It would be hard to find a naturalist that knows the diversity of organisms in western Washington and the Pacific Northwest better than Stewart. Stewart also knows nature of the Northeast US, where he grew up and started his intense nature studies, quite well, and has a good familiarity with the global natural community. In addition to this Stewart has a strong ability to communicate to people of all ages, from young children to seniors, and people of all cultural backgrounds, and can also communicate a bit in multiple languages. Stewart always puts a humorous twist in here and there, while keeping the humor appropriate to the group.
You can hire Stewart to lead a short walk, a day trip or a longer trip. Stewart can also give nature talks on a wide diversity of nature subjects. Our area wild plants, birds, butterflies, other insects, spiders and other invertebrates, reptiles and amphibians, and the relationships between the various organisms, are his areas of relative expertise, but you name the organism group visible without a microscope and he has probably studied it to some degree. Nature walks and talks can be ecosystem, or stewardship oriented also.
Stewart has lead a wide diversity of programs: from elementary school programs to a professional development workshops for a Fish and Wildlife butterfly tracking crew on local grass identification; university class field trips focused on the diversity of local amphibians, their identification and breeding ecology, to leading a talk at the Washington Native Plant Society about Seattle’s Lost and Declining Native Plants.
Stewart can also take your office group, nature club, senior group, or your house of worship on a nature adventure or give them a nature talk / presentation. He will also work with university, high school, middle school, elementary school to pre-school groups. It could be regular school groups, after school groups or home school groups or a birthday party. It could be a day hike, a night hike or a 4 day trip. If that time slot is open you or your group can be the one to fill it.
It’s Stewart’s goal to maximize his contribution to the preservation and re-growth of the natural heritage that existed locally and globally before humans started radically altering their own habitat. He believes that the best way he can contribute to the stewardship of the wealth of nature, that he has a deep passion for, is to share, with as many people as possible, from as wide a diversity of groups as possible, his knowledge of, and passion for, nature. After being so gifted in gaining this knowledge and passion from others before him and learning from his own studies of, and engagement in, nature, he is working to share both that knowledge and passion with those after him.
See this piece in the Seattle Times – links to a video of me demonstrating my owl hoots!
On a sunny, relatively warm, Saturday, March 9th I saw my first butterfly of the season. It was a Mourning Cloak at a small West Seattle Park, Orchard St Ravine, a pocket of nature hidden a little ways below the top of High Point hill. The Mourning Cloak - Nymphalis antiopa is one of a handful of species in the Nymphalini tribe, including the Anglewings, Tortoiseshells and Ladies, that winter over in the adult stage, and may fly on any especially warm, sunny day in winter. It was repeatedly flying around, then landing in the sun to gather solar energy. They lay their clusters of eggs on a diversity of broad leafed deciduous trees, but I’ve seen the caterpillars mostly on willows.
I’m now betting that the next butterfly I see will be another member of the Nymphalini tribe, the Satyr Anglewing - Polygonia satyrus, our most common early spring Seattle butterfly. If the weather is right, we may see them in my Sunday, April 7th Camp Long walk: Salamanders and Slugs, Spring Butterflies and Birds of Camp Long!
The Satyr Anglewing lays its eggs only on Stinging Nettles – Urtica dioica, the most important “host plant” for our Seattle butterflies, as 3 of our local butterfly species only lay eggs on this species, and 2 more can lay on both nettles and other species. It won’t be long before it’s time to look for the Satyr Anglewing (also called Satyr Comma) caterpillars hiding under the nettle leaves that they have curved over themselves like tents and have started eating from the tips.
Now that the butterflies are flying and the Trilliums are blooming, for me it is functionally Spring, even though the calendar waits to March 20th.
Not only do the new growing tips of the Stinging Nettle – Urtica dioica, picked with gloves then cooked, make good edible greens, the stinging hairs being disarmed by cooking, that are also good for prostrate health and female organ health, the fibers of their dying stalks were used by the aboriginal peoples to make fish nets, but the leaves support more butterfly species’ caterpillars than any other Seattle plant. Could it be that the stinging hairs, that the caterpillars would never be stung by, provide a bit of a selective advantage for the caterpillars, as they may discourage browsing by herbivores, that would incidentally kill caterpillars in the process. The other butterfly species exclusively using them are the Milbert’s Tortoiseshell – Aglais milbertii (a.k.a. Nymphalis milbertii), whose young caterpillars feed in groups, leaving silk, frass (poop) and leaf veins behind, and the Red Admirable – Vanessa atalanta (a.k.a. Red Admiral), more abundant in the fall, whose larvae sit on top of the leaf and fold the leaves over their heads like a taco.
