WDFW LogoCrossing Paths With Washington’s Wildlife News Notes are about wildlife you may encounter where you live or recreate,  including our Backyard Wildlife Sanctuary program to provide habitat year-round on your own property.  
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Crossing Paths Newsletter
Writer/Editor: Madonna Luers

Contributing Wildlife Biologists:
• Russell Link
• Patricia Thompson
• Christopher Anderson
• Howard Ferguson
• Michelle Tirhi

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Note: If you're interested in monthly information about Washington's wildlife and WDFW's Backyard Wildlife Sanctuary Program, you can "e-subscribe" to our "Crossing Paths with Washington’s Wildlife" news notes at http://wdfw.wa.gov/lists/ . As an e-mail subscriber to "Crossing Paths," you'll receive these news updates automatically in your e-mail inbox, without linking to a download. As always, you can easily unsubscribe by following the instructions on our WDFW Mailing Lists website. We hope you find these news notes timely and useful. If you have any questions, please contact Madonna Luers at Madonna.Luers@dfw.wa.gov

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December 2017

A Mountain chickadee perched in winter foliage.
A mountain chickadee fluffs up its feathers to stay warm in winter. Photo by Woody Myers

How does wildlife weather winter?

How does the wildlife you enjoyed seeing in your backyard earlier in the year survive all the changes in conditions that come with winter weather?

Some species are no longer visible, but that’s not necessarily because they left the area. Others may be even more visible, depending on what’s available in your yard.

“Winter is a lean time for all wildlife,” says Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) biologist Chris Anderson. “It’s the season that naturally helps keep wildlife population levels in check and in balance with available habitat. To survive, animals exhibit different behaviors, strategies, and activity patterns, based on their biological needs.”

Birds like chickadees that spend winter with us stay warm kind of the way we do with puffy winter coats. By fluffing its feathers, a bird traps many tiny pockets of air to hold in body heat and keep out the cold. When the weather is hot, the bird presses its feathers close to its body to eliminate the insulating air pockets so that body heat is allowed to escape.

Anderson notes that the winter-adapting behavior most commonly seen by most people is migration. For some species it makes more sense, from an energy-efficiency standpoint, to migrate out of one area, where winter conditions make food more scarce, to another area where food remains plentiful.

Many birds do just that, most in large groups that are highly visible in fall and spring. Others move out in smaller family groups. Osprey will head south to California or all the way down to Argentina for more favorable climatic conditions to rest and fish. Two of our 15 species of bats -- hoary and silver-haired bats – also migrate to warmer climes.

Some non-winged, land mammals also migrate, although it’s more “vertical” – moving from higher elevation summering grounds to lower elevation wintering areas. Elk, deer, and moose are the most obvious examples; as prey species, they are followed by carnivores like cougars, coyotes and wolves.

Many animals go into hibernation, where their metabolism slows down in order to exist largely on stored fat for the winter. Most of our bat species hibernate. Their body temperature, breathing, and heart rate drops. They occasionally come out of this state to eliminate waste, lick condensation from their fur for a drink, or even go out and hunt insects if warm spells are conducive to insect activity.

Bears also hibernate. Their metabolism slows and they go into a sleep-like state, although their body temperature doesn’t drop so much. They are in their den avoiding the stressful winter, living off the fat they accumulated when the vegetative bulk of their omnivorous diet was abundant. Bear sows are pregnant when they go into their hibernation den, and will birth their young in late winter in the safety of that den.

Many frogs, snakes and other amphibians and reptiles find areas within their preferred habitat to stay out of the “freeze zone”. These areas include the bottom of a pond that does not freeze totally, below rock piles, in rocky cliffs, and under large trees and snags. They go into a reduced metabolic state known as “brumation” – the equivalent of  mammalian hibernation for cold-blooded reptiles and amphibians.

Many animals use dormant periods of decreased activity, with reduced body temperature and metabolism rate, known as “torpor.” It’s a way for some animals, from mice to birds, to eke through a physically stressing period of extreme temperatures or reduced food availability. This can be for just one very cold night, the entire winter, or in overly hot situations. 

Anderson notes many people who manage year-round habitat on their property see some wildlife species mostly or sometimes only during the winter. For example, seeds from that alder tree in the backyard are now drawing dozens of pine siskins, many which are year-round residents that are more dispersed in the summer and not usually seen in such concentrations except in winter.

“Providing high quality year-round habitat, both on your property and on others’ by working with local habitat enhancement groups, is one thing you can do to help wildlife weather winter,” Anderson said.

Most backyard bird feeding stations provide as much close-up viewing pleasure for their human custodians as actual benefit to birds. If not meticulously maintained, feeders can spread disease, make concentrated birds more vulnerable to predation, and attract unwanted animals. But feeding stations kept clean and filled with high fat and protein feed can also provide the extra chow that some birds need when winter weather conditions are severe.

“Another thing we can all do is avoid disturbance of these animals during these energy-stressed times, including migration, hibernation, and feeding and resting on wintering grounds,” Anderson said. “Leave them be, respect their space and needs, and be their advocate!”

Learn more on how to provide habitat and promote wildlife on your property at http://wdfw.wa.gov/living/attracting/.

November 2017

A group of young people using binoculars watching birds from their porch.
Some 35 percent of Americans are active wildlife watchers according to the recently released preliminary findings of the 2016 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS).

Close to home wildlife watching is on the rise

It looks like crossing paths with Washington’s wildlife has never been so popular.

According to the latest national survey on wildlife recreation participation, the number of people who actively watch wildlife is up at least 20 percent from five and ten years ago, and about 20 percent more of them simply watch around home rather than traveling to see wildlife.

Some 35 percent of Americans are active wildlife watchers according to the recently released preliminary findings of the 2016 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). It’s the 13th in a series of surveys that have been conducted every five years since 1955 to collect information on the number of people who fish, hunt, and watch wildlife, and the money they spend in communities across the country on their activities.

The survey data will be analyzed by state and a Washington report will be available next year. But if the overall national level of increases holds true, Washington’s wildlife watcher totals may swell to over 2.6 million or about 35 percent of our state population (based on the 2,168,000 Washington wildlife watchers from the 2011 survey).

The 2016 survey showed that more than 101 million Americans, 40 percent of the U.S. population, participated in some kind of fish and wildlife recreation. In their pursuits they spent an estimated $156.3 billion, one percent of the nation’s Gross Domestic Product.
The vast majority -- 86 million or about 35 percent of the U.S. population -- are wildlife watchers, and 94 percent of them enjoy wildlife watching right around their home. Most (72 percent) watched birds, but many (59 percent) reported watching mammals, and some (37 percent) watched reptiles, amphibians, butterflies and other wildlife.

In 2016 wildlife watchers spent $75.9 billion on everything from bird seed and feeders to binoculars and scopes. Like participation, those expenditures are also up, 28 percent from five years ago and 39 percent from ten years ago.

In comparison, 14 percent or about 35.8 million Americans went fishing and five percent or about 11.5 million hunted in 2016.  Some $46.1 billion were spent fishing and $25.6 billion were spent hunting.

These findings are not just good news for the nation’s economy. Revenues from the sale of licenses and tags, as well as excise taxes paid by hunters, anglers and shooters, continue to support vital wildlife and habitat conservation efforts in Washington and every other state.
Here in Washington, those non-hunting/non-fishing wildlife watchers who DO travel to see specific birds, mammals and other wildlife on state-owned lands (Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Department of Natural Resources, and State Parks lands) help support management of those lands and wildlife habitat through purchase of the $30 annual Discover Pass.

The benefits of fish and wildlife-based recreation reach far beyond the financial and environmental. A growing body of scientific research suggests that we’re all healthier, happier and better off in myriad ways when we spend time in nature.

The national wildlife-associated recreation survey is conducted at the request of state wildlife management agencies, including the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, through the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies. Funding comes from the Multistate Conservation Grant Programs authorized by the Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration Programs Improvement Act of 2000.

More on the survey’s preliminary findings is available at https://wsfrprograms.fws.gov/Subpages/NationalSurvey/National_Survey.htm.

October 2017

Black cat eating small songbird it caught.
Americans’ most popular pet is also one of the most harmful to backyard wildlife.

Cats and bats are more than just scary
(This popular story is recycled from a past “Crossing Paths” edition.)

It was almost like a scene out of Halloween movie.

Backyard wildlife enthusiasts in western Washington reported finding six dead bats scattered on their porch and lawn.

Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) biologist Chris Anderson, based in the North Puget Sound region office in Mill Creek, explored the possibilities with the concerned reporting party.

The neighborhood was full of birds, bats, raccoons, squirrels, and cats, Anderson learned. When he first suggested there might be a situation that allowed a house cat – a potentially very effective predator – to take advantage of the local bats, there wasn’t initially much belief.

But when the property owners set up a night watch to learn what was happening, the results were as educational as scary….

They keyed in on a locally-familiar, free-ranging, homeless cat hiding by their flowering yucca plant.

Yuccas flower both day and night and are great nectar sources for butterflies and moths. They hadn’t realized until that night how attractive yucca nectar is to night-flying moths, and they watched many coming in to feed.

And then nature’s food chain displayed itself.

The feeding moths attracted hungry bats, swooping in to grab a meal of moth. The feeding bats, in turn, were killed by the quietly waiting cat.

With two more dead bats left by the cat on their lawn, two things became clear: the cat wasn’t necessarily hunting out of hunger, and for the sake of the neighborhood’s wildlife, it needed to be removed from the area.

The situation was relayed to neighbors, some who may have been feeding the homeless but tame cat, and then it was taken to a shelter for care and adoption by a cat lover who will keep it indoors.

“These folks gave both the bats and the stray cat itself a break,” Anderson said. “It was really the best option. And the situation helped them realize that free-ranging domestic cats are deadly to wildlife.”

Americans’ most popular pet is also one of the most harmful to backyard wildlife.

Our 84 million or so pet cats, plus perhaps at least that many homeless feral cats, kill billions of birds, small mammals and other wildlife each year.

Anderson is a cat owner who believes we can have both in our lives.

“Research shows that spending time with pets and spending time watching wildlife both lower stress levels,” Anderson said. “So why not have both?”

Anderson walks his cat outdoors on a leash with a harness, but otherwise keeps it indoors. “He didn’t like the leash when we first adopted him,” he said, “but he adjusted to it and my two dogs. Now my cat enjoys the outdoors safely, both for him and for wildlife.”

The lives of free-roaming pet cats are often cut short by vehicle collisions, disease, poisoning, parasites, territorial fighting, and predation. According to the Humane Society, indoor cats and those confined or controlled when outdoors can average at least three times the lifespan of free-ranging cats.

Wildlife definitely benefits from keeping cats indoors and under control when outdoors.

Extensive studies of the feeding habits of free-roaming domestic cats have been conducted over the last 55 years throughout the world. These studies show the number and types of animals killed by cats varies greatly, depending on the individual cats, the time of year, and availability of prey. Roughly 60 to 70 percent of the wildlife cats kill are small mammals; 20 to 30 percent are birds; and up to 10 percent are amphibians, reptiles, and insects.

Some free-roaming domestic cats kill more than 100 animals each year. One well-fed cat that roamed a wildlife experiment station was recorded to have killed more than 1,600 animals (mostly small mammals) over 18 months. Rural cats take more prey than suburban or urban cats. Birds that nest or feed on the ground, such as California quail, are the most susceptible to cat predation, as are nestlings and fledglings of many other bird species.

Well-fed cats kill birds and other wildlife because the hunting instinct is independent of the urge to eat. In one study, six cats were presented with a live small rat while eating their preferred food. All six cats stopped eating the food, killed the rat, and then resumed eating the food.

Other studies have shown that bells on collars are not effective in preventing cats from killing birds or other wildlife. Birds do not necessarily associate the sound of a bell with danger, and cats with bells can learn to silently stalk their prey. Even if the bell on the collar rings, it may ring too late, and bells offer no protection for helpless nestlings and fledglings.

Wildlife rehabilitation centers report that most small animals injured by cats die. Cats carry many types of bacteria and viruses in their mouths, some of which can be transmitted to their victims. Even if treatment is administered immediately, only about 20 percent of these patients survive the ordeal. A victim that looks perfectly healthy may die from internal hemorrhaging or injury to vital organs.

Anderson noted that the idea of trapping, spaying/neutering, releasing, and leaving food out for feral cats is misguided.

Cats are solitary animals, but groups of feral cats often form around an artificial feeding source, such as garbage dumps or food put out for them. These populations can grow very quickly, even if most are spayed or neutered -- it only takes one intact cat to start multiplying!

These feral cat colonies can have significant impacts on wildlife populations and feeding doesn’t prevent them from following predatory instincts. Feral cat colonies can also cause significant health risks to other cats and humans.

“Cats are good pets but lousy outdoor companions,” Anderson said. “It’s a cat’s nature to stalk prey, even when they’re well fed. We cat owners need to take responsibility for them and keep our wildlife safe.”

For more information see American Bird Conservancy’s “Cats Indoors” campaign at http://www.abcbirds.org/abcprograms/policy/cats/.

September 2017

Overhead wires crowded with perching birds.
Photo by: Mark Tomalty/Aurora/New Scientist

Are your birds southbound, just arriving, or homebodies?

Many of us backyard birdwatchers are witnessing the change of the seasons this month, with hummingbirds no longer visiting our flowers or nectar feeders and large groups of other birds moving out.

But is it just goodbye to migrants and a familiar nod to year-round residents?

