Mission: To promote the appreciation of wildlife on and around Union Bay and a higher level of harmony between humanity and nature.

(It is fine for educators and artists to use any of the photos on this blog as long as when publicly displaying the photo or related artwork the following comment is included, "The original photo sourced from http://unionbaywatch.blogspot.com".)

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Summer of the Sapsucker

Dan Pedersen of Whidbey Island writes the weekly blog, Off the Rails. His summer columns are mostly about the birds and wildlife of his wooded setting near Langley. At other times he tackles UFO's, Captain Vancouver's lost anchor, or anything else that crosses his mind. Dan writes...

Red-breasted Sapsuckers are a rare treat around Union Bay, I understand. These brilliant, red woodpeckers are seen, but not often, and even less their brown-headed young.

So Larry thought it might be fun to share some images of the juveniles as they gain their colors.

Earlier this summer when Larry visited Whidbey Island, I promised him a guaranteed photo op of a Red-breasted Sapsucker. I was pretty sure he would take the bait and sure enough, he showed up here a few minutes later. So did the sapsuckers. I've watched them almost daily from June - September.

June is when the first brilliantly red adult showed up in our coniferous setting. I nearly tripped over it as it foraged in our garden compost, oblivious to me. I soon realized I was hearing it daily, with its distinctive "sucking"-type vocalizations, and that another adult was answering. By July I had found the mother lode, a specific weeping birch treeing our front yard where they had drilled almost a to too-like network of round holes in neat rows, and some large, rectangular sap wells to boot.

And now it wasn't just adults any more.

It was two brown-headed juveniles as well, proof that the adults had nested nearby.

Over time the brown coloring of the juveniles has evolved to red.

I have been watching that happen…

...for the last two months.

Sapsuckers are surprisingly docile and tolerant when waiting by their wells. Stay back a respectful 15 feet or so and they'll go about their business, clinging to the tree for hours in a trance. Get too close and they may shimmy around to the other side and pretend you aren't there.

Sapsuckers are well-named, since they consume the tree sap and also any insects that get caught in it. They are considered a keystone species because other birds and wildlife also feeds from their wells. such as Rufous Humming birds and Douglas Squirrels.

I watched a Douglas Squirrel chase the sapsuckers away and lick the sap wells at leisure.

Orchardists aren't terribly fond of sapsuckers because of the punishment they can inflict on trees. I've read contradictory accounts - that they kill many trees or, on the other hand, hardly any healthy ones. This was a rough summer for deciduous trees on Whidbey Island, with a plague of caterpillars defoliating them earlier in the season, I'm curious whether our weeping birch will survive. I'm guessing it will but if not, well, these birds were a lot of fun.

I could find my sapsuckers at almost any hour of the day because one or two were almost always on the tree - clinging to the trunk. We have only one birch in our yard and I've read that this is a favorite of sapsuckers. They also like red maples and hemlocks.

I wrote about the sapsucker on my blog a few weeks ago and my neighbor said it cleared up a mystery for her, because one of her struggling ornamentals was covered with holes as well, and sapsuckers were tending them. She hadn't identified the unfamiliar bird.

As we move into mid-September, sightings of the sapsuckers are becoming much more rare. I've watched the brown juveniles turn increasingly red. They are nowhere near as striking as the adults, but clearly transforming themselves before my eyes.

I expect I'll see little or nothing more of them until perhaps some frigid afternoon next winter when severe weather drives them down to the lowlands in search of fruit. In years past I've watched them cling to our snow-covered huckleberry bushes and strip the fall's crop of berries. They'll be welcome here.

Note: Click the link to visit Dan Pedersen's blog, http://pedersenwrites.blogspot.com/. To receive a link by email each time he posts, send your request to dogwood@whidbey,com 

By The Bay:

Our local Seattle author, Woody Wheeler, has just announced that the debut of his new book, "Look Up! Birds and Other Natural Wonders Just Outside Your Window" will take place in October at the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge. You can learn more about the book at:

If you look close I have heard you might even find one of my photos in the book. (I just ordered my copy, but it has not arrived yet.)

A Parting Shot:

While visiting Dan's place I happened to catch one of the Sapsuckers in action and thought you might enjoy the photo.

By the way I have never seen a Sapsucker in or around Union Bay. If you are aware of one in the area I would love to here all about it! 

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


Saturday, September 6, 2014

The Mystery of Great Expectations

The Great Blue Heron is the official bird of Seattle. You can read more facts about the Great Blue Heron on the Seattle Audobon site and at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. This heron was seen yesterday stalking about among the lily pads just south of 520. One of the questions that came to mind was how old is this heron?

On the Audobon site it says it takes about six weeks for a heron chick to reach the size of an adult. From experience, they spend most of that time in the nest so we are unlikely to see miniature versions of Great Blue Herons wading about Union Bay. None the less, if you watch you can sometimes pick out young herons by their behavior. They have been seen stalking about the shallows, striking near the water's surface but only coming up with inanimate objects. 

In another odd example, from a couple of years ago, these two young heron appear to be having a jousting match. Evidently part of growing into a mature heron is learning how to intimidate and impress. It is also interesting to note that there is no dark plume hanging down from the back of the head on these young herons.

This photo, also from 2012, shows a great example of a long dark plume. Neither Cornell or Audobon mention the length of the plume as an indicator of age. The closest thing to a comment on this is from "The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western North America". Sibley shows the painting of an adult Great Blue with a black plume and one of the juvenile without a plume. It also shows the juvenile as having a dark crown and the adult as having a white stripe on top of the head. The two photos above show both of these corresponding differences as well. 

So what do we see when we look closely at yesterday's bird? We see the hint of a plume and the start of a white stripe that makes one think this might be a fairly young bird. The skinny little tongue does not appear to have any relationship to age but it is kind of fun to see.

Lets take a look at the behavior of this heron to see if it tells us anything about its age.

This hunting pose looks just like an adult.

However coming up with a piece of a leaf does not look like adult behavior.

Undiscouraged, the heron returns to the hunt.

Something moves below the surface.

Success! The heron strikes and comes up with a tadpole. 

Oddly the heron simply lets the tadpole fall from its mandibles. The heron did not try to reposition the tadpole. It did not shake or move its head at all. It did not appear to be a case of accidentally loosing its grip. The heron simply let the tadpole go. It makes one wonder if this bird is behaving like a human youth that has not developed a taste for vegetables.

This same thing happened twice and in neither case did the heron eat the tadpole. Hopefully this apparently young bird finds food that meets its great expectations.

Another bird, seen yesterday, with great expectations is this male mallard. He is expecting to have bright green feathers spread from a few speckled representatives to a solid mass about his head. It is interesting to note how his beak has already turned bright yellow.

Not too long ago the male looked a lot like this female but his fall colors are clearly on the way. Isn't the difference in their beak colors interesting?

This Wood Duck is a bit further along with his fall colors but there are still a lot of young male Wood Ducks out there with far less color.

This Goldfinch is lowering its expectations as its yellow breeding color is fading away.

Last week this hawk was spotted on the WSDOT peninsula, between Kingfisher Cove and Elderberry Island.

Given the thickness of the legs I suspect this is a juvenile Cooper's Hawk.

A closer inspection reveals something very curious about this bird. Do you see anything odd?

The photos of young Cooper's Hawks on the Cornell site show the eye color as yellow, as does The Sibley field guide. The mature birds have reddish-orange colored eyes. 

This bird clearly has a pale blue coloring to its eyes, particularly obvious when compared to the yellow lores behind the beak. Hopefully one of you can resolve the mystery of the Blue-Eyed Hawk.

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


Update (8-7-14) :

Thank you to Dan Reiff, who writes,

"Very young Cooper's often have Gray-blue eye color. This bird has probably recently fledged. This eye color changes in a short period of time to those seen in field guides. Many have not seen this color, because they have most likely seen older juveniles and adults."

Saturday, August 30, 2014

A Honeysuckle Summer

This Black Twinberry is a honeysuckle with the scientific name Lonicera Involucrata. Year round it is not uncommon to see a Hummingbird perched on or near this plant, which is located on the edge of Duck Bay. 

(Thank you to Roy, a horticulturist in the Arboretum, who identified the Twinberry.)

A closer look makes it easy to see how the plant gets its name. The USDA fact sheet shows that the Black Twinberry is widely distributed. It ranges from Alaska to New Mexico to the Atlantic coast of Canada. It also mentions how hummingbirds love the nectar and the berries are eaten by a variety of native birds and mammals. 

The most surprising comments on the fact sheet relate to whether the plant is, or is not, good to eat. The sheet states,

"Ethnobotanic – Reports on the fruit vary from poisonous, to mildly toxic, to bitter and unpalatable, to edible and useful as food, depending on tribe, region or publication. The berry was used as a source of dye. Medicinal uses were many and varied among tribes. These included the leaves, berries or bark as a decoction, infusion, or poultice for sores, body cleansing, swellings, dandruff, wounds, infections, sore throats, paralysis, coughs, burns, itches, venereal diseases, boils, stomach troubles, pains of the legs or feet, arthritis, and sore eyes. Sometimes the leaves or bark were simply chewed for treating ailments or used as a ceremonial emetic (i.e. to induce vomiting)."

I am considering planting one in my yard. 

However, I think I will leave the nectar and the berries for the birds.

Surprisingly, this Black-Capped Chickadee appears to like the flowers just as much as the Hummingbird, even though the Chickadee is not well equipped to extract the nectar.

The Chickadee is, however, very persistent.

The hummingbirds can be a bit territorial.

Sometimes they chase the chickadees away, who then must settle for less appealing sites.

When the hummingbirds are full (and feeling fully in control) they often retire to a willow branch, just above the Twinberry, to do a little feather maintenance.

The upper parts of the willow attract other birds as well.

Can you identify this little bird?

Did you notice how carefully the bird observes the wasp?

 Even when the wasp flies almost directly over head it is carefully monitored.

I believe this little bird is a Pacific-Slope Flycatcher, even though it chose not to catch the wasp. It almost seemed like the wasp was teasing the Flycatcher.

Two days later a hummingbird was spotted on a nearby branch behaving a bit like the flycatcher. It was tracking something to its right side.

 A moment later it was tracking to the left. The lack of dark feathers around the neck and head makes one think this might be a juvenile bird.

 Suddenly it turns as another hummingbird comes into view.

The dark feathers on the neck of the second bird seem to imply it is an adult.

The younger bird flutters its wings, maybe the second bird was a parent trying to tease or entice the juvenile bird to fly.

Just across the water, on the southeast tip of Nest Egg Island, a Kingfisher perches in the early morning light.

The female bird (the burnt orange stripe indicates it is a female) stretches its wings before diving straight towards the camera. The rapid change in distance is too fast for the camera to track and keep in focus.

 But a moment later, after a small splash, the Kingfisher returns.

As she lands on the same perch it is obvious there is no fish in her beak. 

 Certainly she did not carry a fish in her tiny little talons. She must have missed her mark.

Somehow, just 3 seconds later, this fish appears. Evidently she caught it and kept it half swallowed as she flew back to the perch. Once back in her comfort zone she decided to bring it up and turn it around before finishing her meal.

In another few seconds the fish is gone and the Kingfisher is shaking off the water, like a dog after a bath.

Even though the Kingfisher is larger than the Hummingbird and the Flycatcher, it also keeps an eye on the sky. One reason why can be seen in the previous post

On Thursday morning the Kingfisher was heard angrily chattering as it circled this same perch. A larger bird staked a temporary claim to its prime hunting spot. The Kingfisher ultimately flew away to a less populated location.

Can you identify this bird?

It seems a bit nervous as it twists and turns. 

 It makes one wonder...

  ...if it was afraid of the smaller Kingfisher attacking from the backside.

Ultimately the young Green Heron decided this hunting spot was a bit too elevated for its tastes. 

Note: The stripes along the neck identify this as a juvenile. To compare it to an adult's neck you may want to check out the Shape Shifting post from last year.

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