This is homage to Cattle Point – a 26-acre parcel of public land at the south end of San Juan Island that is a natural treasure. It has been an important meeting place of islanders and mainlanders for a very long time. Because of its biological diversity, the property has also been vital to wildlife - both flora and fauna - for ages. As Cattle Point’s cultural history has changed over time so, too, has the role and presence of many wildlings that have lived or visited there.
Thousands of years ago, the Coast Salish began stopping at Cattle Point each spring to collect blue camas, that most sought after lily and icon of island prairies. The bulbs were a staple of their winter diet. Families gathered at the windswept promontory and fished for sockeye salmon, harvested clams and mussels from the rocky shoreline, and hunted deer, birds and other wildlife before returning to their mainland villages. It was a tradition that continued into modern times.
With the arrival of Europeans, the culture of the land and inland sea began to change. In 1860, Dr. C.B.R. Kennerly, a member of a survey team documenting the resources of the small but strategically important island group then called the Haro Archipelago wrote of San Juan Island: “In the vicinity of the southern end are perhaps the best fishing grounds on Puget Sound. Great quantities of halibut, cod fish and salmon are taken by numerous tribes of Indians …” Fishing remained important to natives, and settlers joined in: reef-netters set their gear just offshore and later purse-seiners mined the depths off Salmon and Hein Banks where massive amounts of fish were caught and processed nearby. The whales, seals, sea lions, otters, and other marine mammals did their share of fishing off the south end, too, along with seabirds.
During the Pig War of 1859 – 1872, Cattle Point was the southern end of a military encampment. All those years, wildlife waxed and waned adapting to the changing landscape in changing times. During this era, there are records of wolves having roamed there until the Hudson’s Bay Company sheepherders arrived. Charles Griffin wrote in his journal for Belle Vue Farms: “Murdock McLeod came in this morning & reports that the wolves have killed 13 lambs…” It wasn’t long before the canids were trapped out.
After Washington became a state in 1889, the property became a mix of federal, state, and private lands. The lighthouse was built as an aid to navigation; the military came and departed at the radio compass station; and islanders farmed, hunted, and recreated in the area throughout the decades as the land continued to change hands eventually becoming a natural resource conservation area managed by the Washington Department of Natural Resources and the Bureau of Land Management. And through it all, bald eagles soared overhead, wildflowers bloomed, and hundreds of species of wildlife continued to survive and thrive along the rocky shores of the spectacular inland sea.
Now, in the twenty-first century, the landscape continues to change and so does the culture. I have been visiting Cattle Point for over two decades, often doing bird, butterfly, and wildflower surveys. My roots run deep there and the people I meet along the trail remind me I am not alone in treasuring this remarkable spot. Whether descendants of the First People, old island families, birders, botanists, walkers, whale watchers, artists, photographers, lovers of lighthouses, students of history, geology, or archeology, or seekers of the ultimate scenic vista or a glimpse of the aurora borealis, Cattle Point has always been a special place to connect with Nature.
Fall is a time of transition for wildlife at Cattle Point: of coming and going and passing through. Situated on the Pacific Flyway, the islands are a critical refuge – a place, especially for birds, to stop for rest and food during migration, and to find shelter during the inevitable rainstorms that punctuate the change in seasons. The vegetated dunes, willow grove, thickets, and rocky shoreline have seemed perfectly suited to the needs of creatures that call this realm home, or intuit this place as a beacon for survival during a migration journey that may span thousands of miles.
I always see something new when I visit Cattle Point. It may be a species of bird I have never recorded there before, or a butterfly out of its range, or a variation in the behavior of an animal that is trying to adapt as the landscape continues to change both naturally and through human interaction.
Last week, I visited Cattle Point to check on the birds. While I knew I had missed some big migration surges, still I hoped for a glimpse at a few of my favorites. I arrived about ten o’clock. There was a chill in the air and the sun was slowly working its way west through banks of pebble-gray clouds intermittently dispersed by an ambitious breeze.
As I headed for the lighthouse, I could hear bird chatter in the grass. Overhead, I saw seven turkey vultures. They weren’t making their characteristic lazy circles in the sky, rather keeping a slow and steady pace southward. The buzzards, so ungainly on the ground yet strikingly beautiful when airborne, were hopscotching their way down the coast island-by-island to avoid any long flights over open water. Their silver under-wings gleamed in the dense air. Sometimes during migration, they stop to roost in the old trees at the east side of the property. On this day, the vultures kept flying toward Iceberg Point on Lopez, another fine place to take a break.
Walking down the trail, I heard the familiar high–spirited “ssit” chips of yellow-rumped warblers and spied a flock tree topping and then swooping down to forage in the willow grove.
They are excellent perch hunters, fluttering out of the trees to snatch insects buzzing by. The bright yellow patches on their soft bluish-gray, black and white plumage reflects a cheerful countenance. They are beautiful little birds. Clearly in flight mode, they might stay a few minutes to a few hours to feed here before continuing south.
Then a northern flicker flew across the trail, and another. Cattle Point is a stronghold for these red-shafted woodpeckers. The juveniles called wik-a-wik-a-wik as they bounded from fence rails to treetops and back again, ever the opportunistic feeders. Downy and hairy woodpeckers live here, too. And the occasional pileated woodpecker uses an old snag to forage for grubs in the rotting wood.
The hoppers and crickets (food for hungry birds) chirped in the grasses and scouring rush as I turned west toward the cliffs overlooking Haro Strait. Below, on the ancient whitewashed rocks, I found black turnstones, surfbirds, and cormorants resting just above the incoming tide. A pair of harlequin ducks bobbed in the surf and paddled around the headland out of sight. A flock of surf scoters, always appearing highly organized, dove in sequence to the salty depths to pry mollusks from the sea floor. I missed the exuberant screams of black oystercatchers that are almost always here, but I knew they must be nearby. I had hoped to see pipits and horned larks along this portion of the trail, as well, but ones timing has to be perfect to catch a glimpse of these brief visitors. I knew I would have other chances to see them, though, as their passing comes in waves that last into October. Likely, peregrine falcons were nearby watching for them, too.
At the lighthouse, I scanned the rocks below for one of my favorite migrants: the wandering tattler. This bird takes an incredible journey that may end in the islands of the South Pacific. I have only seen a few tattlers at Cattle Point – always on the same rocks just below the lighthouse in front of lush kelp beds – and always alone. With possibly thousands of miles yet to go, what do you suppose the handsome slate-gray bird with the shining yellow legs perceived while perched on the rocks looking out at the seemingly endless void of sea and sky?
Around the north side of the lighthouse, I flushed a small flock of savannah sparrows from the grass. They didn’t go far, though, just waiting for me to pass so they could continue their rest.
Some of these sparrows breed at Cattle Point, but this time of year the site is an excellent staging area for birds that have bred farther north and may be joining the southern stream here. Before long, all these modest grasslanders with the bright yellow brows will be gone, too, and I wish them a safe journey as I walk quietly by.
Then, on to the quaking aspens – and there are just a few of them anchored in the bedrock above the beach. With only a slight breeze, their small, heart-shaped leaves were barely trembling. There was another flock of yellow-rumped warblers, or was it the same group that doubled back on me? I remember one year, the aspens played host of a wayward palm warbler that stayed several days. It was out of its range and surely content to find this refuge while it regained its bearings.
I wondered if it might have left with the Lapland longspurs that touched down at Cattle Point as well for a brief rest before travelling on.
I stopped a few moments by a patch of dune grass at land’s end and looked out over the inland sea toward Iceberg Point. Three years ago, I stood at this spot and watched the unexpected passing of several dozen red admirable butterflies just before sunset. As I gazed at the tiny dark forms, they fluttered higher and higher into the clouds and it did not take long to understand I was witnessing something quite remarkable – a mass butterfly migration. It started to rain shortly after their departure.
I headed back toward the willow grove and saw more of the admirables taking refuge in the trees. It rained for two days and I returned often to see how they were doing. The striking black and red butterflies had folded their wings and tucked themselves behind the bark of the willows and were simply waiting for the weather to change. On Day Three, the sun returned. I got to Cattle Point just in time to see the undaunted Vanessa Atlanta take off on another leg of its journey into the sun.
Cattle Point is a rich habitat for butterflies. I catalogued twenty-six species here in the 1990s including painted ladies, mourning cloaks, Milbert’s tortoiseshell, pale swallowtails, gray hairstreaks, mylitta crescents, and more. Years ago when the blue violets were prominent, fritillaries fluttered across the dunes, and they may still, only in fewer numbers. Occasionally, this time of year, I see orange sulfurs stopping just long enough to nectar on hairy cat’s ear that has been invading the dunes.
A rarity here is the Island Marble butterfly. Discovered on Vancouver Island in 1857, it was declared extinct in 1908. In 1998, it was rediscovered nearby and bred at Cattle Point for several years.
In recent years, its population has plummeted and now it hovers, once again, on the brink of extinction. Cattle Point is surely very important to its survival and recovery.
Back at the willow grove I spotted Lincoln Sparrows, another migrator foraging in the grass, and golden-crowned sparrows arriving for the winter. I hoped to find hermit thrushes migrating through with ruby-crowned kinglets but they are secretive birds and it was time to go. Peering into the thicket of willows, I thought about the one-eyed red fox that lived here for so long raising many litters of kits and always finding her security behind the gnarled, wind-blown willows. Perhaps she was gone now, but what a long life she led in this sheltered domain.
Walking back to Cattle Point Road, I spotted an owl feather in the grass. I would have to get out the books to identify it. I know the grove hosts barn owls and great-horned owls, but this smallish feather was not reminiscent of either. I have stood under the Scouler’s willows at night many times and watched and listened for the owls. It’s an eerie experience and when I stay too long, it is always a barn owl that shrieks and clicks its jaws reminding me it is time to leave.
Late September is flux-time for the birds: the summer breeders - the hummingbirds, swallows, vireos, flycatchers, thrushes and most of the warblers -have already left Cattle Point headed south. Soon, winter residents including kestrels, short-eared owls, northern shrikes, and rough-legged hawks will inhabit this place along with resident nuthatches, towhees, chickadees and such. The meadowlarks have already begun arriving and the harriers seem to be here nearly all year now. Bald eagles are common and golden eagles are occasionally sighted, too, along with the sharp-shinned and Cooper’s hawks that are never far away. Sometimes a merlin drops in; perches high above the dunes and waits for some small bird to make a fatal mistake and come into view.
Cattle Point is truly a wondrous place. Come spring, the dunes will be rife with seashore lupine and the azures and silvery blue butterflies will emerge and flutter through the brilliant sheen of violet blooms; chocolate lilies, white fawn lilies, camas, blue violets, buttercups, and brodiaea, will flourish here, too, and beckon the breeding birds as they return. And the cycle of life will begin again.
There is no way to quantify the benefits that Cattle Point has had for the birds, butterflies and other animals over the long course of time. Biologically rich habitats on the island continue to disappear and so this 26-acres of BLM property takes on even greater meaning for wildlife and to those of us that walk the trails, marvel at the spectacular views, share special times here with family and friends, and perhaps take a moment to remember how lucky we are to live in such a special part of the world.
Note: Nearly 1000 acres of BLM preserves, refuge islands, rocks, and reefs are currently candidates for designation by the president as a National Monument that would give permanent protection to these icons of island life.
SAN JUAN NATURE NOTEBOOK BY SUSAN VERNON / CATTLE POINT / Text and photographs copyright 2012 by Susan Vernon.
Susan Vernon is a writer who lives on San Juan Island. Some short quotes and anecdotes for this column have been excerpted from her book Rainshadow World – A Naturalist’s Year in the San Juan Islands.