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It doesn't take much looking across the state this month to see huge aggregations of birds – this year's production of many migrant species that are gathering now and will be moving south soon.
Some of the most obvious are swallows, which readily collect on power and telephone lines along roads in open areas where they're swooping after insects.
Earlier this summer our Snohomish Basin area habitat biologist Jamie Bails especially noticed a particular nesting colony of cliff swallows, one of the seven species of swallows that include Washington in their breeding range. It got her thinking about and researching how some wildlife species, like the cliff swallow (Petrochelidon pyrrhonota), have adapted to us and our structures more than others. Here's Jamie's account:
Tucked high underneath the State Route 2 trestle, between the towns of Everett and Snohomish in Snohomish County, are approximately 100 gourd-shaped mud nests.These nests are the work of cliff swallows, native passerines that actually prefer man-made structures over cliffs and caves for nest location.
Originally, cliff swallows nested on cliffs and inside canyons throughout North America. But the building of concrete structures, and replacement of wooden highway bridges and trestles with concrete, has expanded their nesting habitat options, increased their range, and even created an unexpected evolution of body size and wing length.
Over ten years ago, the Washington State Department of Transportation replaced the aging wooden State Route 2 trestle with a one mile long concrete overpass. Under that trestle today, I watch adult swallows slip in and out of their nests pasted to the concrete. Disturbed, they call with a faint twitter or squeak that warns potential predators like me to move away.
Even without binoculars, from 50 feet below visitors to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) Snoqualmie Wildlife Area's Ebey Island Unit, located upstream of Spencer Island between the towns of Everett and Snohomish, can watch these birds' lives. A parent bird tends three to four eggs while its partner swoops and soars for insects across the spacious grass field. Little white beaks stick out of the nests, waiting for meals from the adults. It's exciting to watch a hundred adults flying to and from the nests.
The colony faces south, just west of Ebey Slough, a side channel of the Snohomish River. This prime location provides access to soft river mud, fine silts and clays which are perfect for nest building, as well as a field full of flying insects for daytime foraging.
According to local author and Professor John Marzluff of the University of Washington, cliff swallows are a generalist species that have managed to successfully adapt to human-made conditions, buildings and structures. In his recent book, "Suburbia," he describes species like the swallows that have thrived in spite of human impacts, and adapted and survived.
But cliff swallows have adapted at another level, too. Over decades they have actually evolved with larger bodies and shorter wings that help them better avoid speeding motor vehicles in our urban and suburban landscape.
This adaptation was documented by Mary Bomberger Brown of the University of Nebraska over 30 years of studying birds near Lake McConaughy in western Nebraska. Across the landscape, she noted that swallows were moving from traditional cliff homes to highway bridges as the old structures were upgraded to concrete. Initially, she found an increase in the number of road killed birds at the new bridge locations. But over time, the number of birds killed decreased at each study site.
When a freak May storm in the winter of 1996 killed 1,800 birds, 70 percent of the local population, it allowed her to measure the body size and wing length of killed birds versus those that survived. She found that dead birds were shorter with longer wings, but birds who survived were larger with half-inch shorter wings. Bomberger Brown concluded that birds with shorter wings had been more agile in avoiding collisions, and passed down a genetic trait to offspring, a simple evolutionary adaption to new environmental threats.
These adaptations in both behavior and size, gave me a new appreciation for cliff swallows. I learned that they migrate here each spring in large groups from as much as 6,000 miles away in Brazil, Argentina, and Chile. When they reach their traditional nesting area, they begin gathering mud pellets to build nests. If last year's nest survived, the first to return have dibs on them, quickly refurbishing and declaring occupancy. Later arrivals, or those not originally from this colony or yet unmated, begin to build anew.
Down on the mud they land, scooping up a ball of mud in their beak and carrying each one to the nest, as many as 1000-1400 per nest, one per trip. Whether new or refurbished, the nest building is a task both sexes share, taking up to two weeks for the mud to dry and harden. Nest dimensions vary from 5 to 10 inches in length and 5 to 8 inches in base width. Egg laying may begin before the nest is finished with one egg laid per day until the clutch of three to four eggs is completed.
If a nest is destroyed by weather or another bird, the pair will re-build and try again. Cliff swallows are even known to place eggs in another's nest, possibly as insurance policy in case their own nest fails.
