Naturalist's Notebook

What to Watch for This Month in the Skies, Trees and Waters

Exploring with the KP Nature Guide


Venus has phases, like the moon. Our neighbor planet is putting on a show these days, high in the western sky, the first point of light to appear as sunset fades. On June 4 it will reach its greatest elongation from the sun, meaning its widest separation from the sun as viewed from Earth. Perfect viewing conditions.

With a telescope Venus will look like a quarter moon, with half its face illuminated. Its phases take far longer to cycle than the moon’s, thanks to a complex dance with the Earth and sun. Its crescent phase, when it is close to Earth, is seven times larger than its full phase, when it is opposite the sun. After about nine months as the evening star, it sneaks back into its alter ego as the morning star. Many ancients believed they were different planets.

While you await Venus, see if you can catch a bat in your peripheral vision. We have at least half a dozen species, including the silver-haired bat, a tree bat that overwinters here and sometimes is found in sheds and woodpiles. Its pups are born in early summer, when the soft-bodied moths and mosquitoes it prefers are abundant. 

Watch it scribble erratic figure-eights overhead, flapping like a thing on a sugar high — bats have superfast metabolisms and heart rates that push 1,000 beats per minute in flight — not as graceful as a bird but right at home in the sky, occasionally breaking off to snag one of the thousands of insects it might eat in a night. 

Bats are best identified by the sounds of their echolocation clicks. Unfortunately, most of our species click outside the range of human hearing, making it hard to know which are common and which are rare, and which might be struggling.

Summer means daytime low tides. If on your tideflat ramble you stumble upon an unholy mass of finger-shaped jellyforms the color of agates, you may have found squid eggs. Normally anchored undersea, they sometimes wash ashore. They belong to the market squid, Loligo opalescens, which hunts in packs and breeds in large congregations. Divers have found egg clusters covering acres of seafloor. After three to five weeks, the baby squid hatch, no longer than the tip of a dull pencil, and begin the wide-roaming hunt that will see them grow, in just half a year, into a footlong adult ready to reproduce. When the squid are in, the pier at Lakebay Marina (currently closed) is a good place to shine a light into nighttime water to see the adults flash past. Jerisich Dock in Gig Harbor works too.

Another find beloved by beachcombers is the sand collar left by a moon snail. It’s another mass of eggs. Underwater, moon snails cruise just beneath the sand, searching for clams to eat, on a floating pad of mucus they constantly recycle. Mucus is also the glue that holds the mix of sand and eggs together in the collar shape, which is a mold of how the female’s extended body splays around its shell.

Up on land, the dawn chorus of birds grows quiet, with flirtation replaced by the need to feed hungry chicks. One bird, the chestnut-backed chickadee, never joined the chorus in the first place. Unlike our other chickadee, the black-capped chickadee, which sings with a clear and mellow two-toned whistle, the chestnut-backed chickadee has no song, only the familiar “chick-a-dee-dee” call as it goes about its business. No one knows why it does not sing.

A West Coast specialty, the chestnut-backed chickadee favors thick coniferous forests. It nests in cavities lined with fur. Along my driveway, a pair has found a tiny hole at the top of a utility pole, probably created by a woodpecker, and when I go to get the mail I see them zipping back and forth from the madrona across the way. This spring, down the road, I found one sitting on a low strand of barbwire, picking cow hairs one by one from the barbs where they had snagged, until its beak had a pom-pom of black hair as big as its head.

Nonmigratory, chestnut-backed chickadees tend to nest in April, but they will start a late nest in June if their first nest fails or fledges quickly.

I wish I was as one with this landscape as those chickadees, who don’t even need a song to earn their place in the world. More often I feel like another Northwest icon, the Steller’s jay, a determined mimic of other birds. One reader reported that while it is common to hear them scream like a red-tailed hawk, a Steller’s jay near his house has taken to mimicking a bald eagle to clear out the bird feeder for its own use.

In Coast Salish stories, the cobalt jay with a black mohawk is known as Bluejay. A shifty character on par with Coyote, Bluejay comes across as half-formed, adolescent, always needing to prove himself. In many tales he resorts to trickery — a hiding place, a hidden club — to win his contests with more skilled animals.

Whenever I find Steller’s on my rambles, they look like they’re up to no good. They’re as loose as monkeys, with all the time in the world. Just this week I came around my house and one flew up from the potted fan palm on our patio. What could a Steller’s jay want with a fan palm? 

Of all the things. I am collecting Steller’s jay stories along with crow and raven stories. Please reach out with yours.

Lastly, June is when salal puts out new leaves. For a few brief weeks, lining the highway, a hue of baby lettuce overlays the usual stoic green. It’s a small thing but it brings me joy. Touch the young salal leaves and you’ll find that, like just-unfurled sword fern fronds, salal is not always stiff as waxed leather. In June it is a delicate thing.