Walking on water

by: Kathryn True

Every few years, islanders are treated with a rare and miraculous gift: the ability to walk on water – water in its solid state, that is. The far reaches of ponds that we normally gaze longingly at, bound as we are to terrestrial shores, are suddenly accessible. Pond plants going about their watery lives largely undetected by human eyes can be closely studied in their frozen glory—reaching for light even as they are encased in ice.

Fisher pre-dawn. photo by: Kathryn True

Last week, after lacing up my Granny’s Attic skates and venturing out onto Fisher Pond with a group of friends in the inky purple pre-dawn, I was initiated into revelations that are generally the secreted knowledge of the water insects, ducks, and cattails. I was awestruck by the pond’s humming, haunting song, which echoed from shore to shore and reverberated through my body as our skates scored its surface. I was drawn to the perfect, clean black ice—so smooth it seemed a possible entrance into an exotic mirror-world.

Ice bubbles. photo by: Bella Ormseth

As the sun rose, raven flew over calling to her mate. I called “good morning” —taunting them both with my new freedom from earthbound trails. Smug to finally have something on raven! A pileated cackled its dawn greeting from a tall snag, as the tips of far firs were slowly cloaked top-down in a golden pink sheath. At my feet, the sky reflected frozen bubbles trapped in lines of silvery light, or caught mid-spiral like tiny galaxies. Larger bubbles grew beneath the ice as I moved inches above—shaped as space ships, cartoon speech bubbles, and mushrooms. Endless variations and forms spread out in all directions, made more magnificent in my knowledge of their fleeting existence.

For a naturalist, having the chance to travel the pond this way is like entering another world—akin to dipping into the ocean’s secrets via snorkeling. It is a treat to experience first-hand my wild friends’ homes—to peer into that hillock of pond plants so revered by Wood Ducks, to observe up-close the dancer-like reach of lily-pad stems, to venture alongside a scrabble of cattails where a Red-winged Blackbird sounded surprised as he belted out a spring song–his tribute, I guessed, to this strange, icy, new day.

Frost on the ice. photo by: Bella Ormseth

Special thanks to Linda and Gary Peterson for lovingly supplying ice skates so hundreds of islanders can explore Fisher Pond this way. And to the Land Trust for stewarding these special wild places for all of us to enjoy.

Watch this video of a frozen world by Kathryn True.

Featured photo at top of post by: Linda Peterson

Brrrrr… January wildlife update

Brrrrr!!!! These icy bluebird days have delivered much beauty to us this winter. But long cold spells are a challenging time for our Pacific Northwest wildlife.  During cold spells it is harder to find food and water. While some animals will go into torpor/hibernation (i.e. bears, squirrels, some rodents) others need more food so they can metabolize to keep warm (i.e. winter birds, coyotes, cougar, deer).

We may see more of some animals because they are spending more time foraging. These animals may appear in places they usually aren’t seen (for example traveling far to find running water when ponds freeze over, or finding shelter in unusual areas). Animals are also more likely to take risks during these times to get the food they need (being seen more during the day or in more densely human populated areas).

Many of us have noticed the Golden-crowned kinglets crowding the road sides and trails lately. In spring and summer kinglets forage high in Douglas fir trees but, in winter, these cold hardy birds (they can survive in temperatures to -40 degrees!) also descend to the underbrush to supplement their usual food.

With this extended cold, our kinglets are foraging even longer. This is dangerous for them because these little canopy birds are completely oblivious to both us and our vehicles. Next time you are on a walk watch the difference between the reaction of a flock of juncos to an on-coming car (they will scatter and veer back into the underbrush) compared to the kinglet flocks (they will happily keep foraging in the middle of the road having apparently no clue what a car means). My heart goes out to these little birds.

A golden-crowned kinglet that was hit by a car on 232nd Ave SW. Kinglets are not experienced at avoiding cars and often forage along roadsides.

What is so enticing about roadsides for kinglets in the winter? Gary Shugart, curator of Slater Museum of Natural History and Vashon Nature Center science adviser, is studying stomach contents of road-killed kinglets on Vashon trying to figure it out. If you find a kinglet please turn it in to Gary to help with the study.

Here’s a note from Gary: “Accepting these birds and anything else dead at 10925 SW Bank Road, blue cooler by garage. Tag them with data and location or just text me data at 206 949-9381.”

If you deal okay with morbid things like this you can also contribute to our roadkill study on inaturalist by recording what you see dead on our roads:

So far we have 593 observations of roadkill recorded on Vashon, yikes. However, this information helps us learn what animals are most susceptible, where roadkill hotspots are, and if there are certain times of year that are particularly dangerous for different animals. For example, we’ve learned that Fisher Pond and Christensen Pond have large migrations of amphibians starting in February. We are currently discussing ways of making the roads safer for these migrating amphibians at this time (ideas range from signs, to barriers, to active volunteers who shepherd).

