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

On Instagram: @unionbaywatch

Sunday, August 27, 2017


When I cross the bridge to the south end of Foster Island, I always slow down and look to my left across the open expanse of water, lily pads and fallen trees. Like a magnet to my mind, the opportunity to see nature in action turns my head, snares my attention and brings my feet to a stop. The sounds of the city fade. Yesterday and tomorrow evaporate. As my focus falls into nature my breathing slows and deepens. A sense of peace and well-being floods my soul.

On Wednesday, as I scanned across the lily pads, I was distracted by a slow deliberate movement, directly in front of me. A green heron paced along a floating log lying parallel to the bridge. I silently scrambled to assemble my camera. I wondered how long the bird would remain. Runners constantly cross the bridge while boaters frequently pass beneath. Green herons, while not uncommon, can be extremely shy. 

Moments later, a kayaker passed below the bridge and flushed the heron.

Surprisingly, as the oblivious boater paddled away, the little heron landed close by. 

Green herons weigh less than half a pound. Ten of them together would weigh less than one of their great blue cousins. Green herons are listed as being about a foot and a half long. While this might be technically correct, they generally appear much smaller. Their necks basically disappear when they are folded into their normal 'S' shape. I doubt the distance from the tip of the tail to the end of the bill is not much more than a foot, in a green heron's normal pose. 

You can see some less common green heron poses in this prior post, Green Heron Yoga.

After about five minutes, the heron finally settled in and began focusing on finding food.

At a glacial pace, the heron leaned forward and began to extend its secret weapon.

The heron must have spent more than two minutes slowly, imperceptibly extending its neck and moving its head closer to the unsuspecting fish. 

Without moving its feet or legs, the deadly bill moved all the way down to the surface of the water. In a flash, the beak burst through and snatched a little fish. The tip of the bill is visible in the middle of the diamond-shaped opening below the leaves which hide the heron's head.
You can see a different and unique green heron hunting technique is this prior post, Learning To Fish.

After swiftly swallowing the appetizer, the heron silently turned and began the process again.

This time I caught a photo of the fish before it began its last convoluted journey down the telescopic neck. The heron caught three of these little fish in rapid succession.

The hungry little heron 'licks its lips' and prepares for the main course.

This time the heron actually speared the fish with its upper mandible.

Based on the arrangement of the fins I am thinking this fish might be a smallmouth bass. I have seen bass as long as eighteen inches caught near Foster island (with a rod and reel) but I do believe this is the largest fish I have ever seen a green heron catch.

It is also the first time I have seen a green heron spear its prey. Great blue herons will often walk to the shore and remove speared fish on land, so the fish cannot easily escape while the heron is preparing to consume it. This green heron seemed a bit dumbfounded. I wondered if spearing the fish might have been a first for the heron as well. We can tell this is a young, less-experienced bird because the side of the neck is streaked.

More mature green heron's, like this bird photographed last fall, have much more of a solid chestnut-red coloring on the sides of the neck.

After spending a couple of minutes twisting and turning about on its perch, and moving the fish up and down, the heron finally found a way to withdraw its bill and grasp the fish in a more helpful arrangement, without setting it down.

It only took a moment or two more to reposition the fish in the usual head-first fashion. In addition to its other stripes and streaks, this bird also has little brown streaks on the 'cap' on top of its head. If you glance back at the mature bird you will see its cap is far more consistently colored.

Curiously, there appears to be some debate about what these marking indicate. In Birds of North America (citation below) I found the following comments, 'Bent and Oberholser described (juvenile) females as differing from males in having chestnut streaks on the crown,...Very few examples of sexual dimorphism in Juvenile plumage exist. Therefore, further studies should evaluate the validity of this purported early sexual dimorphism.'

Apparently, our young green heron may be a female.

Another curious thing is the manner in which the pupil of the heron contracts as it prepares to swallow the fish. Contraction should result in less light entering the eye. It almost seems to me as if the bird is attempting to ignore visual input while it focuses on the important task of swallowing the fish.

This time the neck expands in width, as opposed to length, as the fish passes through.

Through the camera I could see the neck twitching as the fish tried to resist its descent into darkness.

Afterwords, the heron shook its head only once. I was not positive whether this was just an attempt to remove water or a means of helping the fish along its way.

