Butterflies and Hummingbirds – Flying Flowers

Written by Jim Huckabay on April 25, 2014. Posted in Uncategorized

As is his wont, fellow homey Dick Ambrose (above the fold, of course) has handed you one of the great gifts of the season: places to lose yourself in the scents and colors of wild flowers. This, it has been suggested, may be a wild flower spring to behold – the result of our past few months of somewhat offbeat weather. It is said that when a flower lives through difficult seasons, yet manages somehow to achieve its perfect bloom, the entire world changes. Go and enjoy. Look and listen, also, among those earthbound blooms, for the “flying flowers” which depend on them.

Many of our hummingbirds and butterflies have already returned to the foothills of Paradise. Many more are on their way, anticipating the nourishment which awaits them among the brilliant colors of spring. As they gather that nourishment, they will bring their own flashes of color.

Thus, I recommend that, as you prepare for your walking exploration of one or more of Dick’s wild flower patches, you prepare yourself as well for those creatures which see those flowers through different lenses. It is easy; today there are almost unlimited resources available for learning about hummers and butterflies or moths.

For hummingbirds, start at Lanny Chambers’ site, www.hummingbirds.net. Here you will find terrific migration maps, cool videos, great photos, new science and information about hummer festivals all over the country. At www.hummingbirds.net/states.html you will find info by state and province across North America. More locally, find DFW’s tips for attracting and maintaining hummingbirds in backyards around the state at wdfw.wa.gov/wlm/backyard/humming-facts.htm. Virtually all nature guides will have sections on hummers, and they are available in our libraries and bookstores.

We generally see three different hummingbirds here in Paradise. The two‑and‑a‑half‑inch calliope (Stellula calliope) is the smallest of U.S. birds, and the male is the only hummer whose throat is streaked, with red-colored feathers against white. The black-chinned (Archilochus alexandri) is the only North American hummer with a truly black throat. Rufous (Selasphorus rufus) is named after the male’s solid rust‑colored back. These tiny birds have traveled thousands of miles, from wintering grounds in Mexico and Central America. The males arrive first, with females later.

Whether it is among wild flowers or at your feeder, hummer time is circus time. Hummers go through nectar like jet fuel, and a flower can mean life itself. A rufous male may dive-bomb some kid standing too close to “his” feeder or flower, making a life-long memory. A hummer dances up to a flower and a trail lunch becomes a celebration. A young bird, startled off its food, somersaults into a rolling escape maneuver and the awe of that moment becomes family legend. Really, what is more cool than the zippy up, down, back, forth or “stop!” of these tiny aerialists?

With butterflies (and moths, as well, actually), I always start thinking about life risks. If the little flying flower does not drown, break a wing in the wind or a rough landing, or get eaten by a predator, it may end up on the wrong end of some homeowner=s fervent desire, or command, to “Get it off the screen!” By the way, our butterflies have antennae with bulbs, or “clubs” at the ends, while moth antennae may be simple or feathery, but without a clubbed tip.

Begin your field prep with a good nature guide, such as the “Audubon Field Guide to the Pacific Northwest.” After that, get into serious fun with one of Robert Michael Pyle’s remarkable butterfly books. Check out “The Butterflies of Cascadia,” and try to find the out-of-print classic “Watching Washington Butterflies.” The latter is rare, but worth almost any price if you can find it. (If you find it and don’t want to buy it, let me know.)

Robert would remind you to move beyond the wild flowers and check out woodlands, meadows and muddy areas, wander streams and rivers, or south facing snow-free areas in the high country. And he would ask that you observe these amazing creatures slowly and cautiously.

In addition to Homey Dick’s wild flower walks, consider taking your gang on one of the field trips hosted by the Washington butterfly Association. Join the association, if you like, and get in on classes, conferences and newsletter links. Monthly meetings happen at the Center for Urban Horticulture in Seattle. Find everything you need to know at www.naba.org/chapters/nabws.

At www.thebutterflysite.com/washington-butterflies.shtml you will find a comprehensive list of butterflies of Washington State, with links.

Do your homework. Review the books and the web. Take those you care about to see some of the miracles of spring. Get photos. Make a memory now to carry you through our next inevitable winter.

