Saturday, June 10, 2017

Lake Ballard: A Lively Capitalist Ruin

On May 27th, I explored Lake Ballard with my mother, Jane.

Jane birds Lake Ballard through a chain-link fence.

If you're from Seattle, you might pause to wonder what I'm talking about. The house-boated Lake Union is well known, as are the duck-filled Green Lake and the bridge-spanned Lake Washington. But Lake Ballard? You've probably never heard of such a thing.

That's because Lake Ballard is actually a puddle of water that has collected in a huge empty lot at the intersection of NW 46th St and 15th Ave NW (better known as the Ballard Bridge). It sits across the street from Ballard Blocks Shopping Mall, home to Trader Joe's and LA Fitness, among others.

Lake Ballard contains multiple habitats: calm freshwater, concrete pads, and blackberry brambles.

The concrete foundation has been growing a forest of Himalayan blackberries since its industrial buildings were torn down several years ago. Online neighborhood forums have generated many complaints about this "wasted" space, with commenters referring to it as an "eyesore" and calling for rapid development.

One commenter wrote, "You mean that swimming pool? It's about time they did something with that. Boggles the mind how property owners can afford to just sit on land like that without doing anything. At least turn it into parking for boats and RVs to pick up some cash."

The capitalist spirit is alive and well in Ballard.

You never know what you might find in Lake Ballard -- perhaps a chair and a fire extinguisher.

Seattle's bird-watching community has taken a different perspective, as have an impressive number of migrating shorebirds and urban resident species. Birders have dubbed the construction site "Lake Ballard." We frequent it with our binoculars, report sightings on the Tweeters listserv, and submit eBird checklists. Highlights have included semipalmated plovers, least sandpipers, greater yellowlegs, spotted sandpipers, and solitary sandpipers.

Because it is fenced off from human trespassers and isolated from most predators, Lake Ballard is a safe haven for a duck to raise her family.

I watched this mother mallard supervise six ducklings in the frothy waters.

Here, a mallard and her duckling sleep behind a killdeer, the only shorebird we saw today.

A female house finch picks seeds from a pioneering shrub.

Next to Lake Ballard runs one of Seattle's famous drawbridges, the Ballard Bridge. A host of streetwise birds make their homes here, in the traffic-rumbling shade.

Jane is framed between the Ballard Bridge and Lake Ballard.

Pigeons are the most dependable sightings.

European starlings live here, too.

A native and intelligent American crow watched my mother and I with interest from a telephone wire.

Most excitingly, a colony of cliff swallows have plastered their mud to the bridge's underside. Concrete cliffs suit them just fine.

This view is looking straight up at a hanging weed, fence-top pigeon perch, and cliff swallow nest below the bridge.

Close-up of a cliff swallow's mud nest.

Another nest with a white, blue, and orange head poking out.

A cliff swallow makes adjustments to her corner abode.

I have become fond of Lake Ballard and its avian inhabitants. To me, this empty lots holds several lessons:

1. Birds in Seattle are desperate for freshwater, and they need more aquatic and riparian habitat.

2. Nature is resilient, and it will fill in the weedy margins of capitalist development at any opportunity. We have the potential to coexist, humans and wildlife, in ecosystems that are contaminated and collaboratively built by all of us. (For more on this idea, I suggest reading The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins by Anna Tsing.)

3. Waste is never wasted. What a developer sees as a "waste of money" or a neighbor sees as a "waste of space" is a resource that will be used by marginalized populations, in this case birds and blackberries.

And with these lessons in mind, I am sad to share the news that Lake Ballard will soon be developed into a grocery store, marine retail, and a restaurant. A big white board (formally known as Notice of Proposed Land Use Action) declares the lake's fate underneath graffiti of an incredulous fox. I picture a thought bubble over the spray-painted canine's head:

"Do we really need another grocery store across the street from Trader Joe's?"

A notice of Lake Ballard's impending demise, with commentary from a graffiti fox.

Of course, Ballard is growing, and the stores will be frequented by customers happy for a source of high-end foods on which to spend their money. It's a capitalist dream to replace this wasteful swimming pool with economically productive businesses.

