Sunday, November 27, 2016

Beaver Sign at the Capitol Lake Interpretive Center

Text and photos by Nancy Partlow©

Yesterday, I came across a large alder tree that beavers had toppled across the CLIC main trail.     

I spoke to a couple who were walking by.  I commented that  "it must be really tough to be an alder tree here because of the beavers."  The woman asked if I really thought beavers had brought the tree down.  I showed her tooth marks on the branch stubs and wood chips littering the ground.  She was amazed.  She didn't know that there are beavers at Capitol Lake.

Beaver tree-gnawing activity at the CLIC has increased in the last few weeks as the weather has gotten colder, just as it does every year.

Even though I've searched extensively for a beaver lodge nearby, I haven't been able to find it  yet. I think it's probably tucked away in one of the two CLIC wetland ponds. 

I only wish I could have returned after nightfall to watch the beavers continue to harvest branches from their felled tree. That would have been really cool.  A friend told me he once saw a beaver on a CLIC trail during the day.  I would have loved to see that!

I've often observed a male Anna's hummingbird perched in the upper branches of this alder, vocalizing and defending from all comers the large twinberry bush right across the trail, and  a rambling stand of salmonberry bushes close by.  Both these shrubs are good sources of hummingbird nectar when they're in flower.  I guess the bird will just have to find another perch now.
I also found a bushtit nest lying in the middle of the trail, probably knocked from nearby branches by the wind.  It  retained its still-beautiful construction of natural materials - moss, twigs, lichens and spider's web.   

Yesterday's soggy weather could have hardly been less conducive for a nature walk.  But with a good umbrella I was able to take a much-needed stroll and respite. 

My discoveries on the CLIC trail show me that even on the worst of days, nature  provides endless opportunities for wonder, restoration and learning.   In this season of thanks-giving, I am grateful for that. 

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Random Acts of Blogging

In trying to update our blog, I too hit the dreaded Publish button.  Indeed there be dragons, and they reproduce at will.  MOST of the time we like Blogger.  BUT, sorry for the multiple reposts of Nancy's recent blog on dragonflies.  (She does have great photos.)

My intended post was / is in large part a celebration of the one-year anniversary of the Native Pollinators Study Group (Thurston County). We are delighted to have developed a nice relationship with Traditions Cafe, who has hosted all of our our programs after our opening meeting at the Olympia library. Over the past year we have explored many topics and learned a great deal.

One of the projects I have enjoyed has been making monthly flyers for the program, which further inspired me into making some posters using some of our numerous photos, taken especially by Nancy, over the years.  Both posters and flyers will be found in one of our blog side-bars.

About the Pollinator Study Group.  If you live in the greater Olympia area, come join us for one of our 4th Monday programs, which meets at 7 p.m.  Traditions Cafe lets us use their cafe after they close, and we put in a good word for them whenever we can.  Over the past year we have explored many topics and learned a great deal.  One of the projects I have enjoyed has been making monthly flyers for the program, which has further inspired me into making some posters using some of the numerous photos taken, especially by Nancy, over the years.

By the way, if you don’t live in the area, consider starting your own study group; I’ve loads of suggestions.  In part I take inspiration from Scarabs, an insect society (bug fans) who have gathered, with a few year interruption, since 1937.  If you are in Seattle near the Burke Museum on a 4th Monday (yes, we meet the same time), they always have an interesting program.  (AND... this coming Sunday, 9/18 BugBlast at the Burke.)

Our September program (Sept 26) is a new visit with an old friend — Mason Bees. This is the first study group program specifically on them since we have been meeting.  Mason bees — a starter bee (entry drug) for many of us — have taught me a great deal both about the habits of solitary bees and about the diverse small animals who coexist with them.  While I do not blog often about these fascinating and sometimes overhyped bees, also on our blog side bar are several static pages with information about them that I am in process of updating and expanding.

In October (Oct 24) we welcome Eli Bloom, a WSU student completing his doctoral studies.  Eli and his assistants placed monitoring stations at about two dozen organic farms in the Puget Sound region as well as developed identification guides so that farmers and gardeners could better identify some of the pollinating insects visiting their landscapes.  Now Eli is ready to present his initial findings and to explore with us the roles native pollinators play on organic farms and what can be done to improve their numbers and success.

The final program for 2016 is November (Nov 29), as we do not meet in December.  At this point our topic is under discussion, so if you would like to influence our decision please let us know ASAP of what pollinator topic YOU would like to explore. 

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Here Be Dragons

Text by Nancy Partlow©.  All photos taken at Capitol Lake by Nancy Partlow©, unless other wise noted.

