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Saturday, September 27, 2014

In the Eyes of a Hobbit

Last weekend, the unkept appearance of this crow caught my attention. Closer inspection shows the wing feathers appear crisp and clean, while the neck feathers are worn and frayed.

The frayed feathers are also not as black as the rest, possibly they are faded with age. The crow may be in the process of forming fashionably new fall feathers. One way or another, this crow certainly gives the impression of being old and wise.

You have probably read the stories about the intelligence of crows, particularly with some of the research being done at the University of Washington, but did you know that in captivity crows have lived to be 59 years old? While the passage of time does not guarantee wisdom it does increase the opportunities to learn.

Even if you are not a scientist you can easily observe the intelligent behavior of crows. The look in their eyes as you pass them displays their careful calculation. "Is this person really dangerous? Should I make a quick escape via flight, and leave a potential food source, or should I just hop a few feet away and test to see if they chase me?" Unlike most birds, crows often choose to test us rather than take flight. The number of crows in Seattle seems to validate the intelligence of this approach. By carefully weighing the risk versus the return, crows end up with more food than other birds and more reproductive success. Maybe humans aren't the only ones who do return-on-investment calculations.

Crows also end up with more food because they are are smart enough to use a wide variety of strategies.  After a light rain, this bird appeared to be looking for worms in the grass, similar to the behavior of a robin. Crows also obtain food by throwing moss and leaves out of gutters to find tasty tidbits growing under the litter. They do this same procedure on both street and house gutters. I have heard crows have been seen scouting out robin's nests and waiting until the young robins are just ready to fly, e.g. optimal size, before coming back to consume them. In June, when mature 3 inch long fish  spawn in Union Bay, the crows can be seen flying out over the bay to pick the tiny, floating fish bodies out of the water. 

Humans provide another major food source for crows. 
Just like Husky fans gathering before the big game…

…crows gather after the big game. The number of crows the morning after a Husky game appears to be similar to the number of people at the game. By the way, on a per ounce basis I think the crows are louder. 

Whether it is after a game or in an alley behind your house, the crows love the food scraps we leave behind. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology says crows also love to harass other birds, who have food, in hopes that they will drop their catch and leave it for the crows. Obviously, crows are quite successful without additional help from us. If we would like to maintain diversity, e.g. a wide array of birds, in our city and around Union Bay we should really attempt to keep our scraps out of the mouths of crows.

Returning to our crow on the grass, in this photo he has momentarily blinked the nictitating membrane across his right eye. In the process the membrane has reflected the blue of the sky and makes the bird look a bit like a wise, old soothsayer who can forecast the future.

As I was taking these photos, a man and woman stopped to look at the bird. I learned that they were from Germany and the woman said, "We call this bird a hobbit". Since then I have tried various online translations of the word "crow" from English to German. The word I get is "krahe", not hobbit, which confused me a bit.

I also looked up various online definitions of hobbit. Basically they say, "A small, intelligent human-like creature." I have come to think maybe the use of the term hobbit has more to do with crows being small, intelligent and almost human-like creatures. Cornell says, unlike most other birds, crows maintain their family units for longer than the first year. Maybe they are socially similar to humans as well. 

In any case, the wise, old crow I was watching worked very hard to keep his eye on me. He would twist and turn no matter which way his body was headed so that his right eye was always the one tracking my movement. Finally, he must have decided I was benign and he allowed me to see his left eye.

It is clear the blue reflection in this eye is not from the nictitating membrane. I would guess some type of eye disease has robbed this bird of sight in its left eye. 

Still the penetrating look in the right eye leaves no doubt in my mind about the intelligence of this wise old hobbit.

You can find more "hobbit" information under  Cool Facts on the Cornell website.

Eagle Watch 2014:
By the way, around dawn on Tuesday morning an eagle returned to one of the 520 light poles. It stayed for a few moments before heading north across the bay. I have not seen an eagle since nor any sign of an eagle on the Broadmoor nest. In the past when Eva and Albert return in the fall they have spent some of their time at the nest, occasionally doing a little up keep, in the form of new and additional pieces of wood. While this eagle may or may not have been Eva or Albert, it does not appear the pair have returned to take possession of their territory.

