Mission: To promote the appreciation of wildlife and increase harmony between humanity and nature.

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Saturday, September 16, 2017

Taking A Stand

The raucous calls of crows always gets my attention. My heart beats faster. I wonder who are the crows hassling and I immediately move in their direction. I often struggle to find a view through the canopy of leaves. 

A squad of excited crows often indicates that they have found a large predatory bird. Topping the list are the eagles but close behind are the owls, osprey, falcons and hawks. This time the crows were harassing a hawk.

The crows darted and called from the outer branches of the cottonwood, while the hawk twisted and turned among the larger branches. I found the constant cacophony of the crow calls quite stressful. It must have been far worse for the hawk. Every time the hawk looked left a crow would dart in from the right. When the hawk was distracted by a crow crossing its face, another black-feathered menace would swoop in from behind. 

Obviously frustrated, the buteo bounded from one branch to the next.

 It had hardly a moment to catch its breath.

The frustrated predator was much larger than any of the crows, but their numbers and aggressive nature seemed to give them the advantage. 

When the nervous bird exposed its flaming-red rectrices it became quite obvious that the object of the crows affection was a red-tailed hawk.

The indistinct belly band provided another correlating clue.

Across North and Central America there are more than a dozen different subspecies of red-tails. In addition it seems like almost every subspecies can also be divided into light and dark morphs. Plus, due to the mixing of subspecies and individual genetic variation, the plumage of red-tailed hawks can vary dramatically. 

During his raptor class last year, Bud Anderson described many of the different subspecies and morphs. Bud has a great love for raptors. His knowledge is obviously accumulated from decades of close interactions. I will never forget standing in front of Bud while he held a full-grown red-tailed hawk between us. You can learn more about Bud, his classes and other endeavors by visiting his Falcon Research Group website. The new format and photos are quite delightful.

While I was glad the crows led me to the hawk, I was starting to feel a bit sorry for the young bird.

Besides being easily frustrated by the crows, there were other clues to the hawk's relative youth. In this and other photos, you can see the light color of its iris. As red-tailed hawks mature their irises become noticeably darker.

Just when I expected the crows had won and the hawk would soon be gone - the strangest thing happened. It was almost like the hawk looked over its rather impressive physical attributes and realized, I am a hawk. The red-tail found a branch, mostly hidden from me, turned toward the crows and stopped. 

I noticed no further movements from the hawk. Soon the crows realized the hawk was done playing games. The noise of the crows incrementally declined as one after the other, each and every crow gave up and flew away. As peace and quiet descended over Duck Bay I was nearly as happy as the hawk.

In due time the hawk turned around and looked down at the water, while I found a somewhat better view. Another clue to the youth of the hawk was its exaggerated head movements as it triangulated on potential prey feeding among the lily pads.

A slightly more subtle sign was the pristine condition of every single feather.

As the hawk stretched and prepared to leave you could see that all the tail feathers were at the same optimal length. If you look back at the first photo you will see that all of the wing feathers are fully grown. There are no signs of any partially-grown feathers coming in to replace a previously molted feather from last year. This means that the hawk's feathers are all brand new, which implies this must be a first year bird. 

By the way, in the photo above, some of the tail feathers are being held closer to the head than the right wing, while the tips of the primaries are stretched back beyond the tail.

After realigning the right side, the hawk did a similar stretch on the left.

It even extended the left leg down below its perch.

The final and strangest portion of the stretch was extending its folded wings directly above its head.

Just before taking flight, the hawk scratched loose a downy little feather. 

When the feather stuck to its talon, the hawk plucked it off, before silently gliding away. 

In the past I have seen many predators harassed by crows. Usually the predator flies away and eventually the crows appear to feel the threat is past and lose interest. Sometimes the predator will simply sit and wait from the crows to get bored and leave. Occasionally, I have seen Cooper's Hawks turn the table and chase after the crows. You can see an example in the post called, The Education of OZ.

