Thursday, December 11, 2014

Giving Eagle His Space


Recently, I hiked the Bowman-Rosario Trail out to Rosario Beach in Deception Pass State Park.  At the beginning of December, we had a stretch of clear skies and cold temperatures.  For me, this is ideal weather for hiking and exploring.

Big rocks out in Bowman Bay are visible from the trail.  On the map, I believe these are the ones identified as Gull Rocks.  Usually, they are populated with dozens of cormorants, a real spectacle.  These are diving birds that like to gather together in such places to dry their feathers, preen, rest and socialize after fishing.  Such a group is called a "sunning."  On this morning, however, there were no cormorants.  I spotted just a single bird, a Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) perched on the rock in the early December morning sun.


Here's a closer view of the eagle taken further along the trail.  I doubt this is a good vantage point for spotting fish in the bay.  Like other predators, eagles spend a lot of time just loafing.  There is a resident pair that I frequently see at West Beach in the park.  If Bowman Bay is part of their territory, this could be one of those birds.


About an hour later, I returned from Rosario along the same trail.  The eagle was gone now, and the rock was again becoming populated with cormorants.  Some were striking the "angel pose" to dry their feathers after diving.  These are probably Double-crested Cormorants (Phalacrocorax auritis), the most common of the three species that occur locally.  Oddly, the scientific name means "bald raven with ears" according to Latin for Bird Lovers.  Apparently the crests that form in the breeding season resembled ears to the explorer who named them.

Bald Eagles are known to prey on cormorants and will flee their colonies if eagles arrive.  Obviously, the cormorants of Bowman Bay were not about to give this eagle any temptation.  They waited patiently until the eagle was gone to return to their favorite roosting spot.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Get Out of My Yard!

Douglas Squirrel

Encountering a Douglas Squirrel (Tamiasciurus douglasii) is always an adventure.  Sometimes they are indifferent or even curious and engaging.  Other times, they can be aggressive and territorial.  I ran into this fellow on the Bowman-Rosario Trail in Deception Pass State Park.  The reaction was hostile and noisy.  I heard his angry barking and scolding first.  Then he came right up to me to challenge my presence in his territory.  From the look in his eye, it was obvious that I was not welcome here.

Does anyone recognize what he is carrying?  It looks like a chunk of dried conifer sap.  Whatever it is, it must be something good to eat.  He was not about to give it up.  Chasing off intruders should never interfere with a good meal.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Life and Death at Kukutali

Eastern Gray Squirrel

December 1 is the meteorological beginning of winter.  In northern latitudes, winter is the season of cold, stillness and darkness, when much of nature seems to die.  True to form, ours has come with subfreezing temperatures and even some snow in places.  In the north Puget Sound area, we have been getting clear skies and bright sunshine along with the cold temperatures.

For some reason, I love hiking in cold weather.  With a day off work and a beautiful day, I headed over to the Kukutali Preserve to check out the wildlife.  I didn't get much past the parking lot before spotting this Eastern Gray Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) enjoying the fruits of a Common Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna).  This tree is a native of Europe that has become naturalized in the Pacific Northwest.

Ice on the Pocket Estuary

As I mentioned, our overnight temperatures have dropped below freezing.  It was about 26° F (-3° C) when I left home.  A skim of ice had formed on the surface of the salt water lagoon next to the road to Kiket Island.

Bald Eagle

As I expected, I spotted one of the neighborhood Bald Eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) perched above the road on the southeast corner of Kiket Island.  I believe this is the bird I call George that occasionally visits my yard.

Bald Eagle

As I got closer, George flew off and headed toward Fidalgo Island.  Immediately, Martha arrived and perched on the northeast corner of Kiket.  This pair has built a nest across the bay on Fidalgo and raised two eaglets there this past summer.  My neighbor tells me they have been adding material to the nest during the last few weeks.

Kill Site

After hiking across Kiket Island, I checked the clearing where the old boathouse used to be.  I have spotted deer here in the past.  What I found instead was a kill site, a large scattering of feathers and down.  It covered an area of about 60 square meters.  I think there had been quite a ruckus here.

