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

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Saturday, June 21, 2014

Owls and Other Mysteries

Last week's mid-day photos of the young owls (in the second half of the post) was an anomaly. It is not often that such mid-day photographic opportunities present themselves. This week the owls have been seen both more, and less. For instance the young owl in the photo above and its siblings were observed fairly often but each time was around dusk and the owls were mostly in the shadows where they were difficult to see and even more challenging to photograph.

During the day crows and other birds are fairly easy to watch as they search for food and teach their young by example. With owls there is more for them to learn as hunting is complex, and since they are active at night, observing the process is challenging.

Still the partially obscured observations enhance the mystery and the curiosity surrounding the behavior of owls. What do you think this young owl is doing? Peering through the dark, the first thought was maybe the young bird had captured an insect or bug for the first time. 

Earlier in slightly better light one of the parents sat observing the movement of a small creature. Neither the parent nor the prey seemed to be the least disturbed by my presence. In fact the prey (which I could not see or hear) must have continued to move towards my location because suddenly the owl left its perch and swooped down to land just to my left.

The owl was too close to include the whole bird in the photograph. What exactly it caught and ate remains a mystery but it was evidently small because the whole process was completed very quickly.

Moments later the owl landed on a nearby branch and wiped its face on nature's "napkin".
As the forest grew darker the young owls became more active. Here is a prior example. The young ones flew down to lower branches, logs and even hopped around in the gravel next to the pavement. Still, all their activities where nearly constantly interrupted by their high-pitched calls for food. Click here to hear an example.

Later as the shadows in the forest darkened, one of the parents returned with food. It perched on a fairly large, horizontal moss-covered branch near the top of a maple tree. Immediately two young birds perched on either side and began consuming what was offered. While too dark for photos the other two young birds could be observed flying up to the branch and trying to hover near the food. They had neither the strength nor the endurance to succeed with this maneuver, but that did not stop them from frantically trying over and over. Ultimately as the first two birds began to get their fill the second pair nosed in between the parent and their siblings. Unlike on previous attempts, their presence was not reject with talon or beak but room was made for them to feed. 

Another Union Bay birding mystery is the lack of nesting Great Blue Herons on the UW campus. For the last few years they have been nesting immediately east of the Chemistry building in the upper reaches of the deciduous trees. (I believe they are maple trees if memory serves me right.)
In any case this year the small grove is unusually silent and the ivy is an emerald green and lacks the usual white frosting. Has anyone noticed whether the herons have found another Union Bay, group-nesting location?


Beyond the Bay:

Yesterday my wife, my daughter and I hiked the short trail up to Talapus Lake. Along the way the stream splashed with the vigor of spring.

Occasionally it calmed down for short stretches.

But even in its calmest moments it was constantly moving. This type of photo is particularly fun. One can not clearly see the surface of the water or the rocks beneath and sometimes together they form shapes that look like neither one. Do you see the hint of a head in the right half of the photo? Think red fox.

Speaking of red and mysteries, how about the color of this stump which was seen along the way. This is a faithful reproduction of the true color of the wood. I suspect the red has something to do with moisture and decay but the reason for the color remains a mystery to me.

The lake was quiet, calm and a bit chilly. Only two types of living creatures were spotted while we ate lunch. A pair of Juncos who flew quickly away into the brush and…

…this little fellow who came to zip about beneath our feet and search for crumbs.


Back at the Bay:

A parting shot in the dark.
After hopping around and trying to fly two or three times, the fledgling finally figured out how to fly with its additional load. Which turned out to be a stick about 6 inches long and an inch and half in diameter. Evidently this is one of the ways owls learn to carry objects in flight. 

Have a great day (or night) on Union Bay…where natures lives in the city!


Monday, June 16, 2014

The Graduates | From Woodpeckers To Owls

Last Sunday Lisa and Marie, the young Pileated Woodpeckers which we saw last week, left the nest for the first time.
For the last time Marie sits in the nest while she cries for food.

Her mother accommodates her demands and then flies away to land near Lisa who had already left the nest.

Marie watches them closely as she scrambles out of the nest.

Marie spends one last moment, perhaps gathering courage for her inaugural flight, before she leaves the nesting tree as well. A young bird leaving the nest seems similar to a teenager graduating from high school and preparing to go off to college. They leave home for the first time but they are still learning to be independent. The parents are still providing support and still trying to alert their offspring to the dangers of the world.

For example, within the first hour after Marie left the nest, her mother started calling loudly and soon the crows added their cries of alarm. Clearly something was not right. There was a flash of grey crossing a log below the birds and then…
…a few moments later this raccoon was spotted climbing a tree below the young birds.

Priscilla led the young birds to a different tree and much higher off the ground before leaving to search for food. Did you notice the difference in color between the red on Priscilla's head and the reddish-pink on Lisa's head in this photo?

At this point the young birds spend a lot of time clinging to the side of the tree or sitting on a branch (which is very odd for a Pileated Woodpecker), just waiting for the parents to bring them food. As the week progresses they should spend more and more time flying with the parents and hopefully learn to feed themselves.


