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

On Instagram and Twitter: @unionbaywatch

Friday, October 21, 2016

A Little Brown Bird

Small birds can often be the most challenging to identify. Particularly, those with indistinct colors like grey or brown. Sometimes all you can see is a flicker before they disappear. In which case I lump their identification into the catch-all category of little brown bird or 'lbb' for short.

Occasionally, they freeze instead of flying and even then they can still be difficult to discern. Often, while photographing a small bird, when I lower my camera I lose them completely, even when they are sitting right in front of me.

Earlier this month, I got my first ever photos of this reclusive little bird while it was sitting in a Japanese Ash tree in the Arboretum.

The larger robin can easily swallow the fruit of an ash tree whole.

Like a robin, our little brown bird is part of the thrush family. Unlike a robin, it is usually silent at least when visiting Seattle in October. Seattle Audubon's online guide, 'Birdweb', says that October and April are the two best months for spotting this bird near Puget Sound. In the Spring they are on their way north, looking for prime breeding locations, while in autumn most are winging their way south searching for warm winter weather. 

Unlike the varied thrush, another larger member of the family, our little bird does not provide us with a unique, identifiable pattern. It is actually very similar in its size and looks to a third relative, the Swaison's Thrush.

One of the few distinguishing features between the two little birds are their tails. As you can see here the tail of our 'lbb' subtly fades into a unique, warm rufous glow, unlike the Swainson's.

Our little bird apparently cannot swallow the pea-sized, fruit of the ash tree in a single gulp.

Instead, it must squeeze...

...nibble and...

...mash the fruit into a manageable size.

One of the traits this bird shares with its larger cousin, the robin, is a habit of flicking its wings and tail. It is about the only thing this bird does which draws attention.

This shy, retiring bird also spends time searching the ground for food. In the distance, it is easy to mistake its subtle shades and behavior for a sparrow or a dark-eye junco. It is never far from a tree or bush. At the slightest disturbance it will flit, flicker and fly - leaving only a memory of brown as it becomes one with the brush. 

Binoculars can be helpful in spotting and viewing this bird. They provide just enough distance to help keep us from scaring them away.

During the last few weeks the leaves on the ash trees in the Arboretum have been turning to gold. Our little brown birds have been stealth-fully searching the trees for fruit.

At the same time, I have been silently striving to catch one of them picking the bright, little berries.

So far, I have been successful only once.

Even when they stay on the far side of the fruit and the photo is less than desired, the experience is still satisfying. Every moment shared with such a shy and subtle creature is a peaceful reward for the effort.

If these photos and my descriptions have failed to convince you of this little brown bird's beauty then there is only one thing left to do. You should take a moment to listen to its song. This is how the males attract mates to their breeding territories high in the Cascades or up north in Canada. In particular I like the sound of the second recording on, 'All About Birds'. Click Here and then scroll down to hear the beautiful haunting melody of the Hermit Thrush.

Have a great day on Union Bay...where the migrating thrush visit our city!


Saturday, October 15, 2016

Looking for Lefty

On Monday I finally found my first deer in the Arboretum. I did a double take and wondered, could this be Lefty? If you missed the original post, Lefty is the young buck photographed by Peter Korch in the Union Bay Natural Area last July.  The Natural Area is about a mile north of the Arboretum. The only direct walkable surface connection is across the busy four-lane Montlake Bridge. On the other hand, deer can swim.

After Peter's initial sighting, Lefty was seen off and on. He was spotted north of the Montlake Bridge, later he was seen going west onto the upper part of the UW Campus and afterwords back in the Natural Area

For comparison purposes here is one of Peter's photos from last July.

If this is Lefty, his antlers have grown. His left antler (on our right) is noticeably taller in both photos. The most obvious difference or change is the absence of velvet. As part of a male deer's preparation for mating season, they rub the velvet away. The velvet helps to promote the growth of a deer's antlers. The new larger version of the antlers helps the male deer to dominate and chase off competitors. If you happen to spot a western red cedar with the bark missing from its lower branches, it was likely caused by Lefty polishing up his new and improved antlers.

Lucky for Lefty, who appears to be experiencing his first fall as an adult, there do not seem to be any other competing males in the area. I did hear that a female had been spotted, but I have not yet seen her. It would certainly be exciting to have little 'Lefties' in the Spring.

