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Peregrine falcons hunt the shores of Willapa Bay/Photo Courtesy of Dr. Madeline KalbachDiversity is the spice of life at the Willapa Bay buffet.

This Buffet Serves up Fast, Fresh and Local 

This expanse of saltmarsh, mud flats and water teem with life. By some calculations a square foot of estuary has up to four times the biomass that a productive farmland does; a true smorgasbord of culinary delights for wildlife and humans alike.

The Table is Set 

These tables are cleared and set twice daily as the Willapa Bay tides ebb and flow in harmony with the moon’s gravitational pull. Stirred by the water’s movements, fresh and salt water mingle creating a brackish soup of decomposing plant and animal material. This soup is the fuel for a diverse and dynamic estuarine community.

Salad Course 

Up in the saltmarsh, American glasswort, sometimes called pickleweed or sea asparagus, blankets the shore interspersed with Salt grass and Lygby’s sedge. Out on the mudflats, meadows of eelgrass lay exposed at low tide or wave, blades suspended, during high tide capturing particles and slowing the currents. Although some animals eat these plants, it is their structure and later, their death, that spices up life in Willapa Bay. Sheltered within the eelgrass is a nursery for fish and shellfish, including Dungeness crab and young salmon. Marine algae, diatoms and hydroid colonies grow from eelgrass leaves, their fanciful forms creating a pretty and functional table dressing.

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Feast for the Eyes – ears and stomach 

Wildlife of many forms flocks to Willapa Bay to feed. Of the hundreds of wildlife species that feed here, birds are the most obvious and each species brings its own built-in tableware. Brant, dark colored small geese, use their serrated flattened bills to eat a house specialty of eelgrass during winter months. With narrow bills of various lengths, a diversity of shorebirds picks and probes the mud for snails, worms, insects and crustaceans. Great blue herons patiently wait in the shallows, ready to strike at fish with their strong, sharp bills. Peregrine falcons pluck birds as large as ducks from mid-air with strong talons, and then they use their knife-sharp beak to devour their meal. Fisherman both, Caspian terns and brown pelicans plunge into water using different “tackle”; the tern’s bill like a spear, the pelican’s like a net.

Pull up a chair and bring your binoculars 

The dinner bell does not sound here. Although the time of the year, weather and tide level each affect the guest list, there is always someone at the table. Scan across the flats for feeding shorebirds and herons. Search the water surface for ducks, grebes, geese and mergansers. Doesn’t float or dive like a duck? Sleek river otters forage along the bay and shore, and the rounded heads of harbor seals peer from the water’s surface to take in the view. Listen for the bubbling song of the Pacific wren and the melody of the song sparrow along the forest edge. Walk the wrack line (the debris left on the breach from the previous high tide) for macro-invertebrates. These small hoppers and crawlers are nature’s clean-up crew feasting on scraps and left-overs. Search the saltmarsh for resting shorebirds or waterfowl, the occasional coyote and black bear, or even an elk. Look to the tree-tops and beach logs for bald eagles, Merlin, and Peregrine falcons.

The diners are constantly moving and changing – go ahead find a seat, meet the locals and participate in the feast.

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Page Photo Credits — Peregrine falcon - ©Dr. Madeline Kalbach
Last Updated: Apr 25, 2014
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