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

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Friday, November 28, 2014

Out Of The Arctic

This Pacific Loon, wearing its winter disguise, was spotted on Union Bay earlier in the week. If you would like to see the exquisite beauty of its breeding plumage check out the photo on Cornell's "All About Birds". Even their eyes seem to lose the breeding season color.

All About Birds also mentions: these birds can have a wingspan of over four feet, cannot take flight from land and require nearly one hundred feet of open water to get airborne.

The hint of a dark "necklace" is one characteristic that distinguishes the Pacific Loon from the closely related and more frequently seen Common Loon.

When passing by on 520, the dark diving birds we generally see are the Double-crested Cormorants. The Cormorants and the Loons both dive for their food, weigh about the same, and, at freeway speeds, look somewhat similar.

The Pacific Loons lay their eggs in the Arctic, but spend the majority of their time on or near the open water of the Pacific Ocean. This is the first one I have seen on Union Bay.

One would think a bird that breeds in the Arctic would be shy and stay away from people and their technology. This particular bird was fishing in the prime boating passage: from the east end of the Montlake Cut to the north end of Foster Island. You might even be able to see it from the northern viewing sites along the Marsh Island Trail.

The Loon showed no fear of the large tourist boats. It would nonchalantly dive at the last minute and then come up hundreds of feet away. The distance it covered underwater implies it has a far greater lung capacity than our local Cormorants or Grebes.

Yesterday morning, one of the Bald Eagles from the northern nest, picked a bird out of the water for its Thanksgiving meal. I was too far away to identify what was on the menu. Luckily for the smaller bird, the transition from looking for dinner, to being dinner, was quick and efficient.

Later in the morning, a family of Trumpeter Swans were seen on the north side of Union Bay. Just like the Loon, they have come south for the winter. Curiously, the parent on the far left seems to have a very thin neck. This made me wonder if it might be a Tundra Swan. It did not have the yellow lore, that a Tundra Swan often has, and it did not look smaller than its mate, so maybe the narrow neck is normal variation among Trumpeter Swans.

 After resting in the brisk morning breeze, the young grow restless.

 It is hard to imagine that flapping their wings in the cold wind actually warms them up, but apparently, it works for the Swans.

These Trumpeter Swans likely weigh more than twenty pounds, and appear indifferent to the occasional Crow. Here, it looked like the Crow was collecting the Swan's discarded feathers, but it did not seem to be harassing the Swans. 

 The elegant curve of the Swans neck must be one of the most graceful lines in all of nature.

 Ultimately, the parents and the young all began to swim around their little island.

When the other four got too far away the remaining parent appeared to call out, before catching up with the family unit.

The young bird on the left got a running start...

 …Soon it was only one head length behind the parent.

 As they took to the air, they were neck and neck.

When they passed over their previous resting spot, the young bird had achieved a full neck's lead; which with swans is no small thing. All five birds headed east, over the lowest portion of Webster Point, before turning north. The day before, I saw, what appeared to be, the same five birds leaving Union Bay. Both times, they left in the morning and headed east. It would be interesting to know whether they spend the night on Union Bay or arrive very early in the morning.

By the way the gray theme in the photos was not intentional. I promise my photos will brighten up when the sun returns.

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


Saturday, November 22, 2014

Winter's Cache

Yesterday, this tiny Red-breasted Nuthatch landed on a large Douglas Fir and began walking down the tree, headfirst. It was an amazing display of its strength-to-weight ratio. If you have ever tried rock climbing, just think about how hard it is to lift your own weight with one arm. Then think about turning yourself upside down and holding all your weight with one hand; finally, consider alternating between your left and right hand as you "walk" down a vertical wall.

Clearly, the Nuthatch gave no thought to the effort expended as it scurried horizontally around the tree.

The Nuthatch was focused on finding a safe place to hide the nutritious little seed it was carrying.

The danger of hiding the seed too close to the sap, slowly oozing down the side of the tree, causes the bird to look elsewhere. Interestingly, Nuthatches will actually use tree resin to protect their nests. You can read about how they do it at Cornell's, All About Birds.

Next it checks out an overhead crevice. It is curious the trade-offs that the Nuthatch must consider. How much effort is it willing to expend in order to store this seed for future consumption? If it does not hide its food well enough, will another creature be the first to find this little feast? Is this hiding place relatively close to its other hidden caches, so it will be easy to relocate and access in the future?

Finally, the elegant little bird appears to find the perfect place in the gnarly bark of this Douglas Fir.
Sadly, the location does not meet the stringent requirements of the Nuthatch. It flies away to look for a safer spot for its prized possession.   

Nearby, a Junco works among the wet leaves to find food. It is puzzling that the Junco seems to collect multiple seeds on the outside of its beak. If it was spring, one would think it was collecting food for its young in the nest. This late in fall, all the young should be out and about and finding their own food, so why does't the bird eat as it goes?

Further down the trail, a male Downy Woodpecker searches a small living sprout of a willow tree for food. Although, Woodpeckers normally prefer larger dead trees, the small size of this "tree" did not stop the Downy from drilling for food--which it consumed on the spot.