Kinglets aren’t the only ones busy finding food right now. Coyotes are also more active. January marks the very beginning of denning season where coyotes mate and find a place to raise pups. During this time coyotes become more territorial in establishing safe boundaries around den areas. Add extended freezing weather to this and you can see a bit of a perfect storm brewing. It is important to keep dogs from wandering right now. Every year starting around this time we hear of altercations between dogs and coyotes.

Coyote in the snow from Vashon Nature Center on Vimeo.

Island coyotes have and always will defend territories and pups against wandering pets and they will take advantage of wandering pets as food sources. But, so far our island coyotes are remaining shy and opportunistic rather than bold and aggressive. For example, they have not exhibited brazen behaviors like approaching attended dogs on leash. We want to keep it this way.

Securing food sources near homes and securing pets and livestock is essential for minimizing conflict. You can also actively haze a coyote to encourage fear of humans and to discourage coyotes that approach too close for comfort to you, your pet, or your yard.

Here is a link to a hazing guide to learn more

Hazing means scaring off a coyote by any means you can—yelling, waving arms, loud noises, spraying a hose at them… use your imagination.  Hazing is a means of nipping brazen behavior in the bud and turning it around before it becomes dangerous. When you haze you are speaking to coyotes in a language they understand. Don’t hesitate to be loud and bold. Let it all out! A coyote will not interpret your actions as “gee what a mean person. My feelings are hurt!”  Instead they will likely react as, “Oh! I get it. I’m in your territory, okay see ya!”

There are some nuanced points to consider with hazing that are important.

  • From late winter through early summer keep in mind that coyotes may have dens (Jan-March) and pups (March-July). If you haze a coyote on a trail in a wooded area or an area that looks like there could possibly be a den AND the coyote doesn’t run away but stands its ground or barks at you be aware that it might be trying to haze YOU away from its den. In this case it would be wise to get all dogs under control and back away slowly to let the coyote have some breathing room.
  • Secondly, if a coyote is going about its own business, perhaps just skirting the edge of your property quickly and going on its way, but not acting aggressively it’s okay not to haze. Hazing is meant to create fear in coyotes that have become too bold. If used too much when coyotes are exhibiting “shy” or “respectful” behaviors it can lead to habituation to the hazing itself.
  • If you do haze make sure the coyote is associating the hazing with you. Don’t haze from a house or car and look straight at the coyote when you haze.
  • Don’t give up until you get a backing off response from the coyote (unless you decide there may be a den in the area).
  • If a coyote returns be consistent and keep hazing. Amplify your volume and movements until the coyote flees. If you haze halfheartedly the coyote will learn that hazing is no threat.
  • Lastly, if a coyote appears sick or hurt don’t haze. Instead call a wildlife rehab center and give the coyote some space.

Confused yet? Here’s a little quiz that might help (answers below with numbers):

  1. You are walking and a coyote crosses the road in front of you. Rather than running away at the sight of you it stops and looks at you. Do you haze?
  2. You are at home and a coyote skirts the edge of your lawn and is gone in an eye-blink never even looking in your direction. Do you haze?
  3. You are sitting on your deck and a coyote pops into your yard, sees you, and starts sniffing around the yard in plain sight right in front of you. Do you haze?
  4. You are walking on a trail with your dog off the leash. Your dog runs into the bushes and you hear a bark. Your dog runs back to you and a coyote appears at the edge of the brush staring straight at you. It stands its ground and barks with a low chuffing bark. It is February. Do you haze?

ANSWERS: 1. Yes. This coyote is wondering whether you are a threat. Let him know you are. 2. No. If you do haze here there is no real harm done but it is not necessary as the coyote didn’t even see you and it was trying to be stealthy which indicates some level of fear. 3. YES!!! This is bold coyote behavior and should be discouraged right away. 4. NO. You were lucky. Judging from the time of year, the behavior of the coyote and the behavior of your dog there is likely a den nearby. This is the time to collect your dog under control and basically say, “woops sorry coyote dad for disturbing your home” and back slowly away. If this happens on a well-used trail be sure to let the Vashon Nature Center and your neighborhood know so other people don’t have the same experience.

It takes a bit of effort to understand different animals, their situations, their way of communicating, their tendencies, and their life cycles. On the one hand it is a tall order, but on the other it is a fascinating opportunity to become more connected to the wider community of life that we are all part of and living within.

