Sunday, September 8, 2013

Herp Tracking Book: Part 1 - Overview

Its been 5 years since I have posted here.  So much has changed in that time, it is as if it has been a lifetime.

Over the past several years, I have been engaged in researching, data collection, photography and writing for a new book.  I have never written a book before, and this one has been an incredible challenge.  That is a major understatement.

Not only has it required a great deal of new (almost all new in fact), field-based research but it is also about a very understudied topic.

I originally worked with one co-author, who contributed hugely to the project and he is still contributing to this project today even though he has had to step back from the project for personal reasons.  I signed on with another co-author, but I am writing here about my own experience of the process of this book and although I am not referring to either of these people directly, they have both helped further this project.

This book is focused on the tracks and sign of reptiles and amphibians for the USA.  In hindsight, perhaps an overly ambitious project.  I would also say in someways it has been wildly successful and groundbreaking.

So why another book on wildlife tracking?  Isn't there enough of those in the world?  Why reptiles and amphibians?

Well, first of all...

Wildlife tracking is a set of skill that is (or was until very recently) a dying art and science.  To me, it is a wonderful and deeply personal gateway into the mysterious realms of the natural world.  Through the tracks I can see written on the ground the stories of many animals, most of which I never see in person but who's story is none the less visible to those who know how to read it.

I don't profess to have some magical ability to read tracks, just a set of real-world skills that are based in the hard work I have put in while studying in the field. Looking at and following tracks is very real.  More real than many things people do in this day and age.  Tracking is such an intimate practice, that although it is a science on the one hand, to me there is also a deeply personal, spiritual aspect to it as well.


The book is an expression of my personal passion for tracking as well as for those wonderful, under appreciated animals: reptiles and amphibians.  (For short, they are known as "herps.") 

There are no books that I know of that are strictly focused on the tracks and sign of reptiles and amphibians.  So, this book is also filling a need for more people to know about this area of tracking.
There exists a growing community of wildlife trackers in the USA, and I hope that this book is well received by them and by anyone else interested in wildlife.

It is part of my intention with this project that this book, when published with not only encourage readers to go out and look for tracks and sign of herps, but through them will gain a more intimate contact with and appreciation for those animals.

This project has been incredibly challenging, humbling and has required a great deal of hard work and sacrifice.

The Positive

I have had my life greatly enriched by this project through wonderful experiences with wildlife and jaw-dropping landscapes.  I have learned vastly more and stretch myself mentally and physically beyond my own limited beliefs of what is possible.

I have had the assistance of many people, including both close friends and complete strangers.  Without their generosity, this project would have been doomed to failure.

I feel such a welling up of warmth and gratitude towards all of those people, especially those who spent time with me doing research in the field.    You know who you are. Know that I really appreciated our time learning and exploring together!  My words can not express my gratitude fully here...

The Negative

As the projects nears completion, I have been come almost entirely anti-social, and personally unavailable to close friends.  I hope that when this time of intense work passes, none of them hold any resentments or frustrations with me.  I have had to live in a bubble where I really only see those I work with and my closest family at home.  I wonder how many writers out there become - at least for a time - hermits that hardly venture out or see friends?

This project has been funded almost purely out of pocket.  It has been a project of passion, but has thus far brought in no money and will not do so until after publishing.  Even then, it might be sometime before I make back the money spent to create this book.

As much as I got to see a variety of incredibly beautiful and very special places, I did not always get to spend as much time there as I wanted to.  This project required a focused approach while in the field, and that did not always allow for a great deal of down time.  In the future, I will have to try to attend to those places and do them justice, but getting to know them at a much slower pace.

I will share more on the process in a little bit.  Perhaps sharing here will help others better understand what the heck I have been doing all this time.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Monarchs in Pismo Beach

Recently I had the great pleasure to be in the area of Pismo Beach, CA while there was a good number (some 20,000 or so!) monarch butterflies. They overwinter in a stand of eucalyptus not far from the beach.

From Monarchs

The little grove had a rather other-worldly feel to it when I walked across the street and stepped into its shadows. Initially I only saw a few butterflies perched here and there on railings, low branches and other such places.

