Saturday, June 30, 2012

June 30, 2012

7:11 AM, Temp 58.4° F, Dew Pt 57.8° F, Barometer 29.93 in, Wind Calm, Humidity 98%, Drizzle

South Fidalgo Island woke to foggy conditions this morning with light rain.  While some parts of the U.S. swelter under triple digit temperatures, we remain cool and drizzly.  Interestingly, the weather in San Francisco  is almost exactly the same today.  This is not unusual.  The huge Pacific Ocean is the dominant influence on weather in both locations.

I read somewhere that over the near term, the global climate thing (you know, that whose name shall not be spoken) will have less impact in the coastal Pacific Northwest.  Our spring and early summer has actually been rather chilly this year.  It is predicted that our temperatures will warm, but more slowly than in other parts of the planet.  Again, our nearby ocean will have a moderating influence.

By 9:00 AM, the fog had pretty much lifted, but the day should continue with overcast and drizzle.

The July 4th holiday is expected to be partially sunny here with temperatures in the low 60's F (~17° C).  According to our custom precisely, clear skies and warming temperatures will arrive after the holiday.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Summer Tugboats

3:42 PM Temp 62.1° F, Dew Pt 48.9° F, Barometer 30.00 in Steady, Wind SW 4 mph, Humidity 62%

Our first week of summer has been classic June, a mixture of overcast, a little rain and some sunny days.  Yesterday started out quite overcast.  It's called "June Gloom" here.  It happens because we have a huge ocean just west of us.  In the afternoon, some clearing allowed the sunshine through the cloud cover.  In western Washington, summer will begin for real on the fifth of July.  That's the usual pattern.

Like many people, I enjoy watching boats, especially working boats.  I never had a yen to own one, but I do enjoy watching them.  Yesterday's sun break also brought some working boat traffic to Skagit Bay, double the pleasure for me.  A pair of tugboats sailed in with a raft of logs in tow.  That is Kiket Island across the bay connected to the smaller Flagstaff Island by a tombolo.

The lead boat was the H.N. Hodder out of Richmond, British Columbia.  According to the website, she serves both coastal B.C. and Puget Sound.  In the background is the boathouse ruin on Kiket Island.

Since she was heading away in the photo, I had to do a severe crop to read the name of the lead tug.

The tug tending the raft was the Samish from Dunlap Towing in nearby LaConner, Washington. Recall that Gene Dunlap who started the business built a home over on Kiket Island in the 1950's.  Since the lead boat is Canadian, I am guessing the logs are from British Columbia.  They probably just came through Deception Pass.  Since they are not very big logs, I suspect they are heading for a paper mill.  That's also a guess.

This is a fairly common occurrence in upper Skagit Bay, but kind of a mystery.  Tugboats pulling log rafts or barges will sail into Similk Bay and just park for awhile.  I don't know why they do this.  I would enjoy hearing from anyone who can explain the purpose of these stops.  Whatever they are up to, I do enjoy their visits.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Gardening for Wildlife:  Cover

Early in the morning on the first day of summer, I stood on my porch and took a look at the garden.  It's not a classic backyard garden, but then, I didn't want it to be.  When I bought the property, it was heavily wooded with mature Douglas and Grand Firs.  A strip along the beach was more open with many native shrubs, plants and small trees.  These included Salal, Oregon Grape, Nootka Rose, Madrona and Red Currant.  Ocean Spray, Indian Plum, Sword Ferns and Snowberry were growing in the shady spots next to the road.  Having spent a childhood traipsing the woods around Gig Harbor, Washington, all these things made me feel at home here.

Typically, property like this is first logged and denuded of all vegetation to create a home site.  Then, big lawns and suburban style gardens are planted around the house.  My vision was to keep the big trees and use the wild places of the region as a pattern for creating a garden.  At the time, I hadn't even thought about wildlife.

This has been a difficult gardening project, much more difficult than I imagined.  The glacial soil is made of sand, rocks and clay and has low fertility.  The big trees are resource hogs.  At the edge of the Olympic Rain Shadow, we receive about half the rainfall that Seattle gets.  Drought tolerance has been a primary concern.  This garden has required a lot of trial and error.  Looking around to see what grows naturally was a necessary starting point.  Perhaps others interested in creating a wildlife garden will find some ideas here.