Is that chickadee you’ve been watching flit in and out of a nestbox all summer the same one you’ll see at your winter feeder a few months down the road? When you look at that “year-round range” map stretching from Alaska to the southwest U.S. in your field guide, do you wonder if your summertime chickadee is beating wings to New Mexico for the winter, and the ones you see this fall just moved in from British Columbia?

Are your backyard birds heading south, just arriving from parts north, or are they homebodies hanging out 24-7-365? And is climate change affecting which go where and when?

As experts at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology say, migratory patterns vary by species and sometimes within the same species, and climate change is likely another factor.

“Migration is a fairly flexible trait that can change rapidly,” says Irby Lovette, director of the Cornell Lab’s Evolutionary Biology Program. “We should certainly expect to be seeing changes in the migratory strategies of birds as the world changes around them.”

Short distance migrants often include species that are permanent residents in most of their range, but with migratory tendencies on the edges or in pockets of their range.

Hairy woodpeckers are primarily non-migratory, permanent residents throughout their breeding range. However, northernmost populations display irregular and unpredictable wandering in winter. Local post-nesting short-distance movements take place in some areas. In some situations, individuals breeding at higher altitudes seem to disperse to lower altitudes during non-breeding season or from inland to coastal locations.

This may be the migrating pattern category that fits one of our most common backyard winter feeding station visitors – the black-capped chickadee.

Medium distance migrants tend to exhibit a variety of irregular patterns of north/south migration but remain in North America.

Jays in general tend to fit this pattern, although much remains a mystery. Here in the Pacific Northwest, some Steller’s jays are present throughout the winter in all parts of the range. Young jays may be more likely to migrate than adults. Some individual jays may migrate south in one year, stay north the next winter, and then migrate south again the next year. Many who feed birds in their backyard may be seeing one population of jays in the winter and an entirely different population of jays in the summer.

The northernmost breeding population of white-crowned sparrows migrates from Alaska and the Yukon to the southern plains of the United States and into northern Mexico. A different subspecies breeds farther south, ranging from British Columbia to northern California. These white-crowns migrate a shorter distance to the lowlands of central and southern California. A third subspecies is a permanent resident in parts of coastal California.

Killdeer are classified as medium-distance partial migrants, another way of saying their movements are complex and poorly understood. Banding records suggest general southward fall migration in North American birds, with no strong directional orientation. Some killdeer migrate through western North America and Central America while others winter in the coastal and wetland areas of California.

Some wrens, red-winged blackbirds, house finches, goldfinches, juncos and evening grosbeaks may fit this category, too, breeding in Canada or here in Washington, and some wintering here or in Oregon, California, and other southwest states or Mexico.

And then there are the really mysterious movers – red crossbills and pine siskins, whose ranges are described in many field guides as highly irregular, irruptive, erratic or wandering, probably due to fluctuations in food sources.

Long distance migrants undertake migratory journeys that can take weeks to complete and cover thousands of miles. Some 350 species are considered “neotropical” migrants, from "neo" referring to new and the new world of the Americas, and “tropical” defined as the latitudinal region between the Tropic of Cancer in the northern hemisphere and the Tropic of Capricorn in the southern hemisphere.

These birds breed in the United States and Canada and winter in the Caribbean, Mexico, Central America and South America. Neotropical migrants include raptors, vultures, waterfowl, shorebirds, and passerine (perching songbird) species such as hummingbirds, thrushes, warblers, orioles, and tanagers.

Some species do not migrate at all because they are able to find adequate supplies of food throughout the winter in the same place they breed and rear young. Crows, quail and pheasants definitely fall into this category. Some owls and nuthatches might also be permanent residents.

“Songbird Journeys - Four Seasons in the Lives of Migratory Birds,” a book by Miyoko Chu, science writer at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, delves into more detail on bird migration. The following is from a Lab description of the book:

“One of the world’s most extraordinary wildlife migrations passes unseen within hundreds of feet of our own neighborhood--the night flights of millions of songbirds. By dawn, these colorful migrants descend to our backyards, urban parks, and forests, either to replenish themselves for the rest of their trip or to settle in for the summer and raise their young.

Until recently, little was known about the lives of songbirds during their travels from autumn until spring. Aided by modern technology, however, scientists have documented mass migrations over the Gulf of Mexico, identified the voices of migrants in the night sky, and showed how songbirds navigate using stars, polarized light, and magnetic fields.

Miyoko Chu explores the intricacies underlying the ebb and flow of migration, the cycle of seasons, and the interconnectedness between distant places. “Songbird Journeys” pays homage to the wonder and beauty of songbirds while revealing the remarkable lives of migratory birds and the scientific quest to answer age-old questions about where songbirds go, how they get there, and what they do in the far-flung places they inhabit throughout the year.”

