Summer’s Secret Stories

As I mentioned last time, it’s been a hard season for forest babies: no eaglet, no owlet, no bushtit-lets. After realizing this wouldn’t be the year for any of them, it took a while to recalibrate my attention toward the less conspicuous developments of spring nesting, those subtle clues to smaller dramas. On closer inspection, the Black-capped Chickadee hopping through the hawthornes turned out to be gleaning nutritious protein for its children, hidden somewhere in nearby shrubbery but peeping insistently for their forthcoming meal.

Black-capped Chickadee with grub

Black-capped Chickadee with grub

A few days later, as I walked along the beach, I noticed a Gray Squirrel at the edge of the forest, gathering flowers for a midday munch. Although I first thought they were dandelions, they’re more likely Common Catsear, whose milky sap is reported to contain lots of nutrients—and when I looked more closely with my binoculars, I saw that the squirrel was a lactating mother who surely needed that nutrition. I imagined a flock of squirrel babies back in the grass, peering through the green curtain as Mom worked her way along the tangled bank.

Squirrel with flower

Squirrel with flower

The slight shift of shadow under a leaf suggested someone hiding beneath:

Baby Dark-eyed Junco hides under dandelion, waiting for parent to return with food

Baby Dark-eyed Junco hides under dandelion,
waiting for parent to return with food

Then one afternoon, as I was in the central part of the forest watching the chickadees and song sparrows, the faint but persistent bleating sound ongoing in the background finally caught my attention. I followed it, threading my way through a thin forest trail—and look what I’d been missing all this time!

Pileated Woodpecker twins - two girls!

Pileated Woodpecker twins – two girls!

Pileated Woodpeckers, our largest woodpeckers, had built a nest and raised young almost to the point of fledging without my observing them. Early in the summer I’d noticed an adult Pileated Woodpecker working this well-excavated snag, and briefly checked it out another time or two, but I didn’t follow up; I figured it was just too rotten to make a good nest and that the woodpecker was using it for its bug banquet.

Now it was back to the nest snag every chance I got! I was fortunate that my friend, noted photographer and author Paul Bannick, could join me on several occasions at the nest, sharing his remarkable knowledge of woodpeckers’ lives.

Father Pileated Woodpecker arrives to feed daughters

Father Pileated Woodpecker arrives to feed nestlings

Father Pileated Woodpecker gets ready to feed his daughters

Father Pileated Woodpecker gets ready to feed his daughters

Pileated Woodpecker dad feeding daughter

Pileated Woodpecker dad preparing to feed daughter

Parent feeds nestling

Parent feeds nestling

(Although those photos both show the father woodpecker [note his red malar patch], the mother also feeds them.)

I hadn’t caught their whole childhood, but I knew it wouldn’t be long until the girls fledged. I could hear them tapping in the nest hole, practicing the skills of finding and extracting the ants and beetle larvae that make up most of their diet. One at a time, switching places every few minutes, the girls would “hang four” on the nest hole (two toes per foot on the hole’s lip, two toes behind as the anchor), leaning out to examine this huge new world. Which has flying bugs, imagine that!

Pileated girl checks out bug

Pileated girl checks out bug

Five days after I discovered the nest, I arrived midmorning to find it empty. Paul had said the young would be likely to fledge near dawn so they’d have the whole day to practice getting around the forest before it got too dark to fly. I knew I should get up and be at the nest before dawn to catch that first flight—and dear Gentle Reader, surely I would have, had sunrise come at some reasonable hour rather than 4:11 am—but I slept in and missed it.

What must it have been like, that first flight, for a girl who’d never even been able to fully stretch her wings out before then? This particular nest hole wasn’t that far up, maybe 8′, but this couple’s past nests were 20′ or higher in nearby trees. It’s pretty important that young woodpeckers get it right the first time. My fellow nature blogger Larry Hubbell, in his marvelous Union Bay Watch website, documented another young Pileated’s first scramble out of her Seattle-area nest: rather than winging it straight from the nest hole, she edged her way out, clinging to the bark for a while before taking that inaugural flight.

Now that the sisters are out of the nest, they’ll stay with their parents for a few weeks as they learn their way around the park, getting shown the juicy decaying trees, learning aerial navigation.

Pileated family (boy and girl, with father at bottom) Lincoln Park, West Seattle

2011 Pileated family (boy and girl, with father at bottom)
Lincoln Park, West Seattle

The nest hole won’t stay empty long. Because Pileated Woodpecker nest holes are so large, they provide homes for cavity nesters too big to fit in other holes: owls, ducks, even fishers and martens in other areas. I’m looking forward to seeing who moves in next.

In the meantime, the forest is still filled with smaller wonders. And, really—aren’t those enough?

Parent Dark-eyed Junco collects various prey for her young

Parent Dark-eyed Junco collects various prey for her young

The Fragile Season

Midspring was a time of astonishing busyness in the forest, with May Day full of singing and sprouting, building nests and tending the eggs of this year’s hope.

Female Bushtit parent flying from her nest to collect food

Female Bushtit parent flying from her nest to collect food

Then things got tough.

Bushtit nest destroyed

Bushtit nest destroyed

Predation

A predator took apart the Bushtit nest that had been so carefully constructed a month earlier. If you look closely at the image above, you might be able to make out a few blue feathers that reveal the likely culprit: a Steller’s Jay.

Potential perp

Potential perp

I was surprised to see eggs still in the nest. I later showed the photo to my natural-history students and asked what they thought had happened here; a couple of them proposed that the tiny Bushtit parents had valiantly fought off the Goliath predator, who fled before eating any of their precious eggs…but not before robbing the eggs of any chance of hatching.

