Finding wildlife on Douglas beaches

Posted: Sunday, September 02, 2007

Sandy and gravely beaches support less diversity of animals than rocky beaches. But they are not necessarily "boring," contrary to the opinion of one of my friends. And small children find numerous treasures, including special stones, eagle feathers, stranded sea-stars, and cockleshells.

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Another friend sent me this quote from Joseph Wood Krutch, a well-known naturalist: "The rare moment is not the moment when there is something worth looking at, but the moment when we are capable of seeing."

With that in mind, here are some notes from a walk on a "boring" beach.

In June and July, I made almost-weekly trips from Sandy Beach south to the mouth of Ready Bullion Creek. Starting at the end of St. Ann's Avenue just above the beach, the first part of the way passes through the historic Treadwell Mine area, full of ruined buildings and assorted rusting relics of the old mining era. Of more interest to a curious naturalist is the lovely stand of tall alders and cottonwoods, with a lush, dense understory. This narrow strip of habitat attracts Swainson's thrushes, fox sparrows, and several species of warbler that seldom occur in a conifer forest. While walking this part of the trail, one hears not only the birds of the deciduous forest, but also birds of the conifer forest uphill from the trail and beach birds on the downhill side of the trail.

After passing under the zipline and through what I've always called the "Poison Pit" (a biologically sterile patch of ground that has, however, recently been covered with new soil and re-seeded), the trail drops to the beach. On a low tide, it is an easy walk down to Ready Bullion - and, if one wishes, south to Marmion Island at the tip of Douglas Island.

In addition to buttercups and yarrow, one can find the lacy, white inflorescences of beach lovage and what I think is Pacific hemlock-parsley. Such are common names, though they have nothing to do with love or hemlock trees or parsley! There are good stands of the edible plantain known as goose-tongue.

Spotted sandpipers nested just above the high-tide line in several places, and by mid-July, little families, with unspotted chicks, were foraging at the water's edge. Spotted sandpipers typically have an unusual mating arrangement. A female often mates with several males, leaving the first one to incubate the first clutch of four eggs while she courts the second male, then leaving him to tend a second clutch while she again moves on. Nice arrangement! There aren't many birds in the world that have this curious custom.

But what I enjoyed the most in late June and July were the raven families. When the fledglings were newly out of the nest, they sat in clubby little bunches on a log or a rock, jostling each other and yelling to their parents for food. Their vivid pink mouth-linings clearly identified them as juveniles (mouths of the adults are black).

A week or two later, they were foraging fairly effectively, spread out up and down the beach. I watched one clean out the body cavity of a Dungeness crab and pick a little from the base of the legs. Another one had a flatfish about seven inches long and was resolutely demolishing it, using a huge log for a table. It took him a long time, picking and tweaking and flipping the fish around, and he loved that poor fish so much that I could walk right up to him without disturbing his lunch. He just turned his back and went on snacking.

An adult raven, probably one of the parents, found a large cockle on the sand. This bird flew up and dropped the cockle on some rocks, breaking the shell. It then made short work of the juicy bits inside. I imagine it takes the juveniles some time to learn to use this trick effectively.

A pair of American dippers nested a short distance up Ready Bullion Creek, placing their nest deep in a cleft of a cliff. I was able to follow the progress of this nesting attempt from the gathering of moss to build the nest, through the long incubation period and the busy time of feeding nestlings, to the eventual successful fledging of the brood. Although this was the original motivation for the weekly walk, I felt that this was only one of several rewards for my effort.

• Mary F. Willson is a retired professor of ecology and a Trail Mix board member.



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