For more information, see http://www.birds.cornell.edu/AllAboutBirds/studying/migration/sbj/document_view.

August 2017

One of the many leeches found in Washington's freshwaters.
We need your help to learn more about one of Washington’s wildlife species of greatest conservation need and the plant it depends on for survival.

Help map monarchs and milkweed you see

We need your help to learn more about one of Eastern Washington’s wildlife species of greatest conservation need and the plant it depends on for survival.

The once-common Monarch butterfly is in decline in the west, based on dropping numbers at overwintering sites in coastal California. In the eastern U.S., a decline in the Monarch caterpillar’s main food plant – milkweed – is considered the most significant reason for the decline in that flyway’s wintering populations in central Mexico.

We need to find out more details about western breeding locations to effectively plan Monarch conservation and restoration work on the ground. So we’ve teamed up with the non-profit Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, Idaho Department of Fish and Game, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to collect information from citizen scientists like you.

The Western Monarch Milkweed Mapper project is our collaborative effort to map and better understand monarch butterflies and their host plants across the west. Data compiled through this project will improve our understanding of the distribution and life cycle of monarchs and milkweeds, identify important breeding areas, and help us better understand monarch conservation needs. Some of the key research questions that these data will help us answer include:

  • Where are different milkweed species growing in the West?
  • Where are monarchs occurring in the West?
  • Where are monarchs breeding in the West?
  • When is milkweed emerging and senescing (dying back) in the West?
  • How does milkweed phenology (life cycle) differ by species?
  • When is monarch breeding occurring in specific areas/regions of the West?
  • What types of habitats are different milkweed species associated with?

You can participate in this effort by using the project website at https://www.monarchmilkweedmapper.org/ to submit observation reports and photos of monarchs and/or milkweed plants. The site helps you identify milkweed using a key that profiles over 40 milkweed species found in the west. It also provides detailed information about monarchs and how they use milkweed in their life cycle.  

Milkweed gets its name from its milky sap that contains latex, alkaloids and cardiac glycosides, which make them unpalatable and even toxic to most animals. The U.S. Department of Agriculture says livestock only eat milkweed when nothing else is available, so well-managed grazing areas shouldn’t require milkweed eradication.

The cardiac glycoside in milkweed makes monarch caterpillar or larvae flesh distasteful to most predators like birds. Milkweed is the only type of plant on which Monarchs lay eggs and upon which the larvae will feed and mature into a chrysalis.

When you see milkweed to report, be sure to check the underside of young, healthy leaves for Monarch eggs or larvae. We’re looking for all stages of Monarchs in all kinds of places across the state. Check your local parks, natural areas, gardens, and even roadsides.

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) designated the Monarch butterfly as a ‘species of greatest conservation need’ in our 10-year Washington State Wildlife Action Plan developed in 2015. The plan is part of the federal State and Tribal Wildlife Grants Program that Congress created in 2000 to help fund efforts to manage non-game species.

Data compiled through the Western Monarch Milkweed Mapper is helping us address critical knowledge gaps on western monarch distribution, relative abundance, and habitat use. The project is also improving data exchange and networking among decision makers, land managers, researchers, and stakeholders to support landscape-scale conservation of monarch butterflies and other pollinator species.

July 2017

Leeches are here and harmless

One of the many leeches found in Washington's freshwaters.
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 flatworms (relatives of 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.

June 2017

Photo: Loon sitting on nest on marshy island.
Common loons favor nesting on small islands to minimize predation from land animals and for quick escape.
(Photo by Daniel & Ginger Poleschook)
Photo: Pair of loons with two young hatchlings floating on water.
Young Common loon chicks keep very close to their protective parents.
(Photo by Daniel & Ginger Poleschook)

Washington has loons!

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 appearance.

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 2017

Photo: Great Blue Heron by Jefferson Ashly, winner of Seattle Audubon - Seattle Times photo contest.
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 for the birds,
especially in Seattle this year

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 .

April 2017

Photo: Hummingbird at feeder hung with Christmas lights to keep the liquid feed from freezing.
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.

Strategic spring planting can foil nuisance deer

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.

March 2017

Photo: Hummingbird at feeder hung with Christmas lights to keep the liquid feed from freezing.
In a healthy ecosystem, the coyote's role is to keep rodents, raccoons, and other small mammals from becoming overly abundant.

Coyotes are an important part of our world

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.

February 2017

Photo: Hummingbird at feeder hung with Christmas lights to keep the liquid feed from freezing.
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

Birdie it's COLD outside!

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.