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

On Instagram and Twitter: @unionbaywatch

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Overlooked


How do we know this is a female Downy Woodpecker?

By winter, the variety of smaller bird species around Union Bay has declined. Luckily, nature compensates birdwatchers by removing the leaves from deciduous trees. Leafless branches provide a few more opportunities to see our non-migratory resident birds. None the less, quick little birds can be easily overlooked.

A Bewick's Wren inspects the moss and lichen for tasty miniature lifeforms. 

During short, sunlit days hungry birds can become more active and somewhat easier to see.

We know this is a male Downy Woodpecker due to the small red spot on the back of his head.

This Downy Woodpecker decided to hop along the top of the log while prospecting for nuggets of nutrition.

It must have taken at least ten minutes before this nervous little Pacific Wren decided it was safe to sneak out of the leaf litter and enjoy a brief moment in the sun.

However, the moments when small birds sit motionless, out in the open, in direct sunlight are the exception not the rule. More often, little birds search for food under leaf litter, in and around fallen logs or among the branches and twigs of small bushes and trees. The intervening foliage often obscures our view. Their fast flickering motions can make them hard to track even when they are in plain sight.

Here are a few examples of how small birds can be easily overlooked. The Downy Woodpecker in this photo can be a bit difficult to see even with its red, white and black coloring.

(It is fairly close to the center of the photo.)


Even more challenging is a little brown wren. Especially, since it has turned its tail toward the camera. It is almost perfectly in the middle of the photo. 

Often, when I glance down at a setting on my camera and then try to look up and continue photographing a small bird I can no longer find it - even when the bird has not have moved at all. 

Can you spot the Towhee in this photograph? Being easy to overlook is a critical survival skill for small birds. Predators are constantly searching for an easy meal.

For example, on Friday, this young Cooper's Hawk leaped up from the ground and perched on this small branch in the Union Bay Natural Area. It sat, watching every little movement, for nearly a half an hour. I suspected it had recently fed. Nearby, a Dark-eyed Junco sounded a warning to all who would listen. 

Cooper's Hawks usually weigh less than a pound. They are not the smallest, and certainly not the largest of predatory birds, however, they are perfectly-sized to hunt small songbirds and little woodpeckers.

Given its relatively small size, Cooper's Hawks must also be aware of larger predators. Turning its head sideways allows a better view of any potential danger in the sky.

From this angle, it looks like the Cooper's Hawk has a partially full crop. The 'neck' area just below the head looks slightly swollen with food. 

Vertical stripes on the chest of a Cooper's Hawk indicate it is a young bird. Even though it is not yet fully mature Cooper's Hawks sometimes mate and attempt to raise young before they get the horizontal barring which indicates maturity.

I wondered what the young hawk was watching. Was there a larger predator in the area?

We were very close to the location where I spotted this Red-tailed Hawk in early November.

I wondered if the Cooper's Hawk had its eye on a distant Red-tailed Hawk circling overhead. Red-Tailed Hawks can easily weigh three or four times as much as a Cooper's Hawk. 

Later on Friday, I spotted this immature Bald Eagle looking down from a perch in a Cottonwood Tree on the eastern side of the Union Bay Natural Area. Red-tailed Hawks do not have much to fear from Cooper's Hawks, but they must watch out for Bald Eagles. Eagles can easily weigh three or four times as much as a Red-Tailed Hawk.

It is interesting to note that the perches, which these predatory birds used, increased in elevation in proportion to the bird's weight. The Cooper's Hawk was about 10 feet above the ground, the perched Red-tailed Hawk was approximately 25 or 30 feet in the air, while the Bald Eagle was probably 60 to 70 feet above the ground.

When predators pick off smaller birds its like filtering out the gene pool. As a result, the smaller birds who survive, keep getting faster, their camouflage keeps getting better which makes them even easier for us overlook.

