Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Whistling Pigs of Summer

There are some fun critters that live around us that lead what appear to be pretty good lives. Chipmunks seem to just have fun scurrying about all day zipping in and out of the rocks. Otters never seem to have to take life seriously! But how can you beat the life of marmots? They roam around during the day ever so slowly eating the lush vegetation. When they tire of that, it's time to nap on a sunny rock. Then they eat some more and to finish off autumn they head underground for a seven month snooze far underneath the snow!
The Pacific Northwest is filled with prime habitat supporting large marmot populations. In fact the best areas for viewing marmots are in Washington State! The Paradise and Sunrise areas in Mount Rainier National Park are typically thick with Hoary Marmot activity. Their close cousin the Olympic Marmot can easily be viewed around Hurricane Ridge in Olympic National Park. Yet a third species of marmot, the Yellow-bellied Marmot, lives throughout Eastern Washington! I have seen many of them at Palouse Falls State Park as well as the hills between Ellensburg and Cle Elum. It is worth noting that the Yellow-bellied Marmot is a host for the tick that carries Rocky Mountain spotted fever.

Many people think that all marmots live in colonies, but this is only typically true if there is a large food source available for all of them. More often they need to disperse over a larger range and thus live more isolated with their mate. In this case the increased range means the male will not be able to guard more than one female and feed himself at the same time. They feed on the lush green vegetation of the alpine meadows (or shrub steppe in the case of the Yellow-bellied Marmot) extensively. They will often perform an entertaining form of "playful" wrestling when one feels another is moving in on their own personal stash of food! They won't hurt one another however, as a simple call from one will end the match.
All marmots have many vocalizations. A common call is the alarm call which is given anytime anything comes near a burrow. This typically would be a natural predator such as a coyote, fox, eagle, or even people in areas where marmots are not accustomed to seeing them. The alarm call is a high-pitched shrill whistle. Marmots who hear them respond by immediately looking around and returning to their burrows if they are not already at one!
I fondly remember my first encounter with a marmot in Moraine Park on the north side of Mount Rainier National Park. Visibility wasn’t more than 100 feet in the thick fog. As I hiked up through the avalanche lily filled meadows of the area a sudden loud shrill broke the peaceful silence. There through the fog I spotted a lone huge marmot standing tall and showing me why they have the nickname “Whistler”. At the same time I then saw at least five other marmots scurrying rapidly to hide under the rocks!

I’m always eager to roam high alpine meadows this summer to watch the antics of these wonderful creatures…the “Whistling Pigs of Summer”!

Sunday, August 23, 2009

A relaxing break from a busy summer

Wow. That's how I felt this morning. Wow! I've been having a load of fun the past month. A week long trip to the Inland NW for a family vacation. It was great! And I returned home exhausted! It's a lot of work to play so hard and swim, fish, run, fish, play. I love it! Then I got to drive another 600 miles and visit with my own parents this past week. But this morning...the frantic running around must have caught up with me. I'm out in the south Puget Sound and relaxing for a few days. Real relaxation...and it felt SO good this morning! I went for a walk on the beach with my dog while sipping a fresh cup of coffee.

And then a few magical nice moments to photograph, which seems to happen to me every visit out here. That is what a magical place does for the brings life to a halt and good things come out in front of you. I hope you all have a special activity or place that does this for you as well!
(photos: sunrise on the shoreline waters of Puget Sound; an immature Bald Eagle circling over the photographer at sunrise)

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Letting the dog do border collie work

While it was almost impossible to get photos showing how much pleasure my dog had, it was sure a pleasure for me to watch as our border collie-mix pooch realized there were cows nearby! This week visiting my parents she found the delight of attracting the cows behind their property to the fence line, then proceeding to work them as well as any untrained herding dog could!

