Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Front-row Seats at Cascade Lake Wildlife Dramas

We knew that a week of camping in the South End campground at Moran State Park on Orcas Island, Washington State, promised a plethora of wildlife sightings the minute we drove under the giant horseshoe of a sign that arches over the entryway: our first glimpse was of a Columbian blacktail deer whose standard-issue brown coat was splashed with puddles of white. By the time we'd reached our designated site, we'd already had our fill of deer, having passed three doe-fawn pairs who paused in their browsing only briefly to watch us go by.

Our site nestled on the very edge of Cascade Lake; we pitched our tent a dozen feet from the water. Then we sat on the vast, well-worn log separating land from lake, dangling our feet in the water.

Straight away, one of the many dragonflies skimming over the water swooped by to take a look at the newcomers in his territory. He hovered in front of us; the little probe droid certainly looked as if he were glowering. Then he was off to nab smaller insects and chase away larger intruders. Incredible, the dogfights waged among the dragonflies; I saw one dragonfly nearly drive another underwater.

This is, I think, an eight-spotted skimmer; the whitish tail, per
Audubon, indicates that it has become "gray with age" (one can
relate). These dragonflies' black-and-white wings made them
look like flying checkerboards as they flickered above the lake.
Dragonfly-watching is definitely enhanced by 90-degree weather. Early in the morning, their zipping, zigzagging flight through the mist over the water created an ethereal scene that I think could only be captured in watercolors; the slanting yellow beams of sunlight made jewels of their flickering wings.

Smaller damselflies, boldly striped in blue and black, also flitted over the water. When we floated out onto the lake in our ridiculous, polka-dotted, inflatable life preservers, the damselflies would perch on us as if we were nothing more than exotic, oversized lily pads. At one point, at least a dozen had settled on me, including a pair relaxing on my big toe. When a violinist practicing on shore began to play a pastoral piece, the Damselfly Club Med atmosphere was complete.

Temperatures dropped as the week progressed, and the dragons and damsels' activities subsided, but the wildlife show went on. A belted kingfisher rattled noisily from a perch nearby before her fishing expeditions; once she was chased in wide figure-eights around the lake by a pair of angry crows. An osprey hovered overhead one afternoon before folding his wings and diving into the water, then laboring skyward again with a fish clenched in his talons. Douglas's squirrels--red-bellied critters also known as chickarees--chuckled madly in the treetops and left middens of cone scales the length and breadth of the loop trail around the lake.

Some animals, of course, didn't hesitate to stroll right into our campsite, despite the presence of our large yellow Lab, Luna. A pair of cheeky song sparrows nearly perched on our knees to join us for morning oatmeal. A family of juncos, a bit more shy, foraged in an orbit around our table. A yellow warbler glowed briefly on a branch above us. Under cover of night, deer investigated the plastic bins that contained our food, as did raccoons. Fortunately for this timid camper, Orcas lacks bears, so one could get away with being quite careless with food--as long as you plonked a few heavy stones atop the cooler, furry bandits didn't make off with your meals.

This butterfly flew with all the grace of an intoxicated
tissue-paper flower. It stumbled and staggered all
over the place as if fighting a headwind even when
the air was still. Am pretty sure it's a pine white. The
Audubon field guide notes that "this strange white
normally flutters weakly, high among conifers" but flits
lower to sip nectar from flowers, as this one's doing.
Some birds were only heard, not seen; the yank-yank calls of red-breasted nuthatches tugged at the forest at dawn, and the fluting song of a Swainson's thrush spiraled through the trees at dusk. I also heard my first owl in the tomblike silence of 2 a.m.--the throbbing hoots of a great horned owl.

Best new-bird-for-the-list sighting: a merlin streaking after smaller birds by the water in the small town of Eastsound.

Didn't get to see the strange animal spied by my daughter while she was out on the trail one morning, though. Swept away by the beauty of the woods and the lake, she told us about all the wonderful things she'd seen, including "a mouse! The cutest little mouse! It had soft brown fur, and a long pink tail, and black eyes, and six cute little pink feet..."

"Six?" we asked, eyebrows raised.

She folded up with laughter as she realized what she'd said, knowing she was doomed; the "six-footed mouse" would now haunt her on all future camping trips. "How many feet did it have?" became the standard question to ask her after she spotted any animal after that.


  1. Maybe the six footed mouse was carrying two feet belonging to something else?

  2. Ha! Good point. But I think if that were so, we would've been given a narrative of the Horrors of her morning nature walk instead! "I meant FOUR!" she insisted through her gales of giggles. We decided to agree on the number "Derf" (the mysterious new number that occurs between 5 and 6 according to the character of Carly in the "iCarly" show).