Thursday, December 16, 2010

For Craig Johnson and wild birds, the benefits flow both ways

Note: My best tip for anyone planning to attend Sound Waters University, Saturday, Feb. 5, at South Whidbey High School, is to sign up for any class taught by Craig and Joy Johnson. They photograph and paint wild birds, write about them, publish books and educate. This year they are teaching "The Woodpeckers of Whidbey Island." To get on the mailing list for Sound Waters enrollment, which opens Jan. 7, click here: Sound Waters University, and then click on the blue button marked "Join our Sound Waters Mailing List." For more about wild birds: Craig and Joy Johnson's website.

Craig Johnson with a little Downy Woodpecker on the screen saver.

Is it crazy to think that specific birds coming into Craig Johnson's yard in Freeland recognize and trust him? I don't think it is. The winged activity in Johnson's yard on any given afternoon is a complex drama with many sub-plots. In the middle of it all, studying every detail and loving it, sits Johnson.

Researchers have documented that crows recognize specific human beings and will hold onto a deep grudge against people who do them wrong -- even alerting their friends about these human enemies. Other crows learn second-hand to recognize these evil-doers and join in outbursts of angry scolding and mobbing in the future.

Male Pileated Woodpecker at Johnson's suet feeder.

So it may not be a stretch to assume it also works the other way. Some of the birds that approach Johnson on his deck know they can trust him -- that he's one of the gentle, non-threatening, good guys. Some of Johnson's regulars are even Steller's Jays, corvids closely related to the crows.

"Oh, yeah, I think the big Pileated Woodpecker recognizes me for sure, just because I see that individual bird so much," Johnson says. "He knows I'm here. As long as I am mindful and don't make any sudden moves he will stay on the tree and won't fly away."  The tree is just a few feet away.

"And I'm probably getting some of the same Northern Flickers over and over." Johnson is generous with treats, tossing peanuts to the normally-wary Steller's Jays that sneak closer and closer on the overhanging limbs and hop toward him on the deck. "I can tell the difference between the different ones. Certain individuals will come almost within arm's reach."

Northern Flicker
He laughs because the very shrewd jays and a gullible Douglas squirrel named G-Dog compete for those peanuts and steal from each other, but the jays always win. They watch G-Dog stash them. When he turns his back, they raid the cache.

All five species of Whidbey Island woodpeckers visit Johnson's yard, taking advantage of native landscaping, nearby conifers and a suet feeder. "The Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers can be very tolerant when you fill the feeder," Johnson says. "I'd say I've done more woodpecker photography in the yard than in the woods because our back yard is so uncontrolled. They come and bring their young. All the species have brought their fledglings here except possibly the Sapsucker."

Watching those juveniles is one of Johnson's great rewards. "I have many photos from our yard where the juvenile Northern Flickers are watching the dad -- very intently watching him -- and he's feeding them ants from the lawn. I mention this so that maybe a few people will decide they can get along without using insecticides. I've watched the juvenile Hairy Woodpeckers, watched the red nape patch move from the forehead to the back of the head as they grow. I love that, especially this year with my health."

Red-breasted Sapsucker
The proof of all this yard activity is some sensational close-ups Johnson has taken with a simple point-and-shoot camera while sitting on his deck on sunny days. But this is where the story gets harder to write. Many people know of Johnson's incredible hand-held images taken with a big Nikon, single-lens reflex camera and a 400mm telephoto lens. Fewer people know Johnson no longer has that camera, nor the reason.

An aggressive, untreatable, neurological disease in the MS family is attacking his body, muscular control, vision, balance, computer-use, livelihood and, at times, mental focus. He cannot carry that camera any more nor go into the field to photograph birds. So now the birds come to him and that is an immense blessing.

"When you're out in nature it's inspiring. It's rejuvenating for me. When the birds come I don't think about my jobs or problems, or even my back ache. We don't have a TV here and haven't had one for 20 years. During the daylight hours in the summer especially, the outdoors is our break. I come out from my drawing table and sit on the deck and admire the birds. I'm thankful to have a yard like this, land that has not been over-groomed or controlled. Without that I wouldn't have the connection to nature. I'm not mobile. I'm very thankful the people who own this house agree (the Johnsons rent).  They're on the same page."

