Saturday, November 23, 2013
This seems to be a banner year for Harlequin Ducks (Histrionicus histrionicus) in Deception Pass State Park. Off and on, I have seen one or two birds at a time. Was I ever surprised to come upon this gang out on Urchin Rocks at Rosario Beach. I have never seen so many at one time.
They nest along fast moving streams at higher elevations. In winter, however, they love our rocky shores, according to Seattle Audubon. They suggest the west coast of Whidbey Island and Rosario Beach on Fidalgo Island are two of the best places to spot them. My experience is proving them right about that.
This group appeared to be resting and bathing. The two males in the water would dunk their heads and splash with their wings while the others looked on and enjoyed the sunshine.
The best wildlife viewing in the park is on a weekday, off-season and early in the morning when it's quiet. Just one other party and I had this whole section of the state park to ourselves. That included all of Bowman Bay, Rosario Beach and Lighthouse Point. Later in the morning and throughout the day, more visitors would be arriving. Even though this is off-season, it is still one of the most visited parks in the state.
Meeting the Harlequin Ducks at Rosario Beach was a special treat. I also met several of their friends along the trail from Bowman Bay to Rosario:
As I set off on the Bowman-Rosario Trail, my first encounter was this Belted Kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon). This one is a female identified by the rufous coloring on the belly. I have been trying to get a decent photo of one for two years. So far, this is the best I have been able to accomplish. They're very active and fast and they can spot a guy with a camera from a hundred yards. This one paused momentarily on the exposed rock in Bowman Bay, but there was no time for do-overs. When out exploring, listen for their ratcheting calls that sound like loud fishing reels.
I can always count on the Double-crested Cormorants (Phalacrocorax auritis) out on this rock in Bowman Bay. There is a smaller rock further out that they also like. Can you spot the one striking the "angel" pose? They do this to dry their feathers after diving. A group of cormorants like this is called a sunning for obvious reasons.
As I got close to Rosario Beach, near the Rosario Field Classroom, I heard her tapping before I spotted her. When out exploring for wildlife, your ears can be as important as your eyes. This female Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus Pileatus) was busy working a Douglas Fir. I could tell this was a female because she had a black mustache or malar stripe. Males have a red mustache. These are large and magnificent birds and I am always thrilled to spot one. Also, how fitting to see one during Movember.
For the past few days, we have been under a Modified Continental Polar air mass which brings dry air, bright sunny skies and frigid temperatures. It was about 26° F (-3° C) when I arrived at the park, very cold by our standards. Usually our weather involves warmer Maritime Polar air masses which bring overcast, drizzle and showers during the fall and winter. I think these chilly temperatures also help to bring out the wildlife. I seem to have the best luck when it's cold. For some reason, this is also my favorite hiking weather.
A raft of eight or ten Common Goldeneyes (Bucephala clangula) were swimming and diving out in Rosario Bay. I tried to catch them all on the surface at the same time, but they weren't cooperating. During the breeding season, they nest in forests around small freshwater lakes and ponds. In winter, they move to marine areas, protected bays and estuaries according to Seattle Audubon. Here they feed on mollusks, crustaceans and fish.
As I watched the Harlequin Ducks, once again, my ears became a useful tool. High pitched calls alerted me to a pair of Black Oystercatchers (Haematopus bachmani) resting at the top of Urchin Rocks. These laid back shore birds seem to like to announce their presence to the world. I am told they nest across the way on Deception Island. Sparse populations are found in rocky habitats along the Pacific Coast from the Aleutians to Baja California. Beaches in the San Juan Islands, around Whidbey Island and in Skagit Bay are some of the few places they can be seen further inland.
Deception Pass State Park is one of my favorite places to visit for viewing wildlife. This day I met the Harlequin Ducks of Rosario Beach as well as several of their friends along the Bowman-Rosario Trail. It was a very good day to be in the park.
Monday, November 18, 2013
Over the past month or so, I have made several trips to West Beach in Deception Pass State Park. I have been coming to check this big rock just off shore from the parking lot. It looks oblong from shore, however, the satellite map view reveals it to be fairly round in shape.
