Archive for the ‘State Lands’ Category

May 22

Dawn Chorus along Stossel Creek

The marsh along Stossel Creek in Western Washington had a wonderful dawn chorus in early May.
Wetland along Stossel Creek.

Droplets bounced from bow to bow, making light ringing sounds as they fell through the Western Hemlocks and Red Cedars. Although it didn’t appear to be raining right then, the built-up water in the trees still tumbled. Water in the Red Alders gave a little different sound in this pre-dawn light, but the songs of hundreds of Pacific Chorus Frogs dominated the dark. A wide, slow-moving portion of Stossel Creek extended for a hundred feet or more in front of me. There, grasses, bushes, and small trees grew in the wetland, the perfect habitat for these tiny anurans. The males will climb a grass stem or twig, puff out their gular sack and let forth with that song. Within five minutes, a Common Yellowthroat added its “witchy witchy witch” to the dawn chorus, and shortly an American Robin began his melodious song. The area was getting lighter, dawn was happening.

The Dawn Chorus along Stossel Creek a mile or two north of the Big Pond.

It would be another five minutes after that before I heard the long, raspy whistle of a Varied Thrush. His note lasted almost a second and stayed all at the same pitch; then, he paused before giving another note at a higher pitch. He continued this pattern, long pause, long note, either higher or lower than the previous, always different than the immediately prior one. For me, this bird symbolizes the thick coniferous forests, especially at mid-elevations, of Western Washington. I wasn’t sure they would be at Marckworth Forest in May, so this was a special treat. Their tune gives me an eerie feeling, one also of mystery and intrigue. Hearing it always fills me with envy, for I wish my house were among thick, giant conifers such that this bird sang around me each spring. But I’d found one and my heart rose with delight.

It was mid-May, and many residents and early migrants had begun breeding. Other migrants would be arriving from their southern wintering grounds over the next few weeks. The Common Yellowthroat winters well south of Washington but had come back in April. A Song Sparrow and a Red-winged Blackbird gave their unique melodies to this morning ensemble. The sparrow probably stayed here all winter, while the blackbird might have wandered in western Washington before moving back to these marshes.

The forests in the Stossel Creek valley are filled with Western Hemlocks, Western Hemlocks, and Douglas firs. It is wet forest typical of the Pacific Northwest.
The forest along Stossel Creek.

Behind me, the high pitch song of a Chestnut-backed Chickadee drifted in, and the energetic trill of a Pacific Wren filled the forest with cheeriness. Unfortunately, I’m losing my ability to hear the high notes of the chickadee. Age is catching up to me. Soon I will need to seek a hearing aid to continue listening to these birds, for spring without them is unthinkable. 

A Steller’s Jay gave his rattle, and I looked down to see what my phone thought had been calling. Last year, Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology added song recognition to their Bird Identification app, Merlin. They had volunteers go through thousands and thousands of recordings, marking which songs belong to what species, and then used machine learning to teach the app. They even used a few recordings I had made. The app said that a Northern Flicker and a Sora had called, but I hadn’t caught either in this morning’s chorus. 

I’d been there almost 40 minutes when I shut down my recorder and wondered what the chorus here might be like in another few weeks when more migrants had arrived, and some of the residents might be less vocal as they concentrate on raising young. I’ll have to come back again. 

keywords: , , ,
May 22

Anuran Chorus at Stossel Creek

Pacific Tree Frogs were in full chorus, and a few American Bullfrogs added to the performance. The marsh system along Stossel Creek provides ideal habitat for these species.

The frogs were in full chorus. Swamp stretched across the valley for a hundred yards and for a half-mile along Stossel Creek. A mixture of willows and grasses grew in the wetlands, and then a pond opened downstream from this spot. The loudness and diversity of their songs made me think that hundreds were singing simultaneously. These were Pacific Tree Frogs Pseudacris regilla, and I was trying to absorb that a tiny anuran, less than 2 inches long, could make that much sound.

They also go by the name Pacific Chorus Frog and hearing this choir made me think that chorus frog might be a better name. When one male begins to sing, any nearby male will jump right in and try to outsing the other. Each puffs out its vocal sack as it puts forth the song. This was not an organized chorus with all of them singing together, but rather each male was trying to out-compete the next. If he succeeds, a female may come his way. He needs to sing louder or differently to entice her to pay attention to him. 

In the distance, I noticed the deeper and more resonating call of an American BullfrogLithobates catesbeianus. This introduced species is a severe problem in Washington. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has listed it as an invasive species. Bullfrogs grow to be big. With their legs stretched out, they can be up to ten inches long and are voracious predators, eating anything they can catch. They were natives in Western Pennsylvania, and I searched for them along the shoreline of ponds near my parent’s farm. 

