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

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Sunday, November 11, 2018

Sparrows, Falcons and Eagles

On Monday I visited the Union Bay Natural Area (aka Montlake Fill). I was inspired by a friend and classmate from Seattle Audubon's Master Birder Class. Louis is a young man with sharp eyes, keen ears and an incredible memory for avian details. Not long before, Louis positively identified a Swamp Sparrow at The Fill. Seattle Audubon's free online application, Birdweb, lists the Swamp Sparrow as rarely occurring near Puget Sound, and even then only from November through March. Knowing that Louis had personally seen the sparrow gave me confidence that the bird was really there and worth a search. Even so, I had my doubts about finding the bird, and questions about distinguishing it from other sparrows. In preparation, I reviewed the Swamp Sparrow details in my guidebook.

When I reached the edge of the marsh, all I saw were dried cattails. I could hear male wigeons making their high-pitched 'sneezing' call, out on the bay. The cold wind whistled in off the bay, but on the positive side, there was no rain. A Song Sparrow gave me a brief moment of excitement. Then the waiting and the listening continued. Finally, there was a flicker of motion and a small sparrow came up out of the cattails and landed on a low hanging branch. The combination of a mostly dark crown, the yellow base of the slightly delicate bill and the very slightly-streaked grey chest were all positive hints. It almost felt like the Swamp Sparrow found me.


A few moments after the Swamp Sparrow arrived a second sparrow landed next to it. The coloring was somewhat similar. The most glaring difference between the two birds were the dark vertical steaks against the pale orange-brown background on the chest of the second bird. A Lincoln's Sparrow, while not nearly so rare as the Swamp Sparrow, was also a fun bird to find. These are my first photographs of both of these species.

Shortly, the Lincoln's Sparrow left and the Swamp Sparrow turned my direction. From this angle, its very lightly marked chest was quite distinct from the clearly defined markings on the Lincoln's Sparrow. The Lincoln's Sparrows' malar stripe, running down and away from its beak, was similar in color to the pale orangish-brown on its chest. The malar stripe on the Swamp Sparrow was a bit brighter and an off-white color.

In this case, the dark coloring on the Swamp Sparrow's head appeared broader and not so clearly divided, like the stripes on the crown of the Lincoln's Sparrow. I am not sure if this is a universal difference between the two species or simply individual variation.

The next day I returned to the same location hoping to catch a few more photos. When I arrived, another young man was already there. He was also looking for the Swamp Sparrow. Sadly, this was his fifteenth trip, without seeing the reclusive little bird. It turned out that neither of us saw the Swamp Sparrow, even though we heard some very promising calls.

Later, I walked a few feet away and began chatting with a second birder. Suddenly, we noticed a bird of prey circling around the cottonwoods. The crisply pointed wings told us we were watching a peregrine falcon in action.

I twisted and turned trying to catch up with the bird and hoping my camera would focus faster than I could.

Sadly, the busy background often befuddled my camera's autofocus capabilities. 

It felt like the falcon was pursuing a smaller bird, but everything was happening so fast, I couldn't even catch a glimpse of the prey.

Suddenly, I realized there were two different falcons, both of which were taking turns diving and circling around the prey. I did not see the capture, but moments later, as the falcons began to fly away, I caught a glimpse of a small bird in the talons of the second falcon. The birder next to me saw the falcon drop the little bird as the two of them passed near Main Pond. I was confused.

The constant low-level circling-pursuit was a hunting procedure which I had never seen before - from a peregrine falcon. Previously, I had seen hunting falcons descend swiftly from a great height. Pulling in their wings and, looking almost like a rocket. Their great speed, in excess of 200 mph, making the impact on their prey terminal.

When I reached home, I sent an email to my friends at the Urban Raptor Conservancy. They have decades of experience observing and banding Peregrine Falcons - and many other birds of prey. If anyone could explain what we had seen it would be Ed Deal or Martin Muller.

Martin's reply included '...Tandem hunting is part of courtship behavior. Coordinating their actions. Many year[s] ago I watched Stewart and Bell hunt a hummingbird over downtown. They certainly didn't do it for the caloric value of the prey (they actually discarded the prey after killing it, which [is] how we know it was a hummingbird)...'

Peregrine courtship in early November may be the first hint that Spring (and breeding season) will return again. However, Monty and Marsha, the newest Bald Eagle pair on Union Bay, are also providing a timely reminder. On Thursday, I was sitting in my kayak near the east end on Montlake Cut when the sound of an overhead branch breaking caused me to look up. With a branch 'in hand', one of the eagles turned and headed for the same fork in the cottonwood where they nested last year. Eagles do not normally start a new nest each year, but since last year's nest fell, Monty and Marsha must begin again. I have been on pins and needles for weeks waiting to see if they would attempt to nest in the same prime location. 

If you missed the story of how the nest fell and the impact on their offspring the following three links will explain last summer's drama.




The good news is Monty and Marsha are at least a month ahead of last year's effort to build their nest. Spring may still be a Winter away but the promise of its return is all around us.

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.


Can you correctly match the photos of these four sparrows with their species' name? The species are:
  • Lincoln's Sparrow
  • White-crowned Sparrow
  • Chipping Sparrow
  • Swamp Sparrow
















Scroll down for the answer.










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All four species are native to Union Bay, although some are more common than others.


  • Chipping Sparrow, #1
  • White-crowned Sparrow, #2 (This one was slightly tricky since I used a first year bird - which had not yet developed its white crown.)
  • Swamp Sparrow, #3
  • Lincoln's Sparrow, #4







  • ***************


    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





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    Sunday, November 4, 2018

    Elegance Enqueue

    I have seen Western Grebes at a number of different places on Union Bay. However, my most common sightings are in October and immediately east of the Conibear shell-house. This year, these two showed up on time and at the expected location.

    While watching them lazily paddled back and forth, I noticed a fairly obvious difference in size.

    Initially, I assumed the difference was due to gender. As time passed, I began to wonder, Could the smaller bird be a juvenile? I had no clue how to resolve the issue. I did not remember noticing any age, or gender, related variations between Western Grebes in the past. 

    The bird on the left was not only larger and longer but it even seemed to float higher in the water, with a larger percentage of its back and body above the surface. I wondered why.

    I think this photo makes the size difference most obvious. Theoretically, if the two birds were nearly the same size, the closer bird should appear larger. 

    Later, while reading Peter Pyle's book, 'Identification Guide to North American Birds - Part II', I came to understand that male Western Grebes are often noticeably larger than the females. Among other things, their bills are generally longer. However, in some cases, there can be overlap. A small male could be somewhat smaller than a large female. However, it seems reasonable to assume a visually observable size difference most likely implies the larger bird is male.

    In this case, I found the size difference to be quite obvious. However, this did not resolve the question of age. Could the smaller bird have simply been a juvenile, of either gender?

    As the afternoon progressed, the smaller bird turned in the water. For a split second, I wondered if it was going to attack the larger bird. It did not. The larger bird simply ignored the antic and they resumed their casual paddling.

    Later, the smaller bird appeared to yawn. They must have fed earlier in the day because they did spend much time diving for food. 

    As with other birds, I assumed that preening was a secondary activity which might indicate their hunger was satiated. It is interesting, that unlike Pied-billed Grebes, I seldom see a Western Grebe bring their catch to the surface. I suspect, they generally swallow their food underwater.

    Only once have I photographed a Western Grebe with a fish out of water. All About Birds says, 'They either spear prey, or capture it with a forceps-like motion of the bill, taking larger prey items to the surface before swallowing.'

    The preening turned into stretching. I find grebes to be really quite odd. They have super wide toes, instead of webbed feet, and their legs are attached were their tails ought to be. This is an amazing adaptation for underwater swimming, but it makes walking on land fascinatingly awkward. Please, Click Here to see a rare video, as recorded by Mick Thompson.

    By the way, if you want to stump your birder friends ask them, 'What color is a Grebe's tail?'

    This bird continued to swim around with only one foot in the water. Due to the angle of presentation, I was initially uncertain whether I was seeing the top or the bottom of the exposed foot. Certainly, a Western Grebe's hip joint does function like mine.