In our community there is a magical kingdom.  Towered over by a castle on a hill, it is known by the mundane name of  Capitol Lake, but for the countless creatures  roaming its aqueous realm, it is a cradle of life.  Anyone who has ever peered through a microscopic lens at a drop of pond water has glimpsed this mysterious world. 

As Capitol Lake has slowly filled with sediment over the years, many native species have benefited from its increasingly marsh-like condition.   One group of insects  that has prospered greatly are members of the order Odonata, comprised of dragonflies (Anisoptera) and damselflies (Zygoptera). 
Dancing over the water at Percival Cove, zooming like sunlit fairies above the east lawn at Heritage Park, defending territories and fighting for mates along the  Marathon Park shoreline, dragonflies and damselflies are a consistent summer and autumn-time presence at Capitol Lake.  

Male Western Pondhawk on Heritage Park lawn

Odonates are creatures of freshwater wetlands, and the lake is perfect  habitat for them.  With its shallow depth, muddy bottom and summertime algal mats, the lake is a lentic lagoon and a dragonfly heaven.

I'd previously garnered some limited knowledge about odonates from Janet and Glen, but recently learned a lot more while attending a presentation by well-known expert Dennis Paulson at a Stream Team sponsored event at the WET Center.  Author of Dragonflies and Damselflies of the West, Paulson's comprehensive field guide is filled with fascinating and specific information about these charismatic mega-fauna of the insect world.   I was surprised to learn that beside their great diversity in appearance, each species has differing behaviors for hunting, mating, egg-laying and even perching. 

The language used to describe odonata reflects the way they have captured the human imagination:  dragons and damsels, jewelwings and emeralds, sprites and dancers, even the more explicative skimmers, darners, dashers and hawks.

Damselfly on emergent vegetation at Capitol Lake's middle basin

The immature forms of these insects are called nymphs, although the name hardly reflects the classical definition of the word - they are fierce-looking bugs.  The larval phase comprises the vast majority of the odonate life cycle, which is lived under water.  A nymph's sole purpose in life is to eat and grow through voracious predation upon other aquatic invertebrates. 

After several months and molts, the nymph crawls out of the water  and clamps its legs onto a piece of shoreline vegetation, where it bursts its exoskeleton and emerges into aerial form.  Although I've never seen any of these shed skins called exuviae, there must be many of them hidden in the vegetation around the lake. 

Bright red as an adult, this is an immature Autumn Meadowhawk, just recently emerged
from the lake.  It will gain adult coloration over a period of days or weeks.

Paulson refers to dragonflies as "Natures Rainbows", and they really are.  Their variety of colors and patterns are amazing.  As a wildlife photographer, I love to shoot dragonflies. They're beautiful and make excellent subjects since, unless they're twisting their swivel heads, they perch stock still.  

It's been really fun and interesting trying to discover just how many species of dragonflies breed in Capitol Lake.  I've documented eleven so far, out of the total 33 species recorded for Thurston County as a whole.  Here are their photographs:

Cardinal Meadowhawk near the entrance to the CLIC

Eight-spotted skimmer at the Interpretive Trail
 A Blue-eyed Darner suns in shrubbery along the CLIC trail. This species belongs to the genus Aeshna, whose members are known as Mosaic Darners for the decorative patterns resembling mosaics on their abdomens.

Variegated Meadowhawks mating in a copulation wheel at the CLIC.

Shadow Darner male

Female Western Pondhawk

A male Common Whitetail perching on the ground in the middle of the CLIC
main trail - a typical pose.

 Common Whitetails are highly dimorphic.  This female  was perched on
 a rock near the lower falls at Capitol Lake's south basin.

Blue Dasher male perched on reed canary grass at Marathon Park.

Male Blue Dashers waiting for females at a CLIC pond.

Juvenile male California Darner near south basin of Capitol Lake in May.  According to Paulsen's book, the California Darner is "...almost always (the) first dragonfly to appear in spring, throughout at least (its) northern part of range".

Female California darner ovipositing eggs in an algal mat near CLIC dock. The floating vegetation helps protect the eggs from foraging fish.  

As adults, dragonflies and damselflies are both predator and prey.  The lake which gives them life is also nursery to many other insect species that fly as adults, such as caddisflies, stoneflies, mayflies, midges and mosquitoes, to name a few.  Odonates eat them all. Beetles, flies and Lepidoptera are other common food items, as evidenced by this video I took of a female Western Pondhawk munching on a moth at the Interpretive Center, the scales from its wings floating away in the breeze:

In a terrific and highly unusual photo, local nature photographer Barry Troutman captured a Shadow Darner eating an insect being parasitized by a wasp at the CLIC.

