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Field Notes

Covering the natural wonders of the Pacific Northwest

June 26, 2013 at 11:23 AM

Cedar waxwings: the sound of summer

As the symphony of spring birds begins to fade with the breeding season wrapping up, Puget Sound birders can take solace in Cedar waxwings. These beautiful native birds are the sounds of our summer days. Give them a listen, here on Seattle Audubon’s BirdWeb. Especially come August, when most of the other locals have quieted down,…

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June 24, 2013 at 3:01 PM

Humpbacks are back and thriving

Once hunted for subsistence by the Makah tribe and then heavily targeted by non-Indian commercial hunters in the 1900s, humpback whales took a beating. By the 1960s the animals were still being hunted in U.S. waters, with the great mammals slain for pet food.  But today, humpbacks are making a comeback.

It’s no accident. Commercial whaling was banned in 1966. The animals have also been protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act since 1972. And in 1994, the waters off the northern Washington Coast were protected in the Olympic National Marine Sanctuary. 

The results are plain: Cetaceans in Washington waters have rebounded. Grays whales are back. And humpbacks are booming.

A humpback whale shows its flukes in the waters off Washington's outer coast. Photo by John Calambikitis

A humpback whale shows its flukes in the waters off Washington’s outer coast. Photo by John Calambokidis

Commercial hunting had reduced populations from an estimated 15,000 prior to 1905 to only 1,200 to 1,400 animals due to whaling. Today, ship surveys turn up humpbacks in abundance off the northern Washington coast. Researchers reported humpbacks as the most common species seen, with 232 sightings of 402 animals during ship surveys from 1995-2002 in the waters off northern Washington.

John Calambokidis, biologist at the Cascadia Research Collective in Olympia and other researchers put the numbers of humpback in the North Pacific at more than 20,000 today, with their populations healthy and growing at the rate of 5 to 7 percent per year.

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June 21, 2013 at 1:00 PM

Head out this weekend to enjoy native plants, supermoon

What is it about a campfire that makes us slow down as we should more often, to notice the beauty around us? Including the native plants.

At our campsite in the Teanaway last weekend I found myself awake in the early dawn light, and instead of trying to go back to sleep, got up with the song of the Swainson’s thrush. I put on the coffee in the French press lit a campfire, and settled in with a book I had long been wanting to read: Theordore C. Frye’s Ferns of the Northwest, a slim, lovely, old volume too long on the bedside table and waiting for a read. Published in 1934 by the Metropolitan Press in Portland, Oregon, it is written with the  stately cadence of deep observation.

bracken book

The pages are yellowed, the illustrations black and white. And the descriptions of our native ferns delicious. The chapter on bracken fern, one of our Northwest standards, alone was worth getting up early for.

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June 20, 2013 at 10:14 AM

Why not a bird walk to welcome in summer?

Summer arrives in Seattle today at 10:04 p.m.  Why not celebrate the delicious long summer days ahead with a bird walk?

Eastside Audubon is offering birding tours at Marymoor Park in Redmond. Birdsong continues for hours on the long summer nights. Enjoy it with Eastside Audubon president and master birder Andy McCormick on a level, two mile walk, beginning at 6:30 p.m.

A savannah sparrow belts out a song.  Photo by Mary Brisson

A savannah sparrow belts out a song.
Photo by Mary Brisson

The walk begins at parking lot D and will end at 9 p.lm., or when the birds call it a night. Parking is $1. Bring binoculars and a snack. All ages are welcome, but kids 17 and younger should come with an adult.

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Comments | Topics: bird

June 14, 2013 at 7:00 AM

A lesson in the value of native pollinators

The moment I found the hive, I had a hunch.  And while I’ll never really have conclusive proof, I still have my suspicions and some interesting new natives in my backyard.

The story goes like this:

I have several plum trees, and they have flowered for several years now, but each year the number of plums the trees produced was a pittance.  On our best year, I think we got four.  The same goes for my cherry tree.

All of a sudden this year I noticed that the trees have scads of small plums hanging on most every branch.  I thought the reason was that the trees had matured to the point where they were able to produce fruit, but I was mowing the lawn and came up with another possible answer.

I was mowing beside a birdhouse that hangs on my fence. I turned off the mower and to my surprise I could hear the birdhouse humming.

My instant reaction was, “Oh no.”

I looked in the hole on the front of the birdfeeder and saw what looked like little bumblebees, but a little more than half the size of the ones I grew up with in the Midwest. They had coloration fairly typical for a bumblebee with one striking difference, their butts were deep orange.

With some help from the Internet and Scott Black, Executive Director at The Xerces Society, my “Oh no” turned into “Excellent.”

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June 4, 2013 at 7:00 AM

Spring snowmelt about to peak, Elwha set to spew

Peak spring snowmelt flows will hit the Elwha soon, notes Andy Ritchie, restoration hydrologist for the Olympic National Park. And that means a whole lot of sediment coming out of the Elwha River, where one dam has been removed, and the other, Glines Canyon Dam, about 8.6 miles upriver, is in the bulls eye.

Dam removal on the Elwha is on hold while repairs are made to a water plant needed to manage increase sediment loads. But meanwhile, the Elwha is busily chewing away at the sediment already unleashed by the dam removal so far.

In all scientists estimate 34 million cubic yards of sediment will be mobilized by dam removal on the Elwha. About 40 percent of it is expected to stay behind in the watershed, in stepped down terraces along the valley walls.

But the rest is expected to be eroded out by the river to the nearshore environment and beyond, where it is already building up bars and beaches at the river mouth

Here’s a recent photo from Tom Roorda, pilot at Port Angeles, who took this photo last week:

Tom Roorda took this spectacular photo of the Elwha river mouth on Wednesday, May 15, 2013. Notice all the soft sediment accumulated on the beach and forming sand bars in the near shore. Yet less than about 10 percent of the sediment expected to come out from the former dam sites has made it downriver. About 100 times more is yet to come.  Photo by Tom Roorda.

Tom Roorda took this spectacular photo of the Elwha river mouth on Wednesday, May 15, 2013. Notice all the soft sediment accumulated on the beach and forming sand bars in the near shore.
Photo by Tom Roorda.

But just how much is 34 million cubic yards, anyway? I have never been able to imagine it … but Ritchie gave it some thought, and came up with these calculations:

“In terms of football fields, including the end zone, it looks like it would fill an American football field 3 miles high.

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June 3, 2013 at 6:03 PM

Hearings on marbled murrelet conservation start Wednesday

What is to be the long term conservation strategy for marbled murrelets? The secretive seabird that nests in old growth trees has been managed under an interim policy on state timber lands since 1997. But hearings start this week on a long term strategy being crafted by the state Department of Natural Resources. The first hearing…

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