To all who share your observations, thoughts, and photos and participate in our citizen science efforts, thank you for being part of the Vashon Nature Center community. Together we can get to know all of our wild neighbors better from the tiny kinglets to the big coyotes and enjoy all the cold has to offer.

Featured photo: Ice bubble on Fisher Pond. Kathryn True

Annual Christmas Bird Count: a long-standing citizen science tradition

Kick off the New Year with the Christmas Bird Count 

A guest blog for VNC from Audubon Master Birder Ezra Parker

Ezra Parker and Bianca Perla count birds at Maury Marine Park as the first snow flakes start to fall. Photo courtesy of: Harsi Parker

As a grand finale to your holiday season, consider ringing in the New Year by participating in the Vashon-Maury Island Audubon Society Christmas Bird Count (CBC). This year’s Vashon CBC will take place on Monday, January 2, 2017, from dawn to dusk, followed by a potluck gathering at the Land Trust building at 5:00 p.m

The annual Christmas Bird Count is the longest-running citizen science project in the Western Hemisphere, and one of the largest in the world. The CBC comprises a census of the individual birds found within more than 2000 15-mile diameter count circles all across the region, with most located in the United States and Canada, but growing participation in Mexico, Central and South America as well as a few Pacific islands.

The Vashon count regularly records around 115-120 bird species, and recent counts have featured rarities such as Yellow-billed Loon, White-breasted Nuthatch and Red-shouldered Hawk. Our count circle includes all of Vashon and Maury islands, a section of the Kitsap Peninsula along Colvos Passage and most of Blake Island to the north.

As this is a huge area, we’re looking for as many volunteers as we can find to help cover as much of it as possible. There are several ways to participate for people of all skill levels:

1. Join a team in the field

A number of field teams will venture out to cover particular portions of the count circle, including all of the various birding hot spots. Teams generally spend most or all of the day in the field, and observers with a team can expect to record around 30-50 species with the guidance of experienced team leaders.

2. Count birds at your feeder

If you don’t have the time or inclination to join one of the field teams, you can still help out by counting the birds at your feeder (or anywhere on your property). Birders of any skill level can contribute by spending just a few minutes counting their yard birds.

3. Owling parties

There will also be one or more owling parties heading out from 3:00 or 4:00 a.m. until dawn in the hope of hearing some owls calling.

Finally, at the end of the day we’ll congregate at the Land Trust building for our wrap-up potluck, where the stalwart birders who make this event happen share their triumphs and disappointments.

This year the CBC compiler and organizer will be Ezra Parker. Please contact him at 206-463-0383 or if you’re interested in taking part in the count.

A view through a spotting scope of a red-shouldered hawk. This was a first record for Vashon! Photo courtesy of: Harsi Parker

Below is a summary of last year’s count:

Last year’s Christmas Bird Count was held on Sunday, January 3, 2016, marking the 17th year for the Vashon count circle. There were a number of firsts on last year’s CBC, starting with the weather. While it was not the coldest day we’ve had for the survey, it was close, and this was the first time we have had snow on the count, with flakes starting to fall in the late morning hours, and heavy flurries in some areas by early afternoon. While the conditions were definitely challenging, we still had record-setting participation, with more observers and hours spent counting than in any previous year.

Generally, most teams reported that it was rather quiet, with low overall numbers, and a noticeable decline in bird activity as the day progressed and the snow moved in. That said, while a little below average (down about 6%), the total of 20,436 individual birds counted was actually higher than the last two years, probably due at least in part to the dedication of our stalwart participants. The species count ended up slightly above average with a total of 116 species on count day, and an additional 5 records for count week.

The highlights of the day included several novelties for the count, including the island’s first record of a Red-shouldered Hawk, found by Ed Swan and Jean Olson adjacent to the Land Trust’s Matsuda Farm property. As there are only a handful of historical records for this species in King County, this was a pretty rare find, and certainly a surprise! After further investigation, it turned out that the bird in question had been present in the area since at least mid-November. It also continued for a while after the count, and was seen nearby as late as mid-February.

Some other unexpected firsts for the count were two insectivorous species that really should be nowhere near this far north in the winter months, as well as a grassland species that is uncommon for our area. The first of these was another rare find, an Ash-throated Flycatcher seen during count week, also in the vicinity of the Matsuda fields. This bird was originally located about a month before, first by Alan Warneke, then Erik Steffens, at which point it disappeared, only to shockingly reappear briefly on the last day of the year, just in time to make it onto our list for the count. A day after the count, Karen Fevold also located a Western Meadowlark on a nearby private field – evidently the Matsuda area is quite the magnet for unusual birds!

