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

On Instagram and Twitter: @unionbaywatch

Saturday, May 9, 2020

An Exotic Flair

A clear view of a male Western Tanager is startling. You can be forgiven for thinking that a Tanager is an exotic bird with a misguided sense of direction. They do winter in places like Costa Rica, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Mexico. However, in the Spring, they follow their ancient impulses and head north. Their migratory path covers both sides of the Rocky Mountains and all the way west to the coast. All of their breeding and reproduction happens in the western portion of North America. So, maybe we should say, they are native birds with a taste for exotic winter vacations.

All About Birds quotes Partners In Flight who estimate the Western Tanager population around eleven million. Even if only one percent pass near Seattle that would still be over one hundred thousand birds. 

Why don't we see more of them? For one thing, they often migrate at night which is no doubt their safest way to travel. Thousands of bright yellow birds with redheads migrating during the day would be an amazing sight, but I suspect they might be easy targets for predatory birds.

During Spring their dietary focus is on eating insects. They do most of their hunting in the treetops, which is another reason we seldom notice them. Also, their yellow color actually blends surprisingly well with the fresh sunlit leaves of Spring. 

I suspect that this was a crane fly. (Chemicals that get rid of insects in our yards and trees  are effectively stealing food from the birds and poisoning the ecosystem.)

Plus, roughly half are female. Unlike the males, they do not have brightly colored faces.

Their greenish-yellow color could be considered nearly perfect camouflage, especially, when perched among the winged seeds hanging in a Big Leaf Maple tree. Tanagers often perch for a moment while they check out their surroundings for insects.

Birdweb says, that during their first-year male Western Tanagers tend to have less red on their faces. Tanagers are thought to get their red coloring from the food they eat. Apparently, the amount of red varies due to diet and, evidently, accumulates over time. Having less red probably makes them less appealing to females. It certainly makes them a bit less conspicuous to us. 

I have not found any documented link to a known food source that supplies the red coloring. There are suggestions that they might get the coloring from insects. However, there is no mention of which species. It is amazing how much we still have to learn about the creatures around us.

There is one more important reason we do not see as many tanagers as we might expect. For many of them, Seattle is more like a truck stop than a destination. They are simply refueling before heading further north to nest. Click Here to see their North American breeding territory on All About Birds. 

Although they can nest high in the mountains, some do nest in nearby rural areas. My friend, Dan Pedersen, has had a pair nesting near his home on Whidbey Island for several years.

The earliest arrival, I have heard about this year, was at this birdbath belonging to my friends, Anne and Rick. (I truly love this great photo taken by Rick.) This Western Tanager arrived on April 26th and was joined by a female about a week later.

This year, my first sighting of a Western Tanager was on May 1st, about two hours later than last year. I have read reports from friends all over the city who suddenly noticed Western Tanagers on the same morning. May is most certainly the month to break out your binoculars and search the treetops for Western Tanagers.

The next few days were a bit cooler and I didn't see any more until suddenly on May 4th, which was a nice sunny morning. I stood for hours taking these photos and enjoying the rush of exotic colors.

A curious bit of information I just learned on Seattle Audubon's Birdweb is about the gender-based difference in their wing bars. Males have a bright yellow wing bar above and a pale bar below. Isn't funny how we can look at a bird or a photo and not notice something perfectly obvious until it is brought to our attention.

Females have two pale wing bars. They are often white or may contain a very slight yellow hue.

Another interesting point on Birdweb was the discussion of the Tanager's bill size. It is heavier than the bills of birds that specialize in insects, while lighter than the bills of birds who eat primarily seeds. In the winter, Western Tanagers are said to eat fewer insects and more fruit. Apparently, their mid-sized bills are a compromise that enables a more varied diet. 

I also find the shape of their bills helps identify the female Tanagers. Most other primarily yellow-green birds, that I see, have noticeably smaller bills. 

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


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. 

What species is this? Is it native to Western Washington?

Scroll down for the answer.


Douglas Squirrel: The Douglas Squirrel is native to our area. However, this is the first one I have ever photographed in our Union Bay neighborhood. My friend Kathy mentioned seeing one a few months ago but it has taken time to find it and get a photo. I have spoken to neighbors who say they remember seeing them decades ago. It is wonderful to have at least one returning to our area. By the way, they love pine trees, which is where I found this one.

Eastern Gray Squirrels are now our most common squirrel seen around Union Bay. They were introduced from the eastern portion of North America. A few easily noticed differences include primarily gray versus more of a brownish-gray, white bellies versus yellowish-orange, and the lack of ear-tufts on the Eastern Gray Squirrel. Mature Eastern Grays are also larger plus their tails are bigger, fluffier and lighter.


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


This photo is a little reward for those who have read all the way to the end. I watched while this male Dark-eyed Junco took these little inchworms to the nest. The nest was on the ground hidden under Creeping Yellow Buttercup. (This time of year off-leash pets can easily sniff out the Junco nests and quickly consume their young.)


  1. Another great issue, Larry. I really look forward to them each week.

    Max in Tacoma

    1. Max,
      Thank you. That is always nice to hear.

  2. I live in a wooded neighborhood (Doug Fir trees) near Nisqually,
    and have one hanging out in my yard right now. If they behave themselves, things will go well for them!! The past two or three years they have been INSISTENT on trying to get into the attic above my garage to nest. When I made that difficult for them, one actually chewed through some siding!!

    1. Diane,
      Sorry for the inconvenience. However, that is very surprising behavior - at least to me. Making a hole in siding is another completely different use of a Western Tanager's bill. It sounds more like what I would expect from a Northern Flicker. I hope you and the Tanagers are able to happily co-exist this year.
      Thanks for sharing!

  3. I have a random recollection of there being a Douglas squirrel population near the S-curves of Lake Washington Boulevard near Bush. Whether on bike or in car I've made a point not to look for them while negotiating those curves! We had a Western Tanager yesterday for the first time in maybe twenty years. The wood duck is definitely sitting. Unfortunately two days ago a racoon harvested the mallard nesting in our yard - we'd become quite close.

    1. Tom,
      Thank you for the update! Sorry about the mallard nest.
      I watched a similar scenario with a River Otter this week. It popped up beside a couple of ducks. The very vocal birds flew safely away, but a loud Great Blue Heron actually flew closer. It maintained its 'social distancing' but it clearly expressed its displeasure with the presence of the otter. The otter dived and swam away. Coming up once under the cover of overhanging foliage to see if there were any other available opportunities. It left hungry as far as I could tell.

  4. Richard RowlettMay 9, 2020 at 8:08 PM

    Another great post as usual Larry, thanks! I was a little surprised to learn how scarce Douglas Squirrels apparently are in your areas around Union Bay. Here in my yard and bordering greenbelt/year-round stream here in Bellevue (Eastgate) south of I-90, east of 150th and south of Newport Way, I have lived here for 25 years and have in ALL this time meticulously encouraged and maintained a viable population of Douglas Squirrels (produced at least 4 young last year). My motto, native, native, native. To do that I have to eliminate the competition, i.e., ALL the non-native Eastern Gray Squirrels through Hav-a-hart live trapping, and then, well...., never mind :) They are perfectly quite edible btw. I trap and remove an average of about 18 Gray Squirrels each year. Let's see, 18x25=450; Wow, that's a lot of gray squirrels! Once they are gone, they are gone, ...for a while, maybe a month or two, then when the vacant territory is discovered, those gray squirrels all crowded in other territories move in, and then the cycle is repeated all over again. Meanwhile, the native Douglas Squirrels are happy and doing fine. Anyway, Douglas Squirrels are among the most adorable of our native PNW creatures, endlessly entertaining, and for me have become very confiding especially when I routinely offer them already shelled peanut pieces.

    1. Richard,
      Thank you for relaying your strategy regarding the protection of the native squirrels. I have always wondered if the people who originally introduced the eastern gray squirrels did so to have a readily available food source. I suspect people from the past would shake their heads at how squeamish we have become about securing food. In any case I am glad to hear how your Douglas Squirrels have thrived.