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

On Instagram and Twitter: @unionbaywatch

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.


  1. Thanks, Larry, Awesome observations, as always.

    1. Thank you for following along. I find young birds are always fun to watch. 🙂

  2. Thank you. Again I Learned and enjoyed.

    1. You are welcome. It is always good to hear from you.