The Yellow-breasted Chat at Umtanum Creek

The quaking aspens glowed in the soft light.

The dawn sky was just starting to lighten as I snuck into the quaking aspen grove, trying not to make a sound, to sit and listen to the day’s first chorus of birds. About a mile up the Umtanum Creek from the Yakima River, the tumbling water in the stream and the wind in the aspens were the only sounds present. The hot, dry air had the smell of fresh hay and reminded me of summers on our Pennsylvania farm. The sun wouldn’t rise for another 50 minutes as I settled, leaning against the smooth bark of a young aspen tree to listen and wait.

About ten minutes later, the first squawk happened, and it came from the far side of the grove, too far for me to record the sound well. A yellow-breasted chat had begun its morning song, a mixture of whistles, cackles, screeches, mews, caw notes, chuckles, rattles, gurgles, and pops. Expecting a mixture of bird songs including Lazuli buntings, black-headed grosbeaks, Bewick’s wrens, spotted towhees and maybe some warblers or vireos in addition to the chat, I patiently waited.

The habitat in Umtanum Creek Valley was a mixture of sagebrush, riparian areas, and aspen groves. The wind rustled the leaves and the air was fresh and dry.

After a quarter hour, a bunting sang far in the distance, but nothing other than the chat was nearby. Maybe at that point in early June, all the birds were incubating eggs or caring for young and not that interested in advertising their presences, so I climbed to my feet to walk around the aspen grove and approach the singing chat.

The yellow-breasted chat was on the backside of a large elderberry bush that sat up against the aspen grove, and he was hidden from my view. His song was loud though, raucous and full of variability. Standing in chest high grass, I listened to hear when he repeated individual songs, but I lacked the experience to recognize so many different notes, whistles, and screeches. A song would radiate out from the bush; then a pause happened before the next one jumped out. He reminded me of a person who liked to hear himself talk non-stop; not listening to what anyone else had to say. An hour later, he was still singing and had not made an appearance above the bush. I left to hike up the valley and look for other things in this wild country.

 

Dr. Donald Kroodsma, an expert on bird songs, once answered a question about how he learned so much about songs by saying he listens with his eyes. Here is sonogram movie of 10 minutes of this yellow-breasted chat’s singing. His calls are shown by intense red, and where the sonogram becomes almost white, it is showing the loudest notes. Individual calls, songs, and screeches range from 1,500 kilohertz to almost 15,000 kilohertz. Note the variability of his calls and how he mixes them up in a random order. This chat may be responding to other chats in the distance, or he may simply be singing what he wants. A lazuli bunting and an American goldfinch can be heard in the background and appear on the sonogram.

A Spring Mourning at Magnuson Park

An Oregon Junco, a race of the Dark-eyed Junco, sings from a red alder branch along the pond's edge at Magnuson Park in Seattle. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

An Oregon Junco, a race of the Dark-eyed Junco, sings from a red alder branch along the pond’s edge at Magnuson Park in Seattle. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

A light mist hit the window shield as I turned into Seattle’s Magnuson Park. Thick clouds covered the sky, and a light breeze made it chilly, but the birds were singing on this Monday morning a little after dawn. A musical, high pitch-chipping trill came from the alders just as I entered the trail around the ponds. A male junco sat about 5 feet down from the top on a side branch, right beside the trunk of an alder sapling. He’d leaned his head back, opened his bill slightly, and let lose a rapid tempo song. I imagined him saying “Spring is here and this is my territory!”

 

 

The male Gadwall extends its head to take a drink as the females swims away. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The male Gadwall extends its head to take a drink as the females swims away. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

A Great Blue Heron rests its head along the side of its body in the early morning. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

A Great Blue Heron rests its head along the side of its body in the early morning. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Buffleheads, green-winged teal, gadwalls, mallards and pied-billed grebes floated lazily in the still water, slight movements of their bodies causing concentric ripples to spiral out. The buffleheads dove, surfaced, and dove again, searching for food. Each dive was acrobatic as they almost jump up to plunge head first into the water. Even though it was now 7 AM, one great-blue heron still had not woken up. His head held down by his right side for the entire time I watched.