Shadow Darners derive their name from their habit of conducting much of
their activity in the shade.
PHOTO: ©Barry Troutman

Odonates make a good meal for other animals.  Spiders and frogs take their share, and at least 40 species of birds, probably more, are known to consume odonata larvae and/or adults, including the Blue and Green Herons that haunt the shoreline of Capitol Lake.

Despite the name, this is the only Common Green Darner I've seen at Capitol Lake - caught in
a spider web.

Green Heron at Percival Cove.

A Cardinal Meadowhawk perches on a branch near an American Bullfrog near the entrance to the CLIC.  Several Blue Dasher dragonflies also flew near this frog, just out of reach.

I asked Dennis Paulson whether odonates could survive the transition of the lake to an estuary.  Sadly, the answer is no.  Like many magical kingdoms, this one would retreat into legend.  Until such a day comes however, I will visit as often as possible, and allow myself to be willingly spellbound by its mystery and beauty.
Many thanks to Dennis Paulson and Barry Troutman for their help.

Odonata Central records for dragonfly and damselfly species in Thurston County:

Nature's Deadly Drone, from the New York Times:

A female Western Pondhawk finds good camouflage on an Oregon Grape leaf

Friday, June 10, 2016

A Wild Success - Pollinators

Text, photos and videos by Nancy Partlow ©  All photos and videos taken at the Capitol Lake Interpretive Center, unless otherwise noted. 

Renowned biologist E. O. Wilson calls invertebrates "the little things that run the world".   My interest in insects, particularly pollinators, has always been in observing and learning about  their world, especially in a natural context.
 Pollinator bee on a starburst spray of Red-osier Dogwood blossoms

One of my favorite places to do this is at the Capitol Lake Interpretive Center when the native shrubs are in bloom.  Each spring, nootka rose, thimbleberry, twinberry, ninebark, mock orange, serviceberry, vine maple, snowberry and red-osier dogwood offer pollinators what they really need - pollen and nectar.  In return, these plants receive fertilization, which result in the fruits and seeds that wildlife  eat.     

Bombus mixtus worker buzz-pollinating Nootka Rose

It's really fun to watch bumble bees buzz-pollinate Nootka rose and thimbleberry blossoms.  These worker bees (all female) sound like teensy kazoos as they scramble over flower stamens while vibrating their wing muscles at a frequency that dislodges the closely-held pollen. 

Bombus melanopygus pollen-gathering  
from Thimbleberry
Bombus sitkensis on Nootka Rose

Their male counterparts, unburdened by the requirement to gather pollen to feed larvae back at the nest, go straight for the sugar nectaries on flowers like ninebark and twinberry.   This sweet syrup fuels their sole purpose in life - to find a queen to mate with.    

Bombus melanopygus male on Pacific Ninebark
Male Bombus flavifrons nectaring on Twinberry

I'd always wanted to see a pair of bumble bees mating,  so I felt lucky when I  happened upon two bumble bees coupling at the CLIC.  

I spied what looked like a very large Bombus queen stumbling oddly about on a thimbleberry leaf.  As I watched in puzzlement,  she dropped heavily to the ground and continued to stagger around in the leaf litter.  It wasn't until I had  observed her for about a minute (an eon in insect time) that I realized that it was actually two bumble bees together - a Bombus mixtus queen with a much smaller male clinging to her back.

The queen did not seem particularly receptive to his advances.  In fact, she appeared to be vigorously trying to give him the brush off.  It's unclear from  this video  whether the male eventually successfully mated with her or not. 

Bombus mixtus male attempting to mate with B. mixtus queen

Most people don't know that beetles can also be pollinators, but according to the Xerces Guide to Attracting Native Pollinators

Beetles (order Coleoptera) represent the greatest diversity of pollinators.  There are more than 340,000 identified species of beetles worldwide, including nearly 30,000 species in North America alone.  Fossil records suggest that beetles, along with flies, were probably the first insect pollinators of prehistoric flowering plants in the late Jurassic era, around 150 million years ago. 

Its not uncommon to see beetles hanging about on rose stamens at the CLIC, attracted by the edible pollen.

Long-horned beetle on Nootka Rose

Another species of Long-horned beetle

Flies provide incidental pollinator services at the CLIC.  In their larval form, some bee-mimic flies are are voracious aphid predators.  As gem-like adults, however,  they are content to sop up nectar with their spongy tongues, receiving a light dusting of pollen in the process. 

