Friday, June 1, 2012

Please Wing It Over to a New Blog

Follow me - the Black-headed Grosbeak.
Wild Whidbey, the nature blog, is on break. But it's not a very big break, because I'm blogging like crazy about nature on a new blog called Off the Rails.

Please wing it over there with me and subscribe to Off the Rails. Just click on the blog name to make the jump. Then, when you get there, subscribe if you'd like to continue to receive my posts.

I started the new blog because I'm dealing this summer with some health issues. To get the whole story you'll need to go back to Part 1, which I posted in Off the Rails in April.

I wanted the flexibility to include a bit about health, writing, dogs and other topics from time to time, but didn't feel they really fit the mission of Wild Whidbey. Thanks for staying with me.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Hey, what gives? A bouncing baby?

Liz Junior? Who the heck are you?
For years Sue and I have shared our south-facing deck with a Northern Alligator Lizard we named "Lizzy." My first clue of trouble in paradise was a blood-curdling scream when Sue reached into the front flower box on a lazy summer day and came face-to-face with Lizzy.

Since then, we've come to terms with that. Now, we think of Lizzy as an old friend. Anyone who can survive the winter out there deserves a little respect. We know when and where to expect her, so the element of surprise has eased a bit.

The "alligator" is the only variety of lizard we have on Whidbey. It runs about 6 - 8 inches in length, lives in the woods and eats mostly small insects. It is a true reptile, not to be confused with our more common salamanders, which are amphibians.

Lately, we've been seeing Lizzy every afternoon in the hot spot by the front door, hiding under UPS deliveries or wedged between our two floor mats. Sunday I went to show Lizzy to some guests but she was missing. And even though Monday was another gorgeous, hot day on the front deck, Lizzy again was a no-show. No sign Tuesday, either. I was starting to worry.

Lizzy - sleek, lustrous, stealthy. And motherly?
So imagine my joy this afternoon when I checked the front mat and found an alligator lizard. But it wasn't Lizzy!  It was somebody else, just about half Lizzy's size, curled up and looking stupefied.

Right away I jumped to the conclusion this was Son of Liz, or Liz Junior. I assumed Lizzy had been holed up somewhere the last three days, giving birth.

But Sue's quick online research doesn't support that. If Lizzy is pregnant, she should carry her young all summer, not deliver in April. And the babies should be a lot smaller than Liz Junior.

So what's the story here? We just don't know, but we'll be watching.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Wildlife opened my eyes to the Land Trust's mission

 “That’s a baby great horned owl,” my friend Craig Johnson said of the image I’d just emailed him. “These beautiful owls are breeding in your woods because you have good, healthy habitat. They’ll help keep down the rodents in your garden.”

Bubba kept us entertained all spring.
I hadn’t thought much about owls or even seen very many, though we often enjoyed their conversations in the evening and pre-dawn. I just thought the roly-poly, little guy perched on our blueberry cage was kinda cute and goofy. He was back in the same spot the next day, yawning, pacing, grooming his toes, and sleeping with one eye open.

Sue and I named the baby “Bubba” and watched him squawk and scream for dinner all spring. “Great horned owls take months to learn to hunt,” Craig said. We watched Bubba’s soft profile turn sharper as he caught slow-moving insects on the ground and gained the confidence to hunt small rodents from higher and higher perches. Bubba and his parents grew tolerant of me and my camera, letting me approach as often as I liked.

As Sue and I became better observers, we delighted in the other newborns in our woods: woodpeckers, coyotes, hawks, deer, raccoons, songbirds, rabbits, squirrels, bats, lizards, snakes, butterflies, and frogs. We were astounded to learn we had flying squir­rels but had never seen them because they fly at night. We became attuned to the birds’ voices, and the more we opened our eyes and ears, the more joy we took in them. We learned that the same individual humming­birds migrate back to our yard every spring, and started taking special pains to keep our hummingbird feeder fresh and clean.

We realized how poor our lives would be without wildlife, including the long-lived orcas and gray whales that visit our shores every year, and the salmon that are our icon. All wildlife need healthy habitat, and if we don't consciously preserve a place for them to live, we will carelessly destroy it - and them. 
We knew we were not alone in these feelings and discovered that many of our friends belonged to the Whidbey Camano Land Trust. They shared a passion and sensitivity that inspired us. I don’t remember even discussing with Sue whether to join; we just did. The Land Trust was where we belonged, and we’ve been members for many years now. Nothing makes us prouder than to be among Land Trust people, our most cherished friends and neighbors, at the summer picnic or on a land tour.

Decades from now, if Bubba’s offspring still live and breed in our woods, we will know we were good stewards. We are committed to this work not only for Bubba’s sake, but for those future generations of humans who will spend the best years of their lives finding peace, rejuvenation and inspiration right here at home.

Note: The woods are alive right now with returning Rufous Hummingbirds, baby owls, newborn woodpeckers and the din of chirping! Courtship is under way in a big way and it's a marvelous time.  I published this piece originally on a blog of Whidbey Camano Land Trust that is no longer maintained. Rediscovering it the other day, I realized the sentiments remain more true than ever.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Saving a spot for wildlife

Like many people I did not move to Whidbey Island for the wildlife. But in time I discovered they defined my quality of life. Deer, coyotes, orcas, Redtail-hawks, gray whales, woodpeckers, owls and native chipmunks are why I live here. They bring me immense joy and peace.

Craig Johnson photographed this Double-crested Cormorant.
I watch and listen constantly. The more closely I pay attention, the more I learn about the animals' activities around me, and how they adapt, live and hunt. I’ve even come to value bats, snakes, lizards, butterflies and other creatures easily overlooked but no less wondrous. How did that happen?

I appreciate being part of a community that understands and shares this love of nature. Not surprisingly, I developed friendships with others who feel the same way and whose passion adds to my enjoyment. Many of the people I most admire are members of Whidbey Camano Land Trust.

A few years ago I made thank you calls to some of these people for their gifts to the Land Trust. I had many touching and humbling conversations. Some were people of means; others had little but shared what they could because they know habitat is important. Land is our greatest legacy to future generations and to the wildlife we love.

The Land Trust's 2011 annual report is just off the press and once again it puts the spotlight on wildlife that benefit from the many forests, farms, lagoons, beaches and other areas the Land Trust helps preserve as wildlife-friendly habitat.

This coyote and I watched each other while I snapped photos.
Many of the images in this year’s report were taken by my good friend, Craig Johnson, including the Double-Crested Cormorant on the front cover. He also photographed the Northern Harrier, Great-blue Heron and Douglas Squirrel on the inside.  I’m proud to share space in the publication with him. A young coyote I photographed a few months ago appears on the back cover. 

The Land Trust’s mission is: To protect the islands’ most important natural habitats, scenic vistas and working farms and forests in partnership with landowners and our island communities.

Even in this slow economy, the Land Trust in 2011 scored many land-protection victories. They secured conservation easements on two key properties protecting 97 acres of prime farmland in Ebey’s Reserve and received a donation of 16 acres of privately-owned tidelands on North Whidbey, giving the public access to 2.2 miles of west-side beach. They also earned accreditation from the National Land Trust Alliance. This is an extraordinary distinction awarded so far to only 158 of the 1,700 land trusts in the nation.

To all of you readers who are members of the Land Trust, thank you.  If you are not a member, please consider making a gift and becoming one.  Just open this link and click on "Donate."

Friday, December 9, 2011

Living with bats on Whidbey Island

Plucking a tiny, female bat from the main entrance to Langley Library on Thanksgiving Day, Sarah Schmidt was relaxed. “I never had that fear of bats,” she explained over lunch. “My mother didn’t teach me to be afraid. She just thought all wildlife was cool.”

Note: Schmidt is a bat biologist. She and her husband, Bill Rick, both have been immunized against rabies. No one should touch or handle a bat unless they have been trained and immunized.

"Bat Girl," the Langley Library bat.  Never touch unless vaccinated. c 2011 Bill Rick
The Langley bat rescue was a 15-minute blip in Schmidt’s Thanksgiving Day. Schmidt bagged the tiny mammal in a research pouch, hung the bag in a box and put the box in the trunk of her car.

“The bat was absolutely beautiful,” said librarian, Jamie Whitaker. “It was so tiny I thought she was a moth at first.” Whitaker dubbed it Bat Girl and praised Schmidt and the all-volunteer organization, Bats Northwest, of Lynnwood for responding so fast to her call for help. Knowing Schmidt lives on Whidbey, a wildlife rehabilitator with Bats Northwest asked her to follow up.

With good intentions for the bat as well as public safety, Schmidt and her husband left the bat in their parked car in Langley while they traveled with friends to dinner in Seattle. They picked up the car and the bat that evening before returning to Coupeville. The next day Schmidt and Rick purchased meal worms, warmed up Bat Girl, fed her and released her to the shelter of their own bat house, where she regrouped for a time before flying away.

Sarah Schmidt. Photo by Dan Pedersen
In hindsight, Schmidt regrets relocating the bat so far away from the library grounds. Bats are territorial and do not venture far when foraging. After consulting biologists at the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), she believes she should have released the bat to a nearby tree or bat house (if available) on the library grounds. As with other protected or orphaned wildlife, if an animal is to be removed from the premises, state law requires involving a wildlife rehabber (as she did) or nuisance wildlife control operator with proper WDFW permits.  

Schmidt admits most people want nothing to do with bats. They swoop erratically at dusk, often closeby, and are hard to see. Their erratic flight may be partly because they are scooping up insects with their wings and funneling them to their mouths! They use ultrasound pulses to detect flying prey and catch them in pitch darkness. The sophisticated capabilities of these tiny mammals is simply mind-boggling.

During the day they will often roost on houses, sheltering in crevices behind loose shingles or gutters.  Schmidt once pulled a rolled-up carpet from the rafters of her carport and watched a bat fall out, seemingly dead but actually hibernating. After several minutes it flew away. A sleeping bat can take some time to awaken if it has entered torpor, a condition in which the animal lowers its body temperature, heart rate and breathing rate, thus reducing its caloric needs.

Unfounded myths persist, Schmidt concedes.  One of the most upsetting is the one about bats being blind and getting tangled in people’s hair. They aren’t blind and don’t go for the hair, though they may fly close to a person in pursuit of mosquitoes or other flying insects. Most Whidbey Islanders will never encounter a bat unless it flies into their house through an open window or door, probably about dusk, setting off panic and confusion.

"Bat Girl" head-on. Note her thumbs (like claws). c 2011 Bill Rick
Many people associate bats with rabies. That is prudent because a scratch or bite from an infected bat can transmit rabies and it’s fatal in humans once symptoms appear.  At that point it’s too late for vaccine. This is why it is critical to immunize cats and dogs, who are more likely to contact a wild mammal with rabies and spread the disease to humans.

It is important to repeat that no one should ever touch or handle a bat unless they have been immunized against rabies. Sarah Schmidt, seen handling a bat in these photos, has been vaccinated and is a trained bat biologist.

The vast majority of bats are not infected, Schmidt emphasizes. The suspicious behavior that sometimes triggers worries might actually be normal for a healthy bat. On the other hand, a bat that can be approached easily by humans is more likely than others to be infected, and may bite if touched. "If you refrain from touching or handling a bat or any other wild animal, there is little chance of being bitten," Schmidt says. "Teach children never to handle any wild animal."
To "Bat Girl" this may have looked like "Bat Cave."
When a bat swoops into a house it will typically fly for a few minutes, then land and go into torpor to rest, lowering its body temperature and heart rate.  Guidance on how to capture and remove a sleeping bat may be found on the Internet. I learned this from my savvy wife, Sue, when we had our own close encounter.  She had the composure to confine the bat to a closed room while we Googled for help.  The bat was asleep the next time we inched open the door. We put on gloves and transferred the animal to a large, open-mouthed can for removal, without touching it. This technique involves sliding a thin piece of cardboard under the bat while the can is inverted over it.

The bat that caused the Thanksgiving stir in Langley had been roosting for two days in plain sight on a south-facing wall by the library doors. Librarians were concerned it might come to harm, especially if someone interfered. They e-mailed Bats Northwest for advice and Schmidt, under the guidance of a licensed wildlife rehabilitator, came to the rescue.

Roosting on an outside wall in cold weather is not necessarily unusual for the tiny California Myotis bat, Schmidt said. “This species will do that. I’ve had four or five California Myotis rescues and all were just plunked on an outside wall. The bat found a spot that was comfortable and went to sleep. She seemed fine when she warmed up.”

Schmidt believes the library entrance, which is sheltered by a porch roof, may have looked to the bat like an open-mouthed cave.

The locked bat cave near Deception Pass.  Dan Pedersen photo
Schmidt explains her fascination with bats originated in Arizona in the early 1990s. A long-time birder, she knew little about bats, the nocturnal, flying mammals more closely related to humans than to rodents, with which they are often compared.

While working for the US Forest Service in Arizona she attended a three-day workshop on endangered, small mammals of the national forests. Two of the three days were devoted to bats, of which 28 species live in Arizona. 

On Whidbey we have about half-a-dozen, with the Little Brown Myotis and Big Brown Bat most common, followed by several tiny species of myotis including the California Myotis that Schmidt rescued on Thanksgiving Day. Just across the water on Fidalgo Island another species, the Townsend’s Big-Eared Bat, lives in an old rock-quarry cave overlooking Deception Pass. The cave is sealed against human intruders by a locked, barred grill that allows bats to pass.

Back to Arizona . . .

“I put on a glove and they handed me this bat, a Mexican Freetailed Bat, and I looked at its face. It was like a cross between a puppy and a monkey.” Bats have backward-facing knees, she pointed out.  “So when they walk they look like a spider or crab. Most people have never seen a bat crawl. I became completely captivated with this whole group of animals I knew so little about.”

The bat's four fingers support the wing. c 2011 Bill Rick
Schmidt’s future husband, Bill, also was captivated. They met when the Everett resident showed up at another Arizona bat workshop a year later to learn more about bat detectors, electronic devices that pick up the ultrasound pulses bats emit when hunting.  Today, Bill teaches at Oak Harbor High School.

To learn more about bats, watch for Schmidt’s popular classes and talks or invite her to lunch as I did.

She teaches about bats from time to time at WSU Extension’s Sound Waters University, held on the first Saturday of February, and in the summertime at South Whidbey State Park.  I’m proud to call her a long-time friend. Together we authored Getting to the Water’s Edge for WSU Extension in 2006. And when I wrote my own book, Whidbey Island’s Special Places, a few years later I interviewed her for a very thoughtful chapter on Double Bluff Beach.

Schmidt explains herself well in one sentence.  “I love every bug, bird, snake and bat.”

 Look for Schmidt's bat class at Sound Waters, Sat., Feb. 4th
Schmidt will teach her popular bat class Saturday, Feb. 4, at Sound Waters University, to be held at South Whidbey High School. The class list is released in December. Registration begins in early January and Schmidt's class is likely to fill fast. For additional photos and captions by Sarah Schmidt and Bill Rick, please see their images on Flickr.

What to do if you contact a bat
If you believe you have come into contact with a bat, call your local health department. Rabies vaccine is effective in preventing the disease if administered quickly after exposure to a rabid animal. The vaccination has been simplified and no longer requires a lengthy series of shots as it did in the past. Four shots are administered over two weeks, usually in the upper arm.  More information:

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Make my day, Short-eared Owl

Cruising down the beach.
The light was bad, the day was blah, I was cold, the place was dead, nothing was flying and I was out of time.  I had been walking quietly  along the backshore at Keystone Spit with my camera and was going to write off the day as birdless.

In fact I had just turned back toward my car when this Short-eared Owl took wing in front of me.  I snapped many blurry images while the lone focal-point of my telephoto scanned the empty, white sky, trying to lock onto the bird.

Watching me.
Short-eared Owls are a special treat. In my forest setting at home I see only Great-horned Owls and Barred Owls.  My only Short-eared sightings have been at Keystone. 

I was on my way to seven hours of meetings in Coupeville and had left home a few minutes early to swing past this area on the long-shot chance I might stumble upon a migrating Snowy Owl.

Short-eared Owls are right at home in the wide-open landscape around the Keystone Ferry Terminal. They favor open grasslands where they can fly low and hunt rodents, particularly voles. These owls will hunt not only at night but also during the day. This one seemed to favor the beach and certainly was not sleeping.

Still watching me through the tall grass.
As always, the challenge when photographing birds is not to disturb or stress them. This one never took its eye off me, so I kept my distance. There were no memorable images from this outing, but simply seeing the owl made my day.

It kept me smiling and happy through seven hours of meetings in hard, straight-backed chairs.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Hunting for what really matters

Watching this female Northern Harrier at Crockett Lake the other day I couldn’t stop thinking about why I am so happy.

It’s because I love living so close to nature.  The harrier glides effortlessly over the marsh, studying everything that moves. Watching such a specialized hunter relaxes and fascinates me.  It reminds me that we have much in common with our wild cousins. We all have a niche to fill and need wholesome places to live and hunt. We have a new generation to raise.  To survive, we must adapt and learn, pick our battles and focus on what really matters.

But everything comes with tradeoffs.  The price of a rural, island lifestyle is that we don’t have as much convenience – or stress -- as we did where we came from.  Prices are a little higher but the payback is priceless. That, to me, is "what really matters."

We locals love to say we support our small-town shops.  They provide jobs and tax revenue to strengthen our local economy.  They are a big part of what makes our communities distinctive, charming and vibrant.

So I was horrified when a friend told me of this conversation she overheard the other day in a local shop.

“I’m thinking about ordering this book,” a customer asked the bookshop owner. “Can you beat Amazon’s price?”

“Oh hi, Sis!” the owner said.  (Yes, it really was the owner’s sister.)  “Let me check.”  A moment later the owner explained, “I’ll be glad to order it for you but it’ll be about $2 more.”

“Oh, don’t bother,” her sister said. “I’ll order it from Amazon.”

Please think about the implications of this on several levels.

To get into the right mental frame for some clear thinking, may I suggest an hour with the harriers at Crockett Lake?