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.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Backyard neighbors

Thought I'd share a bit about what is going on in my yard right now. A pair of Bewick's wrens set up a nest near the door to the backyard last year. This year, in the same nest box was a house sparrow pair. Many bird watchers look at house sparrows as no better than winged roaches or worse. In some places people even poison or shoot them to get rid of them. I don't agree with this attitude, and happen to enjoy watch them and having them around just as much as "native" birds.

Bewick's wrens seem to prefer cavities or nooks of one kind or another to nest in. I was under the impression that they had given up nesting, because their nest box was occupied. But, this was not the case. They instead nested on the front side of the house. But, where exactly? Well...

Yeah, that's right. They opted for something more modern and more ventilated. In the corner of the newspaper box right above the mail box, they made a cozy nest.

Last year, there were a few sticks in the box. The sticks were large, too large for a little wren to carry. Probably, it was the start of a robin nest. Though, it was likely abandoned because there was a lot of human traffic at certain times of the day.

Now, there is a healthy nest full of little wrens.

I am not certain whether the birds find the rich, red color to their liking or not. Can't think of a single bird house I have ever seen that had such a color on the inside of the house.

Notice how the nest is tucked into the corner, with just a bit of an opening near the top. Also, look at the materials that make up the nest that sits on top of the larger sticks. There is some red cedar bark strips, moss, clumps of cattail down and balls of fluffy material we set out for the birds in an old suet feeder. It looks quite snug and warm - and would need to be - especially this spring which has been very cold even well into the month of June.

For some reason, not entirely clear to me the little birds seem to get excited when I come near the nest. This is not the case when anyone else in the house comes near to it, though. The sound of the camera shutter clicking and the flash going off also seemed to excited them. You can see their increasing excitement below as I take several photos of them in sequence.

The male wren of this pair can often be heard singing loudly in the mornings and evenings in the backyard or front yard hedges. This species seems to prefer foraging, singing and living most of their lives in low thickets and hedges along edge habitats. In urban and suburban areas, they can be found around houses that have dense rhododendron clumps mixed with other native and non-native shrubs with dense growth forms.

They are one of the most beautiful voices we have the pleasure of waking up to each day.

Near the nest, their was another amazing creature roosting during the day. Were it not perched on such a strongly contrasting background I am not sure we would have seen it. I believe this is the first time we have seen this species.

Hidden under those long, scallop-edged fore wings are much more colorful hind wings. Those smaller hind wings have a single eye-spot on each of them surrounded by brilliant pink. This species has eye-spots that have no "pupils" but rather, have a cloudy bluish-gray center not unlike an eye filled with a cataract. This gives the species its name: blinded sphinx moth.

The exact purpose of the eye-spots on insects such as moths, butterflies and praying mantids is still a mystery. There is some debate as to whether these eyes are used to scare off or intimidate potential predators. Here is a recent article in National Geographic about this:

Sunday, January 6, 2008

An introduction to Union Bay Natural Area: Turtles

Seattle is the emerald city. Still the greenest city I have seen anywhere, with many parks and green spaces throughout. Surprisingly, wildlife abounds in the city. Crows, owls, eagles, coyotes, raccoons and many other creatures are common through out the city and its many neighborhoods.

One area of Seattle I have had the pleasure of getting to know more intimately is the Union Bay Natural Area. Despite its diminutive size (~50 acres) and the fact that it is a restored wetland on top of a landfill, it is still a wildlife gem. It even shows up in Wikipedia! There is a wealth of species that occur here, some more numerous here than anywhere else in all of Lake Washington. Turtles, for instance, are very numerous and most visible on warm spring or summer days.

As with many urban or near-urban natural areas, Union Bay is a melting pot of native and non-native vegetable and animal species. It is debatable as to whether any of the turtles living in the natural area are native. The most numerous species by far is the red-eared slider (Trachemys scripta elegans).

This tiny individual was surprisingly trusting. It allowed very close approach by inflatable raft. This is about the size they are sold at pet shops throughout the country. Notice the reddish marking directly behind the eye. The beautifully clear patterns on its shell are a sign of its youth. Many members of this species grow much darker with age, their markings become less distinct. A few are known to become darker still, becoming nearly completely melanistic such as the one below.

These turtles are hardy, can tolerate relatively cool temperatures and if it gets too cold for them, they will dig down into the mud and go into hibernation awaiting warmer days. Surprisingly though, I have seen a few of them out on winter days, when the air temperature was around 48 and it was mostly sunny.

There is one species of turtle common to Union Bay that is actually native to Washington (mainly East of the Cascades), and that is the western painted turtle (Chrysemys picta bellii). A close relative of the red-eared slider, it lacks the red marking behind the eye. It also has a gorgeously patterned red plastron (underside of shell). During one of my many visits to the natural area, I found a female painted turtle that had crawled a considerable distance inland and was busy digging a hole on the side of the gravel trail for her eggs.
Amazingly, turtles go into a trance-like state of intense concentration when they are nesting. I am uncertain what benefit of this behavior is, though it no doubt serves an important function. It also allows for incredible close approach. The photo above was taken literally standing right over the turtle, which continued digging totally undisturbed. The shot at the very beginning of this post is a close-up of the same turtle's face.

Though there are likely more species of turtles introduced into the lake, I only want to mention one more here. This one came as a complete surprise to me as I had not heard anyone describe, not even the professors at Univeristy of Washington seemed to have known about them. One day during a slow paddle through the lily-pad choked wetland channels I spotted a very unusual animal sunning on a log. It appeared to be a giant turtle, with a gleaming shell... only the shell was more like a pancake on top of a turtle-shaped animal. My trusty National Audubon Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians helped me to figure it out: spiny softshell turtle (Apalone spinifera). Unlike the other turtles in the area, this one had a soft, leathery shell. This first animal was extremely wary and dove when I was still many meter away. It was several weeks before another one showed itself. Eventually, with a lot of patience and prayer, I got much closer to these mystery animals.

Though the first animal I saw was very large, the first turtle of this kind that let me get close was much smaller. I later learned it was an adult male of the species. It was the female that was much, much larger. The male in this shot has a shell of about 7 inches in total length. You can clearly make out the snorkel-like nose of this species which it can poke out of the water without expose any other part of its head.

The females grow to a shell length of around 19-20 inches in length. Add to that a large head and neck and they can be over 2 feet in total length! Though I can't say I ever got any exact measurements on the giant females I got close to, my estimates were at least 18 inches in shell length for the largest one I saw and photographed (she appears below).
Seeing such large reptiles makes me think of something from the ancient times, when giant creatures ruled the earth! These great turtles are one of the top predators of the Union Bay Natural Area, along with the great blue herons, bald eagles, otters and coyotes.

It is uncertain what effect the introduced turtles have on the native ecosystem of Lake Washington. The lake has been so altered by the hands of modern human beings that it is very difficult to even imagine what the native biological system may have looked like. Invasive species are a hotly debated topic and I have learned so much about them from spending time at Union Bay. I will share more on that topic specifically sometime later.

Friday, January 4, 2008

My mate, the doorstop...

A short story to share from a trip to California...

During a short hike in the Santa Ana mountains, my wife and I spotted an odd shaped object just on the side of the dirt trail. Upon close inspection, we discovered in was the body of a dead tarantula. It had been there for some time and was but a mere husk, as you can see above.

The humorous part of it was that initially when we discovered the body, it had its legs up towards the sky. Upon flipping it over we saw that it was plugging a hole. The home of another tarantula. The abdomen of the spider's body had been punctured and it was dried out like a raisin.

It appears that at some point during this male spiders life - most likely during the breeding season - it came by the burrow of a female tarantula. Unfortunately for him, she was not in an amorous mood. Instead, he became her meal! And after that, she thought he would make a nice doorstop as well!

