Monday, May 28, 2018

A most fitting ending

As I end my time on Yellow, April and May were quite the sendoff. I had over 850 visitors, not a record but the second most in my 20 springs here. in the last blog I wrote about having the legacy club members here. That constituency totaled nearly 200 people. The next large group was Friday Walkers, a group that visits almost every year with 40-49 people. The day after they were here, two member trips totaled nearly 60 people. 

Other groups included three brought here on the Orion owned and operated by Kevin Campion and his company Deep Green Wilderness. These groups consisted of about 15 individuals, the first from North Cascades Institute (NCI), the second from Outdoor Afros, and the third from Latinos Outdoors. Kevin is a great educator and strives to get people from all walks of life into the out of doors to appreciate nature. We are hoping that TNC can partner with Deep Green Wilderness in the future to get more groups out to Yellow.

So what did these groups see when they came to Yellow? This year was a spectacular flower year, perhaps the second most colorful in the last 20 years. 
Paintbrush, buttercup and camas, Yellow Island's big three that cover the meadow.

There was so much camas this year that I again wondered why the island wasn’t called Purple Island. 
A meadow of camas is foreground to a Pacific madrone in full flower
And yet there was also an abundance of paintbrush so Red Island also has a legitimate claim to the name. 
Harsh paintbrush in front of a pair of 250+ year old Douglas firs
As the major bloom was ending, broadleaf stonecrop covered the rocky balds. These plants growing out of a bed of reindeer lichen have to be among my favorite species.
Broadleaf stonecrop and reindeer lichen
With this my final season on Yellow, I feel true blessed. The last couple months with spectacular flowers, fascinating groups of people, special friends stopping by for a final walk around the island together, all let me know that life is good. The last 19+ years I've got to live the dream and I can't imagine a better ending. Thank you to all of you who have contributed in someway to make it possible.  It's now time to pass the baton; TNC couldn't be happier with their new hire Matt Axling!  Good luck Matt! 😊

Phil Green 
Yellow Island Steward
March, 1999 - May, 2018.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Leaving a Legacy

At the end of each interview last week, we asked the candidates for my position if they had any questions for us. One of the candidates turned and asked me: "Given TNC is all about tangible, long lasting results, after 19 years on Yellow what would I say were my tangible, long lasting results?" Wow! I felt like this was my exit interview. I immediately jumped to one of my favorite activities on Yellow, seed collecting. I love to collect seed, to clean them, to plant them whether in beds, trays or out on the island. These are my babies and what will represent the island in the future and I've been intimately involved with each and everyone. It is both tangible and long lasting.

Since that response I've thought about the question a lot. While my original thoughts immediately jumped to the physical island itself for tangible, long lasting results, there is another way to look at it. Today we had 60 donors in our legacy club visit the island. We will have another 60 tomorrow and another 120 the first weekend in May. These people all have TNC in their will and this is their legacy of tangible, long lasting results. I couldn't, TNC couldn't, succeed in our mission without these generous donors.

These donors like to know that their dollars are making a difference. Yellow Island is a perfect place to showcase how TNC works in multiple arenas: in the terrestrial habitat using science to figure out what is the best way to maintain an anthropogenic prairie, in the marine environment working with WDFW to ensure the marine protected area (MPA) around Yellow and Low islands stays protected, and also the cultural aspect of maintaining the historic Dodd cabin as a residence for the steward. In all three cases TNC is making tangible, long lasting results. And as for me, I am the one who has been blessed over the last 19+ years to push our mission forward in these areas.

So my other legacy that I'm proud of that I hope has tangible, long lasting results is that I inspired others to appreciate and in their own way work to protect the environment. It's similar to planting seeds: plant one and the plant grows with multiple seeds each growing with multiple seeds etc. It's called exponential growth. (I used to be a math instructor in a former life.)  Likewise with the people we inspire. It is this exponential growth in human buy in that will eventually save this planet, our Mother Earth.

Some cell phone shots from today's donor trip.

Monday, March 26, 2018

The 2018 flower season, round one.

