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Weekend Reading | March 2016 Edition

I read a lot of things. And I’ve always thought of sharing the best of what I read here on Wingtrip and now I’m finally doing it. Below are a collection of articles I read this past week. I’m not endorsing every opinion, but instead shared them because I found them thought provoking, noteworthy, or simply fun. I plan to make a habit of this. Have a good weekend and enjoy!

An E.O. Wilson essay where he makes some interesting points, and at times, goes a little too far away from how I’d like to see the future of Nature and Humanity combining. Who knows, maybe we need radicalism?

The rebuttal to the above article. I tend to agree with their measured opinions.

A discussion of saving ecosystems, not just individual species. Some crazy stuff going on in Siberia in this one.

I’ve always found the search for animal language fascinating. A new study suggesting syntax from a Japanese bird researcher.

While a bit dense in discussion of management plans, this lays out issues with grazing on Malheur Wildlife Refuge (and why the Bundy’s weren’t the first intruders on the landscape). I’m not anti food production, but I am anti habitat destruction.

Why identification of plants and animals is a vital skill in biologists and not a bottom rung ability. I couldn’t agree more with this one.

And finally some light-hearted stuff about an old man and a penguin. 

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Wandering at Discovery

Discovery Park is a place I visit when I want a slice of nature and solitude but don’t have time nor energy to get to higher up or farther out. At any time of year I can go birding, get some exercise, and maybe get enough off the beaten path to hear myself think.

However, when the sun shines in Seattle, you know you’re going to have trouble finding quiet space outside. The parking lot full, and it took three full loops before I found a spot. I felt a bit guilty about not biking, knowing full well it would have been the perfect day to get out on my neglected, 3000 mpg steed. I’m pretty good a guilt in general, but lately I’ve been feeling especially so, guilty about where I stand, my work ethic, projects half finished, promises not kept, and innumerable other things. It’s a worthless emotion, and that’s why I was at the park.

Days before this I’d discovered I’d not gotten into a Master’s Program in Wildlife Sciences. While I didn’t explicitly expect to get in, I’d hoped I would. Hopes dashed, I realized I’d put a lot of things on hold while waiting. It seemed like a last chance for a career that might lead towards stability. As I sat in that rubble I realized it was time to get outside, make some art, and get back on the horse. Being in academia after all isn’t a tell all of intelligence and ability, nor the only means of making a living. As many academics tell me, it’s not a good way to make a living at the moment either (but for god sakes, that’s almost everything that’s both fun and legal). So, I bundled up a long neglected camera, journal, binoculars, and stuffed it all into a backpack with my self-pity and headed to the park.

There’s another reason I often seek out Discovery. It’s fantastic. At 534 acres, it’s the largest green-space in Seattle, with forest, wetlands, meadows, and shoreline all open for exploration. From the sandy bluffs one looks down on Puget Sound, across to the Olympics, and south to that bulk of all bulks, Mt. Rainier. On soggy winter days I’ve looked out on innumerable seabirds from the shoreline. In the depths of the forest I’ve found secret hideaways and come face to face with Barred Owls and coyotes. Despite a full parking lot, Discovery is the sort of place that even on a busy day, you can find a corner to yourself.

When a seasoned birder neglects birding, even the most mundane of afternoons can summon up thoughtful reflections and realizations of species not seen for months. It also takes you a moment to calibrate what you should and shouldn’t be seeing. With indian plum and salmonberry blooming and the mercury at 60, I felt I should be seeing neotropical migrants. But, it was only early March. Wishful thinking aside, Hairy Woodpeckers were making nuptial rackets through the second-growth and Ruby-crowned Kinglets were singing their chuckling songs, practice boasting before their exodus to breeding grounds. The twinklings of Golden-crowned Kinglets, Brown Creepers, and even a few Hutton’s Vireos kept me company as I wended through packs of joggers, dogs, and families towards the water.

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Indian Plum (Oemleria cerasiformis)

Discovery is far from pristine and unaltered. Crumbling roads course through the trees at seeming random. Overgrown orchards barely peak out from the creeping scrub. Yet, until you see the houses, those beautiful turn of the century houses, standing at the top of the meadow, does it dawn on you that this wasn’t always a park.

The officers’ housing, the decrepit old church, and several other buildings are most of what still stands of the previously sprawling Fort Lawton, established in 1900. The City of Seattle gave the original 1100 acres to the Army in 1898, but by 1938 was offered it back for the low price of a dollar. They refused at the time, facing the depression and having no extra money to throw at a thing as paltry as a park. By 1970 the land was being prepared for surplussing and the plan was to sell it back to the city for the creation of future Discovery Park (which finally opened in 1973). However, this tidily overlooked US. – Indian treaties that promised surplussed military land to the people who lived there first.

Looking at the Wikipedia page on Discovery, I find it fascinating that this last bit is left out. More recent turmoil, over the creation of low-income housing in the Northeast corner of the old Fort, is cited as the largest issue at the park. Ignored, and far more consequential, was a clash between the United Indian People’s Council (now the United Indians of All Tribes Foundation) and sympathizers (including Jane Fonda) who arrived to sit peacefully on their promised land. Their intention was to create an Indian University to teach and celebrate culture on the acreage; instead they were hauled off to military jail. Leonard Peltier, who later became a leader in the American Indian Movement, was among those present and this protest launched a career working with AIM to fight for native rights across the country.

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Seattle PI coverage of the “Invasion”

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Seattle PI coverage of the “Invasion”

The scuffle at Fort Lawton may have been brief and largely non-violent, but it ultimately required congressional intervention. A compromise brought about the creation of the Daybreak Star Cultural Center on a small section of the land. One of the original protestors, Bernie Whitebear (of the Colville Tribes), ran the center till his death in 2000. The center is still going strong. I remember visiting as a kid, listening to fantastic stories, and staring at wonder at the art on display.

I digress a bit, but minds wander when you’re alone on a walk. I found this being left out of Wikipedia astounding (despite being a sometimes vacuous source of information). As I walked, I wondered who would have been better stewards of former Ft. Lawton.

Fort Lawton closed in 2012, but there’s still buildings sprawling about an area of the park overlooking the South Meadows and Bluff. So far as I know, only the old Naval Officer’s housing, built in the early 1900s, are in use as private residences. The rest stand memorial in a Historic District, as old buildings that were utilitarian from their onset. The rather decrepit WWII era Chapel, used to stand outside this district and was set to be destroyed, until locals pushed to have the district expanded and the chapel made a city landmark. Now I suppose the only real use these uninhabited buildings get are from the local animals.

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The Sound from the Bluff.

Pondering the notion of land ownership, parkland, and wild-space, I bent under the long arbor of crabapples that sits at the top of a stairway near the South Parking Lot. The rasping song of an Anna’s Hummingbird brought me back to earth. There’s always one on the edge of this old orchard, abutting the houses and meadow below. It’s an ideal spot for Anna’s Hummingbirds to set up shop, and I could only assume there was a female nearby either sitting on eggs or young already. In 1970, before the park was a park (let alone when it was an active base), Anna’s Hummingbirds wouldn’t have been here at this time of year, not yet having become year-round residents of Puget Sound.

People were everywhere I looked. A regatta was in motion out on the Sound, and the Olympics were their usual gleaming, sublime selves across the water. Originally I’d planned to hike to the Westpoint Lighthouse, but midway through the meadow, I turned and disappeared down into a eroding cleft in the Bluff. The miasma of people gabbing loudly about their lives and the bright vomit of neon spandex was suddenly too much.

Then it was quiet. Or at least it seemed so. Then the other noise, the noise of non-people, the noise of nature was there. The buzz of a female hummingbird collecting spiderwebs mixed with the wind rustle of not yet leafed out big leaf maples and red alders. Water dominated the soundscape. Freshwater slid out of the hillside, picking at the layers of deep time from one side, breaking saltwater lapped at it from the other.

 

An off-limits area, this treadmill of deciduous trees atop landslides is used by high schoolers looking for a place to do illicit things, homeless folks to creeping away from judgement, and people like me looking for momentary solitude. It’s not really a secret spot but it feels like one. The steepness of the bluff and the prohibitory signs are enough to keep most away. I felt that twinge of guilt again, because I was being selfish in this expedition. Just because erosion is a natural process that builds land elsewhere, doesn’t mean one should speed it up.

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Looking back uphill at Esperance Sand and the top of the Bluff.

Walking down the bluff is like sliding through time and away from the city. If it wasn’t for the distant boats and planes, I could have expected a black bear or a coyote (the former being a recent one time visitor, the later a full time resident). And as you head downhill, you see evidence of twenty or so thousand years past, displayed in layers, demonstrating what just one (of at least five) push of the Puget Lope of the Cordilleran Ice Sheet could do. This sedimentary sandwich is what Seattle is built over, but Discovery’s Bluffs put them on display.

Glacial till is a term most Seattlites have heard. This till is the youngest and highest sitting sedimentary layer, the ground up material that was pushed around by the glacier itself. Scaling from finer grain, cement like material, to striated granite boulders, it’s what most of our houses are built on and what we struggle with in our gardens. This ground up material is practically non-existent at the South Bluffs, as it’s mostly fallen away under time and the heavy human foot.

What is immediately obvious here is sand, called the Esperance Sand, and older than the till above. At 200 feet deep, it’s what preceded the glacier, an outwash from the melting foot of the advancing glacial lobe. We see this layer all over Puget Sound, where islands are slowly melting into the water and exposed tan cliffs drop precipitously to the shoreline.

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Lawton Clay being washed away in a creek.

Below and yet older, is Lawton Clay. It’s my favorite because it stands out so starkly gray in comparison to the Esperance. I feel like I could bag it up and sell it to art schools around the city. This clay was formed when a massive lake sat over the region, dammed by the glacier. Rivers and streams deposited fine sediment into it, forming a solid strip of clay and silt. In many places it isn’t obvious because the Esperance Sand has slid over the top of it. Water running between these layers and over the clay makes a nice slip and slide for the sand and anything riding atop, be they trees or houses. Of this, the surrounding cliff-side homes of the Magnolia neighborhood are no stranger.

The final layer you can’t see unless you get down right on the shoreline in certain spots. It’s called the Olympia Beds, old condensed mud flats of river valleys and wetlands that would have spread out over the area before the last glacial advance. Even though this is the layer bearing extinct mammalian fossils, these beds represent what we probably would view as a norm; the climate and landscape when the beds weren’t covered would have been relatively similar to today. Because there’s more organic material here too, it’s easy to date, the oldest wood material found is from over 20,000 years ago.

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Salmonberry (Rubus spectabilis)

I may have been walking down through time, but really I was just looking around, thinking little of geology beyond the patterns it made. Stopping to admire more salmonberry blooms, I watched a flock of Black-capped and Chestnut-backed Chickadees flutter down into a stream bed made up of Lawton Clay. At first they were nervous to bathe, but I stood still and they eventually began to flutter around in the silty water. I enjoy seeing animals let their guard down slightly in my presence, it makes me feel like less of a monster.

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Looking to the Sound from just above the shoreline.

Down on the beach, hulking queen bumble bees, fresh from a winter underground thumped into the blooms dangling from the bank above. Clay spilled in great chunks onto the amalgam of worn rock, smoothed bricks, discarded metal, and bits of organic and inorganic detritus. I wasn’t the only person who’d had this grand idea, but I found a cove to steal away to, set up my spotting scope, and absentmindedly set to eating.

I thought about what exactly I was doing with my life, why I wasn’t having the success I wanted, why I couldn’t manage to support myself doing what I love, and why it felt like I couldn’t get anyone but my closest friends and family to buy into my ideas. I wondered momentarily if maybe I didn’t have any talent whatsoever and I should just settle into a rewarding career hawking outdoor equipment. Even with talent, any failures must all be my fault, because I can’t follow through. And why am I worrying about this when the natural world is collapsing around my ears? I wallowed a bit more in this slippery slope, lazily scanning the Horned Grebes and Surf Scoters on the flat water.

Somehow, looking at them preening and displaying to one another, snapped me out of it. The sun was shining, I was healthy, I was privileged, I had loving friends and family, and no matter what a college committee, an editor, nor anyone else, I knew what I wanted to be doing was important. Feeling sorry about it wasn’t going to help anything, nor get me to higher ground.

So I shouldered my bag and turned to huff up the literal hill to my back. En route  to the car, I ran into a fellow birder.

“There’s a Long-eared Owl back over there, might still be roosting in sight” he said.

“Nice find!” I replied, and thought to myself: Good thing I have my binoculars and camera.

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A Long-eared Owl (Asio otis), not a typical species for the park.

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Some Days You Just Need to Look Out

(Please note that the videos here are not supposed to be professional: 1) I’m not a pro. 2) It’s about the idea not the polish. 3) I’m lazy. I recommend reading and then watching.)

Outside my window I wouldn’t expect to see much. Outside my window it’s never truly dark and the screams of sirens and tall boats hailing low bridge attendants pierce the air. Outside my window I see the city, and even if it is my city, the emerald city, it’s still a whole lot of mess outside my window.

Yet when I wake up, the first thing I see outside my window are clouds and sky. If I sit up, blinking off sleep and don glasses, I can see more outside my window than blocks and cranes. Because outside my window there are also mountains and waterways and islands. Outside my window the crests bloom and contract with the light of the day; in fact outside my window right this very instant a band of light is a rose wash on a wilderness of peaks and snow.

So, outside my window the world is not just hard lines of the grid. Outside my window there’s more than noise and light pollution. Outside my window there’s more alive than people. Outside my window I don’t have to look or listen as far as those dark and light layers of water and trees and mountains.

Outside my window I can hear things stirring, things that aren’t morning commuters or garbage trucks. Outside my window I can hear crows cawing as they head to their territories; just as I’ll see them head home at night. Outside my window I can hear the complaining of gulls, circling overhead out of sight, who rest on my building while they keep an eye out for food. Outside my window I hear a flock of bushtits twitter between shrubs and trees that line the streets, calling to one another so they don’t stray too far or miss out on a particular invertebrate infested shrub.

Of course outside my window there are also squirrels, seen and rats, unseen. Outside my window I know there are dogs and cats. But outside my window, there are not lions roaming the streets, although I can hear them sometimes. Not far outside my window is a zoo, and the menagerie of exotic and rare animals there is somehow a comforting thought, a reminder that I have more to do than contemplate the things outside my window in spare moments as a city dweller.

Birds and trees are mostly what’s outside my window. A crow’s nest, scraggly, possibly waiting for the next year, sits outside the window in the bare trees between the wilderness of peaks and I. Anna’s Hummingbirds will surely be building a nest outside my window soon because I hear the aggressive rasps and twitters of a male. He calls this block his. Sometimes I see him outside my window, hovering high over those peaks, before diving deep and pulling out with a squeal of feathers though air. Outside my window jet fighters that could fit in in my palm duel for sovereignty and break the sound barrier. Outside my window conniving corvids have built tree houses out of found materials, snapping sticks just here, collecting rootlets just right.

Outside my window there are many other birds, robins and finches, falcons and hawks. Outside my window I’ve seen or heard 36 species in total. Outside my window I was surprised to hear an Evening Grosbeak calling as it passed by. Outside my window I wasn’t in the least surprised to see a Cooper’s Hawk lurking in the dawn.

And that reminds me, it’s not all fun and beauty outside my window. That Cooper’s Hawk, she’s around outside my window often. Sometimes, outside my window I see her preening, unconcerned by the crows stooping on her. Sometimes outside my window I see her crouched on a hidden branch, tail quaking back and forth, before she jumps low into the half-light, tilting through the foliage. I’ve never seen her pluck a bird outside my window, but surely she does.

Outside my window there are storms and sunlight. Outside my window great gusts seems to shake the hill my window looks from. Outside my window rain pelts and I can see nothing but a sheet of water. Outside my window the sun renews and drys and glints across the landscape. Outside my window I can watch the clouds come from the Southwest and know I’ll be warm and wet, or watch them trundle from the North and know a jacket will necessary.

There’s a lot of things outside my window.

The reason I’ve told you about what’s outside my window, is that sometimes, that’s about all we have: a moment glancing out the window. I look to the outside my window often; I crave what’s there. Outside my window there’s a whole world of excitement and nature even if much is just on the edges of the city. I know that when I get outside my window, good things happen.

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A River Out of Exile

From where we stood, the wide valley opened into the nothingness of low slung clouds. If brought here blindfolded, aside from a couple hints, I would’ve not known the location, other than a river valley in the Pacific Northwest. The give away was the river below, rushing through a thin cut in a breached concrete damn, the former Glines Canyon Dam. We stood above a point of major significance to National Park and environmental history: a free Elwha River.