The whole place had a feel of in credible peace that I have only really experienced one other time in a place called Pu'u honua O Honaunau (The Place of Refuge) on the Big Island of Hawai'i. That place had this series of tidepools that was full of feeding honu (Hawai'ian green sea turtles) which radiated this incredible feeling of peace. This grove had that same feeling.

As I stepped into the deeper shadows, where the sun was just beginning to penetrate I saw them. Hundreds. Thousands piled like dead leaves, making the branches droop a bit with their sheer mass.

From Monarchs

As the sun's light penetrated the branches and landed on the huge clusters of butterflies, a shutter seemed to pass through some of them. I sat starring at the incredible mass of insects in front of me with my mouth open. As my vision softened, I started to pick out the butterflies which were flying gently around between the trees. The longer I looked using peripheral vision, the more I saw. Until I could see hundreds of points of movement in the air, each a separate monarch butterfly!

The sight was incredibly peaceful, and yet also a little over whelming to the senses. I had this need to get closer, so I went and sat on a bench that was located almost directly under one of the large clusters of butterflies. What amazed me almost even more than the sight, was the sound of all those wings. The sound of so many butterfly wings was just so astounding!

It reminded me of the faint sound of a distant rain stick being turned constantly.

From Monarchs

It was interesting to see the affect of this butterfly grove on other visiting humans... More often than not, people fell into silence when they stepped into the depths of the grove and looked up.

That place had a power to it I can not really capture in words. I have no idea how long I stayed in there, because time seemed to passed differently in that grove. Eventually, I started to head out. An older gentlemen stopped me and said,"Would yah look at that one, sittin' there on that pine cone?" I sighted down his finger and was amazed to see the butterfly he was pointing to was back lit by the warm sunshine. Its wings shone like stained-glass windows, expressing the beautiful marriage of butterfly and sunlight.

From Monarchs

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Invasive Species, a different perspective

I have been thinking about writing this post for a long time. Months, if not longer. I find it difficult to fully articulate and express my ideas on this, so bear with me. I know that I am liable to get a lot of flack from certain people for sharing such ideas, but I feel it needs to be expressed. I am liable to chuck any scientific credibility I have out the window, but still I need to share my thoughts on this. So, let me beginning with...

A definition...

Invasive species:

any species, including its seeds, eggs, spores, or other biological material capable of propagating that species, that is not native to that ecosystem; and whose introduction does or is likely to cause economic or environmental harm or harm to human health.

This definition was taken from the website called

From Urban Wildlife

Some fundamental problems exist in the way we look at invasive species. First of all, practically all introductions of invasive species have been a direct cause of human beings, their machines and often, their livestock. A vast majority of these species establish themselves in areas that have been significantly disturbed by human activities. Here in the PNW region, the invasive species you hear about most such as Scotch broom, Himalayan blackberry, Japanese knotweed and so on, are found in the urban, suburban, and suburban fringe areas ( that includes the roadsides along highways, freeways and major thoroughfares in less populated or unpopulated areas).

These species are cut, burned, poisoned, and ripped out and so forth in order to "preserve the natural integrity of the local environment." The problem is, that integrity has been compromised for a long time. The problem is not the new species, but its the one species that we don't want to face up to. That species, is us.

I had the pleasure of getting to study one particular invasive species - the nutria (Myocastor coypus) - in the Union Bay Natural Area (also known as Montlake Fill) of Seattle. This environment is perhaps typical of many urban parks and green spaces in that it was full of a variety of non-native and invasive species. The nutria - hairy semi-aquatic rodents originally from Argentina which grow to a little larger than a big house cat, with round, rat like tails - have rather notorious reputation in the southeast United States for their habit of digging extensively into the sides of dikes and earthen dams. This is hardly a problem in Seattle, but despite this the local press took the opportunity to sensationalize it. After reading some of the stuff that was printed you might be left convinced that nutria were a like some swamp beast that would attack your children, eat your pets or a hairy version of Godzilla that would soon go rampaging through Seattle.

From Urban Wildlife

During the study, the number of nutria was considerable and noticeable even to the people who might be largely unaware. Though, we saw a significant drop in numbers when the water level of Lake Washington fluctuated and flooded out the waterside burrow systems of the nutria in the UBNA. The nutria fed largely on fragrant water lily, yellow iris and even canary-reed grass (all 3 are invasives). In our observations they were very peaceable creatures, often feeding side-by-side with the local native muskrats and beavers.

Seattle is currently implementing a seek and destroy practice towards nutria. Not for anything that nutria have done so far, but rather what they "might" do. So, could nutria cause major changes in the local wetlands around Seattle? Sure. But, is killing them and all the other invasive species in the PNW going to solve the problem?

I would answer that with a big, fat NO.

The major problem of invasive species management is it is fundamentally based on the shift away from managing the species most responsible for disturbance on this planet, humans.

It is frightening to consider the effects we have on this planet, and yet even more so, it is frightening to observe the level of denial within the minds of western people towards their responsibility to this planet and themselves. The sight of this denial among scientists has often left me feeling rather disgusted.

How strange that we turn to attacking invasive species as a method of environmental improvement, when we continue to cause more disturbance and devastation in our cultural wake everyday; creating more room for non-native and invasive species to colonize. How strange that the way in which we justify our Wars with other countries is so similar to the way we justify attacking the organisms around us. Is not "invasive species" another label for "the enemy," allowing us to detach ourselves from our sense of responsibility to fellow beings?

Our environmental problems run much deeper than invasive species, even though scientists say that invasive species are one of the leading causes of extinctions around the world. We can no longer afford to blame the species that move in (so often with our assistance) into the once pristine areas we have disturbed or devastated, and feel content with ourselves.

We are the caretakers of this planet. We have to own up to that responsibility.

Okay... I am climbing off my soapbox now.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Bobcat, Tomtit and Dagger Lakes Adventure

Jason, Steven and I hiked out way back into the forest East of the Alderleaf property today. In preparation for the school year, Jason wanted to show me around the lakes up there.

While we were moved some large outdoor mats from the open grassy area near the barn, we found an interesting creature under the very first one.

This little fellow with the black spotted throat is a western toad (Bufo boreas). It is a species that is in serious decline in many places in the PNW region. I was very excited to find this toad. Jason and Steve had recently found another, larger individual on the property. This is likely an indicator of the relative health of the land on which Alderleaf makes its home.

I made a temporary cover for this little toad's burrow system which was exposed by the moving of the mats. Then it was off for an adventure in the woods.

While we were crossing the natural log bridge over McCoy Creek, Jason spotted two raccoons crossing. They had been foraging but bolted when they saw and heard us. We back tracked to see if we could spot them and see what they were up to around the creek.

We did not see them again, but Jason found some extremely fresh water tracks left on a dry river boulder. Look close and you can see the little paired hand and feet prints of the raccoons.

Not far off the property we made an exciting discovery. See if you can spot what made me exclaim with excitement...

See those orange, glowing things popping out of the mossy ground? If you said mushrooms, you'd got it! These were a beautiful patch of perfect chanterelles (Cantharellus cibarius).

We came back and collected some from this patch at the end of our day and split the spoils 3 ways. They will make a great meal. I plan to dry mine for later use during the darker, rainy months.

Further down the trail - while we paused for a momentary brake - I spotted a furry little creature hanging upside down on the side of a giant horsetail plant. This pretty little caterpillar is the larval form of the yellow-spotted tiger moth (Lophocampa maculata).

We traveled down old logging roads. Some were very over-grown and we had to hack blackberry vines with machetes to get through. We did some bushwhacking off the roads as well, as we tried to find shorter routes to the lakes. On some of the roads, there was muddy silt which had settled in puddles during the rains. These were excellent spots to look for tracks. And tracks we found!

If you look really close you can see a large, fairly old cougar track in the mud. This was the clearest cougar track we saw today, but it was not the only one. Notice the distinct heel pad, 2 lobes on top and 3 on the bottom. The quarter in the shot gives you a sense of the size of this cat's tracks.

As we traveled on, we kept our eyes scanning the ground for more tracks. We reached a beautiful spot on a small bridge, over looking a swamp West of Tomtit Lake.

Underneath the bridge we spotted some nice little trout swimming around in the shadows. This spot also provided our first good views of Haystack mountain, which is a tall peak that overlooks the Alderleaf property and adjacent land surround and including the lakes.

Difficult to see in this photo, there is an old beaver dam separating one part of the swamp from the other. Beaver dams help create habitat for many wetland plant and animal species.

As we walked from the bridge and headed East towards the largest of the 3 lakes we visited, we kept an eye out for more tracks. We found some interesting thing including a pair of chipmunk tracks and more really old cougar tracks. We poured some plaster casts of tracks we found along this stretch and left them to be picked up later. We also found this interesting scrape. See if you can figure out what mammal left this calling card.

This scat was laid down in a scrape created by this animal. Note the quarter to give you approximate scale. The scat is strongly segmented, with mostly blunted ends and is tightly packed. When poked with a stick, it was quiet firm.

There was between 30 and 40 such scrapes seen on our adventure, especially along one particular moss-covered road.

We left the fascinating scat behind to check out Tomtit Lake. The lake is good sized, edged with mature forest and cattails. You can see Haystack Mountain raising above it clearly in this photo.

Isn't it a gorgeous spot? We certainly thought so too! We watched trout jumping, their ripples breaking the near perfect reflections of the fluffy clouds lazily passing above the lake. The distant call of a mourning dove floated to us, barely audible on the breeze as we sat and ate some lunch.

It was hard to leave that spot, but we wanted to see Dagger Lake today as well. So we picked up and hiked on. Steve spotted a very nice pair of bear tracks in some muddy patches along our path. There were the tracks of a mature bear, and the much smaller and shallower tracks of a cub.

Look close to see the cubs tracks in this photo. One is above the quarter, the other is located to its right and slightly below it. Can you count all five toes on the clearer of the two tracks? Notice the bobcat track below one of the bear cub's tracks?

Not far from these we found some deep, squished tracks of a Douglas squirrel surrounded by a bunch of deer mouse tracks. Also, we spotted the trail of a young raccoon who's feet were about half the size of a typical raccoon track.

We reached Dagger Lake and found it really beautiful as well. There was one home on the far shore of the lake and there were clothes drying on a line outside. Jason thought he saw a river otter jump from a log into the lake on the far shore opposite of us. I spotted a few bullfrogs floating peacefully on the pads of western pond lilies. It was a nice spot, but we did not feel it was appropriate to stick around given we did not know who owned the area around the lake.

On our way back we found an excellent set of bobcat tracks. They were very good for plaster casting but we were out of time for the day, as we still had a good 2 hours of hiking to get back to the Alderleaf property.

Past the really nice bobcat tracks, we followed an unknown road and to our surprise ended up back at the bridge near the swamp. So we trotted over to inspect our plaster casts. We left the mud attached and stuck them in safe pockets for the trip home.

All in all it was an amazing day, full of new discoveries. We did not forget to grab those scrumptious chanterelles on the way back.

...and yeah, the plastered tracks came out wonderfully!

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Urban Wildlife of Seattle's Seward Park

I was working at a summer camp this week at the little forested peninsula that sticks out into Seattle's Lake Washington. It goes by the name of Seward Park.

Seattle - also known as the Evergreen city - is blessed with many parks and green spaces. Each one is special and amazing in its own way. Seward park is one of the best bird watching parks in Seattle. The peninsula is bordered by the waters of Lake Washington on 3 sides, and suburban and urban parts of South Seattle on the 4th side.

I am sharing only a few of the most exciting highlights of the week. I had the pleasure of romping around the park with a group of 10 kids ages 8-10. There is no doubt in my mind that what I saw and experienced was strongly shaped by the children themselves, and likely I would not have experienced some of those same things without them.