Have a great day on Union Bay…where nature lives in the city and wise old hobbits abound!


Saturday, September 20, 2014

Striking Speed

This Great Blue Heron was spotted on Monday striding slowly through the shallow water near Elderberry Island, just to the southeast of the WSDOT peninsula. The short dark plume, the dark on the upper mandible and the white on the crown of the head indicate a mature bird. Although, the plumes are often longer on fully mature Great Blue Herons. 

This may even be the same bird seen two weeks earlier, southeast of Foster Island, playing "Catch and Release" with tadpoles.

When the bird spotted potential prey it seemed to freeze in place, apparently waiting for the prey to come within striking range. When extended, the long thin neck also looked very similar to the bird photographed two weeks earlier. Even though the water remained nearly undisturbed, the prey must have been moving below the surface. Suddenly…

…the heron strikes! (10:24:13 a.m.)

(10:24:13 a.m.) In approximately one quarter of a second the heron pulls its neck out of the water. The water appears to reach the peak of the splash and starts to coalesce into globs.

(10:24:13 a.m.) In about one half of a second the upper half of the heron's head is now visible and the water is clearly falling back to earth. Small secondary splashes, caused by falling water, are now visible in front of the heron's body.

(10:24:13 a.m.) In about three quarters of a second the heron's full head is nearly visible and secondary splashes abound.

(10:24:13 a.m.) In just under a second the fish emerges from the water and a swing of the fish's tail or maybe the final blob of falling water causes one last leaping lunge from the liquid of life.

(10:24:14 a.m.) In one full second the water is beginning to calm and the heron begins to turn towards shallower water.

(10:24:14 a.m.) 

(10:24:14 a.m.) 

(10:24:14 a.m.) 

(10:24:14 a.m.) In less than two seconds the fish is caught, the splash of the water subsides, the heron turns completely around and moves into shallower water. If one scrolls through the pictures, without reading any of the verbiage, it seems impossible to comprehend the photos at the speed with which they happened. They just become a blue-green blur of motion, which is pretty much what happened when the experience was viewed live.

(10:24:25 a.m.) In 12 seconds the fish has been turned head first, passed through the mouth and is now only "visible" in the increased size of the heron's neck. In spite of its speed of operation, the heron appears perfectly calm, in-balance and even stately in every photo. The speed of the heron is striking!

By the way, you may have noticed that the heron's left wing tip is hanging below its body. In the mornings since these photos were taken, what appears to be, the same bird has been spotted repetitively in the same location. Each time there was no longer any apparent miss alignment of the wingtip.


A few minutes earlier a mouse was spotted wandering through the nearby grass. What was most striking about this encounter was how similar the paws are to human hands. The blueprints for life on earth seem to have a lot in common.

For a few moments it tracked an insect that bounced along on the top of the grass. As someone who usually watches birds it was odd to think of the mouse as a predator.

Twice in about 15 minutes, the mouse stopped, licked its paws and then cleaned its head and face. Apparently, they are cleaner than their reputation. 


Closer to the southwest bridge to Foster Island the Goldfinches have been feeding on the seeds of the Hop Hornbeam's for almost a month. 

The fact that the trees are not native to western North America seems to make no difference to the finches.

While their yellow color is no longer at its peak it does seem funny that dozens, if not hundreds, of these birds can be feeding, unnoticed, while folks walk and run right beneath them.

Generally the birds are very quiet and its only their rustling of the leaves that give them away. However occasionally, when they are startled by a person or a dog, they begin softly twittering as they swiftly switch to a more distant tree. You can play the sound of their twittering at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.


This time of year as the young birds mature, and the parents are no longer running to and fro while feeding their young, the birds can be harder to see. But if patient and observant there is still plenty to see, particularly when we watch for what and where they are feeding.

By the way I have started seeing Green-Winged Teals again in the last month and yesterday I noticed a pair of Northern Shovelers. It has been a couple of weeks since I last saw any Osprey. They were actually sitting on the 520 light poles often used by the eagles Eva and Albert. As I watched they lifted off and began circling higher and higher. They may have been preparing for the migration to Central or South America.

