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

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Saturday, July 9, 2016

A Helping Hand

What comes to mind when you think of the Washington Park Arboretum? Trees, flowers, exotic plants, birds, going-for-a-run or walking-your-dog, these are just a few of the valid answers. By definition, an arboretum is a forest created for education. Even though I mostly photograph birds, I primarily think of trees when I think of the Arboretum. The Arboretum contains over 10,000 plants and trees from all over the world. Since I was old enough to climb, I have loved trees. Even as a child I loved leaving city streets, classrooms and deadlines and climbing up into a cool, green world of life.

To this day, I love green leaves rustling in the breeze. I love fresh air, the smell of pine needles and the invigorating scent of sap. I breathe their air and the trees breathe my carbon dioxide. We do not exist without each other. We are both just of a part of something larger than ourselves. We are all interlocking pieces of life on earth.

Individuals do not last forever, and this week a western hemlock tree with a dead trunk was scheduled to be removed from the Arboretum. I was lucky enough to run into David Zuckerman, Manager of Horticulture, and Raymond Larson. Ray is the Curator of Living Collections at the University of Washington Botanicals Gardens (UWBG). Ray graciously agreed to leave the lower portion of the dead tree standing for a few more years.

At some point a woodpecker, possibly a flicker, made a nest or a roost in the dead portion of tree. Often these holes are expanded or reused by other creatures. By leaving the snag standing, Ray is giving these creatures a potential place of refuge. As luck would have it, nature provided us a prime example of how this might be beneficial. When I returned the next day to photograph the snag I was interrupted by a flash movement. 

Coming towards me, from the direction of the snag, was a young pileated woodpecker. She landed on a giant dogwood, Cornus controversa, a tree which normally grows in China or Japan.

The light orangy-red color of her bushy top knot indicated that she is still in her first summer. It seems likely to me that she is Misty, the sister of Squall and Windy, who we got to see in  last week's post. She promptly grabbed hold of the little dead branch just in front of her and began inspecting it for food. Misty still has a lot to learn. As soon as she tapped at the little branch, it broke loose and they both fell. Luckily, she had wings. After falling three of four feet she spread her wings and glided into a mahonia.

This is is the same type of plant in which we saw a Townsend warbler late last year. Warblers and the Anna's hummingbirds love the plant because it blossoms in the dead of winter. Misty likes the plant for a different reason.

After months of hard work, the blossoms have slowly grown into little blue fruits. Misty goes to great lengths to add the fruit to her diet. 

During summer and fall, and possibly even through winter, Misty's parents will allow her to remain in their territory. During that time she will need a safe place to spend her nights. It would not surprise me if she chooses to expand the hole in the hemlock snag. She certainly seems to love being in the Arboretum. 

A day earlier, I spotted her hanging out on a Douglas fir.

Yesterday, I saw her hanging out around the tulip trees. The official name for these trees is, Liriodendron tulipfera. They are a North American tree but they originated in the eastern portion of the continent.

Making it through the first winter can be the most challenging part of a young bird's life. Having a potential roosting spot that only requires minor modifications can be a huge benefit. It means she can devote more of her time to feeding and growing stronger, instead of excavating a place to sleep.

Given the 10,000 living specimens that Raymond Larson has to manage, it seems unlikely that saving a place for young birds is in his job description. But we can all be glad he decided to help. Being part of a happy, healthy world requires that we follow Ray's example and do a little extra for nature.

One of the ways we can help is simply learning more about the natural world. We cannot live in harmony with nature unless we pay attention to what is happening around us. Fortunately, it turns out that next week Ray is teaching a class about plants in the Arboretum. If you would like to learn more about the class, Click Here

Have a great day on Union Bay...where nature can always use a helping hand!



  1. The Pileated Woodpecker is among the most commanding visitors to our woodland setting on Whidbey. When it shows up in our yard I stop whatever I'm doing to watch the chips fly. Right now we are seeing juveniles like Misty. Thank you for a thoughtful piece on the interconnectedness of life, and how the forest sustains not only to other creatures but us as well. Your piece is an important reminder that dead wood is not wasted wood -- it is some of the most precious wood we have.

    1. Dan, Thank you. I find it very interesting that all of the local nests I have seen have been in large, dead cottonwoods. It sure makes me want to search the woods on Whidbey and see what kind of tree your pileated woodpeckers use for nesting. In any case it seems clear that they prefer dead trees whose wood has become soft and easy to excavate. Thanks again! Larry

    2. Whoops! I wrote Cottonwoods while i was trying to write Alder. I did see Storm roost in a dead Cottonwood but their nests have all been in dead, Red Alder.

  2. I enjoyed all the plant identification trips at the arboretum I did with Edmonds Community College.

    1. That sounds like a fun option. It really shows the value of the Arboretum that the were willing to drive into Seattle in order to find so many plants in one location. Thank you for the class information.