GLOWING PINK FLYING SQUIRRELS: Biofluorescence Revealed

Southern Flying Squirrels, Glaucomys volans, glowing hot pink on their underbellies when illuminated by a 365 nm UV flashlight, in a rare phenomenon known as biofluroescence

I awoke last night at midnight to flashes of light from a motion sensor floodlight on our deck. I wasn’t thinking of prowlers, because I suspected the flashes of light were triggered by Southern Flying Squirrels coming to visit for the sunflower seeds I had tossed out just before going to bed.

I crept downstairs and carefully opened the sliding door, letting in frigid February air. The deck light came on briefly, enough that I could see the tiny squirrels dashing up through an opening in the deck around a huge Northern Red Oak. Each squirrel would come up, grab a sunflower seed, then dash down the tree trunk out of sight. This happened so fast that I couldn’t see how many squirrels there were, though at one point I saw three. There may have been more. On this night they were nervous and did not stop long enough for any photos.

We’ve had Southern Flying Squirrels at our home in Michigan each winter, and I’ve photographed them at night several times using incandescent lights on the deck. They made for good photographs, with their gray-brown fur and a cuteness factor of huge bulging eyes and little pink lips, but their coloration was subtle to my eyes and essentially no different from most mammals, which are colored for camouflage rather than display.

Then scientific knowledge suddenly changed. About four years ago a Wisconsin forestry professor, Dr. Jonathan Martin at Northland College, was in the woods at night looking up toward the forest canopy with an ultraviolet flashlight for lichens and other fluorescing lifeforms, when a hot pink missile glided overhead. He identified this as a Northern Flying Squirrel, and its normally white belly lit up hot pink in ultraviolet light. He found this astounding, and asked a colleague to investigate flying squirrel skins in a couple of museum collections to see if the phenomenon could be confirmed. It turned out that in those collections, the bellies of all three species of North American flying squirrels–Southern, Northern, and Humboldt’s Flying Squirrels–glowed bright pink under UV light. Even specimens over 100 years old. Male and female, young and old, they nearly all glowed.

Since we have easy access to flying squirrels at our home in Central Michigan, I decided to observe this phenomenon for myself. I obtained a 365 nm UV flashlight that is powerful enough to look almost into the treetops and began looking at these squirrels on nights they chose to come to our feeding station. They don’t come every night, but when they do I often get up in the middle of the night to observe and try to photograph them. It isn’t easy to photograph little nervous squirrels by a relatively dim (to our eyes) UV light, but I’ve had some success represented by the pictures here.

Southern Flying Squirrel showing biofluorescence under UV light on the left, with the same species illuminated by tungsten light on the right. The belly fur changes from off-white to bubblegum pink when struck by UV light.

Why do flying squirrels glow? That is still unknown. What is known is that at dusk, dark, and dawn, the air is bathed in proportionately more ultraviolet light and far less light from the visible spectrum than in daytime. This UV light–when converted to visible light by fluorescence–makes the flying squirrels more visible to each other. This is even more true when snow blankets the forest, since snow reflects UV light. It also appears that flying squirrels’ eyes, unlike ours, can see into the UV spectrum, so this ability may also be involved.

Again: why do they use biofluorescence and UV light at night? There are a couple of possibilities that spring to mind. Based upon the three flying squirrels I observed on that recent February night, I think it’s possible that the squirrels use their bubblegum pink undersides to keep track of each other at night. These squirrels are highly social, with reports of 25 to 50 Southern Flying Squirrels roosting communally in a hollow tree. So why wouldn’t they follow each other to food sources? Some of my pictures show them sitting side by side, dining quietly together on the sunflower seeds I put out. They seem to enjoy a more peaceable kingdom among their kind than do the daytime Eastern Gray Squirrels and American Red Squirrels we also get in Central Michigan. Feeding together also means more big eyes to look for predators–much as goldfinches and other songbirds feed communally as a strategy to detect hawks.

There is another tantalizing possibility for the pink color. Three large owls that also live in this region–Barred, Barn, and Great Horned Owls–also have bellies that fluoresce hot pink under UV light, though their coverings are feathers rather than fur. These owls are the chief predators of flying squirrels. Do the flying squirrels mimic the owls to fool the predacious birds into thinking they are seeing other owls when in the air? Maybe. I find this possible. The fluorescing fur is mostly on the belly and undertail of the squirrels, with just a minor hint of color change on the back and virtually none on the tail. Once a flying squirrel lands on a tree trunk, its back and tail make it almost invisible to predators because the glowing belly is nearly hidden.

Alternatively, perhaps the owls are mimicking the flying squirrels, fooling the little squirrels into thinking they are seeing others of their own kind. This would allow the owls to silently approach the flying squirrels and suddenly grab the little creatures.

Or perhaps all three of these mechanisms are in play: bubblegum pink signals the presence of flying squirrels to each other, but also both disguises them from owls and identifies them to owls, if any of that makes sense. Coevolution at work.

Biofluorescence also extends to the Virginia Opossum in this region, but is apparently unknown in other mammals here. It turns out the phenomenon is new enough that the chemical and physical mechanism is still unknown. I suspect this will be studied in coming years, with possible applications for industry. Or not. Knowledge is its own reward.

I will be watching these creatures over the coming weeks and years, both with and without the assistance of UV light. The mysteries of nature are an ingrained part of my life and I find observations and photography endlessly fascinating.

The photographs above are a good representation of the Southern Flying Squirrel in UV vs visible light. The final photograph shows the deck setting at night where all the pictures were taken, and includes one flying squirrel for scale. Click on the photographs to see them larger.

