Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Suet and snow

Now it is thawing, but when I began this draft Janet and I were sitting in a powerless house with a ten inch burden of snow on branches and lawns and cars and walkways, and a chilly chilly nighttime forecast. I shifted to more urgent human-based chores of clearing walkways, shaking branches, checking pipes but my camera joined me outside. When not shoveling and scraping, my cold-clumsy hands fired dozens of camera shots in hopes of a few adequate ones. It is mostly a blessing to be knocked aside the head with the reminder of what is important and what is merely accustomed. We planned on stovetop cooking, heavy blankets, warm hats, candles, and hot water bottles. We thought we might reread some neglected book by flashlight and candle, but mostly we read power outage reports on a modern smart phone that miraculously kept enough of its charge.

A twelve hour power outage is an inconvenience, a conversation starter, not a lot more. Add two feet of snow and our urban 21st century lives slow to a stall. If the snow was to stick around, like it does for our Wyoming friends, we could adapt or move. But soak this remarkable three day accumulation with rain, and even the most cheerful fan of a snowy winter teeters on exasperation.

With snow, wildlife also assumes a new cadence. Visible at our front window is a suet cage. When snow is heavy so too is feeder traffic, up to a point. Any suet feeder draws in an extraordinary diversity of birds. As the white grows from 6 inches to 9 inches to 12 inches the steady stream of visitors also grows. Grey clouds of tiny kinetic bushtits tumble in; broadly varied juncos jostle about, ever-present and charming if rather thuggish; black-capped chickadees - the neighborhood guardians and messengers - arrive and depart on their own schedule.

Some diners are costumed in muted grays and whites, blacks and browns. Several visitors wear rakish eye stripes, fashion eyewear on woodland actors -- such as the Bewick’s wren, dressed in monochrome but dapper with eyestripe and jaunty tail, or the even bolder eyestripe adding to the remarkable rust and steel blue wardrobe of the red-breasted nuthatch. A few other suet eaters are blessed with full-on glam — the electric yellow face and throat of the Townsend warblers, the glowing red yarmulke on the male downy woodpecker’s head.

Our set-up is designed to exclude larger birds as well as squirrels and rats. Downy woodpeckers easily feed by clinging upside down, and Downy’s bigger cousin Hairy could too if our setting was more wild. But starlings and jays have the wrong feet, try as they do. Squirrels can make the leap and hold on tight so we add one more complication — hot pepper suet. Birds are insensitive to cayenne, but squirrels (and rats) take one bite, shake their faces, and jump off.

Although the list of our feeder visitors is extensive, as snow becomes deeper and deeper and the days with snow add up, the visits trail off. We will watch over the next few weeks and try to guess. Some will probably return. Some may have succumbed to cold and hunger, some may be caught by hungry raptors and corvids, or by bored cats. Many more will simply disperse from their winter flocks to pair up and breed, and shift to the living forage found under leaves and in flower buds and on the wing. It is hard to say whether the feeders are more for them or for us but in the meantime we will keep putting suet (hot pepper) out each winter indefinitely.


Monday, February 11, 2019

Winter warriors

… For it it is in the dew of little things we find our morning and are refreshed. Kahlil Gilbran 

It has been 15 months since our last post. We have excuses. But as convincing as our reasons may seem, as I begin to write they seem lame. And while it has over a year since our last post, it been ten years since our first post. Our first test of the blogging world was a post about hummingbirds in the snow. Now, mid February 2019, we have heaps of snow, and Anna’s hummingbirds (Calypte anna) dine at two feeders. Snow for us Puget Sounders is unpredictable, and this amount almost unprecedented. Excuses for not writing will continue to throw obstacles in my path, but I shall take the continued tenacity and adaptability of small birds as a nudge to lament less and celebrate more, this confluece of time and weather a nudge to return to writing.

no hummer or no camera or not focused -- oh well
Each feeder is guarded by a dominant hummingbird and stealthily visited by some determined usurpers. The main claimant feeds frequently and when not feeding he or she sits on a patrol branch scanning the territory for interlopers. Although the food resource is bountiful enough to share, sharing is an idea absent from a hummingbird’s temperament, and pitched battles are regularly waged with battering wings and menacing needle-like bills.

perched, watching

This warrior trait may aid their success. Beyond our own winter visitors we know there is a successful winter population of Anna’s here (in Olympia WA), in part because of the active correspondence we read on the neighborhood listserv. Numerous readers have shared weather alerts, and feeder advice during frigid temperatures, and how long they’ve been feeding and seeing hummingbirds in winter. (The gleanings about care follow.) We are certain that winter resident Anna’s will soon be joined by Rufous hummingbirds, (Selasphorus rufus), our early spring migrant, just as we are certain that power outages and ice are fleeting. But as I write we are still deeply in winter.

