Monday, June 22, 2015

Sleeping Slugs, Wary Squirrels and Crotchety Jays

As usual, if I go hiking to find something specific, I usually find something else instead.  This morning, I headed to Ginnett Hill in Deception Pass State Park.  My quest was to check out midsummer wildflowers.  Last year, they were prolific, but it looks like now is too early.  There were basically none to speak of.  Instead, I had some interesting wildlife encounters.

I spotted several Banana Slugs (Ariolimax columbianus) on the trail.  The two sleeping on the cut end of a fallen tree were the most interesting.  My theory that Fidalgo Island slugs have no spots is now officially refuted.  Ginnett Hill is in the Fidalgo section of the park.

Shortly after beginning the hike, I encountered this Douglas Squirrel (Tamiasciurus douglasii).  It was notable that he wasn't barking at me.  Persistent chattering and scolding is their usual demeanor when humans enter their territory.  Unlike the Eastern Gray Squirrel which has been introduced, this is one of the two native squirrels of western Washington.  The other is the Western Gray Squirrel (Sciurus griseus) which is threatened due to habitat loss and competition from the Eastern Grays.

My entire hike was accompanied by a symphony of birdsong.  About half way along, the Steller's Jays (Cyanocitta stelleri) were really angry to see me on the trail.  Their instrument was the ratchet in the percussion section.  Their protestations were noisy and defiant but they refused to pose for a picture.  Instead here is a BirdCam photo from my yard:

This is Gimpy Toe.  If you look closely at his right foot, you'll see why.  He's been a frequent visitor at the feeders for a few years now.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Family Values

Canada Goose

Every spring, I take several hikes into the wild rhododendron grove in Deception Pass State Park to photograph the blooming.  After Tuesday's visit, I went over to West Beach and Cranberry Lake in the park.  I have found the East Cranberry Lake Trail to be a great spot for viewing wildlife.

The trail passes by a small, marshy island.  A narrow waterway extends between the trail and the island.  There is evidence of beaver activity in this section of the lake.  I have wondered if the island had actually been created by the beavers.

As I moved along the trail, I spotted this Canada Goose (Branta canadensis) sitting silently and motionless in the waterway.  The bird kept an unwavering eye on me, but didn't move a muscle.  This struck me as odd behavior.  Usually, they either ignore you totally or get very noisy and upset.  Although it looked healthy, I wondered if it was ill.  After a few photos, I continued on my way along the trail.

Canada Goose

On my return back along the same trail, with a different view of the island, I discovered a second goose sitting on a nest.  Now I understood what was going on.  This was a female brooding her eggs.  The first bird must have been her mate standing guard.  I think I am very lucky I wasn't attacked.  At this point, I spotted her mate dabbling out in the lake.  He apparently felt it was safe to leave her side and go for a snack.

Canada Goose

Today, I returned to the East Cranberry Trail to see how things were going.  Sure enough, I found her dutifully brooding her eggs.  I am sure this bird is mom.  According to iBird Pro, incubation is carried out by the female and will last 25 to 30 days.  Again this morning, I spotted dad out feeding in the lake.

Canada Goose

Canada Geese mate for life.  They will choose a new mate only if one dies.  This devotion is also seen during migration.  If a bird becomes ill or injured, its mate or a companion will stay behind until it recovers or dies.

When the goslings hatch, I am not sure the family will stick around the nest site for long.  The young quickly begin to swim and can eat the same food as the adults.  I'll be returning to this site several times to see how things progress.

UPDATE:  Thursday 05/07/2015

Canada Geese

Last Saturday, this was the scene at the East Cranberry Lake nest in Deception Pass State Park.

Canada Goose

Yesterday, I returned to the nest site again to check on the geese.  I wondered if the eggs had hatched yet.  I have been seeing pairs of Canada Geese with goslings in my neighborhood and in other areas of Deception Pass State Park.  Looking through vegetation along the trail, I spotted the gander standing on a log in the waterway.  He also spotted me and came alert.  Again, I wondered if this meeting would remain amicable.

Canada Goose

I continued along the trail and spotted his mate on the nest taking a snooze.  Apparently, the eggs have not yet hatched.

Canada Goose

The noise of my camera shutter woke her.

Canada Goose

Now I noticed the gander move into the water and begin to swim.  I was certain he was coming after me.

Canada Goose

I could tell he was agitated and he began to honk.  But his attention was not on me.  Something further to the left had gotten him riled.  Then with a sudden, violent bolt, he flew up and around the south end of the island.  The power of his wing beats created a shock wave in the air.  Some other geese had perched on the island and my gander was having none of it.  With a lot of scolding, he ran them off.  It became clear to me that for the time being, that island was his.

He might be less aggressive once the goslings hatch.  In the past, I have seen several family groups foraging together.  According to Wikipedia, "although parents are hostile to unfamiliar geese, they may form groups of a number of goslings and a few adults, called crèches."  These are colonies in which adults provide care for the offspring of others.

