Posted tagged ‘tree’

BANFF NATIONAL PARK: Friendly Relations Between Clark’s Nutcracker and Whitebark Pine

October 30, 2010

A Clark’s Nutcracker, face stained red (I’m not sure why), using its sharp bill to probe between the pine cone scales of Whitebark Pine for pine nuts

We hiked along the shore of turquoise Bow Lake, then up through the conifer forest to timberline, where there was a dense stand of Whitebark Pines. We paused at a viewpoint, looking out over a barren and rocky basin that looked as if a glacier had just left. The silence of the place was loudly interrupted by the arrival of a gray, black, and white bird yelling “khaa-khaa-khaa!” The Clark’s Nutcracker completely ignored us, and immediately begain feeding on the Whitebark Pine cones, prying open the scales and extracting the big pine nuts within. We didn’t realize it at the time, but what we were witnessing was one of the great ecological stories of the Rocky Mountains.

I love pine nuts. Their resinous flavor is a great addition to salads, especially when they are toasted in olive oil with salt and fresh-ground pepper in a hot pan. Our pine nuts come from Costco, already shelled and in small bags imported from Asia (nuts which gourmets consider inferior to those imported from Spain and Portugal). Lord knows we don’t need the calories, but the nuts sure are good. In nature, the calories in Whitebark Pine nuts are crucial to wildlife, including Clark’s Nutcrackers, Red Squirrels, Black Bears, and Grizzly Bears. Since the nuts are 52% fat and 21% protein, they give bears the energy for a long winter and birds and squirrels a lot of energy in one big (compared to most seeds) package.

A 55 second video of a Clark’s Nutcracker calling and extracting a pine nut from a Whitebark Pine cone

Scientists have studied Clark’s Nutcrackers extensively, because these birds have coevolved with Whitebark Pine–each becoming dependent upon the other. The nutcrackers get the nuts, of course, which are vitally important as food for adults and young. The pine, as well, has become dependent on the birds for spreading its seeds around. This is because the nutcracker caches most of its seeds, rather than consuming them immediately. The birds cache from one to 30 seeds–but typically three to five–burying them under about an inch of gravelly soil. Some caches are forgotten: after all, who can possibly remember the location of the 9,500 to 30,000 small caches that each bird makes? Those forgotten caches, wetted by the rains and snows of the high country, will often sprout new seedlings that hope to become the forests of tomorrow.

Balancing high on cones and twigs in a high wind sometimes requires using wings for balance

What is remarkable is how effective a bird is at remembering most of its caches. Clark’s Nutcrackers are related to ravens, jays, and crows, a group of birds that goes far beyond the label of “bird brains.” Ravens play like humans do, sliding down snowy slopes and cackling with glee. Crows are smart enough to remember individual human faces. Jays, such as the Steller’s Jays at my feeder, certainly know me as the source of their whole peanuts. Clark’s Nutcrackers, like their relatives, are intelligent and have good spacial mapping abilities, so that they can find the nuts they’ve stored.

Their acrobatic abilities are also well developed, with the ability to balance on cones and branches, in windy conditions, while opening cones with the long, strong bill. When they extract a seed, they first hold it in the bill, then deftly store it in a pouch under the tongue. When the pouch is full, they fly off to a suitable spot on the ground and create a cache for the stored nuts.

Clark’s Nutcrackers harvest the pine nuts from mid-summer until sometime in October. They use the caches during the season when seeds are unavailable–especially for feeding the young. During the nut harvest season, they compete with Red Squirrels for the nuts, and sometimes with Black Bears who climb the trees to get at the cones. The squirrels snip off branches and carry them to storage piles, called middens. Grizzly Bears and Black Bears will often raid these middens, taking the easy way out to get a big load of rich calories for minimal effort prior to their long winter’s sleep. I’m sure this makes the squirrels really mad, but that’s just the way it goes in nature, where tooth and claw (literally, in the case of bears) rules.

Whitebark Pines are beautiful trees, even in death, and I have several times photographed their bleached white skeletons on windy ridges of the Olympic and Cascade Mountains. But there are more of these skeletons than I would like to see, which is the result of two diseases that ravage the pines. The first is White Pine Blister Rust, which is a disease introduced to Europe and North America, apparently from Asia. This blister rust is a fungus that has a complex life cycle, which requires the fungus to also have a gooseberry/current shrub as a host, and depends upon airborne spores to travel between the pines and the gooseberry bushes. It kills pines in the white pine group, which have five needles, a group that includes Eastern White Pine, Sugar Pine, Whitebark Pine, and several others. The best way to control the disease is to eliminate all gooseberry and current bushes from an area, which is a major undertaking.

Whitebark Pine (photographed in Washington State) probably dying from a Mountain Pine Beetle infestation

The second killer of pines is the Mountain Pine Beetle, which has devastated huge sections of the Rocky Mountains in Canada and the USA. Lodgepole Pines have been hit especially hard by the beetle, which drills into the living tissue of the pine, preventing the tissue from carrying nutrients. Where a rocky mountain forest has been badly hit, a whole mountainside looks rusty red instead of green; it is ugly. Foresters and ecologists believe that a long series of warmer and drier summers, perhaps an outcome of global warming, has tipped the balance in favor of the killer beetle by allowing bigger populations of the beetle to survive the winters in the high country. When we were in Canada, some mills appeared  to be specializing in taking truckload after truckload of pines killed by the beetle.

Whitebark Pine struggling for life in the high country of Olympic National Forest in Washington

Think of the consequences of the deaths of so many Whitebark Pines: Clark’s Nutcrackers would go into a steep decline without the ready supply of nuts; Whitebark Pines wouldn’t have the nutcrackers spreading around their seeds, so fewer seedlings would get a start; and squirrels and bears would lose an energy-rich food source, probably reducing their numbers.  All in all, the forests at timberline would be ghostly and quiet with death, their white trunks gleaming under a full moon.

A pine nut in its bill, this Clark’s Nutcracker will temporarily store this nut in a pouch under its tongue, then will fly off to cache the nut, with several others, under the soil on a mountain slope

We watched and photographed the Clark’s Nutcracker for about fifteen minutes; there were several in the vicinity, but it seems like one persistent individual kept returning to the same clump of trees. The noisy activity was a delight to watch.

For more information about Whitebark Pines and their role as a keystone species in the high Rockies, go to:

Banff National Park Whitebark Pine

Whitebark Pine Ecosystem Foundation

US Fish & Wildlife Service Endangered Species

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.

SKINNED ALIVE: A Black Bear Story

August 5, 2010

Pacific Silver Fir bark stripped by a hungry Black Bear

When we panted our way up to Hemlock Pass on the trail to Melakwa Lake, Karen noticed a big tree, perhaps 20′ from the trail, that had its lower bark removed. Examining it, we discovered that the tree had been skinned alive by an American Black Bear, and that two other trees in the vicinity had experienced the same fate.

This was actually the fourth time we have seen this phenonmenon; in all cases in the Cascade and Olympic Mountains. When bears emerge from hibernation in the spring, they are REALLY hungry, and where there are no people or pic-a-nic baskets to consume, they turn to trees. Specifically, to the Pacific Silver Fir, though they are known to have less than selective taste in trees and will consume others as necessary. But the Pacific Silver Fir is apparently the caviar of trees, and is targeted.

Vertical tooth marks and diagonal claw marks

Can you imagine a bear coming up to a tree, delicately sniffing the bark and nibbling it to see if the taste is something exquisite? No? Neither can I. Instead, the bear roughly uses its claws to rip and shred the outer bark from a tree, then uses its front teeth (not its canines) to scrape the nutrient-rich phloem layer, which we call the “inner bark,” and consume the sugary treat. Mmmmmm …

You might think that foresters would dislike this bear habit, because it often girdles the trees and kills them. Right again! Foresters have long wrestled with strategies for discouraging bears from eating trees, even going so far as to put “vending machines” out in the woods where bears can get a treat that has similar nutritional properties as the trees, and is a lot easier for a lazy bear to exploit. Though I’m not sure where the bears are supposed to get the quarters for the vending machines … perhaps from campers’ pockets while they are “safely” asleep in their thin nylon tents?

Front tooth marks where the bear has scraped off the inner bark

Bear damage either kills or slows the growth of a tree

SEATTLE’S ARBORETUM: Pretty in Pink

March 16, 2010

Magnolia ‘Caerhays Belle’

Spring continues in the Puget Sound region, with wave after wave of blooming flowers coloring the warming days.  Lately, the wind-pollinated tree flowers of alder are spreading their evil fairy dust over the region, causing congestion in me and many others.  At night, the Pacific Treefrogs tweet from the wetlands across our lake, sending brief messages of love using the broadband of damp air.  Indian Plum and the gorgeous Red-flowering Current are the natives now blooming on our property.  The first pair of Wood Ducks in love showed up for their rite of spring today, and in a couple of months we should see their babies jumping from a nest box along the lake.

Home is where my heart is, but Seattle’s Washington Park Arboretum is where most of the flowers are, so I journeyed there on a recent warm spring day.  I’ll let the pictures speak for the plants, but I should say that this was the day of the magnolias for me, with magnolia buds and blossoms and fallen petals creating a beautiful backdrop of pink so achingly lovely that it almost made me question my masculinity.  But not quite.