I wish I could say I’d been up to see the two reservoirs, Lake Mills and Lake Aldwell, before the Elwha and Glines Canyon Dams were removed. Of course, growing up adjacent to many a hydroelectric dam, I’ve seen the reservoirs that form behind them. Simply, it would have had more impact to see the before and after for historical perspective. By March 2012 and August 2014, both lakes broke through the blasted remains of formerly held them. I had never spared a thought to see them before that point, despite the bureaucratic process commencing in the 1980s and the entire process spanning my lifetime.

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Looking down into Glines Canyon.

 

The dams were relics of the Olympic Power Company, which finished the Elwha Dam by 1913 and the Glines Canyon Dam by 1927, providing power to a pulp mill in Port Angeles. This was good for local economies, but not good for local fish. Ignoring the law, the dams were constructed without fish ladders and shut off all but around 5 miles of river habitat to the anadromous fish that had historically spawned in the river (FYI: “An anadromous fish, born in fresh water, spends most of its life in the sea and returns to fresh water to spawn,” NOAA’s succinct explanation).

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Caitlin looking into the former Lake Mills basin.

We’d driven up in a light drizzle through the lower valley, where I expected Elk to pop out at any moment. The corpse of Glines Canyon Dam was something my partner in crime Caitlin and I had discussed for some time. As the largest dam removal project in US history and the largest restoration project the National Park System has ever undertaken, it was worth seeing. The summer when we met, we’d watched the independent documentary Damnation, which specifically highlighted the removal of the dams here.

The site was quite pleasing on a gray misty day, a blanket of dark green conifers above, highlighted with the lingering yellow of a few deciduous trees. With no historical perspective whatsoever, it would seem to many just another pretty valley. Upon closer inspection, we could see where revegetation was progressing up the former lake bed. The river was already starting to wend in the manner of a braided river, a course set by the upheavals of regular flooding. It was hard to imagine a salmon making it up the steep, narrow section of the Elwha that rushed through Glines Canyon, but according to the experts, upwards of 70 miles of habitat, including tributaries above the canyon will be opened up to the five pacific salmon and two trout that historically spawned here.

In reading about this whole process, I was slightly shocked to hear the National Park’s discussion of fish returning suggest that within 20 to 30 years the river could be back to historic runs of these fish. While I am no expert, I found this hard to believe, primarily because the river is just one small (but admittedly vital) part of their lives. How the species in the upper river already, brook, rainbow, and bull trout, will compete is not yet known. The estuary downstream is not perfect and the deep ocean waters are highly impacted and far from pristine. While sediments will decrease over time with the help of two water treatment facilities, we can again only model how we expect things to happen. To me, the slightly educated lay person, it seems optimistic to suggest that a river reopened will be sole driver in population increases. However, looking at a map of the potential spawning ranges with the dams removed is pretty exciting, so much habitat is again available and it appeared the fish aren’t dithering about in the bottom 5 miles.

After over a century of being excluded, in September 2014 Chinook were found in the Upper Elwha. This is testament to the plasticity of Salmonids. In the time that these species have evolved in the Eastern Pacific, countless floods, landslides, volcanic eruptions, and earthquakes have required these species to be flexible. While we’ve brought a tidal wave of seemingly permanent changes and impacts on these species and strive try to fix a few, we sometimes fail to have perspective that we’re just a blip on the geological scale; if still a very very bloody, extinction prone, blip. I hope and suspect salmon could be around longer than us.

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Looking down at the former Glines Canyon Dam.

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Taking a brief moment to enjoy the ferns and mossy maples along the way.

Salmon have the power to connect many different people to the land, something well known by many a forward thinking conservationist, but that’s not the only reason they’ve been the figurehead for the dam removal. Salmon are one of a few major vectors for carrying rich marine nutrients across many ecosystems. In the length of their lives they travel through riparian areas, estuaries, and into the Pacific Ocean. Upon death they end up fueling plant growth as corporeal packets of fertilizer and filling the guts of predators, scavengers, and detritivores alike. The Elwha has been a shadow of its former self without salmon.

Caitlin and I were of course convinced of the value of all this of course, as most people were. As we climbed the gravel road towards elevated viewpoints, we twisted around an increasing amount of old growth and dodged dozens of Varied Thrush which seemed to be the only birds about. It was wet and mushrooms were everywhere, a nice thing to see after a very dry fall. We paused, peering down through clouds to think about the good things people can do for places and imagined what the upper Elwha will look like in the future. A might bit healthier it would seem.

At a spot where the bridge crosses the river below Glines Canyon, we stopped to enjoy the view. Sliding down a muddy bank, I got onto the river bed, where great rounded rocks stood testament to the power of water and the diverse geology of the Olympics. Hopping about, I looked downstream to the large stands of Black Cottonwood, sublimely golden on the mist and thought about where this river coursed: below various bridges, through former Lake Aldwell’s basin, and lower still through the Lower Elwha Klallam’s reservation. If anyone, these people have something to be thankful for. All my mutterings about how vital salmon are, about healthy ecosystems, are valid and necessary sentiments, but at the end of the day, these people have had a real reliance on this river and its fish.

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A panorama of the Elwha River mouth before the dam removals.

I’ve only been through the Nation of the Lower Elwha once, helping scope out an expansion of sites for the Seattle Audubon’s Puget Sound Seabird Survey. I don’t claim any true experience here, I don’t know the people’s history well, nor anyone from the tribe personally. I say this because I wish I could speak to the town of Lower Elwha’s beauty, with a river that stretches through it from deep in the mountains, flowing into the wide Strait of Juan de Fuca to the North, but it felt like most reservations I’ve been through. Decay and apathy were the pervasive tone. This isn’t a judgement on the people who call it home either. I’m fairly aware of the circumstances of reservations and I am also aware from perusing the Nation’s website that many of the tribe have pride for the place and its people. No one called the Strong People could be completely without pride. In some ways, it seems silly to think that a free river could bring the Lower Elwha better a economic and cultural climate, but I certainly hope that it does. Unlike many reservations, which in themselves are unrealistic ideas for the indigenous people of our region, many of the tribes on the Olympic Peninsula benefit from being on land that still offers them much. Casinos, gas stations with cheap gas, and still cheaper cigarettes and booze persist, and these lifesblood aren’t likely to disappear. Maybe in the future, they won’t be the only thing outsiders relate to the Nation.

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Harlequin Ducks at the Elwha mouth.

Across on the West side of the Elwha’s mouth there’s access to the beach. I’d been there birding several times before the dams were out and again never given it all that much thought to the site. Embarrassingly, it was just a small river running into a strait, and I didn’t think of the estuary that should be there. That’s slightly scary considering I am a person that should probably have some semblance of a clue, but also not surprising. I don’t know many “free” rivers. There are almost none in the Pacific Northwest anymore, most altered for power production or water management well before I was born.

The last time I saw the mouth was also during the expansion for the Seabird Survey. It was remarkable how much it had changed. Here was the beginnings of an estuary, an estuary everyone expected but not nearly so soon. Even I was able to see a significant change based on my briefest of impressions; this was not change brought merely by storms and tides. Here was a new beach, according to the reports, 80-100 acres not there before, built of silt trapped behind the dams. In all an estimated 60 percent of the 34 million cubic yards have washed out of the former lake beds so far, building the grounds (3 million cubic meters deposited at the mouth so far), for an estuary reborn.

In this estuary researchers have found large numbers of juvenile salmon and trout, which will use this as a safe jumping off point during their journey to adulthood. Two species of adult bait fish have been found here too, species near the foundation for many a marine food-chain, surely looking for places to lay eggs. Birds were everywhere, where before gulls had few places to rest as the sea washed right into the cobbles on the banks of river.

Watch above how the Elwha has changed over time, how it lost an outlet, how it built and destroyed beaches, and eventually rebuilt an estuary. Beginning in 1939; even a damed river changes significantly.

This all seems a grand rebirth, but I’m both hopeful and guarded. Likely, all we need to do is stand out of the way and not meddle any longer (once the restoration plan is finished). East of the mouth, there’s further testament to what a river delta can do, held back or not, and what happens when sediments carried by a river accumulate.

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Waves on Dungeness Spit, throwing pebbles in the air on impact.

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Looking West towards the Olympics and Port Angeles from the base of Dungeness Spit.

The Dungeness Spit, a relic from the Vashon Glacial advance, is growing. This isn’t news to anyone, yet still amazing; the spit growing at around 4 meters a year. Estuaries are complicated and change over time but where the spit sits, it collects sediments from the West and from the mouth of the Dungeness River which empties onto the Eastern tip. Historically sediments drifted from the Elwha too. Off Port Angeles, Ediz Hook, a similar spit is no longer growing because the bluffs around the Elwha are armored against erosion. This slows the inevitable process of soil sloughing into the sea. Over the previous hundred years the Elwha hasn’t had the sediments to build up Ediz Hook. Now, we could be seeing things start to change (as if they aren’t always), and scientists for the Department of Natural Resources are gathering data to have a complete geologic story of how erosion and rivers influence near shore habitats in this region.

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Playing in the surf and drifts.

Stopping at Dungeness Spit, a familiar spot for me as a birder, it was hard to see a connection between the narrow dam far away in that river valley and this 5.5 mile long, drift wood strewn beach jutting into the strait. The day had cleared and we walked out onto the beach, seeing erosion in effect as powerful waves slammed into the bluffs stretching West. We played with the waves, clambered about the old growth drift, watched Dunlin scouring the shore on the bayside, hoped for distant whales on the strait, and looked to the distant San Juan Islands. As day had cleared, it all seem a bit more connected.

There is much to be happy, thankful, and excited for in the releasing of the Elwha. I plan to see its headwaters someday soon, at the Elwha snowfield between Mount Barnes and Mount Queets, deep in the middle of the Olympics. Maybe when I do, I’ll see salmon not far below. It’s an exciting time to be alive if you love rivers because we’re realizing not all have to do our bidding. And after-all, besides a flood or two, what’s not to like about a free and wild river?

Footnote: If you want to learn more watch these wonderful series of short videos about the Elwha’s restoration, the film Damnation (currently on Netflix), and read the documentation of plans and the science behind it through the National Park Service.

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Debriefing with Dolphins

I wasn’t quite ready to say goodbye, to mull over a summer past, until I saw it from the air. A great dark mass bulging from the water, narrated by the strong white noise of a purring engine and spinning propeller. I gesticulated wildly at the two other passengers, thrusting my hand down, far below us, somewhere between Whidbey Island and the Olympic Peninsula. The mass thrust up again, this time I saw the trail of mist spreading out behind as it sunk below the surface. This was a whale, a very big whale.

During the summer of 2015, I worked as whale watching Naturalist and a Kayak Guide in the San Juan Islands. However, I wouldn’t call myself an expert at either activity because I respect the patina that time burnishes on your person, and to call myself an expert at whale identification or at kayaking despite having been paid for it, seems to be a disservice to those things I am truly expert at. Birding is one I can solidly stand by. Artistic expression is another. But equally so I’m unwilling to say I’m an expert writer or photographer just yet. Of course, expert or not, this was a formative experience.

The whale below us was probably a Humpback Whale (Megatera novaeangliea), but it’s identity wasn’t important. Simply seeing this massive animal, a sleek form breaking the gleaming surface was an unmatched sight. From the air I managed two more glimpses of it amidst the contrast of clouds and sunshine. The float plane was bound for Seattle, taking me home after spending two days as “talent” for a short video that my summer employer was creating. We followed the sound South, away from my old home, as it narrowed between strait, inlet, and bay.

I felt an immense sense of place in that plane. The land below me was familiar. This was home. Even if I’d never lived on the Olympic Peninsula, which floated by on my right, nor sped the length of Admiralty Inlet shimmering below. Even if I wasn’t born here, nor had roots beyond growing up in Seattle. Globalization is upon us, so if you feel a pull to a landscape, stick to it and cherish it, because few of us are from anywhere anymore. This thought struck me as the dark and light of land and water played past as we jostled South. I was finally saying goodbye to the San Juans Islands as my home for the past two years.

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Southern Resident, L92 with Orcas Island and Mt Baker in the Background.

Just as I don’t think I can rightly say I’m a whale expert, nor a kayaking pro, I’d be lying if I said I was intimately familiar with the San Juans despite my sojourn there. I know a few islands fairly well, but they still hold mystery and surprise along their shores and in among their mossy hills. There are some 400 islands and rocks in the chain and while I know their placement and could be tossed into them blindly and still find my baring, I’ve only set foot on a scant few (only 11 by my count). Embarrassingly I’ve even neglected visiting one of the largest, Lopez, in my entire life living in the Pacific Northwest. I left with a feeling of familiarity, but as always, a thirst to know more. There are more peculiarities of tidelines and high ridges to pick across, and more creatures hopping between islands and slipping between them to observe.

There were many things to say goodbye to when leaving the San Juans. The most special thing was living in a place where nature wasn’t a half-forgotten subtlety while plodding over concrete, but the entire tapestry of daily existence. You are so enveloped in trees and rock and water that you almost begin to take it for granted. Thank the gods I left before I did, because that would have been a sad day indeed. Of course there were friends and farms to leave behind, but it’s not as if I won’t see them again. None of the things that are there are gone forever, but I still miss waking up to the sounds of birdlife outside my window, watching the islands slide by as I took the ferry to work, and even spying a distant puff of exhalation as my boat of eager tourists unknowingly approached a group of black and whites.

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A member of L Pod surfaces way closer than expected near the boat.

Orcas, killer whales, grampus, blackfish, Orcinus orca, or whatever you wish to call them (as cosmopolitan species they have many names) are the apex predator of the Salish Sea. They are also largely what bring people flocking to the San Juan Islands, and why I was able to employ myself doing “fun” jobs for the past two summers there. No matter the fact that kayaking in the San Juans is fun regardless of seeing them, nor that a summer cruise between the stunning layers of spinning water, jutting islands, and looming mountain ranges, people want their whales.

What always surprises me however, in being a naturalist and a guide, is how little people knew coming on board or getting into a kayak. I don’t suggest I know all before I visit a place, but I do due diligence in arriving somewhat informed about the thing I wish to see. These charismatic animals are well worth seeing, taking the breath away regardless of your knowledge of them, but if I spent over $100 on a trip to see them I’d like to come with a baseline of appreciation beyond the outward appearance.

As it goes, killer whales are pretty fascinating species: wide ranging, highly intelligent, long lived, extremely social, masterful predators and yet still full of much mystery. They inspire and draw amazing scientists to obscure corners of the world to study them. They are the banner for many an animal rights campaign. Their image alone is stamped in the public mind as a creature of great worth, never to be forgotten.

On the average day on the water, I talked endlessly of these dolphins, because indeed they are the largest member of the dolphin family. This statement is a frustrating one to a scientist interpreting to the public, especially when it’s a key part of your introductory speech to a crowd of excited participants there to see “whales.” Saying “All dolphins are whales, but not all whales are dolphins,” doesn’t generally aid the concept, but I’ll let you, the insightful, intelligent reader, figure out what that means. There is of course more to these dolphins.

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A member of J Pod breaches in Rosario Strait with Mt. Baker in the background.

The Southern Resident Killer Whales (SRKW), as they are recognized federally, are an endangered population that spend most of their summer in the greater San Juan Islands. This in particular is the reason there is a flourishing whale watching industry (around $100 million a year); this population specializes in salmon, focusing mostly on the largest species of Pacific Salmon, Chinook, which pass through the San Juans en route to spawning grounds up the Fraser River in annual regularity between May and September. This specificity is great for viewing but is problematic for the species.

Salmon runs in the Pacific Northwest are much diminished from historic numbers, with four runs of Chinook Salmon between the Sacramento River and The Fraser classified as Endangered as well. This ultimately means not as much food for the SRKWs. When you are large (bulls weighing in excess of 14000 lbs) and spend all your life in very cold water (averaging 47 degrees Fahrenheit in the San Juans), you eat a lot of salmon. An adult male may eat 400lbs of salmon in a day (a fact I often used to demonstrate why we can’t effectively keep orcas in captivity).

Many people want to blame salmon numbers on over-fishing, which is a factor, but this is a very simplistic view. This fall I’ve been working as a naturalist teaching kids about Pacific Salmon and the ultimate take away is that the life of a salmon is hard enough without us tossing our challenges in the mix. If you ignore the fact that in natural and ideal conditions, out of 3-5,000 eggs laid only around 3 salmon survive to spawning adults; it’s no wonder pollution, dams, estuary disturbances, and the complexities of ocean acidification have caused runs to plummet. Salmon conservationists and orca conservationists have only recently started to work together, and their current largest push is breaching the Snake River Dam in Idaho. (Ultimately I think salmon are a far more compelling species to propel conservation efforts than orcas).

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J Pod near Victoria Harbor, Vancouver Island.

Things aren’t easy for the Southern Residents either of course and the struggles aren’t just lack of prey. There’s strong evidence that the chemicals from our waste water have major effects on their health and fecundity. Blubber that keeps a killer whale insulated also is excellent at storing chemicals, which vent in high concentrations when animals aren’t eating enough and use up fat storage between good meals. Imagine all that birth control’s ability to alter fertility in females and the potential of heavy metals to sterilize males. Vancouver and Seattle are growing, the San Juans are becoming an even more popular boating destination, and whale watching thrives, thus sound pollution from boat motors (quite evident while listening to Lime Kiln State Park’s Hydrophone), has become a serious problem too. For animals that derive much of their social well-being and predatorial skill from the aural world it’s not just unpleasant for them, it’s detrimental. To top this all off, in 1970, a huge group of individuals were snatched from the wild (dead and alive) on Whidbey Island’s Penn Cove and sold to what became a billion dollar industry of marine parks centered on orcas (Thankfully as I write this, Sea World is phasing out these programs). Today, we have a small population fragmented directly and indirectly by anthropogenic means.

This is a heavy weight to hold while you are trying to show people a good time and you can’t dump it all over your guests immediately. Some already come to the boat with grudges against Sea World and human greed, but others are often willfully ignorant or don’t feel the same. There isn’t a naturalist aboard a whale watching boat that doesn’t wish we could shout at the top of our lungs about how messed up things are, but we remain measured because this is not our sole role on board.

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Calf, J51 pokes up near Active Pass in the Gulf Islands, Canada.

Besides the fact, it’s hard to feel grim when you’ve seen the resident population increase. When I started, there had not been a baby since 2012, but by this October in 2015 six calves were bounding about their mothers’ flanks joyously. There are few things more fun to watch than a playful baby orca, the embodiment of happiness.

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J Pod off of Discovery Island, Canada.

One of the things that few people know about the Southern Residents (and their cousin’s the Northern Residents), is that they are strongly matriarchal. So strong, with long lived females like J1 or Granny, (who scientists believe is 104), that we can track family trees quite readily through observations. Regardless of gender, a SRKW stays with its mother as long as it’s alive. By using their life histories and the fact that saddle patches (conveniently positioned on their back behind the dorsal fine) are uniquely pigmented per individual, we know all the 82 individuals and can organize them into three pods which divided into smaller groups we call matrilines (the nuclear family of the resident world). J Pod currently has 29 individuals, K Pod 19, and L Pod 35. (We started studying resident whales in the Eastern Pacific near Northern British Columbia and started there with A Pod and went on alphabetically).

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Male Steller’s sea lions on Whale Rocks near Cattle Pass. At upwards of 2500 pounds, males are still on the menu for transients but probably less so than smaller females.

Besides the SRKWs, there’s another ecotype in the San Juans, the transients. When we say ecotype we mean a genetically distinct population, but not a sometimes interbreeding, slightly differently looking sub-species (I am not here to discuss species theory). In this case, transients appear one a b-line for speciation, and are doing so despite the fact that they may share the same waters as resident populations. Worldwide we distinguish between transients and resident populations as a baseline describing behavior, revolving around food preference and site fidelity. Southern Residents come back practically every summer to the San Juans and surround waters to hunt salmon. Transients in the Eastern Pacific could show a certain degree of fidelity to an area, as several groups of them in the San Juans do. However, they prefer to wander further and could show from Southern California to Alaska, which probably relates to their food preference: marine mammals. This has ultimately led to a divergence that’s driven not by geography but instead dictated by culture that’s centered on prey choice.

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Harbor porpoise lungs floating on the Haro Strait.

While I loved getting to know the individuals of the Southern Residents, their hunting style is lackluster in comparison to transients. Because they hunt seals, sea lions, porpoise, and even small whales, they tend to travel widely, live in smaller groups, be very unpredictable in movement, and put on amazing displays while hunting. I may have frequently told guests I wanted to see carnage when coming on scene with transients. And sometimes you do, like when I saw a bull breach with a seal in its mouth and slam it back into the water. Or the time I watched Harbor Porpoise lungs floating by on the surface as blood bloomed in the water column below us.

 

 

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A younger transient porpoises near the Cactus Islands.

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Transients sometimes play with birds. This pigeon guillemot was repeatedly swallowed and dragged underwater. For whatever reason it didn’t fly away but instead screamed at the orcas bothering it for over five minutes.

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A transient surfaces in New Channel with Spieden Island behind it.

I’ve left out a third ecotype in the Pacific Norhtwest, offshores, because we hardly see them. They may be the fish eating ancestors of Residents in our region but some evidence points to them specializing in sharks (along with other fish). The fact that we know almost nothing about them means very little in the grand scheme of things). In comparison to residents and transients, some of the most heavily studied wild marine mammals in the world, we still have much to learn and no doubt many surprises. And of course, that’s what makes every encounter so exciting.

I can’t possibly provide a synopsis of all there is to know about killer whales and all the questions yet unanswered. For being just one species, there’s a ton of great research on them. There’s also a lot of misinformation and discrepancies in popular accounts. What I’ve said above may not correlate with some information you’ll find online.

As I write about this sitting in Seattle, I’ve largely forgotten about the blustery, wet, bumpy, grumpy days on the water. I’ve forgotten about the bad tips on incredible days (and the spectacular tips on the worst days). The questions that left me searching for a hole in the head of the querier. The almost willful ignorance of others who were self-described “dorcas”. The questions of “can we get closer,” and “when do they breach,” and “are we there yet?” Ok, I really haven’t, but I’ve also not forgotten the many thoughtful people and what should really shine through: which was educating the public, learning a lot myself, and having a damn good time geeking out on nature in the process.

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A humpback whale shows its fluke pigmentation as it dives. This is primarily how we identify individual humpbacks.

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Dall’s porpoise, ones of the fastest and charismatic marine mammals in the San Juans.

I had days where we saw almost nothing. I had days where I stopped counting breaches at 54. I had days where we were surprised by orcas surfacing right next to us when they were last over 300 yards away. I had days where Dall’s porpoise were bow riding our boat to the delight of all involved. I had days where we were stuck, unable to motor away because transients were busy killing stuff all around us. I had days were I looked down at the murky image of an orca crossing beneath our boat. I had days where I could see the follicles around the blow hole of a young humbpack whale. I had days where I saw thousands of seabirds spread out over the open water and realized how little I really knew about their lives despite being a birder. I had days where the sun was shining, the birds were noisy, and everyone was smiling. I had days I hope to repeat in the future.

Being on a whale watching boat is challenging for so many reasons, but ultimately it’s because every naturalist cares so much about what they are doing and about the whales. We got upset when people willfully break the rules and get too close. We got frustrated by the amount of boats that chase around these spectacular animals just trying to survive and realizing in some ways, we were just one of those boats. We got frustrated by how immensely complicated it is to protect and help a group of wild orcas; it being so very conceited of us to think we can control everything, yet that we need to control much to lessen the problems we’ve created. We got frustrated by the people who wanted a sea world show and didn’t care about anything beyond breaches and babies.

Having spent five days a week for four months doing this job, I’d be lying if I said I was thirsty to do it again. I miss the water and the whales and the islands. The changing conditions of the water, learning to crew a boat, and the differences of each day made it truly exciting. Ultimately I’ve lengthened my chain of knowledge about Pacific Northwest natural history. I now have a much stronger desire to see more marine mammals in other parts of the world. And I have an unhealthy desire to own a boat and travel the intricacies of coastline between Seattle and Anchorage.

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Coming down into Lake Union.

Back in Seattle, I’m applying for graduate school and trying to get back into the swing of writing and taking photos (that aren’t of orcas), consistently. Flying back, after a final few days working on the water with the whales was a perfect debrief and final goodbye to a formative couple years. So I spent it mesmerized by the play of the water below, just as I would have on a boat, thinking about the scales of our world and giving thanks to the San Juans, my previous employer, my friends and family new and old, and of course to the whales.

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A Natural History Lexicon | Mantle

Welcome to Wingtrip’s Natural History Lexicon, a regular rundown of natural history terms, however varied and at random. To find future and past posts on this subject, simply search “natural history lexicon” or find it in the tags. Thanks for reading!

Mantle
Noun

/ˈman(t)l/

– A loose, sleeveless cloak or cape.
– Something that covers, envelops, or conceals: the mantle of darkness.
– Geology: the portion of the earth, about 1800 miles (2900km) thick, between the crust and the core.
-Zoology: A single or paired outgrowth of the body wall that lines the inner surface of  the valves of the shell in mollusks and brachiopods.
-Ornithology: the back, scapular, and inner wing plumage, especially when of the same color and distinct from other plumage.

On the occasional Monday I’m on farm egg duty and I stroll up through the little forest road to grab several cartons for the self-service egg stand. On this short walk I see many things, from early spring Calypso Orchids, freshly fledged Dark-eyed Juncos, and the vacuous deer who stare while grinding their choice greenery.

When I am on egg duty, it means no other hominids are around and despite avoiding my misanthropic tendencies, I enjoy this time. On this week’s journey we’d had some well deserved rain; everything felt fresh. I paused to watch a Hairy Woodpecker investigating the rotten stubs of broken branches and as I did, something on the ground caught my eye.

Looking down I discovered a pretty snail, spreading itself happily across a bit of fluorescent green lichen. What caught my eye was not actually the shell, which blended well with the earth tones of the forest floor, but the mantle, which was a beautiful bumpy coral red.

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A good demonstration of what a land snail’s mantle is used for.

The term mantle is a catch all that’s been used in variety of ways in the world of natural history, but stems from its roots, which revolve around concealment and capes. While a noun, it can be a verb, as raptorial birds may be found mantling over their prey. In both birds and mollusks (slugs, snails, clams, octopus, squid, etc.), the anatomical region defined as such typically extends out neatly below the head, very much looking the part of a cape in form and function.

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A Banana Slug (Ariolimax columbianus ) on the farm.

I found a Banana Slug enjoying the moisture on one of our outbuildings moments later and got to appreciate how the mantle we see in these gastropods really acts as a modified foot. Shells on gastropods emanate from the mantle. The cavity created by its folding may hold anatomy related to feeding, breathing, waste disposal, and even acting as brooding chamber. The mantle is a central part of their biology, but mostly what we see are the margins of a slug or snail’s mantle sliding about the environment.

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A closer look at the Pacific Sideband (Monadenia fidelis).

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Lewis’s moon snail’s (Neverita lewisii) mantle extending around its shell.

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The bizarre Pinto Abalone’s (Haliotis kamtschatkana) mantle (Abalone are a type of marine snail).

As soon as you start noticing something you tend to notice more, and the idea of mantles in the animal world stuck with me on my walk. A Violet-Green Swallow sitting near its nest had a beautiful iridescent green mantle, formed of feathers of the wing and wing coverts. This cape of feathers overlaps in the direction of the tail, shedding wind and water. In the birding and ornithological world, the mantle is often more talked about when it’s of contrast with the rest of the coloration but obviously all birds have such structure. Gulls are an excellent example, but infrequently would a crow’s mantle be discussed.

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A Western Gull (Larus occidentalis) and its dark gray mantle.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I passed the lovely snail several more times during the day, as it made its slow way toward a destination only it knew. As things warmed I found it against a Douglas Fir, fully tucked into its shell, for safe keeping and to avoid moisture loss. Even the mantles itself needs to be hidden in the case of snails.

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Barred Owls on the Farm (and a Brief Discussion of Non-native Species)

They were screaming from the woods. Over and over the piercing, wheezy complaints were just audible from the garden. I noticed them first and told everyone else to listen. Of course listening isn’t always hearing.

Soon everyone was tuned in, but I scrambled over the rusty deer fence into the forest alone. Walking around in my work clothes helped me blend in, but my clunky farm boots snapped just about every twig on the ground. I kept stopping while the fledglings momentarily kept quiet, to look and listen for trouble in the form of a bumbling hominid. In turn I was trying to figure out exactly where they were and wanted them to keep up the noise. Caution was quickly flown to the wind and I’d search the back-lit branches. Finally I met the dark searching eyes of a fluffy fledgling owl.

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One of the fledgling Barred Owls in the shade of the forest.

Barred Owls aren’t native to Shaw Island, and they didn’t start breeding in Washington State until the 1960s. Humans of European decent blazed a trail across the US for them, logging and creating their favored edge habitat. They’re not always welcome species, as they are aggressive. They either out-compete their relatives (Spotted Owls mainly) or in some cases, eat them (the severe decline of other smaller Western forest dwelling owls is no coincidence when paired with Barred Owl incline). I still appreciated them, because all owls are incredible and Barred Owl profusion in urban environments largely only filling a void long since abandoned by more particular owl species. (An aside is that I don’t agree with shooting Barred Owls to protect Spotted Owls. I don’t think it’s going to work. The issue is habitat destruction, not an invasive species removal.)

I’d had a rather perturbing conversation with an acquaintance the other day and it got me thinking about these animals while I watched them. To paraphrase the conversation, it went something like this:

Me: “Barred Owls impact other owl species that are native and already in decline.”

Him: “At what cost are we focusing on getting rid of species we perceive as ‘non-native.’ I think we should just have more education.”

Me: “So you’re saying we shouldn’t try to fix things we’ve messed up? Like rats on islands that devastate native animals and decrease biodiversity.”

Him: “But what impact is there on other native species when you go in to take out an introduced species? I think we should just have more education and appreciation.”

Me: “I don’t think that applies to animals we’ve introduced, appreciate goats on random islands? There’s pretty clear examples where removal of invasive species helps. Getting rid of rats on islands where they eat the eggs of ground nesting birds, especially in places with no native land mammals is a pretty obvious win.”

Him: “Well I think there just needs to be more education and we need to appreciate species. And not waste money on restoration.”

At that point I walked away. What was meant by education was never presented. Pseudo understanding of science and the natural world is something that’s common in the world of guides. Don’t get me wrong, some are amazing naturalists but…Ok I’ll leave it at that.

This was however a classic discussion of what is “native” and what’s not, especially when we are the means of a species’ introduction or further expansion. I agree we need to be as plastic in how we view them. However, if we can make the choice between having a greater or lesser bio-diverse world I think we all know the right choice. The thought that we should simply just throw our hands up and let invasive species surge forward in the name of enlightenment or something in the realm of species equality (hippie bullshit about all species being equal without a clear look at the actual biology) is just plain stupid. If we have limited resources, possibly education is paramount to restoration or eradication efforts, but it’s a gray issue at best. Barred Owls are a very gray issue because while they don’t belong here, again they are the only owls expanding in the urban niche in the West. Choosing between having owls and no owls is an easy choice.

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One of the parent Barred Owls.

So, was I looking at future hellions in the downward spiral of homogeneous ecosystems or merely some adorable baby owls? There used to be Western-screech Owls on Shaw and there are a few Northern Pygmy-owls too. Spotted owls? I doubt it, but I don’t actually know. I err on the side of adorable babies, despite my annoyance at my aforementioned conversation. They’re just babies trying to make their way in the world.

The next day I woke up and as soon as I walked out the door I could hear them. They were closer and as I did chores in the garden I knew they’d moved beyond the shadows. Within minutes of searching at midday I found them again, right on the edge of the forest, sitting contentedly in a Big Leaf Maple.

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Both siblings taking a second to evaluate me between sleeping.

The plan was to simply sit with them and enjoy their downy personages, but I was seduced by the photographic opportunities. Retrieving my camera (and adding to a small hoard of notebooks, tripods, and binoculars I’d amassed), I crept back to my vantage. I wasn’t hidden but I felt I was far enough away to not deter parents from bringing food. As I started to settle in, I realized there was an inordinate amount of whitewash around me, (a nice way of saying poop). Then I looked up, into the face of an adult Barred Owl, mere feet from where I sat.

The next several hours with the owls were wonderful. These birds are so personable, for whatever reason, that you feel as if you are in their company. The adult moved around a few times and gave me half-concerned looks when I stood below. I crept beneath the youngsters and watched them bob their heads in curious evaluation, stretch, and most importantly, screech for food. In fact, even when they lounged across their respective branches for midday naps, they’d stir from their slumber to scream for food. Watching their heads progressively droop in the heat of the day, pinky eyelids drooping, only to jerk up to remind the world of their borderline starvation was riotously adorable. I have no other way to describe it.

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“What are you?” Or at least that’s what I imagine this little one was thinking.

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“Ok, bored of you. I’m hungry!”

I took breaks, and of course I missed the best photo opportunity while going into the garden to harvest greens for dinner. Five rolled around and I heard more excited screeching and looked up to mom or dad (owls are not generally sexually dimorphic in plumage) flying toward the babies with a snake! One sibling grabbed it first and managed to hop off with it while the other pleaded for a taste nearby. The first managed to wolf it down without having to share.

