Thursday, April 30, 2009

Seal lice

Bug Girl's Blog has a post about a family of lice who live only on seals, sea-lions and walruses. They harvest seal oil and make scales so they can hold a bubble of air with them while the seal swims.

Camas is in bloom

And my favorite place to see it, Victoria's Beacon Hill Park, is awash in bluish-purplish blooms right now. For a sample, visit Victoria Daily Photo.

Photo from the Idaho Transportation Department

Rufous hummingbirds!

Never mind the flu. There are rufous hummingbirds on the front page of the Seattle Times

The seagull has babies too

Blogfish has an amazing photo.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Volcano mussels and the future of the ocean

Wall Street Journal scientist columnist Robert Lee Hotz has an article featuring research by University of Victoria marine biologist Verena Tunnicliffe, one of my favorite scientists. Her team looked at mussels collected from the undersea volcano of Eifuku, near the Mariana Islands, an area where the volcano's sulfur chimneys render the water acidic.

From the column:

"To her surprise, Dr. Tunnicliffe found that mussel shells she collected at Eifuku were so thin that she and her colleagues could see right through them. The water chemistry made it impossible for the mussels to extract enough calcium carbonate to form a proper covering. Compared with shells of the same species collected in more normal waters, "they were half the thickness and half the weight," she said.

"To live in these inhospitable conditions, the mollusks cannibalized their own shells, leaching from them the carbonate needed to maintain their internal muscle chemistry. "They are dissolving whatever shell they do have," says Dr. Tunnicliffe at the University of Victoria in British Columbia. They manage to survive despite their weakened shells, the scientists speculated, because the water's harsh chemistry is too much for the hard-shell crabs that prey on these mussels elsewhere.

"When the mussels die, their wafer-thin shells disintegrate even faster than their soft tissues can decay."

The research may offer clues for whats in store if the oceans of the world continue to become more acidic.

Via Marine Conservation News

Peregrine falcons at the Port of Olympia

Bees, Birds and Butterflies has a post about the peregrine falcons that nest and hunt at the Port of Olympia.
It includes this anecdote from a crane operator:

"It was during nesting season, when the Peregrine pair are especially, ferociously territorial. It was near dusk; the operator was looking out over the inlet and saw a Great Horned Owl, flying low over the water, heading east and making a fatal mistake of moving near the peregrine nest box. He watched as one of the falcon pair saw the owl and took off after it with deadly intent; he saw the falcon hit the owl at high speed, driving it into the waters of the bay. The owl was unable to get out, and drowned."

(By the way, here's a Seattle P-I story I wrote about urban peregrine falcons.)

The sturgeon and the lake

Daniel Jack Chasan has an essay in Crosscut, about an 11-foot-long sturgeon that showed up in Lake Washington in 1987.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Dead gray whales

It happens every year in late April and early May. Dead gray whales turn up on Northwest Washington Beaches. This week, KIRO TV reports on two beachings: one on Camano Island and one in Birch Bay.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Using birds to keep birds away

Wildlife biologists trying to reduce bird strikes on aircraft are getting a little help from the birds.
Biologists working at Portland Airport figured out that red-tailed hawks who lived near the airport learned to avoid planes -- and their presence kept away wandering birds with no such sense of the hazard. So, while they transported away wanderers, they kept the local birds in place, says this story in the KGW Raptor Cam blog.
Sea-Tac Airport does something similar. It relies the services of the Falcon Research Group to capture any hawks that stray into the area, and move them to safer hunting grounds. In the past seven years, the Falcon Research Group has moved more than 200 birds, it reports in its most recent newsletter (Scroll down to the sixth news item.) But it leaves the resident red-tails in place.
"As an example of how this works, we have two wing-tagged red-tails (B and C) that have lived successfully at the airport for over 7 years, one even nesting under the approach lights," the letter reports.
This is a small piece of a wide-ranging effort to stop bird strikes, an effort that costs $250,000 a year. Staff track the birds on special radar, scare them with lasers and explosives, cover nearby bodies of water with netting and plant grass laced with bad-tasting fungus. On Friday, Sea-Tac airport released its assessment of bird strikes: 105 reported in 2008, a year that saw about 350,000 takeoffs and landings at the airport, says this blog post in the Tacoma News Tribune. Birds hit ranged from a wren to a bald eagle.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Bald Eagles in West Seattle

The West Seattle Blog has a story about the neighborhood's bald eagle population, illustrated with fine photos and a video.

