Zen and the Art of Tadpole Rescue

Vashon Nature Center - Pacific Chorus Frog Tadpoles

I have been engaged in a ritual the last couple of weeks that involves such focus, attention and agility, that the world drops away and I go into a near meditative state. It’s not a wise Eastern tradition, drugs or hypnotherapy, but it is mind-expanding and therapeutic. It is pollywog patrol at our little pond. The Pacific Chorus Frogs’ spring symphony was well attended, and our tiny pool is brimming with their wriggling progeny, all in various stages of development.

Water flows into the pond from a nearby spring, and when it hits a certain level, it flows out of a pipe on the other side. This is what has become for some extreme young frogs what my daughter and I call “the waterslide.” As in high-water years past, daring or inattentive tadpoles get the ride of their lives if they get too close to the lip of the long pipe (which is lined with tempting layers of algae—like a sushi bar perched on the edge of a waterfall—with suction). We can hear no cries of delight or fear, so we don’t know if they like it or not. But regardless, after a 12-foot-long ride they unceremoniously splash down in a ditch at the side of our driveway. This is where one or two times daily I find myself squatting and searching, scooping up the wayward offspring into plastic containers for return to their more hospitable nursing grounds.

Vashon Nature Center - Tadpole ready for release

Ready for release.

The first time on duty, I collected 30 or 40 little swimmers and called it good, but lately there have been many more. Either this sport is catching on, the water table has changed, or there is a new sushi chef. There are hundreds of little froglets in this “holding pool” morning and night! It becomes a game to see if I can find and catch them all. Their sizes range from the tiniest newly hatched beings—with heads no bigger than this letter “a”—to their older siblings with bodies the size of my thumbnail, distinctly athletic back legs, and a narrowed head shape that signifies near frogdom.

Some of the older tadpoles’ bodies are patterned in metallic gold—flashing beauties seemingly readying for their coming out soirees. I marvel at their instinctual fear of my lurching hand as I swoop down to save them. Their camouflage is near-perfect as they scuttle among rocks, leaves and other pond detritus. Sometimes I strain the water between my fingers, holding their near-weightless, tickling bodies for a moment before plopping them in with the others.

After I awaken from my trancelike state (or my leg falls asleep), I take the teeming masses to the re-entry ledge at the edge of the pond. After gently pouring in the evacuees, they stay stunned and still for a minute or two, probably dizzy from the constant swirling that accompanies the catch-and-release procedure.

I’m sure there is an engineering solution to this problem. But I’m not sure I want one. Today on the way up the driveway from the bus, my teenager called me on her cell, “You’ve got to come help me save them!” She was down at the ditch, corralling wayward tadpoles with her bare hands.

Tadpole Collection Station - Vashon Nature Center

Busy at the tadpole collection station.

Handbook for Not Owning Land

I step off the gravel road onto a trail hidden by undergrowth. Sword ferns and cedar branches close behind me like a curtain, and my breathing subtly changes. My senses tune to nature’s frequency and I begin to hear them: The high chiming of golden-crowned kinglets; the questioning eponymous cry of the towhee; a croaking curious raven. Colors seem more vivid: witches’ butter—a gelatinous orange fungus that a friend once convinced me to taste—oozes from damp madrona bark. Lichens sent sailing in last night’s storm populate the path in contrasting luminescent greens. A downy arch of blue-gray feathers is a bittersweet epitaph to a short life in flight.

Witches' Butter Fungus

Witches’ Butter Fungus

After traversing a small ravine, the trail crisscrosses another, and a sign nailed to a hemlock tree catches my eye. “Land Corner” it declares in square metallic authority. I continue on, but as I push between glistening salal and the waxy leaves of evergreen huckleberry, the statement nags at me. The words “land” and “corner” together seem an oxymoron. This phrase represents right-angle thinking in a stunningly chaotic universe. What in these woods is square? Does the millipede follow a grid system? Shall the strut of the field mouse be geometrically contained? I turn a circle on the path searching for corners. Humans have divided and labeled this place to own it, control it, make it work for them. Of course it can be argued that birdsong is math and an insect’s body is map-able, but try to chart the soul of nature and I think you steal something from it.

The sign makes me think of a radio report I heard about the Inuit people when they gained governance of their homeland, an historic alteration to Canada’s map. In 1999, the Northwest Territories were divided into two sections: the Eastern part, now known as Nunavut, is managed by the native people who have called it home since the beginning of snow. Nunavut occupies one-fifth of the country, stretching from Manitoba in the south nearly to the North Pole. The concept of property ownership is not part of Inuit culture—they believe they are one with the land. In the radio interview, one native leader expressed his desire to write a handbook for owning land to help his people more clearly conceive this new relationship. The idea of needing to learn about what it means to own property has crossed my mind many times since I heard that interview. When I think of guidelines that could help my own culture, it’s the counterpart to the Inuit document, a handbook for not owning land.

