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

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Saturday, September 26, 2015

Harmony With Nature

Double-crested cormorants are not the most beautiful or iconic birds. They do not stir the heart like a bald eagle in-flight or a baby owl covered in white fuzz.

In fact, you might even call them ugly.

Their most becoming feature may be their bright green eyes.

Cormorants are beautifully adapted for fishing. Their webbed feet propel them underwater, the hooked bill tightly holds their slippery prey, and their dark color allows them to disappear like a shadow below the surface. Their dark color also helps them retain heat and dry off when they leave the water. I suspect their bright green eyes provide superior underwater vision.

This week, a Seattle Times article said the shooting of cormorants at the mouth of the Columbia River has begun. This is not a surprise if you read last year's post which was inspired by Harvey who came to Union Bay from East Sand Island. The killing of cormorants is intended to help save the dwindling salmon population. Experts quoted in the article question whether the shooting will actually help the salmon recover.

This week I watched two cormorants squabbling about their seating assignments on the light poles at the University of Washington near Union Bay. Their disagreement seemed rather petty. There were plenty of light poles to go around. It reminded me that there should also be plenty of salmon to go around.

I am always impressed by how the cormorants can expand their lower jaw. It looks like a miniature version of a pelican's pouch. I have only seen it used for intimidation, but I wonder if the expansion allows them to swallow fish that would otherwise be too large.

Lately, I have been pondering what it would mean for humanity to be in harmony with nature. In music, harmony is a pleasant and dynamic blending of efforts to achieve a common goal. 

Antonyms for harmony include words like discord, hatred and fighting. Shooting cormorants, even to save juvenile salmon, does not qualify as harmonious. Not only are we destroying native creatures, which are behaving in a perfectly natural way, but we are also creating discord among ourselves.

In a harmonious world there would once again be an abundance of salmon. We would have no need to quibble with cormorants or sea lions about their percentage of the take. It seems ironic that we are killing native creatures when we are the ones who have decimated the wild salmon runs with obstructing dams and the disruption of spawning streams. 

We have other options. Last year, in Eastern Washington and Canada, there was a dramatic increase of wild salmon. In previous years, a number of groups worked together to time the flow of water over multiple dams to help young salmon survive to reach the ocean. The result was an abundant return of salmon in 2014. Click Here, to read more about their efforts.

The fact that the cormorants are consuming a statistically relevant portion of young salmon is just a symptom. Trying to solve our upstream problems by shooting downstream symptoms, is at a best a distraction from the real issues.

We need to help the wild salmon overcome the barriers we have created. When salmon runs return to historic levels, the eagles, bears, cormorants, sea lions, orcas and even the forests will flourish. Possibly just as important, flourishing salmon will restore our own hope in the future. Restoring spawning sites, paying close attention to the salmon and timing water flows are logical first steps towards becoming a society in harmony with nature.

Salmon are not just an icon, they are the fundamental linchpin of our Northwest web of life. If you would like to learn more about our challenges and opportunities I suggest reading, "Salmon, People and Place  - A Biologist's Search For Salmon Recovery",  by Jim Lichatowich.

I would love to see us fill up the comments section with changes we can make to help the salmon. If you find it easier to just email suggestions, I will post them to the comments section with your first name. My email address is: ldhubbell@comcast.net

Have a great day on Union Bay!


A Union Bay Update:

I believe this is a juvenile, Greater White-fronted Goose. It has been hanging around Union Bay all week. I first saw it on the water between Foster and Marsh Islands on Tuesday, and then everyday since on Oak Point, just west of Duck Bay. Hopefully local dog owners will keep their dogs leashed, as this beautiful young bird is still learning how to be shy.

According to my Sibley guide a Greater White-fronted Goose is a rare bird for our area. Plus, domesticated Greylags are often mistaken for Greater White-fronted Geese. However, the coloring of the legs, plus the more delicate nature of this bird's neck and belly led me, and a local master birder, to believe it is a Greater White-fronted Goose. I am curious how long the bird will stay in our area.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Where's Elvis

Yesterday, while listening to the raucous cries of a blue jay, I heard a pileated woodpecker call in the distance. The jay sounded very excited, I suspected it was warning the world about the young barred owl that we saw in last week's post

My dilemma was similar to the old saying, "A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush." However the last time I remembered photographing our local pileated woodpeckers, Elvis and Priscilla, was when Elvis Jr. left the nest back in June. I have been wondering how they are doing, so I choose to look for the birds in the bush.

