You are sitting quietly by a forest stream, or in your yard. A brilliant gem darts and hovers and then disappears. The hummingbird, named for the humming sound of its beating wings, brings a sudden glow to your face. John James Audubon described a hummingbird as a “glittering garment of the rainbow.”
Hummingbirds are found only in North and South America. They are mostly tropical and prefer lush vegetation and high humidity along the equator. The country that supports the largest number of hummingbirds is Ecuador, followed by Colombia.
The Anna’s and Rufous Hummingbirds are found along our Pacific coast. The Anna’s remains here all year. In contrast, the Rufous is a long-distance migrant traveling 4,000 miles from breeding grounds in Southeast Alaska, Washington, and Oregon to wintering areas in Mexico. Their return flight is inland over the Rocky Mountains. For that feat they have evolved into the fastest fliers for their small size at 30mph.
The throat feathers of hummingbirds are called the ‘gorget’. The term comes from days of old when a knight-in-armor wore a metallic collar or gorget to protect the throat. The color we see is due to iridescence and the reflection of light. And, the cool part is that individual female Rufous Hummingbirds, for example, can be identified by the individual color patterns on their throat. Though only males have a gorget, females do have patterns of bright color, as shown in these photographs.
The Guiding Committee of the Natural History Society misses organizing outings in nature. Since the pandemic began, and during its many phases, we have discussed how and when we could resume our outdoor explorations safely. When we do, there are many options. There is always so much to learn. In this newsletter, wildlife biologist Darrell Smith shares his observations of the ten or so bat species that share their homeland here on the Olympic Peninsula with us. Thank you, Darrell, and maybe the Natural History Society can even learn from you in person?
For the past three years, Darrell has been using what he calls “a marvelous little bat detector – an Echometer Pro, with a microphone module which plugs into a phone or tablet and uses a sophisticated application to identify bats by the unique characteristics of their ultrasonic calls.” He considers the bat classifier application to be very accurate, and since calls are recorded, they can be verified by other means. An example of a sonogram is attached. Darrell told us that he and his biologist wife, Lorna, have been able to identify all ten of the bat species native to the Peninsula just from their property in Cape George on Discovery Bay. He writes, “Bats, along with owls, hunt the nighttime sky for their insect prey from about early April to late November. I’ve been quite surprised to find that bats seem to be just about everywhere. Even in the middle of West Los Angeles, we’ve detected Mexican free-tailed bats flying high and swiftly overhead our daughter’s home.”
We hope you’re enjoying all the daily transformations.
In this season of beauty and wonder, sometimes we come upon intriguing, even mysterious, natural phenomena. Last week, I (Wendy) was looking under plywood boards as part of the Land Trust’s “Amphibian Project,” and although no amphibians appeared yet this year, several tiny Red Alder cones had rolled under the soggy boards, many covered in minuscule, powder blue cup fungus. What species was this? Why only on these cones? I couldn’t find the answer in my field guide. Then to my surprise, mycologists on iNaturalist quickly identified it as Lachnum virgineum (Stalked Hairy Fairy Cup). One mystery solved.
I asked Dave what mysteries he ponders. He replied, “Wildlife tracks can be clear – as on a sandy beach or in the snow – or just a hint – as on forest litter. It’s often a real challenge to figure out who walked on that trail ahead of you. Taking a course on tracking is an excellent introduction to understanding what’s out there and sorting out marks, scratches, scat, and other wildlife signs.”
The April newsletter tells the story of another mystery, and how it was solved. There’s so much to observe and ponder on the Olympic Peninsula. Please let us know if you want to share any photos of any unsolved mysteries.
The earliest breeders are long-toed salamanders, northwestern salamanders, and northern red-legged frogs. It’s easy to miss these winter events because the secretive salamanders go about their activities in silence, and red-legged frogs call softly, often while completely submerged. You may discover the clumps of jelly-enclosed embryos of these amphibians in the water right now.
Rough-skinned newts can be seen plodding along in any month, especially during and after rainy weather. Watch out for them as they migrate across roads when temperatures are at least in the mid-40s F. Newts scatter single eggs in the water mostly in March and April.
Western toads generally wait for the warmer days of April or May before depositing their long strings of eggs in pond or lake shallows. Their unobtrusive vocalizations consist of soft chirps given by the males as they bump into one another at breeding sites. In summer, you may see countless thousands of tiny toadlets emerging from Anderson Lake.
Pacific treefrogs are our loudest amphibian. Boisterous choruses of vibrant “crek-ek” calls come and go over a relatively long season in late winter and spring. With a headlamp at night, you can spot males as they inflate their balloonlike vocal sac while calling. In the midst of a treefrog chorus, you might wish for earplugs to dampen the acoustic barrage!
Among our local amphibians, the most unique is the ensatina. These little forest-dwelling salamanders have no lungs, and they deposit their eggs on land (often in or under rotting logs), never in the water. The female stays with her eggs/embryos for a few months, until they hatch out into gill-less offspring that look like tiny adults, all set for a completely land-locked lifestyle. Fort Townsend State Park hosts an ample population of ensatinas.
Best of luck in your springtime searches for these intriguing “hidden jewels” of the forest!
Welcome everyone to “Sapsucker-Days”. From places unknown, during our very coldest bursts of winter, the sapsuckers arrive. The beautiful and idiosyncratic Red-breasted Sapsucker drills rows of pencil-diameter holes through the outer bark of tree trunks, and into the sap layer. Shortly thereafter, the bird revisits these holes to lick up the oozing sap.
Typically, you can walk for hours or days through our winter woods, and not find a single sapsucker. However, when temperatures drop into the 20s or lower for a stretch, these are the “Sapsucker-days.” You might even see two or three on a single trunk, even if you live in town. Milder temperatures eventually return, and the birds disappear. “Sapsucker-days” are history. Where they go, we do not know.