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

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Sunday, March 25, 2018

A Carolina Morning

Osprey, South Carolina - 2018

Recently, I had the opportunity to spend a morning in a forested preserve, near the South Carolina coast. Seeing completely new habitat and new creatures inspired feelings of awe and wonder, kind of like a child stepping outside for the first time. The Loblolly Pine forest reminded me of a miniaturized version of the Ponderosa Pine forests, which can be found east of the Cascades. The resemblance abruptly stopped when I glanced down at the palmettos in the understory, not to mention the alligators in the canals. The visit did provide me the opportunity to compare a few of the Southeastern U.S. bird species with some of our Northwest species. Some of the bird species were virtually identical to ours, like the osprey, while others were not.

Near the end of my morning visit, I photographed this osprey. The bird was working furiously to remain stationary relative to the water. This characteristic, full-frontal view of the wings only happens when an osprey is hovering. It ends up in this odd position by pushing down with its wings with what appears to be normal wing beats. However, halfway through the process the wings rotate from horizontal to vertical. I suspect this serves two purposes. It reduces lift by dumping the air it is pushing against and the vertically-held wings increase resistance to forward momentum. When the bird rapidly repeats this flap-dump process it hovers. Moving rapidly and yet remaining stationary, the osprey waits for an unsuspecting fish to make a fatal mistake.

When the osprey decided to dive, it turned its wings and tail perpendicular to the water's surface. This minimized the bird's resistance to gravity and caused it to begin side-slipping towards lunch. The osprey immediately folded its wings away while diving head first. Osprey are arguably the most successful avian-aquatic predators in the world. Later, I would learn that I was not the only one to observe the osprey's dive.

Osprey are year-round residents in the southern half of South Carolina. Around Union Bay, Seattle and Western Washington, they come north to breed and raise young. Then in the early fall they follow the warm weather south.

Pileated Woodpecker, South Carolina - 2018

It was mostly dark when I arrived at the preserve. The first bird sounds I heard were the 'thump, thump, thump' of a Pileated Woodpecker. I looked up to see the characteristic silhouette just before it flew. An hour later, I noticed a promising snag with a couple of obvious woodpecker holes. I was happily surprised when the Pileated Woodpecker looked out to survey the forest.

I never did see the male bird leave the nest, which caused me to suspect that he was incubating eggs. The timing would put the South Carolina woodpecker (and his mate) ahead of the 2017 nesting schedule for our Union Bay Pileated Woodpeckers.

'Chip' the male Pileated Woodpecker, next to Union Bay in Seattle - 2017

Last year at this time, Chip had completed this first nest site, which his mate Goldie rejected. It was the end of March before he finished the second site which she ultimately selected. Do you see any differences between the two Pileated Woodpeckers? When I took the photo of the Carolina woodpecker, I had the feeling that his red top knot was a bit more extensive than Chip's.

The shape of the nest holes, makes another interesting comparison. Among the Pileated Woodpeckers which I have watched around Union Bay their holes have always been egg-shaped, with the narrow portion pointing up. This South Carolina hole is decidedly round, as was the second hole in the snag. 

Interesting questions for budding scientists might be, Do young woodpeckers learn the proper shape for a nest hole from their initial nest or is there in-born information which accounts for the differences? Are egg-shaped holes unique to the Union Bay, the state of Washington, the west half of the continent or everywhere but South Carolina?

Pileated Woodpecker, near Union Bay in Seattle - 2013

While comparing photos, I also noticed that Chip's black eye stripe seemed longer and possibly a bit lower. I pulled up this older Union Bay pileated photo which also shows a relatively long eye stripe. Having only the single eastern bird for comparison leaves me wondering whether this difference is regional or simply an individual variation.

Brown-headed Nuthatch, South Carolina - 2018

Nearby I spotted a pair of Brown-headed Nuthatches. They were bringing food back to a nest hole which had been drilled into a dead branch, high overhead. If you look closely you can see a small white particle of food near the tip of this bird's bill. The young were evidently still too small to be waiting by the opening. Before turning its back on the world to enter the nest, the adult nuthatch made a final check for danger among the surrounding tree tops.

Red-breasted Nuthatch, Nestling and sap, Seattle - 2015

In this 2015 Seattle photo, an adult Red-breasted Nuthatch is bringing food to its offspring. This nestling is old enough to hold its head up and position itself by the opening to the nest. Granted, these two nuthatch photos are comparing different species. So, the color differences are not a surprise. Still, it is interesting that a bird from the Southeast has a brown head which blends-in with the bark of the Loblolly Pine, while the Northwestern bird has a grey-blue back which blends-in with our local weather patterns.

In Seattle, the Red-breasted Nuthatches gather sap and paint it around the outside of their nest sites. In the case of the South Carolina Nuthatches I did not notice any visible application of sap near the nest. A third difference, which may not obvious from the photos, is that the Carolina nest seemed much higher in the tree than the Red-breasted Nuthatch nests, which I have seen near Union Bay.

