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

On Instagram: @unionbaywatch

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Sugar and Spice

For a couple of months, at least four sapsuckers have been working in the Arboretum. This particular sapsucker is unique in a number of ways. For one thing it is a red-naped sapsucker, while the other three are red-breasted sapsuckers. By the way, even though the term woodpecker is not included in their names, sapsuckers are part of the woodpecker family. 

The red-breasted sapsuckers lack the black and white stripes on the head, but they are very similar in size and behavior to the red-naped. You can see more photos, about all the creatures who share the sap, in this earlier post

Which reminds me, one day last week as I approached this tree at dawn, I was surprised to find two raccoons at the base of the tree. They appeared to be about a year old and they were each on opposite sides of the tree. I did not actually see them consuming the sap, but I suspect it attracted them.

The red-naped sapsuckers get their name from the small red spot on the back of the neck. 

During the winter, red-naped sapsuckers are usually in Mexico or fairly close. Why this bird is here, this far north, is a mystery. Maybe it simply has a mind of its own or possibly it is hoping to mate with one of the red-breast sapsuckers or possibly global warming is making the northern states more attractive. In any case, what motivated this bird to winter in the Northwest is unknown to me.

However, what is keeping the bird in the Arboretum is not a mystery, it is clearly the sugary sap of its favorite tree. I have heard that the tree's common name is Spanish Fir, which of course is not a native northwest tree.  

Last week, Dennis Paulson did a wonderful and inspiring post about sapsuckers and their sap wells. I learned that the larger, vertical excavations are from the sapsucker going for sap in the phloem cells, while the small round holes go deeper, through the cambium layer, to reach sap in the xylem cells. If I understand correctly, the xylem primarily brings water and minerals up from the roots, while the phloem redistributes sucrose, e.g. sugar, created via photosynthesis. The sucrose and the minerals are part of the inspiration for this week's title, Sugar and Spice. 

Sugar and spice also refers to the fact that this bird is a female. Thank you to Ms. Jones who pointed out that the white patch directly below the beak is what identifies this bird as a female. In males the same area is red.

Each of the four sapsuckers, found in the Arboretum, have a particular tree that they consistently work. They have invested in their home trees by drilling and maintaining hundreds of sap wells. What is surprising is that the red-naped and the red-breasted sapsucker, shown above, have both apparently chosen the same tree as their "home". 

The red-breasted sapsucker, who I think of as Eric the Red, appears to prefer a location about 4 or 5 feet from the ground, while the red-naped usually can be found working a site about 15 feet further up the tree. Eric appears to be a bit possessive while the female red-naped, let's call her Sugar, is far more flexible.

One morning last week, Eric fed at his spot for about an hour while Sugar consumed her breakfast overhead.

When Sugar hears Eric ascending the tree she vacates her spot. Immediately a hummingbird darts in to take advantage of the small window of opportunity.

Within a minute, Eric arrives and appears to proclaim, "The sap from this tree is all mine!"

 Two minutes later, Eric returns to his preferred site feeling that victory is at hand.

However within 30 seconds Sugar simply returns and resumes her feeding.

Eric hears her working and a minute later he takes over Sugar's site, again.

Three minutes later, after Eric drops back down the tree, Sugar calmly returns to her sap wells.

In frustration Eric immediately charges up the tree again and…

…chases Sugar away. This time he takes to the air as he follows after her.

The Anna's hummingbird, ever alert for an opportunity, zooms in for a little more "carbo" loading.

Three minutes later Sugar returns having apparently ditched Eric in some distant portion of the Arboretum. Only instead of resuming her feeding at her normal location, Sugar decides to sample the sap from Eric's site.

Needless to say she keeps a close eye on the sky, watching for Eric's return, but she continues to feed in the process.

She consumes so much of Eric's sap that ten minutes later she has to make room for more or maybe she is just leaving him a reminder that she was there.

For the next hour she has all she wants. Which seems to prove that...sugar and spice and everything nice...wins in the end.

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


Note: By the way you can now find some of my photos on Instagram under the name, unionbaywatch.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

The Point of No Return.

Cedar waxwings are one of my favorite birds. I am not sure whether it is the combination of subtle and yet striking coloring, their inquisitive personalities, their communal nature, their constantly changing crests or their tendency to eat brightly colored berries, that makes them most attractive.

Their black masks are certainly an eye catcher. It can be easy to miss the thin white border that elegantly outlines their masks. I think the masks help give the impression that their beaks are somewhat large, when in fact, they are fairly small.

Waxwings have a confidence and presence that seems larger than their physical size, maybe that is part of their attractiveness.

At the most, they are only one inch longer than a house sparrow and they both weigh about one ounce.

Sometimes, the berries are just a bit too big and they pop out of the waxwing's mouth.

This waxwing seems to be wondering, "Did anybody see that?" Often when the berry slips a waxwing will reach out and pluck it out of mid-air. 

But even if that fails to work, the waxwings never leave their perch to search for the fallen berries. 

Maybe if there were less berries they would be more motivated.

While sitting on a single perch, the waxwings will often eat a half a dozen berries in rapid succession.

The underside of the bird fades subtly from tan to yellowish and then to white under the tail. Did you notice how the rounded area below the "chin" is perfectly shaped to allow the berry to pass down the throat?

Working together side by side or sitting together in the sun is all part of the waxwing community or flock behavior.

 On a younger bird, the coloring on the breast can be more mottled.

This bird seems to be wondering if the last berry on the branch is worth the effort. Are they actually smart enough to do that type of careful calculation?

 If curiosity is a sign of intelligence then...

 …maybe one day we will find that waxwings are surprisingly smart.

Have you wondered how the waxwing got its name? If you look closely you can see small "waxy" protrusions of red just above this bird's tail. These "wax drops" grow from their secondary wing feathers and provide the inspiration for the name, waxwing.

Not all waxwings have the red "wax" on their wings. There are no red wax drops on this bird but you can see where the secondary feathers are located. The primaries are the eight largest wing feathers that are furthest from the bird's head. Between the primaries and the bird's body are the secondaries. (Not surprisingly, the wing feathers that cover the tops of the primaries and the secondaries are called the coverts.)

When the wings are folded the secondaries lay on top of the primaries. The waxy tips on the end of the secondary feathers point towards the terminal tips of the primaries. On the Cornell site, All About Birds, they say, "The exact function of these tips is not known, but they may help attract mates." It seems an unlikely coincidence that the waxy tips and the berries have similar colors. We still have a lot to learn about all the creatures that live around us.

Let's see what we can learn from looking at another feeding sequence.

 Again the berry starts to slip away.

A diving catch brings it back for another try. (The top of the bird's head is nearly aligned with the division between the primary and secondary wing feathers.)

The bird seems to think"Maybe if I squish it just a bit."

 "Maybe if I open my mouth just a little wider."



 …it is still too large.

 The berry pops out again before...

 …it finally goes down the hatch.

A closer examination shows a notch in the tongue and two sharp points that are clearly the "points of no return" for the berries. Two weeks ago we saw a similar design in the tongue of the varied thrush. It makes me think, humans didn't really invent the concept of a fish hook, we just borrowed it from Mother Nature. 

My hope is that if we pay more attention to nature we will realize the beauty and elegance of these creatures and also how much influence we have on their existence. By planting native mountain ash in your yard you can increase the odds of cedar waxwings stopping by for lunch. By driving less and eating less meat we can help slow global warming, hopefully before we pass the point of no return.


This week Harsi, a very kind and faithful reader, noticed that I failed to mention the source of the extra color in last week's photos.

Harsi knew the photos were taken on Montlake Cut and she correctly surmised that I would not add color to my photos after the fact. With these clues she found the following link that shows some of the loyal student graffiti along The Cut.

Harsi also pointed out that the comment "Go Duck Hunting", seemed appropriate, given that I hunt with a camera.

Thank you, Harsi!

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


For the Record:
The waxwings were not intimidated by the robins even though they are two and half times heavier than the waxwings.

On the other hand, when this crow landed above the waxwings, they flew a short distance and waited until the crow flew away.