In last week's post, there were photos of a male Bufflehead chasing another male away from its mate; this week one female Bufflehead was seen chasing another. Was this also about mating? Could it have been about food? Maybe the bird being chased is actually the offspring and the mother is saying: "You are as big as I am and it is time you found your own food!"

With the first bird successfully chased away, the Bufflehead seems proud as she heads back to her original location.

 The bright green of this little bush stood out against the brown color of its November neighbors.

In the distance, its leaves looked a bit like a Cottonwood. A closer inspection, shows ruffled leaves, unlike a Cottonwood. This close up also shows brown little balls on nearby twigs. I am uncertain if the two are the same plant or what these are called. If you know these plants I would certainly like to hear from you, if you can make it past the Google comment challenge. :-)

Away from the Bay:

This week at Sikes Lake, mom and dad with a baby in between, come in for a landing.

A few moments later, the cousins arrive. Can you pick out the adults?  The color of swans changes as they age: juveniles are grey and adults are white. 

Nearby, a bird hides in plain sight. Can you see it?

How about in this close up from the same photo?

The Bittern was easier to see when it flushed a bit earlier.

The Bittern blends in with amazing quickness.

Only one wing visible.

It is as if the Bittern is saying, "Can you see me now?"

Parting Shot:
This photo, of a Union Bay Mallard in the rain, makes one think of phrases like, "Water off a duck's back" or "Great weather for ducks!" It is obvious that not all of the water is repelled off the duck. Consider the thoroughly soaked look of the duck's head. Maybe rain isn't such great weather for ducks after all.

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


Saturday, November 15, 2014

Looking for Love

Fall is a time of courtship, and early in the week it still felt like the kinder, gentler part of the season. Maybe that is where the term Autumn came from. Yellow leaves were still in the trees and the sunshine still felt warm. However, the midweek cold stopped the flow of sap in the trees and wiped away the last traces of summer. In just a few days, tons of leaves have dried up and fallen. Now every footstep creates a crackling, crunch and the icy water signals that winter is creeping down out of the Arctic.

Speaking of ice, can you see the ice on the spruce cones? 

The summer birds, apparently smarter than us, have headed south. The winter birds have been arriving for some time. We now have Buffleheads (with iridescent feathers), Northern Shovelers, Hooded Mergansers, Green-winged Teals (first photo) and many more moving in around the bay. Everywhere, bright new feathers are on display. Both male and female birds are cleaning and preening and trying to look their best.

The colors of the male Gadwall are subtle, and yet, brilliantly crisp all at once.

None the less, there is always one last feather to adjust. 

Did you just lean your head to the right? If so, I suspect it is a self-preservation instinct, to help us make sense of what we see. These little things remind us, we have more in common with our fellow forms of life, than with the technology that permeates our lives.

 This female Northern Shoveler takes a short hop...

...then she deploys her air brakes…

…before diving head first into the water. Can you see the color on her beak and the dark of her eye, underneath the water flowing around her head?

She comes up smiling, seemingly, pleased as punch, with her bathing theatrics. 

 This female Mallard seems to prefer a shower over a bath.

 Who knew she had "water" wings?

 It can be hard to make heads or tails of her approach. First she is down...

 …then she is up.

 I guess this is the part...

 ...where the instructions say… 

 ..."Repeat until fully satisfied with the experience!"

 Finally, she shakes off the excess water.

Then she crawls up on a log to dry off...

…but first a little stretching…

…a bit of preening...

...and then a final air drying.


 The behavior of this male Gadwall may seem similar to the bathing sequences above;

however, the following activities appear to be territorial in nature.

The bottom line, "This female is mine!"

 These two photos display a similar approach between the male Buffleheads.

Also, as part of the Bufflehead courtship, the couples appear to do nearly-synchronized diving. Often, the male seems to be slightly behind; although, in this case, the speed of his dive is so fast that his body is still up in the air before gravity can suck water into the spot he just vacated.

This is the same bird as in the earlier iridescent photo, but with the light at a different angle; he now appears only black and white.

Parting Shots:

Did you notice the Chickadee in the earlier photo?

This is one hearty, little, northwest bird that knocks the ice off the cones to get to the seeds.

This is most likely a Marsh Wren with a morsel in its mouth and its tail in an odd balancing formation.

This is most likely a Cooper's Hawk, hidden at the very top a a tall tree on Foster Island, crowing at the sun, early on Monday morning.

By the weekend, Kingfishers were forced away from their normal locations due to ice covering their prefered sites.

Speaking of ice, on Thursday morning, just as the sun crawled above the frozen horizon, a half of a dozen airborne Gadwalls descended towards Duck Bay. The sun was shining directly into their eyes, as they lifted the front edges of their wings to slow their progress and aid their gentle descent. When they were about 10 feet above the surface of the bay, it seemed as if their leader somehow awoke and called out, "Abort!, Abort!, Ice on the runway!" A mad scramble followed, with a dozen wings pumping the air for traction. Luckily, all six birds were paying close enough attention to avert disaster. 

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