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

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Saturday, October 12, 2019

A Frugivoracious Thunger

Cedar Waxwings are frugivores... 


...meaning they eat fruit. This plant is a non-native Cotoneaster. 

Cedar Waxwings will eat insects, but unlike Swallows, insects are not their primary source of food. Did you notice the varied length of the tail feathers? This is a nice example of new feather growth. 

If you zoom in on this photo you will see hundreds of small dark smudges. Each one is an insect. On October 1st, the Waxwings were darting out from the upper branches of this cottonwood and picking insects out of this 'cloud' above Foster Island.

Insectivores love insects and carnivores prefer meat. In each case, the 'vore' portion of the word implies 'prefers to eat'. 


In early September, I found waxwings eating these black berries on a small tree near the western entrance to Yesler Swamp. I was not familiar with this particular type of tree. Luckily, I ran into JP, a Gardner at the Center for Urban Horticulture.

A few days later, JP sent me an email explaining that the small tree is a Chokecherry

A week later, I returned to see how the Waxwings were doing. The tree had been virtually stripped. I found only one cherry left and no Waxwings. They had a voracious appetite for the chokecherries.

In spite of their refined and elegant appearance, waxwings do not always dine in a slow and civilized fashion. This tree is a Chinese Sorbus. The fruit is slightly larger than the fruit of either the Cotoneaster or the Chokecherry.

For the last few weeks, the Waxwings have been descending and feasting on this specific type of Sorbus in the Arboretum. 

Apparently, the fruit is at just the right level of ripeness. I suspect it is the abundance and possibly the size of the fruit which has slowed them from simply stripping these trees bare.


In spite of the name, the fruit of the Chokecherry is small and easy for the Waxwings to swallow. The fruit of this Sorbus being slightly larger creates more of a danger of choking.

To test the fit this waxwing extends its hooked tongue and pulls the fruit into its mouth. This is quite different than a grebe or a heron which throws its head back and lets gravity help pull the fish down.

Here is a side view of the hooked tongue. The rear-facing hook is a highly functional tool.

The bird obviously must be debating whether or not this delicious piece of fruit will satisfy its appetite or stick in its throat and kill it.

A split second later the fruit 'pops' forward. Clearly, the Waxwing was not comfortable with the fit. It mashed the fruit a bit before trying again. This process was repeated over and over by dozens of Waxwings stationed throughout the Sorbus tree.

Occasionally, a piece of fruit would pop completely out of a waxwing's mouth. Sometimes this may have been a rejection due to the size at other times it was accidental. Most of the waxwings would let the fruit fall and simply select another piece. Only once, did I see a waxwing chase a piece of falling fruit. It was a juvenile bird and it flew halfway to the ground before turning back. 

Cedar Waxwings seem to have a universal fear of eating fruit off the ground. Either that or they have very good manners. On the other hand, American Robins, feeding in the same tree, have no problem landing on the ground in search of fallen fruit.

By the way, the mottled look on the chest of a waxwing indicates it is a juvenile. However, this is a very short-lived plumage, by January it will be gone.

By New Year's Day, they will develop a more elegant plumage which is quite similar to what this adult is wearing. 

Surprisingly, only a small percentage of adult Cedar Waxwings develop their namesake waxy-red wingtips, like this bird. The little red dot almost above the leg is a new feather just beginning to grow out. While the red dots that are closer to the tail are on older more fully formed flight feathers.
 
Their hunger is so strong they often hover while looking for the perfect piece of fruit. Like with hummingbirds, it is surprising that the energy expended is adequately offset by the fruit consumed.

They tend to descend on the trees in flocks and attack the fruit...

 ...from every possible angle.

 
Sometimes, they hang upside down while searching through the leaves. (Younger birds like this one appear to have smaller and sharper yellow tips on their tail feathers.)

Surprisingly, there are multiple ways to hang upside down.

I suspect the odd looking angles for grasping their prize are all about twisting it free. Maybe if the fruit is properly ripe it just pops loose.

This fruit was being twisted so that the orange underside has been revealed.

Between this photo, and the next one, you can see the range of a single bird's twisting effort.

Their focus displays the intensity of their appetite. I think their desire for fruit is so strong that the term frugivore is an understatement. I suggest we refer to them as being frugivoracious.

Also, I wonder if waxwings distinguish between hunger and thirst. When waxwings are eating fresh fruit do they require any water? Could they be similar to young Bald Eagles - who spend their first few months in a nest without a source of water. This implies to me that for some creatures hunger and thirst may seem like a single appetite or at most slight variations on a single theme. 


For example, I suspect the growth hormone in trees, which causes leaves to reach out and compete for sunshine and oxygen, might be the same hormone that causes the roots to grow and grasp for moisture and nutrients. It seems unlikely to me that nature would develop different systems for doing similar activities unless there was a specific benefit for each unique approach.


Could it be that a bird's desire to consume might be more precisely stated in a single word? For some avian creatures might their thirst and hunger be more properly combined and called...thunger? 


If you ask me to use this new word in a sentence I would say, It appears to me that Cedar Waxwings have a frugivoracious thunger.
 
By the way, if you have read the new report regarding the serious decline in bird species you will be happy to hear that the Cedar Waxwing population is stable. Click Here to read the section labeled Conservation which reviews the waxwing population.

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 our local environment and native creatures. I have been told that even the microbes in the soil are native to each local landscape. I hope 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 see the bird in this photo? Is it a Union Bay native?
























Scroll down for the answer.














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Brown Creeper: It is a northwest native and can be found around Union Bay year-round. 

This is simply a closeup of the prior photo - in which the bird is in the middle.
























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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 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







Monday, September 30, 2019

Enamored

On Tuesday, September the 16th, I was walking along the new Arboretum Trail near Lake Washington Blvd when I heard a very loud, repetitive sound. I glanced at the passing vehicles. Could it be some sort of mechanical failure? The sound was as loud as a water pump when the bearings fail - but more rhythmic, on and off, not the constant nerve-racking squeal of dry bearings.  

A moment later the sound caught up with me and passed me by. It was now coming through the treetops near the south side of Union Bay. It was the loudest, longest and most raucous call of a Belted Kingfisher I had ever heard. I couldn't see the bird. My pace quickened. Luckily, I was on my way to the Bay for my last kayaking trip of summer. Hopefully, if I hurried, I might catch up with the full-throated kingfisher and find out what all excitement was about.

Adult females wear a chestnut belt and are, on average, slightly larger than the males. There can be significant weight variation, so in any particular pair, the male may still be the larger bird. 

The chestnut belt (or its absence in the males) is the most reliable method to determine the gender of a Belted Kingfisher. This is one of the few instances when the females of an avian species are more colorful than the males. This unique arrangement is called reverse sexual dimorphism. You can learn more about it by Clicking Here.

A kingfisher's physical design looks like a mix n' match project. They weigh approximately twice as much as an American Robin and yet they have virtually no legs and little tiny feet. It makes me wonder were is the hummingbird who is missing its feet.

(From a vehicular perspective, a Belted Kingfisher reminds me of a large American-made four-wheel-drive pickup barely balanced on tiny little Mini Cooper wheels.)

It took longer than I hoped to stow the trailer in my kayak, assemble the paddle, put on the life jacket and pull out my camera. Finally, I was on the water. I paddled around the point and into the backwater around Elderberry Island. I paddled slow and quiet. I assumed any loud noise or flashing of my paddle might flush the kingfisher. At which point, I would simply see tail feathers disappearing in the distance.

To my surprise, there were two of them and they were completely enamored with each other. I was irrelevant, which is just the way I like it, especially when it comes to bird watching.

Immediately, my mind began racing! Was this a territorial skirmish? Were these two birds of the same gender fighting over fishing rights? Were they two birds of opposite gender expressing a reproductive interest in each other? Were they two young siblings mock fighting? Was it a young bird demanding food from a parent? What was I seeing?

I quietly paddled back and forth, left and right, turning the kayak and trying to watch their behavior between the obscuring branches. For over an hour, I watched as they flew circles above my head. They were both calling loudly, virtually nonstop. The lead bird would land at one of three bare treetops and then the other one would fly up and chase it off its temporary perch. 

Later, while studying the photos at home, I decided this one was most likely a young female with the beginnings of a chestnut belt and a mix of color in her upper belt which implies a first-year bird.

 
The more scruffy looking of the two also had a mix of rufous and blue feathers in its 'upper' and only belt. This told me it was also a first-year bird but most likely a male since I saw no hint of a lower belt.

I watched carefully to be certain it was not always the male chasing the female. They definitely took turns pursuing each other. During the whole time, neither bird was quiet or still for more than a minute or so. There was no way this type of behavior could be sustained. What I was seeing was extremely intense behavior. At one point, one of them flew down skimmed about a foot the surface of the water. The other one followed close behind.  

It was hours later when the light went on. I suddenly realized this was most likely a seasonal behavior. As Summer fades away the number of daily light hours declines. In September we reach a point where the length of the day is very similar to early Spring. Specifically, on September 16th we had just over 13 hours of sunlight, which was almost the same day length we experienced on April the 6th.

The theory, as I understand it, is that the length of the day sets off hormones in the birds which initiate the need to breed. Sadly, in the fall it is only a temporary hot flash. As the days continue to grow shorter the urge passes quickly. I suspect that in these two, first-year birds, they were intensely experiencing feelings which they had never felt before. They were literally flying in circles, calling nonstop and clearly unable to concentrate on hunting, eating, grooming or anything else.

Not long ago my friend Wendy reminded me of a poem which speaks to this phenomenon. It  was written by Sharon Stiles in 1973. It is, 


"The Autumnal Recrudescence of the Amatory Urge


When the birds are cacophonous in the trees and on the verge,

Of the fields in mid-October when the cold is like a scourge.

It is not delight in winter that makes feathered voices surge,

But autumnal recrudescence of the amatory urge.