Tiny, Downy Woodpecker on Madrone branch.
"People come over here -- birders -- and say my gosh this is perfect habitat. The birders acknowledge all the ocean spray, the thrushes coming out, woodpeckers . . .  This little madrona tree next to the railing here, most people would cut it down, but just in the last two months, every day, there have been Golden-crowned and Ruby-crowned Kinglets and Bushtits flitting about, sallying insects, and tons of Chickadees. Having a habitat in your back yard can be huge for just being able to look out your window and take a break from whatever you're doing."
"That's what I tell people. There is a lot going on and if you have a nice, groomed yard, you are missing out."

Johnson points out that in addition to the therapeutic, almost meditative benefits of watching birds, he also benefits in human relationships. As the Johnsons deal with Craig's illness, they are being showered with love and support by many members of Whidbey Audubon Society who cherish them for their years of generosity with photographic images, watercolor art and educational presentations.

Hairy Woodpecker drinking at a clean birdbath.
"If you care for birds, you care for people," Johnson says. "Whether you love whales, trees, birds, a clean lake -- if you care about any of those things, you're also about humanity."

Johnson says he has never thought of himself as a photographer. "Not really. I've done it, yeah, but I just love birds. I wanted to capture the images so I could show others who might not have the time to see what the birds were doing. Bird photography was never to make money. It makes me feel better to just give the images to Whidbey Camano Land Trust or use them in our books. I do it to help nature and promote learning."

For their woodpecker presentation at Sound Waters University on Saturday, Feb. 5, Johnson says he hopes to inspire his audience and perhaps encourage them to learn a little more about woodpeckers and about the environment. "Maybe someone will decide to keep an old, dead snag in their yard instead of cutting it down."

Craig and Joy Johnson are the authors of a new children's book, The Amazing Hummingbird Story of Red Rufous, available for $9.95 plus tax from many island bookstores and shops, and elsewhere in the Puget Sound region. The book features Craig's beautiful watercolor paintings of hummingbirds and is highly educational. To order a copy directly from Craig and Joy, visit their website:

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Dec. 2nd - Meet the Remarkable People of Whidbey Island's Special Places

One of the great things about Whidbey Island is that almost everyone has a story. And any adventure is more fun when you're with a good story-teller. That is the premise behind Whidbey Island's Special Places And the People Who Love Them.  It's also why I'm excited about an event happening this Thursday evening in Clinton -- the first-ever gathering of many of the people I interviewed for my book.

Susan Berta and Howard Garrett
When I wrote the book, I kept in mind that many people fall in love with the island and take beautiful photographs of the views and wildlife. But beauty is only skin deep and pictures convey a shallow experience. I wanted to give readers something more meaningful that would convey why this island is worthy of our love, understanding and care.

So I built the book around interviews with local guides who could help readers experience the island through their own voices and eyes.

Ranger Rick Blaa
I chose 10 individuals and couples whose passions range from birds to orcas, to flying, diving, biology, forestry, cemeteries, lighthouses, land protection, recreation and small-town life.

Thanks to Clinton Librarian Debby Colfer, we will gather many of these people together for the first time at 7 pm, Thursday, Dec. 2.  She had the idea to invite them and you to an evening she calls, "Special Places, Special People," at Clinton Community Hall.

The event is to honor the community volunteers who help keep our library going, and Debby thought it would be fun to get her special people together with as many as possible of mine to talk about the things we love. We all think this is pretty cool.

Veronica von Allworden
So please join us. If you have a copy of Whidbey Island's Special Places, bring it along to collect a slew of autographs from people you'd be proud to know. I'll also have it available for purchase.

My good friends, Craig & Joy Johnson, will be there with The Amazing Hummingbird Story of Red Rufous, their brand new children's book, hot off the press. It is the story of a Whidbey Island hummingbird whose birth Craig documented from "egg" to "fledgling" in a remarkable series of daily photographs 1-1/2 years ago. Now, a little about "my" people:

Sarah Schmidt
Rick Blank of Coupeville is a park ranger at Deception Pass State Park, and he's nuts about owls and eagles, and doing interpretive education.  He loves "when the light bulbs come on" -- helping someone see for the first time the value of nature and how all life is connected.

