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

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Saturday, November 8, 2014

A Potpourri of Mystery

In the post "Out of the Mist", two weeks ago, a Great Egret from Salmon Creek in Vancouver, Washington made a cameo appearance. On the same day, a mile upstream, this egret was photographed at the moment it spotted a fish. Its wings flew into the air to slow its forward momentum, the head swiveled to the side and its penetrating gaze seems to drill into the prey. It is a wonder the fish doesn't notice the heat from the laser-like focus, not to mention all the wing flapping, and just disappear into the depths.

Curiously, even though this egret resembles a Great Blue Heron (GBH) its behavior seems subtly different. For instance, as it prepares to strike it stands with its legs wide apart, instead of one leg in front of the other, like a GBH.

Also mysteriously different is the way the wings come out as it strikes, maybe it only happens when it is hunting from higher ground and the extra height makes balancing more of a challenge.

Lets take a look at another instance where the egret is wades into the water and see if it still waves its wings.

Once again it catches a fish and the wings come out again as well. Evidently, the wing-thing really is a distinctive, behavioral difference.

For comparison, here is a photo of a GBH going after a fish. Its wings remain calmly folded. This is from the September post, "Striking Speed".

Both methods seem to work well enough to get the job done, although the egret's normal territory does not extend as north as far as Union Bay or up into Canada. Could it be that the GBH's hunting process actually is more efficient, and therefore provides it with a larger territory.

Another difference in method appears to be the way the egret enlarges the "pouch-like" area below its mouth in order to swallow the fish. Herons will sometimes stretch their necks to let a large fish down but they do not seem to go to this much trouble with every little fish.

Speaking of mouth pouches, yesterday, at the University of Washington Baseball field, a Double-Crested Cormorant landed at the end of a horizontal support on top of a light pole. It proceeded to scare smaller cormorants off the pole and out of its way. Curiously, the more aggressive bird enlarged the pouch below its mouth during the process. 

This apparent intimidation tactic was a real surprise.

Even more surprising, here is the same bird a moment later, proudly sitting on the highest and most central part of the light pole, note that the "pouch" has disappeared. It makes one wonder whether egrets and cormorants are closely related to pelicans. Nature and birds are full of surprises and mysterious behaviors.

A few minutes earlier this hawk sat above the southwest pond at the Union Bay Natural Area. It spent an hour or so letting the sunlight warm and clean its feathers.

Just like a chicken on a rotisserie, when one side got too hot, it rotated so the other side could get some heat. 

It can be hard to tell a Cooper's Hawk from a Sharp-Shinned Hawk. The Sibley field guide, shows the Cooper's Hawk's tail as rounded, while the Sharp-Shinned Hawk's tail feathers are shown as less curved.

Even though the sizes of the two hawks can overlap the Cooper's tends to be larger. The approach of the 4" long hummingbird makes an interesting size comparison. Personally, I am thinking Cooper's, but how can one be positive, when faced with another one of nature's mysteries.

Speaking of hawks, while at Salmon Creek, a hawk and…

…two sparrows…

...also made brief appearances. Their names are not very mysterious since in each case their physical attributes provides us color related hints. If you are not positive, their names will be given later in the post.

While we are thinking about bird identification, here is a photo from three weeks ago, the post was, "The Education of Oz". We left this little puff ball without proper identification.

 To be fair here are a few more photos with slightly different angles.

My guess is an American Goldfinch. I suspect it is partway between its yellow, summer colors and its more drab, brownish-tan winter colors. 

 How about a salt-water challenge?

This elegantly, colored bird was seen on Monday along the western shore of Whidbey Island. It has no fear of wind, waves or falling rain. Its unique niche appears to be feeding in the surf. Unlike shorebirds that run back and forth on the wet sand when the water recedes this bird gets right out in the waves that scare other more timid creatures away.  Do you know what mysterious bird this is that has such a unique seafood diet plan.

These are some of my first photos ever of a Harlequin duck. Can you guess how it got its name? I think it has something to do with its special colors and markings. You can read more about it on Cornell.

In the Mail:

Barb sent in this set of questions (e.g. mysteries) regarding last week's post, "The Butcher By The Bay", about the Northern Shrike at the Union Bay Natural Area. (By the way I heard that it was seen there again yesterday. You may want to go and take a look in case it decides to head for warmer weather.)

Hi Larry,

I tried, unsuccessfully, to comment, on your blog, about your blogpost on the little "butcher", so here's what I have to say and ask (of your readers - I know some of the answers to my question!)

Your series of photos are wonderful, including the neighborhood shot with the golden cottonwood (?), which, of course is another example of nature dying in the city, so that it and other organisms can live!

