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

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Saturday, October 28, 2017

Role Models

A Female Bushtit in an Indian Plum

I was heading home for lunch, after a morning of birdwatching in the Arboretum, when my eye caught a flicker of motion among the fading leaves of an Indian Plum. Silently searching between the twigs was a tiny, grey-brown Bushtit. 

Bushtits are gentle and unassuming. They do not wear the flashy yellow colors of warblers. Nor do they have the reflective red brilliance and repulsive egos of a male Anna's Hummingbird. I have also never seen Bushtits attack each other, or their neighbors, in the manner of Crows. (Click Here to see Crows fighting.)


Two Male Bushtits sharing a branch. Can you spot the difference between these males and the female in the prior photo?

I was not surprised to find multiple Bushtits in the area. Bushtits seem to share everything -  their feeding locations, their roosting spots, their nests and even parenting. Anytime you spot one Bushtit you can expect that there are more close by.

It was lucky for me that the bushtits were in an Indian Plum, which are considered a shrub or at most a small tree. Given the plant's short stature, the Bushtits were right at eye level. Because it is October, many of the leaves have fallen, which made the birds easier to see and photograph. In addition, most of the remaining leaves were wearing a delicate shade of yellow which provided a nice background glow for the photos.

I soon realized that I had been fortunate in another fashion. I was standing directly in the path of the hard-working little flock. For the next 10 minutes, as soon as one or two bushtits would fly up into the tree above my head, three or four more would come in from the opposite direction. The whole flock must have worked their way through the Indian Plum before moving on.

A few of the Bushtits sat for a moment or two, which for them, is a very long break.

Generally, they are virtually nonstop in their search for food. Birds of North America (citation below) implies that at 68 degrees Farenhiet, Bushtits need to eat eighty percent of their body weight every day. It is a good thing that Bushtit parents sometimes have helpers at the nest, otherwise, how could they possibly provide enough food for themselves and for their offspring.

I often loose track of Bushtit flocks. While the others are moving on, I am consistently focused on the last little bird. When the 'slowpoke' darts away, faster than I can track, I am often left turning in circles while searching the empty branches of nearby trees. It does not help that I can no longer hear most of their high pitched calls. 

This week I made more of an effort to spilt my focus between the progress of the flock and the most photogenic individuals. This enabled me to tag along behind as they darted and  dashed from one tree to the next.

The dying leaves of the Vine Maple lacked the lingering yellow of the Indian Plum. I was very surprised to realize that the Indian Plum still has yellow leaves this late in the year. In the Spring, I see the first yellow leaves on Indian Plum about the same time as the Wilson's Warblers arrive. Among native plants, the Indian Plum is also one of the first to provide ripe fruit.

While individually the Bushtits appeared to move randomly, the flock as a whole moved as unit. On some trees they barely stopped, while on others they flickered about from branch to branch while thoroughly harvesting the insect bounty. I began to wonder if their flocks have leaders. 

I really like this side view of a Bushtit's talons. Even though it would take a half a dozen Bushtit's to weigh more than an ounce, the deadly curvature of the claw makes it clear that they are the distant descendants of dinosaurs. I wonder if there were mild-mannered dinosaurs.

The female's have a light colored iris, the males do not.

While thinking about the concept of a leader, I concluded Bushtits probably don't have just one. I am guessing their constant calls tell the trailing members where the flock is at. I suspect the birds in the lead change depending who spots the next most promising tree and which bird is the first to consume all of their currently available food. Those in the lead find food first, but they are also at risk of being found first - by predators. 

The birds in the center of the flock are more likely to be warned by distress calls when the birds at the edge come under attack. Being part of a flock, with rotating roles and dozens of eyes and ears, can certainly help mitigate the individual risk while also helping the group as a whole to survive.

This train of thought caused me to realize, that it is not really leadership which enables a high functioning flock, it is actually communication. It made me wonder, will it someday be possible for human communications to supersede our need for leaders. I really don't have any idea how such a society would function. However, if we look at Bushtits as roles models there are a few things which appear certain. Bushtits share almost everything - from danger to parenting responsibilities. They appear to all be treated equally. I have never noticed them arguing over territories, nest sites or mates, apparently, they have no egos. We could do worse for role models.

Have a great day on Union Bay...where Bushtits thrive in the city!

Larry

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. Can you identify this creature? Is it native to Union Bay?













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Scroll down for the answers


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The photos are all of Banded Woolly Bears (BWB). This week I tried doing a close up which turned out to be less interesting than I expected. On the other hand, my research into the creature turned out to be more interesting than I expected. Did you know they can survive being frozen? Do you know what creature they become when they grow up? Here are three different links, each explains a slightly different perspective on this fascinating creature.

The University of Alberta

Ohio State University

Butterflies and Moths of North America




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The Email Challenge:

Over the years I have had many readers tell me that Google is no longer sending them email announcements regarding my posts. Even more frustrating when they go to 're-sign-up', hoping that will enable them to once again start receiving the announcements, they get a message which says 'Sorry, you are already signed up.' Google has not responded to my requests for help with this issue. 

My functional work around is to setup my own email list and each week I manually send out a new post announcement. If you are experiencing the issue and would like to be added to my personal email list please send me an email requesting to be added. Thank you for your patience!

My email address is LDHubbell@comcast.net


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Recommended Citation

Sloane, Sarah A. 2001. Bushtit (Psaltriparus minimus), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bna.598

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Warbler Reflections

Every season has its moments. In the fall, I particularly love finding migrating warblers feeding among the autumn leaves. 


It is especially helpful when the bird's appearance practically shouts its name. It seems rather obvious that the only logical appellation for this little creature is a Yellow-rumped Warbler.

During the grey wet days of fall, spotting birds with splashes of yellow, flashing and feeding among golden leaves is like a tonic for the soul.

From an identification perspective, trying to determine whether a bird's throat is yellow or white, while it sits among a thousand golden reflections, can be challenging. You might ask, Why do we care? 

It turns out that there are two different subspecies of the Yellow-rumped Warbler and the most obvious distinguishing feature is usually a yellow throat patch versus a white one. However, in addition to the color, the shape of the pale throat patch is also helpful. The fact that the patch extends significantly back beyond the eye indicates that this is one of the white-throated Myrtle variety rather than the yellow-throated Audubon's subspecies.

If we step back to September, before the bulk of the leaves turned yellow, we see a Yellow-rumped Warbler who's throat patch looks pretty white. There are however at least two other differences when we compare this bird's head with the one in the previous photo. This bird has no eyestripe and the coloring of the pale throat patch stops immediately below the eye. This allows us to identify this bird as a member of the Audubon's subspecies. 

At this point you might be feeling a bit confused. I mentioned earlier the Audubon's normally has a yellow throat patch. I suspect this may be a young bird who has not yet fully developed all of its yellow coloring. Also, the lighting could be playing a factor. Plus, it turns out that in our area both subspecies exist and they can intermingle. This occasionally causes overlap in their characteristics.

The proliferation of possibilities in nature can be bewildering. To assist my aging memory I love any little visual tricks. Here is an example:

A = Audubon's
Y = Yellow throat

M = Myrtle
W = White throat

I find the first letter of their names when positioned directly above the first letter of their respective throat color creates a nice symmetrical fit and a helpful memory aid.

I have also noticed a couple of other interesting relationships. The Audubon's subspecies has the narrower initial letter 'A', the narrower throat patch and is primarily found in a narrower portion of North America, in the west. The Myrtle subspecies has the wider letter 'M', the wider throat patch and has the wider distribution, from coast-to-coast.

In the case of a male Yellow-rumped Warbler, in breeding plumage the difference is very apparent. A narrow yellow throat patch signifies this bird is a member of the Audubon's subspecies.

On the other hand, a wide white throat patch, along with the obvious eyestripe, tells us this bird belongs to the Myrtle subspecies.

I have had a lot less luck identifying the insect. Although I do believe it had wings before it was turned into the warbler equivalent of mashed potatoes.

I still struggle with seeing the differences between the females and the young birds. I think this might be a young Audubon's, in this August photo. I think it is an Audubon's primarily because the throat patch appears to be narrow and I do not see an eyestripe. I suspect it is young because in general young birds often have a more muddled and less distinct color pattern.

I believe this photo is of a different bird because the coloring on the breast looks more clearly defined, even though the photo was taken just a minute later. I believe the yellow on the top of the head indicates the bird is male.

