Saturday, May 21, 2016

Northern Rough-winged Swallow

Northern Rough-winged Swallow

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.

Northern Rough-winged Swallow

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.

Northern Rough-winged Swallow

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.

Possible swallow's nest site

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.

Black Oystercatchers about half a mile away
Black Oystercatcher

Black Oystercatcher
Black Oystercatcher

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.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

A Wary Eye

Columbian Black-tailed Deer

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.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Goose Rock Mourning Doves

Mourning Dove

I am in the midst of my annual Pacific Rhododendron photo hikes in Deception Pass State Park.  These wild, native rhodies are blooming now providing some incongruous color to favored Pacific Northwest forests.  Usually, I encounter more than flowers on these hikes.  Yesterday, after visiting the rhododendron grove, I continued up the Goose Rock Summit Trail.  Along the way, I met a pair of Mourning Doves (Zenaida macroura), Washington's only native dove.

These extremely wary birds always flee in terror when humans approach.  While one flew off into the trees, its mate perched on the trail uphill from me long enough for a photo.

Until about two years ago, Mourning Doves were daily visitors in my garden.  I suspect they nested somewhere nearby, perhaps even in the yard.  They were especially fond of safflower seed.  They came to the feeders and liked to hang out on the basement patio to get some sun.  Then, the non-native Eurasian Collard Doves moved in and took over the 'hood.  I have not seen a Mourning Dove since.  That's why I was especially pleased to spot this pair in the park.

There has been concern that the Collared Doves would displace the native Mourning Doves.  That seems to have been the case in my yard.  The interlopers were probably attracted by the feeders.  We put them up to attract birds to our yards, but feeders can also have negative effects.

Besides a beautiful call that sounds like a tenor recorder, Mourning Doves make a whistling noise when they fly.  It would be a shame to have this music disappear from our natural environment.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016


Black Oystercatchers

These Black Oystercatchers (Haematopus bachmani) have come home to their nesting site in the Kukutali Preserve.  When I visited the island this morning, I was treated to a little courtship song and dance.

Black Oystercatchers

They always leave their nesting site during the winter to join their friends over on Fraggle Rock at West Beach in Deception Pass State Park.  But now they are home for the summer to raise a brood of youngsters.  Pairs are monogamous and usually return to the same isolated nesting sites every year.  I have been observing this pair since 2011.

Black Oystercatchers

Note that I am taking these picture from a good 100 feet/30 meters away with a telephoto lens.  Visitors to the Kukutali Preserve should be respectful of this nesting site.  If you come to visit, please be careful not to disturb the birds.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Kiket Island Towhee

Spotted Towhee

The Spotted Towhee (Pipilo maculatus) is one of my favorite birds.  They always look confident and happy and they love to sing.  Instead of fleeing, they will often sit still long enough to get a photo.  They seem to like watching us while we watch them.  This is another appealing trait for me.

Look for them along forest edges.  They can be seen year-around foraging in dense thickets of shrubbery or in leaf litter on the ground.  Sometimes you will hear them scratching in the leaves before you see them.  They will be looking for insects, spiders, seeds and fruits.  I caught this one in a Nootka Rose thicket on Kiket Island.  I think they might like those rose hips.  For bird feeders, the Towhees in my yard are especially attracted to safflower seed.

Spotted Towhees are the largest of the New World Sparrows (Emberizidae).  The black feathers reveal this bird to be a male.  The back, head and wings of females will be dark brown.  Found throughout the western states, birds in different regions will show different degrees of "spottiness."  Our local oregonus race tends to be the least spotted, although we are seeing spottier birds due to immigration and interbreeding.  Red is the true color of the eye, not a camera artifact.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Eagle Morning

Juvenile Bald Eagle

Last week, I drove over to Fir Island to visit the Skagit Wildlife Area wetlands.  It had been closed for several weeks for construction of a new pumping station.  I was glad to be able to get in there once again.  This is part of a complex system of dikes and drainage sloughs that prevent Fir Island farmlands from being flooded by the Skagit River.  Fir Island is actually the Skagit River delta where it flows into Puget Sound.

