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

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Thursday, December 22, 2016

'Tis The Season

The red-breasted sapsucker is a diligent, hardworking bird. Ninety-nine percent of the time when I find one, it is hanging on the trunk of a tree, hidden among the branches and mining a sap well.  

In summer and spring I see them working primarily on deciduous trees. Trees which have no leaves in the winter must have a robust flow of sap when they are putting out new growth. Maybe, it is the volume of flow which attracts the sapsuckers or maybe the sap is simply sweeter - even to me maple syrup sounds sweeter than cedar syrup. 

In the winter after the deciduous trees have gone dormant, I find sapsuckers working in coniferous trees. About a week ago, for the first time this year I spotted this red-breasted sapsucker in a western red cedar.

The tree is about two feet in diameter at the base and maybe 35 feet in height.

It is covered with thousands of holes. The first thing people ask when they see all the holes is, 'Does it hurt the tree?' This tree's foliage may be slightly more sparse than other western red cedars, but it certainly does not appear to be dying. I do wonder if the tree might have been a bit taller by now if it had not been selected by sapsuckers. Two years ago I noticed a sapsucker working this tree - even then it was already covered with sap wells.

Curiously, just ten feet to the east is a second slightly smaller western red cedar tree. I have checked the second tree very closely and I cannot find a single well. I cannot help but wonder why the sapsuckers prefer one tree over the other.

This photo demonstrates the sapsucker's usual level of activity. The body is propped up on its tail and nearly perfectly still - while the head is in constant motion. Unlike most other woodpeckers, the tapping and drilling of sapsuckers is usually syncopated. Like the rhythm of a jazz musician or boxer throwing punches, I can never predict their pace. Click Here - and then scroll down and press the triangle - to hear one for yourself.

Whenever a large bird flies over, the sapsucker glances up at the sky.

Unlike a robin or a varied thrush which can be similar in size, the sapsucker is seldom flushed by a potential predator. Robins and thrush are usually more exposed because they are often eating fruit on the periphery of a tree. The sapsucker simply clings to the trunk of the tree, with numerous branches interwoven above its head. It finds safety among the shadows.

I have only seen the sapsucker leave the safety of the western red cedar tree once this week.

It landed on a nearby deciduous tree and began a sap well.

I suspect it was a test.

It was as if the bird was asking, 'Has your sweet summer sap really stopped flowing?'

The sapsucker soon flew away. Apparently, the little bird learned that wishing does not make it so.

Earlier this week, my friends Uli and Stella mentioned seeing a rare winter visitor in the Arboretum - the red-naped sapsucker. I have not seen it. Just in case one of us gets lucky, I thought it would be good to include this photo from January of 2015. I find the black and white stripes on the side of the head are the most obvious differences. I would certainly love to get more photos of a red-naped sapsucker.

In any case, the good news is we have just passed the winter solstice. The days are getting longer. There are buds on the indian plum - in which the hummingbirds like to nest. Creatures large and small are preparing for the new year. Any time now the great horned owls and the anna's hummingbirds will be laying eggs. It may be winter, but the signs of spring are all around us.

Happy Holidays!


Update:                                                                                                          12-23-16

Earlier today David Zuckerman, Manager of Horticulture for the University of Washington Botanical Gardens, graciously provided the following update regarding the tree shown in this post.


I just got back in from the cold damp Legume collections. The tree in question is actually a hybrid between our WRC and Japanese Cedar. Scientific name: Thuja plicate x standishii. And, yes, tree to the north is same. They are 234-62-A and B respectively.

They were received as seed from Horsholm Arboretum, Denmark, in 1962. Planted out in early 70's.

Health of tree is Good. Same as specimen to the north which doesn't appear to have any sapsucker signs.



I really appreciate David's effort, expertise and update. It is wonderful to know for sure that the sapsucker's holes are not endangering the health of the tree. Plus the fact that it is a cross between a Western Red Cedar (WRC) and a Japanese Cedar, along with its relatively young age, may explain the tree's shorter stature as compared with a mature WRC.

Thank you, David!

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Chilkat Chickadees

Chickadees suddenly surrounded me. They silently flickered from one snow-covered branch to the next. They paid more attention to the tree trunks than to me.

They inspected the boles and the branches for food. I on the other hand, was too big to eat and too slow to worry about.

Their near-sighted inspection of the trees was relentless and fierce.

I suspect every morsel of nourishment they found was instantly converted to heat.

I had been photographing a bald eagle - who was gnawing nourishment off of a disjointed salmon jaw - in a tree above the Chilkat River, when the loose-knit flock of intruders surrounded me and stole my heart.

From my limited experience in the Pacific Northwest I knew these little birds were not mountain or chestnut-backed chickadees. The only other choice that came to mind was black-capped chickadees. Their color pattern looked basically right, but unlike our Union Bay black-capped chickadees, the chests of these birds seemed strikingly white. The contrast in their colors created a crisp, clean look, while their white breasts blended perfectly with the snow. They fit in the frigid environment the same way orcas belong in the Salish Sea. It was as if the eagles evaporated from my mind.

For four days I had been watching swans and eagles, gulls, ravens, magpies and mergansers. If anyone had asked, I would have said it sure looks like everything smaller than magpies has gone south. I would have been wrong. In spite of the cold, the tiny chickadees were perfectly happy, healthy and clearly...at home.

Immediately, I began to question my perceptions. Could it be that the Union Bay and the Chilkat chickadees were actually the same color? Was it just the snow which made the little Alaskan birds seem lighter? Could the grey skies of Seattle make me feel like the Union Bay birds were darker? Was the difference all in my head? Mentally, I filed the questions under the heading To Be Determined...

If you happened to miss the post concerning the largest bald eagle convention in the world this link will provide you another opportunity.

This tiny chickadee peaking into a cocoon, reminded me of a Union Bay bird which I photographed in the Arboretum.

When I returned home, I retrieved the earlier photo. Our local chickadee also spotted some type of larva or egg, but in this case it was protectively wrapped in a dead leaf. 

While inspecting more black-capped chickadee photos, I became certain that the Union Bay birds really do have darker backs and sides. 

There was no longer any doubt in my mind. Chilkat chickadees have lighter body colors and possibly even more white along the sides of their heads.

I think the eyes and possibly the beaks of the Chilkat chickadees look smaller. Without the opportunity to hold and measure them, I cannot be completely positive about the relative size of their features. In any case, I wondered if these could be small adaptations which might assist them in surviving the Alaskan cold.

Birds of North America says that the northern-most populations of black-capped chickadees have the ability to lower their body temperature during cold nights and thereby consume less energy. (See the citation below) I would have thought it would be more logical for them to raise their body temperatures during cold nights.

I find comparing the two 'types' of birds irresistible. This Spring photo shows one of a pair of local chickadees who were building a nest on Foster island. I watched them dig the nesting hole out of a dead tree - one beak-full at a time. They even carried the wood chips away, apparently hoping to make the nest less obvious. Look at the size of that eye and beak.

While reading Birds of North America I learned that there are actually seven different sub-species of black-capped chickadees. One species or the other can be found almost all across the continent, as long as you are looking somewhere north of Texas. Curiously, the darkest of the seven are the ones found around Union Bay. Their scientific name is Poecile atricapillus occidentalis. As luck would have it, the lightest of the subspecies are those found in the Alaskan Panhandle e.g. the little birds who found me beside the Chilkat River. This subspecies is called Poecile atricapillus turneri. It was reassuring to realize that there is scientific support for my somewhat oscillating perception of their color differences. 

I wonder what will happen to the Chilkat chickadees as the world warms. How will they utilize their unique skills and abilities without snow? Will their bright white breasts in a snow-free world make them shining targets for hungry accipiters? Will they be able to compete when our darker Union Bay chickadees reach Alaska?

How many of the subspecies will survive? 

The realization that my visit to Alaska contributed to the carbon problem made me feel frustrated and sad.

In a week or two, when our weather warms up, I will add a new, native tree in my yard. I intend for it to grow and consume enough carbon to offset my Alaskan adventure. I hope that someday my wife and I will have grandchildren and I hope that they too will have the opportunity to be mesmerized by black-capped chickadees flickering from one branch to next.

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


Recommended Citation

Foote, Jennifer R., Daniel J. Mennill, Laurene M. Ratcliffe and Susan M. Smith. (2010). Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus), The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Retrieved from the Birds of North America: https://birdsna.org/Species-Account/bna/species/bkcchi

Friday, December 9, 2016

Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve

An immature eagle above the Chilkat River.

Last week, I was lucky enough to visit the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve which is just north of Haines, Alaska. The preserve is one of the most unique places on the planet. If you follow the highlighted link you will see a map of the Chilkat River and the surrounding alluvial fan. The fan accumulates water and warmth during spring, summer and fall.

The Alaskan Department of Natural Resources explains that in early winter this store of warm water percolates into the river and slows the freezing process. 

Each year the free flowing river enables one of the latest salmon runs in the state. In turn the late runs of salmon attract the largest congregation of bald eagles in the world

The 'warm' water also attracts trumpeter swans and common mergansers, while the potential for salmon scraps attracts ravens, gulls and black-billed magpies. On Saturday and Sunday, when the temperature fell sharply, ice began to accumulate in the river.