The erection of the crest reminded me of how I lift my eyebrows and open my eyes when I swallow something large. I suspect our shared behaviors with our fellow creatures are far more extensive than we know.

A moment later, the crest is reclined and the heron begins the slow process of digestion. I watched the bird for another half an hour. It remained in the same location even as I left.

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


Going Native:

Without a well-funded 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.

While watching the green heron this little yellow bird passed swiftly through the branches of a near by willow tree. Can you identify the bird?


Scroll down for the answer


This is a female yellow warbler. It is native to North America in the summer, but generally winters in Central and South America.

By the way, can anyone tell me what type of green aquatic plant surrounds the heron through out this post? Someone passing by suggested that it might be watercress but it does not look similar to the photos I find online. I have not found anything like it the aquatic section of my normal reference, 'Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast'.

Recommended Citation

Davis Jr., William E. and James A. Kushlan.(1994).Green Heron (Butorides virescens), 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/grnher

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Coffee and Cream

Tuesday morning while walking past the Waterfront Activities Center (WAC), I noticed a woman anxiously taking photos with her phone. She was looking east over a row of small sailboats pulled up on the dock. Curious, I stopped to ask what she was photographing. She pointed out this young gull. At that moment it appeared to be stuck in the lily pads. Later, when it paddled closer to the dock, I took this photo.

In our Master Birder Class Dennis Paulson taught us that a young gull with wingtips the same color as its back, a large black beak and an a overall coffee-and-cream coloring is a young, first-year, glaucous-winged gull. In Puget Sound there is an overlap in the ranges of glaucous-winged and western gulls. As a result, these two large gull species often interbreed and it is common to see individual birds with mixed characteristics.

Back at the WAC, the woman, Uli Heflin, went on to explain that she first spotted this young gull wandering around an active loading zone. Uli sent me this photo which she took of the gull which was completely oblivious to the potential danger. 

The gull did not appear to be inclined to leave the area and Uli was concerned that a large truck might back over it. Motivated by her heartfelt concern for the beautiful bird, Uli moved it to the shore near the WAC. She also explained that when the young bird was released it flew a short distance and landed in the water. While we watched, it paddled about occasionally picking at floating debris. For a moment it even seemed to catch a fish - which it promptly lost.

My next question for Uli was, how were you able to move the bird? In particular, I was wondering how Uli and the gull both appeared to be unharmed. The young bird looked nearly as large as an adult. Glaucous-winged gulls usually have a wingspan of over 4 feet and I would definitely have second thoughts about trying to pick one up. Uli explained that when she wrapped her coat around the bird it immediately quieted down.

We watched the bird for a few more minutes until Uli had to leave. I had been planning on visiting the Union Bay Natural Area to observe the young osprey. However, being curious about the young gull's prospects I decided to stay and watch. In particular, I was wondering if it could survive without a parent to feed and protect it. 

Bald eagles often hunt from the cottonwoods above the WAC, and a young inexperienced gull all alone in the world could have a very short life. The gull paddled north along the dock behaving more like a confused mallard than a gull. It did not attempt to fly and it did not appear to find anything worth eating.

This old image of Albert, the male eagle from the Broadmoor nest, with a freshly killed gull kept floating through my mind. While I watched, an adult gull came flying in from the north. The adult was maybe forty feet up and on a heading to pass directly over the young gull. Suddenly, there was an explosion of loud screeching calls from almost directly above my head.

I looked up and watched this second adult gull charge at the inadvertent intruder. I suspect the first gull had no clue that a young gull was paddling among the lily pads. Nonetheless, it wanted no part of the angry adult - it turned tail and left. I left too. The young gull's survival was not guaranteed, but its odds were certainly looking up. It was no longer in danger of being flattened by a two-ton truck, thanks to Uli, and it was evidently still under the watchful eye of an dedicated and discerning parent.

If you happen to see a young coffee-n-cream colored gull paddling around the WAC please let me know. I am thinking we should call it, Latte.

While reading about gulls I came across an interesting explanation for why gulls have red spots on their bills. If you are interested you should Click Here to read the article written by Bob Sundstrom. Bob, in addition to Dennis, is another treasured Puget Sound Birding Expert, Leader and Instructor.

Later in the day I got a chance to visit the osprey at the Union Bay Natural Area. Both of the young osprey have fledged and Smoke was even attempting to catch his own fish.