Above:  To some, a "wildlife garden" will look cluttered and messy.  Like I said, it's a different vision.  I am in a floral interregnum at the moment.  The rhododendrons have finished blooming and the perennials along the driveway are coming late this year.  A cool and damp spring has made everything very green though.  Behind the perennial bed, there is a small, secluded patch of lawn...

This lawn actually accommodates the septic drain field.  Plantings are a mixture of ornamental exotics and natives.  I am particularly fond of rhododendrons.  We have a native rhododendron that happens to also be the state flower.  They grow wild on Whidbey Island just across the bay.  With the forest edge habitat they like, I tried to grow one here, but it was a miserable failure.  Root weevils went right after it and despite some TLC, it languished and died.  On the other hand, nursery stock rhodies seem to thrive and serve quite well as stand-ins.  When choosing plants for any garden, start with what grows wild in the area.  Their cultivated relatives will often be good choices.

For me, the wildlife thing just happened on its own.  Early on, I hadn't done anything special to attract it.  But the wildlife came and I was delighted.  Without realizing it, by creating a garden patterned after the Northwest forests around me, all sorts of birds and mammals felt it was safe to come and visit.  Black-tailed Deer used that patch of lawn as a place to sleep.  The first Douglas' Squirrel I ever saw was in this yard.  Birds I had never seen before became regular visitors.  I bought a book.  I hung a feeder.  I was on that proverbial slippery slope.

Above:  Behind the lawn, upper right in the photo, is a grove of rhododendrons and small scale trees in the understory of the big firs...

The palette of the Pacific Northwest consists of dark tones.  Skies that are often overcast and shade contribute to this ambience.  Perhaps it is why regional wildlife tends to be darker in color than in other parts of North America.  The Townsend's Chipmunk, Douglas' Squirrel and Steller's Jay are examples.

I don't remember how I stumbled on the idea of a "certified wildlife habitat," but I was intrigued.  As a life-long nature geek, this seemed right up my alley.  The National Wildlife Federation has such a program.  It specifies that a healthy backyard habitat for wildlife provides four essentials:
  • Food
  • Water
  • Cover
  • Places to raise young
In a previous post, I discussed Water.  Without realizing it, my messy, cluttered garden with native plants (some might call them weeds) provided one of these criteria, namely Cover.  Wild animals are more likely to visit a backyard if they feel safe there.  Providing places to hide with shrubs, plants and brush piles will encourage these visits.  They will more readily come out into the open if there is a spot nearby where they can quickly duck out of sight.  Providing cover will become the most important element in a garden's overall design.

Back behind the rhododendron grove is a big empty spot under the trees which is entered from the top of the lawn.  It has terrible, dry, rocky soil.  Except during early morning, it is in deep shade.  These are tough conditions for gardening.  It has taken me a long time to figure out what to do here...

Visits to the Anacortes Community Forest lands gave me ideas for this area.  Anyone who has walked through a mature, Northwest climax forest will notice that the ground under the trees is often carpeted with Western Sword Ferns.  I am going to attempt to reproduce this.

I have chosen plants that will tolerate the deep shade under the firs.  As a centerpiece, I started with a Pacific Dogwood hybrid called 'Venus' (left) which is now blooming.  It has the huge blossoms of the native Pacific Dogwood with the disease resistance of Korean Dogwood.  I have laid out a pathway and added a lantern framed with Japanese Aucuba.  The variety 'Picturata' has bright yellow leaf centers and surprised me with big, shiny red fruits.  So far, so good; they all survived the winter.  I am told the Japanese text on the lantern reads "welcome."  I would appreciate if someone could verify that.

In the entry, I will be adding patches of Japanese Pachysandra and Vinca minor ground covers.  Finally about 1,000 square feet (93 m²) in the back behind the dogwood will be planted with Western Sword Ferns (.pdf).  I'll do this when the rains begin this fall.  These indigenous natives will provide lots of cover for scurrying and hiding.  I believe the naturalistic Asian garden styles blend nicely with the Northwest look.  Wish me luck with this project.

The koi pond and waterfall near the front door is a favorite bathing and whistle-wetting stop for birds.  They come in groups by species at different times of the day; Varied Thrushes at one time, Goldfinches at another, etc.  Again, plantings around the pond offer refuge.  They also help to obstruct Great Blue Herons who try to use the fish and frog pond as a cafeteria.  Believe me, encountering a big Heron when coming out of the front door is an experience not soon forgotten.

