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

On Instagram and Twitter: @unionbaywatch

Saturday, September 15, 2018

A Bushtit Mystery

This is one of my favorite Bushtit photos from 2015. These little birds have a wingspan of approximately six inches and their fully grown tail feathers must be nearly two inches in length.

Mature female bushtits have light colored irises with a dark pupil.

This week when I spotted a small flock of Bushtits just south of Portage Bay, they reminded me of some earlier photos. Bushtits are the only North American member of the Long-tailed Tit family - Aegithalidae. In the Fall and Winter, Bushtits begin growing fresh feathers which can be subtlety darker and less faded than their previous plumage. 

When viewing this bird from the back it seemed surprisingly dark for a Bushtit. It does makes sense that new Fall feathers would be in better shape than those which were exposed to the wear and tear of Summer and Spring.

Bushtits have long legs and relatively large feet. 

By comparison, an Anna's Hummingbird with a nearly identical weight, has short legs and tiny little feet. 

The two species also have strikingly different bills, which fits with their food preferences. I suspect the ratio of animal matter to plant matter consumed is significantly higher with Bushtits.

In May I noticed this Bushtit with a single white worm, which it gleaned from a unique tree on the northwest side of Montlake Cut. A single worm could be a mini-meal for the individual bird. However...

... a beak full of worms makes it obvious, that this bird was collecting food to return to the young in the nest. 

Lucky for me, my friend Whitney pointed out the nearby nest. It was hidden in plain sight right above a frequently used walkway. I could have easily missed it. Once I had both the nest and food source in mind it became much easier to observe the living 'conveyor-belt' of food being delivered to the young in the nest.

All About Birds states that the Bushtit incubation period is just less than two weeks. It takes another 18 days before the young are ready to leave the nest and fledge.

I found it interesting that the tree where the birds were finding the worms, had leaves similar to the trees around it. However, this particular tree was a bit different than its neighbors. It was broader and it had this fruit which the others did not. I suspect the tree in question is a locally-rare, female version of the Lombardy Poplar which Arthur Lee Jacobson mentions on page 293 of his book, 'Trees of Seattle'.

In late June on the south-side of The Cut, I saw a small flock of Bushtits involved in a similar food gathering process. By the way, you might want to notice the two somewhat shorter, outer tail feathers. I believe, the varied lengths of the rectrices, or tail feathers, is an obvious sign of molting and new feather growth.


This bird appears to be a male, because it has totally black irises.
  
Suddenly, my eyes were drawn to a surprisingly odd looking female Bushtit.

The bird's tail was almost totally missing. The two dark projections at the rear of the bird are her wingtips.

As she turned further there might have been the barest hint of a tail feather, and a nice profile of a fully-developed bill. My first thought was to wonder if the bird might be a young Bushtit whose tail was just starting to grow. 

I did not suspect it was an adult because, as we saw in the earlier photo, they do not lose all of their tail feathers when they molt. In order to keep a functioning tail they apparently lose and replace their rectrices in sets of two.

As I reviewed my 2018 Bushtit photos, I found this photo taken a week earlier near Port Townsend. The small size of the Bushtit's bill and the uniformly clean and tidy look of the feathers made me think this was truly a young bird, fresh out of the nest.

However, even though the bird's bill is relatively small, its tail is already of significant size and easily noticeable.

When an adult landed beside it, the young bird appeared to be begging for food.

As I was reading through the Bushtit section of *Birds of North America, I learned that when Bushtits fledge, both genders have dark irises. The females do not develop their light-colored irises until a month after fledging. This combination of information convinced me that the tail-less Bushtit was old enough that under normal circumstances it should have had a tail.

The next idea which came to mind was that the Bushtit may have had a close encounter with a predatory bird. I have seen Merlins, Sharp-shinned Hawks and Cooper's Hawks in the area just south of Montlake Cut. Plus, American Crows and Steller's Jays might go after the eggs in a Bushtit nest. Maybe one of these was tearing into a Bushtit nest  when it ended up with a mouth full of the incubating female's tail feathers.

It may be possible I saw the scene of the crime. Earlier in the Spring, I watched a group of Bushtits working around another nearby nest. A first I was excited that they might be building a new nest.

It was only when I saw them flying away with nesting material that I realized they were involved in a recycling effort and rebuilding the nest elsewhere. I wonder if this might have been the site where the female lost her tail.

I am sure there could be other explanations for the missing tail. For example, Could the Bushtit have been hatched without a tail? The mystery continues.

