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

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Saturday, March 30, 2013

Ducks in Trees?

Most ducks only sit in a tree after it has become a log. Wood ducks are different.

This morning two males waited attentively while a female was in a nest nearby.
It seems odd for the males to get along so well during mating season. If a second male eagle were to come any where near the nest of a mated pair of eagles it would immediately be challenged. One theory is that since wood ducks can't make their own nests it results in a short supply of nesting sites. This may cause them to be a bit more flexible in their mating habits. This seems to be the implication in this research.

There are many ways that wood ducks differ from other ducks. Here is a quick list of characteristics that are at least special if not completely unique to wood ducks.
  1. The male bird is possibly the most colorful bird in North America.
  2. They nest inside trees.
  3. They use nesting cavities made by other creatures.
  4. Their webbed feet also have claws.
  5. Within 24 hours of hatching they can climb up the inside of a hollow tree and then fall to freedom.
  6. They may lay their eggs in multiple nests.
  7. They may raise the young of other birds.
  8. They may raise two broods a year.
Even among wood ducks most of their time is not spent in trees. If you take a kayak or canoe trip around Marsh or Foster Island you are likely to see them paddling about looking for food.

This video shows both a male and female while feeding. Wood ducks are omnivores and the male in the following video appears to be trying to eat some type of crayfish. What ever it is it appears to be too much for this Wood Duck to consume.

As you can see in the video the female has the same shape as the male but her coloring is very different. This is the special time of year when you can see wood ducks in trees. They are looking for nesting sites. Yesterday morning this pair flew back and forth searching for an opening that was, "Just Right".

The male inspected this possibility first and then...
the female stopped to take a closer look.

She decided to move on when...

...the woodpecker returned.

Here is one more video which shows a rather large number of male birds attempting to gain the affection of a single female. The head-bobs appear to be the equivalent of, "Look at me. I'm so fine!"

Even with clawed feet the wood ducks sometimes slip.

Spring is certainly here and the fun has just begun.

Have a great day and be sure to watch for, Ducks in Trees!


Note: If you want a good view of the wood ducks in the trees, without scaring them away, a pair of binoculars is highly recommended.

Update - Bird Nest Questions:                                                                      3-30-2013

Yesterday I received the following email:

Hi Larry,

I appreciate reading your blog off of the Montlake forum. Today I found this bird nest in our backyard & I'm hoping you might be able to help me identify what kind of bird made it. Its pretty big, two palms for the mud cup, and has some nut shells in the bottom. 

We get a beautiful stellar jay, robins, and several other smaller birds in our backyard daily.

Thanks for your help & if you know of anyone that would like the nest we would be happy to pass it along!


Of the birds you mentioned I would guess the Stellar's Jay, however it would be nice to hear comments from folks who know more than I do. Also is anyone out there collecting nests?

Saturday, March 23, 2013

The Wild Side - CSI

Last week's story, "A Walk on the Wild Sideleft a number of unanswered questions:

    What type of bird was the prey?
    What happened to the body?
    Were the Cooper's Hawks seen on Day 1 and Day 2 different birds?
    What happened from the Cooper's Hawks point of view?

Your challenge is to do some CSI work, which in this case stands for "Cooper's-Hawk Scene Investigation". You will be virtually returning to the scene and using forensic photography and logic to study the evidence and attempt to determine the theory that best explains what happened and also answers the preceding questions. 

By the way if you haven't read last week's post, please be aware it provides the first-cut of photographic evidence and critical eye-witness testimony to consider, To read it click here > "A Walk on the Wild Side".


New Evidence:

Exhibit A - Day 1 - Up close:

Exhibit B - Day 2 - Up close:

Exhibit C - Below the Small Willow Tree: 
Approximately where the CH was first seen on Day 1, found about 1 week later.

Zooming in a bit.

Zooming in some more.

Exhibit 4:
The inverted "V" where the CH was seen on Day 2.

 Feathers found below the "V".

Exhibit 5:
 Raccoon sleeping in the tree above the small willow tree, about a week later.

Additional Eye-Witness Testimony:

In the water between Elderberry Island and the main land some variety of "ducks" are almost always circling, sleeping or feeding. The types of birds I see most often at this location are listed from most to least common. They are:




Green-winged Teals

Hooded Mergansers


In the area there are also numerous other smaller birds:
  1. Sparrows
  2. Wrens
  3. Chickadees
  4. Towhees
  5. Flickers
  6. Downy Woodpeckers
  7. etc.

After you have fully digested the evidence and decided on your own theory you may want to state your point of view in the comments section below. You might also want to compare your theory with the "official", Union-Bay-Watch theory. Hopefully, by discussing and debating different points of view we will get closer to the truth than any of us could do individually and have a lot of nature-focused fun in the process.

UBW Theory:

Early on Day 1 the Cooper's Hawk by stealth or cover of darkness conceals itself in a small willow tree above where "ducks" regularly congregate. One of the gadwalls while feeding or sleeping allowed itself to get with in striking distance of the Cooper's Hawk, who took full advantage of the opportunity.

After bringing the body of the Gadwall back to the log below the small willow the CH proceeded to remove the bulk of the feathers and feed. While feeding a human on the nearby trail startles the CH. Leaving its food the CH flies a short distance to land in a tree just across the water on Elderberry Island.

From a distance the Red-Tailed Hawk is attracted by the movement of the CH and does a fly-by to see if there is a feeding opportunity. Luckily, from the CH's point of view, the crows harass the RTH sufficiently so that it abandons the area. The Sharp-Shinned Hawk then stops by to investigate and lands in the top of a cottonwood tree directly above the small willow and the first feeding site.

When three canoes, with passengers, pass between Elderberry Island and what was left of the Gadwall the CH abandons the close watch over the remains. The SSH dives for a bird of it's own just beside the willow but leaves the area because the CH stays close enough to keep a eye on the remains of the Gadwall and the SSH.

The CH soon returns to move the remains to a higher and safer location where it watches over it until the next day. Later on Day 2 while once again feeding on the remains the CH is disturbed by the young man using the trail just below the second feeding spot and retires to a more private location above a trail deeper within the woods.

During the next week a raccoon inspects the feeding sites and removes or consumes any remaining bones and meat.

While this version of the story might be true the real question is, What do you think the evidence supports?

Saturday, March 16, 2013

A Walk on the Wild Side

Walking in the Washington Park Arboretum can be beautiful and relaxing. 

This time of year there are flowers and cherry blossoms to be seen.

There are also beautiful birds to watch.

However for the creatures who live in the park it is not all sweetness and light.
Earlier this week while walking in the park I stopped to take photos of the Hooded Merganser in the prior photo. While doing so a Hawk flew out of a small tree near the waters edge. Apparently the Hawk was watching this same group of birds. 

The Hawk flew over the mallards, mergansers and coots and landed on their opposite side in a tree on Elderberry Island. Surprisingly, the potential prey simply continued to circle and feed undisturbed in the water below. From its new perch the Hawk alternated between watching intently...

...and nonchalant stretching.
In the photo above the Hawk appears to only be stretching its tail. However since the tail is fairly long this creates a rather large and beautiful fan of feathers. This is also a good time to notice the relatively large claws.

When stretching the shoulder muscles the effect is completely different.

As crows began calling in the distance and moving toward our position the Hawk turned to watch, revealing the "dark cap" on its head.
Last year Connie Sidles pointed out that a Cooper's Hawk has this type of cap while a Sharp-Shinned Hawk does not. The two types of birds look very similar and the small male Coopers and and large female Sharp-Shinned Hawks can be virtually the same size. To see a comparison of the two types CLICK HERE.  This bird was too large to be a Sharp-Shinned hawk, but the dark cap removes all doubt, so we can be sure it was a Cooper's Hawk.

It turned out that the crows were harassing a Red-Tailed Hawk. The group of birds came closer until the Red-Tail started circling and rising higher and higher into the sky. The crows apparently felt safer, or did not want to work as hard as the Red-Tail, in either case they quickly calmed down and dispersed.

The size of the Cooper's Hawk caused me to suspect that it was a female. Another interesting feature of this bird is its eye color.
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology says immature Cooper's have yellow eyes while adults have red eyes. (Click here to read more.) This bird has orange eyes. The questions that come to mind are, Is this a bird whose eyes are in the process of turning from yellow to red? or Do mature Cooper's Hawks in our local area have orange eyes instead of red? or Does the angle of the sunlight change the perceived color?


Update:                                                                                                                   3-16-2013

Yesterday Ed Deal sent in the following information:


You are quite right in your assumption that orange eyed accipiters are in transition between juvenile yellow eyes and adult red eyes. I have banded hundreds of accipiters. Unfortunately there is no set time on how many years the color transition takes. Most birds in their second or even third years of life will have an orange eye. In older birds the eye can darken beyond red to a deep red garnet color.

Ed Deal
Licensed Raptor Bander


In any case while still focused on the Cooper's a third hawk swooped into the picture. It came in from high above the tree, diving it passed about 10 feet in front of the Cooper's at a high rate of speed. The new Hawk then passed over the water between Elderberry Island and the mainland and landed in the branch of a cottonwood about 50' above the water.
This bird was considerably smaller. It sat on this branch for quite some time. In the meantime 3 canoes full of people circled Elderberry Island and scared away the water birds and the Cooper's Hawk. Just after the canoes passed a small, sparrow-like bird flew in the bushes directly below the third Hawk. The small Hawk dove straight down with its wings and tail forming a somewhat compressed "W". It came within inches of catching lunch. Missing it turned and flew to the top of another more distant tree. 

In this position with the sun behind it the photos became silhouettes.
Still this photo reveals skinny little legs and tiny little claws which along with its small size makes one think this was a Sharp-Shinned Hawk. In any case three different hawks on one walk, while actually standing in one place, was amazing.

Returning the next day my thought was, the size of the birds claws may indicate the size of the branches on which a bird is comfortable sitting. So I while scanning for hawk-sized, branches my eyes were startled by this site.
It appeared to be the same Cooper's Hawk I had seen the day before, but this time it was standing on top of the trunk of a broken tree. The top half of the tree has fallen over without breaking free from the lower half. The result is a living tree in the shape of an inverted "V". The Hawk was standing at the apex, on the largest possible flat spot it could find in the tree, which totally blew my theory about comfortable perch sizes.

Somewhat stunned, by nature's uncanny quickness in correcting my logic, I snapped this fuzzy and poorly lit photo. A moment later a young man appeared behind me, said "Excuse me", stepped around me and proceeded to walk directly under the tree. I am not sure if he even realized there was a hawk in the tree. In any case the trail does pass directly through the inverted "V" so I must admit it was the logical thing to do. Still his passing disturbed the Hawk which caused it fly deeper into the woods. 

As the Hawk flew I noticed it was carrying something.
I got close enough to catch this last photo without causing the Hawk to fly again. I left it at this location with its lunch in hand, wondering what it was eating. I went back to the "V" and found additional feathers on the ground. The feathers were non-distinct, greyish-brown on one side and a lighter, whitish colored on the under side. In the photo above the prey has small white feathers, longer grayish feathers and even small brown and white striped feathers. Please let me know if any of these clues give you an idea what type of bird this was. It is not obvious to me.

In any case, "A Walk in the Park" can be about so much more than pretty flowers.

Watch carefully. :-)


Saturday, March 9, 2013

The Submariners

Disclaimer: The title of this post is not a reference to the past performance of the Seattle Mariners, however we are all hoping their current spring play is indicative of the future.

On the other hand, these birds do look a bit like uniformed baseball players exchanging thoughts about the current pitcher's weaknesses. 

