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

On Instagram: @unionbaywatch

Friday, February 24, 2017

Beep, Beep

While visiting family in Lake Havasu City, I photographed my first Geococcyx californianus or greater roadrunner. They are native to dry areas all across the southwest. Their behavior is quite different than any bird I have seen around Union Bay.

From the front, the roadrunner appears fairly light in color. When ruffled, it is easy to see that the inner portion of the neck feathers are very dark, as is its crest. Roadrunners have strong pair bonds and mate for life.

The second roadrunner I saw initially had its back to me so it appeared much darker. I suspect the dark colors make them harder to see against an asphalt road. It makes me wonder if roadrunners will evolve to be darker in areas with more pavement.

I cannot find any information to confirm whether coyotes are the roadrunner's primary nemesis  - as in the childhood cartoons - but the birds certainly do love to run.

I was surprised to learn that the male roadrunner can make a cooing call, which sounds similar to a dove. You can hear one on All About Birds by Clicking Here and then scrolling down. None of the calls recorded on the website sound at all like the cartoon character.

This particular bird ran across my mother's patio and then down into a small natural area below the house. My mother's home is surrounded by city streets and houses in nearly every direction. Clearly, these bird can adapt to city life if sufficient food and natural areas are present. 

Against the dry brush and shadows, the camouflaged colors of the californianus help it to fade into its surroundings. 

The exception is the dark feet against the light rock, which certainly caught my attention. Roadrunners have two toes forward and two pointed backward, like a woodpecker. I suspect this helps to maximize its traction and control especially when running. 

I found its elevated claws a bit surprising. After thinking about it, it seems logical to hold the talons up so the points do not get dulled by the rocks. It may also help them to approach their prey quietly - they would not want to make clicking noises like a pet dog's claws on a kitchen floor.

Did you note the slight hint of blue just above the eye?

Here you can see that the talons remain in the elevated position even when the bird is moving.

If I had not been tracking the roadrunner when it moved, I doubt I would have been able to pick it out against this background.

My first impression was that roadrunners are similar in size to pileated woodpeckers. It turns out that roadrunners are just slightly longer, but can weigh up to twice as much and generally have a one third smaller wingspan, according to All About BirdsThe extra weight and shorter wingspan may explain why this species prefers to hunt by running instead of flying. 

Roadrunners eat all of the small desert creatures which you might expect - like birds, lizards and mice. They also eat scorpions and even rattlesnakes. An average rattlesnake can be four feet long and easily weigh four or five times as much as a roadrunner. I did not see such an encounter, but I have read that one roadrunner will distract the snake while its mate pecks at or grabs the snake by the back of the head. Roadrunners are known to bash their prey's head against a rock to finish it off.

Currently on eBird, the northern most, west coast sightings of roadrunners are to the north of the San Francisco Bay. Who knows, if global warming continues they may one day end up running around Union Bay.


Going Native:

Without a functional Environmental Protection Agency, it falls to each of us to be ever more vigilant in protecting our local environments. Native plants and trees encourage the largest diversity of lifeforms because of their long intertwined history with local, native creatures. I have been told that even the microbes in the soil are native to each local landscape. My hope is that we can inspire ourselves, our neighbors and local businesses to plant native flora and to support native wildlife at every opportunity. My intention is to include at least one photo each week and visually challenge us to know the difference between native and non-native lifeforms. 

Which of the following birds species, photographed in Lake Havasu City, AZ, are also native to Union Bay?











1) Ruddy duck, female
2) Great-tailed grackle, male
3) Ring-billed gull
4) House finch, male
5) Black phoebe
6) Anna's hummingbird, male
7) Mourning dove
8) Verdin, male
9) Turkey vulture
10) Gambel's quail, male

Native to Union Bay:

1) Ruddy duck, female
3) Ring-billed gull
4) House finch, male
7) Mourning dove
9) Turkey vulture

Not native to Union Bay:

2) Great-tailed grackle, male
5) Black phoebe
8) Verdin, male
10) Gambel's quail*, male

*At this angle, the dark forehead clearly distinguishes this bird from a California quail.