A few days later, when I could finally get back into the park, I knelt on the forest floor below the nest and parted the buttercup leaves. There in the duff were the eggs, two broken, two apparently whole. Again: why had no lucky predator gobbled up these protein-rich delicacies? I lifted the eggs and shell fragments with the lightest touch I could muster. Yet one of the whole eggs broke, its shell crumbling under a whisper, dribbling its clear blood and fluid onto my palm. Using a leaf, I managed to get the last tiny egg whole into a crumpled tissue, along with the fragments, staining it slightly with the remaining traces of liquid; they’re in my freezer awaiting further investigation and appreciation.

2014-5-11-P1100422-Bushtit eggs in hand-Trileigh Tucker

Desolation

Five years ago, in 2009, we had the joy of watching a baby Barred Owl develop from fuzzdom to adulthood. (Click on image for photo collection.)

2009 - Baby Barred Owl in nest box

2009 – Baby Barred Owl in nest box

This year on April 27, perfectly on time for Barred Owl hatching, we found shell fragments beneath their nest box.

Barred Owl eggshell fragments near base of nest tree

Barred Owl eggshell fragments near base of nest tree

Oh, the excitement! The chances for the first baby Barred Owl since 2009 looked pretty good. We got lots of glimpses of the female in the nest, with her husband standing guard nearby.

Female Barred Owl in nest box

Female Barred Owl in nest box

In 2009, the first day I’d observed the baby owl peering over the edge of his nest box was May 15, so we forest fans were watching intently around that time for a fuzzy white head in the box opening.

By mid-May, we began seeing both owls together on nearby branches, meaning no incubation was happening; did that mean a hidden nestling might now be old enough be left alone? Look closely at this photo from May 18 (male on right, female on left) and see if you can find a clue:

Owl couple preening near nest box

Owl couple preening near nest box; male on right, female on left

Take a close look at the female’s lower breast—see the bare area where her feathers are sparse? This is a brood patch: an exposed area of flesh that many birds develop as they’re brooding, so that the eggs or chicks receive warmth directly through their mother’s skin, uninsulated by feathers. Seeing this gave me hope that the nest box held life.

But the next week, I watched at dusk as first one owl then the other left their preening branch and headed not for the box, but for the deep woods for evening hunting; the nest was now completely unguarded. Looks like our Barred Owl parents will have yet another childless year.

Desiccation

While the owl parents had been spending their days at the nest box, the forest had been drying up. As Earth’s tilt toward summer moves the Pacific Northwest out from the influence of the polar front, our trusty winter rain tapers off, and the one ephemeral stream in the park becomes a damp groove in the forest floor. By May 26, the diminishing rains had managed to fill only three small puddles in the entire 135-acre park.

These scarce freshwater ponds were in high demand. A pair of robins took bath after bath, while a series of other applicants pleaded for admission to the public pool. First in was a Spotted Towhee, who was allowed to bathe with the robins.

Robins and towhee bathe in one of last remaining puddles

Robins and towhee (background) bathe in one of last remaining puddles

After the towhee left, a Chestnut-backed Chickadee was turned away, then a Dark-eyed Junco tried to sneak in but gave up in the face of robin protest.

Two days later, the junco had managed to tiptoe back in while the robins were off somewhere.

Dark-eyed Junco finally gets a bath

Dark-eyed Junco sneaks a bath

But it turned out that robins weren’t the real competition that day.

A thirsty Barred Owl eyes the scene

Thirsty Barred Owl eyes the scene

The female Barred Owl was sitting uncharacteristically low in a tree overlooking the puddle, perhaps five feet above my head. She kept gazing longingly at the puddle. Every time she seemed about to descend to it, a dog came along the nearby path, or a passerby walked noisily through the scene, oblivious to our hand signals to shush and walk around. It was Memorial Day, so the park was unusually full of holiday activity. And of course the crows had figured out where the action was, so they were hanging around for the harrassment opportunities.

Finally she found a gap in the traffic: human, canine, corvid. She landed in the puddle, setting up a bow wave that would have knocked over any junco too dense or slow to escape.

Female owl lands in puddle—finally

Female owl lands in puddle—finally

The joy of wet feet!

2014-5-26_1412-Owl playing in puddleAlthough owls typically get sufficient moisture from their prey, I imagined that this expectant mother owl, sitting on her unhatched eggs far longer than she’d planned as she held onto hope, had begun to yearn for a drink or even a bath. Now she might finally have a chance to at least quench her thirst.

Twice, crows dive-bombed her back into the nearby trees. Then at last:

Barred Owl female finally gets a drink

Barred Owl female finally gets a drink.

After a few moments, crows swooped in again, scaring her off without a chance to bathe, but I felt better knowing she’d at least had a few sips of water. A few nights ago I heard both owls calling outside my window; they’re doing fine.

Predation, desolation, destruction: it’s been a hard season in the park. But there’s also plenty of good news and happy surprises, which I’ll share in the next Natural Presence. In the meantime, please be kind; you never know what a creature, or fellow human, may be facing.

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A Million Bird Miles: International Migratory Bird Day

(reposted with slight modifications from 2013)

“Congratulations – it’s a FOY!”

Janeanne, Mark, and I were peering last week through binoculars at a fuzzy blob on the top of a Western Hemlock on the other side of the little clearing. Janeanne, a far better spotter and diagnoser than I, called it: a Western Tanager. Since it was the first tanager any of us had seen this year, that made it a FOY (first of year), always very exciting.