One way to spot the smaller birds is to follow the gaze of a larger predator. Predatory birds look over everything while overlooking almost nothing.

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

Larry

ps: The Spotted Towhee was in the upper left quadrant of the earlier photo. Also, the female Downy Woodpecker has no red on her head.


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 is this? Is it native to Union Bay?














Scroll down for the answer.










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Yellow Flag Iris: A noxious week in Washington. Click on the highlighted name to learn more.









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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, January 19, 2019

The Invisible Wall

Last Saturday, I met some new friends who were photographing Bald Eagles next to Union Bay. We were standing near the parking lot north of the Waterfront Activities Center (WAC) while observing Marsha and Monty. They are the eagles who built and lost a brand new nest last year. The light was nice, but branches partially obscured the eagles. Plus, we could not see Talia and Russ, the eagles from the northern nest on Union Bay, even though they were nearby. 

My new friends asked, 'Where is the best place to photograph the eagles?' Without hesitating I found myself replying, 'With the winter sun in the south, the best spot to see all four eagles would be sitting out in the water, just to the east of the Activities Center.' Later, I found myself thinking, maybe I should take my own advice. On Wednesday, I gave it a go.

Just before noon, I put down my anchors just south of the WAC buoys. Marsha was surveying the bay from the top of one of the same cedars where she and Monty had been sitting on Saturday. I could not spot any of the other eagles. My waiting began.

Previously, when I have watched all four Bald Eagles take to the air near the WAC it seemed to me that they were negotiating the boundary between their territories. Monty and Marsha moved in and claimed Montlake Cut and Marsh Island in the fall of 2017. Since then the four eagles often sit and hunt from the trees in front of Husky Stadium.

A couple of hours later, I finally thought to take this situational photo with my phone. It required adjusting my conception of bird photography and putting down my telephoto lens. In this photo, all four eagles are sitting in their customary hunting locations. Monty and Marsha are sitting on top of the second and third cedars from the left. (At this angle, the third cedar appears to be midway between the two halves of Husky Stadium.) Russ and Talia are sitting on the upper, right side of the tall leafless cottonwood tree, just to the right of the stadium.

Part of my inspiration to observe the eagles was a December eagle photo which was posted in the Seattle Times. Click Here to see the photo. The comments associated with the photo mention the idea that the two interacting eagles might be involved in in-flight courtship. I was curious whether I might see courtship activity.

Note: Monty and Marsha are definitely thinking about raising young in 2019. They started building their replacement nest early in November of 2018.

Watching Marsha simply sitting there, all by herself, was a bit boring. I was easily distracted by a nearby crow. The crow was closely inspecting a small mud island and obviously searching for food. When it noticed me, it seemed to object to my very existence. I turned out to be no threat. The crow resumed its search.

Moments later, it popped up with a gray-brown wing. Most likely the meatless wing was left behind by one of the Bald Eagles. 

If you enjoy a challenge you might search through some of the ducks in your field guide and see if you can find a species with a white border on the trailing edge of their grey-brown, secondary wing feathers. I will give you my guess later in the post.

The second eagle to appear in the area was not one of the three I was expecting. It was an immature eagle who was clearly not yet ready to settle down, select a mate and defend a territory. The eagle was sitting north of Marsha in what I believe is territory belonging to the neighboring Bald Eagles - Talia and Russ. Marsha seemed totally unconcerned about the young eagle.

It takes about five years, plus or minus six months before eagles mature and gain the familiar white head and tail. With some light colored feathers on the top of the head, with irises fading toward a light brown - but not yet yellow, with some white on the tail feathers and with a beak that is no longer dark - but still not brilliantly yellow, I am guessing that this bird is about to begin its third year of life. 

If you are interested in determining the age of young Bald Eagles, my best effort on the subject can be viewed by Clicking Here.

In a few moments, Russ and Talia showed up and flew to their customary location in the cottonwood tree. Normally, when either pair arrives in this area there is quite a bit of vocalization - especially if one or more of the other pair is already on site. 

This time the vocalization occurred but then Russ and Talia sat down facing the young intruder. Normally, they would sit facing south to keep an eye on Marsha or Monty. Apparently, the young bird was considered more of a threat - to hunt in their territory. For one thing, he was already on their side of the border. Marsha was still slightly to the south, and technically, in her own territory.

Russ flew one tree farther to the north, calling aggressively while keeping a close eye on the young eagle. 

In about five minutes, the youngster gave up and headed north. It flew directly away from Talia and Russ. I could not see if it landed but I did notice a dozen or more Double-crested Cormorants flush from the light poles above the baseball field. I suspected they became nervous when the young eagle passed over.

Around one-thirty Monty showed up. He might have been somewhere nearby the whole time, or he could have been south of 520 by what I call Kingfisher Cove or over in Portage Bay. These areas are all part of the territory he and Marsha usurped from Talia and Russ and also from Eva and Albert. Eva and Albert are often referred to as the 520 Eagles. Their territory is now limited to the south and more eastern portion of Union Bay. It is centered around their nest in Broadmoor. In any case, this was the first time I saw Monty on Wednesday.


Russ and Talia immediately started calling out. From a human perspective, we might take their vocalizations as words of welcome. I suspect the real meaning of the calls might be, 'Hey, we are right here. We have our eyes on you. Don't you dare try to grab a snack in our territory.'

Marsha's vocalizations were pretty similar, but in her case, they may actually have been words of welcome. She was clearly excited by her mate's return. 

Moments later one of the eagles flew. It headed straight out over the bay along the invisible border in the sky. In seconds, all four eagles were in the air. They circled each other directly in front of me. I believe this particular interaction was between the two females and therefore a continuation of their ongoing territorial negotiations.

I struggled to get the camera to focus and futilely...

 ...attempted to get all four birds in a single photo. Next time, I need to take two cameras or at a minimum have my phone ready to get a wide-angle view of the process. Having a second pair of arms would also be helpful.

Both pairs of eagles returned to their respective perches and seemed to be very proud of their success in redefining their territorial border. 

A half an hour later, Russ was in the air again. He headed north to chase a young eagle out of their territory, near the baseball field. I suspect it was the same hungry youngster we saw earlier, still hoping to sneak away with a snack.

Afterward, Russ returned to his perch near the southern border and was once again welcomed by Talia. 

Twice, during the afternoon, I watched one eagle from each pair take to the air and fly out over the bay looking for food. In both cases, they flew away from the border and into their own respective territory. Both times, there was not a single noise or stirring of a wing. All of the other eagles remained calmly at their respective perches. 

Obviously, eagle mating activity must occur on Union Bay. However, in front of the Waterfront Activity Center and Husky Stadium, all I have seen are a lot of territorial interactions, interspersed with the occasional hunt.

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

Larry

ps: My best guess is the wing in the crow's mouth came from a female Wood Duck. Although, I do not see any of the reflective blue-green feathers that I would normally expect to see just above the white border. 

A female Bufflehead was another possibility I considered, but their white speculum is normally more extensive than such a small white trailing edge.

1/20/2019 - Update:

Etta, one of my classmates from Seattle Audubon's Master Birder Class, just suggested the wing might belong to an American Coot. Given the high number of coots on Union Bay in the winter, given that I have seen Marsha eating two different coots in the last month and given the lack of reflective blue feathers (which a Wood Duck would normally have) I have been persuaded. Thank you to Etta!


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 is this? Is it native to Union Bay?














Scroll down for the answer.










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









Bufflehead: This is a female. They are so different in coloring from the males that they can be easily mistaken as a separate species. They are native to Union Bay.















