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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!



  1. Thank you for posting about the Trumpeter Swans in Union Bay.
    Both Trumpeter and Tundra swans neck widths can vary. Facial characteristics also vary from swan to swan just like other species. This may not be readily observed without a powerful scope to enhance viewing. These swans may also be visiting Juanita Bay and Snoqualmie Valley this winter.
    If you have questions on swans please contact: Martha@trumpeterswansociety.org

    1. Thank you! I am sure I will be sending questions your way in the future. :-)

  2. Another gorgeous series - thanks so much for sharing your photos and also telling the 'stories' of what you are witnessing - we armchair travelers are most grateful!

    1. Thank you for following along and the reinforcement. It really is amazing to me that just when I start to think there is nothing new to see a bird like the Pacific Loon turns up. Have great day!