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

On Instagram and Twitter: @unionbaywatch

Saturday, January 30, 2016

A Bathing Beauty

Thursday was gray, cloudy and wet. Around noon the rain let up. I headed to the Arboretum in hopes of finding a few birds to photograph. As the sun shone between the clouds, red-winged blackbirds sang and a robin bathed in the freshly fallen rain.

Students in a UW class on water quality pointed out this tree where they saw a pileated woodpecker. I quietly circled the tree without noticing any signs of Chip or Storm, two of our local pileated woodpeckers. 

A few days earlier I saw them working side-by-side in the same tree. They fed for awhile but when it came time to head home they each went in different directions. It made me think that maybe they were doing the woodpecker equivalent of dating. They do not appear to be spending their nights in close proximity.


A sudden flash of a bright red alerted me to the fact that Chip was working inside the decomposing tree once again. In this hidden back-water of Union Bay near Elderberry Island, the willow trees grow, fall and rot in the wetlands. Often what looks like a dead tree laying on the ground will sprout vertical branches that end up becoming a row of "new" trees growing side-by side. The willow and the decomposing alder in the area may look unkempt, but they are a critical feeding habitat for ants and bugs that the pileated woodpeckers, flickers, downy woodpeckers and others depend on for food. These messy looking spots are some of the most productive parts of our city's ecosystem.

Most of the time Chip was virtually invisible while feeding inside the tree. However every few seconds his head would pop up and he would check for any signs of danger. 

Whenever pileated woodpeckers excavate for food, other birds like this male flicker often come looking for leftovers.

When the flicker landed on the outside of the tree where Chip was working, Chip must have been alerted by the vibrations as he immediately came out and looked around.

The flicker relocated to a safe distance.

Once Chip was full, and most likely covered with a fine dusting of wood chips, he flew to the backside of reclining willow tree. Slowly, he hopped backwards down the side of the tree.

Chip spent a few moments in the water at the base of the tree. I suspected he was bathing, but the obscuring cluster of trees, branches and twigs made it hard to be sure. I would guess he picked this hidden location because it would be more difficult for earthbound-predators to approach him while he had his head in the water.

Afterwards, Chip climbed back up the tree with his feathers looking a bit damp.

Any doubt about whether he had been bathing evaporated when I saw this spray of water come off of his head.

Not having a bath towel, Chip used the moss to wipe away as much of the remaining water as possible.

He still ended up with a kind of damp, fresh-out-of-the-shower look.

His next stop was in a higher and more sunlit tree...

...where the preening and cleaning continued.

Chip must have spread his wings to dry them in the sun, but given the angle, all I could see were a few of his wing feathers hanging over the side of the branch.

Another flicker, a female this time, landed below him and started looking for food. 

She was clearly paying attention to Chip's every move. Chip may not have the rock star attitude of Elvis, the previous male pileated who used to spend time in the area, but the flickers that follow him around do seem to be forming a fan club.

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

Larry

PS: By the way, if you look very closely at the first photo, Chip's back in barely visible while his head is completely hidden inside the tree.












Saturday, January 23, 2016

The World's Largest Swans


Once again, trumpeter swans have returned to Union Bay. 

A week ago I counted a total of fourteen swans. Seven had the pure white feathers of adults, and seven had the gray-brown coloring of juveniles. This was the first time I remember seeing an odd number of adults. During their regular winter visits, the adults usually arrive in pairs.

They can be spotted from shore, however they appear rather small in the distance. Be sure to bring binoculars or a scope. From Foster Island or the Waterfront Activities Center look to the northeast. From the eastern shore of the Union Bay Natural Area they are usually situated more directly to the east.

Swans often sleep during the day. With their heads down they look a lot like pillows laying on our low-lying, muddy-black islands. I would not be surprised if swans provided the inspiration for the first down-filled pillows. Those fluffy white feathers sure look soft and comfortable.

It is easy to imagine how a demure and elegant swan inspired Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake ballet


Their necks make the most mundane tasks,...

...appear refined and elegant.

Even the necks of juvenile swans hint at their future elegance. 

In this case, I believe the swan was simply waking up and stretching...

...however with a wingspan larger than that of a bald eagle...

...trumpeter swans are very impressive. The U. S. Fish and Wildlife says, "They are the largest waterfowl in North America and the largest swan in the world." They also credit the trumpeter with an eight foot wingspan. Not all sources agree, some state around six and a half feet, however I have also seen as much as a ten foot wingspan mentioned. I suspect that must be an exception, while six and a half feet is most likely the average.

On Monday, I watched a bald eagle swoop low over five resting trumpeter swans.  As the eagle descended - to pluck a fish from the water - the swans showed no signs of concern. They never even raised their heads. On average, the trumpeters are about twice the weight of a bald eagle, plus their wings are longer, stronger and heavier. I suspect their weight and wings are the primary source of their confidence. 

The five swans appeared to be a single family of two adults and three juveniles.

I spent most of the daylight hours simply watching them sleep. I was surprised to notice they did not feed at all. Since then, I have learned (please see the citation below) that they can feed at night as well as during the day. Maybe they prefer to sleep when it is warmer and to be active during the colder nights.

It is interesting to see the difference between this swan's primary and secondary feathers. The primaries are the swans longest wing feathers and, given their wing tip location and size, they are critically important feathers for flight. At this angle, the primaries have a watery blue tinge while most of the secondaries and coverts reflect a bright white light.

It is also interesting to see how white the underside of the juvenile wings are - especially when compared to their other feathers.

 I wonder if the ruffled look of the leading wing feathers has to do with new feathers still growing into place. 

Overall, I suspect a swan's neck is their most under-appreciated appendage. It is obvious that their necks allow them to harvest underwater food that is out of reach for ducks and geese, but it provides other benefits as well.


I think a swan's neck is actually most similar to human arm, given the variety of ways it is utilized.

 They can reach any and all areas of the body...


  ...for grooming... 

...and maintenance. 


The neck allows them to lift a mouthful of water, like we might lift a glass to our lips before swallowing the liquid.


The neck is also used in defense. When another swan gets too close, the irritated swan while strike out with the beak. If you watch you can see the head and neck coil back in preparation. The result is usually just a nip at the backside, but the offending swan moves briskly away, as if it has previously experienced pain in a similar situation. No doubt the strength of the neck adds a little extra bite to the strike.

Have you ever thought about the term, "Armed and dangerous." Why do we call someone who is carrying a weapon, "armed." Most people without weapons still have arms. I suspect the reason is because before firearms, the power of an assault came from the strength of the arm. A club or a rock intensified the damage, but it was the arm that made the attack possible. While wings on a swan may have originated from a similar source as our arms, I think it is their necks that have evolved to provide similar functionality.

 In case you did not notice it earlier...

 ...I wanted to point out the white eyelid on the juvenile, which closes to cover and protect the eye. In any case, beware of getting too close to the swans, not only does it disturb them and waste their energy but they are also...armed and dangerous.


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

Larry

Citation

Mitchell, Carl D. and Michael W. Eichholz. 2010. Trumpeter Swan (Cygnus buccinator), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Retrieved from the Birds of North America Online: http://bna.birds.cornell.edu/bna/species/105


Saturday, January 16, 2016

Finding Your Place

During the last few weeks this eagle has been seen multiple times around Union Bay.

On Monday, this young eagle was sitting in a tangle of cottonwood branches, while the wind ruffled its feathers. Three crows were sitting close by, watching every move the eagle made. The crows were unusually quiet and focused. Clearly, they were hoping that a scrap of food might fall their way. While the eagle ate, the food was hidden by the branch, however I suspect it was a fish. Most likely appropriated from one of the dozens of double-crested cormorants diving for food just off-shore from the Waterfront Activities Center (WAC).

The young bird's head is nearly, but not quite, white. Which, along with its white-speckled body indicates it has not yet reached maturity. Since eagles usually mature in their fourth or fifth year, I am guessing this bird is nearly four years old. 

The temporary eyestripe makes the bird easy to identify. It has been fun tracking its progress around Union Bay. I first noticed it just before the end of the year, as it flew over Elderberry Island. Then, on December 31st, Jerry Pinkepank sent me a photo of the same eagle sitting above Montlake Cut.

A female belted kingfisher also having fish for lunch.

The water around the WAC is a special place - full of life. Many birds in the area feed on fish. In addition to the eagles, kingfishers and cormorants, you can usually spot pied-billed grebes and great blue herons, seriously searching for fish.

I usually photograph birds facing the camera, but there was something irresistible about this heron's wingspan.

In addition to birds that feed on fish, there are also birds in the area that feed on plants and smaller aquatic creatures. Birds, like this northern pintail, plus mallards, wood ducks, gadwalls, coots, buffleheads, green-winged teals and others. There is also a beaver's lodge nearby. Plus river otters, raccoons and coyotes have been seen in the area as well. 

Union Bay is a special place. Many people might look at Husky Stadium, The 520 Bridge, Montlake Cut and the passing yachts and think these are the things that make Union Bay special. I don't think so.

It is the beauty and persistence of nature that inspires me. Somehow, nature finds a place in the in-between spots - the cracks and crevices between the things we build. Along the forgotten western shore north of the WAC, in and around the small cattail-covered islands, birds, fish and beavers live and breed and die. It makes me wonder how much richer our lives could be if we planted more cattails all along our shorelines or added more native trees and ground cover in our yards

Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a mature bald eagle approaching from the northeast. I suspected it was one of the adults from the nest near Yesler CoveWhen I glanced back to check on the young eagle, it was gone. There was no sign of it in any direction. It felt like it evaporated.

The mature eagle landed on top of one of the redwood trees behind the WAC. I certainly had the impression that the elder bird was reinforcing its territorial property rights. It was almost like it was telling the younger bird, "This is my place, you will need to find your own!"

On Thursday, I caught a glimpse of the young eagle again. It was trying to land in one of the cottonwoods on the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) peninsula. Unfortunately, the eagle did not even get to land as it was being chased by Eva and Albert - mature eagles from the Broadmoor nest. The young bird flew west with the adults in hot pursuit. The adults were calling loudly. The calling continued even after the pursuit stopped.

The adults landed in one of the tall trees next to Lake Washington Blvd. I believe the youngster continued on towards Portage Bay. Clearly Eva and Albert were defining the western boundary of their territory. 

As they called out, another mature eagle flew in from the north and then turned away. I suspect the third adult was one of the pair from the Yesler Cove nest. This encounter and others, makes me think the boundary between Broadmoor territory and the Yesler Cove territory runs roughly between Foster Island and Marsh Island and then southwest through the WSDOT Peninsula.

At the bottom of the previous photo you can see Eva twisting and turning among the branches - while Albert continues to raise a racket. Soon, she broke off a branch and headed back to their Broadmoor nest.

Albert also attempts to break off a branch.

Sadly, the branch seems a bit small.

Albert drops the twig when he spots a better branch.

Albert gives the branch the full-body treatment.

Males are about fifty percent smaller than the females so maybe it should not be surprising that the branch failed to break. In any case, Albert returned to the nest and soon the two eagles were sitting side-by-side in the distance. Their main objective, establishing their territorial boundary, having been temporarily achieved.

On Friday morning, the young eagle was perched in the cottonwood on the north edge of Foster Island. At sunset, it was looking south from a cottonwood above Yesler Cove. Since it is so persistent, in spite of the adult eagle harassment, I suspect it may have been hatched and raised here on Union Bay.

Soon the young eagle will need to find a place of its own. It will need a territory much like Union Bay to feed its future mate and their young, a place full of life and food. Like a human leaving home and striking out on its own, the young eagle will be challenged. Will the two pairs of adult eagles on Union Bay ultimately share some portion of their existing territories? Will the young bird find a place just a bit further away - like Portage Bay? Will the young bird have to leave the county or even the state to find a place of its own?

Ultimately, the more space we give back to nature the richer our lives will be. Watching these wild creatures struggle and learn and live is incredibly rewarding. When we share with the creatures around us, we help them to find a place of their own, and maybe we are actually helping ourselves to find a place of our own, in the web of life. 

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

Larry