The other very odd sighting was a lone Violet-green Swallow spotted coursing over Long Lake out on the Kitsap Peninsula by Ken Brown and Ed Pullen. In contrast to the flycatcher, this is a common species for our area, but is certainly not expected at this time of year. Unfortunately, it will be a challenge for both of these birds to survive the winter, as the primary reason that insectivores head south in the fall is the lack of adequate numbers of aerial insects to sustain them during the winter months.

In addition to these new species for the Vashon count, a Northern Shrike was seen out in Kitsap for only the second time. There were record high counts for a fair number of species, including Cackling Goose (70), Northern Shoveler (268), Lesser Scaup (60), Harlequin Duck (41), Sharp-shinned Hawk (11), Virginia Rail (5), Killdeer (138), Eurasian Collared-Dove (18), Western Screech-Owl (2), Anna’s Hummingbird (150), Hairy Woodpecker (9), Northern Flicker (185), American Kestrel (5), and Common Raven (57).

At the other end of the spectrum, there were a couple notable misses, chief among them Black Scoter and Rhinoceros Auklet. Rhinos had been seen in 15 of the 16 previous years of the count, and this was the first time we did not find a single Black Scoter. We also almost completely missed the iconic Western Grebe, as none at all were found on Vashon/Maury, with only 5 birds detected by the team in the Purdy area on the peninsula. This is a stunning decline from the numbers seen only a few years ago (453 in 2013) and a decline of over 99% from an average of 1181 over the history of the count. Other record lows include Wood Duck (8), Ring-necked Pheasant (1), and Great Blue Heron (19).

With overnight low temperatures staying well below freezing, most of the ponds in the area were frozen solid, and this certainly had an impact on the distribution of species such as Wood Duck, Ring-necked Duck and Pied-billed Grebe. None of these birds typical in freshwater habitats were found on the island, although the latter two were both seen in high numbers elsewhere in the count circle.

Results for the saltwater species were somewhat mixed, with above average numbers for some species, such as American Wigeon (3744), Common (520) and Barrow’s Goldeneye (196), Red-throated Loon (95) and Brandt’s Cormorant (100), but lower numbers for others like Surf (871) and White-winged Scoter (375), Horned (382) and Red-necked Grebe (76), Common (26) and Pacific Loon (20). While the Surf Scoter numbers were not the biggest departure from the historical average (for example, this species is down about 19%, while Pacific Loon is off by 71%), their counts on the survey are generally more consistent from year to year than other species that are seen in smaller overall numbers, so it’s worth mentioning that the last time fewer than 1000 were recorded was 8 years ago.

This was definitely a good year for both diurnal raptors as well as owls, with numbers above average for almost all species, and the only real miss for the day being a Peregrine Falcon. Otherwise, in addition to the Red-shouldered Hawk, no less than 5 American Kestrels were found on Vashon, along with a Northern Harrier in Kitsap, and above-average numbers for Sharp-shinned Hawk (11), Cooper’s Hawk (6), Bald Eagle (54) and Red-tailed Hawk (24). Several owling parties had great success, and managed to find Western Screech-Owl (2), Great Horned (3), Barred (4) and Northern Saw-whet Owl (2), as well as a count week Barn Owl.

Woodpeckers were seen in high numbers across all 5 regularly-occurring species, and doves were mostly up as well, with the two native species both significantly above average, and Rock Pigeon (216) slightly below. While 18 Eurasian Collared-Doves is not a large number, it is still triple the previous high count from a few years ago – it will be interesting to watch the increase in our area as they continue their steady march across the continent.

On the passerine front, numbers were higher for the majority of species, with a few notable exceptions. Finches were low across the board, with the biggest decline being Red Crossbill (14) at 67% below the average. Two species typically seen in large numbers, American Robin (1033) and European Starling (612), were both well below their averages, down 36% and 47%, respectively. Ruby-crowned Kinglet (90) was also off by about 24%, but most of the other common winter species were up, particularly sparrows. Some of the biggest increases being Varied Thrush (142) at 60% above average, Fox Sparrow (157) and Golden-crowned Kinglet (454) at 44%, and Dark-eyed Junco (1428) at 41%. We had pretty good luck this year with many of the difficult-to-find species as well, including Hutton’s Vireo (7), Hermit Thrush (9), Cedar Waxwing (14), Orange-crowned Warbler (count week), Yellow-rumped Warbler (4), Townsend’s Warbler (2), White-throated Sparrow (1), Lincoln’s Sparrow (1), and Evening Grosbeak (1).

All in all, it was a very successful count, particularly given the unexpected adverse weather conditions for the day. Our thanks to the fantastic group of participants who made this happen – we couldn’t do it without you!