Songs sparrows alternated between their “maids-maids-maids-put-on-your-tea-kettle-ettle-ettle” and “Madge; Madge; Madge pick beetles off; the water’s hot” songs. Several sang simultaneously, not letting the other hog the morning airtime. Numerous red-winged blackbirds perched high in trees or on cattails giving their harsh gurgling trill.

A Song Sparrow looks down just after giving its sweet spring song. He moved to a new branch and continued to sing for several minutes before flying into the bushes. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

A Song Sparrow looks down just after giving its sweet spring song. He moved to a new branch and continued to sing for several minutes before flying into the bushes. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

 

 

 

Spring had arrived at last. Migrating yellow-rumped warblers darted everywhere, and even a few frogs croaked from the pond’s edge. Smelling deep, the damp air was fresh and alive, invigorating my soul. New leaves popped out on the tips of branching casting a green glow to the landscape. Time for breakfast and heading to work.

A male Red-winged Blackbird gives its harsh song to declare it owns this section of the marsh. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

A male Red-winged Blackbird gives its harsh song to declare it owns this section of the marsh. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Tree Swallows at Wylie Slough

Tree swallows have blue-green back plumage and a black eye mask. Their undersides are white. Note how long the primaries are on this bird, extending to beyond the tail when folded. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Tree swallows have blue-green back plumage and a black eye mask. Their undersides are white. Note how long the primaries are on this bird, extending to beyond the tail when folded. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

A clear sweet high pitch whistle came through the air. It sounded a little like a whine that moved into a gurgle and then to a chirp. The soft sound began again after a short pause. The sun was out and the air cool as I walked along the dike at Wylie Slough in Skagit County. It was only the third week of March, and I was surprised to hear the song of a Tree Swallow at this time in Washington. I scanned the branches for this small insectivores bird. They call from a perch near a possible nesting cavity.

The white underside of the Tree Swallow shows clearly as this bird grips to a small twig. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The white underside of the Tree Swallow shows clearly as this bird grips to a small twig. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

An iridescent green streak shot from a branch, its long pointed wings propelling the bird forward. The swallow began to do acrobatic twists and turns as it attempted to catch insects on the wing. The bird flew out over the marsh, only a few feet above the brown vegetation, looped around a dead tree that rose out of the shallow water, twisting to the right and out of sight.

Wylie Slough is near the outlet of a Skagit River branch. A few years ago, this area was restored to tidal wetlands, removing dikes that had allowed part of it to be farmed, reestablishing tidal flow, and creating habitat for salmon and wetland birds. The dike runs several miles through this wetland and provides excellent viewing of the restoring wetlands.

A tree swallow giving its high pitch song near a nest box along Wylie Slough in Skagit County, Washington. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

A tree swallow giving its high pitch song near a nest box along Wylie Slough in Skagit County, Washington. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The tree swallow flew in past my head, only a dozen feet away, and landed on a dead branch, looking away from me. The bird began to preen its feathers, twisting its head to grab individual feathers with its delicate bill and pull them through, straightening the barbules, making sure the feather functioned properly. The swallow crunched its neck in contortions to preen feathers along its back.

A tree swallow peers down from a perch on a dead snag at Wylie Slough along the Skagit River. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

A tree swallow peers down from a perch on a dead snag at Wylie Slough along the Skagit River. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

A second bird alighted just inches from the first and began to sing softly, a mated pair. A small wooden bird box was attached to the trunk of a red alder 10 feet off the ground. The pair had appropriated this location for a future nest. Several woodpecker holes were in the dead trees, and this pair could choose to use one of them. I left the pair resting on the branch and continued down the dike.