The pileated cry sounded like it came from the area near Elderberry Island. In this photo you can see a glimpse of the island on the right, while on the left, the eastbound 520 on-ramp connects from Lake Washington Blvd to the bridge. 

I was surprised to find the invasive blackberries had been mowed to the ground, but happy to find that native trees, like the willow, the alder and the western red cedar, were left intact. As I glanced around I heard the pileated call again. This time the sound came from Oak Point, which is my name for the oak-covered peninsula east of Elderberry Island and west of Duck Bay.

I jogged around the island in time to spot Priscilla sitting at eye level in fairly good light. I lifted my camera to photograph her and found my battery had expired. Priscilla flew towards Duck Bay, while I fumbled for a fully-charged battery. Evidently, while I searched the area around the bay, Priscilla circled back near Elderberry Island. 

Later, while following the sound of her occasional calls, I discovered that she was nearly back where we started.

Priscilla settled down and began excavating for ants in the side of a rotting red alder. 

During the next half hour, she opened up a vertical slash four inches wide and three or four feet long.

After a while, her wings apparently felt a bit stiff.

As she stretched around the tree, she leaned in close for balance. This same tree-hugging position is also an effective way to hide whenever she senses danger overhead. 

In this case, she leaned back from the tree...

...and lifted her wings before returning to work. While looking at this photo, I remembered a few years ago spotting a feather on the ground that was half white and half black. At the time I was uncertain what type of bird lost the feather. It seems obvious now that it was from the wing of a pileated woodpecker.

During the time I watched Priscilla yesterday, I never heard any answering calls. In the past I have often found Elvis and Priscilla working together in the same patch of woods. They are usually silent, except for the thump, thump, thump of their excavations. However they will occasionally stop and call to each other. I think of these as contact calls looking for reassurance. Similar to walking in the door at home and calling out, "Hello Honey, I'm home." In both cases the meaning seems to be, "I'm here. Are you there?"

The lack of a response has me wondering, where is Elvis? If you see him around, I would love to know when and where you spot him. (ldhubbell@comcast.net)

Here is a shot of Elvis at the nest back in June. Two obvious differences between him and Priscilla are his yellow irises and the the red malar stripes on his cheeks. I do think his cries are bit louder than Priscilla's, but that is a fairly subjective comparison.


Here are a couple of fun photos from the last week or two.

Can you make heads or tails of this bushtit photo?

How about this rebellious chickadee, breaking all the rules.

It turns out the bushtit in the photo was actually two female birds huddled close together fighting the early morning chill.


By the way Constance Sidles, Master Birder and author of four books about birds in the Union Bay Natural Area is teaching a a class on bird migration this week! Here are all the details:

Wednesday, September 23, 7 – 8:30pm
Fall migration starts at Union Bay Natural Area in July, as the first wave of shorebirds from the tundra flows through our state, bringing up to 29 different species of sandpipers to stop with us a little while and fuel up before they continue, some flying as far as South America on their long journey to their wintering grounds. As July turns to August, the flow of birds increases, as the tropical flycatchers leave us and more birds begin to come down from Alaska. Billions of birds pass through North America before the migration ends. Find out from Constance Sidles all about how and why birds migrate, and get a peek at the species that we're most likely to see here.
Link: http://depts.washington.edu/uwbg/visit/calendar.shtml?trumbaEmbed=view%3Devent%26eventid%3D115097465

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


Saturday, September 12, 2015

The Wildlife News

A young Cooper's hawk cleans itself in the afternoon light near Duck Bay. Most likely this is one of five or six young hawks that fledged in the Arboretum this year. Around six weeks after they fledge, the young hawks leave the nesting area. At this point they begin to hunt for themselves and they become much more quiet and stealthy.

This bird never made a sound while I was around. If I hadn't looked up in the tree, I would have walked right under it, without even knowing it was there. After they eat, they often have a bulge in their crop, a temporary food storage located in the upper chest and neck area.