6) Anna's hummingbird, male

Historically the Anna's hummingbird was not native to Union Bay. In recent decades it has expanded north from California, apparently because of the increasing availability of food near human homes, e.g. feeders and flowers. There is fear that it may be displacing the native rufous hummingbird which historically has migrated north to our area during warm weather to breed and reproduce.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Making Memories

On behalf of all the 520 bridge commuters, I want to say,' Thank You' to Eva and Albert for all the memories. For many years, our local bald eagles have graced the light poles above Union Bay.

Each morning drivers, locked into their daily routine, search the light poles hoping to spot a flickering flash of freedom. On good days, both eagles might be seen - sitting on consecutive poles. In a city filled with cubicles, computers and nature-crushing conveyances the emotional boost of a three-second eagle sighting, even at sixty miles an hour, is universally treasured.

A few years back, I watched Eva lift off one of a 520 light poles, pick a meal out of the bay and return to eat it in front of me. For some reason, this red-tailed hawk was under the ego-inflated impression that it might scare Eva away from her breakfast. The table was quickly turned and it was the hawk who got the scare.

I have also watched Albert leap off of a light pole and snatch a gull out of the air. 

Sadly, the days of watching Eva and Albert hunting from light poles may be behind us. Earlier this week, I spoke with a gentleman who drives the 520 bridge every morning. He confirmed my suspicions. Neither of us have seen the adult eagles hunting from the light poles, in quite some time.

During the last year or so, I have spotted the eagles sitting side-by-side above the Broadmoor retaining pond.

I have heard them calling back and forth while perched high above the Arboretum. 

I have watched them soar peacefully above Montlake...

... and occasionally seen their silent hunting disrupted.

Last November, I saw one of them venture north to hunt from the Foster Island cottonwood tree - overlooking Union Bay.

However, ever since the new 520 construction moved in just to the east of Foster Island, I do not remember seeing Eva or Albert on the light poles. The pressing question for commuters is, When the construction is finished and all the clean up is done will the eagles return and begin hunting from the new bridge?

Sadly, when the old bridge is removed the light poles will go with it. The new bridge has no similar elevated hunting perches. In the new design, the light bulbs can all be easily accessed from the bridge deck. 

In my harmony-with-nature fantasy, I can imagine two of the old non-functioning light poles being reinstalled on the new bridge as hunting perches for the eagles. In reality, the eagles will most likely be relegated to using the conventional cottonwood trees which dot the shorelines. Possibly, they may hunt from the shorter, multicolored sculptures which sit on either side of the bridge. Even though the new bridge is fairly high, I will be surprised if the eagles venture close enough to the traffic to hunt from the railings. I suspect Eva still remembers Eddie's ill-fated encounter.

On a positive note, last week, I watched one of the eagles fly over to the south end of Foster Island and break a branch off one of the cottonwoods.

The eagle then returned to the distant nest and deposited the branch in front of its mate. Given the distance, I could not be sure which eagle was which.

On Monday evening, I again watched an eagle bring a branch to the nest. In this case it turned out to be Albert. Eva was overlooking his efforts from near the top of the tree. Albert situated the branch and then calmly sat down - as if to watch the sunset.

When Eva called out, Albert leaped out of the nest like a man on a mission.

He did a half circle around the tree, steadily gaining elevation with every stroke of his wings.

It quickly became obvious, that Albert understood Eva's invitation. They appear to be committed to their relationship and the process of reproduction

The 520 construction may have reduced the eagle encounters for commuters and it may have caused Eva and Albert to readjust their hunting territory, but in spite of any inconvenience our local bald eagles are making memories and once again planning on raising eaglets above the bay.