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

Larry








* Recommended Citation

Sloane, S. A. (2001). Bushtit (Psaltriparus minimus), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (A. F. Poole and F. B. Gill, Editors). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bna.598


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 our local environment and 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 respect native flora and to support native wildlife at every opportunity. I have learned that our most logical approach to native trees and plants (in order of priority) should be to:

1) Learn and leave established native flora undisturbed.
2) Remove invasive species and then wait to see if native plants begin to grow without assistance. (If natives plants start on their own, then these plants or trees are likely the most appropriate flora for the habitat.)
3) Scatter seeds from nearby native plants in a similar habitat.
4) If you feel you must add a new plant then select a native plant while considering how the plant fits with the specific habitat and understanding the plant's logical place in the normal succession of native plants.

My intention in my weekly post is to include at least one photo each week and visually challenge us to know the difference between native and non-native lifeforms.


What is the name of this bush? Is it native to Union Bay?

















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









Scroll down for the answer










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






This plant is not native to Union Bay. It is native to Southern Oregon and California. With climate change, I wonder if our grandchildren will ultimately have to replace our locally native plants with more drought-tolerant flora from places like California. 

Thank You - to Eric for identifying this unique bush - spotted near Portage Bay.






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




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




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














Sunday, September 9, 2018

The Secret Weapon

There are multiple reasons why Green Herons can be an uncommon sight. For one thing, they are relatively small. It would take approximately ten Green Herons to equal the weight of one Great Blue Heron.

Green Herons are also bashful. Unlike American Crows, who will look you in the eye and raise a ruckus because you are breathing their air, Green Herons will quietly turn tail and flee before you even see them. When a Green Heron chooses to ignore your presence, they often stand stock-still and remain virtually hidden in plain sight. 

Their posture and relatively short legs also contribute to their low profile. Plus, their rich and varied coloring makes excellent camouflage. Apparently, while nesting they can become even more secretive. So far, I have yet to see a Green Heron on a nest.

They will eat almost anything within reach, although they focus mostly on small fish.

Tadpoles and frogs are also acceptable. If you have ever seen a successful Green Heron hunt, no doubt you have been impressed by their secret weapon.

They can appear to be sitting quietly, enjoying the sunshine, when actually they are a bundle of tightly wound muscles waiting to strike. When a fish, frog or damselfly attempts to pass by, they may mistakenly assume that they are safely out of the heron's reach. 

Faster then the eye can follow, the neck extends and the dagger-like bill closes on the unsuspecting prey. How a Green Heron can retract such a long neck and make it virtually disappear, is beyond me. With Great Blue Herons, the neck works in a similar fashion but the length of the neck is almost always apparent - even when retracted into a 'S'.

Green Herons have an intellectual advantage as well. They are smart enough to pickup a twig or a seed and throw it out onto the water. When a fish surfaces to inspect the potential meal they can quickly become the heron's sushi snack instead.

Unlike the previous photos, the photo above was taken in November of 2016. Almost all of my Green Heron photos have been take in July, August or September. Last year, I started to wonder why that was. Do northern birds migrate south and increase the numbers during the late summer? Do young birds leave their nests and double the visible population? Are there other factors in play?

This year, I have tried to pay closer attention to the age of the Green Herons in hopes that I might better understand their fairly dramatic change in visibility. When comparing this heron with the one in the 2016 photo, can you tell which one is oldest?

I have also been wondering if it is possible to tell the visible differences between males and females. 

Later in July, I happened to catch three Green Herons is one photo. My focus was on the bird in the front and center. To the upper-right and on the left you can just barely make out the shape of two more Green Herons. The differences in their colors and patterns became immediately interesting to me.

This is the bird on the left in the previous photo.

This is the bird from the upper-right side of the photo.

Finally, this is the heron which was directly in front of me. Take a moment to consider the differences between these birds. I believe there are both age differences and potentially gender differences as well.


Because the sides of the neck are streaked with white we can conclude the bird on the right is a first-year bird. Also, notice the yellow 'spectacles' which surround the eye and extend forward to the bill, and the mostly yellow coloring of the bill.

The bird from the lefthand side of the photo has a neck which is unblemished on the sides. This indicates it is a mature bird i.e. more than a year old. The 'spectacles' are not quite as large but almost more obvious due to the increasing contrast with the cap and the bill.

The bird which was front and center is also a mature bird due to the unblemished sides of its neck. 

Birds of North America* says, '...females tend to be smaller, duller and lighter.' In this case, that makes me think this is an adult male and the left-hand heron (in the previous photo) is an adult female.

Here is another shot of the left-hand bird.Notice the orange color on the sole of the foot versus the yellow coloring on the leg and the top of the other foot. I believe that as Green Herons age the coloring of their feet and legs turns from a greenish-yellow to orange. If true, then the adult male, i.e. the bird in flight, is certainly the oldest of the three birds.

Here is the adult male after he resettled. Notice his spectacles are almost invisible. In reference to the spectacles Birdweb says, 'These markings are present, but less pronounced, in the adult.' It also appears that the bill color darkens up as these birds age.

Can you spot one more difference between this adult and...

...the young bird photographed in 2016? The profusion of small, whitish, upward-pointing triangles also indicates a young bird. These light markings wear away with time.

Finally, Birds of North America (BNA*) states that A.C. Bent and H.C. Oberholser believed that the brown stripes in the crown of a juvenile indicate that the bird is a female. BNA goes on to suggest that this is area in need of further research. Regardless, it is another interesting difference between a juvenile and an adult Green Heron. 

In conclusion, I suspect that migration, fledging and maybe even the proliferation of lily pads (as a hunting platform) may all combine to explain why I consistently see more Green Herons during this time of year. Another factor could be the absence of other breeding species, which have already headed south, and the fact that most wintering species have not yet arrived. This general lack of alternative species to watch may also help focus my attention on Green Herons.

In any case, I sure hope your get the chance to visit Union Bay and see a Green Heron's secret weapon in action!

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

Larry


*Recommended Citation

Davis Jr., W. E. and J. A. Kushlan (1994). Green Heron (Butorides virescens), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (A. F. Poole and F. B. Gill, Editors). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bna.129

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 our local environment and 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 respect native flora and to support native wildlife at every opportunity. I have learned that our most logical approach to native trees and plants (in order of priority) should be to:

1) Learn and leave established native flora undisturbed.
2) Remove invasive species and then wait to see if native plants begin to grow without assistance. (If natives plants start on their own, then these plants or trees are likely the most appropriate flora for the habitat.)
3) Scatter seeds from nearby native plants in a similar habitat.
4) If you feel you must add a new plant then select a native plant while considering how the plant fits with the specific habitat and understanding the plant's logical place in the normal succession of native plants.

My intention in my weekly post is to include at least one photo each week and visually challenge us to know the difference between native and non-native lifeforms.



What species of dragonfly is this? Is it native to Union Bay?

















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









Scroll down for the answer










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




Cardinal Meadowhawk: I believe this dragonfly is native to Union Bay. Did you know that Dennis Paulson, who teaches the Master Birder Class for Seattle Audubon, is also a world-renown expert on dragonflies? Dennis' Field Key to Adult Washington Dragonflies is easily accessible by Clicking Here.





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




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




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



Friday, August 31, 2018

A Moment In Time

When the smoke began to lift, one of the first birds I saw this week was a young Cooper's Hawk. I heard it first. The repeated calls seemed to bounce from one location to the next. I twisted and turned trying to find the source of the sound. It is possible that I was hearing multiple siblings begging all around me. I wandered in circles visually searching the pines and the sequoias trying to pinpoint the sounds. 

Due to the persistent and repetitive begging, I assumed the hawks I heard were young. Each of the high-pitched 'keee' calls seemed to explode before fading in both pitch and volume. When one of the young birds finally landed in front of me, the vertical brown teardrops on its breast confirmed its youth, while the varied length of the tail feathers confirmed it was a Cooper's Hawk.

On multiple days this week, I also saw a young Pied-billed Grebe. I suspect I have been watching the same one since I consistently saw it just to the west of Duck Bay. It floats around a lot and occasionally dives. Mostly it seems to wait and watch for its mother to pop up with food. The black and white cheek and the pink hue on its bill are indicative of its youth.

The two-toned, 'pied-bill' of the adults is what gives this species its name. It is interesting how the adult and the juvenile share a similar shape while their facial coloring is quite different.

When the young bird sees a parent surface it immediately lowers its head, opens its mouth and does its best imitation of a starving, young hatchling.


When the mother dives it resumes a more dignified pose. 

When the adult resurfaces, the young one shrinks again and promptly gives chase.

I wonder if the mother is counting the days until this one learns to find food. Finding enough food for both of them must be quite a challenge.

When the patient parent captures food, she keeps it alive while she wanders about searching for her hungry, young offspring. In the past, I have watched parents recapture the same fish multiple times, while the young fumble about and slowly learn to handle live food.

The next day I spotted a young Green Heron to the west of Foster Island. The mottled stripes on the sides of the neck and the small white triangles on the tips of the wing feathers indicate this heron is in its first year. 

Yesterday, to east of Foster Island I saw what I believe is a young Hooded Merganser. This was the first time I remember seeing a Hooded Merganser - without a hood. While I was focusing on this bird I heard a very loud 'Pha-Phoom'. Something hit the water between us.

I jumped, lowered my camera and looked up as an Osprey disappeared to the south. I had seen a single Osprey in the distance the day before and I wondered if it might be one of the two adults from the nest in the Union Bay Natural Area (UBNA). Sadly, I knew it was not either of this year's young, since neither survived. Maybe next year.

When I headed south, in the direction which the Osprey flew, I caught one more glimpse of it as it turned and headed north. I decided my best bet was to hike to the north end of the island and try to catch sight of the Osprey, since I often see them circling around Union Bay. When I got there the bay seemed empty, no birds as far as I could see. I turned to head home. As I walked I thought, What if the Osprey had been sitting in the tree above my head when it dived? Maybe, when it headed north it simply returned to the same hunting roost. On my way home for lunch, I decided to stop and take one more look. As I crept quietly back to the same location, I searched through the thicket of Red Alder branches and leaves. 

To my pleasant surprise, there was the Osprey. The white edging on its dark feathers and the hint of orange irises told me it was a juvenile. The light coloring of its feet also seemed unusually pristine. I suspect that with use and the passage of time osprey feet slowly fade to a dirty gray-brown. 

When the young bird stretched its leg it was fun to see how the sharp, curving talons divided into two opposing groups. This adaption helps them to catch and hold onto the fish they love.

It was also interesting to watch how the talons contracted into a harmless little ball before being tucked away next to the bird's belly. 

In this photo from Spring we can see how the male balled-up his talons to protect the female's back. This photo also shows us how the dark feathers of an adult, most obvious on the side of the female, lack the white tips which we saw on the young osprey in the previous photo.

Meanwhile, the 'hoodless' merganser had stayed in the area. When it decided to slowly paddle away, it tilted its head to keep a watchful eye on the Osprey sitting overhead.

Later when I passed by Duck Bay, I could not miss this young Great Blue Heron flying about. In this case, the gray top to the head indicates its youth. Not to mention its almost hyper-active hunting technique. Apparently the calm, patient hunting style of an adult is a skill which must be learned.

When the bird shivered and shook, its obviously short feathers reinforced my assessment of youth.

All of these young birds are in a race with the calendar. The Cooper's Hawk and the Pied-billed Grebe are still getting food from their parents, but the parent's level of devotion and effort is not sustainable. With Fall fast approaching, all of these first-year birds must learn to become self-sufficient. 

For months, their parents have been working towards this moment in time. In Winter and early Spring the parents worked to attract and retain mates. They built nests and defended territories. They laid eggs, incubated and protected them. In all of these cases, except for the precocious merganser, the parents have supplied a nearly endless buffet of food for their young. In general, the parents have helped the young to find food and demonstrated the foraging process. Just like us, this new generation of birds is facing a future which will be determined by how quickly they learn and how effectively they use their new skills.

The survival of these creatures may also hinge on the choices we make. Please take the time to research and learn about the candidates in this Fall's election. Their views regarding humanity and nature will be critical for the future. Click Here for what appears to be a calm and unbiased source regarding the candidates. Click Here to register to vote. 

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 our local environment and 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 respect native flora and to support native wildlife at every opportunity. I have learned that our most logical approach to native trees and plants (in order of priority) should be to:

1) Learn and leave established native flora undisturbed.
2) Remove invasive species and then wait to see if native plants begin to grow without assistance. (If natives plants start on their own, then these plants or trees are likely the most appropriate flora for the habitat.)
3) Scatter seeds from nearby native plants in a similar habitat.
4) If you feel you must add a new plant then select a native plant while considering how the plant fits with the specific habitat and understanding the plant's logical place in the normal succession of native plants.

My intention in my weekly post is to include at least one photo each week and visually challenge us to know the difference between native and non-native lifeforms.



What species of dragonfly is this? Is it native to Union Bay?

















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









Scroll down for the answer










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





Blue-eyed Darner: Yes, this dragonfly is native to Union Bay. Did you know that Dennis Paulson, who teaches the Master Birder Class for Seattle Audubon, is also a world-renown expert on dragonflies? Dennis' Field Key to Adult Washington Dragonflies is easily accessible by Clicking Here.





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




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




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