Saying Goodbye to Protection Island

20130816-DSCN1951 "At night I pedaled my rusty borrowed bicycle back to my sleeping bag. Rushing to beat the wind that swept the light from the sky. Hurrying past the tool shed that I hoped was empty of life. And in the morning I woke to the feeling of soft open air and the sporadic sting of grass seeds in my socks." --- from my journal shortly after departing the island

It's difficult to think of a proper send off for my time on Protection Island. I thought perhaps I would write a long post and try to capture every single memory that I made there. But it seems that photographs are really the only way for me to show you the beauty and pleasant isolation I came to know as a castaway.

I chose sunsets because they were spectacular firework displays every night. They were a reward for 20-hour work days and a show that only I had seats to. Please enjoy this gallery of Washington sunsets and let me know what you think. Thanks for reading!

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Plants are cool too

There's really no limit to the number of things I'm obsessed with. This might be a bird blog but I reserve the right to put plants on it too. And fossils. And other rocks. And bugs. And fish. Let's just end this very predictable list by saying: things that naturally occur outdoors. Today I'm traipsing into uncharted territory. I'm going to show you some wildflowers and other plants of Protection Island, WA. But I'm only a field guide botanist. My mental catalogue of plants isn't huge and it's definitely more applicable to Colorado and Newfoundland, the places where I've spent the most time. So I'm going to ask you a favor. Please help me ID these beauties. Especially if I totally get it wrong. And enjoy. If we're big fans of birds, we must be big fans of their habitat and food as well.

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And now please help. This is some kind of a horsetail reed?

And these yellow darlings are nice. Any ideas?

The rest of the plant photos are below. All of the green is so alive and looking at these photos makes me long for spring as it snows outside. I'm excited to see how many of you are plant nerds!

Check in this weekend for a look at my main study species, the Rhinoceros Auklet. It's a puffin with a tiny horn on its bill, you have to see this!

2birdfeature #5

In this second to last installment of the 2birdfeature posts, we return to Protection Island to have a look at a couple of birds I saw on a daily basis while living as a castaway. The first one is one of my favourite hummingbirds. It's one that I grew up watching in Colorado. This guy (or gal, in this case) is very aggressive and does not play well with others. If you have hummingbird feeders, this is the guy that chases all the other hummers away. The Rufous Hummingbird.

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The male Rufous is much more recognizable as he is bronze all over with almost no green at all. And contrary to popular belief, hummingbirds like these don't only eat nectar. They eat tiny flies and spiders as well. Arguably the most impressive thing about hummingbirds is not their heart rate, not their rate of wing beats, but their migration path. Rufous Hummingbirds fly all the way to Mexico to winter and to get there, they take one of two paths around the Great Basin Desert. This migration, like that of many other hummers, is a pretty rugged undertaking.

The second bird for today will be the Harlequin Duck.

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To see this bird out of water, especially the male, is to witness a live painting. In a way, this duck's markings remind me of the detail and care in the plumage of the Wood Duck. These ducks are found in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and are a common oceanic water bird.

Join me this weekend for a look at the Dawley Refuge in Sequim Bay, WA. There will be banana slugs the size of your face!

2birdfeature #3

20130627-DSCN0769 Great Blue Herons have pink feathers on their throats for no other purpose (that we know of) than to be sexy to each other. "Sexy" is a funny word for ornithologists because while it does still bear the implication of one bird appealing to another, it is more technical than that. We use the word "sexy" to describe physical features on birds that often cannot be explained by any other purpose than mating. So again, why do these herons have baby pink feathers on their necks? Do these feathers detract predators, ward off parasites, or make the birds more agile for hunting? We don't think so. We think they're sexy. They're bright and it is possible that they look even more brilliant in the UV spectrum, which other birds can see while we cannot.

I saw just one Great Blue Heron while on Protection Island.

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The second bird today will be the American Goldfinch. This is one of those birds that I know is quite common in North America, almost everywhere you go, but certainly never feels common when you actually see it. There's something about the bright yellow feathers and striking wing bars that seem more special and less Plebeian.

Sorry about the photos of the male, he was moving a lot and I don't own a tripod.

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The females (and juveniles) are a touch more drab but retain the cool pattern and yellow swatches. A particularly aggressive male was chasing the females below. This chasing is a mating dance and I have to say, I hope he had to work his tail off because the female has the job of building a perfect cup nest made from plant fibers and cobwebs with no help at all.

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American Goldfinch (female)

That puts us halfway through the 2birdfeature series with 3 still to come! This weekend: finally, I will highlight a funny little auk that is one of two of my study species.

Black-tailed Deer on Protection Island

Black-tailed Deer (Odocoileus hemionus columbianus) fawn in tall grass - Protection Island, WA A herd of yellow curry-colored beasts inhabits Protection Island, Washington. Black-tailed deer. Also known as: the only traffic I had to contend with on my bicycle. These deer are the northwestern subspecies of the Mule deer. For some time, Black-tailed deer were their own species but with genetic analysis, it seems that the deer in British Columbia and Alaska (Sitka deer) and the deer in the northwestern US (Columbian black-tailed deer) are almost one in the same.

Growing up in Colorado, I have seen my fair share of Mule deer. They are brown-grey with very large bodies and heavy antlers. Columbian black-tailed deer are somewhat different. Aesthetically, they retain the heavy antlers and the large bodies but they differ greatly in colour.

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These deer are beautiful and as you can see, not easily disturbed. I'm not entirely sure how they came to live on the island in the first place. The most likely explanation is that they swam over from the mainland (quite a distance) at some point. Their population on the island varies from about 30-70 deer at any given time. I found carcasses fairly often as evidence of food limitations. In some ways, this helps keep the population from getting out of control.

There is a big problem with the deer presence on the island though. They are directly responsible for collapsing seabird burrows. When they walk along the steep hillsides that contain auklet and puffin burrows, their hooves fall through burrow roofs and crush nests, sometimes killing nestlings. The island's refuge status protects the seabirds so it's a catch 22 situation. Does one maintain the island's ecosystem as it is now and support both the deer and seabirds or does one eradicate some or all the deer to preserve precious nesting ground for seabirds?

The US Fish & Wildlife is part way through a study which consists of stationed cameras overlooking seabird colonies which are motion-triggered. Hopefully captured images will better inform officials on the level of damage the deer are actually responsible for.

In the mean time, I got to enjoy the fawning season.

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And how can you resist these bucks?

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Whether or not the deer belong on the island, I welcomed their company during my months there.

I hope you're enjoying the mammalian presence on this bird blog lately. If you want more fur to go with all the feathers, let me know!