I think I should go buy 4 cows and a herd of ducks for her..... :)

Sunday, August 16, 2009

More from the heron world - visiting a Green Heron

I have always been amazed at the life of the great blue heron. In fact, I almost seem to take it for granted as I see them virtually every time I head out in the valley. However I finally chanced upon seeing a new member of the heron family that is much more difficult to locate, but they still are out there. At last, I saw my first Green Heron locally recently, and what a lovely sight it was! Always thinking “heron” means “big bird” can be confusing here, as these are the smallest of the heron family (well, Least Bitterns are a member of the heron family as well and slightly smaller normally). They are usually only 16-20” in length.
The Green Heron lives in typical swamp land, marshes, river banks, and other similar areas of the valley where you might see the normal reeds/marsh grasses/cattails of an environment. It is a quite solitary bird, normally feeding alone or possibly in a pair with its mate. It normally is very difficult to locate and notice as it will stand motionless while stalking its lunch. Indeed, normally it is first noticed when it suddenly flushed unexpectedly with a loud squawking call which is what happened to me! They prey on a wide assortment of things ranging from small fish, frogs, even insects. This diversity allows them more flexibility to breed on ponds inland further which are much smaller than those needed by other herons. The one I saw was utilizing a small swampland area not more than 50’ in diameter!
I can see how they could be confused with the Black-crowned Night Heron since it does have a rather dark black crown on its head. However the dark green/blue wings and a colored chest are far different than the white chest of the night heron. The Green Heron is fascinating to me as it is one of a very few critters in our bird world which is known as a “tool-using” bird. By this, it utilizes using “bait” such as crumbs, insects, worms, then drops them on the water’s surface and then proceed to nab the small fish which is attracted to the “bait” on the water. Amazing! Things like this solidify even more my pure joy in a lifelong passion to learn about our natural world and the biology behind it. Keep letting me know what you are seeing out there as we head into the autumn season soon! Every day might be a surprise waiting to happen!

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Masters at fishing

OK, having just returned from a very long and wonderfully relaxing annual vacation to a far off lake shore in the Inland Northwest near the Idaho border, I feel great! And we even caught some fish in our lazy times - lovely 10-12" rainbow trout on multiple days, played with catching the little bluegill by the docks, and even came home with a grand story of "Bruce, the monster 18"+ trout that got away"! As is the case every year, it was enjoyable to watch the "Fishing Masters" of the lake perform their tricks, and these tricks came both from the air as well as from the surface of the waters!

A tree within 100 yards of where I stayed was successfully again home for a family of ospreys. So from early morning until dark four ospreys (two young now learning to fish with the parents) were calling, soaring, and diving. What a show!

Along with them working the more shallow waters of the lake were numerous families of red-necked grebes. What a treat to be at a lake which serves as a successful breeding location for such wonderful birds!

Friday, August 14, 2009

All is quiet from the Inland Northwest

Ah, so it's been very silent here in blogsphere lately from me, eh? Hello from the tail end of a long get-away vacation in the Inland Northwest. The lake we've been hanging out at has been refreshing for much fishing, swimming, playing, bird watching - and the bird watching turned fishing with the Red-necked Grebe population that exists there! Ospreys as well - I'll have to follow up with more from them. First, time to get back to the office and catch up soon!

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

A great week for clouds in the record heat

The hot muggy weather of last week is seemingly a distant memory as we now all seem to be thriving in the cool cloudy mornings with daytime temperatures not even getting out of the 70's again. I know my dog is certainly happy about that too! The heat last week created an atmosphere which was incredibly unstable over the Cascades. There was virtually nothing in place to cap the air from rising to incredible heights, thus creating daily lines of thunderstorms. And oh how enjoyable it was to be cloud-watching all week from my eastern Puget Sound location in the Cascade foothills!

Every day was different, every day was a great cloud watching day,

all week long.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Tacoma event coming up next Tuesday

It's time to start visiting the South Puget Sound areas in a series of presentations coming up and first up is already upon us this coming Tuesday evening! I hope to see a number of you drop by to visit with me at the Tacoma Library main library where I'll be doing a presentation in the Olympic Room on Day Hiking-Central Cascades. I'm sure I'll share some stories of the areas that play "backyard" to the Tacoma area such as the South Cascades and Mount Rainier also! Books will be available after the presentation via a bookseller being represented at the library and I'll have backup books in case they don't bring copies of all of them :) I'll be with Craig at the Tacoma REI in September and also am in the midst of arranging a presentation with the Olympia Library soon.
So break away from the heat and cool off in the library this Tuesday evening, August 4th, in Tacoma! More details at their website