Pacific Tree Frog Season!

Our Pacific Tree Frog has a wide variety of color, size, and habitats. From sea level to altitudes even beyond Paradise at Mount Rainier, they are found from British Columbia to southern California. (this according to National Audubon Society Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians)

The time of year for one of my favorite little frogs has arrived. Despite our cooler than normal temperatures you may hear hundreds of these amphibians croaking away, and maybe only one or two them. But whenever and wherever, they are often very hard to find due to their hiding habits under vegetation. And their unique sound could be mistaken for just a big cricket. So how do you know this is a frog? Because the unique two note chirp will usually come from a place very close to water and is surprisingly loud. At this time of the year many are hidden under shrubs and things but later you can see them clinging to everything from blackberry leaves to the walls of your home. They can climb like gecko lizards. I have even seen them easily scrambling up the side of my home and even up the glass wall of an aquarium. And you will hear them there also. Amazing! One of my goals this season it to get a macro photo of their toe and compare it to one of a geckos. More to follow – I hope!

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Our American Opossum!

Above you can see part of the large numbers and size of possum teeth, and the resemblance to reptile scales in the tail. These were photographed from a poor thing hit by a car. Sitting and eating lunch off a street in Illinois, I noticed what look like something in a tree. Doing what I always do, just in case, I took a picture with my long lens and discovered this large almost pure white possum during the day. The more normal looking one on the ground is gobbling up things in our backyard compost heap.

We have here in America a lot of common but very interesting animals. One of which I love and take time to feed in my backyard is the Virginia Opossum (Didelphis virginiana). We happen to have just one of many possum species. The rest of which have decided to stay in Central and South America, thus giving us our only marsupial. This is our most primitive animal, too, having survived from the time of dinosaurs over 70 million years ago. Our American Opossum has several other interesting features:

Teeth – more than any of our native predators, about 50 of them!

Babies born quickly. Over a dozen young that gestate in less than two weeks, the shortest time for any North American mammal. They then spend time clinging to Mom’s back. Marsupial birth is amazing in any animal that does it.

About one year later, when finally mature, they love to climb trees. And like monkeys they have prehensile tails which help that activity.

Self defense – If those abundant teeth don’t frighten you, they play dead. And if you have ever experienced this you’ll know how realistic it is. Even fooled me once because I thought my dog had killed it. On another occasions I was threatened by those teeth, and that was frightening. By the way, we have one other animal in our country that does the same thing – a Hognose Snake (Heterodon platirhinos). I’ve experienced that too.

Diet – Possums will eat just about anything from insects to chickens, and numerous veggies, especially fruit. We keep a compose heap in our backyard which attracts, and saves, a lot of possums.

            Since possums are so numerous and widespread around North America why do we usually just see them lying dead in the road? Because our Virginia Opossum is usually only active at night, and apparently does not recognize cars as predators that will stop. Too bad. These accidents and natural predators kill a lot of them. On that note, however, there is a surprising number of wild reserves and other organizations that work to protect them. No surprise about a wildlife reserve or zoo doing this, but here is an organization that did surprise me:

Opossum Society of the United States

Go there and you will find a lot more information about possums and their relationship with humans.

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Winter Weather Waterfowl

No matter how chilly temperatures here in the northwest get there are a couple of animals you can always depend on seeing. Birds and coyotes. And sometimes both at once! Coyotes pop up just about everywhere and are usually seen just individually. Packs up to 7 exist and are mainly families. As you know they do not tolerate anybody else to joint their group. Here’s one trotting along very close to Canada Geese, Mallards, and Coots. Probably looking for lunch, but the birds did not seem at all nervous. The coyote trotted away without trying to get anything. Anhingas love to take over the empty boat docks in the winter. And when you get a close look at Coot flocks, here is what you see.

