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

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Saturday, February 13, 2016

Dreams of Spring

Winter in Seattle can be dismal, gray and wet. It causes us to cherish thoughts of Spring, like a hot cup of coffee held with cold, trembling fingers. In this late January photo, a great blue heron stands in the midst of dried cattails blowing in the winter's wind. Near the bird's feet there is just a hint green - maybe an early sign of Spring.

Two days later, I chanced upon this pair of herons performing a slow moving dance in the same general area. They moved with measured steps. It was a careful, reflective choreography - moving together almost as if they were mirrored images. I was drifting slowly around one of the small islets on Union Bay when the distant birds became visible. I sat transfixed, camera clicking softly, arms burning, wishing I was closer but fearing to make any move which might interrupt their magical performance.

I suppose their behavior might have been territorial, however it felt like a mating dance - slow, respectful and without any obvious signs of intimidation. Together, they waded out towards deeper water. The colors of the flora in these photos show no signs of life. However the flashes of exposed black shoulder patches and burnt orange on their upper thighs, along with the birds' unusual maneuvers inspired thoughts of Spring.

Necks erect, feathers splayed, beaks at attention, the slow dance shifted from side-by-side to a more dangerous and exposed face-to-face interaction. I am not a scientist, but it seems to me that this is a position of trust. If these birds were thinking of attacking each other I would expect their wings to be extended and waving for balance as they looked for weaknesses and an opportunity to strike. Their calm slow behavior, with wings tucked carefully away, helped me to conclude this must be a mating ritual.

The plumes of feathers hanging down below their necks are not uncommon, but look surprisingly stiff. This was the first time I have ever noticed the plume-like feathers held erect above their backs and sides.

As the birds marched slowly back toward shore another touch of green entered the photo.

As their display ended they turned slowly away. The herons took up positions roughly 40 yards apart. For a time, they maintained a constant visual contact.

Two days later, while watching ducks from the shore of Foster Island, I experienced the feeling of being watched. Looking up, I found a heron sitting silently above me. We both felt uneasy, though for very different reasons. I was highly inspired not to scare the bird as they often defecate just prior to flying. Herons in trees look precarious and ungainly. However, they do nest in trees, so when I see one perched overhead it does make me think "Spring is in the air."

Another sure sign of Spring is Eva and Albert spending more time in their nesting tree. This week, one of them spotted an immature eagle near Foster Island and came blitzing out from the nest site. When the youngster reached the airspace between Marsh Island and Duck Bay the adult acquiesced and headed back to Broadmoor. 

From the look of the young eagle I believe it is the same bird we saw in mid-January. Click here to read the story. Eva and Albert seem very consistent about their territorial boundaries. The young bird continues to wander over and above the invisible lines however the mature birds seem to realize...repetition is the key to learning.

Earlier, I came across this female downy woodpecker feeding about twenty feet off the ground. She may not have realized she was pushing up against a "glass-ceiling".

When she spotted a male downy, moving in to restrict her feeding height, she moved below the branch for protection, just prior to taking flight. (It amazes me how my eyes focus on the white spots on her black wings and how easily I forget that I am actually looking at individual feathers which are perpendicular to the pattern. Nature's camouflage does not require color coordination...

...however, sometimes it helps. Can you spot the brown creeper in this photo? When taking the photo I actually thought the bird would be easy to see against the white bark of the birch tree. I was wrong.)

The male takes over the site, and the feeding, before following after the female. Among downy woodpeckers the males get the higher, smaller branches, while the females are relegated to lower, larger branches. Maybe this behavior evolved so the males would have a wider field of view and be better able to defend the females from intruders. Downy's seem similar to humans, since both have intertwined feeding behaviors and mating relationships - kind of like dinner and dating. Maybe it is just happenstance, but I have only noticed the enforcement of this "glass-ceiling" behavior just prior to nest building and the mating season.

Parting Shots:

Here are two non-avian signs of spring. 

An indian plum leafing out...

...and willow buds. 

Have a great day on Union Bay...where the dream of Spring is in the air!


PS: The creeper is in the lower left quadrant of the photo, on the trunk near the base of the branch.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Easy Livin'

Lately, this beautiful pure-white egret has been living on houseboats in Portage Bay. Technically, the correct name for this species is a Great Egret. It stands over three feet tall, even though it weighs less than half as much as one of our local Great Blue Herons.

Like the heron, this bird loves fish. The placement of its eyes are obviously optimized for looking down on its prey. It certainly makes me feel nervous, and a bit sorry for the fish.

 The long legs, neck and especially the spear-like beak strongly resemble the heron.

It is however the stunning white feathers that confound my thinking. Many white birds like the trumpeter and tundra swans, snow geese and even snowy owls live around snow. Like many other birds they often come south in the winter. Great egrets normally spend their whole lives even further to the south - this is the first one I have seen in Seattle. The great egrets usually winter in the southern part of the U.S., Central America and apparently almost every place east of the Andes in South America. I wonder if climate change and the exceptional warm year in 2015 may have motivated this bird to visit Seattle for the winter? I also wonder why a bird would have pure white feathers when it so seldom near snow? 

I suppose one answer might be that the white feathers reflect away some of the Southern heat. Regardless of the reason, this egret certainly devotes a great deal of its time to maintaining its pristine plumage.

It alertly interrupts its cleaning anytime it hears a noise.

 However, it is seldom distracted for long.

The combination of a long neck and a long beak make for some oddly distorted twists and turns.

None-the-less, egrets do have a long-necked elegance, similar to a swan, except 
for the beak which provides a sharp "punctuation" at the end of the neck.

At first, I do not have a clue why the bird decides to move away from its comfortable perch in the sun.

The twisting and turning of the head alerts me to a fly-in-the-ointment. It is curious to see how the egret elevates its gaze as it keeps the fly in focus.

 As the egret tracks the fly, the bird's thin delicate structure is revealed.

 The fly tempts fate.

The egret debates whether the fly is worth the effort. I am not positive if the egret could actually catch a fly or not. However a couple of years ago, I did watch a great blue heron catch dragonflies - with about a fifty percent success rate.

 One last time the fly passes by.

At this point the fly disappears. Evidently, it made a safe get away since I never saw the egret swallow.

 Apparently the fly reminded the egret that it had an appetite.

 After a moment of careful consideration, the egret decided to return to a private dock...

... just behind Seattle's oldest houseboat, where a tiny strip of shoreline still exists. I suspect the reason the egret feels comfortable fishing at this location is in part because it is so seldom disturbed. 

Nature, just like the egret, does not need a lot of space to continue to live in our city, but it does require some sunlight, soil and a safe place to feed, which in this case is just ~15 feet of shallow water beside the shore.

The egret is not so picky about its roosting locations, they simply need to be elevated and have a nice view. It is important to remember nature does not see our city the same way we do.

It took the egret less than 10 minutes to fly a hundred yards, search the fifteen feet of shoreline, find a fish, capture it and...

...swallow it. 

Maybe heading north to Seattle, when most of its kin headed south, was motivated by plentiful food. Even if the fishing is not the reason the bird came to Seattle, there is no doubt that the easy living is a good reason to stay.

Have a great day on Portage Bay...where an egret is living in the city!


Parting Shots:

Harmony between humanity and nature may be...

...equally important to both parties.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

A Bathing Beauty

Thursday was gray, cloudy and wet. Around noon the rain let up. I headed to the Arboretum in hopes of finding a few birds to photograph. As the sun shone between the clouds, red-winged blackbirds sang and a robin bathed in the freshly fallen rain.

Students in a UW class on water quality pointed out this tree where they saw a pileated woodpecker. I quietly circled the tree without noticing any signs of Chip or Storm, two of our local pileated woodpeckers. 

A few days earlier I saw them working side-by-side in the same tree. They fed for awhile but when it came time to head home they each went in different directions. It made me think that maybe they were doing the woodpecker equivalent of dating. They do not appear to be spending their nights in close proximity.

A sudden flash of a bright red alerted me to the fact that Chip was working inside the decomposing tree once again. In this hidden back-water of Union Bay near Elderberry Island, the willow trees grow, fall and rot in the wetlands. Often what looks like a dead tree laying on the ground will sprout vertical branches that end up becoming a row of "new" trees growing side-by side. The willow and the decomposing alder in the area may look unkempt, but they are a critical feeding habitat for ants and bugs that the pileated woodpeckers, flickers, downy woodpeckers and others depend on for food. These messy looking spots are some of the most productive parts of our city's ecosystem.

Most of the time Chip was virtually invisible while feeding inside the tree. However every few seconds his head would pop up and he would check for any signs of danger. 

Whenever pileated woodpeckers excavate for food, other birds like this male flicker often come looking for leftovers.

When the flicker landed on the outside of the tree where Chip was working, Chip must have been alerted by the vibrations as he immediately came out and looked around.

The flicker relocated to a safe distance.

Once Chip was full, and most likely covered with a fine dusting of wood chips, he flew to the backside of reclining willow tree. Slowly, he hopped backwards down the side of the tree.

Chip spent a few moments in the water at the base of the tree. I suspected he was bathing, but the obscuring cluster of trees, branches and twigs made it hard to be sure. I would guess he picked this hidden location because it would be more difficult for earthbound-predators to approach him while he had his head in the water.

Afterwards, Chip climbed back up the tree with his feathers looking a bit damp.

Any doubt about whether he had been bathing evaporated when I saw this spray of water come off of his head.

Not having a bath towel, Chip used the moss to wipe away as much of the remaining water as possible.

He still ended up with a kind of damp, fresh-out-of-the-shower look.

His next stop was in a higher and more sunlit tree...

...where the preening and cleaning continued.

Chip must have spread his wings to dry them in the sun, but given the angle, all I could see were a few of his wing feathers hanging over the side of the branch.

Another flicker, a female this time, landed below him and started looking for food. 

She was clearly paying attention to Chip's every move. Chip may not have the rock star attitude of Elvis, the previous male pileated who used to spend time in the area, but the flickers that follow him around do seem to be forming a fan club.

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


PS: By the way, if you look very closely at the first photo, Chip's back in barely visible while his head is completely hidden inside the tree.