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Friday, September 23, 2016

Adios Amigos

On Monday afternoon, Kate, our youngest female osprey, appeared to be begging for food. It sounded like she hadn't eaten for a week.

On closer inspection I noticed the partially consumed fish in her grasp. Given the size, shape and color, I suspected it was a large trout or steelhead or possibly even a small salmon. Trying to estimate the size and type of fish made me wonder which fish osprey prefer. I decided to do a quick review.

On July 10th, Chester, Kate's father, appeared with some type of sunfish or perch. In any case a small fish which was almost as tall as it was long.

On July 24th, he snagged a smallmouth bass.

An hour and half later he returned with another one and displayed it very nicely. It is interesting to note how small Kate and her brothers were just two months ago.

On July 29th, it looked like Chester caught a trout.

On August 7th, he returned with another sunfish.

An hour later he had what looked like a bass. It is obvious osprey love fish. At the same time, our limited sample seems to show that they do not discriminate against any particular species. Chester's preference appears to be...anything with fins.

Returning to Kate and her fish above the UW baseball field, I realized she must not be very hungry given the partially-consumed state of the fish. However, if she wasn't hungry then what was on her mind. When she turned her head, I followed her gaze. 

At the other end of the center-field light pole was an obviously hungry double-crested cormorant. Kate was apparently feeling defensive.

Suddenly, her cries grew even louder when one of her brothers arrived. 

As Wilbur hovered over her, I began to wonder if Kate would abandon her fish. After watching her begging for food, while her brothers were eating last week, it certainly seemed like she deserved to keep this fish.

Note: If you look closely you can see dark brown coloring on the front of Wilbur's legs. As far as I can tell this may just be individual variation. If you glance back at the Chester-with-fish photos, you can see that the coloring on Chester's legs is far less pronounced.

It was windy enough that Wilbur was able to simply hang in the air without even flapping his wings. There was no doubt in my mind, his intention was intimidation. He hung there for a full 15 seconds, while his 'fingers' at the ends of his wings were constantly adjusting for changes in the wind. Kate did not budge.

Finally, her brother grew tired of balancing in the wind and landed beside her. As he edged closer, Kate extended her wings - apparently setting limits on his approach. 

Face to face, eye to eye and nearly toe to toe it became clear this battle was psychological, not physical.

The moment Kate returned to eating it was obvious she had won. Her brother lowered his head and left, defeated.

Suddenly, more cormorants arrived.

The bravest of the dark diving birds landed on Kate's side of the light pole.

Kate's predatory stare seemed to take the edge off the cormorant's boldness.

He slowly sidled further and further away. Finally, all the cormorants gave up and left.

During the whole process Kate's father, Chester, sat silently, one pole to the west. With his eyes often closed he was apparently sleeping and storing up energy - preparing for migration. It is interesting to compare his dark-brown coloring with Kate's.

Given a similar angle, we can clearly see all of the delicate, white edging on Kate's wings, but we can rest assured that there is nothing delicate about her spirit.

The next morning I returned to find Kate and one her brothers hovering around the nest. I just never tire of looking at the crisp, clean feathers of the young birds. This photo seemed like the perfect parting shot. 

Last week, we saw Chester bring in food for all three of the young. However, there was no sign of Lacey, their mother and I have not seen her since. On Monday, we saw Chester with just two of the young. Yesterday, when he delivered food there was only one of the young to receive the fish. I have no way to be positive when migration begins. They are spending less and less time around the nest. Soon - they will all be gone. 

If you are lucky enough to winter in Mexico, you may spot one of them hovering above the surf near some warm and sunny shore. Otherwise, we will just have to console ourselves with waiting for their return, next Spring.

Have a great day on Union Bay...where once again osprey raise young in the city!

Larry

Update:

Bill Anderson just reminded me that the young osprey will most likely stay in Mexico all of next year and only return North to nest in 2018 - after they are fully mature. Chester and Lacey should be back in 2017 and hopefully reuse the same nest site. It will be interesting to see if their unique combination of markings makes them identifable as individuals next year - even after they have molted and replaced many of their feathers. Thank you, Bill!

Saturday, September 17, 2016

The Un-Snipe

Wednesday morning, the kingfisher chattered noisily, announcing my entry into its domain. 

The pied-billed grebe watched silently as I paddled north. The orange sun glowed fiercely as it fought to rise above the Cascades. Initially, the wind was still and the water mirrored the world above. I was hoping to watch our three young Union Bay osprey diving for fish. 

While gliding between islands of cattails, a small bird flushed. I caught a brief glimpse of its silhouette. Its disproportionately long bill was hanging down at a 45 degree angle. The word 'Snipe' immediately popped into my mind. I wondered, could it be anything else? 

The bird was oddly difficult to track. Repeatedly, it seemed to nearly stop in midair, before swiftly switching direction. The arc of its disjointed flight was as beautiful as it was unpredictable. The stop-and-go stuttering reinforced my initial impression. Excellent marksmen (or markswomen) are called snipers for a reason. Sadly, the bird was gone before I even thought about lifting my camera.

