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

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Saturday, December 8, 2018


On Union Bay, when the cottonwood leaves have fallen and a cold north wind begins to blow, it is time to watch for the return of the Trumpeter Swans. When our local landscape is at its most desolate, their brilliant white feathers and elegant curves provide a refreshing source of beauty.

They spend much of their time preening, cleaning and sleeping. Occasionally, they also can be seen floating with their tails in the air, like huge, white, twenty-five-pound ducks. Like Mallards, they feed on submerged vegetation. However, their long necks enable them to reach food which most other waterfowl can only dream about. 

After quietly working my way into position, I was hoping to spend a few hours observing the swans. When a raft of American Coots floated into the picture, they provided an interesting contrast. Coots are small dark birds with white bills, while Trumpeter Swans are large white birds with dark bills. Coots also feed on submerged vegetation, however, they do not dabble. Coots dive for their food. The coots have lobbed toes to help propel their dives, in contrast, swans have webbed feet.

By the way, Trumpeter Swans have a special way of keeping their eggs warm. Instead of simply sitting on their eggs, they cover them with their large webbed feet. Thank you too, All About Birds, for this interesting fact.

Trumpeter Swans breed primarily in southeast Alaska and northeast British Columbia. Their cousins the Tundra Swans breed much further north e.g. in the tundra. According to the maps of Birdweb, in North America, the most likely time and place to find both Tundra and Trumpeter Swans is Western Washington in the winter.

I was both happy and sad to see one of the swans begin pumping her wings. I actually cannot identify any physical differences between the male and female swans. However, I have read that the males are larger and tend to guard the nests when their female is on eggs. The bird on the right sure seemed like he was on guard duty to me, even though this is clearly not nesting season.

I feel lucky, anytime I can catch a photo of a swan with its wings extended. However, I also feared the swan on the left was preparing to move away. I wondered if the influx of coots was irritating the swans. 

The third swan, seen in the initial photos, had already abandoned the little mud island.

The coots did not attack the swans, but apparently, swans do not like to be crowded. In a calm, stately procession the swans slowly paddled away. 

Can you identify the third species of black and white bird is this photo? The answer will be provided below.

In spite of my disappointment, I felt like the influx of coots was a bit of a compliment. Apparently, as long as I was quietly anchored, the coots regarded my kayak as part of the landscape. Just one of the many small islands that pop up as the winter water level descends.

Scientifically, I know that islands don't float. Emotionally, I was beginning to wonder if this little island would sink. It certainly disappeared beneath the onslaught of coots.

After a while, one of the local Bald Eagles must have flown past. The coots abandoned ship. 

For years, I have tried to secure photos which clearly document the thrashing confusion when coots flush. These photos may be better than most of my others, but they are still not quite as crisp as I would like. One thing is clear, a coot's exit strategy is the complete opposite of a swan's.

Maybe next week, I will show photos of why coots get so excited when a Bald Eagle flies over. 

This behavior is also in contrast to the way I have seen Trumpeter Swan respond. A couple of years ago, I watched a Bald Eagle pass directly above relaxing swans. The swans did not even flinch. I am guessing, they may be too large for an eagle to handle.

After the coots moved on the Trumpeter Swans circled slowly around the bay.

They ended up another on the small winter island where they resumed their preening and cleaning.

Most every day, during the last week, I have seen only two or three swans on Union Bay. Although, on Friday around noon, I saw one sitting on an island while three more came in flying low. It was fun to see their distant white shapes as they flew north from Webster Point. I suspect they fly around the point to save the energy required to fly up and over Laurelhurst.

During the next few weeks, it will be great fun to watch and see how many Trumpeters appear on Union Bay. In years past, the most I ever remember is fourteen. I certainly hope their numbers continue to grow.

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


PS: The third species, in the photo above, was a male Bufflehead.

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.

What species of bird is this? Are they native to Union Bay?

Scroll down for the answer.


These are European Starlings. Their name makes it clear they are not native to North America. Click Here to read an interesting account of their North American history and their impact.


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 workaround is to set up 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. Again, very nice presentation, Larry.


  2. But...could that be a Flicker tail, off to the right? :)

  3. Fine post as always, Larry. It was good to see you the other day.

  4. I didn't realize my name wouldn't appear on the post. That was from Dennis, the guy with the shocked expression when all he could find in the way of land birds at the fill were crows; oh, and a few starlings.

    1. Dennis,

      Thank you! It was wonderful to run into both of you. I hope your trip down under is delightfully birdy!


  5. It is so nice to see these lovely photos. Always nice posts, Larry. Thank you for reminding us of the importance of natural beauty close to home. I always look forward to reading these.

  6. Replies
    1. Good Luck! They are usually in the north to north east quadrant of Union Bay.

  7. Thank you for sharing your experiences, lovely photos and insight! Will look forward to enjoying your emails!! (Native of WA, now in FL) Patti