Saturday, July 2, 2016
The American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis. a.k.a. Carduelis tristis) is the Washington State Bird. I have been trying to get a decent photo of one for almost 10 years. That makes this encounter yesterday in the Kukutali Preserve somewhat momentous for me.
These are wary, fast moving little birds that will flee at the sight of a human. Up until now, I have only been able to observe them from afar or using the BirdCam. This bird allowed me to stand within about 10 feet/3 meters while he took a meal of Hawksbeard seeds.
From these photos, notice how he never took his eye off of me. If I had made one wrong move, he would have been gone in an instant.
This is a male, identified by his bright yellow breeding plumage and black cap. Females are a duller olive brown color and lack the black cap. In winter, both genders are olive brown. I usually see them in small groups or "charms," but this bird was feeding alone.
The State of Washington refers to it as the Willow Goldfinch. This is apparently a name given to an American Goldfinch subspecies S. t. salicamens.
The American Goldfinch is also the state bird of Iowa, where I lived during the 1970's, and New Jersey. In those states it may be called the Eastern Goldfinch. Whatever name you choose, it is always a treat to spot these bright little finches.
Thistle seed is a favorite food. Since wild thistle seed won't be available here until later in the summer, this Hawksbeard seed will have to do.
Observant wildlife gardeners will take lessons from what is seen in nature. Perhaps we should reconsider pulling these "weeds" in our gardens. Letting them persist and go to seed might just be the ticket for attracting and getting close to Goldfinches.
Friday, June 17, 2016
I consider the pair of Black Oystercatchers (Haematopus bachmani) that make their home in the Kukutali Preserve to be friends. I have been watching them since 2011, the first time I visited. I'm fairly certain I have been seeing the same birds every year. According to Seattle Audubon, "Males and females appear to form long-term pair bonds, and the pair returns to the same territory year after year."
I was in the Preserve yesterday and found them in their usual spot, where they appear to be nesting now. They seem to nest later in the season than other birds. I'm not certain, but perhaps it's a shorebird thing. Land birds are pretty much done with that now, or even getting ready for a second brood. Oystercatchers lay their eggs in a simple scrape in the rocks, above the high tide line, according to the iBird app.
While I walked up the beach to the west, I pointed the camera at some gulls that were still quite a distance away. Only then did I spot the Oystercatcher in their company through the telephoto lens. At that distance, it was completely camouflaged in the dark tones of the beach. After some preening, it flew up to towards Flagstaff Island out of my line of sight.
I continued walking up the beach to see if I could spot him around the end of the island. Sure enough, both birds were up on the bank and the other one appeared to be sitting on a nest (first photo above).
This is the first bird I spotted on the beach, now close to its mate. Both parents take turns incubating the eggs. To us, males and females look alike, so I can't say which of these is the male and which the female.
They showed no concern revealing their nest site to me. I have noticed before how unfazed these birds are when I am around. If you come here to visit them, however, don't misinterpret their laid-back nature as an invitation to approach. Keep your distance. Come only at low tide when you can steer clear of the nest site. And of course, stay off of Flagstaff Island altogether. I took these photos with a telephoto lens, and then cropped them to bring the images even closer.
Oystercatchers like to nest on small, isolated, treeless islands with rocky beaches. This isolation may explain why they don't flee in terror at the sight of a human. They may have never developed the fear that mainland birds have. We should not take undue advantage of this privilege.
The south beach of Flagstaff Island and its tombolo are open to hikers except during the months of August and September. Motorized boats are not permitted to land on beaches.
As I continued watching, bird number one found a good spot to settle down and rest in the sun. Again, notice how camouflaged it is in the shadow of a rose bush. This bird and I both seemed to be agreeing, "life is good."
I was back on the beach off Flagstaff Island yesterday. I found our happy couple again, one on nest duty and the other getting breakfast low on the beach. Black Oystercatcher incubation lasts 24 to 29 days so I expect the chicks will hatch within the next 2 weeks. Without a tele lens or binoculars, the brooding bird is invisible, just like another bump in the rock.
