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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


  1. I enjoyed your wider variety of late bloomers.

    1. Thank you! Union Bay feels a bit empty after the young bird fledge, so it is nice to find a few species that reproduce later in the year.

  2. Thank you for your timely blog post! I just saw what I thought were baby Pied-billed Grebes at the Black River Riparian Forest and Wetland in Renton but they didn't quite match the illustration in my field guide. Your photos were a perfect match and you also explained why I was seeing such young birds so late in the season!

    1. You are welcome! I am glad the post helped with your observation and identification. The young pbg's can be rather noisy and persistent in their cries for food. Sometimes I can hear them calling before I can even see the water. I kind of feel for the parents. :-)

  3. Amazing captures and blog here! I initially noticed your "Parent Feeding Chick" shots. That looks like a huge (for the birds, do you know what kind it was?) fish staring down both its captor's throats!

    Once the prey was handed to the chick was it really able to win the battle and gulp down that fighting fish okay?? Does the prey put up a good fight, if eaten, does the unlucky fish get swallowed wriggling/alive all the way as well?!


    1. I am thinking you are talking about the young pied-billed grebe swallowing the long skinny fish. If my memory serves me right the young bird dropped the fish multiple times, the parent kept grabbing the fish and giving the the young bird another shot. I think it was a kind of like a training session. Ultimately, I believe the young bird swallowed the fish.

      Since this was published, I have learned that those long skinny little fish are Oriental Weather-fish. An invasive fish from S.E. Asia (i believe) and most likely released from someones aquarium. Sometimes birds are able to crush/kill the fish before they swallow it, sometimes not. Nature is not always pretty. The key to swallowing it appears to be getting the fish to go down head-first. The eel-like weather-fish put up a good fight.

    2. Oh interesting! I have never witnessed an event like this before. So does invasive mean they are bad (a fight vs good and evil here?) too?

      I wonder, wouldn't a fish that size stand a slim chance of escaping or even damaging the younger bird's stomach/insides if eaten in that condition?? Hard for me think how such a small bird handles that big prey and such a young age!

      You have some other great posts as well, keep it up! ;)

    3. My understanding is that the weather fish are considered invasive because they did not originate in this ecosystem and so they cause havoc with the native salmon. They muddy the waters and make them unsuitable for salmon to lays eggs. In addition if the salmon are somehow able to reproduce the weather fish enjoy eating the young salmon.
      If there is a good vs evil issue I think it has to do with leaving a our children a healthy world - one with as much diversity as possible. Weather fish, polluted runoff flowing into the water, hydroelectric dams that block salmon migration, all contribute to the demise of the salmon. It is not that any of these are evil rather it seems to me that as a society we just haven't figured the optimal ways to solve these issues.