It is essential reading I could benefit from myself. As a landowner I struggle with what’s right for one tiny slice of this glacier-carved island. Admittedly, a cornered document legally proclaims it as my family’s piece. I worry over the best way to steward it. Do we remove alders to benefit conifers? How many, and which ones? Shall I mow the grass near the pond, or will that impede amphibian courtship? Is feeding hummingbirds a selfish act?

I own this land, but it equally owns me. When I’m gone, only my attempt at right ownership will live on. So, I choose not to use chemicals, I allow the deer to prune my apple trees, the bats to take refuge under shingles—I plant native trees and work to vanquish the ivy to let the wild free.

And what of neighboring properties? I can steward this land, but it is an island within an island. Protection of wild places cannot be limited to isolated preserves and properties. As island land conservation efforts have shown, when surrounding area is also protected as a buffer, the healing can truly begin. Judd Creek is one example of how independent efforts by both land owners, the Land Trust and King County are all contributing to improved conditions there. A telling contrast is Shinglemill Creek, where positive effects of the Land Trust and King County’s major restoration effort there have been undermined by run-off and erosion from upstream private properties all the way to town parking lots. It takes a team effort to care for land across private boundaries—a new way of viewing land ownership, an accountability as stewards of the greater land and waters that we call home.

This property is my land corner, but I try to live on it in a circular fashion—taking responsibility for the reach of my family’s impacts. I aim as much as possible to let nature manage it as she will—maverick moles, moss, and maples—without a corner in sight.

Banana Slug

Banana Slug

Volunteers keep an eye on stream health–Salmon watchers 2013

A version of this article also appeared in the January 1st edition of the Vashon Island Beachcomber as an invited series on citizen science.

When John Martinak signed up for the Vashon Nature Center Salmon Watcher Program last fall, he wasn’t convinced he’d actually see a salmon. As a busy stay-at-home dad of two boys, he enjoyed the forced downtime that visits to his “watching spot” along Judd creek afforded him. But the water seemed too shallow and the obstacles too big for a salmon to manage—as a once avid fly fisherman, he had an eye for such things. Martinak looked forward to the peaceful breaks among the birds and the squirrels, though he was still skeptical about seeing a fish—then one day he heard something new.

I could hear this splashing way downstream, but I thought it was probably something else,” he said. “Then a half hour later, I was amazed to see a fish come by. I expected it to be more of a frenzied activity, but the fish was methodical—it would scout out the next hurdle and clear it, then keep on going.”

All together this season Martinak has seen 10 or 12 coho as they made their way along the restored section of the creek near the culvert on 111th. He has the best luck during the worst weather, so if it’s stormy, he heads to his spot in hopes of glimpsing another fish.

Unfortunately, the relative lack of wet fall weather (remember all that November sunshine?) probably influenced the numbers of returning salmon to island creeks in 2013; the fish depend on rain to fill the creeks and allow them easier passage. After a 2012 count of more than 200 fish (alive and dead) and 46 redds (salmon spawning sites)—the best numbers reported since 2003, hopes were high for another great year. But even though overall the 2013 numbers were low, Shinglemill Creek had a notably good year, with more than 28 fish counted and nine redds, compared to 2012 totals of only four fish and two redds.

“We are currently trending up on Shinglemill, which is really exciting,” said Tom Dean, director of the Vashon-Maury Island Land Trust. “We’ve made enough investments in Judd and Shinglemill Creeks that we’re just getting to a point where we can pay more attention to the nuances of watching the salmon to see where they are spawning—what does the gravel look like, what’s the passage like, is there enough shade, is there enough food? We can focus on it as more of a whole system, and start to look at other things we can do to improve the runs.”

One big factor, especially for Shinglemill, is that the traditionally heavy bursts of rain we usually have each fall tear out salmon redds. According to Dean, a dry year may bring down spawning numbers, but it may increase survival among juvenile fish. Dean is watching Shinglemill closely because the Land Trust invested in a large salmon habitat restoration project there from 2006-2009, which involved moving 111 logs into a half-mile of the creek above Cedarhurst Road. One thing island creeks share is their decided lack of woody debris, which is key to good salmon habitat.

