Monday, January 19, 2015

Salamanders and Frogs on the Move

Our favorite amphibian pond in daylight hours
     Last night Glen and I went on a herp walk. “Herp" refers to herpetology, the study of reptiles and amphibians:  in this case, salamanders and frogs.  We wrote in our blog at Thanksgiving about our driving ambition to see a big night: one of those special times when herds of salamanders and/or frogs migrate into the breeding ponds for the spring.  We haven’t had a big night yet, but we are definitely seeing signs of movement.  

     In pursuit of this obsession, we’ve been going out about once a week, whenever the weather looks promising.  Last night’s weather was primo:  temperature 51 degrees, half an inch of rain in the last 20 hours and when we left the house, coming down in sheets.  This is amphibian migration weather.

      We drove out to one of our favorite sites not far from our house:  on the east side of this country road are some healthy freshwater ponds, while on the west side of the road is a dense patch of evergreen trees.  Many of our local amphibians live a two part life;  in fall and winter they hide out in sword ferns, under rocks or rotten wood  or in rodent burrows deep in these evergreen forests.  But come mid-late winter, with warming temps, increasing daylight and  a Pineapple Express rain storm right out of tropical Hawaii, the amphibians are lured out of their winter homes and head across the road to the breeding ponds. These seasonal migrations lured us too, out of our warm house on a nasty winter night.

     Bundled up in rain gear, layers of fleece, reflective vests and juggling flashlights, we walked the road between the woods and the breeding ponds.  Right away we saw our first amphibian; a Northwestern Salamander Ambystoma gracile leaving the woods and heading across to the pond.  

Northwestern Salamander Ambystoma gracile
     You can identify this salamander by several key field marks:  it is a uniform dun brown on top and white-gray underneath.  It has fat parotoid glands at the base of the jaw on either side:  these glands have a concentration of pores capable of excreting a milky mixture of poisons and irritants as a defense against predators.  Northwestern Salamanders are also quite stout and have strongly marked grooves along their ribs.
      We turned it over to check its gender:  it squirmed and did not make the job easy but we saw that it was a male by the swollen genitalia at the base of the tail.  

Northern Red-legged Frog Rana aurora
     Further on Glen was surprised to see our first frog of the season.  This was a Northern Red-legged Frog Rana aurora . It played possum as we walked up, but was docile and cooperative as we moved it off the road and over the pond.  Up until a couple of years ago, I thought our only local species was the Pacific Chorus frog.  When we saw our first Northern Red-legged frog a couple of years ago, it was a real thrill.  This frog reminded us of that first sighting.

   We continued to walk down the road.  This road is well-traveled and on this night,  we had to move aside for more than 20 cars ( I was very happy for our reflective vests). It’s obvious that cars are heavy users of this road:  we counted 25 or more carcasses of amphibians that failed to make a safe crossing.  We saw one squashed Northwestern salamander female; we knew she was a female because as she was hit she extruded a jellylike mass full of unfertilized eggs.  

     Northwestern salamanders may live five years.  They show site fidelity, which means they like salmon always return to the same waters to breed and produce young.  Twice a year they must make these migrations:  from woods to ponds and back again.  This means as many as ten crossings in their lifespan.  For “our” salamanders at this pond, this is an incredibly risky lifestyle.  As we walked this road and kept a watchful eye, Glen remarked on the depressing nature of this field work and I concurred.

Amherst MA, Henry Street Salamander Tunnels
     But there is a different perspective.  At least on that night, we were there.  We helped some amphibians cross and we are bearing witness to their lives and their struggles.  Our local Stream Team is starting to develop a database of high risk road crossings for these amphibians; the information we collect will be added to this database.  I have a vision:  maybe we can develop teams of volunteer amphibian stewards, posting them on high risk roads throughout the winter.  Maybe people driving these roads at night will become more alert and aware.  Maybe city and county planners can learn to build roads around wetlands, or to make bridges over wetlands, which would allow amphibians to safely cross underneath.  