The increased flocking of certain waterfowls as the weather cools is surprising. Sure, Canada Geese flock in astounding numbers at all times of the year. That is no surprise to just about anyone living in this area. But I notice that in the colder temperatures they seem much more content to gather with other flocks in the water. I’ve seen this behavior numerous times on American Lake in JBLM, as seen in the above photos. Then there are the waterfowl that put on the biggest winter weather show – Coots. Congregating in huge flocks in the water they tend to travel in extraordinarily lengthy formations, a behavior I have never observed them doing in warmer seasons. Then we have the Anhingas. Also called “snake necked birds” due to their very long necks, Anhingas seem to follow the same pattern of flocking in cold weather, yet they do it differently. They do not gather in swimming flocks. They group in big numbers on the shore or on empty boat docks. Joining these flocks are the Mallards, very common birds that also gather in big numbers. Not as much as the Canada geese, Coots, or Anhingas, but they have seem to have no problem at all swimming around with these other birds in the winter. So – why such big avian crowds in the water during the coldest weather?  Perhaps because there is much less food on land. Or maybe the water is a bit warmer. This more intense flocking of the water fowl during the winter season is based on my own observations. If you see anything different please let me know.

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Merry Christmas for Suki the Elephant!

Suki is an Asian elephant at the Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium who is about to celebrate her 58th Christmas! Born in the wild around 1964 she spent her first few years as a calf with a private owner. When she became too large and hard to handle the owner sold her to a circus. But Suki was not ready for that environment, either. So from there she went into a zoo. In 1996 she finally arrived here at the PDZA and her life has been much better ever since. Why? Because Suki had always displayed aggressive “don’t come near me” behavior. But when she arrived at the PDZA keepers there had transitioned to a new method called “Protected Contact.” The basic principle of this method is to reward good behavior, and never punish anything else. Suki quickly adapted to this, and soon responded to her keeper amazingly well. She has also adapted to the NW summer and winter weather, but if it is too chilly or too hot the zoo has a large indoor enclosure for her. And there, Suki does some entertaining things that you can easily see. I highly encourage you to go see her. She is currently much older than average for an elephant, and there is no telling how much longer her life will last, but she is in very good shape for now. And it’s a great time to visit for the PDZA “Zoo Lights” also.

Cold Weather Wildlife

Hello everyone and welcome to the wonderful Christmas season. All I want to do right now is to share some interesting animals that showed up in temperatures of the 30s and very low 40s. There is always something to see no matter where you go, and often when you least expect it. I was eating lunch while parked in my vehicle at JBLM when this lovely Red Breasted Sapsucker decided it was time for his lunch also. They eat the sap that leaks out and any insects caught there. Then came Saturday morning when I took my dog out for a walk in Orting, WA. And there in the public park was an amazing number of mole hills! Moles successfully survive in a difficult environment. But why so many in one location? I’ll do some more research on that.

A Squirrel Forever


Book Review: A Squirrel Forever by Douglas Fairbairn

Every now and then you pick up one of those books you just can’t put down. A Squirrel Forever is one. When I first saw the cover and the title I did not expect more than a lot of information about how to keep a squirrel as a pet. Since I love the little creatures I signed for the book. Yes, that information is very prevalent in the book, but it has a surprising number of other events as well. I did not think I’d be reading about the place where Frank Sinatra was making a movie, or a home where an ocelot was found in the backyard. And that is just a couple of incidents. In addition to fascinating descriptions of his relation with Chippy the squirrel, Douglas Fairbairn goes into the issues of his own life and collisions with other animals and humans on his property. The book is non-fiction and provides numerous details about wildlife interactions with humans, yet reads like a fascinating novel. Whether or not you have a passion for squirrels I believe you will find A Squirrel Forever surprisingly entertaining. Like many other great books I’ve read I found this one in the library at Fort Lewis. Written in 1973 but you can still find it on Amazon. Douglas Fairbairn has passed away but God bless him for this book.

Reptiles and Amphibians of Mount Rainier

Here are a few examples of the herps you can find around MT Rainier National Park. Note the tiny tail on the Tailed Frog. That “tail” is actually a mail tool for mating. The small Western Toad jumped right off the trail in front of me and ended up clinging to a tree stump. Cascades Frogs are very common but easy to miss thanks to their coloration. The Puget Sound Garter Snake is just one type that shows up in this area. I am sure there are other frogs and snakes, plus lizards and salamanders, somewhere in the park, but I have not seen them yet. So I’ll keep looking and let you know.

Thousands of people visit and hike in the Mount Rainier National park every year. Mammals and birds are the most common wildlife sightings there. They are the animals most expect to see, and are the ones most advertised in the park documents and stores. Yet there are some other common animals not much noticed or talked about – the herpetological species. Why is that? Well, as I stated before the mammals and birds dominate Mount Rainier documents and photographs. And for serious hikers and beginners the magnificent mountain and cliff sceneries naturally attract attention. Plus, many of the hiking trails are quite rocky and covered with “spaghetti roots” that demand attention for your safety. Yep, I’ve been there and done that many times. But stopping from time to time and letting your eyes focus on the small streams and wooded areas right alongside your trail will often lead to other pleasant wildlife surprises. Garter snakes are everywhere in Washington State and they show up in many unexpected locations around Mount Rainier. You will find them in the lower elevation trails.  At these lower elevations and even ones much higher you also find a lot of amphibians. A couple of thousand feet up I have found Cascades Frogs and the unusual Tailed Frog. According to the National Audubon Society Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians, Tailed Frogs live in cool mountain habitats, and Cascades Frogs live even above 3,000 feet. My observations align with that, but at an elevation of about 2,000 feet I was surprised to also discover small Western Toads. These toads are normally found at much lower levels. There are of course Bull Frogs to be found and heard in the lower level ponds.

Some Interesting Squirrels

Time to share pictures of a few of our NW squirrel friends before they disappear for the winter. Douglas’s Squirrel is in the family of tree squirrels, and are significantly smaller than Gray Squirrels. Notice how that black stripe separates its orange belly from its gray back. Way up, but not spending time in trees is a ground squirrel called the Cascade Golden-Mantled ground squirrel. You can see dozens of them while hiking up around Mount Rainier. One may even join you for lunch! Going back down to the ground level you will sometimes run into a much bigger squirrel – a Yellow Bellied Marmot. Go back up in the mountains and you’ll see an even bigger member of the squirrel family – the Hoary Marmot.

Winter is coming and our squirrel friends are very busy getting prepared for the cold season. Everyone has surely seen very common Gray Squirrels running around, so I thought to share some pictures of a few of our other NW species. Yes, marmots are part of the squirrel family, and all squirrels are classified as rodents thanks to their upper and lower incisor teeth that never stop growing. All rodents and squirrels, however, have different personalities and habitats. Here in the NW thanks to our numerous mountain terrains our squirrel friends vary from very low to very high altitudes. I’m sure that just about anyone who has been hiking in the Mount Rainier National Park, especially, up near the Paradise Inn has seen the Hoary Marmots. There is a location up there with so many of them I call it “Marmot Hill.” If you’ve been there you have probably heard them, too. They often make so much noise they have earned the nickname “Whistle Pigs.” Although these marmots are very much in view they prefer to keep a distance from us humans.  But there is another squirrel in the park’s higher elevation that gets very friendly and thankful to us. Cascade Ground Squirrels will even take treats right from your fingers. Yes, I know you are not supposed to feed animals in the wild but it is very hard to resist when the little guys come right up to you when you are taking your hiking lunch break.

            Drop down to a much lower elevations and you will see a pair of squirrels similar in appearance to their higher up relatives. The Yellow Bellied Marmot gets its common name for an obvious characteristic that makes it easy to identify. They are intense burrowers and do not prefer life up in the mountains. In fact, the location where I first saw a Yellow Bellied Marmot surprised me. I was strolling alongside a river in a park just outside of Boise, ID, and one popped up in the grassy area right in front of me. Tree squirrels, of course, inhabit the lower elevation forested areas. Most of them are very common but some of the smaller species are sometimes hard to find. One day a certain tree squirrel showed up in a place where I did expect to find one. I had spent a long time wandering around a wooded area in the military post JBLM until I finally found the one known as Douglas’s Squirrel. The little guy was comfortably sitting on a tree branch and let me get pretty close.

If you are interested in the squirrels that inhabit our territory and want to know how to identify them, I highly recommend this book:

“Squirrels of the West” by Tamara Hartson (a Lone Pine Field Guide)

Book Review: How to Know the Spiders by B.J. Kaston

BLUF: This is the best book about the arachnids that I have ever read. I’ve gone into quite a few books on this topic but never have I come across one so detailed in spider anatomy, behavior, and habitats. The anatomical details are incredible and serve as a perfect source for spider identification. Most public references give you a general description of body parts but B.J. Kaston goes much further. Just about all of us know the basics of spider legs, cephalothorax, chelicera, pedipalps, and abdomens but did you know that there are many more body parts identified within those body parts? And did you know about the “balloon spiders” that create a web deigned to be caught by the wind so that they can fly away to a new location? That was news to me. Reading this book you will learn and see the vast number of spider species and sub species, and you will learn exactly how to identify them. I very much like the description of various spider web types and locations. This, too, is an extremely useful tool for spider identification. Why did I get so excited about these animals to begin with? Because there are so many of them everywhere! Yes, we all are familiar with the abundance of spider webs around our homes. Many, of course, are the “orb weavers” who create those big circular webs hanging around trees. But walk out around your property after a light rain or misty morning and you will see hundreds of webs from ground to trees and in between rocks. Go hiking and you will see them alongside ponds and creeks, find them under logs and rocks, and see them on top of tiny flowers. B.J. Kaston delves into this and explains the species. He also explains how to capture and raise them as pets. And he recommends a very easy, yet fascinating thing to do – go out at night with a flashlight. I did it, and B.J. was right. Several times I discovered bright shining arachnid eyes staring back at me!

            I hope you are able to find this book. I found my copy in a library. B.J. Kaston’s books are on Amazon, but the one I am referring to, the 3rd edition, is no longer available for some reason. A much earlier edition from 1953 is there. I have not read that one.

Save Your Pacific Tree Frogs!

A couple of pictures showing the way my Pacific tree frogs adapted to the Yellow Flag Iris plant that took over the pond. Before this plant took over, the pond was a very open sight that I loved. But in a couple of years all I saw in there were bullfrogs. Then somehow, the Yellow Flag Iris quickly took over. Now I see Pacific Tree Frogs again. That plant the tree frogs enjoy are, like bullfrogs, considered “invasive.” Coming originally from Ireland they have also invaded Home Depot and Lowes. 

This article is just an opinion, but it is based on what I have closely observed. When I bought the property where I now live I saw numerous native frog and salamander species. As our home was being constructed we dug and built three different types of ponds. One large one in the backyard for koi and goldfish, and two others for native species of any kind. The very small one in front of our home remains great for salamanders. Only about four square feet in width and 6 inches deep it has constantly attracted them. On the other side of our backyard fence, in the extended property, we had a large ditch dug in. About 15 feet wide and 4 to 5 deep it fills up from normal drainage coming down the slope of the Graham, WA territory. Within the last couple of years, however, the native frogs have disappeared. Bullfrogs had taken over the big ponds and I suspect that they had been wiping our native species. But recently I noticed quite a few pacific tree frogs hanging on the limbs of the explosive plant in our big pond outside the fence. For the past two years I was only able to see and hear bullfrogs. Now the Pacific tree frogs have returned! Is it because of that plant called “Yellow flag Iris?” It looks like that to me because this vegetation has taken over the pond as you can see from the above picture, and has provided a significant safe habitat for the tree frogs. I do not even hear bullfrogs now. So if you have a similar bullfrog issue in your pond, maybe the introduction of a Yellow Flag Iris plant will help. Bullfrogs in the northwest, by the way, are referred to as “invasive species.” But they are not invasive. Like the vast majority of so called invasive species they are actually “Introduced species” brought in by humans.  Many years ago bull frogs were introduced for “frog leg” dinners. Those days are over, and now bullfrogs are enjoying a lot of their own preferred meals instead. I like bullfrogs despite the fact that their territorial takeover is still going on, but I love observing other species of amphibians so I am doing what I can to preserve them on my property.