Island birding program receives national kudos

The Vashon-Maury Island Audubon Society’s fourth grade birding program has taught birding basics to thousands of children over the past 20 years. Through Vashon Artists in the Schools, Chautauqua teacher Jan Smith started integrating art into her bird lesson plans several years ago with the help of artist Rose Belknap.


Artwork from a student in Vashon's artful 4th grade birding program

Artwork from a student in Vashon’s artful 4th grade birding program

This multidisciplinary approach—and the engaging student art that resulted—caught the attention of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, a renowned bird research center. In November, the curriculum was featured as a model program on their Celebrate Urban Birds website.


You can learn more about the birding program’s history in this Beachcomber article.


If you’d like to get involved, contact current bird program leader Richard Rogers through theAudubon website. And if you’re looking for a locally grown holiday gifts, greeting cards featuring the students’ artwork are for sale at Vashon’s Wings Birdseed Company.


Congratulations to Jan, Rose and all of those involved in making this program a success!

Snowy Owl Invasion

Long before Harry Potter’s Hedwig, Snowy Owls held a magical allure. Perhaps it’s their startling size (nearly two feet tall), unblinking yellow stare, or Arctic providence, but these circumpolar owls stir excitement among even the most distracted citizenry. Whether Snowy’s decide to head south en masse is based largely on weather conditions and the availability of lemmings, their main food source. Every so often the Northwest experiences what is known as an irruption (a sudden and irregular increase) of Snowy Owls. During such years these tundra-dwellers sometimes stray as far south as Texas and Florida!

In November Snowy Owls were spied around Western Washington in Snohomish County, Ocean Shores, and on the Dungeness Spit. Then on Thanksgiving Day, a West Seattle family had one show up for dinner (though they prefer lemmings, Snowy Owls also eat birds…but none the size of turkeys). Another Snowy recently stared down shoppers from the rooftop of a Renton Target store.  Island birders are searching shorelines expectantly, hoping one will land here next. Unlike their southern cousins, Snowy Owls are mainly diurnal, meaning they are active during the day so it’s easier for people to see them.

Island bird expert Ed Swan recently shared some tips about where to look for Snowy Owls, and how to distinguish them from local owls:

“Good Vashon places to look would be KVI Beach, Pt. Robinson, Lisabeula, and other shoreline areas.  They often perch on large driftwood.  In really big flight years they are sometimes seen on buildings even in downtown Seattle.  The ferry dolphins/piers could be potential perches.

Snowy Owls will not be in the forested areas.  Large white owls in the Island Center Forest, along Shinglemill Creek, and along the wires along the highway are Barred Owls.  Barred Owls can look quite pale in many different lighting conditions and especially so in headlights.  We also have a few Barn Owls which are also mostly white.  Another telling factor is size.  Snowy Owls are even slightly larger than Great Horned Owls which are slightly larger than Barred Owls and much larger than Barn Owls.”

Birder Jesse Ellis of Madison, Wis., created this Google map of recent Snowy sightings. It offers a striking picture of the range of this irruption.

For more information on Snowy Owls, visit the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website, where I learned that John James Audubon once watched a Snowy Owl lie in wait at the edge of an ice hole and catch fish with its talons!

If you are going to Vashon’s beaches anytime soon remember to take your camera just in case. And if you happen to see one or more of these beautiful birds on Vashon PLEASE LET US KNOW:

Tidal creatures of the night

Creatures of the Night

This Friday, Nov. 25 at 10:45 p.m., the new-moon tide will ebb to a rare low of -3.4 feet. Taking this opportunity to explore an island community normally hidden from view, the Vashon Beach Naturalists will host a free Starlight Low-Tide Walk at the north-end ferry dock from 9-11 p.m. Sip a hot chocolate as you head to the beach with a naturalist guide to discover dozens of denizens of the intertidal zone: nudibranchs (sea slugs), sea cucumbers, and sea pens to name a few.

A shaggy mouse nudibranch (Aoelidia papillosa). Photo taken near Pt. Vashon by Kathryn True

A shaggy mouse nudibranch (Aoelidia papillosa). Photo taken near Pt. Vashon by Kathryn True

Besides the fact that our local winter low tides occur only at night, this is a good time to get out for several reasons. At low tide on a hot summer day, animals that prefer cold, wet, and dark are stressed out and doing their best to hide. They’re in their comfort zone after dark, when you’re more likely to find light-sensitive creatures like octopuses. Also, animals tend to venture out of their designated tidal zones at night, making them easier to observe.

Intertidal secrets in the spotlight

With your visual field reduced to the circle created by a flashlight, it’s easier to focus your attention on every little detail…there’s incredible diversity to be discovered within one 12-inch diameter spotlight! Scour every rock closely to find animals like chitons—masters of camouflage these mollusks are hard to distinguish from the rocks they inhabit. Look for their oval shells made up of eight overlapping armor-like plates.

Vashon Beach Naturalist Sally Ammon says the highlight of the walk would be finding the evasive red octopus. She’s looking forward to seeing sea pens, which are often found near the end of the ferry dock. Belonging to the octocorals, or soft corals, these colonizing animals look like orange feather plumes sticking out of the sand; they have hundreds of eight-tentacled polyps on each of their soft “branches.” Beach visitors are sure to find crabs, sea cucumbers, limpets, and sea stars. Careful observers might also detect a telltale bump in the sand that indicates a hidden moon snail—these common local gastropods have a pretty round shell and an enormous pink, fleshy foot that can grow to three times the size of the shell. Moon snail mothers secrete their eggs in a gelatinous sheet that becomes coated with sand, leaving a donut-shaped ring behind. The resulting “sand collars” found on local shores each hold about a half-million moon snails-in-the-making.

Sunflower seastar (Pycnapodia helianthoides) found on a previous low tide evening. Photo by: Kathryn True

Sunflower seastar (Pycnapodia helianthoides) found on a previous low tide evening. Photo by: Kathryn True

Respect for beach dwellers

Whenever you visit the beach, remember these beach naturalist guidelines to help protect the health and safety of our intertidal neighbors: Don’t walk on eel grass or in tidepools, wet your hands with saltwater before touching the animals to protect their sensitive skin, return animals to where you found them, don’t move a rock larger than your head, and carefully replace any rocks you move.

Want to read up on what to look for? Two of Sally’s favorite field guides are Whelks to Whales: Coastal Marine Life of the Pacific Northwest, and Pacific Reef& Shore: A Photo Guide to Northwest Marine Life, both by Rick M. Harbo.

If you can’t make it this Friday, take a virtual beach walk with these resources from the Seattle Aquarium: Look for some of the creatures mentioned in this post in their “Marine Invertebrate” Powerpoint.

Walk logistics: Park in the north end ferry parking lot and walk down the hill to meet the naturalists at a tent across from La Playa. Dress warmly in layers, bring raingear, and wear sturdy, non-slip boots. Bring a flashlight with a strong, directed beam (lanterns do not work as well), and an insulated cup to fill with hot cocoa.

If you go and get some great pictures send them along to us at Vashon Nature Center: