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|A northern flicker checks on its nest cavity in the partially dead tree on the left. Photo by WDFW biologist Chris Anderson
|Young of the year merlins perch in the dead top of a living Douglas fir tree. Photo by B. Diehl
Washington’s backyard wildlife enthusiasts have long known that “snags” or dead and dying trees are valuable for lots of species, providing meals for insectivorous birds, nesting cavities for owls and squirrels, and much more.
As long as a snag doesn’t pose a safety hazard for people and property, it’s an enviable backyard wildlife sanctuary feature, a veritable “animal inn”. Over 1,200 wildlife species in North America rely on dead, dying, or hollow trees for dens, roost areas, and feeding sites. Fish also benefit from trees that have fallen into streams and provide cover.
Living trees with dead or dying limbs are just as valuable as snags, if not more so, because they provide an incredible diversity of wildlife habitat.
The live parts like branches, buds, leaves and flowers are used for nesting, cover and food. The decaying or dead parts of large limbs can make for easy excavating for both food (insects) and cover (cavities). Even a small dead branch can serve as an important perching spot for backyard birds. Decadent or dying bark or limbs often spawn the growth of fungus, algae, lichens, and mosses used by many different animals.
But too often the dead or dying parts are quickly cut away, or worse yet, the entire tree is removed. That’s because most of us naturally think that a damaged or decaying tree needs to be dealt with to avoid spreading a problem throughout a tree, or to other trees. During particularly dry years, like this one, we might even be thinking a tree with a dead or dying limb is just that much more of a wildfire hazard.
We tend to think we’re getting the jump on a potential threat, but actually professional arborists have long known that many trees “compartmentalize” wounds and dead wood from the rest of the tree to limit the spread of disease and decay. Trees “seal” rather than “heal”. Unless a dead branch is truly a hazard because of its location, often it can be left alone and continue to provide a perching spot and other uses by wildlife.
If you’d like to maximize your backyard habitat for wildlife, consider calling a professional arborist before you prune or completely remove a tree. A professional can analyze your situation, in terms of both damage to people or property and to the tree or surrounding trees, and provide the best advice.
More information about managing snags and live trees with dead wood is available through the “Animal Inn” program of the Pacific Northwest Region of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s U.S. Forest Service in cooperation with other federal land management agencies, national associations representing the private timber industry, non-industrial woodland managers, state foresters, and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. The Animal Inn program handbook is available at http://www.fs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/stelprdb5073121.pdf.
Conservation Northwest, a non-profit organization working to “keep the northwest wild,” also has information about the value of dead and dying wood at http://www.conservationnw.org/what-we-do/forests/snags.
|An American robin (Turdus migratorius) nest sits atop my outdoor light fixture, next to the sliding glass door. It’s a tightly woven bowl of twigs, flower pods, grasses, twine, and mosses, all from my backyard.
By Jamie Bails, WDFW Habitat Biologist, Snohomish County
If you haven’t yet, it’s time to search out bird nests in smart hiding places. This spring I’ve found some in my yard in the darndest places!
An American robin (Turdus migratorius) nest sits atop my outdoor light fixture, next to the sliding glass door. It’s a tightly woven bowl of twigs, flower pods, grasses, twine, and mosses, all from my backyard. There’s even a blue twist tie in the center. The nest is approximately eight inches wide and ten inches tall perched on top and covering the black light fixture. Strands of twine too long to be woven dangle from the base.
I discovered the nest on March 21, coming in from the yard one afternoon. The hanging strands of string and twigs first caught my eye. By then, the nest was nearly complete. How I missed this nest when I use this door every day, I’m not sure. A week later I noticed three bright turquoise eggs.
On April 18, the eggs hatched and three gaping mouths reached up as I tapped the side of the nest. One afternoon I noticed the female approaching with a mouthful of bugs, but she refused to come closer until I left. When I did, the chicks got a nice meal. For the next four weeks, the parent birds will scratch flower beds searching for bits of worms, centipedes, beetles and more to feed hungry chicks. Then, like last year, I’ll watch the chicks hop about the yard searching for their own meals.
