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

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Saturday, November 25, 2017

A Complex Corvid

Steller's Jays seem to have split personalities. On one hand, they can be very shy and quiet. Often, when I glance at one, even from a great distance, they will move behind a trunk or hop up into the canopy. Sometimes, they will immediately fly away. On the other hand, they can occasionally be very loud, raucous and unintimidated by my presence. My friend Dan Reiff says when they are being extremely shy it is usually a sign that they are nesting nearby.


They are also strikingly beautiful. I find the subtly shifting shades of blue, gray and black irresistible. Also, the variety of textures and details in their feathers can be mesmerizing

During the early portion of their first year they are a bit less flashy. Some of their feathers tend to have a dishwater-brown cast. Of course, these will ultimately be replaced with beautiful black feathers.

In the meantime, the rapidly molting brown feathers do not stop the jays from worrying about their appearance or cleanliness.

Even at a young age they enjoy bathing.

By September when this photo was taken, the brown feathers have all been replaced. The reddish-pink color inside the mouth is one of the last clues left to the age of this first year bird. Also, its crest will most likely be a bit longer when it fully matures.

If I understand correctly, in mature birds an erect crest generally indicates elevated anxiety or some sort of arousal. 

Logically, a lowered crest must imply peacefulness or calm.

Last week, I spotted this bird sitting beside Duck Bay. For the longest time it simply sat in the sun directly in front of me.

When it did the super-fluff feather expansion, I realized it was completely unconcerned with me or my daughter's dog, Ginger. I must admit that due to Ginger's personality, and many years of birding experience, she is exceptionally quiet, especially when compared with the average dog. 

The jay continued to ignore us while it carefully evaluated a potential overhead threat.

In the end, it finally roused itself and flew over to Nest Egg Island. Note: This is the same bird that was in the previous three photos. I find the difference in its appearance surprising.

I have not yet encountered the photo opportunity of my fantasies - as related to Steller's Jays. However, this photo is a step in the right direction. I dream of bright yellow leaves in the background and a brilliantly blue bird perfectly focused in the foreground.

This photo would be much closer to the dream if the Indian Plum had retained its full compliment of yellow leaves.

Steller's Jays are quite intelligent. The quizzical way this bird cocked its head certainly implies thoughtfulness to me. I suspect, that just like humans, a bird in thought is often considering its next meal. 

Earlier in the fall I noticed Steller's Jays eating the nuts of a California Laurel, just south of the Sorbus collection in the Arboretum. This jay carried its nut to a nearby coniferous tree with large branches, where it could easily hold the nut while hacking it open. The wing is evidently being used for balance.

A week or two ago, I saw the same type of process happening near Duck Bay, at the north end of the Arboretum. This bird is preparing to strike a nut with the full focused force of its beak.

On Monday, immediately after a gardner uncovered the lawn on Foster Island with a leaf-blower, I watched the jays come in and collect newly revealed acorns.

Over the years, I have repeatedly watched Steller's Jays carry their Foster Island acorns west to Nest Egg Island. (You can see the exact location by Clicking Here and visiting my personalized map of Union Bay.) I must admit I have been a bit confused about what the jays were doing.

Previously, I have watched jays caching nuts in crevices on large trees in the Arboretum. However, there are no large trees on Nest Egg Island. 

Last month, while kayaking with Marcus Roening, my original birding mentor, I asked him about the situation. Immediately, he asked if I had ever seen any squirrels on Nest Egg Island. I replied, 'None, that I can remember.' Marcus concluded that the jays were caching the nuts on the island to keep them away from the squirrels.

The missing piece to the puzzle for me was the realization that jays will cache nuts in the ground, as well as in trees. 

It seems very likely to me that sooner or later a jay will forget where it hid one or more nuts on Nest Egg Island. I expect that someday, the little Island may be covered with oak trees. It will be interesting to watch and see when or if this actually happens.

In the mean time, whenever I see a Steller's Jay on a branch I wonder, What is it doing? It may be inspecting the branch for small creatures to eat, retreiving a previously cached nut, hiding a nut for future consumption, or holding a nut that it's preparing to open and eat. In the Spring, it might be inspecting for a potential nest site, looking for the nest of a smaller bird to raid or simply preparing to sit in the sun and enjoy the weather. I am sure there are many other possibilities, which I have not even considered. 

Who would have guessed that the life of a relatively small and beautiful corvid could be so complex.

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

Larry

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. Can you identify these plants?  Are they native to Union Bay?

