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

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Saturday, September 28, 2013

A Clear and Present Danger

Occasionally the sun broke through this week, so here are a few happy shots from those moments.
A Black-Capped Chickadee hiding in the shadows.

Pink Clover from the WSDOT peninsula.

A couple of my first Northern Shoveler sightings of the fall.

Cattails southeast of Foster Island.

Sadly a cottonwood tree fell this week and knocked down the Wood Duck nesting box which was also southeast of Foster Island. You may remember we saw this nest in-use earlier this year. If not you can see the spring photos and video here.

On Thursday morning the sun did not shine for these next photos. None the less a Red-tailed Hawk was seen peering from the top of a western red cedar into the fenced backyard of a local home.

Many times there is a small dog inside the fence. Often the dog will sit with its chin on the ground, in order to peer out from under the gate. It will then bark ferociously at those who pass by. It seemed obvious the hawk was aware of the potential food source and was checking to see if the owners would let the dog out for its morning constitutional.

My Aunt and Uncle in Oregon have a small dog that was attacked by a hawk. The vet said their dog escaped by inches. The hawk grabbed the dog and the talons went deeply enough to pierce the heart. However they were in the wrong end of the animal. Then apparently when the hawk released to get a better hold the dog escaped and scrambled under a parked car.

Luckily for our little, Montlake canine a crow spotted the hawk before the dog entered the yard.

Since crows are somewhat socially sophisticated one crow called the next. Soon the "band of brothers" were swooping in from all directions.

Although given their intelligence they did seem to prefer to attack from behind.

The hawk finally decided the potential benefit was not worth the hassle.

One proud crow decided to soak up the victory from the hawk's previous perch.

This morning The Seattle Times posted an article telling how the top scientists in the world believe there is a 95% probability that global warming and ocean acidification is being caused by human activities. While the potential impacts to humans and nature are very large their are things that can be done.

Stewart Brand discusses a number of options in his book, "The Whole Earth Discipline". His change in point of view over time seems very logical and practical. Even though the technical challenges of global warming, etc. are very large and difficult they may not be the greatest challenge we face.

Our greatest challenge may simply be getting everyone to work together.


Let's hope we can learn to be as socially sophisticated as the crows. It is time to band together to address a clear and present danger.

Just a thought.


PS: By the way Johnson Hur from OpticsPlanet.com asked that I mention a guide they created to help new birders pick their first set of binoculars. It looks like a very logical review of the birding binocular basics. Enjoy! 


Sunday, September 22, 2013

The Impossible Downy

Yesterday, for half an hour, two little downy woodpeckers, circled and fed in the trees on Foster Island.
The female revealed herself first, note the lack of red on her head.

The male was a bit more reclusive but none the less the red on his head gave him away, that and his "Pik'ing". You can hear a similar sound here. The first half of the second recording is most similar to the sound he was making, however he was doing it much less often. At the time it seemed like he was just reassuring his mate. As if to say, "Hey, I'm over here. I haven't gone far. I am still feeding happily." Here is a short video of our bird with the reassuring voice.
Having just heard the sound of a low battery in the house fire alarm the two sounds seemed a lot alike, although the volume of the downy was not nearly as loud or irritating.

A streak of dark passing above my head and landing on the trunk of a nearby tree was the very first hint of a downy. My initial thought was one of the chickadees that were calling nearby had just passed over. But since it landed on the trunk and started working its way up the tree it caused second thoughts. Chickadees normally land in the leaves of the tree and hunt for their food above, around, over and under the leaves, but not usually on the trunk.

This photo shows a downy working its way up a branch in a manner uncharacteristic of a chickadee. 

The light was not great, the leaves and branches were very thick and the little woodpeckers were moving rapidly about their business. This combination of circumstances made photographing the birds feel like an impossible mission. Looking back at the next to last photo one may wonder how the camera was able to focus on the bird behind the branch and twig.

It didn't. Here is the trick.
By focusing on the branch a foot or so ahead of the bird, but at roughly the same distance, it was possible to get the shot in focus. Admittedly, these rather highly-cropped photos will never be on the cover of a magazine. However they do allow one to see rather interesting behaviors and features that might not otherwise be seen.

For example the beautiful white feathers with crisp black markings on the underside of the bird can be seen in this close up from the photo above.

Also the closure of the protective eyelid, while feeding, can be seen in this photo taken just a moment earlier.

Another interesting behavior of woodpeckers in general is their ability to use their tails like the third point of a tripod. With their relatively long, sharp claws and the stiff, sturdy tail woodpeckers can strike, pry and dig into trees without losing their balance. This helps them to find and secure food that other birds are unable to attain.

In the next two photos the male is using his dark black tail feathers as that third point of stabilization.

However instead of feeding he his apparently looking about it all directions and trying to figure out which nearby tree looks most appealing.
Did you notice that while moving his head about so quickly he has extended his under tail coverts. These are the fan of pretty white feathers with two dark markings near the end of each feather. Evidently he is using these feathers to offset the rapid turning of his head and to maintain precise balance and control.

You can learn more about under tail coverts here

Here is one last parting shot of the downy going about his business.

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


Wednesday, September 18, 2013

First Fall Color - Updates

This week two emails arrived with more information about the spider and the red plant in the previous post.

From Arthur Jacobson, our local Seattle tree and plant expert.

Dear Larry,

Lovely photo. But the master gardner was incorrect. He or she told you Viburnum trilobum, a Washington State native that grows wild nowhere near Seattle . . .   whereas the naturalized European Viburnum Opulus is common in low, wet places such as around Lake Washington. The two shrub species are similar in appearance. The attached PDF from "Wild Plants of Greater Seattle" has more details.


Unfortunately. I was unable to post the pdf from Arthur's book, "Wild Plants of Greater Seattle". On page 112 there is considerably information about the Highbush Cranberry and on page 113 the are very nice diagrams. If you follow the link above you can learn more about the book and its availability.

From Harsi Parker is in regards to the spider.

Hi Larry, 

Enjoyed your post -- especially reading about highbush cranberry (beautiful plant!) and also the great pics of mushrooms & spiders. 

Regarding finding an ID for your spider... You've got photos posted with a ventral (bottom) abdominal view of the spider. Typically, you'd need a dorsal (top) image of the abdominal pattern to make a guess at what species it is. That being said, I have viewed a lot of orbweaver spiders, and the vast majority of large ones in this area end up being Araneus diadematus, also known as the Cross Orbweaver or European Garden Spider. (I wouldn't be at all surprised if that's what your lovely photographic subject is!) This is an introduced species that seems to be completely thriving in the PNW. Here's a link to a page on BugGuide, which is an excellent photographic resource and also has a feature for submitting photos for ID help from experts and amateurs alike:


One of the best overall insect ID resources I can recommend. And it's free!

All my best, 
Harsi Parker
Vashon, WA

Sunday, September 15, 2013

First Fall Colors

As of today most tree leaves near Union Bay are still green, at least for a few more hours. On the other hand male mallards are starting to show their fall colors. For the last month they have been hiding in plain sight. In preparation for fall mating and a new year they have been growing a new set of feathers. Unable to fly properly with half grown feathers the males put on a temporary eclipse plumage that makes them look a lot like females. (Click Here, to see the Cornell explanation.) Finally the males are starting to show off their fall colors.

In the previous photo the male in the water is not quite as far along as the bird on the log. You can still see a few of the light brown feathers sprinkled about his head and neck.

In the next photo the male in back still has a mostly brown neck.
It may seem odd but it is actually the back half of the closer bird that attracts my attention. The new black, brown and white feathers are so crisp and clean. (Clearly, this is the only blog on birds that will point out a beautiful bird butt.)

Here is a male from a couple of weeks ago when he was just starting to come out of hiding.