Yesterday, in the Arboretum, a young Barred Owl sat on a branch in the rain softly calling for its parents to bring it food. The soft high-pitched cry of the owl can be hard to hear, especially as one grows older, however the adult owls do not seem to have any trouble finding their young after they leave the nest.

When this parent returned with food the forest came alive. 

Suddenly there where multiple young owls stretching and looking eagerly for lunch. However the real noise was the half dozen crows chasing after the parent hoping the meal might be accidentally dropped into their claws.

After the feeding was complete the young owls cleaned their faces

…and their claws….

…before calming down a bit.

Even after eating and calming down they still spent a lot more time with their eyes open watching the world around them.

The young owls move their heads in very large triangles when they are curious about another creature. 

The parents triangulate with more precision and much less movement which must be one of the skills the young owls need to learn during their "college years". Actually, they only have a few months to learn to become effective predators if they are to survive the winter.

How many young owls do you see in this photo?

How about this one? Did you see the third owl on the branch in the middle of the lower right quadrant? It turns out that there were a total of four young owls in the area but they never got quite close enough to be photographed together.

If you end up in the Arboretum looking for the young owls your best bet is to follow the sound of the crows. You should also be prepared for a kink in your neck and the rain in your face as you squint to make out their shaded forms against the dappled light.

In any case, graduating from the nest, e.g. fledging, is progress but it is obvious these birds are only beginning their educational process.

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


Saturday, June 7, 2014

Elvis and Priscilla | Young In The Nest | New Life in Interlaken

Once again Elvis and Priscilla (our pair of south Union Bay Pileated Woodpeckers) have young in their nest. Their reproductive success is particularly sweet this year given that the Barred Owls in Interlaken and the Bald Eagles in Broadmoor have not been so lucky. 

If you like a challenge compare the first photo to the second one. The second photo shows their 2013 nestlings. The first photo shows this year's young. Do you see any differences in the young birds? (Sorry, but the fact that last years birds have their mouths open does not count.)

Here is a closer look at one of this year's nestlings and...

…here is a close up of last year's nestlings.

The difference is that last year both of the young birds were male and this year they are both female. You can tell because the females only have red on the very top of their heads. The males also have red on their foreheads and under their cheeks (in their malar stripes).

 Anytime the parents return to the nesting neighborhood the young perk up and call out to be fed.
Almost always the returning parent brings food however it is not visible externally. Given what you know about male and female Pileated Woodpeckers can you tell if this parent is Elvis or Priscilla.

Priscilla delivers breakfast in the pileated version of a french kiss. Given that this year's nestlings are female, and we are calling their parents Elvis and Priscilla, it seems only logical to call the young ones Lisa and Marie.

 This being Lisa…

…and this one being Marie. 

If you look closely at their "faces" can you tell them apart? Most likely their parents see each bird as totally different from the other in the same way humans can tell their children apart. The behavior of the young birds is also different as well. Lisa is louder and acts older and more dominant while Marie seems a bit more shy and quiet. It makes one wonder if Lisa will fledge, e.g. learn to fly, first as well.

One physical key to telling the two birds apart is their white "eyebrows". Lisa has a white, concave swish immediately behind her eyes and Marie has two small, white marks that look a bit like quote marks. If we are lucky enough to see these birds after they leave the nest these markings may allow us to track their movements a bit and learn how long they stay in the Union Bay watershed.

On a different note in the photo above Marie is sticking her tongue out. It is interesting how often the young birds use their tongues to explore the world around them. It is very similar to young children who want to stick everything they find into their mouths. It makes one wonder if the sense of taste is the most ancient and fundamental of our senses? Do all the creatures on earth have a sense of taste?

Here is another challenge. In this video of Priscilla feeding Lisa can you count how many times Priscilla sticks her tongue out?

After she finishes feeding she cleans her bill with frequent and fast, flickering, flashes.

 In this next sequence of photos can you tell which of the parents is doing the feeding?

  Can you tell whether it is Lisa or Marie being feed?

Most likely these young birds will be leaving the nest in the next week or so. Unlike eagles and owls these fledglings do not seem to spend time in the nesting tree branching out and strengthening their wings before they fledge. So one would expect that they are initially not particularly good at flying.

Last year just a day or two after it left the nest one of the young is on the ground (being fed) just a few feet from the trail where folks sometimes allow their dogs to run without a leash. Given the demise of the Barred Owl in Interlaken Park this year it would be especially sad if Lisa or Marie were to end up in the mouth of one of our neighborhood pets. The next few weeks will be critical for these young birds as they learn to navigate the dangers of our world.

Speaking of the owls earlier this week Susan Mullen graciously supplied this link to some good news about the use of rat poison.

If we learn to share our world our souls will benefit just as much as nature.

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


Bonus: Here is a link to a wonderful birding post from by a friend on Whidbey Island.

               Nude Beaches and Caterpillers