elusive aves

I doubt I will ever be able to capture them. Spotting them with my eyes is difficult enough, although hearing them, these days, is no problem at all. My ears are attuned to  birdsong, whether I want to hear it or not. Sitting and studying, then through an open window comes a call I haven’t heard before. What IS that? I’ve think I’ve positively identified one bird that lives near my home this spring by sound, although I haven’t seen it yet with my eyes, at least this year.

Spotted Towhee (Pipilo maculatus)

The Spotted Towhee (Pipilo maculatus) has a distinctive song and call. As I am a very inexperienced birder, I have not yet developed the knack of translating bird vocalizations to human speech (pip-pip-pip yeeee or trill-deep, trill-deep, just for examples). I won’t try to describe the Towhee. Click the link, listen. Have you one heard before? Probably. The Spotted Towhee is common in Washington. I think I’ve spotted one near my garden shed in another season, ruffling in piles of alder leaves. It seemed a silly thing for a bird to do, and it stuck in my mind.

harper high tide

Less elusive are the birds of the Harper Estuary. I’m able to both hear and see them, although I despair of capturing them on film. I don’t have the experience, patience, or equipment to get it right. Every time I go back, however, I add another bird to my list.My faithful companion at every visit is the Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) atop the Indian Plum (Oemleria cerasiformis; edible but bitter fruits pictured in the header photo) to the south of the culvert on the marine side. His call is also distinctive, and I nearly know the Red-winged Blackbird by sound alone.

Red-winged blackbird M
Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus)

Other birds I’ve seen often this spring at Harper include flocks of American Widgen (Anas americana), feeding at the water’s surface in the harbor, and American Crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos) scavenging on the beach for a snack.

Less common but still a frequent site at the estuary this spring is the Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias). I’ve only seen solitary Herons there thus far, and only once hunting for prey while standing in shallow water, but more usually flying above and away, neck tucked back with long legs trailing. They are one of my favorite birds; I feel lucky I see them so commonly here. Apparently they range over most of North and Central America, with a few rare sightings reported historically in Europe I was surprised learn that in spite of their large size, reaching 4 feet tall, Great Blue Heron may weigh only 5 pounds.

A couple of birds I’ve only had the pleasure of seeing once each at Harper Estuary this spring are the Rufous Hummingbird (Selasphorus rufus), buzzing at me as I sat watching the incoming tide from the comfort of my camp chair and fitting its reputation as “the feistiest hummingbird in North America”, and a solitary Mourning Dove (Zenaida macroura), with its distinctively spotted rump and pigeon-like manner, walking and pecking in the grass near the shore.The Mourning Dove is apparently extremely abundant in North American, and is also a game bird, shot for sport and sustenance here. I didn’t know!

My favorite sighting thus far while visiting Harper is certainly the Belted Kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon). I was able to watch her for some time with my binoculars one evening as she flew back and forth across the bay, from electrical wires along Southworth Drive to the trees near the freshwater marsh. Even hidden among the leaves I was able to spot her large body and dark blueish-gray and white feathers from far away. Each time she flew across the bay she gave a loud, rattling call. Her markings and manner were distinctive enough that I was able to accurately sketch her dark cape across her chest and reddish band below, along with her large, fluffy-crested head, and find her in my bird guide at my leisure once I got home.

Female Belted Kingfisher
Female Belted Kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon)

I’m interested to know what other birds have been spotted at Harper, and also to record what increase of birds and waterfowl may occur post-restoration. It’s already a lovely place to observe them; I can only imagine what increase in diversity and abundance might occur with an increase in suitable habitat here.



rocks first, birds later

I am hardly a birder. I was 19 before I even heard the term “birding” – on the bus ride into my summer job at Yellowstone National Park, hitched with a group of otherwise nondescript tourists, excepting a predominance of binoculars around necks.

We pulled off the main road from Mammoth Hot Springs to Tower-Roosevelt (my destination) abruptly, twisting and turning and eventually disembarking near the shores of a lake. Perhaps it was Blacktail Pond? Or Floating Lake Island? Both are acknowledged to be “good birding locations” in Yellowstone. I’m hazy on the details; more than 24 hours had passed since my head had felt the comfort of a pillow. The trip from my Pacific Northwest hometown to the park, mostly via Greyhound, had been uneventful, but hot and tiring. I was anxious to make it to Roosevelt Lodge, get my assignment – I had no idea what kind of work I would be doing – and pack it in for my first night in the world’s first national park.

I seemed to be the only one standing on the shores of this lake sans binoculars. I’d never spent time looking at birds before. Truth be told, at that time in my life I was there for the rocks, fresh from completing my first year of undergraduate studies toward a Geology degree. There was certainly excitement in the air among these birders, including another young employee heading to Roosevelt with me. With shaggy, unkempt hair, thick glasses, and a shy smile, my soon-to-be friend Sam probably loaned me his binoculars. He probably pointed out particular species to me. I’d like to say this experience transformed me into a birder, and I spent my summer learning to identify birds by their songs with Sam.