Bee mimic fly on blackberry blossom

Syrphid fly on Mock Orange

Bumble bees are our most familiar native pollinators, yet a  host of other indigenous bees imbibe nectar and collect pollen to feed their young. 
An unidentified mining bee gathers pollen from Nootka Rose

Adrena bee on Snowberry

A Halictid (?) bee gleans larval food from
 Ninebark flowers

A newly released book, The Bee-friendly Garden, says this about native plants and pollinators:

While many plants provide resources for bees, native plants are especially beneficial.  These are the plants that have evolved with the local pollinators and evolved in the local habitats.  They are likely to support specialist species and be easier to grow without the aid of pesticides and herbicides.

I would like to add that native plants are drought-tolerant.  The Interpretive Center's  trees and shrubs endured extreme stress during last year's record heat and aridity, but nearly all survived until autumn rains arrived to slake them.  

The CLIC's diverse ecosystem is like a symphony composed daily by the plants and animals that live there.  Working in concert, they create a beautiful and exuberant Song of Life.  Pollinators supply the buzz,  and their irreplaceable services help ensure that the Song never ends. 

A pollen-flecked ground-nesting bee on Red-osier Dogwood flowers

Online Resources:

Video of a long-horned beetle eating rose pollen:

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Prairie Appreciation Day

     Here in Thurston county, at the southern end of Budd inlet in Washington state, we are fortunate to have some beautiful, very unique prairies.  Historically, this land was covered with trees, especially Douglas fir trees.  However the southern reach of the county marks the final boundary of the last Ice Age about 12,000 years ago. 
Gray Hairstreak butterfly on cotoneaster flowers

     As the ice field bulldozed south, it removed all living plants and left huge piles of gravel behind in what is today called a gravel outwash prairie.

     Once the ice retreated, these gravel areas became home to a unique set of plants and animals.  Rather than trees, these prairies are dominated by grasses such as Idaho fescue, and flowers such as camas.  The indigenous tribes of the area:  the Nisqually, the  Puyallup and others used these prairies as agricultural fields, burning them regularly to keep the trees back and keep their food and medicine plants thriving.

     These prairies are still alive.  Once a year, we celebrate them.  Glen and I will be staffing an informational table on butterflies (it turns out that there are butterflies very specialized to these prairies).  

Here is a link on Prairie Appreciation Day:

Here is a link to information about these unique prairies:

If you are interested in learning more about butterflies in the Pacific Northwest, here is a link to our resource page:  Butterflies -- Resources 2016

Resources:  photo by Nancy Partlow

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Prairie in Bloom

Text and photos by Nancy Partlow ©

Every year, I  keep trying to see the prairies at the peak of bloom, but never manage to time it just right.  This year, serendipitously, I finally did.  A few days ago I was driving along  Delphi Road when I noticed that the grounds of the Old Delphi Schoolhouse were a gorgeous carpet of blue camas lilies. 

Wow!  What a knockout sight.

This told me that the prairies must be in full flower as well.

So yesterday I drove to the Mima  Preserve trail to check out the show.  But when I got there, I was kind of disappointed.   The bloom was nice, but not what I was hoping for.
Knowing that farther south on Mima Road near Bordeaux  the camas fields are more robust, I headed there instead.   Upon arrival, I was not disappointed.  The roadsides were thick with blue stars and the prairie itself  an undulating patchwork of  azure lilies and yellow lomatiam. 

As I soaked in the beauty of the scene, the naturalist in me wondered if the  unseasonably hot weather earlier in the week  had brought on a sudden and intense flowering that usually takes place over a longer period of time. I also pondered whether climate change will eventually cause spring-emerging insects that rely on native flowers for food to miss an ever-earlier bloom period.   

Queen Bombus vosnesenskii bumble bee gathering nectar
and pollen from a camas lily

Such gloomy thoughts aside, I also remembered my great-grandmother Cynthia, who lived with us while I was growing up.  Cynthia was born and raised on the Camas Prairie in Idaho in the late 1800's.  Sights such as this must have been very familiar to her.
In researching this story, I learned that the camas prairie she knew is now gone.  This makes me grateful that at least some of ours have been preserved.  Long may they flower.

Monday, April 18, 2016

A Wild Success: Food

Part 3 in a series of stories about the Capitol Lake Interpretive Center

Text by Nancy Partlow©  All photos were taken at the Interpretive Center by Nancy Partlow© or Barry Troutman©

The Capitol Lake Interpretive Center attracts so much wildlife because of its abundance of food.  This is not surprising, since the native plants installed there were chosen specifically for this purpose, to provide a wide variety of fruits, seeds and insects.