     The night got darker and wetter.  We returned to our warm house, where I sat by the furnace and watched steam rise from my sodden clothes.  I thought of the amphibians we had seen, who heed the ancient call of their kind, leaving the safety of the woods for the breeding ponds and for future generations.  On these dark nights, I pray for their safe passage.   

•  Northwestern salamander photo by D. Hagin from Washington Herp Atlas, (The Washington Heptofaunal Atlas Project).
•  Northern Red-Legged Frog photo by Nancy Partlow
•  California Herps - Salamander Life History,  Amphibians and Reptiles of California
•  Searching for Salamanders and Frogs, by Rob Schanz, Chehalis River Council,  Rob surveys for amphibians for Stream Team.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Celebrating Olympia's Great Blue Herons

Words, photos and videos by Nancy Partlow

“The Heron flies in a slow, leisurely manner, as if it was hoping to remember where it’s going before it actually gets there.”  Anthony Armstrong
Great Blue Herons are iconic and beloved denizens of the Olympia shoreline.  Of all our local species, I think they most resemble the dinosaurs from which birds evolved. To see one flying with huge wings extended, and hear its emphatic grawk, only reinforces the impression of a present-day pterodactyl.

Great Blue Herons are beautiful, graceful in flight, and have intense golden eyes that reveal, more than anything else about them, their wild natures.

For photographers and bird lovers, the presence of these magnificent creatures offers an increasingly rare opportunity to capture images of bird life on the Olympia waterfront.   I’d like to share some photos that I’ve taken and some interesting facts I’ve learned about Olympia’s herons over the last few years.

Last spring, I noticed a group of great blue herons gathered on a rubble pile offshore of West Bay Drive - which seemed odd.  Except when nesting, herons don’t seem to tolerate being near each other like that.   I thought perhaps it might have something to do with the breeding season. As it turns out, it does.

According to WA Dept. of Fish and Wildlife Management Recommendations for the Great Blue Heron,

Prior to nesting, herons may gather in groups. Surveyors have observed pre-nesting groups close to many of the region’s heron colonies…

...  There is some debate as to how prevalent these groups are in the region. Although birds may not exhibit this behavior at every colony, more survey and research during the pre-nesting period will help us better understand these habitats.
I dubbed the jumble of bricks and cement blocks “Heron Island”, and discovered it is located almost directly below the heronry tucked in the woods above West Bay Drive. 

At the start of the breeding season, adult herons sport a long, jaunty plume upon their heads,

...and an elegant feather cape draped over their shoulders.

Their beaks and lower legs deepen in color from a dull yellow to an orange hue.

Juvenile Great Blue Herons differ in appearance from mature ones, appearing to have more brown coloration and more solidly dark heads than adult GBH’s.

Looking like a Dr. Seuss creation, and perhaps newly fledged from a nest at the west Olympia heronry, this juvenile scoped out the lay of the land and water at Percival Creek estuary in the spring  of 2013.

It could have been the same young bird I captured in silhouette later that summer hunting below the 5th Avenue Bridge.

A salmon swam at its feet, but after jumping into the water with a noisy splash,

the heron emerged with a smaller fish impaled upon its bayonet-like mandibles.

Quickly ingested its prey, evidence of its kill stained its bloody beak.

When hunting, herons can be quite territorial.  Watching two of them at the Percival Creek estuary, one stalked the other until the perceived interloper was forced to fly off and land near a group of geese and ducks.  Finding safety in numbers, the vanquished heron’s countenance seemed to say, “Don’t mind me.  I’m just hanging out here with my peeps.”

After dining, the wispy cravat on a heron’s breast serves a specific purpose.  According to Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s All About Birds web site,

Great Blue Herons have specialized feathers on their chest that continually grow and fray. The herons comb this “powder down” with a fringed claw on their middle toes, using the down like a washcloth to remove fish slime and other oils from their feathers as they preen. Applying the powder to their underparts protects their feathers against the slime and oils of swamps.

Herons have their favorite grooming posts.  Months without rain in the summer of 2013 left the accumulated evidence of one such hangout at Capitol Lake, on a log covered with heron droppings and old feathers.  As I watched the bird combing and preening, it created a small cloud of feathers and dust around itself.