    Ultimately, the bird simply laid its foot down on its back. At which point, it seemed obvious that I was now seeing the underside of the foot, which was a dark greyish-black in color. This casual inverse of the leg made me think Western Grebes should be given the title, 'Yoga Masters'.

    With its long neck and beak, it was obvious that the grebe could easily reach over its back and thoroughly inspect its foot with its bill.

    Little did I know that the yellow top to the smaller bird's foot might imply an answer to my question.

    Later, I found the following information in *Birds of North America Online under the heading, 'Legs and Feet'. 'In adults lower surface of tarsi and toes black, upper surface yellow green or yellow orange. In hatchlings legs and feet "nearly black" (Ratti 1977) or "mostly slaty, the lobes somewhat greenish" (Palmer, 1962); upper surface becomes olive green in juveniles and obtains adult coloration in first year.'

    I understood this to imply that the smaller bird was most likely an adult since the upper surface of its foot was yellow instead of olive green, as it would be in a juvenile.

    This whole photographic process was an incredible surprise for me. At the time, I was out in a rowboat with my friend, Chris Kessler. Chris quietly, rowed the boat around to the sunny side of the birds while I photographed their practice of yoga. It was a wonderful first experience. I have never before had a maritime chauffeur. Thank you, Chris!

    I will leave you with a final Western Grebe conundrum. It seems to me that the upper mandible, on the smaller, female bird, often appeared to be a tiny bit longer than the lower half. I think it creates an almost 'up-turned' look to the bill. With the larger male the two parts of the bill appear heavier and precisely the same length. The next time you are observing Western Grebes take a look and let me know whether or not you too can see this potentially, gender-based bill difference.

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

    Larry




    Recommended Citation

    LaPorte, N., R. W. Storer, and G. L. Nuechterlein (2013). Western Grebe (Aechmophorus occidentalis), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (A. F. Poole, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bna.26a


    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 types of trees are these cones from? Are they native to Union Bay?

    Hint: The green foliage belongs to the same species as the smaller cones. The dried foliage belongs to the same species has the larger cone.











    Scroll down for the answer.










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    Sierra Redwood (Giant Sequoia) = The larger cone

    Coastal Redwood = The smaller cones

    Neither species is native to Union 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 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





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    Sunday, October 28, 2018

    A Stellar Time

    Autumn is a wonderful time of year. I love the brisk breezes, the occasional brilliant sunshine and the golden-yellow leaves drifting slowly to the ground. It is also, the time when acorns fall. Of course, the acorns often get a little help. The Eastern Gray Squirrels and the Steller's Jays are aggressively searching, plucking and stashing this year's bounty. Their current effort is an investment which will be critical to their survival during the short, dark days of winter, when the leaves are gone and the oak trees look lifeless and bare.

    For me, this means it is time to resume my quest for a photo of a sunlit, brilliant blue Steller's Jay highlighted against a background of orange and yellow leaves. The preceding photo is my best attempt of 2018. Hopefully, I will catch an even brighter shot before the leaves are gone.

    I suspect their raucous, rapid-fire call is the most prominent memory many people have of a Steller's Jay. However, what strikes me the most is their quiet, inquisitive intelligence.

    I find it impossible to watch a Steller's Jay without being impressed by the way they evaluate their opportunities. 


    As they search for acorns they appear to be debating things like the maturity of the nut, the best angle of approach and possibly the size of the prize. 

    Sometimes I wonder if we studied the world as carefully as a Steller's Jay, would we make better choices? They not only study their world - they remember. If they hide just one or two acorns, for each day of the coming winter, then they will need to remember over one hundred different storage locations. What a memory!

    The search for winter provisions hits high gear in early October. The jays start out in the treetops and as the month proceeds they slowly descend. 

    Toward the end of the month, as the elevated acorns disappear, the jays spend more and more time on the ground - flicking leaves to the side and searching for hidden nuggets of nourishment.

    Birds of North American Online* says that the sexes are similar with one exception. The dark barring on their wings and tails is fainter and thinner on females. Notice the faint barring on the tail of this bird versus the darker barring on the bird's tail in the next photo below.

    A special, Thank You!, to Susan and Ralph for enabling access to take this photo.

    Steller's Jays are normally very careful birds and will often flush if you just look at them. Earlier in the year, I felt very lucky to catch this photo of one sunning-itself on the ground.

    By the middle of the October, the upper acorns have been seriously depleted and the jays tend to spend more time in the lower branches, getting ever closer to eye level.

    One by one, the acorns are plucked and carried away.

    If you could zoom in enough you would see that this bird has a whole unshelled acorn in the back of its mouth.

    At this angle, the whitish-grey goatee, below the bill, is protruding as well. As I watched the Steller's Jays this week I realized they were partially swallowing whole unshelled acorns in order to transport them and cache them for winter consumption. I suspect that this bird already had at least one acorn in its throat when it added another.

    This photo also displays the two light blue steaks on the Steller's Jays forehead. In the 'Rocky Mountain' subspecies, these streaks are usually white.

    As I watched more closely, I started to notice more jays with protruding throats.

    If you compare the last two photos with the first three in this post, you will notice that the throats on these birds are bulging slightly towards the front. In the Food section on All About Birds it says,'With large nuts such as acorns and pinyon pine seeds, Steller’s Jays carry several at a time in their mouth and throat, then bury them one by one as a winter food store.'

    Another interesting fact about this photo is the partial white eye-ring. Apparently, this is more common among the 'Rocky Mountain' subspecies than in our local version of the Steller's Jay. In total there are 16 different subspecies. They reside primarily in the western part of North America and in Central America. Wouldn't in be wonderful to see a photo display of all sixteen variations.

    Even before I read about the jays carrying whole acorns in their crop, I remembered watching one break open an acorn in order to consume the nut. It held the acorn on top of a large branch and slammed it repeatedly with its bill. If they are willing to work that hard to open the nuts, then there is no way they are capable of digesting the shelled nuts whole. Logically, the birds which I watched this week had to be 'swallowing' the whole acorns as a means of transportation. 

    The idea prompted me to take a second look at this old 2015 photo. Suddenly, I realized the jay was not just carrying an acorn in its mouth. The whole neck is obviously enlarged. It was probably carrying two or three more nuts in its crop. 

    Some birds, like a Cooper's Hawk, may store food in its crop in order to move to a safe location where it can sit and slowly digest the bounty. On the other hand, a Steller's Jay stores acorns for transportation to a suitable hiding spot. 

    The bird in this 2015 photo, was flying from a Foster Island oak grove to the small, squirrel-free island in the middle of Duck Bay. I have been calling the tiny area Nest Egg Island, but Acorn Island may be more appropriate.

    In another 2015 photo, I caught a Steller's Jay taking a bath. I believe the brown feathers on the bird's back are indicative of youth.

    Thinking about the color of their feathers reminds me of the following link suggested by John Palka. This post explains how jay feathers can be blue even though they contain no blue pigmentation. 


    John Palka, who was previously a University of Washington Biology professor, does a wonderful blog titled Nature's Depths. I think you will find it very interesting. 

    I never get tired of watching Steller's Jays at work. Whenever a jay is in view, I never turn away. In fact, it is usually the jay who finishes its endeavor and with a hop, skip and a jump it disappears into the treetops.

    If you get the chance to visit the Arboretum in the next week or two, take a close look among the oak trees. Your odds of seeing a jay in action are pretty good. October is a stellar time to see the Steller's Jay.

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

    Larry


    *Recommended Citation

    Walker, L. E., P. Pyle, M. A. Patten, E. Greene, W. Davison, and V. R. Muehter (2016). Steller's Jay(Cyanocitta stelleri), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bna.343

    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.



    Please excuse my recycling of last week's photo, but it seemed appropriate. Which of these leaves belonged to an acorn producing tree?








    Scroll down for the answer.










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








    The leaf (and a half) at the top of the photo are from an oak tree which originated in the eastern part of North American, probably the Northern Red Oak. These trees are not native to Union Bay, but our local Steller's Jays apparently don't care. They seem to have a love of the acorns from the imported trees.








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


    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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