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

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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.










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















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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






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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

Sunday, January 6, 2019

Pigeon Hawk

A Merlin sitting in the remains of a leafless tree above Union Bay is like a small bubbling bundle of predatory excitement waiting to explode. Merlins are smaller members of the Falcon family. They often capture even smaller birds like Sparrows and Waxwings. 

Unlike Peregrine Falcons, which commonly attack from a height, Merlins will often attack horizontally. Then can come in at high speed across the treetops, cattails or water. They must be able to process an amazing amount of visual information. A single misunderstood, split-second decision could easily be the end of a Merlin.

More than once, I have seen Merlins come in horizontally towards a Pileated Woodpecker. Each time the woodpecker was hanging on the trunk of a tree. At the last possible moment, apparently, when the Merlins caught a close look at the size of the woodpecker and its bill, they made high-speed ninety-degree turns and wisely abandoned their attack.

Last week, the tables were turned by an aggressive Crow.


The fierce, little Merlin is similar in length to a robin. However, their wingspan is on average around seven inches wider - approximately twenty-four inches. Plus, a Merlin can weigh more than twice as much as a Robin. I suspect much of the weight difference may be devoted to chest muscles, which help to increase their flight speed.

Due to the grey-blue color on this Merlin's back, I believe it was a male. Similar to most other Union Bay raptors, the males are generally smaller than the females. The female Merlins are also browner in color.

This photo from 2015 shows what I believe is a younger Merlin whose coloring is more similar to that of a female.

Clearly, the Crow was making the Merlin uneasy. Normally, I see crows harassing larger birds like Bald Eagles and Barred Owls. Occasionally, Crows will chase Cooper's Hawks. Although, that can be dangerous as Cooper's Hawks often turn around and chase after the crows. I really cannot imagine why the Crow was so intent on harassing the speedy, little Merlin. In breeding season, I would think it would be much more likely to see a Merlin chasing a Crow.

The only way I can imagine a Merlin directly endangering a member of the Crow family would be in the Spring. I suspect a Merlin might raid a defenseless Crow's nest if there were no parents in close attendance. According to Sibley's the average Crow weighs more than twice as much as the average Merlin, potentially, even more in the case of male Merlins.

The Crow's persistence was successful and the Merlin took to the air multiple times. Each time the Crow would follow and the Merlin would make an abrupt turn. The little Falcon was not only faster but far more agile as well. Repeatedly, the Merlin landed in a higher location. I suspect the greater the elevation, the greater the distance from potential prey.

In this 2017 photo, we can see the sharp, pointed wings of a Merlin in flight. Among predatory birds, this look is characteristic of falcons. It also looks somewhat similar to pigeons in-flight. All About Birds says this is why the older term 'Pigeon Hawk' originated, as a description for a Merlin. 

This photo clearly displays the dramatic size difference between our little male Merlin and the adult Crow, who has a wingspan in excess of three feet.

After a number of high-speed chases, the Merlin ended up among the dense upper branches near the top of a tall cottonwood tree.

It seemed to be enjoying the abnormally bright afternoon sun. 

The Crow continued to hang around but apparently felt uneasy about getting too close given the density of the branches and twigs.

I suspect the Merlin never lost sight of the Crow. Finally, the Crow flew away. It landed on a small island, not too far away. The Crow spent just a few minutes there, walking around next to another Crow which had been searching through the mud for sustenance.

Soon the first Crow returned to the Cottonwood tree. It stayed just to the north of the Merlin, focusing the smaller bird's attention. At the same time, the second Crow flew to the top of the next Cottonwood to the south. I saw no other Crows in the area. I am assuming the second Crow was the mate of the first one.

After a few moments, the second Crow came over and quietly landed in the tree above the Merlin. This was as close as I could get to catching all three birds in a single photo. You can just see the tips of the second Crow's tail feathers in the upper left.

As soon as the Merlin realized it had a Crow on each side, it abandoned its post and took to the air. In just a couple of heartbeats, the Merlin disappeared over the treetops to the northwest.

I was left to wonder how smart are the Crows. Did the first Crow actually tell the second one about the Merlin, and then request its help? Did they discuss a plan of attack? or Do they just naturally surround the object of their disaffection? Could a male Merlin, at potentially only one third the weight of a Crow, actually harm a Crow? If not, why was the Crow so determined to move Merlin on its way? Could it be that the Crow saw the Merlin as a superior competitor who might deplete the potential prey in its territory?

One of the great joys of observing nature is the unending opportunities to learn. We may never completely understand the life forms around us. However, as we slowly chip away at the challenge, step-by-step, we increase our understanding of what it means to live in harmony with nature.

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.










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










Great Horned Owl: The largest owl in North American. 

(Update: I should have said the largest owl, except for the Snowy Owl, and the most widespread. Thank you, Alan, for your thoughtful help!)

It is basically, native to the whole continent. On January first, it (the Great Horned Owl) was certainly worthy of being surrounded by a scared murder of crows. The calls of the crows led me to the owl like the auditory equivalent of a flashing neon sign.














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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






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