A)

B)











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Scroll down for the answers


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Plant B is our native evergreen huckleberry. The photo below is an example showing a partially developed berry.


Plant A on the other hand is not the same plant. Until a few years ago I mistakenly assumed that it was. When we were replanting our yard our landscape architect informed me that Plant A was from Asia (Japan if a remember correctly). 

At the time, I thought the leaves and berries looked very similar and even the taste of the berries seemed essentially the same to me. Our architect correctly informed me that I needed to be much more careful about eating berries, especially from plants that I had not correctly identified. 

The most obvious difference to my eye is the color of the stems or small branches. Our local evergreen huckleberry stems are a reddish-brown color while the stems of the introduced plant are more of a greenish-brown. Now, comparing them side-by-side, I also think the native leaves appear slightly longer and a bit more pointed. 

I have been unable to locate the correct name for the introduced plant. Feel free to leave a comment below if you know the plant's name. Thank you!

Update - 11/26/17:

Regarding my unknown plant, David Zuckerman, Manager of Horticulture for the UW Botanic Gardens, identified it as 'ilex crenata'. He informed me that the berries are toxic. Evidently, I should just be glad to still be kicking. With David's guidance I found the following pdf regarding the plant. Thank you, David!

https://plantfacts.osu.edu/pdf/0246-1216.pdf

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The Email Challenge:

Over the years I have had many readers tell me that Google is no longer sending them email announcements regarding my posts. Even more frustrating when they go to 're-sign-up', hoping that will enable them to once again start receiving the announcements, they get a message which says 'Sorry, you are already signed up.' Google has not responded to my requests for help with this issue. 

My functional work around is to setup my own email list and each week I manually send out a new post announcement. If you are experiencing the issue and would like to be added to my personal email list please send me an email requesting to be added. Thank you for your patience!

My email address is LDHubbell@comcast.net


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Saturday, November 18, 2017

Neighbors

The look in this hooded merganser's eyes seems to invite the creation of captions. I can imagine the bird thinking, 'Seriously, with feet that large, you thought you could sneak up and take my picture?'


I do find that birds are aware of me long before I notice them. What seems to work best is to stop moving as soon as I see a bird. Often, when I become stationary, the bird will decide I am not a threat and return to whatever it was doing. This bird was preening and cleaning its tail feathers. 

It was especially fun to find and photograph hooded mergansers this week. It has been almost exactly six years since my first post - which, coincidently, was also about hooded mergansers. This makes sense because in November their numbers on Union Bay do seem to increase.

Here is an example of a male snorkeling for food. Unlike the western grebes which usually dive completely underwater when hunting, hooded mergansers sometimes hunt with just their eyes below the surface. This certainly seems like a dangerously exposed method of hunting. 

By the way if you happened to read last week's postElegant Assassins, before Martin Muller added his thoughts regarding western grebes, you may want to go back and read his post in the 'Comments' section. I found Martin's knowledge and comments fascinating.

Here is an example of the potential danger lurking high above the mergansers. Yesterday, Albert, the male eagle from the Broadmoor nest, was hanging out almost directly above the area where I photographed the mergansers. 

I was certain it was Albert when I saw, Eva, his  mate, pass by and inspire him to return to the nest. Given that female eagles are about fifty percent larger than the males, it was pretty obvious who was who.

Earlier in the day, a red-tailed hawk was stationed above the water on the other side of Foster Island. In both cases the windblown, leaf loss from the cottonwood trees is steadily improving their field of view.

Male hooded mergansers, with their large white-on-black cranial displays, sometimes 'telegraph' their moves.

When they begin lowering the feathers, and minimizing the white area, they are often preparing for action.

This file photo provides an example. When the top knot is minimized and the head is lowered close to the body, they are often about to dive.

On the other hand, when they extend their necks and maximize their displays, they are not thinking about food. In this situation I have always assumed they are trying to impress their mates. Although, it actually looks like the males are focused on each other while the females completely ignore their antics.

Regardless of their motives, I find these 'mating' displays joyful and refreshing, especially during the gray days of November. 

By the way, I don't ever remember hearing merganser calls. The two recordings, which I found on All About Birds, sound a bit like a frog and a raven. It makes me think I should pay closer attention. Maybe I have heard them in the past but not actually realized who was making the sound. In the future, I plan to listen more carefully when I am in their neighborhood.

I also found this wood duck and the surrounding yellow reflections to be a nice antidote to the grey clouds of fall.

This clean and pristine pair of gadwalls also attracted my attention. I don't ever remember seeing a male gadwall with so much white on its lower face and neck. I suspect it must be just individual variation. It may not be rare, but it is certainly striking.

