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

On Instagram: @unionbaywatch

Friday, August 28, 2015

Just Add Water

It is always fun to find yourself in the middle of a flock of softly calling bushtits. This female is inspecting the dried flowers on an ocean spray plant. All the sources I have read agreed that bushtits eat mostly tiny insects. 

Evidently, the drier parts of plants attract more insects, since the bushtits ignored the green leaves.

Bushtits weigh about the same as a hummingbird, which helps with their gravity-defying approach to finding food. 

They are certainly social and quick. As a flock they will move through a bush or a tree in just a couple of minutes. I have yet to see a bushtit stop to chew their food, apparently they usually just swallow the little creatures whole.

 Yesterday, I watched a flock near the Union Bay Natural Area. They fed in a red alder,...

... a willow and a birch tree.

It was strikingly obvious that they prefer insects to fruit. 

They moved quickly through the three different trees and...

...totally ignored the ripe blackberries, that were hanging just below.

Birds of North America* does mention that if a bushtit captures a larger creature, like the caterpillar on this flower, they will whack it on a branch until it stops resisting. On such an occasion, I suspect they must slow down and do a bit more than swallow their food whole.

Watching the bushtits in the dried ocean spray made me realize I have never seen bushtits consume water. I wonder, if in the wild, they get all the moisture they need from their food. Birds of North America* mentions that they will drink water in captivity.

Speaking of birds and water, I was surprised to see a Stellar's jay come to the water's edge. Normally raucous and loud, the jay approached the water in complete silence. After looking around carefully, it took a single sip.

Then, it splashed its face in the water three times. Finally, it moved back into the safety of the overhanging branches. What was really odd, was after a few minutes the jay came down to the water a second time. It then repeated the exact same process again. One sip, three careful splashes and then it was gone.

Later, I found these young mallards nearby. It is clear their relationship with water is a bit more extensive.

Here is a final bird and water photo. I was in the wrong place at the right time so the sun was shining in my face and not illuminating the bird. Still, the light in the water droplets and their reflection in the water made for an interesting effect. Can you tell what type of bird this is?


This weekend is your final opportunity to view my photos on display at the Fuel Coffee shop in Montlake. It is in the old Montlake Library location, which is one block south of the new library and on the opposite side of the street.

Fuel Coffee - Montlake
2300 24 Ave E
Seattle, WA 98112

  • Mon-Fri: 6 am - 6 pm
  • Sat-Sun: 7 am - 6 pm
If you would like to buy one of the photos please send an email describing the photo. The photos are for sale on a first email, first served basis. Next week, after the photos are removed from the coffee shop, I will contact you to setup a time for our exchange.

Note: If you correctly identify the bird above I will give you a 10% discount on the price of the framed photos that are at the Fuel Coffee shop this weekend.

Have a great day on Union Bay...where birds find water in the city!


Bonus Photos:

I could not resist including these two photos of a young Bewick's wren. It was involved in a high speed chase, while begging for food.

When it stopped begging for a moment, it appeared to start to looking for its own food, which is good since it clearly needs all the nutrition it can find.

*Sloane, Sarah A. 2001. Bushtit (Psaltriparus minimus), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Retrieved from the Birds of North America Online:http://bna.birds.cornell.edu/bna/species/598

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Fear of Flying

Early in August, a confused young peregrine falcon was found in a window well in Madison Park. Luckily, the bird was reported to PAWS, retrieved, and at last report is doing fine. The PAWS wildlife naturalist contacted Ed Deal to find out if he knew about a nest in the area. The goal being to release the young bird near its parents, who will need to provide food and protection.

Note: If you should find a wild creature in distress you can contact PAWS at: 425-412-4040.
There are also specific instructions on the PAWS website at: Found a Wild Animal? 

Ed Deal bands young falcons while they are still in the nest. Historically, peregrines nested in high isolated places like ledges on the face of a cliff. In cities, they often choose similar manmade structures, like sky scrapers and piers that support bridges. Accessing these locations to band the young birds requires fearless dedication and very calm nerves. You can read more about Ed and the banding process in this prior post: The Fastest Birds on Earth.

Ed immediately theorized that the Madison Park peregrine must have come from a previously unknown nest near the western high-rise under the 520 bridge. I have seen peregrines visit Union Bay previously, but to my knowledge, this would be their first nesting site on Union Bay.

Ed's bird banding colleague, Martin Muller, found the site. In addition to banding birds, Martin is a kind and gentle educator who has contributed greatly to my birding knowledge. This young peregrine is apparently a sibling to the Madison Park peregrine. Having not yet learned to fly it was still confined to the top of the concrete bridge support. 

Learning how to safely leave the nest is the first great hurdle in the life of a peregrine falcon. I suspect the scratches on the concrete pier indicate second thoughts on the part of one of the young birds. I imagine the marks were most likely made while one of the young birds flapped its wings and scrambled back to safety.

Martin also located and identified the male parent, a bird they had previously banded. The code 32 above the letter N is barely visible on the bird's left leg. Martin pointed out a critical difference between the adult and the young bird. When perched, the tips of the adult's wings reach to the end of the tail. You can see in the previous photo, that the young bird's wing tips have not yet caught up to the tail's length.

Another difference between the two birds is a bit less obvious, due to the angle of my photos. The young bird has vertical stripes on the chest, while in the next photo you can barely make out some of the horizontal striping on the adult's chest. My photos were taken one week after the Madison Park bird was recovered.

As I kayaked out to take these photos, I could hear the adult calling to the remaining sibling long before I could see the nesting location. I suspect the adult was trying to motivate the young bird to overcome its fear of flying.

At times, the young bird paced back and forth, no doubt feeling confined. Sometimes, it would walk back under the super structure. Possibly it rubbed its head on the concrete causing the white ruffled feathers on its forehead to stand out. The white ruffle is visible in many of the photos.

For a few moments it spread its wings.

Depending on the angle, the width of the wings was fairly impressive.

Once it even leaped up into the air.

Ultimately, it returned to grooming its tail feathers and ignored the pleas of its parent.

The peregrine closed its eyes when there was a chance it might scratch them. The stark white coloring of the eyelids seems rather odd. I do not know of any other bird with this much contrast between their eyelids and the surrounding feathers. I wonder if this creates the impression of watchfulness even when their eyes are closed.

The two light marks on the back of the head may also create a similar impression. It is interesting to realize that this bird who is destined to be a fearless hunter and the fastest creature on earth must first conquer its fear and learn to fly, just like any other young bird.

This week, a second trip to the site revealed no sign of either the parent or the young bird. Ed says no one has seen the birds since the photos above were taken. My fear is, that the young bird's first flight was its last. If it ended up in the water it would have been difficult to return to the air.

On the other hand, the young falcon may be resting easy somewhere along the shores of Union Bay. If so, I suspect it is calling for food and getting regular deliveries from its parent. If you would like to hear the sound of a young peregrine begging for food, Click Here. If you happen to notice the young bird please let us know. Everyone would like to know the second bird survived, plus knowing the location of the parent would be helpful when its sibling is ready to be released.

Have a great day on Union Bay...where peregrines nest in the city!


PS: My email address is: ldhubbell@comcast.net

Saturday, August 15, 2015

The Joy of Water

Lake Annette is four miles south of Interstate 90 and a few of miles west of Snoqualmie Pass.

My daughter inspired my wife and I to hike up and spend Tuesday night at the lake. Hikers and their best friends were swimming joyfully in the cool, clear water when we arrived.

An American Dipper was also splashing its way along the lake shore. The dipper is the dark robin-shaped bird, barely visible, in the center of the photo. True to their name, they dip under the water looking for insects. Dippers constantly bob up and down even when just standing next to the water. It's like the dipping movement is so ingrained, they cannot stop.

It was surprising to find a dipper at the lake, as they usually feed in fast flowing streams. A note at the trailhead mentioned that most of the small streams along the way to the lake were dry.  In June, when my friend Marcus and I stopped just below the trailhead to look for dippers in the Snoqualmie River, it was lower than normal even then. We did not see any dippers

The water level at the lake was so low that the exiting stream bed was dry.

All About Birds mentions that dippers are adapted to feeding in cold running water. They have thicker than normal feathers so they can spend the winter feeding even in the cold. Maybe in the current heat the dipper moved up to the lake looking for cooler water. In any case, the dipper's constant splashing along the water's edge looked just as joyful as the humans and their dogs.

