Tuesday, February 24, 2015

American Coot

I have lost track of how many times I have hiked on the dike at Wiley Slough.  It provides a trail deep into the wetlands of the Skagit River Delta.  The site is managed by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.  Despite all those visits, yesterday was the first time I have ever seen an American Coot (Fulica americana).

At first, there was just one.  Then a second bird appeared and joined the first one.  When the two entered the slough and began to swim, I spotted a third one that joined them from the opposite shore.

American Coots are about the size of a small chicken.  They are said to be common and abundant in wetland areas throughout the Puget Sound Basin.  The Skagit River Delta would appear to be ideal habitat.  It consists of sloughs, marshes and ponds where the Skagit River drains into Puget Sound.  Water levels will fluctuate subject to both river flow and tidal action.  There is a mixing of fresh and salt water.  This is an important rearing habitat for Chinook Salmon fry.

Where I stood on the dike, I was only 8 to 10 meters from the birds.  They seemed to be aware of my presence, but did not become overly alarmed.  This is unlike the ducks out there that always flee in terror at the sight of people.  I remained still as I took pictures and watched them.  They quietly moved along a weedy mud island grabbing a snack here and there as they moved.  Watching them made me think of Muppets.

The scientific name Fulica is from fulix which is Latin for waterfowl.  The word "coot" is derived from Low German.  It is similar to the Dutch word coet, (pronounced "coot") which refers to a similar bird.

They have huge and amazing feet.  I tried to get a photo of them, but there was too much mud and plants in the way.  There are a couple of good photos of their feet at the Washington Nature Mapping site.

Those feet are obviously designed for walking on unstable ground.  Their nests consist of floating islands built of marsh plants and hidden inside of cattail beds.  Having oversize feet must come in handy for negotiating a floating nest platform.

I watched the trio slowly move up Wiley Slough until they disappeared behind vegetation.  I was heading back to the parking lot when I spotted them.  Until then, I hadn't seen anything noteworthy.  There weren't even any eagles around which is unusual there.  This first time sighting of American Coots really made the day for me.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Salamander Season

Meet Ensatina eschscholtzii, the Ensatina Salamander.  I found this one under a large piece of bark on the North Trail in the Kukutali Preserve.  It was about 5 inches/13 cm long and didn't move a muscle when it was exposed.  A map showing location is linked at the bottom of this post.  I don't believe I have ever seen one of these before making this an important find for me.

Ensatina means "like a sword."  Eschscholtzii may refer to Johann Friedrich von Eschscholtz, a nineteenth century physician and naturalist who explored Alaska and California.

Initially, I misidentified this guy as a Northwestern Salamander (Ambystoma gracile).  But that species has large parotid glands behind the eyes.  My salamander does not.  What clinched the ID was the obvious constriction at the base of the tail, unique among Washington salamanders.  It is clearly visible in the photo.  This little amphibian has some other unusual characteristics:
  • They do not have lungs.  Instead, they absorb oxygen through their skin.
  • They secrete a noxious liquid from their tails to repel their enemies.
  • They are described as a "ring species."  More on that below.
  • Ensatina does not need to return to water to breed.  Females can brood their eggs under damp rotted wood or in underground burrows.  The young hatch as fully formed miniatures of the adults.
  • They can regenerate lost limbs making salamanders unique among vertebrates.  
  • They are most active at night during fall, winter and spring when it is rainy, cool and damp.  That's a lot like the people who live here.

Because they must absorb oxygen through their skin, people should avoid handling them.  Oils and chemicals on our hands can disrupt this vital oxygen exchange.