Near the osprey nest, the sunlight warmed the water creating an early morning mist.

A few minutes later, Chester appeared with a second helping of food for his young. At this point, the two young males had food to eat. Sadly, their sister simply sat in the middle of the nest watching, waiting and begging. (None of the young birds seemed particularly interested in securing their own food.) 

Since watching their first flights, I have been thinking of the young male osprey as Wilbur and Orville. Later, when I learned how close the Wright Brother's were to their younger sister, Katharinethe names Orville, Will and Kate seemed very appropriate. It also seems fitting, that the last time young osprey learned to fly above Union Bay could have been about the same time the Wright Brothers were learning to fly above Kitty Hawk.

While watching the young osprey, a shorebird came and landed nearby. It was about the same size and shape as a snipe. It also used its long bill to search the mud for morsels of food. I assumed it was the same bird I had seen earlier.

There were hints, which I only noticed later, that this was a actually a different type of bird. 

I noticed how it shut its eyes while preening. I also noticed how the ends of its bill spread apart. Compare this photo with the previous and you will notice the incredible flexi'bill'ity. The tips of the bill have evolved into 'fingers' which can probe, sense and grasp small creatures hidden in the mud.

My attention was further split between red-shafted flickers, green-winged teals, red-winged blackbirds and of course the incessant cries of Kate, the young female osprey. Suddenly, one of the young males leaped off the nest and took to the air. Kate quickly assumed his spot at the table.

The young osprey landed on a light pole above the baseball field and confronted a much larger great blue heron. I have watched the parents harass herons, but this was the first time I have seen one of the young get involved. I think the essence of the issue was related to the light pole 'overlooking' the osprey nest.

A moment later Kate joined her brother and added a little weight on the osprey end of the scale. At this point, I began to wonder what would happen next.

When Chester joined the fray, I thought for sure the heron would take flight.

Surprisingly, the heron stood its ground.

Kate returned to the nest. I find it incredible that in young birds, nearly every feather can be perfectly pristine. Slowly, each of the osprey gave up and dispersed.

Finally, the heron dived off the light pole and headed toward the nest. I became a bit nervous. When the heron veered off towards the Carp Pond, I breathed a sigh of relief.

The 'unsnipe' took turns sleeping and feeding through all the osprey drama.

When it traded places with the killdeer, the light coloring under its wings and the color of its tail provided hints to its true identity.

Suddenly, a true Wilson's Snipe flew in and landed nearby.

At this point, I at least realized that there was a difference in the plumage of the two birds.

Take a moment and compare this photo of the snipe with...

...the 'unsnipe'. Both birds' necks go up and down so that difference is not significant.

You can even scroll back through the previous photos if you would like, to really search for differences between the two birds. 

With the luxury of photographs, I can see that the snipe has additional stripes across the top of its head, more rusty coloring on its wings and nape, an obviously orange stripe on its tail, 'vertical' white striping on it back and my Sibley guide points out that the snipe is darkly colored under its wing.

Later, Dennis Paulson confirmed my suspicion that the 'unsnipe' was actually a dowitcher. I also learned that in freshwater habitat a dowitcher is most likely to be of the long-billed variety, as opposed to the short-billed dowitcher - which looks very similar - but is usually found near salt-water.

The dowitcher flew right at me before veering off to the south. The snipe took to the air and followed. Later, as I headed home for lunch, I found the two birds again, side by side working in the mud.

While the dowitcher is most likely a migrant passing through, the snipe might very well be a resident bird, although rarely seen by me. I feel incredibly lucky to live near Union Bay and to share my time on Earth with so many wild and wonderful creatures. 

Larry

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This week's post is dedicated to Dr. Sara Reichard. Dr. Reichard, director of the University of Washington Botanical Gardens, passed away unexpectedly at the end of August. Her vision, inspiration and leadership will be sorely missed. 

The following links will help you learn more about her exceptional life:



When visiting the Arboretum or the Union Bay Natural Area, when observing the diversity of plants and trees or when watching the young osprey we should all be thankful for Sara's leadership and guidance which has enabled life to continue to flourish in these very special places.

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Monday, September 12, 2016

The Pelican Purlieu

I remember seeing an American White Pelican only once before. In May of 2014, I saw one crossing high above Union Bay. I remember thinking it looked like it was heading for Greenlake. I wonder if it was actually headed for Whidbey Island.

I spoke with Emily Martin while walking through the Arboretum last week. She mentioned that white pelicans have been seen repeatedly on Whidbey Island. Apparently they arrived around the end of Spring. My Sibley field guide shows white pelicans as a rarity in Western Washington, so I was immediately inspired by the idea of seeing them. 

Emily also sent me a link to an informative report on pelicans in the South Whidbey Record. The author quoted Dennis Paulson's suggestion that drought and climate change may be pushing pelicans to search for new breeding habitat. I also happened across a 2014 post by Dennis where he discussed white pelicans.

On Saturday afternoon, I finally got the chance to observe the white pelicans. Some were feeding occasionally but most were just preening and cleaning. Often they were slapping their partially-folded, nine-foot-long wings against the water. Which certainly seemed like an odd and very noisy way to take a bath.

They also tended to rotate and rub their heads over their backs and shoulders. 

Note: Given an average human physique, massaging your shoulders with the back of your head may not be a reasonable goal. Although, I occasionally see people who appear to be attempting the feat.

I suspect the pelicans must have a had a satisfying and successful morning of fishing, given their early afternoon focus on grooming. 

The tight-knit flock seemed surprisingly comfortable with a relatively small amount of personal space...

 ...especially given the size of their wings.

Even in a civil society occasional disagreements occur.

From this angle we can see a grey-brown dusting on the plumage of the bird who just arrived. I am uncertain whether the bird is changing into or out-of the darker plumage. In either case, the bird is not shy about wanting a dry place in the sun.

I found it almost shocking to see how easily the bird lifted it body into the air. I suspect it must have been the mighty wings that propelled it - rather than the those stubby little legs.

I find it interesting to note how the lower jaws appear to almost disconnect from their heads. Clearly, pelicans have some uniquely odd physical abilities. The white pelicans and their cousins, the brown pelicans, both seem to have to same basic body plan. Surprisingly, it is their behavioral differences which I find most obvious - even more than their contrasting colors.

Last Monday, after a number of days in the Olympic rainforest (which I plan to discuss more in a future post) my friend, Rob, and I stopped by Rialto Beach. The wind was blowing, the rain was spitting and the waves crashed against the shore. Nonchalantly, skimming the surface of the water were brown pelicans.

Occasionally, they would achieve a height of 20 or 30 feet before diving into the water.

The third bird from the previous photo left only a splash as it disappeared below the surface.

At Deer Lagoon, the white pelicans and their surroundings appeared calm, sunny and sedate.

They paddled about rather slowly and occasionally scooped up fish, usually with their heads completely below the surface. Only once was I able to observe an open and extended pouch.

Even then, I could not be sure if the dark spot in the pouch was actually a little fish or just piece of seaweed.

At Rialto Beach, the acrobatic brown pelicans floated past in the troughs between the waves. 

They seemed to be surfing. Without even flapping their wings, they were apparently transported on the air which was being pushed in front of the waves.

At Deer Lagoon, the acrobatics seemed limited to the single, 'pushy' pelican.

The objections to the pelican's intrusion appeared obvious - but without any real attempt at physical restraint or violence.

In fact, the bird who was pushed into the water appeared unperturbed. Plus, the bird on the left gets distracted and morphs its objections into to a personal back rub.

The white pelicans seemed surprisingly peaceful.

Maybe when you have a nine-foot wingspan, and the strength to go with it, you have to accept that a peaceful co-existance is actually your best shot at survival. 

I began wondering why these birds are white. It makes sense to me that the brown pelicans need camouflage to hide them from the predators who lurk below the waves, but how is being white beneficial? My theory is that in the past the white pelicans must have layed eggs in places where there was snow on the ground. During Spring in Canada or inland on either side of the Rockies their white feathers would then provide excellent camouflage. If my logic is correct, it seems obvious that these birds do not really belong around the practically snow-free Salish Sea.

On the other hand, maybe prior to climate change the area around the Salish Sea was not so snow free as it seems today.

Later, as I was leaving, and already quite some distance away, the pelicans decided to leave the salt-water, fly over the dike and land in the 'fresh' water. No doubt there are less predators to deal with at night, when you are in the middle of a huge, muddy lagoon.

Even in the air, the pelicans flocked together.

I was surprised at how close the could fly, without clipping their wings and sending themselves tumbling out of the sky.

Ultimately, they formed themselves into a single, perfectly-spaced line and flew directly over my head. 

They were so close I could only photograph one at a time.

If climate change is forcing these majestic creatures to look for new breeding locations, I feel like we should do whatever we can to help them. As for me, I could be riding my bike and taking the light-rail more often and driving less. Maybe this winter I will build a rain garden to keep the rain from running off our roof and polluting Puget Sound. Runoff washes oil, fuel and antifreeze into the water and kills young salmon and other fish on which the pelicans feed. 

I keep thinking my next car should be electric. I realize it would be using hydro-electricity, which does impact fish, but electric vehicles can also be sourced from solar, wind and other carbon-free options. I believe, future generations deserve to live in world with plentiful fish and pelicans.

Have a great day on Union Bay...where our water flows to the Salish Sea!

Larry

PS: If you are like me, and purlieu is a new word for you, here are some links to definitions which should get you in the right neighborhood:


DictionaryDotCom