Here is a photo from a few days earlier. I believe this is a male in eclipse plumage.

Yesterday one of the males in full fall plumage approached a female and did his head bobbing dance. She responded in kind. They proceeded to immediately consummate their relationship. A moment later a male with only partial fall coloring approached the same female. She didn't just reject him, she chased him away. So it would seem we have the female mallards to thank for the beauty of the male mallards mating plumage.

Although the females do not have the beautiful green head they do have the royal purple speculum. (Some call these feathers blue but on Union Bay near Husky Stadium they are most definitely, purple.)
The speculum is part of the trailing wing feathers closest to the body. These feathers are called the secondaries while the primaries are the trailing feathers closer to the wing tips. These clean and pristine feathers are among the first fall colors on Union Bay.

For those who had their hearts set on seeing fall leaves here is a consolation photo.
This plant clearly turned color before almost every other plant in the Arboretum. With the red berries as well as the leaves it is beautiful. It can been seen on the right hand side of the southern bridge to Foster Island. Having never noticed this plant in the wild the initial thought was that this must be an introduced plant from some place further south. Imagine the surprise when the Master Gardener at the Arboretum explained that this is a native plant. For those wanting to encourage native birds in their yards this might be a wonderful choice.

If you would like to know the name of this mystery plant, Click Here.

Speaking of the color red it seems the pileated woodpeckers are out and about the park a lot more lately. Here is a male spotted near Arboretum Creek.

Below is a female seen near the stone bridge. (This is the bridge that consistently decapitates trucks trying to take a short cut through the Arboretum.)
Maybe, with the job of feeding and training the young birds completed, the parents have the freedom to travel again, being empty nesters and all.

It seems like fall is mushroom season too. 

 The spiders are out and about in fall numbers as well.

Did you notice the "eyes" on this spiders back?

Note: Being unable to identify the mushrooms or the spiders I would love your recommendations on books or websites that you believe would be most helpful.

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


PS: Here is one last photo from a couple of weeks ago.
It makes one wonder how long until the bees call it quits for the winter.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Where Owls Share the Woods

Note: Dan Pedersen keeps an eye on the birds of Whidbey Island. His blog, Off the Rails, explores nature and other wide-ranging topics. To subscribe, email him at dogwood@whidbey.com.

This week Larry is bending his blog’s rules to let me guest-write about owls. Union Bay is Larry’s usual turf and it is almost exclusively Barred Owl territory. 

But Larry also has a foot planted in the woods of Whidbey Island, where Barred Owls live alongside the larger and, seemingly, fiercer Great-horned Owls. His getaway place is just a quarter-mile down a gravel lane from my home, a few miles from Langley.
The adult Great-horned Owl looks downright fierce.

I photograph both owls year-round right in the neighborhood. For my 25+ years here the two species have maintained a territorial boundary somewhere between Larry’s house and mine. Great-horned Owls (only) perch in my yard. But a few hundred feet away on Larry’s stretch of road, I see Barred Owls only, and never a Great-horned Owl.

. . . With one caveat. The boundary is creeping closer to my place.

Last year I observed Barred Owls closer than ever, right on the property line.  All the properties on our road are five-acre, parcels, mostly wooded but partly cleared for houses and yards. The owls station themselves on utility wires or trees overlooking the clearings -- roads, gardens, pastures, and other open areas where they can wait, watch and hunt.
This Barred Owl was balanced on the utility wire that runs the length of our road.

This summer I went months without seeing a Great-horned Owl in my favorite owl tree. This is a towering fir right on the forest edge by our garden, facing the morning sun. I think the owls favor it as a place to snooze and sunbathe after a rough night. It overlooks our vegetable patch and orchard, offering an unobstructed glide path to rabbits and rodents.

Even though Great-horned Owls are considered a predatory threat to Barred Owls, I think the Barred Owls are expanding their territory on our road. Somehow in recent decades they extended their range all the way west across the continent from their base in the East. They are now well established in the Pacific Northwest and seem to have carved out a niche in urban areas

This summer I really wondered if my Great-horned Owls were gone for good. But the other day two first-year Great-horned Owls appeared again in our yard. Significantly they appear to be two juveniles just getting started on their own, perhaps looking to establish territories. 
This juvenile Great-horned Owl was just learning to hunt. It was sitting on our blueberry enclosure, six feet off the ground, screaming for mom and dad to bring a meal.

One had a damaged right eye that didn’t open fully. I’ll recognize this individual for sure the next time it rotates into our yard.
Note the wispy ear-tufts on this first-year, juvenile Great Horned Owl.

My Whidbey birding friend, Craig Johnson, identified the two owls as first-year siblings based on their rather wispy ear tufts.  
This juvenile Great-horned Owl has very small ear-tufts and its body is soft and round.

These ear tufts are the “horns” that make adult Great-horned Owls look so fierce. Once you’ve seen a severe-looking Great-horned Owl, you won’t ever confuse it with a round-headed Barred Owl.
The adult Great-horned Owl has very large, well-defined ear tufts. 

Both species are well-adapted to this setting. They hunt rabbits, squirrels, small rodents, other birds, reptiles, amphibians and even insects.
This Barred Owl has such excellent natural camouflage I would have missed it in the Alder foliage if other birds hadn’t been mobbing it.

Both are a joy. I find them easily by listening for the frantic screeching of robins, Steller’s Jays, crows and other birds furious at raptors encroaching near their nesting areas.  I follow the angry racket and look for the smaller birds hopping from branch-to-branch, and swooping short distances. Almost always, the owl will be sitting on a short branch about 30 feet up, next to the tree trunk, at the center of it all.

Happy owling to you.

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A huge, Thank You, to Dan for this piece, the photography and for inspiring me to try blogging!


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Meet Dan Pederson:

When did you first start writing about nature?
Ten years ago. A friend opened my eyes to the phenomenal wildlife activity in his slightly wild suburban yard. He had left an old snag standing, and a patch of brush, and planted some wild berries. No lawn chemicals. We were lamenting that so many people seem driven to achieve the opposite - to eradicate all traces of nature from their homes. Yet nature is the great healing force in our lives, the one thing we all crave and seek for reflection and recreation. I hope to inspire more people to include a patch of wild habitat in their yards. 

Nature became a much bigger part of my life after I stopped commuting to a job in the city. That's when I finally had time to observe what was happening in the woods around me, where I live. Owls were among the first birds to really catch my attention, with their eerie conversations in the predawn. I realized I had overlooked a whole community of wild creatures living right beside me, that were were endlessly fascinating.

I've contributed articles to the island newspapers and written a couple books and some shoreline interpretive signage. These days I write mostly for my blog, Off the Rails, 
An earlier blog, Wild Whidbey, was exclusively about nature:

What are the names of the nature books you have written? 
With Sarah Schmidt, I co-authored Getting to the Water's Edge on Whidbey and Camano Islands. This is a guide to shoreline access that includes trail maps, photography and interpretive essays. It is available from the Island County WSU Extension website,
On my own, I published Whidbey Island's Special Places. It's not a large book but is built around a great deal of photography and interviews with 10 locals who are passionate about island life. The idea was to help readers experience Whidbey through the eyes of guides who really know it. The island is remarkably diverse and the book conveys that. It is available in island shops and directly from my website, http://www.whidbeywriter.com.

When and how did you get interested in bird photography?
I met the guru of Whidbey Island birding, Craig Johnson. He's such a creative genius, gets so excited, knows so much and is such a talented photographer and watercolor artist that his enthusiasm sucked me in. He and his wife, Joy, publish books and CDs, give talks and invest all their energy as a labor of love in promoting birds and habitat. 

What is your favorite birding site on Whidbey Island?
Crockett Lake and Keystone Spit, near Coupeville. It's a great spot for raptors and marine birds, and many migrating species.