Maple poachers hit Burnaby Mountain

The Canadian Press has this story about poachers stealing big-leaf maple trees from Burnaby Mountain and selling them to guitar makers.
I like the lede:

"When an old-growth maple tree falls in the majestic woods of British Columbia's Burnaby Mountain, does it make a sound?
Yes . . . but only once it's been transformed into a guitar."

Morel hunting

Fat of the Land has a delightful post about looking for morels and finding false morels -- and a predator's leftovers.
I don't like regular morels much - to me they have an odd chemical aftertaste - but I do like mushroom hunting.

Spring time at Lake Diablo

The North Cascades Institute's Chattermarks blog has lovely pictures of ferns and wildflowers emerging near the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center at Lake Diablo.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Low tide visit to Discovery Park south beach

A flock of brant nibbled on eelgrass until an eagle buzzed them, and they flew away. These geese are on their way to their breeding grounds on the coast of the Arctic Ocean.

Moon snails had left numerous sand collars, a strange stiff construction of their eggs, sand and mucus. In the rocks, these channelled dogwinkle were laying eggs. (They're the grain-like things in front of the gray one in the middle.)

Nearby, this polychaete worm was wriggling into a vacant barnacle shell.

And while most anemones were non-descript blobs in the sand, this burrowing anemone spread its tentacles in a pool.

The green comes from single-celled algae that live in the anemone's cells. They have a symbiotic relationship: the algae get a safe place in the sun, and the anemone gets extra oxygen and sugar.

Something got the bushtit nest

This afternoon I discovered that something (a crow? a squirrel?) has turned the bushtit nest in my yard inside out.

Friday, April 24, 2009

House sparrow as arsonist.

House sparrows are some of the birds that North American birders most reliably detest. They are an invasive species, introduced from Europe, with a tendency to take over any nesting cavity that they'll fit into. If another songbird is nesting there, they'll push it out. They also love to nest in the kind of nooks and crannies that tend to form on aging wooden buildings, and when they're there, they make a lot of noise and mess.
Now Birdwatching Canada has another reason for people to dislike the birds They can be arsonists.

Photo from the National Park Service.

Ship tracks

Cliff Mass has a fascinating post about "ship tracks," long, ribbon like clouds that from over the ocean made out of water condensing around the particles belched out of ship engines.

Image from Naval Postgraduate School.

Meet Mount Hood

Eruptions has an informative profile of Mount Hood, rated the fourth most dangerous volcano in the U.S. (after Kilauea, Mount St. Helens and Mount Rainier, but well before Redoubt, which is number nine.)

The big questions

This week, the journal Conservation Biology published an essay titled One Hundred Questions of Importance to the Conservation of Global Biological Diversity. The questions come from 44 authors from a variety of academic disciplines and geographic regions.

Endangered species status for rockfish?

The National Marine Fisheries Service announced on Wednesday that it is studying endangered species status for three species of rockfish. They are looking at possible "threatened" status for yelloweye and canary rockfish and
"endangered" status for bocaccio, which has disappeared from Washington State fish surveys for the past 20 years. This story in the Seattle Times has some more details.
All three fish are long living (bocaccio can reach three feet long and live 50 years). They grow slowly and they are slow to reproduce. Their populations declined because of overfishing in previous decades. Many were caught as bycatch by salmon fishermen.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Why my yard is littered with pigeon feathers.