Our local non-obligate Nettle feeders, that alternately use other “host” plants are the Painted Lady - Vanessa cardui, whose larvae may cup the leaf with silk against the stems, and the West Coast Lady – Vanessa annabella, whose eggs may be laid in groups of up to 4 on the upper side of the leaf, sometimes a couple stacked one on top of the other, the young larvae feeding together, on the upper side of the leaf, folding the edges above, like a taco, leaving a bit of a silk roof, and chewing from the side or end. They may leave a bit of the veins behind, a bit of silk and a bit of frass.
The small blue Spring Azure, a.k.a. “Echo Blue” – Celastrina echo butterflies should also be seen any time now. These butterflies lay their eggs on clustered flower buds of a diversity of shrubs, notably the Creek Dogwood – Cornus sericea, a.k.a. “Red-twig Dogwood”
While they have always been common in the mountains, and beyond the urban and suburbanized areas, prior to maybe 9 years ago, when one or two Ravens started showing up in Seward Park, in my decades of observation, I never knew of any Ravens showing up within the urban and suburban Seattle area. I imagine that some combination of the Ravens having suitable habitat destroyed by expanding suburbanization and maybe an expanding montane population of Ravens with nowhere else to go, has had Ravens finding small islands of relatively suitable habitat, such as 2 of our wildest parks, Lincoln Park and Seward Park and using them. So far the Ravens have only been visiting Lincoln Park and West Seattle for a period from later winter to early spring, but maybe they will nest here some day. Ravens can be clearly distinguished from crows by: their much larger size – think more like a Red-tailed Hawk size than a crow. If crows are harassing the Ravens it is very clear that the Raven is much bigger; their wedge shaped tails, with the middle feathers clearly the longest, vs, the squared tails of crows; and their much larger beaks; the throat feathers that often stick out; and their call that is more like a croaking “crrruck” than a “caw”.
Link to the photo gallery done for the UW daily on the “Salamander Love Night” program I gave for Adam Leache’s Biology 180 class:
and Professor Adam Leache’s write-up in his Leache Lab evolutionary Herpetology web-site:
No Valentine? Come meet other people who share a love of nature! Got a partner? You can get worked up by joining our group of voyeurs watching sexy salamanders on their big night of the year! While this program may be “x” rated, all ages are welcome to our Valentine’s night edition of “Salamander Love Night”! – http://www.stewardshipadventures.com/ai1ec_event/salamander-love-night-at-camp-long/?instance_id=18 or come to the Saturday night session that is nominally for “Families”, but again, all are welcome!: http://www.stewardshipadventures.com/ai1ec_event/salamander-love-night-for-families-2/?instance_id=25 (who knows, if there is sufficient demand, I might add a session or two on short notice!)
Why on Valentine’s night? One year I checked in the pond each night in mid-February for salamander eggs. I can’t remember exactly the night, but the first eggs showed up on February 14th or 15th. If it had been Valentine’s day I figured that they had “done it” after midnight the night before, as soon as Valentine’s Day started. If it had been February 15th, I had figured that they did it on Valentine’s night. Later, I learned that fertilization is internal, and that they do a dance after the male “lays” down his spermatophore – sperm packet, and the dance ends with her picking it up with her cloaca (both male and female have “cloacas” – their one opening for all of their excretion, spermatophore “laying”, spermatophore picking up and egg laying). The female then lays her fertilized eggs the next night, so I’d like to think that my discovery had been eggs on the 15th. After my discovery of the perfect timing of Salamander romance, I started giving annual “Salamander Love Night” programs on Valentine’s week.
Check out this great article that I have been working on with Lynda Mapes, the Seattle Times nature beat reporter. It is on the 4 salamander species at Camp Long, West Seattle, 2 of which that breed in the pond on or about Valentines Night that I have been and will be showing, and teaching the public about in my upcoming walks (linked again in the article) : http://
While almost everyone is familiar with lizards, many are not familiar with the amphibians that are roughly the same shape as a lizard, with skin like a frog. These are the salamanders.
Why are they not more familiar to us? Salamanders are not generally active above ground during daytime where people can easily see them. They can be seen during the day if you know where to look, but not very many people know where to look. I know where to look, and on two upcoming outings at Camp Long in Seattle, I’d be happy to share these creatures with you. Our next salamander nature walk is February 18 (for families).
Like amphibians around the world, salamander populations have been in decline in Seattle. These incredible creatures are extra sensitive to pollutants, diseases and habitat degradation and fragmentation. While there are relatively few salamanders left in Seattle and the ones left reside in just a few remaining spots, six species may still make Seattle their home. They are the Ensatina, the Western Red-backed Salamander, the Northwestern Salamander, the Long-toed Salamander, the Rough-skinned Newt and possibly the Pacific Giant Salamander.
The biggest key to finding most salamanders is to look in their homes in appropriate habitat, but before I tell people how to peer into their homes, I need to be sure that everyone knows that we need to do so with minimal disturbance to both the salamanders and the other creatures that live with them. Logs, rocks, boards, bark, and other objects that they can hide under are equivalent to the roofs of their homes. Under them they can both stay hidden and keep their skin moist. If we lift an object to see if anyone is home, we need to do so in a way that we can move it back exactly as it was, then when we are done snooping in their homes, we slowly and carefully move their roofs back exactly the way they were, so that you can’t tell they have been moved and so you don’t crush any of the residents. If I do pick up a salamander, I often return its “roof” to its original position, then place the salamander down outside the edge of the “roof” and touch its tail to scare the salamander back safely under its “roof”. This way I minimize the chance of crushing the salamander when I put the log, rock, board or other object back. We never remove the roof of a salamander’s home then leave it “in the middle of the street”.
Also note, salamanders are not appropriate for pets. As kids, my brother and I didn’t understand this. We would catch them, put them in terrariums and try to keep them as pets. They all died before their time, and worse than that, they all died without replacing themselves with offspring in their original habitat. We therefore could have been responsible for a bit of a decline or loss of some salamander populations in their ever-shrinking, and increasingly degraded, fragmented and fragile habitats. Please don’t capture these animals that I teach you about and take them out of their natural homes, preventing them from reproducing there. I would hope instead that you would become among those stewarding their embattled habitats and populations! Thank you! And now, about the six salamanders of Seattle…
The Ensatina – Ensatina eschscholtzii may be the most widespread, but not necessarily the most abundant. I would also say that it is probably the cutest, with its most notable bug-eyed look! (See it here). They are thicker than Western Red-backed Salamanders and grow up to 4 ¼ inches and vary from orangish to brown to tan with no stripe down the back and have a constriction at the base of the tail. They can be found under logs, bark and various debris, but in our civilization altered communities, they seem to be especially inclined to use piles of plywood on a forest edge. In wilder spots, I have noted them hiding among piles of bark at the bottom of large, old dead trees, where the bark has fallen off of the standing tree. While most of our wildlife does best in larger connected pieces of wilder habitat, I have found Ensatinas in relatively small patches of wooded areas, seeming to prefer the edges and openings. I don’t see them in groups, but see one here and one there, which partly accounts for it being possibly the most widespread, but maybe not the most abundant. The Ensatina is one of the lungless salamanders or “Plethodons” in the family Plethodontidae. These salamanders have no lungs, but breath through their skin, and they do not breed in ponds, but lay their eggs in some moist, hidden spot.
Western Red-backed Salamander
The Western Red-backed Salamander – Plethodon vehiculum is relatively slim salamander that is blackish with a stripe down the back that is typically a darker brick red, but varies to almost gold and can grow up to 4 1/8 inches. It might possibly be more numerous in Seattle than the Ensatina. It is more gregarious, but found in fewer places. If there is appropriate reasonably natural, wooded habitat with a sufficient amount of fallen log hiding places, you are more likely, than with the Ensatina, to see more than one under a log, and a number of them in one relatively small area. Like so many of our indigenous fauna and flora species, these animals have limited ability to disperse and re-colonize a patch of habitat that they have been wiped out of. This means that, even though they may be adapted to life in a patch of urban forest, once they have disappeared from that patch, they are unlikely to be able to re-colonize it themselves. This is one reason there are fewer colonies than there is seemingly appropriate habitat. Along with the Enastina, the Red-backed Salamander, Plethodon vehiculum, is our other member of the family Plethodontidae, the “Plethodons” or lungless salamanders and also does not breed in ponds, but also lays its eggs in moist places, generally hidden under the surface of the ground.
The Long-toed Salamander – Ambystoma macrodactylum adults (photo here) are thicker than the Red-backed Salamander and are a dark color with an irregular, often broken, yellow stripe down the back. They can grow to 6 ¼ inches. It may be a bit more widespread than the next species, its cousin the Northwestern Salamander – Ambystoma gracile, as its habitat needs are possibly a bit less narrow. They are both pond breeders, but the Long-toed Salamander generally loses its gills in its first year and only requires a seasonal pond, that may have no standing water by the end of the dry season. Amphibians that can breed in these seasonal or “vernal” pools, have an advantage, in that many of the fish and other predators, that need permanent ponds, can’t survive in them. One of those potential predators is the Northwestern Salamander. Long-toed Salamanders occur in both woodlands and scrubby areas. They are less dependent on intact woodlands than the next species, the Northwestern Salamander. Both species are in the genus Ambystoma the so-called “Mole Salamanders”, that generally spend most of their time underground, some of them apparently utilizing mole tunnel highways. (I’ve seen at least one Northwestern Salamander with its nose poking out of a mole tunnel, under a log.)
The Northwestern Salamander – Ambystoma gracile adults are thick salamanders with evenly colored blackish brown skin, growing up to 7 ¼ inches. This species has raised oval “parotoid” poison glands behind the eyes, not harmful to touch, but you could get sick if you ate one, so don’t do it! They can be abundant if they have an appropriate breeding pond and a large enough and suitable quality, connected area, of forest habitat. I doubt there are many remaining wooded areas in Seattle that have both the breeding pond, and the sufficiently large patch of good enough forest habitat connected to it, as well as a population of Northwestern Salamanders that had never been wiped out. Camp Long’s “Pollywog Pond” in West Seattle still has a robust population of them, filling with egg masses at breeding time (that is around Valentine’s night when romantic couples give and take “spermatophore” sperm packets after a ritual dance).
These salamanders are the dominant predators in Camp Long’s Pollywog Pond. Unlike Frogs that start their lives as tadpoles eating vegetation or dead stuff, salamanders are carnivores from the time the larva hatches from an egg to the time they die as adults. Smaller amphibian larvae can be expected to be eaten by the Northwestern Salamanders in the pond, as well as about any smaller creature that moves, from dragonfly nymphs to back-swimmers. In their pond homes, both larvae and adults are mostly active at night.
While maybe half, or more, of the Northwestern Salamanders lose their gills in their second year and become terrestrial, I’d estimate that almost half keep their gills and remain in the pond all of their lives. It is hard to know what determines whether they will keep or lose their gills, but one year, in late summer, when the water level was low, we saw 2 substantial sized salamanders walking away from the pond in the middle of the day, and I suspect low water levels induced them to lose their gills later in life to become terrestrial. I can’t imagine they can grow gills after losing them.
The Rough-skinned Newt – Taricha granulosa - (click for photo here) - adults are of medium thickness and have a granular, dry skin that is dark, reddish brown above and bright orangish yellow below. They grow up to 7 7/8 inches. They may still breed in one breeding pond in Seattle, but they haven’t been seen at Camp Long in maybe 20 years or so. Its bright orangish yellow belly is a warning color. DON’T EAT Rough-skinned Newts! Doing so could kill you! They have the same deadly toxin as puffer fish. Also don’t feed them to your dog! They are still frequent in wilder parts of western Washington.
Pacific Giant Salamander
The Pacific Giant Salamander – Dicamptodon tenebrosus - (click on photo here) is our largest salamander and can grow to 13 inches. (another photo) Adults are thick and dark brown, with a gold mottled pattern on terrestrial individuals. This species might still live in one or more Seattle streams. (photo of aquatic form) They prefer colder streams that they lay their eggs in and a good percentage of adults keep their gills and never leave their stream, while some lose their gills and then move into the forest. Years ago I got an unconfirmed report of one of these salamanders in one Seattle creek, but I have never turned over many rocks in Seattle creeks to see if I could find one. They are common in the cold creeks in the mountains of western Washington. Once, on a hike, when an older naturalist friend mentioned that he had always wanted to see a Pacific Giant Salamander, but never had, I turned over the first rock in the creek we were crossing on rock stepping stones and caught one to show him!
I hope you have enjoyed learning about our Six Seattle salamanders, and I hope you will join me on one of my nature walks soon!
A good sized group had a great time on the “Owl Prowl” I led last night! Thanks to a couple of staff of the West Seattle Herald who joined us, I can post a slide show of the walk: http://