Tanagers are lovely little birds, the males glowing yellow with an incandescent reddish head. So you’d think in our fifty-shades-of-green Pacific Northwest forest, they’d be easy to spot. But no: it turns out that these beautiful feather-people love to hang out in Pacific Madrones, whose peeling bark is a translucent brown-orange and whose aging leaves turn yellow and then deep orange. Perfect camouflage for a brilliantly-colored traveler.

Fortunately, in today’s fresh clear morning, an energetic tanager chose an east-facing Madrone to forage through, and I finally got my first-ever recognizable photos of one.

Western Tanager, Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Western Tanager
Lincoln Park, West Seattle

He was right on time. Here in the Upper Left-Hand Corner, our tanagers start arriving in late April and really increase in numbers after early May. (That is, according to our local birders’ listserv, Tweeters. I hardly ever see them until a really good birder like Janeanne or Mark points them out. Sigh.)

Western Tanager, Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Western Tanager
Lincoln Park, West Seattle

The Western Tanagers are presumably here in my neighborhood park to build their little cup nests on one of our abundant conifers and to snack on forest food. To do that, they fly all the way from Central America or Mexico, around 3000 miles.

Western Tanager Range Map
(From Fieldguide.mt.gov)

They’re not the only well-traveled spring arrivals in our woods. On April 28 I heard the FOY call of a Pacific-slope Flycatcher, and the warblers have been spreading through the trees for about the last ten days. (The two below visited today – check out the Lincoln Park Bird List for photos of several more warbler species.) While tanagers build their nests up pretty high in trees, warbler nests are soft weavings of soft moss and grass, hidden carefully near the ground.

Orange-crowned Warbler Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Orange-crowned Warbler
Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Wilson's Warbler Near Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Wilson’s Warbler
Near Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Of course, it’s not just the migratory birds who’re building nests this time of year. A pair of Northern Flickers have been diligently working on their nest hole—

Northern Flicker pair greeting each other at nest hole Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Northern Flicker pair greeting each other at nest hole
Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Northern Flicker excavating and cleaning her nest Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Northern Flicker excavating and cleaning her nest
Lincoln Park, West Seattle

—and if you’re quiet and attentive, you’ll notice lots of little birds preparing homes for themselves and their children.

Pine Siskin gathering nesting material Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Pine Siskin gathering nesting material
Lincoln Park, West Seattle

"A robin feathering her nest Has very little time to rest, While gathering her bits of twine and twig..."

“A robin feathering her nest
Has very little time to rest,
While gathering her bits of twine and twig…”

Hutton's Vireo gathering nest material Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Hutton’s Vireo gathering nest material
Lincoln Park, West Seattle

If we just consider the tanagers and the six warbler species who spend summer in our park, that’s 21,000 miles traveled by the seven species—times, oh, say, 50 birds per species in our area—gets us to over one million miles traveled by little birds in order to build their nests in our neighborhoods.

That’s a million bird-miles through storms, wind, mountains, hunger, thirst, massive weather systems–as well as navigating around lost habitat and other human-generated challenges. Of course, then they have to go back south at the end of the summer, bringing us to two million miles of travel.

All that effort, and it just takes one dog running through the shrubbery, or one group of people chatting as they push through a trail-free area, to disrupt the delicate nesting process that’s the culmination of weeks of effort, the future of that little family.

May 11, 2013 is International Migratory Bird Day. Celebrate the wonder of warblers, the thrill of tanagers, by taking a quiet moment to imagine the forest as a network of fragile hidden homes: cherished cradles that need and deserve our protection. Please check out Seattle Nature Alliance for more information and ideas about preserving our natural areas.

Happy Bird-Day to you!

Field Notes: Mid-spring on May Day

It’s May, it’s May, the lusty month of May!

Female American Robin with nest material Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Female American Robin
with nest material
Lincoln Park, West Seattle

This time of year, the park is alive with song, sun, and scavenging for just the right nesting setup. It’s often a team effort; as the robin above collected dry grass, her mate was on a nearby branch, seeeep-ing softly.

Male American Robin Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Male American Robin
Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Robins’ approach to nest construction is within the broad category of assembling: taking biological or non-biological materials and putting them together in various ways to form a sturdy nest. More specifically, robins use an interlocking technique, piling sticks together, then weaving grass to make a soft bed for their eggs and later young.

But the real expert weavers in our woods are the Bushtits, those perfect tiny brown fuzzballs who work assiduously to weave a huge variety of forest materials—lichens, mosses, feathers, grass fibers, spider silk—into a long, flexible, snug place to raise children. This female Bushtit is just leaving her nest-under-construction after several minutes of interior decorating.

Female Bushtit (note golden eyes) leaving nest to fetch more building materials Lincoln Park, West Seattle, Spring 2014

Female Bushtit (note golden eyes)
leaving nest to fetch more building materials
Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Prospective parents who aren’t weaving their nests are busy at excavations. For the past few weeks, chickadees, Red-breasted Nuthatches, Northern Flickers, and other cavity-nesters have been exploring various nest possibilities in the forest.

Black-capped Chickadee explores potential nest site in tree Lincoln Park, West Seattle Spring 2014

Black-capped Chickadee explores
potential nest site in tree
Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Red-breasted Nuthatch at potential nest hole (hidden behind nuthatch) Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Red-breasted Nuthatch at potential nest hole (hidden behind nuthatch)
Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Northern Flicker exploring nest hole Lincoln Park, West Seattle Spring 2014

Northern Flicker exploring nest hole
Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Northern Flicker female at nest hole

Northern Flicker female at nest hole

Humans have provided some nice nesting opportunities near the park as well. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that the Black-capped Chickadees who seem to have chosen this incredibly convenient-to-photograph nest hole—at human-eye level in the utility pole across the street—will keep at it. How great it would be to have a spring full of baby chickadees to follow!

