Nature Watch: September Starts Nature in Motion
About the author: Steve Ellis is a naturalist and Land Trust member who enjoys sharing his love of the natural world. His blog series, “Nature Watch,” will appear each month in “Habitchat,” chronicling native plants and wildlife you can expect to see during that particular time of year. We thank Steve for sharing his passion, illustrating the importance of island conservation.
Nature is on the move in September. Flying away are the birds of summer including swallows, flycatchers and warblers. Their compasses are set south; only the warmth of the tropics has the stable food supply that allows them to survive the winter months. Other birds are returning from the Arctic regions of Alaska and Canada. Flocks of Dunlin, a species of sandpiper, crowd the mudflats of Port Susan, Crockett Lake, and Deer Lagoon.
Mammals are in motion too. Gray whales begin the long trek to the waters off the Baja, California Peninsula, where the next generation of calves will be born.
Even plants take part in this seasonal movement. The cones of grand fir come apart and the individual seeds rain down from the treetops. Once on the forest floor these little packets of nutrition provide a temporary bonanza for deer mice and bird species such as song sparrows which prefer to forage on the ground.
A look at two species you might notice in September:
FLORA: Douglas aster, Symphyotrichum subspicatus
Douglas aster stems grow in clumps and can reach three feet tall. Flowers on this hardy plant are thin purple to violet rays around a yellow center disc.
These wildflowers have a long blooming period and prefer full sun to partial shade. They thrive in open forests, along roadsides and the upper portions of beaches.
Douglas aster is among the few wildflowers found blooming in September. They provide nectar for beetles, bumblebees, leaf-cutting bees and butterflies. The plants also serve as hosts for wooly bears, the caterpillar stage of Isabell tiger moths.
FAUNA: California sea lion, Zalophus californianus
Gray whales may be swimming southward but male California sea lions are Puget Sound bound. Male California sea lions are up to eight feet in length and can weigh up to 900 pounds. They are brown to black in color and sport a raised forehead bump. The ears are conical and the front flippers are long. Females are much smaller and lack the forehead crest.
Some young sea lion males may be present here in late winter but most of their tribe spend the breeding season off the California coast. Males leave those colonies after breeding. Females only travel north during periods of dangerously warm seas resulting from El Nino events.
Powerful predators, California sea lions can dive to 800 feet and reach swimming speeds of 15 to 20 mph. Their ability to make tight turns in the water is legendary. It allows them to catch a myriad of prey items including whiting, herring, lamprey, salmon and spiny dogfish. In turn, pods of transient orcas have been known to catch the sea lions. Look for California sea lions off almost any Camano or Whidbey beach.