There are many diving ducks on Union Bay but during the coldest half of the year, .e.g. November through April, we are regularly visited by two types of Mergansers. By the way the term merganser is apparently derived from Latin terms meaning "diving goose". The two types of mergansers are the Common and the Hooded Mergansers. At one point this week there were dozens if not hundreds of Common Mergansers floating in the middle of Union Bay. The white bodies of the male birds contrasting sharply with the gray water.

"Wow, Did you see that hit?"

One of the amazing things about the Common Merganser is the bright orange feet. They look like they are made of rubber. It makes one wonder how they can catch fish with those orange feet clearly visible against their white bellies. It would be interesting to see where their feet are relative to their bodies when they dive. Even if their feet are behind their bodies they still can't hide those bright red beaks when they are pursuing a fish.

"Say now, that fellow can really run!" 

Note: Clicking on the photos will give you a larger brighter version to look at.

In spite of the color their beaks do have some advantages.
Can you see the serrated edges? These "teeth" help make sure that once a fish is caught it stays that way. In fact a common term for a merganser is a "sawbill".

Curiously both types of mergansers look very different from each other and the male and female of each type are unique as well. Before we end up looking at each type and kind of bird here is a simple challenge. Can you sort these bird bodies by both gender and type of merganser?





Those long tails are obviously helpful when a merganser dives and most likely they are extremely useful for turning under water to follow a fish as it darts to get away.

To the non-birder a female Common Merganser looks so different it might be easy to think it was a different type of bird all together.

The shape of the body, head and beak, plus the color of the beak and feet are all clues that the female is also a Common Merganser. Seeing the two of them side by side is another hint.

The difference in size between these two birds was a bit of a surprise. It will be curious to watch pairs in the future and see if this is the exception or the rule.

The color, behavior and "hood" of the Hooded Merganser certainly makes the Common Merganser look... common.

The Hooded is a smaller bird than the Common so it pursues smaller fish and usually works a bit closer to shore. However unlike the Mallards that reside here year round the Hooded is quite shy and will head for deeper water at the first sight or sound of a human. For this reason if you are the first person to reach the edge of Union Bay as dawn lights up the sky your chances of seeing a Hooded Merganser are greatly increased.

This pair were fishing side-by-side just south and west of Foster Island.
Notice how the female's beak is holding the fish even though most of the fish is outside the beak. Those "teeth" really work. What was curious in watching these two was that while they were both diving and fishing the same amount of time, in virtually the same area, the female came up with fish about three times as often as the male. It makes one wonder if she is older and more experienced or maybe she is already eating for a family and she is simply three times as hungry and better motivated than the male.

That out-fished-again look.

Still it is the males "hood" that generally attracts all the attention. The vibrant black and white contrast and the amazing flexibility that allows the shape to change on demand are virtually irresistible to the eye. 
On the surface, while preening feathers, the hood is fully extended and the white area nearly creates a pie shape.

When scratching the piece of pie is cut in half.

Just the difference between head up or down as these two watch their "brother" dive is interesting.

Here is the comma-head look.
In the previous photo the hood is "retracted", since he just resurfaced, and apparently while pursuing fish the extended hood would inhibit the required twisting and turning.

Even the female hood can be interesting. In these photos she has caught a fish and is shaking it into submission, but look what happens to her hood in the process.

As a matter of fact at a great distance you can see when a hooded has caught a fish by watching their shaking motion, even when the fish is so small and distant it cannot be seen at all.

The answers to the challenge are:

A. Male Common Merganser
B. Female Hooded Merganser
C. Female Common Merganser
D. Male Hooded Merganser.

(The rubbery red-orange foot of the female Common Merganser should have been a fairly obvious clue.)

Well the sun has burned through the clouds and it is time to visit Union Bay. :-)

"May the birds rise up to greet you,
The wind blow their feathers into interesting formations,
and the sun shine always on your back." An old photographers proverb.


Odds and Ends:

I have not identified a lot of warblers but this bird seen in Edmonds is a:
Yellow-rumped Warbler, I hope. Please let me know if you think this could be any other type of bird. Thank you!

By the way my very first post was about Hooded Mergansers if you would like to see the photos, Click here.