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

On Instagram: @unionbaywatch

Monday, March 15, 2021

Family Matters

Saturday, this Spotted Towhee landed, glanced over its shoulder, and then flew.

A moment later, this second one landed in almost the same location. How do these two birds differ? The sun and the clouds did not have time to move much, the only change in my camera settings was a slight focusing adjustment and my angle relative to the birds was virtually unchanged. The subtle differences in their coloring are realistically portrayed - not a photographic artifact.

The brownish back, on the first Towhee, indicates she is a female. The dark black back of the second one signals he is a male.

Being aware of their gender differences gave me the impression that the female bird was not quite ready to share the male's affection. She did not turn and aggressively chase him away, but she stayed a step ahead. Visually attractive, but just out of reach. Maybe there is work to be done, like nest building for instance, before she feels the timing is right.

Among the birds we see in our yards, a Spotted Towhee can look a lot like an American Robin. The dark back and the burnt-orange coloring look similar. However, the Towhee is smaller, has a shorter bill and a white expanse on the underside. The white on a Robin is harder to notice since it is primarily under the tail.

American Robins are somewhat similar to Spotted Towhees when it comes to the gender variation in their coloring. The female in the foreground is distinctly less vibrant than the male in the background. In the previous photo, you can also see the somewhat subtle difference between a male's black head and the grey-brown coloring of this female's head.

We see a similar situation with Varied Thrush. I wonder if it is because brown backs and heads blend-in better when a bird is sitting on a nest.

Once again the strongly contrasting, black markings indicate this bird is a male.

Dark-eyed Juncos provide one more similar example in another bird species that is often on the ground in around our homes. The male's vibrant dark hood provides an obvious contrast...

...while the female's grayish-black hood tends to more gently fade into the colors on her back and sides.

There are many species of birds where the males are far more brilliant than the females. Locally, the difference between the male and female Wood Ducks comes to mind. However, in the examples you have seen today, it is the subtlety of the differences that require us to pay close attention if we want a observe and understand the family dynamics in play. 

For example in the next few months, when you see two birds belonging to one of these four species in flight, you will now be able to validate the assumption that you are seeing a female being chased by a male. Potentially, even more interesting, is when and if the tables are turned.

For these, and many other species, we know it is to the female's advantage to blend in, particularly when incubating eggs or brooding her young on a nest. However, there is a third case where camouflage is equally important. 

Juvenile birds tend to be less sophisticated and far less aware of danger. They need all the help they can get to avoid predators and to side-step conflict and confrontations with adult birds.

Watching juvenile birds as they follow their parents, beg for food and learn to survive on their own is incredibly entertaining. Sometimes, they may even remind us of our own youthful missteps. However, if you want to fully enjoy this natural entertainment, as it happens in your yard, being able to identify the following juvenile birds will help. (Technically, only three of these species are likely to have their young in the city.)

In any case, if you are up for the challenge try to correctly identify the species of the following four young birds. They each belong to one of the species mentioned above. 




The answers will follow the Going Native section below.

Have a great day on Union Bay...where nature lives in the city and Black Birders are welcome!


Going Native:

Each of us, who breathe the air and drink the local water, needs to watch and protect our local environment. 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. 

(By the way, my friend Tom Brown pointed out that the application named 'Wildflower Search' is extremely helpful. Click on the highlighted link to see for yourself.

Also, Jane Lundin has created a small package, with a lot of critical information that looks quite handy, and light, for backpacking in the mountains in Springtime. It is titled, Mountain Wildflowers of Washington.)

What type of plant, with these little reddish buds, is this? Is it native to Union Bay? What will its flowers look like?

Scroll down for the answer.


Salal: It may take another two or three months before the native Salal will fully display its elegant rows of tiny white blooms.


Juvenile Answers:

A hint for your first answer.

A) Dark-eyed Junco - DEJU - Ground nesters, easily preyed on by house cats.

B) Spotted Towhee - SPTO - Often ground nesters, easily preyed on by house cats.

C) American Robin - AMRO - Tree nesters, a bit less easily preyed on by house cats however our urban American Crows love to raid their nests just before the young fledge.

D) Varied Thrush  - VATH  - Tree nesters, that nest out of range for most house cats and urban Crows. The VATH will be leaving us soon. They will head for the privacy of more elevated and forested areas to build their nests, lay their eggs and raise their young.


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. Something like:

                Larry, I want to see more of nature. Please add me to your personal email list. 

Thank you for your patience!

My email address is: LDHubbell@Comcast.Net

A few more photos:
Can you spot the Varied Thrush?


(Look right in the middle of the photo)

A few more photos of American Robin family members:




  1. Thank you! That was a lovely photo essay. I knew about those differences between the sexes, but somehow your grouping them together made the information stick better.

  2. So appreciate your thoughts!!

  3. Thank you Larry. I am fairly new to bird watching.Since we were urged to remove our bird feeders,I have been throwing black sunflower seeds in my garden bed. I have noticed that the Spotted Towhees seem to have a strong preference for eating the seeds off the ground. I rarely saw them at the bird feeder and now I seem them multiple times a day.

    1. Wonderful idea! Hopefully, some may even nest in your yard.

  4. Thanks!

    Hey, I just noticed a cool thing with this blog - if I click on a photo, not only does it go full screen, but I can also use my mouse's scroll wheel to then scroll thru all - and only - the photos in this blog entry! Beautiful....

    (Sorry if this is common knowledge....)

    1. Good point. I some times use it to toggle between two photos especially when there is just a slight movement by the bird. It helps focus on the action a bit.