Think Across the Globe and Act Locally

Written by Jim Huckabay on April 21, 2014. Posted in Uncategorized

It’s an ongoing conversation, really. It came up again in Hal Holmes during a joint meeting of the Reecer Creek Rod, Gun, Working Dog & Outdoor Think Tank Benevolent Association and the Field & Stream Club. We talked about the importance of large influential organizations such as Ducks Unlimited (DU), the National Rifle Association (NRA) and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation (RMEF). We discussed membership in our local outdoor organizations and ongoing efforts to recruit new members and invite folks to annual social events and our banquets.

Across Paradise, our outdoor interests run the gamut from fishing, hunting and shooting to hiking, wildlife watching and photography. There is abundant interest – yet wide lack of participation – in outdoor organizations here. We share a common concern about our kids and their outdoor futures, and the ways they seem to be losing opportunities to plug themselves into nature, but too few local outdoor nuts are stepping up to help change our kids’ increasingly indoor future.

Thus, RCRGWD&OTTBA homeys have been looking at the impacts of various activities on our outdoor heritage. We support outdoor photography classes, catch and release fishing, development of safe shooting ranges, summer nature hikes and winter ski activities, rock climbing training, firearms safety training in schools and about anything else which might help recruit kids into active, lifelong outdoor interests. Turning a kid on to the earth requires increasing support from more of our family of outdoor nuts. It requires consideration of the greater society while acting locally – one thing at a time.

Involvement in any organized outdoor activity, club or foundation benefits each of us, individually, as we collectively create opportunities for kids and strengthen our heritage. Anything we do to help a kid find his or her place on the physical planet, and build a foundation for a life helping others, will also help us reconnect with our own wildlife and outdoor places.

National and international organizations constantly ask our help. Some make a big difference in our outdoor future, and I support several of them. Still, I always ask this question: how does the work of this large organization translate into my backyard, my playground?

The National Rifle Association is everywhere, but our Friends of the NRA banquets raise funds for local firearm safety training and education. They directly impact the outdoor heritage of Paradise. The next banquet – May 10 at the Fairgrounds – is an opportunity for you to make a difference. Or drop into Brothers N Arms tomorrow between 10 and 2 for a sneak preview and a bite to eat. Contact Eric at 509-312-9378 and go play.

No private group on the planet has put more money and effort into protecting and improving habitat for wildlife of all types across North America than Ducks Unlimited. You can play at any level you like and still help create a forever wild sky over our part of the planet. Start at the DU banquet in Selah on May 3. Call Joe at 509-697-4482.

The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation does work on behalf of wildlife habitat all across North America, but a fair amount of the funds raised benefit the ground around our valley. Find out more from Linda Brenden (509- 925-4842) or Bill Wilson (509-962-8448).

Kittitas Audubon is part of a huge organization, but very active locally. It invites volunteers and families to play at the work of protecting our wildlife resources into the future. With local Audubon members, you’ll find terrific programs and many ways to enjoy making a difference.

The long-term, down-home organizations of Paradise have all sorts of opportunities for you to play. The Valley Rifle and Pistol Club offers a variety of safe and enjoyable shooting programs for men and women and boys and girls. Hal Mason (509-962-3002) will help you get involved.

Then there is the Kittitas County Field and Stream Club. Since 1919, members have been involved in habitat and cleanup work and innumerable family and kid outdoor opportunities. It provides great programs, college scholarships, bird food and often the birds themselves.

Now, here we are at Earth Day. Tuesday is its 44th anniversary. All around us, people will be doing their part to inspire earth connections and demonstrate responsibility to the planet. Field and Stream Club members and many others will be out on Durr Road and the Ellensburg Pass Road (head for the hills on Umtanum and turn left on Durr near the top of the canyon) cleaning up trash that knuckleheads have left on our land. It starts at 9 a.m. and will go ‘til 1 p.m. You are invited. It’s one of those “act in Paradise” things we can do to make a difference.

On Durr Road, you will find a number of health food nuggets for your trash-collecting nourishment. Begin with the breakfast doughnuts and flow through barbequed burgers and hot dogs at lunchtime.

Here’s to considering the world and acting in Paradise. Happy Earth Day, 2014.