I remember, when I was first introduced to shrikes,  I wondered why they aren't classified in with the 'raptors', since they, too, prey on small mammals, small birds and insects. Do your readers know the answers to this?  There are several reasons it doesn't fit in with raptors, but I believe the main one is that it doesn't catch its prey with its feet (and doesn't have talons).  I thought maybe some of your readership might be interested in this, so feel free to use the idea and create your own narrative on the subject - you are, afterall, a very 'talon-ted' nature writer  :-)

Also, I'd be curious as to the age of your shrike - looks youngish, to me, maybe a first year bird?  Do you have any idea?  I'll gladly ask on Tweeters, if you'd like.  Someone there will know...

Nice birdy Halloween story and the shrike is truly an adorable-looking little bird.


To Barb,

What a challenge! You have me trying to read Peter Pyle's, "Identification Guide to North American Birds", Part I. (I think I am need of an English-to-Birding translator.) In any case on page 272 it describes the more mature birds, 

"AHY/ASY (Meaning: After Hatching Year / After Second Year) Sep-Aug: Face Mask (including the lores (Meaning: The area between eyes and beak)) distinct and black; upper parts pearly gray; wing covs, terts, and middle ss (s4-s6) uniformly glossy black....upper mandible black"

In between glossy black and upper mandible, I skipped the bulk of what was said, because the translating would have kept me up way past my bed time. The bottom-line is that other than the lores being indistinct everything else seems to point to this being a mature bird. It does not have the obvious brownish head and brownish chest barring of an immature bird, which can be seen in the photos at All About Birds. (If you follow the link, then scroll to the bottom of the page and look at the fourth and fifth photos.)

Clearly, this is not my area of expertise and I have a lot to learn, so please let me know if I am missing something, obvious or subtle. I am also curious to learn more about why the Shrike is not a raptor.

Thank you for the interesting challenges!



Also in this weeks mail was this link to photos by another Seattle birding photographer, Jim Hamerlinck. I find Jim's photos have a very special and unique angle on almost every bird. I hope you enjoy them, too!

Hello Mr. Hubbell,

I just wanted to tell you how much I enjoy your website.

Your photographs are exquisite and I've learned a lot about birds through your posts. My strong interest in birds is relatively recent, so I'm starting from the ground up, which I actually enjoy.

I bike to Union Bay at least twice a month. I love it there. I take photographs with my hand held point-and-shoot camera and feel pleased when I've spotted a bird which I had never seen or noticed before. (You can find my humble images at

Thanks again for sharing your art and knowledge.

Jim Hamerlinck


Thank you one and all!

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


Note:  The three unidentified birds pictured earlier were a Red-Tailed Hawk, a Golden-Crowned Sparrow and a White-Crowned Sparrow, respectively.


  1. A wonderful post, as always, Larry! Truly look forward to each and every one. :)

  2. Great post. I love the photos and observations.

    I think the reason shrikes are not considered raptors is mostly taxonomic. The informal definition of raptors is "birds or prey who use feet and hooked beaks to catch prey", but the more formal definition relies upon the genealogy of the species. Formally speaking, ornithologists consider raptors to be only birds within the orders falconiformes(day hunters) and strigiformes(owls). Shrikes evolved within the order passerines(songbirds). Although they behavior more closely resembles eagles, falcons, etc, they are instead lumped in with the songbirds.

    This is the same reason we do not consider bats to be birds, or ostriches mammals.

    1. Max, Great points and well said. Thank you! It is amazing how life keeps evolving and changing to fill in any available niche. Rather than focusing on how each form of life is separate or different, it seems to me that life is really just one thing, expressed in many different ways.

  3. Does anyone have an update on the femail barred owl that spend the summer in Interlaken down from Stevens. I saw her very often, sometimes daily in a cedar on the west side of the curve. She has not been there for weeks. Any sitings? A new tree?

    1. I haven't been up there much but a week or two ago I ran in to a neighbor up there who said that she has been spending time on Howe street, which is more like an alley about 2 and a half blocks north. In addition he said he thinks has been hearing two birds calling back and forth in the evenings….maybe she has taken a new mate. It would be nice to follow up on this if anyone has time around dusk. I have my fingers crossed.:-)

  4. Thank you for the kind words, Larry.

    And that hawk/hummingbird image is astounding!

    1. Thank you! It is the second time this year I have seen a Hummer face off with a Cooper's. I have also seen them do the same thing with a Barred Owl. It is a very mysterious behavior. It makes me wonder what is the point. Are they just teasing the other bird? Is it territory defense? The Cooper's certainly wasn't induced to move. It is curious.