Black-capped Chickadee excavating nest in utility pole (note claw marks below hole)

Black-capped Chickadee excavating nest in utility pole
(note claw marks below hole)

More secretive are our seasonal visitors, the warblers. I’ve never managed to find their nests in the park; I feel lucky enough just to occasionally get to see the actual bird, usually camouflaged perfectly in the foliation…

Orange-crowned Warbler on Oceanspray Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Orange-crowned Warbler on Oceanspray
Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Black-throated Gray Warbler Lincoln Park, West Seattle Spring 2014

Black-throated Gray Warbler
Lincoln Park, West Seattle

We also have Yellow Warblers, Townsend’s Warblers, Wilson’s Warblers, and Yell0w-rumped Warblers, but so far this spring they’ve been too sneaky for me to get a good current-year photo to share with you.

The woods are full of secrets and surprises this time of year. It’s a time for new hope as buds burst into flowers and birds burst into music. Happy May Day!

It's May, it's May!

It’s May, it’s May!
(Spotted Towhee)

 

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Hooting, drumming, flights so fine…will you be my (bird) Valentine?

Love is in the air! It swoops in graceful dark-winged arcs across the drooping tips of Western Hemlocks, rings through the forest in resonant baritone duets. Love hammers its name on strong bare tree limbs. And just before 5AM in yesterday’s misty gray morning, love hooted lustily in the cedar outside my bedroom window.

How do I love thee? the birds ask. Let us count the ways. The woodpecker’s valentine is a drum, its message of affection delivered in staccato rapping on a firm branch or tree trunk—or, unfortunately for you if you happen to be a noise-intolerant human, on your metal gutters or chimney.

Northern Flicker pair on light pole

Northern Flicker pair on light pole, male in front

As Beethoven knew, an unsterbliche Geliebte, the Immortal Beloved, can inspire truly creative expression: here’s a Red-breasted Sapsucker who apparently hoped he’d get more bang for his buck with this particular drum. Hopefully his “Mein Engel, mein alles, mein Ich” felt the same way.

Red-breasted Sapsucker at fire alarm. Pack Forest, Washington.

Red-breasted Sapsucker at fire alarm.
Pack Forest, Washington.

Don Giovanni himself, calling under his tesoro‘s window, couldn’t generate a richer baritone love song than these Common Ravens, calling back and forth across my park yesterday and today as they soared over the trees.

Common Raven. Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Common Raven.
Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Common Raven. Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Common Raven.
Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Surely their dramatic flights, diving, chasing, calling, weren’t so much about Nevermore, but rather, How about sometime soon? Like many longtime lovers, this raven pair—who’ve been showing up briefly in my park about this time of year since 2009—might want that special date in that special place each year to remind themselves of just how wonderful each other is.

Or maybe it’s more your style to just sit quietly together on your porch swing.

Crow pair on swing Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Crow pair on swing
Lincoln Park, West Seattle

At the beginning of his career, Shakespeare was ridiculed as an “upstart crow.” Crows are probably still chuckling about this compliment to Shakespeare’s  intelligence and verbal expressiveness.

Quiet companionship is a lovely thing. But oh, the intimate joys of 5AM hooting! “Then nightly sings the staring owl/Tu-whit; tu-who, a merry note,” says Winter in Love’s Labour’s Lost. But my owls, beyond merry, didn’t stop at tu-whit, tu-who—they were outright calloohing and callaying in their frabjous joy. Ha-ha-ha-ha-hoo-hoo-heh-aHOO! Ha-ha-ha-ha-hoo-hoo-heh-aHOO! One Barred Owl belly-laughed while his partner trilled, then they moved around the cedar branches and went at it again and again. Titania, Queen of the Fairies, shares her forest with “The clamorous owl that nightly hoots,” but I think Shakespeare must have misheard her adjective: they’re cl-amorous.

Caught in a kiss! Barred Owls, Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Caught in a kiss!
Barred Owls, Lincoln Park, West Seattle

And finally, I have to share this wonderful painting by my gifted friend and fellow Antarctic aficionado, artist Kate Spencer. Instead of chocolate or flowers, Gentoo Penguins offer their sweethearts small rocks (often stolen from a neighbor’s nest)—almost as “forever” as diamonds.

Valentine's Day gift in the Deep South. Gentoo Penguins, painted by Kate Spencer (katespencer.com)

Valentine’s Day gift in the Deep South.
Gentoo Penguins, painted by Kate Spencer (katespencer.com)

Take your choice—hoot, drum, soar, sit, or give a rock—and go show someone you love them. Happy (belated) Valentine’s Day!

Field Notes: Jewel Worlds in Teaser Season

Every year in late January or early February, we seem to get a week or so of lovely weather: sunny skies, temperatures in the 50′s that lure us out into the forest or onto the beach. And every year I succumb to the hope that spring is really on its way early this year, that the abiding gray will give way to blue, that the scent of moist air will get its floral infusion in February instead of April.

Cliff Mass’s weather forecast assures me that teaser season will soon be over; we’re due for rain in a couple of days. If past years are a good guide, we’ll then likely be under mostly gray skies through early June.

Teaser season’s clear afternoons often follow foggy mornings, since overnight clear skies allow the air to cool enough so its moisture condenses to form droplets.

Fog breaks over Vashon Island, WA January 25, 2014

Fog breaks over Vashon Island, WA
January 25, 2014

So after yesterday’s morning fog began to clear, it felt good to get out for a while yesterday in the sunlit forest, and to look closely at the new life that’s expanding sneakily under the radar.

The hellebore in my Easter garden is in full bloom, its broad pink blossoms facing coyly downwards where it’s easy to overlook them from our towering human heights.

Hellebore blossom and buds

Hellebore blossom and buds

A strategically placed mirror reveals the veined exuberance hidden beneath that green veil:

Hellebore blossom from below

Hellebore blossom from below

But it was a budding witch hazel in my neighborhood park that wore worlds of jewels, each a minuscule aquarium bearing a forest within.

Witch hazel offers a necklaced bud

Witch hazel offers a tiny necklaced bud
(Bud is ~ 1/8″ in diameter)

Dewdrop garland on witch hazel

Dewdrop garland on witch hazel

Dewdrop suspended from witch hazel. Brown area at top of drop is the inverted image of the twig above.

Dewdrop suspended from witch hazel.
Brown area at top of drop is the inverted image of the twig above the drop.

Forest on a pedestal. (Image is inverted; dewdrop was suspended from a twig.)

Forest on a pedestal.
(Image is inverted; dewdrop was suspended from a twig.)

And in a celebratory finale, this miniature Disneyland castle sprouts exuberantly atop a fencepost.

Mold mycelium with sporangiophores (about 1/2" across)

Mold mycelium with sporangiophores
(about 1/2″ across)
(Click here for closeup of lower part.)

Happy teaser season! May your senses open wide to its worlds of wonder.

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Speed and stillness: A contemplation

Yesterday the fastest creature on Earth stopped by for a visit. Ever the news-bringers, our park’s crows alerted us to a predator’s presence, and I was astonished to see a rare Peregrine Falcon up there on a high branch, lit beautifully by the winter sun as the crows called, annoyed or just gossiping.

Peregrine Falcon with crows. Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Peregrine Falcon with crows.
Lincoln Park, West Seattle

My first Pacific Northwest peregrine encounter, 27 years ago, had involved only sound. I had just sweated my way to the top of Little Si (at 1500′, higher than almost all of the eastern state I’d just moved from).

Snoqualmie Valley, WA

Snoqualmie Valley, WA

I was sitting there on the rocks, munching granola and admiring the vast glaciated valleys and the two forks of the Snoqualmie River merging below me, when suddenly the air vibrated with a sound I couldn’t place; I caught a blur of movement out of the corner of my eye. It was all so quick that I had no time to pay closer attention, and there was nothing to look at afterwards that I could find.

Fortunately, I was with friends who’d lived here longer, and one volunteered, “I think that might have been a Peregrine Falcon.” I wasn’t a birder back then, so he went on to explain that they can dive at up to 200 mph—OK, now I was impressed. Little Si’s rocky face made a great launch platform for that avian rocket.

Peregrine Falcon

Peregrine Falcon

Peregrines are built for speed. Their tapered wings let them maneuver quickly in pursuit of their prey of smaller birds, their bodies are aerodynamically shaped, and their hearts are capable of beating extraordinarily fast to provide their muscles with the oxygen needed for rapid movement. That dark area beneath their eyes may help reduce glare when they’re winging after fast-moving prey. They even have a cone-shaped structure (called a baffle) in their nostrils, which keeps the air they’re flying through at such incredible speeds from piling up so they can’t breathe.

Peregrine Falcon cleaning talons. Note baffle in nostril. Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Peregrine Falcon cleaning talons. Note baffle in nostril.
Lincoln Park, West Seattle

I, in contrast, am not built for speed. Air does not have any problem making it into my lungs and the word “aerodynamic” does not apply to any part of my body. My heart beats so slowly, and my blood pressure is so low, that I always have to explain to physician-assistants that it’s OK, their equipment is functioning just fine, I just have genetically slow metabolism.

This is a blessing as far as I’m concerned. To a remarkable degree, all mammals get the same number of heartbeats in a lifetime, from mice to whales: about 730,000,000. So I’m planning on living a really long time.

More importantly, my slowness can enrich that extended life in a special way: by its usefulness in the naturalist’s toolkit. At four years old, Jane Goodall was fascinated by the fact that hens could lay eggs, but she couldn’t find an opening in a hen that could accommodate an egg. So she snuck into a henhouse and waited. And waited, holding perfectly still so she wouldn’t scare off the hens. Finally, it happened—and when she finally emerged, thrilled with her new discovery, she learned that her frantic family had been searching for her for the past four hours. Pretty good for a four-year old. Goodall’s remarkable gift for stillness later opened new windows into chimps’ lives in the wild, allowing her to witness behavior hidden from more restless scientists.

We slow ones, we who have stillness instead of movement as our default, get left behind a lot. I always end up being the last one on the trail, sometimes to the serious annoyance of fellow hikers who feel most alive when they’re stretching out their stride, breeze in their faces, toned muscles comfortably warm with exertion.

But nature presences herself in different ways to those who walk slowly or sit in contemplation. Creatures emerge from the shadows, go about their daily tasks; we can experience them for who they are at peace, not who they become in fear or escape. We in turn quiet our internal chatter, letting ourselves see our natural Others face to face rather than through a glass darkly.

Years ago I sat at a riverside camping spot while my companion went exploring for the afternoon. I sketched, or just sat. After a while a subtle movement on a nearby branch caught my attention. At first I couldn’t make out what it was, then after a while I saw that it was a hummingbird on a nest. Looking more carefully, I was astonished to see it opening and closing its beak—I had thought hummingbird beaks were like tubes, lacking hinges as they sucked nectar from flowers. A while later, another hummingbird arrived, then began feeding the one on the nest: I had been watching not only the smallest hummingbird species in that area, the Calliope Hummingbird, but a baby of that species, the tiniest gem of all, only because I stayed put.

* * * * *

I spent a long time yesterday with the falcon. From time to time we locked eyes; I felt I was being calmly assessed, taken deep into those huge dark eyes that see so much better than I can even dream of, enveloped in that timeless, hooded gaze.

Peregrine Falcon Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Peregrine Falcon
Lincoln Park, West Seattle

* * * * *

After a year of sabbatical followed by several months of a research fellowship, I’m back at work. I’d forgotten what it’s like to be busy.  Busyness is addictive: it gives us an injection of adrenaline, makes us feel important—and, as Darlene Cohen points out in her lovely little book The One Who Is Not Busy, it also serves to distract us from the emptiness we’re afraid our lives might hold, from the suffering around us. I now have to struggle to regain that precious sense of open time: time for play, meandering thoughts, open-ended sketching. Tasks I should do and projects I want to do compete for limited mind-space.

The Jesuits have a marvelous term, contemplatio in actione, expressing the integration of a contemplative heart in an active life. I’m not very good at that. I’m happy for a bit of actione here and there in my week, but I’m much better at contemplatio in inactione.

* * * * *

Yesterday’s falcon wasn’t clocking 200 mph or even moving much. He occasionally stretched his elegantly pointed wings and striped tail, preened his talons, or just drowsed. Even the fastest of all Earth’s creatures must balance speed with stillness.

Peregrine Falcon stretching. Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Peregrine Falcon stretching.
Lincoln Park, West Seattle

 

 

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Field Notes from the Season: Winter

(Field Notes is a new section of Natural Presence, comprising short glimpses of the natural world in different seasons.)

In a day full of administrivia, even a quick walk in the woods can refresh your spirit and wake you back up to what it is to be alive. We’re due for a big storm tonight and tomorrow, and when my neck and eyes began to protest that they’d been screen-focused for way too long, I strolled over to the bluff near my house for a dose of the real world avant le déluge.

The Pacific Northwest paints winter in muted shades of gray, soft green, dark brown, with watercolored skies and trees sketched in charcoal. Spray from the whipped whitecaps of an incoming storm, along with low-scudding clouds, blur boundaries: Salish Sea, glacier-smoothed islands, rocky Olympic Peninsula diffuse one into the other.

Winter study in black and white

Winter study in black and white
(Painted with ArtStudio on iPad Air)

I spent a while looking off into the blended distance while the air waltzed around me, not yet the gale force due tonight, but still fresh and gently swaying. I turned around to head back home, musing about how simple the scene had been in its tones of light and shadow, when a movement in a bush caught my attention. While at the bluff, I’d listened for our resident Northern Flicker deepening his nest inside a rotting madrone branch, but he seemed to be napping. I didn’t see any of the busy little juncoes and chickadees who usually forage in the oceanspray and salal, nor even hear the gull and crow regulars. So a wiggling branch stood out.

The creature in the shrub descended to the duff hidden beneath the shrubs and rustled there for several moments. Finally it revealed itself: a gray squirrel, not burying or searching for snacks of nuts as I’d seen in recent weeks, but collecting a mouthful of dried leaves to haul up a young Douglas Fir. Less than two minutes later, he was back down for the next load, then disappeared a second time into the high foliage. Up and down, up and down: hard work, but good work.

As placid as the place seemed at first, better attention revealed its midwinter aliveness. Even behind that overcast western horizon, the setting sun is moving inexorably northward, and the gradually increasing moments of daylight signal the impending busyness of leafing, flowering, fruiting, nesting. A few buds swell, a flicker chips a bit deeper into an arboreal burrow, a little squirrel buttresses his nest against a storm or for future babies. I go back inside to write and sketch and listen for the first gentle drops on the roof.

Winter storm

Winter storm

Passings: The Ghosts of Pleasure Beach

Volcanic mountains rise in rough white-capped waves below as the jet stream carries me eastward in my metal cocoon. We pass the sharp drop of the Colorado Front Range, and I reread its geology with the familiar pleasure of an old book: a massive fault system along which twisted ancient rocks have been thrust by circumstance into aerial performance. Still further east, a formless blanket of cloud extends from horizon to horizon, obscuring rocks, rivers, towns, burying geologic and human history alike.

* * * * *

It was December 19, and I was flying from Seattle to New Jersey to help my family celebrate the life and acknowledge the passing of my uncle Ernest a few days earlier. He wasn’t a believer in God or a churchgoer, but growing up in the core of Manhattan, he and his siblings were nature lovers. Central Park was steps from their front door and, with their father and sister, the boys who were later to become my uncle and my father examined glacial scars on rocks, unearthed salamanders, watched leaves sprout in spring, glow with autumn, wither with winter. Until shortly before his death at 92, my uncle loved to walk through the arboretum in the town where he lived all of his adult life. He adopted a trail near his home and helped clear it of invasive plants, learned the birds, monitored its health.

* * * * *

In these dark circum-solstice days, I haven’t been monitoring the news. I already know that things are terrible and getting worse in Syria; that the Sudan is in crisis; that Egypt is undergoing new violence; that a year later, we’re still not sure why twenty first-graders were murdered in their Connecticut classrooms. The world’s agony leaves me gasping for breath and grasping for hope in the face of evil’s vast scale and scope.

My uncle Ernest, with more courage than I, faced human suffering and death straight on. He worked for decades as the county medical examiner, helping to solve murder mysteries. (At his memorial, a younger neighbor who’d gone into the family business of wildlife rehabilitation noted that my uncle’s dinner table was the only one he knew of where the conversation was even more graphic than at home.) Ernest loved his work, his scientist’s mind fascinated as he mulled evidence and assessed explanations for each life’s end.