Like the Anna's, I choose to embrace the snow and accept the limitations and turmoil that the snow imposes. Snow disrupts routine and shakes loose sentiment, and reopens worlds of both joy and grief locked away forgotten. I am lucky that in me the optimism of the young man usually overpowers the fears of the aging one. Perhaps it is true that hummingbirds are guides to the spirit world. They are little but they are fierce and as our lives are upended by uncertainties I am filled with gratitudes that we have mighty little birds to both be faithful to and to lean on.



Winter hummingbird tips and observations:
 • Mixing the sugar nectar: 1c water with 1/4c white sugar, no coloring, boiling water optional
 • The time they first show up to feed: 20 to 30 min before sunrise
 • How to keep the sugar syrup thawed when temperatures drop below ~ 28ยบ F :
 = Bring feeder in each frozen night, replace before dawn — or
 = Microwave (30 seconds) in the morning, if feeder is free of metal — or
 = Wrap feeder with non-LED Christmas lights (note: LED’s don’t produce enough heat)
 = Daytime, if days also will be sub-freezing, tape a chemical toe warmer to the feeder’s underside.

Monday, November 6, 2017

A Smoke Tree Gets Creative

Text and photos by Nancy Partlow©
Smoke trees are really cool shrubs.  The gazillions of teeny flowers that smother them in the spring attract pollinators like nobody's business. But that is a story for another time. 
This tale is about a plain, ordinary smoke tree that one autumn did something extraordinary.   

Smoke trees are noted for their fall color, with leaves that usually look something like this:  
Yet in the autumn of 2010, this humble, alley-growing smoke tree, for whatever reason, put on the most marvelous display of leaf-artistry I have ever seen.  It reminded me of 60's pop art.  Each leaf bore a unique design of pattern and color.   
I'd like to share some of these nature-made compositions with you: 


I never saw the smoke tree do this again, but I will always remember its wildly creative gift of beauty to the world.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Clueless Juvies

Text, photos and videos by Nancy Partlow©

Late summer and early fall can be a fun time for observing juvenile bird behavior.  One way to identify a first-year bird is by its appearance: coloration, a fading but still brightly-hued gape, puffy primary feathers (the downy ones beneath the tail being the last to go), and a corresponding lack of adult secondary feathers. 

Behavior is another way.   New birds often seem clueless.  While alert adults constantly flit around looking for food and predators, unwary youngsters  sit there like lumps on a limb waiting to be fed, like this immature Bushtit:   

When newbies start to gain a bit of independence things can get interesting.  I had three experiences in September that gave me insight into how young birds learn.    

The first bird I saw was a Virginia Rail, trapped behind a culvert fence  at one of the Capital Lake Interpretive Center's wetland ponds.  Having never seen a VR before, I wasn't completely sure it was a juvenile, but it certainly acted like one. 


I  immediately recognized the species  since the tall grass, reeds and cattails lining the CLIC's shorelines are  perfect habitat for it.  According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Virginia Rails have evolved adaptations such as laterally compressed bodies, flexible vertebrae and long toes to facilitate their movements around their native freshwater marshes.

This rail was definitely being laterally compressed  in its frantic efforts to escape, as can be seen in this video: 

Virginia Rail caught behind culvert fence at Capitol Lake Interpretive Center

I was wondering if I was going to have to wade into the water to help it, so I was very glad when the bird eventually managed to release itself by flying over the fence to freedom.

The second bird I saw surprised me.  Prior to starting a walk on the CLIC's dike trail one day, Janet and I stopped to view Capitol Lake from the dock  near Deschutes Parkway.  Through experience, we have learned that this is a great place to spot birds, and that day was no exception. Just as we were about to turn away, we glimpsed something small and non-descript fly beneath the dock. I thought  it looked like a dipper but didn't believe it could be since the habitat isn't right.  As I've written in previous blogs, dippers are creatures of fast-moving waters and can be regularly seen at Tumwater Falls Park.  