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




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, January 12, 2019

Brilliance

Red-breasted Sapsuckers are brilliant and beautiful. They are also unique when compared with our other species of local woodpeckers. The others feed mostly on arthropods, e.g. ants, and fruit. Sapsuckers, as their name explains, have a preference for the sweet lifeblood of trees. Although, they also eat ants, spiders, and fruit, especially during breeding season. 

Birds of North America says, they will even dip ants in sap before feeding them to their young. The young need the protein, and apparently, the adults want to make sure that the little ones also develop a taste for their primary winter food.

Their deeper sap wells are usually aligned in horizontal rows which make it easy for them to reach to their left or right without significantly relocating. 

Their long stiff tails help to support their weight while they work. In the winter, sapsuckers, often pick a tree or two and continually return to the same sets of wells. At a casual glance, one might consider them the couch potatoes of the woodpecker world.

Actually, I see them as hard working and industrious, maybe even wise and efficient. Their wells require an initial investment in excavation, plus ongoing maintenance to keep the sugary sap flowing. By working the same sites repeatedly, day after day, they are maximizing their ROI, e.g. the return on their investment.

While Red-breasted Sapsuckers are fairly unique among local woodpeckers, there are two closely related species farther to the east.

Red-naped Sapsuckers, like the one in this photo, are usually seen east of the Cascade crest. East of the Rockies, Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers are more common. These three species are similar enough that interbreeding occurs in places where the three species converge - like British Columbia. Historically, they were even considered a single species.

In the Southwest, the Red-breasted Sapsuckers often have more of a white malar stripe. I believe the stripe is similar to the one seen on this Sapsucker. The stripe looks like an extension of the white spot just in front of the eye. I wonder if the stripe might be an artifact of interbreeding between the Red-breasted and the Red-naped Sapsuckers. 

From what I have read, juvenile sapsuckers of all species are darker in color and initially lack any red feathers. I am looking forward to someday getting the chance to photograph one of the young birds.

Similar to a Pileated Woodpecker, when a sapsucker spots a potentially dangerous creature the bird will generally move to the far side of the trunk and freeze. Sometimes, they peak around the tree to keep an eye on the intruder, but they seldom resume any noisy excavations until after they decide the threat is passed.

Compared to our Flickers, Pileated or Downy Woodpeckers, Red-breasted Sapsuckers have a higher percentage of bright red feathers. Our local red-shafted, Northern Flickers do have more orange-red feathers. However, the Red-breasted Sapsuckers have more distinctly red feathers. 

In spite of their brilliant color, I find the sapsuckers harder to spot than the previous three woodpecker species. I think this is because they generally work in the shadows, next to the trunk of the tree, Maybe also because they spend less time flying about from one location to the next

Here is a fairly common winter view of a Red-breasted sapsucker. In fact, they are often more distant than this photo implies and usually not outlined against the sky. 

Only with a careful adjustment of exposure does the beauty of the bird emerge. 

One of the most intriguing things about this species is the translucent tip to the bill. It is not always visible but I normally see it in at least a few photos from every encounter. I suspect it a matter of catching the light just right. Maybe it is similar to shining a flashlight through your fingernails. The luminous glow and its obvious strength on impact remind me more of ivory than fingernails.

Another interesting item of note is how they can adjust their wings to hide their bright white wing stripe. If you look back through the photos you will see that it is sometimes displayed and sometimes not. I wonder if hiding the stripe is intentional or accidental?

Speaking of catching the light just right, I feel very lucky whenever a Red-breasted Sapsucker peeks out of the shadows and catches one of our occasional shafts of sunlight. The result is a flaming explosion of brilliance.

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. 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 is this? Is it native to Union Bay?














Scroll down for the answer.










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









Pacific Wren: Often hidden and small but definitely native to Union Bay.















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




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






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







Recommended Citation

Walters, E. L., E. H. Miller, and P. E. Lowther (2014). Red-breasted Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus ruber), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (A. F. Poole, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. Retrieved from Birds of North America: https://birdsna.org/Species-Account/bna/species/rebsap