Maribeth Crandell is environmental educator for the City of Oak Harbor. She loves trails and exercise, and creative ways of teaching.  The more she talks about exercise, the faster she walks, as I learned while interviewing and photographing her one beautiful spring day on Oak Harbor's impressive shoreline trail.

Howard Garrett and Susan Berta of Greenbank are the voice and conscience of orcas. As founders of The Orca Network, they have dedicated their lives to understanding and protecting these beautiful, bright, social animals that live alongside us in the waters of Whidbey Island and Puget Sound.
Maribeth Crandell

Roger Sherman of Coupeville is a farmer, historian, ship's captain and author whose land overlooks the historic homesteads of Ebey's Prairie. He's a walking encyclopedia of pioneer history and the go-to guy if you're wondering where the bodies are buried at Sunnyside Cemetery, and the story of each one.

Dick Malone of Oak Harbor is a retired U.S. Marine Corps officer and school teacher who loves history, forts and lighthouses, so it's not surprising he wound up as a volunteer at Admiralty Head Lighthouse, leading tours of these cherished island landmarks, and sharing his love and insights with visitors.

Craig and Joy Johnson of Freeland are passionate about wild birds. Joy is a writer. Craig is an artist, photographer and graphic designer. Together they have published several stunning books of wild bird photography, some gorgeous greeting cards available in local shops, and most recently their first children's book, The Amazing Hummingbird Story of Red Rufous.

Patricia Powell of Coupeville is director of Whidbey Camano Land Trust. She loves wildlife, and wildlife habitat.  Her organization has saved thousands of acres of natural habitats, scenic vistas, and working farms and forests, in partnership with island landowners.  "It's all about love," she says.

Patricia Powell
Roger Sherman
Elliott Menashe of Clinton is an environmental consultant and forester who helps landowners, developers and government find better ways to work with nature, not against it.  He took me on a long walk in the old-growth of South Whidbey State Park and opened my eyes to why such places are so priceless, and what they can teach us.

Sarah Schmidt of Coupeville, my good friend and colleague on many projects, is a biologist, bat expert, birder and principal author of Getting to the Water's Edge on Whidbey and Camano Islands.  She once remarked, "I love every bug, bird, bat and snake." That's Sarah.

Elliott Menashe
Veronica von Allworden of Langley is a pilot, diver and photographer who views our island from "under" and "over." She shared with me the story of gray whales that surfaced beside her while she was swimming in front of her Langley home. She is a volunteer naturalist at the Seattle Aquarium, an engaged member of The Orca Network and Whidbey Camano Land Trust, and has studied and spoken about whales, sharks and other marine life. Many island shops carry Veronica's gorgeous greeting cards of local aerial and underwater subjects.

Any community is as strong as the people who give something back. On Whidbey we are blessed with caring, gifted and engaged neighbors who build up their community in countless personal ways.

Dick Malone
On December 2, let's all get together and celebrate that spirit, and say thank you to our good friends for a job well done.

Special Places, Special People
Thursday, Dec. 2
7 - 8:30 pm
Clinton Community Hall 

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Look Out for Red Rufous

The proud parents of a new book, Craig and Joy Johnson
No one has inspired me more to love the wild birds of Whidbey Island than our cherished friends, Craig and Joy Johnson of Freeland. Their books of wild bird photography are a local legend, and now they've branched into something new with a children's book that showcases Craig's gorgeous watercolor paintings.

The Amazing Hummingbird Story of Red Rufous follows a hummingbird from birth at Earth Sanctuary in Freeland on its long migration to Mexico and then back again the next spring to Whidbey Island. It is based on several weeks of daily photography a year-and-a-half ago in which Craig documented the incubation of two eggs, the birth and then the early development of two hummingbirds in their tiny nest.

Not only is this the "amazing story" of a creature that fascinates us all, it is also the amazing story of a talented artist and bird-lover battling some tough health issues that make it very challenging to paint. You would never know it from the finished product. Craig and Joy are hoping that modest income from the book will help pay some daunting medical bills.

If you have children or grandchildren, this $9.95 book would make a marvelous gift that will open their eyes to the wonder of birds. It is just starting to show up in island bookstores and shops, but I hope you'll consider mail-ordering your autographed copy directly from Craig and Joy. Order from Craig & Joy.  Or talk to me and I will get it for you.

