I thought it would be fun to insert a draft from the book I've been writing that chronicles my research (and parts of my life) on bushtits beginning in 1986. I began my research in the Sky Islands region of southeastern Arizona, briefly tried to study long-tailed tits in Spain, and then finally settled in the Pacific NW, beginning with the San Juan Islands. This excerpt is about my short time on Shaw Island. Just for fun:
Many years ago, in 1997, when I was contemplating moving my bushtit study to the Pacific NW where I, as a redhead, wouldn’t have to deal with the heat and the sun, I explored the possibility of the San Juan Islands in Puget Sound near Seattle.
These islands are beautiful and have the advantage of having a far lower yearly rainfall than the coastal areas of Washington, which deserves its reputation for being wet. The islands are also relatively undeveloped so that there was plenty of land for bushtit habitat and little “suburb” to negotiate. And there was a field station, albeit primarily for fish researchers, conveniently situated on the largest island of San Juan. Having lived at SWRS for so many years, I recognized the advantages of having colleagues and meals provided, leaving the days free to follow bushtits.
So my husband Drew and I, dragging our then 1 year old Ellie and 6 year old Hannah, across the country (again) settled into a modern and comfortable apt within Friday Harbor Lab of the University of Washington. Unfortunately, it was too early for the fish folk and so the dining room was closed. But we had our own full kitchen which also made for a convenient bathtub for the baby.
One of the things I learned about bushtits in the San Juan’s is that they are relatively new immigrants to the area and that they inhabit only a few of the larger islands. In fact, they were observed on San Juan for the very first time in 1935. (Coincidently, the same year Alexander Skutch described them as having helpers at the nest in Guatemala.) Before then….no bushtits. In retrospect, that makes sense. Bushtits are pretty bad fliers. They certainly can’t make any kind of distance easily. Flights are usually confined to kind of weak, wave-like movements from tree to tree. During the nesting season, pairs collect nesting material and often fly a great distance (for a bushtit) in a beeline to the nest. But I can’t imagine any bushtit thinking it was less than suicide to cross a large body of water.
On the other hand, it’s relatively easy to imagine one being blown off-course in a violent storm. But you need more than two birds to make a flock, or even a nest. So one bird would be a dead end. Literally. (It’s even possible, I suppose, that early bushtits somehow clung to the ferries that made their way from island to island. But that’s a little far-fetched.)
Females, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, are the primary dispersers and so I imagine the first group of bushtits making it to the islands were female bushtits in small groups. They must have arrived with great hope, only to find no males. So no nests. And they died lonely spinsters.
In any case, since 1935 some brave or unlucky or stupid bushtits did eventually make it to San Juan, Orca, and Lopez and established themselves as breeding flocks.
But my greatest hope in the San Juan islands was an outpost of the University of Washington on the smaller Shaw Island. It had a cottage specifically reserved for researchers and two full-time caretakers. There were no facilities (shopping and such) on the island, so shopping trips had to be made to one of the larger islands every two weeks or so. But it was university property and plenty big enough for my research, especially if I included the convent property next door. And my understanding was that the sisters were quite bird-happy and would welcome a project on their farm.
So we headed out to Shaw Island with great hopes for a new research site. After all, the distance between Orca and Shaw was a miniscule 2000 feet so. Surely, since 1935, they must have made their way to Shaw!
But they hadn’t. What we found was perfect bushtit habitat everywhere (brambles, old farms, etc) …..but not a spit. Not a feather. No bushtits at all. A call to the local Audubon confirmed my fears. I had the perfect new study site without any study animals. Very disappointing.
So we looked over the other islands as well, mostly as hikers and tourists, and found the bushtit densities weren’t particularly high and there was enough private land to make things difficult. So I scrapped the idea and planned to head back to hot and sunny Arizona for yet another year (which turned into thirteen). Oh well.
Fast forward to 2014. A good eighteen years later. Arizona is no longer viable for me or for bushtits. Not only are there unpredictable and potentially dangerous drug-runners in the Chiricahua Mountains, the droughts have decimated the bushtit population in these already desert mountains and so, if I want to study bushtits in any numbers, I really have to go elsewhere.
And so I remember the San Juan Islands….beautiful and cool and possibly, eighteen years later, swarming with bushtits. Or so I can hope. The 1935 invasion was just the beginning and perhaps they have managed a bigger foothold by now. In fact, it’s possible Shaw now has bushtits. What a wonderful thing that would be! I make a few quick calls to local birders who think here are bushtits on Shaw now, but they aren’t entirely certain what the population looks like.
So, in 2014, Ellie and I settle into the “cottage” on Shaw Island, navigating a narrow one-lane road along the edge of the island and then a rather harrowing muddy dirt road to get to the cabin which sits right on the water. This “cottage” is nothing I ever expected. It’s just one room, but that one room has a full wall of floor to ceiling windows attached to a wide mossy deck over-looking the sound. From here we can watch fishing boats, sea otters, whales, and all the other watery goings-ons in Puget Sound.
