Saturday, May 4, 2013
I was at Goose Rock in Deception Pass State Park today checking on the rhododendron grove. Afterwards, I headed up to the summit to look at the wildflowers. On the way down, I met this fellow, a Douglas Squirrel (Tamiasciurus douglasii). He was pretty angry at me trespassing in his territory and gave me a good talking to. He was in such deep shade, I wasn't sure the photo would turn out.
Sunday, April 14, 2013
Today, I visited Skagit County's Sharpe Park for the first time. I only recently discovered that it was there. I found a network of old growth forest trails I can spend many hours exploring. The headlands offer terrific views of the San Juan Islands across Rosario Strait. I also found a large pond and wetland, tailor-made for wildlife. The park is located on the west side of Fidalgo Island off Rosario Road.
The pond was my first stop and right off the bat I spotted two handsome male Hooded Mergansers (Lophodytes cuculattus) in the company of a male Ring-necked Duck (Aythaya collaris). The peaked crown and a more decorated bill distinguish the latter from either the Greater or Lesser Scaup. I saw no females of either species.
The Hooded Mergansers were eager to display their crests. This makes me think there were hens somewhere in the area. Like Wood Ducks, they like to nest in tree cavities near water. I spotted at least two large nest boxes at the edge of the pond. These may have been put up for them. They are year-around residents on Fidalgo Island.
Ring-necked Ducks are less common here, and they do not breed in Western Washington. Their breeding grounds include river valleys in the Cascade Mountains and Eastern Washington, especially in the Okanagan. Unlike the Mergansers, Ring-necked Ducks are ground nesters.
We have had a lot of rain over the last few days. Because of this, I expected to see one of our local mascots, the Banana Slug (Ariolimax columbianus). Sure enough, this fellow was right on the trail, deep in the woods. So far, my theory that Fidalgo Island Banana Slugs have no spots is proving to be true. On Whidbey Island, just across Deception Pass, all the Banana Slugs seem to be spotted.
After exploring some of the trails in the woods, I circled back to the pond again. This time, I spotted a pair of Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos). They are probably our most common and familiar ducks locally. During the winter, gatherings of a thousand or more may be seen in the fields of the Skagit Valley along my commute to work. They like to nest near water, but it may be up to a mile away. I suspect this pair will be guiding up to fourteen ducklings around the pond by summer. Platyrhynchos, incidentally, means flat bill. With the exception of Muscovy Ducks, all domestic ducks can trace their genetic ancestry to Mallards.
Out in the Cattail beds, Red-winged Blackbirds males were singing to claim their territories. I could also hear Spotted Towhees and Chickadee-dee-dees. Pileated Woodpeckers were calling all around me and I found their recent excavation work in a dead snag. The evidence of new shavings at the base of the trunk gave it away.
I also heard a ratcheting-buzzing call I can't identify. I have heard that same call in the Skagit River Delta. Perhaps someone can help me out with that. It always comes from dense plant growth. I anticipate I will be making many return visits to Sharpe Park to see what else it has to offer. Maybe I will finally get that call identified.
Tuesday, April 2, 2013
Last week, I was pleased to see the Tree Swallows (Tachycineta bicolor) had returned to my favorite Fir Island nature site. This is the Spur Dike Trail at Wiley Slough in the Headquarters Unit of the Skagit Wildlife Area. The dike provides easy, dry ground access deep into the wetlands of the Skagit River delta. Tree Swallows migrate north from their tropical wintering areas earlier than any other swallow.
The scientific binomial Tachycineta bicolor literally means "fast mover with two colors." Tree Swallows are indeed fast movers. They typically feed by catching insects on the fly, soaring and swooping at lightning speed. Unlike eagles and gulls which like to perch and pose for photos, these swift birds are difficult to catch with a camera. They might land and perch for only a moment, then dash off on the fly again to the tune of their high-pitched calls.
Fortunately, one bird decided to stop and rest a minute. Although the lighting was not the best, this gave me a chance to get some photos.
The Skagit delta provides the ideal habitat for Tree Swallows. They like to nest in open areas near water where there are standing dead trees for nesting according to iBird.
Tree Swallows are cavity nesters. They use natural crevices and the chambers created by woodpeckers and other borers. They also readily take to nest boxes provided by humans. Someone has put up more than 30 nest boxes along the Spur Dike Trail. A few more have been added this spring. I presume the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife who manages the site is responsible for the nest boxes and I appreciate that.
Males arrive at the nesting grounds ahead of the females to establish territories. While I was watching this fellow, his mate decided to join him.
I found it confusing to read that Tree Swallows were described as both monogamous and polygamous by different sources. Apparently, they form stable pair bonds, at least for a breeding cycle. The offspring in a particular nest, however, may have different fathers. Polyandry is the specific term for this. The same behavior has been observed in Eastern Bluebirds. This is a strategy that insures reproductive success and genetic variation within colonies.
A group of Tree Swallows is called a "stand." With several dozen pairs, the Spur Dike Trail at Wiley Sough is a major stand indeed.
This new sign was recently erected at the dike. The site is on the Great Washington State Birding Trail. The sign also reveals it is part of the Greater Skagit/Stillaguamish Delta, a site of regional importance in the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network.
You can find the Headquarters Unit at the end of Wiley Road off Fir Island Road in Skagit County, Washington. If you come up for the tulips this month and want to escape the tulip tourists, this might be a nice side trip. It would definitely be a respite from the crowds. Tulip tourists are typically not the nature trail types. Midweek is the best time. Don't forget to bring your Washington Discover Pass.
Monday, March 25, 2013
This past weekend, I decided to trek closer to home and check out my own beach. It was a good decision, because I hit the wildlife jackpot. I headed northeast into Similk Bay. There wasn't much to see for the first half mile or so. Even Mount Baker was dressed demurely in an early spring haze.
Then I spotted a pair of Black Oystercatchers (Haematopus bachmani), one of the rarer Washington state shorebirds. They were busy foraging along the water's edge and appeared oblivious to my presence. According to Birdweb, the state is host to only about 400 of these birds.
Today's breakfast was Nuttall's Cockle (Clinocardium nuttalli). The Oystercatcher's bill is a specialized tool for opening mussels and clam shells. The job still required effort to get the shell open. This included some interesting foot action. The reward was a delicious shellfish meal.
Rocky shorelines are the favorite habitat. They are found along the Pacific coast from Alaska to Baja California. One population estimate numbers fewer than 11,000 of these birds over their entire range. Based on this relative lack of abundance, the Audubon Society has designated the Black Oystercatcher a "Species of High Concern." This area of northern Puget Sound is one of the few spots where they are found inland from the Pacific Ocean.
Several Northwestern Crows (Corvus caurinus) had joined the Oystercatchers on the beach. Like the Black Oystercatcher, these beachcombing Corvids make their living in and around the intertidal zone. This fellow seemed to have a lot to say and was not a bit shy about sharing it.
Gulls were also foraging in the quiet waters of Similk Bay. Gulls can be tricky to identify, but I think these are Western Gulls (Larus occidentalis). Please let me know if I am wrong.
As I continued along the beach, I encountered a second pair of Black Oystercatchers. This is the same area I spotted a single bird more than twenty years ago. I had not seen any here since. To spot two pairs in the same outing was remarkable and a very special treat.
This pair demonstrated their courtship song and dance for me. It consisted of strutting, posturing and a high-pitched whistling song. I actually heard the birds before I saw them. In the mottled patterns of a rocky beach, they are surprisingly difficult to spot.
I discovered another interesting feature about this pair. Click on the photos to enlarge them and notice that both birds are banded. Each has a metal band on the right leg. One has a red band with white letters "UB" on the left leg. I did a search, but could not find any specific information about these bands. I wondered if the UBC (University of British Columbia) was involved. I would appreciate hearing from anyone who knows about these bands.
Enlarging the photos, you will also notice their feet are not webbed. Those feet are made for walking and apparently for opening shellfish. These are shorebirds that fly and walk, but they never swim.
These are my favorite shore birds. In my opinion, they are the most charming of all the birds I have met. I felt privileged to find these two pairs so close to home and to witness some interesting behavior as well. Now, to overcome the special challenges photographing black birds against bright backgrounds...
You might also enjoy Similk Bay Shorebirds.
Sunday, February 10, 2013
This is George. He stops by my yard almost every day. Usually Martha comes with him this time of the year, but not today. I always know when they are around. Their chattering calls announce their arrivals. This is courtship season, so I expect there will be a lot of chattering in the coming days. It's usually a noisy affair. I can tell this is George, because he is not as big as Martha.
Bald Eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) are monogamous and tend to remain paired for life according to Seattle Audubon. I have been fortunate to witness their tumbling courtship displays over Skagit Bay. The pair will fly high above the water circling each other and chattering. Then they grasp each other by the feet and tumble towards the bay like skaters in a death spiral. They release just before hitting the water and swoop off in opposite directions to prepare to do it all over again. They look like they are having a lot of fun. I have also witnessed them in flagrante delicto in the trees outside my kitchen window. Unlike their flight displays, this activity is very quiet.
I believe they nest across the bay on Skagit Island. After catching fish, this is where I see them heading. I have also seen a nest on Kiket Island, but that one wasn't occupied at the time. Eagles will maintain two or three nests in their territory and rotate between them year to year. It is thought that leaving a nest unused for a season might clean it of parasites. Usually two eggs are laid and they hatch in about 35 days. The parents will tend to the offspring for about six months.
I am aware that some people disapprove giving human names to wildlife. Personally, I don't see the harm. I will continue to enjoy those moments when George and Martha come to visit.
Tuesday, January 15, 2013
|Golden-crowned Sparrow at Wiley Slough|
I was on Fir Island last week hiking along the Spur Dike Trail at Wiley Slough. This is always a good place for bird watching, but it was unusually quiet on this morning. Sub-freezing temperatures may have been responsible for that.
Along the edge of the dike, I did encounter a small group of Golden-crowned Sparrows (Zonotrichia atricapilla) foraging on the frost-covered ground. There were five altogether, busily scratching in the grass. Such a group of Golden-crowneds is called a "reign." I guess this helps them maintain a regal bearing. They appeared to be eating seeds and other bits of vegetation. They also eat shoots, berries, flowers, buds and insects, according to iBird Pro. In my yard, they are attracted to feeders containing suet or safflower seed.
|BirdCam Photo, South Fidalgo Island|
I also caught a Golden-crowned Sparrow at BirdCam One in my yard last week. They winter in a strip from Vancouver Island, down western Washington, Oregon and California.
The photo above provides an interesting comparison between a BirdCam JPEG and the raw photos from my dSLR. I am just now learning to process photos shot in the raw format. I think it has obvious advantages.
Their breeding grounds include Alaska, the Yukon Territory and British Columbia. They nest in a hollow dug in the ground, well-hidden in vegetation. Males and females are similar. In the breeding season, they have a large, prominent black cap to the eye line surrounding the bright yellow crown. Cheeks and breast are gray. During the winter, as you can see, the black cap becomes less distinct and the breast and cheeks become light brown.
Deception Pass State Park in another place to spot wintering Golden-crowned Sparrows. They don't seem to be abundant in this area, so I always feel lucky when I see them. The Spur Dike Trail is located at the Skagit Wildlife Area Headquarters Unit. Visitors should remember to bring their Discover Pass and display it in their vehicles.
Friday, January 4, 2013
Trumpeter and Tundra Swans spend winters in the fields of the Skagit Valley of Washington State. They have become one of the iconic images of winter here. Just over a year ago, I posted photos of Trumpeters shot from the same spot. This year, the birds were farther from the road, but the group was much larger. The first task was to figure out if these were Trumpeters again or Tundra Swans. For that I severely cropped a photo to get a closeup view:
A flat crown of the head sloping evenly with a straight bill, and the lack of a yellow spot in front of the eye reveals these to be Trumpeter Swans (Cygnus buccinator) once again.
The fields last year were grass covered. This year they are muddy and bare. We had a bit of drought during the summer and fall before the rains came with a vengeance. This may explain the difference.
In the adjacent field just north of this group, there were two more larger gatherings. I estimate there were 200 birds or more altogether. I don't recall seeing such large numbers in past winters. Considering that by the 1930's Trumpeter Swans were considered extinct south of Canada, they have made a remarkable comeback.
If you want to view the spectacle yourself, find them between Burlington and Anacortes south of Highway 20. Look along Best Road between the highway and Chilberg Road past Christianson's Nursery. I have seen them consistently in this area all winter. If you come, please remember your swan etiquette: Park completely off the road, stay off of private property, don't try to approach the birds and keep your dog in the car.