By the time it was getting to be dusk they’d moved a few times closer in the direction of my home. The fledglings were just that, fledged, but that didn’t mean they were steady. They tumbled down when choosing rotten branches, barely catching themselves on outspread wings. One almost fell when it tried to balance while stretching and then again when rubbing its beaks on a branch.

I had one last glimpse of a parent in a quick, quiet flight over the meadow, landing near where I sat watching. In that moment I didn’t envy this bird, even though it could fly, had amazing hearing, and can turn its head almost 360 degrees in a circle. All I could hear was the screeching of hungry babies and think about how it’s life is hard enough without humans deciding if it’s valuable or not. Although I was kept awake longer than I wanted listening to the owlets continue their begging, I didn’t hold a grudge against them as a species, they were just trying to eat some mice (and maybe a snake or two).

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A tired parent dozing in the middle of the day. Barred Owls are one of the more active owls in the daytime. But they are still most active around dusk and at night.

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Reservations and Jumpstarts

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Sunsets on Shaw don’t suck.

I didn’t realize I was feeling stressed till I walked around the farm. Out there were the waves of green I’d forgotten about. Aimlessly I dawdled between this plant or that. Admiring the life I’d helped my friends stick in the ground, meditating on what had brought me here, and what might make me leave. This was precious moment without engines or people or anything but an evening stroll in the twilight warmth of the Pacific Northwest.

We forget how to be kids and how to play all too easily. I realized I hadn’t drawn, rolled in the dirt, or laid and watched the clouds roll by without an agenda for too long. I climbed a tree to try to look at a Northern Flicker’s nest but found out what I already knew, that it was too deep to look inside. I walked and listened through the trees and around the recently cleared pond and thought about my choices in the reflection of evening in that dark surface. I glanced at flits of robins and juncos as they moved warily about in the hour when predators strike. A white flag waved over the field, a young buck bounding closer to its kind, eight of whom were browsing down on the edge of the maples. I took photos of junco eggs, left unattended long enough for me to squeeze a smart phone in the cramped space they’d chose in one of the outbuildings. Inside were four beautiful blue eggs resting on chicken feathers from the farm.

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A double exposure taken while floating on the pond on Old Copper Farm where I currently live and the trees nearby.




 

 

Earlier in the day I’d been on a boat, so far from here, mostly in terms of my sentiments but also in terms of environment. Lazily sliding up the Haro strait we’d started seeing whales off the wild side of Henry Island, where Kellet Bluff draws the Southern Resident Killer Whales against the steep dive into the Strait. We watched from a distance as several females crossed North, including the new youngster, dubbed J51. Everyone is deeply tuned to this little one, a newly needed youngster for a declining population. How little we see of these animals, how little we really know despite intensive efforts, how much a small cross section of scientists and enthusiasts really care for them.

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A male in J Pod on the Haro Strait.

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Dall’s Porpoise in Boundary Pass.

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California Sea Lions on the waterfront of Newport, Oregon.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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I pretty good summary of my exploits: a camera, a computer, a notebook, and little things I’ve collected in my wanderings. The only thing missing is my binoculars.

I looked out from a musty cave of contemplation and saw people all around me, some who feign care for this one day, some who try to make it a part of their daily regimen. I don’t blame people individually, except those who peer down at humanity from steel towers with sweeping decisions made across tropical hardwood boardroom tables. No, most of us have a hard time even pretending to care for the planet and even those who do and work actively to save it are still tapping away on gadgets made from petroleum and metals gouged from the earth. Maybe we’re just not capable of saving ourselves.

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Paintbrush and Buttercups on Yellow Island in the San Juan Islands.

Still, I try hard to focus on the overwhelming biodiversity, the connectivity that spans continents and oceans, and how I can see all of it in my lifetime. Because really I’m as selfish as anyone else and even if my writings and photos make an impact, I know deep down that my carbon footprint is too high and that we’d be better off moldering in a cabin in the woods with the lights off. This has been said before by me and other people, but I keep coming back to it. And really, I still want to climb through Tropical Deciduous Forests with the racket of Magpie Jays overhead or cruise on a boat alongside Killer Whales. Sometimes I think my Biophillia is really a disease that urges me forward to travel farther and gulp more petroleum.

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Beautiful skies in the San Juan Islands.

And yet, I can’t help but laugh at how helpless people are despite all our power of imagination and ingenuity. How a boat can break down and you can float, with no power over tides or currents, watching the land sink away from you and cursing the very thing that’s keeping you from freezing to death in the frigid Salish Sea. How you can drink a beer as consolations prize and grumpily watch a dandy Common Loon sink into the water like it was made for diving, because, well, they are.

Usually I don’t feel guilty for being human, because despite dark moments (and my life has been blissfully free of anything short of melodrama), we have so much to be happy for and in the best circumstances we can live with relative pleasure alongside most other organisms. I realize that as I write this riots are breaking out over inequalities, terrorists hold court over poverty stricken hamlets, and that children die daily from curable diseases and malnutrition. And there’s that whole we’re destroying to planet thing. I know there is pain in the world and I don’t believe in it going away, the same as I don’t believe humans can find utopian understanding with the natural world.

Yet I still want to do my bit and try to be happy at the same time. I’ve seen what anger can do to people and while there’s much to be angry about, it’s not an emotion that makes things better in most circumstances. However, the joy that comes from watching Turkey Vultures tilt across the sloped hills of the San Juans or finding a blooming cactus hiding on a hillside of sagebrush along the Columbia River will never turn sour. Watching birds arrive and depart, is far better than slinking around looking at all the destruction, because while I know we can do better, I also know we can do worse.

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What’s even better is having someone to find those cacti with. These are Snowball Cacti, a type of Hedgehog Cactus in the Columbia River Gorge near Vantage, Washington.

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Velella velella, a monotypic hydroid (jellyfish relative) that have semi-regular standing events where millions if not billions wash up on shore. This stinky mat covered the beach in Ocean Shore Washington. I got to see it while helping my friend scout for potential new seabird survey sights in Grays Harbor, Washington.

Sometimes it’s useful as a writer, artist, or whatever else I or anyone else calls me, to simply vent thoughts without an aim or theme. There’s this strange expectation to convey information, not sentiments, in the world of discussing natural history. Some might believe there’s not room for both artistic spirit and scientific precision. I agree it’s a fine line to toe but it’s not impossible nor should it be discouraged. I’ve been told I’m not an artist, not a scientist, not a journalist. My output has been plugged with the worry of this, a greasy wax that I’ve been working away at for the last few months. It’s almost squeaky clean, as it was before it was abused by time and the unnecessary opinions of others close to me or otherwise.

So today I’ll go outside and use all my senses, listen to the birds, think about the animals of the deep, and try to learn from the people around me. I’m an optimist and I believe I can have fun, make a difference, and see a good portion of the birds, natural wonders, and distant locales in my lifetime. I’ll experience pain as things decline and waver (both in the world and personally) but that shouldn’t stop me from writing or taking photos.

So maybe this wasn’t what you expect from Wingtrip after a silence for a few months. But it’s a necessary release, and hopefully you’ve enjoyed the photos I’ve included because I’ve been busy and seeing things despite the pause in content. Sometimes I have to remind myself that I’m still doing cool, valuable, things when I’m not hunched over a computer typing or editing photos (evidenced by the photos here in) or posting on social media. Straightforward science and nature communication will resume shortly. Thanks again for reading, perusing, and maybe enjoying from time to time.

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Photographing Just the Bees, Not the Birds

Winter in the Northwest was deflated this year. Spring seems to have come early, because we never really had those agonizing monotonous days of gray skies with just enough rain to keep you indoors, but not enough to feel like you should. I still managed to hibernate, but as soon as I started seeing signs of spring, it’s been hard to stay inside. Writing is hard enough to sit down and accomplish in the worst of weather; now when I look outside I see opening leaves spreading in chartreuse banners in light winds and sunlight. My ears hear birdsong all day and then frogs by night.

Birds will always be my best signals of the comings and goings of the seasons, but as I’ve delved into other species, I’ve found plants and insects to be delightful auxiliaries. The difficulty is that I know less about them, so while I can name a plant and notice an insect, I have little to go on from there. Plants are easier, they sit still and they have a broader “fan base.” Insects, and other invertebrates are a different beast.

In some way this is infuriating. Unlike many vertebrates and much of the plant kingdom, I can’t simply reach for a book. Yes, the enthusiasts of dragonflies and butterflies have lavish regional guides, which make the thought of identification for amateur possible. Most other terrestrial invertebrates do not have such popular standing. To say the least I’ve been spoiled by years of birding; field guides are typically available for every region. Building a field guide is no simple or cheap task for any group of organisms, so it makes sense that birds have some of the best; birders are a huge market.

In other ways, this makes taking a closer look all the more exciting. I know when to expect birds, what I’m hearing, and much of their life histories. Spying on the insects that peruse plants now in bloom provides the entertainment of finding an alien world vibrating right beneath your nose, all but unimagined if not ignored by my patronage of larger more obvious natural fare.

My favorite thing this spring has been examining the Big Leaf Maples (Acer macrophyllum) as they’ve pushed out first blooms and then leaves. Two months ago I anxiously waiting for the first flowers on the earliest blooming trees on the property where I live, on Shaw Island. I found myself pacing back and forth to see the first pendulous yellow blooms, peaking from their packaging inside splitting red buds.

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A Big Leaf Maple bud just opening.

These maples are one of the earlier blooming native plants in the Pacific Northwest, just shy of currants and salmonberries, which are the first harbingers of both Spring and the return of Rufous Hummingbirds. As they pop, the insects go wild. Bumblebees are well known as an early season insect because they have excellent insulation and large enough mass to get going when others are still eggs, waiting for a warm weather trigger or pacing about in their hibernaculums. There are lots of other early season insects ready to get their first stab at pollen and nectar.

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Tons of insects on a maple bloom.

On a particularly sunny and calm day in early March, while avoiding writing, I walked over to my favorite maple and was astonished by the activity. There were thousands of insects visiting the flowers and the trees literally hummed with activity. Standing there I realized I had no idea what any of them were and I didn’t really know how to start.

Not too long ago I created a DIY macro photography setup. That was a good first step to learning a few of the insects. Armed with a reversed 50mm lens, a self designed diffuser, and an orchard ladder, I headed over to try to get some images. I’ll save the technical descriptions for elsewhere, but to say the least I had a difficult, yet rewarding time taking some shots.

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Atop a ladder, where I tried to weave in close to insects for their mugshot.

The seemingly simple task of taking macro photos of insects provides the photographer with much fodder about their subjects. Some will permit you to move close, others want nothing to do with you. Taking pictures in full sun is great, but when the buggers slow down from colder temperatures they are easier to snag in focus. Windy days aren’t great for good photos, nor for insect activity. Your shadow not only blocks light, but scares everything.

The technicalities have little to do with the excitement of seeing this new world. Camera or not, I was witness to much I can’t say I fully understood. Flies and bees were the bulk of the visitors, but the variety was astounding and it became clear this wasn’t a simple feeding grounds. Predators were roaming. Progeny were being created. Mimics fed calmly under the cloak of others’ clothing.

To a large degree all I could do was watch and look for patterns. See a fly as a fly, a bee as a bee, a beetle as a beetle, and move on from there. With mimics, even that can be confusing.

I discovered Mining Bees (family Andrenidae), little bees that nest in the ground. They’d hatched even before the mason bees that love the holey old barn-wood about the property, but are about the same size. They’re solitary, which means a female digs and builds her nest alone, making them easy to miss. Their size also means most people don’t notice them. I’d read about them before, but didn’t really know what they were till I had them in frame.

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A species, yet undetermined, of mining bee.

I discovered Dance Flies (family Empididae). They were obvious, big, creepy flies bouncing about their aerial leks, males showing off for potential partners. At first I thought they were merely eating nectar, but when I took a closer look at what I assumed was mating, instead found crumpled insects grasped in long red legs. Shortly after I watched them hunting: a fly making stabs at other smaller visitors on a bloom while also feeding. And feeding: the long mouth piece probing into a squished fly like it a gruesome smoothie. It turns out that males acquire a food item with the goal of enticing a female, who then feeds on the prize while the male mates with her (partially it seems, so that the male doesn’t become the food item himself).

I discovered that figuring out what species I observed would be a challenge and would take a lot more research than I could do on the internet or without specialized books or expert advice. I would have to be satisfied with small steps, which I’m stumbling toward. Why? Because I can’t seem to stop trying to learn more.

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A beetle, which means I can get down to Coleoptera, the order of beetles, which means essentially nothing because they are the most specious order of all insects.

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A fly mimicking a yellowjacket. Pretty cool, but again, I have clue what it is beyond a Dipterid.

The first maples that bloomed aren’t swarming with insects now. At their peak, even a night they were covered in moths. They’re still dangling blooms, but I get the impression the food is mostly gone. That’s a bummer, but I suppose I’ll just have to move on to other trees or wait till next year. I can still fall back on the birds, who are building nests, just arriving, moving through, and almost constantly singing these days. They’re a lot less work than insects or plants, but maybe I’m just lazy.

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How to Take Macro Photos on Budget

Last year, feeling in a bit of a rut photographic rut, I decided to act on a DIY project I’d been contemplating. In my internet perusals of nature photography I’ve always been impressed by macro photography of insects and plants and I found a photographer on Flickr who was doing something I’d never seen before. Instead of spending hundreds or more on a dedicated macro lens, he had simply flipped a lens.

The short and sweet no physics required, of it, is that a camera lens or even binoculars, flipped in reverse, magnifies things. This is all well and fine, until you realize you need to attach the lens to your camera and that you loose much functionality in the process. You can no longer focus and aperture adjustments are not nearly as dramatic as before. Still, I wanted to see what I could do.

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The body cap and filter combination connected to the lens.

My goal was to spend as little money as possible. So I started with what I had. My first step was to take a camera body cap. This, with a hole cut in it and glued to a clear filter, would allow me to attach a reversed lens to the camera. Hole cut, filter glued on, I was able to afix a manual 50mm 1.8 lens to the filter and attach the body cap to my camera. Peering through the camera, I could see I was in business.

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You have to be careful, you are exposing the rear element and the connection points of your lens by using this method.

Everything was manual, so I had to not only guess at exposure but literally move the camera back and forth to focus. With a tripod I was able to make very slight adjustments, but this only worked for stationary subjects. Animal subjects had to be sought out and slowly approached with an asinine undulating of one’s head. With some practice, I was in business and getting halfway decent shots considering the very simple and cheap route I’d gone. Then, I ran into another issue. Light.

With a 50mm lens flipped, you tend to be very close to your subjects. The very reason 100 and 200mm macro lenses exist is because not every creature appreciates close quarters, nor does getting really close help the lighting situation. The problem of light can be overcome with fancy macro flashes, but this was low budget operation with no way to move away from the subjects.

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A Pacific Tree Frog (Pseudacris regilla) resting on my hand. This is a true macro shot, the image is 1:1, meaning its a life size image (actually a little bit larger). Pretty sweet for low budget.

Because I am interested in off camera flash and creative lighting, I own several speedlights which could be put into action. I originally considered using my wireless kit to trigger a remote flash, but when you’re chasing insects it’s too hard to get one set up properly. So I opted to use a wired system on a bracket attached to my camera’s tripod mount, which can articulate the flash. I could just put the flash on the camera’s hotshoe, but that’s not always where you want light.

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The full lighting bracket. I’d like to get something more sturdy, but this works well for now.

The bare unit alone wasn’t going to fit the bill, so I created a diffuser that would simulate natural light, beamed from above. The first iteration was made of cardboard, tracing paper, and lots of duct tape. That lasted surprisingly long, but this winter I built a tougher version that can extend and contract, out of plastic, clear poly vinyl, and again, lots of tape. It also works surprisingly well despite looking very low budget.

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The diffuser, fully extended. Notice that the clear poly vinyl. The only part that light can pass through, is a square which points downward at the subject when the flash sits normally.

Yes, in the future I’d like to invest in all the fancy gear, but for now, this works pretty well and allows me to have fun without going into debt. Of course one can buy a screw on macro filter, buy extension tubes, or use a point and shoot, which can be remarkably good, but my goal was to use my current camera and not buy more stuff. The build was pretty simple and cost me nothing more than what I had lying around and various adherents (and I’m happy to answer questions about the process). By far the hardest part is getting perfect focus, which is still achieved by bobbing my head back and forth like an idiot. I’ve always wanted to find more ways to simultaneously look moronic and embarrass friends and family while observing nature . Now I’ve found it.

I’ve been making good use of it lately, so look for more shots and posts soon.

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Fairy Slipper Orchid (Calypso bulbosa) right out my front door!