The Wandering Herpetologist provides a good description of a "ring species:"
"A ring species is an organism that exists in a series of connected populations in which the two extreme end populations can no longer interbreed.  This is speciation in action, meaning the ensatina salamander is becoming separate species."
Apparently, Ensatina Salamanders originated in British Columbia.  They gradually spread south through Washington and Oregon and into California.  There, they split and spread down the east and west sides of the dry Central Valley.  At the end of the valley, the two groups rejoined, but could no longer interbreed.  The genetic differences had become too great over time.  This is evolution in action.  This 3 minute video explains it further:

I have learned a lot about salamanders I didn't know before I found this little guy.  I am pleased to share what I learned about this reclusive, unassuming little creature.  The Kukutali Preserve is turning out to be one of the best places around here for spotting wildlife.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Dances with Sparrows

Last Friday, January 30, I was in the Kukutali Preserve.  I hiked out to the south beach off Flagstaff Point.  Because it is a fragile ecosystem, the point itself is off-limits to visitors, but access to the beach is permitted.  I was there to see if the resident Oystercatchers were around, but not on this day.  Instead, I encountered a pair of Song Sparrows (Melospiza melodia) exhibiting some odd behavior.

The two birds were positioned about six feet (2 meters) apart.  The one on the shore was swelled up with neck tucked in looking rather like Jabba the Hutt ("heh-heh-heh").  He was flipping his wings up, first the left one, then the right.

This was the object of his attention, a second Song Sparrow on the beach perched on driftwood.  At first, I thought I was witnessing courtship.  Although January seemed a bit early for that, it was a very spring-like morning.  This entire winter has been warmer than usual.

When I got home and started to research the behavior, I discovered this was a territorial dispute.  Apparently the displaying sparrow considered this his turf and the second bird was trespassing.  There was little reaction from this second sparrow except, perhaps, for his crown feathers propped up in Mohawk haircut style.


The actual courtship of Song Sparrows apparently does involve what looks like territorial displaying.  The female might be attacked like an intruder in the males territory.  Instead of fleeing or fighting back, she sings him a sweet song.  Who could resist that?


Song Sparrows are amazingly easy to photograph.  They are not particularly shy of humans and tolerate having cameras pointed at them.  This pair flew up and landed about 10 feet (3 meters) from me.  They performed their little display while I took their picture.  When the second bird flew up to Flagstaff, the first one was right on his tail.  I went on my way with another interesting wildlife encounter.

Regarding the Oystercatchers, I haven't seem them out there all winter.  Because the Preserve is now open, have they been chased away by the increase in visitors?  Perhaps they don't spend winters here at their nest site.  They may have joined the large gathering that I see at West Beach over in Deception Pass State Park.  I hope to see them at Kukutali again when spring comes.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Three Good Bets for Winter Birding

Black Oystercatchers

There are no certainties in birding, but there are places where it is possible to come close.  In the very heart of the Salish Sea, Deception Pass State Park offers great spots for viewing three special birds.

Black Oystercatchers

Black Oystercatchers (Haematopus bachmani)

During the fall and winter, look for them at West Beach resting on the large rock just offshore from the parking lot.  Mid to late morning seems to be the best time.  This is one of the few spots where they can be viewed inland from the Pacific coast.  The numbers that congregate here are also unusual.  Laid back, peaceable and a bit quirky, I consider them the most charming of all shorebirds.

Bald Eagle
Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus)

Also at West Beach, there is a resident pair of Bald Eagles that can often be seen perching at the edge of the Dune Forest.  Like most predators, eagles spend a lot of time resting.  They can usually be seen in the tallest trees at the north end.  Look carefully, because they tend to blend right into the trees.  If they're not there, look along the western edge of the forest or even in the tallest trees at the shoreline.  Again, morning seems to be the best time.  Spotting these regal birds is always a pleasure.

Harlequin Ducks

Harlequin Duck (Histrionicus histrionicus)

In the breeding season, they head for the mountains.  During fall and winter, one of the best places to see them is at Rosario Beach in the north section of the park.  Take the western-most trail up to Rosario Head where you can look down onto Urchin Rocks and the tide pools.  I have seen as many as a dozen congregated there.  Sometimes they just perch and rest on the rocks.  They might be splashing and playing in the water near the rocks.  Other times they can be seen swimming and diving in the bay.  Incidentally, while you are at West Beach, a few might also be seen perching with the Black Oystercatchers.

Deception Pass State Park

West Beach is accessed from the main park entrance on Whidbey Island.  Veer left at the Y and continue past the lake to the parking lot.

In the winter, Rosario Beach is accessed from Bowman Bay.  From Highway 20, turn onto Rosario Road, then immediately left on Bowman Bay Road.  Hike the 0.5 mile/0.8 km Bowman-Rosario Trail to Rosario Beach.

Friday, January 9, 2015

One More for Kukutali

Pileated Woodpecker

From the Kukutali Preserve, I was able to add another creature to my Kukutali Bestiary today.   As usual, I heard this Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) before I spotted him.  I have heard them often over there, but have never been able to get a good look at one.  When I have managed to locate them, they usually skitter around to the other side of the tree to hide.  This one seemed comfortable going on with his work while I took his picture.

This is a male, identified by his red mustache or malar stripe.  Females have a black mustache.  Also, the red crest of the male extends down over the forehead.  In females, the forehead is black.

When they're working on a hole like this, they don't go ratta-tatta-tatta like Woody Woodpecker.  It's a more methodical and resonant tap...tap...tap...tap.  It's very common to hear that sound echoing in these woods.  The other sound they make is their distinctive call.   It resonates through the trees evoking something almost Jurassic.  This is just some of the music of the woods in the Pacific Northwest.

The scientific name literally means crested or capped tree chopper.  They dig holes to use for nest cavities and to find beetle larvae to eat.  They also like to eat carpenter ants, fruit and nuts.  It's common to find several of their holes in dead snags.  Other birds such as chickadees will use their holes for nesting too.  This is an example of how the lives of different species can be interconnected.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Gulls Are Hard

Western x Glaucous-winged Gull Hybrid

Gulls can be notoriously difficult to identify.  They change appearance with age and the season.  To add to the complexity, some species readily interbreed to produce hybrid offspring.

This is the case with Washington's Western and Glaucous-winged Gulls.  According to Sibley, hybrids of the two may be more abundant here than either of the two individual species.

This is why I am calling this one a hybrid of the Western Gull (Larus occidentalis) and the Glaucous-winged Gull (Larus glaucescens).  Both species have dark eyes, pink legs and a heavy bill with a red spot.  The wing tips of the Wedstern are black while those of the Glaucous-winged are light gray like the mantle.  This bird's wing tips are dark gray.  Of course, I could be completely wrong.  Like I said, gulls are hard.

Western x Glaucous-winged Gull Hybrid

In the Kukutali Preserve, there is a driftwood log that that juts out over the beach.  It is propped up on a large rock.  There is always a gull perched on the end of it.  I will go out on a limb here and speculate that it is the same bird each time.  Do you think he has claimed ownership of this perching spot?

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Lonely Trumpeter Swan

Trumpeter Swan

There have been some events since the previous post (about the eagle).  The brand new Canon 100-400L II lens I received just before Christmas turned out to be defective.  I returned it and received the replacement lens yesterday.  Today I took it our for a shake-down cruise and hit the wildlife jackpot.

I was hiking along the East Cranberry Lake Trail in Deception Pass State Park.  It skirts the shoreline between West Beach and the East Cran picnic grounds.  In a lagoon next to the trail, I spotted this Trumpeter Swan (Cygnus buccinator) just quietly floating there alone.

Trumpeter Swan

If you're familiar with the park, you will recall the marshy island with the trees at the edge of the lake.  The swan was near the trail just inside this island.  I fully expected the bird to bolt at my approach, but it didn't.  Instead, it remained very still allowing me to take some photos.  Then, very slowly, it began to glide smoothly past the island and out into the lake.

Trumpeters can be difficult to distinguish from Tundra or Whistling Swans.  Trumpeters have a flatter crown of the head that slopes almost parallel to the beak plane.  Tundras have a rounder crown and usually a yellow patch in front of the eye.

Trumpeter Swan

The Trumpeter Swan is the largest waterfowl in North America and the largest of the world's swans.  Weighing 20 to 38 pounds (9-17 kg) they are also one of our heaviest flying birds.  By 1900, they were thought to be extinct.  Small, isolated populations and conservation efforts have helped to restore their numbers.  Among the lower 48 U.S. states, Washington now has the largest population.

I am accustomed to seeing them in small groups of around a dozen or so.  It was unusual to spot a single bird alone like this.  Our meeting was a private moment I will remember.

Oh, and the replacement lens performed flawlessly.