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

On Instagram and Twitter: @unionbaywatch

Sunday, January 18, 2015

In Our Reflection

A male common merganser, fishing in Montlake Cut, swims through reflections on the water.

Boats traveling at slow speeds create gentle swells which cause the reflections to shape-shift around the bird.

The constantly curving shapes are so mesmerizing it can be challenging to focus on the bird.

More and more, wild creatures all over the planet are being forced to live in our reflections. In these photos the birds are fishing in a totally manmade waterway, created in 1916. The Cut changed the drainage of Lake Washington and lowered the water level by nearly 10 feet.

If given half a chance nature adapts. The merganser spots potential prey and begins its dive. The relatively long tail pushes down on the water while its feet push the bird up. The neck and the head extend, while the bird remains intently focused.

 The coloring of the female common merganser is clearly different from the male.

The female has a crested, red head instead of the smooth, dark green head of the male. Her body is grey instead of the crisp black and white of the male. Only the females have a white chin.

Both male and female mergansers will often swim with their heads in the sand, so to speak, while they search the depths for the flash of an unfortunate fish.

Their diving maneuver is the same for both genders. Once their sawtoothed bills close on a fish it is over fairly quickly. 

 Here is one more look at a female followed by…

… a male against a similar background. If it wasn't for the similar look of their long, slender bills, with the down-turned tips, one might think they were different species, not just different genders.

The mission of the this blog is to help develop harmony between humanity and nature.

The question is, what can we do as individuals, and as a society, to insure our children have the opportunity to share Union Bay with these wild and wonderful creatures.

The easy answers are keep oil and pesticides out of the water.

We could build rain gardens that keep heavy rain from washing oil off the streets and into the waterways.

More challenging tasks include things like driving less and daylighting local creeks so salmon and other fish can return and reproduce in their normal habitats.

If we could get even a portion of the original salmon runs established, nature's response would be a significant increase in birds like mergansers, grebes, cormorants and eagles.

Speaking of cormorants, even they look more elegant when photographed in our reflections.

While I was watching the mergansers, Elvis came and worked his way among the cottonwoods along the north side of the Cut.

 When mergansers dry their wings, it seems like they are standing upright in the water.

It is almost like they defy gravity. I wonder what they do with their feet and tails, to appear so stationary in the water.

Another similarity between the female and the male mergansers, they both have white patches on their wings.

Although, on closer inspection, even those are not exactly alike.

Earlier in the week, I caught this distant sequence on the Cut. The male in front has just caught a fairly large fish. The second bird is obviously hungry and would love to steal the meal.

Evidently, the fish is so heavy that the lead bird cannot fly with the extra weight. So he is not just paddling with his feet, but also thrashing through the water with his wings, as he races to keep his lunch. The two birds made long curving tracks of froth across the water as they churned around the Cut.

In desperation, no doubt hearing the cries of an approaching gull, the lead bird coordinates the actions of his feet, wings and head.

With feet paddling and wings churning, the bird turns the fish head first in its mouth and swallows it whole, without breaking stride. A living example of, survival of the fittest.

Parting Shots:

 Here are a few more shots of these wonderful creatures that live in our reflections.

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



  1. Larry,
    Nice photo essay as usual. When we lived in Alaska, we watched the Brown bears fishing for salmon in the Brooks River mouth at Naknek Lake in Katmai NP. They used the same technique as the mergansers in your photos, swimming along with heads mostly submerged. We called it "snorkeling". They were very successful.
    Gary B

    1. Very cool! I would never have guessed that about bears. The videos always show them swiping the salmon as they jump to head upstream. Thank you!!!

    2. That's the common photo shot, taken below waterfalls or rapids where the salmon get bunched up trying to negotiate the obstacle. Brooks Falls, seen in countless photo shoots, is just a couple hundred yards upstream from the mouth. More bears usually congregate there due the concentrated food source and easy pickings. The river mouth is usually a more relaxed, less congested spot for them to fish.

    3. Thanks again for all the information. I had to look up Brooks Falls. It is interesting that Brooks River looks like it is less than a mile long, still it must be heaven (or very close) for wildlife photographers.

    4. That is correct, the river is very short, flows from Brooks Lake, snakes through the forest and over Brooks Falls and then into Naknek Lake. A paradise for both fishermen and photographers, in season. Often people and bears "fishing" in close proximity along the river. The bear trail in the woods along the river is deeply potholed with the footstep depressions of eons of bear travel along their traditional food source.

  2. The color reflections in the water are particularly stunning this week. Thank you, as always for an interesting read.

    1. Thank you! I never would have guessed that graffiti could look that good. :-)

  3. Replies
    1. It is amazing that the merganser can get his mouth open wide enough!

  4. More great photos.

    Your comment about day-lighting creeks is interesting. Although they do make lovely habitat, urban Salmon do not do well in them. You mention too much oil in the water, and that's part of it. Other pollutants also make it very difficult for Salmon to thrive in urban areas. As much as I like the idea of creating habitat, I don't think we should spend millions of dollars on it. We should target that money where research indicates.

    Just my two cents.

    But thanks for the pictures!

    1. Thank you for your reply! I agree we need to invest wisely e.g. spend limited funds where they can do the maximum benefit. I suggest that if we have healthy salmon in clean urban streams we will be involving the maximum number of citizens in nature, we will be solving the largest portion of the pollution problems for the dollars spent and downstream issues like the pollution in Puget Sound and the impact to the orcas will see the greatest improvement for the dollars spent. I think my logic is the similar to why we cleaned up Superfund sites first.
      In addition we have the opportunity to lead by example. If we can show that salmon (or even just trout) can survive in an urban stream we can then argue it can be done anywhere. Thank you for caring and being willing to start a dialogue. Have a great day!