Here are some other sources that examine this discovery:

Ultraviolet fluorescence discovered in New World flying squirrels (Glaucomys) (Journal of Mammalogy)

Southern Flying Squirrel (Wikipedia)

Flying Squirrels Glow Fluorescent Pink Under Ultraviolet Light (Smithsonian)

MONARCHS IN WINTER

Monarch Butterflies Wintering at Pismo Beach
Monarch Butterflies, Danaus plexippus, wintering in a dense concentration at the Pismo Beach Monarch Butterfly Grove, Pismo Beach, California, USA

Sweeping through the sky, driven by cold fronts and the coming snows; heading southward and westward to the central California coast, where sunny days and mild breezes await. The journey is treacherous, with predators and sudden storms poised to take a toll, but many get through, ending up in a few coastal towns in a few parks and on a few trees, where they roost by the hundreds and sometimes thousands.

As a fifth grade student back in Michigan, now many decades ago, my teacher, Mrs. Triff, took us on a field trip to see migrating Monarchs at Point Pelee National Park in Ontario, Canada, which sticks down into Lake Erie like an arrowhead. There the migrating Monarchs are stopped in their flight path by the barrier of Lake Erie and concentrate there until the winds are favorable to continue the journey to Mexico’s mountains. The extraordinary experience of seeing so many beautiful creatures in one place never left me, so I jumped on the chance to see them again.

In January of 2020 we traveled to Santa Cruz and Pismo Beach to see the winter gathering of Monarchs. We had read about it for years, but there is nothing like seeing a magnificent gathering in person. These pictures are from the two balmy days we spent along the California Coast.

In Santa Cruz, we got directions to where the Monarchs were gathered, which happened to be next to a large surfing competition for young people (what could be more Californian than a sunny day filled with surfers catching the waves rolling in?). Meanwhile, the 2,500 or so Monarchs were tightly clustered on two individual trees: a Monterey Cypress and a Blue Gum Eucalyptus. In the clusters the Monarchs hung upside down, their wings tightly overlapped and the exposed wings were the undersides, so there were patterns but with the subdued colors more suitable for camouflage. When a Monarch flew into the roosting group, several butterflies had to resettle themselves to accommodate the newcomer, briefly flashing the vivid orange-and-black patterns on the tops of their wings. We found the experience extraordinary, but local old-timers (our age!) who walked or cycled by said that this was NOTHING compared to the butterfly gatherings of their youth, when apparently the California coast was a Woodstock for butterflies. But then Jimi Hendrix died and the world went to hell and all we have left is fond memories of our youth. But I digress …

The butterflies apparently come to the same trees each year, which is extraordinary, since NONE of the butterflies here this year were here last year. When they start their migration, the generation of butterflies heading south and west from all over the western states and western Canada are bigger, stronger, and brighter than the Monarchs of summer gardens. These SuperMonarchs are able to fly up to thousands of miles to those few trees guided by what: Genetic memory maps? Scents left on trees? Scientists don’t agree on the mechanism, although day length and perhaps the drive for food as the north gets colder in the fall are the triggers for starting the migration. For a fascinating discussion of the theories, go to Monarch Butterfly Migration.

After leaving lovely Santa Cruz and Monterey Bay, we drove south to another winter Monarch gathering of about the same size in Pismo Beach. Here the Monarchs were gathered on a few eucalyptus branches, with an endless stream of people migrating toward them on the path below, and pausing in a cluster to look up in wonder. Some of the Monarchs were getting in the mood for mating. An aggressive male would force a receptive female to the ground and laboriously try to pick her up. When he did, he would take her on a maiden flight into the treetops where, as the volunteer tour guide explained to the children, “they went for their honeymoon.” Extraordinary!

When spring approaches, the Monarchs begin their northward journey. The fact is, unless their summering grounds are near their wintering grounds, NONE of these individuals will make it. They procreate along the way, leaving eggs to hatch on milkweed plants. Then the hatched caterpillars voraciously feast on the milkweed, gaining nourishment and toxins (to repel predators), followed by the miracle of entering a chrysalis with golden stitches and eventually emerging as butterflies. Then the new butterflies head north, and repeat the whole process several hundred miles on, and so on for three or four summer generations. Then, come fall, the whole cycle repeats as a new SuperMonarch begins the migration south. And my sense of wonder is refreshed.

All photographs in this blog are available for licensing for use in publications or for personal use, and are also available as limited edition prints on fine art papers or metal. Contact lee@leerentz.com for a quotation.

Monarch Butterflies Wintering at Pismo Beach
Monarch Butterflies, Danaus plexippus, wintering in a dense concentration at the Pismo Beach Monarch Butterfly Grove, Pismo Beach, California, USA

Monarch Butterfly Grove at Pismo Beach
People viewing Monarch Butterflies, Danaus plexippus, wintering in a dense concentration at the Pismo Beach Monarch Butterfly Grove, Pismo Beach, California, USA [No model releases; available for editorial licensing only]

Monarch Butterflies Wintering along California Coast
Monarch Butterflies, Danaus plexippus, clustered together for warmth at their winter migration destination at Lighthouse Field State Beach in Santa Cruz, California, USA

Monarch Butterflies Wintering along California Coast
Monarch Butterflies, Danaus plexippus, clustered together for warmth at their winter migration destination at Lighthouse Field State Beach in Santa Cruz, California, USA

Monarch Butterfly Wintering along California Coast
Monarch Butterfly, Danaus plexippus, sipping nectar from Blue Gum Eucalyptus, Eucalyptus globulus, flower at its winter migration destination at Lighthouse Field State Beach in Santa Cruz, California, USA

Monarch Butterfly Courtship at Pismo Beach
Pair of Monarch Butterflies, Danaus plexippus, engaging in courtship at the Pismo Beach Monarch Butterfly Grove, later, the male picked up and flew away with the female, Pismo Beach, California, USA

Monarch Butterflies Wintering at Pismo Beach
Monarch Butterflies, Danaus plexippus, wintering in a dense concentration at the Pismo Beach Monarch Butterfly Grove, Pismo Beach, California, USA

