A Murder of Crows, Northwestern Style


A Northwestern Crow pauses for a portrait

Spread out across the beach, each Northwestern Crow was busy overturning oyster shells to see what tasty tidbits might be hiding beneath. This went on for a long time, until a pair of teenage girls showed up with a bag of Cheetos and tossed the orange curls into the air, attracting every gull and crow in sight. Cheetos trump oysters for most of these birds–and for most teenagers.

2009_wa_91961A murder of Northwestern Crows feeding in an oyster bed exposed at low tide in Illahee State Park.

There have recently been some great low tides combined with afternoon sun at Illahee State Park, located on Puget Sound near Bremerton, Washington, USA. These low tides expose a beach packed with oysters, as well as other areas dense with Eccentric Sand Dollars (that’s their name; I don’t know if their behavior is eccentric). There must have been nearly 100 Northwestern Crows in attendance; between them and the gulls it made for a raucous party atmosphere.


This  Northwestern Crow is not giving me the evil eye; it simply blinked for an instant when I took the photograph.  The bluish-white eye covering is a nictating membrane that covers the eye briefly to moisten it and to protect it from sharp bills and talons.  Humans have a lump of tissue in the inside corner of the eye that might be a vestigial nictating membrane.

Northwestern Crows have long been suspect among ornithologists. Are they really a distinct species from the American Crow, which most of us associate with scarecrows and corn? I’m not sure, but the foraging behavior on the beach and the lower, hoarser call are distinctive. Genetic studies are being done that may solve the question, but it is helpful to consider that our rigid classifications of species does not really match the sliding scales of classification that nature uses.


Northwestern Crows forage on the beach by using the bill as a tool for turning over oyster shells and looking underneath for food.



Male Bufflehead in breeding plumage navigating the waves.

Illahee State Park is a small, but beautiful state park on Port Orchard Bay. Tall lowland conifers–Douglas Fir, Western Hemlock, and Western Red Cedar–provide a peaceful forest for a picnic, for camping, or for a short hike (oh, oh–I’m starting to sound like the Chamber of Commerce!).

The most distinctive tree in the woods here is a Pacific Yew that is the Washington state champion for that species. 400 years old with an impressive girth, this tree can also be proud that it contains Taxol, a pharmacological compound unique to the Pacific Yew that was discovered in the 1990s to be a cancer fighter, useful in therapy for breast cancer and Kaposi’s sarcoma. At first, Taxol was extracted from yew bark, but is is currently cultured in the laboratory.

2009_wa_7839Most of the Eccentric Sand Dollars are buried in the sand, with just a crescent showing.

A steep, switchbacked road leads down to the Illahee Beach for the waterfront experience. There is a pier leading to a dock where boats can tie up for the night; there is also a boat launch. In addition to the birds and seashore life, I found the dock to be fascinating. The pilings supporting the dock are covered underwater with big crabs, sea stars, and other marine invertebrates that we rarely see. Be sure to take a look if you go.

2009_wa_7848Marine life on a piling at Illahee State Park.

While on the dock, photographing crows, a pair of drab green military helicopters flew low over the beach. Of course, 2009_wa_9228I raised my long lens to photograph them–which might not have been the wisest thing for me to do since I imagine my lens could look like a hand-held missle launcher from a distance. Anyway, I was lucky:  they didn’t turn me into pink mist, or even send the Black Suburbans to pick me up.


Two quiz items for you:  I know what species the eye belongs to, do you? The other creature is an interesting intertidal animal–could you help me identify it?

2009_wa_9192Who owns this eye?

2009_wa_7840What the heck is this (the broken shell is not related)?

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website

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Sacred Ground: The Flight 93 National Memorial

2007_pa_0113Mennonite women viewing the folk art angels commemorating the souls who died in the Flight 93 crash. The actual crash site is in the far distance on the right in this scene. You might be able to see the distant flag.


Rare shared moments in our lives are seared into our brains.  On September 11, 2001, I awoke on a warm late summer morning to the voice of Carl Kasell on NPR, saying there were reports that a plane had hit the World Trade Center in New York.  Almost immediately came reports of a second plane hitting the other tower, and all hell broke loose.  Our lives were never to be quite the same again. 

Six years on, I was in Washington D.C. on September 11.  Leaving town, I drove north into Pennsylvania toward Pittsburgh; somewhere along the  road, it struck me that I must be following roughly the path that the fourth plane hijacked by the terrorists would have taken toward Washington D.C., only in reverse. I stopped, looked at a map, and determined that I could stop for a day at the field where United Airlines Flight 93 crashed into the ground, ending the lives of all aboard.

I drove through the beautiful Pennsylvania countryside that day, enjoying the touches of autumn, covered bridges, pastoral farms, and small towns that have remained much the same for decades. Near Shanksville, I followed signs to the Flight 93 site.  When I arrived, there were a few scattered cars and Harleys, as well as a tour bus filled with Mennonite men and women on an outing.  The place was quiet, except for the American flags flapping in the brisk and chill wind.

2007_pa_0118Mennonite ladies pause to view a collage of heartfelt tributes to the heroic passengers and crew of Flight 93.

Every American alive on 9/11 knows the stories of that day, but it was with a sense of awe, wonder, and sorrow that I relived the tragedy and heroism of that day in this sacred place.  Flight 93 was heading for San Francisco from Newark.  It got a late start, but the flight looked smooth on this beautiful day for the seven members of the flight crew and 37 passengers. Over Ohio, 2007_pa_0094the four hijackers made their move in the first class cabin.  They incapacitated the pilots, took control of the plane, and turned back toward Washington D.C.  By this time the passengers, talking on cell phones to family and friends, learned that three planes had already hit their targets and their plane was to be the fourth.  They probably didn’t know it, but the target was to be the White House or the Capitol Building.

From their cell phone conversations, we know that the passengers voted to try and retake the plane.  Todd Beamer has become the most famous of a group of men who hatched a plan and launched a counterattack.  The black box recording of the cockpit provided evidence that the counterattack was effective in thwarting the plans of Al Qaeda; the terrorist pilot ended up diving the plane straight into a reclaimed strip mine field at over 500 miles per hour.  2007_pa_0067Everyone died instantly.  You can review the events of the flight at http://www.nps.gov/flni

We know there were heroes that day, and when I stood on that sacred ground I could feel that heroism in my very bones.  Spirits inhabit the place and every visitor is quiet and reverential.  Few places evoke so many quiet tears.

Visiting Americans have left thousands of remembrances: crosses, flags, notes of admiration, motorcycle club patches,firefighter memorabilia, and so many other items are collected on a memorial wall.  Volunteers from the area provide heartfelt interpretation of the events of that day.

2007_pa_0127A reverential biker views the names of the passengers and crew.

Visitors are not allowed on the actual crash site; that is reserved for family members of the crew and passengers.  The crash site is visible from the hill where the memorial is located.  As of this 2009 writing, there is a temporary memorial; soon there will be a permanent memorial building and exhibits run by the National Park Service.  The website I linked to above has extensive information and graphics concerning the design of the permanent memorial, which will be a reverential reminder of the events of the fateful day.  In addition, there is a website where you can learn about donating to the memorial, and get another narrative of the events of the day.  Go to: http://www.honorflight93.org/

2007_pa_0107Items donated by visitors decorate the 40′ tribute wall.

I came away with a sense of pride that Americans had the courage to take the course of events into their own hands that day.  It is among our proudest moments as a nation.


To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website

Click on the photographs below to see them in a larger size, with captions.