The property is on a slope, so the garden consists of a series of banks and terraces.  In the more open front yard, 'Tanyosho' Japanese Red Pines provide hidden nest sites that sparrows require.  I discovered this when I noticed the birds flying in and out of them.  If my guests at the front patio bird feeders spot me, they head straight for these pines for for quick escape.

A foot thick ground cover of Cotoneaster dammeri is drought-tolerant and serves as defense against the aggressive, non-native Himalayan Blackberry.  This introduced invader is constantly trying to colonize any open ground it can find, including the lawn.  The C. dammeri will be blooming shortly and become alive with Honey Bees.  I wonder what could be lurking underneath it.  The Lady Ferns and Western Sword Ferns have sprung up on their own.  Don't you dare call them weeds.  When desirable, indigenous plants spring up like this, I usually just let them be.

The lowest bank to the beach is covered with a meter-deep ground cover of Escallonia 'Fradesii.'  The path to the beach runs around the edge of it.  It blooms twice a year in June and December, tolerates wind and coastal conditions, and requires no watering once established.  In warm weather, the foliage emits a spicy perfume and the flowers are attractive to bees and other pollinators.  When I walk to the beach I hear a lot of scurrying in the leaf litter underneath it.

I am trying to find a way to reduce or eliminate this lowest level of lawn.  It is wet and spongy in the winter, but in the summer it becomes Death Valley.  The soil is glacial till which turns to concrete ("hardpan") when it dries.  If left to its own devices, it can become weedy and unattractive.  Of course, there are also the Himalayan Blackberries to fend off.  Grassy areas are not incongruous with the region.  Landforms called rocky balds may be seen in nearby Deception Pass State Park.  These are grassy and mossy areas over stony outcrops.  I would appreciate hearing from anyone who has ideas what to do here.

Be aware that the National Wildlife Federation backyard habitat program is a fundraising vehicle for them.  They also share their mailing lists with other wildlife organizations.  If you sign up, your monthly junk mail volume will increase significantly.  I am a little annoyed by this, but I still believe this is a worthwhile program.

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has a Backyard Wildlife Sanctuary program as well.  This is an effort to offset the 35,000+ acres of wildlife habitat that has been converted to housing in the state.  These are congenial folks and I have enjoyed working with them.  They provide a lot of educational materials including the Crossing Paths e-newsletter.  I created a blog post at Wild Fidalgo to accompany my application for certification.

Washington Shore Stewards is a voluntary program for waterfront and stream-side property owners.  We learn how to care for our beaches, bluffs, gardens and homes to preserve healthy shoreline habitats. Their Guide for Shoreline Living (.pdf) is one of the most useful booklets I have found.

Hopefully, this will inspire others to look into creating a wildlife garden.  Providing cover for wildlife is one of the four essential elements.  It's also the most important factor when creating a garden design.  I would enjoy hearing about other people's experiences and ideas for wildlife gardening.

Shade Garden Update

In a previous post, I wrote about "An Act of Vandalism."  I had a shade garden.  It was the most beautiful spot in the entire yard.  Located along the road, it was where the property faced the public.  I got complements from passers-by.  It was my pride and joy.

In an act of profound stupidity and incomparable evil, my shade garden was destroyed.  Landscape maintenance guys like to take care of lawn and bare ground.  For them, ground covers are a nuisance.  Without asking first, all of the Oregon Oxalis, Pachysandra, Vinca major and Sweet Woodruff were declared to be weeds.  First they were poisoned, then they were chewed down to bare ground with weed eaters.  The lush vegetation that had taken ten years to get established was gone in an afternoon.  In their herbicidal zeal, they also killed Fatsia, Astilbe, Hostas, Wood Ferns and Hellebores.  One end of the garden was carpeted with Creeping Buttercup.  That really is a weed, but it was a beautiful weed and perfect for the site.  Rich green foliage sparkled yellow all summer.  It has been replaced with bare dirt.  It's not even attractive dirt.  It's mud and rocks and dust.  Now I have real weeds growing everywhere.

The ground covers were replanted by the landscape firm.  It has now been two years, but the garden is not even close to recovery.  I am left with what still looks like a big open pit in the ground with bushes stuck in it.  It was my favorite spot in the entire yard, but now I rarely go in there.  If I can help it, I don't even look at it.  This is why there are no photos of the shade garden in this post.  Sorry to end this way, but writing about the experience helps me vent my anger.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Skywatch Friday: The Longest Day

Locally, the Summer Solstice arrived yesterday at 4:09 PM (16:09) or 23:09 GMT.  This photo of Skagit Bay was shot to commemorate that moment.  Appropriately, this was also our first truly beautiful day of the season.  The high temperature for the day was 67.7° F (19.8° C), absolutely perfect in my opinion.

Today, there is a bit more overcast and it's not quite as warm, although still a nice day.  We will also have one second less daylight then yesterday.

Weather data at the time of the photo:  Temperature 64.8° F, Dew Point 53.2° F, Barometer 29.97 inHg Steady, Wind 2 mph from the West, Humidity 66%, Rain None.  We have received 1.01 in of rain so far in June which is just about average for this location.  Sunset this night will be at 9:15 PM (21:15, 04:15 GMT) but evening twilight will persist after 10:00 PM.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Are My Favorite Trees in Trouble Again?

Along the west coast of North America, one of our favorite native trees is the Pacific Madrona (Arbutus menziesii).  It has a number of unusual characteristics that make it stand out.  It is both deciduous and evergreen.  It has smooth, red bark that is more like skin.  Like a reptile, it sheds this skin every year.  Even on the warmest days, the trunk and limbs will feel cool to the touch.  It has big, shiny, dark-green leaves, and displays large clusters of white flowers in the spring.  It is every bit as beautiful and desirable in the garden as our choicest ornamental shrubs.  The story of the Port Angeles Madrona reveals the esteem that local people have for this tree.

Twenty-five years ago, I was delighted to discover that several Madronas were coming up voluntarily in my yard.  My home has been recognized by strangers as "the place with the Madrona trees."  Both sides of my driveway are lined with them.  There are currently eighteen Madronas in the yard.

In recent years, there has been concern that our Northwest Madronas are in trouble.  In the nearby San Juan Islands, they have noticed cycles of "rampant blight" which has damaged many of the trees.  During the winter of 2010-2011, the leaves of many of my own trees turned black.  I posted about this last year.  They seemed to recover in the spring once the new growth had sprouted.  Now I am noticing serious wilting on two of my trees.  This is apparent in the photo above.  While the new growth looks good, last year's leaves should not be dull and drooping like that now.

In another part of the same tree, the older leaves are dying prematurely.  Similar to Rhododendrons, Madronas hold their leaves year-around.  New leaves sprout in the spring after blooming.  Then in late summer, last year's leaves will die and drop to the ground.  This should not be happening now.  We just had our third cold winter followed by a wet, chilly spring. These are not the conditions favored by Madronas.  Does this stress make them less resistant to disease?  Another consequence of climate change could be the loss of indigenous species.

Madronas are in the Heath family, Ericaceae.  This makes them cousins to Rhododendrons, Manzanita, Huckleberry, Blueberry, Kalmia, Salal and Heather.  Characteristics of this group include evergreen foliage and an association with mycorrhizal fungus in their roots.  Madronas are especially dependent on the fungus for nutrition.  If the fungus dies, the tree starves.  This makes it infeasible to transplant established Madronas.  It also gives them advantages.  They can grow in infertile, acid soils where other plants would not survive.  It renders them more drought tolerant and usually more disease resistant.

A second tree is most likely giving up the ghost.  About ten years ago, all of the leaves on this tree suddenly wilted in the summer.  I was relieved that parts of it later recovered.  You can see some of this tree is dead and some is alive.  But not for long, I fear.  I am concerned that the same thing is now happening to the tree in the first two photos.

The trouble this tree is in is obvious.  The wilted leaves are from last year.  It did not put out any new growth this year.  This tree was a bloomer which makes its loss even sadder.

Not all of my Madronas are in jeopardy.  This youngster has probably found an ideal spot.  The soil here is rocky and always bone dry.  Plants will get extra reflected heat off the wall.  The blooming companion is Ceanothus thyrsiflorus 'Victoria' aka California Lilac.  This is a great shrub which thrives in harsh, dry conditions, and the bees love it too.  There are several North American native species of Ceanothus including C. sanguineus which grows along the road here on South Fidalgo Island.

Other Madronas in my yard illustrate what healthy plants should look like now.  Madronas are known to carry diseases.  Like humans, if kept healthy, the trees can stave off illness.  Keeping a Madrona healthy means never watering or fertilizing it or doing any of the "garden stuff" we do for ornamentals.  Just leave it alone.  If they become ill, a healthy tree should recover on its own.  If it can't, there is very little we can do.