Thursday, June 9, 2016
This week's visit to the Kukutali Preserve, brought another "first sighting" for me. Just offshore of the Flagstaff Island beach, I spotted this pair of Pigeon Guillemots (Cepphus columba) in their elegant breeding plumage. At first I saw just a single bird (above), then realized there was a second nearby. They are year-around residents of the Salish Sea.
Pigeon Guillemots are birds of inshore waters around rock shores. According to Seattle Audubon, they nest in rock caves or crevices or under driftwood. Given these preferences, this pair could well be nesting somewhere here in the Preserve. Pairs may join small colonies or nest singly. These are diving birds that use their wings to propel themselves underwater. Their diet includes fish, mollusks and crustaceans.
These are not ducks. Guillemots are grouped in the family Alcidae, which includes puffins, auks and murres. This black and white plumage is typical of the group. Once in a while, I caught sight of their bright red legs when they came above the surface.
This pair did not flee when I came into view, which is usually the case. Instead, they seemed content to bob on the surface of the water, and occasionally, stretch their wings.
Monday, June 6, 2016
I'll begin with a mystery. On a hike in the Kukutali Preserve, I couldn't help but notice all the daisies blooming along the road. A dark object on one of them caught my eye. Looking closer, I knew I should get a photo of it. I figured out it was a Harvestman, but I don't know what kind.
Another name for them is "Daddy Longlegs," but this is like no Daddy Longlegs I have ever seen. Wikipedia says, "typical body length does not exceed 7 millimeters (0.28 in)." This one was at least twice that size. I do get the delicate little Daddy Longlegs in my house. They seem to like my shower. My house guests, however, have tiny bodies that are under a quarter inch long. Perhaps Kiket Island grows them extra large and robust. I would enjoy hearing from anyone who can provide more information about this big guy.
Harvestmen are arachnids like spiders and scorpions, but of a different order, Opiliones. They have eight legs like other arachnids, but unlike spiders, they have only one pair of eyes. This one had a firm grip on the flower which was bobbing in the wind at the time. I suspect it was lying in wait for prey, perhaps aphids which are a favorite food.
The Harvestman got me curious to see what else I could find lurking among the daisies. My next discovery was this beautiful Hoverfly. It was obviously designed to look like a Yellow Jacket, possibly to fend off predators. According to the Pacific Horticultural Society, they are beneficial insects in the garden which should be encouraged. Their larvae feed on garden pests and the adults are excellent pollinators. Attract them by providing a long season of available pollen, including flowers, trees and grasses. Avoid insecticides and just let the Hoverflies do the job.
From the Aster family, Oxeye Daisies (Leucanthemum vulgare) are introduced wildflowers from Europe and Asia. Besides North America, it has also been introduced into Australia and New Zealand. This English-speaking pattern may provide a hint to its origins. It is a grassland perennial that seems to be abundant in dry, rocky, disturbed areas around here. Look for them along road sides and in vacant lots.
The word "daisy" comes from Old English daegesege meaning day's eye which may describe their behavior. Some varieties will open in the morning and close back up at night. Others will keep their flowers turned to the sun as it crosses the sky. Chaucer called them "eye of the day." In Medieval Latin they were called solis oculus, sun's eye.
At first, I thought this appeared to be a Sweat Bee, possibly Lasioglossum. As I kept studying bee species, I came across another possibility, a Small Carpenter Bee, Ceratina. What do you think?
As expected, there were lots of Bumblebees. The bit of orange on the abdomen might make this one Bombus mixtus, the Orange Tail Bumblebee. I could be wrong. I am discovering how difficult and confusing it can get trying to ID them.
To me, this one and the next one look like Sitka Bumblebees (Bombus sitkensis). Please let me know if I am wrong.
In searching the net for both Bumblebees and Carpenter Bees (below), I was amazed to discover the emphasis was on "pest control" how to get rid of them. More and more, Google seems to want to take us where the money is. Let me say, I have done a lot of gardening in close proximity with bees of all sorts. I have never found a reason to want to get rid of them. I have been stung by wasps that tend to be aggressive, but never by any kind of bee. In fact, I find they prefer to ignore me and just go about their business. Personally, I have always sought ways to encourage them to come to the garden.
