Thursday, July 31, 2014

The protection of Protection Island

Harbor Seals, Protection Island National Wildlife Refuge, Washington

Protection Island is a small island in the Strait of Juan de Fuca whose name now has a double meaning.

Harbor Seals and Mount Baker, Protection Island, Washington

Located at the mouth of Discovery Bay, the name originally referred to the island’s usefulness to humans. The island nearly stretches across the entrance to the bay, shielding it from some of the strait’s choppy waters.

The island still offers that protection, but now it protects a whole host of wildlife as well.

Hundreds of homes, perhaps even a thousand, were once planned on the island, until Zella Schultz, a wildlife biologist and artist, discovered just how important it was to wildlife. Illness claimed Shultz’s life before she was able to stop the bulldozers from destroying auklet burrows and breeding grounds for gulls, but her friend Eleanor Stopps continued conservation efforts, including buying up available lots on the island.

Bald Eagles on National Wildlife Refuge Sign, Protection Island, Washington

Protection Island became a national wildlife refuge in October, 1982. Everyone you talk to points out that it is the only wildlife refuge created when Ronald Reagan was president. While some may mean that as an indictment of Reagan’s environmental priorities, they all agree that it shows just how special the island truly is.

Technically, the island is not in Puget Sound, but unless you’re talking about lakes, the boundaries of a body of water can be hard to define. Given that the island is just a few miles from the mouth of the sound and that it shares more traits than differences with the sound’s islands, for wildlife statistics, it’s counted as a Puget Sound island.

Under that math, nearly three out of four seabirds that nest in the Puget Sound area now do so on Protection Island. It’s home to largest nesting colony of rhinoceros auklets in the world, and the largest colony of glaucous-winged gulls in Washington state. It is one of only two tufted puffin colonies left in the Puget Sound area. About a thousand harbor seals also raise their young on the island.

When the refuge was established, nine homeowners were grandfathered access to the island; only one still uses it now. Boats travel past, especially during the summer months, but they’re not allowed closer than 200 yards.

Even from that distance, you can hear the commotion on the island. Harbor seals bark as they’re tending to pups that are only a few weeks old. Gulls scream as bald eagles mount another attempt to feed on their young. Black oystercatchers “wheep” as they fly in groups over the shore.

Tufted Puffin, Protection Island National Wildlife Refuge, Washington

The only silence comes from the tufted puffins who swim just offshore to feed on herring.

Watching young harbor seals squirm their way through a dense pack of adult seals laying on the beach flipper to flipper, it’s amazing to see how many animals have moved here since the humans moved out. But it’s also clear that at some point, the animals will have to move yet again.

West Shore, Protection Island National Wildlife Refuge, Washington

As we travel around the west side of the island on our way back to Port Townsend, the first thing you notice is that a huge piece of Protection Island is missing. While the island’s bluffs are as much as 250 feet high, they’re made of sediment dropped by retreating glaciers — not solid rock. Giant pieces break off and tumble into the Strait of Juan de Fuca. At the rate they’ve been going, some believe the island may vanish in as little as 800 years.

Until then, Protection Island is an incredible home for thousands of animals — so many that you can still appreciate the magnitude from a boat 200 yards away.

(This fall, Kevin Ebi will be publishing his first comprehensive portfolio of his nature photography in a book called Living Wilderness. Join the Living Wilderness email list or become a Living Wilderness Facebook fan to learn how to order your copy. Your personal information will not be shared with anyone.)

Pigeon Guillemot Running on Water, Discovery Bay, Washington

Monday, June 30, 2014

Never the same arrangement twice

Corn Lilies and Lupine, Mount Rainier National Park, Washington

My style of photography has always been to capture a "living wilderness." I believe the Earth is as alive as we are. And that means it is dynamic — always changing.

Because our lifespans are so short, it's hard to fathom a time when Mount Rainier wasn't there, when the Hawaiian islands were tiny buds on the bottom of the ocean, when the Grand Canyon was filled. But there are plenty of changes that we can witness.

For me, one of the most visible changes is with the wildflowers in the mountain meadows of Washington state. Some of the meadows are buried under snow for more than half the year. As summer arrives, a carpet of yellow glacier lilies replaces the snow. A few weeks later, they're replaced by white avalanche lilies. Eventually, they're replaced by a wide assortment of flowers, including lupine, bear grass, and paintbrush.