Thursday, on Union Bay, two ducks were involved in a short disagreement about water rights.

This female gadwall won the right to a joyful bath. 

The gadwall's method of submerging her head and throwing water down her back seemed similar to the dipper in Lake Annette. The streams around Union Bay almost certainly had dippers in the past. There is a single sighting recorded in eBird of a dipper seen in the Arboretum in 2008. Since dippers spend so much time in the water, they are most likely rather sensitive to pollutants like herbicides, insecticides and motor oil. Imagine the joy if we could keep our local streams clean enough to share them with dippers.

After enjoying her bath the gadwall dried her wings.

Refreshed, she quietly paddles her way back to her young ducklings.

They immediately snuggle close. 

Whether the ducklings were looking for safety or shade I am not sure. Their little pile did remind me that the Husky football season is about to begin. You might expect for me to be a Ducks fan, but I am a loyal UW graduate.

Friday morning the ducklings were south of Foster Island and cleaning themselves after enjoying their own bath.

Once the cleaning was complete, they waddled back to their mother.

They enjoy the water, but being close to mom rates even higher.

Local officials are asking us to reduce our water consumption by ten percent. To read the Seattle Times story, Click Here. By conserving our low supply of water we may be able to avoid surcharges in the near future, while also helping salmon and local fish that need water to live and reproduce.

We spotted this fish while visiting Lake Annette. I honestly do not know if the low levels of water led to its demise, but the visual imagine has helped me to take shorter showers. I hope you are similarly inspired!

Have a great day on Union Bay...where ducklings play in the bay and where salmon (and hopefully in future dippers) search for cool, clean streams.


Bonus Photos:

A toad my daughter spotted on the way to Lake Annette.

My best guess is, they are Boreal Toads.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Surround Sound

Swallows are a photographer's nemesis. Their sharp, swift turns as they feed in mid-air, seem like the perfect photo opportunity. However, neither I nor my camera are fast enough to record them swallowing an insect in flight.

Even swallows need to rest, which allows me to catch an occasional photographic consolation prize. It is almost surprising when swallows stop flying, since they eat and drink while in the air. Skimming the surface of Union Bay, they slow for just a moment, to secure a sip of water.

Though different species of swallows sometimes hunt together, I believe today's post contains only barn swallows. 

Of all the swallows that visit Union Bay, only the barn swallow has a forked tail. The males have the longest tail and the darkest colors, like the bird in the upper left. The bird in the lower right is a juvenile. The yellow gape, which outlines the mouth, is a clue to its youth. Not only does the color attract our attention, but it helps the parents find the proper place to deliver food.

 You can also tell this is a young bird because its tail has yet to reach full length.

These swallows lack the dark coloring of the male and the yellow gape of the young bird. Still, I suspect they are juveniles; perhaps, just a bit older. They have learned to feed themselves and no longer have any need for a yellow gape.

In addition to resting, swallows also land to groom their feathers. 

To keep their eyes safe, they often close them while grooming.

On the right, is another example of a male's long tail. You can see the tips extending below the branch.

In this photo their tummy feathers are fluffed up. It might be from the wind; however, I wonder if they can make their feathers more erect to aid the grooming process.

Listening to their continuous calls, tells us they are a community in constant contact. You can hear the sound of their songs by clicking here. When a warning is sounded they all take to the air at once, and yet, they never collide.

The following photos show a single young bird as it cleans its feathers.

 This obsessive cleaning must be instinctual for a young bird to be so devoted.

It makes sense that a bird who eats and drinks while flying...

 ...would need perfectly cleaned and aligned feathers.

 No details are overlooked.

 The tail is tested and...

 ...the wing inspected...

...to the very tip of the primary feathers. 

By the way, some of the swallows may have already left for South America. Most of the rest will be leaving in the next month or two. If you would like to enjoy their songs and aerial displays, I would suggest a walk out to Foster Island. Yesterday, they were circling above the cottonwood on the north side of the island and landing near the water to the east.  

Of course, the optimal experience is to take a kayak or canoe and drift quietly into the lily pads as they surround you with music, while they feed and drink in mid-air. 

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