March 25 and I awake to the ground covered in frost. Yesterday a hail storm covered the ground in white. Despite the recent weather, early March had enough nice enough weather to convince the early blooming season that it was in deed time to show their colors. In fact, the first species bloomed back on February 10, blue-eyed Mary. This pretty little annual started slowly but now in late March covers the rocks across the top of the west half of the island.
Blue-eyed Mary

Next up were the red flowering currant on February 16. The  first currant plants to bloom are the ones along the trail to the outhouse. Why here is a mystery but it’s been pretty consistent over the years. Late March and this is already the peak for this shrub that only one rufous hummingbird has discovered this year, and that was just one day two weeks ago. What's also nice about currant is that it does well in the shaded understory of Yellow's small forested area so adds a nice splotch off red to the varied greens of the oceanspray, snowberry and Douglas firs.
Red flowering currant
March 10 buttercup had its first bloom but two weeks later there are still just individual plants scattered around the island, certainly not enough to name the island Yellow in their honor.
Western buttercup
March 13 paintbrush started blooming and similar to the the first two species, it has its own favorite area to start. The south side of Hummingbird Hill nearly always shows the first reds of paintbrush. It’s only been blooming a couple weeks so still just scattered plants here and there. Paintbrush blooms well into May and some years June so the best is definitely yet to come.
Harsh paintbrush
Shooting star, prairie saxifrage, and Pacific sanicle all bloomed on March 18. These species that have only been blooming a week all have just a dozen plus or minus specimens in bloom.  Unlike paintbrush, shooting star and the saxifrage have relatively short flowering seasons of about a month.
Shooting star
Prairie saxifrage

Small-flowered prairie star (3/18) and chocolate lily (3/24) are the only other native species currently in bloom. I’ve only seen three prairie stars and two chocolate lilies and both species suffered in yesterday’s hail storm and last night’s frost.
Given these are the best photos I could get this year, it is clearly not a time of year people race out to see the flowers. But I did have two intrepid kayakers today out to check out the early bloom, and they weren't disappointed. 

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Do Birds Sing in Winter?

The recent cold but beautiful weekend got me thinking about the dawn chorus again. I love getting up early to start the day with my avian neighbors. And if you are a regular to this blog, you know I'm addicted to recording bird songs. Last fall I decided to treat myself and upgraded my recording equipment. Much of it was backordered and it finally arrived on Friday. Monday turned out to be the perfect day to get started learning the new system.

The ambient temperature was some where around 40 but the north wind made it feel like it was in the 20s. However, on the south side of the cabin it was downright balmy; I took off my jacket and rolled up my sleeves soaking up the Vitamin D. (One-handed selfies while recording are a bit difficult.) This is me with my new mic and parabola. Parabolas give a 15dB boost without using any electronic magnification.

Two pairs of harlequin ducks were swimming back and forth below me. Most of the time harlequins are non-vocal. But today it seemed there was a bit of squabbling going on. Perfect. I've never recorded harlequins before so this was my best opportunity.

Harlequin Ducks

While the harlequins were squabbling, a pair of chestnut-backed chickadees flew into the snowberry patch next to me. They stayed less than a minute but i was able to get a decent recording of another species I've never recorded before.

Chestnut-backed Chickadees

No sooner had the chickadees disappeared when a small flock of black turnstones started foraging on the rocks below me. Turnstones are another species that is mainly quiet but when the flock takes off in flight sometimes emits a chittering call. I've never gotten a recording good enough to upload before so this was a new species for me at the Macaulay Library of Natural Sounds.

Black Turnstones

I ended the recording session having a pair of black oystercatchers fling directly at me from Low Island and continue on by. Oystercatchers are one of my favorite birds and I may have over a hundred recordings of them. The Macaulay Library will accept as many as people can give them. This allows for comparison of oystercatchers as individuals, by geographic area, differing calls at different times of year, etc.

Black Oystercatcher

Now back to the question in the title, do birds sing in winter? When birds are vocalizing, they are either singing or calling. Singing occurs during breeding season and has to do with attracting a mate or establishing a territory. Calls can happen year round including nesting season. Calls can warn of danger or be a contact call establishing where others in the flock are located. This time of year we are most certainly hearing calls although some species have started working on last year's nest.

As I look out the window longing for the avian melodies of the dawn chorus, still about a month away, there is snow in the air reminding me to be patient and enjoy the present. I've posted this poem before but seems appropriate every day:

Ten thousand flowers in spring,
The moon in autumn,
A cool breeze in summer,
Snow in winter.

If the mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things,
This is the best season of your life.

Wu Men Hui-k 'ai (1183-1260)

Monday, November 27, 2017

Being Thankful

Thanksgiving has passed and we are heading into the holiday season. It's a time of year many of us reflect on all the things we have to be grateful for. For some of us family, friends and colleagues top the list. In addition there are some of the basics we may take for granted: fresh air to breath, clean water to drink, food on the table, a save place to live. In addition to these things, i decided to challenge myself to see if i could come up with something monthly Yellow Island specific I'm grateful for.

