Wet Labs at Magnuson Park

A few months ago, my clients at the U.S.G.S. contacted me for some interpretive signs at Magnuson Park.

The topic was: Wet Labs.









No, not those kind. (Although, with Seattle’s first Dog Swimming Beach, Magnuson Park has plenty of those, too).

The U.S.G.S. runs the Western Fisheries Research Center with state-of-the-art Wet Labs to study fish. The facility is located adjacent to the park, but part of their equipment is inside the park, so they wanted me to create 2 new signs to help visitors understand a bit about their work.

The Center originated more than 70 years ago through the efforts of Dr. Frederick Fish, a visionary scientist who pioneered improved methods of studying Pacific Salmon.

(With a name like that, I hope he had a good sense of humor.)

Here are the signs I wrote, designed and illustrated. They will be installed soon.


This sign will be installed near a new pump station. The USGS figured park visitors would see the pump and wonder what it was, so they took the opportunity to educate them a little about their work at the Center. Seattle’s Magnuson Park was a pre-World War II era Naval Airfield and is now a huge complex of sports fields, tennis courts, trails, beaches, wetlands, and a Dog Swimming Beach.



This sign will be installed near a reconstructed wetland complex which provides rich wildlife habitat. Cleaned and recycled water from the lab helps keep it wet year-round.


If you visit Magnuson Park, watch out for the wet labs! Both kinds.


Watchable Wildlife and Interpreting Biodiversity

A few years ago, the Bureau of Land Management hired me to design an interpretive sign for Dankworth Ponds, a nature retreat and recreation area in Arizona. I do a lot of these types of projects—helping people understand that recreation in a natural area means making room for other living creatures. It’s a gentle way of saying, “Hey people! Animals live here! Take care of this place!”

I designed, illustrated and wrote the text for this 2 x 3 foot sign.


Sometimes I wonder how these images would look to a person from the distant future.  “Look how many animals there were,” I imagine them saying. “Such biodiversity! Every inch taken up by some different species! What a world it must have been back then!”

It reminds me of the Native American tales of long-ago times when “rivers ran so thick with salmon, you could walk from shore to shore on their backs and not get your feet wet.”

(Of course, those tales are probably true. I’ve seen photos of rivers supporting huge runs of wild salmon in Alaska, and they appear almost solid with fish. It’s an amazing sight.)

But, my interpretive projects are illustrative. It helps people realize that even if they don’t see animals in every nook and cranny of a habitat, those little places are all important in some way, at some time, to some creatures. In a healthy habitat, nature tends to fill in the gaps with life.

Often, what wildlife needs more than anything is time and space in quiet, undisturbed places where they can hunt, rest, feed…whatever.  You can learn from them—wildlife watching takes time and patience. You have to stay still and quiet. If you wait long enough, something will show up. And when it does, back off a little. Give it some space.

Some close-up views:

Bass are an interesting fish. Did you know the males stand guard over their young for weeks, fighting off lurking predators? (You do if you read Hawgs, Toads, and Lunkers!)


Mallards seem to be found anywhere there’s water. They feed by dabbling, or tipping upside down and nibbling plant material growing on the bottom of the pond. There are actually domestic mallards and wild mallards, which interbreed and produce semi-domestic hybrids. At some point, wild mallards will probably be bred out of existence.

It’s fun to watch great blue herons hunting. They stand perfectly still, poised with their necks stretched forward, then, strike! Fish, frog, or snake get stabbed with the bill and gobbled down as quickly as possible. They manipulate the prey to get it to go down headfirst. I guess it’s easier to get a squirming critter down your gullet head first.

Primordial Valentine

One day as I walked through the shady forest, I saw something unusual. There, in a sunbeam, the air had suddenly come alive. I was witnessing an ancient botanical marvel.

Play the 2-minute video to see what I saw. (Make sure your speakers are on)


And don’t forget Valentines Day!









Hawgs, Toads, and Lunkers

Donkeys. Sows. Whales. Line-stretchers.*

If you’re a largemouth bass fisherman, you know what I’m talking about. The big guys.

A largemouth bass male guarding his young from marauding northern pike. This is a watercolor illustration I did for my Rocky Mountain Arsenal Project for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.


This is what I love about my interpretive sign work. It takes me outside my normal habitat and I get to learn new things. I’m not a fisherman, and I didn’t know very much about bass before I worked on this project for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Colorado. As I was researching the signage project, I not only picked up some cool fisherman lingo, I learned a bit about the lifeways of bass.

I was surprised to learn that it’s the male bass who not only does the housework, he raises the kids, too. When spawning season rolls around, the male searches out a good place for a nest—usually close to shore, and preferably near some sort of cover. Using his tail, he sweeps out a depression in the sand or gravel bottom, then starts looking for a “ripe” female, or one that is ready with eggs.

Once the pair have spawned, the female usually leaves. Sometimes, she’ll find another male and lay a batch of eggs with him. But the male stays with the nest and guards the eggs and the hatchling fry (young fish) until they are ready to leave—usually a few weeks. During this time, the male vigorously defends his young against lurking predators—everything from crayfish and minnows to sunfish and pike.

While he’s working so hard to defend his young, the male himself is especially vulnerable. What fishermen call an “educated” bass—ones who are older, wiser, and bigger—would normally be wary of a fisherman’s lure. But when he’s in defense mode, the male bass will strike at most anything that approaches his nest…including a lure. Unfortunately, a few fishermen see this as an invitation to go after nest-guarders. That is not only unsporting, it ultimately leads to a depleted fishery.

The interpretive signs I did for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service were installed at Lake Ladora, in the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge in Denver, Colorado. The lake is a popular bass fishery, but signage was needed to encourage fishermen to use proper techniques to help protect the spawning beds and the fishery. In particular, the USFWS was trying to convince fishermen to avoid trampling the spawning beds.

The Refuge itself has a fascinating story. It was once part of a sprawling short-grass prairie habitat that supported huge herds of bison (commonly known as buffalo) and multitudes of other prairie species. Fast forward to the twentieth century and World War II, and the site was being used to manufacture chemical weapons, and later to produce agricultural chemicals. In the 1980’s, a series of fortunate events led to the site being designated as a wildlife refuge and targeted for a massive clean-up effort. It is now one of the largest urban refuges in the country, and once again supports a multitude of wildlife species.

Here is how the finished interpretive sign looked:

Research, text, design and illustration by Denise Dahn for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge.

To learn more about the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge: http://www.fws.gov/rockymountainarsenal/overview/overview.htm


*terms used by fisherman for big largemouth bass…especially for the ones they’ve caught.