The rest of the cottage is pretty bare-bones and smells strongly of mice. It hasn’t been inhabited in awhile. After our first night there, that is verified. The kitchen counter, although cleaned the night before, is covered with mouse turds. So….mouse wars begin. I don’t like killing the little guys. They aren’t just house mice. They are Peromyscus (wild white-footed mice) and actually belong here more than we do. As happenstance would have it, we accidently find the perfect solution. At the bottom of the plastic trashcan our second night there is a trembling wide-eyed little rodent. He’s been able to get in, but not out. Perfect. At night we store the trash in the refrigerator and turn the plastic trashcan into a mouse trap: a bit of tempting peanut butter at the bottom with a paper towel for cover. The first night, we catch 3. The second night 2, then one, then…..none. We are mouse-free. Each of the little creatures is gently released far from our home near a dumpter that looks to me like mouse heaven.
Ok. Back to the bushtits and the solution to the mystery I am sure you (all three of you) are dying to hear about. Are there bushtits on Shaw Island?
Well……the first foray Ellie and I take out “into the field” is a success. We find a fairly large flock of bushtits foraging on the edge of the field near the main House where the caretakers live. Very exciting! We decide to follow them for as long as we can. That turns out to be easy. They stay ---- for the entire day --- foraging in the brambles on the edge of the field. Ellie and I take turns napping. Six solid hours of nothing. But at least we have bushtits.
The next day is the same. And I should point out that this seems odd. Most bushtit flocks move large distances each day. This flock seems perfectly happy to stay in one spot. At one point they stray into the brambles in the middle of a large field nearby. But that’s it……..
………until the next day. Full of optimism (but not looking forward to another day of naps alternating with boring foraging bushtit observations) we head over to the brambles and, lo and behold (or rather not behold), there are no bushtits. So we search. And search. And search. We search the entire university property. We get in the car and search the entire island by road (discovering that there’s a rather ritzy section at the other end -- Bill Gates lives there.) And we find nothing. No bushtits . That goes on for a couple of days during which we are alternately mystified and supremely frustrated. Where the hell are they??
Finally on day three we find them (although without banded birds we can’t be certain they are the same birds) on the university property, but at the other end and near an old bunkhouse that is infrequently used by university classes. The setting is beautiful. Lovely old gnarled and flowering trees. The gorgeous blue sea with the other islands on the horizon. Seals. Grassy lawn-like open areas. Sun. A convenient and clean outhouse (!!) in the woods.
It’s a change from both our bushtit-less existence over the last few days and the long, boring days watching the flock live a sedentary existence in the brambles near our cottage.
I don’t want to dwell on Shaw Island for too long because, honestly, it wasn’t too exciting. We frequently lost the birds for days on end and then they would mysteriously reappear in an unexpected place. Over the weeks that we were there (which seemed much longer) it began to dawn on me that we were probably watching only one flock with a very, very large home range: the entire island. That would explain why they were so hard to find.
The other odd thing about this flock (if it was the same one) was the ratio of males to females. There were far more males than one would expect in the usual bushtit flock. And, when they finally began to nest, we found only two nests.
So it dawned on me: what we were likely looking at was a founding flock. Shaw Island, just 17 years before, had no bushtits. Somehow bushtits had made their way here and successfully bred. But bushtits have one major flaw that makes it difficult for them to successfully and rapidly colonize an island. Only the males are philopatric and stay with the natal flock. Females, on the other hand, migrate out at the beginning of the spring to find a new flock to join and find a mate in. But…….these females had nowhere to go. There were no other flocks to migrate into. They likely searched and searched to no avail, eventually succumbing to the elements as lonely spinsters. Sad. And not a good way to increase a population.
In the meantime, speaking of sad, I was succumbing myself to a kind of melancholy lethargy. I began to mutter things like “Maybe I should just stop studying bushtits.” and “This is discouraging. Let’s go home.” I began to loose my enthusiasm. But Ellie, wise Ellie, wouldn’t have anything of that. “Why are we staying here, Mommy? she said one day. “You know there are bushtits in Discovery Park in Seattle. Why don’t we go there?”
I had dug my heels into Shaw because of the lovely living conditions and the large university property but I had to finally see the reason in Ellie’s words. We should at least look at Discovery Park even though it was in the middle of a city and really wasn’t a very appealing place to work.
So we went. And we found bushtits. We found lots of bushtits. We were tripping over them (not quite literally, but certainly figuratively). In a few short days we found and watched six active nests. Six happy nests with spitting and active bushtits. Every block in the developed areas had at least one breeding pair. It was bushtit heaven! And my sprits rose --- as Ellie had predicted. Bushtit, ho! I had found my new study area. Whew.
So that's bit of the Washington story. But.....but.......I'm in Portland! So, Discovery Park wasn't my new study area, was it? To learn more about that story, you'll have to read the book.....