They seem to tolerate pruning and reshaping.  I did a bit of this to keep some of them from encroaching the driveway.  Smaller limbs are flexible, but very tough.  If you are careful, they can be reshaped with heavy nylon cord tied to stakes or nearby trees.  Use bits of old hose to protect the thin bark.

The following photos are an album of Pacific Madronas growing along the South Fidalgo Island shoreline.  The area provides  a classic Madrona environment.  They like to grow with Douglas Fir in open forest edges and along bluffs.  They thrive in dry, rocky soil in sunny locations.  You can find them in conditions just like this along the west coast from British Columbia to California.  While these trees have suffered from wind and waves, they usually overcome the difficulties.  They have evolved beautifully to survive here.

This tree did not survive the effect of windstorms and waves.  When a Madrona dies, the wood becomes hard as steel.  It will defy both axe and chainsaw.  These remains will likely persist here for many years.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

March's Point

09:30 AM, Temp 55° F, Dew Pt 48.9° F, Barometer 30.18 in Steady, Wind Calm, Humidity 80%

We have had variable weather for the past couple of weeks, a little rain, some clearing, breezy and chilly.  I read that other parts of the country have been sweltering, but not here.  The Pacific Ocean nearby is our year-around air conditioner.

Yesterday, the sun came out in full force.  In these parts we take advantage of that whenever possible.  I decided to see what was happening at March's Point.  The major features of this peninsula are two oil refineries.  They occupy about half the land area.  When driving onto Fidalgo Island via State Road 20, the distillation towers can be seen on the right.  At night, they are lit up and it looks like Christmas.  The sparkling light show sometimes includes flaming torches when they burn off gases.

The point is also host to a large Great Blue Heron rookery that contains around 400 nests.  This spot is protected and off-limits to visitors.  A live "Heron Cam" sometimes shows activity in the rookery.  The herons I see grazing the eel grass beds in front of my house are probably members of this colony.

Above, Mount Baker stands watch over Padilla Bay which we have seen here before.  A Canada Goose lazes in the outgoing tide.  The bay is a protected Estuarine Research Reserve.

March's Point Road runs around the perimeter of the point.  There are a few spots where the visitor can pull off to enjoy the sights, view wildlife and take pictures.  Padilla Bay is on the east side of the point and Fidalgo Bay is on the west side.  Fidalgo Bay is also a protected wildlife reserve (.pdf).  During low tides, Padilla Bay is almost completely drained.  In the photo background, left to right, the closer islands are Guemes, Hat and Samish.  In the center, I believe that is Lummi Island off Bellingham, Washington in the distance.

A Great Blue Heron bags a meal while Alaskan crude is delivered to the refineries.  Two long piers provide for off-loading liquid fossil cargo.  The ship in the photo at this pier is the Overseas Nikiski.  I believe that Valdez, Alaska is the source of the petroleum delivered to the Anacortes refineries.  There are many signs near the piers warning visitors from stopping, standing or parking "in the interests of Homeland Security."  Where parking is permitted, I did not see any prohibitions against taking photos.

Where I took this shot, there is a tank farm behind me.  The tanks are enormous, too close and too large for photos.  Heavy industry in the midst of sensitive, protected wildlife areas is an interesting dichotomy on March's Point.  There were no petroleum or chemical odors that I could detect.  The beaches and waters appear to be pristine.  I have the impression that these refineries take this seriously.  Let's hope this will always be the case.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Birdcam Back in Business

My two Birdcam photo stations have been shut down since mid-February.  Recall the problems I was having with Eastern Gray Squirrels and House Finches.  Too much success can be the worst dilemma of all.  I decided to give all bird feeding a cooling down period.  This week, I began setting up my Birdcam stations again.  Station No. 2 now has a brand new woodpecker feeder and I provisioned it with pepper suet.  I have been experimenting with it for a couple of months, and the Gray Squirrels have shunned it totally.

I was pleased to catch this photo of a Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) on the first day out.  This is the bird that inspired me to purchase and install a Birdcam in the first place.  This is also my first photo of a female Pileated.  The black mustache and black forehead are the distinguishing marks.  Until now, I had only seen males in the yard.  Yes, friends, I am definitely back in business.

The Black-headed Grosbeak (Pheucticus melanocephalus) is one of our summer-only birds.  It is also Fidalgo Island's only member of the Cardinal family.  The tortoise shell markings and colors identify a male.  In the Northwest, they will be attracted if there are a few broad-leaved trees among your confers and a water source.

