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Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Right On Cue

As my wife and I walked through the woods in Seattle’s Discovery Park yesterday, we both had our attention focused on a large Madrona tree that grows on the edge of a steep bluff sloping down to Puget Sound.  The tree is a favorite of the local Bald Eagles, and we were hoping one of the birds would be waiting there to greet us.  As we neared a turn in the trail that afforded a better view of the tree, we could see that its branches were empty.  We were about to move on when, as if on cue, a large female eagle appeared and landed in the tree.

The eagle must have come from the beach below.  I surmised this not only from the fact that she had flown up to the tree from below, but also because she had brought a large fish head with her.  The head looked like it had belonged to a salmon at one time, but now it clearly belonged to the eagle.  Even the nearby crows, vocal though they were, did not seem anxious to challenge the eagle’s possession of the head at anything other than a respectful distance.  The eagle paid neither the crows nor us any attention and simply set about the task of deconstructing the fish head.

The fish head had clearly been cut from its body.  The human that had caught the fish had apparently discarded the head considering it to not be worth eating.  The eagle disagreed.  We were close enough to hear the sounds as the eagle grasped the fish head firmly in her talons and picked apart both flesh and bone with the sharp point of her beak.  Bit by bit the remains of the fish disappeared down the eagle’s throat, and some of the pieces were so large and jagged I was amazed at how easily they went down.

The eagle did not linger after the last of the fish was gone.  She simply turned on her perch and pushed off effortlessly into the air.  After she left, we continued along the trail wondering what other encounters the day would bring.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

You Smell

I spent a few hours this morning standing in between a patch of Fireweed and a patch of Snowberry in Seattle’s Discovery Park.  Both of these plant species are in bloom right now, and the local nectar enthusiasts have taken notice.  The area surrounding the spot in which I stood this morning was literally abuzz with activity. Much of the buzzing was coming from Rufous and Anna’s Hummingbirds as they jockeyed for position at the choicest blossoms.  Bumblebees added their own, quieter drone to the mix as they did their best to visit the flowers without getting caught up in the ongoing avian conflict.  Many times I nearly became a casualty of the hummingbird war myself when aerial battles buzzed so close to my head that I could feel the breeze given off by the bird’s tiny, rapidly-beating wings.

While enjoying the air show I heard  the rustle of dry plant material coming from inside a tangle of snowberry bushes about 15 feet northwest of my position.  The noise continued for a few moments, and the bushes above the sound’s point of origin were being shaken in rhythm with the sound.  The movement crept from the middle of the bush outward toward the edge, and I did my best to peer into the shadows at the bottom of the bush while not shifting my position or making any other movement or noise.  As I watched, a small, rounded, furry brown head with beady eyes poked out of the bush.  Aplodontia rufa, the Mountain Beaver had come calling, and she was carrying a mouthful of freshly cut vegetation.

In the interest of accuracy, I should have actually said that it was I who had come calling, rather than the Mountain Beaver.  I knew the spot I was standing in well, and Mountain Beaver burrows and sign surrounded it.  But the burrows’ inhabitants had never made a daylight appearance up until this point, so I was delighted to meet one of them.  The little Aplodontia disappeared back into the snowberry bush and, judging by the shaking and rustling, continued to gather vegetation.  I went back to watching and photographing any hummingbirds that came close enough to enter my viewfinder.  A minute or so passed and then the rustling in the bushes behind me abruptly stopped.  I slowly turned my head to investigate.

I thought that the Mountain Beaver might have re-entered her burrow with her load of local, organic produce.  The species usually has many different entrances and exits to the same burrow system, so I assumed that she had gone into a hole that was somewhere under the Snowberry Bush.  Apparently, this thinking was correct, because as I was looking around, I saw her cautiously exit a burrow that was only about a foot away from my right hiking boot.

Despite her close proximity, the Mountain Beaver’s poor eyesight and hearing was clearly making it hard for her to get a fix on me.  Still, her cautious manner told me that she was aware that something she should be concerned about was nearby.  Her best senses are those of smell and touch, and since it is more prudent to rely on the former when danger is involved she began sniffing in earnest to see what news the breeze could bring her.  Her nose twitched noticeably faster as her head swung in my direction.  Living in a busy city park as she does, human is undoubtedly a very familiar scent to her; however, smelling one from a foot away was apparently not something she found comforting.

The Mountain Beaver turned quickly and hurried back down into her burrow.  Two seconds later, her head appeared at another entrance hole about four feet away from the one she had just entered.  She sniffed again, and then once more retreated to the safety of her underground home.  I decided it was time to leave.  The Mountain Beaver had been a far more gracious host to me than most humans would to an uninvited houseguest, and as any good houseguest should, I know when I have worn out my welcome.  I thanked her for her hospitality and left her to finish her grocery shopping in peace.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Dinner Guest

As I stood in my kitchen cooking dinner earlier this evening my eyes were drawn to movement on the window screen above the sink.  The pattern of the movement was familiar, and I quickly recognized it as belonging to one of my favorite groups of arachnids, the jumping spiders.  When I focused on the spider herself, I found that she was rather large by local jumping spider standards, and a fair bit darker than I am used to seeing as well.  Needless to say, she had my full attention, and I was immediately sucked into her world as she patrolled the screen in search of a meal.

I grabbed my camera and took a few photos of her.  It was clear that she was aware of my presence, and I think that is one thing that has always fascinated me about these particular spiders.  Most spiders seem to react with panic when they realize something large and potentially threatening is nearby.  They jump off their webs trailing their safety line behind them or they run as quickly as they can for cover.  The jumping spiders I have encountered, including the individual I saw today, always turn to face the unknown.  If they see a finger approaching they either back cautiously away or throw caution to the wind and jump on it.  Once they have landed, they go about their business as if they are simply walking on another inanimate piece of the earth.  They are intriguing little animals and they actually have a lot of personality.

As I was photographing the spider on my window screen, a house fly landed about a foot below her.  The spider saw the fly immediately and a tension that looked a lot like excitement gripped her body.  Her movement pattern changed, and she closed the distance between her and the fly in a series of short, quick forward bursts.  She closed within about a half inch of the fly and then pounced.  Her jump was so fast that to my eyes it looked as if she had just teleported a distance that was roughly twice the length of her body.  One second she was a half-inch away from the fly, and the next she was directly over it, holding it in her jaws.  

The fly struggled weakly for a moment or two, but it was clear that the spider’s venom was quickly taking hold.  Once the fly was subdued, the spider climbed upward.  She disappeared into the tracks at the top of the window to eat her meal in private.  It was now time for my meal as well, so I left her to enjoy hers in peace.