Thimbleberries and Bees

Things are a buzz in my backyard. 


We have a large patch of native thimbleberry plants along the back of our property. They provide a nice green, noise-cancelling, beautiful backdrop as we look out from our back porch. 

For a few weeks each spring, the plants are loaded with white blossoms. And, those silver dollar-sized blooms attract all sorts of pollinating insects, especially bees. 

Did you know that there are at least 31 species of bumble bees in the Pacific Northwest?? Neither did I. You can check out more information on our bumble bees here. There are over 20,000 species of bees (bumbles, mason, honey, etc.) worldwide. 

According to an article in the Arboretum Foundation bulletin:

Native bees are still the most important pollinators of wild plants, helping to maintain ecosystem diversity. In addition, bees help feed the world: One out of every three bites of food we eat needs a pollinator to reproduce. Native bees play a large role in crop pollination, and they are often better pollinators than honey bees, spending more time on each flower and therefore helping to transfer more pollen.

Here is a short video of all the activity in my yard this afternoon. Follow the link below for a higher resolution version of the video. 

view full screen video here

Thimbleberry in bloom

Learning something new - poetry in motion

I keep reminding myself that the best baseball players get a hit one-third of the time.

And then I remind myself to breathe and not to get too excited.

That's how it goes at the best of times. At the worst of times... lots of blurry pictures

I have decided to teach myself better techniques for photographing birds in flight. I have been photographing flying birds for quite some time. Most of the time, they are like the gull below. The birds are taking off, landing or about to fly to a predetermined point. In the gull photo, I could see that it was heading towards the piling, so I could swivel my camera, focus on the piling and wait the action to begin.

Another example is the kingfisher at Titlow Park. He kept repeating a similar path from a snag to the pond below. I just had to wait, watch, and wait some more.

Gull in a pose reminiscent of Henri Cartier-Bresson's Decisive Moment 

Photographing birds in flying in the open air is another task altogether. First, you have to see them with you naked eye. Then, quickly train the telephoto lens on them before they change direction. Attempt to focus, track, keep in focus, keep in the frame and shoot.

And then I remind myself to breathe.

Below are some successes from a recent outing. Please note that all except the Caspian tern and Double-crested cormorants are cropped quite a bit, for another factor is having the birds fly close enough to be able to capture a photograph.

The five-foot wingspan of the Osprey makes it large enough to photograph more easily. Its distinctive patterning and white body also make it easy for new birders to identify

Ospreys often hover over the water for several seconds while scanning for fish.
They pluck their prey with impressive, grabbing talons

A pair of Double-crested cormorants pass overhead in near perfect formation
Their powerful wings allow them to fly up to 30 miles per hour

Caspian terns are the largest terns, a wingspan just over 4 feet.
Their aerodynamic shape helps them to plunge quickly into
the water and capture fish withe their large, pointy bill 

Purple martins have a 15 inch wingspan.
They can fly between 17 and 40 miles an hour.
And, they can change direction in less than 1/10 second!
 Needless to say, Purple martins are difficult to photograph in flight

New housing construction - large penthouse version

Male Northern red-shafted flicker excavates nest cavity in an alder snag 
as the female explores the work. 
Tumwater, Washington. April 27, 2020

Woodpeckers are cavity nesters, making their nest in hollowed out snags. The Northern flicker rarely reuses the same nest from season to season. In the spring, both male and female help with the nest excavation. Here, a male Northern flicker flings wood chips out of cavity. As I stood and watched the alder snag, I could hear a low thumping coming from within as the male worked away. (I was at least 40 feet away!)

The male flicker has distinctive, bright cheek patches.
They are called red-shafted because the shafts of their feathers are reddish orange.
In other parts of the US, the flicker's feathers have a yellow shaft

Northern flickers collect most of their of their food off the ground.
Ants are a preferred food. Note the impressive claws on this female.
They are well adapted for digging, as well as using their beak to
hammer away at hard soil.