For want of a better name, I have dubbed it Fraggle Rock after the Jim Henson/HBO TV series from the 1980's. Like in the TV show, it's a little world apart where different creatures live in a complex ecosystem.
I have discovered this rock to be a favorite resting place for sea birds. Fall and winter seem to be the best seasons to view this phenomenon. After 09:00 AM is the optimum time to view the birds. By 10:00 AM, the crowds really begin to gather.
One of the species I have been looking for in particular is the Heermann's Gull (Larus heermanni) and here is one red-beaked fellow in all its glory. They breed on hot desert islands off the west coast of Mexico according to iBird Pro. In late summer and fall, they migrate up here as far north as British Columbia.
Here are three more Heermann's Gulls on the beach in front of the rock. You can spot the ones with red beaks and black legs. The pink legged birds are our resident Western and/or Glaucous-winged gulls.
There are smaller rocks in clusters near "Fraggle Rock" which are exposed at low tides. These are also attractive roosting spots for the local sea birds.
After feeding all morning, it's nice to gather with friends to rest and socialize. This photo was shot on a very foggy day.
Here are three Double-crested Cormorants (Phalacrocorax auritis) identified by their orange cheeks and throat pouches. During the breeding season, they have little white crests behind their eyes. Of the three species of cormorant in the state, these are the most commonly seen. I am always amazed how different species peacefully gather together on the rock.
This handsome fellow is a male Harlequin Duck (Histrionicus histrionicus). Outside of the breeding season, West Beach and Rosario Beach in Deception Pass State Park are two of the best spots to see them. His scientific name translates to "theatrical theatrical" befitting his dramatic costume.
When it is windy, you can always tell the direction of the wind by the orientation of the birds. In this case, it's blowing from the north.
Among the resident gulls in this photo are two Black Oystercatchers (Haematopus bachmani), five Heermann's Gulls and three Double-crested Cormorants. Can you spot them all? This photo should reveal why this has become one of my favorite spots for wildlife viewing.
Thursday, November 14, 2013
I spotted this fellow resting at the edge of Cranberry Lake in Deception Pass State Park. There was something about his beak that caught my eye. It looked smaller than I would expect for a Canada Goose (Branta canadensis). I wondered if I had spotted a Cackling Goose instead.
When I got home and started studying the question, I found myself mired in a very complicated subject. My Sibley lists six subspecies of Canada Goose, Aleutian, Cackling, Dusky, Richardson's, Lesser and Common. National Geographic refers to "approximately seven named subspecies." The phrase "approximately seven" would indicate a hesitancy to commit. It also lists the Cackling Goose as a separate species, Branta hutchinsii.
Seattle Audubon indicates there are five subspecies that occur in Washington, Western, Lesser, Dusky, Vancouver and more rarely Giant. It also lists the Cackling Goose as a separate species.
Finally, Wikipedia lists seven subspecies, Dusky, Vancouver, Lesser, Moffitt's, Giant, Interior and Atlantic. Then, of course, there can be hybrids among these subspecies. I believe Wikipedia sums it up best when speaking of "confusion and debate among ornithologists."
So, returning to my friend at Cranberry Lake, I have decided this might be a Lesser Canada Goose, Branta canadensis parvipes. His beak looks too small to be a Common Canada Goose and too large to be a Cackling Goose. This fellow is also not as big as other Canada Geese I have seen, another characteristic that would point to the "Lesser" subspecies. But like National Geographic, I am not ready to commit to that. I would be interested to hear from anyone who might know more than I do about identifying these birds.
Another unusual feature about this guy was that he was alone. Canada Geese are gregarious birds, almost always seen in groups. I have read that if one is injured during migration, a companion or mate will stay behind until the bird either recovers or dies. This is a characteristic I admire.
Frankly, I sometimes wonder if we may be overthinking the subject of subspecies among birds. Consider the huge genetic variation within the domestic dog, Canis lupus familiaris. In ten thousand years, if scientists found the bones of Shaquille O'Neal, Peter Dinklage and me, would they consider us three different species or subspecies of human? Is it possible, as in my Homo sapiens example, we are just seeing normal genetic variations of Branta canadensis?
Meanwhile, the fall migration continues back home along my beach on South Fidalgo Island. Can you understand from these photos why the Canada Goose is one of my favorite birds?