This is "2 over W", a five-year-old male Cooper's hawk. (For more about Cooper's hawks in Seattle, see this previous post.) This hawk was banded as a juvenile in Woodland Park Zoo, says bird researcher Jack Bettesworth. Since then, "2 over W" stuck around the north end of Seattle. Bettesworth has had reports of sightings from the zoo, Woodland Park and east of Green Lake. I first noticed him hunting near my house at 4 p.m. yesterday afternoon. By 7 p.m., he was perched in a shrub, dismembering his prey.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009


When I first saw these pink and gray blobs on a rotting log in Discovery Park, I thought they must be some kind of mushroom. It turns out they're much weirder.

But mushrooms don't behave like this. Fred Rhoades, a lichen and fungus expert, who lives in Bellingham and is in the process of retiring from Western Washington University, set me straight. This is a slime mold: Lycogala epidendrum, or Wolf Milk Slime. Much of its life it's a big pink blob, with no cell walls, but many nuclei, oozing through the rotting wood like an amoeba, out of sight of human observers. But when conditions are right to make spores, it forms these little cushions, which start off rosy like the amoeba and then darken to gray.

Eventually, they'll become brittle and break to release powdery spores.

Bleeding heart blooming today

in Discovery Park.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Green Lake coot and turtle

The mallards and coots wouldn't leave this turtle, a red-eared slider, alone. They kept pecking at its shell. It didn't seem to me to be aggressive. It looked more like the birds were wondering if the reptile's shell was a food source. The turtle moved on.

Tree swallows at Green Lake

This fine fellow was singing on a tree by Green Lake.

He's a male tree swallow, calling to advertise that he's staked out a hole in a tree suitable for nesting.
And it looks like his advertising has paid off.

After a while, the female flew away, with the male in pursuit.
Tree swallow courtship is a complex affair, so it's probably too early to predict whether there'll be babies in that cavity.
But I'm going to keep an eye on that tree.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

New neighbors: Mr. and Mrs. Bushtit

A pair of bushtits have built a nest dangling from a tree in our yard.
It's an astonishing structure, made of moss and grasses stuck together with spider web. I don't know about their chances of successfully raising their young. There are a lot of crows and Eastern gray squirrels around.
One was snacking on buds in the nest tree this morning. The pair stayed close by to keep an eye on it. I think this is the male.

According to my Sibley Guide to Birds, a full-grown bushtit weighs 5 grams -- about as much as a nickel. I'm not sure what they'd have done with the squirrel if it had made a move towards their eggs, but it left without showing any interest in the nest.

Tree swallows fight

10,000 birds has some amazing pictures of tree swallows fighting over nest boxes at Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge in New York City.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Important news about barnacle penises

For their body size, barnacles have the longest penises of any animal -- they have to, because they have to reach out of their shells to fertilize the neighbors. But if barnacles grow in places with stronger currents, the penises get stubbier. The New Scientist has the story.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Meet "C over K"

I spotted this character chasing pigeons near my house.

He's a juvenile Cooper's hawk. His blue bracelet (which has the letter "C" over the letter "K") comes from Jack Bettesworth, who studies Seattle's Cooper's Hawks. I emailed Bettesworth to find out more about the bird.
He replied within an hour.
"Great news that this bird has survived the winter and appears to be doing well. As you may well know the first year is the most difficult for them. It appears that he has a bit of a crop and may have recently eaten. Most likely he (a male) is not a breeding bird this year at about 9 months old, though it is possible... He is from a nest in Ravenna Park last summer and was banded on 7/26/08. He was later seen at “the Fill” in late September. And now, there in Ballard."
Bettesworth has been studying these urban predators since 2002. He became interested in them after one snatched a kestrel out of a keeper's hands at the Woodland Park Zoo. He wants to hear about any sightings of banded Cooper's hawks or sharp-shinned hawks in the Seattle area. You can find his contact information through the Washington Ornithological Society
Female Cooper's hawks have blue bands too, but on the left leg, and sharp-shinned hawks have color-coded bands, with males banded on the right and females on the left.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Blue whales come to B.C. coast.

