Note: If you’re interested in monthly information about urban/suburban wildlife and WDFW’s Backyard Wildlife Sanctuary Program, you can “e-subscribe” to our “Crossing Paths with Wildlife in Washington’s Towns and Cities” 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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Photo courtesy Tom Munson
Whether in your own backyard or at a local festival, March is full of wildlife viewing opportunities as birds and other animals are on the move.
Here’s what’s happening this month in Washington:
- The annual gray whale migration is under way and whale watchers could have several opportunities in March to spot the large marine mammals. The whales are making their annual journey north from the coast of Mexico to the Arctic Ocean, where they spend the summer feeding before heading south again. While most continue on to Alaska, some gray whales linger in the waters of the Pacific Northwest during the spring and summer months, dipping into the Strait of Juan de Fuca and other areas of Puget Sound. The best way to spot a gray – from land or sea – is to look for "spouts" of water that can reach 10 to 12 feet in the air when the whales exhale. For recent whale sightings, visit Orca Network.
- Birdwatchers have an opportunity to take part in the 10th annual "Wings Over Water" Northwest Birding Festival March 14 - 16 in Blaine, Semiahmoo, and Birch Bay. The festival features wildlife viewing field trips in the northwest corner of the Washington, plus speakers and raptor presentations. For more information see Northwest Birding Festival.
- Tundra swans are returning to northeast Washington and March 22 is the annual Tundra Swan Festival at Calispell Lake in Pend Oreille County. This annual event is sponsored by the Pend Oreille River Tourism Alliance, with pre-and post-swan-viewing talks at the Kalispel Tribe of Indians’ Camas Wellness Center at Usk. For more information and registration see Tundra Swan Festival.
- Spring arrives in the Columbia Basin with the return of the first sandhill cranes this month. About 35,000 cranes migrate through the Pacific Flyway and many make stopovers in the Basin in the spring on their way to nesting sites in Alaska. The greatest concentration of cranes are found in the Columbia National Wildlife Refuge marsh units, Frenchmen Reserve, Potholes Reservoir, Scootney Reservoir, and Winchester Reserve. Good numbers of the big birds are usually in the area through mid-April. The 16th annual Othello Sandhill Crane Festival is March 28-30 this year and registrations for limited-capacity bus tours, field trips and other presentations are now underway on-line.
- The Olympic Peninsula Audubon Society will conduct its 11th annual Olympic BirdFest in Sequim, April 4 -6, with opportunities to view a wide variety of both wintering and spring migrating birds on the Olympic Peninsula. Field trips are planned for Sequim Bay, Port Angeles Harbor, Ediz Hook, Dungeness Spit, the Elwha River, Salt Creek and at Neah Bay, as well as trips through wooded areas to view songbirds and see owls in the evening and boat trips to Protection Island. This festival is in partnership with the Dungeness River Audubon Center and Jamestown S'Klallam Tribe.
More Spring wildlife action can be enjoyed at many of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) wildlife areas and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wildlife refuges across the state. You can locate these public lands to plan visits at http://wdfw.wa.gov/lands/wildlife_areas/ and http://www.fws.gov/refuges/refugeLocatorMaps/washington.html .
|For some birds like crows, chickadees, robins, and blackbirds, a communal winter roost can make the difference between life and death. Photos courtesy of UW - Bothell
By Jamie Bails, WDFW habitat biologist
Winter can be a critical time for the wildlife species that don’t migrate out of Washington or hibernate until spring.
For some birds like crows, chickadees, robins, and blackbirds, a communal winter roost can make the difference between life and death.
Communal winter roosts can provide protection from predators with safety in numbers, foraging opportunities alongside experienced birds, and even warmth with shared body heat in small spaces. Roosts can also provide the social interaction necessary to find mates, come spring.
Crows are among the best known and studied communal winter roosting species in Washington. One of the largest crow roosts – up to 10,000 birds -- is on North Creek in King County, just east of the University of Washington Bothell campus.
Each night from late fall through winter, an hour before dusk, long lines of crows begin to gather from all directions. First, they land in the top of cottonwood and willow trees, calling and socializing. Then as night falls and the trees fill up, they move down to the middle of the trees, huddling close together for warmth and protection.
This massive crow roost is a relatively recent phenomena. In 1997, the University began a stream restoration project on North Creek to turn a pasture infested with reed canary grass into a highly functioning and diverse wetland. After a few years, the planted cottonwoods, alders and willows were large enough to provide nightly shelter, and crows from as far east as Sultan, north to Everett and south to Kirkland began to gather.
Research by Professor John Marzluff, of the University of Washington School of Environmental and Forest Sciences, and others, has shown that social hierarchy seems to play an important role in the organization of the roost site. Senior members may occupy higher perches, while younger individuals settle in the lower areas. At night, most crows move down into the thicker branches to reduce the effects of wind and rain.
Research has also shown that the young crows form circles around the elders, maybe as trade for a day of good foraging and companionship. Thus, the elder crows are afforded more protection from predators, like great horned owls. With many eyes and ears watching, it would be difficult for any predator to attack an individual in this roost.
For more information on the Bothell crows and Marzluff’s research, see http://www.uwb.edu/visitors/crows .
The term “roosting” generally refers to communal birds that remain together in large flocks like this. But it can also refer to a period of inactivity, similar to sleeping at night. Some birds roost alone, only pairing up for nesting season.
Many species roost in cavities made by woodpeckers in decaying old trees with broken tops, called “snags.” Smaller species, like bushtits, kinglets and juncos are more likely to roost in closed cavities, alone or in small groups. Three to four black-capped chickadees will group together in a confined space, using their body heat to warm the air around them and save energy.
Larger birds like robins, stellar jays, and varied thrushes, often roost in the canopy of evergreen trees or tall shrubs.
Birds that overwinter here generally are built to stay warm, given enough food and shelter. They fluff up their feathers, draw their head in or tuck it under a wing, and shiver. They may scrunch down by bending their legs, or tuck one foot up under their feathers to further reduce heat loss. During the night their body temperature may drop 10-15 degrees to slow their metabolism and conserve energy. This survival technique, called “nocturnal hypothermia,” is used for the most extreme cold nights.
Male red-winged blackbirds are known to flock together at night in winter, usually in dense evergreens, thickets or shrubs near agriculture fields, pastures and grasslands. Such roost sites can be located when you see large flocks soaring across the fields in search of insects. Once breeding gets underway in spring, male blackbirds night roost alone near their female and her nest.
You can provide winter roosts for resident birds on your property in several ways:
- Maintain clusters of trees, shrubs and large brush piles
- Maintain a “snag” or dead or dying tree, if it’s not a safety hazard
- Provide an artificial cavity or roost box in a sheltered spot like the south side of a building or tree; these can be the same as nest boxes, cleaned out after last summer’s use
- Control dogs and especially cats, particularly at night, to prevent disturbance to roosting birds
|A popular way to view birds this month is to participate in the 114th annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count (CBC) with one of Washington’s 46 official counts scheduled between Dec. 14 and Jan. 5, 2014.
Watching wild birds or other wildlife use our backyard feeders during wintery weather surely makes us feel good.
But does it help wildlife?
Studies show that only small pockets of bird populations occasionally benefit from supplemental feeding under extreme and persistent weather conditions.
Most birds do not depend solely on feeders in their foraging, many obtaining only up to one-fifth of their nutrition at feeders. Feeding can’t replace natural habitat needed for winter cover and spring nesting and rearing. And poorly maintained feeding stations can actually harm birds by spreading disease.
Research also shows that the most readily-available feed – grains like whole corn and oats or seeds like sunflower and millet – are not easily digested by wild ungulates like deer or elk. It can take several weeks for deer to adjust to the change from natural browse plants to an artificial diet, and if they don't have enough fat reserves to carry them through the adjustment period, they can die of starvation even with a belly full of undigestible feed.
The best way to help any wild animal survive a severe winter is to maintain high-quality habitat plantings year-round. Wildlife that goes into the winter in good condition is most able to survive deep snow, ice and cold temperatures. Even in well-functioning natural ecosystems, however, some animals succumb during winter months. The winter season has always kept wildlife populations in balance with available habitat.
Another way to help wild animals in winter is to avoid disturbing them. Animals must conserve their energy to survive winter conditions. Human disturbance causes them to move about more than they naturally would. Keep cats and dogs confined, and slow down when traveling in motor vehicles through deer and elk habitat.
Wildlife watchers also need to watch with care – keep your distance, don’t approach wildlife directly, and move slowly. If the animal shows signs of noticing you, you’ve already gone too far. Back off and let it be.
The main benefit of wildlife feeding is that it provides a direct, intimate view of wild animals for more than 50 million Americans who provide backyard feeding stations of some kind.
Experts in Cornell University Lab of Ornithology’s Project FeederWatch, which collects winter bird feeder use data from volunteers across the country, say most bird feeding does neither significant good nor significant damage. It’s something
we do for ourselves, they say, and because it has a lot of educational value, the program continues in its 27th season with more than 20,000 participants.
Up close and personal encounters with wildlife can and do trigger lifelong interest in and compassion for wildlife, desire to learn more, and ultimately the “bigger picture” understanding of the need to maintain and enhance year-round wildlife habitat.
Certainly some of the charter members of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) Backyard Wildlife Sanctuary program began with feeding alone and quickly expanded their efforts to landscaping for wildlife.
If you choose to feed birds, please keep the following in mind:
- Use tube feeders for birds to reduce accumulations of droppings that can spread disease; if you use platform feeders, provide only a day’s worth of seed at a time.
- Clean and disinfect feeders at least once a month with a solution of one part bleach to nine parts warm water; rinse and dry disinfected feeders thoroughly before re-filling.
- Pick up spilled food or waste from the ground at least once a week.
- Discard feed that is wet, looks or smells moldy, has fungus on it or has been contaminated by rodents.
- Locate feeders where there is no immediate cover for cats to wait in ambush, but close enough to cover to allow birds to escape natural predators like hawks.
If you think you want to feed deer or other wild ungulates, think first about the following:
- Feeding should start early in the winter season to allow animals’ digestive systems to adapt, and continue through March or April when natural browse is again abundant.
- The best artificial deer feed is a pelleted ration of about 50 percent alfalfa and 50 percent barley and corn; elk are able to transition fairly quickly to alfalfa hay.
- Once a diet shift has occurred, one white-tailed deer can consume three to four pounds of pelleted feed daily; in just four months, one deer could consume almost 500 pounds of feed.
- Concentrating deer and elk at a feeder can create problems by making the animals more vulnerable to disease, predation and poaching.
- If feeding areas draw animals across well-traveled roads, they are more likely to present a safety hazard and be hit by motor vehicles.
- Deer and elk drawn to artificial feed also can damage nearby agricultural areas, trees, or landscaping, especially if the artificial feed supply is not maintained through the winter.
- WDFW feeds some deer and elk on public lands only where needed to prevent agricultural damage to adjacent property (ie. Oak Creek) or where natural winter range has been destroyed by wildfires or other natural disasters (ie. Mount St. Helens).