Catchin' frogs

Winter naturally seems to bring us into an introspective state. I have definitely been in that place lately, and so it is no surprise that it influences my writings here. My thoughts have wandered to memories... many memories of fond times getting close to wildlife. Specifically, the times since I was a boy seeking and catching small critters, like frogs and snakes.

It is difficult to express the simple pleasure of seeking out the so called creepy-crawly things. Most of the best naturalists I know or have heard of spent at least some part of their childhood doing just that.

I feel so thankful for the little creatures such as : frogs, toads, snakes, turtles, and invertebrates of all kinds. It is one thing to see a photo of them, or even see them in a cage, but there is a magic in chasing after them in the wild. Getting our hands muddy trying to grab that squirmy, wet bullfrog as it kicks and jumps to get away. Chasing after them through wetlands or slogging along the edge of a pond. Grabbing them requires swiftness, but also great care and gentleness. So many lessons to learn from just the simple act of "catchin' frogs."

Than there are those little creatures that take more practice and patience. For instance, trying to capture a turtle is very challenging. I have had very few opportunities to even try. One time while on a Wilderness Awareness School trip to eastern Washington I was presented with the chance to stalk up on some wild western painted turtles. For any of you out there who have ever tried to sneak up on a turtle, you know just how wary they are. In most places if you get within 10 or 15 meters of a turtle sunning on a log, it will dive and disappear in no time at all.

That's exactly what happened at the crystal clear lake were I stalked them. Taking a lesson from the incredibly patient great blue heron, I sat poise in one place on the turtles' favorite sunning log for a very long time. At least 30 minutes passed before the turtles swam within even a few meters of the log. They spotted any small movements from me and were quick to dive again. Many of them disappeared all together for the time I was on or around the log that day. A few ventured to come near. Eventually I learned to sit very still with my hand very near the water, and after nearly 2 hours of waiting I caught one.

It was one of the smallest and youngest turtles in the lake that I observed. Still, it demanded ever bit of my patience and pushed my skills to the limit to capture it.

What wonder and joy the little things can bring us?!

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Why is it that most people don't generally see wildlife...

Well, one reason might be that animals general work at not being seeing for a significant portion of their daily lives.

In the case of this California tree frog, it spends most of the year sitting very still on a rock face overhanging a ephemeral stream. It tucks its legs under its body to help reduce its surface area to a minimum, therefore helps it to cut water loss. For an amphibian, that means life and death! Sitting very still and blending in with its particular nook in the rock is equally important. To the casual eye, it could easily pass as a patch of lichen in the photo above....

Mammals too need to be know how to hide, especially small mammals that others might see as tasty. Rabbits are seen by many animals as food, and they are very good at disappearing.

This one hopped into the thin cover of these dead plants as I round the bend of a trail. Spotted it only in my peripheral vision. I walked within a few feet of it and it didn't budge. Like many rabbits, this desert cottontail uses camouflage first... and running away only once it has been spotted.

The larger black-tailed jackrabbit is more likely to bolt. Though it will also seek cover if it feels it has not been spotted or feels undisturbed by the observer. See if you can spot the the jackrabbit?

So what about much larger mammals? An animal the size of an elk should be easy to spot where it lives, right? Especially if this particular animal is out in open country. So, can you see it? There is a HUGE bull elk somewhere in this photo... but where?

It chose to settle on the hillside in a spot where it was at least partially hidden, and yet could look out over the surrounding country.

And birds...?

Yep, most of them do this as well. Especially the small birds, like the plentiful LBJ's (Little Brown Jobs). See the sparrows in this shot? How many are there?

Like many small birds, these 2 golden-crowned sparrows are a combination of different shade of browns and grays. At the approach of a predator - especially of people - they are quick to fly into the cover of nearby shrubs. They have to be alert... never know where those sharp-shinned hawks might be hiding!

So what other ways do animals make themselves so hard for us to spot?