Monday, November 17, 2014

January Sparrows

Golden-crowned Sparrow

We have been getting January weather for the past couple of weeks.  Sub-freezing temperatures, blue skies and sunshine are typical for early January.  This is not typical for November which is usually our rainiest month.  Days on end of blue skies and sunshine in November is simply weird.  Local wildlife is also looking a lot like January.

The breeding range of the Golden-crowned Sparrow (Zonotrichia atricapilla) is British Columbia, the southern Yukon and western and southern Alaska.  Then they spend the winter in southwestern B.C., along the western US coast to northern Baja California.  They are regular visitors to my feeders at this time of the year.  They are fond of safflower seed.

Golden-crowned Sparrow

I spotted this bird yesterday in the Kukutali Preserve patrolling the south beach near Flagstaff Island.  Green stains on the beak reveal finding something good to eat there.  This is the bird's winter plumage.  In the breeding season, it has a black cap that surrounds a bright yellow crown.

Golden-crowned Sparrow

The Nootka Rose thicket along the shoreline provides an abundant food source for many types of birds, including the Golden-crowned Sparrow.

Song Sparrow

The Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) is probably our most common winter sparrow.  Unlike the Golden-crowned, however, this one is also a year around resident.  I photographed this bird last weekend in the sand dunes at West Beach in Deception Pass State Park.  Both species seem to enjoy seaside living.

Song Sparrow

Our local birds tend to be darker and redder than in other parts of North America.  Another characteristic probably gave them their name.  This bird loves to perch and sing and they do this anytime, anywhere, all year around.

Another good spot to find these two sparrows is Fir Island in the Skagit River Delta.  They are both among the easiest to photograph.  They tend to perch and remain still long enough to catch a shot.  Sometimes I wonder if they stop to watch us while we are watching them.

Rainy weather is supposed to return day after tomorrow.  It will probably finish out the month.  This bright interlude has been a welcome break from what November usually brings us.  Our January sparrows seem to have enjoyed it as well.

Monday, November 10, 2014

A Parcel of Oystercatchers

Black Oysters

A group of Black Oystercatchers (Haematopus bachmani) is called a parcel according to iBird Pro.  I found this group resting on Fraggle Rock this morning.  Recall, this is the name I gave to the rock just offshore at West Beach in Deception Pass State Park.  I have never been able to find an official name for it.

Fraggle Rock

This is a favorite late morning resting spot for shorebirds, especially gulls and cormorants.  During the fall and winter, Black Oystercatchers also like to congregate here.  They come to rest and socialize.  It is always a peaceful gathering.  I have never seen any squabbling among the different species here.

Homo ignoramus

Humans, of course, bring another story.  While I was taking photographs, these people started throwing rocks at the birds.  They didn't stop until every bird was driven from the rock.  Apparently, they thought that was appropriate behavior.  The birds were gone and my photo session was over.  That kid learned a perverse lesson from her parents today.  I hope his head got badly sunburned.

Black Oystercatchers

Undaunted by the assault, the laid back, tolerant Oystercatchers started to come back.

Gulls, Oystercatchers and Cormorants

After hiking around the Sand Dune Trail, I returned about 90 minutes later.  Those people were gone and another gathering of birds had assembled.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Cooper's Hawk

Sometimes the wildlife watches you.  This morning I hiked the dike at Wiley Slough in the Skagit River delta.  I went to try and catch Cedar Waxwings.  This time of year, they enjoy the ripe Pacific Crabapples that grow along the dike.  The Lesser Snow Geese have also returned to Fir Island.  Some shots of them would also be welcome.  Alas, there were lots of American Robins, but no Cedar Waxwings and no Snow Geese.  I headed back to the parking lot without a single photo.  Then, this small hawk flew right up to me.  He perched on a branch and took a good look as if to check me out.

This is a juvenile Cooper's Hawk (Accipiter cooperii).  It is one of the three Accipiters that occur locally.  They come in three sizes, small, medium and large.  The Northern Goshawk (A. gentilis) is the largest of the group.  The Cooper's is the medium sized bird, and the Sharp-shinned Hawk (A. striatus) is the smallest.

