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Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Capitol Hill Snowy - Update III

(Not the CHS, but maybe a distant relative.)

This afternoon Suzanne and Kestrel at Sarvey Wildlife Care Center sent additional updates about the Capitol Hill Snowy Owl.
Hi Larry,

The snowy continues to make good progress. She was 1.49kg at intake and today weighed in at 1.84kg.
We hope to be able to release her in about a week. She is conditioning and working on flying, improving endurance. 

I have cc'ed our Education Director, Kestrel on this email. She can better answer your questions about the unique challenges rehabilitating different owl species.

Suzanne West 
Executive Director
Sarvey Wildlife Care Center

Hi Larry,

To answer your question about the enclosure where the CHS is being kept I would like first like to assure you there are standards that we follow set by the IWRC (International Wildlife Rehabilitation Council) and similar organizations and agencies; we have both State and Federal permits and licenses. We have the owl in an aviary that lets it exercise, the problem is getting the bird to exercise. Most owls are rather sedentary. I have recommended this bird, in a controlled way, be made to exercise to build up some endurance. The owl is able to fly while carrying a rat. This bird can gain height and bank well enough for release in about 1 week.

Each species has particular needs. One of our main concerns with a snowy owl is getting it well enough in time for it to return back to the arctic. This will not be a problem for this one as plenty of snowy owls have been sighted in several areas.

This bird was thin and had a bruised spinal cord. As a result, the tail could not move the way it should be able to and it could not fan. The tail is used primarily for steering and breaking. When it is not working well, flight and landing can be compromised. The flight muscles, the pectorals, have been built up through diet and exercise. This bird definitely is getting a second chance.

Kestrel SkyHawk
Education Director
Sarvey Wildlife Care Center

Thank you to Suzanne and Kestrel for the information and more importantly for all their efforts to help the Capitol Hill Snowy and the other wild creatures in their care.

More to follow.


Sunday, November 25, 2012

Capitol Hill Snowy - Photos

Yesterday, Dan Reiff sent in the following email with up close and personal photos of the Capitol Hill Snowy Owl from the night before it was rescued.

"Hello Larry,

Here are a few photos from video I did at East John and 11th. The Snowy fed on the Glaucous-winged gull adult about every 45 minutes. It appeared to be a healthy, hungry bird that successfully took out the adult gull. It was sleeping in the photo where you will see it's eyes closed.

I do not have a web site to post the photos.


Dan suggests that if you click on the photos you can see a larger, brighter version.

Dan, Thank you for being there and for sharing your photos!

The photos make it obvious that the Capitol Hill Snowy Owl would have been safer with its prey on top of a nearby flat-roofed building or even up in a tree. I suspect it lacked the strength to move the gull's body to a safer location. In the Arctic a lemming is the normal prey of a Snowy Owl. Lemmings are from 3 to 6 inches long and weigh 1 to 4 ounces according to Wikipedia.  The Cornell Lab of Ornithology indicates a Glaucous-winged Gull can weigh 2 pounds or more.

Last summer one of the Broadmoor bald eagles took a gull near the 520 bridge. While carrying the gull in flight the eagle clearly labored under the load. 

Even though the nest was less than a half mile away, the eagle stopped to rest three times on the way back. 
Given that an average bald eagle has a wingspan about a fifty percent larger than a Snowy Owl and weighs about twice as much, it seems likely that the CHSO was simply unable to lift off with the dead weight of the gull. 

According to what we were told, the CHSO did not fly when it was rescued. Whether it was hurt or just too hungry to leave its food supply, either way it was at risk. Since the Owl allowed a human to capture it, it seems likely that it might not have left its prey if approached by a dog or a raccoon. Either of these creatures could have made short work of the Snowy Owl. I am sure we all agree that it is good that the Capitol Hill Snowy Owl will live to hunt another day. Thank you to the Sarvey Wildlife Care Center.


Odds and Ends:

Last week Janice, another local reader, also sent in an interesting email. This email was in response to the story about the Cedar Waxwings.

I forwarded your query about the CW to our son-in-law in Berkeley and here is his response. "My CW" refers to our grandson (who is named), Cedar Waxwing!

"The Cedar Waxwing is one of the only birds that can survive exclusively on fruit.  The pigment "wax" on its wings and tail are extracted from the fruit pigment it consumes.  It is not really wax.  I've examined dead waxwings and the wax tips are composed of feather elements/fibers. The red pigment on the wingtips can be orange or even yellow depending on the type of fruit that the particular waxwings are consuming.  Maybe the pigment is a signal to other waxwings as to what types of fruit the bird has been consuming: "come with my flock, we eat delicious YELLOW berries!"

More likely it is a signal to potential mates that the bird is healthy and will be a good supplier of genetic material.  But Larry's question is really along the lines of an inquiry into why evolution provides such strange and beautiful characteristics to the natural world.

Why are a monarch butterfly's wings orange and black?  Why is an orchid such a beautiful shade of [supply the appropriate color]?

This is why we (used to) have religion, so one could just just have faith that god made it that way for a reason.  Now we are such modern (evolved) creatures, and I include myself, that we need to have a logical reason to explain all of the beautiful mysteries around us.

Sometimes I think my Cedar Waxwing is trying to survive exclusively on fruit."


Click HERE to see the photos and read the Cedar Waxwing story.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Capitol Hill Snowy - Updates


This morning the Sarvey Wildlife Care Center reported that the Capitol Hill Snowy Owl has continued to eat well this week and has been gaining weight. This has resulted in her being moved outside to a conditioning pen. This allows her more freedom of movement and will help prepare her for complete freedom. Her actual date of release is still not known as of this morning. To see photos of the CHSO click HERE.


Suzanne from Sarvey Wildlife Care Center reports that the Capitol Hill Snowy Owl is responding well and will hopefully be released in the next few days.
Note: The photo above is not the Capitol Hill (CH) Snowy, however it is the closest likeness available. The CH bird is a female and generally females have darker markings than the mature males. 

Suzanne says the CH Snowy was picked up because its tail was not functioning properly and the bird was very, very thin. She has been hydrated, fed and X-rayed, the Snowy not Suzanne. The X-rays show no spinal damage and for the first time since her rescue she has fanned her tail feathers. This is a positive sign that the tail is going to be OK. The Snowy's weight has remained stable since the rescue so she is eating. 

Suzanne says there is a requirement that, whenever feasible, rescued creatures are released within 10 miles of where they were found. The time and location of the Snowy's release is not yet known, however I hope to be able to provide photo and video coverage of the event.

Sarvey Wildlife Care Center's mission is,

"To save the lives of sick, orphaned, injured, displaced, and debilitated wild animals entrusted to our care so that they may be successfully returned to their native habitat.
To offer educational opportunities that encourage a greater appreciation of the uniqueness and perfection of each species and the ecologic challenges facing them."

Current patients at Sarvey include Barred Owls, Barn Owls, Hawks, Crows and Fawns. Animals that have recovered and been recently released are Coyotes, Raccoons, Skunks and even Bobcats.
If you would like to learn more about the educational and volunteer opportunities at Sarvey Wildlife please follow this link.

Here is one more Snowy Owl photo. Don't the brown markings on the birds back and wings look a bit like geese in flight?

The difference in the markings between just these two birds is amazing. Is there any other local bird species with so much variation in coloring, especially when you consider mature males can be almost pure white. 

More updates to follow.


PS: Please click HERE if you did not read the weekend post on The Magical Snowy. It includes some rather unique Snowy Owl photos.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

The Magical Snowy

The Snowy Owl, a very calm, beautiful and serene bird.
Clearly, it is a great choice to portray a magical, movie creature. (Did you see the Snowy Owl in the Harry Potter movies? Here is a link about its training.)

Last year was an irruptive year for Snowy Owls. Which means, for some reason more than the usual number of owls migrated south from the Arctic. This apparently happens every few years, but no one seems to be able to predict the irruptions. The birds may be avoiding severe winter weather, looking for food or there could be other factors that influence their behavior.

Last winter there were reports of Snowy Owls at Woodland Park Zoo, in downtown Edmonds and a number of other areas around Western Washington. However I heard no reports of Snowy Owls on Union Bay and at that time the only Snowy Owls I had seen were in the movies.

In an attempt to rectify this omission in my birding experience, my friend and avid birder, Marcus Roening, suggested we visit Stanwood. Once there we peered through his spotting scope across the large muddy fields. Sitting on the dike in the distance we saw a few small white dots. Technically, at that point I had seen a Snowy Owl.  The distant owls were very hard to see, however the no trespassing signs were much closer and very easy to see, so we did not get a better view.

I returned to Stanwood multiple times in the next couple of months, finally getting a few fairly foggy photos. The best was this moment when a Northern Harrier attempted to "harry" the Snowy Owl. The owl ducked and the harrier decided to look for a less formidable lunch. While interesting this was still not the desired quality of photo.

By February I was beginning to fear that the Snowy Owls would soon return to the Arctic. Marcus called to say there was another beautiful white bird visiting Washington. The bird he wanted to see was an extremely rare McKay's Bunting at Ocean Shores. (Click here to see the McKay's Bunting.) Marcus was also looking for someone to help with the driving.

He mentioned there were Snowy Owls at Ocean Shores as well. The 3 hour drive was well worth the investment. The next photo and the one at the beginning of this post are from Ocean Shores.

Can you see any differences in the birds in these two Ocean Shores photos? The second bird has larger and darker markings than the first bird. Some people think that adult males are the Snowy Owls which are most nearly pure white. If this is true then the second bird is most likely not an adult, male.

By the way, did you notice the eye lids and the facial "hair". It almost looks like the eye lid is covered in fur. The furry-looking feathers around the black claws on the second bird also demonstrate an ability to handle the cold. The next photo illustrates "furry" owl feet even better.

One of the most impressive moments at Ocean Shores was when one of the birds called out. The call was a rather soft and muted, "Keeeeeeey", which was repeated 3 or 4 times.

The width of the mouth was surprising, especially since the mouth is virtually invisible until it is opened. The width probably helps them to swallow creatures, like lemmings. At some point Marcus relayed another interesting thought. Have you noticed that these owls are seldom far from the ground? On the tundra there are no trees, so when the owls come south they do not have the habit of sitting in trees. Sitting on the ground or a log close to the ground must feel normal to them. The theory is that as the winter progresses they learn to move up onto posts and into trees. If this theory has merit we would have to wonder when owls fly south for a second or third time, do they remember the prior year's experience?

All winter there were reports of a dozen or more Snowy Owls at Boundary Bay in Canada. Finally, when the opportunity arose I answered the call and headed north. Much of the time the cold wind was blowing a horizontal rain off the bay, but the view was worth the exposure. 
If the owls came south for warm weather, it appeared they might have stopped a bit too soon.

Sometimes they would stretch or twist into odd positions to help them keep warm. This almost looks like proof of a geometric principle, a round ball has the minimum amount of surface area (and therefore heat loss) for its volume.

The yellow eyes have a nearly magical glow..
Does the shortness of the "fur" around the beak indicate that this is a young bird?

This photo makes me wonder, Does my right ear look like something good to eat?
By the way, last Sunday a Snowy owl was spotted near Portage Bay. Then on Monday, one was seen at 11th and John on Capitol Hill eating a gull. By Tuesday morning all that was left were a few feathers. On Wednesday another one was spotted on Capital Hill and one near Lake City Way, but none near Union Bay.

There was also one photographed in Everett. By Thursday the sitings were even more wide spread including Port Townsend and the Nisqually Wildlife Refuge.

Some one mentioned that in years after a major irruption there is quite often an echo year or echo flight. Bud Anderson, from Falcon Research Group, suggests that it is too early to tell, the influx of Snowy Owls this year might end up being even larger than last year. Bud's comments can be read here.

Hopefully, the Snowy Owls are getting closer to Union Bay, so please keep your eyes open and leave a comment below if you see one.

This seemed like an appropriate departing shot of the Snowy Owls.

I hope you have enjoyed the magic of the Snowy Owls.


Odds and Ends:

For the last few months I had been hoping we could build an osprey nesting platform near Union Bay. After exchanging emails with Chris Anderson, WDFW I have learned that our resident eagles are likely to harass the osprey and keep them from nesting successfully. I have seen the eagles steal food from osprey and cormorants on Union Bay. So it does not seem logical to invest in a nesting platform. I still hope the osprey may make a nest near Union Bay on their own. I also wonder if the eagles have anything to do with our not seeing Snowy Owls around Union Bay.

On another note, my daughter and some of her classmates have been working on a really wonderful class project. If you would like a truly feel good moment, check out their work.


Saturday, November 10, 2012

Pretty Bird Mystery

The Cedar Waxwing's complimentary coloring and sleek elegant shape make it one of the most beautiful birds you are likely to see.
The Cedar Waxwing (CW) can be found in Washington state year round but is rare around Union Bay from December through March. The CW loves fruits and berries. For the last couple of weeks a flock of 40 to 50 birds has been filling up on the ripe hawthorn berries on Foster Island.
When you compare the birds in the previous two photos, Do you notice any differences? They both have black masks and yellow tips at the end of their tails. The big difference is the coloring on their chests. The stripes on the bird with the berry indicate it is a juvenile bird that has not yet reached maturity.

However with an appetite like this, this bird should have a good chance of making it through the winter and reaching maturity.

Even the mature birds are stocking up for winter.

Just like with human teenagers there are times when the behavior of the juvenile birds is a little hard to understand.
For instance it is a mystery what exactly this bird is doing.

Still there is a bigger mystery when it comes to CWs. Do you know why they are called Cedar Waxwings? The answer lies in the red waxy spots at end of the CW's wing tips.
Three of the red-wax spots can been seen in the first photo above, but only two on the second bird. These waxy spots explain the birds name, but these red spots create a larger more enduring mystery. Why do these secretions exist? What does the CW do with wax? The only potential answer found on the internet is, maybe they help attract mates, however there was no science referenced to support this hypothesis.

It is amazing that we can put a people on the moon, decode the human genome and send exploratory machines to Mars, but we do not understand the little red spots on a bird that visits your backyard. 

Sometimes it seems that all the obvious, inexpensive science has been completed. If you want to learn something that no one has discovered it feels like you will need tons of expensive new technology. Here is an opportunity to discover something new. All that is required is a persistent person with an inexpensive set of binoculars. 

Are you the one who will solve the Pretty Bird Mystery?

Good Luck!


Odds and Ends:

This morning the Waxwings were seen at the southern end of the Arboretum in the Pacific Madrona trees. On Foster Island there were no Waxwings in the Hawthorn trees, however there were dozens of Bushtits and
thousands of berries. 

The Bushtits were not eating the berries they appeared instead to be eating tiny bugs that they found on the hawthorn leaves.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Bird Eye Challenge

For the last week many of the best birders in Washington state have been visiting the jetty west of Westport. They take time off from work, many leave their family and friends behind and drive for hours to stand in pouring rain and a bitter wind. There was even an earthquake (off the coast of North America) last Saturday night, by Sunday morning the immediate chance of a tsunami had passed. However the possibility of an aftershock, or an even larger quake and another potential tsunami did not deter the birders. In the face of all this they came anyway, to see a little brown bird.
Of course this isn't just any little brown bird. This is a Northern Wheatear, which is actually a beautiful golden brown in color. This species of bird normally winters in Africa. This particular bird made a major, continental-scale wrong turn. However, even as cute and rare (to Washington) as this bird is, what was most amazing this weekend was the ability of the master birders. Just the flash of a wing or the briefest sound of a bird song was enough for them to identify a bird.

Having the opportunity to walk by their side, follow their gaze and listen as vast stores of flying feathered information spilled, out their mouths, is a humbling experience. These are people who are doing much more than a Big Year, they are doing the Big Life. 

The remarkable ability of these birders inspired the following set of challenges. These grainy, snippets of photos show tiny closeups of parts of five local birds from Union Bay.

It seems impossible to be able to determine the type of bird from such small pieces of information. However the experience of this weekend has, at least for me, moved the boundaries of what is and is not possible. As you work through the blog below you will find progressively larger photos that show more of each bird. If you would like to accept the challenge to identify these five birds with the least amount of information, then do not scroll down any further.  Good Luck!


On another note, and to create a break before continuing with the bird identification, the count of Western Grebes on Union Bay has now risen to three. Hooray!!!!
They are very elegant with their necks extended, in the old days they were called Swan Grebes, and incredibly cute when resting. When slightly startled in this position they simply open their eyes. If they are only mildly annoyed, by say a passing Mallard, they tend to leave their heads down and appear to motor away like little toy boats. If you did not see the photos or read the story from earlier this month you can see more at:



We now return to our bird identification challenge. If you would like more information, try the following slightly larger versions of the same photos.

 Was that enough information?


 If not, the next set of photos should do the job.

This unusual shot was taken just before a rainstorm blew onto the bay. The southern wind picked up the short feathers and made the appearance of a Great "Horned" Heron.

The respective names of the five birds are:
    • Cedar Waxwing
    • Western Grebe
    • Double-Crested Cormorant
    • Killdeer
    • Great Blue Heron

Here are some of the larger photos just for fun.

By the way, the Waxwings out on Foster Island have been feasting like crazy on the red berries of the Hawthorn trees. They have very nearly finished off the last two trees just north of 520. Hurry out and take a look if you haven't seen them grab a berry and shake it loose from the tree.

Thank you for your time.  Speaking of time, it is about time for the Tundra and Trumpeter Swans to be returning to Union Bay. Keep watch for a string of floating, white shapes in the distance.

May your adventures on Union Bay be warm and sunny.