Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Wrens Wrule

A friend who is a cross-word puzzle freak says that a recurring clue for a "songbird" is always answered as "wren." Being unfamiliar with birds, she didn't know why this was such an obvious answer. One of the basic birding rules says "The loudness of the birdsong is inversely proportional to the size of the bird," and I believe the rule describes all wrens. This small brown bird with the short upturned tail, wins the prize for Loudest Singer around. Although diminutive in size, wrens are not shy about defending themselves. This little Carolina Wren sat and scolded me for about 15 minutes while I took pictures of him. A pair nested under the eaves of our garage, flying in and out through an open space we left in the window. I saw the parent once, bringing a twig, and never saw him again, or the babies, except when someone closed all the windows and doors. The parent flew back and forth frantically until I opened the back window for him again. Last fall, we bought a large gourd with a hole drilled in it to use as a bird house, and in the spring we hung it on the back porch light where a robin nested last summer. I was afraid that the hole was too big and the house would be used by sparrows or some other larger bird. To my delight, a pair of House Wrens moved in. Cavity nesters have a lot of common sense. The babies have no risk of falling out of the nest while they are still small. The nest is always sheltered from the wind and rain. My only question is how will the babies stretch and exercise their wings before fledging? There is no room in the gourd for that! Mama Wren is a feisty little thing. Her mate sits in the tree singing his heart out to defend his territory and delight the Dennis family. Mama Wren, however, will come up with a bug in her bill, and chase him all over the yard. I can almost hear her saying, "Get off that branch, you good for nothing songbird, and go catch some bugs to feed the children!" Since then, I notice that both parents are very active in bringing bugs to the gourd. At first the babies were quiet, but now we hear them chirping whenever one of the parents arrive. I hope we are home when they start to fledge. Wouldn't want to miss that. In Washington on our recent vacation, we heard many Marsh Wrens and Winter Wrens. The Marsh Wren is famous for hiding in a tree or a reed, right next to you, singing at the top of his voice, and remaining invisible the entire time. It was a challenge to get the camera to focus on a small brown bird in the middle of all the brown reeds in the marsh. I'll have to look for a camera accessory that focuses on the sound of the bird. I could make lots of money with it among birders!

Friday, June 22, 2007

May the Forest Be With You

The Pacific Northwest is renowned for its temperate rain forests. Usually we associate rain forests with the tropics, and most rain forests are tropical in locale and nature. There are half-a dozen coastal strips meeting the requirements for temperate rain forests: wet, cool, acidic soils; copious networks of flowing water; relatively little disturbance by wildfire or insects; coniferous trees, primarily, with many ferns and mosses, in layered growth; large amounts of organic debris; LOTS of rain.

Olympic National Forest receives over 100 inches of rain each year, caught from the Pacific winds by the tall coastal mountains. You can't walk without stepping on many kinds of lifeforms growing on top of each other.

The forest is a green cathedral - a cliche, no doubt, but very true. As a nature lover, it is a wonderful experience to walk through the cool shady paths, looking at the fern and moss varieties beyond counting. If I didn't like birds so much, this would inspire me to become a "fernologist", or whatever you call someone who studies ferns and mosses. Some ferns grow stems like bushes, then branch out, while others stay close to the ground. You need a magnifying glass to really see the mosses distinctly. This primitive plant life was dominant on earth for millions of years, and still dominates the forests in my view.

As a photographer, however, the forest is frustrating because it is usually too dark to get good photos. It is hard to make the camera pick up the height and sheer mass of the trees. Either the trees are too tall, or too big around, or too crowded against other trees. Trees die from wind damage, most often, but they contribute more to the life of the forest after death than while they stood upright. A "nurse logs" supports the growth of ferns, mosses, and tree seedlings of all kinds. More importantly, when they fall, a space in the canopy is opened to let light in, allowing young plants to sprout and grow as they could not do successfully on the shaded forest floor. Some trees have roots growing in an arch above the ground. They started growing on a nurse log, and reached the ground as the nurse log rotted away.

The cascading forest streams are great photographic topics. Not only is there enough light, but you can make the water blur or stand out in stop action as it tumbles down the mountainside. Mosses and other plants growing on the tree trunks and branches hold water gathered from the air. Rufous hummingbirds feed directly from this stored water, since there aren't many blooming plants. What a thrill to find a salamander under a wet rock or a Banana Slug on the trail. After a wonder-filled, awe-inspiring day in the forest, we drove back to our lodgings outside the park. Unfortunately, most of this drive is through areas that have been heavily timbered. In Washington, this means clear cutting of the forest. In many areas, only piles of branches remain on the ground. The larger companies make an effort to replant as soon as possible, but the smaller tracts lay bare for years. Replanting helps some, but trees that are all the same age do not make a forest, even when they become 30 or 40 years old. The death and varying sizes and ages of the trees are essential to many life forms in the forest. As we drove past these areas, I still had to ask myself if I wanted to give up books and newspapers, paper towels and toilet paper and paper towels, and 2x4's for houses. Isn't there some other way to provide wood products without such devastation? I'm sure greater voices than mine have argued this for years, without much influence apparently.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Vacation Bird Count

While we saw and heard many birds while on vacation in the state of Washington, we didn't really see the kinds of birds we expected at the ocean. It seems that Florida or Carolina always have lots of birds on the beach, including different kinds of gulls and the small wading birds that go down to the ocean and back. In Washington, we learned that large numbers of shore birds appear in early to mid-May for their migration back to Alaska, then they all disappear. This is a valuable lesson: check first to see what birds are in season, so you don't miss them by only two weeks. Inexperience gauging the tides affected our birding success too, since the birds apparently prefer some water rather than just mudflats. We did not realize that high tide is different in the marsh up the bay than it is on the ocean itself. The real surprise was the number and variety of birds at the Sewage Treatment plant ponds!
We saw Herring and Ring Billed Gulls (I think. They never came as close as the Florida gulls for a sure identification). Once I saw some gulls with black heads that I decided were Black-headed Gulls. There were Northern Shovelers, Mallards and Scaup. There were a few Great Blue Herons in the bay, and once we saw a group of Dowitchers. They were back-lit and in silhouette, so we only ID'd them when we saw more at the Seattle Aquarium. Surprisingly, we saw many American Crows wherever we went, whether at the beach or inland. I thought they were Ravens at first, but a Fish and Wildlife officer said they were just crows. They still looked like the trickster, sneaking up and spying on you. Signs prohibited driving on the beach to protect the Snowy Plover.
Small birds were everywhere, especially the White Crowned Sparrow and the Song Sparrow, singing in the trees. I think they must have been having a battle of the songsters, to see who could sing the loudest and longest without stopping. We would see a White Crowned Sparrow in a tree as we started a hike, and he was still in the same tree when we came out over an hour later. The Winter Wren gave them a run for the money too.
Many birds were recognizable variations of Eastern birds. We heard one that sounded like a Nuthatch, and when we finally found it, it was in fact the Red Breasted Nuthatch. This bird can be found in the East, according to the book, although I've never seen one here. There were many Towhees, a Chestnut-backed Chickadee and a variety of Junco with rufous sides, identified by Sibley as an Oregon Junco. The Marsh Wren sang from the marshes waiting for the tide to come in, while the Winter Wren rivaled our backyard Carolina Wren in the volume of its song. Swallows twittered and darted about no matter where we went, ocean, forest or town. They seemed to love the seaside cliffs especially. Although I did not identify a Cliff Swallow, we photographed the Barn Swallow and Tree Swallow when they stopped flying for a minute's rest.
Happily, we saw some of the more Western birds as well, including both Gray and Stellar Jays, and Clark's Nutcracker, which looks more like a Mockingbird in size and coloring. Like Jays everywhere, they have a reputation as a camp thief and signs warn people not to feed them, or the gulls. One clever sign warned the animals not to accept handouts from people who give them food unfit for animals to eat! The Rufous Hummingbird darted at us from behind a huge tree in the rain forest. I'd never really seen Hummingbirds except around feeders. The biggest thrill in our birding was at the beach. We noticed a shadow of something overhead, looked up and saw a juvenile Bald Eagle swoop down to the water, not 10 yards away, grab a large fish in it talons, and fly back up to the cliffs to have lunch. When is someone going to invent the camera that fits in your eye glasses and activates instantly!

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

No Such Thing as Being Safe

"It's a dangerous business going out of your door." --Bilbo Baggins How was your vacation? Pretty good, I reply. We didn't have to use the the tsunami evacuation signs. We didn't feel any earthquakes and the volcanoes did not erupt creating landslides, mudflows and pyroclastic clouds. I must admit to looking over my shoulder at the volcano the entire time we were there, wondering if today would be the day it erupted again. It rained a bit two days, but you expect that in the Pacific Northwest. That's why they have rain forests. In spite of being afraid of heights, I managed not to panic over descending the mountains we drove up, and we only got a little turned around once while driving, not really lost.

We tend to think of life as being safe and ordered most of the time, and instead, we are just really, really lucky. Our visit to Mt. St. Helens National Volcanic Monument emphasized how quickly life can turn completely upside down. 27 years after the eruption, this volcano seems a peaceful place, but the evidence of absolute destruction is everywhere. The horseshoe shape of the crater can be seen from satellite pictures, along with the snow covered peaks of neighboring volcanoes Mt. Rainier and Mt. Adams. This picture is taken from the Johnston Ridge Observatory, five miles away, and the devastation is still everywhere. If you click to view an enlarged version, you can still see a plume of steam rising from the lava dome.

The ranger talks to visitors made it very clear. If you are in the path of an eruption, you will suffocate or bake to death, even if you go to a shelter. There's nothing you can do about it. Debris traveled down the Toutle River, carrying a wall of mud, trees and rocks at speeds of 110-115 miles per hour, endangering the I-5 bridge many miles downstream and filling the valley up to 150 feet. The lateral blast, traveling at up to 670 miles per hour, quickly over took the initial landslide, affecting land up to 19 miles away. The sound of the explosion, however, was not heard locally, but only by those at a distance, strangely enough. Those 57 persons who died mostly suffocated in the hot ash. Two weeks after the eruption, scientists measured the pyroclastic deposits at temperatures of over 600 degrees, so they were much higher when actively flowing. Click to see the amazing pictures of the initial minutes of the eruption.

As volcanic eruptions go, Mt. St. Helens was moderate in size, but compared to other volcanoes in the Cascades range, it is much more active. The damage was from land and mudslides, rock and ash. Any lava that actually flowed was the consistency of toothpaste, we were told, unlike the Hawaiian volcanoes. This eruption was unique in that it has been closely studied by modern scientists. Past eruptions of this and other volcanoes were in non-populated areas, or in a time when people just ran for their lives instead of watching to see what happened. In addition to the eruption itself, scientists have explored the recovery of the area in different ways. Timber companies, such as Weyerhauser, experimented with replacing trees which had been destroyed, which I appreciate since the hills are green again, even if the trees aren't all that tall. In the protected areas, scientists are letting nature take its course to see what happens, and have been amazed at the speed of the recovery. Spirit Lake was completely sterilized and filled with dead trees, mud and ash. Yet in no more than 3 years, bacteria were bringing the lake back to be supportive of life, and within 5 years they were almost back at pre-eruption levels for the water chemistry. Plants and animals moved back in faster than anyone anticipated.

27 years seems like a long time, but geologically, it is only the merest fraction of a blink of an eye. Mother Nature will take all the time she needs to restore this area. The question is, when will this volcano, or any other in the Cascades range erupt again? When Mt. Rainier blew the last time, its flow went all the way into Puget Sound. It is so surprising to a Kentuckian like me, to be able to see three snow covered volcanoes while standing in one spot. The area is active. There ain't no place safe.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Pacific Ocean Breezes

We recently returned from a vacation to the Pacific Northwest, specifically, Olympic National Park, both Rainier and Mt. St. Helens volcanoes and Seattle. I took lots of photos, and it's hard to decide where to start. The ocean always puts me in a philosophic mood, so let's give it a go.
First, I know the Pacific Ocean is bigger than the Atlantic, and you wouldn't think that should make a difference in the kind of beach, but the beaches we saw are so much wilder feeling than those on the East Coast. For miles up and down the coast near Gray's Harbor, the beaches are huge. The sand extends for at least a quarter mile from the water's edge to the dunes where plants start growing, and they are hard packed enough that people treat them as roads. We expected to see lots of shore birds, but there were more crows than gulls or other birds walking around. We missed the northward migration of the shorebirds by about two weeks, and saw very few anywhere. The driftwood is enormous as well, usually big conifers that fell in the mountains somewhere, washed down a river and into the ocean, before washing up again on the beach. Even on a day with nice weather, the waves looked rough and dangerous. I'd be really intimidated by them on a stormy day in January.
The wind blows hard all the time onto the shore. Between the waves and the constant wind, erosion makes some dramatic scenes. Sea stacks are big rocks left in the ocean, when the rest of the shore has worn away. Birds use them for safe roosting, away from predators and humans. Eventually, they will wear away too. One stack is now three miles out into the water, but used to be part of the shoreline. I felt a real sense of time on this ocean, watching the cliffs and thinking how long it took for them to be worn back by tiny bits of sand in the never ending winds, helped by the ebb and flow of the tides.
Photos which appear to be out of focus are simply blurred by the sand in the air. The sand looked like flakes of gold as it filled in the sinuous patterns just out of reach of the waves. Sometimes the pattern was snake-like and sometimes it resembled a diamond-shape. I found myself pulling a hood up around my head to block the wind, while other beach goers wore shorts and tee-shirts. The Snowy Plover nests on the bare sand, and there are signs restricting access to those areas where this rare bird has been found.
Finally, once you get past all the sand, you find rocks which shelter small animals in tidal pools. but you must be careful climbing around on them. The surfaces are covered with small barnacles, while larger barnacles, mussels, anemones, sea stars and other invertebrates abound, whether the tide is in or out. We later learned there are no green anemones. The ones that look green harbor an algae that makes them look green, but they are all really white anemones. While we scanned for a path among the boulders, a shadow flashed by, and a juvenile eagle swooped down to capture a large fish, not 10 yards away from us, then returned to the cliffs to devour his lunch.
I love vacations. You get to see so many things you don't find at home.