This one has a black, hairless abdomen, so I am calling it a Carpenter Bee. They come in two varieties, "large" like this one and "small" like the one above.
Next time you go hiking, look closely at the wildflowers you encounter. The "eyes of the day" may be looking back at you.
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The Fibonacci Sequence
It's time for a quick math lesson. Anyone interested in nature should become familiar with the Fibonacci Sequence of numbers. The reason will become clear in a moment.
Starting with zero and one, each number in the sequence is the sum of the previous two: 0 + 1 =1, 1 + 1 = 2, 1 + 2 = 3, 2 + 3 = 5 etc. Following this pattern, the sequence becomes -
0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55...Next, arrange squares each with sides corresponding to the Fibonacci numbers other than zero (you can't have a square with sides zero). Each side of every square should be the sum of the adjacent squares' sides:
orbital periods of planets in our solar system may be following a Fibonacci sequence. This might be occurring since it is the most stable and efficient pattern that can be produced naturally. One study speculates that the pattern of spirals in plants occurs straightforwardly as a response to mechanical forces in the growing plant.
Now, why do I bring this up here? Click or right-click one of the closeup photos of daisies above. The yellow compound flowers in the centers are arranged in Fibonacci spirals.
Finally, notice the beautiful proportions of the yellow rectangle in the diagram above. The ratio of the sides is 34:55 or 1:1.618. As it turns out, this is the "golden ratio." Rectangles in these proportions are called "golden rectangles," considered pleasing to the eye. Artists such as Da Vinci and architects have employed this "divine proportion" throughout history. The design of the Parthenon in Athens may have employed it. For the most pleasing photos, the "Phi Grid" using the golden ratio can be an alternative to the Rule of Thirds for cropping and composition. (The Greek letter Phi (φ) is used to represent the number 1.618.)
Begin with a pentagon with sides 1. Add diagonals to form a five pointed star inside the pentagon (left). The ratio of the sides to the diagonals will be 1:1.618. Thus, the design of a starfish employs the golden ratio based on the Fibonacci sequence. Notice the apple blossom has five petals and the apple itself, sliced horizontally, is designed with five-pointed symmetry. Goosebumps anyone?
This post is appearing simultaneously at Fidalgo Island Crossings.
Thursday, June 2, 2016
On Memorial Day I hiked around the Kukutali Preserve. It is a favorite and convenient spot for me, quick and easy to get to and I always find something interesting there. At the end of the hike, I headed back along the tombolo connecting Kiket Island to the mainland. There is a lagoon on the north side of the tombolo. Over the bank separating the roadway from the lagoon, I spotted a Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) giving me the eye.
In itself, seeing a heron around here is not unusual. What did strike me as odd, I was well inside the "escape zone" from which herons will usually flee, barking in protest. This one did not flee, however, but remained in place watching me.
As I continued along the tombolo, I got even closer and was able to get a better view of the bird. It was wading belly deep in the lagoon. Still, it did not flee from me. It just stood there motionless.
Then, quite suddenly, the bird plunged its head into the water revealing what was going on. This heron was having lunch. Food was apparently more important than any concerns about the human invading its space.
The feeding technique I was observing revealed the perfection of the Great Blue Heron's anatomy. It has long legs for wading, a long flexible neck for plunging after fish or other aquatic prey and a spear-shaped beak for grabbing and holding its prey. A compact, muscular body keeps it all in balance. The bird is a skilled fishing machine, and based on what I witnessed, it never missed. No energy was wasted on failed attempts.
Down the hatch. The anatomy that is so perfect for catching fish makes it a slow and awkward flier. This is a big, heavy bird that struggles a bit launching into flight. Like a Boeing 747, it needs a long runway. They look ungainly in flight with long legs extending behind and the neck crooked into an 'S' shape. Their huge wings flap slowly making them appear to be galumphing through the air. Their flight is more bouncing than soaring. This difficulty with flight may account for why they readily flee when catching sight of people. Better safe than sorry.
I remained still and continued to watch the bird while taking photos of the action. Now my presence seemed to be of no concern as it peered directly into the water motionless.
Another successful catch. Young Perch appeared to be the prey.
