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

On Instagram: @unionbaywatch

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Homeless in Seattle

In late January I watched as Storm returned to her roost at the end of the day. Storm is the name I gave this female pileated woodpecker after a windstorm in November had apparently left her homeless. Storm excavated a flicker nest in this snag and made it into her winter refuge or roost. A week later a male pileated inspected Storm's new digs. Then in early January we saw the two of them create a river of wood while looking for ants inside a tree near Arboretum Creek.

Later in the month, after returning to her roost at the end of the day, Storm changed her mind. She flew down from her tree and began searching for food immediately in front of me. The sun was beginning to set, so the light was less than optimal. However her willingness to come so close made me forget all about the photographic details. Besides I was afraid to move - fearing I might scare her away.

 After a few minutes, Storm finished her feeding and returned to her roost for the night.

On February 1st, as I was pushing my kayak into Portage Bay, I noticed two pileated woodpeckers working near the Montlake Community Center. I got a fairly nice photo of the female bird. I wondered if it was Storm, but given the size of the bird and the distance from her roost I was not positive.

Later in February, I spotted this male pileated working near Foster Island - fairly close to Storm's roost. If you look closely you can see the red of his tongue as he explores for food.

Perhaps a scent or the sound of movement in log caused him to start a new excavation.

His sharp claws helped him hold onto the wet log as he enlarged his access point.

He split his attention between feeding and watching for danger.

A moment later he is joined by a female. 

In this case, given the proximity to Storm's roost, I felt certain that this was Storm and Chip. Chip being the male she was with during the River of Wood post.

After a few moments, Storm ventured off - possibly in search of a more upright tree.

Chip hopped down the log as he followed after her. It seems to me that pileated woodpeckers are much more likely to hop, than to walk or waddle like a crow or a duck.

Chip's next feeding attempt was also on a log. In this case the light was very nice, but I could only see him when he lifted his head to check that all was well.

After a few minutes, Storm landed on a cottonwood just above Chip. He joined her and the two birds spent a moment together before...

...moving to a more distant tree. I was left with the clear impression that the two birds had become a mated pair. I was hoping to watch Chip prepare a nest site and follow their parenting progress through out the Spring and Summer.

However, nature was not finished with Storm. On the last day of February, another windstorm blew through our area. The next morning as I passed Storm's roost, I was shocked to find it gone. The snag broke at the precise location of Storm's roost. Apparently, her enlargement of the flicker's nest significantly weakened the snag. The top half fell into the channel south of Foster Island. The cup-shaped outline, which you can see in the photo above, is the bottom half of Storm's access hole to her roost. 

It turns out that Storm was a very appropriate name for this unlucky bird, who is apparently homeless once again. The good news is I saw no sign that Storm was hurt. The bad news is I have not seen any sign of either bird since. I have searched far and wide but I have not seen any pileated woodpeckers in the month of March. 

It is possible that Storm has excavated a new roosting spot or possibly the two birds have moved on to another location together or maybe Chip has built a nest locally and Storm is already on eggs. In any case, if you happen across a pileated woodpecker in the Arboretum, especially in the area of Foster island, I would love to hear from you. (ldhubbell@comcast.net). 

Update: 3-25-16

Friday morning as I walked towards the Arboretum Creek, with my camera in hand, an unknown  gentleman turned to me while holding his hands about a foot and half apart. He said, "What do you call the black and white woodpeckers with the red heads?" "Pileated Woodpeckers" I immediately replied. I asked if he had seen any. He pointed in the direction I was headed and said he saw two of them in the trees. I handed him my card and ran.

I found Chip feeding near the top of a decomposing alder. I watched him work for quite awhile. I felt fairly secure this was Chip because I watched him and Storm work this location many times during the winter. I saw no sign of Storm, but finally I heard her call once.

Chip responded by flying in her direction and landing on a different alder snag, before returning to his feeding. Unable to spot her, I was beginning to think I would have to be satisfied with just hearing her voice.

Then a few moments later the red-eyed Storm flew in and landed nearby with her crest erect. It would be interesting to know the source of her excitement.

She flew from tree to tree and...

...even searched a log for a bit before heading west towards Montlake.

I tried to follow Storm, but she was too quick for me. Instead it was Chip who once again attracted my attention. He stationed himself high above a Montlake street and he was no longer feeding. 

Every few minutes he would rapidly rattle the top of the telephone pole. The pole vibrated like a 40 foot tall sounding board. After each rhythmic rattle, Chip would stop and listen. I had the clear impression he was declaring his territory and listening for any potential competitors. I never heard a response - however the appearance of Chip and Storm (the day after writing the initial part of this post) almost felt like a response.

Storm may have lost her second winter roost and I may not know where her new roost is, however it is obvious to me that she has found a mate in Chip. If "Home is where the heart is" then Storm is no longer...Homeless in Seattle.


Here are comments that folks sent in related to last week's red-winged blackbird post:

  • Jeff Parke who grew up in Iowa, along the Mississippi, said if there was a regional mnemonic in that area it would have been "Muscatine".
  • Helen Spiro said the mnemonic she learned in Princeton, New Jersey was "Konkeree."
  • Deena Heg relayed an exciting story of 4 red-winged blackbirds chasing a great blue heron along the Sammamish River Trail.
  • Kit Dieffenbach wrote in to say he watched two males, backlit by the sun, display impressive epaulets in Melaque, Jalisco, last week.

If I left out anyone's comments please forgive me, it has been a busy week. 

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


Sunday, March 20, 2016

The Heart of a Warrior

Around Union Bay, crows can often be heard harassing larger predatory birds like eagles, hawks, osprey and owls. As a matter of fact, following the sound of the crows is a big help to my photographic endeavors. It is kind of like having a flock of black-feathered assistants.

This photo shows a refreshing turn of events. During April a few years back, this crow appeared to be searching the cattails for defenseless little hatchlings. The faster, smaller and surprisingly more aggressive red-winged blackbird decided to put a stop to the black-feathered assassin. 

Male red-winged blackbirds can be fiercely territorial. During the confrontation you can see that both birds puffed up their feathers and spread their tails to appear as large and as intimidating as possible. It must have felt a bit odd to the crow to be on the receiving end of this treatment. I wonder if crows are smart enough too appreciate irony. Ultimately, the crow decided the potential reward was not worth the noise and harassment.

Speaking of harassment, I have noticed that crows seldom harass pileated woodpeckers. More than once I have watched a crow flying in a straight line just above the trees, when suddenly the it spots a pileated dead ahead, perched on a treetop. Pileated woodpeckers often work their way up dead trees while searching for carpenter ants. When they reach the top, a pileated will usually pause and check out their surroundings before selecting their next feeding site. Each time I have seen a crow notice a pileated in its path, the crow has performed the following evasive maneuver - the crow immediately changes course, cutting a semi-circular path around the woodpecker. The crow keeps a constant and consistent distance between itself and the smaller bird. The pileated may not be as large, but it is quite possibly more agile and certainly equipped with a more threatening and potentially penetrating proboscis.

So far, I have never seen a red-winged blackbird back down from any confrontation. If I could read the thoughts of a red-winged blackbird I would expect to hear, "Size matters, Not!" I have seen the blackbirds escorting osprey and even great blue herons out of the cattails and way from their potential progeny.

Last week, I noticed a solitary red-winged blackbird on the south side of Portage Bay. Perched above the surrounding vegetation, the blackbird was momentarily calm and observant. By the way, did you notice the perfectly, conical symmetry of the blackbird's beak? Off the top of my head, I cannot think of another local bird that is endowed with a similar beak.

The female's beak can be very helpful to a new birder. Particularly, when the female blackbird is away from the cattails - for instance visiting your bird feeder. She has none of the distinctive, namesake coloring of the male, so that sharp little beak can be a very useful aid when attempting to identify the basically brown female blackbird. 

Back on Portage Bay, without any noticeable provocation the male blackbird would raise its voice to lay claim to the surrounding segment of shoreline. Along with the vocalization it would also lift its shoulders, spread its tail-feathers and inflate its colorful coverts. The posture and the attitude seem similar to a body-builder or prize-fighter.

