Tuesday, December 15, 2009

"You can't always get what you want...."

You Can't Always Get What You Want

If you have not figured it out by now, I spend a lot of time watching Bald Eagles. The pair that nest on the creek near by are seldom "up close". That along with the weather I can see them far more often then I can "observe" them.

Last January the Salmon run was in full swing. Plenty of salmon had slipped past the gauntlet of nets across the mouth of the creek. The Eagles had caught so many of them by this point the shoreline was spotted with gulls and ducks eating the leftovers from the days before.

I never saw the Eagle coming (neither did the salmon) but I sure did hear it hit.

The water in front of me exploded as an eagle that had silently made it's decision on which fish looked best, left it's perch high above and skillfully made it's approach on it's unsuspecting prey. The glide and snatch did not happen quite as the eagle had planned. The fish was a little bigger then it had appeared from that high perch. The talons sunk deep in to the head of the salmon and as the eagle followed through the salmon did not come out of the water and the eagle went in.

I brought the camera up to my eye as the eagle jumped clear of the water. The auto focus took forever to decide what it was going to do, by then the eagle had gotten this far...

(click on each photo to enlarge) 

The salmon was thrashing violently and the eagle was flapping it's wings wildly trying to keep it's balance as well as it's grip on the fish's head.

The struggle up to this point has only been two or three seconds since leaving the water and it looks as if the eagle thinks it can take a breather. The fish was losing momentum and a calm fell over the two of them.

The commotion had already begun to attract the scavengers. Even with all of the partially eaten fish along the water's edge everyone would like fresh fish if they can get it.

The moment of stillness was broken by the fish. It began a series of even more violet and directed thrashes that incrementally drug the eagle down the slippery slope to the water.

The eagle saw the water coming and fought the fish to a second standstill.

One last burst of energy on the fish's part and a reality check for the eagle and it was over. The eagle stood there. It was very quite, the gulls that had begun to swarm noisily melted away silently.

After a brief rest the wet and tired eagle walked in to the water and stood there for a few seconds scanning all around as well as it's own feet. Then with out a sound it took off and flew back to it's high perch to recover.

I made my way back to the car and lit it up. The radio came on.

I am sure we can all agree the eagle never heard of the Rolling Stones but how poetic is that?

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Where the Lions roam.

I stopped off at Solo Point on Fort Lewis last week. It was a calm, cool and overcast mid morning. I was there alone. It was one of those rare calms where you could clearly hear the engine of the ferry as it left the Anderson Island slip over three miles away and headed back to Steilacoom. The sound of gravel from the barge loading facility to the South was annoying clear. For years now the sight of the gravel conveyor belt has been a scar on the illusion of isolation here.

Solo Point is an out of sight beach on the South Puget Sound. It is on Fort Lewis even though it can be accessed without having to go through security at one the of the guarded gates, it does still require a Department of Defense sticker on your vehicle to use.

It is mainly used by the Military for water borne operations and training. It is not what you would call a developed location. Three trash cans, two concrete picnic tables , a concrete boat ramp and a port-a-potty does not make for much of a tourist destination. But as they say, location is everything.

Five miles to the South is the mouth of the Nisqually River as well as the Nisqually Wildlife Refuge. Offshore across wide straight is Anderson Island and to the North across a narrower straight is Ketron Island. This part of the Salish Sea reaches over six hundred feet in depth.The currents flowing around Ketron Island as well as the outpouring of the Sequalitchew Creek diversion from Fort Lewis focuses wildlife along this stretch of gravel beach.

There is always some kind of animal activity along this stretch of shoreline, this day had something special in store.

Here a barge is loaded with what the concrete industry calls Steilacoom Gravel. It is of the finest quality and is in high demand for it use where the best must be used. It was deposited at the end of the last Ice Age and is strip mined in DuPont. I can not remember which company is doing the dirty work now, it has changed hands a few times in the last fifteen years. Those who run it now are trying to change the original agreement with all of the local watchdogs so they can STRIP MINE BELOW THE SURFACE OF THE WATER TABLE.
Of course the way they put it is that they would increase the water flow in the original Sequalitchew drainage that historically supported a salmon run thus magically creating salmon habitat. So what is a few thousand gallons an hour being siphoned off of the water table and being flushed out to sea going to hurt? I never really thought of well water as a "habitat" for anything larger then bacteria.

I digress...

Common Loons winter over in these waters diving down to an artificial reef made from old car tires tied together by a Boy Scout Troop in the 1980's. The reef was placed in the shallows of a small cove and provides shelter for smaller fish that in turn attract larger fish and in turn their predators.

Loons "fly" underwater in pursuit of fish. Keeping their feathers clean and dry takes as much time and effort as they put into feeding themselves. Clear water is essential to them finding their food as they hunt for minutes at a time far below the surface where the sunlight begins to fail to penetrate.

A variety of Gulls live in the area year round. I am not good at identifying gulls and I will not be anytime soon. Many people see gulls, some watch them, I try to "read" them. Gulls are opportunistic feeders and it is pretty much every bird for it's self. There is no cooperation among them unless you call relentlessly chasing some other bird until it drops its food qualifying as cooperation. Anyway, gulls are great sign posts to help in reading what is going on behind the scenes.

The gull above saw what was going on out past the reef and took off. I tracked ahead of his line of flight and saw there was a "boil" at the surface. An unseen predator had run a school fish to the surface and every gull in the area was converging on the spot to claim its share of the spoils.

