Nearly all living things— trees, moles, humans— contain clocks attuned to daylength. This length of day is one substantial cue stimulating migration in birds. Yet at our latitude, today is only a few minutes longer than yesterday, implying a very fine-tuned clock. And while multitudes of songbirds are now departing northward from the tropics, at their departure latitude the change in daylength is even less –only 30 seconds a day. Clearly, other cues must also be programmed into their biological clocks.
One species pictured here is a Western Tanager at my backyard suet feeder. He is a one-year old. (Next year he’ll have sharper colors). As summer days shorten, his clock combined with his fantastic navigational systems, guide him to southern Mexico or Central America.The bird knew when and where to stop his southerly flightpath, even though this is his first migratory flight. The Tanager’s clock somehow dictated when to initiate his flight north to the Olympic Peninsula to breed, despite the near-constant daylength in southern latitudes. This individual has now flown a round trip distance of 3,000 miles. He hasn’t starved or flown into a window or been caught by a cat or a hawk. If he makes it another year, that would be another 3,000 miles. Like clockwork, at the end of April you will see the arrival of our Tanagers. And much more…
And when shall you look and listen for the arrival of these ‘neotropical’ birds, which make up more than half of our summer birdlife? Their arrival peaks towards the end of April through the first week or two of May. Birdsong will be everywhere. So, people – set your alarms for dawn!
Here are some of the photos submitted by our readers and us, of animals in our backyards.
Top row: Pacific Tree Frog in the garden, and Barred Owl by Darby Smith; Western Tiger Swallowtail by Peggy & Tom Stanlick Middle row: Raccoon under the bird feeder, and doe and fawns by Ellie Cote Bottom row: Barred owlets by Oma Landstra; Northern Flicker in snow by Wendy Feltham
Have you noticed how birds become so round on cold days? During our latest snowstorm, I saw spherical birds sitting in the vine maple tree outside our window, taking turns at the sunflower seed and suet feeders. I posted a photo of a Varied Thrush on iNaturalist and noted that she was puffed up to keep warm. Someone commented, “What a borb!” I asked if he meant completely round, like an orb? He replied, “Exactly!” and sent a link to a long piece in Audubon magazine: www.audubon.org/news/whats-difference-between-borb-and-floof
If you’re like me, you aren’t following memes on social media and don’t have an account on Twitter or Reddit. That means I never knew that “birb” has been “affectionate internet speak for birds,” especially round ones, for years. It turns out that “borb” refers to the roundest birds.
If you use a down jacket on winter days, you experience first hand the superb insulation feathers provide. On the Smithsonian website, Peter Marra, head of the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center at the National Zoo, explains, “Feathers are incredibly specialized structures that serve many purposes including, for many species, keeping them warm.” He says birds fluff up to trap air in their feathers, since the more air they trap, the better insulated they are. You may have seen birds standing on one leg in winter while tucking the other leg into their feathers to keep it warm. What I’ve never seen is something else Marra mentions— small birds, like our Black-capped Chickadees, “gather in large groups at night and crowd together in a small, tight space to share body heat.”
If you’re curious about the emerging fungus in our forests, Mushrooms of the Pacific Northwest by Steve Trudell and Joe Ammirati is an excellent resource. It’s organized by color of spores, and you may enjoy creating spore prints to aid in the identification of some of the mushrooms you encounter. It’s very easy to do, just cut the stem off a fresh mushroom and place it cap up on white paper in a dark cupboard, covering it with a bowl to keep out any breezes. It can be helpful to have a second mushroom of the same species that you can place on dark paper, in case the spores give a white print. Then lift the bowl the next day to see your spore print! If you’d rather enjoy some spectacular photos or learn about fungal guttation, this is fun.
It’s September, and there are still mosquitoes. They tend to become inactive below 50º F. So, although we enjoy our mild Septembers, unfortunately, mosquitoes do as well. Fortunately, they don’t fly when there’s a brisk breeze, and Port Townsend is nearly the windiest location in western Washington.
Dragonfly species change with the seasons, each species peaking in numbers at different times from spring through fall. So, keep an eye out for these often brightly iridescent and conspicuous creatures, because, as with birds, the species composition changes with the month.
The same is true with our butterfly species, with their diversity at a peak in spring and summer. There are still some species flying in September, and even a couple that are actively flying as adults through fall and into winter.
As for yellowjackets, I’m not seeing them yet. Each colony starts the year from a single queen that overwinters. And that queen can only raise a very small number of future workers, because there wouldn’t be a colony yet to feed them. The first generation of the newly emerging ones can now go out foraging, which means the queen can now raise more young. When these mature, the queen can lay yet more eggs because there are more yellowjackets to feed the larvae. Positive feedback loop. Exponential growth.