Reaffirmation

A Varied Thrush could be heard softly calling from an alder tree in Seattle’s Schmitz Preserve this afternoon.  The bird was very animated, hopping from branch to branch, looking in all different directions and alternating between robin-like chatter and a call that sounded like a truncated version of the species’ airy, single-note mating call.  As I stood below the bird I was struck by how much this one individual’s voice added to the life of the forest.  Moments before, I could hear branches and dried leaves rustling in the wind, and the trickle of a nearby stream, but the thrush’s contribution added a new dimension to what had already been a beautiful chorus.  His voice would have been music to my ears no matter the circumstances surrounding our meeting, but my emotional response to his calls was heightened by my awareness of just how close he had come to being silenced forever.
The thrush that was calling above me was one of the tens, if not hundreds of millions of songbirds that are attacked by free roaming house cats in our country every year.  When I first met him, his body was riddled with scratches and puncture wounds.  Some of his feathers were disheveled and/or broken while others were simply missing.  He was a mess, but he was one of the lucky ones.  He survived the attack. He received treatment for his wounds, and antibiotics to stave off infection.  He was kept in a protected environment while he healed and grew in new feathers.  When he was strong again, and ready, I returned him to his home.  He got a second chance that millions of wild animals that encounter outdoor house cats never get.  
And to be clear, the cats are in no way to blame for the loss of these wild animals.  The blame lies squarely on the shoulders of the humans that allow their pets to roam free, or that turn a blind eye when they encounter stray or feral cats in the world at large.  The cats are as much victims as the wildlife, often dying prematurely from accidents or disease, or becoming prey to predators larger and more capable than themselves.  
As I stood in the forest and listened to the thrush’s beautiful voice, I wondered how many other voices within the range of my hearing had been silenced forever by free-roaming cats.  In the same moment I wondered how many neglected or abandoned cats were suffering nearby.  As I walked out of the park I reaffirmed my commitment to doing everything within my power to speak up for all of the victims in this scenario, and to keep helping the individual animals I encounter in my everyday life.  If you are reading this, I sincerely hope you will do the same. 

The Comforts of Home

I climbed out of bed when my alarm sounded at 5:20 am this morning, but I had already been awake for at least an hour.  Ordinarily this kind of pre-dawn insomnia can be attributed to the three little people of the feline persuasion with whom my wife and I live.  But this morning it was my own restless mind that was keeping me awake.  I kept envisioning an endless expanse of rolling waves under a gray sky.  This vision was no metaphor.  I believed that what I was seeing, or at least a close approximation thereof, existed in the real world, and I was trying to imagine what it must be like to feel as comfortable there as I do in my own home.  
The reason for my early morning musings was simple; I would be spending much of my day with five beings who do feel right at home in an endless expanse of waves.  Nearly six weeks ago these amazing creatures had been separated from their home.  Blown from the sea by a windstorm, they were found on the sandy shore where they faced starvation, predation and all of the other dangers present to an animal removed from its element.  But their story did not end on the beach.  Instead of death, they encountered compassion, and through long hours of diligent care their health and strength were restored.  My job today was to give them the last piece of their life that was still missing, and before noon “freedom” would be added to their list of things that had been restored.
Less than two hours after my alarm sounded, I was in heavy traffic on I-5 South in Seattle.  Five boxes were secured in the bed of the truck that I was driving, a canopy keeping the boxes’ occupants safe from wind and noise.  After driving for three hours, I made one stop out of necessity; my early morning insomnia had turned into late morning somnolence, and I needed a little caffeine to ensure that my passengers and I arrived safely at our destination.  The last hour of the trip went by quickly, and I am not certain whether to attribute my increased alertness to the warm beverage I purchased or the excitement at nearing my destination.  When I arrived and opened the back of the truck I discovered that my passengers were feeling much more alert as well.  They had been still when I checked on them during my pit stop, but now they were scratching and jostling around inside their boxes with apparent excitement.  I can safely say that their excitement had nothing to do with caffeinated beverages.  The more likely cause of their stimulation was the sound of crashing waves and the smell of salt air.  They were nearly home.
The sky was as gray as I had envisioned earlier in the morning, and a steady drizzle was falling.  I had come prepared with rain gear and hip waders, but my passengers would need no such special protection.  I somehow managed to pick up all five boxes at once, and I carried them up and over a large sand dune and down to the beach below.  I was facing a large, crescent-shaped bay.  The eastern end of the bay was being pounded by six-foot waves, but the western edge was sheltered from the Pacific Ocean by an enormous sand and rock breakwater.  I chose to release my charges there, as much for my own safety as theirs.
I opened a box to reveal a very alert and anxious Northern Fulmar.  As I lifted the bird from his transport box and carried him out into the water he made no attempt to bite.  In fact, so focused was he on the expanse of water before him, it was as if I wasn’t even there.  I had seen this animal almost daily for the past several weeks, but as he left my hand and settled onto the water I realized that I had really only seen a part of who he is.  This point was driven home as the fulmar opened his wings and began to run on the surface of the water, lifting off and soaring low over the waves with a grace reminiscent of his much larger cousin the albatross.
One by one I opened each of the four remaining boxes and carried the fulmars they contained to the water.  All of the birds were gripped with the same excitement, and all took flight very soon after hitting the water’s surface.  Three of them made wide, arcing flights that brought them up over the beach, before turning into the wind and flying far out into the bay.  It was difficult to track the five gray bodies against the gray water and sky as they moved farther from shore, but when I last saw them they were heading west beyond the northern tip of the breakwater.  There was nothing in that direction but open sky and endless ocean.  I reflected again on my mental exercise from earlier in the morning, and I thought of the change I had just witnessed in the fulmars.  I smiled as I thought about them shedding the stress of captivity with every mile they put between themselves and the shore.  I hoped that they would feel as at peace making their journey seaward as I would making my journey back to my own home.

