Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Wednesday Bird Walk

The Olympic Peninsula Audubon Society is a very active group of folks.  Among many other activities, they have a year-round Wednesday morning bird walk.  We’ve gone on two and have really enjoyed them. 
Wednesday Birding Group
We meet at the Dungeness River Audubon Center at Railroad Bridge Park that is located along the Dungeness River, the ancestral watershed of the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe. The Center is the only U.S. Audubon Center with a tribal partner and the only rural center in Washington State. 
Dungeness River Audubon Center
 There are lots of bird feeders around the center where we start the bird walk. 
Hairy Woodpecker
Spotted Towhee
Chestnut-backed Chickadee
After birding around the feeders we head toward the Railroad Bridge.
The Railroad Bridge first carried trains in July, 1915. The last train crossed the bridge in March, 1985.

In 1992, many volunteers helped replace the railroad ties and planked deck of the former railroad bridge.

The total length of the bridge, truss plus trestle, is over 730 ft. long; making the Railroad Bridge the longest bridge on the Dungeness River.
Dungeness river
Our walk is 1 1/2 miles and usually takes a little over 2 hours. We pass through both heavily forested and open areas, and we see a variety of birds along the way.
Varied Thrush
Brown Creeper
We get some great views from the trails.
Still lots of snow on the mountains.

Washington State Bird:  American Goldfinch

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Can’t Pick Just One

We walk down to the Spit almost every day.  There are rocks of all sizes and lots of drift wood on the beach.  The sand on the beach is medium brown to black and the rocks are all different colors.

The Spit is on Refuge property so there is absolutely no removal of any rocks, driftwood, etc.  But, if you’re willing to walk West a little bit, you come to a cliff area that is part of the county park.  You’ll find the same kinds of rocks and the same beautiful driftwood and you can pick up a few treasures and put them in your pocket.
I have a hard time limiting myself to just a few rocks.  I try to just get colors I don’t already have.

I’ve found a few more rocks since I took this picture but this will give you an idea of the beautiful colors to be found. 
Even with the cold rainy weather we’ve had, we’re getting out and exploring every day.  We brought a great book with us that is very helpful in finding good places for birds and other interesting things. 

This is probably the most interesting bit of driftwood I’ve ever found.  It looks great on the wall! 

I’ll keep looking down.  There are still plenty of treasures to find!

Washington State Gem: Petrified Wood

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Harbor Seals

The waters off of the Olympic Peninsula are known for large numbers of marine mammals. There are resident packs of Killer Whales (Orca) along with some transient groups. Several types of whales can be seen in the area, as well as Sea and River Otters. But by far the most common marine mammal is the Harbor Seal.

Harbor Seals are well-named because they prefer coastal waters and can be found near beaches, sand spits, and in harbors. We've seen a few offshore here at the refuge, but nearby Port Angeles is the place to find them. There is a paper mill in the area with large rafts of logs anchored in a harbor. The seals love to haul out onto these logs and relax.

Harbor Seals vary in color, but the most common patterns are white with black spots, and black (dark gray) with light spots. Harbor Seals are known for adopting an odd "banana posture" when on land. They raise their heads and tails into the air and lay in that position. It looks really awkward but they don't seem to mind!

In Port Angeles we've seen dozens of seals laying on the log raft. They are about the same size and color as the logs, so it takes a while to realize how many are out there. In the picture below there are at least eight seals. Can you find them (click on the picture for a better look)?

This guy was our favorite. He was close and very expressive.

At one point he had a little itch.

Fun Fact: Sea Lions have external ear flaps and can swivel their hind flippers forward to allow them to walk on land. True Seals (like Harbor Seals) have no ear flaps and cannot turn their hind flippers, so they just sort of flop around on land. But they are excellent swimmers, diving to depths of 1500 feet and staying submerged for up to 20 minutes!

In the closeup above you can see the ear holes (no flaps!) on two different seals.

We look forward to seeing many more marine mammals in the coming months, but for now are enjoying all of these Harbor Seals.


Friday, March 10, 2017

Dungeness National Wildlife Refuge

Our summer home this year is at Dungeness National Wildlife Refuge on the Strait of Juan de Fuca near Sequim, Washington.  It was designated a National Wildlife Refuge by President Woodrow Wilson on January 20, 1915.  Its highest priority is to provide and preserve habitat for the enhancement of wintering waterfowl and other migratory birds with emphasis on Brant.