Cooper's Hawk in the Skagit River Delta

After getting a couple of photos, I continued on my way along the dike.  The bird flew along with me and perched on the next tree.  This is unusual behavior.  Birds usually flee at the sight of me, especially when I point a camera at them.  This one seemed to enjoy the experience, so I was able to get a couple more photos.

Cooper's Hawks have an interesting hunting technique.  Instead of swooping onto their pray from the air, they use stealth and stalk their quarry through dense brush.  When it gets close enough, it seizes the prey with its feet in a sudden lunge.  It will squeeze it repeatedly to kill it.  Birds are its favorite food, but it will also take small mammals.

When this bird matures, it will exhibit a rich gray back and head, a darker cap, and a white breast with orange bars.  The eyes will be red.

Once again, I failed to get the photos I had sought, but ended up with something just as interesting.  I am certainly not disappointed.  This was another memorable wildlife encounter and the subject seemed to enjoy it as much as I did.

I am submitting this post over at Wild Bird Wednesday.  Check it out.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Got Him!  Belted Kingfisher

Belted Kingfisher

For three years, I have been gunning for this Belted Kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon).  Such as it is, I finally got a photo this morning.  This is a male.  Females have a rust colored band across the belly.  The characteristic white spot in front of the eye is clearly visible.

They are fairly common here wherever there is fresh or salt water.  They can hover in place over the water much like a hummingbird.  When they spot prey near the surface, they dive straight down and snatch it in that long bill.  Their favorite food is fish, but they also like frogs, tadpoles, insects and crayfish.  I usually hear them before I see them.  Their noisy ratcheting calls resemble the sound of a fishing reel.  They love to make that noise when they are flying or hovering.

The species name alcyon is a variation of halcyon.  In Greek mythology, this was a kingfisher that calmed the winter sea to lay its eggs in a floating nest.  The myth led to the use of the word to mean peace and calmness.  In fact, Kingfishers actually nest in horizontal tunnels dug into sand banks.

This guy hangs out at Wiley Slough just outside the new barrier dike in the Skagit River Delta wetlands.  I have seen him often in this same area.  Today, he was perched on one of the tide gate uprights next to the dike.  They never let anyone get very close.  I got this photo just as he turned and spotted me.  One second later, he was gone in a flash.

Monday, September 22, 2014

European Garden Spider

European Garden Spider

Last weekend while scouting rocks for International Rock Flipping Day, I noticed this young lady by my entry porch.  I snapped a couple of photos and returned to my rock hunt.  When I took another look at the photos, I realized what a beautiful creature this is.

She is a European Garden Spider (Araneus diadematus).  As the name implies, she is an immigrant from Europe and not a native North American arachnid.  Nevertheless, this has become one of the most familiar spiders seen in the Pacific Northwest.  They are most prevalent in late summer and fall.  Other common names include Diadem Spider, Cross Spider and Cross Orbweaver.

Orbweavers (family Araneidae) are the spiders that build wheel-shaped spiral webs.  The third pair of legs are specialized for building orb webs.  They are of little use out of the web.  The web is not the spider's home.  It is a trap for catching food.  This spider will build a new web early every morning.

European Garden Spider

Cropping the photo for a closer look reveals a hairy, velvety appearance.  Her abdomen is swollen with eggs which she will lay in a cocoon of yellow silk.  This particular spider lacks the characteristic cross-shape pattern of yellow spots on the abdomen.  I found her in the classic head down position in the center of the web.  She will use those third legs to sense the vibrations of a hapless insect caught in the silken strands.

One interesting behavior I have seen is making the web oscillate wildly in reaction to a threat.  This spider will bite, but references indicate that they are reclusive and difficult to provoke.  The bite is said to be slightly irritating but harmless to humans.

She is a dedicated mother devoted to protecting her eggs once they are laid.  Unable to leave them even to feed, she will die in late autumn, never seeing her offspring hatch the following spring.

To set the record straight, Rod Crawford of the Burke Museum provides a list of spider myths, misconceptions and superstitions.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Been Living Under a Rock

International Rock Flipping Day

Yesterday was International Rock Flipping Day.  This has become an annual event to encourage people to get outside and explore the natural world.  Nature bloggers, in particular, go out to favorite spots to see what is going on under the rocks.  This is also meant for families to provide their children a little STEM-ulus to explore science in their own backyards and beyond.

My plan was to head to the beach at low tide for my first IRFD post.  While I waited for the tide to go out, I did some practice flipping in the garden:

Rock Ready for Flipping
Ocypus Beetle

It's been pretty dry here since June.  So far, it has only rained once this month and conditions in the garden are quite arid.  I didn't expect to find much.  Our ubiquitous Woodlice were nowhere to be found.  I did discover this beetle under a stone at the edge of a gravel path.  I had some problems identifying it.  Click or right-click the photo to see it full size.  Based on image searches, it could be one of the North American native Rove Beetles (Ocypus spp.).

It could also be the Devil's Coach-horse Beetle (Ocypus olens) which is an introduced species from Europe.  Both are beneficial garden insects feeding on other insects, Woodlice and even slugs.  I would appreciate hearing from anyone who knows for sure what this is.

Low tide was scheduled for 4:24 PM, so at 4:00 I headed to the beach.  The late afternoon September lighting would be difficult, but that's how it goes in nature.  The +5.2 foot/1.6 m low tide was not special, but it was low enough to expose the upper inter-tidal zone.  For the landlocked, a "zero tide" (0 feet/0 meters) is the average low water height.  Minus and plus tides are measured from that point.

Rock Ready for Flipping

Now that looks like a good candidate.  I had a hunch what I would find:

Purple Shore Crab

The Purple Shore Crab (Hemigrapsus nudus) is one of the most common crustaceans found on our rocky beaches.  My field guide describes them as "a feisty and aggressive little resident of the high and middle inter-tidal zone."  "Feisty" is a good description.  These are little guys, ranging in size from less than 0.5 up to 2.25 inches (1-6 cm).  But a diminutive size doesn't make them shy.  If you bother them, they will be more than willing to take you on.  They spend days hiding under rocks to escape being eaten by predators.  These include fish, diving birds and shore birds.  At night they emerge to feed on marine plant material.

Purple Shore Crab
Purple Shore Crab

Purple Shore Crab
Purple Shore Crab

There might be a couple dozen Purple Shore Crabs under an average-sized rock.  When their rock is upended, the first thing they do is scatter, lickety-split, in all directions.  I hope the neighbors didn't see me hopping around, squatting, taking pictures of the ground.  It wasn't very dignified.

The lower-left photo shows the classic defensive posture.  The little guy was ready to give me a good nip with those pincers.  This startled scattering and alarm behavior brings to mind one of the tenets of Rock Flipping Day:
“The animals we find under rocks are at home; they rest there, sleep there, raise their families there. Then we come along and take off the roof, so please remember to replace it carefully. Try not to squish the residents; move them aside if they’re big enough; they’ll run back as soon as their rock is back in place.”
When I finished shooting, I made sure my subjects were safely ensconced so as not to become seagull food.  That's a risk they endure without my help.  Another rock produced something quite different:

Rock Ready for Flipping

Polychaete Worm

This rock was sitting in a sandy spot and underneath I found a Polychaete worm.  In the lower photo you can see the worm's burrows carved in the sand.  They are segmented worms belonging to the Annelids, the same phylum as earthworms.  Each segment bears a pair of appendages called parapodia meaning "not quite feet."  They seem to serve the purpose of locomotion well.  They're not as fast as the crabs, so it was easier to photograph in its original place.

There are about 10,000 species of Polychaetes, so I am not going to try narrowing the ID of this one down any further.  Some of the common names I found include Sand Worms, Bristle Worms, Pile Worms, Lug Worms and Clam Worms.

The class name Polychaeta means "many bristles."  Apparently each parapodium bears bristles, also assisting in locomotion.  Earthworms, on the other hand, are in the class Oligochaeta which means "few bristles."