For 15 or 16 days, both sexes incubate the eggs, which hatch in mid-June. The adults are kept busy feeding the nestlings by foraging over an area two to four miles from the nest. A sign of a successful nest is white excrement rimming the nest entrance, indicating the presence of young swallows inside. Then, 20-25 days after hatching, the chicks take their first flight from the nest. After their first flight, they remain near the colony for about a week.
After leaving the nesting colony, cliff swallows remain in the area for several weeks. By mid-August many begin moving south, and by the end of September few remain.
Cliff swallows are beautifully colored, with chestnut, cinnamon, buff and black feathers. They are distinguished from similarly-colored barn swallows by a square tail rather than a forked tail.
While a colony of swallow nests may seem unsightly around the house or barn, it's important to think about the hundreds of mosquitos and other bothersome insects that these birds are eating daily while they're here.
And after all, if they can adapt to us, surely we can adapt to them!
| Providing water in backyard ponds or birdbaths, or being adjacent to a natural water source, will draw many animals.
With new heat records set this year in both eastern and western Washington, many of us are escaping the extreme temperatures by dressing lightly and heading to the pool, lake, beach, mountaintop, or indoor air-conditioning.
And we take our pets with us, because animals must cool off to survive, too. Just like us, their rising body temperatureputs more stress on variousbody functions, straining the heart and brain.
So how does Washington’s wildlife beat the heat?
Some animals do some of the same things we do to cool off. They take off that down or fur coat through molting or shedding. They stay near water, or at elevations where air is slightly cooler. They hunker down in deep, shady cover during the day and only move about after sunset or before sunrise.
Animals also cool off in ways humans don’t because they don’t sweat the way we do. Canines “sweat” through their paw pads, but it’s through panting that they circulate air through their bodies to cool down. Other large mammals like deer, elk, and moose, and even many birds, also pant to aid cooling.
The heat is as stressful to some species as the bitter cold of winter. And that’s our cue for what we can do to help wildlife weather this summer’s high temperatures.
Just as the best way to help wildlife survive a severe winter is by providing year-round quality habitat, so too is habitat the key to dealing with a severe summer. Backyard Wildlife Sanctuary managers, and all of us who manage lands for wildlife, should include vegetation that provides cover and shade and some source of water.
Plants that provide food like berries, nuts, and seeds, help keep animals well-fed and reduce the need to expend energy traveling to forage. Just like in winter, if wildlife goes into a severe season in good condition, it is more likely to survive the extremes.
Water is especially important during this drought year. Providing water in backyard ponds or birdbaths, or being adjacent to a natural water source, will draw many animals. Birds not only drink such provided water, they also need it to bathe to maintain clean feathers for thermoregulation.
Some water-seekers are not necessarily what you may want taking up residence long-term, however. Deer, elk or moose may find your “oasis” a good summertime hangout, and your rosebushes and other prize ornamentals may take a beating. Worst case scenario is that loafing deer draw a predator like a cougar. It may be a balancing act between providing refuge and maintaining your own.
Another way to help wild animals both in summertime heat and wintertime cold is to avoid disturbing them. Animals must conserve their energy to deal with heat, and human disturbance causes them to move about.
At home, keep dogs and cats confined and teach young children to leave wildlife alone and enjoy it from a distance. While hiking, camping, fishing or otherwise recreating in the great outdoors, avoid getting too close to wildlife encountered. In the heat of the day most animals will be out-of-sight in cool spots, many in riparian or streamside areas where dense vegetation provides shade.
If your recreation takes you off-trail into such spots and you come upon a wild animal, try to minimize disturbance. You’ll know if you’re too close if the animal appears nervous and keeps looking at you, doesn’t resume its activity like napping or feeding, or runs away or toward you.
Enjoy the encounter briefly, then move on. If you’re looking at baby birds in a nest or turtles in a pond, remember that they can't leave and you may be interrupting normal behavior. Move quietly, slowly and in plain view.
Never chase an animal trying to get a better glimpse or photo. Don't follow animals or behave in any way that might be seen as "harassment." And don't allow your pets do it either.
Just as we wouldn’t want to work up any more sweat than necessary this summer, neither do animals want to expend energy when they’re just trying to beat the heat.
|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/.