I know robins are “generalists,” nesting everywhere from deciduous and evergreen trees, to shrubs and hedges, even on windowsills and ledges. But the females who choose the site usually place their first early spring nests, (like many birds they often produce more than one hatch in a year), in evergreens for protection, since deciduous trees and shrubs have not yet leafed out.
I have to wonder why, given the more appropriate evergreen trees throughout my quarter-acre yard, this female robin decided to build atop the light fixture near my daily comings and goings.
This peculiar nest location sent me searching for other uniquely hidden nests and I discovered a Dark-eyed junco (Junco hyemalis) nest hidden in my yard-waste compost pile.
The pile is held up by an old woven-wire fence wrapped in a cylinder. I’ve been tossing leaves and twigs into the pile for years, and this year I was going to dismantle it for the composted dirt inside -- at least until a small junco flew out of it. Peering inside, I discovered a woven grass nest with four white spotted eggs, and a female junco chirping madly at me from the top of fence.
Juncos are more typically ground nesters, with the female weaving grasses and leaves into a nest in a depression, under a rock, or near the roots of a tree. Around houses, juncos have been known to nest in or underneath buildings or on window ledges. Friends have reported finding nests in bicycle helmets and flower planters, too.
The junco chicks hatched on the same day as the robins. Their tiny bodies are covered in patches of black fluff, with visible wings. Huddled in a mass, they puff up with each breath. It’s warm and peaceful in this nest protected from the rain and wind. Dismantling the yard waste pile will have to wait a few more weeks until the chicks have hatched and fledged.
Why these unusual nesting locations? The robins’ nest is protected under the eave, supported by a wide platform, warmed by the light, and predators aren’t likely to crawl up the house to reach the eggs. Perhaps their tolerance of me opening and closing the door regularly is a trade-off for the “protection” from other predators that I inadvertently provide. The juncos’ nest above ground in a warm compost pile may also improve their survival odds.
It got me looking into bird nest survival strategies. I found a 1998-2003 study of the frequency of above-ground nests conducted by students at the urban campus of the University of California, San Diego (Yeh 2004). They found these nests had an 80 percent higher chance of producing a surviving chick than one on the ground. The study also found that nests above ground were 10 percent more likely to be re-used by the same female. Other studies by Forstmeier and Weiss in 2004 and Egger, et al in 2006, have shown that individual birds adapt or respond to perceived predation risks by changing typical nest height or position.
The juncos may have chosen that above-ground nest site to avoid potential predators in my yard, including my Welsh corgi, an old, lazy cat, a couple squirrels, and domestic rabbits released in our neighborhood. They may also have simply been out-competed by other early nesters, or appreciate that the site faces the morning sun.
Whatever the case, both the robin and junco nests are in prime locations for me to observe and enjoy the chicks as they grow.
| Coyotes are extremely opportunistic and adaptable to our ways and will take advantage of easy access to food sources
It’s good to be wise about wildlife year round to avoid problems, but it’s especially important at this time of year to be “coyote wise”.
Coyotes, which are abundant throughout Washington’s rural and urban areas, are paring up and breeding now in late winter to produce pups in April and early May. And coyotes that were born eight or nine months ago are striking out on their own at this time. That means there’s lots of coyotes moving about and making noise, yipping and howling to communicate with each other.
Like most wildlife, coyotes usually avoid people and don’t cause trouble. But coyotes are extremely opportunistic and adaptable to our ways and will take advantage of easy access to food sources. As a canine species, they also view domestic dogs as competitors. These two factors can lead to problems with coyotes now and through summer as young are reared.
Finding food is critical for all wildlife. But mature animals that are reproducing, and young animals that are learning independence, are really driven to feed.
Coyotes are actually omnivores – they’ll eat everything from fruit to large animals. Hungry coyotes will try almost anything.
NEVER intentionally feed coyotes. And think about how you might be unintentionally providing access to food, like unsecured garbage, uncovered compost piles, spilled seed from backyard bird feeders, pet food left outdoors, or even small pets like cats or toy breed dogs left to roam, especially from dusk to dawn.