Another refreshing surprise was to finally catch up with Goldie again. It has been a couple of months since I last saw her. It may be wishful thinking, but I do think her iris is looking a tiny bit more red. You can read more about her eye-color in the post, Elderberry Whine.

When I compare her eyestripe in the previous photo to this photo, from earlier in the year, I feel pretty confident this is the same bird. Plus, the fact that she is in the same territory also supports my thought. However, I was disappointed that I did not notice her mate, Chip, hanging around with her.

This last photo is less about the bird and more about the two swathes of parallel fall colors and reflections. I hope you enjoy it! By the way do not overlook the new surprise under the Going Native section below.

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

Larry

Going Native:

This week I am trying something different. A very well-read friend, Tom Cotner, kindly provided me with his personal reviews, of some of his favorite natural history books. Thank you! Tom - for attempting to help me widen the breadth and depth of my knowledge

Also, for folks who enjoy reading my blog and learning about nature, I am thinking that these books might make very nice holiday gifts. 

Tom's comments are in blue and mine are in white.

1) Botanicum -- Katie Scott and Kathy Willis editors

This is an extraordinary book, mostly because of its layout and wonderful drawings. It is about plants, but this way of presenting nature could be used to introduce readers to any topic of natural history. 

This is a wonderful book, however part of the reason Tom recommended it to me was because of the unique layout. I am very happy to own this book, but I feel I must mention that the age range listed on the back of the book is 8 - 12.

2) Dirt -- The Erosion of Civilization -- David R. Montgomery 
Wonderful overview of one of the most important topics--the preservation of our soil.

I just finished this book and I found it startling and amazing. It is disconcerting how much we overlook soil and at the same time how fundamentally important it is. It gave me a whole new perspective on the rise and fall of civilizations and on buying organic. Plus, I sure would like to learn more about the author's eco-lawn. 

The rest of the books, except for number eight - which I read a few years back, are on my reading-to-do list.

3) King of Fish -- The Thousand Year Run of Salmon -- David R. Montgomery  
Montgomery presents all aspects of salmon, their history and their importance to man.  This is basically natural history in disguise but Montgomery has total command of the subject and is fearless in his description of what we are doing wrong and what we need to be doing.

I have purchased but not read, King of Fish. However, another book on the subject which I found very enlightening was, Salmon, People and Place -- by Jim Lichatowich.

4) Diversity of Life -- E.O. Wilson (from 1992)  
You would expect a book from the early 90's to be dated, but it remains one of the true classics. Very thoughtful, very well written and still tremendously important.

My favorite scientist and author!

5) Here On Earth -- Tim Flannery
Flannery is a scientist but this book is more popular science. It is excellent! maybe it is because Australia is more in the crosshairs of environmental crisis (diminishing ozone layer, extreme weather), but Flannery writes about our endangered Earth as if the crisis is imminent and writes fiercely, as if it really matters.

6) Mycelium Running -- How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World -- Paul Stamets
This book includes a great summary of how fungi are important in the growth of most (almost all) plants, and the various ways they help maintain the world. Quite short, well organized, very readable. And the last section, the classification of fungi, can be skipped.

7) Serendipity -- An Ecologist's Quest to Understand Nature -- James A. Estes
This book explores the connectivity of nature, with all of its hidden and indirect paths. It is essentially a memoir, but it really breaks down a few fairly simple relationships between species in Alaska and shows how these species are interrelated in a very clear fashion.

8) The Final Forest -- Big Trees -- William Dietrich
Dietrich is a local writer who focuses on the Pacific Northwest and this is my one tree book recommendation (I have read more than 20 tree books and they are all very good to great!).

9) The Ripple Effect -- The Fate of Freshwater the 21st Century -- Alex Preud'homme
Prud'homme is a great writer and he discusses the many issues with drinking water around the world. It can be read as a cautionary tale, because water has become a political hot-button issue in many parts of the world (see, Flint, MI)

10 Moral Ground, Ethical Action for a Planet in Peril -- Kathleen Dean Moore, and Michael P. Nelson, Eds.
This is a book more in the philosophical vein and it discusses awareness and ethics of humankind's place on Earth.  There are other books like it, but I like what Moore (a professor at Oregon St.) and Nelson have done here.  It is broken up into fairly simple chapters so you can pick and choose those topics that interest you.