In addition to that change within a year, there can also be dramatic change year-to-year. If the weather is ideal, wildflowers in every imaginable color can completely cover a meadow. In an average year, there are fewer wildflowers both in terms of variety and absolute number. And some years, the wildflowers may not bloom at all.

The annual change can be a reminder not to take anything for granted. Miss this year's bloom and you may not get another chance for a few years.

But it can also provide an exciting opportunity. Even if you've photographed a particular meadow before, it will be different this summer. And next summer. And the summer after that.

I can't wait to see what this summer's wildflower season brings.

(This fall, Kevin Ebi will be publishing his first comprehensive portfolio of his nature photography in a book called Living Wilderness. Join the Living Wilderness email list to learn how to order your copy. Your personal information will not be shared with anyone.)

Saturday, May 31, 2014

The other side of water lilies

Water Lilies from Underwater, Washington Park Arboretum, Seattle, Washington

S-Channel in Water Lilies, Washington Park Arboretum, Seattle, WashingtonIt's May in the Seattle arboretum. Woodpeckers and flickers are finishing their nests in brittle trees. Mallard ducks are taking their newly hatched ducklings for their first swims. And water lilies are beginning to turn the open water into a maze of lanes.

The fragrant water lily, formally known as Nymphaea odorata, is found all over the arboretum's wetlands, as it is on virtually every lake in western Washington. The water lily isn't native here. Until the late 1800s, it was found only in the eastern half of North America. But as the area grew, new residents brought the ornamental plant with them.

Fragrant Water Lily in Bloom, Washington Park Arboretum, Seattle, WashingtonThe water lily is quite gorgeous during the few months when people are likely to be on or near the water. Throughout the summer, large, bright flowers — typically white, pink and yellow — spring up from the green pads.

But the water lilies also grow fast — and quite easily.

Washington's ecology department tells the story of Griffin Lake, located on the other side of the state. In the mid-1970s, as little as 10 percent of the lake was covered in green. Just 20 years later, the entire 110 acre surface was covered with water lilies.

In many areas that is cause for concern. The floating lily pads are firmly tethered with thick stalks to the muck under the water. On lakes throughout the country swimmers have become entangled and drowned.

The ability of the water lily to spread seems somewhat limited in the arboretum, though. The water lilies like calm water. The constant parade of waterfowl and canoes seems to help keep the water channels open.

And while not native, the water lily seems to have become a key part of the ecosystem in the arboretum's wetlands. Over the years I've rowed in the arboretum, I've watched the wildlife make great use of the lily pads. I've seen frogs rest on them. I've seen young ducklings crawl on them to feast on trapped food. I've even watched damselflies and dragonflies use them as a platform to find mates.

They vanish nearly as fast as they grow. After flowers fade in late summer, the green pads begin to disappear, too. Until next summer.

(Follow Kevin Ebi's photography on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.)

Damselfly on Lily Pad, Washington Park Arboretum, Seattle, Washington

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

March of the penguins

Yellow-Eyed Penguins, Jack's Bay, New Zealand

Think of penguins and you typically think of long lines of the flightless birds gathering on ice. New Zealand, however, is home to several types of penguins that march across bright scenery reminiscent of central California beaches, even if the temperature is closer to the Antarctic.

One of these types is the incredibly rare yellow-eyed penguin — one of the rarest penguins in the world. Considered by some scientists to be the oldest species of penguin in existence today, there are only about 4,000 left. And they’re all in New Zealand, where the natives call them Hoiho.

Despite the fact that they are so rare, if you see one you’ll soon see more.

One of the most amazing sites to see is to watch the yellow-eyed penguins come ashore in the evening. About 90 percent of their diet is fish. During the day, they will venture as much as 16 miles (25 kilometers) from shore, diving to depths of up to 400 feet (120 meters).

They spend the night, however, on shore, typically roosting in the brush on rocky slopes overlooking the Pacific Ocean. As the sun starts to set, you might see the head of a bird bobbing in between the waves. As it gets closer to shore, it will eventually select a wave and bodysurf onto the beach.

Yellow-Eyed Penguin Waiting, Nugget Point, New Zealand

Even though it has likely spent all day at sea, it then turns and faces the ocean. And waits. And waits.

Eventually, another penguin surfs onto the beach. And another. And another.

Once there’s a group of at least three or four penguins, they will start marching together up the beach toward their roosting spots. But every minute or so they will stop and look back at the water. If they see another penguin coming ashore they will awkwardly run back and greet it.

When the group reaches a half-dozen, the penguins spend a bit less time looking back. And if the group starts climbing the bluff, the penguins aren’t likely to run back.

Yellow-Eyed Penguin Marching Up Hillside, Nugget Point, New Zealand

Their ability to walk and climb over obstacles is only marginally better than their ability to fly. They seem to do the penguin equivalent of a cost-benefit analysis, considering the amount of effort they will have to expend to greet the new arrival on the beach against the time that arrival will have to wait for more buddies to wash shore.

While they refuse to climb alone, they insist on nesting alone. They will not nest where they can see another penguin. Social hour is over.

(Follow Kevin Ebi's photography on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.)

Monday, March 31, 2014

Can birds learn to be better parents?

Pair of Bald Eagles on Nest, Puyallup, Washington

If you would have asked me a decade ago about how a bird knows how to fly, I would have regurgitated the answer I was taught in school: They are hatched knowing how. But after intensely studying a bald eagle nest for three years, I not only believe the young eaglets learn to fly, but that their parents also learn to be better parents.

A young bald eagle doesn't rush into its first flight. Contrary to popular belief, its mother does not kick it out of the nest when she is ready for it to leave. By the time a young eagle makes its first flight, she's hardly ever on the nest anyway.

Despite the fact that a young eagle is nearly as big as its parents after six weeks, it usually takes at least another month before it flies for the first time. In spends those weeks looking from the edge of the nest, sitting in the middle of the nest and furiously flapping its wings, and gradually working up to the point where it can leap from branch to branch, adjusting its technique to reach more distant branches safely.

We can't ask an eagle what's going on in its mind, of course, but if a human child was developing in a similar manner, we would say it was demonstrating curiosity and taking progressively larger “baby” steps until it was able to perform the task. Which sounds a lot like learning.

But one of the things that surprised me most over the course of the project, documented in the book Year of the Eagle, was that the parents appear to learn as well.

Here's my belief: If the parents operated purely on instinct, all things equal, any given pair of bald eagles should perform the same parental tasks the same way year after year. In essence, genetic programming should be like a computer program. If the input is the same, the output should be the same.

But at least at the nest I observed, it is not.

The young eagles I observed in my first year at the nest site took seemingly forever to make their first flights. They didn't start flying until mid-July, late by eagle standards, and didn't leave the nest for good until practically Labor Day.

They were unsteady in flight and seemed to crash more than land. And everybody knew when they were flying. The entire time they were in the air, they were screaming. Practice flights began at the first light of day, waking their human neighbors each morning.

Contrast that with the young eagle that hatched in Year Two of my project. It was flying in early June and had left the nest for good shortly after the Fourth of July. The experience of the pair of eagles that hatched in Year Three was much more like the experience in Year Two.

There were some notable differences in the parenting styles year-to-year, the most visible of which was the amount of time the parents spent on the nest. In the first year, once the young eagles could regulate their own body temperatures, the parents spent very little time with them. The eaglets had plenty to eat, but the only time they got with their parents was during the brief food drops. The parents were on and off the nest typically in 15 seconds or less.

In the second year, the food drops often lasted a minute or more. Their time with their young increased even more in the third year. They were still breaking off pieces of food and individually feeding it to their eaglets long after they were capable of doing that for themselves.

There are a number of ways that this increased time on the nest could help their young be better fliers. It's possible that their presence results in both young eagles getting a fair share of food. When they don't have to compete as much for food, the young may be able to concentrate more on their flying skills. Or maybe somehow they're able to pass on knowledge as they're on the nest with their young. Whatever the case, they weren't doing in Year One of my project.

Others have uncovered anecdotal evidence that also suggests the parents learn how to parent. For instance, the PBS show Nature, in an episode called American Eagle, tracked a nest where the experience of the two parents differed. Bald eagles mate for life, but they will find new partners if their mate dies. In this case, the male had raised young before; the female had not. The male knew to walk on the nest with his feet balled up to avoid puncturing the eggs with his sharp talons, something he had to demonstrate for his new mate.

Scientifically, I cannot prove the eagles I studied learned to parent. I could not control all other variables, such as the weather or supply of fresh fish. But scientists have also yet to prove that the birds do not learn. And based on the observations of myself and others, before tossing around the term “instinct,” maybe we should study them and learn.

