Mission: To promote the appreciation of wildlife on and around Union Bay and a higher level of harmony between humanity and nature.

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Monday, October 13, 2014

Breaking News | Grebe Update!

While reading last Saturday's post, "In Search of Elegance", Ann Marie Wood wondered if the bird in the story, might be a Clark's Grebe, rather than the closely related and far more common, Western Grebe. 

From what I have read, the Clark's Grebe is more common south and east of Puget Sound, but is relatively rare in Union Bay and western Washington. As a matter of fact, in my earliest Bird Guide, circa 1983, there is no mention of a Clark's Grebe, the distinction between the two types of birds has apparently been found in the last couple of decades.

When consulting newer guides distinctions can be found, related to the color of the feathers around the eyes.
  • The eyes of the Western Grebe are surrounded by dark feathers and 
  • The eyes of the Clark's are surrounded by white feathers, 
however in the winter, the guides show that both types of birds can have a mix of black and white feathers around the their eyes.  

For comparison, here is a photo of what is clearly a Western Grebe, taken yesterday morning, southwest of the Union Bay Natural Area.

The guides also mentioned the birds can be distinguished by:

  • The calls they make (which I have never heard), 
  • and the color of their bills.

A National Geographic Guide, circa 2002, says:

  • The bill of the Western Grebe is yellow-green and
  • The bill of the Clark's Grebe is orange.
While a Sibley Guide, circa 2003, says:

  • The bill of the Western Grebe is dusky yellow and
  • The bill of the Clark's Grebe is bright-yellow to orange-yellow.
Ann Marie suggested we ask for expert advice. I agreed.  

This afternoon Ann Marie's powers of observation were proven correct. This email from Connie Sidles explains:

Dear Larry, 

I've been meaning for a long time to thank you for posting your lovely photos of Union Bay, and for describing the birds you find there. But your shots of the Clark's Grebe (present today, along with three Westerns) gave me the nudge I needed to email you my thanks.

Your photos were key in identifying the Clark's. I asked Dennis Paulson to take a look at them on your blog, and he thinks they are definitely Clark's. He noted that even in yellow light, the dark orange at the base of the bill was typical of Clark's. Without your amazing skill at taking these pin-sharp photos, that detail would have been missed. I certainly couldn't see it in the field!
Anyway, thank you, dear Larry, for sharing this great bird with all of us. It is only the second time in all the 119 years of record-keeping that Clark's has been found. The only other record occurred in July 1989, when Kevin Aanerud heard two calling. I never thought I would be privileged to actually see a Clark's at the Fill myself, but thanks to you, I have. 

- Connie 

Here is a close up of the bird in question, which helps make the orange coloring obvious.

Here is another Western Grebe, from a couple of years ago. Now that Dennis has pointed it out, the dusky-green color is clearly different from the orange-yellow above.

Thank you to all the folks who offered guidance on this issue, in particular, to Ann Marie, Connie and especially Dennis Paulson for contributing to my birding education. 

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


Saturday, October 11, 2014

In Search of Elegance

Sunday morning, just after dawn, I passed under 520 and paddled into Otter Gap. Three different times last winter I spotted otters in the area between Marsh and Foster Islands. 

On Sunday, a single bird with no visible signs of locomotion, silently circled in serpentine figure eights between the islands.

Oddly, the bird appeared alert, aware and completely relaxed all at the same time.

With its beak tucked out of sight, its head positioned at mid-ship, and its paddling taking place below the water's surface, this bird and western grebes in general, always remind me of...

...toy boats. It almost seemed as if this bird's movement was supplied by a rubber band attached to a little plastic propeller. Undisturbed, the bird circled left and right, clearly aware of my presence, but unperturbed.

Occasionally while grooming, its beak would become visible, making it hard to maintain the toy boat illusion.

When another boater and his dog appeared nearby, the grebe came to attention and moved out of their way, but did not leave the area.

I have only seen western grebes on Union Bay during the cooler months and never more than three birds at once. If memory serves me right, in the book, "In the Life of a City Marsh", the authors imply that 65 years ago western grebes were much more plentiful here. Maybe when our water pollution is reduced, by the new 520 bridge, the number of wintering western grebes will increase. I hope so.

Western grebes are a challenge to photograph. For one thing their dark and light color pattern makes it difficult to get a good exposure without losing the detail in the white or the dark areas. But even more challenging is trying to capture the elegance of the bird.