Speaking of the eagles, Eva and Albert should be returning any day now. If you would like a challenge it might be fun to see who notices that the eagles have returned first. Feel free to post your sightings and their location in the comments at the end of this post.

The heads of the male Mallards are turning ever more green. Regardless of how warm the weather is this weekend the birds are letting us know that fall is on its way.

Parting Shot:
No matter how hard I looked I could not find what this female Mallard was watching for in the top of a cottonwood tree next to Duck Bay. Survival is apparently a strong motivator for one's powers of observation.

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


Saturday, September 13, 2014

Summer of the Sapsucker

Dan Pedersen of Whidbey Island writes the weekly blog, Off the Rails. His summer columns are mostly about the birds and wildlife of his wooded setting near Langley. At other times he tackles UFO's, Captain Vancouver's lost anchor, or anything else that crosses his mind. Dan writes...

Red-breasted Sapsuckers are a rare treat around Union Bay, I understand. These brilliant, red woodpeckers are seen, but not often, and even less their brown-headed young.

So Larry thought it might be fun to share some images of the juveniles as they gain their colors.

Earlier this summer when Larry visited Whidbey Island, I promised him a guaranteed photo op of a Red-breasted Sapsucker. I was pretty sure he would take the bait and sure enough, he showed up here a few minutes later. So did the sapsuckers. I've watched them almost daily from June - September.

June is when the first brilliantly red adult showed up in our coniferous setting. I nearly tripped over it as it foraged in our garden compost, oblivious to me. I soon realized I was hearing it daily, with its distinctive "sucking"-type vocalizations, and that another adult was answering. By July I had found the mother lode, a specific weeping birch treeing our front yard where they had drilled almost a to too-like network of round holes in neat rows, and some large, rectangular sap wells to boot.

And now it wasn't just adults any more.

It was two brown-headed juveniles as well, proof that the adults had nested nearby.

Over time the brown coloring of the juveniles has evolved to red.

I have been watching that happen…

...for the last two months.

Sapsuckers are surprisingly docile and tolerant when waiting by their wells. Stay back a respectful 15 feet or so and they'll go about their business, clinging to the tree for hours in a trance. Get too close and they may shimmy around to the other side and pretend you aren't there.

Sapsuckers are well-named, since they consume the tree sap and also any insects that get caught in it. They are considered a keystone species because other birds and wildlife also feeds from their wells. such as Rufous Humming birds and Douglas Squirrels.

I watched a Douglas Squirrel chase the sapsuckers away and lick the sap wells at leisure.

Orchardists aren't terribly fond of sapsuckers because of the punishment they can inflict on trees. I've read contradictory accounts - that they kill many trees or, on the other hand, hardly any healthy ones. This was a rough summer for deciduous trees on Whidbey Island, with a plague of caterpillars defoliating them earlier in the season, I'm curious whether our weeping birch will survive. I'm guessing it will but if not, well, these birds were a lot of fun.

I could find my sapsuckers at almost any hour of the day because one or two were almost always on the tree - clinging to the trunk. We have only one birch in our yard and I've read that this is a favorite of sapsuckers. They also like red maples and hemlocks.

I wrote about the sapsucker on my blog a few weeks ago and my neighbor said it cleared up a mystery for her, because one of her struggling ornamentals was covered with holes as well, and sapsuckers were tending them. She hadn't identified the unfamiliar bird.

As we move into mid-September, sightings of the sapsuckers are becoming much more rare. I've watched the brown juveniles turn increasingly red. They are nowhere near as striking as the adults, but clearly transforming themselves before my eyes.

I expect I'll see little or nothing more of them until perhaps some frigid afternoon next winter when severe weather drives them down to the lowlands in search of fruit. In years past I've watched them cling to our snow-covered huckleberry bushes and strip the fall's crop of berries. They'll be welcome here.

Note: Click the link to visit Dan Pedersen's blog, http://pedersenwrites.blogspot.com/. To receive a link by email each time he posts, send your request to dogwood@whidbey,com 

By The Bay:

Our local Seattle author, Woody Wheeler, has just announced that the debut of his new book, "Look Up! Birds and Other Natural Wonders Just Outside Your Window" will take place in October at the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge. You can learn more about the book at:

If you look close I have heard you might even find one of my photos in the book. (I just ordered my copy, but it has not arrived yet.)