A nesting box hung from another tree at eye level, and I stopped to watch if this one had a prospecting pair. Two minutes later, a swallow swooped low over the open water beyond the tree, twisting a few times, before flying onto a knot above the box. It sat, staring down at me, bending its head to the side as if it wasn’t sure what I was. The bird stayed only a second before dashing off in the opposite direction, but in less than a minute it returned, quickly followed by a second one. One bird flew down from the perch to hang on the side of the box, sticking its head in and out of the hole, but never fully entering the cavity, before it flew out on a foraging trip.

Over the next week or so, many more tree swallows will return to this wetland. The abundant dead trees in the recently flooded fields should be full of woodpecker holes and would provide many places for swallows to nest. If sites are available, tree swallows will nest in dense numbers, just defending the cavity and a small space around it. I stopped to listen to a bird give its high pitch song, thinking that spring is rapidly progressing in Washington. In two days, it will be the spring equinox.

A tree swallow sits crosswise on a dead branch. The blue-green feathers of its head glisten in the sun and its white breast feathers so their shoft texture. These insectivorous birds use keen eye-sight to catch flying insects. often foraging over wetlands. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

A tree swallow sits crosswise on a dead branch. The blue-green feathers of its head glisten in the sun and its white breast feathers so their shoft texture. These insectivorous birds use keen eye-sight to catch flying insects. often foraging over wetlands. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

A Throng of Snow Geese

Snow Geese congregate in a field at Hayton Reserve grazing on the grass and digging up roots. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Snow Geese congregate in a field at Hayton Reserve grazing on the grass and digging up roots. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The cacophony was loud even with all the windows closed in my car, so I opened them to take in the cackle. The car filled with honks, guffaws, and the fresh sweet damp air of a sunny day in late March. I parked quickly and jogged to the post and rail fence that bordered the dirt road. Beginning just 50 feet beyond the barrier stretched ten acres of moving, bobbing, and honking white; 5,000 or more snow geese covered the wet field like a quilt. A hundred people leaned against the fence, watching this mass of birds jockeying to be in the right place. The geese were like a swarm of humans covering a high school football field after the homecoming game.

An adult snow goose in white plumage stands alert to check for possible danger before returning to feed. A few black primaris stick out from the folded wing. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

An adult snow goose in white plumage stands alert to check for possible danger before returning to feed. A few black primaries stick out from the folded wing. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The Snow Geese with brown feathers on their necks and bodies are birds that are less than a year old. They stay with their parents throughout the first winter after hatching. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The Snow Geese with brown feathers on their necks and bodies are birds that are less than a year old. They stay with their parents throughout the first winter after hatching. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Large numbers of snow geese winter in Washington’s Skagit County, and I had come to see if any were still here. By late March, they could have started for their nesting areas on the Arctic Coastal Plain of Alaska. These geese roam the Skagit Flats throughout the winter, grazing on grass, sedges, and willows, or eating leftover potatoes or spilled grain, or digging up tubers and roots. This flock stretched for several hundred yards back into the field and at least 400 yards wide.

 

Individual birds standing on the ground were mostly white, their black outer wing feathers being covered by body feathers. Their pink bills and dark eyes gave contrast to the white body feathers. Many still had a little light brown on some feathers; these were young hatched last summer. Small to large groups came in from the east to land with the expanding feeding frenzy, and these flying individuals showed the distinctive black wing tips and white bodies as they approached on fixed wings.

Snow Geese congregate in a field at Hayton Reserve grazing on the grass and digging up roots. Mt. Baker rises in the background and is mostly covered by clouds. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Snow Geese congregate in a field at Hayton Reserve grazing on the grass and digging up roots. Mt. Baker rises in the background and is mostly covered by clouds. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Families stay together throughout the winter and talk to each other incessantly as they feed or fly. It is like a clan of humans at a theme park, chattering to each other about what the see, where they are, and where to next. Really, it is about staying together in a crowd. This chatter carried across the field, filling the air with babble like at a noisy crowd at a fair. Groups of two to five would decide to move locations and rise on strong wing beats to 20 to 50 feet above the ground, flying swiftly over the flock before deciding on another place to land. Each then fixes its wings, beginning a gradual glide toward the field, finally holding its wings almost vertically to create strong drag, alighting with a gentle step. Displaced geese were chattering back at the new arrivals, trying to hold onto their piece of the dinner table.