This portion of the delta is a state wildlife refuge administered by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.  Mixed uses include hiking, duck hunting, bird watching and dog training.  It offers the unique feature of hiking out into the wetlands atop the spur dike.  There has been an ongoing program of restoration here to improve Chinook salmon spawning and rearing habitat.  This has become one of my favorite places to explore and view wildlife.

On last week's visit, everywhere I looked, there were Bald Eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus).  There were mostly juveniles, but also a few adults.  Altogether, I saw ten to fifteen birds either perching or flying.

Bald Eagle Adult
Juvenile Bald Eagle

Juvenile Bald Eagles
Juvenile Bald Eagle

The bird in the first photo was the only one I could get fairly close to.  He was perched about 20 feet/6 meters directly above the dike trail.  He was surprisingly tolerant of me walking beneath him.  The rest of them were quite far out in the marshes.  To get photos, I had to strain the limits of the camera and lens, and then do some cropping to bring them in closer.

I met the Fish and Wildlife guy at the new pumping station.  He wasn't sure why there were so many eagles around the site.  He said they often hang around to snag the injured ducks that are lost by the hunters.  But there has been no hunting due to the construction closure.

Juvenile Bald Eagle

I spotted this one landng out in the tidal marshes.  At the time, I didn't notice the second bird flying just above the cattail line.

Juvenile Bald Eagle

This is another view of the juvenile bird in the first photo.  He had me going for a while.  With so much white on the breast I started to doubt he was a Bald Eagle.  Was he really a juvenile Red-tailed Hawk?  But then I realized that was the beak of an eagle, not a hawk.  Also, this bird was twice the size of any Red-tailed Hawk I had ever seen.  This was a Bald Eagle juvie with a lot of white.

While I was watching, he apparently spotted breakfast.  He took a run, but then looped around and returned to the same perch with empty talons.  Not every attempt at prey is successful.

Northern Shrike Prey?

I found something else interesting along the dike trail.  This partial bird carcass was skewered on a twig.  I knew the Loggerhead Shrike did this with its prey, but they don't occur here.  The Northern Shrike, however, is a rare winter visitor.  Shrikes have the habit of storing their prey in this manner for later consumption.  Could this be what I was seeing?  Sometimes we don't actually see wildlife, but instead, find evidence that it has been around.

New Blind Just For Bird Watchers

This is a new blind on Wiley Slough that Fish and Wildlife has installed for bird watchers.  The sign on the back indicates no hunting allowed from this one.  Inside, a couple of chairs have been thoughtfully provided.

Mount Baker and the Skagit Wetlands

Mount Baker stands watch over the Skagit Wildlife Area wetlands.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Oystercatcher Hangout

Black Oystercatchers
Black Oystercatchers and Friend

Solitary pairs of Black Oystercatchers (Haematopus bachmani) nest on solitary islands above the high tide mark.  A simple scrape in the rocks is all they require.  Locally they can be found around the rocky shores of the San Juans, Whidbey and Fidalgo Islands.  Pairs are monogamous and return to the same nesting sites every year.

During the fall and winter, however, they give up their isolation and come together in flocks or "parcels."  One spot where this can be observed is at West Beach in Deception Pass State Park.  They can be seen mid to late mornings on the large rock just offshore from the parking lot.  I have unofficially dubbed this "Fraggle Rock."

Black Oystercatchers and Gulls

On my visit yesterday, I watched as more gulls flew in to join the party.  I have never witnessed squabbling between gulls and Oystercatchers.  Mixed groups always appear amicable.

Black Oystercatchers and Gulls

More gulls continued to fly in.  Peace continued, but it started to get too crowded for the Oystercatchers.  They began leaving, flying off the rock with their rapid, high-pitched calls.  They appeared to be heading over to Lighthouse Point across Deception Pass.  When I returned after my hike up the North Beach Trail, only gulls remained on the rock.  All the Oystercatchers were gone.