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

On Instagram: @unionbaywatch

Saturday, September 2, 2023

Simply Secretive

This story took place on Whidbey Island in mid-July. When I am on the Island, I always enjoy visiting Deer Lagoon. American White Pelicans are a wonder-inducing summer attraction that I find irresistible. 

So far, I have only noticed non-breeding Pelicans. However, I keep hoping that one day mature birds might choose to nest there. 

Drilling in on the first bird in the previous photo, we can see the start of a tiny bump on the upper bill. I think it might be an indicator of impending maturity. Breeding adults have a much larger "horn" on their upper mandible. This beginner's bump fans the embers of my hope for a year-round colony on Deer Lagoon.

However, this year, my luck took a turn in a different direction. While watching for Pelicans, Carlos (a member of Whidbey Audubon Society), and his wife Toni passed by. After chatting about the local birds they happened to mention they were looking for a very secretive species that I had only photographed a few times. I asked if I could tag along and lucky for me they said, "Yes".

Some bird species are seldom seen because their numbers are declining, some because they only pass through during migration, and some are only active at night. Still, there are other birds, that are local year-round residents, who are so secretive that we almost never see them. For example, Can you find the bird in this photo?

This species' preferred habitat is, wet, muddy, and full of cattails, which helps to keep them hidden. Especially since we, comfort-loving humans, do not generally enjoy thick, tangled foliage, mud sucking at our shoes, and mosquitoes probing for our DNA.

This second version of the photo, drills in on the bird.

An even tighter crop makes it a bit more obvious. Every characteristic of this species is perfectly adapted to wetlands, cattails, and mud.

Previously, in 2017, I caught my first identifiable photo. This occurred while I was paddling near the Union Bay Natural Area. I remember being in my kayak and watching two raccoons searching for food along the shoreline. Suddenly, I realized that if I positioned myself ahead of the raccoons, they might flush smaller creatures out of the cattails. Much to my surprise, it worked.

Last year, I was west of the UBNA when one of the same species flew up out of the cattails. I felt lucky to catch a single backlit photo. I mention these two instances to communicate how incredibly lucky I feel to supplement such meager accomplishments with the following photos.

Carlos kindly pointed out the Virginia Rails. Occasionally, one would come out into the sunlight and behave as if oblivious to our presence.

This bird was hunting for food.

The long bill is used to probe in the mud for grubs and other sources of nutrition.

At least once, it flapped its wings. Maybe it was trying to scare some small aquatic creature into moving and revealing its location.

Later, a more complete exposure of the wings turned out to be a prelude to running.

Unlike ducks, who have webbed feet, Virginia Rails have long skinny, individual toes. I suspect this enables them to minimize the width of their foot when moving through the narrow vertical openings between cattails. Notice how surprisingly slender the bird's left foot looks. I suspect it is the very wide spread of the long skinny toes that keeps the bird from getting stuck in the mud.

When the bird began running it was surprisingly quick.

By the way, the literature says, their wings can be used for underwater propulsion as well as for flight.

In addition to their narrow feet the Virginia Rails have exceptionally narrow bodies, relative to their overall size. The old saying, "Narrow as a rail", was inspired by birds of this genus. They are also said to have particularly durable feathers on the front of their heads.  Which must help protect their foreheads as they push their way through the cattails. 

We saw at least four different Virginia Rails. This one might have been the youngest of all. When they are very young the chicks are mostly black. The overall darkness of this bird makes me suspect this is a hatch-year bird.

The following photos may be the least picturesque, but I find them the most interesting. They show interactions between two of the birds. Here, one bird is preening its feathers and the second bird lowers its head and is apparently wanting some allopreening, which is when one bird preens another.

A moment later the second bird apparently decided the best method of requesting was to demonstrate by preening the other bird. 

There are places, under the chin for instance, where the Rails must find it difficult to reach with their long bills. 

Having scratched its partner's itch the bird on the right once again lowered its head, as if saying please.

Luckily, quid pro quo was the order of the day. 

I am always reassured when I see "civilized behaviors" among other life forms. We, humans, have certainly not cornered the market on kindness.

If you doubt my interpretation of the Rail's behaviors I suspect this photo should remove your doubts. I cannot think of any other motivation for the the bird on the left to completely expose its throat. What else could it have been doing, other than, asking for a scratch under the chin?

Clearly there was an exceptional level of trust between these two birds.

I suspect the two are a mated pair. 

In the past, wetlands where these birds survive and reproduce were often considered a waste of good land. Sometimes, they were drained for pasture land, or to grow crops, In Seattle, the Union Bay Natural Area was used as a city dump. To the south of Deer Lagoon waterfront homes along the beach and there are more on the hill to the north. Today, much of Deer Lagoon is a partially protected sanctuary for waterfowl and other species. However, there are still some portions of this wonderful wetland that could be purchased and protected.

Carlos sent me the following thoughts that you might want to keep in mind if you choose to visit:

"Deer Lagoon Preserve is an Important Bird Area (IBA).
Over 200 species of birds have been recorded at the Preserve.
It is a sensitive birding area, critical migration stopover, unique habitat and a Whidbey gem.
Dogs are required to be on a leash at all times and waste picked up.
Please respect the surrounding private property.

With the continued stewardship to preserve and protect the lagoon, which still needs additional protections, a quick email to Island County Commissioners regarding the importance of actively protecting and preserving the area is appreciated."


Help the Union Bay Birds:

If you enjoy wetlands, and the incredible variety birds that call them home, you may want to join Sarah Phillips and a team of kayaking volunteers as they clean up the marshlands in Union Bay. It will be fun to join a group of like-minded folks on the water and you never know, you might even see a Virginia Rail.


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


Recommended Citation

Conway, C. J. (2020). Virginia Rail (Rallus limicola), version 1.0. In Birds of the World (A. F. Poole and F. B. Gill, Editors). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bow.virrai.01

Going Native:

Each of us, who breathes the air, drinks water, and eats food should be helping to protect our environment. Local efforts are most effective and sustainable. Native plants and trees encourage the largest diversity of lifeforms because of their long intertwined history with our local environment and native creatures. 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 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. (When native 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. 


Keystone native plants are an important new idea. Douglas Tallamy, in the book "Nature's Best Hope ", explains that caterpillars supply more energy to birds, particularly young birds in their nests, than any other plant eater. He also mentions that 14% of our native plants, i.e. Keystone Plants, provide food for 90% of our caterpillars. This unique subset of native plants and trees enables critical moths, butterflies, and caterpillars that in turn provide food for the great majority of birds, especially during the breeding season. 

Note: Pollinators are also included as Keystone Plants.

This video explains the native keystone plants very nicely:


The Top Keystone Genera in our ecoregion i.e. Plants and trees you might want in your yard: 

Click Here

Additional content available here:



In the area below, I am displaying at least one photo each week to help challenge us to know the difference between native and non-native lifeforms. 

Both of these species of Lily Pads can be found on Union Bay. One is a native plant and one is not. Do you know which is which?

A. Nymphaea odorata
This lily has rounded leaves to go with its white flower.

B. Nuphar polysepalam
This lily has heart-shaped leaves to go with its yellow flower.

Scroll down for the answer.


Fragrant Waterlily, Nymphaea odorata: This non-native lily is considered a Class C weed by the Washington State Noxious Weed Control Board. It is by far the most common Lily on Union Bay.

Yellow Pond Lily, Nuphar polysepalam: This native Lily still occurs on Union Bay but only in relatively small clumps. There is a patch south of East Point (which is at the southeast portion of the Union Bay Natural Area), there are a couple of clumps southeast of the Conibear Rowing Center, and a clump northeast of Duck Bay on the south side of Union Bay.


The Email Challenge:

Over the years, I have had many readers tell me that Google is no longer sending them email announcements. As of 2021,
 Google has discontinued the service.

In response, I have set up my own email list. With each post, I will manually send out an announcement. If you would like to be added to my personal email list please send me an email requesting to be added. Something like:

                Larry, Please add me to your personal email list. 

My email address is:  


Thank you!


The Comment Challenge:

Another common issue is losing your input while attempting to leave a comment on this blog. Often everything functions fine, however, sometimes people are unable to make it past the 
robot-detection challenge or maybe it is the lack of a Google account. I am uncertain about the precise issue. Sadly, a person can lose their comment with no recovery recourse. 

Bottom Line: 

If you write a long comment, please, copy it before hitting enter. Then, if the comment function fails to record your information, you can send the comment directly to me using email.
My email address is: