Thursday, November 24, 2011

Fraggle Rock

Under an approaching windstorm on Thanksgiving Day, Fraggles and Doozers take a rest and teach us how to understand and embrace diversity.  In Outer Space, the Silly Creatures call these Black Oystercatchers (Haematopus bachmani) and Glaucous-winged Gulls (Larus glaucenscens).  I watched the two species for about forty-five minutes and never witnessed any sign of hostility or disagreement.  Gulls are notoriously difficult to ID, so I could be wrong about it.  Maybe someone more adept at gull identification will chime in.  At the time, I estimate there was a good 20 knot sustained wind.  From the photo, can you guess the direction it was blowing?

The location is Deception Pass State Park, Washington facing the Strait of Juan de Fuca.  The rock is just offshore from the West Beach parking lot.  Anyone who has visited the park will recognize the spot.  I am told the Oystercatchers fly over from nearby Deception Island to rest here.  I have come to call this Fraggle Rock for want of a better name.  It's a little world apart where something interesting is always happening.  On the horizon are the San Juan Islands.

" Every day, the world begins again,
     Sunny skies or rain.
     Come and follow me.
     Every sunrise shows me more and more,
     So much to explore.
     Come and follow me."

-Traveling Matt

Monday, November 14, 2011

Red-tailed Hawk

This was the first glimpse.  At a distance I thought it was a Cooper's or Northern Goshawk.  Instead, it turned out to be a western juvenile Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis).  This morning, I returned to the Skagit State Wildlife Recreation Area on Fir Island to see if there was anything interesting going on.  I spotted this guy in the trees on the north side of the Spur Dike Trail at Wiley Slough.  As I hiked along the dike, this camera-shy bird would fly off.  He kept moving ahead of me until I finally lost track of him.

Fir Island provides ideal habitat for the Red-tailed Hawk.  It is mostly open, agricultural fields interspersed with small clumps of trees.  The birds will use the trees, light poles and road signs as perches for spotting prey.  They can also hover on wind currents, referred to as "kiting."  Their diet consists of small mammals, birds, reptiles and even fish.  Their range is extensive and includes most of North America, Central America and the West Indies.  This may be a clue to the source of their species name jamaicensis.  Throughout their range, these birds demonstrate a large variation in plumage.  They are year-around residents in all of lowland Washington State.

Every weather forecast said it would rain today.  Instead, our Olympic Rain Shadow kicked in to give us a chilly, but beautiful, sunny autumn day.  There was some dark sky around the area, but not for us.  The spur dike at Wiley Slough provides access into these wetlands where there is always something interesting to discover.  Fir Island is where the Skagit River divides into multiple channels and marshes before entering Puget Sound.  This is a prolific habitat for wildlife of all sorts.

From the parking lot, a hike on the Spur Dike Trail is bit more than 2 miles (3.2 km) out and back.  On the return, I spotted the hawk again.  This time, he was perched on a branch right over the center of the dike.  I was finally able to get a clear shot.  The characteristic spotted "belly band" on this bird is apparent.

Friday, November 11, 2011

A Rose Among Thorns

A Douglas Squirrel (Tamiasciurus douglasii) finds food, camouflage and protection in a Nootka Rose thicket.  This denizen of Deception Pass State Park enjoys a breakfast of rose hips along the Rosario-Bowman Bay Nature Trail.  He is also called Pine Squirrel and Chickaree, but Douglas Squirrel is preferred.  He is yet another namesake of the great Scottish botanist David Douglas joining Douglas Fir, Douglas Spirea, Douglas Iris and about eighty more plants and animals.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011


After breakfast and a bath, it's time for a snooze.  At Cranberry Lake in Deception Pass State Park, these Canada Geese (Branta canadensis) have perfected the technique of the one-legged nap.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Birds of a Feather

Last winter we met the Lesser Snow Geese (Chen caerulescens) of Fir Island, Washington.  They are back again, of course, following the migratory urges which have compelled them for millennia.  Their home is Wrangel Island, a tiny dot in the Arctic Ocean just off the Siberian coast.  Every fall, they make the 2,500 mile (4,000 km) journey to North America where they will spend the winter.  While here, the 30,000 to 70,000 birds of the Wrangel Island flock will divide their time between the Skagit and Fraser River deltas.  You can set the calendar by their arrival in mid-October.  This annual event literally puts Fir Island in the Skagit River delta on the map.

In summer, the farms of Fir Island produce crops which include feed corn, broccoli, cabbage, wheat, potatoes and cucumbers.  After harvest, winter wheat and other cover crops are planted to provide habitat for the geese.  Until the following spring, the geese are given right of tenancy to the island.  The flocks will freely move from field to field where they will feed and socialize.  These movements are accompanied by wonderful symphonies of woodwind sounds.  Visitors witnessing the spectacle will be treated to a magnificent wildlife experience.

Adults are all white with black tails and wing tips.  Juvenile birds are brownish colored. The dark morph or "Blue Goose" form does not occur in this flock.  On occasion, I have spotted people dressed from head to toe in white coveralls walking among the geese.  I believe these have been wildlife biologists collecting data.  Apparently, the white camouflage puts the birds at ease.

It is a very special moment to witness one of the larger flocks taking flight.  They will rise from the field in a spiral pattern.  In sunlight, there will be a sparkling effect.  Imagine a slow-motion, glittering white tornado lifting into the air.  The largest gatherings occur here during midwinter.  As many as 10,000 to 20,000 birds might congregate in a single flock.  I will be checking back in early January to try and catch this.

These photos were taken at the Fir Island Farms Reserve unit managed by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.  I have found this to be one of the best spots to observe the geese.  You might also spot Tundra Swans, Trumpeter Swans and Bald Eagles visiting the site.  Look for the Fish and Wildlife sign on Fir Island Road, about 3 miles (5 km) west of Conway, Washington.