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

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Sunday, October 4, 2015

A Waxwing Tale

Last week, while paddling into the mouth of Ravenna Creek, I noticed a few shadowy shapes darting between the tree tops. Their stop-and-go maneuvers indicated they were catching tiny insects which were invisible to me. I soon realized that the trees were filled with cedar waxwings. I paddled north and left the kayak. Circling around on foot I ended up with the sun at my back and a fluttering flock of avian delight in front of me. 

It turned out the insects were simply a side dish. The waxwings were far more focused on fruit. There were so many, so close together they could have inspired the saying, "Birds of a feather stick together."

The waxwings were varying their diet further by shifting back and forth between trees with red and yellow fruit.

Juveniles waxwings lose their chest stripes as they mature. 

Apparently, it also takes time to grow their stylish little top knots that stick out behind their heads.

The most obvious sign of an adult is the uniform light brown chest that subtly shifts to yellow. Watching adults provide guidance to their youth can also be indicative of their maturity.

Occasionally, young birds have to be taught the proper proximity. For instance, an accidental wing in the face will definitely inspire a teachable moment.

Some of the yellow berries did seem to be getting a bit past their prime.

This bird is looking towards the more plentiful red berries. Colorful berries contain carotenoids which provide the red and yellow pigments that add the most vibrant colors to a waxwing's feathers.

This photo, taken just before breeding season, shows the red waxy tips of the secondary wing feathers. These provide the inspiration for the name, waxwing. It may be that the birds with the brightest red wing tips are the ones which will be the healthiest mates.

When the bird in the earlier photo turns to face the red fruit tree, he reveals the state of his rectrices or tail feathers. Rectrices derives from Latin, like the word rector which is a leader in a church or university.

This makes sense because tail feathers help to guide and control birds in flight.

Looking more closely at the waxwing's tail, we see a staggered growth process. The yellow feather tips highlight the different lengths of the tail feathers. If the bird lost all of its tail feathers at once it would be difficult to change direction while flying. By replacing the feathers a few at a time, the bird is never out of control.

In this example, we see why the new feathers are needed. The yellow tip of the older feather on the left has completely worn away. You can also see the faint beginnings of the red waxy wing tips. During the next few months the waxwings will completely replace their feathers so they can be ready for the rites of spring.

Suddenly, the waxwings took to the air en masse. It was time to head back to the kayak. As I paddled away I took one last hopeful look at the fruit trees. A shadowy figure hidden among the lower branches had the size, shape and long tail of a cooper's hawk. Like a light going on in the dark, I realized what inspired the mass exit. 

I found I was both happy for the waxwings and sad for the hawk. It reminded me that nature requires a balance. I hope we are able to balance our desires with the needs of the natural world.

Danny Westneat's column in today's Seattle Times provides an example of how Senator Henry Jackson inspired Congress to balance our needs with nature. Sadly, congress needs to be inspired once more. Below are links to our current Senators. I hope you will let them know we need to continue what Senator Jackson began.

For Danny's Column - Click Here

To email Senator Cantwell - Click Here

To email Senator Murray - Click Here

Please feel free to forward a link to this column to others who may share our sentiments.

Have a great day on Union Bay...in the city we share with the waxwings!


Saturday, September 26, 2015

Harmony With Nature

Double-crested cormorants are not the most beautiful or iconic birds. They do not stir the heart like a bald eagle in-flight or a baby owl covered in white fuzz.

In fact, you might even call them ugly.

Their most becoming feature may be their bright green eyes.

Cormorants are beautifully adapted for fishing. Their webbed feet propel them underwater, the hooked bill tightly holds their slippery prey, and their dark color allows them to disappear like a shadow below the surface. Their dark color also helps them retain heat and dry off when they leave the water. I suspect their bright green eyes provide superior underwater vision.

This week, a Seattle Times article said the shooting of cormorants at the mouth of the Columbia River has begun. This is not a surprise if you read last year's post which was inspired by Harvey who came to Union Bay from East Sand Island. The killing of cormorants is intended to help save the dwindling salmon population. Experts quoted in the article question whether the shooting will actually help the salmon recover.

This week I watched two cormorants squabbling about their seating assignments on the light poles at the University of Washington near Union Bay. Their disagreement seemed rather petty. There were plenty of light poles to go around. It reminded me that there should also be plenty of salmon to go around.

I am always impressed by how the cormorants can expand their lower jaw. It looks like a miniature version of a pelican's pouch. I have only seen it used for intimidation, but I wonder if the expansion allows them to swallow fish that would otherwise be too large.

Lately, I have been pondering what it would mean for humanity to be in harmony with nature. In music, harmony is a pleasant and dynamic blending of efforts to achieve a common goal. 

Antonyms for harmony include words like discord, hatred and fighting. Shooting cormorants, even to save juvenile salmon, does not qualify as harmonious. Not only are we destroying native creatures, which are behaving in a perfectly natural way, but we are also creating discord among ourselves.

In a harmonious world there would once again be an abundance of salmon. We would have no need to quibble with cormorants or sea lions about their percentage of the take. It seems ironic that we are killing native creatures when we are the ones who have decimated the wild salmon runs with obstructing dams and the disruption of spawning streams. 

We have other options. Last year, in Eastern Washington and Canada, there was a dramatic increase of wild salmon. In previous years, a number of groups worked together to time the flow of water over multiple dams to help young salmon survive to reach the ocean. The result was an abundant return of salmon in 2014. Click Here, to read more about their efforts.

The fact that the cormorants are consuming a statistically relevant portion of young salmon is just a symptom. Trying to solve our upstream problems by shooting downstream symptoms, is at a best a distraction from the real issues.

We need to help the wild salmon overcome the barriers we have created. When salmon runs return to historic levels, the eagles, bears, cormorants, sea lions, orcas and even the forests will flourish. Possibly just as important, flourishing salmon will restore our own hope in the future. Restoring spawning sites, paying close attention to the salmon and timing water flows are logical first steps towards becoming a society in harmony with nature.

Salmon are not just an icon, they are the fundamental linchpin of our Northwest web of life. If you would like to learn more about our challenges and opportunities I suggest reading, "Salmon, People and Place  - A Biologist's Search For Salmon Recovery",  by Jim Lichatowich.

I would love to see us fill up the comments section with changes we can make to help the salmon. If you find it easier to just email suggestions, I will post them to the comments section with your first name. My email address is: ldhubbell@comcast.net

Have a great day on Union Bay!


A Union Bay Update:

I believe this is a juvenile, Greater White-fronted Goose. It has been hanging around Union Bay all week. I first saw it on the water between Foster and Marsh Islands on Tuesday, and then everyday since on Oak Point, just west of Duck Bay. Hopefully local dog owners will keep their dogs leashed, as this beautiful young bird is still learning how to be shy.

According to my Sibley guide a Greater White-fronted Goose is a rare bird for our area. Plus, domesticated Greylags are often mistaken for Greater White-fronted Geese. However, the coloring of the legs, plus the more delicate nature of this bird's neck and belly led me, and a local master birder, to believe it is a Greater White-fronted Goose. I am curious how long the bird will stay in our area.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Where's Elvis

Yesterday, while listening to the raucous cries of a blue jay, I heard a pileated woodpecker call in the distance. The jay sounded very excited, I suspected it was warning the world about the young barred owl that we saw in last week's post

My dilemma was similar to the old saying, "A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush." However the last time I remembered photographing our local pileated woodpeckers, Elvis and Priscilla, was when Elvis Jr. left the nest back in June. I have been wondering how they are doing, so I choose to look for the birds in the bush.

The pileated cry sounded like it came from the area near Elderberry Island. In this photo you can see a glimpse of the island on the right, while on the left, the eastbound 520 on-ramp connects from Lake Washington Blvd to the bridge. 

I was surprised to find the invasive blackberries had been mowed to the ground, but happy to find that native trees, like the willow, the alder and the western red cedar, were left intact. As I glanced around I heard the pileated call again. This time the sound came from Oak Point, which is my name for the oak-covered peninsula east of Elderberry Island and west of Duck Bay.

I jogged around the island in time to spot Priscilla sitting at eye level in fairly good light. I lifted my camera to photograph her and found my battery had expired. Priscilla flew towards Duck Bay, while I fumbled for a fully-charged battery. Evidently, while I searched the area around the bay, Priscilla circled back near Elderberry Island. 

Later, while following the sound of her occasional calls, I discovered that she was nearly back where we started.

Priscilla settled down and began excavating for ants in the side of a rotting red alder. 

During the next half hour, she opened up a vertical slash four inches wide and three or four feet long.

After a while, her wings apparently felt a bit stiff.

As she stretched around the tree, she leaned in close for balance. This same tree-hugging position is also an effective way to hide whenever she senses danger overhead. 

In this case, she leaned back from the tree...

...and lifted her wings before returning to work. While looking at this photo, I remembered a few years ago spotting a feather on the ground that was half white and half black. At the time I was uncertain what type of bird lost the feather. It seems obvious now that it was from the wing of a pileated woodpecker.

During the time I watched Priscilla yesterday, I never heard any answering calls. In the past I have often found Elvis and Priscilla working together in the same patch of woods. They are usually silent, except for the thump, thump, thump of their excavations. However they will occasionally stop and call to each other. I think of these as contact calls looking for reassurance. Similar to walking in the door at home and calling out, "Hello Honey, I'm home." In both cases the meaning seems to be, "I'm here. Are you there?"

The lack of a response has me wondering, where is Elvis? If you see him around, I would love to know when and where you spot him. (ldhubbell@comcast.net)

Here is a shot of Elvis at the nest back in June. Two obvious differences between him and Priscilla are his yellow irises and the the red malar stripes on his cheeks. I do think his cries are bit louder than Priscilla's, but that is a fairly subjective comparison.


Here are a couple of fun photos from the last week or two.

Can you make heads or tails of this bushtit photo?

How about this rebellious chickadee, breaking all the rules.

It turns out the bushtit in the photo was actually two female birds huddled close together fighting the early morning chill.


By the way Constance Sidles, Master Birder and author of four books about birds in the Union Bay Natural Area is teaching a a class on bird migration this week! Here are all the details:

Wednesday, September 23, 7 – 8:30pm
Fall migration starts at Union Bay Natural Area in July, as the first wave of shorebirds from the tundra flows through our state, bringing up to 29 different species of sandpipers to stop with us a little while and fuel up before they continue, some flying as far as South America on their long journey to their wintering grounds. As July turns to August, the flow of birds increases, as the tropical flycatchers leave us and more birds begin to come down from Alaska. Billions of birds pass through North America before the migration ends. Find out from Constance Sidles all about how and why birds migrate, and get a peek at the species that we're most likely to see here.
Link: http://depts.washington.edu/uwbg/visit/calendar.shtml?trumbaEmbed=view%3Devent%26eventid%3D115097465

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


Saturday, September 12, 2015

The Wildlife News

A young Cooper's hawk cleans itself in the afternoon light near Duck Bay. Most likely this is one of five or six young hawks that fledged in the Arboretum this year. Around six weeks after they fledge, the young hawks leave the nesting area. At this point they begin to hunt for themselves and they become much more quiet and stealthy.

This bird never made a sound while I was around. If I hadn't looked up in the tree, I would have walked right under it, without even knowing it was there. After they eat, they often have a bulge in their crop, a temporary food storage located in the upper chest and neck area.

Here is an example of a full crop. This is a well-fed adult female from back in April.

This bird's crop looks empty, still the bird may have eaten something small. Wasps, like the one in the this photo, are often attracted by the fresh meat which hawks consume, plus...

...the young bird spent almost ten minutes carefully cleaning its feathers. The cleaning insures the feathers are in optimal condition. This is needed after hunting and eating, when feathers can be easily disturbed or matted with food.

Other Union Bay News:

Dean Pearson, a groundskeeper for the UW Athletic Department, reports that the osprey are still hanging around the light poles at the UW baseball field. Sadly, the birds chose not use the new nesting platform, in the Union Bay Natural Area. The nesting platform is almost dead center in this photo, taken from Foster Island, while some of the light poles can be seen up and to the right.

Red-winged blackbirds chased the osprey away from the platform not long after it was installed. The osprey will be leaving for Central or South America very soon. Hopefully, next Spring when they return, they will take possession and utilize the new nest site. 

Speaking of Foster Island, I caught this mallard trying to steal a crabapple on the south end of the island. No doubt their flexible feeding habits contribute to their success as a species.

The 520 bald eagles, Eva, Albert and their young, have been gone for a month or so. In the past, the parents usually returned by the end of September. The nesting tree, the tall tree on the far right, looks a bit lonely and empty without eagles among the branches. Hopefully, they will return soon.

About two weeks ago after the windstorm, it was interesting to see all the eastern gray squirrels feeding on the ground. The previous day's wind littered the ground with acorns. The squirrels decided that under the circumstances, there was no reason to be climbing up the oak trees.
The cottonwood tree next to the old boathouse, noticeable here by its absence, must have also blown down in the windstorm. The tree was twice as tall as the building and usually full of cormorants. Prior to taking this photo, a single cormorant flew through The Cut and landed in the water. It paddled back past the boathouse and repeatedly looked up into the air, as if searching for the old familiar tree.

The tree fell into a boat storage area. The smashed pontoon on the right is easily visible. However the boat and trailer under the tree are less obvious. I believe the little hint of blue in the center of the photo is part of the boat trailer. No doubt the boat and trailer are a total loss.

Twice in the last week I have photographed one of the barred owls near Duck Bay. I suspect it is one of the three young seen earlier in the year. 

In both cases, Stellar's jays and other smaller birds were making a racket and harassing the young predator. The smaller birds included chickadees, juncos, wrens and towhees. They were loudly letting the world know where this dangerous predator was residing. Finding the owl was child's play given the noise level.

At one point, three or four hummingbirds were in constant motion around the owl.

For the most part, the owl ignored all their antics.

Once, when the jays became particularly loud and noisy, the owl fluffed up its feathers. Apparently it felt the need to look larger and more intimidating. The tactic worked as none of the jays came too close to the owl. Of course, it might have been the talons that discouraged them, rather than the feathers.

It is interesting to compare the owl's foot to the hawk's.

The owl's foot looks wide, stubby and strong, while the hawk's claw is more slender and elegant. Regardless of their appearance, the hawk's talons can be very effective. I understand that the long slender talons are used in a pulsating fashion to create multiple holes in the heart or other internal organs. 

A few years ago, a large, most likely female, Cooper's hawk took down a wigeon. The largest Cooper's hawks weigh less than a pound, according to All About Birds. Wigeons can weigh from one to four pounds. I guess to some extent, "size matters not".

That is the wildlife news from Union Bay. 

Thanks for following along!


PS: Just in from Dan Pedersen on Whidbey Island a link to an interesting story regarding falconry and bunny rabbits. It is from the: South Whidbey Record.

Dan also does a wonderful blog called, Off The Rails. If you are in need of a smile you might want to take in this week's post. Where Country Songs are Born