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.

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 Sweet Elegant Song of the White-crowned Sparrow

A male white-crowned sparrow sings from the top of a cedar in Washington Park by Anacortes. (Thomas Bancroft)

A male white-crowned sparrow sings from the top of a cedar in Washington Park by Anacortes. (Thomas Bancroft)

We had been birding all morning as we climbed onto viewpoint above Burroughs Channel. It was almost noon and we had a good morning searching for seabirds and shorebirds, pretty much ignoring the little tweets.  The sweet whistle followed quickly by several more whistles and buzzes, therefore, caught me off guard.  I stopped to listen again.

We had pulled into Washington Park at Anacortes to search for buffleheads and surf scoters on Rosario Strait. We found several feeding out from the boat landing. They repeatedly dove staying down for 20 to 30 seconds while they searched for tasty morsels. My birding partner spotted a white flash way off shore and we discovered a pigeon guillemot stretching on the gentle swells. With each stretch of its wings, its white patches flashed in the noon sun and the white contrasted with the black body plumage. A common loon in its new nuptial plumage cruised by as we climbed back into the car to head to Green Point. At the point, five red-necked grebes bobbed in the waves; they had shifted from their drab winter plumage to their nuptial plumage with the distinctive rufous neck that gives them their name. We, also, heard the loud cries of a black oystercatcher pair and ran to the edge but to no avail.

So what was this sweet whistle I just heard above Burroughs Channel?

As we strolled down the slope toward the source of the whistle, I realized that we could hear a line of these songs echoing in both directions through the scattered cedars and pines. These songs declared that each vocalist owns their individual patch of habitat. Finally, one called in a cedar not far from where we stood. I crept around the edge of the tree to find a white-crowned sparrow on the top singing its sweet melody. We stood for quite a while listening to him bellowing out his song as strongly as any opera singer.  In 1772, J. R. Foster got it right when he called this one of the most “elegant little species.” This little bird is one of the most intensely studied species in the world. It breeds across western United States and north into Canada and across the Arctic. Just like people, these little guys have distinctive dialects depending on where in their range they breed. A number of years ago when I heard one singing in Denali National Park, I remember that I didn’t recognize it. It looks like I still can’t seem to keep all their dialects straight. We found a nice bench just above the cedar and sat to eat our lunch and listen to his solo version of “I will always love you.”

Here it is if you would like to hear it too.

 

A Pacific Wren sings “it is spring” in Washington.

I rounded a corner on the trail and heard a Pacific wren begin its high energy song. Seattle has had some wonderful warm days in early April, and I guess this little bird has decided that spring has arrived. Dr Kroodsma, a world expert on bird songs, characterized these little guys as having the “pinnacle of song complexity.” They have a large repertoire of notes that they can arrange in different sequences. Their song ends up being more complex than their close relatives the winter wren of eastern United States or the Eurasian wren. I edged along the trail looking for the bird. I was hiking in St Edwards Park along the shore of Lake Washington. It should be sitting on a branch a few feet to a dozen or more off the forest floor. The call came from the far side of a clump of hemlocks. The wren is only 4 inches long, and dark mottled brown so it blends into the dappled forest light extremely well. I could not find it. The singing male is probably cocking his tail high behind his back and twisting back and forth as it repeatedly sings. A male’s song helps him defend his territory from other males and helps him try to entice a female to join him for the season. Listen to this little guy sing his heart out.

Does hearing it bring hopes of spring to you? Do bird songs bring high spirits to you?

 

 

A Good Day for Bald Eagles on Whidbey Island

A bald eagle sits on top of a dead snag in dense fog on Whidbey Island in Washington. (Thomas Bancroft)

A bald eagle sits on top of a dead snag in dense fog on Whidbey Island in Washington. (Thomas Bancroft)

The fog created an eerie feeling to our walk on the beach. It wrapped around us like a winter quilt. I could feel the dampness on my cheeks, and the air tasted salty. We had come to North Whidbey Island to see what birds we might find. To our left, we could hear the rhythmic lapping of waves and to our right the fog completely obscured any view of vegetation at the beach’s edge. We wondered if we would see anything. I joked to my friend that a large bear, mountain lion, or marauding band of Vikings could suddenly appear out of the fog, and we would not have a chance to escape.

