The southern resident orcas visited Vashon several times in the past month. I was able to watch them one unusually balmy, mid-November morning when the water was relatively calm, the light sublime and the pod was so spread out it took more than an hour for all of them to pass by Point Robinson.
As usual, it was a thrill to see the whales, but it was also a relief — recent news about them has been so dire that any sighting near Vashon is encouraging. What made the encounter more intimate than usual on that quiet morning was how clearly we could hear them breathe as they broke the surface — that unmistakable exhale again and again as they rounded the point.
There was a delayed start for schools that day, and several parents had brought their children to see the orcas pass. Many were running giddily along the shoreline shouting every time a whale surfaced; others were bored after the first ones passed and whined to go home.
One little girl shimmied onto a long limb of driftwood suspended over the water’s edge. Perched there, she patiently waited for the orcas to pass. Although I couldn’t see her face — she was silhouetted against the shimmering water — I was impressed by her calm intensity as she focused on the whales and her courage as she balanced on the branch. I was mesmerized by her commitment to the moment. I later learned her name was Juno Leonard, a 7-year-old who had literally gone out on a limb for a glimpse of an orca.
As the grieving orca Tahlequah carrying her dead calf for nearly three weeks this summer became a symbol of the plight of the orca, Juno became my totem to the creativity, determination, and effort required by the rest of us to fight for their survival. Are we willing to go out on a limb to save them from extinction?
Fortunately, several Vashon residents are willing to take up the challenge. Here are a few:
Amy Carey, executive director of Sound Action, wrestles with the complicated politics and bureaucracy surrounding what should be a simple life or death issue. They advocate for the removal of the four lower Snake River dams, quieting vessel noise, stopping nearshore development that interferes with salmon habitat and accelerating bulkhead removal.
Tom Dean and the staff of The Vashon-Maury Island Land Trust confront the intricate economics of land preservation to protect habitat on Vashon’s shorelines and creek watersheds that support the orcas’ ecosystem.
Bianca Perla heads the Vashon Nature Center’s science-based research into each of the links in the orca food chain by monitoring shoreline habitat, water quality, aquatic invertebrates, forage fish and salmon. They create educational programs to share that knowledge with the rest of us. VNC has just been granted status as a federal non-profit.
Joseph Bogaard heads Save Our Wild Salmon, a national coalition made up of more than 50 partners. They focus on national and international issues affecting endangered salmon such as creating a Federal Salmon Plan and modernizing the U.S./Canada Columbia River Treaty.
The orcas and their defenders need our support now. Volunteer, donate, advocate and educate yourself and others. Be like Juno and go out on a limb for the orcas.
Bird of the season: Northern Flicker
Northern flickers are easily identified by their large size, bold plumage, and black bib. The males also have a mustache called a malar.
Nineteenth-century naturalist John Burroughs said the Northern flicker “was not quite satisfied with being a woodpecker” because while they nest in hollowed out tree snags like other woodpeckers, they’re frequently found feeding on the ground.
Though they will eat almost any kind of insect, flickers seem to prefer the ants they snare with their sticky tongues — which shoots out several inches then reel back into their heads like a tape measure. The flicker also squishes black ants in its beak and uses the juice to preen its feathers. Scientists believe the formic acid found in ants protects the bird’s skin and feathers from parasites. When there aren’t any bugs around, flickers eat berries and visit bird feeders.
Fun Fact: the Northern flicker also has upwards of 150 different nicknames — more aliases than any other North American nesting bird. Many of them sound like superhero names including high-hole, yellowhammer, ant-bird, golden wing, hammer-head, and yarup.
Thursday, Dec. 6
VNC Nature Lounge
Vashon Nature Center’s quarterly gathering will focus on native plants. Bring landscaping ideas, sketches, and photos of favorite native plants. This is a chance to get feedback, ask questions and brainstorm ideas for the upcoming planting season. Free and open to all.
7 to 9 p.m. at the Hardware Store Restaurant Gallery.
Saturday, Dec. 8
Vashon Audubon Field Trip
Birding on the island. Drop in, no charge and no experience necessary. Bring binoculars and scopes if you have them and wear walking shoes or boots. Kids must be accompanied by an adult. Carpools encouraged and can be arranged at Ober Park.
9 to 11 a.m. Meet at Ober Park Park & Ride lot.
Saturday, Dec. 8
Where the Water Begins Workshop
The King Conservation District is conducting a free workshop for property owners along the marine shorelines of King County. The workshop will cover ecological, geological and vegetation management issues associated with owning shoreline and bluff property.
Register at kingcd.eventbrite.com or call 425-282-1949 for more information.
9 a.m. to noon at the Land Trust Building
Tuesday, Dec. 11
VNC Forage Fish Surveys
Monthly forage fish surveys require no prior experience. Volunteers must be able to walk on the beach at night. Email Maria Metler (firstname.lastname@example.org) for more information or to sign up.
9 to 11:00 p.m.
Sunday, Dec. 30
Annual Christmas Bird Count
Participate in the nation’s longest-running citizen science project: the Audubon Christmas Bird Count. Join a team out in the field, head out in the early morning hours to listen for owls or count birds at your feeder from the comfort of your home. Check the Vashon Audubon website https://vashonaudubon.org/ for details or Contact CBC Coordinator Ezra Parker at email@example.com or 206-463-0383 for further information or to sign up to participate in the count.
Native Plant Sales
Place your orders now for March pick-up at the King Conservation District bareroot native plant sale on their website kingcd.org/programs/better-backyards. The Vashon-Maury Island Land Trust Plant Sale begins Jan. 1. Go to vashonlandtrust.org for more information.
Vashon Audubon Calendar Vashon
The 2019 Vashon Audubon Calendar is available for $15 at the Thriftway customer service counter, the Vashon Bookshop or online at vashonaudubon.org. Proceeds support free presentations by bird experts, Chautauqua Elementary School’s fourth-grade bird program and Vashon High School scholarships.
Coming in January:
Tuesday, Jan. 15
Back by popular demand — Vashon’s favorite owl photographer Paul Bannick returns with a new slide lecture on The Owls of North America. 7 p.m. at the Vashon Theatre. By donation at the door.