My gratitude goes out to them, to all of the staff at the summer camp and to the park itself.

One of the first really exciting things that the children located this week was a relatively fresh aplodontia (Aplodontia rufa) carcass on the side of a trail. When we arrived, the body was no longer warm but was still stiff with rigor mortis. Viewed from the top it appear as not much more than a general gray mass close to the size and shape of a football. We checked out its short tail, and the unique white markings under its ears.

Then, we gently flipped it over to reveal more interesting parts.

The brightness of the belly stood out immediately. Having seen dead aplodontia before, I had never observed such white markings on their bellies. The next thing that is hard to miss is those extra long claws on the forefeet. Aplodontia (also called "Mountain beavers") are a burrowing rodent unique to the Pacific Northwest and live in a rather narrow range West of the Cascades mountains. See the long whiskers? Those are used in navigating both under and above ground. They also have rather unique whiskers on their forelegs, near their feet. I am not certain what these are used for, but it might also be in helping them navigate. Notice the buck teeth so typical of rodents. This animals is short all around. Short ears, tail, legs and stature.

Aplodontia burrows can be found in good numbers in many forested areas around Seattle. It is great to see they survive even in isolated spots in urban areas like Seward Park.

Another amazing find was the papery nest of bald-faced hornets (Dolichovespula maculata) in a pine near the public bathrooms. Hornets have a bad reputation for aggressiveness that is somewhat exaggerated, though there is no doubt they will fiercely defend their nests from disturbance by would-be predators. Humans are generally stung on and around the face.

The nest became a center of attention by many, and most, including myself had not seen such a uniquely beautiful paper nest before. We came to within a safe distance of a few meters to view it. We debated what woods were used to make this nest, and figured that cedar bark was likely used to make some of it.

The way in which these hornets and related yellowjackets (Vespula spp.) build these nests is very interesting. They chew up wood from the bark of trees, old fence posts and other sources. Then, mixed with saliva these are applied a line at a time. If you look closely, you can see a hornet applying a layer of brown wood pulp to the nest just below the entrance to the hive. The line is still moist and dark brown.

None where ever stung by these or any other hornets during the week. Though there were some stings from ground-nesting yellowjackets. Unfortunately, park staff sprayed the nest with insecticide and the whole hive was destroyed. Our camp director collected it to add it to the summer camp nature museum for next year. It is a shame the nest was killed off, but at least now it will be used to educate.

The park is full of wasp nests in rather high densities. Which has made romping with the children off trail rather exciting. It certainly teaches all of us to be more aware and move more respectfully in the woods.

Seward park has a rather surprising top predator. It is a ninja-like animal that most people are shocked to learn actually lives through out Seattle's parks, as well as suburban and even urban areas. This medium sized mammal belongs to the canine family and its carnivorous habits are not always popular with small pet owners in suburbs and in other places around Seattle.

If you guessed coyote, you've got it. This photo captures how a coyote appeared to my group of kids during a wander this week. It was very unusual, and honestly, I have never seen nor expected to see a wild coyote act in this way with a group of 11 people watching it from about 35 feet away.

For a period of between 5 and 10 minutes, we stood around looking at each other. The coyote at us, and we at the coyote. I felt there was a certain communion. The coyote showed no nervousness what so ever. Amazing, it actually sat down at one point and watched us placidly. I wish I could know what passed through the coyotes mind and why it did what it did. As far as I know, this animal has never been fed by humans.

I do not know if any of the kids realized why such an encounter was so amazing, and despite my explaining its significance to them I do not know how long they will remember it. But, I will certainly not forget it.

Coyotes are urban ninjas. You generally only see them when they want to show themselves to you.

That same day, another group found one of the coyotes feeding signs. Throughout the week, we found other evidence of coyotes such as their scat and tracks in muddy spots hidden in the woods. But this was perhaps a more graphic sign left by the wily canines.

This may be the foot of someone's "Fluffy" but, chances are better that this cat was a one of the many feral cats that live around almost every urban area throughout the world. This domestic cat leg was still rather fresh and it was a great learning tool to show the kids. I demonstrated how their claws extended and retracted, and how the soft pads and densely haired feet allow the cat to move so quietly.

