February 2, 2009 Stories of Life on a Ragged Old Maple

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We awoke two days ago to dense fog over Fawn Lake. When we looked out the windows at dawn, there was a Bald Eagle perched atop the old and ragged Bigleaf Maple tree that sits along the waterfront. This tree has been just hanging on to life for the 18+ years we have lived on this little Olympic Peninsula lake, 2009_wa_23491and we desperately hope that it continues to live, because it provides so much benefit to the birds of Fawn Lake. Some of the major limbs are dead and the branches drip with mosses and lichens. Windstorms and eagles thrusting off have broken branches, and woodpeckers have excavated here and there, lending the tree a rough appearance that is anything but graceful. Yet the birds love it–and thus so do we.

During the summer of 1993, a pair of Ospreys roosted virtually every night on one of the high horizontal branches of the maple. They flew in at deepest dusk, then perched side-by-side like lovers and spent the night on their high roost. At the break of dawn, they flew off to

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go fishing. They often brought trout back to the tree for a leisurely midday meal. We really missed the Ospreys when they migrated that autumn.

Bald Eagles often land on the maple, because the bare branches at the top lend a panoramic view of the lake. When the eagle visited several days ago, it was apparently waiting for the fog to clear, and stayed several hours. At first, the eagle faced our house, where there was lively songbird activity at the feeders we maintain. The eagle appeared to take a lively interest in the small birds, moving its head when the birds suddenly flew. Later, when the lake started to clear, the eagle turned around on its perch to face the lake, then actively watched the Hooded Mergansers and Ring-necked Ducks as they courted and fed. The eagle reminded me of a cat watching the comings and goings at a bird feeder with intense interest. As the fog nearly cleared, the eagle took off.

A little over a decade ago, I installed a Wood Duck nest box and a Swallow box on the lower reaches of the tree. Actually, the installation taxed my strength and agility on a tall ladder, but I managed to get it done without breaking my neck. I don’t recall if we hosted any nesting ducks that spring, but we did have a Western Screech-owl take up residency in the nest box for a night, and I was able to photograph it at close range as it stuck only its sleepy face out of the entrance.

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That spring or the next, Violet-green Swallows nested in their designated box. I was really excited by the new family, and when I saw a Raccoon sticking its arm into the nest box in the dark and fishing around for the young, I reacted as if I was nature’s arbiter of what was fair and good, and shouted and threw stones at the Raccoon. The Raccoon 155801retreated, but I saw that it had a swallow sideways in its mouth, looking like a feathery mustache. After that, I installed a predator guard, using a piece of slick aluminum to wrap the tree at about my head height. About the same time, I also wrapped the base of a nearby cherry tree to prevent the Beavers from gnawing it down. With the predator guard, the Raccoon problems ceased, though Douglas Squirrels and Northern Flying Squirrels still have the run of the tree.

Black-capped Chickadees, Chestnut-backed Chickadees, and Yellow-rumped Warblers are among the songbirds that feed on insects tucked here and there on the tree. Probing the tree’s depths are Pileated Woodpeckers and Red-breasted152091Sapsuckers. On occasion in recent years, I have taken to yelling at a Pileated Woodpecker that hammers too long on the upper trunk, because I know it wouldn’t take much for the tree to weaken and lose one of its major limbs, which would harm the habitat of all the others birds that use the tree. It’s sacrilegious, I know, to scare away a Pileated, but sometimes it is just so rewarding to play God.

As the years went by, we began watching Hooded Mergansers and Wood Ducks 188581competing for the nest box, so I set up a second nest box on the opposite side of the tree. Then I installed an infrared camera in one nest box so that we could watch the lives of the ducks on live reality television. It was magical! That spring of 2007 we watched the nest box cam for hours at a time, and were finally rewarded by the hatching and fledging of a mixed family of young Hooded Mergansers and Wood Ducks leaping out of the nest box to the lake below. [I will recap this whole story in a blog entry soon to come]. We have now been hosting mostly Hooded Mergansers for years, and each year we see more of these beautiful ducks during the winter. There are also more Wood Ducks coming each spring, and they are simply beautiful in low morning sunshine as they perch on the mossy limbs of the tree. Some of the Wood Ducks even come to our platform feeder on the deck to nibble on sunflower seeds. We never thought we would have a duck coming to the feeder–especially an elegant Wood Duck! 

The latest birds to use the tree are Double-Crested Cormorants. There are some tall firs and cedars on a nearby lot that have been used each winter for resting and night roosting by a loose colony of cormorants that spend the day fishing the lake.
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Those trees seem to have an overpopulation problem, so several weeks ago a juvenile cormorant came and perched on the maple, and ended up staying all night. It became possessive, and after a sword fight with sharp bills, chased away a Great Blue Heron that took a liking to the cormorant’s favored branch. Soon more cormorants joined it, and we had four or five spending the night. I decided I had enough cormorants, and began harassing them so that we would not

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end up with a tree filled with cormorants–and breaking all the remaining delicate branches. My harassment campaign is not going so well; for the most part, the cormorants ignore me unless I walk directly under the tree and start waving my arms and yelling. Shouldering the task of balancing nature is such a heavy burden!

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Recently a juvenile Sharp-shinned Hawk flew up to the highest limb after an unsuccessful raid on our feeders. It perched for about two hours, actively watching the comings and goings at the feeders without making an attack.2009_wa_21651Perhaps it was planning a future raid, or maybe it just wasn’t hungry. We watched it grooming and stretching and reaching up with a yellow leg and needle-sharp talons to scratch its head. Then it flew off across the lake with a fresh mission on its mind.

And the beat of life goes on …

 

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3 Comments on “February 2, 2009 Stories of Life on a Ragged Old Maple”


  1. I loved the story you posted on Tweeters about the cormorant and great blue heron interaction! Some DC cormorants recently started roosting in a tree near my house on San Juan Island, and I at first only detected their presence by the strange middle-of-the-night noises. Pig birds is a great nickname for them!

    I documented my mystery encounter with the cormorants on my blog here:
    http://orcawatcher.blogspot.com/2009/01/what-is-this-middle-of-night-mystery.html

    And the subsequent resolution of the mystery here:
    http://orcawatcher.blogspot.com/2009/01/mystery-solved.html

    Fantastic photos and stories. I’ll definitely be checking back!

    • leerentz Says:

      Hi Monika, I thoroughly enjoyed your blog and all your postings about living on San Juan Island–a remote and beautiful place with lots of wildlife. You are a true naturalist, to be as enamored of lichens as of the eagles and orcas of your island. My wife and I similarly love and learn about all things natural, and this passion infuses all we do. Prior to my current career in photography, I was involved in natural history interpretation; serving as director of Beaver Lake Nature Center in upstate New York for a number of years. Keep up the passion and enjoy life on San Juan Island!


  2. Thanks for the kind comments about my blog and I’m glad you enjoyed it! I take being referred to as a true naturalist as a real compliment. How awesome is it when your career can involve your passion for the natural world?!


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