Sunday, October 20, 2013
There's a new BirdCam from Wingscapes called the BirdCam Pro. It offers several improvements over the BirdCam 2 which it replaces. Here are some first looks as a brand new one comes out of the packaging.
The BirdCam Pro consumer packaging provides a glimpse of the device through a window in the box. Like the BirdCam 2, it is a motion-activated, point-and-shoot camera with an 8 megapixel sensor. It can also be set for time-lapse photos. Mount it pointed at a bird feeder or other target where birds or critters visit to capture their JPEG photos or short AVI videos.
The back of the box shows setup examples and features. The box reveals that the camera has no internal memory like the BirdCam 2, but will accept up to 32 GB SD cards. The '2' would only accept a 4 GB card. The box also reveals that this camera is WiFi SD card compatible and will record sound as well as stills and video.
The device, manuals and accessories are organized in a second inner container.
A tape measure, mounting arm and mounting strap are included with the BirdCam Pro. The mounting arm is a new and welcome addition. It can be attached to a wrought iron shepherd's hook as an example.
In addition to the user's manual, a BirdCam Discovery Guide booklet is packaged with the device. This shows some sample setups and lures and BirdCam photos of common garden birds.
The BirdCam Pro is a bit wider and noticeably shorter than the BirdCam 2 (left). Without batteries, it feels roughly the same weight as the BirdCam 2. Notice that the LCD display of the 'Pro' is not visible through the front cover.
Opening the front cover reveals a new color LCD on the 'Pro' which can be used to preview photos and set up the unit (right). This display is better protected from the weather than on the BirdCam 2. It will be necessary to open the front cover to check battery and memory status. Also, unlike the '2,' the new display remains off until activated, according to one of the reviews. This should help to prolong battery life. Battery power is also saved by the new LED flash arrays. Improved power management of the 'Pro' allows up to 6 months battery life according to Wingscapes. That's a big improvement over the '2.' Even without using flash, I was changing batteries on the BirdCam 2 about once a month. One review indicates that image quality has also been improved.
Depth of field setting can be fine tuned from six inches to infinity with the focus dial. This is another improvement over the '2' which had only four ratchet settings. I had one BirdCam 2 that consistently focused behind the target. Wingscapes kindly replaced it and no doubt added this feature to avoid that problem.
The BirdCam Pro also includes a view finder as well as a laser pointer for aiming the device. That screw socket is a second mounting site (there's also one on the bottom) which accepts a standard camera tripod mounting screw. The one feature that is still missing, in my opinion, is a spirit level. This would be very helpful to get it set up straight and proper.
The BirdCam Pro uses six C-cell alkaline batteries instead of four D-cells. They are housed in a cassette which ejects from the bottom of the device. This provides better weather protection and makes them easier to install than on the '2,' but again there is also a disadvantage. To change the batteries, it will be necessary to remove the camera from its mounting arm or tripod. That's a small price to pay, however, if the promised 6-month battery life is a reality.
I am looking forward to getting this new BirdCam Pro set up and running. Wingscapes appears to have addressed specific weaknesses of the BirdCam 2 with their new product. My first impressions are very positive and I am anxious to see the photos the BirdCam Pro will produce.
Monday, October 14, 2013
Last Friday, I was at West Beach in Deception Pass State Park. I had a number of wildlife encounters that included several Bald Eagles featured in the previous post. I also ran into an old friend, whose territory includes a small grove of Shore Pines next to the parking lot. He is a Douglas Squirrel (Tamiasciurus douglasii), the native squirrel of Pacific Northwest coniferous forests.
The first time we met in this spot, it was early morning. He was obviously cold and trying to warm himself in the morning sun. He was remarkably tolerant of my close proximity. This is probably a characteristic of park critters where there are often lots of people around.
On our second encounter, I dubbed him The Mayor of West Beach because of his pugnacious, take charge behavior. Another creature had trespassed in his pine grove and he was having none of it. He paused his eviction just long enough to come out of the grove to say hello.
The next meeting was more peaceable, and even a bit comical. He showed his vain side, acting like a red-carpet celebrity posing for photographs.
This time he was all business. The task at hand was stripping the scales off of the Shore Pine's cones and gobbling up the seeds. It was chewing sounds that helped me locate him in the shadows. He remained at ease with his duties as I moved in close to take pictures. The piles of cone scales left by Douglas Squirrels are called middens. Some can be quite large where the squirrels have returned to the same spot again and again. Look for these along forest trails. Archaeologists use the same term for evidence of dwelling sites of ancient peoples.
I was pleased to find this old friend still in his usual spot. I hadn't seen him here for a while and wondered if he would ever be back. These are the experiences that make exploring nature such a pleasure.
Friday, October 11, 2013
It was quite a morning at West Beach in Deception Pass State Park. There was lots of wildlife plus dozens of naval aircraft flying into N.A.S. Whidbey Island nearby. Look for Ault Field on the map in the link.
I want to start with the Bald Eagles (Haliaeetus Leucocephalus). There were at least half a dozen and they were fishing in the shallow waters near the tide line. It was quite a spectacle with all the soaring and swooping. When they made a catch, they would head straight for the trees in the Dune Forest behind the sand dunes. Look under the foot of the fellow in the first photo to see his nice catch.
This was the first bird I spotted with a catch. The fish is not so easy to see in this photo, but it's there. When shooting wildlife, it is necessary to take the lighting and the camera angles that you get.
When they dove, they would disappear behind the foredune, then rise up again with a fish in their talons. I have seen this before, but it's always exciting.
This is the same bird enjoying his breakfast. These eagles are much farther away than they look in the photos. Thanks to a telephoto lens and some cropping, we can get closer looks.
If I had not seen these birds flying to the trees, I doubt I would have spotted them. When they get into the dappled shade of the forest, they become almost invisible. This could be a clue to the reason they are colored as they are. Eagles will squabble with each other over fish. Disappearing in the trees may be a good way to be left alone with one's catch.
Besides the eagles, the skies this morning were also filled with naval aircraft, dozens of them. They were circling over the park preparing to land at the Whidbey Island Naval Air Station three miles to the south. This is a P-3C Orion identified by the "stinger" on the tail. One of these would pass overhead every three or four minutes.
It is possible this was a small group of planes doing tough-and-go exercises. This is how they rehearse carrier landings. Instead of several planes, I may have been seeing the same planes circling again and again. This touch-and-go maneuver is the same technique used by the eagles to catch fish. See the clever tie-in?
There is a new interpretive sign at West Beach to help visitors identify the aircraft they might see here. We consider these part of the wildlife. Besides the Orions, I saw a few EA-18G Growlers (#2) and one P8 Poseidon (#5) which is the Navy's version of the Boeing 737. In the case of the Growler, let me tell you, the name does not come close to describing the noise these aircraft make.
Coming up, Heermann's Gulls, Northwestern Crows, Fraggle Rock and the Mayor of West Beach again.
Labels: Hawks and Eagles
Friday, September 13, 2013
Migrating geese are a symbol of autumn and the local migration has begun. Every year, Canada Geese (Branta canadensis) pass by my house during September and October. Their visits are announced by rich and musical calls. They are always flying or swimming in the same direction, westward along the shoreline towards Deception Pass. I assume they are heading out to meet their companions on the Pacific Flyway.
In the photo, a Glaucous-winged Gull is keeping watch at the water's edge. The mottled winter coloring of the head and neck is already starting to appear.
Sometimes, the geese will stop for a rest on the beach in front of my house. A small stream that drains the wetland behind me provides a drink of fresh water and an algae snack. Then after a nap, they will continue on their way.
I have come to look forward to this annual event. Some people despise these birds. They can become pests in public parks and golf courses. Cranberry Lake in Deception Pass State Park was closed for a time due to fecal coliform bacteria left behind by resident geese. My visitors, however, have never worn out their welcome.
Many species of birds are migrating this time of the year. If you live along a flyway, check your local weather radar. On a clear, rain-free night, the echoes you see likely reveal the paths of migrating birds.
I have read that if a member of the migrating flock of Canada Geese is injured, a companion will stay behind with the injured bird. They will remain together until the injured bird can either rejoin the flock or dies. I like that.