January: We are experiencing the shortest days of the year. The first thing that comes to ind is that by the end of January, the days are noticeably longer. The last few days of the month the sun is actually setting after 5:00 p.m. But does that mean I'd just as soon have January hurry up and be done with it. Not at all! January is one of the few months we can have snow. A nice snow fall can brighten the darkest days. It doesn't happen every year and perhaps that's what makes the snowfalls so special. And if snowfall isn't enough, January is a great month for sunrises.

February:  February can be beautiful or rainy. My first February here in 2005 we had less than an inch of rain and numerous days of sunshine. With these lovely winter days many years the first plants start blooming. Red flowering currant, white fawn lilies along with blue-eyed Mary make it a very patriotic month.

March: The switch to spring on the equinox. March has many species of flowers that start blooming: buttercup, camas, paintbrush and shooting star are four of my favorites.

March also is when the nesting migrating birds start returning. Rufous hummingbirds arrive along with white-crowned sparrows and orange-crowned warblers joining the resident song sparrows and spotted towhees among others.

April: Throughout the month, more and more color is added to the island and the dawn chorus is in full swing. April has an aliveness, a happiness, like no other month.

April dawn chorus on Yellow Island

May: In 19 years here on Yellow, peak blown has fallen between the last week of April and first week of May every year except two.  That also means that these two weeks are the heaviest visitation weeks of the year. For those that know me, you know I'm pretty much an introvert that loves his solitude. But if you really know me, you know i love to share and show off the island. There is nothing like sharing the beauty of Yellow Island with first timers here as well as old friends that have been appreciating it long before I became steward. 

May also has more first bloom dates. Another of my favorite flowers, broadleaf stonecrop, covers the rocky outcrops most of the month and on into June. And, our latest arriving migrant arrives to nest, olive-sided flycatcher with its 'quick, three beers' call.

Olive-sided flycatcher

June: Ah, the longest days of the year and I'm loving it. Prickly  pear cactus begins blooming and it's like playing Where's Waldo. Each bloom only last 24-36 hours so you need to be alert or you'll miss them. Also, the first baby birds are fledging. 

July: Seal pupping month. Throughout July seal moms are busy birthing, nursing and otherwise caring for their pups. It's always great fun to watch the mother/pup interactions.

August: The days are getting noticeably shorter. My August blog (August 2017 Blog) was the August Top Ten List. Perhaps my favorite August event is the fledging of the black oystercatchers.  They are successful perhaps three years out of five, and it always amazes me that they are successful at all. They nest on nearby Low Island that is also a seal haul out and nursery. One year Low Island had 18 bald eagles plus numerous turkey vultures feasting on a dead adult seal. A week after the carcass was totally scavenged, the oystercatchers fledged three young. How they hide those young on an island measuring less than a tenth of an acre I'll never know.

Black oystercatchers and a harbor seal pup

September: After labor Day, it's like a hush comes over the islands. The crowds are gone, the weather still gorgeous, the sailboats are actually sailing and I can gain let my introvert side dominate.

See last year's September blog to know why September is my favorite month. 

October: The fires in the wood stove for the fall. More migrating ducks are returning. And, for the past half dozen years I've had the opportunity to work with a class at FHL, the Pelagic Ecosystem Function Apprenticeship (PEF for short). My responsibilities are helping students learn to identify and record marine birds and mammals. It's always a pleasure to assist the next generation that will be taking care of the planet.

November: I always think of November as the wind storm month. If I'm off island and miss a storm even I somehow feel cheated. Feeling the power of a fall storm makes me feel alive. Plus just seeing how it can change the island. The spits (actually tombolos) at either end of the island get rearranged every year mostly by November storms. 

(You can just feel the power of the waves.)

November is many years the rainiest month. In 2009 we had just under 6 inches of rain.  It's the time of year for filling water cisterns and knowing why the moss can compete with the cactus on the same rock.

December: The month to reflect on the past year being thankful for the cycles of nature and chance to witness them.  A time to come home to a warm cabin enjoying the solitude, or going off island to share special holiday moments with friends.

"The care of the earth is our most ancient and most worthwhile, and after all, our most pleasing responsibility."  Wendell Berry

"Ten thousands flowers in spring, the moon in autumn,
a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter.
If the mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, 
this is the best season of your life." 
Wu-Men (1183-1260)

Throughout the year I am grateful for the opportunity to be a witness to the changing seasons nature provides. Each and every day is special!

Sunday, August 27, 2017

The August top ten list.

