BeachNET launches as part of larger Salish Sea restoration

by: Kathryn True

On several cold, wet nights this winter, while the rest of us cozied up by the fire, a group of intrepid scientists and volunteers visited local beaches to pan for gold—fish gold to be exact. They carefully measured out predetermined beach sections, then used modified gold-panning equipment to sift fish eggs out of their sandy beds. They sent these samples to a Department of Natural Resources lab where researchers determine and report back the numbers and kinds of forage fish found. Each beach was chosen for contrasting characteristics to give scientists information about what makes healthy fish habitat.

This effort is one part of the island BeachNET Program, a citizen-science partnership between Vashon Nature Center, Vashon-Maury Land Trust, Washington Department of Natural Resources, King County, and the University of Washington. BeachNET (Beach Nearshore Ecology Team) is the active hand of the Citizen Stewardship Committee for Maury Island Aquatic Reserve. The Citizen Stewardship Committee plans citizen science studies, educational opportunities, and stewardship activities in the reserve. It is coordinated by Vashon Nature Center and open to anyone (contact us to sign up). This forage fish survey is just one of many projects conceptualized by this Committee and carried out by BeachNET volunteers.

“These fish are important and are called forage fish for a reason: they are foraged,” says Bianca Perla, director of Vashon Nature Center. “They are the underpinning of the whole food web and are supposed to be very abundant. Their existence is critical to salmon and sea birds.” The study focuses on sand lance and surf smelt; though herring are also key forage fish, they spawn in deeper waters so egg abundance can’t be measured using the panning method.

Sand lance eggs found by Vashon BeachNET volunteers at Piner Point. This is shown under a microscope. The eggs are stuck to sand grains. Photo courtesy: Galen Richards, WADNR

A critical part of the forage-fish life cycle is beach spawning. During a high-tide (using some sort of fishy “seavite” system, they all know when to show up) the fish swim together in a frenzied mass to deposit eggs and milt. These free-floating gametes somehow find each other and join to make zygotes before falling to the sediment where they will develop over the next several weeks. The tide then recedes, leaving the newly fertilized eggs exposed and vulnerable.

“We’re focusing on this part of the life cycle because we’re losing so many natural beaches,” Perla says. “We’re losing a lot of sand due to bulkheading and shoreline development. This also eliminates trees and other overhanging vegetation, which shades the eggs and keep them from drying out.”

“Since the Dust Bowl we have all been trained to fear erosion, so to turn around and tell people erosion is good for our shorelines is difficult to get across,” says Tom Dean, director of the Land Trust about the difficulty of selling the idea of bulkhead removal to landowners. “For years, we’ve had lots of efforts to teach about animals found on the beach, and now it’s time to go the next step to, ‘What am I seeing in the physical landscape and what does that mean for the health of beach creatures?’ This is groundbreaking work, and under Greg Rabourn at King County’s leadership we are pushing the envelope on this issue so we can demonstrate what we learn to people throughout Puget Sound.” Data collected on Vashon will contribute to a Puget Sound research study spearheaded by Jason Toft at the University of Washington School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences.

Though they serve as lynchpins of the entire food web, we know very little about forage fish. That’s where the BeachNET Program comes in. Examining side-by-side different habitat characteristics that provide good egg-rearing conditions will help define the perfect conditions under which these fish thrive. The Vashon study compares stretches of contiguous shoreline that include three types of beaches: untouched shoreline, shoreline with bulkheads that will not be removed, and shoreline with bulkheads that will be removed as part of this study, which will provide useful before-and-after snapshots of beach health.

“Salmon have been studied quite a bit, but their food hasn’t,” adds Perla. “We’re starting to put the pieces together and realize that an important part of protecting salmon is keeping their food populations healthy.”

This is one in a series of posts about the BeachNET Program. This spring, Vashon Nature Center will train volunteers interested in being part of this and more citizen science projects on the beach. To join us on the beach, email: Learn more about BeachNET and Maury Island Aquatic Reserve Citizen Stewardship Committee.

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