Oregon grapes

The CLIC's heavy concentration of berry-bearing shrubs and trees especially contribute to the park's reputation as a birding hotspot.

One species of plant that the familiar American robin  frequents is Red elderberry.  The crimson fruits are eaten so fast  they seem to evaporate.

Lonicera involucrata, or Twinberry is another a wildlife favorite.  I was unfamiliar with this shrub prior to seeing it at the Interpretive Center, and was surprised at the play it gets.

Twinberry  attracts pollinators with nectar-sweet flowers, and birds with fat, shiny berries.

Anna's Hummingbird sips nectar from a twinberry blossom at the CLIC
Photo courtesy of Barry Troutman

In the spring, high-pitched calls and rustling shrubbery alert human users of the CLIC to flocks of Cedar Waxwings feasting in the large, trailside bushes.

Omnivorous waxwings may be the greatest beneficiaries of our state capital's most thoughtfully-conceived wildlife area, freely exploiting its bounty of fruits, insects and flowers. 

A Cedar waxwing eats hawthorn berries at the CLIC
Photo courtesy of Barry Troutman

There is an old Madrone tree next to the CLIC's main trail.  It comes alive with swarms of feeding-frenzied birds when the berries are ripe.

A Red-shafted flicker harvests Madrone berries
near the Interpretive Center's main trail.
Photo courtesy of Barry Troutman

Vireos, warblers, robins, flycatchers and wood ducks devour Red-osier dogwood's copious fruits.
Red-osier dogwood berries

Plush, velvety thimbleberries are a juicy enticement to humans and wildlife alike.


Salmonberries glow with the light of the sun that grew them.  They are consumed by a wide variety of CLIC bird species including robins, tanagers, finches, wrens, bushtits and towhees.


Seeds are an additional source of nourishment at the CLIC, where Red alder is the most abundant tree by number.  Its diminutive seed cones provide chickadees and other small birds welcome winter fodder.

Photo courtesy of Barry Troutman

Douglas fir cones extend an open invitation to nuthatches, chickadees and small mammals.                                            

Nootka rose hips are eaten by juncos, grosbeaks, thrushes, chipmunks, rabbits and deer.

Some birds use the tough seeds as grit to help them digest food.

Capitol Lake is a fecund breeding pond for diverse species of flying insects that keep CLIC inhabitants fat and happy.  For example, it’s not uncommon to see clouds of “gnats” wafting above the trails. These are actually chironomus midge flies.  In their larval and pupal stages, midges live on the muddy bottom of the lake, where fish, birds and aquatic insects consume them. In their adult flight form, male chironomids create swarms of thousands of individuals swirling in now-you-see-‘em-now-you-don’t whirlwinds.

Male midges have elaborate, feathery antennae, which are used to detect the specific buzz tone that a female fly emits as she enters the swarm to mate.

Their large antennae don’t seem to save them from the sticky webs of spiders, or from the beaks of hungry hummingbirds that pluck the tiny flies from the air with ease.

Another freshwater aquatic insect with an adult flight form is the October Caddis Fly.  Caddis flies breed in the near-shore leaf litter at the bottom of the lake, emerging into winged insects in the fall, although I've often seen them at other times of the year.  Fly-catching birds perform impressive aerial acrobatics pursuing them.

Leaf litter is a valuable nutritional resource.   It mulches and nourishes the CLIC's many trees and shrubs, but also provides a rich larder for ground-feeding birds and mammals that kick up the organic debris in search of fallen seeds, grubs and other small invertebrates.

Of course, the main food at the CLIC is the esculent greenery that supports foliage-munching mammals and insects.

A young deer buck browses scrumptious new growth.

A caterpillar hides out in a thimbleberry blossom to escape
the eyes of hungry birds

The Capitol Lake Interpretive Center is animated by creatures pursuing life's prime directive of survival.  This is not by accident, but by design.  In an era when humans are destroying wildlife habitat at an astounding rate, the CLIC extends a small but gracious overture to our earthly companions to share their lives with us.  For that reason alone, it is well worth celebrating.   

Many thanks to Barry Troutman for the use of his wonderful photos.


Washington Native Plant Society's list of plants that provide berries and seeds, and the animals that eat them:


An American Robin gobbling down red elderberries at the CLIC:

A Song sparrow scratches up leaf litter at the CLIC in search of food:

Online photos:

Robin eating red-osier dogwood berries:

Red-breasted sapsucker with salmonberry in its beak:

Song sparrow with thimbleberry:

Juvenile robin eating Oregon grapes:,+American+2010.07.09a+sub-adult+eating+Oregon+Grape.jpg

A salmonberry with a bird bite in it