At fifteen minutes into my recording, a lull of ten seconds happened. Perhaps, one male needed a break to catch a snack, and all the rest followed, but I suspect it was more likely that one sensed a possible predator nearby, and they went silent. Eventually, one male frog couldn’t resist and croaked. The rest then started back up. Barred Owls are common in these lowland forests of the Pacific Northwest and will hunt these frogs. 

Tree frogs need to breed, though; these anurans sing even if it exposes them to the risk of being eaten. 

keywords: , ,
Apr 22

The Complex Tune of a Yellow-breasted Chat

A Yellow-breasted Chat along Sinlahekin Creek.

Loud catcalls came from the willows along Sinlahekin Creek, followed by whistles and rattles. A short pause happened between individual notes, and then a new and different call came. The diversity of sounds that this bird produced was astonishing, and I began to creep along the edge to see if I could spot this Yellow-breasted Chat.

Sinlahekin Creek.

In Central Washington, chats live in riparian areas where the vegetation is thick and dense. Often, they are secretive, skulking through the thickets and challenging to see, but sometimes males will sit high and on exposed twigs when they sing. The Sinlahekin Valley runs north-south on the eastern side of the Cascades. All along the stream are copses of willows—perfect habitat for this songbird.

I saw my first chat when I was still in high school. Our neighbors in Western Pennsylvania had let brush grow up in one of their fields, and a pair had taken up residence. On my way back from a walk into the hollow, I found a male singing in a thicket and ran home to tell my mother about it. They occur across much of the eastern United States and the interior west. 

Back then, Ornithologists thought this bird was an overgrown warbler. However, recent genetic work and behavioral studies have suggested it might be more closely related to the blackbird family and has been given its own family, Icteriidae. Nevertheless, ornithologists find it an enigma, and its taxonomy remains controversial. Finding one is always a thrill because it reinforces in my mind that we have so much to learn about the natural world.

Sinlahekin Valley has wide areas of riparian habitat that is ideal for Yellow-breasted Chats.

Chuckles, rattles, gurgles, and pops came from a branch sticking right over the creek. This diversity made me remember that one study found that the repertoire of some males could average more than 60 different calls, and this guy seemed to be right on par. A sonogram of their call really illustrates this diversity. So there he was, sitting on a branch three feet below the top of a bush and just calling away.

His yellow breast glistened in the morning sun, and his throat puffed out with each note. I settled to watch this songster perform.

A Yellow-breasted Chat sings in the top of a bush.
keywords: ,
Feb 22

“Who cooks for you?” in the night

The Barred Owl began to call around 3 AM and sang for 5 minutes.

Barred Owl calls are eerie yet enchanting and downright marvelous. These birds are common in the lowland forests of the Pacific Northwest, but often go unnoticed because of their nocturnal habits. Their call rings through the woods sounding like “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you-all?” Their song travels well through dense vegetation.

On June 17th, I stashed a sound recorder in the woods along Stossel Creek, just west of Carnation, Washington. Units from the stereo microphone were tied three feet off the ground and on opposite sides of a small vine maple. At the time, I wasn’t sure what I might capture. Perhaps, the evening chorus of birds or the dawn awakening, maybe frogs croaking in the wetlands that ran along the forest’s edge. I left the rig, climbing up the forested slope to my car and driving away.

During the middle of the next day, I came back to retrieve the equipment. To my delight, an owl called right near my setup a little after 3 in the morning. It sang for 5 minutes and then went silent. While listening to it the first time on my computer, I imagined the bird sitting on a western hemlock branch, maybe 20 feet off the ground while it called. The woods at this location were a mixture of hemlocks, Douglas firs, and red cedars. Along the edge were deciduous trees and bushes. A marsh began within a dozen feet of my recorder and extended for a hundred feet or more across the valley and up and down its bottom. Dense coniferous woods rose on a gentle slope away from my rig. Perfect habitat for Barred Owls.

On the second time listening, I realized that a young owl whined from up the hill. It was a ways off and the call is faint. Recent fledglings will constantly beg for food, and I wondered if the parent was calling the young to fly down near the creek where the hunting for frogs would be good.

Pacific cricket frogs and bullfrogs are abundant in the marsh system running along the valley bottom. Both these would be ideal food and by June, the parent owls were probably starting to teach their owlet to catch its own food. Perhaps, when the adult went silent, it had gotten the young to fly down near it and the two had started to hunt. The frogs were silent during this recording and on either side of the recording. Yet, earlier in the night, both cricket frogs and bullfrogs had been calling. I wondered if they knew the owl was on the prowl.

Although not there to hear this firsthand, I could imagine the scene. Magical!

More Sounds here:

Zumwalt Prairie SoundScape:

Or on Soundcloud:

keywords: , ,
Jul 20

An Unexpected Encounter

A bull moose emerges from the cattails along Forde Lake in Sinlahekin Natural Area, Okanogan County. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

A bull moose emerges from the cattails along Forde Lake in Sinlahekin Natural Area, Okanogan County. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The witchety-witchety-witchety came from the cattails bordering the lake. An eight-foot band of emergent vegetation formed a green ribbon that highlighted the open water. A Common Yellowthroat was singing not a dozen feet from my car’s open window. It was 4:45 AM, and I had just left my campsite to bump along this dirt track. The sun wouldn’t rise for another quarter-hour, and it would be much longer before the warm rays hit Forde Lake in the Sinlahekin Valley.

The singing yellowthroat was hidden in the thick stems, but its song was loud and clear. The background sounds of blackbirds, ducks, flycatchers, and kingbirds enhanced the solo, and I slowly opened my door so that I could fetch my sound recording equipment from the backseat. I took two tentative steps toward the backdoor when loud splashes erupted from the lake.

The Bull Moose begins to trott up the hill and away from Forde Lake where it had been feeding on wetland plants. Sinlahekin Natural Area, Okanogan. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The Bull Moose begins to trot up the hill and away from Forde Lake, where it had been feeding on wetland plants. Sinlahekin Natural Area, Okanogan. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

There, not a hundred yards away, a bull moose thrashed in a small cove. He galloped along the edge of the cattails, water coming partway up his side, and splashes going above his head. His palmate antlers looked half grown on this mid-June morning. My first thoughts were to chastise myself for not scanning the lake before I opened the door. Then I wondered if I froze, might he calm down and go back to feeding. I reached back into the front to grab my telephoto lens as the beast plowed into the thick cattails, totally disappearing.

These ungulates moved into Washington in only the last century. I knew they were in the Selkirk Mountains but hadn’t realized they were on the east side of the Cascades in Okanogan County.  A few years back, a census by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife estimated that over 5,000 moose now live in this state. Their highest density is in the northeast. Although sometimes taken by wolves, the biggest threat to Washington’s moose seems to be the increase in ticks. The warming climate has allowed tick numbers to explode, and a significant infestation on an individual moose can suck enough blood to affect its condition.

The moose jogs through the tall grass of Sinlahekin Natural Area as it heads in the hills and away from Forde Lake. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The moose jogs through the tall grass of Sinlahekin Natural Area as it heads in the hills and away from Forde Lake. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

This male exploded out of the cattails and onto the grass-covered plain that rose from the lake. He stopped briefly to look back at me, and then trotted along at a brisk pace, surprisingly graceful for such a gangly looking member of the deer family. Their legs are extremely long, allowing them to wade in deep water for aquatic plants and reach high into bushes and trees when they browse. Once, when I was in Alaska, I watched a moose and her large calf graze. They had to walk on their knees to be able to reach the grass. Aquatic plants and browse are their primary foods.

He moved at a diagonal up the hill. This guy probably stood five feet at the shoulders, maybe more, and weighed at least a thousand pounds. I kept snapping photographs, even though it was still dark, and I could only see a silhouette in the images. Maybe, I’d be able to pull some more detail out of the files. His dewlap hung under his neck, and that sizeable muscular nose gave him the unique look of this species. His antlers were covered in velvet, and I wondered how big they’d grow this summer.

He ran to the edge of some sagebrush, now a quarter-mile away, and paused. His magnificent profile made me hold my breath, hoping he might turn back. But no, he disappeared then over the rise. I stood for the longest time watching where he’d gone before getting back into my car. The Yellowthroat had stopped singing.

The moose approaches a patch of sagebrush up the hill from Forde Lake in the Sinlahekin Natural Area of Okanogan County. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The moose approaches a patch of sagebrush up the hill from Forde Lake in the Sinlahekin Natural Area of Okanogan County. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

keywords: ,
Jun 20

A Mother’s Concern

The Mule Deer stood like a stature on the crest of the hill above Mary Anne Creek. Her glare was intense and her ears cocked forward. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The Mule Deer stood like a statue on the crest of the hill above Mary Anne Creek. Her glare was intense and her ears cocked forward. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Her black eyes glared down the hill, and her face muscles were taught. She had her two large ears cocked forward, pointing directly at me. Just her neck and head were above the dense prairie vegetation, and a few grass stems waved in front of her eyes. I’d been working along the edge of Mary Anne Creek looking for birds when a strange feeling made me turn and look up the thirty-foot bank. This mule deer stared down at me, looking more like a statue than something alive.

The Okanogan is a hunting area, and even though this was mid-June, I was surprised she hadn’t taken off at first sight of a human. I whispered to my two friends, “Look up on the hill.” The grass was thick, maybe two feet high, and a few lupins and daisies bloomed amongst the stems. At 10:30 AM, I’d would have expected her to be bedded down, resting away the day. 