Of Baseball, Randy Johnson and Peregrine Falcons

Written by Jim Huckabay on April 11, 2014. Posted in Uncategorized

It was one of those off-Reecer Creek meetings of the Reecer Creek Rod, Gun, Working Dog & Outdoor Think Tank Benevolent Association. Over hot cups of java at D&M Downtown, the subjects on the floor were this week’s column and the opening of the baseball season. In particular, the buzz was around the Mariners’ new pitching rotation. Felix was on all minds, of course, with a mix of caution and excitement over Ramirez, Paxton, Young and the new Cuban kid, Elias.

Jacques “Toot” Jesaistout, as always, wanted to compare the entire rotation to his hero Randy Johnson. In a repeat of the last time we talked pitching and wildlife, he made his plea. “You should write about peregrine falcons, like that one Randy Johnson hit with his fast ball that time. 95 mile an hour fastball… Man, it was just ‘Poof!’ Feathers everywhere…” In most cases, Toot needs to be footnoted, and this was no exception.

This incident happened when Randy was pitching for the Arizona Diamondbacks. During the seventh inning of a spring training game against the Giants, March 24, 2001, he threw a fastball that struck a dove picking the wrong moment to fly through the infield. Feathers filled the air and the ump called a “no pitch.” Because I have previously compared Randy’s fastball to the speed of peregrine falcons, and their ability to knock loose a cloud of feathers from prey, Toot continues to insist that Randy clobbered a falcon. Oh, well.

Still, it is a good time to explore peregrine falcons. As the most widely distributed raptor on the planet, and strikingly handsome, they are what we watchable wildlife writers call a “charismatic” species.

With a lot of help, peregrines bred their way back from the brink of forever. They were not alone. Ospreys, American kestrels and bald eagles, too, suffered huge losses from exposure to DDT and heavy-metal pesticides. at one level or another, and all have slowly increased their own numbers.

From the time the problems were identified, and DDT was banned (1972) peregrine watching became a hobby. Falco peregrinus is a 15-inch-long medium-sized hawk, with pointed wings spreading almost 40 inches. Its almost-black helmet, slate‑blue back and buff and barred underside were made for school kid sketches. Its natural habitat of cliffs and canyons could be supplanted by the tall buildings and deep gorges of major cities. Rock doves – common city pigeons – substituted for the ducks, doves, flickers, magpies and jays of its rural diet. “Falcon cams@ watched transplanted falcons and nests on skyscrapers from Seattle New York. And the in-person watching was a big part of the hobby.

I remember standing with a crowd of sidewalk lunch-munchers watching peregrines nail pigeons in the urban canyons of Denver.  We watched them teach youngsters to fly and hunt. Knowing that half the young would die from accidents or starvation in the first year, it was high drama.

We would hold our breath as a falcon swooped after a pigeon, knowing it would miss four out of five times. We might imagine moving through the air at more than 220 miles per hour (faster than a free‑falling stone in its first ten seconds). We could fantasize about moving twice as fast as a great pitcher’s fastball, and still being in complete command. We could see that, at that speed, the bird’s strike with its strong clenched oversized feet was like a lightning bolt. The pigeon invited for lunch would explode in feathers and flutter toward the ground until the peregrine regrouped and snatched it in midair. For a moment, each of us could be a peregrine falcon.

This still happens in cities across the US, and it is easy to find out where. Seattle and Spokane are among several viewable peregrine locations in our state. Get started at www.seattleaudubon.org/sas/LearnAboutBirds/NestCams.aspx and click on the downtown Seattle peregrine link. Explore the site for nest activity location information.

Surf the net.  See www.frg.org/ for the Falcon Research Group’s web cam and photos of peregrines on Seattle’s Washington Mutual Tower. The group is also carrying out a project to track a couple peregrines through their migration range, from Chile to Canada.  Check out Sunny Walter’s great images of, and links to, Washington’s raptors at www.nwlink.com/sunnywww/Apn-Birds-Raptor.html. Here you will find photos of peregrines (and other raptors), information about research projects around the country and a slide show of two babies becoming falcons.

The peregrine is pure beauty and power on the wing. Find. Watch. Feel the air. Touch the sky.

All about Sandhill Cranes

Written by Jim Huckabay on April 4, 2014. Posted in Uncategorized

Almost exactly thirty years ago, one of my Denver homeys – a long-time hunting and fishing buddy – said something like “Hey, let’s forget about hunting and fishing for a few days and take a run up into Nebraska. You’ll see giant beautiful birds dancing and singing and clumsy and graceful all at once. And we can get some pictures and maybe play a little poker in the camper over something on ice.”

This was the same guy who once got me to take a six-mile forced armed march through the Piceance Basin of northwestern Colorado by urgently saying, as he lowered his fancy binoculars, “Omigod! Two giant bucks just dropped into that draw across the valley.  We got just enough time to get into there and back before dark, if we hustle.” Of course, we found neither bucks nor tracks. “Maybe I was mistaken,” he finally allowed over a cold malt beverage that evening, “but it was a good hike.”

Given his history, while weighing the good times we’d had, I agreed to hit Nebraska for a long weekend. Worse comes to worse, I figured, we’d play a little blackjack, savor a little nicely-aged scotch and he’d buy most of the groceries. The three-hour drive took us northeast from Denver into a very dark night along the Platte River.

I can still feel myself standing there that next morning, mouth agape, looking over a noisy, boisterous sea of greater sandhill cranes. Over the better part of three days, we were within a hundred yards of tens of thousands of them. They were flying, landing, bouncing, calling, bobbing, dancing and taking off. They were breathtakingly graceful and comically clumsy. They were before us and behind us and around us. A time or two, as they fell awkwardly from the sky, I’d have sworn they were going to land on my head. Raucously, they filled those early spring fields along the river.

What got me thinking about all that, of course, is the buzz about last weekend’s Othello Sandhill Crane Festival. It was all it promised to be. And there are still hundreds of these birds to be seen.

The last time I found cranes out in our Columbia Basin, it happened as dusk settled. We pulled well onto the shoulder, grabbed optics and camera and sat mesmerized. That loud, rattling “kar-r-r-o-o-o, kar-r-r-o-o, kar-r-r-o-o-o” echoed off the clouds and the Rattlesnake Hills as bird after bird found its way to the earth. Pairs and small groups bobbed, bowed, leaped, danced and trotted around with half-open wings. By full darkness, a hundred cranes were celebrating the open field within fifty yards of us.

As Big Bird Information Officer for the Reecer Creek Rod, Gun, Working Dog & Outdoor Think Tank Benevolent Association, I am required to provide the following.  Our birds are lesser sandhill cranes.  The greater cranes (in Nebraska and thereabouts) are slightly taller and a bit longer in the bill, leg and wingspan than our birds.  Sandhill crane’s scientific name is Grus canadensis.  Our lessers will weigh in at seven pounds or so and stand just under three and a half feet tall, with wingspans just over six feet.  Add three or four pounds body weight and five or six inches to each measurement for the greater sandhill cranes.  The birds are mostly gray—often with red staining from preening in ferrous (iron-rich) mud—with a bright red crown and white cheeks.  Cranes fly with their necks outstretched, and once you hear that haunting “kar-r-r-o-o-o, kar-r-r-o-o, kar-r-r-o-o-o,” you won’t forget it.

Our lessers are on their way to make babies in the far North Country, although some will remain in the lower 48 (including nesting pairs at Conboy Lake National Wildlife Refuge, south of Glenwood at the base of Mount Adams). The larger birds breed mostly in Central Canada and the northern tier of states.

Once the bonded pair settle into breeding country, they will build a bulky nest of dead sticks, moss, grass, reeds and whatever else they fancy and lay two four-inch buff/olive eggs, marked with olive and brown.  After a month of incubation, the young cranes will hatch and be following their parents within a day.  Like their parents, they will eat pretty much what is available, including aquatic insects and invertebrates, worms, small mammals, young birds and eggs, bulbs, berries, lichens, water plants and grains.

In fall, our lesser cranes will head to Mexico.  Next spring, we’ll again celebrate their trip north.

It is easy to learn more about these amazing creatures. Steve Taylor and many others have posted crane photos on the PBase site – some of them are breathtaking. Go to www.pbase.com and put “sandhill cranes” into the search window. Find a good nature guide or a copy of “Washington Wildlife Viewing Guide” for places to find sandhill cranes. Check out Cornell University’s All About Birds site at www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Sandhill_Crane/id.