“The logs create back-water feeding pools that are very important to coho because they are resident in the stream longer than any other salmon,” he said. “For adults, at the bottom of these pools there is a tail-out—and they know instinctively that water is forced through the gravel there, which oxygenates their eggs.” These conditions are ideal for redds.

Dean appreciates the Salmon Watcher Program because participants provide important data about island streams that can help the Land Trust make its case in funding applications.

Each salmon watcher is assigned a spot on an island stream (or a set area to walk alongside it), where they observe and record what they see for at least two 15-minute sessions each week from mid-October through December. This year, there are 30 active salmon watchers. In addition to salmon, participants make note of the weather, changes to the stream and any other wildlife they encounter.

High school sophomore Cayce Morrison joined the program as part of a biology class citizen science requirement, but has so enjoyed the experience that he’d like to do it again next year.

“Since Vashon is not that big, t’s really cool that we have salmon here and that they’re making a comeback,” Morrison said. Besides logging 15 salmon, Morrison added another important wildlife sighting to island nature records. He was one of four people last fall to spy a creek-loving bird that’s rare to the island, an American Dipper.

“Dippers need really clean, fresh water and a healthy invertebrate population, and those are the same needs juvenile salmon have,” said Bianca Perla, director of Vashon Nature Center and the Salmon Watcher Program. “The creek functions as an entire system, so when we see more dippers, that’s encouraging to me for the salmon population. Maybe it’s just more eyes on the creek or maybe the health of the creeks is starting to improve. These are initial observations and we’re starting to document that trend so over time we can develop some comparisons.”

Twelve-year-old Mabel Moses is a second-year salmon watcher whose lively photographs and videos documented the 2012 big return. She has seen many other creatures on her watch, including signal crawfish, which also relies on clean water. Moses has seen an owl, heron, coyote scat, “raccoon prints everywhere,” and salmon at Shinglemill and at Judd Creek near her home in Paradise Valley.

Mabel and Vera Moses watch for salmon along Judd Creek. photo by: Natalie Martin

Mabel and Vera Moses watch for salmon along Judd Creek. photo by: Natalie Martin

“I didn’t know salmon could get through such shallow water, and it’s cool that they are right down by our house—I didn’t believe it until I saw them,” she said. One of her best salmon memories is when she saw three coho and one chum all swimming in the same little pool.

King County Basin Steward and islander Greg Rabourn has been watching Paradise Valley pools closely after he managed a restoration project last summer to improve salmon habitat on a 1/4-mile of Judd Creek on a Land Trust conservation easement.

“One of the things we saw right away were changing water levels, and within a week we saw the stream channel changing and pools being created,” he said. “Those pools are not only places for juvenile fish to hide, but they improve spawning conditions downstream.” The Land Trust plans to build a loop trail past the creek there to improve public access and salmon viewing in Paradise Valley.

Rabourn, who was pleased last fall to unseat the Land Trust’s Abel Eckhart as the reigning “first salmon sighting of the season” champ, is a big fan of salmon watchers.

“It’s great to have people out there for many reasons—their observations give us an idea of when and where salmon show up,” he said. “It’s great that people are getting involved and appreciating what some consider to be an invisible resource. I hear all the time, ‘There are no fish left in these streams, I’ve never seen anything.’ When people actually witness the beauty of salmon in theses creeks they are more likely to protect the resources necessary for salmon survival.”

Long-time Island Environmentalist Yvonne Kuperburg moved into her home just above Shinglemill Creek in 1979, but it was more than a decade later when she saw her first salmon as a member of the island’s first group dedicated to counting salmon, the Salmon Stalkers.

“To find there were fish living in it was absolutely amazing,” she says. “When we first started watching we walked our section of the creek and we’d see a lot of fish.” Though in recent years there have not been as many salmon to count, Kuperburg is still committed to program and still gets a thrill watching a fish splash up a waterfall.

“Vashon Nature Center’s mission is to help create a community of islanders who are paying attention to the natural world, enjoying being out in it and learning about it,” Perla said. “When you get a group of people together who all appreciate salmon, it touches on a lot of things we’re trying to do—not only learn about nature and different species, but from each other, and to make friends while contributing to a database of island flora and fauna. It’s a deeper component of caring for the land to take time to make these scientific observations that we can then apply and use to care for the environment.”

Only 50 years or so ago it would have been nearly impossible to count salmon because there would have been too many to count. In working with islanders Jim and Elaine Scott on the recent land acquisition at the mouth of Judd Creek, Tom Dean learned a lot about creek history.

“They used to see huge runs of salmon here,” he said. “That’s not so very long ago and it’s not entirely crazy to think that we could rebuild a portion of those runs with what we’re doing here.”