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

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Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Union Bay Buffet

It took a couple of hours for the fog to burn off on Monday morning. I was getting hungry by mid-dayA cool little breeze was blowing across the bay as I lowered my camera to my lap and began paddling for home. As I glanced at the eastern shore of the Union Bay Natural Area, I spotted the dark shape of a mammal. All thoughts of food evaporated. 

I know it looks like the river otter was sleeping. Actually, I think it was scratching its head. It got up quickly, defecated and disappeared into the foliage. Hoping to at least track its progress, I watched for wiggling cattails. Unlike with the raccoons last week, there was no telltale movement from the foliage. 

However, almost immediately this green heron burst out of the cattails. The heron must have been directly in the otter's path. The little bird looked so shocked and disturbed that I suspect it must have been sleeping. Green herons almost always look oddly unbalanced, especially with their necks extended in flight. This one reminded me of the supersonic Concorde

Their unique shape does make them easy to identify, even from a distance. In the last few weeks I have seen one in Yesler Cove, flying near the osprey nest, in front of the Water Front Activities Center and even sitting on the south side of Montlake Cut - watching the early morning rowers.

 This heron did not go far. It began pacing and turning on logs along the shoreline.

Usually I see them calmly waiting for small fish while peering down into the water. They are known to use twigs to attract the fish. Someday I hope to document their baiting behavior. By the way, the website Birds of North America (BNA) mentions that the little white triangles near the leading edge of this heron's wing indicate it is juvenile.

The speed and abrupt turning of the heron made me suspect she was hunting dragonflies. They were much too fast for me to track through my view finder, but they were certainly all around. The ones closest to me seemed to be mostly eight-spotted skimmers.

Green herons have a thousand different looks. You can see many of them in my previous posts. My favorite is Green Heron Yoga, but Shape Shifters also presents some surprising views. Note: The birds in both of those posts are adults with no little white triangles.

If you would like to see a little shape shifting in action, click on this photo which will enlarge it, then use the forward button to see the next photo. Toggling back and forth will show that the bird's head and legs remain stationary while the body and neck shift around and prepare for a change of direction. (You will need to hit escape to return here.)

Clearly, the little heron is focused on something, and it is not a fish in the water. 

By the way, BNA also mentions an unresolved debate between various researchers. Some think that reddish stripes through the dark green "cap" on juvenile green herons indicate the bird is female. The agreement is not universal. I am always surprised by how much we still have to learn about the creatures around us.

Faster than the eye can follow, the heron snags a dragonfly. Given such a distant view of the dragonfly, my best guess is that it is a male, Tule Bluet. I used Dennis Paulson's pamphlet, "Dragonflies of Washington" to try to eliminate the other options, but do not blame Dennis if my identification missed the mark.

It was also interesting to see the heron wiggle its hips just before striking. The behavior made me think of a young house cat pouncing on a string or of a baseball player looking for a good pitch to hit. It makes me wonder how much of what we do is based on instincts shared with other lifeforms on earth.

After eating its appetizer, the green heron follows the Union Bay buffet line to the southwest.

The little bird moved a couple of more times before settling on a perfectly elevated perch just above the water.

The oddly long neck allowed the bird's body and feet to never leave home, while its head swooped down and snapped up a little fish. My new fish identification chart does not help much with minnows, but this sure looks a lot like the native trout minnows, which I remember from boyhood. The heron was still hungry.

 For her main course, she move a few feet south to pick up a frog from the Union Bay buffet.

I checked a couple of natural history books without finding a conclusive match for this frog. I found eNature.com when I googled frog identification. The very cool function of this online field guide was the ability to use my zip code to filter the probable list of frogs. The site returned five options; a tailed frog, a western toad, a pacific tree-frog, a red-legged frog, and a bull frog (non-native). The only one that looked like our little frog was the tailed-frog. Their description says males have pear-shaped tails. I did not see a tail on this frog, so I am assuming that females do not have tails. If anyone has more knowledge and would like to validate or correct my guess, I am always open to learning.

After finishing her meal, the heron wiped her beak on her perch. Feaking is apparently an instinct shared by a wide variety of birds, from hummingbirds to bald eagles. Finally, she licked her lips to to put the finishing touch on the cleaning process..

Photographing this little heron was a real delight, but hunger finally won. I left the little heron sitting happily in the sun and headed home to find my own buffet.

Have a great day on Union Bay...where green herons feed in the city!


Recommended Citation
Davis, Jr., W. E. and J. A. Kushlan. 1994. Green Heron (Butorides virescens), 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/129

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Bandits and Birding

Thursday morning, I kayaked over to the Union Bay Natural Area to check on the osprey. Photos from the water are a bit more distant than land-based photos, but with the construction in-progress my options are limited. It turned out there were some unique benefits to being on the water.