Here is an example of a full crop. This is a well-fed adult female from back in April.

This bird's crop looks empty, still the bird may have eaten something small. Wasps, like the one in the this photo, are often attracted by the fresh meat which hawks consume, plus...

...the young bird spent almost ten minutes carefully cleaning its feathers. The cleaning insures the feathers are in optimal condition. This is needed after hunting and eating, when feathers can be easily disturbed or matted with food.

Other Union Bay News:

Dean Pearson, a groundskeeper for the UW Athletic Department, reports that the osprey are still hanging around the light poles at the UW baseball field. Sadly, the birds chose not use the new nesting platform, in the Union Bay Natural Area. The nesting platform is almost dead center in this photo, taken from Foster Island, while some of the light poles can be seen up and to the right.

Red-winged blackbirds chased the osprey away from the platform not long after it was installed. The osprey will be leaving for Central or South America very soon. Hopefully, next Spring when they return, they will take possession and utilize the new nest site. 

Speaking of Foster Island, I caught this mallard trying to steal a crabapple on the south end of the island. No doubt their flexible feeding habits contribute to their success as a species.

The 520 bald eagles, Eva, Albert and their young, have been gone for a month or so. In the past, the parents usually returned by the end of September. The nesting tree, the tall tree on the far right, looks a bit lonely and empty without eagles among the branches. Hopefully, they will return soon.

About two weeks ago after the windstorm, it was interesting to see all the eastern gray squirrels feeding on the ground. The previous day's wind littered the ground with acorns. The squirrels decided that under the circumstances, there was no reason to be climbing up the oak trees.
The cottonwood tree next to the old boathouse, noticeable here by its absence, must have also blown down in the windstorm. The tree was twice as tall as the building and usually full of cormorants. Prior to taking this photo, a single cormorant flew through The Cut and landed in the water. It paddled back past the boathouse and repeatedly looked up into the air, as if searching for the old familiar tree.

The tree fell into a boat storage area. The smashed pontoon on the right is easily visible. However the boat and trailer under the tree are less obvious. I believe the little hint of blue in the center of the photo is part of the boat trailer. No doubt the boat and trailer are a total loss.

Twice in the last week I have photographed one of the barred owls near Duck Bay. I suspect it is one of the three young seen earlier in the year. 

In both cases, Stellar's jays and other smaller birds were making a racket and harassing the young predator. The smaller birds included chickadees, juncos, wrens and towhees. They were loudly letting the world know where this dangerous predator was residing. Finding the owl was child's play given the noise level.

At one point, three or four hummingbirds were in constant motion around the owl.

For the most part, the owl ignored all their antics.

Once, when the jays became particularly loud and noisy, the owl fluffed up its feathers. Apparently it felt the need to look larger and more intimidating. The tactic worked as none of the jays came too close to the owl. Of course, it might have been the talons that discouraged them, rather than the feathers.

It is interesting to compare the owl's foot to the hawk's.

The owl's foot looks wide, stubby and strong, while the hawk's claw is more slender and elegant. Regardless of their appearance, the hawk's talons can be very effective. I understand that the long slender talons are used in a pulsating fashion to create multiple holes in the heart or other internal organs. 

A few years ago, a large, most likely female, Cooper's hawk took down a wigeon. The largest Cooper's hawks weigh less than a pound, according to All About Birds. Wigeons can weigh from one to four pounds. I guess to some extent, "size matters not".

That is the wildlife news from Union Bay. 

Thanks for following along!


PS: Just in from Dan Pedersen on Whidbey Island a link to an interesting story regarding falconry and bunny rabbits. It is from the: South Whidbey Record.

Dan also does a wonderful blog called, Off The Rails. If you are in need of a smile you might want to take in this week's post. Where Country Songs are Born

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Late Bloomers

On Friday, a single flowering plant stood surrounded by dried grass gone to seed. Nature's diversity and competition occasionally creates a syncopated rhythm  

Some of our fellow lifeforms succeed by blooming to their own beat. Its not that they ignore the cycle of the seasons, they just have a slightly special feeling for the rhythm.

Pied-billed grebes may hear a double beat. Some years, they raise a second brood.

