Category Archives: Birds, wildlife

McNeil Island becoming known for fish and wildlife, not just prison

If you’ve heard of McNeil Island, you are probably thinking of a former federal or state prison in South Puget Sound — not the rare and exclusive habitat that has won high praise from fish and wildlife biologists.

A derelict boat, estimated at 100 years old, is removed from the McNeil Island shoreline.
Photo: Monica Shoemaker, DNR

I never realized that McNeil Island was such a gem until I learned about state restoration plans that could lead to near-pristine conditions for the island, located about seven miles southwest of Tacoma.

To be sure, more than 90 percent of the island’s 12-mile-long shoreline remains in a natural state, including large trees bending over the water . The restoration — the result of a longtime planning effort — will focus on discrete areas that have been highly degraded by human activities, some for more than a century.

The first project, completed this week, was the removal of shoreline armoring, creosote pilings and debris in six locations. Close to 1,000 tons of concrete was hauled away by barge along with 55 tons of scrap metal and more than 51 tons of pilings. A 557-foot bulkhead was pulled out along with a derelict boat.

“You can already see how much better the habitat appears with all that armoring and debris gone,” said Monica Shoemaker, restoration manager for the Department of Natural Resources’ Aquatic Restoration Program.

“I’m super excited about it,” she added, as she wrapped up the site work. “It takes a lot of planning and permitting, and when you work on something awhile, it is great to see it completed.”

Metal anti-submarine nets, added years ago to McNeil Island’s shoreline, were hauled away during the removal project.
Photo: Monica Shoemaker, DNR

The concrete debris included what looked like an old building, demolished and tossed down the bank, Monica told me. What appeared to be ceramic tiles from a bathroom were scattered among the pieces of concrete. Metal debris included multiple layers of twisted and tangled anti-submarine netting, apparently brought to the site following World War II.

The accomplishment goes well beyond appearances. The shoreline is important rearing habitat for juvenile salmon, including threatened Chinook. Portions of the beach will provide excellent spawning habitat for forage fish, such as surf smelt and sand lance, according to Doris Small of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Much of the island contains moderate to low-bank waterfront, with about 25 percent identified as “feeder bluffs,” which provide sand and gravel to keep the beaches suitable for forage-fish spawning. Wetlands across the island provide habitat for a multitude of species.

Doris said the ongoing restoration effort has been the result of exceptional collaboration between DNR, WDFW and the state Department of Corrections.

McNeil Island served as the site a federal penitentiary from 1875 to 1979. It was the first federal prison in Washington Territory. In 1981, after the federal government decided it was too expensive to operate, the facility was leased by the state of Washington.

In 1984, the state Department of Corrections took ownership of the prison site with 1,324 acres used for buildings and infrastructure. The remainder of the island’s 4,413 acres was dedicated as a permanent wildlife sanctuary under control of WDFW. The deed also transferred ownership of Gertrude and Pitt islands to the state for conservation purposes.

The prison was upgraded during the 1990s with new buildings to serve up to 1,300 inmates. But in 2011 the prison was closed as a cost-cutting measure. Today, the facility houses about 300 inmates in a Special Commitment Center for sexually violent offenders who have been civilly committed.

McNeil, Gertrude and Pitt Islands remain closed to public access to protect breeding populations of wildlife. A 100-yard safety zone goes out into the water with warning signs for boaters.

In 2011, DNR established the Nisqually Reach Aquatic Reserve, which edges up against Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge and includes Anderson Island, McNeil Island and surrounding waters. The idea is to protect shoreline ecosystems in the reserve.

A feasibility report (PDF, 6.3 mb), developed by WDFW and DNR, includes a shoreline survey that identified 10 sites where debris removal would improve the nearshore habitat. Although contractors removed more material than originally estimated for the first six sites, bidding was favorable and costs were held to about $450,000, Monica said. Funding is from DNR’s aquatic restoration account.

The next project, to get underway in January, involves removal of a concrete boat launch, concrete debris and log pilings from the so-called Barge Landing Site at the southern tip of McNeil Island. Funding will come from an account that provides money from a pollution settlement with Asarco, a company that operated a Tacoma smelter that released toxic chemicals over a wide area.

Other projects on McNeil Island involve removing road embankments constructed across three estuaries along with work to restore natural functions. Estuaries provide rearing habitat for salmon and other aquatic species. State or federal restoration grants are needed to proceed with those projects. For ongoing information, check out DNR’s website about McNeil Island.

Amusing Monday: Rare moments frozen in winning wildlife photos

Celebrating the power and beauty of nature, the National Wildlife Federation attracted more than 23,000 photographic entries to its annual photo contest.

Baby Animals category, second place, by Loi Nguyen
Photo courtesy of National Wildlife Federation

Winners in the prestigious contest came from seven states — Alaska, California, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Oregon and West Virginia. They represented six nations — Canada, England, Hungary, Kenya and Kuwait as well as the U.S.

“Whether lifelong professionals or avid amateurs, all winners display a love of wildlife and an appreciation of how photography can help bring nature to life in a way that inspires others to take action and protect it, both at home and abroad,” states a news release announcing the winners last Thursday.

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Environmental volunteers needed in Kitsap County

I thought I would offer a quick note on some volunteer opportunities in Kitsap County, based on an email from WSU Kitsap County Extension. By the way, Kitsap and King county governments are among the best in connecting people with opportunities where they can spent quality time together while helping their community. Check out Kitsap County Volunteer Services and King County volunteer calendar and opportunities.

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Amusing Monday: To survive, penguins have adopted odd behaviors

One of the strangest animals on Earth is the emperor penguin, a bird that exhibits some remarkable behaviors to help it survive under the harshest conditions.

One might wish that the penguins would fly away to a warmer area when the frigid cold of winter strikes the Antarctic each year, but this bird doesn’t fly at all. Instead, groups of penguins huddle together on open ice during the long winters. They take turns moving into the middle of the group to escape the worst of the chill winds and to warm up just a little.

Females lay a single egg and quickly abandon it, leaving the males to care for the egg while the females go hunting. For up to two months, the males will balance the egg on their feet, keeping the egg warm in a feathery “brood pouch.” During this time, the males will eat nothing while the females travel many miles to the sea to gorge themselves on fish, squid and krill. When the females return, they are ready to feed their newborn chicks some of this partially digested food, while the males are free to go and find food for themselves.

While these unusual birds can’t fly, their skills under water are quite amazing — and amusing. Their unique physiology allows them to dive much deeper than any other water bird, stay under water for more than 20 minutes, and eventually zoom back to the surface at an incredible rate, as shown in the first video on this page.

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Amusing Monday: Salish Sea photo contest shows diversity of local species

Nearly 900 photographs highlighting the diversity and biodiversity of our inland waterways were submitted to the “Salish Sea in Focus” photo contest, which just announced the winners yesterday.

“One Fish, Two Fish” by Nirupam Nigam of Hoquiam
First place in Fish category, “Salish Sea in Focus” photo contest

“We’re thrilled with the quality and diversity of the photos — not only the winners but throughout the whole contest,” said Justin Cox, communications director for The SeaDoc Society, which sponsored the contest. “They capture the Salish Sea beautifully, which is everything we hoped for when we envisioned ‘Salish Sea In Focus.’”

The Grand Prize in the contest was awarded to Bruce Kerwin of Bainbridge Island, whose photo shows the furled tentacles of a giant Pacific octopus at Sund Rock on Hood Canal. Other winners were named in five categories plus an additional award for photographers under age 18.

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Amusing Monday: Vancouver, B.C., youth takes three photo awards

Liron Gertsman, 17, of Vancouver, British Columbia, surprised even the judges in Audubon’s annual photo contest. Liron submitted the best photo among youth entries, according to the judges. But beyond that, he was awarded the only two honorable mentions given in his division. The judges themselves were unaware of the trifecta until the winners were tallied.

Grand prize winner: Great gray owl by Steve Mattheis, 2018 Audubon Photography Awards

“Judging is anonymous, so we had no idea that Liron swept the entire youth category, not only the winning image but also two honorable mentions,” Sabine Meyer, one of six judges in the contest, said in an email. “His photos exhibit quite a sophisticated and mature eye, and he is very deliberate in his image making – blurs, extreme close up, monochromatic palette with a backlit bird.

“He is not afraid to push the conventions of classical bird photography aside and invent his own visual vocabulary,” she said. “It’s rare, at any age! I look forward to seeing what he produces in the years to come and hope that other young photographers get inspired and pick up an interest in birds and bird conservation.”

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Amusing Monday: Ten new species, each with unique stories to tell

An international team of taxonomists has chosen the “Top 10 New Species of 2018” from among some 18,000 new species named last year.

They range from the large — a majestic tree that is critically endangered — to the small — a microscopic single-celled organism discovered in an aquarium with no obvious connection to any known species.

They include a fish that has survived in the deepest, darkest part of the Pacific Ocean — at record depth — with credit for its discovery going to a team of scientists led by a University of Washington researcher.

The list of new species also includes a rare great ape — an orangutan that has been identified as a separate species — as well as a prehistoric marsupial lion identified from fossils found in Australia.

The 11th annual list is compiled by the International Institute for Species Exploration at the College of Environmental Science and Forestry at the State University of New York.

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Amusing Monday: Duck paintings help support wetland conservation

Artists possess the creative power to portray a simple bird — say a male mallard duck — in a multitude of ways, something I never really appreciated until I reviewed hundreds of duck portraits in the Federal Duck Stamp Contest.

The acrylic painting of mallard ducks by Bob Hautman of Delano, Minn., took first place in the Federal Duck Stamp Contest. // Photo: USFWS

Judges in the annual contest seem to prefer a super-realistic style. Each year, the winning entry is used to create a federal duck stamp, which are the stamps that waterfowl hunters must carry while hunting. They are also purchased by many people who care about conservation.

Details in the duck portraits are important, but it is also interesting to observe the landscapes that the artists place in the backgrounds and foregrounds of their pictures. Take a look at the Flickr page where 215 entries are shown in the latest contest sponsored by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Eligible species for this year’s contest were the mallard, gadwall, cinnamon teal, blue-winged teal and harlequin duck.

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Amusing Monday: Wildlife cameras keep advancing in technology

There’s nothing like spending some relaxing time in a natural environment. It does a body good — mentally and physically — to go into new or familiar surroundings while basking in the full-bodied sights and sounds of a forest, a stream or a marine shoreline.

We are fortunate in the Puget Sound region to have easy and free (or low-cost) access to all sorts of natural places. If we are lucky, we may catch a glimpse of wildlife and incorporate the sighting into our memory of that place.

What we don’t normally see, however, are the natural behaviors of wildlife away from people, because the presence of humans often changes what they are doing — nor would we want to impose on their lives any more than we already do.

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Amusing Monday: Young artists inspired by endangered species

I’m hoping you will enjoy another dose of kids’ art, this time related to endangered species. An art contest was recently completed in concert with the 13th annual Endangered Species Day, which was this past Friday.

“Hawksbill Sea Turtle” by grand prize winner Brandon Xie, a fourth-grader in Lexington, Mass.
Image: Endangered Species Coalition

More than 1,500 students from around the United States entered this year’s “Saving Endangered Species Youth Art Contest,” according to organizers. The goal of the contest is to encourage public appreciation for imperiled wildlife and to increase support for saving endangered species.

“The artwork created by this generation of young people is clearly demonstrating how they think deeply about the plight of endangered species,” said Leda Huta, executive director of the Endangered Species Coalition, which sponsors the contest. “It is clear that they recognize not just our role in impacting wildlife and plants, but also our opportunities to bring them back from the brink of extinction. Each work of art is an inspiration to all of us to do more, to save more,” she said in a statement.

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