While listening to the bird and viewing its colorful epaulets, another impression crossed my mind. The strident little bird looked a bit like a small black-coated military leader exhorting imaginary troops. 

There was certainly no doubt about the meaning of the bird's territorial proclamation or its warrior's heart.

Many years ago while living in Kent, I learned to associate the red-winged blackbird's song with the mnemonic, "Ko-kang-ga-Ree." On All About Birds they suggest the mnemonic, "conk-la-ree." If you search the internet I am sure you will find any number of different mnemonics that must have sounded to someone, somewhere, somewhat similar to the song of a red-winged blackbird.

Last spring while sitting among the cattails on Union Bay, a new mnemonic popped into my head. Suddenly I was hearing, "Muh-kill-TEE-oh" each time the blackbird sang.

From research on the Birds of North America site (please see the citation below) I learned that red-winged blackbirds can be found:
  • Throughout the continental United States,
  • South into Mexico,
  • North into Canada and Southeast Alaska - depending on the season. 
I also learned that there are dozens of different red-winged blackbird subspecies. Plus, it turns out that when eggs are transplanted to a distant nest, belonging to a different subspecies, the resulting young birds take on some of the attributes of the local subspecies. In other words, it may be that the variance in subspecies may have more to do with their environment than with their genetics.

I suspect that the red-winged blackbird's territorial songs may vary a bit depending on their local dialect. If so, then possibly the variety of mnemonics associated with the birds may be inspired by real differences in their songs - not just creative listening. Could it be that our local birds really are saying, "Mukilteo!"

I understand that my hypothesis is unproven and may be unprovable. None-the-less, it does make me wonder what mnemonic runs through your head when you hear the song of a red-winged blackbird. I also wonder where in North America you were when you learned to associate your mnemonic with the red-winged blackbird. If you are interested in comparing regional differences, please send in your personal mnemonic and its originating location, and I will attempt to compile and present the results.

My email address is: ldhubbell@comcast.net

In any case, leaves are budding, Eva our 520 eagle is sitting on eggs and the red-winged blackbirds are laying claim to as much territory as they can control. Spring is upon us at last.

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


Birds of North America Citation:

Yasukawa, Ken and William A. Searcy. 1995. Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus), 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/184

Saturday, March 12, 2016

A Hawk In The City

On Saturday this fierce little Cooper's Hawk was sitting on a wire just above a residential street in Madison Park. The males of the species are smaller than the females and yet they are the primary nest builders and provide most of the food for the young during the first few months. They are active, curious and aggressive hunters and yet a male may weigh as little as 9 ounces.

When you look closely at this bird what do you notice? The rusty-orange bars on the chest indicate it is a mature bird as do the fiery-red-orange eyes. Did you notice the long tail or the purple band on its leg. 

Martin Muller placed the purple band on the bird's left leg in July of 2015 in the Arboretum. Martin and his associate Ed Deal are doing a study of Cooper's Hawks in Seattle. A purple band on the left leg indicates the bird is a male. When they encounter a female Cooper's Hawk they attach an orange band on the bird's right leg. As Ed says, "Females are always right!" 

The purpose of the study is to learn more about the behavior of Cooper's Hawks in the city. In the past, the birds have generally avoided human contact. It appears their fear of humans and cities may be receding some. Only through carefully observation and scientific studies like this can we learn whether the hawks are having success in the city. These types of studies can also help us to understand whether we are building cities that are in harmony with nature. 

Thank You! - to Martin and Ed for kindly sharing their knowledge and also to Martin for sharing the previous two photos. 

On Saturday, the hawk did an easy glide down from the wire and landed at the end of this hedge between two homes. No doubt the little hawk noticed potential prey slip in between the pruned branches. Cooper's Hawks are very agile birds with long tails that help them fly with precision between branches, bushes and thickets. However these limbs are so thick there was no way for the hawk to spread its wings - which could be 24 inches or more in width. 

Without hesitation the small hawk disappeared into the hedge, fearlessly climbing from limb to limb. Inside this tight, constricted environment the little hawk is on the apex of the food chain or maybe we should say pryamid.