Yet, I imagine an alternative use for this land. What if Lake Ballard were immortalized into a small urban park? What if Ballard's residents worked together to demand that this vacant lot be turned into a freshwater oasis for shorebirds and waterfowl amid bustling concrete and air-conditioned gyms and grocery stores? My dream has been met with enthusiasm when I shared it with Trader Joe's clerks and shoppers, my only audience so far.

Resistance to development is not a stranger in this place. Across from Lake Ballard, wedged between Ross Dress for Less and LA Fitness, sits an odd and unexpected home. It's the house of the late Edith Wilson Macefield, a Ballard legend who refused to sell her property for exorbitant offers. So, the Ballard Blocks Shopping Mall was built around her.

Edith Wilson Macefield's house tucked defiantly between behemoth units of Ballard Blocks Shopping Mall.

Clearly, the birds are willing to call this ruin home. I would like to take a leaf out of Edith's book and defend this "waste" for the organisms who recognized its potential not as a generator of profit, but as a nursery for ducklings, a source of home-building mud, and a garden of seeds and berries. I would feel more at home in my city if I could visit Lake Ballard years from now, spend a few moments with its inhabitants, and remember that all of us -- all organisms -- are in this game of survival together.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Sweets in Suncadia

Five years of college.
One year in Ohio.
One semester in Galapagos, where this blog was born.
One semester split among Brazil, Peru, and mainland Ecuador.
One semester camping in the Intermountain West.
Two and a half years in Walla Walla, Washington.

Walla Walla was the place I called home for longest since leaving high school, and saying goodbye was the opposite of easy. Luckily, I got to spend three days after graduation with my adoptive family and ultimate frisbee team, the Sweets, in the eastern Cascades.

I felt strange and out-of-place in the luxury golf resort, Suncadia, but as soon as I wandered past the mowed green turf I found myself immersed in a dry Ponderosa pine forest filled with deer, lichen, wildflowers, and songbirds.

Ponderosa pine thrive on the "sunny side" of the Cascades.

Oregon grape in bloom.

Oregon grape flowers are elegantly layered and butter-yellow.

My first Nashville warbler! He was wearing a red cap, grey hood, and yellow belly.

Chocolate lily, Fritillaria affinis.

As I sat on a log to observe the Nashville warbler mine a shrub's catkins for their nutritious seeds, I was startled to find a chocolate lily. These flowers are rare. Their underground bulbs, resembling clumps of rice, are eaten by several Coast Salish tribes. I was so excited to photograph this flower from below, I was lying motionless on my belly for several minutes, and when I sat up I saw two well-dressed joggers staring at me.

"Oh my god, we thought you were a dead body!" the man gasped.

"Just looking at a flower," I told them. "Want to see a chocolate lily?"

"Umm, that's okay," he replied. They glanced at each other and jogged quickly away.

For the moment, this forest is still filled with rare beauty on the margins between golf greens and second homes with four-gar garages, but this ecosystem is nowhere near intact. Yesterday, I saw several new concrete foundations being poured for new mansions within this gated community. Only a few tall Ponderosas stood between existing houses.

I had to ask myself, what is the appeal of living or vacationing in a place like this? If the point is to live in a dry montane forest, then the appeal has been nullified by the density of homes and roads. (And why live in a forest if you don't even stop to notice the chocolate lilies?) I think the real appeal is exclusivity. Suncadia is known for being expensive and luxurious. To own a home here is a symbol of wealth. I imagine the wealthiest residents will soon move to a more remote, forested enclave as Suncadia becomes too suburban and accessible, and deforestation will continue to reduce chocolate lily and western toad habitat in the Cascades.

Look at the chocolate lily's gorgeous brown-and-green, mottled petals and six pollen-laden stamen.

Arrowleaf balsamroot, a sign of springtime in eastern Washington.

Wolf lichen, Letharia vulpina, is neon green-yellow because of its vulpinic acid, a toxin once used to poison wolves. It belongs to the family Parmeliaceae.

Deer scat.

A very young sapling growing from a nurse-log.

A chipping sparrow in a Douglas fir.

A few Sweets around our magical, self-igniting fire pit.

On our second day, I set out for a hike with Kevin and Hardy in the Teanaway Community Forest, along the West Fork Teanaway River.

Brown-eyed sunshine, Vulpicida canadensis. This bright yellow lichen also belongs to the family Parmeliaceae, but it differs from wolf lichen due to its brown ascocarps (sexual reproductive structures) and the texture of its thallus (the main, leafy body of the lichen.)
We went skinny-dipping in a shallow pool of the river (after this photo.)

A baby western toad, Anaxyrus boreas, was swimming in our shallow pool -- or rather, we were swimming in hers.

On our third and final day, we packed into cars with all our gear from the past one to four years of living in Walla Walla. Before we headed over the Pass to our various homes, I persuaded my teammates to stop for a picnic lunch at the Northern Pacific Railroad Ponds in Cle Elum, a birding hotspot. There, I talked with another woman from Seattle, a novice birder who was exploring the area for the first time. We saw a mallard with ducklings and many species of swallows over the water. 

Though I never wanted to say goodbye to Whitman, college, or the Sweets, these few days were a good transition from the bubble of school to the wide world beyond -- the birds and trees and waterways I can turn to when I don't have daily practices, weekend tournaments, dance parties, sprint workouts, weight lifting, potluck meetings, and pick-up games on Ankeny to bring me joy. At least I know I will find ultimate to play wherever I go next... and something tells me I'll be watching goofy Snapchats from my Sweets for a long time to come.

Kaitie holds a round, moss-lined nest we found on the ground. It must have blown down from a tree in the wind.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Mammals of Southern Arizona

Seeing mammals other than Homo sapiens and Canis familiaris is always a treat. In southern Arizona, I have run across fifteen species of wild mammal, or at least their sign, in the past three years.

And we've ridden a couple domestic mammals, too.

Deer family: Cervidae

1. Mule deer, Odocoileus hemionus

I'm used to finding mule deer in the green forests of Washington, so the small herd I saw picking their way through cacti and mesquite outside Vail, Arizona looked rather out of place. I suppose their big ears help them radiate extra heat in this sweltering desert.

I took this photo of a mule deer doe grazing at the Nisqually Delta in Washington State. June 2, 2014.

2. Coues white-tailed deer, Odocoileus virginianus couesi

Also known as the Arizona white-tailed deer or fantail deer, the Couse white-tailed deer live in mixed oak and pine woodlands at high altitudes. We saw a few of these very small deer bounding through just such a forest in Madera Canyon during the Christmas Bird Count.

Galen and I found this lower jawbone of a white-tailed deer on National Forest land north of Tucson.

Perfectly good lawn-mowing teeth.

Squirrel family: Sciuridae

3. Harris's antelope squirrel, Ammospermophilus harrisii

Harris's antelope squirrel perching near the Tanque Verde Trail, Saguaro National Park, AZ. January 2, 2017.

4. Rock squirrel, Otospermophilus variegatus

A rock squirrel eating fruits in Madera Canyon. August 2, 2015.

5. Arizona grey squirrel, Sciurus arizonensis

6. Round-tailed ground squirrel, Xerospermophilus tereticaudus

Hannah and I found a colony of round-tailed ground squirrels in Sweetwater Wetlands Park, Tucson, AZ. August 9, 2015.

7. Black-tailed prairie dog, Cynomys ludovicianus

Black-tailed prairie dogs have a long and fascinating history in southeastern Arizona. This species was once the most abundant prairie dog in North America. Its range covered the Southwestern and Midwestern United States and extended into both Mexico and Canada. One "town" in Texas was reported to cover 25,000 square miles and house 400 million black-tailed prairie dogs.

Beginning in the early 1900's, the U.S. government initiated a systemic eradication of prairie dogs to decrease the "waste" of rodent-consumed grass and maximize beef production on rangeland. The strychnine killed off prairie dogs in over 95% of their habitat, but it didn't increase the yield of beef. Turns out, prairie dogs control mesquite growth by devouring the seedlings that sprout after a hard rain. They like treeless colonies because predators are easier to spot. Due to overgrazing and, in large part, prairie dog eradication, invading mesquite has become the primary cause of pasture degradation and declining beef production in Arizona.

Occupied habitat plummeted from a historic high of 100 million acres to a low of 364,000 in 1961. The species was extirpated from Arizona in the early 1960's, and its dependent species, including black-footed ferrets and burrowing owls, suffered alongside it. The black-footed ferret, entirely dependent on prairie dog towns, was declared extinct in the wild in 1979 until a woman's dog brought a dead ferret to her Wyoming doorstep two years later.

Black-tailed prairie dogs were released into Las Cienegas National Conservation Area in 2008 and 2009, and that is where I was lucky to watch them go about their prairie-dog business. Captive-bred black-footed ferrets have been released elsewhere in Arizona, and burrowing owls found their own way back.

The black-tailed prairie dog town at Las Cienegas. August 14, 2016.

A sentry.

A burrowing owl, just where we would expect her to be!

The corrugated black plastic pipe indicating that this prairie-dog town was a reintroduction site.
The amount of effort and money that has gone in to first poisoning and now reintroducing prairie dogs is astounding.

But we are sure glad they're back.

Rabbit family: Leporidae

8. Black-tailed jackrabbit? Lepus californicus

9. Antelope jackrabbit, Lepus alleni

10. Desert cottontail, Sylvilagus audubonii

Desert cottontail in Sweetwater Wetlands Park. August 9, 2015.

Same cottontail. Look at those HUGE ears!

New World rat family: Cricetidae

11. Woodrat species, Neotoma sp.

My friend Hannah and I found this dead woodrat at Sweetwater Wetlands Park. August 9, 2015.

Weasel family: Mustelidae

12. American badger? Taxidea taxus

My mother, Jane, found this odd-looking object in a cave near Vail, AZ while scanning with her binoculars. We debated whether it was an animal, trash, or some strange mineral formation. I took this photo with 200X zoom, and we decided it must be a rock. An hour or so later, we came back to find the object missing! Could it have been an American badger guarding a food cache?

(Speaking of which, if you haven't seen this video of a badger burying a whole cow, you are missing out.)

Could it be a badger?

An American badger photographed at Point Reyes National Seashore. Photo credit: Yathin Krishnappa.

Dog family: Canidae

13. Coyote, Canis latrans (scat only)

I was shocked to find this coyote at the Montlake Fill in the heart of Seattle, Washington, a big city! March 14, 2016.

This coyote was getting fat on fallen dates at China Ranch Date Farm, a magical oasis in the Mojave Desert near Southern Death Valley. November 14, 2016.

Skunk family: Mephitidae

14. Road-killed skunk.

Yeah, not very exciting, I know. Four species of skunk live in Arizona (striped, spotted, hooded, and hog-nosed) but the striped is the most common, and the most commonly road-killed. Rich, Galen, and I noted this one on our nocturnal drive down to California Gulch.

Peccary family: Tayassuidae

15. Javelina, Pecari tajacu

Javelinas, also known as collared peccaries, are two-foot-tall, herbivorous, hoofed mammals. They resemble pigs, but the pig family belongs to the Old World and the peccary family to the New World. They travel in family groups and have large populations in suburban Tucson and Phoenix, as well as Mexico and Central and South America.

Journal Entry January 3, 2017:

Amelia, Galen and I gathered information at Catalina State Park, bought groceries at Walmart, and made camp out a National Forest road. For dinner: rice pilaf, beans, corn tortillas, yellow bell pepper, green onions and wilted spinach. Chamomile tea and strawberries for dessert. I was reading my book while Galen played guitar and Amelia drew a map of the United States, when suddenly I heard a whirring sound in the dark. I spun around as if something had stung me because I felt eyes watching me -- and there was a javelina standing in our camp, staring at us!!! We froze and made eye contact before I shooed him away. I've heard they can be aggressive but he turned tail and trotted off, not in too much of a hurry. Galen and I slept under the stars on a tarp. It felt like home. I wonder if the javelina watched us sleep.

A javelina photographed in the Melbourne Zoo. Photo credit: Fir0002/Flagstaffotos