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.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Seeds, Seed Pods, and Pink/purple Flowers

Agoseros bud pushing through a seed head.
The Agoseris grandiflora seed head may look like a dandelion but it's actually a native. What I find interesting about it is that some plants seem to go straight to seed head from bud without ever showing a flower. I know this can't be true so the flower must be in bloom for a very short period of time.

One of the reasons I like mid June through  July is that it is seed collecting time. I find collecting seeds very meditative. I like all the different shapes and textures of the pods and seeds. It gets me thinking about what a miracle seeds are;  seeds can be dormant for years and then just add water to create life. (For those interested in seeds, there's a very readable book by local award winning author Thor Hanson, The Triumph of Seeds: How Grains, Nuts, Kernels, Pulses and Pips Conquered the Plant Kingdom and Shaped Human History.) I like to collect a bunch and then sit at the picnic table and clean it while I'm waiting for visitors to arrive. The following are photos from seven flower species. Looking at the flowers, can you guess what the seed pods would look like, if they have seed pods, and from that what the seeds would look like?

Camassia leichtlinii, great camas

Castilleja hispida, harsh paintbrush

Dodecatheon pulchellum, few-flowered shooting star
Eriophyllum lanatum, woolly sunflower or Oregon sunshine
Erythronium oregonum, fawn lily
Fritillaria affinis, chocolate lily

Ranunculus occidentalis, Western buttercup

Following are photos of the seed pods and the seeds. Your challenge is to match the flower with the appropriate seed and seed pod. 

Seeds and seed pods. Note two species do not form seed pods. This is a double matching challenge. The seeds did not come from the seed pods above them.

On another note, what's with all the pink/purple flowers this time of year. While the meadow covering bloom is long gone and with it most of the yellow flowers, there is still plenty to see this time of year. Just about every visitor the past two weeks has mentioned how amazing the floral display is. Three of the main flowers in bloom now fall in the pink/purple category.
Brodiaea coronaria, harvest brodiaea
Harvest brodiaea can be seen across the island but not in large numbers. It's one of the first flowers to greet visitors at the top of the steps and has a healthy patch above the west spit. Although it is called harvest Brodiaea, I haven't found anywhere what it would be harvested for. If you know, please let me know.
Chamerion angustifolium, fireweed
Fireweed is dense above the east spit where it has been growing since before TNC bought Yellow. It is now spreading around the island with small pockets in the south meadow and on the north side. Some people find it invasive, but it is a native and provides the hummingbirds with a flower to nectar on when the main floral display is over.
Allium cernuum, nodding onion
There is a really nice patch of nodding onion west of the shrubby area above the east spit. Lewis and Clarke claimed the local onion was the antidote to the flatulence caused by eating camas.

Finally, there is still one yellow flower in abundance across the island, Puget Sound gumweed. If you want to know where the plant got its name, simply touch the top of the bud or middle of the flower.
Grindelia integrifolia, Puget Sound gumweed

Answers to the flower, seed pod, seed photos above:

                                SEED POD   SEED     
Camas:                            E               D
Paintbrush:                     A               E
Shooting star:                 D               B
Oregon sunshine:                             C
Fawn lily:                      B               G
Chocolate lily:                C               F
Buttercup:                                        A

(These lined up much better in edit mode; not sure how to get them to line up when edit mode doesn't show what's happening.)

Chocolate lily seed pod and sword fern

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Island Time on Yellow: June 9, 2017, orcas and birds, a morning to remember.

Island Time on Yellow: June 9, 2017, orcas and birds, a morning to remember.

June 9, 2017, orcas and birds, a morning to remember.

It's 0355, my usual get up time to record birds. As I lie in bed listening to the beginnings of the dawn chorus, I hear the pitter patter of rain on the roof. Not a good day for recording. I roll over and look to the west; there's a beautiful full moon dropping below the clouds just above the horizon. Clear skies are on the way!

I get up, make coffee and sit in the west cabin doorway with the audio equipment under the cover of the roof line. I'm listening to house finches and  a host of other birds when I hear a loud WHOOSH! Then another WHOOSH, and another. A small pod of orcas are passing 20-30 yards offshore on the west side. Three minutes of recording and it's over. The whales continue north with the flooding tide; I continue recording.

This is the recording from 0506 that morning. Enjoy, then read the rest of the story.

I like the recording because it combines a couple branches of natural history that fascinate me: birds and marine mammals. In this recording there are eleven species of birds according to my naturalist friend Monika. I came up with ten. I find it fun to know that even on tiny Yellow Island in a three-minute period you can see/hear that many species from one location. For those that follow birds, here's Monika's list: house finch, olive-sided flycatcher, rufous hummingbird, glaucous-winged gull, white-crowned sparrow, dark-eyed junco, black oystercatcher, song sparrow, orange-crowned warbler, northwestern crow, house wren. Nine of those species nest on Yellow Island and one nests on neighboring Low Island.

A day later I was talking to my naturalist friend Traci who told me the whales going by Yellow were the T2C family of Bigg's (transient) killer whales.  Traci and Monika both sent me links to an article on the family history, and an amazing history it is.  In 1970 T2 and others were captured in Pender Bay near Victoria. At the time no one knew there were different kinds of orcas, fish eating and marine mammal eating. In captivity they refused to eat the salmon being fed them; they were mammal eaters.  After 75 days one of the orcas died. On the 79th day T2 finally ate half a salmon offered by another orca in the pen. After that they continued to eat salmon and the health of the remaining orcas improved.

T2 and another orca were scheduled to be sent to Seven Seas but a miracle of sorts occurred. On October 27, 1970, someone loosened the net, threw a weight over it, and after nearly eight months of captivity the two orcas were free again.  They returned to their mammal eating ways. T2 gave birth to several offspring including Tasu, T2C. T2 went missing in 2009 and is presumed dead. However, Tasu, T2C, has had several offspring including Tumbo, T2C2. These are two of the  orcas that passed Yellow Island on June 9.

T2C2 is recognizable because he has scoliosis of the spine.  So Tumbo cannot actively partake in hunting nor can he swim against the tidal currents. The family can be seen slowly swimming with the currents with Tumbo lagging behind. When a kill is made, the family group waits for Tumbo to catch up and shares the meal with him.

We were fortunate to have this family group in San Juan Channel for just under a week, swimming back and forth with the tides. Their home area is near Campbell River on Vancouver Island. Without the 'Great Escape' back in 1970, this family group would not exist.  And without the strong family bond we see in orca pods, Tumbo would not be able to survive. I find this all quite amazing.

This is the link to the article I used for the above information:

The following photos taken from Yellow Island are of an unknown family of Bigg's killer whales hunting harbor seals in the same area that the T2C family swam by on June 9.