Herons are opportunistic, and the 5th Avenue dam and two nearby bridges have created favorable conditions for them to pursue fish.  At certain times of the year, it is rare to visit this location and not observe a heron.

One day at the dam, the inky-black reflection of a 5th Avenue bridge streetlight manifested intriguing and ever-changing patterns in the water near a bird.  I half-expected it to spell out, “Save the Herons!” or “Surrender Dorothy”.

Waiting for the darkness to lift, a heron huddled on a dam abutment one freezing winter morning at the perigee of a King Tide.

Peering intently into the autumn-hued waters of Budd Inlet, a heron stands like a phantom at the threshold between two worlds.

Humans too, stand at a threshold; between a world where species other than ourselves can flourish, or one sadly and eerily devoid of such life due to habitat loss, climate change and the ever-growing claim that Homo sapiens stake upon the earth’s freely-be bestowed gifts. 

I am so grateful to those people who have toiled to protect Olympia’s heronry and forest habitat above West Bay Drive.  May their inspiring work be an impetus for further preservation, and restoration, of Olympia’s nearshore and shoreline ecosystems, and the Puget Sound at large.

Videos (for best viewing, watch in high definition):

Great Blue Herons in pre-nesting congregation on rubble pile off West Bay Drive, right below the heronry:

GBH eating a three-spined stickleback at 5th Avenue dam:

GBH watching flock of mergansers swim by at North Point:

Olympia Coalition for Ecosystems Protection (group working to protect the west Olympia heronry) on facebook:

March Point Heronry colony at Padilla Bay, with a link to some audio of herons on the nest:

Pictures of Woodard Bay heronry:

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Owls in the Ravine

      It was just after sunset one cold clear night in February when we decided to go down into Garfield ravine and listen for owls.
      We bundled ourselves up in our winter woolies and carried binoculars in mittened hands.  We stood for a while and quieted ourselves down, our ears tuned up for the call of one of the most common yet elusive backyard birds.  When we were finally ready, we filed down into one of Olympia’s neighborhood ravines to wait for owls.
     Though Garfield ravine is in the middle of developed, residential west Olympia, it still retains a rich mix of bigleaf maples, alders and second-growth conifers. It has steeply pitched, seeping sides so no houses have ever been built into it.  The stream that once ran unimpeded through west Olympia has been locked away into culverts, but here in the ravine it has been allowed to run freely for its last mile into Puget Sound.  

Glen checking out native vegetation in the ravine
     This ravine forms what is called a riparian corridor:  a kind of wetland habitat that forms the banks of streams and rivers.  Here are native plants such as swordfern and Western Red cedar,  adapted to wet conditions.  Here are rats, sneaking up from the bay to feed out of human backyards.  There are mice, too and salamanders, insects and worms.  All of these animals provide food for the owls of the ravine.

     The stream had probably carved out the ravine in times past.  Now with recent rains, the water ran high and fast;  we listened to the rushing sound over the rocks in the creek bed.  Up above, the wind brushed through winter-bare branches and the distant voices of children at play up in the neighborhood floated down to us.

Western Screech Owl
     The ravine was cold and wet, waking slowly to spring and new life.
     It was the perfect place for owls.
     We sat and let the silence move into us.  We sat and let the night darken and the stars come out, one by one.  And then the owl began to call.

     A quiet rolling series of hoots echoed up the ravine towards us.  A haunting sound, the quick heartbeat of the nighttime woods, it came towards us.  We held our breath.  We cupped our ears into radar dishes as we strained to hear.  And it called again.

     For the next half hour, the Western Screech Owl asserted its claim to the ravine, as its kind had done for centuries.  We sat, entranced and let the sound fill us up.  Up in the neighborhood, few people heard the call;  they were busy with their usual Sunday evening lives.
     But for us in the ravine, we were blessed with the presence of owls.  


•  This article was originally posted in Green Pages in April 1995
•  Owl photo from Wikipedia
•  All other photos by Nancy Partlow