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


Going Native:

Without a functional Environmental Protection Agency, it falls to each of us to be ever more vigilant in protecting our local environments. Native plants and trees encourage the largest diversity of lifeforms because of their long intertwined history with local, native creatures. I have been told that even the microbes in the soil are native to each local landscape. My hope is that we can inspire ourselves, our neighbors and local businesses to plant native flora and to support native wildlife at every opportunity. My intention is to include at least one photo each week and visually challenge us to know the difference between native and non-native lifeforms. 

Which of the following are native to Union Bay?




Photo A shows an eastern gray squirrel eating the fruit of an ash tree in the the Washington Park Arboretum. Neither the squirrel nor the tree is native to our area. However, the ash tree is carefully tended part of the Arboretum collection and not particularly invasive. The gray squirrels on the other hand are untended, invasive and continue to expand their territory. I met a gentleman the other day who said he can remember seeing native squirrels on Foster Island. I challenge you to find anything but eastern gray squirrels on the island today.

Photo B is of a native muskrat. Their Union Bay dens are usually in muddy banks with an entrance hidden underwater. They are probably the least seen of the three creatures in today's photos.

Photo C is of an Old World or Norway rat. They are now a nearly worldwide, invasive pest, which went along for the ride with european expansion. Barred owls, cooper's hawks, coyotes and other native creatures help us by eating these rats. Sadly, the bioaccumulation of the poisons, which we use when attempting to kill the rats, often cause unintended deaths. Old fashioned spring-loaded rat traps, baited with peanut butter, work fine and do not spread poisons among native creatures, our dogs and cats, and the environment in general.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Snow Day

On Monday we had snow in Seattle. My first thought was, I wonder if I can photograph Eva and Albert sitting near their nest in a snow covered tree. Apparently our local 520 bald eagles had warmer places to be.

I carefully considered my options. I wondered how long I would have to stand in the snow to catch the eagles when they returned. I was also a bit concerned about how long the snow would last. Snow in Seattle is not an annual event and the rain can wash it away in short order. In the end, I decided to check and see if Eva and Albert were hunting from the cottonwoods around the Waterfront Activity Center (WAC).

From the dock at the WAC I also checked the cottonwood tree on the north end of Foster Island. There was no sign of Eva or Albert at either location.

My consolation prize was a couple of young eagles overhead. This one was missing a left primary 'finger'. Of course the name Ringo popped into my head. It will be fun to watch for this identifiable second-year eagle around Union Bay - at least until the feather grows in.

I was feeling a bit disappointed when I heard a familiar, 'ka-chunk, ka-chunk, ka-chunk' coming from the last standing remains of a dead cottonwood behind me. 

Turning, I spotted sawdust and chips flying through the air.  Even with an up close view it can be hard to see how quickly a pileated woodpecker tosses wood chips. This bird tossed the chips and returned to her normal posture before the wood had hardly started to fall. With so much movement, the focus on my camera became confused. The result is more of an impressionistic photo, which actually helps convey a bit of the feeling of fresh falling snow.

Later, a lucky shot made the 100 degree (or more) flicking movement a bit easier to visualize. If you like having a functional neck, I would not recommend attempting this at home.

Sometimes, the wood chips fly just from the impact of her beak on the snag. I wouldn't try doing that either.

When she stopped moving for a moment, the golden-tipped feathers on her forehead attracted my eye. 
If you have ever had a young child in diapers you will remember this thoughtfull look.

She scooted down the snag a bit before the fecal matter left her body with projectile speed.

This posture is very similar to the one assumed when a pileated is attempting to hide from danger. 

 Almost immediately, she dug deeper into the snag and found more food.

When the cold wind started to blow she fluffed up her feathers and hunkered down on the leeward side of the tree.

Even so, her tongue flickered out and appeared to taste the surface of the snag, no doubt looking for traces of food.

In the next few photos, I have attempted to position the background in the same spot. If you left-click on one of the photos it should enlarge the photo so that it takes over your screen. Then you should be able to page back and forth. This will make it easy to compare how the woodpecker changed her posture between photos. (Pressing 'Escape' will bring back the verbiage.) 

She seemed to have no concern about the young bald eagles sitting overhead in the cottonwood trees.

