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

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Saturday, October 27, 2012

Bumps in the Night

At day's end when the sky begins to darken, clouds of crows descend around Union Bay. 

The blackness of their beaks, feathers and claws make the american crow the perfect harbinger of darkness.

As the days get shorter and the nights get longer the darkness increases. 

The result is more time for those who make things go bump in the night.

Before we talk about our local creatures of darkness let's take a closer look at the moon.
Each of the circular craters is evidence of a very large collision. These impacts were so hard that we can see the results from over two hundred thousand miles away. This may seem only mildly interesting at a safe distance, however evidence shows asteroids have hit the earth. Clearly, one of these could be the ultimate, bump in the night.

Still it is likely that it is the smaller and more local bumps in the night that keep you awake and listening for the next sound. The darkness does seem to amplify our fears.

If you have ever been jogging in the early morning darkness just before dawn, and had an owl pass within an inch of your head, you have had a small taste of the fear a mouse must feel.

The barred owl is designed to feed and hunt under the cover of darkness. This bird has special wing tips that confuse the air so no sound is made as it passes. It has hearing so sharp it may be able to hunt with its eyes closed. Plus, the owl's huge eyes can collect the smallest flicker of light. For all intents and purposes, the owl can see in the dark.

To the owl, a mouse is just a small meal. However to the mouse, an encounter with an owl is the final bump in the night.

There are other larger creatures that roam our Union Bay neighborhoods in the dark. They will scream and fight in your yard in the middle of the night. They will eat the cat's food if you leave it out and if the cat is out, they might eat it too.

We took our injured cat to the vet last year and asked if it might have been in a fight with a raccoon. The vet said, "No, if a raccoon gets close enough to injure a cat, the cat does not survive."
This photo shows a small raccoon encountered in the Arboretum last week around dawn. It was returning from its morning drink from the bay, before bedding down for the day. Larger ones will stand toe to toe with a human and hiss at you before deciding to fight or slowly amble away.

Earlier this month I met someone who had just seen a coyote south of Foster Island. It came out of the early morning darkness to grab a duck and throw it back on shore for its cubs to kill and eat. Their training starts early. 

If like me, you have never actually seen a coyote around Union Bay, here is a photo of a fairly small one. 
It shows you what to look out for but they usually hunt under the cover of darkness, unless they are very hungry. I understand they like to eat cats, dogs, ducks and even beavers, basically, they like meat.

Around Union Bay one of the largest bumps in the night was the falling of this large, mature cottonwood tree.
The living cambium layer at the base of this tree was consumed by a Union Bay beaver. Along with the help of some internal rot, a beaver brought this tree to the ground. On the left side of the photo you can see where the beaver came back under the cover of darkness to feed a bit more.

Most of the cottonwood trees along the water's edge in the Arboretum, have felt the beaver's teeth. If the trees have leaves the beaver has left s small portion of the cambium layer intact. The numerous naked, standing snags silently speak of the beaver's deadly work, although woodpeckers seem to love the beaver's handiwork.
Another positive is that beaver dams can actually increase fish habitat according to the information found in Wikipedia. Click here to read more about the beaver.

Good night and sleep well.


Odds and Ends:

I read this morning that a short-eared owl (SEO) was seen at Volunteer Park and it was heading towards Union Bay when it left. I have never seen an SEO around Union Bay. They like to hunt over open land, so the marsh area north of Broadmoor, the golf course and the Union Bay Natural Area would seem to be our most attractive areas for them. The photo below is included to give you a fresh idea of what this beautiful bird looks like.
Click here to see a comparison to the Hawaiian SEO  at the end of another blog.  Please leave a comment if you see one around Union Bay.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Testing Your Nesting

Many dozens of birds visit Union Bay each year. Some of these birds are migratory and some reside here year round and can be seen on a daily basis. Occasionally, usually in the spring, we see young birds with their parents.  Since it is important for nests to be hidden from predators, these birds are generally secretive about their nest building. As a result we seldom get to watch birds as they build their nests. Still it is important for us to know about their nesting behavior so we can protect this critical part of their reproduction.

Here are three fairly common birds found in and around Union Bay. 

A) Aix sponsa - Wood Duck

M) Megaceryle alcyon - Belted Kingfisher

C) Cyanocitta stelleri - Steller's Jay

Here are three different nesting behaviors. Each of these behaviors belongs primarily to one of these three birds above. Can you guess which behavior belongs to which bird?

1) This bird generally nests underground.

2) This bird will on occasion nest in a cavity created by a woodpecker.

3) This bird sometimes uses mud to hold its nest together.

The conservation status for all three birds is, Least Concern. This was not always the case as Wood Ducks were nearly wiped out prior to the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. 

