousands of feet into the air.  Thermals form a spiral, rising column of air; the hawks and eagles somehow feel out these currents.  They set their wings to glide and allow the warm air to lift them to great heights.  Along the Strait of Juan de Fuca, they get to a certain height, then set their wings to glide north.  They then simply slide across the next fifteen miles, gradually losing elevation and arriving on Vancouver island, ready to rest and feed and prepare for the next leg of the journey.

     I first learned about all this from Bud Anderson, falcon biologist and educator extraordinaire, who discovered this Strait of Juan de Fuca spring migration phenomenon  further west near Neah Bay, at Cape Flattery.  It was with Bud and his Falcon Research Group volunteers that I spent several early Aprils, on a low mountain near Neah Bay, watching the hawks, falcons and eagles head north.  After the research project ended, I really missed seeing the migration.  So what happened for us this week was a real treat.

    What we saw at Salt Creek  was several factors that came together to make the thermal elevators possible.  For example, the hot spring sun had been warming up Striped Peak, but unevenly: one warm side of the hill with one cold side sets up the spiraling updrafts.  In addition the peak sits right on the cold water of the Strait, which adds its own complexity to the thermal recipe.  There was a weak southeast wind;  from my years at Neah Bay I remembered that east winds along the Strait really aid in the formation of thermals.   In addition, Striped Peak is near the narrowest point of crossing to Vancouver island - about 10 miles. If I’m a hawk and the day’s conditions are questionable, I’m going to pick the shortest crossing.

Look closely:  hawks soaring above the trees
     As we watched these raptors over Striped Peak, we noticed others coming to join them.  I remember Bud teaching us that all of these spring migrants are hot to trot, ready to cross the water and get down to business.   So they sit in trees near the Strait, waiting for good conditions and also watching each other to see if another migrant has found a great thermal elevator.  If it looks promising, they race to join it.  Thermals are very ephemeral, and the birds have to move fast to get on the elevator.  Today we were seeing that same thing;  a small group of two or three quickly became  six, then nine.  These groups of circling hawks are called “kettles”, which refers to the way they look like they are circling in a soup pot.

       Not all thermals have enough lift to get the birds high enough to cross.  Today we watched the birds in the kettle shift and adjust, trying to find the best spots.  The thermals did not seem to generate enough lift for most of the birds, although Glen was certain he saw one bird gliding over the Strait.  By about 2:30 clouds were covering the sun and the thermal elevators shut down for the day.   The birds dispersed and disappeared. 
Sunset along the Strait
      We headed back to our snug berth along the Dungeness Spit.  The heavy clouds turned to rain and then broke briefly for a beautiful sunset.  I thought about the hawks, now settled down in a tree somewhere along the water’s edge.  Hopefully they found a fish, a vole, a small bird to eat before the cold night ahead.  They will wait for morning, for better conditions, to try again.    

     I fall asleep and dream of them, wheeling, rising and turning, disappearing into the mist, making safe passage north to home...


•  Falcon Research Group:
•  Red tailed Hawk Photo by Ellen Wilson.  See her blog at:
•  All other photos by Glen Buschmann