Sunday, January 18, 2015

Three Good Bets for Winter Birding

Black Oystercatchers

There are no certainties in birding, but there are places where it is possible to come close.  In the very heart of the Salish Sea, Deception Pass State Park offers great spots for viewing three special birds.

Black Oystercatchers

Black Oystercatchers (Haematopus bachmani)

During the fall and winter, look for them at West Beach resting on the large rock just offshore from the parking lot.  Mid to late morning seems to be the best time.  This is one of the few spots where they can be viewed inland from the Pacific coast.  The numbers that congregate here are also unusual.  Laid back, peaceable and a bit quirky, I consider them the most charming of all shorebirds.

Bald Eagle
Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus)

Also at West Beach, there is a resident pair of Bald Eagles that can often be seen perching at the edge of the Dune Forest.  Like most predators, eagles spend a lot of time resting.  They can usually be seen in the tallest trees at the north end.  Look carefully, because they tend to blend right into the trees.  If they're not there, look along the western edge of the forest or even in the tallest trees at the shoreline.  Again, morning seems to be the best time.  Spotting these regal birds is always a pleasure.

Harlequin Ducks

Harlequin Duck (Histrionicus histrionicus)

In the breeding season, they head for the mountains.  During fall and winter, one of the best places to see them is at Rosario Beach in the north section of the park.  Take the western-most trail up to Rosario Head where you can look down onto Urchin Rocks and the tide pools.  I have seen as many as a dozen congregated there.  Sometimes they just perch and rest on the rocks.  They might be splashing and playing in the water near the rocks.  Other times they can be seen swimming and diving in the bay.  Incidentally, while you are at West Beach, a few might also be seen perching with the Black Oystercatchers.

Deception Pass State Park

West Beach is accessed from the main park entrance on Whidbey Island.  Veer left at the Y and continue past the lake to the parking lot.

In the winter, Rosario Beach is accessed from Bowman Bay.  From Highway 20, turn onto Rosario Road, then immediately left on Bowman Bay Road.  Hike the 0.5 mile/0.8 km Bowman-Rosario Trail to Rosario Beach.

Friday, January 9, 2015

One More for Kukutali

Pileated Woodpecker

From the Kukutali Preserve, I was able to add another creature to my Kukutali Bestiary today.   As usual, I heard this Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) before I spotted him.  I have heard them often over there, but have never been able to get a good look at one.  When I have managed to locate them, they usually skitter around to the other side of the tree to hide.  This one seemed comfortable going on with his work while I took his picture.

This is a male, identified by his red mustache or malar stripe.  Females have a black mustache.  Also, the red crest of the male extends down over the forehead.  In females, the forehead is black.

When they're working on a hole like this, they don't go ratta-tatta-tatta like Woody Woodpecker.  It's a more methodical and resonant tap...tap...tap...tap.  It's very common to hear that sound echoing in these woods.  The other sound they make is their distinctive call.   It resonates through the trees evoking something almost Jurassic.  This is just some of the music of the woods in the Pacific Northwest.

The scientific name literally means crested or capped tree chopper.  They dig holes to use for nest cavities and to find beetle larvae to eat.  They also like to eat carpenter ants, fruit and nuts.  It's common to find several of their holes in dead snags.  Other birds such as chickadees will use their holes for nesting too.  This is an example of how the lives of different species can be interconnected.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Gulls Are Hard

Western x Glaucous-winged Gull Hybrid

Gulls can be notoriously difficult to identify.  They change appearance with age and the season.  To add to the complexity, some species readily interbreed to produce hybrid offspring.

This is the case with Washington's Western and Glaucous-winged Gulls.  According to Sibley, hybrids of the two may be more abundant here than either of the two individual species.

This is why I am calling this one a hybrid of the Western Gull (Larus occidentalis) and the Glaucous-winged Gull (Larus glaucescens).  Both species have dark eyes, pink legs and a heavy bill with a red spot.  The wing tips of the Wedstern are black while those of the Glaucous-winged are light gray like the mantle.  This bird's wing tips are dark gray.  Of course, I could be completely wrong.  Like I said, gulls are hard.

Western x Glaucous-winged Gull Hybrid

In the Kukutali Preserve, there is a driftwood log that that juts out over the beach.  It is propped up on a large rock.  There is always a gull perched on the end of it.  I will go out on a limb here and speculate that it is the same bird each time.  Do you think he has claimed ownership of this perching spot?

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Lonely Trumpeter Swan

Trumpeter Swan

There have been some events since the previous post (about the eagle).  The brand new Canon 100-400L II lens I received just before Christmas turned out to be defective.  I returned it and received the replacement lens yesterday.  Today I took it our for a shake-down cruise and hit the wildlife jackpot.

I was hiking along the East Cranberry Lake Trail in Deception Pass State Park.  It skirts the shoreline between West Beach and the East Cran picnic grounds.  In a lagoon next to the trail, I spotted this Trumpeter Swan (Cygnus buccinator) just quietly floating there alone.

Trumpeter Swan

If you're familiar with the park, you will recall the marshy island with the trees at the edge of the lake.  The swan was near the trail just inside this island.  I fully expected the bird to bolt at my approach, but it didn't.  Instead, it remained very still allowing me to take some photos.  Then, very slowly, it began to glide smoothly past the island and out into the lake.

Trumpeters can be difficult to distinguish from Tundra or Whistling Swans.  Trumpeters have a flatter crown of the head that slopes almost parallel to the beak plane.  Tundras have a rounder crown and usually a yellow patch in front of the eye.

Trumpeter Swan

The Trumpeter Swan is the largest waterfowl in North America and the largest of the world's swans.  Weighing 20 to 38 pounds (9-17 kg) they are also one of our heaviest flying birds.  By 1900, they were thought to be extinct.  Small, isolated populations and conservation efforts have helped to restore their numbers.  Among the lower 48 U.S. states, Washington now has the largest population.

I am accustomed to seeing them in small groups of around a dozen or so.  It was unusual to spot a single bird alone like this.  Our meeting was a private moment I will remember.

Oh, and the replacement lens performed flawlessly.


Monday, December 29, 2014

An Eagle for Boxing Day

Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus)

On the day after Christmas, Boxing Day is observed in many English-speaking countries around the world.  For some reason, it is well known, but only erratically observed in the United States.  Mostly, we use it as an excuse to take another vacation day after Christmas.

My Christmas present this year was a new Canon EF 100-400mm II telephoto lens.  Among the first subjects I wanted to photograph with it were the Black Oystercatchers on "Fraggle Rock" in Deception Pass State Park.  Winter is the best time to find them there.  On Boxing Day, I headed over to the park with the new lens.

When I got there, I was pleased to find several dozen Oystercatchers on the rock.  Just as I was getting ready to shoot, some ignorant, yahoo tourist started throwing things at the birds.  This is the second time I have observed this behavior in the same spot.  The gulls weren't bothered, but all of the Oystercatchers flew off, about fifty in all.  My shoot was over before it started.  I don't understand why some people can't just enjoy the occasion.  Instead, they find pleasure in ruining it for everyone else.

Plan B would be a spin around the Sand Done Trail nearby.  Maybe the Oystercatchers would be back later.  Almost directly over the trail where it enters the Dune Forest, I spotted this Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus).  It was perched in the tree 80-100 feet (25-30 meters) above me.  This is where a 400mm lens shines  It's actually reaching 640mm on my APS-C 7D camera.  There is a pair that I often see perched in this same tree.  It is not unusual to spot one or both of them around the Dune Forest.  I am guessing they have a nest somewhere in the Cranberry Lake area

After completing my hike around the Sand Dune Trail, I headed back up to the rock.  The Oystercatchers had not returned.  At least my Boxing Day in the park wasn't a total loss.  I have some pretty good eagle photos shot with the new lens to show for the morning.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Giving Eagle His Space


Recently, I hiked the Bowman-Rosario Trail out to Rosario Beach in Deception Pass State Park.  At the beginning of December, we had a stretch of clear skies and cold temperatures.  For me, this is ideal weather for hiking and exploring.

Big rocks out in Bowman Bay are visible from the trail.  On the map, I believe these are the ones identified as Gull Rocks.  Usually, they are populated with dozens of cormorants, a real spectacle.  These are diving birds that like to gather together in such places to dry their feathers, preen, rest and socialize after fishing.  Such a group is called a "sunning."  On this morning, however, there were no cormorants.  I spotted just a single bird, a Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) perched on the rock in the early December morning sun.


Here's a closer view of the eagle taken further along the trail.  I doubt this is a good vantage point for spotting fish in the bay.  Like other predators, eagles spend a lot of time just loafing.  There is a resident pair that I frequently see at West Beach in the park.  If Bowman Bay is part of their territory, this could be one of those birds.


About an hour later, I returned from Rosario along the same trail.  The eagle was gone now, and the rock was again becoming populated with cormorants.  Some were striking the "angel pose" to dry their feathers after diving.  These are probably Double-crested Cormorants (Phalacrocorax auritis), the most common of the three species that occur locally.  Oddly, the scientific name means "bald raven with ears" according to Latin for Bird Lovers.  Apparently the crests that form in the breeding season resembled ears to the explorer who named them.

Bald Eagles are known to prey on cormorants and will flee their colonies if eagles arrive.  Obviously, the cormorants of Bowman Bay were not about to give this eagle any temptation.  They waited patiently until the eagle was gone to return to their favorite roosting spot.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Get Out of My Yard!

Douglas Squirrel

Encountering a Douglas Squirrel (Tamiasciurus douglasii) is always an adventure.  Sometimes they are indifferent or even curious and engaging. Other times, they can be aggressive and territorial.  I ran into this fellow on the Bowman-Rosario Trail in Deception Pass State Park.  The reaction was hostile and noisy.  I heard his angry barking and scolding first.  Then he came right up to me to challenge my presence in his territory.  From the look in his eye, it was obvious that I was not welcome here.

Does anyone recognize what he is carrying?  It looks like a chunk of dried conifer sap.  Whatever it is, it must be something good to eat.  He was not about to give it up.  Chasing off intruders should never interfere with a good meal.