The learning curve is pretty steep and so far I have not seen either of the young succeed in their pescetarian adventures. After circling far out on the bay and experiencing multiple underwater excursions, Smoke returned to the perch above the nest to dry out his wings.

Not long after Smoke's return, Chester, his father, showed up with a fish and Smoke immediately dived into the nest and began feeding.

Afterwords, I was able to catch a clean look at the top of Smoke's head. The patterns on the osprey's head are very useful for identifying individual birds. I was surprised to notice the dark unbroken line which runs over Smoke's head and down the back of his neck.

On Thursday morning I caught a similar photo of Ash, Smoke's sibling. In this photo you can see that Ash's 'central line' is broken into dots of dark surrounded by a much larger field of white-and-buff coloring. I think these differences may be more obvious than the distinctive colors of their foreheads, which I mentioned in last week's post.

On Thursday I watched both young birds attempt to catch fish. Their fishing style resembled a bald eagle more than an osprey. The young birds flew close to the surface of the water while occasionally slowing down to grab for a fish. They were often fully immersed and clearly soaked from head to tail. Luckily, osprey have special oils for shedding water and very strong wings which allow them to climb out from under the water and still take flight. Osprey have even been know to carry fish weighing half as much as they do.

Once back at the perch, Smoke began a shakedown process to remove excess water and tidy up his feathers.

Ash watched the process closely.

When Smoke's wings got a bit too close, Ash decided that ducking was better than being slapped.

In this sequence you can also see that Smoke is shaking his tail back and forth as well.

Next, Ash tried his hand at hunting with a similar result - lots of water, no fish. From what I have seen, the adults usually hunt by hovering higher and then using high-speed vertical dives to catch fish as much as three feet below the surface. I suspect the ratio of dives to eagle-like surface-snatches will increase automatically as the young osprey become more skillful and mature.

In this photo, Ash returned to the perch for his shakedown. The young birds may not yet be catching their own fish, but those talons and feet sure look like they will do the job once their technique is perfected.

Later, Lacey got tired of waiting on Chester to deliver food. She went out and caught her own fish. She came back to the nearby cottonwood and ate a few bites before bringing the balance to one of the young birds. On both days the parents did not provide fish until after one or both of the young birds attempted to catch their own. Do you think osprey understand the power of positive reinforcement?

It is challenging for young birds to learn the skills they will need to survive come fall and winter. Here is wishing all the best to Latte, Smoke and Ash.

Have a great day on Union Bay...where young birds are learning survival skills!


Going Native:

Without a well-funded 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.


Scroll down for the answer


This is Bleeding Heart a native NW ground cover with lacy leaves and beautiful little flowers.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Smoke and Ash

On Thursday, I was lucky enough to catch Lacey returning to the nest in the Union Bay Natural Area (UBNA). Lacey is the mother of these two young osprey who are getting close to leaving the nest for the first time.

Young osprey have orange irises while adults have yellow. At a distance, the difference can be difficult to detect.

As we zoom in, you can also see that Lacey, on the left, is visibly larger. Her head and especially her beak are clearly bigger than those of her offspring. You might also notice that she, and other adults, have no pale edgings on the tips of their dark feathers.

If we desire to live in harmony with the wild creatures it is important to watch for unintended human impacts on their behavior. To do this we need to be paying close attention to what is normal for our avian neighbors. Which is part of why I like to try to get to know and identify each bird as an individual.

Here is a close up of our two new 2017 UBNA osprey neighbors. I am calling the bird on the left, Ash, and the one on the right, Smoke. Their names are in part inspired by all the smoke we have been getting from the British Columbia forest fires. Their coloring also plays a part in their names.

If you look closely at their foreheads you can see that Ash has a predominantly white forehead while Smoke's forehead is much darker. Kathy Hartman also noticed a couple of even more subtle differences. All of Smoke's dark feathers seem to be a deeper shade of brown and his irises may look slightly more yellow.

By the way, Kathy just wrote a very nice piece about me and harmony with nature. It is in the latest publication from the Washington Ornithological Society. To read it Click Here and then scroll down to page eight. Thank You Kathy!

Lately the young birds have been spreading their wings and...

...lifting up into the air.

I have not actually seen them leave the nest and fly, but it could happen any time now. If my latest calculations are correct, the older one should fledge (take its first flight) within the next week.

