Fernmire: Shadow of the Hawk

Fernmire Field 2021 – The hawks lived in the fir trees to the left. Neighbor’s field is on the other side.

For five year the Red-Tailed Hawk couple guarded mine and my neighbor’s fields. They kept my cherries and the baby birds of Robins, Junco, Towhees and Chickadees safe from the crows. They also kept the cherry tree safe from a traveling group of rock doves every year too. Occasionally the crows that lived at the end of the street would try to come down and mess with the hawks, only to be chased off. The hawk couple feasted on the field mice, the occasional adult robin, and the occasional small rabbit. Mostly though, the rabbits were left for the bobcats and coyote.

In the Spring of year six an eagle came through. I was in my home office enjoying the partly sunny day when I heard the hawks raise the alarm. Then I heard the bald eagle. I think at first the eagle was trying to go for the hawk chicks or eggs. The nest was near the top of a 150ft high Douglas fir tree. In the time it took me to run down the stairs slip on my shoes and run out the door the eagle had taken female hawk and carried her off.

I’m the kind of person who is careful not to anthropomorphize wild animals with human emotions. How they move about the world doesn’t have to relate to how humans do, they are unto themselves. I can tell you that the male hawk grieved in his own way.  He stayed close to me for weeks every time I was outside going so far as to awkwardly hop along the low branches as I took my dog for walks up and down the street.

It didn’t feel right to take a picture of a grieving friend. That this image came out low-quality seems appropriate. Taken June 2018 when he was still a Juvenile.

At the start of year seven and he found a new mate. She surveyed the land and decided that this was not where she wanted to build their nest. They moved over to a stand of Douglas firs over to the open meadow one street over on the far side of that cul de sac. The male hawk would still come to visit sometimes spanning the out perimeter of his territory to swoop by and let me know he was still around. They were infrequent but appreciated.

Then an official looking letter arrived in the mail announcing a new development coming to the neighbor, nine new luxury homes on the nine-acre plot over on the far side of the cul de sac behind me. There would be a retention pond to satisfy the requirements of an environmental impact assessment. On paper it didn’t sound so bad. One fancy house per roughly one acre, minus a few feet each for the retention pond. I didn’t fight it. I didn’t want to be a NIMBY (Not In My Backyard.) Having worked for local government I know they’re required by the state to provide a percentage of new housing each year. The reasoning behind the mandate sounded fair enough; no one city should be forced to provide all the new housing in the state. It’s calculated by some formula based on the percentage of existing city population, jobs, and other data. There is no deny that my city 15 miles outside of Seattle is growing as people flee the inner city.

I know there are better ways, but politicians don’t like complicated muti-level strategies for complicated multi-level problems. It’s hard to win an election with a five-paragraph vision statement. It’s hard to boil down the essence of it into a catchy five words or less campaign slogan.

They started cutting down all the trees in October 2021. Not just all the trees on the nine-acre lot but all the along the road leading to it. A hundred-yard scar. It took those trees 80 to 150 years to get as big as they were, and I know they will be replaced with grass and generic landscaping plants purchased by the dozens. The endless rows of arbor vitae around here make my right eye twitch with rage.

Red-Tailed Hawk Couple, 2021 – Hawk friend on the left as a full adult male, 2nd mate on the right.

The hawks came back here for awhile and feasted on the field mice once again. The constant drone of the earth movers permeated the air and ground as they rumbled to flatten the land. After several days of feasting the hawks left to find a quieter place and I don’t know if I’ll ever see my friend again.

This is the first Spring without their watchful eyes. The crows have come, one in particular, the one I’ve never liked. It likes to torture things. It’s one thing to kill to live, but some animals like to play with their food before they kill it. It’s a facet of nature struggle to tolerate. My attitude towards crows, domestic house cats, Killer Whales (aka Orcas) and hyenas is muted because of it. I’m human, I have opinions.

So this crow was watching and then one day it went around and ate all of the baby birds and eggs of all the nests I knew to be around me. At first, I tried to scare it off, then I put the dog outside to do it for me, but the crow is smart. It knew there was nothing me or the dog could do about it’s raid. One by one each nest was destroyed. I’ve watched this crow scare rabbits into the path of oncoming cars. Just this Wednesday my spouse and I watched as the coyote was about to miss the opportunity for a rabbit, but then the crow swooped down and kept swooping at the rabbit. The coyote stopped to watch. It was clear to us that the crow was trying to scare the rabbit in the direction of the coyote. This isn’t because the crow is concerned about how skinny the mange-infested coyote is, it only wants to use the coyote as a tool to get the rabbit. Sometimes, certain animals can be “stressed to death” rabbits and chickens in particular. I’ve seen a crow do this to a baby bunny before.

The commotion caught the attention of our dog who started barking. The coyote decided not to participate in the crow’s scheme. This is what it means to be a keystone species for an ecosystem. The hawks only take the mice and the occasional adult bird or a rabbit. The crow kills the eggs and baby birds before they can mate, denying any potential for replacement value. During the heyday of the hawks there was one morning I counted nineteen Robins in the field! Now the Robin count averages around five or six. The nest raids started last year when my hawk friend could only occasionally fly by. Now the crow has no true competitor except other crows wanting a piece of the action.

I can’t completely restore the balance that the hawks once provided, but I can do something. I am not just a passive observer of this micro-ecosystem; I’m integral part of it. Humans influence everything around them even when they try not to. Think about your own sphere of influence within own micro-ecosystem(s).

It’s time to build some birdhouse to counterbalance. Give the eggs and baby birds a fighting chance. It might be their fate in life to be food for something, but it doesn’t have to be today. I’ve been trying to build a better nesting layer into my landscape for years, but it takes so long for these shrubs to grow bushy enough to offer the protection the smaller birds need. Maybe by the time the nesting boxes are rotted away the bushes will be ready.

Thank you for reading, Nature-Led Friends!

If this post had a soundtrack: Fleetwood Mac – Landslide


Red-tailed Hawk Overview, All About Birds, Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Bald Eagle Overview, All About Birds, Cornell Lab of Ornithology

American Crow Overview, All About Birds, Cornell Lab of Ornithology

(The Cornell Lab is one of my favorite organizations that I try to donate to annually. Their website is a valuable resource, and they don’t spam my email with donation requests.)

Ridgefield NWR

(First published on August 21, 2020 By Dan Nelson aka recreationalnaturalist)

Ridgefield NWR, Carty Unit

I chose the Ridgefield refuge as the subject of my first blog because that was where the seeds were first germinated that eventually produced this recreational naturalist. It was a little over 40 years ago that I went to work there as a member of the YACC (Young Adult Conservation Corps) and met my oldest and best friend Craig Sondergaard, who is the best general naturalist I know, with a library that would be the envy of many a community college biology department, and whom I hope to convince to write a monthly column on ecology for this site. Craig tried to teach me then, and I was a willing student, but due to partying a bit too heartily I lacked the focus, discipline, detail orientation, and mental acuity for the obsession to really bloom, although it did put down roots. 

Not surprisingly there have been changes in the last 40 years here at the Carty Unit of the Ridgefield NWR. For one thing they have built a sturdy new steel and concrete footbridge over the railroad tracks, replacing the one which vibrated and swayed when trains rumbled underneath it, which swaying, especially when exacerbated by their prankster father, was dismaying to my children. One of them has more or less forgiven me for that. 

On my left just after the bridge I pass by a grove of huge Oregon White Oaks (Quercus garryana), trees which were probably impressive already when Lewis and Clark met the Cathlapotle near here in 1805, and under whose indifferent limbs I wedded my second ex-wife. 

Quercus garryana (Oregon White Oak)

Speaking of the Cathlapotle, another big change on the Carty Unit is that they have built a reproduction of a Cathlapotle Plankhouse just north of those oak trees, which is open to the public and well stocked with appropriate informational signs.

From here the trail passes between a pond on your left which is ringed by the ubiquitous Phalaris arundinacea (Reed Canary Grass), and a woodland on your right. I saw the daisylike flowers of Anthemis cotula (Stinking Mayweed), and some stands of Solidago lepida (Western Goldenrod). But no ducks on the pond, nor much of any other birds. That wasn’t particularly surprising though, since it was the middle of the afternoon on an 84* day. 

The right hand side of the trail is a bank of Symphoricarpos albus (Snowberry), winter desperation food for birds and good cover for small mammals, although I didn’t see any. Kind of the essence of good cover, I suppose. It is also the primary larval host of the Snowberry Checkerspot Butterfly, but I didn’t see any of them either. Then the first blooming Anaphilas margaritacea (Pearly Everlasting) I’ve seen this year, a sure sign we are in the dog days of summer.

The biggest change from the point of view of a recreational naturalist is that, in an effort to restore habitat for the Oregon White Oaks, they have cut down many of the conifers, mostly Pseudotsuga menziesii (Douglas Firs), which surrounded the Oaks-to-Wetlands Trail. This process is known as an ‘oak release’, because the faster growing conifers have crowded and shaded the oaks, preventing their growth. No doubt this will pay great habitat dividends in years to come, but for now the area is just a clearcut dominated by stumps and non-native invasive species. 

These situations where a familiar habitat has been denuded or destroyed are always shocking. But I’ve found that (unless it is a lost cause because the powers that be have decreed that that land should grow apartments or strip malls rather than forests and wildflowers) the quicker I can move through the grief to acceptance (a process made much easier in this case by knowing that eventually this would be be restored to some semblance of a native habitat) the sooner I can happily explore what is there now. Because there is always something finding a way to exist there now. 

In this case there is Mycelis murals (Wall Lettuce)Lactuca serriola (Prickly Lettuce), Epilobium ciliatum (Fringed Willowherb)Jacobaea vulgaris (Tansy Ragwort)Cirsium vulgare (Bull Thistle)Cirsium arvense (Canada Thistle)Daucus carota (Queen Anne’s Lace)Lathyrus latifolius (Everlasting Pea)Rumex crispus (Curly Dock)Verbascum thapsus (Wooly Mullein), Rubus bifrons (Himalayan Blackberry), and Dipsacus fullonum (Fuller’s Teasel) amongst the vegetation, which is being visited by a Limenitis lorquini (Lorquin’s Admiral), several unidentified Pieris sp, Ochlodes sylvanoides (Woodland Skippers)Dissosteira carolina (Carolina Grasshoppers)Largus cinctus, and a female Libellula forensis (Eight-spotted Skimmer), plus various unidentified spiders, ants, wasps, bees and flies. Not to mention all of the little living creatures that I couldn’t see.

