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

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Sunday, December 8, 2019

The Bum Deal

Mallards are the most common of all duck species in North America, according to All About Birds.

This post focuses on a selection of twenty duck species found around Union Bay. The group of twenty is divided evenly into ten dabbling duck and ten diving duck species. In particular, we will be looking at the rear view of the male ducks in breeding plumage. 

Mallards dabble. You might imagine that they perceive life as a buffet filled with a variety of delicious delicacies. Given that they are the largest and most common of the dabbling ducks you might suspect they are bullies who paddle around and try a taste of anything and everything they want. You might be right. They are the only species I have seen eating crabapples off a tree on Foster Island.

However, that is not why they are called dabbling ducks. The dabbling description is related to their inverted feeding style. With their legs attached at 'mid-ship,' they can paddle quickly, walk adequately and, critical for dabbling, they can easily hold their 'upper' body below the surface while feeding in shallow water. However, the placement of their legs is not very useful for diving.

Buffleheads are one of our most common diving ducks. Their legs are attached near the back of the body, just in front of the tail. Their webbed feet function like flippers on a diver and greatly enhance their underwater mobility. As a result, they swim and dive superbly, although they seldom dabble and walk rather poorly.

Diving ducks also have relatively longer tails. I suspect they utilize their tails below the surface in a manner somewhat similar to a Cooper's Hawk. When a Cooper's Hawk flies through a forest, their long tails help them to twist and turn to avoid obstructing branches, to match the agility of their prey and to elude predators.

Similar to the Mallard in the first photo, a Gadwall is another dabbling duck with a dark bum. In both cases, they also have a few light tail feathers which seem even brighter against the surrounding darkness. After years, of watching male dabbling ducks, I finally noticed that most of them have black butts. The sudden realization sparked questions. Do all male dabbling ducks have dark bums? If so, what purpose do they serve?  What about the diving ducks? Do they have dark, light or a variety of bum colors?

One of my first thoughts was remembering that Dennis Paulson taught us that dark feathers are more durable than white ones. That seemed like a logical reason for the dark bums but then why do they have white highlights? Why not just solid black bums?

A Northern Shoveler is another dabbling duck with a dark bum and few light highlights. Among the dabblers, shovelers are the most dignified. They generally 'snorkle' about in circles with their bills below the surface while their bodies remain horizontal. 

Green-winged Teals do have even larger white highlights but the background color of their bums is still dark. Blue-winged Teals have smaller highlights but more extensive black bums. You can see an example on All About Birds by clicking the blue highlighted text.  

 Cinnamon Teals have dark bums...

...as do the Northern Pintails.

American (and Eurasian) Wigeons are Union Bay dabblers with black butts.

Even the more distantly related Wood Ducks, who I suspect just barely belong to the dabbling duck society, have dark bums. Their hind feathers are similar in color to their chests but noticeably darker than their sides and their white highlights. All ten of the most common, male dabbling ducks on Union Bay have dark bums in breeding plumage. 

My friend Dave Galvin suggested the dark bums might make them less conspicuous to airborne predators. Camouflage certainly seemed like a plausible concept.

However, with so many light feathers surrounding the small black bums, the stark color difference seems like it would attract attention. If memory serves, I believe the underside of most male dabbling ducks is light in color creating this similar situation.

At this point, in my research, I was very curious about the color of the diving duck bums. I learned that Ring-necked Ducks have black bums.

As do, Lesser Scaups...

...the Canvasbacks and the somewhat similarly patterned Redheads.

On the other hand, the Hooded Mergansers have a lighter colored bum...

...as do the male Common Mergansers...

...and the male Ruddy Duck and the Bufflehead which we saw earlier. This leaves the count among the diving duck species at four dark and four light bums.

A glance at the Barrows Goldeneye and the ...

...closely related Common Goldeneye initially convinced me that they have dark bums. Which would make the count six dark bums out of the ten Union Bay diving duck species.

Luckily, I stumbled across this photo. Male Common Goldeneyes do have a dark tail but their bums are white. I do not have a similar photo of a Barrow's Goldeneye, but I suspect their bums may also be light. The bottom-line on the color of diving duck bums is apparently about fifty-fifty. 

Finding photos of diving duck bums was much harder. Ultimately, I realized that when they are on the surface their tails are usually at or just below the surface, so their bums are hidden to human eyes. Also, they dive quickly. During the diving process, their bums disappear in flash. Plus they are often encircled by a splash of the water. This led me to conclude that the color of a diving duck's bum may have little or no impact on their top side lives. Although having a completely light underside may be an example of countershading which may help make them less visible to aquatic lifeforms.

In a surprising observation, five of the six diving duck species with white bums are cavity nesters e.g. both Goldeneyes, both Mergansers and Buffleheads. The only exception is the Ruddy Duck. Since only female ducks enter the nesting cavities, as far as I have seen, and only the males have the light-colored bums I cannot conceive of any logical reason for this correlation. I would love to hear about your thoughts and ideas.

On the other hand, the consistent dark color and constant exposure of the ten male dabbling duck bums makes me suspect the darkness serves a useful purpose. Not only are dabbling duck bums exposed while they are feeding they are also obvious when paddling about on the surface. In essence, their bums are exposed nearly all of the time. Plus, many of the species have contrasting light-colored highlights which most likely draws attention to their bums.  My best guess is this flashy arrangement functions as a signal to other males of their species. 

I suspect it informs competitors that the nearby female has a mate, even if the male mate has his head underwater, or if his back is turned. During breeding season an approaching male is unlikely to mistake a mated pair for two unaccompanied females. This idea is my best guess at explaining dark bums on male dabbling ducks. If you think of a more logical explanation please let me know. In any case, Thank You for following along!

Have a great day on Union Bay...where male dabbling ducks moon the competition.

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. I hope 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. 



Is dark-bummed dabbling duck native to Union Bay?













Scroll down for the answer.














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Eurasian WigeonAs the name makes clear Eurasian Wigeons are not native to Union Bay, the Pacific Northwest or North America. They come here from Siberia, according to Seattle Audubon's free online application e.g. Birdweb. It is always fun to scan a large flock of American Wigeons and then suddenly spot the striking head of a Eurasian Wigeon.









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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 workaround is to set up 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, December 1, 2019

Thankful

No doubt Bald Eagles are thankful for their food. Around Union Bay, American Coots are much more plentiful than Wild Turkeys. Plus, the Coots are a more appropriate size for Bald Eagles to catch, carry and consume.

I am not sure that most people realize how thankful we should be to have Bald Eagles for neighbors. On Thanksgiving Day, Ed Deal, from the Urban Raptor Conservancy, sent the following email. "...today I'll be offering up a toast to a great man who passed away yesterday. As you all know (or should know), William Ruckelshaus was the first Director of the EPA, who enacted the ban on DDT against significant political pressure...' Ed also sent the following link.


Click Here for a brief NPR update regarding William Ruckelshaus.

Previous to the ban, DDT was widely used. It bioaccumulated, which was particularly damaging to raptors. It weakened their eggshells and caused them to break before incubation could be completed. The numbers of Bald Eagles and raptors, in general, plummeted in the United States. No one I have spoken with remembers Bald Eagles around Union Bay in 1972. At that time, there were around 100 nesting pairs left in Washington state and less than a thousand in the lower 48 states. By 2014, forty-two years after the ban began, there were over 13,000 nesting pairs in the lower 48, more the 800 pairs in Washington and two nesting pairs on Union Bay. 

Thank you, Mr. Ruckelshaus!

In 2017, a third-pair of Bald Eagles moved into the southwest portion of Union Bay. They built their nest at the southeast corner of Montlake Cut. Their new territory included Portage Bay, Montlake Cut, and Marsh Island, which explains their names, Monty and Marsha. I believe, they are living examples of the continuing raptor recovery from DDT.

Monty bringing a branch to the pair's first nest on Montlake Cut

I suspect that in 2017 Monty and Marsha were a newly mature pair of Bald Eagles, e.g. approximately 5 years old - since they started their nest from scratch. By the way, Bald Eagles mate for life and can live for decades.

This is Monty placing one of the first sticks in the nest.

By January of 2018, the nest was beginning to take form. Among raptors, the females are larger. In this photo, Marsha is on our right and Monty is on the left. 

In Marsha's case, if you look closely you can see she has a gray smudge behind her eye. It is particularly apparent in the very first photo in this post. In the second and third photos, you can see that feathers behind Monty's eye are a brilliant white. Also, Marsha has a much heavier 'eyebrow' than Monty. Take a look at the next two photos and see if you can tell which is Monty and which is Marsha.

A)

B)
The first photo is Marsha and the second is Monty.

In 2018 Monty and Marsha had their first two offspring. This is Marsha in the nest with their two young, Charlie and Lucy.

As the young grew the new nest experienced issues. A branch broke, one of the young ended up on the ground. It was injured and unable to fly. The second young bird continued moving about in the remains of the nest and ultimately the nest disintegrated and the second young bird ended up on the ground and also unable to fly. Both of the young were rescued and spent time at PAWS before ultimately being successfully released.

In 2019, Monty and Marsha constructed a new nest in the same tree. It was slightly lower in the biggest crotch in the tree. Once again they had two young. 

This time the branches remained intact, although one of the young ended up on the ground again, and unable to fly, but at least uninjured. The juvenile bird was also recovered by PAWS and successfully released nearby. Monty and Marsha resumed feeding it and everything turned out fine for the family. Except, that once again the nest slowly broke up and by the time the young left home the nest was virtually gone.

Just before Thanksgiving, Monty and Marsha began rebuilding again.

Currently, the nest is more crow-sized than eagle-sized. However, the pair is building in the same location as last year. No doubt by March the nest will be large enough to hold their eggs and their 2020 young. Whether the nest will last until the young fledge is open for debate. Monty and Marsha are committed to their territory and their nest site. The technical term for their commitment is site-fidelity.

It warms my heart to watch Monty looking through the treetops while searching for the next branch to add to their 'new' nest.

New life is inspiring, amazing and beautiful. However, if the Bald Eagle recovery is to continue we need to follow in Mr. Ruckelshuas' footsteps. We need to mitigate the impacts of humanity's expansion. The next limiting factor to Bald Eagle recovery is most likely food.

Marsha (pictured here), Monty and all Bald Eagles, also love fish as a food source. To enable the full recovery of our Bald Eagle population we need to continue to restore water and fish habitat. The local restoration of habitat is critical. However, Union Bay is an interconnected piece in a much larger puzzle. Restoration is needed throughout the Lake Washington watershed and in Puget Sound. 

Monty and Marsha are either the smartest or the luckiest pair of Bald Eagles in Seattle. Their choice to carve out a territory and nest over Montlake Cut puts them above a narrow span of water through which all migrating fish must pass, to enter or exit the Lake Washington watershed. I am thankful Monty and Marsha are finding food, rebuilding their nest and raising young. They are doing their part to aid the Bald Eagle recovery. The question is, 'Are we?'

The following are some of the organizations which are helping.





A Thankful Update:

Jerry Pinkepank responded to this post with the following comments.

"We should add to that thanks to Rachel Carson (I note that there is a small research ship moored at UW that now carries her name). Her Book, Silent Spring, set in motion the political will that enabled Mr. Ruckelshaus to get his regulation through. My mother was somehow very aware of the dangers of DDT even to humans and in the 1950's a neighbor boy and I would hurriedly pick the pie cherries of the big tree in that neighbor's back yard, just ahead of the B-17 spraying DDT over the entire city of Lansing, Michigan to combat mosquitoes. After the plane had passed she would not allow me to pick or eat any of those delicious cherries for the rest of the season. -- Jerry"

The Rachel Carson is the larger of the two vessels.

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. I hope 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 type of tree are the Montlake Bald Eagles nesting in? Is it native to Union Bay?













Scroll down for the answer.














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Black Cottonwood: Cottonwood is native to Union Bay. It not particularly appreciated because of its weak lumber. However, it is the primary tree in which our local Bald Eagles nest. Its supple branches are their primary nest-building material. Its seeds are often the initial food for Mallard ducklings, fresh out of their eggs. Plus, bees are known to collect the trees sticky sap-like substance because it repeals pests in their hives. Beavers use it to build their lodges. Plus, woodpeckers and even chickadees have been seen using the dead standing trees for nests and roosting spots. Cottonwoods are critical to our co-existence with nature.









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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 workaround is to set up 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, November 17, 2019

The Raven's Return

The post, The Mythical Raven, was inspired by my first-ever sighting of a Raven in the Arboretum. Both of which took place in March of this year. That initial post documented many of the critical differences between Common Ravens and American Crows.

During the following week, I spotted Ravens in the Arboretum, twice. However, it wasn't until this week, that I noticed an additional difference between the two species. If you look closely at the top of this Common Raven's bill you can see that the feathering near the forehead extends approximately halfway to the tip of the bill.

With an American Crow, the 'forehead' feathering reaches less than a third of the way to the tip. When the light is right, and especially with binoculars, this difference is quite obvious. 

The bill-size versus the size of the head is a bit more subtle. It seems as though the primary purpose of a Raven's head is to provide a site for holding the massive bill. With Crows, the opposite seems true. The head appears to be the larger more important body part, while the bill seems like a supporting actor.

Even without seeing the relative size of the bird, the shape of an extended tail, the length of the wings or hearing its voice, there should be no question in your mind which species is in this photo.

As the Raven took flight, it partially displayed its diamond or wedge-shaped tail, which is distinctly different from the fan-shape of a Crow's tail. 

Back in March, the primary, Raven-related questions on my mind were, Will they stay? Will they establish a territory? Will they build a nest and raise young?