* * * * *

My flight’s 3-hour delay at the Seattle airport had given me time to recover from my 4:30 am wakeup and to witness dawn from a new perspective.

Predawn fog with eagles End of Concourse B, SeaTac Airport

Predawn fog with eagles
Taken from end of Concourse B, SeaTac Airport

The delay also allowed me to read a New York Times article reminding me that eBird reportings were tracking Snowy Owls in their Northeast irruption. Snowys aren’t usually found this far south, but something—perhaps a bumper crop of baby owls last year, possibly a rodent shortage—has caused them to expand from their Arctic home. Rechecking eBird the next morning at my father’s Connecticut home, I found that Snowys had been sighted along a nearby stretch of Long Island Sound, and I was hungry for a dose of nature, so my father and brother joined me in a late-afternoon search party.

Our destination was Pleasure Beach, a sandy spit south of Bridgeport. An overconfident navigator (me) erroneously sent us first to an industrial dock where doves perched cooingly, silhouetted against cathedral-sized tanks of petroleum by-products destined to be transformed into new roads through the Hudson Valley, additional parking lots for New England malls.  Remains of past organisms, exhumed from their stone crypts, wait here to be called to eliminate more trees, seal more soils, so that we might move and park a few more cars.

Doves, Peckham Asphalt facility Bridgeport, CT

Doves, Peckham Asphalt facility
Bridgeport, CT

The spit’s tip seemed near through the dock structures, but we couldn’t see how to get to it from where we were, so we gave up and returned to our trusty GPS, which we could almost hear whispering “I told you so.” Finally arriving with its help at the beach parking area, I was thrilled to see a good clue to unusual-bird presence: a guy with a big spotting scope. (Size matters in the world of birding.) He pointed us down the beach, and other birders returning from their afternoon owl-watching confirmed that a Snowy had spent the afternoon snoozing on the spit.

Wetland, Lewis Gut, Bridgeport, CT

Salt marsh, north side of Pleasure Beach, Bridgeport, CT

We finally saw a second guy with a big lens and made a beeline for him—only to watch him fold it up just as we approached, saying the owl had just flown off “that way somewhere.” I gave up any real hope of finding it, but at least we’d had a good nature walk with a lovely sunset impending. Enjoying the search for its own sake, we ventured a little further, scanning the wetlands and grass for a Hedwig-shaped white blob just in case. We passed some old benches, stone jetties, rusted bits of archeology from some deceased culture.

* * * * *

More people let go of their lives in winter than any other time of year. (In my own small world, I know of at least five other deaths in the past ten days—no, now six, with a new death since I began writing.) Why? Cold makes our blood vessels constrict, meaning our hearts have to pump harder. Cold also makes us more susceptible to viruses. And if you’re elderly and perhaps already in ill health, you may be poorer and less likely to turn on the heat; you may also be more isolated and less likely to have someone notice if you’re not doing well. But I think also, the darkness must take a toll. It’s just so much to deal with, trying to keep up your spirits in the face of the weight of night.

Ernest, thankfully, was neither isolated nor poor, but he did know he didn’t have long. Adventurer to the end, though, he’d recently been trying to convince my father to come along on a February riverboat trip down the Amazon.

* * * * *

If I’d been paying better attention during our walk to what was actually around me rather than looking only for the owl, it might have occurred to me to wonder about the spit’s flattened top and the random sticks and metal poles emerging from the russet grass and shelly sand. I’d missed the clues that we were walking through what had once been Connecticut’s largest ghost town. For over fifty years, a carousel, theater, bumper cars had thrilled children and their grownups; our desolate, darkening spit had once been a vacation destination.

http://ww4.hdnux.com/photos/20/23/42/4274339/3/628x471.jpg

Pleasure Beach, about 1955.
(Click for link to source.)

Like so many other manufactured human pleasures, the thrills faded after a while, and finally a burned bridge near the dock we’d seen earlier ended Pleasure Beach’s amusement-park heyday. Children’s cheers have been replaced by gulls’ screeches. Federal regulations and a system of wildlife refuges have given threatened piping plovers and least terns a fighting chance through human detritus, and the birds are beginning to recover.

* * * * *

Ernest and I both turned toward the small places of nature after careers of scientific investigation of suffering and death. Like him, I’ve loved my work, but engaging with tragedy for a living—in my case, environmental disasters of climate change, biodiversity loss, pollution—takes a deep toll.

* * * * *

Suddenly I saw the Snowy Owl. It was scanning the beach from the top of a nearby snag, preening and scratching as it prepared for a long hunt during tonight’s extended midwinter darkness.

Snowy Owl on snag Industrial Bridgeport in background

Snowy Owl on snag (upper right),
industrial Bridgeport in background

Snowy Owl at sunset Lewis Gut, Bridgeport, CT

Snowy Owl at sunset
Pleasure Beach, Bridgeport, CT

As the sunset’s glow faded and true solstice night descended, we watched the owl until the darkness rendered it a gray smudge against the dark-blue sky, city lights in the background. We started the long walk back along the chilly beach. As we crossed the last jetty, we caught a ghostly movement: the owl had been accompanying us unseen.

Snowy Owl Bridgeport city lights across salt marsh

Snowy Owl
(Bridgeport city lights across salt marsh)

It finally flew on beyond our vision, a living light adventuring into the
longest night.

Last sight of Snowy Owl

Last sight of Snowy Owl

.