After reading the descriptions of Washington deer on the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife website, I am now positive Lefty is a Columbian Black-tailed deer and not a Mule deer. His tail fits the description and the fact that he is still hanging around Union Bay, in a relatively small territory, and his being west of the Cascades are all consistent indicators.

On Monday, Lefty was wandering through the area called the Pacific Connections in the south end of the Arboretum. He seemed to really enjoy the fairly open area which contains a variety of plants, trees and grasses from New Zealand. When the trees reach maturity this area will transform into a forest, but currently it looks more like a meadow. Kathleen DeMaria, along with a group of dedicated volunteers, provides the daily care of this young and healthy three year old forest in the making.

I am pretty sure Lefty has no idea how exotic some of these plants are. They are green and he is hungry.

Lefty is still a bit shy. His distrust of humans is good for him and us. We do not want to feed or tame him in any way. If he starts coming close to people, someone may feel threatened and then he may have to be 'removed'. If we want to live in harmony with Lefty (and nature in general) maintaining a mutual distrust and distance is a healthy approach. 

When Lefty gets nervous he flicks his ears back and forth. I suspect he is listening for sounds that indicate danger. If you click on this photo, and then page back and forth between the prior one, you can see how much control he has of his magnificent listening devices.

When his ears and eyes don't provide sufficient information, Lefty raises his nose and searches for airborne scents. Usually, when he catches the scent, sight or sound of my daughter's dog Ginger, he moves away. On Monday, I was glad that I had Ginger on her leash, as usual. When she thought Lefty was coming too close she started barking defensively and pulled against the leash - attempting to chase him. Clearly, if Lefty is going to hang around and feel comfortable in the Arboretum, we will all want to keep our dogs properly restrained.

The Washington Fish and Wildlife website also mentioned that male Black-tailed deer usually weigh between 140 and 200 pounds. It seems odd that a creature that large can be hard to spot in the Arboretum, especially with all the crisscrossing trails and a steady stream of visitors.

Stephanie, one of the instructors for the Fiddleheads outdoor preschool, mentioned that she and the children went looking for Lefty one morning last week. They spent the morning searching, but never found him. The children returned to their outdoor classroom feeling let down and disappointed. As Stephanie began to document their failure to find Lefty, she and the children looked up just in time to see Lefty passing through the edge of their 'classroom'. I suspect these children will never forget the experience. Hopefully, Lefty will be around in the years to come so future preschool classes can have a similar experience.

On Tuesday morning, I saw Lefty again, eating one of the New Zealand plants. I also noticed Kathleen, the Horticulturalist, walking in his direction. Erroneously, I assumed Kathleen did not realize Lefty was in front of her. 

Apprehensively Kathleen walked directly toward Lefty and shoed him away from the plant. Afterwords. she noted that her primary concern was for Lefty, not the plant or even herself. Kathleen went on to explain that this common and important New Zealand plant can be toxic and is dangerous to consume.

Lefty leisurely sauntered away. Later, after I mentioned the situation to Kelly Brenner, she found this post from Alaska which explains how deer can consume poisonous plants. Of course Lefty's situation may be unusual because the plant he was eating is not native to North America. I have no idea if his body can handle the plant or not.

I have been out looking for Lefty a couple more times this week, but so far I have not found him or the female deer. In addition to non-native plants and off-leash dogs, Lefty will also have to deal with this weekend's stormy weather. I hope that next week we find Lefty and his potential mate, and they are both alive and well. It seems I will be once again looking for Lefty.

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


ps: My wife just mentioned that if you are a member of Montlake Nextdoor you should be able to search and find photos of what appears to be a female deer seen near the Arboretum. The photos were posted on October 6th and 8th 2016.

Friday, October 7, 2016

Have Great Day!

Last week was my first and only chance (so far) to see a Great Horned Owl in the Arboretum. Kelly Brenner spotted the owl just east of the Winter Garden and mentioned it via Twitter. When I heard the news, I was near the UW Baseball Stadium pointing out Kate, the young female osprey from the Union Bay nest, to a group of out-of-state visitors. I said a quick goodbye and ran!  

For five years the only owls I have ever seen in the Arboretum are Barred Owls. Occasionally, I've heard that someone has spotted a Great Horned Owl. I do not doubt that they have seen an owl, but I often wonder about the species. A quick glimpse of an owl high in the shadows of a tall tree can be a challenge to identify. 