Five snow geese fly together across Hayton Reserve in Skagit County. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Five snow geese fly together across Hayton Reserve in Skagit County. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Some started to leave this field and head west to another. Groups of two to fifty birds would rise and fly west over my head and out of sight. Single individuals would come back to fly around the field, relentlessly honking, probably looking for their missing family group. Glacier peak rose above the Cascades to the southeast and the birds that passed in front of this distant volcano looked picturesque against the white covered peak. To the northeast, low hanging clouds mostly covered Mt. Baker but flying flocks with the distant cloud draped mountains reminded me of landscape watercolors in the Smithsonian Museum.

A large flock of snow geese take off in unison and fly a loop around Hayton Reserve in Skagit County. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

A large flock of snow geese take off in unison and fly a loop around Hayton Reserve in Skagit County. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

In a roar of wings and honks, three-quarters of the birds rose into the air at once, thousands jockeying for position, gaining altitude and attempting to stay with their families. I could sense the massive exertion of their breast muscles contracting to pull their open wings down quickly and give them lift. The power of these sprinters oozing across the field as the mass rose at a steep angle into the air made me feel taller and stronger. Those in front of me started south before they turned to fly directly overhead, creating a moving shadow across me. I crooked my neck to watch the white mass pass, wondering how they avoided crashing into each other in the turmoil. The honking made it impossible to hear myself think. The commotion lasted only a few minutes, but the energy filled the air for a long time after the birds had disappeared to the west. A thousand birds still feeding a hundred yards across the field seemed like an anticlimax to the spectacle.

Snow Geese often fly in a dense cloud when they first take off from a feeding location. Only after they become airborne to they form into a more organized flying flock. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Snow Geese often fly in a dense cloud when they first take off from a feeding location. Only after they become airborne to they form into a more organized flying flock. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

I watched for another 20 minutes as individual geese flew back and forth between the two feeding locations looking for lost comrades. The cacophony had dissipated, but the sweet smell of spring remained.

A small flock of snow geese fly in front of Mt. Baker as they take off from a feeding group in the Hayton Reserve in Skagit County. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

A small flock of snow geese fly in front of Mt. Baker as they take off from a feeding group in the Hayton Reserve in Skagit County. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

A single flying snow goose shows the black primaries and white secondaries of the wings and the aerodynamic nature of their body in flight. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

A single flying snow goose shows the black primaries and white secondaries of the wings and the aerodynamic nature of their body in flight. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

A small flock of snow geese fly directly over head, showing the use of their wings to gain thrust and lift. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

A small flock of snow geese fly directly over head, showing the use of their wings to gain thrust and lift. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

A Fascination with Flight

The adult glaucous-winged gull flew right over the boat as we drifted in Puget Sound. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The adult glaucous-winged gull flew right over the boat as we drifted in Puget Sound. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The glaucous-winged gull came flying straight toward the boat. It’s wings fixed in a steady glide into the wind. The bird’s speed and the wind created enough lift to allow the bird to close the hundred yards to me without once flapping its wings. The bird was going to fly directly over our boat, and I would be able to look right up at this marvelous example of flight.

Have you every wished that you could fly? When I was young, I dreamed about what it would be like to soar like the red-tailed hawk that flew above our farm fields or to fly like a barn swallow low over the hayfield twisting and turning to catch insects. This gull, so aerodynamic, glided right toward me. Envy seemed to be surging through my veins. As the bird approached, I almost felt weightless and imagined extending my arms to join it as it passed.

