Champions for Biodiversity: Judd Creek BioBlitz 2016

photo by: Bella Ormseth

Thank you to all who turned out for BioBlitz 2016! What a wonderful 24 hours it was. Below you will find the preliminary highlights along with some photos.

But first, we’d like to share some fitting reflections on the BioBlitz experience from VNC Outreach and Program Coordinator, Kathryn True:

“Driving home from the 5th annual Island BioBlitz, I was sweaty and tired but at the same time, glowing and elated. I had just spent 24 hours on a free-for-all nature scavenger hunt with a bunch of kindred spirits—nature lovers who ooh and aww over a gargantuan newt, have fun interpreting the facial expression on a macro photo of a gorgeous but shy white moth and exclaim over the climbing feats of a plethora of banana slugs out in slug-style jubilation over the recent rains. “What’s at the heart of it all?” I wondered to myself as I turned up my driveway, head still spinning with the natural wonders we’d uncovered.

When people ask what is the point of a BioBlitz, I now have an answer for them. Humans, with our language and communication networks, are essential to the survival of those without internets and cell phones. We are the, possibly unwitting, champions for plants and critters who can’t speak our language. As we find them, ID them, and catalog their names, it’s akin to hearing the Who’s in Dr. Suess’ Whoville. “We are here, we are here, we are here!!” they are trying to tell us by simply being. And as naturalists, we acknowledge them and record their presence to share with those who may not hear them, but could benefit from listening.

What we learn goes way beyond the actual count—which is currently at 516 species for the 2016 BioBlitz, with many more photos still to decipher, ID, and add to the list—it is forging relationships with beings other than humans. By entering into this knowing, we commit to a contract of sorts: I see you and I will not ignore or harm you—and I will do my best to protect you.

The benefits go both ways. Over and over again during our BioBlitz I saw adults laughing like children, their eyes sparkling with pure joy. Perhaps because of its ability to continually amaze us, we become childlike when we explore nature. In this way, it is a conduit to return to youth. By sparking the open-hearted curiosity and creativity of children, perhaps it is the long-sought fountain of youth. I wouldn’t be surprised if Mother Earth hid that legendary “fountain” where it would benefit all life on earth. So, go ahead, sip freely of natural wonder and discovery—the animals and plants will love you for it, and you may feel years younger.”

Thank you Kathryn!!

Judd Creek BioBlitz is the 5th in a series of annual BioBlitzes that started in 2012. Together we have covered a varied array of island parks and preserves throughout the last 5 years.


BioBlitz locations for the past 5 years cover a representative variety of island habitats and locations. map by: Bianca Perla

Vashon Nature Center is dedicating this next year to interpreting the vast amount of data we have collected these past 5 years and telling the stories of the life we have found. As Kathryn so aptly put it above, we seek to share with others that fountain of youth that springs open when we let our curiosity for nature run free:

2016 Statistics

Number of human participants: 142

Total number of species counted at close of BioBlitz 2016: 516 (largest preliminary count of all BioBlitz events!)

Judd Creek  is looking like a biodiversity hotspot on Vashon with higher counts in almost every category compared to other BioBlitz locales:


This graph shows the number of different taxa or species in each major group surveyed for all 5 BioBlitz events. Judd Creek is higher than previous years in almost every category. Beach (shoreline species) counts were lower this year as the estuary beach has more limited habitat than previous beaches studied.

The theme of the day for plants in Judd Creek was WOW! WETLANDS! Judd Creek has many wet areas from the estuary saltmarsh at the mouth of Judd Creek to many small pocket freshwater wetlands throughout the watershed, some of which harbor unique individuals and communities not seen in other BioBlitz events. Team lead Jim Evans and his plant crew did an incredible job surveying and documenting these areas. They had a lot of ground to cover.


Veronica scutellata, a wetland plant and first record for Vashon as far as we know. photo by: Mark Musick

Despite the overcast weather terrestrial arthropod team leads Harsi Parker, Rayna Holtz, Alan Warneke, Michelle Ramsden, and Heidi Hans Petersen found a great many insects and other arthropods for us this count, it will likely be the highest diversity of all BioBlitz events when the final count comes in.


