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

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Sunday, December 27, 2015

A Winter Warbler

Depending on which source you consult, there are 40 to 50 different types of warblers found in the western part of North America. Only eight types are annual visitors to Union Bay. Of the eight, only three are year-round Puget Sound residents. 

We are extremely lucky that the Townsend's warbler is one of these three birds. The majority of the North American warblers have some yellow on their head or body. However the male Townsend's warbler has the most strikingly brilliant combination of yellow and black.

Note: The female Townsend's has a yellow throat instead of black, and elsewhere around the head where the male has black coloring, the female has olive green. 

Our most common year-round warbler is the yellow-rumped warbler. This male yellow-rumped is a fine looking bird...

...however it pales by comparison. Our good fortune in having the Townsend's warblers year round is due to our unique location. We are at the northern tip of the Townsend's winter range, which extends as far south as Central America. Just to our south, Oregon hosts the southern tip of the summer range. Prior to breeding, Townsend's migrate north between the Pacific and the coastal mountains, all the way into Alaska. The bottomline, we are in a relatively small area where the summer and winter ranges overlap.

BirdWeb, which is a free resource provided by Seattle Audubon, has the most detailed Townsend's range map for the state of Washington that I have seen.

The Townsend's prefers to breed and often feed near the tops of conifer trees. When it does descend to feed near humans it tends to be fairly shy and is often hidden behind flowers or leaves. Its song and call are fairly soft and high pitched, which makes the sound easy to miss. Click Here to visit All About Birds, then scroll down to play their song. 

In spite of its brilliant color this little warbler is very easy to overlook. I usually spot it by noticing the flicker of a somewhat heavy motion deep inside a bush. By comparison, hummingbirds dart far more lightly between the flowers. 

During the last couple of weeks I have been lucky to see this warbler a number of times. Given the bird's consistent behavior I am starting to feel like I know this particular bird. In my head I call him, Port. I do realize that the bird and the town were named after different people. Port Townsend was named after the Marquis of Townshend, while the bird was named by (or for) the ornithologist, John Kirk Townsend. If you would like to make your birding friends laugh, be sure to call this bird a Port Townsend's Warbler.

Port seems to have found something tasty to feed on among these winter blossoms. 

Initially, I suspected the flowers were attracting insects which in turn attracted the warbler.

However, I have yet to take a photo which displays the warbler eating any creature at all.

I have seen it reaching up into the flowers.

I have watched it stretching down and around the flowers and...

...then photographed it as it pulls back afterwords, but I have yet to see the slightest sign of a bug or insect being consumed.

I am beginning to wonder if this bird is mimicking the Anna's hummingbirds and directly consuming pollen or nectar from the flowers. 

In any case, the yellow flowers provide excellent cover and a wonderful backdrop for this beautiful little bird. 

The birds and the rain are definitely removing the blossoms, still I hope this warbler lingers among the flowers for as long as they last. The combination of winter blooms and the brilliant black and yellow bird puts warmth in my heart and a smile on my face.

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


Silhouette Challenge:

Last week's silhouette is of a fairly common duck found on Union Bay. For a comparison take a look at the next photo which is of a mallard, our most common duck.

Notice how our mystery duck has a taller forehead and a more delicate beak. In general I seldom notice the specific differences. I just glance at the outline and think, "That duck sure has a pretty shaped head." If you guessed Gadwall, you are correct!

Can you guess which type of bird this silhouette belongs to? The answer will be in next week's post.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Crowns, Kings And Other Decorations

Golden-crowned kinglets are shy, unassuming little birds. Not at all what one would expect from creatures with the terms "crown" and "king" embedded in their name.

They are so small and quiet that they can be easily overlooked...

...as they flicker from branch to branch in search of even smaller creatures.

When they do make a sound it is so soft and gentle that it is easily missed. Click Here and then scroll down to play an example.

Their cousins, ruby-crowned kinglets are equally shy. However, their song is slightly more musical. Click Here and then scroll down to play the "neighboring" example, from Oregon.

Ruby-crowned kinglets tend to spend their time a bit closer to the ground, searching through the underbrush. The most obvious physical differences between the two types of kinglets, excluding their crowns, are the white eye-rings of the ruby-crowned kinglet and the back and white stripes on the head of the golden-crowned kinglets.

This golden-crowned is a female, since it lacks the flaming orange crown of a male.

When the male gets excited he displays the center-piece of his crown.

So far, this is my best example of a ruby-crowned kinglet. The first time I saw one of these subtle red marks I wondered if a predatory bird had scratched the kinglet's head, leaving a small stain of blood.

I have now photographed this little mark on multiple birds, but an erect ruby-crown remains on my bucket list. You can see what I am searching for on All About Birds.