Monarch Butterflies Wintering at Pismo Beach
Monarch Butterflies, Danaus plexippus, wintering in a dense concentration at the Pismo Beach Monarch Butterfly Grove, Pismo Beach, California, USA

Sign Explaining Monarch Butterfly Migration along California Coa
Interpretive sign explaining the migration of Monarch Butterflies, Danaus plexippus, at their winter migration destination at Lighthouse Field State Beach in Santa Cruz, California, USA

Monarch Butterflies Wintering at Pismo Beach
Monarch Butterflies, Danaus plexippus, wintering in a dense concentration at the Pismo Beach Monarch Butterfly Grove, Pismo Beach, California, USA

Monarch Butterflies Wintering at Pismo Beach
Monarch Butterflies, Danaus plexippus, wintering in a dense concentration at the Pismo Beach Monarch Butterfly Grove, Pismo Beach, California, USA

Monarch Butterflies Wintering along California Coast
Monarch Butterflies, Danaus plexippus, clustered together for warmth at their winter migration destination at Lighthouse Field State Beach in Santa Cruz, California, USA

Monarch Butterflies Wintering along California Coast
Monarch Butterflies, Danaus plexippus, clustered together for warmth at their winter migration destination at Lighthouse Field State Beach in Santa Cruz, California, USA

Monarch Butterflies Wintering at Pismo Beach
Monarch Butterflies, Danaus plexippus, wintering in a dense concentration at the Pismo Beach Monarch Butterfly Grove, Pismo Beach, California, USA

 

 

SHI SHI BEACH AND POINT OF ARCHES ON A SUMMER WEEKEND

We hiked to Shi Shi Beach and Point of Arches in Olympic National Park during the lowest tides of the year so we could explore the most distant tide pools. This experience never ceases to amaze us, and we see life forms that look like they evolved on another planet. This weblog primarily shows the hike through photographs, with a few words about our observations during our three-day backpacking trip in June 2018.

Sunset at Point of Arches in Olympic National Park
Point of Arches rocks at sunset

Shi Shi Beach was not as crowded as we expected, though by Saturday night it was pretty much filled up with people at the end near Point of Arches.

Almost all the people on the beach were millennials in their 20s, with few baby boomers until we saw some coming in on Sunday. Nice to see young people visiting. Everyone had smiles on their faces: exploring tidepools, photographing the sunset with smart phones, doing paired yoga poses, playing frisbee, and talking around campfires.

Perfect sunny weather; not too hot or cold.

Birdsong: lovely sounds of Swainson’s Thrush, Wilson’s Warbler, American Robin, Pacific Slope Flycatcher, and Pacific Wren floating above our tents. Pigeon Guillemot, Black Oystercatchers, gulls, ravens, eagles, and crows added their less musical but still atmospheric calls to the beach.

We waded through tide pools and climbed over barnacle- and mussel-covered rocks to get out to the outermost sea stacks. Getting near, we spotted a family (mother and two pups) of River Otters climbing the steep vegetated wall of a sea stack. A seabird was loudly calling out in alarm. Then, a pup fell 15′ down the cliff. The mother quickly descended with the other pup, dragging it along by the neck. When it got to the bottom, the mother rejoined the apparently uninjured pup, and then grabbed one of the pups by the neck and kept it from heading toward the sea. They quickly headed through one of the arches and we didn’t see them again. We could see their tracks where they explored the sea caves and arches. It’s good that the youngster had a resilient body; I would have been a heap of broken bones.

We spotted at least two Pigeon Guillemots high on the cliff above one of the arches, where we think they were establishing nests on ledges deep in rock overhangs. Hard to photograph with the sea spray and deep shade.

Most of the campers at our end of the beach went out in the tide pools, though few were as passionate about the natural history as we. Exceptions included a couple from Olympia who were on their 8th trip to Point of Arches in two years; and they went out of their way to show us an unusual tide pool animal. Another was a young woman who was incredibly interested in everything in the tide pools; we saw her over two days carefully inspecting small tide pools. Most everyone else was content to explore the convoluted arches and caves.

Counted 15 Black Oystercatchers at Willoughby Creek, joining the gulls in drinking and bathing (while photographing them laying on my belly a wave caught me and I was soaked).

We played a recording of a Wilson’s Warbler to attract one close enough that our companion, Joan, could see it. It came close indeed–zooming withing three feet of our heads in what seemed like a frontal charge.

The Olympia couple backpacked in with an REI Kingdom 8-person tent with garage and extra pole, which would have been 28 lbs. to hike with. The woman carried that, while her husband carried everything else.

Here are photographs from the weekend.

Blood Star at Point of Arches in Olympic National Park
Blood Star, Henricia leviuscula, at Point of Arches

Cadlina luteomarginata at Point of Arches in Olympic National Pa
Yellow Margin Dorid, Cadlina luteomarginata, aka Yellow-edged Cadlina, at Point of Arches

Three-lined Nudibranch at Point of Arches in Olympic National Pa
Three-lined Nudibranch, Flabellina trilineata, in a tide pool at low tide at Point of Arches

Woody Chitin, Mopalia lignosa, at Point of Arches in Olympic Nat
Woody Chitin, Mopalia lignosa, on a rock exposed during low tide at Point of Arches

Leaf Barnacles at Point of Arches in Olympic National Park
Leaf Barnacles, Pollicipes polymerus, at low tide in a surge channel at Point of Arches

White Giant Green Anemone, Lacking Green Algae because of Dark L
Giant Green Anemone, Anthopleura xanthogrammica, lacking algae in a dark microhabitat so it appears white, at Point of Arches

Orange Cup Coral at Point of Arches in Olympic National Park
Orange Cup Coral, Balanophyllia elegans, in a tidepool at extreme low tide at Point of Arches