The Canadian Press has a story about sightings of blue whales on the British Columbia coast. The 2,000 whales on the West Coast of North America(there are about 10,000 in the world), usually range off California and Baja California. But in the past few years climate changes has moved their food source, away from there.
The research is in a paper in Marine Mammal Science. The lead author is John Calambokidis, of Cascadia Research.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Portland red-tailed hawk's eggs hatching

The red-tailed hawks nesting in downtown Portland have had their first two chicks. You can check on them on this webcam.
Meanwhile, the bald eagles nesting in Sidney B.C. have three chicks, and the peregrine falcons on the Washington Mutual Tower have four eggs. The webcam watching the falcons is here.

Wood poachers target big-leaf maples

Huckleberry Days has a post about wood-thieves targeting big-leaf maple, a tree increasingly prized by musical instrument makers.

Big-leaf maples in Olympic National Park. Photo from the National Park Service.

Flame retardant chemical thins kestrel eggshells

Like DDT, the pesticide that devastated raptor populations before many governments banned it, flame-retarding chemicals called polybrominated diphenyl ethers or (PBDEs) thin the eggshells of American kestrels, says a report in Environmental Health News. Canadian Wildlife Service researchers found that when captive kestrels ate a diet high in PBDEs, they laid eggs later, had thinner eggshells, fewer fertile eggs and fewer surviving young. Chillingly, the levels of flame retardant in the eggs of kestrels given the highest doses were similar to that found in eggs of herring gulls and kestrels in the Great Lakes.
PBDEs do not break down in the environment and they accumulate int the bodies of creatures that live high on the food chain. One study found the chemical in the breast milk of Pacific Northwest women. Canada and Washington State have passed laws banning most forms of the chemical.

Via Watching Our Waterways

Photo from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife

That's a lot of acorns

When spring comes, Black Bears emerge from their dens and devote themselves to one task: eating. Sometimes, the quest for calories brings them too close to people's homes. And if they find food there in say, your garbage can or bird feeder, they're likely to stick around and become a danger.
The Grizzly Bear Outreach Project gives one reason why bears have an appetite for human food. It's much more calorie rich than a normal staple of their diet, acorns. A McDonalds Double Cheeseburger, for example, is equal to 427 acorns.

Photo from the New York Department of Environmental Conservation.

Warm weather coming

Northwest weather guru Cliff Mass is predicting warm temperatures this weekend - reaching the 70s Fahrenheit(or the 20s Celsius)on Sunday.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Octopus vs. dogfish

National Geographic filmed this epic battle between a spiny dogfish and a giant pacific octopus at Seattle Aquarium.

The Kitsap Sun's Watching Our Water Ways blog has more details.

Via the magnificent Ugly Overload.

Spring morning, Discovery Park, Seattle

The Brothers, over in the Olympic Range, sport a fresh layer of snow...

big-leaf maple blooms...

fiddleheads unroll... (At this stage, I can't tell what kind of fern it is.)

..and biologists roam the woods wielding strange equipment.

This is Kayla Helem, an undergraduate at the University of Washington. She is working with Caglar Ackay, a University of Washington PhD candidate, on research into the private lives of song sparrows. It's a continuation of decades of work on Discovery Park's song sparrows by Mike Beecher's lab.
Song sparrows are monogamous, but genetic studies show that they sometimes mate with sparrows other than the ones they raise chicks with. (What biologists call "extra-pair mating.") So researchers have fitted some song sparrows with radio transmitting backpacks. Now they are tracking the birds' movements.
"We're trying to figure out who's leaving the territory, the male or the female," Helem says.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Burke Museum's magical history tour

Watch the glaciers advance and recede. Follow the path of lahars. Watch the city transform from native village to metropolis. The Burke Museum's Waterlines project gives a lively look at the Seattle area's past, and the forces that still shape the present. And if you want more of the same, check out The Puget Sound River History Project.