This time of year, kinglets make me wonder about the history of Christmas tree decorations. Here is a short sample of where my thoughts go.

Many years ago, lost in the mists of time, some ancient person was the first to add decorations to a tree. We will never know with certainty, what inspired those first ornaments. A steady succession of short, gray days may have eroded the optimism of the original decorator. The ancient one may have been a bit cold and depressed while searching for firewood. The flowers of spring would have long since faded and fallen. Butterflies would have already fluttered south for the winter. Maybe, he or she was trudging towards home, pulling a branch of semi-dry firewood, when...

...a collection of small birds appeared. It is easy to imagine the tiny birds calling softly to each other, as they dance among the branches. Their occasionally brilliant colors and happy sounds inspiring thoughts of sunshine, spring and warmth. Perhaps, the brilliance of colorful little birds like kinglets, inspired the idea of bringing a tree indoors and creating beautiful ornaments to brighten the dark of winter.

Have a Happy Holiday on Union Bay...where nature thrives in the city!


Silhouette Challenge:

This was last week's silhouette. Without being able to see the eyes or the crown the best expected guess is simply the general designation of kinglet.

Can you guess which type of duck this silhouette belongs to? The answer will be in next week's post.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Nuthatch Delight

A red-breasted nuthatch is a beautifully balanced bird. At less than five inches long and weighing around half an ounce you might expect nuthatches to be shy and bashful. They are not! The nuthatch song is a loud, heart-felt and distinctive, "yank, yank, yank".

Its agility and derring-do makes it a delight to behold.

Its incredibly balanced body plan can be misleading. A predatory bird might have difficultly determining which end to attack. Assuming, a predator could actually catch up with a nuthatch.

From the nuthatch's perspective, gravity is irrelevant.

Their strength to weight ratio must be incredible. If a nuthatch was a human, it would certainly we be a rock climber, and from a musical perspective, it would no doubt, be a rock musician. You can listen to its song by clicking hereand then scrolling down.

For insects and bugs, no place is safe.

Resistance is futile.

Once a nuthatch clamps on, you are food.

Even an earwig's pincers, do not deter a nuthatch.

In Spring, when a parent returns with food a young bird is ready and waiting. There are a number of fun facts about nuthatches that this photo brings to mind. Like many other birds the young nuthatch has a yellow beak while the adult's is black. The yellow color makes a nice target in the darkness of the nest hole.

By looking at the beak-sized indentations above the nest, you can surmise that the nuthatch excavates like a woodpecker. However, the nuthatch lacks a long tail so it does not have a woodpecker's leverage. This means very soft old snags are critical nesting sites for nuthatches. 

Even the stronger and longer-tailed woodpeckers prefer softer wood. It can take many years for the wood of a dead tree to reach the proper, cork-like consistency. Plus, many times the branch or trunk holding a new nest will crumble and fall before it can be used a second time, which is why it is so important to leave dead trees standing, in our yards and parks.

Here the adult is holding a dark, black bug while it waits for a young bird to secure the prize. All About Birds says, a nuthatch clutch may include from two to eight eggs. Being unable to peak inside the nest we have no idea if we are seeing the same young bird in each photo. It could be a free for all inside with a half a dozen nestlings fighting for their window-of-opportunity.

Another fun fact is the sap glistening on the outside of the tree. This tree is very old and dead. Its sap stopped flowing long ago, however, this sap is fresh and clean. Nuthatches secure the sap from living trees and then paint it around the entry way. Apparently, this is a defense mechanism to deter predators.

The adults remove fecal pouches from the nest, in order to keep the inside clean and tidy.

To keep their feathers from getting sticky they must spring through the entry hole without extending their wings or brushing against the sap.

As the young birds get older they learn to turn around, in order to deliver a fecal sac after eating. 

This keeps the parents from having to squeeze into the confines of the nest.

As the young birds mature they begin hanging out at the window and calling out for food. Their call is very similar to the "yank, yank, yank" of the parents, but it has a thinner more reedy sound.

In this case, it appears the parent has returned with the crumpled remains of a crane fly.

In the Spring, no matter how fast the parents deliver food it seems like there is always another young bird waiting.

This time of year, the reddish breast of the nuthatch against the green moss... 

... and green of the licorice ferns... 

....seems especially fitting, as the holidays approach.

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


Silhouette Challenge:

This silhouette could be one of two common birds around Union Bay, however they are both part of the same genus and family. Can you guess their common name? The answer will be at the end of next week's post.

This was last week's challenge. The bird on the left is a double-crested cormorant, which is very common around Union Bay, often sitting with wings outstretched. The bird on the right is a pelagic cormorant, which is not common around Union Bay, since it prefers salt water. The smaller, thinner beak is a distinctive difference.