When the frost is on the punkin' and when leaf and branch diverge,

Birds with hormones reawakened sing a paean, not a dirge.

What's the reason for their warbling? Why on earth this late-year splurge?

The autumnal recrudescence of the amatory urge."



Have 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 our local environment and native creatures. I have been told that even the microbes in the soil are native to each local landscape. I hope 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. 



Is this creature, seen in the Union Bay Natural Area, a native?























Scroll down for the answer.














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Great Golden Digger Wasp: According to Merrill A. Peterson's excellent insect reference, 'Pacific Northwest Insects', this species is not native to Western Washington - see page 478. I am very curious what its presence at the Union Bay Natural Area means. Is this creature, which is native to Eastern Washington, just a wild-haired wanderer or does it represent a fundamental shift? Could its presence be related to global warming and a drying trend in Western Washington?

Be sure and click on the golden highlighted link. This wasp is a very interesting little creature.

Update:

'Hi Larry,

Nice find! Someone else sent me an observation late last summer from out along the Willapa Bay. I agree with your statements about possible explanations, but there is also another one. My descriptions are based on what's been documented in the literature and citizen portals and specimens in museums. So, rather that being based on complete info regarding distribution, those descriptions are best viewed as "documented from" descriptions. It may be that it's been living in W WA for centuries or longer but that it's scarce enough here that it's not been documented until recently.

Best Wishes,
-Merrill

Merrill W. Peterson
Professor and Chair
Biology Department
Western Washington University
...'
















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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 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


Saturday, September 14, 2019

Headless In Seattle

This headless owl photo, taken on Friday the 13th, certainly seems like a fitting introduction to today's post.


Personally, I find this photo a bit more chilling. I suspect this is precisely what a rat, rabbit or squirrel sees prior to its demise. The perfectly heart-shaped opening of the mouth most likely induces feelings of paralytic fear, not love. The suddenly sightless eyes are no longer needed once the prey is in 'hand'. The reflective blue nictitating membranes slide into place and protect one of the owl's most impressive superpowers - its night vision. Its other spooky powers include eerily silent flight and superb hearing. I wonder if Barred Owls can hear our hearts beating, even when we can't.

Another of the owl's spooky skills is the ability to twist it neck and head into seemly impossible angles. Secrets of owl skeletal design are explained on The Owl Pages.

I was lucky when the owl turned around. It provided the opportunity to see what happens when an owl's head disappears.

The owl uses its exceptionally flexible neck to reach over its back and preen feathers which would otherwise be inaccessible

Like most birds, the owl grasps a feather near its base and then pulls the length of the feather through its bill. 

This cleans, straightens and returns the interlocking velcro-like feather barbs into their optimal arrangement.

The owl does the same type of preening...

 ...on its more easily accessible feathers when the head is facing forward.

Sometimes accessing the correct feather requires moving a leg out of the way.

For head feathers, the talons become the only option. It would seem wise to close the eyes during such an endeavor. It makes me wonder if owls ever accidentally blind themselves with those deadly sharp talons.

It is interesting to note how the talons can be safely stored away. All the points fold inward like predatory origami. No doubt this is what happens when owls are feeding their young in the nest.

When birds hold their feathers erect it reminds me of humans shivering and having our hairs stand on end. I suppose for birds it allows easier access for preening.

These three photos make me think Scary...

 ...Sleepy...

 ...and Wise. My anthropomorphising makes me wonder where the owl left its walking-stick.

The owl was sitting near a major trail in the Arboretum on a lower branch of an oak tree. I found this unusual because they normally prefer to sleep through the day on the inner branches of Western Red Cedars, or some other dense conifer. They like to be hidden among the shadows and undisturbed while they snooze through the daylight hours.

In addition, Steller's Jays were busily harvesting acorns overhead and occasionally calling out indignantly about the deadly predator sitting silently below. After a while, I finally realized that the owl was consistently looking down at the ground. At first, I thought maybe a passing squirrel or something was attracting its attention.


Finally, I noticed the swarm of flies attracted to a brown body camouflaged among the pine cones and wood chips. Given the color of the fur I suspect it was the remains of a Rabbit. Most likely, the owl had eaten what it could and then being unable to carry the weight decided to spend the day overhead. Perhaps, it was prepared to defend its kill while waiting to feel the need for a second meal.

At times the owl closed it eyes and gave the impression of being oblivious.

Other times, with its wide-eyed stare it certainly seemed aware of every creature within earshot. It was obvious that the level of awareness was not mutual. I watched as humans, dogs and even squirrels passed by without noticing the deadly...

 ...and often headless-looking predator sitting silently overhead.

Congratulations on surviving Friday the 13th. Sadly, Halloween is coming.

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 our local environment and native creatures. I have been told that even the microbes in the soil are native to each local landscape. I hope 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. 



Is this creature, seen in the Arboretum, a native?























Scroll down for the answer.














***************
















Common Whitetail: Yes. Common Whitetails are native. The pure white tail indicates this is a male. For more information from our gifted and kind local expert, Dennis Paulson, click on the highlighted name.















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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 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