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

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Saturday, April 2, 2016

Nature's Nursery

The facial expressions of ducks and geese do not easily communicate emotions - at least not to me. However, their body language can speak volumes. Last Monday, the waterfowl around Duck Bay were in effect, silently shouting. The mallards and geese, gadwalls and coots were out of the water and oddly still. Uncharacteristically, they sat on the shore with their backs to both humans and dogs - hypnotically staring. 

For new or non-resident readers, Duck Bay sits in the southern part of Union Bay. Union Bay is the western-most portion of Lake Washington. Union Bay is commonly know as the body of water next to Husky Stadium in Seattle.

In the Spring, Duck Bay is usually filled with water. In the Fall, the water recedes exposing a secondary shoreline of mud. In the Winter, the bay is occasionally covered in ice and in the Summer, it is mostly covered by lily pads.

In Spring a pair of osprey often settle on Union Bay for the summer. Occasionally, one of them will spend a few hours looking for food on Duck Bay. Their focus is fish. They seem completely indifferent to the ducks.

It is not uncommon to see a bald eagle or two, a red-tailed hawk or a Cooper's hawk sitting in the cottonwood trees above Duck Bay. Peregrine falcons have occasionally been seen in the area as well. The eagles usually eat fish but they are not indifferent to ducks. Cooper's hawks have been seen eating ducks as well. However, regardless of the raptor or the time of year, there are almost always waterfowl calling, feeding, splashing and preening on Duck Bay.

Canada geese are the watchdogs of the waterfowl world. Usually, they see you long before you see them. If you head in their direction the closest bird will stop feeding and let loose with a warning, "Honk!" If this does not slow your progress, then their friends and relatives will join in an incessant chorus which warns every creature within earshot of your position and progress. If you are deaf or indifferent to their alarming assault then at the last possible moment the geese will awkwardly run. (I would not be surprised if someday a photographer catches the geese rolling their eyes and sighing - just prior to running.) 

The awkwardness stops when they spread their wings and take to the air. Usually, they simply settle on the water a short distance away. They will continue to watch you just to make sure you are unwilling to swim. If you stop at the shoreline then their honking will slowly decline.

It is not uncommon for the mallards on Duck Bay to also begin calling, when they see you approach the water. However, unlike the geese the mallards will often fly towards you, in ever-increasing numbers. The mallards have learned that humans often provide free meals - particular small, giggling humans. However, on Monday they were all silent and still.

When I passed behind them, the gadwall gave me an indifferent glance and the mallard ignored me completely. Their body language was saying something, like "Hey, human! Are you blind? Don't you see the danger?"

Even the cormorants, who normally dive at my first inadvertent glance, simply sat and ignored me. Of the three types of cormorants in the Pacific Northwest, only the double-crested cormorants are regular morning visitors on Duck Bay.

Only in Spring have I seen their double-crests. So far, this is my best photo of a pair of the oddly, ear-like appendages of feathers.

The most surprising and least seen part of a double-crested cormorant is actually the electric-blue interior of the mouth. I have been told that when birds open their mouths, for no apparent reason, it can be a sign of distress, called gaping.

A few days earlier, I spotted the remains of a couple of eggs less than one hundreds yards from the waterfowl. At the time Ginger, my daughter's dog, began shivering and shaking, uncontrollably. I tried to console her, but nothing seemed to help. Ultimately, I had to take her home, just to help her calm down. I concluded the consumer of the eggs was not a raccoon or a dog. My logic had two parts, 1. Ginger, surprisingly, is not scared of raccoons 2. I have never seen her react to a dog like she behaved around the broken eggs. At the time the only culprit who came to mind was a coyote.

A few minutes earlier on Monday, while chatting with a friend, I noticed an unusually large shell. I wondered how it ended up near the shore. To have grown so large, I suspected it must have originated from one of the deeper parts of Duck Bay. I have never seen raccoons dive or beavers consume meat. My friend astutely suggested, another creature who could have brought the shell to the surface.

A few moments later I spotted a solitary head in the water. It looked a bit like a beaver...

...however when the creature dived a foot and then a tapering tail flashed above the surface.

A moment later it resurfaced - headed in the other direction.

When it turned to look at me its predatory stare seemed heavier than its estimated body weight. Online sources suggest a river otter can average over thirty pounds. Their long powerful tails along with four sets of claws and a sharp set of teeth make them very efficient. As demonstrated by the behavior of the waterfowl an otter can make short work of fish, waterfowl and most anything close to their size in the water.

Finally, I put it all together and realized, Barb was right, it was quite likely the otter who brought the shell to the surface and consumed it. Most likely, it also ate the eggs, shook-up Ginger and scared the ducks, cormorants and geese out of the water and into a reverent silence.

It should be easy to remember that from the first day of Spring through the Fourth of July the whole out-of-doors becomes nature's nursery. Most creatures are either laying eggs or having young in one way or another. Many birds nest on the ground or near the shore where their eggs can be easily consumed. If the eggs are lucky enough to hatch the situation becomes even more challenging. The inept little creatures can now move around, make noise and attract attention, however they cannot fly, have no fear and are in more danger than a sitting duck.

There is little we can do to protect the the young creatures from otters, eagles and hawks - who must also feed their own young. However, those of us who own dogs can keep our pets out of the water and away from the shoreline, during this special time. In addition to protecting the young creatures, it could also be in Fido's best interest to stay close to you. An otter is essentially a professional, underwater killing machine who views a well-fed, innocent pet...as just another source of food.

Have a great day on Duck Bay...where otters hunt in the city!



  1. Thank you! I am glad you enjoyed it!

  2. Once again you've done a beautiful job of observing closely and piecing together the clues. I loved reading this and learned a lot from it. Thank you for being such a caring advocate for the birds and wildlife.

    1. Dan, Thank you for following along. I was kind of surprised how the pieces seemed to come together. Thanks again!

  3. Wow. That was quite an intimidating stare from the river otter! Great work as always Larry.

    1. Thank you, Robert. Sometimes I can only truly appreciate what I have seen when I review the photos. I sure wouldn't what to see Ginger tangle with the otter.

  4. Wonderful post!

  5. I think this guy has been sleeping on our dock and in our garden on Portage Bay. About 4 feet long and about 32-35lbs. Does not seem too concerned if we are in the rather small yard. Lumbers off and smoothly dives into the bay.

    1. Interesting! Are you closer to 520 or the University Bridge?