This week a young grebe was seen begging for food on Duck Bay. This is the same bay where we saw a mother with her first set of young in early May. Click Here to read the story and see the chicks in the nest.

It is difficult to say if this is one of the same parents, but clearly this hungry chick is part of a newer brood.

One of the parents caught a fairly large fish, at least from a grebe's point of view. As the fish fought for freedom, it often slipped away, and had to be re-apprehended. I wonder if the young grebe's mouth was watering as it watched.

Finally, the youngster got its chance. The parent paid very close attention to insure the squirming fish did not slip away again. After some thrashing and splashing, the food went down the chute. The young grebe paddled over to the lily pads to sit and digest its meal. 

I have never seen a pied-billed grebe eat anything but fish, however according to All About Birdsthey will eat a variety of the creatures that live in and around the bay.

Overhead, in a nearby hornbeam tree, other late bloomers feasted. Did you notice all five goldfinches in this photo? 

Here is the same tree, with dozens of birds feeding among the leaves. Their coloring blends in perfectly, making them almost impossible to see. 

This American goldfinch searches the fruit of the Japanese hornbeam for tasty seeds.  

The fruit hangs vertically, however the goldfinch usually lifts it so that they can feed in a more upright position. I suspect this helps them watch for approaching predators and to keep an eye out for the competition.

As you can see in the background, sometimes there are minor disagreements about who feeds where.

None the less, the disagreements are quickly settled with no apparent blood shed.

The goldfinches simply go back to feeding and the flock remains united.

The American goldfinch may be one of the most socially progressive birds on earth. To begin with, they only eat a vegetarian diet. Multiple sources indicate that if a goldfinch does eat an insect, it is most likely by accident. In addition, they are generally found in flocks and seem to prefer the company of others. They will even share their food sources with birds of other species. 

Finally, in order to have a second brood in the same year, a female bird will leave her first brood to be tended by their father*; she will then mate with a different male and produce a second set of young. I am not sure if this should be considered progressive, but I am positive that the second broods qualify as late bloomers.

Yesterday, with no fog and the sun shining warmly, I could not resist one more trip to the hornbeam trees. The goldfinches were joined by a number of house finches in a nearby tree. This male finch (the female do not have the red coloring) leaned into the fruit to remove the seed pod, but unlike the goldfinch, never ever attempted to lift the fruit. 

House finches may actually be the champions of the late blooming category. According to All About Birds, house finches have from one to six broods per year. The house finches are also plant eaters.

Thinking about the diets of the finches and the grebes made me wonder if there are any difference in their longevity. There are many unknown factors which could affect their lifespans, beyond the difference between a Paleo and a Vegetarian diet. In addition, my sample size is limited. I am simply comparing the oldest member of each species, as reported in All About Birds

For the Pied-billed Grebes, their eldest known member lived to be four years and seven months. Among the American Goldfinch, their oldest representative lived more than twice as long, to ten years and five months. While the record for a House Finch, is eleven years and seven months.

I am sure that bird's do not choose to be vegetarians or meat-eaters. From their point of view the feeding process is rather simple. When they see food, they eat it. In the past, when humans harvested or caught their own food our process was pretty straight forward, as well. However, in today's world our relationship with food is a bit more complex. How our food is secured and provided is completely invisible to the average person. In spite of our ignorance our choices can have national and even international implications.

This week I just finished reading a very illuminating and well-researched book. It was written by our Union Bay, neighbors, Denis Hayes & Gail Boyer Hayes. They shine a light on the treatment of the cattle that provide our milk, cheese and beef. 

The writing is logical and flows well. Even though the truth the is not always easy to read, Denis and Gail provide an inspiring vision of the future. It is a future that still contains ice cream, yogurt and an occasional steak! If you care about:
  • Your health,
  • The environment, 
  • The future of our society and,
  • The respectful treatment of the creatures who provide our food,
"Cowed" is a book you will want to read. If you, Click Here, you will find links to a dozen different reviews from a variety of respected sources.

Note: If the link above to www.DenisHayes.com is not currently working, you may want to read the W. W. Norton review instead. 

Have a great day on Union Bay...where nature blooms whenever it pleases!


McGraw, Kevin J. and Alex L. Middleton. 2009. American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis), 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/080