Later, on the same day, I caught a filtered glimpse of one of them with a small twig in its mouth. I was hoping that it might be a sign of nest building.

My next sighting was roughly two weeks later in Interlaken Park.

Whenever I see a Raven it always seems like I hear it first. They are obviously intelligent and very careful, but they are also act shy. If they notice me watching them they tend to immediately move to a more hidden position. It is hard to understand why they are both consistently vocal and shy.

One of the special things about Interlaken Park is the slope. It is easy to stand at the edge of the park and look horizontally into the upper canopy which rises up out of the ravine. In this case, the Raven found a decomposing hole, most likely where a branch broke off years before. The Raven appeared to be inspecting the interior for small, tasty inhabitants.

The distance was such that I could not determine if the mission was successful or not.

There is certainly something magical about the untended beauty of Licorice ferns hanging from the moss-covered branches of Big-leaf Maple trees. The Raven apparently felt right at home.

About a week later, in mid-April, I took my last Spring photo of a Raven. It was in the Arboretum. I heard them at least once more passing west over Interlaken Park at the close of the day. Throughout the bulk of the summer, I did not see or hear Ravens anywhere in the Montlake or Union Bay neighborhoods. 

On September 6th, I caught my first Fall photo of a Raven, also in the Arboretum. Apparently, it was inspecting the bottom side of the branch for food. 

In mid-September, I saw another one.

Last week, I caught a distant photo as one called out.

 This week, I have seen them multiple times.


On Thursday, the Raven on the left was sitting on the branch when it was approached by the bird on the right. As the second Raven flew in towards the perched bird it was calling out. However, the sound was not their normal call. The sound was most similar to a high-pitched hiccuping. You can hear a similar Raven call by playing the last recording on All About Birds > Click Here. (The first recording is their 'normal' call.)

I have not read anything which explains the purpose of the odd-sounding call. In this case, the approaching bird appeared to be focused and apparently speaking to the perched bird. The perched bird sat and listened for a few moments before silently gliding off to a nearby tree. I wonder if the response was an example of actions speaking louder than words.

The return of the Ravens leaves me encouraged, curious and slightly apprehensive. On the positive side, their return makes me think this may be a young pair which is including the Arboretum in their initial territory. We may get to enjoy them as our newest neighbors for many years to come.

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Update:

Speaking of messages of hope during a challenging time, you will want to read an incredible post on the blog of my friend Dan Pedersen, Click Here

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I am curious whether the Ravens built a nest this year. Although, I doubt it. I do feel fairly certain they did not build one in the Arboretum. I realize they are intelligent enough to work quietly and it is possible I might have overlooked their nest building. However, I doubt they could have had young in a nest and spent a month or two bringing food to the nest, especially, if the young birds were begging to be fed, without anyone noticing their presence. (All About Birds says they lay three to seven eggs.)  

If they did nest this year, it seems likely it was somewhere other than the Arboretum. I would certainly like to know if you have seen more than two Ravens, at once, anywhere in the Montlake/Union Bay area.

I suspect a young pair of Ravens might take a year, or maybe even more, to settle into a territory, build a nest, and successfully feed and raise young. Similar to how it took the new Osprey pair, on the north side of Union Bay, two years to complete their nest and raise their first offspring.

While I am excited to regularly see Ravens in our area, I am apprehensive about how a new set of predators may impact the local eco-system. A friend mentioned watching the Ravens chasing after a Barred Owl in the Arboretum this Fall. I have to wonder if Hawks, Owls, Eagles, and Ravens can all successfully nest, hunt, and coexist in and around the Arboretum. The Ravens will certainly add pressure on other smaller, non-predatory birds, especially during nesting.

One of the most important things we can do, to help Ravens successfully co-exist, is working to improve the local eco-system and the abundance of life it supports. If you are a King County resident one important way to help is to write an email to the King County Council members asking for approval of the latest grant request from Friends of Arboretum Creek (FOAC). 

The FOAC design grant will determine the best method for reuniting Alder Creek with Arboretum Creek. More clean water in the stream will dramatically increase the potential for life in the Arboretum eco-system, while also increasing the capacity in the King County sewer. You can read about the project details by clicking on the highlighted link, above. 

You can easily send a letter of support by copying our FOAC Sample Letter. The Council will be voting on this request in early December. Your timely support may make all the difference!

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. I hope 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. 



Is this bathing beauty native to Union Bay?

Here are a couple more photos to provide helpful hints.

What species is it?














Scroll down for the answer.














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Song Sparrow: This is one of our most common native birds, however, it can be challenging to identify when it appears to be a brown blur in the middle of a cloud of water droplets. This one was bathing in Arboretum Creek, earlier this week.






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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 workaround is to set up 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