My body tensed and my heart sped up as I stared at this perfect example of aerodynamics. This bird’s feathers create a streamlined body, and its skeleton has been modified to be light but sturdy. Most bird bones are hollow, filled with air, and yet can support the torque created by muscle contraction and the pressures of flight. Large breast muscles attached to their sternum provide the power to flap their wings, and their well-developed cardiovascular system can pump large amounts of oxygenated blood to these muscles. They can sustain vigorous activity for long periods of flying, but this gull seemed to glide effortlessly.

Holding my arm in front of me, I marveled at how a bird’s wing is a modified version of my primitive vertebrate forelimb. Bird wings have a humerus, ulna, and radius. The digits are reduced to three, and some bones in the hand are fused together. The primaries — outer flight feathers — attach to the hand bones, and the secondaries attach to the ulna. These flight feathers provide the power for flight. The downward movement of the wing creates lift as well as thrust forward. The upper surface of the wing bends up, creating a convex surface and a longer distance for air to travel than it does across the bottom of the wing. Consequently, the air moves faster over the wing’s top, reducing air pressure, and creating lift.

“Wow. Look at that, amazing”, came from the crowd around me on the boat. I had just missed seeing an orca breach. The gull, however, passed directly over me, and I turned to watch it continue past our boat. I smiled wondering how many of my whale-watching colleagues thought about the wonders of flight.

Wild Nearby: An exhibit on the North Cascades at the Burke Museum

Watson Lakes. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The view down onto Watson Lakes in the Noisy-Diobsud Wilderness.  (G. Thomas Bancroft)

 

The Burke Museum recently opened an exhibit titled Wild Nearby that allows you to get a real sense of the vastness and intrigue of the North Cascades. The exhibit has a full sized replica of a fire lookout. You can even get a splinter from the wood if you are not careful. You can handle skulls of a wolverine, deer or coyote and they have movies on wolverines and high mountain frogs.

They used my photograph of Watson Lakes at Noisy-Diobsud Wilderness in the "Wild Nearby" exhibit at the Burke Museum in Seattle. (Thomas Bancroft)

They used my photograph of Watson Lakes at Noisy-Diobsud Wilderness in the “Wild Nearby” exhibit at the Burke Museum in Seattle. (Thomas Bancroft)

 

They printed my photograph of the Watson Lakes really big and it is on display in front of a floor map of the North Cascades. I am so honored to have one of my photographs of these wilderness lands included in the show. The exhibit is open until February 5, 2017. The Burke Museum in on the campus of the University of Washington in Seattle.

Humpback Whales in Salish Sea

Humpback Whale releases a breadth of air as it surfaces before breathing deeply to make another dive. whale surfaces in the Juan de Fuca Straits. It had been diving to feed on herring schools at the edge of an underwater ridge. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Humpback Whale releases a breath of air as it surfaces before breathing deeply to make another dive. The whale had been feeding in the Juan de Fuca Straits. It had been diving to feed on herring schools at the edge of an underwater ridge. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Our boat cruised slowly in a southeast direction toward where several humpback whales had surfaced briefly. We had just finished watching a fin whale dive repeatedly in the middle of the Straits of Juan de Fuca. Now we hoped to have a look at one of the humpback whales feeding in this area. The captain cut the motor, and we began to drift. The deck became quiet as all the passengers stared toward the southeast. The salt air smelled sweet, and the intense sun beat on my shoulders but the light breeze kept me from feeling warm. I had slipped on a light sweatshirt while we sailed and found it still helpful. My leg braced against the railing, and my feet were spread apart to counter the sway and wobble of the boat. Ocean swells a meter or more high came at an angle to the bow and caused it to rock wildly one way and then another. I held my camera tight against my chest to be ready if a whale surfaced. Without the camera, I would have been holding the railing.

Humpback Whale releases a breadth of air as it surfaces before breathing deeply to make another dive. whale surfaces in the Juan de Fuca Straits. It had been diving to feed on herring schools at the edge of an underwater ridge. Whale cruises toward the boat as it takes a series of breaths before making another dive in the Juan de Fuca Straits. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Humpback Whale releases a breadth of air as it surfaces before breathing deeply to make another dive. The whale surfaces in the Juan de Fuca Straits. It had been diving to feed on herring schools at the edge of an underwater ridge. Whale cruises toward the boat as it takes a series of breaths before making another dive in the Juan de Fuca Straits. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The blow caught our attention as the cetacean surfaced a few hundred yards in front of us. His exhale shot water up into the air, drifting quickly in the breeze, as the mammal glided across the surface. The humpback’s blowhole submerged as his back surfaced. His back gradually slid by in a slow curve and then briefly his small dorsal fin showed before water covered him, and he disappeared. Fifty seconds later, he surfaced again to breathe. He took another seven breaths before he dove, arching his back more than before and his fluke rising completely out of the water. The crowd erupted in cheers as the fluke dripped water before it, too, vanished. I could feel the smile cross my face even though I held my camera tight against it, crushing my nose, as I created photographs of the complete sequence. The captain said we would continue to drift and see if one surfaced closer to us.

Pacific herring form large schools in the Salish Sea. These small fish, up to 15 inches long, lay their eggs in eelgrass beds in Puget Sound and represent an important food item for salmon, seals, whales, and birds. We were drifting over a ledge that creates underwater eddies and ideal places for herring to feed on the plankton that flourish in these nutrient-rich waters. I leaned out over the railing to look straight down into the water. The churn of the waves around the boat prevented any view down into the depths, but somewhere down there I could sense the excitement of life. Zooplankton fed on algae. Herring chased plankton, and humpbacks corralled the herring. My body tensed with the awe of this perceived action.

Over the next half hour, we watched several more humpback whales surface to breathe, but none had come particularly close. Each time, they took five to eight breaths before they dove. With each dive, the fluke rose above the water to cheers from the crowd. Our boat floated with the currents, gradually heading into the Salish Sea. Common murres flushed from the surface as we passed, and glaucous-winged gulls flapped overhead on lazy wing beats. The sublime setting mesmerized me.

Humpback Whale dives in the Juan de Fuca straits and it raises its fluke as it heads to the depths. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Humpback Whale dives in the Juan de Fuca straits and it raises its fluke as it heads to the depths. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

“There,” screeched from both sides of me as everyone spotted a new spout half the distance out from the last. The whale was coming right toward us. If this humpback continued on this course and took half a dozen breaths before diving, we might have an incredible look. He stayed submerged for about a minute and then breathed again, repeating this process, coming closer each time. The captain had turned off the motor, and silence filled the air. I could feel the tension in the passengers that surrounded me, shoulder to shoulder. No one said a word and my guess was that we all held our breath too. On the sixth surface, the captain said, “I think he is about to dive,” and we watched as his back bent as he buckled over, and his fluke rose out of the water, right there in front of us. The ship rocked as everyone yelled in amazement. We couldn’t have asked for anything better. I felt the tension loosen in my muscles, and I reached for the railing as I set my camera against my chest. These were truly magnificent beasts.

Fin Whale found feeding in the Straits of Juan de Fuca

Fin Whale surfaces to breath in the Juan de Fuca Straits and Mt. Baker rises in the background. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Fin Whale surfaces to breath in the Juan de Fuca Straits and Mt. Baker rises in the background. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The spout rose a couple of dozen feet above the surface in a reverse cone of vapor and droplets. A whale blow well off our starboard side, and the captain turned the boat to cruise in that direction. The whale’s back continued to glide along as more and more of it surfaced in a slow arc before the mammal submerged completely. The captain cut the motor, and we began to drift. Just the breeze and the chatter of the passengers filled the air. This fin whale had been sighted the week before and seemed to be hanging around. This individual was only the second confirmed sighting of this rare baleen whale in the Salish Sea in many decades. The blood rushed through my body as I attempted to hold my camera still for the next surfacing. I had seen a fin whale a quarter century ago in the Gulf of California but never one in the United States.

A minute later the whale surfaced again, blowing water vertically, the water droplets glistening in the afternoon sun. It’s black skin reflecting light as it surfaced and the water slid down the glossy skin. The sickle-like dorsal fin eventually rose above the surface before the beast submerged again. This individual was 60 to 70 feet long, an adult. Fin whales are bigger than all but the blue whale. Our whale surfaced seven times before its back arched, and it dove. Its fluke never rose above the surface.

Our boat drifted in the Straits of Juan de Fuca a little west of Port Townsend. The captain said the whale was either feeding on krill or schools of herring that had congregated in this area. An escarpment cuts across the bottom in this location, and the water churns here as the tides move in and out of the Salish Sea. The mixing of nutrients makes an ideal soup for plankton to bloom and the krill and herring to feed. The abundant food drew our fin whale as well as several humpback whales that were surfacing half a mile to the south.

Fin whale populations have slowly recovered since they were protected from slaughter in the 1960s. The use of the Straits may indicate that fin whales are seeking new feeding areas or possibly the straits were having a large bloom of krill and herring this year. If fin whales return in future summers, then maybe this sighting is an indication of improving populations. Fin whales tend to be solitarily and so it wasn’t unusual to see just one individual.

Fin Whale releases a breadth of air as it surfaces before breathing deeply to make another dive. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Fin Whale releases a breadth of air as it surfaces before breathing deeply to make another dive. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The boat had rocked for about five minutes before the whale surfaced from its feeding dive. I tried to imagine how it might have opened its huge mouth, filling it with water and possible food items, and then using its tongue to push the water through the bristly baleen like a colander and finally swallowing any food. This time, it had halved the distance between us. It looked like it would pass our bow. The passengers erupted in cheers, and many clapped hands in excitement. I felt the compression of human mass as everyone tried to congregate on the starboard side to see each successive breath of this cetacean. Each time, a new spout of water droplets rose like a flag announcing its arrival. In the distance, Mt. Baker showed behind the whale like a queen overlooking her kingdom. The snow and ice of this stratovolcano sparkled in the bright summer sun and gave me the sense that we had seen something special. After five more surfaces, our rorqual dove for the depths and another bit of lunch.

Twenty minutes later and after a few more sightings, the captain suggested we look for the humpback whales. Holding the railing as the boat rocked in the waves, I watched the spot of its last dive wondering what this fin whale thought of us watching it.

 

The Milky Way over Mount Adams

Muddy Meadows had taken on a golden brown cast and contrasted with the white summit of Mt Adams peaking through the sky. (Thomas Bancroft)

Muddy Meadows had taken on a golden brown cast and it contrasted with the white summit of Mt Adams that peaked through the clouds. (Thomas Bancroft)

Clouds had obscured Mt Adams all day except in late afternoon when a small window formed between the high and low clouds. I hoped the clouds might disappear as the day shifted to night and so I set my alarm for 10:30 PM. I had hiked into Muddy Meadows in Mt Adams Wilderness with the hope that I could photograph the Milky Way over Mt Adams. I have a personal goal of photographing the Milky Way over all 5 shield volcanoes in Washington. With a new moon just started, this night promised to be dark and perfect for seeing the Milky Way if the clouds disappeared. Lodgepole pines and firs surrounded the large wet meadow and the meadow had taken on a wonderful warm brown tinge as fall approached.

The Milky Way twinkled above Mt Adams and Muddy Meadows. (Thomas Bancroft)

The Milky Way twinkled above Mt Adams and Muddy Meadows. (Thomas Bancroft)

At 10:30 PM the Milky Way twinkled above the mountain and I didn’t see a single cloud. I found a good place to watch the sky and the mountain. A few meteors streaked through the sky and one large one looked like a shooting rocket. Unfortunately, it was just outside of my camera’s view. I found the stars memorizing and lost track of how cold it was. My fingers slowly became numb in the low 40s temperatures. Little light pollution was evident and I could see far more stars than I can see in Seattle. Muddy Meadows sits on the north side of Mt Adams and a little northwest of the peak. The Milky Way stretched southwest. I wondered how many stars were out there? Some scientists estimate that we may have 400 billion stars in just the Milky Way and many have planets circling them. It always thrills me to think about the vastness of the universe and how small our planet is within the expanse of space.