If you order the book or a bunch of them from Craig and Joy, they will get the $9.95 apiece. If you purchase the book at a shop, only about $6.00 will go to Craig and Joy because the shop, of course, must be paid for stocking and selling the book.

You will want to sit and read this book to the children in your life and have a good conversation as you do. Then, go to Craig and Joy's website and click on "Red Rufous Book Section" to see actual photographs of hummingbird eggs in the nest on Whidbey Island and the young birds getting ready to head out on their own. Learn how hummingbirds survive the night.  See a hummingbird skeleton!

Some of the watercolors in the book.
As with everything Craig and Joy do, this book is much more than just a simple, charming story. It is an eye-opener and it is true to life. For children and adults both, it could be the start of a great, new adventure in bird-watching and a deeper love of nature.

And what a perfect Whidbey Island story.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Life Among the Wildlife on Lazy Lopez

Transportation, a necessary evil.
Someone told me years ago that people who live on the south end of Lopez Island don't much like the north end.  It's a bit too high-pressure with basic services, lodging and a ferry terminal. 

Same on Whidbey. My wife, Sue, and I live on the south end, and boy, we sure don't like the north end -- the congested traffic, fast food and discount stores. We've been feeling a bit hemmed in lately. 


So yesterday, my birthday-girl wife and I got an urge to explore the north-south divide on sleepy Lopez.  It seemed as far from civilization as we could get in one easy day. And the differences are real.

On north Lopez if you park in the middle of the road to photograph a Kingfisher, another car may come along in a few minutes and need to get around. On south Lopez, you're just happy to see the smoke from a woodstove on a chilly October morning.

Lopez is the third-largest island in the San Juans at 30 square miles, with 2,200 people. Most live in the north. Whidbey is 169 square miles with a population of 58,000 and again, most live in the north.

Sue and Duncan at Spencer Spit.
Our immediate destination was Spencer Spit State Park in the north, where we were the only human life except for a couple on a tandem bike we met as we were leaving, and two workers repairing an old outbuilding.

Trail to Shark Reef
One of the workers apparently sensed our loneliness or was dealing with his own, and came over to point out that Lopez in the off-season could be a bit quiet. "We can handle that," we assured him. "We're from Whidbey."

We enjoyed a Great-blue Heron stalking fish in the glassy shallows and gave our dog, Duncan, a spirited walk, but were really dreaming of a good cup of coffee. So we paid our dues to the hectic city, Lopez Village, before continuing south to a little dot on the map that had intrigued us, Shark Reef County Park.

This was every bit the gem we had hoped it would be. But the road doesn't lead to the water.  It just leads to a parking strip in the woods where you start a 15-minute, forest hike to a rocky bluff overlooking narrow San Juan Channel.

Great-blue Heron landing.
The surprisingly close view is of Cattle Point on the south end of San Juan Island, just across the channel. But the real view is at your feet.

The shore is steep. The birds and mammals are close, and seemingly unconcerned.

Yesterday we watched a Great-blue Heron hunt fish from a floating platform of bull kelp. Gulls and Harlequin Ducks swam among the rocks and kelp.

Nice crab.
One gull carried a small crab in its mouth while others raised an uproar.  Amongst it all, a lone Harbor Seal swam among the birds a few feet from our rock and rarely took its wary eye from us.  At one point the seal surfaced so breathtakingly close it startled me.

Harbor Seal and Gull.
"Holy cow," I exclaimed too loudly. The animal dove instantly.  I could clearly follow its speckled body as it swam north along the steep shore, just a few feet from the rocks, a few feet below the surface and a few feet from us. I've tried photographing Harbor Seals from boats and they always pop below about the time I raise my camera. 

Did I mention we were all alone?  I can't help it; I love places where our species is in the minority.

Hey, if I had a fish I'd toss it to you.

Sunset at Deception Pass, back on Whidbey.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Creepy Crawlies

I'm not a spider guy and try to avoid them, but this one caught my eye yesterday as I was passing with my 400mm telephoto lens.  It had just ripped the head off a dead yellowjacket that looked like it had been snagged in the web for several days.  Then it dragged the skull several feet to a different area of the web to enjoy its meal.