The lagoon is classified as a pocket estuary (.pdf). It is circular in shape with only a narrow opening into Skagit Bay. Saltwater enters during high tides, while fresh water is supplied by upland runoff. It provides important, sheltered habitat for the Skagit River run of Chinook Salmon. After hatching upstream, the fry will spend time here adapting to salt water before heading out into the Pacific Ocean. Only the swift and smart will escape from the herons' fast food restaurant.
I gave some thought to why this heron decided to stand its ground rather than fleeing as I approached:
- Food was more important than a possible human threat
- Birds can become more tolerant to humans in parks and recreation areas
- I was visible to the bird at all times
- I avoided obvious staring or any posture that would imply stalking or hunting
- The bird always had an easy escape route
- This particular bird may be bolder than most
Whatever the reason, I'm glad the heron didn't flee. I enjoyed the encounter. Observing this behavior up close turned out to be an experience to remember.
Saturday, May 21, 2016
Last Tuesday I went hiking and picture-taking at the Kukutali Preserve. I headed out to the far end of the beach off Flagstaff Island to check on the Black Oystercatchers. I noticed a pair of brown birds sticking together on the root of a large driftwood tree. They would fly up occasionally, then return to their perches on the root. When they flew, they resembled swallows, but when perching, I didn't recognize what they were.
They steadfastly kept their backs turned to me. This was frustrating my efforts to get a decent photo. One of them held possible nesting material in its beak. The story was emerging. They were building a nest nearby, but did not want to reveal its location to me. For as long as I stayed on the beach, they would stick to their perches on that root with their backs turned.
I got a few shots (of their backs) then left so as not to disturb them any more. When I got home, I took a good look at the photos to try and ID them. I discovered they were Northern Rough-winged Swallows (Stelgidopterix serripennis). A Twitter friend confirmed the ID. Not only had I never seen one before, I had never heard of them. This made it an exciting first for me.
The genus name means "scraper wing" and the species name translates to "sawtooth feather." Apparently this is an important characteristic that also appears in the common name as "rough-winged."
To my assessment, the sootiness around the eye gives them a kind of woozy, bleary-eyed look as if suffering a hangover. Their energetic, swallowy behavior, however, dispells any notion of that.
I learned they are cavity nesters that prefer to live near water. They build their nests in burrows or natural cavities in banks, but are not above using crevices in bridges, culverts or other masonry close to water. Like other swallows, they feed on insects plucked from the air or off the water surface.
Their distribution is patchy. They can be found wherever there are suitable nesting cavities available. This may explain why I had never seen one before. I had just never been in the right place.
Armed with new knowledge, I returned to the Preserve yesterday. I headed down the beach to see if this pair was still around. Indeed, they were.
Behind the driftwood there is a low, exposed bank at the edge of the island. While I stood at a distance, the swallows would soar past the bank repeatedly, then fly off, return and fly off again. I stayed back not wanting to disturb them unduly. Then they disappeared for a while. I went in for a look and found what could be their nest site just under the vegetation line. I took a couple of pictures then quickly left the beach. Their story was now complete.
On Tuesday, I did get some pictures of the Black Oystercatchers, but yesterday, they were nowhere to be seen. Once again, I went hiking to see one thing, and ended up finding something else even more interesting. It's amazing how often this happens.
UPDATE: On Memorial Day I was back on the beach south of Flagstaff Island. I was pleased to find the swallows still flying around their nest site. I was concerned that getting close for a photo might have scared them off. Luckily, that did not happen.
Thursday, May 5, 2016
I was back hiking at the Kukutali Preserve today. While crossing the tombolo to Kiket Island, I met this Colombian Black-tailed Deer (Odocoileus hemionus columbianus). Our local indigenous deer, they are a subspecies of Mule Deer. While I was hiking in, she was heading in the opposite direction on the beach next to the tombolo.
It is not uncommon to spot deer on beaches around here. Those that pass through my yard are usually heading to the beach. I suspect they go there to add a little salt to their diet.
We didn't stop to chat. In this case, I believe she detoured to the beach when she spotted me. From her expression and brisk pace, I could tell she was not happy with the encounter. Once we passed, she climbed up to the tombolo road behind me and we each went our separate ways.