I stood staring at the stars when suddenly I caught the shadow of a dark object shooting by the right side of my head, maybe only an arm lengths away and slightly higher than me. Just beyond me, it dropped down to eye level and disappeared into the darkness without a sound. I thought an owl, maybe a northern pygmy-owl. It surprised me that I hadn’t jumped or even flinched. The owl must have been checking out what this strange object was in the middle of “its” meadow. Seeing it added an additional excitement to the night experience. I wondered what else might be watching me from the surrounding wilderness?

I did it again here. I seem to drift into a meditative state each time I stand watching stars gradually drift west. My mind wanders from family and friends to thinking about wild country. Seeing wild country or experiencing it through literature, films and art always seems to leave me energized, happy, and excited for tomorrow. When I began to shiver, I realized it might be time to find my tent and my warm sleeping bag. I grabbed my camera and tripod, turned to head toward my tent, but stopped for one last look up and to wonder a little more.

Do you enjoy seeing the Milky Way? Does it raise thoughts and feelings in you?

The Milky Way twinkled above Mt Adams and Muddy Meadows. (Thomas Bancroft)

The Milky Way rises above Mt Adams and Muddy Meadows in the Cascade Mountains of Washington. (Thomas Bancroft)

What is it about a tree anyways?

Many bird species seem to come to this ponderosa pine during the time I sat and watched. (Thomas Bancroft)

Many bird species seem to come to this ponderosa pine during the time I sat and watched. (Thomas Bancroft)

I was bumping and jostling along North Wenas Road, a dusty dirt road with lots of potholes when I saw a silvery flash near the top of a lone Ponderosa pine. The pine sat in a sea of sagebrush and grasses, a towering dark green monolith in the expanse of short brownish green. I pulled over to scan the tree with binoculars and see what might have made the flash.

As I raised my binoculars to my eyes, a Lewis’s woodpecker flew out from the tree making a broad circle over the road and back into the tree. The whole time it was squawking. It landed by a second woodpecker and I could see the two of them flashing their wings as they greeted each other. Courtship! It must be spring.

Within seconds of seeing this, a red-shafted flicker began its boisterous call. At first, I thought maybe the Lewis’s woodpecker could call just like a flicker but the flicker kept calling over the next few minutes. Eventually, the flicker popped out on a dead branch near the top of the tree so I could confirm that it was a flicker and not the woodpecker imitating it.

While all this was going on, a bullock’s oriole made a brief appearance near the top left side of the tree. Its yellow feathers glistened in the afternoon sun and I could see it looking back and forth into the foliage at the top: a nice male with its black back feathers and black eye stripe. After just a second or two, it dove back into the dark green foliage. I heard the gruff scratchy notes of the oriole as it hopped through the foliage.

A European starling sat on one of the dead branches along the left side of the tree and began to give its screech call. At first it startled me, for I didn’t think this was quite the right habitat for a starling, but sure enough it was sitting in this ponderosa pine.

As I watched this menagerie, I realized that both an American robin and a house wren sang in the background. I couldn’t tell if they too were in the tree, but they definitely were part of this meeting place. A pair of red-tailed hawks came over the crest of the hill behind the pine and began to circle lazily on the thermals rising from the sagebrush expanse. They too called a few times.

You can listen to this meeting place in the backcountry outside of Ellensburg.

As I sat listening, I realized I could also hear crickets calling too. The tree reminded me of a coffee shop where so many people come to meet, often oblivious to others who have come to meet too. I smiled and tipped my hat to this old ponderosa pine and its important role as gathering place. I wonder how many decades it has served this function in these rolling hills.

I would love to hear if you have seen a tree function in a similar way for wild things?