It didn’t happen that way. Of course I found many lovely kinds of granites and travertines and rock formations to explore that summer, not to mention other friendships more aligned with my earth-science-interests than Sam. I wasn’t against birding – I just wasn’t ready for it yet.


Fast forward twenty-some years ahead (25, to be precise, but who’s counting? Stop counting!) and I’m drinking my morning coffee out-of-doors rain or shine and listening intently. Birdsong, once background noise, is now discernible to the individuals, and even recognizable to some, very few as yet, species. I’m looking up male versus female markings and calls of common birds online. I’m using my bird guide and trying to figure out whether it’s reasonable to think I saw a varied thrush in my backyard in April. (It is, and I did!) Most often, when I hear or see a bird as yet unknown to me, I wish I had my Natural History professor, an avid and experienced birder, by my side to aid in identification.

It is to her I owe my new interest in Class Aves. I’m no kind of twitcher, by any means (it’s a birding term, I promise!). But I’ve been keeping my binoculars, and bird  book, close at hand.

bricks in the background



and the foreground, and underground.. There really are bricks all over the place here at the Harper Estuary. For the unfamiliar, a historical primer on Yukon Harbor and the Harper Brick Factory:

In the early 20th century the Harper Brick Factory was built on top of the salt marshes and beaches of Harper Estuary on the east shore of Kitsap Peninsula, where Harper Creek flows into Yukon Harbor. During more than 30 years of operation, from about 1900-1932, the mining and manufacturing facility shipped bricks via flat-bottomed boats, called scows, out of Yukon Harbor to points all around the Puget Sound, and also dumped reject bricks directly into intertidal and estuarine areas. Later, a road (Olympiad Drive) was constructed over the nearby Harper Creek, with only an undersized, under-road culvert providing access for the inflow and outflow of tides.

Today, this area represents a severely damaged ecosystem; obstructions between land and marine areas include the dumped bricks, other roadway fill, the undersized culvert, a relict roadway embankment, and relict bulkhead. Tidal processes are seriously impaired, and plants and animals that might normally populate the estuary and adjacent salt marshes may no longer be found. Even so, this area is well frequented by walkers, kayakers, and often simply “parkers” – people sitting in their cars and enjoying the seaside view momentarily. It is an informal, and unofficial, mini-park. Adjacent to Olympiad Drive, the rejected bricks and other fill have created a decent parking area, access to the beach, and a rudimentary gravel boat launch.

The parking area is sometimes nearly inundated by a high tide.


Visit this excellent site for more historical information about the Harper area:




hiding, and hatching

Haven’t we all spent time at the beach turning over rocks to watch the scurrying tiny shore crabs? Some of us are fearless enough of tiny claws to pluck them quickly up and let them scramble over our palms, before they drop back to the sandy muck or pebbles below, in spite of our best efforts to retain them. In sizes from minuscule to simply small, and in colors from deep purple to drab gray or yellow-green, I’ve wondered how many species and types are represented on our Puget Sound beaches.


During a recent visit to Harper Estuary shore crabs were in abundance, and were not limited to their under-rock hiding places. My companion, my teenage daughter, was as enchanted as a little girl with the responsive crabs, alternately running sideways in search of shelter or raising their claws in defense at her intruding, peering face. I myself had my eye on the creatures underwater, crab-walking back and forth without discernible purpose in the slowly moving tidal channel.

I was unable to determine from observation if there was a seasonal or otherwise exceptional aspect to their behavior. Research at home revealed there was something going on, even if too tiny to see – hatching! From May–June, the eggs of both of our native and common shore crabs, the purple shore crab (Hemigrapsus nudus) and the hairy shore crab (Hemigrapsus oregonensis, also commonly called yellow, green, mud-flat, and Oregon shore crab) are hatching from the eggs glued to underside of the bodies of the female crabs. The tiny larvae float to the surface and spend approximately five weeks as plankton, before settling to the bottom to metamorphose into their first true crab stage, at a truly minuscule size of about 1.6 mm – about the width of the tip of a bold ballpoint pen.

Can you find the crab?


Jacoby CA. 1981. Behavior of the Purple Shore Crab Hemigrapsus nudus Dana, 1851. Journal of Crustacean Biology 1, 531–544.

Oliver J, Schmelter A. 1997. Life History of the native shore crabs Hemigrapsus oregonensis and Hemigrapsus nudus and their distribution, relative abundance and size frequency distribution at four sites in Yaquina Bay, Oregon [Internet]. Corvallis (OR): Oregon State University. [Accessed 2016 May 30]. Available from http://people.oregonstate.edu/~yamadas/crab/ch5.htm.


too many bricks

Although I’ve lived in South Kitsap for almost two decades, and commuted via the nearby Southworth Ferry for one of them, I’d never had occasion to visit the Harper Estuary, although I certainly drove right by it innumerable times – it is unremarkable and unmarked for the unknowing passers-by.  For those in the know, however, it is well-frequented, used by walkers, kayakers, and often simply “parkers” – people sitting in their cars and enjoying the seaside view momentarily. It is an informal, and unofficial, mini-park. Adjacent to the road overlying Harper Creek, the historic clinker bricks and other fill have created a decent parking area, access to the beach, and a rudimentary boat launch.

I’ve spoken to local residents, and they don’t necessarily dislike the brick fill – and don’t agree that it needs to be removed. I understand in part how they feel – brick red is beautiful in contrast to the deep green of the seawater. Old bricks are not without charm; we don’t automatically see them as debris or garbage and in fact, are very much integrated into this environment.

Obviously the bricks are harboring life – solid places of attachment for many intertidal organisms, including our common Acorn Barnacle (Balanus glandula) and Shield Limpets (Tectura scutum), along with other tiny marine snails, Mussels (Mytilus trossulus) and even a type of red alga descriptively called Turkish Washcloth (Mastocarpus papillatus). The bricks are also obviously breaking down; in some areas the bricks are broken but in large chunks, and in others the substrate is red and fine, telling a story of uneven weathering and erosion across the entire site. I have to wonder whether there is any substance in these bricks that is harmful to the environment.

I don’t believe what the bricks are made of is any part of the problem here, however. I think the problem is the unnatural filling of the estuarine area. I brought a small friend with me on a recent cool Sunday evening, and I tried to explain the situation to her: “It’s a place where they built a road, right on top of a creek where it was flowing into Puget Sound. They put a concrete pipe under the road so the water could still flow through, but it’s not enough room for all the water to flow properly. Salmon can’t use the creek the way they used to in the past. Habitat that is good for fish to lay their eggs on has been destroyed.” Before we explored, I tried to explain the plan for the restoration, and I told her about the historic brick factory, and how bricks had been thrown in the water for decades. Even though the tide was high, we were easily able to see the large, long hill of bricks looming under the water’s surface near the culvert’s outflow to the Sound. “Too many bricks,” my young friend wrote in her field journal, “but the baby salmon are getting help.”


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can’t see the trees for the forest

I’ve spent my share of time in nature. I grew up on a small farm on the east side of Lake Washington, well before screens and devices were safer and more convenient methods of occupying children than sending them out-of-doors. I built forts in the woods with my brothers, rode horseback on the nearby trails with my aunt, and climbed my favorite trees at the end of day, alone.

In my teens, weekend hikes with my family off the Mountain Loop Highway in the North Cascades turned to trail runs with my high school cross country team. I even spent one too short summer during college (during my first run at college) working and hiking in Yellowstone National Park. In the years since then, I’ve gotten outside when I can – a handful of hikes and nature walks in my home county of Kitsap, many beach visits to the Washington Pacific coast…

All of these years, I’ve been missing something! A visit to Harper Estuary early in May coalesced my thinking. It was lovely afternoon, a slight breeze coming off the the water but still comfortably warm, probably 70 degrees. My goal was to explore more of the surrounding area, beyond the culvert, and begin to take an inventory of plant species. At first I was overwhelmed by the vegetation, by the mass of green life confronting me and surrounding the shores of the estuary – nothing more than a forest!

But I’d never looked at nature before with semi-trained eyes. I’d never had the benefit of adult motivation juxtaposed with several quarters of environmental coursework. Slowly, I started to identify a few now-familiar species, then to count them and sketch their approximate location and distribution. A lovely hedge of Nootka roses (Rosa nutkana), and the occasional bright yellow (and invasive, opportunistic, but still so cheery) Scotch broom (Cytisus scoparius), grew alongside many Bracken fern (Pteridium aquilinium) and very tall Horsetails (Equisetum arvense) on the south side of Olympiad Drive. Across the road, fruiting Indian Plum trees (Oemleria cerasiformis) oversaw the estuary on their left, and a freshwater marsh full of last season’s Cattails (Typha latifolia) on their right.

Each plant, identified, categorized, counted and mapped in my mind  added to my understanding of this special place. All the more special, because of my greater depth of understanding.

estuary, interrupted

A road near Port Orchard, Washington (Olympiad Drive) was constructed many years ago through a historic estuary, which today represents a damaged ecosystem. Significant obstructions between land and marine areas include the roadway fill, an undersized culvert, a gravel boat launch, a relict roadway embankment, and relict bulkhead. Washington State Department of Ecology, in conjuction with many partners, will be restoring this area to a more natural state. This spring for my Natural History of the Pacific Northwest class I’ll be compiling a pre-restoration species inventory of the Harper Estuary.