Monday, August 22, 2011

From the Deer Trail

Columbian Black-tailed Deer (Odocoileus hemionus columbianus)

Nature Blog Scavenger Hunt:  Wild Fidalgo is participating in scavenger hunt featuring Pacific Northwest nature blogs.  Patricia K. Lichen (Kidnapping the Lorax) will be hosting the event.  Answer questions from the featured blogs and you could win a copy of Kidnapping the Lorax.

Join us at on Saturday August 27, 2011 at 09:00 PDT (16:00 GMT) for some nature blogging fun.

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When I bought this property, there was a trail that ran from the road down to the beach.  It provided easy access through the woods to inspect the lot.  At the time, I wondered who was using this trail and if this would be a problem in the future.  It turned out to be a deer trail and after clearing, building, landscaping and nearly 24 years, the deer still follow the exact same route to the beach.  I assume they make the trek to get a little salt.

Our deer are Columbian Black-tails (Odocoileus hemionus columbianus) a subspecies of Mule Deer.  Their range is coastal areas from northern California into British Columbia.  A second subspecies, Sitka Black-Tails (O. h. sitkatensis), ranges from British Columbia into Alaska and Kodiak Island.

As they move through the yard, they do like to snack on garden plants.  They nibble as they continue to move along, so they don't do a lot of damage in any one spot.  They are particularly fond of wild and Rugosa Roses, Pacific Ninebark and Dogwood.  It was necessary to pot up a Pyrachantha and move it to the patio to rescue it.  They do help to keep the wild rose from encroaching the path to the beach.  A couple of winters ago, they took to sleeping in my back lawn.  They did quite a bit of damage to the grass, but it recovered quickly in the spring.

These deer are noticeably smaller than those I have seen on the mainland.  Similarly, the deer on Lopez Island in the San Juans are even smaller and could be described as "miniatures."  These may be examples of insular dwarfism.  Large animals living on islands can become smaller than their mainland counterparts over time.  A possible cause could be the more limited food and water supplies found on islands.  Keep in mind, starving an animal does not make it smaller.  Under the tenets of natural selection, genetically smaller offspring are more likely to survive and reproduce in an environment of scarce resources.  Smallness thus becomes an adaptation to the island environment.  Eventually, these smaller deer could be classified as a new species.  The Origin of Species may be unfolding before our eyes.

The deer do have predators here.   About five years ago I witnessed a pair of coyotes trying to take down a doe on the beach.  Her response was to move out into the water belly deep.  The coyotes could not pursue and bite her in the water and she survived the encounter.  On dry land away from the beach, I am sure she would have been toast.

I believe this pair are brother and sister and a bit more than two years old.  I remember them as tiny, wobbly newborn fawns when they first appeared with their mother.  They continued to accompany her as yearlings.  Now it looks like they are on their own, but still sticking together.  Click on the photo to enlarge it and notice the antler buds growing on the young gentleman on the right.  It's been a pleasure watching this pair grow to adulthood.  Living on the deer trail has provided another episode from the story of life on South Fidalgo.

Monday, August 15, 2011

The Bad Seed

More accurately, a bad choice of seed as a lure at the Birdcam can produce unexpected results.  In a previous post I mentioned setting up the Birdcam station with a mix of sunflower and safflower seed.  This was done in an effort to catch another photo of a Red Crossbill.  The lure was successful, but not in the way I anticipated.  It became obvious now was not the best time of the year for this mix of seed.

On the first day, I got more than 1,200 shots, but no Crossbills.  On the second day, the Birdcam captured over 1,500!  From last Friday, I was facing 1,729 photos which was almost the full capacity of the SD card.  Obviously, the word was getting around in Birdland that there was a great new restaurant in town.  In all those photos, not a single Red Crossbill could be found.  Instead, I was getting mostly House Finches and House Sparrows together with dozens of their fledglings.

The biggest problem was the prospect of dealing with numbers approaching 2,000 photos a day.  The chore of scanning through them, renaming the keepers and deleting the rest was becoming an ordeal.  In that number, there may be only 20-30 pictures worth keeping.  So the quest for a Red Crossbill has been temporarily put on hold.  Getting photos of House Finches is not the problem.  Getting 1,200 photos of House Finches in a single day is.

Targeting a specific bird species for capture by the Birdcam can become a bit like Waiting for Godot.  I have decided to set up again for Hummingbird shots.  I'll try for Crossbills another time.  When I bought the first Birdcam, I feared it was a gimmick that wouldn't really work.  Believe me, I shed those fears long ago.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Shoo, Scat, Skedaddle, Begone!

This post will probably get me banned from the nature blog fraternity.  I have always enjoyed wildlife visiting the yard.  In fact, I have taken steps to encourage these visits.  There is one critter, however, that has worn out its welcome.  There was a time when I might have enjoyed a single Eastern Gray Squirrel visit once every week or two.  More recently, when I replenished the platform feeder in the front patio every morning, there would be five or six squirrels on it within seconds.  They didn't leave until the feeder was empty.  While they were at it, they dug up the planters and trampled the flowers.  In the backyard, Birdcam station number 2 was set up with suet.  For every 100 photos, 85-90 would be Gray Squirrels!  They would polish-off an entire cake of suet in a day.  My squirrel problem was out of control.

Internet references on the Eastern Gray Squirrel indicate their range is basically east of the Mississippi River.  I can assure you their range is more extensive than that.  We have a Western Gray Squirrel, but it has become a threatened species in Washington.  It is losing its Garry Oak forest habitat and being out-competed by its more aggressive eastern cousin.

In desperation, I decided to try this stuff called Shake-Away Fox Urine Granules.  You can find it at garden and hardware stores and on the internet.  I sprinkled it into the planters in the patio and gave it the acid test:  I stocked the platform feeder with squirrel magnets, peanuts and striped sunflower seed.  The results were immediate.  Only one squirrel kept appearing, but after a few days, he also disappeared.  I expected to see them at the edge of the yard protesting.  Instead, it was as if they never existed.  The birds were not affected at all and it did not stink up the patio as I had feared.

I also tried it at the backyard Birdcam station.  I sprinkled it on the Salal growing all around the base of the Douglas Fir.  I got the same results there.  It took a little longer to take effect, but the squirrels quit appearing in the Birdcam photos after a few days.

There is one big disadvantage.  I regret it may also repel the Douglas Squirrels and Chipmunks.  Shake-Away got mixed reviews at Amazon, but it wasn't clear why.  I used it fairly liberally and got good results.  Some reviewers mentioned that it can take a few days for full effect and that was also my experience.

It has now been more than a month since I tried this, and I am still getting good results.  I have been adding a little bit directly to the platform feed mix each morning.  Today I tried it without the Shake-Away.  The squirrels appeared immediately.  When I sprinkled a little bit on the feeder, they disappeared again.  Another confirmation test passed.

Check it out for yourself.  If you decide to give it a try, be sure to pick a fox or fox/coyote urine product labelled for squirrels.  There are different versions targeting different pests.  (I don't use the coyote product since it will also repel deer.)  Use it liberally at first and give it at least a week for full effect.  Then just a little sprinkle each day should protect the feeders from these ravenous critters.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Rara Avis:  Red Crossbill

This is a Birdcam photo that would normally have been discarded due to blurred images.  The orange-tinged bird on the right, however, provided a reason to reconsider.  I have had nyjer seed set up at Birdcam One in order to catch some shots of Goldfinches.  I have gotten some nice ones and will present those here a bit later.  This bird is a Red Crossbill (Loxia curvirostra) and this photo marks only the second time I have seen one in the yard.  Even though his head is partly obscured by the perch, the occasion is important enough to present it here.  If you look closely, you will see how his upper bill curves over the left side of the lower bill.  Both bill tips curve past each other giving the bird its name.

The first time I saw a Red Crossbill in the yard was about twelve years ago.  This was a brilliant brick-red male with dark brown wings.  He spent a good twenty minutes preening on a post.  The bird in the photo is probably a first-year male with immature plumage.  Females are greenish yellow.  Is the partially hidden bird on the lower left of the feeder a female Red Crossbill?  It is certainly not a Goldfinch.

These are common birds in western Washington, but according to Birdweb, this can be highly variable from one spot to another.  My yard provides ideal habitat, mature, cone-bearing conifers.  That bill is useful for only one purpose:  extracting seeds from fir and pine cones and opening them.  Apparently the size and shape of the bill will vary according to the food sources in a given area.  At feeders, they also like sunflower and safflower seeds.  Since there are apparently Crossbills in the neighborhood, I have now set up Birdcam One with a mixture of the two.  I left the nyjer feeder nearby.  The challenge will be to attract Crossbills and other desirable birds, before the Starlings and squirrels notice the new fare.  Wish me luck.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Some Birdcam Crowing

This is my resident pair of Northwestern Crows (Corvus caurinus) which have now become regular visitors at the Birdcam suet station.  The birds even managed to compose the shot for me using the "rule of thirds."  Notice the red, fleshy tabs at their gapes.  Only some of the crows visiting the feeders sport this feature.

Look in the eye of these birds and also this one.  It is possible to perceive their intelligence and an awareness not apparent in many other species.  I have also observed how kind and gentle this pair is with each other.  I have never witnessed squabbling or any appearance of disagreement.  For a fascinating look at Corvid intelligence, check out In the Company of Crows and Ravens.  University of Washington researchers reveal the coevolution of these birds with humans and how they learn and adapt to our world.

Local Native Americans also perceived the special qualities of this family.  Their big brother Raven was regarded as the the Creator.  He placed the sun and stars in the sky and taught mankind all the skills needed for a good life.  Only a very special creature could have earned this level of respect and admiration.