The "boil" disappeared as fast as it formed and one dark shape appeared at the surface. This is the moment your heart races. Is it an Orca, a Harbor Seal, Harbor Porpoise, or will I even have a chance to see it?

This time it is a Lion. A male California Sea Lion and he had successfully captured a Salmon. Male Sea Lions measure seven to eight feet in length and top out around one thousand pounds. It is astonishing to think that a animal larger than a side by side refrigerator weighing twice as much can hit speeds fast enough and be agile enough to catch a fifteen to twenty pound Salmon with is mouth.

Sea Lions do not use their front flippers to hold their food when the eat. That would raise the question how does one eat a twenty pound salmon while floating around in six hundred feet of water while being harassed by thirty greedy gulls?

Rather simple. Grab it by the head and give it a little snap.

Of course the down side of that is that you are left with a mouth full of cold fish head and your hard earned salmon moving away from you at a high rate of speed.
Some tastes are just acquired. There are hazards too. The gull was just looking to pick up a scrap or two and wound up with the prime cut.

Be careful what you wish for.

The Sea Lion will eat the choice parts in the good times or will eat everything during hard times cheating the gulls out of everything but the smallest of scrapes. During the salmon runs Sea Lions are known for just eating the eggs of the females and leaving everything else for the scavengers.

Here is just how close the gull came to getting wiped out!

Seeing this interaction between these animals amazes me to no end. What amazes me even more is that when a sixty pound Black Bear cub wanders into the outskirts of Seattle every news agency in three counties rush to cover the story. Camera crews, graphics, camera phone shots, maps and helicopters all bring the story to us live! Everything from the first over turned garbage can to the Krispy Cream baited trailer mounted trap to the happy ending with a drug addled bear staggering off into the woods in the foothills of the Cascades.

There are nearly one million people living on the edge of the Salish Sea, a lone bear cub eating trash can capture the attention of hundreds of thousands.

Yet when you think of eight foot long, thousand pound wild animal in the Northwest catching wild salmon with it's teeth, living just out of the sight of man,the first animal that would come to the mind for most of those living all around the country is Bigfoot.

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Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Wham...Bamm...RUN FOR YOUR LIFE!

Each season has one irrefutable sign that signals the change.

It may be a smell, a breeze, a color, a feeling or something just beyond the grasp of words.

Here in the Puget Sound lowlands The first gentle whisper of Fall is seen as a single silken thread. At first it goes unnoticed then there are two, three, then suddenly thousands. Spiders by the hundreds enter into the last lap of their journey and set the path for their next generation.


The first few days of September each year are when the webs appear. At first they are novel and neat to see then they become a nuisance and by the end of the month they become unnerving.

The Females belly

I am not afraid of spiders, I will keep a healthy distance as I am not stupid. But...when quietly walking through the woods, minding my own business and with out any warning I do a face plant into a 30" wide spider web that is so strong you can hear the threads snaps as your momentum carries you forward...my brain starts screaming "SHIT!!!!!!....back up!....stop!...#$@&", I do tend to freak out. It is not pretty.


At this point I do have to admit it is kinda funny how fast my brain will rocket ahead while my body is just "doe-dee-doughing along" as you feel a spider the size of a half dollar run across your face. Many years ago I was in an Infantry unit here at Fort Lewis. I remember a patrol we were on one fall when our Airborne, Ranger, Path Finder, Viet Nam Combat Veteran squad leader walked into a spider wed while in the thick brush. He took off screaming like a little red headed girl, shedding equipment and dignity as he stripped away all of our tactical efforts. We each strive to suppress what we fear but spiders and snakes tend to over ride all of your efforts to live within reason.

I do feel a little guilty that I do not know what kind of spiders these are. If it were a bird I could tell you it's name. There are thousands if not tens of thousands per square mile during their fall web weaving and breeding season near my home.

Yesterday my wife called me to the kitchen window. "These two spiders are either going to have sex or fight." She was right on both accounts. As I flew through the house I grabbed the camera and went outside by the window and started to take pictures.

Here the Female is on the left and the Male to the right.

The Male slowly and gently approached the Female cautiously extending his front legs as if trying to reach over the Female. He is gently tapping the web in front of him.

Several slow tapping approaches seemed to sooth the Female and with each gentle tap she retracted her defensive posture and drew her front legs back to toward her body.

This is his first actual contact.

She pulled back quickly and seemed to relax.

Here you can see how precariously her hangs by the tiny hooks on her feet.

A couple more taps and she exposes her belly.

My Camera can take three pictures per second so here you see the whole act of copulation in less then one second.

In an instant the Male was gone. I thought he had fallen from the web. I lowered the camera and saw him two feet away running for his life! The Female was moving very slowly toward him.

The Male is in the upper right and Female lower left. She seemed to be disorientated or dazed as he took up a distant position to look back and see if it was clear to move on to the next Females web. He has a lot to choose from this year.

Spiders are a great indicator of the environmental health of a given area. They provide high protein snacks for the birds migrating south as well as those who will be spending the Winter months here. The Bewick's Wrens are sulking through out the Black Berry bushes filling up on them.

I can suppress my spider freak outs for the few weeks they run their cycle. It is a timeless rhythm. Now I am reminded that the next wave of spiders to appear this Fall will be the great big Hobo Wolf looking monsters that invade the house.

I am not a fan of them at all.