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

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Sunday, November 18, 2018

Accipiter Uncertainty

Earlier this month, on the west side of Union Bay, I noticed an accipiter cruising south across the cattails. Even though I was headed in the same direction I quickly lost sight of the small, swift predator. Hoping the hawk might stop to rest, I resolved to check every potential perch I passed. A few minutes later, I saw the shape of a bird in a distant tree. I did a double take. It was crow-sized, but the tail was too long for a crow. 

With the bird on my right, I paddled as far to left as the little islands would allow and did my best to not stare. Mentally, I had my fingers crossed, desperately hoping that my passing would not flush the bird. A few years before, I had prepared for moments like this by covering my bright yellow kayak with brown paint. Not wanting to create any flashy reflections, I also covered the white lettering, which proclaims the paddle manufacturer's name, with black tape. I hoped my efforts would pay off.

I paddled slowly and consistently with no sudden movements. Consciously, I tried to minimize the sound of the water dripping from my paddle. Unconsciously, I was probably holding my breath. Finally, when I got to the sunny side of the bird, I quietly stowed the paddle and silently drifted to my photographic nirvana. 

The little hawk ignored me. It spread its feathers wide and continued to soak up the sunshine. Both of us were obviously pleased with our locations, however, I had a growing sense of discomfort.  Every feather on this bird's body seemed to be at least partially erect. The feathers were held out to apparently maximize their exposure to sunlight and air. The normal queues which I use to guess the bird's species were all in an unfamiliar state. Even though I loved the bird's wide-open feather display I was feeling uncertain about my ability to determine if this was a Sharp-shinned or a Cooper's Hawk? 

These two small accipiters are very similar. The juveniles of both species have dark vertical streaks, sometimes shaped like teardrops, on their chests. At the very least, I could be certain it was a young accipiter.

A few days later while walking along the north side of Montlake Cut, a person, a few yards in front of me, startled a hawk which was evidently hunting along the crest of the ivy-covered hillside. I saw the flash of movement as the bird rose up from the ground and settled on an eye-level branch. I stopped immediately and quietly adjusted my camera.

This bird was not relaxing in the sunshine. Its feathers were all in their 'normal' positions. It was alert and looking all about, clearly hoping to return to the hunt. In this case, I felt fairly certain it was a Cooper's Hawk. The legs looked relatively stout, unlike the skinny little legs of a Sharp-shinned Hawk.  Plus, the profile along the back of the head had a break, e.g. a visible change in direction, at the crown of the head. With Sharp-shinned Hawks, this profile is normally one smooth, unbroken line.

I did not attempt to get any closer, however, I did shift silently to my right hoping to line up some yellow leaves behind the bird's head. At this angle, the profile no longer shows any break. The Cooper's break is not always visible, but it is still useful field mark.

As the bird turns just a bit further we can see the hint of a break once again. I am not sure what the hawk was hunting. I have often seen Dark-eyed Juncos in this area. Last summer, I watched one of the Montlake Cut Bald Eagles fly to the nest with a rat it caught just below this spot. Northern Flickers also frequent this area. All of these would make a nice meal for a young, hungry accipiter, excluding the eagle of course.

Another clue I sometimes utilize is the 'barrel-shaped' body of a Cooper's Hawk versus the chesty, 'padded, football-player' shape of a Sharp-shinned Hawk.

Of course, when the bird momentarily puffed-out its feathers the definitive body shape became a bit obscured, still this bird looked more 'barrel-shaped' to me.

The person who startled the hawk was also a bit surprised by the bird. After watching the bird for a few moments the person continued on his way. The hawk appeared to refocus on the last known location of its prey.

Without any nearby distractions, the hawk returned to the hunt.

It landed near its original position. I was not a surprise to see a Cooper's Hawk hunting close to the ground. On the ground, they remind me of the velociraptors depicted in movies. I am sure glad Cooper's Hawks are not six foot tall. Apparently, its prey had scurried away or found a nice place to hide.

Just before the hawk gave up and flew to the south side of The Cut, it gave one last look over its shoulder. It seemed as if it was hoping the prey might try to sneak out of hiding as soon as the bird turned its back.

With the first bird in this post, there were numerous little hints, including the break in the profile, which made me thing Cooper's Hawk (COHA). Still, wondering what I did not know, I decided to ask the opinion of Martin Muller, from the Urban Raptor Conservancy (URC). First, I visited their comparison of the two birds on their website. Click Here to read their thoughts and view the examples. 

After working through the hints I still had a few questions. Essentially they were:

1) Tail - This bird clearly has a rounded tail when spread. This makes me think COHA, however, the graduations in tail feather length seem a bit less than 'normal' for a COHA, to me. But the general look at the end of the tail is rounded.

2) Legs - I really struggle to see this difference. This bird's legs look a bit gnarly to me, but still rather thin. I lean toward COHA.

3) Head and Eyes - Hard to judge with all the feathers erect, but the eyes certainly do not look large, which makes me lean slightly toward COHA....

4) Streaking and Underparts - In the first photo, the streaking extends lower like a COHA. Thank you! This is a brand new clue for me to consider.


Martin's reply put me at ease.

"Larry,

I will go with your gut and call it a Coop.
I mean, look at that spread tail!
And the "smallish" eye forward of center in the face.
The streaking on the lower breast.
The leg diameter and therefor relatively shorter looking toes.
All those things you said...

...Martin"

It is wonderful to get an expert opinion. I always learn something. 

Among other things, I had been uncertain about the minimal variation in the length of the tail feathers. My photos, which Martin used on the URC website show more variation in feather length for the young Cooper's Hawk. I now have a more refined standard to judge by.

I also came across another interesting field mark in Peter Pyle's, 'Identification guide to North American Birds'. He mentions that the white tip of a Sharp-shinned Hawks tail feather is usually 4mm or less, which on a Cooper's Hawk it is usually 4 to 11mm. For those who think in inches, this translates to roughly 1/8 of an inch and nearly 3/8s of an inch, respectively. 

Clearly, this sun-drenched accipiter has the larger white tips on its tail feathers.

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.


Are these white fruits native to Union Bay? What is this plant called?













Scroll down for the answer.










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Common Snowberry: Click on the name to read a comprehensive review of this native plant. Personally, I have never seen a bird eat more than one of these berries. This time of year the berries are plentiful and very visible and yet so far this fall I have not seen a single bird even entertaining the idea of eating one. Maybe it has to do with the saponins in the berries.








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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





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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







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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





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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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