As I mentioned before, the bird life in Seward Park is amazing. It is one of the few places I can think of where you can almost be guarantied to see Bald eagles everyday. There is an active nest in the park, and right now 3 juvenile birds have fledged. They can be seen and heard flying around the park and begging persistantly from their parents.

With at least 5 Bald eagles flying around the park, you are bound to find sign of them throughout. And the most common sign is feathers from the recently fledged young.

Generally, these are most obvious in the open fields of the park. Especially near the nest. These two feathers, however, were found in the middle of the forested part of the park.

Notice the white background with brown mottling on top typical of feathers of young eagles.

There is another family of predatory birds that inhabit the park. Though, these generally remain in the cover of the forested parks. Earlier this summer, while I taught a different group of kids in the park we spotted one. We actually got to eat our lunches with the bird sitting quietly in a cedar tree about 40 feet above our group.

Though this species is generally nocturnal or crepuscular, at this time of year they are often seen during the day time as well. The parents have their talons full with trying to keep all of their young fed, and like the eagle parents they start looking rather haggard and worn out. It is not unusual to occasionally see the exhausted parents hiding from that constantly begging young.

If you thought some kind of owl, you were right. Specifically, the barred owl (Strix varia). This species has moved in very recently into WA state, and is moving into many of the areas once inhabited by its cousin, the northern spotted owl (Strix occidentalis caurina).

The 3 feathers are all from different parts of the body. The small feathers are from the body, and the large one is a secondary feather from right wing. I am not sure if the feathers are from the same bird or not, as they were found in different parts of the park.

Earlier this summer, 3 juveniles owls were observed following the adults around and begging. We did not see any owls this week. Only their feathers and a few regurgitated pellets.

The last amazing find was discovered by another group in the park. It came from a bird one would probably not expect to find in an urban park in Seattle. Actually, its a bird you would not expect to find in the wild this far north of the tropics.

Noticed the rich, green iridescence? It is a glowing yellow-gold on the underside of the feather. No bird native to the whole of the Pacific northwest, nor the West Coast of the United States has feathers like this one. While my wife and I traveled in the Peruvian amazon, we saw birds in these colors. But, in Seattle?

Seward Park is home to a small population of feral parrots. I am not sure where they came from originally, nor exactly how long they have been in the park. Having seeing the parrots many times at a distance, and once relatively close I would guess it would be either the mitred parakeet (Aratinga mitrata) or the red-masked parakeet (Aratinga erythrogenys).

Seward park hides many secrets.

It is worth a visit.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Wildwood on Vancouver Island

My wife and I took a short trip to Vancouver Island. It was the final journey to end our year of traveling together.

Just before we left for the island, I remembered that Merve Wilkinson's land was located somewhere on the island. We have heard some near-legendary tales about Merve, his forestry practices and his relationships to his wildlife neighbors. His methods were rather revolutionary and I encourage anyone to go see his land, and support Wildwood.

His forest management practices have gained a following with ecologically minded land managers throughout Canada, the United States and places as far away as Germany. The Wildwood website can be found here:

Good info can also be seen here:

and here:

When we arrived, Jay gave us a walking tour of the property. Merve is very old, and Jay told us that Merve does not really get around anymore. So Jay helps to oversee the property and acts as tour guide to visitors.

The forest on the property is incredible. It is rich in trees of all different heights, ages and species. The trees are occasionally logged, but this is done very selectively. The forest is allowed to seed itself, and no trees are planted for logging purposes. There is abundant wildlife, including a healthy amphibian population.

As we walked with Jay, we spotted a pair of California quail feeding just off the trail. I approached them slowly, and they allowed me to get within about 2 meters of them as I inspected what they had been feeding on.

As I inspected the area, I found this delicious looking clump of salal berries. Look closely at the branch and notice that there are at least 2 berries missing from the branch. Once can be seen in the moss below the branch.

