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

On Instagram: @unionbaywatch

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Silence is Golden

The dark-eyed Goldie on the left and the bright-eyed Chip on the right.

In the fall, young pileated woodpeckers leave their parent's territory and strike out on their own. This reduction in the total number of pileated woodpeckers makes it harder for me to keep track of our resident adults, Goldie and Chip. Before the young leave, they generally stay fairly close to their parents, which is rather helpful from my perspective. I think the three young in 2017, more than doubled my odds of locating at least one of them. 

A few years ago, hearing the pileated woodpeckers call was another method to locate the resident adults during winter. Back then, Elvis and Priscilla - one of the preceding pairs  - were fairly vocal. While feeding, one of them would call out every few minutes and the other would respond. I always thought of these interactions as contact calls. The birds might be fifty yards apart, and not visible at all, but it seemed obvious that they wanted to know they were both safe and still together. Pileated woodpeckers mate for life and apparently Elvis and Priscilla took their vows seriously, and were apparently vocal about their feelings.

Curiously, I do not ever remember hearing Chip and Goldie performing a similar type of call and response. I was happily surprised on Thursday when I heard a pileated woodpecker calling loudly. The increasing volume told me the bird was approaching my location, near Montlake Cut. I was very glad that the lengthy calls continued even after the bird landed. I needed all the help I could get - looking up through the falling rain - to spot the dark bird hanging on the side of a large cottonwood tree.

The red forehead and malar stripe indicated I was watching a male pileated woodpecker. I suspected it was Chip, since I was well within his territory. Later, comparing current and previous photos, helped convince me this was Chip. 

His behavior was unusual. He simply hung on the drier side of the tree, not feeding and yet calling loudly every few minutes. A half an hour passed and I never heard the slightest response. 

At one point Chip raised his crest, displaying obvious excitement, and seemed to hide from something on the far side of the trunk. I never did see the apparent threat. I suspected it was a bird, but smaller than a red-tailed hawk. Last spring, while watching Chip excavate a nest site, I watched his reaction when a red-tailed hawk flew over. He went to the opposite side of the trunk and froze. This time he was very animated and kept peaking around the trunk first from the left and then from the right. Once the danger had passed, he resumed his calling.

Just as my patience was wearing thin, Chip came even closer. He flew down out of the cottonwood and into a willow next to the water's edge. As I turned to watch, I saw a silent flash of movement as another creature entered the willow from the opposite direction. I could not locate the second bird, while peering through the profusion of branches, 

Finally, a few moments later, the dark-eyed and silent Goldie revealed herself.

Chip moved down to an obviously fresh hole, in a clearly dead portion of the tree, and began excavating and eating. With his long bill finding food deep within the tree it was virtually impossible to see what he was eating. However, I suspected he was finding his favorite food, carpenter ants.

After a while he moved away from the prime feeding location and Goldie took a turn. I call her Goldie because of the golden-brown feathers on her forehead. Later, I also compared her current and previous photos, which proved to me that she was the same female I had been watching for the last year or so.

Anytime both of the woodpeckers moved away from the feeding site, a quick little Bewick's Wren would move in and try to catch a meal.

This would inspire a somewhat larger Song Sparrow to chase the wren away. Although, I never did see the sparrow actually settle in and catch any ants.

The wren on the other hand was quicker and far more persistent. It seemed to have a clear goal in mind.

The wren actually caught and subdued this fair-sized flying insect.

The wren's catch seemed to be the same as the creature in the upper left in this photo. I am guessing it was a termite, due to the wider mid-body, even though it did come up out of the same hole as the carpenter ants.

After a while, Goldie returned to the hole to feed some more.

Next, Chip returned and sidled his way over and gently took control of the feeding hole.

Pushed to the side, Goldie continued to search the area for ants which had escaped the initial attack.

In time Chip ate his fill and finally flew off to the north side of Montlake Cut, where he sat and occasionally called out.

Goldie returned to the prime feeding location and got her fill as well, before following Chip across The Cut. 

In the whole time, I never heard a single peep out of Goldie. She clearly can hear Chip and comes to his location, but apparently she does not feel a need to attract him. I have to respect her self-confidence. Even though I certainly would like to hear her vocalize, maybe her silence is helping to protect her from being caught by a predator - like a red-tailed hawk, a barred owl or a cooper's hawk. In which case, I must agree that her silence is golden.

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 respect native flora and to support native wildlife at every opportunity. I have learned that our most logical approach to native trees and plants (in order of priority) should be to:

1) Learn and leave established native flora undisturbed.
2) Remove invasive species and then wait to see if native plants begin to grow without assistance. (If natives plants start on their own, then these plants or trees are likely the most appropriate flora for the habitat.)
3) Scatter seeds from nearby native plants in a similar habitat.
4) If you feel you must add a new plant then select a native plant while considering how the plant fits with the specific habitat and understanding the plant's logical place in the normal succession of native plants.

My intention in my weekly post 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 answers


Both plants in this week's photos are Mahonia or Barberry.

A) I believe this is a non-native garden variety of Mahonia commonly called 'Charity'. You can learn more about this hybrid by Clicking Here

Update: January 18th, 2018

I was informed today that are many types of winter-blooming mahonia hybrids. My new friend mentioned that there are three which we frequently see blooming in our area. They are called Charity, Winter Sun and Arthur Menzies. They bloom in roughly the same order they are listed. The first starting around November, the second around December and finally the third around January. Given the time of year the plant in my photo is most likely Arthur Menzies, and not Charity.


B) This is the native Mahonia Nervosa referred to as Long-leafed Mahonia or Low Oregon Grape. You can learn more about this plant by Clicking Here.

One obvious clue that will help you to distinguish these plants is the time of year at which they bloom. Charity blooms here in early winter and is very attractive to Anna's Hummingbirds. Low Oregon Grape blooms in April and May. Charity, Winter Sun and Arthur Menzies are difficult plants for me. I love the fact that they bloom during our dark gray winters. I enjoy seeing hummingbirds, native Bushtits and Townsend's Warblers attracted to the plants during our short winter days. On the other hand, they do grow fairly tall and large, and they overshadow our native plants 


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



  1. Could the winged insect be a carpenter ant queen?

    1. I wondered about that, but the online comparison I saw showed the carpenter ant queen as being very narrow in the mid-body area. Plus, I saw the wren capture one and then soon after a second emerged from the hole. I am expecting I would not see two queens in a row. However, I am not an expert so I could very well be wrong. At least now you know as much as I do. Thanks for asking!

  2. Hi Larry
    Been a while since I read up on Carpenter ants but both the male and female carpenter ants that are becoming sexually active grow wings to leave the nest to expand the colony, I think they are referred to as swarmers just like termites, the female swarmers look a lot different then the colony dominant queen because they haven't yet become egg layers.
    After leaving the colony the males will mate with the females and then they die, the queens continue on and will start a new colony and become the colony dominant egg laying female.

  3. Thank you! If i understand correctly then you are saying the winged creatures could be swarming, sexually-active female ants leaving the next to look for new potential nest sites (and male ants to fertilize them).