The two small ears of a fawn appeared in the grass as the mother Mule Deer continued to stare at me. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The two small ears of a fawn appeared in the grass as the mother Mule Deer continued to stare at me. Mary Anne Creek, Okanogan Highlands. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Both mule and white-tailed deer live in the Okanogan Highlands. This individual had the large ears and whiter face typical of mule deer. Her ears seemed to flex a little, and she took a short but tentative step forward. It made me freeze even more and begin to scan in front of her. Sure enough, a few dozen feet closer to me was some movement in the grass. Then two small ears started to show and a rump, too. A fawn rose from a napping spot and moved up the hill toward the doe. The little one was cantering, her front showing with each bound forward. I watched to see if a second one appeared.

The fawn began to bound up the hill toward the doe who was standing above Mary Anne Creek in the Okanogan Highlands. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The fawn began to bound up the hill toward the doe who was standing above Mary Anne Creek in the Okanogan Highlands. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Often, does have two fawns, but first-time mothers may only have one. She looked healthy, but nothing gave me a hint of her age. This would be a Rocky Mountain mule deer, one of ten subspecies found across western North America. West of the Cascades, where I live, is the Columbian black-tailed version. Mule deer numbers have decreased in the Okanogan over the last few decades, and the reasons are unclear. Scientists think that the increase in white-tailed deer in eastern Washington has allowed a growth in cougar populations, and these cats apparently take more mule deer than expected based on the abundance of the two deer species. 

As the fawn approached her mother, the doe’s face seemed to relax; her ears turned backward, but yet she maintained her glare at me. Rows of white spots ran up the fawn’s back. It must have been pretty young, and I wished for a better view. The two quietly disappeared over the hill, and all that remained was waving grass stems in the mid-morning sun.

The Mule Deer relaxed her ears as her fawn approached her side but she kept her eyes fixed on me. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The Mule Deer relaxed her ears as her fawn approached her side but she kept her eyes fixed on me. Mary Anne Creek, Okanogan Highlands (G. Thomas Bancroft)

keywords: ,
May 20

A Magical Musical Bird: The Swainson’s Thrush

Swainson’s Thrush

The whistle came from a thick grove of old growth western hemlocks and Douglas firs. It might have been a tenth of a second long and then was followed immediately by a 2 second upward spirally flourish. It seemed like a flute or maybe an oboe was up in the trees. I stopped dead in my tracks along the dirt road and pointed my parabolic microphone in that direction.

The dense forest where the Swainson’s Thrush Sang.

Three seconds later a much softer whistle opened the tune followed almost immediately by a louder longer one and then a beautiful spirally flourish. The flourish was also a set of over-slurred phrases, each close together and slightly higher than the previous, getting softer as they went. My eyes closed to listen to this Swainson’s Thrush, a one-ounce bird who only recently arrived from his wintering grounds in South America. They breed in the temperate rainforests of Western Washington, and this one was defending its territory and maybe still trying to find a mate.

I’d read that each male has 3 to 7 song types. They vary in their detail and successive songs will be different. I cupped one hand behind an ear to listen closely. The opening whistles seemed to vary in pitch, sometimes one note and sometimes two. The flourishes were so complex and fast that I couldn’t tell how they varied. Maybe the sonograms of my sound recording would help me understand his melody.

The first song of the Swainson’s Thrush on my recording.

The first tune in the sonogram opened with two notes and then the upward spiraling flourish. The second note was louder than the first (as shown by the brighter color on the sonogram) and then the first section of the flourish was loud before it became fainter and went really high in pitch. The opening over-slurred whistles seemed to peak around G6 on the note scale. The first second of the next part went from G6 to G7 to B7 in a series of up and down notes. Then the song became softer and went all the way up to B8 before trailing out for another second around F7. The highest pitches and faint parts I could not hear, but I’m sure the birds could.

The second song by this same Swainson’s Thrush.

The next tune was dramatically different from that first. It opened with a soft up-slurred note and then two over-slurred whistles that were slightly louder before moving into a quicker paced flourish that included a series of over-slurred, up-slurred, and down-slurred notes. The pitch of the entire tune never went as high as the first, only reaching about D8. The next several also appeared a little different from these first two and after six or seven tunes, the bird was clearly repeating itself. 

Above is a Five-Minute Recording of the Swainson’s Thrush singing. The Sonogram of the recording will play as a movie and allow you to see the changing notes. The scale runs from 0 Herts to 10,000 herts.

The songs of Swainson’s Thrushes make my tension float away. These magical musical birds provide a gift of music to our souls.

Swainson’s Thrush
keywords: ,