Red-bellied Woodpecker, South Carolina - 2018

Next, I heard the call of this Red-bellied Woodpecker. It was not particularly musical. In fact it reminded me of a Eastern Gray Squirrel. On average Red-bellied Woodpeckers are just a few centimeters larger than the Red-breasted Sapsuckers which we have here in the Northwest.

Red-breasted Sapsucker, Seattle - 2017

Not surprisingly, Red-breasted Sapsuckers drill holes and consume sap. However, the Red-bellied Woodpecker is said to only occasionally drink sap. I wondered if the warmer weather in the Southeast resulted in a greater abundance of year-round fruit and insects and therefore less of a need to drink sap. It turns out that three out of four North American Sapsuckers reside west of the Mississippi. Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, the fourth species, does winter in the Southeast. Sadly, I did not see any sapsuckers during my morning adventure in Carolina.

However, moments after the male Red-bellied Woodpecker called a female flew in and landed on the same tree trunk.

They moved up to a somewhat more horizontal branch, where they gave in to the urges of Spring.

Anhinga, South Carolina - 2018

Later, I stepped quietly from behind a row of trees and was surprised to find this large bird immediately to my left. The bird seemed equally surprised. I was too close to properly photograph the whole bird and yet I suspected any major movement, for instance backing away, might flush the bird. The occasional flash of brilliant red when the sunlight caught the bird's eye was mesmerizing.

This South Carolina species seemed like a cross between a Double-crested Cormorant and a Western Grebe. I think, the red-eye and the sharp bill resembled a grebe, while the body shape and behavior seemed closer to a cormorant. When I finally decided to quietly back away the bird extended its neck, head and neck pouch in the irritable manner of a cormorant. 

Still, I found the Anhinga to be incredibly unique. The volume of white feathering appears to be far beyond the wildest dreams of one of our Union Bay Double-crested Cormorants.

Double-crested Cormorant Union Bay - 2017

By comparison, the crest on one of our Union Bay cormorants seems like an after thought. Curiously, Double-crested Cormorants also inhabit South Carolina.

Eastern Bluebird, South Carolina - 2018

An Eastern Bluebird looks a lot like our Western Bluebird. The Eastern Bluebird appears to be a much bolder bird species. It can be found year-round in the United States, as long as you are close to or east of the Mississippi Valley and south of the Great Lakes.

Western Bluebird, Washington - 2015

Our Western Bluebird on the other hand is most often found west of the Rocky Mountains and locally east of the Cascades. I have never seen one near Union Bay or in a town or city. If I remember correctly, this Washington photo was taken in the Spring on a lonely, gravel road on the dry side of the Cascades. 

Northern Mockingbird, South Carolina - 2018

The Northern Mockingbird is an interesting bird with the ability to mimic numerous other avian species. This makes me think they have a great deal of intelligence. Apparently, they are even able to imitate larger predatory birds, in order to scare off species with which they compete for food. 

Curiously, Mockingbirds are not a bird that we can expect to see around Union Bay. This seems surprising because in the eastern portion of the United States Northern Mockingbirds are known to live year round in the the southern parts of New York, New Hampshire and Vermont. Apparently not the cold which keeps them from residing in Western Washington. maybe its the rain. They are rarely found breeding in Eastern Washington per Birdweb.

At the last possible moment, the Osprey threw its feet forward. Still fully-committed it dove. Every body part was held in a streamlined position which enables osprey to plunge as deep as three feet under the water.

Faster than I could focus my camera the osprey grabbed the fish and lifted off.

As the Osprey flew away to find a feeding perch, I heard the approaching cries on a Bald Eagle. As the excited Bald Eagle swooped in to give chase the Osprey had to make an age-old decision. Keep the fish and potentially be caught by the eagle or drop the extra weight and live to eat later in the day.

The Osprey choose to drop the fish before the eagle could intercept either of them. The osprey also called out loudly and indignantly. In a moment, there were multiple osprey and crows on the scene. They all took turns diving at the parasitic eagle.

Fish-less, and far less excited, the Bald Eagle turned tail and ran.

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 our local environment and 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.

Do you know this plant? Is it native to Union Bay?

Scroll down for the next step.


If memory serves me correctly this Salix alba or White Willow which is native to Europe. I believe these are the male flowers, because I read they bloom earlier than the female flowers. In any case, these are from the willow trees on the shore of Duck Bay in the Washington Park Arboretum.

Our tallest native willow is Salix Lasiandra or Pacific Willow. Click Here to learn more about our native Pacific Willow.


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. Thanks, very informative. We are in frigid Nebraska to observe hundreds of thousands of Sandhill cranes. Loved the woodpecker photos.

    1. Thank you. The Sandhill Cranes sound like fun! I hope you had a great time.