Tuesday, April 26, 2011


It’s late April, and bird migration is in full swing. Among the first birds to arrive are the hole nesters. Some birds make their own holes (primary cavity nesters), but there are others that nest in cavities but cannot excavate them themselves (secondary cavity nesters). The latter are always disadvantaged when it comes to finding a nest cavity, whether an abandoned woodpecker hole or a natural crevice. Basically, there aren’t as many nest sites as there are bird pairs. Even worse, competition is both within and between species for appropriate cavities.

One adaptive strategy in the intense competition for these holes is to be nonmigratory and to defend the nest site all year. It’s probable that the use of their holes for winter roosting has even favored resident status in primary cavity nesters. But interestingly, most of the secondary cavity nesters are migratory. So their best bet is to arrive as early as possible in migration and claim a cavity before anyone else can do so. Because of what must have been strong selection, many of the cavity nesters are among the earliest birds to arrive from the south in spring.

These include Tree (Tachycineta bicolor) and Violet-green (Tachycineta thalassina) Swallows, which arrive in migration in the Pacific Northwest before any of the other swallows. Tree Swallows normally arrive in western Washington in late February, in fact before almost all other migrants. They are competing for tree holes over water, and those are scarce indeed. Violet-greens arrive soon thereafter, looking for tree cavities in forests or niches in cliffs.

Some of these swallows occupy cavities in deserted buildings. That brings up the point that such birds will nest where they can, and human structures, deserted or not, can represent prime real estate if they have any openings into sheltered nest sites.

With our big brains, humans long ago figured out that if cavities were limited, a way to attract hole-nesting birds was to make nest boxes available to them. Thus the well-loved bluebirds have become recipients of so-called Bluebird Trails all over the country. Houses are put out in appropriate habitat at fairly close intervals, usually on fence posts, and they are rapidly accepted by bluebirds (Sialia spp.). Bluebirds and swallows seem always to reach higher breeding densities when provided with nest boxes. Much research on nesting biology has been carried out with the use of these boxes, and widespread declines in bluebird populations have been halted by their use.

There are many other secondary cavity nesters, including Wood Ducks, Buffleheads, goldeneyes, mergansers, kestrels, small owls, Myiarchus flycatchers, some chickadees and nuthatches, flying squirrels, red squirrels, and woodrats. When natural crevices don’t fill the bill, they all depend on the primary excavators, especially woodpeckers. Woodpeckers can be considered keystone species in the forest, as so many species depend on their presence.

Dennis Paulson

Tuesday, April 19, 2011


The majority of butterfly species in our region pass the winter in the larval stage (caterpillars), a smaller number as pupae (chrysalides), and rather few as eggs. But some of our common butterflies overwinter as adults.

They are the last generation of summer, and instead of just dying, as the great majority of adult butterflies and other insects do in autumn, they seek out a protected spot, for example under loose tree bark or in a rock pile, close their wings, and become dormant for the cold season. This can be as long as 4-5 months in the Pacific Northwest.

Adult winter dormancy is characteristic of the genus Nymphalis, butterflies with showy upperwings but very cryptic underwings. These adults are then the first butterflies of spring, even as early as February, as those with a hibernaculum in a sunny spot warm up enough to emerge and fly out to explore the world and, presumably, find a mate and breed.

The Mourning Cloak (Nymphalis antiopa) is the best-known among these butterflies, as its upperside is both spectacularly colored and unmistakable. Breeding on willows and many other common trees and shrubs, it is almost ubiquitous, although absent from dense forest. A freshly emerged Mourning Cloak is often the first sign of spring for a Northwest naturalist, rocketing through a clearing or resting on a sun-drenched log. Don't look for this species on flowers; it prefers tree sap, rotting fruit, and fresh dung!

Milbert’s Tortoiseshell (Nymphalis milberti) is another common species all over the Pacific Northwest. Its upperside is no less beautiful. This species breeds only on stinging nettle, but that plant is sufficiently common that Milbert’s are everywhere. They overwinter in the same sorts of places as Mourning Cloaks and emerge similarly early. Fresh individuals of both species have yellow bands on their wings that fade to white with age. That difference can be seen in the two photos here.

The California Tortoiseshell (Nymphalis californica), also known as Cal Tort to the butterfly cognoscenti, is similar in shape to the other two Nymphalis species but with still another dorsal pattern. It looks rather similar to other butterflies, for example several species of anglewings (Polygonia). The host plants are shrubs of the genus Ceanothus (deer bush, mountain balm), and these are most common from the Cascades east.

This species is of even more interest biologically than the other Nymphalis because of its population cycles. It is absent some years but present in prodigious numbers in others. If you ever drive on a mountain road in late summer and are dazzled by the sheer density of butterflies flying off the road and swirling around the car, they are likely to be this species.

Cal Torts that build up to these numbers undergo massive emigrations, pouring through the mountains and down to the coast, where they are seen flying south with other butterflies and dragonflies. The points of origin and destination of these migrating butterflies are unknown, but the movements may be a consequence of host plant availability, population pressures, and/or weather conditions. This would be a good species to study in depth.

Dennis Paulson

Tuesday, April 12, 2011


This is most apparent if you look at the ends of their tails.

The Sharp-tailed Snake (Contia tenuis) epitomizes the sharp end of the spectrum. The tip of its tail, really the last scale on the tail, is quite sharply pointed. This small and secretive snake is usually found under logs or rocks, and it presumably comes out at night, when it hunts for its primary prey, slugs. Oddly, one of the most commonly observed prey species is an introduced slug, and one wonders what they ate before the introduction!

It may be that the sharply pointed tail tip is handy for subduing slimy prey, but it also has been speculated that it may be used against predators (a snake may press it into the hand of a human captor) or even as an aid in burrowing. All pure speculation, of course, but we assume there must be some adaptive function of this prickly tail.

It has also been suggested that the banded pattern on the snake’s underside, sometimes exposed, may mimic the banded pattern of several millipede species of the area. As the millipedes are toxic and distasteful, some Sharp-tailed Snakes may escape predation by this mimicry.

Few people see this interesting snake, as its range is very restricted in the Pacific Northwest, and it appears to be active only for a relatively short time in spring and fall, when it is warm enough for reptile activity yet cool and moist enough so this small species isn’t stressed by low humidity. April and September are good months to look for sharp-tails by looking under objects on the ground that may serve as hiding places. Be sure to replace them carefully.

Rubber Boas (Charina bottae) are at the other end of the spectrum, with an extremely blunt tail for a snake. One of the consequences of this is that it is difficult to distinguish the head end from the tail end, and this may be the whole point, as it could be an effective anti-predator strategy. A snake captured by the wrong end might be more able to escape, and, if inclined, might even bite the predator. The latter seems unlikely, as these snakes are extremely docile, at least when picked up by a human.

Rubber Boas are much more common and widespread in the Northwest, usually associated with open conifer woodland. They are active all summer and take a wide variety of prey, mostly small mammals but also other vertebrates. They are active at night during much of the summer, but on cooler days especially they may be seen out and about. Otherwise, you look under rocks and logs, just as you would to find Sharp-tailed Snakes. A fortunate naturalist might find both of them together!

Dennis Paulson


It’s hard to conceive of a species spending most of its life asleep, but that’s the case for the spring ground squirrels.

Ground squirrels feed on herbaceous vegetation, and many of them are active throughout the summer and then hibernate during the winter. Some ground squirrels, however, live in arid deserts or grasslands in which lush growing vegetation is present only during the spring or during a summer rainy season. These species are active only during that time, so they are active above ground for only about a third of the year.

Two species that exemplify this scenario are the Washington Ground Squirrel (Spermophilus washingtoni) and Piute Ground Squirrel (Spermophilus mollis). Both are small, short-tailed species. Piute Ground squirrels occur in a limited area of sagebrush steppe in southern Washington between the Cascades and the Columbia River. Washington Ground Squirrels occur east of that river in the Columbia Basin. Both species have declined substantially in recent years as their habitat has been lost to agriculture.

Belding's Ground Squirrel (Spermophilus beldingi) is a slightly larger and more southerly species of the high desert in eastern Oregon and northern California. It has adapted very well to agriculture, so it is still abundant, but its life history is much like that of the other two.

Washington Ground Squirrels have litters of about eight young. They are born in late winter and emerge from their burrows about a month after the adults. A visitor to a ground squirrel colony around the beginning of April is treated to the sight of playful young on all sides, while the adults go about the business of serious eating.

After a few months of activity, with an abundance of fresh salads on the daily menu, first the adults and then the juveniles retire back into their burrows and spend the summer in a state of torpor called aestivation. Aestivation then grades into the usual winter hibernation. The longest an individual of these species spends above ground is about four months. One adult Washington Ground Squirrel in captivity was dormant for 244 days.

Juveniles grow to adult weight in two months after leaving the burrow. All individuals begin to deposit fat 6-8 weeks after emerging and end up with lipids comprising about 65% of their body weight when they go into the burrow for good. They then live through the summer, fall and winter on the fat deposited during the spring.

High temperature and low humidity are stressful on any animal, and as there is no new growth on the plants they favor, the spring-active ground squirrels have no source of water during the summer; thus aestivation. Aestivation is an adaptation for survival in hot, dry climates, just as hibernation is an adaptation for survival in cold climates. These small animals use both of these strategies, surviving by the fine tuning of their seasonal activity to their climate. How will global warming affect them?

Dennis Paulson