Terrestrial arthropod and plant crews converge and converse just before Judd Creek bridge on the Judd Creek loop trail. photo by: Jim Evans

Many insects revealed their unique personalities to us this year:


“Move along, nothing to see here”, this moth (Spilosoma spp.) seemed to say to photographer Bella Ormseth.

Our favorite nighttime critter was… a tiny monkey? No it’s a ten-lined June beetle closer than you’ve ever seen it before! Thanks to Alden Hinden-Stevenson for this amazing up close shot.

June beetle_AHinden-Stevenson

Ten-lined June beetle (Polyphylla decemlineata). Photo copyright: Alden Hinden-Stevenson

Rusty Knowler captured this serious looking damselfly that seemed to be watching our survey techniques with a critical eye during the pond surveys.


Pacific forktail Damselfly photo by: Rusty Knowler

Thanks to Alan Warneke, Michelle Ramsden, and photographers Alden Hinden-Stevenson, Kieran Enzian, and Julian White-Davis for cataloging the nighttime flyers at our black-lighting stations.


Bianca Perla (right) cataloging night flying insects with a UV light and sheet. photo by: Rusty Knowler


Alden Hinden-Stevenson, Kieran Enzian and Rusty Knowler photo documenting night insects. photo by: Bella Ormseth


A nice complement of mammals were seen between our wildcams, tracking teams (led by Mallory Clarke and co), and small mammal live trap forays from plentiful Townsend’s voles, coast moles and deer mice, to black-tailed deer, eastern gray squirrel, native douglas squirrel, raccoon, river otter, coyote, and harbor seal.Our 6 Wildlife cameras picked up a coyote as well as quite a few deer, raccoons, wandering cats and this flock of strange and boisterous critters.


Quinn Williams helps unload a small mammal live trap with the aid of small mammal team lead Bianca Perla. This trap revealed a deer mouse (Peromyscus spp.) with a tail several cm longer than other deer mice we caught making us wonder if it was actually the arboreal species of deer mouse. Looking up the tail dimensions later revealed this mouse was right on the border between the two so we conservatively classified it as the more common P. maniculatus. photo by: Rusty Knowler

This BioBlitz was a pond explorers dream with 4 ponds to survey. We found large non-native bullfrogs alongside native red-legged frogs and rough-skinned newts.


Amphibian Team lead Gary Shugart and Alex Koriath return amphibian traps to the shore crew. photo by: Bella Ormseth


Amphibian team lead Bianca Perla holds up second year bullfrog tadpoles. Photo by: Bella Ormseth


Native Rough-skinned newts were plentiful in our ponds, likely their poisonous nature allows them to survive among non-native bullfrog populations. photo by: Rusty Knowler


These native voracious invertebrate predators called water scorpions were very common sights in our pond explorations this year. photo by: Bianca Perla


Bianca Perla takes amphibian traps out of Singer Pond. Thanks to Vashon Watersports for loaning paddleboards and kayaks for pond and beach surveys. photo by: Bella Ormseth

Matsuda Farm pond surprised us with a complete absence of amphibians in our traps. Five minutes before the end of the count a quick fish revealed the possible culprits—hungry large-mouth bass.  It’s probable that these fish plus the steep sides of the pond prevent much colonization by amphibians.


Large-mouthed bass reign supreme in Matsuda Pond. Thanks to Rusty Knowler for employing his catch and release fishing skills to help us with identifying these fish.

Bird diversity was the highest of all previous BioBlitz events coming in at a total of 65 species with Ezra Parker and Kathryn True as team leads. Matsuda meadows have become known as a rare bird vortex over the past few years with many never before sighted birds some of which are quite rare in King County as a whole (i.e. western bluebird, white-tailed kite). None of the extremely rare birds were counted in our count probably due to the fact that most are picked up as they travel through on migration earlier in the spring. However, the base level of summer songbird biodiversity is quite impressive in these areas.

The owling crew led by Kelly Keenan and Sherry Lee Bottoms were treated to calls by young barred owls as well as young barn owls in the meadows around Paradise Valley.


