Where Birds and Planes Fly

Birding at Grays Harbor National Wildlife Refuge in Hoquiam, Washington, I walked from the parking area to the trailhead, past these old structures at the little Bowerman Airport.

The absence of people and planes, and the starkness of the hangars against the surrounding landscape and big sky drew me to photograph them.

The blue and white buildings; the blue and white sky; white building and white flowers.

Last time I was out here, the restaurant was still operating and was bustling with hungry customers. The retro décor and classic diner menu were lots of fun. Back then when my birding group stopped there for lunch I thought, what a strange place for a restaurant. But now I see it was likely a sort of landmark that drew birders, pilots, as well as locals for good food and company. Now, it was closed, enhancing or perhaps causing the atmosphere of abandonment.

Part of the Port of Grays Harbor, this airfield has one runway. The facility has fuel, a pilot’s lounge, rental hangars, and is touted as “jet-capable.”

The hangars have seen better days and I wondered whether there were any planes inside. What could be the purpose of the oddly shaped roofs?

I don’t know how often planes use the airport, but nearby, birds and birders flock to the wetland habitat at the wildlife refuge. Particularly in spring, the salt marsh and mudflats host thousands of migrating shorebirds. Raptors also are drawn to the abundance of prey.

This landscape is a magnet for wings of different sizes and shapes.

 

A Pigeon by Any Other Name

We call them pigeons. Birders have called them rock doves. Apparently now, the powers that be in the bird world have declared them to be rock pigeons.

One of the most familiar birds worldwide, these chunky, multicolored birds have adapted so well that we can find them in cities and farm fields, in parks and on rocky cliffs. They are members of the Columbidae family, along with all other pigeons and doves.

Their natural diet includes seeds and fruits, but they’re excellent scavengers, loitering in places where people gather and tend to drop morsels that can be snatched. They are equally creative in using various spaces for their nests.
Pigeon skills in navigation and homing proved valuable during World Wars I and II, when they were used by the U.S. Army Signal Corps to carry messages.

Numbers Declining

Though pigeons seem ubiquitous, the North American Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) estimates that the population has declined by almost 50 percent since 1966. The survey is a long-term, large-scale cooperative effort of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Patuxent Wildlife Research Center and the Canadian Wildlife Service.

The program began in 1966, led by Chandler Robbins, a researcher at Patuxent and good friend of Rachel Carson, who penned the landmark book Silent Spring. Her book alerted the world to the effects of pesticides on bird populations, but was considered quite controversial when it was published. Robbins died in 2017, just short of his 99th birthday. He was a renowned ornithologist and often birded with Carson. You can read more about them at http://www.rachelcarson.org/mChanRobbins.aspx

The BBS continues to be an important tool in avian research and the formation of conservation programs.

The global population of pigeons is estimated at 120 million and though declining in North America, they are not currently a species of concern.

Watching pigeon behavior can be a fun past time. Recently while waiting at a bus stop in downtown Seattle, I watched a group of them ambling about. It’s fun to make your own narrative of what’s going on.

Forming a strategy
Gone to the dark side
Walking the line
Going their separate ways

Stillaguamish River Festival and Pow Wow

I attended the annual Stillaguamish Festival of the River and Pow Wow recently. The Stillaguamish is one of our numerous rivers in western Washington, also the name of one of our native tribes.

 

 

 

 

 

It was exciting to see the regalia and dance competitions. Dance groups included veterans, senior men, senior women and children, representing tribes of the Salish nations.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Also featured were young Apache men from Arizona, demonstrating their skills at hoop dancing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The festival included various educational booths about the river, conservation, and wildlife. Exhibitors featured insect collections, birds of prey, and one large yellow boa! The snake seemed as relaxed as the children it was sprawled across.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Beatles!

A Caterpillar Feast

In March, I journeyed back to the Anza-Borrego Desert in southern California. The big draw was an annual migration of Swainson’s hawks and the emergence of big colorful caterpillars, but as it happened, a third phenomenon blossomed simultaneously.

Big colorful caterpillars emerge every spring in Anza-Borrego.

They are the larvae of the white-lined sphinx moth and appear in various color combinations, from yellow with black stripes, to black with yellow stripes, to green with black stripes.

The caterpillars, sometimes called hornworms, feed on many types of flowers and plants, while the moths seek nectar.

The striking moths, also known as hummingbird moths, can be quite beautiful.

What I witnessed was the part of the life cycle when the larvae hatch and proceed to munch out on the desert flowers and plants.

It just so happened that this year the little guys were even luckier to hatch during a “superbloom,” a time when bountiful winter rains have produced carpets of wildflowers across the desert.

After eating nonstop and growing to 3-4 inches in length, the time comes for the next phase of their lives. The caterpillars burrow into the sand and pupate into a form that remains underground for 8-15 days. Then, the big transformation occurs and the moths emerge!

The moths spend their nights feeding and pollinating wildflowers, and then lay eggs on the undersides of flowers. The entire life cycle begins anew when the eggs hatch into very small caterpillars that begin to eat 24 hours a day on the flowers.

At the same time, Swainson’s hawks are making their way north from South America. They spend time in the desert around Borrego and have been known to feast on the caterpillars. Birders gather daily for the hawk watch. It was a gamble where or when they might be spotted. During my visit, I was disappointed to see that the hawks were in kettles a great distance away. Meer specks. I had expected to see them near the ground picking off the fat worms.

Unfortunately, I could not stick around long enough for the emergence of the moths, but I bet that’s something to see!

The superbloom, however, was a great treat.

Hidden Treasures

When I went for a long walk recently, I didn’t expect to discover hidden treasures. I walked down to the High Point pond, just a few blocks from my house. My usual route takes me around the pond, where I check out who’s there.

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Pond, with Seattle skyline in the distance

This day there were mallards, American wigeon, a cormorant, and gulls.

But I wanted to extend my walk and explore some new areas. High Point is a huge redeveloped area, with a variety of homes and landscapes. It’s a planned community, with mixed housing for single families, low-income families, and seniors.

There are rain gardens, permeable sidewalks, community gardens and green spaces. The planners did a good job of saving many monstrous mature trees, and a few are labeled. Today I noted a Lawson cypress, which I first thought was a Western cedar, along with a grand specimen of big-leaf maple, called “Papa.”

Along the way, I found these delightful pillars celebrating the Longfellow Creek watershed.

pillars1They are composed of blocks of concrete with carved and inlaid creatures representing plants, lizards, fish, birds, a fox and a dragonfly.

lizards img_20170216_103627070I love that nature is appreciated here. There are many immigrant families and children living in this community. I think it’s important to instill knowledge and appreciation of our local natural history. Nearby is also a bee garden, complete with a small building enclosing the hive and a flower and vegetable garden to nourish them.

As I turned down a street that I’d never walked or driven before, I discovered an intriguing sight: something out of a Greek ruin, or perhaps a group of standing stones from the British Isles.

img_20170216_104232494-copyA structure, similar to a pergola, but I’m not sure exactly what to call it, stands in front of a hillside that has large stones scattered about.

stones6-copyThe structure is supported by posts with carved wood that portrays such birds as owls and herons.

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And, even more fabulous, the concrete walk between the structure and the hillside is incised with a large winged creature reminiscent of the mysterious Nazca “geoglyphs” of Peru!

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Head detail
Head detail

 

 

 

 

These things inspire ideas for my own yard!

 

Discovery Park’s Remarkable Trees

big-trunk2-copyIn a previous post, I wrote about the amazing big leaf maple trees in my local park, Camp Long. Not only are they big in height, but also in girth, with a growth habit of multiple trunks.

But I just visited another gem of a city park, much larger than Camp Long and having an unmatched range of habitats, elevations and vegetation. I’m talking about Discovery Park, located across Elliott Bay from West Seattle. Within the park’s more than 500 acres, there are trails through open meadows, trails through woods, ponds, beach access, views of  Puget Sound and the Olympic Mountains, and a lighthouse. It’s good bird habitat.

