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|It may surprise others that scientists have identified 11 species of leeches in the northwest's freshwater lakes, ponds and rivers, estuaries, and ocean.
By Jamie Bails, WDFW Habitat Biologist
Until he walked out of the Skykomish River with one attached to his leg, Bruce Taylor was surprised to know that leeches were in the river. He and his family have been recreating in and around the river for over nine years and had never seen a leech.
It may surprise others that scientists have identified 11 species of leeches in the northwest's freshwater lakes, ponds and rivers, estuaries, and ocean. Two new Placobdella species in the family Glossiphoniidae were recently collected in Squires Lake, Whatcom County, bringing the Washington state total to 13 species.
Worldwide 700 species of leeches have been identified, but many more are probably unknown since they're everywhere except Antarctica. Most live in freshwater, but some are marine or terrestrial.
Leeches are as harmless as a freshwater earthworm, to which they are related. Like earth worms, leeches have high physiological flexibility to withstand oxygen shortage and temperature fluctuations. They breathe oxygen through skin and live submerged in mud most of the year, until they are hungry or need to reproduce.
Most leeches are predacious, feeding on other invertebrates. Sanguivorous leeches feed on blood of vertebrates like mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish.
The most commonly known sanguivorous leech is probably Hirudo medicinalis, the "medical" leech used for centuries in bloodletting to treat diseases and other health issues. After falling from favor in the 1800's, doctors now have a renewed interest in using leeches to heal wounds after reconstructive surgery. The anticoagulant that sanguivorous leeches have in their saliva to facilitate the flow of blood can be used to treat inflammation of the middle ear, heart attacks, strokes, and more. In 2004, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved use of leech saliva for medical purposes.
If you walk along a muddy shoreline or in a waterway like Bruce Taylor did, you may cross paths with a harmless but hungry sanguivorous leech. It might gently attach to your ankle or leg to get a free meal from you.
If you're not too squeamish, you could let it feed for a bit. Northwest leeches do not transmit any diseases. You won't feel a thing because its anesthetic salvia numbs your skin. After 10 minutes or more it will simply drop off by loosening its toothy jaw (the small end) and anchoring tail (the bigger end).
A little of your blood will nourish a leech that in turn will nourish other animals such as ducks, fish, and fishermen who catch fish. In fact, leeches make great fishing bait. It's the circle of life. Leech feeding is your opportunity to provide a meal for a starving invertebrate. Besides, how many people can say they let a leech feed off them?
If you'd rather let other animals feed the leeches, here's the best way to remove one you find attached: Find the smaller head end and use your fingernail or a thin flexible object to push it sideways off the bite point until it releases the suction. Then release the fat tail end the same way. Most people think the business end of a leech is the larger tail, but that's just for holding on.
Unlike earthworms, leeches cannot regenerate if broken in half. And you don't want the head left attached to you. Once the leech is released, it's normal to bleed a bit at the bite spot because of the anticoagulants. Just press hard against the wound and gradually the flow will stop.
Almost as interesting as the way leeches feed is how they reproduce.
Leeches are hermaphrodites, having both male and female sex organs or characteristics. In the early spring, they search around the mud for a compatible mate to exchange eggs and sperm, oriented head to tail. Once fertilized, the eggs live in a gelatinous cocoon, secreted by a ring of tissue called a clitellum.
Adult leeches can only reproduce once or twice in their lives, so they depend on their offspring to maintain the population. After several weeks of development, young leeches emerge from cocoons, just in time for swimming season in your favorite lake.
If you feed a leech while enjoying the great outdoors this summer, just remember that you're part of that circle of life.
For more information, see http://www.kingcounty.gov/services/environment/animals-and-plants/biodiversity/defining-biodiversity/species-of-interest/inverts/leeches.aspx.
|Common loons favor nesting on small islands to minimize predation from land animals and for quick escape.
(Photo by Daniel & Ginger Poleschook)
|Young Common loon chicks keep very close to their protective parents.
(Photo by Daniel & Ginger Poleschook)
By Daniel Poleschook, Jr., Ginger Poleschook and Mark Pokras
It might surprise many residents and visitors that there are common loons (Gavia immer) in Washington.
They're better known in other parts of North America where populations are higher and they've been called the "spirit of the wilderness" for their enchanting calls and unique
But Washington does have common loons, mostly seen during winter, in their drab gray-brown plumage, along the Pacific coastline, the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the Salish Sea, Puget Sound, and along the middle and lower parts of the Columbia River.
It's in spring and summer, when they're in their gorgeous breeding plumage of black with white squares and dots, and when they show their parenting devotion to fuzzy brown chicks, that our common loons are uncommon.
Fewer than 20 nesting pairs of common loons are found annually on lakes in Washington -- the lowest total of all states and provinces where the species nests in North America.
The southern edge of the common loon breeding range is a west-to-east line across the middle of Washington, making the state an excellent place to study the factors that have reduced their numbers – something that we do in cooperation with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) and other management entities. Our work helps assess the health and integrity of aquatic systems, for which common loons are an excellent indicator species.
Common loons are large birds, with Washington breeding males weighing nine to 12 pounds, females seven to 10 pounds. Almost the size of a Canada goose, their wingspan can reach over four feet. They're strictly aquatic birds, only going to shore to breed and when they are ill. Most of their diet is fish, but some invertebrates like crustaceans and leeches are regularly consumed. Loons are excellent divers, able to dive for up to five minutes and down to about 200 feet (although most dives are shorter). Common loons have very strong site and mate fidelity and are highly protective of their nesting territory.
Common loons are protected by the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1916, and in Washington they are listed as a "Sensitive" species. Washington has a substantial population in the winter, when adults and juveniles migrate to open water from various parts of their summer breeding range in the Pacific Northwest and beyond. Common loons wintering in Washington waters face a large number of threats, including a higher risk of predation, periods of dramatic lowering of prey abundance, and potential water contamination.
Breeding pairs of common loons were more abundant in western North America prior to settlement. Sport shooting, targeted elimination of them as competitive fish hunters, and decreasing habitat quickly lowered nesting populations to extirpation in California, Oregon, Idaho and likely Washington.
WDFW records indicate that Washington's number of common loon nests declined to zero during the early 1900's. Comprehensive WDFW surveys in the 1980's at all the lakes with previous nesting revealed only one pair in the northeastern part of the state.
Protection from shooting and of habitat, stocking of fish in numerous lakes for fishing, and increased public awareness from education efforts have contributed to a very slow increase in nesting pairs to Washington's current 16 – 18 pairs.
A number of stressors and physiological characteristics of common loons limit building populations quickly to former levels. Currently, the largest causes of loon deaths are related to ingesting lead from sinkers and other fishing tackle, and becoming tangled in fishing line. These casualties can be greatly reduced by using readily available lead-free tackle alternatives for fishing, and recovering and eliminating discarded fishing line.
Other stressors include mercury contamination, increased recreational disturbance in nesting areas, and bald eagle and mammal depredation of eggs and young. Unfortunately, illegal shootings also still kill loons.
There are active and ongoing conservation efforts to preserve and enhance the number of nesting common loons in Washington. WDFW and the U.S. Forest Service have been supporting research and monitoring for many years, including the work of Biodiversity Research Institute (BRI) to band common loons throughout North America over the past 20 years.
More than 100 common loon adults and juveniles have been banded in Washington to provide data and individual identification. Citizen scientists conduct field research and observations each year on all of the nesting common loons in northeast Washington. Their determinations and recommendations led to the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission adopting a rule in 2010 prohibiting the use of lead fishing tackle at common loon nesting lakes in Washington.
Nesting common loons can sometimes be seen at this time of year at the following Washington lakes:
Clallam County: Ozette
Ferry County: Ferry, Long, North Twin, South Twin, Swan
Grays Harbor County: Quinault
Okanogan County: Beaver, Beth, Bonaparte, Crawfish, Lost, Sidley, Spectacle
Pend Oreille County: Meadow
Stevens County: Pierre
Whatcom County: Diablo, Hozomeen, Terrell, Whatcom
Be sure to avoid stressing or disturbing the birds, especially at nest sites and where young are present, by keeping your distance and using binoculars, spotting scopes and telephoto camera lenses. If a common loon modifies its activity because of your presence, you are too close.
Learn more about common loons at http://wdfw.wa.gov/conservation/loons/,
www.briloon.org and www.loon.org.
|May is the peak month throughout Washington for migratory birds to return or move through in their annual flights from wintering grounds to breeding areas. And this year it's when the city of Seattle signs an "Urban Bird Treaty" with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as a commitment to protect birds within the metropolitan area.
May is the peak month throughout Washington for migratory birds to return or move through in their annual flights from wintering grounds to breeding areas.
It's the month of International Migratory Bird Day, celebrated for the past 24 years with field trips and festivals on the second weekend – May 13 this year with the theme of "Helping Birds Along the Way."
It's the month of Bird-a-thons and "Big Days," when birdwatchers count more species in single 24-hour periods than most other times of the year.
And this year it's when the city of Seattle signs an "Urban Bird Treaty" with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as a commitment to protect birds within the metropolitan area.
Each spring, migratory birds pulse through the Seattle area in waves on their journey north to breeding areas. Each fall they travel through again on their southbound journey to wintering grounds. Birds in both seasons are searching for food, shelter, and rest along the way. They face many hazards, including collisions with buildings and motor vehicles, night light distractions, predation from urban cats, and of course loss of habitat as urban development sprawls.
After learning about this situation and potential solutions from Seattle Audubon, Audubon Washington, Heron Habitat Helpers, other bird advocacy groups and individuals, and Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife North Puget Sound Region staff, the Seattle City Council recently passed a resolution to enter into an Urban Bird Treaty with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The Treaty partnership will protect birds in the Seattle area by developing programs to reduce hazards to migrating birds that travel along the Pacific Flyway. Treaty projects will restore habitat, use citizen science to learn more about birds in the urban area, and connect residents, especially youth, to nature within the city.
In the coming months, Seattle Audubon will play a key role in developing and implementing Urban Bird Treaty programs to help ensure more birds reach their final destinations. These include information campaigns such as "lights out", "cats safe at home", and promotions of bird friendly architecture that help reduce fatalities and injuries among migrating birds.
The Urban Bird Treaty program across the United States brings together city partners to conserve migratory birds through habitat conservation, hazard reductions, citizen science, and outreach and education in urban and suburban areas.
Today there are more than 25 Urban Bird Treaty cities working to conserve and restore bird habitat. They include some of the nation's largest metropolitan areas, like Atlanta, Chicago, Denver, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Philadelphia, and New York City, and smaller cities like Lewiston, Montana, Opelika, Alabama and Kennedale, Texas.
With Seattle joining the effort, an important coastal link along the Pacific Flyway will be protected along with the already established Urban Bird Treaty cities of San Francisco, Portland and Anchorage.
Seattle's Urban Bird Treaty is scheduled to be officially signed on May 5 at Lincoln Park's North Play Area, 8011 Fauntleroy Way SW, Seattle. The program signing is at 11 a.m., preceded by a bird walk led by Seattle Audubon volunteers at 10 a.m. This free and public event marks an important milestone in recognition of Seattle's role in protecting birds in the Pacific Flyway.
Other Washington cities interested in the Urban Bird Treaty program can find information about applications and grants at https://www.fws.gov/birds/grants/urban-bird-treaty.php .
|If winter-weary deer have become your least favorite backyard visitor, munching everything from the arborvitae to your fruit trees, it's time to strategize your spring planting with some of their least favorite plants.
If winter-weary deer have become your least favorite backyard visitor, munching everything from the arborvitae to your fruit trees, it's time to strategize your spring planting with some of their least favorite plants.