Cedar waxwing. Just one of the many birds that call Judd Creek streams, forests, and ponds home. photo by: Rusty Knowler


Red-winged blackbirds abounded with Cedar waxwings at all Judd creek watershed ponds. photo by: Rusty Knowler

Our fungi team led by Wren Hudgins pulled in the most species ever for a summer BioBlitz at around 29 species. And our lichen, liverwort and moss team led by Phoebe Goit did the same with the highest count ever along with a mysterious unidentifiable specimen that is now making the rounds at the Puget Sound Mycolocgical Society. Last time Phoebe Goit found a mystery it ended up at the Burke herbarium as the first record in the state. We will keep you updated.


How many moss, lichen, liverworts, and fungi can you see on this branch? photo by: Bella Ormseth

Fish revealed themselves quite easily as well from the large-mouthed bass in Matsuda Pond to juvenile salmonids and sculpin in Judd Creek to young coho and perch schools found by our snorkel team as they swam in the estuary. The beach crew was led by Maria Metler and Rayna Holtz.


Beach team leads Maria Metler (left) and Rayna Holtz (right) go over their shoreline lists for Judd creek estuary. Maria also led a high tide snorkel crew that added many fish to our count. And Vashon Watersports generously loaned us kayak and paddleboard transportation! Photo by: Jay Holtz

With the 5th BioBlitz drawing to a close we’ve realized just how amazing this community is that has been formed around these events. We had every age represented in abundance and working together, learning together and enjoying each other’s company. And all of us bonded together by our love for the wild.


The night crew holding down basecamp with a good card game. photo by: Bianca Perla


People and kids of any age can participate and be helpful. This is one of the beauties of BioBlitz events. photo by: Susie Fitzhugh


Yvonne Kuperburg (left) and Karen Perla (right) are our BioBlitz basecamp stars having volunteered in all 5 BioBlitz events! photo by: Jane Neubauer

We now have children in the community who have lived more than half their lives going through our annual BioBlitz events.

Bioblitz 2015, Maury Island, Vashon

All of these junior naturalists have made the BioBlitz the kick off to their summer vacation for years now. photo by: Susie Fitzhugh


Cisco Adams-Tres age 2 knocked out after his first island BioBlitz at Neill Point in 2012. photo by: Jeff Adams


The same Cisco Adams-Tres at age 7 working the BioBlitz micrscope station with Jeff Adams at BioBlitz 2016. photo by: Susie Fitzhugh

More than anything else participating in a BioBlitz shows us how amazing life is on this planet and how connected we are to those around us–fellow nature lovers, plants, animals, landscapes and all life. We look forward to taking this next year to share the story of the BioBlitz, it’s people, and all the living beings that share this island with us and deserve our kinship and respect:

“When I myself look at other animals, I almost never see an otherness. I see the overwhelming similarities; they fill me with a sense of deep relation. Nothing makes me feel more at home in the world than the company of wild relatives. Nothing else except the deepest human love feels as right, as connected, or puts me at such peace.”

—Carl Safina, Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel

A heartfelt thank you to all who participated and to our sponsors:  Vashon Maury Island Land Trust, Vashon Watersports,  King County, Mountaineers Foundation, Washington Department of Natural Resources, and to all the individuals who shared their time volunteering at base camp, on crews, and as lead scientists (what a team!), who baked home cooked food , and who donated their hard earned cash to help us with expenses like food, porta potty rental and other supplies, every bit helped.

Thanks to all who keep this feeling of curiosity and love for nature alive in the world.

Nature at the Door

With apologies for anthropomorphism.

Recently my friend, Kate, told me about being awakened in the middle of the night by her yowling cats. She walked into the kitchen and looked out her glass door, expecting to see a raccoon on the other side. Instead she found a young river otter, paws pressed to the glass as he (or she) looked questioningly at her pets. At first the otter didn’t see Kate, so she watched as he seemed to implore her kitties to quiet down already and come out and play. “What IS all the ruckus about?” his brown eyes seemed to ask. But the minute the otter caught sight of the human observing him, he was off in a flash. The image has stuck with me: the sleek river otter on his hind legs, toe-pads flattened against the door, nose to the glass. It makes me smile to think of wild beings peering in on our lives, possibly as curious about us as we are about them.

As I write this, a two-point buck with lovely gnarled, bumpy antlers chews its rumen mbuckseditatively in the grass a few yards behind my house. I imagine him pitying me this boxed-in life, a captive of a glowing screen. He sits impervious to the steady rain as an Anna’s hummer shoots around his head.


