Monday, April 25, 2011

Red-breasted Sapsuckers---drilling and waiting for dinner

Woodpeckers have always been the most interesting species of bird to me. Ever since growing up on a large Oregon family farm in the Willamette Valley I remember the excitement in seeing them in the forest around our lake, or seeing Pileated woodpeckers in our apple orchard. Locally here in the Snoqualmie Valley we are blessed with no fewer than five species of woodpeckers in the surrounding open mixed forests. One which leads a more quiet life happens to be nearly my favorite---the red-breasted sapsucker.
These beautiful birds have red heads and breasts and can be confused for no other species of woodpecker in our region (the red-headed woodpecker is an eastern US species). They also have virtually no noticeable differences in appearance between the male and female (very unlike the common hairy and downy woodpeckers that are common around here). Dense mixed and conifer forests typical of western Washington are a favorite home for them---sounds a lot like our surrounds here indeed! They get their name “sapsucker” from the foraging behavior which they follow. This consists of drilling orderly horizontal rows of holes into tree trunks and then returning to those holes later to feed on the running sap and the insects attracted to it. Very different than most woodpeckers, they forage in healthy trees and it is actually possible to kill a young tree if they drill too many sap-holes around its trunk. This, however, is quite uncommon and shouldn’t be something to worry about. Most if not all western red cedar trees that you see in a healthy forest will have thousands of these holes ringing the trees! You won’t find them dying anytime too soon from it either. Even a small flowering cherry tree in our immediate yard has become a favorite drilling/foraging zone for a resident bird on our property. This tree sap is the main food of red-breasted sapsuckers. They also eat some insects and fruit. They will enjoy more insects during the nesting season and they primarily will feed insects to their young.

These busy birds are very resident neighbors and don’t move around much nor migrate. They are common in the lowlands of Western Washington even in winter. However, if the weather turns cold enough for sap to freeze, they may move out to the outer coast to find food.
Lastly, they are considered a “keystone” species. This is significant because it means that many other species use the sap wells they drill. So the next time you hear a polite hidden “tapping” sound going on and on in a cedar tree nearby take the time to look more closely. You might find one happily showing you that your home is a healthy part of the ecosystem as well!

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Northern Alligator Lizard: We have lizards in Western Washington? You’re kidding, right?

I so clearly remember the afternoon about 20 years ago, working in my yard. I was rummaging around some old rotting logs that were mixed in under a thick growth of salal when suddenly something quickly moved and stopped. I immediately of course assume “oh, yet another garter snake”. But then I looked more closely: what WAS this thing!? I was thinking “salamander” but no, it sure wasn’t that either. After getting photographs developed (yes, this was WAY back in ancient times of only shooting with film!) I finally figured out that we have lizards around our neck of the woods! Yes, the Northern Alligator Lizard is a remarkable reptile that is fairly common but usually hidden from view.
The Northern Alligator Lizard ranges up to 13 inches in length. However all of the specimens I’ve witnessed over the past 20 years have been in the 7-8 inch range. This alligator lizard species prefers our cool shady forests. They range from the southern portions of British Columbia down through the Pacific Northwest. One thing that makes the Northern species stand out from others is that they give birth to live young. The Southern Alligator Lizard and most others lay eggs. Northern Alligator Lizards are found in cooler and wetter environments than most any other species of lizard. They are often found in forest clearings or edges, under logs and other surface debris. They can also be found in talus slopes that are associated with forests. And what an amazing banquet of foods they eat. They feed on a wide range of little critters such as insects, ticks, spiders, millipedes, and snails. Thus I’m a very huge fan of these amazing creatures if they eat ticks---one of the few things on this earth that I completely detest!
Able to reproduce each year, they have anywhere from one to eight young. I was surprised to learn that they have a life expectancy of up to eight years. You may not have ever seen them before, but it isn’t likely due to your not paying attention. They make extensive use of cover such as rocks, logs, and shrubs. But they don’t go far either. Most individuals are site faithful, remaining in the same area (within a 100 foot radius) for three consecutive years. I was greatly humored over one last fact about them which was news to me: lizards with shorter tails have slower sprint speeds. I’m still trying to find out more detailed information to know WHY this is the case, but it was fascinating nonetheless.
So get outside this summer and kick some rocks and logs around a bit. Snoop around in some dark corners of your property if you border forested areas. You just might be able to startle yourselves and see these hidden creatures of our unknown world! But if you so choose to please handle them very carefully, if at all. Alligator lizards have a tail that easily breaks off and they also have strong enough jaws to give a serious bite!