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

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Saturday, March 25, 2017

Excaliber

Last year in early April I was lucky enough to observe this intimate moment between a pair of local cooper's hawks. At this angle you may not notice that the male is smaller than the female, and you might even miss the subtle color difference. If you look closely, you can see that the 'cap' on the male's head is blue-grey, while the female's is brown.

In this shot, from just a moment earlier, another critical piece of information is revealed.

Zooming in on the male's left leg we see a purple band with the designation '1 over X'. The purple band indicates this bird is male. The code, containing the letter 'X', inspired me to think of this particular male as Excaliber. 

Ed Deal and Martin Muller are local experts continuing a study of Seattle cooper's hawks. The study was originally started by Jack Bettesworth. From what I can tell, these gentlemen spend every available hour searching for and banding these birds. Earlier this month, the Raptor Research Foundation (RRF) published a brief summary of one of their recent articles detailing accounts of infidelity among cooper's hawks in Seattle. You can read the summary on the RRF Facebook page by Clicking Here.

This photo displays one of the many things I have learned from Martin. The male bird closes his fist-full-of-talons into a ball during mating to keep from harming the female. The female is willing to mate but apparently (and possibly instinctively) does not fully trust the male. If you look at the female's eye in this photo, compared with her eye in the first photo, it is obvious she has closed her nictitating membrane over her eye. These extra transparent 'eyelids' help protect her eyes from damage. I suspect they must reduce visibility to some degree since we can see the color of her iris looks somewhat hazy with the membrane extended.

Another piece of information which Martin pointed out is that after mating the male quickly moves away from the female. He said, 'The males are smaller than the females and the females eat small birds.' I do not know if anyone has ever seen a female eat her mate, but apparently the male does not care to tempt fate.

The two genders have very specific roles. The female lays the eggs and spends a great deal of time brooding. From what I have seen the male does the majority of the nest building and supplies most of the food for the brooding female and the young birds once they hatch.

Within a minute after mating, the female begins to feed...

...on the carcass of a small bird.

While I did not catch the event, I suspect the male caught the bird and brought it to the female just prior to mating. Food deliveries help to prove that the male is capable of supporting the female and their future progeny. No doubt the food also supplies calories and energy critical to the development of the eggs.

Two months later the eggs have been laid, the young have hatched and the nest is full of life.

This photo, from the next day, may be the only photo in which I capture all four young birds at one time.

I find the bright white colors of the young birds beautiful and surprising. How do these young creatures benefit from wearing such bright attention-grabbing attire - especially since they cannot fly to escape danger.

Here the adult is feeding one of the young. Can you tell which adult we are looking at? I am honestly not positive, but the brown coloring of the bird's back and wings, instead of grey-blue, makes me think this is the female. Plus, there is the fact that the females spend more time around the nest while the males are out hunting.

Last Spring, just before the young birds fledged, I remember watching them run back and forth across the nest. Their fast movements and sudden stops certainly scared me - but did not seem to bother them at all. Their agility reminded me of the predatory speed of velociraptors as depicted in movies.

Spring is here! The cooper's hawks are looking for mates and nest sites. Martin and Ed, and their sharp-eyed associates are out and about looking for the cooper's hawks. If you live or work in Seattle you can help. If you carry binoculars when visiting our parks you increase you chances of reading the bands on their legs. Anytime you can read a band and are willing to forward the code along with date, time and location, I will be happy to pass the information on to Ed Deal. There are potentially an infinite number of scientific studies that this information could support - plus it is wonderfully refreshing and healthy to watch and  learn about these beautiful creatures.

The males wear the purple bands on their left legs while the females wear orange bands on their right legs. As Ed says, 'The females are always right.' It would certainly be wonderful to find out if Excalibur (1/X) has survived the winter. Last year, there was another male I saw often around Union Bay. His code is O/Z, so I call him Ozzy. I am especially curious to hear about the fate of both Ozzy and Excalibur.

My email address is: ldhubbell@comcast.net.

I am equally interested in the females - but last year the mates of both of these birds were too smart to wear attention-grabbing jewelry.

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

Larry

Going Native:

Without a functional 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. 

Which of the following plants are native to Union Bay?

A)

B)


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

Scroll down for answers

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



Species highlighted in green are native to Union Bay.


B) Skunk Cabbage   

Both species are native to the Union Bay and they are both flowering now - however their scents are decidedly different. I was surprised to learn that Skunk Cabbage is also called Swamp Lantern.








Monday, March 20, 2017

Summer Supplements

It is hard to imagine a more elegantly colored and aerodynamically designed bird than a cedar waxwing. The colors of the body fade from light brown to tan to yellow without a hint of demarcation. There are only three areas with dramatic color shifts and in each spot the contrasting color is used sparingly. The small black mask makes their eyes difficult to define, the yellow tail tip fades from sight in brilliant sunlight and...

...even their small ruby red wing tips are tucked out of sight behind a sitting bird. Curiously, no one has discovered how this species utilizes these waxy little nodes. If the flaming fixtures did not have value, surely evolution would have done away with them by now. Perhaps the next great ornithologist will prove their talent by deducing the value of this mystifying investment.

If your only source of birding knowledge happened to be my blog, you would have concluded that cedar waxwings love fruit. In November of 2012, we saw this first year bird (with its age defined by the stripes on its chest) eating red hawthorne berries on Foster Island.

In October of 2013, we saw another young bird eating the dark berries of a laurel bush in the Beaver Lodge Sanctuary.

In January of 2015we saw a mature waxwing eating red fruit from a nearly leafless little bush by the Montlake Cut.

In October of 2015, we saw another adult debating the idea of old orange fruit between to the University Slough, which I suspect was once the mouth of Ravenna Creek, and the parking lot on the west side of the Union Bay Natural Area (UBNA).

Last week while visiting the UBNA, I found waxwings searching the sky while sitting on the bare, fruitless branches. There was not an ounce of fruit to be seen.

I do not ever recall seeing a waxwing sit so tall or stretching its neck so far.

Their normal posture is far more relaxed.

Normally, waxwings are in flocks and often close together when eating in trees or bushes heavily laden with berries. It took me a moment or two to finally realize what the waxwings were doing. They were starting early in their search for summer supplements.

The waxwings were leaping off the bare branches and catching insects in mid-air.

Their darting irregular movements were necessitated by the evasive action of their small flying prey.

Currently, the phrase 'sally forth' pops into my mind whenever I see a bird leap out of a tree and chase after an insect. Perhaps, Dennis Paulson planted the concept in my mind during our Master Birder Class. 

Later in the week, while visiting the Arboretum I had to chuckle as I watched two waxwings leap out of different trees at precisely the same moment. They flew full tilt on a collision course obviously focused on the same insect. At the last moment, they both turned tail and headed back to their respective trees, but not before the northern bird appeared to grab the insect.

In the Natural Area, this little bug took the unusual strategy of attempting to hide directly above the waxwing's head. I believe the survival of the fittest concept came into play and this little bug was soon removed from the gene pool. The grove of young trees that the waxwings were using is immediately east of the new 'parking' pond. The pond seems to be in need of an appropriate name.

As part of the 520 mitigation, the west-side parking lot in the UBNA has been converted into a pond. Over the winter I watched the process of construction. I believe the water must be about three feet deep. So far I see no signs of vegetation. The first birds I saw in the water were three northern shovelers. They paddled about in tight little circles, scooping up minuscule bits of floating food. The second species of birds utilizing the pond are the crows. A rotating crew seems to be spending all day every day bathing in the fresh rain water. If this keeps up the default name may become Crow Pond. 

I do wonder what will happen in a few weeks when the osprey return. The osprey nesting platform is just slightly to the south. Will the osprey chase the crows out of their nesting territory or will the mob of a hundred crows chase the osprey away? I certainly hope the osprey win this upcoming battle in Seattle.

It was only as I was preparing to write this post that I realized the waxwings were indirectly using the pond and possibly the pre-existing wetlands to the east. I suspect the wind was blowing insects off the pond into the bare trees where the waxwings were waiting. Then, when the tiny bugs were close enough, the waxwings would sally forth, fill their mouthes and return to await their next delivery of 'summer' supplements.

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

Larry


Going Native:

Without a functional 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. 

Which of the following plants are native to Union Bay?


A)

B)

C)


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

Scroll down for answers

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



Species highlighted in green are native to Union Bay.

b) Indian Plum

Once again the names give them away. If you follow the red links you will find that in King County the English Hawthorn is considered a noxious weed while the English Laurel is a weed of concern. It is wonderful to see waxwings in the city - however if we furnish these weeds with places to grow then the waxwings will continue to spread the european seeds through out the Pacific Northwest ecosystem.







Friday, March 10, 2017

Ringers

On February 1st 2017, I took this photo of a gull at Magnuson Park. During breeding season the tiny grey streaks on this bird's head will disappear. Among the adults of this species, both male and female, the dark ring around the bill is visible year round. I am uncertain whether the red orbital ring around the eye is visible year round, but I suspect it is. In either case, owning two different types of facial rings qualified this bird and its species - the ring-billed gulls - for the lead spot in this week's post.

