Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Never a Dull Moment

It is early spring at West Beach in Deception Pass State Park, Washington.  If you are looking for birds, you will not be disappointed here.  Right off the bat, this young gull caught my eye.  He was perched on top of the concession building near Cranberry Lake with a good view of the whole area.  Gulls take four years to reach their adult plumage.

Juveniles like this one can be difficult to identify.  Around here, if you guess Glaucous-winged Gull (Larus glaucescens) you'll probably be right most of the time.  It's our most common species.  Could this one be finishing up his second winter?  I would sure appreciate some help with identification.  This is a good looking bird regardless of the ID.  I like the browns and grays.

I have spotted this pair of Bald Eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) several times this past winter.  Late mornings, they are always perching in a particular tree at the north end of the Dune Forest.  During early mornings, you might catch them fishing.  I realize this is not the best photo, but sometimes you have to take what you can get.

The state park has been waging a turf battle with Canada Geese (Branta canadensis) at Cranberry Lake.  They are elegant and impressive birds, and quite charming in their family groups.  But when they become too numerous, their residue forces the closure of the lake to swimming.  This was the only pair I spotted at West Beach, but there have been more in the lake all winter.  In the photo, the gander became wary of my presence and stepped between me and his mate with a threatening posture.  I respected his space and moved on.

Another of our most common birds is the Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia).  They are year-around residents and the sparrow I see most frequently in my yard.  Our local birds are darker than in other parts of North America.  This one was patrolling the edge of Cranberry Lake.

At first, I assumed this bird was another Song Sparrow.  After I processed the photo, I started to wonder if it could be a Lincoln's Sparrow (Melospiza lincolnii) instead.  If so, it would be a first sighting.  With the lighter coloration, yellow around the cheek and reddish wing feathers, it does not look like a local Song Sparrow to me.  Photos of juvenile Song Sparrows don't look like this either.  The Song Sparrow in the photo above is more typical.  But then, I have been wrong before.  This birding thing is not always easy.  I could also use some ID help with this one.

All in all, it was a pretty good morning for wildlife.  I might even have accomplished a first sighting.  We'll see if I can get that confirmed.  Like I said, there's never a dull moment in Deception Pass State Park.

Monday, January 27, 2014

A Murder at West Beach

Northwestern Crow

October 11, 2013 was a big day for wildlife at West Beach in Deception Pass State Park.  A half dozen Bald Eagles were fishing just off the beach.  The Mayor was working his pine grove and the Heermann's Gulls, had joined all the other sea birds at "Fraggle Rock."  Not to be outdone, about a dozen or more Northwestern Crows (Corvus caurinus) were patrolling the beach next to the picnic grounds.  Such a group of crows is called a "murder."  Other collective nouns for crows include "cauldron," "congress," "horde" and "muster" according to iBird Pro.

While I watched the crows doing their crow chores on the beach, one fellow seemed to be more interested in studying me.  That's him in the photo above.  I'd be curious to know what he learned.

Northwestern Crow

Northwestern Crows make their living beachcombing the intertidal areas of rocky shores.  For this reason, these Corvids could be classified as shorebirds.  Their diet includes snails, clams, mussels and other aquatic life.  Like gulls, they are known to drop shellfish from the air onto hard surfaces to crack them open.  The parking lot and sidewalks at West Beach are littered with these broken shells.

A stone cairn (right) provided one park visitor with a moment of reflection.  The effort has probably been lost to the tides, but was preserved by the photo.  Crows are very intelligent and observant creatures.  I wonder if they were attracted to this spot by the cairns.

Northwestern Crow
Northwestern Crow

This fellow was holding bits of grass in his beak.  For whatever reason, he seemed very proud of his trophy and wanted everyone to see it.

Northwestern Crows are distinguished from the American Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos) by their smaller size and seaside habitat.  Some authorities believe the Northwestern is a subspecies of the American Crow.  For anyone accustomed to seeing American Crows, the size difference is obvious.  Brachyrhynchos means "short-billed," while caurinus apparently means "northwest."

Northwestern Crow

Meanwhile, this guy continued to study me.  The intelligence of crows is well known.  Their success as a species has been attributed to their ability to learn how to exploit the human environment.  A Murder of Crows is an amazing documentary from PBS which reveals just how intelligent they are.  (Sorry about the advertising.  This is apparently the depths to which PBS has been forced to sink so the wealthy can have their tax cuts.)