Feather-duster Worm at Point of Arches in Olympic National Park
A feather-duster worm, aka fan-head worm: a plankton filter-feeder in the family Sabellidae, on rocky substrate at low tide at Point of Arches

Giant Green Anemone at Point of Arches in Olympic National Park
Underwater view of Giant Green Anemone, Anthopleura xanthogrammica, at Point of Arches

Driftwood Logs on Shi Shi Beach in Olympic National Park
Driftwood logs deposited during fierce winter storms on Shi Shi Beach

in Olympic National Park
My bare feet on Shi Shi Beach

Dwarf Purple Olive Shell at Point of Arches in Olympic National
Dwarf Purple Olive, Olivella biplicata, shell probably occupied by a hermit crab, among Coralline Algae, at low tide at Point of Arches

Ochre Sea Star at Point of Aches in Olympic National Park
Ochre Sea Star, Pisaster ochraceus, aka Purple Sea Star or Common Sea Star, at Point of Arches near mussel beds at low tide

Opalescent Nudibranch at Point of Arches in Olympic National Par
Opalescent Nudibranch, Hermissenda crassicornis, in a tide pool at low tide at Point of Arches

Emarginate Dogwinkles at Point of Arches in Olympic National Par
Emarginate Dogwinkle, Nucella emarginata, aka Northern Striped Dogwinkle, Nucella ostrina, on the rocks deep inside the arches of Point of Arches

Shell of Crab Consumed by a Predator in Olympic National Park
Shell and other body parts of a crab recently eaten by a Raccoon or River Otter (otters viewed, raccoon tracks seen nearby) at Point of Arches

Giant Green Anemone in Dark Microhabitat, Lacking Green Algae, a
Giant Green Anemone, Anthopleura xanthogrammica, at Point of Arches

Giant Green Anemone in Dark Microhabitat, Lacking Green Algae, a
Giant Green Anemone, Anthopleura xanthogrammica, lacking algae in a dark microhabitat so it appears whitish, at Point of Arches

Mossy Chiton and Hind's Mopalia at Point of Arches in Olympic Na
Mossy Chiton, Mopalia muscosa (L), and Hind’s Mopalia, Mopalia hindsii (R), at Point of Arches

Giant Green Anemone and Encrusting Coral at Point of Arches in O
Giant Green Anemone, Anthopleura xanthogrammica, with Pink Rock Crust, Lithothamnium pacificum (or related species), aka Encrusting Coral, at Point of Arches

Ochre Sea Star at Point of Aches in Olympic National Park
Ochre Sea Star, Pisaster ochraceus, aka Purple Sea Star or Common Sea Star, with arms around an anemone, at Point of Arches near mussel beds at low tide

Ochre Sea Star at Point of Aches in Olympic National Park
Ochre Sea Star, Pisaster ochraceus, aka Purple Sea Star or Common Sea Star, and Six-rayed Sea Star, Leptasterias hexactis, at Point of Arches near mussel beds at low tide

Man Walking on Shi Shi Beach in Olympic National Park
Man walking in the morning sea spray mist on Shi Shi Beach

Sunset at Point of Arches in Olympic National Park
Hikers and Point of Arches rocks at sunset

Egregia menziesii Kelp in Olympic National Park
Feather Boa Kelp, Egregia menziesii, stranded and casting shadows on the sand of Shi Shi Beach

Point of Arches in Olympic National Park
The rocks of Point of Arches nearing sunset

Patterns of Pacific Ocean Wave Receding in Olympic National Park
Pattern formed by water rushing back to the ocean as a wave recedes

Hiking on Shi Shi Beach in Olympic National Park
Karen Rentz hiking on Shi Shi Beach

Black-tailed Deer Doe and Fawn in Olympic National Park
Columbian Black-tailed Deer, Odocoileus hemionus columbianus, near backpacking tent on Shi Shi Beach

Leg Lift of a Young Woman in Olympic National Park
An athletic young backpacking couple having fun on Shi Shi Beach

Black Oystercatcher in Olympic National Park
Black Oystercatcher, Haematopus bachmani, gathering at Willoughby Creek, a source of freshwater on Shi Shi Beach

Black Oystercatcher in Olympic National Park
Black Oystercatcher, Haematopus bachmani, at Willoughby Creek

Common Raven on Shi Shi Beach in Olympic National Park
Common Raven, Corvus corax, strutting on Shi Shi Beach

Northern Kelp Crabs at Point of Arches in Olympic National Park
Northern Kelp Crabs, Pugettia producta, aka Spider Crab, in a tide pool with a lot of hermit crabs at Point of Arches

in Olympic National Park
Frosted Nudibranch, Dirona albolineata, in a tide pool at Point of Arches

Smooth Bay Shrimp at Point of Arches in Olympic National Park
Smooth Bay Shrimp, Lissocrangon stylirostris, aka Sand Shrimp and Crangon stylirostris, found in tide pools at Point of Arches

Leather Star in Olympic National Park
Leather Star, Dermasterias imbricata, out of the water at low tide at Point of Arches

Red Crab at Point of Arches in Olympic National Park
Red Crab, Cancer productus, in a tide pool at Point of Arches

Giant Green Anemone at Point of Arches in Olympic National Park
Giant Green Anemone, Anthopleura xanthogrammica, with marks in sand where tentacles withdrew as tide went down

Emarginate Dogwinkle at Point of Arches n Olympic National Park
Striped Dogwinkle, Nucella emarginata, aka Emarginate Dogwinkle, with barnacles on rocky substrate at low tide at Point of Arches

Channeled Dogwinkle Laying Eggs at Point of Arches n Olympic Nat
Channeled Dogwinkle, Nucella canaliculata, laying eggs on rocky substrate at low tide at Point of Arches

Six-rayed Sea Star at Point of Arches in Olympic National Park
Six-rayed Sea Star, Leptasterias hexactis, during an extreme low tide at Point of Arches

Black Turban at Point of Arches in Olympic National Park
Black Turban, Tegula funebralis, aka Black Tegula, snails in a surge channel at Point of Arches

Giant Green Anemone and Pink Rock Crust at Point of Arches in Ol
Giant Green Anemone, Anthopleura xanthogrammica, with Pink Rock Crust, Lithothamnium pacificum (or related species), aka Encrusting Coral, at Point of Arches

Sea Cave at Point of Arches in Olympic National Park
Karen Rentz inside a sea cave of Point of Arches at low tide

A Large Arch at Point of Arches in Olympic National Park
Rock formations with a large arch at Point of Arches at low tide

A Large Arch at Point of Arches in Olympic National Park
Rock formations with a large arch and photographer’s shadow at Point of Arches at low tide

Couple on Shi Shi Beach in Olympic National Park
Couple holding hands while walking on Shi Shi Beach

Point of Arches and Shi Shi Beach in Olympic National Park
Rock formations of Point of Arches

California Beach Flea on Shi Shi Beach in Olympic National Park
California Beach Flea, Megalorchestia californiana, males fighting over a burrow near the high tide line on Shi Shi Beach

Sunset at Point of Arches in Olympic National Park
Point of Arches rocks at sunset

Sunset at Point of Arches in Olympic National Park
Point of Arches rocks at sunset

Sunset at Point of Arches in Olympic National Park
Point of Arches rocks at sunset

Point of Arches and Shi Shi Beach in Olympic National Park
Rock formations of Point of Arches with a tide pool along Shi Shi Beach at low tide

Ripples in Sand on Shi Shi Beach in Olympic National Park
Sandy shore ripples of Shi Shi Beach at low tide

Point of Arches and Shi Shi Beach in Olympic National Park
Rock formations of Point of Arches with the sandy surface of Shi Shi Beach at low tide

Point of Arches and Shi Shi Beach in Olympic National Park
Rock formations of Point of Arches with the rippled surface of Shi Shi Beach at low tide

Bull Kelp and Shadows on Shi Shi Beach in Olympic National Park
Bull Kelp, Nereocystis luetkeana, stipe stranded and dried and casting curving shadows on Shi Shi Beach

Wooden Pallet Washed up on Shi Shi Beach in Olympic National Par
Wooden pallet that has been at sea for a while, as evidenced by its load of large barnacles

in Olympic National Park
By-the-wind Sailor, Velvella velvella, aka Sail Jellyfish, stranded on Shi Shi Beach

Wet Sand at Low Tide on Shi Shi Beach in Olympic National Park
Wet sand on Shi Shi Beach after a wave subsided

Bull Kelp and Shadows on Shi Shi Beach in Olympic National Park
Bull Kelp, Nereocystis luetkeana

Boardwalk along Trail to Shi Shi Beach through the Makah Reserva
Boardwalk along the trail through the Makah Reservation forest on the way to Shi Shi Beach

Western Redcedar Bark Stripped from Tree on Makah Reservation
Traditional technique of removing strip of Western Redcedar, Thuja plicata, bark (for use in basketry and other crafts) from trees along the trail through the Makah Reservation on the way to Shi Shi Beach

 

If you want to visit Shi Shi Beach and Point of Arches, you need three permits:

Olympic National Park’s Wilderness Camping Permit. You can get this permit and a mandatory bear canister at Olympic National Park’s Wilderness Information Center at Port Angeles. The cost is $8 per person for overnight wilderness camping as of 2018.

Makah Nation’s Recreation Permit. As of 2018 this was a $10 per year hangtag for your car.

Parking Permit  Bring cash of $10 per day as of June 2018; this link also has great detailed information about the hike.

In addition, you really need to know how to read tide tables, both for safety and to get the most out of a coastal hike. Go to tides.net as a place to start, using the nearby Tatoosh Island and Cape Flattery tide charts. We prefer to explore tide pools when the tides are minus tides, such as -2.3 ft. or thereabouts. Read up on tides.

This is one of the premier nature hikes in North America: GO!

GALAXIES OF DUCKS: Science and Telling a Story

Seattle_Green_Lake-203A swirling galaxy of Northern Shovelers feeding

Inspiration can come when I least expect it. The winter day was gray and dry, and cold for Seattle, with temperatures hovering around 25°F. Ice was forming where small waves lapped against the shore of Green Lake, one of my favorite places to get some exercise when visiting the big city. But I was cold today and couldn’t get up the gumption to go jogging, so I took my camera for a bird walk.

The crows were having a convention, and looked strikingly sinister when silhouetted against a gray sky. I found some tiny birds foraging in the birch trees along the waterfront; several ladies stopped and asked what the tiny birds were; I wasn’t sure yet, because they were moving rapidly and were a little ways away from me. One of the women thought they were Bushtits, which I had seen in this location on my last trip to Green Lake, but it turned out that they were Golden-crowned Kinglets, feeding and in constant motion among the birch branches. They were so fast that they were extremely difficult to photograph.

Seattle_Green_Lake-378Crows high in a birch tree, facing into the wind

Then a couple from Boston came up and asked if I had seen the big bird with the long legs standing in the water. I hadn’t, but I explained that it was almost certainly a Great Blue Heron. Almost immediately, an enthusiastic young woman came up, pushing her baby in a stroller, and asked if I would like to see the picture she had just taken on her iPhone. I said I would, and she had a good photo of what was probably the same heron. I asked where she had seen it, and she pointed across the bay to “where the ducks are.” Since I wanted to see the ducks, and they were not floating on this cold and windy part of the lake, I decided to head that way. I stopped at my car to pick up a layer of puffy down, because I was getting chilled.

When I reached the dock near the community center, I noticed a lot of Northern Shoveler ducks intensely feeding, and thought that someone was illegally tossing bread to the waterfowl. Then I realized that the ducks were crowded together in three clusters, each group swirling around in a tight circular pattern. I estimated that there were between 50 and 100 birds in each circle, so it was a lot of ducks engaging in a behavior I had never seen before.

At this point my sense of wonder kicked into high gear, and I wanted to know more. Northern Shoveler ducks have a disproportionately large and spoon-shaped bill, which is structured for surface feeding. Their mouth anatomy reminds me of baleen whales in the way they filter tiny plants and animals from the water. Typically, I see a Northern Shoveler motoring along, with its bill just under the surface, busily gathering its food as it swims. But I had never seen shovelers working together while feeding.

Seattle_Green_Lake-350Northern Shoveler male feeding in a typical manner, with its bill just below the surface; with this behavior, it filters small plants and animals from the surface

Seattle_Green_Lake-260In contrast, this group of Northern Shoveler ducks was feeding communally; there must be some advantages to clustering and feeding together

Apparently the circular motion stirs up the water and sediments, and I suspect that it generates a current that brings food from the bottom mud toward the surface. This kind of current has been scientifically demonstrated in the feeding behavior of phalaropes–a small bird that must make itself dizzy spinning in circles on the surface of the water. Perhaps the action of many shovelers working together can create a similar effect.

This shoveler behavior has, of course, been described before, but it was new to me and perhaps not commonly seen, at least with so many birds at once. A fellow blogger, Greg Gillson, described it in this entry: Feeding Habits of the Northern Shoveler. And I saw one video on youtube of three shovelers engaged in the same behavior, going ’round and ’round and ’round.

My challenge in the field was to show the behavior through photography. I snapped a few photographs to record the scene, but quickly realized that freezing the action in a quick shot did not show the pattern of movement and was not an artistic portrayal of the ducks. I decided to concentrate on long exposures to blur the movement of the ducks, but hopefully record the sense of motion. It worked! The motion shots told the scientific story of the feeding behavior, but were also beautiful in their own right. The form reminds me of the spiral shapes of galaxies.

Seattle_Green_Lake-237

Seattle_Green_Lake-224These two photographs show the difference between freezing the motion and using a longer exposure to show the motion

When I am photographing, I constantly face choices like this, and my analytical left-brain and artistic right-brain skills have to work together to solve a problem. When successful, the pictures can tell an effective story.

Seattle_Green_Lake-267

Seattle_Green_Lake-291

Seattle_Green_Lake-220I ended up really liking the motion shots; I took nearly 300 images while experimenting with the rapidly changing composition and while trying different shutter speeds

Seattle_Green_Lake-99One of my Golden-crowned Kinglet photographs that started the afternoon

Seattle_Green_Lake-76Crows noisily flushing from a battered tree that seemed somehow perfectly appropriate 

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com (just ask to email you a small version of a particular photograph you like if you can’t find it on the site; my website is not up to date). 

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my NEW website at Lee Rentz Photography or go to my Flickr Photostream.

HAWAII: The Grace of Sea Turtles

Green Sea Turtle Swimming among Coral Reefs off Big Island of HaA Green Sea Turtle swims over a shallow coral reef using its powerful front legs for propulsion

Karen and I were snorkling in a coral reef area south of Kona, working hard to stay together despite all the distractions of colorful fish everywhere among coral canyons. When I looked toward her, I was astonished to see a Green Sea Turtle swimming right between Karen and me, about five feet away from each of us. I couldn’t shout with glee without drowning, so instead I took pictures as we swam parallel to the turtle through the tropical aqua sea. It was enchanting.

 The music for this video is from the song Silver Creek, by the German duo DOKAPI. More information and a link to their website is at the end of this article.

Pacific Green Sea Turtle and Snorkeler Swimming off the Big Isla

This was the third sea turtle I had seen on this trip. The day before, both of us had observed one basking on a narrow strip of sand beach, where it shared the space with scores of humans. It seemed content to be there, and even used its flippers to toss sand onto its back.

Pacific Green Sea Turtle Swimming off the Big Island of Hawaii

The endearing thing about sea turtles is their grace. Most of us humans are water nerds, graceless and gangly and splashing. In contrast, the sea turtle moves with the cadence of time itself. The swimming is slow and graceful, as if it got extra points for style and poetry of motion.

Pacific Green Sea Turtle Swimming off the Big Island of Hawaii

This swimming sea turtle was covered with green algae. It looked like it needed to go to one of the natural cleaning stations that certain fish have set up in the sea. These sea salons are known to turtles and fish as places where they can go for a good grooming to have parasites and algae removed and gobbled down by specialized species of fish.

Pacific Green Sea Turtle Swimming off the Big Island of Hawaii

Pacific Green Sea Turtle Swimming off the Big Island of Hawaii

Pacific Green Sea Turtle Swimming off the Big Island of Hawaii

Pacific Green Sea Turtle Swimming off the Big Island of Hawaii

In contrast, the Green Sea Turtle I had photographed several days before looked like it had just come out of the turtle wash and had been waxed afterward. There was not a speck of visible algae on it; in fact, each plate on its back sported lines of subtle color that looked for all the world like soft brushstrokes in a watercolor painting. Against the aqua color of the sea, it was stunning.

Green Sea Turtle Swimming among Coral Reefs off Big Island of Ha

Green Sea Turtle Swimming among Coral Reefs off Big Island of Ha

Green Sea Turtle Swimming among Coral Reefs off Big Island of Ha

Green Sea Turtle Swimming among Coral Reefs off Big Island of Ha

The Green Sea Turtle lives around the world in the tropics, and is endangered. It gets caught accidentally in nets and is killed for its meat and shell. Fortunately, in Hawai‘i the sea turtles are revered, and everyone is ecstatic to see them. They have special beaches where they go to lay eggs, and it would be wonderful to see the hatchlings emerging and heading for the sea, but that will have to wait for another trip.