Don’t feed feral cats (domestic cats gone wild). Coyotes prey on these cats as well as any feed you leave out for the feral cats.
If a coyote finds an easy food source close to people, it can easily become habituated, or so accustomed to people that it becomes abnormally bold. Coyote attacks on humans are extremely rare. Only two such attacks have been documented in Washington – in 2006 a habituated coyote bit two young children in Bellevue and was later euthanized.
Finding mates and producing and rearing young can make adult coyotes more territorial and less tolerant of free-running domestic dogs. Learning how to make a living in the world, independent of a family unit, can make juvenile non-breeding coyotes more competitive with free-ranging dogs.
Avoid running dogs off-leash in areas where you have heard or seen coyotes, especially now through May. Coyotes might aggressively confront dogs running through their denning area, and some dogs are just as likely to curiously sniff out coyotes and end up in nasty encounters.
Coyotes carry parasites and canine diseases, like distemper and parvovirus, that are rarely a risk to humans but could be deadly for domestic dogs. Be sure to keep dogs current on vaccinations and consult your veterinarian if you know of or even suspect a coyote encounter.
More information on becoming “coyote wise” is available at http://wdfw.wa.gov/living/coyotes.html.
|Visitors to Oak Creek Wildlife Area can view wintering elk herds.
Winter can be a great season to watch wildlife, but it’s also the time when we can most easily stress those objects of our attention.
All of us, including our feathered and furred friends in the wild, use more energy to move and function in winter’s cold and snow. Unnecessary disturbance of animals that exist 24-7 in those conditions just depletes their energy reserves more quickly.
Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) wildlife biologists say minimizing impact to wild animals at this time can be critical to their survival.
Little things can make a difference, like approaching animals too closely and causing them to flush or flee, often times in cold temperatures or through deep snow. You can avoid disturbing wildlife in that way by using your binoculars or scope and telephoto camera lens.
Teach children to be respectful of wildlife and their need for space, too. And leave the dog at home, in the vehicle, or indoors if you’re watching on your own property.
Some wild animals that winter in Washington are very opportunistic in their survival strategies. A well worn trail through the snow to a site where wildlife beds, roosts or dens will be readily used by predators, both wild and domestic. Food sources inadvertently left accessible -- like garbage, compost, pet food, or poorly placed bird feeders – may draw animals that prey upon winter concentrations of other species.
Feeding wildlife in winter may seem like a good idea to offset their energy deficit, but it often causes more problems and can become very costly. See WDFW’s Winter Wildlife Feeding information for details.
A good way to watch wildlife in winter that is less apt to cause disturbance is to use specific sites that separate viewers from wildlife by motor vehicle routes, trails, boardwalks and blinds. These include:
- Whatcom Wildlife Area’s Lake Terrell Unit, ten miles northwest of Bellingham and five miles west of Ferndale in Whatcom County; wildlife viewing is available year-round on a fishing pier from where you can see trumpeter and tundra swans and bald eagles in winter; black-tailed deer are also viewable year-round.
- Skagit Wildlife Area’s Johnson/Debay Swan Reserve, northeast of Mount Vernon in Skagit County; provides a winter feeding and resting reserve for trumpeter and tundra swans, and other wildlife, with grass and corn planted for swans and ducks; the large numbers of wintering waterfowl also attract bald eagles and other raptors; beaver and river otters inhabit the sloughs year-round; public parking and access is provided as well as two parking/viewing areas for disabled users
- Skagit Land Trust’s Hurn Field, east of Sedro-Woolley in Skagit County; offers wintering area for elk, but also viewable waterfowl and winter birds; viewing area constructed by WDFW.
- Skagit Wildlife Area’s Fir Island Farms Snow Goose Reserve, on Fir Island Road, and adjacent to the Skagit Bay estuary in Skagit County; provides a winter-feeding and resting area for thousands of snow geese with fields of winter wheat grown for the birds; walk along the dike to scan for waterfowl and shorebirds, including wintering dunlin and numerous bald eagles.
- Central Puget Sound urban areas: Kent Ponds for waterfowl and raptors, Discovery Park for wintering passerines and bluff overlooks to see wintering seabirds on the sound, Edmonds waterfront/Carkeek Park/Quartermaster Harbor from Vashon or Maury Island/Seahurst Park/Des Moines Beach Park for beach/shoreline wintering seabird watching; Union Bay Natural Area (Center for Urban Horticulture) for winter waterfowl and passerines.
- Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge, northeast of Olympia in Pierce County; thousands of ducks and geese through the winter, plus raptors and songbirds year-round; black-tailed deer, mink and coyotes are at the forest edge; one-mile trail provides access to many habitats and numerous observation decks and somenew elevated walkways will be open in January.
- Olympic Peninsula areas: Ocean Shores North Jetty and Damon Point shoreline trails in Grays Harbor County, and Willapa Bay, Long Beach Peninsula, and Leadbetter Point shoreline lines in Pacific County to view wintering seabirds
- Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge, in Columbia River floodplain north of Vancouver in Clark County; hosts thousands of wintering waterfowl including tundra swans, Canada geese, cackling geese and many duck species; year-round see raptors, coyotes, river otter and herons; a 4.2-mile auto tour route is open daylight hours through winter; wintering tundra swans also viewable at Franz Lake on Washington side of the Columbia River Gorge and Mirror Pond at the foot of Crown Point in Oregon.
- Oak Creek Wildlife Area, northwest of Yakima in Yakima County; winter elk feeding program (to keep animals off of adjacent private lands where they cause damage) has side benefit of easy and close viewing from high-fenced visitor parking lot off Hwy. 12; bighorn sheep also fed in some units; check recorded message at (509) 653-2390 for updates on feeding start-up and volunteer-led, elk-viewing tours (by reservation only through (509) 698-5106).
- Toppenish National Wildlife Refuge, south of Toppenish in Yakima County; wintering waterfowl and raptors; wildlife observation and hiking are allowed year-round in the southeast portion of the main refuge from Highway 97 to refuge headquarters.
- Pineside Sno-Park Loop on Gifford Pinchot National Forest in Klickitat County; dying trees from budworm outbreak in the 1990s are loaded with insects and attract Williamson’s sapsucker; hairy, white-headed, three-toed, black-backed, and pileated woodpeckers; brown creepers, and other birds; birdwatch while cross-country skiing and snowshoeing the area.
- Conboy Lake National Wildlife Refuge in northwest Klickitat County; wintering rough-legged hawks, northern shrikes, common redpolls; other winter viewable species include tundra and trumpeter swans; greater white-fronted goose; cinnamon teal; northern pintail; northern harrier.
- McNary National Wildlife Refuge, near the confluence of the Snake and Columbia rivers southeast of Tri-Cities in Walla Walla County; some 100,000 Canada geese and mallards winter here, plus tundra swans and a variety of duck species; one-mile loop Burbank Slough Wildlife Trail and viewing blind available.
- Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge in Spokane County, just southwest of Spokane, is a year-round home to many species of birds and mammals, including woodpeckers, nuthatches, crossbills, hawks, owls, coyotes, white-tailed and mule deer, elk, and moose; auto-tour route and some trails available.
- Echo Ridge Nordic Ski Area in Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, north of Chelan in Chelan County; snow buntings and other wintering birds; watch for cougar and bobcat tracks from 25-mile cross-country skiing trail loop around ridge tops with vistas of Lake Chelan and surrounding mountains.Sinlahekin Wildlife Area’s Sinlahekin Unit south of Loomis in Okanogan County; year-round hawks, eagles, white-tailed deer and diversity of other wildlife species; watch wildlife from viewing blinds or via 11-mile nature trail traversible in winter when snow conditions exist on cross-county skis or snowshoes.
More details on some of these and other sites for winter wildlife viewing are available in the Audubon Great Washington State Birding Trail series of maps (http://wa.audubon.org/birds_GreatWABirdingTrail.html) and at http://wdfw.wa.gov/viewing/.