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

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Saturday, October 29, 2016

A New Fall Fashion

Northern Flickers are beautiful, industrious birds with many interesting and curious behaviors. In their everyday clothing flickers blend in with their habitat. The spots and dull colors help to hide them from predators. Just try looking at the back of the flicker's head. 

Whenever I try, my eyes seem to have a will of their own. They wander away. It is almost as if my subconscious is saying, 'Focus on things you can see - like the eyes or the beak. Don't befuddle your mind with their camouflage.'

Flickers are much easier to observe with a little complimentary green in the photo.

Do you remember how to tell males and the females apart? The first two photos showed females, while this one displays a male. I suspect the mud on the bird's beak indicates that it has been probing the earth for ants - its favorite food. 

Just like humans, flickers are concerned about their cleanliness and appearance. I have never seen flickers use a birdbath, but more than once I have watched them bathing in the dust. This male flicked the pebbles and dust with its beak and even flipped over on its back. It seemed to stop at every awkward position in between to shake its feathers. You can even see the dust rising around it. Maybe this is the true meaning for the term, 'feather dusting.' I suspect the dust helps to suffocate or at least discourage small irritating creatures - like mites. 

This bird's apparel displays its gender and even provides a hint about its genetic background. We know it is a female because it does not have a red stripe on its cheek. It is also curious that the feathers on the back of its head seem longer and less smooth than usual.

When the bird began to search under a rock for ants it provided a slightly better view of the back of its head. The faint red 'chevron' on the nape of its neck is a marker that indicates yellow-shafted genetics. In every other way this bird appears to be one of the local, red-shafted flickers.

In this photo you can see the tongue as it reaches between the rocks to extract its prey. 

If you look closely at the primaries you can see the hint of an orange feather shaft. When sitting the primary wing feathers are folded into the dark horizontal 'V' which is above and in front of the bird's tail. This orange shaft is apparently where the term 'red-shafted' comes from. It would certainly seem more fitting to call them orange or salmon-shafted. 

The bird's tail feathers are also orange-shafted. The brilliant color on these feathers is most often hidden - especially when the wings and tail are folded and not in use.

This view does not show much of the chevron or the shafts, but I do love the way the bird's 'working clothes' blend with the dead wood and the dried leaves.

Occasionally, a flicker inadvertantly reveals a bit of its hidden beauty. As you can see here the underside of the tail feathers are more extensively colored. You can see examples of both the red-shafted and the eastern, yellow-shafted flickers by visiting All About Birds. Just click on the orange link and then scroll down to see the photos.

On my way home, I happened to see another female searching for ants. She only had a few moments to feed before...

...a larger, male flew in and chased her away from the food.

He soon moved out onto the sidewalk and appeared to listen intently at a crack.

Ants in sidewalks are like a fast food restaurant for flickers.

In the fall, when the ash berries are ripe flickers are willing to...

...vary their diet and spice up their life a little.

Also in the fall, the flicker's hormones start up again. Possibly this is related to growing new feathers. In any case these two females appear to be feeling a bit competitive. If you follow This Link and then scroll down you can read the poem, by Susan Stiles, which offers a more poetic explanation.

Whatever the reason these two females seemed intent on showing each other up.

They were so focused on the competition that they almost did not notice this robin when it inadvertantly attempted to land beside to them.

Soon the robin moved away and the flickers got back to displaying the superior fashion sense. While the bird on the left showed the camera her orange-shafted primaries, she had almost certainly been displaying her more brilliant orange undersides to her female competitor.

Immediately, her competition took to the air as if to say, 'Mine are even brighter!'

This of course elicited a corresponding response.

Holding their beaks in the air certainly gave them a conceited look.

Of course the meaning behind their behavior has most likely evolved differently than with humans. Still, the resemblance does make me wonder. Three hundred million years ago might there have been a common impulse that inspires similar looking behaviors in both species. Whether it is an evolutionary legacy, a strikingly parallel evolution or even the work of a common creator any way you look at it, it provides another example of how much life on Earth has in common.

In a similar manner, this strutting behavior reminds me of human models walking confidently up and down a runway. I must admit to being totally smitten by the red-shafted flicker's fall fashion show.

Have a great day on Union Bay...where flickers show off in the city!


Friday, October 21, 2016

A Little Brown Bird

Small birds can often be the most challenging to identify. Particularly, those with indistinct colors like grey or brown. Sometimes all you can see is a flicker before they disappear. In which case I lump their identification into the catch-all category of little brown bird or 'lbb' for short.

Occasionally, they freeze instead of flying and even then they can still be difficult to discern. Often, while photographing a small bird, when I lower my camera I lose them completely, even when they are sitting right in front of me.

Earlier this month, I got my first ever photos of this reclusive little bird while it was sitting in a Japanese Ash tree in the Arboretum.

The larger robin can easily swallow the fruit of an ash tree whole.

Like a robin, our little brown bird is part of the thrush family. Unlike a robin, it is usually silent at least when visiting Seattle in October. Seattle Audubon's online guide, 'Birdweb', says that October and April are the two best months for spotting this bird near Puget Sound. In the Spring they are on their way north, looking for prime breeding locations, while in autumn most are winging their way south searching for warm winter weather. 

Unlike the varied thrush, another larger member of the family, our little bird does not provide us with a unique, identifiable pattern. It is actually very similar in its size and looks to a third relative, the Swaison's Thrush.

One of the few distinguishing features between the two little birds are their tails. As you can see here the tail of our 'lbb' subtly fades into a unique, warm rufous glow, unlike the Swainson's.

Our little bird apparently cannot swallow the pea-sized, fruit of the ash tree in a single gulp.

Instead, it must squeeze...

...nibble and...

...mash the fruit into a manageable size.

One of the traits this bird shares with its larger cousin, the robin, is a habit of flicking its wings and tail. It is about the only thing this bird does which draws attention.

This shy, retiring bird also spends time searching the ground for food. In the distance, it is easy to mistake its subtle shades and behavior for a sparrow or a dark-eye junco. It is never far from a tree or bush. At the slightest disturbance it will flit, flicker and fly - leaving only a memory of brown as it becomes one with the brush. 

Binoculars can be helpful in spotting and viewing this bird. They provide just enough distance to help keep us from scaring them away.

During the last few weeks the leaves on the ash trees in the Arboretum have been turning to gold. Our little brown birds have been stealth-fully searching the trees for fruit.

At the same time, I have been silently striving to catch one of them picking the bright, little berries.

So far, I have been successful only once.

Even when they stay on the far side of the fruit and the photo is less than desired, the experience is still satisfying. Every moment shared with such a shy and subtle creature is a peaceful reward for the effort.

If these photos and my descriptions have failed to convince you of this little brown bird's beauty then there is only one thing left to do. You should take a moment to listen to its song. This is how the males attract mates to their breeding territories high in the Cascades or up north in Canada. In particular I like the sound of the second recording on, 'All About Birds'. Click Here and then scroll down to hear the beautiful haunting melody of the Hermit Thrush.

Have a great day on Union Bay...where the migrating thrush visit our city!


Saturday, October 15, 2016

Looking for Lefty

On Monday I finally found my first deer in the Arboretum. I did a double take and wondered, could this be Lefty? If you missed the original post, Lefty is the young buck photographed by Peter Korch in the Union Bay Natural Area last July.  The Natural Area is about a mile north of the Arboretum. The only direct walkable surface connection is across the busy four-lane Montlake Bridge. On the other hand, deer can swim.

After Peter's initial sighting, Lefty was seen off and on. He was spotted north of the Montlake Bridge, later he was seen going west onto the upper part of the UW Campus and afterwords back in the Natural Area

For comparison purposes here is one of Peter's photos from last July.

If this is Lefty, his antlers have grown. His left antler (on our right) is noticeably taller in both photos. The most obvious difference or change is the absence of velvet. As part of a male deer's preparation for mating season, they rub the velvet away. The velvet helps to promote the growth of a deer's antlers. The new larger version of the antlers helps the male deer to dominate and chase off competitors. If you happen to spot a western red cedar with the bark missing from its lower branches, it was likely caused by Lefty polishing up his new and improved antlers.

Lucky for Lefty, who appears to be experiencing his first fall as an adult, there do not seem to be any other competing males in the area. I did hear that a female had been spotted, but I have not yet seen her. It would certainly be exciting to have little 'Lefties' in the Spring.

After reading the descriptions of Washington deer on the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife website, I am now positive Lefty is a Columbian Black-tailed deer and not a Mule deer. His tail fits the description and the fact that he is still hanging around Union Bay, in a relatively small territory, and his being west of the Cascades are all consistent indicators.

On Monday, Lefty was wandering through the area called the Pacific Connections in the south end of the Arboretum. He seemed to really enjoy the fairly open area which contains a variety of plants, trees and grasses from New Zealand. When the trees reach maturity this area will transform into a forest, but currently it looks more like a meadow. Kathleen DeMaria, along with a group of dedicated volunteers, provides the daily care of this young and healthy three year old forest in the making.

I am pretty sure Lefty has no idea how exotic some of these plants are. They are green and he is hungry.

Lefty is still a bit shy. His distrust of humans is good for him and us. We do not want to feed or tame him in any way. If he starts coming close to people, someone may feel threatened and then he may have to be 'removed'. If we want to live in harmony with Lefty (and nature in general) maintaining a mutual distrust and distance is a healthy approach. 

When Lefty gets nervous he flicks his ears back and forth. I suspect he is listening for sounds that indicate danger. If you click on this photo, and then page back and forth between the prior one, you can see how much control he has of his magnificent listening devices.

When his ears and eyes don't provide sufficient information, Lefty raises his nose and searches for airborne scents. Usually, when he catches the scent, sight or sound of my daughter's dog Ginger, he moves away. On Monday, I was glad that I had Ginger on her leash, as usual. When she thought Lefty was coming too close she started barking defensively and pulled against the leash - attempting to chase him. Clearly, if Lefty is going to hang around and feel comfortable in the Arboretum, we will all want to keep our dogs properly restrained.

The Washington Fish and Wildlife website also mentioned that male Black-tailed deer usually weigh between 140 and 200 pounds. It seems odd that a creature that large can be hard to spot in the Arboretum, especially with all the crisscrossing trails and a steady stream of visitors.

Stephanie, one of the instructors for the Fiddleheads outdoor preschool, mentioned that she and the children went looking for Lefty one morning last week. They spent the morning searching, but never found him. The children returned to their outdoor classroom feeling let down and disappointed. As Stephanie began to document their failure to find Lefty, she and the children looked up just in time to see Lefty passing through the edge of their 'classroom'. I suspect these children will never forget the experience. Hopefully, Lefty will be around in the years to come so future preschool classes can have a similar experience.

On Tuesday morning, I saw Lefty again, eating one of the New Zealand plants. I also noticed Kathleen, the Horticulturalist, walking in his direction. Erroneously, I assumed Kathleen did not realize Lefty was in front of her. 

Apprehensively Kathleen walked directly toward Lefty and shoed him away from the plant. Afterwords. she noted that her primary concern was for Lefty, not the plant or even herself. Kathleen went on to explain that this common and important New Zealand plant can be toxic and is dangerous to consume.

Lefty leisurely sauntered away. Later, after I mentioned the situation to Kelly Brenner, she found this post from Alaska which explains how deer can consume poisonous plants. Of course Lefty's situation may be unusual because the plant he was eating is not native to North America. I have no idea if his body can handle the plant or not.

I have been out looking for Lefty a couple more times this week, but so far I have not found him or the female deer. In addition to non-native plants and off-leash dogs, Lefty will also have to deal with this weekend's stormy weather. I hope that next week we find Lefty and his potential mate, and they are both alive and well. It seems I will be once again looking for Lefty.

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


ps: My wife just mentioned that if you are a member of Montlake Nextdoor you should be able to search and find photos of what appears to be a female deer seen near the Arboretum. The photos were posted on October 6th and 8th 2016.