My first International Rock Flipping Day is now completed.  I am already thinking about next year.  The beach is one of my favorite places to explore.  I am pleased I was able to reveal a few creatures close to my home.  Now, I wonder what I would find under this one:

Rock Ready for Flipping

UPDATE 9/17/2014:  You can see other IRFD posts and photos here and here.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

A Kukutali Bestiary

Bald Eagle

Imagine a place, a small island perhaps, where much of the wildlife of a region can be found.  What would it be like to experience a dozen or more wildlife encounters in just a couple hours of exploring?  Such a microcosm of the Pacific Northwest exists and it's a stone's throw from where I live.  You can literally walk a mile and find forest, wetland, beaches, tide pools, driftwood fields, salt marsh, rocky balds, grass meadows and a pocket estuary.  It also happens to be a significant Native American cultural site.  All of these things can be found in a 96 acre/39 hectare preserve just waiting to be explored.

The Kukutali Preserve opened June 16th, 2014.  Over the past three months I have made several visits.  During this short time and in this small site, I have acquired an amazing collection of wildlife sightings and photographs.  To reveal what an amazing place this is, I decided to post them all at once.

Along the Road

From the parking area, Kiket Island is accessed by foot via a gravel road over a tombolo.  Come early in the morning, by 8 or 8:30 AM.  As you approach the island, check the tallest trees along the east end.  The Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) in the first photo above has been there to greet me on every visit.  He will literally serenade visitors onto the island.  He is like the town crier announcing your arrival.  His mate joined him on one of my visits.  The white spot on his chest reveals this is same bird that likes to perch in the trees in my yard.

Bald Eagle Juvies
Bald Eagle Juvies

On my last visit just a week ago, he was joined by his offspring from this season.  We believe these are the youngsters that were reared just up the road from my home.  My neighbor has a vantage point where he can observe the nest.  He told me they had disappeared for a couple of weeks.  Apparently, this is where they have come.  Both Kiket Island and South Fidalgo are all part of their northern Skagit Bay territory.

Greater Yellowlegs

The tombolo complex connecting Kiket to Fidalgo Island includes a unique pocket estuary.  This is an important rearing habitat for baby Chinook Salmon born in the Skagit River system.  Early one morning, I spotted this Greater Yellowlegs (Tringa melanoleuca) displaying some odd behavior.  The bird would march into the water, then turn around and walk back to the beach.  Then into the water and out again.  Several times, back and forth he went.  This bird is now on migration from its summer breeding grounds in northern Canada.  They spend winters along the west coast between southwestern British Columbia and Mexico.

Barn Swallows
American Goldfinches

Left:  The power line strung along the causeway makes a good roost for Barn Swallows (Hirundo rustica).  They were busy preening, singing and socializing.  Soon they will be heading to southern California and Mexico for the winter.

Right:  American Goldfinches (Spinus tristis) are the state bird of Washington and year around residents here.  This trio was enjoying seeds on plants in the salt marsh that borders the pocket estuary.

Northern Flicker

I spotted a Red-shafted Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus) patrolling the driftwood field on the south side of the roadway.  Their favorite food is ants, so there must have been some out there.

Yellow Jacket
Fox Sparrow

Left:  When you live in eagle country, it is not uncommon to find their table scraps.  The Western Yellow Jacket (Vespula pensylvanica) finds enough to make a meal of the leftovers.

Right:  Fox Sparrows (Passerella iliaca) were busy foraging in the weeds along the road.  These are year-around residents in the Puget Sound basin.  The darker 'sooty' race exemplifies much of the wildlife here with darker colors than other parts of the continent.

Lorquin's Admiral Butterfly

I envy people who have yards visited by butterflies.  I have tried everything to lure them.  "If you plant it they will come" hasn't worked.  I was delighted to find this Lorquin's Admiral (Limenitis lorquini) in the clearing at the end of the road.  Had it just emerged from pupation on that willow?  Was it laying eggs there?  Had its caterpillars been chewing on those leaves?  I had a thousand questions.

Lorquin's Admiral Butterfly
Tent Catterpillar

Left:  After a time on the willow branch, the butterfly moved to the ground.  It just sat there waving its wings for a while.  I am still trying to figure out that bug's story.

Right:  Tent Caterpillars (Melacosoma californicum) are seen as the scourge of local fruit orchards.  But the story is not all bad.  We humans tend to overreact to these mostly benign creatures.  In the blog Reading the Washington Landscape, Dan McShane reveals their useful role in forest succession and re-balancing disturbed ecosystems.

Columbian Black-tailed Deer
Kukutali Wildlife Research

Left:  The road ends at a former home site on the western end of the island.  This Columbian Black-tailed Deer (Odocoileus hemionus columbianus) and I spotted each other in a small clearing next to the beach.

Right:  I am not the only one interested in the wildlife of Kukutali.  The Swinomish Tribal Community co-manages the preserve.  I have spotted several of their sampling devices around the island.  Visitors are asked to leave them undisturbed.

From the Trails

The North and South Trails through the forest provide alternate routes for crossing Kiket Island.  They also provide more opportunities for wildlife spotting.

Dark-eyed Junco

Dozens of Dark-eyed Juncos (Junco hyemalis) patrol the Madrona stands along the South Trail.  The birds that spend fall and winter in my yard apparently cross the bay to Kiket Island to breed.  Constant preening is necessary to keep those feathers looking good.

Douglas Squirrel
Douglas Squirrel

Venturing into the territory of a Douglas Squirrel (Tamiasciurus douglasii) usually produces the same result:  pure hostility.  You can see it in the postures and expressions of these two.  They never run away from trouble.  Confronting it head-on is their modus operandi.  The squirrels of Kukutali have not warmed up to human visitors like they have at Deception Pass.

Mourning Dove

Left:  I spotted this Mourning Dove (Zenaida macroura) in the deepest shade of the North Trail.  The camera did better than I expected in the dark conditions, but the creamy beige colors ended up a little blue looking.

Right:  I am still marveling at the congregation of Banana Slugs (Ariolimax columbianus), called a cornucopia,  I discussed in a previous post.

At the Beach

The far end of the island opens up to the former home site of Gene Dunlap who owned a local tugboat business.  From here, the trail picks up and leads to another tombolo that connects to Flagstaff Island.  Flagstaff is a rare and sensitive ecosystem that is off-limits to visitors.  The beach along the south side, however, is an amazing site for wildlife viewing.

Black Oystercatcher

A pair of Black Oystercatchers (Haematopus bachmani) call this spot home.  Walk slowly and look carefully.  They are amazingly well camouflaged on this beach.  I have been watching this pair for three years.  They form long-term pair bonds and prefer isolated rocky islets, exactly what this spot offers.  When you visit, remember to keep your distance.  Approach them only with telephoto lenses.  If too many visitors come and harass them, they will leave.  I would hate to lose these old friends.

Black Oystercatcher

Black Oystercatcher

You can click or right-click to view the photos full size.  Despite a preference for isolation, these laid-back shorebirds seem surprisingly tolerant of visitors.  But I am sure they have their limits.  They provide ample justification for prohibiting pets in the Preserve.

Blue Mussel Shells
Mask Limpets

Abundant Blue Mussels (Mytilus edulis) and Mask Limpets (Tectura persona) are some of the favorite foods of Oystercatchers and other shorebirds.  It looks like those mussels have already been somebody's lunch.

Glaucous-winged Gull

I am going to call this handsome fellow a Glaucous-winged Gull (Larus glaucescens) because of the gray wing tips.  It could also be a hybrid of the Glaucous-winged and Western Gull (Larus occidantalis) which has black wing tips.

Juvenile Gull
Juvenile Gull

Gulls take four seasons to reach adult plumage.  This juvenile has found a Nuttall's Cockle (Clinocardium nuttalli) for breakfast.  Although it looks like a case of eyes bigger than stomach, I would not bet against the gull.  They have mastered the technique of flying up and dropping clams onto rocks to break them open.  This youngster will figure it out soon enough.

