Mission: To promote the appreciation of wildlife and increase harmony between humanity and nature.

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Saturday, September 30, 2017

Beauty and The Beast

The glowing beauty of a yellow warbler warms my soul. 


Update:

Thank you to Eric Kowalczyk for pointing out the eyestripe on this beautiful little bird. My apologies to all my readers. I am now of the opinion that this bird is actually the especially yellow, Pacific Coast version of an orange-crowned warbler. Please excuse my error.


Maybe it is because they twist and turn among the leaves like a flickering flash of sunlight... 

...or maybe it is just simple delight in the existence of such a perfect little creature.

The females have yellow breasts while males add red vertical stripes. This bird is leaping from a lower branch in hopes of picking a minuscule morsel of food off the bottom of a leaf or twig. 


If I could get closer I suspect I would find tiny little aphids feeding on the underside of these birch leaves. When you think that the yellow warbler weighs only one third of an ounce it is hard to imagine the minuscule weight of an aphid. Feeding on such an insignificant food source requires constant effort and movement. This little warbler is almost certainly eating her way south. No doubt she will spend the winter enjoying perpetual sunshine. She won't be here for long, in a blink she'll be gone.

I had a similar experience with this young beast. I only caught a glimpse as it slid silently off a log near Oak Point and disappeared among the lily pads. I pulled out my camera and studiously searched the water for any sign of the otter. It was simply gone. I saw no wake, no bubbles, no hints, nothing. I finally gave up and headed towards Foster Island. Twenty minutes later when I stepped on to the bridge I finally caught up with the otter. I even got to see it slip out of water with a freshly caught carp.

I was surprised by way the otter ate. It seemed to slowly mash, gnaw and lick on the fish. I did not see any tearing and ripping of flesh in the manner of an eagle or an osprey. The feeding process reminded me most of a child licking a snow cone. The otter certainly seemed to treasure its food.

I was amazed by the otter's diminutive size. I suspect this little creature was significantly less than a meter in length. Much smaller than the adults I normally see in the area. Its small size, the shadows of its ribs and the fact that it appeared to be totally alone in early fall all helped to convince me this must be a young otter - looking for a place to call home.

I wondered if the white spot on its nose was simply a moist reflection, piece of fish skin or a permanent mark.

An otter is a curious creature so totally different than us. It has a highly developed sense of smell. It can even smell fish in upstream ponds and then follow the scent to the source. It has very good hearing but on the other hand it is extremely near-sighted. This little otter must of been so focused on feeding that it ignored the sound of my camera. Evidently, the wind must have also blown the scent of myself and Ginger, my daughter's dog, away from the otter.

The otter's teeth are quite impressive but are apparently used more for crushing than tearing and ripping. This makes sense since it also crushes and eats crustaceans. Unlike a sea otter it generally eats on the shore and not in the water.

Its whiskers are long and profuse which help it to sense movements in murky water. Its feet are webbed and its tail is powerful and long.

I think it is the streamlined head and neck which impress me the most. The face, meaning the eyes, nose and mouth, are positioned significantly forward of the ears and the cranial cavity. Compared to humans it is as if the brain has been moved down and back to a position between the face and the neck. Obviously this arrangement minimizes the water resistance when swimming. Imagine how fast olympic gold medalists might swim if they enjoyed a similar physical design. Although, I am not sure if their photos would end up on very many cereal boxes.

When it finished its food the otter slid back through the floating marsh-penny wart and into the water. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife website says that within an hour an otter will completely finish with its food and leave fresh green droppings behind. No doubt this speedy digestion spurs them to search for food with a diligence almost similar to a yellow warbler. 

From this angle I noticed that this little otter actually had two white spots on its nose. I am starting to think they might be permanent markings. If so, they would certainly help us to identify and track this young otter. If you see 'Spot' swimming around Union Bay please let me know. You also might want to log your sightings on the Woodland Park Zoo's Otter Spotter. Community science in action!

By the way, I have read that females are smaller than males which is why I am assuming that Spot is a female.

Once in the water Spot immediately began sinuously circling and swimming. When she came up for air it even looked like she was licking her lips. Maybe this is part of her after dinner cleaning ritual.

This is my most common view of an otter. The humped view of the back and tail as it dives below the surface. I felt very lucky to have watched a complete feeding process. Spot took only eight minutes to devour a fair-sized carp. By the way, carp originated in Asia and do not belong here. They stir up the mud, reduce visibility and oxygen levels and eat young salmon, so I am very happy to see Spot reducing their numbers.

Here is a parting shot of Spot among the lily pads, hopefully hot on the tail of another carp.

Have a great day on Union Bay...where nature lives in the city!

Larry


Going Native:

Without a well-funded Environmental Protection Agency, it falls to each of us to be ever more vigilant in protecting our local environments. Native plants and trees encourage the largest diversity of lifeforms because of their long intertwined history with local, native creatures. I have been told that even the microbes in the soil are native to each local landscape. My hope is that we can inspire ourselves, our neighbors and local businesses to plant native flora and to support native wildlife at every opportunity. My intention is to include at least one photo each week and visually challenge us to know the difference between native and non-native lifeforms. Can you identify these tree leaves? Are they Union Bay natives?

A) 


B)


C)

D) 









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Scroll down for the answers


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A) Northern Pin Oak, native to the N.E. portion of our country. (I think the fly is a native.)
B) Cottonwood, native to Union Bay
C) Alder, native to Union Bay
D) Big-leaf Maple, native to Union Bay










Monday, September 25, 2017

Gone Wild

A casual observer can be excused for assuming that much of Foster Island is a remanent of our original Pacific Northwest ecosystem. This photo shows the 'wild and wooly' side of the island which appears as if untouched by human intervention. This is not the case. 

In 1916, with the creation of the Montlake Cut, Lake Washington dropped roughly 9 feet. Foster Island suddenly grew from two to ten acres. The soil of the newly revealed lake bottom attracted a variety of flora and fauna, some native, some not. Around this time osprey were still nesting on Foster Island.

Today, thickets of Himalayan blackberries, ivy, bindweed and holly bushes tend to dominate the understory. The ivy climb and kill the native big leaf maple, cottonwood and red alder trees. The blackberries tend to 'drowned' the native sword ferns, Indian plum, Oregon grape and horsetail. 


In the Arboretum portion of the island, red oaks introduced from the eastern United States, drop a steady supply of acorns.


Not surprisingly, the non-native acorn-eating eastern gray squirrels have become the primary mammal of Foster Island. A few years ago I ran into a man who said that when he was young, native squirrels did exist on the island. Today, all I see are the eastern grays.

The water surrounding Foster Island has similar issues. The native painted turtle, on the left, competes with the non-native red-eared slider, on the right. (Thanks to Dennis Cheasebro and Dennis Paulson for pointing out the differences. See last week's comments for more details.)

I am always glad to see native great blue herons, pied-billed grebes and others feed on the oriental weather fish. However, the birds do not seem to be able to keep up with the supply. Originally, weather fish were used to keep aquariums clean. Somehow they were dumped into Lake Washington and now they stir up the water and make it difficult for native salmon, like the Chinook, to reproduce.

The dense mat of fragrant water lilies are also non-native. They were reportedly introduced during the Alaska Pacific Yukon Exposition in 1909. Sadly, the lilies block the sunlight and reduce the oxygen needed by native aquatic creatures.

Lucky for us, during the last year the tide has begun to turn. Native plants are taking root in the south central portion of the island. The plantings were funded by the environmental remediation related to the northern portion of the new 520 bridge.

The fall foliage of a native vine maple, planted as part of the remediation.

The native cape jewelweed is another one of the 520 plantings. These beautiful little flowers attract a lot of attention, in part because this time of year the flowers of most other native plants are long gone.

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Update: as of September 25, 2017

I have been considering Jewelweed a native plant (Impatiens capensis Balsaminaceae) because it was listed as such in the book 'Wildflowers of the Pacific Northwest'. I just double-checked the original and the revised editions of 'Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast'. Both copies state that Jewelweed (Impatiens Noli-tangereis an asian ornamental which has become established in the PNW. Live and learn. Larry

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Updates: as of September 28, 2017

The United States Department of Agriculture shows Jewelweed, Impatiens capensis Meerb., as native to Washington state. 

Finally, the best information I have came in an email from our local and renown author, Arthur Lee Jacobson. Mr. Jacobson sent me an excerpt from his book, Wild Plants of Greater Seattle. Arthur states, 

'Orange Jewelweed....(Impatiens capensis = I. biflora, I. fulva)....hails from eastern North America....The epithat capensis alludes to the Cape of Good Hope, since it had been mistakenly believed to be native there when it was introduced to Europe and named in 1775.'

I have gone back to each source and noted (and included) their scientific names. I believe my confusion about the status of this plant stems mainly from the multiple different varieties. This is clearly a case where paying attention only to the common name is insufficient. I certainly appreciate Mr. Jacobson's guidance!

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This is my best guess at the bee's perspective, but in reality the bee can see spectrums of light which are beyond our capabilities.

Sometimes the flowers attract multiple visitors who have to take turns.

I must admit that these are non-native honey bees, however in a world where pollinators are struggling to survive, I am always happy to see heavily loaded little bees. I have also seen hummingbirds visiting the jewelweed. So far the little birds have been too quick for me.

My biggest surprise was spotting this native pacific tree frog resting among the new 520 plantings. This is the first one I have photographed on Foster Island. 

A moment or two later, I noticed a second frog watching from a slightly higher perch.

Tree frogs come in a variety of colors and can even slowly change color when need be.

I watched this tiny ant climb all over the frog.

I thought for sure the ant was a goner when it crawled in front of the frog. Instead, the little one-inch-long frog never stirred and the ant safely crawled onto the next leaf and continued on its way. The only explanation that seems to make sense to me is that tree frogs feed primarily at night and evidently this little frog was full. 

I am happy to report that I have heard a pacific tree frog calling, from among the new native plants, twice more in the last week.

Later in the week, I was disappointed to learn that the next portion of the 520 bridge construction will require another working bridge to be built. This time it will be on the south side of the old 520 freeway. Once again this will require clearing trees and vegetation all the way across the island. At a minimum, I certainly hope that this new construction will require additional and expanded native plantings on Foster Island.

I also noticed this oddly bee-like fly among the 520 plantings. Even though it has black and yellow stripes like a bee it only has two wings (instead of four) so I believe it is a fly. I love the bronze thorax. 

I would think the large brown eyes should make it easy to identify. None the less, its name has eluded me so far.

My parting shot for this week shows a glimpse of a native warbling vireo. It apparently stopped on Foster Island for a snack during its migration to a warmer winter climate. 

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Update:

After closer inspection my friend and Master Birder Marcus Roening pointed out that the bird in my last photo is too yellow for a warbling vireo. Plus, the upper beak lacks the very slight down turn at the tip that a warbling vireo would have. Which means this bird is actually an orange-crowned warbler. Sorry for my confusion.


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I certainly hope that we are able to watch and support a steadily increasing invasion of native plants and creatures on Foster Island!

Have a great day on Union Bay...where nature lives in the city!

Larry


Going Native:

Without a well-funded Environmental Protection Agency, it falls to each of us to be ever more vigilant in protecting our local environments. Native plants and trees encourage the largest diversity of lifeforms because of their long intertwined history with local, native creatures. I have been told that even the microbes in the soil are native to each local landscape. My hope is that we can inspire ourselves, our neighbors and local businesses to plant native flora and to support native wildlife at every opportunity. My intention is to include at least one photo each week and visually challenge us to know the difference between native and non-native lifeforms. Can you identify these Foster Island plants?

A) 

B)

C)









************

Scroll down for the answers


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A)   English Ivy
B1) Holly (Center)
B2) Bindweed (Lower Left)
C)   Oregon Grape

The A and B's are non-native plants. C is a native shrub.




Saturday, September 16, 2017

Taking A Stand

The raucous calls of crows always gets my attention. My heart beats faster. I wonder who are the crows hassling and I immediately move in their direction. I often struggle to find a view through the canopy of leaves. 

A squad of excited crows often indicates that they have found a large predatory bird. Topping the list are the eagles but close behind are the owls, osprey, falcons and hawks. This time the crows were harassing a hawk.

The crows darted and called from the outer branches of the cottonwood, while the hawk twisted and turned among the larger branches. I found the constant cacophony of the crow calls quite stressful. It must have been far worse for the hawk. Every time the hawk looked left a crow would dart in from the right. When the hawk was distracted by a crow crossing its face, another black-feathered menace would swoop in from behind. 

Obviously frustrated, the buteo bounded from one branch to the next.

 It had hardly a moment to catch its breath.

The frustrated predator was much larger than any of the crows, but their numbers and aggressive nature seemed to give them the advantage. 

When the nervous bird exposed its flaming-red rectrices it became quite obvious that the object of the crows affection was a red-tailed hawk.

The indistinct belly band provided another correlating clue.

Across North and Central America there are more than a dozen different subspecies of red-tails. In addition it seems like almost every subspecies can also be divided into light and dark morphs. Plus, due to the mixing of subspecies and individual genetic variation, the plumage of red-tailed hawks can vary dramatically. 

During his raptor class last year, Bud Anderson described many of the different subspecies and morphs. Bud has a great love for raptors. His knowledge is obviously accumulated from decades of close interactions. I will never forget standing in front of Bud while he held a full-grown red-tailed hawk between us. You can learn more about Bud, his classes and other endeavors by visiting his Falcon Research Group website. The new format and photos are quite delightful.


While I was glad the crows led me to the hawk, I was starting to feel a bit sorry for the young bird.

Besides being easily frustrated by the crows, there were other clues to the hawk's relative youth. In this and other photos, you can see the light color of its iris. As red-tailed hawks mature their irises become noticeably darker.

Just when I expected the crows had won and the hawk would soon be gone - the strangest thing happened. It was almost like the hawk looked over its rather impressive physical attributes and realized, I am a hawk. The red-tail found a branch, mostly hidden from me, turned toward the crows and stopped. 

I noticed no further movements from the hawk. Soon the crows realized the hawk was done playing games. The noise of the crows incrementally declined as one after the other, each and every crow gave up and flew away. As peace and quiet descended over Duck Bay I was nearly as happy as the hawk.

In due time the hawk turned around and looked down at the water, while I found a somewhat better view. Another clue to the youth of the hawk was its exaggerated head movements as it triangulated on potential prey feeding among the lily pads.

A slightly more subtle sign was the pristine condition of every single feather.

As the hawk stretched and prepared to leave you could see that all the tail feathers were at the same optimal length. If you look back at the first photo you will see that all of the wing feathers are fully grown. There are no signs of any partially-grown feathers coming in to replace a previously molted feather from last year. This means that the hawk's feathers are all brand new, which implies this must be a first year bird. 

By the way, in the photo above, some of the tail feathers are being held closer to the head than the right wing, while the tips of the primaries are stretched back beyond the tail.

After realigning the right side, the hawk did a similar stretch on the left.

It even extended the left leg down below its perch.

The final and strangest portion of the stretch was extending its folded wings directly above its head.

Just before taking flight, the hawk scratched loose a downy little feather. 

When the feather stuck to its talon, the hawk plucked it off, before silently gliding away. 

In the past I have seen many predators harassed by crows. Usually the predator flies away and eventually the crows appear to feel the threat is past and lose interest. Sometimes the predator will simply sit and wait from the crows to get bored and leave. Occasionally, I have seen Cooper's Hawks turn the table and chase after the crows. You can see an example in the post called, The Education of OZ.

However, this was the first time I have seen a bird dramatically change the way it was interacting with crows. It felt like I was watching the young red-tailed hawk grow up - right before my eyes. Sometimes, the best way to discourage a tormentor is to stand firm, look them in the eye and refuse to blink.

Have a great day on Union Bay...where nature lives and learns in the city!

Larry

Going Native:

Without a well-funded Environmental Protection Agency, it falls to each of us to be ever more vigilant in protecting our local environments. Native plants and trees encourage the largest diversity of lifeforms because of their long intertwined history with local, native creatures. I have been told that even the microbes in the soil are native to each local landscape. My hope is that we can inspire ourselves, our neighbors and local businesses to plant native flora and to support native wildlife at every opportunity. My intention is to include at least one photo each week and visually challenge us to know the difference between native and non-native lifeforms. All of these turtles were photographed this week in Union Bay. Can you identify the turtles? Are they native to Union Bay?

A)


B)
This turtle's shell was approximately two feet long and 18 inches wide.

In case you did not notice the head, here is a close up.








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Scroll down for the answers


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I was very happy to find a post by Dennis Paulson titled, Pacific Northwest Turtles, especially since I know very little about the subject. 

A) The first two turtles on the left are non-native, Red-eared Sliders. The red markings on their heads are obvious. Even though the other two turtles do not have 'red ears' I am guessing they are also members of the same species. I would be happy to learn about any critical distinguishing features, if you can show that my assumption is incorrect.

B) I believe this turtle is a non-native, Spiny Softshell. It would be wise to remember that Dennis says they can be very aggressive.