Into the Wild

The 15 Most Camouflaged Critters Around Puget Sound


Visitors pass through the Key Peninsula and notice only our impressive trees. Those who know the terrain well know how much can be concealed here. 

Camouflaged critters exploit psychology as much as terrain. 

Our rural peninsula offers a rich patchwork of forest, field, scrub and shore. Hiding places are everywhere. Yet it’s a lesson we must constantly learn: What’s in one place isn’t necessarily in another. As soon as we think we have a handle on what is before us, it is our mind filling the gaps rather than our eyes. This is exactly where these wild and sneaky animals like to live, right where we begin to make assumptions.

Here is my list of the 15 most camouflaged creatures that call the Key Peninsula home.

15. Brown creeper: In an entourage of small winter songbirds, cheery and colorful, this bark-colored bird sticks close to the trunks of trees. It darts upward as it searches for spiders and can be found by its double-noted call, which is nearly as high as a dog whistle.

14. Goldenrod crab spider: This spider can be white or yellow and sometimes streaked with green or violet. It lives on flowers, its legs looking like stamens, and lies in wait for visiting pollinators to ambush. When it moves to another flower, it secretes pigments to slowly change color to match its new home.

13. Western fence lizard: The all-purpose checkered skin of fence lizards reminds me of army camo; the color scheme of grays, browns and blacks not only blending into its terrain of dirt, rocks, sand and logs, but obscuring the lizard’s outline, making it hard to pinpoint its parts.

12. Brittle star: In the intertidal zone, where every rough surface is crowded with critters that aren’t what they seem, I get an extra kick out of finding the sand-colored and nearly translucent arm of a bristle star sweeping slowly from under a rock, feeling around for prey.

11. Azure butterflies: While an argument could be made that sky-blue adult azures are camouflaged against the sky, it is their caterpillars and chrysalises that earn a place on this list — with a shout-out to hundreds of equally cryptic caterpillars of other moth and butterfly species. Inseparable from the flowers on which they feed, like dogwoods and lupines, azure caterpillars look like tiny green, pink or white chitons. The brown chrysalises look like castoff leaf buds.

10. Decorator crab: The body is canvas and garden for several species of decorator crabs. Carefully attaching small anemones, sponges and fronds of algae to its shell, a decorator crab looks like any other encrusted rock when it sits motionless. When it molts, it often picks the garden off its old shell and transfers it to the new.

9. Flying squirrel: I am dying to see a flying squirrel. They are certainly around. Nocturnal tree-dwellers, much of their elusiveness has to do with spending their days motionless in treetops, but their brown and gray fur also vanishes against bark. It has recently been found that all of North America’s flying squirrel species fluoresce pink in ultraviolet light. No one knows why.

8. Wilson’s snipe: With a shout-out to the many twig-colored female birds out there, it is hard to beat snipe for sneakiness. Four tan stripes run across feathers mottled with brown and charcoal. A snipe crouches in wetland grass, invisible until you draw near. Then it rockets away with a screech.

7. Bay pipefish / Penpoint gunnel: In offshore beds of eelgrass, two fish look like diaphanous blades of grass. The bay pipefish, a seahorse relative, is bookended by a long snout and a tiny circular tail. The penpoint gunnel, an eel-like fish, has three color morphs to match the three color-zones of undersea vegetation: green in the shallows, mustard yellow beyond, and maroon in the depths.

6. Carolina grasshopper: Of several grasshopper species on the KP, I choose the large Carolina grasshopper, identified by black wings with yellow margins, for its ability to disappear even when you have tracked where it landed. It comes in shades of rust, gray, tan and brown, a variation handy in a world that yearly shifts its palette. Recent research suggests that an individual grasshopper knows its specific hue and chooses its resting places accordingly.

5. Morel: Experienced mushroom hunters remain tormented by morels on the KP. Already rare, their pitted forms can be impossible to spot in the dappled darkness of the forest. Plus, they look like pine cones — with a shout-out to another pine cone mimic, the bizarre groundcone, a parasitic plant — fortifying their camouflage with mimicry.

4. Giant water bug: Camouflage helps predators as well as prey. I once watched a giant water bug swim to the bottom of a pond. The instant it glided to a stop in the old brown leaves collected there, transforming into another leaf, I understood how such a relatively large predator could operate by ambush. They even catch fish.

3. Bobcat: Is it not incredible that this lynx cousin lives around us, stalking its territories and hunting rabbits and raising kittens without ever being seen? Master of silence, a bobcat’s spotted and striped fur helps it melt into tangled vegetation, where the outlines of objects are lost in ridiculous patterns of shadow and texture.

2. Starry flounder: It takes a special sea critter to attempt to camouflage against the sandy bottoms that are far more common in Puget Sound than rocky reefs. The starry flounder flat-out succeeds, speckled like sand. Old-timers fished for them by walking barefoot in the shallows. You could not see a flounder before you stepped on it, and then it took every bit of gumption to quell the instinct to jump away from the large wriggling fish.

1. Moths: I will brook no argument on this one. Various moths could take the top 50 spots on this list. Try finding a single resting moth the next time you walk in the woods, where they are abundant. Good luck.