Green Sea Turtle Swimming among Coral Reefs off Big Island of Ha

Green Sea Turtle Swimming among Coral Reefs off Big Island of Ha

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com (just ask me to email you a small version of a particular photograph you like if you can’t find it on the site; my website is not up to date). 

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.

Music for the video in this article was created by the German duo DOKAPI. It was licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution–ShareAlike 2.5; go to opsound.org/info/license/ for more information. DOKAPI has a website at dokapi.de where you can find out more about their excellent music. Our video, Dream of the Sea Turtles, is available for use under the same terms of the ShareAlike 2.5 license. Contact us at lee@leerentz.com for information.

TWITCHING AND GRUNGE: A Day of Birding on the Washington Coast

Like water off a duck’s back: Common Eider 1st year male in winter plumage bathing in the saltwater of Westport Marina; the last time I saw this species was in Oswego Harbor in Upstate New York some 30 years ago

Once in a while I get an itch to twitch. Which means I have to convince Karen that there are some rare birds to be seen somewhere within a 200 mile drive that we really should add to our life lists.

Twitching is the now widely-accepted term for going long distances on a moment’s notice to see rare birds–an activity that began in the land of trainspotters and other great eccentrics: Great Britain. The British Isles are small enough that twitchers can go anywhere in pursuit of rare birds. The passion quickly spread to other European countries and to the USA and Canada. I know people who will hop on a plane to go and see a rare species on the opposite coast.

Back in the ancient 1980s, twitchers used phone trees to notify each other about rare birds and where they were being seen. This evolved into recorded phone messages as “birding hotlines.” Then, in the mid-1990s, the internet was hatched and birders started posting messages about birds they had seen. Here in Washington State, the regional resource is Tweeters, a great name for an internet posting group that is hosted by the University of Washington. I have followed Tweeters almost daily for about 15 years, so that I can find out about birding hotspots. Other regions have similar informal groups, where people can get emails of all the postings about birds. When smart phones became widely adopted, birders started posting about birds in real time from the field, and using apps to broadcast bird calls to bring in target birds (to some controversy). It has gotten exciting to be a birder in these technological times!

Anyway, word got out on Tweeters that Grays Harbor was suddenly hosting a variety of rare birds in late October, including a Northern Wheatear, Common Eider, Wilson’s Plover and several others. Of these, the Wheatear and Eider are usually Alaskans, while the Plover normally calls the Mexican and Gulf coasts home. They apparently decided to meet in the middle for a discussion of the changing climate.

Grays Harbor is often a terrific birding destination; last winter, Damon Point State Park, a sand spit that sticks out into Grays Harbor, was where a dozen or more Snowy Owls escaped the Arctic cold and spent a mild winter. The marina at Tokeland is a great place to observe over a hundred big and gangly shorebirds roosting and feeding together; these Marbled Godwits have wintered in this remote location for years.

Still more rarities have been seen around Grays Harbor lately. There was a Northern Mockingbird at the Tokeland Marina–way out of its normal range. A Tropical Kingbird was sighted at the Hoquiam Sewage Treatment Pond. Now, if you are not a passionate birder, the idea of staring intently through binoculars at a sewage treatment pond might seem a bit odd, but those of us who are truly odd don’t find it weird at all. Last Christmas break, Karen and I took Karen’s mother (on her birthday!) and father to see Snowy Owls at the Muskegon Sewage Treatment Facility in Michigan. It made for an “interesting” and aromatic day; but we did see the owls and enjoyed an aromatic picnic lunch at the facility, with a nice view of masses of gulls at the adjacent landfill mountain.

Immature Brown Pelican in flight over Grays Harbor

Back to Grays Harbor: we got to Westhaven State Park in Westport by 10:00 a.m. This is where the Northern Wheatear was being seen. I asked Karen to look for Subarus in the parking lot, as that would be a good indicator that Seattle-area birders were looking for the bird. Actually, the parking lot was almost full. In addition to all the older birders (including us), there were lots of surfers, kayakers, and dog walkers at the state park. We walked up a dune to where people were intently watching a jetty through spotting scopes, and found the bird. It was hyperactively foraging at one end of the jetty, and apparently did that continuously. We rarely saw it pause. To add to the fun, there was a Palm Warbler feeding among driftwood on the sand. The last Palm Warbler I had seen was in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where one was flying up to within a foot of my face and grabbing the black flies that were hovering there and making me miserable. I wasn’t able to photograph the Wheatear, as it vamoosed when we were approaching photographic range. Others were successful in photographing it, as some of the posts on Tweeters show.

We spent the rest of the day searching for other birds. We had great views of the behavior of the Common Eider as it dove and caught Dungeness Crabs in the Westport Marina. We dipped on the Wilson’s Plover: okay, I need to backtrack here and talk about British birding again. “Dipping” is another British birder-originated term for when you don’t manage to see the bird that you just drove 200 miles or flew 2,000 to see. It is discouraging, but it happens. We decided not to go look for the Tropical Kingbird at the Hoquiam Sewage Treatment Pond because it was getting late, it was raining, and we are wimps.

Common Loon in winter plumage doing a friendly leg wave

Near the end of the day, we drove a road through the cranberry farms near Grayland, and enjoyed seeing some the harvest, including huge bins full of fresh cranberries. There is an informative auto tour that you can take, and the guide is available online at Cranberry Bog Tour. There are also opportunities in the Westport Marina to take a chartered boat out for Halibut fishing during certain times of the year, as well as lingcod, salmon, and albacore tuna fishing. Pelagic birding trips are also available occasionally, where birders can see ocean-dwelling species that are otherwise hard to see.

This Eider of the Arctic adapted well to Grays Harbor, where it repeatedly dove and caught Dungeness Crabs in the Westport Marina

The only problem for the Common Eider was that a gull repeatedly hovered over it when it came up from a dive, and in this case successfully snatched the eider’s crab; the enraged eider then attacked the pirate, to no apparent success

Grays Harbor is famous for an entirely different reason. I was reminded of that when driving past the “Welcome to Aberdeen” sign that had a tourist slogan attached that said “Come as You Are.” I did a double-take at the sign and drove back to photograph it when I realized its subtle double meaning. Aberdeen is the small mill town and harbor on Grays Harbor where rock star Kurt Cobain was born and lived much of his life. “Come as You Are” was one of his great

songs, and a fitting memorial to him and his band, Nirvana, in a town that largely ignored his huge cultural contributions for many years. As an older guy, I considered his grunge style to be just noise for many years; lately I’ve started enjoying his music. I’ve always been slow to adapt new styles, though I was right in synch with the grunge era in my appreciation of old flannel shirts. Perhaps I’ll get a tattoo next … maybe of a Northern Wheatear (actually, in Portland recently I saw a young woman whose arms were covered with bird tattoos; I guess she took to heart the Portlandia slogan: “Put a bird on it!”

Harbor Seal and Common Loon

Nonbreeding adult Brown Pelican in flight near the jetty at Westhaven State Park

Yeah, I believe that birds evolved from dinosaurs!

Common Eider motoring to its lunch spot in the Westport Marina

Common Eider bathing after feeding

Loon staredown

Marinas in Washington State are among the best places to closely observe loons; they are accustomed to seeing people and are relatively approachable with a camera from the docks

Common Eider flapping its wings to adjust feathers after preening

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com (just ask to email you a small version of a particular photograph you like if you can’t find it on the site; my website is not up to date) 

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

YOHO NATIONAL PARK: The Day of the Wolverine

Wolverine carrying a dead Hoary Marmot

Karen and I were hiking to Lake Oesa, a turquoise gem in a mighty mountain cirque, on our first morning in Canada’s Yoho National Park, along with three companions who were behind us on the trail. We had stashed our gear in the Elizabeth Parker hut, then set out on the trail, first rounding part of Lake O’Hara, then climbing the switchbacks up the trail to a high bench studded with lakes.

At the first viewpoint, we paused to rest after the climb. While gazing out toward a tarn at the base of Yukness Mountain, I saw a large, dark animal crossing a sedge meadow next to the tarn, but within a couple of seconds it disappeared in a willow thicket. Karen caught a passing glimpse. My mind went through the possibilities. Black Bear? If so, it was a small bear, but it moved more nimbly than a bear. Wolverine? We couldn’t get that lucky–or could we? The legs were short, but the body relatively long. We thought through the two options, deciding it had to be a Wolverine.

The Wolverine ascended a steep boulder field

I went back along the trail a few yards and called to our companions that we had just seen a Wolverine. They laughed at my presumed joke and I said, “No, really–you’ve got to come and look for it!”

Anticipating the animal’s movement, Karen and I struggled to climb over rough talus to where we could get a better viewpoint if it continued to move along the base of the mountain. Bingo! We sighted it again. It was moving quickly among the sharp boulders at the base of the mountain. Hand-holding my 500mm lens, I managed to get a lot of photographs in a short time as the Wolverine made its way up through the boulders. It appeared to be carrying something heavy, which we decided was a big, fat marmot. Like a human making the same journey with a heavy pack, the Wolverine had to frequently stop and rest.

Setting down the marmot to rest during the steep ascent

For perhaps five minutes, we watched the Wolverine ascend the steep slope up to the next bench, and it disappeared from sight. Later, we talked to a photographer who was at the first lake on the bench, and he excitedly said that he had seen a Wolverine moving quickly past the lake, heading for higher country. We didn’t see it again, but I consider this to be one of the best wildlife sightings of our lives, since Wolverines are relatively scarce and rare to see.

Karen created video of the Wolverine while I did photography. To see her short video of the Wolverine in action, go to Wolverine Video.

Before I go on, I should mention that I am a Wolverine. Or at least that I grew up in the Wolverine State–Michigan–and graduated from the University of Michigan, where the sports teams are known as the Wolverines. But the namesake animal had not been seen in the state since the very early 1800s–until 2004, when a biologist saw and photographed a lone Wolverine ambling across a farm field in Michigan’s thumb, a most unlikely place to see a fierce predator. Before that, most of the Wolverines in the Wolverine State were furs that trappers to the north brought through the French-named ports of Sault Ste. Marie and Detroit.

Wolverines are opportunistic predators that can take down much larger animals in deep snow, and they are known to dig marmots out of dens. For an excellent synopsis of Wolverine ecology and biology, go to the University of Michigan’s Animal Diversity Web.

From all the days and weeks we spend outdoors, there are a few moments we could never possibly forget. Our Wolverine sighting at Yoho National Park was one of those times, and was the highlight of our trip to Lake O’Hara, which I believe is the most beautiful place we have ever experienced in North America.

The color pattern on the fur is distinctive

The Wolverine was adept at finding its way through the maze of boulders

Wolverines often enter deep into a hibernating marmot’s den to snatch the marmot for a late fall or winter meal

Wolverines have a reputation as fierce predators who can defend their prey against bears and wolves that try to steal a free meal

This Seattle Mountaineers photography trip into the Canadian Rockies was ably led by Linda Moore. Yoho National Park is, in my opinion, the most beautiful place in the Canadian Rockies and perhaps in all of North America. For more information about Yoho National Park, go to the Parks Canada web site.

For another entry in my weblog about Yoho National Park, go to Ice.

Go to LeeRentz.com to view the range of work by Lee Rentz. Work is available as metal or archival paper prints, and most are available for licensing for websites, magazines, and books.