Kill Site Feathers
Kill Site Feathers

Kill Site Feathers

Something lost its life here, perhaps to the jaws of a coyote.  It was a large bird.  My best guess would be a Canada Goose or Heron had been the owner of those feathers.  I have often found wing joints and neck bones in kill sites, but there were only feathers here.  The predator apparently carried off the carcass to consume it in seclusion.  This serves as a reminder that death is also a part of nature.  One life was lost to sustain another.

Hooded Mergansers

Beyond the clearing, a trio of Hooded Mergansers (Lophodytes cucullatus) happily swam in the half-moon bay between Kiket and Flagstaff Island,  They appeared unaffected by the either the chilly temperatures or the drama that had taken place nearby.

Pine Siskin

Hiking back off the island, I encountered a flock or "company" of Pine Siskins (Carduelis pinus) near the caretaker's house.  As usual, they flew away at my approach.  I stayed in place and kept very still to see what would happen.  One brave little bird returned to the tree and I was able to catch a photo.

Pine Siskins

Then two more birds arrived.  I remained very still.

Pine Siskins

As I stayed in place watching, the flock returned, nine birds in all.  Pine Siskins are seed eaters, so I'm not sure what attracted them to this tree.  Perhaps they simply found it a good spot to socialize and enjoy the morning sun.

Spotted Towhee

Nearby, a Spotted Towhee (Pipilo maculatus) was foraging at the edge of the road.  They are ground feeders that enjoy insects, spiders, seeds and fruits.  They usually stick to dense thickets, so it was nice to see this one out in the open.

My first winter outing turned out to be an enjoyable and productive day.  Even in this season of sleep, cold temperatures seem to bring out lots of wildlife.  Evidence of life lost was also encountered.  Nature has always been a matter of life and death.

Monday, November 17, 2014

January Sparrows

Golden-crowned Sparrow

We have been getting January weather for the past couple of weeks.  Sub-freezing temperatures, blue skies and sunshine are typical for early January.  This is not typical for November which is usually our rainiest month.  Days on end of blue skies and sunshine in November is simply weird.  Local wildlife is also looking a lot like January.

The breeding range of the Golden-crowned Sparrow (Zonotrichia atricapilla) is British Columbia, the southern Yukon and western and southern Alaska.  Then they spend the winter in southwestern B.C., along the western US coast to northern Baja California.  They are regular visitors to my feeders at this time of the year.  They are fond of safflower seed.

Golden-crowned Sparrow

I spotted this bird yesterday in the Kukutali Preserve patrolling the south beach near Flagstaff Island.  Green stains on the beak reveal finding something good to eat there.  This is the bird's winter plumage.  In the breeding season, it has a black cap that surrounds a bright yellow crown.

Golden-crowned Sparrow

The Nootka Rose thicket along the shoreline provides an abundant food source for many types of birds, including the Golden-crowned Sparrow.

Song Sparrow

The Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) is probably our most common winter sparrow.  Unlike the Golden-crowned, however, this one is also a year around resident.  I photographed this bird last weekend in the sand dunes at West Beach in Deception Pass State Park.  Both species seem to enjoy seaside living.

Song Sparrow

Our local birds tend to be darker and redder than in other parts of North America.  Another characteristic probably gave them their name.  This bird loves to perch and sing and they do this anytime, anywhere, all year around.

Another good spot to find these two sparrows is Fir Island in the Skagit River Delta.  They are both among the easiest to photograph.  They tend to perch and remain still long enough to catch a shot.  Sometimes I wonder if they stop to watch us while we are watching them.

Rainy weather is supposed to return day after tomorrow.  It will probably finish out the month.  This bright interlude has been a welcome break from what November usually brings us.  Our January sparrows seem to have enjoyed it as well.

Monday, November 10, 2014

A Parcel of Oystercatchers

Black Oysters

A group of Black Oystercatchers (Haematopus bachmani) is called a parcel according to iBird Pro.  I found this group resting on Fraggle Rock this morning.  Recall, this is the name I gave to the rock just offshore at West Beach in Deception Pass State Park.  I have never been able to find an official name for it.

