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

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Friday, February 26, 2016

The Dignified Duck

Northern shovelers seldom squabble or fight. Etiquette and breeding appears to be of utmost importance. For example, they rarely show off their most unique colors - cool baby blues and vibrating greens - which are usually hidden under folded wings. The subtly shaded tans of their primaries are easily overlooked, but seem like the perfect accent  among their varied assortment of colors.

My friend Marcus, pointed out that male shovelers can be easily identified by the sequence of their coloring. From a distance, the major shades of colors on their bodies and heads create a balanced rhythm. It is: 
dark, light, dark, light, dark.

When they feed, shovelers use their specially adapted bill like a sieve. While paddling sedately in circles, they dip their magnificent mandible below the surface, straining out the smallest forms of food. They feed near the top of the water but at the bottom of Earth's pyramid of life. Northern shovelers leave a very small (but damp) ecological footprint.

Obviously, their feeding style results from their genetic inheritance, but I suspect there is more to the story. In my mind, I can almost hear the shoveler sniff in disdain at the manners of a mallard. While feeding - unlike the average waterfowl - shovelers do not flip upside down and wave their keisters in the air.

Their special endowment can make cleaning their necks a bit awkward. 

However, the northern shoveler remains stoic and serious, almost as if challenging us to laugh at his special gift. It is probably best to restrain our comments regarding a "stiff upper lip."

Adult males must be ready to leap into action and mitigate threats, at a moment's notice. 

Single shovelers are often younger and occasionally need to be taught proper manners. When a male shows an interest in your mate or ventures too close...lessons must be learned.

Caution is thrown to the wind...along with a significant mist.

Boundaries must be established...

...and rules enforced.

With the limits clearly defined, decorum and peace return.

Celebratory wing flaps help to relieve the tension. 

Did you notice the perfect posture? Imagine being able to hold your body precisely erect, without touching terra-firma. Your feet furiously paddling while your upper limbs symmetrically circle and search the air for balance. I do not think dignified would describe such an endeavor, for me.

May we all learn to be as restrained and refined as a northern shoveler.

Have a great day on Union Bay... home to The Dignified Duck!


Saturday, February 20, 2016

Spotting A Towhee

Spotted Towhees are odd little birds. For one thing, when they turn their backs they appear to be nearly solid black, even though they are not. I suspect that black may actually be one of the best colors for camouflage. It certainly seems to work well for crows and ravens.

When we view a towhee from the side, it looks to me like a completely different bird. I can even understand how a novice birder might think it looks a bit like a robin. On average, an American Robin is only 20 percent longer than a Spotted Towhee, but it does weigh nearly twice as much. The size difference seems appropriate when we realize that a robin is part of the thrush family and the towhee belongs to the family of sparrows.

A closer inspection reveals the towhee's short dark beak and bright red eyes, which are not robin-like at all. In addition, a towhee's preferred habitat is not a muddy, wet lawn full of half-drowned worms. 

Speaking of differences between birds, when I first learned the towhee's full name it was called a Rufous-sided Towhee. That name also included its cousin who is currently called an Eastern Towhee. The old name, for both birds, was more intuitive and obvious, even if less precise  It is curious how much effort we spend dividing and defining species. None-the-less, it is all about paying attention to the natural world which is critical if we are to learn to live in harmony with nature.

This Spring, if you are lucky enough to hear a male towhee proudly singing you will almost certainly notice its dark black head, bright white breast and maybe even the two white spots hidden under its tail. Much of the white coloring along with the mechanical whirring sound of its song is also very different from a robin. Listen to the second song on All About Birds (Click Here), if you would like to hear the song which is most similar to our local spotted towhees.

The previous photos, and even the song, may give you the wrong impression about our towhees. Their most common sound is their call. It is a rusty, cat-like "mew", which is similar to the calls on the last sound track on All About Birds. When you hear the voice of a towhee, most often this will be the sound you will hear and usually you will not see the bird at all.

Towhees are often hidden in thick brush and... 

...even out in the open they easily blend-in among dry leaves. They do make a third noise which you may hear when you are out for a walk. It is a loud scratching noise which sounds louder than their size implies. The sound makes me think of the scratching of a barnyard chicken. Dried leaves are nearly always involved. Towhees will scratch and search for any little creature they can find. Towhees seem fairly fearless about making such a racket, especially when they are hidden from view.

In the winter when insects are harder to find, towhees will eat vegetation. Last week on Foster Island, one was eating snowberries as if they were tiny little marshmallows. I have never seen any other creature eat the berries, and during the winter there are hundreds hanging - untouched - all over the Arboretum. I suspect they must not taste like marshmallows. 

In another first for me, last week I watched a towhee consume the bud of a red elderberry. 

I think the towhees are looking forward to Spring almost as much as we are. They are probably excited about their change of diet - more insects, less snowberries. We on the other hand are looking forward to more sunshine and less rain.

Encouraging towhees to visit your yard is actually very easy, and good for your plants as well. Simply rake four or five inches of leaves into your flower beds and let them sit. They will help keep your plants warm and in time they will decompose and feed your flora.

In the winter, when times are tough, other bird species will also search the fallen leaves for food. This golden-crowned kinglet is an example I spotted in the Arboretum in December. 

Sometimes I wonder how it is that we have come to call a perfectly natural part of the life cycle of trees - leaf litter. The term seems to falsely imply that the leaves need to be cleaned up. 

If your leaves are left to behave naturally, towhees and other birds are likely to come to your yard searching for food, especially if you do not use pesticides. Also, come springtime if you keep your cat indoors the towhees may even build a nest on or near the ground, carefully hidden among your leaves.

A leafless and insect-free flower bed may meet some standard definition of winter beauty. However, a flower bed filled with leaves, towhees and other natives birds displays a deeper beauty - one which is more diverse, rich and filled with life. 

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


Note: In the comments section Max mentioned that he had heard that Snowberries are poisonous. I found, via This Link By Valerie Easton, that she thinks they will generally not hurt us because our bodies do not absorb much of the poison. (However, I have no desire to run out and give them a try.) What was most interesting was her statement regarding Native Americans using the berries to poison fish. Amazing!

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Dreams of Spring

Winter in Seattle can be dismal, gray and wet. It causes us to cherish thoughts of Spring, like a hot cup of coffee held with cold, trembling fingers. In this late January photo, a great blue heron stands in the midst of dried cattails blowing in the winter's wind. Near the bird's feet there is just a hint green - maybe an early sign of Spring.

Two days later, I chanced upon this pair of herons performing a slow moving dance in the same general area. They moved with measured steps. It was a careful, reflective choreography - moving together almost as if they were mirrored images. I was drifting slowly around one of the small islets on Union Bay when the distant birds became visible. I sat transfixed, camera clicking softly, arms burning, wishing I was closer but fearing to make any move which might interrupt their magical performance.

I suppose their behavior might have been territorial, however it felt like a mating dance - slow, respectful and without any obvious signs of intimidation. Together, they waded out towards deeper water. The colors of the flora in these photos show no signs of life. However the flashes of exposed black shoulder patches and burnt orange on their upper thighs, along with the birds' unusual maneuvers inspired thoughts of Spring.

Necks erect, feathers splayed, beaks at attention, the slow dance shifted from side-by-side to a more dangerous and exposed face-to-face interaction. I am not a scientist, but it seems to me that this is a position of trust. If these birds were thinking of attacking each other I would expect their wings to be extended and waving for balance as they looked for weaknesses and an opportunity to strike. Their calm slow behavior, with wings tucked carefully away, helped me to conclude this must be a mating ritual.

The plumes of feathers hanging down below their necks are not uncommon, but look surprisingly stiff. This was the first time I have ever noticed the plume-like feathers held erect above their backs and sides.

As the birds marched slowly back toward shore another touch of green entered the photo.

As their display ended they turned slowly away. The herons took up positions roughly 40 yards apart. For a time, they maintained a constant visual contact.

Two days later, while watching ducks from the shore of Foster Island, I experienced the feeling of being watched. Looking up, I found a heron sitting silently above me. We both felt uneasy, though for very different reasons. I was highly inspired not to scare the bird as they often defecate just prior to flying. Herons in trees look precarious and ungainly. However, they do nest in trees, so when I see one perched overhead it does make me think "Spring is in the air."

Another sure sign of Spring is Eva and Albert spending more time in their nesting tree. This week, one of them spotted an immature eagle near Foster Island and came blitzing out from the nest site. When the youngster reached the airspace between Marsh Island and Duck Bay the adult acquiesced and headed back to Broadmoor. 

From the look of the young eagle I believe it is the same bird we saw in mid-January. Click here to read the story. Eva and Albert seem very consistent about their territorial boundaries. The young bird continues to wander over and above the invisible lines however the mature birds seem to realize...repetition is the key to learning.

Earlier, I came across this female downy woodpecker feeding about twenty feet off the ground. She may not have realized she was pushing up against a "glass-ceiling".

When she spotted a male downy, moving in to restrict her feeding height, she moved below the branch for protection, just prior to taking flight. (It amazes me how my eyes focus on the white spots on her black wings and how easily I forget that I am actually looking at individual feathers which are perpendicular to the pattern. Nature's camouflage does not require color coordination...

...however, sometimes it helps. Can you spot the brown creeper in this photo? When taking the photo I actually thought the bird would be easy to see against the white bark of the birch tree. I was wrong.)

The male takes over the site, and the feeding, before following after the female. Among downy woodpeckers the males get the higher, smaller branches, while the females are relegated to lower, larger branches. Maybe this behavior evolved so the males would have a wider field of view and be better able to defend the females from intruders. Downy's seem similar to humans, since both have intertwined feeding behaviors and mating relationships - kind of like dinner and dating. Maybe it is just happenstance, but I have only noticed the enforcement of this "glass-ceiling" behavior just prior to nest building and the mating season.

Parting Shots:

Here are two non-avian signs of spring. 

An indian plum leafing out...

...and willow buds. 

Have a great day on Union Bay...where the dream of Spring is in the air!


PS: The creeper is in the lower left quadrant of the photo, on the trunk near the base of the branch.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Easy Livin'

Lately, this beautiful pure-white egret has been living on houseboats in Portage Bay. Technically, the correct name for this species is a Great Egret. It stands over three feet tall, even though it weighs less than half as much as one of our local Great Blue Herons.

Like the heron, this bird loves fish. The placement of its eyes are obviously optimized for looking down on its prey. It certainly makes me feel nervous, and a bit sorry for the fish.

 The long legs, neck and especially the spear-like beak strongly resemble the heron.

It is however the stunning white feathers that confound my thinking. Many white birds like the trumpeter and tundra swans, snow geese and even snowy owls live around snow. Like many other birds they often come south in the winter. Great egrets normally spend their whole lives even further to the south - this is the first one I have seen in Seattle. The great egrets usually winter in the southern part of the U.S., Central America and apparently almost every place east of the Andes in South America. I wonder if climate change and the exceptional warm year in 2015 may have motivated this bird to visit Seattle for the winter? I also wonder why a bird would have pure white feathers when it so seldom near snow? 

I suppose one answer might be that the white feathers reflect away some of the Southern heat. Regardless of the reason, this egret certainly devotes a great deal of its time to maintaining its pristine plumage.

It alertly interrupts its cleaning anytime it hears a noise.

 However, it is seldom distracted for long.

The combination of a long neck and a long beak make for some oddly distorted twists and turns.

None-the-less, egrets do have a long-necked elegance, similar to a swan, except 
for the beak which provides a sharp "punctuation" at the end of the neck.

At first, I do not have a clue why the bird decides to move away from its comfortable perch in the sun.

The twisting and turning of the head alerts me to a fly-in-the-ointment. It is curious to see how the egret elevates its gaze as it keeps the fly in focus.

 As the egret tracks the fly, the bird's thin delicate structure is revealed.

 The fly tempts fate.

The egret debates whether the fly is worth the effort. I am not positive if the egret could actually catch a fly or not. However a couple of years ago, I did watch a great blue heron catch dragonflies - with about a fifty percent success rate.

 One last time the fly passes by.

At this point the fly disappears. Evidently, it made a safe get away since I never saw the egret swallow.

 Apparently the fly reminded the egret that it had an appetite.

 After a moment of careful consideration, the egret decided to return to a private dock...

... just behind Seattle's oldest houseboat, where a tiny strip of shoreline still exists. I suspect the reason the egret feels comfortable fishing at this location is in part because it is so seldom disturbed. 

Nature, just like the egret, does not need a lot of space to continue to live in our city, but it does require some sunlight, soil and a safe place to feed, which in this case is just ~15 feet of shallow water beside the shore.

The egret is not so picky about its roosting locations, they simply need to be elevated and have a nice view. It is important to remember nature does not see our city the same way we do.

It took the egret less than 10 minutes to fly a hundred yards, search the fifteen feet of shoreline, find a fish, capture it and...

...swallow it. 

Maybe heading north to Seattle, when most of its kin headed south, was motivated by plentiful food. Even if the fishing is not the reason the bird came to Seattle, there is no doubt that the easy living is a good reason to stay.

Have a great day on Portage Bay...where an egret is living in the city!


Parting Shots:

Harmony between humanity and nature may be...

...equally important to both parties.