Another difference between the young and the adults is the beige or buff coloring on the young. The adults have none. You can see some of the 'buffy' coloring below Smoke's neck, on the underside of the wing and (in the previous photo) on the back of Ash's neck when the wind blows up his 'ruff'.

This photo nicely exposes the underside of Smoke's primary flight feathers. The ten longest feathers at the end of each wing tend to push the osprey forward in flight while their shorter secondary feathers provide more lift. The highest points in Smoke's wings are essentially his wrists. Having the primaries attached at or after the wrists provides optimal control. Think about how much more control you would have of feathers attached to your fingers versus feathers trailing off of your forearms.

In this photo Smoke is clearly twisting his wrists and actively modifying the angle of his primaries. I suspect he is dumping air in order to settle down on the nest with finesse and control. I am assuming these two young are both male because their chests do not show much in the way of a dark necklace like their mother. In adults, the lack of a necklace generally indicates the bird is male. Among the young, the coloring is said to be a somewhat less reliable indicator. I could be wrong.

Adult female osprey can be as much as twenty percent larger than males, so we could also look for hints in their size. Although I suspect birth order may impact the size of the young, as much or more than gender.

It was obvious that Lacey settled into the nest with a particular goal in mind. When excited or nervous, Lacey becomes quite verbal. Her calling normally indicates the approach of a potential predator or the return of her mate, Chester.

The young are developing a healthy interest in the world around them, and they were obviously concerned about who was approaching the nest.

Luckily this time it was their father Chester, coming in with a fish.

Although Chester is smaller than Lacey, nobody wants a wing in the face so everybody ducks. 

This photo also shows how the osprey's flight feathers are mostly dark on the upper side and mostly barred on the underside. The exceptions are the last 3 or 4 primaries, P7 through P10, which become progressively darker on the underside. The book 'Bird Feathers' by Scott and McFarland says, 'Melanin (which makes feathers dark in color) is also associated with keratin, which provides structural integrity.' This seems logical given how useful the last few primaries are in controlling flight, gliding and landing.

No sooner did Chester land in the nest with the fish than Lacey picked it up.

Lacey was evidently aware that everyone else in the nest was well fed. None of them voiced any objections as she retired to a nearby cottonwood for a late breakfast of Union Bay sushi. 

Here you can see her leading primaries are stretched apart like fingers as she glides. My understanding is that the separate 'fingers' break up the air into a number of small individual vortexes. The result is less drag and more lift. I suspect as airplanes become more sophisticated we will see similar adaptations.

After eating, Lacey came back and seemed to consider landing in the nest. Notice how she used her tail to slow her progress. In addition, her wing feathers are all askew. No doubt this reduced lift, as the feathers were not aligned and all working toward a common goal.

At the last moment she apparently changed her mind.

A split second later her feathers were perfectly aligned and working together. Lacey lifted back up into the sky and returned to her cottonwood roost where she could watch the nest from a short distance away.

I remember someone who passed by wondering if Lacey was behaving like the mother of young children who occasionally locks herself in the bathroom for a moment or two of peace and quiet. Parenting is demanding, regardless of your species.

In parting, here is a photo of Smoke snoozing in the morning sun. I wonder if there is a logical reason why osprey have white eyelids? Shelley, my wife, suggests that maybe the white eyelids make it look like they have their eyes open even when they are sleeping.

If you would like to see one of the earliest 'baby' photos of Smoke or Ash following This Link and look toward the end of the post. The photo from Doug Parrot shows one of the very young birds. Look closely - just below Lacey's neck.

Have a great day on Union Bay...where young osprey are once again preparing to fly!


PS: Here is a fun link to a video which Bill Albert sent in. It shows an osprey diving into Portage Bay for a fish. It could very well be Chester! Click Here to see Bill's video.

Going Native:

Without a well-funded 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.

I am hoping that this week we can reverse roles. Can anyone tell me whether this creature is a native or not? In the first photo, and in many others I took, this insect uses its proboscis to dip into multiple tiny flowers. In the last photo it rolls up its proboscis into a very artistic swirl. Given that moths and insects are not part of my expertise I am hoping someone will tell me whether this in a native creature and if possible maybe even identify it. Thank you in advance for any help you are able to provide.