Fraggle Rock

This is a favorite late morning resting spot for shorebirds, especially gulls and cormorants.  During the fall and winter, Black Oystercatchers also like to congregate here.  They come to rest and socialize.  It is always a peaceful gathering.  I have never seen any squabbling among the different species here.

Homo ignoramus

Humans, of course, bring another story.  While I was taking photographs, these people started throwing rocks at the birds.  They didn't stop until every bird was driven from the rock.  Apparently, they thought that was appropriate behavior.  The birds were gone and my photo session was over.  That kid learned a perverse lesson from her parents today.  I hope his head got badly sunburned.

Black Oystercatchers

Undaunted by the assault, the laid back, tolerant Oystercatchers started to come back.

Gulls, Oystercatchers and Cormorants

After hiking around the Sand Dune Trail, I returned about 90 minutes later.  Those people were gone and another gathering of birds had assembled.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Cooper's Hawk


Sometimes the wildlife watches you.  This morning I hiked the dike at Wiley Slough in the Skagit River delta.  I went to try and catch Cedar Waxwings.  This time of year, they enjoy the ripe Pacific Crabapples that grow along the dike.  The Lesser Snow Geese have also returned to Fir Island.  Some shots of them would also be welcome.  Alas, there were lots of American Robins, but no Cedar Waxwings and no Snow Geese.  I headed back to the parking lot without a single photo.  Then, this small hawk flew right up to me.  He perched on a branch and took a good look as if to check me out.

This is a juvenile Cooper's Hawk (Accipiter cooperii).  It is one of the three Accipiters that occur locally.  They come in three sizes, small, medium and large.  The Northern Goshawk (A. gentilis) is the largest of the group.  The Cooper's is the medium sized bird, and the Sharp-shinned Hawk (A. striatus) is the smallest.

Cooper's Hawk in the Skagit River Delta

After getting a couple of photos, I continued on my way along the dike.  The bird flew along with me and perched on the next tree.  This is unusual behavior.  Birds usually flee at the sight of me, especially when I point a camera at them.  This one seemed to enjoy the experience, so I was able to get a couple more photos.

Cooper's Hawks have an interesting hunting technique.  Instead of swooping onto their pray from the air, they use stealth and stalk their quarry through dense brush.  When it gets close enough, it seizes the prey with its feet in a sudden lunge.  It will squeeze it repeatedly to kill it.  Birds are its favorite food, but it will also take small mammals.

When this bird matures, it will exhibit a rich gray back and head, a darker cap, and a white breast with orange bars.  The eyes will be red.

Once again, I failed to get the photos I had sought, but ended up with something just as interesting.  I am certainly not disappointed.  This was another memorable wildlife encounter and the subject seemed to enjoy it as much as I did.

I am submitting this post over at Wild Bird Wednesday.  Check it out.


Monday, October 6, 2014

Got Him!  Belted Kingfisher

Belted Kingfisher

For three years, I have been gunning for this Belted Kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon).  Such as it is, I finally got a photo this morning.  This is a male.  Females have a rust colored band across the belly.  The characteristic white spot in front of the eye is clearly visible.

They are fairly common here wherever there is fresh or salt water.  They can hover in place over the water much like a hummingbird.  When they spot prey near the surface, they dive straight down and snatch it in that long bill.  Their favorite food is fish, but they also like frogs, tadpoles, insects and crayfish.  I usually hear them before I see them.  Their noisy ratcheting calls resemble the sound of a fishing reel.  They love to make that noise when they are flying or hovering.

The species name alcyon is a variation of halcyon.  In Greek mythology, this was a kingfisher that calmed the winter sea to lay its eggs in a floating nest.  The myth led to the use of the word to mean peace and calmness.  In fact, Kingfishers actually nest in horizontal tunnels dug into sand banks.

This guy hangs out at Wiley Slough just outside the new barrier dike in the Skagit River Delta wetlands.  I have seen him often in this same area.  Today, he was perched on one of the tide gate uprights next to the dike.  They never let anyone get very close.  I got this photo just as he turned and spotted me.  One second later, he was gone in a flash.