I gathered the 2 berries I could find and arranged them on a leaf so that I could get a better photo of them. Of the two, the larger and more complete berry shows many of the seeds missing from the inside.

Because I disturbed the feeding quail, I was not totally sure what they were after. Though, it appeared that the quail were after the seeds and not the flesh of the little berries.

As we wandered further on into the depths of the property, Jay showed us a Bald Eagle nest in the top of a big old-growth tree. The eagles have been nesting on this property for years. Below the nest, remains of their many kills have accumulated. Jay had picked out some of the most interesting bones and lined them all up along the trail for the visitors to see.

Here are 3 skulls that show the range of some of the animals that became part of the eagles' diet.

From left to right, I believe it is the partial skull of a mallard, the complete skull of a large muskrat and the skull of a good sized rabbit. I thought that the skull on the far right might be from a snowshoe hare, but Jay told me that they only have introduced eastern cottontails on the island.

I was surprised again and again by the differences in species on the mainland in WA state and on Vancouver Island. The island is actually less diverse, and it has fewer species of weasels, canines, felines, salamanders and many other groups of animals.

On that same log, there was also the bones of a tall, skiny and long-billed bird.

If you guessed great blue heron, you got it. I learned some new stuff about bald eagles from seeing these bones. First of all, I did not know that they would hunt rabbits. I always thought they stuck to hunting for fish and water birds. Even the muskrat skull surprised me a bit. Secondly, I was impressed that an eagle would carry a prey item as big as a heron back to the nest. Even half of a heron would be a lot to carry.

After checking out the bones for a while, we walked further still. Jay was excited to show us a junco nest he had found this year. What was especially interesting about it was its location. If you know juncos, you would know to look for their nests on the ground. Especially among grasses and low herbs at trail or forest edges.

Well, he took us up to this old-growth Douglas-fir tree near Merve's house. Then Jay climbed a few feet off the ground. He pointed out a hollow made most likely by a Pileated woodpecker. You can see it in the upper center of the photo of the tree trunk.

Here is a close-up shot of that nest.

I had never seen a junco nest made off the ground before!

Overall, Wildwood was amazing, beautiful and very educational. We learned so much about Merve's legacy and Jay was an awesome guide.

Hope you get a chance to meet Jay and explore Wildwood sometime.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

An afternoon paddle at the UBNA

My wife and I headed out for an afternoon paddle in the Union Bay Natural Area yesterday. The 520 bridge across the lake was closed, so it was dramatically quieter out on the bay without the constant hum of freeway traffic.

The day was warm, and on the water it was the perfect temperature. We both talked about how good it felt to be on the water again. This little wildlife-rich urban haven is one of my favorite sites to visit. On top of that, there is this magic and peace that comes from being on the calm water and floating around slowly amongst the water lilies and cattails.

The first animals we spotted were a pair of dragonflies perching just above the water. They would fly out to hawk insects and then return to their perches. If you look really carefully you might spot another aerial hunter hiding in plain sight right under the dragonfly.

Remember you can view the photos in a larger form if you click on them.

There was only a slight breeze today, and with the afternoon sun at an angle in the sky, there were some absolutely gorgeous reflections on the water. A female mallard posed for a nice photo as we slowly floated by on our raft.

In a quiet corner of the bay within a secluded inlet, we found a large collection of different animals peacefully resting or feeding. Jen and I had become very relaxed and quiet, entering a lightly meditative state that seems to arise naturally from floating calmly on watery environments. When we did speak it was softly, and when we moved it was slowly without any jerky motion.

In this same area of the bay, there were at least 7 female gadwalls swimming around with young ducklings. One of the moms allowed us to come relatively close, but see always kept a wary eye on us. We noticed that none of the mallards had any ducklings in this area, but there was a group of juvenile mallard drakes who were just starting to show green iridescent feathers on their heads.

We noticed how similar gadwall ducklings appeared to our memories of mallard ducklings.

This same area had several logs covered in turtles. As we expected many of the turtles slowly slipped into the water as we came nearer. To our surprise though, there was one particular pair of turtles that allowed us to paddle close and even to hangout next to them for about an hour. Both of the turtles were the same species: painted turtles (Chrysemys picta).