Northwestern Crow
Great Blue Heron

Left:  The Pacific Northwest is home to a crow that is also a shorebird.  The Northwestern Crow (Corvus caurinus) is a commonly seen denizen of the Kukutali Preserve.  These beachcombers are seafood connoisseurs.

Right:  This Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) could be a member of the March's Point rookery nearby, which contains more than 400 nests.


This is a first season juvenile, probably a sparrow.  The most common sparrows on the beach were White-crowned Sparrows, but I don't think this is one.  He was good-sized, perhaps a Fox Sparrow or even a Spotted Towhee.  Does anyone know what species this is?

White-crowned Sparrow
White-crowned Sparrow

As I said, White-crowned Sparrows (Zonotrichia leucophrys) were the most abundant around the beach.  These are ground nesters, probably finding good sites in the large driftwood field next to the tombolo.  Leucophrys means white eyebrow.

Dungeness Crab Molt
Purple Shore Crab

Left:  It is common to find the shells of Dungeness Crab (Cancer magister) on local beaches.  They molt about fifteen times in their lives as they grow.  Most of the time only the carapace is found.  When everything is intact like this, it is probably the result of a fresh molt.  In the process, they will also shed their stomach lining and part of the intestine.  Pairs are only able to mate when the female is freshly molted.  The tides will eventually scatter the shell parts.

Right:  Turn a rock over and you will encounter the diminutive Purple Shore Crab (Hemigrapsus nudus).  Never underestimate this little guy.  If you bother him, he'll be most willing to take you on.  Get ready for a good nip from those pincers.  Besides purple, they also come in shades of brown and green.

Bumble Bee

Entire-leaved Gumweed (Grindelia integrifolia) is an aster that loves to grow right on the beach, just out of reach of the tides.  They will continue blooming well into October providing Bumble Bees such as this Bombus lucorum (?) a source of food.

The Parking Lot

Last, but not least, the area around the new parking lot has also been a good spot for viewing wildlife.

Cedar Waxwing

On my last visit, I got out of my truck and looked straight up.  With the naked eye, all I could see was a beige speck on the tree top.  Through the telephoto lens I recognized a Cedar Waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum).  I am always pleased to spot these beautiful birds.  There is a hawthorn tree nearby with ripening fruits which is just what this bird likes.

American Robin
American Robin

American Robin
American Robin

Back in late June, I encountered this male American Robin (Turdus migratorius) at the end of my hike.  At first, he seemed to be very proud of his earthworm, wanting me to see it from every angle and position.  Then I realized he was moving around to avoid revealing the location of his nest with chicks to feed.  After a few pictures, I continued to the parking lot and left him to his duties.  Interestingly, this was almost the same time I was hosting a robin's nest in the fuchsia basket on my front porch.

Chestnut-backed Chickadee
Chestnut-backed Chickadee

The new parking lot at Kukutali was built on a small wetland that drains the hillside.  Instead of channeling the drainage into culverts, they incorporated the wetland into the new landscaping.  After a rain, water flows through a bed of sedges that is lined with ferns.  On one visit, I spotted a Chestnut-backed Chickadee (Poecile rufescens) with some ratty plumage and a dirty face.  He found that little stream next to the parking lot a perfect spot for a drink and a bath.  Native plant gardeners will want to keep an eye on this landscaping to see how it develops.

Sweat Bee

Next to the road near the parking lot, drifts of Nootka Rose and Oxeye Daisy were always buzzing with pollinating insects such as this Sweat Bee.

With the exception of the butterfly, I have seen all of these creatures before.  I just have not seen them all in one place.  That's why I find the Kukutali Preserve so amazing.  There are also several birds I have seen or heard here, but have not managed to photograph.  These include Pileated Woodpeckers, Spotted Towhees, Common Ravens, Steller's Jays and Belted Kingfishers.  I have heard the songs of several birds in the trees that I don't recognize.  I have read there are Coyotes on Kiket, and I know there are Harbor Seals, California Sea Lions and River Otters in the area.  There is still much more to discover here which is why I intend to keep coming back.  I am so fortunate to live close to this great new park.