Springing into March with a Splash, a Buzz, and a Chorus

Author: Jessica | 03/06/20

Gray Whales in Saratoga Passage

Gray whales generally arrive in the waters around Whidbey and Camano islands during the last week of February or first week of March. This pair surfaces near Hat Island on March 31, 2019. Photo by Jill Hein.

Look around you! Listen closely! Nature is waking up.

As we’ve turned the page on the calendar to a new month, March is reminding us that spring is near!

This is a magical time of year on Whidbey and Camano islands when nature makes a big splash (literally) and there’s a buzz in the air.

Here are some things you can expect to see or hear from nature around the islands in March:

Something to Spout About: The Arrival of Gray Whales

Gray Whales in Saratoga Passage

Gray whales must come to the surface to breath every few minutes. Photo by Jill Hein.

Each year around late February or early March, a small population of gray whales come to feed in the waters near Whidbey and Camano islands.

Known as the North Puget “Sounders,” this group of about 12 whales has been making a detour into Washington’s inland waters during their spring northern migration along the Pacific Coast for nearly three decades. They come to the islands to feed on ghost shrimp and tube worms found in the tidal flats and generally stay for a few months.

This year, at least four grays have been spotted around the islands since February 26. These marine mammals come up for air every few minutes after deep dives so look for spouts at the water’s surface!

Saratoga Passage, near Langley, and Possession Sound, especially near Hat Island, are common places for sightings. In recent years, grays also been appearing in Penn Cove.

The Land Trust has protected various shoreline properties that offer public access and great whale viewing potential: Glendale Beach on South Whidbey and Barnum Point County Park on Camano. Possession Sound Preserve will be an excellent place to spot whales when it opens to the public later this year.

The Orca Network’s Facebook page is the best resource for updates of local sightings of grays as well as orcas.

The Latest Buzz: Rufous Returns!

Rufous Hummingbird

A Rufous hummingbird returns to the islands this time of year with a voracious appetite. Photo by Jennifer Holmes.

The Rufous hummingbird generally makes its first appearance on the islands around the last week of February or first week of March. It is the tiniest of the two hummingbirds on the islands but makes its presence known in a big way, buzzing around feeders and flowering shrubs to try to chase off Anna’s hummingbirds, a year-round resident.

An excellent read about the Rufous hummingbird’s return can be found in a recent post in Dan’s Blog by Dan Pedersen and Craig Johnson.

Rufous hummingbirds are dependent on the sap wells created by Red-breasted sapsuckers. It is thought that the nutrient-dense sap is even more important to hummingbirds than nectar. Like the gray whale, the Rufous hummingbird makes an incredibly long journey, leaving Mexico and migrating up the West Coast. So these tiny birds are very hungry! They are territorial and will aggressively defend sap wells. Their survival around here hinges, in part, on the presence of sapsuckers.

Red-breasted sapsuckers are cavity nesters. They, in turn, are dependent on dead trees to build their nests in. Snags that are large enough and plentiful enough are more abundant in healthy forests. Removal of these features will decrease the presence of sapsuckers, and subsequently, the Rufous hummingbirds.

Two more reasons why saving mature forests is important!

Early Bloomers

Skunk cabbage

Skunk cabbage, seen here at South Whidbey State Park, emits an unpleasant odor that attracts certain pollinators. Photo by Erin Waterman.

This is a good time of year to celebrate our harbingers of spring. Two native shrubs, Indian plum (Oemlaria cerasiformis) and red flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum) are some of the first shrubs to flower here and have already started. This comes not a moment too soon for the Rufous hummingbird, who will need the nectar of these flowering shrubs to recharge from its journey across the continent.

Also be on the lookout for the yellow blooms of skunk cabbage around wetlands. All three of these native plants can be found at Trillium Community Forest near Freeland. Swamp lantern is another common name for skunk cabbage (Lysichiton americanus).

Early Croakers

Pacific Tree Frog

A Pacific Chorus Frog hangs around the Land Trust office in Greenbank. If you hear a chorus of frogs on the islands, that’s these guys.

Pacific chorus frogs breed from winter through early summer, but March is the time when the volume really turns up during courtship. Expect to hear a lot of croaking in wetlands as males try to croak the loudest to attract females.

“Now is the time to hear frogs singing loudly in the evening and early morning hours,” said Ruth Milner, biologist with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. “Other native frogs may also vocalize, but since they usually sing under water, the classic chorus sound will always be the chorus or ‘tree’ frogs.”

Expect to see amphibian egg clusters of all sorts in shallow marshes starting in mid to late March.

Share Your Nature Observations

What wildlife behaviors, native plants, or others events in nature do you observe during certain times of the year? Please share your observations by emailing Land Trust communications manager Ron Newberry at ron@wclt.org.

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