We wondered why these turtles chose to stay while the other turtles close to us slipped away. Perhaps they were mature enough to not be bothered by us, especially since we were for the most part so still and quiet? Or was it something else? Another mystery I hope to some day figure out.

As I mentioned in an earlier post on this blog, painted turtles are one of several species of turtles in Lake Washington. Of all those species, they are certainly the most colorful.

A few meters from the 2 turtles, there was a young immature great blue heron. This particular bird has so much brown in its feathers that we thought it might be less than a year old. From my experience, there are certain things that tend to be consistent with juvenile birds of any species. If you have had the opportunity to observe young birds starting out on their own, you would likely agree that it is usually a humorous event in which the bird is still not sure how it should act. You would not expect a juvenile bird to be a very good hunter.

To our surprise, this heron was a very adept hunter. Its success rate was incredibly high. For every 10 strikes, 7 or 8 of them were successful! It was not striking in a dramatic fashion, but instead making subtle grabs at the surface. Many times it came up with a small fish in its bill, which it quickly tossed back into its throat.

This young heron was very calm and relaxed about our proximity. We were allowed to hang out with it while it hunted, and observe it from about 6 or 7 meters away. It did not show any signs of alarm or nervousness from our closeness.

At one point while watching the heron, we spotted a river other moving quietly in the shadows. It was aware of us and was clearly trying to move about unseen. It paused in its slow swim to stare at us for what seemed like a long moment. Then it disappeared, totally. I did not have a chance to snap any photos of it.

Quite suddenly, the ducks around us started to get nervous and went from sleeping on logs or feeding calmly on the water's surface to starring past us up the channel. Then, nervousness became more intense fear and several ducks actually flew out of the inlet and out into the greater bay. The ducks that were on the logs jumped off into the water and hid. The momma gadwalls and their ducklings swam to a vegetated island and hid among the branches and cattails.

What had scared them was a group of paddlers coming into the channel. The paddlers were in kayaks, which were painted in bright colors and they were using brightly colored paddles as they came near. The sounds of their voices cared into the inlet ahead of them.

How amazing that the animals reacted so much differently to us versus to the group of kayakers?! What was it the animals picked up from them that created so much fear?

One of the turtles near us dove into the water, and even the juvenile great blue heron stood up erect in a nervous posture. The otter was no where to be seen.

We decided to leave the inlet and paddle out into the bay. On the way, we spotted a bald eagle sitting on a weeping willow and looking out towards the distant peak of Mt. Rainer.

As we watch, a group of people in a canoe paddled closer for a photo of the eagle. But, they pushed to close for the bird's comfort and it flew out of the tree. Surprisingly it flew closer to us, and land at the far end of the same small island from which the willow grew. It stood on the edge of the cattails and iris for some time and looked around. We very slowly moved a little closer, but watched carefully for any sign of nervousness from the eagle.

The bird remained where it was, and even started drinking from the lake.

The eagle allowed us to float there and observe it as it took several drinks from the lake. Then, when one of the kayakers we had seen earlier arrived on the seen the eagle appeared more nervous and turned around and walked into the cover of the vegetation you can see behind it in the photo. Next, after a few moments it flew up and away into the inlet and beyond.

We paddled towards the stadium now, and spotted several nutria feeding in the water as they floated. The Union Bay Natural Area has become somewhat famous for these rodents. They are relatively easy to observe from the water if you know where to look.

Notice the position of this nutria's body? The back is arched, the tail is up and the face is well out of the water. This is a typical feeding pose they use while feeding and floating at the same time. I think the tail acts as a kind of counter-balance to help them float more easily. Notice also, the grayish nose, long whiskers and round, rat-like tail of this animal. These are some of the key features you can use to tell them apart from beavers and muskrats, both of which can be observed at the UBNA given you're there at the right time of day.

Overall, it was an amazing afternoon at this wonderful urban wildlife gem. Looking forward to many more outings into the area in the near future. Stay tuned for updates.