Fallen Camellia Petals

A rustic staircase ascends a ferny hill

Fallen Pink Magnolia blossoms, Magnolia mollicomata X M. Campbellii

Magnolia ‘Caerhays Belle’

Magnolia ‘Caerhays Belle’

Fallen petal of Pink Magnolia (Magnolia mollicomata X M. Campbellii)

Magnolia Flower Bud (variety unknown)

Lookout Gazebo at the Washington Park Arboretum

Looking out of the Lookout Gazebo

Bark of Paperbark Cherry, Prunus serrula

Emerging fern fiddleheads

Burls on an ancient tree

Redwood Sorrel, Oxalis oregana

Opening leaf buds of Tibetan Peony, Paeonia lutea var. ludlowii

And now for a special surprise:  an orange traffic cone reflected in wet pavement within the Washington Park Arboretum

Magnolia stellata ‘Royal Star’

Magnolia ‘Raspberry Ice’ flower bud

Fern Fiddlehead

Indian Plum, Oemieria cerasiformis, a native shrub of the Pacific Coast

Harry Lauder’s Walking Stick with Royal Star Magnolia

Skeletal remains of a leaf of Pink Magnolia (Magnolia mollicomata X M. Campbellii)

Lenten Rose, Helleborus x hybridus

Cherry blossoms and buds

Graceful shapes in the bark of Snow Gum, Eucalyptus pauciflora, an Australian native

Camellia (Camellia sp.) blooming

For more information about Seattle’s Washington Park Arboretum, go to: http://depts.washington.edu/wpa/index.htm I also have an earlier story about the Arboretum at https://leerentz.wordpress.com/2010/02/12/spring-in-seattle/

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


Golden Alpine Larches in the Cascade Mountains

October 13, 2009

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Alpine Larches in Headlight Basinss

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Vermont has its fiery autumn Sugar Maples that can take your breath away with a sudden shot of intensity, and walking through a Colorado Trembling Aspen forest at the shining peak of autumn is transcendent. Washington’s Cascade Mountains are cloaked in deep shades of green most of the year, but in late autumn, there is a spectacle that rivals the wondrous feeling of autumn in more easterly parts of America.

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At timberline, in the rugged and ragged jumble of rocks and scree slopes that mark the ridges and upper basins of the Cascades, Alpine Larches gather in their favorite haunts.  There, reaching like candle flames toward the deep blue sky, they briefly blaze brilliant gold, before being extinguished by frigid nights and heavy snows.

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Needles with the color of Burnished Goldss

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Hikers here consider it an autumn ritual to trudge ever upward along a steep trail to get into larch country.  There may be a place or two in Washington where people can drive up to see a few Alpine Larches, but the best displays are in the wildest country.

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Headlight_Creek_Basin-103The feathery needles of Alpine Larch turn golden for a brief autumn moment..

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Karen and I looked at the forthcoming weather, and decided that October 11 looked great, with clear blue skies and on-line reports that the Alpine Larches were reaching perfection.  The downside was that an arctic air mass was the reason for the beautiful October skies, so we expected cold.  Really cold.  As in, too cold to backpack all the necessary warm clothing and gear plus all my camera equipment.  So we decided to car camp on Saturday, then get an early start for hiking on Sunday morning.

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We looked at four possible destinations, including Hart’s Pass (which has a wonderfully scary, one-lane, rough gravel road around a blind curve, hugging a cliff with a 3,000 foot vertical drop), Blue Lake, Maple Pass, and Headlight Basin below Ingalls Pass.  All are great, but for various reasons we chose Headlight Basin this year.

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We arrived at dusk at a free timber company campground in the Teanaway Valley, just outside the boundary of the Okanogan – Wenatchee National Forest.  We had just finished an exquisite 37th anniversary dinner (yeah, we’re old!) at a favorite restaurant, Valley Cafe in Ellensburg, where we both had a rich seafood medley spiced with coconut and curry and based on heavy cream.  It was wonderful, and the afterglow kept us warm through a night that dipped to 12°F by dawn.

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Our old North Face Bigfoot sleeping bags still keep us warm, and it was enjoyable (despite what fervent multitasker Karen says) to luxuriously sleep for 11 hours.  Besides, it was too frigid to poke our heads out to do anything else.  We arose

Headlight_Creek_Basin-2shortly after 7 a.m., although the alarm decided it was too cold to make a sound.  Karen was out of the tent first, and nearly had breakfast ready by the time I joined her.  My toothbrush, wet from the night before, was frozen solid, and toothpaste barely squeezed from the tube.  After all our morning rituals, we finally hit the trail just before 10:00 a.m., after parking in the last available site (later cars parked up and down the road).  As usual in this region, the parking lot was filled with Subarus and Toyotas, with hardly an American brand (such as our Pontiac Aztek) in sight.

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The trail climbed immediately, at first following an old mining road, then contouring and switchbacking up a well-maintained trail that led up through the subalpine forest.  Three miles and some 2,400′ of vertical gain later, we arrived at Ingalls Pass.  At the pass, we encountered our first glorious Alpine Larches, which blazed at their absolute peak of autumn glory.

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From the pass, Mt. Stuart towered just across the valley.  Washington’s sixth-highest peak, Mt. Stuart is a granite tooth that rises dramatically over the Stuart Range and is memorably seen from I-90 west of Ellensburg.  The peak was named in 1853 by General George B. McClellan (who was later fired by Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War) for a military colleague.  Today this area is part of the vast Alpine Lakes Wilderness, a stomping ground beloved by Seattle hikers and climbers.

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Headlight_Creek_Basin-21Alpine Larches with Mt. Stuart, a favorite climbers’ destination, in the distancess

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First, a bit of natural history about Alpine Larches (Larix lyallii).  These small trees are deciduous conifers, meaning they are more related to spruces than maples, but they do lose their needles each winter.  They are close relatives of Tamaracks, which inhabit bogs and boreal forests, and of Western Larches, which are big trees that thrive in the lower reaches of western mountains (I’ve seen a lot of them along I-90 through Idaho).  Alpine Larches grow right at timberline, sometimes with Headlight_Creek_Basin-58Whitebark Pines and Subalpine Firs, and sometimes as pure stands.  Their soft green needles are beautiful in spring and summer, but exquisite when they turn in the fall.  Daniel Mathews’ excellent Cascade–Olympic Natural History has a comprehensive discussion of the ecology and biology of this species.

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For the half mile beyond Ingalls Pass, the Alpine Larches were constant companions to hikers.  Most hikers on this day went on to Ingalls Lake, an alpine lake about a mile distant.  We chose to concentrate our limited time on the larches, and spent from 12:15 until 5:15 p.m. hiking and photographing among these beautiful trees.  Pikas, those small rabbit relatives who make haystacks under big boulders, squeaked in the background.  We also watched a vole get up the courage to run past us along Headlight Creek.  Chipmunks and Golden-mantled Ground Squirrels completed the mammals here, though shreds of Mountain Goat hair stuck to stiff branches along the trail.  Actually, when Karen was here this summer, backpacking with a friend, they saw eight Mountain Goats, several within a few yards of their camp in Headlight Basin.  These proud symbols of the high country were eating the soil where hikers had peed, just to get the salt.

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Headlight_Creek_Basin-29A Pika stops briefly atop a boulder to survey its talus field territory..

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While we explored Headlight Basin, the temperature was just over 20°F, so we wore down jackets, woolen hats, and mittens.  I became distracted by the ice covering parts of tiny Headlight Creek, and spent about an hour photographing the exquisite patterns of ice crystals.  There was also a wonderful lichen splattered over some of the big boulders, with an intense chartreuse color that seemed to glow in shade light.

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Headlight_Creek_Basin-94Fanciful shapes in the ice along Headlight Creek.

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Headlight_Creek_Basin-54A chartreuse lichen thrives on the north sides of boulders at timberline...

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At 4:30 p.m., wispy cirrus clouds threaded overhead, a reminder of the change in the weather coming tonight.  By 5:00, the sun was mostly behind the ridge, and the Alpine Larch flames were put out for the day, so we headed down shortly

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Headlight_Creek_Basin-40A grove of Alpine Larches at timberline above Headlight Basin..

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thereafter, trying to adjust our clothing to stay warm enough while hiking, but not sweating.  On the way down, we observed a pair of Clark’s Nutcrackers eating the seeds from treetop cones–something I had previously only seen once, on the same trail about ten years ago.

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We reached the parking lot at deep dusk after a wonderful day.

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Headlight_Creek_Basin-30A grove of Alpine Larches reach toward the deep blue mountain sky.

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Headlight_Creek_Basin-45Last light on the larches, as shadows descend on the basin..

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Headlight_Creek_Basin-24The highest pioneers in the cirque are many decades old, perhaps much older..

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Headlight_Creek_Basin-75I photographed Mt. Stuart while sitting on the Forest Service open-air toilet.  Really!.

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Headlight_Creek_Basin-89Above three photos:  Ice patterns along Headlight Creek.

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Headlight_Creek_Basin-27Alpine Larches live among rocks, often on relatively stable talus slopes..

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.For photographing larches, a clear blue sky is the perfect contrast..

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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

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

February 3, 2009

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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 …

 

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

NEW: 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 in the gallery below for versions with captions.