A weak, flat, whistle made us stop in our tracks. Initially, we could not pinpoint its direction, turning to look in all directions. The sound added to the eerie mood. We then heard 3 or 4 whistles at one-second intervals followed by 8 or 10 rapid whistles. Their tone varied, and it sounded almost as if the “beast” stuttered. The call puzzled me initially as I ran through all the possibilities that it might be. After a few more calls, my friend and I simultaneously said bald eagle.

We walked cautiously up the beach moving closer to the upper edge of the beach to see if we could see it. After 100 yards, we spotted the faint outline of the bird on top of a dead snag. The adult bald eagle continued to call through the fog. We wondered if it was trying to locate its mate. As we strolled by looking at it, the magnificent bird looked one direction down the beach and then the other. It totally ignored us on the beach. The bird’s magnificence caused us to stop for several minutes to watch the bird call and gaze through the fog.

A pair of Bald Eagles fly along the beach on Whidbey Island calling to each other. (Thomas Bancroft)

A pair of Bald Eagles fly along the beach on Whidbey Island calling to each other. (Thomas Bancroft)

Later the fog partially cleared and we watched a pair of adult bald eagles fly together along the beach, one slightly behind the other and both calling back and forth to each other. They made the shorebirds and the ducks extremely nervous. The shorebirds flushed and the ducks dove, but the eagles didn’t appear to be hunting. We wondered if one of these was the individual we saw earlier.

About a mile farther down the beach I heard something behind us and turned to watch a juvenile bald eagle fly out of the fog and by us on steady, powerful wing beats. A one-year-old bird, it still had black plumage on its belly and above its eye. The bird passed overhead, and we could see its large hooked bill and yellow legs and hear the beat of its wings.

A good day for eagles!

A juvenile bald eagle flies along the beach on Whidbey Island in Washington. (Thomas Bancroft)

A juvenile bald eagle flies along the beach on Whidbey Island in Washington. (Thomas Bancroft)

Tundra Swans fly over Hayton Reserve in Skagit County

Three tundra swans pass right over head on their flight from a night roost on Skagit Bay to inland feeding fields in Skagit County. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Three tundra swans pass right over head on their flight from a night roost on Skagit Bay to inland feeding fields in Skagit County. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Shortly after sunrise on Sunday, a friend and I stopped by the Hayton Reserve along Browns Slough in Skagit County to see what might be around. Tundra swans had spent the night along Skagit Bay and were just starting to wake up. Several family groups climbed from the horizon to a hundred feet and flew right up the slough and over our heads toward inland fields to feed. We had a chance to watch their stunning five to six foot wingspans as they flew over us with their rhythmic powerful wing beats. I could almost imagine feeling the power as one group passed right above us. I tried to reach up to feel more of their power but I couldn’t for I was bundled thick with layers to ward off the 21-degree temperatures and light wind.

Two young tundra swans accompany a parent as the group heads inland from Hayton Reserve on Skagit Bay. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Two young tundra swans accompany a parent as the group heads inland from Hayton Reserve on Skagit Bay. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

We could see their individual flight feathers on each wing as they passed overhead. The primaries at the wing tips flexing with each power stroke while the secondaries along the middle of the wing providing the lift for flight. Covert feathers overlap the flight feathers to give an aerodynamic shape that engineers try to imitate on airplane wings. Several dozen passed overhead during a 30-minute period. Most came in family groups of 2 to 4. Swans pair for life and young with their gray-brown heads and dirty white body feathers spend a year with their parents before separating when swans return to the Arctic to breed in the summer.

Later in the day, we found some of their bigger cousins, Trumpeter Swans. Most adult tundra swans have yellow lores, the area between the base of their bill and their eyes while trumpeter swans have black lores. It is surprising how hard it is to tell these two species apart if they are not together. Trumpeter swans, weighing upward of 23 lbs., are almost twice the size of tundras at 14 lbs.

After the swans had finished flying over, we found a few greater yellowlegs wading in shallow water, their yellow legs shinning brightly in the sun. Several mallards and four hooded mergansers fed in the slough. A great blue heron with its eyes partially closed sat on the bank warming itself in the morning sun.