Photo: Bird's eye view of Seattle, 1878. Drawn by E.S. Glover. Library of Congress Geography and Map Division

No more trout stocking -- unless Congress says so

The National Park Service has decided to end trout-stocking in North Cascades National Park -- unless Congress overrules the decision by July 1, says this story from the Associated Press. The state and volunteers have been stocking lakes in the park for more than 40 years, but the National Park Service wants to end the practice because the trout aren't native to the lakes and could harm the local ecosystem. In some cases, park officials are considering actively removing fish reproducing in the lakes, using nets or even pesticides.

If you really need sunshine

Cliff Mass has a comprehensive explanation why Sequim, Wash. is a good bet.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Whirligig beetle pictures

The photo synthesis blog has the best pictures of whirligig beetles I have ever seen. Maybe the best in existence. I once wrote about whirligig beetles for a natural history column I had in The Bellingham Herald. A very capable photographer, Mame Burns, sprawled on a lake boardwalk for half an hour to get an image of the tiny, frenetically moving insects. She ended up with something in focus, only to have the designer veto it because "It looked like a turd."

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Tree fungus is bad news for Clark's Nutcracker

It turns out that when white pine blister rust hits whitebark pines in subalpine forests, it can not only destroy the trees, but make it impossible for future generations of whitebark pines to grow, by taking away a major food source for the Clark's nutcracker.
The Clark's nutcracker and the whitebark pine have what ecologists call a "mutualistic" relationship. Clark's nutcrackers eat whitebark pine seeds. When the cones form in late summer, the Clark's nutcrackers harvest them and bury them by the thousands. They have special pouches under their tongues for carrying seeds around.
When the nutcrackers breed, which can be as early as January, they dig up the seeds and feed them to their young. They're smart birds and remember where all their seeds are buried -- almost. The seeds that are forgotten are the only ones the whitebark pine makes that have a chance to germinate. The bird eats other things, but the tree doesn't have another way to disperse seeds.
Enter white pine blister rust, which strikes the cone-bearing branches of the tree first.
In a paper in the April issue of Ecological Applications, three researchers from the University of Montana report that in areas hit hard enough by the fungus, so that the number of cones fall below 1000 a hectare, the birds retreat and look for food elsewhere, so that those pines still producing seeds have no way to disperse them.
Via EcoTone.
Photo from Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Geese and more geese

The Bend Bulletin has an interesting story about some studies on Canada Goose habits in Deschutes County -- studies that have implications on what can be done about the hordes of enormous waterfowl spreading through local ecosystems, gobbling crops and pooping on lawns.
It was thought that the main problem was distinguishing between resident geese (waterfront-hogging, lawn-pooping pests) and migratory geese (majestic native birds that soar on epic journeys between California and Northern Canada and mostly mind their own business.)
The studies found that there's a couple more groups of geese mixed in there: local residents (groups that stay in a county-sized region, but move from place to place) and regional residents (geese that meander around the Pacific Northwest.)
The more Canada Geese stay in one place, the bigger pests they are.
Via Sightline Daily.

Photo from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Hooray for red alder

The Seattle Times has a fine front-page story, about red alder, a tree which can take over disturbed sites and transform them to productive forests. The symbiotic bacteria in its roots allow it to extract nitrogen from the air, which means that as it grows, it fertilizes the soil around it, making it possible for other plants, such as Douglas Fir, to thrive. Also, when alder leaves fall into streams, they add much needed nitrogen to those aquatic systems. And it makes good wood -- fast -- providing foresters with the possibility of a hardwood that can be easily sustainably harvested.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Another egg

The pair of Peregrine Falcons nesting on Seattle's Washington Mutual tower have a second egg, reports Urban Peregrines of Western Washington. The usual clutch size is four. The view from the webcam is nice and clear today.

More reasons to love duckweed

I happen to love duckweed. As the smallest flowering plant in existence, it's a beautiful excercise in minimalism: a leaf, a root, and once in a while a teeny tiny flower or fruit. As a rapidly spreading, protein-rich native plant, it's a big part of what keeps lakes and ponds vital. I'm not the only one that feels this way about it. The Missouri Botanical Garden maintains this fan site which includes links to duckweed's many applications. Culture it, and it's fodder for fish farms Genetically modify it and it'll make pharmaceuticals for you. And there's more.
Wired Science has this story about how a pair of researchers at the University of North Carolina have found that duckweed can gobble up animal waste, while producing starch that can be converted into ethanol. That's right, it can clean wastewater while producing biofuel.
Duckweed rocks.