While some months seem to flow one into the next without much difference, August is different. August happens to be a month were many things stand out. It’s clearly a month of transition.
1.     I don’t know if August has more fog than any other month, but the local name Fogust is well deserved. Fog can make for wonderful photography from macro, think moisture dripping from spider webs, to landscapes with sunlight streaming through the fog. It also can make for hazardous navigation to unprepared boaters.
Early morning fog

Sailboat heading into a fog bank
2.     Early August is when the woodland skipper butterflies appear. Usually they are common on Puget Sound gumweed but this year the gumweed is pretty well dried up. Fortunately the skippers are adaptable and this year the nectaring plant of choice is sea rocket, Cakile maritima (non-native) and Cakile edentula (native).
Woodland skipper on Puget Sound gumweed

Woodland skipper on sea rocket
3.     Birds: Several species of bird stand out in August. Song sparrows are fledging their second brood and seems like the adults are ready to be done with it. The new batch of fledglings are all nearly tailless when they leave the nest. This is not true of the first set of fledglings. 
Taillless juvenile song sparrow
Juvenile song sparrow investigates a woodland skipper butterfly

If black oystercatchers are successful, this is the month they fledge their young. The oystercatchers nest on neighboring Low Island but are daily visitors to Yellow. The following photo from several years ago shows an adult feeding a juvenile in our rocky intertidal. So far  no young this year. Typically they are successful every three out of five years.
Adult oystercatcher feeding a limpet to a juvenile

August is also a month when Bald eagles become scarce. The normal pattern is for the eagles to head north to the Frazier River for the salmon runs. This year is different in that the salmon runs were abysmal and the eagles have not dispersed. With some dead seal pups around the eagles weren't going hungry.
Bald eagle with dead seal pup

Finally, shorebirds are at the peak of their southerly migration. While we get very few shorebirds at Yellow, when we do this is the prime month.
Wandering tattler from a few years ago
4.     Crickets start chirping in mid-August. This goes on until mid-October. When I listen to the crickets it sounds like there are hundreds of them yet I almost never see them. Their chirping can be so loud that it is almost impossible to get descent bird song recordings.
5.     August is the month that a couple species of jellyfish come to the end of their life cycle. Some years I get several hundred lion’s mane jellyfish scattered on our various beaches. For some reason this year there are very few but there were several days with about a hundred moon jellies. I asked Claudia Mills, local jellyfish expert, about the moon jellies and this was new to her in over 30 years of continual data collection in the San Juans. Climate change and the resulting ocean conditions, warmer and more acidic, are supposed to favor jellyfish.
Lion's mane jellyfish on SE landing beach
6.     August is also known for the Perseid meteor showers. This year the peak night was supposed to be August 12. I rolled out my sleeping bag on the picnic table ready for the show. But I wasn’t in the bag 15 minutes when it started raining. It was our first rain in over a month. The rain continued all night so all I got was a soggy night out in the rain. The last couple nights I’ve been sleeping out and seen several shooting stars each night, but nothing like the Perseid at its peak.
7.     August is the end of seal pupping season. This can make for very noisy nights. The moms just leave their pups and the pups don’t like. A favorite nighttime haul out spot for the pups is Low Island. Their balling for their moms goes on throughout the night.
8.     Island work: To maintain the prairies on Yellow, we employ a couple methods. Some years we use fire, usually in late August, but not every year. This is an off year for fire so what I do is weed whack the prairie portions of the island, about seven acres. To date I have about an acre completed but fortunately this project doesn’t need to be completed until spring.
9.     Monitoring. The stewardship team monitors TNC’s land and easements every year to stay in LTA compliance. For me this begins in August. The monitoring I do is five islands, four owned by TNC and one by SJPT that TNC holds the easement on. To refresh myself on the software we use, Collector Companion, I monitored Yellow in mid-August. On August 23, Randi Shaw joined Dean Dougherty (SJPT)  and myself to monitor Jack Island owned by SJPT.
Dean and Randi inspect an area clear of English ivy by a WCC crew on Jack Island.
10.  The days are noticeably shorter. August 1 sunrise is at 5:56 with sunset at 8:47, nearly 15 hours of sunlight. August 31 sunrise is at 6:28 with sunset at 7:53, down to about 13.5 hours of sunlight. Where I notice it the most is in the evening. If I want to have dinner in Friday Harbor with friends, I now have to leave Friday Harbor by 8:00 if I want to be off the water before dark.
Bonus round:
11. Just now talking to some visitors and it reminded me of a photo project I wished I had started my first  year here. August is the month that Pacific madrone starts shedding its inner red bark in large sheets. This leads to very interesting and photogenic patterns on the madrones. Well, the project never happened because i didn't think of it until this year. But these are a couple of the patterns I've photographed over the years from different trees.