Several family groups of tundra swans took off from Skagit Bay and flew over Hayton Reserve heading inland to feed. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Several family groups of tundra swans took off from Skagit Bay and flew over Hayton Reserve heading inland to feed. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Birds at Mukilteo Lighthouse Beach

A glaucous-winged gull cruzes along the beach at Mukilteo Lighthouse. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

A glaucous-winged gull cruzes along the beach at Mukilteo Lighthouse. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

I stopped by Mukilteo Lighthouse to see what birds might be there. I had hoped to find surf scoters and Barrow’s goldeneyes feeding on mussels by the ferry terminal but none were present. They may not have moved south from their breeding grounds yet. I did watch a red-breasted merganser that had the last inch of its lower mandible-missing. It dove repeatedly just off the beach and successfully caught three fish in the half hour that I watched. Its plumage looked in good shape as if it had not had problems preening and caring for its feathers. I wonder how long this bird has been like this. Heading north, a flock of 20-40 red-breasted mergansers flew by a few hundred yards off shore but the one I watched made no attempt to join its brethren.

A red-breasted merganser pauses between fishing dives along Mukilteo Beach. Notice that it is missing the end of its lower mandible but was able to catch serveral fish while I watched. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

A red-breasted merganser pauses between fishing dives along Mukilteo Beach. Notice that it is missing the end of its lower mandible but was able to catch serveral fish while I watched. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

A head shot of a glaucous-winged gull. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

A head shot of a glaucous-winged gull. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

A common crow pauses for a portrait along the beach. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

A common crow pauses for a portrait along the beach. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Glaucous-winged gulls and common crows were numerous along the beach and at the ferry terminal. When ferries came and went, many gulls flew out to where the water churned from the ship’s propellers. I guess the ship stirred up morsels for them to catch and eat. Others seemed content to feed along the beach or lounge in the parking lot. A family with two children fishing at the peer beside the ferry terminal put the birds in a frenzy each time they pulled something up from the water but I never saw the birds successfully snitch something from the family. By the boat launch, I watched a couple hold a piece of food out for a gull. The gull sat just beyond their fingertips leaning toward them clearly frustrated and wanting the food but would never take the final step to grab the morsel from their fingers.

I found a pair of rock pigeons roosting peacefully on a crossbar of the ferry terminal. I thought they might flush when a ferry pulled into the dock but they stayed content in their little spot, out of the wind and resting shoulder to shoulder. They looked like an old couple sitting peacefully on a park bench enjoying the day. Just the way I felt after my short walk; content, calm, and relaxed.

Two rock pigeons rest on a cross arm of the pillings at Mukilteo Ferry Dock. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Two rock pigeons rest on a cross arm of the pillings at Mukilteo Ferry Dock. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Caspian Terns at Iverson Point on Camano Island

Caspian tern does acrobatic manuvers with a fish in its mouth. It repeatedly fliy over a flock of terns on the beach, occassionally stoping for a few minutes before flying around again. This bending-display is an integral part of courtship. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Caspian tern does acrobatic manuvers with a fish in its mouth. It repeatedly flew over a flock of terns on the beach, occassionally stoping for a few minutes before flying around again. This bending-display is an integral part of courtship. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

A few weeks ago, I found a small flock of Caspian Terns roosting on the beach at Iverson Point on Camano Island. One tern seemed to not know that we are no longer in the breeding season. It was undertaking what looked like normal courtship behavior that males use to attract and form a pair bond with a female.

Holding a fish cross-wise in its bill, I watched a bird go through all the normal behaviors associated with courtship. He flew repeatedly low over the flock calling to the group below and flying higher to undertake the acrobatic “bending display” where he twists and turns upside down and side-ways heading strait downward toward the water just off-shore from the flock on the beach. Several times the male slowed as it flew over the flock, dropping to the sand and walking around among the resting birds.

A Caspian tern with a fish flies low over a roosting flock giving courtship calls to entice a female to follow. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

A Caspian tern with a fish flies low over a roosting flock giving courtship calls to entice a female to follow. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The only response I saw from the flock was when a few individuals responded somewhat aggressively by hunching their backs and heads, pointing their bill at the displaying bird. For pair bonds to form, females should respond to this display by following the male with a fish on a flight out over the water and eventually landing together on the sand where the male approaches the female, bows a few times and feeds the fish to the female.