Monday, January 13, 2014


Gregarious is a good word to describe Canada Geese (Branta canadensis).  They like to gather together in groups with their own kind.  This is Cranberry Lake in Deception Pass State Park.  Two years ago, they gathered together here to such an extent, the park had to close the swimming beach.  Too much you-know-what in the water.  After steps were taken (that we probably don't want to know about), the beach was reopened last summer.

Several collective nouns are used to described groups of geese like this:  flock, gaggle, blizzard, chevron, knot, plump and string.  I think it depends on whether the geese are flying, swimming or just hanging out together for some of these terms.  For example, a chevron of geese refers to the V-shaped formation they assume while flying.  I have seen blizzards of Snow Geese when 5,000 or 10,000 of them launch into flight.  It is truly a snowstorm.

As an experiment, this is the same photograph using the compressed .jpg format.  The first photo is in the uncompressed .png format.  I want to see if there is any difference between the 1.06 MB png photo vs. the 428 KB jpg version.  Different monitors will also produce different results.  I would appreciate hearing from anyone who can see a difference.  The smaller jpg photos will load much faster on web pages, but the png photos may look better.  Please let me know.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

A Song for the New Year

Song Sparrow

On December 30, I walked the trail from East Cranberry Lake to West Beach in Deception Pass State Park.  This is a very easy 1 mile/1.6 kilometer hike.  About half borders the lake and beaver marshes.  Then it crosses the road and runs through the woods next to the huge Cranberry Lake Campgrounds.  It ends near the West Beach parking lot.  This route offers a lot of wildlife potential including beavers and the diverse waterfowl of Cranberry Lake.

Next to the lake, near the end of the trail, this Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) was singing his heart out.  Obviously, they don't just sing during the breeding season.  Maybe they also do it for fun.  Song Sparrows in this region have darker plumage than other parts of North America.  This one is also puffed up a bit in defense against the chilly morning temperatures of late December.

Monday, December 30, 2013

First Wild Beaver

This morning I hiked the trail from East Cranberry Lake to West Beach in Deception Pass State Park.  It is a nice, easy, mostly level hike and a good way to spend a couple of hours in the middle of winter.  Despite the lakeside location, your feet will stay dry, which is always a must in my opinion.  Shortly after setting off, this marker indicated I was entering Beaver country.  The Beaver is North America's largest rodent, and the second-largest in the world after the Capybara.

I had never seen a beaver in the wild, unless you count the time when I was about eleven years old.  He was posing for pictures right in the middle of the bridge at Chief Joseph Dam in eastern Washington.  I am not kidding.  He mugged and posed and seemed to enjoy entertaining the tourists while they took his picture.  He would sit up on his hind legs and turn his profile to the cameras, first left, then right.  He was a big guy, more than two feet tall when he did this.  He acted more like someone's pet than a wild creature which is why I don't count it as a wildlife encounter.  (Remind me to tell you my Cougar story sometime.  That was a real encounter.)

The trail skirts the lake shore, then crosses the road to continue along the edge of the West Beach campgrounds.  Near the crosswalk is a viewpoint at the shoreline where I spotted my first truly wild North American Beavers (Castor canadensis).  There were two of them in the water swimming away from me at an angle.

This is the second one.  That's the end of his flat tail sticking out of the water.  He froze in this position for a moment.  He may have become alerted by my presence.  From everything I have read, it is unusual to see these nocturnal creatures out and about in the daytime.

This is some of the Beavers' territory in the swampy areas along the edge of the lake.

There were obvious signs of Beaver activity along the trail.  Even if they don't seem to be around, it is easy to see where they have been working.  More Beaver activity was apparent next to the West Beach parking lot:

Are you aware of the significance of the word "beaver" in the English language?
  • A semiaquatic mammal
  • A type of man's hat
  • A soft, brown fur
  • A native or resident of Oregon
  • A full beard
  • A movable piece of armor in a medieval helmet
  • A national symbol of Canada
  • A verb meaning to work hard on something
  • A go-getter, a ball of fire, an industrious person
  • A light wallboard made of wood pulp
  • A city in Utah

Not to be outdone, the works of another industrious and reclusive mammal were on display at the East Cranberry Lake picnic grounds.  Over the winter months, every gardener's favorite visitor is given free run of the state park.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Harlequin Ducks and Friends

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

Return to Fraggle Rock

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.