Field Journal: Alderflies Galore

Yesterday turned out to be sunny and warm and I visited Magnuson Park for the first time this year. I quickly took off my jacket because it was so unexpectedly warm and my thoughts immediately drifted to garter snakes basking in the sun. I see them at the park every year and weather like this was sure to bring them out. Almost as soon as I had that though I encountered my first snakes. Sometimes they are silently basking in the sun and I only see them once I get too close and they quickly slide away. But this time I heard them before I saw them. There were at least two garter snakes moving in the reeds, as though chasing one another and then twining together. I suspect they were in the act of mating. It wasn’t the last garter snake I saw yesterday, but the rest were all quietly basking in the sun.

Downy Woodpecker

The park was full of lively birds, tree swallows were nesting in the snags, a Savannah sparrow was hopping around the nesting hill and red-winged blackbirds were trilling all over the wetlands. Later in my walk I had a close encounter with a downy woodpecker as it drummed on a thin, dead snag. I caught photos of him as he hammered on the wood, the smooth red feathers on his head suddenly standing up from the impact as though they were spiked. Shortly after I heard a particularly angry sounding red-winged blackbird and looked up in time to see an osprey launch into the air, the blackbird nearly riding on its back as it drove the larger bird away. The osprey perched in a tree over one of the large ponds in the wetlands and I watched it scan the water for fish for a while.

But perhaps the most interesting seasonal event yesterday was the sheer abundance of alderflies. These insects are tricky to identify, I thought at first they were caddisflies, but they are only superficially similar, they are unrelated. Alderflies live in the water as larvae, sometimes for several years, before emerging as adults. They are poor fliers and don’t get far from the water. I watched them land on leaves and branches, or perhaps I should say crash into leaves and branches. One nearly flew up my nose as I walked through the wetlands. They were everywhere. Alderflies only live as adults for one or two weeks and during that time they don’t feed, but exist only to mate and lay eggs. I realized later that I’ve seen them several times before at Magnuson Park, always in April, but I don’t remember ever seeing quite so many before.

Jumping Spider

Standing in front of a sun covered snowberry or other leafy plant, I also noticed a lot of tiny sawflies and small wasps that would land on the leaves and bask in the sun. While I watched one patch, I saw my first spring azure butterfly of the year stop briefly.

Other things of note was a particularly adorable jumping spider, a beautiful, shiny blue stag beetle in a rotting log and a few Pacific forktail damselflies. Near the dead end pond I encountered a weevil walking along a log and spent some time photographing it. The weevil was particularly cooperative, pausing for a few seconds as it walked, allowing me time to photograph it.

Near the end of my walk I encountered a small patch of slime mold in a decaying log along the path. It was an Arcyria sp. and it showed all the phases, from newly forming white to fully mature pink sporangia.

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Kelly Brenner

Kelly Brenner is a naturalist, writer and photographer based in Seattle. She is the author of a book about urban nature, coming Spring 2020 from Mountaineers Books. She writes freelance articles about natural history and has bylines in Crosscut, ParentMap, National Wildlife Magazine and others. On the side she writes fiction.

Kelly holds a bachelors degree in landscape architecture from the University of Oregon and a certificate in non-fiction writing from the University of Washington.

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