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

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Friday, February 16, 2018

An Odd Duck

American Coots may dive like ducks, eat like ducks and mingle with ducks but technically - they are not ducks

Still they are such a strangely unique species of waterfowl that the term 'odd duck' seems appropriate. (Can you guess which member of the coot's family hides among the cattails?)


I think a coot's sole claim to beauty resides in their eyes. Their smoldering irises are almost irresistible, especially when set off by the general plainness of their plumage. 

It seems unlikely to me that female coots are using beauty as a basis for selecting their mates. Although, I guess their idea of beauty might differ from mine. I wonder if that red patch above the bill is considered a beauty mark. Whatever their criteria, it is hard to argue with their success.

This photo shows just a small portion of the coots which can be seen on Union Bay. In the winter, there can be literally thousands of birds.

Coots often dive for food and, compared to pied-billed grebes, they seem more likely to make a splash when they descend.

More often than not, coots are successful at finding aquatic plants. Our widespread infestation of eurasian milfoil provides our wintering coots with a nearly endless supply of food. 

Also, I think it is surprising how dry coots can look when they come to the surface. They must have exceptional oils which repel the water with amazing efficiency.

Coots are so successful at bringing up milfoil that American Wigeons, who are dabblers and not divers, simply hang around and steal from the smaller coots. 

In our Master Birder Class, Dennis Paulson explained that the term for this behavior is kleptoparasitism. Gadwalls, like the one in this photo, also steal food from the coots.

Occasionally, coots will try to paddle or even run away from the wigeons but I don't remember seeing them get frustrated enough to actually try and fly. The coots generally just take another dive and find some more food. I believe Dennis suggested that since wigeons are always watching for potential predators, like bald eagles, the coots may also benefit from the 'relationship'. 

I have also noticed that a lot of theft goes on even when there are only coots present. They steal from each other just like the wigeons steal from them. Apparently, there is no honor among avian thieves.

When coots sense danger, they often take off running across the water. 

Sometimes this becomes a prelude to flying and other times, once they feel safe, they simply settle back down. I suspect they lack the wing strength to abruptly take off from the water like a duck.

One moment a raft of coots can be quite calm and easy to see...

...but once they are startled their propensity to run and splash increases confusion and makes it harder for predators to pick out any particular bird. 

I have watched bald eagles, flying ten feet off the water, heading directly for a raft of coots. I have seen the coots split into two splashing groups, half running to the left and half to the right. They circle away until they are finally airborne.  As the eagle passes over their original location both sets of coots are equal distant from the eagle and headed in the opposite direction. Without the slightest hesitation the coots complete a full circle and land precisely where they started, while the eagle proceeds on and disappears in the distance. The whole process happens with the precision of two interlocking gears rotating in opposite directions.

Another odd thing about coots are their lobed toes. Each toe is flat and wide but not at all webbed like a duck's foot. It also seems to me that coots may be heavier than they appear. I think this coot looks like it is similar in size to the pied-billed grebe behind it. In reality they often weigh fifty percent more than pied-billed grebes. Coots can be closer in weight to birds which I usually think of as being one size larger, like Wood Ducks and Hooded Mergansers. If coots are more dense than most ducks, I wonder if the extra density might help them to be more efficient divers.

Coots actually belong to the Rallidae family, even though they behave a lot more like diving ducks than like their slender relative the Virginia Rail.

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

Larry Hubbell




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. My hope is that 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.

A.
These leaves belong to what type of tree? Is it a Pacific Northwest native?

B.
These tracks in the leaves of the same tree are made by what creature? 












Scroll down to see the answers!












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A. The Pacific Madrone is our only native broad-leafed, evergreen tree. It is one of my favorite trees due to its wide variety of bark colors and year-round foliage. Curiously, the leaves are generally smooth edged but occasionally sawtoothed. In the book 'Northwest Trees' the authors, Arno & Hammerly, explain that the sawtoothed edges occur during vigorous growth of young leaves.

B. The Madrona Leafminer develops into a small moth. The larval stage leaves long sinuous pathways on occasional leaves. David Zuckerman, Manager of Horticulture for the UWBG, says the leaf miner does not do any significant harm to the trees. So far, I cannot find any photos of an adult leaf miner, so I guess we will just have to use our collective imagination.




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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 work around is to setup 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



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Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Baby Ducks (Not)

The males ducks of this species are not easily confused with male Mallards. They do both have green on their heads, but otherwise they are fairly different in color, patterns and size. (As a comparison, the background bird in the next photo is a male Mallard.)

Still, Mallards are so common that they are the gold standard for ducks. Without even trying, we tend to compare other species with Mallards. When small ducks resemble Mallards they are occasionally assumed to be young Mallards. The 'baby duck' on the right is actually a fully-mature female. 

This species also behaves similar to Mallards. For example, this small duck climbed up onto a log to do a little preening and cleaning 

Ignoring their size differences, how can we distinguish between a female Mallard, like this one, and...

...a female of our 'baby duck' species. In regard to colors and patterns, the females have more similarities than differences. It is easy to understand how a casual observer might mix them up if the size difference was not readily apparent. 

In the winter, we often find this petite species sitting on logs next to Mallards. The smaller birds do not seem particularly intimidated by the larger ducks. No doubt this contributes to their being perceived as younger members of the same species. 

During the colder months, we should remember that by the end of autumn young birds have generally grown to the size of their parents. I suspect that attaining an adult size helps young birds to survive the challenges of winter. 

A fairly obvious difference between the females of these two species, beyond size, is the color of their speculums. When the smaller birds lift their primary wing feathers they expose patches of brilliant green.

Mallards have purplish-blue speculums with white borders.  Female Mallards also have a bit more orange on their bills and completely orange feet.

It seems very appropriate that the birds of our miniature species are called Green-winged Teals. 

I find it fascinating in this photo how water can momentarily form a helmut over the head of bathing birds, just as they are breaking the surfacing. 

The speculums of the males of both species have the same colors as their respective females. 

Another similarity between Mallards and Green-wing Teals is both species are dabbling ducks. They primarily search for food by sticking their heads under water, while waving their bums in the air. This is opposed to diving ducks, who do their shopping while completely submerged.

This small, similarly-sized mature female belongs to a species of diving ducks. Sometimes they are also assumed to be baby ducks. In this photo, the female is preparing to dive. She will push down on the water with her tail in order to thrust herself below the surface.

A split second later, as she disappears, we can still see the imprint of her tail on the water.

The males of this species are so strikingly unique that they are less likely to be mistaken for baby ducks.

This photo, taken from the new 520 Bridge Trail, shows one of the males from a top-down perspective. Here again you can see how the tail will be utilized as a 'diving platform'. You might also note the refractive properties that have dramatically changed the color of the dark head feathers. 

The members of this species are called, Buffleheads. Which may be a reference to the fact that their heads can appear rather large for their bodies - similar to the way a Buffalo has a disproportionally large head.

Our third and final miniature water bird is neither a baby or a duck. The name for this species is, Pied-billed Grebe. Their name refers to the fact that their bills have two different colors. Like Buffleheads, this species searches for food underwater.

Unlike the Buffleheads, Pied-billed Grebes tend to come to the surface to consume their catch. Grebes eat primarily fish. Buffleheads tend to swallow smaller creatures, like dragon fly larva, while fully submersed. I suspect a Grebe's bill is much stronger and better able to catch and hold a fish.

The pint-sized, Pied-billed Grebes reproduce right here on Union Bay. You can see more spring photos of baby Pied-billed Grebes in The Mother Ship story from last Spring.

Have a great day on Union Bay...where small winter birds are seldom babies!

Larry




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. My hope is that 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.

Are the grebes and the water lilies in these photos native to Union Bay?









