Wild Peninsula

An Uptick in Unwanted Hitchhikers? On Woodpeckers, Dragonflies and Ticks

Naturalist's Notebook


It’s July. In the late evening, when a touch of moisture returns to the sky and I linger in the dregs of the day’s light, worn out by the farm, an occasional nighthawk adds its lonesome “peent” to the world. The sound lingers.

Everywhere, water exerts a magnetic pull on living things large and small. In the shallows of wetlands, where giant water bugs lurk, I find myself surrounded by a mad collection of insect life. “It’s finally happening,” I think to myself. “It’s all here.” A rainbow of dragonflies is the highlight: blue and green darners, red meadowhawks. I especially like watching the eight-spotted skimmers with their black-and-white blotched wings. They patrol with minimal effort.

Down on the tideflats, knee-deep in the bay, I swear I see a sculpin dart from a patch of sea lettuce with a big piece of green algae in its mouth. It vanishes into eelgrass. “Huh,” I think. “Movable cover? Smart fish if so.”

If you’re on a dock at night, you might get lucky and see a swimming polychaete worm, out to breed in the moonlight. If we’re all lucky, we might have one of those warm-day rainstorms when we get to run out in shorts and bare feet and drag potted plants out from their shelters. A warm, spiced aroma fills the air, and we are forced to laugh, after all the effort we have put into watering, stressing ourselves as much as our plants in our attempts to apportion our limited muscle, at the effortlessness with which the atmosphere can blanket the entire landscape with water.

Ask Chris: Ticks

Q: I’m hearing more and more about ticks in the area. I’m so disappointed to hear of their presence. I really don’t want to weed-whack my meadow. We love the variety and abundance of butterflies, moths, bees, birds, praying mantises, and beetles. What do you know about ticks in the area?
Justina P., Vaughn

A: Fair warning: I’m going to bounce this question back at you, readers, since one of the bottom lines about ticks in our area is that we need better data if we’re going to talk about population trends.

First, some basics. Ticks have always been here. Historically, we have been fortunate in Western Washington to have few enough to make it unlikely that you would pick one up as a human. Dogs get them occasionally. Deer often have a few.

Ticks are arthropods related to mites. Blood is their only food. The species we have here, the western black-legged tick (Ixodes pacificus), finds its way to a wide variety of hosts, including birds, mice, squirrels, deer — even lizards. Actually, its host preference seems to change as it goes through its multi-year life cycle. Research done in California, where these ticks are far more prevalent, found that as small larvae and nymphs, they are most common on western fence lizards and gray squirrels, while as adults they are most common on deer mice and deer themselves.

Ticks are hardy and can go dormant all winter, but they are vulnerable to desiccation. So contrary to what your instinct might say, you won’t find as many ticks in your exposed grassy meadow as in the moist thickets of woodlands. Ticks are most active in medium-warm temperatures: spring to early summer for nymphs; autumn for adults. Here they can be found year-round.

Unfortunately, the western black-legged tick is a host for Lyme disease. Fortunately, cases in Washington remain quite rare.

Far more can be written about ticks. For now, I want to know your experience with ticks over time on the peninsula.

The recent flare-up of interest on parent Facebook groups has resulted in a lot of parents checking their children and dogs and collectively finding a few ticks. Beyond wondering if this is an artifact of increased attention or a true population boom in ticks, both of which I see as a distinct possibility, I’m wondering how the California studies apply to Washington ticks. I’m wondering if the recent expansion of eastern gray squirrels onto the peninsula is significant. I’m wondering about the impact of development and invasive species and booming deer populations.

To me, what you do about the small risk you might find a tick on yourself and the minuscule risk that it gives you Lyme is all about personal risk tolerance — and the magnitude of the willies you get from ticks. This is something that will be different for everyone. Regular checking of your body can take care of much of the risk. I’d hate for you to sanitize your meadow and woodlands, a practice unfortunately encouraged by the state department of health. Eliminating tick habitat eliminates habitat for the rest of the wildlife we love.

Sapsuckers Alongside Beavers

I can’t end on ticks, so let me give love to suckers of another sort. Ever seen perfectly spaced rows of quarter-inch holes going up a tree trunk? Those aren’t the work of beetles. Those are the wells of sapsuckers.

Unlike most woodpeckers, which have crazy long tongues to reach deep-burrowed bugs — tongues that wrap around their skulls to provide shock absorption — sapsuckers have strange brush-tipped tongues designed to soak up tree sap. As they spend spring and summer on a circuit of trees they have tapped, they also eat the insects that get stuck in their sticky wells. The wells rarely injure trees.

In the last two years, sapsuckers have excavated a nest in a dead alder at the Gateway Park beaver pond. It’s right by the main dam. I find myself there often. Here is a bird dependent upon healthy, sapful trees that is also dependent upon dead trees. Which is not too different from beavers. Their food is the cambium and leaves of healthy trees, yet their lifestyle cannot go on without the death of trees. The pond has space for all of it. Its water is magnetic, especially in summer.