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

On Instagram: @unionbaywatch

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:


  1. Wonderful and challenging, Larry! Thanks for this post.

    1. Thanks for following along. I am glad you enjoyed the post!

  2. Glad neither you nor the Pileated took a Snow Day! Beautiful photo essay which illustrates well how Nature keeps chugging along even when we decide to stay in.

    1. Thank you! You are absolutely correct. Wild creatures never take days off - showers, shine or snow. :-)

  3. Wonderful as always. Well done Larry.

    1. Robert,
      Thank you! It is good to hear from you. I hope all is well. 😊