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

On Instagram and Twitter: @unionbaywatch

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Smoke and Ash

On Thursday, I was lucky enough to catch Lacey returning to the nest in the Union Bay Natural Area (UBNA). Lacey is the mother of these two young osprey who are getting close to leaving the nest for the first time.

Young osprey have orange irises while adults have yellow. At a distance, the difference can be difficult to detect.

As we zoom in, you can also see that Lacey, on the left, is visibly larger. Her head and especially her beak are clearly bigger than those of her offspring. You might also notice that she, and other adults, have no pale edgings on the tips of their dark feathers.

If we desire to live in harmony with the wild creatures it is important to watch for unintended human impacts on their behavior. To do this we need to be paying close attention to what is normal for our avian neighbors. Which is part of why I like to try to get to know and identify each bird as an individual.

Here is a close up of our two new 2017 UBNA osprey neighbors. I am calling the bird on the left, Ash, and the one on the right, Smoke. Their names are in part inspired by all the smoke we have been getting from the British Columbia forest fires. Their coloring also plays a part in their names.

If you look closely at their foreheads you can see that Ash has a predominantly white forehead while Smoke's forehead is much darker. Kathy Hartmann also noticed a couple of even more subtle differences. All of Smoke's dark feathers seem to be a deeper shade of brown and his irises may look slightly more yellow.

By the way, Kathy just wrote a very nice piece about me and harmony with nature. It is in the latest publication from the Washington Ornithological Society. To read it Click Here and then scroll down to page eight. Thank You Kathy!

Lately the young birds have been spreading their wings and...

...lifting up into the air.

I have not actually seen them leave the nest and fly, but it could happen any time now. If my latest calculations are correct, the older one should fledge (take its first flight) within the next week.

Another difference between the young and the adults is the beige or buff coloring on the young. The adults have none. You can see some of the 'buffy' coloring below Smoke's neck, on the underside of the wing and (in the previous photo) on the back of Ash's neck when the wind blows up his 'ruff'.

This photo nicely exposes the underside of Smoke's primary flight feathers. The ten longest feathers at the end of each wing tend to push the osprey forward in flight while their shorter secondary feathers provide more lift. The highest points in Smoke's wings are essentially his wrists. Having the primaries attached at or after the wrists provides optimal control. Think about how much more control you would have of feathers attached to your fingers versus feathers trailing off of your forearms.

In this photo Smoke is clearly twisting his wrists and actively modifying the angle of his primaries. I suspect he is dumping air in order to settle down on the nest with finesse and control. I am assuming these two young are both male because their chests do not show much in the way of a dark necklace like their mother. In adults, the lack of a necklace generally indicates the bird is male. Among the young, the coloring is said to be a somewhat less reliable indicator. I could be wrong.

Adult female osprey can be as much as twenty percent larger than males, so we could also look for hints in their size. Although I suspect birth order may impact the size of the young, as much or more than gender.

It was obvious that Lacey settled into the nest with a particular goal in mind. When excited or nervous, Lacey becomes quite verbal. Her calling normally indicates the approach of a potential predator or the return of her mate, Chester.

The young are developing a healthy interest in the world around them, and they were obviously concerned about who was approaching the nest.

Luckily this time it was their father Chester, coming in with a fish.

Although Chester is smaller than Lacey, nobody wants a wing in the face so everybody ducks. 

This photo also shows how the osprey's flight feathers are mostly dark on the upper side and mostly barred on the underside. The exceptions are the last 3 or 4 primaries, P7 through P10, which become progressively darker on the underside. The book 'Bird Feathers' by Scott and McFarland says, 'Melanin (which makes feathers dark in color) is also associated with keratin, which provides structural integrity.' This seems logical given how useful the last few primaries are in controlling flight, gliding and landing.

No sooner did Chester land in the nest with the fish than Lacey picked it up.

Lacey was evidently aware that everyone else in the nest was well fed. None of them voiced any objections as she retired to a nearby cottonwood for a late breakfast of Union Bay sushi. 

Here you can see her leading primaries are stretched apart like fingers as she glides. My understanding is that the separate 'fingers' break up the air into a number of small individual vortexes. The result is less drag and more lift. I suspect as airplanes become more sophisticated we will see similar adaptations.

After eating, Lacey came back and seemed to consider landing in the nest. Notice how she used her tail to slow her progress. In addition, her wing feathers are all askew. No doubt this reduced lift, as the feathers were not aligned and all working toward a common goal.

At the last moment she apparently changed her mind.

A split second later her feathers were perfectly aligned and working together. Lacey lifted back up into the sky and returned to her cottonwood roost where she could watch the nest from a short distance away.

I remember someone who passed by wondering if Lacey was behaving like the mother of young children who occasionally locks herself in the bathroom for a moment or two of peace and quiet. Parenting is demanding, regardless of your species.

In parting, here is a photo of Smoke snoozing in the morning sun. I wonder if there is a logical reason why osprey have white eyelids? Shelley, my wife, suggests that maybe the white eyelids make it look like they have their eyes open even when they are sleeping.

If you would like to see one of the earliest 'baby' photos of Smoke or Ash following This Link and look toward the end of the post. The photo from Doug Parrot shows one of the very young birds. Look closely - just below Lacey's neck.

Have a great day on Union Bay...where young osprey are once again preparing to fly!


PS: Here is a fun link to a video which Bill Albert sent in. It shows an osprey diving into Portage Bay for a fish. It could very well be Chester! Click Here to see Bill's video.

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.

I am hoping that this week we can reverse roles. Can anyone tell me whether this creature is a native or not? In the first photo, and in many others I took, this insect uses its proboscis to dip into multiple tiny flowers. In the last photo it rolls up its proboscis into a very artistic swirl. Given that moths and insects are not part of my expertise I am hoping someone will tell me whether this in a native creature and if possible maybe even identify it. Thank you in advance for any help you are able to provide.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Some Like It Hot

Lately, I have found the weather to be a bit too hot. Last Tuesday while watching a young great blue heron, I heard an alarm call. A moment later, two birds hurriedly took flight. The heron and I watched as a river otter swam out of the shadows.

My last otter sighting was in Spring. Both times I was standing on the shore of Foster Island and looking at virtually the same location in the water. In the Spring, I suspected the otter was searching for freshly laid duck eggs. This time I wondered if the otter was hoping to sneak up on an adult mallard. Most of the mature mallards are currently unable to fly, while they are growing new wing feathers. The otter quickly left the heat and bright light of the sunshine and swam back into the shadows.

I was surprised by how quickly the heron went back to hunting. It did not seem to be worried about the otter. Hunger must have a real focusing effect.

As I was leaving Foster Island I noticed a couple of dragonflies basking in the sunshine. They were both Eight-spotted Skimmers. Evidently, the name comes from counting only their black spots. They made me think of the merlin which I saw the week before in the top of a near by tree. 

Last week, Barbara Deihl sent me an email about this merlin. Merlins are one of her favorite birds. Barbara explained that a blue eye-ring, a blue cere - the area at the base of the beak - and a short tail can indicate a young merlin. Plus, the protruding crop - the bump where the neck should be - indicates that this bird had recently fed. Barbara suggested that the most likely food for a young merlin would be dragonflies. That seemed particularly likely since this merlin had been sitting above Duck Bay.

Evidently these Duck Bay dragonflies were a bit faster than the ones the merlin had caught. In any case, as long as there was no immediate danger the dragonflies seemed quite happy sit in the heat of the sun.

The next day I spotted a couple of cold-blooded turtles by the large pond at the south end of Azalea Way. They were sitting on the concrete wall along the edge of the pond while basking in the sun. When the weather is warm, turtles become more active. These two were certainly flicking their heads from side to side much faster than I had ever seen before.

By the way, The Seattle Garden Club is building a new garden just to the north of the pond. The garden is to help celebrate their 100th anniversary. They have installed a new stone wall which is set back from the pond but at a complimentary angle. It looks very nice, I will be excited to see how the garden looks once all the new plants arrive. I hope the plants provide blossoms and fruit which attract lots of birds, bees and butterflies.

On Thursday and Friday, the weather felt even hotter and the air smelled from the smoke of Canadian forest fires. On Friday morning I spotted this female flicker just sitting on the ground in the shade. She wasn't even feeding. It looked like she had simply found the coolest spot around and had decided to wait out the heat.

I hiked all the way to the north half of Foster Island before I saw another bird. Just as I walked out from under the new freeway I saw this crow cleaning and preening while sitting in the full heat of the sun. I wonder if crows have some type of special heat regulating system.

As I neared the water of Union Bay, I heard a young crow calling for food. The incessant cry was annoying. It made me wonder how the parents could possibly stand it, especially with all the heat, smoke and noise of the preliminary Seafair party flotilla. 

Out on Union Bay there were plenty of boats, but the only water birds I could see were Canada Geese. If I had to pick two avian species which would thrive, in spite of global warming, I think I would bet on American Crows and Canada Geese.

As I turned toward home and walked under the new bridge, I noticed this great blue heron in the distance. It was standing in the water and mostly in the shadow of the bridge. I wondered if it was using the shade to avoid the heat.

A few steps further on I spotted this young robin. The spots on its chest indicate its youth. Unlike the young crow, the robin was waiting quietly for a parent.

A moment later the adult showed up. I suspect most birds feed in the cool of the morning and by the time I was up and out they were simply sitting quietly in the shade like the robin, the heron and the flicker.

I did find one other avian species which was active in spite of the heat. Can you see the bird in this photo? I must admit I have the advantage of having watched it arrive at this location. The brown creeper is directly below the largest leaf on the right.

While I watched, the creeper moved up to feed on something in this knot hole.

A moment later there were at least two and maybe three creepers flittering about. In their usual manner they fluttered down to the base of the trees and then worked their way up searching for food. 

They worked mostly in the shadows, obviously unfazed by the heat. It looked like one of the creepers was an adult. My clue to its age came from what appeared to be a full-sized youngster who began chasing the adult - non-stop. The adult was basically unable to hunt because of the constant pressure. Up the tree they would go, one after the other. If it had been earlier in year I would have thought it was a male chasing after a female. But this time of year it seemed more likely to be a parent and its young. As soon as the adult tried to fly down to the base of the next tree, the youngster would take to the air. Like a little brown 'blue angel' it would fly right on the tail of the older bird. I never did see any exchange of food. It looked to me like a self-defeating process for the youngster.

Over a hour had passed since I first saw the female flicker sitting in the grass. On my way back I stopped by the same spot and sure enough there she was, still sitting in the shade. She was apparently happy just to wait for the heat to pass.

I put my camera away assuming that most birds were taking it easy and I was not likely to see many more. I headed towards home thinking how nice a cool shower would feel. Sadly, I was wrong about the birds. 

Just a hundred feet before leaving the Arboretum I heard an indignant Stellar's Jay crying out. It was being chased by a young Cooper's Hawk. When the jay momentarily landed in a conifer, the young hawk also landed and chased it through the branches. The two birds cork-screwed up and around the tree with the jay expressing obvious frustration. The jay finally escaped to the north and they both escaped being photographed since my camera was out of reach.

I hope you are finding a way to enjoy the heat!

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


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.


Scroll down for the answer


This is Devil's Club. It is a native plant which loves wet and shaded spots. The leaves can be over a foot in diameter, the stalks can reach above your head and the thorns can make you see red. 

The existence of Devil's Club usually indicates you are in reasonably undisturbed Pacific Northwest habitat, often in the shade of the forest and near water. I suggest you enjoy the environment without allowing yourself to come in contact with this plant. The thorns can be nasty.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

An Avian Potpourri

I started this week at Port Townsend with family and friends. Our annual trip to Fort Warden is one of the few times each year when I get to watch pigeon guillemots at work in the salt water of Puget Sound.

I have no idea why their mouths are red.

I also wonder why they have white wing patches and why their feet match their mouths.

One thing is for sure, they are not dependent on a single species of fish for food.

One hundred yards away I found goldfinches delicately feeding on thistle seeds. The mixture of purple and gold made me think of the University of Washington Huskies and Union Bay.

At the time it did not occur to me that the red house finch feeding its young should have made me think of the Cougar colors at Washington State. I must have been thoroughly inculcated while attending the University of Washington.

It was refreshing to see ravens in the distance and hear their deep croaking cries. While watching them, I heard a strange liquid call that reminded me of a drop of water falling into a puddle. The sound originated in the air and from the same direction as the ravens. I found it totally baffling.

Later, I used my phone to look up raven calls in my iBirdPro app. The last call they listed was described as hiccup-like. It is very similar to the sound I heard. 

The only raven call I have found online which is similar is in the Macaulay Library. (Click Here and then select the second track down on the left side. You will need to turn up the volume and listen to the sounds played in the first second and a half.) The liquid-like sound is repeated three times very quickly. The sound has absolutely nothing in common with the 'normal' calls of a raven. I wonder what it means.

By mid-week we had returned home and I visited the Union Bay Natural Area (UBNA) with a couple of my classmates, Louis and Whitney. Whitney spotted this young killdeer. Anytime I looked away I had great difficulty in finding the small brown bird - especially when it remained perfectly still.

Louis found three different species of sandpipers on the shore of Main Pond. This Least Sandpiper (note the small yellow legs) was happy to feed right in front of us. While we were watching the shorebirds, Louis saw a merlin fly past at warp speed, and begin chasing swallows. The merlin's chances of catching one were similar to my odds of photographing the process.

Our two young osprey (only one of the young is visible in this photo) in the UBNA nest seem to be gaining weight and growing just fine; although Chester does seem to be spending a lot more time away from the nest than he did last year. It makes me wonder if he is having to search for food in more distant locations. 

Can you see the difference in the iris colors between Lacey and her offspring?

The wings of the young are certainly longer than I expected. Still, their flight feathers have a ways to go before they fill-in and are capable of holding air. You can Click Here to learn more about our local Union Bay osprey.

The next day in the Arboretum I caught up with Goldie. I took this photo of her iris, which for the first time that I remember looked slightly red, instead of her usual brown. I wonder if her eye color is starting to change or if it is just an artifact of a unique angle and lighting.

The young male following her around appeared to be Clark, the youngest male of her three 2017 young. His iris appears to be changing to yellow right on schedule. You can read about his story in  last month's post called, Elderberry Whine.

I believe his top knot will remain slightly orange for at least another month or so.

Surprisingly, adult male mallards also change colors or plumages every year around this time. In the Spring they have their classical green heads, white necklaces, brown chests and yellow beaks. This pattern makes them much easier to spot and identify when compared with female mallards.

Here is a male in his summer outfit. Technically this is called his eclipse plumage. They switch to this more camouflaged coloring while growing new flight feathers. If you look closely you can see the tips of his new wing feathers just beginning to burst out of their light blue sheaths. At this time of year, they cannot fly and it is only their bills which enable us to easily identify their gender.

Females have orange edges on their bills...

...while males have a yellowish cast.

Toward the end of the day I thought I saw a merlin again. It was flying low and fast over the water and cattails. The next afternoon I finally got a photo, while the merlin was resting on a treetop over Duck Bay.

Soon it was gone, looking for pint-sized food. Merlins are less than a foot long and only weigh about six ounces. Young ducklings seem like perfectly sized prey but they are getting to be few and far between this time of year.

These two adult male pied-billed grebes were defending their common territorial border. The mate and the young of the bird on the left were looking for food nearby. I was happy that the merlin apparently overlooked their young grebes.

Later, I found this female downy woodpecker near Foster Island. I was surprised to watch it dig into the large snag for fifteen minutes - apparently looking for food. I normally see downy woodpeckers working on smaller trees and shrubs. Usually, they move a lot and make small quick holes. I don't ever remember seeing a female work the same hole for more than a minute. This downy's behavior reminded me of a pileated woodpecker. I have never seen a downy behave this way.

I have watched male downy woodpeckers work for long periods of time on nest sites. However the nests I have been watching this year have long since been completed, their eggs have hatched and the young have grown up and left. I doubt this female's excavating had anything to do with nesting.

Earlier in the week, Louis and Whitney had been wondering whether wood ducks go through an eclipse plumage like mallards. We concluded that they must. Certainly the dull coloring of this male is a lot less flashy than its breeding plumage.

In this week's post I had a hard time focusing on a single species. So we ended up with a dozen different species all of which exist in our local Puget Sound watershed. I hope you have enjoyed this avian potpourri.

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


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.

Which of the following is not a native tree?







Scroll down for the answers


A) Western Hemlock
B) Western Red Cedar
C) Red Alder
D) Oak
E) Douglas Fir

The non-native is the oak tree. I cannot conclusively identify which oak it is, however it is not  the native Oregon White Oak because the lobes on the leaf shown are pointed instead of rounded.