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Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Rude Awakening

After spending a few hours photographing herons and osprey along the Edmonds waterfront on Sunday, I returned home to relax and sort through my photos.  It was sunny outside, and this fact was not lost on my trio of tabbies- Henry, Oliver and Otis.  As the three cats peered through the lowest windows on the French door that opens onto their large outside enclosure, Otis let out a mournful yowl that drew my attention to the fact that I was being an extremely cruel kitty parent.  I got up from my computer desk, let the cats out into their enclosure and returned to my photos.  A few minutes later I heard Oliver make a sound that indicated both excitement and nervousness, and I immediately went outside to investigate.  I discovered that a neighbor had come to visit.  Standing outside the protective walls of the cat enclosure was an adult female raccoon.    

While people are often surprised to see a raccoon out and about during the day, it is actually not that uncommon.  At this time of year female raccoons have much higher energy needs as they nurse and care for their growing young.  The raccoon outside the enclosure was a female I know well.  She has raised young in our neighborhood each of the five summers that my wife and I have lived here.  As she stood up on her hind legs on Sunday, I could see that she was in the process of nursing the sixth brood that she has produced since I first made her acquaintance.  Surviving all of the dangers of an urban environment long enough to produce at least six litters is an impressive accomplishment for a raccoon.  It is even more impressive when you consider the fact that this female raccoon has been blind in her right eye the entire time I have known her.  Her good eye still serves her well enough that when I pulled out my camera she became wary of the strange object I was pointing at her and she retreated to a large fir tree at the back corner of our yard.

As the raccoon climbed the fir, she passed an old wooden nest box.  I had attached the box to the tree about three years ago for a Northern Flying Squirrel that was released in our yard.  The squirrel had not used the box after her release, but I had kept it in place just in case there were any other takers. Until Sunday I believed there had been none.

The raccoon climbed up to a branch about 10 feet higher than the nest box and then stopped.  She looked down and her nose twitched.  She came back down the tree as if she had a renewed purpose.  She made a beeline for the nest box and perched on top of it.  She proceeded to reach inside, and I thought she was going to pull out some morsel of food that had been stashed by one of many resident gray squirrels.  Instead, she pulled out a sleeping flying squirrel.  

For a fleeting moment my mind grasped with excitement the fact that a flying squirrel was using the box, but present tense quickly became past tense as the predator/prey interaction that had given me this realization quickly concluded in favor of the predator.  The only solace for the squirrel was that he was sound asleep when he was plucked from the box and had only barely regained consciousness before it was taken from him permanently.  He let out one surprised squeak and was gone.  The raccoon relocated to a nearby cedar to begin the work of converting the squirrel into sustenance for her offspring, and I was left alone to grapple with the inevitable mix of emotions that comes from witnessing such a life and death struggle. 

Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Impostor

As I left work today I had take a trail through a wooded portion of the property to reach my car that was parked on an adjacent cul-de-sac.  I was tired and my mind was wandering, so I was much less attuned to my wooded surroundings than is expected of someone bearing the title of naturalist.  Lost in my thoughts, I gradually became aware that I was hearing a voice, and before I consciously decided to do so I began to attempt to imitate that voice.

I don’t know if it’s an obsessive/compulsive tendency or just a side-effect of being a vocal animal, but I often find myself imitating bird calls and other animal noises that I hear.  In this case, I was hearing a call that was extremely high pitched, and as I continued to walk and think, I was absentmindedly using my tongue to make whistling noises that approximated the call.  Every time I heard the call, I imitated it, still only semi-conscious of the fact that I was doing so.  I was finally pulled out of my mind and back into my immediate surroundings when the call came back to me so loud that it sounded like it was right next to my ear.

I stopped and looked to my right.  My eyes were drawn to movement on a tree trunk just 4 feet away.  A Brown Creeper was foraging on the trunk at eye level, and as I watched he began to work his way slowly upward.  After moving vertically for about five feet, the creeper paused and let out the distinct vocalization that I had just been trying to imitate.  He seemed to pause for a moment as if to say, “That’s how it’s done!” and then he disappeared into the forest.  I walked the rest of trail in silence, leaving the singing to the more refined voice that was now fading into the distance. 