Personally, I love it when names do double duty. When a name describes a species, place or thing, then the name serves not just as a label but as an assistant in the learning and identification process. A nice example of a local place name is, Beaver Lodge Sanctuary. 

The idea has even inspired me to start my own mini-naming-campaign for unique areas around Union Bay. Examples include: Elderberry Island, Kingfisher Cove, Cottonwood Downs, the Red-Winged Wetlands and Nest Egg Island. You can locate these special places by Clicking Here and then scrolling over the names on the left hand side of the map.


Last summer I caught a photo of this ring-necked pheasant at the Union Bay Natural Area (UBNA). Sadly, the females of this species do not have rings around their necks. So from a naming perspective you could say this species is named truthfully, about half the time. I do not think it is the lack of a ring that has made this pheasant a strong independent female. 

According to Lewis, one of my classmates in the Master Birder Class, this bird has been by herself in the Montlake Fill area for a couple of years. We do not know of any male ring-necked pheasants visiting her during this time. She has remained loyal to the UBNA in spite of the ongoing 520 environmental remediation which has temporarily denuded much of her habitat.

The terms Union Bay Natural Area, Montlake Fill or simply The Fill are more than just labels for the same area on the north side of Union Bay. All three of the names are also descriptive. Personally, I think a descriptive name is most useful when it is current.

The term, The Fill, reminds us that in the past the City of Seattle used garbage and waste to fill up the muddy Union Bay shorelines. This occurred between 1916 and 1966, after the Montlake Cut was created and Lake Washington was lowered by about ten feet. In 1972, two feet of dirt was used to cover the accumulated garbage. 

Personally, I prefer the label The Union Bay Natural Area, because it is more up-to-date and descriptive of the latest fifty years, during which many positive improvements were made by nature and the University of Washington.

After photographing the ring-billed gull at Magnuson Park, I noticed this pair of Hooded Mergansers. What caught my attention was the abnormal beige mark on the cheek of the male bird. At the time I could not figure out what it was. The bird continued fishing and behaved normally. Later, I left the park wondering what had happened to this beautiful little bird.

At the same pond, I also photographed this ring-necked duck. You can be excused if the ring around the neck is not readily apparent. Do you see a hint of purplish red, just below the head?

I tried multiple times to catch the proper angle to display the ring. Sadly, these two photos were the best of the lot.

Luckily, a couple of years ago at the Nisqually Wildlife Refuge I caught this photo which shows this ring-necked duck's purplish-red ring a bit better. It is still not easy to see.

In addition to the ring on the males being often invisible, the females do not have a neck ring at all.

The good news is that the Amercian Ornithological Society is considering changing this species name. Thank you to Nathaniel, another classmate, who informed us of the potential change. The new name would be a ring-billed duck. You can read more about the possibility in this American Birding Association post. Having names which are as accurate and useful as possible will be a very functional improvement.

Surprisingly on March the 1st, exactly one month after seeing the odd little hooded merganser at Magnuson Park, the same bird appeared in the Cottonwood Downs canal just south of Foster Island.

This time I got to see both the left and the right side of the bird. The beige mark went all the way around.

My conclusion was that somehow the merganser picked up a rubber band. Maybe it was floating in the water and he flipped it up to eat it. Since the band was much lighter than a fish, the merganser must have accidentally flipped it over his head.
Rubber bands are a common everyday part of our lives. Sadly, the wild creatures around us have not yet learned to avoid them. Nature evolves, but at a much slower pace than human innovation. The good news is that this bird has apparently survived for at least a month with a ring of rubber in his mouth. This proves he must be able to hunt, catch food and eat: in spite of the inconvenience. Let's hope the hooded merganser out lasts the rubber band.

I hope this week's post had a nice ring to it. 

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

Larry

Going Native:

Without a functional 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. 

Which of the following birds would be consider native if seen on Union Bay?

a)


b)


c)


d)



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

Scroll down for answers

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



Birds highlighted in green are native to Union Bay.

a) Ring-billed Gull 
b) Ring-necked Pheasant - female
c) Ring-necked Duck - male
d) Hooded Merganser - male

The ring-necked pheasant is a non-native bird which has spread all across the United States. It was introduced from Asia in the 19th century. Most likely because it tastes good, it is not viewed as a particularly invasive species. It is interesting that I cannot find any information which discusses the possible negative impacts caused by its introduction.

All About Birds says ring-necked pheasants have actually declined by 32 percent in the last 50 years. This may say more about our eco-systems in general than about ring-necked pheasants, as a species.














Saturday, March 4, 2017

Coyote Karma

Last Sunday morning was gray, damp and quiet. I suspect most Union Bay residents were just sipping their first cup of coffee when a crow dived out of a tree in front of us. 

Ginger, my daughter's dog, and I were just returning from an early morning photo shoot...

... with a red-breasted sapsucker who seemed to have a flair for fashion. 

At first, I thought the crow was headed our way, then I realized its trajectory was slightly to our right. Normally, crows simply glide to the ground when they see something of interest. Often half-circling their target for a final inspection, before committing to landing. On the other hand, a steep dive often indicates the presence of a predator (in need of harassment) or an agile food source, attempting to escape. Uncharacteristically quiet, the crow pulled up and strained hard as it climbed up and away to our right. When I glanced back at the crow's intended target, I finally saw the coyote.

I suspect the coyote saw us at about the same time. There was a bit of brush between us and the wind must have been blowing in the coyote's direction, because Ginger was completely oblivious. The coyote turned and padded back and forth, as if it was trying to decide which way to escape. 

Finally, it turned tail and trotted up a small embankment and 'hid' behind some low hanging branches of western red cedar and douglas fir. The coyote did not seem especially large. I wondered if it might be fairly young.

Up until last year, I had never seen a coyote around Union Bay. My family, friends and acquaintances had all seen them - but not me. I saw my first one in late Spring in the Union Bay Natural Area. Sadly, I was on my way to a meeting and I wasn't carrying a camera. During the Christmas Bird Count this winter, my fellow bird counters and I saw another beautiful specimen. This time I had my scope and binoculars so I got a good look - but once again - I was not carrying a camera. This third sighting was the charm. Coyote karma finally smiled on me. I had my camera.

It also seemed fitting that this encounter came just two days after I published my first and only road runner post. You can see the photos by clicking on the following link, Beep, Beep.


The coyote seemed to get a bit braver the longer we both observed each other. Ginger noticed nothing.

In Ginger's defence she is used to me stopping to take pictures of birds. She most likely thought I was photographing the crow or possibly another red-breasted sapsucker. 

The coyote began to move forward. For a moment, its behavior almost looked like a preliminary to pouncing. I suspect it was more instinctual.


Ultimately, the coyote came out of the brush.

After a step or two it sat down to observe.

I was using my longest lens so it really wasn't quite as close as it appears in these photos.


Soon it was distracted by the movement of a branch or a bird.

It even allowed itself to blink.

Getting completely bored it began to stretch and yawn.

Sometimes I wonder about the coyotes' karma. What did they do in their past lives to end up on the far side of the canine ravine? What small genetic differences separate coyotes from man's best friend. At the end of this wikipedia post it does mention that hundreds of years ago coyotes may have been partially domesticated by Native Americans.

Finally, the coyote turned and disappeared into the trees. A moment later the wind must have shifted. Ginger was suddenly shaking, shivering and whining. She was totally scared once she caught the scent of the coyote. Clearly, Ginger felt danger at the thought of being consumed by a coyote. We headed towards home and she quickly settled down.

There are times when it would be convenient for me to let Ginger off her leash, so she could run. I am sure Ginger would enjoy the freedom. However, if a coyote caught her when she was running free it would not be Ginger's fault, or the coyote's fault, it would be my fault. Coyotes consuming pets is one of the major justifications for destroying coyotes in the city. (Although I suspect rats, rabbits, squirrels and ducks are the majority of their local diet.) 

Keeping Ginger on her leash not only keeps her safe, it also helps to protect the coyotes from being hunted and destroyed. Attempting to live in harmony with nature may not always be the easiest option, but it sure feels like it is worth the effort to me. 

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

Larry

ps: In another instance of Coyote Karma my friend Dan, from Whidbey Island, also published a piece on coyotes this morning. Click on the following link to read his wonderful writing, Did You Hear Those Coyotes? 

Going Native:

Without a functional 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. 

Which of the following birds are native to Union Bay?

a)

b)

c)


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

Scroll down for the answers

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


a) Red-winged Blackbird - female
b) European Starling
c) Northern Flicker - male

The name gives it away. european starlings are not native to Union Bay. This Wikipedia Link states that Eugene Scheiffelin released the first 60 starlings in New York in 1890. In the book, "Union Bay - The Life of a City Marsh", which was published in 1951. At that point the authors stated that the starlings had reached Bellevue, but not yet Seattle. Today, there are over 200 million starlings displacing native birds all across the North American continent.

The other two birds are native to Union Bay. The northern flickers are woodpeckers which make their own nests. Often they excavate nest sites in the dead cottonwood trees on or near the south end of Foster Island. The next year, after the nest has been used just once, it is not uncommon to see a flock of the smaller starlings drive the a pair of flickers away from their nest and take it for themselves.