Earlier in the week, the temperature and the weather around the Chilkat varied with highs usually around freezing. I found photography in the snow a bit of a challenge. Lucky for me, I was invited, on my first trip to Alaska, by Laurence Norton, my photographic mentor. During this trip Laurence and my new friend Elliot Solomon both gave me many tips to help improve my photography. I am looking forward to practicing and assimilating the information.

This photo is one of Laurence's. I found it especially interesting because of the startling symmetry and the way it shows off the eagle's alula. The alula are the short feathers sticking up from the top of the wing. They are most similar to our thumbs, while the individual primary feathers at the ends of the wings are similar to our fingers. Both types of feathers assist birds in making slow and controlled landings. 

You can see more of Laurence's photos on Facebook by Clicking Here.

Elliot caught me relaxing on Saturday - when the eagles calmed down just before sunset - around 2:30 in the afternoon. The photo even shows some of the ice starting to form in the river.

You can see Elliot's eagle photos on Flickr by Clicking Here.

If you look closely at the first five primary feathers on this eagle's right wing you can see the distal or last half of each feather is narrower than the proximal or upper half. In addition to helping them land I suspect the outer primaries also reduce drag and make soaring more efficient. When eagles are gliding you can often see their wing tips are upturned - somewhat similar to the wing tips on a modern jetliner. They first photo in this post provides a good example.

The most captivating bald eagle behaviors related to their competition for food. The eagle in the middle was momentarily in possession of a fish which attracted competition from all sides and from above.

These aerial attacks can even happen when an eagle is already airborne. In either case it appears the safest way for an eagle to face an aerial attack is to roll over and fight talons with talons.

I never did see an eagle do the classic fly-over method of fishing, like we see on television, when an eagle grasps a fish from the surface of the water and continues flying. I suspect these salmon were simply too large. This drenched eagle most likely just lost a fish-fight with another eagle while trying to pull a salmon to shore. While drying, the eagle carefully watched the water.

When the eagle saw a new opportunity it glided down and pulled another salmon on to the shore. Surprisingly, instead of quietly eating the fish, the eagle called out loudly. This 'boasting' behavior was repeated over and over along the river. I never did understand why. It always seemed to attract the competition.

Within sixty seconds the first eagle was chased away from its catch.

The behavior was repeated by at least four different eagles before this particular fish was finally incapacitated. Magpies were also attracted to the possibility of scraps.

This capture appeared to be a variation on the theme.

The eagle quietly dragged the salmon away from the shore...

...before calling loudly.

After which, a second smaller eagle was allowed to share in the catch. Since males are about one third smaller than females I suspect the first eagle was a female and the second was its mate.

Sadly, even having a two to one advantage did not stop an aerial attack.

Momentarily, all three birds were intertwined.

It became hard to follow the action.

However, I think the male successfully defended the food, at least for a while.

A third method of 'fishing' is a bit more indirect. This gull apparently grabbed and swallowed a piece of fish and then tried to fly away. 

As Laurence pointed out, the eagle's pursuit is telling the gull, 'Your food or your life!'

The gull makes a wise decision.

It loses its lunch, improves its agility and saves its own life.

As the gull flew away the eagle settled down for a quick easy bite. This was the first time I had seen this behavior. It was however precisely like the description of a parasitic jaeger's feeding strategy which was explained by Dennis Paulson during our Master Birder Class a few weeks earlier.

A fourth feeding behavior was demonstrated whenever a portion of a fish became small enough to carry. The eagles would then cross over the river, to get away from the heavy competition...

 ...and feed in the relative safety of a tree.

This bird found a frozen fish tail, apparently left behind during a prior food fight.

The other eagles did not follow but one of the corvids... 

...became very attentive.

One of the locals told me the black corvids were raven's. I was surprised to see their tails looked fan-shaped more like an American Crow. Their calls were deep like ravens and their bills were heavy. Yesterday, when I saw a raven on Snoqualmie Pass it clearly had a diamond-shaped tail. It makes me wonder if there is variation in the tails of ravens in Alaska compared to the tails of ravens in Washington.

Regardless of the corvid's angle of approach...

... the bald eagle was not willing to share.

I certainly hope the folks in Alaska are able to maintain the salmon runs along the Chilkat River. I understand there is an effort underway to open a copper mine upstream. Certainly, the mine would provide important jobs. I just hope the mining company, the State of Alaska and the local people are able to safeguard the salmon. It would be sad to see Alaskan salmon share a fate similar to the salmon in the Pacific Northwest.

Happy Holidays!