This bird regularly visits a feeder outside my office window. Aha! He just dive-bombed a competitor a few feet from my face. I marvel at these birds’ accuracy at such speed—how can they calculate their trajectory without hitting things like my window, a tree or that buck’s regal nose? I’m surprised I’ve never found one pinned beak-first into the soil beneath the feeder. When the sugar water runs low, they hover near my window and seem to accuse me, or perhaps their chittering buzz is a friendly reminder? As I watch each day—near enough to observe their silvery forked tongues flicking the improvised nectar into their mouths, close enough to see them swallow—how much are they watching me back?pileated

Yesterday, a Pileated Woodpecker yelled repeatedly from the pine tree just off our deck. I watched him swoop gracefully down to a felled, rotten willow and begin to tear it apart—his beak a food-seeking missile. How does he not get splinters, I wondered, as I tried to capture a photo of him at work. When I took one step too close, his red moustache gave an annoyed flick and the bird was off to a neighboring alder, where he seemed to “peek-a-boo” me around the tree trunk, watching cautiously, but attentively, as I unloaded my car. “What burdens these people have!” his laugh scolded as he swooped away.

When I think of all the critters I have been lucky enough to encounter in this little North-end spot I call home—Barred Owl, rough-skinned newt, coyote, banded alder-borer, Pacific chorus frog, raccoon, cardinal meadowhawk and American Snipe to name a few—I wonder how much the feeling is mutual. They usually hurry away when they catch me watching them, but at other times, are they secretly observing my daily activities? Do I make them curious or frustrated? Do I make them laugh?pac c frog

This frog’s not telling.

The Saga of the Sea Stars

VHS students help VNC scientists monitor seastars at Raab's lagoon.

Above: VHS students help Vashon Nature Center scientists Bianca Perla and Jeff Adams survey Raab’s lagoon for sea stars last spring. For results see end of article.

by: Adria Magrath

A few years ago, a devastating disease swept through areas of the west coast, turning those afflicted into a disembodied mess in a matter of days. First, white lesions form and arms twist off- sometimes crawling away- and then bodies dissolve. It’s an ugly sight and many in our community are concerned about this disease; some even work to monitor it on our island beaches. You’ve likely heard about it by now; it has turned the once abundant sea stars into a rare sight. Called Sea Star Wasting Syndrome, or SSWS, it began to impact the country in a substantive way two years ago. While scientists seem to have identified a culprit and our understanding of the disease has grown, the situation hasn’t necessarily gotten any less dire for the sea stars. In 2013, when the Vashon Beachcomber first published an article I wrote on the epidemic, it had only impacted certain regions of Washington, British Columbia, and central California. But by the summer of 2014, SSWS had spread and spared no part of the West coast. From Alaska to Mexico sea stars melted away at alarming rates. Reports indicate that up to 90% of the population has been lost in some areas. Even aquariums are battling the disease; only facilities that UV sterilize their incoming sea water have been able to maintain healthy populations. At least 20 different species are affected, but the heaviest hit include the sunflower star (Pycnopodia helianthiodes), ochre/purple star (Pisaster ochraceus), and pink star (Pisaster brevispinus)- all species previously common on Vashon’s shores.

Sea stars in various stages of the wasting syndrome, North end ferry dock. photos by: Kelly Keenan

According to a paper recently published by a consortium of scientists, the pathogen responsible is the family of parvoviruses, and is called Sea Star associated Densovirus (SSaDV). Researchers tracked down this particular virus by sampling 335 sea stars from sites spanning the west coast and studying the genetics of the infectious particles. Perhaps surprisingly, this densovirus is neither new nor rare, but is rather ubiquitous in the marine environment. It was detected in tube feet samples from museum specimens of sea stars dating back to 1942 and scientists found it in the majority of marine sediments and plankton samples they tested, as well as other echinoderms (the phylum containing sea stars, which also includes sea urchins, sand dollars and sea cucumbers).

If this disease-causing virus has been around for at least 74 years, then what has changed to cause the current severe outbreak? Scientists at Cornell are searching for clues in the genetics of the virus to figure out what has changed to make it more virulent recently. Clues lie in other parvoviruses’ ability to become more infectious when genes coding for the protein shell change.