Whether it's blacktail deer in western Washington, or mule deer or whitetail deer in eastern Washington, deer are "browsers." That means they browse the growing tips of shrubs, trees, and other plants. Evidence of browsing is the ragged tips where the twigs have been broken. (Rodents and rabbits leave a clean cut when they browse.)
In late winter and early spring, most deer will try almost anything edible. That's because they're trying to regain calories lost during a snowy, cold winter when it usually costs them more in body energy to look for food than what they gain from it.
Plant use by deer varies by the number of deer in the area, the availability of alternative food sources, winter weather conditions, and plant preferences. From area to area, deer also have different tastes. Young plants may be eaten and older plants of the same species left alone, especially in early spring when deer are trying succulent new growth of plants they otherwise would not eat.
One option for coexisting with deer is to plant or replace damaged plants with more "deer-resistant" plants. These are species that tend to be deer's least favorites, although there's no guarantee they won't try some of them, especially unprotected young plants.
The following list includes "best bets" for keeping deer disinterested. It should be considered a guide rather than the final word. Many local native species are adapted to the rainfall regime here in Washington, and many have other wildlife values (like cover or seeds for birds). Some non-natives can become invasive, so use caution introducing them to your landscape.
Deciduous Shrubs: red‑twig dogwood, hazelnut (filbert), golden currant, red‑flowered currant, wild rose, elderberry, snowberry,lilac,spirea, potentilla, cotoneaster.
Evergreen Shrubs: sagebrush, evergreen barberry, rabbitbrush, silk‑tassel bush, salal Oregon‑grape, wax‑myrtle Oregon‑boxwood,mugho pine, rhododendron, evergreen huckleberry.
Trees (these must be protected from deer when young): fir, maple, birch, false cypress,fig, Oregon ash, spruce, pine, Douglas‑fir, chokecherry, oak, sumac, willow.
Perennials: black-eyed susan, blanket flower, bleeding-heart, bluebells, butterfly weed, coral bells, coreopsis, creeping phlox, daisy, daylilies, delphinium, flax, foxgloves, gay feather, hellebore, iris, sage, seathrift, snow-in-summer, wallflower, yarrow.
Annuals: ageratum, bachelor buttons, calendula, California poppy, cosmos, Chinese forget-me-not, dusty miller, marigolds, salvia, snapdragon, snow-on-the-mountain, sunflower, sweet alyssum, four o'clock, zinnia.
Herbs: chives, lavender, marjoram, mints, oregano, sage, thyme
Vegetables: cucumbers, potatoes, tomatoes
If you'd rather keep the plants you already have, (or if you can attest to "your" deer's use of the above plants!), there are other ways to discourage deer.
Fencing is still the only consistently effective tool for reducing deer damage. Deer can be kept out of areas with six-foot high net-type wire fencing that is properly installed. Chicken wire will work as long as posts are as the not more than 12 feet apart and the wire is stretched tight and anchored to the ground so deer don't crawl under. Believe it -- deer will crawl! Board fences and solid hedges need only be 5½ feet high; deer usually won't jump over objects when they can't see what's on the other side.
Individual trees and shrubs can be protected with exclusion devices such as cylinders of welded-wire mesh placed around them. This will also prevent bucks from rubbing their antlers on trees--breaking branches or girdling trunks. New seedlings and very young trees can be protected with plastic mesh tubes or netting. Fine mesh chicken wire laid out on the ground around plants can also dissuade deer because they don't like to get their feet in the wire.
Many garden shops carry commercial deer repellents, most made from a base of blood or bone meal. Home remedies include hanging bars of deodorant soap or mesh bags of human hair, or spraying plants with a mixture of raw eggs and water. All have varying degrees of success and usually have to be reapplied after rain.
Various scare tactics can move deer out of an area, although sometimes only temporarily, depending on how established their eating habits have become. Try connecting bright lights, radios, or water sprinklers to motion detectors.
Remember that the most deer-proof property may be one that combines strategic plantings with fencing and repellents.
|In a healthy ecosystem, the coyote's role is to keep rodents, raccoons, and other small mammals from becoming overly abundant.
By Jamie Bails, WDFW habitat biologist, Snohomish Basin and Island County
One spring evening as I walked my corgi, I stopped to chat with a neighbor. As we talked he bent down to pet my dog, telling me that coyotes had killed his small dog several years ago. Now, in retaliation, he shoots all coyotes that come near his property. Shocked and saddened, I shook my head in sympathy and looked down at my beloved corgi. What could I say to a man who had lost his dog? Nothing. There were no words. I simply told him I was very sorry for his loss and walked home.
In truth, I was sad for the loss of both lives. While I could not bear to lose my dog to a wild animal, I know that predators have a role in nature and no amount of coyote killing will bring back his beloved dog. Now, on nights when I hear packs of coyotes howling, I listen closely. What a wild sound, full of joy and life. Other nights, when I hear gun shots, I pray they escaped.
How did coyotes come to live among us this way? Coyotes are naturally wary of humans and domestic pets and will avoid interaction. But hungry coyotes that find easy meals of unsecured pet food or garbage can lose their fear of humans when they associate us with a food source, even in urban areas.
Biologists with the Urban Coyote Research Program in Chicago analyzed more than 1,400 urban coyote scat samples to determine what they eat. The most common foods were small rodents (42 percent), fruit (23 percent), deer (22 percent) and rabbit (18 percent). While it's true coyotes will eat garbage and occasionally kill free-roaming pets for food, this study showed it is rare. Less than two percent of the scat samples analyzed contained signs of either garbage or cats.
Historically, coyotes roamed open prairies, grasslands and agricultural fields searching for birds, mammals and reptiles, as well as grass, fruit and other vegetation. Despite constant trapping and shooting to reduce their numbers, they persevered, responding with even greater reproduction. And as towns and cities took over those open spaces, they learned to thrive in urban areas, too.
In a healthy ecosystem, the coyote's role is to keep rodents, raccoons, and other small mammals from becoming overly abundant. Scat studies in both rural and urban settings show rodents make up the bulk of the coyote diet. They feed on the eggs of geese in both urban waterfront parks and rural agricultural lands, helping reduce goose damage. Coyotes also scavenge on dead wildlife or livestock that would otherwise spread disease or illness.
The coyote is considered a "mesopredator" -- a mid-sized predator that competes for food with other similar sized predators like fox and bobcat, and that is limited by large predators like wolves. When large predators are extirpated, mesopredators irrupt in numbers and range. Famous wildlife scientist Aldo Leopold speculated back in the 1930's that the American West's wolves kept coyotes at lower numbers than they were then in the Midwest. The range of the coyote expanded in the West after wolves were extirpated and coyote-compatible agriculture, logging, livestock grazing and other human development increased. From Yellowstone to Denali, National Park Service biologists have documented coyote population increases with wolf declines, and vice versa in recent years.
Other studies have shown that coyotes indirectly help songbirds by preying on rodents, raccoons, opossums and other small mammals that otherwise prey on songbirds and their nests. Populations of both feral and household domestic cats, which are known to prey heavily on songbirds, are also kept in check by coyotes.
All of these interactions tell me how important coyotes are in our world as a keystone species in a complex biological web. Despite the problems that can develop when we let them become habituated to us, coyotes are worth our efforts to co-exist with and even help them.
Since 2010 the Progressive Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in Lynnwood (one of many rehabilitators licensed by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife) has received 40 coyotes, most as orphaned pups but also some injured adults. Not all thrive or are able to be successfully released back to the wild, but those that do are cared for in ways that avoid that dangerous human habituation.
Last year six orphaned coyote pups were brought to PAWS where they received minimal human interaction. After four months, three female pups were ready to return to the wild. With strong formed bonds during their time in captivity, releasing them together increased their odds for survival over the winter. On a gray, rainy November morning, I assisted with the release at a riverside location. Once the kennel gates were lifted, it only took a moment for the coyotes to sense freedom and bolt towards the river. At a safe distance from us, they paused to take in their new home. Their brown, camouflaged coats blended perfectly with the fall leaves on the ground, the bare tree trunks, the soil on the streambank. We lost sight of them as they trotted away, fading into the wild.