However, this was the first time I have seen a bird dramatically change the way it was interacting with crows. It felt like I was watching the young red-tailed hawk grow up - right before my eyes. Sometimes, the best way to discourage a tormentor is to stand firm, look them in the eye and refuse to blink.

Have a great day on Union Bay...where nature lives and learns in the city!


Going Native:

Without a well-funded Environmental Protection Agency, it falls to each of us to be ever more vigilant in protecting our local environments. Native plants and trees encourage the largest diversity of lifeforms because of their long intertwined history with local, native creatures. I have been told that even the microbes in the soil are native to each local landscape. My hope is that we can inspire ourselves, our neighbors and local businesses to plant native flora and to support native wildlife at every opportunity. My intention is to include at least one photo each week and visually challenge us to know the difference between native and non-native lifeforms. All of these turtles were photographed this week in Union Bay. Can you identify the turtles? Are they native to Union Bay?


This turtle's shell was approximately two feet long and 18 inches wide.

In case you did not notice the head, here is a close up.


Scroll down for the answers


I was very happy to find a post by Dennis Paulson titled, Pacific Northwest Turtles, especially since I know very little about the subject. 

A) The first two turtles on the left are non-native, Red-eared Sliders. The red markings on their heads are obvious. Even though the other two turtles do not have 'red ears' I am guessing they are also members of the same species. I would be happy to learn about any critical distinguishing features, if you can show that my assumption is incorrect.

B) I believe this turtle is a non-native, Spiny Softshell. It would be wise to remember that Dennis says they can be very aggressive. 

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Sitting Ducks

There are four duck species on Union Bay which I think of as the most well known and the easiest to identify - especially the males. I find the male gadwall to be the most distinguished and the least distinguishable of the four species.

The male northern shoveler is the easiest to identify due to its large 'shovel-like' bill. Plus, the male shoveler is the only Union Bay duck with the strikingly obvious dark-light-dark-light-dark pattern. This plumage is easily observed even at a great distance.

The most common and probably the best known of the four is the male mallard with his green head and bright yellow bill..

 The most exotic of the four is the colorful red-eyed male wood duck.

The females of each species are usually harder to identify than the males. For example compare this female gadwall with the female mallard in the next photo.

The female mallard does have a larger bill. Plus, the difference between the slope of the forehead and the bill can be helpful. This relative slope comparison is more subtle with mallards. The easiest key to their identity is the speculum. Mallards have a white-lined blue speculum.

Speculums are most easily seen when ducks spread their wings. Sadly, they are only occasionally visible when their wings are folded.

On gadwalls, the speculums are white. It is certainly nice that nature has provided these  identifiable markings which differ by species.

A female northern shoveler looks fairly similar to female mallards and gadwalls, but only if her 'shovel' happens to be hidden from view.

It is worth noting that the inside of a shoveler's bill, the lamellae, functions like a sieve. When feeding, they push through the water, with their bills just below the surface. This is how they obtain the majority of their food. 

The female wood duck is the most easily distinguished of the four species. The white teardrops around the female's eyes have always reminded me of an ancient Egyptian princess.

The most surprising and possibly the most difficult to identify of these four species turns out to be the males. It seems ironic to me that the males can be both easy and difficult to identify. It all depends on the time of year.

After breeding season, the male's lose their brilliant coloring and switch out of their alternate plumage and into their basic or eclipse plumage. During this time they also loose their ability to fly - since they replace all of their flight feathers at one time. The bird in the photo above is actually a male gadwall in his eclipse plumage. This time of year the most obvious difference between he and a female gadwall is his dark black bill.

It is interesting to note that most predatory birds lose only a few flight feathers at a time. That way they never lose the ability to fly. Without functional wings, osprey, eagles, owls, hawks and falcons might get a bit hungry. Since ducks feed while sitting on the water, they can get by without flying for three or four weeks.

Here is a male mallard, which I photographed this week. He is just starting to regrow some of the dark green feathers on his head. However not long ago his head was just as brown as the head of a female mallard. Even now the major feature which distinguishes him from a female mallard is his yellow bill.

Depending on the light and the particular bird, the yellow bill can be somewhat subtle. Still, among male mallards it is often the clearest indicator of the species. Particularly if the speculum is not visible and because the shape of the head, the forehead relative to the bill, can be a challenging feature to use for identification.

Among the northern shovelers, the bill makes the species easy to identify. The gender on the other hand is a bit harder. The only obvious difference I know of between the male, in eclipse plumage, and a female is the color of the iris. A female's iris is dark brown, unlike the yellowish orange irises of the males.

I must admit I love how this male's bill looks. It makes me think of a rich, highly polished piece of wood.

Northern shoveler's do have green speculums which can be helpful in identifying the species whenever they are flying away - especially if their bills are hidden by their bodies.

Currently, male wood ducks seem to generally be a bit further along in the process of regrowing their brilliant breeding plumage...

...although, they sure can look scruffy this time of year.

Male wood ducks in basic plumage look quite different. Sometimes two or three of these males can be seen following a single female. My first thought was that they were juvenile males following their mother and preparing to grow their first breeding plumage.

However, All About Birds tells us that during eclipse plumage the major distinguishing features of male wood ducks are their red eyes and the reddish-orange markings on their bills. This implies to me that these odd looking wood ducks may actually be adult males in their basic or eclipse plumage.

I find it amazing that this time of year our most recognizable male Union Bay ducks hide in plain sight. Luckily, by paying close attention to their bills and eyes we can differentiate the males and females. It can be easier than you would expect. After all, once they lose their flight feathers they are literally sitting ducks.


For those of you who might be interested in learning more about the most wonderfully educational birding class of your life, Seattle Audubon is having an open house. 

Master Birder Open House – Tuesday, Sept. 12, 5 – 7 p.m.

Interested in an intensive study of Washington birds, led by expert naturalist Dennis Paulson? Every other year, Seattle Audubon offers a popular two-semester, education-for-service Master Birder program. You can learn all about it at seattleaudubon.org

Applications and the application ID quiz for the next class aren’t due until March 17, 2018, and an information session for potential applicants will be held on March 6, but some people have requested an opportunity to talk with graduates of the class much earlier in the process. 

On Tuesday, Sept. 12, the Nature Shop will be open 5 – 7 p.m. for “suet happy hour” (two-for-one suet cakes) and an open house for people interested in volunteering with Seattle Audubon, as well as the Master Birder Open House. If you’re interested in the Master Birder program and have questions that aren’t answered on the webpage, please stop by the open house or email MBadmin@seattleaudubon.org.

I hope to see you there.


Also, have a great weekend identifying ducks on Union Bay!


Going Native:

Without a well-funded Environmental Protection Agency, it falls to each of us to be ever more vigilant in protecting our local environments. Native plants and trees encourage the largest diversity of lifeforms because of their long intertwined history with local, native creatures. I have been told that even the microbes in the soil are native to each local landscape. My hope is that we can inspire ourselves, our neighbors and local businesses to plant native flora and to support native wildlife at every opportunity. My intention is to include at least one photo each week and visually challenge us to know the difference between native and non-native lifeforms.

Can you identify this creature? Is it a native to Union Bay and the Pacific Northwest?


Scroll down for the answer


Our featured creature is a native Green Lacewing which feeds primarily on aphids. It is considered a 'good' garden bug.

This nearby alder leaf, found on the same tree, looks like evidence of an aphid infestation and an obvious lacewing feeding opportunity.

Monday, September 4, 2017

A Feathered Friend

While walking home last week my eye was attracted by the flight of a crow. The crow swooped ever so slightly towards a nearby telephone pole. Sitting as silent as one of the brass eagles which hover over our flags, was Chip. Chip is the current male pileated woodpecker who includes the Arboretum, Interlaken Park and Montlake in his territory. 

No doubt I would have missed Chip completely, if not for the crow. The crow continued on towards the Arboretum. I stopped and quietly dug my camera out of my pack. Chip ignored both of us. Being ignored by wild creatures is actually a positive. The most reliable sign that our presence is not causing stress is when a creature's behavior continues unchanged by our observations. 

It had been about two months since I last saw Chip. Suddenly spotting him a stone's throw from my home felt like a surprise visit from an old friend. Humans gain wrinkles with age. I am sure that when I run across old friends they have to adjust their mental image to fit the current version of me. Chip's 'new' look certainly made me look twice. I noticed the newly exposed white feathers just below his shoulder and how the white stripes on his face had yellowed by comparison. I also noticed the dark feathers drifting loosely upon his chest. Chip is molting.

Molting is the process of replacing a previous, and usually well-worn, set of feathers with new ones. There are many different plumages and stages in the process depending on the particular species and their specific needs. In the case of adult pileated woodpeckers they only replace their feathers once per year. Both of my most obvious observations of the process have happened in August.

Chip's last appearance in this blog was in the post, Elderberry Whine. At that time Chip and his new mate, Goldie, were totally consumed with providing food for their three new fledglings. 

Prior to my encounter last week, my memory of Chip was closer to this Spring photo - from 2016. At that time his crest was bright red, his chest feathers were smoothly aligned and his white feathers were generally clean and pristine. Of course, this photo was taken at the beginning of breeding season and Chip was wearing his finest with all the best intentions.

A few days later it all worked out well for Chip. His mating with Storm, the predecessor to Goldie, may have looked a bit awkward but they successfully raised three offspring in the spring and summer of twenty-sixteen. You can see some of the pictorial highlights in the post, Family Time.

I find this photo is interesting, not just because they were mating, but also because both birds exposed their white underwear. The inner twenty to thirty percent of their primary feathers are pure white. The normally visible, outer portion of these feather are as black as the feathers on their backs. This particular area of protected white feathers is only visible when they lift their wings.

The best opportunity to view their underwear is whenever a pileated flies directly overhead. Even then the flash of white can be easily missed. This photo just happened to catch a glimpse of the white arcs during a rather odd looking takeoff.

Here is a young female from the 2016 brood. The orangish color of her crest is an obvious indicator of her juvenile plumage. She is using her wings to help climb the gnarly bark of a Douglas Fir. 

The expanse of exposed white feathers must also include underwing coverts as well as the proximal ends of the flight feathers. I think the flash of pink skin indicates that while she is wearing her juvenile plumage her white underwear is not as tight and dense as it will be during adulthood. This photo is also shows the white inner (or proximal) portion of the primaries versus the darker distal (or outer) portion.

Part of the reason the bright white stripe of Chip's inner primaries is visible in this photo is because he has lost some of the dark coverts which normally cover the base of the primaries. The wind, or possibly his preening, has also ruffled and lifted the remaining coverts.

In general white feathers lack keratin and as a result are weaker than darker feathers. No doubt the weaker feathers are also softer. Just like with humans it makes sense to wear the softest clothing closest to the skin.  

I am certain Chip has had a busy summer feeding his and Goldie's first set of offspring. After Storm disappeared last winter, Goldie showed up and became Chip's new mate. If you check out the first photo in the post, Storm Passing, you will see that in August of 2016 Storm was also molting. Her exposed white primary stripe makes it obvious. 

Chip sat calmly on top of the telephone pole for quite a while. Suddenly, a predator must have passed overhead. Immediately, Chip jumped down and hid behind the pole. While I watched Chip was undisturbed by any begging, calling or whining. Apparently, all of this year's young have now learned to fend for themselves.

If you click on this photo, e.g. zoom in, you can see that Chip has one longer covert feather which has not yet fallen off. At this angle the covert covers up most of his white primary stripe. No doubt the existing covert will fall when a new feather pushes its way out of the feather 'pimple' which generates the replacement. If so, then during the next few days or weeks the white will remain temporarily visible as the new dark coverts begin to cover the base of the primary feathers.

Many birds are molting this time of year. Here is a crow which was looking for food on Foster Island, last week. I am assuming the half a dozen different specks of white indicate the molting process is underway.

Here is a male Anna's hummingbird which was seen at Carkeek Park this weekend. Given that the white feathers above the eye are not part of the normal coloring for an Anna's hummingbird I am thinking they may indicate molting as well. Possibly new dark feathers are starting to grow in and the normally hidden white feathers are only visible because of the temporary lack of cover.

It is also interesting to compare the two photos to see how the structure of the hummer's dark feathers give off a red reflection, but only at just the right angle.

While walking through the Arboretum I often stop to photograph fallen feathers. Even though this feather is not white it certainly looks soft and airy. I suspect it is an inner rather than a outer feather. The white shaft, or rachis, is the most visible portion of this feather. The loose barbs, which are at right angles to the rachis, also indicate the air trapping function of an inner feather.

I cannot find this particular feather in the wonderful book, 'Bird Feathers' by Scott and McFarland. It does however look similar in shape and size to the tail feathers of some ducks. Given were I found the feather I would guess it might possibly be an outer tail feather from a mallard.

In any case, this feather is particularly interesting because it shows two different functions of the barbs. The distal barbs are mostly aligned and connected so that they can shed water and manipulate air flow. The more downy, proximal barbs are disconnected and more randomly aligned so they can retain air and warmth. In addition, the dark coloring on the tip is structurally stronger which reduces the wear on the most exposed portion of the feather.

This tiny, downy feather is a perfect example of the soft, warm bird feathers which may have inspired our ancestors to come up with the idea of underwear, not to mention pillows and down-filled feather beds.

On closer inspection we can see that the barbs of this feather have barbs of their own. Technically, these secondary barbs are called barbules. As my son mentioned it looks like a fractal arrangement. The beauty and complexity of a single feather reminds me that the best of our human technology is still rather crude by comparison. We will begin to demonstrate signs of technical maturity when our creations automatically grow and replace worn out parts and the discarded pieces naturally disassemble and become one with the environment.

While I was watching Chip, this surprisingly silent Stellar's jay came and perched on the wire next to the telephone pole. A few moments later, without any indication of irritation, both Chip and the jay flew away towards the Arboretum.

By the way, I believe the half grown tail feathers on this bird are also indicators of molting in process. Seeing the blue reflection from the jay unleashed a whole new set of feather-related thoughts. However, it is time to finally publish this post. So my thoughts regarding the feathers of jays will have to wait for future exploration.

Have a great day on Union Bay...where the feathers of friends fall from the sky!


Going Native:

Without a well-funded Environmental Protection Agency, it falls to each of us to be ever more vigilant in protecting our local environments. Native plants and trees encourage the largest diversity of lifeforms because of their long intertwined history with local, native creatures. I have been told that even the microbes in the soil are native to each local landscape. My hope is that we can inspire ourselves, our neighbors and local businesses to plant native flora and to support native wildlife at every opportunity. My intention is to include at least one photo each week and visually challenge us to know the difference between native and non-native lifeforms.

Can you identify this creature? Is it a native to Union Bay and the Pacific Northwest?


Scroll down for the answer


This week Seattle Parks and Recreation is removing accumulating mud from a small pond in the Arboretum, southwest of the Winter Garden. The Arboretum ponds constantly fill up because the local Montlake mud is made primarily of silt from bottom of an ancient lake. The only way to maintain our delightful little ponds seems to be to clean them out from time to time.

In the process the team is uncovering salamanders which reside under the mud. Based on the size, color and shape these are Northwestern Salamanders. The online Burke Museum article by Heidi Rockney and Karen Wu mentions that these salamanders are mildly poisonous and neotenic. Neoteny means that as adults these creatures often retain some immature characteristics. As a matter of fact when I first saw one of these salamanders I did not even notice the little legs and feet, so my initial inclination was to conclude it was a pollywog. Only when I looked closer did I finally see the feet and tiny toes.

An online report from British Columbia says the Northwestern Salamander's poison only causes mild skin irritation in humans but can kill some small creatures. It is suspected that their poison has helped them to survive and may even be protecting them from some invasive species. The fact that they spend a lot of time underwater, underground and under logs is no doubt another reason for their survival.