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The Email Challenge:

Over the years I have had many readers tell me that Google is no longer sending them email announcements regarding my posts. Even more frustrating when they go to 're-sign-up', hoping that will enable them to once again start receiving the announcements, they get a message which says 'Sorry, you are already signed up.' Google has not responded to my requests for help with this issue. 

My functional work around is to setup my own email list and each week I manually send out a new post announcement. If you are experiencing the issue and would like to be added to my personal email list please send me an email requesting to be added. Thank you for your patience!

My email address is LDHubbell@comcast.net


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Sunday, November 12, 2017

Elegant Assassins

The sharp precision of the bill, the laser-like focus of the eyes and the long, thin neck give western grebes the appearance of elegant assassins. In the fall, when these grebes return to Union Bay our local fish should be scared. 

I find it hard to imagine more elegant creatures. The evenly distributed dark and light coloring, off set by the bright eyes and the yellow bill, provide a salve for our souls during the dark days of fall and winter.

Surprisingly, when a western grebe looks you in the eye its, elegance evaporates. The full frontal view seems to amplify their intensity. Perhaps this fearless stare inspired the phrase, 'If looks could kill...'

On the other hand, when they relax and paddle in silent circles they look like little toy boats, and it can be very hard to imagine their deadly intentions for aquatic life.

When they stand up in the water, to flap their wings and dry off a bit, you can see how the coloring of their bodies is evenly divided. They are dark above and light below.

When viewed from below, their white bellies must help them blend in with the sky. Their dark backs help make them less obvious, when seen from above. This type of countershading can also be referred to as Thayer's Law. You can read more about Thayer and his life's work by Clicking Here.

Their wings appear to have a similar distribution of color.

With their feet attached at the rear of their bodies, they can not only stand up in the water, but they can also roll their bodies sideways while paddling about. This 90 degree turn puts the grebe's belly on one side and its back on the other while their head and neck remain vertical.

This is particularly handy when preening and cleaning feathers which are normally positioned below the waterline.

It can also be helpful when attempting to scratch the back of the head. It looks like every inch of the long neck is required for this endeavor.

I am guessing this grebe has finished resting and is stretching its mouth before resuming its feeding activities.

This assumption was reinforced when the bird's next immediate action was to stretch its neck and wings.

Catching a grebe in the process of diving is quite a challenge. Normally, by the time I am aware that they are beginning to dive, they are gone, leaving only a gentle ripple on the surface of the water.

When they come up from a dive they sometimes rid themselves of excess water by shaking like a dog. I must admit that in the case of a canine, the ears flapping from side to side adds a certain element humor. The elegant grebes apparently have no use for humor, or large flapping ears.


Even though western grebes are generally found in groups, or colonies, they do require a certain amount of elbow room. This bird is coiling its neck and preparing to chase off, or strike out at a bird which has encroached on its personal space.

I have yet to see another bird with the courage to stand and fight when faced with the sharp, spear-like bill of an irritated western grebe.

I felt like I could almost hear this coot saying, 'Run, run as fast as you can...'

'...you can't catch me I'm the gingerbread man!'

In the past I have only seen from one to three grebes at a time on Union Bay. In October, I was excited to see eight of them swimming near the shell house. Yesterday I spoke with Ingrid, who has seen as many as ten this fall. My friend Andy Jacobson, from my Master Birder class, mentioned that over 300 have been seen at Magnuson Park this weekend. I certainly hope this means their wintering numbers are increasing in the Seattle area. 

All About Birds states that western grebes are particularly sensitive to pesticides. If you find these birds as beautiful and elegant as I do, you can help increase their odds of survival by utilizing organic or mechanical methods of pest control.

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

Larry



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. Can you identify these birds? Are they native to Union Bay?









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Scroll down for the answers


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These are the first Trumpeter Swans that I have seen above Union Bay this fall. Yesterday, I could tell they were Trumpeter and not Tundra Swans by their trumpeting as they flew over. From the photo alone you should be perfectly satisfied with having identified that they were either one or the other. They are native to our area in the winter. I do wonder if their migration patterns will change as temperatures continue to rise.


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The Email Challenge:

Over the years I have had many readers tell me that Google is no longer sending them email announcements regarding my posts. Even more frustrating when they go to 're-sign-up', hoping that will enable them to once again start receiving the announcements, they get a message which says 'Sorry, you are already signed up.' Google has not responded to my requests for help with this issue. 

My functional work around is to setup my own email list and each week I manually send out a new post announcement. If you are experiencing the issue and would like to be added to my personal email list please send me an email requesting to be added. Thank you for your patience!

My email address is LDHubbell@comcast.net


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