When the bird broke cover,  it was definitely a dipper.  With its stubby tail, general lack of motivation and movement, we pegged it as a juvie:


I was concerned that it was hanging out where it wouldn't be able to find its customary food.  I checked the eBird lists for Capitol Lake, and couldn't find any previous sightings of dippers on any of them:

I hoped  this youngster hadn't become irrevocably separated from its family group, which I had been seeing at Tumwater Falls Park during this period. Dippers  will feed at salmon spawning areas, and the adult dippers had been showing their young how to take advantage of the bounty provided by the fall Chinook run.  I managed to film a dipper finding and eating a salmon egg in the pool below the upper falls, where a few errant salmon get trapped and spawn every year:

The final sighting I had was of a juvenile Great Blue Heron, again at Tumwater Falls Park.  The heron too seemed out of place, since herons are more likely to be found at Capitol Lake. Perhaps it had been pushed away from the lake's shoreline by adult herons with previously claimed territories.

Salmon filled the Deschutes River, and they swam in numbers at the bird's feet, shown in this video:   

Juvenile Great Blue Heron surrounded by salmon at Tumwater Falls Park

I was sure that this young heron could not eat an adult king salmon. These fish looked bigger than the bird, so like Harry Potter staring into the Mirror of Erised, its hearts desire would stay forever just out of reach. 

I should have known better.  A few days later I caught this same birding eyeing a dead salmon in the river.  I imagined it thinking, "I'm not going to settle for any  measly little sticklebacks, I want a real meal!"

Then it went for it,

I captured the attempt on video:

The bird didn't succeed in swallowing the fish that time, but I think it may have gone back later and managed the feat.   I returned to this same area the next day and the dead salmon was gone.
Nature can be harsh metric, and most young birds succumb during their first year. Yet nature has profound wisdom too, and perhaps the life-giving salmon will bestow on these particular birds an edge in the survival sweepstakes.

As for me, what I learned from these encounters is that  "clueless" juvie birds are really not, but like all youngsters, simply trying to find their way in the world and earn their wings. 

Saturday, September 23, 2017

A Walk in the Woods

Text and photos by Nancy Partlow©

On a recent walk with Janet through the shady environs of Priest Point Park, I noticed an ivy-covered log lying on the ground.  This is a not an unusual sight at this park, but what is unusual is that many of the ivy's leaves were rusty-looking.  Ivy is  nearly indestructible, and even this summer's drought wouldn't turn the leaves that color.  On closer inspection, it turned out that the brown coloration was something that neither Janet or I had ever seen before: a thick coating of cocoa-colored spores from Ganoderma applanatum, better known as Artist's Fungus, or Artist's Conk. 

A flash photo  revealed several of these mushrooms growing out of the rotting log, and the extent of the spore spread.

Being the curious naturalists we are, we had some questions (we always have questions).  Like, how did the spores spread so far from the mushrooms, and how were they released from a fungus which looks gnarly like this on the topside...

...and solidly smooth and white on the bottom?:

It turns out that Artist's Fungus is a polyphore, meaning, "many pores" and that its "solid" white underside is actually comprised of  many tiny holes, from which are released billions of minute spores.  Here is what the underside looks like in close-up:

And here is what it looks like when spores are released, in this cool video I found online of a related bracket fungus:

From the video you can see that the slightest air currents can spread spores, but Janet informed me that mushrooms can make their own air currents too!

Here's a video showing that actually happening, with an explanation of how:

Mushrooms generating air currents to spread spores

Along our walk, we saw further evidence of air currents spreading spores.  An Artist's Conk growing from a rotting tree stump showed plenty of spore powder in close proximity to the fungus.  

But on the other side of the stump a dusting of drifted spores had been funneled through the crotch of the tree by a breeze: 

Some day I hope to see an Artist's Conk  releasing its spores in real time, but at least now I know how it's done.  Nature is a teacher I never tire of learning from.

Some more beautiful and fun spore release videos: 

Spore rain

Puff balls releasing spores in the rain

Brown cup fungi releasing spores when blown on

Friday, September 1, 2017

Jellyfish at Sunset

    A couple of weeks ago, Glen and I went to the San Juan Islands in the Salish Sea of Washington state for a week long Marine Naturalist Training Program, offered by the Friday Harbor Whale Museum.  This was something of a departure for us, Glen especially:  he describes himself as a terrestrial naturalist.  This was also challenging because our class was full of people madly in love with whales, and not much else.  I can understand that:  whales were my gateway drug into learning about the natural world.  But over 30+ years as an amateur naturalist, I’ve learned a few things.  One is that whale sightings are few and far between, so it behooves us to keep our eyes open for whatever nature has to show us.  Tonight’s feature was moon jellyfish.

   It was a beautiful evening, near to dusk when we walked from our campsite overlooking Haro Strait and went over to the sandy beach where the kayaks launch.  At the end of the day, most of the kayakers had returned back to port and the beach was quiet.  A  very high tide was lapping at the sand.  The tidal verge was full of interesting things, but what really caught our eye was the huge raft of moon jellyfish, bobbing at the water’s edge, tangled up with seaweeds.

