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Monday, August 22, 2016

Over The Edge

On Sunday evening, Aug. 14th 2016, I caught one of our young Union Bay osprey flexing its wings at the edge of the nest. In the past I have found the orange eyes of the young osprey to be their most impressive feature. The orange certainly is startling - however this week I have been more infatuated by the unstained, off-white scallops tracing delicate patterns along the trailing edges of their darker feathers. The patterns make me think of icing on a cake.

Chester, having just returned with a fish. In the center of this photo, Lacey has her head down as she begins to parse out food to the young. 

It is possible to make out a similar edging on the upper portion of her wing, which is visible between Chester and the young osprey - the one with its head up. Time, exposure and wear have dramatically reduced the color contrast. At this time of year, this distinctive difference between the young and old osprey is apparent from quite a distance.

Chester avoids getting too close to the young talons and beaks.

With a little luck, one day the young birds will be as wise and productive as their parents, however I suspect their colors may never again look so vibrant and full of life. 

Earlier in the day, Peter Korch caught sight of one of the young birds up in the air. Clearly, the osprey was practicing for its first flight by rising up a foot or two above the nest and then quickly descending.

ready for takeoff


coming in for the touchdown

Thank you! Peter for catching and sharing this special moment!

 On Tuesday morning, offshore in my kayak, I found the practicing continued.

While looking through the photos I have noticed that the young bird in the air seems to have a little less discoloration on its chest when compared to its seated siblings. I am wondering if it is a male and its chest will ultimately turn pure white, like Chester's.

I would love to see them well enough and watch them long enough to be sure of their genders. It would really be wonderful to be able to identify each of the young birds as individuals. 

On Sunday morning, Aug. 21st, 2016, the sky was surprisingly gray and the wind was blowing briskly.

The wind was strong enough that some of us wondered if the young would be afraid to even lift off above the nest. It seemed possible that once in the air they might get blown away, and without much flight experience, I wondered if they would be able to fight their way back to the nest.

One of the young birds proved our fears were misplaced. It lifted off a number of times - once riding up as much as six feet above the nest. The wind actually seemed to provide extra lift, making flight easier.

Suddenly, without fanfare, it left the nest

Sometimes flapping and sometimes gliding, it traveled west towards the baseball field.

Lucky for us, it turned and headed back.

I believe it flew in a gentle figure eight. 

Coming back and turning directly over our heads before... 

...circling back to the nest.

The landing was surprisingly well controlled. As far as I know, this was its first flight.

An hour later a second flight took place.

While the young bird's control amazed me, it was obvious that its flight skills are not yet refined and well-tuned, like its parents. The cool weather reminds us that fall is on its way and soon the osprey will be migrating south.

In an earlier email, Ray Holden mentioned that after the young go south, it will be a over a year before they make their first migration north. Previously, I was confused and thought I had heard that they might stay here for a year before migrating south. Sadly for us, its the other way around.

In any case, it sounds like the young have around a month before they are on their own. Their days of sitting fat and happy in the nest are coming quickly to an end. They need to rapidly develop their flight skills and their ability to fish for themselves. I expect we may see quite a bit of splashing and thrashing in the shallow parts of Union Bay. If you are out in a canoe, kayak or waterboard, watch for hovering white birds diving headfirst into the water. (The osprey are mostly white when viewed from below and mostly dark when viewed from above.) For now at least, we can also watch for the off-white scallops among their dark feathers which will tell us whether we are seeing one of this year's young.

Have a great day on Union Bay...where young osprey fly in the city!


PS: By the way, Doug Parrot and Peter Korch both mentioned that on Saturday there were as many as eight adult osprey flying around the Union Bay nest, without any apparent conflict. It would be wonderful to get photos of this behavior and try to understand what is happening. Maybe they were osprey from farther north passing through during their winter migration. Union Bay would be a logical place to stock up before the next leg of their journey.

Lefty Updates:

On Wednesday, Steve Hauschka spotted Lefty trying to cross Montlake Blvd just north of the Montlake Bridge. You can read his comments at the end of the Union Bay Surprise post.

On Saturday, Peter Korch once again spotted Lefty back in the Union Bay Natural Area.

Peter mentioned that this was the best photo he could get because someone else was frantically waving his arms - apparently trying to scare Lefty away. 

In my experience, I have never encountered a deer that appeared in any way dangerous. If left alone, they always seem to keep their distance from humans. I would love to see Lefty continue to co-exist with us around Union Bay. I think we can help him succeed by keeping our distance and not interacting with him. Please do not feed him or approach him. The more "wild" he remains, the better for him and for us. We do not want him to be perceived as a threat. I would also suggest we drive defensively in the area. Clearly, Lefty does not fully comprehend the dangers of traffic and motor vehicles. 

Wouldn't it be wonderful if we needed "Deer Crossing" signs around Union Bay.

Latest Update:

On Sunday, 8/21/16, Bob and Debbie Duffy saw a deer crossing the Burke-Gilman Trail (west of Montlake Blvd) and heading up hill into the UW Campus. It seems likely the Lefty has left us. I am sure we all wish him well.

It really is too bad we do not have a green connection between Ravenna Creek and the Union Bay Natural Area then he would have had a natural connection all of the way to Woodland Park.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Flight Feathers

Flight allows birds to escape danger and easily locate food. For osprey, flight is even more critical. Unlike our local bald eagles--who minimize their hunting effort by sitting in trees, soaring on thermals and stealing from competitors--an osprey actively hunts from the air. 

During the summer, I often see osprey circling Union Bay. They incessantly search the water from a height of about 50 meters. When they see a prospective fish they often stop and hover in place, constantly burning calories. At just the right moment, they dive. I suspect, the osprey are waiting for the fish to surface. 

Their high-energy hunting requires them to catch fish frequently. Their worldwide success and lengthy migrations are proof that this approach works. Their wings are the basis for their active lifestyle.

Does this current photo show one of our young Union Bay osprey in the nest, or one of the parents?

Their growing hunger makes it critical that young osprey learn to fly, and the sooner the better. The parents cannot, and will not, feed them forever. This fall, the adults will head South and the young must be ready to fend for themselves. Until they learn to fly, the young in the nest are sitting ducks. Local bald eagles could raid the nest, in spite of the adult osprey. I have also seen a red-tailed hawk, and a third adult osprey inspecting the nest. These birds are normally escorted away by the adults. 

However, as the young mature, the adults are leaving the nest for longer and longer periods. There may be multiple reasons for the adults' behavior. As the young grow, the adults must hunt more frequently to meet the growing demand for food. They may also be setting an example and encouraging the young to fly. Or maybe they need a little downtime from the constant begging. 

Luckily, for the osprey, I suspect our local bald eagles have left for their annual vacation. The eagles usually leave this area for a few weeks in late summer, just after their eaglets fledge. The absence of bald eagles might also explain the adult osprey leaving the nest for longer periods of time.

Lets review the progress of our young osprey; in particular, the growth of their wings.

Starting with this July 10th photo, we see fuzzy little wing feathers which may provide warmth, but not much lift. In general, the coloring of the nestlings does not yet look like the adults.

A week later, on July 17th, their dark eyestripe is becoming more visible and the white on the head is slightly more pronounced. Can you see the red-orange tint of the young bird's iris, compared to duller, yellow-brown color in Lacey's eye?

Tiny, dark-brown, buds appear in rows on the wings, like young plants in a Spring garden.

A week later, on July 24th, the young birds watch attentively as Chester delivers food to the nest. The size of Chester's wings, compared to his relatively small body, is truly impressive.

The budding feathers do not look a lot longer but the wings have grown. Also, if you look below the wing on your left you can see one of the wing feathers just starting to fan out.

When Chester delivers food he seldom lingers. He immediately leaves to search for more fish. It is interesting to note that his eye color is a brighter yellow than Lacey's.

The fanning of the budding feathers may be slightly more visible in this photo. The two dark spots in the air are meat-eating wasps, attracted by the nearly constant supply of sushi.

As the day heats up, the panting of the young birds increases. Also, as they grow, they spend more and more time focused on the world beyond the nest. I find their mottled coloring makes them harder to see against the broken sticks in the nest. I wonder if this is to confuse predators who might swoop in and remove them from the nest.

Five days later, on July 29th, this young bird's flight feathers are visibly longer and the wings are clearly larger as well.

By August 7th, the feathers have grown so much that it becomes challenging to distinguish the young bird from an adult. Although, there are a few telltale signs: The iris is still a brighter orange in color. The tips of many feathers are edged in white. (The white tips are not as durable as the darker areas, so they will wear away fairly quickly once the birds begin to fly.) Also, their brown feathers are a bit lighter than an adults'.

 Note: This is the same photo you saw at the top of the post. Can you answer the question now?

This young bird's feathers look almost developed, while...

...from a different angle, it or its sibling's feathers, still look ragged.

Exactly one month after the initial wing photo, on August 10th, their wings look nearly fully developed. I find the growth rate astounding.

The young birds are looking more and more like the adults.

While this is not the optimal angle to present the young bird, I do love the windblown crest around Lacey's head.

Here a two more shots of the quickly developing wings.

It will not be long now before the young fledge. The next step will be for them to learn to fish. I wonder how much teaching the parents will need to provide. Is fishing mostly instinctual? Will the young birds leave the nest knowing how to catch fish or will they hang around Union Bay, watching and learning from the parents?

There are still many interesting questions about the development of our young Union Bay osprey.

Have a great day on Union Bay...where osprey nest in the city!


Saturday, August 6, 2016


The word 'illuminate' means to reveal something which is hidden. It can mean to cast light on to a physical object or to describe the moment when a new idea pierces our consciousness. The two meanings are so similar that we symbolize sudden learning with the sketch of a light bulb. We even have a special word to describe moments of enlightenment, 'Eureka!'

In Seattle, our average dose of sunlight is certainly less than 12 hours a day. Our lack of illumination is offset by blue water, green plants and snow-covered mountains. Plus, many creatures prefer the darkness, or a least a half-light. When beavers are active, the light is seldom bright enough to create the photos I prefer.

Thursday morning contained cloudless sunshine. Which was why this beaver and I came to share this silent moment. I was passing by in my kayak, heading towards the early morning sunlight, while the beaver was feeding among the lily pads. When it realized I was there, the beaver slid silently below the surface and headed back to its lodge.

Since I was sitting between the beaver and its home it swam directly beneath my boat. There was not enough light for me to see the beaver below the surface, but I could see the eighteen-inch-wide, temporary trail of tiny bubbles it left behind. I paddled on. 

Shafts of early morning sunlight were already skipping across the lily pads on the east side of Foster Island, when I arrived.

Red-winged blackbirds fluttered from one pad to the next, searching for tiny morsels of food.

This young male appears very close to finding the 'hidden' food source. 

The visual differences between the male and female birds, seen in the previous photos, always intrigues me. Why does the coloring of some bird species vary based on gender and yet others do not? Does it have to do with hormones? Why doesn't our gender determine the color of our skin? 

Wouldn't it be interesting if our emotions regulated our skin color? What if we turned blue whenever we were lonely. Turning red with anger might be useful to friends and family. Turning green with envy could be a bit embarrassing. However, it might be nice if we glowed a pulsating, golden-yellow each time we came up with a new idea. 

The golden morning light illuminated a sprinkle of white-tipped feathers on this blackbird's head.

I suspect these are the telltale signs of a young bird, who is loosing his immature coloring. It seems oddly reversed from humans, since our hair often loses pigment and turns white with age.

Seeing and learning new things, like a trail-of-beaver-bubbles or a white-headed-red-winged-blackbird, makes me
 wonder how nature and biology could ever be boring. I suspect nature is only boring when we remove ourselves from the experience and study the details to death. Oddly, a classroom experience may be efficient for teaching, but not for learning.

We may have reached the annual peak of life on Union Bay. The lily pads have expanded rapidly across the water and are just beginning to turn yellow and die-back. This provides the bugs, which live on the lily pads, with their maximum possible opportunity. Red-winged blackbirds may or may not have reached the zenith of their annual population. They can have two broods per year; still, I suspect they might be getting close to their maximum numbers.

Optimal photographic illumination, at least for me, is when the sunlight shines horizontally over my right shoulder. 

When I, and my subject, are perpendicular to the sunshine, the shadows increase and the illumination is less perfect.

When a second heron passed over the first one and then circled around me, for a brief moment, the light was nearly perfectIf I had waited just a split-second more, the shadow of the heron's head might not have been a distraction on the inside of its left wing. 

The second heron returned and the two birds took a slow, stately, stroll among the cattails. It was wonderful to watch, even with a less than perfect angle. After just a few minutes, one of the birds flew off to search for food. I followed.

I found the shadows and light at the new location much more appealing.

The reflection of the heron more than doubled my pleasure of observation.

I do wonder if birds can see their reflections in the water.

 Even if they attack their reflections, how could we know their intention?

This heron climbed a log and progressed to 'feaking' - wiping off the sides of its beak on a branch. With most birds this usually happens just after feeding. Like wiping your mouth on a napkin after dinner. I did not see the heron catch anything, so I am still in the dark about what motivated its behavior.

Even though the bird and I were not in the perfect photographic locations, I did find this mix of darkness and light appealing.

Sometimes, I think the darkness helps our focus.

We are not capable of seeing and understanding everything at once. Especially, in today's world it can be hard to eliminate distractions.

Our "Eureka!" moments happen when irrelevant details recede into the background and a single, new thought shatters our previous misconceptions. It can be very illuminating.

Have a great day on Union Bay...where nature is illuminated in the city!