The female Northern flicker has a plain face with gray and tan dominating.
Their intricate body and wing feathers create camouflage from predators. 

New housing construction - tiny condo version

Black-capped capped chickadee peering out from its nest hole in an alder snag
Tumwater, WA
April 27, 2020

Earth Day - Nature in Your Own Backyard

Social distancing is hard.

Spring is here and it is the time a nature photographer should be out in Nature. I should be photographing killdeer chicks in flower fields, watching bushtits build a nest, or perhaps checking out some warblers. Instead, I am staying close to home and feeling a bit anxious and agitated.

One day last week, I was having a particularly hard time with being stuck at home. I needed a bit of a mental break. I put on my fuzzy slippers and headed out to the backyard for a breath of fresh air. I stood next to my red flowering currant and clicked my heels together three times while repeating my calming chant, 'there's no place like home, there's no place like home, there's no place like home'.

Suddenly my head became filled with a humming, buzzing sound. I opened my eyes and there in front of me was the most glorious Anna's hummingbird, partaking of the sweet nectar of the currant.

And, just as suddenly, I was reminded that Nature is where you find it. And, sometimes the best, most fulfilling nature is found right in your own backyard.

Happy Earth Day. Celebrate like your life depends upon it.

Flowering native plants, such as the Red flowering currant
attract pollinators such as this Anna's hummingbird

Anna's hummingbirds are one of two species of hummingbird
commonly found in the Puget Sound region of Western Washington.
The rufous hummingbird is a summer resident.

This hummingbird is sitting on the branch of a cotoneaster plant.
The leaves are about 1 inch in size

Anna's hummingbirds weigh between 0.1 and 0.2 ounce
This is about 20,000 less than an average adult human

Red-winged blackbirds - Masters of Camouflage

I know what you are thinking.

How could a Red-winged blackbird possibly be a master of camouflage? After all, aren't they those bold, black-colored birds with the bright orange epaulettes, loudly calling and complaining from the highest snag in your local wetland, stormwater pond or very large puddle? Aren't they the ones you can hear and see from nearly a block away?

Well, yes. Those are Red-winged blackbirds. MALE Red-winged blackbirds: Male Red-winged Blackbirds do everything they can to getnoticed, sitting on high perches and belting out their conk-la-ree! song allday long.

Female Red-winged blackbirds are another story altogether. Their intricate brown, red and tan feather patterns help them to blend in among the cattail reeds.

female Red-winged blackbird adorned with cattail fluff
Female Red-winged blackbirds are busy during nesting season. Females build the nest, a cup 4-7 inches across by 3-7 inches deep, constructed by weaving cattail leaves, bark and stringy vegetation. They incubate the eggs for a little less than two weeks and help to collect for food to feed the nestlings.

female Red-winged blackbird in a nest she constructed
intricate patterning helps to hide the Red-winged blackbird
when she is foraging along the cattail reeds along the water's edge

While the male makes a loud Conk-La-Lee call, the female responds with a series of chits, or chirp-like calls. To hear the calls of Red-winged blackbirds, visit the Cornell Lab of Ornithology page 

Spring has arrived

The word itself puts an extra bounce in your step! Spring Spring Spring!
A joyous awakening as we step out of the darkness of winter and into the bright sunshine of spring.

As much of the forest flower remains green, one plant stands out. The trillium proclaims its excitement with the new season with bold white blooms. Sunshine yellow pollen announces the season of rebirth.

 The Trillium ovatum, or Pacific trillium, is sometimes called the wake robin because it is one of the first flowers of spring, waking the robin from its winter slumber. 
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Trillium makes its presence known standing out
from Sword fern and native Bleeding heart

Trillium is pollinated by ants. Each seed has a little oil-rich appendage that is attractive to ants.  The ants carry the seeds back to their nests where they eat the appendages or feed them to the larvae and then discard the remaining seeds on rubbish piles.  This is a reasonably effective mechanism for seed dispersal.  Other spring-flowering “ant plants” include bleeding heart and wild ginger.

Trillium life cycle:
  • 2 years - time from seed dispersal to plant
  • 7 years - average time for a plant to flower for the first time
  • 25 years - lifespan of many trillium species

large grouping of trillium in Trillium Park, Olympia, WA

Trillium flowers become pink, then purple with age

trillium are part of the lily family

Fine dining on the mudflat

Remember how your mom would get you to finish your dinner by pretending your spaghetti was a worm? Perhaps the young Glaucous-winged Gull above is thinking that the worm is just like spaghetti! 

The intertidal beaches of Puget Sound offer a wide variety of food for ambitious gulls. 

"Omnivores, Glaucous-winged Gulls will eat most anything, but items most often ingested include fish and other marine creatures, small birds, eggs, small mammals, invertebrates from waterlogged fields, and refuse from dumps, sewage ponds, trash cans, and parking lots."

This particular gull has found a lugworm. Lugworms are very abundant in Puget Sound marine mudflats. It is estimated that there may be as many as 50/sq meter. The lugworm can be as long as 18 inches. Lugworms are eaten by fish, crab and birds. Surprisingly, a lugworm can live 5 - 6 years.

Dark winter's day at Nisqually Refuge

Canada geese filling the sky above Nisqually Refuge
Olympia, Washington
February 2020

As many as 5,000 geese spend their winters at Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge. Visitors are serenaded by the geese's cackling chatter as the birds graze in the refuge's fields.

The real show begins when a Bald eagle or other large raptor makes its appearance in the area. Suddenly, a thousand geese or more take to the sky in one large orchestral crescendo. Warning honks are joined by the sound of powerful wing beats. In less than a half minute, the geese are in the air. Their wide wings and long necks form silhouettes in the sky.

The geese flying in large mile-wide circles above the refuge and surrounding farms. They fly away from the danger and spread themselves out to outwit the predator.

Then, just as suddenly as the flock took off, they begin to land again. Tail-feathers extended downward slow their flight to a near stand-still. The birds land gracefully on the ground. Soon they are busy foraging for food again.

And thus goes the circle of winter days at Nisqually Refuge.

The most photographed trees in Thurston County?

Black Cottonwood trees beside the Twin Barns
Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge
Thurston County, WA

I just got back from a virtual bike ride around the garage (hint: do the hilly part first and then you can just enjoy the rest of the ride). As I was pedaling and listening to NPR, my thoughts drifted to favorite landscapes and places. My thoughts quickly settled on a pleasant late afternoon walk I took a few weeks ago at the Nisqually Wildlife Refuge. 

The refuge landscape is known for its famous Twin Barns, which date back to its days as Mr. Brown's dairy farm. Adjacent to the barns are several black cottonwood trees. 

I wondered to myself, "Are these the most photographed trees in Thurston County?"

You probably ask yourself, "Why the most photographed?"

Well, for one because they are right next to the barns, which are often photographed. Also, because they stand apart from the rest of the Black cottonwoods at Nisqually, perched on the edge of fields which host thousands of Canada geese each winter. And, because they make an excellent perch for resident and overwintering Bald eagles hoping to swoop down over the geese for a mid-afternoon snack. 

Renowned northwest photographer Mary Randlett photographed them several times.

In researching this blog post, I came upon an interesting factoid about these cottonwoods (or one of their nearby neighbors). The Department of Energy's Joint Genome Institute used DNA from a Nisqually River Black cottonwood to map the species' genome. How cool is that??
What other trees might be most photographed in Thurston County? 

The elm is a descendant of a tree in Cambridge, Massachusetts. According to legend, George Washington stood under the original tree to take command of the Continental army on July 3, 1775. This American white elm (Ulmus Americana, native to the central and eastern half of North America) soon became a symbol of patriotism and George Washington.

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