I know many people fear coyotes and believe they shouldn't be rehabilitated, but trapped or killed before they attack their pets or raid their trash. But unless we provide them opportunities for easy meals and association with us, coyotes are simply wild creatures driven to survive by avoiding us. Co-existing with and protecting this species ultimately means protecting other wildlife.
A few weeks ago as I was walking my corgi on leash through a small urban park, a coyote leaped across the path ahead. We stopped, and a second coyote leaped after it. I tried to follow them by sight, but lost them to the trees and brush. As we approached the spot on the path where they had crossed, my corgi likely knew right where they were, or had gone. But the coyotes, possibly a mating pair at this time of year, were fixed on each other and unconcerned about us. I wondered how long they had been there in the brush, watching us approach, waiting for a chance to get away from us and on with their lives.
Learn more about Living with Coyotes at http://wdfw.wa.gov/living/coyotes.html.
|To keep liquid feed from freezing and avoid bringing feeders in at night, string Christmas lights around the feeder, or hang a caged "trouble light" (the kind used by car mechanics) nearby so the ambient heat can keep things thawed. Photo: Marilyn of View Ridge, Seattle Audubon Society
Early February is only the halfway mark through winter, and the cold snaps this year, even in western Washington, have had backyard bird watchers concerned about their feathered friends.
Keeping seed and suet feeders full and clean is the easy part.
Keeping water sources open is a little more challenging. A non-metal pan of warm water that is refreshed periodically, or has a heater under it, can help. A birdbath equipped with an in-water heater (available at many wild bird feeding supply outlets) is best.
But in western Washington, where Anna's hummingbirds (Calypte anna) are year-round residents, keeping that liquid feed available can be tougher.
Seattle Audubon Society addresses this problem on their website at http://www.seattleaudubon.org/sas/Learn/SeasonalFacts/Hummingbirds.aspx .
Here's the essence of their advice:
- Don't try to increase the sugar content of the hummingbird nectar to prevent it from freezing. Keep the mix at the standard ratio of one part white sugar (no brown sugar or honey) to four parts boiling water, then cool it (and never add red food coloring.) Higher sugar content may damage the birds' kidneys and liver.
- Have multiple feeders and rotate them. The mix will begin to freeze around 29 degrees, so rotating the feeders throughout the day will keep the fluid open and available to the birds. Bring the feeders indoors at night, when hummingbirds don't feed, but get them back out again at dawn.
- To avoid bringing feeders in at night, string Christmas lights around the feeder, or hang a caged "trouble light" (the kind used by car mechanics) nearby so the ambient heat can keep things thawed.
- Tape a chemical hand or foot warmer to the feeder. These commonly available warmers emit heat for about seven hours and will keep the liquid feed from freezing.
- Wrap plumber's heat tape around the feeder to keep it from freezing. These flexible electric tapes are similar to a flat extension cord and most are equipped with a built-in thermostat in the cord. The wattage of these tapes is very low and does not draw a lot of energy.
Earlier this winter WDFW habitat biologist Jamie Bails discovered another tip -- don't use feeders or bird baths with any kind of metal on them. She recalls how she found an Anna's hummingbird stuck to a frozen metal edge.
"It was furiously trying to free its tiny foot, its powerful wings creating a soft wind as it hung by its toes," she said. "Gently I used two fingers to warm and slide the toes free of the ice, and it zoomed off, hopefully none the worse for the wear. It reminded me of kids who try to lick metal objects and get their tongues stuck!"
The good news is that this winter of all winters IS winding down, and all birds, including Anna's hummingbirds, are usually capable of weathering it. They reduce their body temperature at night to conserve energy and roost in those dense shrubs and evergreen trees you include in your landscape. They don't just depend on the nectar and seeds you provide, but even in the winter they also eat insects found under that tree bark and other plants.