Yellowjacket season is ending and the nests are being shut down for the winter. The workers are irritated and hostile because they're being starved to death by the queens, so the victim in this crime did not have long to live either way.

In return for my curiosity about spiders, and some time on the Internet, I learned a bit. This particular spider appears to be a Garden-Orb Weaver, a relatively common, large arachnid in the Pacific Northwest that builds spiral, wheel-shaped webs in gardens, fields and forests.  The Garden Orb-Weaver is an engineer, often floating a line on the breeze to reach another surface as it starts to build a new web, which it does daily.

And get this: it has eight eyes!

Sunday, September 26, 2010

The Constant Cycle of Birds

The Keystone Spit / Crockett Lake area of Central Whidbey Island is such a rich place to photograph wild birds, I check there almost every time I drive north. Saturday's weather was a gift -- lovely, warm sunshine and blue sky -- but the wind was whipping and I was not finding much.

In fact, I was just leaving when my eye caught the flash of wings, a small group of tiny birds flying in formation over the dark blue water of one of the spit's gravel ponds.

After a patient, slow approach on foot to the edge of the pond, I found the birds huddled against the wind atop a drift log.  Several were foraging in the shallows for insects and other small creatures.

The birds I had noticed were Western Sandpipers and they had stopped at Keystone Spit for a few hours or a day to eat and rest before resuming their annual migration south.

It was a good reminder for me that places such as Keystone support a constantly changing population. Where is that flock of Sandpipers today? Nisqually Delta?  Oregon Coast? What will I find at Keystone tomorrow?  It could be anything.  I can count on being surprised.

For the many birds making their annual, hemispheric migrations, Keystone is a key place to recharge, relatively free of human interference. The wildlife value seems obvious.

But what of the  human value of preserving natural areas such as Keystone, when we could, instead, develop these beautiful settings for upscale homes?

For me, it is pretty much the same as for the birds. I would not go to Keystone if it were filled with  houses. I would not experience the delights and surprises nature delivers at this wild place every day of the year.

An hour or so at Keystone, watching nature and reflecting on the beauty and diversity of life, recharges me so I can continue on my own journey.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Orcas - A Separate Nation

Animals are not (our) brethren and are not underlings. They are separate nations, caught with us in the net of life and time.  -- Henry Beston, The Outermost House

I cannot help but agree strongly with Beston whenever I observe orcas, the highly intelligent, sophisticated and social neighbors who live alongside us in the marine waters of Puget Sound and Whidbey Island.

The 90-some individual orcas that make up the Southern Resident Population belong to a tight-knit extended family that has resided mostly in our local waters since the glaciers retreated some 10,000 years ago. They remain together for life and eat a separate diet (salmon) from the Transient orca groups that periodically visit here to hunt seals and other mammals.

The Southern Residents communicate in their own unique dialogue. The particular photo accompanying this post happens to be of Transients passing through our area.  It is one I took last week.

Like almost anyone who has seen orcas, I am awed and humbled by them. 

For the wonderful Harry Beston quote I should thank my friend Sarah Schmidt, with whom I coauthored Getting to the Water's Edge in 2006 for WSU Extension - Island County.  

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Wildlife - The Whole Point

Fir cones rained down on me this morning as I walked our gravel road in the woods. I don't know what goes on in the mind of a squirrel, but fall is in the air. I guess one of my tree-hugging friends woke up inspired today.

This squirrel is working frantically to cache a winter food supply. Within a few hours it will strip hundreds of cones from nearby trees. Then in a few days it will come back and gather them one-at-a-time and stash them in a bunch of safe places, remembering each cache so it can chew on those cones for nourishment during the lean winter months.

On my forest walks I think a lot about what makes Whidbey Island special. Some might say it's the views of the water, forests and farmland, but I believe it's the wildlife. We live among everything from Gray Whales to Great-horned Owls to Tiger Swallowtail Butterflies.

From time to time, we all yearn to be close to nature, to walk in the cool forest and observe wildlife in their natural setting, and marvel at their adaptive ingenuity. On Whidbey, it is our great blessing to live among those creatures every day of our lives.

To live on the island without being curious about wildlife is to miss the whole point. The more we notice and understand what the wildlife are doing, the more richly rewarding and meaningful our own lives become.