For one thing it changes my perspective: the week before last, when I kayaked over, I caught this photo of a fish attempting to nose its way through the surface tension.

This week, I caught the nose and eye, of what I suspect is a turtle, just before it dived.

During both trips I found young great blue herons searching for food below the surface. Each time I also watched an osprey dive at the herons. The herons squawked loudly, obviously irritated, and moved a few feet away. 

On my first outing, I was able to identify the osprey as Lacey, the mother of our three young osprey. One dive was always enough to make her point. Something like, 'Keep your head down and do not even try flying near my nest!'

Lacey's efforts seem less necessary this week, since it appears all of her young have learned to fly.

Apparently, they still need to learn how to fish. On Thursday morning, their food focus was all about theft. When the sibling on the left landed, the bird on the right attempted to hide his fish, while also calling out defensively. Neither approach was effective.

The hungry bird sidled closer.

The sibling on the right gets 'up in arms', so to speak.

When the aggressor goes for the food, he gets a peck on the neck...

...but ultimately he secures his prize. I think once they've eaten they become less motivated to really fight for their food.

When a duck flushed nearby, the splashing and thrashing of wings distracted me from the osprey. I looked around trying to figure out what disturbed the ducks.

It turns out that during both visits a set of three masked bandits came creeping through the cattails, searching for food. You can't blame the ducks for deciding they had somewhere else to be. 

This week, I finally realized that the raccoons were offering me a birding opportunity. As long as I stayed a few yards a head of them, and remained very quiet, I should be able to photograph the birds they flushed out of the cattails.

My first success with this new strategy, was this scraggly marsh wren. It looks to me like it might be growing new feathers. I normally notice marsh wrens when they are declaring their territories in the Spring, so it seemed odd to watch this little bird silently circle out of the path of the bandits.

I was not the only one watching the raccoons. This little green-winged teal was watching carefully, from a respectful distance.

One of the raccoons, possibly the mother, notes my presence. She went back to searching for food, after determining I was not a threat.

At about the same time, the young female osprey began circling the nest, her siblings, and the prized fish.

One of the young of the raccoons lagged behind the others to eat some of the invasive, but tasty, Himalayan Blackberries.

  The young raccoon became a bit more exposed while attempting to catch up.

Just like human children, raccoons get easily distracted; as you can tell from my wandering discourse, so do I.

 When the young female lands, the male with the fish spreads his wings...

...and attempts to move his food to safety. Also, notice the male up above - who appears to be drying his wings. Maybe he was actually the one who caught the fish and I just missed his heroic effort. In any case he was the one who started out with the fish when I arrived.

Females are generally larger and this young bird is not at all nervous about taking what she wants. 

A tug-of-war ensues. The male tries to pull using one leg and flapping his wings. His sister plants both feet and pulls with her full body weight.

She wins. When his foot pulls free, the smaller male does a little 'Fred Astaire' dance to the right, and gives up the food without a fight.

I should have mentioned earlier that it looks like Chester and Lacey have two young males and a female. The males appear to have nearly pure white chests, like their father, and the young female has a more obvious necklace on her chest, like her mother. The female sibling is sitting down-below, with the fish.

The raccoons were not done with their breakfast stroll and twice more I noticed small birds which the masked bandits flushed from the cattails.

The small, brown, birds moved exceedingly quick and I never captured the desired photo. This is not surprising because Virginia Rails are very shy and retiring little birds. They circled away from the bandits only to immediately disappear behind them. 

Luckily, Peter Korch shared some excellent Virginia Rail photos he took last month, so you can see exactly what they look like. Thank you, Peter! 

Here are Peter's photos and comments:

This adult had a chick with it but left it in the cover of the reeds

My typical Virginia Rail sightings last about one second

 Nothing like posing for the camera

unique looking bird and a real treat to see


I agree completely. Thanks again! 


To My Readers,

Sorry, for the unusually long, circuitous post with food fights, fish eyes, scared herons, masked bandits and the wonderful Virginia Rails, but I could not find anything which I wanted to leave out.

Have a great day on Union Bay...where bandits and birding steal the show!



On Thursday, I also noticed this female mallard with an 'orange collar', just east of Husky Stadium.

Previously, I only remember seeing official bands on bird's legs or wings. I am afraid this may be another case of human refuse putting a wild creature in danger. I am pointing this out to encourage all of us to safely pick up and dispose of litter. We are likely to have plenty of opportunities around Husky Stadium and Union Bay - especially since football season is about to commence.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Over The Edge

On Sunday evening, Aug. 14th 2016, I caught one of our young Union Bay osprey flexing its wings at the edge of the nest. In the past I have found the orange eyes of the young osprey to be their most impressive feature. The orange certainly is startling - however this week I have been more infatuated by the unstained, off-white scallops tracing delicate patterns along the trailing edges of their darker feathers. The patterns make me think of icing on a cake.

Chester, having just returned with a fish. In the center of this photo, Lacey has her head down as she begins to parse out food to the young. 

It is possible to make out a similar edging on the upper portion of her wing, which is visible between Chester and the young osprey - the one with its head up. Time, exposure and wear have dramatically reduced the color contrast. At this time of year, this distinctive difference between the young and old osprey is apparent from quite a distance.

Chester avoids getting too close to the young talons and beaks.

With a little luck, one day the young birds will be as wise and productive as their parents, however I suspect their colors may never again look so vibrant and full of life. 

Earlier in the day, Peter Korch caught sight of one of the young birds up in the air. Clearly, the osprey was practicing for its first flight by rising up a foot or two above the nest and then quickly descending.

ready for takeoff


coming in for the touchdown

Thank you! Peter for catching and sharing this special moment!

 On Tuesday morning, offshore in my kayak, I found the practicing continued.

While looking through the photos I have noticed that the young bird in the air seems to have a little less discoloration on its chest when compared to its seated siblings. I am wondering if it is a male and its chest will ultimately turn pure white, like Chester's.

I would love to see them well enough and watch them long enough to be sure of their genders. It would really be wonderful to be able to identify each of the young birds as individuals. 

On Sunday morning, Aug. 21st, 2016, the sky was surprisingly gray and the wind was blowing briskly.

The wind was strong enough that some of us wondered if the young would be afraid to even lift off above the nest. It seemed possible that once in the air they might get blown away, and without much flight experience, I wondered if they would be able to fight their way back to the nest.

One of the young birds proved our fears were misplaced. It lifted off a number of times - once riding up as much as six feet above the nest. The wind actually seemed to provide extra lift, making flight easier.

Suddenly, without fanfare, it left the nest

Sometimes flapping and sometimes gliding, it traveled west towards the baseball field.

Lucky for us, it turned and headed back.

I believe it flew in a gentle figure eight. 

Coming back and turning directly over our heads before... 

...circling back to the nest.

The landing was surprisingly well controlled. As far as I know, this was its first flight.

An hour later a second flight took place.

While the young bird's control amazed me, it was obvious that its flight skills are not yet refined and well-tuned, like its parents. The cool weather reminds us that fall is on its way and soon the osprey will be migrating south.

In an earlier email, Ray Holden mentioned that after the young go south, it will be a over a year before they make their first migration north. Previously, I was confused and thought I had heard that they might stay here for a year before migrating south. Sadly for us, its the other way around.

In any case, it sounds like the young have around a month before they are on their own. Their days of sitting fat and happy in the nest are coming quickly to an end. They need to rapidly develop their flight skills and their ability to fish for themselves. I expect we may see quite a bit of splashing and thrashing in the shallow parts of Union Bay. If you are out in a canoe, kayak or waterboard, watch for hovering white birds diving headfirst into the water. (The osprey are mostly white when viewed from below and mostly dark when viewed from above.) For now at least, we can also watch for the off-white scallops among their dark feathers which will tell us whether we are seeing one of this year's young.

Have a great day on Union Bay...where young osprey fly in the city!


PS: By the way, Doug Parrot and Peter Korch both mentioned that on Saturday there were as many as eight adult osprey flying around the Union Bay nest, without any apparent conflict. It would be wonderful to get photos of this behavior and try to understand what is happening. Maybe they were osprey from farther north passing through during their winter migration. Union Bay would be a logical place to stock up before the next leg of their journey.

Lefty Updates:

On Wednesday, Steve Hauschka spotted Lefty trying to cross Montlake Blvd just north of the Montlake Bridge. You can read his comments at the end of the Union Bay Surprise post.

On Saturday, Peter Korch once again spotted Lefty back in the Union Bay Natural Area.

Peter mentioned that this was the best photo he could get because someone else was frantically waving his arms - apparently trying to scare Lefty away. 

In my experience, I have never encountered a deer that appeared in any way dangerous. If left alone, they always seem to keep their distance from humans. I would love to see Lefty continue to co-exist with us around Union Bay. I think we can help him succeed by keeping our distance and not interacting with him. Please do not feed him or approach him. The more "wild" he remains, the better for him and for us. We do not want him to be perceived as a threat. I would also suggest we drive defensively in the area. Clearly, Lefty does not fully comprehend the dangers of traffic and motor vehicles. 

Wouldn't it be wonderful if we needed "Deer Crossing" signs around Union Bay.

Latest Update:

On Sunday, 8/21/16, Bob and Debbie Duffy saw a deer crossing the Burke-Gilman Trail (west of Montlake Blvd) and heading up hill into the UW Campus. It seems likely the Lefty has left us. I am sure we all wish him well.

It really is too bad we do not have a green connection between Ravenna Creek and the Union Bay Natural Area then he would have had a natural connection all of the way to Woodland Park.