Monday, June 14, 2010

Late Afternoon With A Leviathan

My wife and I had the pleasure of joining her Uncle Robert on a late afternoon tour of Puget Sound around Whidbey Island yesterday.  Robert had seen a Gray Whale feeding in the area in recent days and, although we knew the odds were probably against it, we all hoped we would spot a tell-tale spout as we motored along the shore of the island.  A strong westerly made the waters choppy, and parts of the tour were a bit jarring as our small boat was tossed and turned by the waves.  After cruising slowly around a calm bay for about 40 minutes, and having great views of River Otters, Harbor Seals, Bald Eagles and Pigeon Guillemots, we decided to head for home.

We crossed back over a windblown stretch of water and turned into another calm bay to get out of the wind.  Robert was giving me a lesson in operating the boat on this trip, so I took the wheel as we headed north to return to the harbor.  Shortly after I took the wheel I saw a plume of mist erupt into the air about 300 yards dead ahead.  I was so excited that I don’t even remember what came out of my mouth in the moment.  Whatever I said, Julie and Robert understood immediately and some rapid shuffling occurred on the boat.  Robert took the wheel and steered us out away from the shore and out of the path of the whale.  We wanted to observe the giant without disturbing him, and we also wanted to make sure we were obeying the federal law that states that you must stay at least 100 yards away from these amazing creatures.  As Robert maneuvered us into a safe viewing position, I grabbed my camera and did my best to take some clear photos of a moving target while standing on a boat that was pitching and rolling dramatically.

We all watched as the whale worked his way up the shoreline.  He was feeding, rolling on his side to suck up shrimp-filled sand and sediment off the bottom and then rolling back to expel silty water through the baleen which filtered out his meal.  Half of his tail often popped above he surface as he rolled, and his blowhole made regular appearances as he exhaled and grabbed a fresh breath before submerging again.  He was clearly a young whale, but even though he was only about ½ grown he still dwarfed our small boat.  We watched him from a respectful distance for some time, and he was still working his way south, feeding in the shallows when we decided to part company with him.  We talked excitedly about what we had just witnessed all the way back to the marina.

The encounter with the whale had a surreal, dreamlike quality.  It’s hard for the mind to grasp the sheer size of the animal even when it is right before you, and the grace with which the whale moves in spite of that size seems magical.  I almost feel as though I saw a mythological creature yesterday in the waters of Puget Sound, and there was a point in our history when myths and legends may have been the only places left where the great whales could be found.  Fortunately, that did not come to pass, and the world is still blessed with these beings that capture our imaginations like no others can. 

Saturday, June 5, 2010

The Root of the Animosity

Many people seem to be puzzled by the apparent hostility that crows exhibit toward hawks, falcons, eagles, owls and other assorted birds of prey.  I have even heard people go to the extreme of saying that they “hate crows” after seeing an energetic mob of these corvids dive-bombing a bird belonging to a genus that is more revered by the viewer.  What they don’t realize is that they are only seeing part of the picture.  If you watch both parties involved in this ongoing conflict for a long enough period of time you will soon discover that crows are only exhibiting due diligence by responding en masse to drive raptors out of their territories.

Less than a half hour ago, my wife and I saw the side of corvid/raptor relations that is missed by the casual observer.  As we took a late afternoon walk in our neighborhood our eyes were drawn skyward by a cacophony of caws sounding out in alarm.  A Bald Eagle passed about 100 feet over our heads.  At least 20 crows were in hot pursuit, some close enough that they were making the eagle take evasive action as they repeatedly dive-bombed her back and tail.  

As the eagle approached a tall fir tree she flapped three times to pick up speed.  She momentarily put some distance between herself and her pursuers, and as she passed the top of the fir she quickly banked right and, swinging around in a broad circle, angled slightly down.  She landed hard in the branches about 10 feet from the top of the tree, and the fury of the crows intensified by an order of magnitude as she did so.  The eagle was only on the tree for a second or two, and she launched back into the air just as the angry crow mob descended on her.  As the eagle cleared the tree, her talons came into view.  They held the body of a nestling crow.  The young crow’s head dangled lifelessly as the eagle gained speed and headed off to the northwest with the adult crows still in full pursuit.  

As the eagle disappeared from our sight, some of the crows began to break off their pursuit.  One of them circled back and disappeared into the upper branches of the tree from which the eagle had snatched her prize.  I wondered if this had been the eagle’s first visit to the nest.  If not, I suspect that she will return as she likely has young of her own in need of food.  If she does, she will receive the same angry, frantic reception as she did today, and I would hope that whoever happens to be watching will hate neither crow nor eagle for their role in the dispute.