(Kevin Ebi is the author of Year of the Eagle, which documents a year in the lives of Pacific Northwest bald eagles. He will be speaking about what he learned at the community center in White Salmon, Washington, on April 18, 2014, at 8 p.m. More details are on his Facebook page.)

Friday, February 28, 2014

Icy Falls Redux

Icy Glaze, Banks of Snoqualmie River, Washington

I realize it was only a couple months ago that I wrote about photographing frozen waterfalls without actually showing the waterfall in the image. Shortly after I posted that, Washington state was hit with another week-long deep freeze, and I got the opportunity to create images like that again.

I'm writing this follow-up because I managed to create an image that demonstrates how waterfalls can generate ice a great distance away from the falls itself.

The image here is of the Snoqualmie River, several hundred feet downstream from Snoqualmie Falls. The river plunges 268 feet (82 meters) at Snoqualmie Falls, a bigger drop than Niagra Falls. Even when the temperatures are into the mid-teens Fahrenheit, the waterfall doesn't freeze completely. Surrounded by ice, there's always a channel of water that makes that dramatic plunge and some of the water becomes airborne again as mist after it smacks the base.

The water that follows essentially creates wind that blows that mist downstream, and it can travel several hundred yards before finally hitting the ground yet again.

By this time, however, the mist has been exposed to subfreezing temperatures and is turning to ice in mid-air. When it hits the super-cooled ground, it freezes on contact. If these conditions exist for a few days, ice freezes on top of existing ice, which is then covered by even more ice.

What you see in this image is the rocks and logs at the edge of the Snoqualmie River encased in thick ice. But what I really like about this image is that you also see a cloud of frozen mist approaching, ready to make that glaze even thicker.

I've photographed Snoqualmie Falls in its icy glory several times, but I think this image, which shows the natural mechanism that creates the spectacle, may be one of my favorites.

(Follow Kevin Ebi's photography on Facebook or Twitter.)

Snoqualmie River in Winter, Snoqualmie Washington

Friday, January 31, 2014

Fields of white

Large Flock of Snow Geese, Motion Blur, Skagit Valley, Washington

From November into March, the fields on Fir Island in the Skagit Valley of Washington state are often white, but it's not the result of snow. It's the result of snow geese.

About 80,000 snow geese winter in Western Washington. The vast majority of them winter in the Skagit Valley.

It's a long way from their summer breeding grounds, which are on the northern tip of Wrangel Island in northeastern Russia — well into the Arctic Circle. After they have raised their young, they make a beeline for the Skagit. Even with rest stops on the coasts of Siberia and Alaska, the geese make the 3,000-mile trip in a week — and sometimes even faster.

The reward is the ability to spend several months feeding on what's left of farmers' crops. The snow geese have been making this journey since at least the 1940s. And now there's even more incentive: the state supplements the farmers' leftovers by growing winter wheat on a wildlife reserve specially for the birds.

While the agricultural area of the Skagit Valley is plenty big — the snow goose reserve alone is more than 200 acres — the geese tend to flock together, feeding in one or maybe two neighboring fields at a time.

It's a blinding, noisy scene. From a distance, the muddy fields appear pure white. And the high-pitched honks from a field of the geese can be heard from miles away.

The only time the geese are silent is immediately after a hunter has fired a gun. The entire flock will observe 10 to 15 seconds of silence before resuming its deafening ways.

If the birds have cleared a field or they feel threatened, they will move on. And if they move on, they all move on.

There's no warning. All of the sudden the field will erupt with snow geese. The honking reaches a feverish pace. Together, their wings sound like tens of thousands of flags flapping in a strong storm.

In flight, they're just as close to each other as they are on the ground. The mass of geese travels as a solid unit and is dense enough to completely obscure the volcano that normally dominates the horizon.

Even though I've witnessed this dozens and dozens of times, this scene is still just as amazing to me as it was the first time I saw it 15 years ago.

If you go, just take Fir Island Road, located off the Conway exit from Interstate 5. (The Klamath Basin in northern California and Bosque del Apache in New Mexico also have particularly large concentrations of snow geese.) Just make sure you don't park in the middle of the road to observe them. Farmers hate that even more than the mess the geese leave behind.

(Follow Kevin Ebi's photography on Facebook or Twitter.)

Mount Baker Hidden By Snow Geese, Skagit Valley, Washington
Snow Geese, Lined Up, Skagit Valley, Washington