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

On Instagram and Twitter: @unionbaywatch

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

A Holiday Feast!

On Christmas Eve, this Sapsucker was feasting on a Willow tree next to Duck Bay, at the northern end of the Arboretum. 

Learning to identify the life forms around us is certainly one of the first steps to appreciating our urban web of life. Since we are the dominant species on the planet, everything we do impacts our fellow creatures. Where we live, what we eat, drive and buy. The undisturbed habitat we leave in our yards, as well as the native seeds and fruits we allow to mature, can have a huge impact on our neighboring lifeforms. Understanding their needs will not only make our lives richer and healthier it is a critical step to a flourishing future for life on earth.

Take a closer look at the sapsucker (above), its holiday meal, and its surprising impact on the web of life.

To help with identification, let's compare this 2015 photo of a locally common Red-breasted Sapsucker. Does it look like the sapsucker in the first photo? What differences do you see? 

Most obvious is the redbreast on the 2015 bird. It is clearly what inspired its name. On the other hand, there is virtually no red on the chest of the 2019 sapsucker. 

This photo shows the only other species of sapsucker I have ever seen in Seattle. It is a, locally rare, Red-naped Sapsucker, also photographed in 2015. A third sapsucker, the Yellow-bellied, is even less likely in our area. Both of these species are known to interbreed with Red-breasted Sapsuckers and neither have red on their breasts.

It seems to me that this 2019 bird is most likely a hybrid between a Red-breasted and a Red-naped Sapsucker. However, the black mask surrounding the eye is rather puzzling. None of the four species of sapsuckers in North America have such a complete mask of black around the eyes. Three of the four have a black eye stripe running between white highlights, similar to the Red-naped Sapsucker. The Red-breasted Sapsucker is the exception.

This 2019 bird appears to be a unique individual. The black mask around the eye appears to be personal variation. Maybe this is how a new species begins. If this bird's unique DNA is passed on maybe someday its progeny will form another species. They might even be called, Black-masked Sapsuckers.

In any case, all the Sapsuckers have the ability to drill sap wells. They drill just deep enough to cause sap to flow out of the trees. Other creatures, like this Anna's Hummingbird, are wise enough to stop by and share in the meal, even though they lack the ability to create sap wells for themselves.

While hovering the hummingbird uses its tongue to lap up the sap. For the most part, the sap will only flow out of the tree while the sapsucker is keeping the wells open and functional. (Although, after this Sapsucker left the Hummingbird was seen a couple of days later checking for additional sap and/or insects.)

This photo shows that the two birds were aware of each other, neither one appeared particularly intimidated and both were perfectly willing to share their holiday meal.

Later, a Black-capped Chickadee stopped by to check out the possibilities. Chickadees do like insects and it is possible that a very small creature, trapped in the sap, may actually have been what attracted the Chickadee.

During these visits the Sapsucker had remained undisturbed. Its body was virtually stationary while feeding just below this branch. However, when it began turning its head and looking around I figured something was up.

As it moved away from its favorite set of wells I suspected a nearby predator.

With its head and neck extended the Sapsucker was clearly on alert.

A moment later, I noticed the Eastern Gray Squirrel. 

The Sapsucker, with its small crest erect, moved to a nearby perch. The Squirrel moved on up the trunk. Squirrels in the area can often be seen eating acorns but apparently, sap makes a nice dessert.

The Sapsucker moved again to a more extensively used location on a nearby portion of the tree. It appears the bark of the tree actually split apart along the vertical lines of previous sap wells. I believe this willow is a Salix Alba or White Willow, an Old World native, which helps explain why the sapsucker damage is so extensive. 

There are no Sapsuckers in the Old World. As you can see, this tree species never developed a thick protective bark, unlike our local Douglas Firs and Western Red Cedars.

After the Eastern Gray Squirrel moved on the Sapsucker moved back to its preferred location.

Moments later a male Belted Kingfisher stopped in. I suspect all the commotion was just a bit much for the Kingfisher and it quickly flew. It chattered loudly and sounded a bit perturbed. I have never seen a Kingfisher eat anything but small fish so I suspect it was just looking for a quiet perch above the water and did not really want to share in the sap.

As the Kingfisher flew away, another surprise became apparent. This particular Willow Tree was obviously different from its neighbors. It still had some leaves on December 24th.

A couple of days later, when the sun came out for a moment, I caught this photo of the same tree. All the neighboring willows are bare. Their leaves have fallen and their sap has presumably stopped. This old fallen willow, with fresh sprouts, appears to be the only one in the area with leaves and sap still flowing. 

I have not seen the Sapsucker since the initial encounter. I suspect it was on its way south and when it saw the deciduous leaves and decided to stop for a holiday feast. In the winter, once all the deciduous leaves have dropped the Sapsuckers will switch to coniferous trees. I suspect that since deciduous trees have a smaller window for growth their summer sap flows faster. Maybe, this is why the Sapsuckers prefer deciduous trees during warm weather.

By the way, while Red-breasted Sapsuckers can be found in our area year-round it does not mean that the individual birds are year-round residents. The Range maps show that all Sapsuckers migrate. Since we are in the middle of the Red-breasted Sapsucker range must likely our summer Sapsuckers winter in California and our winter Sapsuckers breed in British Columbia.

I am amazed by the variety of life that the sap wells feed as well as the unique characteristics of both the individual Sapsucker and this specific White Willow tree. Back in 2015, I remember seeing raccoons sniffing around the bottom of a tree with active sap wells. I did not see them feeding at the wells but they sure looked like they were considering the idea. Nature is amazing!

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

Larry

PS: For more about Sapsuckers you can read last winter's post titled, 'Brilliance'.


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. 




A) Is this tree native to Union Bay? What species is it?

B) Is this tree native to Union Bay? What species is it?











Scroll down for the answer.














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













Yes, both of these species are native to Union Bay and therefore better able to handle Sapsuckers than most Old World Trees.








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






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, December 21, 2019

A Gift to the Future

Around Union Bay, mature Red-tailed Hawks generally have rufous colored tail stripes, which validate their name. 


Immature Red-tails lack this coloring as mentioned in Seattle Audubon's Birdweb. This distinction seems to be fairly reliable in our area, however, Birds of North America mentions that there are as many as 16 subspecies in the Americas. Depending on where you visit (and where the Red-tails visit) you may see a wide variety of tail, chest and body colorings. Click on All About Birds to see some of the various subspecies. Luckily, (or not) we get mostly the common colored Red-tails in Seattle.

Curiously, even with mature birds, the underside of the tail is generally lighter.

Waiting for a soaring bird to give you a peek at the topside of its tail can require patience.

Bud Anderson taught me, that another generally common identifying characteristic for a Red-tailed Hawk is its indistinct belly band. When you add in their normally dark heads, especially as compared to the chest, I think this creates the overall impression of a white bib. I imagine the bib all tucked in and the hungry hawk just waiting to eat. The same All About Birds photostream shows that the bib is not universal, but I find it generally exists on our Union Bay Red-tails. 

Another key identifier, which I learned from my friend Marcus Roening, is that at a distance a Red-tail looks like a football. It does not matter if it is sitting in a tree, on a telephone pole or on the horizontal support for a freeway light.

Last week, when I heard the distinctive sounds of American Crows harassing a predator I was lucky enough to locate this handsome bird. It quickly relocated to this position above the 520 off-ramp, near the Montlake grocery store - the one previously known as Hop-In. 

(Sadly, due to the 520 Freeway improvements, this historic store will only exist through the end the month.)

Flickering back and forth between this and the previous photo will give you an impression of the subtle triangulating movements which predatory birds use when zeroing in on a potential target.



Sometimes Red-tails will soar but often they simply sit and wait for prey to expose themselves.

They are smart, flexible predators who do not care what type of meat is on the menu. They like rats, rabbits, mice, snakes, squirrels, birds or fish. They will eat them fresh, steal from others or consume leftovers - no refrigeration required. I suspect their taste for leftovers may be part of the reason Red-tails can often be found peering down over freeways.

They love to hunt from a perch with nice open views and easy access. The grass beside our freeways provides food and shelter for several potential prey species - very similar to a field spread out below a horizontal tree branch. Red-tails readily adapt to human-altered habitat as long as it meets their needs.

Red-tails are not the only bird species that have benefited from our habitat modifications. American Crows are smaller and probably smarter. The crows respect a Red-tail as a dangerous predator and will generally attempt to drive it out of their territory.

Last spring, I watched this Red-tail get driven out of the Union Bay Natural Area. You can see from the way its head is reversed, by 180 degrees, that it was intimidated by the crow's attack.

Last month, I saw a similar situation immediately north of 520.

Again, the crows prevailed.

Last week, the crows continued their constant harassment. 

Ultimately, the Red-tail left the light post.

It moved to a nearby telephone pole before finally evacuating the area altogether.

The natural creatures we find in the city are a direct result of the habitat we create or enable. We have an abundance of crows because our yards, commercial establishments, and often our garbage, provide a surplus of food for them. By working to restore the quality of our yards (see Going Native below) and our waterways we will be giving the gift of wildlife to future generations of city dwellers.


********************** 


A special Thank You goes to retiring Council Member Larry Gossett. Mr. Gossett championed the Friends of Arboretum Creek's (FOAC) grant request, 


With Mr. Gossett's guidance and support last week the King County Council approved the FOAC funding request. 

Thank You, to each of you who wrote letters requesting the Council's help.

This next phase of the project will provide a critical design foundation for future restoration efforts in and along Arboretum Creek. This will help, "Maximize the diversity of life in Arboretum Creek...while rekindling the love affair between Seattle and nature." (Click on the golden highlight above to learn more.)

Thank you to everyone involved, and especially, Dave Galvin. Dave has been involved, supportive and devoted to this project from the very start. He has contributed countless hours to the idea of restoring life in this urban stream. Thank You!



********************** 
Update:

Thank you to Dennis Paulson for forwarding this link to a concise and thoughtful review of the types of bird habitat in critical need of restoration.


********************** 


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 fruiting plant native to Union Bay?













Scroll down for the answer.














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










Black Twinberry: Yes, it is a native plant. Click on the name to read more about how it can be used in your yard and then scroll to the bottom to see a list of birds that appreciate its fruit.










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






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

Preston, C. R. and R. D. Beane (2009). Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (A. F. Poole, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bna.52



Sunday, December 8, 2019

The Bum Deal

Mallards are the most common of all duck species in North America, according to All About Birds.

This post focuses on a selection of twenty duck species found around Union Bay. The group of twenty is divided evenly into ten dabbling duck and ten diving duck species. In particular, we will be looking at the rear view of the male ducks in breeding plumage. 

Mallards dabble. You might imagine that they perceive life as a buffet filled with a variety of delicious delicacies. Given that they are the largest and most common of the dabbling ducks you might suspect they are bullies who paddle around and try a taste of anything and everything they want. You might be right. They are the only species I have seen eating crabapples off a tree on Foster Island.

However, that is not why they are called dabbling ducks. The dabbling description is related to their inverted feeding style. With their legs attached at 'mid-ship,' they can paddle quickly, walk adequately and, critical for dabbling, they can easily hold their 'upper' body below the surface while feeding in shallow water. However, the placement of their legs is not very useful for diving.

Buffleheads are one of our most common diving ducks. Their legs are attached near the back of the body, just in front of the tail. Their webbed feet function like flippers on a diver and greatly enhance their underwater mobility. As a result, they swim and dive superbly, although they seldom dabble and walk rather poorly.

Diving ducks also have relatively longer tails. I suspect they utilize their tails below the surface in a manner somewhat similar to a Cooper's Hawk. When a Cooper's Hawk flies through a forest, their long tails help them to twist and turn to avoid obstructing branches, to match the agility of their prey and to elude predators.

Similar to the Mallard in the first photo, a Gadwall is another dabbling duck with a dark bum. In both cases, they also have a few light tail feathers which seem even brighter against the surrounding darkness. After years, of watching male dabbling ducks, I finally noticed that most of them have black butts. The sudden realization sparked questions. Do all male dabbling ducks have dark bums? If so, what purpose do they serve?  What about the diving ducks? Do they have dark, light or a variety of bum colors?

One of my first thoughts was remembering that Dennis Paulson taught us that dark feathers are more durable than white ones. That seemed like a logical reason for the dark bums but then why do they have white highlights? Why not just solid black bums?

A Northern Shoveler is another dabbling duck with a dark bum and few light highlights. Among the dabblers, shovelers are the most dignified. They generally 'snorkle' about in circles with their bills below the surface while their bodies remain horizontal. 

Green-winged Teals do have even larger white highlights but the background color of their bums is still dark. Blue-winged Teals have smaller highlights but more extensive black bums. You can see an example on All About Birds by clicking the blue highlighted text.  

 Cinnamon Teals have dark bums...

...as do the Northern Pintails.

American (and Eurasian) Wigeons are Union Bay dabblers with black butts.

Even the more distantly related Wood Ducks, who I suspect just barely belong to the dabbling duck society, have dark bums. Their hind feathers are similar in color to their chests but noticeably darker than their sides and their white highlights. All ten of the most common, male dabbling ducks on Union Bay have dark bums in breeding plumage. 

My friend Dave Galvin suggested the dark bums might make them less conspicuous to airborne predators. Camouflage certainly seemed like a plausible concept.

However, with so many light feathers surrounding the small black bums, the stark color difference seems like it would attract attention. If memory serves, I believe the underside of most male dabbling ducks is light in color creating this similar situation.

At this point, in my research, I was very curious about the color of the diving duck bums. I learned that Ring-necked Ducks have black bums.

As do, Lesser Scaups...

...the Canvasbacks and the somewhat similarly patterned Redheads.

On the other hand, the Hooded Mergansers have a lighter colored bum...

...as do the male Common Mergansers...

...and the male Ruddy Duck and the Bufflehead which we saw earlier. This leaves the count among the diving duck species at four dark and four light bums.

A glance at the Barrows Goldeneye and the ...

...closely related Common Goldeneye initially convinced me that they have dark bums. Which would make the count six dark bums out of the ten Union Bay diving duck species.

Luckily, I stumbled across this photo. Male Common Goldeneyes do have a dark tail but their bums are white. I do not have a similar photo of a Barrow's Goldeneye, but I suspect their bums may also be light. The bottom-line on the color of diving duck bums is apparently about fifty-fifty. 

Finding photos of diving duck bums was much harder. Ultimately, I realized that when they are on the surface their tails are usually at or just below the surface, so their bums are hidden to human eyes. Also, they dive quickly. During the diving process, their bums disappear in flash. Plus they are often encircled by a splash of the water. This led me to conclude that the color of a diving duck's bum may have little or no impact on their top side lives. Although having a completely light underside may be an example of countershading which may help make them less visible to aquatic lifeforms.

In a surprising observation, five of the six diving duck species with white bums are cavity nesters e.g. both Goldeneyes, both Mergansers and Buffleheads. The only exception is the Ruddy Duck. Since only female ducks enter the nesting cavities, as far as I have seen, and only the males have the light-colored bums I cannot conceive of any logical reason for this correlation. I would love to hear about your thoughts and ideas.

On the other hand, the consistent dark color and constant exposure of the ten male dabbling duck bums makes me suspect the darkness serves a useful purpose. Not only are dabbling duck bums exposed while they are feeding they are also obvious when paddling about on the surface. In essence, their bums are exposed nearly all of the time. Plus, many of the species have contrasting light-colored highlights which most likely draws attention to their bums.  My best guess is this flashy arrangement functions as a signal to other males of their species. 

I suspect it informs competitors that the nearby female has a mate, even if the male mate has his head underwater, or if his back is turned. During breeding season an approaching male is unlikely to mistake a mated pair for two unaccompanied females. This idea is my best guess at explaining dark bums on male dabbling ducks. If you think of a more logical explanation please let me know. In any case, Thank You for following along!

Have a great day on Union Bay...where male dabbling ducks moon the competition.

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 dark-bummed dabbling duck native to Union Bay?













Scroll down for the answer.














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









Eurasian WigeonAs the name makes clear Eurasian Wigeons are not native to Union Bay, the Pacific Northwest or North America. They come here from Siberia, according to Seattle Audubon's free online application e.g. Birdweb. It is always fun to scan a large flock of American Wigeons and then suddenly spot the striking head of a Eurasian Wigeon.









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






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