In Kelly's case, I had no doubt about what she saw. Kelly studies nature and walks through the Arboretum daily. As a matter of fact, she is publishing a nature post for each and every day of the year. You can read them all on her blog the Metropolitan Field Guide,

It is unlikely that we will see these two species sitting side-by-side in nature. So using photos to compare them seems like a logical approach. Obvious differences include the yellow versus dark irises, the existence of 'horns', and the horizontal bars rather than vertical stripes. Their relative weight difference is less obvious. Barred Owls weigh only half as much as Great Horned Owls - even though their wingspans are almost identical.

My heart was racing, but my progress felt slow. In addition to covering a mile on foot, I needed to stop by the house and trade the spotting scope for a camera. I feared the owl would be gone. After crossing the Montlake Bridge, I slowed to a walk, and caught my breath. I texted Kelly and asked, 'Is it still there?' She replied, 'Yes, it has gone to sleep.'  I thought, 'Excellent!' and started running again. 

A Cooper's Hawk flew up out of the smaller trees just as I arrived. Almost immediately, it began calling out. 

The large owl had little to fear from the smaller bird, however it did wake up when it heard the hawk.

The Cooper's Hawk seemed to hop, skip and jump its way up the tree, carefully circling closer while still constantly crying out. The hawk was obviously anxious and irritated by the owl's presence.

The owl was observant but did not seem highly nervous. The behavior made me think the owl was fairly mature. All About Birds says they can live for almost three decades.

The nervous little hawk did not linger in any particular spot. 

When the hawk got closer, the owl finally turned and leaped in its direction, once or twice. This photo is the first time I have ever had the opportunity to notice any of the detail in the coloring of a Great Horned Owl's feathers. A couple of the tail feathers look a bit worn which makes me think that the owl was not hatched-out this year.

As we watched, Kelly mentioned how hard it was to hold our heads back and stare up into the tree tops. She also wondered whether the owl was just visiting or if it had been around all along. The Great Horned Owl's perch was easily twice as high as the spots where I often see Barred Owls. It would have been very easy to miss. So, either option seems plausible.

In our birding class this week, Dennis Paulson mentioned how long tails help birds twist and turn their way between the branches in a forested environment. The owl seemed very much at home among all the branches of the Maple tree.

Great Horned Owls are said to usually nest in trees, but they can make do in a variety of different habitats. As a result, they live almost everywhere in North America, Central America and in a large portion of South America. 

Finally, the hawk gave up and flew off to the south. The penetrating stare of the owl helped me to understand the hawk's decision.

When the owl went to sleep again, I decided to go home for lunch.

When I came back in the afternoon, the owl was still sleeping. I left again and returned about an hour before dark.

The owl remained on the exact same perch all day.

Finally, at 10 minutes after sundown the owl took to the air and silently glided east towards the golf course. I have looked for it everyday since, but I have not seen any sign of it. I am extremely curious to find out if it truly resides in the area. 

I have read that they eat smaller mammals and birds, but they are also capable of eating Osprey, Barred Owls and even Great Blue Herons. If the Great Horned Owl remains in the area it might change the balance of power in the Arboretum. 

If you would like, you can help me watch for the owl. We can also listen for it, too. One of the best times to hear them is just after dark.

Here are two links that will allow you to hear how their hooting differs. Click on each link, then scroll down and click on the first triangle.

Have a Great Day around Union Bay! 


Bonus Photo: 
Here is what young Great Horned Owls look like in the nest. This photo is from Nisqually Wildlife Refuge circa 2013. It would certainly be wonderful to watch creatures like these grow up around Union Bay. You can see more of their photos by Clicking Here.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Just Add Salt

Joe Sweeney in action. Thank you to Lynne Smith for providing this photo.

Last Saturday, Joe Sweeney graciously volunteered to lead a field trip to the Edmonds Pier for this year's Master Birder Class from Seattle Audubon. Joe's expertise in Puget Sound birds is clearly enhanced from investing hundreds of hours patiently observing avian life from the pier. In addition to birds, Joe mentioned seeing humpback whales, dolphins and orcas as well.

One of our first signs of life as we approached the pier was a harbor seal. 

From the pier, we watched male and female surf scoters heading south with their heavy, shell-crunching bills.

We observed both double-crested and pelagic cormorants. The delicate turn of the pelagic's neck looks positively elegant, especially after only seeing the heavy-duty, double-crested cormorants around Union Bay. True to their name, the pelagic cormorants are sea birds that are seldom seen on fresh water.

We saw and heard a female belted kingfisher. Just like great blue herons and double-crested cormorants, the kingfisher does not discriminate against water (or fish) based on the salt content.

We saw a number of rhinoceros auklets and even debated whether we saw a Cassin's in the distance. The rhinoceros name is evidently inspired by the 'horn' they grow from the top of their bill during breeding season. You can see one of the horns by Clicking Here

Earlier this month, I posted photos of the American White Pelican. They have a somewhat similar appendage during breeding season, but the precise location, color and scale are different. You can compare the differences by Clicking Here.

This 'rhino' seemed to be the only auklet who was willing to venture close to the pier. Please note the small white 'trim' on the leading edge of its wing.

The auklet dived repeatedly with its wings extended. Their wings are used for underwater propulsion as well as for flying.

There was a large school of fish below the south end of the pier. Dennis Paulson - renowned naturalist, scientist, author and the instructor of our Master Birder Class - pointed out that the fish were shiner perch and part of an exceptionally large school. 

After this photo was taken, I noticed a faster reaction from the fish whenever the auklet dived. Suddenly, the water closest to the auklet would be instantly empty. Beyond some invisible line, the fish would seem twice as dense as normal. 

In the last photo, I suspect the distorted figure - just to the right and below the fish - may be the auklet. I think the little white line on the wing may be the same white line we saw in the earlier photo.

Other birds besides the auklet began paying attention to the fish. I think the Heermann's Gulls are my favorite gulls. I love their dark colors, white trim and uniquely orange beaks. Their special coloring makes them very easy to identify.

This Spring photo from Port Townsend shows a Heermann's in breeding plumage. The pure white head makes them even more appealing.

The gulls would circle around to the north and then come back swooping low over the water, while searching for unsuspecting fish.

Notice how the gull is almost touching the water's surface. 

In mid-flight, the birds would stick their heads below the surface while attempting to catch fish. The feet fly forward as the water slows the bird's progress.

The result was a significant splash and this time the lucky fish got away. Occasionally, the gulls would actually catch one of the perch. Sadly, I was unable to capture the moment.

The highlight of our visit was a somewhat distant but distinctive viewing of a Parasitic Jaeger.

Parasitic jaegers nest in the Arctic and winter in the Southern Hemisphere. Their name comes from their habit of chasing other birds and harassing them into disgorging and dropping their prey. In this photo, the small white space between the bird's dark cap and its dark bill distinguishes it from its relatives. Plus, the other two jaegers species seldom come even this close to shore.

A huge THANK YOU! to Joe Sweeney for finding and pointing out this unique bird. It was a first for me! Earlier this month, Joe had a much closer encounter with a Parasitic Jaeger. You can learn all about it in the first link below and see more of his photos by visiting his other two sites.

Have a great day on Union Bay...or you can add a little salt to your life by visiting the Edmond's Pier.


Updates from Union Bay:

1) In a surprising turn of events, Thursday morning Kate, the young female osprey from the nest at Montlake Fill, was seen multiple times in and around the nest. Myself and others had not seen any of the osprey for nearly a week. I was starting to think they had all headed south for the winter. 

On Thursday, Kate was generally quiet. She was not begging incessantly as she had been when other family members were present. I am wondering if she is now totally on her own. I am particularly curious to know if anyone has seen her successfully fishing and feeding for herself. 

Kate is unique compared to the other members of her family because: a) Unlike her parents, she has white edging on her dark brown feathers on her back and b) Unlike her brothers, she has a distinctly visible brown 'necklace' on her otherwise white chest.

2) A Great Horned Owl was spotted in the Arboretum Thursday morning by Kelly Brenner - Author of the Metropolitan Field Guide. Luckily, the large owl hung around for awhile. This was my first ever sighting of a great horned owl in our Union Bay neighborhood. Thank You - Kelly!

3) Sadly and surprisingly, a reader reported a sighting of a dead seal south of Yesler Swamp. If anyone has information regarding the seal's demise I would be curious to learn more about the situation. Hearing about the seal surprised me, especially since I have only seen them near salt water. Thank You - Hannah.

4) Dennis Paulson graciously reviewed the fish photos in my previous post, Adios Amigos. I have updated the post with his improved identifications and comments. Thank You -  Dennis!