A Parting Shot:

While visiting Dan's place I happened to catch one of the Sapsuckers in action and thought you might enjoy the photo.

By the way I have never seen a Sapsucker in or around Union Bay. If you are aware of one in the area I would love to here all about it! 

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


Saturday, September 6, 2014

The Mystery of Great Expectations

The Great Blue Heron is the official bird of Seattle. You can read more facts about the Great Blue Heron on the Seattle Audobon site and at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. This heron was seen yesterday stalking about among the lily pads just south of 520. One of the questions that came to mind was how old is this heron?

On the Audobon site it says it takes about six weeks for a heron chick to reach the size of an adult. From experience, they spend most of that time in the nest so we are unlikely to see miniature versions of Great Blue Herons wading about Union Bay. None the less, if you watch you can sometimes pick out young herons by their behavior. They have been seen stalking about the shallows, striking near the water's surface but only coming up with inanimate objects. 

In another odd example, from a couple of years ago, these two young heron appear to be having a jousting match. Evidently part of growing into a mature heron is learning how to intimidate and impress. It is also interesting to note that there is no dark plume hanging down from the back of the head on these young herons.

This photo, also from 2012, shows a great example of a long dark plume. Neither Cornell or Audobon mention the length of the plume as an indicator of age. The closest thing to a comment on this is from "The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western North America". Sibley shows the painting of an adult Great Blue with a black plume and one of the juvenile without a plume. It also shows the juvenile as having a dark crown and the adult as having a white stripe on top of the head. The two photos above show both of these corresponding differences as well. 

So what do we see when we look closely at yesterday's bird? We see the hint of a plume and the start of a white stripe that makes one think this might be a fairly young bird. The skinny little tongue does not appear to have any relationship to age but it is kind of fun to see.

Lets take a look at the behavior of this heron to see if it tells us anything about its age.

This hunting pose looks just like an adult.

However coming up with a piece of a leaf does not look like adult behavior.

Undiscouraged, the heron returns to the hunt.

Something moves below the surface.

Success! The heron strikes and comes up with a tadpole. 

Oddly the heron simply lets the tadpole fall from its mandibles. The heron did not try to reposition the tadpole. It did not shake or move its head at all. It did not appear to be a case of accidentally loosing its grip. The heron simply let the tadpole go. It makes one wonder if this bird is behaving like a human youth that has not developed a taste for vegetables.

This same thing happened twice and in neither case did the heron eat the tadpole. Hopefully this apparently young bird finds food that meets its great expectations.

Another bird, seen yesterday, with great expectations is this male mallard. He is expecting to have bright green feathers spread from a few speckled representatives to a solid mass about his head. It is interesting to note how his beak has already turned bright yellow.

Not too long ago the male looked a lot like this female but his fall colors are clearly on the way. Isn't the difference in their beak colors interesting?

This Wood Duck is a bit further along with his fall colors but there are still a lot of young male Wood Ducks out there with far less color.

This Goldfinch is lowering its expectations as its yellow breeding color is fading away.

Last week this hawk was spotted on the WSDOT peninsula, between Kingfisher Cove and Elderberry Island.

Given the thickness of the legs I suspect this is a juvenile Cooper's Hawk.

A closer inspection reveals something very curious about this bird. Do you see anything odd?

The photos of young Cooper's Hawks on the Cornell site show the eye color as yellow, as does The Sibley field guide. The mature birds have reddish-orange colored eyes. 

This bird clearly has a pale blue coloring to its eyes, particularly obvious when compared to the yellow lores behind the beak. Hopefully one of you can resolve the mystery of the Blue-Eyed Hawk.

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


Update (8-7-14) :

Thank you to Dan Reiff, who writes,

"Very young Cooper's often have Gray-blue eye color. This bird has probably recently fledged. This eye color changes in a short period of time to those seen in field guides. Many have not seen this color, because they have most likely seen older juveniles and adults."