Most of the 770 acre refuge is on Dungeness Spit and Graveyard Spit.  Spits are sand and cobble beaches surrounded by tidal mudflats and eelgrass beds.  Graveyard Spit is closed to the public and set aside as a research natural area because of its unique vegetation.  There are also two tidal ponds.
Dungeness Spit and Tidal Ponds
Dungeness Spit is one of only a few such geological formations in the world. During high tides it is sometimes only 50 feet wide.  The Refuge has about fifteen miles of undisturbed sandy beach.  At the East end of Dungeness Spit is the New Dungeness Lighthouse (more about the Lighthouse later).

The Spit was formed 10-20 thousand years ago.  The easterly flowing long shore current causes an eastward drift of material which provides the sand and rocks that form and maintain the sand spit.  The east end of the spit grows at a rate of about 15 feet a year.

Daily entry fee is $3 per 4 adults and all the usual passes are good here.
Fee station.
Kiosk at the entry station with interpretive displays.  Manned by local volunteers.

The woodland trail leads from the parking lot to two lookout platforms over Dungeness Spit.
Trail to Spit.
One of the lookout decks.
There is a lot of interesting driftwood that comes in with the tide.
Lots of driftwood.

This refuge is part of the Washington Maritime National Wildlife Refuge Complex which also includes Protection Island, San Juan Islands and a few other islands in the Washington Islands National Wildlife Refuges.
More than 250 species of birds, 41 species of land mammals, and eight species of marine mammals have been recorded in the refuge.

We’ve seen Harbor Seals right off the beach.

Brant are one of the refuge's most important inhabitants as it depends on the refuge's eelgrass for its survival. The Brant is a true sea goose and is able to drink salt water and eat saltwater plants.

Approximately 1,500 Brant spend the winter in the area. In March, during migration, the number of Brant increases to a peak of up to 8,000 birds in late April.

We’ve been here a couple of weeks and have been given a couple of projects but certainly not enough to keep us busy.  I’m sure as Spring/Summer progresses things will pick up.

There is so much to say about this wonderful place it’s hard to know where to start!  This will give you a little information about the Refuge itself.  Despite the weather we’re out birding and exploring every day.  We’ll keep blogging!

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Like Mice with Wings

One of the more common forest birds here on the Olympic Peninsula is the Pacific Wren. Formerly considered the same bird as the Winter Wren, it was split out as a separate species back in 2010.
Do you see me?
Like most wrens the Pacific Wren is small and brown. But this one is even smaller than most, dull in color, and it likes to skulk around on the ground in heavy cover. We hear them rustling around much more often than we see them and have come to think of them as "mice with wings".

We finally got one to pop out of deep cover long enough to get a few decent pictures. It continues to be gray and cloudy here most of the time, so pictures in the deep woods are a challenge to say the least!

We're hoping that when breeding season gets started in the next few weeks these guys might become a little more vocal and easier to find.

One interesting field mark for the Pacific Wren (as well as the Winter Wren) is their noticeably short tail. Most wrens have a longish tail that they like to hold up over their backs. It is a distinctive posture that lets us know they are wrens!

But the Pacific wren has the shortest tail of all the wrens, and it really stands out when you finally see one well.


Sunday, March 5, 2017

You can’t even lick ‘em!

Our first day here we were told about the Rough-skinned Newt that lives on the refuge.  There is even a sign on the main path warning folks not to handle them.  They are found throughout the West Coast and British Columbia. 

Many newts produce toxins from skin glands as a defense against predators but the Rough-skinned Newt produces the same toxin found in puffer fish.  It also radiates an acrid smell as a warning to stay away.

We were told that in 1979 a 29 year-old went into a bar and, on a bet, swallowed a Rough-skinned Newt.  He was dead before the day was out.  Generally the toxin is released only if the newt is ingested but skin irritation can occur if the newt is handled.

Yesterday was a very wet, cold day here and we saw a couple of them.  We met some folks on the trail who said they had already counted 12 on their walk.  This is the only salamander active above ground and out in the open during the day. 

He’s a stocky dude!  The skin is granular but the males are smooth-skinned during breeding season.  Overall they are about 4 1/2 to 7 inches in length.  The iris is yellow or silver and they will display a bright colored underside when threatened.  They can be yellow or tan but are usually dark brown or black. 

Garter Snakes (the only snake in this area) are the only known animal today that can eat a Rough-skinned Newt and survive.

Friday, March 3, 2017

How Do You Open a Clam??

Teri and I were walking along the beach here, and saw something drop from the sky about 30 feet from us. Almost immediately a large gull landed and picked the object up. It turned out to be a clam that was about the size of a pecan.

The gull immediately flew back up into the sky with the clam, and dropped it.

It turns out that the gull was trying to get the clam open. We don't know how many times the clam had been dropped, but this time seemed to do the trick!

With the shell broken open the gull was able to enjoy its meal. 

It is great to be in the right place at the right time to see something like this happen!