Photo from the New York Department of Conservation.

New advice on cougar attacks

The usual advice on what do do when confronted by a cougar is to stand your ground, look big, and fight back. It turns out that running away may be a better idea.
The Los Angeles Times' Outposts blog reports on a U.C. Davis study that reviews cougar encounters and found that fleeing is usually the best strategy. Standing your ground might give the cat the impression that you are too weak or injured to run away, and are thus an easy target.
Of course, cougar attacks are extremely rare -- you're far more likely to be injured by a domestic dog. The best way to keep safe is to avoid hiking alone.

Photo from the California Department of Fish and Game

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Vancouver making homes for mason bees

Volunteers are installing 53 "bee condos" in public areas around Vancouver in the second phase of a project to bring pollinators to the city, says this story in the Vancouver Sun

Photo from the National Biological Information Infrastructure.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Zoo works to boost Oregon spotted frog

The Oregon Zoo is preparing to release 120 year-old Oregon Spotted Frogs to a wetland near Olympia, says this article in the Oregonian. The Oregon Zoo and Northwest Wildlife Trek in Eatonville, Wash. raised the frogs from eggs. Northwest Wildife Trek released its frogs in September, but the Oregon Zoo kept their frogs over winter, so they could grow more before facing the wild. Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife Scientists estimate that the frog has disappeared from 70 percent of its former habitat.
Via Sightline Daily.
Photo from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Spring butterfly migration

British Columbian nature blog Huckleberry Days has a report with photographs about sighting California Tortoiseshell Butterflies (Nymphalis californica) on British Columbia's Sumas Mountain. (Which is not the same as Washington's Sumas Mountain.)
In these parts, California Tortoishells are migrants from the south. The species ranges as far as Arizona and Baja California.

National Park Service photo.

Peregrines lay first egg on Seattle skyscraper

The peregrine falcons nesting at the 56th floor of the Washington Mutual Tower in Seattle have laid their first egg of the season. The pair could be the same couple that were there last year -- and lost all their chicks to disease -- but observers can't be certain, because the falcons are not wearing bands. The Falcon Research Group has a webcam trained on the nest. (It's hard to see much on a sunny morning.) Peregrine falcons have been nesting on the downtown building since 1994. For more details about urban falcons, here's a story I wrote about them.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Warming climate threatens pikas

Federal officials will decide on May 1 whether to start studies looking into whether the pika - a mountain-dwelling relative of the rabbit, should be on the endangered species list, says this story from the AP's Mike Stark.
The main threat? A warming climate.
The University of Washington's Donald Grayson looked at sites in the Great Basin area of the southwestern U.S., showing that as the climate warmed up over the past 40,000 years, the ranges of pikas shrank, with the pikas moving farther up mountains. In areas where they once lived 5,700 feet above sea level, they now tend to live higher than 8,000 feet.
You can find more details about his study in this story from the Environmental News Service.
Pikas live in boulder fields on mountains. They spend the summer collecting grass and drying it into hay, which they store for the winter. They live close together in big groups. If you hike close to one, it'll let out an alarm call like this.
They don't hibernate in the winter, but stay in their dens, eating the hay.
And they're cute too:

National Park Service photo

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Red-tail hawk webcam

Portland's news channel KGW Channel 8 has a webcam trained on a pair of red-tail hawks incubating three eggs in a nest in Portland office building. The eggs are due to hatch over the next two weeks.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Herring spawn in heart of Vancouver

Scientists have discovered a ribbon of herring spawn about a kilometer long on newly restored shoreline in Vancouver's False Creek, says this story in the Vancouver Sun. For those of you unfamiliar with Vancouver jargon, False Creek isn't a creek at all, but an inlet, which snakes under the shadow of high-rises southeast of downtown. There are no modern records of herring spawning there before.