I watched for 30 minutes and this male never ate the fish or successfully enticed a female to chase him and begin courtships initial phases. It was fun to watch even it was outside the normal breeding season. It never hurts to practice something so important as courtship and pair bond formation.

Cama lilies are blooming at Mima Mound Prairie in the Pacific Northwest

The undulating landscape is a result of the glaceral outflow forming the mounds.  The rocky soil drains well making idea grassland habitat.  The carpet of cama lilies was spectacular and stretched across the prairie. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The undulating landscape is a result of the glacial outflow forming the mounds. The rocky soil drains well making ideal grassland habitat. The carpet of cama lilies was spectacular and stretched across the prairie. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

I climbed out of my car to the sounds of Dark-eyed Juncos singing away and the raucous call of a Steller’s Jay.  The sun had not quite come above the horizon.  A short walk through some douglas firs put me out on the prairie.  The landscape is this series of gentle undulating mounds that apparently are a result of the last glaciation in the Pacific Northwest.  The soil is very well drained because of the stones and cobbles that dominate it.  This forms ideal habitat for prairie plants.  This preserve is just south of Olympia near Littlerock, Washington.

The purple flower of the Cama lily was extremely beautiful.  Each stem swayed softly back and forth in the breeze.  The yellow anthers on the stamines are covered with polen and ready for a bee or butterfly to carry pollen to another plant.  The yellow also stands out against the bluish-purple pedals. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The purple flower of the Cama lily was extremely beautiful. Each stem swayed softly back and forth in the breeze. The yellow anthers on the stamines are covered with polen and ready for a bee or butterfly to carry pollen to another plant. The yellow also stands out against the bluish-purple pedals. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The managers are actively working to restore this unique habitat that is home to a number of fascinating plants and animals.  Oregon oaks and douglas firs had started to invade parts of the prairie.  Scot’s broom is also a threat to this habitat; this is not native to this area and can rapidly spread.  Local Native Americans use to burn this habitat because fires encourage the growth camas lilies.  The bulbs are good to eat and this plant does very well following fires.

The purple flower of the Cama lily was extremely beautiful.  Each stem swayed softly back and forth in the breeze.  The yellow anthers on the stamines are covered with polen and ready for a bee or butterfly to carry pollen to another plant.  The yellow also stands out against the bluish-purple pedals. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The purple flower of the Cama lily was extremely beautiful. Each stem swayed softly back and forth in the breeze. The yellow anthers on the stamines are covered with polen and ready for a bee or butterfly to carry pollen to another plant. The yellow also stands out against the bluish-purple pedals. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

I was sitting on the ground to photograph a camas lily when I heard a loud buzz over my shoulder.  I twisted around to watch a large bumblebee land on a lily flower right beside me.  These flowers are small, an inch or so across, and on a thin stalk.  The bumblebee was so heavy that the bee and flower bent upside down.  The bee stayed only a few seconds before it moved to another nearby flower.  I watched the bee work a series of flowers over the next five minutes before the bee flew out of my sight.  Each flower snapped back upright when the bee left.

Several butterflies require this habitat for their life cycle.  I may not have stayed late enough into the morning to find them out flying around because I didn’t see one.  I plan to return later in the year to look for them.  Savannah Sparrows were calling at regular intervals along the trail.  I watched several sing on bushes or isolated trees.  I stopped walking when I heard the wonderful melody of the Western Meadowlark.  Their flutelike song is a series of whistles and gurgling warbles.  I spotted the bird on top of a small tree where it was proclaiming its ownership of the surround prairie.  The yellow belly with black V was easily visible from a distance.

I found it fascinating to hike through this unique habitat and am so happy that my friends told me about this place.  I plan to return a few times during this year to see the succession of flowers and look for butterflies.

Yellow buttercups were blooming across the prairie.  This small flower is on a long steam and sways easily in a light breeze. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Yellow buttercups were blooming across the prairie. This small flower is on a long steam and sways easily in a light breeze. (G. Thomas Bancroft)