Last Saturday, following my own advice from last week’s column, a friend and I journeyed out to the prairies to see what we could see. It rained off and on (what a shock!) but it was a wonderful few hours.
The camas were just starting to bloom, so the timing of Prairie Appreciation Day, coming this Saturday, May 14, will be perfect.
We visited two sites, the Mima Mounds Natural Area Preserve, managed by the Washington Department of Natural Resources and Thurston County’s Glacial Heritage Preserve. They are located near each other off of Mima Rd. SE. The Glacial Heritage Preserve’s four-mile loop road is usually closed to cars, but we lucked out. There was a temporary opening, and we were able to drive around through the rain. This road, when open, allows people with limited mobility to get out into the middle of the prairie. Perhaps it will be open again on May 14th. We can only hope.
I was about to close the car door when I heard the bright song of a Western Meadowlark and realized that I had neglected to include this prairie bird in last week’s column. The meadowlark is common in grasslands and open rural areas. It is a member of the blackbird family, about robin-sized with a striped brownish back and a bright yellow breast with a bold black ‘V.’ Because males usually sing from fence posts and other perches, they are fairly easy to spot.
Its beautiful song is emblematic of summer, grasslands, and the great outdoors. When you hear it, see if it doesn’t recall to you some long-ago summer’s day.
Purple Martins were also swooping around the prairies on Saturday. I was surprised because I usually associate these birds with areas closer to Puget Sound. Purple Martins nest in cavities and respond well to nest boxes. For example, there are martin nest boxes on the old posts in the East Bay in downtown Olympia (and many other near shore areas as well). As you will see if you visit the prairies, someone has put up nest boxes there too.
Purple Martins are the largest of the swallows, a family of birds that catch insects on the wing. Male martins appear dark; the females are lighter with gray breasts. Their larger size is apparent when they are flying with other swallows, as they were last Saturday. The other two swallow species were Violet-green Swallow and Tree Swallow, who also nest in cavities and nest boxes. Caught in good light, you can easily see the green back of the first which contrasts with the blueish back of the latter.
The prairies produce an abundance of insects during the summer and thus they support an abundance of insect-eating migratory birds. In addition to the swallows, which will be flying just over your head if that’s where the insects are, we spotted Western Bluebirds hanging out near a nest box. (I know I promised to write more about this species, but that will have to wait – the prairies in bloom demanded my attention this week).
Last week I reviewed the sparrows that are likely to be seen in the prairie areas, and near the Glacier Heritage Preserve I encountered another species, the Vesper Sparrow. This bird is somewhat similar to the Savannah Sparrow, a non-descript striped brownish. But it has white outer tail feathers that flash in flight like those of a junco and it also has a distinctive song. We actually spotted a Vesper Sparrow male sitting atop an irrigation spigot in the Weyerhaeuser tree seeding plots near the preserve. This is a bird whose populations have declined, and it has been proposed for state listing as a threatened or endangered species.
Glacier Heritage also had another surprise – a nesting pair of Ospreys. These are fish-eating hawks who are taking advantage of the Black River, which borders the preserve. Ospreys build large stick nests near the top, and when I write “top” I mean any top – a broken tall tree, a constructed wood tower (like on the preserve), and utility towers, especially cell towers with their many cross-branches. As you drive around, look for a large nest on top of any tower you see. Osprey nests are fairly common, not only here but all around the world.
Ospreys are big birds and easy to identify while flying. They have dark brownish-black wings that contrast with a light belly and back. They fly with their wings elevated in a shallow ‘V,’ and vocalize often with a loud shriek. They have the longest nesting cycle of any of our resident birds. After laying 2-4 eggs, the female incubates them until hatching, usually in 35-40 days. Then, the adults feed the young for another three months before they are ready to fledge. So, that pair we saw at Glacier Heritage is just starting a 5-month marathon of parenting.
George Walter is environmental program manager at the Nisqually Indian Tribe’s natural resources department; he also has a 40+ year interest in bird watching. He may be reached at george@theJOLTnews.com
Photos for this column are provided by Liam Hutcheson, a 14-year-old Olympia area birder and avid photographer.
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