The pepper suet received mixed reviews at Amazon.  I decided to give it a try anyway.  It is softer than the regular kind I bought locally and a bit messy to use.  Contrary to some of the reviews, it does seem to repel my local Gray Squirrels and the cakes last a good two weeks.  That offsets the higher cost a bit.  I would enjoy hearing suet recommendations and experiences from others.

Northern Flickers (Colaptes auratus) are always photogenic and another of my favorites.  Hanging out in small groups is an interesting behavior I have noticed during the winter.  They will just sit quietly together in the yard, perhaps sharing flicker gossip.  This is a red-shafted flicker and a female distinguished by the lack of a mustache mark.  I also see a few yellow-shafted birds who venture down from Canada, but most of my Flickers are red/yellow hybrids.  They have orange feather linings and will display a faded nape mark of the yellow-shafted race.

I was shut down for four months, so I missed the spring migrators.  Last year, I caught locally rare Western Tanagers passing through.  I will have to wait another year for that opportunity.  I am also waiting for the little Nuthatches, Chickadees and Wrens to show up.  They should discover the suet in a short time.  There is never a dull moment in the wildlife garden.

This post is being published simultaneously at Wild Fidalgo.

Friday, June 8, 2012

The Nest Box Trail

The spur dike at Wiley Slough on Fir Island, Washington provides a trail deep into the wetlands of the Skagit River Delta.  The first time I came here, I was blown away by the grandeur of this place.  I have returned several times and each time, I have discovered something new.  On my first visit, I noticed a couple of nest boxes for birds had been put up on some of the trees.  This was most unexpected to find in what otherwise comes close to being a wilderness.

This site is the Skagit State Wildlife Recreation Area.  It is managed by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.  Activities include public duck hunting, hiking, birding, dog training and botanizing.  Hunting season is over now so these Northern Shovelers (Anas clypeata) can feel safe raising their young.

On my most recent visit in late May, I noticed that there were actually several nest boxes along the trail.  The dike extends out about a mile and a half (2.4 km) towards Skagit Bay.  I discovered nest boxes along the entire way.  In all, I counted around thirty.  This large box was mounted on a post out in the salt marsh.

There is a variety of styles and sizes, but nothing to indicate who put them up.  Whether by an individual, an organization or informal group, it was obviously a labor of love.  I wish I knew the history behind them.  I would appreciate hearing from anyone who knows the story of these nest boxes.  I am a sucker for a mystery and these bird houses definitely qualify as a mystery.

Those of us who enjoy visiting wild places learn to notice small things.  It is especially rewarding to discover something for the first time.  Even with grand scenery and beauty all around, a good skill to develop is learning to pay attention to the details closer in.  This is not a jogging trail.  This is a place to relax and walk slowly and quietly.

Nootka Roses (Rosa nutkana) are blooming now.  The flowers are large, up to 3 inches (8 cm) across.  These native shrubs seem to love this wetland habitat.  They serve as a host to many insects which, in turn, provide food for birds and small mammals.  Rose thickets provide favored nesting sites for sparrows and Spotted Towhees.  Dense, thorny twigs protect the nests and keep predators at bay.

Many of the nest boxes were occupied by Tree Swallows (Tachycineta bicolor).  They did not seem to be concerned by my presence and went about their business as if I was not there.  They have probably become accustomed to having a few people around.  Although never crowded, this is a popular area for nature enthusiasts.

The Tree Swallow's favorite habitat includes open areas near water, fields, marshes, meadows, shorelines, beaver ponds and wooded swamps with standing dead trees according to iBird.  The Wiley Slough "Nest Box Trail" certainly fulfills these criteria.  The birds normally build nests in a tree cavity, but a nest box will do nicely.  Incidentally, the iBird smartphone apps have been on sale recently, so check the current pricing.

"Move along now.  There's nothing to see here."

Left:  Cow Parsnip (Haracleum lanatum) is blooming below this nest box.  This is indeed a Herculean native plant which may grow 10 feet (3 m) tall.  The flowers can be a foot across.  This time of the year, the wetland forest along the dike becomes a Garden of Eden.

Right:  This Red Alder (Alnus rubra) is providing support for two nest boxes.  Red Alder, Paper Birch (Betula papyrifera), Pacific Crab Apple (Malus fusca) and various willows are found in this wetland forest.  There are also a few Sitka Spruce (Picea sitchensis), a conifer that can apparently tolerate the boggy conditions here.

Both this Bumble Bee and I were enjoying the huge Cow Parsnip flowers.  I believe this bee is Bombus frigidus said to be common in the Pacific Northwest.  Do you agree with the identification?

A few of the nest boxes had numbers on them, but I could not detect a system to the numbering.  This box is number 45A, but I don't know what that means.  Another box was marked 6C.  It is another mystery of the "Nest Box Trail."

A Cedar Waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum) paused just long enough for me to catch a photo of his back.  The shot reveals the red, waxy spots at the ends of his secondary wings that gives them their name.  Their favorite food is fruit, flowers and insects.  The Black Twinberry Honeysuckle (Lonicera involucrata) on which he is perched is flowering now, but it will bear fruit within the month.  Come fall, there will be mobs of Waxwings here enjoying the fruits of Pacific Crab Apples that grow all along the dike.  They are also cavity nesters, but I did not spot any using the nest boxes.  There is more about this photo at Wild Fidalgo.

Wiley Slough has undergone a restoration project, in part, to improve the rearing habitat for young Chinook Salmon.  After hatching in fresh water upstream, they must spend time in these brackish intertidal waters.  This allows their bodies to become accustomed to salt water before entering the sea.  The project opened about 180 acres of wetland to this purpose by removing and relocating dikes.

In the background of the photo, Fidalgo Island is visible.  The small peak is Mount Erie, the highest point on the island.  With few exceptions, posts here will be about Fidalgo Island, or nearby places where Fidalgo can be seen.

The dike at Wiley Slough provides a unique opportunity for nature lovers.  It allows visitors to comfortably walk deep into the wetlands of the Skagit River delta while keeping their feet dry.  The dike serves as a trail above the marshes, ponds and sloughs of the wetlands.  It is easy to forget that visiting this wilderness is made possible by the engineered structure beneath our feet.

I was pleased to see that the Bald Eagles' nest was occupied again this year and that the "Eagleson Family" was home.  Pairs may have more than one nest in their territory.  They will change locations if there is too much disturbance at one site.  Leaving a nest vacant for a season to clean it of parasites is another theory for nest rotation.  At the duck blind, look south across the big pond to spot the nest.

You might notice that water is flowing in spots, sometimes downstream and other times upstream.  The direction will be determined by the tides in Skagit Bay and by river levels.

The visitor will discover how a great river is meant to enter the sea.  It divides into myriads of small channels and forms into ponds and tidal marshes.  This slows down the flow of water which allows sediments to settle out.  Water is cleaned of pollutants by natural processes before entering the sea.  This is nature's sewer system.  A rich habitat is created in the delta and the sea is protected from the damaging effects of unrestricted river flow.  Both people and wildlife benefit and this is why we make an effort to protect places like this.

I believe this is a mixed group of Cinnamon Teal (Anas cyanoptera) and Blue-winged Teal (Anas discors).  The two are known to interbreed.  If I have mis-identified them, please let me know.  Despite the fact that this is not hunting season, all the ducks along the dike were quite skittish.  It was not possible to get very close.  Only photos with a zoom lens were possible.

The spur dike at Wiley Slough is one of the best places I know for spotting wildlife, viewing native plants and enjoying some Northwest nature.  It is also one of my favorite spots to blog about.  If you get a chance to visit, let the nest boxes be your guide.  To find it from Interstate 5, take the Lake McMurray exit 221 and head west.  Quickly, make the first right onto Fir Island Road.  Continue west and turn left onto Wylie Road.  The entrance to the site is at road's end.  Look for the Fish and Wildlife sign and don't forget to bring your Washington Discover Pass.

Here are more of my posts about this wonderful place:

Fir Island:  Wiley Slough

Return to Wiley Slough

Wiley Slough:  Midsummer

Weather Wonderland

Heron in Haiku

Wiley Slough Song Sparrows

The Eagles of Wiley Slough

Fox Sparrows at Wiley Slough

Greater Yellowlegs

Cedar Waxwing

Red-tailed Hawk


Cedar Waxwing Shows His Spots

Weather Statistics for May, 2012

TemperatureHigh 71.3° FLow 38.5° FMean 52.0° F
Rainfall1.31 inches
WindHigh 22 mphAverage 1.1 mphDom Dir SW

Observed at South Fidalgo Island (See Climate page for complete climatological data)