Ever seen a hummingbird nest?

hummingbird nest - CopyThe upraised beaks of two hummingbird chicks are seen protruding from their tiny nest of lichen in this photo taken by John S. Farnsworth, aka Neighbor John the Mad Birder.

IMG_7955THESE TROUBLED TIMES are lightened for us by the wonders of nature, and the continued delight of getting better acquainted with birds as they migrate here and back again, build nests and raise offspring.

Having a next-door neighbor who is such an authority on birds adds to our enjoyment and education. Neighbor John the Mad Birder, as you may have come to know him in these columns, is John S. Farnsworth PhD, an emeritus professor in environmental studies and sciences from California’s Santa Clara University, and a member of the board of Seattle Audubon. John and his wife, Carol Farnsworth, relocated to Center Island about the same time we did.

From their window, Carol recently spotted a hummingbird nest on a limb, maybe eight feet off the ground, of one of the evergreens between our cabins. John shared this photo he captured of a parent and two hatchlings. He also let us get a close-up look through his spotting scope.

The nest is a marvelous construction of lichen lined with moss and spider-web silk to make it soft and cozy.

These are Anna’s Hummingbirds (Calypte anna), among the most common hummers on the West Coast. Through the scope, I saw one of the chicks experiment with poking its long tongue out, reaching well into the air like one of those birthday-party noisemakers that you blow into. John said he observed a chick preening at the edge of the nest on Monday, which, according to Cornell University (among the nation’s leading sources of research on birds), indicates the chicks hatched about 20 days earlier.

The Mad Birder estimates they should be ready to leave the nest three or four days from now. 1-anchor

Rosy times in the San Juan Islands — and maybe you can visit in June

P1300319It’s wild-rose time in the San Juans. Stick your nose up to one of these hot-pink Nootka roses for a potent dose of quintessential rose scent. These are seen from our favorite picnic bench on Lopez Island. The San Juan Islands remain closed to non-essential travel because of COVID-19, but are expected to reopen to visitors by mid- to late June. Get updates here, or give us a call on Center Island. 1-anchor

For Memorial Day weekend, it’s time to party in the treetops

IMG_7955A SEATTLE TIMES EDITOR was well-known for her, shall we say, carrying voice and raucous laugh. Even if my colleagues and I never saw her, we all knew when she was in the newsroom, even if she was on the far side of the building.

It’s been like that with the arrival on Center Island this past week of an old friend. So far I’ve heard but not seen this migratory newcomer known for his distinctive song that resembles a farmhand’s pub order after a long day of slopping the hogs: “Quick, three beers!”

Flycatcher IPA SNIP
The label for my latest home brew features John James Audubon’s artistic rendering of an Olive-sided Flycatcher.

Yes, it’s every birder’s old drinking buddy, the Olive-sided Flycatcher.

“A little early in the day for me,” I quipped this morning to neighbor John, the Mad Birder, when I heard the unmistakable “three beers” refrain ring out from a nearby tree. Chuckling, he noted that the American Goldfinch, of which Center Island has many right now — including crowds of fumbling, newly fledged youngsters — have a call thought to sound like “potato chip, potato chip.” So, when he hears the two birds together, he’s ready for happy hour.

I have a new home brew that I bottled just about the same day the Flycatchers showed up, so I’ve named the beer accordingly: Flycatcher Quick 3 Beers! IPA.

I should probably have included one of those “Enjoy Responsibly” disclaimers on the label, eh?

Stay safe, stay healthy, and have a good weekend. 1-anchor



A golden day to celebrate moms

P1300305He and she: A male American Goldfinch, at left, pauses at our feeder with a female on the next perch.

IMG_7955WE’RE BOMBARDED WITH GOLDFINCHES on this Mother’s Day on Center Island. And that’s not a bad thing.

After a shared “virtual brunch” with daughter Lillian — Barbara and I on our sunny San Juans deck, Lil aboard our sailboat in Seattle — we’ve spent much of the day sitting outside. We’ve been reading, working crosswords, sipping iced coffee or mineral water, soaking up the warmest day of our year so far, with the thermometer peaking at a pretty perfect 77 degrees F. It rarely gets warmer here.

We’re surrounded by a choir of bird song and a constant rush back and forth to our feeders, with the flippity-flip of songbirds’ wings complementing the mad buzzing of hummingbirds. I have my Sibley’s Field Guide to Birds of Western North America next to me, striving to identify newcomers by sight or sound. (It just helped me be sure that a female goldfinch wasn’t a pine grosbeak, for example.)

Barbara is now happily baking buns for a barbecue, after watching the dough rise robustly in the outdoor sun.

Happy day to all mothers, human and avian. 1-anchor

P1300260“What are you lookin’ at, buddy?”

The extremely well-behaved eagles of Fisherman Bay

P1300187You’ll be surprised at the number of bald eagles perched on boats moored in Lopez Island’s Fisherman Bay, in the San Juans.

IMG_7955BIRD POOP CAN BE A PLAGUE for boats that sit on a mooring ball for months at a time. Sea birds enjoy a good resting spot with a nice view, and their toilet habits often leave a lot to be desired. Sailboat booms and canvas are particularly prone to collecting what you might call guano graffiti.

How to control it? Some boaters use those multi-fingered bird-repelling spikes to turn their vessels into floating porcupines. (Too angry.) Others mount long-armed, wind-driven whirligigs atop their cabins, or hang old CDs to twirl in the wind. (OK, if you like the tech angle. Ineffective on calm days.) At most chandleries, you can buy plastic owls that are supposed to scare away other birds. (I’ve seen gulls perch atop them.)

On Lopez Island’s Fisherman Bay, a few bald eagles seem to do the trick.

After looking out during visits to our favorite picnic bench near the bay’s entry spit, I soon realized the eagles perched on the boats in the bay were very quiet and well-behaved. Probably because they are carved and painted.

Nice work by a local craftsman, I’m guessing. And the boats looked pretty clean. 1-anchor

P1300188Look, there’s another eagle!P1300190And another!

Markers of May in our San Juans

P1300134SHE KEEPS RETURNING to the same cozy spot in the grassy meadow in front of our cabin. Maybe in the family way? (Mother’s Day is coming soon.) Or she’s just a little pudgy because there’s so much tasty greenery to munch after our wet winter. I say, “Hello, dear” to my wife, and “hello, deer” to our recurrent visitor.

P1300124I STILL LEARN NEW THINGS in these woods, even after spending most of my life in Washington. Neighbor John (The Mad Birder) helped me identify this low tree with showy white spring flowers that wraps around our woodshed and likes our rocky knoll. It is Western serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia). I’ve never seen its blueberry-like berries, probably because they are said to be popular with birds and squirrels, of which we have plenty.

P1300138UNCURLING NEW FRONDS of swordfern also announce the coming of May here.

P1300149WILD STRAWBERRIES are blooming, too. We don’t get harvestable fruit, but the tiny white eyes among the rocks and open, sunny ground are another happy harbinger of mid-spring.1-anchor


A welcome, cleansing rain on Earth Day

P1300112 - CopyRain-speckled buttercups brighten this Earth Day in the San Juan Islands.

IMG_7955IT’S JUST THE SPIDERS AND ME in Wee Nooke, my 36-square-foot writing hut atop our rocky knoll, on this 50th anniversary of Earth Day.

Too wet for my usual editorial assistant, Galley Cat, who usually drops in every 10 minutes for a kitty treat when I’m working up here. Our little ginger feline sometimes perches on the desk next to my laptop, just being companionable, between forays to hunt mice or harass the local garter-snake population.

Persistent rain patters on the cedar-shake roof today. I’ve turned off the tunes I often listen to while writing; this rooftop percussion is music enough. It’s soothing and delightful, accented by soggy birdsong from nearby trees and a buzzing whir from a passing hummingbird, perhaps amped up on the sweet scents of wildflowers and organic compounds unleashed as the raindrops hit the earth.

The gray sky has lowered and everything outside my window drips greenly. I’ve cranked up the electric radiator under my desk. With toasty feet and a cup of hot tea, does life get better?

The rain is a gift. Seattle was on track for its driest April on record, with less than one-tenth of an inch of precipitation as of Monday.

Our San Juan Islands, in the Olympic rain shadow, almost certainly collected less, and it was showing. The forest duff was starting to crunch like corn flakes underfoot. The cozy mantle of moss upholstering our rocks and ramparts was taking on a yellow tinge usually reserved for the arid days of summer.

DSC_0056 - Copy (2)A wildflower called sea blush adds color to the rocks and moss outside my writing hut.

Today, the moss is like a lush and spongy carpet, greening up with every hour. Other beneficiaries include the Western buttercups (Ranunculus occidentalis) that add cheer at my hut’s front step, along with a purple-pink flower called sea blush (Plectritis congesta), aptly named because it can grow so thickly as to add a warm splash of color to an entire meadow or shoreline.

After an awakening five decades ago, the cause of preserving the planet has taken many hits under the other Washington’s current regime. But let’s hold out hope for the power of renewal, just as the rain renews our woods and meadows.

To mark Earth Day, my little piece of this planet is having a long, luxuriant shower. So, I’m setting aside all worries. A blissful cleansing is something to celebrate. 1-anchor

Even island pioneers have to maintain the motor pool

IMG_20200409_155950732-1Ranger Rick at the Hunter Bay dock: All spiffed up with no place (much) to go.

IMG_7955IF YOU’RE NOT A GEARHEAD, this might not be the blog post for you.

But one of the challenges of this “island pioneer” life (tongue only lightly in cheek) is maintaining motor vehicles so that we have mobility when we leave our island.

The modest Cantwell fleet includes a Honda sedan, for trips to Seattle and the mainland, kept in a private lot at Skyline Marina in Anacortes, and our “island car,” a 15-year-old Ford pickup we call Ranger Rick. It’s parked adjacent to the Hunter Bay county dock, three miles away on Lopez Island.

The biggest challenge is maintaining the pickup, which hasn’t returned to the mainland in two years. Jiffy Lube, Midas Muffler and Les Schwab haven’t arrived on Lopez yet (and I’m fine with that). There are a couple of homespun auto-repair shops around the island, but getting the truck there and leaving it would require bicycling back to Hunter Bay (which is doable, I just haven’t found the need yet).

With the return of dry and warmer weather, it was time for me to change Ranger Rick’s oil — and that ambition quickly expanded.

The truck had driven just 2,000 miles since the last oil change. (There just isn’t that far to go on Lopez.) It had been more than two years, longer than most experts recommend with such light driving, but the previous oil change was with a top-quality synthetic motor oil, so I hope it was OK.

One boon is that the Lopez marine chandlery, Islands Marine Center, also has a NAPA auto parts counter, so I had a good source for quality motor oil and other supplies, including a pair of jack stands I purchased so I could do the project safely.

Another challenge for us Outer Islanders (as we’re called in the San Juans) was where to stage the project. I decided I could park Ranger Rick at the far edge of the county dock’s parking strip, away from other vehicles and out of anybody’s way. I’d be extra careful about spills but would spread a big tarp, just in case.

While I was at it, I looked at a “needed repairs” list from the truck’s last trip to a Seattle auto-repair shop. One suggested item I hadn’t sprung for at the time was replacing the fuel filter. I’ve changed automotive oil many times, but had only changed fuel filters on boats. After watching a few YouTube DIY videos (you can find anything on the Internet) I added this to my project list.

I also really wanted to give the truck a good scrub. Lopez has no car wash. I’ve wiped the truck down now and then, but after two years without a proper wash it was (quite literally) getting mossy around the edges.

Other jobs I hoped to accomplish in one marathon day if all went well: replace some turn-signal lights; spray Rust-Oleum paint on a rusting black metal bumper, and apply color restorer to faded and streaked vinyl trim.

OK, I realize all this is likely too much information about my auto-repair ambitions, but it drives home a point: When you live on a remote island, simple things get complicated.

A big challenge was ensuring that I had all the supplies and tools I might need. It reminded me of Old West pioneers on wagon trains who had to have everything with them when they left Missouri. If I forgot the right wrench, it would mean a 6-mile round-trip boat ride and a 1 1/2 mile round-trip hike to our cabin to get it.

So I spent half a day organizing my supplies in advance. The cartful I loaded in to the boat included a tool chest, two 5-gallon jugs of water, a bucket with sponges and brushes, a tarp, five quarts of oil, and a boxful of other parts and materials.

Yesterday was Ranger Rick Project Day. Barbara packed me a lunch. It was a pristine spring morning with calm waters as I sped across Lopez Sound in WeLike, our runabout, to get an 8:30 a.m. start. I guess I was breaking the stay-at-home order, but I was on my own all day. It gave me another day of meticulous, intensive work to keep my mind off the worries of the world.

I checked off every project on my list and was home by 5, feeling every bit the manly man and savoring a sense of accomplishment.

A hot shower never felt so good. A cold beer never tasted so good. No wonder the Old West pioneers were so happy when they got to Dodge. 1-anchor

Shopping lovable Lopez in a time of coronavirus

DSC_0021_1Ranger Rick stops on the way across Lopez Island, in the San Juans, as a roadside sign spreads good cheer.

IMG_7955EVEN A SHOPPING TRIP in times of plague can be warm and fuzzy on Lopez Island. And we kind of like that.

Yesterday we needed groceries, and it was time to take trash and recycling to the Lopez Dump, both “essential activities” allowing us to break the governor’s stay-at-home order.

We packed up our Purell, face masks and nitrile gloves and made a prison break from Alcatraz, er, I mean Center Island. We buzzed across Lopez Sound in the boat and hopped in Ranger Rick, the old Ford pickup we keep at the Hunter Bay Public Dock.

And as we drove toward Lopez Village, we started noticing hand-printed signs along the roads. They bore upbeat little messages, as if an out-of-work motivational speaker just couldn’t bear to sit home with nothing else to do.

We quickly realized it was just the lovable lefties of Lopez, boosting morale in this time of stress and challenge.  Here’s a photo essay:





At the dump’s drive-up window, the cheerful face-masked cashier accepted our payment with a long-handled net. Sadly, the “Take It or Leave It” warehouse, our favorite spot to browse through other folks’ discarded-but-still-useful treasures, is closed until further notice. All the good old stuff has been emptied out. Too potentially germy.

Barbara, whose immune system isn’t what it once was, read a book in the truck while I did shopping. Our first stop was Blossom, the natural foods store. During the virus emergency, they’re taking orders online only. I had filled out our order and paid by credit card a few days earlier. Staff met me at the door with our pre-bagged order of Barn Owl Bakery bread, vegan butter and Field Roast vegan frankfurters.

Next stop: Holly B’s Bakery, which is open limited hours, with the cash register stand  blocking the front entry. From a respectful 6 feet I asked for two cinnamon rolls, telling the friendly clerk, “Nothing will ever get so bad that you shouldn’t stop for Holly B’s cinnamon rolls!” “I hope not!” she laughed.

At the Lopez supermarket, about half of patrons wore face masks (like me) or bandannas over their faces. Barbara gave me a long list. They were out of regular flour, so I bought the expensive organic flour (better for us anyway). They had packs of poor-quality toilet paper, with no price posted and a limit of one package. Sometimes you take what you can get. We don’t want to hoard, but this is one item you don’t want to end up without.

We usually spend $25 or $30 at the Lopez supermarket every couple weeks, just to fill in our cupboards between major monthly shopping at Costco and Fred Meyer on the mainland, where prices and selection are much better. This time I filled a big cart, to the tune of $203. And I was glad they were open for business.

IMG_20200404_160702199Our long day ended when we got home to Center Island and I spent an hour outside with a spray bottle of bleach water, wiping every can and box, and packing other items into a sealed bin to “age” until safer. I took all fresh produce out of plastic bags and sprayed it with the garden hose.

All this stuff is stressful. But we’re staying safe and sound so far. Hoping you are, too.

As they say on Lopez: Positive vibes! 1-anchor


Time to go shopping? We found help in these links on how not to bring home the germs and how to clean up your groceries.