Story and photos by Polly Keary, Editor
Cattails are still brown and trees are still bare, but a closer look at the banks of Lake Tye reveal spring is underway. And no one
knows where to look to find it better than does Monroe naturalist Rob Sandlelin. Walking around Lake Tye with Sandelin is like looking at a Magic Eye poster. Suddenly things unseen come vividly into view. Things that seemed unremarkable are revealed as fascinating. Unexpected stories emerge in surprising places.And if you know where to look, a jog around the paved trail or a trip to feed the ducks can become a much richer experience.
Under silver skies Thursday, Sandelin walked to the edge of the swimming area and started poking a long net into the long brown grasses clumping along the shore.
“One of the things that happen this time of year is that the ducks start nesting,” he said.
Coots, too, nest in the long grass, and if you know where to look, you can find the depressions, sometimes with eggs inside. The black coots, smaller and darker than ducks, also nest in the grasses, but unlike ducks, their nests are communal.
“One comes a long and lays an egg, and then another on comes and lays another egg,” said Sandelin. “It’s a bonanza for raccoons.”
The blackberries that form tangled masses along the edge of the paved trail are an invasive species, but they are a blessing for the creatures that winter at the lake.
“Blackberries dry and are available through November,” said Sandelin, who teaches classes in the natural world and who holds a degree in field science. “And it’s excellent cover for rabbits.”
On a small beach on the west side of the lake, a small dark coot lays on the ground, eyes closed and feet trailing. Nearby is a cluster of soft feathers.
Sandelin turns the bird over to reveal a single deep puncture in its chest. “This coot is an eagle kill,” he said. “Coots are easier to catch than ducks. They don’t dive very well.”
Further up the trail, a tiny frog hops. It is a chorus frog, and it is one of the heralds of spring. Every evening the chorus frogs sing, directed by the loudest frog among them, which can reach 80 decibels.
When a female frog is sufficiently impressed to lure the leader away, the next loudest frog leads the chorus, silencing the group instantly at will. The bursts of song are called bouts, and will continue until the temperature drops below 41 degrees.
Cattails are still brown, with last year’s dried cattails heads fraying into fluff. The cattails weren’t planted intentionally when the lake was created, arriving later on the feet of ducks, but they are good for the ecosystem.
“Cattails can suck heavy metals out of the ground,” said Sandelin. “And the roots have the nutritional value of a potato.”
In another month, red-winged blackbirds will nest among the reeds, using the fluff for building material. The birds are already moving in; in the limbs of a stark horse chestnut tree, still bearing some of last year’s spiky fruit, a blackbird makes its distinctive cry of “Cleo! Cleo!”
“We have reached 10 hours of sunlight, which stimulates territorial behavior in birds,” said Sandelin.
So fiercely do the blackbirds defend their territory, they will drive off hawks and eagles, dive-bombing them in the air.
Hawks are a frequent sight on the fences along the fields, and on the ridge across U.S. 2, a leafless tree is occupied by a large black clump that is an active eagle nest, in use for the last six years, at least.
In the fields west of Lake Tye, flocks of Canadian geese cluster, eating grass. In two or three weeks, they will be gone, headed for Canada to breed. Others will arrive from the south to breed here, and some won’t leave.
“There’s some geese that got lazy and said, ‘It’s nice here; why leave?’” said Sandelin.
Another bird soon to migrate away is the double-crested cormorant, often seen perched on the fountain at the south end of the lake. The birds don’t swim much, as they lack the buoyant oils of ducks. Upon getting wet, a cormorant will spread its wings to dry them.
In a few weeks, they will leave for Eastern Washington to breed.
Soon to emerge form hibernation and breed at the lake are garter snakes, which spend the winter in great clumps called hybernacula. “There might be 40-50 snakes,” said Sandelin. “They all come out at once and mate.”
Sandelin isn’t looking for snakes Thursday, though. Periodically he pokes his long-handled net into the weeds along the shore, looking for clumps of salamander eggs.
Finally, in a ditch at the far end of the lake, he finds one. The green jelly-like mass in his hand looks like a jello mold with capers in it. The capers are the eggs, and a green algae in the mass absorbs sunlight and warms the eggs.
It’s a satisfying end to a walk for Sandelin. But the walk has not even begun to tap his knowledge of the dramas unfolding around the quiet lake.
To learn more about what Sandelin knows of the area, attend one of his upcoming community education classes. His birding class starts April 11 and meets for five Thursdays. His “Intro to the Natural World” class starts the following week, also meeting on Thursdays. Registration cost is $20; register at the Monroe District Office at 200 East Fremont St.