However anytime she heard a crow call, near of far, she would immediately stop work and look around until she was sure there was no danger.

 Then it was back to work. She kept excavating for more food...

 ...until the next crow called.

After an hour or so of fairly extensive feeding it was time for a little preening and cleaning.

I find it interesting to try and determine how their feathers are colored. My out-of-the-box assumption would be that most feathers are all one color.

However, when the feathers of the crest are held erect, it is clear that there is black below the red.

In this close up, with her feathers held erect it almost looks like the tips are on fire. I am sure the crest gets hit with a lot of rain and snow, which may explain in part why it looks so wet. I think another factor could be that it is pretty much impossible to use her beak to preen the top of her head.

When the feathers of the crest are laid down in a 'normal' manner...

...the change in color in the individual feathers is far less obvious.

The white portion of the primary wing feathers is another color transition which is not normally displayed. I can only remember three types of situations when this white color is visible. One is during a wing stretch - like this. A second is sometimes briefly in flight. The third situation is when new coverts are growing in above the primary feathers and a thin white strip is then briefly exposed, even when the wing is folded and closed. 

Did you notice the tail feathers sticking out between between the primaries? The wear and tear on the tail feathers is clearly visible, especially when compared to the pristine primaries. It makes sense, if the primaries were in the same condition as the tail feathers - which are used like a third foot - it might be challenging for a woodpecker to fly.

I didn't know what the bird was doing here. I did't know if she was listening for larva within the snag, if she was drying her feathers on the bark, scratching a spot which itched or something else. Possibly, this could even be a way to preen her crest feathers which she cannot reach with her beak.

The wind began to pick up and I started to feel a bit hungry and cold.

The impact of the wind was even visible in the way her feathers were being blown about.

Tucked in on the protected side of the snag she didn't exactly ignore the weather, but having both food and some shelter she did not seem to be in a hurry to leave. 

I wonder if woodpeckers sometimes extend their tongues to wipe off their beaks, much like we might lick food off our lips.

Ultimately, most birds seem to clean their bill by wiping it on whatever is handy - often the tree which is holding them. This method of cleaning is called 'feaking'. At this point, I left her where I found her, I was shivering too much to take anymore photos.

I believe I have seen this particular female at least three times in the last month. The question that keeps returning to my mind is whether or not she is the same female, Storm, which I saw last Winter, Spring and Summer. I have been looking back at my photos. If you are interested in a challenge you might search through the 2016 pileated posts and see what you think.

I hope you enjoyed your snow day as much I enjoyed mine. An unexpected turn of events is certainly a part of my attraction to nature.


Going Native:

Without a functional Environmental Protection Agency, each of us will need to be ever more vigilant in protecting our local environments. Native plants and trees encourage the largest diversity of lifeforms because of their long intertwined history with local creatures. I have been told that even the microbes in the soil are native to each local landscape. My hope is that we can inspire ourselves, our neighbors and local businesses to plant native at every opportunity. 

My intention is to include at least one photo each week and visually challenge us to know the difference between native and non-native lifeforms. Which of these is native to Union Bay?




Item A is salal which is a luxurious native shrub with edible berries, which many native creatures will eat. Item B is our large, native sword fern which will also grow on a wide variety of sites. Item C is the non-native, and highly invasive english ivy

Here is a perfect example of how the ivy has overrun cottonwood trees in Montlake Park East. It blocks out native plants and, as mentioned in this link from Oregon State University, about the only creatures for which it provides habitat are rodents. 

In an amazing coincidence, these ivy-infested trees shelter one of our cities ancient and out-moded Combined Sewer Overflows (CSO). According to this King County map this CSO has overflowed in the last 48 hours - due to the heavy rains. So the ivy provides the habitat and the CSO provides access and food for non-native rats.

Note: The cottonwood trees are native and provide many valuable services to our local native creatures. I am planning to do a post on the value of cottonwood trees in the near future.

Guides to Native Plants:

Guide to Removing Rats: