Friday, January 13, 2017

Seven Swans....Relaxing

Trumpeter Swans

Actually, it was more like seventy swans relaxing yesterday along Best Road in Skagit County, Washington.  I had the 100-400 mm lens mounted on the camera.  From where I stood, this forty or so was all I could fit in the frame at 100 mm.  I spotted this group of Trumpeter Swans (Cygnus buccinator) while heading home after hiking on Fir Island.

Trumpeter Swans

Our mornings have been chilly since New Year's, with mostly sunny skies.  It was only about 26° F (-2° C) at the time of these photos.  That's frost on the grass adding a silvery tinge.

Tundra Swans (Cygnus columbianus) also visit this area in the winter.  If you get a close look, the two species are easy to tell apart.  The crown of the head on Trumpeters is flattened with the plane parallel to the beak.  On Tundra Swans, the crown is more dome shaped.  Tundras usually also have a spot of orange or yellow on the beak near the eye.

The grayish birds are juveniles.  They will turn white like the adults before the spring migration.  The faces of some Trumpeters have a rust stain, derived from iron compounds where they have been feeding.

Trumpeter Swans

Trumpeter Swans are North America's largest waterfowl.  They usually weigh 15-30 pounds, 7-14 kg with a wingspan of 80 in, 203 cm.  To get aloft, they require 100 meters of open water, running across the surface.

A group of swans on open land like this is called a bevy, bank or herd.  I like herd for such a pastoral scene.  When in flight, they become a wedge or flight.

Trumpeter Swans

The scientific name Cygnus is Latin for swan (from ancient Greek kyknos).  Buccinator comes from Latin buccinare, meaning to blow a trumpet.  Buccinator is also the cheek muscle in humans.  It flattens the cheek, aids in chewing food, and, as it happens, is used in trumpet playing.

These birds are common sights in the fields of Skagit and Whatcom counties during the winter.  They might also be spotted flying overhead, sounding their calls, as they move from field to field.  Best Road is one of the best places to spot them.  I also look for them in Cranberry Lake in Deception Pass State Park.  They are hard to miss and always a pleasure.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016


Banana Slug Dining on Mushroom

Mycophagy (my-COUGH-a-gee) is an interesting word derived from Greek meaning "fungus glutton."  Our native Banana Slugs (Ariolimax columbianus) are apparently mushroom epicures.  Hiking the North Trail in the Kukutali Preserve I spotted the mollusks dining on our local portobellos.  With October, the rains have returned, and damp weather seems to bring out both slugs and mushrooms.

Munched-on Mushroom

All along the trail, I found evidence of mushroom munching.  It was obvious the slugs relish these mycological delights.

I do not recommend following their lead.  I don't know enough about mushrooms to declare these safe for people to eat.  What is dessert for slugs could be deadly for humans.  It seems the slugs have evolved to cope with potential toxins produced by the fungi.  It is well known people have not.

Munched-on Mushroom

At this point, allow me to editorialize.  Wherever I hike, I find smashed and dead Banana Slugs.  Hikers seem to be going out of their way to kill them.  This is ignorance manifest.

PEOPLE:  OUR NATIVE BANANA SLUGS ARE NOT GARDEN PESTS.  They are recyclers extraordinaire, and essential components of  our forest ecosystems.  I have them in my garden and I have never seen one going after garden plants.  They are more likely found cleaning up decaying plant material, molding fir needles and, of course, stray mushrooms.

If you have a yen to kill something go after the invasive European red, black and gray slugs that are not indigenous.  In fact, be my guest.  Then leave our charming and unassuming natives alone to do their recycling work.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Madronas and Deer

Columbian Black-tailed Deer

The Madronas at Deception Pass are amazing this year.  I have never seen the abundance of fruit on the trees like they have right now.  Yesterday, I went over to the State Park to get some photos of the trees.  While at the top of Goose Rock, I made a couple of new friends, a pair of young Columbian Black-tailed Deer (Odocoileus hemionus columbianus).  As usual, I went hiking to find one thing, and ended up finding something else unexpected.  Surprise encounters like this are always the best.

Columbian Black-tailed Deer

The pair were not fully grown.  If I can use the observations from my own yard, I am guessing these are siblings.  After they leave their mother's side, they will stick together for a few years until they mature.

Another habit exhibited by deer is a tendency to follow the same trails and routes from day to day.  I have also seen this in my yard.  That would mean this pair could be frequent visitors to the top of Goose Rock, the highest point on Whidbey Island.  The summit is 484 feet (148 m) above sea level.  I noticed them pause as if to enjoy the view.  This was an experience we shared together.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

American Goldfinch

American Goldfinch

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.

American Goldfinch

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.

American Goldfinch

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.

American Goldfinch

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

Black Oystercatchers Nesting

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."

UPDATE 07/02/2016:

Black Oystercatcher

Black Oystercatcher

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

Pigeon Guillemot

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

Eyes of the Day


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.

Oxeye Daisy

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.

Sweat Bee?  Small Carpenter Bee?

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.

Carpenter Bee

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:

Now, starting with the first 1 x 1 square, draw a continuous arc through opposite corners of each square.  The result is an expanding spiral shape.  As it turns our, this Fibonacci spiral can be seen in nature.  It occurs throughout the natural world, including some unexpected places.

Dogwinkle Shells
I collected the broken dogwinkle shells to the right on the beach at Kiket Island.  Because they are broken, it is easy to see the geometry of the shells.  The shells are built of Fibonacci spirals.  Other examples include the tapered outline of a hens egg, a spiral galaxy such as our Milky Way, the arrangement of scales on a fir cone, breaking ocean waves and the shape of the fiddle heads on fern shoots.  Even the 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.)

To bring this back to nature, consider the five-armed starfish.  Five, of course, is a Fibonacci number.  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.