In Memoriam: Ernest E. Tucker (1921-2013)

EET, always young at heart

EET, always young at heart


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Dinosaur-Shaped Eyes

An animal’s eyes have the capacity of a great language.

Martin Buber, I and Thou  [1]

Barred Owl Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Barred Owl
Lincoln Park, West Seattle

These owl eyes speak the language of the night, where owls live and move and have their being. In the morning, under this owl’s winter perch, I find the small gray pellets that are the story of the previous night’s successful hunt: tiny jaw fragments interlaced with fur, a femur, a scapula. Silently sailing through the dark forest, scanning for signs of prey, owls read a visual language lost to us in our diurnal speech.

Can imaginative presence help us glimpse the owl’s language? Let’s look at a scene from the forest at night, first through our own eyes, then through the eyes of the owl. Here’s the human image.

2013-9-29_0041-v2-Mouse (b) in darkened scene, human vision-Trileigh Tucker

Forest scene to human eyes

Not a lot of information here that we can use, right? Here’s how an owl might see the scene.

Owl perception of forest night scene

Simulated owl perception of forest night scene

Like other animals that are fluent in night-language, owls have eyes that are beautifully equipped to read light and shadows. How do they do this? Eyes have two different ways of interpreting light: rods are the cells in eyes that are activated just by receiving photons, and cones are tickled by specific wavelength ranges. In owl eyes, the rods are much more densely packed than those of diurnal creatures. Since color isn’t that important at night, evolution has benefitted owls by allocating more retina real estate to those cells (rods) that give them helpful night information.

Here’s another way that owls’ eyes are adapted to help them read better at night. Look at the shape of this young Barred Owl’s cornea:

Juvenile Barred Owl showing corneal curvature

Juvenile Barred Owl showing corneal curvature

His eyes’ dramatically curved shape, in combination with the widely expandable pupils you can see in the first photo, helps him gather light from many directions. When all those photons get to the very large retinas at the back of his eyes, they provide lots of information to his brain to help him read the forest to find food.

Owl eye structures

Owl eye structures

Given how important they are, it’s not surprising that the owl’s eyes take up so much space in his head that there’s only a thin divider between them—so thin that light from one eye can filter through into the other. Jerry Waldvogel has pointed out that if our eyes were proportionally the same size as the owl’s, they’d be as big as tennis balls in our heads! [2]

Finally, our owl is unusual even among birds in that the place on his retina with the sharpest vision (the fovea) is packed with rods, not cones, giving him enhanced sight where he focuses. So when the owl’s amazing hearing helps him focus on a movement in the forest scene above, he might see something like this:

A mouse in the forest!

A mouse in the forest!

And once his attention becomes riveted:

Fleeing mouse

Tonight’s dinner?

While it is the owl’s exquisite hearing that lets him finally decide where to pounce, his remarkable night vision helps him read the forest, so that he can navigate his way through and hone in on his prey’s location.

* * * * *

We used to be creatures of the night, too. Our earliest mammal ancestors lived their lives in the Mesozoic darkness—and our eyes tell that history.

As I’ve noted previously, most humans’ eyes contain three different types of color-sensing cells. Each type is most sensitive to a particular light wavelength (medium blue, green-yellow, or orange), and our brains interpret the combination of signals sent by all types to yield our sense of color. This gives us a wonderful visual dimension beyond what many mammals can perceive; for instance, dogs and cats have just two types of color sensors.

But most birds have four-color vision, generally including a separate kind of cell that is sensitive to ultraviolet. They inherited this rich way of seeing their world from their dinosaur ancestors, who probably also could see a much more colorful world than we can. Although there’s currently no way we can truly envision or simulate how it would be to see this way, I imagine that the forest scene in daylight might look something like this to such a bird (right), compared to human vision (left):

Forest view-human (L), bird (R)

Forest view-human (L), bird (R)

These birds’ eyes speak a syntax of saturation, words of hues: the ultimate “colorful language” of which we can only dream. Why did we mammals lose some of our ability to sense colors?

Because we were scared of dinosaurs.

Back in the Mesozoic when they first appeared, little mammals would have made a nice snack for a hungry dinosaur—most of whom hunted during the day.

Uh-oh. (Simulated early mammal and dinosaur. Photo and art by Trileigh Tucker.)

Uh-oh.
(Simulated early mammal and dinosaur.
Photo and art by Trileigh Tucker.)

So our ancestors scuttled into hiding places during the day and waited until darkness to emerge (tiptoeing carefully around snoring dinos), learning to hunt by night. Because our little fuzzy forebears’ fancy color vision wasn’t much use at night, space in their retinas was much more valuable for rods that could help them see in the dark, and they eventually lost two of the four types of cones they’d started with. We began our own mammalian history with vision shaped by dinosaur appetites.

Once that handy meteor winnowed out a lot of those big pesky predators and turned the rest into birds, though, mammals could creep out of the darkness and relearn how to live in light. Genetic mutations in many primates and some marsupials recreated a third type of cone, and we humans got lucky and evolved from those lines.

But our history, our dawn in Mesozoic roots, is still told by the stories in our dinosaur-shaped eyes, eyes that once spoke the “great language” of the night. As we encounter the deep gaze of the owl, we can see traces of a shared history, echoes of an ancient intimacy—an eye-Thou relationship of epochal duration.



[1] Buber, Martin, and Walter Arnold Kaufmann. I and Thou by Martin Buber; a new translation with a prologue and notes by Walter Kaufmann. Simon & Schuster, 1970, p. 144.

[2] Waldvogel, Jerry A. “The bird’s eye view.” American Scientist 78, no. 4 (1990): 342-353.

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