UNUSUAL VISITOR FROM EAST OF THE MOUNTAINS – It seems we always get a few unusual birds stopping by during migration season. The black-necked stilt that has been attracting birders to Hayton Reserve on Fir Island this past week is just such a bird. A shorebird that forages in wetlands and along coastlines, both along the California coast and the eastside of the Cascades, its migratory populations typically winter in the most southern parts of the U.S., southern Mexico and along the Baja California peninsula. 	                                                                                                                                    –  Photo by Nancy Crowell
UNUSUAL VISITOR FROM EAST OF THE MOUNTAINS – It seems we always get a few unusual birds stopping by during migration season. The black-necked stilt that has been attracting birders to Hayton Reserve on Fir Island this past week is just such a bird. A shorebird that forages in wetlands and along coastlines, both along the California coast and the eastside of the Cascades, its migratory populations typically winter in the most southern parts of the U.S., southern Mexico and along the Baja California peninsula. – Photo by Nancy Crowell

I am back at the Wylie Game Range, where I take regular walks for exercise as well as to assess the changing environment. Each time there are different animal participants. In mid-September I was walking over the culvert road going to the wildlife parking lot and office. There were four gadwall ducks on the left side between the two road culverts. They acted upset and swam towards me which is unusual. I noticed behind them an obvious line of surface ripples made by something pursuing them. All the ducks but one flew; the last one swam within ten feet of me. Within seconds an otter broke the surface close to the duck, which then flew. When the otter saw me it dove and disappeared. Otters can easily swim several hundred feet underwater at more than eight miles per hour. 

As I entered the footpath on top of the dike, I noticed an old friend. An unusual grasshopper species dwells here. They like the fine grade crushed rock surface and are mostly found here. If you flush one three or four times over 100 to 200 feet, it will fly back around you to stay within its territory. This year most appear smaller than usual and not as numerous. They are the only grasshoppers I’ve encountered that acts territorial. 

As I moved on, recall told me that four to five years ago there was an abundance of European slugs on the path. My shoe soles will attest to this.

Several hundred slugs might have been in transit to the woods just 60 feet away. It also occurred to me that garter snakes were absent. Only one snake was seen in the last five weeks. Most people are unaware that a large portion of the snake’s diet is tasty, easy to swallow slugs. 

Solved the question of why so few snakes: It is because of the lack of slugs. There are very large rocks up to 1,000 pounds placed on the dike road on the top south rim. This was to prevent large logs and storm surge from breaking over the top of the dike. As a secondary benefit, the snakes crawled under these rocks to hibernate. It is warm, dry and protected from most predators. On the right days in spring you might encounter dozens of snakes crossing your path to the woods on the other side of the road. 

As I approached the mudflats on the south side of the dike opposite the photo blind, shorebirds seemed largely absent. September used to see a heavy influx of these birds. Four to five years ago there would normally be up to six or more shorebird species feeding as the tide comes in. By late September, I had only seen one large flock of peeps (a grouping of three very similar small shorebirds). It could be that the birds are following a different route south because of the lack of rainfall and the resulting fewer ponds. 

The duckling count in front of the photo blind was very low, averaging only 50 to 60 birds. This time three or four years ago there would have been some 300 ducklings. 

There also seems to be a lot less dragonflies and damselflies. Three years ago a merlin, a small falcon, was hunting dragonflies every day in front of the bird photo blind. This went on for two months and the raptor nearly removed all these swift flying insect eaters. This year there are no merlins hunting for these insects and there are only a few dragonflies. 

With a lack of flying insects, the swallow population looks bad. Tree swallows were nesting into July which is very uncommon for this species.