Scroll down to see the answers!






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A) Pied-billed Grebes are native to Union Bay
B) The Water Lily (Nymphaea Orodata) is an invasive weed.
















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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 work around is to setup 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



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Saturday, January 27, 2018

Living Sunshine

A Townsend's Warbler is one of my favorite birds. I love the alternating patches of brilliant yellow. Catching just a glimpse of one makes me smile. I can almost feel the warmth of summer sunshine on my face. When most Townsend's Warblers are soaking up Vitamin D in Mexico or California a hardy few choose to stay here during the gray of winter. 

Normally, they prefer to feed in the upper foliage of coniferous trees, but apparently in winter they are sometimes forced to look for food wherever they can find it. In winter I often see them searching among the blossoms of the flowering Mahonia in the Arboretum. 

This particular plant variety, 'Arthur Menzies', creates a bit of a conundrum for folks, like myself, who believe native plants are better for our local environment. This plant supplies winter food for the native Townsend's Warblers and also for Anna's Hummingbirds. Even though this variety of plant was discovered in the Arboretum, I do not think we can honestly call it a native. It is a hybrid of two Chinese species. You can read the interesting back story by Niall Dunne, Communications Manager, Arboretum Foundation, by Clicking Here.
  
One of the most odd features of Townsend's Warblers is how their color schemes vary depending on your perspective. When viewed from behind, they appear mostly black and white. If I only saw one departing, without a glimpse of yellow, I might not even realize the bird was a warbler.

When they spread their tails, you can see that the black and white color scheme extends to end of their rectrices or tail feathers.


When observed face-to-face a male bird appears mostly black and yellow. As they flicker through the foliage it is easy to overlooking their two white wing bars.

At first glance, a mature female looks pretty much the same as a male. You might even assume that the difference is due to the lack of sunlight in this photo. That is not the case. Females are a dark, olive green in color on their crowns and auriculars, e.g. sides of the head, while mature males have black in these locations.

Another critical difference can be seen in the primarily yellow throats of the females...

 ...as compared to the black throats of the males.

Curiously, the male throats do not all have the same amount of black.

This male shows a lot less black, but perhaps, growing a black throat is a process. Occasionally, mature females can also have a bit of black on their throats, however, their cheeks and crowns will still be olive-green.

Among both the males and females, their backs are olive green with small dark spots. Given their propensity to feed high in the trees it is easy to miss their green and black backs.

As you can see from the last few photos, these birds are often found gleaning food from the branches of conifers in the winter. Last month I found them mostly in the Pinetum, while this month, I am seeing them more in the Winter Garden among the Mahonia blossoms.

Juvenile Townsend Warblers lack the black feathers and have a paler shade of green than the mature females.

In addition, they have less markings on their sides, just below their wings. Since the younger birds, both male and female, look virtually the same we are unable to determine their gender.

The black on this bird's head helps us to conclude it is male.

However, when the bird looks down, we can see olive green with black spots on its crown.

This is the same bird, which we saw earlier, with a minimal amount of black on its throat. I am assuming that these characteristics indicate we are looking at a youthful male who is in the process of molting and growing in its mature black coloring.

While it is fun to try and deduce the gender and age of these little birds, truthfully, I am always just pleased to spot such a brilliant little warbler. Especially one who foregoes the sunshine of Central America to share the winter with us.

Most life on earth depends on sunshine for survival, but warblers are one of the few who give proper due to their life source. To me their brilliant coloring looks like sunshine come to life.

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

Larry


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. My hope is that 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.

Is either the squirrel or the blossom a form of life native to Seattle?






Scroll down to see the answers!






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Neither is native to Seattle. The squirrel is an Eastern Gray Squirrel and the blossom is from the Arthur Menzies variety of Mahonia. You can view the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife webpage concerning all the squirrels of Washington by Clicking Here.








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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 work around is to setup 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



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