It is also highly likely that the ultimate culprit may not be a single player but a combination or even synergy of factors. University of Texas at Arlington researchers who were a part of the Densovirus study are further researching whether environmental factors and water pollution can cause an increased susceptibility to the virus. To those who care for them in captivity, sea stars are notoriously sensitive to changes in environmental factors such as salinity and temperature. Some experts think alterations in sea water chemistry (such as dissolved gases) may turn out to be an important factor weakening the creatures’ immune systems and contributing to this serious outbreak.

Some of these same UT Arlington scientists spent a recent summer at Friday Harbor’s UW laboratories researching the ‘host response’ to the virus, ultimately finding gene expression changes in inflammatory and immune pathways, an expected response to a viral infection, but also changes important for collagen maintenance and certain nervous system processes. This work may begin to offer the first clues to the melting symptoms, tissue decay and contorted arms that fall off and crawl away.

Yet despite all this new knowledge about the disease, the outlook for sea stars still remains unclear. Last year, there were signs indicating the outbreak was waning. Multi-Agency Rocky Intertidal Network (MARINe) surveys at field sites up and down the west coast were seeing population rebounds in the form of juvenile sea stars. According to one of the lead researchers, 2014 saw the highest numbers of baby sea stars since records have been kept. Places like Fogarty Creek in Oregon and near the Redwoods and Bodega Bay in California, were showing strong signs of recovery. Jeff Adams, a Vashon resident and marine ecologist with Washington Sea Grant in the UW College of the Environment, coordinates the Kitsap and Vashon sea star surveys. His team was excited to see baby sea stars last summer at their survey site on the North-end ferry pilings. Most recently however, successive waves of the disease have been seen sweeping through, and informal reports indicate that there are again steep number losses. Even Jeff Adams’ surveys came up empty the last time he was able to access the site; right before the retrofitting work began. However, he also stresses that due to the fact that these surveys are restricted to intertidal zones, population changes don’t necessarily mean mortalities, and the sea stars could have just moved to deeper waters.

A baby ochre sea star found in the 2012 VNC Bioblitz at Neill Point. Younger stars tend to fend off the disease slightly better than older ones. photo credit: Nathan Enzian

A baby ochre sea star found in the 2012 VNC Bioblitz at Neill Point. Younger stars tend to fend off the disease slightly better than older ones. photo credit: Nathan Enzian

For now, MARINe has begun to focus on the broader ecological consequences of SSWD. Because scientists view the sea star as a keystone species in its community’s hierarchy, their worry is for a collapse of intertidal and subtidal ecosystems and an overabundance of prey species. Long-respected research shows that once sea stars are removed, monocultures of prey species tend to replace biodiverse systems. Field observations seem to be bearing this out; mussel and sea urchin populations are now booming in certain places near central California. And because a big herd of sea urchins can quite handily mow down the nearby protected kelp forests, marine ecologists are now afraid of wider-ranging ecological effects. But the outlook isn’t all that rosy for the urchins either, as they are now beginning to succumb to the disease in areas of Southern California.

Researchers’ spirits are buoyed however by an observed decrease in the disease prevalence during much of the past year. Even though incidence of the disease is now down, populations are much, much smaller. By most expert accounts, sea star populations had become too numerous and dense, and we can hope that this smaller, more reduced population represents individuals better able to handle the viral load. The replenishment of sea star communities by juveniles definitively shows that at least some adults are escaping the disease and successfully releasing thousands of larvae. This gives hope to those who know. Only time will tell if sea stars are capable of adapting quickly enough to adjust to and persevere in the altered conditions in which they find themselves- whether viral or environmental too.

Editor’s additions: Vashon High School 10th graders will be working with scientists at Vashon Nature Center to monitor 5 Vashon beaches for seastars this spring 2016 as part of Vashon Nature Center’s Scientists in Schools program. These sites were monitored by students in 2014 and 2015.

A student team poster summarizing results of the 2015 monitoring at Raab’s lagoon

The results of this year’s student monitoring, along with other island specific wildlife research topics, will be presented at the spring Ed Talks symposium. Ed Talks will be held at Open Space on May 15th 2:00-5:30 pm. Join us this year to hear all about Nature on the Rock!

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