Two crows came and sat on the overlooking peaks of each of the neighboring houses. In their usual raucous manner the crows alerted the world to the hidden danger in the hedge. Crows do not care for Cooper's Hawks. The little hawks are fast enough to catch a crow and fierce enough to dispatch them. 

Crows have adapted well to human cities. City crows have reproduced and multiplied far beyond their normal density. In areas outside the city, crows must work much harder to find food. Much of the crow's success in the city is due their intelligence and the food we leave for them, however the lack of capable predators may also be a factor. While I respect the intelligence of the crows, it seems appropriate to me that able-bodied predators, like Cooper's Hawks, may be making a come back in the our cities. We may be watching evolution in action.

After a few moments, the hawk came flying out of the hedge and headed east with the crows trailing behind and warning the world. Crows, robins, flickers, rats, squirrels, wigeons and other ducks, all have good reason to fear the hungry little hawk.

Due to Martin, Ed and others' observations, we believe our little male bird fathered and fed these three young hawks in the Arboretum last summer. The small male would make regular food deliveries at what seemed like light speed. The young birds were already becoming fierce and dangerous and the little adult evidently found it safer to just drop and go.

This close up shows the juvenile bird which was on the right in the previous photo. The young bird is trying to eat its lunch and also hide the food from its siblings. This spreading of the wings and tail is called mantling.

On the day before - in July of 2015 - I watched one of the juveniles crawl out of the bushes with what looked like a dark-eyed junco. The young bird certainly appeared to have been hunting "by foot", similar to its father in the hedge on Saturday.

How do these two birds differ? The most obvious difference is the vertical stripes on the breast of the juvenile. You may also notice that its irises are very light and not the least bit red. Finally, if you compare the back of the young bird on the ground with the back of the mature bird as it entered the hedge, you will see definite differences in color.

Martin mentioned the color of the father's upper wing coverts in 2015, which told him that the bird was beyond the age of two years. If Martin had found any reddish-brown colored covert feathers, along with the barring on the chest, he would have concluded the bird was then in its second year. At this point, we can deduce that the father would currently be at least three years or older.

Because of Martin and Ed's study, and the help of their associates - who report sightings all over the city - we know that before they settle down to building nests, male Cooper's Hawks may travel a bit. This Spring the father (1/W) was spotted in Madison Park and was also seen in a yard approximately 2 miles away. Two weeks ago, a different male (0/Z) was spotted fairly close to our hero's 2015 territory in the Arboretum. So there is apparently a lot of traveling going on. (You may read more about 0/Z and another crow encounter by Clicking Here.)

Sadly, our story does not end with a focus on the the beauty or mobility of these creatures. On Sunday, two faithful readers spotted our little male bird in an alley in Montlake. He was laying below a holly hedge. My best guess is he was chasing a small bird, into or out of the hedge, when a car took him by surprise. In the last few years I am aware of a young barred owl, a young pileated woodpecker and now a mature Cooper's Hawk all apparently hit by cars in just the Montlake area.

I realize that automobiles are critical to our lifestyle and they are not going away, but it seems like we should begin to consider how we might live and move in greater harmony with nature. 

In my dream of the future, I imagine cities where people are active enough and healthy enough to travel primarily on foot or by bicycle. When faster transportation is needed inside a city, the first choice would be automated, underground systems. Our new light rail station which is soon to open near Husky Stadium is an excellent example. If you have other thoughts regarding transportation and living in harmony with nature, I would love to hear them. If we work together, the possibilities are endless.

To honor the memory of our fallen bird I thought it appropriate to include this photo of one of his offspring. Martin's earlier photo showed the father with the same attitude. It was especially evident due to the burning-red fire in his eyes. While the father's fire has gone out, it is reassuring to know his intensity lives on in his offspring - who by now should have the same fiery-red eyes.

Have a great day on Union Bay...where hawks live in the city!


Note: The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration website shows that during the 20 years ending in 2013 more than thirty thousand people died - each year - in vehicle accidents in the United States. While the numbers are declining, in total that is more 750,000 deaths. Even if we ignore the deaths of wild creatures hit by automobiles, and theimpact of global warming, it is still in our best interest to find safer ways to travel.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

A Lucky Duck

Last week I visited the Nisqually Wildlife Refuge. Seeing this male hooded merganser - floating in the sky - was like a lucky, consolation prize. It is odd, but experiencing nature can be disappointing, surprising and encouraging, all at the same time.

I was hoping to see great-horned owlets in the nest. No such luck. However, it appears that my luck was better than that of the female great horned owl. She has been sitting since the first of the year, and at this point it seems unlikely that her eggs will hatch. 

It is possible that these great horned owlets from three years ago were hatched by the same female. There are even better photos of them in the 2013 post, The First Signs of Spring

Note: Great horned owls have yellow irises unlike barred owls. Barred owls are the most commonly seen owls around Union Bay. To see some of our local barred-owl owlets, Click Here.

Luck is a funny concept. We have some oddly different types of luck. Some examples include having no luck, good luck, bad luck, sheer luck, dumb luck, tough luck and pure luck. It makes me wonder things like: Are pure luck and dumb luck different? Is bad luck the same as no luck or tough luck? Why does pure luck seem slightly superior to sheer luck?

From almost everyone's point of view having a mate is good luck.

The differences between the male and female hoodies are amazing. Functionally, they seemed to be shaped almost exactly the same and yet their coloring is so different it is hard to see how similar they are. The female's lack of bold coloring most likely increases the odds of survival for her and her progeny. On the other hand, the male's brilliant coloring must help him to attract a mate. 

Having attracted a mate, the hooded merganser seems justifiably happy and proud of his good luck.

Weather changes are often correlated with how lucky we feel. It all seems to depend on our expectations. If the forecast is for rain and we get an hour of sunshine - we feel lucky. However if we schedule an outdoor wedding in August and we get a downpour during the ceremony - we feel unlucky. It seems that luck, both good and bad, is based at least in part on unexpected events e.g. surprises. 

Hooded mergansers are full of surprises. For example, I have no idea why this male bird is holding his tail up in the air. He makes me think of a police officer directing traffic.

A few days later, on Union Bay, I was lucky to find a hood merganser bathing in the golden reflection from last year's cattails.

I am always surprised by how easily hooded mergansers can change the shape of their crest. Whenever a male is preparing to dive the feathers always lay down and the white shape on the back of the head becomes narrow and curved.

After a quick dip he shook off some of the water which caused his crest to swing more freely than I would have expected.

When he began preening, it allowed me to glimpse additional white feathers, which are usually hidden under his wings.

When he held his head up to swallow a drink of water, I was surprised to see how similar his behavior looked to that of a thirsty trumpeter swan.

Moments later the merganser dived and resurfaced with a fish. I must admit that for years I have wondered what type of fish is virtually the same size from head to tail.

This week I had the opportunity to ask Dennis Paulson, PNW naturalist, about this fish which is common in Union Bay. Dennis explained that this odd little fish is an invasive oriental weatherfish. Apparently the weatherfish out competes local native fish, muddies up the water and can even survive out of the water. Worst of all, the fish can crawl across dry land from one body of water to next.

This weatherfish put up quite a battle. The hoodie struggled and juggled to clasp and control the wriggling fish, while the weatherfish did everything possible to avoid its impending demise.

 Needless to say, I was pleased with the merganser's good luck...

...and, given my preference for native life, I was not unhappy to see one less weatherfish in Union Bay.

From my perspective observing each of these small moments in the life of a hooded merganser is a small unexpected surprise. A surprise that brings a smile to my face and makes me realize how lucky I am to live in a city with wild creatures. Living in a city devoid of native wildlife would be worse than bad luck. I would find it hopeless. The greater the diversity of native life that surrounds us, the more surprises we will encounter and the luckier we will be. I might have second thoughts about allowing bears and cougars into our city, but on the whole I feel that:

- more soil and less pavement, 
- more living creatures and less combustion engines, 
- more native fish and less pollution,

are all positive steps which will lead to a future filled with lucky encounters and hope. 

I think the new light rail station at Husky Stadium is a prime example of a step in the right direction.

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


By the way, if you have not yet read the surprising story of a cougar living in Los Angeles. Click Here