UPDATE:  Tuesday 05/12/2015

Abandoned Nest

Yesterday, I returned to the East Cranberry Lake nest site to check on the geese.  I found the nest abandoned and the parents gone.  I presume this means the goslings have hatched and the new family has moved on to the next phase, raising the young.

Across the lake, at the West Beach picnic grounds, I found several family groups doing just that:

Canada Geese

Canada Geese

Canada Geese

Monday, April 20, 2015

Lawn Statues

Columbian Black-tailed Deer

Some people buy plastic deer statues to put in their gardens.  I have the real thing.

About six months ago, I set up the BirdCam as a "trail cam" in the west side yard.  My goal was to try and catch the deer passing by on their way to the beach.  The trail that ran down this side of the yard when I bought the property turned out to be a deer trail.  Despite building and landscaping, they continue to follow the same path after 28 years.

Until now, the BirdCam caught several shots of me walking around the yard, but no usable photos of the deer.  I did catch some night shots but they were just vague outlines with glowing eyes.

Finally, patience paid off.  The BirdCam captured two decent photos yesterday morning.  This is the one I liked the best.  I wish I knew what had caught her attention.  She appears very interested in something over to the left.

These are Columbian Black-tailed Deer (Odocoileus hemionus columbianus) a subspecies of Mule Deer.  I have had to learn to garden with these guys around so much.  Over the years I have found plants to avoid by trial and error.  They are particularly fond of Dogwood and Ninebark.  They also like the Nootka Rose along the path to the beach, but that helps keep it under control.  The key to getting along with the deer is to not get overly upset when you discover something has been chewed up.  Consider it finding one more thing not to plant.

I have also learned how to avoid deer-plus-vehicle collisions when driving.  A series of short honks with the horn always sends them scurrying out of the path of my truck.

Plastic lawn statues are OK, but I think I prefer the real critters in my yard.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

American Coot

I have lost track of how many times I have hiked on the dike at Wiley Slough.  It provides a trail deep into the wetlands of the Skagit River Delta.  The site is managed by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.  Despite all those visits, yesterday was the first time I have ever seen an American Coot (Fulica americana).

At first, there was just one.  Then a second bird appeared and joined the first one.  When the two entered the slough and began to swim, I spotted a third one that joined them from the opposite shore.

American Coots are about the size of a small chicken.  They are said to be common and abundant in wetland areas throughout the Puget Sound Basin.  The Skagit River Delta would appear to be ideal habitat.  It consists of sloughs, marshes and ponds where the Skagit River drains into Puget Sound.  Water levels will fluctuate subject to both river flow and tidal action.  There is a mixing of fresh and salt water.  This is an important rearing habitat for Chinook Salmon fry.

Where I stood on the dike, I was only 8 to 10 meters from the birds.  They seemed to be aware of my presence, but did not become overly alarmed.  This is unlike the ducks out there that always flee in terror at the sight of people.  I remained still as I took pictures and watched them.  They quietly moved along a weedy mud island grabbing a snack here and there as they moved.  Watching them made me think of Muppets.

The scientific name Fulica is from fulix which is Latin for waterfowl.  The word "coot" is derived from Low German.  It is similar to the Dutch word coet, (pronounced "coot") which refers to a similar bird.

They have huge and amazing feet.  I tried to get a photo of them, but there was too much mud and plants in the way.  There are a couple of good photos of their feet at the Washington Nature Mapping site.

Those feet are obviously designed for walking on unstable ground.  Their nests consist of floating islands built of marsh plants and hidden inside of cattail beds.  Having oversize feet must come in handy for negotiating a floating nest platform.

I watched the trio slowly move up Wiley Slough until they disappeared behind vegetation.  I was heading back to the parking lot when I spotted them.  Until then, I hadn't seen anything noteworthy.  There weren't even any eagles around which is unusual there.  This first time sighting of American Coots really made the day for me.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Salamander Season

Meet Ensatina eschscholtzii, the Ensatina Salamander.  I found this one under a large piece of bark on the North Trail in the Kukutali Preserve.  It was about 5 inches/13 cm long and didn't move a muscle when it was exposed.  A map showing location is linked at the bottom of this post.  I don't believe I have ever seen one of these before making this an important find for me.

Ensatina means "like a sword."  Eschscholtzii may refer to Johann Friedrich von Eschscholtz, a nineteenth century physician and naturalist who explored Alaska and California.

Initially, I misidentified this guy as a Northwestern Salamander (Ambystoma gracile).  But that species has large parotid glands behind the eyes.  My salamander does not.  What clinched the ID was the obvious constriction at the base of the tail, unique among Washington salamanders.  It is clearly visible in the photo.  This little amphibian has some other unusual characteristics:
  • They do not have lungs.  Instead, they absorb oxygen through their skin.
  • They secrete a noxious liquid from their tails to repel their enemies.
  • They are described as a "ring species."  More on that below.
  • Ensatina does not need to return to water to breed.  Females can brood their eggs under damp rotted wood or in underground burrows.  The young hatch as fully formed miniatures of the adults.
  • They can regenerate lost limbs making salamanders unique among vertebrates.  
  • They are most active at night during fall, winter and spring when it is rainy, cool and damp.  That's a lot like the people who live here.

