A Kukutali Bestiary
Imagine a place, a small island perhaps, where much of the wildlife of a region can be found. What would it be like to experience a dozen or more wildlife encounters in just a couple hours of exploring? Such a microcosm of the Pacific Northwest exists and it's a stone's throw from where I live. You can literally walk a mile and find forest, wetland, beaches, tide pools, driftwood fields, salt marsh, rocky balds, grass meadows and a pocket estuary. It also happens to be a significant Native American cultural site. All of these things can be found in a 96 acre/39 hectare preserve just waiting to be explored.
The Kukutali Preserve opened June 16th, 2014. Over the past three months I have made several visits. During this short time and in this small site, I have acquired an amazing collection of wildlife sightings and photographs. To reveal what an amazing place this is, I decided to post them all at once.
Along the Road
From the parking area, Kiket Island is accessed by foot via a gravel road over a tombolo. Come early in the morning, by 8 or 8:30 AM. As you approach the island, check the tallest trees along the east end. The Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) in the first photo above has been there to greet me on every visit. He will literally serenade visitors onto the island. He is like the town crier announcing your arrival. His mate joined him on one of my visits. The white spot on his chest reveals this is same bird that likes to perch in the trees in my yard.
On my last visit just a week ago, he was joined by his offspring from this season. We believe these are the youngsters that were reared just up the road from my home. My neighbor has a vantage point where he can observe the nest. He told me they had disappeared for a couple of weeks. Apparently, this is where they have come. Both Kiket Island and South Fidalgo are all part of their northern Skagit Bay territory.
The tombolo complex connecting Kiket to Fidalgo Island includes a unique pocket estuary. This is an important rearing habitat for baby Chinook Salmon born in the Skagit River system. Early one morning, I spotted this Greater Yellowlegs (Tringa melanoleuca) displaying some odd behavior. The bird would march into the water, then turn around and walk back to the beach. Then into the water and out again. Several times, back and forth he went. This bird is now on migration from its summer breeding grounds in northern Canada. They spend winters along the west coast between southwestern British Columbia and Mexico.
Left: The power line strung along the causeway makes a good roost for Barn Swallows (Hirundo rustica). They were busy preening, singing and socializing. Soon they will be heading to southern California and Mexico for the winter.
Right: American Goldfinches (Spinus tristis) are the state bird of Washington and year around residents here. This trio was enjoying seeds on plants in the salt marsh that borders the pocket estuary.
I spotted a Red-shafted Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus) patrolling the driftwood field on the south side of the roadway. Their favorite food is ants, so there must have been some out there.
Left: When you live in eagle country, it is not uncommon to find their table scraps. The Western Yellow Jacket (Vespula pensylvanica) finds enough to make a meal of the leftovers.
Right: Fox Sparrows (Passerella iliaca) were busy foraging in the weeds along the road. These are year-around residents in the Puget Sound basin. The darker 'sooty' race exemplifies much of the wildlife here with darker colors than other parts of the continent.
I envy people who have yards visited by butterflies. I have tried everything to lure them. "If you plant it they will come" hasn't worked. I was delighted to find this Lorquin's Admiral (Limenitis lorquini) in the clearing at the end of the road. Had it just emerged from pupation on that willow? Was it laying eggs there? Had its caterpillars been chewing on those leaves? I had a thousand questions.
Left: After a time on the willow branch, the butterfly moved to the ground. It just sat there waving its wings for a while. I am still trying to figure out that bug's story.
Right: Tent Caterpillars (Melacosoma californicum) are seen as the scourge of local fruit orchards. But the story is not all bad. We humans tend to overreact to these mostly benign creatures. In the blog Reading the Washington Landscape, Dan McShane reveals their useful role in forest succession and re-balancing disturbed ecosystems.
Left: The road ends at a former home site on the western end of the island. This Columbian Black-tailed Deer (Odocoileus hemionus columbianus) and I spotted each other in a small clearing next to the beach.
Right: I am not the only one interested in the wildlife of Kukutali. The Swinomish Tribal Community co-manages the preserve. I have spotted several of their sampling devices around the island. Visitors are asked to leave them undisturbed.
From the Trails
The North and South Trails through the forest provide alternate routes for crossing Kiket Island. They also provide more opportunities for wildlife spotting.
Dozens of Dark-eyed Juncos (Junco hyemalis) patrol the Madrona stands along the South Trail. The birds that spend fall and winter in my yard apparently cross the bay to Kiket Island to breed. Constant preening is necessary to keep those feathers looking good.
Venturing into the territory of a Douglas Squirrel (Tamiasciurus douglasii) usually produces the same result: pure hostility. You can see it in the postures and expressions of these two. They never run away from trouble. Confronting it head-on is their modus operandi. The squirrels of Kukutali have not warmed up to human visitors like they have at Deception Pass.
Left: I spotted this Mourning Dove (Zenaida macroura) in the deepest shade of the North Trail. The camera did better than I expected in the dark conditions, but the creamy beige colors ended up a little blue looking.
Right: I am still marveling at the congregation of Banana Slugs (Ariolimax columbianus), called a cornucopia, I discussed in a previous post.
At the Beach
The far end of the island opens up to the former home site of Gene Dunlap who owned a local tugboat business. From here, the trail picks up and leads to another tombolo that connects to Flagstaff Island. Flagstaff is a rare and sensitive ecosystem that is off-limits to visitors. The beach along the south side, however, is an amazing site for wildlife viewing.
A pair of Black Oystercatchers (Haematopus bachmani) call this spot home. Walk slowly and look carefully. They are amazingly well camouflaged on this beach. I have been watching this pair for three years. They form long-term pair bonds and prefer isolated rocky islets, exactly what this spot offers. When you visit, remember to keep your distance. Approach them only with telephoto lenses. If too many visitors come and harass them, they will leave. I would hate to lose these old friends.
You can click or right-click to view the photos full size. Despite a preference for isolation, these laid-back shorebirds seem surprisingly tolerant of visitors. But I am sure they have their limits. They provide ample justification for prohibiting pets in the Preserve.
Abundant Blue Mussels (Mytilus edulis) and Mask Limpets (Tectura persona) are some of the favorite foods of Oystercatchers and other shorebirds. It looks like those mussels have already been somebody's lunch.
I am going to call this handsome fellow a Glaucous-winged Gull (Larus glaucescens) because of the gray wing tips. It could also be a hybrid of the Glaucous-winged and Western Gull (Larus occidantalis) which has black wing tips.
Gulls take four seasons to reach adult plumage. This juvenile has found a Nuttall's Cockle (Clinocardium nuttalli) for breakfast. Although it looks like a case of eyes bigger than stomach, I would not bet against the gull. They have mastered the technique of flying up and dropping clams onto rocks to break them open. This youngster will figure it out soon enough.
Left: The Pacific Northwest is home to a crow that is also a shorebird. The Northwestern Crow (Corvus caurinus) is a commonly seen denizen of the Kukutali Preserve. These beachcombers are seafood connoisseurs.
Right: This Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) could be a member of the March's Point rookery nearby, which contains more than 400 nests.
This is a first season juvenile, probably a sparrow. The most common sparrows on the beach were White-crowned Sparrows, but I don't think this is one. He was good-sized, perhaps a Fox Sparrow or even a Spotted Towhee. Does anyone know what species this is?
As I said, White-crowned Sparrows (Zonotrichia leucophrys) were the most abundant around the beach. These are ground nesters, probably finding good sites in the large driftwood field next to the tombolo. Leucophrys means white eyebrow.
Left: It is common to find the shells of Dungeness Crab (Cancer magister) on local beaches. They molt about fifteen times in their lives as they grow. Most of the time only the carapace is found. When everything is intact like this, it is probably the result of a fresh molt. In the process, they will also shed their stomach lining and part of the intestine. Pairs are only able to mate when the female is freshly molted. The tides will eventually scatter the shell parts.
Right: Turn a rock over and you will encounter the diminutive Purple Shore Crab (Hemigrapsus nudus). Never underestimate this little guy. If you bother him, he'll be most willing to take you on. Get ready for a good nip from those pincers. Besides purple, they also come in shades of brown and green.
Entire-leaved Gumweed (Grindelia integrifolia) is an aster that loves to grow right on the beach, just out of reach of the tides. They will continue blooming well into October providing Bumble Bees such as this Bombus lucorum (?) a source of food.
The Parking Lot
Last, but not least, the area around the new parking lot has also been a good spot for viewing wildlife.
On my last visit, I got out of my truck and looked straight up. With the naked eye, all I could see was a beige speck on the tree top. Through the telephoto lens I recognized a Cedar Waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum). I am always pleased to spot these beautiful birds. There is a hawthorn tree nearby with ripening fruits which is just what this bird likes.
Back in late June, I encountered this male American Robin (Turdus migratorius) at the end of my hike. At first, he seemed to be very proud of his earthworm, wanting me to see it from every angle and position. Then I realized he was moving around to avoid revealing the location of his nest with chicks to feed. After a few pictures, I continued to the parking lot and left him to his duties. Interestingly, this was almost the same time I was hosting a robin's nest in the fuchsia basket on my front porch.
The new parking lot at Kukutali was built on a small wetland that drains the hillside. Instead of channeling the drainage into culverts, they incorporated the wetland into the new landscaping. After a rain, water flows through a bed of sedges that is lined with ferns. On one visit, I spotted a Chestnut-backed Chickadee (Poecile rufescens) with some ratty plumage and a dirty face. He found that little stream next to the parking lot a perfect spot for a drink and a bath. Native plant gardeners will want to keep an eye on this landscaping to see how it develops.
Next to the road near the parking lot, drifts of Nootka Rose and Oxeye Daisy were always buzzing with pollinating insects such as this Sweat Bee.
With the exception of the butterfly, I have seen all of these creatures before. I just have not seen them all in one place. That's why I find the Kukutali Preserve so amazing. There are also several birds I have seen or heard here, but have not managed to photograph. These include Pileated Woodpeckers, Spotted Towhees, Common Ravens, Steller's Jays and Belted Kingfishers. I have heard the songs of several birds in the trees that I don't recognize. I have read there are Coyotes on Kiket, and I know there are Harbor Seals, California Sea Lions and River Otters in the area. There is still much more to discover here which is why I intend to keep coming back. I am so fortunate to live close to this great new park.