 For most of my life I’d have looked at this artificial clearing and seen a wasteland. But once I started looking closely at places like this, differentiating the plants, learning some names and a bit of natural history, seeing all of the birds and bugs feeding, breeding, and hunting there, it started to come alive for me, gaining validity as a habitat.

I cross a little footbridge over a tiny watercourse which is choked by the foliage and pretty blossoms of the highly invasive Impatiens capensis (Cape Jewelweed) and Solanum dulcamara (Bitter Nightshade).

Impatiens capensis (Cape Jewelweed)

Near a copse of young oaks I saw a few Robins, and then a slightly larger bird pecking at the ground, which proved to be a Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus) as it flashed its white rump escaping into the trees. Then a couple of Bombycilla cedar-rum (Cedar Waxwings) flew into a nearby tree, bouncing from limb to limb, their reddish brown crest silhouetted against the pale sky and backlit leaves, with occasional glimpses of their black mask and yellow tail feather tips. 

I love Cedar Waxwings! They are a very animated bird, which makes for difficult photo ops, but they appear to be having fun in a way that is unusual for birds. I’m probably committing the sin of anthropomorphizing here, but they seem to glory in flying pell mell into perches that won’t support their weight and riding them down, like the trees were just random jungle gyms. 

Typical of my attempts to photograph Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum)

As I was rejoining the main trail from which this loop had sprung, much shorter now during the restoration and encompassing far less diversity of habitat than in the ‘old days’ when I worked here or wandered it with my kids, I spoke with a couple who told me that they had spotted an adult and a juvenile Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) feeding on the carcass of a carp down by the bridge over Gee Creek. So I drifted that way. I missed the feeding and the adult, but with the help of a fellow photographer I finally spotted the mottled form of the juvenile amidst the mottled shadows in the crown of a huge old oak tree. I watched it for awhile, grateful for the recovery of this species, whose population had dwindled to the point that when I worked here in 1980 a Bald Eagle sighting was big news, snapped a few photos and, content, walked back to my van. 

Juvenile Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus)

The Life of a Dead Tree

One of my favorite trees is dead. It hasn’t sprouted a new leaf in over four years and yet, it’s the most active tree in the yard. From my dining room window I watch Pileated Woodpeckers (Dryocopus pileatus), Northern Flickers (Colaptes auratus), Cooper’s Hawk (Accipiter cooperii) and other smaller birds stop by for a perch or a peck.

This Alder (Alnus rubra) likely died by a fungal disease spread from the aphid infestation that plague it. There’s also an ant colony. While they don’t use little whips to herd the aphids about in their duties, I do suspect that symbiotic relationship of overseer and worker. (Herding Aphids: How ‘Farmer’ Ants Keep Control Of Their Food — ScienceDaily)

Alder trees are short lived in comparison to other trees with an average age of around 40 years. They are fast growers and prolific seed spreaders, much to the frustration of my neighbors with more manicured yard. The nature of a tree’s genome delegates whether it will be fast and widespread or slow and methodical. A mixed forest provides many benefits to the trees themselves and not just the habitats they create. Here in the Pacific Northwest, Alders help fix the nitrogen in the soil aiding the growth of Douglas firs. (The effects of red alder on growth of Douglas-fir (fs.fed.us))

As far as dangerous trees goes, alders are least likely to kill you. It’s common for alders to lose their heads in sections of 4-8ft over time. Easier to avoid than a 80-100ft Cottonwood (Populus balsamifera L. ssp.) coming down like a giant’s toothpick. When alders are allowed to lay where they fall they break down releasing nitrogen in the soil for other flora and nesting burrows for insects. These insects in turn become nummy snacks for other invertebrates, herps*, and mammals and occasionally homes for them as well. Ah, the simple life of a garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis), to have your home warmed by the southern sun with your meals walking ripe for the taking.

If you’ve got a dead or dying tree on your property I would like to encourage you to consider alternatives to complete removal. If the tree is a low activity area away from harming people and building consider leaving it be. If it does pose a threat, have it taken down only so far as to reduce the threat it poses without removing it completely. You should be reward by the visit of birds. In my area, people are excessive land groomers. They dispatch tree companies post haste towards trees considered unattractive and then wonder why the woodpeckers pound on their houses. I’m not encouraging you to have an entire graveyard of trees, just one or two. Do it for the birds!

Book Recommendations:

The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate – Discoveries from a Secret World By Peter Wohlleben

Bugs Rule! : An Introduction to the World of Insects by Richard Redak and Whitney Cranshaw

Winter World: The Ingenuity of Animal Survival by Bernd Heinrich