Here, the wide white throat patch and the eyestripe indicate the bird belongs to the Myrtle subspecies.

The angle, the lighting, the gender, the plumage changes and individual variation can all still cause me to question my conclusions. Nonetheless, I always enjoy the process of observation, particularly when the yellow leaves appear to be temporarily reflecting the last remnants of our summer sunshine.

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

Larry


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. Can you identify these trees by their leaves? Are they Union Bay natives?

A) 


B)


C)









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Scroll down for the answers


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None of these trees are native to Union Bay or the Pacific Northwest. Nonetheless, their fall colors made them irresistible. I hope you enjoyed them!



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The Email Challenge:

Over the years I have had many readers tell me that Google is no longer sending them email announcements regarding my posts. Even more frustrating when they go to 're-sign-up', hoping that will enable them to once again start receiving the announcements, they get a message which says 'Sorry, you are already signed up.' Google has not responded to my requests for help with this issue. 

My functional work around is to setup my own email list and each week I manually send out a new post announcement. If you are experiencing the issue and would like to be added to my personal email list please send me an email requesting to be added. Thank you for your patience!

My email address is LDHubbell@comcast.net


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Saturday, October 14, 2017

The Boring Bittern

To the casual observer the American Bittern, a member of the heron family, may not be terribly exciting. Its carefully camouflaged coloring does not stand out. Its stealthy movements do not attract attention. Its long drawn-out silences, even though critical for hunting, provide no music for our ears. It would not be surprising if some consider the bittern to be a bit boring.

The most exceptional and least boring aspect of a bittern might be its call. If you have never heard a bittern, click here (and then scroll down) to be enthralled by their strangely odd and uniquely liquid sound. 

In an age of neon lights, nagging cell phones and addictive video games the silent bittern prowling through the marsh can be somewhat subtle and easy to miss.

If you are lucky and patient enough to watch a hunting bittern, I suspect you will become slowly mesmerized. The bittern's slow moving style makes the green heron look like the hummingbird of the heron family.

Still, the difference between observing a creature in its natural state or focusing  on electronic devices is stark. For me, nature feeds the soul, refreshes the mind and creates hope for the future. It is never boring. Electronic interactions tend to increase my tension, drain energy and keep me awake when I should be sleeping. 

One of the intriguing and odd habits of a bittern is the way it stares at the world while holding its beak above its head. It is strangely comical, especially for such a silent and serious creature.

When the bittern detects a possible food source the head slowly rises.

When the bittern's head reaches the highest possibly height it always makes me wonder where the neck was previously hidden. In the first photo, of this little series of three, there was virtually no sign of the bittern's neck.

Even from the side the neck seems to disappear. Beside this heron, the only other bittern I have ever seen on Union Bay was in 2012. Click Here to see the photos and read the story.

As well as extending the neck up to see potential food, the bittern will very slowly extend it down and out. Clearly, the bittern is hoping to get close enough to grab a snack - prior to the  prey sensing its impending doom.

In the book, 'Union Bay - The Life of a City Marsh' the authors (Harry Higman and Earl Larrison) mention seeing breeding bitterns on Union Bay. They also state that green herons were a new species, having just arrived to our area, prior to the book being published in 1951.

Today the situation has reversed. Every year I see the smaller green herons while the bitterns are now uncommon on Union Bay. In early September, I had six green heron sightings in a single day. All but two of the birds were in different areas of the bay. I suspect I saw at least five different birds. As my friend Teri suggested, I was most likely witnessing an influx of green herons during their fall migration.

Green herons weighs about half a pound, a bittern weighs around a pound while our great blue herons weigh in at closer to five pounds. I suspect the green heron's light weight helps explain why they can hunt from on top of the lily pads. As you can see in the photo above, green herons with their rusty red coloring and the dark green caps, are a bit less boring than bitterns. 

While I photographed the bittern, this great blue heron preened nearby. It reminded me how I have watched great blue herons come in and shoulder a green heron out of the way. It is not as if they chase them. The blue herons simply push the smaller green herons off the prime feeding locations. I was curious if the great blue heron would try the same approach with the bittern. The next time I glanced over my shoulder, the great blue was gone. Maybe the slightly larger size of the bittern, and its large yellow claws, deterred our local bully.

I hope we are learning how to live in harmony with nature. Specifically, I would love to see bird species, like the bittern, return and reproduce around Union Bay. Could it be that someday the new wetlands in the Union Bay Natural Area (UBNA), where the old 'dime' parking lot was, will provide just enough new habitat to entice bitterns to resettle here. It would certainly be wonderful to hear their strange liquid calls booming across the natural area in Spring. There wouldn't be anything boring about it for me.

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Last week, I was lucky enough to have a short article published in the Fall Bulletin of the Washington Park Arboretum. My article, 'Birds of the Arboretum - Revisited' is an attempt to follow up on a prior article, written by Earl Larrison. Mr. Larrison's article was appropriately titled 'Birds of the Arboretum'. It was published in the Arboretum Bulletin in 1942. It is available for review in the Miller Library at the Center for Urban Horticulture. The new bulletin is available in the Arboretum at the Don Graham Visitors Center or you can link to an electronic copy by Clicking Here

Don't miss the gentle quiz at the end of my article. The quiz provides you with the opportunity to match up the monikers for some of our local birds, from 1942, with their current names. I find the old names colorful and refreshing. They also provide us with a tiny window into the thoughts and views of a previous generation.

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

Larry


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. Can you identify these trees by their cones and needles? Are they Union Bay natives?

A) 



B)









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Scroll down for the answers


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If you identified these as White Pines as a opposed any other pine, in my book, you should consider that a success. Unlike the more common Shore Pine or the long-needled Ponderosa Pine these White Pines have five needles in a bundle instead of three. At a distance the 'extra' needles create a much softer and warmer appearance, at least to my eye. Also, their cones are longer, leaner and lighter than cones of the Shore or Ponderosa Pine.

Telling the two White Pines apart is quite challenging. Our local expert Arthur Lee Jacobson, in his book 'Trees of Seattle' says, 'People often need a few years of observation before they can tell these two apart at a glance. The native (tree) is darker, denser and usually narrower.'  For me the name tags in the Arboretum also help. Plus, I find the native cones are usually a bit longer.

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The Email Challenge:

Over the years I have had many readers tell me that Google is no longer sending them email announcements regarding my posts. Even more frustrating when they go to 're-sign-up', hoping that will enable them to once again start receiving the announcements, they get a message which says 'Sorry, you are already signed up.' Google has not responded to my requests for help with this issue. 

My functional work around is to setup my own email list and each week I manually send out a new post announcement. If you are experiencing the issue and would like to be added to my personal email list please send me an email requesting to be added. Thank you for your patience!

My email address is LDHubbell@comcast.net


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Saturday, October 7, 2017

It Takes A Village

The Box Building Team - from left to right: Tiffany Lloyd, Larry Hubbell, Kathy Hartman, Chris Kessler and Dave Galvin. 

The team mission is to increase the number of wood ducks on Union Bay, raise awareness of nature in the city and provide opportunities for University of Washington students to study and learn about cavity nesting birds. 

Thank you all for your hard work and assistance!


Chris Kessler installing box #1.

If you spend time around Union Bay you may have noticed the large elevated boxes appearing near the water's edge. With the support of David Zuckerman, Manager of Horticulture, and the University of Washington Botanical Gardens, the new nest boxes are being situated in what we hope are optimal nesting locations. 

Dave Galvin installing box #4.

In the spring, our box building team is hoping Union Bay wood ducks will find and use these boxes to shelter their eggs during the process of incubation. 

A female wood duck with two male suitors.

Wood ducks have sharp 'tree-climbing' claws which help them to land and nest in trees, unlike mallards, gadwalls and most other ducks. 

Sadly, wood ducks are unable to build their own nest cavities. Each spring, female wood ducks spend a great deal of time searching through the trees for appropriately-sized nest sites. I have watched them stick their heads into rather tiny holes - like the ones in this snag. Apparently wood ducks do not have great visual skills when it comes to mentally measuring the size of a potential nest site. 

It appears their learning strategy is simply trial-and-error. Sometimes they fit, sometimes they don't. Wood ducks depend primarily on woodpeckers and occasionally nature, through broken limbs and tree rot, to create their nesting sites. You can read more about the competition for prime sites in last spring's post titled, The Housing Crisis.

Decades ago forest surrounded Union Bay. Interspersed among the living trees would have been a number of standing dead trees. These snags would have provided plenty of nesting cavities for wood ducks. Much of that original forest still stands around Union Bay but it is now in the form of human habitation and is not particularly useful to the ducks.

Manmade nest boxes provide a safe and functional alternative which will hopefully help with the restoration of our local wood duck population. Union Bay appears to have plenty of food for wood ducks, which leads us to believe nest sites are the limiting factor in their reproduction.

Young wood ducks are highly precocious.In the first day after hatching they climb out of the nest, tumble to the ground, follow their mother to water and begin feeding themselves. The screen inside the box is to help newly hatched wood ducks climb up and out of the box.

How many wood duck ducklings do you see in this photo?

Their mother will attempt to provide awareness and some protection from danger but the brood sizes can be quite large and survival is really a numbers game. Ultimately, it comes down to more nest sites equal more ducklings, more ducklings equal more wood ducks and more wood ducks equal more ducklings - if there are adequate nest sites. (I think I see portions of ten different ducklings in the photo.)



Tiffany Lloyd installing box #7.

Tiffany is the first UW student to take an interest in our Union Bay wood ducks and specifically in this project. We are hoping her research, and that of other students as well, will help us learn better ways to live in harmony with wood ducks and nature in general.


We have built ten boxes and hope to have them all installed before spring somewhere around Union Bay. You might want to challenge yourself to see how many of the ten you can find. The easiest way to find them is by boat however almost all can be seen from land - if you try hard enough. Note: Only seven are currently installed.

One of the most challenging aspects of the installation process was trying to select sites which will work well for the wood ducks while not providing easy access for other creatures. Specifically creatures which would love to eat the eggs or utilize the boxes for their own nests. The list includes eastern gray squirrels, Norway rats, raccoons, muskrats and others. The large black pipes are designed to keep creatures from climbing up to the nest boxes and the distance from other vegetation is designed to keep them from dropping or jumping onto the boxes. We also must deal with the potential invasions by european starlings - in which case we may have to board up the boxes for a time. 

This is the part where we could really use your help. Particularly in the spring if you see a creature other than a wood duck entering one of the boxes, please let me know. We may need to adjust our defensive strategy. My email is ldhubbell@comcast.net. 

By the way, there is a single large number printed in the wood directly under each box. It should be easily visible with binoculars. Please note this number in your correspondence. It will greatly simplify our communications.

Thank you for your help. It really does take a village to live in harmony with nature. 

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

Larry

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. Can you identify these creatures? Are they Union Bay natives?

A) 


B)











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

Scroll down for the answers


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A) Cooper's Hawk, native to Union Bay
B) Eastern Gray Squirrel, nonnative to Union Bay


These are not two isolated photos. They were taken yesterday in the Arboretum, immediately after the female Cooper's Hawk apparently attacked the squirrel. If you look closely you can see some of the fur is missing from the upper portion of the squirrel's tail and there may even be a small red scrape on the tail. I think the hawk got a taste.

Between the first attack and the second attempt the hawk flew slightly farther away. During the brief interlude the hawk was very actively moving its head, adjusting the angle and you can even see the nictitating membrane is halfway closed over the eye - which I think indicates that the hawk was thinking about its next attack. 

What was truly interesting to me was the fact that the squirrel did not try to run away from the hawk. There were no trees immediately nearby and the squirrel apparently realized that over the open ground the hawk would catch it. So the squirrel elected to stay on the opposite side of the tree trunk from the hawk. I suspect this is why the hawk was so actively watching the tree. It was looking for any hint that the squirrel was preparing to make a run for it. The squirrel waited. The hawk tried again. The squirrel scampered around the trunk and the hawk gave up and flew away.

By the way, if my memory of Martin Muller's comment is correct the 'buffy' colored cheek on this bird indicates it is a female. The horizontal barring indicates it is an adult. The cap on the head and the varied length of the tail feathers indicate it is a Cooper's Hawk instead of a Sharp-shinned Hawk. Ed Deal suggested that the lighter color of the hawk's cap may indicate she is a second year hawk.