While we are on the subject of nesting, both of the Broadmoor eagles were seen this morning. They flew over to the cottonwood trees south of Foster Island and selected branches that were 2 to 3 feet long. They took the branches back to their nest, clearly trying to "spruce" the place up. Happily, they are demonstrating their intentions to reproduce again next year.

Here is a flashback photo of both parents at the nest back in June.

So now that you have had a few minutes to think about it, Which behavior did you select for each of the birds?

(Follow the link on each bird's name to learn more.)

It turns out that the Banded Kingfisher actually builds its nest by digging a burrow into the ground. Soft earth like the bank of a stream or lake is a prime location for a Kingfisher nest.

The Wood Duck naturally builds its nest in trees, which includes cavities created by woodpeckers. Although these days nesting boxes have become an increasingly common nesting location for Wood Ducks.

Wood Ducks are also known to lay their eggs in their neighbor's nests as well as their own. The male and female Wood Ducks look so different that it would be unfair not to show the bird that actually lays the eggs.

This of course leaves the Steller's Jay which sometimes uses mud to help hold its nest together.

I hope you enjoyed this week's nesting testing.

Larry Hubbell

ps: Just in case you missed it here is this week's post on Montlaker.com regarding a Walk on the Wild Side.

Saturday, October 13, 2012


This bird was spotted last week as it flew into a break in the cattails on the west side of Union Bay. For a moment it perched in a small opening, looking around and then worked its way deeper among the leaves. The resulting photo contains more information than one would expect, given how little of the bird can be seen. If you use all the details available to you, hopefully you will be able to guess (if not conclusively identify) what type of bird is hiding among the cattails.

There are many different birds that can be found in and among cattails. Some rather large examples that come to mind include American Bitterns and Great Blue Herons.
However the bird in the photo, while colored similarly to a Bittern, is perched on the cattails, so it is clearly too small to be a Bittern (or a Great Blue Heron). While the Green Heron is smaller Its coloring eliminates it from consideration. Although, with only a split-second, shadowy glimpse of the bird, my first thought was Green Heron, but I was wrong.

Since we are looking for a bird that is perched in the cattails we must consider if this is a Red-Winged Blackbird.
Of course the bird in our photo is not black so it can not be the male Red-Winged Black Bird (RWBB). 

However, the female Red-Winged Blackbird is not black and for that matter does not have red on its wings either. Might this imply a gender bias in the naming of this bird?
Even though the color and the perching behavior of the female RWBB is somewhat similar to our mystery bird, the eye is clearly different. So we must eliminate the female RWBB from consideration.

There is another clue in our first photo. Did you see the bird's tail? It is long, horizontally striped and held in an upright position.  It is visible in the upper right hand side of the photo.
The Wren in this photo has a relatively long, striped tail that it quite often holds in an upright position. However once again the eyes are different. In addition the last two photos gives us another hint. Look at the size of the birds relative to the size of the cattail leaves. The head of our mystery bird looks to be close to the size of the Wren's body. 

So even though a Sparrow is larger than a Wren we can also eliminate Sparrows because they are too small.

This narrows the field of possible birds to mid-sized birds with long, striped tails. There are two hawks that fit into this category. They are the Sharp-Shinned Hawk (SSH) and the Cooper's Hawk (CH).
 Although male SSH can be a rather small (nearly robin-sized) bird the female can be bigger.  What makes identifying the two birds difficult is that not only do they look similar but the female SSH and the male CH can be nearly the same size.

The best guess from the mystery photo is that the bird is a small, male SSH, given how relatively small it looks compared to the cattail leaves and because it sets so lightly on those leaves. Since the eye color of both the CH and the SSH is yellow only among immature birds we also know this is a young bird.

For those who would like a better look at our mystery bird, here is a shot prior to it moving further back among the cattails.

In this shot the head is small relative to the body, the right leg is very thin and the brown on the head is not capped. All of these points help confirm this is a SSH. For more identification tips on SSH versus CH check out:

One last thought, this is the first time I have ever photographed a SSH hopping around among the cattails. It seems like a rather strange hunting procedure for a bird equipped with such a long-tail. The long tail allows these birds to fly circuitous routes among forest trees and to turn quickly to grab smaller birds in flight. It would seem that hopping about among the cattails would be a relatively poor use of this bird's special abilities. Still this particular bird must have had some success with this hunting method or it would not be doing it. If this is a SSH hunting method you have seen before I would love to hear about it.

I hope you enjoyed the challenge.


Sunday, October 7, 2012

And Then There Were Two

This bird was spotted last October on the northeast side of the Union Bay Natural Area. 

Using this rather poor view can you tell what kind of bird this is?

Below, the bird's beak is still hidden, but most of the head is now in view. Is this photo enough for you to determine what type of bird it is?

If not here is a more complete example.
From this photo you can tell this is a diving bird that catches relatively small fish. It is also a particularly elegant bird, the curve of the neck, the contrast of dark and light colors, the long slender beak and finally the bright red eyes all work together in this beautifully elegant bird.

This bird is a grebe, however it looks completely different from the Pied-Billed Grebe which is the common grebe on Union Bay.

The grebe in the first three photos is a Western Grebe. It is also the only Western Grebe I saw on Union Bay in 2011. In the past when the waters of Union Bay were clean and unpolluted there would have been more fish and with more food available most likely there would have been more Western Grebes. So, not surprisingly, it was a little sad last year to see just the one, single, solitary Western Grebe.

In the future when the new 520 bridge is built it will not allow the rain water to wash oil and particulates directly into the lake, like the current bridge. This should help nature begin to reclaim the true potential of Union Bay, but lucky for us nature is not waiting on the new 520 bridge.

For the last few days, just to the southwest of the Union Bay Natural Area, a single Western Grebe has once again been spotted on Union Bay. Here it enjoys the golden light of the early morning sun.

Once he (or she) even surfaced right beside my kayak.

 However the big surprise of the morning was finding not one but two of these beautiful birds.

Mostly they circled and dived for fish, but sometimes they seemed to play.

They spent time grooming themselves.

They also took time for a little rest and...

Let's hope that next year they start a family and bring their offspring to visit Union Bay.

Thank you to all of you who sent emails to the Washington State Department of Transportation last week. Every little bit we do to help restore nature on Union Bay helps to create a more well-balanced and healthy future for our children.

Thank you for your help.


Odds and Ends:

On the way past Marsh Island I was able to catch a quick shot of a Wood Duck. It isn't the highest quality photo, but the light was so incredible I had to pass it on.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Speak for Nature

Friday (Oct. 5th, 2012) is the last chance for the Seattle community to comment on the new 520 bridge. With the size, complexity and cost of the whole project, it might seem too overwhelming to understand the project and add intelligent comments.

However, those of us who appreciate the world of nature on Union Bay can easily give valid and valuable comments. All we need to do is speak for those creatures who cannot speak for themselves.  Please take this opportunity to remind the folks at the Washington State Department of Transportation to keep nature in mind as they move forward. Please feel free to copy any of the following suggestions and email them to the WSDOT address given below.

 The current 520 plans contain a number of  positive environmental improvements, for example:

  > Daylighting the lower portion of the Arboretum Creek.

  > Replacing wetlands destroyed on Foster Island with new wetlands west of the current Arboretum offramp. 

  > Adding water collection and filtration systems so highway runoff stops polluting the lake.

We want to reinforce these goals and we do not wish to see any of them negotiated away to meet budget constraints. In addition, we would like to add a few common sense requests that require more thought than money. For instance: 

  > Please schedule work on Foster Island and the nearby wetlands to occur in fall and winter so young birds will have a chance to leave their nests and mature. 

  > Leave a couple of the current, tall 520 overpass support columns in place as nesting sites.  (Make sure they are well away from the shore and the new bridge so they can cause no damage in an earthquake.)

  > Engage environmentalists to design nesting sites on the surface of walls built around the bridge. The current 520 bridge supports nesting sites for Barn Swallows, Cliff Swallows and Rock Doves around Foster Island. We can do even better if we make an effort.

  > Route filtered 520 runoff into the Arboretum Creek as far upstream as possible. Every drop of clean water flowing through the creek increases our chances of getting salmon to spawn in the stream. 

  > Plant trees around the stream and the water collection sites to help keep the water as cool as possible. Salmon need cool water to spawn. 

  > Widen the day-lighted and regraded portions of Arboretum Creek to support increased water flow in the future. Once Arboretum Creek is reconnected to its original water sources it will support an abundance of spawning salmon, as it did originally.

  > Please ensure the stream bottom contains small, round pea gravel needed by spawning salmon.

If you have additional ideas for logical, common sense ways we could help ensure the 520 project is nature-friendly please add them in your email as well. You could also add those thoughts in the comments at the end of this blog so others can reinforce your ideas.

Please email the link to this blog site to anyone you know who cares about nature in Union Bay and near the new 520 bridge. 

Also since the City of Seattle owns Foster Island and the Arboretum park land it might be a good idea to "cc" the Seattle City Council with your email. It will just reinforce that these are important issues for voting citizens in Seattle.

Here are the critical links you will need:
  1. The WSDOT email address to send your comments to: SeattleCommunityDesign@wsdot.wa.gov
  2. The link to this blog site is: http://unionbaywatch.blogspot.com/2012/10/speak-for-nature.html
  3. The WSDOT website showing that the comment time is ending is: http://www.wsdot.wa.gov/projects/sr520bridge/I5toMedina
  4. The email address for the Seattle City Council: council@seattle.gov
Larry Hubbell

ps: Please excuse the strange formatting and font above. It is designed so that when copied into an email the background color looks normal.