It’s not too late. Call 866-726-3445 for information. Go to the Basin. Find sandhill cranes. Have a noisy, dancing, wing-waving time.

Happy spring.

Happy Birthday, Duck Stamps

Written by Jim Huckabay on March 28, 2014. Posted in Uncategorized

What a great month. Two weeks ago, we celebrated the 95th birthday of our Kittitas County Field and Stream Club. A couple days after that was the 80th birthday of the duck stamp, March 16, 1934, when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the Migratory Bird Hunting Stamp Act into law. These anniversaries harken back to a time when wildlife and its habitat were in grave danger. We celebrate them today because men and women concerned about future generations – that is us, by the way – stepped up and did something nearly a century ago.

I thought we might review those times a bit.

The 1920s (the “Roaring Twenties”) were a time of flappers, gangsters, and rich lifestyles. Urban living became the dream for much of the world, with the wealthy all over the world betting on good times and unending natural resources that few saw fading. Difficult times were on the horizon, as the demand for land and food grew with rapid development and poor agricultural practices. Midwestern prairies were stripped of their soil, and wetlands were ditched and drained. Such economic progress pushed food production and waterfowl habitat ever-closer to the edge. Migratory waterfowl populations (many species still recovering from market hunting) slumped precipitously – particularly pintails and canvasbacks.

The conservation ethic of leaders like Teddy Roosevelt, John Muir and Gifford Pinchot was nearly lost in that decade of wild excess.

Then came the Great Depression. Markets, Americans’ spirit and wildlife populations fell into a deep malaise. While few had thoughts for anything beyond economic recovery, President Franklin D. Roosevelt seemed to see recovery in a more global way – he saw a country still defined by people working the land, and by its natural resources. As he worked to recover citizens’ spirit, he spoke to the need for wildlife habitat even as, for many species, extinction seemed inevitable.

Still, through the most desperate and hopeless of times determined conservationists pushed forward, creating new bands, groups and clubs of folks looking ahead. By 1934, most talk of stopping the destruction of wetland habitat and the steep decline of waterfowl numbers was still just talk. Finally, after more than a dozen years, and several of Jay “Ding” Darling’s nationwide editorial cartoons, agreements and compromises were made. The Migratory Bird Hunting Stamp Act bill was passed in March and signed on March 16, 1934. That first federal duck stamp featured a Ding Darling sketch – completed in an hour – of two mallards. It sold for one buck.

Since 1934, sales of the Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp (its name since 1976) have generated over $850 million, conserving more than six million acres of wetlands and migratory bird habitat in the National Wildlife Refuge System. Ninety-eight cents of every dollar spent on Duck Stamps goes directly to such purchases. The Duck Stamp has cost $15 for the last two decades. Senate Bill S. 1865, sponsored by Senator Mark Begich, D-Alaska, would raise it to $25, and it is probably time. The new stamp, due in June, features the common goldeneye.

These stamps are important. Friend Joe Meuchel once wrote that “…every birder should buy a duck stamp. A measly fifteen bucks shelled over the counter at your local post office will buy fifteen dollars worth of some wildlife refuge somewhere. Not just that, it gives you a season ticket to enter most federal refuges and you don’t even have to hunt ducks.”

Well over 30,000 people buy Duck Stamps in Washington. More than a third of them also put something back through membership in Ducks Unlimited (DU). The 60-plus chapters in Washington raise a million bucks a year for waterfowl and habitat conservation. (You can play, too; call Joe Briscoe at 509-697-4482 and check out the Selah DU Banquet, Saturday, May 3.)

DU calls itself the world’s largest private, nonprofit waterfowl and wetlands conservation group. Organized in 1937, with more than a million supporters, DU has conserved more than 13 million acres of waterfowl habitat throughout North America. In its nearly eight decades of existence, it has raised nearly $3.5 billion.

Nearly a century ago, our ancestors handed us the future. Restoring and enhancing quality habitat for wildlife is a game we are all playing. Let’s keep playing.

P.S. Find more at www.fws.gov/duckstamps/conservation/mbcc.htm, www.birdnote.org, or www.ducks.org.