I went specifically to see if I could find a snow bunting that had been seen there for several days. I did not find it, but in the course of hiking all over the park, on trails I had never before taken, I encountered numerous startling large trees. Not only did they have multiple trunks, but they had more than I could count!

multi1In Camp Long, I kind of made a game of counting the number of trunks on big leaf maples. I had decided that the average number was between six and eight. But in Discovery Park, the trees were more complicated.

multi2In many instances, they had so many thin trunks reaching out that it was impossible to count them all. Why were they so different from trees growing in Camp Long? For one thing, trees in Discovery seem to have much more room to spread out and grow. They’re not as crowded. Maybe they spend more time growing out rather than up.

img_20161111_124224500Whatever the reasons, the trees are magnificent and I’m glad they have been preserved. I snapped a few photos of the more impressive specimens along my walk.

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Magical Moments in the Mundane

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Even what starts out as the most mundane neighborhood walk can turn into something more interesting. I am always checking out the trees, shrubs and flowers that I pass, and always watching for birds. Lately I’ve been taking a new route just a few blocks from my house, down the big hill to a redeveloped community known as High Point. Incidentally, it is located near the official highest point in Seattle.

pondI’ve been drawn to my particular route because it passes the large community garden, and one block beyond that lies a nice little pond.

On the way, I pass such flowers as hollyhocks, sunflowers and lupines that ring the vegetable garden. Lining the street are notable trees that are dropping large seed pods.

filbert-podI recognized the somewhat floppy-looking leaf as being in the filbert family. filbertI have never seen the seeds before, which I assume become nuts like the familiar little round filberts that I recall from mixed nut tins we sometimes had in the house in my childhood. Those nuts that seemed like cheap fillers; they were not my first choice.

Invasion of the Tribbles?

tribblesI think perhaps these trees are not the same as the commercially raised American hazelnut trees, but very similar. The large rather frilly bright green seed pods contain several chambers for nuts, and when you touch them they leave a sticky substance on your fingers! Several seed pods were strewn on the sidewalk, looking like the tribbles from Star Trek. Most were empty of their nuts. I assume the squirrels are enjoying them.

Bird Life

duck-linesLife around the pond is somewhat unpredictable. The mallards that stay there are predictable, but some days there are Canada geese.

geese2-2The number of mallards varies from day to day. I think some are this year’s young. The ducks are unknowingly artistic, making lovely patterns on the water as they paddle around. I observed them creating perfect horizontal lines, circles and Vs.

duck-veesduck-circleA couple times I’ve a seen a kingfisher, which is pretty cool. I’ve even heard a kingfisher rattling by from my bedroom window a couple times. Now I know I wasn’t imagining things, and I now know where it was going or coming from.

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Belted Kingfisher on railing
Whale fins sculpture
Whale fins sculpture

I have discovered fish in the pond! No wonder the kingfisher was fishing around there. They appear to be goldfish. There are little orange ones and a blackish one. I wondered if they had been officially stocked in the pond, or whether some neighbor had dumped them there. I decided it didn’t really matter. They probably weren’t hurting any particular ecology.

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Nightshade
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Poisonous nightshade fruits; no mystery that they’re related to tomaotes!

In fact, the pond seems to be getting choked by whatever the green plant is that grows in ponds and chokes them. The same thing is happening in the pond at the park next door, and door, and I wonder if the right thing to do is dredge some of it out.

Ornamental river birches near the pond
River birches, with lovely peeling bark, near the pond

One day I was surprised by two white-crowned sparrows in some shrubs by the pond. They’re around Seattle, but uncommon. I almost never see them in my yard.

There is a nice variety of habitat circling the pond. There are trees, shrubs for covers, grassy areas, and a rushing brook and waterfall that empties into the pond. Queen Anne’s lace, clovers and thistles grow in small clumps.

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Queen Anne’s Lace
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Later stage
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Even as it fades, it’s lovely

I’ve watched dragonflies patrol the air over the pond and I’ve seen goldfinches gliding overhead.

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A decorative carved rock, circles representing raindrops

When the sun shines, a walk around the pond is warming and happy. When there are clouds, there are magical reflections across the surface of the pond.

img_20160904_115036429img_20160904_115137703It’s a small thing, likely taken for granted, overlooked and little used by nearby residents, but for me, the pond is a fresh destination.

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