     Moon jellyfish Aurelia aurita aka saucer jellies live near the coast of many oceans:  Atlantic, Indian and Pacific and of course the Salish sea, where we were staying.  They are made of a gelatinous gel and can be as big as 20 inches in diameter, though the ones we saw were about 8 inches.  They can swim, using their central bell to pulse rhythmically, but in the strong currents around these islands and a high full moon tide, they had been caught and brought in to the shore, where if they get beached, they die.

    They are carnivorous and feed on the tiny animals that live in plankton soup (zooplankton).  The small larvae forms of mollusks, crustaceans, copepods and tunicates get caught up on the sticky arms of the jellyfish, where tiny flagella move these tasty bits to the mouthparts where they can be digested.

     Moon jellyfish first emerge as adults around May.  You can tell males from females:  the females have a lovely pink color around the four horseshoe shaped discs at the top of the bell.  The males have white discs: as the season progresses, the males release gametes from these discs into the water.  The females pick up these gametes and transfer them to the pink gonads, where fertilization occurs.  She broods her eggs for several days and then releases the larvae into the plankton soup.  The adults then die and no more will be seen until the following spring, while the larvae float in the plankton, finally finding a rock to attach to and become a polyp.  The following spring this polyp starts to transform, casts itself from the rock and begins to morph into an adult jellyfish.  And the cycle repeats itself again.

     We sat on the beach in the gathering dark, the moon jellies bobbing in the shallow water.  As the sun began to set, a gaggle of Canada Geese joined us at the tide’s edge, nudging the jellies aside to pick out thin strips of eel grass, which they nibbled then sucked down like spaghetti.  The sun sank in a smoke-haze sky, scarlet over Haro strait.  We sat there until dusk, in the company of jellyfish and geese…


•  photos by Glen Buschmann 
•  The Whale Museum at Friday Harbor:  https://whalemuseum.org
 • A live jelly cam at this link:  http://www.montereybayaquarium.org/animals-and-experiences/live-web-cams/jelly-cam
•  A great you tube of moon jellies:  www.youtube.com/watch?v=xUNb08COAw8

Monday, July 17, 2017

Pasting Pollinators

Text and photos by Nancy Partlow©

Neon-pink flowers are in currently in bloom along the  East Bay waterfront.  I didn't know what they were until  following the theory of, "to find bees, go where the flowers are",  I decided to check them out. I was delighted to discover that these blossoms are a terrific  food source for pollinators.   

Lathyrus latifolius, or  Everlasting Pea, is a widespread naturalized wildflower that blooms in shades of white to deep pink.

Lacking the heady scent of the bred-for-garden sweet peas, the flowers are nonetheless similarly beautiful. 

Queen Bombus vosnesenskii on wild pea flower.

The sturdy blooms attract a variety of pollinating insects with their nectar, predominately bumble bees, including a noticeable number of bombus queens of various species.

Honey Bee
Hoplitis bee

Cabbage white butterfly

Bombus melanopygus queen

I was glad to see  Bombus fervidus using these flowersNot one our most common, generalist bumble bee species B. fervidus instead seems to prefer particular plants, including, apparently, Everlasting Pea.  

Bombus fervidus

While taking pictures one day, I noticed a big blob of pollen near the head of a Bombus fervidus worker, which I thought very odd.  That is not where the pollen is supposed to go.   Was this an inept bee that didn't know where to store its pollen?  That seemed unlikely since bees are evolutionary experts at what they do.   

The mystery was solved only when I pulled up another image of this bee on my computer.  The stamens on these pea flowers, which remain hidden until a bee pushes its head into a blossom, sneakily pop up and paste it with pollen right at base of its wing. Since that is a hard-to-reach place for the bee to groom, the pollen stays there. 

This video shows the mechanism at work:


Other bees are similarly dusted and smeared.

Hoplitis leaf-cutter bee
Western Little Leaf-cutter Bee

On this Bombus sitkensis the stamen looks like a tiny spatula slathering buttercream frosting on the bee. 

Bombus sitkensis

Blossom by blossom, pollen-pasted bees fertilize the pea flowers.   It's a clever strategy for this plant, and if the East Bay waterfront is any indication, a very successful one!

Since it's such great pollinator attractor, I considered gathering some pea seed for my yard, but reluctantly decided against it due to the plant's somewhat robust spreading habit. However, I think East Bay is perfect place for it, and I can only hope these gaudy pink wildflowers and their feasting bumble bees endure at this location for many years to come.
Articles about Lathyrus latifolius: