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

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Sunday, February 23, 2014

A Skagit Trip

Earlier this month my friend and avid birder, Marcus Roening, lead a birding trip to "The Skagit". Skagit county is about an hour north of Seattle and extends from Puget Sound to north of Lake Chelan. So a trip to "The Skagit" could have covered a lot of territory. In this case most of our birding was west of I-5 and most of these photos are from the delta area that is Fir Island.
The short-eared owls and northern harriers often seen in this area were too far away to photograph but even the relatively empty landscape was worth a photo or two.

I just realized that the railroad that was built in 1886, where the Burke-Gilman trail is today, would have been as close as possible to the level shore around Union Bay. (Prior to the lowering of Lake Washington in 1916, when the Montlake Cut was completed.) It makes one wonder if the photo above is similar to how the University Village area looked two hundred years ago. 

One of the first birds seen on our Skagit trip...

...was this trumpeter swan.

There were bald eagles, hawks, pintails, mallards and many other birds but the highlight of the trip was the snow geese.
Every time an eagle would pass, the geese would take to the air.

Trying to look closer at a huge flock of snow geese can make one somewhat dizzy. Imagine a bird of prey trying to focus on a single bird with the constant flow of motion, the sound of their honking and a thousand wings drumming against the air.

Even on the ground a single bird can be hard to pick out.

Once the danger was past they would settle down to feed.

With patience it is possible to focus on a single bird, although did you notice the bird looking up from behind the dirt?

While feeding they alternate between having their heads down and being on alert for danger.

Curiously the two birds in the middle of this photo have (tight looking) bands around their necks. The codes have been reported to the U.S. Geological Survey and it will be interesting to hear (in a few weeks) about the study in which these birds are involved.

It is also interesting to look at the migration patterns of the snow geese. Cornell shows that they winter in spots along both North American coasts and what appears to be strategic wetlands dotted across the lower half of the U.S. and Mexico. Up north, their nesting locations are as close to the arctic as they can get. Their mapped migrations appear as four distinct north and south columns. One near each coast, one that looks to be just east of the Rockies and the largest one widely centered around the Mississippi Valley.

In 1916 the hunting of Snow Geese was outlawed due to their dwindling numbers. But now they have recovered so well that around 400,000 birds are hunted annually in North America. 

Although I have never seen a Snow Goose near Union Bay there have been some sightings in the last few years. Usually just one or two birds, however in 2008 three different birders reported seeing at least 10 Snow Geese at the Union Bay Natural Area. None appear to have been reported this year. Keep your eyes open, you could be the first to see one.

Late in the day this colorful little kestral was spotted on a distant wire. The photo is a bit fuzzy but the colors are just too beautiful to keep to myself. Ebird shows no reports of kestrels near Union Bay. Wouldn't it be wonderful to have them return someday.

This week near Union Bay I have seen crows flying with nesting material. Eva was spotted sitting in her nest, most likely working on "sprucing" it up. Yesterday, green-winged teals were whistling and bowing to their mates. In spite of the grey, cold and wet these are all hints that spring is coming.

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


Sunday, February 16, 2014

Winter Warblers

These warblers were all seen this winter within walking distance of Union Bay.

They are each a different type of warbler. Can you identify them?

In the winter these birds are far more common in Mexico or Florida rather than near Union Bay. However in warmer weather they are more likely to feed on insects in flight. As a result they are often higher in the trees, darting out from the foliage and more difficult to see.
The ones that choose to winter near Union Bay are more likely to be down near the ground looking for berries or for out-of-season insects that appear on a warm winter day. This can actually make them easier to spot and photograph in the winter.

This time of year these bird's colors are more subtle and muted than in summer. The bird books tend to focus on the most colorful, springtime colors of the birds, but there are still clear distinctions between the markings of these three birds. If you do not know the names of these birds you might enjoy trying to identify them using The Cornell Lab of Ornithology online or by taking a look in a bird book.

In either case you will quickly notice there are many different types of warblers that reside in North America. Looking at 50 different types of warbler pictures can be intimidating. However, you can reduce the options fairly quickly by limiting yourself to warblers that have a geographic distribution that includes Union Bay. 

That brings the list down to:

  • Orange-Crowned Warbler
  • Yellow-Rumped Warbler
  • Black-Throated Gray Warbler
  • Townsend's Warbler
  • Yellow Warbler
  • Wilson's Warbler
To be fair only two of the three warblers in our pictures are on this list.  The third bird is vacationing out of its normal geographic area. If you want to identify these birds without any further help you should stop reading at this point.

Of the six birds listed above only two show winter ranges near Puget Sound. They are the Yellow-Rumped and the Townsend's Warblers. If you happened to read the Solstice Surprises post of December 21st you might remember that the Palm Warbler was pictured. This is our third warbler that does not normally reside around Union Bay.

By the way in that post I also mentioned seeing river otters in Union Bay for the first time. Last week I happened to be near the same location, e.g. the bridge between Foster and Marsh Island, when two Canada Geese suddenly lifted off, squawking loudly. I looked to see what startled them and there was a river otter in almost exactly the same place where I saw the otters in December. If you happen to spot a "beaver" in that area you might want to do a double-check.

 So we now know our three warblers are a:

  • Palm Warbler
  • Yellow-Rumped Warbler
  • Townsend's Warbler

but which is which?

It turns out that only the Townsend's Warbler has a dark ear patch bordered in yellow. 

Ironically, the Palm Warbler is yellow under its tail and the Yellow-Rumped Warbler is white under the tail. So in order our birds are:

  • Townsend's Warbler
  • Palm Warbler
  • Yellow-Rumped Warbler
Apparently the yellow that gives a Yellow-Rumped Warbler its name is this small yellow spot above the tail and between the wings.

Hopefully, this post has helped to make warbler identification a bit easier. However the warblers have additional tricks up their proverbially sleeves. It turns out that among Yellow-Rumped Warblers (YRW) there are two different local variations.

Especially during breeding season the male Audubon's version of the YRW has a yellow throat, while the Myrtle version has a white throat. This one seems to have both yellow and white under its throat. So which is this? 

You may have noticed that this is the same photo used in last week's post. It turns out the Evan Houston sent in the following email about this bird.

Hi Larry,

I thought you might be interested to know that the Yellow-rumped Warbler you photographed is very likely to be an intergrade "Audubon's x Myrtle".  I've been meaning to try to confidently identify one in the field for a while now, but have not felt very confident w/o getting photos that I can study.

I asked my more experienced friend, Ryan Merrill, to take a look at your photos in your latest blog post, and here's what he said
"Yeah, I would definitely call that an intergrade.  Clearly yellow in
the throat as in Audubon's, but also the white corners curling up into
the auricular, supercilium, and dark lores/partial auricular as in

Was this one in the "dime lot" pond?  I may have even seen this particular bird on 2-1, and I tried to photograph it, but it was too fast for my skills with my point and shoot.

Seattle, WA

Thank you to Evan and Ryan for pointing out that this YRW's interesting heritage.

Just for fun here are two warblers photos where the bird is a bit more difficult to pick out. Can you now find the and identify the warbler(s)?

Both of these photos are of the same bird shown at the beginning of this post.

Finally, from last week,Twink asked is this bird really a House Finch or could it be a Crossbill? What do you think?

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


Saturday, February 8, 2014

What do you see?

Life in the wild is all or nothing. Creatures either live or die. Someone once pointed out that the wild creatures living near Union Bay are professionals. Amateurs do not survive long when it comes to hunting and hiding, even if they are living in a city.

Your challenge this week is to look carefully at the first photo and the next three. Look as if your life depended on what you see. Then we will take a closer look at what is in each photo and you can determine for yourself how you think you might do in the wild.

In the first photo the two crows are obvious...
... but how about the red-tailed hawk in the lower part of the photo that the crows are harassing.

Yesterday, the hawk had been sitting, watching and waiting in a nearby tree. Something must have moved near the ground as the hawk swiftly flew down into the brush and began peering closely. When the hawk moved the crows immediately stopped feeding and came to drive the hawk away.

Oddly, the crows had been pecking at the ice. At first it looked as though they were removing small seeds that were embedded in the ice. 

At a second glance it actually seemed like they were breaking the seeds against the ice. Either way it seemed a bit odd and unusual to see and hear a couple dozen crows pecking away at the ice.

From a photographic point of view the black of the crows against the bright reflecting ice was a real challenge. In the photos above I could get the ice in focus but no definition in the black of the crows.
In this photo I did better with the crow but lost almost all the definition in the ice. I am curious if anyone has a good solution to this challenge.

The crows kept after the hawk...

...until it moved out of the brush to a higher limb. However even that was not good enough.

In the end the hawk had to leave the area completely.

In the second photo the beaver's lodge is obvious...
...but did you notice the heron perched on the lodge? It is interesting that the beaver does not discriminate against milled wood. It will use wood of any type to construct its home.

In the third photo the sparrow was dead center and in focus but none the less if you were just walking by and not searching hard it would be easy to miss.

In the fourth photo a yellow-rumped warbler is out on the ice searching for food.

It must be finding something.

I caught a few photos the first time I passed the area before the warbler flew off in to the brush.

Later when I returned the warbler was back in the same area and hard at work once again. I hope you enjoyed this week's challenge.

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


Odds and Ends:

 Along the way yesterday I passed a few other birds...
...a marsh wren (not a bewick's wren, see Harsi's comment below)...

...a house finch or on closer inspection a crossblll (Thank you, Twink ) and...

...a golden-crown sparrow.

Also earlier in the week on a warm day Elvis (or a relative) was spotted near the mouth of Arboretum Creek. This winter it has seemed as though the pileated woodpeckers do not venture this far away from Interlaken when the weather is cold. It could be fun to see if this theory holds any water.