Sunday, September 23, 2012

Return to Ala Spit

It has been almost a year since the riprap armoring was removed from the shoreline of Ala Spit on Whidbey Island.  The goal was to return it to a more natural state, an effort to improve the Skagit Bay habitat for Chinook Salmon.  Another project was undertaken at Wiley Slough in the Skagit River delta nearby with the same goal.  It is expected that the spit will now shift and change shape naturally with the currents and tides.  Ala Spit is an Island County park and a popular destination for fishing, hiking, beachcombing and wildlife viewing.

I visited the site almost a year ago just after the riprap revetment was removed.  At the time, it still had a kind of torn-up look.  The land form has now taken on natural and more beautiful shapes and contours.  Large patches of green vegetation, such as American Glasswort (Salicornia virginica) above, is now growing on the leeward side.

The spit parallels the Whidbey mainland to form a lagoon and pocket estuary (pdf).  After hatching in freshwater streams, young salmon will spend up to three years in these sheltered waters.  They can grow here protected from predatory fish.  The salinity in the bay is reduced by river flow and fresh water runoff from the land.  This helps the fry adapt to salt water before venturing out into the open ocean.  Destruction or alteration of these important habitats has been identified as a factor in the decline of the Skagit run of Chinook Salmon.

Another view of the sandspit shows some effects of tidal action.  To me, the eroding material actually looks like artificial fill left from last year's alterations.  During windstorms and extreme high tides, the spit will be completely inundated.  Accumulating driftwood provides an important natural armoring against erosion.  Driftwood should never be collected, disturbed or burned in sensitive areas like this.

The lee or sheltered side of the spit has a convoluted shoreline with small tidal pools along the edge of the lagoon.  The windward shoreline has a smoother, more unbroken contour.

The young salmon in the lagoon may be protected from predatory fish, but not from birds such as the seafood-loving Great Blue Herons who patrol the shallows.  Only the fastest and smartest of the baby fish will survive.

Ala Spit is a great place for spotting shorebirds.  Left, a Belted Kingfisher, another skilled angler, takes a pause from fishing.  Their chattering calls will be heard before they are seen hovering over the water to spot fish.  It's a ratcheting sound iBird describes as like a heavy fishing reel.  Right, this Glaucous-winged Gull still has a bit of black on the beak.  They take four years to mature to adulthood.  Gulls have the habit of standing still like this, as if posing, which makes them great photo subjects.

Left, Double-crested Cormorants, identified by orange at the base of the bill, will perch to rest, preen and dry their feathers after diving.  Right, this column of Black Oystercatchers makes me think of the "Colonel Bogey March" from the film Bridge on the River Kwai.  Are you old enough to remember that great movie moment?

Left, patches of Sand Verbena (Abronia latifolia) are blooming profusely.  They like to grow on protected salt-water beaches and sand dunes.  Right, a Lion's Mane Jellyfish (Cyanea capillata) appears to have been stranded by the tide.  Actually, they naturally start to die off this time of the year due to bacterial infection and a dwindling food supply.  They are creatures of the open ocean that routinely get washed into the Salish Sea which includes Skagit Bay.  This one was about a foot across, but some may exceed two meters in diameter.

The outer end of Ala Spit is a vast driftwood field.  Besides armoring against erosion, driftwood fields provide habitat for wildlife and leach valuable organic nutrients into the surrounding water.  Click on the photo to enlarge it.  The yellow flowers blooming around the driftwood are Entire-leaved Gumweed (Grindelia integrifolia).  This is another native flower seen growing on beaches and around salt marshes.

The Dewey Beach community on Fidalgo Island is seen from the end of Ala Spit.  On the left is Hoypus Point on Whidbey Island marking the entrance to Deception Pass.  The peak is Mount Erie, Fidalgo's highest point, with its two communication towers at the summit.

For other accounts of visits to Ala Spit, see "The Eagles of Ala Spit" and "Pecking Order" at Wild Fidalgo.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Autumn Chiming

Plants are like chimes in the cosmic clock.  When leaves sprout on trees, we know it is spring.  Leaves changing colors and falling to the ground are like bells signaling the arrival of autumn.

One of my favorite places to hear these bells is along the Spur Dike at Wiley Slough on Fir Island, Washington.  The dike serves as a trail into the wetlands of the Skagit River delta.  The site is open to the public for seasonal hunting, hiking, birding, dog training and botanizing.  The site is managed by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.  Visitors should remember to bring their Discover Pass.

The visitor to these wetlands will find a sumptuous botanical garden.  The variety of native plants and trees is without number.  The chiming of autumn here is just now beginning and colors are taking on hues of yellow and red.

The appearance of fruit is another bell tone in the carillon.  Pacific Crab Apples (Malus fusca) are not yet fully ripe.  In another month, dozens of Cedar Waxwings and American Robins will come to feast on the fully ripened fruit.

Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) is reaching the end of its season.  The blooms are a bit past their prime now.  Solidago means to make whole or cure.  Goldenrod has been used as a medicinal at least since the time of the Crusades.

The giant flowers of the herculean Cow Parsnip (Heracleum lanatum) have gone to seed, but the heads will be held high through most of the winter.

Ripening Cutleaf Blackberries (Rubus laciniatus) add more color to the landscape, and another tone to the bell choir.  This is a Eurasian species that has escaped cultivation and become somewhat invasive.

Himalayan Blackberries (Rubus discolor) are not yet ripe.  This is another invasive, non-native species that is fast growing and extremely aggressive.  Conditions along the dike seem to be keeping it under control for now.

One of our native honeysuckles is Black Twinberry (Lonicera involucrata).  This plant produces another fruit relished by Cedar Waxwings and other birds.  Some of the leaves are just beginning to turn color, in this case, a rich purple.

I believe this is Highbush Cranberry (Viburnum edule), but I am not absolutely sure.  Anybody?  It provides one more tone to the seasonal chiming of the great cosmic clock.

Here are some other accounts of visits to this amazing wetland:

Fir Island:  Wiley Slough

Return to Wiley Slough

Wiley Slough:  Midsummer

The Nest Box Trail

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Skywatch Friday:  The Top of Fidalgo

Some high-tech infrastructure is in the sky this time.  At 1,273 feet (388 meters), Mount Erie is the highest point on Fidalgo Island.  The mountain is an Anacortes city park and visitors can drive to the summit over a steep, winding road.  A pair of communications towers crown the summit.  Mount Erie is a favorite destination for hikers, mountaineers and rock climbers.

Another view of the towers shows the pair together.  There are several paved pathways to overlooks at or near the summit.  My favorite is the overlook nearest the towers because it provides a wonderful view of South Fidalgo Island.  Click on the photo to enlarge it:

From up here, the curvature of the earth can be seen.  Lake Campbell is near the foreground and beyond is Skagit Bay, my usual Skywatch vantage point.  The entrance to Deception Pass is on the right.  On a very clear day, Mount Rainier is visible on the horizon from 117 miles (188 km) away.  Wildfires in eastern Washington may be responsible for the layer of haze in the photo.  A view of Mount Erie looking back from Skagit Bay can be seen here.

Monday, September 3, 2012


Arguably, the film Predator gave us one of the greatest movie creatures ever.  It took cunning and some luck for Arnold to defeat it.  Our wildlife gardens can also contain predators that are as malevolent and ruthless as that alien creature in the movie.  Domestic cats that are allowed to run free are known to exercise their predatory instincts.  One blogger did the math and came up with an estimate of 1.7 billion birds killed by outdoor cats annually in the United States.  If you think that is an overestimation, divide it by 1,000 and the number is still too large.

If cat lovers are not feeling a little concerned by that number, perhaps they will take notice of these figures:
  • Free-roaming cats live 1 to 3 years
  • Indoor/outdoor cats live 6 to 8 years
  • Indoor only cats live 20 years or more
My neighborhood serves as an example.  When I first moved here, there were several cats, perhaps a dozen, that roamed the area.  I came to recognize them, Black Spot, Scruffy, Gray Stripes, Calico, Scrawny and so on.  My own indoor-only cat Big Guy took great interest in them.  When driving to work early in the morning, I would often see coyotes around Fidalgo Elementary School.  When they started clearing for homes near the school, the coyotes moved into my neighborhood.  Very suddenly, all the neighborhood roaming cats disappeared.  The predators became the prey.  I haven't seen a cat roaming the yard in twenty years.

That's why the appearance of this cat in a BirdCam photo took me by surprise.  Before this, I wasn't concerned about the siting of the birdbath.  Fortunately, the cat has been an infrequent visitor.

This is a nice looking cat and obviously well cared for.  But if his owners don't keep him indoors, he'll be coyote food for sure.  Arnold Schwarzenegger taught us a lesson in the movie.  Regardless how well equipped, no predator is invincible.

Weather Statistics for August, 2012

TemperatureHigh 82.3° FLow 47.8° FMean 60.4° F
Rainfall0.01 inches
WindHigh 18 mphAverage 1.0 mphDom Dir SW

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