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

On Instagram and Twitter: @unionbaywatch

Saturday, October 14, 2017

The Boring Bittern

To the casual observer the American Bittern, a member of the heron family, may not be terribly exciting. Its carefully camouflaged coloring does not stand out. Its stealthy movements do not attract attention. Its long drawn-out silences, even though critical for hunting, provide no music for our ears. It would not be surprising if some consider the bittern to be a bit boring.

The most exceptional and least boring aspect of a bittern might be its call. If you have never heard a bittern, click here (and then scroll down) to be enthralled by their strangely odd and uniquely liquid sound. 

In an age of neon lights, nagging cell phones and addictive video games the silent bittern prowling through the marsh can be somewhat subtle and easy to miss.

If you are lucky and patient enough to watch a hunting bittern, I suspect you will become slowly mesmerized. The bittern's slow moving style makes the green heron look like the hummingbird of the heron family.

Still, the difference between observing a creature in its natural state or focusing  on electronic devices is stark. For me, nature feeds the soul, refreshes the mind and creates hope for the future. It is never boring. Electronic interactions tend to increase my tension, drain energy and keep me awake when I should be sleeping. 

One of the intriguing and odd habits of a bittern is the way it stares at the world while holding its beak above its head. It is strangely comical, especially for such a silent and serious creature.

When the bittern detects a possible food source the head slowly rises.

When the bittern's head reaches the highest possibly height it always makes me wonder where the neck was previously hidden. In the first photo, of this little series of three, there was virtually no sign of the bittern's neck.

Even from the side the neck seems to disappear. Beside this heron, the only other bittern I have ever seen on Union Bay was in 2012. Click Here to see the photos and read the story.

As well as extending the neck up to see potential food, the bittern will very slowly extend it down and out. Clearly, the bittern is hoping to get close enough to grab a snack - prior to the  prey sensing its impending doom.

In the book, 'Union Bay - The Life of a City Marsh' the authors (Harry Higman and Earl Larrison) mention seeing breeding bitterns on Union Bay. They also state that green herons were a new species, having just arrived to our area, prior to the book being published in 1951.

Today the situation has reversed. Every year I see the smaller green herons while the bitterns are now uncommon on Union Bay. In early September, I had six green heron sightings in a single day. All but two of the birds were in different areas of the bay. I suspect I saw at least five different birds. As my friend Teri suggested, I was most likely witnessing an influx of green herons during their fall migration.

Green herons weighs about half a pound, a bittern weighs around a pound while our great blue herons weigh in at closer to five pounds. I suspect the green heron's light weight helps explain why they can hunt from on top of the lily pads. As you can see in the photo above, green herons with their rusty red coloring and the dark green caps, are a bit less boring than bitterns. 

While I photographed the bittern, this great blue heron preened nearby. It reminded me how I have watched great blue herons come in and shoulder a green heron out of the way. It is not as if they chase them. The blue herons simply push the smaller green herons off the prime feeding locations. I was curious if the great blue heron would try the same approach with the bittern. The next time I glanced over my shoulder, the great blue was gone. Maybe the slightly larger size of the bittern, and its large yellow claws, deterred our local bully.

I hope we are learning how to live in harmony with nature. Specifically, I would love to see bird species, like the bittern, return and reproduce around Union Bay. Could it be that someday the new wetlands in the Union Bay Natural Area (UBNA), where the old 'dime' parking lot was, will provide just enough new habitat to entice bitterns to resettle here. It would certainly be wonderful to hear their strange liquid calls booming across the natural area in Spring. There wouldn't be anything boring about it for me.

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Last week, I was lucky enough to have a short article published in the Fall Bulletin of the Washington Park Arboretum. My article, 'Birds of the Arboretum - Revisited' is an attempt to follow up on a prior article, written by Earl Larrison. Mr. Larrison's article was appropriately titled 'Birds of the Arboretum'. It was published in the Arboretum Bulletin in 1942. It is available for review in the Miller Library at the Center for Urban Horticulture. The new bulletin is available in the Arboretum at the Don Graham Visitors Center or you can link to an electronic copy by Clicking Here

Don't miss the gentle quiz at the end of my article. The quiz provides you with the opportunity to match up the monikers for some of our local birds, from 1942, with their current names. I find the old names colorful and refreshing. They also provide us with a tiny window into the thoughts and views of a previous generation.

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

Larry


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 these trees by their cones and needles? Are they Union Bay natives?

A) 



B)









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Scroll down for the answers


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If you identified these as White Pines as a opposed any other pine, in my book, you should consider that a success. Unlike the more common Shore Pine or the long-needled Ponderosa Pine these White Pines have five needles in a bundle instead of three. At a distance the 'extra' needles create a much softer and warmer appearance, at least to my eye. Also, their cones are longer, leaner and lighter than cones of the Shore or Ponderosa Pine.

Telling the two White Pines apart is quite challenging. Our local expert Arthur Lee Jacobson, in his book 'Trees of Seattle' says, 'People often need a few years of observation before they can tell these two apart at a glance. The native (tree) is darker, denser and usually narrower.'  For me the name tags in the Arboretum also help. Plus, I find the native cones are usually a bit longer.

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The Email Challenge:

Over the years I have had many readers tell me that Google is no longer sending them email announcements regarding my posts. Even more frustrating when they go to 're-sign-up', hoping that will enable them to once again start receiving the announcements, they get a message which says 'Sorry, you are already signed up.' Google has not responded to my requests for help with this issue. 

My functional work around is to setup my own email list and each week I manually send out a new post announcement. If you are experiencing the issue and would like to be added to my personal email list please send me an email requesting to be added. Thank you for your patience!

My email address is LDHubbell@comcast.net


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Saturday, October 7, 2017

It Takes A Village

The Box Building Team - from left to right: Tiffany Lloyd, Larry Hubbell, Kathy Hartman, Chris Kessler and Dave Galvin. 

The team mission is to increase the number of wood ducks on Union Bay, raise awareness of nature in the city and provide opportunities for University of Washington students to study and learn about cavity nesting birds. 

Thank you all for your hard work and assistance!


Chris Kessler installing box #1.

If you spend time around Union Bay you may have noticed the large elevated boxes appearing near the water's edge. With the support of David Zuckerman, Manager of Horticulture, and the University of Washington Botanical Gardens, the new nest boxes are being situated in what we hope are optimal nesting locations. 

Dave Galvin installing box #4.

In the spring, our box building team is hoping Union Bay wood ducks will find and use these boxes to shelter their eggs during the process of incubation. 

A female wood duck with two male suitors.

Wood ducks have sharp 'tree-climbing' claws which help them to land and nest in trees, unlike mallards, gadwalls and most other ducks. 

Sadly, wood ducks are unable to build their own nest cavities. Each spring, female wood ducks spend a great deal of time searching through the trees for appropriately-sized nest sites. I have watched them stick their heads into rather tiny holes - like the ones in this snag. Apparently wood ducks do not have great visual skills when it comes to mentally measuring the size of a potential nest site. 

It appears their learning strategy is simply trial-and-error. Sometimes they fit, sometimes they don't. Wood ducks depend primarily on woodpeckers and occasionally nature, through broken limbs and tree rot, to create their nesting sites. You can read more about the competition for prime sites in last spring's post titled, The Housing Crisis.

Decades ago forest surrounded Union Bay. Interspersed among the living trees would have been a number of standing dead trees. These snags would have provided plenty of nesting cavities for wood ducks. Much of that original forest still stands around Union Bay but it is now in the form of human habitation and is not particularly useful to the ducks.

Manmade nest boxes provide a safe and functional alternative which will hopefully help with the restoration of our local wood duck population. Union Bay appears to have plenty of food for wood ducks, which leads us to believe nest sites are the limiting factor in their reproduction.

Young wood ducks are highly precocious.In the first day after hatching they climb out of the nest, tumble to the ground, follow their mother to water and begin feeding themselves. The screen inside the box is to help newly hatched wood ducks climb up and out of the box.

How many wood duck ducklings do you see in this photo?

Their mother will attempt to provide awareness and some protection from danger but the brood sizes can be quite large and survival is really a numbers game. Ultimately, it comes down to more nest sites equal more ducklings, more ducklings equal more wood ducks and more wood ducks equal more ducklings - if there are adequate nest sites. (I think I see portions of ten different ducklings in the photo.)



Tiffany Lloyd installing box #7.

Tiffany is the first UW student to take an interest in our Union Bay wood ducks and specifically in this project. We are hoping her research, and that of other students as well, will help us learn better ways to live in harmony with wood ducks and nature in general.


We have built ten boxes and hope to have them all installed before spring somewhere around Union Bay. You might want to challenge yourself to see how many of the ten you can find. The easiest way to find them is by boat however almost all can be seen from land - if you try hard enough. Note: Only seven are currently installed.

One of the most challenging aspects of the installation process was trying to select sites which will work well for the wood ducks while not providing easy access for other creatures. Specifically creatures which would love to eat the eggs or utilize the boxes for their own nests. The list includes eastern gray squirrels, Norway rats, raccoons, muskrats and others. The large black pipes are designed to keep creatures from climbing up to the nest boxes and the distance from other vegetation is designed to keep them from dropping or jumping onto the boxes. We also must deal with the potential invasions by european starlings - in which case we may have to board up the boxes for a time. 

This is the part where we could really use your help. Particularly in the spring if you see a creature other than a wood duck entering one of the boxes, please let me know. We may need to adjust our defensive strategy. My email is ldhubbell@comcast.net. 

By the way, there is a single large number printed in the wood directly under each box. It should be easily visible with binoculars. Please note this number in your correspondence. It will greatly simplify our communications.

Thank you for your help. It really does take a village to live in harmony with nature. 

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

Larry

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 these creatures? Are they Union Bay natives?

A) 


B)











************

Scroll down for the answers


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A) Cooper's Hawk, native to Union Bay
B) Eastern Gray Squirrel, nonnative to Union Bay


These are not two isolated photos. They were taken yesterday in the Arboretum, immediately after the female Cooper's Hawk apparently attacked the squirrel. If you look closely you can see some of the fur is missing from the upper portion of the squirrel's tail and there may even be a small red scrape on the tail. I think the hawk got a taste.

Between the first attack and the second attempt the hawk flew slightly farther away. During the brief interlude the hawk was very actively moving its head, adjusting the angle and you can even see the nictitating membrane is halfway closed over the eye - which I think indicates that the hawk was thinking about its next attack. 

What was truly interesting to me was the fact that the squirrel did not try to run away from the hawk. There were no trees immediately nearby and the squirrel apparently realized that over the open ground the hawk would catch it. So the squirrel elected to stay on the opposite side of the tree trunk from the hawk. I suspect this is why the hawk was so actively watching the tree. It was looking for any hint that the squirrel was preparing to make a run for it. The squirrel waited. The hawk tried again. The squirrel scampered around the trunk and the hawk gave up and flew away.

By the way, if my memory of Martin Muller's comment is correct the 'buffy' colored cheek on this bird indicates it is a female. The horizontal barring indicates it is an adult. The cap on the head and the varied length of the tail feathers indicate it is a Cooper's Hawk instead of a Sharp-shinned Hawk. Ed Deal suggested that the lighter color of the hawk's cap may indicate she is a second year hawk.











Saturday, September 30, 2017

Beauty and The Beast

The glowing beauty of a yellow warbler warms my soul. 


Update:

Thank you to Eric Kowalczyk for pointing out the eyestripe on this beautiful little bird. My apologies to all my readers. I am now of the opinion that this bird is actually the especially yellow, Pacific Coast version of an orange-crowned warbler. Please excuse my error.


Maybe it is because they twist and turn among the leaves like a flickering flash of sunlight... 

...or maybe it is just simple delight in the existence of such a perfect little creature.

The females have yellow breasts while males add red vertical stripes. This bird is leaping from a lower branch in hopes of picking a minuscule morsel of food off the bottom of a leaf or twig. 


If I could get closer I suspect I would find tiny little aphids feeding on the underside of these birch leaves. When you think that the yellow warbler weighs only one third of an ounce it is hard to imagine the minuscule weight of an aphid. Feeding on such an insignificant food source requires constant effort and movement. This little warbler is almost certainly eating her way south. No doubt she will spend the winter enjoying perpetual sunshine. She won't be here for long, in a blink she'll be gone.

I had a similar experience with this young beast. I only caught a glimpse as it slid silently off a log near Oak Point and disappeared among the lily pads. I pulled out my camera and studiously searched the water for any sign of the otter. It was simply gone. I saw no wake, no bubbles, no hints, nothing. I finally gave up and headed towards Foster Island. Twenty minutes later when I stepped on to the bridge I finally caught up with the otter. I even got to see it slip out of water with a freshly caught carp.

I was surprised by way the otter ate. It seemed to slowly mash, gnaw and lick on the fish. I did not see any tearing and ripping of flesh in the manner of an eagle or an osprey. The feeding process reminded me most of a child licking a snow cone. The otter certainly seemed to treasure its food.

I was amazed by the otter's diminutive size. I suspect this little creature was significantly less than a meter in length. Much smaller than the adults I normally see in the area. Its small size, the shadows of its ribs and the fact that it appeared to be totally alone in early fall all helped to convince me this must be a young otter - looking for a place to call home.

I wondered if the white spot on its nose was simply a moist reflection, piece of fish skin or a permanent mark.

An otter is a curious creature so totally different than us. It has a highly developed sense of smell. It can even smell fish in upstream ponds and then follow the scent to the source. It has very good hearing but on the other hand it is extremely near-sighted. This little otter must of been so focused on feeding that it ignored the sound of my camera. Evidently, the wind must have also blown the scent of myself and Ginger, my daughter's dog, away from the otter.

The otter's teeth are quite impressive but are apparently used more for crushing than tearing and ripping. This makes sense since it also crushes and eats crustaceans. Unlike a sea otter it generally eats on the shore and not in the water.

Its whiskers are long and profuse which help it to sense movements in murky water. Its feet are webbed and its tail is powerful and long.

I think it is the streamlined head and neck which impress me the most. The face, meaning the eyes, nose and mouth, are positioned significantly forward of the ears and the cranial cavity. Compared to humans it is as if the brain has been moved down and back to a position between the face and the neck. Obviously this arrangement minimizes the water resistance when swimming. Imagine how fast olympic gold medalists might swim if they enjoyed a similar physical design. Although, I am not sure if their photos would end up on very many cereal boxes.

When it finished its food the otter slid back through the floating marsh-penny wart and into the water. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife website says that within an hour an otter will completely finish with its food and leave fresh green droppings behind. No doubt this speedy digestion spurs them to search for food with a diligence almost similar to a yellow warbler. 

From this angle I noticed that this little otter actually had two white spots on its nose. I am starting to think they might be permanent markings. If so, they would certainly help us to identify and track this young otter. If you see 'Spot' swimming around Union Bay please let me know. You also might want to log your sightings on the Woodland Park Zoo's Otter Spotter. Community science in action!

By the way, I have read that females are smaller than males which is why I am assuming that Spot is a female.

Once in the water Spot immediately began sinuously circling and swimming. When she came up for air it even looked like she was licking her lips. Maybe this is part of her after dinner cleaning ritual.

This is my most common view of an otter. The humped view of the back and tail as it dives below the surface. I felt very lucky to have watched a complete feeding process. Spot took only eight minutes to devour a fair-sized carp. By the way, carp originated in Asia and do not belong here. They stir up the mud, reduce visibility and oxygen levels and eat young salmon, so I am very happy to see Spot reducing their numbers.

Here is a parting shot of Spot among the lily pads, hopefully hot on the tail of another carp.

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

Larry


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 these tree leaves? Are they Union Bay natives?

A) 


B)


C)

D) 









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Scroll down for the answers


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A) Northern Pin Oak, native to the N.E. portion of our country. (I think the fly is a native.)
B) Cottonwood, native to Union Bay
C) Alder, native to Union Bay
D) Big-leaf Maple, native to Union Bay










Monday, September 25, 2017

Gone Wild

A casual observer can be excused for assuming that much of Foster Island is a remanent of our original Pacific Northwest ecosystem. This photo shows the 'wild and wooly' side of the island which appears as if untouched by human intervention. This is not the case. 

In 1916, with the creation of the Montlake Cut, Lake Washington dropped roughly 9 feet. Foster Island suddenly grew from two to ten acres. The soil of the newly revealed lake bottom attracted a variety of flora and fauna, some native, some not. Around this time osprey were still nesting on Foster Island.

Today, thickets of Himalayan blackberries, ivy, bindweed and holly bushes tend to dominate the understory. The ivy climb and kill the native big leaf maple, cottonwood and red alder trees. The blackberries tend to 'drowned' the native sword ferns, Indian plum, Oregon grape and horsetail. 


In the Arboretum portion of the island, red oaks introduced from the eastern United States, drop a steady supply of acorns.


Not surprisingly, the non-native acorn-eating eastern gray squirrels have become the primary mammal of Foster Island. A few years ago I ran into a man who said that when he was young, native squirrels did exist on the island. Today, all I see are the eastern grays.

The water surrounding Foster Island has similar issues. The native painted turtle, on the left, competes with the non-native red-eared slider, on the right. (Thanks to Dennis Cheasebro and Dennis Paulson for pointing out the differences. See last week's comments for more details.)

I am always glad to see native great blue herons, pied-billed grebes and others feed on the oriental weather fish. However, the birds do not seem to be able to keep up with the supply. Originally, weather fish were used to keep aquariums clean. Somehow they were dumped into Lake Washington and now they stir up the water and make it difficult for native salmon, like the Chinook, to reproduce.

The dense mat of fragrant water lilies are also non-native. They were reportedly introduced during the Alaska Pacific Yukon Exposition in 1909. Sadly, the lilies block the sunlight and reduce the oxygen needed by native aquatic creatures.

Lucky for us, during the last year the tide has begun to turn. Native plants are taking root in the south central portion of the island. The plantings were funded by the environmental remediation related to the northern portion of the new 520 bridge.

The fall foliage of a native vine maple, planted as part of the remediation.

The native cape jewelweed is another one of the 520 plantings. These beautiful little flowers attract a lot of attention, in part because this time of year the flowers of most other native plants are long gone.

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Update: as of September 25, 2017

I have been considering Jewelweed a native plant (Impatiens capensis Balsaminaceae) because it was listed as such in the book 'Wildflowers of the Pacific Northwest'. I just double-checked the original and the revised editions of 'Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast'. Both copies state that Jewelweed (Impatiens Noli-tangereis an asian ornamental which has become established in the PNW. Live and learn. Larry

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Updates: as of September 28, 2017

The United States Department of Agriculture shows Jewelweed, Impatiens capensis Meerb., as native to Washington state. 

Finally, the best information I have came in an email from our local and renown author, Arthur Lee Jacobson. Mr. Jacobson sent me an excerpt from his book, Wild Plants of Greater Seattle. Arthur states, 

'Orange Jewelweed....(Impatiens capensis = I. biflora, I. fulva)....hails from eastern North America....The epithat capensis alludes to the Cape of Good Hope, since it had been mistakenly believed to be native there when it was introduced to Europe and named in 1775.'

I have gone back to each source and noted (and included) their scientific names. I believe my confusion about the status of this plant stems mainly from the multiple different varieties. This is clearly a case where paying attention only to the common name is insufficient. I certainly appreciate Mr. Jacobson's guidance!

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This is my best guess at the bee's perspective, but in reality the bee can see spectrums of light which are beyond our capabilities.

Sometimes the flowers attract multiple visitors who have to take turns.

I must admit that these are non-native honey bees, however in a world where pollinators are struggling to survive, I am always happy to see heavily loaded little bees. I have also seen hummingbirds visiting the jewelweed. So far the little birds have been too quick for me.

My biggest surprise was spotting this native pacific tree frog resting among the new 520 plantings. This is the first one I have photographed on Foster Island. 

A moment or two later, I noticed a second frog watching from a slightly higher perch.

Tree frogs come in a variety of colors and can even slowly change color when need be.

I watched this tiny ant climb all over the frog.

I thought for sure the ant was a goner when it crawled in front of the frog. Instead, the little one-inch-long frog never stirred and the ant safely crawled onto the next leaf and continued on its way. The only explanation that seems to make sense to me is that tree frogs feed primarily at night and evidently this little frog was full. 

I am happy to report that I have heard a pacific tree frog calling, from among the new native plants, twice more in the last week.

Later in the week, I was disappointed to learn that the next portion of the 520 bridge construction will require another working bridge to be built. This time it will be on the south side of the old 520 freeway. Once again this will require clearing trees and vegetation all the way across the island. At a minimum, I certainly hope that this new construction will require additional and expanded native plantings on Foster Island.

I also noticed this oddly bee-like fly among the 520 plantings. Even though it has black and yellow stripes like a bee it only has two wings (instead of four) so I believe it is a fly. I love the bronze thorax. 

I would think the large brown eyes should make it easy to identify. None the less, its name has eluded me so far.

My parting shot for this week shows a glimpse of a native warbling vireo. It apparently stopped on Foster Island for a snack during its migration to a warmer winter climate. 

I certainly hope that we are able to watch and support a steadily increasing invasion of native plants and creatures on Foster Island!

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

Larry


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 these Foster Island plants?

A) 

B)

C)









************

Scroll down for the answers


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A)   English Ivy
B1) Holly (Center)
B2) Bindweed (Lower Left)
C)   Oregon Grape

The A and B's are non-native plants. C is a native shrub.