Because they must absorb oxygen through their skin, people should avoid handling them.  Oils and chemicals on our hands can disrupt this vital oxygen exchange.

The Wandering Herpetologist provides a good description of a "ring species:"
"A ring species is an organism that exists in a series of connected populations in which the two extreme end populations can no longer interbreed.  This is speciation in action, meaning the ensatina salamander is becoming separate species."
Apparently, Ensatina Salamanders originated in British Columbia.  They gradually spread south through Washington and Oregon and into California.  There, they split and spread down the east and west sides of the dry Central Valley.  At the end of the valley, the two groups rejoined, but could no longer interbreed.  The genetic differences had become too great over time.  This is evolution in action.  This 3 minute video explains it further:

I have learned a lot about salamanders I didn't know before I found this little guy.  I am pleased to share what I learned about this reclusive, unassuming little creature.  The Kukutali Preserve is turning out to be one of the best places around here for spotting wildlife.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Dances with Sparrows

Last Friday, January 30, I was in the Kukutali Preserve.  I hiked out to the south beach off Flagstaff Point.  Because it is a fragile ecosystem, the point itself is off-limits to visitors, but access to the beach is permitted.  I was there to see if the resident Oystercatchers were around, but not on this day.  Instead, I encountered a pair of Song Sparrows (Melospiza melodia) exhibiting some odd behavior.

The two birds were positioned about six feet (2 meters) apart.  The one on the shore was swelled up with neck tucked in looking rather like Jabba the Hutt ("heh-heh-heh").  He was flipping his wings up, first the left one, then the right.

This was the object of his attention, a second Song Sparrow on the beach perched on driftwood.  At first, I thought I was witnessing courtship.  Although January seemed a bit early for that, it was a very spring-like morning.  This entire winter has been warmer than usual.

When I got home and started to research the behavior, I discovered this was a territorial dispute.  Apparently the displaying sparrow considered this his turf and the second bird was trespassing.  There was little reaction from this second sparrow except, perhaps, for his crown feathers propped up in Mohawk haircut style.


The actual courtship of Song Sparrows apparently does involve what looks like territorial displaying.  The female might be attacked like an intruder in the males territory.  Instead of fleeing or fighting back, she sings him a sweet song.  Who could resist that?


Song Sparrows are amazingly easy to photograph.  They are not particularly shy of humans and tolerate having cameras pointed at them.  This pair flew up and landed about 10 feet (3 meters) from me.  They performed their little display while I took their picture.  When the second bird flew up to Flagstaff, the first one was right on his tail.  I went on my way with another interesting wildlife encounter.

Regarding the Oystercatchers, I haven't seem them out there all winter.  Because the Preserve is now open, have they been chased away by the increase in visitors?  Perhaps they don't spend winters here at their nest site.  They may have joined the large gathering that I see at West Beach over in Deception Pass State Park.  I hope to see them at Kukutali again when spring comes.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Three Good Bets for Winter Birding

Black Oystercatchers

There are no certainties in birding, but there are places where it is possible to come close.  In the very heart of the Salish Sea, Deception Pass State Park offers great spots for viewing three special birds.

Black Oystercatchers

Black Oystercatchers (Haematopus bachmani)

During the fall and winter, look for them at West Beach resting on the large rock just offshore from the parking lot.  Mid to late morning seems to be the best time.  This is one of the few spots where they can be viewed inland from the Pacific coast.  The numbers that congregate here are also unusual.  Laid back, peaceable and a bit quirky, I consider them the most charming of all shorebirds.

Bald Eagle
Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus)

Also at West Beach, there is a resident pair of Bald Eagles that can often be seen perching at the edge of the Dune Forest.  Like most predators, eagles spend a lot of time resting.  They can usually be seen in the tallest trees at the north end.  Look carefully, because they tend to blend right into the trees.  If they're not there, look along the western edge of the forest or even in the tallest trees at the shoreline.  Again, morning seems to be the best time.  Spotting these regal birds is always a pleasure.

Harlequin Ducks

Harlequin Duck (Histrionicus histrionicus)

In the breeding season, they head for the mountains.  During fall and winter, one of the best places to see them is at Rosario Beach in the north section of the park.  Take the western-most trail up to Rosario Head where you can look down onto Urchin Rocks and the tide pools.  I have seen as many as a dozen congregated there.  Sometimes they just perch and rest on the rocks.  They might be splashing and playing in the water near the rocks.  Other times they can be seen swimming and diving in the bay.  Incidentally, while you are at West Beach, a few might also be seen perching with the Black Oystercatchers.

Deception Pass State Park

West Beach is accessed from the main park entrance on Whidbey Island.  Veer left at the Y and continue past the lake to the parking lot.

In the winter, Rosario Beach is accessed from Bowman Bay.  From Highway 20, turn onto Rosario Road, then immediately left on Bowman Bay Road.  Hike the 0.5 mile/0.8 km Bowman-Rosario Trail to Rosario Beach.