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Friday, January 31, 2014

Looking for Harvey

In case you missed the January 18th post, this is Harvey. A cormorant hatched on East Sand Island in the mouth of the Columbia River. 

Harvey can be identified by this yellow band on his left leg with the code, HV9. If you would like to read the prior story, Click HereDuring the last two weeks I have been searching for Harvey curious to know if he (or she) is hanging around Union Bay or was only visiting.

Dozens of cormorants on land, well at least in trees on land, have been checked.

I have been watching cormorants in the air and...

..on the water.

Last week while looking for Harvey it looked like Eva was in the cottonwood on Foster Island, while...

... Albert was using her usual 520 light pole. What was very interesting was how much Albert was moving around. Looking first one direction and then the other.

He would gaze off into the distance...

...and then look down to check out a nearby opportunity.

He was in almost constant motion...

...looking one way and then the other. It was as if he was nervous. This movement was in contrast to Eva who was very composed and regal. Her movements seemed similar to the speed of the sun as it slid down behind the Olympics.

Two thoughts crossed my mind. One was Albert may be a lot younger than Eva and possibly his movements were just the energy of youth. On the other hand maybe Albert really was nervous to be sitting in Eva's favorite spot given her larger size.

In any case it appears that Harvey may have moved on or it could be that I have just been looking for Harvey in all the wrong places. Either way it is wonderful to have wildlife in our neighborhood and the opportunity to get to know them.

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


Correction regarding managing birds to save fish:

By the way in the previous post I was in error when I said the cormorants on East Sand Island are being actively managed. They are still being studied at this time and active management has not yet commenced. Here are emails on the subject from an exchange with Yasuko who is one of the researchers involved. Yasuko has been exceedingly kind and professional to provide explanations and links to a number of sources with more information on the subject. Please take a look if you like. The effort being spent nation-wide is amazing in its scope. It raises the question, Should we be managing the bird's behavior or our own?

On Jan 20, 2014, at 5:03 PM, Suzuki, Yasuko wrote:

Hi Larry,

Thank you for letting us know the details of your observation of the banded cormorant! Thanks also for letting me know about including my e-mail response in your blog. I do not mind it, and it is OK if you would like to include my work phone number and e-mail as well.

I enjoyed your blog post and the beautiful photos! I noticed that you mentioned about active management of the cormorant colony at East Sand Island. It might be confusing, but active management of double-crested cormorant colony at East Sand Island has not been implemented yet. Wildlife management agencies have been working to put together Environmental Impact Statement, which lists management options and needs feedback from public, before management can actually take place. Bird Research Northwest conducts studies (e.g. satellite tagging cormorants to evaluate post-breeding dispersal, like the paper you cited in your blog) to provide information that management agencies need to make management plans. Again, this might look very confusing, so please let me know if you have questions.   

Thank you again for your report and additional information!


From: Larry Hubbell
Sent: Tuesday, January 21, 2014 8:08 AM
To: Suzuki, Yasuko
Subject: Re: DC Comorant | Harvey and The Band


Thank you for the clarification. I think it was the following statement in the Abstract that confused me.

"To reduce conflicts with fish resources, other colonial waterbirds, and damage to habitats, double-crested cormorants (Phalacrocorax auritus) are currently controlled (lethally and non-lethally) throughout much of their range."

So if I understand correctly there have been actions taken to limit DCC reproduction at ESI but they have all been studies or tests to help determine the most appropriate or effective way to limit DCC consumption of young salmon. No particular method of limiting reproduction has been selected or implemented on an ongoing basis at this time.

You also made the point that this process is open to public comment. Personally I would like to see us all (myself included) use less water and restore more streams as functional salmon breeding habitat. Beyond that I am wondering what intelligent and useful public comments could be made. Do you have thoughts you can share on this?

Thank you for your guidance and I will be happy to post a clarification.


Hi Larry,

Thank you for letting me know where the confusion came from. There has not been any actual management action taken to reduce reproduction of double-crested cormorants nesting on East Sand Island. However, the amount of available nesting habitat for cormorants at East Sand Island has been manipulated to test the feasibility of potential management methods. This is mainly to explore methods to reduce the colony size (number of breeding pairs).    

The link below is a short summary of what is going on (or not going on) at the East Sand Island cormorant colony;

And this link shows detailed reports we write annually that includes information of feasibility studies we have conducted;

As for my thoughts on public comments, I cannot share my thoughts on this at this point. The Environmental Impact Statement is currently being developed by wildlife management agencies. We, researchers studying double-crested cormorants at East Sand Island, are not involved in this process other than providing technical advice when the agencies have questions. So, I do not know what will be included in the statement and when it will be available for public review, and this makes meeting your request (sharing my thoughts to your question) difficult.

I think learning details on this topic is probably a great thing to do in order to make intelligent and useful public comments. Our project website provides a lot of information on cormorants nesting on East Sand Island and other sites in Pacific NW through published papers and unpublished (but available through the link above) annual reports.

To learn what types of management actions have been taken in other areas of the US, the link below is very useful;

I hope this helps. I am leaving for an airport in Japan (to fly back to Oregon) in ½ hours and won’t be able to respond to your e-mail for the next couple of days. But if you have other questions, I will respond once I return to the office.


Saturday, January 25, 2014

The Easy Life

After a number of cold, grey and cloudy days it has been wonderful to see brilliant blue sky filled with sunshine. Yesterday afternoon those who were standing on the north shore of the Union Bay looking towards Yesler Cove were surrounded with life.
Off shore a huge raft of wigeons and coots were constantly dipping their heads for food while paddling in seemingly aimless circles.  Nearby red-winged blackbirds were calling to each other with noisy variations of "koKang-gaRee". 

Near shore a pied-billed grebe popped up to watch carefully for danger before silently disappearing below the water's surface. 

Usually the grebe would dive into the water but occasionally it would seem to magically sink below the surface leaving barely a ripple in its wake. It was as if lead weights were suddenly attached to the bird's feet. It makes one wonder what tricks of nature enable such a maneuver.

Closer to shore male mallards benefited from having the courage to work the shallows in close proximity to humans. 

In among the wigeons and coots a cormorant would briefly come up for air before returning to chase fish through the dark and cold of the underwater world. 
Once fed the cormorant came and sat on a log while it drying its feathers.

At least once a bald eagle passed over head which caused the wigeons and coots to take to the air. One could question whether the coots actually flew or simply beat their wings to enable them to run like nervous Nellies across the surface of the water. In either case neither type of bird went far. They simply circled out from under the eagle's flight path before returning to nearly the same spot. They did seem to bunch up in a tighter group. Maybe this implies that coots know applied statistics e.g. the eagles tend to catch the stragglers on the tail of the bell curve.

However the stars of yesterday's show were two pairs of trumpeter swans basking in the sunlight just outside Yesler Cove. 
Evidently their morning feeding was easy and fulfilling because they seemed to spend all afternoon sleeping, grooming and stretching.

Long necks are a huge benefit when trying to keep white feathers sparkling clean.

Don't try this at home.

Even this could be challenging.

After all the strenuous grooming a little napping was in order.

Although it did seem they even groomed a bit in their sleep. Keeping a clean white exterior can be challenging.

Occasionally they would awaken and stretch a bit just to get the kinks out.

May your weekend to be as peaceful and relaxing.

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


Saturday, January 18, 2014

Harvey and The Band

Every day hundreds of commuters see cormorants sitting on a log or a buoy as they pass through Union Bay on 520. Cormorants are rather nondescript, dark birds that never seem to be doing anything spectacular. Their most distinctive behavior to the casual observer is the habit of spreading their wings to dry with the help of a breeze and occasionally even the help of some Seattle sun. 
None the less, there was a bit of a mystery and a great deal of money and effort related to one of these birds. Just like on Sesame Street we can say, "One of these birds is not like the other." Do you notice a difference?

The bird with its wings spread has a yellow band on its left leg.

Closer inspection reveals the code, "HV9". Which makes the name Harvey come to mind. 

For 10 to 15 minutes Harvey dried his wings and then cleaned and aligned his feathers.
Actually gender is one of Harvey's mysteries, he or she could just as likely be Harvey-etta, however since Harvey is easier to write we'll stick with that. Still the bigger mystery was when, where and why did Harvey acquire his band.

This photo of one of Harvey's associates shows the bird from stem to stern. In addition to  having hooked bills and clawed web-feet, It turns out that double-crested cormorants (DCC) have heavier bones than many other birds. Cornell also says the reason these birds preen is because they do not have much oil in their feathers, so they do not shed water like a duck. The theory is that extra water in their feathers may work a bit like a diver's weights to counteract buoyancy under water. All of these capabilities combine to make DCC very efficient underwater hunters. 

It is not uncommon to see a DCC on Union Bay bring a fish to the surface and then have an eagle harass them until they give up the fish. In spite of this treatment the number of DCC on Union Bay seems fairly stable. Sitings of one to two dozen are not uncommon over the last five years and often there have been a lot more recorded on eBird. Maybe their superb fishing ability makes the eagle harassment just a minor cost of doing business on Union Bay.

The cormorant's superior fishing ability is also related to the band on Harvey's leg. After a little searching on the internet and a few emails this response explained when and where Harvey got his band.

Hi Larry,
Thank you for reporting a banded double-crested cormorant to Dan!
The bird was banded as a chick at East Sand Island in the Columbia River estuary (near Astoria, OR) in July 2013 as part of our study on demography (survival rate etc.) and movements (inter-colony during breeding season, post-breeding dispersal etc.) of the species. It is great to learn the cormorant fledged successfully from its natal colony and hanging out in your area.
Could you please let us know the date and location (Union Bay, WA?) you observed the cormorant when you get a chance?
Thank you again for your report, and we look forward to hearing details on your observation.
Yasuko Suzuki
Department of Fisheries and Wildlife
Oregon State University

East Sand Island is said to be the largest nesting site for DCC in the world. The growth of this DCC nesting site has happened in the last 30 to 40 years with continued acceleration in the last 20 years. This has created a difficult situation because the cormorants are feeding in part on juvenile salmonids. With declining salmon populations and federal protection, active management of the DCC is taking place in an attempt to protect the salmon. Bird Research Northwest has primary members like Oregon State University, the USGS and Real Time Research, Inc  but what is truly amazing is the extensive list of supporting organizations.

While this effort is highly commendable it does make one wonder if there are simpler, more effective ways to make changes to the upstream human behaviors that are the causing the greatest portion of the salmon decline. 

On a happier note, I am wondering if anyone has seen DCC nesting near Union Bay. I have seen them flying around with cottonwood branches in their mouths near Montlake Cut but I haven't spotted a nest. Cornell says they will nest in trees as well as on the ground and given there is limited safe ground-level nesting sites on Union Bay, the trees are probably their best bet.

The next time you are out and about on Union Bay take a second look at the DCCs. You might see one building a nest next spring. (This nesting schedule from East Sand Island has the DCCs hatching out at just about the same time as our Union Bay eaglets. Nature is amazing.) You might also get to see Harvey and The Band. Their finest music piece so far is entitled, The Rhythm of Nature. :-)

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


PS: Thank you to everyone who came to the Opening Reception of the Birds Watching Art Show. I heard some of you were unable to get copies of the particular photos you wanted due to the demand. The inventory was restocked on Monday so you now have another opportunity.

This sculpture, which is in the first cabinet just inside the doors at the show, symbolizes concern for the salmon but also for concern for our children and the challenges of living in world with limited diversity.
Where's the Salmon? 

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Birds Watching Art Show | Interview

Rainer Metzger, Webmaster of the Montlake Flyer, just posted an interview where he asks penetrating questions related to my bird photography processes, painting, sculpture and motivation. He relates all this to the Birds Watching Art Show and tomorrow night's Opening Reception. If you have time please stop by. For all the details click here.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Six Swans a Trumpeting

Trumpeter swans have been visiting our neighborhood. They come down from the north to enjoy the mild winter weather and our Union Bay buffet. 

Underwater plants seem to be their favorite food. Being larger than all other waterfowl on the bay it is as if their food has been specially reserved. Kind of like a high shelf in the kitchen, only in the other direction.

Cornell says they generally mate for life and can live for up to 24 years in the wild. Which means the older visitors in these photos may have been born in the early nineties. Did you notice the brown discoloration on the forehead of bird on the left. This must come from digging around in the mud for that last little piece of plant material.

About a dozen swans arrived at 10am yesterday morning. They were honking loudly as they came in from the east and landed just north of the WAC (Waterfront Activities Center). It is funny that they made no attempt to hide their presence from the eagles that were watching from tree tops on the north side of the bay. Although they did fly in across the south side of the bay so maybe their approach to dealing with eagles is just to keep their distance.

They arrived in two groups and after landing in same area there was a lot of head bobbing and some wing flapping. It was just like old friends, unexpectedly running into each other on the street. It seemed to be their version of shaking hands, slapping one another on the back and exchanging hugs.

They calmed down quickly and got serious about searching for food. If there were tundra swans mixed in with this group it was not obvious as none of these birds seemed to have the yellow mark (a lore) on their bill just in front of the eye.  If you would like to see a photo of the lore check out this 2012 post, Click Here. (See photo number three.)

Cornell implies if they have the mark they are tundra swans but not having it does not mean they must be trumpeter swans. Maybe some of these birds are tundra swans in hiding. The tundra swans are also smaller and a bit more elegant but that can be hard to spot. There is one bird above (third from the left) that seems to have a consistent white spot (may be a reflection) on its beak but whatever it is it does not resemble a lore.

They sometimes stretch out in long lines as they follow each other around but they are certainly social and generally stay in groups. 

Occasionally a pair will attempt to lead the group in a particular direction. Sometimes the group follows and sometimes the pair has to turn around a follow the group.

It is not all peaceful and bliss as you can see, one bird reaches over and nips another bird on the wing.

Maybe it was one male telling another you are too close to my mate, but after the nip n' splash things returned to normal.

There was one other surprise when a nearly mature bald eagle passed over. It came in low over the water and the coots bunched up and flew around in circles barely off the water. The swans casually congregated a little tighter but they were not nearly as agitated as the coots. I believe I have seen coot legs sticking up out the Broadmoor eagle's nest at feeding time so there is most likely good reason for their concern.

The only thing that made the swans actually take to the air was boaters passing too close for comfort. But on the whole the swans did not seem as skittish has they have been in previous years. 

My guess is the swans spend the evenings and nights on the east side of Lake Washington. They seem to arrive on Union Bay mid-morning and stay in the sunlight along the western shores.

Their focus seems to be mostly on the Union Bay underwater buffet. If you get the chance you should check them out before they head north again. The best location seems to be from the Union Bay Natural Area. While you are there you might want to stop by the Miller Library and check out the photos on display.

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


Bonus Photo: