Tuesday, October 20, 2009

it's waterfowl time

Fall is the time when thousands of waterfowl (ducks, geese, and swans) move into the Pacific Northwest from farther north and east. Vast numbers of these birds breed in Alaskan and Canadian wetlands, far enough north that these wetlands freeze each winter, and the birds move ever southward as their habitats freeze from north to south.

The first to come in are the dabbling ducks of interior marshes. Flocks of Northern Pintails, American Wigeons, Green-winged Teals, and others begin to arrive in late August. When they come, they all look like females, the males still in the eclipse plumage that camouflages them while they molt all their flight feathers on the breeding grounds. But by October many of these males are in their distinctive and showy breeding plumage, which they wear through the winter and into the next summer.

Meanwhile, large numbers of scoters have been appearing at Northwest coastal locations, where they undergo the same flight-feather molt that the dabbling ducks undertook on their breeding grounds. Many of them remain for the winter in the same areas, even north to Alaska, as marine environments are more resistant to freezing. In October, many of the diving ducks that have completed their molt in northern waters arrive. These birds feed in deeper water, and deeper water bodies freeze more slowly than shallow ones, so they can remain longer at high latitudes. This group includes scaups and Canvasbacks and their relatives, as well as many more scoters.

Migratory goose flocks, which begin to appear in late September, peak in October. They include Snow Geese from Siberia and Canada, Cackling and Greater White-fronted Geese from arctic and subarctic latitudes in Alaska and western Canada. These birds, in their V-formations and lines, are the most impressive migrants, but duck flocks, especially on the outer coast, can be impressive as well.

Finally, in November the last of the diving ducks begin to appear, including Buffleheads, goldeneyes, and mergansers. These birds stay as far north as they can as long as they can, but eventually they are driven out by the freezing of the larger lakes. By this time Trumpeter Swans from southern Alaska and Tundra Swans from farther north have appeared on our wetlands.

Many waterfowl continue their migrations beyond the Northwest, but so many of them stay here through the winter that this is close to the best, if not the best, region on the continent for ducks, geese, and swans. It’s time to go out and see for yourself.

Dennis Paulson

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

mammal watching can be fun

Many of us are birdwatchers (or birders, is there a difference?), but not so many are mammal watchers (mammalers?). But mammal watching can be fun too. There are only about half as many species of mammals as there are of birds, so there aren't as many to watch, but—of great significance—the vast majority are brown, so they don't attract the attention of those who love to see the varied colors presented by birds. Many birds are conspicuously, even rainbowly, colored. So the mammals have one strike against them (of course, we're one of them, surely a strike for them).

Perhaps of even greater significance is the fact that most mammals are nocturnal, and most of us do our nature study during the day, when we can see what's going on. Mammalogists know that if they want to have a lot of encounters with mammals, they go out at night. And they have to resort to a whole array of technology, from flashlights to mist nets (for bats) to sunken cans (shrews and mice fall in them) to live traps (especially for rodents).

Nevertheless, there are mammals that can be seen during the day. This includes all marine mammals, most ungulates (hoofed mammals), and some rabbits and rodents (especially squirrels). A trip to a big national park, where they are protected, may tally a surprising number of mammal species.

We found a few of these mammals, totaling seven species, on an early October trip to the Washington coast. Among them was a small herd of Elk consisting of a finely antlered male and two cows and their half-grown calves. Elk seem to be increasing in the Pacific Northwest, both the Roosevelt Elk subspecies on the coast and the Rocky Mountain Elk of the Cascades and East. There are small herds of Elk all over the southwest corner of the state, often visible in late afternoon as they come out of the forest to graze on herbaceous vegetation in prairies and second growth.
Of marine mammals, we saw quite a few Harbor Seals and California Sea Lions at the mouth of the Columbia River and the mouth of Grays Harbor. One big male sea lion was sleeping on a floating dock in the harbor at Westport, quite unconcerned with fishermen, crabbers, and tourists walking past about 20 feet away. As we watched, it had a good scratch, much like you'll see your pet dog or cat doing. From a population low some years ago, California Sea Lions have become more and more common, and the people who work in the harbor at Westport have become concerned as more and more of the big (and dangerous) mammals pre-empt parts of the docks.
Of rodents we saw numerous Douglas Squirrels, the common native squirrel in western Washington forests. Of lagomorphs (the rabbit order), we were enthralled by a baby Snowshoe Hare that grazed on weeds at the edge of the road in Leadbetter Point State Park. Unlike many of its species, this little gem sat there and fed calmly as we approached closer and closer with our cameras. It's a great feeling to get to photograph any wild mammal at leisure!

It's always special to see carnivores, and we saw two of the more common species of Washington. We watched a Coyote come out of the bushes at Leadbetter Point, trot over to the shore of the salt marsh, and lie down right at the water's edge. It was engaged in grooming rather than hunting, although it seemed to us that it was looking intently at a nearby foraging Great Blue Heron.

Finally, there is a nice viewing platform on the rocks in Westport where you can look out over the harbor with a scope and take in the bustling avian activity. Local people put out food and water for a crowd of feral cats there, and I wonder if they know they are feeding native carnivores as well. A Raccoon came out of the rocks as we watched and meticulously cleaned up a pile of cat chow, then finished with a drink from the water bowl and ambled back into the rocks. Not a bad day for furry encounters.

Dennis Paulson