All grebes have their feet at the south end of their body, which can look awkward, and when looking them square in the face their elegance is not always obvious. Still there is something magically elegant that is readily apparent in person.

Complementing the bird with a colorful background is nice but it still does not quite convey the feeling.

Focusing on the vibrant red eyes can help.

Adding a reflection does not hurt, but still there is something missing.

Oddly, it may be that less is more.

It almost seems like more of their elegance is apparent when the dark colors of the bird blend into the background. In the photo above, the striking triangular shape of the white head and yellow bill seem to pop off the page a bit.

Still, that does not quite convey their beauty.

Maybe it is more the twist of the neck that makes them look so elegant.

It is very hard to say.


…one simply must admit….

…the beauty of life and...

…the joy and the vibrance... 

…can simply not be captured in a photograph. No matter how I try to entice you, the beauty and elegance of western grebes, and nature in general, can only truly be experienced first hand.

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


Grebe Update:

Click here to find out if the bird above is truly a Western Grebe or a Clark's Grebe.

520 Update:

By the way, starting on Monday, the north end of Foster Island will be closed for the next month.

Sadly, progress has already begun. The good news is it looks like the area being cleared, for 520 expansion, is the most narrow portion of Foster Island, immediately north of the existing freeway. Actually, I guess it is not free any more, so technically, it is no longer a freeway.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Snipe Hunting!

Last Sunday morning, just before dawn, the water lapped gently against the rocks on the north end of Foster Island. High above in a cottonwood a mature bald eagle surveyed Union Bay. Slightly to the east wood ducks were feeding in the semi-darkness while further away the distant lights of an occasional car sparkled on the 520 high rise.

The eagle proved to be Albert, who soon returned to roost with Eva in their Broadmoor nest. Our 520 eagles are definitely back! A flock of cedar waxwings flew back and forth over the marsh north of Broadmoor, which I call the "Red-Winged Wetlands". 

Just west of the wetlands this green-winged teal enjoyed the early morning sun on the edge of Foster Island. I paddled my kayak south, carefully circumventing the fallen trees in the canal, which I call "Cottonwood Downs." Thanks in part to our industrious, Union Bay beaver population, it always seems another tree has just fallen and lies half submerged across the canal. Leaving the canal I started to pass "Nest Egg Island", between Duck Bay and Foster Island, when a snipe landed at the water's edge. 

If you follow this link you should be able to see the locations I mentioned above. 

At this point the snipe must have finished its morning feeding and was ready for a little quiet time. It turned and hopped off the log and on to shore…

...where it seemed to evaporate right before my eyes. 

I suspect that at some point in life you have been invited on a "mythical" snipe hunt. It turns out that snipes are not a myth and they live right here among us, on Union Bay. The photo above is your chance to go on a snipe hunt with the guarantee that there is a snipe for you to find. Can you see it?

According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology the term "sniper" came from British soldiers hunting snipe in India over 200 years ago. Not only are snipe difficult to see when they go-to-ground, but they fly in a zig-zag fashion that makes it difficult to track them in the air. The term "sniper" must have been an acknowledgment of the superior skills of a successful hunter.

Here is a close up that shows the snipe who can be found slightly left of center in the previous photo. Even with my best lens I could only barely make out the bird.

Hoping for a better view I edged the kayak slowly forward.

When another bird passed over the snipe's body did not seem to move at all, but the movement of the eye made it almost seem as if the eye was independent from the bird.

Inching closer once again the faint orange coloring became visible on what appear to be the feathers on the leading edge of the wing.

 The snipe seemed totally confident that it could not be seen.

Although when a motorized boat passed by the snipe snapped to attention before...

 …crouching lower in the grass. If you look closely you can also see the orange coloring in a band across the tail. You can also see the orange tail in the closeup, up above.

Still the most amazing feature of the snipe is the bill. Cornell says the bird uses the bill to search for food in the mud. It likes to eat the larvae insects that have been deposited underground for safe keeping. When it finds a larvae it can open just the flexible tip of its bill, without moving the upper portion, and then slurp the larvae into its mouth, without ever pulling its bill out of the mud. Natures adaptions are amazing.

Up until about one hundred years ago, when Montlake Cut lowered Union Bay by around 9 feet, there may not have been much exposed mud for local snipes. However when the water level receded the snipes must have thought they had been transported to snipe nirvana. Imagine an expanse of mud from the Burke-Gilman, north of University Village, all the way to where the UW baseball field is today. Foster Island must have also suddenly expanded into a fairly large and mostly muddy island. 

Union Bay may no longer be such a happy hunting ground for the snipes, but armed with a pair of binoculars, you can still have a successful snipe hunt.

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


Saturday, September 27, 2014

In the Eyes of a Hobbit

Last weekend, the unkept appearance of this crow caught my attention. Closer inspection shows the wing feathers appear crisp and clean, while the neck feathers are worn and frayed.

The frayed feathers are also not as black as the rest, possibly they are faded with age. The crow may be in the process of forming fashionably new fall feathers. One way or another, this crow certainly gives the impression of being old and wise.

You have probably read the stories about the intelligence of crows, particularly with some of the research being done at the University of Washington, but did you know that in captivity crows have lived to be 59 years old? While the passage of time does not guarantee wisdom it does increase the opportunities to learn.

Even if you are not a scientist you can easily observe the intelligent behavior of crows. The look in their eyes as you pass them displays their careful calculation. "Is this person really dangerous? Should I make a quick escape via flight, and leave a potential food source, or should I just hop a few feet away and test to see if they chase me?" Unlike most birds, crows often choose to test us rather than take flight. The number of crows in Seattle seems to validate the intelligence of this approach. By carefully weighing the risk versus the return, crows end up with more food than other birds and more reproductive success. Maybe humans aren't the only ones who do return-on-investment calculations.

Crows also end up with more food because they are are smart enough to use a wide variety of strategies.  After a light rain, this bird appeared to be looking for worms in the grass, similar to the behavior of a robin. Crows also obtain food by throwing moss and leaves out of gutters to find tasty tidbits growing under the litter. They do this same procedure on both street and house gutters. I have heard crows have been seen scouting out robin's nests and waiting until the young robins are just ready to fly, e.g. optimal size, before coming back to consume them. In June, when mature 3 inch long fish  spawn in Union Bay, the crows can be seen flying out over the bay to pick the tiny, floating fish bodies out of the water. 

Humans provide another major food source for crows. 
Just like Husky fans gathering before the big game…

…crows gather after the big game. The number of crows the morning after a Husky game appears to be similar to the number of people at the game. By the way, on a per ounce basis I think the crows are louder. 

Whether it is after a game or in an alley behind your house, the crows love the food scraps we leave behind. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology says crows also love to harass other birds, who have food, in hopes that they will drop their catch and leave it for the crows. Obviously, crows are quite successful without additional help from us. If we would like to maintain diversity, e.g. a wide array of birds, in our city and around Union Bay we should really attempt to keep our scraps out of the mouths of crows.

Returning to our crow on the grass, in this photo he has momentarily blinked the nictitating membrane across his right eye. In the process the membrane has reflected the blue of the sky and makes the bird look a bit like a wise, old soothsayer who can forecast the future.

As I was taking these photos, a man and woman stopped to look at the bird. I learned that they were from Germany and the woman said, "We call this bird a hobbit". Since then I have tried various online translations of the word "crow" from English to German. The word I get is "krahe", not hobbit, which confused me a bit.

I also looked up various online definitions of hobbit. Basically they say, "A small, intelligent human-like creature." I have come to think maybe the use of the term hobbit has more to do with crows being small, intelligent and almost human-like creatures. Cornell says, unlike most other birds, crows maintain their family units for longer than the first year. Maybe they are socially similar to humans as well. 

In any case, the wise, old crow I was watching worked very hard to keep his eye on me. He would twist and turn no matter which way his body was headed so that his right eye was always the one tracking my movement. Finally, he must have decided I was benign and he allowed me to see his left eye.

It is clear the blue reflection in this eye is not from the nictitating membrane. I would guess some type of eye disease has robbed this bird of sight in its left eye. 

Still the penetrating look in the right eye leaves no doubt in my mind about the intelligence of this wise old hobbit.

You can find more "hobbit" information under  Cool Facts on the Cornell website.

Eagle Watch 2014:
By the way, around dawn on Tuesday morning an eagle returned to one of the 520 light poles. It stayed for a few moments before heading north across the bay. I have not seen an eagle since nor any sign of an eagle on the Broadmoor nest. In the past when Eva and Albert return in the fall they have spent some of their time at the nest, occasionally doing a little up keep, in the form of new and additional pieces of wood. While this eagle may or may not have been Eva or Albert, it does not appear the pair have returned to take possession of their territory.

Have a great day on Union Bay…where nature lives in the city and wise old hobbits abound!