A Piece of the Puzzle

Three years ago I photographed something I had never seen before- a female green shield bug that was laying her eggs on the wall of the house I was renting in Edmonds, Washington.  I was completely amazed by the sight, and I was as riveted by this encounter as most people are by the sight of a soaring eagle or foraging bear.  In my mind, insects are just as interesting as other wildlife, and the fact that so much of their lives occurs completely below the radar of human perception makes a rare glimpse into their world all the more intriguing.  I visited those eggs on a daily basis, waiting with baited breath to see what would emerge from those tiny, conical capsules.

After two and a half weeks of waiting, the eggs hatched.  What emerged looked very little like the green and brown insect that had left the small life pods behind.  The baby shield bugs were shiny and completely black.  They shined like tiny pieces of obsidian in the afternoon sun.  They stayed close to their egg shells for several days, but eventually the young insects dispersed to make their own way in the world.  I was left to wonder how these small black dots, no larger than the period at the end of a sentence, eventually grew to fully flighted adults with the ornate green and brown patterning of their mother.  While I still don’t have all of the answers, I did discover one piece of the puzzle in a recent encounter with an older juvenile shield bug.

I still have no idea how long it takes for an infant shield bug to make the journey to adulthood, but I did encounter one recently that had completed half the journey.  He or she was a combination of the green and brown pattern exhibited by the mother shield bug and the sleek, obsidian black of the juveniles.  If this one individual could be assumed to represent the pattern of all green shield bugs, it seems that the transformation to adulthood starts at the animal’s rear and progresses forward toward the head.  I have no idea how old this semi-mature individual was, or how much longer his or her journey to maturity would be, but I was thrilled with the encounter none-the-less.

As a naturalist, every new experience I have with the natural world makes me feel like I have discovered one more piece of life’s puzzle.  As different as a human may seem from a green shield bug, we are all a part of the same process, and of the same natural system from which all life has arisen.  We have a shared genetic history that is far more important than the narrow focus of human geopolitical history.  I can’t help but think that any insight I gain into the lives of the living creatures around me ultimately helps me to expand my understanding of who and what I am.  Every piece of the puzzle is important, and although a lifetime of searching will never give me a clear view of the entire picture, I am compelled to learn as much as I can about the universe in which I live during the limited time in which I am here.  Today that means paying attention to a tiny green and black bug on the wall of a building.  Tomorrow that means remaining open and observant to whatever wonders the universe sees fit to send my way.          

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.

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.

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. 

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.